Snobs may try to marginalize pop music precisely because of its mainstream appeal, but the fact is that there are few purer joys than singing a well-crafted pop song with gleeful abandon at the top of your lungs. And the artists delivering these songs are some of the most talented vocalists, dancers and all around entertainers in history.
While we have eternal love for Hanson, Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and the like, because so many of these pop songs have been delivered to us by women — who for all intents and purposes form the backbone of most eternal pop music — we here celebrate the top 20 pop songs in history by female artists. These undeniable hits have transcended Top 40 to become permanent fixtures in the cultural landscape. Also, they make us really happy. — Katie Bain
20. Wilson Phillips, "Hold On"
Despite what some would call its unnerving sentimentality and borderline self-help lyricism, "Hold On" remains sun-soaked pop-rock for Gen-X nostalgia nerds raised on original format MTV; a guilty pleasure for anyone going through a breakup or quarter-life crisis during the Prozac Nation-era. While there's simply nothing cool about Wilson Phillips, their three-part harmonies and vocal resonance on "Hold On" are incredibly uplifting, and encapsulate '90s schmaltz as well as the gooey sax on "How Do You Talk to an Angel" or a freshly laundered flannel shirt to cry on. — Art Tavana
19. Kelly Clarkson, “Since U Been Gone”
Kelly Clarkson started out as this seemingly one-note reality show princess who became famous for her ability to, well, hit notes. But with the help of a rock-infused makeover, Clarkson transformed her image and her career with her second album Breakaway and its highlight, “Since U Been Gone.” From its storytelling recap of a rotten relationship to the build-up of its shout-along chorus, the angsty anthem is dedicated to the message that life can be so, so, so much better after you break up. We have Kelly to thank for the fact that breakups are a hell of a lot more fun with “Since U Been Gone” as the soundtrack. — Kelsey Whipple
18. The Spice Girls, “Wannabe"
Released on the group’s debut album, Spice, “Wannabe” was the single that made the Spice Girls overnight icons. But what makes this song one of the best of all time — aside from the bizarro lyrics “I wanna zigazig ahhhh” — is the fact that it addresses the importance of female friendships over romantic bonds. “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends,” the Girls advise in the chorus, defining the notion of “chicks before dicks” long before it became an overused aphorism. Thus, the British pop group became a symbol of female empowerment, and to this day, “Wannabe” remains one of the best and the catchiest girl power anthems of all time. — Mary Carreon
17. Cyndi Lauper, "Time After Time"
Written by Cyndi Lauper and Rob Hyman, “Time After Time” isn't about falling in love, nor is it about falling out of love. It exists somewhere in the complicated gray area of the romance spectrum, the place where the feelings are melancholy, yet hopeful. Every complicated emotion is amplified by the quiver in Lauper's voice in this beautifully tear-jerking vocal performance. "Time After Time" was Lauper's first chart topper and, in the 30 years that have elapsed, it remains wildly popular. Pop singers, indie rockers and karaoke regulars have all taken stabs at this song, yet, no one can quite capture the song's gentle magic like Lauper did. – Liz Ohanesian
16. Christina Aguilera, “Fighter”
“Fighter” arrived amidst the “not a girl, not yet a woman” era of pop, at a time when the ladies ruling it were updating their sweet, virginal images for personas that were sexy but still safe. Christina didn’t care about safe. She reemerged on her sophomore album Stripped decidedly a woman, owning the sexuality, self-esteem issues and questionable fashion choices that go along with becoming one. “Fighter,” with its big guitars and bigger, hook-laden chorus, abandoned the notions of being a “good girl” or a “bad girl,” but instead championed being good to oneself because of — and in spite of — the bad stuff that happens. Christina’s sea change wasn’t a first (she has Madonna and Janet to thank for that), but it was vital at a time when female pop stars were at their most manufactured and artistically anodyne. – Andrea Domanick
15. The Ronettes, "Be My Baby"
With Veronica Bennett, later known as Ronnie Spector, on lead vocals, 1963’s "Be My Baby" captures an angst-filled moment of desire so powerful that it set the standard for songs about longing. Ronnie sings, "For every kiss you give me/I'll give you three," with a sweet sadness so intense that it almost hurts to hear it — yet more than 40 years later, it’s nearly impossible to change the radio station when this song comes on. It's the tune that sucked you into Dirty Dancing, with a hook that was reprised more than two decades later on Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight" — proving that while "Be My Baby" is a desperate song, it can make just about anything tolerable. – Liz Ohanesian
14. Destiny’s Child, “Say My Name”
At the end of the 1990s, Houston was the hotbed for a lot of things (pro sports, mostly), but pop music wasn’t one of them. Enter the salacious Destiny’s Child, vixens who had been carefully honing their craft since they were pre-teens. With hitmaker Rodney Jerkins’ production, the introduction of Beyoncé’s powerhouse vocals, and lyrics of an angry woman calling out her boyfriend for cheating on her, “Say My Name” became a hit, won the group two Grammys and set the stage for many similarly indignant Destiny’s Child hits to come. — Daniel Kohn
13. Rihanna, “Umbrella”
Though she’d be steadily building a following with her earlier releases, it was the sauntering “Umbrella” that propelled Rihanna to international pop icon status. Embracing a new sound that included uptempo dance-pop beats, Rihanna enlisted The-Dream, Tricky Stewart, Kuk Harrell, and one Jay-Z to help her craft the song, with which she kicked down the door to the mainstream — in stiletto heels, naturally. Featuring a verse by Mr. Carter, the song is known for its infectious beat, incredibly catchy hook (“'ella, ‘ella, ‘ella…”) and, ultimately, for topping the charts in 13 countries and selling 6.6 million copies worldwide. — Daniel Kohn
12. Donna Summer, “I Feel Love”
Way back in 1977, Summer and her producer, Giorgio Moroder, sent dance music hurtling headlong into the future with "I Feel Love," the first track to marry the sweeping melody lines and brisk tempos of disco with the metronomic synthesizers and drum machines of Kraftwerk. Foreshadowing and influencing techno, trance and today’s epic festival EDM, Moroder’s gleaming, robotic synths and Summer’s swooning, abstract vocals still sound like the future — and can still ignite any dance floor. — Andy Hermann
11. Lady Gaga, "Bad Romance"
Lady Gaga is a mad genius, and her 2009 magnum opus "Bad Romance" is the pop music equivalent of a violent orgasm. The song, which has been covered by everyone from Frank Ocean to the cast of Glee, pulses with dark desire and leather-studded sex. It's also an operatic tour de force on which Gaga gets progressively more demented amid a fiery ode to a past lover. ("I don't wanna be friends," she's literally shouting by song's end.) "Bad Romance" upped the ante on the artful brand of crazy Gaga first presented on The Fame and cemented the former Stefani Germanotta as a boundary-pushing cultural disruptor who mattered. – Art Tavana
10. TLC, “Waterfalls”
In a time when Disney-clean boy bands and girl groups dominated the music scene, the ladies of TLC — T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli — brought a dose of urban realism to the charts. The 1995 release of their LP Crazy Sexy Cool yielded two No. 1 hits, including the group’s ever-popular anthem, “Waterfalls.” A blend of funk, hip-hop and R&B, the song’s socially conscious lyrics (ultimately, the song is a reflection on violence and AIDS) displayed the trio’s versatility and intelligence, giving them a worldly edge over other cotton candy female pop group competitors. T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli were a classic triple threat, and “Waterfalls” is their best example of why. — Mary Carreon
9. The Supremes, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”
At the peak of Motown’s popularity in the ‘60s, the Supremes were the label’s greatest spinners of pure pop confections like “Baby Love” and “I Hear a Symphony.” Whatever passion or heartache lay within the lyrics was usually masked beneath twinkling harmonies and jaunty backbeats — which made the bitter urgency of 1966’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” all the more revelatory. Over a jangling, alarm-bell rhythm guitar, Diana Ross laces lines like “Get out my life” and “Why don’t you be a man about it?” with withering contempt, proving girl-group pop could take no shit and still top the charts. – Andy Hermann
8. Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”
Breaking up is hard to do, unless you’re Adele. With “Rolling in the Deep,” the British R&B singer/songwriter didn’t mope over a broken heart — she just became a megastar via one of the biggest crossover hits of the past half decade. The song’s blend of pop, soul and blues — along with the battery-acid spite of its scorned-lover lyrics — allowed for the then-21-year-old’s booming voice to become one of the recognizable in the world. On top of taking home a slew of awards, the song went on to sell over 14 million copies, making it one of the bestselling songs by a female vocalist, ever. Surely there’s no better cure for heartache than that. – Daniel Kohn
7. Britney Spears, “Toxic”
In 2003, Britney Spears was the biggest pop star in the world, and “Toxic,” the come-hither single from her most sophisticated and adventurous LP, In the Zone, was Britney at her fiercest and best. Auto-Tuned within an inch of sounding like an alien siren call, Britney purrs about a man so bad he’s good with the sexual bravado that had defined her persona since she appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in her panties clutching a Teletubby. Add all that to Britney strutting around the music video in a stewardess uniform, and it was altogether the picture of a pop star peaking. — Katie Bain
6. Janet Jackson, “Nasty”
Michael Jackson’s kid sister was just 19 when she knocked Top 40 radio on its ass with “What Have You Done for Me Lately” and its even funkier follow-up, “Nasty.” Over a relentless Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis track that’s all blunt force and sharp edges, Jackson snarled, “No, my first name ain’t baby/It’s Janet/Miss Jackson if you’re nasty,” instantly becoming pop music’s most iconic demander of respect since Aretha and inspiring a generation of female artists, from Britney to Rihanna, to find empowerment in a nasty groove. — Andy Hermann
5. Mariah Carey, “Vision of Love”
Few pop stars have arrived as powerfully and fully formed as Mariah Carey did with her 1990 debut single “Vision of Love.” Though her later work has devolved into empty, melismatic one-upmanship, there’s no denying that Mariah has one of the most technically formidable voices in the history of pop. “Vision of Love” matches that talent with songwriting and a delivery that not only withstands, but upstages it. As a result, it’s not her technical skill and control that make the song so striking, but rather the rawness and vulnerability that she evokes in spite of them. — Andrea Domanick
4. Whitney Houston, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”
In 1987, Whitney Houston was already a big deal, but with the fall release of her single "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)," the choir girl gone pop megastar transcended even herself with a jam that was as earnestly sweet as it was joyously infectious. Originally written as a country song (as was her enduring "I Will Always Love You") " I Wanna Dance With Somebody" was rearranged as a dance track by producer Narada Michael Walden. And goddamn did Whitney want to dance, putting every ounce of her singular voice into finding a dance partner who would take a chance on a love that would burn hot enough to last. And at the end of the day, isn't that really what we all want? — Katie Bain
3. Beyoncé, “Crazy in Love”
If Destiny’s Child was Beyoncé's adolescence, 2003’s “Crazy in Love” was her debutante ball. And she didn’t arrive without a date. The song, an expert mélange of James Brown-inspired horns, jazz percussion and an infectious “uh-oh, uh-oh” hook recalling girl groups of decades past, was the official announcement that Young B and the ROC, Jay-Z himself, were not just an item, but officially Crazy In Love. Beyoncé’s delivery, all glitz and swagger, made the song as much about feminine strength and self-awareness as it was about romantic madness. She was crazy, yes, but also fully in control. The first track on her first solo LP Dangerously in Love, “Crazy in Love” was a tour de force announcement that the reign of Queen Bey had begun. All hail. — Katie Bain
2. Madonna, "Like a Prayer"
Floating atop a Latin rhythm and funky synth bass, with a gospel choir providing the ethereal harmony, Madonna's voice on "Like a Prayer" isn't just confident, it's downright heavenly. Supported by a chorus of angels in D minor, 1989’s “Like a Prayer” was the moment when Madonna went from being the voice of America's teenagers to the worldwide high priestess of pop.
The song was Madonna's great leap forward, and our first encounter with her unsettled Catholic soul, as opposed to her unbridled blond ambition. She sabotaged the wholesome Pepsi ad that premiered the song with a music video that featured her dancing in front of a row of burning crosses, seducing a black saint and receiving the stigmata. The Pope and Roman Catholics around the world denounced Madonna, Pepsi pulled the ad, and in the process, "Like a Prayer" became the most controversial video in the history of MTV. In one profoundly appealing and utterly danceable swoop, Madonna had orchestrated pop music's greatest awakening. — Art Tavana
1. Aretha Franklin, “Respect”
Great pop songs are timeless, but the best among them also capture the zeitgeist of their eras. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” is one of those songs, and the majority of tracks on this list wouldn’t exist without it. Her definitive 1967 take on the Otis Redding-penned hit eclipsed the original and then some, topping both the Billboard Pop Singles and R&B charts while earning two Grammy wins and heavy airplay overseas.
It’s not hard to see why. Franklin’s explosive vocal delivery and savvy changes to the tune, adding a bridge and those demanding “sock it me” back-up vocals, transformed it into a perfect pop song: catchy, passionate, energetic and sexually suggestive. Its influence still lingers today across genres from rock to hip-hop.
But Franklin’s “Respect” was more than a great piece of music — it spoke to people. In a year when the struggles of the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War were at their most urgent, she reclaimed and elevated the word from Redding’s coy euphemism into a gauntlet thrown on behalf of women and all other marginalized people.
"Aretha characterized respect as something given with force and great effort and cost,” wrote the poet and scholar Sherley Anne Williams. “And when she even went so far as to spell the word 'respect,' we just knew that this sister wasn't playing around about getting respect and keeping it."
Forty-seven years later, the song remains both a karaoke go-to and cultural shorthand for female empowerment, setting the bar for pop anthems and independent women alike. — Andrea Domanick
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