The K-pop tracks of 2018, 50–26

Put your hand in mine / And let’s dance the whole day without any music

An even more overblown and exhaustive run down of everything that made an impression in K-pop this year, after my two-part piece for 2017. It’s been another incredible year, and my tracks of the year list has exploded to match Hope you enjoy!

A Spotify playlist for the whole list is below, so careful with the spoilers for part 2. Make sure to check out the videos and choreography for the tracks too.

50. K/DA — POP/STARS

A demerit to the bottom of the list for only being half-K-pop, but there’s no denying this is an absolute force. ‘POP/STARS’ absolutely nails the present zeitgeist for trap percussion, bold brassy EDM synths, baby-voice effects and a heavy dose of confected badassery. That said, it’s absurd how much personality is brought by the K-pop performers, both of them members of newcomer girl group (G)I-DLE. Miyeon (as nine-tailed fox Ahri) brings all the melodic expansiveness over the airy and strident bridge, flicking effortlessly between Korean and English, while the absolute showstopper is Soyeon (as graffiti artist/ninja Akali) who exudes venom and power on her long, technical and brutal rap verse. The track has become a phenomenon for obvious reasons — it launched stunning designs for cool characters from the most popular video game in the world with Super Bowl level production values. As much as it’s a media-culture moment though, it’s still the release of pop single that needs the guts and confidence to carry that vast vision though. Luckily, ‘POP/STAR’ delivers it in spades.

49. ASTRO — Always You

The archetype sad-boy-group song, almost stunning in its conformity to every expected trope. It’s a good thing the driving synth lines are as incessant and powerful as they are trite. A spiritual successor to tracks like Seventeen’s ‘Don’t Wanna Cry’, and only some strained vocal performances keep it from that level of esteem.

48. PENTAGON — Naughty Boy (청개구리)

The Korean title ‘cheonggaeguri’, translated literally to green frog, is a colloquialism for, as the English title suggests, a disobedient kid, hence the iconic and horrendously cute frog dance. At the same time, the wordplay throughout the track is cheeky, lighthearted and adds a complexity that the track’s lighthearted, bouncy sound hides. More than a little ironic how achieving love despite a rebellious nature and disobedience to those in authority is the main thrust of Pentagon’s first track post E’Dawn’s departure for, uh, achieving love amid disobedience to the group’s paymasters.

47. Kim Dong Han — Sunset

Someone heard Taemin’s album last year. Pacy, pulsating and dark, ‘Sunset’ plays from exactly the same textbook as ‘Move’. It’s not quite as successful it has to be said — the bassline is scratchy and lacking in some needed weight, and the bridge bottles its restaint with searing saw pads, a bit of a sop to trends that might be expected for an emerging artist. At the same time, the phrases in the verses and chorus are luxuriously long and let an impressive vocal performance roll out. If his future songwriting is similarly adventurous, he’s certainly capable of matching its level.

46. BoA — Nega Dola

She is truly irrepressible. While none of her three singles from this year quite replicated the slippery magic of ‘Camo’, all of them captured an artist who’s in utter command of her utterly distinctive voice and dance style. Of all of them ‘Nega Dola’ is the most free wheeling and dramatic, with constant rhythmic shifts from a groovy, syncopated shuffle to a thumping four to the floor pulse, and a pervasive sense of adventure and fun. Both the mini-album this comes from and Woman, the subsequent full length, are stocked with this kind of raw pop magnetism even without too many standout tracks.

45. Red Velvet — I Just

One of the three excellent new tracks added to Red Velvet’s already impressive 2017 album as part of the The Perfect Red Velvet reissue, ‘I Just’ is a shuddering beast of a track, elevated beyond Chainsmokers-obnoxious irrelevance by its harmonies, and connection in its vocal performances that gives the track serious heft and emotional resonance. It lends a powerful but cumbersome instrumental more than enough humanity to become an absorbing, dramatic album track.

44. Mamamoo — Paint Me

One of the few true ballads making the list, on the back of the incredible vocals of the most talented singing group out there right now. Each member not only has a distinctive tone, but a real personality that carries through every sweeping phrase. It would so easy for this to feel plodding, and it takes Mamamoo’s combined talents to drag a piano ballad into the future. Even as the phrases soar and beg for a belt, the restraint and dynamism on show keeps the track feeling urgent, incessant and full of hurt and vulnerability.

43. PRISTIN V — Get It

A modern lick of paint over a Destiny’s Child cut, via the DJ Mustard sound palette. Pristin’s previous efforts were undoubtedly catchy, but never had this much bite in evidence, and the choreo even has a choice slut drop in the chorus as the point move. With this much power in the subunit, there’s a lot to look forward to when PRISTIN reassembles as a full group.

42. NCT 127 — Simon Says

Of course K-pop sound design chases the cutting edge, but NCT seem determined to lead out in front. Despite having next to no harmonic content aside from the bridge, ‘Simon Says’ takes things a notch above most hip-hop tracks with an absurd and violent sound world. The behind-the-scenes videos for the track show bits of a cod British accent in the original demo, which might suggest this is the result of taking cues from the new wave of grime, maybe even drill, and the bouncy bassline and the absurdly tight, pin-drop sharp snare might be a hint in that direction. At the same time, the blasting synth hits and squealing vocal effects are straight out of NCT’s own novel playbook at the fringes of electronic and experimental pop music. It doesn’t quite match up to ‘Cherry Bomb’ given it can’t manage to coordinate the wacky sound design with the same frantic variety in the songwriting, but as a successor (especially given that incredible snare sound) to ‘Fire Truck’, this is a continued push on the frontier of what NCT are willing to do. A shout out needs to go to ‘Baby Don’t Stop’, which could well have taken this spot on the strength of its entirely whispered chorus and stunning push-me-pull-you choreography, but it can’t quite match ‘Simon Says’ adventurous sound design.

41. (G)I-DLE — LATATA

‘LATATA’ just oozes confidence, given how spacious and slow it is. Few groups could even survive a debut with this kind of slow burn, whereas (G)I-DLE (pronounced gee-idol) seem to revel in it, maintaining control and poise at every turn. Given we’ve already seen that as individual performers in K/DA, the members are capable of world beating explosionsm there’s certainly a lot to come. If BLACKPINK serves as a musical analogue though, this might signal they’re headed more in the ‘Whistle’ than the ‘Boombayah’ direction. If that’s the case, there are yet much greater hights for them to hit.

40. Zico — SoulMate (feat. IU)

A weird beast, ‘SoulMate’ is a slow, moderated and marvellously controlled soul ballad for its whole runtime apart from its deeply uncharacteristic middle verse, where Zico lets rip over thick Wurlitzer squelches. Aside from that, the counterpoint of IU and Zico’s own crystal-clear singing voices builds a gentle sweetness and balance and an arch and formal sensibility as they trade neat phrases and immaculately constructed cadences back and forth. It doesn’t need a payoff — Zico and IU are both way beyond that. Just crafting a mind-bending labyrinth unique to their talents is more than enough.

39. SHINee — You & I (안녕)

While the final single, ‘Our Page’, from the cycle of three releases that comprised The Story of Light was the one that rightfully got the attention as the group’s line about the tragedy of Jonghyun’s death, the hopeful and resolute tone wasn’t their only response. ‘You & I’ (simply ‘goodbye’ in translation from the Korean title) closes the first part of the series, with a song addressing Jonghyun less than it does the group’s own emotional state. As widescreen and enveloping as the instrumental is, there’s nothing settled about the lyrics at all — whether to move on or keep revisiting painful thoughts, to appear unmoved or plea that their “heart isn’t just for decoration” are the repeated, painful refrains. Onew is now taking mandatory military service, Taemin and Key are both amid international solo careers, and Minho is near enough a full time actor. That means we may never get a firm answer as to how SHINee consider their place in the world now, or maybe ‘Our Page’ answered that question already. Whatever the case maybe, the group certainly didn’t shy away from sharing their devastation, all of its mess and sorrow included.

38. EXID — I Love You

When EXID say ‘I love you’ the appropriate response is ‘really??’. The noxious vocal sample from the intro screams love as if down a drunk call to a long departed ex, which is exactly what the video depicts, with the members spending as much time throwing up as pleading for forgiveness into their early 2000s flip phones. With its tonal whiplash, from a brittle hollowed out facsimile of new jack swing carrying the verses to 80s disco-pop choruses, strung either side of a slinky and sideways house breakdown, it’s a quintessentially K-pop party track with a wicked sense of humour, a tolerance for drastic juxtaposition, and a desperate need for some paracetamol and lie down in a darkened room.

37. A.C.E — Take Me Higher

A.C.E show a lot of skin. We’re all better off for that. When they debuted with ‘Cactus’ in sheer black hotpants and a lot of thigh on show, the obvious conclusion was that the group would just push boundaries for notoriety until they reached breaking point or acclaim. Instead, they’ve found a much more sedate but possibly even more interesting middle ground — they’ve just resolved to be boy group who offers a lot of eye candy, without going to the same extremes in their songwriting. While ‘Cactus’ was an extraordinarily intense and punishing hardstyle track, ‘Take Me Higher’ is pop-disco with loose, bright melodies and a lot of driving groove, which plays straight to the group’s strengths as dancers and stage presences. Just so happens that they spend a lot of the video splashing abs from under H&M crop tops, and no one should be complaining.

36. LOOΠΔ — favOriTe

While ‘Hi High’ was the full LOOΠΔ cast’s official introduction to the world, an exhausting explosion of furious technicolour pop-DnB, the supporting track ‘favOriTe’ was the real highlight of the group’s debut. ‘favOriTe’ got its similarly irrepressible energy from blasting horn samples and a whipping swing percussion. Its masterstroke is the way it undercuts its second chorus by both stripping out the instrumental to just a bass pulse and skittering hi-hats and flipping the key to ground it, take some of the fury out and provide a complete tonal contrast without ever breaking stride. It effortlessly heads off any potential burnout and makes the return of the harmonic tension in the final chorus that much more satisfying. LOOΠΔ has consistently demonstrated that smart and dramatic songwriting can be matched up with pop catchiness, and ‘favOriTe’ is a model for how to do that with real bombast.

35. BTS — Tear

I still don’t think BTS’ pop-at-all-costs production style is the best use of their myriad talents, but there were still a few stunning moments in the releases that catapulted them to international stardom. ‘Tear’ is a slinky West Coast style rap posse cut with just a bit of pop gloss over its manicured strings and sonorous piano riff — it barely sounds out of step with some of the lusher moments of the last Jay Rock record. On top of that is the most dominant and high-firepower rap line in K-pop going full tilt. If Mark’s ‘Cherry Bomb’ verse set the benchmark for complex flow and rhythmic nuance in K-pop last year, RM’s opening to ‘Tear’ did its best to match it and raise the level through sheer rhythmic maximalism and vocal brutality.

34. Jay Park — V

A bilingual anthem, if not a bisexual one. The fantasies of crossing the barriers of money, fame, and raw personal aura still come to an abrupt halt at the final limit: language. Jay Park takes a chance to spell out exactly how to get around it — a clumsy combination of immigration law, Google Translate, social media negotiation, and straight up lust. It has Jay Park’s typical sincerity, but a healthy dose of self-deprecation and hurt, which fits snugly over a simple, playful and impeccably catchy pop-trap beat.

33. Cheetah — Stagger

The track doesn’t spend long in the illusion that anything really is fine. With a slinking trumpet line and Dilla aping wobble and shudder to the instrumental ‘Stagger’ brilliantly captures the dizziness and woozy nausea of lying to yourself. “The most perfect, ordinary person / That’s me, just being myself” might sound confident and powerful in another context, but with Cheetah’s groggy delivery and the gut-churning sonics, it’s a desperate and slightly terrifying moment. Cheetah’s album spends a lot of time trading between different personas, going as far as depicting her twice, once as a rap star and again as Kim Eun Young, someone just making do in the world, on the cover. The play between these faces is in full force on ‘Stagger’, an extraordinary construction playing out a punch-drunk and desperate emotional drama.

32. EXO — Tempo

This song is entirely about 1. the bedsprings in the chorus, and 2. the acapella bridge. Literally nothing else matters. As brash as the opening seems, the track is slightly underpowered compared to similar fare from MONSTA X and Wanna One this year, but what it lacks in raw energy, it makes up for in invention and style. The chorus refuses to shift out of its half-time lockstep, relying on that horrendously unsubtle boing noise to keep the energy up. The bridge, on the other hand, is utterly mesmerising and serves as a deeply unnecessary reminder of just how much vocal talent EXO possesses. They’re just lapping the competition at this point, caught in the middle ground of showing off their undeniable brilliance and sopping to the demands of pop form and aesthetic. It’s probably about time they stopped caring about what anyone thinks of them.

31. Hyolyn — Dally (feat. GRAY)

A proper RnB grinder, with all the high flying vocals you could ask for and a truckload of sexual energy to spare. Hyolyn has emerged from the untimely demise of SISTAR with both a vast reserve of SISTAR’s trademark confidence and vocal power, but the tasteful restraint and necessary girl-group passivity taken away completely, resulting in ‘SEE SEA’, a true summer bop, and ‘Dally’, which is one straight from the new Ariana school of sex jams with all the vocal chops to back them up. She has yet to put together a longform release, but just as with Sunmi this year, when she settles into her own voice she’s going to be a true force. The choreo is completely brazen though, and makes it pretty much impossible to forget what this track is about — this is the kind of K-pop hoe anthem we’ve needed for years.

30. Jonghyun — Rewind

Jonghyun’s posthumous album is the best possible summation of his solo career, and the highlights of his songwriting — a mix of RnB and pop, making use of his extraordinary range and with a subtlety and depth drawn out in the harmonic complexity and light and nimble delivery. At the one end of the spectrum lies the ballads and downtempo lounge tracks, the highlight being ‘#Hashtag’. At the other is his ability to construct hi-fi pop explosions, taking equally from wonky bass music and 90s vocal-led pop music. While tracks like ‘Neon’ and ‘Aurora’ on previous releases fleshed out exactly what he was capable of when going full bore with his songwriting and production, paring it back to the essentials and stripping out even a large part of the vocal on ‘Rewind’ worked just as spectacularly. With incisive piano stabs which are determined to never find any sense of key and a maddeningly off-kilter house drum pattern, the track is the result of the inevitable collision of a magnificently capable songwriter prepared to push into rich jazz-harmonic territory, and pop trends meeting his talents with an aesthetic that rewards his exploration of such cloudy, enveloping moods.

29. fromis_9 — LOVE BOMB

Calling 2018 a down year for TWICE would be churlish — they’ve continued their utter domination of K-pop with a litany of singles that has continued to push the boundaries of high tempo pop to the point of utter exhaustion. The track archetype they’ve established certainly isn’t going anywhere though, even if their own efforts (‘Dance the Night Away’, ‘What is Love?’, ‘Yes or Yes’) clearly showed how, without constant reinvention, the format gets tiresome. Instead, newer groups are doing their best to replicate the magic. The most obvious success is Momoland’s ‘BBoom BBoom’, a horrendously bland mid-2000s Europop song that through sheer infectious charm managed to convince people it was relevant. Ultimately the best big girl group track this year came from a debuting group, who took the risk of dialing down the intensity and replacing the hip-hop with some more driving power pop guitars. ‘Love Bomb’ is frenetic without ever feeling hurried or cluttered, and manages to chuck half a dozen killer hooks into its short runtime. Rather than a riot, the track turns itself into a teenage bedroom party smasher, and a model for every other girl group out there.

28. PLT — Hocus Pocus

PLT is a collection of solo artists who are labelmates, so each of them have spent time on their own releases carving out their own voices. Even if they all sound something like Crush wannabees (or maybe Flowsik and G-Dragon wannabes in the case of Moti and Villain), it’s still a wonderful sound to be exploring. The track is centred around the plate reverb drenched, metallic crash to the synths that provides a cavernous, wide open space for the vocalists to do their work in. The best moment is without a doubt the dropped instrumental and Gaho’s octave swoop at the start of each chorus, a electric moment of showboating. Similarly, even if it’s glib to just talk in terms of the acts they approximate, the mix of vocal tones combines lyricism, warmth and a cutting edge. Villian’s ability to take Moti’s dark tone, juxtapose it with piercing, taut autotuning before spreading his own vocal wings is genuinely impressive. Whether or not they come back as a group any time soon, Planetarium might well have a truly exciting group of artists on their hands. Just, someone needs to tell them that “Hakuna matata / hocus pocus” isn’t a particularly cool chorus lyric.

27. Key — One of Those Nights (feat. Crush)

Key had one key insight into how to deliver ‘One of Those Nights’, on its face a track about lovesickness: it takes a certain degree of strength to admit your vulnerability, and admitting your vulnerability is a perfect way to mask strength. I certainly don’t want to suggest that the track inhabits the role of the abuser, but it’s crucial for ‘One of Those Nights’ to carry serious threat, for the desperation behind its eyes be unnerving rather than sympathetic. It’s a track with no harmonic complexity and a pretty traditional sound, but it’s about 10 BPM faster than you’d expect and it makes a habit of taking the acoustic guitar stabs, pitching them up an octave and making them a glassy splash that echoes through the percussion track. All the work, in the vocal delivery, the throws over to Crush cranking up the intensity of the prechoruses, the production straddling clubby pop and puslating RnB and a killer bridge which showcases some incredible harmonisations: all of it serves to elevate what should have been a middle-of-the-road track into a scorching, menacing beast.

26. SHINee — Good Evening

The first single from SHINee’s album makes its allegiances very clear from its opening — the now ubiquitous baby-voice being the latest ‘trendy’ production element incorporated into stabbing house chords, crunchy RnB harmony, and a driving dance kick to carry the track’s momentum. The basic question SHINee faced this year was whether they could recover their identity after the tragedy of Jonghyun’s death, and ‘Good Evening’ makes a commitment to repeating exactly what SHINee singles have always been about. The difference this time is that the exuberant joy and energy isn’t for the sake of the audience, but themselves.

Every single public appearance the group made this year was honestly laboured: while they talked eloquently about the duty they faced in carrying the group on they struggled deeply to talk about the emotional impact of Jonghyun’s loss. What clearly has happened behind the scenes is a commitment to honouring each other, especially in this track’s choreography. Its relative lack of hyper athletic and dynamic movement and spending the second chorus in a horseshoe facing each other rather than the audience, spending the bridge performing while seated, even the fact that in live broadcasts you can spot a number of moments of eye contact and smiling. The track ends up being deeply different as well as incredibly familiar, a document of the tragedy and resilience of the group. There are clearly still holes, moments where Jonghyun’s descants would be obvious additions, or where his featherwieght tone would have been more suited to busier, more tightly wound phrases than Onew’s uniquely dense and elastic voice. Maybe, given Key has taken on a sizeable quantity of the falsetto moments, it’s just unnerving to hear a massive element of the group’s vocal ensemble entirely replaced. In the end though, it doesn’t stop ‘Good Evening’ being just about as powerful and celebratory as you could possibly hope.