The craziest year ever for Korean pop, with punchy, progressive tracks from CL, T.O.P and EXO
Ropey debuts, drug busts, flops, scandals, sasaeng fans raising hell, and losing your favourite singer to the mandatory Korean military service. That's a fraught year in K-Pop. But it's also music videos that inspire, songs which transcend language barriers, heart-wrenching and deserved comebacks. The sheer volume of material makes summarising a lip-chewing nightmare. Ten places just isn't enough to truly capture the year and the following, in no order, need smashing high fives for being damn awesome. Put your hands together for SPICA's “Tonight”, TEEN TOP's “Miss Right”, BTS' “No More Dream”, HENRY's “Trap”, VIXX's “Voodoo Doll”, SHINEE's “Why So Serious”, BLOCK B's “Very Good”, EVOL's “Get Up”, and SISTAR19's “Gone Not Around Any Longer”.
10. B.A.P – “Hurricane”
Five singles, an American and Japanese tour – B.A.P have been 2013's unstoppable machines. To some they lost their way after February's superior “One Shot” and truthfully the Badman LP was, in parts, incoherent and misguided. But you had to relish its ballsy experimentation and "Hurricane" stood out as loud, squalling and dripping with gold like an Argos loving, 37 year old grandmother of two. It was vicious; uncaring that B.A.P's strongest vocalist was bent double to compete with the heavy production, or that it ruthlessly defiled every music genre in existence. Months later it's still spectacularly precocious and demented – the sound of growing pains from an idol group reluctant to be merely categorised as such.
9. CRAYON POP – “Bar Bar Bar”
Every year needs a musical viral moment. What was it for you? "The Fox"? "Blurred Lines"? Robin Thicke and his parading lady parts have nothing on these moppets. They're simultaneously creepy and adorable, like Children Of The Corn in safety outfits. "Bar Bar Bar" was initially overlooked – though it came cult-ready with an earworm chorus and iconic dance – but over the summer it insidiously crept into public conscious. Flashmob and parody videos appeared, then idols got in on it – Nu'Est, Sistar, SHINee, EXO all recreating the jump – and Crayon Pop exploded in South Korea. They won Best New Female Artist award at MAMA 2013 and accepted wearing satin gloves, white bike helmets and capes. Laters, Thicko.
8. CL – “The Baddest Female”
This is YG ringing gold plated bells and blowing designer whistles as only they can – shoehorning in labels and glitchy, chunky beats with glossy abandon – as Taeyang and GD stand protectively alongside their baby rapper to form the coolest gang in the world. Jesus might have wept thankful tears as CL stood atop a mountain in studs and leather, but this was a missed opportunity to rip lyrical holes in K-Pop's fabric and throw out the rulebook. It's a small quibble at the foot of a stunning MV and killer chorus, and CL has proved absolutely capable of holding a solo career beside her 2NE1 duties. YG would be mad not to let her flourish in 2014 and push a few buttons while she's at it. Revisit our 2013 interview with CL here.
7. TROUBLE MAKER – “There Is No Tomorrow (Now)”
The sub-unit of 4Minute's HyunA and B2ST's Hyunseung began in 2011, gave us a track called, wait for it, “Trouble Maker”, then disappeared in puff of awkward sexual chemistry. Armed with a matured sound, they returned as a trailer park Sid and Nancy/Bonnie and Clyde. A love story MV splattered in blood, Cube Entertainment stuck their middle finger up at conservative Korean media and filled it with skin, underwear, severed limbs and lots more spit swapping. It wasn't without questionable moments – the Budweiser overkill, the Joker, and the menage a trois participants being Western was shady – but ultimately stands up as an epic, hyper-coloured piece with noir aspirations. It went to number one on ten Asian charts and turned Trouble Maker from a side project into an act capable of bonafide pop storytelling.
6. f(x) – “Rum Pum Pum Pum”
SM Entertainment have in f(x) one of the genre's finest girl groups yet consistently fail to capitalise on them. Being styled like a Scottish shortbread tin is a cruelty of sorts – but the underwhelming level of promotion they got for this comeback was embarrassing. The intricacy of "RPPP" as it morphs sinuously around its melodies is amazing, and it's a song so finely crafted and performed it rises far above the generic SM 'dance in a box' MV. Their full studio LP Pink Tape deserves a place in albums of the year, with its perfect marriage of pop to EDM loops and breaks. Like 2NE1 they completely occupy their own niche though, unjustly, don't share the same acclaim.
5. TAEYANG – “Ringa Linga”
Taeyang's early solos marked him as king of the slow jam, hip grinding while chiffon curtains fluttered in the background. It never felt fully indicative of Taeyang as an artist, particularly as through Big Bang we've watched his inner swag intensify from video to video until something had to give. “Ringa Linga” granted Taeyang a Superman-ripping-open-his-shirt moment, shedding the sweet, somewhat hapless guise of his previous singles. Blindingly confident and wearing a triumphant smile, this unapologetic dancefloor monster is meth-level addictive.
4. INFINITE – “Destiny”
Hallucinations, spontaneous combustion, furniture smashing. Two versions of “Destiny” appeared and neither fully explained what the hell was going on, as members vanished into black smoke. Let's just go with the manifestations of loneliness and regret, 'kayyy? Death-by-metaphor aside, this is unstoppable, steamroller pop. Their signature formula is sweeping choreography against squiggly funk riffs, bulging 80s synths and complex, emotive builds. They've used this immaculately in “The Chaser”, “BTD” and “Be Mine”, and “Destiny”, a lavish, wrenching four minute tour-de-force, joins that Infinite canon to elevate them into K-Pop's upper echelons.
3. G-DRAGON – “Coup d'Etat”
“Michi GO!” was batshit crazy fun but the title track from GD's second solo album captivates on a broader scale. Broken, bloody fingernails scrape through sneering self-deprecation and the doomy bass tolls leadenly for a twisted foray into Kwon Jiyong's complicated mind. The MV's ashy, nightmare landscape revisits many of GD's previous visual trademarks, where he mutates with a Frankenstein's monster-esque outcome. It's beautiful and sinister, and so deeply committed to self-destruction and the pursuit of freedom that the final stark scenes come as a relief.
2. EXO – “Growl” (Korean Version)
Debuting as EXO-K (Korea) and EXO-M (China), SM reunited the two boybands for the dubstep mess of comeback single, “Wolf”, then split them for the rest of the XOXO album. "Growl" surfaced on the repackaged version though, a shimmering, funk heavy, R'n'B secret weapon that sounded effortlessly immediate and completely abstract to anything else around, including their own LP. Free of the random, grinding electronic breakdowns K-Pop likes to abuse, the gracefully-sugary verses are tempered by a chorus that trots along like a spanked pony. If the old-school style wasn't risky enough then pairing it with a dizzying single-take video in a badly-lit industrial warehouse gave it that extra push. Fans used to mainlining flashy jump cuts and pulse racing close-ups could barely make out their idols' faces, the grey palette accentuating the choreography and nothing else. It went against everything they'd done before and the result is minimalist, masterfully executed and virtually untouchable.
1. T.O.P – “Doom Dada”
Big Bang's rapper T.O.P has never felt like your average popstar. He's feline-sleek yet awkward, and no amount of media training has quelled his fascinating combination of chilly reserve and childlike whimsy. Like the man himself, “Doom Dada” is unexpected and, from a pop standpoint, virtually impenetrable on the first go. The lyrical rhythms are both inviting and alienating, while the beats align to trap and M.I.A's jagged tribalism. But go deeper and recognisable cadences reveal themselves.... it's K-Pop but sly, frenetic and slippery. The pinching from Dali, “Space Odyssey 2001”, and “The Good, The Bad and The Weird” is shameless but thrilling, challenging MV production out of the couple-ring chucking, piano burning cul-de-sac its been squatting in for too long, like a shiny Ferrari jacked up on bricks.
You might ask why we would award the #1 slot to a track that didn't want to be K-Pop, but as a product of T.O.P and producer Choice37, both unquestionably ingrained within the genre, “Doom Dada” can be nowhere else but the top spot. The dissection and progressive reassembling of existing music and culture gave K-Pop its edge, but it now has a concrete history and with that, a set of cliches it's already begun to impale itself upon. Eventually, as Western pop has done for decades, it will be a case of evolve or die. T.O.P won't be single-handedly leading this but his label YG can – “Doom Dada” (and its surprising success) is the enthralling, intriguing evidence.