From Lady Gaga instructing us to put our paws up and Adele lamenting just how much she and her man could have had at the beginning of the year, to Bruno Mars predicting a murky forecast and Jay-Z and Kanye taking one more—just one more—stroll through Paris at year’s end, 2011 has been a fantastic year for pop music of all shapes and sizes. Over the week, we’ve counted down our 100 favorite songs of the year—songs that made us dance, made us think, made us cry, most of them all at the same time. Check out 20-1 below, including synth-pop movie soundtrack cuts, final appearances from legendary rock saxophonists and of course, one more Beyoncé song.
20. DEMI LOVATO, “SKYSCRAPER”
There’s a long and distinguished history in pop of women triumphing over personal, institutional, or romantic adversity by singing aching songs that cut to the heart of those troubles, from Billie Holiday and Édith Piaf to Karen Carpenter and Stevie Nicks to Mary J. Blige and, just this year, Adele. Demi Lovato’s attempt to join this lineage isn’t particularly surprising — Hollywood Records labelmate Miley Cyrus made her bid to join the ranks of grown-up pop last year, to mixed results — but what might have surprised people who hadn’t paid attention to Lovato’s years honing her talent was just how striking the final result would be. Attributing the cathartic resonance of “Skyscraper” to her time in treatment, and the inevitable whispers about what “exhaustion” really means in Hollywood, is easy; but a compelling backstory doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the intelligence and precision with which to communicate it effectively. Lovato does — and it’s her skilfull expressiveness that turns “Skyscraper” from a routine believe-in-yourself ballad to a statement of righteous purpose. —Jonathan Bogart
The only thing you need to know to understand “Motivation” is that the guy who produced Beyoncé’s “I Care” thought it sucked. Jeff Bhasker, who’s also responsible for “Party” and “Rather Die Young,” practices the production style now in vogue for capital-I Important R&B and rap: big sounds driven by live instrumentation (horns, electric guitar, piano), its cues taken from big-budget pop artists of the 80s like Prince and Lionel Richie. “Motivation,” though, draws on the minimalist electro you hear in post-Glitter Mariah Carey, carefully picking just a few spare loops to serve as a foundation for the vocalist to go exploring; it’s no accident that Rowland’s producer on this also worked on Usher’s Raymond vs. Raymond. That Destiny’s Child’s Andrew Ridgley went this direction tells you one thing about the state of R&B, but the fact that the Grammy-nominated “Motivation” was a huge hit tells you another. (The existence of a dubsteppy Diplo remix tells you yet a third thing.) Cold synth plinks still work when you do it as well as Kelly does here, conjuring a chilly, futuristic sensuality and leaving room for Wayne’s surprisingly coherent and substantial contribution. There’s not a lot of character there, but that’s sort of the point. Beyoncé sings “I Was Here” to make sure we are explicitly, consciously aware of her presence and importance; “Motivation” and its ilk connect with us bodily, playing down the importance of the singer in favor of the overall experience of the song. —Mike Barthel
18. THE WEEKND, “WHAT YOU NEED”
It was the song you heard before you knew who the hell The Weeknd was, and unfortunately for people coming to it after his rather careerist identity came out, that mystery is a serious flavor enhancer for “What You Need.” The official video looked more like a fan creation, staying on a still photo for the duration of the song, but instead of an album cover, curious YouTubers were encouraged to stare at a scratchy black-and-white picture of a faceless woman in what appeared to be a hotel room; to pile anonymity on top of anonymity, the account’s username was “xoxxxoooxo.” Even the voice, when you first heard it, was buried behind more echo than is customary even for contemporary R&B, sounding further from your ears than the sampled voices that introduced the track. The overall effect was like walking into an empty room to find a boombox which played the still, chiming backing track while someone sung at you from behind a one-way mirror. And that’s why it’s perfect. “What You Need” took the fashion for shoegaze that gripped electronic artists a few years back and applied it to the personality-focused realm of R&B, in the process turning its relentless mystery from twee personality disorder to coy come-on. When so much of pop is gratingly, desperately self-promoting – like me on Facebook! Retweet to win a prize! – The Weeknd’s willfull obscurity was bracing precisely because it didn’t seem to care what you needed. —M.B.
17. KATY PERRY, “LAST FRIDAY NIGHT (TGIF)”
Pink flamingos, hickies, vomit. Recalling those never-ending nights that leave you with sparse memories and resounding headaches, Perry made her push for the record books with a fun, singalong about getting drunk and acting stupid. Dr. Luke and Max Martin once again work their magic, this time bringing the embarrassing yet amusing (and sometimes relatable) ingredients that make for an epic night out to forefront of pop music rather than simply hinting at bad behavior. Perry’s chanting delivery makes the track more inclusive, allowing everyone to sing along before giving way to a lengthy saxophone solo that celebrates the more mature elements of the weekend’s kickoff, which trumps both back and front seat joy rides. —Emily Exton
There’s a case to be made that this is the year’s biggest rap song; certainly, it’s a showcase for three guys who’ve had three great years. It’s Drake’s first big re-emergence in a year that’d lay one big, gold and heavy crown called Take Care atop his temples, and the track’s produced by fellow Torontonian Noah “40″ Shebib with the same muted tones he and Drake would wildly popularize. Rick Ross, meanwhile, plays RICK ROSS, and the better the year got, the more rewarding this verse got; meanwhile, Lil Wayne (whose Tha Carter IV was a undisputed sales if not critical victor) leads his verse with what’s both a ludicrous boast or a gripe, “I walk around the club, fuck everybody,” that’s already been repurposed. Also repurposed (albeit by Drake himself in Take Care‘s runoff of early tracks this summer) was the chorus, for the same obvious reasons; you’re never quite sure whether “all I care about is money and the city that I’m from / I’mma drink until I feel it, I’mma sip until it’s done” is supposed to be nonchalant or resigned. Either way, it’s a causelessness people believed in. —Katherine St. Asaph
15. ROBYN, “CALL YOUR GIRLFRIEND”
Furthering the argument that she’s the most thoughtful voice on relationships, Robyn evolves into the other woman, adding more gravitas to this potential breakup anthem. Treading lightly, she gives her list of reasons why the person she’s fallen for should end things with his current girlfriend over cascading synths, each word dripping with hope and fear simultaneously (“Don’t you tell her how I give you something that you never even knew you missed / Don’t you even try and explain how it’s so different when we kiss”). Her request for him to explain things in great detail works twofold: to reinforce why he’s not fit for his current significant other, and to validate everything she’s been feeling. Her back catalog suggests she’s been on the other side of this love triangle before, but it’s the complexities behind each feeling she describes that make this a more unique, adult love song. —E.E.
14. BRAD PAISLEY & CARRIE UNDERWOOD, “REMIND ME”
It is proper to mock Brad and Carrie for their extremely minimalist we-are-wandering-toward-each-other-in-the-desert video, but the setting really does fit the song to a T. While country songs tend toward the enclosed, conveying the feel of bedrooms or crowded, low-ceilinged bars, “Remind Me” feels wide open. The minimalism works because most of the song’s plot takes place in the characters’ heads, Brad and Carrie maintaining separate monologues that don’t intersect until the song’s final verse. All in all, it feels like one of those awful silent car rides you have after a fight, the two of you sitting there, stewing or reconsidering, and eventually making up. All that space lets the camera circle around them, emphasizing the way that the space outside matters more to their state of mind than the connection between them. None of which is to say that the director couldn’t have come up with a better way to visualize this than making a live-action version of The Zax. —M.B.
13. COLLEGE FEAT. ELECTRIC YOUTH, “A REAL HERO”
Yeah, yeah, technically it came out in 2010—hands up if you’d even heard of College or Electric Youth before Ryan Gosling took Carey Mulligan and her adorable kid for a ride in the empty Los Angeles river bed. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, “A Real Hero” was probably the lushest, most romantic and most spellbinding synth-pop to define a movie soundtrack since “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun, a song that rushed everyone out of the movie theaters and onto their iTunes accounts. Strains of gorgeous, shimmering synths intertwine to create a heavenly-soft bed for Electric College to gently coo the song’s unforgettable chorus over: “And you have proved to be / A real human being / And a real hero.” The song’s key, though, is the little ping that opens and closes the song, like the sound of a dying firework, giving the song not only a satisfying sense of symmetry but the proper framing for one of the year’s brightest-shining songs. Without “A Real Hero,” Drive might have turned out a lot closer to Fast Five than any of us would care to admit. Luckily, we’ll never have to find out. —Andrew Unterberger
12. RIHANNA FEAT. CALVIN HARRIS, “WE FOUND LOVE”
There’s a reason one of the classic disco hits is called “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” — hopeless places are all over dance music. Maybe that’s because of the manifold injustices still suffered by key members of the dancing demographic — younger, working-class, with a wide range of ethnicities and sexual orientations — or maybe it’s because the freedom and joy of dance sounds that much better when the drama’s heightened. Rihanna knows a lot about both real-life drama and the uses of fictional drama; but her performance here doesn’t dwell on the hopeless place. It’s all about the love, and Calvin Harris’s surging electronic crescendos imitate the endorphin rushes she’s singing about — or, if you’re on the right dancefloor at the right time, causing. —J.B.
11. NICOLA ROBERTS, “BEAT OF MY DRUM”
Much like fellow red-haired British girl-group oddball Siobhan Donaghy, Nicola Roberts already had a following as “the best one out of Girls Aloud”; this year she’s expanded that to “the best one out of Girls Aloud with a solo album [Cinderella's Eyes].” (Cheryl Cole has yet to make the world-conquering pop album promised and at this rate will probably be beaten by Cher Lloyd; Nadine Coyle barely makes it into this paragraph.) “Beat of My Drum” was produced by Major Lazer’s Diplo, who made similar whizbang-pop of Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” and came out of nowhere to wow crowds beyond the Popjustice set with its tornado-fast yet verses, victory-cry chorus and a bridge like a reveille performed by sugar-addled cheerleaders. You can’t dance to the beat of this drum so much as jump and clap and exult along. What better can you ask of pop? —K.S.A.
For songs 10-2, including Britney Spears and Beyoncé, click NEXT.