the k-pop top 40 of 2015

It’s safe to say that the mainstream K-pop music scene finally regained its pace this year. After what seemed to be a controversy-led 2014 (which actually took away the attention from the consistently great music released that year btw), 2015, through its horde of comebacks and debuts, was able to steer the focus back to the characteristic which made the genre an interesting and immersive experience to begin with – its diversity.

From vintage EDM crossovers to twisted disco numbers and funky acid trip tracks, here are some of my favorite K-pop tracks for the year.

NOTE: This list is generally focused on title tracks (or lead singles) released by the artists.

BUBBLING UNDER

2PM – My House

My House continues 2PM’s mature and sensual trademark (first introduced in 2013’s Grown), but taking a more dapper approach this time around. With its slick guitar riffs and smooth vocal production courtesy of member Jun.K, My House is perhaps the most suave booty call ever.

miss A – Only You

Only You, the group’s comeback since 2013’s Hush, dials down miss A’s trademark ferocity and taps more on their femininity – reflected in Only You’s laid back production which features a sexy trumpet hook on top of a no-frills, feel-good summer pop beat.

Super Junior – Devil

Devil puts Super Junior at where they should be, musically at least. After six straight years of churning out tracks that is heavily performance-based, Super Junior finally comes with a track that makes you simply want to sing and jam with them, plain and simple.

Mamamoo – Um Oh Ah Yeah

Um Oh Ah Yeh might be considered by some as Mamamoo’s ultimate sellout song (which worked in their favor btw) but despite this, the 90s inspired bubblegum pop track is rife with the group’s signature sass and energy which makes it a captivating and overall, a satisfying track – and this is coming from a certified MooMoo (yay!).

A Pink – Remember

Featuring a refreshing flute-based hook coupled with their standard saccharine pop, Remember continues the gradual evolution in A Pink’s signature sound that started with 2014’s Luv. As a result, the group remains securely confined in their winning formula while displaying a hint of progress at the same time.

Jonghyun – Crazy (Guilty Pleasure)

Jonghyun’s pre-release track Deja-Boo may have fared better on the charts, but lead single Crazy (Guilty Pleasure) with its somewhat dark and eerily sexual nature, gives Jonghyun’s first solo effort a little bit of distinction from the SHINee sound that we’re all used to hearing from (exactly the point of an idol solo release, right?).

TVXQ – Rise as One (Max Changmin Solo)

Highly inspired by the music of David Guetta (Titanium, anyone?), Rise as One is a fist-pumping EDM track that perfectly complements Max Changmin’s operatic vocal tone. However, nothing is really extensively inventive with this release which is totally okay, as the release is specifically serviced as a farewell gift to the Cassies (TVXQ’s fanclub name) given that the duo is scheduled for military service this year.

Nine Muses – Hurt Locker

Hurt Locker has steered the amazingly consistent Nine Muses discography to a totally different direction but for a group that has always been slept on despite the high quality of their releases, a sellout (of some sorts) is really necessary by now. For this comeback, Namyu went for a standard EDM fare which actually is highly infectious and effective as far as summer bangers go. However, it ultimately falls behind the chic and luxurious sound that the group has been associated with since debut.

IU – Twenty Three

Who else would be perfect to talk about the growing pains of young adulthood but IU herself? IU grew up as that little sister that everybody loves but after all the scandals that marred her pure image, the singer stood as strong as ever and is now ready to embrace the ambiguous and restless phase of growing up. Twenty Three a basically a big FU to those who thought that she can’t hold and think on her own, so it’s obviously is daebak. (P.S. Song Ji Eun’s take on this one is a cheekier and slightly better version of IU’s imo but both still slay)

Exo – Love Me Right

Funky and energetic, Exo’s Love Me Right is the perfect follow-up to remedy their cheesy fangirl fodder Call Me Baby as it offers a little more depth and vocal maturity while staying in the lane of catchy and solid tunes that the group has always been known for. Gauging by public appeal though, Love Me Right may not stick as well as how Growl was but it’s nice to see Exo getting slightly unorthodox like it was 2012 all over again.

THE TOP 30

  1. Dal Shabet – Joker

I’d consider Joker as Dal Shabet’s Miniskirt moment as it possesses the sexy and jazzy vibe of AOA’s 2014 breakout hit (at some point, they even sound the same!). Aside from that, Dal Shabet accompanied the song with a naughty harlequin concept which perfectly complements a song with such title (duh). All in all, despite being a step down from the gorgeous Eurythmics ripoff B.B.B last year, Joker is still a fairly solid comeback for the group.

  1. EXID – Ah Yeah

EXID’s breakout moment with the highly infectious Up and Down was still at its high when Ah Yeah came out but its EXID’s “don’t fix when it’s not broken” production that made the song succeed on its own. With Ah Yeah, EXID has called dibs on a sound that they can call their own and they can safely play around with (also evident on their follow-up Hot Pink later this year).

  1. Oh My Girl – Closer

B1A4’s sister group Oh My Girl started out strong with their drumline-inspired Cupid but it’s the dreamy and ethereal production paired with the tender vocals in Closer that has given them an edge over other contemporaries banking on the same image as theirs (G-Friend, April, Lovelyz). Closer may have alienated their sound way too far that it could pass off as a crossover pop track but I guess that’s a bit reaching lol.

  1. Seventeen – Adore U and Mansae

The raw and youthful energy emanating from Adore U and Mansae is highly infectious and perfectly displays the vast potential that Seventeen can explore in the long run. And while we’re at it, for a huge group, this is how happy and invigorated Exo must sound, just sayin’.

  1. 4Minute – Crazy

What makes Crazy work so well is that it delivers what it promises from the moment the first beat drops. Rapid-fire rap verses followed by a smoothly transitioned pre-chorus breakdown that goes down to a chorus which brings out your “swag”…and repeat! JiYoon was right when she said “everybody let’s get crazy right now”!

  1. Girls’ Generation – Party, Lion Heart, and You Think

All three tracks in this comeback are confined within Girls’ Generation’s wide array of concepts. Party bursts with GG’s brightness and sugary aegyo while Lion Heart is reminiscent of their retro-tinged pop hits filled with sweetness and femininity. You Think, on the other hand, alludes to their Black Soshi and Bad Girl eras with their intensity and fierceness.

While nothing is entirely novel and inventive in these tracks like how 2013’s I Got a Boy was, this comeback was meant to highlight SNSD’s main strength as a group especially that this particular one was their first full-length release after Jessica’s departure. By successfully gliding through varying concepts and putting their own spin on it (a feat that not a lot of Korean girl groups can’t do), SNSD then and again tells the K-pop world that they are still a force to be reckoned with.

  1. MFBTY – Bang Diggy Bang Bang

Subdued to some extent (especially when compared to other hard hitting K-HipHop tracks), MFBTY’s Bang Diggy Bang Bang stands out for its worldly production. With Hindustani musical influences playing over 808 beats, MFBTY’s anthem to how awesome they are, reaches a global appeal and further cements K-pop’s ever evolving sound.

  1. NU’EST’ – I’m Bad

With a sound reminiscent of a boy band ditty from the 90s (think Savage Garden), NU’EST’s I’m Bad presents a more mature and laid back sound for the group, almost reminiscent of their ode to telephones and heartbreaks, Hello.

  1. HelloVenus – Wiggle Wiggle and I’m Ill

Straight up ratchet would be the best way to describe Hello Venus’ comeback tracks this year – and that’s not a bad thing at all. Wiggle Wiggle puts the werk in twerk with its fat bass line and hip-hop beat while I’m Ill serves as a great swagsong (#vocabularygoals) thanks to its catchy and frenetic EDM-Hi-NRG crossover sound. To put it simply, HelloVenus easily snatched the “it’s too bad that it’s too good” moment for K-pop idol music this year.

  1. Fromm – The Aftermath (featuring Minhyun of NU’EST)

The only K-indie track in this list, I stumbled upon this track while checking out NU’EST’s I’m Bad. Poignant and realistic, The Aftermath talks about the struggle of a couple coping with a breakup as seen in the lyrics narrating how they miss the smallest things about their partners (from how their morning rituals to their daily work routines) but ultimately retuning to the reality that they are currently facing and living.

  1. The Ark – The Light

The Ark makes a strong debut with The Light – a slice of vintage and feel-good pop about being “friends forever”. I’d go as far as naming the song as the Korean counterpart of Vitamin C’s iconic song “Graduation” with the kind of feels that The Light brings.

  1. FT Island – Pray

As the K-pop music scene is rife with dance-pop jams about heartbreaks and first crushes, it is refreshing to hear a straight up rock song once in a while and FT Island has nailed this with Pray. Intense and relentless, Pray sees the band at their most vulnerable as they get down on their knees and seek for a divine intervention of some sorts.

  1. Sunggyu – Kontrol

Astray from the soloist’s pop-rock sound, Kontrol still makes use of Sunggyu’s emotive vocal delivery to a good amount. The song starts out in a minimalist beat up until the chorus wherein we can hear the singer lamenting over the long wait of a lover’s return over an explosion of melancholic synthpop.

  1. Mamamoo and eSNa – Ahh Oop

Ahh Oop‘s buildup of this song may be a drag for some, but it’s what makes Mamamoo and eSNa’s brassy collaboration a sheer delight. The amount of restraint (evident in their vocal performance) serves as a tease for listeners who are up for a treat once the song reaches its penultimate end. It actually plays well with the lyrics too as they start off by subtly shrugging off every catcalling guy that comes along their way, whispering “just look, don’t touch” up until they’ve had enough and explode with a sassy reminder that these ladies ain’t got no time for these kind of shallow games. At it girls!

  1. Big Bang – Bae Bae

This sexually charged song that talks about how a certain girl makes BigBang’s blood rush to “that one place again” starts off with a minimal and trippy hip-hop beat but it’s the unique chorus of Bae Bae that takes away the cake. With acoustic guitars accompanying a melodramatic delivery from the fivesome’s resident vocalists, Bae Bae achieves an organic sound which makes it stand out from all the tracks in the MADE series.

  1. Bangtan Boys (BTS) – I Need U

The rise of Bangtan finally took off to greater heights this year with their sentimental hit I Need U. In this song, the group assumes a more vulnerable stance as they sing about longing for their significant other. What makes “I Need U” more palpable is that their lyricism is rife with teenage angst but is set against a softer composition that features subdued hip-hop beats and dubstep breaks – creating an intense yet highly vulnerable sound that BTS considers as “the most beautiful moment in life”.

  1. Taeil – Inspiring

Featuring a stripped down and piano-led production, Taeil’s (of Block B) Inspiring interprets the feeling of deeply falling in love in the rawest way possible. With the instrumentation being subdued, the focus of the song is on the beautifully written lyrics and the singer’s highly emotional vocal delivery. This is especially highlighted towards the end when Taeil painfully growls about how his world literally trembles when he is with his girl. Love, y’all.

  1. B1A4 – Sweet Girl

Sweet Girl sees B1A4’s maturing musicality as it features a smoother sound far from their usual poppy and vibrant tracks.  Complete with disco strings and an epic guitar breakdown (which saved the song from being monotonous), the quintet sings about being swooned over by a girl who is as sweet as a butterfly (while we’re at it, what’s with Korea’s obsession with butterflies?)

  1. GOT7 – Just Right

GOT7 has built a reputation of having music that is highly inspired by western boybands from the 90s with a modern twist of some sorts (check out the amazing A and Stop Stop It). This is continually evident in Just Right, a song led by a summery vibe and hip-pop beats subtle enough that it will make you bob your head just right (see what I did there?). Just Right has an interesting structure with two choruses that build up well enough to this year’s most chill instrumental breakdown. Lyrically-wise, GOT7 hits the right spots with this song by focusing on embracing your inner beauty (cheesy but timely, so it warrants a pass).

  1. G-Soul – Crazy For You

Inspired by the resurgence of the deep house genre, G-Soul’s anthem of losing your mind over your lover is perhaps this year’s smoothest way to declare such. G-Soul’s soulful vocals soars in Crazy for You that comes with lyrics such as “If loving you is wrong baby, then I don’t wanna be right”, rightfully driving his point home.

  1. Red Velvet – Automatic and Ice Cream Cake

The concept of Red Velvet as a group is built upon having two faces – with “Red” representing their quirky and energetic side and “Velvet”, their more mature sound. Such is perfectly embodied in their dual singles Automatic and Ice Cream Cake. The former features a minimalist RnB production with a very sensual vocal delivery while the latter is a frenetic hodgepodge of trap snares, video game bleeps, and children lullabies about a sexual innuendo veiled in the context of craving for a popular dessert.

  1. Stellar – Vibrato

Stellar sings over a twisted nu-disco number in Vibrato, a track about trembling over a guy that got the ladies of the infamous quartet on their knees. While it is an outstanding track per se, (check out the amazing and seamlessly placed breakdown on the song’s second half) its accompanying video is noteworthy as well as it plays on how Stellar is perceived by the public – something that the group and their company played well to their advantage. The video references their controversial “Marionette” video and the public shaming that came with it (that Carrie homage though), how their sexualization all plays under the ploy of gaining attention and the struggle to score a hit, and how they are comfortable enough to recognize this ugly truth. Whether the foursome has accidently touched on this meta concept or they’re just streets ahead compared to us doesn’t matter because this is what makes Stellar an enjoyable act – they are not accessible and they make you think.

  1. Rainbow – Black Swan

Rainbow’s Black Swan is another twisted and disjointed disco number that may be well ahead of its time (just as some of the group’s stuff are). It starts off silently as the ladies sing about experiencing an identity conflict of some sorts which is a clear allusion to the movie from which the song is based. Then it explodes in a chorus filled with distorted disco strings and synths as they beg for acceptance and love. The production is not that in-your-face and may be a little too unconventional (which is why it tanked commercially) but it is this envelope-pushing acts that make K-pop music more enjoyable and interesting than its contemporaries.

  1. Brown Eyed Girls – Brave New World

In a nutshell, Brave New World is a disco-inspired song (think MJ’s Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough) about alternate universes where everything is reversed. The thought of marrying these two parallel timelines is a masterpiece in itself and BEG delivered it in a way that no other group can. Check out Miryo’s part which starts off by blatantly veering away from the main beat in favor a hip-hop inspired rap breakdown…and then seamlessly transitions back into disco groove like it was nothing. Only BEG.

  1. Wonder Girls – I Feel You

The 2015 return of The Wonder Girls is a big irony, albeit an enjoyable one so to speak. With Sunye and Sohee leaving, former Wonder Girl Sunmi (who is a successful soloist as we speak) suddenly rejoins and the group was repackaged into a band – instruments and all. While this “Reboot” may seem like a radical change for the quartet, I Feel You confidently stays on WG’s lane music-wise – with more libido to unleash this time around…and that is totally fine!  The freestyle track screams 80s retro glamour, something that the group has perfected to a T. This may be a bit reaching (and silly) but with I Feel You, it’s like the Wonder Girls never left at all. Well, this is K-Pop and there will always be space for these ladies despite having lineup changes will put the Sugababes to shame.

  1. Nine Muses – Drama

The return of the criminally underrated Nine Muses was especially exciting because it will be their first offering after two years of a messy hiatus (Lee Sem, Eunji, and Sera will forever be missed) and they’re not working with Sweetune who has consistently given them K-Pop’s most solid efforts. Worries about a drastic change of sound were put to rest as Drama is what the good ol’ Nine Muses is all about – chic, funky, and classy af. It also comes with very interesting lyrics which talks about a girl falling for her BFF’s man in the first part and getting confused along the way because in the second part, the BFF and her bae are this close to calling it quits. Is it time to sneak up and get that man or must she be the supportive sidekick who stands by their #squadgoals? Such drama, much wow!

  1. Ga-In – Apple and Paradise Lost

In K-Pop, a solo release will work if it deviates from the kind of music that the core group offers. Although the Brown Eyed Girls has their share of envelope-pushing concepts, Ga-In has perfectly adapted this norm but has incorporated it with a concept that she has consistently touched on – female sexuality. We’ve seen her cover the spectrum from the bright “Bloom” to the abrasive “Fxxk U” but this time, she takes on both and elevates it to a very fresh discourse.

It’s important to place these two together because these tracks complement each other. Both songs (the whole EP actually) take inspiration from the classic story of Adam and Eve but this is Ga-In, so it will be a bit different. In Paradise Lost, she approaches the story from the serpent’s perspective, insisting that women are trapped from a false fantasy that represses women from being the liberated creatures that they are which is then complemented by Apple, where Eve asserts that they give in to their pleasures and be not afraid to take that risk. Ga-In may have ruffled some feathers across the globe but what is K-Pop without the risks?

  1. BoA – Kiss My Lips

My top three tracks for 2015 share something in common – all of them are a demonstration of the group’s restraint from what they are usually associated with. BoA through the years has started to tone down her urban sound to a more intimate offering. She tries to put a balance between these two dimensions in 2012’s “Only One” but this time, BoA has fallen deep into her feminine, sensual side. Kiss My Lips is the most subdued BoA has ever sounded, promo singles-wise. The synth-led RnB track has the Queen of K-Pop cooing and moaning as she invites her guy to come a little closer for some good lovin’. It may not be the “Eat You Up” BoA, but it’s an interesting musical journey worth listening to.

  1. SHINee – View

From Ring Ding Dong to Lucifer to Sherlock to Everybody, SHINee has been a relentless, performance-based group with a unique sound and concept to boot. However, things take a different turn with their comeback track View.

Here’s why View is awesome:

a.) It sees SHINee in a calmer and more grown-up palette (they are literally chillin’ with Thai models in the video, what more do you need?). The music, the video, the performance – everything is toned down this time around but in a way, you’d still hear that shining Shinee sound.

b.) The group has literally led the way for mainstream idols to dabble on a restrained, nostalgic, 90s-inspired deep house track (which is relatively new and risky by idol standards, especially when stuff like Bang Bang Bang gives them life)

c.) View further cements the fact that SHINee can work on any genre and claim it as their own.

  1. f(x) – 4 Walls

This list may have just ended with View but as usual, f(x) cockblocked and delivered (damn, that sounds nasty!).

Most comments about 4 Walls talk about how it sounds like View. I’d say that…but I won’t. You see, View leans towards that euphoric summer jam that you blast on your car on you way to a nudist beach. 4 Walls is more of an ethereal experience that transports you into a vast forest of illusions, overlapping dreams, twisted fantasies, and whatever pseudo-hipster stuff you got there (this is why the accompanying video is all sorts of perfection). f(x)’s vocals play a vital role here, particularly Krystal’s, whose signature whispery, high-pitched voice definitively formed the song’s mystical mood.

Perhaps 4 Walls is the most straightforward f(x) has ever been in terms of song structure, but this is an f(x) track need I remind you so this will be no basic affair. The little quirks are still there, despite having no insane instrumental layering ala “Rum Pum Pum” or jarring transitions akin to “Red Light”. The creepy and dreamy tone of “Shadow” is there, the acid trip induced euphoria of “Butterfly” can be heard in some parts – it’s like taking the bits of what makes f(x) as K-pop’s best left field group and packaging in a more accessible manner. This proves true in the album of the same name whose genre bounces back from the walls of EDM to synthpop only but of course in standard f(x) fashion.

It’s fun, it’s catchy, it’s creepy, it’s dreamy, it’s quirky, it’s f(x) – so it’s the best.

*drops mic, walks away*

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