The past year has been an interesting one for K-Pop and “hallyu” enthusiasts. There was the Burning Sun scandal, which led to various criminal accusations hurled at Seungri of Big Bang and YG Entertainment founder Yang Hyunsuk, both have since resigned from their respective posts; the sex scandal surrounding singer Jung Joonyoung, who has since been sentenced to jail; B.I. being ousted from iKon on drug allegations; vote-rigging controversies surrounding the “Produce” series; along with Wonho leaving Monsta X and Starship Entertainment on issues surrounding unpaid debt and a soured relationship with a roommate.
However, there was also the music.
While a number of netizens claim this was a “bad year” for K-Pop—and yes, there were some major duds—there were some highlights and I would like to use this final column of 2019 to point out this year’s bright spots in K-Pop.
After going through a number of sources to recall songs I enjoyed this past year (and it was a massive list), the basis primarily became songs listened to most frequently—their staying power and not growing bored of the song—and seeing how they hold up through the end of December, which would prove to me the song’s value and that it was not just something fun for a couple weeks.
Since the list will solely focus on K-Pop, I must make special acknowledgements for some specific acts that may be associated but are not necessarily “K-Pop” in nature.
Song Ga-in helped usher in the resurgence of trot music and her talent for pansori, the traditional practice of Korean storytelling, brought a new appreciation for the art. Her debut video for “엄마 아리랑 (Mom Arirang)” provides an outstanding introduction to the art, playing like a mini-movie to the soundtrack of her rich and powerful voice.
After debuting in January, WayV, NCT’s Chinese unit, has only released hit after hit, along with offering up remarkable voices, rapping, and visuals (some YouTube reactors made the precise observation that all seven boys are just overflowing with “swag”). A month ago they dropped their first English track, “Love Talk.”
Then, there’s Jackson Wang. Aside from being GOT7’s main rapper, he has continued to carve out a name for himself as a soloist over the past few years and his 2019 album Mirrors, which includes amazing tracks like “Bullet to the Heart” and “Dway!,” have only given the man even more legitimacy as an artist. The album also includes a Mandarin version of “I Love You 3000 II,” a song he originally collaborated on with Indonesian artist Stephanie Poetri earlier this year.
In order to determine a Top 10, it started by narrowing down the aforementioned massive list. Clearly, with more than 10 songs to enjoy this year, there are some honorable mentions.
Twice’s “Fancy” took a bit to get used to early on but, once in, the song is a classic from arguably the top girl group today; “I’m A Star” by Wooseok x Guanlin, Cube Entertainment’s rap sub-unit comprised of Wanna One’s Lai Guanlin and Wooseok of Pentagon, is one of the most fun tracks of the year, which also came with an entertaining video; the group Saturday, who debuted last year, released “BByong,” which is not just super-cute but also really catchy; Astro’s “All Night” came with one of the most visually-appealing videos of the year and Rocky’s interlude towards the middle still sticks in my head; and Got7’s “You Calling My Name” really showed the charms of all the members and Jackson’s rap section (as always) was epic.
10. “Tell Me I Love You,” Ha Sungwoon
One of Wanna One’s main vocals, Ha Sungwoon’s EP “My Moment,” which was released in February, is still one of the most solid releases this year. While “Bird,” another nice track, served as the main single, “Tell Me I Love You” is a fun song that is both cute and reflective.
9. “Icy,” Itzy
The rookie girl group’s sophomore release is hallmarked by a really fun chorus. The change of pace between each of the members gives the track a unique sound and is a bit more of a direct and lighter pace than their debut song “Dalla Dalla,” which almost made the final cut. The song has become a staple at the gym.
8. “Dumb Litty,” Kard
YouTube personalities Gabby and Dani from the ‘ItsKpoping’ YouTube channel nailed it in their response video: “Their last one ‘Bomb Bomb’ was good but this was GREAT” (“Bomb Bomb” also nearly made the final list). Plus, as they noted about J.Seph’s rap section, “His rapping is a mood.” Following the initial video release, they also dropped two performance videos, each playing up the contrasting themes. The rare “mixed group”—as always—also provides some of the most incredible visuals. Most notably, the drop in the song is epic and this has also become a solid gym track.
7. “Boy With Luv,” BTS (featuring Halsey)
The song that dominated all charts and helped lead the way for the world’s biggest K-Pop group to sweep every music award show in Korea (yet still get snubbed for a Grammy nomination) is absolutely earning a spot on the list. The track lingered on every Korean music program countdown for months (it’s probably still on Music Bank’s “Top 20”) and made an impact on audiences both in Korea and around the world. For me, the highlight of the track is Suga’s rap section (it made him the bias wrecker). The song also has a flow that appeals to a wide audience, which was a change from their prior release “Idol” (another amazing song), which was brimming with fast-paced energy.
6. “Home,” Seventeen
The ballad-esque tune inadvertently became one of the more listened to songs this year. It’s probably my favorite Seventeen song and after first watching the video in late January, proceeded to download the song, and have gravitated to it ever since. The song has a cool mellow flow with rhythmically-pleasing rap lyrics—particularly when Vernon jumps in. It’s also one of those songs that works for any mood—the beat isn’t too slow but it also makes for a chill mood.
5. “Me & You,” EXID
In a complete departure from “Home,” EXID’s “Me & You” brings a multitude of stimuli. Hyelin and Solji’s vocals are top-notch (as always), LE’s rapping is on-point, and… that beat drop—one of the most addicting songs of 2019. When out and about, once that beat drops, one’s walking pace immediately changes; while watching the video, the transitions between the girls in wedding dresses and “club gear” was one of the cooler elements of the presentation.
4. “Follow,” Monsta X
From the first moment hearing the song, it immediately became my favorite Monsta X song. The video includes a lovely final glimpse of Wonho and it was one of the few songs this year that warranted being put on repeat. The rap sections are especially memorable and, as Hyungwon said on “Music Bank” ahead of their comeback stage, it is all about the “Ay, Ay, Ay.” The beat is amazing and, as noted by the comments left on the video, the “horn” heard throughout the song gives it a “Turkish” sound. Despite being down a member, the guys still manage to put on a good show as six—sending good vibes to Monsta X in 2020.
3. “Lit,” Oneus
The song opens with a gong, followed by the sounds of traditional instruments—an immediate draw. In addition, after viewing analysis videos of the music video, it was pointed out that the speaking parts are also done in an older cadence, which only highlights how the video pays homage aspects of Korean culture. The group, who debuted in January and is comprised of former contestants from “Produce 101” and “Mix Nine,” previously dropped “Valkyrie” and “Twilight,” both solid tracks, but “Lit” brought a unique sound compared to other songs released this year and showcased the group members’ personalities. The theme was also reminiscent of “Shangri-La” by Vixx, if only Oneus used more fans during their stage performances.
2. “Feel Special,” Twice
Whenever Twice releases a song, it’s a hit. They top the charts with nearly everything they offer. “Feel Special” is yet another catchy track by the nine-member girl group. The chorus is one that gets stuck in your head and the video is exquisite—especially Tzuyu and Momo. The build-up before every chorus is particularly appealing. While “Cheer Up” or “What Is Love?” would definitely be among the more quintessential “Twice songs,” the significance of this track is that it beautifully presents the group with a more mature tone.
1. “Lalalay,” Sunmi
This song may have been the only time I have watched a music video on repeat, checked out dance practice videos, and became obsessed with the relay dance video. Sunmi, a former member of the iconic Wonder Girls, has already made a name for herself as a soloist and if anybody thought there was a song that could top “Gashina,” this is it! The song is excellent, the dancing is innovative, and Sunmi is… amazing. To this day (saying goodbye to 2019 and ushering in 2020), the song is still played at least once a day and, at one point, served as both an alarm clock and ringtone.
While Sunmi’s “Lalalay” may have been a reasonably easy pick for #1, thinking of the other songs that would come to represent 2019 for me was a difficult task. However, the music most people enjoy are the ones they listen to most often and, looking it over, this basically summed up 2019 for me.
To more fantastic music in 2020, Happy New Year! /WDJ