This year very well may have been K-pop’s most exciting and full in the scene’s post-“Gangnam Style” era. Nearly all its beloved acts — both new and veteran — came swinging to grab the public attention with striking releases that included experimental collaborations, curveball genre explorations and heartfelt concoctions. The result was what may be the industry’s most creatively satisfying year of all time.
As Billboard has since 2012, we now present the 20 best K-pop songs of the year.
20. “Sweet Girl,” B1A4
A sweet and slinky piece of funk-pop that took the elements that makes Pharrell’s recent work so irresistible, but delivers them in a slick boy-band package, dripping with harmonies. Even cooler: The song was completely produced and written by B1A4 members Jinyoung and Baro — no superstar producer here.
19. “Living in the Same Time,” Naul
?One of the best ballads released of the year, the Brown Eyed Soul member’s stirring performance could have been released in any decade and still deliver the same amount of chills. Small flickers of modern-day drum machines give it a modern air while retaining a classic feel.
18. “View,” SHINee
The tropical house sound infiltrated the U.S. mainstream in 2015 thanks to Justin Bieber, but the sound was already making waves in Korea thanks in big part to SHINee’s subtly sexy single — another ambitious release to add to the boy band’s discography.
17. “The Little Prince,” From the Airport & Gyuri
Indie electro-rock From the Airport dipped into the idol world by collaborating with Kara member Park Gyuri and the results saw both sides reaching new heights. FTA created a warm, throbbing production where the girl group member’s vocals soared in a way previously unheard on Kara tunes.
16. “If You Do,” GOT7
You could always rely on rising boy band GOT7 for an adorably, uplifting jam (see pop gems like “Just Right” or “A”), but the septet threw a curveball to fans with the sentimental “If You Do” that saw the band utilizing their lovesick tendencies to bare their emotions in place of their usual puppy dog shtick. Sometimes the unexpected is just what the doctor ordered; the song is their biggest domestic hit to date.
15. “Bae Bae,” BIGBANG
Just one of the eight singles BIGBANG dropped this year, “Bae Bae” saw the phenoms taking the popular trap genre and turning it K-pop with flecks of electronica and bizarre samples, paired with animated rapping and heartfelt croons made for yet an other boundary-breaking hip-hop release for the quintet.
14. “Closer,” Oh My Girl
“Closer” is a whirlwind of dreamy, trance-pop from 2015’s most promising new female act. While the octet’s debut single “Cupid” showcased a quirky, “Hollaback Girl”-inspired take on this year’s innocent girl-group trend, “Closer” was a youthful-yet-sophisticated declaration of longing, and gorgeously done so.
13. “Eureka,” Zico & Zion.T
While Block B took the year off for splinter groups and let its members try out some solo tracks, Zicos’s attempts were embraced by hip-hop heads and pop fans alike. His greatest achievement of the year, though? The brassy banger “Eureka” featuring R&B wunderkind Zion.T. Good luck trying not to groove along with that horn breakdown.
12. “Hopeless Love,” Park Jimin
Another trend that caught fire in 2015 was full-fledged solo debuts from boy band and girl group members. One of the most remarkable came from powerhouse Park Jimin of 15&, who blasted onto the solo radar with her “Hopeless Love” ballad. The Sia-like delivery is stirring and able to make anyone empathize with the 18-year-old.
11. “Don’t Be Shy,” Primary, Iron & ChoA
K-pop is famous for its genre-less borders, but “Don’t Be Shy” managed to be remarkable for bringing the dub reggae sound for one of the year’s most refreshing tracks. Shoutout to producer Primary for the production and enlisting a unique team with AOA singer ChoA (who coos like a cat over the beat) and rapper Iron (with a laidback delivery is those coos perfect answer).
10. “Only You,” miss A
Sparkling ’80s synths blend into a hip-hop beat for the simple-yet-super-effective “Only You,” that will live as one of the year’s most delightful singles and re-established the girl group’s penchant for atypical bangers after more than a year away from the K-pop scene.
9. “Call Me Baby,” EXO
How many hooks can you fit into one song? EXO’s “Call Me Baby” took everything you knew about boy-band music and upped the ante one hundred times with this addictive jam that seems to place EXO as the modern, musical equivalent of ‘N Sync.
8. “Awoo,” Lim Kim
You can always count on the young singers to offer some of the year’s best offbeat gems, but Kim outdid herself with “Awoo.” This bubbling concoction was a mix of woozy synths, trance-like chants and trappy snares, and pulled off with a sense of sophistication that’s hard to make believable, yet somehow “Awoo” feels like the singer’s artist charicature.
7. “You,” G.Soul
After 15 years of training under Korean super label JYP Entertainment, G.Soul came crashing into the industry with this stunning, R&B ballad that stands as the most striking single from the label’s stellar roster of 2015 releases. By the sheer passion felt on the chorus’ belts, it’s clear the 27-year-old had been waiting a lot time for his time to shine.
6. “Crazy,” 4Minute
After a few years of embracing offbeat dance-pop tracks, 4Minute revamped their image with a full-fledged hip-hop sound that not only was one of the year’s biggest and best bangers, but also one of the most influential. You could hear the influence of “Crazy” (namely, it’s swaggering instrumental breakdown) in a slew of K-pop releases this year including Block B-Bastarz’s “Conduct Zero,” BTS’ “Dope,” iKON’s “Rhythm Ta,” Monsta X’s “Dope” and more.
5. “It G Ma,” Keith Ape
As much as K-pop companies try to export their tunes, Keith Ape wound up with one of the year’s most viral singles with this trappy posse cut. While a big part of that may have come from some choice words from OG Maco about its similarities to his “U Guessed It” track, “It G Ma” proves there should be room for everyone at the trap table.
4. “Just,” Zion.T & Crush
Two of 2015’s breakout stars came together for one of the year’s silkiest releases. The understated jam highlights the duo’s synergy together, resulting in both sonically and lyrically stellar single, and indicates promise from both acts who can hopefully reach new heights in 2016.
3. “Run,” BTS
Another 2015 breakout star, BTS caught mainstream attention with “I Need U,” released in spring, that found the perfect balance of their hardcore hip-hop style with sentimental leanings. Seven months later, “Run” further perfected the formula for a chill-inducing take on those same feelings. It’s a song like this solidifies a group’s place in K-pop.
2. “I,” Taeyeon
The year’s best solo debut undoubtedly went to Taeyeon with the gorgeous “I.” The type of song that doubles as an empowerment anthem and a comforting sonic blanket, “I” spotlights two sides of the Girls’ Generation leader and centers it around incredible vocal performance. The song’s lush composition recalls the accessible sounds of Taylor Swift, but even Swift would probably admit she couldn’t pull off such a performance.
1. “Loser,” BIGBANG
When it came to the singles game, it’d be tough to say the year didn’t belong to BIGBANG. The group slay the charts with their eight new songs and promoted nearly an album’s worth of material with music videos, live performances and an accompanying arena tour. It all kicked off with “Loser,” what can essentially stand as BIGBANG’s thesis statement for their brand of emotional hip-hop. The song took the previously heard brilliance in songs like “Bad Boy,” “Lies” and “Blue,” but stripped away all trendy elements for a straight-forward, acoustic-leaning take on baring what lies deep in each of our consciousness.
While K-pop’s known for its flashy, at-times-over-the-top creations, “Loser” proved that a subtle take on all the things that make a group unique can speak so much louder. Daesung, Taeyang and Seungri’s croons feel more heartfelt, TOP and G-Dragon’s raps are more poignant and it’s all done in a way to let each member shine. Despite the fact it might have been initially difficult for listeners to associate the BIGBANG superstars as a supposed “Loser,” those concerns would be immediately washed away upon first play — such an impassioned performance has you hooked from first listen.