Best of 2018: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

What a difference a single year can make.

2018 was arguably (and this really is arguable because music is so subjective) a significant step up over 2017 for that unique range of K-Pop sounds that have kept people like me connected – however loosely – to the industry for so long. But 2018 was also the year that I spent the least time listening to K-Pop since this list has been a thing. That’s not necessarily an indicator of the future – for the first half of the year it wasn’t clear whether the podcast I relied on for most of my K-Pop exposure was on hiatus or actually done (It turned out to be the latter) and I also stopped listening to the curated playlists I would normally enjoy while running because of a shockingly persistent knee injury. During that lengthy period I only really listened to the biggest-name releases, though I eventually readjusted my habits – quite late in the year it must be said – and took in a whole bunch of K-Pop at once. That probably had an impact on my positive outlook for the year, because I didn’t have to wade through as much average sameyness, but I maintain that I still find this Top 15 stronger than last year’s. Take that as you will.

The list only considers songs that have a corresponding music video (with one odd exception) and have a significant amount of Korean lyrics within them. It’s an audio-first critique, however – Some of these MVs I hadn’t actually seen before I sat down to write this. It’s restricted to one song per act. Oh, and if this is just about the only K-Pop stuff you’ve watched this year, I recommend hovering over each video and turning off the automatic captions as you go. They’re distracting and usually not exactly poetry when translated. That’s just the way I do it, though. You do you.

.
-◊-◊-◊-◊-

VR BEST OF 2018 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 odd, but let’s have a beer. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

.

.

15. POP/STARS – K/DA

What’s that? This doesn’t count? I’m using a League of Legends promotion as clickbait? I am outraged at the mere accusation. Have you heard this song? Against all odds, what could have come across as a cheap attempt to cash in on LoL‘s sizeable Korean player base is in reality a hyper-polished production effort worthy of a top tier K-Pop label, complete with affectionate nods to such tried-and-true Korean music video tropes as rapid-fire freeze-frame poses, member-specific sets, stationary expensive cars, minimal footage of actual dancing and an ultra-serious group logo stinger. Featuring just enough Korean language to count for this list – duly provided by a third of (G)I-DLE – POP/STARS was composed almost entirely at RIOT Games, which seems unfair to the rest of K-Pop because it is a banger. Check out the hologram-infused live performance of the song at the LoL World Championships if you fancy.


.

14. Easy – Whee In

Let’s pump the brakes immediately so I can let Mamamoo’s least prominent member blow her bandmates’ previous standalone efforts out of the water with this lounge melody. Whee In’s considerable vocal prowess is famous in the K-Pop world by now but she hasn’t done nearly as much featuring work as Solar, Hwasa or Moonbyul, let alone had the opportunity to stand and deliver on her own lead vocal performance. But this particular effort is arguably the most fitting instance yet of a backing track that matches the strengths of an individual Mamamoo voice, which – surprise surprise – gives it a head start on the rest. What makes it one of my favourite songs of the year though is that sumptuous opening callout that soon turns into the weirdest simultaneously taunting and comforting post-chorus cooldown.

.

13. Oh! My Mistake – April

Though Wikipedia tells me April has been around since 2015, I’ve never got along with any of their stuff and honestly thought they debuted this year for a second. But never mind that, because Oh! My Mistake has twisted itself into my head and still doesn’t want to leave. Carrying an intriguingly low-energy keyboard tone opening that builds up to the chorus with more percussion and a key change then steps down again for the chorus itself, this track has one hell of a weird flow to it but in K-Pop sometimes that’s what you need to stand out from the rather packed crowd. Just as long as you’re still catchy. Which Oh! My Mistake most certainly is.

.

12. Idol – BTS

At first glance this loud song is little more than a thumping party track shouted out by the biggest boy band in the world. But things are rarely about first glance with BTS. I don’t know if it’s the South African gqom-style beat, the dirty brass layer on top of it, the universally positive single chorus lyric, or the fact that the music video doesn’t feature five minutes of abstract storytelling either side of the actual performance, but this is probably my favourite BTS release in years. Ostensibly making fun of the idol culture of which they are inescapably a part (an angle many K-Pop acts have used before), the Bangtan boys nonetheless don’t shy away from embracing who and what they are, look like they have a heap of fun doing it, and succeed in ensuring that attitude is contagious.

.

11. Bboom Bboom – Momoland

More dirty brass here, this time even more insistent and bubbly, and carried by one of 2018’s most ever-present groups. Momoland, with the help of this song and other similar rumbler Baam, broke free of the early-day rookie group blues to build a minor reputation for themselves this year as the closest thing to the old T-Ara sound that we have nowadays. Some may not care for that, but in my book it’s just fine. You know, as long as the whole industry isn’t flooded with it. Bboom Bboom just makes you want to get up and dance with its unrelenting bass, killer saxophone sample and sticky stuttering vocals. It turns out it also has a really fun MV to accompany it, so enjoy.

.

10. The Boots – Gugudan

Two years, two entries on this list for Gugudan, who are building a pretty consistent reputation now. Though I’m not a fan of the way The Boots strips away it’s greatest weapon – Its collapsing light percussion backing track – for each pre-chorus, just about everything else about this song is delectable. The repeating whistle sample accentuates the atypical tempo, the melodic tones in the background lend a breezy feel, the more industrial three-stage bridge is just the right side of cheesy (I wish there was more of that brief sax flare), the rapping is brief and Gugudan’s members seal the deal with rock-solid vocals.

.

9. Upside Down – Jay Park, S.Dominic, Loco & Gray

OK first things first, I know this MV is going for a super grassroots, underground feel but it can be quite difficult on the eyes with its insanely quick cuts and overblown strobe effects, so I implore you to focus on the song and watch outside of fullscreen mode if you can. With that out of the way, we have ourselves another multi-artist hip-hop extravaganza here and I love it to bits. Clearly designed for headphones, I’m a big fan of the way the distorted production on the backing track during the verses gives way to a matching blare on the chorus and a cleaner sound on the eh-eh-eh bridge. There’s a weird cohesion to the song despite the differing styles and reputations of each rapper and a lot of that credit has to go to Gray, whose dulcet tones hold up that chorus. Good stuff.

.

8. Dayfly – Dean ft. Sulli & Rad Museum

This is a weird one because despite the release of the above teaser, we are still waiting for an official MV for this song (It released really late in the year). Dean has a history of being ponderous with such releases so it’s expected we’ll get one eventually, but until then here’s the mesmerising audio for Dayfly:

Dean has been somewhat of a mainstay on this page for a few years now, as his voice is almost as good as his producing skills. I look forward to all his releases – carefully spaced as they are – but when I heard that he was doing a track with Sulli, the exiled member of my beloved f(x), my hype skyrocketed. And that was just because it had been so long since I heard her. I had no idea she could sing like this. However much of a split this is between latent ability and Dean magic, I love it. There wasn’t a better unwinding tune I heard in 2018, full stop.

.

7. Something New – Taeyeon

Not one single song this year grabbed my attention at first listen more immediately than this one. Taeyeon’s promise of something new is fulfilled in style with an opening stanza in Imogen Heap-esque acapella that fills the ears and might make you wonder why more artists haven’t gone to that well. Then the loud and laconic bass kicks in and you’re in for a relaxed jam as you take in the voice of one of K-Pop’s most tenacious vocal talents. As everyone involved probably learned on her wonderful song 11:11 a couple years back, Taeyeon can get an awful lot of mileage out of a good old “na-na-na” line and she proves that once again here. If there’s one jarring element to it for me it’s the MV, which while slickly-produced and cool in concept just does not fit the vibe of the song. Taeyeon’s hold on every syllable of the title evokes more of a beach walk than anything else for me and I’ll probably use it for just that soon enough.

.

6. Hann – (G)I-DLE

Luckily for (G)I-DLE, a League of Legends collaboration wasn’t their only move of note in what was ultimately a show-stopping debut year. The fledgling Cube Entertainment group seems to be positioned as the heir apparent to 4Minute and while there are some definite echoes of that former group’s Volume Up in this MV, with songs like Hann (G)I-DLE has the potential to forge their own identity as one of K-Pop’s premier acts. I am a sucker for any song that incorporates a half-decent melodic whistle, but Hann adds one of the better-produced pre-choruses of the year and more besides. Rapper Soyeon (who played Akali in the video at the top of this page) is clearly not lacking in either talent or camera presence and apparently the producers agree, because the second verse completely scraps the striking airy duality of the first just to give her more rap time – and it works. K-Pop groups rarely have strong second years but still, watch this space.

.

5. Power Up – Red Velvet

For those keeping track (i.e literally just me), this entry means that Red Velvet is now tied with EXO for most appearances on my end-of-year K-Pop singles list. Yet unlike EXO, Red Velvet hasn’t left the list since they topped the 2015 edition. As their success rolls on, it is now more baffling to me than ever why more K-Pop groups don’t at least attempt to emulate the frankly unparalleled harmonising efforts of the now-default queens of late summer K-Pop. Literally no one else I’ve heard produces the vocally layered sound that Power Up once again displays with such effortless confidence and I for one can’t seem to get enough of it. That mid-chorus section is simply my favourite use of the traditional pop music “yeah” that I’ve heard in years. Power Up is so good that I can’t even talk about Red Velvet’s other incredible 2018 track Bad Boy. Well, not yet…

.

4. Baby Don’t Stop – NCT U

NCT had an absolute barnstormer of a year, as is the eventual destiny of every SM Entertainment boy band I suppose. More wide-reaching and confusing to follow than any of the label’s previous efforts, few could argue that they didn’t come up with the goods in the realm of bass-thumping beats – especially when it comes to the sub-unit NCT U. In fact despite some not-insignificant vocal talent, SM has arguably never produced a group with this much emphasis on the percussion. Baby Don’t Stop was only one of NCT U’s beat-riding bangers this year, but it has a sensual persistence that no other act could match. Performed by only two of the group’s members, Ten and Taeyeong, Baby Don’t Stop is not lacking any of the punch that the reduction in personnel might imply. On the contrary, it frequently strips down to little more than a rhythm and that makes it even more powerful. Then at the end there’s that bit of harmonising and the song just gets even better.

.

3. Seoul – RM

BTS’ solo member work is plentiful and well-loved among the group’s considerable fan base, but a lot of it is intensely personal at the expense of accessibility to a Western audience and some of it is just as cookie-cutter as any other major group’s cynical break-off efforts. For leader Rap Monster’s second isolated effort, however, he links up with British producer duo Honne, and the result is a smooth-listening triumph. Still clearly a personal song in the lyrical department – a sing-rap about the beautiful-terrible duality of RM’s home city – the foreign touch means the global megastar can have his cake and eat it too. If you look for it, Seoul has layers of depth, but if you don’t, it makes you want to contemplate life while staring out of a train window anyway. Either way, it’s really freaking catchy, with a sensationally-produced backing track and a super-silky flow.

.

2. Shine – Pentagon

So many songs that end up making my personal lists every year live and die by their backing track, but I don’t know if any of them this year have one as strangely appealing as this one. Shine starts with a full four bars of bare piano melody that call to mind a primary school classroom, and then that melody just does not stop for anything but the bridge for the rest of the song. Pentagon flirts with singing along to the sample throughout the song but they only actually do it three times, and each instance plays like a gigantic exhale after holding your breath for a minute – especially the longer final time. This tension mechanic is fascinating enough but once you get past it and listen again (and again), the song keeps revealing more levels – the surprising lack of repetition in the verses, the fist-pumping vocal flourishes all over, the smooth crooning in the background of the bridge and the high notes straight after it, the infectious energy of the MV – This is a complete package of a K-Pop song. But yeah, um, they use a Fortnite dance for part of the choreography, so…

.

1. Regular – NCT 127

Let it not be said that I don’t love a loophole.

Believe it or not, NCT U and NCT 127 are technically different groups – which I realised far too late after agonising over which wider NCT production I liked more for at least a month – and now that I can put both of them on the list I’m far more confident in my feelings about Regular, a jam lacking the hard-hitting beat of the likes of Baby Don’t Stop but boasting two major positives in its column when it comes to my personal feelings. Firstly there is that delicious Latin backing track, which not only rocks by itself but reminds me specifically of the desert levels in Spacestation Silicon Valley for the N64, like nothing else has in years. Secondly, when I was really diving back into K-Pop after that hiatus I referenced in the intro, NCT 127 was bringing the kind of uniquely misplaced bravado that only SM can deliver to the Jimmy Kimmel show in the form of an English version of Regular that very weekend. This felt like a direct callback to when the same company did the same thing with SNSD’s The Boys on the David Letterman show at the end of 2011, which was a major factor in me discovering K-Pop. I couldn’t help but think of the people out there who might be having a similar eye-opening experience here. Long story short, nostalgia is a powerful thing, NCT had a really good 2018, and I really like Regular.

.

That’s all she wrote folks. Get this countdown as a playlist on Apple Music right here.

.
-◊-◊-◊-◊-

Honorable Mentions
.

favOriTe – LOONA
Watch: HERE

This was on my main list until the very last revision pushed it off. Though it was technically a “pre-debut” song for the beyond-hyped-up LOONA, I like it more than their actual debut Hi High, mostly because of that out-of-this-world backing track which sounds like nothing else this year. The bridge ain’t bad either.

Love Shot – EXO
Watch: HERE

Sneaking in with a mid-December release, EXO once again proves they can’t go a year without putting out something worth a listen (and a watch, even if Kai’s bedroom-eyes intensity is approaching NSFW levels). A note-sliding good time.

Wind Flower – MAMAMOO
Watch: HERE

This is delightfully smooth Mamamoo vocals, a guitar, a plonky piano and not much else – which is either a nice change of pace from their regular stuff if you’re a casual fan or a welcome breath of fresh air if you thought they went too poppy for a while. Get it in ya.

What is Love – Twice
Watch: HERE

As usual I find myself choosing between two great Twice songs for one slot, but I’m going with What is Love over the adorable Yes or Yes because I prefer the backing track, I love a good chant and the MV has a bunch of neat movie references.

April Fools – Jimin
Watch: HERE

Remember Jimin? No? The girl who beat Lee Hi to the top spot of that one really fruitful season of K-Pop Star, was paired with JYP trainee Yerin to form the promising duo 15&, but didn’t stick? She put out the odd low-budget video with some friends in the industry for a while but this track is a powerful reminder of what she can do.

Lullaby – GOT7
Watch: HERE

My favourite GOT7 song since 2016’s Just Right does the standard GOT7 thing where it isn’t quite sure what kind of song it wants to be at times, but the wild experimentation is reigned in just enough, the beat is rock-solid and the chorus is simple and sticky. I also really like the part where the bass drops off slightly right before the second chorus.

Soulmate – Zico feat IU
Watch: HERE

Zico does a million cool collabs a year but while picking IU as your featuring artist is just asking to be overshadowed, the brash rapper here reminds us all that he was picked for a normal (ish) K-Pop group once upon a time. He hits some surprising notes on the way to creating a memorable track.

Pluhmm – HA:TFELT
Watch: HERE

The now two-time former Wonder Girl with the really weird soloist name drops a sensual beat here. YeEun proves why she was the vocal pinch hitter for that legendary group by crooning over a smooth guitar base, with a bonus half-rap laden with pop culture references because why not really.

Wow Thing – Seulgi, SinB, Chungha & Soyeon
Watch: HERE

Oh look, it’s Soyeon from (G)I-DLE yet again. Not that she’s in it much – Seulgi dominates this song so much it almost sounds like a Red Velvet tune – but it’s a fun grouping that also brings together SinB from GFriend and the irrepressible Chungha. A fun, bouncy chorus holds the seams together.

Woman – BoA
Watch: HERE

In case you need a reminder that BoA is still at the top of her game after eighteen years, just give this video a watch. There just isn’t anyone else even close to taking her long-standing regal title.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: