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Dazed's 20 (10) best K-Pop songs of 2018

[...] 2018 saw an uptick in music quality. Over the past few years, K-pop’s trend-chasing had gotten out of control, resulting in a somewhat identikit musical landscape, and while tropical house, trap, and Latin sounds are still popular, producers are consciously refining and redefining those sounds. Our annual rundown of the year’s best K-pop songs is limited to one track per artist or group, and – given the genre’s focus on unified music and visuals – takes into consideration both the song and its MV (music video). Here’s our dive into the year in K-pop.


10. Stray Kids, "District 9"



Stray Kids only officially debuted in March, but they’ve made a remarkable impression, not least because three members (Bang Chan, Changbin, and Jisung) have co-written their four EPs, a level of responsibility that’s rarely afforded to such a young group. Their first title single, “District 9”, is a hoarse call to lost young souls – the lyrical draw of a Neverland haven meets visual sci-fi dystopia – as sirens and muscular beats segue into a fantastically riff-aggressive chorus. Musically, it harks back to B.A.P’s 2012 singles “Power” and “Warrior”, but Stray Kids certainly possess their own strengths; they ride the intimidatingly heavy instrumental like big wave surfers, adding flairs and power moves, which results in “District 9” packing giant punches and apologising for none of them.


9. APINK, "I'm So Sick"



“I’m So Sick” wrestles between staying away from, and running back to, an ex. Its sound draws on trop-house, but there’s a less obvious disco influence too, which leaves its glittery imprint on the chorus. It’s a song that dances through the pain, ferried along by subtle double time hi-hats and melancholic lyrics, delivered with an upbeat energy over throbbing bass. It’s a far more mature direction for Apink, whose earlier sound could definitely be described as frothy – from the distorted vocals curving over the choruses, to the single squall of electric guitar on the bridge, each moment imparts sophistication.


8. Monsta X, "Jealousy"



The funk stylings of 2017’s “Dramarama” steered Monsta X away from heavy-duty EDM/trap singles, and although “Jealousy” returns the septet to that particular watering hole, there’s plenty of room for some memorable moments – the echoing “yeah, yeah...” hook, Hyungwon’s breathy warning of “jealousy, baby, jealousy...” – to shine. The soaring chorus sees Kihyun burn through melodies that sound like they’ve been fattened on fist-pumping 80s pop and early 90s R&B, and at the song’s climax, his power ad-libs yield a frustrated intensity. “Jealousy” is on a dark spectrum overall, encompassing fury (from Jooheon), competitiveness (I.M), and suspicion (Wonho). It’s one hell of a ride.


7. EXO, "Tempo"



When EXO experiment, like they did on last year’s “Ko Ko Bop”, the results tend to be divisive, while their straightforward pop offerings, such as the dazzling “Love Me Right”, are usually certified crowd-pleasers. “Tempo” ambitiously sets out to straddle both worlds. The things one might expect from an EXO record – the sublime harmonies, flawless production, and little quirks and surprises (here, it’s the squeaking springs and Bruno Mars/Michael Jackson-esque ad-libs) – are all present on “Tempo”. But the song also zigzags through the unexpected – pitch-shifted vocals and marked pace switching – before blindsiding listeners with a velvety acapella bridge. Being able to achieve coherence while being simultaneously familiar and challenging is a difficult undertaking, yet EXO make it seem effortless.


SF9, "Now Or Never"



“Now or Never” is a three-and-a-half-minute tease, constantly beckoning the listener to slide into its embrace – only to be pushed back to become an eager voyeur instead. The combination of electro-funk and house music gives the track a club-friendly edge, featuring as much thump as the choreography does grinding hips. There’s ample propulsion, thanks to Inseong’s high notes and Dawon and Jaeyoon’s ad-libs (not to mention the jaunty guitar in the chorus), but the real bait is that hook. Delivered most effectively by Hwiyoung and Chani, it’s moody and staggeringly potent, giving this two-year-old group their finest moment to date.


SHINee, "Good Evening"



With 2018 being both SHINee’s tenth anniversary, and their return to the public eye after the passing of singer Jonghyun late last year, the build-up towards “Good Evening” felt fraught – yet the ambiguity of its lyrics and its visuals gave the song a gauzy veil to deflect the abject scrutiny. They returned to a deep house sound, but, unlike 2015’s chunky “View”, the timbre here is lithe and ethereal. SHINee’s vocals – at once delicate yet still powerful – give “Good Evening” its momentum, and the harmonies and waves of electronic percussion layer into a celebratory, though bittersweet, climax. Whether you’re approaching this as a fan or a curious onlooker, “Good Evening” quietly proves itself as one of SHINee’s, and 2018’s, strongest offerings.


4. Red Velvet, "Bad Boy"



Red Velvet’s ‘red’ singles – wild bangers such as “Dumb Dumb” and “Red Flavor” – have been their most successful, but on 2017’s “Peekaboo” and this January’s “Bad Boy”, some of that feisty energy is transferred to the group’s quieter ‘velvet’ side. “Bad Boy” is understated but bold, a buttery, mid-tempo R&B track that puts the focus on the quintet’s voices – Irene nabs the year’s sassiest opening line, and Wendy and Seulgi pack in killer ad-libs. A fantastically utilised trap beat adds a menacing touch, an atmosphere that also lurks in the jaw-dropping MV; meanwhile, a bounty of finger snaps, whistles, and footsteps create intriguing little flickers. Red Velvet are already K-pop’s most musically interesting girl group, and “Bad Boy” solidifies them as one of the best in the game overall.


3. (G)I-DLE, "Hann"



(G)I-DLE’s monster debut, “Latata”, erred on the side of caution, sticking to tried and tested trop influences, but “Hann” – a song that’s equal parts self-empowerment and emotional revenge – throws all its chips on the table. Looking and sounding like a Spaghetti Western (a whistled refrain, a desert scene, both gothic and colourfully lavish amidst the dust), it utilises familiar pop mechanics, only they’re constantly restrained or isolated, lending the track an unfamiliar feel. Theatrical strings peek through the mix, the chorus is punctured by a gleaming, high-pitched effect for an alien-like quality, and even when it’s at its warmest and most approachable, the girls, particularly Soyeon, infuse it with a take-no-prisoners haughtiness that makes “Hann” incredibly compelling.


2. BTS, "Fake Love"



Taken from Tear, the second installment in the group’s Love Yourself trilogy, “FAKE LOVE” has a lavish, clever MV that relays the dark mood of the song’s lyrics. But rather than merely build around these lyrics, the MV also augments visual storylines from BTS’s previous trilogy, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, to bridge these complex pieces of work. The poignant rawness of the pre-choruses leaps out, and Jungkook, V, and Jimin respectively evoke pain, resignation, and disbelief as they tackle its bleak self-realisation (“For you, I’m enacting a pretty lie... I’m erasing myself to become your doll”).

Although trap beats thrum alongside doomy bass, gritty guitars counterbalance a tense chorus, and the rap verses use the triplet flow saturating hip hop, BTS’s biggest influence on “Fake Love” is really themselves. They revisited the cinematic landscape of 2016’s “Blood Sweat & Tears”, a return to high theatre that eschewed the conventional thought of continuing along the more easily accessible path laid by hype track “MIC Drop” and the colourful EDM-pop of “DNA”, two songs that coincided with their breakthrough in the US. But even if America wasn’t ready for a highly strung, Korean emo anthem by seven young men sporting crimped hair, bondage accessories, and glittery shirts, BTS gratifyingly weren’t interested in waiting for them to catch up.


1. NCT U - Baby Don't Stop"



In February, NCT U (the NCT unit with a revolving door of members) released the excellent “BOSS”, and then a week later put out its sibling track, “Baby Don’t Stop”. Whereas the former song rallies a gargantuan bassline and aggressive chorus, “Baby Don’t Stop” is friskier. The song features the raspy tones of leader/rapper, Taeyong, and light, clean vocals of Thai member, Ten, and has a far more elastic beat, as well as an outro that sees the titular lyrics from Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula” turned into its own playful chant.

As the urgent heat of the chorus confirms, this is no love song – it’s a full-blown seduction, one that is, at times, incorrigibly provocative. Fittingly, its instrumental is just as sly and coquettish, with a warm, intermittent synth line, and a complex array of percussive drivers that rise like an immense wave but, as it crests, drops into a sparse, spoken bridge. The MV, shot against the stark beauty of Kyiv’s Soviet Brutalist buildings, is no less coercive, with choreography that forgoes precision synchronicity and celebrates the singers’ dynamic screen presence and opposing styles – Taeyong’s sharpness, Ten’s fluidity.

NCT, on the whole, have gifted the year with a slew of exceptional material, but “Baby Don’t Stop” is mesmerising and, even after 10 months, shows no signs of inducing listener fatigue. While that may be impressive alone, what’s really astonishing is its sense of completeness. There are no overlooked opportunities or missteps, no parts that haven’t been chiseled into their purest form. A combination of intelligent production, experimentation, charisma, and unbridled ambition, “Baby Don’t Stop” is, unironically, a true showstopper.


source: dazeddigital, jypentertainment, 1thek, starship, sment, (g)i-dle official, ibighit

You can find the full ranking at Dazed.
Omona, what were your favorite releases in 2018? Is this a ranking you can get behind? Any B-side that you want more people to know about?
Tags: (g)i-dle, apink, bts, exo, monsta x, nct, red velvet, sf9, shinee, stray kids
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