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The 20 Best K-Pop Songs of 2020: Critics' Picks

Everglow
Courtesy of Yuehua Entertainment

Everglow

Look: we all know how this year went, so to be told once again of all the tragedies and horrors that plagued it is the last thing anyone needs. It was a brutal year for the K-pop industry as well, of course, but artists kept recording, performances were held online, and songs were released at an impressively steady pace. In other words, the show went on.

While it’s easy to think of K-pop stars as mere entertainers, there’s something to be said for how vital their songs felt in a time when hope was stymied, when anhedonia was just around the corner. As such, find 20 songs below that we loved in 2020, that brought us away from the worries of the world. Consider this an introduction to the many K-pop singles that dazzled us, impressed us, and moved us throughout the past 12 months. Maybe they did something for you, too.

20. TREASURE, “I LOVE YOU” (THE FIRST STEP : CHAPTER TWO)

Romeo and Juliet? Orpheus and Eurydice? Sorry, but the only story of impassioned love I need is from TREASURE. Their second single, the brazen all-caps anthem “I LOVE YOU,” teems with a relentless energy that’ll have you smitten from secondhand infatuation. It’s all butterflies-in-stomach wooing until it isn’t -- the chorus is a big-room-house scorcher, delivered with such burning affection that you can practically smell smoke. TREASURE’s greatest strength is that they (correctly) understand flirting as both playful and serious, something summarized in the most evocative point dance this year: all 12 members staring straight-faced at the camera, bobbing their heads as they hold up finger hearts. No other 2020 rookie group felt so confident -- it was love at first sight. -- JOSHUA MINSOO KIM

19. BIBI, “I’m good at goodbyes”

In a year when comfort was scarce, BIBI came through as the embodiment of forgotten fun and relatable melancholy. The rising soloist had a fantastic year releasing music that’s entrenched between dreamy bedroom pop and R&B, but “I’m good at goodbyes” was particularly emblematic of 2020’s general mood; the soft vocals on “I’m good at goodbyes” mirrored the loneliness we were all feeling as a lost spring transitioned into a lonely summer. Even more notable is her lyrical prowess: this is the swan song of her relationship -- it’s painful and desperate and she clings to deceptive hope. As she goes from describing pictures of endings that occur all across nature to talking about how this feels on a personal level, she emphasizes the gravity of her heartbreak against the weight of the cosmos: you may be a small speck in the grand scheme of things, but right now, your pain is valid.  -- L.S.

18. Lee Jin Hyuk, “Bedlam” (Splash!)

While K-pop fans fell for Lee Jin Hyuk as a member of UP10TION and stand-out contestant on 2019's Produce X 101 singing competition, the singer-rapper proved his true rock star power this year with sophomore EP Splash! From the punky chants on the chorus to the softhearted melodic pre-chorus -- plus an unexpected wolf howl on the second verse -- “Bedlam” serves just what its title promises, with Jin Hyuk's energetic delivery navigating a hodgepodge of hip-hop styles. Such a shape-shifting track could easily teeter into messy territory, but the soloist makes the track both accessible and exciting with his sunny rap style and masterful triplet expertise. -- JEFF BENJAMIN

17. APRIL, “LALALILALA” (Da Capo)

For their first comeback in two years, APRIL play the enchanting lead roles of a cosmic love drama, set to a lush production with synths that shine like gemstones. Their story about a fateful connection written in the stars unreels in literal terms as they liken each other to celestial bodies, measuring their love in galactic proportions. If the chorus seems like the most grandiose thing the group has ever done, it’s only because they’re trying to match the larger-than-life scale of their overflowing feelings. “You won’t be able to escape/ Only dream of me,” they sing, and APRIL’s insistence to be your world makes the attraction of “LALALILALA” difficult to resist.  -- RYO MIYAUCHI

16. TXT, “Can’t You See Me” (The Dream Chapter: ETERNITY)

On “Can’t You See Me,” TXT pull the dark undercurrent of their youthful whimsy out from under the bed. Crunchy electric guitars and a jaunty whistle add a refreshing contrast to the track’s trap underpinnings, but where it best exposes its murkiness is through the quintet's vocal performances. Alternating between distorted tremolo vocals, hushed whisper-raps, and delicate verses wisping like curls of smoke, the members’ voices lurch between dulcet and disorienting as they reveal the cracks in a friendship. Through unsettling sounds and an idyllic music video that devolves into something frightening, TXT lay bare a horror rarely spoken of: watching a friendship fade before your eyes. -- MONIQUE MELENDEZ

15. ITZY, “WANNABE” (It’z Me)

ITZY have big and loving unnie energy. Ever since their cheerleader romp of a debut, they’ve encouraged uncompromising self-love by modeling it themselves -- their brand of girl crush is less the confident scoff of BLACKPINK’s “Look at you, now look at me” and more “Look to me, now look at you!” On “Wannabe,” they invite us again to dance, gilding a shapeshifting electro-pop beat and 2000s guitar-pop chugs with whimsical flourishes: flexatones, DJ scratches, the crank of a winding key. “I don’t wanna be nobody, I wanna be me,” they shout in the chorus. Later, they opt for collective unity: “If you feel me, turn this beat up.” They know the dancefloor is an oasis for enlivening self-expression, and they’ll drag you there by hand if they need to. -- J.M.K.

14. Sunmi, “pporappippam”

Disco was pop music's flavor of choice around the world this year, but few pulled it off with as much sophistication as Sunmi. With elements of city pop and refreshing touches of flute, “pporappippam” delivers a story of both passion and optimism for the K-diva’s first proper love song released as a single. Peppered with pangs of melancholy to root it in the grim reality of 2020, the track has feel-good guitar riffs and romantic lyrics of a “purple-hued night” to create the dreamy sonic getaway we all need even if we’re quarantined at home. -- J.B.

13. LUCY, “Jogging” (Panorama)

In “Jogging,” LUCY ponder a simple question: “If you were to go far away, where would you go?” And the song’s sprightly pop rock establishes a wide-eyed innocence well suited for a rookie band who look on with boyish wonder. The giddy strings play a riff straight out of a cartoon jingle, and the nimbly strummed guitars put a pep to the band’s step. Underneath the sunny music lies serious introspection: “If you lose yourself/ Can you really call yourself happy?" the band begins to question as more dizzying thoughts fill their minds. Reality inevitably cuts into their daydreams, but the music of “Jogging” suggests LUCY will bounce back in no time. -- R.M.

12. TAEMIN, “Criminal” (Never Gonna Dance Again, Act 1) 

Taemin’s solo music has always ventured to the dark side, but ever since “Move,” he’s peeled back layers of the human psyche that people often prefer keeping to themselves. On “Move,” he invites people into his world to dance to his own rhythm. On “Want,” he dangles the decadent, sinful result of physical attraction like an unattainable fruit. It’s on “Criminal,” however, that he completely crosses over. “Destroy me more,” he says, as he embraces the alternate version of himself -- the Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll -- despite knowing full well that it might just be the beginning of the end. What makes “Criminal” even more compelling is how Taemin controls the chaos in the song. His music always uses visual imagery as an extension, working in tandem with the music -- and as he looks around dazed and deranged, or beckons the danger closer, you get the feeling that he’s also appealing to the alter-ego inside of you. By the time it ends, you honestly wonder whether giving in would be so bad. -- L.S.

11. SF9, “Good Guy” (First Collection)

It’s only fitting that one of the tallest boy groups in the K-pop industry excels in catwalk-ready K-pop. SF9 first experimented with fashionable house music on “Now or Never” back in 2018, but they perfected the formula on “Good Guy.” The song pays homage to house music through visuals and sounds alike, with black-and-white clips reminiscent of ‘90s dance music video aesthetics, classic house percussion and piano offsetting their breathy, come-hither vocals, and a “Good/ Good/ Good/ Good” refrain that mimics the genre’s four-on-the-floor structure. In spite of the track’s suave sound, the lyrics have SF9 practically begging their love interest for a chance, closing on the line “Hold me tight before it’s too late.” But even though it’s doubtful that they’ll get the girl, it doesn’t matter -- these good guys still won. -- M.M.

10. Stray Kids, “Back Door” (IN生)

Is there a sonic motif that had as big a year in K-pop as The Funky Bassline? The Funky Bassline featured prominently in countless boy group releases, and while many acts were content with letting TFB do all the heavy lifting, Stray Kids’ adherence to their “more is more” M.O. gave it a much needed makeover. Co-produced by members Bang Chan, Changbin and Han, “Back Door” welcomes you in with TFB and ensnares you with its cheeky on-the-nose door creaks, its cooly confident vocal performances, and a stomping, floor-filling EDM finale. On “Back Door,” Stray Kids tighten their production without eschewing any exuberance, transforming their signature bombastic EDM into something more sophisticated. -- M.M.

9. Weeekly, “Tag Me (@Me)” (We are)

Who among us doesn’t have an internet-damaged brain? And can you really blame those of us who do? As Weeekly explain on “Tag Me (@Me),” our timelines inject excitement into everyday routines, and it’s hard to resist the rush of social media-supplied dopamine. They capture how addictive it all is with childlike glee: the titular action is treated like a schoolyard game, handclaps and shouted chants provide constant pep, and a “neener neener”-like melody in the chorus drives home how obnoxious they might sound to everyone else. But they assure you it’s OK: that in the obsessiveness and oversharing is an unflinching self-love. The bridge, with its crystalline synths and swooping bass swells, is an unanticipated moment of composed cool -- they can share their many sides on the Internet, but they’re always gonna be themselves. -- J.M.K.

8.BTS, "Black Swan" (Map of the Soul: 7)

BTS has connected with a worldwide fanbase in large part thanks to the universal-but-still-personal themes of their music, and “Black Swan” represents one of their most intimate confessions. Dreamy, gloomy hip-hop soundscapes lay the backdrop for the chart-toppers to open up about their darkest fears: that they may one day fall out of love with music. Using the title as a metaphor -- to represent both the one-of-a-kind phenomenon they are and the 2010 movie where a ballerina makes the ultimate sacrifice for her art -- the superstar septet investigates their underlying anxieties until declaring they won’t let fear win over passion in the end. It’s a full-fledged motion picture packed into just over three minutes to tell a rare, real-life story of one of the world’s biggest stars. -- J.B.

7. TWICE, “I CAN’T STOP ME” (Eyes Wide Open)

Like Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga, Twice were hip to electro bass lines this year in “I CAN’T STOP ME.” The girl group bask in the elastic, strobing synth that pulses under the glamorous nu-disco track, and it snaps into formation come the chorus. The song calls for a grand celebration, but they’re too distracted trying not to indulge in their own treacherous desires: “I just can’t go back anymore/ Out of control,” Chaeyoung sings before the rest of the group fully surrender to temptation. Twice fight to keep cool, though it’s hard to notice when they nail such a spotless performance. -- R.M.

6. WOODZ, “BUMP BUMP” (WOOPS!

This was a great year for soloists in K-pop, and no one was more honest with themselves than WOODZ. The push-and-pull of any romance is often the most enticing yet stressful aspect of it all. Amidst airy promises from his lover is the dreary prospect of being left alone, but he approaches this mixed-messaging with a refreshing candor. In our own whirlpools of flirting and call backs, IG-reels and missed messages, “BUMP BUMP” was comfortingly straightforward -- with WOODZ relaying what he wants, exactly how he wants it. It was the wrong year to be young and in love in 2020, but at least we had WOODZ to keep us company. -- L.S.

5. Weki Meki, “COOL” (NEW RULES)

Weki Meki revamp their approach in “Cool” by swapping their preppy dance-pop for steely electro. The group’s demeanor is as spartan as the icy beat, and they amplify their bratty voices to assert their flawlessness. Their cockiness peaks in the chorus, which doubles as a taunt and a mantra: "Be hotter/ Beyond the control,” they sing like a drill instructor. “Get out of all the boring rules.” If “Cool” sounds standoffish, then the song succeeds at what it sets out to do. Weki Meki don’t aspire to be a role model for attainable, girl-crush cool but instead point out the gap between you and them. “Cool” is a conceited celebration of self, though sometimes it just feels satisfying to flaunt what you got. -- R.M.

4. GFRIEND, “MAGO” (回:Walpurgis Night)

"MAGO” distills disco to its very best qualities, shimmering -- quite literally -- with synths and steady beats, building a heady, atmospheric high. As cohesive as it is musically, its magic lies in how perfectly it fits into the ethos of 回:Walpurgis Night. The album is built on the idea of modern witches, at the center of which are women who exercise the same agency and power of the song’s namesake, and GFRIEND have fun while doing it.

Interspersed with images of the girls dancing the night away -- not what you’d expect from a concept dealing with the occult -- are lyrics that brim with confidence and ambition. Instead of believing in fairy tales and waiting for a Prince Charming, their only love are the images of themselves smiling in the mirror. It’s a cheeky way to poke fun at how society perceives self-assured women, since the title itself translates to “wizard.” In celebrating their limitless ambition, “MAGO” casts a spell that keeps you coming back for more. -- L.S.

3. SEVENTEEN, “Left & Right” (Heng:garæ)

“LEFT & RIGHT” is so exuberant that every sound -- from doorbell chimes to 808 cowbells, organ synth riffs to full-bodied brass  --  bursts forth like aural confetti. One could readily claim SEVENTEEN have made their own “Cupid Shuffle,” but they’re aiming for something beyond mere dance instructional: this is a song for transforming every moment into a cause for celebration. In a time when in-person parties aren’t possible, “LEFT & RIGHT” converts bedrooms to dancefloors. And with exultant shouts and energized rapping, they tell you to keep your chin up, to run down red carpets, to dance.

SEVENTEEN act as leaders and hypemen here, but the role they fill best is that of life coaches: despite their talk of races and finish lines, they exclaim that “not running is an answer too / who cares what we do.” They grant permission to simply be: a reminder that surviving every day is enough right now. And after all, if you’re not moving forward, why not move “LEFT & RIGHT,” right? They understand something that should be taught in schools around the world: busting your ass should be supplemented with time spent shaking it. -- J.M.K.

2. Apink, “Dumhdurum” (LOOK)

K-pop tends to be a young person's game -- both the industry and its labels regularly shift their priorities to younger artists -- but Apink’s “Dumhdurum” makes an exceptional case for the continuing effort and investment in senior acts. The track opens with a swirling synth-pop hook strong enough to stand as a chorus all its own, before diving into verses and choruses that strike pop gold with just the right amount of catchy repetition and melancholy longing.
Apink detail the complexity of remaining calm in the presence of a past love, even when one’s heart's still beating dumhdurum for them -- a concept that could be difficult for younger groups to believably pull off.

This mature message successfully connected with a large audience, and “Dumhdurum” became a knockout success in both Korea (topping all local music charts) and the Billboard charts (tying for their longest-running hit on World Digital Song Sales). Nine years into their career, Apink are still more than equipped to bring their A-Game, and that deserves larger recognition all in itself for the industry to pay equal attention to both its senior and developing artists. Matured, musical magic awaits. -- J.B.

1. EVERGLOW, “LA DI DA” (-77.82x-78.29)

Thanks to a virtual flattening of borders, musical trends in the States now get reflected in K-pop in realtime. Throughout 2020 -- in both the U.S. and South Korea -- throwback sounds were ubiquitous. This year’s K-pop magnum opus, EVERGLOW’s “LA DI DA,” mirrored the U.S.’s pop magnum opus, The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” only months after its release. But where The Weeknd’s work is chilling and sinister in its search for love, EVERGLOW’s is a spry kiss-off to all the haters, the bad guys, and the players.

A successful pastiche of the ’80s that’s crafted by producer Ollipop, “LA DI DA” blends myriad influences: the layered cheerleader chants of Toni Basil's “Mickey,” the spunky girl power of Cyndi Lauper and the Go-Go's, the na-na-nas of Bananarama, and above all, the shimmering synth-pop sound that permeated the top half of that decade. “LA DI DA” melds these all together, with K-pop twists: a killing part punctuated by handclaps, a tempo-shifting rap section carried by leader E:U, and an earworm of a melody evocative of early ’10s K-pop -- a time when choruses were packed with hooky vocal melodies instead of hollow drops.

While 2020 has been far from a banner year for K-pop, with the coronavirus pandemic impacting the industry through disbandments, canceled tours, and shelved comebacks, there have been enough pleasant surprises to keep fans plugged in. And when a group drops the greatest song of 2020 less than two years into their career, you can’t help but feel hopeful for the future of K-pop music at large. -- M.M.