January inspires us to relish the freshness of cool air and the sparkle of frost as much as it makes us want to hunker down in front of a warm fire. Here are some of my favorite K-pop songs that reproduce the diverse colors and textures of early winter.
1. Alesso & Chen, Years: Still not over this feel-goody gem. Swedish DJ Alesso recruited EXO’s main vocalist Chen for a simple but exuberant EDM extravaganza with a gorgeous tune and, above all, ultrasmooth vocals from one of the best singers in K-pop.
2. LABOUM, What About You: Girl group LABOUM acted out a doll concept in “What About You,” but the ladies’ full vocals give the song itself a sense of maturity. The upbeat, rhythmic vocal melody in the hook is fleshed out by well-developed composition in the verses.
3. VAV, Flower (You): Finally, a chance to put “Flower” on a playlist! VAV has leapt from concept to concept like they were hot potatoes, but the delightful little quirkfest that is “Flower” was by far their most interesting. There’s nothing more addicting than the quaintly odd “you-ooh-ooh”s of the wonderful hook.
4. Haseul, Let Me In: LOONA member Haseul delivered this stunner on her predebut solo release back during the 2016 holiday season. The layers of magnificent strings sound like the backdrop to a winter fairytale ballet, but the real drive of the song derives from the vocal melody, whose idiosyncratic rhythms demand texture and personality from the flow of the instrumental.
5. HIGHLIGHT, Calling You: Veteran group BEAST’s second comeback after rebranding as HIGHLIGHT is wholly representative of the feel-good pop-rock sound with which they have begun to identify over the last few years. “Calling You” shows how the group can make even songs with a touch of melancholy feel fun, featuring both buoyant and tender moments that contribute in equal parts to the song’s mood.
6. Shinhwa, Touch: One of my favorite songs from last year, “Touch” is a model of equilibrium. It balances the heavy sounds of traditional K-pop with the lighter, slicker sounds of current trends, draws warm and cool colors into the melodies, and strikes a middle ground between relaxed and upbeat that somehow fits all moods.
7. KISSES, … (Dead-End): This brief B-side from soloist KISSES’ debut demands a lot of patience with its unhurried pace, but the melody is ultimately very rewarding. KISSES’ vocal is of course the highlight, striking a unique delicateness that she never pushes out of first gear.
8. GFRIEND, Contrail: “Contrail” has a funny little early-2000s video game-soundtrack sound to it, but even more catchy is the creative vocal melody, which the girls perform with sweetness in some parts and power in others.
9. Suran, Winter Bird: This song may still to this day be Suran’s tour de force. The genius of it goes beyond the chilling composition or Suran’s remarkable voice. She turns the sound of the word “drop” into a sound that sounds like a bird chirping, and the introduction of this symbol, the bird, gives the song’s heavy gravity a heartbreaking nuance of grace, of tenderness, that demonstrates Suran’s abilities as an artist.
10. Oh My Girl, Windy Day: One of the best ten or twenty girl group songs of 2016 continues to be overlooked, but its carefully developed structure and excellent performance are instantly noticeable upon first listen. The ethnic-inspired beat that drops at the end of the hook is startling but memorable, and consistently well-crafted composition stitches the contrasting elements of the song together.
11. EXO, Winter Heat: Oof. What a great song. This B-side from EXO’s 2016 winter album draws many in with its captivating mid-tempo beat, but even more exciting is the song’s shapeshifting melody, performed as is usual for EXO with superior vocal power and control.
12. NU’EST W, Thankful for You (Happy Until Now): Member Baekho’s solo, composed by labelmate SEVENTEEN’s Woozi for the NU’EST unit’s fall EP, could not be a lovelier celebration of the sweetness of Baekho’s vocal, which is often lost in other NU’EST songs where he is put in charge of the most powerful parts.
13. BIGBANG, Love Dust: K-pop throwbacks don’t get much better than old BIGBANG songs. While this couldn’t quite be called an early BIGBANG track, its simple pop instrumental has a classic feel, and the melody makes you wish K-pop had always stayed the way it was in 2012.
Listen to this playlist on YouTube here.