The 50 Best Korean Songs of 2018

25. pH-1 - Penthouse (feat. Sik-K)


Note: The above video is not an official upload


Lyrics: pH-1, Sik-K
Producer: APRO

While “iffy” was one of the best rap songs of 2017, pH-1’s own The Island Kid was a mediocre release. It was a delightful surprise to then see him rapidly improving throughout all of 2018. While he released a slew of great songs, and even had a popular hit with his collaborative Show Me The Money 777 track “Good Day,” it was his two-track single Gatsby that made the greatest impression. Both tracks were good, but “Penthouse” wins out if only because APRO’s production for the track was stellar. I wrote the following for my Q1 Report:

“Penthouse” finds pH-1 reflecting on how his career-driven mind and consequent success have found him losing sight of his romantic life. APRO’s production enriches the narrative: an elevator bell establishes the titular scene, the piano flourishes imbue a sense of luxury, and the numerous sounds of texting and dialing depict the scrambled urgency to remedy the situation. The mixing places pH-1's vocals front and center as everything circles around him, and the tumbling beat signals the knotty pain that he's feeling inside. The expressions of dissatisfaction amidst braggadocio naturally brings to mind "Party (Shut Down)." And as if on cue, Sik-K enters the song and interpolate lines from that very song. He doesn't sound quite as desperate as he did on "Party," but it works given what "Penthouse" tries to capture: the moment when one's heart drops after realizing everything they've worked for has come to fruition yet feels insufficient.


24. Suzy - Holiday (feat. DPR Live)


Lyrics: Jinli, DPR Live
Composer: Glory Face, Jinli
Producer: Glory Face

While most people seemed to favor “SObeR,” Suzy’s resplendent “Holiday” was the track that stuck with me. In a year when DPR Live released singles that were a bit too messy for their own good, his “obligatory rap verse” feature here was a blessing in disguise. Suzy was the star, anyway — her voice was as warm as one could hope. Producer Glory Face understood that, and he made sure to craft a beat that didn’t try to steal the show. I wrote the following for my Q1 Report:

A song like “Holiday” is so diaphanous and effortlessly executed that it can be easy to dismiss. The songwriting is extraordinarily economical, so much so that the introduction of a simple drum beat in the second chorus feels miraculous. Being able to revel in such a small pleasure gets at the heart of the lyrics: Suzy sings about lying in someone’s arms, and “Holiday” wants nothing more than to transfer the bliss of cuddling on a lazy Sunday afternoon. DPR Live’s verse doesn’t detract from the song’s mood, but it’s wordy enough that it accomplishes something interesting. Hearing him tell Suzy that he’ll be her holiday is charming, but the following chorus feels so much more invigorating in comparison. Put another way: words are nice, but there’s unparalleled intimacy in those same words manifesting as something physical. The chorus is more than sufficient in capturing that, but the song’s final eight bars dare us to experience something even more tactile. The sudden four on the floor beat switch provides a sense of perpetual euphoria, and Suzy’s coos are unsurprisingly soothing. For a brief twenty seconds, all worries feel so far out of reach.


23. Superbee & twlv - Shinhan Bank


Lyrics: Superbee, twlv
Producer: The need

The tropical trap beat is bright and sprightly, but it’s Superbee and twlv’s infectious delivery that sells “Shinhan Bank.” Throughout the entirety of the song, their voices glide without ever losing traction. They throw in a bunch of adlibs, most humorous of which is the “안녕하세요,” to help maintain the energy. The hook — accompanied by yelps and a harmonized “Wow, wow, wow!” — secured this as the most fun rap song of the summer.


22. Jazzy Rhythmer - Hangang Highway / Jae Young - Exit Here


There were several memorable tracks across Hazed & Confucius’s two compilations this past year, but two stood out most: Jazzy Rhythmer’s “Hangang Highway” and Jae Young’s “Exit Here.” The former was subtly addicting, its dancing synth melodies a simple but enchanting flourish on top of a nocturnal house beat. It’s warm and inviting — as solid piece a for the dance floor as it is a moody soundtrack for the bus ride home. The latter was a more energetic bit of lo-fi house. It has a bottled-up energy that is palpable through its different, intermingling elements: acid squelches, hand percussion, a hi-hat that cuts through the mix. That it slowly — but continually — builds grants it a mesmerizing verve. Hazed & Confucius may not have released much thus far, but the little they have proves they’re certainly worth watching; it’s refreshing to hear this strain of dance music coming out of Korea.


21. - Painting


Producer: Dayrick

There’s a sizable amount of Korean R&B that primarily occupies space on Soundcloud, and “Painting” was 2018’s crown jewel.’s sultry vocals relay the moody lyrics well, but it’s Dayrick’s impressively economical production that carries the song. The song shifts into a slightly different territory every eight bars, providing simultaneous tension and release in the process. “Painting” consequently feels like it’s constantly moving forward, its three minutes ending in the blink of an eye. That its blissful nature manages to sneak up on you with every listen is what makes it so addicting.


20. Danthrax - I Can’t Live


It’s always exciting to hear an artist try out different styles of music. It’s even more exciting when you see a clear throughline in an artist’s entire oeuvre. While Choi Joonyong’s first album as Danthrax featured the raw sounds of “prepared CDs” played on a CD player, the curious loops and skips that defined that album find a more accessible home with the plunderphonics-minded music that exists on megamix vol.1. The Mariah Carey-sampling closing track is still the most moving of the bunch, the song finding a strong emotional core that marries the stylistic approach of the album with its sample source. I wrote the following for my Q1 Report:

Choi Joonyong—co-founder of the long-standing Balloon & Needle label—released his debut Danthrax album in 2012 on Ryu Hankil's TRIGGER! imprint. It was a collection of tracks featuring CD skips and minimal flecks of noise presented without pretense, channeling energy in a raw but controlled manner. As with other music that Choi and the rest of the Dotolim scene created, it was a refreshingly subversive take on the more violent approaches to noise music. Surprisingly, Choi's second album as Danthrax finds him at his flashiest: he samples songs and warps them into a melange of attention-grabbing skipping (often approximating some of the metal songs he uses), turbulent noise, and spirited plunderphonics. Best of all is his rework of Mariah Carey's "Without You."

As hinted by its title, "I Can't Live" emphasizes the inexpressible feeling of anguish one feels upon breaking up with a lover. Carey's rendition of the song always benefited from how her ostentatious vocal performance functioned as a vehicle for singing away the pain. "I Can't Live" considers the healing process to be far more complicated, rendering the occasional appearance of Carey's voice as brief moments of acceptance. As such, much of "I Can't Live" is about the refusal to move onward, denying oneself to break free from a solacing self-pity. One is undoubtedly reminded of how original songwriters Pete Ham and Tom Evans committed suicide.


19. NCT 127 - Touch


Lyrics: Jo Yoon-kyung, Kim Min-ji, Shin Jin-hye
Composer: LDN Noise, Deez, Adrian Mckinnon
Arranger: LDN Noise, Deez

The “Boss” → ”Baby Don’t Stop” → “Touch” run of singles that NCT had early in the year was arguably the strongest in recent memory. And while I’d admit that “Baby Don’t Stop” was the most impressive of the three, it was “Touch” that hit all the right buttons for me. It’s so shameless and giddy about love that it made me want to be in that exact mood whenever I heard it. Some K-pop boy bands attempt cutesy concepts and it comes off forced; “Touch” succeeds because it understands the vocalists as being mere tools to transmit a larger-than-life feeling. There’s no pretense here, it’s pure pop. I wrote the following for my Q1 Report:

Consider the "na na na" melody: an unabashed declaration of infatuation, happily taking the form of a sing-along fit for toddlers. The decision to leave it in an unadulterated state, far from any "mature" oversexualization or ironic detachment, signals the exactitude with which "Touch" wants to ensnare its listeners. The song aims for a stupefied glee, one that dares not try and comprehend the totality of the situation. The breaking glass and swooping synths mimic such constant astonishment, ushering in each chorus with an announcement: an abundance of pleasure awaits. It's that primal desire for intimacy, manifesting itself in a way that displaces one from self. The chorus captures it elegantly, layering a multitude of voices in a manner that discourages careful attention. The soaring "Baby! Oh!", the rapping buried in the mix, the illustrious harmonies—am I isolating these parts when listening to "Touch"? Of course not, I'm soaking it all in.


18. Hoody - Why (feat. George)


Lyrics: Hoody, George
Composer: Hoody, George, Slom
Arranger: Slom

The title is perfect: thoughts can run rampant during one’s post-breakup blues, but sometimes there’s little energy to say more beyond a simple “why.” This is music for long car rides taken late at night, where one wants time alone to think. Despite all the mindlessness, there’s a sense of purpose in driving that establishes a specific mood for reflection. Slom’s production befits such an act: the synths set up a soothing foundation that keeps one locked in an introspective mood, but the lively percussion feels like the manifestation of actual pain from processing thoughts of an ex. Hoody’s voice, as dreamy as ever, captures the longing present in the lyrics. “Feelings of love, still in my heart.” She’ll sing to keep them there.


17. Hyolyn - Dally (feat. Gray) / Lee Jin Ah - Run (feat. Gray)

Lyrics: Hyolyn, Seo Ji-eum, Gray
Composer: Hyolyn, Gray, DAX
Arranger: Gray, DAX

Lyrics: Sam Ock, Lee Jin-ah, Gray
Composer: Sam Ock, Lee Jin-ah, Gray
Arranger: Sam Ock, Lee Jin-ah, Gray

“Dally” wasn’t Hyolyn’s first single after Sistar’s disbandment, but it very much felt that way given how well it suited her image. Gray provides his own take on Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry,” trading in Warren Felder (of Pop & Oak)’s deep bass rumbles for production that’s more restrained. The result is less kiss-off proclamation and more graceful exit, and Hyolyn is free to flaunt her vocal chops without sounding ostentatious. Her singing directly opposes Gray’s more temperate delivery, and it acts to magnify the differing sides of this relationship; there’s a nonchalant attitude to which Gray announces, “I be on my way, you be on your way,” and it sounds like a subtly harsh response to the vocal acrobatics that Hyolyn utilizes to address him. “Oh you’d better stop,” she sings, and it oozes with a slick confidence that’s aware of just how sensual it sounds. After all, what’s a better way to come out on top than to remind someone that they're the one missing out.

Even more exciting was Gray’s collaboration with Lee Jin Ah. Surprisingly, the song features credits from Sam Ock — a singer/songwriter who was part of Korean-American Christian rap group AMP before focusing on solo work. The lyrics detail an anxiety-induced paralysis and a hesitant desire to break free from it all. While reminiscent of Ock’s own work lyrically, it’s Gray and Lee Jin Ah’s recognizable contributions that allow the song to become greater than the sum of its parts. Notably, the song frames both singers as being equally fearful, acknowledging this and then finding potential comfort in (running away with) each other. Lee Jin Ah’s piano motif is playful but represents a sort of frenzied panic, and her solo revs up the tension to the point where you can sense a decision has to be made. During the song’s final stretch, it actually feels like the two are running away. Not only do the two sing in unison, but the drums have a larger swing to them, as if flinging the two forward. Lee Jin Ah’s jazzy piano playing and idiosyncratic voice have felt intimate and personal since her first K-Pop Star performance, and hearing it alongside Gray’s own production and singing during this final half-minute is particularly moving — like they’re charging forward together, hand in hand.


16. iKON - Love Scenario


Lyrics: B.I, Bobby, Mot Mal
Composer: B.I. Millennium, Seung
Arranger: Millennium

Naturally, I’m going to be drawn to any Korean boy band who is able to make their rapping feel like a crucial component to a song. It’s the tone of the rappers’ voices here that’s crucial, granting the track its lackadaisical and melancholic edge. It’s further realized in the group sing-along, but Millennium’s production isn’t slacking either. The sparseness is key, but just as important are the beat drops that never amount to much of anything. The whole song feels like a big sigh. I wrote the following for my Q1 Report:

There are complex emotions here that are succinctly conveyed through expert songwriting, accomplished in no small part due to a considered sequencing of iKON’s different members. “Love Scenario” features a plinking piano and cowbell that act as a simulacrum of self-aware dejection. What begins as cartoonish grieving makes way for something less childish; when Bobby exclaims that he’s not ok, his rapping fleshes out the song both musically and thematically. It snaps the dinky piano melody into place, allowing it to function as a bridge between ironic detachment and sincere vulnerability. As the song progresses, we experience a series of musical events — a trap beat one can sway to, B.I’s dramatic warble-rapping, a low-energy sing-along bridge — that paints the process of accepting a relationship's end. When all is said and done, they're happy for the relationship they once had; in their words, it was a "melodrama worth seeing.”


15. Kirin & Sumin - Club 33


Lyrics: Kirin, Sumin
Composer: Kirin, Sumin, Yunu, Plastic Kid
Arranger: Sumin, Yunu, Plastic Kid

Kirin’s been making retro K-pop for years, but his Club 33 mini-album with Sumin found him making the most robust music of his career. While this past year saw an influx of pop music that was nostalgic for the ‘90s and early-2000s, none of them referenced the era in a manner that made me actually miss it. Not so for “Club 33,” a shameless R&B ballad whose lyrics and instrumentation didn’t care to do anything beyond capture a specific mood and era. “This is the real,” they sing together. I believe it.


14. SOMA - Pollen Allergy


Lyrics: SOMA
Composer: SOMA, Jflow
Arranger: Jflow

SOMA’s “Pollen Allergy” is the sort of song fit to soundtrack late nights spent reminiscing, the kind where one is accompanied by nothing more than the smoke from drags of cigarettes. There’s a beauty to the song’s quiet and simple composition — made by Jflow of Hippy was Gipsy — but it’s the slightly louder chorus that’s most moving. There, SOMA lifts her voice to proclaim that “Spring is short,” following it with wordless vocal melodies that seem forced out of her mouth. In her singing I hear a pained longing for past times, where one wants to relive memories but knows it isn’t possible. “Let us not forget,” she sings at one point. Sometimes, that’s all we can do.


13. Kid Milli, Jvcki Wai, Swings - Hyperreal


Lyrics: Kid Milli, Jvcki Wai, Swings
Producer: Xindoel

Jvcki Wai’s improved considerably since her 2017 releases, becoming more astute in her hookwriting and utilization of AutoTune. With “Hyperreal,” she lives out her love for Uzi with a song that’s strongly reminiscent of “XO Tour Llif3.” While this doesn’t aim for extreme emotional catharsis and misery, it’s still an unassailably catchy song. All three rappers’ verses ensure the track never loses steam, but the adlibs — from the nonplussed “ha, ha” to the tongue roll-into-“woo!” to the cheeky “blech” — are all essential too. 2018 was Indigo Music’s year, and it was “Hyperreal” that kicked off the collective’s promise back in January.


12. Christina Aguilera - Like I Do (feat. GoldLink)


Writer: Christina Aguilera, Anderson .Paak, BRLLNT, Dumbfoundead, Tayla Parx, Whitney Phillips, GoldLink
Producer: Anderson .Paak, BRLLNT, Dumbfoundead

Three Koreans are on the writing credits for Christina Aguilera’s GRAMMY-nominated “Like I Do”: Anderson .Paak, Dumbfoundead, and BRLLNT. You can hear their presence embedded in the DNA of this track. Easiest to spot is .Paak’s distinct vocal delivery in Aguilera’s own singing, but BRLLNT’s production is recognizable for anyone’s who’s heard his songs and remixes on Soundcloud. It’s wise that GoldLink’s verse starts the song considering this is a song that’s most delightful for Aguilera’s response — one that’s snarky and assured, functioning doubly as come-on and warning. It constantly manages to be both sensual and fun, and the sprightliness of the beat never lets you forget it.


11. Blackpink - Forever Young


Lyrics: Teddy
Composer: Teddy, Future Bounce
Arranger: Teddy, Future Bounce, R.Tee

While “Whistle” and “As If It’s Your Last” were masterclass examples of K-pop-style genre blending, “Forever Young” succeeds despite its straightforward composition because it exudes so much vibrant energy. While the 2NE1 comparisons will forever abound, Blackpink continues to prove that they’re capable of doing things their forebears were never able to. Here, the most obvious example is how Jennie’s half-English, half-Korean rap verse sidesteps any potential awkwardness. The reason is simple: she effortlessly channels the lively spirit and admirable confidence of precocious youth. Her rapping is in and of itself an act of self-preservation, where each shamelessly braggadocious line is a step in preventing thoughts of fraudulence and self-doubt from clouding one’s mind.

There’s a joy in hearing “Blackpink is the revolution” because it sounds, at first, like a half-serious mantra. When the song abruptly shifts into a typical Teddy production — prominent dembow beat and all — there’s a sense that Blackpink really is the revolution. And no, that’s not just referring to their incredible success both domestically and abroad, or how the song simply sounds more aggressive during its final third — it’s how Blackpink, the flagship girl group currently presenting the “girl crush” concept, has created a K-pop song that models how fans can accomplish such transformations for themselves. While it’s not outright spoken of in the lyrics, the mid-song shift relays a message that believing in the positive things one tells themself can lead to those words actually defining who they are; the girls may speak of loving someone else here, but “Forever Young” is ultimately a song about loving life and wanting to continue doing so. This is teen pop that holds truths for surviving as an adult.

Read my blurbs for Blackpink’s Dua Lipa collaboration “Kiss and Make Up” and Jennie’s “Solo” for The Singles Jukebox.


10. Polarfront - Baikal


A stunning techno track that gets a whole lot out of the interplay between its brooding beat and thoughtfully mixed synth pulses. There’s far more going on here than is let on by its minimal veneer, and the shuffling of rhythms and small additions to the track make the seven minutes go by in such an absurdly quick manner. There’s a gleeful delight that comes from hearing all the different timbres and tones of all the synths, and Polarfront never lets the song’s continual development feel cheap or unearned. In fact, the quick movement from section to section ensures that one never gets too comfortable — as if we’re actually being taken on a constantly-fascinating aural journey. It’s an unassailable piece of music, and its excellence is hard to deny: “Baikal” was the best dance track to come out of Korea in 2018.


9. Shaun - Thinking Of You (feat. Ovan & Sumin)


Lyrics: Mr. Black, Shaun
Composer: Shaun
Arranger: Shaun

It’s not any sort of surprise that Shaun — a member of The Koxx — found a number one hit in “Way Back Home.” The song was Korea’s wistful and coffeeshop-friendly take on “Shape of You” in the wake of Mamamoo’s “Starry Night.” The best song on his debut solo mini, though, was “Thinking Of You.” It includes trap tropes and an EDM-style buildup that lands in a summery garage house breakdown. Each vocalist helps fill in the details of a summer fling, but it’s Sumin’s rich voice that fleshes the song out most effectively. Even then, its utility is that of a short, scenic detour; what elevates “Thinking Of You” to pool party anthem status is its vocal sample cut-ups and playfully decorated 2-step beat.


8. CIFIKA - Water


Lyrics: CIFIKA
Composer: CIFIKA, Mood Schula
Arranger: Mood Schula

CIFIKA’s PRISM is my choice for the best Korean mini album of 2018, so you can imagine that I was pleased with the amount of coverage she received this past year. While it doesn’t quite showcase her most experimental of pop tendencies, “Water” is easily the most beautiful track she’s made. That the song seems relatively unwavering in tone and style but manages to walk the listener through an emotional narrative is clear proof of her masterful songwriting. I wrote the following for my Q1 Report:

The beginning is lovely: two lovers wading through water, one of whom is expecting a romantic exchange of words. As if transfixed by the scenery and situation, she calmly requests, “Tell me all your plans and pictures so it comes true.” But as the song progresses, it’s revealed that there the affection isn't reciprocated. CIFIKA’s world thus crumbles, and sudden pitch-shifted vocals echo the gut-wrenching realization right back to her. The water, once an enchanting rendezvous locale, has become a reminder of pain. Incidentally, it becomes a solution to the grief; calmly, she repeatedly claims to be “breathing slowly in the water,” intentionally drowning herself. Despite this, CIFIKA makes sure that the instrumentation reads as hopeful. Because it’s here—in these waters—that she can retreat into a private space, one that prevents her eyes from witnessing the world above. And eventually, when she’s ready, she’ll wind up on shore and be ready to start over.


7. Sunmi - Siren


Lyrics: Sunmi
Composer: Sunmi, FRANTS
Arranger: FRANTS

Sunmi is one of the best soloists right now, surely, and her “Gashina”-“Heroine”-“Siren” trilogy only got better with each track. “Siren” was good in and of itself, but it was also the most essential of the three because it retroactively gave incredible depth to the entire narrative. I wrote the following for The Singles Jukebox:

“Get away, out of my face, don’t come any closer” roars the chorus. It contains the piercing ferocity that characterized the lyrics in Sunmi’s “Gashina,” but it’s shortly followed by dramatic vocalizing that recalls the heartache of “Heroine.” On the former, she delivered a fiery kiss-off that found her standing tall amidst a disheartening breakup. The latter was billed as a prequel to “Gashina” and found Sunmi pleading to remain at the hands of her abuser. With the release of “Siren” — a precursor to that — the entire trilogy finally reveals itself to be a searing indictment on the patriarchal ideologies that shape how women grapple with identity, self-love, and relationships. You see, the chorus here may sound like another courageous declaration, but it’s underpinned by a creeping anxiety.

The verses find Sunmi announcing that she only causes harm, and how this potential lover would be best off avoiding her. “I’ll hurt you, the beautiful me of your fantasies doesn’t exist” she sings, and the “can’t you see that boy?” line proves to be a question birthed from similar fears and insecurities. She believes that she’s lesser, that she’s bad at love — how could she possibly live up to someone else’s romantic expectations? When she proclaims that she won’t cry despite feeling sad, it’s less an empowering moment of resilience than a submission to what the world has taught her to be: an always-quiet, always-compliant vessel of love. For those not privy to how defeated that line actually is, a plaintive synth melody traces her voice: a soft acknowledgement that her pain is heard.

Despite the English title, “Heroine” found Sunmi assigning the man the role of the hero. It’s obvious now, though, that there was no discrepancy between the lyrics and the seemingly contradictory title. “Do whatever you want, even if you’re mean” she sang. For such “virtuous” persistence she receives her lone accolade. Naturally, it’s one that applauds her powerlessness. With the closing of this trilogy, “Siren” brands Sunmi with one final name, one tell-all descriptor that describes the whole of her existence. For a mythological creature known for its beauty and terror, one can imagine Sunmi’s lover reducing her to such qualities on “Heroine” and “Gashina” respectively. On “Siren,” it’s her turn to believe it. Never is it more profoundly distressing than on the song’s ugly bridge, an unexpected breakdown whose clumsy, booming low end stands in stark contrast to the song’s more dignified synth pulses. Here, she sounds caustic and stripped of all warmth: grotesquely non-human. If this is what the world tells her to be, it’s what she’ll become. Don’t say she didn’t warn you.

Read the blurb for “Heroine” from my Q1 Report here.


6. SHINee - Good Evening


Lyrics: Jo Yun-gyeong, Minho, Key
Composer: Chaz Mishan, David Delazyn, Bryan Jackson, Arnold Hennings, Daron Jones, Michael Keith, Quinnes Parker, Marvin Scandrick, Courtney Sills, Yoo Young-jin
Arranger: The Fliptones

How can you listen to “Good Evening" and not feel moved? Literally every element of the song is imbued with bittersweet contentment. The song functions as a coping tool for SHINee’s members and fans alike, every warped vocal sample and glistening synth note acting to comfort the listener. In a strange sort of way, “Good Evening” gave an impression of closure, that Jonghyun was OK. How do you deal with the death of a loved one? I don’t know, but “Good Evening” is a song that sounds like a close friend is by your side, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need. I wrote the following for The Singles Jukebox:

“Good Evening” is to “View” what “Shinin'” was to “She Is”: a solid but familiar retread of sorts that isn’t terribly exciting. Even so, it seems like the wisest decision SM could’ve made. For one, hearing this gives you a sense that the members are successfully powering through whilst recalling the times they’ve had with Jonghyun. It’s appropriate, especially since this coincides with the group’s 10th anniversary. More importantly, it makes it fairly easy to imagine where Jonghyun’s voice could’ve been inserted, granting the song a more pronounced wistfulness. Ironically, the element that’s most crucial to the song’s success is one that is identifiably not K-pop: an interpolation of 112’s “Cupid.” It’s nostalgic and intimate; a heavenly melody that immediately flashes Jonghyun’s face before my eyes.

As I hear SHINee declaring that they’re going – running – to him, I become overwhelmed by the song’s English title. It’s not a final “Good Night” or “Good Bye,” but a cordial reunion: “Good Evening.” I sense him in the pre-chorus and the garage house beat that follows. He seems happy–his face glowing as in the video for “Shinin'”–joyful to be freed from the pain he endured for so long. For a few seconds, the song acts as a celestial oasis, one that allows the band members and fans to grieve and find comfort. One where we can tell Jonghyun that it was not his fault, and never will be. Where we can tell him that he did go through a lot, that he did work hard. Where we can tell him that he did well. Where we can tell him that he did a good job. 종현이형 수고했어.


5. PLT - Shine On You / The Way You Feel Inside / Hocus Pocus

Lyrics: Gaho, Villain, Rikeal
Composer: Gaho, Villain, Rikeal
Arranger: Villain

Lyrics: June
Composer: June
Arranger: June, Hong Wooseok, Jeeeyz

Lyrics: Jung Jinwoo, Villain, June, Moti, Gaho
Composer: Jung Jinwoo, Villain, June, Moti, Gaho, Ownr
Arranger: Ownr

Planetarium Records is comprised of six solo artists: Jung Jinwoo, Villain, June, Gaho, Moti, and Kei.G. The members all write their own music and have an impressive CV thus far: Jinwoo Jung appeared on the third and fifth seasons of K-Pop Star, Kei.G composed and produced a song for Lim Kim, Gaho composed and produced SHINee's "I Say," and June was a BigHit trainee who helped write songs for BTS ("Not Today," "Lost," and "Awake") and Suran ("If I Get Drunk Today"). While the members have released music in the past — all but Kei.G are part of a crew called AlphaDict — the collaborative works they've released under PLT highlight their talents extremely well. There was consequently no other rookie group this year whose output could compare with PLT’s: PLT’s Planetarium Case#1 and Jung Jinwoo’s Color were among the very best K-pop full lengths of the year, and the individual singles and mini albums from individual members were consistently great. As such, it’s tempting to simply list off a dozen songs that prove their worth, but I settled with the three that made me fall in love with them: “Shine on You,” “The Way You Feel Inside,” and “Hocus Pocus.”

“Shine on You” is the opening track of PLT’s debut album and it’s a love song that greatly benefits from its simplicity. There’s a clarity to its message — one that unabashedly declares, “You’re the sunshine in my life” — that is felt in Gaho’s show-stopping vocal performance. It’s so directly transmitted that the strings don’t feel like they’re compensating for anything; they seem present because they’re the only appropriate accompaniment to such heartfelt vocalizing. Villain comes in to fill in details about the relationship, recounting specific memories in a manner that’s made more affectionate due to his soft vocal timbre and delivery. He’s perfectly complementary with Gaho, and the two elevate the song beyond the sum of its parts. “Shine on You” was by far the best ballad of the year.

“The Way You Feel Inside” finds June at a different point in a relationship. Throughout the song, he contemplates how his lover feels about him, thrown off by how things currently seem. While the song is just as lush in its balladry as “Shine on You,” its chorus goes in a completely different direction in order to reflect his feelings of uncertainty: huge post-Chainsmokers synth stabs and dubstep-like wobbles dominate as June sings the titular line with deep concern and desire. That these sounds don’t feel out of place with the rest of the song is a marvel, and a true testament to PLT’s songwriting and production ability.

After the one-two punch that was their two Planetarium Case releases, PLT released the digital single "Hocus Pocus" in April. On "Glue," in-house producer Ownr provided a reserved R&B beat to showcase the members' singing. On "Hocus Pocus," however, Ownr aims for something more slinky and grandiose so each member can present their stylistic differences. The song's structure capitalizes on the conceit, and it culminates in a showboat-y verse from Villain before the chorus comes crashing in one final time. Whether the members specialize in large-scale ballads or The Weeknd-esque R&B, their talents all consolidate here into a distinctly Korean take on pop rap where everyone gets a chance to shine. That sounds like magic to me.


4. Penomeco - No.5 (feat. Crush)


Lyrics: Penomeco, Crush
Composer: Made By Me, Penomeco, Crush
Arranger: Made By Me, NOD

I became invested in appreciating perfume a few years back, and something I still find very arresting about the medium is how fragrances smell different depending on skin chemistry. Couple this with how perfume is able to quickly and powerfully conjure up specific memories (a result of scent being the only sense that can travel directly to the cortex), and you have one of the most innately intimate and personal art forms. As such, the most charming thing about Penomeco’s “No.5” is that in invoking the famous Chanel fragrance, his desire to be with this woman is more than just him complimenting her — it’s an understanding that he and this potential lover can have actual, distinct chemistry. He mentions Marilyn Monroe, naturally, but it’s nowhere near as thrilling as him comparing her to the titular perfume. Not “You’re my No. 5,” but “You’re my No.5.”


3. Park Jiha - On Water / Redmond - Shard, Womb (perf. by Geori)

The reissue of Park Jiha’s Communion proved to be such an unexpected hit in the West that I can’t remember another time in my life that a Korean artist outside the K-pop industry received so much widespread, positive coverage. It was well deserved, of course, and one can only hope that this leads to more non-pop Korean acts getting international coverage. She released her sophomore album Philos late in the year, specifically noting that it was composed and performed virtually on her own — an important fact considering how much of her previous work involved collaborators. Closing track “On Water” was its stunning highlight, feeling like an apt way to cap off her year. It’s a serene piece buoyed by the hypnotic playing of yanggeum and glockenspiel. As they cycle through their precious melodies, they lure the listener into the song’s lush atmosphere as the piri takes center stage for a dramatic, evocative performance. It has the uncanny ability to sound childlike, yet like it’s baring deep, emotional truths. Little else this year was as moving.

Despite the strength of Philos, one would be foolish to ignore Park Jiha’s collaborative works. Early in 2018, the Geori ensemble released a performance of a contemporary classical piece entitled “Shard, Womb” that was composed by member Jared Redmond. It’s through the composition that one senses the fragility of the piece, and the beautifully sensitive group dynamic allows for a repeated building and breaking of tension. Even more, the members’ thoughtful playing helps to illuminate the power of each instrument. Be it the piercing attacks of Baek Dasom’s daegum, the quietly sustained notes of Park Jiha’s saenghwang, or the deep rumbles and high-pitched tones of Lee Donguk’s electronics, one is constantly aware of how crucial each element is to the piece’s overarching success. It’s a real delight to hear; for my money, “Shard, Womb” is the most exciting piece of Korean experimental music in some time.

Read my review of Philos for In Review Online here.


2. Pentagon - Shine


Lyrics: E'Dawn, Hui, Yuto, Wooseok
Composer: Flow Blow, Hui, E'Dawn
Arranger: Flow Blow

The best boy band song of the year, right? It seemed obvious to me, at least. Pentagon’s “Shine” succeeds because everyone’s singing is as silly and dramatic and sincere as the instrumentation. The pounding drums! The subtle horns! The piano melody! It’s hard not to get swept up in its energy. I wrote the following for The Singles Jukebox:

Much like offerings from Block B and iKON, Pentagon’s “Shine” feels like K-pop’s attempt at approximating 2000s pop rock. Like those songs, the instrumentation here feels deliberately chosen to best portray its narrative. The clinking piano and light/heavy dynamic at play is at once cartoonish and true to life: a K-drama in miniature. The guys sing with a nervousness about approaching a girl, and it manifests in the form of cleared throats, pounding drums, and dramatic vocalizing. Kino and Yeo One’s singing in the second pre-chorus illuminates the tenderness of their statements, and hearing them call themselves losers reads as self-deprecating defense mechanism. In other words, their only expectant result is of failure, so they’ll speak lowly of themselves to mitigate any disastrous effects. But like many who engage in such behavior, there’s an oscillation between depressive pessimism and hopeful positivity, and it’s beautifully depicted in the chorus. The latter ultimately triumphs, and the bridge becomes a moment of self-reflection and confidence building. As it builds, the anxiety-filled boom of the pre-chorus’s drums are replaced with something far more levelheaded. The final chorus thus feels like a reset of the previous ones; it may not be that different, but it feels like they’re more confident than ever when singing, “I’m only yours.” And with the final line, they refuse to call themselves losers once more, instead proclaiming that they’ll shine.

  1. Red Velvet - Bad Boy


Lyrics: JQ, Moon Hee-yeon
Composer: The Stereotypes, Maxx Song, Whitney Phillips, Yoo Young-jin
Arranger: The Stereotypes

At this point, I’m confident in calling Red Velvet the best K-pop group of all time (yes, all time). SM continues to match the girls up with the very best songwriters and producers, ones who understand how to utilize their strengths as vocalists without skimping out on exciting songwriting. Maybe the most important thing to note is that regardless of whatever these songwriters throw at Red Velvet — wild homophony, unique genre-blending, thrilling song structures — virtually every song sounds accessible. I’ve long bemoaned the lack of experimentation in K-pop recently, but Red Velvet force me to consider that maybe they and other K-pop artists have maybe just mastered the art of normalizing their forward-thinking pop.

Several Red Velvet songs were among my favorite K-pop songs of the year, the three big B-sides being “So Good,” “Blue Lemonade,” and “All Right.” It was “Bad Boy,” though, that was most affecting. For the very first time in life, I had heard a Korean girl group sing a song that was incredibly sexy. It wasn’t until the song’s release that I realized how terribly uncommon this is. A part of me is hesitant to make such a claim since “Bad Boy” was produced by The Stereotypes, and as someone who was born and grew up in America, my ideas of what’s considered “sexy” are certainly entrenched in Western standards. Still, I don’t think there’s been a Korean R&B song quite as seductive as this, nor any that featured a production quirk as sly as that police siren. I wrote the following for SPIN:

Several Korean girl groups strive for a sexy image, but few could claim they have sexy songs. “Bad Boy” is a masterful K-pop single precisely because it does something that’s rarely seen in the genre: it exudes palpable sensuality, sans music video and choreography. Much credit must be given to The Stereotypes, a multiethnic production team that has consistently written the most appropriate songs for artists around the globe. While they rightfully leaned into maximalist bombast for Bruno Mars’s “Finesse” and “I Like That,” they aim for tasteful restraint here. The song is built on a foundation of muted synth pads that press up against tactile eighth note melodies — an interaction that captures the tension and confidence that underline the lyrics. “You know it: these days, I’m hot,” sings Wendy, and the chorus finds the girls dictating how quickly this boy should be chasing after them. They’re making the rules here, and they summarize this notion in the coyest manner possible: a cutesy “way-o way-o” melody brought to life with an accompanying police siren.


Tone Glow’s 50 Best Korean Songs of 2018

1. Red Velvet - Bad Boy
2. Pentagon - Shine
3. Park Jiha - On Water / Redmond - Shard, Womb (perf. by Geori)
4. Penomeco - No.5 (feat. Crush)
5. PLT - Shine On You / The Way You Feel Inside / Hocus Pocus
6. Shinee - Good Evening
7. Sunmi - Siren
8. CIFIKA - Water
9. Shaun - Thinking Of (feat. Ovan & Sumin)
10. Polarfront - Baikal
11. Blackpink - Forever Young
12. Christina Aguilera - Like I Do (feat. GoldLink)
13. Kid Milli, Jvcki Wai, Swings - Hyperreal
14. SOMA - Pollen Allergy
15. Kirin & Sumin - Club 33
16. iKON - Love Scenario
17. Hyolyn - Dally (feat. Gray) / Lee Jin-Ah - Run (feat. Gray)
18. Hoody - Why (feat. George)
19. NCT 127 - Touch
20. Danthrax - I Can’t Live
21. - Painting
22. Jazzy Rhythmer - Hangang Highway / Jae Young - Exit Here
23. Superbee & twlv - Shinhan Bank
24. Suzy - Holiday (feat. DPR Live)
25. pH-1 - Penthouse (feat. Sik-K)
26. Room306 - Further / HNGIN - FROZN (First Aid Remix)
27. IZ*ONE - La Vie en Rose
28. HAON - Noah (feat. Jay Park & Hoody)
29. BTS - Love Maze
30. Say Sue Me - Old Town
31. Gugudan - The Boots
32. fromis_9 - Love Bomb
33. Apink - I'm So Sick
34. Unjin and Sunji - Summer Dream
35. Chung Ha - Love U
36. Twice - What is Love?
37. Hong Chulki / Will Guthrie - 1
38. Yeseo - Night Night
39. LOONA - Hi High
40. Lovelyz - Shining★Star
41. EXID - I Love You
42. SAAY - Overzone / Carla - I Don't Need You / Alice Vicious - I Feel Better (feat. Hiyadam)
43. Giriboy - BangBup / The Burden (feat. JUSTHIS, ChoiLB) / acrnm (feat. Goretexx)
44. M3g - Retrograde6 / Yoosin Kim - Nettor
45. NO:EL - Double O / Celebration (feat. Jhnovr)
46. Bluescript - Metamorphosis
47. Moldy - GodDy
48. Youra - My
49. Kiska - Crystal Silence
50. Korean Person - Suicide Boy


The following songs are not on Spotify:

3. Redmond - Shard, Womb ( Geori)
20. Danthrax - I Can't Live
21. - Painting
22. Jazzy Rhythmer - Hangang Highway / Jae Young - Exit Here
37. Hong Chulki / Will Guthrie - 1
46. Bluescript - Metamorphosis
49. Kiska - Crystal Silence
50. Korean Person - Suicide Boy

< Previous Page