There are some things that are undeniably American: baseball, fireworks on the Fourth of July, and Miley Cyrus. From America’s Sweetheart to America’s Nightmare to the latest mastering of subverting Americana iconography, Miley Cyrus has been a kaleidoscopic mirror to American society since 2006. Nearly two decades ago, Miley Cyrus captured the hearts of millions of kids, topped the Billboard 200, and launched a gold mine for Disney with the debut of Hannah Montana. The show, which centered on a regular teen named Miley Stewart who lived a double life as a pop star named Hannah Montana, has both defined Miley and threatened to box her into a hyperspecific brand of pop stardom. The electro-rock rush of much of 2020’s Plastic Hearts finds its roots in Hannah Montana soundtrack songs like “Rock Star” and “Nobody’s Perfect,” and the entirety of Bangerz and Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz exist in direct opposition to the saccharine cookie-cutter teen pop gloss of the Hannah brand. In “Best of Both Worlds,” the show’s theme song, Miley sings, “Mix it all together and you know that it’s the best of both— / You know the best of both worlds.” In a way, this has been the governing mantra for most of Miley’s career.
Instead of straddling the line between teen pop idol and provocateur extraordinaire, Miley now seeks to straddle all of the different musical worlds that tug at her heartstrings. Following in the footsteps of Madonna, the Queen of Pop Metamorphosis, Miley transforms into a new iteration of herself with every album, but each new version of Miley builds on the previous one. From the reflective country-inflected pop balladry of Younger Now to the hip-hop-indebted psychedelic sleaze of She Is Coming, Miley has always made it her mission to expand her musical boundaries. In Miley’s discography, rousing covers of rock and roll classics (take her stunning version of The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” for example) sit next to country-rap fusions like the Nelly-assisted “4×4” and the brain-melting acid trip that is “Tangerine.” The most fearless pop star of her time, Miley’s range is vast and her commitment to exploration is second to none.
With the imminent release (Jan. 13) of “Flowers,” the lead single from her forthcoming Endless Summer Vacation album, it’s time to reflect on 40 of Miley Cyrus’ best songs.
40. “He Could Be The One” (from Hannah Montana 3)
When you’re snagging Top 10 entries on the Hot 100 with a soundtrack single under the name of a television character, you know you’re built different. An instant standout from the third Hannah Montana soundtrack, “He Could Be The One” combines all of Miley’s formative musical influences. Rollicking guitars, an earworm Top 40 radio-ready melody, and a dash of country twang coalesce to create the kind of lovestruck ditty that rises above the typical soundtrack fluff. The song’s Shania Twain-esque approach to country-pop would inform Miley’s future forays into that realm, but, ultimately, “He Could Be The One” stands on its own as not only a top-tier Hannah Montana track, but also as a premiere 2000s Disney soundtrack song.
39. “Week Without You” (from Younger Now)
This promotional single from Miley’s criminally misunderstood Younger Now album deserves its flowers. Markedly more country in composition than the tastes of Younger Now that preceded it, “Week Without You” finds Miley nursing the tantalizing idea of a breakup. With references to her “blue jeans” and a rallying cry to “gather all her girls,” Miley consciously leans into more conservative imagery to counterbalance the lawlessness of Bangerz and Dead Petz. “Week Without You” also pairs delicate guitar strums with doo-wop-inspired backing harmonies that add a sense of quiet melancholy to Miley’s lyrical explorations of breaking free from a relationship that has left her in shackles. “Malibu” (understandably) soaks up most of the attention people give Younger Now, but pour one out for “Week Without You” as well!
38. “Do My Thang” (from Bangerz)
With Miley’s sole Hot 100 chart-topper (“Wrecking Ball”) and Grammy nomination (Best Pop Vocal Album, 2015) to its name, it’s hard to act as if Bangerz is underrated. Nonetheless, seven years have passed since the album debuted atop the Billboard 200, and conversations about the record rarely focus on how consistent of an album it is. Sandwiched in between mammoth singles are tracks like “Do My Thang” — an unabashed ode to the glittery grime of pop culture’s shiniest late-2000s party girls. Miley switches from hilariously awkward rapping to unsuspecting belts over a boisterous will.i.am beat, ultimately creating a glorious hot mess befitting of a true messy party girl. What ties together this mélange of foreboding EDM synths and trap kick drums, however, is Miley’s vocal performance. She’s committed to the bit for the whole song. The whole second verse is Ke$ha (with the dollar sign) in the best way, and you just can’t beat that!
37. “Party Up The Street (Feat. Swae Lee & Mike WiLL Made-It)” (from She Is Coming)
This summery collaboration with Swae Lee finds Miley updating her hip-hop experimentations with the psychedelic feel of her Dead Petz project. The song’s sparse, bouncy production leaves ample room for Miley and Swae to explore different sections of the party night emotional spectrum. Sometimes there are glimmers of hope as the pair prepare to “rock like an ocean wave,” but there are also moments of gloom as they ponder “what happens after dark.” That subtle darkness gives “Party Up the Street” the emotional anchor its zig-zagging lyrics need. Yet another product of a Mike WiLL Made-It link-up, “Party Up The Street” is also proof that the Atlanta superproducer is far and away Miley’s strongest and most consistent collaborator behind the boards.
36. “Prisoner (Feat. Dua Lipa)” (from Plastic Hearts)
On paper, a duet between Miley Cyrus and Dua Lipa that interpolates Olivia Newton-John’s seminal “Physical” should be a smash. Despite a relatively measly Hot 100 peak of No. 54, “Prisoner” still feels like a smash. The beauty of “Prisoner” lies in its deceptive simplicity. In between every repetition of that pristine hook, Miley packs in allusions to some of her most heart-wrenching songs (“Slide Away”) and muses of the emotional, mental, semi-literal prisons we faced during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dua’s sultry tone is a natural complement to Miley’s husky delivery, and the song’s production is the perfect bridge between the disco-influenced ’80s synthpop of Dua’s Future Nostalgia and the late-’70s rock of Miley’s own Plastic Hearts. Miley has a healthy amount of collaborations in her discography, and “Prisoner” easily ranks among the best.
35. “Karen Don’t Be Sad” (from Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz)
Thankfully, this song arrived a few years before the name “Karen” became completely synonymous with blonde bob cut-sporting white women that wield institutional racism to their advantage in the face of any minor inconvenience. Instead, “Karen Don’t Be Sad” is Miley’s “Hey Jude.” A hazy tear-streaked ballad that finds her forlorn voice drenched in reverb, “Karen Don’t Be Sad” is a breathtaking message of hope. “So, Karen don’t be sad / They’re just a bunch of fools / And you can make them powerless / Don’t let them make the rules,” she croons. It’s an arresting vocal performance that accents the track’s sweeping guitar melody with voice cracks and a tone that drips with weariness. Whether you take “Karen” as Miley singing to herself in the face of some of her career’s most tumultuous years or as Miley taking cues from The Flaming Lips’ psychedelic phantasmagoria, the song remains a stunner.
34. “The Driveway” (from Breakout)
Breakout is always an interesting Miley record to reflect on because it is simultaneously her second studio album and her first album to be completely unaffiliated with the Hannah Montana brand and image. Although Miley wouldn’t officially retire the blonde wig until the series finale in 2011, Breakout was the first substantial leap at identifying what Miley’s artistic and sonic profile would be. “The Driveway,” with its relationship-minded lyrics and pop-rock gusto, laid the foundation for many of the sounds and themes Miley would revisit nearly a decade later on Plastic Hearts. Her nasally vocal performance immediately situates the song in the legacy of the greatest pop-rock ruminations on breakups, and the way the chugging bridge grows into the final chorus’ cathartic release is simply masterful. “The Driveway,” and much of Breakout, strikes the same chord that Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” did — a song that can successfully convey teenage heartbreak and angst in a way that feels current for younger listeners and nostalgic for older audiences.
33. “My Darlin’” (Feat. Future) (from Bangerz)
That 2012-2015 era gave us some of Future’s greatest R&B moments, and this duet off of Bangerz ranks high among them. Admittedly, the song sounds like a disaster from a conceptual standpoint. A 2013 Miley Cyrus joining forces with Future for a reflective Auto-Tuned R&B ballad that interpolates Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me?” Huh? And yet, it works. The pair grieve the deterioration of a relationship with lyrics that range from pictorial (“I walked through a puddle of water / When I seen the shadow of a broken-hearted girl”) to downright silly (“’Cause we gon’ make a movie, a movie / And it’s gon’ be in 3D, in 3D”). Mike WiLL Made-It, again, cooks up the perfect soundscape for Miley to color with her expressive vocals. Bits of her country twang shine through the downcast piano and murky drums, adding yet another set of influences to the track’s production. “My Darlin’” is the kind of song that could have only come to fruition in 2013, and thank heavens it did.
32. “Lighter” (from Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz)
Sitting somewhere between the languid delivery of Lana Del Rey and the effervescent punch of ’80s pop production lies “Lighter.” The fifteenth track on Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz is a heartfelt tribute to Miley’s other half. Here, Miley rolls up her lyrics with marijuana metaphors and sparks them with a vocal that recalls the airiness of a doe-eyed cannabis high. Ever-increasing intensity is the name of the game on “Lighter.” Whenever she’s with her special person, Miley wants to drive “faster,” turn the radio “louder,” “roll another one,” and “get higher.” With lyrics like “You gotta leave it up to someone else to know how beautiful you really are, baby / We never get to see ourselves sleeping peacefully next to the ones that we love,” “Lighter” may initially appear to fit comfortably in the “unconditional love” lane of pop songs, but Mike WiLL’s sparse, ethereal production swings the whole affair completely off the beaten path.
31. “Thinkin’” (from Younger Now)
If Younger Now was Miley’s conscious pivot into the comfort of conservative Americana aesthetics, then “Thinkin’” was her brief return to Hannah Montana’s sugary pop-rock confections. With groovy drums and a hook that’s so catchy it’s just short of annoying, “Thinkin’” feels familiar. It’s the kind of palatable pop ditty that helped Miley rise to fame, but in the context of Younger Now, it’s an intriguing moment of subversion. The track’s peppy melody implies a more jubilant song than the one Miley ends up singing. She chronicles her suspicions of her partner’s infidelity through dizzying repetition that eventually builds to the song’s closing refrain of “all I do is think about you.” Is Miley still simply lovestruck, or do her suspicions have her actually losing her mind? That level of ambiguity molds “Thinkin’” into something much more fruitful than a Hannah callback.
30. “Malibu” (from Younger Now)
As the lead single and sole Top 10 hit from Younger Now, it’s clear to see why the song became such a fan favorite and commercial success. In typical Miley fashion, “Malibu” shocked us upon release because it eschewed Miley’s previous shock tactics. “Malibu” is a blithe guitar-laden ode to reuniting with an old flame after undergoing some major personal growth. There are no references to molly or sweaty bodies here, just the calmness of the beach and the carefree sunniness of Malibu. Named after the city her Hannah Montana character moved to at the very beginning of the series, “Malibu” effectively began to transition Miley into a more mellow artist while simultaneously showcasing a lighter side to her vocals. From the thumping handclaps to the earnest upper harmonies in the background, “Malibu” is perhaps the most tender radio single in Miley’s discography.
29. “#GETITRIGHT” (from Bangerz)
Just as instrumental to Miley’s Bangerz-era sound as Mike WiLL Made-It was none other than Pharrell Williams. With production credits on four of the album’s tracks, Pharrell’s percussive soundscapes provided yet another playground for Miley’s boundless voice. Tucked away as the eighth track on Bangerz, “#GETITRIGHT” is a straightforward sex-minded funk jam. Whistles, groovy guitars, a slightly raspy vocal performance packed with smartly placed riffs, and a quirky spoken word interlude all work together to produce one of Miley’s all-time greatest pop songs. Pharrell’s meticulous song structures make each section of the track hook-worthy in their own right, but it’s Miley’s trademark southern drawl that adds the right color to the track. It’s easy to write off “#GETITRIGHT” as Miley’s obligatory grown and sexy song, but there’s no denying that it is, in fact, a damn good obligatory grown and sexy song! Oh, and let’s not forget this lyric: “You make flowers grow under my bed.” What did I tell y’all about each new version of Miley being informed by all of her previous eras?!
28. “These Four Walls” (from Breakout)
If there’s anything certain in this world, it’s that Miley Cyrus is going to deliver an excellent ballad. From her Hannah Montana days to the soaring ballads of Plastic Hearts, Miley has never had any issue delivering ballads that contain heartfelt lyrics and bombastic vocal performances. This selection from Miley’s second studio album remains one of her most moving vocals over a decade later. With a sweeping melody tailor-made for arenas, “These Four Walls” find Miley exploring the cracks in her relationship and the aftermath of that romance’s demise. At this point in time, Miley hadn’t completely grown into her voice yet. The moments where her voice gets a bit whiny are what helps the track so expertly encapsulate the absolute devastation of teenage heartbreak. Just think of how insane this song would sound if Miley were to perform it today!
27. “Gimme What I Want” (from Plastic Hearts)
Miley is no stranger to Nine Inch Nails (more on that later), so hearing the band’s influence rear its head on “Gimme What I Want” should come as no surprise. This Plastic Hearts standout is as reliant on industrial influences as it is on hints of electro-rock and pop-punk. With backing vocals from Majid Jordan and an eerie composition that marries bass, drums, keyboards, and guitar, “Gimme What I Want” finds Miley striking gold with some new collaborators. The song recalls the zany pop-rock of “Fly On The Wall,” but with the power of Miley’s matured voice. She finally has the grit and gruffness required to truly sell the rock side of pop-rock, and her songwriting has also gotten sharper. So, when she plays with enjambment to conjure up multiple meanings for a single word with the line “So gimme what I want or I’ll give it to my / Self-inflicted torture, you don’t have to ask,” it’s obvious that this is a Miley who has leveled up.
26. “Hoedown Throwdown” (from Hannah Montana: The Movie)
Before Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus (yes, Miley’s daddy) scored a monopoly over elementary school kids with “Old Town Road,” Miley held that spot with “Hoedown Throwdown.” A country/hip-hop fusion line dance that could still pop off on TikTok at any given moment, “Hoedown Throwdown” is the kind of delightfully fun dance song that truly understands the essence of dance. Dance is movement, movement is freedom, and freedom is joy. From sing-songy onomatopoeia (“Boom boom clap, boom di-clap di-clap”) to goofy instructions to “pop it, lock it, polka dot-it,” “Hoedown Throwdown” is irresistible. Like any instructional dance song, the track needs a charming leader to drive it home to the masses. With her adorable country-rap stylings, Miley certainly rises to the occasion.
25. “Unholy” (from She Is Coming)
Sam Smith and Kim Petras may have taken their own “Unholy” to the top of the Hot 100 at the end of 2022, but Miley gifted us her own “Unholy” three years prior. The second track on her 2019 She Is Coming EP, “Unholy” isn’t as sexual as Sam and Kim’s Grammy-nominated duet, but it is unsuspectingly somber. “I’m a little drunk, I know it / I’ma get high as hell / I’m a little bit unholy / So what? So is everyone else,” Miley muses. For Miley, “unholiness” is the thing that ties us all together. She assumes the role of the party girl on the come down, working her way through a hangover haze and facing the inherent messiness of life head-on. Elements of rock, trap, and R&B fuse to create a song that veers away from traditional song structures and towards ruminations on the messy path to peace.
24. “When I Look At You” (from The Time of Our Lives)
Originally conceived as a transitional EP to lead into Can’t Be Tamed, The Time of Our Lives ended up housing not just one, but two of Miley’s best songs to date. “When I Look At You,” a gorgeous ballad co-written by three-time Grammy-winner Hillary Lindsey, is easy proof of Miley’s versatility. Miley may not be the first name to come to mind when you think of power ballads from romance movies, but “When I Look At You” should put her in that conversation more often. Easily one of her most lyrically mature songs at the time, “When I Look At You,” finds Miley truly coming into her own as a vocalist. Again, country music proves itself a formative influence on Miley’s sound as her drawl pairs well with the dramatic electric guitar solo in the bridge. Shmaltzy ballads might be an acquired taste for some, but from the sweeping crescendos of the song’s bridge to the generally excellent pacing, “When I Look At You” is a winner.
23. “Pablow The Blowfish” (from Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz)
Miley has been singing about her dead pets since Breakout (check out “Bottom Of The Ocean”), but “Pablow” is easily her strongest tribute to one of her fallen friends. With Miley, it’s all about the voice. “You never been on land, and you never seen the sky / You don’t know what a cloud is / Why does everything I love have to die” and “watching my friends eat my friends, ruined my appetite” are absolutely hilarious lyrics, but when you hear them sung through Miley’s tear-strained voice all chuckles cease. Singing about grief in any capacity is a difficult endeavor, and Miley pours her heart out in this riveting vocal performance. That’s because this song isn’t just about a dead blowfish, it’s about the love Miley had for Pablow and the place that he held in her heart and life. When she breaks down in tears by the track’s end, not for one second does it feel like a cheap ploy to drive up the song’s emotional stakes — it’s just someone letting their guard down and allowing their grief to wash over them, regardless of who is watching or listening.
22. “On a Roll” (from Black Mirror)
We joke all the time about how ironic it is that Miley’s fake song for a Black Mirror episode centered on the sinister capitalistic underbelly of the music recording industry ended up being a legitimate chart hit. That’s all well and true, but the honest truth is that “On a Roll” is simply an undeniable hit! Whether Miley’s take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like A Hole” stays true to its hair-raising rock roots or dives headfirst into cloying dance-pop, it always bangs. Between that mondegreen of a chorus (she’s singing “Hey yeah woah-ho,” not “Hey, I’m a hoe…” or is she?) and a vocal performance that takes notes from the spunky idiosyncrasies of late-90s Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera songs, “On a Roll” succeeds at every level. It’s damn good musical addition to the episode’s story, it’s a smart and unexpected rework of a Nine Inch Nails classic, and it’s a smart touchpoint to evaluate the trajectory of Miley’s career. What more could you ask for? Everyone say, “thank you, Ashley O!”
21. “We Can’t Stop” (from Bangerz)
Here it is, the song that kick-started the Miley Cyrus renaissance. No one was prepared for the firestorm of foam fingers and laughably bad twerking that would follow the release of “We Can’t Stop,” and that was half the fun of that era. A brazen party song that pays tribute to that feeling of invincibility that comes with a memorable night out, “We Can’t Stop” is undoubtedly one of the most important songs of Miley’s career. Not only is it the track that once again made her viable pop star after her public image went up in flames, but it’s also the song that reminded us that Miley makes great pop music. That “la da di da di” pre-chorus coupled with the call-and-response bridge made for one of the most enthralling pop songs of the last decade. Every part of the song is a hook without feeling like they were all crafted to be hooks, and that’s the best kind of pop song.
20. “High” (from Plastic Hearts)
Miley + country music influences + a ballad = how can you go wrong? You can’t! This standout ballad from Plastic Hearts shifts Miley’s perspective from literal drug use to constant intoxication by way of a toxic lover. “And in my head, I did my very best saying goodbye, goodbye / And I don’t miss you, but I think of you and don’t know why / I still feel high,” she belts. The song’s bucolic instrumentation and heartbroken harmonies pair perfectly. Miley’s voice may soar with new levels of power, but it never feels like she’s doing too much on this song. She keeps the song’s first verse and chorus relatively quiet before gradually building into roaring belts at its end. “High’s” lyrical simplicity is, perhaps, its greatest asset. Miley truly allows her voice to take center stage, and her charisma as a storyteller and performer do all of the heavy lifting.
19. “Dooo It!” (from Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz)
When Miley first performed this lead single from Dead Petz at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, she brought along dozens of RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants and The Flaming Lips for what can only be described as a sparkly, besmirched, and debaucherous celebration of hedonism and freedom. “Yeah, I smoke pot / Yeah, I love peace / But I don’t give a fuck / I ain’t no hippy,” she chants over The Flaming Lips’ trippy production. Oh, Miley, ever the beacon of counterculture. “Dooo It” is a premiere anti-pop moment from one of America’s most impactful pop stars. The song rejects traditional Top 40 song structures, sputters its way through acid-soaked reflections on the universe, and carries with it a feeling of boundless love and hope for brighter days. “Dooo It” is Miley at her most stubborn and non-conformist; her outright refusal to play the pop music game just one record after returning as one of the reigning forces in the genre is too good not to herald. Beyond what the song represented for Miley, it’s also a flat-out jam. Take a listen to those haunting synths or her barely intelligible enunciation, for example. It’s a vibe!
18. “See You Again” (from Meet Miley Cyrus)
Artists and their teams don’t always get the debut single right, but that’s not always a death sentence. Luckily for Miley, “See You Again” was a masterful debut single, and it remains one to this day. This dance-rock masterpiece immediately offered Disney tweens a more urgent energy than any of what the Mouse House had previously given them. From the charismatic way she delivers the “she’s just being Miley” quip to the way she transforms the snarl of the chorus’ “my heart” into a delightfully bratty “oh-whoa-whoa,” Miley was already making smart performance choices on her first proper single. The song’s sultry first verse is suggestive enough without sounding too vulgar or gown, and the youthful quality of Miley’s voice helps accentuate how unapologetically teenaged the whole affair is. Maybe it’s because Miley helped write this song, but “See You Again” has always felt like an authentic stab at conveying the perpetual state of heightened emotion that teenagers live in.
17. “Mother’s Daughter” (from She Is Coming)
Think of “Mother’s Daughter” as a more polished and mature version of “Dooo It.” Miley still warns that we shouldn’t “fuck with her freedom” and that she’s “nasty and evil,” but she’s now sourcing that freedom from her relationship with her mother as opposed to her relationship with drugs. The conversations around Miley have always been political in nature even though a lot of her music wasn’t necessarily political at all. With “Mother’s Daughter,” Miley zeroes in on themes of women empowerment, while the track’s accompanying music video paid tribute to abortion rights activists and the LGBTQIA+ community. The song’s lyrics are rife with religious allusions (“must be something in the water,” “oh my God,” “Hallelujah, I’m a freak, etc.”), and it is that lyrical foundation that pushes Miley into fresh sonic territory which she conquers effortlessly.
16. “Party In The USA” (from The Time Of Our Lives)
If Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is the de facto Halloween anthem and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” owns the Christmas season, then “Party in the U.S.A.” is the official Independence Day song. Sorry, Francis Scott Key and Katy Perry! After all, what’s more American than a song that chronicles the journey from a small town to a big city, immortalizes the pop culture ubiquity of American iconoclasts like Britney Spears and Jay-Z, and replaces specific descriptions of emotion with the all-encompassing “like yeah?” Co-written by Jessie J and produced by Dr. Luke, “Party In The U.S.A,” at its best, is a testament to the utility of the pop music factory line. Sure, the song wasn’t a completely organic creation from Miley’s own mind, but the song simply wouldn’t be what it is without the notes of pop genius that each collaborator brought to the table. Take the nasally ascending melody of “’Cause all I see are stilettos / I guess I never got the memo,” or the rhapsodic release of the thrice-repeated “And a Britney song was on,” for example. The best pop songs bottle the absolute apex of human emotion into bite-sized three or four-minute songs, and that’s exactly what “Party In The U.S.A.” accomplishes.
15. “Fly On The Wall” (from Breakout)
There’s no Plastic Hearts, one of Miley’s most beloved albums, without this little song from Breakout. “Fly On The Wall,” a brilliant mixture of brash electric guitars and a cavalier vocal performance, is an early example of the pop brilliance that Miley has always been capable of. Only a true teen pop queen could so effectively tease the song’s subject in the bridge before launching into wailing “don’t cha’s” in the outro. The song’s ambiguous lyrics could refer to an abusive relationship or to the toxic dynamic paparazzi have with celebrities, particularly minors who are celebrities, and it’s that open-endedness that makes the track so arresting. With a melody slightly reminiscent of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and a music video that pulls inspiration from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “Fly On The Wall” is proof that Miley has always been destined to sit alongside pop music’s greatest chameleons, she just needed to completely break free from Mickey Mouse first.
14. “Adore You” (from Bangerz)
The Bangerz era, as well as the public’s tolerance of Miley’s antics during the time, was on its last legs by the time “Adore You” became the set’s third single. After two consecutive record-breaking era-defining singles, the lush Auto-Tuned balladry of “Adore You” felt a little bit too quiet. Nonetheless, in that quiet lies one of Miley’s most touching songs. With a lovelorn vocal that tracks the borderline hypnotic nature of an all-consuming love, “Adore You” glides through an ornate instrumental that features a sweeping string section and chugging drums. Half of the song’s beauty comes from its placement on Bangerz. As the opening track, “Adore You” is essentially a bait-and-switch that intentionally leaves listeners unprepared for the unbridled chaos that lies ahead. It’s a natural Born To Die byproduct that, by the end of its runtime, grows into something much more singular thanks to Miley’s routinely impressive and emotive vocal performance.
13. “Bad Mood” (from Younger Now)
One of the brighter moments of the Younger Now promotional campaign came during Miley’s performance of “Bad Mood” on Saturday Night Live. The understated performance shifted Miley’s stage show from foam fingers and intoxicated teddy bears to a vocal showcases. When she went in for the kill on that final chorus and rode that glissando up to the soaring “I’ve had enough” belt, Miley entered a new era as a performer and vocalist for the American public — and it couldn’t have happened with a better song. With a dry acoustic guitar that recalls the thump of outlaw country, “Bad Mood” draws an intriguing thematic parallel between a draining relationship and a nomadic cowboy that can never truly settle comfortably in a single place. “Bad Mood” is a simple song, and Miley does simple well. Here, she trades her overproduced Bangerz vocals for a gruffer tone that adds some much-needed body to the song’s uncomplicated lyrics and structure. It’s the best song from Younger Now, and an easy discography highlight.
12. “Can’t Be Tamed” (from Can’t Be Tamed)
Remember when Miley had to issue a statement for simulating a kiss with a female backup dancer during a performance of this song on Britain’s Got Talent? Unfairly embroiled in scandal shortly after its release, “Can’t Be Tamed” is often neglected when we reflect on Miley Cyrus’ best songs. This titular song from her third studio album was Miley’s first attempt to truly shed her Disney image. Was it a clunky attempt? Yes. Did it give us a really good pop song? Also yes. With “Can’t Be Tamed,” Miley pulls from the dance-rock hysteria of “See You Again” and “Fly On The Wall” for a full-body baptism by way of devil-may-care EDM. She belts her way through the song with the gusto of a glam rock short artist while switching up her cadence in the verses to more closely mirror a rap-sung approach. From the hair-raising hook to hint of desperation when she pleads “don’t change me” in the bridge, “Can’t Be Tamed” is just too good.
11. “Midnight Sky” (from Plastic Hearts)
It’s rare for a pop star to choose the perfect lead single, and Miley did exactly that when she unveiled “Midnight Sky” as the first taste of Plastic Hearts. The song perfectly situated Miley in the pandemic-induced synthpop wasteland of 2020 while adequately prepping her audience for her imminent explorations of late ‘70s and early ’80s rock. The electro-dance feel of the song found Miley revisiting familiar sonic territory, but her snarling Stevie Nicks-esque vocal catapulted “Midnight Sky” into an arena few pop songs ever reach. Sleek synths, a focused yet freewheeling vocal, and warbling bass combine for one of the most seamless listening experiences of the young decade. The best part of “Midnight Sky” is that it’s a full-bodied song. Miley rips through a chorus that’s double the length of your average 2020 pop chorus and a bridge that actually grants the song room to grow into a worthy finale. Miley was truly firing on all cylinders with “Midnight Sky.”
10. “Never Be Me” (from Plastic Hearts)
This ‘80s-indebted torch ballad really should be one of Miley’s biggest songs if we’re keeping it a buck. Steeped in Johnny Cash references and straddling the line between rock, country, and pop, “Never Be Me” features one of Miley’s most enthralling vocal performances ever. She employs a slight yodel to her voice as she works her way through the opening verse before eventually delivering a chorus that’s filled with equal parts sorrow and honesty. When it comes to discussing her own role in the trajectory of her relationships, Miley has never been one to present herself as someone she is not. “Never Be Me” finds Miley admitting that she will never be exactly what her partner needs or wants, and she sources the song’s emotional heft from the anguish of that realization. Take the breath before the first “never be me” in the song’s final chorus, for example. She’s not just readying herself for the belt that is to come, she’s also preparing to move beyond this relationship after baring every crevice of her soul to a lover that will never truly be hers.
9. “Maybe” (from ATTENTION: MILEY LIVE)
This cover of Janis Joplin’s version of The Chantel’s 1957 hit, which was tacked on to Mikey’s 2022 live album, is better than all of her viral covers. Yes, that’s including those beloved covers of “Jolene,” “Zombie,” “Heart Of Glass,” and “No Tears Left To Cry.” Fight me! “Maybe,” with all of its snarls of desperation and bluesy rock instrumentation, is the most free Miley has ever sounded while covering a song. In the past, she’s stuck fairly close to the original composition when covering songs, and those have yielded favorable results. With “Maybe,” however, Miley opts for an even more spirited take on Joplin’s brash interpretation of the doo-wop original. She plays around with both her volume and intonation to signal changes in the song’s narrative progression and emotional arc, equally prioritizing her roles as vocalist and storyteller. When she starts to slur her words and wail with reckless abandon as the dizzying guitars and drums clash for dominance, you know you’re listening to someone who will end up as one of the greats.
8. “Nothing Else Matters” (from The Metallica Blacklist)
As well as Miley does simplicity, this cover from The Metallica Blacklist, a 2021 tribute album to Metallica’s Black Album, proves that she sounds just as comfortable over more grandiose instrumentation. Joined by an all-star team comprised of Elton John, Yo-Yo Ma, Watt, Robert Trujillo, and Chad Smith, Miley somersaults through this musical odyssey with the calm cool of a seasoned rock and roll titan. When she warbles “so close, no matter how far” to open the song, Miley could not sound more unlike the teen sensation behind “Ice Cream Freeze” and “Nobody’s Perfect.” She supplements her smoky, gravelly tone with flourishes of sultriness that add new textures to the Metallica classic. In composition, this cover remains relatively close to the original, so it is Miley’s voice, along with twinkling piano from Elton John and pensive cello from Yo-Yo Ma, that breathes new life into “Nothing Else Matters.” It’s a breathtaking performance simply because Miley sounds like a rockstar in her own right. She’s not just emulating vocal motifs from Joan Jett or Dolores O’Riordan, she’s transforming that trademark drawl into one sweeping, thunderous vocal.
7. “Wrecking Ball” (from Bangerz)
It’s hard to explain just how seismic “Wrecking Ball” and its music video were upon release. America’s Sweetheart had transformed into a molly-promoting twerk machine who got butt-ass naked, hopped on a literal wrecking ball, and gave a sledgehammer a good tongue-down in the music video for a heart-crushing ballad about the ill fate of her relationship with Liam Hemsworth. Alright, that was a lot of words, but I swear that’s exactly what happened! Even outside of its instantly iconic imagery, “Wrecking Ball” is a torpedo of a song. Oscillating synths introduce the sparse soundscape and offer a bit of a buffer period before Miley begins to tearfully recount the ways in which her and her lover fought to grow a relationship out of barren land. When her voice comes in for the hook, however, Miley literally comes in like a wrecking ball. Her belts crash against the clamoring production as she works her way through the ridiculously catchy “wre-eh-ck me” that anchors the chorus. But it’s the bridge — the most vulnerable Miley has ever sounded on a record outside of Dead Petz — that makes “Wrecking Ball” a slam dunk. Tear-inducing strings provide a stunning backdrop for Miley’s devastating bridge. “I never meant to start a war / I just wanted you to let me in,” she sings. The solemn lyrics set up a seamless transition into a final chorus that takes advantage of the way the song’s structure juxtaposes quiet moments against the most cantankerous pockets of sound. It’s a perfect pop single.
6. “7 Things” (from Meet Miley Cyrus)
Ah, “7 Things.” The absolute pinnacle of Disney pop-rock and the crown jewel of an era that the channel will never recapture, “7 Things” is an undeniable classic. With percussive “sha’s” that punctuate the primary melodic line and a songwriting track that evolves from things she “hates” about her partner to things that she “likes,” “7 Things” perfectly encapsulates the back-and-forth nature of teenage emotion. Beyond hormones and puberty, everything is magnified and exaggerated during your teenage years. Your first relationship feels more important than a Royal Wedding and the feelings your experience inside of that relationship rack through your body at any given moment like a cartoonish electrical shock. Your teenage years are all about beginning to collect the correct vocabulary to describe feelings and situations that feel foreign. “7 Things” finds Miley bustling along that journey with astute observations like, “You’re vain, your games, you’re insecure / You love me, you like her / You make me laugh, you make me cry / I don’t know which side to buy.” Teen pop-rock has never sounded so authentically teenaged yet so effortlessly timeless.
5. “Drive” (from Bangerz)
By all accounts, “Drive” shouldn’t work. Then again, this is Miley Cyrus we’re talking about. A post-808s & Heartbreak EDM ballad, “Drive” finds Miley wailing across booming synths courtesy of Mike WiLL Made-It and P-Nasty. Miley delivers such an effective vocal on this song that you can almost hear the sound of her heart shattering into a million pieces as her background vocals echo “in the morning” in the first verse. “Drive” is easily the best cut on Bangerz because of how left-field it is. With production that implies partying and subject matter that recalls the most histrionic pop music tear-jerkers, “Drive” is an undeniably odd mixture of the two moods. In that mixture, however, Miley mines the uncomfortable feelings of loss and the agony that comes with reluctantly staying in a relationship that no longer serves your best interests. From the doleful “oohs” in the post-chorus to that bizarrely bleak bridge, “Drive” is just Miley being Miley — and isn’t it glorious?
4. “Angels Like You” (from Plastic Hearts)
By this point, it should be clear that Miley Cyrus is remarkably dependable when it comes to crafting quality ballads. Her latest studio album, Plastic Hearts, housed plenty of excellent ballads, and “Angels Like You” is the best one. Leaning more into the country than rock, “Angels Like You” finds Miley, once again, assuming a role that casts her somewhere between villain and anti-hero. “Angels Like You” is impressive not just because Miley is belting at the top of her range for the bulk of its runtime, but also because of its impeccable pacing. Miley opens and closes the song cooing just slightly above a whisper, but in the interim she soars across the track with upper harmonies that recall the more frantic moments of love disasters and choruses that are soaked with the strain of trying and failing to properly show up for someone that you love. Miley’s vocal reaches further than elementary understandings of emotions. Here, she’s more concerned with evoking incredibly specific moments of love-induced distress that are in dire need of proper catharsis.
3. “The Climb” (from Hannah Montana: The Movie)
“‘The Climb’ is a gospel song” should no longer be a running joke. It’s a real and valid statement. Okay, yes, the song’s composition isn’t straight out of the traditional gospel playbook, but the message of faith that the song carries is just too powerful to ignore. From middle school graduation ceremonies to drunk karaoke nights, “The Climb” has become a cultural staple — and deservedly so. This soundtrack single from Hannah Montana: The Movie smartly pulls from the gospel roots of country music that offerings from the contemporary iteration of the genre too often neglect. From the somber piano notes that open the song to the “keep the faith” outro that really begins to push the track into worship song territory, “The Climb” is a journey. Its lyrical journey of faith echoes throughout the ebb and flow of the production and Miley’s increasingly impassioned belts in the chorus. Inspirational pop ballads are a dime a dozen, but “The Climb” rises heads and shoulders above its peers because of how honest of a vocal performance it is. In fact, “performance” feels like the incorrect word to describe what Miley is doing with “The Climb.” It’s almost as if she’s giving a real-time testimony in these three minutes and fifty-four seconds. How else could a Disney soundtrack song so easily transcend its place of origin?
2. “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart” (from Late Night Feelings)
Before Mark Ronson lent his talents to a number of tracks on Plastic Hearts, he recruited Miley to guest on the lead single from his Late Night Feelings album. With a sleek soundscape that pulls from both country and blue-eyed soul, “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart,” finds Miley meandering through the desolate rubble of a broken relationship. “I heard you on the phone last night / We live and die by pretty lies,” she croons in the song’s first verse. These suspicions of infidelity have been commonplace in Miley’s music for years now, but rarely have they been paired with such sharp songwriting. The song’s greatest lyrical achievement is probably the way Mark and Miley literally spin metaphor out of music. The endless rotation of a spinning vinyl record becomes the most apt descriptor for both an aimless bar junkie and the crushing nature of routine in relationships. By the time this song saw its proper release, Miley’s voice had grown. Here, she’s finally understood how to weld together her drawl, rasp, and improved vocal flexibility into one undeniably singular sound.
1. “Slide Away” (standalone single)
For an artist that has so often dealt in characters and alter egos, it’s fitting that Miley’s best song is her most honest and vulnerable offering to date. Inspired by her separation from then-husband Liam Hemsworth, “Slide Away” remains unlike any other Miley Cyrus song in existence. Instead of playing into the filth of celebrity gossip culture or relying on boring, vindicative lyrical tropes, Miley opts for a devastatingly thorough look at how and why her relationship came to an end. “Move on, we’re not seventeen / I’m not who I used to be / You say that everything changed / You’re right, we’re grown now,” she coos in the song’s outro. “Slide Away” begins with fairytale framing, a choice that shatters the misleading sheen that Hollywood packaging gives to romance and fame, while simultaneously offering a fresh lyrical lens for Miley’s breakup tunes. But “Slide Away” is more than a breakup tune, it’s an anthem of self-reflection. When she proclaims, “I want my house in the hills / Don’t want the whiskey and pills,” that’s Miley finally understanding what she needs from herself and for herself. She’s drawing distinctions between past and present versions of herself, but she’s not lambasting those earlier iterations. There’s a contentment in the way Miley accepts the end of this phase of her life, and it’s all thanks to the serenity and faithfulness that can be traced back to “The Climb.” Chugging guitars and gloomy strings understandably evoke a more bleak state of affairs, but “Slide Away’s” greatest triumph is that small but mighty undercurrent of hope that courses through each and every chord.