Plus One

The 11 best Madonna songs

Why have a Top 10 when you can have one more? Here are our favourite 11 Madonna songs, ranked

Four decades on and the Queen Of Pop still reigns. But Madonna’s crown doesn’t sit as easy as it once did – not because she isn’t the most successful female pop act of all time, but because ‘Queen of Pop’ seems overly simplistic; reductive even, for an artist like Madonna.

What about “The Chameleon Of Pop”? Genre-shifting with ease, ready to explore any craze or sound or story, Madge has proved herself unafraid of any challenge. Whether it’s aerobic-dance, moving ballads or infectious pop, Madonna has attempted and succeeded at them all. More than that – she’s innovated.

With a discography so vast and varied, wrangling the 11 best Madonna songs wasn’t easy. But with a mammoth new Celebration tour now hitting London, there’s no better time to try…

11. ‘Material Girl’

(Like A Virgin, 1984)

Madonna herself may have felt the song wasn’t representative of her, but ‘Material Girl’ has become a major part of her image. The camp, tongue-in-cheek younger sister of ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ (Madonna even recreated Marilyn Monroe’s Gentleman Prefer Blondes sequence to ‘Diamonds’ for the ‘Material Girl’ music video), the track had massive hit potential even before Madonna hopped on it and delivered a hugely fun vocal performance.

10. ‘Hollywood’

(American Life, 2003)

This smoky dance track from American Life isn’t one of Madonna’s most talked about tracks, but it’s one of her best. Combining dance beats with an acoustic guitar-riff and surprisingly vulnerable vocals, the track isn’t worlds away from some of today’s female alt-pop. Sure, the subject matter isn’t groundbreaking – both the good and bad exists in Hollywood, as it does most places – but when someone with a career like Madonna’s sings “I tried to leave it but I never could”, you feel it.

9. ‘Crazy For You’

(Vision Quest, 1985)

This twinkly 80s ballad was only Madonna’s second No.1 single and proved that not only could Madge pen a catchy song – she also had pipes. The Queen (or Chameleon) of Pop delivered big, heartfelt vocals on ‘Crazy For You’, a slower track than her audience were used to, but one that still felt propulsive and self-assured.  

8. ‘Vogue’

(I’m Breathless, 1990)

‘Vogue’ is a piece of history, reflecting the gay ball scene in New York and the dance craze that had captured Madonna’s imagination. After discovering voguing in Sound Factory, the singer created this five minute dance music masterpiece, complete with a video containing some of her best visuals. The spoken word section in which Madonna namechecks classic Hollywood icons before ordering everyone to continue dancing is unbelievably infectious.  

7. ‘Into The Groove’

(Like A Virgin, 1985)

One of Madge’s most expertly-constructed dance numbers, ‘Into The Groove’ was built to rule the radio. An early hit, written before she found success, there’s something frantic and hungry in ‘Into The Groove’ that can’t be found in her later, more polished pop. A compelling, hypnotic beat combined with Madonna’s powerful vocals make the track feel like a challenge.

6. ‘Live To Tell’

(True Blue, 1986)

As diverse as Madonna’s discography is, there are very few songs of hers that can be described as haunting. But ‘Live To Tell’ is a beautiful ballad, thanks in no small part to those vocals. Much has been said about Madonna’s visual performances, but she’s just as impressive when you can’t see her, embodying every story she tells with, quite literally, a new voice every time. The choked-up, low wailing of ‘Live To Tell’ is what takes this song from a well-composed ballad to a truly stunning listen.

5. ‘Express Yourself’

(Like A Prayer, 1989)

The sound of a duffel bag being aggressively unzipped is the first thing we hear on ‘Express Yourself’ (80s producers really did love a sound effect), and following that we are treated to a landmark four minutes in feminist pop. Madonna was preaching on the importance of open and honest communication years before we all started telling our boyfriends to go to therapy – and she did it in the form of a pretty excellent piece of dance pop.

4. ‘Papa Don’t Preach’

(True Blue, 1986)

‘Papa Don’t Preach’ tells an emotive and complicated story that you can dance to – an elusive feat. Simpler in many respects than her epic dance numbers or big ballads, ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ is deceptively rich in narrative. Not only does Madonna tell this tale of teenage pregnancy with compassion and commitment, she also defended the song’s position as a pro-choice anthem for years to come.

3. ‘Like A Prayer’

(Like A Prayer, 1989)

Reverent, melodic verses sung in trembling tones give way to a euphoric dance chorus in this epic meeting of sexuality and spirituality. Many artists have since taken inspiration from the association that ‘Like A Prayer’ explores – Hozier and Taylor Swift, to name just a couple – but when Madonna did it, it was explosive. Dance, gospel, poetry and prayer all come together in one of her most lyrically complex creations.

2. ‘Hung Up’

(Confessions On A Dance Floor, 2005)

That ticking clock! That ABBA sample! That beat drop! Madonna mastered aerobic-disco with ‘Hung Up’. It ticks many of her best boxes – playful lyrics, a big catchy chorus and an ultimate message of independence. If ABBA signs off on the sample, you know it has to be good.

1. ‘Like A Virgin’

(Like A Virgin, 1984)

Doing her best interpretation of an eyelid-batting ingénue, Madonna simpered her way to pop icon status with ‘Like A Virgin’. Not only is it about as neatly constructed as pop gets, without a dud lyric in sight, but it also has that special something that has always made her music so much fun. As exemplified in ‘Like A Virgin’, Madge’s brand of dance pop has always invited not just movement or a sing-along but all-around good vibes. You just can’t have a bad time listening to Madonna. What better legacy is there?

Madonna returns to UK stages this October as part of her global Celebration tour. Find tickets here.