I also missed out History and Right to Die. Which fucking rocks (Warning: features six-packed Korean men dry-humping the floor).
Anyway, 2016 was a strange year for K-pop - 4Minute, Miss A, KARA and (most shockingly) 2NE1 called it quits, whilst CL once again failed to make legway in the USA. Having a seriously dodgy and politically incorrect (re: racist) video, such as that to Lifted (in which a bunch of 'gangsta' black men swap pot with our leggy heroine) probably didn't help matters any. Come on YG - we all know that K-pop often falls arse over fist when its come to race sensitivity but this is fairly shocking...
Yet, 2016 also delivered some of my favourite K-pop songs to date. I already struggled with who would and would not make this list. Songs as good as Luna's house anthem Free Somebody, 2PM's thunderous Promise (I'll Be), Red Velvet's quirky Russian Roulette, Oh My Girl's ridiculously poppy Liar Liar, T-ara's unexpectedly whispy Tiamo, Fiestar's bouncy Apple Pie, Dia's insanely catchy Mr Potter, Hyuna's club-conquering How's This?, Sistar's Bollywood-inspired beauty I Like That and Shinee's pop-tastic 1 x 1 (odds on for video of the year) even miss my Top 20. And Shinee's Tell Me What to Do is pretty much spot-on as well. See entry number six for my explanation.
That this level of creativity is not present below only indicates that, taken in pure quality, this might have been the best year yet for Seoul-sounds.
And 2016 also demonstrated that the genre - if we can even call it such - is still producing the most exciting music on the planet. Having seen many of the acts listed here live over the past year too (including a trio of Girls' Generation concerts) it is really thrilling to also be able to confirm that fan business is as hysterical as it has ever been. Being in the midst of the K-pop boom has been, for me at least, more exciting than my youth as a drunken lad in skinny jeans trying to pull down the 'indie disco' - and if you are new to the wonders of these bands my sole urge is that you attempt to open your mind to something very new. You may well be surprised.
But be warned: this is the addiction that changed my life...
WINNER - SENTIMENTAL
It was a tough year for YG's other hit boy band - with leading man Nam Taehyun quitting the band due to 'mental health issues'. Exactly where Winner go now is anyone's guess but this hit single is one of the band's standout tunes to date with an indie-pop chorus that is absolutely infectious. Ignore the clueless pundits who described Shinee's 1 of 1 as a 'Britpop' throwback. Sonically it was nothing of the sort. But this is the real deal and it wouldn't sound totally out of place sandwiched somewhere between Menswe@r and Stereotypes-era Blur. Really. And no prizes if you can spot the Stone Roses nod in the video.
AOA - GOOD LUCK
AOA continue to push the primetime Korean censors whilst drumming up excellent pop music. Ignoring the swimsuits, bum-wiggling and long legs (yes, yes I know that is hard), this is a great slice of vamped-up vaudeville which seagues from stop-start repetition to a violently pronounced chorus that is sheer genius. The accompanying EP, which also highlights the utterly gorgeous eighties throwback 10 Seconds, is one of the year's finest short plays and proof that AOA are not just one of the K-pop's biggest bands because of their skin-flauting... (I even paid double to get an autographed copy of this puppy for fuckssake). Indeed, if 10 Seconds had been the A-side in 2016 I think I'd have pushed AOA into my top ten...
HYOYEON - MYSTERY
The SM Station, which promised a new weekly tune from one of their artists (most of them as download only) seemed like an ambitious offering but it certainly gave us some absolute gems. Surely the most unexpected of all was the first single from Girls' Generation member - and 'Dancing Queen' - Hyoyeon, a charismatic, charming and often unfairly sidelined (at least vocally) part of the eight-piece supergroup. Even more leftfield was this Middle-Eastern tinged masterwork which compliments her vocal range just perfectly. A solo debut to treasure, Mystery is indication that Hyeyeon's delightfully distinctive husky voice will have a life after the eight-piece band reaches its conclusion.
BLOCK B - TOY
This is Block B's best single so far. A more gentle and (whisper it) romantic offering than the band usually opts for (I still recall this weirdie making my brain contort when I first came across it during a trip to Seoul in December 2013. Forgive me. I was new to K-pop at the time and it was stuff like that which felt like a neon-tinged injection of awesomeness that my mind could not quite compute... I came home, went to a Cribs concert and felt... dismayed... as if I was on a drug-downer and the drunken colourful world of Gangham clubs and pubs was now as far away as the Moon itself). Toy gave us a far more human side to the group and they played it well. The epic chorus, which changes tempo at the last moment, is danceable but also skillfully emotive. Whilst the accompanying album failed to live up to Toy's excellence, this standout slice of melancholia was one of the most rotated options on my own iPad during 2016.
BIG BANG - LAST DANCE
As T.O.P prepares for military service, Big Bang completed their 'Made' album with three new tracks - of which Last Dance is the easy standout (and god knows what they were thinking with the other two). The Made endeavour is, obviously, now a very clear concept LP - and one of the most striking achievements in K-pop history (even the faults, such as that aforementioned twosome, can be seen as honourable failures in the context of the bigger whole). It was Big Bang, in effect, saying their goodbyes and weighing up the pros and cons of life as thirty-something military grads with lots of cash but a likely inability to reclaim their past success. Made was, quite tenderly, the fivesome proclaiming - 'yeah, this was as good as it gets'. The smart thing might have been for label YG to send them all into the military together, thus allowing for a two year hiatus, but with each artist having such a dominating solo career it is at least understandable why they have opted not to. Last Dance has one of T.O.P's most heartbreaking vocal performances as he admits 'one last smile' and 'It’s not like the world, that I’ve seen and felt'. Buckle up, big guy - you'll break a lot of hearts in that squaddie uniform.
(As a side note, Last Dance and Taemin's more mature Soldier indicates that South Korea's celebrity youth are now, finally, actually allowing themselves to not-entirely-subtly-but-still-carefully vocalise what that impending military service feels like. For anyone unfamiliar with the nation's culutre, this is inifintely more taboo breaking than you might think - far more so than The Sex Pistols mindlessly bellowing 'God Save the Queen' - and if Taemin's tune doesn't touch your heart you might well be made of stone. It was one of the year's edgiest and most thematically groundbreaking songs).
B.A.P - SKYDIVE
And this is the best Bond track since Tina Turner. Or maybe Gladys Knight. Shame that no one at Eon is ever likely to hear it. Sadly, after their 2015 return from that notorious lawsuit, B.A.P. had another rough year (with member Bang Yong Guk taking a hiatus for the same 'mental health problems' that Winner's press release also maintained). But holy shit if this doesn't rock. This is B.A.P. at their heaviest and, complete with its ridiculously ambitious ten minute music video, this was one of 2016's most bombastic and brilliant comebacks.
HISTORY - QUEEN
The sound of decadence. Sexy. Provocative. Even a little... sinister? Boom, boom, boom... History are one of Korea's least known and most underrated boy bands. Although as with anything Korean the description of 'boy band' doesn't do them justice because One Direction this is not. This is exactly what you want from a new K-pop song. Join the fandom before History really break out - and on the sonics of something as superb as this, that time can only be soon...
EXID - L.I.E
Bubblegum at its best, Exid had a huge 2015 and have never looked back since. Another dance floor anthem that builds into two choruses - one wrapped up in lavishly produced and richly indulged high notes and another that slows down into an extended EDM chant. The two sides, however, work perfectly and after the second or third listen some of the other parts also come together brilliantly - including a token rap from LE and a nice collapse into balladry. Exid also slammed out the more sexually forthright (and outright clubby) Cream in 2016, shot in the shadow of Shanghai's iconic Oriental Pearl, but I'm going with L.I.E as their annual best. And the video is proof positive of why Hani has fast become one of Asia's foremost sex symbols. Just saying (for the curious, she's the one with the short hair who starts the song).
NCT 127 - FIRE TRUCK
I don't really get SM's NCT project. I suspect it is their attempt to establish somewthing that is a little like Japan's continent-conquering AKB48 (warning: that previous link is not work friendly) as a similarly Asia-wide thing and with interchangeable males (but actual good music). But K-pop is not J-pop and fans become far more attached to a group than the more 'meat in a skirt' thing of AKB48 which rotates members - and nationalised spin-offs - at an alarming rate. Either way, NCT 127's Fire Truck is indier than anything you will hear in any supposed 'indie' bar this year. NME writers, having had to hype years of soundalike Arctic Monkeys albums, would doubtlessly have a mind-melt trying to describe exactly what this sounds like and what it is even doing. At least one thing is for sure: turned up loud this positively burns... And the amazing thing is that this is not even the best song from the NCT experiment. For that... wait until number two...
YURI & SEOHYUN - SECRET
This is how I want my dance music. Ear-rattling, seductive and nasty... I don't know if this is the sort of thing I would even have dared tackle back in my days of Morrissey-love but this, this, is the sound of too much alcohol. The sound of 'time to go home'. The sound of attempting to recover from a night on a dancefloor. It makes me feel ten years younger. Oddly. Because ten years ago there is no way I would have listened to this. Maybe I am running low on descriptions at this point - but I loved this so song so much a little bit of my heart was chipped away when I learned it played with a Pantene advert in South Korea. Fuckssake. The impossibly perfect Yuri and Seohyun, of course, are two members of Girls' Generation - but hopefully you did not need me to tell you that.
BTS - FIRE
BTS are the heirs to Big Bang and EXO as Korea's biggest thing right now and after storming K-Con in America this year there were even some rumblings about a world tour. Would this also equate with Stateside airplay? To be honest, I'm not sure if the band is ever, much like Big Bang and EXO, going to grab a genuinelly international audience but Fire is that rare thing - an indie-rock anthem that you can honestly imagine playing on Western radio stations (moreso even than Gangham Style). It is certainly far more accessible than a lot of K-pop whilst still rocking way harder than the last stadium trudge-anthem you heard blaring out from a stuffed suit's BMW. Purely hypothetically, if I was going to spend eight (nine?) figures launching any Asian band in the English-speaking world I would, on the strength of this puppy, probably go for BTS... Give this one a twirl and see if you agree.
4MINUTE - HATE
How the hell did this flop? But flop it did and soon 4Minute were no more - with only Hyuna remaining on record label, Cube Entertainment, as a signed performer. The break-up was ugly but as far as swansongs go this is one of the very best from any band in any genre, ever. Kicking off as a tragic ballad this evolves into a really in-your-face dance thumper welcomed by Hyuna's should-have-been-iconic squeal of 'I hate you'... A brilliant work of pop-art there is no excusing bad taste - and in an alternate world 4Minute are heading into 2017 as arena-headlining heroines and one of the most commercial acts in Asia. Alas, as 2016 taught us, terrible judgement was everywhere...
TIFFANY - HEARTBREAK HOTEL
Girls' Generation member Tiffany had a troubled 2016 - although posting the symbol of the Japanese Imperial Army on your Instagram during South Korea's liberation day will, generally, get you into the sort of hot water that - say - Nazi regalia encourages in the West (unless you are Lemmy). A few fawning, begging apologies later and Tiffany made a sort-of comeback with the Far East Movement, and the excellent Don't Speak, but otherwise the Californian-born Valley Girl stayed wisely quiet. Earlier in 2016, though, she came out with this dreamy widescreen wistful amalgamation of early 90s house and Tori Amos/ Boys from Pele-era road music. It was outstanding and showed the full range of Tiffany's vocal talents too - so much so that future solo projects from the American expat (who, by now, must have had some rush-history lessons on her adopted country and its past) should be anticipated by just about everyone...
WONDER GIRLS - WHY SO LONELY
Raggae has never had the easiest transition in K-pop - the sound of dance halls and anti-imperialist ethos in the Carribean has been, largely, reappropriated via lots of beautiful Korean men and women as a sexy soundbite which encourages much boobs and bum shaking. At its very worst, we have seen Korean men in dreads pictured pretending to smoke the sort of narcotic that, in Seoul, would get them a spell in chokey, a finality to their career and largescale media and public disgust (yes, weed is taken that seriously). The Wonder Girls, however, take the form and respectfully and expertly intergrate it into a flawless 3.34 minute pop song that chops, changes and surprises at all turns. Still one of Korea's A-list bands, JYP's most enduring act looks unlikely to falter if they continue to serve-up comebacks as mind-blowing as this. And the music video is excellent.
TAEMIN - SAYONARA HITORI
Taemin, the franchise of Shinee, had a phenomenol 2016 with a superb solo album and such breathtaking indigenous singles as Press My Number and Drip Drop. Nevertheless, it is his Japanese shortplay - Sayonara Hitori - that gets the nod here. One of the most spine-tingling numbers to come from SM Entertainment - this is Taemin at his heartfelt best and redefines his image as a mature and sensitive songwriter and performer, something that his output throughout the year consistently cemented. At this stage, in fact, the Taemin image now feels as if it has even outgrown the mammoth of Shinee. And that is no mean feat. But listen to Sayonara Hitori (as well as the above-linked Soldier) and it is nearly impossible not to hear the emerging of a possible 'voice of a generation'. Hopefully SM can give the sexually ambigious - and androgynous - artist enough freedom to continue to explore increasingly more adventurous soundscapes (and themes). With this said, Shinee's really fantastic Tell me What to Do really did deserve a place on this list. So pardon my cheating...
I've opted for a Taemin solo instead - and besides, I don't want my Top 20 to seem like too much of an SM love-fest.
Speaking of which...
TAEYEON - 11:11
At this point Taeyeon is so iconic it feels pointless even writing anything here. Her gorgeous performance of Rain at the MAMA Awards in December only instigated how her very presence sends an audience into a respectful and perfect hush of admiration. When I began this list I opted for one artist and one song because someone like Taeyeon makes it otherwise difficult not to list their other achievements (for anyone curious, summer single Why is an easy 10/10 too). I have gone for 11:11 for the simple reason that it is Taeyeon stripped down, vulnerable, at her most expressive but without the stadium-filling lungs that she is all-too-frequently expected to show (for anyone who remembers last year's solo debut). The only question left for the Girls' Generation leader is exactly where she goes from here. As with Yoona, she has already slayed an entire continent (to the point it feels odd coming back to the UK and not seeing her image, or hearing her music, anywhere) but whether or not her delicate, even virginal, and certainly insanely shy, personality can break further is anyone's guess...
YOUNHA (FEATURING HA: FELT FROM WONDER GIRLS AND CHEETAH) - GET IT?
Punky foul-mouthed feminist anthem that subverts the image of the 'crazy' girlfriend (including with a hilarious video). This is forthright and angry, atmospheric and antagonistic with one of the best choruses of the year. Probably should have been one of the year's biggest hits but it wasn't - even in spite of three superior vocal performances (with Yenny from The Wonder Girls already making me ache for her next solo album) and, by K-pop standards, a more 'alternative' approach to the production (just listen to that low-fi but absolutely sublime opening).
BLACK PINK - STAY
With four singles to date the most challenging thing was concluding on which Black Pink number to put in here. Stay gets the placement for its understated acoustic beauty - although the tubthumping instant-classic Boombayah, the midnight-hour rouser Playing With Fire and the more experimental Whistle are all tremendous. Then again, they had to be: with YG's 2NE1 calling it quits, Black Pink had to be something special. Whilst the four beauties (with dyed-blonde Lisa offering a slight exoticisim by hailing from Thailand) fit the physical perfection that detractors of K-pop often focus upon - as opposed to the more ragtag glamour of 2NE1 - the songs speak for themselves. As Black Pink go forward, it will be up to the foursome to cultivate the same dedicated fan worship that each charismatic 2NE1 personality managed to grab - but, at the very least, with debut hits as brilliant as this, they have a far stronger start than their YG compatriots were initially afforded.
NCT U - WITHOUT YOU
NCT U (not to be confused with NCT 127 or, uh, NCT Dream) introduced SM's latest brainfart with the sort of epic guitar anthem that makes pretty much any other guitar anthem from 2016 seem fairly... shite. Ultimately, this sounds so freaking massive that NCT U's follow-up number, The 7th Sense, which in itself is really quite great, was given a pitiful task in even attempting to come on the heels of this outstanding rush of sexual infatuation (cheesy or sleazy? Make your call). It still sounds unbeatable, confident, crooning and totally uplifting - making the decision for further NCT sub-groups seem pointless. After all, SM has pulled off the impossible - a band of pretty boys that sound nothing like flagships EXO, Shinee or Super Junior. Do they really need to make it any more complicated than that?
EXO - MONSTER
EXO had so many good songs this year it beggars belief that a band this brilliant remains so unknown outside of Asia (where they are bigger than boiled rice). Even after losing another member, reducing the once-twelve piece to a fit-as-fuck ninesome, their comeback with Monster was lean, mean and - right from the song's siren-fuelled start - sounded like pure unadulterated danger. And with eye-opening lyrics of sexual frustration, that one might not have expected to drool from the mouths of the EXO lads ('I’ll steal you and indulge in you/ I’m gonna mess you up/ I’m engraved in your heart/ So even if I die, I’ll live forever'), this is a testosterone-fuelled dance-rock mash that - at the year's end - plays as a deliberate 'fuck you' to any band even thinking of touching their K-pop crown. Having seen EXO live twice in 2016 I am personally tempted to go so far as to crown them as the best living band on the planet. From their remarkable and varied output over the past year, it is mouth watering to think where this group might be headed to in the next couple of years - providing SM can keep them healthy and manages to retain what's left of the band.
If we are including album tracks... Well, Luna's 'Breathe' from her 'Free Somebody' album might be second only to EXO in 2016 achievements. It is so effortlessly stunning you can escape right into every perfect second.
Close your eyes and turn off the lights...