Best of 2020: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

Lockdowns, quarantines and shutdowns slowed a great many things to a halt in 2020, but they couldn’t quite stop the music, and across the ever-widening scope of Korean tunes crammed under the label of “K-Pop”, there was plenty to get excited about. A lot of the best tracks this year released without the slick music videos that would qualify them for the ninth edition of this list (!) – we will get to the album B-sides of 2020 in short order, fear not – but the headliners still provided just enough quality to make for a top fifteen that I really enjoy. You might too, particularly if you enjoy the kind of synth-heavy 1980s throwback sounds that the industry regularly utilised this year.

I must send my apologies to the boy group stans out there – this is the first time ever that the list hasn’t featured a single male voice in the top five. That’s probably a teensy bit tied to the fact that this is also the first K-Pop list I’ve ever written without a single entry from SM Entertainment – Oh how far we’ve come.

As always, a quick shout-out to the 2020 Korean releases that definitively slap but don’t qualify for the list’s criteria: ChungHa’s funky jam Dream of You (with R3HAB), Eden’s LEEZ team-up Paranoid, and BVNDIT’s  gloriously cheesy Cool are all exclusively in English (with the latter also breaking my one-song-per-act rule); THAMA & SOLE’s chilled masterclass Google Map does not have a music video (nor is it a B-side), putting it in technical no-man’s land; and the sensational K-RnB giga-collaboration Automatic Remix is over 15 minutes long so there’s no way I’m talking about it here.

Another massive shout-out to the community of This Week in K-Pop‘s Stankpop podcast, which just finished its first full year of shows under the new call-in format. Without their vast and illuminating tastes, this 2020 list would have been a complete shambles. Anyway, get your headphones on, crank up the volume and let’s get into it.

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VR BEST OF 2020 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. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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15. I Can’t Stop Me – Twice

We start without wasting time – Here’s an immediate hit of that ’80s sound with which this past year seemed infatuated. Constructed by an eclectic mix of international producers, the synth-loving headliner to Twice’s excellent 2020 full album puts the light and breezy energy the group brings so consistently to use over a slamming stadium beat that only briefly gives way to the omnipresent industry trap sound. Can’t Stop Me‘s oddly thin vocal production isn’t the top-drawer stuff you often get with Twice (see the group’s recent collaboration with the League of Legends team) but the rest of the song’s parts more than make up for it.

14. Ohio – Crush

In this house we sure do enjoy a bit of experimental percussion, and Crush’s Ohio is ear-catching from moment one. Like a controlled tumble of wooden toys looping forever, the crunch of this beat is set in perfect contrast to some of the smoothest pipes in K-Pop – each half of the song enhances the effect of the other. The encroaching piano seals the two halves together, only dropping out twice to let some more acapella touches breathe over the beat. By the time the bass guitar swells underneath Crush’s falsetto for the final flourish, Ohio has established itself as one of the more successful spicy songs in Crush’s extensive discography.

13. More – K/DA

K/DA returned in 2020, as they had long threatened. Riot Games hit a real winner two years ago with the virtual multi-lingual League of Legends girl group’s breakout song Pop/Stars, and I was so confused by how good it was that I used it to prop up the bottom of 2018’s Top 15 list. This time around Riot brought a full-on EP, and the spearheading MV release that accompanied it is a reminder of where passion and talent can get you. MORE is nowhere near the triumphant level of the lightning-in-a-bottle Pop/Stars, but its still an achievement in quality, effortless-sounding production that reunites the personnel who originally brought K/DA to life. The K-Pop industry has changed in the last couple of years and I’m more confident putting this kind of project on a list now, so here it is.

12. Betting – Xydo feat. pH-1

A bit of Electric Light Orchestra-esque wailing distortion to usher in a near-constant falsetto performance and a click-happy, stamp-your-feet beat – what’s not to like? Featuring artist pH-1 had an extremely busy 2020; most of the releases he touched turned to gold and this collaboration with up-and-comer Xydo is no exception. Betting is the closest any song has come to giving me the particular flavour of good vibes brought on by Verbal Jint/Sanchez’s 2015 bop Favoritea song that attempted to channel some good old fashioned MJ energy to get listeners off their chairs. There’s probably nothing more I need to say beyond that.

11. Love Me Harder – WOODZ

Another year, another song with a whistle in it. Sometimes I’m just a simple man when it comes to what my brain decides to enjoy in a K-Pop song, and UNIQ soloist WOODZ was more than happy to provide a hit of the good stuff in 2020 (Remember UNIQ? I just had no idea they were still a thing until this year). There’s a lot to love all throughout this song: the little key-shake sound right after the first blast; the distant vocal echo on the bridge that fills your headphones without detracting from the melody; the sliding quick-changes of the backing guitar and bass; our main man’s consistent wispy vocals; and of course just the right amount of whistle garnish. Bonus points for the mullet in the music video. This wasn’t even the best song WOODZ put out this year…

10. Pporappippam – Sunmi

We enter the top ten with another huge dose of ’80s from JYP Entertainment, but this one is just a bit special. It comes from a writing team heavily involved in the Wonder Girls’ seminal 1980s tribute album REBOOT; that team is none other than frequent JYP contributor Frants and ex-Wonder Girl Sunmi herself. The prolific and provocative soloist slays the title’s unapologetically Korean slice of pseudo-onomatopoeia with a typically confident tone that re-confirms her renowned affection for the ’80s aesthetic; here lies a euphoric vocal statement over a grimy industrial beat and flickering electric guitar that overflows with a zest for life. You can almost hear the streaks of neon purple and it is positively glorious.

9. Thunder – Verivery

This year’s shock boy group bop comes to you courtesy of Jellyfish Entertainment’s promising yet somewhat run-of-the-mill seven-piece act Verivery. It’s become oddly apparent over the last few years that one of the quickest ways to get my attention on an unfamiliar group or artist is to make your song sound like a videogame from the ’90s, and the first sixteen counts of Thunder evoke Grant Kirkhope’s moodier work on the likes of Donkey Kong 64. It’s a wonderful accident but it locks me right in, and this song goes from strength to strength afterwards. With one of the cooler post-choruses of the year, sticky call-response moments punctuating the transistions, tons of delectable harmonies, a truly incredible start to the second verse, and no forced rap stanza (oh my), Thunder is a hair away from being my favourite boy group song of 2020.

8. Cold – Gaeko feat. Heize

Korean RnB superstar Heize had a slightly lower-key year following a watershed 2019, but she still released a powerful slow jam or two, and this collaboration with veteran Gaeko topped the pack for me. Songs that blur the lines between hip-hop and velvety crooning tend to take up a fair amount of my listening time these days, and Cold handily fits that bill. A honey-drizzled backing track adorned with lazy electric guitar keeps things lovely and simple, setting the platform for two of the best in the business at switching between quick rhymes and brain-melting long notes. The piano breakdown ushering in the home stretch is an extra treat. I’ve listened to Cold more than any other song on this list, and it thoroughly deserves to be my favourite chill song of 2020.

7. God’s Menu – Stray Kids

Dear readers, I present to you the very best K-Pop music video of 2020. Stray Kids and JYP Entertainment unleashed an absolute monster of a track with God’s Menu, dressing it up in an expensive wrapper with razor-sharp transitions that stays with tongue firmly in cheek – even while it provides buckets of the smoky stare-downs for which K-Pop boy group releases are so famous. I may never look at a racetrack or restaurant kitchen the same way ever again. All of this is just a bonus, of course; these lists are always audio-first for me and this beat is truly sensational. Throughout the year if I needed to test a piece of audio equipment I’d go straight to this relentless rhythm barely keeping a rein on the all-consuming wall of noise. Reliable and magnificent stuff.

6. Jungle – BVNDIT

I know I’ve said once or twice on this site that I’m astonished more groups don’t attempt to go for the harmony-first Red Velvet approach to song production, but in 2020 the already-established BVNDIT proved they were well and truly up for the challenge. They went three from three this year with the introspective Children, the aforementioned toe-tapper Cool, and this dark-dimension reflection of the long-codified RV sound. Jungle starts with a backing track that sounds like its shouting at you, then plays with percussion incessantly throughout as the five tremendous vocalists of BVNDIT swing past one another with complementary ease. The finale is a perfect example of strong build-up, going back to basics then adding a layer of sound for every new voice until it’s alight with crunch and harmony. I’ll be following the remainder of this group’s career with great interest.

5. Hands Up – Cherry Bullet

Sometimes these days I forget why I make the extra effort to keep up with the breathless pace of a music industry sitting behind a language barrier on the other side of the world, especially when so much of it sounds the same. Then a track like this comes along; a medley of disparate parts impossible to predict forming a song it feels like no-one in their right mind would attempt anywhere else but in Korea. Then I remember why I keep going back in. Cherry Bullet’s Hands Up sounds like it was composed in a fever dream by someone who spent all day playing Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door on the Nintendo Gamecube, then loaded up a playlist filled with YouTube remixes of Beethoven’s Für Elise and fell asleep listening to it. Yet all the sounds somehow coalesce to form something simultaneously punchy, airy and endlessly compelling. Hands Up unleashed its odd sound on the world all the way back in February, but I have not been able to get it out of my head all year.

4. Assa – Cignature

It just isn’t fair: thousands of K-Pop songs throughout 2020 tried to nail a winning sound using cool and inventive backing tracks; most of them failed. Meanwhile here’s Cignature, rocking the two best backing track riffs of the entire year – in the same song. Not even an extremely jarring chorus-capping note slide – and make no mistake, it takes some serious getting used to – can ultimately put much of a dent in the sheer stickiness of this pair of tracks. The tasty zipping guitar growls as it burrows into your head from the first second, and just when you’ve settled into its clap-assisted groove, that bell/whistle-like EDM track overrides it at the beginning of the chorus and you’re up on your feet involuntarily. The deeper, more warped version of the second track that closes out proceedings ties everything up with style. This is only Cignature’s second release, but as far as I’m concerned they may have already made the best song of their career.

3. Eclipse – Moonbyul

As the four ridiculously talented vocalists of MAMAMOO continue to spread their wings individually, it’s no surprise that they’ve built up quite a few good tunes between them. I’ve featured one or two on past lists (some as honorable mentions) and all four continue to have bright futures. But I would never in a million years have predicted that my favourite solo MAMAMOO song yet would come from Moonbyul, the group’s designated rapper. She sounds more like a veteran of melancholy rock operas on the hugely surprising Eclipse, where the dark trap trimmings and bwaums of countless modern boy groups are turned on their heads to underscore a stadium-shaker that was sadly unable to shake any stadiums in 2020. One of the many, many tragedies of this pandemic is that I have been unable to slide on my knees, clench a fist and scream that reverberating ’90s semi-falsetto backing response from the chorus in a karaoke room.

2. Feeling of You – Yunsae

Feel free to take all of this with a grain of salt, because one thing definitely bears mentioning: some time after one of the Stankpop podcast contributors discovered indie singer-songwriter Yunsae’s cheery mood-lifter Way to You near the beginning of 2020, Yunsae herself let us premiere her follow-up song on the show. Somehow Feeling of You came out even better – but you don’t need to take my word for it; I mean, just listen to this song. One person did the lion’s share of putting this thing together, then went ahead and performed it; it’s enough to inspire anyone who wants to put their creative energy to use making music. The clarity and balance of this backing track is a true joy through headphones, peeling and re-applying audio layers with bouncy precision. It’s no fluke – Yunsae is currently one of K-Pop’s most consistent producers (check out the work she did with Long:D and Summer Soul this month). And yeah, her voice isn’t bad either. Get this talent on your radar ASAP.

1. La Di Da – Everglow

So we finish where we started: firmly lodged in the synth-drenched sound of the 1980s. This time, however, we’ve got an ever-expanding beat with proper coliseum crunch along for the ride, and what a sumptuous result. Everglow were probably the champions of girl group consistency in 2020 when all is said and done, as their year began with arguably the quintessential example of the ‘girl crush’ concept executed like loud aggressive clockwork, DUN DUN. So it is pretty impressive that the same year ended with a throwback track this ridiculously good. The music video is only half decent (when it isn’t trying to be Sin City with an awful filter) but the song is an ear worm from the first delectably simple power-chorus. The backing track is strong enough to stand on its own, but why listen to it without that killer harmony on the title line? La Di Da has plenty of vocal variety, one of the strongest uses of a chant in years, and a knockout re-entry whenever the bass comes back. The minor-key-flavour of the title drop also makes it an emphatic endpoint to any playlist – like, say, one made up of this exact Top 15, which you can find on Apple Music right here.

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Honorable Mentions

–Life Goes On – BTS
Watch: HERE

I didn’t quite get along with most of BTS’ 2020 output, but they left their best for last; it turns out that making a song I like this year was as easy as toning down the heavy vocal filters for a split-second and letting loose some high notes over a really nice acoustic-fed slow beat.

–Make the Move – Soovi feat. pH-1
Watch: HERE

Oh look, it’s pH-1 again. The man’s choice to team up with the steady vocals of newly-minted RnB mover Soovi makes for a fantastic proper debut for the latter, as the laconic hip-hop specialist is able to ping-pong around her and bring just enough energy to the production to balance out the pseudo-organ base with panache.

–Feel So Good – Del.Mo
Watch: HERE

From its shiver-inducing first build, this Chill Young-produced collaboration brings lo-fi-with-a-beat to us all in a delectable package. The song has grown on me a tiny bit with every listen, and has done so with such consistency that if it had come out a smidge earlier in the year it’d probably be on the main list.

–YESSIR – 3YE
Watch: HERE

Following on from their bombastic debut double in 2019, 3YE continued to outperform groups three or four times their size throughout 2020 – especially those who tend to direct their efforts towards girl crush concepts. This snare drum-powered banger sees the trio dancing rings around the camera like they’ve been in the spotlight for years.

–Tiger Inside – SuperM
Watch: HERE

Colour me shocked – in 2020 SM Entertainment actually attempted to do a spiritual successor of sorts to EXO’s disastrous 2013 song Wolf – a choreography-first, song-last mess – and with a slight personnel overlap too. SuperM’s Tiger Inside brings similarly cheesy energy, but simplifies the visuals and most importantly remembers to be catchy this time.

–Yesterday – Yukika
Watch: HERE

Keeping with our overarching 1980s theme, one of Korea’s foremost city pop specialists brings the authentic goods with Yesterday. The Japanese-born emerging star adds a fair amount of backing vocal power to the soft synth and rumbling guitar of the resurgent subgenre, messing about with a bit of woodwind for good measure.

–Nerdy Love – pH-1 feat. Yerin Baek
Watch: HERE

Our third and final appearance of pH-1 sees the rapper take the headlining spot. The first time I heard this song the rippling notes threaded throughout the backing track gave me actual chills down the back of my neck, and the introduction of Yerin Baek’s famously airy tones only amplifies their effect.

–Naughty – Red Velvet (Irene & Seulgi)
Watch: HERE

2020 may well have shown Red Velvet the dreaded SM girl group axe – it’s probably too early to tell at the moment – but their first-ever sub-unit went off exceptionally well. Not only is Naughty the kind of EDM-heavy song that may not have jelled with the main group, it comes with one doozy of a tutting-choreo performance video.

–Unbalance – Choi Yegeun
Watch: HERE

One taste of Choi Yegeun’s rustic melancholy flair was all I needed to become an instant fan. She brings a rock band frontwoman energy to Unbalance, purring through the opening phases before breaking out into a full-on wail at the song’s peak – It’s a fantastic tonic for the energy-sapping grind of too many overproduced K-Pop songs in a row.

–Butterfly – WJSN
Watch: HERE

The Cosmic Girls struck back in 2020 with a bright-fanfare classic ready to knock you over with a full-on chorus packing the sound of a Gfriend-like refrain pumped with 10,000 volts of electricity. It’s an energetic whirlwind befitting of the eponymous chaos theory branch.

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