Who is Miley Cyrus? It’s one of the most compelling pop-culture mysteries of our time. Is she a vibrant musical chameleon keenly aware of her faults and contradictions? Or a kind of sonic bloodsucker, dipping gracelessly into genres she doesn’t fully understand? Over the course of her fame – all 14 years of it, though it feels somehow both longer and shorter than that – she’s been accused of all of the above. Even Cyrus probably doesn’t know the truth.
What is clear is that the 28-year-old has one of the most fascinating discographies in modern music. It’s one that absorbs dozens of different modes and genres, and conveniently charts the ebbs and flows of the Top 40 over the last two decades. Except when it doesn’t at all, Cyrus pivoting into wild experiments with admirable bravery.
As Cyrus releases her seventh album, titled Plastic Hearts and featuring collaborations with everyone from Dua Lipa to Billy Idol, we’ve ranked her 10 greatest songs so far.
10. Party in the USA
If you can get past the fact that background vocals from co-writer Jessie J are repeatedly, insistently clawing their way through the mix, “Party in the USA” is an undeniable pop classic. Full of breezy 2009 whimsy, it feels like an anthem for adolescent joy.
9. Rooting for My Baby
Cyrus’s 2013 album Bangerz, which propelled her into chart legitimacy and a firestorm of bad press, was a garish act of hip-hop cosplay that has aged like milk. The tracks that work, though, predict much of where she would end up. “Rooting for My Baby”, buried at the end of a messy album, is a quasi-torch song about romantic toxicity, with Cyrus delivering quivering vocals over a simple guitar courtesy of producer Pharrell Williams.
8. Start All Over
Cyrus’s early Hannah Montana pop career, which somehow stretched to eight albums as her Disney Channel alter ego, is full of unrelenting cheese only to be enjoyed for semi-ironic nostalgia purposes. Then there’s “Start All Over”, a genuinely great pop-punk number co-written by cult Avril-spawn Fefe Dobson. It has a gloriously bratty energy that brings to mind vintage Lindsay Lohan records. Which is a good thing, thank you very much.
7. Younger Now
“Younger Now” begins with heavy rainfall and a frog croaking, kicking off an album of the same name that traded in hip-hop for earthy folk-rock. The 2017 record was a polarising left-turn for critics and fans, as well as being a commercial disaster. Its title track is an undeniable highlight, though, as Cyrus looks back on her various guises over the years with a mature, content appreciation.
6. Adore You
The opening track on Bangerz is far more subtle than much of what follows. It is sweeping and romantic, celebrating a new love, with Oren Yoel’s production full of melodramatic Fiona Apple-like drums and cascading piano notes. That Cyrus made a video for it designed to look like a leaked sex tape is so hilarious, so nonsensical, and so 2013 Miley.
5. BB Talk
A proper curveball of a track, one that sticks out even on an album of wacky psychedelia, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz (2015) was the result of Cyrus’s collaborations with Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, and it sparkles with the confusing haziness of a smoky hotbox. Standout track “BB Talk” takes the form of a rambling stream of consciousness spoken over romantic strings, Cyrus monologuing about a boyfriend being far too cutesy for her to handle.
4. Slide Away
A gorgeous ode to finally snapping out of romantic denial, “Slide Away” was inspired by Cyrus’s divorce from actor Liam Hemsworth. Her voice is melancholy and tender, but it is the production that makes it – lush strings, vocals that seem to fold over one another, and background chatter that calls to mind late-1990s Janet Jackson.
3. Mother’s Daughter
A spooky triumph that kicked off Cyrus’s 2019 EP She is Coming, “Mother’s Daughter” is essentially Bangerz done right. It sparkles with knowing wit (“I’m nasty, I’m evil / Must be something in the water, or that I’m my mother’s daughter”), feels personal rather than performative, and its production is full of churning synths and subtle hip-hop drums.
2. Midnight Sky
Cyrus’s latest transformation comes with a mullet and Debbie Harry’s blood-red lipstick. “Midnight Sky”, a sensual bit of synth-pop from Plastic Hearts, owes much of its genius to its interpolation of Stevie Nicks’s “Edge of Seventeen”, but it’s also a testament to Cyrus finding herself musically. Her vocals are wonderfully scratchy, she sounds powerful and defiant, and there’s finally a wonderful symmetry between Cyrus’s lyricism, her vocal power and her undeniable showmanship – before this, they often tended to feel at odds.
1. Wrecking Ball
Never has a title been more appropriate. “Wrecking Ball” is a blockbuster of a track, a power ballad bursting with grief and rage. It’s also Cyrus through and through, from that elegant tussle between quiet tenderness and dramatic bombast to the gleeful provocation of its video. It makes no sense that Cyrus is seductively licking hammers while crying over a relationship, but is it even a Miley Cyrus track if you’re not left slightly confused?