20 Tracks That Shaped 21st-Century Pop

20 Tracks That Shaped 21st-Century Pop

Pop’s rollercoaster ride has been kind to Katy Perry. In the 11 years since her international breakthrough, two reliable constants have been central to her success: she has a magician’s touch when it comes to edging her winning formula on with each release, and a slick ability to conjure up a parade of memorable pop tunes. Her personal, warm charisma and obvious dedication to empowering themes of self-determination and collective responsibility have created an army of supporters that have remained committed fans through each new creative change. Such is Katy’s familiarity on pop’s central podium this past decade, it’s hard to believe that she has just four major studio albums to her name. As a master of the perfect pop single, however, the best Katy Perry songs have charted the evolution of pop music in the early 21st Century.

Listen to the best of Katy Perry on Apple Music and Spotify.

20: The One That Got Away

If typical pop convention is to be followed, the sixth single from an album simply shouldn’t be this strong. Like Michael Jackson’s Thriller – and we don’t make that comparison lightly – Teenage Dream just seemed to be stuffed with potential smashes jostling for their place among the best Katy Perry songs. Mining it this deep and emerging with a gem like ‘The One That Got Away’ is a testament to the magic that Katy, Dr Luke and Max Martin were making at this early stage of her career. The poignant, midtempo ballad – supported with one of her typically strong videos – peaked again inside the US Top 3 and did well internationally. Inspired by a romantic relationship with Josh Groban that didn’t quite take flight, Katy had championed the cut and said she was pleased it revealed a rawer edge to her songwriting.

19: Waking Up In Vegas

Rock royalty Desmond Child and Swedish pop maestro Andreas Carlsson created this choppy return to form that gave her One Of The Boys album another boost. Hitting radio in April 2009, the Greg Wise production drew out the song’s central guitar riff with a rounded pop chorus that proved genuinely memorable. Another strong video, which was shot with Avatar’s Joel David Moore, helped place Katy back in the Billboard Top 10.

18: Con Calma (Remix) (Daddy Yankee and Katy Perry, featuring Snow)

The reggeaton smash, remixed with a guest appearance from Katy, hit radio in April 2019 and took its inspiration from one-hit wonder Snow’s 1992 global hit ‘Informer’. The Puerto Rican rapper says the Snow original is one of his favourite songs, and Katy’s contribution helped this hot homage gain airplay across mainstream pop stations around the world.

17: Birthday

It was time to pull on a pair of flares for ‘Birthday’, the melodic shuffle of which effortlessly transported you back to the glory days of 70s disco. Katy is famous for her outstanding videos, and this comedic standout is certainly among her best – even if its clever skits almost threaten to overwhelm the song itself. Drawn from the eclectic Prism, the song’s uncomplicated feel-good vibe demonstrates the impact of her lighter songwriting.

16: Rise

The aching charisma of this darker electronica cut was picked as one of the themes for US TV’s coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and scored strongly across the summer. Written with Savan Kotecha, Katy filmed performed the song for the US Democrats ahead of a bitter Presidential campaign.

15: Bon Appetit (featuring Migos)

This pop-trap hybrid, recorded with US hip-hop act Migos, was picked as the second single from Witness. Its knowing, sophisticated sexual satire was brilliantly brought to life in the accompanying video.

14: Unconditionally

Reported to be Katy’s favourite song from Prism, ‘Unconditionally’ takes some inspiration from Nashville, but is an accomplished power ballad that began to form after Katy had helped with a project for UNICEF. As one of the best Katy Perry songs of the 2010s, its themes are universal; the song cut through on radio and also boasted a striking costume-drama court-inspired promotional video.

13: Wide Awake

Widespread speculation focused on whether this 2012 song was Katy’s comment on the closing chapter of her relationship with Russell Brand; its message of how one must move on – however challenging the circumstances – certainly spoke to that. Longtime collaborator Bonnie McKee co-wrote the track with Katy (and Max Martin, Cirkut and Dr Luke) in support of the fly-on-the-wall/concert movie Katy Perry: Part Of Me. It was released as a single in May 2012 and peaked at No.2 in the US and No.9 in the UK.

12: 365 (Zedd and Katy Perry)

Supporting Katy on segments of her Witness: The Tour sparked a working partnership between Zedd and the singer that saw this standalone track issued as a single in February 2019. The Russian-born DJ-producer-songwriter has built an impressive CV of collaborations including Ariana Grande, Foxes and Selena Gomez, but there’s plenty to suggest this project with Katy could be the start of something very interesting. Katy seems keen to delve deeper into dance and electronica, while he proved a master at working with her compelling pop hooks.

11: Last Friday Night (TGIF)

A hangover following those parties we’d perhaps rather hadn’t been quite so much fun is comically brought to life in a standout video. Shaped as a floor-filling pop-dance anthem, ‘Last Friday Night (TGIF)’ earned its place among the best Katy Perry songs after it rewarded the singer with a place in the history books as the first woman to lift five US chart-toppers from a single album. Cameos from Glee’s Darren Criss, Hanson and 80s icons Debbie Gibson and Kenny G complete this video, inspired by the classic John Hughes movie Sixteen Candles, making it a clip that deserved repeat viewings. It was named Favourite Music Video at 2012’s People’s Choice Awards.

10: Hot N Cold

The track that proved Katy was no one-hit wonder, ‘Hot N Cold’ followed ‘I Kissed A Girl’ into the charts just a few months after the latter’s release, and has become a firm fan favourite. Benny Blanco joined Dr Luke and Max Martin on the creation of this track, his trademark synth-pop treatment undoubtedly glossing up a more naturally rockier core. ‘Hot N Cold’ advanced steadily up the Billboard Hot 100 to secure Katy a second consecutive US Top 3 success.

9: Dark Horse (featuring Juicy J)

Trailed as a promotional track for Prism, this strong cut was later picked as the album’s official third single in December 2013 and made it all the way to the top of the US charts. It was Katy’s most experimental single to date and the contribution with rapper Juicy J further developed the deeper urban direction her work was beginning to take. Sarah Hudson, the singer-songwriter behind UltraViolet Sound, co-wrote the song, which was the world’s second best-selling track of 2014.

8: Teenage Dream

At the start of Katy’s career, there was a tendency a to label her a talented but essentially kitsch artist reliant on kooky, charismatic performances. ‘Teenage Dream’ changed all that. Its insistent, romantic drive wrapped around a subtle nostalgic tone and euphoric melody simply let the music do the shouting, and the approach paid off handsomely. A regular on concert setlists to date, ‘Teenage Dream’ made the critics finally sit up and start to take notice, and will forever sit among the best Katy Perry songs of all time.

7: Swish Swish (featuring Nicki Minaj)

The third single lifted from Witness, ‘Swish Swish’ is the most ambitious dance track she has released to date and was almost completely overshadowed by her performance of it on Saturday Night Live, which saw Russell Horning (aka “The Backpack Kid”) showcase the floss dance to universal fascination. There are worse things for a song to be associated with, and the buzz helped the track, featuring Nicki Minaj, top the US dance charts.

6: ET (featuring Kanye West)

Kanye West’s contribution to the single release of this song from Teenage Dream (he didn’t feature on the original album cut) adds layers of drama to a song that’s already drenched in it. After the all-out pop of the album’s previous singles, this release marked a bold experimental manoeuvre that could so easily have backfired if urban radio programmers hadn’t embraced it. Crucially, the electro/hip-hop ballad, which again topped the charts, sounded great and earns its place among the best Katy Perry songs thanks to its crucial part in establishing Katy’s wider credibility beyond the core Top 40 market.

5: California Gurls (featuring Snoop Dogg)

Marketed at the start of the summer, ‘California Gurls’ was one of those records you just couldn’t escape in 2010. Following up a hit debut album is tricky, and Katy needed something special to make another strong impact. Teenage Dream was nearly complete, but Katy wasn’t convinced she had that final killer track until she developed the idea of creating a West Coast answer to ‘Empire State Of Mind’. ‘California Gurls’’ hooky energy was infectious; the guest billing for Snoop Dogg raised eyebrows and broadened the track; and the video pitched Katy’s larger-than-life persona into overdrive. It proved a highly effective mix, pushing all those rival summer anthems into the shade.

4: Roar

The plan for Prism was to create a darker record than anything that had come before. Echoes of that ambition remained in the eclectic nature of the album, but to launch Katy’s third major release, the boundless positivity of ‘Roar’ seemed compelling. It contains an anthemic chorus; is steeped in the positivity so central to Katy’s belief system; and, yes, that video treatment nicely delivered a cartoon narrative that had become something of an occasional trademark. ‘Roar’ was a huge success – a transatlantic chart-topper – and received scores of awards nominations acknowledging its place among the best Katy Perry songs.

3: I Kissed A Girl

The novelty of this track might have positioned Katy as an amusing one-hit wonder from the get-go. It had something interesting to say, but there wasn’t much space for subtlety. Sometimes that’s what you need to do to get a new artist noticed, and this Cathy Dennis co-composition established Katy as a worldwide sensation. Its seven-week run at the top of the US charts helped this new-wave power-pop gem become something of a challenge: how do you follow that? Katy’s response was simple: no panic or need to revisit it; just unleash strong songs built around broader themes. ‘I Kissed A Girl’ trod a fine line between knowing humour and crass controversy in a less-enlightened 2008, but it certainly did the trick.

2: Chained To The Rhythm (featuring Skip Marley)

Drawing on the uncertainty of the world in 2017, Katy’s first single from Witness showcases her craft at its melodic height. Sia had a hand in this song’s composition, helping to create a finely balanced blend of electro balladry and all-out pop. It worked well in the clubs, but absolutely soars on radio and remains in regular rotation today. Production support from the reliable Max Martin and Ali Payami shaped the song into a sizeable hit, while it was performed at the 2017 Brits and Grammy Awards and got perhaps the best video treatment in Katy’s impressive collection to date.

1: Firework

Now perhaps forever associated with its enduring role as the back-theme to myriad talent shows and triumph-over-tragedy true-life stories, this anthem of self-empowerment has sold more than 10 million copies in Katy’s homeland since its release in October 2010. Created with acclaimed songwriter Ester Dean and producers Stargate and Sandy Vee, ‘Firework’ was the third single from the staggeringly successful Teenage Dream album, and its place among the best Katy Perry songs is forever assured. It has already been covered by scores of other artists and remains perhaps Katy’s most established standard to date. The song was nominated for Record Of The Year at the Grammys, but its legacy is far from complete: this is a melody so strong it may yet re-emerge in a worldwide hit many years from now, from an artist maybe not yet even born. ‘Firework’ remains Katy’s first true classic.

Do our best Katy Perry songs match yours? Let us know in the comments section.

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