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NCT U - Taeyong and Ten
NCT U’s Taeyong and Ten

The 20 best K-pop songs of 2018

This year, the genre left its biggest ever mark on the west – here, we take a look back at some of tracks that helped make that happen

K-pop fandoms are no strangers to competition. In a world of likes, views, retweets, and comments, the numbers game has become a bloodsport – a trawl through stan Twitter will reveal a daily avalanche of posts demanding you watch, buy, or stream a song, and graphs tracking chart positions and streaming numbers.

On one hand, it’s exhausting. Incessant squabbling over matters like deleted YouTube views (the platform continually removes bogus viewing numbers, but many stans believe that YouTube secretly has a vendetta against their faves and is hell-bent on sabotaging them) sucks the fun from participating in fandom life. On the other, this laser focus on data is helping break K-pop in the west, giving the previously-skeptical little room to argue its increasing impact, and convincing the media and industry to take it seriously.

BTS’s ‘ARMY’ are, of course, the grandmasters of this numbers-based fandom, but this year, the ‘BLINKS’ made BLACKPINK the first girl group, and fastest K-pop group, to reach 550 million views (with “DDU-DU DDU-DU”). It must have spun dollar signs in the eyes of executives at Interscope/UMG, who inked a joint deal in October with BLACKPINK’s label YG Entertainment to represent the group outside Asia.

BTS kicking down America’s door remains the peak of K-pop’s globalisation, but the trickle-down effect has been noticeable, too. This year, we’ve seen a renewed focus on the west, with artists including NCT, Girls’ Generation’s HYO, and MONSTA X all releasing English versions of their songs. It’s also become more common to see artists plan world tours – and not just the biggest idol groups, but also hip hop, R&B, and rock acts too.

As these acts drew fresh, curious eyes, 2018 also saw an uptick in music quality. Over the past few years, K-pop’s trend-chasing had gotten out of control, resulting in a somewhat identikit musical landscape, and while tropical house, trap, and Latin sounds are still popular, producers are consciously refining and redefining those sounds. Elsewhere, a clutch of debuting groups swung the bat hard, and there were a number of solid solo releases (like CHUNGHA, Holland and Kim Dong Han) and big songs from the likes of LOONA and Twice that must be mentioned.

Our annual rundown of the year’s best K-pop songs is limited to one track per artist or group, and – given the genre’s focus on unified music and visuals – takes into consideration both the song and its MV (music video). Here’s our dive into the year in K-pop.

20. iKON, “KILLING ME”

In January, nearly three years into their career, iKON had their first ever mega hit with “Love Scenario”, which eschewed their blustery hip hop for chill piano and brass, and a sing-song simplicity. Its follow-up wouldn’t scale the same heights, but is perhaps their most interesting lead track to date. “Killing Me” builds its bitter verses carefully, but the chorus – an eerie drop with a warped, wordless vocal – never explodes like you’d expect it to. Instead, it preens and twists at the spotlight’s edge before skittering back into the darkness. While this might provoke frustration, the song’s enigmatic quirkiness gives it an enviable durability.

19. DREAMCATCHER, “WHAT”

Dreamcatcher’s mesh of pop and metal have made them an unique proposition in K-pop. In May, they released “You and I”, a song less aggressive for them than usual, but returned to flamboyant form in September with “What”. Siyeon and Sua belting through an intensely satisfying chorus is a treat, but the song’s secret weapon is its strings, which begin as quivering lines on the pre-chorus, flourish on the chanted refrain, and swoop underneath Dami’s rap. The group’s sound isn’t for everyone, but the seven-piece already have a back catalogue that’s both impressive and more diverse than you might imagine – and “What” is another excellent addition.

18. PENTAGON, “SHINE”

Pentagon made headlines in August when their rapper E’Dawn and superstar labelmate, HyunA, revealed they’d been dating for two years, a controversy that eventually led to them leaving their label, Cube. The timing was unfortunate – in April, Pentagon had finally struck gold with sleeper hit “Shine”, a song that, like iKON’s “Love Scenario”, had a piano-led, sing-song catchiness but with a slightly pacier, magnificently earworming chorus. When teamed in the video with the ‘shoot dance’ (a viral dance move), “Shine” becomes even more memorable, a high watermark of cultural stickiness that refuses to be overshadowed by the scandal that followed it.

17. GUGUDAN, “NOT THAT TYPE”

When K-pop goes anthemic, it’s often irresistible. Gugudan’s “Not That Type” flips its hair and hooks you in with ease. The lyrics – “I just do what I want, I’m different from them, I can’t be submissive or gentle” – are delightfully pushy, and as the brass starts honking on the song’s pre-choruses, “Not That Type” lifts off, firing up into a simple but hugely effective chanted chorus. The MV’s choreography scenes have a real DGAF attitude, and Gugudan’s ebullient falsetto whoops really get the blood really pumping.

16. MOMOLAND, “BBOOM BBOOM”

Love it or loathe it, MOMOLAND’s “BBoom BBoom” was undeniably (and unexpectedly) one of 2018’s biggest hits. The song, which racked up some 100 million+ streams and over 285 million YouTube views over the year, brought a sense of fun and absurdity back to K-pop, which, in recent years, has lost a willingness to throw its hands up and say, “Fuck it, I’m going to make a bonkers electro-swing song whose chorus you’ll need surgically removed from your brain, jam in a completely incongruous rap over trap beats, and film an MV based on home shopping channels with an odd bit of sexy dancing at the end.” And that’s a shame, because it’s exactly the head-spinning pop experience we need on a regular basis.

15. APRIL, “OH! MY MISTAKE”

“Oh! My Mistake” is an insouciant mash of eras. Musically, it leans into pastelly 80s pop, only for its MV to then riff on the 90s with its Clueless references. But this all feels emblematic of the song’s refusal to stay in one lane. Take the rap verse, for example, which April use like a hidden step, its rise and fall cadence tripping the listener out of the warm glow of nostalgia. It’s an intriguing sound, even by 2018 standards. The pre-chorus is adorned with clattering handclap effects and springy synths adorn the chorus, and behind the often feathery vocals lies a synthwave sound that borders on creepy. For something that superficially seems like cute, throwaway fluff, “Oh! My Mistake” offers up more the longer you spend with it.

14. MAMAMOO, “EGOTISTIC”

Mamamoo have always exuded a mature, sensual confidence, and it works to their advantage on “Egotistic”, with lyrics strike that the right tone of knowing weariness. The group establish a disenchanted mood with acoustic Latin guitar on the song’s early verses, but they’re more a set-up for the powerhouse chorus, on which Mamamoo’s critically celebrated and unwavering vocals go from prowling into attack mode. Some unexpected additions to the song, such as an infusion of reggae beneath Moonbyul’s rap, and a snippet of Bollywood-esque beats on the bridge, would be enough to make “Egotistic” an interesting piece of music in the first place, but its real success is down to the four members, who take a decent song and spin it into gold.

13. IMFACT, “NANANA”

When IMFACT first started out, they were never able to settle on a clear identity, spending two years cycling through styles without really succeeding at any of them. All of which made “NANANA” that little bit more surprising – the track is stamped with the hallmarks of a club banger (its hooky title refrain jumps into a deep house chorus, with cranking EDM beats beneath the verses and bridge), but the twist is the contrasting vocals, which bring a real alchemy to the verses and wrap around the chorus. It turns “NANANA” into a much more intimate listen, a dance-like-nobody’s-watching moment, and a finely crafted song that should have seen far more success.

12. FROMIS_9, “LOVE BOMB”

Nine-member rookie group fromis_9 have taken their cute concept from school uniforms and love letters to kittens and giddy crushes, and from its stuttering electronica sound to its perkily traded opening lines, “Love Bomb” initially seems just as sugary – but there’s just enough edge in both the song and its MV to make it very palatable. While its chorus is reminiscent of 80s power pop, the relentless jitter of hi-hats and buzzsaw bass pushes it into the present, and the emotion-stirring ad-libs and light-handed production shift the song from light to dark and back without losing pace.

11. GIRLS’ GENERATION/OH!GG, “LIL’ TOUCH”

Oh!GG are technically a sub-unit of Girls’ Generation, but its members are really those who didn’t take leave from the original group in 2017. That aside, it’s one hell of a way to make a return – even before the first beat, you’re hooked by its moreish chorus and flamenco-esque energy. “Lil’ Touch” exudes a confidence and richness so intense it makes some of its contemporaries sound anaemic; it doesn’t attempt anything outlandish, but the quality of what it does do means it has no need to be anything other than a delicious slice of straight-up pop.

10. STRAY KIDS, “DISTRICT 9”

Stray Kids only officially debuted in March, but they’ve made a remarkable impression, not least because three members (Bang Chan, Changbin, and Jisung) have co-written their four EPs, a level of responsibility that’s rarely afforded to such a young group. Their first title single, “District 9”, is a hoarse call to lost young souls – the lyrical draw of a Neverland haven meets visual sci-fi dystopia – as sirens and muscular beats segue into a fantastically riff-aggressive chorus. Musically, it harks back to B.A.P’s 2012 singles “Power” and “Warrior”, but Stray Kids certainly possess their own strengths; they ride the intimidatingly heavy instrumental like big wave surfers, adding flairs and power moves, which results in “District 9” packing giant punches and apologising for none of them.

09. APINK, “I’M SO SICK”

“I’m So Sick” wrestles between staying away from, and running back to, an ex. Its sound draws on trop-house, but there’s a less obvious disco influence too, which leaves its glittery imprint on the chorus. It’s a song that dances through the pain, ferried along by subtle double time hi-hats and melancholic lyrics, delivered with an upbeat energy over throbbing bass. It’s a far more mature direction for Apink, whose earlier sound could definitely be described as frothy – from the distorted vocals curving over the choruses, to the single squall of electric guitar on the bridge, each moment imparts sophistication.

08. MONSTA X, “JEALOUSY”

The funk stylings of 2017’s “Dramarama” steered Monsta X away from heavy-duty EDM/trap singles, and although “Jealousy” returns the septet to that particular watering hole, there’s plenty of room for some memorable moments – the echoing “yeah, yeah...” hook, Hyungwon’s breathy warning of “jealousy, baby, jealousy...” – to shine. The soaring chorus sees Kihyun burn through melodies that sound like they’ve been fattened on fist-pumping 80s pop and early 90s R&B, and at the song’s climax, his power ad-libs yield a frustrated intensity. “Jealousy” is on a dark spectrum overall, encompassing fury (from Jooheon), competitiveness (I.M), and suspicion (Wonho). It’s one hell of a ride.

07. EXO, “TEMPO”

When EXO experiment, like they did on last year’s “Ko Ko Bop”, the results tend to be divisive, while their straightforward pop offerings, such as the dazzling “Love Me Right”, are usually certified crowd-pleasers. “Tempo” ambitiously sets out to straddle both worlds. The things one might expect from an EXO record – the sublime harmonies, flawless production, and little quirks and surprises (here, it’s the squeaking springs and Bruno Mars/Michael Jackson-esque ad-libs) – are all present on “Tempo”. But the song also zigzags through the unexpected – pitch-shifted vocals and marked pace switching – before blindsiding listeners with a velvety acapella bridge. Being able to achieve coherence while being simultaneously familiar and challenging is a difficult undertaking, yet EXO make it seem effortless.

06. SF9, “NOW OR NEVER”

“Now or Never” is a three-and-a-half-minute tease, constantly beckoning the listener to slide into its embrace – only to be pushed back to become an eager voyeur instead. The combination of electro-funk and house music gives the track a club-friendly edge, featuring as much thump as the choreography does grinding hips. There’s ample propulsion, thanks to Inseong’s high notes and Dawon and Jaeyoon’s ad-libs (not to mention the jaunty guitar in the chorus), but the real bait is that hook. Delivered most effectively by Hwiyoung and Chani, it’s moody and staggeringly potent, giving this two-year-old group their finest moment to date.

05. SHINEE, “GOOD EVENING”

With 2018 being both SHINee’s tenth anniversary, and their return to the public eye after the passing of singer Jonghyun late last year, the build-up towards “Good Evening” felt fraught – yet the ambiguity of its lyrics and its visuals gave the song a gauzy veil to deflect the abject scrutiny. They returned to a deep house sound, but, unlike 2015’s chunky “View”, the timbre here is lithe and ethereal. SHINee’s vocals – at once delicate yet still powerful – give “Good Evening” its momentum, and the harmonies and waves of electronic percussion layer into a celebratory, though bittersweet, climax. Whether you’re approaching this as a fan or a curious onlooker, “Good Evening” quietly proves itself as one of SHINee’s, and 2018’s, strongest offerings.

04. RED VELVET, “BAD BOY”

Red Velvet’s ‘red’ singles – wild bangers such as “Dumb Dumb” and “Red Flavor” – have been their most successful, but on 2017’s “Peekaboo” and this January’s “Bad Boy”, some of that feisty energy is transferred to the group’s quieter ‘velvet’ side. “Bad Boy” is understated but bold, a buttery, mid-tempo R&B track that puts the focus on the quintet’s voices – Irene nabs the year’s sassiest opening line, and Wendy and Seulgi pack in killer ad-libs. A fantastically utilised trap beat adds a menacing touch, an atmosphere that also lurks in the jaw-dropping MV; meanwhile, a bounty of finger snaps, whistles, and footsteps create intriguing little flickers. Red Velvet are already K-pop’s most musically interesting girl group, and “Bad Boy” solidifies them as one of the best in the game overall.

03. (G)I-DLE, “HANN”

(G)I-DLE’s monster debut, “Latata”, erred on the side of caution, sticking to tried and tested trop influences, but “Hann” – a song that’s equal parts self-empowerment and emotional revenge – throws all its chips on the table. Looking and sounding like a Spaghetti Western (a whistled refrain, a desert scene, both gothic and colourfully lavish amidst the dust), it utilises familiar pop mechanics, only they’re constantly restrained or isolated, lending the track an unfamiliar feel. Theatrical strings peek through the mix, the chorus is punctured by a gleaming, high-pitched effect for an alien-like quality, and even when it’s at its warmest and most approachable, the girls, particularly Soyeon, infuse it with a take-no-prisoners haughtiness that makes “Hann” incredibly compelling.

02. BTS, “FAKE LOVE”

Taken from Tear, the second installment in the group’s Love Yourself trilogy, “FAKE LOVE” has a lavish, clever MV that relays the dark mood of the song’s lyrics. But rather than merely build around these lyrics, the MV also augments visual storylines from BTS’s previous trilogy, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, to bridge these complex pieces of work. The poignant rawness of the pre-choruses leaps out, and Jungkook, V, and Jimin respectively evoke pain, resignation, and disbelief as they tackle its bleak self-realisation (“For you, I’m enacting a pretty lie... I’m erasing myself to become your doll”).

Although trap beats thrum alongside doomy bass, gritty guitars counterbalance a tense chorus, and the rap verses use the triplet flow saturating hip hop, BTS’s biggest influence on “Fake Love” is really themselves. They revisited the cinematic landscape of 2016’s “Blood Sweat & Tears”, a return to high theatre that eschewed the conventional thought of continuing along the more easily accessible path laid by hype track “MIC Drop” and the colourful EDM-pop of “DNA”, two songs that coincided with their breakthrough in the US. But even if America wasn’t ready for a highly strung, Korean emo anthem by seven young men sporting crimped hair, bondage accessories, and glittery shirts, BTS gratifyingly weren’t interested in waiting for them to catch up.

01. NCT U, “BABY DON’T STOP”

In February, NCT U (the NCT unit with a revolving door of members) released the excellent “BOSS”, and then a week later put out its sibling track, “Baby Don’t Stop”. Whereas the former song rallies a gargantuan bassline and aggressive chorus, “Baby Don’t Stop” is friskier. The song features the raspy tones of leader/rapper, Taeyong, and light, clean vocals of Thai member, Ten, and has a far more elastic beat, as well as an outro that sees the titular lyrics from Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula” turned into its own playful chant.

As the urgent heat of the chorus confirms, this is no love song – it’s a full-blown seduction, one that is, at times, incorrigibly provocative. Fittingly, its instrumental is just as sly and coquettish, with a warm, intermittent synth line, and a complex array of percussive drivers that rise like an immense wave but, as it crests, drops into a sparse, spoken bridge. The MV, shot against the stark beauty of Kyiv’s Soviet Brutalist buildings, is no less coercive, with choreography that forgoes precision synchronicity and celebrates the singers’ dynamic screen presence and opposing styles – Taeyong’s sharpness, Ten’s fluidity.

NCT, on the whole, have gifted the year with a slew of exceptional material, but “Baby Don’t Stop” is mesmerising and, even after 10 months, shows no signs of inducing listener fatigue. While that may be impressive alone, what’s really astonishing is its sense of completeness. There are no overlooked opportunities or missteps, no parts that haven’t been chiseled into their purest form. A combination of intelligent production, experimentation, charisma, and unbridled ambition, “Baby Don’t Stop” is, unironically, a true showstopper.

Listen to these songs as a playlist on Spotify and Apple Music