This year belonged to Korea, from CL’s hip hop heavy comeback to SHINee’s bonkers horror show and Red Velvet’s fearless new universe
As you may already know, the world of K-Pop in 2015 was huge. Laden with expensive comebacks and debuts, lawsuits, expectations, hype and triumphs, our favourite artists dominated with full schedules, and K-Pop’s game-changing big leagues – 2NE1’s CL, BTS and Big Bang – continued to gain traction in America.
Free from the rotten lows that peppered 2014, this year saw a sonic shift, with K-Pop’s skilful dance with Western sounds moving forever forward. The impact of Mark Ronson's chart-topping anthem “Uptown Funk” meant that fingerpicked guitar lines abounded (or at least its synthesised equivalent), as did an avalanche of trap beats, EDM bass and saxophone, felt most prominently in Monsta X's “Hero”, 4Minute's “Crazy”, UNIQ's “EOEO”, and BTS' “Dope”.
Now that we’ve approached the end, it’s time to gather our twenty most-rated idol offerings, and there are two simple rules: one track per artist, and a music video to match. So have a tissue, and I’ll see you on the other side!
20. EXID – “AH YEAH”
Your introduction to five-member girl group EXID probably came with 2014's viral ‘fancam’ footage, which elevated the group from relative obscurity to chart-topping sensation. This was quickly followed up with the playfully suggestive video for “Up&Down”, which added fuel to tired criticism levelled at them for being a “sexy group”. But rather than back down, their follow-up “Ah Yeah” went hard, offering up a vocal tennis match attacking male privilege over shaking bass, with a music video that mocked the double standard of censorship. K-Pop's had many fierce girl groups but few have turned fighting back into commercial success.
19. SISTAR – “SHAKE IT”
Depending on who you asked, Sistar’s “Shake It” was either summer’s best anthem, or evidence of the band’s ongoing decline in quality. And of course, you could argue that it fulfilled a little bit of both. Perhaps it lacked substance against Sistar’s earliest singles, but taken outside of their canon, it was a giant, feel-good disco ball of a song with a music vid only K-Pop could birth – a camp, grandiose colour chart of schtick to be gorged on. Divisive as “Shake It” is, we’re on the side that loves it!
18. iKON – “RHYTHM TA”
The frenzied hype surrounding iKon's debut wobbled with its confusingly placid warm-up single “My Type”, but that was quickly forgotten about after the hulking hip hop-centric “Rhythm Ta”, its Middle Eastern and European melodies wound tight around crater-making bass. On first listen, the party tune might sound like a platform for iKon's high-profile members, rappers B.I and Bobby. However, on closer inspection, it also divulged vocal treasures, particularly from Koo Junhoe, elevating iKon to a fully utilised seven-member group, and not just two gobby rappers with backing singers.
17. BESTIE – “EXCUSE ME”
It's not often you see a John Carpenter film being the primary reference for K-Pop, but in this video, Bestie took the truth-revealing sunglasses from Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi satire They Live and discovered that guys are, essentially, sex-crazed goons. In an added twist, the glasses later show the boys making out, subverting Korea’s often-conservative attitude to sexuality. It’s not all about the stylised video, though. “Excuse Me” is a killer track, loaded with vocal power-ups and packing some serious pop punches.
16. JANG HYUN-SEUNG – “MA FIRST (FT. GIRIBOY)”
Beast's 2015 singles were a little flimsy, but their elfin prince, Jan Hyun-seung, delivered with his solo material. With killer production from Black Eyed Pilsung, “Ma First” has staying power; the track itself packed with jerky synth lines, while rapper Giriboy rounds out Jang's sharp edges. A cheeky music video made light of Hyun-seung's reputation as a provocative performer, but the choreography stole the show, anchoring the lyrics with two impressively unhinged routines. Hugely rewarding, you wonder why record label Cube Entertainment took so long to let him out on his own.
15. TAEYEON – “I (FT. VERBAL JINT)”
Being leader of one of K-Pop's biggest girl groups Girls’ Generation might have helped, but Korean and world charts fell to their knees for Taeyeon’s pop-soaked ballad. Feeling like a sonic meeting point between Beyonce's “Halo” and Taylor Swift's “Wildest Dreams”, Taeyeon's ability to use her impressive vocal range without histrionics took her debut solo into K-Pop’s upper echelons. Wistful yet powerful, "I" seemed to strike a chord far beyond the band’s gigantic fan base.
14. BASTARZ – “품행제로 (ZERO FOR CONDUCT)”
Unapologetically brash and dripping in bass, this track from Block B’s subunit group Bastarz is like a colour-soaked, synthetic version of The Prodigy’s “Voodoo People”, with rapper Zico (who wrote the track) lending his distinctive, heavy-hitting lyrical style. Members P.O, B-Bomb and U-Kwon hold their own and shine brightly in this hypnotic, neon-sheened music video. On a side note, extra points for that furry hat, those floral trousers and all that skin-tight leather.
13. B.A.P – “YOUNG, WILD & FREE”
For nearly two long years, B.A.P seemed to vanish amidst a legal battle with their label TS Entertainment, but fortunately they came back fighting with “Young, Wild & Free”, a comeback track crammed with rock-pop stadium-shaking choruses and lyrics packed with proclamations of freedom, solidarity and strength. Meanwhile, the music video was all about beautifully dark metaphors symbolising their career, while the effervescent Holi powder, spray cans and supercar sequences captured the captured the B.A.P spirit, so tight-knit as to be unbreakable.
12. CL – “HELLO BITCHES”
The upcoming American solo debut of 2NE1’s CL continues to be drawn out like the world's longest striptease, but “Hello Bitches”, a dual Korean/English freebie before the real deal, is a huge step in the right direction. Like earlier CL/2NE1 track “MTBD” it booms with YG Entertainment's signature Middle Eastern sounds and off-the-scale bass, with CL's commanding presence leading the onslaught of choreographer Parris Goebel's fearsome ReQuest dance crew. It's an aggressive, effective show of strength that no other female K-Pop star could do quite like Chaerin Lee does.
11. 9MUSES – “HURT LOCKER”
While critics complained that 9Muses' “Hurt Locker” music video was essentially a Skittles-coloured version of Tinashe's “All Hands On Deck”, the real scandal was how under-appreciated this summer banger was. Pounding not only the dance floor but the heartstrings, “Hurt Locker” was layered masterfully, with vibrating blasts of synth darting through a thick later of Euro-pop bass, allowing the vocals to be the track’s memorable, soaring centrepiece.
10. VIXX LR – “BEAUTIFUL LIAR”
The subunit between VIXX's enigmatic vocalist Leo, and rapper Ravi didn't please everyone, but “Beautiful Liar” surprised many. Raw and impassioned, the duo's chemistry ignited on record and screen to deliver a pop masterpiece in just under four minutes, with Ravi’s flow building up to create an angst-filled tension, while Leo’s sweet, higher register became the track’s broken heart. Needless to say, this unexpected partnership exceeded all expectations.
9. INFINITE – “BAD”
With its tight, stabbing strings and ridiculously catchy, distortion-filled chorus, Infinite’s “Bad” mixed up the group’s long-standing pop style with a taut EDM banger. The accompanying music video marked their most sinister and claustrophobic since 2011’s “Paradise”, overflowing with demonic forces and rooms acting as psychological prisons. The gamble paid off, and “Bad” feels familiar yet not, like a subtle reconfiguration of Infinite's instantly recognisable sound; acting as a perfect refresher for their five-year career.
8. BIG BANG – “BAE BAE”
Big Bang’s “Bae Bae” offered a playful wander through young love in contrast to their signature airtight construction, with rappers G-Dragon and T.O.P delivering a bouncing, energetic flow while Taeyang, Daesung and Seungri’s vocals smoothed out its brashest moments. And that’s without mentioning its sparkling, techni-colour music video, a tongue-in-cheek fantasy of cherry blossoms, flowers tunnels and free-falling through the star-studded cosmos.
7. SEVENTEEN – “ADORE U”
Seventeen (who have thirteen members, just to complicate things) debuted with the self-written “Adore U” a playful, pure candy floss track that fell through a sieve of 90s TV themes and old school K-Pop, and fell out the other side armed with an uber-catchy chorus that wouldn’t quit. It also had a winking, retrograde music video to match, full of choreographed dance routines, Miami-style pastel colours, throwback graphics and dancing in the clouds.
6. SHINEE – “MARRIED TO THE MUSIC”
Side-stepping the creepy, fanfic-style music video of previous single “View”, SHINee’s “Married to the Music” played out like a musical skip through Michael Jackson’s glittering Off The Wall and was packed tightly with catchy horn lines, disco-style falsetto and fist-pumping choruses. The music video displayed a delicious black humour as each band member loses a different body part during a hokey horror-show house party, unravelling amidst the triumphant, ecstatic, disco-funk sound of the track.
5. BTS – “I NEED U”
Three music videos accompanied BTS’s “I Need U”, such was the scale of its ambition – an ambition which definitely paid off in the shape of a complex rites-of-passage story speared with anger, grief and regret. Shot in soft focus, and flitting through bad and good times, the videos felt like a look back at how far BTS had come since their hip hop riot of a debut, the track itself a layered, bass-heavy, angst-stuffed masterpiece.
4. F(X) – “4 WALLS”
Now officially a four-piece, f(x)’s “4 Walls” felt like a freshly invigorated leap forward in a career already peppered with experimentations. Essentially a love song, the track’s lyrical content danced around barely-concealed secrets and double entendre’s, matched by a dreamily surreal video. It also gave space to the ethereal vocals of Luna, Krystal and Victoria, while rapper Amber became the essential grounding force of the track. With its warped, poppy nods to deep house, “4 Walls” pushed a little harder on K-Pop’s borders, creating a door to what could be its next sound evolution.
3. EXO – “LOVE ME RIGHT”
The lead tracks from EXO’s best-selling second album Exodus divided opinion by moving away from the chunky EDM that had played an intrinsic part of previous material. In comparison, “Love Me Right” utilised a welcome shower of banging brass, electro-guitar, perfectly executed harmonies and silky-smooth R&B melodies, with a colour-splashed thrill-ride of a music video to match – the empty locker room in the final scene perhaps symbolising that they’ve finally outgrown their little box.
2. GOT7 – “딱 좋아 (JUST RIGHT)”
True to form, GOT7’s “Just Right” was full of the band’s unstoppable charm, unleashing a shower of feather-light production, sleepy rap verses and an angelic earworm of a chorus that will take you weeks to shake off. That one of its brightly-coloured sneakers almost crept into saccharine overkill was all part of the fun. Part alien-like nursery rhyme, part sticky pop track, “Just Right” lived up to its name, and proved to be far smarter and more self-aware than it would have you believe at first glance.
1. RED VELVET – “DUMB DUMB”
Five-member girl group Red Velvet made their debut last year with “Happiness”, a track that took cues from K-Pop peers f(x). But a year later, after revamping themselves into the sassy Red Velvet we see here, they surpassed their idol competitors with a flick of a plaited pigtail. With its complex concoction of handclaps, looped saxophone and a clattering cowbell, and with each sound pinned together with airtight harmonies, “Dumb Dumb” marked a monumental, career-crowning musical tornado.
The music video was pretty spectacular too. Showcasing K-Pop’s on going love affair with French fashion photo genius Guy Bourdin via startling primary palettes, off-the-wall graphics and a winking re-enactment of Bourdin’s “Suitcase Full of Legs”, the video felt like a shower of artistic reference points that had been sliced, diced and sewn back together to create something unique. With their sparkling debut album The Red in tow, “Dumb Dumb” quickly evolved into this year’s K-Pop benchmark, leaving everyone else reaching.