Hopes were high at the beginning of the year. Different Korean artists were reaching new grounds throughout the entire world and K-pop was starting to see mainstream attention and success. Groups were starting to tour more and in new countries, different music markets were being explored, monster rookies were debuting left and right — it just seemed like nothing could deter K-pop’s escalation to world domination. And then the pandemic happened.
No one needs a refresher on how terrible it got, so to put it simply, it was a tough year for everyone around the world. Luckily, as fans, we had K-pop to get us through these tumultuous times and offer a small glimmer of normalcy and joy, even if it was for the duration of a song. Given the industry’s quick adaptation to the new normal, the constant stream of new music never faltered. And despite artists not being able to tour or fully promote their new material, they did not skimp out on quality, and instead gave us a great year in music.
From throwback genres like disco and 80’s synthpop to city pop, newtro dominated K-pop in 2020. We also saw solo acts come out in full force, giving bigger ensembles a run for their money. Female acts were also the driving force of the industry this year. Soloists, rookie groups, and the more established ones — 2020 was a year owned by women.
With that said, after weeks of arguing, plotting, and a few injured friendships and professional relationships, the KultScene team came up with the 50 K-pop songs we
mostly objectively think were the absolute best of 2020.
50. “Don’t Touch Me” by Refund Sisters
No debut has or ever will be as ambitious or serendipitous as Refund Sisters’. Formed through the MBC variety show Hangout With Yoo, the seasonal supergroup is Lee Hyori’s accidental brainchild, which consists not only of the 2000’s K-pop diva herself, but also her role model and ‘90s legend Uhm Jung Hwa in addition to current chart-topping soloists Jessi and Hwasa. She could not have predicted then that her fantasy girl group picks made in passing would actually bring the eclectic (not to mention multi-generational!) bunch together under a new brand, let alone result in a hit worthy of its PAK (“perfect all kill”) status.
With Rado, one half of hitmakers Black Eyed Pilseung, on board production, “Don’t Touch Me” was always destined to succeed. Everything from the blaring sirens in the intro to the dynamic, zipping synths in the hooks had the group’s ssen unnie image in mind. Amidst this high energy, each member had her moments to flaunt her charms, with some of the more memorable ones being Jessi’s soulful vocals in the beginning and Uhm Jung Hwa’s steady notes in the bridge in spite of compromised vocal cords due to a 2010 thyroid cancer surgery. Refund Sisters are truly a class act, proving that age is not how old you are, but how old you feel.
49. “Hmph!” by WJSN Chocome
In a year when K-pop took us back in time through retro genres like disco (Sunmi & JYP, TXT, GFriend) and electropop (Everglow, Twice), WJSN’s first unit joined the party by bringing 2010’s K-pop, in a tune worthy of comparison with K-pop girl groups such as Orange Caramel, T-ara, and Crayon Pop: Chocome’s catchy and brassy “Hmph!” Newer K-pop fans might be somewhat familiar to the style if they were around when Momoland released “Bboom Bboom” and “BAAM” – and, in fact, the structure of “Hmph!”’s post-chorus is reminiscent of these songs too. But the amount of similarities with other groups does not mean WJSN Chocome is not adding much to the table; it’s actually the opposite. With its catchy chorus and brass line, “Hmph!” is a track that doesn’t take itself too seriously – the type of fun that is very welcome in 2020.
— Ana C.
48. “R.o.S.E BLUE” by Dreamcatcher
A K-pop group taking on a mobile game soundtrack is an understandable balancing act of giving up their identity just the right amount, in exchange for a quick paycheck. That is until “R.o.S.E BLUE” was given to heavy metal icons Dreamcatcher, a group so solidified in sound that there’s nothing one could do to strip it from them, regardless of how pathetic of a cash in it may be. Not to mention the fact that Dreamcatcher’s heady mix of guitars, choirs, and disruptive electronics is the perfect match for the likely melodramatics of an RPG by the name of Girl Cafe Gun. Regular video game soundtrack producer ESTi is aware of this and does nothing to mess with the formula, but instead merely gives the girls a lot of space around the song. This does two important things, one it mirrors the rhythms of a video game, and two it allows each of the girls to sell the potentially overbearing emotions of a song like this. The second point clicks the entire song into place, each line lingers and each members’ part so tactile, the memories of which they sing about are truly going to last forever.
47. “Zombie” by DAY6
“What kind of day was it yesterday? Was there anything special? I’m trying to remember but nothing much comes to mind.” This song and its lyrics came at a time when my country had first gone into lockdown, and each day really felt the same. I had settled into a comfortable routine, but there was absolutely nothing to look forward to or live for. This restlessness and despair is conveyed well through the monotonous way the band sings the first few verses and choruses, but the explosive instrumental break (and that gorgeous electric guitar riff!) in the middle of the song really gets things going. The catharsis finally comes with the emotional climax that is the bridge, where the protagonist gives in to his sadness and just wants to cry. Honestly speaking, who hasn’t felt that way, especially in the past few months? Coupled with a heartbreaking music video of a zombie-like working adult caught in the fast pace of society, this release from DAY6 was all kinds of relatable.
46. “Kick It” by NCT 127
When some of the industry’s best songwriters and producers get together, you know a certified bop is trickling its way to your ears. That’s exactly what Wutan, Rick Bridges, Dem Jointz, Chikk, Ryan S. Jhun, and Yoo Young-jin did when they created “Kick It.” The track’s heavy EDM opening preceded the catchy, “Let me introduce you to some new thangs” boasted a bravado that only NCT 127 could live up to. Booming bass, powerful beat drops, and peculiar percussion elements drive guide “Kick It”’s punchy raps and refined vocals. While its music video drew inspiration from 1970’s martial arts movies, “Kick It” takes listeners through the actions of martial arts. The vocals are controlled like movements and the raps give the excitement of a roundhouse kick. The pauses throughout the track build the same anticipation as someone calculating their next move.
NCT 127 proved to be in a league of their own with this track as it served as the turning point in the groups career. It allowed them to become million-dollar sellers and gave the legendary “Bass, kick, swinging like I’m Bruce Lee.”
45. “Love Killa” by Monsta X
Monsta X never skimp out on delivering a robust number of releases every year. And after dropping a full English album, Korean and Japanese comebacks, plus Joohoney’s mixtape, I.M still felt compelled to tease us with the opening of “Love Killa,” “Have room for one more?” Yes, yes we do. Put simply, “Love Killa” is a knockout — it’s Monsta X at their beast-dol best. Their signature sexy bravado paired with fiery one-liners (“I’ma slay, I’ma chill, I’ma kill,” “I want you eat me like a main dish,” “Oh I’m sorry, did I make you anxious?”) and just as impactful vocal performances, which are all elements we’ve seen from the group before, but perfected from top to bottom. Following Wonho’s departure from the group, 2020 was the year Monsta X was searching how to move forward without a key element in their genesis. “Love Killa” was a testament that they’re still the sexy and powerful group they’ve always been releasing banger after banger, but a lot more grown.
44. “Tag Me (@Me)” by Weeekly
The relentless pace and drama of social media should really be a more common theme for K-pop songs given the obvious similarities. Maybe no one thinks they could ever top Twice’s “Likey,” and who could blame them. That leaves only the most confident of creatures, the rookie girl group. Weeekly debuted in unstoppable style with “Tag Me (@Me),” a song about detesting being perceived purely through your timeline. It’s powered by cheerleader chants and electric guitars, propelling the girls into an ex3citing mish-mash of singing, chanting, and rapping. Crucially, they often chant in unison, “Once I post something, my timeline goes crazy, From my head to my toes, eyes on me, stop stop,” reinforcing the idea of this collective experience. Social media’s ubiquitousness is hard to get away from, and as energetic this song is, and as frustrated the girls are with it, there’s little for them to do but point out the obnoxiousness.
43. “Punch” by NCT 127
Where to begin with this powerhouse of a group in 2020? Dysfunctional is NCT 127’s middle name, and they’ve got the robotic video game intro to prove it. After hitting a massive breakthrough with “Kick It,” NCT 127 pulled out all the stops and broke every “rule” in the book when it comes to song structure. From the unexpected whispers in the verses to the scary smooth piano and synths of the pre-chorus, “Punch” is anything but ordinary. Fans even joked about how they could barely remember what the song sounded like after one listen because there’s just so many sonic changes within a short amount of time. One thing is for sure: the song amps up the listener and lyrically encourages them to keep fighting no matter what — this is also indicative of the “fight night” anthem beautifully intertwined into the dance break and final chorus. An unorthodox song like this doesn’t typically seem like it would work… but maybe that’s why NCT 127’s confidence continues to reach new heights as they repeatedly demolish every single concept thrown their way.
42. “Nineteen” by Natty
There’s something about a K-pop act titling their song after the age they are when they made it, that makes it immediately timeless despite that specificity. It’s something that perennial runner up Natty needed badly as she released “Nineteen” this year. We’d been waiting five years for her to finally debut, and to think she was still a teenager is certainly a surprise. But for her, it’s the end of one chapter in her life. Rather than focusing on looking back, “Nineteen” looks and moves forward, driven by the most insatiable bass line of the year and an exemplary vocal performance from Natty. Her voice is so stable, filled with the experiences of someone so young but so ready for what’s ahead of her. The confidence in her delivery comes from the fact that she’s singing for herself. “I’ve been looking for you, I’m Natty Nineteen,” she calls out in the final chorus, as the music cuts to nothing but the bass line affirming the still youthful voice of Natty. But most importantly, highlighting the assured change in her perspective.
41. “Nae tat” by BLOO & nafla
Before the MKIT RAIN marijuana use scandal this past October, the LA-based hip-hop collective had actually enjoyed a relatively auspicious year. Nafla had released u n u, a two part EP project that explored a new, more stripped-back direction for the tight boom-bap rapper, to positive reception amongst fans; meanwhile BLOO had gone viral with “Downtown Baby” two years after its initial release. Now both at the peaks of their careers, the duo naturally collaborated on “Nae tat,” a joint single that blamed their success on… well… themselves. The lyrics express how everything is “nae tat,” or “my fault,” including being born different, the beats they make, and their appearances. Even while stunting his newfound (but long overdue) fame, BLOO keeps it real with the pressures he faces going “mainstream” (“Now I can’t even just go get numbers because I’m famous/ I gotta watch my mouth, I can’t even curse”). Throw in a chilling yet hauntingly beautiful beat from Big Banana and “Nae tat” has all the makings of good flex music with none of the pretenses. It’s songs like these that we will miss going forward now that the label is laying low, and that Nafla — who recently terminated his contract on mutual terms — is no longer a part of the team.
40. “Nonstop” by OH MY GIRL
Fresh off the heels of an impressive run on Queendom, OH MY GIRL had a breakout spring with their charismatic track “Nonstop.” Its upbeat tempo and dreamy verses take listeners through the excitement of having butterflies for a crush. It’s smooth yet exhilarating. The earwormy “saljjak seollesseo nan” or “my heart fluttered” is one of the track’s standout moments, along with MiMi’s rap that gave the song more dimension with her husky voice. “Nonstop” is fun, light with a beat that captures the playfulness of spring and summer. If the septet wasn’t on your radar, they should be now.
39. “Breath” by GOT7
GOT7 has made a name for themselves throughout their careers as a dance group with intricate and impactful choreographies. But if you were to ask a fan what GOT7’s style is, the answer wouldn’t be “Hard Carry” or “If You Do.” Instead, it would be revered b-sides like “Page” and “Teenager,” and now “Breath.” Written by Youngjae, the song is nonchalant and playful, devoid of pretense or trying to be something they’re not. There’s an effervescence and overall joy that the song emanates, which is exactly what we needed in 2020.
38. “Jogging” by Lucy
Where Lucy’s debut release “Flowering” is a beautiful, emotional and uplifting piece, their August release “Jogging” feels like a breath of fresh air, a perfect match for their sunny personalities. The song captivates from the get-go, with Yechan’s addictive violin riff and Wonsang’s underlying bass line fronting the introduction. As always, the high production quality of the track shines, especially considering the difficulty of combining such a range of instruments in a cohesive and complementary manner. The song is a light-hearted, joyous one, but the band still manages to tug on their listeners’ heartstrings with reflective lyrics such as “If you lose yourself, can you really call yourself happy?” Sangyeob’s powerful voice and Yechan’s violin admittedly play a huge role in creating this pathos, and it is wonderful to watch this band play to their best strengths. With their colourful atmospheric music, Lucy offers a musical getaway from regular daily life, and “Jogging” is the summer vacation we all needed this year.
37. “Pit A Pat” by XIA
XIA is one of those distinguished K-pop vocal powerhouses who could put his whole solo career on hold and still come back as strong as he left. That’s exactly what happened with “Pit A Pat,” his first single since he was discharged from military service in 2018 and since he last released an album in 2016. The wait was well worth it though, as this arguably may be his best one yet. Propelled by electronic hooks and XIA’s own exuberance, “Pit A Pat” reeks of early 2010’s nostalgia when K-pop was at its finest. He is Peter Pan, whisking his listeners away to a world far removed from the one they know; the pan flutes in the opening just further elevates that Neverland experience. For an upbeat dance track, it’s pretty emotive, almost melancholic, yet the same could be said about any XIA song. That said, let’s just hope the next won’t take another four years, but if it has to come to that: read first sentence.
36. “When We Were Us” by Super Junior K.R.Y.
Though Super Junior celebrated their 15th anniversary this year, and K.R.Y. was their first subunit ever 14 years ago, the trio of balladeers released their first Korean EP back in June with lead single “When We Were Us.” Indisputably some of the best vocalists in the K-pop industry, Super Junior K.R.Y. Even without looking at the lyrics’ translation, the beautiful vocal and emotive performance by Kyuhyun, Ryeowook, and Yesung is all you need to experience an emotional assault — heartbreak is the same in every language. “When We Were Us” perfectly exemplified why K.R.Y., and Super Junior as a whole, are still around and thriving in an industry that values youth above all else: pure talent.
35. “Daisy” by PENTAGON
It’s not like PENTAGON’s repertoire was lacking, but adding “Daisy” was like receiving flowers — an unexpected yet welcomed surprise. This dramatic rock song, which reminisces K-pop groups such as Big Bang and Winner and pop-rock bands like 5 Seconds of Summer and Panic at the Disco, fits PENTAGON very well too. And, given that it was written and co-produced by the very own group, with the members delivering an emotional vocal performance, this song is a triumphant moment in the consolidation of their artistic identity. “Daisy” surely deserves to sit beside “Shine” as one of PENTAGON’s best singles.
— Ana C.
34. “YES” by Demian
Anyone else feeling there was something in the water this year for new solo artists? Because all three singles from Demian this year have been nothing but vibes, specifically his most recent single, “YES.” Feeling as if you’re trapped in a dream-like haze, Demian’s honey vocals croon the idea of new love and the butterflies you feel around that special someone. “I’d like to kiss, but you’re like a secret. If you say no, then nobody knows,” the singer moves with fluidity throughout the hook and captures the listener in a wonderland of daydreams. Although he’s still so fresh to the industry, Demian writes and produces with knowledge and emotion beyond his years — almost like listening to an old soul. Right now, he’s in a league of his own, and if 2020 was any indication, Demian will most certainly be the soloist on everyone’s radar in 2021.
33. “Then, Now and Forever” by CNBLUE
After completing their military service, CNBLUE finally made their return with a mini-album “RE-CODE” and the nostalgic title track “Then, Now and Forever.” Yonghwa’s warm vocals are as lovely as ever, and while a familiar band sound is still present, the instrumentation is definitely more subtle than before, as greater emphasis is placed on synthesised sounds rather than raw instruments. This works to create a unique soundscape for the song, allowing more focus to be on its meaningful lyrics and emotion. With certain catchy melodic lines and memorable phrases scattered throughout the song, CNBLUE’s formula for success remains the same, even as their sound as a whole has matured. “Then, Now and Forever” is a great new direction for the band now that they’re down one member from the original lineup, and I’m looking forward to how they will continue to move forward from here.
32. “Stay Tonight” by Chung Ha
Let’s get one thing straight: “Stay Tonight” is not a song. It’s the Met Gala, Mnet Asian Music Awards, and the Apollo launch to the moon combined. The song’s opening, with its climbing chords, crescendoing pulse, and rhythmic exhales, quickly prepares you for liftoff, and the rest of the track takes you on a ride even more exciting than the initial blast. Chung Ha’s vocals are sassy and dynamic, easily climbing up to falsettos and back down within fractions of a beat. In the pre-chorus, she executes a high-note so pristine that the following drop almost feels empty in comparison. But the space is quickly filled by a deep house EDM beat, which Chung Ha complements brilliantly with yet another wondrously dynamic melody: “Tonight, let’s get drunk on the scent.” Of each other? Of this moment? It’s a song so grand and full, you almost forget about the global pandemic happening around you.
“Stay Tonight” and the utter behemoth that is its choreographic performance undoubtedly represent everything 2020 could have been, but wasn’t. You can imagine the award show stages rising and falling with Chung Ha’s belts. The massive, apocalyptic bridge filling the stadium with vibrations, hundreds of dancers surrounding the delicate angles her arms form. It’s a whole drag ball waiting to happen, and Chung Ha’s work with LGBT dance groups on this choreography (as some Reddit users highlight) makes this work all the more important and worthy of critique, if the lack of Black and brown people in a choreography centered on voguing bothers you, which is valid and heard. It’s a release this dense, complex, and full of glow that will stay on our minds for post-pandemic years to come.
31. “Losing You” by Wonho
There was never any doubt that Wonho would be back doing music again following his departure from Monsta X just a year ago. After all, it would be a waste of producing, writing, singing, and dance skills if he were to leave the industry completely. So when he dropped “Losing You,” the pre-release single for his debut EP Love Synonym Pt. 1: Right For Me, it might or might not have just redeemed the hot mess that was 2020 for us. As the prologue to this new chapter in his career, “Losing You” has that sort of mainstream, piano-backed ballad appeal that even the uninitiated can enjoy. Of course, it helps that the music video version is also performed entirely in English, which can only mean his upcoming plans for one thing: world domination.
But as much as the song sets up Wonho’s future endeavors, it also conveys his untold stories that led him to this point. It’s a serenade to his fans who have always supported him disguised as a generic love song. The refrain’s tender repetition of “Losing me is better than losing you” is an unmistakable reference to the time he almost lost his fan base while on hiatus. He injects as much emotion into singing the lyrics as he did to writing it, which once again speaks to the singer’s well-rounded musicality. With a part two to his two-part album on the horizon, Wonho is certainly an artist we will be watching out for!
30. “Dumhdurum” by Apink
With its fiery disco-synths and brilliant use of onomatopoeia, “Dumhdurum” demonstrates Apink’s ability to adapt to 2020 K-pop while maintaining their uplifting sound, buoyed by the members’ characteristic upper registers and expressive vocals. Produced by 3rd generation hitmaker duo Black Eyed Pilseung, the track’s dance breaks echo in your ears for hours after even a single listen—it’s no wonder why this earworm gave a group that debuted in 2010 their first TikTok trend (#DumhdurumChallenge check!). Even in the midst of Apink’s darker rebrand, “Dumhdurum” is full of charm, airiness, and bounce. It proves that Apink isn’t trying to survive, or pretentiously hold the “upper tier girl group” crown over their heads until they crumble under the pressure. Instead, they’re allowing themselves to breathe, bringing new life to their music, and attracting a new generation of fans in the process. Let’s hope their exhale continues as gracefully as it has thus far.
29. “HOLO” by Lee Hi
This song is haunting and comforting in equal measure, and this vibe is well-conveyed right from its mellow piano riff and the introduction of Lee Hi’s velvety voice. Her first release under AOMG, “HOLO” is clearly an extremely personal story of Lee Hi’s, as she sings candidly about loneliness and comparing herself to others. The accompanying music video is also very moving and empowering, and while it took a while to decipher, once I understood the whole narrative it really struck a chord within me. Fittingly, she does not prescribe a solution to these depressive feelings, rather, it’s enough to acknowledge the difficulty of having these emotions, and pressing on with life anyway. After all, “one day it will stop”.
28. “ON” by BTS
As 2020 went on, it felt more and more like “ON” was prescient: the marching band-bolstered anthem from BTS is interpreted by many to fit into their Jungian philosophical exploration featured throughout many of their recent releases, but it kicks off with “I can’t understand what people are sayin’” and goes on to exult in the idea of “gotta go insane to stay sane” and “bringing the pain on.” “ON” came out before this whirlwind of a confusing, oftentimes scary and heartbreaking time really arrived. But as the year progressed, it felt like a little bit of hope. Listening to BTS take-on this determined, uplifting tone that so reflects the intensity and hope of humanity in this year. It’s an interpretation of this moment, but a good song gives meaning to any moment you experience it in, the experience of “ON” will live on forever.
27. “Say My Name” by Hyolyn
“Watch me while I do it,” Hyolyn sings in the reggae-infused “Say My Name.” And of course we do, how can we not watch her? This woman never played around since her debut, delivering outstanding vocal and dance performances – and since 2017, as her own boss. She’s now also showing she has a good vision for picking and co-writing tunes, like this one. Hyolyn is a queen – say her name.
— Ana C.
26. “Gravity” by Ong Seung Wu
Ong is a bit of a wild card, in that he’s very not one: K-pop fans around the world came to know him through his time on Produce 101 and as a member of Wanna One, and through several acting roles and even a few prior releases. Then when he dropped his first mini album Layers this year, he showed a whole new side to himself, as a glorious, smooth pop star that the year was waiting for. “Gravity” as a lead song is an experience: it’s very typical in a way; a very familiar sounding dance song that weaves in and out of acoustic instrumentals, intense EDM, and trap bridges. But like gravity, which is always there until you’re reminded, usually suddenly, of its existence, “Gravity” and Ong’s powerful vocals arrive the same way the impact of something falling against the ground does, going from skittish intensity to the soaring chorus to whisper sing-song post-choruses. Ong has always been here, and now we’re all falling for him as he shows new sides to himself.
25. “Tiger Inside” by SuperM
“Tiger Inside” gave us the growl that sent the world into a frenzy. SuperM hit back at haters with the dub-step track that encouraged them and their fans to release their inner tiger. From the beginning, the song imitates a tiger as the beat echoes a tiger stalking its prey. The track fluctuates between softer moments and an aggressive energy that’s intimidating and enjoyable. SuperM proved to be as lethal as they are majestic. “Tiger Inside” is full of exciting, energetic moments that demonstrate the group’s cohesion despite being from different groups. SuperM taking control of their sound and direction. The seven-piece group refuses to be pigeon-hold into one narrative for their music.
24. “Better” by BoA
BoA proves once again that she does it “Better” than everyone else with this single that is so quintessentially her. Everything about it demands to be danced to, and to be sung in BoA’s typical mellifluous timbre. There’s a dance break, because of course BoA needs one, and there’s a sing-song rap, because it’s BoA, she can pull it off in the most engaging of ways. There are moments where it feels as if she’s having a conversation with herself, with the singer using various tonal inflections and singing styles to drive the song along, and reassuring the listener “you better than this” all the while.
23. “Paradise” by Eric Nam
If there’s anything Eric Nam will not do, it’s pigeonhole himself into one category. From four EPs over the last four years, three podcasts within one year, and two world tours within the last two, this man just refuses to sit still. But, the great thing about being Eric Nam is that he doesn’t have to. With the release of his two previous English EPs, Eric had seemingly stepped away from the “K-pop sound” and decided to create music that he was personally influenced by from many Western artists with the goal of catering towards the U.S. market as opposed to Korea. Just when it seemed like this would be the route for him from now on, he went in the opposite direction with the lead single “Paradise” from his latest Korean EP, The Other Side.
Co-written by DAY6’s YoungK, “Paradise” is a surprising return back to that K-pop style production that Eric had been familiar with when he first debuted in Korea in 2013. However, this one is much more interesting and trippy as the instrumentation introduces several types of plucky synths and funky grooves in the chorus. The song is vibrant, tropical, and holds a bit of a dancehall flair to it as he sings about being “lost in this paradise.” To put it plain and simple, Eric Nam can literally do no wrong.
22. “Chocolate” by MAX CHANGMIN
At a time when the kids on social media are having petty arguments about who’s the best vocalist in K-pop, TVXQ’s Changmin burst through the wall like the Kool-Aid man with a ranging “I’m not scared of electricity” and crescendoing “shock me” runs for his solo EP debut. Because instead of releasing a ballad that would show a more tender yet powerful performance (he got married this year, after all), the Hallyu legend delivered the self-written vampy dance-track and vocal rollercoaster “Chocolate” instead. The song is a testament to Changmin’s years of experience, highlighting his vocal prowess and dancing chops. Once an idol hits 30, many stop seeing them as innovators. But with “Chocolate,” Changmin told the public we haven’t seen the last of him yet.
21. “Mmmh” by Kai
If there was ever a moment to release K-pop’s biggest thirst trap, it was at the close of 2020. That’s exactly what Kai did with his solo debut. Though he’s been known as an integral member of EXO and SuperM, Kai proved he could stand on his own with “Mmmh.” The R&B track echoes Kai’s elegance and sensuality; it’s slow and breath-taking. Sonically, the track gives Kai room to flex his vocals which we never get to fully enjoy in his respective groups where he operates as main dancer. “Mmmh” is a groove reminiscent of mid-2000s R&B — a welcomed dose of nostalgia.
20. “Q” by ONEWE feat. Hwasa
K-bands have proven to be quite the treasure within the K-pop community — whether you’re into pop, hard, or soft rock, there’s probably a band out there for every personal aesthetic. Luckily, ONEWE fits into its own little niche and has been stylistically diverse throughout the number of singles (and one studio album) that they’ve released this year.
“Q” is best described as a jazz band/bossa nova type treat that you would faintly hear playing during the fall season at your local coffee shop. It boasts a warm and homey atmosphere with just the right amount of R&B sprinkled in between the bass and guitar chords — played by members CyA and Kanghyun respectively. It also doesn’t hurt that the band recruited fellow RBW labelmate and Mamamoo member Hwasa to add a dash of femininity in contrast to the five men. Contrary to her confident image, she actually doesn’t outshine them but rather elevates the listening experience as a whole as she effortlessly weaves in and out to harmonize with CyA and main vocalist Yonghoon — it’s easy-listening at its finest. However, it’s Yonghoon’s wide and spacious high note at the very end that really hits the nail on the head. Ladies and gentlemen, watch out for him. That’s what we call lungs of steel.
19. “Turn Back Time” by WayV
Whether you’re here for impactful, gritty rap or melodious choral verses, WayV’s proven in its brief career to be the kings at both of these things: the group is pretty distinctly divided between those who rap and those who sing, and they come together on their songs to create a perfect blend. “Turn Back Time” is the epitome of this, fronted by kinda bouncy quirky beats and squelching warped synths as the members rap and sing aggressively before the chorus arrives by slowing things down for a moment before speeding full blast ahead with a soaring vocal array, and then dipping down into a chant of “stop-rewind-turn back time,” and then setting the whole thing up again. As much as they’re singing about turning back time, WayV are playing around with bpm and the flow of what typically is a tune, which is something that NCT as a whole is great at playing around with, and it makes “Turn Back Time” one of the most engaging songs of the year.
18. “Naughty” by Red Velvet – Irene & Seulgi
When Red Velvet – Irene & Seulgi first dropped the Monster mini album, K-pop Twitter was confused. “Where is ‘Naughty’?” fans trended as they investigated why a song listed on the original tracklist was nowhere to be found.
Everything about “Naughty” is bold, including the way it was released after its constituent album had already come out. Irene & Seulgi reach the pinnacle of their musical identity as a duo, combining smooth, groovy dubstep with a varied and dynamic vocal performance to deliver one of 2020’s slickest and most boppable tracks. “Naughty” was made truly memorable, however, through its choreography, which catapulted across through internet virality for its immaculate (and scrutable) use of tutting. The track is fashion-forward and cutting-edge, making you wonder how these two members, as part of the full Red Velvet, were chanting “Zimzalabim” and “Umpah Umpah” on stage only a year before. More than anything, “Naughty” is a testament to Irene & Seulgi’s versatility. The duo can invent and reinvent themselves over and over, so well that it feels like it shouldn’t be allowed.
17. “EVITA!” by DeVita
As the “Newtro” wave seeped into this year’s music trends across the board, it’s no surprise that artists took full advantage to explore and experiment with their sounds, both old and new. More on the borderline of future retroism, R&B artist DeVita was ready to show the world what she’s made of in her debut single, “EVITA!” A friendly kick snare drum opens the song before it’s rudely — but amazingly — interrupted by a loud and boisterous jazz accompaniment that’ll get you up on your feet in an instant. From most of the comments on the music video, it seems as though a number of people discovered and became interested in the AOMG singer after her slew of tweets calling out K-pop and Asian artists who use and profit off of Black culture in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement. In an industry where non-Black musicians were put to the test in speaking out against their peers, DeVita did not shy away from speaking her mind online, nor did she in her music either.
“EVITA!” is the epitome of sass, defiance, and playfully confronting someone who switches up their behavior everytime you’re around them: “Why you ain’t never talk to me when I’m around? Thought you had something to say,” DeVita boldly asks with probably the best line of the song. With a captivating voice as strong as her image, she switches up the rhythm in her verses quite poetically, and for a moment, displays moments of vulnerability and uncertainty that add a pleasant finishing touch to the soulful number.
16. “Blue Hour” by TXT
Tomorrow X Together gave listeners a light dose of funk with their pop track “Blue Hour.” The song is a metaphor for admiring something beautiful despite being in unfamiliar surroundings and uses Seoul’s sunset as imagery. The track continues 2020’s retro and nostalgia trend in music. It’s upbeat tempo and whimsical melody showcase the group’s youthfulness and curiosity for life. “Blue Hour” has everything for a bubblegum pop track but amps up the ante with an infectious bridge that serves as the song’s peak. TXT continues their journey of adolescence and early adulthood and their future looks bright as they explore different musical sounds and their identities.
15. “Black Swan” by BTS
Music is many things to many people. To some it’s fun, or maybe it’s healing, and to others it is purpose. To BTS, it is all of this, and especially the latter. So much that losing passion for music is compared to a “first death” in the melancholically beautiful “Black Swan.” In concept and lyrics, the song is the group’s biggest artistic statement – which is not saying little for a group that has been pretty ambitious with their concepts for quite some time now. Starting with a crying guitar and bursting into a trap beat, “Black Swan”’s lyrical hook is the seven men’s conversation with music: “Do your thing with me now.” And whether this means surrendering or a call for help, it comes to show, like many times before in their career and discography, that one of BTS’s biggest strengths is their artistic vulnerability.
— Ana C.
14. “Answer” by ATEEZ
Acting as a victorious epilogue to their Treasure series which began in 2018, “Answer” combines elements from the group’s previous releases (with lyrics such as “Say My Name,” referencing their 2019 single) while bringing something fresh to the table. With the group diving into high notes and powerful raps within less than twenty seconds of the song, the layers just keep building from there. That being said, there is a great balance of loud and quiet moments – the song never gets overbearing and listeners have ample opportunity to appreciate the sick underlying beats that keep the song dynamic and alive. The members all show off stable vocals, but Jongho in particular stands out with his ad-libs towards the end of the song. His transition from the bridge to the chorus is seriously impressive, as are the explosive high notes he throws out in his parts. The quality of ATEEZ’s releases have proven to be consistently good, and there is much we can continue to anticipate from them.
13. “Wannabe” by ITZY
The first listen of any ITZY song is never the smoothest of experiences, and “Wannabe” is no exception. From instrumentation to lyrics to melody, the song is hyperactive, even overwhelming at times, and that’s precisely the point. Dropping right at the start of international lockdown in March, “Wannabe” gave listeners a welcome and exciting distraction from global catastrophe. Starting with Ryujin’s shoulder dance (arguably the dance move of 2020) to the fast-paced dance break during the bridge, the song is power-packed with iconic moments. “Wannabe” and its accompanying choreography are so memorable that they, alone, accelerated the growth of K-pop TikTok at the beginning of quarantine with the endless dance challenges that they created. The song is dense, tightly organized, and so quintessentially ITZY that it feels like a full-body workout even when you’re just listening. “Wannabe” demonstrates ITZY’s ability to put method to madness, establish coherence through chaos. Through the song’s many moving pieces sits one, resounding message: no matter the noise, they are no one but themselves.
12. “So Bad” by STAYC
Production duo Black Eyed Pilseung could put in a major claim for defining the K-pop girl group sound of the last five years. They are the creators of Twice’s most iconic hits, the architects of Apink’s extravagant resurgence, and now are leading rookie girl group STAYC into the stratosphere. STAYC’s debut single “So Bad’ is very much a follow on from Pilseung’s work with Apink, with one key difference. The silky retro synths similarly glide but along a more modern drum ‘n’ bass beat. Gone is the elegance of the more experienced Apink, replaced by the natural exuberance of a newly debuted group. In a song like this, those synths are always the draw, and they do their job wonderfully, but the kicks and snaps of the beat are what make it. Pilseung understands so well how to fit a song to a particular group, and this is all topped off by the natural variety of pitches in STAYC’s voices. It makes “So Bad” completely unpredictable, even in its familiar sounds, which in turn also makes STAYC the most exciting prospect in all of K-pop right now.
11. “How You Like That” by BLACKPINK
“How You Like That”’s opening brass notes announce the arrival of royalty, and BLACKPINK spends the next three minutes convincing you that they’re not only queens, but also legends in-the-making (a loving step higher in stan terminology). This song’s nasty, bone-deep drops make clear that these women will not hesitate to get ugly with you, but remain effortlessly pretty while doing so. The choruses compose a loud, angry proclamation that, in spite of naysayer complaints, the Teddy Park formula for BLACKPINK singles works, even with their lyrically sparse choruses and nonsensical chants (“bada-bing bada-boom boom boom!”). With the ending dance break outro, they take the formula to its absolute infinity, the metallic piano notes and syncopated drums screaming to the skies that they truly couldn’t care less what you think of them.
“How You Like That” is the main character anthem of 2020. It’s the track you listened to while taking your quarantine walks and pretending you were doing anything other than taking a quarantine walk. Lisa and Jennie may have left you feeling a little bit introspective and insecure with their “Look at you, now look at me”’s, but honestly, you’re okay with that. And we all are. It’s legend behavior, after all.
10. “Eight” by IU ft Suga
One of the most anticipated collaborations of the year, “Eight” manages to surpass expectations with its perfect combination of relatable lyrics, a beautiful music video, and stellar performances by both IU and Suga. It is melancholic yet uplifting, which is a common theme for many songs released this year, but it stands a class above the rest with its high production quality and energetic instrumentation. With IU and Suga both being 28 this year, this song flows well with IU’s stream of age-related songs, all of which describe the complexities of adulthood. In this case, “Eight” focuses on the tension between time that flows relentlessly by and the desire to remain in the more blissful past, highlighting this inner conflict with thoughtful lyrics that really touch the heart.
As the years go by, IU’s artistry continues to shine, because her music matures along with her – her deepest thoughts, her reflections and realisations, all of these are poured into the music that she creates, and it is truly a pleasure to continue following her on this musical journey.
9. “Candy” by Baekhyun
After releasing the touchstone of K-pop solo debuts that was 2019’s “UN Village,” EXO’s Baekhyun had some large shoes to fill. His answer to this was this year’s “Candy,” which seems to be cut from the same R&B cloth, just with less of the groove. Instead, it’s fortified with a subtle trap beat as delicious as the confectionaries he likens himself to. “Pop rocks, strawberry, bubble gum” probably sits at the same best one liners of 2020 lunch table as TWICE’s “Risky risky wiggy wiggy,” and it is here where Baekhyun unleashes his slickest of harmonies. With its undulating synth work and generous ad-libs, there’s something inherent in this kind of R&B production that feels old school, sort of like the generation of K-pop when artists like Big Bang’s Taeyang used to dominate the genre. It’s also the kind of music we have been missing from EXO, so we will take any form of it we can get be it from the group or from its main vocalist (who is basically the representative vocals of EXO anyway). Like “UN Village” that came before it, “Candy” is a bop and a brilliant measure of Baekhyun’s nascent solo career. That makes it two for two now.
8. “+5 STAR+” by CL
The cutest love song of the year came from the “baddest female” — which just shows, and not for the first time, how versatile CL is. The cleverly produced and composed “+5 STAR+” gifted us a softer side of the all rounded rapper and singer, yet it’s still marked by her known style. CL delivers lots of attitude in high pitched vocals over hip-hop beats, while also sounding ridiculously cute with lyrics like “I’m your ocean, you’re my star,” and sweet, typical bubblegum pop chord progressions. With the risk of sounding tacky, I can say “+5 STAR+” deserves a five star review – it’s a lazy pun, but hey, not all of us can be cool when talking about their feelings like CL can.
— Ana C.
7. “From Home” by NCT U
We all know the story of the foreign K-pop idol in Korea. Oftentimes in their mid-teens, they left everyone and everything they knew behind in their home country and moved to a new one — where they knew no one, didn’t know the culture nor spoke the language— all to pursue the crazy dream of becoming a singer with no guarantees of it coming to fruition. Though not exclusive to them, of course, this is the story of many of the 23 members of NCT. And this year via their NCT 2020 project, NCT U released a song to acknowledge and honor their long journey together.
“Who I was yesterday and who I am now, And who we will be tomorrow, it all starts from home,” Taeil, Yuta, Kun, Doyoung, Renjun, Haechan, and Chenle sing in a seamless unison on the chorus of “From Home,” a warm yet powerful ballad about finding their home with each other in the group. But the song’s highlight is not only the touching lyrics, but the absolutely beautiful melodies and vocal performance from most of NCT’s power vocalists. Not to mention it is sung in four different languages native to the members (Yuta in Japanese, Kun, Chenle, and Renjun in Mandarin, the rest in Korean and the usual English sprinkled here and there), adding a more authentic touch to an already heartfelt song. From Chenle’s angelic-like falsettos to Haechan’s soulful runs to Taeil’s unmatched belts, “From Home” was a warm hug among the various bangers released by NCT this year. It was a good reminder that, as an entity, NCT is a well-rounded ensemble that excels in pretty much anything they put out.
6. “IDEA” by Taemin
KultScene’s writers and editors have vastly different tastes, so it’s not easy to get two songs in the top 10 of our year-end list. But who better to accomplish the feat than Taemin? Since his solo debut in 2014, he’s managed to create a kind of banger that is fully his own, and reimagines itself across instrumentations, years, and generations of K-pop. “IDEA” fits perfectly into this catalog — it’s slick and sexy like “MOVE,” but carries the bounce and bombast of earlier releases like “Danger.” Arguably, the song’s most exciting part is the second chorus, when the repeated “My” syllable builds extra rhythm and power into an already explosive section. It’s this kind of pop — that so carefully balances choreographic performance and vocal melody, and achieves ultimate braggadocio without sacrificing humility — that can unite listeners of all tastes and backgrounds around a performer so prolific and evergreen that his releases grow more beloved over time. “IDEA” is evidence that Taemin is, more than anything, a genre of his own.
5. “I Can’t Stop Me” by TWICE
Much has been made of the transformation that TWICE have made from the aegyo-laden music of their earlier career to now. Their latest single “I Can’t Stop Me” is a gorgeous retro track with the most sleek and serious throughline of deeply felt synths that solidifies TWICE as “grown up.” Yet, the feeling can’t be shaken that this is still the TWICE we always knew. “I Can’t Stop Me” is not the culmination of a miraculous change for TWICE, but another step in their drawn out progression as the greatest girl group of a generation.
Jihyo belts out in the first chorus, “I’m surrounded by that spot spot spotlight, As it shines on me, I’m swept into the darkness,” TWICE have come to understand that there is action embedded in them. The absolute desires in them have always been there, but only now can they get how strong it is. “I already know the answer, But I still keep going,” Momo raps, ushering in the climax for a song that shouldn’t be stopped. It’s the vocal performance of members like Momo, Sana, and Dahyun that retain the TWICE identity, the opposing melancholic or comedic sides of the desperation they feel in a twisted world. They set up these ideas to be then smashed into clarity by Jihyo, Nayeon, and Jeongyeon. Their voices so clear and loud so as to leave no trace of hesitation when we think of the girl group TWICE.
4. “Criminal” by Taemin
At this point, I think we can all agree that any single Taemin touches becomes an experience. Part musician, part dancer, part thespian, and all performer, the SHINee member has come into his own. Taemin as a soloist may not be breaking records left and right, but the pursuit of artistry is what moves him forward continually, and few have defined themselves quite so distinctly — and “Criminal” is the epitome of this. A dramatic tune that’s both creeping and intense in style, the groovy tune breathes with charisma and power, with Taemin taking center stage as a seductive, daring “Criminal.” The sleek ‘80s beat and the atmospheric synths create the perfect environment for Taemin to alternatingly seduce listeners in the verses and to perform chill-inducing adlibs in the off-kilter chorus, only for a police radio to make an appearance before a drop that drives everything off into the deep end, surging forward towards the sudden end of the song as it’s sweeping high that leaves you wanting more. Luckily, he followed it up with the glorious “Idea,” leaving us both satiated and wanting oh so much more from this bright-burning star.
3. “pporappippam” by Sunmi
Whether it’s too much reliance on formulas or simply because it’s the #Sunmipop style, Sunmi’s comebacks tend to be a bit hit or miss. Fortunately for the “Gashina” singer, her latest with “pporappippam” belongs to the former. Working once again with FRANTS — who had produced “Lalalay” and “Siren” — the pair took inspiration from the city-pop genre in order to infuse the song with the ethereal and fresh quality the lyrics demand. The scintillating ‘80s-style synths situate themselves perfectly amongst the breezy, purple-tinged night sky of the chorus, while the overlaying flutes add a nice, signature Sunmi touch. “Pporappippam’s” arsenal of sounds don’t stop there, however; the standout moment actually comes in during the bridge when it reels back and welcomes a soaring electric guitar solo without warning. What sets this apart from her previous works is precisely this kind of unpredictability that sends us into ever more euphoria. With its retro influences and dramatic flair, “pporappippam” is a refreshing track that only Sunmi could have pulled off and is just what 2020-era K-pop needed so badly again.
2. “Kazino” by BIBI
Bitches, ice, and homegirl: the three words you’ve probably been repeating in your sleep if you’ve had this song on loop all year long. When it comes to solo artists, BIBI is one of the most intriguing and fascinating of the bunch — she’s fun, she’s bold, she’s a breath of fresh air for women running the game in Korean music. Compared to the light-hearted singles she released in 2019, “Kazino” is downright gritty and even spine-chilling at times as it teeters back and forth between the feather-soft vocal layering in the pre-chorus and bridge, to the earth-shattering trap beat of the chorus.
The song makes several gambling references — as does its music video set in an underground casino — and ultimately depicts how far she’s willing to bet her life on winning the literal and metaphorical game of roulette: “Risk it, risk it, risk it ’til the last dime.” Many have pointed out the parallels and inspirations BIBI had drawn from Korean movies like Tazza: The High Rollers which revolved around a “group of gambling drifters” in 2006. Although shown as dirty and violent in the video, BIBI displays an incredible duality to her musical persona — the ability to be perceived as something sweet and quirky, to completely flipping the switch and bringing that unapologetic attitude that makes her twice as appealing. Combined with her cool laid-back style of singing and desire to remain authentic to herself, “Kazino” is but one example of the 22-year-old’s creative prowess and potential to be an incredibly versatile soloist in the industry.
1. “La Di Da” by Everglow
Frank Miller-esque cinematography. Sequins. Synths. Voguing. EVERGLOW gave us everything newtro with “La Di Da.” The ladies are a force from the beginning with vocals backed by 80’s synths before venturing into an aggressive rap and slick pre-chorus that slips the catchy “EVERGLOW, forever, let’s go.” It ascends into a chorus with a repetitive “la di da” before dropping into an unexpected trap bridge that spotlights E:U rap skills. “La Di Da” maintains its momentum before presenting a dance break before the chanty “Turn it up loud. Turn it, turn it up loud. Shake it up now. Shake it, shake it up now.” It’s a moment we haven’t seen since the sextet’s debut. EVERGLOW let their vocals do all the heavy work without being overshadowed by onomatopoeias and adlibs. Here, they are effortlessly incorporated into the group’s vocals.
EVERGLOW proved that they are a mainstay with “La Di Da.” They showed that women were the backbone of this year’s K-pop run. And if you’re a hater, they don’t have time nor can they hear you. With “La Di Da”’s staying power, the possibilities for EVERGLOW are endless moving forward. It’s time for a new it girl group, and “La Di Da” demanded it be them.
Check out the Spotify playlist with every song on the list:
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