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Bootylicious: The top 10 best 21st Century pop singles (and they’re all by women)

It’s not just freak noise, life affirming racket or hours of the dark stuff that we listen to here at the LTW! Offices. There is also some pop action going on. John Robb compiles a list of the great pop singles from the noughties and notices that they are all made by women”¦

The first decade of the 21st century has seen some great pop. The mainstream is often full of grinning bores and desperate freaks but in the middle of this ugly, gurning morass there have been some gems.

And all of it has been dealt by the girls.

The million selling pop single is generally not that interesting. It is usually an exercise is great marketing but there has been a series of great, groundbreaking pop singles as well – pop records that have twisted just what music can be as much as anything in the underground.
In the battle of the sexes the girls are winning. The pop boys make morose, dreary ballads in their dreadful boy bands or they are self important, puffed up balladeers with their grey songs and earnest deluding, self importance.
Whilst they were being puffed up the girls stole the show- because the decade has finally proved one thing- if you want great groundbreaking pop then check out what the girls are up to…

1. Missy Elliot ”˜Pass That Dutch’
Missy Elliot is the best selling female rapper in the world. Amazingly in a scene dominated by men she somehow not only holds her own- she is breaking barriers with each release. Hers is a stunningly original music that is re-writing the rules with weird time signatures, fantastic flights of fancy and great wordplay.
The very title of this song caused her problems, when those arbitrators of public taste, MTV, pulled her up on the use of the word ”˜Dutch’ in the song catching a whiff of drug reference there in the double entendre and removed it from broadcast of the song- a nation breathed a sigh of relief.
There’s something seriously disturbing about this song and its video which kicks off in the cornfield. Elliot and her crew get involved with all kind of rural weirdness before she is bizarrely dancing under a UFO, becoming a beauty queen and ending up in a car where someone gets eaten after setting off the car alarm before clambering up the Empire State Building with King Kong – it’s not a Take That video, that’s for sure.
This is a pop single that is pure genius. That catchy little riff that burns into your brain and the stripped down rhythms that are as captivating as they are off the wall.
With lyrics that are flash, freak images as Elliot proves that she is one of the great lyricists- easily equal the normal canyon of pop poets like Bob Dylan etc. She is ample proof that the art of great lyric writing is not dead.
Musically the song shapeshifts moods and rhythms with a fantastic disjoint towards its end that David Lynch would be proud of.
This is pop imagination at its best and a killer piece of surrealism that matches anything in the history of pop music.

2. Britney Spears ”˜Toxic’

”˜Toxic’ is one if the great singles of the nineties. A mixture of a knowing pop strut and Bollywood strings and even a great twangy guitar lick that could have been copped from a Tom Waits song. ”˜Toxic’ sounds international in its appeal, acknowledging the stretching out of pop culture from it’s Anglo American axis and into the new territories. If pop was truly cutting edge, there would be more of this kind of adventure.
It’s another problem with X Factor, their idea of pop is rubbish droning ballads and dire cover versions. In the mean time a true pop artist like Britney is at the top of the charts breaking new ground and this single does it perfectly- it’s camp, funny, raunchy and more than a little bit rock n roll. Britney even manages to sing it with a croaking sexiness and coy acknowledgement at the genius of great pop
Even the video is great. Britney wobbles around- a camped up air hostess- she shakes her portly rump in a too short mini skirt routine, it’s like a pastiche of the crummiest soft porn film intro.
Britney seems to get the joke as she sissy struts along the aisle virtually bearing her satin panted buttocks to the slavering passengers with a kitsch cartoon pretend sexiness that is almost pastiche.


3. M.I.A. ”˜Paper Planes’
Taking the Clash’s holy- fifth amendment- truth telling- ode to the isolation of war anthem, ”˜Straight To Hell’, speeding it up and turning it into a song about immigration that becomes one of the anthems of its year is some mean trick.
But then M.I.A. is one smart operator.
She is currently the most innovative mainstream musician on the scene. Her albums have fused bangra beats, baille funk and even kuduro into a polyglot of cultural pop missives that perfectly capture the endless booming sound system of music’s pouring out of taxis and windows across the world. We are living in post Anglo-American pop axis times and there is simply no excuse now to listen to the same old music’s when there is so much action out there. M.I.A. knows this and makes sense of the modern.

4. Gwen Stefani ”˜What You Waiting For’
Gwen grafted in ska punk band No Doubt for years on the Californian club circuit. They eventually hit the big time becoming dayglo pop superstars. She then smartly she made a solo record that allowed all her catwalk kookiness to flow out.
The debut single ”˜What You Waiting For’ is perfectly matched by it’s Alice In Wonderland styled video where Gwen gets to dress up in her fantastically surreal clothing range and do the whole Alice In Wonderland routine updated for MTV world.
The video is perhaps the most psychedelic and mind altering moment of the decade and one that matches the Beatles ”˜Strawberry Fields’ in terms of it’s chemical, shape shifting kookiness.
The song itself ticks tocks in and out of the white rabbit’s stopwatch as Stefani slides into Wonderland- this time it’s not the demure Alice sternly admonishing Lewis Carroll’s fantastic phantogormisia array of freakiness- it’s the long limbed wacky Gwen stumbling around in her tottering, too high heels- looking impossibly catwalk surrounded by the wonderland madness. ”˜What You Waiting For’ a great song and in the true tradition of great psychedelic music it really does take you somewhere else on a mind-blowing trip.

5. Sugababes ”˜Round, Round’
The classic girl band didn’t die out when Spector semi retired from his little symphonies for kids routine. The Sugerbabes are up there with any of his bands. They have released a lot of great singles in the decade- soundtracking the snotty teenage cool of the gang of gum chewing girls sneering at the world, hiding their complex teen neurosis with a stroppy exterior.
It sounds fantastic.
Those deadpan voices and that bored cool are their signature. They do the self combustible, hate thing so well that they don’t even like eachother and seem to lose members faster than they put out singles. Produced and written by crack pop writing team Xenomania- the Motown of the 21st century as some wags term them- who have been behind some of the great pop moments of the decade, this single is one of the highpoints in British chart pop in the nineties and key signpost release.

6. Lady Gaga ”˜Poker Face’
The tabloids think she is controversial and some call her the new Madonna, Lady Gaga is an astute player of the fame game is backing it up with some of the biggest selling records of these rancid times.
”˜Poker Face’ is a great slice of pop with clever words that leave the moralists attempting to decipher those slightly obtuse lyrics. From her debut album, ”˜The Fame’ the song could be about lots of things with most of them probably made up by Gaga in interviews. She has claimed it to be about bisexuality or playing cards or a tribute to her rock n roll boyfriends or a song about sex and gambling- from that we can guess that the song is probably about sex.
“Obviously, it’s my pussy’s poker face! I took that line from another song I wrote but never released, called ‘Blueberry Kisses.’ It was about a girl singing to her boyfriend about how she wants him to go down on her and I used the lyric. It originally went, ‘Blueberry kisses, the muffin man misses them kisses’.”
During one interview, she claimed that the song is about her own bisexuality, fantasying about shagging a woman when she was with a man- as in the poker face is her own face.
Pheew! complex stuff going on there. The song itself is insanely catchy and Ga Ga’s playing with sex and her constant uniform changes and her cool pop attention seeking make her and ideal pop star of the 21st century. She also uses her celebrity status to stand for good stuff which makes her an all round good egg is a scene full of rotten eggs.

7. Beyonce ”˜Crazy In Love’
Released in 2003 and driven by that brilliant horn riff the song oozes sex- the supreme, sassy, pop strut. ”˜Crazy In Love’ is not only a thrilling slice of pop perfection driven by that crunchy horn riff and that fuck me groove but also by an impossibly strident confidence that has the assurance of someone at the top of her game.
The single oozes sex and a life affirming soul power like all great pop should and has done from Motown onwards.
She is also a great singer and certainly not part of the auto tune generation. These are huge, lustful vocals that fill the room and are perfectly the raps but this is Beyonce’s show and she makes the song very much her own and shows all the pretenders just how this kind of pop is done.


8. Kylie Minogue ”˜Cant Get You Out Of My Head’
Whilst her kid sister has bizarrely become a judge of other people’s singing on X Factor (whose brand of pop this top ten really puts into perspective) passing on her, ahem, love of music and nuggets of wisdom to the bamboozled contestants Kylie has remained the real pop star in the family.
”˜Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ is a gem of single, it pulses like primetime Suicide crossed with Soft Cell and swings with the lustful heart beat of pure pop. Catchier than a cold in a crowded train, ”˜Can’t’ is one of the great pop singles of the decade. It was also written by the ubiquitous Cathy Dennis and coolly for us long term followers of the neo-glam rock, one Rob Davies- the Mud guitarist- who always looked camp wearing what looked like his mother’s curtains as he mimed through the band’s great series of hit singles in the mid seventies.
The video is also really cool, with Kylie prancing about in a futuristic city mirroring the glutton of sci fi films that were lurking around at the time.
It was this song that turned her into a proper international star and will be the key song from her career. I saw her live on tour just after this and was rather surprised by how effective her show was in an end of pier piece of over the top, showbiz extravaganza, entertainment kind of way.


9. Fergie/ Black Eyed Peas ”˜My Humps’
Yup! you got it, that one about the lovely lady bumps. Which like all great pop treads the fine between irritating and genius, the clownish and the classic.
Some would guffaw at this for some reason and some would claim that surely that this must be an, ahem, a guilty pleasure, but here at LTW! we have no truck with such stuff, afterall ”˜good taste is the enemy of the revolution’ is spray canned on our office wall and we don’t believe in guilty pleasures.
”˜My Humps’ is pretty dumb but then the bump and grind of sex are the basics of great pop.
Pop is a soft porn industry with a better soundtrack.
I know ”˜My Humps’ is not strictly Fergie solo and was a Black Eyed Peas song but she makes it her own with her plaintive ”˜look at me’ coy camping it up.
The song’s genius is its simplicity. It’s playground beck and call and clattering rhythm section that is stripped down to the clapping metronome and the occasional counter sound and if there is one thing we love at LTW! It’s stripped down simplicity.
The song is so ridiculous that it obeys every rule in classic pop- it pisses of the parents, prudes and blokes who work in second hand record shops. It’s really utterly dumb- a daft nursery rhyme that deals in the primal”¦a bit like Elvis’s ”˜Hound God’ then.

10. Girls Aloud ”˜Sound Of The Underground’
The ubiquitous Cheryl Cole has been forced down our throats all year. From the rubbish Brits appearance with that frankly weird bit in the middle of the song with Rowetta’s vocal being mimed by some dolly bird to her X factor ubiquity.
There was a time, though, when she was in Girls Aloud who somehow blundered into a couple of good singles. ”˜Sound Of The Underground’ sounds like a less convincing Sugerbabes but it still has that same darkness to its sound and that same stroppy girl gang attitude but then that’s hardly surprising because it was produced by Xenomania. It’s a great piece of strident girl pop and a student disco staple.

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. This is a good list of truly thumping pop songs. Thank you for posting it and for your enthusiasm for the deceptively complex art of writing and performing the magnificent hit single. I just wish I could read your commentary without cringing, though. From simple errors (Beyonce’s boyfriend is not Jaz-Z; M.I.A. is not Bangladeshi) to the droolingly patronising descriptions of the videos (“bearing her satin panted buttocks to the slavering passengers”), I found myself grinding my teeth with frustration. It’s a “Whay, good on the girlies!” celebration of female-fronted pop music run through with the worst (because concealed in well-meaning but smug praise) kind of Uncle Tom-ish patronising sexism. How did Girls Aloud somehow manage to “blunder into a couple of good singles”? Was it because they were a good solid professional outfit with some ace songs or is the fact that Cheryl Cole was involved enough to paint them as silly blundering girls? As for poor dumb Britney:
    “Britney even manages to sing it… ”
    “Britney seems to get the joke… ”
    Huh. You’d almost think she was good at her job or something. Jesus. Either give her – them all – the credit she deserves as a singer and performer or leave her alone. Otherwise you’re left with the oogling. And that’s never a pretty thing in an old punk.
    PS Is “Almost pastiche” OK, then? Is it or isn’t it?

    • I read and re-read this blog over and over and I still don’t get your tedious accusations of sexism. As an ardent feminist myself I think it makes some great and valid points with great humour. If anything the blog is generous to the soft porn and vapid stupidity of some of the singers but at least recognises their genius.

      Sometimes it’s like if you look hard enough you will find whatever you want.

  2. Can’t disagree with some of those, although if you were sticking exclusively to a ladies’ list I would stick Tweet’s “Ooops, Oh My” in there instead of someone – probably Lady Gaga, because however interesting she may be as an individual, her music is a dull, formulaic disappointment. And “Oops Oh My” is probably the filthiest song ever to get mainstream radio play.

    I’m also interested in how and where you draw the line between what is “pop” and what isn’t, because I don’t think that the fact that they are blokes, write their own stuff and play instruments should stand in the way of The Killers’ “Mr Brightside” being the greatest pop single of the past decade by miles. But that’s just me…

  3. Great blog but there are some debatable choices…surely Girls Aloud single , Biology, should be their best song!
    I am baffled by the sexism charge levelled on the comments board though. Surely the blog is obviously anti sexist? surely that’s obvious to anyone unless they have a) no sense of humour or b) are determined to find sexism wherever they look.
    This blog comments on the soft porn nature of modern pop whilst celebrating the genius of 21st century girl pop. And whilst I would love to celebrate the innate genius Britney Spears or Girls Aloud I think John Robb has been very generous to their role in the creative process of their great songs.
    Also I think you missed out his celebration of the genius of the other artists and the way he is calling for them to be celebrated as mcuh as the usual coterie of male artists. I mean I don’t see the sexism in asking for Missy Eliiot to be considered an equal to Bob Dylan unless I was really determined to find sexism wherever I looked.
    Perhaps it’s you Lucy who is being sexist assuming that all men writing about woman pop stars must be ‘ogling’ at them- what a steretypical response eh?

    (sorry for the typos-I’m writing this on a very crowded train!)

  4. I’m not questioning the righteous anti-sexist project of the blog or John Robb’s own intentions: we live in a deeply sexist culture, it’s engrained in every area of our social, political, cultural lives. It is impossible to escape, because we’re IN it, born into it, fed it with our cornflakes, however aware and conscious about it we are, it. So it’s perfectly possible for an avowedly anti-sexist blog (or person!) to use sexist language or views: to suggest that something has sexist overtones is not a unilateral condemnation of all it stands for! What I picked up on was the contradiction between the first paragraph’s celebratory, pro-woman tone and what I perceived as the patronising attitude towards Britney/Cheryl Cole particularly, portrayed as merely blundering into good songs or “seeming” to be in on the joke, as if it were astonishing that such a thing were possible… If they are to be celebrated as feisty, knowing pop-makers and given credit for playing a part in the making of this great music (which is my reading of the introduction) then that doesn’t fit with the subsequent portrayal of them as puppets, pawns, possibly aware of the elements of camp or pastiche that John Robb mentions – but possibly blind to it. Are they being used – in which case, that Britney video he mentions is a pretty unsavoury misogynist thing, not the joyous sexy porn-pastiche he describes – or not? Are they silly air-headed girls or knowing media-manipulators? If you are going to choose to portray them as unconscious or only unintentionally brilliant components in a song’s greatness, I’m going to call you up on that: it demeans and belittles what they do and the skill with which they do it. The impression I get from this piece is that John Robb is more than a bit taken aback at how good these women are at what they do: why else would you be surprised at Kylie’s show being such an accomplished and fun piece of work? Of course it is! And of course they are.
    I’d say that what’s going on is a complex mix of autonomy and knowingness, different people’s skills (including the considerable talents of the singers themselves, yes, even Cheryl Cole), zeitgeisty serendipity as well as good old-fashioned sexist exploitation and objectification, impossible to unpick entirely while we live in this culture. What this piece illustrates is that at this moment in the history of pop, the best, the grooviest, the most exultant, sexiest songs are being performed by solo female pop singers. Not necessarily a fact that signals any end to exploitation or manipulation, not a fact that really proves anything other than that is what is hot now.
    But the MUSIC, now that can be celebrated, rightly so. It’s ace. And as I said before, good on you for highlighting that, John.

    • ‘What I picked up on was the contradiction between the first paragraph\’s celebratory, pro-woman tone and what I perceived as the patronising attitude towards Britney/Cheryl Cole particularly, portrayed as merely blundering into good songs or “seeming” to be in on the joke, as if it were astonishing that such a thing were possible…’

      I think by highlighting this fact you’ve just undermined your entire argument Lucy. John is commenting on individuals based on what he knows about these individuals and the way that the music business operates. This doesn’t constitute sexism.

      PS Vanessa Paradis deserves a place on this list for Be My Baby. Pop perfection.

  5. Methinks some people have too much time on their hands and not enough to occupy the space between their ears. It’s pop. And one guys take on it.

  6. I don’t agree with ALL the choices but generally, yehyehyeh. Women have been making wonderful music, and although I’m sometimes disappointed (when they use their sexuality in a way that makes them less powerful, rather than more powerful) there’s no denying that here is a fantastic range of pop.

    There’s so much snobbery about “pop”, seen as a dumber relation of rock or blues/soul; punk helped demolish that, but it returned with indie and the resurgence of guitar rock. Great pop is as soulful, joyful, as resonant as the greatest music in any genre.

    We also thought that punk had rid us of the prejudice that only men are “serious” or passionate about music, that girls are only there as decoration or because they shagged someone; unfortunately that mentality is still quite prevalent and we still encounter the undermining attitude that because we may dress up and dance, we somehow am not connecting with the music on a meaningful level. That will die out as more girls play and write music as well as performing.

    Away from “pop” as such, a big shout to Polly Harvey who’s done as much as anyone this past decade to show that women can be as strong, talented, as wilfully individual and as hit and miss as any man. Exciting times. x

  7. […] just restricted to rock stars; pop princesses have been known to be bold too – Though in Britney’s case I think it was more a case of breakdown than consultation with her stylist for this haircut! […]

  8. […] her way onto the line up (& was duly pelted with mud) and year on year, the novelty acts like Sugababes, McFly, Chipfuckinmonk began populating the line up more and more until the likes of The Manics […]

  9. […] the chaos. I should state before I get ambushed by \’you\’re too old\’ missives, I have albums by Girls Aloud (Best pop band ever ? Cher LLoyd- this year's charismatic pop legend!Quite possibly), old cd-rs from when The Wombats […]

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