If you missed the first installment and want to catch up, click here.
Jewelry – “Look At Me”
I have to hand it to Jewelry: for a group that’s flipped the script in member line-ups more times than I can remember, they’ve found a very interesting identity in this new era of their career as a girl group. No single since the departure of Seo In Young has been as engaging as this one, and I’m actually and entirely genuinely excited for them for the first time since … ever.
“Look At Me” dabbles in the same ol’ retro style that practically every girl group has done in K-pop, but there’s something rather classy about Jewelry’s approach that makes this single incredibly likable. Rather than drowning in gimmicks and monotony, “Look At Me” flows effortlessly from one beautiful verse to the other. It’s pleasant and graceful, and I’m actually happy this is coming from a veteran group, because it’s great to see growth blossom right in front of me. If there’s one point of contention, though, it’s (quite obviously) the poorly handled rap section. I’m not quite sure why it was allowed to exist here, but lucky for Jewelry, it comes early and doesn’t disturb the overall execution of this jewel. – McRoth
JJ Project – “Hooked”
JYP’s most promising rookie group, and the company’s strongest release so far, JJ Project proved that having the energy of 100 suns really does make a difference, and “Hooked” takes that energy and channels it in all the correct ways.
Where “Bounce” – JJ Project’s 2012 debut single – threw all kinds of styles together for the sake of ‘experimentation’ and called it a day, the duo’s B-side track proved to be a far more exciting track to listen to with an equal amount of loudness and spark as its counterpart.
A youthful and really well executed track, not to mention a track featuring one of my favorite middle eights this year, JB and JR are showing me that there is indeed still some magic left to enjoy under the JYP camp. – McRoth
John Park – “Falling”
As one of my K-pop biases, it’s really no surprise to anyone that this suave mofo made it onto my top Korean songs list. John Park took his sweet time to release his first official debut mini-album, but boy was it worth it.
“Falling“, the lead single to his 2012 mini, ‘Knock‘, is to this day the best song to be released in K-pop this year. It moves from one measure to the next in smooth sweeps and simple structure. The guitar lead carries the groove of the song, while John Park’s voice propels it across a sea of lustrous nuances in a gorgeous falsetto (of all things), only dropping down to his lush and husky low-end for small moments of intensity and power. The melodies are fucking stunning and the chorus is one of the most memorable of the year.
It’s uplifting, airy, and exceptional for a ballad, and listening to John Park’s resonant voice spew into my ears every time makes this song even more worthwhile. – McRoth
Jo Kwon Feat. Jung Ho Suk – “Animal”
This year, no solo idol released as badass an album as 2AM leader Jo Kwon‘s ‘I’m Da One‘, and with lead single “Animal” spearheading this fierce movement for the singer, I hope to see way more badassery in the coming years from this diva.
“Animal”, for the sake of a better term, fucking slayed. It was a left-field entrance for a performer who is derived from a ballad group, but just listening to this fierce pop single (featuring a slick rap section and everything), you know exactly where Jo Kwon’s heart lies when it comes to personal taste in music; he is a fearless pop star, and the fact that this feels absolutely fitting and right goes to show how well an artist knows oneself if you allow them the room to find out for themselves. – McRoth
K.Will – “Butterfly”
I’ll be honest with you – I knew it in my bones that K.Will would land on this list, but deciding which song would make the final cut was a torturous process. His most recent album was so immense and beautiful and breathtaking that it felt wrong to even begin segregating one track from another. Alas, I did come to a decision – albeit a tough one – and it honestly just came down to which track was the strongest and most compelling, which was none other than “Butterfly“.
More than being just vocally superb, like all K.Will songs happen to be, “Butterfly” manages to confine all the classic elements of sophisticated ballads here (big orchestration, strong harmonization, classic structure), yet remain as sensationally powerful and incredibly grand for K-pop standards. A friend of mine and I were actually discussing K.Will a while ago, and we talked about how uniquely engaging K.Will’s voice is and how it’s impossible to not love it. He is a phenomenal performer and his interpretation here is yet another example of that. – McRoth
Lee Hi – “1, 2, 3, 4″
Rookies, man. It’s kind of a shame that I don’t have enough room to feature them all, because aside from the fact that there is a shitstorm of them, there were also some pretty cool moments out there that have and will go unmentioned this year. I’ll take a moment right now, I suppose, to say that this list has missed several, but I’d also like to say that the rookies who do appear are a valiant representation of the sheer improvement and promise of 2012′s rookies as the whole and are more than deserving of the recognition. Like YG Entertainment newcomer Lee Hi, who dropped the feisty “1, 2, 3, 4” and brought a fresh (and much needed) perspective to the YG narrative.
Diving right in with a style reminiscent of “Mercy” by Duffy, Lee Hi performs in a surprisingly sophisticated manner for her age; husky, sassy, and full of conviction, “1, 2, 3, 4″ is a stand-out single. If not for its youthfully classic style, then for the powerful vocal delivery by Lee Hi, who, may I add, kills it without batting an eyelash (quite literally, now that I think about it, lol). – McRoth
Lena Park – “I’m Sorry”
Lena Park hadn’t released an album in three years, which is a lifetime in K-pop years, you know, but for those of us who were waiting, it was more than worth it when it arrived.
As the lead single of her June 2012 comeback album, ‘Parallax‘, “I’m Sorry” encompasses all that is Lena Park in one tight-knit ballad. It’s beautifully composed, powerful, and inspired. In fact, it’s more than inspired. This song is a cover of one of Mexican band Camila‘s greatest singles ever, “Mientes“. As you can guess by now, I pretty much died when I first listened to it, because I knew it sounded familiar. As soon as I recognized it, it made me love it ten times more. Not because it’s a cover of a song I like, but because Lena Park did such a magnificent job of interpreting it. – McRoth
Miryo Feat. Gary Of Leessang And The KOXX – “Party Rock”
In what had to be one of the cruelest ironies in K-pop this year, Miryo (one of the most underappreciated female rappers in all of K-pop) finally got her debut album, but “Party Rock”, one of the best tracks on her album, literally got no love.
I blame a lot of this on her company (Nega Network) for pushing her to promote some half-ass ballad instead of this rocker. “Party Rock”, produced by The KOXX (Korea’s favorite indie-synthrock outfit), is not only infectious, but sounds super Western – as in, this could have been a demo offered to Maroon 5.
Congratulations to Miryo for being bold and pursuing an edgier sound, and shame on Nega Network for doing such a poor job of promoting her. – Marissa Pak
miss A – “Lips”
Why the jerky, off-kilter “Touch” was chosen as the promotional single rather than “Lips”, the world may never know. But whatever, it’s fine.
“Lips” combines a much smoother melody with heavy percussive beats to create a catchier, sexier product. Plus, the song has moments of true genius. I mean, they construct instrumentals that fills out of what is essentially white noise. Basically, if you don’t like miss A, you are lying. – lolpenny
Nell – “The Day Before”
drowningn00b described Nell‘s amazing, melancholy ballad, “The Day Before“, best when he said: “The slow and measured pace enhances the mood, and the slow build paces the song very well. Every instrument has a purpose in ‘The Day Before’, and none feel wasted or useless; even the electric guitar that makes a short appearance conveys anguish. ‘The Day Before’ is a great entry point to ‘Slip Away’ and the many good things within.”
As I sit here, listening to this magnificent track again, it’s as spine tingling as it was the first time I listened to it. The string section, in particular, is so honestly raw and imperfectly perfect that it renders me numb to this day. – McRoth
Nine Muses – “Ticket”
As I’ve commented before, coming up with anything remotely interesting to say about Nine Muses has proven to be difficult on the account that they’re not remotely interesting to begin with. However, my shade for Nine Muses finally reached its peak this year before the release of “Ticket” off their ‘Sweet Rendezvous‘ mini-album.
“Ticket“, Nine Muses’ early 2012 single, was by far their strongest, most invigorated release yet. It had the same retro vibes as its predecessors, but with a more contemporary approach that was blended beautifully. But what was particularly special about this single was that it’s the first time where Nine Muses had come across as personable to me. Nine Muses’ past singles had walked the fine line of being too safe and too unchallenged as musical endeavors, causing them to read as dead and spiritless dolls, vocally and aesthetically. But “Ticket” finally captured all the correct elements – the striking beat, the graceful melodies, and climatic structure – and allowed Nine Muses’ vocals to shine and their charisma to surface. It was the strongest song on ‘Sweet Rendezvous’ and the one piece of the puzzle that tied everything together with a golden bow. – McRoth
Park Ji Yoon – “Tree Of Life”
Like fine wine, Park Ji Yoon’s “Tree Of Life” only got better with time.
An early surprise during the year, this song wiped the floor clean in the indie scene. It is the only song from 2012 that makes my skin prickly from the first note, and it’s moved me to tears more than a few times. NoReply’s production is slow, melodic, and plaintive, never rushing and never slowing down. And it is that combination of superb musicality and gorgeous singing that elevates “Tree Of Life” above indie music, and genres, period. Simply put, Park Ji Yoon’s “Tree Of Life” is perfection. – drowningn00b
Primary Feat. E-Sens Of Supreme Team – “Poison”
After last year’s gloomy era of hip-hop, the pendulum swung the other way, back to the carefree and partying ways of hip-hop. Grandline Entertainment led the way in many ways, with Hi-Lite and 1llionaire Records close behind; even Verbal Jint and Leessang lightened things up with their comebacks this year. It took the better half of Supreme Team, E-Sens, and producer Primary to bring the genre to its essence, though; of struggle and perseverance.
Starting with pencil on paper and a piano, E-Sens spends the entire track telling his story of selfishness, self-doubt, pride, and the awful mix that it becomes in a person. It’s an arresting track without lyrical composition, just three long verses. For his part, Primary dropped his partying ways, which made-up the bulk of his ‘Primary And The Messengers‘ LP, to make real the words on paper. Strings usher in the drama, and the drums bring out the rough notes in the story. Hip-hop, and art in general, helps to illuminate human emotion, whether it’s happy or sad. E-Sens’ “Poison” tells of man done with the bullshit and wanting to reach inner peace. Whatever the language, the message was delivered with clarity. – drowningn00b
Psy – “Gangnam Style”
Like, need I even have to explain this one to you guys? I could have been incredibly anal here and excluded Psy‘s “Gangnam Style” for being a complete rehash of 2NE1‘s “I Am The Best” and for lacking an actual chorus, because by all technical levels it’s as stupidly flawed as any YGE song is these days. Yet, those discrepancies are so incredibly minute next to the overwhelming effect of the song and its impact on everyday life – including my own – that Psy has managed to supersede all logic and seep his way into the halls of pop culture fame. Like, I don’t even know what the hell I’m trying to say, but all I know is that it would have been a crime and a dishonest move to not include “Gangnam Style” on here.
Anyway, great job, dude. You’ve been yourself from the beginning and you’ve paid your dues. Your hard work will go down as the meme of 2012. – McRoth
Seo In Guk Feat. Swings – “Time Machine”
While most of you know this lovely lad from his acting endeavors, especially from this year’s massively successful “Reply 1997“, I for one first fell all over Seo In Guk for his music.
‘Perfect Fit‘, his most recent mini-album, might have went overlooked by most, but it did give way to some pretty satisfying numbers, one of which was the crisp, uplifting pop track, “Time Machine“. This ditty is a laid-back song that possesses a clean drum kit that keeps the whole thing tight and in place. What really shines are the melodies, which are exceptionally pretty and catchy, contrasted with just the right amount of intensity by Swings’ rap verse at the middle eight.
If you’re a fan of Daniel Marriweather and Usher, Seo In Guk serves up a delight that echoes the heart of their music in this track. – McRoth
She’z – “My Way”
There were plenty of girl groups that twirled their way onto the grounds of K-pop this year, but very few left an actual impression. She’z is the exception.
To quote Marissa Pak: “Part of the appeal of ‘My Way’ lies in its simplicity – it’s a real palette cleanser, with half of K-pop these days trying to sound either disco/retro or Europop – not to mention the headache of having to deal with left-field dubstep breaks – so it’s good to hear some nice, clean, and simple pop that you can rock in the shower and on the radio.”
It’s precisely that, the simplicity of She’z's debut single, that really resonates with me, as not only does the song do away with over-produced nonsense, but it actually consolidates the experience to what matters: vocals, melodies, and a catchy beat. The fact that it lacks a rap section also appeases me greatly. – McRoth
Shinhwa – “Venus”
If there’s anything to say about Shinhwa, it’s that they know how to run this game, and run it well. In celebration of 14 (that’s FOURTEEN) years in the music industry, and as the longest running K-pop boyband, these studs returned in all their glory with the trendy lead single, “Venus“.
On first listen, “Venus” came across rather ordinary, but over time it hit me that this pretty much fell in line with a lot of Shinhwa’s older jams and structures (and all things pre-2009, basically).
Gentle, bare, and formulaic, yet iconic, addictive, and really well executed. Even with Eric‘s lulzy rap sections, “Venus” carries a balanced sense of sophistication and listenability that today’s high-brow idols have forgotten existed and could learn from. With this single, Shinhwa proved that idols can still value traditional simplicity while not forgetting to hand-feed the herd their grub. – McRoth
Shin Yong Jae – “The Reason I Became A Singer”
Shin Yong Jae is one of my heroes in Korean music, so it’s a pleasure to finally talk about him here, because if there’s one vocalist that deserves a blurb written about him, it’s this guy.
A ballad bursting with emotion and intensity, “The Reason I Became A Singer” slips Shin Yong Jae in his most comfortable skin, and not only is it one of the best songs he’s ever sung, he effing wrote it. “The Reason I Became A Singer” is sincere, yet frighteningly loud in its execution. Gentle, yet brave and declarative. It’s a piece of work worth being proud of, and the sheer power in which Yong Jae explodes through every chorus makes you well aware that he’s carving that pride in stone. You just hear it, and that’s what makes this song one of the most special moments on his debut mini-album, ’24′, as well as one of the most special moments in his career to date.
It’s immense and absolutely breathtaking, and hands down my favorite ballad of 2012. – McRoth
SPICA – “Russian Roulette”
If I were to pick a SPICA song, it would’ve been “Painkiller” by default, but you could actually make a case for any other song on that mini-album. It seriously was that good. Although its lead single status made this seem more like a convenience pick, “Russian Roulette” was ultimately chosen because it was the most polished piece that SPICA had to offer. At first sight, the song is essentially an R&B ballad hidden under the veil of a fun instrumental and some playful whistling. The intro contains a lot of the typical cheesy rapping you find in K-pop girl group songs, but every member carries a tune with a clear but resonant timbre – be it smooth, husky, or otherwise. The singing itself sounds completely effortless.
For most of the song, the pacing stays more or less the same, save for a few guitar riffs and a good bang-bang-bang-bang-bang to lead the song into the well-harmonized chorus. The latter half of the song provided ample opportunity for members to alternate solos and do what they do best as individuals – some belting here, some dolphin register notes there, and some rapping elsewhere. The one drawback was ending the song with nothing more than the instrumental and generic whistling … but that’s just nitpicking because I was left wanting more. – Compliant
Sunny Hill – “The Grasshopper Song”
Riddled with an interesting beat, cold key, and vibrant melodies, Sunny Hill‘s “The Grasshopper Song” was destined to be a favorite this year, and it has yet to let go of that title.
Sunny Hill have been pushing the envelop when it comes to eccentricity and uniqueness in their music for a couple years now, but there hasn’t been as beautiful a display of that as this single. The pace alone is so urgent that it gets my body racing when I listen to it – yet, it’s the hypnotizing hook and pitch-shifting in the vocal processing that truly reeled me in and won’t let me go. It’s like a drug or something. – McRoth
Super Junior – “Sexy, Free, And Single”
The light-disco style of Super Junior’s 2012 comeback single, “Sexy, Free, And Single”, deviated from the tired ‘SJ Funky’ vibes of their past three singles and welcomed elements that were equally familiar as they were fresh to listen to under these voices. Donghae and Eunhyuk tackled a way more derivative form of disco in their duo track “Oppa, Oppa“, which was comical at first, but kind of fun and refreshing to hear from them as well. I got a similar response when I listened to “Sexy, Free, And Single”, except in this case the reward was two-fold because the proper time and attention was given to the track, resulting in a dance number that filled more technical voids than a silly duet.
One great thing about “Sexy, Free, And Single” was the vocal performance itself. SM Entertainment is known for high-end productions, but this song in particular did a fantastic job of utilizing Super Junior’s vocal tonalities. Everyone from Ryeowook to Yesung sounded glorious, which helped loads in piercing through the merky synths, which by all accounts was probably the least polished piece of this winning single. Really nice job, boys. – McRoth
Taetiseo – “Twinkle”
Yes, SM Entertainment totally jumped on the retro/funk bandwagon (those trendhumpers), but as we all know, it’s all in the execution. And by God did SNSD sub-unit Taetiseo steal some of SECRET’s big brass swag in “Twinkle” (See, that’s what happens when you go to Japan, TS Entertainment! People steal your swag!).
Furthermore, thanks to some serious gospel voicing, we now have concrete, beyond-all-doubt proof that Tiffany and Seohyun (otherwise known as Seo-Empress around this neck of the woods) can actually sing. Amen to that. – Marissa Pak
TEEN TOP – “To You”
I really liked the musical approach TEEN TOP took for their second single this year, “To You“. The motif of its host album (‘aRtisT‘) was very different from January’s ‘It’s‘, but stylistically the departure wasn’t a dramatic one. The beat was still dance-pop, and very reminiscent of SISTAR‘s “Alone“; given both were composed by Brave Brothers, that much didn’t surprise.
If anything, “To You” allowed a broader tasting session of TEEN TOP’s vocal range and diversity as a boyband. As someone who’s never quite gotten over how much Niel eats everybody else’s lines, the fact that the spectrum was widened this year was a pleasantry worth savoring.
Now, if only Ricky had a voice worth some lines of his own… – McRoth
VIXX – “Rock Ur Body”
With so many idol groups roaming the streets of Korea, it’s easy to understand how groups like VIXX go overlooked by many – myself included. But that didn’t stop me from opening an ear of curiosity to what they had to offer this year, and dear Lord was I excited by what I heard.
VIXX’s music is best distinguished by its fruity use of glittery arpeggiated synths, which come in heavy waves throughout their second 2012 single, “Rock Ur Body“. It’s an extremely synth-inclined musical style for a rookie group, but they’ve been doing such an exemplary job of it that it could very well become their niche from here on out. “Rock Ur Body”, as true to its name as it could get, provides a progressively explosive structure of rap, hooks, and a fist-pumping breakdown. Delivered by a surprising set of competent vocalists, VIXX’s “Rock Ur Body” is as snappy as a drag queen’s go-to show stopper. – McRoth
Younha – “Run”
While this list was organized in alphabetical order, it’s worth noting that – if I had ranked these in a countdown – this song would have reigned as champion and taken the title of the best song of 2012.
It’s fitting then to see Younha‘s “Run” close this out, because not only am I being honest, but I’m vouching proudly for this song’s standing as one of the greatest moments of the year.
“Run” is magical first, and overwhelmingly powerful second. Its spirited light-rock instrumental lifts Younha’s airy voice off the ground and takes us with it on this incredibly moving adventure. As the title implies, there is a heart-pounding urgency here – thanks to the drum kit – and it’s this uplifting momentum that makes me want to scream and shout and jump incessantly for the love of all that is holy in this world. Thanks, Younha. – 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 email@example.com or stalk him on Twitter @rothsresidence and Facebook.