(G)I-DLE – “HWAA”
Album: ‘I Burn’
Release Date: January 11
A moombahton foundation, attention-grabbing bass, and softer traditional instrumentation somehow makes a recipe for success, as “HWAA” manages to weave a delicate balance between the elements to create a cohesive work. More atmospheric than explosive, the song leans on an indelible melody to attract the listener, and its impact deepens over time.
TXT – “Anti-Romantic”
Album: ‘The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE’
Release Date: May 31
The contrast of the enchanting melodies and harmonizing voices with the cynical and salty-ass lyrics are a whole mood. It’s basically mellow R&B, but hooks like “sorry I’m an anti-romantic” quickly become endearing and unforgettable. HYBE finally toned down the vocal processing, which makes this feel like a more authentic expression than it would’ve been otherwise. It’s a great listen at any time, but especially when your love life has got you feeling like dogshit.
Key (SHINee) – “BAD LOVE”
Album: ‘BAD LOVE’
Release Date: September 27
It’s as if Key saw the recent trends and was perfecting his own take until late September when he served “BAD LOVE” to become K-pop’s retro synth kingpin. The song constantly demands attention, powered by a thumping synth, and never falls into lulls. The most obvious star is the rousing and complete chorus with an impressive vocal peak, as it’s melodic as fuck and extremely easy to get hooked on thanks to deliveries like “don’t need thattttt kind of love”. Yet arguably the best part is the rapid-fire drum-fill to cap the chorus, providing a signature close instead of something basic. Key took the synth trend to its most dramatic end, resulting in one of the best examples of executing the concept with this impeccably produced and impressively performed release.
Lee Mujin – “Traffic Light”
Album: ‘Traffic Light’
Release Date: May 14
Songwriting is central to much of Lee Mujin‘s appeal, and “Traffic Light” is no different. He’s able to perfectly capture the ambiguity people experience in their 20s, using a driving metaphor to represent their feelings of indecision and uncertainty in the face of an intimidating future. But that can be expressed in any medium, and compelling writing isn’t enough for me if the music isn’t also interesting. Lee Mujin seems to understand this, immediately capturing attention with the inclusion of a horn section, and the chorus really kicks things into gear with a catchy, foot-tapping affair that even ends with an electric guitar riff.
MIRAE – “Don’t Stop”
Release Date: August 25
While the pop world has been filled with synth throwbacks, “Don’t Stop” provides another interesting retro sound in the form of an old-school rap-rock mashup. The beat is a throwback in itself, the performances are delivered with appropriate aggression and confidence, and the electric guitar strums are aggressive and impactful. I didn’t expect a K-pop group to try their hand at like a modern “Walk This Way“, but here we are, and they prove it makes more sense than anticipated.
OurR – “Green”
Release Date: May 12
A melancholy underpinning gives way to surprisingly rousing chorus with smooth riffs, and the slick production helps make everything so melodic. I took away something more bittersweet from the lyrics than most seemed to, but really this is a showcase for OurR‘s vocals, as there’s an inherent sadness to the tone but it also has this unique raspy quality that works well in a band setting and pushes “Green” to the next level.
Kang Daniel – “PARANOIA”
Release Date: April 13
The creeping synths and the booming percussion fits the theme of the song perfectly, helping generate the required atmosphere of anxiety and panic that the song’s lyrics address, and it unfortunately rings as authentic since it’s something Kang Daniel has dealt with publicly. It’s a darker-themed song for sure, but it still carries the requisite melodic bursts for pop, with the dramatic pre-chorus standing out in particular as impactful.
NCT DREAM – “Hello Future”
Album: ‘Hello Future’
Release Date: June 28
There’s a lot going on in “Hello Future” yet it remarkably never seems all that messy, and a jubilant chorus with notes that oddly reminded me of Hoobastank (my brain is fucked, yes) led to it being embedded in my ear instantly. There’s an appealing happy-go-lucky, almost deluded energy to this that one usually has as a teen (perfectly appropriate for NCT Dream) before the realities of life destroys everything.
Baekhyun (EXO) – “Get You Alone”
Release Date: January 20
A rather greasy fuckboi anthem if we’re being honest, but one that sounds amazing. Baekhyun goes disco with a funky bass line, and he sells the atmosphere nicely with his airy vocal performance. The musical stylings seems tailor-made for Western audiences, which makes the Japan release a bit surprising, but the catchy melodies and the exuberant finish play in any language.
OnlyOneOf – “Libido”
Album: ‘Instinct Part 1’
Release Date: April 8
Man, this was a song that took a while to process. It immediately stood out with its unconventional, throbbing instrumental, which is somewhat sensual but has this menacing, smothering feel to it. And eventually I came to appreciate the hypnotizing atmosphere it creates, with “Libido” seemingly reveling in making the listener uncomfortable and/or confused. It doesn’t feature the trendy pop notes, but oddly enough the rhythm and repetition makes this a surprising grower. It commits to the bit and ends up with an alt R&B hit that’s both recognizable and noteworthy.