Before I kick off the top ten I would just like to state how hideously under qualified I am to comment on what constitutes a good K-pop song. If I were to name some desert island discs they would include Echo & the Bunnymen, Interpol, Joy Divison, Radiohead and Tears for Fears. You could not get a more polar opposite to K-pop. However, as a rule I do not discriminate any given genre of music and there are always pieces which I can get on board with, be it Pop, Metal, Country & Western and now K-pop. Yes, I have a K-pop playlist on my phone and I really enjoy listening to it. Would I have enjoyed K-pop as much if i had not lived in Korea for nearly half a year, I can’t honestly say? To help me work this out can you, the reader, please be the judge and report back to me your thoughts of my choices. Opinions on this blog are mine and mine alone and are in no official capacity whatsoever. So without further ado, here’s the countdown.
10) Brave Girls – Deepened
Brave girls did a “comeback” in 2016 after a 3 year hiatus with their mini album named High Heels. I put “comeback” in quotes as they left a 4 piece group, but “cameback” as a 7 piece group with a new look a new sound…and a new lineup making them pretty much a new group entirely. This “comeback” song is about some boy treating these girls badly in a breakup (an extremely common theme in female K-pop). Deepened is an uptempo RnB track with a customary rap piece in the middle. The video also takes me back to the late 90s/early 00s watching MTV videos on my NTL cable TV.
Aaliyah, Ashanti, Rhianna
9) Gfriend – Navillera
This track from all-girl group Gfriend falls into the bucket of ‘sickly sweet K-pop’ and have to admit is annoyingly catchy. Navillera is a classic pop song which starts with an electric guitar solo before going in heavy on the synth. It won Korean TV show ‘Inkagayo’ (a cross between Top of the Pops and Xfactor) about 3 times in a row which is no easy feat, but I can easily see why as it has all of the elements which Koreans care about in music; a big group, cheesy video, catchy song, cute look and good dancing.
Carly Rae Jepson, Selena Gomez, Little Mix
8) Stellar – Crying
Stellar are a relatively old band, having been around since 2012 but their previous songs were released to limited success. Subsequently the management decided to make their videos more sexual to get more notice. And it worked. Sort of. They confess that they have received more publicity and made the right call at the time but being famous for the group that makes provocative music videos isn’t the best accolade in the world. So fast forward 18 months later and they returned with a cleaner image and a track called Crying. This song sounds happy and uplifting, but is actually about some boy treating these girls badly in a breakup (Sounding familiar yet?) It’s got soft heartfelt vocals set across a solid dance track with plenty of piano as per many early 00s commercial Ibiza tracks. Alas, the song and the band seemed to have pretty have much tanked as they’ve already lost the female supporters because their videos were too dirty and now they’ve probably lost the blokes as well because their new videos aren’t dirty enough. This is a massive shame because this track is definitely one the the better offerings I’ve heard out here and caters very well for the western palate. These girls have just fallen foul of some questionable marketing tactics.
David Guetta, Alice Deejay, DJ Sammy
7) Twice – Cheer up
Twice are a huge group, in every sense of the word. There’s 9 of them for a start and they have a colossal following despite their relative infancy as a group. Koreans (and music producers) like to measure success of a song based on Youtube hits and Cheer Up was the fastest ever K-pop song to reach 50 million views; move over Psy. Despite being released only 8 months ago, it is already in the top 20 most viewed K-pop songs of all time at 108 million views. Hot on the heels of “Some boy treating me badly in a breakup”, we have female K-pop trend number 2 “I really like this boy but I’m too shy to ask him out”. Aside from Youtube hits, a good barometer for the popular of a K-pop song is how they perform on one of the many weekly network music shows as this great blog details. In the absence of any official billboard chart, these two metrics define how successful bands are in relation to each other. Like Navillera(9), This song won Inkagayo three times on the bounce and ‘Music Bank’ (a similar music show) an incredible 5 times. It might well go on to be the most successful K-pop song of 2016.
Little Mix, Ariana Grande
6) EXO – Lotto
The first all-dudes band in the Top 10 is perennial K-pop heavyweights EXO. These guys are huge out here, anything they release will be popular and anything they endorse will sell like hot cakes (having probably endorsed hot cakes on many occasions). They don’t get much bigger and you can see in the quality of the video for the hit Lotto that management are happy to throw down a big budget on it as they will see it rewarded in spades. The song itself has got a sexy hook, cash registers going kerching and that ‘popping’ electro beat (which I have no idea of the official term). It can standup well against any other track from more established acts in the alternative hip hop genre. Furthermore, the group actually belies the entire Korean economy ethos, take something from the States, spend a few years learning how to do the basics before releasing a very competitive product into the market.
LMFAO, Far East Movement, the Neptunes, Usher, Will.I.Am
5) Black Pink – Whistle
This 4-piece girl group are becoming hugely popular and it isn’t hard to see why. They are sexy but not in a ‘giving away the farm’ style like Stellar and come across as strong and independent. Their songs are also quite unlike anything from a K-pop perspective and as such are massively palatable for western tastes. In fact, of all K-pop music we have introduced to visiting friends from the UK, Black Pink has largely been the favourite. Whistle has clearly been influenced by hip hop (with oodles of pop as well). The track consists of mainly rap vocals set over a deep bass beat and of course, a whistle (a catchy one at that). Its a great track and you will find yourself whistling the dirty whistle bit either out loud or in your head for days.
Nicky Minaj, Gwen Stefani, Iggy Azalea
4) Black Pink – Boombiyah
The girls first release, Boombiyah, had instant success winning Inkigayo just 14 days after debuting, a record for a girl group. They have actually released four excellent tracks on the bounce (this track, ‘Whistle (5)‘, ‘Playing with fire’ and ‘Stay’). Boombiyah is an uptempo dance/hip-hop track, full of energy and attitude. Despite a few cringeworthy lyrics “Been a bad girl I know I am, And I’m so hot I need a fan” there are again some much better Korean cultural references, specifically when they shout “Oppa” (meaning babe/baby/bae/my fella(!) in Korean). Its good, very good and its one of the few K-pop tracks which have found its way onto other playlists on my devices.
Nicky Minaj, Gwen Stefani, Iggy Azalea
3) Shinee – 1 of 1
Here we come to the only other male group on this female dominated list. Shinee (pronounced ‘shiny’, not ‘shin-ee’) are a huge group in Korea having been around since 2008 releasing some of the better K-pop songs over the last decade (‘Lucifer’, ‘Everybody’, ‘Ring Ding Dong’). Known for changing their image to current trend, their latest song 1 of 1 sees a massive throwback to the 90s. Think of a ‘Color me Badd’ meets ‘New Kids on the Block’ type styling. As a kid growing up in this age of music, I instantly loved this song, its drum machine beat, synth and strings, jazz guitar solo and piano. The video is full of stone washed jeans, denim jackets, technicolour shirts and their superb choreographed dancing ability. All in all – Superb, or “Rad” as i used to say back in ’92
New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, Take That
2) Red Velvet – Russian Roulette
Red Velvet are somewhat of an enigma to me. By the standard metrics of music show wins and views per music video, Red velvet underperform. However, they endorse a lot of products, they belong to the most prestigious management company (SM Town) and have featured on the biggest K-drama of 2016 (Descendants of the Sun), so they must be doing something right. Russian Roulette was the track that finally broke their fallow run at music shows and man was it worth the wait. For the record, I love this song, I love the video and now I love them. It is K-pop catchiness in the extreme. It has an electro undertone, plenty of synth and a hint of vocoder action (famous in that Cher track) but in particular it has what many K-pop tacks don’t have – consistency. It is smooth and fluent throughout, unlike a lot of other tracks which can be wildly disjointed for no apparent reason. I must also add that it has the best music video out of all tracks listed in this blog. It therefore has all the ticks in the right boxes to be an excellent pop song in its own right, regardless of country of origin. Russian Roulette will now always be my gateway track when introducing friends and family into K-pop to ease them in.
Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Gwen Stefani
1) Twice – TT
Twice, who true to their name are on this list twice, returned with an even more superior song to their previous release. TT, named after the tear-shedding emoticon (yep you’ve guessed it, it’s trend number 2, “I really like this boy but i’m too shy to ask him out”), absolutely smashed the success metrics. It swept across the music shows devastating everything in its wake, denying solid hits from Black Pink, I.O.I and BTS. Even more impressive is that it managed to get in at number 7 on the largely USA dominated YouTube Chart for debut acts of the week, clear evidence that it can fight toe to toe with US pop music. However, given all that instant success.. . I didn’t really care for this at first listen. I didn’t think there was sufficient oomph in the chorus like you get with “Russian Roulette” or “Boombiyah” and the hook doesn’t really grab you either. So why have I placed this number one? It is Twice’s perceived weaknesses which actually turn out to be their greatest strength. The girls have soft vocals which won’t give you the power required for big Adele type choruses or Blackpink badass rap interludes. In TT, the minimalistic production setting, tiptoeing between pop, electro and dance is a perfect match for them to show off their quirky charm (its name after a teary emoticon for god sake! Quirkiness overload). The song quickly became wildly addictive and for me it is the best example of K-pop in 2016. I have to say, I listen to it an awful lot and you know what, I think it is good for me. Listening to too much Radiohead and Joy Division can’t be too healthy for your soul and TT provides the perfect juxtaposition.
Little Mix, Ariana Grande, Hot Chip, The Avalanches, Metronomy