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 (a decent chunk of it is still 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 me as much as I’d wanted, they still instilled 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 beholden 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.