In 2020, Billboard‘s staff revealed its picks for the greatest pop star of every year dating back to 1981 (the first year of MTV, essentially the birth of the modern pop era), with essays making the case for each as the biggest, brightest and most important star in their solar system that calendar year. After adding BTS as the greatest pop star for 2020, we decided to expand the project a little bit. Last year, we counted down our picks for the 10 greatest pop stars of the year, with full essays for everyone from No. 10 (Bad Bunny) to No. 1 (Taylor Swift), as well as bonus write-ups for our picks for Rookie (Olivia Rodrigo) and Comeback (WILLOW) of the year, and even 10 close-but-not-quite honorable mentions.
This year, we’re doing it all over again. Over the next week and a half, we’ll be revealing our top 10 with one or two new year-in-review essays daily, until we name our No. 1 next Friday (Dec. 16). And just like last year, we’ll also make our picks for Rookie of the Year and Comeback of the Year, which we’ll unveil tomorrow (Dec. 9) before launching into the proper countdown.
But first, a reminder that unlike with our Year-End Charts, we don’t use hard numbers or chart positions to determine these Greatest Pop Stars. They’re important to our determinations, of course — but so are more intangible factors like cultural importance, industry influence and overall omnipresence. (And of course, playing the whole season helps: If you took some months off to start or end of the year, or had a long break in the middle, that’s not helping your MVP argument.)
If you’re joining us for the first time and still don’t quite get what we mean, you’ll understand better once we start counting down. Before that, though: the honorable mentions. These 10 artists still all had huge years, but for whatever reason couldn’t quite get over the hump — because they didn’t cross over quite far enough, because their impact was too contained to the chart metrics, or simply because they didn’t hang around for enough of the year. Here they are, presented in alphabetical order:
Their Year in Pop: Talk about a late-season surge. 21 Savage had an OK first half of 2022, with fun guest appearances on Latto’s “Wheelie” and Pharrell Williams’ “Cash in Cash Out,” and even a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 thanks to his well-received appearance on Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind closer “Jimmy Cooks.” But none of us would’ve considered 21 Savage a Greatest Pop Star contender until November, when he teamed up with Drake for the blockbuster Her Loss album, briefly feuded with Nas (and then quickly reconciled via a collab single), and then stole the show in early December on Metro Boomin’s star-studded Heroes & Villains, with a gleeful verse playing Diddy to The Weeknd’s Mario Winans on breakout cut “Creepin’.”
Why Not Top 10? As many big moments as he had this year, the great majority of them were featured assists or alongside bigger names, without Savage having to do much of the heaviest lifting. If we had a Best Supporting Pop Star distinction, though, it’d be Savage’s to lose — pretty much every year, really.
Their Year in Pop: The biggest girl group in the world had another triumphant year in 2022, topping the Billboard 200 albums chart for the first time in their career with their BORN PINK album, besting the Global 200 songs chart twice (with advance singles “Pink Venom” and “Shut Down”), storming the VMAs stage and continuing to break nearly every YouTube record possible.
Why Not Top 10? Their stateside resumé is still lacking That One Single — the unavoidable hit that lingers around streaming and radio forever, ensuring that even your local librarian knows who they are — but given how little they seem to need that kind of stateside crossover support to keep making pop history, it’s doubtful they’re sweating it much.
Their Year in Pop: Sheeran didn’t release a new album in 2022, but that didn’t stop him from having two of the top 15 songs on our Year-End Hot 100 — with 2021 holdovers “Bad Habits” (No. 13) and “Shivers” (No. 5). But Sheeran’s year was arguably more impressive for the way he spread himself around as a special guest, scoring Hot 100 hits alongside artists from the worlds of rap (Russ’ “Are You Entertained?”), reggaetón (J Balvin’s “Sigue”) and Afrobeats (Fireboy DML’s “Peru”), all while trekking the globe on yet another impossibly lucrative world tour. And lest it be lost to time, let’s not forget there was a Pokémon song in there somewhere, too.
Why Not Top 10? Though Sheeran remains unmissable on radio and one of the world’s biggest live attractions, he doesn’t quite have the same culture-wide impact he did at his mid-’10s peak — particularly during an in-between year, album-wise.
Their Year in Pop: If we cut these rankings off in April, you can bet you’d be seeing Mirabel, Abuela, Luisa, Pepa, Félix, Bruno, and the rest of the Family Madrigal in the top 10. For those three months, they were everywhere — including on the charts, where Stephanie Beatriz and Diane Guerrero were suddenly as unavoidable as Dua Lipa and Doja Cat. But also on TikTok, at award shows (with Megan Thee Stallion at the Oscars!), and most of all, at your little cousin’s birthday party, where you’d better believe they had memorized all six parts of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and were just dying to act them all out at once for you.
Why Not Top 10? While the Encanto cast helped fill the void left by the absence of most of our major pop stars early in 2022, eventually those stars returned, and we didn’t hear much from the Family Madrigal again after that.
Their Year in Pop? If you didn’t spend the opening months of 2022 not talking about Bruno, chances are good you instead spent it pushin’ P, as Gunna’s Hot 100 top 10 smash (alongside Future and Young Thug) gave the year its first great pop catchphrase. Acclaimed parent album DS4Ever also debuted at No. 1 — even beating out Dawn FM, the much-anticipated new set from 2021’s sixth-greatest pop star — and earned Gunna a music guest spot on SNL in April.
Why Not Top 10? Unfortunately, what was looking like a true level-up year for the rapper born Sergio Kitchens was cut short in May, when he was arrested (along with Young Thug) on a controversial RICO indictment — for which he’s still in jail, as he awaits his January trial.
Their Year in Pop: Every year, Latin pop star Karol G burrows her way a little further into the U.S. pop mainstream. Though she didn’t release an album in 2022, she did release three singles — “MAMIII” with Becky G, “Provenza” and “Gatúbela” with Maldy — all of which debuted in the Hot 100’s top 40, with “MAMIII” becoming her highest-peaking hit to date (No. 15). That song also won hot Latin song of the year, vocal event at the 2022 Billboard Latin Music Awards — one of three awards Karol picked up on the night. And you know an artist has reached a level of true stardom when they can make headline news merely by changing the color of their hair.
Why Not Top Ten? A big album to cash in on her crowing pop clout would certainly help her case, as would a crossover single on American top 40 radio — though as a Latin star you’ll see in our top 10 has shown, the latter’s not necessarily a pre-requisite for stateside superstardom anymore.
Their Year in Pop: For about two weeks in May, the country belonged to Kendrick, as his long-awaited comeback (following the twin triumphs of 2017’s DAMN. and 2018’s Black Panther soundtrack) was trumpeted first with the release of “The Heart Part 5,” a Marvin Gaye-interpolating one-off with an jaw-dropping, deepfaking music video that instantly took over the internet. Then five days later, he made his full return with fifth album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, drawing rave reviews and debuting atop the Billboard 200 (while simultaneously charting each of its 18 tracks on the Hot 100).
Why Not Top 10? Neither Mr. Morale nor any of its cuts stuck around the culture the way Lamar’s last two efforts and their accompanying hits did. But it’s hardly been forgotten about — Lamar earned eight nominations for the 2023 Grammys, while Mr. Morale and its lead single “N95” finished in the top 10 of our staff’s year-end albums and songs lists, respectively.
Their Year in Pop: Lil Baby notched a staggering 39 titles on the Hot 100 this year — a tally that nonetheless basically registers as light work for one of the most prolific major rappers of the 2020s. Most of those of course came from his Billboard 200-topping October effort It’s Only Me, though he also scored big hits in support of DJ Khaled (“Stayin’ Alive”), SleazyWorldGo (the “Sleazy Flow” remix) and even Ed Sheeran (the “2step” remix), while also notching a pair of big debuts alongside Nicki Minaj early in the year — including the No. 2-bowing “Do We Have a Problem,” tying for the highest Hot 100 peak of his career.
Why Not Top 10? Despite the dozens of Hot 100 visits, Lil Baby didn’t have a single quite as unavoidable as his My Turn-era 2020 hits “Emotionally Scarred,” “The Bigger Picture” or “We Paid” this year, as the buzz around It’s Only Me faded much quicker than for its predecessor.
Their Year in Pop: One of the breakout stars of 2021, thanks largely to her star-marking turn on Wizkid’s global smash “Essence,” Nigerian singer-songwriter Tems defied the odds by having an even bigger 2022 — without even releasing any new music of her own outside of a Bob Marley cover for the Wakanda Forever soundtrack. Still, she appeared on one of the year’s biggest hits when Future sampled her 2020 From Broken Ears cut “Higher” for his own Hot 100-topping “Wait for U” — even scoring her an artist credit on the track — and also earned her first major solo hit when TikTok (and eventually R&B radio) resurrected her “Free Mind,” from the same 2020 EP. You know you’ve got the juice when Queen Bey is calling you in as one of just a handful of featured guests on her new album, with the legendary Grace Jones as a co-star, no less.
Why Not Top 10? She’s still yet to even release an official full-length debut — so we’ll have to see how the Afrobeats sensation fares when all eyes are on her for actual brand-new music of her own.
Their Year in Pop: While The Weeknd’s March 2020 LP After Hours was such a blockbuster that he was still enjoying its victory lap well into 2021, this January’s Dawn FM did not have quite the same reach or endurance. But critics were kinder to the album than the masses (it finished in the top 10 of the Billboard staff’s year-end ranking), and we still saw plenty of Abel this year between his long-awaited After Hours til Dawn stadium tour, a series of typically eye-popping Dawn FM visuals, and the TikTok and radio resurrection of 2016 Starboy cut “Die for You,” a bigger chart hit than anything he actually released in 2022. (And his year’s not over yet: Next week, he’ll debut “Nothing Is Lost (You Give Me Strength),” his Swedish House Mafia-co-produced theme to the much-anticipated Avatar: The Way of Water.)
Why Not Top 10? After a year where you play the Super Bowl and celebrate having the biggest Hot 100 hit of all-time, there might just be nowhere to go but down.