From a cello-laced pop anthem to a church-rattling folk track to Queen Bey’s utter flawlessness, 2014 contained an amazingly diverse array of powerful singles. After many, many listens, the Billboard staff voted for their favorites in our annual Critics’ Picks list. Check out what we chose as the 10 best singles of 2014. (And see our list of the 10 best albums here.)
(text by Jason Lipshutz)
10. 5 Seconds of Summer, “She Looks So Perfect”
With a hook that’s engrained in your head midway through the song and an instantly classic shout-out to American Apparel, “She Looks So Perfect” understandably broke 5 Seconds of Summer in the States, and introduced us to pop-punk’s great new hopes.
9. Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”
After years of writing scathing songs about her ex-flames, Taylor Swift tossed every acidic “Maybe SHE’S the problem” user comment into a blender and served up a self-aware smoothie as the second single from 1989. Bonus points for a music video that ranks among (or maybe at the top of) Swift’s very best visuals.
8. Bleachers, “I Wanna Get Better”
Beneath the fist-pumping piano hook and a six-syllable vocal chant lies a sorrowful song about a deceased sister and feeling alienated as a hapless high schooler. Jack Antonoff infused a triumphant melody with pure emotion, and offered an indie-pop single that affects and endures.
How does Beyonce follow up a career-defining album that included some of the most adored singles of her career… as well as a notorious incident in an elevator in which her sister took a swing at her husband? By dropping a remix that splits the difference, of course. By taking a white-hot song and brushing the line “Of course sometimes shit goes down/When it’s a billion dollars on an elevator,” Beyonce made “Flawless” priceless.
DJ Mustard ruled hip-hop in 2014, but out of all the great singles (YG’s “Who Do You Love” and Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em” spring to mind), Tinashe’s “2 On” was the most hypnotic, a masterful display of charisma from an R&B artist who was relatively unknown when the song dropped. With Mustard on the beat, Tinashe gave the producer the female protagonist he had been previously lacking.
5. Jason Aldean, “Burnin’ It Down”
Is “Burnin’ It Down” one of the best R&B singles of the year, gifted by one of country’s biggest superstars? The song glides with sex appeal and programmed beats, and while Jason Aldean knows a thing or two about dirt road anthems, he left his comfort zone here and straight-up scored.
An ode to feeling at home with your best friend when you’re nowhere near your actual residence, “Rather Be” gave Clean Bandit and Jess Glynne a U.S. following, and gave us one of the most likable pop singles in years, a fizzy mix of strings, synth-pop and 70’s dance music. Even if Clean Bandit never dents the Top 10 again, the group produced one song that feels like it will last forever.
3. Hozier, “Take Me To Church”
Even if “Take Me To Church” hadn’t been featured in a Beats By Dre commercial or been performed on Saturday Night Live, Hozier’s debut single would have found an American audience, thanks to one of the year’s most harrowing hooks and unique vocal takes. Now nominated for a Song of the Year Grammy, “Take Me To Church” still produces goosebumps after dozens of plays.
2. Kendrick Lamar, “i”
No, it’s not the glowering sneer of “Backseat Freestyle” or the multi-pronged storytelling of “Swimming Pools (Drank),” but Kendrick Lamar’s “i” captures something that’s arguably more difficult to convey in hip-hop: blissful positivity. Operating atop an Isley Brothers sample, Lamar continuously proves himself the most inventive MC in the game on the single, zagging when we think he’s going to zig and blasting into an earth-shattering verse just when we think the song is slowing down. There’s no slowing down King Kendrick.
1. Sia, “Chandelier”
Who would have thought before 2014 began that Sia — responsible for co-writing so many indelible pop treats, from Rihanna’s “Diamonds” to David Guetta’s “Titanium” — would have come up with the year’s best single as a solo artist? The towering YOLO anthem “Chandelier” took months to reach the Top 10 of the Hot 100 chart, but pop purveyors embraced its sentiment and Sia’s performance almost immediately, turning the camera-shy Australian into an American star. Few could have seen “Chandelier” coming, and an unforeseen triumph like this one helps make pop music so exciting as an art form.