Music coming out of Korea is better than it's ever been. From K-pop to the country's burgeoning hip-hop and dance music scenes to niche experimental music, there's a lot to take in. This list focuses specifically on pop music, including those outside of the massive K-pop industry.
As you'll see, there are far more than fifty songs represented on this list. On a handful of slots, you'll see numerous songs mentioned, and this is for various reasons. One such reason is that I felt it was necessary to include more than one song if I valued what an artist or scene was doing throughout the entirety of 2017. I also chose multiple tracks for a single entry because I simply couldn't decide on my favorite single from a given artist (aside from those cases, there is a strict "one song per artist" rule that I followed). But more than anything else, I felt compelled to give credit to as many deserving artists, songwriters, producers, and music video directors as possible.
You'll notice that each entry also includes other songs I recommend. These songs didn't make the cut, but I think they're all worth checking out. And as a note, some of the blurbs here were previously written for The Singles Jukebox. Thanks for reading.
50. Wet Boyz, Errday, & Zene The Zilla - Ddalgi Swag / Dbo - U Might Not / TFO - 원뿔 / Eco Yard - Swampy Swoosh (feat. Swervy)
"Ddalgi Swag" Credits:
Lyrics: Homeboy, Ni Ni, Errday, Zene The Zilla
Music Video Director: Errday
"U Might Not" Credits:
Music Video Director: Arreadyyyy
Arranger: Sylarbomb, BAC
Music Video Director: ML
"Swampy Swoosh" Credits:
Lyrics: Eco Yard, Swervy
Composer: HD Beatz
Arranger: Eco Yard
In 2017, one thing was very clear: the underground hip-hop scene in Korea is the best it's ever been. Even so, it'd be hard to deny that it feels a bit homogenous. Rappers and R&B crooners alike can't get enough of jazz-inflected beats, be they coffeeshop-friendly or more contemporary sounding. And if artists aren't hopping on that train, they're taking notes from ATL or paying homage to boom bap. These four songs collectively hold a spot for being the few Korean hip-hop tracks last year to genuinely surprise me.
One of the most delightful tracks of the year was a Lil Yachty-indebted posse cut. Much like Yachty's work from 2016, "Ddalgi Swag" (translation: "Strawberry Swag") is most amusing in how unabashedly childlike and silly it sounds, transferring its ebullience to listeners with ease. Over Errday's chipper production, Wet Boyz member Homeboy is able to make his AutoTuned mumbling feel right at home. While "Ddalgi Swag" could easily devolve into the languid meandering of many a Wet Boyz track, verses from the other three rappers—YTC member Zene The Zilla in particular—keep the song afloat.
"U Might Not" is the best track from Dbo's DBOCEAN album precisely because of how unhinged his rapping sounds. Numerous rappers from Korea, even those outside of the K-pop industry, can sound a bit sterile when they utilize triplet flows, shout adlibs, or "put on voices". All of this makes "U Might Not" an exciting antidote. There's a slapdash comfort with which Dbo switches between his slurred speech, Young Thug-esque growls, and his calls for a "taxi". I'd readily admit that it could sound a bit more natural, but it's a moot point when it's one of the few songs this year I enjoyed that also made me laugh. There may have been better Korean rap songs this year, but few rappers were as enthralling as Dbo.
TFO is a collaboration between rapper BAC and producer Sylarbomb. Their album was one of the most intriguing of last year—a collection of abrasive and dark hip-hop tracks complete with interludes, one of which was a footwork track. "원뿔" is the album's lead single and opening track, bringing to mind Shabazz Palaces' Black Up more than anything. It begins with an ambient synth wash before heading into a swirl of cacophonous loops. BAC's rapping is more straightforward, but it helps ground the song. Of all the independent labels to keep you eye on in 2018, let it be the home of TFO: Grack Thany.
Last year, Eco Yard and Swervy released the SpaceGhostPurrp produced Yaya Tape, and the intro track marked what is likely the first XXXtentacion-esque full on screaming rap song from Korea. Nothing on Eco Yard's Sir Eco Shines reaches that level, but highlight "Swampy Swoosh" tastefully incorporates screaming into its cacophonous vortex of noodly guitars, cheap synth stabs, and fuzzy breakbeats. Both artists allow their vocals to become a part of the song's textural landscape, so much so that Swervy's verse is difficult to parse. It proves effective, though, as it lets the chorus it lands in feel all the more dynamic. Near the end of the song, they repeat a catchy mantra: "We are Eco and Swervy, scare the shit outta y'all". It reads as corny and cartoonish, but the two sell it, and it sounds as energized and thrilling as the rest of the song.
See also: Wet Boyz - "sSsSs (feat. Swings)"; Home Boy - "Sulli"; Bill Stax - "Sushi (feat. C Jamm, 천재노창)", which "Ddalgi Swag" makes reference to; YTC - "지겨워", "JJUN.DA Remix (feat. Killagramz, Jay Moon, NO:EL)"; Zene The Zilla - "Moneycolored Hair"; Loco - "OPPA", the other Korean hip hop track from this year that brings to mind Lil Yachty's "Broccoli"; Dbo - "My People", "Shotgun"; Futuristic Swaver - "Trap (feat. Dbo)"; TFO's ㅂㅂ; Grack Thany's 8luminum
49. Wanna One - Energetic
Lyrics: Hui, Wooseok
Composer: Hui, Flow Blow
Arranger: Flow Blow
Music Video Director: Hong Won-ki (Zanybros)
Fans made the right call in choosing "Energetic" as the debut lead single for the Produce 101-created Wanna One. "Burn It Up" sounds significantly dated in comparison, and features some questionable mixing decisions. "Energetic" may sound by-the-numbers, buts it's a piano house pop song that doesn't make any missteps, and carefully structures its line distribution to propel the song forward. Most satisfying is Kang Daniel starting off both rap verses, his lower registering acting as a nice counterweight to Jaehwan's high notes.
48. Monsta X - Dramarama
Lyrics: Seo Ji-eum, Seo Jeong-ah, Jooheon, I.M
Composer: Andreas Oberg, Drew Ryan Scott
Arranger: A-Dee, Stereo 14
Music Video Director: Vishop
The very best part of "Dramarama" appears after its first chorus. The impact of the beat dropping and Inception-like horn alongside Jooheon and I.M's rap verses was one of the most physically palpable moments in music of 2017. The melodramatic pre-chorus that it leads into feels complete the second time around with this contrast, and allows the song to be the theatrical soundtrack to its time travel-filled music video.
47. Jinbo - TT (feat. Sumin) / Very Long Term Lovers (feat. G.Soul)
Lyrics: Sam Lewis
Composer: Black Eyed Pilseung
Arranger: Sumin, Jinbo
"Very Long Term Lovers" Credits:
Lyrics: Jeong Seok-won
Composer: Jeong Seok-won
If you watch the KRNB2 mini-documentary, you'll see Jinbo and numerous Korean R&B artists hanging out and singing songs—Stevie Wonder's 'Isn't She Lovely", Michael Jackson's "Human Nature", Floetry's "Say Yes", and Sumin's own "U&ME". There's a shared love of music that radiates from the video, and it's something that's at the heart of Jinbo's KRNB project. The second installment of the covers project kicked off in 2017 with an EP. It featured a cover of Twice's "TT" and 015B's "Very Long Term Lovers". Both tracks are revamped into slick, contemporary R&B tracks, sounding significantly different from the originals. In the process, it's revealed just how catchy some of these melodies are—particularly the pre-chorus of "TT" and the verses of "Very Long Term Lovers"—even when recontextualized.
The cover of "TT" is wonderfully composed and arranged. The lack of explicit cutesy girl group signifiers grants the song a more adult feel. As such, it's clear how the emotional rollercoaster of the song's lyrics are applicable to everyone, regardless of age. The "Very Long Term Lovers" cover is especially exciting because the song is more than two decades old. It was covered in 2016 by Gucckasten singer and King of Mask Singer record holder Ha Hyung-woo, but it sounded far too similar to the original to get me excited. Jinbo removes the original's bouncing keys and aims for a sort of disaffected cool, something that G.Soul captures effortlessly. It feels appropriate given the song's lyrics about a couple who are growing emotionally distant.
46. Momoland - Wonderful Love / Freeze
"Wonderful Love" Credits:
Lyrics: Duble Sidekick, Tenzo and Tasco, Long Candy
Composer: Tenzo and Tasco, Long Candy, The Cannels
Arranger: Tenzo and Tasco
Lyrics: Duble Sidekick, Jinli
Composer: Duble Sidekick, WiiKEED, Jinli, Glory Face
Arranger: WiiKEED, Glory Face
Even after "Bboom Bboom", Momoland don’t have much of an identity at this stage of their career, but they do continue to release solid singles. 2017 found them with their two best. “Wonderful Love” was an above average take on the neverending pool of Apink-type songs, while “Freeze” was like a more accessible take on Oh My Girl’s “Cupid” with a circus melody slapped on top. Out of any other girl group songs on this list, these two feel especially safe. Still, the songwriting is undeniable, and these tracks contain memorable elements—the string/cymbal accent in “Wonderful Love”, and the carnivalesque chorus of “Freeze”—that help them feel more lively than songs from their many peers.
See also: "I Like It", "Orgel"
45. Seventeen - Change Up / Trauma / Lilili Yabbay
"Change Up" Credits:
Lyrics: Woozi, S.Coups, Hoshi, Bumzu
Composer: Woozi, Bumzu, Hoshi
Music Video Director: Jo Beomjin (VM Project)
Lyrics: S.Coups, Wonwoo, Mingyu, Vernon
Composer: Bumzu, Vernon
Music Video Director: Jo Beomjin (VM Project)
"Lilili Yabbay" Credits:
Lyrics: Woozi, Bumzu, Dino
Composer: Woozi, Bumzu, Dirty Orange, Mitsu.J
Arranger: Bumzu, Dirty Orange, Mitsu.J
Music Video Director: Jo Beomjin (VM Project)
Seventeen's versatility was already apparent before 2017, but nothing quite made it as obvious as the series of singles they dropped this past September and October. All four tracks were delegated to the group's subunits, and the three best were produced by the ever-reliable Pledis producer Bumzu. Most valuable to these songs’ success is the structure of the members’ lines. There’s a careful consideration to the ordering, and it allows for a coherence that hasn't always come through in previous Seventeen singles.
In "Change Up", it's the structure of the pre-chorus—Woozi's falsetto leading into S.Coups and Hoshi's rapping—that allows for the chorus's horn loop to be a satisfying place to land. In "Trauma", members of Seventeen's Hip Hop Team utilize a contemplative, talk-like delivery as a middle ground between singing and rapping. It proves beneficial in providing variation to an otherwise low-key track. In "Lilili Yabbay", it's the way the members wrap their vocals around the piercing guitar line before the tension's broken with a chorus that utilizes pitched vocal samples. It feels like a more dramatic take on Taemin's "Drip Drop", and it's a comparison that feels even more apt when you consider the impressive choreography on display.
44. S.E.S. - Paradise
Lyrics: Yoo Young-jin
Composer: Mike Daley, Mitchell Owens
Arranger: Mike Daley, Mitchell Owens
S.E.S. ushered in the new year with “Paradise”, a slick new jack swing throwback that served to remind everyone that they’re still one of the very best K-pop groups to ever do it. In retrospect, its encouraging lyrics about friendship and pressing on were an appropriate way to kick off a tumultuous year. Most moving is when Shoo names all three members during her midsong rap break. It helps to introduce the women to a younger audience, sure, but it’s primarily a moment of affirmation. “We are still dream team!” they declare, and anyone listening knows they sure as hell aren’t wrong.
See also: “Hush”, “Birthday”, “Remember”
43. NCT Dream - My First and Last
Lyrics: Jeon Kan-di, Mark
Composer: August Rigo, Justin Davey, Ryan S. Jhun
Arranger: August Rigo, Justin Davey, Ryan S. Jhun
The oscillating bassline recalls SHINee’s “Sherlock”, as if SM wanted to subconsciously transfer a sense of prestige from one of their best groups to a new one. Even so, there’s certainly enough that NCT Dream provide here to prove they’re worth checking out. Most notably, it’s the Tony Testa-masterminded choreography and bubblegum chorus. The latter arrives like bright rays of sunshine, resolving the tension that the bassline created throughout the verses, and justifying the youthful spirit of the song. By the time the song ends, the repeated “You’re my last first love” line feels warranted and, more importantly, believable.
See also: Astro - "Crazy Sexy Cool"; Highlight - "Plz Don't Be Sad"
42. Nine Muses - Remember
Lyrics: Kim Soo-jeong, Aaron
Composer: Aaron, Isaac Han, Klozer
Arranger: Aaron, Isaac Han, Klozer
Music Video Director: Lee Sa Gang
The torturous aftermath of a breakup manifested as song. “Love me, love me, love me” they sing, knowing that such a thing will never happen. There’s a sense of disbelief, of wanting to accept anything other than what’s happened, but it’s not until the chorus that it actually happens. As they lay down their accusations and pour out their hearts, every member’s voice lends a different dimension to the grieving process.
41. Brave Girls - Rollin'
Lyrics: Brave Brothers, Chakun
Composer: Brave Brothers, 2Champ, Chakun
Music Video Director: Lim Jae-kyung
A bit like Stellar’s underrated “Crying” if it were more informed by trop house trends. Unsurprisingly, “Rollin’” was written by the same group of people: Brave Brothers, 2Champ, and Chakun. Without Hyeran, there’s no showstopping rap verse here, but it’s to the song’s favor, as it keeps the song moving briskly. Even so, Minyeong throws in some Jimin-esque lines to add some flair to an already-addicting hook.
40. Penomeco - Hunnit
Composer: Penomeco, Made By Me
Arranger: Made By Me
Music Video Director: Eyejinn / Soyeon (KEEPUSWEIRD)
Penomeco may be a lesser known member of Fanxy Child, but he released the group’s best solo track of 2017. “Hunnit” is an angsty complaint to a soon-to-be ex, and its driving beat acts as a representation of compounding bitterness. Penomeco rides it with effortless panache, switching between singing and rapping whilst capitalizing on the deliveries’ rhythmic qualities. It all culminates in the bridge—he explains the downward spiral of the relationship over a tumbling trap beat before shouting “I know, I know, I know, I know... you know, you know, you know, you know”. It serves its purpose in multiple ways: he skips over an argument by mocking what it could be reduced to, he addresses that both parties acknowledge the situation, and he gets the final word.
See also: Millic - "Paradise (feat. Fanxy Child)"
39. Playback - Want You To Say
Composer: Kairos, Swish, Jay Kim
Arranger: Kairos, Swish, K.O, Legaci, Ultra
Music Video Director: Kim Young-jo, Yoo Seung-woo (NAIVE)
There were too many trop house K-pop songs in 2017 to count. Even so, few felt like they had an understanding of how to wrap vocals around a dancehall-ish beat. And if it wasn't a clunky structuring of vocal rhythms ruining a song, there was forced or awkward singing that felt at odds with what what the song was trying to accomplish. "Want You To Say" may not feature the best singing or rapping, but its verses and pre-chorus consistently bounce along with the instrumentation. There's a conversational tone to the verses, and it proves important in ensuring the song doesn't feel weighed down by the time the sunny chorus hits.
38. Yeseo - Silhouette
Music Video Director: Kim Sun-kyung
Note: The music video is for the English version. The Korean version is undeniably superior.
The most FKA twigs-indebted song from Korea since 75A’s “Man Ray System”. Like much of twigs’s music, there’s a sensitivity to capturing expansive space as a way of transferring intimacy. This is a song about sex, and “Silhouette” explores how it can be an avenue through which someone can better understand someone else. The water drops, percussion, and panning synths all come together cohesively, providing an appropriately hypnotic atmosphere. It’s all at a perfect pace too: a slow back and forth rocking. Above it all is Yeseo’s own vocals, impassioned and delicate. As she asks her lover to “come closer”, she’s hoping that they see more than just her “silhouette”. In the final chorus, Yeseo switches pronouns around (“I’m looking at my silhouette”, “I’ll give you what I want”), revealing that Yeseo’s finding out about herself in the process too.
37. Bolbbalgan4 - Some
Composer: Jiyoung, Vanilla Acoustic
Arranger: Vanilla Acoustic
Considering how Bolbbalgan4’s lyrical themes are always going to find a nice home in the world of coffeeshop pop, there’s a bit of expected coherence with all of their tracks. It takes strong songwriting, then, for one of their songs to register as something more than agreeable or pleasant, and “Some” does just that. A lot of it comes down to Jiyoung’s vocals, teetering ever so perfectly between nervousness and earnest desire. The instrumentation always acts to mirror such feelings. In the verses, there’s a slight cautiousness that’s felt with the kick drum’s dotted eighth notes. It eventfully builds to an understated confidence in the chorus, all of which peaks with Jiyoung daydreaming about how sweet her crush is.
36. DPR Live - Martini Blue
Lyrics: DPR Live
Composer: DPR Live, DPR Cream
Arranger: DPR Cream
Music Video Director: +IAN
Amusing bits of vocalizing go a long way, and on "Martini Blue", it's the "mm mm mm mm" and bird call deliveries of "blue" that make the song such a delight. DPR Live’s rapid ascent in 2017 wasn't unwarranted: he can pinpoint the proper moments in a line to accent in order to propel songs forward. “Martini Blue” finds him utilizing that ability in the most gimmicky fashion, but justifying it through his performance elsewhere in the song. Regardless, it’s his catchiest song to date, and the one that’s the most fun to sing along to.
35. Block B - Yesterday
Lyrics: Park Kyung, Zico
Composer: Park Kyung, SCORE, Megatone
Music Video Director: Tiger Cave
"Yesterday" is a pop rock song that would be well suited for the theme song to a cartoonish sitcom. Given the music video, it seems like that was very much its intention. The stiffness of the drums, the "no no no no!" and "ladi-la-la-la", the goofy delivery of "What did you do yesterday?"—there's a slapstick theatricality to it all that's lovably silly. The rap verses are an especially nice touch, providing a nice musical detour without straying from the song's comedic spirit. Not much in K-pop this past year was as delightful as hearing P.O spit out a bunch of accusatory questions before letting out a frazzled "I don't know why I love you!"
34. BoA - Camo
Lyrics: Jo Yoon-kyung
Composer: Harvey Mason Jr., Britt Burton, Kevin Randolph
Arranger: Harvey Mason Jr., Kevin Randolph
Music Video Director: Wooje Kim (ETUI)
“Camo” is ironclad electropop that brims with confidence. The pre-chorus’s enormous synth swell is a highlight, but the small touches here—the clacking cowbell, the heavily reverbed handclaps, the bubbling synth that winds down the song (a nice contrasts to the upscale vocal melodies)—are just as satiating. There’s a sleek assuredness in BoA’s vocalizing that matches the instrumentation perfectly too. And as with her best singles, it all sets the stage for choreography that feels super appropriate for the song.
33. Girls' Generation - Holiday
Lyrics: Lyrics: Seohyun, JQ, Kim Hye-jung
Composer: Lawrence Lee, Märta Grauers, Louise Frick Sveen
Arranger: Lawrence Lee
Music Video Director: Ziyong Kim (Fantazy Lab)
A Mamamoo-informed take on “Party” that’s here to prove that Girls’ Generation aren’t here to stay. They’ve solidified their status as legends long ago, so to release a single that finds them experimenting with new styles is surely not in SM’s interest, especially with a lot of them now flying solo. Even then, it’s a bit ironic that a song meant to celebrate the group’s tenth anniversary finds them at their most anonymous. It’s because of this very reason, though, that “Holiday” feels so affecting. As we get older, how many of us settle into a predictable groove and learn to be content with it? At a certain point, some of us are just thankful to be alive, and to be around people we can gladly call friends. When Tiffany asks us to “throw away our tired hearts”, it sounds refreshingly uncynical. Many argue that SNSD sound forced or phoned-in here, and I’d agree. The thing is, you sometimes have to repeat something you don’t believe before convincing yourself that it’s true. And if there’s anything I want to truly, wholeheartedly believe, it’s that I deserve to be happy, to feel good—to have a holiday.
See also: "All Night", "Sweet Talk", "Fan", "Girls Are Back"; Seohyun - "Magic", "Love & Affection", "Don't Say No"; Hyoyeon - "Wannabe (feat. San E)"; Girl's Day - "I'll Be Yours"
32. Moon Hyuna & Eu Erine - Doong Doong
Lyrics: The Lowkies, Moon Hyuna
Composer: The Lowkies
Arranger: The Lowkies
Music Video Director: Kim Jongseong (Nakroe)
Stock music-like in its simplicity, “Doong Doong” out-trop’d its competitors by making little effort to be anything more than a simple house beat and a repetitive hook. While there were plenty pop songs this year that tried to conjure up something “tropical”, nothing really captured the beach as a place of relaxation the way this did. As such, “Doong Doong” proved endlessly replayable and quietly addicting.
31. Dreamcatcher - Catch Me / Good Night / Fly High
"Chase Me" Credits:
Lyrics: Super Bomb
Composer: Super Bomb
Arranger: Super Bomb
Music Video Director: Digipedi
"Good Night" Credits:
Lyrics: Kim Bo-eun, Super Bomb
Composer: Super Bomb
Arranger: Super Bomb
Music Video Director: Digipedi
"Fly High" Credits:
Music Video Director: Yoo Sung-kyun
MINX’s second single was a remake of a lesser Dal Shabet track, an indication that Happy Face Entertainment didn’t seem too invested in the group. Surprisingly, the company decided to re-debut the group with additional members, a new name, and a completely different image. While Happy Face may have completely ignored Dal Shabet, the presumable result was a decent release schedule for Dreamcatcher, quickly establishing them as one of the most exciting groups around. While not as ostentatious in their utilization of metal tropes as various J-pop groups, Dreamcatcher released three singles that felt absolutely necessary in an era where most new girl groups aim for something cute. They naturally stood out, but the songs were all noteworthy too. “Good Night” most coherently incorporates its metal pastiche, but every single had its strengths, and all of them were held together via strong hooks.
See also: "Wake Up"
30. G-Dragon - OUTRO. 신곡 (神曲) (Divina Commedia)
Lyrics: G-Dragon, 8!, Brian Lee, SAFE, Frank Dukes
Composer: G-Dragon, 8!, Brian Lee, SAFE, Frank Dukes
Arranger: Frank Dukes, Murda Beatz, Brian Lee
Inspired by Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, G-Dragon took the structure of the poem and applied it to his Kwon Ji Yong mini. It’s in the outro where everything comes together, though. He contemplates his career and life, finding answers that help him come closer to understanding his place in the world. It’s a quiet song that puts a lone spotlight on G-Dragon, and his tortured artist performance draws out some of his most impressive rapping. Much like “(Untitled, 2014)”, it’s G-Dragon at his best: unashamedly theatrical and deeply personal.
See also: "Untitled, 2014"
29. Jazzyfact - 하루종일
Composer: Kadomatsu Toshiki, Beenzino, Shimmy Twice
Arranger: Shimmy Twice
Music Video Director: Kim Woogie (GDW)
Initially brought to mind the hypnagogic summer haze of Mac DeMarco and company. What’s amusing is that producer Shimmy Twice sampled Anri’s “Last Summer Whisper” for the beat here, and Mac DeMarco’s biggest hit also drew heavily from a decades-old Japanese song (granted, one from a bit earlier). With generous amounts of reverb, Beenzino captures the lethargy of a Sunday afternoon as a "fucking loner". There's a quasi-celebratory tone to his voice when he sings the chorus, as if trying to keep his chin up. His sexual frustration reaches a dizzying peak when the bridge hits, his voice going slightly off key as he bemoans the fact that he can deal with being physical hunger, but not a sexual one.
28. AKMU - Dinosaur
Lyrics: Lee Chanhyuk
Composer: Lee Chanhyuk
Music Video Director: Dee Shin
As a child, I kept a list of encouraging phrases I wrote on my nightstand. It was there to calm me down, to dispel any fear I had of monsters coming to attack me in my bedroom. I’d recite them throughout the night until I fell asleep, and it proved helpful for a long while. I eventually didn’t need the list anymore, confident in knowing that nothing hid in my closet or under my bed when the lights turned off. Listening to AKMU’s “Dinosaur” brought back all those memories.
Based off an experience that Chanhyuk had as a child, this song is about encountering something that instills fear, and eventually being able to overcome it. What makes it so endearing is its diaphanous, childlike tone. “Dinosaur” thus feels like a children’s tale, and it’s Soohyun’s curlicue melody that captures that spirit most effectively. She’s less a fairy godmother ex machina than a recognizable source of hope, as soothing and reassuring as Chanhyuk’s mother hugging him. In the bridge, Soohyun declares that she’ll shout louder than this dinosaur, and Chanhyuk eventually joins in. Together, they face this creature that threatens them, and the dinosaur that scared Chanhyuk ends up seeming more like Dooly.
27. Uhm Jung Hwa - Ending Credit
Lyrics: Hangzoo, Primary
Composer: Primary, Suran
Music Video Director: Gudals Kim
Released at the end of 2017 to little fanfare, “Ending Credit” felt like a quiet and appropriate way for Uhm Jung-hwa to ostensibly close this chapter of her life. It’s as much a bittersweet reflection of her career as it is a humble acceptance of its end. She acknowledges that the peak of her popularity has passed, singing of audience members leaving a theater one by one. At the end of “Ending Credit,” people have entered again–not for her, but for the next act; she’s grateful for the memories, and will gracefully pass the torch to someone else. It’s appropriate, then, that those who had a hand in the single–songwriter Suran, producer Primary, choreographer Lia Kim–weren’t a force in the K-pop industry when she last released music. Even more, it only took a month for there to come a song that felt like its successor. Sunmi’s “Heroine,” which features the same choreographer, finds the former Wonder Girl utilizing similar imagery. She repeatedly proclaims that “the show must go on,” and it’s a phrase that feels powerful in this context. Women like Kim Wan-sun and Uhm Jung-hwa paved the way for female soloists in Korea; their careers may be over, but their shows will go on in the careers of others.
26. NCT 127 - Cherry Bomb
Lyrics: Taeyong, Mark, Deepflow, Im Jeong-hyo, Oh Min-ju
Composer: Dwayne Abernathy Jr., Jennifer Decilveo, Deez, Jakob 'Jay' Mihoubi, Rudi `Rudy` Daouk, Michael Woods, Kevin White, Andrew Bazzi, MZMC
Arranger: Dem Jointz, Deez, Yoo Young-jin
Music Video Director: Oui Kim (GDW)
Sophie-esque squeaks, crunchy synths, and the futuristic gloss of NCT 127’s “The 7th Sense”. This is the foundation for "Cherry Bomb", and the members of NCT 127 rap in a way that capitalizes on the song's cold, distant atmosphere. It blooms halfway through, and there’s a rush of warmth that enters during Jaehyun, Doyoung, and Taeil's singing. This sequence doesn't last for long—Mark's following verse draws everything back to the chorus—but it transforms the entire tone of "Cherry Bomb". NCT 127 sound like aliens for most of the song, oblivious to how utterly uncool it is to hear them sing "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands" with a straight face. But it's in the midsection where everything flips in their favor, convincing you that they're doing more than posturing. They close out the song with a friendly reminder that you were wrong for ever thinking otherwise: a "na na na" taunt.
25. Jonghyun - Let Me Out
Composer: Jonghyun, Wefreaky, SCORE
Arranger: Jonghyun, Wefreaky, SCORE
Jonghyun had stated that both his persona as an artist and who he was in his private life were “the real Kim Jonghyun”. Even if he had never said this, you could tell it was true from the very personal nature of his solo music, all of which featured his own lyrics. “Let Me Out” is an excruciating song on its own, but even more so in conjunction with the openness with which he discussed his mental health outside of music. And with his passing, it became even more emblematic of his battle with depression.
"Let Me Out" brings to mind The Weeknd’s “Earned It”, and is the first K-pop song to feel indebted to the Canadian artist since G.Soul’s “Excuses”. But if the latter was mere pastiche, “Let Me Out” takes the template and makes it applicable to Jonghyun alone. Here, the singer isn’t a pervy, lecherous ringmaster, but the lone actor on stage bearing his soul. “I can’t forgive myself” he confesses, and the chorus’s strings strike like a cat o’ nine tails digging into his back. “Please help me!” he pleads, but the audience just sits, in awe of the spectacle that is his breakdown. It’s a difficult track to listen to—perhaps the most harrowing K-pop song ever created. And yet, it’s one of the most important tracks of the year. Depression did not (and does not) define who Jonghyun was, but it was very much a real thing that affected his life. One can only hope that mental health gets taken more seriously in Korea. If Jonghyun’s suicide note didn’t make that clear, perhaps the extremely similar “Let Me Out” did.
24. EXO - Ko Ko Bop
Lyrics: Baekhyun, Chen, Chanyeol, JQ, Hyun Ji-won
Composer: Kaelyn Behr, MZMC, Tay Jasper, Shaylen Carroll
Arranger: Styalz Fuego
"Ko Ko Bop" takes its lyrics from the children's clapping game "Down Down Baby" but doesn't stray far from the Little Anthony & The Imperials song that presumably inspired it (itself a remake of The El Capris's "Ko Ko Wop"). These guys are transfixed by a woman, and the "awoo" in the verses hint that this is a less ostentatious depiction of such themes than EXO's "Wolf". As such, the reggae skanks grant "Ko Ko Bop" the unhurried pacing it needs. When it's stacked on top of the whirring breakdown in the song's final third, it's as if everything snaps into place; this is a song about sex, and the convergence of slowly rocking guitar and serrated EDM make the song feel pleasantly humid.
23. Jeon Soyeon - Jelly
Lyrics: Jeon Soyeon
Composer: Flow Blow, Jeon Soyeon
Arranger: Flow Blow, Jeon Soyeon
It was clear since Jeon Soyeon's Produce 101 audition that she deserved to be a star, but it's her debut single "Jelly" that confirms it. She's more versatile than many idols her senior, and it would've been a waste of her talents if she was given a song akin to tracks from her Unpretty Rapstar stint. Instead, producer team Flow Blow deliver a quirky, bubbly beat that switches into a dance track during the second verse and coda. Soyeon's ability to switch between rapping and singing without losing any momentum or semblance of her personality is impressive. It's also surprisingly effortless—how many artists her age could top off a rap verse by screaming "Lemon!" and make it sound fun and natural? If CUBE plays it smart, they'll invest a lot in her. After all, she has the potential to be their best artist since Hyuna.
22. Yunini - I'm Not There
Arranger: Yunini, Tosun
Music Video Director: Neuj
Occasionally, I'll fall in love with a song that I eventually deem poor for my mental health. “I’m Not There” is one such example. Listening to it on repeat keeps me stuck—I’ll lie down on my bed with the lights off, deriving small pleasure from the comfortable sadness that the song creates. It’s a testament, to be certain, to its ability to ensnare. The ticking guitar plucks and glistening keys make way for an expansive soundscape filled with tremolo picking and reverberating drums. On top of them are Yunini's vocals: contemplative, exasperated sighs that inch forward like dragging feet. Her vocal rhythms stays consistent, working in conjunction with the instrumentation to cradle the listener. Few songs in 2017 felt as personal and all-consuming.
21. Yoona - When The Wind Blows
Lyrics: Yoona, Conan
Indie duo Rocoberry released a few songs this year, but none of them touched what member Conan wrote for SNSD member Yoona. "When The Wind Blows" is the rare Korean ballad that's impossibly light but never feels like it's wasting any second of its runtime. There's a constant progression here—the frail piano notes, the soft shaker, the bunny rabbit hops of a bassline—and every instrument's entrance feels natural. As Yoona reminisces with a lover, the gradual build in instrumentation is like a constant flooding of pleasant memories. And as the song continues, she and the song both feel full. The only way she can end the song is by saying thanks, and hoping that her lover feels the same. She already knows the answer, but it feels good to say it anyway.
20. Knock - Open Up
Lyrics: Yorkie, JQ, Hyun Ji-won
Composer: Devine Channel
Arranger: Devine Channel
The very best song to come from the second season of Produce 101 was Knock’s “Open Up”, a constantly morphing pop song that feels like a cousin to NU’EST’s “Overcome”. It's a bit scrappy, but producer team Devine Channel were relatively conservative prior to this, so their ambitions here make it easy to forgive any shortcomings. The momentum shifts from sleek UK Garage to a carnivalesque hop before landing in the chorus's beefy synthline. Through it all, the seven guys proclaim that their heart is open and empty, ready to be filled by a lover they've been eyeing. The instrumentation's constant tumbling and the dramatic vocals help sell the lyrics.
19. Day6 - I Smile
Lyrics: Young K, Wonpil
Composer: Hong Jisang, Min Lee 'collapsedone', Sungjin, Young K, Wonpil
Arranger: Hong Jisang, Min Lee 'collapsedone'
Music Video Director: NAIVE
Day6 create an insular world with their instrumentation, providing a comfortably sad atmosphere in which they can avoid facing a painful reality. As they reminisce over a past lover and are tortured by the idea of meeting up with them, they grow increasingly resistant to the fact that this relationship is a thing of the past. The tremolo picking and flickering keys provide a comforting headspace as Dowoon’s drumming gives the song a semblance of forward motion. It’s a contrast that represents the current state of affairs: they want to confess to this person that they want them back, but they feel they can’t, and consequently feel stuck. When the song closes, you can sense their lips uncurl, letting go of the smiles they were forcing themselves to hold.
18. Elris - We, First
Lyrics: Hyun Hwang
Composer: Hyun Hwang
Arranger: Hyun Hwang
Simply put, “We, First" was the finest 2017 had to offer in terms of post-GFriend (i.e. post-Apink) pop. Its success comes down to the production: an array of flashy synthesizers that constantly branch into fanciful curlicues. It’s at once brimming with color and tastefully restrained, as if teasing the world of possibilities that lie ahead in a newly formed relationship. They sing of how it’s foreign, a bit scary, and already beyond all imagination. Apt, then, that the lyrics and video repeatedly allude to Alice in Wonderland. As attempts at cutesy girl group concepts feel increasingly shallow, “We, First” served as a reminder of how satisfying it can be when whimsy acts as a bridge between our lives and attainable fantasy.
17. Hyuna - Babe
Lyrics: Shinsadong Tiger, BEOMxNANG, Hyuna
Composer: Shinsadong Tiger, BEOMxNANG
Arranger: Shinsadong Tiger
Music Video Director: Shin Heewon
A snarky reprimand addressed to those who’ve infantilized her, or a demonstration of love’s ability to transform someone into a babbling, stupefied child? Hyuna leaves it open to interpretation as she traverses coos and inflections both babyish and sensual. The xylophone and pitch-shifted vocals may be familiar hallmarks of trop house, but they’re thematically aligned with the lyrics here, acting as elements in the uncanny playplace set design of “Babe”. As much as there is to praise of Shinsadong Tiger’s production, it’s Hyuna’s deft vocal performance that steals the show. It’s her best to date, and no other K-pop star could pull it off.
See also: "Purple (with E'Dawn of Pentagon)"
16. VIXX - Shangri-La
Lyrics: Jeong Il-ri, Ravi
Composer: Devine Channel
Arranger: Devine Channel
Music Video Director: Wooje Kim (ETUI)
If “Open Up” was Devine Channel’s attempt at “Overcome”-levels of ambition, then “Shangri-La” was their straightforward but unassailable “Love Paint (Every Afternoon)”. As with all of VIXX’s best tracks, the songwriters were mindful of how to arrange the different vocalists, ensuring that no one ever felt out of place. They sing of a love that’s as rapturous and mystifying as the titular location, and the instrumentation conjures up visuals just as dazzling. Of all the Soundcloud-minded K-pop songs last year, “Shangri-La” was the only one that didn’t make any missteps.
15. BTS - Spring Day / Serendipity / DNA
"Spring Day" Credits:
Lyrics: Jin, Pdogg, Rap Monster, ADORA, Bang Si-hyuk, Arlissa Ruppert, Peter Ibsen, Suga
Composer: Pdogg, Rap Monster, ADORA, Bang Si-hyuk, Arlissa Ruppert, Peter Ibsen, Suga
Music Video Director: Choi Yongseok (Lumpens)
Lyrics: Slow Rabbit, Ray Michael Djan Jr, Ashton Foster, Rap Monster, Bang Si-hyuk
Composer: Slow Rabbit, Ray Michael Djan Jr, Ashton Foster, Rap Monster, Bang Si-hyuk
Producer: Slow Rabbit
Music Video Director: Choi Yongseok, Lee Wonju (Lumpens)
Lyrics: Pdogg, Bang Si-hyuk, Kass, Supreme Boi, Suga, Rap Monster
Composer: Pdogg, Bang Si-hyuk, Kass, Supreme Boi, Suga, Rap Monster
Music Video Director: Choi Yongseok (Lumpens)
I'm by no means a big BTS fan, but I shed a few tears while watching the group perform at the American Music Awards. In one of very few moments in my life, I saw Korean artists take center stage in front of a massive Western audience and be appreciated for their talents. Even if I didn't love any of their singles from last year, I would be hard-pressed to think of a more personally meaningful moment in K-pop from 2017. Thankfully, three of their singles from last year—"Spring Day", "Serendipity", and "DNA"—were among their best, and formed a possible trilogy-of-sorts about love. It's a stretch, perhaps, but it seems hinted at with the thumbnails for each video and the lyrics' shared imagery.
They mourn separation from a loved one in the contemplative pop-rap ballad "Spring Day". Its stadium-ready drums and whirring processed guitar melody provide an atmosphere that's simultaneously enormous and insular; it's cathartic, yes, but it ultimately points to how lonely they currently are. "Serendipity" is as if the spring they sung about has finally arrived, and Jimin serenades someone about how their love was destined by fate. It acts as an effective prelude to "DNA", which finds the whole group celebrating the same deterministic view of this relationship. The drop feels electric, but its the numerous members' personalities that shine through.
14. WJSN - Happy
Lyrics: Black Eyed Pilseung, Jeon Gun
Composer: Black Eyed Pilseung, Jeon Gun, Kim Tae Ju
Music Video Director: Ziyong Kim (Fantazy Lab)
Numerous people found it upsetting that WJSN (aka Cosmic Girls) ditched the visual aesthetic of "Secret" and "I Wish". Personally, I found it hard to complain when the result was a song as vibrant as "Happy". Instrumentally, the chorus recalls Twice's "Like Ooh-Ahh", but Black Eyed Pilseung have never constructed a song that felt like such a manic sugar rush. The girls sing about how love was a foreign concept to them previously, and we see how their current infatuation for someone fills them with such frenetic energy. And yet, amidst all the pinballing sound effects and cheerleader chants, they come out sounding composed and genuinely content.
13. Sumin - Sparkling
Lyrics: Sumin, Jinbo
Music Video Director: THECUT
Sumin flexes her songwriting ability on “Sparkling”, a shimmering pastiche of Quiet Storm that’s heavily informed by Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love”. Writing for Pitchfork, Eric Harvey mentions how “[Quiet Storm] is soul music aiming not for the hips, but a deeper metaphysical connection between two intimate lovers.” Sumin understands this, and accomplishes it by establishing a specific mood from the outset. With chromatic chord progressions and a prominent bassline, she provides listeners with a sensual groove that rocks back and forth: a cozy space that invites physical, emotional, and spiritual intimacy amongst lovers. It eventually bubbles up into a euphoric climax, and Sumin maintains her composure through it all—a sign that she trusts the instrumentation to do its work, and wants listeners to as well. Take her advice and let it wash over you; it’ll leave a sparkling afteglow.
12. Suzy - Yes No Maybe
Composer: JYP, Kairos
Arranger: JYP, Kim Seung Soo
Korean music video directors have been influenced by the films of Wong Kar-wai for years, so it’s an immense pleasure to see Suzy and JYP pay explicit homage with the video for “Yes No Maybe.” The song itself also feels linked to the themes covered in his films, and appropriately begins with a representation of time and its effect on our protagonist. For eight measures, hi-hats tick like sped-up clocks, signaling the anxiety and dread that characterize Suzy’s conflicted feelings about a romantic lover. Her lyrics are informed by past experiences from this relationship, but are just as aware of the brick wall that is its future. Like characters in various Wong films, Suzy is uncomfortably trapped within the present, but understands that this is the only moment in time she has any sort of agency. With precise mixing and a healthy dose of reverb, she sounds stuck in her head, displaced from the rest of the music. And like a step-printed shot, the brisk synth melodies and warbling vocal sample make it feel like the rest of the world is rapidly spinning around her. “Yes! No! Maybe!” she sings, but she doesn’t want to find an answer; she’ll prolong this internal debate as much as she can.
11. EXID - Night Rather Than Day
Lyrics: Shinsadong Tiger, KeeBomb, LE
Composer: Shinsadong Tiger, KeeBomb, LE
Arranger: Shinsadong Tiger
Music Video Director: Lee Ki-baek
It's an effortless distillation of a precise feeling: the quiet thrill of spending an evening with a loved one. It's so effective that even its aftereffects—a lingering contentment and joy—are felt once the song ends. EXID sing of being unable to meet during the day, but they'd rather meet during the evening anyways. The nighttime is inherently more intimate, far removed from the busyness of everyday life. It's funny, putting up with the workday is easy when there's something to look forward to afterwards. And these dates they speak of feel special—not because of the plans, but because they’re events that are cherished. It turns out that refreshingly light disco suits EXID well; this is them at their least forced, their most emotive, their very best.
10. Lovelyz - Twinkle
Lyrics: 1 Take, TAK, ARRAN
Composer: 1 Take, TAK
Arranger: 1 Take, TAK
Music Video Director: Hong Won-ki (Zanybros)
Woollim Entertainment’s decision to have OnePiece produce almost all of Lovelyz’s singles has proven to be one of the company’s wisest decisions. Much Like Lee Min-soo once did for IU, producer team OnePiece consistently provide Lovelyz with a recognizable sonic pallete that grants their songs a fairy tale-like otherworldliness. More importantly, it allows the group to remain distinct in a saturated girl group market. With “Twinkle”, it’s clear that the “Lovelyz sound” is so firmly established that even other producers can successfully take a stab at it.
In keeping with the group’s low fantasy-esque sound, “Twinkle” begins like a winding toy box before erupting into a chipper instrumental passage that resembles a stately take on Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s “Tsukematsukeru”. Lovelyz have sounded like J-pop since the very beginning, but this section is paired with a driving synth beat that doesn’t feel far off from producers 1 Take and TAK’s own EDM pop song from 2016 or TAK's work with ARRAN. And yet, it glimmers with so much hopeful, heartfelt yearning that it could never be mistaken for any other group. That the bells don’t feel out of place is a testament to how cohesive the single’s individual parts are. Countless K-pop groups have released holiday-themed music during the final weeks of the year, but few songs have been worthwhile. Leave it to Lovelyz to release the decade’s best yet, and by a huge margin no less.
9. BLACKPINK - As If It’s Your Last
Lyrics: Teddy, BrotherSu, CHOICE37
Composer: Teddy, FUTURE BOUNCE, Lydia Paek
Arranger: FUTURE BOUNCE, Teddy
Music Video Director: Seo Hyun-seung
They can shout “BLACKPINK in your area” as much as they want but it won’t prevent anyone from thinking that this sounds like a 2NE1 song. And more than any of their other singles, “As If It’s Your Last” makes it incredibly easy to pinpoint exactly where CL, Dara, Minzy, and Bom could have been slotted in. Even then, it’s impossible to deny the ambition on display here and how well crafted everything is; call it heretical, but I’d say this is stronger than almost every 2NE1 single. The verses are bombastic: a sped-up dem bow rhythm with whirring synths that sound like YG’s take on “Pon de Floor”. It segues ever so cleanly into country pastiche, standing out from producer Teddy’s work on “Whistle” and Big Bang’s “Bae Bae” because of its ambitions to sound like a Western film theme. It provides an amusing contrast to the dinky 80s dance-pop chorus, as if highlighting the different romantic lenses through which these girls view this love. It becomes fully realized in the final line of the chorus—“Kiss me like it’s a lie, as if I’m your last love”—and it sells every bit of glistening infatuation that the song strives for.
See also: "So Hot (THEBLACKLABEL Remix)"
8. Gugudan - A Girl Like Me
Music Video Director: Digipedi
Gugudan is arguably the best group to debut within the past two years; their four singles thus far showcase unassailable songwriting across various styles, and “A Girl Like Me” is their strongest yet. All of the group’s songwriters have made considerable effort to capitalize on the use of vocal melody as a propulsive element while ensuring that they’re always contributing to a song’s lyrical themes. Note how initially, the rolling kick drum leaves the situation ambiguous—is it meant to represent their pounding hearts? These girls sound confident, but is there an anxiety looming underneath? After the giddy chorus, Nayoung kicks off the second verse with vocalizing that could only be read as completely self-assured. “Why can’t you say anything?” she sings. Suddenly, the kick drum sounds like it’s radiating the girls’ ferocity and persistence. Don’t count Gugudan out, they’re here to stay.
7. Hoody - Hangang
Composer: Cha Cha Malone, Hoody
Arranger: Cha Cha Malone
The best thing to come from the Korean rap beefs of 2013 (which were, to be certain, equally as tedious and overblown as their inspiration: Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Big Sean’s “Control”) was a diss track that referenced the KittiB-featuring collective known as Amourette. It specifically brought to my attention the two R&B artists who were a part of the group: Hoody and Nieah. They both released their debut singles that year and stood out amongst their peers for producing their own music. The former also dropped a mixtape in 2013, ended up on a Teengirl Fantasy track the year after, and released more singles before eventually signing to AOMG at the tail end of 2015. Hoody’s found a nice home in the label, and it’s with “Hangang” that everything comes together perfectly.
It’s her most diaphanous song to date, and Producer Cha Cha Malone ensures that it constantly permeates with a comforting sense of bliss. It's decidedly dreamy, acting to embody the contentment that Hoody feels. Her soft but assured singing works in conjunction with the feather-light synth pulses, wrapping around listeners as if to cuddle them. She's in love, and candidly states the fear she has in such moments only being temporary. Still, she'll cherish this moment, and the horns soundtrack this event with understated, celebratory fanfare. People often relish how specific seasons and places help to recall lived experiences, but Hoody aims for something here that's more readily accessible: a song that pinpoints and maintains the specific emotional state she was in one day along the Han River. It's something she wants to hold onto forever, and the joy she felt feels eternally preserved in these soothing three minutes.
6. Sik-K - Party (Shut Down) (feat. Crush)
Lyrics: Sik-K, Crush
Composer: Sik-K, GroovyRoom, Crush
Music Video Director: Jo Beomjin (VM Project)
The categorization of Sik-K as Korea’s answer to Travis Scott is understandable but slightly confounding. Sik-K’s done (and continues to do) similar melodic AutoTune warbling and liberally copped his ad-libs, but how many other Korean artists—K-pop stars and underground rappers alike—have also been influenced by Travis? Even then, many of Sik-K’s songs, including “Party (Shut Down)”, feel more specific to Korea’s rap scene than anything out of America.
“Party” may feature a danceable groove but it’s ultimately a song about having a meltdown. It’s an intoxicated confessional that finds Sik-K and Crush exchanging grievances about missing a loved one, and they’re making concerted efforts to ensure their future, sober selves will be thankful. They start off the night sounding somewhat lax, attempting to enjoy an evening out with friends while being consumed by thoughts of this girl. It isn’t long, though, before Sik-K urgently sings “I miss you so bad, I need you so bad!” By the time the song ends, he’s on his way to this girl’s place. There’s a narrative here that’s expressed through the lyrics, but it’s made more complete through the contrast between Sik-K and Crush’s vocals and rapping. Despite the nature of the song, both of them are wise enough to ensure lines like “I shut down the party”, “I love to party on the weekend”, and “I’m so drunk right now” resonate as debaucherous mantras worth singing along to.
See also: "Have A Little Fun (feat. DPR Live)", "EX (feat. Cha Cha Malone)", "FLY"; Jo Woo-chan - "VVIP (feat. Sik-K, Gaeko)"; Sik-K, pH-1, Jay Park - "iffy", "h1ghr gang"; Jay Park - "Yacht (K) (feat. Sik-K)"; Most Badass Asian - "Thursday Party (feat. Big One)"; Bobby - "Tendae"; offonoff - "gold (feat. Dean)"
5. IU - Palette (feat. G-Dragon)
Arranger: Lee Jong-hoon
Music Video Director: Lee Rae-kyung
I made a complete career switch last year, committing to a profession that I hadn't even considered until recently. It only took so long because of my own stubbornness, my unwillingness to change things based on previous plans and standards I set for myself. It was terrifying at first but I couldn't be happier; for the first time in my life, I feel like I've found "my thing." But to get to there I had to accept certain things about who I am (and who I'm not). As such, "Palette" feels reassuring. If "Twenty-Three" was IU grappling with the cognitive dissonance of young adulthood by accepting confusion, "Palette" finds some of that fog clearing, and her realizing that your 20s are still a time of self-discovery.
While I've always been enamored by the Disneyland-levels of grandiosity in her Lee Min-soo produced tracks, "Palette" finds its charm in how unmistakably personal it is. IU reflects on how she has and hasn't changed, mentioning her continued love of Corinne Bailey Rae (who she's collaborated with) and looking pretty during her "Good Day" days. There's one point in the music video which sums everything up beautifully: she dances along the wall and a notification pops up stating "everyone hates you!" It gets tossed in the bin though, and she continues dancing. When she exclaims in the final chorus that she's "truly found," you believe it. G-Dragon's feature feels so unnecessary as a result, but it's thankfully replaced with IU's own rapping in live performances.
4. Weki Meki - I Don't Like Your Girlfriend
Lyrics: Seo Ji-eum
Composer: Devine Kei, Ryan Kim, Chase, Amanda Moseley
Arranger: Devine Channel
Those who assert that K-pop’s best years are far in the past were singlehandedly proven wrong with Weki Meki’s debut single. Call it a sign of the times, but the fact that the most ambitiously produced song of the year turned out to be completely misunderstood by a large number of people leads me to believe that fans today aren’t as appreciative of the innovative genre-hopping that’s defined much of K-pop’s very best songs.
There’s so much to revel in here, but best of all is how the song’s different sections present the multifaceted dimensions of jealousy. The schoolyard snark in the verses drip with bitterness, something made clear by the playful hop-and-skip beat eventually being met with punchy synths. It leads into a lighter pre-chorus whose entrance is punctuated by a single bowed string, all of which highlights how the deny any hint of jealousy. Naturally, that denial manifests itself in the chorus’s rude, defensive taunting. Its sticky beat lurches sinisterly and soon collapses into the lush post-chorus section, revealing the truth that was hiding underneath all the touch exterior: they’re still in love with this boy, and very much heartbroken by the whole ordeal.
A song this ostentatious doesn’t come around very often, and that it came from the mostly conservative producer team Devine Channel was surprising. Whether they’ll aim for something as inspired in the future has yet to be seen. As for Weki Meki, “La La La” doesn’t exactly give the impression that the group is interested in something similar. Still, it’s best to count one’s blessings. “I Don’t Like Your Girlfriend” is a masterpiece, and it was unequivocally the most refreshing K-pop song of 2017.
See also: "Fantastic"
3. LOONA - Sonatine / Singing in the Rain / Girl Front
Lyrics: Sweetch, Noh Ju-hwan
Composer: Sweetch, Noh Ju-hwan, Meng이
Arranger: Meng이, Sweetch, Noh Ju-hwan
"Singing in the Rain" Credits:
Lyrics: Hwang Hyun, Park Ji-yeon
Composer: Karl-Oskar Julius Gummesson, Nils Pontus Petersson, Caesar & Loui
Arranger: Karl-Oskar Julius Gummesson, Nils Pontus Petersson, Caesar & Loui
Music Video Director: Digipedi
"Girl Front" Credits:
Lyrics: Park Ji-yeon, Hwang Hyun, Jaden Jeong
Composer: Ollipop, Hayley Aitken
Arranger: Ollipop, Hayley Aitken
Music Video Director: Digipedi
LOONA haven't even officially debuted but they're already among the greatest K-pop girl groups ever. Three singles in particular stood out—"Sonatine" is one of the most astounding Korean ballads of the decade, "Singing in the Rain" is among the best of K-pop's interest in post-dubstep pop, and "Girl Front" is subunit Odd Eye Circle's unforgettable lead single. I've written about "Singing in the Rain" in the past, but the writing I did for "Girl Front" is my favorite thing I wrote last year. I'd rather not dilute it with further writing about LOONA's other tracks, so here it is in full.
Shortly after the release of Odd Eye Circle’s “Sweet Crazy Love,” Digipedi director Seong Wonmo noted that he had intentionally included Korean-language signs in its music video. K-pop always looked to the pop culture of the West, he said, studying and imitating it in numerous ways. As a director, there was a sense that he shouldn’t let Hangul appear in any frame–it would, after all, only make the content seem more “foreign.” But it’s 2017, and with K-pop’s ever-expanding global presence, Seong finally felt comfortable with doing just that (note that this was ten years into the career of an already-legendary figure of the industry). When I read his comments, I thought about where I was ten years ago, and how much I related to what he was saying.
As one of five Asians in an otherwise all-White high school, I had made subconscious efforts to be “just one of the (White) guys.” But as I started learning about K-pop, I also started to take some pride in being Korean. I wouldn’t dare tell my White friends about Wonder Girls or Big Bang, but I would tell them about some Korean music that seemed less embarrassing to mention. I will never forget, for example, how excited I was to show off my copy of Seo Taiji’s 7th Issue to a friend–as we sat in class, I watched as he examined the album’s unique packaging, and I eagerly awaited his opinions on the album’s pop punk/emo songs. Years later, I’m constantly gushing about Korean music to non-Koreans, and K-pop has played an enormous role in helping me come to terms with–and eventually love–my Korean-American identity.
That Seong specifically decided to show Hangul in a LOONA video is appropriate. More than any other group this year, they represented the best of what the K-pop industry had to offer in terms of engaging pop songs and their promotion. Subunit Odd Eye Circle’s music was especially noteworthy; their mini album featured the incredible Art Angels-indebted “Loonatic” and an R&B song that most boy bands would kill for. The best of the bunch was “Girl Front,” the lead single that took everything good about the members’ solo tracks and morphed it into something more ambitious. At its core, it’s a chipper pop song about being infatuated with someone, but what sets it apart is the degree to which every bit of instrumentation captures the manic frenzy of wanting to tell someone you love them. Producers Ollipop and Hayley Aitken were wise to bury the arpeggiating synths low in the mix, allowing them to mimic the fluttering hearts that characterize such situations.
What ties everything together, though, is the chorus. The girls initially state that they’re “cool,” emphasizing it with a wavering vocal melody that hops along briskly. It’s immediately followed by a sultry coo that’s meant to resemble the sound of their heart–an admittance of how they’re actually feeling. It’s considerably smoother than what preceded it, and shamelessly long. They’re not denying how they feel anymore, and they’ll happily let their crush consume their thoughts.
What makes “Girl Front” so heartening is that it isn’t content with things ending there; this is a song that’s about mustering up the strength to confess to someone that you love them. And as the song progresses, there’s an “opening up” of sounds to reflect this. The first verse has flickering synths that are halted by a bass guitar, as well as a vocal melody akin to those in the chorus that abruptly ends. But in the second verse, relatively “natural”-sounding keys stand in place of their punchy counterparts. There’s also a sleek mid-verse shift that registers as sensual, and it all leads into the girls shouting “woo!” before entering the chorus again. By the time “Girl Front” ends, they declare their intent to express their feelings to this person directly. We don’t know if they actually will, but things look hopeful.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do to keep moving forward–to get yourself to do things that seem impossible–is to constantly remind yourself of the things that make you happy. In “Girl Front,” it’s an overflow of desire for this person that helps them reach a point where they can say “I Love You.” It turns out that listening to K-pop was a way for me to eventually say the same thing to myself.
2. Twice - Likey
Lyrics: Black Eyed Pilseung, Jeon Gun
Composer: Black Eyed Pilseung, Jeon Gun
Mmusic Video Director: NAIVE
In virtually every aspect of “Likey,” production duo Black Eyed Pilseung capture the inwardly frantic yet outwardly calm nature of using social media as an avenue for affirmation. It’s more structurally complex than “TT” and “Knock Knock,” but more cohesive than “Signal” and “Cheer Up.” This middle ground proves apt, as the song’s constant innovations and driving energy mirror the constant shifting of attention one experiences while scrolling through endless feeds of content. One could argue that the pre-chorus’s winding melody brings the song to a halt, but this only bolsters the song’s conceit. Compared to the rest of “Likey,” the vocalizing there registers as conversational. But it isn’t long before we’re pulled away into the chorus’s onslaught of Twice-as-hell catchphrases, transfixed by the sound of people transfixed by their screens. It’s a statement in and of itself: how could the real world possibly hold up to the notifications that blow up our phones?
The entire song is sprinkled with onomatopoeiac representations that drive home this half-serious point: applying BB cream and lipstick, a crowd of people cheering, an angelic choir praising us in the chorus. And the only possible way “Likey” could have started is with its blaring horns and bouncing synthline–fanfare fit for a professional athlete’s entrance music. We’re ultimately left with our prized possession: a “Heart! Heart!” notifying us that someone’s liked our post, our image, our self. Amusingly, it’s preceded by the girls singing the sound of a quickly-beating heart. It turns out both hearts are our lifeblood.
1. Red Velvet - Red Flavor
Composer: Caesar & Loui
Arranger: Caesar & Loui
Music Video Director: Seong Chang-won
It’s obvious to everyone, right? The very best K-pop group right now is Red Velvet, and it isn’t even close. The night “Red Flavor” dropped, I actively listened to it until I heard birds chirping and saw the sun peaking through my blinds. It’s addicting: an impossibly sunny song about young love that’s brimming with joy. It’s the aural equivalent of a loved one waking you up early in the morning, grabbing your hand, and leading you around town in what’s sure to be the most exhausting day you’ve had in ages. As it progresses, you’re faced with an onslaught of precise percussive elements, sumo wrestler grunts, and DJ Mustard “hey’s!” to remind you of how thrilling it all really is. But it has to end eventually, and Wendy resolves “Red Flavor” with a final line that gets at why days like those are so special: “what I like most about summer is you.” Red Velvet pulled off a similar trick at the end of “Ice Cream Cake”, and that last second, sleight-of-hand lyricism never fails to crack a smile. It’s a gentle reminder of pop music’s greatest ability: how it can transmit emotions that feel at once hyperreal and utterly human.