Madonna’s done it all. And we’ve pretty much covered it all. So when we sat down to decide the best way to celebrate the anniversary of Madonna’s debut album, released in 1983, we elected to dig up some of the forgotten or unheralded gems scattered liberally throughout her three-decade-spanning catalogue rather than predictably rank her best albums, singles, or videos—which we’ve more or less done on various other lists over the years anyway. With the exception of one B-side, one compilation cut, and one remix, all of our picks can be found on a Madonna studio album—a testament to the singer’s strength as an album artist, particularly in the ’90s. These are songs that, in a more adventurous world, could have been hits, and in some cases where the releases were nixed last minute, almost were, their breadth and depth reflective of an artist unwilling to allow herself to be defined. And just for shits and giggles, we ranked ’em.
Madonna’s 21st-century output has been largely hit or miss, but there are moments throughout 2015’s Rebel Heart that recall the singer at her creative zenith while simultaneously carving out new, exhilarating territory for her as an artist. One such moment, “Devil Pray,” reimagines the Animals as a folktronica band with witch-house tendencies, Madonna’s ruminations on salvation and the existential pitfalls of sniffing glue riding an unexpected low-end groove. Sal Cinquemani
The literal and figurative denouement to both 2003’s divisive American Life and, more broadly, Madonna’s folktronica period, “Easy Ride” is the ultimate exemplar of Madge and Mirwais’s obsession with marrying acoustic guitars, squelchy synths, and deconstructed orchestral arrangements (this one an approximation of Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten”). Her vocals start off raw, nearly unrecognizable, and eventually grow fuller and richer until she admits what nearly every move of her 30-year career attests to: “What I want is to live forever.” Cinquemani
“Over and Over”
This hi-NRG track from Like a Virgin is an early snapshot of a larger-than-life personality, introducing themes—racing against time, perseverance, and overall (blond) ambition—that would grow ever more pervasive in Madonna’s lyrics as she got older and more famous. The frenetic extended version, from 1987’s You Can Dance remix album, amps up Nile Rodgers’s original production with supersonic synth washes, time-stamped keyboard percussion fills, and—because why the hell not?—ringing alarm clocks. Cinquemani
Even before she splattered blood across three-story projection backdrops during her MDNA Tour, the gruesome imagery, the seemingly contemptuous snatches of dubstep, and the purely exploitative application of violence in what is otherwise an exercise in horror as fashion statement (“He deserved it”) within the Nancy Sinatra-swiping “Gang Bang” already positioned Madonna right alongside the new French extremists. There is no statement here, no empowerment, no redemption. Just a thrilling moment of reckless respite, the sort of indulgence only someone who has attained a certain level of renown can truly savor. Eric Henderson
“Has to Be”
Ray of Light may have marked the queen’s return to her EDM throne, but it was her reunion with longtime songwriting partner Patrick Leonard, as well as producer William Orbit’s more subdued ambient soundscapes, that elevated the project above a mere electronica cash-in. Putting the law of attraction to the test, “Has to Be,” the meditative B-side to “Ray of Light,” is an anguished appeal to the gods above from the loneliest, most famous woman on Earth. Cinquemani