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The 45 best pop songs

The best pop songs of this century are groundbreaking, chart-topping, downright famous hits that’ll have you singing at the top of your lungs

Written by
Andy Kryza
Contributors
James Manning
,
Nick Levine
,
Amy Smith
,
Alyssa Ammirato
,
Matthew Singer
&
Andrzej Lukowski
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Time was, ‘pop’ meant manufactured acts whose music erred towards the disposable. Sure, there were a few certified geniuses like Michael Jackson or Madonna. But for all the units shifted, in the twentieth-century pop never seemed to be the zeitgeist artform of the day: the Beatles weren’t pop; Pink Floyd weren’t pop; Dolly Parton wasn’t pop; NWA weren’t pop.

At the dawn of the new millennium, all the rules for pop went out the window. A complicated series of cultural shifts that can largely be attributed to the internet kicked in: suddenly the bottom fell out of the market for guitar-based music, and suddenly it was sophisticated pop production that was getting the audiophiles drooling.

It’s an age we’re absolutely still living through, with little sign of letting up. And so, for this list, we’ve taken a long listen to some of the biggest bangers of the last 20-plus years and did what feels nearly impossible: we’ve ranked them. As a genre, pop has always been nebulously defined, so while we’ve broadly speaking excluded rock, country and hip-hop (though elements of all those things appear), you’ll find R&B jams, dance-floor fillers and insanely catchy earworms not even the snootiest of snobs can deny. These are the best pop songs of the twenty-first century. 

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Best pop songs, ranked

‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)’ by Beyoncé

1. ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)’ by Beyoncé

Sure, we could have picked ‘Crazy in Love’ instead, but there’s something even more transcendent about Queen Bey’s ode to flying solo. The super-sleek beats and naggingly catchy vocal hooks combine to create such an instant classic that even Liza Minnelli has covered it. And pretty well, too.

‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna featuring Jay-Z
Image: Def Jam

2. ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna featuring Jay-Z

Recently minted billionaire Rihanna has become part of pop's DNA over the past two decades thanks to her singular persona and the strength of her powerful voice. Choosing one Rihanna song for the pop hall of fame is a fool’s errand, but gun to our head — likely held by Rihanna whilst asking us where her money is — the safe choice is the best. ‘Umbrella’ not only introduced the world at large to one of pop's biggest stars, but it also ushered in a pop-culture dynasty, with fellow mogul Jay-Z on board to co-sign. 

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‘Shake it Off’ by Taylor Swift

3. ‘Shake it Off’ by Taylor Swift

The ‘1989’ album marked a clean break from Swift's country roots, with the singer emerging as a pop diva for the ages on the strength of a front-to-back record of bangers. This lead-off single had former haters shaking their heads over their unexpected conversion into T-Swift fandom. Even if you rolled your eyes at her awkward dancing in the video, you were involuntarily grooving in your desk chair. Taylor would continue morphing her image in the wake of its success, but this is the singer at her most purely joyous.

‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears
Image: Jive Records

4. ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears

On this iconic 2003 single, Britney transforms into a stealthy femme fatale, her voice soaring and dipping over a deranged synth-string arrangement that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Hitchcock film. Even now, nearly two decades later and with the #FreeBritney movement having highlighted the horrific treatment she’s had to endure, it’s a disorienting stunner of a pop masterpiece. 

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‘Rolling in the Deep’ by Adele

5. ‘Rolling in the Deep’ by Adele

The London diva exploded to international fame with this stunning tune, released when she was just 21 years old — though her voice carries the expertise of a woman decades older. High-reaching vocals, a bone-chilling opening note andthe  ever-relatable subject matter of tarnished love scored Adele two Grammy Awards as fans around the world cried to the breakup anthem.

‘Firework’ by Katy Perry

6. ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry

Part dance floor anthem, part inspirational power song, ‘Firework’ was Katy Perry’s third release from 2010's ‘Teenage Dream’ album and a huge elevation point in her career. It won MTV’s 2011 VMA for Video of the Year and earned two Grammy nominations, and all the hoopla around Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview gave it another boost of publicity in 2014.

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‘Rehab’ by Amy Winehouse
Image: Island Records

7. ‘Rehab’ by Amy Winehouse

‘Rehab’ was always a great pop song, but following Amy Winehouse’s tragic death in 2011, it’s acquired a hauntingly poignant quality, too. Mark Ronson’s doo-wop-inspired production swathes the singer’s soulful voice like a cashmere blanket, creating a timeless ode to defiance that hits hard with every last ‘no, no, no’. Rest in Power, Amy.

 

‘Blinding Lights’ by The Weeknd
Image: Republic

8. ‘Blinding Lights’ by The Weeknd

The Weeknd has been a pop heavyweight since he dropped his coke-fuelled banger ‘Can't Feel My Face’ in 2015. But the Canadian superstar took things to another level with ‘Blinding Lights’, a synth-driven monster that somehow managed to brighten up the summer of Covid, blasting out of cars everywhere as people escaped their bubbles. More than a year later, its power has only grown. 

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‘Dancing on My Own’ by Robyn
Image: Konichiwa

9. ‘Dancing on My Own’ by Robyn

Countless songs are about dancing the pain away, but few achieve the emotional catharsis of the Swedish singer’s all-time bittersweet banger. The irony, of course, is that no one ever dances alone to ‘Dancing On My Own’ - the floor is always going to fill the second those opening synth strobes hit, and the whole joint will unite for the skyscraping chorus. But don’t be surprised to see a few misty eyes when the lights go up.

‘Hey Ya!’ by Outkast
Image: Arista

10. ‘Hey Ya!’ by Outkast

Outkast ATLien André 3000 took a break from changing the rap game for this unexpectedly sunny '60s throwback that sees the superstar hit pause as an emcee to play bandleader. In a discography of unexpected twists and turns, it was a move nobody could have seen coming from the ‘Ms. Jackson’ legend, and further proof that André can do pretty much anything. Truly cooler than a polar bear's toenails. 

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‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X
Photo by Columbia

11. ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X

We said no country and no hip-hop… but we didn’t say anything about a mix of the two. No list of the best modern pop songs would be complete without Lil Nas X’s ‘county trap’ opus ‘Old Town Road’, a genuine twenty-first-century phenomenon that Nas recorded on a shoestring at the end of 2018, and would soon become the fastest song in history to go diamond in the US (that’s ten million copies shifted) in the US. It’s a strange beast but also a totally joyous one, surging with self-belief and optimism, a weird and wonderful outsider anthem.

‘Hips Don't Lie’ by Shakira featuring Wyclef Jean
Image: Epic

12. ‘Hips Don't Lie’ by Shakira featuring Wyclef Jean

Topping her global breakthrough hit ‘Whenever, Wherever’ was always going to be a tall order, but Shakira managed it in 2005 with this colossal reggaeton bop. More than 15 years later, ‘Hips Don't Lie’ still gets everyone on the dance floor, though not everyone manages to echo Wyclef’s ‘Shakira, Shakira’ shoutout quite on the beat.

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‘SexyBack’ by Justin Timberlake
Image: Jive Records

13. ‘SexyBack’ by Justin Timberlake

‘For whoever is claiming that they are bringing sexy back, sexy never left!’ certified Sexy MF Prince quipped when JT started blazing up the charts with this Timbaland-produced all-timer fusing raw sexuality and funk bonafides. Prince was, of course, right. But as far as a career reinvention goes, Timberlake's is one for the books: ‘SexyBack’ doesn't so much close the door on the singer's ramen-haired boy-band chapter as burn it to the ground. 

‘Call Me Maybe’ by Carly Rae Jepsen

14. ‘Call Me Maybe’ by Carly Rae Jepsen

This song made 2012 the year of the cheesy pickup line after Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez’s lip-sync sesh catapulted this tune onto the radio. Jepson hasn’t had another equally huge hit since, but she has facilitated millions of hasty flirtations and phone number solicitations. Thanks, Carly Rae!

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‘Uptown Funk’ by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars

15. ‘Uptown Funk’ by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars

Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars really struck gold with this Michelle Pfeiffer-namechecking throwback jam. Not only did ‘Uptown Funk’ clean up at the 2015 Grammys, even winning Record of the Year, but it became the third most-watched video ever on YouTube. Wedding reception dance floors will never be the same again.

‘Poker Face’ by Lady Gaga
Image: Interscope

16. ‘Poker Face’ by Lady Gaga

Gaga's entire catalogue is a celebration of individuality, allyship and letting your freak flag fly. ‘Poker Face’ remains a staple of the pop pantheon thanks to its grimy-glam melodies and bombastic vocal breaks. Plus, Gaga managed to sneak the line ‘f*ck her face’ onto radio for yeears without anyone noticing. If that’s not the mark of a queen, nothing is. 

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‘Hollaback Girl’ by Gwen Stefani

17. ‘Hollaback Girl’ by Gwen Stefani

Rumour has it that this 2004 chart-topper was aimed at Courtney Love, who had apparently dismissed Stefani as a ‘cheerleader’ in an interview. Either way, there’s no denying that the minimal beat supplied by the Neptunes still hits hard, or that Stefani sounds great spelling out ‘B-A-N-A-N-A-S’ over it.

‘Starships’ by Nicki Minaj
Image: Young Money

18. ‘Starships’ by Nicki Minaj

The hip-hop queen’s most sugary, hyperactive and kaleidoscopic song is a titanic explosion of energy. Transitioning from a catchy hook to rapid-fire rap, via saccharine melodies and undulating electronica, it really does make you feel elevated regardless of whether you’re actually ‘higher than a motherfuc*er’. Pure chaos, and an absolute blast.

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‘Royals’ by Lorde
Image: Universal

19. ‘Royals’ by Lorde

The small-town New Zealand export was only 15 when she penned this international mega-hit deflating hip-hop’s obsession with bling and braggadocio. It’s not the kind of thing that happens a lot in pop music, which makes the incredibly sparse, intricately layered, ultra-classy ‘Royals’ even more of a treasure. ‘Let me be your ruler,’ sang Lorde. ‘Yes please,’ replied millions.

‘Party in the U.S.A.’ by Miley Cyrus

20. ‘Party in the U.S.A.’ by Miley Cyrus

This song hails from a different era of Cyrus, before she transformed into a Robin Thicke-humping sexpot with a Gene Simmons tongue. This midway point between modern Miley and Hannah Montana is a ray of sing-along sunshine. Anyone who claims not to know the words (or belt them out and roll the windows down whenever the song’s on the radio) cannot be trusted.

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‘Bad Guy’ by Billie Eilish
Image: Interscope

21. ‘Bad Guy’ by Billie Eilish

Like fellow pop royal Lorde, Eilish was just a teen when she dropped this subversive ode to bad behaviour. Brother Finneas’ thumping beats and spooky hooks hold the whole thing together, but it's Eilish’s smoky voice — bounding between deeply unsettling and sprightly — that sells the whole ghoulish affair. The result cemented her as the antithesis of a squeaky-clean pop star and scared the ever-loving shit out of her target audiences parentss. 

‘Good as Hell’ by Lizzo
Image: Atlantic

22. ‘Good as Hell’ by Lizzo

An instant feel-great classic, Lizzo’s ‘Good as Hell’  is the very definition of infectious thanks to its instantly recognisable piano beat, Lizzo’s forceful-yet-playful cadence and a pervasive, universal ability to make anybody within earshot strut for its entire runtime.

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‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk featuring Pharrell
Image: Columbia

23. ‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk featuring Pharrell

After floating around the cosmos in a pyramid-shaped spaceship for eight years, the French-house robots returned to Earth to drop…a throwback disco album? Reactions to Random Access Memories remain mixed, but its lead single is an unassailable jam, bringing together Pharrell’s falsetto vocals and Chic demigod Nile Rodgers’ distinctively funky guitar for a collision of past and future that grooves all night ‘til the sun.  

‘Dynamite’ by BTS
Image: Columbia

24. ‘Dynamite’ by BTS

The K-Pop supergroup has taken over the world, and there seems to be no sign of them slowing down. You either get on the train or get run over by it. Luckily, the band’s long-awaited English-language debut delivered, hijacking airwaves and talk shows with its perfectly calibrated bubblegum. Twenty years after NSYNC said ‘bye bye bye’, a new kingdom pop has raised its flag.

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‘Adore You’ by Harry Styles
Image: Columbia

25. ‘Adore You’ by Harry Styles

The former One Direction star's solo career has gone many unexpected places, no more so than on his recent, genre-hopping album ‘Fine Line’. And while the funky ‘Watermelon Sugar’ brings the double entendres, ‘Adore You’ is Styles at his most endearing and infectious: a slow-paced, driving, and vocally lovely instant classic. As a bonus, the surreal video finds the hearthrob enamoured with a giant fish... and it's everything. 

‘No Tears Left to Cry’ by Ariana Grande
Image: Republic Records

26. ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ by Ariana Grande

Ariana’s evolution from sugar-sweet pop princess to her generation’s foremost chronicler of the Kama Sutra has been astonishing, if a little much for some pearl-clutching early fans. She hit a universally appealing sweet spot with this 2018 bop, which ascends to the stratosphere with each repetition of ‘pickin’ it up’. As her voice swoops and soars, it seems to confirm the arrival of a global superstar whose talent stands taller than even her highest ponytail. 

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‘Drivers License’ by Olivia Rodrigo
Image: Geffen

27. ‘Drivers License’ by Olivia Rodrigo

Pop's current heir apparent exploded onto the scene with this universally gripping, emotionally ripe tale of teenage yearning: a piano ballad with a forlorn melody, a driving backbeat and some of the most bracing vocals in recent pop. Rodrigo wears her love of Taylor Swift on her sleeve, so much so that fans call her the second coming while haters cry ripoff. For what it’s worth, Swift (unlike Courtney Love) is a fan… and rumours continue to swirl about an upcoming collaboration that could rock the pop world to its core. 

‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber

28. ‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber

Taking a hiatus from making music to focus on growing up a little, the Biebs came back with ‘Purpose in 2015. ‘Sorry’, the second single from the album, was mixed by Skrillex — and in a stroke of genius and surprising modesty, he excluded himself from the music video and focused on an oft-imitated squad of dancers instead.

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‘Titanium’ by David Guetta featuring Sia
Image: Virgin

29. ‘Titanium’ by David Guetta featuring Sia

Empowering, escalating and full of raw power, ‘Titanium’ is what happens when one of the world’s best producers meets one of its most prolific pop writers. Namely: fireworks. Sia may have found further success swinging from chandeliers, but as a vocalist she has never been more explosive than here.

‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams
Image: Columbia Records

30. ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams

Only somebody as tuned-in to the pop landscape as Williams could take a throwaway track from a Minions movie and turn it into an enduring ode to being in a great mood. Think of it like this: Three years after ‘Happy’, Justin Timberlake tried to replicate its good vibes for the Trolls soundtrack. But, we're not talking about Justin Timberlake here. Such is the power of a Neptune using his powers for good. 

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‘Hotline Bling’ by Drake
Image: Cash Money

31. ‘Hotline Bling’ by Drake

Take away the mountain of memes, ignore Drake’s beautiful dad dancing and this pop song would still be a winner for the ages. That delicate, trickling calypso beat effortlessly shrugs off the lover who never calls, transforming a classic tale of ghosting into an eminently danceable revenge song that everyone – ex included – would struggle to resist. No wonder it was literally inescapable for the whole of summer ‘15. 

‘Levitating’ by Dua Lipa
Image: Warner Bros.

32. ‘Levitating’ by Dua Lipa

Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’ album is full of bangers, but none is quite as instantly timeless as this throwback jam that pulses with verve, confidence and pure joy. Once she reaches the punchy ‘yeah yeah yeah’ callback, you'll be soaring with her. Go ahead and skip the DaBaby remix… Dua’s got this one on her own.

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‘Milkshake’ by Kelis
Image: Arista

33. ‘Milkshake’ by Kelis

Kelis’s brag that her ‘milkshake brings all the boys to the yard’ has given this magnetic dancefloor anthem legs. Driven by an all-time great Neptunes beat, it’s a pop-R&B bop every bit as box-fresh as when it dropped (as part of Kelis’s excellent ‘Tasty’ album) in 2003.

‘Hung Up’ by Madonna
Photo by Warner Bros

34. ‘Hung Up’ by Madonna

Never, ever write off Madonna: perhaps her greatest defiance of conventions (of many) is that she’s continued to have genuine pop hits way into middle age. ‘Hung Up’ isn’t even the only candidate for a best twenty-first-century pop song from Madonna, but it is the best, a magnificent disco banger turbocharged by the inspired interpolation of Abba’s ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’.

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‘Despacito’ by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee
Image: Universal Latin

35. ‘Despacito’ by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee

Nearly inescapable between 2017 and 2018, ‘Despacito’ is one of those songs that became so prevalent that people mistook its ubiquity for annoyance. A few years on, however, the ultra-smooth collision of Latin pop and reggaeton has aged remarkably well from song-of-the-summer status to certifiable classic.

‘Bootylicious’ by Destiny's Child
Image: Columbia

36. ‘Bootylicious’ by Destiny's Child

Frankly, we’re still not sure what ‘this jelly’ is, and 20 years on we're still not sure we're ready for it. But what is certain is that the legendary girl group, facing the inevitablility of Beyoncé’s solo ascendance, fired off one last barn-burner to usher in the '00s, and the dance floor was never the same. 

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‘Work It’ by Missy Elliott
Image: Elektra

37. ‘Work It’ by Missy Elliott

Missy’s avante-garde approach to pop-infused hip-hop is at its best when she has certified master Timbaland at her side, and no pairing hits with the same mix of chaotic glee, weirdness and pop sensibility as ‘Work It’. Only an artist as nimble as Missy could take a jumbled mass of backwards-masked syllables and make it one the era’s most recognisable choruses... and one of karaoke night’s biggest flexes.

‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ by Kylie Minogue
Photo by Parlophone

38. ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ by Kylie Minogue

A young Kylie Minogue scored numerous global hits in the late ‘80s with a succession of cheesy tunes that capitalised on the fame bought on by her role in the Australian soap opera ‘Neighbours’. But it arguably took until 2001 for her to finally put out a bona fide masterpiece: ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ is sultry, disco-pop perfection, with its ‘la la la’ hook destined to stay lodged in our heads for the rest of the century and beyond.

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‘American Boy’ by Estelle featuring Kanye West
Image: Atlantic

39. ‘American Boy’ by Estelle featuring Kanye West

Both sides of the pond get some swagger on this pulsing throwback track occupying the space between disco, hip hop and pop. Estelle’s cockney-infused vocals provide the perfect antidote to Kanye’s braggadocio… no small task, given that the guy is 5-foot-7 of pure ego. Even ‘Ye takes a back seat to Estelle when she’s firing on all cylinders (with an assist by wil.i.am and John Legend on writing duties, natch).

‘Since U Been Gone’ by Kelly Clarkson
Image: RCA

40. ‘Since U Been Gone’ by Kelly Clarkson

Simon Cowell may have made Kelly Clarkson a celebrity, but ‘Since U Been Gone’ made her a star. Outside American Idol viewers and the two people who watched From Justin to Kelly, this was the world’s true introduction to Clarkston's mighty lung capacity, and a high point for the early-noughties pop-rock explosion. The gleeful break-up anthem comes off like a glorious cross between Avril Lavigne and ‘I Will Survive’. Fittingly in the flat circle of the pop world, it's now regularly butchered on talent shows worldwide.

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‘Let Me Blow Ya Mind’ by Eve featuring Gwen Stefani
Image: Ruff Ryders

41. ‘Let Me Blow Ya Mind’ by Eve featuring Gwen Stefani

A slinky, swaggering slow jam that meets at the intersection of hip-hop and pop, Eve’s biggest hit is essentially a four-minute not-so-humblebrag about career success. It’s the kind of thing that male rappers do all the time but somehow draws blowback when a woman does it (see also: ‘WAP’). Let the haters feign their dismay. The rest of us will be out on the dance floor and soaking in the silky sass. 

‘Gangnam Style’ by Psy
Image: Universal Republic

42. ‘Gangnam Style’ by Psy

Psy’s internet-breaking sendup of South Korean excess is absolutely impossible to ignore, try though you may. The first song to reach 1 billion YouTube hits, it’s been parodied, homaged, remade and remixed. Yet it refuses to die. That’s because, against all odds, it rips. Yes, it’s a song you're ashamed to catch yourself dancing to. But guess what? It happens to all of us. 

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‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley
Image: Warner Bros. Records

43. ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley

Long before his vile worldview and accusations of abuse made it all to easy to say ‘Fu*k You’ to Cee-Lo Green, the former Goodie Mob emcee joined forces with producer Danger Mouse to release this slick psychedelic soul curveball. Fifteen years later, it still feels gloriously alien.

‘Clint Eastwood’ by Gorillaz
Photo by EMI

44. ‘Clint Eastwood’ by Gorillaz

Blur were always the most inventive of the Britpop bands. But in 1994 or so nobody would have reasonably expected that within a decade band leader Damon Albarn would have reinvented himself as frontman of a kaleidoscopic, no boundaries cartoon pop band called Gorillaz, nor that said cartoon pop band would genuinely go on to become bigger than Blur. It’s a tough contest, but their debut single ‘Clint Eastwood’ perhaps remains their finest moment, an eerily loping slice of spaghetti western-tinged hip-pop, with a killer rap from Del the Funky Homosapien.

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‘Paper Planes’ by MIA
Photo by XL

45. ‘Paper Planes’ by MIA

Maya Arulpragasam might have stayed as a pure cult artist, jobbing away on the critically acclaimed fringes with her wildly eclectic stew of electronics, world influences and controversial opinions. However, she only had to go and make one genuine pop masterpiece, didn’t she? Based around an interpolation of The Clash’s ‘Straight To Hell’, ‘Paper Planes’s languid, irresistibly catchy backing weaves a semi-satirical tale of MIA’s difficulties in getting a US visa. A sleeper hit, its prominent placing in the soundtracks to ‘Pineapple Express’ and ‘Slumdog Milliomnaire’ saw it finally crack the charts, big time.

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