20 Best K-Pop Songs of 2016: Critic's Picks

ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images
Zico, Crush and Dean attend a press conference ahead of the start of the Mnet Asian Music Awards at Asia-World Expo in Hong Kong on Dec. 2, 2016. 

This year, the K-pop scene saw a shift as a mix of young, established and forgotten acts went head-to-head on the charts. From 2016's most trendy acts like Twice, BTS and I.O.I to veterans like SHINee and Wonder Girls, plus the comebacks of Sechs Kies and Ladies' Code, this is our look at the best K-pop singles of the year.

20. Twice, "Cheer Up"
Was there a more ubiquitous K-pop song in 2016? Despite a bit of a stumble with Twice's debut single in 2015, they secured themselves in hearts of K-pop fans to see this pep anthem become a megahit and solidify themselves as a leader in the girl-group game. From bouncy bop production to the criminally catchy chorus plus member Sana's adorable "shy shy shy" hook in the pre-chorus, avoiding the "Cheer Up" addiction was impossible.

 

Billboard Year in Music 2016

19. Sechs Kies, "Three Words"
After abruptly disbanding in 2000, classic boy band Sech Kies made their highly anticipated comeback under superlabel YG Entertainment. "Three Words" is a mid-tempo ballad written and composed by Epik High mastermind Tablo and YG's in-house producer Future Bounce. The song immediately captivated the hearts of old and new fans alike as the boys vow to "always be here" and never leave again.


18. Brave Girls, "Deepened"
K-pop super-producer Brave Brothers proved he still had the magic touch in 2016 with the single to reboot the girl group baring his namesake. From the smoky opening, the ladies made heartbroken melancholy sound sexier than ever.


17. Nell, "Dream Catcher"
Centered around a stomping, choir-inspired chorus, the stirring "Dream Catcher" saw Korea's most dependable indie rockers exploring gospel territory to stunning results.


16. Ladies' Code, "Galaxy"
A fatal car accident in 2014 saw Ladies' Code lose two of its members and now, two years later, the group shifted their focus from brassy bubblegum pop to a more mature R&B sound. The trio's comeback track "Galaxy" boasts a luxurious and lush soundscape that recalls the sounds of classic '90s girl groups.

 

15. Han Dong Geun, "Amazing You"
Powerhouse vocalist Han Dong Geun came to national attention by appearing on and winning singing competition program The Great Birth, but it was the 23-year-old's impeccable performance on new single "Amazing You" that cemented his status as a true vocal force to be reckoned with.

 

14. Fei, "Fantasy"
The solo debut of Miss A member Fei was largely overshadowed by a controversy at the time about Korean-Chinese relations, which is a shame as "Fantasy" is a synthy dream with the starlet creating a smoldering sonic world all her own.

 

13. GFriend, "Rough"
GFriend solidified their place as one of the top new girl groups with "Rough," which perfected their formula of synthesizer-driven pop with dramatic violin lines and a more impassioned vocal delivery than we heard from the six beauties. 


12. B1A4, "A Lie"
Consistency is key with B1A4 as the boy band continues to put out high-quality annual releases. The autumnal "A Lie" brought rock-pop to an exciting new place where gooey harmonies, hip-hop chants and trappy snares can all coexist in one remarkable release.

 

11. I.O.I, "Very Very Very"
During I.O.I's time together, the 11 young ladies that were put together on the sensational Produce 101 singing competition show created one of the biggest earworms in recent history with "Very Very Very." The 8-bit-inspired gem drew many comparisons to Girls' Generation's breakout smash "Gee," that for years was the top-viewed K-pop video on YouTube pre-"Gangnam Style." Whether or not this track goes just as viral, it cemented the girls as the future's must-watch stars.

 

10. SHINee, "Tell Me What to Do"
Veteran boy band SHINee forwent all trends to create a simple-yet-powerful, electro-pop gem with "Tell Me What to Do." Over surging beats, the guys show off their vocal chops with chill-inducing belts that are still accessible enough for the listener to sing along with, highlighting one of SHINee's biggest strengths through the years.

 

9. Heize & Dean, "Shut Up and Groove"
Heize proved to be one of the most versatile female singer-songwriters to emerge into the mainstream this year with this playful R&B piece being the best piece of evidence. With an assist from label mate Dean and his shadowy croons, Heize gets a chance to showcase multiple sides of her artistry on this infectious single. 

 

8. Urban Zakapa, "I Don't Love You"
The standout ballad of 2016, Urban Zakapa's vocal ability makes one feel emotional indifference, vulnerability, rejection and sadness -- all at the same time in what sounds like will soon be a classic soundtrack single.

 

7. Taeyeon, "11:11"
After Taeyeon's major solo debut with 2015's stunning "I," she continued to showcase her potential as a solo act with the jazzy "Rain," electro-pop anthem "Why" and the gem "11:11." A tender, intimate, acoustic-led cut, "11:11" played off the Girls' Generation member's best qualities while still having her explore new sonic territories.

 

6. Live, Sik-K, Punchnello, Owen Ovadoz, Flowsik, "Eung Freestyle"
Featuring a host of hip-hop greats and exciting new prospects -- a.k.a. Live, Sik-K, Punchnello, Owen Ovadoz and Flowsik -- "Eung Freestyle" is undeniably one of the most impressive posse cuts of the year. The song became an viral smash without any major label backing or promotional efforts, racking up millions of views on YouTube in the process.

 

5. BTS, "Blood Sweat & Tears"
Probably the most accessible K-pop song to be released this year, BTS had their eye on the global market with this electronic-inspired hip-hop track. The single embraced the same tropical sounds one would hear in a Justin Bieber or Major Lazer single, but the guys made it their own with intense rap sections and impassioned vocal deliveries. It wouldn't sound out of place on American Top 40 radio, but still retains a uniqueness that feels special to BTS.

 

4. Blackpink, "Whistle"
The pressure was on for Blackpink a.k.a. the first girl group to debut after international sensations 2NE1 under YG Entertainment, the house of PSY and BIGBANG. But the ladies brought it (and then some) with this slightly melancholy banger that brought breathy coos with staccato-fire raps and passionate harmonies -- all topped with a simple-yet-brilliant whistle hook. It was universally appealing while at the same time felt like a unique way to help Blackpink carve out an area all their own.

 

3. EXO, "Monster"
EXO proved why they're still at the top of K-pop game with their summer single that saw them exploring new musical territory, but still providing the utmost in pop music. Listeners might have been surprised to hear a dark, hip-hop beat open "Monster," but once that undeniable chorus hits, it's clear that EXO has still got the pop-music magic that's kept them such phenomenons throughout their time together.

2. Wonder Girls, "Why So Lonely"
Continuing upon the brilliance of Wonder Girls' new band-focused concept -- that saw them create 2015's best K-pop album -- they did it again with this reggae-leaning single. Embracing a psychedelic, '70s feel, "Why So Lonely" once again saw the throwback queens conquering another musical era, but also touching listeners' emotions with a track that discussed the complex feelings of being with someone but still feeling alone.

 

1. Zico, Crush & Dean, "Bermuda Triangle"
While he initially broke out as part of his boy band Block B, Zico has become the go-to rapper/producer for songs that appeal to the masses but still move K-pop to a new place with heavy influences rooted in hip-hop and R&B. "Bermuda Triangle" brought him alongside vocal wunderkinds Crush and Dean for what many expected would have been a dreamy or sexy, harmony-heavy collaboration. Instead, the trio defied expectations for an aggressive, braggadocio release that saw each artist pushing himself into new territory. Over minimal, ominous beats, Zico sounds more confident than ever while his counterparts to rise the occasion with their dynamic deliveries. There isn't need for flashy production or blown-out hooks here, but instead the artists themselves bring the entertainment making "Bermuda Triangle" than much more addictive than any hit song this year.

Billboard Year in Music 2016