Korean pop had already hit the big time when 2018 rolled around, but the year saw the music reach new heights. BTS was the record-breaker, with its third full album, Love Yourself: Tear, debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200. It was the first chart-topping release by a K-pop group. BTS was also the first K-pop group to go platinum in the U.S. with single “MIC Drop.” But it was more than just BTS leading the K-pop charge in 2018. The genre surprised by expanding its music into areas like jazz and 80’s influenced pop.
10. SuperJunior, “Lo Siento”
K-pop took a surprising turn into Latin music in 2018, with several groups dabbling with a Latin sound. Old school K-pop group Super Junior became the first K-pop artists to show up on the Billboard Latin chart, debuting with “Lo Siento” at No. 13. Written by American Leslie Grace and produced by American rapper and producer duo Play-N-Skillz, the song combines English, Spanish, and Korean lyrics into a smooth experience.
9. CLC, “Black Dress”
Dropping in at No. 9 is CLC’s “Black Dress.” A refreshing girl group arrived in K-pop thanks to Cube Entertainment. The song rocks with a thumping synth and then shifts into chants of “I’m in the black dress!” The ladies don’t harmonize the way fans might be used to, but the rapping, singing, and chanting are hard to beat on the dancefloor. The accompanying video only builds even more anticipation for the day they finally drop a full album.
8. Sunmi, “Heroine” (Warning)
SUNMI has been on the scene since 2007, but neither time nor the demise of her girl group Wonder Girls has slowed her down. This song is the second of three Warning singles, all about surviving a breakup. The song shifts between genres, with the bass thumping beneath the piano as Sunmi goes from breathy vocals to powerful declarations that “the show must go on.”
7. IKon, “Love Scenario”
With this release, iKon switched up their tempo for a laid-back and refreshingly upbeat reaction to a breakup. Their 2017 hits were both fast-paced bangers, so fans really enjoyed this offbeat song that is guided by a circuitous melody. Light cowbells and piano-synth sounds actually work well for the band on “Love Scenario.”
6. Heize feat. Gaeko, “Jenga”
A K-pop song that sounds like smooth jazz a la Jamiroquai? Another pleasant surprise from K-pop singer-songwriter Heize. Although the song is all chill, it still builds into the chorus, making it a consistent player in any K-pop fan’s 2018 mix. The singer uses Jenga as a metaphor, stating “I don’t wanna play this game no more, somebody help.” In the interesting video Heize plays both the man and woman version of herself, who are in a relationship.
5. SHINee, “Our Page”
2018 posed a number of questions for hugely popular band SHINee. The group had been a chart-topper for nearly a decade when one of the five members, Jonghyun, committed suicide in December of 2017. He left a suicide note that spoke of depression and stress from K-pop fame. His death shook the entire K-pop industry. Fans and critics wondered whether SHINEee could survive without their popular lead singer, and what their sound would be after such a devastating trauma. SHINee answer the call with the album The Story of Light. The song “Our Page” is an upbeat ballad dedicated to Jonghyun’s memory. The standard R&B ballad emphasizes positivity, with no member taking the lead and all alternating verses and joining as one for the chorus.
4. IU, “BBIBBI”
On “BBIBBI” IU is confronting her haters in the most laid-back fashion. She uses synth pop to announce essentially that she is still around. IU released the single to commemorate her 10th anniversary of K-pop, and it topped every Korean music chart at once. There’s a touch of trap in the background to keep the music more interesting than a typical Casio-instrumental loop.
3. BTS, “Fake Love”
No one can deny the appeal of BTS’s “Fake Love,” which boasts a complex number of grooves that spring into a true pop hit. It boasts a catchy chorus and subdued energy that leave fans wanting more.
2. Pentagon, “Shine”
Like other K-pop groups, Pentagon is only as good as its organizing concept. The people behind the group have been attempting various concepts over the last two years, none of which produced a credible hit. Until now. With “Shine,” the 10-member band blends into something slick yet bright. The guys sing about unrequited love. The music video for “Shine” has over 100 million views on YouTube and counting.
- Red Velvet, “Bad Boy”
ed Velvet’s “Bad Boy” sounds like a song that would play well on any pop chart around the world, and it has. The song emphasizes the R&B, or “velvet” side of the group’s split personality. Prior to “Bad Boy,” the group’s biggest hits were on the “red” side, focusing on dance tracks. This track was produced by legendary K-pop producer Yoo Young Jin along with American producers The Stereotypes.