This post is more than a month overdue, but you know what they say–better late than never!
The 35 Best K-Pop Singles of 2012 is my official mid-year roundup of the greatest K-Pop songs released during the first half of the year. That’s between January 1st and July 1st, and if I see anybody complaining about why a song released after July 1st isn’t on the list, I will throw my crutches on the ground and threaten to yell loudly in front of everyone.
This list is singles only, so no stunning albums cuts are eligible (R.I.P. miss A’s “Lips”), and neither are K-Pop songs released exclusively in Japan (R.I.P. 2NE1′s “Scream”).
35. Ailee – Heaven
Ailee isn’t the first K-Pop artist to rip-off Beyonce, and she won’t be the last. The former Jersey girl’s debut single “Heaven” is a shameless “Halo” clone, but it improves upon Bey’s original in the same way that Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone” did. It’s easy to push the unoriginality aside and enjoy “Heaven” for the great radio pop-ballad that it is.
34. She’z – My Way
The most unfairly overlooked rookie girl group of 2012 had one of the best female debuts in recent memory and gave fellow rookies SPICA a run for their money in the vocal department with this empowering slice of bubblegum dance-rock. It’s a shame that their name rhymes with cheese, because I can’t remember the last time we had a girl group that could sing and dance like this, on top of being super hot and having good music.
33. 2BiC feat. Ailee – Love Again
Real singing and real R&B came back with a vengeance on this smooth urban groove from one of the year’s best new vocal groups. Throw in Ailee –who not only sings but also raps like a beast– and it’s a done deal.
32. IU – Every End of the Day
Korea’s sweetheart dived even deeper into the vintage pop of her past hits with this rich orchestral number. Although not deviating too far from her trademark sound, there’s enough difference in “Every End of the Day” to make it more than just “Good Day” part III.
IU’s certainly taking baby steps when it comes to her artistry, but she’s got a winning formula that hasn’t quite been exhausted yet–unlike a certain shockingly electric group that I won’t name.
31. Clazzi – Love&Hate
Clazzi took a page out of The Killers’ book with this urban-tinged new-wave track. Not nearly as amazing as his perfect collaboration with Seoulong, but still pretty great in its own right.
30. TEEN TOP – To You
Brave Brothers shamelessly recycled SISTAR’s “Alone” to create “To You”, removing the disco elements from SISTAR’s hit and replacing it with some hip-pop swag. “To You” may not be quite as good as SISTAR’s smash, but it sure is catchier, and the underlining homo-eroticism in the music video certainly is most definitely appreciated.
29. Miryo – Dirty
Like Katy-Perry-meets-Nicki-Minaj, only with talent, this tongue-in-cheek urban-pop track continued BEG’s unbroken streak of 100% flaw-free music.
28. LEDApple – Sadness
After having zero success in the ‘rock’ genre, LEDApple stole a few bits and pieces from T-ara’s “Cry Cry” and “We Were In Love” and went all new-wave-electronica on this depressing dance number. Of course it totally flopped, but hopefully LEDApple can comfort themselves by knowing that they at least managed to chart on this list.
27. U-Kiss – DORADORA
Upon its release, I wrote “DORADORA” off as another generic U-Kiss flop like the garbage “Neverland”, but I finally saw the error of my ways after revisiting the song recently. Like a masculine version of RaNia, “DORADORA” is incredibly fierce and sexy, with a hip-grinding hook and the kind of nonsensical repetition (“doradoradoradoradora”) that makes K-pop so enjoyable.
26. 10cm – Sorrow
10cm managed to churn out yet another addictive indie ditty with this breezy cover of Cool’s 1998 hit. Expect a virtually identical-sounding song to top the charts around the same time next year.
25. EXO-K – MAMA
For a group that resembles a small army of genetically-engineered pop idols, it only makes sense that EXO’s first single would sound like something that was cooked up in the world’s most top-secret musical laboratory. This genre-bending hybrid spliced together rock, rap, and R&B, threw in a screamo breakdown, and polished it all off with operatic-pop to create one of the most earth-shattering and oddly-perfect debut singles of the year.
24. miss A – Touch
To say that I was underwhelmed by miss A’s “Touch” when it first premiered is an understatement. But the sinister disco ballad slowly wormed its way into my brain until I couldn’t get enough of it. Of course, it’s no “Lips”, but then again, nothing is.
23. Gangkiz – HONEY HONEY
“HONEY HONEY” is probably the most misunderstood K-Pop song of the year. Most K-poppers were too turned off by Gangkiz’s many similarities to T-ara to appreciate the deliciously trashy europop-meets-trot sound of the song, but for those who got it, “HONEY HONEY” was an undeniably sweet guilty pleasure.
22. Verbal Jint feat. Sanchez – You Deserve Better
Verbal Jint continued his crossover from the underground to the mainstream with this gorgeous hip-hop ballad. Phantom’s Sanchez was the cherry on top, adding his soulful crooning to Jint’s slick rhyming.
Why can’t American hip-hop be this straightforward and good?
21. Junsu – TARANTALLEGRA
To say that JYJ’s Junsu slaughtered every current male pop star in the industry right now with his solo smash “TARANTALLEGRA” would be putting it lightly. When viewing the single’s official MV or watching one of the live performances, you can’t help but pity the Western pop fans who have to make do with the likes of Chris Brown and Justin Bieber instead of the gloriously gender-bending dynamo that is Kim Junsu.
20. EXO-K – What Is Love
SM Entertainment can be pretty weak when it comes to the slow stuff, but they hit a home run with EXO-K’s prologue single “What is Love”. It uses the template of TVXQ’s powerful “Before U Go”, but tones the sex and dramatics down to turn the song into the kind of silky smooth ballad that could melt the heart of an ice queen.
19. SISTAR – Alone
SISTAR’s popularity skyrocketed this year when they ditched the sexed-up europop shtick and released this sad and sensual disco jam. However, “Alone” wouldn’t be nearly as memorable as it is if it weren’t for Hyorin’s post-chorus solo spot (“Don’t tell me it’s over…”), which currently stands as one of the finest vocal moments in pop this year.
18. NS Yoon-G – The Reason I Became a Witch
You’ve gotta feel bad for NS Yoon-G. Ailee releases a blatant Beyonce knock-off and bags one of the highest-selling singles of the year, while Yoon-G releases a kick-ass urban-dance-rock concoction with one of the most original song titles of the year, and it totally flops.
17. SHINee – Sherlock
SHINee’s comeback was long overdue, but it was worth the wait. The Diplo-meets-Motown mash-up of “Sherlock” served up originality, powerful vocals, and a whole lotta diva attitude courtesy of Kween Key, all wrapped up in the kind of universally-accessible pop package that South Korea does better than anywhere else.
16. The Koxx – Love Dance
Bursting with synths and fluttery electronics, the coolest band in K-indie toned things down a bit and got romantic on this uplifting number. If recorded by any band in America or Europe, “Love Dance” would probably be a hit.
15. 4minute – Volume Up
While groups like After School and 2NE1 tried to reinvent the dance-pop genre by cluttering their tunes with everything but the kitchen sink, 4minute kept things clean and simple. The result? A killer sax riff and the best single of 4minute’s entire career.
14. Nine Muses – NEWS
Nine Muses made the switch from glam disco divas into scorned supermodels on this vengeful ’80s-inspired wig-snatcher. Made all the more better by the Muses’ impassioned delivery and aggressive lyrics, if there was ever a foreign-language pop song that needed to be in English, it’s this one.
13. Girls’ Generation-TTS – Twinkle
Who knew that SNSD could sing like this? The world’s No. 1 girl group humiliated their haters with this vocal hurricane of sass and bubblegum funk. Definitely one of the top tunes to come out of the Girls’ Generation factory–a commendable accomplishment considering that this is the group that brought us pure pop perfection like “Gee” and “Genie”.
12. Baek Ji Young feat. LeeSsang – Voice
Veteran K-diva Baek Ji Young had a Jennifer Lopez-sized comeback this year thanks to this chart-topping hit, which combined heart-wrenching balladry with the distinctive hip-hop sound of LeSsang’s Gary. The only bad thing about this song is that it never received an MV.
11. Primary and the Messengers feat Zion T – See Through
Everything Primary released this year was completely free of all flaws, but “See Through” stood out from the pack with its too-cool-for-school danceable groove and effortless style.
10. SPICA – Russian Roulette
Just like A Pink did last year, SPICA have cemented themselves as the rookie girl group of 2012. A lot of that is thanks to their dramatic single “Russian Roulette”, which features bold lyrics about suicide and utterly spine-tinging vocals, all over a bouncy synth beat courtesy of one of the best producers in pop today, Sweetune.
09. Park Ji Yoon – Tree of Life
The whispery-voiced Park Ji Yoon completed her transformation from pop idol to indie songstress with this breathtaking acoustic number.
08. BIGBANG – Bad Boy
With 2NE1 turning into one-trick-ponies and the overall mediocrity of BIGBANG’s Tonight album, I was pretty much ready to write the YG superstars off before they even made their comeback this year. I had to eat my words as soon as they returned with a string of perfect singles, the crown jewel being the hip-hop jam “Bad Boy”, which is good enough to stand alongside BB classics like “Haru Haru” and “Lies”.
07. Dal★Shabet – Hit U
Few pop stars have pulled off concept change as drastic as Dal★Shabet did this January, with the girls transforming from sugary-sweet aegyo princesses to deranged femme fatales virtually overnight. Image aside, their single “Hit U” didn’t really get the credit it deserved for how bold and out-of-the-box it truly is. Producer E-Tribe drenched a bouncing ball beat in distorted urban-rock and capped it off with murderous lyrics that so succinctly captured the blind rage that a bad breakup can bring.
If there’s anything to be learned from “Hit U”, it’s this: Don’t play with someone’s heart, or you just might end up looking like a piece of Swiss cheese lying in a pool of hot pink blood.
06. Wonder Girls – Like This
It was time for the Wonder Girls to switch up their signature retro sound, and boy did they ever. The former “Tell Me” cuties got crunk over a rump-shaking beat that suspiciously resembles Beyonce’s “Get Me Bodied”. This is the second song on the list to rip-off Beyonce following Ailee’s “Heaven”, and once again, it improves upon its source material.
“Be My Baby” was a nice re-introduction to the Wonder Girls, but “Like This” put the group back on top and showed that they still know how to knock out hits that are every bit as good as K-classics they produced at their commercial peak.
05. Nine Muses – Ticket
The most underrated flops in K-Pop deserved an all-kill and a triple crown win with “Ticket”. This high-octane non-hit saw production duo Sweetune add a mean reggaeton beat to their trademark synth-pop style, drastically freshening up their sound without straying far from their winning formula. Had T-ara recorded this hook-heavy single, it probably would’ve been as big as “Lovey-Dovey”.
04. Sunny Hill – The Grasshopper Song
Sunny Hill used an ancient fable to explore social issues over one of Lee Min Soo’s always-amazing art-pop productions. The quirky co-ed group proved that pop can still be interesting and thought-provoking without having to sacrifice the catchy hooks and melodies that make the genre so much fun, making “The Grasshopper Song” pretty much the epitome of everything Lady GaGa so unsuccessfully strived for on her over-hyped sophomore album, Born This Way.
Anyone else wanna trade-in GaGa for Sunny Hill?
03. T-ara – Lovey-Dovey
It’s hard to say exactly what it is that makes “Lovey-Dovey” so stupidly incredible. Is it the “OoooOoooOooo”? The LMFAO shuffle dance? The frivolous dance beat? The zombie-themed music video? The ridiculous Engrish repetition of “Lubby dubby dubby”? Or maybe it’s the fact that it’s actually a depressing song about being sad and alone, yet it contains each one of the things I just mentioned, and much more.
“Lovey-Dovey” is a crazy contradiction of the best (and the catchiest) kind.
02. Busker Busker – Cherry Blossom Ending
Nothing has been bigger in K-Pop this year than Busker Busker. They’re a bonafide sensation, partly in thanks to what will most likely be their signature song for years to come, “Cherry Blossom Ending”. I’ve even heard it playing in stores and cafes in Sydney! The song’s whimsical sensibility and indie-pop hook makes it impossible to resist, so it’s not hard to see why it’s outsold almost all the top pop idols and become an all-conquering crossover smash.
01. INFINITE – The Chaser
After finally achieving breakthrough success with last year’s “Be Mine”, INFINITE took their now distinctive Sweetune sound to the next level with this glittering ’80s synth-pop explosion. Epic and utterly mesmerizing, “The Chaser” stands as one of Sweetune’s finest moments and cements the production duo as one of the greatest creators in pop music today.
Oh yeah, and INFINITE’s pretty damn good too.