UK chart position: 5 Key remix: Junior Vasquez Luscious Single Mix Key live version: Drowned World Tour 2001
You gave me back the paradise that I thought I lost for good.
Well, it has already been mentioned a few times in this thread and, yes of course, how could I envision my top 50 without ‘Secret’ In fact, @Ag said it best a few pages ago when he described ‘Secret’ as ‘elegant’ – and that is exactly what it is. After the fallout from Erotica, Madonna HQ was hard at work for a reinvention and what she came back with was, in my opinion, a perfectly balanced middle ground. The Bedtime Stories look was still sexy but it was also a bit demure and sophisticated – gone was the brash, defiant ‘in your face’ approach. Well, until the ‘Human Nature’ video at least.
‘Secret’ as the curtain-raiser from the era managed to restore her US chart fortunes quite well, and although not peaking at number 1 there it paved the way for ‘Take a Bow’ at least. However, in the UK the situation was somewhat different – as it ‘only’ peaked at number 5. I remember hearing it the first time on radio and being confident that it was to climb the next week, but if memory serves me right it actually tumbled to number 10 the next week. I suppose we just weren’t ready for R&B Madonna. I’m not entirely sure what happened there to this day.
Her remixer du jour at the time was Junior Vasquez and he delivered a set of wonderful remixes for ‘Secret’, with a fantastic remix video as well. Speaking of the video, it has recently been upscaled and viewing it again it strikes me as one of her more underrated ones. The shoot with Melodie McDaniel didn’t go very smoothly (some of the footage in the remix video is from the ‘original’ look they conceived) but the end product is wonderful. Those glam-as-fuck looks she gives to the camera are everything.
UK chart position: 1 Key remix: 12" extended Key live performance: MTV VMAs 1990
Life’s a ball, so get up on the dance floor.
What to say about ‘Vogue’ that hasn’t already been said? Well, and I do warn you that the following will be a super unapologetic ‘loon’ write-up. We all know and love the song, and of course the video is iconic and the rap is for the ages, and the MTV performance was something else – but, in recent years, there has been a conscious effort at rewriting Madonna history, often with a negative slant. ‘Vogue’ has suffered from that unfortunately – particularly with the ‘woke’ Twitterati highlighting cultural appropriation issues. Personally, and I say this as a homosexual person of colour, that is all absolutely rubbish (Billy Porter can go fuck himself). Madonna has always been about inclusivity and diversity – since day 1. If you need a reminder, I suggest you watch all her videos and live performances from the early days. This was not a case of her going for the ‘pink pound’ (ugh).
That being said, Madonna has also of course been about trend-setting and, yes, trend-chasing; so the fact that she hopped on ‘vogueing’ is no different than any other trend she hopped on during her career. Not to her anyway (in my opinion.) Anyway, there have also been accusations that ‘Vogue’ rips off a previous Shep Pettibone Janet Jackson remix – of course it has similarities! No one is denying that. But the songwriting on ‘Vogue’ – specifically the lyrics and the melodies are what elevates it from a regular dance song to something more anthemic and iconic.
I cannot conclude this write-up without mentioning the iconic MTV VMAs performance. No microphone please – it clashes with the outfit. The balls. The gall. The gays. The drag. The wigs. Everything.
3. Into The Groove (Like A Virgin (reissue), 1985; The Immaculate Collection, 1990; Celebration, 2009)
UK chart position: 1 Key remix: Shep Pettibone Remix Key live performance: Virgin Tour 1985
Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free
‘Into the Groove’ could and in fact has been number 1 in the past in my countdown, but in 2021 it would have to settle for number 3. In an attempt to help its streaming numbers I had overplayed it a tad in the past few years, hence the small drop. Anyway – we’ve already discussed how 1985 marked peak ‘Madonna mania’ and the cherry on top was her scoring her first UK number 1 single with this slice of pure unadulterated pop joy. Composed and written with Steve Bray, this is typical of their songwriting style – that heavy bassline drives the, er, groove that is then overlaid with her incessant, almost elastic, vocals on top.
Lyrically it is also typical Madonna faire addressing a central theme in her songwriting: dancing and freedom (see also ‘Vogue’) with the dancefloor taking centre stage as an almost sacred place. Just brilliant. Curiously, it was never released in the USA – well, it was on the flip side to ‘Angel’, but didn’t really get a proper release. It didn’t get a proper video but the official video using footage from Desperately Seeing Susan is iconic in its own right. Madonna was Susan was ‘Into the Groove’ – the whole concept merged into one at that point. It has been performed on several tours, but my favourite is possibly still the original Virgin Tour performance - either that or Live Aid in 1985 in the aftermath of her nude photographs 'scandal'. Despite having so many hits over the years, one thing that has alluded Madonna until recently had been a million-selling single - but apparently, "Into The Groove" now ticks that box with digital sales and streaming numbers added. Hurrah!
2. Frozen (Ray of Light, 1998) UK chart position: 1
Key remix: Stereo MCs
Key live version: Drowned World Tour 2001
You waste your time with hate and regret.
‘Frozen’ is another one of those songs that I can remember exactly where I was at the time and what I was doing the first time I heard it. It’s another one of those ‘stop you in your tracks’ moments in my opinion. First, some context: the year is 1998, and whilst Madonna has been triumphant in Evita she hadn’t released a proper studio album in nearly 4 years, and there was a lot of (ridiculous) talk in the press about her being ‘done’ with music. So what does she do? Well in true Madonna fashion she takes a massive left turn and surprises everyone (except, of course, the loyal fans) with Ray Of Light.
The rest is all gay history but let us focus on ‘Frozen’ for a moment as the first single from the era. It is a haunting, eerie mid-tempo ballad which was our introduction to the Madonna/William Orbit signature sound. The video shoot was not pleasant for Madonna due to weather conditions and apparently there was a lot of disagreement with Chris Cunningham afterwards but the finished product was another masterstroke of reinvention, introducing her as a dark, witch-like figure complete with hand mendhi and body doubles.
The single was a triumphant success on both sides of the Atlantic, and it became her first UK number 1 in eight years (since ‘Vogue’). The remixes were lavish (and are now available on streaming – so check them out). The whole thing was just super well-executed, really. It has been performed live on several tours, always to a rapturous reception. Drowned World gave us theatrical geisha interpretation but the simplistic outing on Re-Invention Tour was also lovely, but most recently, it marked one of the highlights of the Madame X Tour, with Madonna singing behind a massive projection of Lourdes, appearing ‘dwarfed’ by her own daughter. It was truly spectacular and one day, if she ever finishes editing the tour film, maybe everyone will be able to see it.
1. Like A Prayer (Like A Prayer, 1989; The Immaculate Collection, 1990; Celebration, 2009)
UK chart position: 1
Key remix: 12” Club Mix
Key live version: Blond Ambition Tour 1990
Let the choir sing.
Let’s face it, ‘Like A Prayer’ is the greatest Madonna song and one of the greatest pop songs of all time. It was always going to by number 1; however, in recent years it has suffered from being over-featured in her live sets. Eurovision 2019 really did not help either. But none of that changes how I feel about the song itself. Anyway, lots of people have written about ‘Like A Prayer’ far more eloquently than I have, and of course the sex/religion paradox and overlap is majestic and pop genius; then you have Prince’s guitars and on top you have her vocals and there you go. Then of course there was the whole Pepsi controversy and the outrage from the Catholic church. It was all just too fabulous.
On a personal note, it was played at another (pre-Covid19) gay wedding – specifically the 7” remix, and it got everyone on the dance floor. So yes I know that as Madonna-observing homosexuals we may have been overserved ‘Like A Prayer’ in recent years, but when you strip it all back, there’s a reason it’s so enduring. I reckon it’ll be the one that tops iTunes/streaming tallies when she kicks the bucket. Pat Leonard has been open how effortless it was to write this on a few Madonna podcasts, and according to her Instagram it will feature as a potential scene in the upcoming biopic.
Speaking of live performances, nothing will top Blond Ambition for me. Not just the choreography but she really embodies the song whilst performing it in spite of the laryngitis-frenzy vocals. I also have a soft spot for the MDNA Tour performance, mostly because I made eye contact with her and she touched my hand as well as I was singing it back to her.
I remember being in cab in Moscow a few years ago after a particularly exhausting meeting, and I felt terrible, and suddenly Frozen came on the radio and I got totally lost in it. I may have even starting humming (yes @VoR) along to that chorus.
Some queens might say it's a reductive take on Confide In Me, but give me both, on repeat, forever.
I haven't commented much @Suedey but I've been following intently. What a great comedown! I have no idea what my top 50 would look like as it's forever changing but your top 2 are undeniable stone cold classiqués.