Best of 2016: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

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Wow, five years of listening to K-Pop. I’m not sure how to feel really.

When I first discovered the increasingly wide genre back in 2012, talk of a “five year curse” was prevalent – the idea that K-Pop groups, especially female ones, seem unable to stay together for much longer than half a decade. And though the supposed rule has hardly been exact in its application, 2016 is sure as hell going to be remembered as a year of falling dominoes in the world of K-Pop groups. In the same year that the Brown Eyed Girls celebrated an unprecedented full decade without a member change, the likes of Miss A, Kara (for real this time), 4Minute, Rainbow and 2NE1 – all of whom were in top form when I started out – bit the dust. Other big acts lost important members (B2ST) or finally shuffled off to their mandatory military service (Bigbang), in the process well and truly solidifying the shift in Korean music generations that arguably started in 2014. The landscape is now almost unrecognisable from the days of Gangnam Style.

Of course some things never change, and history is bound to repeat. Though there are more successful soloists, more acoustic guitars, more rappers and heavier EDM beats around than ever before, K-Pop’s affiliation with cutesy girl group concepts returned in a big way in 2016 – especially among mid-tier acts – with barely a trace of the often-tacky “sexy” stylings of the last few years. And while we’re on the subject, it’s kind of a cool novelty to see each of the Big Three Korean entertainment companies bringing a properly successful female group to the table at the same time. That arguably hasn’t happened since 2012, at the tail end of the Wonder Girls/SNSD/2NE1 glory days. Now we have Twice/Red Velvet/Blackpink, and they have cute/weird/cool covered quite well respectively.

But I’m not here to write a dissertation; I’m here to count down my top 15 favourite K-Pop songs of the year, and there are a lot of different kinds of tracks to cover. So let’s do that, for the fifth time on Vagrant Rant.

No more than one song from a group/solo/collaboration can be eligible for this list, and it only takes into account songs that have a corresponding music video and feature Korean language lyrics. Every aspect of the release, visual and otherwise, is considered, but overwhelmingly the audio comes first.

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VR BEST OF 2016 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. Music is a very personal thing and if you actually agree with me 100%, that’s strange. Fun, but strange. Respectful disagreement is very welcome.

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15. Last Dance – Bigbang

I hope you’ll allow me a sentimental entry to kick things off.

Bigbang may be a YG Entertainment act, and true to their label they tease fans regularly with releases that don’t actually release for months or years after they are first mentioned. But they’ve been around in some way or another, without any real hint of breaking up, for ten years, and the gigantic quintet has given us a lot of fine memories. So on the eve of their mandated military service they released, alongside two other pretty decent songs, this heartstring-puller, and its emotional impact feels earned. Last Dance gives Bigbang a contemplative track that feels rather, shall we say, final, particularly alongside its brooding MV. There ain’t nothing wrong with it musically, though, providing plenty of Bigbang staples like growling Daesang/smooth Taeyang vocals, a bassy T.O.P rap and a soaring chorus that ends with a definitive full stop. Good luck to ’em.
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14. Dancing King – EXO

I strongly considered putting EXO’s earlier hit Monster on the 2016 list – which is a great song – but it’s also just another example of your tried-and-true “EXO sound”, and the now-9-piece supergroup had such a strong year (check out their subunit EXO-CBX’s Hey Mama too) that I figured why not mix things up? One of several experimental “SM Station” songs throughout 2016, Dancing King uses a hint of Latin festival flair in conjunction with multiple catchy bass lines and an unlikely cameo from Korean superstar host Yu Jae Seok to leave fans with one hell of an enjoyable diversion from the standard uber-serious EXO stuff. Tons of fun to watch, tons of fun to listen to.
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13. My Star – Lee Hi

From its first confident word, My Star represents a clear return to the big band-bigger voice sound that made Lee Hi so many fans on her powerhouse 2013 debut album. The one-time vocal talent show runner-up is now very much a star in her own right, having improved her all-around performance chops in leaps and bounds while somehow gaining even more control over her Adele-esque alto salvos. She has sung more complicated songs; she has sung more contemporary songs. But it’s kind of hard to deny that the period sound that My Star wears so proudly fits her like a classy glove, and it’s certainly a good time as a result.
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12. Decalcomanie – MAMAMOO

Oh boy, this was a toughie. The one-song-per-act rule came into contention with MAMAMOO yet again this year, because their early 2016 hit You’re The Best is a fantastic, fun song with the kind of colourful music video that has become synonymous with the insanely consistent girl group. By contrast, Decalcomanie is a bit of a scattershot effort, with slightly jarring tempo shifts, a bit too much Moonbyul rapping and an overly bloated music video packing some controversial elevator sequences. But that chorus! MAMAMOO may be capable of much more complex vocal showcases, but it’s abundantly clear that they can also elevate a melodically simple one to another level of catchiness. There simply isn’t a fuller-sounding refrain on this list.
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11. Russian Roulette – Red Velvet

Though not the first MV track released by Red Velvet in 2016, Russian Roulette is very much a stylistic successor to last year’s Dumb Dumb (and arguably to a lesser extent Ice Cream Cake). It uses silky smooth vocal layers in a similar way, cutting them up and folding them in on themselves to create a track that affords equal weighting to treble and bass in every sense of the word. Thanks to this song Red Velvet continue to carve out their own niche within SM Entertainment, and indeed within K-Pop as a whole, as purveyors of a truly standalone sound, and that’s OK with me.
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10. Very Very Very – I.O.I

The presence of this almost annoyingly catchy song on this list probably has a lot to do with the amount of times I heard it in shops, cafes and the like while I was visiting Seoul back in October. The final single release from I.O.I, a very temporary “project group” formed out of insanely popular reality show Produce 101, Very Very Very’s energetic sound is a credit to its JYP-backed production. There isn’t all that much more to say about the song – it’s just catchy as hell in an almost J-Pop kind of way. It’s probably fair to say that I.O.I had a bit of an inconsistent year, so to finish with this much of a statement will do absolutely no harm to the group’s individual members as they break off into their own future projects.
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9. Liar Liar – Oh My Girl

Maybe the most extreme example of a K-Pop “cute” concept that I’ve ever put on one of these lists, this year relatively new group Oh My Girl (labelmates of popular male quintet B1A4) tacked an infantalised-yet-creative music video onto an appropriately nursery rhyme-esque song that quickly turned into one of the year’s most stubborn ear worms. Leaning heavily on sing-chanting and a deliberate medium-pacer of a beat, Liar Liar successfully contrasts light sonic elements with coarser ones and ends up sounding more unique than the short reputation of its singers might suggest.
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8. Fire – JYP feat. Jimin Park

Tired of sickly sweet music videos on this page? Don’t worry, I’m (mostly) done with them. How does a collaboration between Conan O’Brien, Glenn from The Walking Dead, and the head of JYP Entertainment sound?  Insane? Well yes, you’re right, but such a team-up certainly brings a music video that’s just as much fun as the song attached to it. With shenanigans that make little sense, prominent cameos from the Wonder Girls and Twice, falsettos aplenty, a ludicrous guitar solo and a shouting chorus that’s just vintage Jin-Young Park, Fire is one of the surprises of the year if you ask me.
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7. Bermuda Triangle – Zico feat. Crush & Dean

In 2016 the hip-hop influences throughout K-Pop only continued to grow and one producer who repeatedly seemed to appear around the fringes profiting from this was Zico. Doubling as occasional Block B frontman and solo rapper, his collaboration with fellow 2016 ever-presences Crush and Dean is too good – and too conveniently representative of the year gone by – not to have on this list. Bermuda Triangle is anchored by some refreshingly lower-volume Zico stanzas but Dean and Crush’s contributions are what elevate the song, the former bookending things with honeyed tones building to a bellow, while the latter flips his usual smooth style on its head to produce a hypnotically venomous growl. More collaborations like this please.
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6. Ready For Your Love – J-Min

She’s been hanging around the SM stable for years, occasionally stepping into the spotlight with her massive voice for the odd K-Drama soundtrack song, special holiday album or ballad project group, but J-Min finally delivered a solo song fit to stand on its own in 2016. Built on a delicious combination of acoustic guitar and 80s-90s synth, Ready For Your Love soars sky-high from its heavily-filtered opening synthesiser fanfare to its confident Moody Blues-like fade. J-Min handles the ample supply of big notes with effortless grace, but the backing track is never outshined, dancing along its chord progression in downright addictive style.
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5. How People Move – Akdong Musician

Back in my top five in 2016, Akdong Musician released, alongside other tracks, a song that cannot be described in any way other than “quintessential Akdong Musician”. The sibling duo almost out-Akmu themselves on How People Move, somehow managing to cram into one 3-minute song a brass staircase intro, a bunch of chants, a chorus that doesn’t really have a clear end, a casual rap, a jazzy dance break (with ‘mm’ sounds instead of words), plenty of harmonies, an operatic note climb, a marked key change and an elephant cry. Few other acts would pull this off, but in Akmu’s hands How People Move is pure fun.
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4. 11:11 – Taeyeon

11:11 is the early-2000s pop ballad I didn’t know I was missing. Girls’ Generation leader Taeyeon (They’re technically still a thing, right?) dipped her toes into a solo venture in 2015, but this year felt like the first concrete signal of a potentially long-lasting career for Taeyeon alone, with multiple releases both inside and outside of the SM Station project. Most of them have a strong ballad character to them, but 11:11 is by far the most stripped down, opting for a mere acoustic guitar with the occasional bell effect as backing to Taeyeon’s smooth voice. And what a combination that turns out to be. The “nanana”s that form the song’s wistful hook are somehow both refreshing and nostalgic.
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3. Body – Mino

Some songs on this list are on here for a number of factors, but this one is up so high because of one thing – that cavernous, reverberating backing track. Yet another example where simple is best, the stadium synth loop takes root in the listener’s mind and is matched by an appropriately simple red filter in the music video. The addictive beat is the star of the show on Mino’s Body, but the YG Entertainment star is certainly no passenger, riding the track with effortless attitude and a strong vocal flow calling to mind a truly painful emotional situation. The Korean-English wordplay on the pre-chorus is even simple enough for one with a beneath-rudimentary grasp of Korean, such as myself, to grasp, which is a nice bonus.
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2. I’m Jelly Baby – AOA Cream

Here’s one final visit to candy-coloured K-Pop for 2016. Hitting very early in the year and staying relevant right up until now, AOA’s second sub-unit can now chalk up a song to rival anything the full group has done in the past. Some K-Pop songs start in low gear, building up to a bass drop or hook line that hits you out of left field. Not this one. It’s concerned only with drilling in something catchy from its very first keyboard tone. Sure, the chorus sticks with you, but the opening vocals, verses and pre-chorus are arguably even catchier. Even the half-autotuned talk-rap is memorable. It’s not often you get to say that. There isn’t a single layer in this song I find distracting or jarring – it just comes together remarkably well, and would have been my song of the year if not for some unexpectedly justified hype…
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1. Whistle – Blackpink

YG Entertainment really knows how to tease fans, but with Blackpink they took the idea of a hype cycle far beyond what could be considered a logical extreme, even for them. Rumblings of a new female act to follow in mega-group 2NE1’s footsteps started in 2012, the year I got into K-Pop. We even got a glimpse at one of its members, Jennie Kim, in a G-Dragon music video released that year. Yet 2012, 13, 14, 15 went by with no debut of a new girl group in sight. That all changed late this year when, from the ashes of 2NE1’s long-threatened collapse, Blackpink rose, and they brought with them a speaker-shattering Teddy Park classic that made it very difficult to be angry at YG about the whole situation. The fresh foursome became superstars almost immediately thanks to a hip-hop style that screams YG, some uncommonly good dancing chops (for the company’s history) and a deadly simple, deadly effective hook based on, of all things, a whistle. Like a missile.

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If you’re an Apple Music subscriber – on iOS or Android – you can listen to this Top 15 in full on a dedicated playlist! Just open this link with the app installed.

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Honorable Mentions
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–TT – Twice
Watch: HERE

Slightly underwhelming at first, Twice’s TT grew on me rather quickly after its Halloween release (with appropriately crazy MV in tow). Its appeal is less immediately in-your-face than previous hits Like Ooh-Ahh and Cheer Up, but it’s carried by a mild house bass line during the chorus and highlighted by a memorable “point dance” move.

–That’s My Jam – B.A.P
Watch: HERE

It was so good to see B.A.P back with a track worthy of widespread attention in 2016 following the slate of contractual problems that have dogged them in recent years. That’s My Jam is built on an infectiously repetitious dance beat and some equally infectious performance energy is there in spades to back it up.

–HOLUP! – Bobby
Watch: HERE

I enjoy just about anything this guy puts out – his rap style is just so unlike anyone else’s at the moment. HOLUP! gives the iKON headliner the kind of chaotic bassline/hook that matches his reflexive aggression to a tee, restlessly careening towards its final chanting line.

–Angel – Berry Good
Watch: HERE

It sounds just like just another one of 2016’s countless cutesy girl group songs when it starts up, but as soon as the opening line of the chorus hits and the raucous electronic notes unzip immediately after, Angel goes up about five levels, and the vocals are strong enough to match.

–No Jam – Kisum
Watch: HERE

From the opening piano roll and hammed-up Konglish lines, Kisum’s bouncy EP-leader is quite antithetical to its name – It’s absolutely a jam. Vocal echoes, crowd chants and a persistently energetic beat add up to an infectious tune that turned into a reliable mood-lifter for me just about as soon as it came out.

–Blood, Sweat and Tears – BTS
Watch: HERE

It sounds almost jarringly different from the bravado-fueled schtick they usually perform, with blaring synth highlights replacing the usual percussion-heavy track, but BTS still delivers a bass-heavy tune with sticky appeal – it just has a bit less rap in it. That Jimin vocal lead though.

–Why So Lonely – Wonder Girls
Watch: HERE

Following up on their stylistic triumph of a 2015 return, the Wonder Girls kept the “band concept” rolling with a reggae tune perfomed almost entirely by the four-piece, instruments and all. It’s slow, but it sticks in that patented Wonder Girls way. Let the revival continue.

–Whoo – Rainbow
Watch: HERE

What turned out to be Rainbow’s final major release before their split is a song that brings to the table a meld of the group’s latter, airy tones and their bassier early stuff. Though my favourite Rainbow songs will probably always be A and Black Swan, this one isn’t far behind.

–I Like That – Sistar
Watch: HERE

Sistar’s latest summer song, which pretty much headlined the season in much the same way as a Marvel superhero movie might, is an obligatory presence on this page thanks to its typically Sistar-branded catchiness, boosted ever-so-slightly by that repeating dirty brass sample.

–No Matter What – BoA & Beenzino
Watch: HERE

One of many refreshing SM Station songs featuring talent from outside the SM stable, the star of this BoA/Beenzino collaboration is actually neither of the two vocalists, but the flowery electronic backing track, which evokes inexplicably hopeful feelings.

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