In light of my interview with Caesar & Loui, I've decided to post a list of my favorite K-pop songs of 2016. Each year I try to compile a list of the K-pop songs that meant the most to me and what follows is one such result. Of course, the rankings and choices here are from a single person so it's highly subject to my own personal tastes (for one, I liked less singles from boy bands in 2016 than usual). As a note, everything was originally written at the beginning of the year so certain blurbs may already be dated. There are also some songs I'd switch out if I were to make the list again. Despite all this, I felt this deserved more than just to rot in a Word document on my hard drive.
2016 was an interesting year for K-pop, one that I will forever remember as the year in which I felt a considerable shift from the old to the new. For one, numerous old guard groups called it quits or didn’t have a comeback (and if they did, I wasn’t particularly impressed). But beyond that, there was this feeling that the music itself was also considerably different than what defined K-pop even a few years ago. Producers are still at the top of their game (I wouldn’t be following K-pop after all these years if they weren’t) but the large number of singles channeling contemporary dance music trends made K-pop feel more Western-esque than ever before. On top of that, idol rappers were rapping better than they had in previous years, adopting flows that didn’t sound dated and crooning over beats that felt fresh. The gap in time between Western trends finding their way to K-pop has decreased, and I only expect that to be the case for the upcoming year.
What follows is a list of my favorite K-pop songs that came out in 2016. Most songs will be accompanied by other tracks that I think should be heard. For the main entries, I tried to focus primarily on singles since K-pop demands to be seen—for its music videos, choreography, and fashion—as much as it is heard. There are, however, a couple exceptions I couldn't resist adding here. As with any list, the ordering isn’t quite concrete aside from the first handful so take that with a grain of salt.
All in all, certain aspects of K-pop may be changing but it remains one of the best sources of interesting and engaging pop music today. Here are 30 reasons why.
30. Sistar - I Like That
There are two things you can always expect with Sistar. First, the (understandably) large presence of Hyorin’s impressive vocalizing in any song. Second, an annual summer comeback. And while “I Like That” falls in line with both these things, the four-piece ditch the overt beach themes that have come to define their summer singles’ music and videos. The result? The group’s first truly refreshing track since their rise to stardom back in 2012. Chugging electric guitar riffs, squeaky horns, and a heavily processed vocal edit fill the song with energy. Elsewhere, a bouncy bassline works in conjunction with the chorus’ stop-start rhythm to highlight the melancholy in Soyou’s “I like you / I love you” lines. In a sense, it feels like a more successful take on Miss A’s “Only You,” which was also produced by Black Eyed Pilseung. But beyond the song itself, “I Like That” also features one of the most interesting choreographies of the year, utilizing curtains and their skirts in a surprisingly effective manner.
See also: Hyolyn - “One Step (feat. Jay Park)”
29. Fei - Fantasy
Approximately one week prior to the release of “Fantasy,” Fei had shown support for China after the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that islands in the South China Sea belonged to the Philippines. The single, which was Fei’s solo debut, had no chance at major success after that. “Fantasy” deserves more love though. It brings to mind the nocturnal mood of Miss A’s undersung “Touch” whilst being the most sensual JYP-produced single to date. It’s decidedly minimal but there are moments of release—the tiptoeing synthline in the second verse, the drum fill which precedes the second chorus, the key change in the song’s final stretch. They’re all there to lull you into the song, transfixed by its soft, pulsating rhythm. The VR fantasy theme in the MV only seems fitting.
28. BTS - Blood Sweat & Tears
Certainly the best BTS single of the year, “Blood Sweat & Tears” feels more richly detailed than almost anything else they’ve ever done. Longtime BTS producer Pdogg provides an opulent backdrop for each member to deliver their most dramatic, tortured vocal performance. The titular line would’ve been enough to instill that feeling but J-Hope’s first verse about wanting to be kissed and choked, as well as the bridge’s falsettos, push everything to an indulgent but satisfying level of self-seriousness. The post-Major Lazer chorus feels a bit slight in comparison to what else is here but it’s a minor quibble considering the single comes with one of the best music videos and choreographies of 2016.
27. Nine Muses A - Lip 2 Lip
The music video for “Lip 2 Lip” begins with an introduction that recalls SNSD’s early days. The aegyo overload, cutesy sound effects and all, isn’t quite the aesthetic you’d expect from a Nine Muses sub-unit. And thankfully, it’s not what the actual song strives for either. Instead, the song’s structured around ska upstrokes and a funk bassline. The nonsensical hook is catchy but it’s the midsong rap break and doubletime middle eight that really drive the song forward. “Lip 2 Lip” isn’t the huge spectacle of other K-pop songs but it doesn’t hit any false notes, and that’s what made it one of the best and replayable songs of the summer.
26. Sonamoo - I Like U Too Much
The best A Pink song of the year turned out to be the best Sonamoo single to date. It’s all familiar stuff—the dramatic strings, the sickly cute lyrics, the uplifting vocal melodies—but it’s hands down the best take on this style in quite some time. The chorus’ vocal curlicue and climbing chord progression are a real treat but it’s perhaps the electric guitar’s presence here that makes the song so great. It provides subtle flourishes throughout, most noteworthy of which is how it acts as the backbone to the song’s unexpected bridge. “I Like U Too Much” is quite a departure from the group’s previous singles but frankly, it’s a path I hope they continue to explore. Let’s just hope their videos are never as cringe-inducing as this one though.
25. Brave Girls - Deepened
One of 2016’s big surprises, Brave Girls’ “Deepened” was a serious dose of Korean melodrama in the form of a spacious, reverb-drenched r&b song. It’s sultry but only to further emphasize the longing for an old, passionate love. It feels understood though that this is clearly the end; “you’ve changed so much” starts the song, but the girls keep on singing, and their desperate cries brings with them a slow acceptance of reality. Hyeran’s rap elevates the song to another level though. It’s one of the most impassioned rap verses from a Korean idol rapper, imbuing the song with an enormous but appropriate amount of emotional weight.
See also: “Yoo Hoo”
24. VIXX - Dynamite
Few moments in pop music have left me grinning as hard as I did when I first heard “Dynamite.” The song devotes the large majority of its runtime to upbeat 80s funk pastiche, all of which underpins the can-do attitude of its protagonist. At first, he’s at a bar taking shots but he eventually convinces himself to do everything possible to get this girl back. What’s incredibly amusing is the song’s abrupt turn to a dejected r&b weepy, featuring lyrics that ponder the bitter reality that’s soon to come. The song quickly gets back on its feet, though, but with an acknowledgement of the selfish motives driving this pursuit. It’s the emotional rollercoaster of one’s mind after a breakup in song form.
See also: “The Closer”
23. Jay Park - All I Wanna Do (feat. Hoody & Loco)
Jay Park is at his best when he ditches the tough guy act. As is the case for most Korean idol rappers, this is less about a lack of authenticity as it is a lack of creativity. Too often do these rappers rely on old reference points that result in dated flows and tired, braggadocious lyrics. Jay Park hasn’t been a part of boyband 2PM for ages but this has consistently held true for him. Unfortunately, Park hasn’t had the greatest track record with his r&b tracks either. All of this consequently makes “All I Wanna Do” a welcome surprise. The production sounds more contemporary than any of his previous chipper songs, borrowing heavily from the RnBass handbook without sounding like a clone of any DJ Mustard or Chris Brown song (or anything more recent that finds its roots there). All three vocalists could be accused of sounding merely functional but that’s perhaps for the best as it allows the song to stay effortlessly mellow. It even allows the midsong insertion of producer Cha Cha Malone’s DJ tag to feel surprisingly catchy. Throw in the fact that the music video is a collaboration with the best dance studio channel on YouTube and you’ve got a single with high replayability.
See also: “Solo (feat. Hoody)"
22. DIA - Mr. Potter
Red Velvet’s “Ice Cream Cake” reassembled into a far more accessible song. While “Mr. Potter” might not have the sheer energy of its clear forebear, the same bells and whistles have been transplanted here and grant the song a carnivalesque tone. Raucous dubstep squawks contrast cyclic xylophone melodies and it all lands in a chorus which features a party blowout/noisemaker. It’d be easy for all this to sound obnoxious or excessive but the song’s straightforward structure and deceptively laid-back chorus ensures that never happens.
21. Laboum - Shooting Love
“Shooting Love” marries the slick production and vocal melodies of Red Velvet’s The Red with a heavy dose of playfulness, something primarily exhibited via schoolgirl chanting. This stylistic confluence works out surprisingly well, providing little bursts of energy as the song navigates these two modes. The Red segments are ostensibly more mature, imbued with a sort of cool confidence in one’s ability to entice. But this is offset by the numerous times these girls exclaim the original Korean song’s onomatopoeic title, “Pyong Pyong.” It’s the most creative and richly detailed Laboum single to date. And in a sense, it’s also the most apt single yet from a girl group named after Claude Pinoteau’s La Boum, a film chronicling an adolescent’s first love in the midst of tumultuous family crises.
See also: “Fresh Adventure”, AOA - “Muah!” (video not online)
20. Taemin - Drip Drop
Much like “Ace” in 2014, “Drip Drop” is not only better than its respective album’s lead single, it showcases Taemin at his absolute best. The song itself is detailed: swirling synth melodies, subtle vocal harmonies to fill up space, and various contributions from non-idol r&b singer Alice Vicious (formerly known as LiVii). But despite all this, it’s the way all of the video’s individual components come together that makes it such a marvel. Choreographer J Ho’s penchant for sharp but fluid movement and literal representations of song lyrics instills the video with a constant sense of movement. While the instrumental chorus doesn’t quite pack the punch it should, it sets the stage for Taemin’s dancing. Throughout the video, the camera pans and zooms in swiftly, dramatizing each of Taemin’s moves.
Even more, the styling plays a crucial role in providing a sense of progression too. Taemin’s leather biker jacket and silk scarf come off in the song’s second half, allowing his golden yellow turtleneck to match nicely with the desert. Taemin’s asymmetrical harness suspenders provide enough contrast though, and it’s the sand that eventually appears on his knees that completes this evolution in color. It’s small, but it’s one of many carefully coordinated things in “Drip Drop” that makes it such a treat to watch.
19. NCT U - The 7th Sense
Early in 2016, S.M. founder Lee Soo-man held a press conference which, among other things, revealed the idea behind NCT. Short for Neo Culture Technology, NCT was a new boy band with a concept not too dissimilar from AKB48: the group would have an unlimited number of members; subgroups would be created and stationed in various cities around the world with the hopes of an eventual joint venture. Before detailing the NCT concept, Lee mentions early in the press conference just how successful S.M. has been at creating ‘differentiated content’ and excelling at setting trends not just with regards to music but also the fashion, choreography, and music videos that make up the whole K-pop experience.
It’s fitting, then, that the very first NCT single is also one packaged (musically, lyrically, visually) in such a futuristic sheen. Trap signifiers and a haunting vocal chant are positioned to create something extremely spacious and the members’ rap-singing echo like lone voices down hallways. All of it’s there to set the stage for the lyrics, which are mostly abstract musings of an anxiety-filled, lonely future. The video by VM Project features all the perfect components too. Color filters, twisting camera movements, and minimal set designs featuring Flavin-inspired fluorescent light fixtures (perhaps the least egregious in any K-pop video yet) are equal parts hypnotizing and hollow, driving home the accelerationist mindset that drives the whole NCT project in the first place.
See also: EXO - "Monster"
18. SHINee - Prism
For quite a long time, there was a running joke that K-Pop was always a few years late on a musical trend happening in the West. To a certain extent, it was true, and there was verifiable proof in the form of years-old song demos being bought by K-Pop companies. That’s been a considerably less touted opinion in the past couple years, though, and a lot of it comes down to songwriters and producers being able to better incorporate dance music styles into a K-Pop framework. Last year, SHINee’s “View” was a house crossover marvel; an admittedly straightforward hit whose production felt far more vivid and thoughtful than similar attempts coming out of a post-Disclosure UK. Production duo LDN Noise’s presence and influence have since been felt throughout K-Pop and “Prism” is one such example.
Produced by MZMC (EXO’s “Artificial Love” and “They Never Know”), Jamil Chammas (Mac Miller’s “Weekend”), and more, “Prism” channels classic UK Garage but avoids simple nostalgia-treading. The shifts between the song's different sections are seamless and the physicality of its syncopated rhythms and strong vocal performances are constantly felt. At its core, “Prism” succeeds because of the marriage between its instrumentation and vocalizations; they’re both attention-seeking and commanding but light on their feet (soft-edged, even). There isn’t a single second that’s wasted here and it’s why these three minutes can zip by in an instant.
17. Jun. K - Think About You
“Think About You” and 2PM’s “Promise (I’ll Be)” have similar conceits: take the standard melodramatic ballad and inject contemporary Soundcloud-esque production in the chorus. The latter is more explosive, like a more dynamic “Candyman”, but it feels slightly disjointed. It’s in part due to Taecyeon’s rap; it sounds old-hat in a year filled with great Korean rapping but also tonally inconsistent with the song’s softer moments. Each individual element of “Think About You,” however, is always serving a greater purpose. The song’s chorus is, of course, the big showstopper here. A lone dubstep wobble reverberates and contains all you need to know about the emotional spectrum of the song. It feels restricted, equal parts anxious and cautiously confident. That same mood is captured in every bit of instrumentation—the subtle shaker in the first verse, the skittering hi-hat, the chorus’ strings—and Jun. K’s vocals follow suit. He’s able to belt it, surely, but his ability to capture the frenetic emotional progression of such a situation is the real thing to note. At times he sings with hopeful assuredness but it’ll have turned into a defeated sigh moments later. He starts the song by admitting fault but then takes on a more accusatory tone once the bridge hits. It's familiar territory for those who’ve been there, and everything is in its right place to remind you of just how recognizable it all is.
See also: 2PM - “Promise (I’ll Be)”
16. Zico - Bermuda Triangle (feat. Crush & Dean)
Of the many things K-pop in 2016 will be remembered for, one will surely be the influx of hip-hop songs that actually felt up to date with trends happening in the States. Case in point: “Bermuda Triangle,” a song with Travis Scott-esque autotune warbles and the Quincy Jones’ Ironside sample present in multiple Future songs. It’s impeccably produced and Zico can surely rap, yes, but it’s ultimately Crush and Dean that allow the song to go beyond mere imitation. In their vocalizing can be found the roots of formal vocal training, so much so that the autotuned bits still feel like something that could only exist in a country with such strict singing standards.
15. B.A.P - That's My Jam
The most exhilarating boy band party anthem in years, “That’s My Jam” is primarily a thrill due to its 90s house bassline. However, it’s important to recognize just how perfectly each of the song’s individual parts are coupled with their vocalists. For one, it’s Jongup’s delicate half-rapping, half-singing that sells the half-time bridge. And it’s in these moments where the bassline disappears that the song trusts the vocalizations to carry it on their own. There’s a clear consideration with regards to the ordering of vocalists as well. Zelo’s rap, for example, appears midsong since it’s able to sustain the momentum post-chorus more effectively than Yongguk’s lower voice could. “That’s My Jam” is always finding ways to make its chorus feel like a jolt of energy upon arrival. That it’s able to do this in spite of the interesting stylistic shifts is wholly refreshing.
See also: “Feel So Good”
14. Jonghyun - She Is
“She Is” is deceptive. A funk-lite pop song filled with glossy synths shouldn’t sound so fresh but its constant rhythmic shifts keep the song afloat, revitalizing the hook each time it appears. The song’s never drawing attention to its changes either, allowing each transition to feel smooth and the earworm “ooh’s” to slowly lodge themselves into your brain. The ambiguous delivery of the titular line is clever and fun, but the real kicker is how it utilizes the song’s wavering tempo to its advantage. The line precedes a list of a girl’s physical attributes. And it’s at once the sweet, poetic longing of “oh she is” and the ecstatic cry of “oh shiz!” And Jonghyun traverses neo-soul vocalizing and triplet rapping to make it all the more convincing.
See also: “Orbit”
13. Luna - Free Somebody
“Free Somebody” is the sort of K-pop single that gets every element right. The choreography has a visceral effect on the viewer, Luna makes the best case for the Vetements DHL t-shirt, and the music video is one of the most distinct in K-pop last year. The song itself isn’t a joke either, channeling the feel of 90s house so well that it nails a certain characteristic: slightly-overworked vocals which compel the listener to dance as much as the pulsating beat. The production itself is colorful and detailed, something easy to underappreciate considering how comfortably midtempo the song is. But even then, Luna is constantly giving the song a real sense of urgency, making each “I know, I know, I know, I know” a thrill and every “I wanna free somebody” feel cathartic.
12. Mamamoo - You're the Best
Mamamoo’s proven to be one of K-pop’s most frustrating groups in recent years. Their sense of humor is refreshing and brings to mind the sort of not-very-serious music videos that seem long gone from the scene, but it’s also resulted in songs as slight as “Taller Than You.” On the other end of the spectrum, they’re talented vocalists but the consequent jazz-inflected, retro-fetishism that characterizes the large majority of their singles feels extremely dull and repetitive at this point (and even more so if a superfluous Moonbyul rap is thrown in). But in comes “You’re the Best,” a song which knows how to inject its Back to Basics-era Christina Aguilera-isms in comfortable doses. All of which is countered by single note/syllable repetitions in the hook and one of the prettiest, butterflies-in-stomach-inducing vocal melodies of the year in its pre-chorus.
11. Taeyeon - Why
With “Why,” LDN Noise try their hand at sunny tropical house and come up with one of the very best post-”Sorry” tracks. Acoustic guitar strums, subtle organ synth pads, and shimmering arpeggios set the mood in the verses. When the chorus hits, it's a huge rush, and it's because the chopped-up vocal samples are used in tandem with Taeyeon’s own voice.The sample could easily stand on its own but it instead recedes and provides a rich backdrop for the song's most singalong portion.In general, similar songs would rely on a simple vocal sample to carry the entire chorus. But “Why” strives to make its lyrics wholly palpable, Taeyeon’s voice embodying the blood-rushing, hesitation-free spirit that she wants to be.
10. f(x) - Cowboy
There was a lot of love for f(x)’s “All Mine,” a straightforward yet above average EDM track which frankly put the large majority of SM Station songs to shame. But it was Japanese b-side “Cowboy” that felt representative of the relative experimentation that’s characterized the group’s music for years. It’s a hilarious and ebullient song that holds fast to its love-as-rodeo theme, shouts of “yeehaw” and all. The sheer ridiculousness of the “giddy on up” hook, the boot-stomping, and the line dance-ready bridge is all sorts of amusing and ranks as one of the most unexpectedly great pop moments of 2016. f(x) have consistently maintained their status as the one of the most consistent and interesting girl groups of the past decade. Despite only releasing two songs this past year, that still hasn’t changed one bit.
See also: “All Mine”
9. Red Velvet - Russian Roulette
At its core, Red Velvet’s “Russian Roulette” is a shibuya-kei informed take on early SNSD and f(x) (think: “Oh!” and “Sweet Witches,” respectively). Unsurprisingly, the song was written prior to Red Velvet’s debut and was co-produced by Albi Albertsson, someone who’s made songs for acts from both Korea (e.g. SHINee, EXO) and Japan (e.g. E-girls, Arashi). “Russian Roulette” is far more interesting than much of what Albertsson’s produced though, as it finds its primary strength in the balancing acts at play. The chipper “heart b-b-beats” and arcade noises grant the song a bright sheen but it’s relatively restrained compared to the likes of Yasutaka Nakata. In combination with the song’s lyrics and deadpan-sung chorus, however, that controlled energy is important in establishing the multifaceted tone of “Russian Roulette”—something that’s anxious but excited, cute but sinister. The video follows suit, painting the girls as innocent via soft lighting, bright pastel colors, and gradient lips all while trying to kill each other in a cartoonish, Itchy & Scratchy-esque manner.
8. BLACKPINK - Whistle
Teddy’s production is so synonymous with YG that there’s no way anyone could possibly hear Black Pink’s debut singles and think they were signed to any other record label. Both “Whistle” and “Boombayah” are familiar; the former is a continuation of the country/hip-hop hybrid of Big Bang’s “Bae Bae” while the latter is an above average take on, well, numerous Big Bang and 2NE1 singles. The way “Boombayah” manages to update such a tired sound so successfully is worth noting but it’s ultimately “Whistle” that comes out on top.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about “Whistle” is how it takes the template of “Bae Bae” and removes any semblance of incongruity between its disparate parts. It’s partially a result of the line distribution but it’s ultimately due to the nuanced songwriting. The song’s spacious minimalism reins everything under a single, unifying aesthetic but also helps to showcase just how talented these girls are at singing and rapping. And then the bridge and final chorus appear and tie everything up so neatly that you forget just how different the song’s individual components are. The fact the horns sound at once maximalist and muted tell you everything.
The music video itself is worth noting as well. Most significant is how director Jo Beomjin utilizes constant tracking shots and zooms to instill a sense of movement and continuity. He’s also careful to insert the first brief moment of group choreography during the song’s first chorus, further propelling the song forward in the very moment it dawns upon listeners that the song won’t be getting much more upbeat. And later on, having the girls appear in the predominantly black outfits when the final chorus lands only heightens the impact. It’s this calculated editing that really heightens the whole experience.
7. Oh My Girl - Windy Day
The most perfect song for Spring came at the end of May in the form of Oh My Girl’s “Windy Day.” As various (younger) girl groups opted for songs indebted to “Into The New World,” Oh My Girl stuck out upon this song's release simply by having something less trendy. Their career’s been defined by how unique their tracks are but “Windy Day” marks the first time since their debut “Cupid” that I’ve been extremely caught off guard. The song progresses from cutesy folk pop to regal ABBA worship and then suddenly employs a modal shift all within the span of a minute. That these three parts cohere so elegantly and feel so consistent in tone is nothing short of miraculous pop songwriting. The music video’s woodland fairy tale setting is dead on in capturing the song’s mood but even then, abstaining from these visuals doesn’t detract from how complete this song feels.
6. Ladies' Code - Galaxy
There’s a certain sophistication and melancholy to both of Ladies’ Code 2016 singles that didn’t quite exist in their previous songs. As a result, it’s impossible to hear them without being reminded of members EunB and RiSe’s deaths back in 2014. Their first single since the car crash, “Galaxy,” is the better of the two and is especially affecting. In the verses, the vocals never rise above the atmospheric r&b instrumentation; the girls are content to remain inside this moody (head)space. The chorus’s lyrics speak of depleting oxygen levels and the desire to be taken to an otherworldly realm. At the end of the day, it’s a song about being desperately attracted to someone. But with mentions of this person being familiar and there being occurrences of déjà vu, it’s hard not to see this song in a different light. The final chorus kicks into a double-time jazz lounge groove that brings to mind Ringo Shiina/Tokyo Jihen. I’m not quite sure if it sounds hopeful or hopeless, and that feels apt.
5. NU'EST - Overcome
There’s an admirable ambition to “Overcome” that wasn’t quite matched by other K-pop songs this year, especially among boy bands. Musically, the song starts off as a ballad by way of Ciara’s “Promise,” mutates into something a la “My Boo”, and then finally lands on a post-dubstep chorus. But regardless of the instrumentation, each member of NU’EST makes sure to fill every second of the song’s runtime with evocative melodrama. The lyrics are no less over-the-top, with promises to traverse jungles and forests to rescue a lover. It only seems appropriate that the music video, from the costuming to the set design, looks like a live action Final Fantasy cutscene.
See also: “Love Paint (Every Afternoon)”
4. Dal Shabet - Someone
Dal Shabet’s “Big Baby Baby” was endearing in how it was so unabashedly indebted to the 80s, both musically and visually. The song itself, unfortunately, wasn’t more than the sum of its parts; a collection of signifiers packaged inside an ineffective song structure. “Someone Like U” finds the group returning to an unmistakably 80s sound, albeit a different one, but succeeding in areas where “Big Baby Baby” didn’t. It’s an honest-to-God take on freestyle, unrelentingly flashy yet tightly controlled. Brave Bros throws in enough quirks to keep things interesting—an amen break intro, cowbells, male vocal harmonies—but the girls do a lot of heavy lifting too. In particular, Serri’s rapping really sells the song’s already fierce lyrics. The best bit, however, is the exasperated “just like you baby” line combined with the jacket-clutching, chest-swirling choreography. It’s the exact sort of cool confidence one has to show when telling someone off.
3. I.O.I - Very Very Very
Considering the drama and absurdity of Produce 101, the reality show which whittled down 101 K-pop trainees to the 11 in I.O.I, there was plenty reason to be disappointed in the actual output the group had after forming. But that all changed with “Very Very Very,” the group’s one truly great song. But oh what a song. It's complete throwback to SNSD’s “Gee” days but produced by JYP. Despite all the similarities, it still holds its own, particularly in the handling of the stop-start rhythms. The drum and bass beat and quick-sung, repetitive lines are an immense rush but the g-funk synth-featuring pre-choruses are just as memorable. While the contracts for these girls are already up, and I.O.I is left as a relic of 2016, they’ve made their mark with a song that’s better than some will have in their entire career.
2. Twice - TT
“TT” is a meticulously manufactured single. The music video was directed by NAIVE, the production company responsible for directing Twice’s previous two singles. And like those, there’s a huge emphasis on highlighting each individual member here. For a group with nine of them, this is astronomically important if you want any (potential) fan to find the one they can obsess over. The introductory poses could have been enough, especially with the unique and interesting outfits, but the girls also end up wearing their own Halloween costumes to further distinguish themselves.
What’s even more impressive is how some of these images are heavily coupled with the music. The bouncing during the first verse and Nayeon’s clawing during the second chorus’s “hey!”, for example, are forever imprinted on my mind, appearing whenever I listen to the song. Of course, the most memorable bit here is the titular choreography, something which presumably signals for many first-time viewers that the title refers to the emoticon. It’s hilarious and amusing, but the single is also able to transcend any ostensible gimmick here; I’ve never watched “TT” and felt like it was a simple means to a memeable end.
“TT” might not have the ambitious structure of “Cheer Up" but it makes up for it by the miniature hooks and earworms present throughout. The syllabic repetitions that characterize the verses and pre-choruses are undeniably catchy but they’re thankfully counterbalanced by the chorus’ grounded beat and gliding synths. There’s just too much that’s right with “TT” to ignore, and it’s why it felt like one of the major events of K-pop in 2016.
1. Stellar - Sting
Stellar have received attention since their debut for being provocateurs (or, uh, being forced as such by their label) but they’ve always been far more than mere male gaze clickbait. At this point, they’ve released so many incredible singles that they’re one of the most consistent girl groups going, and “Sting” continues to prove just that. The entire song feels light and moves briskly, and that’s precisely a result of the rhythmic devices at play. If every second of a pop song is a battle to maintain a listener’s interest, “Sting” succeeds but in a relatively understated manner thanks to the thoughtful layering of pulses and frequent changes in vocal deliveries and inflections. The bratty talk-singing in the bridge is the only real event in the song that draws attention to itself. Otherwise, this is a song content with its airiness.
There’s a bit of whimsy with the inclusion of ticking clocks and popping bubbles but so much of this song is also a sly setup for its sarcastic, kiss-off lyrics. The final chorus’ “Do my words sting? Are you listening?” wrap up the song with a sort of understanding that, no, this dude isn’t phased; he’s the sort of doofus who wouldn’t take any reprimanding seriously. And thus, the music video’s final third feels empowering. The bridge’s descending chord progression leads into choreo that involves the girls twisting their shirts up to reveal partial midriff; a final, haughty tease. And the hallway runway walk—which finds the girls’ poses highlighted via a vertical video-resembling aspect ratio—feels glamorous alongside the chorus’ rushing synth stabs and grand horns.
I felt a bit sad throughout 2016 when it started to become clear that the sort of genre skepticism that’s defined K-pop was becoming less common. But in retrospect, I probably loved more K-pop songs in 2016 than I had in recent years (that I was even able to make a list of thirty K-pop songs I thoroughly enjoyed says something). Even more, the sort of high quality production and smart songwriting that makes contemporary K-pop one of the most thrilling eras in pop music is still here. And “Sting” is emblematic of just that; it’s perfect pop.
See also: “Crying”