2014’s Best Pop Singles: Idolator Editors Pick 20 Favorites

Idolator Staff | December 15, 2014 5:33 am
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Truly great albums were hard to come by in 2014, but the land of pop music was flooded with amazing singles over the past 12 months. In fact, we had a field day re-visiting the sounds of this year in order to compile this list, which you’ll find is filled with everything from synthed-up R&B jams to housey club cuts to twangy guitar pop to sassy rap joints.

So let’s just hop to it. Below you’ll find Idolator’s roundup of the 20 Best Pop Singles Of 2014. (Also, if you didn’t already check out our list of the Best Albums Of 2014, it serves as a nice companion piece!) We’ve even thrown in a handy Spotify playlist featuring each track — well, except for the Beyonce one, which we had to substitute with a dodgy, generic “as made famous by” cover version. Enjoy!

20. SZA, “Babylon”

SZA is not one of 2014’s mainstays when looking at a pop music angle, but the singer is not one to be overlooked. Like BANKS, she made a name for herself within the new realm of alt-R&B artists. Top Dawg Entertainment’s latest signee released her third EP Z back in April, with “Babylon” being the lead single. It was drastically different from the other tunes that dropped at that time, but that’s what made it so special.

“Babylon” is a chilled down-tempo filled with smoky synths courtesy of DJ Dahi, which fade in and out of SZA’s cloudy vocals. The song was made even stronger with a feature from rapper du jour (and TDE labelmate), Kendrick Lamar. Just take caution when listening to “Babylon”; you may get caught up in its entrancing rapture. — BIANCA GRACIE

19. Beyonce, “7/11”

The Hive will cut a bitch for looking at Beyonce sideways, but even social media’s fiercest fan army didn’t have anything nice to say about “7/11″,  the lead/only single from Queen Bey’s visual album repackage. Two weeks later and the song is a meme. It’s also the second-highest charting single (after “Drunk In Love”) from the entire era.

So, what happened? The incredible DIY video, which was filmed on Bey’s iPhone, went viral and the Detail-produced anthem became an instant club/party favorite. It also took a minute to process the song’s sprawling structure. “7/11” is an avalanche of hooks without a chorus. Which not only makes it one of the catchiest singles of 2014, but also one of the most innovative. — MIKE WASS

Nick Jonas Chains

18. Nick Jonas, “Chains”

In early 2014, Nick Jonas announced that he was working on another solo project. His first album, released during his stint as a Jonas Brother, was smothered in classic Disney pop. So when “Chains,” the first single from his eponymous sophomore LP, was released over the summer, we were not expecting it to be the instant banger that it was.

The mid-tempo R&B tune may not have charted on the Billboard 100, but who cares? Produced by Jason Avigan (Demi Lovato, Fifth Harmony, Maroon 5), “Chains” packs just as much of a punch as “Like I Love You,” Justin Timberlake‘s breakout solo single. It features a slinky bassline that creeps up your spine, as Jonas’ soulfully croons about being trapped in a relationship. Listen to this song just once, and you’ll be begging to set him free! — BIANCA GRACIE

17. Leighton Meester, “Heartstrings”

Sure, Leighton Meester might be best known for her role on Gossip Girl, but don’t write her off as just an actress-turned-singer just yet. While she started her music career with the kind of catchy, campy dance-pop gems like “Your Love’s A Drug,” Leighton since shifted her sound into something much more mature — and lush. The result is “Heartstrings,” a gentle, guitar-driven tune colored by airy wisps of ’60’s-tinged French pop and folk.

Armed with catchy melodies (“Tie my heartstrings…”) and dreamy layers of sound, Leighton supplied one of the year’s best, most understated surprises, thus proving why she deserves to be taken seriously as a musician. — BRADLEY STERN

Future Islands Seasons Waiting On You single cover art

16. Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting On You)”

Future Islands are my favorite anti-pop stars. Frontman Samuel T. Herring looks like an accountant, he moves around the stage like your drunk uncle at a wedding and his emotional delivery is borderline confronting at a time when displaying disinterest is the status quo.

But these are the exact same reasons why a ticket to the band’s live show is the best gift you can give yourself. When you factor in their incredible music, like melancholy synth-pop anthem “Seasons (Waiting On You),” you can’t help but think that Future Islands are destined for even bigger things. — MIKE WASS

Banks Drowning

15. Banks, “Drowning”

BANKS was already known for her haunting tracks, thanks to her 2013 London EP. But her debut album proved the singer could translate that sound to the mainstream field. Take, for instance, the stunning “Drowning.” Taken as the third single from Goddess, the tune is one of the more underrated tracks of the year. (By the way, Goddess is Idolator’s top pick for 2014’s best albums.)

There is no doubt “Drowning” is about a woman scorned, but don’t think the singer is a victim! BANKS forces you to listen to her every word, with vocals so bitter that it almost makes you want to spit in shame. Combine that with seductive percussion, tribal-esque vocal effects, and the result is utterly striking. — BIANCA GRACIE

Route 94 My love Jess Glynne

14. Route 94 featuring Jess Glynne, “My Love”

Route 94 gave house music a modern day anthem with this number. Hypnotic, moody and sexy as hell, “My Love” made the well-deserved transition from 2013 underground club jam in the UK to Annie Mac-championed pop smash in 2014.  It also helped establish vocalist Jess Glynne as one of the year’s freshest new music forces.

Hats off to the on-point music video for “My Love,” as well, which depicts one young man’s journey through a dance club and back to the home of his one-night stand. Ah, the thrill of anonymous sex can be so fleeting. “My Love,” however, packs quite a long-lasting sensation. — ROBBIE DAW

13. Selena Gomez, “The Heart Wants What It Wants”

During her seven-year stint at Hollywood Records, Selena Gomez evolved from a perky pop-rocker to an alluring dance diva. She executed both roles admirably and delivered a series of memorable bops — greatest hits package For Youhelpfully curates her underrated discography — but neither genre felt entirely authentic. Happily, she found herself (and her sound) on final Hollywood Records single “The Heart Wants What It Wants.”

Produced by Rock Mafia, the mid-tempo ballad documents Sel’s on-again/off-again love affair with Justin Bieber. At least, that’s one interpretation. The great thing about “The Heart Wants What It Wants” is that the lyrics are general enough to apply to any destructive relationship, while specific enough to lend the song some unexpected grit. If this is the direction Selena is taking on her Interscope debut, Miley and Ariana are about to have some real competition. — MIKE WASS

Nico & Vinz Am I Wrong

12. Nico & Vinz, “Am I Wrong”

Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong” was one of the most omnipresent songs of summer this year, and not since the ’80s heyday of a-ha had a Norwegian pop act made such an impact on America’s charts. The sunny duo’s self-confidence anthem shined bright during a 12-month stretch that, quite frankly, was a bit “off” with regards to popular music. And with its African rhythm and the positive nature of lyrics like “am I trippin’ for having a vision? / my prediction: Imma be on top of the world,” the song gave radio listeners something a bit left of center to digest in 2014.

“We invited our friends to listen to all the songs we had and everybody was pointing at ‘Am I Wrong’,” the duo’s Nico Sereba told Idolator in the fall. “They weren’t sure if it was going to work on radio, but they liked the song. The reason why they said that was because it’s so different from anything that’s out there.” — ROBBIE DAW

Jessie Ware Tough Love

11. Jessie Ware, “Tough Love”

Who knew tough love could sound so sweet? After teaming up in the studio with Benny Blanco and Two Inch Punch (together known as BenZel), Jessie Ware seemingly pulled off the impossible, one-upping her already fantastic debut with an even richer follow-up in 2014. The haunting title track is a pretty accurate representation of the entire LP, full of sensual electronic ripples, throbbing drums and, of course, Jessie’s spine-tingling vocals. (She shows off the pipes on plenty of the record’s other tracks, but saves the sexy whispers for “Tough Love.”)

If this is Jessie’s definition of tough love, we don’t want her getting soft on us any time soon. — BRADLEY STERN

10. Made In Heights, “Ghosts”

Made In Heights crafted 2014’s prettiest piece of electronica with “Ghosts.” The Los Angeles-based duo’s genius lies in their restraint. Vocalist Kelsey Bulkin mysteriously sing/whispers over Sabzi‘s gorgeous, cascading synths before launching into the song’s subtle-yet-oddly-euphoric chorus. In fact, you could be forgiven for getting more than a slight Janet Jackson vibe here.

While a little too weird and whimsical for pop radio (it’s about weeping supernatural entities), “Ghosts” suggests that great things could happen for the odd couple in 2015. But do yourself a favor and hop onto the Made In Heights train early. This song in particular is a great starting point. — MIKE WASS

9. Mary J. Blige, “Right Now”

Mary J. Blige is the undeniable Queen Of Hip Hop Soul, but the legendary singer aimed for a musical transformation when she jetted across the pond for her new album. The London Sessions was created with a variety of UK singers, songwriters and producers, and one of the main highlights to come out of the project was “Right Now.”

Produced by Disclosure and co-written with Sam Smith, this single fits right in with the current throwback to the ’90s trend, yet it does so in a way that doesn’t have Blige seeming like she’s trying too hard to fit in with the youngsters. In fact, she completely owns this retro groove as her velvety, soulful vocals match perfectly with the bumping UK house-inspired production. — BIANCA GRACIE

Kiesza Hideaway

8. Kiesza, “Hideaway”

If CeCe Peniston had written a song for Robin S back in 1992, and MK produced it, we like to think it would have sounded a lot like “Hideaway.” True, Canadian songbird Kiesza may not have the pipes of those two mentioned divas, but the heart, soul and sound of house music’s heyday was alive and well in this firecracker of a dance jam, which hit #1 across Europe throughout the spring and summer, and was certified Gold here in the States.

Kiesza popped into the Idolator studio back in March, as her one-shot video for “Hideaway” was going viral, and talked to us about crafting the vibe of the song with producer Rami Samir Afuni: “We tried all different types of styles. Eventually it led to kind of just tapping into what we were both really passionate about, [which] was the ’90s.” — ROBBIE DAW

Tinashe 2 On single cover

 7. Tinashe featuring Schoolboy Q, “2 On”

From the moment “2 On” broke out in January, we knew Tinashe was (finally!) on her way to the top. Over the year, the murky, DJ Mustard-produced ode to getting ratchet and going dumb in the club slowly-but-surely took over radio airwaves and club speakers, climbing its way up the charts.

The Aquarius diva’s unbelievably fire-hot, tightly choreographed live performances on late night TV and award shows certainly helped to extend the song’s shelf life, too. The trap-tinged club bumper seemingly influenced other pop starlets (Fergie‘s “L.A. Love,” any one?) and consistently kept us getting 2 on (and on and on) all year long. — BRADLEY STERN

Ariana Grande Zedd Break Free

6. Ariana Grande featuring Zedd, “Break Free”

Even though Ari broke free a year prior with breezy R&B-pop throwback cuts like “Baby I,” the mini-diva made an even more massive splash in 2014. The horn-heavy “Problem” with Iggy Azalea had us bopping our heads all summer long, but it was her first major foray into EDM, courtesy of Zedd, that had us appreciating the songstress in a whole new light.

Even though her enunciation is a bit dodgy (like a deadly…what?), “Break Free” is nothing less than an all-out emancipation anthem for the dance floor, full of rapid-fire beat breakdowns and a chorus that just won’t quit. This is the part when we say we love Ariana. — BRADLEY STERN

5. Lana Del Rey, “West Coast”

After the success of 2012’s Born To Die, Lana Del Rey came back with a more stripped-down image and sound this year. “West Coast,” released in April, was the first insight to Ultraviolence, and it was a dramatic departure from Del Rey’s usually orchestral production — thanks to the Dan Auerbach’s gritty guitar flicks, rusty synths and jagged percussion.

Many enjoyed the change, as the song debuted within the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. Rather than relying on her soft upper register, Del Rey mesmerizes the listener with brooding, low vocals and a mysterious edge that would make Quentin Tarantino proud. The surf-rock nature of the tune seemed to be a promising insight to the Coney Island Queen’s latest project, but nothing else on the album sounded quite like “West Coast.” At least we still have the song as our soundtrack for endless summers to come. — BIANCA GRACIE

4. Nick Jonas, “Jealous”

Let’s not mince words: Everybody wanted to fuck Nick Jonas in 2014. The finally solo JoBro launched the campaign for his self-titled album modestly enough with lead single “Chains” over the summer, but it wasn’t until he began stripping off his clothes left and right for photo shoots that everyone stopped what they were doing and paid attention. Well, there was that and the fact that follow-up single “Jealous” is one of the best pop songs to come along in years.

Jonas plays the part of green-eyed lover on this chipper synth-pop gem, fully understanding that his better half is a total guy magnet, but unable to turn a blind eye to the situation. Sexy and emotional? What more could we ask for in a pop star pin-up? — ROBBIE DAW

Iggy Azalea Charli XCX Fancy single cover art

3. Iggy Azalea featuring Charli XCX, “Fancy”

Iggy Azalea’s army of haters choose to believe that she is an overnight sensation, who owes her success to good looks and even better luck. They happily overlook the fact that the stunning Australian was on the mixtape grind for years — like every other budding rapper — before catching lightning in a bottle with “Fancy.”

A near-perfect mix of hip hop sass and pop hooks, the Charli-XCX-featuring chart-topper was a breath of fresh air on radio over the summer with its cheeky lyrics and long-overdue female twist on the ever-popular brag anthem. That beat is fire, the chorus is undeniable and Iggy proved, once and for all, that rap is universal. — MIKE WASS

2. Sia, “Chandelier”

You heard it, you watched the video, and you probably saw and heard a bunch of covers, too— both parody and in earnest. Sia’s “Chandelier” was an inescapable part of pop culture in 2014, and rightfully so: The soaring cautionary tale is a perfect blend of Sia’s unbelievable knack for crafting some of the pop world’s best hooks with her honest, heart wrenching brand of storytelling. The result is a smart yet undeniably catchy collision of vocal acrobatics (can anyone pull off that chorus better than Sia?) and teary-eyed warnings about party girls going a bit too hard.

Plus, the accompanying visual, featuring a mesmerizing, weird dance routine by Dance Moms starlet Maddie Ziegler, might just be the year’s most memorable moment in pop videos. — BRADLEY STERN

Clean Bandit Rather Be single cover

1. Clean Bandit featuring Jess Glynne, “Rather Be”

In a year when retro dance sounds dominated and overseas acts ruled American radio, it seems fitting that a quartet from the UK would mix house with classical music, add in vocals from a soulful new talent and come up with the perfect recipe for pop magic.

“Rather Be” blew up gradually, first in Clean Bandit’s home country last winter, then across Europe and, eventually, in the ready and willing United States, where the string-laden dance track cracked the Top 10. The song became so big that featured vocalist Jess Glynne flew over from England for the band’s Jimmy Kimmel Live performance and even recorded another single with the foursome, the equally-irresistible “Real Love.”

The charm of “Rather Be” is that it avoids some of the darker areas of deep house, and goes straight for the jugular with irresistible melodies and Glynne’s powerhouse vocals. The song occupies that space where anything seemed to go in 2014 — often with successful results — and, really, there’s no place we’d rather be. — ROBBIE DAW

Are any of your favorite songs of the year on our list? Let us know below!