2017 in retrospect: the best k-pop songs

Every year I do these posts, my goal is as much to show you some of my favorite things from the last 12 months as it is to reveal a little bit about myself and what I’ve been up to/into during that time. In past years, when I’ve done music-related posts, I’ve never restricted the items eligible for my lists to the year in question — this has been because I usually spend more time exploring and discovering music that spans multiple years than I do listening to more recent stuff. I also find it somewhat trite to do these “Best of 20XX” lists because the Internet is saturated with them, and they all tend to be very similar and boring. I like what I post to be at least somewhat unique and personal to me, and to that end, in the past my posts have been wider in their scope than your typical end-of-year lists.

This year, though, after a whole lot of thought on the matter, I’ve decided to conform to the rest of the world and create my own “Best of 2017” music lists. This isn’t as much a cop-out as it might seem at first — this year saw me listening to more new music than I have in years, and I actually have enough material here to put together a few different lists’ worth of music to reflect on…which is just what I’m going to do.

It’s important to note right off the bat exactly what I found myself listening to this year, as much like last year when I went through my electronic and Japanese music phases, this year I got really, really deep into K-pop — obsessively so, in fact, and so much so that I’m going to start this series of posts off with a look at my 30 favorite K-pop songs of the last year.

Now, fair warning to any K-pop fans who might find themselves reading this: I am not nearly as knowledgeable on the subject as you probably are. I ask that you bear with me and forgive my ignorance as we go through this post and the next. I would say that 80+% of my knowledge on K-pop comes to me from my wife, who is a much bigger K-pop nerd than I am. Although she’s not quite sasaeng-level (thank God), she obsesses over this stuff and loves to talk to me about it, all the time. (This isn’t a complaint, my dear!) Still, through osmosis and browsing various forums and such, I’ve come to have a decent understanding of the fandom, at least in general terms, and have listened to a whole lot of stuff released from this past year.

The songs I’m about the share cover a lot of ground — although a good portion of it is probably what one generally thinks of when they think of K-pop, I’ve done my best to try to dig a little deeper to find stuff that is less well-known, with a more unique sound. Regardless of how you feel about K-pop — and especially if you’ve never been very exposed to it in the past — hopefully you’ll find something here that piques your interest in a way that you didn’t expect. That said…let’s begin!

30. Triple H – “365 FRESH”

American pop music this year had Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” (which, coincidentally, was probably one of my favorite Western pop songs of the year), and the K-pop world got “365 FRESH”, a funk-tastic throwback that takes all the best parts of fun ’80s dance music and adds the kind of stuff that makes K-pop so endearing — the raps, the chants (“F, R, E, S and H…so fresh!”), the silly English phrases peppered in. It sounded like nothing else from the K-pop scene this year, really — you might call it…fresh. I’ll see myself out.

29. AKMU – “Play Ugly”

Pop music thrives on earworm hooks — the kind that burrow deep into your subconscious and cause you to start humming them at really inopportune times, like in important meetings or church services. AKMU’s brand of pop-folk-rap is wonderfully addictive in itself (their debut album Play is probably one of my favorite K-pop albums, period), but it’s “Play Ugly” that produces one of the catchiest chorus hooks of the year — the exaggerated way this sibling duo sings “Bay-baee, bay-baee” over minimal piano keys is a guaranteed sticky bomb set to explode when you least expect it — but I’ve yet to find that it’s ever been at a bad time.

28. pH-1 – “Christ”

K-pop is a typically vain subculture. Agencies market their artists based heavily on sex appeal and appearance, and the music is generally geared in that direction as well. You do get the occasional artist or group that is allowed to innovate outside of the usual boundaries and cliches, but that’s definitely the exception to the rule. Perhaps it’s because pH-1 is signed to a smaller label, but this song is exactly the opposite of what you’re likely to find in your generic K-pop song picked out of a hat — it’s a Christian profession of faith and something that intentionally points away from pH-1, and to God. This is exceedingly rare, to the point where I’ve never heard anything like it in K-pop before, and when I first did I took immediate notice. It helps that pH-1 has a great voice and is a good rapper, but for me none of that was the takeaway — it was the fact that Christians exist in the K-pop world, and some are willing to sing about it in such an unambiguous way.

27. LOONA (Kim Lip) – “Eclipse”

The debut strategy for LOONA has been rather interesting — dragging it out over a year-and-a-half is a risky endeavor no matter how you look at it, but the results thus far have been phenomenal, and the sound being built around the members is one of dreamy, noise-heavy synth pads, perhaps exemplified best in Kim Lip’s “Eclipse”. It’s washed in memory-less nostalgia, bittersweet and pining and irresistable.

There’s a lot to love about this track — millic’s smooth voice, the guest spot, the flow — but perhaps nothing so much as the halfway point, where the song suddenly screeches to a halt and switches lanes from synthy R&B to loungey jazz-rap. It’s surprising and unconventional, but millic — a little-known artist in the K-pop world — has the latitude to try stuff like this, and luckily, the talent to pull it off.

25. Pristin – “Wee Woo”

Pristin is one of the most girl group K-pop girl groups of all the K-pop girl groups. That is to say, they embody that stereotypical cute-girl aesthetic really well, and you need look no further than “Wee Woo” to see what I’m talking about. It’s pure guilty-pleasure pop — adorable chorus, high-level danceable energy, rap verses and all. Get out on the floor and jump around, this is what K-pop’s all about.

24. HyunA – “Dart”

In my and Rachael’s discussions of K-pop, HyunA has come up many times, and Rachael always says that she’s scary — she has the “crazy girlfriend eyes”, and I think I’m prone to agree. Her songs tend in this direction too, but “Dart” is uncharacteristically tame, a midtempo synthpop song that showcases HyunA’s range between singing and rapping (it’s crazy wide), and is disarmingly seductive. Of course, once you get too close she’ll probably just rip you to shreds, but sometimes that’s the price you pay.

23. offonoff – “homeless door”

This is probably the most pop-averse song on this list — it’s smokey trip-hop R&B in slo-mo, introspective and intimate. A creaking door provides a rhythmic element that keeps time for the entire song. The song floats on singer Colde’s smokescreen voice and producer 0channel’s minimalist beats; it feels both lighter than air and heavy with significance, and ends up right in the middle where we can grasp it, just before it dissolves into nothingness.

This is closer to Western rap music than most of the stuff on here (if not all of it) — bassy beats, braggy lyrics, a laundry list of guest spots, and a towering swagger that actually feels like it has some weight behind it. It’s in-your-face and threatening like all the best hardcore hip hop, and while it definitely feels somewhat tame compared to something like, say, this, it would still ruin your neighbor’s day if you blasted it out of your modded 370Z with the subwoofers jammed up to 10.

21. S.E.S. – “My Rainbow”

S.E.S. are an old pop group — their album Remember, released this year (their first in 15 years), was done to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of their debut. The album is steeped in old-school pop sounds and style — unlike more current pop music, it tends to lack the energy and full arrangements that really define the most popular stuff out there right now, but that said, “My Rainbow” is a silky smooth ballad dripping in the kind of doe-eyed sentimentality that most other girl groups would be jealous to say they could achieve with such apparent nonchalance.

20. WOO WON JAE – “Paranoid”

“Paranoid” is a twisted, writhing song — it burrows underground and bursts out at unexpected times, it jumps around and pushes you off-balance. WOO WON JAE’s vocals are squeezed and deformed like a balloon being played with by a five-year old child; he raps off-time and without any regard to the beat, smashing syllable after syllable into a volume that they shouldn’t be able to fit into, and then remaining silent for several bars as if to make up for it. There’s an insanity to this song that I’ve not found anywhere else in K-pop, a seething anxiety that’s trying to burst through the surface; I’m still trying to figure out what’s keeping it down.

One of pop’s many charms is that it often doesn’t take itself too seriously — especially K-pop. The chorus of this song is absolute nonsense:

You’ve got that ooh-la-la
You’ve got that ooh-la-la, la
It can’t always be a happy ending
You’ve got that ooh-la-la
You’ve got that ooh-la-la, la

…but in typical fan write-off fashion, I don’t really care. It’s hopelessly catchy, easy for a white, almost-30-year-old male to sing along with, and absolutely smile-inducing. What more do you need?

18. Stellar – “Why Me”

Some songs are the singers’, some are the instrumentalists’, and some the producers’ — “Why Me” is definitely the latter, full as it is with vocal manipulation, pitch-shifting, and sequencing to create a chorus so digitized that it would seem that Stellar were only there to provide the raw materials needed for the producers to build it. It stands as a brain-infiltrating monument to the kind of talent that dominates in the production side of the K-pop industry.

17. IU – “이 지금”

This song could just be IU singing “Whatever!” like that over and over and I don’t think I’d love it any less. Coming from an album that is basically defined by melancholy, “이 지금” is a peppy piano-pop tune that showcases IU’s satiny voice and injects a bit of blatant happiness into the whole thing; divorced from that context, it’s still a sunshiney stroll down the avenue on a cloudless day, birds chirping, dogs barking, everything just right with the world.

16. Bobby – “Up (feat. Mino)”

Bobby has one of the most recognizable voices in the Korean hip-hop scene, that I’ve heard anyway, and in this song he pushes it to gravelly depths. At little more than a bare rasp, he brags and raps with all the confidence of rappers who have years more experience and clout, but it’s not as empty as you might think — this dude’s talented. “Up” is possibly his best track to date. With minimal backing and a sinister beat, Bobby and Mino drive this one home in a bling-shrouded Lambo with groupies in tow.

Up until I started listening to him for consideration on these lists, I hadn’t been the biggest fan of Zico from a musical standpoint. He’s not the smoothest rapper, or the most personable, his voice doesn’t stand out, and at least in the context of K-pop, his music lacks the hooks and pop-influenced magnetism of other like-minded rappers. That said, I respect the heck out of him. He reminds me in a lot of ways of G-Dragon, and the way his solo stuff was an aquired taste for me as well — very rough around the edges and raw. More than that though, his entire approach to his music tends to be a lot more artistically-driven and thoughtful than that of his peers, with “ANTI” being one of the prime examples.

Written from the perspective of one of his haters (or “anti”s in the K-pop lexicon), Zico explores the thought process that drives people to tear down artists’ work. It’s full of spite and sarcasm, requiring Zico to step outside himself and look at his own career from the outside. It features what is possibly Zico’s best rap vocal delivery — breathless and as fluid as he’s ever been. G.Soul’s guest appearance to deliver a suave R&B-infused chorus serves as a crisp contrast to the verses, and we end up with a finely-balanced look into — and subtle critique of — the K-pop fandom’s contemptuous side, delivered by one of its fast-rising stars.

14. LOONA (Yves) – “New”

When LOONA finally get around to properly debuting, they could very possibly take over the world with the kind of talent that’s been revealed so far. Yves’ “New”, for example, is a Robyn-like track of bassy synthpop and emotionally engaging songwriting, deep and full and euphoric and dancefloor-ready. If the DJ throws this one on, everybody falls in love that night.

13. Jonghyun – “Love Is So Nice”

The K-pop world was robbed of one of its all-time great voices when Jonghyun committed suicide a few weeks ago; he left behind a wonderful array of songs to discover and enjoy, and “Love Is So Nice” was one of his best cuts from this year. It paints a lovely picture of positivity in primary colors, which stands in stark polarity to the reality of Jonghyun’s situation. But, it speaks volumes to his talent as a singer that he was able to create such happy places for the rest of us, even if he found no solace in them himself.

12. BTOB – “Nanana”

Vocals in K-pop are as important as almost any other element (if not moreso in most cases), but sometimes, especially when it comes to larger boybands, it can be hard to put the vocals front-and-center in as direct way as “Nanana” does. This is a relaxed, acoustic-guitar driven love letter to the kind of vocal harmonizing that the Beach Boys were known for (although the comparison stops there). It’s a wonderfully smooth song, made just to show off BTOB’s vocal chops — even the spoken-word interlude near the end fits into the song’s breezy framework. Lay back, close your eyes, and soak this one in.

11. EXID – “Boy”

Experimentalism isn’t a concept that typically gains a lot of traction in K-pop; as a downtempo, avant-pop masterpiece of vocal pitch-shifting and copy/paste montage building, “Boy” is one of the more disarming tracks on this list, far removed as it is from the euphoric dance-pop or emotionally-drenched ballads that typically divide the genre into its two distinct halves. “Boy” floats somewhere in the middle, teetering between boredom and frustration at not having someone around to share the night with. It’s catchy without succumbing to the usual tricks, and is EXID’s most adventurous outing to date.

10. Neon Bunny – “Now”

This song dropped out of nowhere and I couldn’t have been happier — Neon Bunny’s Stay Gold from 2016 was a wholly underrated and underrecognized masterpiece, so anything new from her was going to get instant attention from me. “Now” is a downbeat art-pop piece, soaking in melancholy and expectation, rounded off by Neon Bunny’s phenomenally effortless and effervescent voice. It’s a gorgeous little track, and hopefully a sign that whatever she has coming in 2018 will not disappoint.

9. ODD EYE CIRCLE – “Chaotic”

Like seemingly all Eastern pop music, English gets mixed in quite often, to varying effect — sometimes it’s painfully awkward (as with J-pop singer Sweet Vacation’s “Looking For The Future”), other times it works in really clever ways, as with “Chaotic”, which might be the first instance in any song of rhyming the word “chaotic” with “psychotic” — I don’t know. The English phrases scattered throughout the song serve as waypoints for navigating the woozy synths, and also as some of the song’s best moments — Jinsoul singing “I’m about to lose controoOOooLll” goes down as probably one of the best lines from a female singer all year.

8. BTS – “DNA”

If you’ve managed to avoid BTS in American media this year, you probably haven’t heard this song, as it’s what they performed at their two biggest events, the AMAs and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. But then you were also missing out on one of the best K-pop songs of 2017, a maximalist anthem full of textural production tricks (the pitched-down, distorted “DNA” vocal sample that kicks off the chorus, for example) and high-voltage synth shocks that keep the energy at maximum. And while this isn’t a review of the accompanying video, let’s not ignore it. It’s exactly the kind of flagship K-pop video that shows off the insane production values that define what the Korean pop industry does best — create audio/visual experiences that put the rest of the world to abject shame. BTS are set to absolutely dominate the world over the next several years. If you’re not onboard the BTS train yet, use “DNA” as your ticket.

7. KARD – “Trust Me” (BM & Somin Version) // (J.Seph & Jiwoo Version)

Although similar, both versions of this song are worth mentioning as they demonstrate just how versatile KARD can be, and how willing they are to take risks with their music, now that they’ve got all that tropical house stuff out of their system. The emotion on display in these songs is palpable — not least of all when BM’s voice cracks on his near-flawless English rap — and acts as the engine on which these songs run. The things that make both versions unique also make it impossible to pick between them — the J.Seph/Jiwoo version features a relentless rolling beat, where the BM/Somin version is warmer, more downtempo. They both have distinctly different feels to them, but convey the same message of trying to build trust in a relationship in the way only a male/female duo can — full of pathos, tension, and desperation.

6. BTS – “Mic Drop”

BTS are arguably at their best when the bass is loud and the rappers are allowed to go nuts — their “Cipher” songs from previous releases were always the standouts, and although they can pretty much kill it no matter what style dominates in any given track, they were originally a hip hop band and it shows to this day. “Mic Drop” is the heaviest song off of Love Yourself, the album they released this year, and also the best. The beat is the kind of stuff that shatters windows at the right volume, and the energy that the rap verses bring is pure electricity — it’s impossible to listen to this song and not feel like you’re on a caffeine high afterwards. The hype is real, boys and girls, and it’s glorious.

Growing up in the limelight sucks. I mean, I wouldn’t know, but IU certainly does; in “Palette” she sings about the tension between who she wants to be and who everyone else perceives her as. Despite its airy, gorgeous melody, the song contains the evidence of the pressure she feels, finally broken by G-Dragon — someone who is certainly familiar with IU’s situation, and who is able to provide some poetic comfort:

When I’m not a kid or an adult, when I’m just me
I shine the brightest
So don’t get scared when the darkness comes
Because it’s so beautiful, because flowers bloom
You are a child that will always be loved

It’s a sharp commentary on the K-pop industry, sung from the pulpit by two of South Korea’s most recognized stars, wrapped in IU’s glittering voice and a chorus that will get stuck in your head for days. If you’re going to make a statement, this is how to do it.

4. G-Dragon – “BULLSHIT”

K-pop is at its best when it’s at its most genuine, a viewpoint that should hopefully be made even clearer in tomorrow’s post on my favorite K-pop albums of the year. In the meantime, we have “BULLSHIT”, the sound of GD finally being let off the leash, allowed now to make some seriously angry music, the kind of stuff he’s probably had pent up for years but has never been allowed to release. It’s raw and assertive, a shout of frustration from one of the most well-known names in the industry against the powers that brought him to that height. Everything GD released this last year has been an intimate look into his personality from perspectives he’s been unwilling or unable to share with us until now, and this song is an explosive burst of catharsis and one of the hardest-hitting K-pop songs released in 2017.

3. 2NE1 – “Goodbye”

2NE1’s breakup in 2016, from what I understand, didn’t come as a surprise to most people, given Minzy’s departure to pursue a solo career and rumors that had been circulating about such a breakup for a while. But it was still hard on a lot of people, because 2NE1 was one of the leading girl groups around the time that K-pop really started to take off in the U.S., and got many into the genre at all. “Goodbye” is one final sendoff from the remaining three members to their fans, and to Minzy — and what a way to go out. Although it’s a stripped-down, acoustic ballad (a far cry from their most famous work), it’s quite possibly my favorite thing from them — heavy, weepy emotion suits them well.

The lyrics, written by CL to Minzy, lend a definite poignancy to the song, especially in combination with the video, which shows Dara, Bom, and CL watching home movie-type projections of themselves and Minzy when they were together as a band. It’s hard not to get choked up, even as someone who is a more casual fan. Breakups suck, whether romantic or platonic, or whatever the word would be for the relationship between a band and their fans, but this is the way to burn out — with a guitar in a blaze of sentiment.

One of the hardest things about losing someone to suicide, I imagine, is looking back and seeing all the now-obvious signs that lead up to it, and wondering what you could have done to prevent it. I’m sure that’s what a lot of people close to him were doing after Jonghyun’s suicide, and from a fan’s perspective, going back through his lyrics has become an exercise in finding different ways of saying, “…well, I’m not surprised, I guess.” “Lonely” is a lovely duet between two phenomenal voices, but the shadow of Jonghuyn’s passing hangs heavy over the lyrics — it’s difficult now to see it as the regretful post-breakup song most people probably thought it was on first listen, and instead feels more substantial, more alarming, and more buried beneath emotional weight than ever before. Unfortunately, we can’t change the past, but we can learn from it, and “Lonely” is a hard lesson in the importance of listening to the hurting people around us.

1. TWICE – “Likey”

“Likey” is everything that a lot of people hate about pop music in general — superficial, vain, manufactured, and bubblegum to its rubbery core. It’s true, you’re not going to find a whole lot in this song that will make you sit and reflect, or think, or do anything of any importance in the world. It’s a pop song that capitalizes in cheap ways on our basest reactionary tendencies, but bear with me because I really do think that this is the best K-pop song of 2017. This isn’t a joke.

See, years ago I was first introduced to K-pop through a Pitchfork article that mentioned Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” as one of the scene’s most popular videos at the time, so naturally I clicked on it, and was instantly hooked. Although my enjoyment of K-pop took many more years to move past that particular song and one or two others, I will always recognize it as the first K-pop song I ever heard and enjoyed. “Likey” reminds me so much of “Gee” that it’s comical — the simple, imitable dance, the sing-along chorus, the colorful video that’s just pure fun — it’s all there in spades. This is the new “Gee”.

But it’s more than that. If you read a translation of the lyrics, they’re undeniably shallow — about dressing up and putting on make-up and undergoing other inconveniences in order to get the girl’s crush to like her photo on social media. Here’s the thing though — although not a criticism or even really a comment on our insatiable need to be recognized and “liked” on social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram, “Likey” at least acknowledges a facet of our culture that has become so prevalent that a K-pop group literally wrote a song about it and, however ironically, gained over 100 million views in less than a month.

“Likey” simply does everything it does with intense precision. This is a calculated song and video, yes, but it has an infectiously optimistic vibe. It’s trendy in the best ways (Dahyun’s dab in the video’s pseudo-rap portion is one of the Best Things of 2017), the video is endlessly gifable, and I can’t imagine listening to the song or watching the video and not smiling at one point or another. It’s speaking the universal language of pop music — laser-accurate choreography, a fiery hook, good-looking group members — and doing so under the influence of the K-pop industry’s immaculate professionalism. Pop doesn’t have to comment on the zeitgeist so much as represent it, and under those standards, I can think of no better K-pop song from 2017.

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About crakthesky

Mid-20s and vocal about my subculture.
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