Best of 2013: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

Bestof13_light

2013, much like any other year, saw an insane amount of movement in the Korean popular music industry. Its lightning-fast trends and short attention span continued to make the rest of the music world seem like it was moving at a snail’s pace, and while the obscene rate of new groups debuting in 2012 slowed considerably this year, there was still a constant stream of new material to ensure boredom was near-impossible. While I didn’t quite follow the industry as comprehensively as I did in 2012, and despite some stretches of time without any remarkable releases, the sheer volume of music on offer meant that I sat down to chisel this countdown out of a shortlist of no less than 39 tracks. I honestly struggled to keep the honorable mentions at just ten.

Just like last year, this list is devoted to “K-Pop Singles” only (they’re technically “title tracks”, but no need to confuse things too much). No album-only tracks, or ‘B-sides’, if you will, or else we would be here for a while. This year there will be a list dedicated to K-Pop albums anyway. Once again, I’ve ignored every 2013 K-Pop single released in Japanese or other non-Korean languages. But don’t let that stop you from checking some of them out (particularly when it comes to SNSD). Tracks are ordered based on visual factors as well as musical ones (such is K-Pop) but audio strength is given preference where applicable. Let’s get started.

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VR BEST OF 2013 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. Respectful disagreement is welcome.
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15. Gentleman – PSY

Let’s kick things off by giving credit where credit is due. PSY may not have lit up the world like he did in 2012 with Gangnam Style, but his 2013 follow-up Gentleman still managed to smash several YouTube viewing records. Though the song no doubt shares deliberate similarities with last year’s mega-hit, it maintains its own character through a more aggressive style of humour, a larger scale and a partnership – both in personnel and in borrowed choreography – with veteran girl group Brown Eyed Girls. Ga In of the influential foursome brings her famous Abracadabra moves to PSY’s set to enhance an already hilarious and catchy package.

14. Bar Bar Bar – Crayon Pop

Speaking of funny, the label of small group Crayon Pop attempted to make it big in 2013 by orchestrating a deliberately ridiculous song with an equally ridiculous MV, complete with cartoonish jumpsuit-and-helmet costumes and outrageous “piston” choreography. The whole shebang had a bit of a Japanese flavour to it, unsurprising given Crayon Pop’s work in the land of the rising sun. The ploy worked to some extent, both in Korea and abroad, inspiring a number of YouTube parodies and burying itself in the ears of many who heard it. For a more visually conventional side of Crayon Pop – if an equally silly one – check out the group’s follow-up single Dancing Queen. It’s good fun.

13. Missing You – 2NE1

I don’t know what it is about 2NE1. Even though they ply their trade on a ‘perpetual badass’ image, which they definitely pull off very well, nearly every time they slow down and release a ballad they hit it out of the park (no Korean puns please). 2011’s Lonely has become one of the most covered (and translated/rearranged) Korean songs on the internet since K-Pop became a thing, and you may already know how highly I rate 2012’s I Love You. Missing You is slower and more restrained than either of those two, but its artistic MV and belting chorus ensure that it makes a real impact. Perhaps surprisingly, it is CL, better known as K-Pop’s premier female idol rapper, who dominates the vocals here, leaving the group’s more recognised singers in her shadow.

12. Mamama – Tasty

This whirlwind ditty from Woollim Entertainment’s fresh faced twin act starts fast and leaves just as quickly. At just 2:39 (including 10 seconds of intro to boot) it’s the shortest song on this list and one of the shortest singles to hit K-Pop in a while. This means its delicious fusion of new jack swing and fleeting brass orchestral elements never outstays its welcome and leaves you wanting more. Despite a cameo from label mates Infinite H in the video, Mamama was largely ignored in 2013 – which is a crying shame because it is hella catchy, boasts cool choreography and holds attention from start to finish.

11. Get Up – EVOL

Speaking of short songs, here’s another one from a woefully underappreciated quintet by the name of EVOL (that’s ‘love’ backwards, yo). Debuting last year as the far less noticed sister group of the successful male hip hop act Block B, EVOL kicked on in 2013 despite comparatively little funding from their label Stardom thanks to a song that they themselves were largely responsible for creating (unusual in the K-Pop world to say the least). Get Up is simple in all the best ways, presenting a catchy hook and sections that show off both vocal talent and the viciously effective dual pronged rap EVOL does so well. The MV presents some unsubtle social imagery too, and the phrase “J-Dah on da beht” has taken on another life in my house.

10. A.D.T.O.Y – 2PM

JYP Entertainment’s leading male group 2PM distinguishes itself from the major earners of the other two mega-labels by pushing the “masculinity” angle much more often, occasionally resulting in glorious releases like A.D.T.O.Y (All Day I Think About You), which absolutely screams “90s boy band” in the best way possible while also featuring unmistakably contemporary touches. The black and white MV aesthetic previously used to great effect by JYP for 2011’s Wonder Girls hit Be My Baby is just as effective here, and its quick cuts complement the wonderfully restless backing track to great effect. A.D.T.O.Y never quite settles down, maintaining tension in its melody until it takes on another level about halfway through with a pair of very rarely seen K-Pop falsetto voices. The choice to keep this song off 2PM’s comeback album was baffling to say the least.

9. Number 9 – T-Ara

I swear I didn’t put this song in this place just for the sake of a pun. It’s just really good. T-Ara is a group I’ve never exactly been a giant fan of, as their particular brand of basic choreography, overt sexuality and hyper-repetitive hooks (even by K-Pop standards – look no further than their debut hit Bo Peep Bo Peep for a clear-as-day example) was never my cup of tea and their off-camera reputation certainly didn’t help. This despite the fact that they use thumping dance beats – the kind I usually love – in their songs perhaps more regularly than any other girl group. Yet their late 2013 release Number 9 somehow manages to strike a zen balance between said beats (how about that intro?) and a powerful acoustic flavoured vocal showcase with a winning tune. That “rap” break is awful, but thankfully it’s over quickly and doesn’t really affect this very nice track too much.

8. Female President – Girl’s Day

I really am not the biggest fan of Girl’s Day’s management, as their 2013 about-face from a three year “cute” image to, well, this just about as soon as their youngest member “came of age” is a stark reminder of the money grabbing cynicism of the K-Pop industry. The tacky ramp-up in sex appeal was vindicated, though, launching the group to unprecedented sales success and paving the way for a follow-up single in Female President that is only slightly tamer and has next to nothing to do with Korea’s actual first female president, but simply sounds so good that I couldn’t possibly leave it off this list. A cool chanting chorus builds to a launching platform for impressive vocals and the song never settles into predictable territory, changing things up surprisingly often when it could quite easily have gotten by on its sheer catchiness.

7. On and On – VIXX

Few K-Pop acts pull off gothic theatricality quite like relative newcomers VIXX, a startling development given how many other, bigger names tried it in 2013. On & On was just the first in a run of mesmerisingly morbid conceptual successes for VIXX in 2013, which also included the irrepressible Hyde and the unsettling Voodoo Doll. VIXX put an unmistakably K-Pop spin on what is clearly a J-Rock inspired look via some impressive and memorable choreography that requires six members to work, calling to mind images of coffins and creepy rag dolls (while crying that they are in need of therapy, no less). The song is also a stayer, which adds up very favourably for VIXX’s reputation. Bonus points for opening with a Phantom of the Opera flourish (although said flourish is weirdly absent from the MV version here).

6. Growl – EXO

I was an EXO fan very soon after witnessing their big budget, multi-song, multi-language debut last year, led by the grand elemental scale of MAMA. Yet by SM Entertainment standards the group didn’t make quite the initial commercial splash expected of it, so the company went away and came back over a year later with Wolf, a release that combined the two halves of the group into one giant unit boasting incredibly impressive choreography that deserves to be seen. The song, however, was kinda bad, so they followed it up rather quickly with the phenomenon that was Growl. Someone at SM had the idea to shoot the video for the song in one continuous take inside a carpark, resulting in one of the freshest MVs of the entire year (one of the members even drops his hat at 2:13, yet the clip keeps going). The song smartly matches its choreography in simplicity, in contrast to the convoluted Wolf, and it is catchy.

5. The Red Shoes – IU

“Korea’s Little Sister” IU has been confined to a certain sort of ‘innocent’ public image for the majority of her career, and after expressing her desire to break out of it, she released The Red Shoes as one of the classiest examples of how to go about achieving that. It’s also a wonderful tribute to Hollywood’s golden age of cinema and big band music, particularly in reference to The Wizard of Oz, but it manages to craft its own identity via some ad-libbed interaction scenes, some deliberately klutzy choreography and a bit of a sinister tone at the end. The song itself features enough changes of pace to keep things interesting while always staying in IU’s vocal range in order to show off what she does best. In any case, it’s just so incredibly different from most of what came out in 2013 that it is hard to ignore.

4. Joah – Jay Park

Former 2PM leader Jay Park’s releases are usually a bit hit-and-miss for me, but 2013’s Joah really grabbed my attention. The irrepressible optimism of the melody draws a smile from me nearly every time I hear it, which is pretty much the sole reason it makes it this high up my list. It’s perhaps more summer-y than any of the uninspired “summer singles” that were rushed out to coincide with Korean holidays this year, and it was released in March. There can be little doubting that the song has a heavily western R&B vibe, but that’s hardly surprising given that J-Park is, in fact, American himself, and I would put forward that no English-language R&B tune resonated with me in 2013 quite as much as Joah did.

3. I Got a Boy – Girls’ Generation

Hitting on New Year’s Day 2013, SNSD’s I Got a Boy only just sneaks onto this list time-wise but was such a constant presence in 2013 that it deserves a lofty place. The single is almost certainly the SM mega-group’s most controversial to date, dividing opinions regarding the merit of its constant brake-slamming melody shifts. It’s essentially a handful of songs rolled into one package, deliberately reflecting two contrasting perspectives (one ecstatic, one bitter) on a fresh relationship. Western pop commentators on the outside looking in praised its unmistakable freshness and daring, while less savoury arguments among K-Pop fans raged on literally from day one of 2013, keeping the song relevant well into the year. Many people (though not everyone) were eventually forced to admit the song had grown on them considerably, to the point that when it came out of nowhere to win the first-ever YouTube award for World Music Video of the Year last month, the vitriol was nowhere to be seen. It is now one of my favourite SNSD releases.

2. One Shot – B.A.P

900,000 US Dollars and an extensive shoot in the Philippines were both ingredients in the extravagant recipe for the MV of One Shot, B.A.P’s much-anticipated early 2013 return to their badass debut image following a number of more mellow releases in late 2012. Expectations were high, but not too high, because following B.A.P’s insane output of high-quality releases throughout 2012 (leading into 2013 with the excellent ballad Rain Sound), the group could hardly have met expectations – and yet meet them they did. One Shot is, for lack of a better word, epic, and despite some horrible opening Konglish it manages to keep up the tone of an “event track” throughout its vicious verses and pumping multi-section chorus. The only problem with the otherwise entertaining, large-scale and surprisingly violent MV is that it dilutes the song by inserting pieces of two other tracks from the One Shot mini album into the centre of the clip in order to lengthen it. For the full, straight audio, listen here.

1. Dream Girl – SHINee

2013 was a year in which SM Entertainment thoroughly dominated its comparatively inactive near rivals with the sheer force of numbers afforded by its impressive stable of acts, and in the absence of traditional heavyweights Super Junior the company made sure to keep their next most experienced group, SHINee, in the spotlight all year long. Not even including their Japanese efforts, the group released three singles from two full albums and one mini album in 2013, which is near unheard of for an SM act. The quality of their releases certainly varied but in Dream Girl they now have what is in my opinion one of their best songs ever. Rare prop-based choreography is pulled off with typical SHINee expertise, the MV plays with camera perspectives in an interesting and lyrically fitting way and the group’s vocals are pretty much universally spot-on. This “acid electro funk” number (SM’s official words; I can’t make this stuff up) is clean, catchy, superbly produced and most importantly fun K-Pop – and isn’t that what it’s all about?

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Honorable Mentions
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I Like That – GLAM
Watch: HERE
GLAM continues to hold the award for most criminally underappreciated group in all of K-Pop, as their (few) songs deal with unusual, almost subversive themes and stick with you musically. The sheer force of attitude and the catch-release rhythm of I Like That is their best to date if you ask me.

24/7 –  2YOON
Watch: HERE
This is the only attempt I’ve seen thus far in my time of K-Pop exposure to mesh K-Pop with country music. I don’t know why this is the case, as it is quite close to the best thing ever. At the very least it is unique and catchy, performed by two vocally gifted 4Minute members.

Gone Not Around Any Longer – SISTAR19
Watch: HERE
I still don’t particularly care for any of SISTAR’s main releases, but their dual-member sub-unit SISTAR19 (which is held up almost entirely talent-wise by Hyorin) blew me away with this slow burning, morose track that comes complete with a rare piano solo instrumental break.

It’s Over – Lee Hi
Watch: HERE
If you thought major label K-Pop took itself too seriously in 2013 to shoot an MV featuring a giant animated ice cream cone, papercraft dinosaurs, self-deprecating in-jokes and various instances of teddy bear abuse, watch the clip for Lee Hi’s sonically refreshing It’s Over.

Miss Right – Teen Top
Watch: HERE
After years of releases I couldn’t help but react to with “meh”, Teen Top finally got me with Miss Right, because man, they can dance, and because that post-chorus “lalalalalala” bit is crazy addictive. Check out this hilarious practice version of the song done with “Little PSY” from Gangnam Style, if you will.

This Love – Shinhwa
Watch: HERE
Sure, the likes of Super Junior and TVXQ! are a little on the veteran side by K-Pop standards, but they are put to shame by Shinhwa, who made a comeback this year a ridiculous 15 years after their debut and did so packing a loud, dance floor friendly show-stopper.

Rum Pum Pum Pum – f(x)
Watch: HERE
Last year’s VR list-topper f(x) returned in 2013 with a highly experimental, dare I say innovative and catchy tune that was tainted only by its dull MV, which bore several alarming visual similarities to 2012’s Electric Shock. More on this one in a few days…

Now – Troublemaker
Watch: HERE
K-Pop’s most high profile avant-garde duo, comprising Hyuna of 4Minute and Hyunseung of B2ST, got all intimate on screen once more this year to a surprisingly robust song, proving that Korea still hasn’t quite gotten over its obsession with Heath Ledger’s Joker in the process.

Who You? – G-Dragon
Watch: HERE
Ever the auteur, the last solo release of 2013 from the leader of BIGBANG came with an MV composed entirely of fan-recorded phone footage of his own live performance with a piano inside a glass box. Yeah, that.

Ringa Linga – Taeyang
Watch: HERE
G-Dragon’s obscenely talented bandmate Taeyang, famous for his own feel-tastic 2009 hit Wedding Dress, released a new track at the end of the year that once more showed off his ability to dance up a storm and belt out a few notes, but with the added bonus of a rap T.O.P would be proud of and, well, that hair.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Jack on April 16, 2014 at 4:44 am

    sunmi’s 24 hours should be on this list.

    Reply

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