Pop Life

Madonna's Top 10 Tracks of the 21st Century

Mention Madonna these days, and folks still tend to envision dark roots, conical bras and maybe a rosary necklace or two. Hey, at least they aren’t remembering “Swept Away.” But Madonna always shuddered at the thought of becoming a nostalgia act. Over the past 15 years, she’s released five albums and 24 singles, and although none has achieved the cultural saturation of her MTV-era best, some of this stuff is pretty goddamned good. If you’ve got tickets for her concert at Toyota Center on Tuesday night, you’re going to want to know a bunch of it, too, because Ms. M dips only sparingly into her ‘80s and ‘90s back catalogue on tour. The rearview mirror has never really been her style.

But here at Rocks Off, pausing for musical reflection is kind of what we do, and it’s fair to say we’re geeked about Madonna’s return to Houston. That’s why we’ve been binging through the pop goddess’ 21st Century back catalogue for the past month, grooving in traffic during rush hour and memorizing lyrics just in case she decides to yank somebody in the crowd onstage Tuesday, Kendrick Lamar-style. In case you’re in a similar mood to get acquainted with Madonna’s best post-Music highlights, we’ve put together a handy list of her top ten tracks since Clinton left office. And because this is Madonna, we’ve included a shitload of music videos to go with ‘em.

We know you like to dance, because you already clicked on this story. So close the blinds, fire up that Bluetooth speaker you got for Christmas and fuck that rug up. We’ll see you on Tuesday.

10. "Nobody Knows Me," 2003
One might expect the auto-tune on her vocals to date the track a bit, but it serves rather nicely to illustrate the song’s exploration of the alienating malleability-by-design of Madonna’s sound and image over the years. When you’ve lived as many lives as Madonna has, from wannabe street urchin to yoga mom to folktronica futurist, it must be easy to feel misunderstood. All things considered, this forgotten bit from one of Madonna’s least-loved albums still sounds cutting-edge more than 12 years after it was recorded.

9. "Let it Will Be," 2005
Confessions on a Dance Floor was easily Madonna’s best-received album of the Aughties, spawning four disco-inflected singles between 2005-06. “Let it Will Be” wasn’t one of them, but it should have been. The breezy little number blends strings with synthetic drums and sizzling hi-hats to create a sumptuous, toe-tapping platform for Mistress M’s girlish vocals to rest upon. Hard to say what it’s about, exactly—generalized sentiments about belonging and excellence abound. For Madonna, that means fame and success, always. For the rest of us, it can mean dancing all night in the club wearing the tiniest of shorts or really nailing the sear on those pork chops yesterday evening. Whatever triumph comes to mind, just let it be.

8. "Beat Goes On," 2008
Madonna has dipped her toes into hip-hop and R&B a couple of times over the years, and not always with the best results. “Human Nature” sounded a bit too much like a TLC leftover, and the less said about the rap on “American Life,” the better. Blechh. Things went much better on this song from Hard Candy—largely thanks to the involvement of Pharrell. Here, he deftly (ahem) blurred lines between disco, R&B and electronica to create something terrific seven years before Daft Punk got lucky. Kanye West drops by to deliver the finest rap ever to make I onto a Madonna record, as well.

7. "Turn Up the Radio," 2012

Since we’ve discussed Madonna’s troubling history with hip-hop, let’s talk about “Give Me All Your Luvin’” for a second. I’m not sure who’s idea it was to make that song, which features raps from Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., the lead single from MDNA. But it did the album no favors. Possibly the weakest track on the disc, it put a ceiling on MDNA’s success right out of the gate. A much better choice would have been “Turn Up the Radio,” which was similarly co-produced by Martin Solveig. It’s a much nicer, more danceable appropriation of French house by the singer, without a hint of the silly drumline crap and ill-advised rapping of “Give Me All Your Luvin’.”

6. "Living for Love," 2015
Thankfully, Madonna didn’t repeat her lead-single mistake with Rebel Heart. “Living for Love” is a properly epic introduction to her latest record, sprinkling in bits of her late-‘80s sound—gospel choir, electric piano—with modern, mellow house production from Diplo. It’s a breakup song, which usually means pain and sadness from Madonna. This time out, though, the breakup is a breakthrough, joyously reaffirming the righteousness of her never-ending search for perfect love. The track also delivers her best music video forever, casting the Queen as a man-handling bullfighter. One guess who the last woman standing is.

5. "Get Together," 2006

Madonna’s moodiest dance tracks are often some of her best, and “Get Together” follows nicely in the tradition of “Nothing Really Matters” and “What it Feels Like for a Girl.” The tune samples heavily from Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You,” though Madonna’s vocals sound far prettier and more empathetic than their version. The repetitive melody floats along pleasantly on co-producer Stuart Price’s washy synth lines, but it’s that turntable-tested rhythm-section groove that makes this song one of Confessions on a Dance Floor’s most unskippable tracks. Other fans agreed: It was released as the album’s third single after it became one of the disc’s hottest sellers on iTunes. In 2007, it was nominated for a Best Dance Recording Grammy, but lost out to “SexyBack.”

4. "I’m a Sinner," 2012
One of the standout tracks from MDNA finds Madonna going back to the well of some of her biggest successes. “I’m a Sinner” is co-written and produced by William Orbit, the architect of her fantastic Ray of Light record, and the lyrics hop right into Ms. Ciccone’s Catholic comfort zone. As she’s told us repeatedly, Madonna fully intends to be saved—just not anytime soon. It’s feels kind of funny to dance to a litany of shout-outs to Saint Sebastian and the like, but singing along to that terrific chorus of “I’m a sinner, I like it that way!” is awfully freeing. On her MDNA tour, the song also gave Madonna a chance to pick up a guitar and strum a few chords—something she’s been increasingly more comfortable with doing since her first collaborations with Orbit.

3. "4 Minutes," 2008
Madonna’s superstar collaborations since the turn of the century haven’t all been the surefire winners some record exec probably assumed they’d be. We’ve already covered how “Give Me All Your Luvin’” didn’t work, and “Me Against the Music,” her song with onetime heir apparent Britney Spears, was quickly and mercifully forgotten, as well. But she knocked it out of the park with Justin Timberlake on “4 Minutes” in 2008. Featuring beats and vocals from Timbaland, TImberlake’s “SexyBack” co-creator, “4 Mintues” was completely covered in the Miami producer’s fingerprints: filled with busy drums, bold horns and bizarre tics. Madonna is never overpowered, but she’s more than equaled in vocal charisma and star-power by JT, who was riding a potent hot streak with Timbaland at the time of its recording.

2. "What it Feels Like For a Girl," 2001

This one feels almost like cheating, since “What it Feels Like for a Girl” first popped up on Madonna’s 2000 album Music. But since the single and music video didn’t appear until the following year, we’re giving it a pass—It was too hard to keep off this list. Co-written with British composer Guy Sigsworth, Madonna’s first single of the 21st Century captures one of the realest and most mature vocal performances of her career as she gently explores the double standard faced by ambitious women. “What it Feels Like” offers up a tidal procession of dreamy keyboards over a clipped R&B beat, resulting in one of her trancy-est tunes. It proved ripe for remixing, too, with Paul Oakenfold taking a notable crack at it. Trance trio Above and Beyond created another version of the song for its music video, a controversial rampage flick starring Madonna and directed by her then-husband, Guy Ritchie.

1. "Hung Up," 2005
Nothing that Madonna has produced since 2001—and not much of what came before—can quite match the earworm status of “Hung Up.” It’s the jewel of Confessions on a Dance Floor—a near perfect synthesis of the classic disco dance beats and space-pop futurism that defines the record. Madonna reportedly had to beg ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus to sample their song “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” but she got her way, and it really, really works. Producer Stuart Price was asked to deliver ABBA on drugs, and that’s exactly what he did, twisting the sample's fidelity to create deep electronic washes. The song was a smash in gay and straight dance clubs the world over, and actually earned a place in the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records for topping the charts in the most countries—41. “Hung Up” sold over 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling singles of all time. 

On Tuesday, Madonna plays Toyota Center; 1510 Polk. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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Nathan Smith
Contact: Nathan Smith