In 2020, Billboard‘s staff revealed its picks for the greatest pop star of every year dating back to 1981 (the first year of MTV, essentially the birth of the modern pop era), with essays making the case for each as the biggest, brightest and most important star in their solar system that calendar year. Earlier this year, we added K-pop globe-conquerors BTS to their rankings as the representatives for 2020 — but the many debates and tough negotiations that went into making that final decision led us to realize that naming just one Greatest Pop Star per year might not be enough.
Hence, we’re blowing out the project a little bit with this year’s update: For 2021, we’re counting down a full top 10 of the year’s Greatest Pop Stars — revealed, along with year-in-review essays, over the course of the next week, until we name our No. 1 next Thursday (Dec. 16). We’ll also make our picks for Rookie of the Year and Comeback of the Year, which we’ll unveil tomorrow (Dec. 9) before launching into the proper countdown.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2021:
Comeback of the Year: Willow | Rookie of the Year: Olivia Rodrigo | No. 10: Bad Bunny | No. 9: Dua Lipa | No. 8: Justin Bieber | No. 7: Drake | No. 6: BTS | No. 5: The Weeknd | No. 4: Doja Cat | No. 3: Adele | No. 2: Lil Nas X | No. 1 Taylor Swift
As with our original project, we don’t use hard numbers to determine these Greatest Pop Stars. Our weekly and year-end charts are certainly factors, and not small ones — but so are more intangible factors like cultural importance, industry influence and overall omnipresence. (And of course, playing the whole season helps: If you took some months off to start or end of the year, or had a long break in the middle, that’s not helping your MVP argument.)
We’ll get into all of that soon enough. But first: the honorable mentions. These 10 artists were critical to the year in popular music and culture, but were missing one or two critical items on their 2021 resumé to really discussed alongside the absolute tops of the pops. Presented in alphabetical order:
Their Year in Pop: Billboard‘s Greatest Pop Star of 2019 kept her momentum rolling well into 2020, and started 2021 still deep in the promo push of her Positions set from the previous October. That album received a deluxe edition reissue in February, featuring a new remix of the original set’s “34+35,” with assists from fellow stars Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat and an absolute blast of a music video. The song shot to No. 2 on the Hot 100 after its remix, while the TikTok-approved “pov” found late success on radio, ultimately climbing to No. 27 on the chart. Meanwhile, Grande did a solid for her Republic labelmate The Weeknd by appearing on the remix to his “Save Your Tears,” helping the smash top the Hot 100 and end up at No. 2 on the year-end chart — one of three top 25 entries there for Ariana.
Why Not Top 10? After nearly three years of being in the limelight practically non-stop, Grande definitely took it relatively easy with her own pop career for the year’s back half, and consequently, her 2021 lives a little in the shadow of her ’18-’20. — though of course, even an off-cycle for Ariana still involves her showing up in millions of living rooms on a weekly basis as a coach on The Voice.
Their Year in Pop: It was a slow trickle of advance tracks, magazine covers and music videos — as well as a well-received feature-length Apple+ documentary, The World’s a Little Blurry, in February — for Eilish leading up to the release of Happier Than Ever, her full-length follow-up to 2019’s culture-dominating When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. The album finally arrived in late July, showcasing a more mature Eilish working her way through the traumas of inappropriate industry relationships and 21st century celebrity, and topped the Billboard 200 albums chart for three weeks — while its title track, a highly cathartic alt-rock power ballad, became an immediate favorite of fans and critics. Eilish also bookended her year with Grammy triumphs, winning record of the year for late 2019 hit “Everything I Wanted” at the 2021 ceremonies in February, and scoring seven nominations for the 2022 awards in November — including album, record and song of the year for Happier and its title cut.
Why Not Top 10? 10 is a small number! And as well-received as Happier Than Ever was, it just didn’t have the same kind of pop presence as Fall Asleep did, with none of its singles released in 2021 hitting the Hot 100’s top 5 or making much of a dent on radio, and Eilish herself not being as ubiquitous a presence post-release.
Their Year in Pop: Count this as a Silk Sonic entry if you’d like, as Bruno’s year was more or less entirely subsumed by his investment in his retro soul-funk superduo, alongside singer/drummer Anderson .Paak. But of course, it’s primarily the involvement of Mars, one of the most consistently successful pop stars of the 2010s, who made the throwback project more than just a curio for critics and old heads — and rather, a pop act who could threaten the top of the charts. That’s what the duo did with rapturously received debut single “Leave the Door Open,” a lush, winking ’70s soul ballad that ultimately topped both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard staff 100 Best Songs of 2021 listings. “Skate” and “Smokin’ Out the Window” followed “Door” to chart success, and the pair’s An Evening With Silk Sonic drew raves for its expertly delivered half-hour voyage back in time — guaranteeing the duo’s eventual tour in support of the LP would be among 2022’s hottest tickets.
Why Not Top 10? Though “Door” was unquestionably one of the year’s biggest hits — and the duo certainly milked it for all it was worth, performing it for seemingly any big stage that would have them — the eight-month gap between the song and its parent album inevitably led to some fizzled momentum. Plus, it’s hard to be a defining artist for 2021 when you’re largely stuck in 1973.
Their Year in Pop: Cardi B began 2021 still riding from her epochal “WAP” the year before, performing the chart-topper alongside co-star Megan Thee Stallion for the first time at the Grammys in March, in possibly the evening’s most buzzed-about performance. By that time, Cardi already had a successful follow-up single to pair it with on stage, as the chest-puffed “Up” had debuted at No. 2 on the Hot 100 in February, eventually becoming her fifth leader on the chart. She also provided valuable assists to Lizzo and Normani on their first new singles in years, “Rumors” and “Wild Side” — both debuting in the Hot 100’s top 20, largely a testament to her second-hand star power — and closed the year in November with another high-profile award show appearance, this time as the JoJo Siwa-recruiting host of the American Music Awards.
Why Not Top 10? As big as “Up” was, it was her only new song released on her own as a lead artist in 2021, as she gave birth to her second child in September, and the wait for Cardi’s follow-up LP to her sensational Invasion of Privacy debut entered its fourth year.
Their Year in Pop: Styles’ Fine Line was such a blockbuster that the Dec. 2019 release was still a major factor in pop culture as the calendar turned to 2021. The explosive “Golden” was still climbing the Hot 100, and the feel-good sing-and-clap-along “Treat People With Kindness” received a stunning black-and-white video treatment that debuted on New Year’s Day, with elaborate classic Hollywood choreography and a co-starring performance from U.K. TV star Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Styles was quiet musically for most of 2021, but stayed in headlines — thanks to award show success (his first Grammy win, best pop solo performance for “Watermelon Sugar”), tabloid fodder (his relationship with film star Olivia Wilde), acting crossover (a cameo in Marvel blockbuster Eternals and a starring role in the upcoming Wilde-directed Don’t Worry Darling) and the long-delayed launch of his Love on Tour, including five sold-out dates at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Why Not Top 10? Well… some actual new music certainly would have helped. Whenever his third LP comes, though, it undoubtedly will arrive as one of the year’s most widely anticipated releases in any genre.
THE KID LAROI
Their Year in Pop: The Australian rapper-singer’s F*ck Love set from summer 2020 continued its long roll downhill in 2021, just gathering mass and momentum as it went. The set’s deluxe edition, released the prior December, spun off the first true crossover hit of The Kid LAROI’s career in early 2021, when the wailing heartbreak ballad “Without You” picked up steam on radio and streaming, and was put over the top by a remix featuring Miley Cyrus — which the two performed on Saturday Night Live in May, then LAROI’s biggest stateside look to date. That would be eclipsed in September, when he and Justin Bieber kicked off the Video Music Awards with a performance of “Stay,” the pulse-racing, genre-mixing banger that had taken over pop culture and shot to No. 1 on the Hot 100 (staying there for seven weeks), while also propelling his third edition of F*ck Love to the top of the Billboard 200 for the first time.
Why Not Top 10? The hits are persuasive, but he’s still a little new — without even a proper full-length debut album to his name yet — and a little raw, particularly live, where he’s yet to prove he can really tour on the level of the biggest stars.
LIL BABY & LIL DURK
Their Year in Pop: The rap fixtures and Voice of the Heroes co-stars found themselves on close to even footing in 2021 — as well as a ton of the same hit singles, including DJ Khaled’s “Every Chance I Get,” Meek Mill’s “Sharing Locations” and the Durk-led “Finesse Out the Gang Way,” in addition to the 16 Hot 100 hits the two launched together off the Heroes album. Baby was unquestionably the, well, starrier star of the two, carrying two of the biggest songs from the Donda–Certified Lover Boy back-to-back (“Hurricane” and “Girls Want Girls,” respectively, both top 10 Hot 100 hits) and charming the Internet with a viral clip of him haranguing YK Osiris for $5,000 owed. But no man could match Durk for sheer prolificity in 2021, releasing both Heroes and his own Voice LP, elevating breakout singles from Pooh Shiesty (“Back in Blood”), Coi Leray (“No More Parties”) and Nardo Wick (“Who Want Smoke??”) and showing up on someone‘s new streaming hit seemingly every week of the calendar year.
Why Not Top 10? The duo’s omnipresence within hip-hop was inarguable in 2021, but with the exception of a couple of their bigger cameos, the pop world of award shows, top 40 radio and crossover collaborations largely passed them by this year — which probably says more about problems within pop gatekeeping than it does about any lack in their own 2021 performance.
MEGAN THEE STALLION
Their Year in Pop: While appearing on the Grammy stage with Cardi B, Megan had her own hit single to play: “Body,” taken from the previous November’s Good News, whose yo-yo-ing vocal hook was still unmissable in pop culture for much of early 2021. “Cry Baby,” with DaBaby, followed “Body” to the Hot 100’s top 40, and drew extra attention for its dollhouse-set music video — though a public falling out with her combustible co-star may have clipped the song’s run a little short. The standalone single “Thot S–t” followed in June, riding a wave of instant quotables and a conservative-baiting video to a top 20 Hot 100 debut, and she found her way back to the top 20 with her impressive guest verse on Maroon 5’s “Beautiful Mistakes.” (Shortly after, BTS recruited her for a remix to help give their chart-topping “Butter” a little extra stickiness.) Megan’s pop success didn’t result in her forsaking her roots, however, as she released the Something For Thee Hotties collection of freestyles and bonus cuts in October, reassuring fans that bars remained her top priority.
Why Not Top 10? She’s close, for sure, but after a 2020 of “Savage,” “WAP” and Good News, she’s missing that KO single or album to really put her at pop culture’s center for an extended portion of the year.
TYLER, THE CREATOR
Their Year in Pop: After spending the second half of the ’10s outgrowing his antagonistic origins and evolving into one of the most talented and acclaimed album artists of his era, Tyler, the Creator returned in 2021 with Call Me If You Get Lost, a more traditionally rap-oriented set than 2019’s heartbreak odyssey IGOR, with mixtape-era hero DJ Drama appearing as host. The set drew arguably his best reviews to date (and definitely his best first-week numbers, debuting atop the Billboard 200 with 169,000 units moved), came with a series of imaginative and universe-expanding music videos, and kicked off a run of memorable award show appearances for the theatrical MC — including a hurricane-afflicted “Lumberjack” performance at the BET Awards, a Rock the Bells Cultural Influence award win (and effusive acceptance speech) at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, and a frosty “Massa” runthrough at the American Music Awards. The ultimate outsider of early-’10s pop culture had officially embraced being an insider.
Why Not Top 10? The same thing that’s always held Tyler back from conventional pop stardom: He doesn’t have any hits you’d hear in a CVS, or any songs your aunt and uncle would know.
Their Year in Pop: Pretty simple: You’d have to be living under a rock with crappy Wi-Fi to not know about Donda, the long-awaited and oft-delayed album from the rapper formerly known as Kanye West that was heralded (and workshopped) over the course of three separate live (and livestreamed) stadium listening events in Atlanta and Chicago this summer. That album, along with his surrounding beef with Drake — a multi-year affair resurfaced in time to get hip-hop fans all over the world siding with one (and rubbernecking at the other) during their consecutive LP releases — ensured the world’s eyes were on West for a solid month or two in the late summer. The sprawling, gospel-influenced Donda finally arrived on a Sunday morning in August, and was greeted with a resounding streaming bow, setting the benchmark for first-week performance in 2021 with its 309,000 first-week units moved. His foe would shatter that mark the week after — but Ye had the last laugh, as the only of the two to pick up an album of the year nod when the Grammy nominees were announced in November, though the two had officially patched up their differences to come together for the upcoming Free Larry Hoover concert by then, anyway.
Why Not Top 10? Outside of the month or two where Donda and the surrounding battle were everything, Ye was largely invisible — at least musically, since he did briefly become a regular s–t-stirring interview presence — and Donda‘s impact was largely limited to its first weeks, with no major breakout hits and all but a song or two gone from the Hot 100 within a month of release.