South Korea has one of the fastest-growing and most sonically exciting Pop scenes in the world, so we have decided to bring you “The K-Pop Bulletin”, a column highlighting some of the hottest K-Pop singles of every month. Today, we wrap up an incredible year and give you the countdown of our 20 favorite K-Pop singles of 2018.
Look, 2018 was a triumphant year for all pop music, especially for the non-anglo scenes, like the ones in Latin America and East Asia; the former gained even more mainstream notoriety as some of the hottest names in American entertainment teamed up with pop and reggaetón superstars for some hot releases, while the latter expanded its global reach even further, when K-Pop’s biggest international stars, BTS, conquered the Billboard charts, and groups like EXO, Super Junior, Twice and Blackpink have some of the most intense and numerous fandoms on Social Media, and their numbers are steadily increasing.
We also experienced a good share of strong debuts, ranging from the cute-aegyo type of pop to grittier, tougher acts that released more hip-hop or dance-music-oriented tracks. But that pales in comparison to the incredible rise of female solo releases; 2018 was a year in which some of the most established solo artists delivered the goods, but most impressively, a year in which artists originating from earlier girl-groups gave us the greatest musical moments of the year, and that also includes some marvelous collaborations.
20. (G)-Idle – Hann (Alone)
One of the smartest ideas of the year in the K-Pop industry was to have a new group built around the magnetic presence of Jeon Soyeon, but this is no one-woman endeavor, (G)-Idle proves that they are a very well-organized collective force. After the spring smash that was their debut single “Latata”, “Hann (Alone)” moves away from the trop-house template, instead aiming for a darker, more cinematic touch. There’s an extra dramatic flair via the atmospheric synths, but it’s the way the chorus melodies are woven into the mix that heightens that drama, resulting in something elegant and impactful.
19. Apink – I’m so sick
2018 was a breakthrough year for producers Black Eyed Pilseung; back in January, they rose back to notoriety for their amazing work on Chungha‘s “Rollercoaster”, a track that both embraces and improves upon the most recent trends, bridging the gap between the ethereal and the immediate. For their production on Apink’s “I’m so sick”, they took the often tiresome tropical formula, and add all sorts of experimental flourishes, exciting atmospheres, and a distorted guitar climax to boot. This track heralds a new era for Apink, one where they leave the cute, “safe” pop of previous singles in favor of the audacious.
18. Minseo – Is Who
Minseo is no stranger to that coffeehouse, jazzy, folkish sound we commonly associate with the indie-oriented regions of K-Pop, but “Is Who” takes things to a whole new level. The manouche jazz influences all over the track match perfectly with her adventurous, coquettish vocal performance, and there’s even space for a badass violin solo that would make Stéphane Grappelli proud. It’s the year’s indie breakthrough.
17. EXO – Tempo
The main reason why EXO is perhaps the most consistent major boy-band in the last 5 years is that of their enviable ability in applying their trademark vocal dynamics into every different concept they work on, no matter how seemingly disparate they may seem. In last year’s “Ko Ko Bop”, they put the EXO stamp on light reggae-flavored pop, and with “Tempo”, a combination of future bass and something from the “Love Me Right” era, they double down on their balanced-yet-ever-exciting team delivery, which makes even the trap breakdown a fiery moment. And there’s even an acapella bridge — without a doubt the track’s most pleasant surprise.
16. April – Oh! My Mistake
April is one of those groups that, no matter what approach they take on every new single, their consistency makes them very reliable. They’ve taken on a wide array of themes and elements, but they’re best at their weirdest, as exemplified by the rhythmic deviations and structural eccentricities of singles like “Oh! My Mistake”. The production is laced with 80’s nostalgia, but this is no retro act; whether it’s in the shifts in the tonal intention of the pre-chorus, the quirky second verse or the totally bonkers bridge, April are following their muse and reaping the rewards in the process.
15. Stray Kids – District 9
The badass flow, the interesting rhythmic patterns, the hip-hop/EDM aggression, and most importantly, that massive, rock guitar-led chorus. Stray Kids‘ “District 9” was the year’s first true breakthrough, a track that dazzles you with its intensity from the very first second (it starts with a siren, after all), and keeps that level of energy wonderfully throughout the verses, the hooks, and the noisy drops. It was a hell of a debut.
14. Mamamoo – Egotistic
It feels so great to have Mamamoo, a band that has produced some of the most delightful K-Pop in recent memory, get such an international hit. They’re not only the most vocally advanced of the bunch, but they’re also one of the most elegant pop groups in the entire world. In “Egotistic” they go full Latin-summer-pop mode, displaying elements like nylon-string guitar arrangements and Caribbean-style percussion, but with enough R&B flavor via their singing performances (especially from Solar) to create something unique, and still true to the Mamamoo sound.
13. BTS – Fake Love
For BTS, and for South Korean music itself, May was a historic month: Their new record Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear‘ reached the top spot in the Billboard 200 albums chart, the first Asian album to achieve such a feat and the unequivocal proof that the Bangtan Boys are the biggest pop act in the world. “Fake Love”, the album’s lead single, is a perfect introduction to the band’s sound; a mid-tempo tune, completely wrapped in a hip-hop/trap envelope, but pure pop in its core, with a blaring, anthemic chorus. What happened last year with “Despacito” as a single, is reinforced this year with “Tear” as an album. Pop is a global thing, and language is no longer a barrier. The future has spoken.
12. Oh My Girl – Remember Me
Oh My Girl, since their 2015 debut, has been one of the most consistent girl-groups in K-Pop, and one that constantly tries to explore new sonic areas without ever abandoning their core musical and visual concepts. “Remember Me” starts with a thumping EDM beat and a distorted bass, something unusual in an OMG production, but quickly enough, the lush melodies, the symphonic compositional approach and the tension-building flourishes we know and love reveal themselves. The song uses these disparate elements to play with our expectations, resulting in an engaging, exciting track, where no second is wasted.
11. SHINee – Good Evening
It’s such a bittersweet sensation to have the great SHINee return. On one hand, we just lost Jonghyun last December, and we’re still processing the idea of the group without him; on the other hand, SHINee are true geniuses, a band comprised of some of the most talented singers, songwriters, and performers in South Korean pop history, and there’s a seal of quality in every release. “Good Evening” is an impressive return to form, reaching back to the deep house-oriented sound of previous smash “View”, but with a more reflective approach. The production, from the melodic refrain to the vocal layering, is simply gorgeous, highlighting the strengths of a group that is all about power and complexity.
10. Red Velvet – Bad Boy
Red Velvet is one of those groups whose career everyone would love to emulate; constantly experimenting with sounds and visual concepts, but somehow extremely consistent in terms of quality and success. January’s “Bad Boy” is part of their re-packaged new record The Perfect Red Velvet, and while it doesn’t possess the immediate charm of previous singles like “Rookie” or “Red Flavor”, the R&B-influenced, mid-tempo number is a melodic delight and the vocal layering/production of the track is simply mindblowing. Besides, take a look at that music video ─ they have reached their visual peak.
9. Yubin – Lady
Wonder Girls have always been considered the absolute queens of retro in the K-Pop universe — their final full-length album, REBOOT, is considered a masterpiece in 80’s pop nostalgia and one of the strongest Korean records ever made –, so it’s very fitting that the official solo debut of former member Yubin also takes a look at the past for inspiration. However, “Lady” is also quite a surprise; Yubin is known for her talents as a rapper, but in this track, there’s not a single line of rap, rather opting for a disco diva singing style to enhance the overall city-pop-like production. It’s in the execution of this concept, both sonically and aesthetically, where “Lady” really hits, Yubin simultaneously projects energy and sophistication in every note, and if this is the musical path she will take in her future solo endeavors, we’ll be definitely on board.
8. fromis_9 – Love Bomb
One common, yet very effective template in K-Pop today is that of “cutesy aegyo girl-group cooing on top of boisterous, super complex tracks with exuberant strings and lots more going on at the same time”. We see some of those every month, but that precisely makes it so hard for any of them to stand out. However, fromis_9‘s incredible control amidst all that chaos and the confidence they project by riding these intricacies is a marvel on its own. “Love Bomb” is a statement single, and its amazing management of production elements makes fromis_9 the strongest debut of the year.
7. Lovelyz – Lost N Found
If we’re going to talk busy instrumentals, lush strings and synths, and advanced structures, we need to discuss Lovelyz. From their debut, they have relied on some of the most ethereal, ebullient soundscapes in recent memory. but their evolution is noteworthy, as they keep pushing forward, both in intricacy and in their overall sonic arsenal. In “Lost N Found” we can hear some funky session playing, a plethora of synths that jump around the track, strings that flow like rivers, and even key changes that somehow make the hooks stand out. Producer Spacecowboy is on to something revolutionary here.
6. Chungha – Rollercoaster
It’s always something great when we see a talented, charismatic performer that we discovered as part of a group getting their chance to shine as a soloist; this is exactly the case with Chung Ha, who rose to prominence in the first season of reality music show Produce 101 and later as part of the brief but massively successful group that resulted from it, I.O.I. “Roller Coaster” is the kind of track that really fits her best, an interesting mixture of different 90’s-indebted dance music styles, which showcases not only Chung Ha’s sultry, gritty vocals, but her abilities as a melodist. The girl’s got hooks for days.
5. The Rose – Baby
Idol band The Rose’s single “Baby” is undeniably one of the breakthrough tracks of 2018. Opting for a more alternative/indie production procedure, the song’s remarkable melodic punch is gradually adorned by ethereal electronics, establishing a fascinating dynamic with the anchoring piano, the heavy percussions and the impassioned voices of Woosung and Dojoon. And there’s still a lot of space for some gorgeous guitar sounds and an epic climax. It’s the year’s pop-rock masterpiece.
4. Seulgi X SinB X Chungha X Soyeon – Wow Thing
This little number is, by far, one of the most interesting, exciting K-Pop tunes of the year, and one of the most fascinating collaborations in recent Korean pop history. SM Station is SM Entertainment‘s corner for their most adventurous, experimental endeavors, but this supergroup, sonically and conceptually, comes from absolute left-field. Each one of these women have very different voices and styles, pulling from different pop traditions, and yet they meld perfectly in this wonderfully layered piece of turn-of-the-century R&B-pop beauty. It’s like the Korean Lady Marmalade moment we all secretly wanted.
3. Taeyeon – Something New
It’s no exaggeration to say that Taeyeon is a national treasure in Korea. She’s one of the country’s most recognizable faces, both as part of Girls’ Generation and as a soloist, but there’s no doubt that she’s perhaps the most versatile pop star in K-Pop as well. “Something New” is an attack to the pleasure centers, a 90’s R&B-leaning track with a vibe-oriented, multi-layered production, especially on the vocal front, where Taeyeon’s voice shows the width of her range. So this is basically Taeyeon going Velvet Rope. What’s not to love?
2. NCT U – Baby Don’t Stop
Last February, NCT U released two singles: The solid group effort “Boss” and the smooth duo “Baby Don’t Stop”. I made the terrible mistake of including the former in that month’s K-Pop Bulletin when the track that truly held up was the latter. Besides having a mesmerizing video, where we can watch some masterful dance moves, the track’s irresistible synth-bass and the balance of singing and rapping flow made this the massive project’s most memorable single in a year where, quality-wise, they were simply unmatched.
1. Sunmi – Heroine
Sunmi needs no introduction. As part of the recently disbanded Wonder Girls, she has already gained legendary status in the K-Pop universe, and if there were some doubts left, last year she released an absolute monster hit, the tropical house-leaning smash “Gashina”. Her January single, “Heroine” is an amazing follow-up, although it’s a conceptual prequel to the 2017 song; while “Gashina” is a post-breakup kiss-off, “Heroine” addresses the imminent end of a relationship, the pains and the anxieties that come with it, but in the end she’s set to overcome everything. Aided by a grandiose electropop instrumental led by dramatic piano chords, Sunmi brings us a message of empowerment, of being true to yourself with or without a partner, and as she makes it clear at the end of the chorus, “the show must go on”. If 2018 was, as many Western publications say, the year of the Woman, it started with the right anthem.