While 2020 might be the year that shall forever not be named again, these were the 10 K-pop tracks that made it a tiny bit more bearable.
Well, here we are. Almost to the end of the year that pushed us all to our boundaries. As COVID took hold of the world and put everything to a stop, we were forced to reevaluate a lot of things. Amidst a pandemic that took loved ones from us and forced us to give up things that we might have put our hearts and souls into, listening to music understandably took a backseat. After all, who has the mental bandwidth for that when uncertainty looms ahead?
Yet, music became the one channel through which a lot of us escaped to simpler times. Maybe that’s why a common musical theme around the world — not just K-pop — was the very welcome return of retro. Indeed, it was the flavor of choice for K-pop as well.
While retro emerged as the goliath in terms of genre, K-pop also delivered a refreshing honesty through songs that spanned the gamut, whether it was talking about creative burnout or getting in touch with a darker side of yourself. Whatever your choice of poison, there was something for everyone here. The 10 K-pop tracks below are in no particular order, purely because they made a hard year slightly more bearable and made us all feel normal in a year of abnormalities.
So, here are 10 K-pop tracks from 2020 that saved this hellhole of a year.
‘Pporappippam’ comes seeped in Sunmi’s excellent vocal flavor and the recollection of her yesteryears with Wonder Girls, who became best known for retro sounds.
In 2020, however, Sunmi brought a fresh, addictive charm to the tried and tested synths and funky guitar loops. As she recalls a magical “purple” night that now seems far out of reach, you’re pulled into a visual dreamscape of love and ecstasy that’s hard to escape.
A.C.E: ‘Goblin (Favorite Boys)’
While A.C.E had steadily been climbing the ladder and making a permanent space on our radars with consistent yet underrated releases, this was the year they fully emerged as a powerhouse act, thanks to the magic of ‘Goblin (Favorite Boys).’
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The track is a cornucopia of rock, hip-hop, and synths, but brining it to endearing perfection is the confidence that rings through every part of the song. ‘Goblin (Favorite Boys)’ is a tribute to A.C.E’s own homegrown rhythm, doing a wonderful job of pulling us into their tempting, exciting world.
BTS: ‘Black Swan’
Despite the pandemic, 2020 is the year that will go down as a golden one in the history books for BTS. Not only did they become the first act ever to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart with a Korean song, but also the only act in history to have multiple No. 1 debuts on the Hot 100 with ‘Dynamite’ and ‘Life Goes On’.
Later, ‘Dynamite’ also earned a much-deserved Grammy nomination in the Best Pop/Dup Performance category, making them the first Korean act to do so.
The crowning jewel in what was a strong musical year for them, however, is ironically a song where they actively admit to feeling unsure about their commitment to music. Minimal and pared back compared to other releases, Black Swan is an evocative description of what happens when the art you make your life becomes a burden on your shoulders.
Accompanying the song is a music video fit for the dynamism BTS have come to redefine — as we wind through the hallways of a theatre, the members’ own storylines take a darker turn akin to the cinematic namesake of the song, where the place that supposedly gives them liberation now scares them.
‘Black Swan’ is perhaps BTS’ most honest track about what it means to be them, a distilled product of the honesty that defines them as an act.
If one were to make a list of veteran acts that need to be commended for their reinvention even after years in the industry, Apink will easily take the top slot. Starting with 2018’s ‘I’m so sick‘, this girl-group has come to be known for addictive earworms, at the core of which are powerful women who are claiming agency of their life and love.
‘Dumhdurum’ combines all of that with soaring trumpet sounds and a heady beat one cannot help but dance to. Their hearts might be calm after this — the song’s title is a play on the Korean word for ‘keeping cool’ — but we sure are left breathless in the wake of their power.
SEVENTEEN: ‘Left & Right’
At first listen, ‘Left & Right’ seems a song misplaced in a year like this. After all, contrary to what SEVENTEEN claimed in the song, we were all definitely not ‘feeling good without any worries.’ It’s in this innocent celebration of good times, however, that the song’s charm lies.
As Seventeen tell us to follow their lead in what is quite literally a party of a song, they also deliver a simple, comforting message: it’s okay. You don’t always have to keep running and going forward. They realize how tough the very act of keeping calm and carrying on is, so they ask us to take a break, and move ‘Left & Right’ for once.
TWICE: ‘I CAN’T STOP ME’
TWICE have been on a streak of reinvention for the past couple of years. From the mature, straight-laced game they play in last year’s ‘FANCY’ to the confident young women preaching self-love in ‘Feel Special‘, this nine-member group has proved that bubblegum isn’t K-pop’s only flavor. ‘I CAN’T STOP ME’, in many ways, feels like the crowning jewel in this journey.
The track comes laden with all the best elements of disco: mesmerizing synths, steady and fast-paced beats, and a choreography to boot. It’s all held together in perfect synchronous musicality by their powerful vocals, enough to keep one coming back for more and more. See what I did there?
EVERGLOW: ‘LA DI DA’
Everglow have been making us sit up and pay attention ever since their debut with ‘Bon Bon Chocolat‘, but the sophistication on ‘LA DI DA’ takes them out of rookie territory and plants them firmly in the Favorites category.
In a year that bombarded us with disco and 80s-inspired music, ‘LA DI DA’ offered one of the more exciting takes on the genre, weaving it seamlessly with modern influences like hip-hop. The cherry on top was the Sin City inspired music video, perfect for depicting young, ambitious women who have ‘got no time for haters’, and would rather dance to their own tune.
It seems counterintuitive that at a time where parties were the last thing on our mind, we were surrounded by a genre that’s characterized by, well, letting loose. If anyone brought us to the proverbial floor (in our houses), however, it was this sparkling, glittering carnival celebrating modern women who aspire to be ‘the light and the darkness, lies and the truth’.
Built on the concept of modern witches, ‘MAGO’ is both ironic and reverent, because it celebrates a symbol that’s historically been associated with the occult, but views it from the lens of a modern feminist: after all, what were witches but the women who dared to do something different in a time that did not understand them? All this comes wrapped in the neat bow of a catchy chorus, making this a true celebration of womanhood.
Pop-rock combined with heady visual imagery and sonic comfort on LUCY’s ‘Jogging’, a song that, contrary to its upbeat nature, encouraged us to slow down and watch the flowers bloom. Everything about ‘Jogging’ reminds us of lost youth: in supposedly the best years of our lives, we’re all often chasing goals that we might not always identify with. With forgotten hopes that we bury deep inside our hearts, we “run without rest” to places we know nothing of.
When you think about, ‘Jogging’ is a deceptive track. Masked by the peppy guitar riff and tap-inducing beats is a profound question: “Are you really living the life you dreamed of?” In its sonic and visual dizziness, the song forces us to reflect on our dreams, and why the heck we gave them up in the first place.
With every new release, Taemin manages to stretch the boundaries of his artistry while also diving deep into his own self, reckoning with parts of his psyche that one might usually shy away from. ‘Criminal’ is one such conversation with temptation and hedonism, but the way he approaches it is perhaps best explained by the very first visual we get in the extravagant music video.
Taemin starts off with his hands tied, speaking to an unknown entity about how he is well aware of what surrendering to this feeling will do to him. As he talks about escaping, however, it becomes clear that he’s only pushing weakly against the temptation of something darker: in fact, when he easily takes off the tie that binds his hands, we find that resistance was futile all this time, as are we against his power.
With ‘Criminal’, Taemin casts a powerful spell on all of us — one containing pleasure and pain at the same time, compounded by his ethereal vocals. Safe to say, we never stood a chance.