Hi, you shits.
It’s your boy McRoth clocking in for my annual end-of-year list, which I think came together rather beautifully this time compared to the previous years I’ve done this. I hope it does as well a job of wrapping up a year in Korean music for you as it did for me, because not only do I feel it hits really great marks in music, but I think it also actually proves that not everything in K-pop was absolute turds and doo-doo.
Anyway, we last met in June, when I ran through me and my team’s picks for best songs for the mid-year, and now it’s time to pick up where we left off with this year’s top Korean songs of all of 2012.
It’s not super complicated. We listened (and re-listened) to a storm of Korean songs, brooded in a cave forever, and deduced which ones were excellent and of the highest quality so that they could be declared our “top” Korean songs of the year. High production value, musicality, listenablity, uniqueness, and overall impressions were all taken into account and consideration in deciding these songs, so there will be a little bit of everything up in this bitch.
A big thanks to my writers lolpenny, drowningn00b, Marissa Pak, Compliant, and Renshikki for contributing their time and ears to this project, and a sweet juicy BJ to IATFB for syndicating this list from my own site, McRoth’s Residence, on Asian Junkie. The dude is a great pimp, what can I say?
Editor’s Note: This NEVER happened. It’s just his dream. Fuck all of you for your comments in advance.
Anyway, please enjoy and thanks for a fun year in K-pop,
2NE1 – “Be Mine”
“Be Mine” is a refreshing “I Don’t Care“-style song that maximizes 2NE1‘s vocal strengths by (finally) giving most of the song to Minzy and CL, and putting Park Bom in a better position to excel by keeping her within her range and within a respectable volume level in the chorus.
(McRoth’s Note: Oh, and it’s their most interesting work since “Lonely“, which surprised me, as this was something put together by the fans. Goes to prove that Korea would actually prefer 2NE1 sounding less club-y and more, well, 2NE1-y.) – Compliant
After School – “Timeless”
“Timeless” is one of those few songs that enables itself to mix great vocals, emotion, meaning, and a sense of drama into a giant, yet soft magical puzzle. Though the balance shifts up and down at times, it fits together beautifully and unleashes a rather flattering and warm feel that pushes the direction of an imaginary experience of loneliness to a deep sense of belonging. The great harmonizing of Raina and Jung Ah were put to good use, and the lyrical meaning remained kept and synchronized onto one wonderful melody. Even if flawed, the song ravishes and dissipates those parts to reinforce itself back to one uplifting song. In addition, the presence remains calm throughout, making this one of the easiest tracks to listen to on replay. – Renshukki
Ailee – “I Will Show You”
To be honest, this looks like one of the laziest picks on this list. Not only is Ailee basically the safest choice since vanilla ice cream, but “I Will Show You” is Track 1 on her newest mini-album, ‘Invitation‘.
In the first minute or so, there’s a dramatic, tense atmosphere constructed by simple piano chord repetitions, a string section, and some simple drumming and clicking. But all of a sudden, the song thrusts the listener from a mellow cello-enriched ballad to something with exponentially more upbeat, and this is the single biggest problem I have with the song. But if it’s such a huge problem, why would I even call it one of the top songs of the year? Because I’m lazy.
Seriously though, the first chorus really only serves as a sampler before we run into a pause – one that’s very intentionally placed, as if to let the listener know that a crossroads has been reached, and from this point onward, one of the forks in the road WILL be chosen. This fork ends up being the new tempo (as opposed to the old, slower one) and to the song’s credit, it sticks with the new tempo. The only time it reverts to the old, slower section is at the bridge, which serves as your typical change of pace before hitting the final chorus.
The background instrumentals used for the majority of the song do nothing to take away from Ailee’s singing. In spite of their dance-heavy nature, the instrumentals manage to avoid the trap of drowning out the artist. I mean, when your artist is the #1 female pop singer in Korea, drowning her out would be a horribly stupid idea. In the slower sections, she exudes a more mature timbre by tapping into her lower range. Once the song hits the sections that get you dancing in your chair, Ailee goes straight into showtime mode, singing and belting with an utmost passion. – Compliant
B1A4 – “This Time Is Over”
B1A4 is a K-pop group that doesn’t necessarily strive as hard for Hallyu global status as most do, but have rather taken to marching to the beat of their own drum. They’re one of the most under-appreciated boy bands out there, and I have only come to this realization recently listening back to their work this year. While flailing from decent songs to cringe-worthy tunes all year long, they have (at least) maintained a sense of consistency throughout their flamboyancy of a career in Korea and, to my pleasure, managed to release really enjoyable treats amid their quirky discography. One being the early 2012 release of “This Time Is Over“; a song that didn’t receive as much love as it should have, but, hey, here I am showing it some because it deserves loads.
Unlike their overly chipper debut track “Ok!” and the psycho follow-up single, “Beautiful Target“, “This Time Is Over” lays off the crack pipe for a good three minutes. The song is a mid-tempo R&B/Pop ditty wherein B1A4 test their hand at angst and emotion. It’s definitely one of their better musical efforts, as we get a cleaner listen to their voices, their vocal unity, and versatility as a boy band.
To my surprise, B1A4 showcase a very interesting vocal range on this song. The majority of the members have a sweet lower register that is decently emphasized in the pre-chorus and rap sections of “This Time Is Over”. I was totally not expecting the deep tonalities in B1A4, especially coming off of the cracked out high of “Beautiful Target”, but it was certainly pleasant to listen to them give us a different side to their style. As someone who found this song to be unremarkable before, I’ve grown to appreciate it over time and to appreciate B1A4′s efforts as a K-pop boy band, because they’re one of the very few who actually sound like one. – McRoth
B.A.P – “Warrior”
Strong, brave, and downright exciting – B.A.P proved to be one of this year’s formidable rookies, dropping mad swag, fierce rap, and (surprisingly) solid vocals in their bold debut single, “Warrior”. Many months later, and the calamity of their first impression has fallen by the wayside, but in no way, shape, or form does that dismiss the fact that B.A.P left a very significant mark early in the year. And quite an important one at that.
Rookies have been stepping up their game in 2012, and B.A.P’s massively energetic “Warrior” set the tone perfectly. From a badass string section to a brassy riff and fierce delivery, B.A.P were given a goldmine with this song. And of course, the fact that they’re talented in all the right places was the final emblem atop one of the most memorable singles of the year. – McRoth
BEAST – “Beautiful Night”
2011 was a glorious year for BEAST and it was only fitting to see them keep the momentum going in 2012.
This year, rather than aiming for the angst of “Fiction“, they headed the exact opposite direction for their 2012 single “Beautiful Night“, which took cues from the party vibes of the summer and unloaded an array of bright synths and a trendy beat. We were so accustomed to BEAST being mopey that for a few moments this entire song felt uncharacteristic of them. But as the song unfolded, so did most preemptive expectations of their music. This release was so good that it couldn’t have come from anybody else.
“Beautiful Night” felt like a reinvented version of “Bad Girl“, musically, which is the one song that helps me remember that this fresh new phase in BEAST’s music derives from a style they’ve done before. Not exactly executed properly back then because “Bad Girl” was pretty freaking bad itself, but now that it’s polished, it’s a clear sign that BEAST and Cube Entertainment have come a very long way since their humble beginnings. Both entities have grown, and it shows in spades today. – McRoth
Big Bang – “Bad Boy”
Wannabe-gangstas or not, “Bad Boy” laid down more swag than K-pop was ready for and made the guys of Big Bang sound totally badass over an urban beat and slick melodies.
“Bad Boy” has a really nice groove that is carried through the bass line with subtle crisp snaps cutting through the tension. I even think they could have gone without all the ambiances in the background, because “Bad Boy” has such a strong flow that it would have been even more masterful with a simpler arrangement. Having just the drums, piano, and percussion leading Big Bang down the ghetto streets of New York City would have been excellent, you guys. – McRoth
Block B – “NILLILI MAMBO”
They have had it rough this year, but if Block B knows anything, it’s how to keep it moving, and that they certainly have. With promotions for “Close My Eyes” clouded with controversy, the feisty boy band returned with the reincarnation of “Nanrina” from earlier this year – “NILLILI MAMBO“; this time, with twice the fierceness and even more thrills and shrills to boot.
“NILLILI MAMBO” is Block B’s most ambitious single to date, and one of their most eccentric yet. Lathered with big strings that trill in suspense every two measures, brass ferocity, and a dynamic melodic style, this song is as theatrical as they come. Yet Block B manages to inject just enough mainstream appeal for it to spark with excitement and intrigue in the ear of the beholder. And let me tell you, my ears are twerking. – McRoth
BoA Feat. The Quiett – “Lookin’”
BoA might have hiccuped during her ‘Hurricane Venus‘ era, musically, but she (thankfully) returned to her roots this year with the release of ‘Only One‘: BoA’s 2012 comeback mini-album.
Yet, it wasn’t until she dropped “Lookin’” featuring The Quiett for Younique Unit a while later that it fully hit me – the old BoA is back, y’all, and she’s here to stay. And I’ve been a happy camper ever since.
“Lookin’” pits BoA against a swift hip-hop beat, sprinkled with glittery synths and a light guitar riff, that she prances over with her unique nasal singing. The drops are so well-defined and tight that you can almost picture BoA dropping mad skills on the streets to this track. It’s a fresh example of how BoA can remain contemporary without sacrificing quality for trends and silly shenanigans. She knows who she is as an artist and this song encompasses everything there was to love from BoA’s old-school tunes and everything there is to expect from her in the future. – McRoth
BTOB – “WOW”
And the award for “Most Improved Artist” goes to … BTOB!
Some say that K-pop is stuck in the 90s, and there hasn’t been a release this year that supports that statement as strongly as BTOB‘s ‘Press Play‘. With the 90s revival smash “WOW” at the reigns of one of the year’s most impressive rookie albums, BTOB have hit a goldmine when it comes to musical identity and specialty. The biting snares and full-on new jack swing production was executed beautifully in “WOW”, and the fact that I have yet to tire from it is a testament to Cube’s success with this enthusiastic number.
True to its name, “WOW” surprises with its slick use of falsetto in the pre-choruses and countless hooks and whistles that chime in every other measure. It’s a thrilling single if I ever heard one and, hopefully, one that has paved the road for more to come. – McRoth
Busker Busker – “Cherry Blossom Ending”
Busker Busker may not have won Superstar K3, but none of that matters now, as they’ve already surpassed Ulala Session (the winners) with the incredible success of their debut album (‘1st‘) and follow-up release.
The winsome simplicity and spring-like optimism of “Cherry Blossom Ending” has enraptured Korea, and despite their limited television promotions, the same kind of craze that surrounded 10cm‘s “Americano” and Standing Egg last year has resurfaced in full force for the trio.
I included this song, not only for its listenability, but of the promise it represents. Korea has often glorified K-pop at the expense of its own indie scene, but it’s songs like these that give me hope that the Korean music market will one day be more than K-pop. It would be good for everyone, as I’m excited to see the kind of cross-pollination and collaborations that we see in American pop music now – B.o.B. x Taylor Swift, or Lana del Rey x A$AP Rocky, or Maroon 5 x Wiz Khalifa – emerge in K-pop. – Marissa Pak
DJ Clazzi Feat. Seulong Of 2AM – “How We Feel”
If there’s one electro-pop song that remained truly unforgettable this year, this one might be it, you guys. DJ Clazzi‘s work on his ‘Infant‘ album was both stimulating and energizing, and he easily attained both in his early release of “How We Feel“, featuring the fabulous 2AM‘s Seulong.
With Seulong’s subtle vocals acting as a veil in their processed state, the underlying electronica machine that carries the song is vibrant and extremely beautiful to listen to. There are moments throughout “How We Feel” when every element – from the echoing beeps, to the gritty synths – feels like an aural kaleidoscope; which, in reference to DJ Clazzi, is a basic summation of his musical genius. – McRoth
McRoth’s Note: While “How We Feel” was a 2011 pre-release, it still qualifies for a 2012 position on the list, as it belongs to an album that was released this year.
Dalmatian – “E.R”
The bass drum in Dalmatian‘s comeback single, “E.R“, does its best imitation of a heartbeat to enhance the ER effect, and sets the crisis-like tone for the rest of the song.
Large chunks of the song do end up sounding rather monotone, but it’s really the audio-fed imagery that sets this song apart.
Also, this is a great improvement from last year. While Dalmatian did away with their bright 2010-2011 style, this sophisticated facelift offered a far more polished side to the R&B/Pop blend they touched upon early last year. – Compliant
TVXQ – “Destiny”
While I polished the hell out of “Catch Me” to cater to my taste levels, I couldn’t actually choose it as a top K-pop song (I really wanted to, though), as tampering with original music kind of defeats the purpose of a list meant to highlight music that is, by and large, great on its own. Thus, I caved in and went with a TVXQ song anyway by choosing “Destiny” off their 2012 comeback album – an album that, for the most part, ended up collecting dust quite quickly. It was the strongest song in the collection, and a pallet cleanser of sorts.
While not nearly as explosively orgasmic as “Before U Go” from last year, “Destiny” still manages to hit all the proper R&B marks in the TVXQ R&B-production rule book. It’s soft and sensual in the verses, while full of energy and finesse in the chorus. Changmin shines the best here, as he absolutely pwns the glimmering highs throughout, while Yunho isn’t far behind – much improved in his own right – adding an extra bite in the melodies. What’s great about this song is that it reaches for the same classic TVXQ baby-making glory, yet remains tame and less abrasive than what they’ve released prior to it. It’s a comforting track, and next to the haphazard clutter of their unbalanced singles this year, it’s a comfort I’m more than grateful to have. – McRoth
E.Via – “I Know How To Play A Little”
E.Via’s peculiar brand of speed rap layered over addictive synth beats with a dash of devious intentions has proven extremely hit or miss. After taking a sugar rush sabbatical with a dramatic concept album, she released another bubbly song that capitalizes on her playful streak and baby face.
Unlike the disaster that was “Pick Up! Chu”, “I Know How To Play A Little” is a great balance between her talent as a rapper and her generally whimsical attitude. – lolpenny
Epik High – “Don’t Hate Me”
For reasons I cannot explain, I wasn’t too fond of Epik High‘s “Don’t Hate Me” when it first debuted. It wasn’t so much its pop-ness, because I was completely fine with that aspect of the song, but something … else. Perhaps it was the tacky visual levels of the music video? Well, whatever. What I do know is that now, after spending some time relishing in Epik High’s comeback album ‘99‘, the effects of this song have suddenly clicked, and I’m feeling it.
The uplifting melodies and pop-rock direction gave Epik High’s rap leads a really fun atmosphere to play in, and it came across as fun and quirky as they were intended to be. In fact, the idea of Epik High unloading all these bright pop elements at this moment in their career felt just right, and it was a pleasant change of pace from everything they’ve already done. I mean, we have an entire repertoire of awesome rap and hip-hop ditties to enjoy, so a full-on major-label Epik High project hasn’t, in any way, detracted from their musical integrity. Rather, it has enhanced it. – McRoth
EXO – “Into Your World”
Oh, EXO. How far we’ve come in such a short amount of time. We developed such an odd relationship long before your debut, yet I’ve somehow come to forgive your million teasers and bold (albeit refurbished) sound, as I’ve also come to admire the ambitious fervor behind it all. You were clean and crisp in the advances before your debut, while sloppy and self-conscious once you were here. Yet, through all the hype and the gloss, you’ve grown. You’ve grown as performers and you’ve grown on me as idols. I have a fucking favorite now. I may even secretly stan you little shits. Not because SM Entertainment made it so easy to, but because you’re starting to show so much promise as one of SM’s strongest debuting rookies to date, and your talent is palpable. It’s obvious.
The one moment that truly put you on my radar, though, is when I listened to your song, “Into Your World“. Not only is it pretty, it’s ridiculously beautiful. From the distant high-hats to the subtle tambourine, metronome-like claps, and airy harmonies, everything falls perfectly into place, and your gorgeous voices shine like gems in every fucking second of this breathtaking number. And then that chorus. My God, what a chorus. It sets a solid, paved road in your future to do incredibly great things with your talent, and I am all in, baby. – McRoth
f(x) – “Electric Shock”
What SM Entertainment did with f(x) this year was interesting, if I may say so. On one hand, they managed to retain all the uniqueness of the group, while on the other, they managed to revamp and improve the execution dramatically. f(x)’s comeback album was, admittedly, a strong one, and while nothing was as aggressively cavity-inducing as their 2011 work, it was certainly still impressive and as electrifying as its title implies.
While we touched on f(x) before, I have to chime in and show the lead single “Electric Shock” some love, as it kinda sorta became a staple in my music library. With its addicting hook, interesting syncopation, and crisp production value, f(x) nana-na-na-na-na-ed their way into my subconscious. It’s also worth giving a shoutout to remixer Rex, who blew my mind to smithereens this summer when he released this glorious remix of “Electric Shock”, which I may or may not still listen to more than the original, and may or may not have been the sole reason why this song is on this list … fabulous job, buddy! – McRoth
G-Dragon – “One Of A Kind”
I am such a big fan of G-Dragon‘s ‘Heartbreaker‘ debut solo album of 2009 (the physical album itself still sits atop my desk at home), that living up to it somehow felt like a tough undertaking for the feisty Big Bang leader. Yet, true to form, the dude went and nailed it again with his 2012 solo release of ‘One Of A Kind‘.
While the mini-album felt less cohesive to me as a whole, the individual tracks themselves remained top notch. No song proved this better than the title track, “One Of A Kind”, which blended GD’s current hip-hop inclination with the always tight YG Entertainment production value. The end result: a far stronger version of what T.O.P‘s “Turn It Up” 2010 solo track could never be. – McRoth
Ga-In Feat. Yoon Jong Shin – “Gaze”
Head-bobbing percussions, spare keyboard, and moody piano. It’s to no one’s surprise that I live for Yoon Jong Shin‘s work and eat it all up like a starving dog. But his work for Brown Eyed Girls‘ maknae, Ga-In, had me transfixed since its release. The combination of soft piano and electronic drone effects mixed with the drums is sexy and gorgeous.
If that was it, “Gaze” would still be great, but Ga-In and Yoon Jong Shin’s delivery of the lyrics bring the ballad to cloud nine. And like a cloud, the climax brings you down easy, just like good sex should. – drowningn00b
Girl’s Day – “Don’t Forget Me”
Known for being overtly childish and cute, Girl’s Day stripped that level of superficiality away in “Don’t Forget Me” and made due with a far more genuine sweetness commonly heard in girl groups like A Pink and Rainbow. To no one’s surprise, it worked wonders for everyone.
“Don’t Forget Me” is a classic pop jam with a very common structure and composition. But rather than being a generic carbon copy of everything else out there, Girl’s Day’s charms surprisingly shine through really, really well. While the production value isn’t the cleanest (where’s the breathing room, guys?), the girls still hit their mark as singers. Each member brings their ‘A’ game and they even give us really beautiful streams of melodic moments in the verses and middle eight. It’s cute yet honestly done, and I think that’s the greatest achievement for Girl’s Day with this single. – McRoth
910 Birds – “You, In The Mirror”
If you are at all a fan of K-rock, this year was the best yet. And if women were your thing, you were in heaven.
Women in rock took the stage and blew me away. From well-known names like 3rd Line Butterfly and Younha, to newer bands like Mamalady – 2012 was the year of lady rockers. For me, it was the debut EP by newcomers 910 Birds (pronounced “Guten Birds”) that encapsulated not only female rock, but rock in its entirety, especially their guitar rock-fest “You, In The Mirror“. From the amp feedback to the drum solo and the off-the-chains guitar riffs, it brought the fury I love in hardcore rock. They cleaned up the rough edges and killed it on their EP, ‘팔랑귀‘, especially front-woman Moho with her stellar guitar-shredding skills. And thanks to “Top Band 2“, more people saw their talent than little old me. – drowningn00b
Handsome People – “Woowei Woowei”
While the world took to dancing to Psy‘s “Gangnam Style” this summer, it was Handsome People‘s “Woowei Woowei” that inspired me to shake my ass.
Serving Maroon 5 realness right from the very beginning, “Woowei Woowei” is one of the funkiest tunes to be released this year. The chorus alone is masterfully addicting, but it’s the entire package of groovy guitar work, head-bobbing basslines, and falsettos falsettos FALSETTOS EVERYWHERE that really take this jam to next-level awesomeness. – McRoth
Humming Urban Stereo Feat. Sugar Flow – “Hey, You”
This year brought a lot of electro-indie music; everything from the dulcet tones of Casker to the rock-pop 80s vibe of Glen Check. With partying the main focus for much of this year’s synth, one act stood out for me among the rest: Humming Urban Stereo.
Teasing the public for close to a month, his latest album, ‘Sparkle‘, was worth the wait. Coming in just in time for this list, the record is on constant repeat. It’s fun, full of bright moments, and a throwback to 80s and 90s dance music. The party begins with the bubbly “Hey, You“, with Sugar Flow singing with no care in the world except to have fun and be ridiculous. The middle eight includes a phonetic primer for language learners, and it won my heart with the lines like: “Hey, hey you, who are you? Buena Suerte!”
‘Sparkle’ will be my go-to party music for months to come. – drowningn00b
Infinite – “The Chaser”
The lead single off Infinite‘s 2012 comeback mini-album, “The Chaser“, follows along the same resonant path as last year’s “Paradise“ but amps up the pace and the 80s percussion elements so that they flow a lot smoother than ever before. It’s a really big song with a heavy bassline and strong rock moments, and it took me a good three or so listens to come to grips with how weighty it is. After several months of indulgence, I grew to adore every aspect of this song, particularly the traditional-yet-contemporary Korean instrumental. It was actually really fantastic for a pop song.
And you know what? That’s probably one of the greatest takeaways from Infinite’s music: they manage to remain musically consistent while still delivering unique and interesting material that sounds as fresh as their last. – McRoth
McRoth is a whore for Korean music and is best known for writing Korean music reviews on his site McRoth’s Residence. You can e-mail this gay at firstname.lastname@example.org or stalk him on Twitter @rothsresidence and Facebook.