In a tumultuous and heartbreaking year for the genre, these were the top songs that stood out
2019 had its triumphs: it was a supremely strong year for rookie groups; BTS played two nights at Wembley Stadium, won three AMA trophies, and landed their third #1 on the US album charts; and the supergroup SuperM also scored a #1 with their eponymous debut, showing that K-pop’s western grip was only increasing.
It was also a tumultuous and heartbreaking year. A rigging scandal around the Produce 101 survival series forced the winning groups, X1 and IZ*ONE, out of the public eye. There was the loss of two talented and headstrong women – Sulli, formerly of f(x), and Goo Hara, formerly of KARA - to suicide. Allegations of drug use saw iKON’s B.I and MONSTA X’s Wonho quit their groups, while Stray Kids’ Woojin, MOMOLAND’s Taeha and Yeonwoo, and The Boyz’ Hwall left theirs for personal reasons. Mental health issues required Mina (TWICE), Yubin (Pink Fantasy) and S.Coups (SEVENTEEN) to take hiatuses. However, the openness of these announcements was an encouraging step for an industry that’s always been reluctant to address depression and anxiety.
Making the most global headlines were the allegations of tax evasion, corruption, rape, prostitution, assault, and drug distribution in the Burning Sun nightclub scandal. Seungri, a member of the legendary idol group Big Bang and a Burning Sun director, was investigated. His alleged participation in a group chat brought to light the group chats of another singer, Jung Joonyoung, who’d made and distributed illegally filmed sex videos to his friends, among other offences. The entire scandal caused public outrage throughout the first half of 2019, leading to the sentencing of a mere six years for Jung’s videos and sexual assaults and five for F.T. Island’s Choi Jonghoon. Meanwhile, the great K-pop machine rolled onwards. Perhaps cynically, it’s hard to envisage sweeping change coming from the inside. If we’re to see any significant shifts, it will be the power of the fans’ wallets that commands it.
As for the music, it was, as ever, a busy 12 months. Notable releases that didn’t make it into this top 20, but which warrant an honourable, mention include Blackpink’s “Kill This Love”, Nu’Est’s “Bet Bet”, KEY’s “One Of Those Nights”, Weki Meki’s “Picky Picky”, Taemin’s “WANT”, GOT7’s “You Calling My Name”, SUNMI’s “Noir”, and Golden Child’s “Wannabe”. Given K-pop’s focus on unified music and visuals, our annual rundown takes into consideration both the song and its MV (music video). Here’s our dive into the best of the year that was 2019.
20. FROMIS_9, “FUN”
If there was one thing that 2019 didn’t have a lot of, it was fun – but fromis_9 delivered three minutes of escapism with this premium bubblegum pop. To achieve this, it uses smart touches, like the bass that purposefully trips over itself on the opening bars, giving it an off-kilter feel that’s emphasised by a sublimely silly faux-advertisement video. The girls’ rhythmic delivery gleams with precision, the beats pelt across it like a summer rainstorm, and the short acapella run on the bridge sets up a packed outro. It verges on overload, but when a song is so confident of itself that the ace – a starburst chorus – is thrown on the table a mere eight seconds in, you only need to acknowledge only one thing: resistance is futile.
19. EVERGLOW, “ADIOS”
Everglow bid farewell to a shitty ex-partner with plenty of vim on this big house banger, yet the delivery of the hook is swallowed and distorted, turning the line “au revoir, adios” into what sounds like “avardios”. That it was left in rather than fixed exemplifies the captivating ‘and-what-of-it?’ attitude of this song, which structurally feints with a whistled refrain and creeping verses, before diving into an oh-so satisfying chanted chorus over steroidal EDM. Ultimately, the songwriters have ticked every tried and tested box offered up by the ‘girl crush’ genre but, by skillfully doing so, foolproof the song with all that’s addictive and enduring about it. It’s very hard not to admire its bare-faced boldness and for that, “Adios”, we salute you.
18. SEVENTEEN, “HIT”
There was much muttering this year around ‘noise music’ – not the actual genre, but a term given to the increasing number of huge drops into beat-only choruses, bookended by walls of EDM, in K-pop. And, sure, “HIT” is ultra noisy, and a far cry from Seventeen’s original funk-led pop, but despite the dearth of a lyrical chorus, it bulges with a monumental energy and an earworming hook. Even without its spectacular video by the new darlings of MV production, Rigend, “HIT” demonstrates an ample power to entertain. The vocal contrasts, punchy ad-libs, and big beats combine for a giddy ride until the very final moment, where it leaves you in a crumpled heap to recover – before getting up to do it all over again.
17. MONSTA X, “FOLLOW”
MONSTA X add some Middle Eastern influences to their heart-racing, dramatic EDM. The sound of this influence, placed lower in the mix, propels “Follow” like a rocket; however, when it jumps upfront on the chorus, this same sound pitches the track high and hysterical to the point of divisiveness. There’s a method to its madness, though. While switch-downs in pace, and the sudden drop-out of the instrumental track, have ruined the momentum of many a K-pop song, here these brief moments of calm provide a tremendously effective foil to the sharp, raucous blasts. It’s intriguing that a straightforward banger on paper would throw quite so many curveballs into the mix, but MONSTA X have always gone a little against the grain and by now if you’re not keeping up, then you’re simply missing out.
16. CLC, “NO”
CLC’s singles have shifted from light and poppy to dark and heavy, and with their final release of 2019, “Devil”, the group switch back to a classic retro feel. One curveball, however, was “NO”, which didn’t fit into any camp. It’s tough yet humane, with a sly, throbbing chorus that basks in hard won self-love, but its in the song’s verses where most of the fun is to be had. There’s not an awful lot going on on these verses, instrumentally, and for a group with plenty of vocal colour, this is prime real estate. CLC strut through it, effortless harmonies and a Harley Quinn-esque confidence in hand, and turn a spoken hook – the sneering refusal to pander to male desires – into “NO”’s mightiest moment, elevating the lyrics into a life mantra that stands on conquered ground, two middle fingers held triumphantly aloft.
15. SUPERM, “JOPPING”
In a bid to crack the USA, SM Entertainment combined three generations of their boy bands into SuperM – SHINee’s Taemin, EXO’s Baekhyun and Kai, NCT’s Mark and Taeyong, and WayV’s Ten and Lucas – and dubbed them ‘the Avengers of K-pop’. Ironically, “Jopping”’s disjointed structure, grandiose guitar riffs, and rubbery, Teflon-slick beats hardly screams ‘mainstream America’, despite being the recipe for some of K-pop’s greatest former glories. Heralding itself with the roar of a crowd, it lurches and swaggers like an inebriated rockstar through an A-list party, primarily running, like its action movie visuals, on adrenaline. Baekhyun’s power notes and Mark’s distinctive rhythmic tones warm its metallic heart, circuitously pulling “Jopping” back from being all surface and no feeling, but K-pop is infrequently this fantastically risky or arrogant anymore and all the poorer for it.
14. ONEUS, “VALKYRIE”
Despite a creaky visual throwback to ‘bullet time’ effects and 2009’s concrete subterranean sets, “Valkyrie” succeeds overall because “Valkyrie” is a very, very good song indeed. Having lost not an iota of its gruff, pleading potency after 11 months since its initial release, it wings skillfully from low to high drama as the rap verses integrate with its pop DNA without jarring the pace – a growing rarity in K-pop. The pre-chorus treads knowingly, ready to fling the gate open for the chorus to take full, illustrious flight. The stylistic echo around the vocals and whining slices of EDM imbue it with a love-or-loathe iciness (perhaps inspiring the MV’s copious cement and neon) but this also makes it intriguing, moody, and aloof. Along with a covetable stash of B-sides, “Valkyrie” chalks Oneus as one of the year’s most promising acts.
13. EXO, “OBSESSION”
“Obsession” immerses itself in looped samples, blurry bass, and voice altering effects, with an ambitious and combative video where the members face their other selves, X-EXO. If anything, it’s EXO’s very own Black Mirror episode, where familiar elements (infallible harmonies, or Chen’s high notes) are present, but everything else is wildly disconcerting. That includes the song structure, which can be either seen as 90 per cent chorus, or completely lacking in one. This irregularity allows for the creeping nature of obsession to be captured by the hypnotic, claustrophobic production, and a tense battle between the real self and its other on the hooky, relentless call and response. It’s not the most welcoming world EXO have ever created, but it’s tricksy, hypercoloured, and demanding, and that is a very hard lure to refuse.
12. ASTRO, “ALL NIGHT”
“All Night” is a tender mid-tempo ballad that also morphs into dance-pop. It revels in buttery vocals but, lest it be too out of step with its peers, wears a layer of niggling trap hi-hats. The potential to be mired in a major identity crisis is slickly averted by highlighting the vocalists, downplaying the busy instrumental to bolster the ‘lovesick-but-I-like-it’ chorus, and embracing a playfulness around its heartfelt aspirations, aptly demonstrated by rappers JinJin and Rocky. Their cheeky delivery gives “All Night” a connective self-awareness and, wisely, all of ASTRO bring this quality to a rather dreamy video. They know that you know that they know the thousands of flowers, floaty white outfits, and gauzy lighting is marvelously over-the-top, but when you simply go with the flow, as they do, then “All Night” is a multi-faceted pleasure from start to finish.
11. APINK, “% % (EUNG EUNG)”
Sporting painstakingly lavish sets (stacked cars! faux fur! flowers! more flowers!), the plot of this gorgeous video has six alchemists build the perfect man in a lonely, Pepto-Bismol coloured world. That emotional emptiness cushions the visual camp in the same way that the trap snares and pattering beats sharpen the vocal longing, and the crooning harmonies provide depth against the higher main tones. Apink strike the right balance of young lust and emotional wisdom needed to land this song, which, lyrically, plays between a compulsive desire for a lover and the readiness to wait for the right one. And whilst ‘replayability’ might belong, as a term, to the gaming world, it’s wholly appropriate to affix it to “% %”, a song whose charming, wry mix of romanticism and reality is moreishly endearing.
10. CHUNG HA, “SNAPPING”
“Snapping” sees former I.O.I member Chung Ha transition from the dark seduction of January’s “Gotta Go” into pastels and stark white, her confidence as dazzling as the jewels dripping from her neck. Though said to be ‘Latin-inspired’, there’s deliciously moody blasts of EDM horn, and the opening climbs of a music box-esque tinkle (which reappears throughout like flashing glass shards) share more DNA with Panic! at the Disco. But it’s through memorable flourishes like these that Chung Ha rams home a worldly insouciance alongside intriguing glimpses of vulnerability, the double act giving “Snapping” resonance. Her unmistakable star power is the song’s driving force, but any attempt to remove the repeated title refrain from circling inside your head will need more than just a sturdy mental crowbar.
09. AB6IX, “BREATHE”
Four-fifths of AB6IX are made up of the duo MXM and two members of the huge, now-defunct group WANNA ONE. With such star power behind them, one might have expected a debut adorned with bells and whistles. Instead, “Breathe” took the well-worn garage house-inspired path, and although first impressions were positive, it seemingly offered little to play with – at least at first. Instead, “Breathe” toyed with you. The curving lines of the chorus stealthily ingrained themselves into your brain without explanation, the space-age synth squiggles and echoing handclaps demanded repeated examination, and the graceful restraint placed upon everything, from the backing vocals to the choreography, needed endless attention. In a rushed world, it feels awkward and unfamiliar that a pop song created, ideally, to instantly connect should unfurl so gradually, but the hugely gratifying experience “Breathe” delivers is a journey worth taking.
08. ITZY, “DALLA DALLA”
Although none of ITZY’s members were born before 2000, “Dalla Dalla” evokes two outlandish 90s moments: the wobbly bass of Mr Oizo’s “Flat Beat”, made famous by a 1999 Levi’s ad, and the brat-pop of Shampoo’s 1995 single “Trouble”. Like the latter, “Dalla Dalla” owes more to its artists' personalities, and despite several coats of K-pop polish, embodies that same scrappy energy and ballsy confidence. Equally, however, ITZY keep a steady hand on the rudder even with the visual and sonic chaos going on around them, using the fun touches (ticking clocks, microwave pings, stuttering ad-libs and chants) like the ropes of a wrestling ring, bouncing off them with gusto. Before their February debut, ITZY seemed they might be the ones to give K-pop a fresh boot up the ass and, with “Dalla Dalla” certified platinum, they certainly achieved it.
07. BTS, “BOY WITH LUV” (FEAT. HALSEY)
Not since 2014’s syrupy “Just One Day” have BTS taken such a breezy, innocuous approach to a single and concept. Alongside a visual homage to Singin’ in the Rain, “Boy With Luv” has such a catchy, made-for-radio immediacy that it’s understandable how it would tempt the world’s biggest boy group away from their complex canon of concepts and literary references. In anyone else’s hands, the playful lightness of the instrumental, vocals, and overall mood (Halsey is the sharpest contrast to the muted bass and boys’ falsetto) could have felt insubstantial, but BTS are on a level of their own, and bring to it a joyful ingenuousness and an old-world classiness that keeps the song sounding box fresh. It also continues their love of taking a distinct path. When placed among K-pop’s block rockin’ beats and America’s addiction to “Old Town Road”, “Boy With Luv” stands out as a beacon of pop sweetness.
06. NCT 127, “SUPERHUMAN”
The caramel-smooth vocals and slinky chorus of “Superhuman” is a departure from the sonic oddities, trap beats, and rap of NCT 127’s earlier singles, but exploration has always been key for the group. Their B-sides vary from drop-it-low sex jams (“Whiplash”) to acoustic guitar-lead pop (“Angel”), and three years into their career, the time was nigh to bring that diversity to the forefront. “Superhuman”, coiled tight with robotic blips and infused with the spirit of disco funk, can be seen as a nod to labelmates SHINee, who have excelled with these sounds in the past, but the powerful, distinctive voices within NCT 127 ensure this venture is an expansion, not a dilution, of their concept. Vocalists Taeil and Haechan bring it over the line in spectacular fashion as the instrumental undulates wildly beneath it, leaving you with an irresistibly upbeat, pyrotechnic finish.
05. TWICE, “FANCY”
Given TWICE’s success, there’s a temptation to say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. But that’s too easy, and too boring. Although their signature shout-outs and candied choruses remained on “FANCY”, the track brought through a more grown-up approach that’s previously been used to great effect on B-sides like “SUNSET” and “ROLLIN”. The verses add an extra veneer of strength, and despite the lyrics’ romantic overtures, there’s a sense of ‘look but don’t touch’. Accentuated by the MV’s CGI nighttime cityscapes and undulating patterns that placed them far out of reach, it proved a delicious switch-up considering TWICE’s girl-next-door approachability. Place it alongside “Breakthrough”, the feisty follow-up Japanese single, and you have a group turning a creative and personal corner, creating genuine curiosity for what’s to come in 2020.
04. A.C.E, “UNDERCOVER”
A.C.E looked to be adrift after the hardstyle of their first two releases proved creatively unsustainable, and the soulful pop of third single, “Take Me Higher”, failed to challenge their skills. It makes “Undercover” something of a miracle child – not only is it an enormous step up, it’s their first pass at this sound, and it’s faultless. This is a dramatic, all-guns-blazing experience with electrifying choreography, a bonkers video filled with questionable sportswear and PVC, and one of the best, and fully realised, choruses of 2019. The pop vocals are hastened along by tongue-twisting raps, the chorus is swept up by brutish rock guitar and drums, and the bridge relentlessly runs, grenades in hand, towards an explosive finale. If any song could or should convince K-pop to return to live instruments over a total reliance on electronic beats, it’s this.
03. ATEEZ, “WONDERLAND”
ATEEZ’s stage presence has the intensity of a sonic boom, but their videos so far haven’t managed to quite capture that remarkable real life force – until now. With its gothic marching band and back-breaking choreography, “Wonderland” is also ATEEZ’s biggest statement musically, the final, grandiose brushstrokes on a conceptual canvas that began with 2018’s swaggering “Treasure” and “Pirate King”, a layer added by each single since. Subsequently, their hallmarks (symphonic strings, thunderous bass, power notes and militant brass) exist here in thrilling, magnified form, to which ATEEZ bring a punk energy, attacking each line and move as if it was their last. Even the recording alone imparts a breathless sense of spectacle, illustrating, though not for the first time, why ATEEZ are a burgeoning force to be reckoned with.
02. TXT, “9 AND THREE QUARTERS (RUN AWAY)”
While labelmates BTS have a darkly intense world around their coming of age stories, TXT are the vivid flipside, leaning towards the surreal and magical. On “9 and Three Quarters”, there are fairytale touches: twinkling glockenspiels, harps, Cinderella and Harry Potter references, and a video in which they enter a beautifully realised mind-world. As with their March debut, “Crown”, this otherworldly-ness is twinned to retro-anthemic undercurrents only now the stakes are higher, more volatile as they face a major transition from childhood to adulthood. Thus the undercurrents – chunky, compressed drums and tight guitar riffs – are amplified to stadium rock levels, chasing the melody into a gloriously hooky, firework of a chorus where TXT’s vocals burst forth with a luminous mix of desperation and rebellion. Seamlessly woven and infused with a magnetic urgency, “Run Away” is more than an emotive punch, it’s an undeniably cinematic knockout.
01. STRAY KIDS, “SIDE EFFECTS”
Being young means venturing into uncharted waters, where second-guessing your choices and who you are is a constant. In that heightened, bewildered state, sometimes it feels easier to drown. In 2019, nothing captured that crushing anxiety as accurately as the abrasive, frenzied “Side Effects”.
Stray Kids are a bonafide boy band but also creatively autonomous. “Side Effects” purposefully looks to defy the generalised expectations placed around the former, yet despite the song’s subject matter, it’s not an angst anthem either. Provocatively single-minded, its intent is to scratch its makers’ own maddening itch for answers to the swirling challenges of young adulthood. By creating it true to the image of that maelstrom, “Side Effects” is amorphous, ductile, and fearless. What traditional pop structure it possesses in the form of brief, melodic verses is bludgeoned by juddering, post-apocalyptic psytrance and a cooly impersonal spoken sample. The visceral choreography, which mimics the feeling of lashing out and/or struggling for escape, veers towards delivering a narrative all of its own. Punctuated by brutal howls and the hoarse refrain, “my head hurts”, it resembles primal scream therapy, but its energy is inextinguishable, and “Side Effects” remains a shimmering, vehement presence even in its final, fading seconds.
This is the work of a group less than two years old, and if being incendiary and cage-rattling are emblematic of their current abilities as artists, it’s a palpable thrill to imagine what their profound empathy and uncompromising musicality could see them become next.
Listen to these songs as a Spotify playlist below.