How is it possible to choose the best Beyonce song? She is an artist with a discography so vast, so influential, so disparate, that it’s possible for nearly everybody on the planet to have their own favored version of their own cherished track. As a performer, her ability to morph and combine songs from all across her catalogue has birthed new renditions over the years, and across six solo albums, prior material with Destiny’s Child, and a collaborative album with her rapper husband Jay-Z as The Carters, the sheer magnitude of music she’s created makes it very challenging to narrow down to song selections.
For the sake of this list, then, of say, her 30 best songs — though at least 30 more remain on the debating room floor, equally deserving of a place here, depending on the argument — the scope includes only Beyonce solo tracks. Nothing from the Destiny’s Child discography, The Carters’ album, or her guests on other people’s songs will be included here.
And though her later work on her self-titled album Beyonce and the visual album Lemonade have had a monumental impact on pop culture in recent years, this list is careful to balance contemporary feelings about those records with the way her early music hit when it was released, and how it has managed to hold up over the last two decades. Which is to say if any intentional scale-tipping has been taken place, it’s to err away from overrating those records simply because they are more recent. It’s to take a look at Beyonce songs across the last seventeen years, and attempt to rank them in order of importance, acclaim, and relevance. On the eve of her next chapter, Black Is King, here is one attempt, from one moment in time.
30. “Best Thing I Never Had”
Most of us have been dumped at some point in our lives, but it takes a whole new level of maturity to get to the place where the dumpee can see it as a blessing. Enter Beyonce, queen of showing every woman, man and child their self-worth — but especially women — letting her ex know that she has absolutely no regrets about how things played out. The clever title is a play on words that will come up again and again with Bey, who is much more lyric savvy than she gets credit for, and the triumphant, piano-ballad feel sets this apart from bitter revenge anthems with a sweet twist. “I’m the one that’s got away,” she asserts, “It sucks to be you right now.” Obviously, all of Beyonce’s ex-boyfriends feel that way every single day.
I love a hidden track as much as the next girl, so the inclusion of “Yonce” as the second half of “Partition” always made these dichotomous tracks feel all the more resonant. Kicking off the first half by telling the crowd to call her by her married name, she pivots after about two minutes into the track to narrate an even more intimate relationship between her and her partner — but from a very different perspective. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition of what it means to be a wife, a superstar, and a sexual being all at once.
28. “Freakum Dress”
Young Beyonce seems like exactly the kind of girl I’d want to go to the club with. She’s not interested in actually cheating on her man, but loves using the dance floor and the attention of other men to showcase just how stupid he would be not to get his act together. Not only does she offer plenty of feminist and political anthems, but she’s also never afraid to embrace femininity in order to gain the upper hand in a romantic relationship, either. And yes, most of us have that one item of clothing that makes us feel indestructible. It’s nice to have a song in ode to that.
Come on, who else on the planet has a chance in hell of getting Serena Williams to star in one of their music videos? The video is iconic, but so is the total go-to-hell vibe of this whole song. The phrase “song cycle” is frequently used to describe albums, but it suits a collection of tracks like Lemonade that literally do cycle through every stage of reacting to infidelity in a relationship. Beyonce manages to graduate to gracefulness and forgiveness, the rest of us petty b*tches can lurk back at the “Sorry” phase of “boy, bye” with middle fingers up.
26. “I Care”
Heartbreak anthems come and go, but nobody can weave anger into their sadness like Beyonce. Instead of the usual lies that loneliness and recently single people tell themselves, feigning apathy or immediately moving on, Bey isn’t afraid to be honest. “I Care” is cathartic in a different way, letting every moment of how painful dissolution can be ring true. And once you hear the power of admitting just how much you care, it’s hard to shy away from it, even if the end of the relationship is inevitable.
Album: I Am… Sasha Fierce
“A diva is a female version of a hustler.” That line is so cinematic, I wish the real Sasha Fierce would play it out across two and a half hours of dance scenes and couture outfits. Or, maybe it was a rebuttal to Jay-Z’s incessant conversation about his early hustling days. One of the best things about this song is it’s basically hip-hop, as Beyonce raps all over the beat long before she was spitting bars on the leaked, pitch-shifted demo “I Been On.”
24. “Get Me Bodied”
Another early classic from the Beyonce discography, “Get Me Bodied” showcases Swizz Beatz at his best — and this song was also a co-write with Beyonce’s sister Solange. Sonically, Bey would build on this song for “Single Ladies” but it also shares DNA with the unstoppable party attitude of “Party” and the feeling-myself energy of “Freakum Dress.” The version of the song we’re all most familiar with is dubbed “extended mix” and comes in at a whopping six minutes, yet every moment feels essential.
23. “Daddy Lessons” Feat. Dixie Chicks
Remember when the Dixie Chicks stood up for what they believed in politically, and had their whole career torched? Well, Beyonce remembers. And as a bit of karmic grace, she recently appeared with newly-christened The Chicks at one of their first public performances in a long time, adding them to a country-infused track off Lemonade. “Daddy Lessons” was good on its own, but with the additional harmonies from The Chicks, and the fact that Beyonce went and performed it at the Country Music Awards for a pretty notoriously conservative, white audience, it rose in the ranks as one of her finest and most subversive moments.
22. “Déjà Vu”
On an album that had a total of three Jay-Z features and not a single appearance from any other rappers, “Déjà Vu” still managed to be one of the best collaborations the pair ever did. Or maybe these earlier collaborative works feel more impactful because they came before we knew the whole saga and dynasty that these two would build together? Nah, it’s definitely the impeccable brass, funk, and Darkchild production. Sort of a sister song to “Crazy In Love,” this cut didn’t have near the critical and commercial acclaim, but it’s definitely still notable.
21. “Freedom” Feat. Kendrick Lamar
It’s easy to see that Beyonce likes to challenge herself by constantly selecting new styles and collaborators, trying to create music she hasn’t done in the past. “Freedom” is the perfect example of that, as she enlists the current greatest rapper alive, Kendrick Lamar, to bring another politically-charged angle to Lemonade. It might not be in the top 20 songs she’s ever done, but it definitely deserves honorable mention in the next ten, partially just because it’s such an anthem, and partially because “a winner don’t quit on themselves” is a historic affirmation.
20. “Ring The Alarm”
There are a lot of arguments to be made as to why you should stick with your two-timing dude, but not wanting the girl he’s cheating on you with to get access to a luxury lifestyle has to take the cake. Then again, in the era of a divorce rate that’s close to 50%, who has a better perspective on the nitty-gritty of how these things actually play out than the Beyonce generation? The real, intense anger that she imbues her voice with on this track is spectacular, necessary catharsis. “Ring The Alarm” walked so Lemonade could run.
19. “Pretty Hurts”
A pop song written by Sia for Katy Perry, that was later put on hold by Rihanna’s manager, and finally snatched up by Beyonce, “Pretty Hurts” isn’t a perfect ballad by any means, but it’s definitely one of the most interesting ones of the last few decades. It’s not that women haven’t quietly revealed just how much pain and suffering they go through for the subjective, sickening, patriarchal standards of beauty that have dominated a woman’s place in society for eternity, it’s just that no one has done it with quite the dramatics that Beyonce possesses. It’s an instant classic, and something that Bey’s younger and more impressionable female fans in particular, will always need to hear.
18. “Dangerously In Love”
Album: Dangerously In Love
If a new project from Beyonce is hotly anticipated these days, it’s hard to imagine how eager critics and fans were to hear her first solo album ever back in 2003. As the title track for her first-ever album, this song stands as an example of where she started, and how much she already had going for her. Even though it’s a relatively downtempo track, she still manages to find pockets of drama and flair. Not quite a wedding love song (unless?), but definitely a fascinating representation of what R&B music sounded like in the early 2000s, and how clearly some of her earliest music holds up.
Lots of people I respect and admire consider this to be Beyonce’s best song! I see the argument. It’s an extremely clever, musically complex tune, and in any other artist’s discography it probably would be top five. And as far as the lyrical trope of using a countdown, this is probably the best time that device has been invoked. Somehow, all the bombast, horns, and lyrical trills come together in a song that doesn’t feel overdone.
16.“Drunk In Love”
Beyonce has already been “Dangerously In Love,” and last time we checked she and Jay-Z were “Crazy In Love,” so “Drunk In Love” gives their status a lighthearted, heady update. Like a lot of songs on her self-titled album, this one is strangely personal, discussing waking up drunk in the kitchen and getting extremely horny when drunk and partying. This is such a far cry from the more buttoned-up and formal version of Beyonce we got at the beginning of her career — aka “Dangerously In Love” era — that it’s fun to watch the progress. As she gets older, she loosens up and settles in. Finally, let’s give a shout to the way this song transformed the word “surfboard” forever.
Album: I Am… Sasha Fierce
Wedding song alert! “Halo” is half-reference to faith-based traditions, half over-the-top praise of a partner who is so committed and wonderful that they register as angelic. It doesn’t hurt as a call-in to all her religious fans, that’s for sure. And yet, it’s not so overtly Christian that it alienates anyone chilling in the secular realm. The call and response of the chorus is a technique shes uses elsewhere to great effect later in her career, and for some reason this song always makes my eyes water a little. Total coincidence, not tears at all.
14. “Hold Up”
Although the iconic Lemonade drop definitely worked best as one cohesive film, and individual songs didn’t feel as strong when broken out into tracks, “Hold Up” was one of the standouts from the record. In the video, Bey swings a baseball bat at a car or two, walking through a dystopian town clad in yellow like an avenging angel of infidelity. For those who love the indie music world, this song not only interpolates a lyric from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs beloved song “Maps” — “they don’t love you like I love you” — but was also co-written by Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend) and Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty.
13. “Upgrade U”
This might be my favorite Beyonce song, period. Even if you disagree, this is definitely the Jay-Z collab that best sums up their relationship. Jay thinking he doesn’t need help from anybody at all, Beyonce carefully going through each aspect she plans to improve in his life without an ounce of derision. It’s a laundry list of a partnership that makes both parties better, but with allusions to Martin Luther King Jr. and the iconic line “ran by the man but the women keep the tempo,” Bey includes plenty of sly references to the unsung power women have always held, even when it was behind-the-scenes. The other great irony of the Beyonce/Jay-Z partnership is how she has completely eclipsed him in the latter half of their careers. At least she upgraded him early on so he can keep up with her now.
12. “If I Were A Boy”
Album: I Am… Sasha Fierce
Another absolutely iconic music video, “If I Were A Boy” dives into the way society and the overwhelming forces of the patriarchy so often result in men carrying on all sorts of emotional and short term affairs without any consequences. But watching it from the flip side, Beyonce doing all the flirting and line-crossing while her good-loving man looks up jewelry for her and sits alone at the table with breakfast he made, is downright fascinating. Nobody is advocating for either gender to be treated that way by a partner, but her gender-flip is a pretty powerful one — especially for 2008 when this song came out. Also, Beyonce portraying her selfish, unfaithful player as a cop? Chef’s kiss.
There are songs about young love, toxic love, and plenty of songs about love gone wrong, but Beyonce also manages to specialize in songs about “marriage love” — long-term, worts and all, in it to win longevity anthems. That’s exactly what “1+1” is, and it has been a staple on plenty of grown and sexy playlists for close to a decade now without losing an ounce of its charm, or commitment. If there’s anyone who can make being with one person for the rest of your life sound sexy, it’s Beyonce.
Though the overall tone for Beyonce’s self-titled album was relatively dark and gothic, “XO” stands out as one of the brightest and most carefree songs on the record. She uses the motif of space travel to convey her feelings this time, even including a sample from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, an aircraft that infamously crashed right after its launch. Though Beyonce later clarified the song was meant to bring to the families of those who lost loved ones, it received criticism for inclusion of the audio footage. But, divorced from that bit of pop culture ephemera, “XO” will continue to shine as another standout in Bey’s pantheon of love songs. And the call and response of the chorus is a great tie back to her earlier classic love song, “Halo.”
9. “Run The World (Girls)”
Beyonce had slowly but surely become an icon for female empowerment, particularly for Black women and women of color, but “Run The World” took the cause to a whole new level. Built upon a sample of “Pon de Floor” by Major Lazer, the song’s unstoppable feel and the tongue-in-cheek slang refrain “who run this mother?” gave it a more intense feel than a lot of her other more sensual work. “Run The World” was the lead single off Beyonce’s celebrated album 4, but didn’t perform as well on the charts as some of her other singles, peaking at No. 29. Retrospectively, it seems like a clue that as her music got more interesting, definitive, and politically-minded, that commercial performance might dip a little, but her core fans would become more engaged than ever.
8. “Crazy In Love”
Album: Dangerously In Love
The whole “name a better duo, I’ll wait” meme might as well have originated with Beyonce and Jay-Z. All throughout both of their careers, the two have collaborated many, many times on songs, and pretty much every time it’s resulted in a better song than either of them would have made alone. As one of the earliest and most public of their duets, “Crazy In Love” dropped multiple hints that the two were together, as their relationship still wasn’t public back then, became a No. 1 hit and won an R&B Grammy. Not too shabby, no wonder they kept repeating the formula for the next seventeen years.
7. “Party” Feat. Andre 3000
In her early career, Beyonce had a good working relationship with Kanye, as he was often closely collaborating with her husband, Jay-Z. This song has a lot of the carefree, lighthearted vibes that made early Kanye productions so beloved, and even the way it samples Doug E. Fresh’s 1985 song “La Di Da Di” has Ye’s fingerprints all over it — and then there’s the 808-beat. But the real cherry on top here? Andre 3000’s absolutely iconic verse, as he’s still such a rarity as a guest, particularly on a pop-oriented song. Not only is this song great to play at parties, it’s great to listen to when you’re home, alone, in need of a pick-me-up. Just try not to smile at the rapid-fire puns 3-Stack comes up with. Along with “Love On Top,” this track ranks up there as one of the best Beyonce songs to play at a wedding.
6. “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)”
Album: I Am… Sasha Fierce
The music video that sparked a million parody clips, like a good number of songs on this list the accompanying choreography for “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” was almost more popular than the song itself. In a world where divorce rates are at an all-time high, and cohabitating or long-term relationships without traditional commitment are much more common, this song still resonated with plenty of women hoping for that final step in their courtship. Another satisfying kiss-off with a mesmerizing video to boot, it’s also important to note that this video is the reason Kanye and Taylor’s feud began (!) No doubt the VMAs are about as full of regret about not selecting this video as the guy in the song is about losing his girl.
5. “Me Myself & I”
Album: Dangerously In Love
No one does jilted like Beyonce, as the number one song on this list so clearly illustrates, and though there is a time for stewing, a time for tears, and a time for busting out freakum dresses, this song is a tried and true reminder to ground down into yourself. Plenty of songs in her canon are soothing in their own ways, but this one in particular is a very healing balm. Additional note: When you hear a woman blasting this song, it’s best to leave her the f*ck alone.
Sometimes it seems like Beyonce just wants to reiterate that she can make every kind of music, any genre of song. The gritty, venomous “Flawless” video brings that point home, even as the lyrics hone in on feminism more directly than anything else in Bey’s catalogue. Channeling a lecture from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mid-song, “Flawless” turns a self-empowerment anthem into a broader text that, again, ventures into the political realm without abandoning pop song elasticity. There are confidence-boosting songs, and then there’s “Flawless,” the best feminine hype up track to date. And it would be remiss not to mention how she once again turned a simple phrase — “I woke up like this” — into a battle cry.
Plenty of people will argue this is Beyonce’s best song, and it certainly had the best and most effective drop of any single she’s ever released. After surprise-releasing her self-titled album a few years earlier, Bey used the same format for her visual album Lemonade, dropping this single first before the rest of the album. Clearly the standout track off the record, it was the political nature of the lyrics that really set it apart from a lot of Beyonce’s other work, and what has made it strike such a chord with critics over the last few years, as pop music is increasingly called to tackle the political realm.
Sonically, it’s a powerful conglomeration of influences like Big Freedia and New Orleans bounce, with essential elements from Mike Will Made It and Rae Sremmurd, but the lyrics and the swag are all Beyonce herself. It felt like a very intimate look inside the mind of a singer who, at that point, had largely stopped giving interviews or letting her private life be known to the public outside of a carefully curated Instagram (or leaked footage of an elevator fight).
While it might not be her best ever, “Formation” is an incredible song, made perfect by the accompanying music video directed by Melina Matsoukas. The visual reimagines Southern history in a way that’s both subversive and inclusive, giving plenty of shine to her self-proclaimed “country” roots, addressing the Black Lives Matter protests that arose after Ferguson, and the way the federal government poorly handled administering aid to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It’s an unparalleled political statement, tackles a number of disparate subjects, and draws them all together into a cohesive pop culture moment. The big shout out to hot sauce in purses doesn’t hurt, either.
2. “Love On Top”
The quintessential wedding, anniversary, and relationship celebration song, “Love On Top” is probably best understood as Beyonce’s tribute to Michael Jackson. This is never more apparent than in the song’s simple, hammy video, where her dance moves and facial expressions are cruise ship-ready, yes, but also seem to be a nod to the Jackson 5 era. Later lyrical allusions let us know she’s a fan (“Formation”) and keep in mind, this was all before the accusations of child abuse were highlighted via the Leaving Neverland doc and changed how his career is viewed.
Back to the music — entire music theory blog posts have been written about the song’s quick, sure-footed modulations, and the fact that Bey spans through five keys through the course of the song is more than just impressive, it’s outstanding. From a music theory standpoint, this is definitely one of Beyonce’s most excellent tracks, and the fact that a mainstream pop star is bringing this kind of heat adds another dimension to the many realms Bey can claim dominion over.
Despite everything she’s been through in her romantic relationship, as of our current moment Beyonce and Jay-Z remain intact, so even though it’s back-dated, this song also functions as a celebration of her own relationship. Happy endings don’t necessarily have to be boring, they’re just more simple and straightforward, and another excellent thing about this song is the lyrics are totally gender-neutral, making it an inclusive love song suitable to celebrate any style or level of relationship. It is, simply, a perfect love song.
Just like Beyonce herself, the best song in her catalogue is “Irreplaceable.” I know I’m going to get a lot of blowback on this pick, but stick with me. Though Bey’s place in the music world has shifted considerably in the 2010s due to the impact of her self-titled album, that towering coup de grace, Lemonade, and of course, her historical Coachella performance and accompanying live album and documentary, it’s important to not let our current proximity to those moments eclipse how fantastic her earlier work was, too.
First of all the phrase “to the left” has been plucked from the obscurity of simple direction-giving and turned into a kiss-off for men who can’t get their act together. Even years after the song initially dropped, you can hear cashiers humming it to themselves at the grocery store, teens singing along to it when it comes on in the car, and of course, the Bey Hive using it online to school the less educated on the proper worship of their deity. She’s turned plenty of random phrases into signature moments, but this one is so ubiquitous it’s almost impossible to hear it without falling into a verse or two of the song.
That’s to say nothing of the jilted lovers who can use it as a sort of talisman when in pain, and, who knows the hurt of being cheated on better than Beyonce? Her public airing of the emotional arc she experienced during a period of infidelity in her marriage has helped normalize conversation around that specific betrayal. And while her personal story ended in reconciliation, so many relationships never reach that grand plateau of forgiveness, and it’s the many expressions of pain on this subject she’s recorded over the years that might become her greatest legacy, with “Irreplaceable” as the greatest of them all.
The lyrics to the song are about how easy it is to replace a man, not-so-subtle undercurrent hinting that it’s the woman singing it who is one in a million. There’s the immaculate side-eye she gives in the video, the campy, dramatic filing of her nails, the girl band who joins toward the end of the clip to help keep spirits light. It’s the rare song about a breakup that’s actually about female empowerment, an expression of internal joy and self-confidence instead of mourning what’s lost or missing a man — it hits like a girls’-night-out anthem, not like a breakup song.
Beyonce’s uncanny ability to turn what, for most of us, would be the lowest point in life, into another chance to celebrate her own self is on full display here. This song was a warning shot, a planted flag, and a prophecy. She is, forever, irreplaceable. All other challengers for this top spot can step aside and wait in line where they belong — to the left.