In a musical world like pop, where the genre’s very name puts the emphasis on popularity, the deep cut is always at risk of being overlooked. For the world’s biggest pop stars, the hit single is forever paramount, with their non-singles carrying an air of relative unworthiness.
But as any true pop stan knows, the smashes only ever tell half of an artist’s story. The real stuff of cult devotion is found in the album tracks, the soundtrack and compilation contributions, the bonus tracks — the deep cuts. Without them, the pop star is only the sum total of what the public already knows about them. With them, they become three-dimensional artists, worthy of near-worship.
To pay tribute to these lesser-celebrated gems hiding in plain sight within the pop sphere, Billboard has compiled a list of our 100 favorite deep cuts from pop stars this century. We define a deep cut as anything that wasn’t released as an official single in the U.S. — promo singles are OK, as long as they don’t have an official video that’s more than just a bunch of strewn-together concert footage, as are international-only singles. Songs from albums before 2000 were ineligible, though, as were ones from 2017, since there’s still time for them to be tabbed as singles.
As for “pop star,” that’s a little trickier. We generally tried to apply our hyper-subjective Four-Song Test: As in, if you were talking to a fan who’s casually paid attention to pop music this century, would you expect them to know at least four songs this century by (or featuring) the artist, without knowing whether they were actually a fan? If so, they’re probably in, if not, they’re most likely out. (So sorry, Carly Rae fans — not queen of this list.) Of course, the word “pop” itself is pretty open to interpretation, and sometimes we just had to ask ourselves: Would we ever refer to this person as a pop star in conversation? (That’s why Drake is on this list, for instance, but not Kendrick Lamar.)
You may or may not agree with our definition, but we think you’ll agree with the songs — buried treasures, should’ve-been singles, and oddball jams that show you a side of your favorite superstar that you never knew existed. Dive in to the deep end of the pop world with us.
100. Britney Spears, “Kill the Lights” (Circus, 2008)
You can be forgiven for assuming “Kill the Lights” was a cut off Spears’ 2007 album Blackout rather than its follow-up, 2008’s Circus. The song’s swaggering, serpentine synths, kiss-offs to the paparazzi and partly spoken-word chorus could have easily fit among “Gimme More” and “Piece of Me.” Regardless, it speaks to the strength of Circus’ preceding singles that “Lights” never got its due on radio. — KEVIN RUTHERFORD
99. Backstreet Boys, “Climbing the Walls” (Never Gone, 2005)
Arriving in June 2005, Never Gone was the Backstreet Boys’ first studio album since 2000, though for the Diamond-certified quintet, it must’ve felt like over a decade. The boy band boom was long dead, but Never Gone managed to hang with the radio rock-friendly times by embracing a live instruments-only policy, and logging one last Billboard Hot 100 top 20 hit. But the album’s standout is arguably this immaculate, string-laced post-breakup power ballad. Skip to 2:35 — The Fray never pulled off an epic key change like this. – CHRIS PAYNE
98. Ciara, “Like a Surgeon” (Fantasy Ride, 2008)
A planned-but-canceled single from Ciara’s third LP, it’s not hard to see why “Like a Surgeon” was ultimately deemed unfit for radio: The song’s lurching beat, overstuffed chorus and “Weird Al”-reminiscent title all seemed a little off-kilter for late-’00s pop. That slight discomfort is what makes the song a fan favorite, though, an assured CiCi just a little more sinister than usual with the scalpel, but still making all the right cuts, proving herself the “true tactician” of the chorus. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
97. The Black Eyed Peas, “Hands Up” (Elephunk, 2004)
There were simply too many hooks on Elephunk, too many melodies to lodge in your brain, for “Hands Up” to score an impact on pop radio — though it might’ve had better luck on rhythmic or hip-hop formats. In fact, “Hands Up” has a stronger kinship with the Peas’ earlier material, which is why it’s probably the best song to open Elephunk, a meshing of pre- and post-“Where Is the Love?” sensibilities that’s not too jarring for older fans. Also – NBA Live 2004, right? — K.R.
96. P!nk, “Leave Me Alone (I’m Lonely)” (I’m Not Dead, 2006)
Leave it to P!nk to pen a love song with the lyric “Leave me the fuck alone!” This pissy, expletive-filled confessional about being head-over-heels — but still needing space — was billed as a single overseas, but never stateside. It’s a shame: the annoyed-yet-affectionate track is almost laugh-out-loud funny, while carrying more depth than it lets on, the aforementioned lyric still concluding with the sigh, “tomorrow I’ll be beggin’ you to come home.” — TATIANA CIRISANO
95. OneRepublic, “Future Looks Good” (Oh My My, 2016)
A panoramic, acoustic-fueled EDM-pop-rock anthem that feels like an entire music festival in three-and-a-half minutes, with an unbridled sense of optimism baked into every strum and stomp, and of course into the second-hand-reported chorus: “You are the future/ And the future looks good.” Fortunate that Tedder & Co. pushed this thing out in October of last year; a month later and the irony would’ve been dandelion-bitter. — A.U.
94. Fergie, “Pedestal” (The Dutchess, 2006)
“You hide behind the computer screens so that you don’t have to be seen/ How could a person be so mean?” Fergie prophetically wondered in 2006. As with all things Stacy Ferguson, what makes this Dutchess cut soar is its inherent ridiculousness: Not only do we hear the keyboard clatter of an Internet troll in the background, but the song inexplicably opens with an interpolation of her Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 “London Bridge”… which itself is an interpolation of an 18th century nursery rhyme. – JOE LYNCH
93. Miley Cyrus, “Rooting for My Baby” (Bangerz Deluxe Edition, 2013)
The thing is, Miley Cyrus didn’t need to leave hip-hop behind to make her rootsy singer-songwriter album: “Rooting for My Baby,” co-written and produced by Pharrell Williams, is a perfectly melancholy, lived-in, and captivating account of a strained relationship. With a tearful twang in her voice, she sings about getting a beer for her partner while waiting for a difficult moment to pass. “In a minute it’ll be over and gone.” Everything can change on a dime. Miley must understand. — ROSS SCARANO
92. Adele, “One and Only” (21, 2011)
Being the emotional climax of an album as gut-wrenched as Adele’s 21 is certainly no easy ask, but with some help from Dan Wilson and Rick Rubin, “One and Only” is up to the task. The song waltzes on effectively enough for its first three minutes or so, Adele reaching back for her throatiest “DARRRE YOU TO LET ME BE….” delivery over a convincingly swirling throwback soul track. But there’s an extra gear still to be reached: At 3:24, the key switches, the drums drop out, the pounding piano takes center stage, and somewhere, Steve Perry can’t help but golf-clap. — A.U.
91. Drake, “Karaoke” (Thank Me Later, 2010)
It’s important that he calls the song “Karaoke”: Drake tips his hand that, on some level, he’s faking it. Not that he’s ghostwriting or pulling some Milli Vanilli shit — it’s about emotions. He’s putting on a show for the room, in order to mask how hectic he feels inside. And even when he gets to what would historically be the tough part of the song — the rap verse on the R&B track — he continues to reveal his vulnerability: “Don’t be fooled by the money, I’m still just young and unlucky/ I’m surprised you couldn’t tell.” Drake featuring Drake. — R.S.
90. Shawn Mendes, “Don’t Be a Fool” (Illuminate, 2016)
Mendes won over millions with his acoustic crooning on 2015 debut Handwritten, but sophomore LP Illuminate saw the then 17-year-old channeling a more soulful side of his artistry, perhaps most notably so on “Don’t Be A Fool.” His heartfelt vocals make the melody beguiling, as it sounds like something you’d want to slow dance to — but in reality he’s breaking a girl’s heart, telling her he’s not worth waiting for. — TAYLOR WEATHERBY
89. Michelle Branch, “You Get Me” (The Spirit Room, 2001)
Few adult contemporary-leaning pop-rock albums of the 2000s start off as effectively as Michelle Branch’s The Spirit Room, on which “You Get Me,” the album’s second track, is flanked by top 20 hits “Everywhere” and “All You Wanted” on either side. It’s understandable that Branch went with “Goodbye to You” as single three, but “You Get Me” remains a strikingly consistent slice of midtempo singer-songwriter fare with endearing, easygoing vocals and lyrics perfect for the high school/early college crowd – which is probably why the song soundtracked MTV’s three-season reality show Sorority Life. — K.R.
88. Justin Timberlake feat. will.i.am, “Damn Girl” (FutureSex/LoveSounds, 2006)
Michael Jackson is Timberlake’s primary pop muse, but JT gave a hint of what he might sound like if he favored Prince instead of Jacko on this frisky FutureSex/LoveSounds deep cut. From the syncopated drumbeat to the half-sarcastic falsetto, Timberlake earned the “skinny motherfucker with the high voice” title for at least five minutes in 2006. – J. Lynch
87. Ed Sheeran, “Tenerife Sea” (x, 2014)
Ed Sheeran proved his penchant for gushy love songs once more with “Tenerife Sea,” a lush melody with a lyric that compares a lover’s eyes to the Canary Islands’ seas. The track’s sticky-sweet musings seem better suited to first dances than the top 40, ultimately fading behind more pop-wise x singles like “Don’t,” though worthy of crushing on all the same. — T.C.
86. Jason Derulo feat. Jennifer Lopez & Matoma, “Try Me” (Everything Is 4, 2015)
On Jason Derulo’s top-heavy 2015 album Everything Is 4, “Try Me” shines on the LP’s second half, recalling “Let’s Get It On” through its sexy dance floor-ready groove. The song was released as a single outside of the United States, but didn’t get its deserved attention stateside — with assists from Norwegian DJ Matoma and international superstar Jennifer Lopez, the trop-house-before-it-was-tired highlight was probably the best collaboration on the set. — COLIN STUTZ
85. Fifth Harmony feat. Missy Elliott, “Not That Kinda Girl” (7/27, 2016)
Putting Missy Elliott on a track is always a promising start, but when it’s something as sassy and thumping as “Not That Kinda Girl,” it’s downright brilliant. Frankly, though, Missy isn’t even the best part of the song: The 5H girls’ confidence glimmers as they declare their suitors no match for them (“You wanna touch it, you’ll regret it, you’ll see, try me”), and assert that they won’t settle for less (“Show me you got something more”). Plus, the beat’s ’80s electro-funk sizzle makes it a standout in their discography, and today’s pop landscape altogether. — T.W.
84. Nicki Minaj, “Girls Fall Like Dominoes” (Pink Friday Deluxe Edition, 2010)
Nicki Minaj has long thrived on her bonus tracks, specifically with “Super Bass,” the radio-cozying addendum to her 2010 debut Pink Friday that peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100. But it’s the lesser-known “Girls Fall Like Dominoes,” off that same Deluxe Edition, that packed as potent of a punch, sampling The Big Pink’s underground alt-rock hit “Dominos,” and housing some of Minaj’s signature playful flows. — STEVEN J. HOROWITZ
83. John Mayer, “Stop This Train” (Continuum, 2006)
A quarter-life crisis freakout of disarming tranquility, as well as one of considerable immaturity and myopia… but man, if you haven’t been there yourself, you probably wouldn’t be listening to John Mayer deep cuts in the first place. “So scared of getting older/ I’m only good at being young/ So I play the numbers game/ To find a way to say that life has just begun.” Hear that, but as John’s own father tells him, you gotta let the train keep riding and hope to enjoy the view when you can — and the insistent, comforting chug of the backing track nods in agreement. — A.U.
82. Sia, “Bird Set Free” (This Is Acting, 2016)
Sia’s 2016 LP This Is Acting boasted the pregame anthem “Cheap Thrills” and the booming vocal showcase “Alive.” So sure, opening track “Bird Set Free,” with its melodic piano backbone, wasn’t the clear frontrunner to be released as a single. But the dramatic build and liberating lyrical message prove this song to be one her most compelling. — LYNDSEY HAVENS
81. Missy Elliott, “Lick Shots” (Miss E… So Addictive, 2001)
The lead-in to “Get Ur Freak On” on the Miss E…So Addictive album (it also appears in that song’s video), “Lick Shots” is a prime example of Missy and Timbaland’s effortless magic during their lengthy hot streak. A laid-back beat rolls along while an Israeli folk riff jumps out of the speakers, and Missy’s sneering delivery makes ferocity sound like the most casual thing in the world. – J. Lynch
80. Demi Lovato, “Something That We’re Not” (Demi, 2013)
Demi Lovato has moved away from pop-rock and into more R&B-rooted territory, but the guitar-based start of her career is worth remembering fondly. By her fourth album, 2013’s Demi, she had become an absolute pro at fashioning six-string hooks around her seismic vocals, and while “Something That We’re Not” has a knockout chorus, the lyrics — keenly sliding a needy dude with aspirations of romance to the curb — are the star here. — J. Lipshutz
79. Usher feat. Luke Steele, “Looking 4 Myself” (Looking 4 Myself, 2012)
The title track to the secret best album by this century’s most underrated male pop star, “Looking 4 Myself” finds Ursh on a journey toward self, and the track sounds like it — the strutting drums and striding keys (courtesy of Empire of the Sun synth-futurist Luke Steele) gently propelling Usher ever closer to the man he was. The song’s introspection feels sincere but not overbearing, and its infectious midtempo saunter makes it that rarest find from an R&B star: a song that doesn’t work in the club or in the bedroom, but remains utterly irresistible. — A.U.
78. *NSYNC, “It Makes Me Ill” (No Strings Attached, 2000)
It’s hard to top a classic like “Bye Bye Bye,” but fun as that classic is to dance to, “It Makes Me Ill” is arguably No Strings Attached‘s greatest sing-along, with its undulating verses — especially on the second half of each verse — and choppy beat. It’s a tale of heartbreak (“You can imagine how it makes me feel to see you with him”) presented with an attitude, both in the group’s singing and the feisty, pinballing track, which makes you believe they’re ready to kick the other guy’s ass rather than cry over losing a girl to someone else. — T.W.
77. Halsey, “Gasoline” (Badlands Deluxe Edition, 2015)
Halsey’s unlikely ascent from cult favorite to legitimate pop star has been largely fueled by a wildly intense fanbase, absolutely down to follow her down through her social-media scavenger hunts and elaborate lyrical double-meanings. So yeah, they take their Halsey deep cuts seriously: “Gasoline,” a slow-burning ode to living with mental difference, was a Deluxe-only cut off her 2015 debut Badlands, but still has the set’s third-most Spotify spins. From the opening stanza, Halsey’s an open book, laying out her distress alongside her newfound fame: “Are you insane like me? Been in pain like me? / Bought a hundred dollar bottle of champagne like me? / Just to pour that motherfucker down the drain like me?” — C.P.
76. Selena Gomez, “Perfect” (Revival Deluxe Edition, 2015)
Don’t mistake “Perfect” for just another sob song about infidelity. Gomez takes the theme one step further in this alluring and somewhat risky Revival release, where she’s driven so mad by suspicion that she becomes obsessed with the “other woman” herself. Lyrics like “I can taste her lipstick, it’s like I’m kissing her, too” might have been expected to draw buzz in 2015 — too bad the song was tacked on to the album as a bonus track, making it easily overlooked next to the similarly mischievous but pop-readier “Hands to Myself” and “Good for You.” — T.C.
75. Kelly Clarkson, “Beautiful Disaster” (Thankful, 2003)
Buried among the Troubles With Love and the Moments Like This on Kelly Clarkson’s debut album was this unassuming stunner, with gorgeous backing sighs, chiming guitars, and one of Kelly’s most heartbreaking choruses: “If I could hold on/ Through the tears and the laughter/ Would it be beautiful/ Or just a beautiful disaster?” If its exquisite pop-rock lightness sounds like it would’ve been more at home on ’80s radio, there’s a reason: The song was produced and co-written by Matthew Wilder, who would undoubtedly advise Kelly that when it comes to her doomed relationship in this one, she’s got to keep on moving. — A.U.
74. Katy Perry, “International Smile” (Prism, 2013)
Katy Perry had a strong run with 2013’s Prism, landing with Hot 100-toppers “Dark Horse” (featuring Juicy J) and “Roar.” While strong-footed offerings like “Birthday” failed to make a mark, Prism was rife with finely crafted bops, including ebullient deep cut “International Smile,” a disco-rooted would-be hit given the right push. — S.J.H.
73. Gwen Stefani, “Yummy” (The Sweet Escape, 2006)
It’s hard to play this percolating, Neptunes-produced confection and not be reminded of Katy Perry’s recent single “Bon Appetit” — the tracks are similarly goofy and delicious. The biggest difference is that while “Bon Appetit” was somewhat overexposed as a single, drawing extra attention (and judgment), “Yummy” can be revered as a humorous track wedged in the middle of Stefani’s sophomore solo album. — L.H.
72. Lorde, “400 Lux” (Pure Heroine, 2013)
There’s making it in the big city, and there’s making the most of the suburbs. Before she got on her first plane, Ella Yelich-O’Connor was kicking it amongst the rows of identical houses that lined Auckland, New Zealand, turning everyday teenage romance into fizzing, precocious electro-pop. Take “400 Lux”: lounging in hoodies and hooking up in the cul-de-sac take on towering allure (“pulses can drive from here”) on the Pure Heroine A-side highlight, thanks to the oozing ropes of synth and Lorde’s heady croon. — C.P.
71. Rihanna, “Breakin’ Dishes” (Good Girl Gone Bad, 2007)
Third LP Good Girl Gone Bad marked the summation of Rihanna’s evolution from [x]-hit wonder to fully fledged pop behemoth, but while the album’s undeniable smashes proved she was here to stay, it was vengeful deep cut “Breakin’ Dishes” that pointed to just how dominant she’d become. The song’s hell-hath-no-fury stomp presented a RiRi without remorse or self-consciousness, actively daring the cops to come get their girl, over incendiary synths that threaten to set the whole thing ablaze before she does. The word “Marsh-mall-owws” never sounded so deadly. — A.U.
70. Jonas Brothers, “Pushin’ Me Away” (A Little Bit Longer, 2008)
Before One Direction dropped a half dozen or more absolute earworms on the general public each and every album, Jonas Brothers were their closest predecessors, each album chock full of jingles eager to please the Radio Disney crowd. “Pushin’ Me Away” sits among the Jonas’ top examples of this, single or otherwise, teetering on that edge between pop-punk and pop-rock that helped define the 2000s. Its fan-favorite status is cemented by its No. 16 peak on the Hot 100, on digital downloads alone. — K.R.
69. Ariana Grande, “Piano” (Yours Truly, 2013)
On Ariana’s debut album, Yours Truly, “The Way” and “Baby I” became immediate standouts for ’90s nostalgists, but the album’s sleeper Mariah moment came halfway through: “Piano.” From the plinked opening chords paired with choral “whoa-oh-oh-oh”s to the upbeat, dare-you-not-to-sing-along chorus, it’s uncannily similar in sound and structure to MiMi’s “Always Be My Baby.” It’s also a clever warning to any early listeners who might roll their eyes at Grande’s taste for dramatic melisma: “I could write a song on my new piano/ I could sing about how love is a losing battle/ Not hard,” she shrugs. — REBECCA MILZOFF
68. Christina Aguilera, “Birds of Prey” (Bionic Deluxe Edition, 2010)
Xtina is known for her booming vocals, so it’s no shocker that this understated, synth-heavy midtempo cut was designated a bonus track on Bionic. Without her signature vocal acrobatics, this quiet soundscape barely registers as an Aguilera track, but it still stands as one of her most sonically beguiling compositions. — P.C.
67. Jennifer Lopez, “Walking on Sunshine” (Metro Remix) (J to tha L-O! The Remixes, 2002)
No stranger to the remix, Jennifer Lopez has constructed a career of flipping originals into invigorating second takes that have proven more successful than the source material. Mark and Jeff Taylor’s euphoric spin on the already sugar-rushed “Walking on Sunshine” emerged as an unshakeable Gloria Estefan descendant, replete with chugging guitars and bleary synths. — S.J.H.
66. One Direction, “Fireproof” (Four, 2014)
Music fans who dismiss One Direction as a cookie-cutter-pop boy band have simply not heard “Fireproof.” The 1D boys (and both Niall Horan and Harry Styles as solo artists) have swum further into the deep end of the Fleetwood Mac pool since releasing this Four deep cut, but the way their harmonies yawn, build and strike on “Fireproof” — and the poise with which the romantic steadiness of the lyrics is conveyed — make this a special moment in their classic-rock excavation. — J. Lipshutz
65. Justin Bieber, “Die in Your Arms” (Believe, 2012)
While Justin Bieber’s Believe album aimed to strike a more mature tone than his past work, with “Die In Your Arms,” the teenager channeled an early Michael Jackson, fittingly sampling the icon’s “We’ve Got a Good Thing Going.” Though it may have been far afield from both the mopey R&B and the EDM-lit pop Bieber would gravitate toward afterwards, “Die in Your Arms” stands out as a sweet and undeniably soulful pop highlight of his early years. — C.S.
64. Lady Gaga, “Summerboy” (The Fame, 2008)
As with her chameleonic idol David Bowie, Lady Gaga knows how to put on a musical skin for a song and make you believe she’s been doing it for decades. Such is the case with buoyant synth-funk bop “Summerboy,” which finds Gaga channeling Gwen Stefani channeling Debbie Harry, and creating pure pop pleasure in the process. — J. Lynch
63. Zedd feat. Logic & X Ambassadors, “Transmission” (True Colors, 2015)
The buzzing EDMelodrama of “Transmission” remains the high-water mark off an album that only broke two minor U.S. hits (the Selena Gomez-featuring “I Want You to Know” and “Beautiful Now,” featuring Jon Bellion). Perhaps it was more behind its time than ahead of it; the driving chorus and sparkling synth-led production would feel more in place in 2012 than 2015. One way it did beat the curve? By featuring guest artists X Ambassadors and Logic, both pre-breakout Hot 100 hits. — K.R.
62. Madonna, “Forbidden Love” (Confessions on a Dance Floor, 2005)
The Material Girl’s discography is a gold mine of pop gems that were overlooked for the single treatment, and this twinkling Confessions On A Dance Floor track is no exception. With airy vocals over a subdued disco beat, this song is practically sonic ecstasy. Fun fact: this wasn’t Madonna’s first “Forbidden Love” — a slow jam on 1994’s Bedtime Stories has the same name. — P.C.
61. Pharrell, “Marilyn Monroe” (G I R L, 2014)
For a guy who’d produced countless hits and lent his angelic voice to a lot of them, a true solo smash eluded Pharrell Williams until his most recent album, 2014’s G I R L. He slayed that dragon with the inescapable “Happy,” but G I R L’s grandiose opener proved he hadn’t lost his artistic flair: “Marilyn Monroe” is a six-minute tour de force of modern funk, showcasing Pharrell’s familiar falsetto hooks alongside some welcome non sequiturs: a stop-the-tape fake ending, a spoken-word interlude from Kelly Osbourne and the bizarre reimagining of Roman Catholic saint Joan of Arc as some sort of sex symbol. — C.P.
60. Britney Spears, “Freakshow” (Blackout, 2007)
While the Blackout era is a thing Britney Spears fans would desperately like to leave in the past, the Blackout album remains rightly treasured as the most interesting set of Spears’ career. Tunes like “Freakshow” rank among her best supporting cuts, finding the sweet spot that defines the best Britney songs: a little edge in the verses that gives way to a supremely danceable chorus hook. “I still perform ‘Freakshow’ in my Vegas show — it’s one of my favorite songs that was never released as a single,” Spears told Fader in September. “It’s so much fun and it gives me the chance to get the audience involved. Oh yeah — it’s sassy. And I love sassy!” — TREVOR ANDERSON
59. Mariah Carey, “I’m That Chick” (E=MC2, 2008)
Disco Mariah only comes around every so often, and when received it must be cherished. The velvet-smooth groove and sublime, xylophone-traced chorus hook of “I’m That Chick” couldn’t have been much further from the grand ballads that made MC’s previous album her biggest in a decade, so E=MC2 understandably eschewed it as a single. But a decade later, you might have trouble naming a second single from this album, even as the ice-cream-like flavor from “Chick” still lingers on your tongue. — A.U.
58. Beyoncé, “Smash Into You” (I Am… Sasha Fierce, 2008)
On an album as massive as I Am… Sasha Fierce, with planet-sized ballads like “If I Were A Boy” and “Halo” and the internationally hailed bachelorette anthem “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It),” a handful of tracks were easily overlooked. But the sweeping and symphonic “Smash Into You” is one of Beyoncé’s best — for a brief moment of near-total abandon, the pop icon shows a vulnerable side of herself, while delivering effortlessly show-stopping and pure vocals. — L.H.
57. Ciara feat. Nicki Minaj, “Livin’ It Up” (Ciara, 2013)
Ciara and Nicki Minaj should collaborate more often. The pair, who teamed up on two songs from Ciara’s 2013 self-titled set, combine the singer’s high-energy vocals with the rapper’s powerful verse, for a combination that explodes off the back-half of the album. With feel-good lyrics like “Ima live life to the fullest/ I’ll be speeding like a bullet/ I’ll be rolling like a train / I’ll be dancing in the rain,” the only conclusion as to why it wasn’t pulled as a single was that Minaj was already featured on the album’s second hit, “I’m Out” — arguably the weaker of the two tracks. — XANDER ZELLNER
56. Lil Wayne feat. Drake, “With You” (I Am Not a Human Being, 2010)
Streetrunner’s big-hearted loop of Valerie Simpson’s “Benjie” sets the mood for Wayne’s sweetly crass bedroom patter on “With You.” “Shawty badder than a three-year-old/ Keep playing and Ima eat her like a pita roll” is his opening line. Weezy isn’t a human being, he’s something else entirely. — R.S.
55. Ellie Goulding, “My Blood” (Halcyon, 2012)
“Anything Could Happen” served as the optimist frontrunner from 2012’s Halcyon, but “My Blood” showed a darker glimpse of corporeal angst. All fire and brimstone, Goulding laments a love lost, her soul shattered as she contemplates the fallout of what once was. — S.J.H.
54. Ariana Grande, “Knew Better/Forever Boy” (Dangerous Woman, 2016)
With Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande fully shed the “mini-Mariah” image and became her own independent pop star with a cohesive vision. In an album dripping with sensuality, two-part album cut “Knew Better/Forever Boy” is the rare electro&B joint that’s as much a bedroom jam as it is a sweet love letter to a soulmate. – J. Lynch
53. Bruno Mars, “Chunky” (24K Magic, 2016)
Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic jam “Chunky” is an irresistible synth-funk groove calling out all the curvy women to the dance floor, even going so far as to pull a Sir Mix-A-Lot by shouting out his preferred measurements (“37-27-42, squeeze all of that into my coupe,” for the record). 24K Magic got three singles deep before seemingly calling it a day; if it had opted for a fourth, “Chunky” would’ve been the obvious choice. — C.S.
52. Taylor Swift, “State of Grace” (Red, 2012)
Stadium rock has rarely been Taylor Swift’s delivery system of choice for her pop mission statements, but she opted to open 2012 transition album Red with the echoing guitars and chest-beating chorus of “State of Grace.” An inspired choice: The instrumental and emotional swell of “Grace” — which already starts at like a 7 or 8 — gives it a wallop quite unlike anything in Swift’s catalog, particularly on the chorus (“And I never saw you coming/ And I’ll never be the same”), which says everything it needs to say in so few syllables, it stretches out a couple longer anyway just to fill time. — A.U.
51. Kesha, “Party at a Rich Dude’s House” (Animal, 2010)
It’s a little hard to listen to dollar sign-era Kesha jams now, given the allegations backdropping their recording. Still, nobody did this better than the artist then known as Ke$ha: synth-rock hedonism with a subversive undercurrent, turning “I Gotta Feeling” into something vaguely resembling class warfare, without sacrificing the hooks or the beat. — A.U.
50. Kanye West, “The Glory” (Graduation, 2007)
In 2007, Kanye West was on the brink of legendary status after going two-for-two with his College Dropout and Late Registration LPs. West’s third album, Graduation, helped him reach the apex of not only hip-hop, but pop music, period. Spawning a slew of singles including “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” Good Life” and “Flashing Lights,” it was Ye’s deep cuts that solidified the album’s greatness. The life-affirming “The Glory” found Kanye in rare form, with his swagger the selling point throughout the record: “Class back in session, so I upped it a grade/ In two years Dwayne Wayne became Dwyane Wade.” — CARL LAMARRE
49. Miley Cyrus, “Lighter” (Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, 2015)
Amid the glorious mess that is Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz is this starry-eyed, ‘80s-flavored slow jam produced by Mike WiLL Made-It. Even with its five-and-a-half minute run time — not to mention the lack of clear distinction between chorus and verse — the dreamy, ethereal melody never overstays its welcome, catching Miley in a rare gentle, love-swept moment with just a teensy smudge of Bangerz glitter. A standout lyric: “I’ve heard we never truly see ourselves / You gotta leave it up to someone else.” — T.C.
48. One Direction, “What a Feeling” (Made in the A.M., 2015)
One Direction’s later material found the boy band veering further into music that dominated radio far before any of its members even existed, though those songs rarely found their way onto airwaves. Shame… “What a Feeling” could have been a monster Adult Contemporary hit, uniting lovers of breezy, Fleetwood Mac-esque ‘70s soft rock and, well, adoring 1D fans who’ll absorb any pop history lessons their boys toss out. You’ll be hard-pressed to find better harmonizing in the band’s discography. Oh, and after hearing this, is it any wonder this year’s Harry Styles was what it was? — K.R.
47. Destiny’s Child, “Temptation” (The Writing’s on the Wall, 2000)
By 2000, Destiny’s Child proved they could sell high-energy cuts and put any man in his place in a smooth four minutes (“No No No / “Bills Bills Bills” / “Say My Name”), but could they deliver a sensual slow jam? Duh. With “Temptation,” the ladies flip the script and become the teasing adulterers, though — spoiler alert — they ultimately remain faithful. And while perhaps Destiny Child’s provocative side was too much a gamble at the time for record executives, “Temptation” is a natural bridge to later DC hits for the grown and sexy, like “Cater 2 U.”– T.A.
46. Demi Lovato, “Don’t Forget” (Don’t Forget, 2008)
It’s easy to, well, forget that early on in Demi Lovato’s career, the pop star released a slew of tracks that erred on the side of pop-punk. The title track from her debut set Don’t Forget jogs our memory, and reminds us that not only does the singer have near-generational chops for a pop star, but she also rocks out — hard. The only downside of the neon-bright rager is that it takes over two minutes to get to the drop, which equally feels long overdue, and so worth the wait. — X.Z.
45. Alicia Keys, “Heartburn” (The Diary of Alicia Keys, 2003)
From the moment the cymbals start tapping and the heavy guitar riff kicks in, it’s clear Alicia Keys is fired up. The call-and-response toward the end of this sophomore-album highlight is similarly striking, as is the playful story being told throughout (blending a medical condition with a literal burning fire — one so strong it requires the fire department). In stark contrast to The Diary of Alicia Keys’ best-known track (the Idol-friendly mega-ballad “If I Ain’t Got You”), “Heartburn” offers a hard-hitting, aggressive alternative that sees Keys tap into her lesser-heard brash and bluesy roots. — L.H.
44. Coldplay, “Green Eyes” (A Rush of Blood to the Head, 2003)
“Green Eyes” is the kind of broad love song that’s hard to hate — especially for anyone with the titular ocular shading — as Chris Martin tells the rest of the band to take five and embraces his inner singer-songwriter to praise his partner, calling her the rock upon which he stands. The beauty is in the simplicity and straightforwardness, which perhaps kept it from becoming a single but also made it a superbly sentimental album track. — C.S.
43. Kelly Clarkson, “Gone” (Breakaway, 2004)
It’s hard to resist cheering for Clarkson in this fiery breakup number about asserting independence, which was somewhat lost alongside its fellow Breakway “Gone”-er. No matter: The track has all the ingredients of a Clarkson hit, from its rock-tinged production to roll-off-the-tongue lyrics and its booming, impossibly satisfying chorus. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel tonight,” Clarkson roars, “just a bridge that I gotta burn.” — T.C.
42. Christina Aguilera, “Red Hot Kinda Love” (Lotus, 2012)
#JusticeForBionic doesn’t hold weight when considering the commercial plight of Lotus, an album of actualized pop jams without any of the hits. “Red Hot Kinda Love” was the single that should have been—sprightly, catchy and ceaseless, the type of song that made her a dominant presence in pop from the very start. — S.J.H.
41. Adele, “All I Ask” (25, 2015)
For this heartbreaker, Adele musters up a technical prowess and emotional injection to match anything a crestfallen Barbra Streisand can offer. The Bruno Mars co-write gives a glimpse into a final night with a lover as the singer asks to be let down gently, “It matters how this ends/ ’cause what if I never love again?” Understandably, after “Hello” and “When We Were Young,” Adele’s label may have been wary of issuing a third ballad, but the superstar gave “Ask” its proper due in the public eye by performing it at the 2016 Grammy Awards. And after a technical malfunction marred that rendition, she treated viewers to an encore, malfunction-less version on The Ellen DeGeneres Show later that week. — T.A.
40. Sia, “Reaper” (This Is Acting, 2015)
Even Sia has admitted she didn’t anticipate the sunshine-y “Reaper,” originally penned for (then scrapped by) Rihanna, would make it onto her 2016 LP This Is Acting. But we’re glad it did. Co-produced and co-written by Kanye West, the rumbling anthem is a welcome dose of “not today” attitude — even if it was ultimately overshadowed by its Hot 100-topping Acting neighbor “Cheap Thrills.” — T.C.
39. Katy Perry, “One of the Boys” (One of the Boys, 2008)
The Fountains of Wayne-flavored title track to Katy Perry’s first album (not counting her Christian music foray as Katy Hudson in 2001) is a far cry from the candy-coated anthems that would bring her to international fame in 2010, but it proves she’s as learned a student of the Warped Tour oeuvre as she is of Max Martin’s. That being said, we’re still waiting to hear you belch the alphabet, Katy. – J. Lynch
38. Drake, “Come Thru” (Nothing Was the Same Deluxe Edition, 2013)
Watching Drake perform “Come Thru” at Barclays Center in 2013, he stepped out of the melodrama of the outro’s melody to actually explain to the audience, in his speaking voice, that by “you deserve rounds tonight,” he meant “rounds of sex.” Which is another way of saying Drake is always peak Drake. His sex cuts have gotten sleeker — studies show that sending the YouTube link to “Come Thru” as a “u up” text will get exponentially more positive results than “Find Your Love” — but he can’t help being a cornball. Still, with 40 behind the boards, chopping up the vocals and keeping the low-end round and consistent, everybody goes home happy. — R.S.
37. Beyoncé, “Blow” (Beyoncé, 2013)
“Pink that’s the flavor/ Solve the riddle,” Beyoncé challenges at the center of this ode to, um, Skittles. No decoder ring necessary here — “Partition” is coming in a few tracks’ time anyway — but the important thing is that the track sounds like candy, both of the child-friendly variety and adult-themed version Bey is more preoccupied with. With Pharrell and Timbaland behind the decks — seemingly in the mist of the same Justified-era disco acid flashback — and Ms. Carter tickling her upper register to coo “Blow-oh-ohhhh,” it’s guaranteed to provide a rush of some kind. — A.U.
36. Calvin Harris, “The Rain” (Ready for the Weekend, 2009)
2011 was the year of the saxophone in U.S. pop music, punctuated by star turns for the instrument on “The Edge of Glory,” “Last Friday Night,” “Midnight City” and more. Had “The Rain” been released then and not on 2009’s Ready for the Weekend, perhaps the squelching electro-pop banger might’ve found an audience (or perhaps not; it wasn’t until the following year when Harris became more of a household name in the States). Sax aside though, it’s probably the best Chromeo song Chromeo never wrote. — K.R.
35. Rihanna, “Watch N’ Learn” (Talk That Talk, 2011)
Education is important, and only a fool would disregard Prof. Fenty when class is in session. “Just because [she] can’t kiss back, doesn’t mean you can’t kiss that”: Assuming the person on the receiving end of those instructions hasn’t expired from the shock of the invitation, it’s a great lesson plan. Take it to heart, ladies and gentleman. — R.S.
34. P!nk feat. Indigo Girls, “Dear Mr. President” (I’m Not Dead, 2006)
P!nk recruited the Indigo Girls for this heart-rending open letter to then-President George W. Bush, which took the Commander in Chief to task on issues like LGBTQ rights, the No Child Left Behind Act and homelessness. When asked if she would update the song for the Trump era, she tweeted a scalding response: “There aren’t words for this shameful person.”– P.C.
33. Aaliyah, “Loose Rap” (Aaliyah, 2001)
Saying Aaliyah came into her own with her third album would erroneously imply she was ever anywhere else; still, if the preternatural assuredness of her self-titled album didn’t stun relative to the rest of her catalog, it certainly did compared to turn-of-the-millennium R&B at large. In an era where scrubs were getting it from all corners, Aaliyah highlight “Loose Rap” brushed off false male bravado without so much as a hair flip, Babygirl commenting “You could come better than that” out of an empathetic desire not so much to keep her own night hassle-free, but to save you from embarrassing yourself for once. — A.U.
32. The Weeknd, “Tell Your Friends” (Beauty Behind the Madness, 2015)
“Last year I did all the politicin’/ This year I’m all focused on the vision.” We forget how unlikely it was just a short few years ago that the artist born Abel Tesfaye would reinvent himself on the fly as an R-rated Michael Jackson. Here, over a syrupy soul sample that somehow co-producer Kanye hadn’t gotten to before, he explains how, and enlists us to street team on his behalf. Not totally done with the politicin’, by the way, otherwise he wouldn’t still be summing up his platform so memorably: “I’m that n—a with the hair, singin’ ’bout popping bills, fucking bitches, living life so trill…” — A.U.
31. Nicki Minaj feat. Ariana Grande, “Get on Your Knees” (The Pinkprint, 2014)
Before Nicki and Ari combined for “Side To Side,” one of the biggest pop cuts of either’s megastar’s career, Grande stopped by The Pinkprint to assist Minaj with a catchy-as-hell cunnilingus anthem. “Get On Your Knees” is sexy and commanding — the lyrics may be too explicit for radio, but “Get head like a beautician” is among Nicki’s great similes, and Grande sounds pristine while dismissing “a pretty poet” who won’t get down and dirty. — J. Lipshutz
30. Backstreet Boys, “Get Another Boyfriend” (Black & Blue, 2000)
Perhaps the only reason this song wasn’t picked for a single was because of its message being a little too insistent, with the guys telling a girl to do exactly what the song’s title COMMANDS. Otherwise, it has everything that makes a Backstreet Boys song great: a pounding beat, intense vocals, and an epic finish. And in reality, the group’s just telling a girl that she’s better than the guy she’s with — and when it’s coming from BSB, who wouldn’t want to hear that? — T.W.
29. Lady Gaga, “Speechless” (The Fame Monster, 2009)
In hindsight, “Speechless” is perhaps a better indicator of Gaga’s ultimate musical destiny than say, “Poker Face.” The former offered one of the first strong indicators of Gaga’s aptitude as a traditional pianist-singer-songwriter, with an advanced sense of music composition, while also introducing Mother Monster as an heir to the grand ballads of Queen, Bowie and Elton John. Gaga, notably, wrote “Speechless” for her father to finally persuade him to get an open-heart surgery, showing the artist’s gift at turning her personal ache into a powerful artistic statement — T.A.
28. JAY-Z, “Lucifer” (The Black Album, 2004)
Buried on the back end of The Black Album, “Lucifer” has endured for JAY-Z as a fan favorite and a concert staple, thanks to brilliant Max Romeo chop and introspective Jigga lyric that finds him analyzing his own devil-chasing, in between Kanye’s knocking drums and his own D’Angelo references. “Kanyeezy, you did it again, you a genius!” Wouldn’t be the last time, either. — A.U.
27. Janet Jackson, “LUV” (Discipline, 2008)
When Janet Jackson says she’s in love, you best believe she’s in LUV, L-U-V. For this Discipline almost-single, she feels the emotional crash so acutely she spends most of the song comparing it to a literal car accident, with Rodney Jerkins’ blaring synths sounding like the police and ambulance sirens collecting around her as she lies in motionless rapture. “He hit me with his love,” is all she can comment from her ecstatic daze, and no traffic cop would dare interfere. — A.U.
26. *NSYNC feat. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, “Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay)” (No Strings Attached, 2000)
How many other pop boy bands have a song with a guest rap verse? Not many, outside of *NSYNC’s most underappreciated jam, “Space Cowboy” — a delightful pop crossover with a sing-along chorus featuring the late great TLC MC, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. Left Eye’s fast-paced, unexpected 25-second verse alone may be what prevented the song from becoming the next single from No Strings Attached, but the track is unlike any other song in *NSYNC’s catalog. — X.Z.
25. Maroon 5, “Shiver” (Songs About Jane, 2002)
Yes, Maroon 5 was once an actual rock band: four-fifths of the original members came together as Kara’s Flowers, a Weezer-indebted outfit that released a Rob Cavallo-produced debut album for Reprise in 1997. When Maroon 5 debuted in 2002 with Songs About Jane, the alt-rock edge was still faintly intact, though their focus shifted to Stevie Wonder worship, libidinous blue-eyed soul, and generally any sound that led to Adam Levine taking his shirt off more often. Lead single “Harder to Breathe” was a fine example of this rock-funk hybrid, but you haven’t felt it in full force until you hear “Shiver,” where a slithering guitar riff explodes into a steamy, back-and-forth chorus, and a soundtrack for Levine to wail about a girl he only seems to get along with when the lights are off. — C.P.
24. Justin Bieber feat. Kanye West & Raekwon, “Runaway Love” (Remix) (Never Say Never: The Remixes, 2011)
Not like this moon-bounce of a Justin Bieber deep cut even totally needed a new edit with verses from Kanye and Raekwon (?!?!?) — it was still a total blast even when The Bieb was doing his intergalactic strutting solo. But man, when you’ve got cameos from two of hip-hop’s greats at their uncharacteristic jiggiest, bragging about their IHOP-like stacks and rhyming “accoutrements” with “Grey Poupon,” you’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime gem worthy of a more dignified fate than B-side placement on a remix EP. Best part, of course, is ‘Ye shouting out one of The Chef’s signature dishes: “No question we the reason why the summer’s blazing/ They say, ‘You looking good, fly colored Asian.'” — A.U.
23. Ariana Grande, “Be My Baby” (My Everything, 2014)
If anything, Ariana Grande has excelled where she’s experimented most — some of her most fruitful productions have derived from when she’s encroached on the margins. That’s proven particularly true with frequent producer Cashmere Cat, who enlisted her for his singles “Adore” and “Quit,” and mans the boards on Ari’s own My Everything sleeper “Be My Baby,” a dip into electronic pop with little bombast and subtly quaking textures. — S.J.H.
22. Avril Lavigne, “Anything But Ordinary” (Let Go, 2002)
It’s hard to come by a pop-rock debut album more satisfying and complete than Avril Lavigne’s Let Go. With angsty singles like “Complicated” and of-the-times-but-timeless grunge-pop love song “Sk8er Boi,” the 2002 LP set Lavigne up for a long career to come. While a handful (if not all) of the lesser-praised tracks off the album could have landed on this list, “Anything But Ordinary” is the clear standout from the too-real opening line: “Sometimes I get so weird, I even freak myself out.” Pleading to be “anything but ordinary” is a timeless desire and allows the song to stand just as strong today, while the rallying cry of “Is it enough?” sustaining the chorus is nearly impossible to resist. — L.H.
21. Lil Wayne feat. Babyface, “Comfortable” (Tha Carter III, 2008)
After winning the hearts of hip-hop aficionados with game-changing opus Tha Carter II in 2005, Lil Wayne reloaded and took over the world with the project’s follow-up, 2008’s Tha Carter III. While the album had a boundless supply of irresistible smashes, including “Lollipop,” “Ms. Officer” and “Got Money,” Wayne’s heart-pounding album track “Comfortable” found him showcasing his charming side. With Kanye West on the boards and Babyface on the hook, Wayne captivated with a slew of witty one-liners for the apple of his eye, like “Bedroom in the bank, baby we safe.” — C.L.
20. Beyoncé, “Schoolin’ Life” (4 Deluxe Edition, 2011)
It’s remarkable to think how comfortable Beyoncé sounds in new contexts, and 4, her less-than-rapturously received 2011 LP, was full of such first-time ventures. “Schoolin’ Life” came as a bonus on the release, and it showed a self-actualized side of the superstar in full nostalgia mode. The ’80s-esque track took a stroll down memory lane, doting on the days where she first noticed boys and got her first pair of heels. It’s humanizing and centering, all while reinforcing why she’s one of the strongest forces in music today. — S.J.H.
19. Gwen Stefani, “Bubble Pop Electric” (Love. Angel. Music. Baby., 2004)
The aptly named “Bubble Pop Electric” sounds like a rapid boil of electro blips perpetually threatening to spill over and burn you. That musical heat comes courtesy of Johnny Vulture, who also guests on the song and sounds suspiciously similar to Andre 3000. But it’s Gwen who turns the boil into an irresistible simmer, deftly channeling the campy, horny Madonna of the I’m Breathless/Dick Tracy era, especially during the cartoonishly sexy sing-speak portion. – J. Lynch
18. Taylor Swift, “Dear John” (Speak Now, 2010)
On 2010’s Speak Now, a Taylor Swift album full of rich deep cuts, “Dear John” is the one that towers over all of them, a searing takedown of a certain older singer-songwriter named John that demonstrated the depth of Swift’s ability. Few artists can craft a six-minute song with this much clarity and urgency; each bruised syllable is essential, every seething accusation methodically rolled out, like Taylor is presenting a legal case against an ex. But “Dear John” is not detached — it’s surgical, but full of the betrayal that anyone past a first crush can understand. It’s a perfect song to scream along to with friends, or cry along with in solitude. — J. Lipshutz
17. Justin Timberlake, “Pusher Love Girl” (The 20/20 Experience, 2013)
How many drug metaphors can fit into one love song? That’s seemingly what Justin Timberlake set out to answer with his 20/20 Experience opener — for example: “Be my little pill and just creep into my bloodstream,” “There’s a million names for your kind of chronic,” “I’m just a junkie for your love.” In addition to the clever lyricism in the eight-minute track, Timberlake also makes a rather lengthy tune hypnotizing from start to finish by taking listeners on a musical ride that starts with a roaring violin and ends with a pulsating funk breakdown, filled with just enough of JT’s signature falsetto in between. — T.W.
16. Bruno Mars, “Runaway Baby” (Doo-Wops & Hooligans, 2010)
Mars, nominated for record and song of the year (for “Grenade”) and album of the year (Doo-Wops & Hooligans), could have picked any number of singles from his debut LP to perform at the 2012 Grammys. It’s telling, then, that the exhilarating soul-funk throwback “Runaway Baby” was his choice. In a three-album career dotted with jovial, electric tunes, it remains one of the few that might — might — contend with “Uptown Funk” on would-be rankings of Mars’ most danceable songs. Let’s hope this one stays in his concert set lists even when Mars can’t quite pull off all the moves anymore. — K.R.
15. Kanye West, “We Don’t Care” (The College Dropout, 2004)
As the first song on Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout, “We Don’t Care” might not have been pegged as a single, but still served as a feel-good introduction to the promising newcomer’s first LP. The track features classic Kanye production, sampling The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “I Just Wanna Stop” to deliver blissful hip-hop gospel, inspirationally preaching about getting ahead using whatever opportunities you’ve got (“Cause ain’t no to tuition for havin’ no ambition/ And ain’t no loans for sittin’ your ass at home”). — C.S.
14. Adele, “Right as Rain” (19, 2008)
Amy Winehouse and Adele’s careers took such dramatically different paths after their debut albums that it’s easy to forget they were once grouped under the same sort of VH1 You Oughta Know umbrella. But Adele’s 19 highlight “Right As Rain” could’ve been right at home on Amy’s Back to Black, in the best way — the song’s infectious Hammond-driven groove and exhausted, self-defeating chorus make it an obvious analog to Black standout “Tears Dry on Their Own.” “Who wants to be right as rain?/ It’s better when something is wrong.” Adele would be singing a much different tune in two years’ time, but the crackling vitality of this one remains sadly missed. — A.U.
13. Usher, “Throwback” (Confessions, 2004)
In 2004, Usher’s smoldering Confessions burned through the souls of R&B listeners. First, the baby-faced assassin danced his way into the hearts of fans with his club banger “Yeah.” Then, he slowed the tempo down and delivered his searing single “Burn,” which found him drowning in his sinful indiscretions. While those records were undeniably potent, it was his Just Blaze-produced, Dionne Warwick-sampling heartbreak anthem “Throwback” that was the real livewire. With the Roc-A-Fella producer providing the canvas, Usher later tapped Jadakiss to paint his regrets over the melancholy track for the official remix. “Should’ve believed her, now wishing I could throw me back/ To that exact spot where we first found L-O-V-E at,” raps Jada. — C.L.
12. Lorde, “Ribs” (Pure Heroine, 2013)
Lorde may have been just 16 when she penned Pure Heroine track “Ribs,” but the wistful song speaks to aging (or rather, the anticipation of it) with heart-wrenching precision. Littered with hyper-specific, seemingly unrelated details from a house party, the song itself reads like a fading memory, making moments of clarity like “I’ve never felt more alone/ It feels so scary, getting old” all the more hard-hitting. And if you needed another reason to appreciate the track, Lorde even shouts out Broken Social Scene, proving the then-teenaged artist is just as cool as you think she is. Now 21, Lorde faces the same old demons on her recent Melodrama, but “Ribs” remains her most poignant reflection on the anxieties — and small thrills — of growing up. — T.C.
11. One Direction, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” (Four, 2014)
The echoing beat in the opening of this Four track is just the beginning of one of One Direction’s most unforgettable songs in their five-album catalog. The guys’ singing is as dynamic as the beat itself, with every note getting more passionate as the song eventually concludes in a chorus-like bellow of the song’s titular question. Lyrically, it’s an unconventionally romantic way for a guy to admit that he shouldn’t have ended things (“All the rest of my crimes don’t come close/ To the look on your face when I let you go”) and wants his lover back. And with a vigorous power-pop melody to match, it’s hard to not root for the guys to find the broken hearts they’re searching for. — T.W.
10. Eminem, “Kill You” (The Marshall Mathers LP, 2000)
The best thing since wrestling leaned so far into his heel persona on this Marshall Mathers proper opener that he could never be upright again, toggling between rapes, murders and worse like an overzealous channel-flipper. “Now it’s too late/ I’m triple platinum and tragedies happen in two states,” he cackled, mostly amused at his ability to get us to take him seriously when he couldn’t even keep a straight face for the song’s threatening chorus (“Cause why?“). In an era with enough real-life monsters, there may not be much need for a cartoon one like Em, but the peerless wit and self-awareness on display here explain why we still pay attention to him through any number of deathly self-serious piano ballads: Bitch, he wrote “Kill You.” — A.U.
9. Britney Spears, “How I Roll” (Femme Fatale, 2011)
Femme Fatale, Britney Spears’ first album of the 2010s, came at the right time, with the right sound. While singles “Till the World Ends” and “Hold It Against Me” approximated the EDM drop-oriented pop music of the moment, the buzzing, glitching and popping “How I Roll” stood out as antithetical to the rest, a precursor to the hyper-gleam of PC Music and a rebuff of the scientifically engineered precision of the day. It’s chaotic and bizarre, and remains one of the best songs she’s ever made. — S.J.H.
8. The Weeknd, “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” (House of Balloons, 2011)
On his first mixtape, The Weeknd was consistently direct. This music? You should be high for it. Your desires? He’s got what you need. And even though it sounds too bleak and depraved and claustrophobic to be true, trust, this is fun for him. “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” runs Siouxsie and the Banshee’s “Happy House” through a funhouse mirror and the scene reflected back is warped beyond all recognition. The taste in your mouth is chemical and your skin feels different. There’s coke on every cool transparent surface in the party and you’re always going to want more. Six years later, it’s still true. — R.S.
7. Drake, “Feel No Ways” (Views, 2016)
There’s not too many songs out there that credit both Future and Anne Dudley from Art of Noise as songwriters, but that’s just how goddamn good “Feel No Ways” is. A sort of spiritual sequel to “Hotline Bling” — and it should’ve been just as big — this time it’s Drake that’s been touching road, coming back to find his girl having moved on without him. He squeals petulantly about what’s rightfully his (“You got something that belongs to me”) amidst repeat accusations of such cruelty (“On purpose!“), but as on most best Drake songs, the sublime backing track gives him away — a sentimental, electro-tinged wallow that underlines how what Drizzy’s trying to say is that he feels all ways, always. — A.U.
6. Lady Gaga, “Teeth” (The Fame Monster, 2009)
Smile! The woman who spent her third single seeking disco-stick ride admission certainly never wanted for extended sexual metaphors, so it’s not surprising that what makes “Teeth” so remarkable isn’t its implied carnality (“Take a bite of my bad girl meat”) but the seething aggression lurking not far below the song’s surface. Not that “Teeth” is a BDSM anthem, either — it’s just unequivocal in its demands, and Gaga told MTV that “Show me your teeth” is just as much a call for speaking honestly and intimately as it is for anything else mouth-related. Regardless, no pop star since She Who We Will Not Compare Gaga To had spoken so bluntly about what they wanted — and none had sounded so badass doing the spoken-word backing vocal thing, either. — A.U.
5. Rihanna, “Desperado” (ANTI, 2016)
Rihanna goes on the lam in this sinister, sexy ANTI vibe about the push and pull of a relationship. Whether the narrative and its myth-like “old Monte Carlo” are literal or metaphorical is up to you, and the ability to pull off both is just what makes the song so excellent. Sure, its loose, rambling structure and dramatic storyline might not fit the bill of a conventional single. But “Desperado” stands out as a brilliantly crafted mini-drama unto itself, and one that epitomizes the themes of isolation and distrust that define the 2016 album if you listen hard enough. One especially heartbreaking lyric sums it up: “There ain’t nothing here for me anymore/ But I don’t want to be alone.” — T.C.
4. Kanye West feat. Bon Iver, “Lost in the World” (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010)
The final proper song on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy brilliantly translates that album’s ambition into a haunting conclusion: At the end of a project about fame, power, sex and extreme wealth, there is an emptiness that our hero does not know how to fill. The collaboration with Bon Iver was radical at the time — before Justin Vernon had a top 10 album or a Best New Artist Grammy — but Yeezy tapping the indie-folk newcomer made sense, considering the vulnerable howl at the heart of “Lost in the World.” A few cuts removed on the track list from the self-accepting douchebag-toast of “Runaway,” West is once again forcing himself to be honest about his shortcomings, this time about being “lost in this plastic life.” “World” has all the makings of a standout pop track, but as a deep cut, it speaks to the power of the project it calls home. — J. Lipshutz
3. Taylor Swift, “All You Had to Do Was Stay” (1989, 2014)
Obviously, there’s no shame in not being picked as a single off an album with five top 10 hits. A prime 1989 deep cut is most pop artists’ lead single, and besides, “Wildest Dreams” and “Out of the Woods” have nothing on this pristine synth-pop nugget. The breakup song is certainly well-mined territory for Swift, though that simple “Stay!” — in all its pitch-upped glory — captures the manic desperation of a sudden split like few four-letter cries could. There’s no less than 25 stays for everyone in the stadium or the karaoke room to shout out, and the way the chorus sprawls out and lets its hook run wild — those “had me in the palm of your hand” parts — drives home the true lesson of “Stay”: Don’t let go of a good thing, and once you’ve got it, call up Max Martin. — C.P.
2. Justin Timberlake, “FutureSex / LoveSound” (FutureSex/LoveSounds, 2006)
It’s not easy to predict what the future will sound like — all you can really do is make music that sounds like nothing has sounded before and hope for the best. The opener and title track to Justin Timberlake’s second solo album isn’t totally without precedent: There’s some peak Prince in there to be sure, more than a dash of “Another One Bites the Dust,” sprinklings of some of Timbaland’s more outré work with Aaliyah. No song had ever slithered quite like this before, though, not with this narcotic an undertow, not lorded over by a singer in such control it sounds like he’s dancing flawlessly in zero gravity: “Just tell me which way you like that,” JT offers, but like any good lawyer, he already knows the answer or he wouldn’t be asking. Did the future of pop end up sounding like this? Of course not, and it’s been a damn disappointing past decade of finding that out. — A.U.
1. Beyoncé, “Freakum Dress” (B’Day, 2006)
“When he acts up, that’s when you put it on.” If you thought angry Beyonce debuted on Lemonade, let us direct you to 2006 sophomore album B’Day and its standout deep cut “Freakum Dress.” Opening with history’s sauciest Hamlet reference (“To be or not to be – NOT”) and some James Brown-worthy executive orders (“Bring the beat back – stop! I ain’t ready yet”), it’s a relentlessly funky ode to that one outfit you know will always turn heads… and using it as revenge against an inattentive partner. A blaring New Orleans horn section builds this pissed-off-girls-night-out anthem up to an explosive final verse where Beyonce spits her secular sermon about paying him back by looking your best — and reminding him it’s not hard to find a replacement.
For an album with six singles (if we’re talking the deluxe version), it’s crazy that “Freakum Dress” wasn’t worked to radio. But it’s also a reminder of Beyonce’s sky-high standards when it comes to making albums — something that’s common knowledge now, but was hardly accepted as canon when the breakout star from Destiny’s Child was on just her second album. With a three-minute album track, she introduced a new phrase to our pop culture lexicon, previewed a direction she’d fully explore a decade down the road, and reminded us that when it comes to top-tier talent, knowing the hits is never enough — you gotta dive into their catalog Scrooge McDuck style to fully reap the bounty of their artistic riches. — J. Lynch