One of the safer statements you can make in debating music is that “___ was a (good/bad) year for music”. Some years are better than others, but with a bit of digging, you can claim that someone someday was having the best year ever, while another point of view shows how a given trend bottomed out in the same 365 days. It’s a claim you have to work to back up.
Now, pop music has a slightly different metric. At the end of every year, Billboard releases that year’s Hot 100; the list of 100 songs that were objectively speaking the biggest, most selling, most visible songs of the year. If you time warped back to a given year, these are the songs you would have the hardest time escaping. It’s a relatively honest time capsule for each year. This is the list I use every year for ranking the best/worst (Listmas2014 is coming! Tell your friends, tell your right swipes on Tinder), and they’re all available online for your curiosity. Going through the last few years and reminiscing is like flipping through the top 40’s yearbook, and a fun way to kill time online.
Eventually, I thought it’d be fun to rank the last ten. I set a few ground rules and a process. Here’s how I got to the final result.
1. Use the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 chart only. I’m judging each year only on the strength of its chart. Years aren’t affected by contemporary trends or albums unless they’re reflected here, so, for example, Kanye’s work between 2004-2007 for The College Dropout and Late Registration counts for more than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and 2010-2012 aren’t punished outright for dubstep. This way, we’re judging a year strictly by the material present. So, how is that material judged?
2. Listen year by year and rate each song “Good”, “Bad”, or “Eh”. I need at least an objective(ish) way to nail down roughly how each year looked, if for bookkeeping more than anything else. I know that labeling something as “good”, “bad”, or “eh” is a subjective as hell in and of itself, but the underlying question behind each ranking was “Would I mind hearing this song again?”, which seemed like a pretty universal system. Additionally, each song was weighted equally; a good song at number one meant just as much as a bad song at number one hundred (for now).
3. Number of good songs-number of bad songs=rough placement. Again, mostly as a starting point. This actually led to a few surprises, and a tie or two in the ranks. The “eh” songs became a wild card; if a year had below the average number of “eh” songs, it got a bonus to the good song score. It got another bonus if the number of “eh” songs was within so many of the “bad” (this actually helped a year or two).
4. A quick check of a year’s “intangibles” to determine any further rank changes. Remember the parenthetical at the end of #2? This is where any of those count, where a stronger depth chart could out perform a higher score with a lesser top, provided the two were close already. This is essentially the “wiggle room” rule. It helped.
5. The rank was not dictated by my personal taste. I curated the list, but that doesn’t mean it’s just my personal taste. If it was, the year containing “American Boy” and “Paper Planes” would outrank the one with “Boom, Boom Pow” up top on principle.
6. You might disagree with my ranking. I would love to hear yours in the comments! Click through the year to see it’s year-end list. So, without further ado, let’s start down and work our way up. First is…
2006 is far and away the slightest of the last ten years in pop. It all starts with the soggy, maudlin “Bad Day” at the top, with James Blunt’s long and fairly derided “You’re Beautiful” a scant three places later. There are scattered gems throughout the list–Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” charts generously, Justin Timberlake started the FutureSex/LoveSounds album cycle, Kelly Clarkson’s winding down Breakaway, and you’ve got a few decent emo pop singles (plus Rihanna’s “SOS”, the best worst sample ever)–but successes are more the exception, not the rule.
The most damning thing is that every genre seems either stalled or broken down in 2006. Hip-hop’s experiencing a gap year after the crunk and 50 Cent bubbles burst, and while younger artists like Rihanna and Chris Brown are finding their footing, pop isn’t really advancing, either. By far, the worst genre having a time is modern rock. I see that one RHCP single, but it’s drowned out by James Blunt, The Fray, Panic! At the Disco, and Bon Jovi. Plus, Nickelback officially launch their “Worst Band in the World” campaign with “Photograph”, and 2006 unleashed Hinder on the world, a band that is far, far shittier than you’re remembering. This combined pile of wet suck is so bad that it arguably killed radio rock as an influential power; from here out, rock bands making the year-end is the exception, not the rule.
Not only is 2006 loaded with bad stuff, but its worst hits are awful enough to indict the year’s listening public on war crimes. Like I said, there’s “You’re Beautiful”, “Photograph”, “Lips of An Angel”, and “Savin’ Me”, but we also get “Move Along”, “London Bridge”, “Life Is a Highway”, “Waiting on the World to Change”, and fucking “My Humps” bringing it back for a second year in the same span. Not all the “SexyBack”s and “Feel Good, Inc.”s in the world are going to come back from that one.
5 Representative Tracks: “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt, “Crazy” by Gnarles Barkley, “Laffy Taff” by D4L, “Ridin'” by Chamillionaire, and “Do I Make You Proud?” by Taylor Hicks.
My takeaway from 2007 is probably going to be similar to that from 2014: It’s going to hurt at a glance, but you can find something you like if you look hard enough. Of course, any year with Beyonce leading the way won’t be all bad, and there’s more than a few solid pop songs throughout the chart. If you made a playlist of stuff like “Irreplaceable”, “Umbrella”, “Makes Me Wonder”, “My Love”, “Stronger”, “Girlfriend”, “Thnks Fr Th Mmrs”, “Rehab”, and “Runaway Love”, odds are you’d have something for everyone. So, why isn’t this year higher?
Despite Justin Timberlake’s best efforts (between FutureSex/LoveSounds and features, he’s on a whooping seven songs in 2007), the year lacks a wow factor to even argue it going higher. Nickelback and Hinder are still putting out singles, and All American Rejects made the mistake of releasing songs that weren’t called “Dirty Little Secret”. Discounting “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, Fergie isn’t doing anyone any favors by covering Black Eyed Peas gap year, and while it isn’t as bad as “You’re Beautiful”, this is also the year that “Hey There, Delilah” got big. The evidence in favor of 2007 is shakey, since most of the year’s best songs all sound incidental and not part of a larger trend. It just sounds kind of fragmented.
There is one trend in 2007, but it’s one that absolutely sinks the year: there is a staggering amount of one hit wonder-y, quasi-dated hip-hop in this one year. Have you heard “Party Like a Rock Star”, “This Is Why I’m Hot”, “Crank That (Soulja Boy)”, “We Fly High”, “Walk It Out”, “The Way I Live”, “A Bay Bay”, or “2 Step” (and more) in the last four years without it being a punch line? Would you want to? Yeah, me neither.
5 Representative Tracks: “Irreplaceable” by Beyonce, “Crank That” by Soulja Boy, “My Love” by Justin Timberlake and TI, “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race” by Fall Out Boy, and “Rock Star” by Nickelback
Ok, no one thought the world was ending in 2012, but wasn’t it fun to pretend? I think the only doomsday prophecy to come to pass that year was the crashing, hungover, ignoble end of club pop as a mass trend. The club-popalypse, as ushered in by Four Horsemen Flo Rida, Pitbull, and LMFAO, wasn’t only confined to electronic artists; despite centerist Gotye up top, the sound of 2012 is that of a party as big as possible. Even the year’s requisite Pink single was designed to blow out your speakers.
Alright, for some artists, the massive sound works. 2012 has four great Rihanna singles (including arguably her best song), one of the catchiest songs of modern times, a few Adele holdovers, pop Taylor Swift, and “Ni**as In Paris”. It’s also the first year on this list that features the “Country Ghetto” in the lower 50, where country songs that otherwise only brushed mass public consciousness are suddenly nudged up against the Selena Gomezes and minor Rihanna hits of the world. It’s not that “Take a Little Ride” and “Something About a Truck” are awful in and of themselves, but their appearance forecasts the bro country onslaught. I will not hear anything against “Red Solo Cup”, though. That song is a national treasure.
Could you make a case for 2012 going higher? Sadly, not really. The year’s pretty bloated, and the great cuts like “Mercy”, “Take Care”, and “Everybody Talks” are outgunned by “Whistle”, “Wide Awake”, “Sexy and I Know It”, “Good Feeling”, “One More Night”, “Drive By”, and “The Motto”, which are nearly stacked right next to each other in the top 20. Pile duds by Big Sean, Gym Class Heroes, and Tyga on top of that, and there’s no coming back.
5 Representative Tracks: “Call Me Maybe” Carly Rae Jepsen, “N**gas in Paris” by Jay-Z and Kanye West, “Wanted” by Hunter Hayes, “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction, “Good Feeling” by Flo Rida.
Let’s get back to the rules of the ranking for a second. So, with the math involved in this list’s rough placements, there were two major divides; the first between eighth and seventh places, the second between third and second places. With that in mind, it’s more apt to say that 2011 places slightly under in seventh, as opposed to “only” ranking seventh.
I’m saying this mostly as cold comfort to myself for putting a year I like so much so low. The year has one of the strongest top ten’s in the competition, and I’m almost willing to waive “Firework” and “Grenade” for being near “Rolling in the Deep” and “Fuck You”. This is a year with reasonable depth, too; as far down as the mid-70s, you’re still finding patches of great songs. It’s Young Money’s banner year, with Wayne putting out “Six Foot Seven Foot”, and Nicki and Drake establishing their own identities, and radio rap flies high with “Black and Yellow”, “All of the Lights”, and “I’m On One”, to name a few. What’s fun about 2011 is it feels like a year where kind of anything was possible. Pink was inducted to the pop hall of fame, Britney put out a solid hit, and we’ve got left of center stuff like “Pumped Up Kicks” and Lupe Fiasco getting popular.
Unfortunately, a few rough patches creep up. There’s scattered trouble in the 20s and 30s, but the bottom quarter of the chart falls to pieces. Lazy Dev and Luke Bryan singles abound, and even if songs like “Who Says” and “Price Tag” aren’t dead on arrival, they don’t help, either. 2011 marks the point in the rank where the good is noticeably stronger than the bad, but the year still bottoms out. Also, on a personal note, 2011 somehow feels like ten years ago, not three.
5 Representative Tracks: “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele, “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga, “I’m On One” by DJ Khaled, Lil Wayne, Drake, and Rick Ross, “‘Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj, and “Don’t You Wanna Stay?” by Jason Aldean featuring Kelly Clarkson.
Ah, now here’s one that feels like yesterday. A lot of critics, myself included, nailed 2013 to the wall before being an end-to-end mess for music, which doesn’t quite jive with it coming in sixth place here, and above the two years preceding it. How do we make sense of this?
A lot of it goes back to the rules for this ranking: if it’s not on the list, it’s effectively a non-issue. So yes, I’m still saying that 2013 was a confusing, blustery year for pop that saw (off the top of my head) at least three major pop flops, but it can be that and a year with its own pop gems. Another issue that mattered in 2013 a hell of a lot, and I suspect will matter less in retrospect, is just what kind of bad its bad songs were. “Blurred Lines” is still an appalling bomb of sexism drenched in napalm cologne, but is it harder to consider it anything worse than exceptionally shitty pop music in light of Robin Thicke’s sadsack year instead of the worst thing ever? Likewise, the anger and (totally valid) appropriation charges against Miley Cyrus burn a little less intensely now that she’s basically the famous version of that 20something that spends all her time hanging out and getting high with the crusty old guy that manages nights at the dodgy Marathon Station. Macklemore’s 15 minutes met a quiet end when he decided that Jewface was a bang-up costume.
What I’m saying is that, now that our pop stars aren’t actively telling us how shitty they are, it’s easier to find the bright spots in the music. And while there was still a lot of bad music last year, we also had some quality songs to balance it out. There’s enough glitzy pop and throwback jams to please a crowd if you pick your battles, and even with a few rough jags, the chart’s got a decent amount of depth into the 80s, which not everyone can say. If you can judge it just on standalone merit, 2013 was not so terrible. I know that JT’s The 20/20 Experience was a meandering, overstuffed project that happened to include “Suit & Tie” and “Mirrors”, but the chart doesn’t care about the baggage, and therefore, neither do I.
5 Representative Tracks: “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I., “Royals” by Lorde, “Started From the Bottom” by Drake, “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk and Pharrell, and “That’s My Kind of Night” by Luke Bryan
Seven years after 50 Cent made the club sound rad, we decided not only to join him, but we’d set up a laptop with Ableton there. 2010 wasn’t club pop’s first year at chart dominance–we’ll get to that in a bit–but this is the first year that everyone got in on it. Purveyors Lady Gaga and The Black Eyed Peas are back for more, and newcomers Taio Cruz, Jason DeRulo, and Ke$ha are more than happy to fill out the ranks. Pop mercenaries Rihanna and Usher pick up on the trend, it’s a big year for Dr. Luke and Max Martin, cranking out hits for Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and B.o.B. It’s not success all across the board, but at this point, club pop is still hitting more than it misses, even if it generated a “Where Are They Now” casefile for Taio Cruz (and tragically, not Jason Derulo).
2010 was an odd year in that it was mostly good, but the bad songs were weird as shit. The Gaga era demanded personality from its stars, but the mountain of cringe-heavy lyrics serves as a reminder that not just anyone could make “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick” work. We’ve got songs that try to be clever and are just pathetically hateful (“Cooler Than Me”, “Deuces”), awful come-ons (“OMG”), stillborn similes/metaphors/boasts (“BedRock”, “Imma Be”, “Hey, Soul Sister”, “Like a G6”, and anything that comes from Pitbull or Jason DeRulo), and the minefield of awkward angst and uncomfortable implications raised by “Love the Way You Lie”, a potentially intriguing song ruined by a dreadful beat.
I realize I’m not saying a lot to defend my fifth place choice. Let me change that. Even in light of try hard pop littered throughout, the year has some undeniable keepers. I used to hate #1 “Tik Tok”, but I’ve developed a growing appreciation for it as a maddeningly catchy singular success; if anyone else tried to make this song they would fail. The fact that B.o.B is not one of our career pop rap stars is a minor tragedy, because his 2010 material is near flawless. More than anything, the year recovers some early stumbles into the 40s and 50s, where the consistency levels out (the section also has Ludacris’ last genuinely good hit). 2010’s also got good stuff where you wouldn’t expect: The Script, Orianthi, Shontelle, Miranda Lambert, and Adam Lambert (no relation) put in solid work, Michael Buble scored a hit with the song he was born to sing. It’s not a bad little year.
5 Representative Tracks: “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha, “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, “Teach Me How To Dougie” by Cali Swag District, “Down” by Jay Sean and Lil Wayne, and “Rude Boy” by Rihanna.
2008 might just be the weirdest year for pop in the last decade.
I suspect when it’s time to write the history of 2000s pop, 2008/2009 are going to be seen as the line in the sand, the time between the crunk, the Timbaland, American Idol, kinda-rocky era, and the clubbed up, electronica, Lady Gaga, AutoTune years that followed. While this version of history is true (yes, Lady Gaga released “Just Dance” and “Poker Face” in 2008, and yes, Face of AutoTune T-Pain is on a staggering eight songs from this year), it doesn’t conflate with the realities of 2008, which is that by the numbers, Miley Cyrus, Finger Eleven, and Jordin Sparks had a better year than Lady Gaga.
Let’s start with what we know to be true about 2008. This is the year of Lil Wayne; not only was he rolling in hits and prominent features, but he took hip-hop (driftless in a post-50 Cent world) in a druggier, weirder direction. T.I’s also got a pair of hits in, paving the way for credible pop rap, and Kanye’s wrapping up Graduation‘s album cycle and teasing 808s with “Heartless”. Hip-hop was a much more colorful creation coming out of 2008 than it was going in. At the same time, will.i.am and Flo Rida are building a groundswell for club pop, and AutoTune is becoming a presence. The other artist having a heyday in 2008 is Rihanna, who assumed pop’s center that year with “Take a Bow” and “Disturbia”.
There’s something about this chart I just can’t wrap my head around. Admittedly, I wasn’t paying super close attention to pop in 2008, but I also wasn’t in 2007, 2006, or 2009, and those lists make so much more sense to me. “Low” being number one sounds right; as terrible as it was, I remember that song being everywhere. But Leona Lewis at number two? Alicia Keys at number three? Usher at eight? Jesse McCartney? Jordin Sparks career at large? I don’t remember anything that refutes this information, but I can’t confirm it, either.
2008 was even an anomaly in calculating these charts. The year ranked fairly low in terms of great material, but had the lowest number of bad songs by a reasonable margin. It actually tied with 2010 by the numbers, even with all factors considered, the two were virtually neck and neck. 2010 edged out in good songs, but lost in bad ones, and neither got a bonus. 2008 was more consistent (and had “American Boy”, “Flashing Lights”, and “Paper Planes”), so I went with it on top. End of the day, I prefer the “eh”ness of “Apologize” to the awfulness of “Hey Soul Sister”. If you made an argument for switching the two, I’d see it, but I don’t know if I’d agree with it.
5 Representative Tracks: “Lollipop” by Lil Waye, “In the Ayer” by Flo Rida and will.i.iam, “Paper Planes” by M.I.A, “Shake It” by Metro Station, and “Womanizer” by Britney Spears.
Yeah, I know. “Boom Boom Pow” at number one is a deep hole to dig out of. And yet, 2009 manages not just to overcome the towering pile of suck that’s supposed to define it, but does so much more. It’s not a perfect year by any stretch (there’s way too much Akon for that), but 2009 still sets a high watermark for recent pop.
This is the year that really saw pop go blockbuster. I know I said 2012 sounded “big”, but it came out bloated. 2009 doesn’t have the same overreach; even it’s lesser songs sound ready for stadiums (see: “Right Round”). This goes for everyone from early club converts Black Eyed Peas to the country pop of Taylor Swift to one-hit wonder electronica duo The Veronicas to songs actually meant to be played in stadiums, like “21 Guns” and “Use Somebody” by Green Day and Kings of Leon, respectively. Beyonce’s two biggest hits, “Halo” and “Single Ladies”, play out to the cheap seats, as do future husband Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” and “Empire State of Mind” (all four of which I assume were played on the couple’s “On the Run” tour, which stopped in my city and I missed and no I’m not bitter why do you say that?)
2009 was also just a freakishly good year for pop artists, like, damn near everyone was firing on all cylinders. In the moment artists like Beyonce and T.I. put up great numbers, and some no-name newcomers like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry bolster the small gains they made in ’08 (also new: some Canadian who might have done tv). Even old guard members Pink, Britney, and Kelly Clarkson put up unexpectedly solid hits, including my personal favorite Pink single ever. But the year belongs, hands down, to Lady Gaga. “Just Dance”, “Poker Face”, “LoveGame” and “Paparazzi” weren’t just big hits, they helped usher in what our pop music looked and sounded like for the next few years (they’re also really good). Yeah, 2009 loses points to the sins of “I’m Yours”, “I Love College”, two Soulja Boy singles, and a Nickelback album cycle, but even most of those feel swept by the wayside relistening to the year. Was a good one.
5 Representative Tracks: “Paparazzi” by Lady Gaga, “I Gotta Feeling” by Black Eyed Peas, “You Belong With Me” by Taylor Swift, “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon, and “She Wolf” by Shakira
When I started this list, I had a vague idea about where some years might go (“2009: pretty good! 2007: kinda crappy!”) in the grand scheme of things. And then, you have something like 2005, where there was no telling how this thing was going to hold up. Turns out: pretty well! Lots to like in 2005; Mariah Carey leads with a solid ballad at the top, Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway is in full swing, and the overall mood on the chart is light fun. Not that we don’t have fun songs later on, but there’s a playful to “Hollaback Girl” that you don’t find in blockbuster pop like “Party Rock Anthem”.
From the tail end of 2014, 2005 almost looks quaint. I mentioned early on that 2006 left radio rock for dead in a shallow grave, and it isn’t until here that you really appreciate what that means. We’ve got 15 songs by actual bands (I’d debate counting Maroon 5 as a band, but this is Songs About Jane, not Overexposed), and some singer-songwritery stuff, to boot. And mixed in with radio fodder like Papa Roach and Three Doors Down is Green Day racking up three hits from American Idiot, and The Killers crack the top 20 with one of their best songs. It’s not just a presence, it’s a good one.
I also talked about the 50 Cent bubble bursting in ’05, and damn, is it no wonder his career flamed out after this. Look, I like “Disco Inferno” (it’s a better banger than you think), but 50 just isn’t the kind of performer who can make six singles/features work for him, especially when the hit parade includes “Candy Shop” and “Outta Control”. Thankfully, 2005 had that kind of performer in Ludacris, a guy who could chameleon his way successfully onto almost any hit and be damn funny on his own. Like, Luda made a not-terrible song out of almost nothing but Austin Powers riffs, and did “Pimpin’ All Over the World”, which is “Talk Dirty” if you replaced all of Jason Derulo’s come-ons with “Holy shit, women are awesome“.
Even with duds like Weezer’s beginning-of-the-end “Beverly Hills” and Nelly/Tim McGraw’s “Over and Over”, the first song I ever genuinely hated, 2005’s held up better than you’d think. So-so jams like “Grind With Me” are still decent, and it was a bit of an artisan year; “Mr. Brightside”, “Feel Good, Inc.”, “Ordinary People”, and “1 Thing” brought a tasteful edge that other charts lack. There isn’t really a narrative or trend to ’05, it’s just a lot of great tunes.
5 Representative Tracks: “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson, “Best of You” by Foo Fighters, “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani, “Ordinary People” by John Legend, and “Disco Inferno” by 50 Cent.
“Yeah!”, “Burn”, “If I Ain’t Got You”, “This Love”, “The Way You Move”, “Hey Ya!”, and that’s just in the top ten. That’s a stupidly great handful of songs, and 2004 keeps giving as it goes.
It goes without saying that 2004 solidly belonged to Usher. No matter what honey nut bullshit he’s involved with now, it was impossible to say a word against him that year; Confessions was an excellently sung, wonderfully performed album that spawned 3 top twenty hits (additionally “My Boo”, his duet with Alicia Keys ranked at 24, and some versions of “If I Ain’t Got You” have him on the second verse. It is wonderful), led by “Yeah!”. “Yeah!” is a defining moment, not just for Usher or 2004, but for radio hits afterward. With a massive synth upfront, a beat led by handclaps, mugging background vocals (provided by Lil Jon), and a featured rap verse on what isn’t a rap-heavy single, you can still hear the template “Yeah!” perfected ten years after the fact. Confessions also has a good bit of crunk, which led the hip-hop trends that year. It’s held up well for gonzo acts like Lil Jon and the Yin Yang Twins (“Get Low” and “Salt Shaker”), but time’s been a little less kind to hangers-on like Terror Squad.
No Billboard list is going to bat .1000, but bringing up 2004’s misfires (“The Reason”, “My Humps”, “Splash Waterfalls”, “Over and Over”, “Pieces of Me”, and “Just Lose It” are the top offenders) feels trite in the face of its successes. This is the year of “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, “She Will Be Loved”, “Numb”, No Doubt’s “It’s My Life”, “Roses”, “Toxic”, and Ludacris’ “Stand Up”. This is also Kanye’s first year in front of the mic, and “All Falls Down”, “Jesus Walks”, and “Through the Wire” all make the list, too. Kids with eyeliner had a great chart year, too: Avril notches a pair of hits in her Alanis phase, Evanescence power ballad “My Immortal” makes the cut, and Linkin Park puts up “Breaking the Habit”.
It didn’t matter in 2004 if you wanted music for a party, for fun, with guitars, without guitars, with twang, no twang, new groups, or older acts, the pop world could give you something. Pop music, as an ideal, is where your niche interests can latch into universal acts, and no year in the last decade did that better than 2004.
5 Representative Tracks (dear God, only five?): “Yeah” by Usher, Lil Jon, and Ludacris, “Hey Ya!” by Outkast, “Slow Jamz” by Twista, Kanye West, and Jamie Foxx, “Numb” by Linkin Park, and “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw.