Say what you will about the news throughout 2018, but you can't deny it was a major year of musical innovation and breakthroughs. From standout albums from pop icons, queer game-changes and future-thinking newcomers, the musical landscape never looked brighter and K-pop arguably played a major part in this.
After years of steady but slow progress, it finally felt like the K-pop scene made its major breakthrough in 2018. While BTS was the undeniable ringleader with their top-charting albums and visibility across the most coveted and mainstream platforms, the guys played an important part in opening the eyes to literally millions that great and, perhaps most importantly, meaningful music was coming from South Korea and didn't necessarily need to all be in English.
Related | PAPER's Top 100 Songs of 2018
Girl groups like BLACKPINK and TWICE made impact with attention-commanding music videos with the former becoming the fastest K-pop group to hit half a billion views with their "Ddu-Du Ddu-Du" visual in November. Meanwhile, boy bands like EXO and NCT 127 followed along with impactful albums, both selling thousands in their first weeks. And as GOT7 filled stadiums, (G)I-DLE danced in Times Square, Seventeen headlined KCON, Monsta X played Jingle Ball and nearly every star played with puppies at BuzzFeed, it felt like K-pop stars were finally getting the chance to show the world what they could do and did do so in unique ways that showcased themselves best.
After a game-changing year for K-pop, PAPER put together the 20 songs that helped the scene shine brighter than ever.
20. "Bboom Bboom" by MOMOLAND
With its swing-inspired saxobeat, "Bboom Bboom" already captured the sound for one of 2018's cheeriest singles but it was the ladies of MOMOLAND who truly sold the track. The rising girl group seemed to have found a niche style with this quirky bop that balances its punchy chorus with a trap-inflected second verse. Even without its wild choreography — a must-see, if just for member JooE wilin' out on the breakdown — "Bboom Bboom" boasts the feel-good pop vibes we were all craving in 2018.
19. "Thanks" by Seventeen
With 13 members — yes, you read that right, 1-3 — boy band Seventeen has a wide range of skills to showcase and did just that throughout 2018 with the feel-good bubblegum pop of "A-Teen," 8bit-inspired summer jam "Oh My!" and their dark hip-hop/EDM cut "Getting Closer" as a year-end treat. But where the boys shine brightest this year may have been by going more subtle with the emotional, electro-pop gem "Thanks." Not only do we get to feel the racing heat of the group's emotional croons and sharp raps, but the track explodes into a shimmery breakdown of electronica that's as emotional as it is dreamy — a further indication that Seventeen can command any genre they choose to dabble.
18. "Blue Moon" by Gyeongree
Breaking out solo is never easy, but Gyeongree made pulling off an ambitious single look effortless with "Blue Moon." Her first solo release away from girl group 9Muses, the singer jumped from feathery vocals, AutoTune-d speech and rap deliveries, all backed by sophisticated production that kept up with the starlet's multifaceted styles via clubby house and twinkling synth-pop.
17. "Love4eva" by Loona yyxy feat. Grimes
Grimes has been a long time fan of K-pop and it seems almost shocking that the quirky-pop enchantress took until 2018 to jump into the scene. Luckily, she chose an excellent track for her first dip in the bubblegum perfection of "Love4eva" performed with Loona yyxy, a splinter quartet of the 12-member girl group Loona. The bubbly synth work and spry vocals all border on saccharine, but never quite overdoes it in a vein of only the most expertly crafted bubblegum pop. For longtime K-pop fans, the song will recall the effervescence of Girls' Generation's "Gee," a modern-day classic in South Korea that at one point was YouTube's most-viewed Korean-pop video ever after its sensational release.
16. "Jenga" by Heize feat. Gaeko
One of the best parts of being a K-pop fan is the wide-ranging amount of sounds and genres its artists touch with one of the year's best singles coming via soulful songbird Heize. The jazz-inspired "Jenga" sees the singer in her element, movingly moaning "I don't want to play this game no more, somebody help" and veteran rapper Gaeko relating their relationship to the titular childhood game that could fall at any moment with one wrong move.
15. "I'm So Sick" by Apink
Longtime K-pop followers know Apink as one of the girl groups long holding close to their sweet and innocent concept years after the members hit adulthood. Yet in an unexpected refresh, the outfit delivered a sophisticated dance-pop track in "I'm So Sick" to become one of their best releases in years. Member Naeun opens the track declaring, "I'm so sick of lying, you got to know that" — a major change from last year's peppy encouragement anthem "Five" — bringing a slick, somewhat dark single release that utilizes dissonant samples and the occasional bright pop moment for a track that lets these young women show their maturity while growing as a group.
14. "Latata" by (G)I-DLE
If you don't know (G)I-DLE, get ready to hear a lot more about this promising girl group. Hitting the mark with their debut single, the powerful, exotic flavor brought on the track helped the young women stand out from most new groups who typically go for a more innocent and young image giving them an exciting edge from the start. All the more impressive is "Latata" (and their equally excellent "Hann (Alone)" single) were both written and co-produced by the act's 20-year-old leader Soyeon, solidifying herself as a must-watch creator for the future pop scene.
13. "Ddu-Du Ddu-Du" by BLACKPINK
From the opening shoutout of their group name, BLACKPINK delivers one of the year's strongest anthems. As genre lines blurred throughout pop today (see Travis Scott's "Sicko Mode" or Ariana Grande's Sweetner album), this cut struck the right balance between hard hip-hop, honeyed harmonies and hazy-EDM hubbub. The nonsensical "Hit you with that ddu-du ddu-du" chorus tagline makes us think BLACKPINK are creating their own language and resisting their forthcoming influence is futile at this point. (Just ask Dua Lipa)
12. "Don't" by Loco and Hwasa
Perhaps 2018's best example of edging, musically, os this rich pop/hip-hop duet. Hwasa, a vocalist in girl group MAMAMOO, and rapper Loco spend the entire four-minute track holding off from drinking together in fear of their inevitable primal urges jumping out. Both lyrically and vocally, the duo teeter in never admit their fully admitting their feelings nor jumping into what sounds like full-fledged vocals and attack-style rapping. It's then up to the listener to imagine what happens after the song finishes.
11. "Yes or Yes" by TWICE
With a string of nine No. 1 singles since their 2015 debut, TWICE would have seemingly run out of hitmaking steam at some point but the girl group delivered yet another pop gem in this fall's "Yes or Yes." While their earlier 2018 singles "What Is Love?" and "Dance the Night Away" spotlighted their sweeter sides, it was finally in "Yes or Yes" that the ladies took control of what they wanted and did so with one of the year's gummiest earworms. In a year that saw strong women speaking out more than ever, TWICE lyrically taking the reins in their music is the type of energy we hope to keep in 2019.
Related | K-Pop Princesses TWICE Go Bold
10. "Lo Siento" Super Junior feat. Leslie Grace and Play-N-Skillz
In a song that we think signals not just the future of K-pop but perhaps pop at large, "Lo Siento" is a trilingual track that brings English, Korean and Spanish for one of the year's most unexpected but greatest collaborations. Korea's veteran supergroup Super Junior worked with Latin-pop star Leslie Grace and Dallas production duo Play-N-Skillz for a song that melded together two of the world's most passionate communities in K-pop and Latin-music fans. While it's been great to see both K-pop and Latin music make strides into the mainstream pop world, seeing the two scenes blend together in such a seamless, energetic track makes us wonder what other magic can come from this type of innovative thinking.
9. "Instagram" by Dean
In one of the most relatable tracks out this year, Dean discusses the loneliness he feels on the app we're all addicted to over knocking R&B production. The singer-songwriter finds a way to cleverly capture the weird disconnect of lamenting the fact that Instagram is only a curated look into one person's life yet still can't seem to shake his scrolling addiction. Sound familiar? Yeah, us too.
8. "La Vie en Rose" by IZ*ONE♬ Available on iTunes, Apple Music : https://apple.co/2SEDi0L Listen on Spotify : https://spoti.fi/2AGqi3M IZ*ONE (아이즈원) - 라비앙로즈 (La Vie en Rose) MV 입니다. ‘IZ...
When it comes to debut singles, most K-pop acts opt for a high-energy banger (see standout rookies like Stray Kids, Loona and ATEEZ), but IZ*ONE managed to make a major impact with a mid-tempo release. With the ambient synths and majestic string work, "La Vie en Rose" was a stunning, shimmery start for the Korean-Japanese girl group with the track making waves both in Korea and Japan.
7. "One of Those Nights" by Key feat. Crush
A chic stunner of R&B-pop, SHINee boy band member Key teams up with R&B wunderkind Crush for this melancholy track where the guys detailing a nighttime plan to try to forget a lover. From wispy falsettos to hollowed baritone notes, the duo deliver a true vocal acrobatic performance but do so in a way that feels too easy with such a the sophisticated track.
6. Pentagon, "Shine"
From their 2016 debut, boy band Pentagon took a moment to find their sound but truly shined upon doing so. "Shine" is a bouncy, piano-led hip-hop joint that lets the boys show off light, feel-good side of themselves to nearly demand the listener to bop along. Whether the song makes you want to shoot throughout the chorus or shoutalong on the anthemic post-chorus, the "Shine" groove was an undeniable bright spot through what many consider a tough year. Cheers to more of that in 2019.
5. IU, "BBIBBI"
Despite being likely inspired by her personal experiences in the spotlight, chart-topping solo star IU crafted a universal empowerment anthem in "BBIBBI." The deceptively sweet R&B gem delivers a warning shot to naysayers and critics via a "yellow C-A-R-D" to those who disrespect her personal privacy, speaking a larger message in highlighting and acknowledging one's worth and personal rights.
4. iKON, "Love Scenario"
An inescapable hit in South Korea, the septet tapped into an accessible, sing-song approach to their hip-hop stylings for one of the year's most satisfying releases. The boys try their best to humbly appreciate a failed love on the piano-led cut, mixing rough rapping and surging croon styles for a type of cut that anyone, regardless of age, can bob their head to the melody and appreciate the chipper vibe.
3. Sunmi, "Heroine"
Representative of the spastic energy that comes with any type of relationship, Sunmi's "Heroine" delivers a mix of passion-driven and intimately personal vocals and production. Just like its empowering music video, the song boasts a regal, anthemic feel with its final conclusion being that, no matter what happens: "The show must go on."
2. Red Velvet, "Bad Boy"
In a year marked by terrible men (still) hogging way too many of the headlines (ugh), a girl group flipping the script and delivering an ode to stringing along a "Bad Boy" makes it all the more perfect as one of the year's best releases. Red Velvet's confidence grows throughout the track as they speak about valuing their worth and knowing that their boy toy is inevitably going to fall for their game. Bruno Mars collaborators The Stereotypes handled the slinky R&B-pop sound on "Bad Boy" that, in a star-crossed release schedule, debuted less than 24 hours after the producers won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year for Mars' "That's What I Like." If this doesn't give a hint that Red Velvet are ones to watch on the global pop stage, we're not sure what else will convince you.
1. BTS, "Fake Love"
From magazine covers to flashy TV performances and socially important moments like a speech at the United Nations, no doubt 2018 belonged to BTS but never once did the group slip in the aspect that first made so many fall in love with them — the music. While one could dig deep into a slew of the new songs on their pair of No. 1 albums from this year (shoutout to standouts like the beautiful metaphor in "134340" and a new superhero anthem in "Anpanman," plus the satisfying back story on "I'm Fine" and Jung Kook's solo track "Euphoria" both from Love Yourself: Answer), their single "Fake Love" might very well be the best representation of the pop excellence BTS brings to music.
At this point, listeners expect innovative production and top-notch vocal and raps from the group, but "Fake Love" finds a way to twist our musical expectations on their heads. Dissonant, dark chord progressions back the guys' fluttery hopes for what a love could be, before they're juxtaposed with warm melodies to describe the pain and identity crisis-like confusion that can come from the wrong relationship. Not only does "Fake Love" accurately describe describe the pain in recognizing and misunderstanding love, but the delivery and way it's presented makes this an experience that goes beyond sound. In a multifaceted, multidimensional approach, "Fake Love" acts as a thesis statement to what BTS looks to create and represent with their music and that's exactly why the world is watching their every move.