With the release of Lemonade just one week and one billion think pieces ago, Beyoncé infused an already astonishingly robust catalog of music with 12 new masterpieces to shore up her status as this generation’s singular musical icon. (Fight me on this and fear the wrath of the Illuminati. Or, worse, the BeyHive.)
Since 2003, Beyoncé has released six solo albums, peppering her discography with assorted singles that have appeared on movie soundtracks, greatest hits releases, or, sometimes, just the damn Internet for the hell of it. That’s over 175 songs. That translates to more than 700 minutes of brilliance. Nearly 12 consecutive hours of near-perfection. Taking into account infinite re-listens, that’s years of happiness in our ears, all courtesy of Queen B.
And what do you do when you work for the Internet, the industry’s most influential artist drops a flawless new album on you, and Beyoncé has been in your earbuds so long that it’s now actually her vibrato that pumps your heart, and not any cardiovascular biology? You rank those songs, of course.
Am I an expert on Beyoncé? I’m better than that: I’m a goddamn fan. I’m also worse than that: I’m a goddamn fan with an Internet outlet. The Daily Beast is my megaphone, and I am shouting my opinions through it—my opinions on what the 50 best Beyoncé songs are.
(The first 25 come with written justifications. The bottom half you get for free. And the Lemonade songs are currently unavailable to include here. Blame Jay Z.)
The metrics: the quality of the song, the cultural resonance, the significance in Beyoncé’s career, and my rather baseless reasons for liking or disliking it. The list is definitive, both because of my certitude in my picks and because that reads better in a headline.
And so here I am, strapping on my red kitten heels, shaking my hair out, and strutting fiercely into the firing squad. You can’t rank Beyoncé’s songs and not spark a little bit of outrage. Hell, this is Beyoncé. It’s a lot of outrage. What have I done? Oh god.
This piece is my suicide note.
1. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”
Sometimes a song is a metaphorical call to the dance floor. Sometimes it is a literal one. “Single Ladies,” opening with a hypnotizing drum beat and a summoning of “All the single ladies,” is both. The verses are funky and polished, sassy and proud. Her vocals are positively jubilant. The hook: humongous. There are songs that are catchy, and then ubiquitous, and then stale. And then there is “Single Ladies,” a rhythmic earworm that never wears out its welcome, no matter how many weddings make it the “bouquet toss” soundtrack. It’s the rare kind of empowerment anthem—one that demands respect and acknowledgement of worth while being unabashed about the desire to be in love and get married. Guys, it’s the perfect pop song.
The third single from 4 was never the commercial hit it deserved to be. Sampling Boyz II Men’s “Uhh Ahh,” it’s a hodgepodge of genres—funk, hip-hop, a little bit of reggae, a lot of uptempo R&B—while somehow escaping the tonal cacophony that tended to plague Bey’s earlier efforts. Instead, it rides a frantic club beat to a cohesive, purely pop anthem. Zany and frenetic, it was perfectly suited for the age of YouTube, becoming viral video fodder in its own right. “Countdown” is powerful, flirty, and an addicting testament to Bey’s whirlwind ambition.
It’s hard to zoom out and take an objective view on “Formation” when its power, its significance at this zenith of Beyoncé’s career, and, most importantly, its current cultural necessity demands sharp focus. And it’s hard to judge the song “Formation” without calling on the searing commentary from its water cooler atomic boom of a video. But “Formation” is a triumph of an artist owning her roots and her blackness, celebrating her sexual power, inciting political action, and giving unapologetic middle fingers to critics. The video and the song work in tandem to accomplish that. Lyrically, it’s her most quotable song yet—“hot sauce in my bag,” “black Bill Gates in the making,” “I slay”—but it’s not song lyrics we’re quoting; it’s chants of a movement.
4. “Crazy In Love” featuring Jay Z
Those horns. The blaring, the vamping, the fire: they’re a veritable brass hype machine. They crescendo, and they unleash Beyoncé. The rest of the song is a tornado of sound—the staccato sing-along of the “uh oh uh oh uh oh oh no no” is the pop version of a catwalk, leading the way to that sonic maelstrom of a chorus. It’s what pop stars should be, but too rarely are: absolutely thrilling.
The best of Beyoncé’s songs don’t have choruses or refrains as much as they have catchphrases. Mottos even. When she blends melody and message she doesn’t get a song stuck in your head; she gets it lodged in your heart, your spirit, your soul. “To the left, to the left,” “You must not know ’bout me”: they’re lyrics, but they’re also therapy. “Irreplaceable” is the most effective example of the common theme in her work: breakups don’t break you. They can fix you. They can make you better. It’s radio-friendliness, too, is an unshakable example of what Beyoncé does better than anyone: blend a certain pop sunniness and warmth with a steely defiance.
6. “Flawless (Remix)” featuring Nicki Minaj
Beyoncé masters. She polishes. She perfects. She makes things flawless, which is why the brilliance of her “Flawless” remix with Nicki Minaj is its fearless flinging into imperfection. It’s a hip-hop pas de deux of slinking, salivating dominance, with Bey and Minaj celebrating hubris, aggression, femininity, self-awareness, and, despite the title, flaws. Together, they turn all the braggadocio of “Flawless” into something we mere mortals can embrace as a relatable daily affirmation. Naturally, “Flawless” became the soundtrack to the selfie: “I woke up like this.” And Minaj’s carnal, mic drop delivery is the best she’s been since “Monster.” As a whole, it’s a startling hell-raiser, made for us all to dance in the fire.
7. “Ring the Alarm”
Intensity, aggression, and even anger—particularly from the woman scorned—have stalked most of Beyoncé’s career, peaking with Lemonade. Throughout, though, Bey has never played the part of the psychopath, or stumbled into any misogynistic cliché about what it means to be an angry woman or a woman seeking revenge. Instead, and beginning with “Ring the Alarm,” she’s turned these elements—this impassioned rage—into affirmations of your self-worth. From the siren that serves as the song’s entry point, she’s both demanding your attention and firing off a warning: “You ain’t never seen a fire like the one I’mma cause.”
By the time Beyoncé jolted the world awake with its surprise release in December 2013—a time when a surprise release wasn’t yet the most unsurprising thing an artist could do—the singer had perfected the dance track, developed the formula for the crossover radio hit, made the brilliant hip-hop song, made the brilliant pop song, and made the brilliant emotional ballad, each many times over. “XO,” quite unexpectedly, was her foray into the stadium rock anthem. Epic in scale with its quiet verses and booming chorus, its call-and-response refrain was made for the arena. Here, she’s not tugging your heartstrings. She’s not beckoning you to the club. She’s giving you goosebumps. “XO” is a love letter to being in love, delivered as an adrenaline rush. It’s Beyoncé gone U2. And that is, strangely, a much more beautiful thing than it sounds.
9. “Love on Top”
Listen to Beyoncé and you can hear a second coming of Michael Jackson, an artist who owes much of her sound and vocal styling to the likes of Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, and Prince. The pleasure of “Love on Top” is its gleeful embrace of the 1980s vibe from which she was birthed, almost a pop deconstruction of an artist in her modern prime to the pieces that made her who she became. The easy danceability—you could even call it boogieness—of the beat is the aural version of the smile you wear while grooving to it. But everything takes a backseat to the forceful, yet effortless, vocal marathon Bey runs as she climbs her way through four key changes, climaxing with girly, positively joyful whistle notes from an artist singing hosannas of love.
The beauty of “Sorry,” one of a handful of standout Lemonade tracks that could have capped off this Top 10, is the way it interplays between its cheekiness and taking itself so seriously. The drawl with which she shrugs “I ain’t sorry” and her flippant instructions “middle fingers up” give the track’s unapologetic undercurrent a playful overtone. But the heartache in the song’s mix of jealousy, hurt, disappointment, and, ultimately, defiance is no joke. By the time she concludes, with shades of both heartbreak and obstinacy, “He only want me when I’m not here / He better call Becky with the good hair” she’s mastered the balance of confession and performance she’s built her career on. Is the song really about Jay Z cheating on her, and is Becky a real person? Or is she simply dramatizing gossip reports about her marriage in order to make a more universal point about betrayal? She’s not answering. And she ain’t sorry.
Beyoncé is sex. It’s a defining element of her aesthetic, something that she owns, exploits on her own terms, celebrates on her own terms, and, in a bit of empowering confidence, flaunts the hell out of. Beyoncé, however, marked a turning point. The star isn’t just sexy, she’s sexual—and no more so than on “Partition.” It’s chock-full of both wordplay and filth. And not filth in a crass way. In a sex-positive, freeing way. For the first time, she rabble-rouses—“He Monica Lewinsky’d all on my gown” certainly raised eyebrows. But the thrusting pace at which she delivers lyrics like “I sneezed on the beat and the beat sicker” heralds a confident debut as singing ripper, throwing down harder and harder until the song climaxes itself. With “Partition,” it’s clear that Bey’s not performing sexuality anymore. She’s embodying it, living it.
12. “Get Me Bodied”
Perhaps predicting that she would be the ubiquitous presence on workout playlists for the next decade and then some, Beyoncé gifts us her own version of an aerobics class on the B’Day standout “Get Me Bodied.” The beat is perfectly paced to keep your heart rate up, Bey herself serving as your personal trainer, taking the megaphone to deliver—with a bit of manic, yet impressive, vocal gymnastics—your workout instructions. She’s equal parts militaristic and playful, percussively singing over a Swizz Beatz production that will take you from your Lululemons to your Louboutins, with “Get Me Bodied” translating to the club as perfectly as it works in the gym.
13. “End of Time”
“End of Time” is one of those musical sampler platters that Bey loves to serve up—here’s a little funk, a little jazz, and, whoa, even some EDM?—that works more because of how weird and unique it is. The sheer scale of “End of Time” makes it no wonder that it often serves as a major production set piece of her live shows, including her epic Super Bowl halftime performance. She sprints through sing-speak interludes, relishes in the booming brass sections, and smirks her way through lyrics that sweetly pledge eternal devotion. A promise like that warrants the song’s grandness.
Some people prefer Beyoncé’s ballads when she’s rawer, when the emotion seems so guttural and personal you might actually think that someone as poised and polished as Queen B is actually feeling something. “Halo” is not that, and, honestly, probably better for it. It is top to bottom produced. Every swell, every bridge, every pause is used to explicit, specific, calculated effect. It is emotional manipulation at its most egregious, inspiration built on the broadest of platitudes, and drama manufactured with ultimate cheesiness. And it is for these reasons that we devour it. By the time she’s belting to the heavens about how it’s “like I’ve been awakened,” you are too. The song is its own well-tuned, ever-reliable spiritual alarm clock.
15. “Hold Up”
It’s so smart to sample the “they don’t love you like I love you” line from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps.” Never has a lyric and melody collided so effectively to take permanent residence in your head. And rarely is a lyric and melody so irresistible that once it does you’re not even mad about it. So when Bey samples it here, it’s the candy fueling the sugar high. The reggae-meets-bubblegum-pop elements of the song make you almost delirious—so slyly so that the brilliant furor of the lyrics almost escapes your mind. “I don’t wanna lose my pride, but I’mma fuck me up a bitch,” she sings, providing a carefree hymn for a relationship ritual: the gleeful and unabashed post-breakup rage spiral. The kind you have to go down in order to ever come up again.
16. “Baby Boy” featuring Sean Paul
It should be no surprise that “Baby Boy” was such a smash. Sean Paul was at the prime of his relevance—a word that once was sincerely associated with Sean Paul—when he teamed up with Bey to create this fire torch of a dancehall jam. This is where Beyoncé first experiments with the push and pull between the breathier shades of her voice and the ferociousness with which she can devour a song. It mirrors the slow grind/hip-shake demands of the aerobic Latin- and reggae-tinged production, all exuberantly dripping with shameless summer fun.
17. “Drunk in Love” featuring Jay Z
“I’ve been drinking, I’ve been drinking…” There’s a grittiness to “Drunk in Love” that makes its blush-inducing sexuality all the more appealing, a seediness to the interplay to Bey and Jay Z that makes listening to the song voyeuristic performance art. Bookend this collaboration with “Crazy in Love” and see a rare journey of artistic maturity, womanhood, and sexuality. The superficial focus might be on the raunch of it all, but not enough credit goes to Bey for the bold and odd vocal embellishments she gives it—some bedroom tricks, maybe—eventually wailing that “loooooove” all over that chorus.
18. “Déjà Vu”
While not quite yet willing to submit to the imperfections and experimentation that highlight her eventual work on Beyoncé and Lemonade, “Déjà Vu” sees Bey graduating from the decorum of Dangerously In Love and succumbing to some of her more feral vocal instincts. The preternatural confidence Beyoncé had this early in her career often led to the presumption that smoke and mirrors were masking any shortcomings in her talent. But how strongly “Déjà Vu” holds up against some of the more inventive tracks she’s produced in the decade since is a testament to the grasp she had not only of her skills, but of her star power, even then.
19. “Upgrade U” featuring Jay Z
For all the talk of Beyoncé’s studied perfection—and we’ve nearly exhausted all talk of it here—not enough credit is given to her eccentricity. So many of the songs she released at the height of her chart-topping days (in her later albums, Beyoncé’s rocked an admirable DGAF attitude about radio-friendliness) were remarkably weird for a pop star to be singing. “Upgrade U,” with all its girl-power swagger, could easily have been a deep cut from a Destiny’s Child album. But delivered with the singular pizzazz of this solo star, Beyoncé—duh—upgrades it.
20. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” featuring Jack White
Rare is the song that doubles as a holy shit moment. Rare is the celebrity that breaks the Internet with her work rather than her antics. In that context, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is a masterpiece. On its own, it’s just damn good. You’re taken aback by the passion—a vocal inferno—Bey blazes through the song as she takes her place alongside the great R&B females before her who doubled as superb rock vocalists. The way she growls the last line—“If you try this shit again / You gon’ lose your wife”—again titillates with art-imitating-life parallels to rumors of Jay Z’s cheating. But here’s a case where the art is more interesting than the life.
21. “Why Don’t You Love Me?”
There’s something so vivacious about “Why Don’t You Love Me,” the way that its retro disco beat breathes campy life into it, that makes its desperation all the more biting. Beyoncé trades a typical tough-as-nails confidence for a heartwrenching, pleading vocal performance—easily one of the most interesting and most emotional ones she’s given. Booming with emotion from the production to the vocals, there’s something about “Why Don’t You Love Me?” that instantly accelerates your heart, leaving you exhausted by its last note.
22. “Check On It” featuring Bun B and Slim Thug
One of the first solo singles Beyoncé released is also one of her most ambitious. It plays with pace, mood, and expectations, but comes together with one of her most spectacularly-crafted catchy choruses. Everything else about it, though, is remarkably unconventional, in hindsight making it an appropriate introduction for the career that would follow.
There’s not much substance to “7/11.” Dance instruction spat out plainly by our dance master gives way to a kind of intoxicating, drunken chorus that excuses the delirious sing-along delivery of the song’s big moment: “GURL I WANT TO KICK IT WITH YA.” There are times when Beyoncé excels at infusing her club bangers with emotions—empowerment, love, sex—but “7/11” is refreshing for its utter simplicity. Just dance, dammit.
This song is all about swagger. It’s the kind of swagger we maybe didn’t think Beyoncé could deliver. It’s the kind of swagger, it turns out, she excels at. The song itself thumps along almost tunelessly, leaving its diva exposed. The only thing that can sell it is her attitude, and that ends up being the song’s biggest endorsement.
Does “Sandcastles” stand alone, or at least pack as much of an emotional wallop, when its not grieved through as part of the Lemonade experience, where it’s a ballad of catharsis, forgiveness, and healing punctuating an entire album of relationship-reckoning? It’s too soon after the tidal wave of Lemonade’s release to separate the track’s impact from that emotional journey. Nonetheless, “Sandcastles” is proof that when Beyoncé is stripped of the trappings of her production, she’s perhaps more powerful than ever. The piano chords can’t disguise the woundedness in her voice, nor do we want them to. When the song crescendos and the notes get stuck in her throat, lumps are lodged in our own.
26. “I Was Here” (listen)
28. “Blow” (listen)
29. “Naughty Girl” (listen)
30. “Sweet Dreams”
31. “Freakum Dress” (listen)
32. “Grown Woman”
33. “Run the World (Girls)”
35. “Daddy’s Lessons”
36. “Listen” (listen)
37. “6 Inch”
38. “Telephone” (watch)
39. “Work It Out”
41. “Video Phone” (listen)
44. “Best Thing I Never Had” (listen)
45. “I Care”
47. “Haunted” (listen)
48. “All Night”
49. “Standing on the Sun” (listen)
50. “If I Were a Boy” (listen)