The Best K-pop of 2014

Due to current events, 2014 was largely a rough year for K-pop. Still, these 15 songs represent the best K-pop had to offer this year, both inside and outside the mainstream.

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.


Artist: Exo

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/1/15_exo_overdose.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 15

Display Width: 200


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.


Artist: Jiyeon

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/1/14_jieyon_never_ever.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 14

Display Width: 200

“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.


Artist: The Barberettes

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/1/13_the_barberettes_volume_1.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 13

Display Width: 200

The Barberettes
“Little Gals”

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.


Artist: Crayon Pop

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/1/12_crayon_pop_uh_ee.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 12

Display Width: 200

Crayon Pop

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!


Artist: 2ne1

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/1/11_2ne1_crush.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 11

Display Width: 200

“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.

10 – 6

Artist: 15&

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/1/10_15_sugar.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 10

Display Width: 200


As their name implies, 15& are young (though, at 16, they’re now in the “&” part of their career), but that doesn’t mean they’re not some of the best — if not the best — vocalists in the K-pop game. Before this debut full-length album, the duo was known for emotional ballads, and those are certainly still present. But now they’ve expanded into other territories as well, and completely competently at that. The title track, “Sugar”, is an expectedly sugar-coated retro pop affair with unruly syncopation in the verses and a huge pop chorus. Everything goes by in such a flurry that it’s hard to take in all at once, but just like its namesake, the more you listen to “Sugar”, the more addictive it gets. All the subtle details of the intricate arrangement and the not-subtle-at-all vocal pyrotechnics come together to create an irresistibly fun dance song.


Artist: Royal Pirates

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/9/9_royal_pirates_drawing_the_line.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 9

Display Width: 200

Royal Pirates
“Drawing the Line”

On the rock front, K-pop tends to skew towards retro power-pop rather than the blues roots of American rock, and Royal Pirates is one of the best new rock groups on the scene. Their debut mini-album Drawing the Line shows off the trio’s great songwriting, pristine production, and disco-tinged grooves. The title track is as catchy as you can believe and expertly performed, making them stand out against veteran rock groups like CNBlue and the Peppertones, who both released great music this year as well. In the song, they sing about the allure of a dangerous woman, someone they know they should stay away from but who is too seductive to resist.


Artist: Taeyang

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/8/8_taeyang_rise.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 8

Display Width: 200

“Eyes, Nose, Lips”

In June of this year Taeyang, member of the boy band Big Bang, released Rise, his second solo album, with the lead single “Eyes, Nose, Lips” becoming a smash hit, despite being a simple piano ballad. The song even won the award for Song of the Year at the MNet Asian Music Awards recently. And surely it is a great song. It’s emotionally powerful and Taeyang’s voice sounds amazing in it. But we shouldn’t overlook the importance of the music video’s sexy shirtless Taeyang, either. It starts out like an homage to D’Angelo’s infamous “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” video, but the camera keeps pulling out showing that not only is Taeyang definitely wearing pants, but also revealing a billboard on fire behind him. And who doesn’t like attractive half-naked men singing emotional ballads in front of a giant billboard on fire?


Artist: Ha:tfelt

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/7/7_hatfelt_me.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 7

Display Width: 200

“Ain’t Nobody”

Wonder Girls effectively disbanded in the beginning of 2013, when Sunye indefinitely left the group to get married. Though JYP Entertainment has maintained that the Wonder Girls are not over, they have not released any music since nor have they indicated any immediate plans for a comeback. Instead, this year Yenny focused on releasing a solo album under the name Ha:tfelt. The collection of songs is striking, sounding little like anything else in K-pop. Rather than resting on her Wonder Girls fame and cashing in with a palatable hit, Ha:tfelt is difficult and visceral. The lead single, “Ain’t Nobody” is a strikingly vulnerable track, switching between piano ballad verses, a dubstep-tinged anthem chorus, and trap interludes. Yenny’s expressive vocals and intense choreography elevate the song’s tortured lyrics. “Ain’t Nobody” is bold and fresh, an exciting departure from the norm for an artist who doesn’t need to take such risks.



Artist: Girl’s Day

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/6/6_girls_day_everyday_3.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 6

Display Width: 200

Girl’s Day

Four-member girl group Girl’s Day has quickly become one of the most solid pop groups in all of K-pop. Their early singles were good, but when they released “Female President” in 2013, they became great. This year they’ve grown even more, and their January single “Something” has remained one of the best tracks released in 2014. At the time, it was a departure from their normal upbeat dance singles and a move towards a more nuanced mature sound. The song concerns a woman who suspects her significant other is cheating but goes back and forth between blaming herself (“Maybe you felt guilty at my guess / Maybe I caught you off guard”) and breaking up with him (“It’s over”). Producer Duble Sidekick smartly uses the contrasting vocal timbres of Minah and Sojin to embody this duality, which Minah’s powerful belting juxtaposing Sojin’s breathy weariness. The music video shows the girls in both lights, but mostly confident and independent, with simple but memorable choreography that has helped the song become as iconic as it is.

5 – 1

Artist: Akdong Musician

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/5/5_akdong_musician_play.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 5

Display Width: 200

Akdong Musician

Brother and sister duo Akdong Musician were the winners of K-pop Star season two (essentially the K-pop American Idol). Despite both being teenagers, they write and produce all of their own music, a rare thing in K-pop, especially for a young group on a major label like YG Entertainment. But listening to their debut album, Play, it’s clear to see why YG let them do it. The songs are consistently great and sophisticated, with eclectic arrangements and delightful melodies. In “200%”, the brother and sister bring out the most adorable version of themselves for a song about unrequited love. It’s usually a sad theme, but “200%” is all playful and fun, and the silly music video leads you to believe that they’re not too shaken up about it. Suhyun and Chanhyuk both prove to be real talents, and it will be interesting to see how Akdong Musician progresses.


Artist: Epik High

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/4/4_epik_high_shoebox.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 4

Display Width: 200

Epik High
“Born Hater”

Hip-hop trio Epik High have been around for a long time, but they’re proving that they’re still at the top of their game on 2014’s Shoebox. On “Born Hater”, the group assembles a large team of guests (Beenzino, Verbal Jint, WINNER’s Mino, and iKon’s Bobby and B.I.) to call out their haters. They also acknowledge the irony that in the process they, too, have become haters, but they “don’t give a fuck.” The video is shot in a purposefully obnoxious vertical frame as each performer takes on the role of one of the deadly sins. While Verbal Jint as lust browses porno mags, Mithra Jin’s gluttony finds him scarfing down pizza. Don’t let the humorous elements fool you, though, these guys can really rap. And the dirty bass-driven beat recalls hard ’90s rap in a truly convincing way.


Artist: Seo Taiji

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/s/seotaiji3.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 3

Display Width: 200

Seo Taiji
“Sogyeokdong” (feat. IU)

Five years since his last album, Seo Taiji — affectionately referred to as the “President of Culture” among K-pop fans — finally returned with his latest release, Quiet Night. The lead single from the set was released in two versions, with two music videos showing the same story from opposite perspectives. Set in Sogyeokdong in the early ’80s, when Seo Taiji grew up under military dictator Chun Doo-hwan, two young children fall in love but are torn apart by the violent environment. IU’s version of the video follows the young boy’s journey, while Seo Taiji’s version follows the girl. Musically, the song is an airy synth-pop track not dissimilar to Chvrches’ “The Mother We Share”. Over a heavily side-chained, pulsating beat, the singers deliver the tuneful melody in their distinct styles. IU has a way of always sounding young and innocent as well as precise and soulful at the same time. Seo Taiji’s performance gives the song more of a rock edge. The lush textures and saccharine vocal styles make “Sogyeokdong” an irresistible pop gem. That the music video is so heartbreaking only makes the song more powerful.


Artist: Ga-in

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/2/2_gain_truth_or_dare.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 2

Display Width: 200

“Fxxk U” (feat. Bumkey)

Ga-in has always made progressive and provocative music and videos, and the lead single from her latest mini-album, “Fxxk U”, as one might imagine, is no exception. In it, she sings about an abusive relationship, possibly even alluding to rape. She goes back and forth between strongly standing up for herself (“I’m sorry but fuck you!) and holding out hope that the relationship might still work or even blaming herself (“If it’s not you, no one will touch me”). The tense harmonies and dramatic arrangement manage to capture this heavy topic in an effective way while still allowing the track to be catchy and danceable. The graphic music video shows Ga-in and actor Joo Ji-hoon (in place of Bumkey) acting out their troubled relationship. This is almost certainly the first K-pop to tackle such a heavy topic, and it does so effectively and interestingly. “Fxxk U” is a reminder that Ga-in continues to be the boldest, most interesting, and often most impressive artist in K-pop.


Artist: (f)x

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/1/1_fx_red_light.jpg

Display as: List

List Number: 1

Display Width: 200

“Red Light”

f(x) has never been as popular as the other girl groups like 2ne1, Wonder Girls, or labelmates Girls’ Generation. But, quietly, they’ve arguably always been the best. The multi-ethnic five-member group has consistently put out the most experimental and just plain odd mainstream K-pop music, and it’s all pretty great. 2013’s Pink Tape solidified their place as queens of art-pop, but this year’s Red Light is a worthy follow-up. The title track, though, is as bizarre as it gets, and of course that’s what they released as a single. It has brash synth lines, noisy trap drums, and an ambiguous tonal center. They sing with urgency about something, though they’re never quite clear what we’re being warned about. It doesn’t matter, it’s effective anyway. Each twist and turn that the track takes is more interesting than the last. Each listen reveals more layers and intricacies, but it’s also exciting and accessible. It simply gets everything right.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.