Arguably the greatest single artist of the '80s, pop superstar Madonna released a number of enduring singles during her peak period of activity. These tunes weaved their way into the fabric of all pop music listeners and helped turn the singer into an incomparable legend within her own time. And even though much of her success was derived from image, the best Madonna songs of the '80s achieved a very high level of pop songcraft. In chronological order, here are 10 of her best.
Athough many people fondly and understandably remember "Holiday" and "Lucky Star" from Madonna's eponymous 1983 debut, this is her first single that truly introduced the potent pop hooks that would accompany the singer's best work as the decade wore on. Where the former songs relied heavily upon repetition and somewhat similar dance beats, "Borderline" unveiled Madonna's emerging pop sensibility. This is where it really began for Madonna the artist, as she had by now maneuvered her style firmly in place.
For her breakthrough album of the same name, Madonna enlisted the help of professional songwriters to supplement her growing artistry, with mixed results. However, the title track was a piece of pop magic even as it entered the world. When Madonna got her hands on it, it turned into something even bigger, an iconic statement that created the first wave of the singer's ever-changing persona. The song itself gallops along with an infectious rhythm, supported vocally as only Madonna could.
"Material Girl" revealed Madonna's deepening understanding of her own star power and represented one of her earliest and most confident forays into the video age. The song itself is glossy and perhaps slightly mechanical, but its power lies in its ability to capture a star rising to her peak who is fully aware of her capacity to entertain and mesmerize the audience. This song's title didn't turn into a moniker for the singer for nothing; Madonna simply kept finding new ways to explode.
This song stands perhaps as Madonna's best early dance hit, the product of an infectious rhythm supported far beyond ably by some of the finest melodic and vocal work of her career. A great verse, chorus and bridge cannot always be found in dance music, but that's what made Madonna's talent so incendiary, the fact that she put dance and pop styles together in ways that most artists in either genre had never been capable before.
Here is another glorious wedding of great dance beats and an irresistible melodic approach. Lyrically and thematically, Madonna continues in a style-centered direction, getting all she can out of the title metaphor and somehow making it all work. At the core, a sexy cleverness prevails that utterly distinguished Madonna from her female singer competition in the '80s or any decade.
This soundtrack-only single from the rather underwhelming film Vision Quest stands as Madonna's first great ballad, and it holds up well today as a lovely melody and performance. By this juncture in her career, Madonna had become a solid and versatile pop singer, and this tune was the perfect opportunity for her to show off those pipes while toning down the focus on fashion that had so dominated her earlier work.
The quality and maturity of Madonna's material continued to increase as she reached the latter half of the '80s, especially when it comes to this watermark single. For the first time in her career, Madonna tackled a serious subject - teen pregnancy - with aplomb and a unique narrative perspective. In doing so, she doesn't neglect the polished hooks that had already become her trademark, and with the aid of a Danny Aiello cameo in the song's video she delivered a total package pop single.
Having succeeded so swimmingly with her previous forays into movie soundtracks and following her recent ballad success, it's little wonder that Madonna returned to familiar territory for this tune. However, rather than standing pat with a previously successful formula, she relied instead on a solid melody and a haunting arrangement to create an entirely new impression with this single. Rather than decline as so many artists did, Madonna's songwriting and singing continued a steady rise.
For this somewhat overlooked gem from the otherwise forgettable Who's That Girl soundtrack, Madonna returned with a primo dance-pop tune that skillfully recalled her earlier years while emphasizing her improvements as a musician in the ensuing years. When the verse kicks off with the line, "You met your match when you met me," the listener is struck with an explosive melody and an even more transcendent display of vocals from a performer who really never seemed to falter in the '80s.
10. "Like a Prayer"
Aside from the much-publicized controversy over her video for this song, Madonna was simply never more buoyant and inspiring than on this exemplary tune, which I feel is probably one of her last truly great songs. This is a great performance, perfectly produced and arranged, that would work within any era or genre. Anyone still wondering if Madonna was truly an important '80s artist need look no further than here for confirmation.