The Best K-Pop Songs Of 2019
Korean artists made some of the most creative tracks this year. These are a few of our favorites.
If 2018 was the year Korean music finally began turning heads in America, 2019 was the year it fully held everyone’s attention. A successful global industry for more than two decades, K-pop didn’t immediately find its hold in the American mainstream. But this year, the vibrant scene became too ubiquitous to ignore: BTS historically topped the Billboard album charts for a third time, graced magazine covers, and continued to obliterate records; Korean groups like Monsta X and NCT 127 collaborated with other big-name peers across the globe; dozens of other acts like BLACKPINK, TWICE, and SuperM sold out major venues across the country.
It was also a year for major change in the Korean music industry. Even though K-pop prides itself on being a mix of genres and bending the rules, groups continue to further push past boundaries and experiment with innovative styles, concepts, and even languages. Beyond the sonic, however, the industry was faced with injuries, hiatuses, pain, and tragic loss, and forced to finally make steps to take better care of the health of its idols. Korea as a whole still has a ways to go in terms of battling the stigma of mental illness, online bullying, and misogyny. The events of recent years, and this year in particular, however, have the potential to lead to a turning point in promoting more transparency and care for its hard-working artists. And hopefully, this honesty and emphasis on self-care will positively affect both fans who look to idols as models, as well as the quality and depth of the music and art released.
While evolution and reassessment have been hallmarks of 2019, one thing definitely has remained unchanged: Korean artists have made some of the most creative and exciting music this year. Picking the best music from groups that produce multiple albums a year in addition to solo work is especially challenging. So while this list cannot be comprehensive, it aims to span the spectrum of releases. It does, however, exclude groups that don’t release music in Korean. (Hence the reason NCT’s Chinese unit WayV unfortunately did not make the cut. Stream “Moonwalk.”) Honorable mentions go to X1’s “Move” and IZ*ONE’s “Violeta" (though the groups are riddled with controversy and scandal, a bop is a bop), LOONA’s “Butterfly,” and Taeyeon’s heartbreaking ballad “Blue.”
Ahead are some of the best K-pop tracks of the year.
29. EXO-SC “What A Life”
If you want to know what a driving with the windows down on a perfect summer day sounds like, look no further than “What A Life,” the single from EXO-SC, the duo made up of EXO rappers Chanyeol and Sehun. And then follow it up with the second track, “Just Us 2” featuring Gaeko. Sure, say what you want about the music video tropes that may have distracted a few fans in “What A Life”’s celebratory music video, but it’s pretty refreshing to see the two K-pop superstars let loose and get silly. In fact, it’s pretty contagious.
28. NCT Dream “Boom”
If it wasn’t clear by now, NCT Dream are no longer simply the gum-chewing teenage boys they once were. Their 3rd EP, We Boom, sees the Dreamies grown-up, and only continuing to mature in music and performance. “Boom” packs the perfect punch a lead single should, but don’t skip over “119” and “Bye My First...,” which prolong “Boom”’s sweet aftertaste.
27. AB6IX “Breathe”
With the amount of star power that makes up AB6IX (including two former MXM and two former Wanna One members), one wouldn’t have necessarily expected their first single to be the relatively subdued house banger “Breathe.” But the textured production and Daehwi-penned lyrics touching on a South Korean social issue (fine dust pollution), showed that this group isn’t here to simply skate by. They have something to say.
26. ITZY “DALLA DALLA”
The world — let alone the K-pop world — was ready for a new girl group to shake up the status quo. In came ITZY, JYP’s newest powerhouse rookies, who were more than up for the task. Their battle cry? Self-love.
25. CLC “No”
In 2019, CLC declared that no means no. The thumping female empowerment anthem tows the line between playful and resolute, as the seven-member group disavow high heels, red lips, earrings, and literally send them to their grave.
24. Taemin “Want”
It’s often hard for members of successful bands to find their own distinct sound and identity when they release solo work, but it’s abundantly clear that SHINee maknae (youngest member) Taemin knows exactly who he is. Elevated and sleek aesthetics, artful choreography, and dulcet breathy vocals come together in “Want” like a delicious and heady drug.
23. Monsta X “Follow”
This year, Monsta X played with a plethora of different sounds, styles, and languages. Among their best work, we’d be remiss not to mention the funky — and tongue-in-cheek — “Monsta Truck,” as well as the soft, ethereal “Someone’s Someone.” But the bold, distant Middle Eastern-cousin to Monsta X’s “Hero,” “Follow,” finds the balance between taking a risk while still sounding unmistakably themselves.
22. Pentagon “SHA LA LA”
After closing the chapter on Pentagon’s most successful yet painful year, many expected the group to walk cautiously into 2019. Instead, the band led with soaring dance track “SHA LA LA”, the title being a play on words for “신나는 토요일 불타는 이 밤,” which roughly translates to “let’s light up this Saturday night.” Pentagon’s spirit remains unwavering.
21. SF9 “Enough”
In the oversaturated ecosystem of K-pop boy bands, SF9, though stacked with talented triple-treats, often finds itself overlooked in the mix. But this year saw two strong singles from the FNC Entertainment-backed group: “RPM,” the boundless electro-pop/EDM banger with a hell of a drop, and the sensuous “Enough,” a sleek dance track that celebrates having a strong sense of self-worth.
20. ASTRO “Moonwalk”
After three years of hard work, Astro finally got their due at the top of this year with a first music show win for the shimmering “All Night.” The song very much deserved the recognition, but the true hidden gem is B-side “Moonwalk,” in which Astro give their usual airy softness a break and let a more sultry confidence take center stage.
19. EVERGLOW “Bon Bon Chocolat”
One of the biggest K-pop debut singles, Everglow’s “Bon Bon Chocolat” is equal parts sultry and hard-hitting, especially its most captivating element: the dramatic ebb and flow of the chorus.
18. Oneus “LIT”
It’s always fun to see artists take pride in their culture, and rookie sextet Oneus’ “LIT” is no exception. The song mixes traditional Korean instruments, chants, and fashion with hip-hop beats, making for a lively and vibrant performance that’s nearly impossible to not want to join in on. 가자!
17. BLACKPINK “Kill This Love”
16. EXO “Obsession”
EXO begins their hypnosis from the very first bars of the opening, unrelenting hook (“I want you”); Once you're trapped, layers of wobbling synths, spitfire raps and powerful vocals keep you under their spell. Despite waiting to release their latest hit until the penultimate month of the year, the strength of EXO and self-assuredness of “Obsession” reminds us why the group is one of the best in the business.
15. Stray Kids “Double Knot”
While JYP’s next bet Stray Kids had strong singles with the bold “Miroh” and unsettling “Side Effects” earlier this year, “Double Knot” off of Clé 3: Levanter embodies exactly what makes the rookie powerhouses so unique: their ability to create thunderous, textured music that is filled with meaning. The hip-hop and trap-inspired single is about taking control of your destiny, and, even if it isn’t completely clear yet, running full-speed ahead towards it.
Hidden within GOT7’s album Spinning Top: Between Security & Insecurity is the Jinyoung-penned “끝,” meaning “the end” — a fluttering, pop B-side that deals with the bittersweetness of endings. Their most recent album's funk-laden lead single “You Calling My Name” is actually one of their best to date, but “끝”’s beautiful sentimentality makes it especially hard to topple.
13. Hwasa “TWIT”
It was in many ways a breakout year for K-pop girl group Mamamoo, but arguably even more so for its maknae and husky vocalist Hwasa, one of the fiercest women in the game. “TWIT,” her first solo single, perfectly captures Hwasa’s playfulness, as she paints a picture of a relationship in which one party is too invested in the undeserving other.
12. Chung Ha “Gotta Go”
The former I.O.I member seems to consistently build on her success with every comeback, and many are finally starting to take notice (and she now has one more MAMA award to prove it). “Gotta Go,” released at the very beginning of the year, captivated with its sultry “Latin-inspired” whistles and horns, as well as its distinctive, slow motion point choreography.
11. NU’EST “BET BET”
Three years since the release of their last album together (the group went on hiatus while Hwang Minhyun took part in the now-defunct Wanna One), NU’EST made their grand return with this smooth future bass single. The song admittedly took a bit to catch on — but its soaring chorus and seductive hook proved to ultimately be the right bet.
10. SuperM “I Can’t Stand The Rain”
When it was announced that SM Entertainment would form a supergroup with its most prized artists (SHINee’s Taemin, EXO’s Baekhyun and Kai, NCT 127’s Mark and Taeyong, and WayV’s Ten and Lucas), many assumed that the “Avengers of K-Pop” would release an EP tailored to American tastes. Instead, SuperM subverted expectations and doubled down on their Korean identity: namely, in electro-pop B-side “I Can’t Stand The Rain.” Adorned with traditional Korean drums and a sighing haegeum, the song beautifully captures the spirit of both tradition and evolution — and doesn’t need to compromise.
9. Baekhyun “UN Village”
The fact that a song about a very specific apartment complex for the uber-rich in Seoul’s Hannam neighborhood is one of the best R&B jams of the year is a testament to Baekhyun’s power as a vocalist and storyteller. It’s light and airy, yet oozes with sensuality as the EXO member’s tenor fills each nook of the song with his dulcet falsetto. Never has real estate been so sexy.
8. BTS “Jamais Vu”
With their introspective Love Yourself album trilogy, BTS explored the meaning of self-acceptance. With Map of the Soul: Persona, they’re looking outward, trying to make sense of their place in the world. Though leader RM’s spitfire “Intro: Persona” is one of the strongest, most underrated tracks on the EP, Persona’s best moment is arguably its darkest: “Jamais Vu,” named after the opposite of “déjà vu,” in which a person is faced with a situation they’ve seen many times but can’t remember. The soaring ballad, led by vocalists Jin and Jungkook, is wrought with pain and frustration as they, along with rapper J-Hope, beg for a quick cure to keep from dealing with the painful realities they face in everyday life.
7. TWICE “Fancy”
The lead single off of Twice’s Fancy You encompasses many of the reasons why the girl group is one of Asia’s most beloved — the cheeky delivery, saccharine chorus, cutesy exclamations, and the ability to be both approachable and mysterious at the same time. And while the nine-member group played around with a few fresh sounds in B-sides “Girls Like Us” (co-written by Charli XCX) and club banger “Trick It,” they proved once again that you can’t have too much of a good thing.
6. ATEEZ “Say My Name”
The pirate kings of K-Pop already established themselves as the rookie group you don’t want to mess with in 2018. But the strength and character of ATEEZ’s second EP and lead single, “Say My Name,” proved the group’s staying power as it once again brought the dramatic flair, passionate vocals and raps, as well as the charisma that turned heads since their debut. ATEEZ have since weaved a captivating narrative about seeking your life’s treasure, and we’re more than happy to join the hunt.
5. SEVENTEEN “Getting Closer”
Seventeen, who rose to international fame with bright, boyish concepts, indulge in their “Darkteen” side for the first time with “Getting Closer” — a song that teeters deliciously on the precipice of danger. As with most things for the 13 multi-hyphenates, they pull it off, using their razor-sharp choreography, emotive vocals, and scalding bars to delight fans in a thrilling, new way. The group hasn’t completely gone to the dark side (see mellower standout “Happy Ending”) but seeing the self-producing group continue to push their sonic boundaries is a harbinger of an exciting 2020.
4. NCT 127 “Highway To Heaven”
From the moment NCT 127 unveiled the expansive pop song at the Newark stop of their NEO CITY - The Origin World Tour, we immediately knew that this was a turning point for the group. While more out-there, experimental songs have defined NCT 127’s sound for a while, “Highway To Heaven”’s (and title track “Superhuman,” to an extent) relative straightforwardness brilliantly highlights the members’ vocal strengths. And for those who need a fix of the SM Entertainment team’s signature quirk, look no further than the group’s strong Japanese 2019 EP, Awaken.
3. Apink “%% (Eung Eung)”
Last year, K-pop vets Apink surprised fans by shedding their usual girl-next-door image in the fiery “I’m So Sick.” In this year’s follow-up, “%%,” the women only build on that confidence as they decide that instead of waiting for The One to come along, they’ll create their own. Saturated in girlish pinks but with a little bite, the retro-pop world Of “%%” is deliciously fun and impossible to get out of your head.
2. Day6 “Sweet Chaos”
Day6 is in every definition a Korean rock band, but they tend to find themselves somewhere in the nebulous K-pop bucket. Regardless, the band’s contributions this year — first, The Book of Us: Gravity and later The Book of Us: Entropy — can’t be understated. The former EP yanked us back to the sunny nostalgia of early aughts pop-punk. The latter, fronted by the rollicking “Sweet Chaos,” hones in on an edgy, classic rock sound that at times feels just a hair unhinged — just enough to let loose and headbang without any guilt.
1. TXT “Crown”
When Tomorrow X Together (read as "Tomorrow By Together”) was set to debut in March of this year, a lot was uncertain, and the pressure was on. Would they be created in the image of their sunbaes (seniors) BTS? Would they be polar opposites? What would their concept be? One thing was fairly certain, however: as a member of the Big Hit Entertainment family, TXT’s release would be a certiable bop with a message. Enter “Crown,” the vibrant, synth-pop debut single in which the five young artists turn the fear of growing pains into something to be empowered by — to wear on their head like a crown. Just as BTS has always spoken to the issues of their generation, TXT do as well, in an often magical, graceful, and artful way that now feels completely their own.