Essential Madonna: Her 30 best singles of all time
From AZ Central:
She’s been getting us into the groove now for more than three decades, having scored her first big club hit with a debut single that set her target audience at “Everybody” back in 1982. And she’s still sending singles to the top of Billboard’s dance charts. If her latest records haven’t done the kind of business she was doing in the days of “Like a Virgin,” Madonna remains the biggest-selling female artist ever and the highest-rated solo artist on the Billboard Hot 100 all-time top artists countdown, second only to the Beatles overall. She’s won a Golden Globe Award for acting and been inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which outraged rock purists to no end even though she clearly earned her spot).
The Rebel Heart Tour takes its name from Madonna’s new album, to which the New York Times responded with, “They won’t experience the celebrity of Madonna the fashion statement but the Madonna who has kept us listening for decades: Madonna the musician.”
To celebrate the Madonna who has kept us listening for decades, here’s a countdown of her greatest singles (made by AZ Central) as she makes her way to Glendale in support of “Rebel Heart.”
30. “Celebration” (2009)
The newest single on our list was not a major pop hit, topping the dance charts but stalling at No. 71 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The production, by Madonna, Ian Green and English trance DJ Paul Oakenfold, may have been too edgy for the public’s expectations of a new Madonna single in 2009. But it feels like it should have done much to confirm her status as an artist unafraid of rising to the challenge of finding a home in the ever-changing here and now. She isn’t breaking any ground here as a lyricist, still getting into the groove while asking everybody to dance and sing, but that pulsating synth riff had to be enough to start its share of celebrations.
29. “Living for Love” (2014)
“Bitch I’m Madonna” may be getting more attention — and how could it not with that title and Nicki Minaj? But this is the “Rebel Hearts” single that feels the most like a Madonna classic, a pulsating house beat and state-of-the-art production topped by a sultry lead vocal from Madonna, who details the aftermath of a doomed relationship. “I let down my guard, I fell into your arms,” she sings. “Forgot who I was, I didn’t hear the alarms.” But like Gloria Gaynor before her, Madonna reacts by vowing to survive. Or carry on, as puts it in this single’s gospel-flavored chorus. This one didn’t crack the Hot 100 but it topped the dance charts.
28. “Who’s That Girl?” (1987)
From the soundtrack to a 1987 movie of the same name that also starred Madonna, “Who’s That Girl?” was her second consecutive single to feature lyrics sung in Spanish as well as Spanish-flavored instrumental backing, making it an obvious successor to the same year’s “La Isla Bonita.” This one topped the Hot 100 but somehow stalled at No. 44 on Billboard’s dance chart. The production couldn’t be more ’80s, but it’s held up surprisingly well regardless.
27. “Don’t Tell Me” (2001)
The unnaturally edited, stop-start acoustic-guitar loop is the kind of hook that either gives a song its character or drives a person mad. Or both. Thirteen years later, it still sounds defective. But not in a bad way. Meanwhile, Madonna progresses from rhyming “Don’t tell me to stop” with “Tell the rain not to drop” to images as dark as “Tell the bed not to lay/ Like the open mouth of a grave, yeah/ Not to stare up at me/ Like a calf down on its knees.” The second single from “Music,” it topped the dance charts and peaked at No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
26. “Oh Father” (1989)
The fourth single released from “Like a Prayer,” “Oh Father” displayed a more serious side of Madonna than casual fans were expecting, which may explain it running out of steam at No. 20 on the Hot 100. A haunting ballad from the “Live to Tell” school, it tells the tales of an abusive father from the child’s perspective, setting the scene with, “It’s funny that way, you can get used to the tears and the pain/ What a child will believe/ You never loved me.” The chorus hook is more empowering, the grown child singing, “You can’t hurt me now/ I got away from you/ I never thought I would/ You can’t make me cry/ You once had the power/ I never felt so good about myself.”
25. “Secret” (1994)
The lead single from “Bedtime Stories” is a soulful ballad that sets the tone with acoustic guitar before Madonna grabs the spotlight with her understated pout on the opening line. “Things haven’t been the same,” she tells him, “since you came into my life.” Her baby’s got a secret and she likes it, purring, “Something’s coming over me.” It’s a sexy performance with sympathetic backing, the hip-hop-flavored R&B groove moving the single along without turning it into a dance song. It’s actually closer in sophisticated spirit to something Sade would have done. But with a better beat. This single peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 while topping the dance chart.
24. “Frozen” (1998)
The “Ray of Light” album was a huge departure for Madonna at the time, and “Frozen” heralded the new Madonna as the album’s lead-off single. It’s an atmospheric, cinematic triumph with heartbreaking strings as breathtaking as Sigur Ros’ finest work — no, really — and Madonna wisely underselling the emotion as she shares her feelings for a man whose heart is frozen. She knows we can tell she’s unhappy. There’s no need to overdo it. And the fact that the track itself mirrors the chill of the lyrics is a nice touch. This one topped the U.S. dance charts and became the first Madonna single to debut at No. 1 in the U.K. while peaking at No. 2 on the Hot 100.
23. “Everybody” (1982)
This was Madonna’s first single, a synth-driven, Prince-flavored dance track that took the future star to No. 3 on Billboard’s dance charts for obvious reasons (while bubbling under Billboard’s Hot 100 for reasons less obvious). This is classic early ’80s dance pop with Madonna heavy-breathing her way through an opening monologue that doesn’t sound at all like an invitation to dance and sing. “I know you’ve been waiting,” she purrs. “Yeah. I’ve been watching you. Yeah. I know you wanna get up.” And the vocal that follows is blessed with the youthful exuberance it takes to sell that call to dance and sing and do your thing.
22. “Hung Up” (2005)
Every so often, Madonna releases an album that’s clearly meant to reassert the singer’s club roots. And 2005’s “Confessions on a Dance Floor” wasn’t shy about announcing its intentions. The first single out of the box, “Hung Up” was retrotastic disco gold, riding a pulsating sample of ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” to No. 1 in no fewer than 41 countries, which the “Guinness Book of World Records” confirmed as a new world record two years later. And although it did not top the Hot 100, where it stalled at No. 7, it took her back to No. 1 on Billboard’sdance chart. And of course it did. She’s at the top of her game as a disco diva here, obsessively waiting night and day for the call that never comes because she’s that hung up. And yes, the wordplay would appear to be intentional. But really, it’s the groove that ultimately matters here. And it’s amazing.
21. “Burning Up” (1983)
This song hit the streets just a month after “Beat It,” and considering the sonic similarities, it would be tempting to hear it as a shameless bid at cashing in on Michael Jackson’s winning blend of heavy rock guitar and early ’80s dance beats but for one thing: She recorded it before she could have heard that Jackson song. The guitar is actually heavier on “Burning Up,” Madonna’s second single, which finds the personality that would go on to help define the decade fully formed — playful, assertive and sexy, burning up for love while leaving no doubt as to who would be calling the shots. This single peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s dance chart but failed to make the Hot 100.
20. “Holiday” (1984)
The percussion here is Latin disco, the keyboard sound is early Prince and the vocals are classic Madonna, channeling disco euphoria while dreaming of a holiday. “Just one day out of life,” she sighs, “It would be so nice.” The production hasn’t aged as well as, say, “Into the Groove,” but the melody? That’s timeless. This peaked at No. 16 on the Hot 100 while topping the dance charts.
19. “La Isla Bonita” (1987)
Madonna went all Spanish on us with her final single from “True Blue,” a third album that, by that point, had already sent three songs to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. This one peaked at No. 4 but managed to inspire yet another Lady Gaga single, “Alejandro.” “Last night I dreamt of San Pedro,” Madonna begins on a track that makes excellent use of both Latin percussion and Spanish guitar.
18. “Vogue” (1990)
A lot of people would have put this higher. But a lot of people have no problem with the way Madonna sounds while rapping lines as off-her-game as “Rita Hayworth gave good face.” Oh Beavis… Every other detail of this single is classic Madonna, though, from the way it steals its best ideas from gay culture to the way she tells you “let your body move to the music” when she knows your body has no choice. It topped the Hot 100 and the dance charts, going double platinum.
17. “Express Yourself” (1989)
A young kid hearing this song for the first time might hear it as a shameless knockoff of the Lady Gaga anthem, “Born This Way.” But Madonna was too busy ruling the pop charts to bother with time travel back in the ’80s. A horn-driven funk track, this female empowerment anthem encourages listeners to demands some R-E-S-P-E-C-T in their relationships. “Satin sheets are very romantic,” she admits. But then, she turns around and asks, “What happens when you’re not in bed?” It peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, topped the dance charts and was certified gold.
16. “Open Your Heart” (1986)
A euphoric dance groove fueled by funk guitar offsets moody chords and mopey lyrics on the verses, where Madonna pines, “I see you on the street and you walk on by/You make me wanna hang my head down and cry.” By the second verse, she sounds more like a stalker, but she isn’t giving up, spending her choruses pleading, “Open your heart to me/I hold the lock and you hold the key” (when the metaphor clearly works better if she holds the key). It topped the dance charts and the Hot 100.
15. “Dress You Up” (1985)
The final single from her landmark second album, “Like a Virgin,” “Dress You Up” adds slinky funk guitar to a pulsating synth groove — Nile Rodgers effectively leaving his musical fingerprints all over the recording — while Madonna promises to “dress you up in my love, all over your body” with a girlish charm that does its best to fool you into thinking there’s no sexual innuendo to be found here. It peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
14. “Material Girl” (1984)
This playful romp was sniffed at as crass and materialistic by critics waiting for another reason to resist Madonna mania in 1984. But there’s nothing about this performance to suggest that you’re supposed to take it seriously, least of all the deadpan backing vocals robotically chanting “Live. Ing. In a Material World.” Satire is rarely served this sassy. And Madonna nails the character, setting the tone with “Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me/I think they’re OK/If they don’t give me proper credit/I just walk away.”
It peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 while topping the dance charts (even though it feels more like a pop hit than a dance song).
13. “Music” (2000)
If “Ray of Light” was Madonna reclaiming her spot on the front lines of the dance-pop revolution, this was her getting back into the groove with a smile-inducing disco throwback. Vocoder voices straight outta Funkytown keep popping up to wonder “Do you like to boogie woogie?” Which, of course, you do or you wouldn’t still be reading. There’s even a utopian political agenda. “Music makes the people come together/music mix the bourgeoisie and the rebel.” How disco is that? It topped the dance charts and the Hot 100, going platinum while bringing her into the 2000s.
12. “Papa Don’t Preach” (1986)
This was seen as huge artistic growth in 1986, the voice of “Like a Virgin” taking on the issue of teen pregnancy, telling her father “I’ve made up my mind/I’m keepin’ my baby/gonna keep my baby” on a richly orchestrated dance track with an acoustic guitar solo. There’s more soul than was expected at the time in Madonna’s raspier-than-usual vocals. It topped the Hot 100 and was certified gold.
11. “Ray of Light” (1998)
Another huge artistic stride, this single was seen as Madonna reclaiming her spot on the front lines of the dance-pop revolution, bringing in producer William Orbit for a clattering gem of a track with elements of techno, trance and electronic dance. It’s all forward momentum, with Madonna out front cooing lines as enigmatic as “Zephyr in the sky at night I wonder/Do my tears of mourning sink beneath the sun.” Reasserting her cultural relevance with a pulsating dance beat, it effortlessly topped the dance charts, peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and was certified gold.
10. “Angel” (1985)
Speaking of Chic, this single was produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and it shows. That pizzicatto hook — a blend of synthesizer and guitar — is undeniable. And Madonna’s delivery is great, from the yearning she brings to the chorus to that playful laugh she drops in out of nowhere for whatever reason. “Angel” peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100, topped the dance charts and was certified gold.
9. “Lucky Star” (1984)
She sounds so young and innocent, setting the tone with a youthful chirp of “You must be my lucky star ’cause you shine on me wherever you are/I just think of you and I start to glow.” The closest she comes to sexual innuendo here is “Shine your heavenly body tonight.” But sometimes a sassy delivery and a slinky post-Chic disco groove is all it takes to launch a proper pop sensation. This song peaked at No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 — her first Top 10 appearance! — and topped the dance charts.
8. “Erotica” (1992)
Picking up where “Justify My Love” left off, “Erotica” is kinky art-pop with Madonna purring filthy spoken come-ons on an atmospheric bed of sound where trip-hop, hip-hop and samples of Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and Lebanese singer Fairuz come together and grind. It starts with the sound of a needle hitting vinyl, followed by bass, percussion and eventually Madonna, who says “My name is Dita,” then asks, “If I take you from behind, push myself into your mind when you least expect it, will you try and reject it?” Even by Madonna standards, this was pretty kinky stuff for 1992. And yet, it was certified gold after topping the dance charts and peaking at No. 3 onBillboard’s Hot 100. It may have helped that chorus, inviting listeners to “put your hands all over my body,” was a good deal catchier than “Justify My Love.”
7. “Live to Tell” (1986)
Another classic early ballad, this one turned up in a Sean Penn movie. Who thought that would end? Bringing the drama without the requisite intensity her former husband would have brought to the proceeding, Madonna broods her way convincingly through the ominous production, leaving the details to the listener’s imagination while making it clear that something bad could definitely happen if she doesn’t watch her step. It’s hard to say how many young Madonna fans could relate while singing along to a chorus of “Hope I live to tell the secret I have learned/Till then, it will burn inside of me.” But that didn’t stop it from topping Billboard’s Hot 100.
6. “Crazy for You” (1985)
Her first big ballad has hung on to its standing as her best big ballad, a soaring emotional prom theme for the ages that somehow breathes new life into a premise as cliched as spying someone hot across a crowded dance floor and moving in for the kill. It’s the sexual longing she brings to the delivery that makes it work, especially the chorus hook (“I’m crazy for you/Touch me once and you’ll know it’s true/I never wanted anyone like this/It’s all brand new/You’ll feel it in my kiss/I’m crazy for you”).
5. “Like a Virgin” (1984)
People throw around the word “iconic” way too often. They should save it for special occasions. Like this. To anyone who lived through “Like a Virgin” in the ’80s, there can be no single that causes more colorful flashbacks to that first wave of Madonna mania than this. Strutting along to a bassline clearly cribbed from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” it features young Madonna at her chirpiest, cooing provocative lines about how she’d been had and was sad but “you made me feel shiny and new, like a virgin.” And then, you wonder why uptight parents of the ’80s were less than thrilled at the thought of their preteen daughters being wannabes, as Madonna fans were labeled in the media. Of course, compared to “Justify My Love,” it does feel pretty virginal. A gold single, it topped the Hot 100 and the dance charts.
4. “Into the Groove” (1985)
“Into the Groove” has become the definitive Madonna dance song, on which any number of subequent Madonna dance songs would be based without approaching the disco inferno ignited by this one. And it goes beyond the groove. That spoken intro is classic Madonna — “And you can dance. For inspiration. Come on. I’m waiting.” Taken from the soundtrack to director Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan,” the film that fooled us all, especially Madonna, into thinking she could act, it never hit the Hot 100 but it sure did top the dance charts, going on to be certified gold with Billboard naming it Dance Single of the Decade.
3. “Justify My Love” (1990)
“I’m open and ready for you to justify my love.” Damn, Madonna sure had gotten arty with her come-ons by the time the ’90s rolled around. This art-pop classic is primarily a non-stop string of hot, wet whispers with Madonna breathing heavy on the mike while sharing her fantasies with a delivery that’s nothing like a virgin. “I wanna run naked in a rainstorm,” she purrs, “make love in a train cross country/You put this in me, so now what? So now what?” And this is all set to a minimal trip-hop beat (with a slight hint of G-funk) and an atmospheric keyboard wash. It’s her artiest pop-culture triumph, topping Billboard’s Hot 100 and the dance charts on the way to going platinum while suggesting way more shades of grey than 50.
2. “Borderline” (1984)
Hands down the best song on Madonna’s self-titled debut, it features the same girlish pout as her other early hits, but she invests the girlish pout with way more soul on “Borderline.” And it’s all in the service of sexual longing, causing flashbacks to the girl-group era with “Just try to understand/I’ve given all I can ’cause you got the best of me,” then following through with the sexual innuendos of a chorus hook about how “you just keep on pushing my love over the borderline.” It peaked at No. 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and became her first gold single.
1. “Like a Prayer” (1989)
Madonna had long since established herself as the female pop sensation of the hour on the strength of six chart-topping hits, from “Like a Virgin” to “Who’s That Girl,” when this song hit the streets and dared you not to take her seriously as an artist. She eases you in with an aching, ethereal opening — “Life is a mystery/Everyone must stand alone/I hear you call my name and it feels like home” — backed by a choir and church organ. Then, the beat takes over, as it tends to do on records with Madonna’s name and picture on the cover. But it keeps coming back to the gospel-flavored ache of that opening, eventually bringing the church to the dance floor on the song’s triumphant climax. The Vatican condemned the video, which featured the stigmata-rocking superstar engaged in dirty thoughts about a saint, while “Like a Prayer” hit No. 1 and became her first platinum single.