The definition of ‘ballad’ literally means a song which tells a story, but in recent times, it has come to mean a mid or slow tempo song normally on the subject of “love”. It would be difficult to deny that Madonna has had a heap of great ballads, some of which have been eclipsed by her dance floor fillers
LOVE DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE
A cover of the 1970s song by Rose Royce, Madonna’s version features one of her finest vocal performances – and way before she took on extra voice training for Evita. Produced by Nile Rodgers, this became a single many years after it was originally included on the Like A Virgin album.
CRAZY FOR YOU
There are few of us who haven’t experienced hearing or perhaps dancing to this song at the end of a school disco as you spin slowly around the dancefloor with the object of your affection. It was the first slow song from Madonna to hit the charts and yet remains a firm favourite.
LIVE TO TELL
Madonna would become the queen of reinvention but it wasn’t until this song was released in early 1986 that we saw her first major transformation. Gone were the crucifixes, bows and messy hair and instead we had 1940s floral prints and a highly coiffed, platinum Madonna. As for the song? It sounds like nothing else out there and it’s telling that the only major change made to its sound when she took it on tour in the 00s was a faint church organ playing in the background.
LOOK OF LOVE
The Who’s That Girl movie may not have set Hollywood alight (or even warmed it at all) but it did produce three memorable singles for Madonna of which this was the final one. Not a million miles away from Live to Tell in both its sound and subject matter, it was ignored from the Immaculate Collection and is therefore often overlooked, but it’s classic Madge at her best.
PROMISE TO TRY
Our first non-single entry has to be this beautiful ballad from the Like A Prayer album. Accompanied only by a piano and strings, Madonna struggles to hold the tune here but it has nothing to do with her vocal talents and is instead because of her unique ability to convey emotion in a raw and heartfelt way. The song was about her mother and would feature prominently in the graveyard sequence from In Bed with Madonna.
From maternal to paternal, this is one of five songs written and recorded in just five days by Madonna and Patrick Leonard. That they created one hit in that time would be amazing enough, but the strength of the Like A Prayer album can be summed up in the appeal of this song. Allegedly, Madonna’s vocal was done in one take but when being mixed, she was asked to double track her voice for the “you can’t hurt me now” section.
SOMETHING TO REMEMBER
The I’m Breathless album is a curious affair. Part Sondheim-written torch songs, part fluffy 1940s pastiches and with Vogue incongruously tacked on to the end, yet this song sounds more like it was recorded during the Like a Prayer sessions. Madonna chose to release Hanky Panky as the second single from that album, but this stunning ballad would have been a wiser choice.
JUSTIFY MY LOVE
More of a sparse, hip hop track than a ballad, but it’s definitely a song to get jiggy with (do people still get jiggy?) and its lyrics which read like a shopping list of things Madonna would like to do with the subject of her affections is delivered in a creamy-smooth whisper which is hard to resist.
THIS USED TO BE MY PLAYGROUND
Recorded as part of the Erotica sessions but instead a stand-alone single and theme for the League of Their Own movie, the song was hastily re-written by Madonna and Shep Pettibone when they came to record the orchestra. Often over-looked by the casual fan, it has to be one of her finest melodies and will one day be re-appraised.
Madonna’s decision not to take this song on tour probably accounts for the fact that it is sometimes regarded as a lost classic, but it performed well in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and the David Fincher video is one of her finest. The song was originally called Drunk Girl, so the subject matter may have been even more sordid at one point.
IN THIS LIFE
How could any list of Madonna’s ballads not include the song which would become the emotional heart of her 1993 world tour. Written for friends that she lost to AIDS, the singer would break down in tears each night when she performed it.
Madonna’s popularity in the US was at a low during this point following a backlash for her overtly sexual behaviour, but this song could easily have come from her 1980s heyday. Featuring a video packed with ‘90s clichés, a single remixed breathed new life into the song.
If you’re one of those fans obsessed with Madonna’s hair (isn’t that all of us?) then the point of interest in this video is that it’s shot two months post the Girlie Show’s blond crop and features a newly brunette Madge. But the most noteworthy point to I’ll Remember is just what a beautiful song it is. And with a William Orbit remix thrown in, it helps bridge the gap between eras of the singer’s musical oeuvre.
TAKE A BOW
Interestingly, this song was a relative flop in the UK but a huge, huge success in the US. Madonna teamed up with Babyface again for a few tracks but as they sounded so similar to this song, they remain unreleased.
In 1995, Madonna undertook extensive vocal training for the Evita movie which changed her voice dramatically. Pleased with its success, she recorded a batch of downtempo songs to demonstrate her new range and included some on her Something to Remember ballads collection. You’ll See is also one of the few songs Madonna performed on Top of the Pops.
Luscious strings, ethnic beats, filtered drums, bleepy keyboards and a lyric based on the movie The English Patient, this was peak ‘90s as Madonna launched the second part of her career. It’s hard to believe that was already 20 years ago as the song still sounds fresh today.
THE POWER OF GOODBYE
An obvious choice of fourth single from the Ray of Light album, this song is one of its most memorable tracks. With a stunning video, tinted a blue green colour, it must have been hard work for Madonna to repeatedly snog Croation actor Goran Višnjić for all the various camera angles.
TIME STOOD STILL
“Maybe you’re the next best thing?” Madonna sings for the song’s hook, leading us to wander if this beautiful William Orbit song might have been the title track to the Madonna and Rupert Everett movie of the same title had she not instead chosen to lead with her rather lame cover of American Pie. The latter got to no. 1, so perhaps she made the right choice.
I DESERVE IT
Singing about “this guy”, there can be no doubt that M is referring to Mr. Ritchie on this track from her Music album. Featuring acoustic guitars and sirens over a hip hop beat, this song was a contender for single release before the decision was made to run with What It Feels Like For A Girl.
One of the highlights of the American Life album, Madonna and Mirwais enlisted a London gospel choir to add their voices to this beautiful track. Unfortunately, a lack of video and a strange inclusion on the Remixed and Revisited EP left some confusion as to whether this was ever an official single.
LIKE IT OR NOT
The closest thing to a downtempo track from the disco-infused Confessions era and its stripped back arrangement puts Madonna’s voice at the forefront of the mix.
More of a mid-tempo number, but its tale of long distance love warrants the ballad status for this Timberlake co-write. Not long after its release, Madonna and Guy Ritchie announced their separation, leading fans to wonder if it was biographical.
This is the song that Elton John scoffed about when it was up for a Golden Globe. “As if!” he shrieked but had to eat his bejewelled hat when it won Best Original song that year. A huge hit on Radio 2, Madonna missed a trick by not releasing this as an official single.
A beautiful song produced by William Orbit and reminding us how well he worked with her distinctive voice. Orbit later admitted that M had a cold on the day they recorded the vocal and that’s evident when listening today – but it’s still a fantastic performance.
The video for this song shows how Madonna escaped an apocalypse by hiding in Stevie Nicks’ wardrobe and it’s frustrating that this didn’t have bigger chart success. Its poor performance caused manager Guy Osery to state that she was a victim of ageism and it would have been a hit were it released by a younger artist.