At this point, Western audiences are no strangers to Korean pop, or K-pop. K-pop acts have sold out massive stadiums stateside, K-Con—a convention for all things K-pop including a host of performances from K-pop acts—has drawn tens of thousands of enthusiasts in the past two years. Girls’ Generation won Video of the Year at the inaugural YouTube Music Awards last year, PSY’s “Gangnam Style” just exceeded the number of views that YouTube’s counter could register. But still, the same things that make it great, namely, its difference from Western pop, are the same things that can make it difficult to get into alone.
Despite its ever-growing popularity and global success, 2014 was largely a rough year for K-pop. A tragic ferry sinking in April set the tone for more tragedy to come. A car accident took two members of girl group Ladies’ Code, a broken grate killed 16 at an outdoor 4Minute concert. Many artists filed law suits against their record labels for mistreatment. Jessica got kicked out of Girls’ Generation, signaling the end of the group’s iconic run. Still, there was a plethora of great music to appreciate. These 15 songs represent the best K-pop had to offer this year, both inside and outside the mainstream.
After the success of 2013’s XOXO and its single “Growl”, Exo has become one of the most successful boy bands in K-pop. Even with some controversy this year involving two members suing to get out of their contract with S.M. Entertainment, the group—which is actually two groups, Exo-K in Korean and Exo-M in Mandarin—has continued its winning streak with “Overdose”. Where “Growl” had a relaxed R&B groove, “Overdose” is all dance-pop. Its synths are overly aggressive, its melodies shouted. It’s a pop song turned up to 11. And with the unusual chord progression in the chorus and over-the-top lyrics comparing being in love to overdosing on drugs, it’s definitely memorable. Exo is particularly strong in the choreography department, and the music video for “Overdose” focuses on nothing but their dancing, adding an exciting new layer to the song.
“Never Ever (1min 1sec)”
Jiyeon is the first member of girl group T-ara to make a solo debut. Her fellow member Hyomin did the same this year, before both came back to the group for their single “Sugar Free”. Jiyeon’s song “Never Ever (1min 1sec)”, though, is certainly the most memorable of the lot. The song is a simple break-up track, with Jiyeon trying to make sense of her life and how to move on after losing her love. She feels as if she can’t breathe for “one minute” or “one second” without him. These lyrics may be cliché, but Jiyeon’s emotional vocals make it powerful and relatable. The video too, with its Michel Gondry-like stop motion effects and its iconic choreography, makes “Never Ever (1min 1sec)” one of the affecting straightforward pop tracks of the year.
There’s plenty of great music to be found outside of the K-pop mainstream, and the Barberettes are perhaps the most interesting groups among the so-called k-indie artists. The Barberettes refer to themselves as a “time traveling girl group” because their sound and style are a take on groups like the Andrew Sisters and their Korean analogue the Kim Sisters. They made a name for themselves with YouTube covers of classics like “Be My Baby” and “Mr. Sandman”, but with the release of their debut album this year, The Barberettes Volume 1, the girls show off their songwriting abilities as well. Opening track and lead single “Little Gals” shows of their range of talents from unusual arrangements to interesting melodies and fantastic three-part harmonies. In the chorus, they sing, “When the little gals gather their heads and sing a song / All the boys in town, their hearts start to pound / They come to listen to the little gals.” Consider this boy’s heart pounding when the Barberettes gather their heads and sing a song.
Crayon Pop is not for the faint of heart. There’s no one else in K-pop quite like them. They’re over-the-top, as cheesy as you can be, as obnoxious as you can be. It’s always hard to determine how much is ironic satire and how much is a sincere dedication to genuine fun. I think it’s better not to have a definitive answer. If you want to think that “Uh-ee” is a comedic mashup of traditional Korean trot music and cocaine-snorted techno-pop, it’s pretty easy to do so. If you want to let loose, turn up the volume, and dance along alone in your underwear, that’s easy too—trust me. The song’s music video toys with this idea too, showing the Crayon Pop girls in bizarre white hanbok-inspired outfits with bright red bandannas entering a swanky gala event. As they perform their meticulously silly choreography, skeptical spectators look on. But by the end of the video, everyone joins in. In the chorus, Crayon Pop shouts at us, “Do the chicken dance! / Cluck Cluck!” And chicken dance we do!
“Come Back Home”
After delaying the release of their sophomore album for almost two years, 2ne1 finally released Crush in February of this year. Luckily, it was worth the wait. 2ne1 has always been the “cool” girl group to Girls’ Generation’s saccharine pop, and Crush continues that with an eclectic mix of trap, reggae, and aggressive pop. All of these are found on “Come Back Home”, the lead single from the album. Lyrically, the song is a bit facile, with the girls singing longingly to a lover who has left them, begging him to “come back home.” But the music video broadens the idea and places it in a complex sci-fi setting. In a futuristic world, Dara’s boyfriend chooses to leave her for a simulated “Virtual Paradise”, so she and the other 2ne1 girls, led by CL, start a revolution, rioting and destroying the “Virtual Paradise” system. While their music might be less rebellious than their image tries to purport, 2ne1 always manages to release incredible pop songs, and “Come Back Home” is towards the top of their large pile.