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The Best K-Pop of 2015

At the end of 2015, the Korean pop scene looks hopeful in a way it hasn’t in previous years.

Towards the end of 2014, it seemed inevitable that K-pop was going to change, or at least go through some major shifts in how it was produced, what it sounded and looked like, and who was making it. Fans were calling it the “K-pocalypse”. And, to a certain extent, the beginning of 2015 seemed to suggest that the industry was moving in a darker, more reflective direction that could have yielded interesting results from newer artists bucking against the system. Ultimately, that is not what happened, as many major, veteran groups returned in 2015 and made everyone forget about the problems of last year. To be fair, though, the music these artists put out was great, and the newer artists that debuted joined the veterans in pushing K-pop forward rather than tearing it down and starting over. At the end of 2015, the scene looks hopeful in a way it hasn’t in previous years.

 

Artist: Gain

Song: “Apple (ft. Jay Park)”

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Gain
“Apple (ft. Jay Park)”

Brown Eyed Girls’ Gain has always been known to flirt with controversial topics in her solo music, primarily having to do with female sexuality. On Hawwah, she explores the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden from a particularly feminist perspective, with “Apple” specifically confronting Original Sin. Over a sample-filled, jazzy dance beat, Gain’s breathy vocals portray Eve eating the apple as a woman embracing pleasure and temptation on her own terms. The darker “Paradise Lost”, released simultaneously as a single, may be the better-produced, more interesting track, but “Apple” stands out as more fun and memorable.

 

Artist: Big Bang

Song: “Loser”

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List Number: 14

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Big Bang
“Loser”

It has been essentially three years since Big Bang properly released music, though, through their individual solo careers, they’ve remained one of—if not the—most popular boy band in K-pop. So when they announced that they would be putting out new music this year, expectations were high. Released two songs at a time each month throughout the summer, MADE was ultimately a bit of a letdown. The first track of the set, though, “Loser”, stands out, despite its laid-back, mid-tempo presentation. The self-deprecating lyrics are surprising for a group as popular as Big Bang, but the immaculate production and catchy hook make the song particularly successful.

 

Artist: Apink

Song: “Remember”

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Apink
“Remember”

Much of the appeal of K-pop, outside of the saturated colors and high-precision choreography, is the complexity of the music itself, or at least its willingness to experiment with structure and harmony in ways far beyond mainstream Western pop. Apink’s “Remember” is a perfect example of this. As a follow up to last year’s smash “LUV”, which was admittedly fairly straightforward, “Remember” stands out even more for its odd two-part, two-key chorus and blending of ‘90s house and wistful pop ballad melodies. Throughout the song, Apink pleads, “Do you remember?” but never receive an answer. The constant key changes build anxiety as the frustration grows while waiting for a response that will never come. This kind of interplay between the music and lyrics distinguishes “Remember” as an expertly crafted pop song.

 

Artist: MFBTY

Song: “Bang Bang Diggy Bang”

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List Number: 12

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MFBTY
“Bang Bang Diggy Bang”

MFBTY—or “My Fans Better Than Yours”—is a super group of three major South Korean rappers: Bizzy, Tiger JK, and Yoon Mi-rae. The album that resulted from their collaboration, however, is surprisingly pop-oriented. It’s an eclectic collection of varying styles and influences, but all focused into fun, dance records. The lead single, “Bang Diggy Bang Bang” pulls from Hindustani music, building the beat around tabla rhythms. Tiger JK told PopMatters, “I stumbled onto some Konnakol, the Indian art of performing percussion syllables vocally, almost like scat singing…What got me really intrigued is that I found words that were similar to Korean, and it made perfect sense. [I heard phrases that mean] “bob your head” and “jump around.” So we just took the part that sounded Korean and started it from there.” The result is an exciting dance track that acts as a great introduction to the super group’s collaboration.

 

Artist: Wonder Girls

Song: “I Feel You”

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List Number: 11

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Wonder Girls
“I Feel You”

Like Big Bang, it’s been a long time since Wonder Girls have put out music together. With Sumni on indefinite hiatus from the group and Sunye leaving the group, followed by Sohee earlier this year, it felt likely that they would never release music again. But rather than letting the project die, Wonder Girls came back with one of the most impressive K-pop albums of all time. Reboot is one of the few K-pop albums to adhere to a cohesive sonic palette, something typically avoided by groups in favor of stylistic eclecticism. The album explores ‘80s synth pop of the cheesiest variety. “I Feel You” is filled with big synth hooks and bigger gated drums. Though ‘80s revival is currently common in Western pop, Wonder Girls were the first to fully commit to the style in K-pop. The result is a truly charming piece of pop that easily rivals their previous classics.

10 – 6

Artist: Hello Venus

Song: “Wiggle Wiggle”

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Hello Venus
“Wiggle Wiggle”

On its surface, “Wiggle Wiggle” can seem overly simple, even cheap. It’s a sultry, trap-infused pop track about sexy girls wiggling for ogling men. But more precisely, it’s a clever commentary on the issues of sexual agency in K-pop. The track acts in dialogue with conversations in the K-pop community around the time of its release, particularly after the viral success of a voyeuristic fan video of EXiD’s Hani in performance. “Wiggle Wiggle” is about being watched, being objectified, and laughing at the perpetrators. Its rough-around-the-edges production and music video are designed to show the audience the artificiality of the industry by reminding you of the flaws that are normally scrubbed out to create a fantasy. It holds a mirror up to its audience, while managing to be musically entertaining and catchy as hell. This sort of socially-engaged song was what it seemed like the K-pop industry was moving towards at the beginning of the year, and even though that promise faded away, “Wiggle Wiggle” remains an interesting, defiant statement.

 

Artist: Oh My Girl

Song: “Cupid”

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List Number: 9

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Oh My Girl
“Cupid”

Rookie group Oh My Girl—presented as a “sister group” to B1A4—put out two pretty strong mini-albums in 2015, but nothing was as impressive as their debut single, “Cupid”. Complete with drum-line percussion, multiple key changes, and erratic string accompaniment, “Cupid” captures the electric feeling of being young and in love. Eschewing the standard, cutesy approach to first love songs, Oh My Girl opts for a manic soundscape to express their overwhelming emotions. Saccharine, lyrical melodies are juxtaposed with bratty cheer chants. Belted descants fight with sweetly sung chorus. As a first song, it’s hard to make much more of a jarring impression. Though the music they’ve followed it up with hasn’t been as consistently interesting, Oh My Girl still shows promise of being a successful and important group in the future.

 

Artist: Red Velvet

Song: “Ice Cream Cake”

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List Number: 8

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Red Velvet
“Ice Cream Cake”

When SM Entertainment debuted their new girl group Red Velvet last year with “Happiness”, a good song, but hardly anything Earth-shattering, they were received with mild enthusiasm and it seemed like they might disappear for good. Instead, they were brought back in 2015 (with an added member, Yeri) and essentially pushed forward as the new f(x), a cool girl group with strange, experimental pop songs. “Ice Cream Cake” lives up to that title pretty well, with bizarre production and collage-style songwriting. The group followed up the Ice Cream Cake mini-album with a full length, The Red, which was tamer and less memorable, but “Ice Cream Cake” the song remains a standout from the year whose rich sonic complexities makes multiple re-listens a necessity.

 

Artist: Girls’ Generation

Song: “Lion Heart”

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List Number: 7

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Girls’ Generation
“Lion Heart”

Jessica Jung being kicked out of Girls’ Generation last year was one of the main signs of the forthcoming k-popcalypse. But SNSD were able to comeback with a new 8-member album in 2015 packed with incredibly-written pop songs. The title track “Lion Heart” is a throwback early-‘60s girl group song with sweet harmonies, crisp guitars, and brass backgrounds. Compared with songs like “I Got A Boy” or “Catch Me If You Can”, the song released in Japan shortly after Jessica’s departure, “Lion Heart” is tame and straightforward. But it’s also impressively produced and arranged, delightfully catchy, and subtly more musically complex than it appears on the surface. A group as far into their career as Girls’ Generation is should not be expected to continue to release genre-pushing masterpieces, but they should be relied on to make expertly-crafted pop songs. That’s what Girls’ Generation has done with “Lion Heart”.

 

Artist: Brown Eyed Girls

Song: “Brave New World”

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Brown Eyed Girls
“Brave New World”

Swirling strings, disco bass lines, and thick harmonies adorn “Brave New World”, from Brown Eyed Girls’ latest album, Basic. The album’s title is a bit of a misnomer, though, as the songs included—“Brave New World” chief among them—are anything but basic. As the legendary girl group has proved over the years, they’re experts are creating lush, boundary-pushing songs that always manage to be danceable and fun. That’s exactly what they do here. Despite the key changes, stylistic shift, and creative production, “Brave New World” is always focused on getting you to dance. As a group that brought female sexuality into mainstream K-pop with 2009’s “Abracadabra”, “Brave New World” is a bit tamer. Still, the song and its accompanying album act as another reminder that veteran groups like Brown Eyed Girls, SNSD, Wonder Girls, or Big Bang have endured for a reason: they can continue to put out incredible music.

5 – 1

Artist: f(x)

Song: “4 Walls”

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f(x)
“4 Walls”

With Red Velvet entering full f(x) 2.0-mode on Ice Cream Cake and The Red and Sulli officially announcing her leaving of the group, it seemed we had likely seen the end of f(x). Luckily, that was not the case, and the group put out their fourth album,4 Walls to much acclaim. The title-track uses a funky house beat to craft a cool pop song with a subdued vibe and memorable chorus. Typically, f(x) singles are brash, in-your-face tracks that are filled with unusual and surprising shifts in harmony or style, and while “4 Walls” has its fair share of complexity, it’s much more dance-focused. The album is likely their weakest since their first (which is not to say that it isn’t great, just that Pink Tape and Red Light are even better), but “4 Walls” stands out as one of the strongest comeback singles of the year.

 

Artist: SHINee

Song: “View”

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SHINee
“View”

Before f(x) took on sleek house music with “4 Walls”, label-mates SHINee tried their hand in the genre with “View” from their album Odd. While “4 Walls” has maybe a more interesting structure and more unusual arrangement, “View” is ultimately the stronger track. This is partially because SHINee are more experienced with creating exciting dance tracks, and “View”, despite its laidback chorus, has a thrilling energy pulsing throughout. It doesn’t do much to show off the members’ vocals like their singles typically do, but the strength of the singers still does much to elevate the track to something truly special.

 

Artist: IU

Song: “Twenty-three”

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IU
“Twenty-three”

IU has managed to maintain a level of quality over her seven years in K-pop that is truly remarkable—practically unparalleled. Chat-shire is the follow-up to 2013’s Modern Times, which, despite the title, explored pop jazz styles from old-school broadway to bossa nova to gypsy jazz guitars. The new set keeps the lush orchestrations and complex arrangements and refocuses them into ‘90s chamber pop a la The Cardigans. Title track “Twenty-three” is one of the more dance-oriented songs with a funky bassline and percussive vocals, but it’s still fleshed out by IU’s signature style. As is typically the case, her powerful, expressive vocals go a long way into taking the song from great to greater. Her self-composed lyrics about the contradictions and pressures of becoming an adult woman in the spotlight bring her music into a more personal direction than they have before, but even without that, “Twenty-three” is one of the most entertaining songs of the year.

 

Artist: Lim Kim

Song: “Awoo”

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Lim Kim
“Awoo”

After competing on Superstar K3 as a member of the duo Togeworl, Lim Kim started focusing on a solo career, to limited success. At least until this year with the release of her Simple Mind mini-album. Taking on a cool, indie electronica aesthetic, Lim Kim made one of the most unique K-pop songs of the year that also managed to become a pretty big hit. “Awoo” features hard synths and trap drums flittering around Lim Kim’s nonchalant vocals to create a particularly infectious sound. “Awoo” is about flirting, mostly for the sake of flirting itself. On the chorus she sings, “I flirt with you / You’ll get hooked on me”, which is a pretty accurate description of Lim Kim’s effect on you.

 

Artist: Exo

Song: “Call Me Baby”

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Exo
“Call Me Baby”

Before Big Bang came back and took over the summer, Exo were working hard to continue to solidify their position as the boy band of the future. They’ve already had an impressive run of strong dance singles in the past, but “Call Me Maybe” is their best. Outside of a few unusual tricks—most notably the extension of the bridge leading into a dance break where Exo’s vocal stack in higher and thicker harmonies—the song itself is nothing special. Everything about it is good, sure, but not remarkable. What makes “Call Me Baby” so great is how well it’s executed. How much personality and charisma is injected by the boys. The high-energy choreography and fast-paced camera work of the music video add even more intensity to the song. From start to finish, “Call Me Baby” is exciting as can be. Even with the biggest boy band in K-pop coming back, 2015 was definitely Exo’s year.

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