The 20 Best Pop Radio Hits of 2014

The pop/"top 40" radio format in America has always been this odd place where other genres get filtered through the prism of what will appeal to the broadest possible audience, the proverbial "8 to 80." In certain eras, that meant that what was most popular in those genres simply got upstreamed to pop stations and crossover success. And in other eras, like the one we're in right now, it more frequently means that pop radio curates its own alternative vision of those genres. For instance, a decade ago, when southern hip hop was reaching the peak of its commercial powers, pop radio would play the same Ludacris or Outkast songs that were being played on hip-hop radio. In 2014, rap radio hits by Young Thug or Rae Sremmurd get nowhere near pop radio. But top 40 stations have embraced a weird funhouse mirror version of southern hip hop: Juicy J on a "trap" Katy Perry song, Lil Jon shouting on an EDM track, 2 Chainz getting his biggest Hot 100 hit with a goofy Jason DeRulo song, Pitbull's continued transformation from crunk also-ran to dance pop superstar, and of course the year's big breakout star, an Australian woman rapping in an Atlanta accent. And perhaps the most infuriating thing about this development is that these were actually the good things on pop radio this year. Here's the Spotify playlist of all the songs (minus Taylor, of course), and the pop radio lists I did in 2012 and 2013.

1. Clean Bandit f/ Jess Glynne - "Rather Be"
#6 Pop Songs, #10 Hot 100
A charmingly simple tune with disarmingly ornate production, "Rather Be" was an international phenomenon that went top 10 in seemingly every major market (except, amusingly, Japan, which is both referenced in the lyrics and is the setting of the video). The dropped snare in the second half of the chorus is everything to me.

2. Katy Perry f/ Juicy J - "Dark Horse"
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
Katy Perry's umpteenth pop smash and first real crossover to R&B radio knowingly mimics the Fairlight vocal samples of Art Of Noise's "Moments In Love," another track by a white act that crossed over to black radio three decades earlier. It was also her only major hit in a year in which she saw three singles completely miss the top 10, suggesting that (dare I hope) the millennial Paula Abdul is now in the Spellbound phase of her decline.

3. Paramore - "Ain't It Fun"
#2 Pop Songs, #10 Hot 100
"Ain't It Fun" was a standout on my favorite LP of 2013, and it was maddening to wait nearly a year after the album's release for it to finally, inevitably hit the charts and become the band's biggest hit to date. Delayed gratification is still gratification, though, and I still geek out every time I hear it on the radio, even in that weird edit that abbreviates the outro and first pre-chorus and turns up the guitar on the first chorus.

4. DJ Snake and Lil Jon - "Turn Down For What"
#5 Pop Songs, #4 Hot 100
When a catchphrase starts to reach critical mass in hip hop (and, now, on social media), there's often a gold rush as stars and no-names compete to have the defining song named after it. And lately the old guys have been winning -- Prince has the most famous "this could be us but you playin'" song, and Lil Jon stole "turn down for what" out from under a bunch of other Atlanta rap dudes half his age. There's something depressing about Lil Jon reaching his final form as a Crazy Frog sound effect on a techno song, but at least the remix with Juicy J and 2 Chainz demonstrates that the song works equally well as just another rap song with a Lil Jon chorus.

5. Jason Derulo f/ 2 Chainz - "Talk Dirty"
#1 Pop Songs, #3 Hot 100
In 2012, I saw members of the Balkan Beat Box saxophonist saxophonist Ori Kaplan perform with the rock band Firewater in the little downstairs bar at the Black Cat in D.C. In 2014, the sax riff from a Balkan Beat Box track was sampled for an enormous worldwide pop hit. I hope those guys got some nice fat royalty checks.

6. Disclosure f/ Sam Smith - "Latch"
#3 Pop Songs, #7 Hot 100
Sam Smith became the big Transatlantic sensation of 2014 with a bland record of "soulful" ballads. But his success in the U.K. was paved by a pair of guest appearances on dance hits by Disclosure and Naughty Boy that put his voice in a completely different context than on his album, and his label seemed to acknowledge the necessity of those songs when they were pushed to American radio right alongside "Stay With Me." For dance music critics and fans, it was odd to see Disclosure break through to U.S. pop so long after the 2012 U.K. single release and 2013 album release. But as it spread to alt-rock and R&B radio over the course of 2014, it seemed to simply remind people of the drum machine shuffle and dramatic vocals of Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," another British hit with far-reaching appeal.

7. Taylor Swift - "Shake It Off"
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
Like a lot of songs about "haters," this song gets some fairly deserved hate, for the video, for the "this sick beat" break. But, true to the song's ultimately upbeat message about transcending the haters, I find it pretty irresistible. The beat really is sick. And I think it's a much better fusion of Swift and Max Martin than the truly backlash-deserving "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together."

8. Pitbull f/ Ke$ha - "Timber"
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
I was ready to detest this song from the first listen like anyone else. But Pitbull only seems to be at his best at his most shameless, and this screwy "Cottoneye Joe" country techno track got the best of me pretty quickly.

9. Ariana Grande f/ The Weeknd - "Love Me Harder"
#9 Pop Songs, #7 Hot 100
Ariana Grande's breakthrough was one of my favorite things in pop in 2013, but everything about her 2014 surprised me: that she'd have four top 10 hits, that I'd only enjoy one of them, and that it would feature The Weeknd.

10. Charli XCX - "Boom Clap"
#1 Pop Songs, #8 Hot 100
Charli XCX only had critical cachet in America before she became suddenly famous this year, and I've heard dissatisfied grumblings from her early supporters about this song, but I think it's absolutely killer.

11. Iggy Azalea f/ Charli XCX - "Fancy"
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
Before "Boom Clap," Charli blew up with "Fancy," and a lot of people made a point of saying she was the only good thing about it. But I always thought that braying hook was the worst thing about the song, and that Iggy really deserves more credit for a solid pop rap song where the verses didn't sound at all below par when the song crossed over to rap radio (pretty much the only white rapper hit to actually do well on black radio lately, compared to Macklemore and recent Eminem hits).

12. Fergie - "L.A. Love (La La)"
#20 Pop Songs, #27 Hot 100
Fergie and Gwen Stefani were white girls copping black girl swag about a decade before it became one of the defining pop trends of 2014. So it was fitting that they both attempted comebacks this year, although neither has really taken off yet. Fergie deserves big points for getting an actual DJ Mustard track, instead of a copycat job by British producers like Iggy did for "Fancy."

13. Ed Sheeran - "Sing"
#6 Pop Songs, #13 Hot 100
One of Pharrell's more underrated tracks of his recent comeback harkened back to his early Justin Timberlake solo hits, although I think what really makes the song pop is Sheeran's percussive guitar work, which reminds me as much of "Long Train Runnin'" by the Doobie Brothers as it does "Like I Love You."

14. Demi Lovato f/ Cher Lloyd - "Really Don't Care"
#7 Pop Songs, #26 Hot 100
Demi Lovato topped album charts without breaking out of the Disney Radio niche earlier in her career, but she's slowly and surely become a regular and welcome presence on Top 40 radio, with her latest album scoring three good-sized radio hits. One of my more surreal experiences as a nerdy 30-something music critic happened this year, when I met Demi for my day job and teleprompted a speech she gave at an event in D.C. It was just too awkward a situation for me to tell a pop star ten years younger than me that I'd been a fan of her music for years, so I just shook her hand and did my job, but I wanted to tell her that "Really Don't Care" is my jam.

15. Nick Jonas - "Jealous"
#7 Pop Songs, #8 Hot 100
Nick Jonas co-wrote a lot of my favorite Demi Lovato songs, and worked as the musical director on her last tour, but he never really did much music of his own that I liked until his surprised solo success this year. This song's lyric is pretty embarrassing, but the hook is just massive and the remix with Tinashe at least has an equal opportunity vibe.

16. Ingrid Michaelson - "Girls Chase Boys"
#25 Pop Songs, #52 Hot 100
Ingrid Michaelson has been doing well on the album charts and making adult alternative hits for years, but this year was the first time she made an upbeat song that really started to catch on with Top 40 radio, really great little sleeper hit.

17. Magic! - "Rude"
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
It really says something about 2014 that a reggae song by Canadians is only maybe the 4th-most embarrassing thing to hit #1, but whatever, this song jams in spite of everything. And the Zedd remix is pretty incredible and pretty much removes all the reggae elements to let it just be a pop song.

18. 5 Seconds Of Summer - "She Looks So Perfect"
#19 Pop Songs, #24 Hot 100
5 Seconds Of Summer opened for One Direction on tour this year, and followed in 1D's footsteps of being a minor presence on American radio while moving serious units; they have no top 10 hit in the U.S., but their album outsold pretty much every artist on this list besides Taylor and Katy. Their appeal mostly alludes me, but this song is pretty dope aside from hinging the chorus on a shoutout to American Apparel.

19. MKTO - "Classic"
#8 Pop Songs, #14 Hot 100
Like Childish Gambino, the kid who played Walt on "LOST" has leveraged his minor TV fame into minor rapping fame, scoring a hit as part of the pop duo MKTO. It's weird how a song that pays lip service to pop icons of the '60s, '70s and '80s sounds like that Hot Chelle Rae song that was big in 2011, though.

20. Jennifer Lopez - "First Love"
#21 Pop Songs. #87 Hot 100
AKA was one of my favorite pop albums of 2014, but it was unfortunately the commercial nadir of J.Lo's career, and got its two biggest Hot 100 hits thanks to YouTube views for the divisive singles "I Luh Ya Papi" and "Booty." Meanwhile, the album's biggest radio hit was more representative of the high quality of the other songs on the album. 

The 10 Worst Pop Radio Hits of 2014: 
1. Sam Smith - "Stay With Me"
2. American Authors - "Best Day Of My Life"
3. Sia - "Chandelier"
4. Echosmith - "Cool Kids"
5. The Chainsmokers - "#SELFIE"
6. Ariana Grande - "Break Free"
7. Meaghan Trainor - "All About That Bass"
8. Calvin Harris - "Summer"
9. Becky G - "Shower"
10. Aloe Blacc - "The Man"
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