The 20 Best Pop Radio Hits of 2013

Even though 'pop' has some connotations of being a genre of its own, it's more of a bastard Frankenstein than any other radio format. 10 years ago, there was still some sense that pop radio was the cream rising to the top, the biggest and best hits from other formats breaking through to a bigger audience. Now, it feels like pop radio has its own rap songs and R&B songs and rock songs and country songs and so on, that aren't necessarily (or sometimes in any way) better than the ones that appeal to those genres' core fans, but still take most of the spotlight as Top 40 radio eclipses all else. 

Still, I gotta say, pop radio was pretty damn good this year. In fact, it's the only one of these lists where I feel confident in saying that compared to the list I did last year, 2013 is absolutely superior. I did this list after the R&B, rock/alternative, country and rap lists to kind of exclude the few pop hits that had another core format they were also hits on, so this is kind of a list full of exclusions and holes in it (i.e. I'm not gonna put "Blurred Lines" on two lists, otherwise it'd be pretty high on this one). 

Here's the Spotify playlist

1. Zedd f/ Foxes - "Clarity"
#2 Pop Songs, #8 Hot 100
A couple years ago, the onslaught of EDM hits, usually matching bland mainstream DJs to big name singers with songs that rarely worked as great pop music or great dance music, seemed like the worst thing on American pop radio. Now, for better or worse, the saturation point has hit where we're not just getting festive party tracks in the EDM format but also dance ballads, and in a weird way it's like we're starting to at least approach the underrated emotional range of the disco era. 

2. Paramore - "Still Into You"
#8 Pop Songs, #24 Hot 100
Rock radio wasn't ready for the best rock single of the year, which poured sugar and all sorts of production bells and whistles over a "My Sharona" riff for the giddiest celebration of longterm monogamy since Beyonce's "Countdown." After alt-rock stations tepidly received Paramore's lead single "Now" and completely ignored the follow-up, it took "Still Into You" 6 or 7 months to climb the charts, beating out “The Only Exception” to become the band’s biggest pop radio hit (although not as big as Hayley Williams’s depressingly phoned-in hook on B.o.B’s “Airplanes," which is echoed on her lame new Zedd collaboration "Stay The Night"). Even a lyric like "some things just make sense and one of those is you and I," which initially sounded clunky and grammatically suspect, has begun to hit me hard: two people equaling one thing. 

3. Lady Gaga f/ R. Kelly - "Do What U Want"
#14 Pop Songs, #13 Hot 100
For all of Gaga's bluster about dragging modern art reference points into pop music, ARTPOP's biggest triumph just took Top 40 listeners back a decade or so to a time when R. Kelly's wonderful voice was a frequent and wonderful presence. The way it feels like this big catchy pop hit about sex, and just under the surface has a pretty articulate message about female agency and body image, just made the whole thing feel like such a perfectly assembled song that, for the first time in a while, made Gaga seem like some kind of genius again. 

4. Ariana Grande f/ Mac Miller - "The Way"
#12 Pop Songs, #9 Hot 100
There's something very weird and surreal about one of the many 2013 hits to use a sample or interpolation to remind people of the '90s coming from a couple kids who were born in the '90s, and were only 4-5 years old when "Still Not A Player" blew up. But Harmony "H-Money" Samuels, who produced a couple of my favorite R&B singles of the year by Fantasia and Sevyn Streeter, continued his domination of 2013 by helping the latest kids' TV starlet, Nickelodeon's Ariana Grande, cross over to Top 40 radio. Again, it's a little depressing that the primary artists on pretty much every R&B-leaning hit on pop radio this year was a white person (Thicke, Timberlake, Gaga), but in Grande we at least got a promising new star who can really sing and seems poised for an urban radio breakthrough as well (hilariously, my local R&B station plays "The Way" with the Mac Miller verse edited out, the only time they've ever taken a rapper out of a song). 

5. Calvin Harris f/ Florence Welch - "Sweet Nothing"
#5 Pop Songs, #10 Hot 100
Like "Clarity," this is an EDM ballad that kind of justifies the whole enterprise, just a lovely, dramatic song that's compact and perfect from the first second to the last. I resisted Welch's voice at first, but after "Shake It Out" and "Sweet Nothing" won me over, I've even kinda gone back and begun to enjoy "Dog Days Are Over." 

6. Daft Punk f/ Pharrell - "Get Lucky"
#2 Pop Songs, #2 Hot 100
After "Around The World" and "One More Time" became good-sized pop hits without big name pop star guests, it seemed almost like a cop out for Daft Punk to resist every current trend in EDM except famous vocalists, especially when they mostly reached to other critically adored guys who peaked creatively in 2001 like Pharrell and Julian Casablancas. But "Get Lucky" just transcends any misgivings I could have about what it or its success represents. It's just a great song. 

7. Bruno Mars - "Treasure"
#5 Pop Songs, #5 Hot 100
Nostalgic disco funk was in the air well before "Get Lucky" hit, as evidenced by the fact that Bruno Mars already had a great similar track waiting in the wings on his late 2012 album Unorthodox Jukebox, ready to ride that wave all summer. 

8. Rihanna f/ Mikky Ekko - "Stay"
#1 Pop Songs, #3 Hot 100
I wrote a Radio Hits One column a couple years ago, after Adele's "Someone Like You" became the first blockbuster ballad in years, and wondered whether it was even possible for it to set a trend of piano ballads on pop radio, given that the biggest artists, like Rihanna, seemed so incapable of pulling them off (ugh, remember "Unfaithful"?). So I was both pleased and chagrined that Rihanna ended up with one of the biggest ballad hits of 2013 (bested only by "When I Was Your Man" by Bruno Mars, which sounded a little too mathematically calibrated to follow in the footsteps of "Someone Like You"). She sounded a little silly singing some of Mikky Ekko's ridiculous anglophile lyrics, but the actual vocal performance was fantastic, the whole thing is just kind of beautiful. 

9. Demi Lovato - "Heart Attack"
#4 Pop Songs, #10 Hot 100
The power pop on her first two albums remains my favorite stuff Demi Lovato has done, but she didn't actually become a Top 40 presence until well after she became famous, with last year's awesome sleeper hit "Give Your Heart A Break." So I was happy to see her build on that success in 2013 with a song like "Heart Attack" that was hooky and bombastic but also had a kind of nervous intensity that really suits her voice well, the frantic 32nd note hi-hats scurrying underneath that fraught chorus. 

10. Taylor Swift - "I Knew You Were Trouble"
#1 Pop Songs, #2 Hot 100
"I Knew You Were Trouble" pulled some of the same tricks as "Heart Attack" to great effect, and gradually won me over in a T-Swift pop radio singles campaign in which it was bookended by two other Max Martin productions that I hated with a passion ("We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and "22"). 

11. Tegan And Sara - "Closer"
#20 Pop Songs, #90 Hot 100
Like Paramore's "Still Into You," Tegan And Sara started off 2013 with a great alternative single that ended up taking half the year to finally find its largest audience on pop radio. In the case of "Closer," a YouTube of Taylor Swift bringing Tegan And Sara onstage to perform the song with her was probably the leg up the song needed to cross over, but it really shouldn't have needed it, given that the song was produced by Greg Kurstin, who just did huge hits for Pink and Kelly Clarkson. And really "Closer" just felt huge, even if it was only a minor hit in the end. 

12. Katy Perry – “Roar”
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
The only thing that saved "Roar" from feeling completely anti-climactic was that it ended up being compared more to Gaga's hugely disappointing lead single "Applause," rather than held up to the bar of "California Girls" and "Teenage Dream." And in a way, it's nice to see Katy Perry's fairly undeserved superstardom already starting to taper off -- she can keep doing goofy, pleasant songs like "Roar" if they'r not going to be too oppressively huge. 

13. Anna Kendrick – “Cups (When I'm Gone)”
#8 Pop Songs, #6 Hot 100
Probably the single strangest, most circuitous journey to pop radio in a long time, "When I'm Gone" began as a Carter Family song in the 1930s, until a modern cover and then a YouTube video and then a major motion picture placed an 77-second version by an actress with no professional recording experience onto the charts. The re-recorded single, which balloons the track out to an indulgent 127 seconds, isn't quite as charming as the first Anna Kendrick version from the Pitch Perfect soundtrack, but it was still an odd, charming thing to encounter on the radio. 

14. Zendaya - "Replay"
#25 Pop Songs, #61 Hot 100
With Miley and Demi and Selena dominating pop radio this year, Disney Channel starlets seem to be making hits outside of Radio Disney with greater ease than ever before. But Zendaya, a supporting player from the recently canceled "Shake It Up," is still on the periphery with a ridiculously good song that feels like it still needs to break through. Produced by Mick Schultz, who helmed pretty much every track on Jeremih's two major label albums, gives this his brand of R&B sheen that would sound equally good on pop and urban radio, but like Ariana Grande, Zendaya seems more destined for Top 40 just by virtue of how she became famous in the first place. 

15. Britney Spears – “Work Bitch”
#14 Pop Songs, #12 Hot 100
For almost 15 years, I've been terrorized by that goofy duck voice, on awful songs and good songs that could've been done more justice by better vocalists. But now that Britney seems to be finally fading from the forefront, doing a residency in Vegas and releasing what seems destined to be the least successful album of her career, I'm not so annoyed by her ubiquity anymore. And "Work Bitch" is just really ridiculous and funny and bizarre. 

16. Ke$ha – “C’Mon”
#9 Pop Songs, #27 Hot 100
Ke$ha's reign of terror was much shorter than Britney's, but also seems to be showing signs of drawing to a close already, with "C'Mon" being her first solo single to miss the top 10 after several number ones. And in her case, that's a real shame, if only because "C'Mon" is the first thing of hers that I've really loved, feeling warm and euphoric and not too desperately 'hip hop' in a year when Miley made all of Ke$ha's bullshit seem kind of harmless by comparison. 

17. Kelly Clarkson – “Catch My Breath”
#13 Pop Songs, #19 Hot 100
Kelly Clarkson is kind of incapable of doing any wrong in my eyes -- she can do dance pop hits like this, or country songs, or a Christmas album, or all of the above as she did this year, and I enjoy it all. This one was kind of initially underwhelming, but over the months of adult contemporary airplay it really won me over, has a nice appropriate bittersweet vibe for a single from a "greatest hits" compilation. 

18. One Direction – “Best Song Ever”
#16 Pop Songs, #2 Hot 100
After their big debut radio smash "What Makes You Beautiful" (my #1 on this list last year), One Direction have remained a major force in American pop by sheer virtue of their fanbase rushing to iTunes with every new release, while radio has cooled on them significantly with every subsequent single. But "Best Song Ever" at least did a good job of capturing their goofy, puppy dog power pop appeal with a song that invoked The Who just enough to both earn Pete Townshend's respect and to scare lawsuit-wary One Direction fans into harrassing Pete on Twitter.

19. Emile Sande – “Next To Me”
#17 Pop Songs, #25 Hot 100
Emile Sande is a U.K. phenomenon whose U.S. presence lags even further behind her homeland stardom than that of One Direction. In 2013, as her album enjoyed a second year of giant sales in England, its singles slowly, cautiously crept onto American radio, and where I was expecting something stuffy and dull, her voice and her hooks on "Next To Me" and "My Kind of Love" actually impressed me. I might feel differently if she was huge over here too, though. 

20. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis f/ Wanz – “Thrift Shop”
#1 Pop Songs, #1 Hot 100
Macklemore is such a deserving critical pariah that I will probably get shit from some of my peers just for sneaking this in at the bottom of the list. But out of all the songs in Macklemore's depressing hit parade, "Thrift Shop" is the one that always seemed to function best as a fun radio song, troubling as some of its subtext was. If this was his only hit and the album fell short of going gold, I wouldn't hate on dude's success. 

Bonus bile: 
The 10 Worst Pop Radio Hits of 2013
1. Miley Cyrus - "We Can't Stop"
2. Justin Timberlake - "Mirrors"
3. Icona Pop f/ Charli XCX – “I Love It”
4. Florida Georgia Line f/ Nelly – “Cruise (Remix)”
5. Lana Del Rey and Cedric Gergais – “Summertime Sadness”
6. & Britney Spears – “Scream & Shout”
7. Zedd f/ Hayley Williams - "Stay The Night"
8. Miley Cyrus - "Wrecking Ball"
9. Lady Gaga - "Applause"
10. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis f/ Ray Dalton – “Can’t Hold Us”

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