She’s the Queen of Pop. She’s (like) a virgin. She’s a dance diva. She’s an Earth mother. She’s Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone Penn Ritchie, and she’s been a musical icon for the past twenty-five years.

Much has been said about Madge’s body of work, not all of it complimentary. Truthfully, although I’m certainly a fan, I’d have to say she peaked early. In my eyes, her first album is still her best. However, each of her albums has at least a couple of strong songs, and, while her latest, Hard Candy, hasn’t exactly been critically or commercially praised, it’s not an altogether bad piece of work (dear Madonna: Justin Timberlake yes, Pharrell Williams no).

If I had 80 minutes to describe the essence of Madonna in a nutshell to a stranger (although, let’s face it, who doesn’t know Madonna?) These are the songs I would go with:

1) Get Together (from “Confessions on a Dance Floor”, 2005)

The only way I can describe this song is: this is the way it feels inside a club when you’ve completely lost touch with your life and all the everyday crap you go through and just submit yourself to the music. I’m certainly not the clubgoer I was back in the mid-Nineties (actually, I hate clubs nowadays), but this song reminds me of those transcendent moments. It was really the only thing worth keeping on “Confessions on a Dance Floor”.

2) Holiday (from “Madonna”, 1983)

The song that introduced Madonna to the world, it’s the Material Girl at her most joyful. Hard to believe that this song was originally offered to mercurial soul/jazz diva Phyllis Hyman. Very easy to believe that Hyman rejected it. Madonna’s winning, girlish delivery was perfect for this song, Hyman’s knowing, mature vocal tone would not have been.

3) Into the Groove (from the “Desperately Seeking Susan” soundtrack, 1985)

“Now I know you’re mine…” Play this back to back with Lisa Lisa’s “I Wonder if I Take You Home” and you have the soundtrack to the summer of 1985 in New York City.

4) Vogue (from “I’m Breathless”, 1990)

Madonna has long been accused of being a culture vulture, and she got the most crap for this song: a track that introduced the concept of “voguing”, which black and Latin gay men in the New York area had been doing for years, to middle America. It didn’t exactly catch on, but this song is good (and campy) enough to transcend a dance craze that slid right back into the marginalia it came from almost immediately.

5) Burning Up (from “Madonna”, 1983)

“I’m not the same/I have no shame/I’m on fire!!”. This is not only the most rock-oriented song Madge has ever done, but it’s also the most purely sleazy….and that’s saying a HELL of a lot.

6) Like a Virgin (from “Like a Virgin”, 1984)

I actually prefer the remixed, sped up version on “The Immaculate Collection” to the original version of this song, which as you know, was the smash that made Madonna “Madonna”.

7) Lucky Star (from “Madonna”, 1983)

More dance floor goodness from Madonna’s debut. After a series of party-starting singles, this and “Borderline” brought the tempo down slightly. Very few song titles have been more accurate-this song positively shimmers.

8) Miles Away (from “Hard Candy”, 2008)

Someone should have just let Timberlake and Timbaland do this whole album, because they have the only good songs on it. The lyrics of this song, if autobiographical, mean that things are not very strong in the Ritchie household. A gypsy-sounding loping beat means that it strongly resembles the original version of Everything but the Girl’s “Missing”.

9) Keep it Together (from “Like a Prayer”, 1989)

Madonna’s most popular forgotten song, this was a Top 10 hit before “Vogue”. It’s Madonna at her funkiest, with a strutting bassline, some chicken scratch wah-wah guitar and an honest lyric about the importance of family. She’s always been an autobiographical songwriter, but the lyrics to this song prove that no matter how many “Oh Father”‘s she writes, she treasures her bond with her family.

10) Papa Don’t Preach (from “True Blue”, 1986)

While Madonna didn’t write this song herself (the song itself was written by a couple of professional songwriters and then Madonna fleshed out the lyrics), she sings this like it was ripped out of her own heart. This is where I began to respect Madonna as a vocalist and not just as a dance diva who made good records.

11) Oh Father (from “Like a Prayer”, 1989)

I guess this is the Ciccone Family section of this mix. This is Madge at her most sorrowful and apologetic. It’s emotional without being sappy.

12) Bad Girl (from “Erotica”, 1992)

Dark and sorrowful, this portrait of a lonely woman is Madonna at her most emotionally affecting. Bad Girl also contains one of her best vocal performances.

13) Love Tried to Welcome Me (from “Bedtime Stories”, 1994)

This sumptuous not-quite love song juxtaposes lyrics of regret against a lush, ornate background. The song itself is beautiful enough that none other than The Temptations nicked the song’s background arrangement for their own song “Just Like I Told You” (and Madonna respectfully neglected to lift a finger in litigation).

14) Crazy for You (from the “Vision Quest” soundtrack, 1985)

As previously discussed in an upcoming Infatueighties entry, this was the first peak into a vulnerable Madonna. Listen to the way she mumbles the title at the end of the song and see if your heart doesn’t break just a little.

15) Little Star (from “Ray of Light”, 1997)

After gaining a rep as a bit of an ice princess, the Ray of Light shocked many simply on account of its’ warmth. This tribute to then-newborn daughter Lourdes is heartfelt and almost tear-inducing. “Never forget where you come from-from love”, Madge sings over a skittering, ambient musical soundscape. It’s the finest moment of her electronica years.

16) Cherish (from “Like a Prayer”, 1989)

Simple pop perfection. Madonna borrows a little of The Association’s song of the same title, and in the process, creates a summery confection of her own.

17) Everybody (from “Madonna”, 1983)

The first Madonna song I and many others heard, this call to arms to get on the dance floor pretty much sums up Madonna’s musical philosophy. “Dance & sing, get up and do your thing”.

Any songs we missed or left out? Let us know!