In so many ways, Madonna is the wellspring of modern-day pop stardom. Delivering bop after bop while being creative, provocative and an unapologetic bitch (her term), she wrote the book. Beyoncé gets it right, as she so often does, when she calls her “Queen Mother Madonna” on a new remix. As Madge prepares to release ‘Finally Enough Love: 50 Number Ones’, a compilation album celebrating her unprecedented success on the US Billboard Dance Club Songs chart, we’re rounding up her 10 most undeniable bangers. It was also Madonna’s birthday this week (on August 16), so let’s mark the occasion by playing them loud and proud.
10‘Deeper And Deeper’ (1992)
A little underrated by her standards, this single from the ‘Erotica’ album deserves to be embraced as a classic Madgebanger. It’s not just the heady house beat; it’s also the way Madonna tosses in a nod to ‘Vogue’ – nothing screams confidence like a self-referential moment – and the queer subtext in her lyrics. Co-producer Shep Pettibone argued against including the flamenco breakdown because he disliked “taking a Philly house song and putting ‘La Isla Bonita’ in the middle of it”. Needless to say, he lost.
Madge-ic moment: The completely joyful bridge: “But my love is alive, and I’m never gonna hide it again!”
9‘Express Yourself’ (1989)
It’s a real shame that a song celebrating female agency briefly drove a wedge between Madonna and Lady Gaga, one of the many next-gen pop queens the former inspired. (Madonna called Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ “reductive” because it sounds a bit like ‘Express Yourself’, but thankfully that’s all behind them now). Anyway, ‘Express Yourself’ is a righteous banger on which Madge urges her girls not to settle for “second best” in their relationships. The David Fincher-directed video, which presents Madonna as the mayor of a futuristic city populated by topless male workers, serves high camp with Hollywood production values.
Madge-ic moment: “Satin sheets are very romantic – what happens when you’re not in bed?” Well said, M.
8‘Don’t Tell Me’ (2000)
This song’s surprising blend of country and electronica – countrytronica? – only gets better with age. Then again, ‘Don’t Tell Me’ helped to pave the way for future bangers blending folk and dance elements by artists like Diplo and Avicii, both of whom Madge went on to work with. In 2014, Madonna and Miley Cyrus even performed it as a mash-up with the latter’s ‘We Can’t Stop’. Weirdly, Boris Johnson quoted its poetic lyrics in a 2003 interview with The Guardian, but don’t let that put you off. Sometimes even a prick knows a great tune when he hears one.
Madge-ic moment: “Tell the leaves not to turn / But don’t ever tell me I’ll learn.” Is she saying it’s easier to change nature than her own mind? Probably.
She didn’t write it, but Madonna knows this early single is a stone-cold classic. A few years ago, when she swung by Jimmy Fallon’s chat show just so she could meet Barack Obama, she performed it in a really lovely, stripped-down way. My mum has always claimed that ‘Borderline’ is “actually about reaching orgasm” – an interpretation I didn’t appreciate hearing from her as a teenager. I still think it’s probably a song about getting a wayward partner to commit: “Honey, don’t you fool around.” But hey, this is Madonna, so a sex-positive reading is always valid.
Madge-ic moment: The video, in which Madonna has to decide between two very different love interests. Right from the start, she’s calling the shots.
Over the years, Madonna’s vocals have often been used as a stick to beat her with. And guess what – it’s often been rooted in sexism: plenty of well-respected male artists have avoided similar criticism without ever singing as beautifully as she does here. The lead single from her era-defining ‘Ray Of Light’ album is a stunning electronic ballad on which Madonna urges us, not for the first time, to open our hearts. Co-produced by the great William Orbit, it was cutting-edge pop when it came out, and still sounds tremendous nearly 25 years later.
Madge-ic moment: The way she sings every “mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm” on the chorus. Madonna is a master of melody and once again she proves it here.
5‘La Isla Bonita’ (1986)
Madonna’s deep-rooted relationship with queer culture is well-documented, but she’s also enjoyed a long love affair with all things Latin. “She isn’t just an artist; she’s a movement,” Colombian superstar Maluma said when he duetted with her on 2019’s ‘Medellín’. That song should be filed under “underrated Madonna bops”, but everyone knows that ‘La Isla Bonita’ is straight-up amazing. It’s a shimmering Latin pop gem that’s both effortlessly romantic and ever so slightly melancholy, which is why it’s one of her most streamed songs on Spotify.
Madge-ic moment: Inventing an island called San Pedro in the lyrics. Well, why not?
Always a club kid at heart, Madonna knows a simple lyric can sound profound on the dance floor. That’s definitely true of this song’s iconic refrain: “Music makes the people come together.” Co-produced by French electro musician Mirwais Ahmadzaï, with whom she reunited for 2019’s ‘Madame X’ album, ‘Music’ is a glitzy disco banger infused with Madge’s signature brand of camp abandon. But this being Madonna, it’s also deadly serious at the same time. When she sings “don’t think of yesterday and I don’t look at the clock”, you know she means it.
Madge-ic moment: Probably sneaking the word “bourgeoisie” into a dance-pop song. She’s always had an intellectual streak.
3‘Hung Up’ (2005)
The lead single from ‘Confessions On A Dance Floor’, one of Madonna’s very best albums, is an audacious boss move only she could pull off. Who else would dare to sample ABBA? Who else could persuade Benny and Björn to clear it? Co-produced by Stuart Price, ‘Hung Up’ uses that unmistakable slab from ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ as a building block for a transcendent disco banger about romantic and sexual frustration. The lyrics may seem frothy, but they also contain a very Madonna display of agency: “And I’m done – I’m hanging up on you.
Madge-ic moment: The way she rhymes “waiting” with “hesitating” on the bridge. As fans will know, this is one of M. Ciccone’s favourite lyrical tropes.
Like Madonna herself, ‘Vogue’ isn’t just iconic, but also controversial. Inspired by a dance style that originated in New York’s Ballroom culture scene, it’s a beautifully crafted homage that has long faced accusations of cultural appropriation: the video may be black-and-white, but the issue isn’t. What we do know for certain is that Madonna really did believe in the healing power of clubbing, especially after losing so many friends to AIDS. There’s no doubt, either, that ‘Vogue’ continues to be a byword for dance floor escapism, which is why Beyoncé just sampled it on her ‘Break My Soul’ remix. “What you lookin at?” A pop star in her imperial phase, that’s what.
Madge-ic moment: “I know a place where you can get away – it’s called a dancefloor.” It’s essentially a mantra for her entire career.
1‘Like A Prayer’ (1989)
On one level, ‘Like A Prayer’ claims the top spot because it’s the Madonna song that fills the floor at any wedding disco. (It also fills the floor at any LGBTQ club, but the same could be said of her 2012 EDM banger ‘Girl Gone Wild’). On another level, ‘Like A Prayer’ is number one because it conflates religious devotion with sexual ecstasy in a way that’s incredibly clever, subversive and life-affirming. The astonishing video, in which Madonna kisses a Black saint and dances in front of burning crosses, is a provocative masterpiece. But ‘Like A Prayer’ would be jaw-droppingly brilliant without it.
Most Madonna moment: “I’m down on my knees / I wanna take you there.” Need we say more?
– ‘Finally Enough Love: 50 Number Ones’ is out now via Warner Records