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45 Best Pop Songs of the 21st Century – Time Out

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The best pop songs of this century are groundbreaking, chart-topping, downright famous hits that’ll have you singing at the top of your lungs
Don’t listen to what Radiohead said: pop will never, ever die. It’s 2023, and banging new pop songs are getting released every week. Madonna’s 2023 anthem ‘Padam Padam’ has even made it to our top spot on this list, with its euphoric electropop vibes, and Dua Lipa’s ‘Barbie’ tune ‘Dance the Night’ is up there with the greats. 
But of course, the 21st century is a long one, and you’ve got to make space for the classics too. There are fabulous pop songs from every era, and they all deserve a spot on our ultimate list. Here you’ll find everyone from Outkast to MIA, and from Kelis to Harry Styles. The only criteria? It has to be feel good, and it has to make you want to get up and dance. All of these tunes do just that, and then some. Read on for the best pop songs ever made. 
Contributors: India Lawrence, Andrzej Lukowski, James Manning, Ella Doyle, Nick Levine, Amy Smith, Alyssa Ammirato, Jess Phillips, Matthew Singer. 
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Kylie’s still go it. After hearing this song approximately one million times in London during summer 2023, ‘Padam Padam’ has solidified itself in the very top tier of songs that are surefire to induce dancefloor euphoria. ‘We don’t need to use our words / I just want to see what’s underneath that t-shirt,’ Minogue teases in this sexy and frivolous electropop track about lust at first sight. And we love to see a 55-year-old pop star in her prime, celebrating her sexuality. Go off!

Rihanna is the queen of pop bangers, but nothing has quite compared to ‘Umbrella’ since it was released (we know, that’s a controversial statement). ‘Umbrella’ not only introduced the world at large to one of pop’s biggest stars, but it also ushered in a pop-culture dynasty, with fellow mogul Jay-Z on board to co-sign. As soon as you hear the intro (and the ‘uh-huh, uh-huh), you know you’re in for a ride, but nothing can prepare you for the chorus after the bridge. If you’re not screaming it at the top of your lungs, you’re doing it wrong. Long live Queen Ri. 

On this iconic 2003 single, Britney transforms into a stealthy femme fatale, her voice soaring and dipping over a deranged synth-string arrangement that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Hitchcock film. Even now, nearly two decades later and with the #FreeBritney movement having highlighted the horrific treatment she’s had to endure, it’s a disorienting stunner of a pop masterpiece. 

The London diva exploded to international fame with this stunning tune, released when she was just 21 years old — though her voice carries the expertise of a woman decades older. High-reaching vocals, a bone-chilling opening note andthe  ever-relatable subject matter of tarnished love scored Adele two Grammy Awards as fans around the world cried to the breakup anthem.

Beth from ‘Neighbours’ covers a four-year-old grunge song first recorded in Danish: it really doesn’t sound like a recipe for pure pop gold. But a breezy guitar-strumming arrangement and Nat’s utterly sincere vocals catapulted ‘Torn’ into all-time classic status, transfiguring the Ednaswap original’s sludgy angst into a complex and grown-up sketch of post-breakup breakdown. Feel your heart leap when that soaring guitar outro hits.

Pop queen Dua has been blessing us with bangers since 2015, but her 2023 release Dance the Night might be one of the most hyped yet (hint: it’s because it was in Barbie). Dua had a cameo in the new film, so it’s safe to say the song became a pretty big deal. But Barbie or no Barbie, this is an easy, breezy pop hit that opens with some seriously sweet violin and is reminiscent of disco at points, but still rings with Lipa’s iconic sound. Ella Doyle

Sure, we could have picked ‘Crazy in Love’ instead, but there’s something even more transcendent about Queen Bey’s ode to flying solo. The super-sleek beats and naggingly catchy vocal hooks combine to create such an instant classic that even Liza Minnelli has covered it. And pretty well, too.

‘Rehab’ was always a great pop song, but following Amy Winehouse’s tragic death in 2011, it’s acquired a hauntingly poignant quality, too. Mark Ronson’s doo-wop-inspired production swathes the singer’s soulful voice like a cashmere blanket, creating a timeless ode to defiance that hits hard with every last ‘no, no, no’. Rest in Power, Amy.
 

Countless songs are about dancing the pain away, but few achieve the emotional catharsis of the Swedish singer’s all-time bittersweet banger. The irony, of course, is that no one ever dances alone to ‘Dancing On My Own’ – the floor is always going to fill the second those opening synth strobes hit, and the whole joint will unite for the skyscraping chorus. But don’t be surprised to see a few misty eyes when the lights go up.

Outkast ATLien André 3000 took a break from changing the rap game for this unexpectedly sunny ’60s throwback that sees the superstar hit pause as an emcee to play bandleader. In a discography of unexpected twists and turns, it was a move nobody could have seen coming from the ‘Ms. Jackson’ legend, and further proof that André can do pretty much anything. Truly cooler than a polar bear’s toenails. 

This song hails from a different era of Cyrus, before she transformed into a Robin Thicke-humping sexpot with a Gene Simmons tongue. This midway point between modern Miley and Hannah Montana is a ray of sing-along sunshine. Anyone who claims not to know the words (or belt them out and roll the windows down whenever the song’s on the radio) cannot be trusted.

Rumour has it that this 2004 chart-topper was aimed at Courtney Love, who had apparently dismissed Stefani as a ‘cheerleader’ in an interview. Either way, there’s no denying that the minimal beat supplied by the Neptunes still hits hard, or that Stefani sounds great spelling out ‘B-A-N-A-N-A-S’ over it.

Topping her global breakthrough hit ‘Whenever, Wherever’ was always going to be a tall order, but Shakira managed it in 2005 with this colossal reggaeton bop. More than 15 years later, ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ still gets everyone on the dance floor, though not everyone manages to echo Wyclef’s ‘Shakira, Shakira’ shoutout quite on the beat.

‘For whoever is claiming that they are bringing sexy back, sexy never left!’ certified Sexy MF Prince quipped when JT started blazing up the charts with this Timbaland-produced all-timer fusing raw sexuality and funk bonafides. Prince was, of course, right. But as far as a career reinvention goes, Timberlake’s is one for the books: ‘SexyBack’ doesn’t so much close the door on the singer’s ramen-haired boy-band chapter as burn it to the ground. 

Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars really struck gold with this Michelle Pfeiffer-namechecking throwback jam. Not only did ‘Uptown Funk’ clean up at the 2015 Grammys, even winning Record of the Year, but it became the third most-watched video ever on YouTube. Wedding reception dance floors will never be the same again.

This song made 2012 the year of the cheesy pickup line after Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez’s lip-sync sesh catapulted this tune onto the radio. Jepson hasn’t had another equally huge hit since, but she has facilitated millions of hasty flirtations and phone number solicitations. Thanks, Carly Rae!

Gaga’s entire catalogue is a celebration of individuality, allyship and letting your freak flag fly. ‘Poker Face’ remains a staple of the pop pantheon thanks to its grimy-glam melodies and bombastic vocal breaks. Plus, Gaga managed to sneak the line ‘f*ck her face’ onto radio for yeears without anyone noticing. If that’s not the mark of a queen, nothing is. 

Maya Arulpragasam might have stayed as a pure cult artist, jobbing away on the critically acclaimed fringes with her wildly eclectic stew of electronics, world influences and controversial opinions. However, she only had to go and make one genuine pop masterpiece, didn’t she? Based around an interpolation of The Clash’s ‘Straight To Hell’, ‘Paper Planes’s languid, irresistibly catchy backing weaves a semi-satirical tale of MIA’s difficulties in getting a US visa. A sleeper hit, its prominent placing in the soundtracks to ‘Pineapple Express’ and ‘Slumdog Milliomnaire’ saw it finally crack the charts, big time.

The hip-hop queen’s most sugary, hyperactive and kaleidoscopic song is a titanic explosion of energy. Transitioning from a catchy hook to rapid-fire rap, via saccharine melodies and undulating electronica, it really does make you feel elevated regardless of whether you’re actually ‘higher than a motherfuc*er’. Pure chaos, and an absolute blast.

The small-town New Zealand export was only 15 when she penned this international mega-hit deflating hip-hop’s obsession with bling and braggadocio. It’s not the kind of thing that happens a lot in pop music, which makes the incredibly sparse, intricately layered, ultra-classy ‘Royals’ even more of a treasure. ‘Let me be your ruler,’ sang Lorde. ‘Yes please,’ replied millions.

Like fellow pop royal Lorde, Eilish was just a teen when she dropped this subversive ode to bad behaviour. Brother Finneas’ thumping beats and spooky hooks hold the whole thing together, but it’s Eilish’s smoky voice — bounding between deeply unsettling and sprightly — that sells the whole ghoulish affair. The result cemented her as the antithesis of a squeaky-clean pop star and scared the ever-loving shit out of her target audiences parentss. 

An instant feel-great classic, Lizzo’s ‘Good as Hell’  is the very definition of infectious thanks to its instantly recognisable piano beat, Lizzo’s forceful-yet-playful cadence and a pervasive, universal ability to make anybody within earshot strut for its entire runtime.

After floating around the cosmos in a pyramid-shaped spaceship for eight years, the French-house robots returned to Earth to drop…a throwback disco album? Reactions to Random Access Memories remain mixed, but its lead single is an unassailable jam, bringing together Pharrell’s falsetto vocals and Chic demigod Nile Rodgers’ distinctively funky guitar for a collision of past and future that grooves all night ‘til the sun.  

The K-Pop supergroup has taken over the world, and there seems to be no sign of them slowing down. You either get on the train or get run over by it. Luckily, the band’s long-awaited English-language debut delivered, hijacking airwaves and talk shows with its perfectly calibrated bubblegum. Twenty years after NSYNC said ‘bye bye bye’, a new kingdom pop has raised its flag.

The former One Direction star’s solo career has gone many unexpected places, no more so than on his recent, genre-hopping album ‘Fine Line’. And while the funky ‘Watermelon Sugar’ brings the double entendres, ‘Adore You’ is Styles at his most endearing and infectious: a slow-paced, driving, and vocally lovely instant classic. As a bonus, the surreal video finds the hearthrob enamoured with a giant fish… and it’s everything. 

Ariana’s evolution from sugar-sweet pop princess to her generation’s foremost chronicler of the Kama Sutra has been astonishing, if a little much for some pearl-clutching early fans. She hit a universally appealing sweet spot with this 2018 bop, which ascends to the stratosphere with each repetition of ‘pickin’ it up’. As her voice swoops and soars, it seems to confirm the arrival of a global superstar whose talent stands taller than even her highest ponytail. 

Pop’s current heir apparent exploded onto the scene with this universally gripping, emotionally ripe tale of teenage yearning: a piano ballad with a forlorn melody, a driving backbeat and some of the most bracing vocals in recent pop. Rodrigo wears her love of Taylor Swift on her sleeve, so much so that fans call her the second coming while haters cry ripoff. For what it’s worth, Swift (unlike Courtney Love) is a fan… and rumours continue to swirl about an upcoming collaboration that could rock the pop world to its core. 

Taking a hiatus from making music to focus on growing up a little, the Biebs came back with ‘Purpose in 2015. ‘Sorry’, the second single from the album, was mixed by Skrillex — and in a stroke of genius and surprising modesty, he excluded himself from the music video and focused on an oft-imitated squad of dancers instead.

Empowering, escalating and full of raw power, ‘Titanium’ is what happens when one of the world’s best producers meets one of its most prolific pop writers. Namely: fireworks. Sia may have found further success swinging from chandeliers, but as a vocalist she has never been more explosive than here.

Only somebody as tuned-in to the pop landscape as Williams could take a throwaway track from a Minions movie and turn it into an enduring ode to being in a great mood. Think of it like this: Three years after ‘Happy’, Justin Timberlake tried to replicate its good vibes for the Trolls soundtrack. But, we’re not talking about Justin Timberlake here. Such is the power of a Neptune using his powers for good. 

Take away the mountain of memes, ignore Drake’s beautiful dad dancing and this pop song would still be a winner for the ages. That delicate, trickling calypso beat effortlessly shrugs off the lover who never calls, transforming a classic tale of ghosting into an eminently danceable revenge song that everyone – ex included – would struggle to resist. No wonder it was literally inescapable for the whole of summer ‘15. 

Kelis’s brag that her ‘milkshake brings all the boys to the yard’ has given this magnetic dancefloor anthem legs. Driven by an all-time great Neptunes beat, it’s a pop-R&B bop every bit as box-fresh as when it dropped (as part of Kelis’s excellent ‘Tasty’ album) in 2003.

Never, ever write off Madonna: perhaps her greatest defiance of conventions (of many) is that she’s continued to have genuine pop hits way into middle age. ‘Hung Up’ isn’t even the only candidate for a best twenty-first-century pop song from Madonna, but it is the best, a magnificent disco banger turbocharged by the inspired interpolation of Abba’s ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’.

Nearly inescapable between 2017 and 2018, ‘Despacito’ is one of those songs that became so prevalent that people mistook its ubiquity for annoyance. A few years on, however, the ultra-smooth collision of Latin pop and reggaeton has aged remarkably well from song-of-the-summer status to certifiable classic.

Frankly, we’re still not sure what ‘this jelly’ is, and 20 years on we’re still not sure we’re ready for it. But what is certain is that the legendary girl group, facing the inevitablility of Beyoncé’s solo ascendance, fired off one last barn-burner to usher in the ’00s, and the dance floor was never the same. 

Part dance floor anthem, part inspirational power song, ‘Firework’ was Katy Perry’s third release from 2010’s ‘Teenage Dream’ album and a huge elevation point in her career. It won MTV’s 2011 VMA for Video of the Year and earned two Grammy nominations, and all the hoopla around Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview gave it another boost of publicity in 2014.

Missy’s avante-garde approach to pop-infused hip-hop is at its best when she has certified master Timbaland at her side, and no pairing hits with the same mix of chaotic glee, weirdness and pop sensibility as ‘Work It’. Only an artist as nimble as Missy could take a jumbled mass of backwards-masked syllables and make it one the era’s most recognisable choruses… and one of karaoke night’s biggest flexes.

A young Kylie Minogue scored numerous global hits in the late ‘80s with a succession of cheesy tunes that capitalised on the fame bought on by her role in the Australian soap opera ‘Neighbours’. But it arguably took until 2001 for her to finally put out a bona fide masterpiece: ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ is sultry, disco-pop perfection, with its ‘la la la’ hook destined to stay lodged in our heads for the rest of the century and beyond.

Both sides of the pond get some swagger on this pulsing throwback track occupying the space between disco, hip hop and pop. Estelle’s cockney-infused vocals provide the perfect antidote to Kanye’s braggadocio… no small task, given that the guy is 5-foot-7 of pure ego. Even ‘Ye takes a back seat to Estelle when she’s firing on all cylinders (with an assist by wil.i.am and John Legend on writing duties, natch).

Simon Cowell may have made Kelly Clarkson a celebrity, but ‘Since U Been Gone’ made her a star. Outside American Idol viewers and the two people who watched From Justin to Kelly, this was the world’s true introduction to Clarkston’s mighty lung capacity, and a high point for the early-noughties pop-rock explosion. The gleeful break-up anthem comes off like a glorious cross between Avril Lavigne and ‘I Will Survive’. Fittingly in the flat circle of the pop world, it’s now regularly butchered on talent shows worldwide.

A slinky, swaggering slow jam that meets at the intersection of hip-hop and pop, Eve’s biggest hit is essentially a four-minute not-so-humblebrag about career success. It’s the kind of thing that male rappers do all the time but somehow draws blowback when a woman does it (see also: ‘WAP’). Let the haters feign their dismay. The rest of us will be out on the dance floor and soaking in the silky sass. 

The Weeknd has been a pop heavyweight since he dropped his coke-fuelled banger ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ in 2015. But the Canadian superstar took things to another level with ‘Blinding Lights’, a synth-driven monster that somehow managed to brighten up the summer of Covid, blasting out of cars everywhere as people escaped their bubbles. More than a year later, its power has only grown. 

Long before his vile worldview and accusations of abuse made it all to easy to say ‘Fu*k You’ to Cee-Lo Green, the former Goodie Mob emcee joined forces with producer Danger Mouse to release this slick psychedelic soul curveball. Fifteen years later, it still feels gloriously alien.

Blur were always the most inventive of the Britpop bands. But in 1994 or so nobody would have reasonably expected that within a decade band leader Damon Albarn would have reinvented himself as frontman of a kaleidoscopic, no boundaries cartoon pop band called Gorillaz, nor that said cartoon pop band would genuinely go on to become bigger than Blur. It’s a tough contest, but their debut single ‘Clint Eastwood’ perhaps remains their finest moment, an eerily loping slice of spaghetti western-tinged hip-pop, with a killer rap from Del the Funky Homosapien.
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