Beyoncé turns 33 today, and we're giving her the greatest gift The Wire can give: a Definitive Ranking of her work. Though we could talk endlessly about her songbook as a whole, or her increasingly great albums, we're going to focus on the cuts that get us dancing in our cars and at the clubs: the singles.
What will it be? "Crazy in Love"? "Single Ladies"? Something else entirely? (Spoiler: It's the latter.) Join us for a deep dive as we celebrate the Queen's birth and life.
Disclaimer: Only singles on which Bey was a lead or featured artist were considered. Destiny's Child songs were left out, because otherwise "Say My Name" would have taken up #1-25. And that wouldn't be fair to the other songs.
Forgotten by History
The songs that haven't left much of an impact in Beyoncé's canon.
48. "Wishing on a Star"
47. "Summertime," f/ P. Diddy
46. "Green Light"
45. "Broken-Hearted Girl"
44. "Me, Myself and I"
43. "I Care"
42. "Fighting Temptation," from The Fighting Temptations, f/ Missy Elliott, MC Lyte, and Free
This is not "Fighting Temptation," but a clip from The Fighting Temptations. It is also one of Beyoncé's greatest line deliveries in anything ever.
Not Quite Hers
The songs that don't really feel like part of her songbook – they too strongly belong to the other artist or artists involved.
41. "I Got That," with Amil
40. "Put It In a Love Song," with Alicia Keys
The brilliant Louis Virtel once noted that Alicia Keys is very serious about her mediocrity. That applies here.
37. "Until the End of Time," with Justin Timberlake
38. "The Closer I Get to You," with Luther Vandross
37. "Say Yes," with Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland
We wished too hard for a Destiny's Child reunion, and this is what we got instead. Poor Michelle.
36. "Lift Off," with Jay Z and Kanye West
35. "Love in This Club (Part II)," with Usher and Lil Wayne
34. "At Last," from Cadillac Records
They're still remembered, but they're not the Queen's best work.
33. "Baby Boy," f/ Sean Paul
We're gonna let Caity Weaver explain why this one ranks as low as it does. Caity?
No matter how mad U R remember that it is not as mad as Beyoncé every time she has 2 perform Baby Boy accompanied by a Sean Paul vocal track— Caity Weaver (@caityweaver) April 15, 2014
32. "Why Don't You Love Me"
31. "Naughty Girl"
30. "End of Time"
This is where I confess I have a weird "End of Time" blind spot, and thus it may be way too low. It's a totally fine, if unremarkable, record. But she performs it a lot (like at her otherwise ***flawless Super Bowl halftime show) over much better songs. I'm glad Beyoncé loves this song so much! I just can't join her in that love.
29. "Work It Out"
28. "Party," f/ J. Cole
Remember when J. Cole was going to be the Next Big Thing? Conspiracy theory: Jay convinced Bey to replace André 3000's spectacular verse on this song with a really mediocre J. Cole one for the single. Why else would the queen sabotage her own hit this way?
27. "Ego," f/ Kanye West
26. "Hollywood," with Jay Z
25. "Deja Vu," f/ Jay Z
24. "Sweet Dreams"
Unfortunately, we're talking about the mid-tempo single here, which is just okay. The slowed-down version above, which Bey exclusively performs live, is near-perfect.
The songs you won't seek out – but they'll quickly get stuck in your head.
23. "Get Me Bodied"
22. "Flawless (Remix)," f/ Nicki Minaj
Can we be truth-tellers for a second? While Nicki brings her A-game to this, and the "Flawless" chorus remains as addictive as ever, as a song, it needs the "Bow Down" intro and the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie bridge to work. Reduce it to just its last verse and add the bizarrely boastful line about the elevator (which Bey repeats, just to make sure we know she's messing with us!), and it's a little messy. This song is more about Beyoncé-as-Legend – the celebrity we love to worship – instead of Beyoncé-as-Artist. Some would say you can't separate the two these days, but this just feels a little too skewed toward the former. It's still a jam, but it's not what it should be.
21. "Video Phone (Remix)," f/ Lady Gaga
19. "Best Thing I Never Had"
18. "Love on Top"
The key changes! The key changes! They just don't stop! And of course, we'll always remember this as the song she sang when she revealed her pregnancy. Go on, Bey. Our love for you is always on top.
17. "If I Were a Boy"
16. "Drunk in Love," f/ Jay Z
From her mellifluous flow to the endlessly fun "surfbort" verse, "Drunk in Love" is a deliriously sloppy master class in how pop and hip-hop can blend. It would easily make the top tier if it weren't for Jay Z's verse – a bafflingly bad addition. ("Eat the cake, Anna Mae," Jay? Really?)
These may not be the classics, but they're pretty damn close.
15. "Run the World (Girls)"
Why does this high a ranking for one of Beyoncé's iconic hits feel controversial? Maybe it's because when the song was first released, it got a fairly lukewarm reception. But doesn't that feel silly now? Sure, it's not her most complex hit, but it was her first real feminist declaration. Perhaps it was more militant than her current position, but that makes her evolution feel all the more real. Additionally, the dance for this song is sorely underrated.
If "XO" doesn't make you want to run down the streets kissing strangers and believing in love, I don't understand you.
13. "Pretty Hurts"
The video is stronger than the song, but that feels right for the first track on her visual album. The vocal is beautiful, and the message is her most interesting, conflicted statement from throughout her career. Plus, don't you just love those "ah-AH-ah"s?
12. "Beautiful Liar," f/ Shakira
They're singing "Can we kill the karma," in case that confused everyone else as a kid. (I thought it was "Can we kill the farmer," which struck me as highly off-brand for both singers.) Anyway: incredibly sexy, a ton of fun.
11. "Ring the Alarm"
Beyoncé is at her best when she's angry, and whether or not you believe "Ring the Alarm" is about Rihanna and Jay Z's alleged affair (I do), she is clearly pissed. The way she says the word "chinchilla" alone! Beyoncé hasn't been this ferocious since – and though we're glad she's happy, we wish she would get in touch with this part of her work again.
10. "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)"
Easily one of her three best videos, and the song is an utter jam. It's perhaps a bit overrated in her canon, but that doesn't diminish what a total blast it is.
9. "Check On It," from The Pink Panther, f/ Slim Thug
This one's a bigger hit than you remember (it hit #1), and it's a lot better than you remember as well. It manages to be catchy and well-done in equal measure. It's one of Bey's fastest songs, which makes Slim Thug's lumbering, lazy verse all the funnier. Honestly, "Check On It" probably deserves classic status, but it hasn't had the staying power in her songbook that it deserves.
The Unimpeachable Classics
The God Tier – or, as is more appropriate for Beyoncé, the Goddess Tier.
8. "Telephone," with Lady Gaga
This easily could have gone in the Not Quite Hers category, but that'd be dismissing one of the best verses Beyoncé's ever done. Gaga's song is perfectly fine, but with just eight lines and one infectious catchphrase ("this is a disastuh"), the Queen snatched it away from her.
7. "Crazy in Love," f/ Jay Z
6. "'03 Bonnie & Clyde" Jay Z
Though "Crazy in Love" is remembered as Beyoncé's first true classic – and it is great – nostalgia gets the better of us here. It's not her best of her Jay Z collaborations, nor is it the better of their two earliest team-ups. "Crazy in Love" was the danceable, mass-market-friendly hit. "'03 Bonnie & Clyde" was the sultry, dangerous single that succeeded in spite of how easily it could have failed. It was an early sign of the marriage that we'd soon become obsessed with as a culture, divorce rumors or no. "Down to ride 'til the very end," indeed.
5. "Listen," from Dreamgirls
Before you protest that "Listen" is total tripe, sit down for a second and remember a few things. First: Beyoncé sings the hell out of it. It is perhaps Beyoncé's strongest vocal on any ballad, single or no. Second: It fits her warrior woman image really well, and though it's from eight years ago, it wouldn't feel out of place within her contemporary work. Third: It is beautiful and powerful and haters to the left.
"A diva is a female version of a hustla," Sasha Fierce spat over this killer "A Milli"-esque beat, bringing her alter-ego sharply into focus. But even after Sasha died, Beyoncé as Diva has lived. This song is more about Beyoncé-as-Legend than Beyoncé-as-Artist, but it's a declarative thesis about the former. Plus, it's a lot of fun.
Remember that we're not judging her whole catalog, but her singles, and "Halo" as Bey's best ballad makes sense. It came at a difficult time, when "Single Ladies" was sucking up all the Beyoncé-dedicated oxygen, and stood out as a breath of fresh air. Her vocal is gorgeous, and the lyrics are beautiful without getting treacly. It's the sweetest Beyoncé gets.
In retrospect, this song almost feels silly. Look at Bey, being so sassy! Flash forward eight years, and she's singing about sitting this ass on ya and getting Monica Lewinsky'd on. But it was a spectacular stepping stone in Beyoncé's career – the perfect hit to prove she was here to stay. The fact that "to the left, to the left" remains as quotable and strongly associated with her is proof positive that she can make a delightful kiss-off so much more.
Not just her best song, but one of the best pop songs of all time. All over the place and yet completely harmonious, "Countdown" represents Beyoncé's music at its best: experimental while remaining catchy. The video is similarly perfect; using "Funny Face" as a basis was a fantastic choice. Of course, the elephant in the room here is that "Countdown" wasn't a big hit. In fact, it's indicative of a recent trend in her career: strong album cuts becoming weak singles. Given time, however, as the bigger hits are forgotten, "Countdown" will stand out as iconic.