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BLACKPINK ‘Playing With Fire’ video

The 20 best K-Pop tracks of the year

With groups like 2NE1 and Rainbow disbanding and a new generation of artists coming into their own, we look back at another busy year for South Korean music

As the year comes to a close, there’ll be plenty of shellshocked K-Pop fans, wondering how the hell it got to be such a bumpy ride. Those who follow the artists in the YG Entertainment stable suffered a triple whammy of disappointment: Minzy leaving K-Pop’s fiercest girl group 2NE1, Nam Taehyun quitting the diverse-sounding boy group WINNER, followed by 2NE1 disbanding completely. They weren’t the only casualties of 2016, with long-established female groups Rainbow, KARA and 4Minute also throwing in the towel and the reality-TV-built girl group I.O.I dismantled after the decent “Very Very Very”.

The newer generation groups, however, excelled – particularly JYP Entertainment’s nine-member girl group TWICE, whose “Cheer Up” sold by the bucketload, overcoming a controversial start to the year when Taiwanese member Tzuyu was filmed holding a Republic of China flag during a TV broadcast, angering people from both countries, between whom relations are fraught. Away from the political side of K-Pop, boy group Seventeen kept their momentum growing with the sassy earworm “BOOMBOOM”; male rookies ASTRO, KNK, Pentagon, and SF9 all offered up excellent reasons to keep an eye on them; and BLACKPINK, hands down, stole the show for the girls.

Naturally, you couldn’t move without bumping into a trap beat (a trend unlikely to wane in 2017), and if you didn’t have a table in your music video with all the members sat at it, then you just weren’t playing for keeps. Finally, let the Korean R&B star Crush lighten the mood of competition for the #1 slot with a gif that’ll keep on giving until the new year.

This list is for idol releases, limited to one song per group (or artist), and taking into consideration the whole package, both song and MV (music video). Fire up your lightsticks and dive in.

20. RAINBOW – “WHOO”

K-Pop has a seven-year and five-year curse, where groups tend to disband upon reaching either milestone – and this year, Rainbow were claimed by the former. Their final song, “Whoo”, is by no means an afterthought, overflowing with the feel-good harmonies and retro sass of a band like The Go Go’s. The MV, meanwhile, befits their senior idol status, demonstrating their ease with a camera. And lest we forget, they leave behind glittery, landmark singles, including “A”, “To Me”, and one of K-Pop’s greatest, “Mach”. Ladies, you'll be missed.

19. TWICE – “CHEER UP”

The pervasiveness of this mega-selling track, the fluff of a cosplay MV and its “shy shy shy” refrain, shouldn't be underestimated. With over 104 million YouTube views and any idol worth their variety show salt doing their best imitation, if the dead had risen in 2016, they’d probably be required to bust out the “Cheer Up” dance. Despite its catchiness, the chorus is more a saccharine steamroller than standout, but its fluctuating verses are far more clever and emote the perfect amount of tease and frustration about a love interest.

18. BLOCK B – “TOY”

Most Block B singles deliver a stylish, over-the-top MV and huge choruses, but the surprising low-key vibe of “Toy” brought out a side rarely seen by the casual onlooker. The vocalists’ light touch housed melancholia, counterbalanced by the rappers’ slightly aggressive flow – a pattern also found in the instrumental, with tinkles of piano above slow, chunky bass and EDM flourishes. Although “Toy” wasn’t a ballad, it was dangerously effective at triggering the waterworks.

17. LADIES CODE – “THE RAIN”

Making a return after the car accident that claimed the lives of two members in 2014, Ladies Code took a more mature direction with jazz piano, ballad strings, and synths. On “The Rain”, they’re spliced into smooth, measured verses that impart a weary knowingness before transitioning into an unexpectedly upbeat chorus. The little electronic ticks, fade and blips do a marvellously subtle job of elevating this song, and the MV – with its contrasting neon and natural palettes – is just as artfully considered.

16. INFINITE – “THE EYE”

“The Eye” pulls on visuals circa “BTD”, the EDM of “Bad”, and song structures from “Back”, but ultimately feels transitional. Infinite’s move towards heavy electronica on their lead singles has been glacial (and understandable, given how deep-rooted their signature sound has become), but beneath the piano and strings, their producer BEE pushes this ongoing shift with whirring, robotic breakdowns. Oddly for Infinite, “The Eye” requires repeated listens, but there’s plenty to intrigue you here, if you’re willing to find it.

15. B1A4 – “A LIE”

With B1A4 leader Jinyoung helming the production, “A Lie” sets a curveball trajectory with a non-ballad 147bpm tempo before slowing down for a soaring, lush chorus, where strings layer onto the dance beats with brilliant cohesiveness. “A Lie” never stops shifting and building – each segment (even Baro’s rapped second verse) works cleanly to set the song up for its rousing key change, an emotional rollercoaster that skilfully avoids boring clichés.

14. BLACKPINK – “PLAYING WITH FIRE”

Debuting earlier this year, BLACKPINK were widely debated to be a tribute act for labelmates 2NE1 – but by stripping the track to basics, “PWF” was a step towards their own identity. One ultra-simple hook and the vocals carried the entire track, something that couldn’t have worked without those four incredibly distinctive tones. Should their label continue to play to their unique abilities, rather than shoehorn them into a now defunct mold, BLACKPINK could easily unseat the new generation girl group hierarchy.

13. NCT U – “THE 7TH SENSE”

“The 7th Sense” found the bulk of its influences in PARTYNEXTDOOR and Bryson Tiller, putting it in the awkward position of being overly familiar to Westerners but less palatable to its native audience. Sparse and dreamlike, the track grows on repeated listens with thick, syrupy beats that let insouciant vocals create all the melodies. Add in graceful choreography and boldly-lit backdrops that give the MV an unworldly look and NCT U become one of 2016’s more interesting experiments, refusing to cater to expectations.

12. GFRIEND – “ROUGH”

Though making global headlines in 2015 for a performance containing nine falls during one song, Gfriend have well and truly moved out of viral territory to become one of K-Pop’s super rookies. “Rough” completed their schoolgirl trilogy (alongside “Glass Bead” and “Me Gustas Tu”) and it looks cute, but it’s certainly the toughest of the three songs: the rock guitar riffs seen on “Me Gustas Tu” get bigger and the strings get more lavish – it’s exactly how an epic finale should be.

11. MONSTA X – “ALL IN”

Having relegated MONSTA X’s “Stuck” and “Hero” (their best songs so far) to dance performances, their label, Starship, went to the other extreme for “All In” with an ambitious, provocative video. Dramatic parallel storylines intersect as the group get off their faces on hallucinogens, but the video almost backseats the song to a soundtrack. The track is far better than the MV gives it the chance to be, particularly the crooning chorus, and it is possible to experience audio and visual as a single entity – but, damn, they made you work hard for it.

10. BIG BANG - “에라 모르겠다(FXXK IT)”

Rather than drop one of their flamboyant productions (see “Bang Bang Bang” or “Fantastic Baby”), “Fxxk It” sees Big Bang progress more from 2015’s easy-going “We Like To Party”. It creates a prime canvas for vocalists Seungri and Daesung, and soundscapes similar to those on Flume’s “Sleepless”, with warped vocals and woozy, ebbing keyboards. Being the supergroup they are, their visuals are as always on point, saturated in neon, dripping in designer threads, and more interested in their charming dynamic than fancy footwork. But what you notice and hear after repeated plays, despite the crowd-surfing and boyish fun, is an undeniable maturity. Everything here flows, no one element is too heavy-handed, and as a final single for some time due to military service, it’s a definite high to go out on.  

09. LUNA – “FREE SOMEBODY”

When the always experimenting girl group f(x) released their 4 Walls LP, the influence of UK house artists like Gorgon City and Blonde was undeniable – and Luna, with her first solo endeavour away from f(x), continues this. Her performance is punchy and confident, while the instrumental places its builds and drops so perfectly it flows towards the end faster than you’d like. Even the MV (a feast of 80s-style soft focus and 60s-style acid-drenched animation) provides a seamless link to the lyrics’ call to open up and release your dreams. Should this be Luna’s only crack at music outside of f(x), it would be a travesty, but the shine of “Free Somebody” and the near flawless EP of the same name is unlikely to dull any time soon.

08. VIXX – “FANTASY”

‘Audacious’ is probably the word that first springs to mind for “Fantasy”: the MV (the second part of their Greek Gods trilogy) needed a step-by-step explanation, and the opening strains of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata segued into foreboding trap and a chorus of darting strings and taut hysteria. It’s not easy to work with a concept as high camp as ancient mythology, nor make such an intimidating onslaught of sound work across an entire song, but throughout “Fantasy” there’s enough restraint exercised to achieve greatness. That’s not just on the part of those behind the scenes but VIXX themselves, who’ve delivered their best work in this strain of gothic by clearly understanding its boundaries – and this makes “Fantasy” startlingly memorable.

07. OH MY GIRL – “LIAR LIAR”

The saturated pastel wonderland is now a staple MV  aesthetic, but on “Liar Liar”, Oh My Girl enjoyably backstab, gossip, and plot – with their aegyo (cute gestures) cranked up to eye-watering levels – in order to keep their crush on B1A4’s Gongchan a secret. It's masterfully edited and skilfully connected to the song, but “Liar Liar” alone is an upbeat, falsetto powerhouse with a chanted hook that sticks like glue. Many will undoubtedly find “Liar Liar” a little too cute, a little too high pitched, a little too much of everything – but that’s entirely the point, as if the dare was to constantly push it just one more step, knowing that pop is at its best when it wilfully polarises people.

06. RED VELVET – “RUSSIAN ROULETTE”

Red Velvet had a phenomenal 2015 and the visual bar set by “Dumb Dumb” was daunting, but as queens of the wildly creative music video, “Russian Roulette” is devilishly satisfying. The colours might be bright but the five-piece, suitably po-faced, spend its entirety concocting ways to kill each other. Unlike previous releases, whose choruses leap from the verse, “Russian Roulette” sneaks in with robotic stuttering, doing a lot to break up the sweet but tonally deliberately narrow vocals. Early fans may find the mechanical feel of “Russian Roulette” to be a side-step, but with a memorable chorus and crazily joyous synth breakdown, it stands proud.

05. SHINEE – “TELL ME WHAT DO DO”

“Tell Me What To Do” is proof that K-Pop producers (here, SM’s prolific Yoo Young-jin) and artists wield serious ju-ju. What could essentially be a Kygo track is transformed into an tender dance-ballad where quietly desperate verses switch into intense pre-choruses (split between Taemin, Onew, and Jonghyun) that create plenty of light and shade. While the general consensus on K-Pop’s many blogs and forums was that Minho’s rap should’ve been excised, its naturalistic spoken word presence actually fit no less than Key’s rhythmic one as a welcome punch through the instrumental loops. If anything, the MV’s narrative – a love triangle between Minho, Taemin, and a girl that ignores the lyrical slant – is the misplaced element, but this random arc is forgivable when it’s so beautifully shot around a killer song.

04. WONDER GIRLS – “WHY SO LONELY”

In 2015, the Wonder Girls reappeared after a three-year hiatus with the 80s pastiche “I Feel You”. Although now touted as a band, none played any of the instruments on the record, and although that matters little in the scheme of things, overall it pointed more to a cautious experiment – and one that succeeded. Over the past 12 months, Wonder Girls (or their label) clearly became more confident with their band status because they co-wrote and played on reggae-influenced track “Why So Lonely”, and its slinky verses and push of guitars prove a hypnotic combination. The deliberate Robert Palmer-era erotica is out, dissatisfied badass is in, and there’s little that can top the glorious cool of Yubin rapping while drumming, glowing with gold tattoos.

03. WINNER – “BABY BABY”

Late this year, Nam Taehyun – after taking time off for his mental health – quit WINNER in a shock move. But he leaves behind the arresting, bluesy, and at times sardonic “Baby Baby”, whose Motown influences put it beautifully out of sync with K-Pop's trends. WINNER traversed the lonely pitfalls of fame, mirrored in dark strokes for the MV by vacuous parties, meaningless sex, and empty penthouses. But its most poignant (and now eerily prophetic) moment is that as the harmonies lift, fireworks explode – and while Jinwoo, Mino, Seunghoon, and Seungyoon are roused from their numbness, Taehyun calmly floors his car and flees his idol trappings.

02. EXO – “MONSTER”

Last year’s funk-driven singles expanded EXO's horizons, but “Monster”s purpose is less to diversify and more reiterate that they’re one of K-Pop’s biggest groups. Its lighter, twin single “Lucky One” provides visual fodder for the group’s origins story, but “Monster” (which can claim the year’s best outro in Chen’s falsetto) simply throws on the blood and bruises and plunges into sexual angst with a doomy bassline, clattering percussion, and an aggressively dark chorus. The clipped vocals hark to 2014’s “Overdose”, while working with “Call Me Baby”s choreographers sees familiar formations  – but it makes no apologies for raiding EXO’s existing arsenal, and has no need to. Such elements have endeared them to a colossal fanbase, and “Monster” is a monumentally brash platform from which to shout about it.

01. BTS – “BLOOD SWEAT & TEARS”

Since their 2013 debut, seven-piece BTS have been cranking out close-to-the-bone lyrics and impressively melding hip hop, pop, electronica, and rock. Though perfectly able to drop massive performance videos like “Fire” or “Dope”, concept is king with BTS. While theirs has always been grounded in the painful fundamentals of growing up, it’s graduated from the more obvious to a delicate, beautiful labyrinth of clues and concealed meanings in their MVs. For “Blood Sweat & Tears”, which captures a passionate, destructive relationship, they and their regular directorial collective LUMPENS turn to Hermann Hesse’s novel “Demian” as the complex visual inspiration for the temptation they face. The result is, once more, a rich world to be decoded, where members are hemmed by sumptuous rooms and dream-states, matched to a sensual choreography that has their hands constantly blind, seek, and reveal desire and truth.

It truncates the bridge for extended storytelling, but “Blood Sweat & Tears” easily refills the hushed void with cascading chimes, spacey chill-house beats and airy synths that lope alongside tropical house and moombahton rhythms. Emotions run high – the ache in Jimin and Jungkook’s falsetto hooks, the lost fight within Suga’s rap, and a demanding neediness on J-Hope’s chorus – but having continually worked with the same songwriters, including the seemingly indefatigable composer Pdogg, and contributed substantially to all their tracks, BTS are able to marry the lyrics’ intimate, bloodied brokenness to an opposing state of leviathan pop with such effortlessness that it dominates all that stands before it.