Now we’re down to the best of the best for Asian Junkie‘s Top 100 Korean Songs Of 2017. Oh boy.
While this list was a lot of work, it was fun to take a musical ride back through 2017. Whether you’ve agreed or disagreed with my choices, hopefully the journey has at least been an interesting one.
Any song released in Korea during 2017 is eligible to be included on this list, and just remember that it’s just one dumbass blogger’s opinion, so don’t get all bent out of shape over it.
20. FT Island – “What U Want”
“What U Want” combines a slow and steady drum beat with an electric guitar in the background to create a simple canvas for FT Island to paint over. While the verses are understated and almost sensitive, when the song does get into its chorus, it really launches forward with soaring vocals over lively backing instruments. Enough lines in the chorus are memorable that the entire thing is basically a standout, and that becomes even more apparent if you consider this to be an ode to the trappings of a society in which people constant want or consume. The verses talks about being broken and exhausted but still feeling compelled to continue on with the status quo, then the explosion of the chorus basically serves as the venting of all that built up frustration. While all that works and makes it a great song in itself, it’s the guitar solo that I appreciated in particular, as I feel like that’s something not incorporated enough into songs by bands like these.
19. LOONA’s Yves – “New”
“New” is incredibly LOONA, if that makes any sense for a group yet to technically debut. But the dreamy, atmospheric, throwback sound just feels a lot like what the group has been cultivating, and Yves cashes it in here. Honestly, Yves doesn’t seem to be a strong vocalist, but that seems to help in the end because the lack of vocal theatrics means the production steps up to compensate.
The instrumental has an almost hypnotic quality to it, with thudding synths that hail back to the 80s, but possessing a sense of modern refinement. The chorus isn’t dynamic, but it effectively takes the listener through the otherworldly atmosphere that’s been created with an increased zeal, and the “all my life by my life” repetition is plenty addictive. The lyrical content is surprisingly engaging as well, exploring a woman’s growth and the subsequent struggle to find comfort with her new self. So while “New” may not be in your face, there’s an alluring moodiness to it that makes it a song that’s easy to get invested in.
18. Sunmi – “Gashina”
A lot was made about the dance craze that followed the release of “Gashina“, and I think it actually has done the song a disservice. The gradual build to the drop is wonderfully constructed, and the fact that I’ve heard the song about a million times but still look forward to it speaks its quality, impact, and staying power.
Just as important is that the song eventually becomes about Sunmi‘s unapologetic self-confidence, and she delivers her lines with a mix of playfulness and sass that’s befitting the material. Additionally, “gashina” itself is used effectively throughout. While it’s a word that can just mean ‘girl‘ or ‘woman‘, given that MakeUs Entertainment clarified that it was intent as a play on words meaning ‘having thorns‘, ‘a bunch of beautiful flowers‘, and ‘are you leaving‘, no amount of their denials can convince me that they would use it in those ways but aren’t slyly alluding to the derogatory slang meaning of ‘bitch‘ as well. That’s especially true within the context of the song, especially when “gashina gashina” repeats as a refrain. Sunmi then, is that bitch, and it gives lyrics more heft to them, which adds another worthy dimension to the song.
Regardless of interpretation, “Gashina” grew on me over time. While I did enjoy it initially for showcasing a different side of Sunmi the soloist, never did I think it would be near the top for my favorite songs of 2017. However, instead of tiring from it with more and more exposure, I realized it had quite the opposite effect.
17. Woo Won Jae (Featuring LOCO, Gray) – “We Are”
The trio of Woo Won Jae, LOCO, and Gray all provide excellent turns on “We Are“, which is perhaps the song that best encapsulates the year in Korean hip-hop. No, not the tryhard sweg messes, but rather a quite light-hearted and happy-go-lucky sound. It matches well with the song’s message that people can look down on and doubt people like them who choose to take less conventional paths, but they’re going to be out there continuing to work hard to capture their dreams regardless. There’s a certain authenticity in the words coming from this trio that makes everything stick as well. While the overall atmosphere is chill, there’s a certain bite of determination in the deliveries, and the repetitive chanting of “we are” feels more like a declaration than anything else. That the chorus also has a surprising pop appeal to it is why it ends up so high on this list.
16. Gugudan – “A Girl Like Me”
I know, I KNOW. Look, fuckers, I don’t care if you’re judging me because the reality I’ve accepted is that every time I listen to “A Girl Like Me” I absolutely cannot get “na na gateun ae na na na gateun ae eottae uh” out of my head. I love it so goddamn much, I’m sorry.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the instrumental is driven by a constantly booming bass and pulsating synths that rarely let up, yet it’s somehow not as messy as you’d think. Furthermore, the delivery has a shocking amount of attitude in it, which was about as surprising as the fact that Gugudan have a bunch of vocalists capable of carrying sections of the song themselves. So even aside from that one magical refrain, there’s a lot to like from “A Girl Like Me”. Still, what it primarily comes down to is that I’m infatuated with that hook, which seems to have done its job at least with me.
15. Gavy NJ – “An Obvious Melo”
Gavy NJ is a veteran group in name only as all the original members have been replaced, and yet by some miracle, they released an excellent upbeat power ballad in “An Obvious Melo“. The Latin influence on the instrumental was immediately obvious and also immediately drew my interest, but what kept me enthralled was the addition of drums and clapping effects in the chorus, as well as the impressive vocal dynamism from the Gavy NJ members themselves. While there’s no one refrain that hooks the listener, “An Obvious Melo” is more than the sum of its parts and all of it works in unison to create an addictive and complete effort that’s impossible to stop once it starts.
14. Huckleberry P (Featuring G2) – “Human Torch”
“Human Torch” is a non-stop assault of guitar riffs and trunk-rattling bass, making the instrumental a perfect combination of hip-hop and rock for an aggressive song, even if the beat itself isn’t quick. While there are many hip-hop tracks out there featuring rappers bragging about how awesome they are, not many can do it as effectively and cleverly as Huckleberry P does here. With references ranging from ‘Slam Dunk‘ to Paik Nam June to riffing on those who only know about hip-hop from reality shows, everything eventually comes back to him, but Huckleberry P proves his mettle in the rapped verses over and over. Meanwhile, the whole thing is punctuated by G2, whose gritty voice works well to craft an addictive, growling chorus. The relentless aggressiveness from “Human Torch” is difficult to deny, and any attempt to do so certainly isn’t going to come from me.
13. Hyukoh – “Wanli”
Given that it’s not exactly a pop staple, one would think my enthusiasm for “Wanli” would’ve died down over the months since its release, but I surprisingly never soured on the truly epic spectacle that was Hyukoh‘s best on an outstanding album.
Singing is rather sparse on “Wanli”, so it’s the arrangement that’s the star of the show here and it deserves to be. A military-esuqe marching sound starts things before electric guitar riffs enter, the bass guitar comes in, and then the drums start underneath it all to fill out the foundation. The bonus is the higher-pitched plucking sound that gives it a uniquely oriental flavor, which is always appreciated by my eardrums. The way they’re added one-by-one is not subtle, and it’s like a tutorial in how to masterfully blend all those elements together. Despite not having a ton to do on this, Oh Hyuk unsurprisingly brought it as well, delivering a haunting vocal performance that includes occasional jolts like the “AY AY AY AY” that busts out before the chorus drops in. The chanting effect of the chorus isn’t an earworm, but it’s perfectly appropriate for the atmosphere of the song and meshes seamlessly with an instrumental that gradually picks up steam.
For something that lacks a hook or a whole lot of obvious pop appeal, “Wanli” is incredibly impactful and always stuck with me throughout the year. At various points when constructing this list, I would have to listen to songs again to remember why I loved them, but with “Wanli” I never forgot significant stretches of the instrumental and the chanting, which showcases exactly why I think it’s so deserving of this spot.
12. Dreamcatcher – “Sleepwalking”
“Sleepwalking” is something truly unique in Korean pop, and while it doesn’t match Dreamcatcher‘s usual harder rock sound, it does continue their trend of putting out upbeat pop efforts that carry dark, sinister tinges. The drum and bass instrumental is the star of this song, but the vocals do a nice job complimenting it with the occasional audio distortions representing a nice shout out to the concept. When something is as relentless as this, it risks getting overwhelming, but the listener is given a bit of a breather from the assault during the verses. There’s no such luck when the drop hits, however, as all bets are off and the frenetic and intense synths envelops the entire song with a multitude of surprisingly addictive patterns. Thankfully, Dreamcatcher don’t let it stop there and actually follow up with a proper vocal chorus as well, which is what elevates this from good to great and keeps it embedded in my brain.
11. Red Velvet – “Red Flavor”
“Red Flavor” punches the listener in the mouth immediately and it never lets up, relentlessly attacking with all of its twists and turns but thankfully never crossing that line into becoming a busy mess. The chorus is obviously a standout, as it sets the tone and infects your brain with its exuberance. While I frequently credit the production, rarely do I consider the execution on equal footing, but Red Velvet‘s perfect harmonization throughout the multi-layered chorus is just as responsible for its success as the design. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when the listener is greeted with the memorable “ppalgan mat gunggeumhae honey” refrain that seeps into your brain matter forever.
Everybody knows that having an appealing chorus is a boon to a pop song, but the verses help push “Red Flavor” as well thanks to creative choices with the usage of percussion and synths throughout the instrumental. They’re played around with a lot, with other elements entering and exiting the picture, and the freedom to experiment leads to type of sound you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. Toeing that line between getting crazy enough to stand out while still being measured enough to maintain its pop appeal is a difficult task, but it’s done brilliantly here.
10. GFriend – “Fingertip”
I’ve always been a fan of GFriend‘s singles, and I’m not one that’s ever had a problem with them continuing down a path with a similar core sound as long as they continued to churn out addictive hits with guitar riffs. So while “Fingertip” definitely took the group down a different road, the most important thing is that the end result of an addictive hit remained.
The synth-heavy 70s-80s funk sound was definitely a fun choice, as it’s a whirlwind ride for the duration and the further electronic elements serve as a reminder that it’s a modern composition. Despite the sonic change, “Fingertip” still maintains common markers so you know it’s GFriend, like a driving tempo, epic guitar riffs, and a signature hook. Speaking of that hook, the “tang tang tang” works as an earworm, and though I initially thought it was a bit weaker than it could’ve been, the bit of edge to it has helped its lasting power.
9. SHINee’s Jonghyun – “Let Me Out”
The deaths of artists usually cause people to overrate their music, and I definitely understand the temptation, as everything suddenly becomes final. That said, while “Let Me Out” is definitely ranked highly, I believe this is a fair spot and that Jonghyun earned every last bit of it.
Regardless of recent events, the lyrics for “Let Me Out” were always raw, honest, and emotional. Having to live with the feelings he expresses here is always heartbreaking, and the pouring of his soul into this song makes the things being said feel as real as it gets. However, that alone wouldn’t be enough to make me enjoy it as a musical effort. So it’s a good thing it comes with an instrumental that starts haunting and depressing, but launches into an incredible chorus featuring a reverberating, dirty synth that gives the whole thing this sinister edge that I’ve never quite heard before in a downbeat song like this. Jonghyun’s vocal performance itself is distorted at times to match the theme, but when it does come through clear, it’s apparent that his execution is in line with the excellence that surrounds it.
Quite frankly, “Let Me Out” can be difficult to listen to at this juncture and I would understand anybody who either never wants to hear this again or wants to put it even higher than it is, but either way this was Jonghyun’s best song of the year, one of his best ever, and a truly stellar all-around effort.
8. EXO – “What U Do”
Usually EXO fans are always sure to make me aware whenever the group has a quality song that wasn’t promoted, but as I was going through their album, I was surprised and pleased to discover “What U Do“. Not only is this my favorite EXO song of the year, but it’s one of my favorite EXO songs period.
There’s definitely tropical influences at play here, but the synths end up resembling something more based in the 90s with modern trends incorporated, and that leads to a slick and refined quality that makes everything about this feel so smooth. Though the foundation of the instrumentation is solid and the verses definitely don’t disappoint with their energy, it’s the anthemic power of the refrain that sets “What U Do” apart, providing an energetic jolt followed by a layered chorus that never quits. “What U Do” definitely isn’t complicated, but pop music doesn’t have to be if it’s as effortlessly addictive and easy to listen to from start to finish as this is.
7. LOONA Odd Eye Circle – “Sweet Crazy Love”
Everything LOONA did this year seems to have led to “Sweet Crazy Love“, a song that proves the LOONA Odd Eye Circle unit is ready for their star turn. Despite the unit’s collective inexperience, there’s a certain sophistication and polish to their sound and execution that one could easily confuse for veterans.
The rhythm of “Sweet Crazy Love” is off-kilter and switches constantly, which is a clever way to keep the listener engaged (lest you lose track of where the song was at) while not needing to increase volume and ruin the intended spacey atmosphere. It’s unsurprisingly synth-driven R&B, but rather than become plodding like many efforts of that sort, it remains pleasantly melodic and carries this air of untouchable coolness that’s hard to replicate. While many of my favorite songs of the year include bombastic choruses, “Sweet Crazy Love” manages to achieve the same effect despite being thoroughly subdued, thanks in large part to the quick reciting of “it’s a sweet crazy love” in the refrain, which had me entranced. So the song is actually quite dynamic, but in a unique and unexpected way, which in itself makes it interesting and worthwhile.
6. BAP – “Wake Me Up”
Considering the relevancy of topic the song tackles, “Wake Me Up” seems to have been confusingly forgotten by most. There’s not much ambiguity that mental health is the subject being addressed in the lyrics, which makes sense given BAP‘s history, and realizing that helps create a sense of instant connection with the core of the song. Thankfully, it doesn’t settle there and crafts a successful sound around the gravity of the subject matter, using a thumping bass, quality harmonization, and the addictive falsetto repetition of “wake me up” in the dramatic chorus. The song effectively balances aggressiveness with an emphasis on melody to craft a meaningful work that has mainstream appeal.
5. Zico (Featuring G.Soul) – “Anti”
“Anti” inevitably draws comparisons to “Stan” from Eminem and Dido, but that Zico and G.Soul are able to emulate that formula successfully is worthy of praise. That’s especially true since “Anti” puts a different spin on the story by approaching it not from the perspective of an obsessive fan that feels deserving of love but a passionate hater that feels entitled to contempt. Creativity and introspection were required in order for Zico to express that perspective, so even though he could’ve easily opted for a cliche song about dissing haters, he choose to turn it around and utilize the anti’s perspective to showcase how toxic their outlook truly is. That approach is effective specifically because there’s a kernel of realism grounded in every line, whether it’s the subjective nature of fame, being beholden to the whims of fans, or riffs on the act celebrities have to put on for the public.
Of course, there were other songs that also had beautiful songwriting, but many missed this list because they were so musically bland. Thankfully, “Anti” thrives thanks to an appropriately menacing atmosphere created by the instrumental. Zico and G.Soul expertly executed their roles over the simple but effective backing kept everything flowing forward and never lets it get uninteresting. The spotlight is put on Zico’s performance, which ends up being a wise idea since it’s ultimately what makes the song a success thanks to the versatility of his flow and his ability to entrance the listener with his skill. Meanwhile, G.Soul‘s memorable hook is the quality signature to all this, with his high-pitched vocals providing a needed contrast to the nagging feeling of dread (not unlike what Dido did for Eminem, but I digress).
While “Anti” isn’t the type of song you’d want to listen to a dozen times in a day or anything, it is a song that’s smart, impactful, and memorable, and being able to affect the listener while having them enjoy what’s going on musically is always worthy of praise.
4. Highlight – “Can Be Better”
“Can Be Better” is a power pop effort by Highlight that’s incredibly accessible thanks to its lively and carefree nature that starts from the get-go and never seems to let up. The guitar riffs and upbeat synth combination is tried and true, but there’s a certain jubilant drive to this entire thing that makes it especially effective to get the listener moving.
And you know what? I absolutely appreciated what’s being conveyed here. The general message is that today might be a world of shit, but it’ll pass eventually, and we should look towards a brighter future rather than dwelling in misery. It’s also not about doing the whole fuck-others-I-am-doing-me attitude, but rather focuses on positive reinforcement when looking at oneself instead. In a year of self-serious efforts (even ones that I loved), “Can Be Better” was a breath of fresh air, especially because Highlight were able to convey that theme musically as well. This was just an unapologetically bright, fun, and catchy song that represented a welcome change of pace.
3. WINNER – “Really Really”
“Really Really” perfectly represents 2017 in Korean music with its shamelessly fun tropical house sound. While it predictably proved to be my song of the summer, it also ended up being my song for every season, checking in among my most listened to songs of the year. The peppy beat keeps things gliding along swiftly for most of the song even if there’s a casual pace about things, and it’s simply amplified during the chorus by a rapid build and the use of silence prior to breaking out into the unforgettable earworm of “really really really really” in the form of a nice harmony from WINNER. The rap verses in particular add a certain rhythm and differentiation to things, especially thanks to the ad-libs that interject throughout, and they’re the highlight of the song along with the refrain.
In the end, despite the fact that it eventually matched up with a trend that flooded the market, “Really Really” always maintained a certain relevance in my ears thanks to the execution and catchiness being a cut above. There’s something to be said for complex, original, and meaningful songs, but there’s ample room in my book for unapologetic fun, and “Really Really” embodied that better than any other this year.
2. Dreamcatcher – “Good Night”
Yeah yeah, I know, bias this or bias that. Whatever. The fact of the matter is that the same members existed as MINX, and I didn’t care about that group at all, so it was songs like “Good Night” that won me over to the side of Dreamcatcher.
The electric guitar riffs and pounding drums obviously dominate on “Good Night”, and they provide a never-ending source of energy. At times the song accelerates to a breakneck pace with freewheeling riffs, and at times there’s sparse instrumentation, which helped to create a diverse sound instead of a mound of noise. The addition and subtraction of volume and tempo helped craft a song with mainstream appeal despite the harder elements, because it allowed space for more traditional pop vocals to thrive over the metal sound. Though Dreamcatcher didn’t exactly shy away from singing over noise either, powering through a memorable “oh baby, run run run” refrain that eventually got buried in my head, along with “baby good night” being repeated over abrupt riffs. From the misleading music box opening to the sudden end that makes the listener want to return for more, there just wasn’t a whole lot I didn’t enjoy about this.
I had initially assumed that “Good Night” would gradually fall on the list, because even though I love the inclusion of a harder rock sound in pop music, it usually struggles to hold up on repeated listens since the amount of noise can get tiresome or overwhelming. What I noticed in this process is that “Good Night” was even more anthemic and melodic than I thought, so it was easy to consume as a pop song with surprising staying power.
1. SNUPER – “The Star Of Stars”
“The Star Of Stars” didn’t chart and SNUPER aren’t from a notable company, so it was a song that was overlooked by many. That’s unfortunate, because they missed out on a pop gem and my favorite song of 2017.
While “The Star Of Stars” isn’t complicated, it excels at basically every turn. Despite still being unfamiliar with the members of SNUPER, what I became familiar with is the quality of their execution on this song. The verses are refreshingly fun and propels the song forward, as it’s performed over trendy tropical synths that get a nice layered, dreamier twist so that it avoids the generic. It eventually builds until the infectious chorus that almost seems to peak at multiple times, because just when you think the catchy hook has ended, another one emerges and continues adding memorable climaxes.
Picking “The Star Of Stars” to finish this list wasn’t at all expected when I started, but the more and more I listened and compared, the more I realized it was undeniable that I preferred it over everything else. I found that I could listen to the song over and over and not tire of it, and with the chorus leaving an especially indelible mark on my brain, it seems likely to have lasting power well into the future.