How will I remember 2018 in terms of K-pop? Well, I’ll remember it for all the records that BTS broke. I’ll remember it for the ubiquity of survival show-formed groups. I’ll remember it for all the singles that found groups collaborating with notable Western artists — BTS with Nicki Minaj, Blackpink with Dua Lipa, Super Junior with Leslie Grace and REIK, LOONA with Grimes. But more than anything, 2018 will be the year that I distinctly felt less excited about K-pop than ever before. In my many years of following the genre, 2018 marked the first year in which I felt that K-pop was not the most exciting thing happening in South Korea.
While it may not be obvious from looking at this list (indeed, it still includes a decent chunk of K-pop), I spent more time listening to non-idols than those firmly in the industry. But while the rap, R&B, indie, and dance music coming out of the country are more interesting than ever before, there’s a clear sense that it’s still growing. There are obvious limitations for these independent artists that leads to their music often sounding like replications of things happening elsewhere. Even still, I found constant excitement from what I heard. Rappers making music that was relatively abrasive? Or that sounded like Playboi Carti? The country’s dance music scene becoming more robust? Women who made fun pop rock and rock that popped off? A slew of great R&B singers and producers who mostly found their audience on Soundcloud? More and more experimental music? There was a lot to take in.
To be sure, it was refreshing to actively spend more time with these smaller artists. Some of them are likely to see little success for their art given the nature of the country’s music industry. And while several didn’t impress as much as I’d wanted, they still instilled in me a sense of hope for the country’s independent music scene. The following list contains the fifty songs that I consider to be the best of the year. Naturally, it’s still subject to my particular tastes, but it is a list I feel reflects the best of what South Korea currently has to offer. Some of that is K-pop, some of it is not.
You can find a Spotify playlist of the songs here. All artists were limited to one song per entry unless they were a guest feature or part of a collaborative song. Some entries contain writing previously done for this site and others, and are noted as such. Songwriters and producers are also credited for all pop and rap songs. For entries that do not have these names listed, one can assume that the named artist(s) is responsible for the entirety of the track.
50. Korean Person - Suicide Boy
Lyrics: Korean Person
Producer: Cxld Blxxd
An anthem for all the depressed internet addicts who approach their suicidal shitposts with a healthy dose of irony, “Suicide Boy” ended up being the most unexpected Korean rap song of 2018. Interpolating the melody and lyrics of “You Were Born to be Loved,” one of the most widely known Korean CCM songs, Korean Person flips the message to indicate that he was born to commit suicide. Edgy? Sure. But much like the self-deprecating memes that populate social media feeds worldwide, there’s a perceptible seriousness here that’s hard to ignore. The key moment: hearing Korean Person wail “Every night, I’m so scared” before gleefully chanting “Suicide vibe!” No other Korean song this year came close to approximating depression as one sees it on the internet.
49. Kiska - Crystal Silence
The most mesmerizing track to come from Seoul-based tape label Vacuum Press was “Crystal Silence,” the closer on Kiska’s Music For Calm Moods. The composition is straightforward: vinyl hiss, bubbly synth melodies, looped field recordings, and evocative horns. The whole thing brings to mind the moody noir music crafted by various post-Twin Peaks “dark jazz” groups throughout the past two decades, invoking a nostalgia that’s as comforting as it is bittersweet. It’s subtly haunting, but charmingly so.
48. Youra - My
Composer: Youra, Team Haerop
Arranger: Team Haerop
I was bummed to see that “My” had been removed from Youra’s Soundcloud page a month or two after it was uploaded. It was consequently heartening to learn that it was taken down for good reason: the song was to receive a full-blown music video and be uploaded to 1theK’s YouTube channel, allowing for well-deserved exposure. Of the few songs Youra’s released thus far, “My” stands out for relying less on her smoky vocals to do all the heavy lifting. While they’re still present, the chorus instead opts for simple, twinkly vocals that ebb and flow with the sparse guitar strums, synth melodies, and percussion. The result is a song that sounds like a lullaby-like dreamworld, one that’s fantastical yet feels readily attainable.
Read the blurb for Youra’s “Dance,” “Swim,” and “My” from my Q1 Report here.
47. Moldy - GodDy
Producer: Black AC
Grack Thany remains one of the most forward-thinking record labels in South Korea, and their constant stream of releases throughout 2018 felt like an embarrassment of riches. It was especially thrilling to hear Moldy’s rapping over his labelmate’s raucous production, and “GodDy” was the most notable. Producer Black AC creates a series of beats that Moldy effortlessly traverses, starting with jittery percussion that transforms into a breakbeat before devolving into half-time synth ambience. Unsurprisingly, it eventually revs up again, tracing back the song’s structure to its first beat. There are no seconds wasted here; “GodDy” makes it impossible to deny that Moldy has earned his boastful raps and that much synergy exists between him and his collaborators.
46. Bluescript - Metamorphosis
There’s a poignancy to the retro-futuristic sheen of “Metamorphosis” when one considers what Bluescript had to say about the song. The song’s title refers to the rapid growth that Seoul has seen throughout the past few decades, but the producer notes that there are problems that persist and need to be addressed. As such, the song’s swelling synth pads and blips seem to envision a newer future for the city, one that is ostensibly only possible in the realm of science-fiction. “Metamorphosis” turns the dancefloor into a place for imagining better realities.
Read “Oslated Records Connects South Korea’s Underground Club Scene With the World” on Bandcamp Daily.
45. NO:EL - 00 (DOUBLE O) / Celebration (feat. Jhnovr)
Lyrics: NO:EL, Jhnovr
If 2017 was the year of H1GHR MUSIC and Club Eskimo, then 2018 was the year of Indigo Music. With the major success of their biggest collaborative songs (“flex,” “IndiGO,” and “Work Out”) and increased exposure via Show Me the Money 777, the collective’s rappers were on an upward trajectory the entire year. NO:EL was the highlight of virtually every song he was featured in, and his own music proved no less exciting. His greatest asset is a smooth delivery that includes small, calculated emphases on particular syllables. The result is a highlighting of the various sounds of his mouth, acting to provide an extra textural dimension to his rapping. “00 (Double O)” was more traditional, finding NO:EL rapping without interruption, while “Celebration” showcased his ability to work in a more pop-friendly context. Given he can work in both modes effectively, it’ll be surprising if he doesn’t have a strong 2019.
44. M3g - Retrograde6 / Yoosin Kim - Nettor
dingn\dents is undoubtedly one of the best South Korean labels to start up recently, and two shorter tracks from their 2018 output — M3g’s “Retrograde6” and Yoosin Kim’s “Nettor” — were particularly thrilling. Both are primarily engaging due to their careful consideration for sound design. “Retrograde6” opts for a queasy, shapeshifting soundscape whose shuffling and stuttering electronics bring to mind a simpler version of 2000s Autechre. “Nettor,” on the other hand, is a quasi-techno track that feels like it’s perpetually gestating, with pulsating beats and sparks of noise creating a cavernous world.
43. Giriboy - Bangbup / The Burden (feat. JUSTHIS, ChoiLB) / acrnm (feat. Goretexx)
Producer: Fisherman, HAYAKE
Lyrics: Giriboy, JUSTHIS, ChoiLB
Lyrics: Giriboy, Goretexx
Giriboy stepped his game up in 2018, releasing songs that featured some of the best rap production coming out of South Korea. “Bangbup” features warped vocal samples, clacking glass bottles, and a cascade of dissonant piano keys; “The Burden” is a glitchy garage house track that’s exquisitely mixed; and “acrnm” confidently throws a slew of screeching strings over a trap beat. Regardless of what he was rapping over, Giriboy found a way to do it with ease, always adapting to the instrumentation to ensure his presence was well-warranted.
42. SAAY - Overzone / Carla - I Don't Need You / Alice Vicious - Feel Better (feat. Hiyadam)
Composer: DEEZ, SAAY, Coach & Sendo, Jamil "Digi" Chammas
Arranger: DEEZ, Coach & Sendo
Lyrics: Carla, C-Young
Composer: Carla, C-Young
Lyrics: Alice Vicious, Hiyadam
Composer: Alice Vicious
Arranger: Cloud Systems, The Martians
The past couple years have been particularly strong for soloists, and it’s felt true for both superstars firmly within the industry and those on the outer edges. Those in the latter group often get overlooked, but they’re often providing music that can stand with the best of ‘em. Case in point: SAAY's debut album CLAASSIC. Formerly of the short-lived K-pop group EvoL, SAAY finds a much stronger home creating nostalgic R&B songs written by K-pop mainstays like Daniel "Obi" Klein and DEEZ. The latter teams up with fellow Ekko Music producers Couch & Sendo for "Overzone." The arrangement is dazzling — it constantly shifts without feeling crowded — and envelops the listener in a lush assortment of horn stabs, sleek guitar figures, and keyboard flourishes. It proves effective in selling SAAY's affected accent and her lyrics about "cross[ing] the line," bringing to mind the sort of all-consuming production and chord progressions that characterized DEEZ's other works (e.g. Red Velvet's "Light Me Up" and Jonghyun's "Neon”).
In a similar position is Carla, a former member of the now-defunct Wanna.B and MOXIE. Previously known by her Korean name Sae Bom, her stage name shift indicates an intentional distancing from her idol group past. To aid in the rebranding is C-Young, a relatively new producer who provides songwriting and production that’s Western-friendly, even more so than what appeared on his solo album. As Carla asserts that a relationship is over, a vocal sample arrives in order to project how tiresome the whole ordeal is. If she’s at the point where she’s ok with this person “hating” them, one has a sense that she’s said enough and the other party simply isn’t listening. The brief repose before the final chorus functions as an extended sigh: an appropriate pause before Carla finally declares that “it’s over.”
While not a K-pop star, Alice Vicious (formerly known as LiVii) provided backing vocals on Taemin’s “Drip Drop” and has been releasing her own music for years. Of her songs, “Feel Better” is her best to date — a lovestruck confession that utilizes various mid-2010s SoundCloud producer tropes as a wellspring of unbridled joy. “It’s too silly trying not to show you,” she sings, and there’s an admirability to her commitment. “Kiss me right here, doesn’t have to be forever” soon turns into “keep your hands on me, that makes me feel better.” That headfirst dive into infatuated pleasure-seeking simultaneously recognizes and embraces the ephemeral nature of the situation, and it makes the production feel poignant. Who’s to say whether chintzy pseudo-jersey club beats and post-ironic airhorns will feel anywhere near as exciting in ten years’ time? For now, they’re bright and fun and meaningful. In other words, they’ll make you feel better, and that’s all that matters.
41. EXID - I Love You
Lyrics: Shinsadong Tiger, LE
Composer: Shinsadong Tiger, LE
Arranger: Shinsadong Tiger
The return of EXID leader Solji meant the return of EXID’s standard song structure: a verse anchored by LE’s rapping and a chorus centered around Solji’s dramatic vocalizing. Despite this familiarity, “I Love You” is one of the group’s strongest singles to date because the contrast between its different sections and styles reflect the song’s lyrics effectively. The girls navigate ‘80s electro rap and ‘90s house with vibrant confidence but the chorus reveals the aching desire for love that’s underneath their tough exterior. This idea is reflected in the music video too; in a sense, “I Love You” feels like the most fully realized EXID single to date.
Read my review of “I Love You” for K-pop Comment here.
40. Lovelyz - Shining★Star
Lyrics: 1Take, TAK, Arran
Composer: 1Take, TAK
Arranger: 1Take, TAK
Producers 1Take and TAK continue to follow in the footsteps of production team OnePiece by crafting the Nakata-indebted K-pop that Lovelyz do best. If “Twinkle” was Lovelyz making their own version of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s “Tsukematsukero,” then “Shining★Star” is their own “Furisodation.” The girls compare a guy to a shooting star, and their giddiness is felt through the instrumentation: a slippery bassline, technicolor synth melodies, and a propulsive chorus. While songs about infatuation are a dime a dozen, what makes “Shining Star” so heartening is that its chorus makes the whole situation feel like a victorious one. The way in which they all harmonize “dwae…. neun!” like it’s some sort of huddle break is a reminder that having a crush is something worth proudly reveling in.
39. LOONA - Hi High
Lyrics: Jaden Jeong, GDLO, Hwang Hyun
Composer: Hwang Hyun, GDLO, Mayu Wakisaka
Arranger: Hwang Hyun, GDLO
There was no way that an OT12 LOONA song could possibly cater to all members’ strengths, so Blockberry Creative followed the method they employed with Odd Eye Circle and released two singles that were considerably different, hoping to appease fans of all stripes. “Hi High” was the better of the two, looking to the success of the Grimes-featuring “love4eva” for a song that was just as shameless about being a jittery sugar rush. Half-time segues, fluttering synths, giddy chanting — whatever the song does, it all captures the headrush of the titular phenomenon, one where talking with your crush can make you feel elated beyond belief.
38. Yeseo - Night Night
It’s all in the swing of the guitar melody and bassline, how they seem to cradle the listener as Yeseo pines about a lover. It puts you into her mental state, her soft coos and sparse piano notes keeping you transfixed. The bridge finds her at her most direct, singing, "What are you waiting for? / I'm here to love, come on.” She wants to ensure that the mood is maintained, knowing that this night can feel like a pleasant eternity if things go right. While the FKA twigs-indebted “Silhouette” found Yeseo aiming for palpable sensuality, “Night Night” dials it back, capturing the tenderness of love. It’s a song that portrays physical intimacy without excluding its ability to satisfy concomitant emotional desires.
37. Hong Chulki / Will Guthrie - 1
Hong Chulki’s importance within South Korea’s experimental music scene is undeniable, so it was heartening to see 2018 close out with Daehan Electronics reissuing Circumfluence, a little-known ‘90s shoegaze/ambient record from the Hong-featuring band Puredigitalsilence. Earlier in the year, though, the inimitable Erstwhile Records released an excellent collaborative album from Hong and Australian drummer extraordinaire Will Guthrie. The opening track was a good foretaste of the remaining pieces: electroacoustic noise that’s ominous and caustic because of its raw presentation, rounded out by thoughtful cymbal work from Guthrie. Hong’s brand of noise has always felt subversive because it needn’t rely on exceedingly-harsh timbres or sheer volume to feel violent. And here, the clattering of sounds that begin to rev up midtrack is more frightening and invigorating than what noise often has to offer. The looping coda ties everything up with an unassuming dread.
36. Twice - What is Love?
Lyrics: J. Y. Park
Composer: J. Y. Park
Arranger: Lee Woo-min "collapsedone"
One of the most straightforward Twice singles, and arguably the only one that’s better for it. The entirety of “What Is Love?” can be summed up by its title, as the song is nothing more than a romanticized longing for, uh, romanticized longing. While identifiably teenaged in tone, the prevailing idea that informs this song — that finding a romantic partner is the most satisfying and crucial of experiences — is one familiar to all. Yes, the music video’s numerous film references function as meme fodder, but they remind the viewer that such messages are universal and inescapable. “What Is Love?” is so monolithic and “non-adult” that it forces one to confront how its underpinning ideologies affect one’s adult life in the everyday. In one sense, it’s refreshing to hear an unironic take on something like this in 2018. But even more, “What Is Love?” is simply enjoyable for being pure, saccharine pop. These melodies are imbued with such eager, doe-eyed curiosity that the lyrics feel almost sickly sweet. Does love feel like this, or is that just what songs about love feel like? That “What Is Love?” allows listeners to ask such questions proves to be its greatest strength.
35. Chung Ha - Love U
Lyrics: Iggy, Cino, Woong Kim
Composer: Iggy, Cino, Woong Kim
Arranger: Iggy, Cino, Woong Kim
In retrospect, “Love U” was a midpoint between Chung Ha’s “Roller Coaster” and collaborative single “Wow Thing.” It takes the trop pop sensibilities and vocal melodies of the former and the Ariana Grande worship of the latter and channels it into the most bright and chipper of love songs. The chorus had what so many other K-pop singles lacked this past summer: a thrilling, top-of-your-lungs sing-along moment that necessitated joining in. Hearing Chung Ha belt out, “I just wanna, wanna love you!” as a series of horn manifested her excitement made this the keeper in her discography.
34. Unjin and Sunji - Summer Dream
“Summer Dream” lives up to its title: it’s a quaint house track that feels slightly fantastical yet comfortingly homey. The quiet vocalizing that appears lures you in even deeper, but it’s the interaction of the undulating bassline with the four-note, ascending synth melody that feels most hypnotic. The song seems criminally short, but it’s only because it ensnares you so quickly and effectively.
33. Apink - I'm So Sick
Lyrics: Lyrics: Black Eyed Pilseung, Jun Goon
Composer: Black Eyed Pilseung, Jun Goon
At first, I wasn’t sure if “I’m So Sick” was mostly appealing because of how different it sounded from the rest of Apink’s oeuvre. But as the year went on, it only grew on me, proving that it didn’t only stand as a strong song in and of itself, but was quite refreshing compared to what defined K-pop’s musical palette in 2018. I wrote the following for The Singles Jukebox:
I’d readily argue that Apink peaked in their debut year, with “I Don’t Know” and “My My” fleshing out their cutesy shtick enough during a time when SNSD had moved into more “serious” territories. The following year, they climbed higher on the charts with the markedly different “Hush,” but it was “Bubibu” that foretold their future. To be certain, Apink’s success is in large part due to their consistent sound and image — one that has sustained itself through K-pop’s overt sexualization (ca. 2013) and numerous genre trends. While a smart strategy, it’s been hard to care about their output for much of their career. Given the ubiquity of cutesy girl groups as of late, and how I’ve even heard their type of music in South Korea’s CCM scene, a shift in style feels more welcome than ever.
The group enlists Black Eyed Pilseung to do the job, and it’s immediately clear that this is not another “Only One.” “I’m sick of lying, you gotta know that” is uttered with a soft, pained tone; it stands in stark contrast to the doe-eyed oppa-isms that Yookyung used to spout, and prepares the listener for the dancefloor catharsis that follows. Musically, this very much sounds like a tastefully tropified version of “Hush,” and its chilly synths bring to mind other 2012 K-pop songs. Six years ago, a version of “I’m So Sick” would’ve sounded a bit too T-ara-esque, preventing listeners from feeling how muted every synth wobble and vocal sample is. And that’s ultimately the song’s biggest asset: the instrumentation feels dull despite all the flash, highlighting the numbness that’s spoken of in the lyrics.
32. fromis_9 - Love Bomb
Lyrics: Jo Yun-gyeong
Composer: Mayu Wakisaka, Sean Alexander, David Amber
Arranger: David Amber, Avenue 52
fromis_9's "Glass Shoes" established the rookie group as one worth keeping an eye on, but it was their 2018 releases that firmly cemented it. Both “DKDK” and “Love Bomb” were excellent, but it was the latter that convinced me of the group’s versatility. I wrote the following for The Singles Jukebox:
“Love Bomb” confirms that fromis_9 are well-equipped for handling several different musical styles. The core of this song’s success is how it lets on that it’s relentlessly chipper while many of its musical elements are actually far warmer than most attempts at breakneck-speed K-pop. The jittery vocal sample, the colorful synth arpeggios, the drum fill that ushers in the chorus — they’re all offset by the stately vocal melodies and harmonies that characterize the non-rapping moments. In doing so, “Love Bomb” presents the oft-ignored reality of being in love: how self-assured maturity can coexist with giddy, near-hysterical infatuation.
31. Gugudan - The Boots
Lyrics: JQ, Mola
Composer: Erik Lidbom, MELODESIGN
Arranger: Erik Lidbom
Despite being one of the most consistent girl groups around, Gugudan are still extremely underrated. 2018 saw the release of two mini albums that featured good singles and album tracks alike. Best of all, though, was “The Boots.” I wrote the following for my Q1 Report:
If anything, "The Boots" is a testament to Gugudan's continued proficiency in adopting any and all styles. Each of their singles have found the group tackling a different sector of K-pop, and here they channel something akin to late-era SNSD. There's a coherency amidst the song's rhythmic changes, and it reflects the determination they have to feel confident. The lyrics are directed at themselves, so "The Boots" ends up sounding like an impassioned pep talk for anyone willing to listen. Unsure that you'll be able to feel like a "miracle"? Sejeong's frequent declarations to "Speak Up!" are just what the doctor ordered. Gugudan, ever so gracious, even allow the chorus to soundtrack any makeshift catwalk. Thankfully, those who stumble during their initial attempt can rest assured: each chorus allows for another opportunity to feel as "brilliant" as the girls want you to.
30. Say Sue Me - Old Town
Lyrics: Choi Sumi
Composer: Kim Byungkyu
Arranger: Say Sue Me
Western coverage of Say Sue Me made sense given the type of music they make, but the band also stands our for creating songs that extend beyond pastiche. I listened to more Korean indie music in 2018 than I have in ten years, and most of what I heard was underwhelming. The main culprit was simply a mismatch of tastes between what I care for and what’s coming out in Korea right now. More frustrating, though, was the number of bands who simply don’t have their songwriting chops down yet. “Old Town” is simple but economical — Say Sue Me make it sound too easy. Hearing it at the end of 2018 really made clear to me how wistful it really is; even the handclaps sound like they’re bummed out. I wrote the following for my Q1 Report:
In hearing Sumi Choi sing the final line, “But I feel nothing inside,” one is quick to note how its musical phrasing matches that of every line that refers to the titular "Old Town." In that moment she identifies with Busan itself, a heavily populated town whose music scene can nonetheless feel tiny in comparison to Seoul's. After college, Sumi found herself working a job that was "far from [her] dream". The result was "Old Town," a song about the malaise of growing older in a town that feels dead, exacerbated by the sight of friends moving on without you. What's one to do during such a quarter-life crisis? It's hard to say, but it can be a temporary relief to simply acknowledge the current state of things.
29. BTS - Love Maze
Lyrics: Pdogg, Jordan “DJ Swivel” Young, Candace Nicole Sosa, RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jung Bobby, ADORA
Composer: Pdogg, Jordan “DJ Swivel” Young, Candace Nicole Sosa, RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jung Bobby, ADORA
It’s hard to think of BTS without considering the number of fans who find their music deeply personal and inspiring — something that’s a result of lyrics that display the socially conscious attitudes that exist on members’ social media pages. While plenty have argued the veracity of the group’s progressive nature (at least in comparison to other boy bands) and whether it was the primary driving force behind their record-breaking success, such squabbles are unimportant; legions of fans do find something personal to take away from their music, and it’s best to appreciate that their art can be meaningful to so many people.
In listening to “Love Maze,” the outright catchiest song on Love Yourself 轉 ‘Tear’, I hear a song about lovers acknowledging the tumultuous reality of a romantic relationship. BTS sing about the negativity that’s thrown their way from outsiders, but there’s a determination that is expressed not only in the lyrics, but in the way RM, Suga, and J-Hope nimbly deliver their rap verses. Best of all, though, is hearing Jin bluntly proclaim, “Baby, just don’t give a damn.” And indeed, while this is a song about fighting for a relationship despite what others may say, that’s a sentiment that rings true in multiple circumstances. “Love Maze” can consequently function as a reminder for BTS themselves to persevere, as a message from BTS to their devoted fans, or as guidance regarding self-love. However people choose to interpret the song is up to them; the hook will stick in their brain long enough for them to decide.
Read my blurb for “Fake Love” at The Singles Jukebox.
28. HAON - Noah (feat. Jay Park & Hoody)
Lyrics: HAON, Jay Park, Hoody
Composer: GroovyRoom, Jay Park
2018 wasn’t as strong a year for H1GHR Music as 2017, but their artists did release a handful of songs that I found particularly great. HAON’s “Noah” was the most meaningful of all, inspiring me to reflect and write at length about my Korean-American identity. I wrote the following for The Singles Jukebox:
I was fascinated by Seo Taiji as a teenager. He was an artist who was willing to adopt different strains of music for the entirety of his career, subsuming them into his identity without losing a sense of who he was — something succinctly portrayed in his willingness to cover older songs in newer styles. While his story is one born out of an artistic insatiability, it’s also a reflection of South Korea’s curious position in the global marketplace from the late ’80s onward. For a people who had been oppressed for ages — be it from other countries or their own government’s military dictatorship — there was a question that could be answered anew: What does it mean to be Korean? It was a question for the country at large, especially given their newfound international spotlight post-’88 Olympics, but individual people could find new forms of self-expression after the strengthening of South Korea’s economic relations and the relaxing of censorship laws. Seo Taiji’s genre-agnosticism modeled what that could look like for a new generation of South Koreans. To be sure, he had the luxury of employing such stylistic blending because his Korean audience was less concerned with authenticity; the music could be made without a necessary coupling with its original culture, image, or personality. Fortuitously, his albums sounded less like egregious appropriation and more like self-discovery. Halfway around the world, I found myself transfixed; through his music, Seo Taiji had shown me that a scrawny Korean kid could be whatever he wanted, and no one in Western media was relaying that message to me.
Listening to “Noah,” I hear five Korean artists presenting a similar aspiration for boundlessness. All five are noteworthy and self-made: Haon was the winner of reality competition show High School Rapper 2, Jay Park is an ex-idol who signed with Roc Nation and started his own successful record labels, Hoody is a singer and producer who has pushed the country’s R&B scene to impressive heights, and production duo GroovyRoom has played a pivotal role in shaping Korea’s rap scene into something wholly distinct. While the guitar figure and shuffling beat are clearly riding the Latin wave, neither reggaeton’s thrust nor trap’s all-consuming percussion is here. In other words, it sounds like Korean pop rap despite and because it borrows from elsewhere. In an interview with HiphopLE, Haon stated that Noah is an alter-ego of sorts, the “friend” who comes out in his songwriting. Noah reflects a desire for freedom and creative expression, and it’s appropriate that it’s simply his Korean name backwards: a reminder that whatever music he makes, it’s still representative of who he truly is.
Jay Park anchors “Noah” with a proclamation that he wants to exceed the expectations that the world has for him. Crucially, he interpolates a line from “Garasadae,” a song that features three rappers from his label H1GHR Music. “Thus Saith H1GHR Music: Piss Off,” he calmly states, further establishing the one-track mind toward success he has for himself and his friends. Even further, Park says that he views Haon as an equal despite the age difference — shocking given the importance of age-based hierarchy in Korea. He understands that their accomplishments will act as examples for a new generation, and the camaraderie they display will only encourage people to work collaboratively toward their goals. Park’s cool braggadocio pairs effectively with Haon’s verses. The latter’s frenetic rhythms reveal that his take on such upward trajectory is equal parts nervousness and excitement. Hoody’s pre-chorus rounds it out by showing the underlying worry that always persists. After all, these modes of self-expression are still new to Korea. It’s all encapsulated in the chorus: “I don’t know.” It acts as an answer to the question, “What does it mean to be Korean?” Not because of confusion, but because of endless possibility.
27. IZ*ONE - La Vie en Rose
Numerous K-pop fans noted how “La Vie en Rose” sounded like a “comeback” instead of a “debut” (translation: it sounded strong instead of middling). They looked to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the song — it was originally meant for CLC before Cube Entertainment decided against releasing it, eventually landing in IZ*ONE’s lap — as definitive proof. The reality: groups birthed from the Produce television franchise have been extremely successful, so there’s going to be considerable stock placed in the singles chosen for them. Compare the paltry and dated debut single for I.O.I, the first Produce group, with the relatively-safe but catchy debut single for Wanna One. Doing so makes it all fairly obvious — with a pre-established fan base to ensure revenue, these short-lived groups will be given good songs to work with, and IZ*ONE would’ve had a solid single if they hadn’t had this.
“La Vie en Rose” was written by MosPick, a production team that has written songs for Cube groups such as 4Minute, BTOB, and CLC. While it’s a fairly straightforward love song that centers around the titular turn-of-phrase, it’s the shamisen that elevates it to new heights. In most circumstances, hearing a Japanese traditional instrument in the debut single for a group with Japanese members would be gauche, but it’s tastefully used here. Its presence enlivens the entire song; the chorus forgoes bombast for something more muted and sultry, and it’s the shamisen that grants it poise. While “La Vie en Rose” may sound nothing like the Edith Piaf song of the same name, it exudes a romantic sophistication all its own.
26. Room306 - Further / HNGIN - FROZN (FIRST AID Remix)
Young, Gifted & Wack and Grack Thany both release very good and very different music. It’s a testament to Hur Min’s chameleonic talents, then, that he released the strongest material from either label this past year. I wrote the following for my Q1 Report:
Two wildly different songs that reflect FIRST AID's varied discography. The first is a remix that transforms HNGIN's "FROZN" into a contemporary drum & bass track. FIRST AID has incorporated breakbeats into his music before, most notably on the Sky Real Book #04 compilation, but they've never felt so caustic. The remix's attention to sound design and dynamics heightens every individual noise that's heard. Equally as impressive is "Further," the lush closing track on Room306's Visit EP. It brings to mind toe and Spangle call Lilli line at their most emotive; its numerous guitar and piano flourishes lean dangerously close into mawkish territory, but they're offset by Hong Hyojin's wispy vocals to create something pleasantly introspective.