Next month marks the 10th anniversary of Rihanna’s debut single, “Pon De Replay,” a summer smash that unassumingly launched one of contemporary pop’s most unexpectedly enduring careers. Like Madonna before her, the Barbadian singer compensates for her lack of obvious vocal talent with a shrewd ability to sniff out percolating trends and a willingness to zig when she’s expected to zag (“Russian Roulette,” “Diamonds,” and “Four Five Seconds” were all surprising moves for an artist who could have safely preserved the status quo). Her wild success, which includes 10 solo #1 hits in the U.S. (13 total, tying her with Michael Jackson), can also be attributed to her seemingly steadfast work ethic, yielding seven albums in just the first eight years of her career. That streak ended with 2012’s Unapologetic, her final album before parting ways with her longtime record label, Def Jam, last year. (She’s now signed to Roc Nation, a deal that reunites the singer with Jay Z, who first signed her one decade ago.) To celebrate Rihanna’s 10 years in the business, we took a look back through her catalogue of hits and picked her 15 best singles to date.
Editor’s Note: Listen to our Rihanna playlist on Spotify.
15. “Shut Up and Drive.” It borrows liberally from New Order’s “Blue Monday,” and features a break that sounds reminiscent of “Planet Rock.” With that electric guitar riff and that title, you’d think “Shut Up and Drive” would come harder than, well, “Hard.” But this song ain’t no drag race against Grace Jones’s “Sex Drive.” It’s more like a Sunday-afternoon trip to the candy shop, hanging out the passenger side of Barbie’s pink convertible with Jem and the Holograms in the tape deck. And you know what? That’s all it needed to be. Eric Henderson
14. “Disturbia.” With its thrumming EDM production, devilishly catchy hook, and a music video layered with ostentatiously macabre costumes and set pieces, “Disturbia” all but provided the model for the event-single strategy Lady Gaga consistently relied on at her peak. Along with the more obvious reading of the singer’s struggle with her inner demons, there’s also a sly joke at the expense of the censors, literalizing their unfounded fears about “immoral” sexualized pop music by turning them into a cartoon grotesquery. That the track was written by Chris Brown can only spoil the joke so much. Sam C. Mac
13. “Where Have You Been.” It’s telling that “Where Have You Been” omits the implied question mark in its title. Rihanna isn’t so much asking as she is witnessing her own solitude. Like on “We Found Love,” she’s almost incidental to the song, repeating the same verse and refrain while Calvin Harris’s long instrumental passages comprise the most ecstatic parts of the track. The synth-happy chorus, in which Rihanna repeats the titular rhetorical question over and over, builds to a dubstep rave-up that’s connected by the track’s single most rapturous element: a drum fill that lasts no more than a mere second. Sal Cinquemani
12. “Stay.” “Stay” silenced any skeptics convinced that Rihanna used big beats and quick tempos to hide her shaky instrument. Not even qualifying as a “power ballad,” “Stay” is a slow, patient, plaintive showcase for Ri’s capacity to sell subtlety: “Funny you’re the broken one, but I’m the only one who needed saving.” And, backed by nothing more than a piano and vocals from Mikky Ekko, she nails it. Henderson
11. “Four Five Seconds.” The reverberations of a “ella-ella” or “na-na” now feel something like a big bang: There would be no “We Can’t Stop,” no “Come & Get It,” without the syllabic tongue games Rihanna used to galvanize pop in the latter half of the aughts. Of course, hashtagging your way through vocals only gets a career so far, and if “Stay” saw RiRi try to demonstrate greater range through familiar forms, “Four Five Seconds” does so the way she knows best: by inventing her own. Paired with Kanye West in his rough crooner mode, the two bleat bluesy woes over Paul McCartney’s best Lindsey Buckingham impression. It’s an oddly affecting formula that’s unlikely to prove quite so imitable—though Miley and Selena are welcome to try. Mac