When the world ground to a halt just a few short months into the year, music was a means of escapism — a way to feel something other than adrift, or to wallow unmoored. But that's the prismatic beauty of K-pop. It breeds innovation and excitement, color and dynamism. For many, it's already a source of escapism, comfort and really good pop songs.
Korean artists created some of the most electrifying and evocative music of 2020. A talented rookie class experimented with retro sounds, while K-pop's most successful women brazenly defied expectations. Disco completely took over, and noise music prevailed. It was also a year for career breakthroughs and major milestones, as the world's biggest superstars BTS continued to shatter records left and right and break new ground for Korean artists. (They're going into the new year with three No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, a whole quarantine album, and a Grammy nomination.) And while the world got smaller, K-pop went bigger and bolder — sonically and aesthetically. When the global coronavirus pandemic put an end to live touring, the K-pop industry brought the spectacle to our screens with immersive live concert experiences. The music never stopped, not even for a second.
Related | Break the Internet: BTS
Whether you're a casual listener, a stan, or someone who's just genuinely curious to see what K-pop is all about, these 40 songs span the colorful spectrum of a very odd year. Before you scan for your favorites, a few notes: this list includes only official singles, so no b-sides, and just one song per group or artist is considered (the exceptions being units or soloists who released music outside of their group — yes, these artists were busy this year.)
Now, let's dive into the best K-pop songs of 2020.
40. "Black Mamba" by Aespa & "Boy" by Treasure
It's always exciting when a major agency debuts a new group, and 2020 saw both SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment — two of the industry's largest companies — turn a fresh page with groups that don't follow their typical formulas.
Aespa is SM's first girl group in six years, and their debut track "Black Mamba" is a safe fusion of pop and EDM with a bass-heavy hook and a sweeping bridge that highlights the girls' talented vocalists. Meanwhile, YG's long-anticipated boy group Treasure released "BOY," a thumping mix of electro and trap beats with a noisy instrumental chorus and YG's typical anthemic climax. To Treasure's credit, YG groups have never been very performance heavy, and all 12 of these boys can move in perfect synchronicity. "Black Mamba" and "BOY" don't reinvent the wheel, but they do both successfully build off their companies' signature sounds in unexpected ways.
39. "Chocolate" by Max
"Chocolate" bottles up one of K-pop's most powerful voices and unleashes it like lightning. "I ain't scared of electricity," Max wails in the track's opening seconds. He then proceeds to shock us by delivering five distinct vocal performances in one song. "Chocolate" may not be to everyone's tastes, but Max will leave you craving more.
38. "Cool" by Weki Meki
Weki Meki's "Cool" is a bit of a left turn for the girl group. An edgy club banger with a distorted electro beat and a muddled arrangement, "Cool" is sonic chaos. That makes it thrilling. The two-part chorus keeps the momentum going, building off Weki Meki's abundance attitude and exploding into a celebratory finale. This is Weki Meki reloaded.
37. "Open Mind" by Wonho
A year ago, Wonho's future looked uncertain. But 2020 marked a fresh start for the former Monsta X member. His first single "Open Mind" signaled his metamorphosis into a sensual solo artist capable of expressing his own artistic vision. The track grooves with an electro-funk current, an ideal match for Wonho's smooth vocals, and the performance is dangerously sexy. (Thankfully, some things don't change.)
36. "Ice Age" by MCND
In a year that lacked any and all fun, MCND's debut "Ice Age'' is a miracle. It's hard to resist a track that hinges on the nonsensical lyric "come into ice age." It's an energetic hype song that sells you on its own silliness, thanks in large part to the magnetism of the young quintet at the center of its aural hail storm.
35. "Candy" by Baekhyun
If Baekhyun is K-pop's R&B king, then "Candy" further cements his royal status. Less of a song and more of a vibe, "Candy" is a bouncy love song that has the singer crooning sweet confections ("got me feeling like pop rocks, strawberry, bubble gum") and serving up a sizable amount of swagger. The groove is a familiar one, but the track itself is more of a testament to Baekhyun's overwhelming charm. But is he more of a "dorky mint" or "mature cinnamon"?
34. "Nostalgia" by DRIPPIN
As a rookie group, you only get one chance to make a memorable first impression. And with so many debuts every year, it's hard for young artists to stand out—which is what makes a septet like DRIPPIN all the more exciting. True to its name, "Nostalgia" sounds like a hooky remnant from the past. Driven by electro synths, a kicking bass line, and tight vocal harmonies, "Nostalgia" is a solid first entry in DRIPPIN's origin story.
33. "Star" by LOONA
This year, K-pop embraced '80s synths in a big way. And LOONA's "Star" takes full advantage of the trend, while adding their own cosmic energy to it. The English single emphasizes the girls' sleek pop vocals. LOONA's strength has always been their diverse catalog of music and the various vocal colors of its members. More recent singles like "So What " and "Why Not?" have prioritized attitude over melody, so "Star" is a heavenly return to form.
32. "Scream" by Dreamcatcher
Screaming guitars, crashing drums, and soaring vocals are the hallmarks of Dreamcatcher's rock-infused discography, and "Scream" more than delivers. It's a wailing symphony of sound, an alchemy of disorienting instrumentals, theatricality, and nightmarish ad-libs. Gothic horror is just one of Dreamcatcher's many mystical charms.
31. "Reveal" by The Boyz
2020 was a transformative year for The Boyz, a group that despite all of their talent had still struggled to gain notoriety. But after a truly spectacular turn on Road To Kingdom (no thoughts, just this), The Boyz finally broke through. While their slinky track "The Stealer" marked the start of this new era, the darker, more dramatic "Reveal" just hits harder—especially after that hair-raising Road To Kingdom performance.
30. "Pporappippam" by Sunmi
A summertime gift from K-pop's queen of retro pop, "Pporappippam" sounded like a dreamy continuation of Sunmi's phenomenal Warning EP. The song is steeped in nostalgia with its luminous synth rhythm and funky guitar loop, but the bridge is where it really shines as Sunmi sings hazily over a crying guitar. It's pure ecstasy.
29. "Cassette" by Demian
Singer-songwriter Demian made his debut in March with "Cassette," a synthwave track that simmers with a hushed, atmospheric intensity. As he recalls the beautiful memories of a soured relationship, there's a softness to his vulnerable delivery. It's a passionate plea that lingers quietly on his tongue. It's that duality that makes Demian one to watch.
28. "Oh My God" by (G)I-DLE
Temptation is a seductive muse for (G)I-DLE's leader and main producer Soyeon. Perhaps that's why "Oh My God" is so deeply indulgent. The moody single is sprinkled with church bells, piano melodies, trap beats, and 808s, a sonically disjointed mix that only adds to its intrigue. It builds to a drop that stops the song dead in its tracks. Soyeon is riffing on contrasts — the archetype of her own divinity, she giveth and she taketh away.
27. "Maria" by Hwasa
To many, Hwasa is fearless. Her single "Maria" deconstructs that image. The sultry Mamamoo vocalist lays her insecurities bare on this brooding song that infuses trap house with an electric Latin pop breakdown. The accompanying visuals and performance are provocative, casting an image of a young woman who is at once vulnerable and confident, playful and seductive — idol and human.
26. "Tiger Inside" by SuperM
While "Tiger Inside" doesn't quite reach the beautiful absurdity of last year's "Jopping," it's a frenzied, fun successor imbued with more melodic polish. The song roars to life with a heavy bass and heaps of panache (Taeyong's growling, Baekhyun's power note, the lyrics "dinner's ready, yeah" and "don't tie me tie me up"), and it's this over-the-top flourish that makes SM Entertainment's supergroup such an endlessly entertaining experiment.
25. "Eight" by IU feat. SUGA
"So are you happy now?" It's the loaded question that opens "Eight," a collaboration between singer IU and BTS rapper SUGA. The production is minimal, just a percussive stomp and a simple melody, which allows the wistful emotion in IU's voice to swell as she meditates on loss and yearns for the halcyon days of her youth. SUGA's verse, as perceptive as it is brief, longs for the same reprieve. But happiness — like youth — is fleeting.
24. "One (Lucid Dream)" by Golden Child
Leave it to Golden Child to make a wubby electro-bass sound nostalgic. With so many boy groups relying on trap beats to convey emotion, it's refreshing to hear something crunchier. There's a lot going on in "One (Lucid Dream)" — including a Daft Punk-type dance break — but the track gleams during a vacuous pre-chorus that elevates vocalists Joochan and Y. A bit of euphoria before the track wubs back to reality.
23. "So Bad" by StayC
A whirlwind of retro synth arpeggios, distinct vocal tones, staccato verses, and a hyper rhythm that keeps things moving, rookie group StayC's "So Bad" is calibrated for replayability. From hitmakers Black Eyed Pilseung, "So Bad" hits its stride with a feverish hook. It takes one listen to succumb to its charms. "I want you so bad," indeed.
22. "Goblin (Favorite Boys)" by A.C.E
An idiosyncratic mix of rock, hip-hop, and whirling synths, "Goblin (Favorite Boys)" throws everything into the mix — crunchy guitar riffs, thundering drums, spirited chants, explosive rap verses — and the result is the year's most visceral listening experience. More than three years into their careers, and A.C.E. continue to release some of the most dynamic, and criminally underrated, work among their K-pop contemporaries.
21. "My My" by Seventeen
With recent singles "Left & Right" and "Home;Run," Seventeen have managed to elevate their sound while staying true to their fresh identity. But the mellow, mid-tempo "My My," dropped suddenly as a pre-release single this summer, offers even more depth. It's the perfect symbiosis of the group's dual sensibilities, striking a peaceful balance between staying grounded in the familiar and sailing ahead to someplace new.
20. "Kick It" by NCT 127
Two words: "New thangs." NCT 127's sound is most effective when it errs on the side of unhinged. It's noise music done right. The group is known for their bass-heavy beats and experimental concepts, and "Kick It" delivers that kind of in-your-face bravado their fans have come to expect — but it's also grimy, grungy, and held together by pieces of tape. In other words, it's nearly perfect.
19. "How You Like That" by Blackpink
Upon its release, "How You Like That" — Blackpink's first single in over a year—was lambasted for its formulaic structure. But that's the genius of Teddy, the group's chief producer. His penchant for noise is undoubtedly polarizing, but you can't say it's not addictive. "How You Like That" is a grower. It goes gloriously big, and it had significantly more cultural impact than their other singles this year. The performance was not only fun, but it also gave us the single-greatest election meme of this hellish year. For that, it deserves some respect.
18. "Daechwita" by Agust D
Min Yoongi is a fascinating figure. With BTS, he's their sharp-tongued rapper, producer, and lyricist; as his rap alter ego Agust D, he's completely exposed. This, he says, is where he's able to express his raw emotions. On "Daechwita," the lead single off his second mixtape D-2, he does so with red-hot ferocity and alpha attitude. "Daechwita" mixes samples from a traditional Korean military marching music (known as daechwita) with trap beats, a clever fusion of past and present in which the scabrous emcee confronts his former self and proclaims dominance. As the title suggests, this is Agust D's battle cry.
17. "Tag Me (@Me)" by Weeekly
This year, PlayM Entertainment's new girl group Weeekly burst onto the scene with their relentlessly energetic and deliriously fun debut single "Tag Me (@Me)." The teenage group forgoes the girl crush trend for a fresh aesthetic and kaleidoscopic sound full of upbeat drums, guitar riffs, and a raucous chant that transforms the song into a schoolyard pep rally.
16. "La Di Da" by Everglow
K-pop embraced '80s synthwave and retro electro music in 2020, but not many did it better than Everglow's "La Di Da." With its dark, seductive synthwave loop and satisfying chorus, the track is teeming with power and attitude. (It's still an Everglow song, after all.) The girls' fierce vocalizations and grunts only add to its potency.
15. "From Home" by NCT U
NCT's ballads do not get the respect they deserve, which is a shame because the supersized, multicultural collective boasts some of this generation's most talented vocalists. NCT U's "From Home" is a soaring R&B ballad that's sung in four languages (Korean, English, Mandarin, and Japanese) —a reflection of the polyglot group's diversity. SM Entertainment seems determined to create more localized NCT units, but the real magic happens when these artists are together. (The rearranged version is a real stunner.)
14. "Naughty" by Red Velvet - Irene & Seulgi
It's impossible to separate Irene & Seulgi's "Naughty" — a deep house track with a groovy bass and pulsing rhythm — from its mesmerizing tutting performance. The intricate movements are executed with sharp precision and stunning synchronization, and the choreography only elevates the duo's staccato vocal performance. "Naughty" is a whole body experience.
13. "Answer" by ATEEZ
ATEEZ are larger than life. Their music. Their stage presence. Their personalities. It's no wonder they're one of K-pop's most successful (and ambitious) up-and-coming acts. "Answer," the grandiose conclusion of their excellent Treasure series, combines their signature intensity and anthemic sound with a level of sophisticated storytelling and breathless production that looks and sounds wholly cinematic.
12. "Mago" by GFRIEND
Perhaps no group has benefited from being under the Big Hit fold like GFRIEND. (Their label, Source Music, became a subsidiary of Big Hit Entertainment in 2019.) "Mago" sways with an intoxicating disco rhythm, casting a hazy spell that pulls you to the nearest dancefloor. Big Hit Labels has produced a lot of disco music this year, but "Mago" reigns supreme.
11. "I Can't Stop Me" by Twice
After successfully maturing their sound with previous singles "Fancy" and "I Feel Special," 2020 marked an even further evolution for the K-pop juggernauts. With "I Can't Stop Me," Twice fully break free from the remnants of convention, delivering a sensual synthwave track that feels more like a reintroduction.
10. "WAYO" by Bang Yedam
Listening to "WAYO" is like exhaling a breath you didn't even realize you had been holding. It's the kind of soft, acoustic mid-tempo pop song that doesn't quite fit into the current K-pop soundscape. Released as a pre-debut track from Treasure's main vocalist Bang Yedam, "WAYO" was co-written and composed by fellow YG Entertainment artists Chanhyuk (AKMU) and Yoon (Winner), and it doesn't stray far from the company's classic house sound of R&B and pop. The melody is simple, wistful even, but it's a real spotlight for Bang Yedam's warm vocal tone, who at just 18 years old is already proving himself to be a top vocalist in the making.
By the time the song reaches its stirring climax, it elevates to power ballad status—the drums kick in, the bass guitar goes wild, and string and wind instruments give it dynamic new textures. Still, the focus remains on Bang Yedam's voice, who conveys teenage heartbreak so beautifully. They just don't make very many sentimental K-pop songs like this anymore.
9. "Black Swan" by BTS
There's absolutely no doubt that BTS owned 2020. With three consecutive No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 — including the sparkling disco track "Dynamite," their first real U.S. radio hit, and the more pensive "Life Goes On," the first Korean-language song to top the coveted chart — and a Grammy nomination under their designer belts, the Korean septet are ending the year on a major high. Perhaps that's what makes a song like "Black Swan" hit even harder in retrospect.
Released in January, "Black Swan" blends the group's hip-hop and trap sensibilities with their penchant for waxing poetic over life's most complex questions. The production is layered and hypnotic, which adds to the melancholy. Co-written by leader and rapper RM, the lyrics ponder the self-inflicted pain of an artist — the one in which their art ultimately makes them feel nothing at all. "No song affects me anymore," an ethereal Jimin sings. "Crying a silent cry." It's a necessary moment of catharsis. In the seven years since their debut, the group's relationship with their music has changed, and the song depicts the unsettling aftermath of such growing pains. "Black Swan" is dark and unflinching, a far cry from their late summer smash "Dynamite," but it also feels like BTS at their most honest.
8. "Nonstop" by Oh My Girl
Oh My Girl had a breakthrough with "Nonstop," a summery trop-house song released at the end of April when we all needed a boost of serotonin and good vibes. The single became the group's highest-charting release in South Korea (where it's still charting), topping the real-time charts and racking up wins on televised music shows. That milestone was followed quickly by the viral success of its extremely catchy b-side "Dolphin," which also charted and affectionately sparked a popular TikTok trend inspired by a delightful cover of the certified earworm from TXT's Soobin and Oh My Girl's Arin.
Propelled by the sheer force of the members' pep and charisma, "Nonstop" is anchored by an upbeat instrumental chorus, bright synths, and a star-making performance from rapper Mimi whose boastful delivery adds just enough spice without steering it completely off track. This is how to turn a safe bet into a smash hit. Now the real question is: How will they follow it up?
7. "Can't You See Me?" by Tomorrow X Together
Choosing between Tomorrow X Together's two 2020 releases is a personality test. Sonically, they're diametrically opposed. One is a dramatic ending; the other, a cheerful interlude. And while their fall release "Blue Hour" is imbued with the same exuberance that put them on the map last year, it's their May single "Can't You See Me?" that points to their future as they transition into the more volatile stages of young adulthood. Teeming with teenage moodiness, the members express their growing resentment through breathy vocals, whispers, whistles, and bits of creepy vocal distortion undoubtedly inspired by Billie Eilish.
There's always been an underlying darkness, a sense of foreboding, to TXT's whimsical world. Growing up can be painful, confusing even. "Can't You See Me?" confronts those volatile feelings. You can hear it in the crunchy guitar riff and how it gives way to a lighter, bouncier hook, only for the boys to lament that their "friends don't understand me anymore." Friends can save you, and they can also hurt you. As such, TXT weave together their dreams and night terrors to depict the true horror of adolescence: not knowing the difference between the two.
6. "Daisy" by Pentagon
It's hard to pin down Pentagon's signature sound. Mainly, because they don't seem to have one. Hui, the group's leader and main songwriter, is especially adept at composing across genres — from the quirky and self-deprecating sleeper hit "Shine" to the soaring future house banger "Sha La La." Their final single of 2020, the alt-rock "Daisy," finds the group on the angstier end of the musical spectrum (in the same vein as their Road to Kingdom release "Basquiat").
The bittersweet track — their first without main vocalist Jinho, who's currently fulfilling his mandatory military service in South Korea — combines an easy mid-tempo melody with forceful emotion. Hui takes on the familiar role of belting out his feelings, but it's the song's bombastic climax, heavy on wailing guitar licks and powerful chants, that feels most transformative for one of K-pop's most versatile groups.
5. "Wannabe" by ITZY
Performance is integral to K-pop, and oftentimes a singular move, or "killing part," can be what ultimately helps a song breakthrough. While monster rookies ITZY have no problem delivering bold, high-intensity hits, their 2020 single "Wannabe" really took off thanks to member Ryujin's opening choreography, a distinctive shoulder dance that's been copied by agile stans and fellow idols all over the globe. It's instantly memorable, but when coupled with the wayward attitude of Ryujin's delivery and the boisterous energy of the track, it's iconic.
Since their loud, colorful debut in early 2019, ITZY have stayed true to their plucky pop ethos. They're big on self-confidence, bucking subtleties in favor of brash bops with anthemic hooks and larger-than-life instrumentals. (Not to mention, killer dance breaks.) With "Wannabe," the young members of ITZY further prove that they're unafraid to be themselves — feisty, assertive, and unabashedly different—as they strut to their very own beat.
4. "Dumhdurum" by Apink
Since teaming up with hit producer duo Black Eyed Pilseung, veteran girl group Apink have matured their pure, bubblegum sound and released some of the strongest work of their careers with a string of synthy, atmospheric singles. Joining the hallowed ranks of 2018's "I'm So Sick" and last year's dreamy "%% (Eung Eung)," April's "Dumhdurum" is bright and airy with a synthwave groove. Apink's wispy vocals compliment the catchy synth loop and sticky melody at the heart of the track, while the soft, lush visual highlights their sophisticated pop aesthetics.
Cavernous instrumental drops have been a K-pop hallmark for years. With "Dumhdurum," Black Eyed Pilseung offer an instrumental that's understated, even dizzying, but no less impactful. The song dominated the music charts in South Korea upon its release, proving that Apink's embrace of a new sound didn't come at the expense of their musical identity. They're still producing some of the industry's most addictive pop songs.
3. "Criminal" by Taemin
A master of movement and sensuality, Taemin is one of the defining Asian artists of the last decade. In that time, he's crafted an unrivaled body of work that spans multiple groups (both as SHINee's youngest member and SuperM's veteran performer), a successful solo career, and a spectrum of musical genres and beguiling visual motifs—from religion to masks to bondage. With "Criminal," the 27-year-old artist once again depicts the loss of innocence, reveling in its moody, theatrical atmosphere.
The slinky synthwave track pulsates with an intoxicating, borderline hypnotic groove, and Taemin's hushed vocals float atop the mercurial melody. The final chorus offers an explosive moment of catharsis, as the production builds and he surrenders — to love, to temptation, to destruction. There's something sinister about this side of Taemin. It's one of the many masks he wears as K-pop's elusive chanteur. His versatility makes him captivating; his artistry is what makes him a legend.
2. "Back Door" by Stray Kids
You never know what you're going to get with a Stray Kids song, which is what makes them one of the industry's most thrilling acts. 2020 saw the group evolve from self-searching young misfits into punchy powerhouses, doubling down on the roaring bravado and inextinguishable energy that's become their brand while pushing their sound and performance to self-assured new heights. Case in point: "Back Door," a groovy mix of hip-hop, EDM, and jazz-pop punctuated with magnetic rap verses, a funky bass-line, and a sense of mischievousness that courses through the track until Felix's very last "hey, you wanna come in?"
Co-written and produced by members Bang Chan, Changbin, and Han (known as 3RACHA), the song boasts the witty lyricism, rousing instrumentation, and eccentric musicality the trio have been honing for years, now mastered and refined with new flavor. Stray Kids finally stopped searching for answers and started living in the moment — and they've never sounded more free.
1. "Psycho" by Red Velvet
When Red Velvet released "Psycho" at the tail end of 2019, there was no way of knowing just what the new year would bring. But buried amongst those layered harmonies, arpeggiating synths, and feathery falsettos is an unshakable eeriness, a slightly off-kilter tension that's central to the quintet's most dynamic work. That push and pull between fierce and playful, sparkling and soulful, is Red Velvet's sweet spot, and "Psycho" is an alluring blend of both their up-tempo pop and sophisticated R&B sensibilities with a trap-friendly melody and a brighter, more sweeping chorus.
Maybe it's the drama of the opening pizzicato, or the way it crescendos—exuberantly—into an anthemic chant of "hey now we'll be okay," but a song about a messy, dysfunctional relationship captured the general malaise of 2020 without succumbing to its darkness. Through the glitter tears and self-doubt spirals depicted in its baroque visual, it's relentlessly hopeful in the blind assurance that, yes, everything will eventually be okay.