Now is a great time to be into music. Surfer Blood, Foxygen, Phoenix, Youth Lagoon, James Blake, The Knife and My Bloody Valentine have all recently dropped good to great material, showing that it’s going to be a great year for indie records. However, the good songs aren’t just hiding out on Pitchfork. There’s an unusual amount of good stuff playing on the radio — from the new Daft Punk song to Icona Pop, who claim my personal favorite pop song of the year (even though it technically came out last year).
The radio doesn’t always have to be a barren wasteland for pop. Sometimes the radio gets it right, and our “silly” fun doesn’t have to feel empty. With that in mind, these are some of my favorite pop songs from years past, radio music at its finest. One of these songs is technically terrible (look for the cobra), but I love it anyway. I don’t care. Your taste doesn’t always have to be good, as long as it’s yours.
1. “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus
In general, I’m not a fan of Cyrus’ craft. Like her acting, Miley has a bad habit of singing with her teeth. She’s an energetic chipmunk of a performer. Why does “Party in the USA” hit the spot so hard then? Because it sounds like it was made by a sixteen-year-old, in the best possible way. “Party in the USA” isn’t about great vocals. It’s about finding that perfect pop song to put your top down to in the summer and sing-a-long with. Odds are, you’ll be just as good of a singer as Miley Cyrus is.
2. “Domino” by Jessie J
Jessie J can motherfucking sing. Even her pipes have pipes. However, the problem with Jessie J is that despite being a better chanteuse than Katy Perry, she’s hidden in Perry’s shadow. They look alike and even have similar vocal gifts, and Jessie J’s material hasn’t done her any favors. “Domino” is the exception. Sure, it sounds like a Katy Perry song, but it’s the best possible version of that song. “Domino” is as ebullient and joyous as a first love, and when I’m in a bad mood, I will listen to this song on repeat. This love is impossible to resist.
3. “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry
Lyrically, Katy Perry is often her worst enemy. Her songs are catchier than herpes, but you don’t realize you’ve caught something dreadful until you listen to the lyrics — whether its the veneer of homophobia in “Ur So Gay,” the internalized misogyny in “Hot ‘N Cold” or the weird racism in “E.T.” “Teenage Dream” is, by far, her best song (and a pop classic) because Perry plays it simple. The song is about finding that person who finally gets you, the one you can be yourself with. The feelings the song evokes are universal, and I once caught my grandma listening to it. Who can blame her? “Teenage Dream” is like going to the prom again — except without all the retainers and toule.
4. “Battlefield” by Jordin Sparks
Jordin Sparks has never gotten the credit she deserves as a performer. Between “Tattoo,” “No Air” and “Battlefield,” the girl has proved her range and versatility as an artist, but the top ten hit “Battlefield” is by far her finest song. Produced by Ryan Tedder, “Battlefield” makes the most out of Sparks’ high octave vocals and the Pat Benatar motifs. However, instead of paling in comparison to Benatar’s 80’s anthem, the song’s heritage makes it more powerful. Tedder and Sparks are looking to the pop past, pulling also from Phil Spektor. Tedder is a big fan of Spektor’s “Wall of Sound,” and it’s when the bottom drops out in the second half that Jordin proves her vocal worth. She’s singing not just for the rafters — but for space. Ronnie Spektor would have been proud.
5. “C’Mon” by Ke$ha
Ke$ha is so much smarter than anyone gives her credit for. In addition to releasing three albums — each a vast improvement on the one before — she’s a prolific songwriter, penning Britney’s best song in recent memory, “‘Til the World Ends.” Ke$ha own writing is something to awe at. She’s one of the few performers alive who can away with rhyming “saber-toothed tiger” and “warm Budweiser,” and the critically acclaimed “C’Mon” finds Ke$ha at the height of her own power. It takes real brilliance to make pop music that seems so effortless.
6. “Toxic” by Britney Spears
Britney’s fame has never been about the music. She sings well enough, but she’s credited more as a performer and (head shaving notwithstanding) a smart businesswoman than anything else. Although she’ll never be Whitney Houston, “Toxic” find Britney doing what she does best — doing smart business. Britney is a pro at picking the right producers for her songs, and Bloodshy and Avant’s 2004 smash helped her organically break out of the saccharine Max Martin mold. “Toxic” felt adult and sensual without the over-the-top sexuality of “I’m a Slave 4 U.” Who needs Christina Aguilera’s pipes when you have production this good?
7. “Umbrella” by Rihanna
“Umbrella” is one of the most acclaimed pop songs of the past decade, the track that announced Rihanna as an industry force to be reckoned with. What’s interesting, however, about the song is that for a song as sexy at is, the lyrics suggest more Doris Day than Madonna. The trick is in Rihanna’s delivery, the added syllables that hang over her pronunciation of the titular object. Rihanna has often been criticized for not having vocal range as a singer, but “Umbrella” shows you don’t always have to go big. It’s the small moments that matter most. That summer, no one said the word “umbrella” the same way again.
8. “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey
I don’t care how you feel about Mariah Carey, if you love her or think she’s one popsicle short of a full cart. “Fantasy” is fucking brilliant, and one of the best uses of sampling in history. The tune’s backtracking lifts from Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” and it’s new waves are the perfect compliment to Carey’s omnipresent melisma. The result is one of those songs so sweet that it seems to melt on the tongue the moment it hits you. “Fantasy” isn’t just 1995’s song of the summer. It’s the song of every summer.
9. “You Make Me Feel…” by Cobra Starship
On this list, I wanted to include one song I don’t actually think is a good song, but I like anyway. A friend insisted I put on Fergie, but I didn’t feel good about that. I instead went with “You Make Me Feel…”, which is technically one of the dumbest pop songs in recent memory. Sabi can’t sing, and Cobra Starship feels out of their element here, more suited to their previous power pop incantation. When the song came out, critics bashed it for the fact that it can’t even bother to finish its lyrics. I make you feel so what, Gabe Zaporta? Tired? Bloated? Constipated?
Yet part of me can’t hate “You Make Me Feel…” It’s so vapid that there’s something weirdly charming about it. I started out liking the song ironically, inserting my own lyrics into the song: “You make me feel so joyless and stupid!” “You make me feel so bland and cynical!” Maybe it was Stockholm Syndrome, but I came to rely on the song for those times you want to turn off your brain and zone out on the train or have background music for the gym. “You Make Me Feel…” is like a night of heavy drinking: pointless and likely to damage your brain. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun while it lasted.
10. “You Belong With Me” by Taylor Swift
Even though Taylor Swift has gone off the deep end, “You Belong With Me” will always have a special place in my heart. The song recalls a simpler time, when having dark brown hair meant you were evil and Taylor Swift was hiding in the bleachers, waiting for you to notice her. We were so young in 2009. When the song became a viral smash, “You Belong With Me” tapped into the fifteen-year-old in all of us, the unrequited loves we begged to be with us instead. This is an age we will never, ever have to go back to, but in 2009, we had Taylor Swift to send us back word from teenager-dom. Being fifteen still sucked, but at least we got through it.
11. “Countdown” by Beyonce
Beyonce’s catalog has an embarrassing wealth of great songs — from “Crazy in Love” to “Halo” and “Sweet Dreams.” “Love on Top” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” are total jams, sure to bring down any house. What makes “Countdown” her best song? Beyonce doesn’t often let her guard down in songs, and even when she’s getting real, we don’t feel like we know her any better. Co-written by Knowles, “Countdown” finally gets personal. The imagery is so shockingly intimate that the lyrics feel handwritten. The song makes understand what’s like to endure the ups and downs of a ten-year marriage, but even more importantly, what it’s like to be Beyonce in love.
12. “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen
If you don’t like this song, you’re a heartless bastard. Enough said.
13. “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5
I kind of loathe Maroon 5 in general, which stems from my complicated relationship with Adam Levine. He’s the kind of guy you would hate fuck, and he knows it. But strangely, most Maroon 5 songs have filled the “Mom Rock” void left in the wake of John Mayer and James Blunt. This feels wrong. You’re not the guy next door, Adam Levine! Stop trying to be someone you’re not. “Moves Like Jagger” is a refreshing change of pace, as Levine embraces his sexy douchiness. On the track, he’s enjoyably cocky and tongue-in-cheek — no Mick Jagger, but solid company for the night.
Note: I might have put “Misery” here, but that damn video kills it.
14. “SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake
Before “SexyBack,” I couldn’t take Justin Timberlake seriously. “Who is this kid from *NSYNC and why does he think I would ever cry him a river? Go home, Justin. You’re drunk.” However, “SexyBack” showed that Timberlake was a born sex god — with a vocal performance as bombastic and confident as Timbaland’s production. The album, in general, was the perfect marriage of producer and star, as each brought out the best in each other. Timbaland made a name for himself by producing Missy Elliott and Aaliyah’s best songs, but it was Timberlake that made him an industry.
15. “Maneater” by Nelly Furtado
When “Maneater” was released the follow-up single to “Promiscuous,” most listeners shrugged. “Promiscuous” was a bold change in direction for the “I’m Like a Bird” singer, known more for her poignant lyrics than getting her freak on. “Promiscuous” was one of the biggest tracks of the year, and anything afterward was destined to feel like a comedown.
The odd thing is that “Maneater” hung around, polling well on year-end and decade-end lists of the era’s finest pop tunes. What made it such a sleeper hit and a surprise was the odd subtlety Furtado brought to the song. It wasn’t as showy as “Promiscuous,” but it was a much stronger track, making the most of its brilliant Hall and Oates sample. Lines like “move your body around like a nympho” proved that Furtado’s ear for lyrics hadn’t changed with her shift to another genre. Before Annie and Robyn made Scandinavia as the home of smart pop, Nelly Furtado made dance music with a brain.
16. “Va Va Voom” by Nicki Minaj
“Super Bass” is Ms. Minaj’s undisputed anthem, but I’m a “Va Va Voom” kind of girl. I can’t help it. On top of beautifully capitalizing on the “Super Bass” formula, “Va Va Voom” features some of the most engaged rap-singing we’ve seen yet from Minaj. While being absurdly clever, the song is both powerful and strangely sweet, a one-night stand with an undercurrent of emotion. Nicki Minaj isn’t from the Motown school, where every romance was a life or death situation, but she finds the beauty in what is doomed not to last. For someone working within the pop genre, where songs are as disposable as Taylor Swift’s mates, there’s no more relevant thesis statement than that.