Well, this proved more difficult than I thought it would be. The sheer volume of music the K-pop industry puts out every year is staggering, but I didn’t realize quite how staggering until I was wading through it all to put together this list. At the end of the day, I think that biases played into the creation of this list more heavily than I’d have liked, but there’s no avoiding the fact that you’re more likely to take notice of the staying power of a song if it’s on an album you regularly listen to on repeat. Still, you put albums on repeat for a reason: because their quality caught your attention the first time through. The list below is as much a ranking of songs that caught my attention as it is of songs that stayed with me.
Lovelyz—Just; CLC—Call My Name; Red Velvet—You Better Know; VIXX—Black Out; GFRIEND—Contrail; The Boyz—Walkin’ in Time; PENTAGON—When I Was In Love; ZICO—Fanxy Child (feat. Fanxy Child); DAY6—Better Better; NU’EST W—My Beautiful; Oh My Girl—Agit; B1A4—Like a Child; VICTON—Timeline; Suran—Walking; DAY6—I Need Somebody.
17. Taeyeon, Love in Color: This modest, simple piano ballad relies on nothing but excellent vocal melodies and the soft, airy quality of Taeyeon’s voice to convey the emotions of the song. Taeyeon delivered a mountain of strong work this year, but the sheer prettiness of “Love in Color” makes it an irresistible standout.
16. ONF, If We Dream: I still remember walking down the street when I first listened to this song. Upon hearing the first ten seconds, I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and gasped, then slapped a hand over my mouth, earning a few concerned looks from passerby. It’s so rare to see rookies put out a ballad with any individuality to it, but ONF and a couple others up in the honorable mentions managed to set themselves apart this year with distinctive downtempo B-sides. “If We Dream,” with its exquisite composition and performance, would have blasted right through this top 17 list if the production had been clearer.
15. Girls Generation, Only One: “Holiday Night” was genuinely stacked with bops, but I had this track on repeat along with “Holiday” throughout the entirety of August. SNSD’s ice cream-sweet vocals shine on the absolutely precious composition of this charming mid-tempo.
14. SNUPER, Hide and Seek: Hello, underrated group of the century! This is not the first time I’ve raved about SNUPER’s fourth mini album, and it may not be the last. I could have pulled any B-side from the EP and it would have served the same purpose equally well. These guys can take a trend such as tropical EDM or funky pop and stretch it in ways that many other groups are incapable of doing, coming up with some of the most engaging and high-energy jams in K-pop today.
13. EXO, Lights Out: This track may seem like just another showcase of EXO’s spectacular vocals at first glance, but it soon proves itself to be so much more, displaying enormous artistry in the melodies used of the course of the song and the restraint shown in the instrumental arrangement.
12. Taemin, Stone Heart: The dynamics of this song are just so cool. Few dance tracks go off only at the end like “Stone Heart” does, but the energy built up by that point is well worth the wait. The beat explodes in the final chorus has a strange kind of gentle but indomitable power, like ocean waves, and it could carry you away.
11. Red Velvet, Body Talk: A beautiful example of Red Velvet’s versatility, “Body Talk” employs a Western-sounding, almost 80s-esque slow synth instrumental to deliver its unique vocal melody. The rhythm play here is arresting, and turns an already lovely ballad into something brilliant.
10. SEVENTEEN, Lilili Yabbay (The 13th Month’s Dance): It’s no secret how much I love this song, but it honestly still surprises me a little every time I hear it. From the day it dropped, “Lilili Yabbay” never stopped blowing my mind with its atmospheric genre-mashing. The sinister vocal melodies and electric guitar cast a spell, and it’s one that refuses to be shaken off.
9. ASTRO, With You: This song wasn’t originally my favorite ASTRO track of the year, but the more I listened to it, the harder its uptempo-pop genius hit me. The structure strikes a magic balance between repetition and variation, providing both the comfort of familiar sounds and the delight of the unexpected. Besides, it’s one of ASTRO’s most sonically pleasing songs, pulling out a number of little EDM and vocal tricks.
8. BTS, Intro: Serendipity: Jimin’s solo introduction to “Love Yourself: HER” has a wonderful way of using inventively quaint rhythms to ratchet up the sweetness of the vocal melody. The relatively spare production and gentle dynamics allow few bells and whistles to distract from this central sweetness, resulting in a song that is as peaceful as it is pretty.
7. DAY6, Whatever! (Surprise!) : I’ll tell you, it was an excruciating job paring down DAY6’s superb B-sides from this year and jigsawing them into a ranked list of K-pop songs. I could go on about how “Whatever!” has great composition and performance, but all DAY6 songs do, so there’s no point in that. The reason “Whatever!” stands out is because of its attitude. The brashness of the song is mostly tucked neatly into smug piano and sassy vocal flair, but occasionally it escapes in the form of a shout or a driving rhythm change. The fun that results is infectious.
6. Red Velvet, I Just: Red Velvet’s most impactful song of the year finds the roots of its power in the way the delicate, yearning, wistful melodies are thrown into a deliberately hammering R&B beat, which has an effect both of grace and of power. The contrast between these two coexisting elements makes the song compulsively replayable.
5. IU, Dear Name: The only song—K-pop or otherwise—that has ever brought me to tears with just one listen, “Dear Name” is yet more proof of IU’s spectacular songwriting abilities. The gorgeous lyrics shed light on the origins of the song’s emotion, but understanding them is not necessary to feel that emotion: the composition, arrangement, and vocals express it all by themselves.
4. DAY6, I’ll Try: The composition of this ballad and the vocal performance that delivers it, simultaneously solemn and sweet, are simply inspired. I want to call it a masterpiece, but something about “I’ll Try” is too precious, too dear, for such a stuffy word. This is the kind of song that makes you wish it were a person so you could grab them and hold them close.
3. EXO, Forever: Listening to “Forever” is like embarking on an adventure and suddenly realizing that it’s too big for you after it’s too late to turn back. EXO is at their very best here, gathering all the dark drama of their concept and channeling it into bold, volatile melodies, bringing out their trademark huge vocals as well as perhaps the best rap performance we’ve seen from the group.
2. IU, By the Stream: This magnificent track is all about composition, as evidenced by the forty-second piano introduction, and as anyone would expect from IU, the composition is utter heavenly bliss. IU walks the line between cohesiveness and incongruence, without ever breaking it. The result is breathtaking.
1. BTS, A Supplementary Story: You Never Walk Alone: This song, in so many ways, is so perfect. It’s magical to see each section build on the last by introducing new melodies and new beats. But above all, it’s the group’s ever-present sincerity that this track pivots on. The intensity of the members’ delivery gives a powerful impression of their genuine desire to communicate their emotions with their listeners. That special ingredient—the desire to communicate—is the key to the impact of this song and, in my opinion, to BTS’s unprecedented global success.
Listen to these songs in a playlist on YouTube here.
Take a look at rankings for other categories of KAYBOP’s 2017 Best of K-pop here.
Did I miss any great B-sides that you would put in your top 10 list? Let me know in the comments!