If you really think about it, pop music is the greatest genre of music. It includes and incorporates every form of music imaginable. Pop can be rock, R&B, country, electronic, bubblegum, adult-contemporary, and more. Sometimes it can even be all of these things in the same song.
Pop often gets a bad name, however. One of the genre’s most-talked-about artists recently is the ever-increasingly desperate-for-attention Miley Cyrus. In the midst of releasing weak dance/rap numbers filled with drug references, she actually released a halfway decent song. Unfortunately, people will mostly remember “Wrecking Ball” for its meaninglessly vulgar music video instead of its emotional intensity. Similarly, her MTV VMA cohort Robin Thicke released one of the best selling albums of the year, despite claims that it plagiarized Marvin Gaye.
This year had plenty of good news and several defining trends in the pop world, however. Many artists experimented with a slight electronic sound, adding digital pulses to otherwise traditional sounds (Paul McCartney, Backstreet Boys).
As of this writing, 2013’s best-selling album was Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience Part 1. His first album in seven years, it reflected a trend of older acts with a nostalgia factor making big comebacks with fresh new music (Paul McCartney, Elton John, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees).
Female solo artists continued to dominate the charts. Pundits wondered whether Katy Perry or Lady Gaga would rule the charts, but both artists actually did equally well this year.
Country music found itself leaning more towards pop, as several pop artists experimented with crossover country hits (Kelly Clarkson, John Mayer, Jason Mraz) and big country acts (Keith Urban, Tim McGraw) released their most mainstream material yet.
So it isn’t surprising that this year’s pop singles list consists of radically different artists and groups. Among 2013’s honorees are two boy bands, a rock legend, former child prodigies, two Norwegian TV hosts, and a whole lot of country acts.
10. Justin Timberlake – “Mirrors”
N’Sync briefly reunited twice this year, but they didn’t release any new music together. Timberlake could have used this as their comeback single, as it contains all the harmonic balladry and sentiment that the group was known for. But you can’t blame him for keeping his best track in years for himself. It gave the kind of endearingly sweet, ambiguous statement that pop music sorely lacks these days. What other recent hit could someone possibly dedicate to a parent without looking silly?
9. Yvlus – “The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?)”
The most fascinating thing about music, the Internet, and pop culture is that you never know what the next big thing will be. In this case, two Norwegian TV comics came up with a mash-up that sounds like the techno version of a children’s sing-a-long tape. The first time you hear it, the fox part comes as a complete surprise. It is a happy surprise and a not-so-guilty pleasure, if you are young at heart and don’t take life too seriously.
8. Ariana Grande ft. Mika – “Popular Song”
Another example of how any form of music can be translated into pop, this is a Broadway favorite covered by a teenage R&B upstart and a glitter-pop aficionado. The two must have been fans of the original cast recording, because they sing it with so much familiarity and joy. You hardly ever hear genuine laughter in Top 40 hits, but it is a welcome addition here.
7. Keith Urban – “A Little Bit of Everything”
Keith Urban often brings an authentic arena rock sound to the country genre. So he may have surprised listeners with this twangy rift on wish fulfillment. The chorus is one of the most sing-a-long-friendly hooks of the year. You can imagine a slight air of island breeze to it, possibly because of the slightly hip-hop-inspired intro.
6. Backstreet Boys – “In a World Like This”
In 2013, the Backstreet Boys embraced the adult-contemporary side of pop, and it was a great fit. Sharing the same name as the album it appears on, this single served as a sampler of all the soaring harmonies and hints of digital sound that run throughout the other tracks. You may not care for their brand of love-saves-all romance, but you can’t say that they don’t sound phenomenal together.
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5. Hunter Hayes ft. Jason Mraz – “Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me”
Admit it. We’re all tired of those empowering anthems about how we can make it on our own. There are far too many club hits about how great the single life supposedly is. What we really needed was a good, old-fashioned lament about not having anyone to dance with. (The rest of lyrics explain that he just went through a break-up, but that’s hardly the point.) This update of the original has a more pop sound, due to the inclusion of Jason Mraz, who turns the song into a rousing commiseration.
4. Kelly Clarkson – “Tie It Up”
You know that friend of yours who really wants to be married and have kids? Kelly Clarkson was the pop/rock equivalent of that friend, who is so fun and likable, but can never seem to find the right person. Her biggest hits spoke of heartbreak and bad relationships, how to break away and tell off the cad who did you wrong. But in 2013, she found real-life wedded bliss and a song singing its praises. And when was the last time you actually heard a song with something good to say about marriage? “Tie It Up” isn’t slow and sentimental; it is a joyful, all-out Country celebration. And what it celebrates is all the trivial little family details (dancing relatives, the band, chairs in the backyard) that can make a wedding day the happiest day of our lives.
3. Hanson – “Get the Girl Back”
Hanson and the happy, retro R&B sound of brass instruments are as delightful of a combination as vanilla ice cream and cherries. If you are familiar with the similarly boppy tunes on their 2010 Shout It Out album, then you will be elated by this fun throwback. Add special credit for its fantastically fun music video, which features celebrity special guests and a dance-off!
2. Paul McCartney – “Queenie Eye”
Everybody knows that Paul McCartney is a rock legend. He’s also a gifted pop craftsman. So it’s really not that surprising that in a year where his blistering, partial-Nirvana collaboration “Cut Me Some Slack” was released, he also released “Queenie Eye”: an electronica-flavored backbeat stomper with sampled strings. The ditty has a rock sound to it, but its other flavors and schoolyard chant lyrics make it pop. The reason why its music video features a recording studio filled with various people and celebrities rocking out simply must be because this song appeals to everybody.
1. One Direction – “One Way or Another (Teenage Kicks)”
It may be a cover, but that doesn’t stop this from being the most inspired, fun track of the year. Whoever got the idea to combine Blondie’s iconic 1979 stalker anthem with the Undertones‘ ode to young, romantic frustration is brilliant. But you can’t deny the effervescent charm of its performers. It sounds like the boy band had a blast recording it. And for all those who dismiss this as mere bubblegum teen pop: remember that “One Way or Another (Teenage Kicks)” was a Red Nose Day charity single, raising funds to help poverty-stricken people all over the world.