Though I consume a lot of K-pop (clearly), I don’t actually spend a lot of time listening to the same songs. I tend to really get into a group’s new single for however long they promote it, and then I file it away and move on to the next track of the week. So although I like plenty of songs, dozens even, there are only about 20-30 that I’ll listen to for extended periods of time beyond that initial release. For me, it’s an effective way to stay a general K-pop fan and check myself from getting overly absorbed into one or two groups. The singles in this section of the list are ones that I really enjoyed throughout the year – though they ultimately didn’t make the Top 10, every single one of them was a contender.
DISCLAIMER: This is a list of my favorite songs of the past year, comprised of my own personal opinions and preferences. It is not a ranking of what I think are the best songs of 2018. The deciding factors were primarily how much I liked the song/dance/music video, how often I listened to the song, how invested I was in the group/their promotion period, and how interested I remained in the song for the rest of the year.
Apink was FINALLY able to properly mature their image after reaching their seventh anniversary and achieving veteran girl group status. Though “I’m So Sick” is technically a breakup song, it’s a fantastically addictive upbeat dance number with a bit of house and retro influence. The ladies were able to successfully transfer from the realm of innocent love songs by giving the song classic Apink touches, like their signature sweet vocals and feminine embellishments in the instrumental arrangement. They’ve always been a group that’s more on the gentle and innocent side of the cute concept, so that lovely elegance easily transforms into a more glamorous look. I was actually getting quite concerned about Apink before this comeback, because I feared that these adult women would be stuck doing cutesy songs like “Five” way after they’d outgrown them. “I’m So Sick” seemed like such a natural shift, like this is what they should have been doing for the last few years. Thankfully, it looks like this is what they’re going to stick with for a while.
Wanna One released an amazingly diverse amount of music during their approximate 18 months together. Each of their songs is intriguing in its own way, but “Boomerang” proved they could stick to the classics. It has all of the basic requirements of a trademark club banger: aggressive beats, catchy hooks, and a fast pace that won’t let up. Even if you don’t know the choreography, your body will just have a natural impulse to move. Since my music tastes were almost completely shaped by various forms of Western pop and hip hop, I tend to have a natural preference for dance jams. So although I appreciate the unique qualities of their other title tracks, “Boomerang” is by far my favorite. It has this exotic flair and luxurious feel that shows a completely different side of Wanna One, a group that ultimately became known for beautifully romantic and sentimental music. I already miss them, but I’ll be cranking up the volume for this song for years to come.
SEVENTEEN is one of those boy groups that’s very heavily marketed as boyfriend material, even outside the standard variety show fan service, and “Oh My” really plays to those strengths. There’s just something so endearing about this pleasant pop tune, and it feels very much like a sweet serenade to a crush. Though the melody is rather low-key for a K-pop song, it’s ridiculously catchy – a shining example of how simple can be better. In the last posts, I wrote about “High School Musical” type songs that mix upbeat pop with eye-catching choreography. SEVENTEEN is actually the master of this style: they mix their flawless dancing skills with natural charm to make it super entertaining. It’s hard to watch it without smiling. Though I’ve always liked SEVENTEEN’s songs, “Oh My” was the one that pushed me from a casual listener to a fan. They’ve always been skilled and innovative, but “Oh My” was the perfect combination of performance and personality that won me over.
I generally don’t include non-promoted singles because this list is usually based on how much time I invest in a group’s comeback. But, I absolutely had to include Girls’ Generation’s new sub-unit – and not just because I listened to it non-stop before finally figuring out there weren’t actually going to be any promotions. (Give the people what they want, SM!!!!) “Lil Touch” is high-class dance pop at its finest, with a tantalizing melody, sophisticated fashion, and sultry choreography. It’s very easy to imagine a Western female solo artist or girl group releasing something similar. One unique element is that it’s set in a noticeably lower register to accomodate what is now an alto majority, resulting in a very classy and mature sound that’s a clear contrast from most high-pitched K-pop girl group songs. I’m the same age as the members of Girls’ Generation, so I often look to them for inspiration and validation in ways that I don’t from younger groups. “Lil Touch” is a wonderful reminder that K-pop isn’t always about teenagers and young adults; veterans of the industry still have plenty of sway.
“Boss” is a powerful track with that “take no prisoners” attitude NCT is often well-known for. Interestingly, it’s more tense rather than outright aggressive. Though it’s not a low-key song by any means, paring down the effects to finger snaps and slightly distorted instrumental hooks gives it a kind of controlled power; there’s a sense that something is constantly simmering under the surface. Though it never boils over, that tautness is immensely satisfying – especially when accompanied by choreography that has military precision. Balancing members can be tricky for NCT, especially when both Mark and Taeyong are involved, but the dynamics work really well here. There’s a nice blend of rap and vocals, and plenty of the alpha male vibe to go around. I’m pretty much a fan of anything NCT does, but “Boss” was a song that I listened to almost the point of the obsession. I found it so mysterious and captivating at the time, which made it the perfect choice to kick off what would be a major year for NCT.
“RBB” is a wild ride: it hits with you everything it’s got, and it never lets up. There’s a strong beat, a jazzy hook, ad-libs galore, and even a scream or two. Red Velvet faced some bumps in the road with “RBB” because of awkward timing and some “red” vs. “velvet” misunderstandings, but the essence of it is pretty on brand when you take all that extra stuff away. It’s bright and bold, which definitely fits the group’s “red” side, and it’s filled with their quirky flair. Seriously, who else could fill their songs with high-pitched screaming – or do a Halloween concept in December – and get away with it? If you’re not feeling the “Thriller” inspired music video, the fierce choreography makes things a bit more conventional. One of the reasons why I like K-pop is because there are a lot of songs that think outside the box. There’s nothing wrong with following the standard earworm formula, but there’s just something fascinating about the tracks that are a bit all over the place. I think listening to “RBB” is like riding a rollercoaster: the first time is chaos, but it’s a lot of fun once you know where it’s going.
Donghae and Eunhyuk are one of the iconic friendships of K-pop, and it’s great to have a comeback that takes advantage of their strong bond and playful energy. “Bout You” is a fun and groovy mix of hip hop, trap, R&B, and house; a sweet “love at first sight” confession that keeps things fresh and light-hearted above all. To be honest, my reasons for liking “Bout You” are super subjective compared to pretty much every other song in my Top 50. I don’t really form personal connections to K-pop songs, but this one ended up being a big reminder of my summer. The music video was filmed in New York days before I actually came face to face with Donghae at KCON, so “Bout You” was always going to be a constant reminder of that encounter. To add to that, D&E dropped their album when I happened to be on vacation in California. I ended up listening to “Bout You” for the first time while I was taking a train ride along the coast. Every time I hear it, I remember looking out the window and seeing sunny blue skies and the sparkling ocean – a perfect memory for such a refreshing summer song.
“Regular” definitely backs up SM’s claims that NCT is meant to be a global group – not just in Asia (which “global” sometimes means in K-pop), but in the West as well. This addictive track expands some familiar instrumental hooks from ever-trendy latin pop to include NCT 127’s signature raps and random but entertaining interjections (looking at you, Taeyong). While it’s very smooth and chic – significantly less experimental than the majority of their music – it’s still brimming with the confidence that’s a key part to shaping their image. “Regular” goes a little overboard on the swag, especially in the amusing English lyrics, but it’s true that the “cool guy factor” translates well. I was basically born and bred on Western pop music, so I can say with confidence that “Regular” is appealing to people who truly enjoy trendy dance music. It’s very familiar territory for Americans, the majority of whom have no exposure to K-pop whatsoever, and a wise choice for breaking into the United States market.
#12: “Shoot Out,” Monsta X
“Shoot Out” is quintessential Monsta X. Hip hop and trap sound? Check. Highly stylized raps? Check. Sexy choreography? Check. Borderline scandalous outfits for Shownu and Wonho? Check and check. Like most of Monsta X’s work, “Shoot Out” is overflowing with powerful energy. It’s in that perfect zone where it’s awesomely chaotic, but it stops just short of being overwhelmingly noisy. It’s as aggressive and in your face as Monsta X’s debut track, but it also has those layers of sensuality that they’ve developed in their music over the years. They’re incredibly comfortable with their image, and it reflects how their style has involved as they mature. I really enjoy songs like “Shoot Out”; if you looked at my favorite song from every boy group, 90% of those songs would probably be trap-heavy dance music. I always count on Monsta X to deliver new dance jams to become addicted to, and they never disappoint.
GOT7 officially entered a new era with the gem that is “Lullaby.” They’ve been experimenting with different genres for a couple of years, but now they’re mixing them together for intricate and intriguing results. “Lullaby” is grounded by GOT7’s smooth vocals, but the layers of synth pop make it funky and whimsical – mirrored by a music video that shows some of their fantastic dreams coming to life. The disco elements are accented by the footwork-heavy choreography as the members alternate between confident swaying and energetic stomping. It’s the closest that GOT7 has come to a classic pop song in years, and I love it. I’ve always been their fan because they were the group that introduced me to K-pop, but I have to admit that my degree of interest changed with each song. I was so excited about “Lullaby” because it’s truly a success for them both financially and creatively. It’s the best reflection of who they are right now: trendy, innovative, colorful, and fun.
MUSIC VIDEO SOURCES: Plan A Entertainment (Apink), JYP Entertainment (GOT7), Pledis Entertainment (SEVENTEEN), SM Entertainment (Super Junior D&E, Girls’ Generation-OH!GG, Red Velvet, NCT U, and NCT 127), Starship Entertainment (Monsta X), Stone Entertainment and YMC Entertainment (Wanna One)
“I’m So Sick” is distributed by 1theK. “Boomerang” is distributed by CJ E&M.