Best pop comebacks of the 21st century so far, ranked

Cause what else is there for us to do during lockdown 2.0... aside from rate 72 of them?

by Douglas Greenwood
12 November 2020, 9:00am

Right, before everybody goes off on one, here’s the criteria: these are all pop songs that mark the start of a popstar’s new era in the 21st century, with some false starts (read: tracks that never made the final cut of the album) mixed in there too. This list of music is as wide-reaching as one writer, who was five years old at the start of the millennium, can put together, so just know that if Madonna had been on this list, “Hung Up” would have made the top 15 — or the top 10, he can’t decide. There are some men in there and it pained us to have to do that. Groups were exempt because Little Mix and Girls Aloud were both deemed too powerful to play a part in this. 

So here it is, to incite debate and to pay homage to the true stars of our generation, who’ve managed to make our jaws drop on multiple occasions. These are the top pop comebacks of the 2000s and 2010s, ranked. No shade to those towards the bottom… we had to start somewhere, and you’re amazing regardless. 

Listen along as you make your way down this very important list.

72. “Filthy”, Justin Timberlake (2018)
He fully put on cowboy cosplay for the teaser, pretended to be sad horny and thought we’d be okay with it. 

71. “Me! (feat. Brandon Urie)”, Taylor Swift (2019)
i_pretend_to _not_see_it.jpeg

70. “Accelerate”, Christina Aguilera (2018)
(Ngl I had to google it)

69. “Make Me”, Britney Spears (2017)
She looks and sounds amazing but this song is white bread boring. Britney, you’re better than this and you know it, queen!

68. “Not Myself Tonight”, Christina Aguilera (2010)
(Had to google this as well)

67. “Mine”, Taylor Swift (2010)
Halfway between Fearless and Red, T-Swift made Speak Now, which was fine and had a song called “Mine” on it. 

66. “Your Body”, Christina Aguilera (2012)
Like the ‘wo-o-o-o-o-ah’ bits but that’s about it.

65. “Yummy”, Justin Bieber (2020)
A minor-key bop that grows on you, but it’s not got a patch on that one that goes “On GOD!” with Chance the Rapper, which slaps.

64. “Look What You Made Me Do”, Taylor Swift (2017)
Snakes didn’t hiss in 2018, they got choppy bobs and made bitter pop tunes. (Thank god for her redemption <3)

63. “Chained to the Rhythm”, Katy Perry (2017)
Off the top of our heads there was something to do with a hamster in the video for this – don't @ us if that’s incorrect.

62. “With You”, Mariah Carey (2018)
A slow and smouldering number that is not, as you might expect, a cover of the problematic Chris Brown’s 2007 release. 

61. “#Beautiful”, Mariah Carey (2014)
There is nothing more 2014 than starting song names with hashtags.

60. “Suit & Tie”, Justin Timberlake (2013)
As soon as our boy started securing the Trolls bag, the quality of the musical craftsmanship got a little spotty. This is a reminder of those pre-Troll doll days. 

59. “Me Against the Music (feat. Madonna)”, Britney Spears (2003)
That this iconique meeting of gay icons is the second lowest placed on this list for Britney is, thankfully, a sign that she is only capable of true greatness. 

58. “Boyfriend”, Justin Bieber (2013)
The pop writer’s room still observes a moment of silence on the anniversary of the release of “Boyfriend” to pay their respects to the line “…swag on you / Chillin’ by the fire while we eatin’ fondue”.

57. “Hold It Against Me”, Britney Spears (2011)
Okay, we’re gonna say it: bring back dubstep.

56. “Roar”, Katy Perry (2013)
Katy Perry released “Roar” and out-of-office motivational training days led by men named Keith gained a new soundtrack.

55. “Lose You To Love Me”, Selena Gomez (2019)
Breathy, gentle and understated pop balladry that builds towards heartbreak. The queen of whisper-pop did it again.

54. “Through the Rain”, Mariah Carey (2002)
Maybe the only thing we remember from the year 2002. Never has a slow-mo falling charm bracelet hit us so hard.

53. “Perfect Illusion”, Lady Gaga (2016)
The key change! Bloody hell, that key change!

52. “Malibu”, Miley Cyrus (2017)
Loose and lackadaisical guitar pop that successfully made everyone forget about the Bangerz era.

51. “Positions”, Ariana Grande (2020)
Ari, on a roll post-thank u,next, merges the White House, meeting the parents and being dead fucking horny on this R&B bop. “34 + 35” shoulda been the lead single, though. 

50. “XO”, Beyoncé (2013)
Mad how this very good Beyoncé song is a minor key in the wider narrative of the most iconic musical moment of the 2010s: the surprise drop of self-titled. 

49. “Applause”, Lady Gaga (2013)
Narrowly beats “Perfect Illusion” for being the batshit crazy first taste of the batshit crazy ARTPOP era. Some call it the beginning of Gaga’s demise; we think it’s her most inspired, chaotic era to date. 

48. “Touch My Body”, Mariah Carey (2008)
Nobody ever looked this incredible on The Paul O’Grady Show.

47. “7 Things”, Miley Cyrus (2008)
Miley took off that Hannah Montana wig and went, ‘Yeah girls, I’m a rockstar now’. Twelve years ago, she’s still on that path.

46. “Stupid Love”, Lady Gaga (2020)
Tarnished slightly by the early leak and the Shot on iPhone video, but a return to form that successfully buried the mom-pleasing pop of “Shallow”. Love u, Gaga. 

45. “I’m A Slave 4 U”, Britney Spears (2009)
Can’t remember George Bush’s first year in office, but vividly recall Godney’s diamante chandelier earrings and hip-rider jeans. 

44. “Run the World (Girls)”, Beyoncé (2011)
A grower that now acts as the perfect vehicle for Bey’s talents. Insufferable electro-heads will never fail to remind you that they heard “Pon De Floor” before this. 

43. “Work (feat. Drake)”, Rihanna (2016)
“American Oxygen” was a moment but RiRi made the right call by releasing “Work” as Anti’s lead single. Critics were split and quickly proved wrong: it topped the US charts for nine weeks. 

42. “Love Story”, Taylor Swift (2008)
T-Swift’s ascent to pop radio. An iconique moment for ringlets and that Digital Dog remix.

41. “If I Were A Boy”, Beyonce (2008)
Rent free.

40. “24k Magic”, Bruno Mars (2016)
Hate when men make points but it was good wasn’t it?

39. “Focus”, Ariana Grande (2015)
The unofficial start of the Dangerous Woman era. Horns and cowbells. Underrated. Big in Japan.

38. “Ain’t No Other Man”, Christina Aguilera (2006)
Before referencing 20th century soul became a pastiche, XTina nailed this hectic flexing of her vocal skills. Immaculate. 

37. “Problem (feat. Iggy Azalea)”, Ariana Grande (2014)
Back when Iggy Azalea was getting hip-hop nominations at the Grammys, Ari enlisted her for a verse on the first single from her sophomore record, My Everything. Real heads know “Break Free” should’ve been the big debut.

36. “Locked Out of Heaven”, Bruno Mars (2012)
Fun fact: Bruno Mars produced music with two other blokes under the name The Smeezingtons. 

35. “Deja Vu”, Beyoncé (2006)
God-tier B. Before Stan Twitter became a thing, members of the Beyhive wrote to Columbia Records and asked them to reshoot the lacklustre music video, claiming it was “an underwhelming representation of the talent and quality of previous music-video projects of Ms. Beyoncé”. Obsessed!!

34. “Russian Roulette”, Rihanna (2009)
Rated R, arguably Rihanna’s most polished, powerful era to date, spawning singles like “Rude Boy” and “Hard”, kicked off with the R&B ballad. It marked her formal solo return post-break up with Chris Brown. If you doubted her assertion and influence beforehand, she really made her mark here. 

33. “We Can’t Stop”, Miley Cyrus (2013)
Miley made a move and it was pretty problematic but it served its purpose. Disney girl no more after this one. The tongue-heavy highlight of pop until Cardi B came about. 

32. “Good for You”, Selena Gomez (2015)
SelGo tried to pay homage to Christina Aguilera’s Stripped on her second record, and kicked it off with a smouldering song about “syncopat[ing] my skin to your heart beating”. Her first non-Disney single, and it slaps. 

31. “Obsessed”, Mariah Carey (2009)
Marshall Mathers found rotting.

30. “Midnight Sky”, Miley Cyrus (2020)
Miley makes her Stevie move. The world, so far, loves it. 

29. “I Can’t Feel My Face”, The Weeknd (2018)
The only song about taking shit tonnes of cocaine to get a Kids Choice Award nomination!

28. “Oops… I Did it Again”, Britney Spears (2004)
The red bodysuit and Mars setting of the music video are valuable embellishments for a song about Britney playing with a man’s feelings. Get her Jade!!!

27. “Shake It Off”, Taylor Swift (2014)
Taylor linked with Max Martin again and pop history was made. Fully convinced there’s not a person on Earth who hasn’t heard this song. 

26. “Never Really Over”, Katy Perry (2019)
Katy Perry forgot how to breathe between words in her chorus and delivered the most under-appreciated Big Pop Girl single of 2019. 

25. “Womanizer”, Britney Spears (2008)
“Gimme More” is the historical moment in Britney’s comeback, but the world fucked harder with the flexible, flaw-free “Womanizer”. The audacity of the Nokia phone that shows a scheduled “Product Placement” meeting in the video? Excellent!

24. “Born This Way”, Lady Gaga (2011)
A moment for the gays, girls and theys. Capacity for cishet men in this club is limited. Sorry, we don’t make the rules.

23. “thank u, next”, Ariana Grande (2018)
Ari hadn’t really gone away when this one dropped, but this was a surefire smash to kick off her most iconic era. Fight us: the second best lead Ariana Grande single of 2018.

22. “Only Girl (In the World)”, Rihanna (2010)
Its impact on Superdrug’s stock of red hair dye was unparalleled. 

21. “Bad Liar”, Selena Gomez (2018)
The weirdest Big Pop Girl song of the 2010s. Serotonin levels go into overdrive when she yelps “Oh baa-aby let’s ma-aake”.

20. “Cardigan”, Taylor Swift (2020)
Controversial, but Taylor Swift’s minor ‘self-titled-moment’ successfully made her catnip for Bon Iver gays. Phoebe Bridgers’ impact tbh. A repositioning!

19. “Blinding Lights”, The Weeknd (2019)
10/10 tune. 10/10 TikTok choreo. 

18. “Rolling in the Deep”, Adele (2010)
The last time the interests of middle-aged mothers and their teenage children aligned was with Adele’s record-breaking sophomore record. On “Rolling in the Deep”, Adele is credited for lead vocals, songwriting and “stiletto heel tapping”. Triple threat!!! 

17. “Party in the U.S.A”, Miley Cyrus (2009)
Would be lying if we said this didn’t get bumped up after it became the post-Trump anthem for America! Jessie J’s royalties will be experiencing a nice spike right now. Good for her. <3 

16. “Dangerous Woman”, Ariana Grande (2017)
The birth of Ariana Horné; mid-tempo magic. The vocal runs!

15. “Diamonds”, Rihanna (2012)
Testament to its power that this genuinely brilliant song came from RiRi’s most low-key album. Sia's co-writes truly dominated the 2010s.

14. “SexyBack”, Justin Timberlake (2006)
Screeching that JT described this song as David Bowie covering “Sex Machine,” but we’ll let him have it considering this one went off at the school disco.

13. “Work Bitch”, Britney Spears (2013)
Hot body? Bugatti? Maserati? Sippin’ martinis? Look hot in a bikini? These are all possible if you follow the advice of Godney Spears.

12. “We Found Love”, Rihanna (2011)
Throwback to the days when Rihanna had a River Island capsule collection and teenage boys would wear her face on T-shirts.

11. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, Taylor Swift (2012)
Part way between absconding country music and becoming folk-pop’s new star, Taylor Swift was (and arguably, in some ways, still is) the biggest pop star on planet Earth. As Gaga continued her weirdo era with Born This Way and the other Big Pop Girls experienced dips in success, Taylor pushed forth with a Max Martin-produced 'fuck you to her ex-boyfriends. Never has break-up pop sounded so mega.

10. “What Do You Mean”, Justin Bieber (2015)
Before this, Justin Bieber was adored by young women and men who had the bravery to admit he’d been making great music since the offset of his career some years prior. But there was something about the Purpose era — his first since a slew of criminal charges and a very public break-up with Selena Gomez — that opened up his sound to the masses. With its ticking clock loop and wonky, mellow EDM beat courtesy of MdL (not Skrillex, who handled most of the record’s other production credits), “What Do You Mean?” was Bieber’s new beginning, and it signalled his ascent to the ultimate everyman pop idol.

9. “Hello”, Adele (2015)
We hadn’t had full body shivers during The X Factor ad break since Cher Lloyd was on the brink of being sent home, but then Adele appeared, somewhat anonymously, just her voice, white lyrics against a black backdrop, teasing the arrival of her new era. “Hello”, a belted ballad more melancholy than the bite of “Rolling in the Deep”, remains her knockout comeback track — though there’s arguably not many to choose from. With rumours that the next album might drop before the end of the year, if not early 2021, maybe something else will come along and take this track’s place instead? 

8. “Don’t Start Now”, Dua Lipa (2019)
First dropping music in 2015 to an industry and audience almost entirely uninterested, Dua Lipa played the long-game when it came to becoming Britain’s most adored pop star. But when it came, the praise was ceaseless. After “New Rules” made people take note, she dropped some major dance collaborations with Calvin Harris, Diplo and Mark Ronson, before dipping back into the studio to make album two. What was rumoured to be a difficult recording process instead unveiled an unorthodox comeback track that, over a year later, is still riding high in the charts worldwide. A God-tier disco banger that leads an album of equally pristine pop material, “Don’t Start Now” is the epitome of a killer sophomore return.

7. “California Gurls”, Katy Perry (2010)
Every few years, a song comes along that totally distils what pop music should represent: aggressively catchy, deceptively simple, tongue-in-cheek and paired with visuals that will forever be seen as an artist’s Party City Halloween costume. For Katy Perry, that’s “California Gurls”: a candy-sweet anthem that pays homage to the women of the West Coast. With hooks spilling out from every sonic orifice, it's sort of great Snoop Dogg feature and crude candyfloss video, it signalled the arrival of Katy’s real star moment. Breaking records set by Michael Jackson, it’s going to take something special to top this. 

6. “Gimme More”, Britney Spears (2007)
No modern pop culture moment has been chronicled as invasively as Britney Spears’ battle with her mental health during the 2000s. But there was a biting back that came towards the tail-end of it — still prematurely, as you can see from her now infamous VMAs performance — that proved she wasn’t one to be fucked with. That iconic groan of “It’s Britney Bitch” is instantly recognisable 13 years on; this song a key marker of her Blackout era, that’s belatedly earned the respect it deserved. 

5. “Umbrella”, Rihanna ft. Jay-Z (2008)
Almost never does a pop song that leads with a male rapper’s verse rather than sandwiching it in the middle slap — but Rihanna’s “Umbrella” is the exception. A braggadocious harmony of hi-hats and skewered basslines, it’s a pop song that feels hugely unorthodox, and was bounced around artists (most famously, Britney) before it landed in Rihanna’s lap. Plenty of people must have been pinching themselves afterwards: the earworm ‘ella-ella’ hook is pretty much part of the public lexicon now; heavy rainfall and Rihanna eternally intertwined. In a pre-streaming, early digital download age, this song managed to completely dominate the charts (for ten weeks in the UK over summer 2007) and prove unstoppable. Rihanna hasn’t stopped since.

4. “Dirrty”, Christina Aguilera (2011)
If you were to ever doubt the feverishness of Christina Aguilera’s Stripped era, remember that its lead single put two ‘r’s in “Dirrty”, which somehow makes this track that literally screams sweaty orgasms even more filthy. Invented to shed her bubblegum pop image, this track was one Christina pushed for to kick off her sophomore album campaign, allowing the more sombre “Beautiful” to follow it, and what an immaculate choice it was. With its David LaChapelle-directed video, all mud-wrestling and assless chaps, the prettified pop image formed around Xtina was obliterated, and she proved that a sexed up image and talent weren’t mutually exclusive. 

3. “No Tears Left to Cry”, Ariana Grande (2018)
Trauma forced Ariana Grande to put her life on pause. Following the terrorist attack at her Manchester Arena show in support of Dangerous Woman in 2017, she retreated from the public eye to start therapy, cancelling the remainder of her world tour. But later, the studio became a refuge, and as she started to learn how to cope with PTSD, she started to make the most glorious and gracious comeback record. Arriving in the spring of 2017, “No Tears Left to Cry”. A song that’s both immensely sad in its subtext but sonically dreamy and buoyant, it speaks of the experience of her past but through a lens of hope. Two years on, it’s still a perfectly formed exercise in a return to pop, while also being a testament to the genre’s ability to instil hope in us all. 

2. “Bad Romance”, Lady Gaga (2009)
By the tail end of 2009, having spent a year to 18 months (depending on what continent you were on) effectively dominating pop music, Lady Gaga had established herself as the one to beat: a pop star with style, and quirks that commanded tabloid headlines and trash-talk internet hearsay in equal measures. At 23, she was a star. Then Bad Romance arrived, the lead single from her debut’s spin off The Fame Monster, and the power of her practise was rendered undeniable. Not only is “Bad Romance” a murky eurodance smash, expertly crafted by Gaga and RedOne, but it also signalled her ascension into the high fashion realm. The song famously premiered during Alexander McQueen’s final runway show, Plato’s Atlantis; the video littered with the designer’s expert work. If you had been on the fence, or affronted by Gaga’s presence before, you could deny it no longer: that Rah Rah bitch had formally arrived. 

1. “Formation”, Beyoncé (2016)
Pop music is rarely seen as truly culture-shifting. That is, unless, Beyoncé is behind it. Following the shock release of her self-titled record, the reigning queen of music full stop delved deeper into issues surrounding the infidelity of her husband, the way the public had come to perceive her. It was also a magnificent, masterful opus on Black culture. While we had a little bit longer to process the arrival of Lemonade than we did its predecessor, that didn’t affect the hedge slammer impact of the presentation. “I might just be a Black Bill Gates in the making,” she sang on its lead single “Formation”; a track about her position as America’s greatest new entrepreneur, period — and how deeply entrenched her heritage is in that power. Pop music for the ages, this was.