This week marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Madonna’s sixth studio album, the smooth, sleek, R&B-inspired Bedtime Stories. Despite selling more than 3 million copies in the U.S. (7 million worldwide), receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Album, and featuring Madonna’s longest-running number-one single (“Take a Bow” spent seven weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart), Bedtime Stories remains one of Madge’s most underrated, under-appreciated albums of all. She did not tour with the album, and rarely, with the exception of “Human Nature,” does she include any songs from it in her world tours. Ask any Madonna fan where Bedtime Stories falls on their list of favorites, and they’ll probably tell you it doesn’t rank particularly high. How come? We have no idea. It’s a great album, and one that deserves far more attention than it ever received.
Scroll down for 12 of Madonna’s most underrated efforts over the past 30 years.
Thief of Hearts
Why this banger was never released as a single from her 1992 album Erotica and yet the sappy, mid-tempo “Bad Girl” was still baffles us to this day. “Thief of Hearts” opens with the sound of a glass shattering and Madonna shouting “Bitch!” What follows are five frenetic minutes of Lady M slut shaming the woman who tried to steal her boyfriend, calling her a criminal and a whore, and threatening to break her legs. “You’ll be sorry!” she warns. “No one ever takes what’s mine!”
Time Stood Still
Despite her efforts to convince people otherwise (as exampled by 1995’s compilation album Something to Remember), ballads have never been Madonna’s strong suit. But every now and then she manages to record a convincing one. Time Stood Still was written for the soundtrack to the 2000 film The Next Best Thing. The movie may have been a complete and utter disaster, but the song was pure gold. It’s an orchestra-driven ballad that has Madonna reflecting on a relationship that simply wasn’t meant to be. Had this song actually been promoted by her record label (and had the accompanying film not flopped), we’re convinced it could have been a hit.
Initially rejected during her True Blue album recording sessions, “Spotlight” was included on Madonna’s 1987 remix album You Can Dance. It’s a bouncy, synth-heavy dance number about how “everyone is special in their own way.” Cheesy? No doubt. But that’s part of its charm. The song didn’t impress critics and was never released as a single in the U.S., but it still managed to find a spot on Billboard‘s Airplay chart in early 1988, and it was a minor hit in Japan. Today, “Spotlight” epitomizes ’80s dance music, and serves as an unexpected reminder of why we fell in love with Madonna in the first place.
When this Timbaland-produced outtake from 2008’s Hard Candy leaked online in 2010 it had many fans wondering: With so many throwaway tracks on that album, why the hell didn’t this one make the final cut? It’s catchy, it’s danceable, and it’s far superior to assaults like “Dance 2Nite” or, worse, “Spanish Lesson.” “If you want, I’ll treat you like an animal,” the Queen talk-sings in the three-minute, whip-cracking, S&M-themed anthem. To which the only appropriate response is: “Yes, master!”
While we’re on the subject of Madonna outtakes, “Supernatural” was a previously unreleased track included as a B-side to 1989’s “Cherish” single. It was originally recorded during the True Blue sessions, but it didn’t make the final cut because, well, we’re not entirely sure. It’s a great song. It has a spooky/Halloween/haunted house sort of vibe to it. In it, Madonna details a late night bedroom rendezvous with… a ghost? Yes, a ghost. “Made your acquaintance late one night,” she sings. “You were floating around/You know you gave me quite a fright.” So what exactly is sex with a ghost like? According to Miss Ciccone, it’s some of the best lovin’ she’s ever had. “I’d say that your skills as a lover are very refined,” she coos. “You know just what I want and I don’t have to ask/Are you reading my mind?”
‘Til Death Do Us Part
Perhaps one of Madonna’s most honest and vulnerable songs ever, “‘Til Death Do Us Part”, from 1989’s Like A Prayer, was rumored to be inspired by her abusive relationship and subsequent divorce from actor Sean Penn. “The bruises they will fade away/You hit so hard with the things you say/I will not stay to watch your hate/As it grows,” Madonna sings, her voice laced with heartbreak and shame. Unfortunately, the track gets overshadowed by some of the other powerhouse songs on the mammoth of an album.
Originally recorded for the soundtrack to the film Vision Quest (along with one of our all-time favs “Crazy For You”) “Gambler” is an fast-paced, synth-disco track that’s 100 percent classic Madonna. In it, our lady asserts her independence, a theme she would often revisit (and eventually exhaust) throughout her career. “You can’t stop me now,” she proclaims. “‘Cause I’m a gambler, I only play the game my way!” The song reached the top-ten in seven different countries and Madonna shot a music video for it, but she only ever performed it once, during her 1985 Virgin Tour. But these days, we’d be surprised if she even remembers “Gambler” anymore. It’s been forgotten about by pretty much everyone, eclipsed by her bigger hits from the mid-80s. Still, we love it.
Anyone who’s ever doubted Madge’s songwriting abilities needs to sit down and listen to “Gone,” track 10 on 2000’s Grammy-nominated Music. At the time of its release, Slate praised the song for being “possibly one of Madonna’s best performances,” calling it “the most human she has ever been.” The song is stripped down and introspective, offering a thoughtful close to an otherwise upbeat and ebullient mid-career album.
At first listen, “Pretender” may sound like just another banal ’80s filler track included on Madonna’s second studio effort Like A Virgin to satisfy record execs who wanted the album to include nine songs rather than eight. And it was certainly treated as such. “Pretender” was never released as a single, never had a music video, and has never been included in any of Madonna’s live shows. But 30 years later, after songs like “Like A Virgin” and “Material Girl” have been played to death, “Pretender” sounds surprisingly fresh and fun. Today we find ourselves skipping over those more famous hits just to get to this diamond, er, rhinestone in the rough.
We’ll be the first to admit that this is a silly song. It really isn’t about anything (other than “moving” and “grooving”), and the music kinda sounds like the soundtrack to a bad porno, but there’s still something totally infectious about Don’t Stop. Maybe it’s the unabashedly awful lyrics? “Feel it in your body,” Madonna croons, “Sing la-de-da-de.” One can’t help but wonder what the hit maker was thinking when she wrote that. Or if she was thinking at all. Then again, we can’t remember a time when we didn’t sing “la-de-da-de” at that part.
Erotica/You Thrill Me
25 years into her career, Madonna proved she still had a few tricks up her sleeve, er, leotard, when she performed this remixed version of her 1992 hit “Erotica” during her wildly successful Confessions Tour in 2006. The performance featured additional lyrics from the song’s original demo, which were not included in the final version, and the results were simply divine. By toning down the explicit sexual nature of the song, Madonna made it even sexier. Of course, the tasteful white bodysuit and flawless choreography also helped.
Recorded for the film With Honors and released in 1994, “I’ll Remember” was a radical departure for Madonna, who had spent the previous two years being lambasted by critics for her book Sex, her album Erotica, and her erotic thriller Body of Evidence. The single was Madge’s attempt at repairing the damage that her over-sexed image had caused to her career. And it worked! “I’ll Remember” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for both a Grammy and Golden Globe. And then it was forgotten. Ask any casual Madonna fan what they think of “I’ll Remember” and they’ll probably look back at you with a blank expression on their face. But for us die hards, the song remains one of the many hidden gems in our queen’s illustrious and ever-growing catalog.