This year, K-pop accelerated its expansion into all sorts of mediums — novels, podcasts, documentaries. And yet, for all the satisfaction these new forms brought with them, the music remained the heart of this global phenomenon. Despite the pandemic’s impact on the worldwide recording industry, releases from South Korea saw no decline in quantity or quality, and a slew of artists produced their best work to date.
The K-pop songs and albums that defined the year transported us to places we miss most—from the theatre to the jazz bar to the island vacation that lives only in our memories or imaginations. Some prompted nostalgia for things we once took for granted, while others inspired hope for their return. Through these releases, many of our favorite artists experimented with their sounds, all while building deeper connections with an audience they could only interact with from a distance. A talented rookie class experimented with retro sounds, while K-pop's most successful women brazenly defied expectations. Disco completely took over, and noise music prevailed.
It was also a year for career breakthroughs and major milestones, as the world's biggest superstars BTS continued to shatter records left and right and break new ground for Korean artists. They're going into the new year with three number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100, a whole quarantine album, and a Grammy nomination. And while the world got smaller, K-pop went bigger and bolder — sonically and aesthetically.
When the global coronavirus pandemic put an end to live touring, the K-pop industry brought the spectacle to our screens with immersive live concert experiences. The music never stopped, not even for a second
Whether you're a casual listener, a stan, or someone who's just genuinely curious to see what K-pop is all about, here are 10 songs from the heat of KPOP that made the hard 2020 much easier and eventually took the world by storm.
1) BTS, 'Black Swan' (Map of the Soul: 7)
BTS has connected with a worldwide fanbase in large part thanks to the universal-but-still-personal themes of their music, and 'Black Swan' represents one of their most intimate confessions. Dreamy, gloomy hip-hop soundscapes lay the backdrop for the chart-toppers to open up about their darkest fears: that they may one day fall out of love with music. Using the title as a metaphor – to represent both the one-of-a-kind phenomenon they are and the 2010 movie where a ballerina makes the ultimate sacrifice for her art – the superstar septet investigates their underlying anxieties whilst declaring that they won’t let fear win over passion in the end. It’s a full-fledged motion picture-packed into just over three minutes to tell a rare, real-life story of one of the world’s biggest stars
2) TXT, 'Can’t You See Me' (The Dream Chapter: ETERNITY)
On 'Can’t You See Me' TXT pulls the dark undercurrent of their youthful whimsy out from under the bed. Crunchy electric guitars and a jaunty whistle add a refreshing contrast to the track’s trap underpinnings, but where it best exposes its murkiness is through the quintet's vocal performances. Alternating between distorted tremolo vocals, hushed whisper-raps, and delicate verses wisping like curls of smoke, the members’ voices lurch between dulcet and disorienting as they reveal the cracks in a friendship. Through unsettling sounds and an idyllic music video that devolves into something frightening, TXT lay bare a horror rarely spoken of: watching a friendship fade before your eyes
3) Twice, “I CAN’T STOP ME” (Eyes Wide Open)
Like Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga, Twice were hip to electro basslines this year in “I CAN’T STOP ME.” The girl group bask in the elastic, strobing synth that pulses under the glamorous nu-disco track, and it snaps into formation with the chorus. The song calls for a grand celebration, but they’re too distracted trying not to indulge in their own treacherous desires: “I just can’t go back anymore/ Out of control,” Chaeyoung sings before the rest of the group fully surrender to temptation. Twice fight to keep cool, though it’s hard to notice when they nail such a spotless performance.
4) WOODZ, “BUMP BUMP” (WOOPS!)
This was a great year for soloists in K-pop, and no one was more honest with themselves than WOODZ. The push-and-pull of any romance is often the most enticing yet stressful aspect of it all. Amidst airy promises from his lover is the dreary prospect of being left alone, but he approaches this mixed-messaging with a refreshing candour. In our own whirlpools of flirting and call backs, IG-reels and missed messages, “BUMP BUMP” was comfortingly straightforward – with WOODZ relaying what he wants, exactly how he wants it. It was the wrong year to be young and in love in 2020, but at least we had WOODZ to keep us company.
5) Weki Meki, “COOL” (NEW RULES)
Weki Meki revamp their approach in 'Cool' by swapping their preppy dance-pop for steely electro. The group’s demeanor is as spartan as the icy beat, and they amplify their bratty voices to assert their flawlessness. Their cockiness peaks in the chorus, which doubles as a taunt and a mantra: "Be hotter/ Beyond the control,” they sing like a drill instructor. “Get out of all the boring rules.” If “Cool” sounds standoffish, then the song succeeds at what it sets out to do. Weki Meki don’t aspire to be a role model for attainable, girl-crush cool but instead point out the gap between you and them. “Cool” is a conceited celebration of self, though sometimes it just feels satisfying to flaunt what you got.
6). GFRIEND, 'MAGO' (回:Walpurgis Night)
'MAGO' distils disco to its very best qualities, shimmering – quite literally – with synths and steady beats, building a heady, atmospheric high. As cohesive as it is musically, its magic lies in how perfectly it fits into the ethos of 回:Walpurgis Night. The album is built on the idea of modern witches, at the centre of which are women who exercise the same agency and power of the song’s namesake, and GFRIEND has fun while doing it. Interspersed with images of the girls dancing the night away – not what you’d expect from a concept dealing with the occult – are lyrics that brim with confidence and ambition. Instead of believing in fairy tales and waiting for a Prince Charming, their only love is the images of themselves smiling in the mirror. It’s a cheeky way to poke fun at how society perceives self-assured women since the title itself translates to 'wizard.' In celebrating their limitless ambition, 'MAGO' casts a spell that keeps you coming back for more.
7) SEVENTEEN, 'Left & Right' (Heng:garæ)
'LEFT & RIGHT' is so exuberant that every sound – from doorbell chimes to 808 cowbells, organ synth riffs to full-bodied brass – bursts forth like aural confetti. One could readily claim SEVENTEEN have made their own 'Cupid Shuffle' but they’re aiming for something beyond mere dance instructional: this is a song for transforming every moment into a cause for celebration. In a time when in-person parties aren’t possible, 'LEFT & RIGHT' converts bedrooms into dancefloors. And with exultant shouts and energized rapping, they tell you to keep your chin up, to run down red carpets, to dance. SEVENTEEN act as leaders and hype men here, but the role they fill best is that of life coaches: despite their talk of races and finish lines, they exclaim that “not running is an answer too / who cares what we do.”
They grant permission to simply be: a reminder that surviving every day is enough right now. And after all, if you’re not moving forward, why not move "LEFT & RIGHT,” right? They understand something that should be taught in schools around the world: busting your ass should be supplemented with time spent shaking it.
8) Apink, 'Dumhdurum' (LOOK)
K-pop tends to be a young person's game – both the industry and its labels regularly shift their priorities to younger artists – but Apink’s 'Dumhdurum' makes an exceptional case for the continuing effort and investment in senior acts. The track opens with a swirling synth-pop hook strong enough to stand as a chorus on its own, before diving into verses and choruses that strike pop gold with just the right amount of catchy repetition and melancholy longing.
Apink detail the complexity of remaining calm in the presence of a past love, even when one’s heart's still beating dumhdurum for them – a concept that could be difficult for younger groups to believably pull off. This mature message successfully connected with a large audience, and 'Dumhdurum' became a knockout success in both Korea (topping all local music charts) and the Billboard charts (tying for their longest-running hit on World Digital Song Sales).
Nine years into their career, Apink are still more than equipped to bring their A-Game, and that deserves larger recognition all in itself for the industry to pay equal attention to both its senior and developing artists. Matured musical magic awaits.
9). EVERGLOW, 'LA DI DA' (-77.82x-78.29)
Thanks to a virtual flattening of borders, musical trends in the States now get reflected in K-pop in real-time. Throughout 2020 – in both the U.S. and South Korea – throwback sounds were ubiquitous. This year’s K-pop magnum opus, EVERGLOW’s 'LA DI DA' mirrored the US’ pop magnum opus, The Weeknd’s 'Blinding Lights' only months after its release. But where The Weeknd’s work is chilling and sinister in its search for love, EVERGLOW’s is a spry kiss-off to all the haters, the bad guys, and the players.
A successful pastiche of the 80's that’s crafted by producer Ollipop, 'LA DI DA' blends myriad influences: the layered cheerleader chants of Toni Basil's 'Mickey' the spunky girl power of Cyndi Lauper and the Go-Go's, the na-na-nas of Bananarama, and above all, the shimmering synth-pop sound that permeated the top half of that decade. 'LA DI DA' melds these all together, with K-pop twists: a killing part punctuated by handclaps, a tempo-shifting rap section carried by leader E:U, and an earworm of a melody evocative of early 2010's K-pop – a time when choruses were packed with hooky vocal melodies instead of hollow drops.
10) 'Lovesick Girls', BLACKPINK
The arrival of BLACKPINK’s first full-length album — so highly anticipated at the project was simply titled The Album—was one of K-pop’s biggest news events in 2020. While the pre-release singles 'How You Like That' and 'Ice Cream' with Selena Gomez charted higher on the Billboard Hot 100, 'Lovesick Girls' is the true gem on the album. The heavy electronic production characteristic of BLACKPINK’s crowd-riling bops remains intact, but it’s stripped back to accentuate sung melodies from the four members. Their voices are layered over an acoustic guitar to create a breezy and mellow ambience, taking a more pensive and melancholic turn from the hard-hitting nature of the group’s 2018 and 2019 title track.
While 2020 has been far from a banner year for K-pop, with the coronavirus pandemic impacting the industry through disbandments, cancelled tours, and shelved comebacks, there have been enough pleasant surprises to keep fans plugged in. BTS’ success these days can make it hard to recall that they were once considered the underdogs of the K-pop industry. The seven-piece group didn’t come from a big management firm, and at the time of their debut, they stood out for not sounding (or looking) overly packaged or produced. Instead, BTS was built by their fans — the 'Army' — who rallied behind the group. This month, the Army’s influence has extended beyond music and into social justice, when the loyal fanbase helped to match the group’s $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter. That followed a coordinated campaign by K-pop fans just days earlier, when fans came together to drown out the racist #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter by spamming it with irreverent memes and fan cams.
For anyone who still thought K-pop was a passing fad or a niche subset best left to the 'world music' fringes, the recent rallying of the fandoms (not to mention a host of spirited new releases) has underlined the fact that K-pop is more than just another overseas import — it’s officially a global force.
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