Every year, the South Korean music industry serves up a wide array of music that spreads its reach across the globe, experimenting with the limitations of popular music. 2019 was no different, with artists delivering singles both addicting and meaningful.
The past 12 months, however, were transformative for reasons beyond the music: long-overdue conversations regarding the unjust structural and social issues became unavoidable. We went into the year disillusioned by idol culture and facing the grim realities of power dynamics in South Korea, and are coming out with increasingly loud cries to protect our idols, particularly women.
With the world now truly entering what is largely being called the “Fourth Wave of K-pop”, we are looking at an industry standing on the precipice of much-needed change: in terms of how it treats its stars, how they connect with fans, and how its existence is gradually becoming a normal part of global music culture.
Taking this all into account, we put our heads together to determine what were the stand-out songs coming out of the Korean scene amid all of this. Focusing on singles, we named the top 25 songs of 2019 and shared our thoughts below.
25. SuperM, “Jopping” (SuperM)
For the uninitiated (the unjopped, even), “jopping” is a jocular portmanteau of “jumping and popping.” A favorite pastime for many, surely, but is it an apposite theme for a supergroup billed as “K-pop’s Avengers”? It turns out: yes, and resoundingly so. Everything marvelous about “Jopping” — shouted vocals, airtight production, half-time choruses befitting pugilist highlight reels — is rooted in how SuperM treat partying as a heroic act, as the most important of endeavors. Their seriousness proved to be a much-needed fount of levity, vigor, and glee; our joy wasn’t stopping, we’re jopping. — JOSHUA MINSOO KIM
24. Jvcki Wai, Young B, Osshun Gum & Han Yo Han, “DDING”
“DDING” was a cause for excitement: For the first time, Korean rappers indebted to artists like Lil Uzi Vert and Young Thug found major success without boosts from reality competition shows. Anchoring the single was Jvcki Wai, her Auto-Tuned crooning like caustic flecks of shrapnel. Young B, Osshun Gum, and Han Yo Han follow with increasingly eccentric verses, but it’s all held together by Giriboy’s nimble, playful production. Their braggadocio was deserved. — J.M.K.
23. Seventeen, “Fear” (An Ode)
Seventeen are well-known multi-genre masters in the K-pop scene, with “Fear” marking their deepest dive into emotional, dark electro-pop. The song blends brooding reflections of feeling like you’re the poison in a toxic relationship amid a handful of warm hooky earworms. It’s all finished off with a piercing series of belts in the final chorus as an example of emotional K-pop at its finest. — JEFF BENJAMIN
22. AB6IX, “Breathe” (B Complete)
Not only did a sleek, house-pop throbber like “Breathe” successfully let each of the five AB6IX members shine in their first song together, but the track stands out for its commentary on the fine-dust pollution that became such a problem this year in South Korea, making the boy band’s introduction a debut with a message. — J.B.
21. BLACKPINK, “Kill This Love” (Kill This Love)
There was no better time for BLACKPINK to release “Kill This Love” than in 2019: it’s a stadium-sized anthem befitting their record-breaking successes and international stardom. The blaring horns and martial percussion set the mood, but amidst the bombast is a song about the grueling decision to cut off a relationship. Rosé and Jisoo’s impassioned pre-choruses reveal the pain in doing so, but the song ends with an imperial rallying cry to cut off the dead weight; their “girl crush” concept never felt more visceral. — J.M.K.
20. ITZY, “Dalla Dalla” (IT’z Different)
The undeniable stand-out new girl group of 2019 also delivered one of the year’s most undeniable singles. ITZY not only captured the world’s attention with their debut single — the music video surpassed 17 million views on YouTube in its first 24 hours and landed at No. 2 on World Digital Song Sales — but arrived with a declaration of confidence and positive affirmations like “I love myself,” “I’m just the way I am” and “Just keep on dreamin'” throughout the track. — J.B.
19. IU, “Blueming” (Love Poem)
The reigning South Korean queen of introspective pop perfection, IU returned with “Blueming” in November to sing about how she has come into bloom in a relationship, and in her life, in this sprightly pop-rock tune. As IU sings calmly in an upbeat manner about the blue-ming emotions of sending small flower-like texts to the object of her affection, she expresses the everyday anxieties of modern day romance in her own distinct way, creating a song that is a perfect representation of what it means to live and love at the end of a decade that has seen lives turned upside-down due to the impact of social media and technology. — TAMAR HERMAN
18. Red Velvet, “Psycho”(‘The ReVe Festival’ Finale)
“Psycho” may present itself as dignified and graceful — pizzicato strings and elegant, multipart harmonies — but it brims with a desire to break free from such genteel comportment. Dizzying synth arpeggios relay the underlying exhaustion: a current romance is replete with turmoil, and it’s driving Red Velvet crazy. Their solution comes in an acceptance of love as a noble struggle, as something involving constant growth. In this musical decorum is a revelation often missing from pop songs: the work behind every true love. — J.M.K.
17. R.Tee & Anda, “What You Waiting For”
Anda has been one of the more exciting female voices to have emerged out of Korea in recent years, but her latest track with R.Tee under the more experimental YGX label that proved she is a force to be reckoned with. She fiercely and impatiently demands a long overdue answer to a love confession via her psychedelic vocals that get mixed with R.Tee’s explosive beats, blaring synths, glitchy effects on build-and-drop arrangement. It’s inarguably fun and distinctive for a standout single from promising talents on the road to bigger success. — JESSICA OAK
16. NCT 127, “Highway to Heaven” (NCT #127 WE ARE SUPERHUMAN)
NCT 127’s power pop ballad soars in intensity alongside head-bopping percussion and sleek, infectious synths, showcasing the act’s dynamic vocals. Originally released as a b-side on the boy band’s fourth EP and then later as an all-English single, this tune put the spotlight on the act’s more melodic elements in comparison to their typical, occasionally grungy, hip-hop-oriented singles, building in sonic intensity with each verse as the lyrics relay the passionate desire to spend the whole night together on a “Highway to Heaven.” — T.H.
15. BTS, “Boy With Luv (feat. Halsey)” (Map of the Soul: Persona)
With its euphoric sound and a guest appearance from friend and fellow hitmaker Halsey, BTS created the single that encapsulated their worldwide domination. “Boy With Luv” is a response to 2014’s “Boy in Luv,” about a near-obsession to landing their dream girl, with this song showing growth and, most importantly, a larger message: to accept self-love to make changes from within. The message is not only universal, but one special to those who have been following BTS for years to show superstars that have embraced their messages of self-love. — J.B.
14. TWICE, “Fancy” (Fancy You)
Known predominantly for their bubbly earworms, TWICE kept things as infectious as ever with “Fancy” but turned in a slightly new direction, blending electro-pop and disco elements to create a more mature sound for the act, adding some darker hues to their more traditionally neon sonic color palette. The track surges in intensity, speeding up then slowing down before surging forward again over pulsating synths, stand out raps, and lively beats as the women of TWICE sing about how they, “Fancy you-ooh-ooh.” — T.H.
13. ATEEZ, “Say My Name” (Treasure EP.2: Zero to One)
Of all the rookie acts who made a splash this year, ATEEZ deserves a special mention simply for their tenacity and their evolution. While their debut “Pirate King” was perfect for an act aiming to burst onto the scene, “Say My Name” — seamlessly transitioning from quasi-bare acoustics to reverberating horns and dark synth loops — was more confident and eloquent. One can’t help but note how it parallels ATEEZ’s own journey from fresh-faced rookies to fearless musicians — as the lyrics talk about moving forward together, the act prefaces a discography that only got better throughout the year. — L.SINGH
12. N.Flying, “Rooftop” (Fly High Project #2)
N.Flying’s “Rooftop” is the song you’ve heard without ever having heard of it — riddled with loneliness, its lyrics evoke memories of the love you had but, unfortunately, couldn’t hold on to. Influences of reggae combined with N.Flying’s trademark rap-rock sound as the members reminisce watching the stars with their lost lover. Fortunately for all of us, this collective nostalgia worked wonderfully for “Rooftop”, which went to become not only N.Flying’s most successful track but also got them their first win on a music show. — L.S.
11. CLC, “No” (No.1)
CLC continued to find their place as empowering, self-assured women with this subversive anthem. “No” saw the ladies refusing to be defined by any type of beauty, fashion or gender standards but their own. The undeniable chorus paired with a call-and-response hook, plus the unexpected beat-driven final chorus finish also showed that this single refused to play by typical pop-song standards as well. — J.B.
10. Stray Kids, “Miroh” (Clé 1: MIROH)
If Stray Kids are the forerunners of a new generation that channels disillusionment into creativity, “Miroh” is their crowning jewel. In both it’s lyrics and musical structure, “Miroh” is restless. It never quite finds whether it wants to meld into the heady bass or breathe in the hook where the group proclaims to fly higher as it cheats an unfair system. By the time you get to the end of this massive high, however, Stray Kids have made it into your bloodstream and you want to go back for seconds. — L.S.
9. (G)I-dle, “Lion” (Queendom Final Comeback)
Though not part of an official album by the group, (G)I-dle’s “Lion” is one of the most visceral tracks of the year. Every part of this anthem is brimming with untamed, frenetic, self-assured power that’s channeled into its booming rhythms, more appropriate for a battlefield than a stage. As the young lionesses of (G)I-dle reshape the terrain by ‘dancing to the lion’s wild beat’ and walk through the carcasses of their naysayers to ‘take their crowns’, their message is loud and clear: take your best shot. They’re ready. — L.S.
8. Hwasa, “Twit”
Looking back on 2019, it was undeniably the year of Hwasa in South Korea, where she proved to be a diva provocateur as she pushed the boundaries of accepted norms for women in the industry, both in regard to her musical performances and her public appearances. With its taunting, compelling nature, this single spends its length simultaneously showing off Hwasa’s impressive vocal tone while still maintaining an altogether fun nature, dramatic one moment as she belts and playful the next, making this year the best time to be a “Twit.” — T.H.
7. AKMU, “How Can I Love the Heartbreak, You’re the One I Love” (Sailing)
Folky brother-sister duo of AKMU delivered the best ballad of the year with this beautiful, wintry duet. Like all of their best ballads, AKMU showcases a maturity beyond their years with this single that appropriately represents themselves growing up after years as youths in the spotlight, expressing the sorrow of recognizing how someone you love may no longer reciprocate your feelings. Their Sailing album overall reflected these feelings of maturation and evolution as both people as artists, and coincided with their changing their artist name formally to “AKMU” versus their former “Akdong Musician” moniker that translated to “mischievous child musician” in Korean. — J.B.
6. GOT7, “You Calling My Name” (Call My Name)
A little bit atmospheric synth-pop, a little bit funk, GOT7’s “You Calling My Name” is the group at their best, both captivating and impactful. The tune plays to each individual members’ strengths, putting smooth raps alongside layered harmonizing and ad libs as slinking bassline and groovy instrumentals drives “You Calling My Name.” It’s a style that matches the septet in a way few other of their singles have done quite so gracefully, and they pull off the shift with ease, making it one of the most perfect songs out of the K-pop world this year. — T.H.
5. Heize, “We Don’t Talk Together (feat. Giriboy)”
On an easy-going, melodic production of 808s and EDM synths — crafted by Suga of BTS — Heize and Giriboy carry out the emotional gravity of an unsettled relationship via refrained vocals and monotone rapping that emphasize the lovers’ anesthetized feelings towards a dying bond. The collaborative effort between Korea’s top vocalist, rapper, and a member of its top group has no gimmicks: just raw feelings and talent to make it one of 2019’s most relatable breakup songs. –– J.O.
4. TXT, “9 and Three Quarters (Run Away)” (The Dream Chapter: MAGIC)
Inspired by the starting point of Harry Potter’s adventures, “9 and Three Quarters (Run Away)” begins with dulcet twinkling and then rapidly takes a dive into pop-rock territory, bolstering the members’ fantastically distorted vocals as punkish instrumentals duke it out with quirky electronic elements and sweet harmonies. Everything about “Run Away” is exciting and pristinely melded together, creating a soundscape is truly magical and casts a spell on those who hear it, making it so that we never want to stop listening to it. — T.H.
3. Chung Ha, “Gotta Go”(XII)
Chung Ha has been climbing the K-pop ranks for several years, but the solo diva truly made her mark in 2019. The 23-year-old kicked off the year by releasing the slithering, emotional dance-pop single “Gotta Go” that earned her bigger-than-ever fame in Korea and a breakthrough on the Billboard charts. The single has become a major contender during music awards show season, but perhaps even more importantly seemed to show Chung Ha fully embracing her stronger, more confident side; a side that’s stayed consistent throughout her major year and can help guide her to even greater heights in the new decade. — J.B.
2. Apink, “%% (Eung Eung)” (Percent)
“%%” is an ode to the loveless, to those who ache for intimacy but find their suitors ill-matched. Apink demonstrate an age-old dilemma: in holding self-respecting standards, they find themselves alone, desperately aching for affection. The frustrations that come with such circumstances are echoed in the vocalizing and lyrics, which vacillate between wistful yearning (“Will you answer me?”) and poised declarations (“If you’re not confident, goodbye.”) The complexity of emotions is constantly felt — frenzied beat drops create urgency, fluttering synth melodies signal anxiety — but it’s neatly summarized in Apink’s recitation of the title: at once a beguiling sneer, a plaintive coo, a hopeful come-on. — J.M.K.
1. EXO, “Obsession” (OBSESSION)
EXO have been flirting with the dark side in their music, but “Obsession” is where they make being bad truly feel good. Playing on themes of confronting your demons, “Obsession” is a conversation between the band’s inner Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Parts of the song teeter right on the edge of malevolence as the band members use their mythic powers to battle their alter-egos, infamously dubbed X-EXO. Powerful bass holds the song taut while seamless vocal samples loop into threats and taunts, making it crackle with electricity and delicious arrogance. Even after seven years in the industry, EXO surprised us all with the ominous intensity of “Obsession”, proving why the crown of K-pop is safe in their hands. — L.S.