Best of 2012: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

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It’s been a crazy year for Korean pop music, mainly because of one man: PSY. His story has been told to death, though. There was quite a lot of other stuff going on in the world of K-Pop in 2012, of course, and though I only started listening to the genre this year, I was fortunate enough to be able to ingest plenty of it. So here’s my third VR Best of 2012 list. For my wider thoughts on K-Pop, check out this post.

This one is a top fifteen rather than a top ten to make up for a later list that is only going to appear as a top five. I’ve taken a number of things into consideration with each single, such as the music video, the dancing (if any), the presentation of the song etc., because such things are definitely important in the K-Pop industry, but above all I’ve tried to prioritise the way the song sounds as an audio-only product when it comes to ordering the list.

Note how I’ve titled this list “K-Pop Singles”. If I included album-only tracks, of which there were plenty of highlights in 2012, we’d be here for days. Also, for the sake of narrowing down the impossible selection, I’ve gone ahead and ignored every 2012 K-Pop single released in Japanese or other non-Korean languages. So no Flower Power, Dazzling Girl or Like Money. Dem’s the breaks.

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VR BEST OF 2012 DISCLAIMER
This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. If you actually agree with me 100%, that’s scary. You have been warned, fanboys.
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15. Sherlock – SHINee

It’s fairly widely agreed upon that SHINee is one of K-Pop’s best and most consistent performers when it comes to making tricky choreography shine (forgive the pun). Though their main Korean hit of 2012, Sherlock , arguably doesn’t quite hit the heights of previous efforts as a song (it’s essentially a mash-up of two other tracks), it certainly does as a dance. The asymmetrical moves picked up even more awards for the talented quintet this year and it isn’t hard to see why.

14. Don’t Hate Me – Epik High

Just when I thought K-Pop couldn’t bring me any more nostalgia for the way music used to be, along came long-running hip hop trio Epik High with this song. The antics in its music video reminded me of the way Blink 182 used to do their clips, which is never a bad thing. The tongue-in-cheek visual gags referencing famous films and fellow YG personalities are plentiful, while the song itself is instantly accessible and great fun.

13. Warrior – B.A.P.

Of all the debutant rookie boy bands of 2012, none were more active than Best Absolute Perfect (how do these people come up with these names?). This was the first of five Korean singles for the year, ensuring no-one was allowed to forget about the boys for too long. Though they had no shortage of female fan attention, each of their videos also brought some kind of appeal to male audiences, which isn’t something that seems to happen too much in K-Pop. For Warrior, that appeal came in the form of stylised violence, a powerful tribal drumline and a creepy mascot.

12. Lipstick – Orange Caramel

I haven’t taken as much as a second look at any of the stuff girl group After School have put out, and suffice to say I’m not a giant fan of theirs. But their sub-unit Orange Caramel made plenty of people stand up and take notice in 2012 with their ear worm of a hit Lipstick. The translated lyrics are a tad moronic, but that “uh uh uh uh uh muh uh muh” is insultingly catchy and that amusing music video certainly doesn’t hurt. Oh, damnit, it’s in my head again.

11. SPY – Super Junior

The archetypical supergroup of Korean pop music, Super Junior, released an album in 2012 that was showered with praise, and while its lead single Sexy, Free & Single is a pretty great song, it’s immediate follow-up SPY is more notable for the way it strays from the standard sonic SuJu style. The group’s timely tribute to the James Bond films combines hints of music from a bygone era with the kind of scarcely believable dancing fans have come to expect from them. And it is really cool that notoriously un-subtle member Shindong gets a shotgun in the clip instead of a pistol.

10. Like This – Wonder Girls

There aren’t too many K-Pop music videos out there that look like they were as much fun to make as this one. Although I suppose getting a flash mob that big together and in relative sync might prove a bit tricky. In any case, JYP Entertainment’s female flag bearers could have done much worse with what has ended up as their last major Korean release for the foreseeable future (their leader is getting married soon, and that kinda makes it difficult to focus on music). Relentlessly energetic and infectious, Like This is a shining advertisement for K-Pop.

9. Twinkle – Girls’ Generation TTS

The reason I got into K-Pop, supergroup Girls’ Generation, released nothing Korean this year, choosing instead to devote the year to Japanese promotions. However, they did form their first ever sub-unit, TaeTiSeo (TTS), a talented vocal trio who released this diva-tastic song. Inititially I wasn’t the biggest fan of it, but as the year went on it kept on growing on me until it eventually became my favourite singalong K-Pop song of 2012. The reason: unlike most GG songs, it packs a metric ton of glorious vocal acrobatics.

8. Pandora – KARA

Stunning quintet KARA have an uncanny knack of releasing catchy, upbeat hits on a shockingly consistent basis, and their lone 2012 Korean release Pandora continued that trend. Amidst a stream of Japanese efforts this year, Pandora stands out as a well-constructed track largely due to that winning KARA formula: high tempo, colour-saturated MV art design, multiple breakdowns at the bridge and an assertive backing track. There was some controversy over the girls’ shoulder pop move at around 1:27 in the video; man, standards are different over there.

7. WOW – BtoB

From the first energetic guitar strum of WOW, BtoB leap out of the shadows of labelmate group B2ST (yeah I know, confusing, right?) and justify their entire existence in a flurry of impatient percussion. Though what the girl in the MV is doing may not make much sense, the ease with which this song sticks in your head makes plenty. What do I think of BtoB’s definitive effort thus far? I liiiiiike it, I liiiiiike it…

6. That XX – G-Dragon

BigBang leader G-Dragon is an oddity in K-Pop, and an immensely popular one at that, partly because of just how much creative control he has over his own career. He is a shrewd artist and his 2012 solo EP One of a Kind is all highlights, all the time. Lead single One of a Kind and cultural sensation Crayon are both all kinds of awesome, but it is the stripped-back tone and unusually heartfelt lyrics (for K-Pop) of That XX that best sum up his immense value to the Korean music industry. It’s just a really good song.

5. MAMA – EXO

SM Entertainment, kings of alarmingly in-sync and creative dance choreography, debuted a new 12-member male group in 2012. Split into two even halves, one performing in Korean and the other in Mandarin, EXO caught the attention of the K-Pop world by introducing each of its twelve members with a corresponding elemental “power” in this ridiculously epic lead single from their debut EP. That caught the eye of the RPG geek in me, and I was an EXO fan right from the first moment their concept clicked in my head.

4. Fantastic Baby – BigBang

Boom Shaka-Laka. The juggernaut that is BigBang released a quartet of comeback tracks in 2012, but none exemplify their recent shift towards a dance-centric musical style more than Fantastic Baby, which started the year as an instant fan favourite and ended it by appearing on American TV show Glee (not the best advertisement, but notable nonetheless). The song’s MV is outlandishly eye-catching, its rhythm is dance floor-friendly and its uniquely fragmented structure rewards repeat listens, which is good because I got quite a lot of those in 2012.

3. Gangnam Style – PSY

No self-respecting 2012 K-Pop list would be complete without mention of the most watched and most “liked” video on Youtube, ever. PSY’s ridiculous dance moves and not-very-sharp-but-still-existent satire of decadent Korean living captured the attention of the entire internet using world back in the middle of the year, and his momentum only increased from there. Gangnam Style thrust K-Pop into the global spotlight and forever changed the way the world looked at the genre. Somehow, I’m still not sick of it.

2. I Love You – 2NE1

Signed with Will.i.am in the USA, YG Entertainment’s four-piece sass squad released a solitary, unusually mellow Korean song in 2012, but in my opinion it ranks as the best they have ever produced. I Love You is a supremely well-crafted pop song, with an exotic central beat to keep things interesting early on and a sonic dressing that keeps shedding and then re-applying layers throughout. Each member’s vocal strengths are played to with finesse and the song ends with a more typical 2NE1 attitude attack superimposed on top of the recurring hook. Spectacular.

1. Electric Shock – f(x)

This is the song that introduced me to the group that quickly became, and remained throughout the year, my favourite K-Pop act. A pulsing exercise in dynamics, Electric Shock’s verses have a distinct flavour but it is the chorus that grabs you with unadulterated electronic vigour. The creative asymmetrical choreography won awards for its use of space and its devotion to always having something going on. Electric Shock also had more Youtube views than any other 2012 SM single, which finally transformed 2009 debutants f(x) from token 2NE1 opposition to bona-fide K-Pop stars. Bring on 2013 for Victoria, Amber, Sulli, Luna and Krystal.

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Honorable Mentions

Monster – BigBang
The Shadow – BoA
Hey You – CNBlue
One of a Kind – G-Dragon
I Don’t Need a Man – Miss A
Nillili Mambo – Block B
What Is Love – EXO
Janus – Boyfriend
Beautiful Target – B1A4
1,2,3,4 – Lee Hi

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