Best of 2017: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

NOTE: This list was already written when we received the news of the apparent suicide of SHINee’s Kim Jonghyun. At the time of publication this development is still less than a week old, but I cannot write it into the main article without sounding flippant about it, and so have left the list un-edited. Kim Jonghyun was literally the first male voice I heard after discovering that I liked K-Pop, and his voice also kicked off my first K-Pop Top 15 at the end of 2012. His loss has rocked the K-Pop community worldwide, and on a personal note has hit me just as hard as the Chester Bennington tragedy earlier this year. I can only imagine how his family must be feeling. He will be missed.

Ah, 2017. If you were a K-Pop fan around when I started being invested in the genre (is it even a genre anymore?) half a decade ago, and you’re still here, then congrats. Your ears have clearly been through a lot and your tastes must be resilient. Though 2016 saw many more big-name K-Pop groups bite the dust, the official dissolving of Sistar and the Wonder Girls in 2017 – alongside respective three-member exoduses from T-ara and Girls’ Generation – meant a 2017 K-Pop fan can hardly be accused of holding on to past glories.

There were quite a few fresh influences and trends worth getting excited about this year, even if they flooded the market so quickly it was hard to find quality at times. The most prevalent surely must be the KARD-and-Winner-led influx of tropical house, because at one point it felt like every group was trying on the sea-and-sand beats. Korea’s ongoing recent fascination with contemporary EDM beat drops also spread into the realm of American DJ collaborations this year – particularly so among the top-tier boy groups – and that helped solidify BTS in rarefied air on the Billboard Top 10 Artists chart in the USA. It seems K-Pop’s year-on-year growth in online popularity around the world has reached a point that no “niche” categorisation can hold back some fandoms. Let’s not forget that we now live in a world where the CinemaSins guy can riff on a Red Velvet video and get views for it. But fear not, because K-Pop was still pulling out plenty of offbeat gimmicks all its own in 2017, from the song-a-month themed schedule of Day6 to the slow revelations of new LOONA members one solo performance at a time. I found a decent amount of K-Pop to enjoy in 2017, and hopefully you did too.

As always, some rules I like to hold myself to: No more than one song from each act and no B-sides. A song needs to have its own official music video and be sung primarily in Korean to be on the list, even though this disqualifies some pretty good songs like Girl Next Door’s Deep Blue Eyes, EXO’s Electric Kiss and Dumbfoundead’s Water (although, to be fair, the latter comes from an actual American rapper). Here’s my sixth annual K-Pop Top 15 list.

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VR BEST OF 2017 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 strange. Intriguing, but strange. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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15. Don’t Wanna Cry – Seventeen

It felt like this song was around every corner when I was looking for K-Pop throughout the majority of 2017 – on YouTube, on curated streaming playlists, on podcasts – and for good reason. It may not have the most exciting backing track, bridge or rap section, but it sure has one catchy hook. Some nights I just can’t get that chorus line out of my head. I want to scream it out right now. Also, it’s Seventeen, so the choreography is amazing and executed with ridiculous accuracy to boot. Who actually wants to cry, though, Seventeen? Who?

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14. I’ll Be Yours – Girl’s Day

Yeah, it’s got a bit of a trashy look to it, but I’ll Be Yours is the first time that the four veterans of Girl’s Day (Wow, it sure feels weird to call them veterans) have captured the sound that made them catch fire back in 2013. Throughout that year and into the next they released jazzy vocal showcase after jazzy vocal showcase before trying a string of less successful styles, so the fact that I’ll Be Yours sounds like it would fit right in the middle of that run four years ago looks like an acceptance of sorts, for better or worse. Regardless, this is what Girl’s Day do best, and I for one am glad to hear Minah’s purring high notes once more.
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13. Eclipse – Kim Lip (LOONA)

I feel like leaving this page without a mention of LOONA would be improper, so it’s a good thing this crunchy song came out of the group’s glacial member reveal strategy. I never thought I’d see a group whose debut made EXO’s look like an exercise in restraint, but LOONA does just that. Eventually, 18 months after we were introduced to its first member, we’ll have a mega-group we know rather well, and I hope their songs will be able to at least match 6th-cab-off-the-rank Kim Lip’s banger Eclipse. That backing track was made in 1980s heaven.
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12. Dramarama – Monsta X

One of many micro-trends that took hold of K-Pop towards the end of 2017 was the creeping advent of funk-infused guitar riffs, and I can have no complaints about that. One such lick is spread all throughout Monsta X’s Dramarama, which also happens to be a cleanly-produced ear worm that pairs the hard-working group with a tune worthy of their efforts. I’m a particularly big fan of the distortion underneath the pre-chorus and the vocal layering at its end. The MV is perhaps a little cryptically indulgent, but you can hardly blame a song that literally has the word drama in its name.
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11. Really Really – Winner

Arguably the headlining example of the tropical house craze within K-Pop in 2017, Winner’s Really Really represents another sub-story of a formerly underappreciated group finally seeing some of the success they deserve. The now-four-piece group (I still miss Taehyun) hold their own against the temperate vibes of the catchy electronic backing track, belting out the chorus like they really (really) mean it and pulling off multiple seamless rap stanzas with ease. I’m usually not the biggest fan of the tropical house sound, but Really Really pulled me in anyway.
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10. Bye Babe – 10cm & Chen

Sometimes you just want to listen to two dudes sitting on chairs showing off their vocal chords with little more than an acoustic guitar backing them up. Korea throws out plenty of these kinds of songs these days, and you won’t hear any protests about that from me, but Bye Babe boasts the kind of next-level chorus that never fails to get my toe tapping. EXO’s Chen makes for a perfect anchor to 10cm’s falsetto-toting Jungyeol, and the pair almost manage to upstage that deliciously funky synth-bass being played right behind them. Almost. This song is just so simple and so, so good.
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9. Paradise – Millic feat. Fanxy Child

The same trio that graced my 2016 list with a slick collaboration returns with a fourth member, a new moniker (“Fanxychild”? How do you say that?) and a very talented producer to create more magic. Zico, Dean, Crush and Penomeco throw lines to one another on Paradise like they do it every day, and Crush in particular is just about the smoothest vocal presence imaginable, providing the grounding for all the frantic rapping to land on. The real star, though, is Millic’s ethereal backing track, which evokes feelings of transportation to another world.
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8. Dinosaur – Akdong Musician

Surely one of the surprises of the year was just how easily the quirky acoustic-duet sensibilities of sibling duo Akdong Musician translate to a dance floor beat. Starting with a familiar guitar base, Chanhyuk and Soohyun build an unapologetic, confident EDM track that is almost trailblazing within the K-Pop sphere – there are no gimmicks here, no unnecessary extra noise or distracting elements – just a no-nonsense build and drop taken to the next level by truly angelic harmonising and some uniquely nostalgic lyrics. Who saw this coming?
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7. Black Suit – Super Junior

Spot the odd one out on this list. Don’t want to? OK, fine. Black Suit is the only song in my top 15 performed by an act that was also on my first list, all the way back in 2012. Seeing this particularly senior line-up of Super Junior back together, Siwon and all, with such a good song gave me such an unexpectedly strong rush of nostalgia that I actually had a lump in my throat watching it. Yeah, I’m a sucker. Plenty of these Korean superstars have spent the last few years as omnipresent comedians-slash-presenters, and most have spent years in the army, yet they take to the song and video like the seasoned pros they are. Welcome back, Suju.
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6. A Girl Like Me – Gugudan

Choosing a song from Gugudan – who are quickly becoming one of my favourite female K-Pop acts – to put here was a bit of a struggle. The MV for their catchy-as song Chococo is exactly the kind of weird, forget-your-troubles-what-the-hell-is-that fun you might normally expect from the likes of Orange Caramel, but I feel A Girl Like Me is the better song. This track announces its intent early with a descending fanfare, plants itself in your head and does not leave without a fight, making its assault with a backing track that feels like its talking to you. No two verses are alike, but that chorus is the very best kind of repetitive.
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5. Circle’s Dream – Subin

K-Pop songs with an indie spirit aren’t exactly the rarest thing in the world nowadays, but on Circle’s Dream Subin, who until recently was a member of the otherwise by-the-numbers girl group Dal Shabet, takes things to another level with one of the weirdest songs of the year – in a very good way. Evoking Kate Bush with a red dress in an outdoor setting for the second time this year (her other 2017 song Strawberry is also worth a listen), Subin self-harmonises, whispers and r-rolls her way to a song with simultaneously haunting and optimistic tones. It’s a journey and a half.
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4. Likey – Twice

Jumping back to the high-energy stuff, Likey is one of four Korean MV tracks released by the beyond-hard-working supergroup Twice in 2017 (they also did some work in Japan this year). Its Instagram-powered lyrics are neat and all, but more importantly Likey is the most straightforwardly catchy lead song the nine-piece has put out since their debut, packing a meaty backing track that stands on it own as well as one of the best-produced outdoor music videos in K-Pop (If you don’t mind an almost non-existent focus on dancing). It’s very easy to see the appeal of Likey – and by extension Twice – after just one listen, and therein lies its strength. Twice’s immediate follow-up Heart Shaker is almost as good, by the way.
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3. Come Over – Dean feat. Baek Yerin

Making his second appearance on this list, this time as the headlining artist, Dean brings his silky voice to an otherworldly piano-based track boasting some of the most sonically interesting percussion in recent memory. Building on his own vocals and sliding into one of the year’s best post-chorus lines before bringing the all-too-rarely-seen Yerin of 15& into frame to weave her own magic on the song, Come Over is smooth, relaxed, surprisingly catchy and held up by that distant beat that defies description. This one stayed in my rotation for a very long time in 2017.
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2. Red Flavor – Red Velvet

Though I do my best to hide it when I’m writing these lists, for the last few years I haven’t exactly been all up in K-Pop’s business for 365 days at a time. Like a lot of people I float in and out of the scene as time and energy permits, and without fail around the end of the Korean summer there’s a song that gives a jolt of electricity to my K-Pop hype and pulls me back in. Last year it was Blackpink’s Whistle and in 2017 it was 110% Red Velvet’s Red Flavor. From the very first line, when Red Velvet’s trademark “full” sound is put front and centre, this summery jam adds and removes walls of sound (both vocal and produced) that keep the song feeling as fresh as the fruit the MV is so clearly trying to make you want to eat. Even though Red Velvet is… interviewing the fruit? Yes, it’s weird, but anything that reminds me of Pikmin 3, however accidentally, gets bonus points. And this excellent song did not need them.
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1. 1.2.3 – B.I.G

That’s a lot of dots to type in one header. I liked B.I.G’s 1.2.3 (and their spicy accompanying release Hello Hello) when I first heard it, but I can scarcely believe how much it has grown on me since. What do you know, it’s now my favourite song of 2017. The funky guitar roll that kicks things off and modulates throughout the song keeps a rock-solid footing for the odd techno flourish to stand on until the chorus hits, whereupon a sudden hit of synth strings and an addictive run of falsetto vocal lines calls to mind the best of Maroon 5’s earlier work. From there the time-to-chorus accelerates until the song has you well and truly caught up in its flow. 1.2.3‘s energy is positively infectious and it’s great to see such quality from a long-suffering, lower-tier group. Hopefully the still-unfortunately-named B.I.G is on to bigger and better things now.

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And that wraps it up! If you’re an Apple Music subscriber, you can tap this link to access this countdown as a playlist if that tickles your fanxy.

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Honorable Mentions
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–Not Today – BTS
Watch: HERE

BTS sure as hell had a big year and this was my favourite song they released. It’s positively packed with the kind of bravado they just don’t use enough these days, and it has ruined (improved?) the phrase “not today” for me whenever I hear it now.

–Sunday – Groovyroom (Heize & Jay Park)
Watch: HERE

The award for breakout producing team in 2017 has to go to Groovyroom, who lived up to their audio tag and were well and truly “everywhere” this past year. Their song with Heize and Jay Park was the pick of the bunch for me, thanks to a chilled sound and a razor-sharp MV.

–Chase Me – Dreamcatcher
Watch: HERE

If you’re a fan of fast-paced, rock-influenced J-Pop sounds, you might be wondering why it took so long for a Korean group like Dreamcatcher to turn up. But you’d be glad they did, because they attacked 2017 with multiple head-banging singles and Chase Me is the rockiest one.

–Honey Bee – Luna, Hani & Solar
Watch: HERE

A shockingly left-field grouping of disparate K-Pop stars, two of these three happen to rank among my all-time favourite female vocalists, and Hani keeps up with them pretty well. All three sure look they enjoy performing this sassy, catchy brass showcase.

–Sad Pain – Suran
Watch: HERE

Formerly one half of an ill-fated duo and known more for her duets / having a song produced by BTS’ Suga than for her own solo work, Suran released this absolute cracker of a laconic jam that may be a remake of a 1995 Seo Taiji hit, but she sure makes it her own with some bitingly bittersweet vocals.

–Baesisi – Jisook & Ilhoon
Watch: HERE

Baesisi is just a straight-up great boy/girl duet with a bouncy, sweet tone elevated by two of the happiest-sounding voices the song’s producers could have found. The simple combination of rap and singing works in timeless fashion and that chorus sure is sticky.

–Happy – WJSN
Watch: HERE

This song is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin – If you’re a K-Pop fan and you feel like a guaranteed mood-lifter, Cosmic Girls’ Happy is likely to make you just that. The song is fast-paced, almost impossibly high-energy and just a heap of fun.

–Love Whisper – Gfriend
Watch: HERE

I do love me some new jack swing where I can get it, and though Gfriend released a song called Summer Rain that arguably puts the crispy synth-drum style to more obvious use, Love Whisper is a better-rounded song with a memorable key-jumping chorus.

–Silky Bois – Han Yo Han, Goretexx & Black Nut
Watch: HERE

I really wish I could have fit this one on the main list, because its utterly ludicrous video has me snickering whenever I watch it. This isn’t just one of the funniest K-Pop releases of the year, however – It’s also a really catchy song!

–Untitled, 2014 – G-Dragon
Watch: HERE

G-Dragon’s attempt at the kind of low-key vocal platform for which his bandmate Taeyang is more renowned doesn’t quite reach the heights of the latter’s work, but GD nonetheless pulls this heartfelt track off with panache, selling a vulnerable side of himself that he rarely exhibits.

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