Best of 2015: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

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It’s really difficult for me to keep up with K-Pop these days. The scene moves through songs, groups, soloists and promotion cycles as fast as ever, and as I keep harping on about this week, I have far less free time these days to take any of it in. I thought I might need to drop the music out of my life in order to keep doing the other things I enjoy throughout 2015, but luckily I didn’t have to, thanks to a little podcast called This Week in K-Pop (plug time), a twice-monthly audio show put together by two Americans living in Korea that showcases and critiques new K-Pop releases of both mainstream and a slightly lesser-known nature.

Combined with a meaty morning and evening commute, this meant I was able to keep building my usual K-Pop single countdown list throughout the year, and even do so from a wider pool than ever before. As a result I actually had a full top 15 ready to go way back in early August. From then on, it was a bit of a headache to decide what new additions would leave and what would stay, leaving me with possibly my most carefully constructed list since I started doing this three years ago.

By and large, it was the beats that defined 2015’s Korean pop music output. After a constantly tumultuous, frequently uninspired, often dull and occasionally tragic 2014 for the Korean popular music industry, 2015 proved that the wildly successful, still-young subsection of world music was more than capable of reinventing itself and delivering surprises. K-Pop’s so-called “identity” is now more difficult to categorise in Western terms than ever, as it continues to stretch its tendrils into heavier contemporary EDM backing tracks, quirky samples and widely spreading subgenres while refusing to back away from the ’90s-inspired idol group structures, creative knife-point choreography and insanely high production values that have defined it from the very beginning.

Short version: K-Pop was back in a big way in 2015.

As always, no album B-sides or non-Korean language songs from K-Pop artists are eligible for this list – generally only songs with MVs (music videos) appear, even though that meant I had to scratch some really good Infinity Challenge/Unpretty Rapstar songs this year. As always I have taken said MVs into consideration when ordering the list, but ultimately the song itself is the biggest contributing factor, and I tried to keep that in mind at all times. Also, this year I just went ahead and made my previous “unwritten rule” an official one – no more than one song from an artist or group can make it on. Now I’ve waffled on long enough, so let’s watch some K-Pop videos.

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VR BEST OF 2015 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 weird. Cool, but definitely weird. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.
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15. Wiggle Wiggle – Hellovenus

We might as well kick things off with the earliest song of the year to appear on this list – It dropped on January 8th 2015, hot on the heels of a viral video featuring the girls of Hellovenus practicing a dance cover of Jason Derulo’s Wiggle. And despite how opportunistic and cynical the move was, it resulted in an incredibly catchy song with a thumping club beat that would set the stage for similar bass-dominated hits in the year to come.

And yeah, this isn’t the “real” music video, because the actual one is easily of the tackiest, cheapest quality, most poorly edited MVs I have ever seen (it’s here if you really want to watch it).
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14. My House – 2PM

One of many strong songs to come from the house of JYP Entertainment in 2015, the “mature” appeal of 2PM is a perfect fit for My House, a more-than-slightly-seedy invitation tune backed by a ticking motif that evokes Cinderella themes, a suggestive acoustic guitar and a trademark electronic bridge. Of course, the cheeky and buttery smooth vocal tones of the veteran K-Pop group don’t hurt either. My House is no A.D.T.O.Y, but it’s almost as good, and that says a lot about the quality year we just had.
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13. Like Ooh-Ahh – Twice

From an old JYP group to a brand-new one, rookie girl group Twice’s career launched very promisingly late in the year with this old-fashioned K-Pop tune focusing above all on catchiness – and my goodness, is it catchy, even after one listen. It alternates between a bouncy chorus, more understated, echoey verses and a powerful dance break for a bridge, affording enough repetition to ensure its roots spread. The MV does what not enough debut videos do, giving each member ample time in frame, and though the comparisons to early Girls’ Generation are obvious and inevitable, they may just be deserved.
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12. Dope – BTS

The male group at the forefront of K-Pop’s mainstream “hip hop wave” delivered at least two songs good enough to make it onto my list in 2015, but while I Need U is a great power ballad with a fantastic beat, there’s just no beating Dope, a high-energy attention grabber of a tune punctuated by trademark aggressive rap, the kind of quirky brass sampling that seemed to be everywhere in K-Pop this year, and some amazing choreography that does no harm to BTS’ increasingly impressive reputation.
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11. Girl Crush – MAMAMOO

In a bit of a left-field move, talented retro specialists MAMAMOO followed up their successful 2015 mini-album (more on that shortly) with a song from a mobile game, of all things. And it was one of the best things released all year. Girl Crush is just straight-up fun, with an unusual – not to mention appropriate given the context – phone-friendly video clip style and a retro saxophone-heavy tune that fits the rag timey sound the girls have well and truly made their own over the past year. They just keep growing in stature.
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10. Loser – Big Bang

Picking just one of Big Bang’s eight MV tracks from 2015 was tricky, as some of them were really strong releases. But for me it has to be Loser that makes this list, because it’s freaking amazing. Big Bang’s slower songs tend to be great showcases for their world-famous talent set, and Loser does not buck that trend. Distant yet prominent percussion anchors the melody’s wistful vocals, with Taeyang and Daesung’s strained notes selling the pain at the heart of the melancholic music video while T.O.P and G-Dragon pretty much just show off how good they can sound when they aren’t drowned out by booming bass. Vintage.
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9. Devil – Super Junior

Just before their most significant batch of members went off to the army for their compulsory military service, the old folk of Super Junior dropped their best song in years in the form of Devil. Using one of the least complicated guitar riffs in their history to set the tone, Suju’s classy falsetto chorus is a real ear worm, their call-and-response bridge mixes things up nicely, and the clever movie poster concept of the MV – which must have been a field day for the graphic designers involved – is enjoyable start to finish. A fine send-off.
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8. EOEO- UNIQ

The MV is likely to give you seizures, but UNIQ’s EOEO (my, that’s a lot of capital letters) is a jam. That aforementioned quirky brass sampling is even more prominent in this song than in BTS’s, and it provides a rock-solid hook foundation from which UNIQ builds a bassy track alternating from shouty vocals to sultry falsetto. The song lives and dies by that build-up to the chorus beat drop, and it certainly lives. Oh yes, it lives. That penultimate non-falsetto “Eoeo!” call just before the drop is the deal-sealer for me.
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7. You & Me – Kisum feat. Jooyoung

Pairing one of K-Pop’s absolute finest male voices with its most prolific female rapper of 2015 wasn’t guaranteed to produce magic, but with You & Me, it certainly did. That beat is just perfect for the kind of chilled summery tune that Kisum and co. go for here, and Kisum’s varied rapping pace flies in and out of the main hook with the kind of effortless style that has made her so many fans. When Jooyoung croons the pre-chorus melody, You & Me goes up another level, encouraging you to hit that repeat button.

If you enjoy this song, Kisum’s song with MAMAMOO’s Hwa Sa is a very natural, highly recommended follow-up.
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6. Brave New World – Brown Eyed Girls

An old-school disco fever tune with 1980s-style ethereal audio layer peeling. Vocals that bounce from super-clean to heavily augmented and back again. A high-concept psychedelic space trip music video that plays out – at times literally – with a down-to-earth flavour. Constant special effects sounds that come and go as they please. None of this should work crammed together on the same track, but in the case of Brave New World, the veteran Brown Eyed Girls make it work. And how. Thanks to a powerful and catchy chorus line, a recurring orchestral flourish and a talky Miryo rap verse that doesn’t even sound like her, yet matches the song immensely, the revered quartet has done it yet again.
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5. Favorite – Verbal Jint feat. Sanchez

It’s an openly bawling shame, but this is by far the video on this page with the least amount of views. If you like the energetic, falsetto-laden style of Michael Jackson songs even a little bit, you need to give this one a listen, as Sanchez is amazing at achieving a similar sound. He and frequent collaborator Verbal Jint squeeze out a song with a simplistic beat that is just all about those funky vocals. The sliding guitar that leads into Sanchez’s pre-chorus wail is just so addictive, and while VJ does what he does best, Sanchez looms over with unfair control over his vocal chords. Listen to this song!
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4. Just Right – GOT7

It may look trite and perhaps even overplayed to a western listener, but it’s astonishing just how rare the message at the heart of GOT7’s Just Right is in modern K-Pop. Yet the anti-superficial moral of this story isn’t even its best quality. It features easily my favourite dance move in K-pop this year, and three separate hook sections that all dig into your head with the same ferocity. From the silly garbled opening to the minimalist pre-chorus to the acoustic “nannannannannan” main body to the section featuring that dance move, JYP Entertainment’s newest guy group got it, erm, just right with this one.
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3. Ah Yeah – EXID

Even more than the songs I’ve just talked about, these final three tracks are just all about the beat. Though EXID’s follow-up to their 2014 mega-hit Up & Down can easily be criticised for relying on a similar saxophone sample, it uses the instrument considerably less, inserting a deep house roll into the song’s verse rotation and transferring with full gusto to a larger band fanfare for the massive Solji-dominated chorus. Also thrown in there is a stylised nursery rhyme pre-chorus, a pair of unsettling yet punchy whispering bookends, and of course, that beyond-confident “Ah yeah” line from rapper LE. This April hit rewards repeat listens and is prone to grow on you fast – it certainly did for me.
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2. Crazy – 4Minute

4Minute’s early 2015 promise to be “revamped” smacked of typical K-Pop hype generation, but it turned out to be no smokescreen, and no hyperbole either. Arguably no 2015 group came back with a more immediately aggressive first note, and the proof was in the pudding. Though Crazy’s producers may have been listening too intently to a certain section of Knife Party’s Boss Mode, their spin on the restless trap sound is an absolute winner from verse to chorus and beyond. K-Pop superstar Hyuna doesn’t even dominate the song – every 4Minute member gets ample time in the spotlight, most notably throughout the complete beat change-up that is Jihyun’s exotic bridge solo. Crazy is noisy to be sure, but it’s fantastic, catchy, memorable noise.
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1. Ice Cream Cake – Red Velvet

Red Velvet may have their own uniform look and style unlike anything else in the extensive SM Entertainment stable, but as 2015 proved again and again, their songs just flat-out sound like songs for which my favourite K-Pop group, f(x), has become famous. In a year where the frequently mis-marketed f(x) moved towards a different sound, I was forced to admit that Red Velvet can actually pull off the fun, wildly experimental stuff in their own way. And though their bizarre September ditty Dumb Dumb is a good time, March’s Ice Cream Cake is just on another level.

Kicking off with the kind of playground creepiness that defined f(x)’s fan-favourite Shadow, the track launches into a punchy backing track that pops off speakers and permeates most of the verses, pausing to allow a Macarena-style pre-chorus build that breaks down with a crash into a ridiculously catchy refrain. That brings in a nostalgic 8-bit videogame drone that slinks underneath the main melody before the song strips everything away except for stadium drums and that coup-de-gras chant. Then it mixes up its layers, cuts up its returning elements into staccato beats, and sticks the landing with the return of that glorious drone before the final lyrics. The vocals are great, the rapping is tolerable, and somehow, it all fits together. Yes, f(x) would be proud, but Red Velvet can be prouder. What a song.

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If you enjoy this list, you can listen to it in full on a dedicated Apple Music playlist – just open this link with the app ready!

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Honorable Mentions
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Only You – Miss A
Watch: HERE
Yet another strong JYP Entertainment song on this page, Miss A’s solitary MV release of 2015 is bright and catchy with an ever-so-slightly-creepy video clip, just like the JYP gems of old. It stayed on my playlist rotation for a large chunk of the year.

–Like Ga, Na, Da – Akdong Musician
Watch: HERE
Released in celebration of Korea’s Hangul Day – marking the day the nation’s relatively young alphabet was introduced – Akmu’s Like Ga, Na Da is impossibly adorable and buckets of fun. If you could buy the song on iTunes, it probably would have been on my main Top 15 somewhere. It’s a real good time.

Coffee & Tea – Eddy Kim & Solar
Watch: HERE
This song is a great example of “less is more”. An honest-to-goodness duet without need of anything beyond a guitar, the soulful voice of MAMAMOO’s Solar harmonises beautifully with Eddy Kim’s clean delivery and delightful strumming to craft a wonderfully relaxing melody.

–I Feel You – Wonder Girls
Watch: HERE
Man this song is good. It’s hard to imagine a more on-point 1980s homage for a K-Pop music video. I Feel You would probably also be in my Top 15 if not for the fact that I’m about to give the Wonder Girls a bigger rap in a few days time. Sometimes you have to give someone else a go.

–Kontrol – Kim Sung Kyu
Watch: HERE
A powerful emotional ride that uses a huge electronic chorus to complement the strong vocals of Infinite’s Kim Sung Kyu, Kontrol is a rare example of a soloist from a popular K-Pop group just freaking nailing it.

Napal Baji – PSY
Watch: HERE
PSY’s fabulously ridiculous late 2015 hit Daddy is great, but accompanying song Napal Baji is just as much fun, and probably a slightly better from a musical standpoint. A light brass backing, an enthusiastic chorus hook dance move, a catchy tune – it’s all there. Give it a listen.

Lion Heart – Girls’Generation
Watch: HERE
Girls’ Generation’s best single in a very long time couldn’t help them come up with a decent Korean-language album, but the song’s slow, hint-of-reggae beat and simple tune is a fine showcase for the group’s (mostly) smooth vocals. They’ve always been great proponents of the mid-tempo ballad and it shows here.

Black Swan – Rainbow
Watch: HERE
I don’t quite know what it is about this song that catches my ear so much, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the way it plays with periods of silence that seem to last far too long – only to get obliterated by isolated club beat notes that then kick into a chorus featuring only half the layers a song of its type normally would. It’s restraint done very well, and the whole thing just sounds so fresh.

–Feedback – Adoonga and a bunch of other people
Watch: HERE
In a year featuring a distinctly hip-hop flavour, not to mention a ton of collaborations, Adoonga’s Feedback stands out as an absolutely packed group effort with a great beat and a stylish text-based video that, among other things, proves that SISTAR’s Bora isn’t quite as awful of a rapper as she’s made out to be.

Mansae – Seventeen
Watch: HERE
This popular song deserves an honourable mention pretty much just for its amazing choreography, which capitalises fully on Seventeen’s massive group size to pull off some truly eye-catching moves. The song’s alright, too.

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