2017 saw all sorts of comebacks pass through the K-pop scene—strange, boring, spectacular, and everything in between. Many title tracks vanished from the community’s collective consciousness in a flash, and some long outstayed their welcome. A certain fraction, however, made an impression and stuck with us, becoming fixed selections on our playlists, evoking delight with live performances, and incurring intense competition for chart titles and awards. Below are the singles that I find most deserving of those awards, not only because they defined the year, but because together they sketch an outline of the things I love most about K-pop.
Honorable Mentions: VAV—Flower (You); IU—Palette (feat. G-Dragon); SEVENTEEN—Don’t Wanna Cry; The Boyz—Boy; LABOUM—Only You; Taeyeon—Make Me Love You; SNUPER—The Star of Stars; PENTAGON—Like This; Dynamic Duo & Chen—Nosedive; Red Velvet—Peek-A-Boo; BTS—Not Today; EXO—Universe; Suzy—Yes No Maybe; G-Dragon—Untitled 2014.
17. Shinhwa, Touch: Both “Yes No Maybe” and “Untitled 2014” were fighting fiercely with “Touch” for spot 17, and Shinhwa’s single only won out because of personal preferences. I just adore the way Shinhwa’s classic K-pop sound meets modern trends in “Touch,” resulting in a song that plays with both warm and cool textures. It has this timeless endurance, and besides, Shinhwa’s charisma is irresistible.
16. B1A4, Rollin: This song is pop euphoria at its best. The wonderful composition of the verses and prechoruses sets up the song to reach enormous heights in the straightforward but exuberant hook. The sheer scope of it, sunlit and sparkling, is almost bigger than should be possible for a song whose core is relatively simple, but the pure joyfulness of “Rollin” knows no bounds.
15. Girls Generation, Holiday: Another great example of the joyful possibilities of pop, “Holiday” has an irresistible beat and a hook that’s crafted for utmost catchiness. SNSD’s airy vocals are the cherry on top, making it impossible not to grin and bop your head goofily while listening.
14. SONAMOO, Friday Night: I really can’t believe no one ever talks about this bop. It’s true that SONAMOO remains unfortunately underrated even after several years, but this excellent track should have blown up the second it dropped. The jazzy, relaxed dance beat is awesome, especially in the super catchy second half of the chorus.
13. Jun. K, No Shadow: This is one of those songs that takes a few listens to stick, but once it does, you’re deeply and irrevocably addicted. “No Shadow” has the kind of heavy but nuanced R&B beat that you can feel in your bones, and Jun. K’s performance is, as usual, unforgettable.
12. PENTAGON, Critical Beauty: This was so PENTAGON’s concept. They’ve since dropped the jazz thing and moved onto angsty EDM, but they delivered so much panache in earlier singles like this song and 2016’s “Can You Feel It.” For me, the jazzy, Elvis-sampling “Critical Beauty” just slightly outshined the beautiful “Like This” purely because of the stylish flair with which they performed it.
11. NCT Dream, My First and Last: “My First and Last”, another jazz-pop gem that stands out for its retro sounds, really sets itself apart with inventive composition that is at some moments even more strange than it is catchy. The members’ lively delivery and the zippy, high-spirited strings seal the energy of the vibrant track.
10. 2NE1, Goodbye: 2NE1’s last song before disbandment is a tour de force. Incredibly powerful vocals come together with solemn melodies and that stark acoustic guitar to create an atmosphere of vast bittersweetness, as if you’re standing in the middle of a windswept, barren field under a bright blue sky. The nostalgia of “Goodbye” has an edge of desolateness, distinguishing it from other sad ballads.
9. ZICO, ANTI (feat. G.Soul): This is the third time “ANTI” has appeared on my 2017 Best of K-pop lists. What can I say, the concept was just too good. Zico’s rap style and G.Soul’s vocal are inimitable, and the sparks fly like crazy on this song. If you haven’t looked up the lyrics, do so as soon as possible, because they’re some of the best from genius songwriter Zico.
8. Suran, Still Breathe: “Still Breathe” is only OST I heard this year that came close to making it onto the Top 17 list. The composition is as breathtaking as the break of dawn, and Suran has one of the most unique and powerful vocals in K-pop today. She pours her soul into “Still Breathe,” and it’s simply beautiful.
7. Sunmi, Gashina: It’s impossible to deny how iconic this song is. It has a way of worming under your skin, with a deceptively simple dance beat and a commanding, even slightly threatening vocal hook that somehow has an empowering effect, so you can’t help but hum along. Sunmi’s star power absolutely makes the song—she knows exactly where to aim so that the hit will have the most impact.
6. NU’EST W, Where You At: Everything about this song is exciting, but the best part is the fascinating dynamic structure. The tension in the verses gallops ahead at a breathless pace, snowballing as it goes, but then that sudden still moment in the chorus makes the listener wait for the drop, arresting the momentum and then gathering it up again. Creative, enigmatic composition and production as well as skilled performances make this song one of the best EDM showings of the year.
5. DAY6, I Wait: This almost goes without saying. The energy is through the roof, and never once is it allowed to falter even for a second. The verses string it along through a series of incredible vocal rhythms, and then it takes off in the chorus with a shot and a bang. Melodically inspired and rhythmically explosive, “I Wait” is one of DAY6’s most magnificent accomplishments.
4. Wanna One, Beautiful: I’ve said this before, but the melodic nuances of this track are just astonishing. I raved about it for paragraphs when it came out and am still, to this day, discovering details I didn’t hear before. I mean, an essay could be written on all these details. There is so much poise in this composition even amid all its acute emotion, and the members have a natural sense for how to deliver it despite being rookies. Literally the only thing that could have improved this song would be to make it longer—to milk that final chorus for all it’s worth and stretch out the emotion until it couldn’t be stretched any further.
3. NCT 127, Limitless: Ah, “Limitless.” The finest example, to this day, of the group’s signature: combining creativity with catchiness. No NCT track before or since has pulled this off quite like “Limitless.” The insanely dark composition and creepy vocal fries in the rap verses are almost too bizarre to get used to, but once the genius “Ho! Ho! Wake me uuuuuUP!” hook has got you addicted, the bizarreness turns to staying power, and no matter how many times you hit replay, it never gets old.
2. IU, Through the Night: Just…wow. She’s a genius. The power of “Through the Night” isn’t just its sweetness or its compositional prowess, but the tranquility that it wraps around the listener. If it were possible to turn quiet into a song, as little sense as that makes, “Through the Night” would be that song. IU truly has brilliant songwriting intuition, and “Through the Night” makes this clear.
1. BTS, Spring Day: I’m sure my number one song of the year comes as a surprise to no one. “Spring Day” is one of the defining masterworks of the present generation. It goes far beyond breaking barriers or defying trends. “Spring Day” expresses a key aspect of the human experience, and with utmost grace. The vocal melodies give shape to the complex pain of missing someone: in them, you can hear the tenderness you feel towards a loved one, the ache that such love causes when they’re gone, and the hope that they’ll come back, all at once. “Spring Day” has enormous gravity and yet at the same time is uplifting, in a way that only art can be.
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 singles that you would put in your top 10 list? Let me know in the comments!