Up until 1991, she enjoyed levels of mainstream success and experienced some of the most infamous lows a recording artist could.
For the purposes of this list, I'm considering all proper releases from her that don't suck from Love to Love You Baby to the 1 good song from Mistaken Identity (Crayons from 2008 felt like a retread and was mediocre and material from albums named The Wanderer, Cats Without Claws & All Systems Go are disqualified for being lurid trash.) along with lost in the 80s but released in the 90s I'm a Rainbow and the 2013 remix album Love to Love You Donna.
20. "I Need Time" [from I'm a Rainbow]- One of the more subtle productions especially for Giorgio Moroder, Summer's vocals present themselves with such grace in a "lost" ballad that Geffen should've been behind along with the other material from this album.
19. "To Turn the Stone" [from I'm a Rainbow]- Although the Celtic adjacent vibes are unsettling at first, this other "lost" treasure does show what many don't exactly know about Donna; that she really did more than disco songs really well. This ballad showcases the late singer's near perfect projection and vocal control.
18. "Love to Love You Baby" [the title track from her proper U.S. debut]- "WHAT?! HOW DARE YOU, THIS SONG IS LEGENDARY." No, the mythos behind this song is legendary. Donna Summer had WAY better songs than even this classic. Recorded when she was laying down on the floor because as Summer herself revealed on [at least] the Arsenio Hall show that this was how she envisioned Marilyn Monroe singing it (Remember; Donna was on her back & this is how she thought Marilyn would sing it...the shade wrote itself.)
As for the orgasms...err vocal performance, it did showcase potential left and right that led to Summer becoming the definitive artist of the 1970s.
17. "Spring Affair" [from Four Seasons of Love]- An under-appreciated cut, this showed the playful facet of Summer's vocals while still sounding just as "lustful" or "come hither" as most of her material from that time.
16. "When Love Cries" [from Mistaken Identity]- Let's get this out of the way now; had it not been for this song, Mistaken Identity wouldn't be represented at all as that album for all of its 90s New Jack Swing type of R&B appeal...just sucks and did nothing for her vocals at all.
This lone exception showed that had producers actually put in way more effort, this infamous flop known as Mistaken Identity could've stood a better chance in the eyes of music critics. Her final Hot 100 entry stands out for containing her most alluring vocals on any record of hers.
THE TOP 15
15. "Walk On (Keep on Movin')" [from I'm a Rainbow]- This "lost" cut combines some Caribbean [by pop standard] vibes along with a low tempo dance/pop sound not terribly played out in the early 80s. Though the cadence is a touch deliberate, Summer's vocals are able to shine through one of the thicker productions Moroder ever made with her in mind.
14. "Bad Girls" [title track of her 1979 album of the same name]- "YOU MONSTER! THIS IS TOP 5 MATERIAL!" Can it, damn you. Summer was the reason people liked disco in the 70s before over-saturation from garbage like "Disco Duck" led to utter bullshit moves...sorry, let's keep things about the song.
What has this and other classics out of the Top 10 is simply the fact that this is MORE than a rehashing of Donna Summer having the best disco songs. This song's appeal comes from Summer's commanding vocal presence throughout [and it being "racy" by 70s standards which were about as high as a Mormon.] The video is just from her ABC special which featured Twiggy as one of the "bad girls".
***this can also include the Gigamish remix from Love to Love You Donna***
13. "I Feel Love" [from I Remember Yesterday]- "YOU BASTARD! THIS IS THE DEFINITIVE SUMMER X MORODER CUT! HOW DARE YOU!" Again, this is not some disco rehashing; get out of your feelings. Production wise,"I Feel Love" has attained a level of immortality that I would be surprised if it were ever matched let alone surpassed.
Singing wise, this proves Summer's adaptability and versatility even if this isn't the best showcase of her vocals. Still, "I Feel Love" deserves its place in pop culture for its timeless quality (And the fact its timelessness comes from it being re-released at least twice every 5 years or so.)
12. "Hot Stuff" [from Bad Girls]- *sees torches & pitchforks* *laughs at angry mob in my head* Just because a song is labeled as iconic en masse, doesn't mean I buy into it all the time. In other words, yes I realize that "Hot Stuff" is a fun song but I will not put it higher than this because I like to judge full bodies of work and not just the "popular" stuff people know of and then leave behind.
That aside, though not as production immortal as the 2 previous entries, "Hot Stuff" still gets credit for showing off the most playful of Summer's vocals in her work.
***this entry also includes the Frankie Knuckles & Eric Kupper As Director's Cut Signature Mix from Love to Love You Donna***
11. "Sunset People" [Hot Chip dub edit from Love to Love You Donna]- Though the original version is just as catchy as her other material on this list, it's the Hot Chip edit on Love to Love You Donna that makes the list. The remix adds the darker interpretation of life in L.A. especially in the late 70s/early 80s. Lyrics like "Foreign cars, full of stars/tinted glass to hide the scars" are given a subtext free presentation that doesn't detract from the song's appeal.
THE TOP 10
10. "Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)" [also includes the Chromeo & Oliver remix from Love to Love You Donna]- The first real proof from the 80s that Summer was no fluke disco sensation, the original Quincy Jones produced track was able to compliment the singer's vocal prowess while having the most playful instrumental of her career.
The Chromeo & Oliver remix from 2013 digitizes the playfulness giving it a video game sounding quality in the best way possible. Even more remarkable is that the remix is able to preserve Summer's vocal abilities while giving room for personal touches from Chromeo & Oliver.
9. "Last Dance" [originally from the soundtrack for Thank God It's Friday and featured on just about every compilation of hers]- Of all the singles by the late Summer to not reach #1, this #3 on the Hot 100 success is perhaps one of the most iconic. Featuring some of her most commanding and nuanced vocals, "Last Dance" showcases the full range of Donna Summer's unmatched control.
8. "Highway Runner" [from I'm a Rainbow]- The sole cut from the "lost" collection featured here to see the light of day anywhere else [on the soundtrack for Fast Times at Ridgemont High]. The most pop/rock Summer ever sounded, her vocals convey an unusual but welcome aggression that further proves Summer's versatility.
7. "La Dolce Vita" [from Love to Love You Donna]- The sole new cut from the 2013 remix album with processed featuring from Giorgio Moroder himself. All Donna Summer fans know there are 3-4 "swan songs" to her name; the #6 entry is her Top 10 swan song, "When Love Cries" is her Hot 100 swan song and fans of Crayons [not me] consider "Stamp Your Feet" her actual swan song.
However, those who like me were willing to give Love to Love You Donna a chance realized that through the bittersweet Moroder vocals of "She was my dolce vita/and I miss her so/She was our dolce vita/and we miss her so", this was her swan song set to the standard Moroder groove and had her most captivating vocals.
6. "This Time I Know It's For Real" [from Another Place and Time]- The last Top 10 and in turn Top 40 of her Hot 100 tenure, this track as mentioned before is one of Summer's swan songs. What makes this song Top 10 material here is the catchy beat created by 80s hit-making dujours Stock/Aitken/Waterman (Think of them like the 80s version of the 2003 hit-making team The Matrix but having more than just Avril Lavigne and Liz Phair to their name but just as much criticism for their high-gloss pop production.)
Yes, the lyrics are basic almost cliche and the video for the song kind of sucks. However, exuberant pop music executed this well can be forgiven for nearly trite lyrics and a "Run 'n Gun" type of cheap video production.
THE TOP 5/MOST CONTROVERSIAL PART OF THE LIST
5. "Dim All the Lights" [from Bad Girls]- A display of Summer's bombastic projection in full force, this cut would be the best of 70s Donna had it not been for the #1 pick. Still, "Dim All the Lights" packs a lot of what the late singer was known for; intense, disciplined vocal control and projection that is unmatched to this day.
4. "People Talk" [from I'm a Rainbow]- The definitive proof Geffen Records screwed up royally by not releasing I'm a Rainbow and reason I will forever hate The Wanderer. "People Talk" was proof that Summer was no mere "Queen of Disco" but a pop artist that deserved way more credit for her versatility.
"People Talk" is the most infectious track from her 80s work not released as a single, but again; it's a pop track that showed off fantastic vocals and had the good qualities of 1980s pop.
3. "She Works Hard for the Money" [from her 1983 album of the same name]- The best of 1980s Donna Summer bar none. One of the earliest "Girl Power" anthems of substance, this uptempo track was enhanced by the near crushing but empowering video which FUN FACT: led to Summer being the first black woman to score a Best Female Video nomination at the MTV Video Music Awards.
Full force vocals from Summer only highlight the fact that of all the songs to be labeled "anthemic", this is one of the few instances where that actually makes sense.
2. "On the Radio" [from On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II]- Though released in 1979, it wasn't until this classic hit the ABC Special Summer had, that this cut was really brought to life due to the emotive delivery behind that performance.
This cut doesn't quite have enough range to make it #1, however just based on pure emotional commitment [technical range be damned] this is Donna Summer in her prime.
Before revealing the #1 song, two cuts narrowly missed the Top 20; "Tokyo" wasn't released as a single from She Works Hard for the Money, but it's still something rare...an 80s cut that actually did Donna Summer vocal justice considering Geffen Records did so wrong in her career.
"Heaven Knows" from Live and More despite its Top 5 status on the charts isn't as respected as other Summer cuts but always deserves a mention for a subtle Summer vocal. The 12'' single has both solo and the version featuring Brooklyn Dreams that reached #4 on the Hot 100.
PERSONAL NOTE: Her very first album, the Netherlands only released Lady of the Night, is well worth looking into as from top to bottom it's an enjoyable album. Highlights include "The Hostage" and "Domino".
#1 AKA THE BEST DONNA SUMMER SONG EVER
1. "MacArthur Park" [also includes the Laidback Luke remix from Love to Love You Donna]- Whether from its original album debut Live and More, the stunning and not for the faint of heart near 18 minute MacArthur Park Suite or the standout to end all standout Laidback Luke remix from Love to Love You Donna, "MacArthur Park" is the truly timeless Donna Summer song and in turn the best song of her career.
Her first song to go #1 combines the melodramatic lyrics of the song itself along with Summer's full range and Moroder's finest work production wise just in the realm of Donna Summer let alone pop music.