This year was packed with great songs from across the K-pop spectrum. Groups like GFriend cemented their place as one of Korea’s new “it” girl groups, Ladies’ Code’s remaining members finally returned to the music scene, and a new class of rookies made their debuts. This list isn’t necessarily a summary of the most popular singles released this year (sorry, Twice fans), nor is it meant to slight groups or artists that had hallmark years in terms of musical and recognition-related growth (but I still like you, BTS). To put it simply, these are the singles I couldn’t stop replaying this year.
In chronological order of release:
“Someone like U” – Dalshabet
Dalshabet has survived years of harsh criticism, lineup changes, and a lack of appreciation for their performance and creative talent; in a world where male groups are given more credit for being involved in the making of their group’s music, Dalshabet’s Subin produced and composed all five songs on the group’s previous Joker EP with significantly less recognition. Despite everything, Dalshabet kicked off 2016 with a song that felt as fresh by December as it had in January. “Someone like U” is a breakup song with attitude that shows how great it is when retro is done right.
“시간을 달려서 (Rough)” – GFriend
Easily my most-played song this year, “Rough” brings viewers the precise choreography that’s become expected of GFriend and pairs it with an emotional track about mistimed young love. Like their other singles, “Rough” has the makings of a classic, with a sound that draws in elements of earlier K-pop without sounding dated. It’s difficult to fully articulate what it is about this song that makes it so great, but it’s undeniably something special.
“변했어 Deepened” – Brave Girls
Brave Girls returned from a two-year hiatus with five new members and a song with a groove so strong that it’s practically impossible not to drop your hips to when you listen to it, and one of the better sing-rap breaks to be found in any idol group release. The video’s aesthetic defies the popular presumption that girl groups aren’t capable of pulling off a concept that strays far from the student or cutesy path, managing to be sporty and sexy with a dose of angst.
“갤럭시 (GALAXY)” – Ladies’ Code
This group has been near and dear to my heart since its 2013 debut. A few years have passed since the tragic car accident that resulted in the deaths of members EunB and Rise, but their loss is still profoundly felt. That being said, this is the best comeback that one could hope for considering the circumstances, with Sojung, Ashley, and Zuny returning with a new sound and visual style. While the artistic shift is clear, it suits the group’s voices and performance skills well, and “Galaxy” strikes the tricky balance between being mature, sophisticated, and subdued without boring its listeners.
“Find Me (나를 찾아줘)” – Hyosung (Jun Hyo Seong)
Hyosung’s unique vocal tone gives this upbeat track a distinctive energy that’s punctuated by her underrated dancing, which is itself lively and fluid. Hyosung makes it look easy, but “Find Me” is not mindless musical fare, but instead a thoughtfully constructed theatrical dance-pop dream.
“Get Down” – Boys Republic
The dystopian anarchy trope can be found in multiple music videos from this year, but Boys Republic utilized it with a bang (and a few slashes). This group has explored a number of pop styles over its career, but without pushing too far into cliched territory. The highlight comes near the end, with a punchy rap that builds to the singers pushing to the edge of their vocal range without going too far, and some ear-catching harmonies.
“Destiny (나의 지구)”
Lovelyz is still a young group, but they’ve released a long string of singles in the two years since their debut. They’ve mostly stayed in the cutesy image girl group lane, a popular and competitive avenue. Its commercial appeal is clear, but can be a little frustrating when members like Babysoul and Jin have shown a strong capability to succeed in other artistic directions in their predebut work. “Destiny” is still light and feminine like Lovelyz’s past singles, but brings them a little further from the fresh student image with which they debuted. It’s not quite as strongly fantasy-like as a few other songs on this list, but its sound still has a magical, whimsical quality.
“사람들이 움직이는 게(HOW PEOPLE MOVE)” – Akdong Musician (AKMU)
The ridiculously talented sibling duo steered away from the sentimental, releasing a danceable single reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give it Up” and Gain’s “Truth or Dare” injected with AKMU’s colorful personalities; inspiration but not imitation. “HOW PEOPLE MOVE” is fun and upbeat, but also a bitter reminder of how exasperating it is that AKMU is so often confined to the figurative YG basement.
“Back Again” – KNK
Of all the male groups that debuted this year (and there were many), KNK is by far my favorite to listen to and to watch in their endlessly entertaining V App videos filled with wacky games and a slew of endearing moments. The group was busy this year, with debut single “Knock” preceding “Back Again,” then following both with their latest comeback for “U.” All three are good in their own right, but “Back Again” made an instant impact, mixing the best of early 2010s K-pop with DBSK-esque harmonies between chorus and verse. KNK may be known for their height, but they deserve more recognition for their vocals, which are some of the strongest in the newest rookie class.
“Lucky One” – EXO
I live for funky electropop, especially from EXO (see: my love for their 2015 single “Love Me Right”). “Lucky One” is the highest-calibre single released by the multimillion seller group, but sadly did not receive the same degree of promotion as its companion single track “Monster” or follow-up “Lotto.” “Lucky One” is “Love Me Right” with more nuance and refinement, a standout on an album in need of its lively pulse, plus it has a quirky video that gives EXO’s trademark alien origin mythology new life.
“I Like That” – Sistar
Having found their last single, “Shake It,” to be disappointing, it was a huge relief to see Sistar back on form with “I Like That.” It’s a little bit disco, a little bit rock and roll, and all beautiful. The strong vocals and incorporation of the wardrobe into the choreography produced consistently entertaining television performances. In a year that saw multiple well-known veteran female groups dissolve, Sistar thankfully remained.
“VERY NICE (아주 NICE)” – Seventeen
Like many groups listed here, Seventeen released multiple memorable singles in this calendar year, so it was not easy choosing just one of them to include. At the same time, it’s hard to go wrong in this selection process. This single has the controlled hyperactivity that’s becoming characteristic of Seventeen releases, but also one of their smoothest bridges yet, putting the mellow tones of vocal team members Woozi and Jeonghan to good use.
“입술에 입술 Lip 2 Lip” – 9Muses A
This year has been a rollercoaster for 9Muses, with three senior Muses “graduating” a.k.a. not renewing their contracts and moving on to other activities, and remaining member Kyungri making headway in her own right by appearing on more variety shows and gaining more endorsement deals than ever before. Amidst this backdrop came the first 9Muses subunit, 9Muses A, and “Lip 2 Lip.” The subunit doesn’t present the sultry or strong image that the main group is known for, but instead a colorful and bouncy affair that still conveys sexual tension between speaker and subject.
“Whistle” – Blackpink
After years of being stuck in development purgatory, YG Entertainment finally debuted its first girl group since the now-disbanded 2NE1 with this song and companion single “Boombayah.” The 2NE1 comparisons are understandable to an extent; both YG groups began with four members, have songs stamped with producer Teddy Park’s signatures, and have spunky cool girl images. But with how new this group is, it seems to soon to discount them as 2NE1 2.0 . Blackpink only has four songs to their name as of yet, with “Whistle” being my personal favorite (though the later “Playing with Fire” has plenty of its own merits). The hook, along with the distinct but not disjointed mellowness of the pre-chorus, keep me coming back again and again.
“비밀이야 (Secret)” – WJSN (Cosmic Girls)
New members being integrated into an existing group can be challenging, but WJSN welcomed Yeonjung with their best single yet and a music video that hearkens to old school science fiction. This song was good upon release, and somehow gets even better the more you listen to it. “Secret” has drawn comparisons to Lovelyz’s “Destiny,” but writing off this single as a redux does no justice to either track. Fingers crossed the WJSN’s upcoming song lives up to this predecessor.
“태풍 (The Eye)” – Infinite
This song is Infinite being Infinite, once again gracing us with amazing choreography and another memorable song. In terms of style, “The Eye” feels like a bridge between 2015′s “Bad” and the rest of Infinite’s singles, bringing it all together, making “The Eye” stand out on the K-pop landscape while feeling right at home in Infinite’s discography, which is astoundingly consistent in terms of its good quality. “The Eye” also highlights the versatility of Infinite’s rappers, Hoya and Dongwoo, who get to showcase their singing abilities in lieu of rap breaks.