The Wikipedia page for Madonna tribute albums lists over 50 different collections of covers that render her songs in three times as many different ways: bossa nova, hard core punk, industrial, and as twinkly lullabies. And that’s not even counting the many different one-off versions that have popped up on albums and singles around the music world for the length of the Material Girl’s long reign on the public consciousness. Amid this chaff, there are plenty of worthwhile homages to our favorite pop princess, many of which you are likely familiar with and some you may have yet to hear. We waded through this pile of lace, leather and sparkle to come up with our highly subjective list of the 10 best takes on Madonna.
Of all the covers on this list, this is the one that feels the most obvious. These cyberpunks have been culling from the same pool of inspirations as Madonna for years, but filtered it into irony-laden Macbook technopop. Released on the 1999 Madonna tribute album Virgin Voices, this version cuts out every bit of the gospel histrionics that marks the original in place of a straightforward industrialized groove and slightly creepy samples that frequently bubble up throughout.
One of the least successful singles from her 1989 album Like A Prayer, “Oh Father” was a testament to Madonna’s willingness to mine her turbulent life for songwriting material. Tough stuff, to be sure, but effective all the same. Sia channels her own well of internal distress in her cover of the song (found on her 2010 LP We Are Born) but surrounds it with candyfloss synths and melodic textures that counter the original’s black & white template with bold primary colors.
We all have beloved kitschy covers songs like this, tracks that render heavily sequenced, computerized pop as raw rock tunes. This just happens to be my favorite. It feels like it existed solely to fill up the last bit of empty space on a reel of tape, a quality that bled into the rest of The King, the album on which this cover can be found, as the LP was released and then retracted on the same day in 1991. The vocals of bassist Gerard Love elevate this song due to his charmingly flat affect, as if he was three pints in and shoved onstage at a karaoke bar.
This gorgeous cover arrives in a strange place on Frisell’s 1992 LP Have A Little Faith, arriving after he and his band spend some time working over a suite of songs from Aaron Copland’s Billy The Kid and right after they swing through Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” The master guitarist treats the ballad with something like humble respect, urging the melody out of his instrument, and using it as a framework for a gently floating solo that will just about take your breath away.
There are 16 other covers to be had on the 2007 tribute album Through The Wildnerness, yet the only one that finds that sweet spot of respectful and blasphemous is this demo-like version of Madonna’s 1982 debut single. Like most of Pink’s other work, it has all the sonic beauty of a 92kbps mp3 demo that has been dumped onto a shitty cassette. In that mess, though, you’ll find the same urge to follow the song’s insistent lyrics to get up, dance, and sing.
Another hallmark of the cover song game is to take a lush pop production and reduce it all down to the barest of minimums: a singer and a guitar. Which is exactly what John Wesley Harding did with this overblown anthem on his 1989 release God Made Me Do It: The Christmas EP. There was a cheeky element to his version, poking a hole in the massive tsunami of hype that accompanied the original’s release. But as with anything Harding does, there’s a deep element of respect for the song’s religious-based metaphor and ebullient drive.
Like the aforementioned Teenage Fanclub cover, this New Brunswick, Canada, band ratchets up the distortion and angry drums in place of the glitterbomb synths and chicken-scratch guitar moves. But imagine the group ripping into this one in the middle of an already sublime set of noise rock and imagine yourself rightfully losing your little mind at the braggadocio and winking fun to be found in each overblown chord and bit of sneer singing.
If you’re going to let Wayne Coyne and co. fuck around as much they seem to want to these days, why not insist on some great material from them to mess with? This follows the Lips’ template with big brash moments that try to replicate the feeling of watching a sunrise while ripped to the tits on acid. But to get there you have to lean in and catch nearly three minutes of cheap drum machine pulses and bits of noise that sound like your laptop’s hard drive having a gentle seizure. And god bless Coyne for still being able to tap into his tender side as he handles the pleading opening lines of this pop classic.
It would be damn near impossible to improve upon the white-hot sensuality of Madonna’s 1990 original, so R&B singer Vita doesn’t bother. She instead uses virtually the same backing track and just oozes her quiet voice on top. And she ropes in the equally powerful Ashanti to provide a little extra heat to the choruses. This tribute gets extended to the accompanying video, which aims to replicate the controversial genuine article right down to the costumes and hotel hallway lapdance.
This strange and wonderful side project of Sonic Youth and Minutemen bassist Mike Watt yielded only one LP, 1988’s The Whitey Album, and will likely best be remembered for this ridiculously awesome, lovingly fucked take on this track, best known for its use in the film Desperately Seeking Susan. The gang takes a dub-like approach to the track, with Thurston Moore’s vocals disappearing and returning throughout, snippets of the original popping up like small geysers, and applies the cut-up method to its use of drum machines and sequencers.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.