We reviewed the back catalogue of one of the biggest names in pop to bring you the ultimate Katy Perry song ranking, from "Hot 'N Cold" to "Firework" and everything in between. Strap in.
In just a few weeks, Katy Perry will release her fifth studio album, Smile. She’s with child (or a mother now, who knows honestly?), she’s engaged for the second time and she is – for the first time – working on an album after a previous one didn’t do the numbers she has been used to since 2008.
On the cover of Smile, Katy dons a clown nose and jester garb. This contrasts starkly to the third eyed spirit on Witness, the light-flared rawness of Prism, the cotton candy goddess of Teenage Dream and the pin-up princess of One Of The Boys. From album to album to album, Perry reinvents herself almost completely. The sounds of each album differ as well, in sound and, frankly, in quality.
With 32 singles under her belt in just over a decade, Perry has experienced soaring highs and dismal lows with her releases. There’s arena-ready bangers, empowering and self-assuring anthems and a slew of well (and poorly) chosen features. Now, with Smile on the horizon, we've taken it upon ourselves to rank every lead single Perry has ever released. We’re not including songs that she’s merely featured on – she must be billed as a lead. We’re also not including anything pre her studio debut – "I Kissed A Girl". The less time we spend on "Ur So Gay", the better.
32. "Harleys In Hawaii"
"I can remember specifically where I was,” Katy once told Zach Sang of the song, “the street corner I was at in Oahu and turning that corner and whispering to Orlando: ‘I'm going to write a song called 'Harleys in Hawaii'.”
That’s all it took to inspire the song, and it sounds like it was never given more thought after that. Big swing and a miss.
31. "This Is How We Do"
Well well well, if it isn’t another deeply problematic Perry hit? Katy has addressed and apologised for the many accusations of cultural appropriation that she was met with following this song and video’s release. Still, this hasn't aged well.
30. "Hey Hey Hey"
The problem with "Hey Hey Hey" is that it tries to be too many things at once. There’s elements of 2010 Katy Perry peppered throughout, with clear sonic similarities to early work of Lorde and later work of Lily Allen. It aspires to reach the soaring heights of "Roar" but falls upsettingly flat. With Max Martin and Sia on co-writing duties, the song might unfortunately be a case of way too many cooks in the kitchen.
29. "Dark Horse" (feat. Juicy J)
"Dark Horse" is one of the more confusing tracks in Perry’s discography. The heavily trap-influenced beat is a departure for her, and something she hasn’t since revisited, and was overall a different sound than what was dominating the charts at the time of its release. The hooks soar and the beat drop is memorable, but it still feels like there’s more to be desired. The mismatch of her brooding vocals and Juicy J’s weirdly placed rap is bizarre. The fact that the single is one of the most accoladed and consumed of Perry’s career is even more puzzling, because she has shown us historically that she has far more to give than what "Dark Horse" offers.
28. "Save As Draft"
One of the major problems with Witness is that it felt full of predominantly filler tracks. While "Save As Draft" is certainly one of those, the way Katy has put a digital spin on the ‘thinking of my ex’ ballad is…something? This is a theme Perry has consistently visited since the beginning of her career (see: "Part Of Me", "One That Got Away", etc..), so – if nothing else – it was refreshing to see her tackle the same issue with a relatively new perspective.
Just too many syllables for a one-word hook. Absolutely way too many.
26. "Con Calma (Remix)" [With Daddy Yankee and feat. Snow]
You can count on one hand the amount of major pop stars that haven’t hopped on a reggaeton track, and it was only a matter of time before Perry got involved. Ultimately, it’s…fine. The sensuality in her voice certainly adds some fire to the original, but it’s still a jarring cultural mismatch. Just because both Perry’s and Daddy Yankee’s careers have been anchored in sun-drench hits, it doesn’t mean that the conjunction of the two was necessary. Alas, this exists now and that’s really all there is to say.
25. "Waking Up In Vegas"
It’s fun and it’s bright, but "Waking Up In Vegas" really falls by the wayside of the three One Of The Boys singles that preceded it. It’s missing an electrifying riff, or a punchy delivery of the final chorus. It has the potential to be an anthem for a night out, but that’s a skill Perry wouldn’t perfect until the release of her next album.
24. "Bon Appetit" (feat. Migos)
Is "Bon Appetit" a mess? Yes. Was the promotion around it confusing and a little scary? Yes. Is it still so chaotic that I actually kind of love it? Yes. Don’t judge me.
23. "Part Of Me"
"Part Of Me" is the type of feminist declaration that would become part of Perry’s M.O., but it still feels a little half-baked. The melody just coasts along without giving us a ‘wow’ moment we’ve come to expect from Perry’s #1 singles. The lyrics lack the strength and impact found in similar singles like "Firework" and "Roar". Not to mention, the music video is 100% some sort of military propaganda and no-one ever talks about it. Ultimately, the song does feel like it might have been cathartic for Perry to sing and to write, but that catharsis just barely translates to the listener.
22. "I Kissed A Girl"
"I Kissed A Girl" is a tricky one. On one hand, the searing guitar strikes that electrify the song’s now iconic chorus are as delicious as the cherry chap-stick Perry sings about. On the other hand, the song’s positioning of Perry as some sort of deviant for kissing a girl is strange at best and homophobic at worst – something Perry has faced criticism for in the years since the track’s release. It’s a shame that this song was our introduction to the absolute entity that is Katy Perry, because it’s one that shouldn’t have happened at all.
It’s the unshakable force that quakes from her voice. It’s the delicate strings that trickle back and forth through the verses. It’s the fortification you feel as the chorus builds up to that powerful climax where Perry is practically screaming before dropping into silence once again. Sure, it’s another Katy Perry power ballad, but Christ is it a good one.
She loves a theme, doesn’t she? The optics of a female empowerment anthem written by Dr. Luke are Not Good At All and "Roar" has suffered as a result. For what it’s worth, though, "Roar" follows the Katy Perry formula and doesn’t divert for a second. Theme of self-confidence? Check. An audible hint of the smile throughout the chorus? Got it. Crisp, feather-light pop melody that is arena-ready? In spades. There’s cheesiness in "Roar", but if you can stomach it, it proves to be one of Perry’s more believable and authentic anthems.
19. "Swish Swish" (feat. Nicki Minaj)
A sonic standout from Witness, it is now global knowledge that the Fatboy Slim-sampling "Swish Swish" was probably written about Taylor Swift. Even though the two have since made amends and are even friends now (bless!), the song still drips with enough venom and hunger for comeuppance that it holds strong. Minaj dominates her verse, as to be expected of her pop collaborations at this point, and the song would’ve fallen flat without it. It’s not exactly a slam dunk of a song, but it’s fun enough that you’re not going to call foul on it either.
18. "Small Talk"
A travesty that this song didn’t make the final cut of Smile. An absolute travesty.
17. "The One That Got Away"
"The One That Got Away" is almost impossible to listen to without thinking of the absolutely devastating and heartbreaking music video. Both are stunning.
16. "Wide Awake"
She’s giving you VOCALS. She’s giving you CRESCENDO. She’s giving you FANTASY. She’s giving you one of her strongest singing moments to date and it is a marvel to behold.
"Smile" might fall into the category of ‘songs that are perfect for the end credits of a teen film’, akin to P!nk’s "Raise Your Glass", but fuck it, who cares? Katy sings of remodelling herself – something she has done both professionally and personally on several occasions – and her happiness with the final result is crystal clear. The song is a joyous expression of gratitude for her blessings and a soft reminder for listeners to try and feel the same. In a world ravaged by a pandemic and societal revolutions, stopping and smiling might feel impossible but Perry on "Smile" makes it achievable, if only for a moment.
It’s a mirror-balled, roller-skating, neon explosion. It tries to balance sexy and goofy, and perhaps it fumbles, but that’s also what makes it so irresistible. When Katy manages to sprinkle her songs with the right amount of tacky, it becomes career-defining. "Birthday" might not be on that tier, but you’ll still go back for a second slice anyway.
13. "Hummingbird Heartbeat"
Teenage Dream is, at heart, a euphoric display of escapist pop. It is packed full of songs that are meant to take you back to a time of freedom, of unobstructed happiness. "Hummingbird Heartbeat" encapsulates that and more. It’s a little cheesy, but the warmth that you can hear in Perry’s voice flows through every extension of your body regardless.
12. "Hot ‘N Cold"
If it’s good enough to soundtrack Masterchef for over a decade, it’s good enough for us.
11. "Chained To The Rhythm" (feat. Skip Marley)
As unfortunate as Witness ultimately was, it still gave us "Chained To The Rhythm". Lyrically it might seem a little contrived and basic-level woke, but the element of subversion the song is cloaked with displays complexity that fans might not have expected from Perry. Sonically Katy is right at home, but thematically she marked new territory with an overtly political message that made for her best song of 2017.
10. "Never Worn White"
Pregnancy reveals in the past few years are getting more extravagant by the day. Beyoncé did it at the VMAs, Cardi did it at SNL, Nicki did it with an elaborate photoshoot courtesy of David LaChapelle. Katy’s reveal was by no means understated, but it was done with a level of elegance and refinery the average music consumer might not have thought she was capable of. Again, her voice is the shining beacon among delicate orchestration as she sings some of her most believably heartfelt lyrics to date. "Never Worn White" sees her ready to say “I Do”, as she displays honesty and vulnerability unparalleled in her career thus far – “Thank God that you were man enough to come / Answer my mamma's prayers.”
9. "365" (with Zedd)
"365" is doomed to an overshadowed existence, coming off the footsteps of Zedd’s work with Alessia Cara on "Stay" and Maren Morris on "The Middle". But "365" also marks a pivotal moment in Katy's career – she starts to sound authentically herself again, even on another person’s track. It dives deep into the pop-house world Perry typically avoids, while also showing a more understated vocal performance which is completely new for her. Most importantly, after an album that is largely considered a misstep in an otherwise stellar run, "365" proved that Perry still has it, and that she was ready to show you so in ways you never might have predicted.
It’s rare that Katy offers up a ballad that is as cinematic as it is powerful. While most of Perry’s self-love and confident tracks are still hook-laden chart toppers above all else, "Rise" sees Katy divert from that path. It’s not her catchiest song, but it envelops you. Her belief in herself even after adversity is palpable and contagious. It has the sort of sensory tidal wave that is usually only found in cinema scores – a song that is meant to entice other senses. And still, Perry’s voice is front and centre. Even when her vocals quiver and falter, strength beams from her like never before.
7. "E.T." (feat. Kanye West)
One of Katy's cornerstone tactics is writing tracks with a very heavy lyrical motif throughout. She did it with food in "Bon Appetit", she did it with summer in "California Gurls", and she does it with everything intergalactic in "E.T". "E.T" feels a little out of Perry’s realm. She’s used autotune and other vocal effects more than she usually does, and the whole track pulsates with subtle eroticism that isn’t really found anywhere else in her discography. (When Katy Perry sings about sex, you know it.) She still finds herself at home here, despite being set in a world light years away.
6. "California Gurls" (feat. Snoop Dogg)
When artists try and go full kitsch, more tacky than tacky, it can go really, awfully, terribly wrong. In fact, it could be argued that Perry herself has fallen victim to the trope. But, if you manage to successfully pull off the tightrope walk between cute and corny, it can lead to an absolute masterclass of pop music. That’s just what Perry achieved with "California Gurls".
The stabbing synths are gooey and sickly sweet, with the scattered slap bass injecting the right amount of crunch. The summery guitar notes glisten throughout the entire song – you can practically hear Katy singing with an ear-wide smile. And, besides being chosen because he’s from the namesake state, Snoop brings the right amount of chill and breeze to what might have been an otherwise overwhelming track. "California Gurls" is a machine with many cogs, and yet they all turn right when they need to.
5. "Thinking Of You"
If we’re honest, Katy Perry is predominantly known for her bubblegum sweet, delectably fun take on pop music. But she can still belt out a ballad that tugs at the heartstrings, and authentically so, too. "Thinking Of You" is the perfect example of that. Singing of a love she has that isn’t the love she’s with, Katy rides the heartbreaking crescendo without fault. The force she crashes into you with that mighty bridge, and the grit with which she yells “oh, won’t you walk through?!” makes for one of the most special moments of Katy's earlier career.
These days, Katy's empowerment anthems are pretty common. You can expect at least three on every album, with one getting the single treatment. That’s part of the Perry production line – but every final product needs its prototype. "Firework" stands out, not just as the first of Perry’s empowerment anthems, but as the empowerment anthem of the millennium. Very few are in the same league. It's a warm hug meant for the marginalised, the bullied, the discriminated against. The violin strums that build through the pre-chorus lead to one of the explosive choruses of Perry’s career, and of the '10s in general.
3. "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)"
What can I say – when Katy's on, she’s all the way on. "Last Friday Night" is a standout on a near-perfect pop album, and was the first real example we have of Perry making fun of herself without seeming like she’s trying too hard (something that would indeed happen later in her career). Complete with the Kenny G sax solo, "Last Friday Night" is still an absolute party playlist must-have 10 years later. But that’s not because of it being a 'throwback' or some inherent nostalgia – it’s because it’s still a fucking awesome pop song. Never before has a hangover sounded so good, and I struggle to believe it’ll sound this good again.
2. "Never Really Over"
Falling in love with an artist all over again after they've lost your interest offers a weird mixture of emotions. You feel hesitant to press play, shocked that you like the track so much, nostalgic for the feeling the artist once gave you and apologetic for turning away from them in the first place. But, above all else, you feel euphoria: your fave is back. And with the release of "Never Really Over", Katy Perry was well and truly back.
Witness seemed like it could be the end of Katy as we knew her, but she skyrocketed back with tenacity and ferocity and an unshakable determination to return to form. "Never Really Over" is the bubblegum Katy of 2010 given a perfect 2019 tint. The absolute bellowing of the pre-chorus immediately followed by the hush tongue-twister of a chorus, backed by stabbing synths makes for not only one of Katy Perry’s best moments in years, but one of pop music’s – full stop. Just when you thought Katy Perry was going to bow out gracefully, she harnessed the volcanic nature that made us fall in love with her all those years and erupted back into our lives once more. Never really over, indeed.
There are Katy Perry songs and there are pop songs. There are Katy Perry masterpieces and there are pop masterpieces. And then, there’s "Teenage Dream".
"Teenage Dream" goes far beyond the realm of what fans and skeptics thought Katy was capable of. It’s the way it booms and soars, the way it transports you to a time you might not have even been alive to experience, the way Perry sings of romance through rose-coloured glasses. "Teenage Dream" is not only the prototype of all Perry songs since its release, but the prototype for pop music generally. Many, including Katy, have tried to replicate the magic and lightning that "Teenage Dream" so effortlessly harnesses, but none even come close.
Despite being anchored in adolescent nostalgia, "Teenage Dream" was a stark and mature turn for Katy. If only for a moment, she’d put the memes and the jokes away to deliver a real, down-to-earth love song. "Teenage Dream" is the wind in your hair, the sun on your skin, the glisten in your shades. It’s the saltwater dripping from your face as you emerge from the water, and it’s the sweat you’re coated with after making love on a balmy January night. It’s all that, and it’s so much more. We might never have another "Teenage Dream" from Perry or from anyone else ever again, but that’s OK – nothing will ever top the original.
Read our full interview with Katy Perry here.
Main Image Credit: Universal Music