Last year I made an iTunes list of my favorite 31 k-pop songs of 2016. And then I thought about everything I left out, and the order kept changing. Finally, I just gave up.
This year, I’ve decided to try it seasonally. The list is down to a more manageable 17 songs. (I’m surprised my moonlighting as an unimportant and invisible k-pop amateur critic has lasted this long: a year and a couple of months.)
I prefer Favorites lists over Top Lists. Anyone who follows k-pop knows all the big artists, all the big songs, and reading lists that just shuffle around the same big hits is uninteresting. With a favorites list, you can leave out the biggest hit of the year. You can give some barely recognized rookie the top spot. A generic piece of crap can be in the top ten and a true masterpiece can come dead last. But often in k-pop, the best of the year does cause quite a splash in the culture.
Still, even with favorites there are politics because they have to be ordered. You pretty much know who comes in the bottom and top halves, but what’s the difference between tenth and ninth? What happens in the middle of the list where the top and bottom begin to blur?
You pick all of your favorites: the songs you think you will listen to all year long, the songs you listen to more than you talk about (fan vs. critic troubles), the songs that work with the audio alone and don’t need big stages and music videos. But then again…some songs you came to love because of the video… I tried to be brutal, but there were just some songs I wanted to talk about. Sometimes I had to reward craft over personal joy.
So you make a list, do the best you can, balance your heart’s wish with critical ideas and just pure stanning, and lock it in. It’s done.
So first, before we dig into winter let’s take a broader view.
K-pop is no longer in its golden age. What is a golden age? Simply put, it’s when a culture is at its most innovative and when what is most innovative is what sells. It’s when new levels of virtuosity are being revealed and that creativity is being rewarded with commercial success.
K-pop still has lots of creativity and is unrivaled in pop craft. But at the end of the day, the genre has stabilized. Each season brings the same mix of pop subgenres and true innovation either feels isolated to too few artists or even one release, or it flops. So yes, BTS may be breaking the west and selling millions worldwide, but Not Today is not an expression of genius.
I was going to talk about some Honorable Omissions (BTS, 2ne1) but I’ve decided to be bold. Whereas most lists can’t help but pander, even if just a little, to the LCD or elitist often within the same list, I’m just going to suck it up and get on with it.
These songs are favorites that reside just out of the Top 10. Let’s get messy. (Songs that debuted in the last week or so may appear here or count towards spring’s list, if I do one.)
17. Seohyun, “Magic”
Seohyun had the most long awaited and underwhelming solo debut. But fortunately, after mining the b-sides, one gem did appear, “Magic”. Slinky and sexy R&B with a little bounce is a secondary weakness of mine. But it’s still a little rough, missing the refinement that another song has higher on this list.
16. Victon, “Blank”
Artistically, Got7 broke through with “A” and peaked with “Stop Stop It”. Talk about brief. In search of a hit, they turned their backs on being masters of the early aughts pop revival and went full EDM with actually a really good transition between phases with “If You Do”. The verdict seems mixed on whether it has worked. Is it forgiveable for an a-list male act to not have huge album sales? Canada loves them.
Anyway, the point is: as someone who is heartbroken on having to give up on Got7 as a potential bias, Victon was a gift from the pop gods with “I’m Fine”. They may not have the sheer performance charisma and a-list professionalism of Got7, but they had the sound…for a moment.
Unfortunately, they followed up “I’m Fine” with Eyez Eyez and they went from “group I needed to follow” to “isolated incident of excellence”. But once again, the b-sides provided a glimmer of hope in “Blank”. Blank is such a direct follow up to “I’m Fine” that it quotes it.
The song is not as smooth as “I’m Fine” but it’s just as breezy and effortlessly fun in its sheer acceptance of boyhood as a construct of mischievous innocence.
15. Dreamcatcher, “Chase Me”
TVXQ (and even Super Junior) showed that pop could legitimately infuse rock. TVXQ actually managed to remind rock that it’s a versatile genre that does not always have to depend on electric guitars.
Enter Dreamcatcher and their georgeous pop goth concept. With post-GFriend choreographic precision and a ponytail tug to end lives, Dreamcatcher became the first group of the year to demand reading the lyrics.
I just want to be thrilled
The Dreams of empty people, they are boring
There is not a single line that does not resonate with romance and menace. A promise to haunt, an invitation to chase, Dreamcatcher create a dance of adrenaline and emotional adventure far more profound than any YA novel.
Unforutunately, even with all that said, the song as an audio alone does not feel as top shelf as when you see the full production.
I wanted to embed the Music Bank stage but it was disabled.
14. Red Velvet, “Rookie”
Red Velvet’s “Rookie” is a muddle. Not musically but culturally.
Red Velvet, since their breakthrough, usually work with duality. The Red and The Velvet. You have their semi- (or sometimes pseudo-) subversion of girl pop super productions and then something smoother. “Ice Cream Cake” was bubble gum with bits and pieces of jagged glittery glass, then “Automatic” was a total babymaker.
Great songs, but then Red Velvet transcended themselves to start making a case for entering the Pantheon of Pop Gods.
“Dumb Dumb” put soulful R&B vocals over a production that had the bass and brass of big band synthesized with the clang and pulse of hip-hop underpinnings to create an incredibly cohesive and master lesson of electro pop. “Russian Roulette” was pure electro that set the group apart from their generation, and then they created the most gorgeous ballads of 2016 with “One of These Nights”, a ballad that was complex and rich, never giving into the generic OST formula. It required multiple listens and didn’t put you to sleep.
In other words, Red Velvet went from f(x): the sequel (and all that it implies in terms of quality) to true rivals. Unfortunately, “Rookie” is a stumble.
“Rookie” is Red Velvet-lite. It’s what a b-list rookie girl group would release to try to emulate Red Velvet and capitalize on their success. And they’d fail, of course. But Red Velvet is Red Velvet, and one such release from such a super power does not automatically spell doom.
Still, “Rookie” as a song has no light-subversive moments and the music video and comeback stages tried to fool you into thinking it did. They tried to make you think “Rookie” worked in RV’s case of “RV v f(x)” and it doesn’t. It tries to trick your eyes into thinking it is in sequence with Ice Cream and Dumb Dumb when the ear knows better. It’s a safe song marketed as something much more. It’s very standard band dance with no cartoony punch.
But time has passed. And in a vacuum, just listening without all of the cultural context, “Rookie” is fun. The chorus hook is a delight and the verses have a kind of dream lounge vibe. But nothing about Rookie as a visual or musical concept is as virtuoso as what came before. And it’s too soon for RV to be on a down slide.
“Rookie” still had some great stages though when they were tightly constructed and not trying to emulate the MV.
13. Mixx, “Love is a Sudden”
Mixx proves my point about Red Velvet. Leave it to a group called Mixx to have such a masterful mix. It’s rare to talk about track mixing in criticism. But in “Love is a Sudden” you can actually sense the space between the layers and hear the shine of the mastering. With that spacing and luster, you can always hear every layer from bottom to top even with a superficial listening.
“Love is a Sudden” is pop silk, it has bounce and flow. Too bad Mixx couldn’t mix music, nationality, and politics without falling apart.
12. S.E.S., “Hush”
S.E.S. did something unthinkable. When old school groups return after years and years they either try to pander to a new, now younger generation or they come out with something so retro it sounds dated. S.E.S. stayed true to the 90s but added just enough contemporary production to create something that feels both encapsulated in time and yet timeless.
For all of the nostalgia and revivalism (for those who like retro sounds but did not actually grow up with them) I needed a true blue 90s k-pop group to finally make me nostalgic for my childhood.
“Paradise” comes straight out of the decade. But “Hush” is my special moment. Every generation of k-pop has offered dance jams but hearing a truly rich and sophisticated R&B groove that drips sensuality is too much for me to pass on. It gives “Magic” a lesson.
11. April, “April Story”
In general, I like a good orchestral pop song. But it requires two critic buzzwords: “lush” and “energetic”.
“April Story” has gentle and intricate verses that reward the ear. The chorus is sweeping while balancing joy and melancholy. The flourish of electric guitar and the ease and restraint of the instrumentation puts “April Story” at a level of maturity above GFriend’s usual, more juvenile offerings (which I actually like BTW).
The video also offers an artistically mature and wonderfully styled visual concept that perfectly accompanies the song.
Just talking about it makes me think it should be higher on the list. But maybe it’s just still too standard and orchestral pop is not enough of my weakness for that to be the case. Still, 11 is very admirable.
If you want to comment, find me on twitter.