Ranking Madonna's 35 best singles
It’s hard to imagine music without Madonna. It seems like she’s always been there, changing the game and reinventing herself. But her pop journey all started 35 years ago when she dropped her first single, the dance jam “Everybody,” on Oct. 6, 1982. Since then, she’s never looked back. To celebrate the anniversary of that landmark release, EW ranks the 35 best singles of the Queen of Pop’s royal career.
35. “Ghosttown” (2015)
It’s a shame that Madonna’s last album, Rebel Heart, didn’t spawn any real hits because it had two strong singles in “Living for Love” and “Ghosttown.” With its haunting atmospherics and lyrics depicting the “darkest days” in a post-Armageddon world, it was eerily prescient of Trump-era despair.
34. “Nothing Really Matters” (1999)
This spot would have gone to another Ray of Light track, “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” but that song was only released as a single overseas. Cowritten by True Blue/Like a Prayer collaborator Patrick Leonard — and featuring soulful support from longtime backup singers Niki Haris and Donna De Lory — “Nothing Really Matters” updated ’80s Madonna with an ambient soundscape. Inspired by her experience as a mother, it showed that the Material Girl had evolved into the Maternal Girl.
33. “Jump” (2006)
After “Hung Up,” “Sorry” was the biggest single off Confessions on a Dance Floor, but “Jump” deserved better. With an empowering message set to a percolating beat produced by Stuart Price — and those echoes of Madge’s 1990 hit “Keep It Together” (see below) — it practically air-lifts you to the next level.
32. “Keep It Together” (1990)
“Like a Prayer” may have given some gospel to Madonna’s 1989 album of the same name, but it was “Keep It Together” that brought the funk. Engaging in some family bonding over a groove that owes to Sly & the Family Stone, it’s her own “Family Affair.” Bonus points for being the memorable finale in her legendary Blond Ambition World Tour.
31. “Give It 2 Me” (2008)
There were times on Hard Candy when superstar producers Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, and the Neptunes commandeered Madonna’s sound (see the JT collaboration “4 Minutes”), but the emphatic “Give It 2 Me” showed that she was still in charge. Even a bit of silly goofiness during that “get stupid” bridge with Pharrell can’t deny the insistent bounce.
30. “Dress You Up” (1985)
Madonna may have been feeling all shiny and new on “Like a Virgin,” but on this LAV single she is clearly experienced in the ways of seduction. Vowing to dress her man up in some head-to-toe loving, she makes this throbbing come-on impossible to resist.
29. “Take a Bow” (1994)
After the salaciousness of the whole Sex book and Erotica era, Madonna classed up her act in a big way with this sumptuous, Babyface-produced ballad, which, spending seven weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, is her longest-running No. 1 single. One of the most un-Madonna-sounding Madonna songs, it’s maybe the most elegant thing she’s ever done.
28. “Nothing Fails” (2003)
American Life — probably the most divisive album of Madonna’s career — produced one of her worst singles in its title track. But the follow-up was a triumph — creatively if not commercially — that was one of the real highlights of her folktronica period. It goes from stripped-down earnestness to churched-up gloriousness.
27. “Don’t Tell Me” (2000)
Madonna as cowgirl? As if any more proof of her powers of reinvention were needed, this Music single delivered it. With its acoustic guitar, country stomp, and stop-start trippiness, this song — cowritten by Americana artist Joe Henry and produced by electronica savant Mirwais — succeeds against the odds.
26. “Secret” (1994)
Madonna went R&B on Bedtime Stories, and for the album’s first single she enlisted the services of Dallas Austin, a producer behind hits for TLC, Boyz II Men, and Monica. And while he brought some hip-hop swagger to “Secret,” Madonna is the one who revealed her soul.
25. “Lucky Star” (1984)
With this single off her self-titled debut, Madonna hit the top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. One of five songs on her first album written solely by the singer, this radiant twirler feels as if it comes equipped with its own disco ball.
24. “Deeper and Deeper” (1992)
Madonna took a deep-house dive with the second single from Erotica, produced by club-remix legend Shep Pettibone. Playing like a sequel to “Vogue” — it even quotes from that earlier hit toward the end — the track pours on the dance-floor drama and is complete with a flamenco breakdown.
23. “Human Nature” (1995)
Long before Demi Lovato gave us “Sorry Not Sorry,” an unapologetic Madonna responded to her critics with this defiant declaration that makes a lyrical nod to “Express Yourself.” Produced with hip-hop soul flavor by early Mary J. Blige collaborator Dave Hall, it goes straight-up gangsta on you.
22. “Hung Up” (2005)
The first single off Confessions on a Dance Floor marked a comeback for Madonna after the relative flop of American Life, becoming her record-tying 36th top 10 hit. (She would break the record previously held by Elvis Presley with 2008’s “4 Minutes.”) Built around a hypnotic sample from ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” it gets you caught up in a disco rapture.
21. “Papa Don’t Preach” (1986)
Dealing with teen pregnancy, this No. 1 single from True Blue found Madonna tackling a social issue for the first time — and she did it in strutting style. The string arrangement adds a classical gravitas just in case you didn’t think that she was serious about keeping her baby.
20. “Everybody” (1982)
“Dance and sing, get up and do your thing,” Madonna chants on her debut single. And she would repeat that kind of party hyping throughout her career. Although it failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100, this squiggly electro boogie — a precursor to 2000’s “Music” — was ahead of its time.
19. “La Isla Bonita” (1987)
Bonita is Spanish for pretty, and this island-breezy ditty is certainly one of the loveliest tunes that Madonna has ever done. Exploring Latin pop long before it became trendy, the song — a fixture on her tours — inspired everything from her own “Who’s That Girl” to Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro.”
18. “Frozen” (1998)
Ushering in the ambitious Ray of Light era, that album’s first single was a real revelation, sounding unlike anything Madonna had ever done before. Creating a mystical forest of sonic enchantment — sweeping strings and all — “Frozen” possesses an almost operatic grandeur. It never fails to give you chills.
17. “Live to Tell” (1986)
In addition to serving as the first single from True Blue, this song was featured in the film At Close Range, starring Madonna’s then-husband Sean Penn. Setting the moody tone for other movie ballads that she would do — including 1992’s “This Used to Be My Playground” and 1994’s “I’ll Remember” — this aching confession found her displaying greater depth and maturity than ever before.
16. “Borderline” (1984)
This is one of six tracks on her Madonna debut that were produced by Reggie Lucas, who had previously worked with R&B artists like Stephanie Mills and Phyllis Hyman. And Madonna — who was getting played on black radio back then — has never sounded more genuinely soulful than on the divine “Borderline.”
15. “Material Girl” (1985)
Like many of Madonna’s signature hits, “Material Girl” — which spawned her most famous nickname — is probably known as much for its video as the song. I mean, who can ever forget M doing her best Marilyn Monroe in that “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” homage? The single itself is ’80s synth-pop perfection.
14. “What It Feels Like for a Girl” (2001)
This is, hands down, the most underappreciated single of Madonna’s career. Part of it is because the controversial violence of the video — directed by then-husband Guy Ritchie and featuring an Above & Beyond club remix — overshadowed the song. But the Music album version — the one being ranked here — is one of Madonna’s artistic peaks, inspiring an all-male Glee cover and hopefully some girls who needed the love.
13. “Open Your Heart” (1986)
As much as Madonna may be known for her more titillating songs, she has also been capable of pure pop bliss. That can be heard on hits like “True Blue,” “Cherish” and, best of all, “Open Your Heart,” which updated a ’60s girl-group giddiness with an ’80s sheen. No doubt, she has rarely sounded more open-hearted than she does here.
12. “Crazy for You” (1985)
Madonna had yet to prove that she could make a hit ballad until “Crazy for You.” In fact, the only ballad she had even done was a cover of Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” on 1984’s Like a Virgin. But this No. 1 hit from the Vision Quest soundtrack was a career highlight. Although she would become a better singer on future ballads, the raw, soulful yearning on this is something that they can’t teach you in voice class.
11. “Burning Up” (1983)
Madonna’s second single from her self-titled debut is another shoulda-been hit that became a fan favorite after she made it big. The most rocking thing she has ever done, this self-penned song drew from the ’80s New York punk scene with its fiery attitude and passion.
10. “Erotica” (1992)
There was a lot going against the title track from Madonna’s fifth studio album: It was released just before her scandalous Sex book, and its video was banned from MTV. But the single, which picked up where “Justify My Love” left off, was just about the boldest move she could have made at the height of her career. Playing like your dirtiest fantasy set to music, it also introduced the pop-diva alter ego: Before Mariah gave us Mimi and Beyoncé gave us Sasha Fierce, Madonna gave us the dominatrix Dita.
9. “Into the Groove” (1985)
Madonna may have never truly conquered the acting world — Evita notwithstanding — but she definitely made some killer movie music. Case in point: “Into the Groove,” which was featured in her film Desperately Seeking Susan. Although the track — which grooves along a bumping synth-bass line — was technically the B-side to Like a Virgin’s “Angel,” it’s always been clear which of those cuts made the A-list.
8. “Justify My Love” (1990)
Probably the most radical single of her career, “Justify My Love” went so far against the pop establishment that it is a testament to Madonna’s dominance that it still went No. 1. A spoken-word ode to releasing your inner freak that grinds to the sleaziest of beats is not supposed to justify such mainstream love. But this song — cowritten by Lenny Kravitz, who also moans orgasmically on backgrounds — was so hot that not even MTV’s video ban could stop it from climaxing.
7. “Music” (2000)
Madonna’s music had been making all kinds of people come together throughout her career. But this, her last No. 1 single, was a full-circle moment that took her back to her beginnings as a DJ-loving New York club kid in the early ’80s and showed that, although now a mother of two in her 40s, she could still rule the dance floor. The weird, vaguely eerie electro-pop produced by Mirwais makes this one of her most eccentric hits ever. But whether you are the bourgeoisie or the rebel, the message is universal.
6. “Vogue” (1990)
This No. 1 smash may not be the very best of Madonna’s singles, but it could be the most iconic. A lot of that has to do with the classic video, which brought the underground club culture of gay voguing balls to the masses. But this pumping house track — from the Dick Tracy soundtrack I’m Breathless — inspires everybody to be something better than they are today. All you have to do is strike a pose — there’s nothing to it.
5. “Ray of Light” (1998)
Madonna may have already reigned over the pop world, but on the Grammy-winning title track of her Ray of Light opus she was transformed into a goddess of the universe. Based on “Sepheryn” by the English folk duo Curtiss Maldoon, the song was revamped into the ultimate trance dance with production by William Orbit. It captures the spiritual glow of Kabbalah Madonna, who gives us a little piece of heaven.
4. “Express Yourself” (1989)
“Don’t go for second best baby / Put your love to the test,” preaches Madonna, making her definitive feminist statement with the second single from Like a Prayer. The original album version of the song — which she cowrote with early collaborator Stephen Bray — is a horn-heavy blast, but it’s Shep Pettibone’s housed-up remix that is featured in the epic video and that lifted the single to its higher ground.
3. “Holiday” (1983)
Madonna’s third single became her first one to enter the Billboard Hot 100, making it all the way up to No. 16. But that chart position doesn’t do the song justice. This track — produced by her one-time boyfriend, ’80s New York DJ star John “Jellybean” Benitez — has remained her best dance anthem over a career full of great ones. It’s the prototype for everything from “Into the Groove” to “Living for Love.” To this day, whenever it comes on with Madonna rocking that cowbell, it always feels like a celebration.
2. “Like a Virgin” (1984)
Produced by Nile Rodgers and written by the hitmaking team of Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, “Like a Virgin” became so much bigger than the song — from the vintage video to that unforgettable MTV Video Music Awards performance — but the single itself stands as one of the best of the ’80s. While it may feel relatively innocent compared to “Justify My Love” and “Erotica,” Madonna’s first No. 1 hit paved the way for female pop artists — from Janet Jackson and Britney Spears to Rihanna — to be sexually provocative. No one had to act like a virgin anymore.
1. “Like a Prayer” (1989)
From the moment Madonna sings “Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone” atop that solemn organ and the hushed tones of a choir, “Like a Prayer” goes on to achieve a spiritual transcendence that makes this her supreme single. Having grown up Catholic, Madonna balances the sacred and the secular here to ecstatic effect, with gospel great Andrae Crouch’s choir really taking it to church midway through. The whole thing takes you there again and again.