Best of 2014: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

VR_Bestof2014

Trust something like K-Pop to make me nostalgic for 2012, of all things.

The ancillary troubles that dogged the Korean pop music industry throughout 2014 are well documented in K-Pop circles, and while I have no interest in writing a full-on postmortem, there’s little doubt these troubles had at least some effect on the amount of quality stuff released throughout the year. As once-big acts found themselves on the way out and the mid-tier labels attempting to profit from this got caught in a game of follow-the-leader, the resulting stretches of ho-hum releases stretched on for quite a while.

But this is K-Pop, and you can always guarantee such a high volume of output from all the gazillion labels these days that some of it is bound to be worth listening to. 2014 was no exception, producing some good quality singles worth celebrating, or in this case, counting down!

No album B-sides or non-Korean language songs from K-Pop artists are eligible for this particular list – generally only songs with MVs (music videos) appear. The visual nature of K-Pop means I have taken said MVs into consideration when ordering the list, but ultimately I made this list via an IPod audio playlist, so the song itself is the biggest contributing factor.

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VR BEST OF 2014 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 spooky. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.
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15. Jackpot – Block B

K-Pop is a lesser entity overall without the crazy creative energy of Block B, so it’s a very good thing indeed that they are still around after all the label dramas of last year. Block B’s new home, Seven Seasons Entertainment, seems even more willing to let Zico and the boys loose on whatever concept tickles their fancy than Stardom was, and as a result we get things like Jackpot. Somehow both high-energy and creepy at the same time, the song leverages a carnival atmosphere to thrilling effect. Yes, the change-up for the chorus is jarring, but I have no doubt that was part of the plan, and that post-chorus is just so infectious. Block B is alive, manic and well.
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14. Error – VIXX

Already masters of the gothic concept after little more than a year of trying it on, VIXX proved in 2014 that they can seamlessly translate their dark themes from Transylvanian body horror to bleak futuristic locales with Error. Striking visuals, typically bold choreography and an effective cameo from new KARA member Youngji make the MV an engaging watch, but I believe the song deserves plenty of credit as well. Symphonic flourishes clash appropriately with dance-y beats behind long-held notes, building throughout the verses then dropping after the chorus to allow for that amazing piano motif. In a year big on impressive ballads, this one is depressingly underrated.
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13. Boy in Luv – BTS

Unquestionably the Korean male group with the most overall presence in 2014, BTS exemplify the current K-Pop obsession with hip-hop flavoured group compositions where Y chromosomes are concerned. They take one prominent element of what has made the likes of B.A.P so well-liked and make it their entire reason for existence, actually singing far less than any mainstream K-Pop boy band of the past. Heavily accented rap is their game, and it’s working for them, especially on Boy in Luv, which may just be my favourite BTS track so far. The way the members’ aggressive verses bounce off one another is fun to watch and sounds great. I just wish they would stop spelling their song titles so, uh, nineties-like.
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12. Red Light – f(x)

K-Pop’s still-reigning queens of the experimental returned in 2014 with a track that plays to their tremendous strengths, which are quite familiar to fans by now, while casually sounding like nothing else released this year. Basic, almost sluggish percussion alternates with ticking audio in the always-changing verses, counting down to an explosive, pounding chorus that assaults the ears with purpose while Sulli’s patented chants rebound around Luna’s harmonious refrain in the background. Lively echoes of the vocal and synthesised kind permeate the entire song, and that glorious Amber line on the bridge puts a bow on the whole thing. SM Entertainment’s red headed stepchild surprised and dazzled with Red Light, and they did it without a simple cut-and-paste video this time!
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11. Truth or Dare – Ga In

One of K-Pop’s most infamous solo artists, Brown Eyed Girls’ Ga In, came out of the blue this year to drop a fantastic, jazzy number that stays relatively tame (for her) and keeps up a lively yet understated tempo to great effect. Western observers will likely notice an immediate similarity to the work of a certain Robin Thicke in the song’s bassy backing track, but Truth or Dare distances itself with some liberal use of tasty saxaphone blares and plenty of very high vocal notes. I definitely did not expect something like this from a singer more famous for pushing the cultural boundaries of Korean entertainment, and I’m very grateful it exists. Ga In wants to know the truce, damnit!
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10. Justice – C-CLOWN

I’ve always had a kind of unstated rule about these lists – never include more than one song from a single K-Pop act. After all, I know there are more than just regular K-Pop fans reading the list, so I always want to try and showcase as wide a range of K-Pop styles as possible. However, breakout Aussie-led group C-CLOWN are the first of three cases on this year’s list where that policy was challenged. The group’s excellent riff-driven song Let’s Love is well worth a look, but I slightly prefer Justice, which debuted slightly earlier in 2014. The chorus breakdown in this song is just so good, and it’s supported in the MV by fun brawler-slash-ninja-inspired choreography and typically weird K-Pop outfits. It’s great to see these guys doing well.
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9. I’m Different (feat. Bobby) – HI SUHYUN

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my impatience with YG Entertainment for any sort of Lee Hi return in 2014, and though it did come late in the year, it turns out it was worth the wait. The ridiculously powerful voice behind my favourite K-Pop album of 2013 returned alongside indie darling-turned K-Pop idol Lee Suhyun, of Akdong Musician fame, in a playful big band style song that showcases the very different vocal qualities of the pair and adds a sprinkling of one of YG’s most exciting hip-hop talents of the last several years, the performer known only as Bobby. The mix of schoolyard “rap”, actual rap, flourishes of brass and effortlessly impressive singing adds up to a really enjoyable song, and it’s matched up with the most consistently funny K-Pop music video of the year.
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8. Video Game – Boys Republic

I’m not even gonna lie, this song is up here 80% because of that awesome backing track. It buzzes into your head and stays there, and when synced with the pretty damn impressive choreography of the still very new Universal Music experiment Boys Republic, it’s hard to deny that the result has quite an impact. Though its unfortunate to see the idea of a video game so basically represented by gun-like motions, there is obviously some pretty competent talent behind these guys’ moves, both conceptually and in execution. The group has potential to be sure. Video Game does not require a lot of effort to enjoy – it’s just a fine example of what makes K-Pop so attractive to those of us who enjoy it.
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7. Catallena – Orange Caramel

It is now more obvious than ever that After School sub-unit Orange Caramel has well and truly outgrown and surpassed its parent. No other major K-Pop act out there, outside of maybe PSY, so regularly embraces the weird and wonderful, which makes it very easy for Western audiences to separate themselves from their preconceptions and enjoy the trio’s material. Raina, Nana and Lizzy continued their upward trajectory of bizarre hits this year with Catallena, a song that becomes all the more futile to try to understand when you realise that the title is a completely made up word. Everything about this song is nuts, from the incongruous sci-fi laser sounds in the background to the crys of “hoy hoy hoy!” in the chorus, and the video is typically packed with WTF moments. The song is catchy as anything, though, and if you enjoy it you absolutely should check out their other 2014 hit My Copycat. Its wholly interactive video is one of the most unique MVs I’ve ever seen.
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6. I’m in Love – Secret

K-Pop’s leading “retro” group, Secret, bounced back to the darker side of their famous dual-pronged conceptual approach in 2014, and following a year of their more cutesy stuff in 2013 it was a sight for sore eyes (and ears). The foursome went for broke with I’m in Love, which is quite possibly their best song since 2010’s career-defining Magic. The deceptive lead-in gives way to a fun beat anchored by the signature Secret brass section, a super catchy multi-stage chorus, strong vocal work across the board, a knockout Hana rap break and a bridge that kicks back into the final chorus in lovely stuttering style. This one was in my head for months.
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5. Overdose – EXO

EXO is the only act to appear on all three of my year-end K-Pop Singles countdowns so far, and there’s a very good reason for that. Amid all the considerable contract dramas kickstarted by members Kris and Luhan forcibly breaking themselves away from SM Entertainment this year, even the EXO fangirls were guilty of momentarily forgetting about Overdose, the freaking awesome track that just happened to hit the charts at exactly the wrong time. While the video hints at a return to the elemental superpower-inspired concept behind the group’s 2012 debut, the song strides confidently through symphonic touches and sliding-tempo chorus vocals, all backed by some fantastic clap-based percussion. To emphasise just how much I enjoy this track, it has literally been my daily alarm tone for the last seven months and I am yet to start hating it.
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4. Melted – Akdong Musician

I doubt I need to say all that much about Akdong Musician’s hypnotic piano and strings ballad to explain its position here – just listen. Due perhaps to its oddly un-K-Pop video (filmed entirely in Canada by Canadians), I didn’t actually realise Melted had been released as a single until very late in the year, even though I was very familiar with the song thanks to the duo’s wonderful debut album Play. When I found out, it naturally rocketed up this list. Enjoy.
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3. Mr Ambiguous – MAMAMOO

Amid all the considerable doom and gloom of 2014, the brightest shining light for me, and indeed for many other K-Pop observers, was the debut of MAMAMOO. A quartet of mind-blowing vocal power, genuine rap talent and a noticeably extra-mile level of live performance energy, MAMAMOO seems to have it all, except maybe a cool name. After partnering with other artists a few times in 2014, their full debut song Mr Ambiguous rolled onto the charts in June to tremendous acclaim, proceeding to implant itself inside the heads of all who heard it. A ridiculously star-studded video helped its appeal, but this is a song that hardly needs such a boost. Well put together from start to show-stopping finish, Mr Ambiguous is a very promising beginning for a very promising K-Pop act (which continued in earnest with the glitzy follow-up Piano Man later in the year). It also sounds like they are saying “Mr MMO” in the chorus, which could very easily describe my Mega Ultra Blast Cast colleague Shane. So that’s a bonus.
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2. Swing – Super Junior M

After what seemed like eons, former rulers of the K-Pop realm Super Junior returned multiple times in 2014, doing their stellar reputation no harm with a handful of releases ranging from classy to thoroughly amusing. But it was their primarily Mandarin-singing subunit, Super Junior M, which really brought the goods on a grand scale in 2014 with Swing. A funky backing track and typically diverse SuJu vocals anchor the highly addictive melody, which switches from casual bouncing verses to a full-tilt, nearly unrecognisable chorus and back again with real panache. The dubstep break is a bit eh, but it doesn’t last too long and it’s fun to watch in the video. Speaking of which, maybe the best thing in all 2014 K-Pop MVs is that perpetual heartthrob member Siwon only has his gloriously seedy moustache in the dream sequence. So good.
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1. Eyes, Nose, Lips – Taeyang

You know when you hear a new song from someone and all you can think is “Nope, there’s no way he/she is ever going to top this”? Well, that’s what happened to me the first time I experienced Taeyang’s Eyes, Nose, Lips, a powerful ballad that thoroughly deserves to be called a modern R&B classic. Coming from a guy who has already produced a big worldwide hit in 2009’s Wedding Dress, Taeyang’s Eyes, Nose, Lips showcases the BIGBANG member’s unfair talent on a more subdued but equally effective level. The video is perfectly complementary to the slow build in intensity of the song proper, which reaches beyond language barriers and exhibits intense emotional pain as clear as day. It needs little more than a piano accompaniment and a simple beat to work. When the song is done knocking you over, check out the all-English rap cover of the song by Tablo of Epik High fame, featuring Taeyang himself. Its transparent rawness is a thing to behold.
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Honorable Mentions
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Be Natural – Red Velvet
Watch: HERE
A follow-up to their truly awful, rushed debut song Happiness, Red Velvet’s Be Natural marked a stunning recovery for the rookie foursome, brandishing an unusual aural cadence and some of the coolest choreography by a female SM group since the early days of Girls’ Generation.

Phone in Love – Almeng
Watch: HERE
The unusual vocal dynamic of male-female debutant duo Almeng brought a late breath of fresh air to the K-Pop scene in 2014. Their song Phone in Love impresses with a memorable melody, some strong rapping and a subversive accompanying video.

–Red – Hyuna
Watch: HERE
Its MV may be tarted up to the point of distraction, but Hyuna’s Red is a hurricane of a song with a magnetic beat, smooth flow and one hell of a catchy chorus. Way ahead of her last solo outing.

Girls Girls Girls – GOT7
Watch: HERE
JYP’s newest boy group is getting a lot of attention for its eye-catching choreography and performance level, which started in fine form with the slightly restrained Girls, Girls, Girls. Building a debut song for a rookie group on the sampled remains of the legendary Wonder Girls turned out to be a pretty good call.

Something – TVXQ!
Watch: HERE
The song that brought in 2014 on January 1st, before we knew the circus that was in store for the year, gave K-Pop fans reason to be very optimistic. Rollicking drums and a tasty bassline define this catchy, well executed double act.

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