With this, we’ll have reached the midway point of the Top 100 Korean Songs Of 2018. Get hype, folks.
Any song released by a Korean artist in 2018 is eligible to be included on this list.
#60 – 14U – “NEWS”
There’s nothing original about a K-pop group utilizing Latin dance trend, but as a fan of the sound myself, all I need is for it to be executed well. 14U manage this on “NEWS“, as they are provided with a rock-solid foundational instrumental led by an acoustic flamenco guitar and percussion that resembled a steel drum. The verses keep things moving along, but it was the chorus that really set this off. From the exclaimed “LOOK AT ME” that marks its arrival to rapid-fire refrain set over an addictive melody to the repetitive spoken word at the end that segues perfectly into the next segments, everything works.
“NEWS” does unfortunately employ a rather perfunctory rap break, which seems completely out of place, but the execution is otherwise on point and it feels generally organic. 14U definitely trend ride with this, but at least when they hopped on they rode that fucker for all it was worth and got an addictive hit from it.
#59 – Gugudan – “Be Myself”
Gugudan made me perk up and pay attention with “A Girl Like Me“, but “Be Myself” shows how surprisingly wide their range is, managing to score with an impressive r&b song. While it’s a gentle effort for the most part, the girls pull off the sultry mood with aplomb and Mina‘s rapid-fire flow somehow also manages to fit right in. But what separates this from the field is the chorus, as it develops momentum and hooks the listener with the “be myself” repetition and even a bit of saxophone. Just as impressive is the arrangement, as it always keeps the listener on their toes by adding a wrinkle just when you’d think the chorus is wrapping up.
That helps Gugudan pull off something on “Be Myself” that many can’t, managing a downtempo song that keeps the listener engaged and has a hook that relies on repetition, but cultivating the rest of the chorus well enough that it doesn’t wear on the listener. Can’t say I thought Gugudan would be capable of pulling that off, but it’s clear now that they have more to offer than one would think.
#58 – LABOUM – “Turn It On”
Following Yulhee‘s departure from the group, LABOUM essentially rebranded with a more mature and serious image. “Between Us” proved they could make it work, but “Turn It On” truly made me a believer.
The song is rather simplistic, with clear Latin-pop influences that were pleasant but initially gave off the impression of being a bit generic. However, over time I’ve come to appreciate the role it plays in setting up the chorus, which is a melody that just makes me want to get up and dance or something. That’s high praise coming from somebody who would make a body roll look like somebody suffering from severe back spasms.
Anyway, a melody that works for the listener can pave over flaws, and that ended up being the case for me with “Turn It On”, as the chorus really does elevate the entire effort by helping add tension through the knowledge that the payoff will hit eventually.
#57 – MAMAMOO – “Starry Night”
While MAMAMOO‘s previous attempts at the serious atmosphere had me less than convinced, they managed to get it right on “Starry Night“. The instrumental creates this lush, dreamy, spacious atmosphere for the vocals of the members to breathe in, and that usually ends well for a group with their versatility and talent, especially since there’s a definite pace to everything that keeps things moving forward instead of stagnating.
While instrumental drop choruses can be a disappointment after all the build, over time I found the combo of the upbeat bass and guitar riff utterly addictive. Later on, when MAMAMOO’s vocals interact with the choral drop, it just becomes a perfect payoff that’s worth waiting for. One quirk that I enjoyed was the fake chorus drop in the verses that playfully stunts expectations a bit before truly dropping it on the listener a short while later. It all adds up to a surprising success story for the moodier side of MAMAMOO, and it ends up adding another dimension to their music.
#56 – MRSHLL – “Come Over”
“Come Over” is powered by standout synths that pair with a nice and even underlying beat, which is interrupted by the occasional booming of drums. It’s not especially complicated, but MRSHLL adds further appeal to it by utilizing his unique vocal.
The song eventually takes the step into broader appeal with the explosive “won’t you come over” refrain that really propels the song to new heights and leads an incredibly impactful chorus. All that helps make “Come Over” a surprisingly addicting earworm that’s hard to get out of your head.
#55 – Dreamcatcher – “What”
Surprised? Me too. The instrumental for “What” is definitely a standout with the thumping drums, electric guitar, and hints of heavy synth eventually coming together to create a high-energy attention-getting sound. Dreamcatcher themselves prove they can handle a song with a harder edge as well, with both the verses and chorus sounding right for the atmosphere of the track.
So basically it came down to how the repeating “what” hook aged, and I didn’t feel it did so with the most grace. It found it becoming more repetitive than impactful, and it kind of made me appreciate everything else the song had to offer, as even the rest of the chorus is arranged nicely. Without that admittedly rather prominent hiccup, “What” could’ve easily been one of the better offerings this year, and that’s reflected in the fact that you’re reading this here.
#54 – BTS – “Paradise”
“Paradise” sees BTS taking on electro-r&b and combining that with the skills of their rap line. It’s definitely trendy but they make it work beautifully for them, and while I’m not sure the theme matches the sound here, the lyrics also provided a message that I enjoyed personally.
The instrumental gives things a bit of a futuristic edge, while the rapping helps to make sure the r&b elements never bog down or get boring, as it demands attention from the listener. While the central refrain of the chorus can prove a bit repetitive over time, the feel of the melody is perfect for this mature atmosphere that “Paradise” has.
#53 – BoA – “U&I”
“U&I” stars a pounding beat that helps create an upbeat dance floor vibe, and the grumbling, pulsating throwback 80s synths are outstanding. They power the verses constantly forward, collecting momentum along the way and setting things up perfectly.
The chorus seals the deal here, with BoA providing the “neowa na na na na” and “bend the universe” refrains that stand out as both impactful and addicting. The replayability of “U&I” has proven to be impressive, as while I don’t always seek the song out, I rarely listen to it only once when I do hear it.
#52 – INFINITE – “I Hate”
“I Hate” thankfully has the sound to match the title, as aggressive guitar riffs and frantic drums pace the track, which even gets a bit creative with electronic touches that keep things fresh. The verses are what stand out in particular, changing the tempo surprisingly well, with the shift at the start of the second verse particularly notable.
The melody of the chorus isn’t special, but it does continue the developed momentum, taking it up a gear and powering effectively through the catchy “hate you, yeah I hate you, but I love you” refrain. INFINITE themselves elevate the song by executing a harder rock edge with aplomb, getting “I Hate” to its head-bobbing end.
#51 – XXX – “What You Want”
I can definitely be selective in terms of when I even care about the lyrical content, but XXX have always intrigued me because they actually seem to care about pursuing hip-hop genuinely rather than just trying to milk it for money. They proved as much on their latest album with the experimental tone of tracks like “What You Want“, as both the instrumental and rapping sound angry as fuck because they are angry about the direction of Korean hip-hop. They effectively communicate that over an unorthodox beat, throbbing synths, and what sounds like a cowbell, which shouldn’t work but somehow does even though it purposefully avoids a melody.
While many of the lyrics to “What You Want” are in English, the best exchange is towards the end and primarily in Korean. Rapper Kim Ximya says “stop talking about money, I just wanna talk art, art is human, being human is greed, thus greed is money” before repeating himself over and over, quite literally representing the cycle he’s unable to break free from. XXX just want to be about their artistry, but the nature of the music industry makes it impossible to stay focused on their code because societal pressures means it always comes back to money in the end.
There’s a nuance and introspection there that goes toward their authenticity and makes it believable that they’re legitimately trying to use hip-hop as counter culture. It lends a certain seriousness to them speaking against social ills relevant to Korea, especially the status quo that essentially promotes superficiality/materialism, school/work slavery, and the nihilistic outlook the youth have adopted as a result. XXX kind of end up as the working class rap duo, if you will. And especially after listening to a ton of Korean hip-hop this year, I really felt where they were coming from and the connection helped their lyrics elevate musically-intriguing efforts like “What You Want”.