2014 was undoubtedly K-pop’s bloodiest, drug-hungriest, all-around most combustible year on the books in its two-decade lifetime. (Check our full report on all the goriest details, and an exclusive interview recap of YG Entertainment’s run as the label that thrived most through the madness.) But South Korea’s indefatigable culture industry still has plenty of juice left in the tank: song for song, this year’s crop managed a managed a better yield than 2013 despite the calamitous clouds and winds of change.
20. TVXQ - “Heaven’s Day”
2014 began with K-pop’s reigning homme dyad dropping Tense, which featured “Love Again,” a clear variation on Ciara’s “Body Party” (a clear variation on “My Boo”). That album did well enough to earn the repackage treatment, adding this slow jam solo turn from Changmin, itself a clear variation on “Love Again.” At this point, it sounds like it’s TVXQ’s own song. At this point, it slaps.
19. Lovelyz - “Candy Jelly Love”
It’s all about that whole-step key change that caps each verse, and the post-chorus that delivers both a hook all its own and one of the most viscerally adorable (and well synced) choreographies of the year. 2014 was the year K-pop stopped chasing the future and started romanticizing its own past, and I used to hold this bubbly octet’s early Girls’ Gen debt against them. But repeat listens showed me the light: if K-pop must eat itself, feed it to Lovelyz.
18. Boys’ Republic - “Somnambulance”
Channeling the same R&B despair as EXO’s “Baby Don’t Cry” (2015: more, please), this song’s second verse develops with elegance and the bridge is probably the most gorgeous dubstep interpolation in an industry that filled to the brim with ’em a couple of years ago. This nugu boy band is still off-brand K-pop, but a deep cut this good is one reason they shouldn’t be.
17. B2ST - “Good Luck”
As one of the best groups in Korean history (onstage, too), these boys had a better year than their placement here suggests: B2ST’s two mini-albums were among the very best releases of the year. “Good Luck” is just barely the top cut of that highly consistent lot, a masterclass in pop pacing and dynamics. (Pre-chorus of the year, by the way.)
16. Taemin - “Ace”
Other than not putting out new Korean material in a given year, SHINee can do little wrong. An excellent solo mini-album from Taemin helped fill the void, though, and this liquid R&B gold was its ambrosial best. (Try counting the MJ nods in the vid!)
15. EXID - “Up and Down”
Fate, like fame, can be a funny thing. Struggling group EXID seemed due for the chopping block until a fancam of one live performance—camera-trained vigilantly on the particularly pliable Hani—went megaviral and made everyone realize what a damn fine slab of pop the song is. Hooks galore, seamlessly interwoven through one of K-pop’s subtlest genre mélanges to date.
14. Taeyang - “Eyes, Nose, Lips”
It’s tough to rate this song fairly, as after hearing it everywhere for so many months it’s hard to remember how good it felt the first time. But even then, Big Bang crooner Taeyang’s solo smash is as painfully pretty as must be the girl it describes—a carefully counted build towards one of the year’s most well deserved key change catharses.
13. 2AM - “loveskin”
When all is said and done, this solo Seulong album cut from 2AM’s Let’s Talk album may prove to be the most tantric R&B K-pop will ever claim. Forget not this falsetto, my friends; forget not this vibe.
12. Akdong Musician - “Melted”
Taken in tandem with its game-changing video, “Melted” is Korean music operating at its absolute peak. Enjoyed on its own, it’s a gorgeous chamber pop lament about adult cruelty from a couple of teens young enough to know better. Someday Lee Chanhyuk will remold the K-pop industry in his image, and it will be better for it.
11. Winner - “The Visitor”
YG’s most recent boy band had a landmark debut year, and either their hit “Empty” or harmony-heavenly 2NE1 cover could have made this list. But we need to take the opportunity to laud not only one of the most artful promo campaigns capitalism’s yet produced, but also the torturously tantalizing potential of Winner’s teaser music: M83 trap Vangelis is a world K-pop needs to explore (see also: this equally excellent sibling beat), and we humbly petition the Winner boys to make songs out of these or new ones like them. Help us ascend.
10. Neon Bunny - “It’s You”
Even when she doesn’t release more than a single, indie starlet Neon Bunny never fails to make the year-end party. “It’s You” could well be her best song to date, a lambent torch song that seems to light everything it touches. There’s nothing wrong with how most Korean pop isn’t written (solely) by the ones singing it—but don’t act like you can’t hear the difference.
9. Orange Caramel - “Catallena”
In a year of pitch blackness, Orange Caramel’s packaged positivity was a nightlight brighter than all the rest. They say it’s mass produced, but the clever incorporation of everything from ghazal folk samples, Punjabi language hooks, Nile Rodgers guitar, Bollywood overtones and bicurious undercurrents make it feel dang near handmade. (K-pop’s most deliciously WTF video of the year, to boot.)
8. Han Young-ae - “Figure One”
Buried at the end of a cautiously bland comeback album from an old pop singer of the 1980s, “Figure One” is the year’s great mystery. What is a full-length instrumental doing in K-pop? Why is it on this otherwise wonderbread album? How does it have Death Gripz percussion, Metro Area rhodes chords, new wave guitar, canned loop accordion, and an early Savath & Salavas feel—all in one song? And where can we get more? (To be fair: first song on the album is batshit awesome, too.)
7. 2NE1 - “If I Were You”
Though we missed “Missing You” on Crush, “If I Were You” was a kindred spirit—2NE1 at their lyrical, emotive, depressive best. Their vocally powerhouse live take for Korean television was one of the year’s best performances.
6. EXO - “Love Love Love”
Someone scatterbrained grabbed a napkin and jotted down a laundry list—new age piano, Longstreth guitars, Timbaland slow-jam beat, Chinese faux-classical scales, Boyz II Men harmony—then brought it to a poetry reading. The crowd wept.
5. Skrillex x Diplo x G-Dragon x CL - “Dirty Vibe (Album Version)”
Back in March, K-pop may have needed a little outside help to sound this sinister, but by year’s end “Dirty Vibe’s” southern-bounce-trap menace hardly feels foreign. Riding the highest BPM ever sustained by the Korean mainstream, YG Entertainment’s two leading talents use the beat not as a starting line but a launch pad. Many things bode well for CL’s American debut this spring; this track bodes the best.
4. f(x) - “Red Light”
It’s fitting that 2014’s best (accidental?) commentary on the fucked state of K-pop comes from a group that suddenly collapsed a couple weeks after its release. “Red Light” is a high-tech whiplash thriller with a chorus that hits like a fist and, by the second blow, has you begging for it. 2015 needs f(x).
3. AOA - “Miniskirt (Acoustic Ver.)”
Someday, I’ll write a 5,000 word essay about how this rough live take contains Sistine multitudes rich enough in their detail both to identify and to solve the central paradox of the K-pop industry. In the meantime, alternate between this video, the major key original, its lyric sheet, and deep thought.
2. Seo Taiji - “Christmalo.win”
Someday I’ll write a 5,000 word essay about the rhetorical meta-brilliance of Seo Taiji’s all time greatest South Korean social critique, subtextual self-reference, ethnomusicological K-analysis, and daredevil triumph of genre synthesis. You have until then to work your way through the bibliography of Seo Taiji’s most elegant of K-pop thesis papers: polka, 80s hip-hop, nu metal, Yellow Magic Orchestra, western holiday music, laserstep, nursery rhymes, new wave, Seo Taiji…
1. Ga-In - “FxxK U”
Someday, I’ll write a 5,000 word essay about the bravery of a South Korean popstar (of any popstar) performing a (hit) single explicitly about (domestic) rape and setting it to a video explicitly about the same, under an explicit title (somehow least explicit of all). And about the Wellesian depth of the end result’s perfection in tying lyrical narrative to compositional eloquence to visual expression to holistic, bigger-than-pop polemic. For now: enjoy the catchiest, most artful little fuck-off of the year (of any year).