Read part one here.
20. Britney Spears "Criminal"
Britney and ballads usually don't mix, or at least they haven't since "Every Time". But "Criminal" is perhaps the first ballad of Britney's career that caters to her vocal stylings instead of the other way around. Bonus points for that flute solo.
19. The Wanted "Lose My Mind"
"Lose My Mind," a melancholic, mid-tempo ballad a good deal more mature and emotive than you would expect from "just a boyband," was the first song from The Wanted that truly clicked with me (so of course it's the only single of theirs that didn't even land in the Top 20 in the UK).
18. Jennifer Lopez featuring Pitbull "On the Floor"
"It's a new generation," J. Lo sings over the intro to this RedOne-produced jam, alluding to the fact that a whole generation has come and gone since the last time she's been a popstar (I mean, I didn't even have my driver's license the last time she had a Top 10 hit). With its swift tempo changes, contrasts between hard dance and soft, breathy pop and an accordion melody, "On the Floor" proved that J. Lo still has what it takes to keep up with the Gagas and Rihannas of the pop world.
17. Taylor Swift "Back to December"
Taylor usually comes off as a whiny, mopey lesbian who spends far too much time thinking about her feelings and crying. However, "Back to December," allegedly about her "relationship" with Taylor Lautner, is her first ballad that comes off as a mature piece of work, rather than mediocre poetry from a 16-year-old. The line "You gave me roses/And I left them there to die" is filled with more melancholy and bitter regret than most songs can muster in three and a half minutes.
16. The Wanted "Lightning"
With "All Time Low" and "Glad You Came" before, and now "Lightning", it is readily apparent that when The Wanted and Ed Drewett get together, magic happens. Taking a cue from the unexpected contrast between hardness and softness in Britney's "Hold It Against Me," "Lightning" is The Wanted's most ingenious song to date and further proof that this group's success is not a fluke.
Nicki manages on "Girls Fall Like Dominoes," without the crutch of imagining herself as a boy (á la "Like a Boy," "If I Were a Boy" or "Do It Like a Dude"), to deliver a powerful, "if the boys can do it, why can't I?" message with her usual off-the-wall flow. She also manages the near impossible feat of name checking both the Kardashians and Kristin Cavallari without looking like she's trying too hard.
14. Nicola Roberts "Beat of My Drum"
Now this is how you launch a solo career after being a part of a mega successful girl group for nearly a decade. Instead of giving a fuck about how commercial this song is, Nicola hired a producer better known for urban and club music to create the sound she was looking for. Combined with the most infectious and catchy school yard chant since "Hollaback Girl," "Beat of My Drum" is the best (and most successful) experiment of the year.
Although it became impossible to avoid on both sides of the Atlantic, "Rolling in the Deep" doesn't get any less amazing the 500th time you hear it. It's the kind of mind-blowing pop anthem that comes along only a couple times a decade and should be treasured as such.
The 99 cents I paid for Gaga's Born This Way album was just for this song. Whereas most of that album was an ugly, monotonous mess, "The Edge of Glory" is a reminder of how good Gaga can be when she's not trying so hard to be an artsy, edgy artiste. In many ways, this is a throwback to the sonic and emotional overload that was "Bad Romance".
11. Hurts "Sunday"
"Sunday" is an achingly sad song, disguised with as fast of a tempo as you're likely ever to get from the notoriously gloomy British duo. The contrast is jarring, but only makes the song that much more fascinating.
10. Rihanna "S&M"/Rihanna featuring Britney Spears "S&M (Remix)"
What a lot of people failed to understand about this song is that S&M is not about the whipping, the tying up and the gagging. It is more about control and trusting your partner. In other words, there's a world of difference between your popstar boyfriend beating the shit out of you in a car and leaving you for dead (for example) and having someone you love and trust tie you to a bed and whip you. "S&M" is Rihanna taking back control of her life from past demons. The fact that it's a candy-coated pop song summarizes what was so brilliant about the Loud era--the combination of the darkness of Rated R with the commerciality of Good Girl Gone Bad. The remix is admittedly frivolous, and the production is wonky at best, but it's so much damn fun I can't resist. I still feel pangs of excitement every time I hear Britney's inimitable voice growl, "Na na na, come on!"
09. Adele "Set Fire to the Rain"
"Set Fire to the Rain" is the bombastic, over-the-top, shout-it-at-the-top-of-your-lungs powerballad I always knew Adele had in her. I love "Rolling in the Deep," obviously, and "Someone Like You" is a beautiful song, but this song is more suited to my taste for massive, emotional pop ballads ("Set Fire to the Rain" is up there with Céline Dion's magnum opus "It's All Coming Back to Me Now"), songs as emotional therapy (but I guess the entirety of 21 would fall under this category) and even songs with the word "fire" in them (just as this is my favorite Adele song, "Fire Bomb" is my favorite Rihanna song). Adele's throaty, gritty vocals have never sounded better, especially when she's singing, "Well it burned while I cried/'Cause I heard it screaming out your name." While 21 wasn't my cup of tea overall, it is because of songs like "Set Fire to the Rain" that I sincerely believe Adele is one of the greatest talents of our time.
08. Beyoncé "Best Thing I Never Had"
Aside from a new baby, girlfriend had a tough 2011. After releasing nearly every damn track off her challenging (but still brilliant) 4 album, Beyoncé couldn't land a Top 10 hit if she changed her name to Katy Gaga. I guess no one was in the mood for mid-90's R&B throwbacks (and whatever the hell you would classify "Run the World" as), which is an utter shame when they are as brilliant as "Best Thing I Never Had". The song's theme is that of a typical "I'm so glad I'm over you" anthem, but it's written from a slightly different point of view, giving it even further depth beyond B's powerhouse vocals (Which are fun to belt along with into your remote control/pretend microphone at 1 am. Not that I've ever done that).
07. Nicole Scherzinger "Don't Hold Your Breath"
I've grown to hate Nicole "Cunt" Scherzinger after her stint as judge on X-Factor US, but, as I have said before, don't hate the song, hate the singer. "Don't Hold Your Breath" is still a magnificently potent pop song, intelligently written to be an empowering "moving on" anthem with just the slightest hint of mournful sorrow about the demise of the relationship. Of course, Scherzinger's personality-free vocals have very little to do with its success, but she does deserve some credit for realizing what a great song this is.
06. Sophie Ellis-Bextor "Off & On"
While many will (deservedly) think of "We Found Love" as the Calvin Harris jam of the year, I can't rank it above Harris' underappreciated effort with the one and only Sophie Ellis-Bextor. "Off & On" has been floating around for a few years, first as a Róisín Murphy track which didn't make her album, then as an unreleased SEB demo and finally in this finished album form, and is still just as brilliant today as it was then. The fact that both Murphy and Ellis-Bextor, two immensely talented divas with two completely different styles, both managed to use this song to suit their individual styles has me curious what covers of this song by other pop divas and their favorite producers would sound like. I mean, imagine "Off & On" by Britney and Bloodshy & Avant, Nelly Furtado and Timbaland, P!nk and Dr. Luke or Madonna and William Orbit. The results would be all over the place, but "Off & On" is such a flexible song, you can easily imagine all of them working.
05. One Direction "What Makes You Beautiful"
I rooted for One Direction during their X-Factor days because even then I somehow knew that they were going to make music that I was going to appreciate and love. But when "What Makes You Beautiful" came out, they completely blew my expectations away. The title makes it sound like a dreary, completely clichéd mid-tempo boyband track, so color me surprised when I discovered it was the most cheery, sunny, peppy pop song you could ever hope for. Lyrics such as "If only you saw what I could see/You'd understand why I want you so desperately" sound like complete hokum, but the One Direction boys deliver them with such immense joy and earnestness, you begin to believe it. In other words, my new dream in life is for a boy to sing this song to me to proclaim his love for me (the boy in this dream may or may not be Zayn Malik). "What Makes You Beautiful" is the kind of song that makes you wish for something as ridiculous like that and doesn't make you feel ashamed about it after the song has ended. If that's not the definition of a perfect pop song, I don't know what is.
04. Eric Saade "Popular"
Saade is very hit or miss, as evidenced by the success of this year's Saade Vol. 1 album and the utter shittiness of Vol. 2 just a few months later. When he hits, as he does with his Eurovision entry "Popular," there are few male popstars in the world who can match him. There's nothing especially noteworthy about either the lyrics or the message of "Popular," both of which are pretty standard fare as far as dance-pop tracks go. But there is something in Saade's delivery, particularly in the last minute of the song where things go absolutely off the rails and Saade is wailing and crying and singing his heart out, that elevates this song to classic status. Saade may not have won Eurovision with this song, but he certainly won a fan in me.
03. Rihanna "Man Down"
The fact that "Man Down," Rihanna's farewell to the Rated R era in both theme and tone, was ever released as a single completely surprised me (although I wasn't as surprised by its underperformance on the charts). I can see why this song wouldn't appeal to Rihanna fans who are fond of her lighter, dancier stuff, but it's because of songs like "Man Down," where she is willing to skirt commerciality in order to express a darker, less digestible idea, that I'm such a big fan of hers in the first place. Now that she has the success and the credibility to back her up, she is up for trying anything, even if that involves a pseudo-reggae styling and her most pronounced Bajan accent ever featured on one of her songs. But the real power of "Man Down" is around the three minute mark where Rihanna completely descends into reggae territory and starts slurring words in her own, special way. Not many commercial artists would be willing to push their sound that far outside the box, but Rihanna does it without breaking a sweat.
02. Britney Spears "I Wanna Go"
At this point in her career, Britney has nothing left to prove. The woman has defied expectations for years and managed to stay relevant long after many of her early counterparts have bitten the dust (yes, Floptina, I'm talking about you!). So, what else is there left for her to do but assert herself as the Queen of Pop and remind us once again why we go to her for edgy, top-notch dance songs. "I Wanna Go," with it's talk of masturbation and showing us all the dirt Britney's got running through her mind, is nothing we haven't heard before from her. But is there anyone else on the planet who can sing about such things with such complete cheeriness and without making it the filthiest fucking song you've ever heard? I talk a lot about "summer jams" and how most of the ones made today are processed to sound like immediate iTunes must haves. But "I Wanna Go" is the perfect example of how a song not immediately destined for the easiness of a lazy day on the beach can completely encapsulate that feeling. The song is reckless abandon and utter freedom with a dash of naughtiness to spice things up. And without "I Wanna Go," 2011 would have been a whole lot less fun.
01. Nicki Minaj "Super Bass"
Ignorance may be bliss, but in the case of "Super Bass," ignorance nearly cost me my number one song of the year. It wasn't until this video's premiere in April that I even knew this song, or any of the other Pink Friday bonus tracks, existed. As soon as I heard the song, I liked it enough to download it. Then I kept listening to it and I thought to myself, "Hey, I can learn that rap!". So I spent nearly a month singing along with the lyrics, hoping that one day it would sink in. And then it did, but I still couldn't get enough of this song. Now at 98 plays on my iTunes--the only song that ranks higher is Girls Aloud's "Biology"--I can safely assume that I will never be tired of "Super Bass". Usually, I'm not a big fan of when Nicki does raps outside of her Roman ego, but "Super Bass" is the very notable exception to this rule, as she doesn't need that flamboyant, in-your-face arrogance to make this song work. "Super Bass" is a pop song through and through, with the only difference being, obviously, that Nicki raps her verses. Everything about "Super Bass" is a pure joy to listen to; I know I certainly perk up whenever I hear the opening notes come on my iTunes. Sure, it's not the deepest, most intricate rap Nicki has ever done, but how can you argue with the authoritative way she boasts, "Somebody please tell 'em who the eff I is" or her annunciation on, "You're slicker than the guy with the thing on his eye, oh!"? Nicki sells this song like the star that she is, making this the year we found a popstar in a hopeless place.