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The top 20 K-pop tracks of 2014

This year Korea brought creative overload – from 2NE1's electro dystopia to BEAST's career-crowning comeback and Orange Caramel's bonkers visuals

K-pop fans will probably tell you this year was cursed. After all, many headlines weren’t wholly positive, with boybands EXO and B.A.P filing lawsuits against their labels, and Jessica leaving mega-group Girls’ Generation. And then tragedy struck in September, when a car accident claimed the lives of two members from girl group Ladies’ Code. The idea of a ‘curse’ made for good gossip, but most scandals simply reflected idols’ struggles to obtain greater freedom and recognition: they wanted lovers, they wanted fair pay and they wanted healthy working conditions. 

Behind the headlines, there was a sonic shift. K-pop’s favoured sound of recent years – obliterating EDM, often fused with trap beats – was challenged by a return to funk or disco-infused pop. As ever, not everything was smooth sailing, as smaller groups stepped up as big guns like EXO and 2PM missed the mark. Meanwhile, solo efforts were a mixed bag but generally under-utilised: Taeyang’s “Eyes, Nose, Lips” was solid, but his brilliant “Love You to Death” languished at the end of his album, Taemin of SHINee’s “Danger” was passable, yet “Pretty Boy” ran circles around it. Older names like Rain and Seo Taiji returned, but the surprise hits came from newer groups like MAMAMOO and EXID. Plagiarism accusations hit T-ara, while GOT7Boyfriend and Super Junior released close-runners for this list. Oh, and there was a song featuring a “dog shaking its leg” dance: SISTAR’s “Touch My Body”. Bring on 2015. 2014, we’re done.

Despite debuting on a relatively unknown label, girl group Purfles came out fighting with a pro-woman anthem in “1,2,3”. Partnered with a video that shoulder-popped and generally punched above its small-budget weight, the attitude, slick execution and likability of Purfles’ debut shows they could be – and should be – huge.

Maturing slowly over the past two years, four-piece Girl’s Day came of age with “Something”, their seductive ultimatum to a cheating lover. Ditching their formerly hyperactive sound, the music caught up with the womanly sensuality of their choreography, with their 80s pop-R&B so silky-smooth you could positively slide off the chorus.

Hip hop duo Lip Service’s debut, poking fun at the dieting many K-pop idols endure, appeared like a noisy, lovable pop gremlin. On the surface, the single was fantastically ridiculous: a sugary chorus, sassy verses and strident synths layered like the cakes their weight-conscious peers weren’t allowed to eat. The pair ended 2014 with a Korean Culture and Entertainment Award for Best Newcomer – let’s hope the celebratory meal was burgers.

Returning to the 70s feel of their 2013 single “Pretty Pretty”, “Kiss Kiss” emerged as Ladies’ Code’s strongest single to date. Mischievously riffing on the fairytale The Frog Prince, the video’s pastel surrealism was the perfect accompaniment to the track’s polished disco-pop pulse. Sadly, their comeback was halted when EunB and RiSe tragically died in a car crash, sending shockwaves through the K-pop community. Fans banded together to posthumously grant EunB her wish: a number one hit, in the shape of an earlier song, “I’m Fine Thank You”. 

Girl group AOA were in danger of getting less interesting as their image became sexier – but undoubtedly their popularity paid for Brave Brothers (the producer behind hits like 4minute’s “What’s Your Name” and SISTAR19’s “Gone Not Around Any Longer”) to write this considerable upgrade. Alongside the refined tinkling organ, brass and acoustic guitars, there’s a hugely enjoyable bubblegum element to the “la la la” chorus of “Like A Cat”. The video still went for skimpy styling in nods to Catwoman/Entrapment, but threw in a welcome light-heartedness with the scenes of AOA’s bungled burglary.

This year, two members of girl group Wonder Girls reappeared from the twilight world of band hiatus: Sunmi, with the romantic fluff of “Full Moon”, and Yeeun as HA:TFELT, with the beautiful and emotive “Ain’t Nobody”. It wandered defiantly off K-pop’s beaten path at every turn, clutching at the stammering electronica of Grimes’s “Go” while eschewing precise choreography for the abandon of modern dance. In a year where Sia’s “Chandelier” showcased barefoot movement in a similar vein, “Ain’t Nobody” was both an exhilarating release and an encouraging evolution of idol artistry.

Not even HyunA’s boob tube could upstage these three minutes and forty seconds of colour-saturated creative overload. Music-wise, it stuck to 4Minute’s familiar territory (check Brave Brothers’ signature horns and electronic hiccups), but “Whatcha Doin’ Today” was catapulted upward with bonkers visuals designed to drop jaws. PVC-clad maids, mad tea parties, Jiyoon’s pants around her ankles in a bathroom with Lurex-suited men... And that’s just the tip of the glorious iceberg.

Not a cover of ABBA’s 1975 smash, but an uplifting riff on disco-era styling and sounds from the long-established girl group. KARA grabbed their slinky white sports gear and curling irons, heralding K-pop’s pleasing return to hi-NRG club tracks after 2013’s systematic abuse of trap beats.

Girls’ Generation sub-unit TTS snapped up a prestigious MAMA award (think the Asian Grammys) this year, while the eight-piece group left empty-handed. Similarly, Taeyeon, Tiffany, and Seohyun’s “Holler” edged ahead of Girls’ Generation’s “Mr.Mr.” in the pop stakes, with its brassy, bold and vibrant video, eye-popping set-design and arms-in-the-air-like-you-just-don’t-care chorus. A triumphant moment in a turbulent year.

As Hi Suhyun, sweet female artists Lee Hi and Lee Suhyun mix their distinctive young voices alongside the gravelly tones of iKON’s Bobby in a glowing orb of worldly pop-soul. Meanwhile, the video’s an adorable ode to puppy love, as Hi and Suhyun pursue the bemused Bobby around school with hearts in their eyes. Their on-screen charm and vocal maturity reinforced the fact that the next generation of K-pop is as fearsomely talented as its established stars.

Reality show stars WINNER’s debut was a masterclass in taste and restraint, and ballad “Color Ring” showed that the band were all the better for going against the grain of their YG labelmates (such as 2NE1 and BIGBANG). Released as a double A-side with “Empty”, “Color Ring” shone brighter than its sibling, with Mino and Seunghoon rapping over light acoustic instrumentation. And fans will know that the lyrics on the soaring climax get heartbreakingly dark – an apt pairing with the beautifully-shot video’s exploration of empty apartments and deserted streets.

On first listen, “Red Light” sounded a little like f(x) circa 2012 – staccato verses and airy choruses over big dance beats – but it weighed heavy, grinding forward like an armed tank. You had to want to worm inside this one, developing a quirky love affair with the frantic bass-driven tics and drops. Their usual bright video style was replaced with a grimy warehouse shoot, while the styling drew from AHS: Coven and Lara Croft. You hoped that, with the concept change, f(x) were going to be focused on and promoted more heavily. Sadly, it wasn't to be – Sulli went on hiatus, in news that became more prominent than their comeback, and f(x) went back to the SM basement. The war between group, label and fandom rumbles on.

Seven-piece boyband BTS began life last year with a fusion of raspy rappers and singers, yet in 2014 this hyper-aggressive approach softened as their sound diversified. This year’s singles ran the spectrum from ballads to rock/hip hop hybrids – but it was  “War of Hormone”, with its old-school scratching, drum machine and thumping heart of a bass beat, that truly mapped the spirit of transition. The video ditched the glossy bad-boy concept to capture their endearingly weird off-stage personalities, with lyrics that gleefully expressed sexual frustration. Here, the vocal patterns, melodies and rhythms were woven so intricately that the result was impressive and relentless entertainment. If it wasn't throwing itself headlong into a verse, it was dragging you across the dancefloor on a chorus. “War of Hormone” saw BTS up the ante, and beat themselves at their own game.

Scandal and lawsuits nearly broke Block B in 2013 – but with their signing to new label Seven Seasons came a spike in creativity, and a new lease of life for leader Zico’s songwriting. 2014’s brilliantly weird “H.E.R” frenetically marries pop, funk and hip hop with a video where Block B introduce Block B to the stage (who, in turn have Block B as a backing band). It’s not as complicated as it sounds, though – the track’s appeal lies in being enormously accessible. Modern yet retro, it’s a stage musical chorus colliding with twisty rap verses. But for this fascinating and risky group, the big question is: where next? Core member Zico’s prodigious talent is equalled only by his ability to put his foot in his mouth – and wherever he goes on the rollercoaster of public opinion, the group follows. Yet if their 2015 brings tunes as pithy and catchy as “H.E.R”, continued success will be theirs.

It was a busy year for 2NE1, what with their four singles from current album Crush ­– and leader CL hitting the studio with Skrillex and Diplo in preparation for a 2015 solo launch. But they kept their edgy signature style alive in “Come Back Home”, with a return to the reggae-tinged deep electronica of previous hits like “I Love You” and “Falling in Love”. They do this sound better than anyone else, managing the surging tempo changes with ease and retaining their fierceness despite the song’s relative calm. Meanwhile, their Matrix-esque video was a thrill-ride, with one complex set-piece after the other. The CGI spectacle might have been overwhelming on a lesser group – but 2NE1 don their designer threads, grab a molotov cocktail and show everyone exactly how it’s done.

For boyband Infinite, it’s a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. A-list producer Sweetune (responsible for their monster singles like “The Chaser”) returns here, so strap in. “Last Romeo” opens with an eruption of snare drums, trumpets and synths, and maintains this dazzling speed throughout. Infinite are masters of finding vocal harmony amid epic productions, and here they subtly convey the lyrics’ melancholy tale of an elusive true love, a sentiment echoed in the wistful Victorian-era video. Protagonist Woohyun pursues his Juliet until his frustration detonates a library full of books in a scene-stealing snowstorm of white paper. It’s not easy to balance an engaging story line with Infinite’s must-see performance choreography – yet where their previous videos have suffered from uneven screen time or baffling plots, “Last Romeo” skims close to perfection. 

B.A.P’s sound seems continually in flux, and this year landed on a fusion of rock guitars, forlorn bass and piano that moved like a dowsing pendulum. It gave the boyband what they’d not yet achieved, in wins on Korea’s influential music shows. “Angel” is a tough song utterly reliant on the power of its artists’ voices, and with this B.A.P triumph. Colour is added though an anguished, rearing chorus and a sharpened edge honed by the band’s rappers. Symbolic trinkets are lost and found in the lovelorn video, spearheaded by a moving performance from Himchan. Whatever the outcome of B.A.P’s recent lawsuit against their label, their achievements in experimentation will forever be evident, from their debut “Warrior” to the deserving success of “1004 (Angel)”.

Six-piece VIXX found success and notoriety here, with a horror-influenced concept that still held on to the sound of their dance-pop beginnings. Yet the cute, romance-themed scenes and killer choreography of “Eternity” are a decoy for something huge. As with earlier track “Voodoo Doll”, VIXX are all about the build here: “Eternity” stacks up in skyscraper fashion, relentlessly shoving another synth line here and another wave of effects there, while being swept further upwards by a choir-like chorus. As Leo and Ken hit their power notes in the final moments as a million bucks’ worth of fireworks rain down from above, you know this is their monolithic K-pop moment.

Having recently celebrated their fifth anniversary, Beast have nothing left to prove – they’ve had critical and chart success, and enjoyed accolades with their individual projects. But did they still have that inner fire? The answer was a resounding yes – “Good Luck” is a killer song. It’s wonderfully cohesive, with speaker-quivering bass, a swath of strings, siren squibs and the higher registers of Yoseob and Hyunseung giving way to an elegant and sublimely catchy chorus. A simple yet effective dance-focused video was all the track needed (with a Last Supper scene thrown in for good measure) to demonstrate that the six-piece are nothing short of a world-class act.

The comical, twisted and wonderful “Catallena” was a tune that welded itself to your brain. Building on After School sub-unit Orange Caramel’s knack for both a brilliant hook (2012’s “Lipstick”) and infusing their hyper-pop with a gleeful silliness (the J-pop vibes of debut single “Magic Girl”), its hi-NRG sparkle led it to be crowned the queen of the disco in a year where 80s synths and 70s shimmies ruled K-pop. 

Yet as it brimmed with confidence, the song represented Orange Caramel turning a corner. Once seen as more of a novelty side-project, their sound came home to roost – ironically, in a song which sampled lyrics of Punjabi folk song “Jutti Meri Jandiye” and music straight out of a sweaty East Village dancefloor in ’79. With seamless use of both, it forms something like a K-pop superstrain. But the cleverest trick of all is the insane video, in which the trio of Nana, Lizzy and Raina wriggle in mermaid suits under clingfilm. Against pastel-coloured backdrops, they become pieces of sushi, curling up on foam structures fashioned as rice blocks, wearing playsuits the colour of their designated fish. They dance on cutting boards and frolick in soy sauce. The plot makes little sense – the trio desire the “gorgeous” Catallena, here played by not-so-gorgeous funnyman Kim Dae-sung dressed as an octopus – but that’s not the point. Not once did it ever seem ridiculous; rather, it shone like a beacon of intelligence, creativity, humour and empathy in a tumultuous year.