Have you ever listened to a just-released album, gravitated toward one particular track and thought with certainty, “Oh, this song is definitely going to be a single!”? And then you wait, and other songs are chosen as singles from that album, and you keep waiting, and the album cycle ends… and you realize that the most obvious single choice (to you, at least) was never chosen?
We know that feeling of incredulity: there have been several high-profile pop projects over the past few years with out-and-out standout tracks that seem ripe for radio play… and yet, for one reason or another, they never make it there. These songs will forever exist as precious album cuts and fun hypotheticals for pop nerds to kick around. And, yes, your favorite hit-maker has a song that could (or did) make this list.
Check out 15 of the best pop songs from the past five years that weren’t released as singles before their respective artists’ album cycles came to a close, but really should have been:
Miley Cyrus, “#GETITRIGHT”
As a No. 1 pop album with multiple smash singles, Miley Cyrus‘ Bangerz album was an anomaly for only having three official singles released. “We Can’t Stop” was the Mike WiLL-assisted reinvention and “Wrecking Ball” gave Cyrus her first Hot 100 No. 1 single, but after the somber, gorgeous “Adore You” was released as a follow-up in late 2013, the controversial pop star embarked on the Bangerz tour and ceased with the single releases. The logical fourth single that never was, of course, is this slinky Pharrell Williams cut, which Cyrus performed on television but never gave a music video or radio push. As breezy as “Wrecking Ball” was intense, “#GETITRIGHT” remains a stellar album cut, but not a single. #BUMMER.
Rihanna, “Lost In Paradise”
Rihanna has been startlingly good at selecting the most sensible singles from each of her seven albums; scan through her discography, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find too many irrepressible bangers that weren’t given a shot at radio. One of the exceptions to that rule is “Lost In Paradise,” the final track on Unapologetic that steps forward on a contemplative foot and explodes when Rihanna declares, “It may be wrong but it feels right, to be lost in paradise!” The song presented an interesting mix of pop elegance and techno animation, and more complex emotion than something like “Right Now.”
Justin Timberlake, “Let the Groove Get In”
Those searching for a Justin Timberlake dance floor burner to follow up “SexyBack” and “My Love” on The 20/20 Experience were rewarded roughly 47 minutes into the comeback album with the intricately energetic “Let the Groove Get In.” Stretching past the seven-minute mark, the Afro-pop-influenced collection of calls and responses seemed like the logical next step for JT after “Suit & Tie” and “Mirrors,” but instead Timberlake pushed out “Tunnel Vision,” then quickly skipped ahead to the second half of The 20/20 Experience with “Take Back the Night.” If only one new album had been released, “Let the Groove Get In” could have been the stealth dance hit Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience opus curiously lacked.
Demi Lovato, “Something That We’re Not”
“Something That We’re Not,” from Demi Lovato‘s most recent album Demi, is the type of song that takes one listen to completely embrace: the big-haired pop-rock sound, the please-acknowledge-the-friend-zone concept and cheeky background of ‘hey!’s’ make the song one of Lovato’s most fully realized to date. The pop star gave “Really Don’t Care,” a Cher Lloyd collaboration in a similar vein, a proper single look, as well as more uptempo dance fare like “Heart Attack” and “Neon Lights.” All three of those tracks were Top 40 hits for Lovato, but none offer the unadulterated shout-along joy of “Something That We’re Not.”
Beyonce, “End of Time”
Real talk: “End of Time” is the catchiest song on Beyonce‘s 4 album, with a bulletproof chorus and masterful control of its melodies. Beyonce released a whole bunch of singles and videos from 4, delivering official clips for “Run The World (Girls),” “1+1,” “Best Thing I Never Had,” “Party,” “Love on Top” and “Countdown” before taking time off to deliver her first child, Blue Ivy Carter. Those six songs help make 4 one of Beyonce’s strongest full-lengths, and “End of Time” should have been squeezed into that group.
Taylor Swift, “State of Grace”
With singles like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “22” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.,” Taylor Swift‘s Red album represented the transition to mainstream pop that 1989 completed two years later. Here’s the best-kept secret of Red, though: it features the best straight-ahead rock song of Swift’s career. Opening track “State of Grace” pummels the listener with guitar riffs as towering as skyscrapers and a central theme — blindsiding love — that can be summed up with a 12-word chorus: “And I never saw you coming/And I’ll never be the same.” Released as a promotional single ahead of Red, “State of Grace” might have dominated alternative radio for months on end if a different artist had created it… but then again, no artist could have pulled off this anthem as well as Ms. Swift did.
Usher, “Show Me”
Usher‘s 2012 album Looking 4 Myself contains about five songs that could have been among the R&B king’s biggest Hot 100 hits, from the Luke Steele-assisted strut of the title track to the pre-“Get Lucky” style of the Pharrell Williams collaboration “Twisted.” “Show Me,” however, remains the most frustrating non-single, a classy throwback to Usher’s “U Remind Me” days that didn’t need to resort to studio gimmickry in order to sizzle. Remember those pained shrieks at the end of “Scream”? “Show Me” is the exact opposite of them: calm, collected, effortlessly cool.
Britney Spears, “(Drop Dead) Beautiful”
“Hold It Against Me,” “Till The World Ends” and “I Wanna Go” stood apart from the rest of Britney Spears‘ Femme Fatale album, and deserved to be the electro-pop project’s first three singles. But pour some out for Sabi and her would-be breakout moment, “(Drop Dead) Beautiful,” a Britney song with a gorgeous hook, an Auto-Tuned rap breakdown (from Sabi, not Britney), and lines like “You must be B-I-G/Because you got me hypnotized” and “Your body looks so sick, I think I caught the flu.” Top 40 radio never caught the “(Drop Dead) Beautiful” flu in 2011, but we sure did.
Katy Perry, “Double Rainbow”
Katy Perry struck a lot of different poses with her PRISM singles — tribal empowerment on “Roar,” trap-hop salaciousness with “Dark Horse,” goofy dance-pop on “This Is How We Do,” disco on “Birthday” — and while “Unconditionally” waved the stone-serious mid-tempo ballad flag admirably, “Double Rainbow” had the prettier pedigree. Produced by Greg Kurstin and co-written by Sia, Perry and Kurstin, “Double Rainbow” is not the powerhouse Sia co-write that Perry probably envisioned, but it’s arresting enough to warrant multiple rewinds. All the way, “Double Rainbow” — all the way.
Justin Bieber, “Roller Coaster”
True Beliebers understand that Justin Bieber‘s Journals tracks showcased an impressive level of R&B artistry during a tumultuous time in the former teen superstar’s career. Nowhere is this more clear than “Roller Coaster,” an understated funk delicacy with a savvy breakdown in the bridge leading into the glide of the chorus. Who says that all of Journals is downbeat? “Roller Coaster” certainly isn’t an international pop play like “As Long As You Love Me,” but it’s something more nuanced and ultimately smarter.
P!nk, “Are We All We Are”
Holy cow, does P!nk‘s The Truth About Love album start out strong: the 2012 full-length boasts “Are We All We Are,” “Blow Me (One Last Kiss),” “Try,” “Just Give Me a Reason” and “True Love” as its opening five tracks! The first of those five, of course, was the only one to not be released as a single — and what a shame, because “Are We All We Are” is a classic fist-pounding-against-chest P!nk single, a distant cousin to “So What” and an inspiring stomper vaguely reminiscent of P.O.D.’s “Youth of the Nation.” But, you know, in a good way!
Lady Gaga, “MANiCURE”
Lady Gaga‘s ARTPOP album has a few quietly stunning track sequences nestled within its 15 songs, and the lovably “MANiCURE” injects a jolt of energy into the middle section of the full-length. An underrated expansion of Gaga’s sound, ARTPOP still lacks the sort of otherworldly hooks that Fame Monster fans longed for — but “MANiCURE” totally hits its mark as a triumphant post-breakup romp, and is one of the instances on the album in which Gaga’s vocal performance is jubilantly unabashed. Perhaps if the album had been given a few more cracks at a smash hit, “MANiCURE” would have reached its potential as one.
One Direction, “Little Black Dress”
While One Direction swiveled toward arena rock on 2013’s Midnight Memories, “Little Black Dress” took a bite out of the power-pop of Cheap Trick and the Knack — and excellently so. Seriously, listen to this song and wrap your head around the fact that the Strokes haven’t made a rock song this good over the past decade. Maybe “Little Black Dress” wouldn’t have caught on at radio, but it’s a song that defiantly slays the image of 1D as a mainstream pop act, and goes a long way toward establishing their post-teenybopper cred.
Kesha, “Only Wanna Dance with You”
Some of Kesha‘s sophomore album Warrior sounds belabored, as if the electro-pop star’s crazy misadventures needed to be spelled out in extreme detail; meanwhile, “Only Wanna Dance With You” remains disarmingly sweet, a tale of two kids drinking wine on the cement outside of a 7-11, not wanting to develop feelings but knowing that they now exist. The airy ditty would have made for a lovely change-up to singles like “Die Young” and “C’Mon,” but continues to be a hidden gem for Kesha completists.
Adele, “I’ll Be Waiting”
As one of the biggest-selling albums of the century and the home of three No. 1 singles, Adele‘s 21 is an album that doesn’t have too many smudges on its resumé. Still, could the rousing “I’ll Be Waiting” have been the fourth No. 1 single had it been performed at one of the many awards cermeonies that Adele was sweeping in 2011-12? The uncharacteristically fast tempo, nifty piano refrain and brassy vocal take combine for one of the album’s most emphatic releases, and after “Set Fire to the Rain,” “I’ll Be Waiting” could have very well set Top 40 radio ablaze, had it been given the chance.