MUSIC

Our best K-pop songs of 2020

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These are the 20 K-pop songs that brought us many highs in a year that called for more emotional ammunition than ever. Screenshot from BIG HIT LABELS/YOUTUBE

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — For the bigger K-pop labels, it seems like 2020 was business as usual, despite the specter of the pandemic undercutting their releases. It felt like there’s no stopping an industrial juggernaut. Virtual audiences were summoned, smashes were released, and legends broke new ground.

But for many K-pop fans, music was the balm to an insane year. While this can be true for any year, that a song can be a salve to any distress, the level of insanity that 2020 brought about made us cling to pop music even more. For every “Dynamite,” there’s “Life Goes On” that assures us that it’s always darkest before dawn. For every “How You Like That,” there’s “Lovesick Girls” that provides us an anthem for when we stand up again.

In assembling this list (only singles were nominated), many factors were considered, but it was the quality of music that we put first. These are the songs, in no particular order, that stuck with us for the whole year.

“Any Song” - Zico

In “Any Song,” Zico folds himself in and out, reflecting on the deadening crunch of an industry that favors the young and the new. It’s ironic that the song became a massive TikTok hit when Zico seems to talk about the emptiness of trends in the song itself — a phenomenon that he eventually agrees to participate in anyway (though he has said that this song has no message). But the guiding sentiment of escapism isn’t lost in an awful year. When many of us found the world too goddamn terrible, we turned to K-pop — or any music, for that matter — for a temporary respite. Zico’s masterful production is readily apparent in the track, pouring in dancehall, jazz, and even a bit of video game music as he goes on and on in his stream-of-consciousness/existential musing. Towards the end, he says in the background. “You ain't gonna get a day like this.” Given the fact that “Any Song” was released in the beginning of the year, we really did not have a day like what he projects in the track. It went downhill from here. — Don Jaucian

“Psycho” - Red Velvet

No other song deserves to be here more than “Psycho.” Even while the critically acclaimed and wildly popular Red Velvet single came out at the tail end of 2019, it continues to be nominated for Song of The Year in 2020 and they’re absolutely correct to do so. The song opens with an intro of pizzicato strings, a gentle operatic plucking giving way to member Seulgi’s opening falsetto. The music video is set in a palatial 1920’s horror set. White columns, glowing chandeliers, and sewing machines are the backdrop to eerie images of Yeri jumping in slow-mo, disembodied reflections, Joy and a bunch of doors, and The Original Visual™ Irene pricking herself on a sewing machine. It’s a haunting but irresistible track. Classical instruments, 8-bit arpeggios and metallic trap elements are the fitting backdrop to a song about a hot and cold, dysfunctional relationship. After Wendy sings her hook: “We’re in a very weird and strange relationship,” it builds into the most insane, jagged, psychotic chorus about intense fighting and making up right after. The whole song is perfectly unhinged, and after living through the year that was 2020, there is no other mood besides unhinged. At the final chorus, the girls sing in repetition “Hey now, we’ll be okay,” set to the same jagged synths. The RV girls are running around a sun-filled room, playing among white gowns. It seems like a pure picture-perfect ending. But right at the last moment, as the track fades out, Irene flashes a wicked smile and whispers: “Psycho.” — Toni Potenciano

“Pporappippam” - Sunmi

What makes a great pop love song? Is it a catchy hook about sweet summertime bliss? The forlorn wails of a guitar solo? Or a hypnotic and exhilarating bridge? While all these surely help, more than a decade of experience has taught Lee Sun-mi that it’s about the yearning. In a time when almost everyone is tapping into future nostalgia, Sunmi and “Siren” (2018) collaborator Frants return with “Pporappippam.” A strong contender for Song of the Year, the track is the perfect marriage of the soloist’s funky retro/city pop roots and her modern dance pop vision. In it, Sunmi is both lovestruck and steadfast. “I don’t want anything else, I just want this night,” she demands. There is something to be said about a love that makes you feel invincible, even for just one evening. All at once, “Pporappippam” is a celebration of such a desire and a triumphant return to form for the former Wonder Girl. — JPRB

“Candy” - Baekhyun

Truth be told, “Candy” is hardly Baekhyun’s best vocal performance, but it doesn’t have to be. Released as the lead single off his much-anticipated sophomore EP “Delight,” “Candy” serves as a reintroduction to Korea’s R&B king. In the song and its accompanying MV, he trades choral flair for a subdued, confectionary vibe, more dynamic choreography, and visuals that are almost cocky. He knows you know he can sing and here he shows you he can do pretty much everything else. EXO’s main crooner navigates the track with such ease and swagger, it’s addictive. True enough, “Delight” ended up selling over a million copies, making it one of the year’s best-selling K-Pop albums. It’s also the first time a Korean solo record reached that milestone in nineteen years. Fans can’t seem to get enough of Byun Baekhyun’s charm and with this record it’s easy to see why they keep coming back for more. — JPRB

Not Shy” - ITZY

“Not Shy” is a bombastic pop symphony characterized by saxophones, alliterations (tell me you are not still thinking about Ryujin slapping her thighs and saying “GIMME TA TATATATATATATA” and I will call you a liar) and of course, one of the girls singing “Itzzaaaaaay” as the girl group equivalent of a producer hook. The song is, quite literally about haranguing your crush to just admit they like you like you already! I mean, what is the pursuit of that first admission but a wild chase through the desert for a hidden freezer full of dessert? The journey is exciting and the destination is sweet. These girls are clearly stars and they know it. No ifs, ands, buts or any reasons to be shy about it. — GFV

“I Can't Stop Me” - TWICE

Rapper Chaeyoung’s “Risky, risky, wiggy, wigi / This is an emergency” are perhaps the eight words that best describe the year, if taken out of “I Can’t Stop Me.” The line though has undoubtedly transcended its meme status into a frequent state of mind come the year’s end. But “I Can’t Stop Me,” is, of course, way more than a meme-able line. Its slick production, from the undulating synths that open the track to various soaring vocals (yes, there are many) that herald the coda, does not hold back, as if anchored in the blissful spiral that the song is centered on. The darkest of our desires has never had a good soundtrack like “I Can’t Stop Me.” — DJ

“Black Swan” - BTS

In the beginning of 2020, BTS was poised for yet another round of world domination. They opened the year not with a bang, but with something more subtle. At its core, “Black Swan” examines an artist’s complex relationship with their own work. It is a headfirst dive into the perils of fame and the grinding exhaustion of what it takes to be the biggest musical act in the world. The verses detail moments imagined (or maybe, remembered) by the members where they are deep in the music, on stage, in the studio, and they feel nothing.

In the music video, filmed in an empty theater, BTS is forced to confront its worst fears: that the music, as much as they may love it, may not love them back. However, as many of us know, the best parts of us come hand in hand with the worst. We can submit to the darkness, or choose to live with it. And for BTS, in that choice, there can be triumph. — GFV

“1 Billion Views” - EXO-SC (and MOON)

EXO sub-unit EXO-SC’s first full album “1 Billion Views'' came out at an inopportune time — at the height of a COVID-19 spike in South Korea, which limited their promotional opportunities — but the eponymous title track is a timely look into how relationships grow through digital screens. EXO’s main and lead rappers Chanyeol and Sehun, respectively, wax poetic about their object of affection in the language of the internet (“Even your breath is ASMR to me,” Sehun says in the third verse). Co-written by both and produced by hip hop artist Gaeko, “1 Billion Views” borrows from the duo’s own hip hop influences and synthesizes it into a funky disco tune. It’s a delicious pop song that demands multiple replays (around 1 billion?) and the technicolor music video features the sub-unit in a real/virtual world hybrid, dressed as futuristic casino high rollers. When God sought to create the perfect fuck boy anthem, maybe she had this song in mind. — Marga Buenaventura

“Star” (“Voice” Eng. Ver.) - LOONA

After a tumultuous 2019, this year saw fourth generation dark horse Loona (stylized as LOONA) reach even greater heights. To celebrate the international acclaim and commercial success of their third mini album “[12:00],” the independent girl group released a music video for the B-side “Star” loaded with references to its cinematic and musical continuity known as the Loonaverse. The sole English track on this list, “Star” features Loona’s synthwave take on the Korean newtro trend. The lyrics hint at a dire story of love on the brink. “Here in a moment, gone in a flash / I’d stop the world to know everything is okay,” sings maknae ace Olivia Hye as she opens the second verse. There is urgency in the girls’ timbre, as if anything and everything depended upon this love’s fruition. Later in the bridge, the often-bubbly Chuu echoes what the enigmatic ViVi laments: “so close to perfect, it hurts to throw it away.” Like all the best Loona songs, each second, note, and move is charged with cosmic energy until the very last chorus explodes with perfectly blended vocal colors and dazzling choreographic synchronization. The song captures the precarious and once-in-a-lifetime nature of the group’s global fame and their understanding of how much they owe their unprecedented nugu stardom to the rapidly growing community that gravitates toward them: “Close to me, you are all of me.” “Star” is a resolute love letter telling Orbits that Loona stans them back. — JPRB

“Blue Hour” - TOMORROW X TOGETHER

The songs in “minisode1: Blue Hour” are undeniably rooted in the experience of the COVID-19 lockdown — one most palpable in “We Lost a Summer.” But even in the EP’s peppiest track, “Blue Hour,” the inertia brought about by the great pause still grounds wistful longing. In the song, the Korean title of which translates to “You and I Found in the Sky at 5:53,” the boys sing of a glorious memory that happened between night and day that they desperately wish to preserve. This bouncy, singalong-y track echoes a yearning that makes us recall our pre-lockdown memories, both lived and imagined — of things we never got to do, places we never got to see, and people we never got to meet. — DJ

“God's Menu” - Stray Kids

“God’s Menu” is a combination of the musical cues that SKZ is known for: a strong rap performance by the group’s main rap line, punchy vocals and a bulk of hip-hop, EDM and rock influences. It is ultimately a song about how the group has embraced its unique mix of talent, hard work and charisma, but it is also a confident, rebellious message to the world: This is who we are, have a taste if you dare. The ebb and flow of the song as it changes direction from hard rap to soft vocals over a building EDM beat to the perfect use of Felix’s deep voice and finally a crescendo of horns signalled by a deep DU DU DU DU DU is among the best of what K-pop can offer. It left me constantly guessing but never lost in the sauce. I will take as many servings as you have. — GFV

“Left & Right” - Seventeen

In a culture that reveres image and perception, boy group Seventeen’s “Left & Right” feels almost subversive. The lyrics contemplate the exhaustion one can feel in pursuit of excellence. Aided with an upbeat, guitar-driven rhythm, the title track in the group’s “Heng:garæ” mini album suggests that there’s nothing wrong with moments of mediocrity, with lines like, “Even if we run run run / When can we get ahead / Running itself is tough enough.” The music video further informs the concept by putting the 13-piece group in a surrealistic track course sequence. The video ends with leader S.Coups taking an old car that they’ve refashioned into a rocket. He crashes of course, and it’s totally alright, because as the group writes in graffiti at the end of the video, “Do your best… but maybe not sometimes.” For a song that celebrates mediocrity, Seventeen has managed to make a strong case for its musical and performing prowess. — MB

“Open Mind” - Wonho

When Wonho says “there are so many girls, but there’s just one lady,” I almost believe him. After months of legal struggles, the former Monsta X member embarked on his solo career after signing with Highline Entertainment in March of this year. “Open Mind,” the opening track on Wonho’s album called “Love Synonym,” is dangerously seductive. It begins with the hot and heavy vibrations of a bass line. The music video matches this with images of a sweaty Wonho, bodybuilder physique, undressing and dressing in lace and leather. But as the pre-chorus builds with an ‘80s synth, it suddenly holds back on instrumentation to give way to Wonho’s hook: “You don’t have to love me, we both want the same thing.” Then as if in agreement, the song plunges into the most satisfying drop. With Wonho at the wheel of a sports car travelling at light speed, the chorus undulates and distorts into an electro-rock groove reminiscent of Daft Punk and Justice. The whole song is a ride and Wonho knows exactly where he wants to take us. — TP

“Soul Lady” - Yukika

In July, when the reality of the lockdown made everything stale, Yukika’s “Soul Lady” felt like a dream. The title track to the album of the same name, the Japan-born idol Yukika Teramoto sings about the city of her dreams: Seoul. Interestingly, while the English translation of the title reads “Soul Lady,” the hangul title actually reads Seoul-yeoja, Seoul Lady. Heavily influenced by ‘80s Tokyo city pop, “Soul Lady” opens with a funky bass, brass, and synth. The video takes place in a vibrant Seoul at night on timelapse, while a hologram of Yukika who moves at our pace is projected all over the city. At many points of this lockdown, I longed for elsewhere: Tokyo, Seoul, a city that wasn’t my own, and “Soul Lady” was a way to teleport to these places. With Yukika’s voice, “Soul Lady” is upbeat, sweet, and somehow nostalgic, but maybe that’s because city pop itself is a genre of an optimistic past. A genre borne from the economic boom of ‘80s Japan where everything seemed possible. “Soul Lady” is a song about city love and longing, and it reminds just how long I have been longing. — TP

“Breath” - GOT7

“Breath” is the pre-release single for GOT7’s fourth studio album “Breath of Love: Last Piece.” Its Korean title 넌 날 숨 쉬게 해 roughly translates “you allow me to breathe” or “I can breathe because of you.” The Genius entry for the song notes that the sentence in particular is noteworthy for the spacing of syllables, alluding to the breaths between each word shared between lovers. This is real poetic shit! And backed up by a beautiful composition, with an addictive whistle sample that is the perfect background for melodic rapping and high-powered vocals that GOT7 are known for. At first listen, “Breath” is basically seven handsome men telling you that you are the peanut butter to their jelly, the folklore to their evermore, the wind beneath their wings. At its deepest, Breath is the continuous message of GOT7 to their fans, affectionately known as ahgases or baby birds: without you, we would not be here. — GFV

“eight” (Prod.&Feat. SUGA of BTS) - IU

The last few years have seen Lee Ji-eun’s star shine even brighter, but they’ve dealt her with tremendous personal loss as well. A follow-up to “Twenty-Three” (2015) and “Palette” (Feat. G-DRAGON) (2017), “eight” is South Korea’s little sister’s attempt to reckon with the grief and doubt that we all experience as we grow older. With help from BTS Suga’s pop rock production and signature crafty wordplay, the track is elegiac yet more assured compared to its predecessors. The duo imagines an ephemeral island where there is no pain and no goodbyes. “So are you happy now? Finally happy now?” IU asks herself. She is and isn’t, and the singer-songwriter wonders whether there is peace to be found in the in-between. In a year marked by so much tragedy, “eight” gives us comfort that we’ll once again meet everyone we’ve lost, whether in our memories or elsewhere. — JPRB

“Naughty” - Red Velvet Irene & Seulgi

“Naughty” isn’t quite a song that you listen to, but experience in full. The second single from Red Velvet sub-unit Irene and Seulgi’s “Monster” EP, “Naughty” features a groovy baseline and a catchy hook — not surprising, given Red Velvet’s reputation for soul-cleansing pop tracks aided by powerful vocals. The song itself talks about the thrill of playing hide-and-seek, and the sub-unit wields that duality well: Irene and Seulgi performed “Naughty” in black and white, and they play off against each other in a groundbreaking tutting dance by choreographer Spella. It’s a shame the song was largely snubbed in Korean music award shows this year, because no amount of rewatching will numb you to the fact that it absolutely kills. — MB

“Mmmh” - Kai

I wasn’t expecting this. When SM confirmed EXO Kai’s solo back in July, it was hard to guess what sort of album it would be like. An enigmatic performer and arguably the best dancer in K-pop, his vocals were often overshadowed by the rest of EXO's strong vocal line. Which is why I wasn’t paying too much attention until FILM : KAI came out. What came after was a wholly pleasurable, luxurious R&B six-track album because SM spared no expense for their favored son. The album’s single is “Mmmh,” a sensual mid-tempo R&B song. The music video takes place in several distant futures, where the vampiric Kai is always the center of attention. He knows every bit of his body — the span of his arms, the length of his torso, the range of his hips — and he knows how to use it, but the same goes for his voice. His honey voice is steady, humming and teasing out every chorus in time with equally stimulating choreography. “Mmmh” (the whole album, really) is a showcase of everything in Kai’s repertoire: powerful choreography, high fashion couture, SM budget and sound production, and a voice that can carry a solo debut. Between my first listen and now, I somehow have two physical copies of the album in my possession, which means two life-size posters of Kai. I have no regrets. — TP

“Criminal” - Taemin

In the dark and lush track “Criminal,” SHINee’s Taemin goes ham and forces the audience to ask, “What if the devil is indeed sexy?” The lead single off his double album “Never Gonna Dance Again” (released as “Act 1” and “Act 2,” with “Act 3” as an omnibus for the first two), “Criminal” is a cinematic vision. In the music video, Taemin comes out in a bejeweled eyepatch, his hands tied up, as he sings about the alluring pull of someone who could eventually hurt you. The single (and the rest of the album) has been critically acclaimed since it came out in early September, and reinforces the idea that among male idols today, Taemin is indeed an ace among aces. — MB

“Lovesick Girls” - Blackpink

The thoroughly enjoyable and unabashedly self-loving track has the hallmarks of a classic Teddy Park production: bombastic, explosive, and larger than life — and then some. The girls have had similar tracks before, but never have they bared their souls like in “Lovesick Girls:” how love enables them to transcend pain, how love keeps them hopeful despite its many pitfalls. It’s Blackpink’s “Love is a Battlefield,” sure to become the powerful anthem that it is in many years to come. — DJ

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