This was the year that the genre truly moved out of Asia and into America – here’s your guide to the best K-Pop from the past twelve months
Outside of Asia, K-Pop has its legions of fans but they’ve long been on the periphery of pop culture, and virtually unknown to the wider media and general population. Flurries of interest from the West around groups like Girls’ Generation and Big Bang were short-lived, yet none of the artists in question seemed to actually mind, getting on with being ridiculously successful in their original market and content with their existing international audiences. 2017 seemed to herald a change in that pattern, thanks to factors that range from social media power to a new generational audience with a far more open-minded stance than their predecessors.
BTS led the charge, making appearances on some of America’s biggest shows, from the American Music Awards to Ellen (and charming the hosts to death in the process), but behind them, interest in K-Pop was widening, particularly around its male artists. Seventeen, VIXX, Monsta X, and EXO were just some who successfully toured their shows in the US, Europe and Australia, co-ed group KARD slayed in South America and the enormous two-day fan convention, K-Con, enlarged their audiences yet again, landing in Mexico City and Sydney for the first time. Next year will a pivotal one in K-Pop’s potential expansion – but let’s not digress from the 12 months at hand.
There were the usual disbandments, most notably Sistar and Wonder Girls, but there were a slew of debut acts that bolstered the year. For the boys, A.C.E shook things up with the hardstyle dance of “Cactus” and Highlight (the group formerly known as Beast before ditching a member and their label) made a welcome return to the charts with “Plz Don’t Be Sad”. In the ranks of the girl groups, Weki Meki landed a killer chorus on “I Don’t Like Your Girlfriend” and LOONA, who are debuting members one by one, had a stellar year with the sub-unit ODD EYE CIRCLE, plus great songs from members Kim Lip and Yves.
Other notables included HyunA’s “Babe”, SF9’s “Easy Love”, G-Dragon’s poignant piano ballad “Untitled”, a smooth groove from EXID on “Night Rather Than Day”, and emotive electronic bangers from Nu’est W’ (“Where You At”) and GOT7 (“Never Ever”).
Bearing in mind this list is for idol releases, limited to one song per group (or artist), and takes into consideration both song and MV (music video), let’s jump into 2017’s best K-Pop releases.
20. PRISTIN – “WE LIKE”
If it were possible to revive the iconic 80s Valley Girl, “We Like” would be the candy pink, hair-flipping mall rat of a song to do so. Just like their decades-old counterpart, dismissed for her vacuousness, so might this song be brushed aside for its repetitive chorus, which hinges on mere syllables. But, as one of many delightfully bratty moments, it’s a highlight in a track that bristles with confidence. It makes you yearn to join Pristin’s girl gang – in other words, it’s, like, totally bitchin’.
19. BOA – “CAMO”
With a career spanning two decades, BoA retains her queen status with the statuesque “Camo”. Key to its success is respect; despite K-Pop’s worship of youth, here everything accentuates BoA as she is rather than shoehorning her into the latest industry trends. US producers The Underdogs deliver stammering electropop that highlights her husky voice and, in a manner more performance art than pop video, the lyrics’ exploration of internal guises is portrayed via CGI and projections as beautiful as they are thought-provoking.
18. SONAMOO – “I (KNEW IT)”
Within its first 30 seconds, “I (Knew It)” collars you with the clean crispness of Spanish guitar, main vocal Minjae’s arch, poignant delivery and the echoing ‘I, I, I’ punctuating throughout like a homing signal. But Sonamoo have far more to give as the chorus comes to life, cleverly layered to where the guitar, trumpet and bass are vivid bursts yet allow for High.D to raise it an extra notch with her upper range. It’s taken nearly three years for Sonamoo to find this kind of magic, but the result is entrancing.
17. SUPER JUNIOR – “BLACK SUIT”
They’re missing members due to controversy (fans boycotting Sungmin due to his marriage) and military conscription (two years must be served before the age of 35), but the legendary SuJu rally as seven for their eighth album in 12 years. “Black Suit” strikes a remarkable balance between its showmanship, which hustles hard with whistles and toots of brass, and keeping a steady direction using bass lines from a 90s landscape of post-New Edition splinter acts. Its MV is as flashy and effective as it is nonsensical and entertaining, but perfectly caps this long-awaited revival of Super Junior’s charismatic pop royalty.
16. TWICE – “KNOCK KNOCK”
Twice ride the final loop of 2016’s Twicecoaster album with a repackaging to include the single “Knock Knock”, where the ominous opening gives way to a sophisticated mix that matches the group’s knack for repetition with an instrumental that has a darker edge offset by upbeat vocals. The MV uses the bridge to round out last year’s ‘TT’ concept, which dislodges an avalanche of cuteness, and it’s literally impossible not to come away with the “na na na, knock on my door” refrain hooked deep inside your head.
15. DREAMCATCHER – “CHASE ME”
Dreamcatcher’s influences – J-Rock, anime themes, pop rock via Evanescence – are old, yet for Korea’s female idols, this lean on squalling guitar riffs and galloping percussion is wholly new. “Chase Me” opens with pop-friendly vocals and tinkling keys, but the chorus gleefully grabs for the throat; tightly packed and sharply produced, it puts the girls in control visually with a glossy take on The Shining, while lyrically they lead a love interest on a futile pursuit. It’s K-Pop, but not as you know it.
14. SEVENTEEN – “CLAP”
In May, the EDM of “Don’t Wanna Cry” became a successful step in broadening Seventeen’s repertoire, but their rocket fuel mix of pop and funk, with whipcrack choruses and ebullient brass remains their ace. “Clap”, released after “DWC”, irresistibly corrals those strengths before adding a dirty great guitar riff, and this tougher version of Seventeen is buoyed by a video so incredibly detailed it requires repeat viewings. It too packages up their past by stuffing it with visual references to previous MVs, making “Clap” a celebration of their achievements but also a succinct departure gate into their future.
13. WANNA ONE – “ENERGETIC”
For the winners of group survival show Produce 101 there is a contractually short shelf life, so Wanna One wasted no time in releasing the fan voted debut single, “Energetic”. With a mind to pleasing millions while still showcasing the talents of 11 members, “Energetic” takes a familiar route – a slow burn piano opener that elevates into a classy club thumper with a driving groove which never wastes a single beat. Rappers Daniel and Woojin propel the track’s middle forward with impressive force, leaving Jaehwan’s high ad libs to bring it victoriously over the finishing line.
12. VIXX – “SHANGRI-LA”
After consistently exploring dark corners of their flamboyant pop, VIXX step onto new turf, where future bass meets sweeps of Chinese zither, their visuals a Zen-like world of lush pastels and flowers. “Shangri-La” is a fusion of opposing forces and delicate balance; jagged beats versus opulent lyrics, minimal verses into heavy choruses, and VIXX’s big vocalists Leo and Ken tempering their showiest moments as Ravi injects his raspy style of rap with a certain tenderness. It’s graceful, stylish and – in true VIXX tradition – stands alone amongst its contemporaries, but that’s always been where they shine brightest.
11. 9 MUSES – “REMEMBER”
The MV makes you wonder if the song’s subject – a toxic relationship – is its only target, but whether or not it’s a metaphor for women in the music industry it certainly amplifies the sinister atmosphere of world-weary verses shored up by an invasively throbbing bass and Sojin’s rap, underpinned by a guitar line that evokes Slash’s work on Michael Jackson’s “Give Into Me”. “Remember”s power move is the engulfing chorus – it’s a whirl of thumping beats, spoken word and high notes, but it’s also a dark, unsettling embrace that refuses to let go for a very long time.
10. MONSTA X – “DRAMARAMA”
Monsta X’s penchant for high concept has always yielded fascinating, though at times muddled, results, but with “Dramarama” the video’s conceit of time travel to illustrate grief within three relationships creates an emotionally subtle, beautiful visual. It’s intriguing and alluring not only in design and cinematography but because of its ambiguity in both context and subtext – a pliability that the song also possesses, for different reasons. While last year’s “All In” was rigid, opaque electronica, “Dramarama” lightly paces between a solidly funky guitar riff and the smirk of a brilliant hook, allowing their individual signatures (like Kihyun’s vocal acrobatics or Jooheon’s twitchy rap) to be highlighted with palpable ease on one of their most coherent and confident singles to date.
09. SUNMI – “GASHINA”
It’s easy to see Sia’s influence, as well as references to Frida Kahlo, Lolita, and Thelma & Louise, on Sunmi’s video as she dances, contemporary style, through rooms, moods and outfits, but the deconstruction of the humiliation and heartbreak that comes with being dumped is entirely her own. Ex-Wonder Girl Sunmi’s hypnotic naturalism adds compelling layers to “Gashina”s already candid unraveling of the experience as she asks ‘why are you leaving me behind’ before rediscovering an almost brutal confidence. These bared lyrics are sonically stripped as well – a panpipe-like synth, simple percussion and bass the only accompaniment on the verses – leaving Sunmi to reel you in with her vocals, which she does so effortlessly and in seconds, like an invisible harpoon being fired right through you.
08. TAEMIN – “MOVE”
SHINee’s youngest member’s solos are marked by sensual vocals and dramatic flair, but on “MOVE” the latter is scaled back to tense 80s synthwave that circles without pouncing. Its reticence is given clarity through the MV; song and video complete, and exist for, each other as a twin performance in which empty streets, expressionless dancers and beautifully fluid choreography demand attention, but command distance through cold colourations, CCTV and fuzzy VHS frames, and camera angles which film like a secret onlooker. For those who find fascination and frisson in the aloof, however, the icy beats, teasing builds and the arresting pull of Taemin’s physical prowess makes for a captivating release.
07. WINNER – “LOVE ME LOVE ME”
Seemingly written off after the departure of Nam Taehyun last year, WINNER turned the tables with the trop-house of “Really Really”, which stands as 2017’s most-downloaded and streamed K-Pop song. Yet “Love Me Love Me”, despite structural similarities to “Really Really”, bounces with irresistible funk-lite rhythms and stretchy disco bass, and the ad-libs, loose falsetto whoops, and call-and-response give it a freshness that outlasts their three other releases this year. The nimble, playful MV, with Instagram Boomerang-style frames, 8-bit graphics and sunshine soaked backdrops, marries a sense of spontaneity to the minutely crafted, and WINNER deliver it in such a breezy, understated and genuine way that you can’t help but be caught up in the overriding jubilance.
06. ASTRO – “CRAZY SEXY COOL”
They only debuted last year, but during this time they’ve taken giant upward strides, starting 2017 with the fizzy, intelligent “Baby” before reaching high on “Crazy Sexy Cool”, which completely rejects the trop and trap dominating K-Pop. ASTRO’s copious charms burn bright in this MV with a Peter Pan/Narnia influenced concept that plays on their youth even as it unveils their burgeoning adulthood as artists and men. It puts simplicity at the core, as does the instrumental, but the song finds enviable sophistication with the vocalists who draw starry melodic lines from beginning to end. Their beckoning verses and sweet, crystalised harmonies are counteracted by the group’s two rappers, whose light-hearted delivery snaps alongside the funk bass, rounding out a completely addictive update to a classic pop sound.
05. NCT 127 – “LIMITLESS”
“Limitless” is a tough customer who presents a love it or hate it situation, and only dogged persistence in breaking down its solid wall of sound has changed perception towards it being a little masterpiece. Some things remain a given – the synths and rattling percussion are so dense that the moment you pry it open, it snaps shut on your fingers, while the chorus, despite a well-paced build, always kicks in with a shock – but where that felt disparate, a sinuous thread now beckons, from Taeyong’s oppressive, yawning vocal and Taeil and Jaehyun’s more angelic tones, to the grandiose layering around the hook. An urgency also pulses beneath “Limitless”, drifting into an apocalyptic vibe that the MV, sometimes uncomfortably, conveys, making the entire package defiantly challenging even when embraced.
04. GFRIEND – “FINGERTIP”
They made their name utilising strings and rock guitars as unique calling cards, but GFriend’s refusal to get sonically stuck sees constant new additions, like the infusion of early 80s synth on last year’s “Navillera”. “Fingertip” is, however, all these elements on steroids, going in guns blazing on the wah wah guitars, funk bass, and pounding disco, stacked into an unapologetic tower of a song. GFriend’s vocals are as lively as the instrumental, bouncing off each other, off the wailing riffs and into one of the year’s catchiest choruses, and Yuju’s outro ad libs are a force to be reckoned with. Its MV is as exaggerated as the song’s presence – astral projection, video games, cosmic forces – but neither cross the line into the absurd, maintaining a cool, steady grip that makes “Fingertip” gleam brilliantly.
03. EXO – “KO KO BOP”
As one of K-Pop’s biggest groups, a theory for everything and by everyone jostles behind each EXO release, and this comeback is no different. But when unhampered by interpretations, “Ko Ko Bop” gains in presence, capable far more of a physical reaction than an emotional one. Verses are syrupy with reggae-inspired beats, infused with a languorous heat by Xiumin, Suho and Baekhyun, in particular, that’s tangible enough to feel across your skin, but the post-chorus, however, smacks like a lead glove, a skittering metallic instrumental emphasised by high-strung choreography on a blacked out soundstage. While it’s rare that EXO plays with such an extreme push and pull, from sensual to uneasy and back again, the visceral experience created here is what makes “Ko Ko Bop” hard to forget.
02. RED VELVET – “RED FLAVOR”
Red Velvet’s singles frequently strike gold and the slightly delirious “Red Flavor”, which opens with the mighty punch of its chorus, completely won the summer. The members kindle warmth on wave-like verses alongside the sprinting and slowing of the instrumental, where frenetic high hats and a dizzying array of clicks, claps, chimes and knocks somehow meld by a dynamic feat of arrangement. The eccentricity lent by the mangled chant wobbling behind the vocals is mirrored by a Skittles-bright MV that flips between sassy choreography and the girls interviewing giant pieces of fruit, but “Red Flavor” shouldn’t be seen as merely a quirky fix. It’s complex and intimidating and that it feels so immediate and identifiable on the surface is just emblematic of its greatness.
01. BTS – “SPRING DAY” (봄날)
If 2016 was Bangtan’s crowning year in Asia, then 2017 has been their rambunctious ascent into the American mainstream during which they broke so many records as a Korean pop group that ‘The first K-Pop group to...’ seemed permanently appended to their name. In light of their progress and literal and figurative noise created by “DNA” and “MIC Drop”, the mid-tempo ballad of “Spring Day”, released back in February, marks the closing of a formative chapter in BTS history but also stands its ground as a singular triumph.
Like last year’s “Blood Sweat & Tears”, “Spring Day” uses external devices (Snowpiercer, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas) to illustrate certain points, but the most devastatingly evocative moments in this slow motion, cinematic landscape of memories and wishes are quietly simple, like V listening to the train rails or Jimin holding left behind shoes on an empty beach. It deliberately avoids cliché pomp and drama, perversely compressing into thick bass and piano with a whining electronic flourish and mechanical, hissing percussion, all which act like an enveloping airlock. Within that, BTS are a clear and magnetic presence; providing the song’s harmonic thread is J-Hope, with fellow rappers Suga and RM acting as yin and yang pillars around which the vocalists wind raw, beautiful lines and a questioning, resigned chorus.
While it’s been a frenetic year for BTS, and K-Pop in general, “Spring Day” hasn’t conceded an iota of power in being able to deeply etch itself again and again into the heart as an intelligent, compelling and elegantly restrained study of loss and longing.