Why a K-pop songs of the year list? Why now? Korean pop music has been in the Western press’ peripheral vision for going on half a decade now, hasn’t it? The truth is, K-pop is no mere fad—after listening to anywhere between 5 and 10 hours of it per day this year, I’ve come to find it’s a fascinating song economy that has been completely self-sustaining for a long, long time now. Glance at the Korean charts at any given hour and you’ll usually be hard pressed to find a single song not made in Korea; I can think of no other pop-loving country on earth that could claim the same for its own musical output. Korea is also one of the most wired, tuned in societies on earth, so it’s not like they’re unaware of Miley, Justin, et al. They’re making their choice for a reason.
I’ve found it to be a pretty good one. To my ears, Korea’s got the best pop per capita in the world, and has a majority stake in the best pop music made in at least the past five years. Here’s some of the best of what I heard in 2013, in what is inevitably a very subjective list. Note that I deliberately avoided choosing more than one song per artist, to prevent this from becoming a list of f(x) and SHINee songs.20. Sunmi - “24 Hours”
After enjoying a tremendous career with the Wonder Girls (who, in retrospect kinda unbelievably, once opened for the Jonas Brothers in Lexington, Kentucky), Sunmi’s solo career went off with a bang on this surprise hit. The hook cloys a mite, but burrows deep.19. Lim Kim - “컬러링 (Coloring)”Lim Kim—of Two Months, the teen duo who infamously dueted with Busker Busker on Superstar K—has been coming of age in a promising solo career. The breezy “Coloring” was one of summer’s simplest pleasures.18. Royal Pirates - “Shout Out”A few years ago this LA-based band’s YouTube videos were pretty dark and heavy, so it’s a bit odd that after moving to Korea this year they came out sounding more like One Direction. The optimism’s contagious, in any event; I’m curious to hear where they head next.17. IU - “Monday Afternoon”
The self-consciously “mature” vibes of IU’s third album Modern Times (lounge jazz, waltzes, bossa nova...) were a smart rebranding move after Lee Ji-eun -- formerly “the nation’s little sister” -- got caught in a sex scandal with an older idol in Korea last year. But for my money, this Japanese single was her best work of late: a keyboard pop inversion of “Viva La Vida” that captures the sways of a young heart in love.16. Smells - “Listen To Your Heart (feat. Neon Bunny)”
In this list’s lone rep for the Korean indie scene, bedroom producer Smells teams up with songstress-savant Neon Bunny for a charming piano-house pep talk. Given her sterling track record, Neon Bunny’s next album is something to look out for in 2014.15. EXO - “Baby, Don’t Cry (인어의 눈물)”
EXO was Korea’s massivest young export in 2013, this deep cut being the best reason why. The 12-member, bipartite boy band (six sing in Mandarin and tour China, six sing in Korean and tour at home) helped fill K-pop’s minor key netherworld while former kings B2ST had a slack year.14. INFINITE - “Destiny”
In my rough estimate of the world’s sum total of good pop-dubstep, INFINITE’s “Destiny” is precisely half of it. The intro sounds like classic Justice at their most sinister, but it’s the distressed bass and symphonic vocal arrangement that ordain this song for teen pop greatness.13. Miss A - “남자 없이 잘 살아 (I Don’t Need A Man)”Empowerment anthems of any stripe don’t often play the adorable card, but this Miss A mega-hit showed that feminism can be cute if it wants to be. K-pop’s boldest message this year came in one of its sweetest wrappers.12. After School - “Heaven (MV Version)”After School has never been the same since leader Kahi left in 2012 (and vice versa), but this Japanese single was a strong reminder of what they can do. Following Daft Punk’s recent turn towards rockism, the octet girl group grabbed the hyper-compressed disco baton and ran with it. The awesome G-funk strip club beat that opens the video is a nice bonus, replete with crazy impressive pole-dancing -- skills for which the girls suffered quite a bit.11. 4Minute - “물 좋아? (Is It Poppin’?)”There’s almost too damn many rhythm and vocal tracks in this 4Minute club hit, but the hook overload winds up working in the girls’ favor. Producer-writer Brave Brothers -- actually just one guy -- deserves a medal for balancing everything in this mix just so.10. WINNER - “Smile Again (Live)”K-pop stars’ creative involvement in their own careers are usually perfunctory at best, but YG Entertainment’s upcoming new boy band boasts three fully-fledged songwriters and a brilliant choreographer in Lee Seunghoon, one of two rappers. Frontman Kang Seungyoon wrote “Smile Again” in a single night, managing to imbue this future K-pop hit with his distinctive ear for melody and chord progressions.9. G-Dragon “Window”I’ve made my distaste for G-Dragon’s Coup D’Etat well known, but this last minute addition to the physical album is one golden exception. Produced and co-written by YG mainstay Teddy, “Window” finds the Big Bang frontman contemplating a romance homicide over Moroder-noir synths.8. Brown Eyed Girls - “레시피 (Recipe)”
The most convincing French accent I’ve heard on a beat out of Korea to date. Sounds like a poolside classic from Ed Banger’s heyday, with the vocals adding some ‘90s RnB heat.7. Busker Busker - “밤 (Night)”Though they aren’t big in the global market, arguably nobody on this lists matters more to Koreans than Busker Busker do. The beloved trio (whose American drummer, Brad Moore, did a controversial interview with us a few months back) recall the singer-songwriter golden age of the early ‘90s, before K-pop descended upon the scene. “Night,” the closer from Busker’s autumn-themed second album, finds the band firing on all cylinders, with Jang Beom-Jun’s remarkable voice in full force.6. Rainbow - “Kiss Me”The K-pop industry churns out plenty of aural trainwrecks any given year, but none as glorious, thrilling, and replayable as “Kiss Me.” This scatterbrained shapeshifter cyclones its way through Blur guitar riffs, various vocal confetti, a sidechain-punished chorus, more slap bass than a Funkadelic album, gratuitous rap and one painfully chipmunked catchphrase. Repeat listens reveal a method to the madness.5. KARA - “둘 중에 하나 (Runaway)”
This unassuming gem makes brilliant use of many things K-pop usually doesn’t: a masterful live band, melodies and harmonies that choose class over commerce, a rap bridge that actually works, a climactic modulation that does one better...hell, even a double-bass kick out of the metal playbook for the breakdown. With “Runaway,” KARA beat Brown Eyed Girls at their own game -- pop sensuality for grown folks.4. f(x) - “첫 사랑니 (Rum Pum Pum Pum)”The jazzy, lurid delirium of “미행 (그림자 : Shadow)” was tempting -- but “Rum Pum Pum Pum” is an even madder feat. There is absolutely no reason for a blend of Middle Eastern funk, an actual interpolation of “Little Drummer Boy,” samba rhythms, and a glee club vocal round to work this perfectly as pop...least of all when the song is about wisdom teeth.3. SHINee - “상사병 (Symptoms)”SHINee’s tearful “Artist of the Year” win at MelOn Music Awards was no mistake -- their three recent studio albums had something to do with it, but for my money, the Everybody EP is all that matters. Pop dubstep banger “Everybody” and the FutureSex-prog masterpiece “One Minute Back” could’ve claimed this spot too, but the RnB wooze of “Symptoms” feels especially right for 2013. Play it loud.2. Younha - “우리가 헤어진 진짜 이유 (Album Version)”Former teen idol Younha’s return to the charts this year was well-deserved, especially in light of this radiant beauty. The first three and a half minutes are plenty pretty as is, but the coda’s liftoff into choral reverb heaven is something else. K-pop at its most transportive.1. Girl’s Day - “기대해”This song’s title translates roughly to “Expect It,” and that’s exactly what you should do. Like Girl’s Day’s other masterpiece, “Nothing Lasts Forever” (2011), “기대해” is a great pop song that beautifully loses its mind somewhere after the two-minute mark. In this case, that entails the single greatest key change climax I’ve ever heard in a pop song. Maybe in any kind of song at all. Last.fm tells me I’ve listened to this song over 250 times since finding it in June, and every time, that key change does something to me. Usually I just kind of laugh a little, to myself, at how good it is. Great K-pop is a feeling somewhere between falling in love and sunshine, and the last minute of this song is one of the purest shots I’ve found yet.
Jakob Dorof on twitter—@soyrev