2018 has been a great year for K-Pop – especially with its wider acceptance outside Asia. Back in 2013, Western audiences can’t even take I Got a Boy seriously or only think of the genre as whatever Psy puts out but fast forward to now and we have K-Pop acts like Monsta X and Momoland invading the telly or the cyberspace every other week and actually receiving positive reception from both fans and non-fans. It may sound cliché, but K-Pop has indeed gone a long way.
However, this current expansion poses a thought. Over the past two or three years, K-Pop has shifted to a sound that caters to a more global audience than ever before to a point that some tracks are already like those what you hear on a Top 40 radio station in the US. Does this mean that the continuous growth of the K-Pop market comes with veering away from its foundation? Don’t get me wrong, I know that K-Pop is greatly influenced by Western music, but they have always maintained a balance of some good ol’ kooky, campy, and kitschy flavor to it. Think of the K-Pop songs that will be turning 10 this year. Would those be able to crossover in the same way that most BTS songs did had they been released now? How would you distinguish K-Pop music now that it’s slowly become universal?
Anyway, here are the 40 tracks that have captured the attention of yours truly. These are all title tracks as a separate list for b-sides and guilty pleasures would be released who knows when.
40. Gugudan | The Boots – The ever-versatile Gugudan once again delivers a solid bop in the form of “The Boots” which sees a seamless intersection of their girl crush-pandering sound and their quirky group persona (I mean, how Puss in the Boots is this comeback though?).
More of gugudan: Semina, Not That Type
39. Hyolyn (feat. Gray) | Dally – The best thing about Dally is how you can see, hear, and feel the kind of music that Hyolyn has always wanted to do and perform. The girl is literally doing her own thing and it is such a delight to see her hustlin’ based on her own terms.
More of Hyolyn: See Sea, Bae
38. Lucas (NCT U) x Jonah Nilsson | Coffee Break – This is literally one of the few SM Station songs that deserved more shine. It’s a perfect blend of funk, jazz, and pop which is a standout even among some of the title tracks that SM dropped this year. Most importantly, releases like Coffee Break also show the potential that other NCT members possess, particularly Lucas who has showed a lot of personality in this track.
More NCT U: Boss
37. Seventeen | Oh My! – Thank heavens, Seventeen is finally getting their groove back. Oh My! contains that youthful and sunny vibe that the group dropped two years ago in favor the abomination that is Don’t Wanna Cry. Here’s to them continuing with this kind of music because I wouldn’t be able to forgive them if they came up with another off-brand Chainsmokers song.
More Seventeen: Thanks, A-Teen
36. DiA | Woo Woo – Plagiarism accusations aside, this is definitely one of the best of summer songs that came out this year. That 90s INOJ sound mixed with your cookie-cutter K-pop charms is one lethal combination. Woowoo baby!
35. Oh My Girl BANHANA | Banana Allergy Monkey – While OMG Banhana is another piece filed under failed Orange Caramel projects but hey, at least they tried introducing more chiptune into K-Pop. The whole EP, in fact, is a delight for anyone who enjoys 8-bit music (i.e: me).
34. CLC | Black Dress – I think the consensus among K-pop fans (me) CLC doing 4minute’s music is totally acceptable at this point after the latter called it quits. Can we say the same for Blackpink? At least, CLC makes better ripoffs, that’s all I’m gonna say.
33. TVXQ | The Chance of Love – With a track that sees a more relaxed TVXQ (which makes sense as it is their first comeback after military service), the duo shows that they are still forces to be reckoned with even when they don’t go their usual route. If they can scalp us with some derpy shoulder jerking and some quirky swing/pop music, what more if they go “Keep Your Head Down/Spellbound” on us?
More TVXQ: Love Line, Truth
32. IZ*ONE | La Vie En Rose – You can’t bring a pretty K-Pop song down is probably the best thing we can say about this group’s debut. Any upcoming or mid-tier girl group can do this song and people will not be salty about it. I mean, it almost fell into CLC’s hands (which is a bummer because this is a great variation of Black Dress). I’m gonna have to wait until they make a proper comeback to see if they IZ*ONE is worth following but everything about La Vie En Rose is pure K-pop gorgeousness.
31. SHINee | Good Evening – If I were to be extremely objective, Good Evening is not at par with what this great group has put out over the past years. But we are operating on an extremely high level when it comes to SHINee so it is safe to say that Good Evening is a great start to them moving forward.
More SHINee: Shinin’, Forever Yours, Blue
THE TOP 30
30. Girls’ Generation Oh!GG | Lil’ Touch – The Oh!GG subunit is probably the best thing SM has ever done to their legendary girl group considering that all of them are pursuing individual career goals as of the moment. It also helps that this sub-unit was given something as trendy and modern as Lil’ Touch as this gives Girls’ Generation a fresher take among newer K-Pop fans while simultaneously reminding them of what trailblazers these girls are.
More Girls’ Generation: Into You
29. Oh My Girl | Remember Me – I personally think that a lot of fans and casual listeners failed to recognize the sheer brilliance of Remember Me’s structure as most comments online say that this song falls under the “girl crush” concept (a cringey word, tbh). This is actually classic Oh My Girl in a sense that it is catchy enough for mainstream K-Pop but still gives room for quirky characteristics – making them one of the few more interesting acts from the newer generation. The lack of a chorus (which kicks at the two-minute mark btw), the anticlimactic build up, the abrupt ending – all these elements pay homage to Girls Aloud’s Biology which happens to be one of pop music’s finest moments. And all people can say is…girl crush? Smh.
28. (G)I-DLE – Hann (Alone) – How gorgeously 2012 K-Pop song is this though? This sounds like a non-Summer Sistar song or even a b-side to a Brown Eyed Girls album and that recognition is something you can’t just give away to newer groups. If (G)I-DLE continues this route, they might actually give Cube a second wind that they so need nowadays.
27. Hyoyeon/DJ HYO | Punk Right Now – The birth of DJ HYO is probably one of the best things to have happened to Hyoyeon’s solo career. It’s kinda similar to Hyolyn’s – she has more creative freedom and it shows. Punk Right Now is the kind of pace that her solo should have started with. The girl is a feisty performer so a track and choreography that fits this side of her is what she deserves, and I think she found that with Punk Right Now.
More DJ Hyo: Sober
26. Vinxen | Yoo Jae Suk – I found about this young talent from a tweet where salty fans gave him the black ocean during MAMA and I’m quite thankful that I stumbled upon that because it gave me this amazing track. K-hip hop is not actually my cup of tea but this insightful young man found a way to showcase his and a Hallyu institution’s vulnerability at the same time. Not even veterans can do that much so you have to give it to him.
25. Kyungri | Blue Moon – What I like the most about Star Empire is despite the amount of fckery they have done with 9Muses (even before they debuted), they still put out great stuff for the girls when they feel like giving them something to promote with. Kyungri’s solo debut is not an exception. It’s sultry, modern, and tips its hat off to the sophisticated aura of her main group. I really have no idea what will become of the Muses at this point except for maybe one last 9Muses A comeback, but Kyungri can continue being a mid-tier (and better) Sunmi/Hyuna if that’s what brings the buck for SE.
24. The Boyz | Right Here – As for K-boy groups, we will always have room for The Boyz who serve up fresh bops with their younger SHINee realness. They have been extremely consistent with that brand if you navigate through their discography and it gets better everytime they come back. We need more boy groups in K-Pop that do not rely on “K-Pop hypermasculinity” (got this off Twitter and it is such an oxymoron, but I get it) and I hope The Boyz continues doing this heroic act for the industry.
More The Boyz: Giddy Up
23. BoA | One Shot, Two Shot – The legendary pop star’s transition to a softer, more feminine sound continues with One Shot, Two Shot. The track is one of her dreamiest yet, but it certainly does allow her to bust her classic moves in a way that we have always adored her (watch the equally trippy video as well).
More BoA: Woman, Nega Dola
22. Momoland | Bboom Bboom – While Bboom Bboom is easily dismissed by fans as basic and unoriginal (arguably), this song is an important landmark in the industry this year as it allowed the classic Shinsadong Tiger sound to take center stage once again and that is something that the K-Pop needed anyway. Campy, catchy, and cringey K-Pop tunes served as the foundation to what the industry has achieved now and Momoland being the vessel of such sound to be accessible to newer listeners is their biggest contribution to the genre. Besides, you can say that Momoland is a one-hit wonder but Bboom Bboom and Baam are being sung and danced by all ages, played in all kinds of parties, and most importantly a staple among Zumba moms across Asia…and it has no signs of stopping anytime soon. Lemme see if your faves can have that impact!
More Momoland: Baam
21. Soyou | All Night (featuring Sik-K) – Anybody who revives Ga-In’s step 2/4 era automatically gets a yes from the Patbingsoo. Soyou has been boxed to your good ol’ sweet ballad collabs so this song is a great reminder that she can bring out her Sistar goodies when she wants to – even when she’s just on her own.
20. NCT Dream | We Go Up – We Go Up is another proof that Dream is actually the superior NCT unit because they always stay on brand even though they’re gradually growing up with every release. This may be no Chewing Gum, but the youthful energy that made Dream a lovable and unique sub-unit is still ever so present in We Go Up.
More NCT: Regular, Baby Don’t Stop
19. fromis_9 | Love Bomb – A lot of struggling newer groups always share something in common – they often jump from one concept to another with the hopes of finding one that can give them a hit. And in that journey, they often find themselves dabbling with extremely interesting content without even knowing it. As to how fromis_9 landed with Love Bomb and became literal explosives, we might never find out. One thing’s for sure though – this song is the bomb! (pun intended)
18. Seungri | 1,2,3 – Seungri has always been Big Bang’s best solo act for the sole reason that he always mixes his colorful personality to his releases. This is how he separates himself from what the group usually what does. 1,2,3 is a perfect mixture of pop rock and some show tune and it encapsulates Seungri as a person – fun, vibrant, and a little naughty (we all been knew though?).
17. Hyomin | Mango – The“man_go” pun alone is one of the best things that happened in K-Pop this year and it’s unfortunate that it did not gain any sort of virality in her homeland because this song deserved better. In addition, Mango hits all the marks in terms of a trendy pop song in a global landscape, so why the hell did they not do that?! With that, I hereby declare this song as “the best song no one listened to”.
16. LOONA | Hi High – This supergroup’s conception (at least from how I understood it) is an amalgamation of all their solo releases – resulting to a sound that can be many things but is still universally and organically LOONA. Did they achieve that with Hi High? Thank heavens, they did! I mean you can hear a little of each LOONA girl here – from Hyunjin to the adorable Chuu, the fabulous Choerry, and the Odd Eye Circle and yyxy intersection. Even their Grimes unnie is there!
More LOONA: love4eva, favOrite
15. GOT7 | Lullaby – GOT7 shares a similar case with Seventeen in a sense that they had “dark ages” wherein they had to sell out in order to gain more traction. Who can ever forget the mess that is Hard Carry?! Thankfully, they have resorted back to their boy-next-door charms but with a more matured approach. They first hit it right with Look and now they have perfected such sound with the luscious Lullaby. These two GOT7 tracks prove that you don’t need to release a DJ Snake/Chainsmokers knock-off to make it big. A funky, disco number with some pastel-colored outfits can make your case sometimes.
More GOT7: Look
14. GWSN | Puzzle Moon – I’d consider GWSN as one of the strongest debuts this year because they have found a niche on their debut – and that is a difficult feat to achieve. If they continue with this ethereal sound mixed with subdued deep house beats and some good ol’ K-Pop girl group charms, they might develop a bigger cult following. People have been calling them the new f(x) which is quite a stretch because hello, a song which sounds like 4 Walls and a member with a bob doesn’t make you one, but they can try. Their only real competition for the title though is Oh My Girl so get that recognition girls!
13. APink | I’m So Sick – APink fully discarding their signature sound warrants them a spot in this year-end list because it is a moment but more than that, the song itself is deserving of praise. Some elements of what made them successful is still there and what makes it work even better is that they took inspiration from the grown-up sound of groups like After School and Brown Eyed Girls. That’s how you do it!!!
12. Yubin | Thank You Soooo Much – Another heroic act in K-Pop this year is the birth of Yubin’s solo career. As I have always mentioned, the death of the Wonder Girls is extremely untimely so its remnants finding its way to one of the girls still under JYP is a modern-day miracle. Although “Lady” is a Reboot track down to the core, TYSM allows Yubin’s fierce personality to shine through in what sounds like a track that the old and new Wonder Girls could come back with.
More Yubin: Lady
11. Taeyeon | Something New – Taeyeon further solidifies her credibility as a formidable solo act with this track because like what the title suggests, it is indeed something new for the kid leader. It is as sinister sounding as “I Got Love” but this time around, she relies on groovy adult contemporary music to drive the mood across. Something new only proves that Taeyeon joins IU as one of the few modern soloists who can shapeshift their music and still make it palatable to listeners.
10. SF9 | Now or Never – SF9 has had their share of versatile bops (they’re like the male gugudan) as a part of finding a hit but this refined and fabulous sound in “Now or Never” could probably give them some clear direction moving forward. This track made SF9 look sensuous without being revealing, mature but not too dress up, and polished without going overboard. They might follow this up with something like Mamma Mia or O Sole Mio but Now or Never will remain as the era where they did not play around so to speak.
More SF9: Mamma Mia
9. Day6 | days gone by – Okay, these retro-inspired jams find their way in when the year’s just about to end, right? Last year, it was Uhm Jung Hwa’s Ending Scene and now we have this. This song aside from being an addition to Day6’s interesting discography (those monthly releases last year were amazing) is another proof that the spirit of the late Wonder Band is still alive and thriving. Loljk, that’s quite a reach because Day6 started out as a band but I mean, this can work for a Reboot repack?!
8. Pentagon | Shine – Controversy aside, there’s no denying that Shine is a breakthrough for Pentagon because they finally found a song that could make them stand out from the rest. There’s a little “Love Scenario” vibes going on a closer listen but the group’s boy-next-door/nerdy/goofy presence helped it stand on its own. I hope they come out with another track that can replicate the impact that Shine did. Naughty Boy could have done it, but it really came out at the wrong time.
More Pentagon: Naughty Boy
7. April | Oh! My Mistake – This unique combination of chillwave and K-pop girl group charm is something you wouldn’t expect from a group like April but if you come to think of it, they have been jumping off from one concept to another so it’s really fortunate for this gem to land on their hands. It also helps that the girls tackled this track in a deadpan/subdued manner which adds to its surprisingly alternative vibe. And it’s about how being pretty caused a lot of trouble for their suitors too which makes it more hilarious!
6. BTS | Idol – Idol is a triumph in so many ways, but I’d like for us to look at two important points to understand its impact. First, an idol group embracing their identities as public figures adored by millions is something you do not hear in the industry at all that it’s almost taboo. BTS tackling this head on through “Idol” gives their “Love Yourself” brand a bit of authenticity. It also helps that they are the biggest group in the game because the message is resonated among millions and helps in molding a positive image for the genre. Second, BTS returning to a sound which is reminiscent of their earlier work is proof that K-Pop as it is can hit big elsewhere without the need to submit to the trends of the market they’re targeting. This time I can tell that they really made it.
More BTS: Fake Love
5. IU | BBIBBI – IU’s comebacks are always satisfying because it always comes in a different package. You know it’s gonna be good, but you have no idea as to what it will sound like. I mean, she has traversed through big band, electronica, acid jazz, and each of them has found a way to mesh with her voice and personality. This time around, IU finds herself in experimental RnB with the hip and current BbiBbi. While the message is awfully familiar (23), to see IU being a success in an entirely new genre makes her one of the reasons why y’all should listen to more K-Pop.
4. EXID | Lady – One of the things I personally like about this genre is how it commits to a concept or a decade that they take inspiration from. So, if you really want something unapologetically 90s for example, expect these groups to give it to you good. Such is the case for EXID’s Lady. Every inch of it – from the song to the choreography down to the clothes screams 90s TLC that it’s breathtaking. A spin of Hat 2 Da Back and Lady side to side would drive this point home so I’ll just ask you to do that.
More EXID: I Love You
3. Red Velvet | Bad Boy – I’m really not sold on the idea that the Red and the Velvet concepts of this group can co-exist as I liked it better when they tackled Red and Velvet individually, but things took a different turn though when their second LP Perfect Velvet came around. Peek-a-Boo proved me wrong and now, Bad Boy further solidifies this claim. If this is what the Perfect Red Velvet really sounds like, then count me in.
More Red Velvet: Power Up, RBB
2. iKON | Love Scenario – You can’t bring a solid anthem down even if you can’t stand the hell out of a group. That is probably the best thing I can conjure to describe what I feel about iKON’s Love Scenario. It’s not even a guilty pleasure but more of being captivated by a damn good song. It’s simple, relatable, and it works. It’s hard to be salty about that! And as much as I like Winner a tad bit more, iKON owned the hell of this song so anything that comes out of any group in the near future with the same vibe will always be attributed to them. As what stan twt says, “Dat impact!”.
More iKON: Killing Me
1. EXO | Tempo – As one of the groups from the newer generation who made great strides, broke records left and right, and was generally unrivaled for a period of time, there sure is a ton of expectation from Exo to always stay on top. What makes EXO a special case is how they never submitted to that pressure and instead focused on how they can become better at what they’re good at. They’ve already proven themselves with sales and following so it’s time to let their body of work speak for itself. That’s why we have Tempo.
Arguably one of their best singles, Tempo is a showcase of EXO’s strength in RnB and what many other things they can do with such genre. It contains references of the songs they have done before but not without bringing something new to the table. If an acapella break in the middle of a song doesn’t prove that, then I don’t know what will. Such ingenuity is a rare sight in K-Pop nowadays and it’s good that one of its current top acts is leading the pack.
If slow and steady really wins the race, then EXO is right as hell when they say to not mess up with their tempo.
More EXO: Love Shot
Follow the k-pop top 40 of 2018 through this Spotify playlist:
So what did you think of this list? Drop a comment below and let’s discuss. To a greater 2019!