K-pop often gets pegged as a manufactured medium, leading certain music aficionados to sidestep the genre as a whole. While there’s some truth to that assessment, the South Korean music industry is littered with hidden gems aside from the most popular singles.
The thing about K-pop is that it’s a multimedia operation where the visuals are just as important as the sound. The sensory overload of promoting on music shows — which place extra emphasis on the choreography, cinematography and fashion — is part of what makes K-pop so addictive. But we decided to look at the deep cuts that are, for the most part, divorced from the visuals.
We tried to limit each chosen artist to one track, but there’s one girl group that had so many excellent deep cuts, we couldn’t choose just one. (Hint: their name rhymes with shmeff hex).
We decided to give our definition of “deep cuts” some breathing room by allowing fan favorites into the mix. Non-singles weren’t necessarily disqualified if they were promoted on Korean music shows, so we judged a song’s level of exposure on a case-by-case basis. For example, we decided that BTS’s original “MIC Drop” couldn’t make the cut because their heavily promoted remix with Steve Aoki and Desiigner rendered it too well-known. (Not to worry, ARMYs. Your faves still made the list.)
You may not agree with our methodology, but we’re sure we’ll turn you onto the best deep cuts in K-pop this decade.
40. GOT7 – “My Whole Body Is Reacting” (Just Right, 2015)
IGOT7s were gifted a heart-fluttering ode to the senses with this sweet torch song. Visceral lyrics list (G-rated!) body parts that “react” to a former love interest. “My eyes react, my ears react / When I see you / When I hear your voice,” JB intones with his soulful affectations. Jackson’s spoken word rapping offsets the song’s old school R&B vibe, which provides a welcome come-down from the color-streaked pep of the EP’s title track, “Just Right.” — CAITLIN KELLEY
39. gugudan – “Believe In This Moment” (School 2017 OST Part 1, 2017)
gugudan proves that excessive cheer doesn’t have to be tiresome. The peppy bubblegum pop track was featured on the soundtrack for the TV series School 2017 starring member Kim Sejeong. While the show suffered from poor ratings, the ebullience of the track soars far above their televised trappings. Electronic flourishes swirl around the pop-punk guitar while synths squeak in the periphery of the verses. The ninesome completely sells the uplifting lyrics about believing in themselves. Soon enough, the rookie girl group will have even the most casual K-pop fans feeling the same way about them. — C.K.
38. B1A4 – “Road” (Who Am I, 2014)
A laidback, reflective pop-rock track about past promises made amid hardships, “Road” balances warm vocals with a dominant synth beat and piano melody. It’s effusive yet mellow, and unlike many K-pop ballads that struggle to find a place for the group’s rappers, it cleanly incorporates several soft-toned rap verses from Baro over a clapping rhythm. Like much of B1A4‘s discography in recent years, it was written by the members and plays up each man’s artistic strengths to craft an elegant, midtempo tune. — TAMAR HERMAN
37. CNBLUE – “Like a Child” (Can’t Stop, 2014)
While CNBLUE‘s 2014 single “Can’t Stop” highlighted the band’s ability to craft accessible, feel-good rock-pop, the EP also had an undeniably strong standout track in “Like a Child,” which was equally accessible and included an uplifting mood and melody that recalls some of the best Coldplay songs. — JEFF BENJAMIN
36. Teen Top – “I Wanna Love” (No. 1, 2013)
Teen Top‘s first full-length album No. 1 signaled a sonic shift, kicked off by the buzz track “I Wanna Love.” While you could still play it in the clubs, like past singles from the outfit, the cut stands out for its melancholy vibe and layered harmonies. The lyrics of the track also seem to indicate the Teen Top boys were ready to embrace change, singing, “It’s time to move on, here we go, Teen Top.” — J.B.
35. Sistar – “Good Time” (Shake It, 2015)
Who else but the Queens of Summer could make you want to party after a breakup? “Good Time” has the kind of earworm chorus where main vocal Hyolyn easily weaves between belted notes and sweet falsetto embellishments. Glitchy saxophone colors the catchy banger. The lyrics are almost too dismissive of a former lover to count as a kiss-off. The girls are too busy having fun to care about any love lost. Although the quartet disbanded in June 2017, their impact on K-pop will last longer than the summer heat. — C.K.
34. Winner – “Don’t Flirt” (2014 S/S, 2014)
As a rookie group in 2014, Winner amassed an impressive selection of quality tracks directly following their debut. Before Nam Taehyun left the group in 2016, Winner was characterized by a unique blend of hip-hop and rock n’ roll influences. This track was borne out of the members’ disparate sensibilities, incorporating reggae-like syncopation, a touch of garage rock flair and pop hooks to spare. — C.K.
33. Taemin – “Ace” (Ace, 2014)
Less is more on this seductive slow-tempo track. The concept might’ve been jarring for longtime SHINee fans who know him as the cute maknae. But the dancing machine transformed into an enigmatic arbiter of slow jams in his solo debut. Lush arrangement on the R&B track features piano keys twinkling atop a velvety bass line. The seductive lyrics, written by SM Entertainment labelmate Changmin from TVXQ, are given life with his airy vocals. — C.K.
32. Kahi – “Roller Coaster” (Please Come Back, 2011)
The K-pop world got their first taste of the After School leader’s promising fierceness with her tightly crafted debut solo EP that showed off her many musical sides. Lead single “Please Come Back” felt like an (excellent) extension of After School’s megahit “Because of You,” and the equally impressive “Roller Coaster” showcased Kahi’s bewitching versatility over a blend of military drums and surging synthesizers. — J.B.
31. 2NE1 – “Don’t Stop the Music” (2NE1, 2011)
Energetic in its Auto-Tuned glory, “Don’t Stop the Music” is all about keeping the beat playing and the good times going. Flitting between a variety of genres with a clapping beat and synth builds driving the track, it’s a feel-good upbeat song that reflects the animated style of the early days of 2NE1. The song remains one of girl group’s most popular b-sides, and was even released as a single internationally as part of a Thai ad campaign. — T.H.
30. Suzy – “Pretend” (Yes? No?, 2017)
Ahead of her official debut with “Yes No Maybe,” the superstar singer-actress introduced herself as a soloist via this unexpected, dreamy buzz track. The subtle, electro-R&B vibe of the track recalls the type of material one might expect from Janet Jackson with its fresh production and a simple-yet-effective delivery dripping with emotion. — J.B.
29. EXO – “Unfair” (Sing For You, 2015)
With bright electronic beats beneath the funky melody, “Unfair” is vivacious in its sleek pop styling. Sweet in its pining nature, the effervescent song was crafted by K-alt R&B artist Dean and it offers up one of the best performances of EXO’s career as the members display a variety of different vocal stylings while they harmonize their way through the track, especially during the a cappella-styled post-chorus bridge that tones things down momentarily. — T.H.
28. Orange Caramel – “Bubble Bath” (Lipstick, 2012)
With an intro that sounds like it belongs on any hipster rock album, the opening track to Orange Caramel‘s deliciously diverse Lipstick album is a testament to how creative the K-pop world can be with even its deepest cuts. With robotic harmonies, childlike coos and breathy belts, the quirky-cute trio uses the metaphor of an indulgent bubble bath to rid themselves of an undeserving lover. — J.B.
27. Nine Muses – “Secret” (LOST, 2015)
Nine Muses has undergone many lineup changes while struggling toward the top of the charts. But their discography deserves more recognition — the then-octet stunned on this sultry jam about keeping a forbidden love secret. Repetition is the biggest strength on this synth-driven track where a funky guitar riff rumbles beneath the twinkling electronica. Half of the members have “graduated” or gone on hiatus since the LOST EP dropped in 2015. But the killing part rolls around when former member Euarin attacks listeners with her rap verse. Her aggressive flow imbues the syrupy tune with a welcome burst of energy, contrasting with the emotive singing of the surrounding seven vocalists. — C.K.
26. Kim Sung Kyu (INFINITE) – “Shine” (Another Me, 2012)
Twinkly synths introduce this hypnotic electro-rock track, opening up the song’s melody to incorporate everything from electric guitar riffs to techno beats. The song fluctuates between a restrained beat, mellow verses and a soaring chorus fronted by Kim’s falsetto before it spirals toward a feverish conclusion. A track written for Kim by Kim Jong Wan of the Korean band Nell, which inspired the INFINITE member’s career, “Shine” is expressive in its complexity and is a prime example of the vocalist’s solo work. — T.H.
25. BoA – “Shattered” (Kiss My Lips, 2015)
Years before BTS started making waves in the States, BoA was cementing K-pop’s status as a global phenomenon by promoting abroad. The unmistakable Queen of Korean Pop made a long-awaited return to her home country in 2015. Taking a break from her residency at the top of the Japanese music charts, she once again proved why she’s such an effective cultural ambassador for K-pop on Kiss My Lips. The stylish album is a highlight from her prolific career where even the b-sides are standouts. But it’s her turn on the understated “Shattered” that could be mistaken for a single. Her serpentine vocals lilt above a brooding electro-pop groove that she co-composed alongside recurring SM Entertainment producers, The Underdogs. — C.K.
24. miss A – “Lips” (Touch, 2012)
Reveling in progressive house beats and cranking up the Auto-Tune, this club banger is one of the most impactful dance songs from miss A’s discography. With a pounding 808 beat and frenzied synths as the quartet declares their desires, it’s impossible to stay still between the first and last moments of the track. Perhaps the most mainstream sounding tune from the girl group, “Lips” could be played on any dance floor around the world and get the whole place hyped. — T.H.
23. Super Junior – “My All Is in You” (Perfection, 2011; Bonamana, 2012)
Known for their dance tracks, Super Junior’s discography is littered with expressive pop songs and “My All Is In You” is one of their best. A mid-tempo ballad with R&B and rock undertones, it plays to the group’s strengths and size: verses are delivered distinctly by each member over gentle melodies and a steady beat before the explosive chorus arrives with vocal harmonies placed over the pop-rock symphonic instrumentals. Both Super Junior and Super Junior-M released “My All Is In You,” and each version offers up a different take on the desperation of the poignant love song. — T.H.
22. HA:TFELT – “Nothing Lasts Forever” (Me?, 2014)
While K-pop is known for its glossy production values, the closing track to HA:TFELT’s debut solo EP stands out for its rawness. Choosing to keep the original guide track instead of polished vocals, “Nothing Lasts Forever” is a hauntingly gorgeous sonic ride that moves from somber piano-led verses to stretches of ominous, trumpeting synthesizers. HA:TFELT (a.k.a. Yenny from Wonder Girls) shared that the song was inspired by learning a young, devoted Wonder Girls fan had passed away due to a brain tumor, and the track was created from her grief. — J.B.
21. FTISLAND – “Save Me” (Over 10 Years, 2017)
After a decade of figuring out what it means to be a K-pop idol band sonically, FTISLAND’s 10th anniversary album continued the group’s shift towards a heavier sound, with the dramatic rock ballad “Save Me” served as the bridge between their past ballads and their present style. A gentle piano melody guides the track from the first moment, laying a sentimental tone beneath Lee Hongki’s emotive vocals. But contrasting that is the explosive choral riffs paired with soaring violin strings and gritty guitar riffs, which creates a sense of euphoric anxiety. As a power ballad, it just doesn’t get much better than this. — T.H.
20. Dean – “21” (130 mood : TRBL, 2016)
When the dreamy organ prelude abruptly cuts off at the snap of a finger, you know it’s gonna be a banger. The thumping bass line holds down a moody yet sexy groove that recalls the likes of The Weeknd. The “different R&B” crooner proves himself to be the aesthetic king of K-pop as the track is filled with subtle details, like when the sound of knocking accents the lyrics “your heart closed off.” He knows exactly where to build and break down the song to make it atmospheric and danceable all at once. — C.K.
19. f(x) – “Airplane” (Pink Tape, 2013)
It’s mostly agreed among modern-day K-pop fans that f(x)‘s Pink Tape album was a near-perfect patchwork of experimental and boundary-pushing pop. “Airplane” is more than good enough to be any pop superstar’s single with the energizing dance production fascinatingly juxtaposed with deadpan speaking and poignantly bubbly vocals. The album cut is a dreamy mash of different genres — with elements of J-pop and Eurodance felt — but keeps its human edge with the pang of unmistakable melancholy and longing. — J.B.
18. T-ara (Qri solo) – “Diamond” (What’s My Name?, 2017)
T-ara’s leader shines on her solo track on What’s My Name? — the expected final release by the now-quartet before their contracts with MBK Entertainment expire in December 2017. Although the lyrics compare her to diamonds, the track goes deeper than a brag. The lyrical scene-setting imbues the song with otherworldly undertones. “In a narrow and deep place / Like dust building up / The thick darkness wraps around me,” she sings. It’s her inner brightness that guides her through the darkness. The track opens with overblown samples of Indian music. Swarming violins imitate a beehive as Qri’s husky vocals swirl around the “oohs” of the chorus. It’s a haunting assemblage of lyrics and sounds that play to Qri’s strengths as a performer. — C.K.
17. INFINITE – “Feel So Bad” (Infinitize, 2012)
A lighter take on INFINITE’s brand of orchestral retro dance-pop, “Feel So Bad” is eccentric in its tempo and tonal shifts, resulting in a song that serves as a sampling of the boy band’s different musical styles. With a sense of dramatic breeziness, it feels like anything other than the angsty track about heartbreak that it is. Rather than dark and gloomy, bright synths and rhythmic strings fight for dominance as the septet’s members deliver airy verses over a plinking electronic beat. — T.H.
16. Taeyeon – “Cover Up” (My Voice, 2017)
Bright and airy, “Cover Up” is a summery dance track that kicks off and then just keeps soaring higher in its electro-pop styling. Layering Taeyeon’s swooning voice over a tropical house beat, the saccharine banger overflows with positivity and cheeriness to create a bubbly, romantic confessional of a song. If the perfect spring day looked like a pop song, it would definitely be “Cover Up.” — T.H.
15. BIGBANG – “Love Dust” (Alive, 2012)
One of BIGBANG’s strengths is their chameleon-like propensity to transcend genre. “Love Dust,” co-written and co-composed by G-Dragon, immediately greets listeners with automated voices that trip over each other to repeat the words “love,” “change,” “hate” and “dust.” The segmented transition between the understated verses and the pulsating techno-disco chorus manages to avoid feeling stilted. The track is unique in that it simultaneously leans into the heartache of lyrics like, “These days, without knowing / I sing the songs we used to listen to together,” while creating a sonic dissonance from it. Taeyang, Daesung and Seungri emotionally deliver the verses, while the chorus is propelled into a frenzy by the bouncy synths. This is the kind of genre bending that the Black Eyed Peas would appreciate. — C.K.
14. Hyomin – “Gold” (Sketch, 2016)
While T-ara was famous for their undeniably catchy dance tunes, the members always made sure to showcase their individualism when it came to their solo tracks, and one of the most striking releases came from vocalist Hyomin. “Gold” is the type of moving ballad that any pop star would kill for, with Hyomin exploring a range of vocal deliveries, from stark melisma and soaring head voice. The point of solo releases in K-pop is to share a new side of your artistry and a cut like “Gold” opened up listeners to an entirely new side of the star. — J.B.
13. Akdong Musician – “Green Window” (Spring, 2016)
The sibling duo revels in versatility and has explored a variety of sonic styles through their discography over the past few years but it’s on their more spritely tracks where the pair’s vocals truly shine, and “Green Window” is the quintessential example of what Akdong Musician can do while having a good time. Serving as the perfect venue for their youthful sound, the upbeat electropop-rock song sprinkles electronic quirks over acoustic instrumentals to provide a platform to the refreshing, inspirational verses about letting light into your life during hardships. — T.H.
12. Luna – “Galaxy” (Free Somebody, 2016)
f(x)’s main vocal went solo last year, and her smash debut EP reached No. 3 on the World Albums chart. But one of the unearthed gems from the tracklist is an electro-pop tune that equates falling in love with entering “into your galaxy.” Her powerhouse vocals go stratospheric as she manages to belt out the entire chorus without any sign of strain. Dubstep wubs loom in the distance as her digitally altered vocal layers wax and wane. This spacey song makes one thing clear: her solo career has signs of life. — C.K.
11. Wonder Girls – “Baby Don’t Play” (Reboot, 2015)
The Hallyu wave would’ve caught on a lot earlier if this synth-inflected R&B jam came out in the ‘80s. After all, the Wonder Girls were formerly the highest charting K-pop group on the Hot 100 with their ‘60s-style hit, “Nobody.” No one did retro concepts better than this quartet. Regardless, the appeal of “Baby Don’t Play” remains timeless. Of course, that’s rich to say two years after its release. But this also happens to be a track off the group’s last studio album before disbanding in January 2017. — C.K.
10. Red Velvet – “Body Talk” (Rookie, 2017)
Since their first EP in early 2015, Red Velvet has gloriously continued SM Entertainment’s long tradition of equally excellent singles and deep cuts — just take a listen to their recently released, chart-topping Perfect Velvet album. While the ladies crafted an R&B record with a healthy dose of quirky-cuteness with Rookie, the most striking song is undoubtedly the sensual “Body Talk” that sees the girls exploring heartbreak over an icy synth for their most mature recording to date. — J.B.
9. After School – “Love Beat” (First Love, 2013)
Despite being still officially together, criminally underrated girl group After School hasn’t released a new K-pop album since 2013. Whether they will release new material remains to be seen, but if First Love is, in fact, their last release, at least they went out on a majorly high note. An EP filled with experimental dance and R&B cuts, “Love Beat” stands a cut above the others for its swelling synths and crunchy electronica that grows by the second until leaping into its fluttery chorus and zipping dance breakdown. — J.B.
8. Ga-In – “Tinkerbell” (Talk About S, 2012)
Ga-In has made a name for herself as a colorful soloist outside of Brown Eyed Girls. On “Tinkerbell,” she delivers a distorted lullaby about a nighttime rendezvous. But while it’s easy to get distracted by Ga-In’s penchant for selling sex, “Tinkerbell” is so much more than a sexy concept. The song is both texturally complex and full of empty space, with the choppy opening achieving a bit of a fake-out by sounding like a CD skipping. It would feel psychedelic if the glitches weren’t dealt with mathematical precision. In one of the song’s more adventurous moments, a booming electric guitar feels like it’s going to climax, then it abruptly cuts to a drowsy acoustic guitar. The prescient incorporation of Spanish guitar precedes the current influx of Latin music elements in K-pop. This flurry of sonic techniques confirms “Tinkerbell” as one of the most technically ambitious songs in K-pop. — C.K.
7. BTS – “Whalien 52” (The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 2, 2015)
It feels like every week BTS is breaking new ground in the global K-pop takeover and a large part of that is thanks to the material that goes deeper than most pop. One of the band’s most insightful reflections is felt on “Whalien 52,” which compares loneliness and feeling like an outsider to a still-undiscovered whale species who seems to be the only animal to speak at the atypical frequency of 52 hertz, earning the nickname as “the loneliest whale in the world.” The K-pop kings turned this into a complex and fascinating album track, an indication of BTS’ profundity as songwriters. — J.B.
6. IU – “Bad Day” (Modern Times, 2013)
IU‘s Modern Times album was an artistic breakthrough that solidified the young singer-songwriter as multifaceted musician instead of puppet pop star. While the LP is a gorgeous journey of jazz and Latin-inspired cuts, IU’s brilliance is perhaps best captured in the moving “Bad Day.” With the multiple twists and turns in production and vocals, the song sonically embodies depression and the many conflicting emotions and mood swings that come in that lonely battle. Being able to express complex emotions through just the song production and delivery, as IU does in “Bad Day,” is the mark of a musician whose work truly transcends language. — J.B.
5. Jonghyun – “White T-Shirt” (She Is, 2016)
A divergence from the SHINee member’s typically mellow solo pursuits, “White T-Shirt” is a groovy song with trop leanings and slight nods to EDM and techno. Sung in a deeper register than usual, it offers up an alternative, more playful side to Jonghyun with its addictive, bouncing tempo and his sonorous delivery of the titular hook. The unorthodox nature of it pays off for the singer, with “White T-Shirt” being one of the most finely produced earworms K-pop has ever seen. — T.H.
4. Brown Eyed Girls – “Wave” (Basic, 2015)
A smooth tune that incorporates funk guitars and slinking bass, “Wave” is an ambient electro-pop track that emphasizes the quartet’s breathy harmonies. A mellow piano melody and the bassline guide the song, building slowly to create a solemn, ethereal realm before the instrumentals drop out entirely mid-word, allowing for an a cappella finale. It’s a song filled with subdued passion, and one of the crowning moments of Brown Eyed Girls’ career in the K-pop industry. — T.H.
3. SHINee – “Symptoms” (Everybody, 2013)
The epitome of SHINee’s form of stirring, experimental K-pop, “Symptoms” serves as a bridge between the group’s early R&B sound and their heavier electronica styling. Propelled by layered vocals and frenetic beats, the song offers up one of the band’s most expressive performances ever. Beginning slowly over a midtempo beat before a tonal shift turns it into a powerful dance track, woozy synths spur “Symptoms” along to its propulsive chorus where the members lay out the verses, written by Jonghyun, with a sense of rawness rarely seen in K-pop. It’s an evocative tune that plays up the quintet’s strengths and versatility, and one of the best boy band songs ever crafted. — T.H.
2. CL, “MTBD” (Crush, 2014)
2NE1’s final album, Crush, was a landmark release for the group that proved all naysayers wrong and broke K-pop records, but quietly tucked away in the tracklist was CL‘s solo song “MTBD,” a beast of a track that felt like an artistic breakthrough for the star who was in the early stages of her burgeoning solo career. The beat was trendy yet fresh, employing of-the-moment, trap-inspired breakdowns while incorporating her fierce and playful rap and singing style. While the track stirred some controversy for incorporating problematic, chanted verses from the Quran — which were later removed — the track showed an exploration of sounds foreign and exciting to the artist, and indicated a larger worldview when it came to her solo music. In fact, “MTBD” sounds like the type of track that CL could have launched a successful solo career (in Korean or English) with, and subsequent performances of the track felt like we were seeing an artist truly coming into her own. The fact that it was kept for CL as a solo song on a 2NE1 album just further proved why it was so special for specifically her. There are few things more meaningful to a musician than when they unmistakably own a song, and “MTBD” endures as landmark deep cut for simply being so CL. — J.B.
1. f(x) – “Shadow” (Pink Tape, 2013)
f(x) specializes in balancing weirdness with mainstream appeal, and their beloved Pink Tape is constructed around that duality. It was hard to come to a consensus about the best deep cut, but “Shadow,” which peaked at No. 6 on Korea’s Gaon chart, is arguably the best embodiment of the girl group’s quirky sensibility. It’s a clever trick to take whimsical elements — like the xylophones, vocal samples and lyrical love theme — and twist them into something sinister. Those descending xylophones at the beginning paired with the warped vocal layers sound deeply unsettling — then you read the lyrics, and the song becomes straight up chilling.
The song strays away from explicit horror elements in favor of subtlety. On the surface, lyrics like “When the sun rises, together with you / I walk in sync” sound romantic. But on a closer read, the song is sung from the perspective of a stalker — expressed through the extended metaphor of a shadow, a lyrical device borrowed from the album’s preceding song and lead single, “Rum Pum Pum Pum.” On top of its interpretive richness, “Shadow” is a downright catchy tune, proving that K-pop is a high art all its own. — C.K.