While the music industry might be in a perpetual state of disarray, the allure of a successful pop artist has remained more or less constant over the course of decades. But what makes for a successful pop artist? Aside from the obvious qualifier -- i.e. a bevy of chart-topping songs -- great pop artists represent the ideal combination of innate talent and infectious personality. Early examples include Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, both of whom epitomized their respective eras. Presley, in particular, signified a seismic shift toward the importance and power of the youth market. In fact, one might even say the pop star archetype as it’s known today began when Elvis Presley shook his hips on live TV in 1956.
In the time since, each decade has yielded its own legion of musically-inclined pop culture representatives. Like Elvis before them, most of these talents are equal parts performer and celebrity. Of course there are exceptions, especially when entire bands are taken into consideration. Furthermore, artists like Adele tend to keep their everyday exploits out of the limelight. That said, there seems to be a newfound emphasis on the celebrity factor these days, with many pop stars grabbing headlines for pretty much anything but the actual music.
Today, Stacker is listing out the best artists of the modern pop era. To be clear, the modern pop era (as it’s defined for the purpose of this article) starts with the advent of the Billboard “Pop Songs Chart” in 1992. Hence, acts like Michael Jackson, Elvis, or The Beatles won’t be on the list. For the data, Stacker went straight to the source, Billboard, which ranked each artist based on their weekly performance on the “Pop Songs Chart” over the last 25 years. Counting down from #50, here are the best artists in modern pop.
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Originally hailing from Trinidad and Tobago, Onika Tanya Maraj -- better known as Nicki Minaj -- was a queen of the underground before bursting onto the mainstream. After signing with Lil Wayne’s label, Cash Money Records, Minaj released her debut album in 2010. Soon after, she became the first female solo artist with seven songs on the Billboard Hot 100. Nowadays, Minaj is still releasing popular music, even if her various beefs are more likely to grab headlines.
Before rocketing to success on the back of her hit single “All I Wanna Do,” Sheryl Crow made a decent living as a writer of jingles for companies like McDonald’s and Toyota. She was one of the biggest names in music by the mid-1990s, with a string of award-winning songs and albums to show for it. Over the course of her career, Crow has tackled various political and environmental causes. Her upcoming (and reportedly final) album will likewise aim to raise awareness on the world’s most pressing issues.
Ellie Goulding was an in-demand songwriter and rising star in England before landing on the American charts with her hit single “Lights.” Inspired by Goulding’s own preference for sleeping with the lights on, the track was accordingly a sleeper hit. Between her own hit songs, her regular appearances at festivals around the world, and her collaborations with other popular artists, Goulding manages to retain a respectable career -- albeit one that could use another boost.
“Cracked Rear View,” Hootie & the Blowfish’s debut album, was bolstered by no fewer than five hit singles and became one of the best sellers of all time. While the band would never again reach the same heights as it did on that first effort, frontman Darius Rucker did forge a successful career as a popular country star. Rucker continues to release material under his own name, but that doesn’t mean he’s impervious to the occasional band reunion.
OneRepublic dropped the single “Apologize” in 2007 after spending five years on the road and watched it soar up the MySpace charts (when such a thing mattered). But it wasn’t until super-producer Timbaland remixed the same track that the band became a worldwide sensation. Of course, the best was yet to come for OneRepublic. The band released the song “Counting Stars” in 2013; to date, the smash hit single has generated more than 2.4 billion hits on YouTube.
The prime example of a modern-day pop phenom, Ariana Grande has been performing on stage since childhood. After starring in Nickelodeon shows “Victorious” and “Sam & Cat," the multi-talented star segued into a resoundingly successful music career. As impressive as her songs might be, however, Grande has become a true master of social media. She boasts 128 million followers on her Instagram feed alone.
After struggling for years, California-based ska band No Doubt exploded onto the world stage with its 1995 album “Tragic Kingdom." Featured on the album were hit songs like “Just a Girl” and “Don’t Speak." Several popular songs and albums followed before lead singer Gwen Stefani launched her own successful solo career in 2004. To this day, No Doubt fans are clamoring for a reunion. Original bassist Tony Kanal thinks it will happen, but Stefani doesn’t seem to be in any rush.
Often described as the “King of Latin Pop," Enrique Iglesias has achieved the career even the most accomplished pop stars aspire to. The award-winning singer has sold more than 170 albums and singles to date and earned more than 14 billion streams. While no longer the stateside chart-topper he once was, Iglesias keeps a consistent presence on the Billboard Latin Airplay chart.
His name is Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, but audiences know him best as The Weeknd. A true modern-day success story, the Canadian-born artist kicked off his career by uploading a handful of anonymous videos to YouTube that reaped all the right kinds of attention. The Weeknd has since generated a massive fan base that can't get enough of the performer's emotional lyrics, falsetto voice, and propulsive beats. He’s also become quite the savvy entrepreneur.
This R&B vocal quartet (now a trio) was among the most omnipresent entities in the pop music sphere in the early and mid-1990s, thanks to smash hits like “Motownphilly” and “End of the Road." The latter has truly endured, with more than 100 million hits on YouTube to date. Boyz II Men still tours and releases music; most recently, the group helped kick off the NFL season by performing the National Anthem at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Canadian singer Celine Dion was already enjoying an extraordinary career when she released the hit song “My Heart Will Go On" in 1997. The single became her signature tune, cemented her pop-star status, and helped make the movie “Titanic” a massive success. To think, Dion and “Titanic” director James Cameron both hated the song so much that it almost didn’t make it into the film.
Multi-talented performer Ne-Yo (born Shaffer Chimere Smith) got his first taste of success as a popular songwriter in the early aughts. Then, in 2006, he released his debut album “In My Own Words." Featured on those tracks was the hit single “So Sick," which rose to #1 on the Billboard 200. Ne-Yo has continued to put out several chart-topping albums and songs while also penning tracks for other artists including Usher, Celine Dion, and Whitney Houston.
This post-grunge outfit rose to fame on the heels of the hit single “Kryptonite," written by frontman Brad Arnold at the tender age of 15. The band continued its hot streak with the 2002 release of “Here Without You," a dramatic ballad that struck a massive chord and spent 51 weeks on the Billboard 100 chart. Together to this day, 3 Doors Down is currently on tour with fellow nostalgia acts Collective Soul and Soul Asylum.
Before becoming one of the biggest solo acts in the world, Beyoncé Knowles was an essential part of this popular American girl group. Destiny’s Child was signed to Columbia in 1997 as a quartet, but was down to three members by the early 2000s. The band reportedly sold more than 60 million records (thanks to songs like “Survivor” and “Bootylicious”), and recorded its final album, "Destiny Fulfilled," in 2004 following a three-year hiatus. Destiny's Child occasionally reunites for one-off songs and live performances.
British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran earned his success the modern way: first by cultivating a fan base without help from a major label, and then by grabbing the attention of other artists like Jamie Foxx. He was signed to Asylum Records and has been a record-breaking, best-selling act ever since. When not churning out hits like “Castle on the Hill” or “Shape of You," Sheeran writes chart-topping tracks for fellow crooners such as Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber.
It never hurts to be talented at several things these days, and Scotland’s Calvin Harris duly abides. He’s forged himself a legendary career as a DJ, producer, songwriter, singer, label executive, and famous ex-boyfriend. Whether he’s producing his own hit songs or collaborating with artists like Kylie Minogue, Dizzee Rascal, Sam Smith, or Rihanna, Harris endures as a massively popular act.
Channeling a bitter break-up into powerful music, Alanis Morissette unleashed the song "You Oughta Know” in 1995 and became something of an overnight sensation. For decades, audiences speculated that actor Dave Coulier was the one who broke the singer’s heart; and in 2013, Coulier finally confirmed that the rumor was true. As for Morissette, it’s safe to say selling more than 60 million records worldwide helped heal some of those wounds.
British singer Adele is the stuff that modern pop dreams are made of. Happy to let the music speak for itself, she released “21” in 2011, embarked on a world tour, and dominated the charts -- eventually breaking a record for solo female artists. More than a best-selling singer, Adele is a critical darling with a cabinet full of Grammy awards to show for it.
At the height of the boy band era came this wildly popular group, which included a young Justin Timberlake along with four other members. Thanks to songs like “Bye Bye Bye" and albums such as “No Strings Attached," NSYNC sold tens of millions of units before taking an indefinite hiatus in 2002. In fact, “No Strings Attached” is the second-best-selling album of the first decade of the 21st century.
Selena Gomez has at 26 already achieved an entire lifetime’s worth of milestones. Her versatile career in show business kicked off in 2002 when she became a series regular on “Barney & Friends" alongside Demi Lovato. Nowadays, the seasoned actress and singer is practically a corporation unto herself with lucrative endorsement deals and her own clothing line. As if all that wasn’t enough, she’s also the most followed person on Instagram. Her highest charting songs (on the Billboard 100) to date are “Same Old Love” and “Good For You."
Kesha Rose Sebert -- or Kesha, for short -- set a female download record when she debuted her breakout single “TiK ToK” back in 2009. An ode to her hard-partying lifestyle, the song paved the way for a slew of similarly themed hit tracks. Unfortunately, Kesha’s career took a hit from a bitter legal dispute with her producer, Dr. Luke. Today the singer is back and stronger than ever with music that oozes self-empowerment.
Pitbull (full name Armando Christian Pérez) first made waves with an appearance on Lil Jon’s 2002 album “Kings of Crunk." That helped to launch a long and wildly successful career in hip-hop that continues to this day. When not recording hit tracks or signing endorsement deals, the rapper is overseeing his charter school franchise SLAM (Sports Leadership & Management), where teachers take an athletics-based approach toward education. SLAM has locations in Miami, FL, and Henderson, NV, so far.
The boy band phenom that is the Backstreet Boys released a bevy of hit singles in the late '90s, including “I Want It That Way" and “Larger Than Life." While no longer the pop culture icon it once was, the quintet still produces music to this day. Backstreet Boys' most recent single, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart," has more than 30 million hits on YouTube.
Canadian singer Justin Bieber became one of the biggest pop stars in the world after being discovered on YouTube. It seems no amount of bad press can stand in the way of this modern-day sensation, whose most recent album, “Purpose," yielded three #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. Bieber continues to make headlines on a weekly basis -- occasionally for his music.
A bona fide pop wunderkind, French-Canadian singer Avril Lavigne signed her first big label record deal at the young age of 16. Soon after, she released her wildly successful debut album “Let Go" that includes hits “Complicated” and "Sk8er Boi." Lavigne stopped recording new music for two years during a hiatus she took to battle Lyme Disease, but is now back in action with a new single set to drop this month.
St. Louis rapper Nelly (born Cornell Iral Haynes, Jr.) put Missouri on the pop culture map when he unveiled his distinct lyrical style in the early 2000s. Among the performer’s many hit singles, 2002’s “Hot in Herre” arguably endures as his most iconic. Like most pop stars, Nelly is more than just a performer -- he’s also a philanthropist, actor, workout trainer, and reuniter of famous candy duo Mike & Ike. Most recently, however, he’s come under fire for sexual assault accusations against him.
Speaking of controversial hip-hop stars, Chris Brown’s public image never recovered from a notorious incident involving fellow pop star (and then-girlfriend) Rihanna. A string of subsequent scandals further tarnished his image but hasn't managed to bring down his career. In fact, he just released a song with Agnez Mo that is currently racking up hits on YouTube.
Few pop stars render the immediate impression that this Detroit-based rapper did with his 1999 debut single “My Name Is." The impact hasn’t quite worn off: Thanks to his twisted sense of humor and blatant lyrical talent, Eminem remains a pop culture fixture to this day. His most recent album, “Kamikaze," is tearing up the charts.
Every pop artist has to start somewhere -- and for Jennifer Lopez, that somewhere was as a Fly Girl on the sketch comedy series “In Living Color." It didn’t take long for Lopez to us that launchpad to establish a formidable career as an actress, singer, and businesswoman. She is currently in the midst of a Las Vegas residency and has a movie set to drop in November. Meanwhile, her most recent song, “Dinero," has more than 69 million hits on YouTube.
There was nowhere for this pop-rock outfit from Florida to go but down following their mega-successful debut album, “Yourself or Someone Like You," which went certified 12x platinum. After the band’s follow-up efforts became a textbook case of diminishing returns, frontman Rob Thomas embarked on a respectable solo career. Matchbox Twenty reunited in 2017 for a tour with Counting Crows.
Weaving samples of Imogen Heap’s 2005 single “Hide And Seek” with his own auto-tuned vocals, R&B singer Jason Derulo dropped “Whatcha Say” in 2010, and kicked off a chart-topping solo career. Derulo is a virtual prodigy who wrote his first song at just 8 years old. He was sought out by a slew of big-name talents for his skills as a producer and songwriter before snagging the spotlight for himself.
Love the music or hate it, Nickelback remains one of the most successful bands in the history of music with a slew of hit singles and albums. What’s more, the Canadian band is second only to The Beatles as the best-selling foreign act in the United States. Best known for songs like “Far Away” and “How You Remind Me," Nickelback culls from a variety of popular influences. The band's success hasn’t shielded it from serving as the Internet’s foremost punching bag.
The closest thing America has to royalty is Queen Beyoncé Knowles. She rose to fame as part of Destiny’s Child, then broke away to cultivate a solo career that borders on mythical. Whether making history at Coachella, making history at the Super Bowl, or just plain making history, Beyoncé is the kind of pop culture juggernaut people will still be talking about 100 years from now. Her brilliance is tough to argue when you look at her catalog, which includes tracks like “Crazy in Love," “Halo," “Single Ladies," and “Formation."
The most downloaded single of the 2000s comes from Florida-based rapper Flo Rida. Dubbed “Low," the breakout track pairs Southern style with an upbeat tempo for danceable perfection, and made its way onto the soundtrack for the 2008 movie’s “Step Up 2: The Streets." The rapper has delivered no shortage of hit singles in the time since “Low” took the country by storm, though he’s no longer the chart-topper he was in his heyday.
Madonna is a true originator who burst onto the scene in 1982 and helped change the pop culture landscape forever. She was no stranger to shock value -- but it was her consistent knack for hit music that kept her at the forefront of the industry for decades. Like any pop star, Madonna’s reign could only last so long, though she still retains a firm place in the cultural sphere and knows how to put on a great show. On the recording front, it’s never too late for a comeback.
Pop phenom Janet Jackson was an absolute force in the '80s and '90s. Far more than Michael Jackson’s younger sister, Janet first garnered massive attention in 1986 with the release of her third album, “Control." Featured on the album were edgy hit tracks like “Nasty” and “What Have You Done For Me Lately." She continued to rock the charts during the Billboard era with albums like “The Velvet Rope," “Janet," “All for You," “Discipline," and “Unbreakable," all of which debuted at #1. Jackson's influence remains palpable even decades after her earliest hits were released.
Christina Aguilera touted some powerful vocal chops of her own long before she coached others to success on “The Voice." The Staten Island-born singer worked as a Mouseketeer from 1993 to 1995 before emerging as a somewhat more genuine alternative to Britney Spears in 1999. The singer launched to stardom with breakout hit “Genie In A Bottle." Eager to express herself any way she saw fit, Aguilera created an alter ego called Xtina for her album “Stripped," before going “Back to Basics” on a 2006 album of the same name. During the first season of “The Voice," Aguilera appeared on the Maroon 5 single “Moves Like Jagger," which peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
This hip-hop outfit struggled for years before bringing lead singer Fergie on board in 2003 after she recorded vocals group's hit track "Shut Up." She gave the group the socio-conscious style and discernible pop injection it needed. The result was “Where is the Love?," a veritable anthem that became a staple at parties and on pop charts alike. In other words, The Black Eyed Peas most definitely found the love (even if that’s technically not what the song is about).
Lady Gaga brought a jarring visual aesthetic to her relatively straightforward sound on videos for “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance." The formula -- which has been likened to a cross between Marilyn Manson and Madonna -- worked like a charm and generated a downright fervid following. As her career progressed, Lady Gaga adopted more traditional modes of expression. She even recorded an album with Tony Bennett. She’ll display her raw talent this October on big screens across America as the lead role in “A Star Is Born."
Usher Raymond IV -- or Usher, for short -- signed with LaFace Records at 14 years old. The natural-born performer released a self-titled debut album the following year that is laced with a surprising spectrum of adult themes. But it wouldn’t be until his next album, “My Way," that Usher became a household name. By 2004’s “Confessions," this smooth and stylish crooner was among the world’s best-selling artists and a fixture on the Billboard charts. It’s no surprise Billboard named Usher as the #2 Artist of the Decade in 2009.
Born and raised in Hawaii, Peter Gene Hernandez adopted the name Bruno Mars while pursuing a music career in the 2000s. He provided guest vocals in 2010 on two hit singles: “Nothin' on You" by B.o.B and "Billionaire" by Travie McCoy. It was thus only a matter of time before Mars unleashed his debut solo album, “Doo-Wops & Hooligans," to massive fanfare. Featured on the album was the #1 single “Just the Way You Are," which is currently closing in on 2 billion YouTube hits.
Mariah Carey’s vocal range is so impressive that the Guinness Book of World Records once dubbed her the “songbird supreme." Speaking of world records, this truly accomplished songbird has the most #1 singles by a solo artist in music history. With so many milestones under her belt, Carey will remain the stuff of legend no matter how many performances she flubs.
The first winner of “American Idol” is also one of the most enduring pop stars of the modern era. Kelly Clarkson is best known for songs such as “Since U Been Gone," “Because of You," “Behind These Hazel Eyes," and “My Life Would Suck Without You.". To support her most recent album, “Meaning of Life," Clarkson will embark on an arena tour starting early next year.
Pennsylvania-born superstar Taylor Swift first traveled to Nashville at age 11. She made an impression, but left empty-handed. Swift returned four years later and became the youngest person ever to score a publishing deal with Sony/ATV. She strayed soon enough from the country scene to become one of the foremost names in pop music. Ambitious is the operative word here -- and helps explain Swift’s gobsmacking rise to fame in almost no time at all. Well, that and her clear knack for turning bad break-ups into hit songs.
Former Mouseketeer Britney Spears made her a formidable solo debut in 1998 with "...Baby One More Time," which was arguably the most impactful single since Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit." She followed that up with many hit songs, a somewhat successful movie, an erratic TV show, and an even more erratic public meltdown. While Spears occasionally releases new music, she continues to rake in tons of cash through tours and Las Vegas residencies.
There was some serious talent on “The All New Mickey Mouse Club" in the '90s, which starred Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, and this Tennessee-born whiz kid. After appearing on the popular Disney show, Justin Timberlake became NSYNC’s most irresistible member. He later established an outrageously successful solo music career and makes for quite the actor.
Katy Perry (birth name Katheryn Hudson) sang in church as a child and performed gospel music as a teenager before kissing a girl, liking it, and debuting a song about it. Ten years, numerous hit songs, and billions of YouTube views later, Perry is wealthy enough to buy her own convent -- or at least try to. In the last year she polished off a world tour and headlined the KAABOO Music Festival in San Diego. Now, she's unplugged for a while to enjoy some R&R.
After getting dropped by their label in the late 1990s, Maroon 5 picked up new guitarist James Valentine and changed its sound. The result was 2002’s “Songs About Jane," which featured the popular single "Harder to Breathe" and went platinum. Maroon 5 capitalized on the newfound momentum and released a string of chart-topping albums and songs in the ensuing years, which garnered sales of more than 27 million albums and 48 million singles. The band is currently touring behind its most recent effort, “Red Pill Blues."
Alecia Beth Moore -- better known as P!nk -- broke through the mainstream with her 2001 hit single, “Get the Party Started." By all accounts, the party is still going strong. Unlike Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, P!nk never really fell off her peak. Her recent album “Beautiful Trauma" snagged the #1 spot on the Billboard 200, while its lead single, “What About Us," has racked up more than 200 million hits on YouTube. Meanwhile, she continues to put on one heck of a live show.
A true icon in every conceivable sense, Rihanna (short for Robyn Rihanna Fenty) has journeyed a long way since her hit single “Umbrella" became 2007’s foremost anthem. When not releasing chart-smashing music, the Barbadian-born phenom stars in hit films, hosts fashion shows, posts on social media to millions of followers, and oversees a lucrative beauty products company, Fenty Beauty. This is what being the best artist in modern pop is all about.