If you’ve heard Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want” or Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” recently, you’re privy to an important fact: Now is a very, very good time for female pop superstars. The singles slay and the iTunes-frequenting public respond in kind. In fact, the past five years have been an era of fabulous singles for pop princesses, and that brings us to today’s topic: the 25 greatest pop songs of our biggest female stars since 2008. I like 2008 as a cutoff date since that’s when Lady Gaga and Katy Perry debuted, Rihanna hit her stride as a super-sexualized hitmaker, and Miley emerged from her Hannah Montana cocoon as an overcaffeinated pop entity with “See You Again.”
Some guidelines: I’m only included superstars in this tally. “Call Me Maybe” might be a brilliant song, but Carly Rae Jepsen has yet to prove her mettle as a (Canadian) idol with staying power. The same goes for Jessie J, Ellie Goulding, and many others with big hits . Furthermore, since I’m only including pop superstars, I’m only using songs that hit the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 20. Any lower and the songs aren’t eligible. This means plenty of my favorite songs aren’t on the tally, like Kylie Minogue’s “Timebomb” or Madonna’s “Celebration.” This is about pop divas and which of their pop hits reign supreme in this very profound pop era.
Got it? Good. Let’s brush our teeth with a bottle of Jack and just dance.
25. Katy Perry, “E.T.”
Despite the fact that Katy Perry is intent on barraging us with blander fare like “Roar” and “Walking on Air” in recent months, the girl is truly at her best when she’s being weird. “E.T.” is awash in robo-drones and Tetris beeps, and when Katy blares, “You’re not like the others, futuristic lover,” she sounds shocked and titillated — precisely the reaction we’d all have to a cocky aeronautical invader, even if he turned out to be an imp like Kanye West.
24. Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends”
Britney Spears has enjoyed a couple of #1 hits in recent years, but her best single was a #3 jam with an apocalyptic bent: “Till the World Ends” gave us Britney Jean’s cooing vulnerability (which, I think, is what fans like most about her — but I’m still not sure) and an anthemic climax complete with a Madonna-esque wail of “If you feel it, let it happen / Keep on dancing ’till the world ends.” A lovely You Can Dance-type sentiment, no?
23. Jennifer Lopez, “On the Floor”
I didn’t expect a return to form from J-Lo in early 2011, but this was comeback that raged from London to Ibiza. “On the Floor” is a scorching, bumping dance supernova, and even if Pitbull’s yippy growls aren’t for everyone, the beat here is undeniable and huge.
22. Kelly Clarkson, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”
Who doesn’t root for Kelly? Her upcoming Christmas album sounds like an ace, she always stuns us with candor on Twitter, and she’s a flawless live performer. She landed her third #1 hit with “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” in 2012, and it was a refreshing success considering its an exhibition of her greatest talent: convincing us she’s a survivor. From “Since U Been Gone” to “Never Again,” Kelly has found the triumph in heartbreak, and “Stronger” is an unofficial testament to her own convalescent charisma.
21. Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball”
Nothing compares 2 youth, but Miley emerged into a ferocious and (so far) controversial adulthood with her recent album Bangerz and its killer lead single “We Can’t Stop” and the powerful ballad “Wrecking Ball.” The latter track is the more impressive effort thanks to its quiet buildup, harsh chorus, and an undeniably strong vocal performance from Miley, whose singing ability has remained vastly undervalued since her “See You Again” days.
20. Ke$ha, “Blow”
No pop star has suffered through misogynist criticism in recent years like Ke$ha, whose cheekiness and sa$$ have been gleefully derided by people who don’t want to respect her gonzo attitude for what it is: genuine and feminist. The girl is plenty more articulate, interesting, and funny than contemporaries like Beyonce and Katy Perry, and “Blow” — off her Cannibal EP — is a soaring, party-launching masterpiece. If the transcendent chorus isn’t enough to work you into a stupor, the confidence with which she purrs, “Let me, let me see them Hanes!” should be sufficient. This is a woman who isn’t afraid to announce when she wants a dude. She’s more of a righteous Madonna descendant than she’s given credit for.
19. Taylor Swift, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
You go talk to your friends who’ll talk to my friends who’ll talk to me, and we’ll all agree: Taylor Swift has churned out a slew of Top 40 hits in recent years, but she’s really more of an album artist than a pop song princess. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is one of the few times she’s reached for pure pop addictiveness, and that fist-pumping chorus (“Weee-eeeeee!”) could electrify a pep rally. Taylor routinely paints herself as a shrinking violet with a defiant streak, but here she outs herself as a full-blooded hollaback girl.
18. Adele, “Set Fire to the Rain”
“Skyfall” may have been an Oscar-winning chart hit, but it’s the drippiest possible version of an anthem. Ms. Adkins finest entry in the very limited genre of “nervy torch song” is “Set Fire to the Rain,” a twinkling ballad that commands us with both its rolling drumbeats and that gorgeous chorus, which feels both pensive and proud. For a third single off an album, it’s flaw-free.
17. Pink feat. Nate Ruess, “Just Give Me a Reason”
Pink’s biggest hit in years combines her best assets: phenomenal vocals, her interrogative vulnerability (which also defined the greatest single in her discography, “Who Knew”), and radio-friendly swagger. She’s long had the air of a woman who never quite got over what was written about her in the senior yearbook, and when she belts “We’re not broken, just bent,” she again sounds determined to overcome longstanding heartbreak.
16. Shakira, “She Wolf”
While other artists on this list choose between sexiness and freakiness time and again, Shakira has always been apt to combine both. “She Wolf,” a #11 hit in 2009, is the loopiest lupine concoction since the “Thriller” video, and she courts your skepticism right away in the opening lyrics: “Darling it is no joke, this is lycanthropy.” “She Wolf” is the work of an artist who is pleased to baffle boring people and endear gay fanatics with its kookiness. What can you say to hilarious, addictive campiness but Aaaah-oooooooh?
15. Lady Gaga feat. Beyonce, “Telephone”
The Fame Monster managed to pack a lot of cuckoo material into eight short songs, and “Telephone” is one of the hokiest tracks: a thumping kiss-off to a lover whose cellular static is keeping Gaga from enjoying the club and sipping that bub. Beyonce drops by for a seriously pissed-off iPhone call (“I shoulda left my phone at home / ’Cuz this is a disaster!”), which also makes “Telephone” the unofficial sequel to “Bugaboo.”
14. Miley Cyrus, “Party in the USA”
Before Taylor Swift could swamp us with pollyanna tales in Hollywood, we had Miley stepping off the plane at LAX with her dreams and a cardigan. Is she gonna fit in? By the sound of it, she did fine: “Party in the USA” is the fresh sound of a Disney survivor claiming her spot as a pop queen, as she’s realizing her countrified innocence can resonate from coast to coast. She loves Britney! She loves Jay-Z! And she’s right to think that all 50 states should know.
13. Rihanna, “Only Girl (In The World)”
Rihanna’s deadpan vocals always give off a come-hither vibe, but with “Only Girl (in the World)” she dropped the coyness, stomped her feet, and proclaimed herself the disco queen of vulnerability. The Barbadian superstar is often criticized for her indistinct radio presence, but here, she dares you to remember any other lady in the game. Other singers may want a chance, but she’s here to announce she’s “the only one who knows your heart.” And she’s pretty believable.
12. Lady Gaga, “The Edge of Glory”
Lady Gaga’s self-seriousness is a large part of her disco shtick, but the Born This Way album was almost deliriously un-fun at times. That’s why it was such a relief to hear “The Edge of Glory,” the album’s concluding track, which was a throbbing, loving jam about anticipatory euphoria. It’s a Springsteen-y moment of grit and radness, and the song’s electrified beat seems to run right up to the edge with Gaga as she gives a thundering vocal performance.
11. Beyonce, “Love on Top”
Though “Love on Top” barely squeezed into the U.S. Top 20, it is surely one of Beyonce’s edgiest tracks. Mrs. Carter infuses some James Brown-style stank into its wild chorus. “You’re the one I love! You’re the one I need! You’re the only one I see!” she proclaims, daring the Earth to handle the endless power of her vocals. We can assume this track is mostly just foreshadowing, since it’s clearly going to be Beyonce on top for a long, long time.
10. Katy Perry, “Firework”
Katy Perry is an odd choice for a balladeer. She’s so willfully ironic that a straightforward self-empowerment track seems like the most cynical choice she could make. But “Firework” is an enduring smash, a yelping, yearning track that bursts from your speakers like a bouquet of Roman candles. Truthfully, the words “Boom! Boom! Boom!” would sound bizarre coming from the mouths of most women on this list, but with Katy at the mic, it’s somehow quaint and lovely.
9. Adele, “Someone Like You”
We haven’t had many old-school ballads absolutely own mainstream radio (Rihanna’s “Stay” comes to mind; Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” is another), but “Someone Like You” is weepy enough to sustain the genre’s visibility for the next five years. What could be a cry-worthier lyric of jilted confusion than “Never mind, I’ll find someone like you”? Well, here’s another: “I wish nothing but the best for you too.” My eyes! They’re skyfalling with set-on-fire rain!
8. Lady Gaga, “Just Dance”
Stefani Germanotta entered our lives with a saucy, drunk-in-the-club anthem that remains her most “gaga” effort. You can’t not thump to its harsh bop, and you have to love its pissy, rambunctious lyrics including “Wish I could shut my playboy mouth” and “I love this record, baby, but I can’t see straight anymore.” It is pure joy. Pure. Oh, Colby O’Donis, where art thou?
7. Rihanna, “We Found Love”
It helps that “We Found Love” has such an extraordinary, unforgettable video of Bonnie and Clyde ride together/die together romance, but the song itself is a carnivalesque spiral of emotion. It is a crashing, bleak dance anthem that hinges on one oft-repeated sentiment: “We found love in a hopeless place.” The dance beat may suggest hope is around the corner, but Rihanna’s vocal is so pained, it’s clear she’s lost in the frightening, cackling fugue state of clubland.
6. Katy Perry, “Teenage Dream”
The title track off Katy Perry’s 2010 smash album is an ode to the discovery of perfect lust. Though it’s chorus is punchy and unforgettable, the genius of “Teenage Dream” is the comely stuff leading up to the orgiastic breakthrough: “Let’s go all the way tonight / No regrets/ Just love / We can dance until we die / You and I will be young forever.” It’s sweet and creepy and out of control and perfect and a little gross, just like teenage infatuation.
5. Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”
Breaking from The Fame, Gaga moved from pounding rhythms to operatic insanity. “Bad Romance” is a meaty chunk of her rawest carnality complete with some bizarre references to Hitchcock (“I want your psycho, your vertigo stick / Want you in my rear window, baby you’re sick”) and a wicked self-possession (“I’m a free b*tch, baby.”) It’s a bunch of messages, riddles, and feelings wrapped up in one feral vocal performance. In theory it seems too dada too function, but what sentiment warrants mania more than “I don’t want to be friends”?
4. Ke$ha, “Tik Tok”
She spelled how she wanted. She snarled how she wanted. And she worked the club how she wanted — and she didn’t stop. Ke$ha’s debut single as a solo artist is raunchy and weird, but it’s mostly godly in its pure obnoxiousness. “I’m talkin’ bout everybody getting crunk, crunk,” she croons like a rapper in 2004, before adding, “Boys trynna touch my junk, junk.” Ke$ha is a mess with meaning, and “Tik Tok” is a kegstand of crunk that the po-po could never shut down.
3. Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”
It takes a special something to move eight million singles in the U.S. alone, and Adele’s biggest hit “Rolling in the Deep” packs at least five special somethings, including a towering vocal performance, intriguing lyrics, a driving pace, the ache of a British Linda Ronstadt, and spotless production. The fire starting in Adele’s heart is still raging, but the shred of self-doubt in her vocal performance makes a lamenting line like “We could’ve had it all” make her sound, after all her astounding success, still deeply mortal.
2. Beyonce, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”
Surely the video for “Single Ladies” is as well-regarded as the song, but let’s not forget that song. It’s a strutting, clap-along, thump-along hit with more glamorous moxie than Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. It inspires screams, applause, and mania with its opening notes, and you know you have an enduring classic on your hands when Liza Minnelli can’t even destroy it with appalling chicken dance choreography in Sex and the City 2. Score one for the almighty, infallible House of Dereon.
1. Lady Gaga, “Poker Face”
It’s still the rawest, weirdest, sexiest, poppiest, and coolest pop song of the past five years. It’s still replayable. It’s still the quintessential Lady Gaga moment. “Poker Face” may coast on broad card game metaphors, but its holler-worthy blend of sexual aggression (“I’ll get him hot / Show him what I got”) and sinister pop flourishes (those hot-as-hell muh-muh-muh-muhhhhs) make this a definitively libidinous earworm. There’s always a slight wink in Lady Gaga’s work, but “Poker Face” proves she’s still powerful when she blatantly announces she’s bluffin’ with her muffin.