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 30 years ago tomorrow, 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.
15. “Physical Attraction.” “Maybe we were meant to be together/Even though we never met before.” If that doesn’t sum up the relationship between Madonna and her instant fanbase circa her self-titled debut, I don’t know what does. “Physical Attraction” finds Madonna, still believably coquettish and naïve at this early point, tellingly offering her permission to take things to the next level. The girl was in the driver’s seat from day one, and never slid aside for anyone. Eric Henderson
14. “Easy Ride.” 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.” Sal Cinquemani
13. “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
12. “Gang Bang.” 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. Henderson
11. “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