Senior Copy Editor
2019 was a year of unprecedented growth for K-pop — from BTS joining the ranks of artists like The Beatles with three number one albums within the same year to Blackpink becoming the first female K-pop act to headline at Coachella, the Korean pop music industry has made strides in international visibility and recognition.
The genre has been growing exponentially for good reason: the industry continues to churn out compelling, unique pop music that transcends language and borders. This year was full of excellent and genre-bending releases, but here are my top five tracks for new and curious fans.
In late February, quintet girl group ITZY broke into the K-pop scene with what might be one of the most memorable K-pop debuts in recent years. “Dalla Dalla” is representative of ITZY’s unique sound: a blend of house- and trap-laced bubblegum K-pop that takes care to never stray too far from its roots. The song opens with a pulsating house beat and contains attitude-filled rap verses that transition seamlessly into a sweetly optimistic pop chorus.
“Dalla Dalla” isn’t afraid to blend musical genres and conventions in unexpected ways, and that’s exactly what makes it such an interesting and memorable listen. With unapologetic lyrics about female empowerment and self-confidence, “Dalla Dalla” establishes ITZY as a strong newcomer to the K-pop scene.
It’s no secret that personal lyricism isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when people think of pop music. That’s what makes “Feel Special” so significant in the pop and K-pop sphere — the song’s release followed an unprecedented public announcement by JYP Entertainment that shared its support of member Mina’s struggles with mental health. The song’s lyrics, which discuss feeling supported and “special” through difficult times, have a vulnerable and honest quality that signifies a growth in the group’s musical direction.
The lyrics of “Feel Special” aren’t the only aspect of the song that represent growth for Twice. Breaking from the group’s usual bubblegum pop formula, the instrumental consists of a mature-sounding house beat, beautiful synths, and verses that showcase a myriad of different melodies. With “Feel Special,” Twice proves that you don’t have to sacrifice making meaningful music to be a successful pop group.
“Goblin” is the first solo single of late K-pop star Sulli, formerly of mega-hit girl group f(x). Co-written by the singer herself, the song and music video explores the experience of an individual with a dissociative personality disorder. This deviation from the normal pop subject matter of love and fun is also reflected in the unique instrumentation of the song, which consists of a dreamy xylophone melody and harmonicas that ring in its upbeat chorus. There’s simply no other K-pop song quite like it: its haunting instrumentation, melancholy and serious subject matter, and despite everything, the hopeful melody that persists.
This is perhaps the most honest and vulnerable we’ve ever seen Sulli. Without the perfectly styled hair and makeup and filtered lyricism of her f(x) days, we can see her as she really is: a young woman, uncertain but authentically herself nonetheless. “Goblin” is one of the most beautiful and unique K-pop songs of 2019, and one that carries with it an especially important cautionary message about mental health and compassion.
Oh My Girl’s “The fifth season” is a faithful reinterpretation of the group’s ubiquitous fairytale concept in all of the best ways possible. The song is a master of pacing: it opens with a subdued synth instrumental backed by delicate vocals, gradually introducing instrumentation that builds to the grand flourishes of the chorus. Graceful, lilting orchestral background instrumentation and background vocals add to the magical quality of the song, leading to the ultimate pay-off through the seamless tempo change in the chorus.
It’s clear why “The fifth season” propelled this veteran girl group back into the spotlight and became their most successful album in years. Equally fantastical, delicate, and yet grounded in pop sensibilities, “The fifth season” is an absolutely wonderful journey of a song that showcases just how diverse and compelling K-pop can be.
It’s no contest that the best K-pop song of 2019 was Apink’s incredibly immersive “Eung Eung.” The group is a familiar name in the K-pop scene, with a career that spans eight years and countless awards and honors. “Eung Eung,” however, is significant in that it marks a departure from the group’s prior girlish and innocent concept. It’s difficult to exactly articulate the mood that this song encapsulates — melancholy and dark, yet upbeat and unabashedly pop, “Eung Eung” is perhaps most notable for its creation of an immersive, atmospheric world for listeners.
Its expertly layered 80s-inspired dance instrumental is filled with sonic details that reveal themselves with every new listen, from dreamy female background vocals to the infectious synth arpeggio that serves as the base of the song. “Eung Eung” is an incredibly ambitious and compelling addition to Apink’s strong discography — one that promises that the group is here to stay.