As the online influence of K-pop spreads rapidly around the world, the industry has zeroed in on what makes a group blow up. 2017 saw a surge of powerful, distinctive concepts and picture-perfect visuals, as well as an increase in idols self-producing and the unnerving growth of the influence of survival shows. While second- and third-rate groups continue to be held back by the desire to conform to trends and please crowds, the most successful artists pursue individuality, aiming to establish a unique or characteristic sound that attracts and sustains a devoted fanbase. Here are the ten artists whose work in 2017 set them apart from the rest.
Honorable Mentions: WINNER; LABOUM; gugudan; SNUPER; Taemin; BTOB; ZICO; PENTAGON; SEVENTEEN.
10. NCT: The only artist with more than one song on my Top 17 Singles of 2017 list, NCT had some of the very best title tracks of the year. While some comebacks were better than others, the rookie group proved that they are unafraid to take risks, pushing for edginess that ultimately had enormous staying power.
Representative song: “Limitless” because kill me this song was so good I don’t even know how to construct an organized sentence about it anymore.
9. Suran: Suran is rising, fast, and it’s so exciting to see. The brilliant singer-songwriter has drawn comparisons to frontrunners like K-R&B artist Heize and Korea’s sweetheart IU, but Suran has an individual pop sound that she owns completely. After two collaborations with BTS’s Suga slingshot her into the public eye, Suran was able to gain a foothold in the industry in 2017 and it looks like she’ll only keep going up.
Representative song: “Wine,” the famous one that Suga produced.
8. NU’EST: In what’s been called the best reversal story in K-pop history, five-year-old and failing boy group NU’EST went on survival show Produce 101 this year as a last-ditch effort to avoid disbandment and, quite deservingly, saw their popularity skyrocket afterwards. The quality of their fall comeback and their impact on the final results of P101 easily makes them one of the most relevant artists of the year.
Representative song: “Where You At,” of course.
7. EXO: EXO, alarmingly, might not have quite made this list if not for the release of their incredible winter album at the very last second. The refined and powerful sound that made 2016 EXO so special seemed to slip a little this year, and they were only able to salvage it with “Universe” a few weeks ago. That’s not to say there weren’t some great moments on “The War” and “The Power of Music,” but “Universe” displays a consistency and depth that feels like the level EXO deserves to be on.
Representative song: “Forever,” but not because it was my favorite EXO song of the year—I mean, it was, but besides that, it assembled all of the most remarkable elements of EXO’s music together in one track: a dark, dramatic atmosphere, an incredibly adventurous but never disparate melody, a hot-to-the-touch, simmering and eventually explosive instrumental, expertly handled phrasing, surprising rhythm details, creative use of musical instruments, massively tense dynamic ups and downs, insane vocals, perfect layering of background harmonies, oh my god I’m still talking. Um.
6. Taeyeon: Wow, this girl really killed it this year! Three solo comebacks and not one bad song—that’s an impressive feat. The sheer volume of music that Taeyeon released this year is remarkable enough, but it was all great, if mostly quite typical-Taeyeon, and in the midst of it all, she even participated in a full-album, double-title-track Girls Generation comeback. Few artists were more productive this year, and Taeyeon deserves a round of applause.
Representative song: “Fine,” a perfect example of her melodic, accessible sound.
5. Wanna One: The daunting shadow of Produce 101 seemed to loom over almost everything that happened in K-pop this year, but one of the many good things that came out of the insanely popular show was Season 2’s final product, new boy group Wanna One. I spoke a bit about this in my Top 10 Group Debuts of 2017 list, but it would be unfair to discount the unparalleled influence of this group just because they’re technically rookies. Wanna One had an explosive impact on the industry in the latter half of 2017, and the depth of their releases show that it’s not just hype—these guys have real ability, and even realer potential.
Representative song: “Beautiful.” Catch me blinking back tears as I try to restrain myself from starting in on another rant about how much I love this song.
4. Red Velvet: Probably the fastest-rising girl group in the industry today, and for good reason, Red Velvet blasted to the forefront of the K-pop scene this year with three outstanding comebacks. They experimented with sounds and genres while never quite losing their quirky Red Velvet edge, and set themselves apart with a massive collection of B-sides that were all just as rock-solid as their title tracks. Red Velvet is one of the groups whose next move I am most anticipating in 2018.
Representative song: “Red Flavor,” which, while not my favorite RV track of the year, was a defining song not only of the summer but of the entire year in K-pop.
3. BTS: These guys went off in 2017 like nothing K-pop has ever seen before. Last year’s incredible title tracks tapped at the glass between BTS and a Western breakthrough, and this year, they threw their full weight against it and shattered it. 2017 saw BTS release a mountain of gorgeously produced pop music as well as one of the most beautiful songs that K-pop has ever delivered (*cough* “Spring Day” *cough*), tearing through South Korea and cavorting all around the United States. They were scary productive, to the point that most of us would be more gratified to see them rest than keep up their schedule. Even so, there’s no denying that the impact of all this productiveness has only accelerated their momentum. At the rate they’re going, I wouldn’t be surprised if BTS are the biggest group in the world by the end of 2018.
Representative song: “DNA,” because I think it’s most indicative of the direction the guys are taking as of this moment in their career.
2. DAY6: Obviously, it would be a crime not to include an artist that released a title track every month on this list. But DAY6’s year goes far beyond the “oh wow” factor of the sheer magnitude of comebacks. The depth these guys have is unendingly astounding. On just about every song they turn out, they demonstrate a superior ability to pour emotion into surpassingly gorgeous composition. They’re not just one of the best rock bands in South Korea, but one of the best rock bands in the world, and I mean that.
Representative song: “Better Better,” which would make me bitter that it wasn’t the title track if it were possible to feel any negative emotion while listening to this jubilant and very DAY6 song.
1. IU: This year, the crown goes to K-pop’s reigning queen. IU is always prolific, and always popular for that matter, but she came barreling through 2017 like a train with the single most spectacular album of the year as well as an almost painfully lovely EP and a number of wonderful collaborations besides. Her influence on the charts is unmatched, and her songwriting skills are otherworldly. The thing about IU (and about the other two artists in my top 3—that’s probably not a coincidence) is that she chooses what to sing about and how to sing it, imbuing her music with all the force of her own emotion. The power of self-production is not to be underestimated, and judging by IU’s impact this year as well as the steep rise of self-producing groups like BTS and SEVENTEEN, it’s likely to be the next game-changer in the K-pop scene in 2018.
Representative song: “Dear Name,” a stunning example of IU’s compositional and vocal power.
Happy New Year, everyone! See you all in 2018!
Listen to the songs listed 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 artists that you would put in your top 10 list? Let me know in the comments!