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The 40 best K-pop songs of 2020

While smaller groups were hit hard by the pandemic, the genre’s tech-savvy big names were hosting live digital events – here’s the singles that made a rough year a little easier to bear

Listen to these songs as a Spotify playlist. Check out our 20 best tracks of 2020 list and our 20 best albums list.

With tours cancelled and albums delayed, COVID-19 spent 2020 decimating the music industry. K-pop was no exception, hitting its smaller and/or newer groups hard. But for those more established, there were two advantages: tech-savvy labels, and audiences fully accustomed to consuming content from a distance. So as western artists set up home studios and turned on their IG Live, some of K-pop’s biggest acts like BTS and SuperM were putting on live digital concerts complete with multi-view camera options and full staging.

In this respect, little changed on the surface for international K-pop fans. We listened to albums in the same way but we heard the music differently, given the chaos happening around the world and in our lives, and, more than ever, sought reassurance or escapism or even simple human connection within music and fandoms.

That connective power of K-pop’s fandoms was widely recognised during the summer as the world’s media turned its attention to those who helped humiliate Donald Trump at his own rally, and the hundreds of thousands that supported Black Lives Matter protests using fancams to swamp racist Twitter hashtags and snitch apps. The most potent fandom in the world at present – BTS’s Army – also made their own headlines when they matched the group’s $1 million donation to the BLM movement, and, in terms of music, gave the Grammy-nominated BTS a year to never forget with their first US number one single (“Dynamite”), and two number one albums (BE and Map of the Soul: 7). 

BTS weren’t alone in the charts, however; SuperM and BLACKPINK (named Hitmakers of the Year by Variety) peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 200, with the girl group also reaching the penultimate spot on the UK charts. This is just a fragment of what South Korea’s idols accomplished over the past 12 months on an impressive global scale. We no longer need to debate if K-pop has found a place for itself in the mainstream. It’s here, and it’s here to stay. And these are its singles that made a rough year a little easier to bear.


The strident military percussion, heady chorus, and nod to the 90s hit “Kiss Kiss” by Turkish singer Tarkan makes for a toe-tapper with flair. 


Seventeen knock it out of the park with a classy performance that harks back to their early eras, where jazz hands and brassy hooks were the order of the day.


Hard to imagine anyone making “swimming swimming swimming” into a thoroughly memorable hook, but that’s precisely what ONF pulls off here against a trippy, time-travelling MV.


Nu’Est’s warm, undulating R&B often sounds tinged with fraught, like it’s treading across a floor strewn with broken glass, but still smoulders beautifully despite the danger.


“So What” gave Loona their first win at a South Korean music show, and comes ready to play with a high energy chorus and the spirit of never giving up on what you truly want.


Fearfully intense choreography and a heist concept are visual treats, but airy vocal theatrics and snappy breakdowns make it an all-rounder pleaser.


ENHYPEN’s anticipated debut goes for a slightly subdued but highly polished approach with a flowing chorus, well-balanced harmonies, and an intriguing vampire concept.


With a concept featuring AI versions of the members, rookie group Aespa cleverly set up what looks to be a new fantasy world story, without sacrificing a catchy pop edge.


The Red Velvet sub-unit brought back an old K-pop favourite – dubstep – to their gratifyingly noisy, and lyrically teasing, paean to loving your inner beast.


Pentagon’s songwriter Hui gets angsty on this explosive trip through heartbreak. The music video plays out like a horror film but that’s exactly what a rotten break-up feels like. 


The music video features some of the year’s best set design but equally satisfying is “Boy”’s drop into the chorus. That sharp ‘dang-da-dang-da-dang-dang-dang’ synth will loop in your brain forever.


One word: brass. Vivid blasts of it contrasting against Iz*One’s sweet vocals on the “swan swan swan” refrain proved polarising, but “Secret Story of the Swan” offers ample punchy charm and CGI delights. 

28.  CHUNG HA, “PLAY (feat. CHANGMO)”

Latin influences turn the energy right up on this summer banger, perfect for Chung Ha who thrives within big performances, and the music video provides a bold frame for her multifaceted abilities.


The first half of 2020 saw TXT’s exploration of their youth get decidedly darker, with sawing guitars and trap beats yammering beneath the chorus as lyrical friendships change and break.


Conceptually inspired by the red pill and white rabbit of The Matrix, “Bazooka!” is generous with the vocal fizz, imparting a genuinely carefree feeling in a year we really needed it.

25. 1THE9, “BAD GUY”

K-pop has become obsessed with massive drops into a chorus but “Bad Guy” is so melodically strong that it runs towards the sky. 1THE9 disbanded this year, but this is an impressive finale.


Though only the second single from this multinational rookie group, “Got That Boom” has a chorus that just won’t quit and a breakdown-slash-bridge that packs a wallop.


Between the video’s black and gold opulence and restrained chaos of “Fantasia”’s chorus, Monsta X hammer out the big moves and bigger beats they’re beloved for.


Apink’s sophisticated sound and onomatopoeic hook finds a home in a music video that looks inspired by Wes Anderson but, packed with metaphors, is a clever storytelling companion. 


Drippin may have a debatably odd name but their strength of talent goes without saying: the effortless vocals and chunky bass guitar on “Nostalgia” are reminiscent of true K-pop classics.


Fan anticipation and fear around idols turning soloists is a rite of passage; can what was memorable in a group setting remain as potent under the lone spotlight? “Open Mind” delivers a resounding affirmative for former Monsta X vocalist and songwriter Wonho, whose two passions – muscles and music – find a captivating foothold in groove-heavy seduction. The track’s beauty is in maintaining a simplicity; Wonho’s vocals keep a gentle but firm hand on the wheel, and the instrumental is superpowered with funk and synths that distort with an eye towards Daft Punk’s “Aerodynamic”. Its one concession to stirring the pot anti-clockwise is teasing out the impact of the chorus but, as the saying goes, you should never have too much of a good thing, and “Open Mind” is certainly something to gorge on. 


Mamamoo’s light-footed disco is a captivating ode to self-respect, which, rather than espouse tired inspo lines, keenly acknowledges the hiccups (“Laughing in the front, crying in the back”, sing-raps Moonbyul) encountered on the journey to self-love. The chorus epitomises this inner struggle – Wheein’s yearning falsetto offset by rich bass and cascading strings – but the writer and producer (Cosmic Girl and Cosmic Sound), perhaps wary of leaning too hard into the nu-disco trend, frequently pepper “Wanna Be Myself” with modern attributes, such as the trap snares beneath Hwasa’s pre-chorus line and a lone bass beat on the pre-bridge verse. It’s done using the same remarkably subtle touch found throughout – from Mamamoo’s resonant vocals to the brief funk bass segue into the bridge – finessing the track with an irresistible buoyancy.

18. (G)I-DLE, “OH MY GOD”

In “Oh My God”’s music video – a tour de force of religion and high glamour – one scene fills with the whisper of “Ab limo pectore”. From Latin to English, “In my deepest heart”, a phrase Julius Caesar was quite fond of before being assassinated. (G)I-DLE use it like an acquiescence to “Her” (a figure left open to interpretation), whom they revere and revile on a cantering pre-chorus, but remain suspended between heaven and hell on the chorus with four languidly ecstatic lines – “Oh my god, she took me to the sky, oh my god, she showed me all the stars”. “Oh My God” plays against form with an identikit intro/outro and elimination of a bridge, but the crooning, self-flagellating verses and Soyeon’s wickedly remorseless rap crawl deep under the skin.


Having blazed their way to stardom in under two years with signature singles – feelgood chants, and guitars buzzing rebelliously beneath dancefloor-ready EDM – ITZY are spearheading a visual and musical trend that kicks you in the shins. A hybrid sister of K-pop’s two most popular girl group concepts – the more forceful ‘girl crush’ and classic ‘cute’ – she wears the hallmarks of brat-pop: sassy, wilful, smart, and outrageously good fun. Given there’s no reason to rock their successful boat, “Wannabe” joins the self-confident canon of “Icy” and “Dalla Dalla” but its refrain of “I don’t wanna be somebody, I wanna be me, me, me” combines youthful impatience with a universal frustration at hiding oneself, giving them their most instantly sticky and durable hit yet.


Unlike the serotonin blasts of “ON” and “Dynamite”, “Black Swan” dims the glare of white-hot stardom for an intimate glimpse at a BTS who fear losing their connection to music. In unravelling the crushing possibility of this happening one day (“Maybe right now”, frets RM), they offer two sides: the outer – the rappers’ verses which calmly reckon with such an occurrence – and the inner – the chorus, which the vocalists tinge with a guarded panic, tightening their voices like a garroting wire. They emerge confident from this crisis – “The waves go darkly by in a throe, but I'll never get dragged away again”, raps Suga – but cautiously, for although the ominous darkness retreats in the music video’s final frame, BTS know only too well that one cannot outrun their shadows but merely make peace with them.


Why release a simple break-up song when you can blow minds with an existential meltdown inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Elucidating a failed relationship mourned so intensely that ONEUS cannot decide if it’s better to live with painful memories or die to escape them, “To Be Or Not To Be” builds its fury and regret on a grandiose two-part chorus. Synths are thrown like lightning bolts through wounded harmonies, and the titular refrain, distorted by a vocoder, repeats like a taunt. Just as Hamlet is bloody and supernatural, ONEUS, too, have gore and ghouls aplenty. At the song’s bridge, their desperation peaks – “Answer me, dead or alive?” yelps Ravn into the emptiness – only for the music video to reveal them as immortal, doomed to this living death. If you craved escapism, ONEUS offered glorious, blood-spattered excess.


There’s surprisingly morose heart to the upbeat banger “Lovesick Girls”, where, on a roof-raising chorus, Blackpink lament their perceived truth and foible in the same breath: “We were born to be alone, but why we still looking for love”. Blackpink find post-break-up solace in sisterhood in the music video, but, on screen and in song, the most relatable moments are those navigated alone through heartbreak’s twins, despair and defiance. Jisoo and Rosé embody the former, their vocal rawness bringing depth to superslick production, as Jennie and Lisa’s rap verses glower with unspoken screw you’s. But defiance, despite best intentions, is a smoke screen. Love makes a masochist of us all – “I’m nothing without this pain”, they sing euphorically – so if we’re destined to repeatedly walk love’s broken path, then why not dance down it instead?


Over half a dozen singles emerged in 2020 from NCT’s various units but none felt quite as moreish as the drawling knowingness of “Make A Wish”, and the combination of some of NCT’s gravelliest and ethereal voices. From the outset, it’s a perpetual tease, slowly working up the tension only for the chorus to sieve through your fingers like warm sand, or the bridge’s falsetto and whining synth that pulls a turntablist’s rewind before reaching full bloom. This deliberate unfulfillment will be a dealbreaker for some and create replayability for others, but spend time with “Make A Wish” and you’ll find it’s far smarter and sneakier than what you’d initially attribute to the aural equivalent of a thirst trap dressed in Gucci, swinging from a chandelier.


Woollim Entertainment’s songwriter/producer BLSSD is a keen storyteller (on “One” the members desire perfection, only to realise they’re perfect as they are), fond of lush strings and mechanical synths. He doesn’t try to reinvent his own wheel here, but strikes an impressive gear change; dark, surging electronica takes precedence, funk bass adds to a revelatory chorus, and Golden Child’s vocals swoop across the instrumental like birds using air currents. There’s an expectation, helped by the lyrics’ emotional gains, that “One” frees up the strings peeking throughout the chorus for a soaring symphonic finale. Instead, it veers into a cold tangle of vocoder, synth, and strings to double down on the otherworldliness of the pre-chorus, and for a song to remain lucid and beautiful within such unpredictability is sublime.


The general rule of thumb is that if you declare yourself cool, then you’re probably not. Weki Meki, on the other hand, recall a time they were called cool, explain what makes them cool, and, defying the laws of coolness, manage to make it, yes, cool. Not just because this is gratifyingly chunky dance-pop whose deep, springy bass and synths throw it back to 2010, when Far East Movement and Tinie Tempah were passing out like a G6, but because Weki Meki, particularly rapper Yoojung and vocalist Doyeon, ooze an enviable insouciance and assuredness. As the exaltant finale proves, “Cool” is more a celebration of young women breaking rules and ignoring social narrow-mindedness than a three-and-a-half minute ego trip, but there’s a spiky, sneering edge to the chorus that feels gratifyingly intimidating.


Though the sci-fi-ish concept of 2019’s “Jopping” reappeared on SuperM’s follow-ups “100” and “One”, “Tiger Inside” sidesteps the spaceships: its purpose feels drawn from SM Entertainment’s infamous ‘repeat and refine’ mentality, its pedigree seeded in EXO’s polarising “Wolf” (2013) and NCT’s “Simon Says” (2018). Having learned that wildlife-inspired pop benefits from light touches, there’s a gleefulness in the chanted hook of “Dinner’s ready, dinner’s ready yeah!”, the big cat analogies, and Taeyong growling and whooping through his raps. But “Tiger Inside” punches up because of its straight-faced spectacle – have fun with us, it seems to say, but never at our expense. Not that SuperM gives you the option – the choreography is impeccable, the vocal bridge sounds volcanic, and the music video is dizzying and ostentatious. No one’s currently doing it like SuperM. No one could. And that’s the entire point.


GFRIEND’s 2020 has been the epitome of booked and busy, with two EPs and a studio album, Walpurgis Night, whose “MAGO” joins the ranks of nu-disco alongside labelmates TXT and BTS. But whereas artists like Róisín Murphy and Jessie Ware have looked to recapture disco’s historic headiness, “MAGO”’s producer, FRANTS, pays less heed, working in an 80s synth intro alongside the disco influences of metallic funk guitar, and the pianos bolstering SinB and Eunha’s emotive bridge. GFRIEND’s previous single, “Apple”, was immersed in the bookish imagery of fairy tales, but “MAGO” banishes them to embrace real-life witchy, womanly powers. There’s a love affair in here but it’s with themselves – “My life is waiting for you… her smiling at me in the mirror” – and this manifests as a starry centrepiece chorus in a sophisticated feast of a pop song.


As an epilogue to ATEEZ’s Treasure series, “Answer” eloquently shoulders the narrative without relinquishing its individual presence as a victory over the obstacles – physical and emotional – in the group’s path. But even as it rejoices – “Everybody, raise your glasses over your heads / As high as they can be seen anywhere in the world” – melancholia seeps through the pulsing EDM and spectacular finale, perhaps a weariness from battles fought. It colours its harmonies, Yeosang’s voice as he recalls humble beginnings, and Jongho’s diamond-cut ad-libs. “We’re not afraid anymore”, they declare, but, caught within a broken society, all they can do is treat everyday like “tomorrow is the end of the world”. Though released in January, “Answer” unexpectedly encapsulates 2020’s exhaustion, determination, and hope – a match struck to light their own path which ignites into a glorious, guiding blaze.


With the 80s gated drum sound and multitudes of synths, the opening bars are as overwhelmingly and instantaeously transportive as the intro theme of Stranger Things was. But just as the primary reason for that show’s success wasn’t its 1980s-ness, the same can be said for “I Can’t Stop Me”; beneath the neon hue is a stellar piece of songwriting, no matter how you dress it up. The chorus is the melodic pièce de résistance – brandishing imitable “oooh hooo”s, its tongue firmly in its cheek with Chaeyoung’s soon-to-be-legendary rap line, “Risky risky wiggy 위기, this is an emergency”. “I Can’t Stop Me” plants its throne on the sweet spot between nostalgia’s indulgence and present-day expectations, supremely confident that we’ll be humming its hooks for years to come.


In sticking to their creative guns over the years, Dreamcatcher’s sound has been painstakingly sharpened, and “Scream” thrusts its blade deep; “Please, I don’t want to scream”, the members beseech during an extravagant chorus of orchestral synths. Although the group have fictional storylines, it’s not hard to correlate the lyrics to the cruel online treatment of idols by anti-fans – “Even though they wound me... my breath can’t stop”, sings Siyeon – but the reveal of such vulnerability comes with a refusal to let it narrow the frame through which we perceive them. They remain in control, wielding power through the force of their vocals and choreography as “Scream” pummels towards its outro where they flip the scenario in this emotional juggernaut with the demand of “Everyone watch me and scream”. 


Omnipresent throughout Stray Kids’ ascent has been an inclusivity (growing up hand-in-hand with their audience, baring their own personal struggles), and blue-sky thinking around their evolution as a self-producing group. Even a boisterous party anthem like “Back Door” adheres to these cornerstones, in some ways obvious (opening a metaphorical back door for fans to sneak in, gatekeepers be damned) and others more subtle, like the choreography finding inspiration in Ganggangsullae, traditionally a women’s dance. Setting aside their penchant for putting all their cards on the table at once, Stray Kids carefully stack the distinctive hook of alien-like electronica and a slick funk bassline before dropping “Back Door” into an EDM mosh pit finale, which elicits a longing ache for live gigs even as you’re pogoing furiously on your own.


80s synths made an indelible mark this year, and though there’s little doubt of the overall impact of The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” (fun fact: Tesfaye references Las Vegas as Sin City, part of Everglow’s visual concept is, perhaps coincidentally, the 2005 film, Sin City), “La Di Da” stretches beyond what this trend looks like in the global mainstream. It digs around hardcore synthwave groups like Power Glove and Dance of the Dead for inspiration, transposing long icy slashes of synths onto the verses and integrating blasts of the wheedling echo of guitar used gratuitously by 80s rockers and pop stars alike. Everglow’s take on the genre triumphs thanks to a masterful topline on which their vocals punch and weave with flawless pacing, and an unstoppable monster of a chorus and bridge that makes “La Di Da” as playful as it is powerful.


Taemin’s solo work frequently creates a sense of alter ego, and it’s this other self who feels wholly present on “Criminal”. Trapped in a sensual and toxic relationship, he prowls its hellish landscapes – in the music video, sterile one minute, baroque the next – with a cool nonchalence because he knew he was destined to end up here. Unfolding the song with an airy but sinuous gracefulness, Taemin transforms lyrics touched by torment into something scintillating, dangerous, and addictive. “Criminal” excels as an exquisite tragedy in which he’s impish and submissive (“Ooh, I'm on a leash called you”) but also complicit (“My hands holding yours that stabbed me are not clean either”), yet he wants neither your compassion nor to be saved. You’re only ever a witness to his blissful agony, but this opulent piece of sonic cinema is impossible to turn away from.


Whether fighting back (“Gashina”, “LALALAY”) or driving forward (“Heroine”), Sunmi’s work capitalises on her wry self-awareness to ward off engulfing heartache. By her own admission, she allows herself to embrace heady love for the first time on the city-pop of “Pporappippam”, its shimmering chorus made as visually joyous in the music video as it sounds. Nevertheless, a familiar doubt nibbles away at her euphoria: ”Oh my dear / Even if this disappears and becomes a mess / Once we open our eyes”. This isn’t an invite to a pity party; Sunmi soars highest when her romanticism and pessimism collide to create an empathetic kick towards the dancefloor. We’re allowed to be frustrated at the ephemerality of perfect, love-drunk nights, but life doesn’t stop in their absence and, like Sunmi, we should be living it fabulously.


A.C.E excelled with last year’s tumultuous, rock-heavy approach on “Under Cover”, and “Goblin (Favorite Boys)”, which pulls double-duty as a self-hype anthem and a Korean myth-inspired, world-building tool, adopts similar stadium-friendly guitars and full throttle percussion to set up what great K-pop is renowned for: a turbo-charged thrill ride. 

Aggressively angsty across its verses, “Goblin” bears not an iota of musical likeness to the sounds of the 70s and 80s currently gripping K-pop, but the manner in which it commands attention reflects the bigger, better, bolder, and brasher mindset of the latter decade: “Don’t compare, whatever they do / We do it better”, raps Wow, his traditional Korean clothing festooned in silver, face stickered up like an e-girl.

This is a song proud to inflict whiplash with a lyrical hook so satisfying that rapper Byeongkwan can spit it out like a taunt or an order, and have it still feel like a blessing. It bears such self-confidence that it seems natural to level up the already substantial melodic heft with ghost house effects to accentuate the ‘otherness’ of the goblin concept. Or to feature a muscular triple-part chorus, showy with Jun’s power notes. And then cherry-top itself with vocal fireworks post-bridge. Megalithic pop songs are high risk-high reward, frequently in danger of collapsing under their ambitions but, from start to finish, “Goblin” stands tall, firing off one dazzling moment after the other, like a money gun with its trigger firmly stuck down.

Listen to these songs as a Spotify playlist below.