Any YouTube video of K-Pop countdowns or “unpopular” opinions opens with a disclaimer that goes something like this: “This is just my opinion. Like, don’t get mad and write nasty comments. We’re all entitled to our own opinions. Blah, blah, blah . . .” Well, Academic Exiles isn’t having any of that shit. These aren’t just our opinions. It’s a fact that the following are indeed the greatest K-Pop songs of 2018, in this specific order. We are super biased listeners who know zero Korean and little about music and forgot what came out this year multiple times when putting this together, but that by no means discredits the integrity of this list.
I’m sure you’re wondering about our foolproof ranking methodology. Along with our dear friend and fellow K-Pop lover Kelsey, we, the Academic Exiles (Amanda and Stephanie), each put together our individual rankings. They had to consist of only title tracks released in 2018 with mostly Korean lyrics and a music video (except when we made exceptions—like I said, foolproof methodology). Stephanie and Kelsey only chose one song per artist, but Amanda lacked that level of self-control, limiting herself to two per artist. Once the individual rankings were compiled, Stephanie did something called “math” and voilá—you have the definitive, irrefutable, totally legit countdown of the 20 best K-Pop songs of 2018.
Honorable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order By Artist)
“Always You” – Astro
“Shoot Me” – Day6
“Lady” – EXID
“Look” – GOT7
“Tell Me” – Infinite
“Solo” – Jennie
“Wind Flower” – Mamamoo
“Simon Says” – NCT 127
“I Don’t Care” – Nu’est W (with Spoonz)
“Bad Boy” – Red Velvet
“1, 2, 3!” – Seungri
“Thanks” – Seventeen
“Grown Up” – South Club
“Scentist” – VIXX
“Everyday” – Winner
20. “Summer Night’s Dream” – FT Island
Amanda (A): Our biggest failure in our K-Pop bracket was ranking CNBlue above FT Island. Sure, CNBlue is great, but their win can be attributed to their beautiful faces more than anything else. We’ve come to love FT Island’s sometimes dramatic, sometimes cute, sometimes punk music and lead singer Honggi’s ability to belt out anything. As much as we enjoyed Honggi’s solo work this year, it couldn’t beat this cute diddy and a music video that featured him in a bunny costume.
Stephanie (S): I probably have the most egg on my face following the K-Pop bracket since FT Island came to somewhat dominate my music consumption this summer. Truthfully, “Summer Night’s Dream” isn’t in danger of eclipsing the band’s past hits, but there’s little that could shake the punk-rock edge of “Pray,” the melodramatic magic of “Bad Woman” or the pure ballad-ness of “Wind.” While guilt about underestimating the band in the past may have motivated me to push it into my top 10, this laidback jam still shows that FT Island isn’t afraid to switch things up, bringing a bubbly melody and reggae influence to the mix without losing track of the band’s core rock sound. Plus, Honggi in a bunny costume is quality content; there’s no denying that.
19. One of Those Nights” – Key ft. Crush
A: I like Key, I like Crush, but for me, this song is just okay. I enjoy listening to Key’s unique voice, which made me happy to see his solo debut this year. Though nothing on the album Face made a huge impression on me, I still liked it, and I have no problem with one of his songs getting a place on our list.
S: Like Amanda, I wasn’t blown away by “One of Those Nights.” This is Kelsey’s pick, but honestly, I can see why she ranked it so high on her list. The heavy influence of Latin music on K-Pop can make everything start to sound a little same-y for me personally. But this song strikes a nice balance between borrowing from that style and creating its own sound. Plus, not since Day6’s “Congratulations” has there been a more musical subway car.
18. “DDU-DU DDU-DU” by BLACKPINK
A: I have no idea what it means to hit someone with that ddu-du ddu-du du, but BLACKPINK made me want to ddu-du just that with their summer anthem. BLACKPINK continues to prove themselves the masters of onomatopoeia, giving us a nonsense song with a no-nonsense attitude. The shiny outfits, the fennec fox, the bedazzled battle tank—BLACKPINK is third generation K-Pop’s queens of cool.
S: What a year 2018 was for finger guns. From the poor aim of Monsta X’s “Shoot Out” (the disco dancing is meant to be a play on finger guns, right? No? Well, that’s how I’m choosing to interpret it) to the wanton destruction of Day6’s “Shoot Me” to the sexy body rolls of EXO’s “Love Shot,” it seemed like they were everywhere. Including BLACKPINK’s latest banger because apparently ddu-du ddu-du has something to do with shooting … or maybe it has something to do with fingers? Look, I don’t know what it means either. But the song is very catchy, and those finger guns have won some awards for best choreography.
17. “Idol” – BTS
A: As much as my love for “Fake Love” is real, it was a relief to see these goofballs out of the angsty ruins and finally accepting themselves—at least for now. Normally, a refrain of “You can’t stop me lovin’ myself” would be intolerable, but this moment comes after multiple songs in which they’ve struggled to come to terms with the hundreds of versions of themselves (or at least of Jungkook). Perhaps most importantly, it inspired an amazing Bad Lip Reading video.
S: What a magical kaleidoscope of nonsense this music video is. Suga in a sequinned Snow White sweater! J-Hope dancing with a wacky waving inflatable tube guy while wearing a Bugs Bunny sweater and referencing Face/Off! Those drawings by the group! V’s suspenders and computer tie! Jimin with a giant fan! And it’s all thrown together with the boys’ acceptance and love of themselves. “Idol” is a wild ride that impishly plays with the groups’ multifaceted identities, while delivering a catchy bop with a hook that gets stuck in your head for days. It’s impossible to listen or watch without smiling.
16. “Flower Road” – Big Bang
A: Dope song, bros. Congratz.
S: I’ll just let T.O.P.’s powerful words speak for themselves: “I was able to stand on it because of you, roly poly toy.”
15. “Shinin'” – Jonghyun
A: We all know that music doesn’t live in a vacuum, and few songs demonstrate this more than “Shinin’.” On its own, it’s an endearing love song that shows a softer side of Jonghyun’s voice than we normally hear in his powerful performances with SHINee. But released after his untimely death, the song takes on a more powerful meaning. In the music video, he’s cast in an angelic glow as he repeats, “Always be with you,” a reminder to us all that his remarkable voice lives on in his music.
S: Spoiler alert: There’s an even more emotional song further up the list, but in many ways, “Shinin’” is a wonderful tribute to Jonghyun and the impact he had. It would be easy to go with something sentimental and somber (“Before Our Spring” offers that), but this is a celebration of the lighter, more joyful side of Jonghyun’s music. It’s important to be able to look back at what he’s given us and smile, and “Shinin’” offers the perfect opportunity to do so. He’ll always be with us, but it’s still nice to have a reminder in song.
14. “Tempo” – EXO
A: Did you know this song was about speed-loving bikers who enter the fragment of frozen time as they log into the red cube where they have to solve a puzzle in order to escape, but they’re unable to resist temptation and re-enter the cube? Me neither, but this was a fun, throwback bop nevertheless.
S: Did you know Kai looks great in a cropped sweater? Yeah, I did too, but it’s still nice that “Tempo” provided the evidence necessary to prove us right. It’s also marvelous that a song that repeatedly warns “don’t mess up my tempo” does exactly that. From the rhythm-halting bridge and acapella breakdown to the pitch-shifted vocals and squeaky bed springs, “Tempo” takes some sharp turns, making for one wild but enjoyable ride.
13. “Forever Rain” – RM
A: Stephanie and I stay worried about K-Pop stars, especially BTS who is moving way too fast. It was nice to hear Rap Monst—, I mean, RM—agree with us in “Forever Rain.” It’s almost cliche at this point to talk about how K-Pop plays with genres, but this song truly does so in a way I’ve never heard, mixing lyrical hip hop with lush, atmospheric alt-rock. It’s a song that sucks you in—in the intoxicating, frightening way that depression sucks in people who can’t bear a brutal, fast-paced world. Yeah, not exactly a cheery tune, but comforting in a strange and beautiful way.
S: Oh “Forever Rain,” I respect you so much, but there’s something about the way RM raps “slow” that just gives me the giggles—and boy, he sure says “slow” a lot. The entire Mono mixtape was excellent. It was contemplative, vulnerable and wistful, but despite the overall feeling of melancholy and loneliness, there was still something soothing and affirming about the experience of listening to it. That’s all certainly true of “Forever Rain,” especially if you’re a little more mature than I am.
12. “Airplane” – J-Hope
A: Hip hop songs that reflect on the artist’s rags-to-riches success story often double as diss tracks—and don’t get me wrong, I love that. But true to his name, BTS member J-Hope inspires others to follow in his footsteps and go after their dreams. Best of all, the historic success of his mixtape and his group really has helped other K-Pop stars reach new heights, making this song pretty accurate—except I don’t think he’s drinking champagne on his own airplane just yet.
S: Apparently, J-Hope has a thing for airplanes. From the assertion that he is “cruisin’ down damn airport” in “Hangsang” to the existence of this song, Hope World alone provided a bounty of compelling evidence. Thankfully, the rapper’s aeronautic obsession makes for the perfect metaphor for his ability to rise above the haters and remain true to his hopeful persona. While not as exuberant as “Daydream,” the more grounded, mellow style of “Airplane” suits J-Hope’s emotional reflection on his humble beginnings and current success.
11. “BBIBBI” – IU
A: IU added yet another number one hit to her astounding body of work with “BBIBBI,” a song that found an adorable way to say FU to all the haters. You may have noticed by this list’s lack of Twice and Momoland that cute girl groups don’t really do it for us. Singing in high-pitched voices while wearing a mini-skirt feels a little too much like fetishizing innocent girls. Though possibly misguided in my thoughts on these groups, I still recognize that cuteness can be empowering, and IU is proof of that. This tune is soft, feminine and quirky, but it’s also strong and effective in warning gossipers to back off.
S: They say to kill ‘em with kindness, and while that may not be exactly what IU is doing here, she’s certainly taking on her critics with winsome charm. Deceptively mellow and laid-back, “BBIBBI” delivers a catchy tune that playfully takes on haters and gossipers with breezy glee. IU may be unafraid to lean into the cute, but she’s clearly not someone to be messed with. And we’d have to be stuP-I-D not to include her latest hit on our list.
10. “Good Evening” – SHINee
A: Though not as emotionally wrenching as “Our Page,” “Good Evening” is a beautiful song that takes a unique approach to mourning. SHINee seems to imagine themselves in some dream-like state in which they are within reach of Jonghyun. It’s not like anything else SHINee has put out, and it’s always a good listen.
S: As the group’s first post-Jonghyun single, “Good Evening” had to answer some important questions. How would the loss translate into SHINee’s music? Could they even continue without him? Thankfully, the answer to the latter was yes. The song strikes a beautiful balance between longing and ethereal ambiguity. The group’s signature choreography is largely absent in the music video. Instead, they rise and fall together or simply wander a studio. The song strives, questions and maybe even grieves but never wallows. SHINee released four excellent singles this year, but “Good Evening” set the tone perfectly.
9. “Siren” – Sunmi
A: The meaning of this intoxicating song isn’t easy to grasp. Is Sunmi warning a man to stay away? Or is she drawing him to her? Is she deceiving her listeners? Or is she deceiving herself? It’s hard to untangle the truth from the lies, the reality from the fantasy, and that makes this an arresting song that offers a cool take on the mythological siren.
S: “Get away out of my face” is a lyric we can all get behind. As Amanda points out, “Siren” can be difficult to untangle, and the video throws multiple Sunmis at the audience—all in varying states of mermaid-ness. Who exactly is in danger of hurting who? Sunmi warns her lover to stay away because she’ll only cause pain, but repeatedly sings about how she won’t cry even if sad in the chorus. Is she actually the only casualty of this apparently disastrous relationship? Is the siren a beautiful monster ready to lure and claim victims or a piercing warning of the damage that has already been done? Regardless, there’s no denying that this is an irresistible jam
8. “Heroine” – Sunmi
A: We can never have too much of Sunmi’s signature sex appeal and clever songwriting, so of course she appears twice on this list. Though successful for over a decade, Sunmi fully came into her own in 2017 when she partnered with superstar songwriter/producer Teddy to make “Gashina,” a catchy, feminist anthem with one of K-Pop’s most memorable dance moves. Sunmi followed that up this year with “Heroine,” which includes several of her previous single’s strengths along with subversive commentary about relationships, masculine ego and our traditional understandings of heroism. Consistently captivating listeners with EDM hooks, impressive vocals and complex lyrics, Sunmi is a pop goddess.
S: Has a song about the decline of relationship ever sounded quite so triumphant? Bold and brassy, “Heroine” mixes synths, piano, percussion and an explosive chorus and then pairs it all with clever lyrics that comment on the roles traditionally assigned to women in relationships, narratives and society. It may sound like a lot on paper, but it makes for one captivating song. Sunmi truly is the heroine K-Pop needs.
7. “I Love You” – EXID
A: Most of us know that cool girl who kicks off the party and wears the best clothes but is really a huge mess who doesn’t know what to do when a casual fling starts to get real. Each member of EXID is that girl, puking all over the place, desperately belting “I love you” and trying all they can to suppress the amorous feelings nagging them day in and day out. “I Love You” is further proof of EXID’s gift for executing simple concepts and fun pop tunes to the T.
S: It’s tricky to get away with saying “la” literally 48 times in a song’s chorus, but EXID pulls it off. “I Love You” is an undeniably catchy ear-worm with a strong hook and enough experimentation in the verses to keep it feeling fresh. The music video masterfully plays with perceptions of idol chicness. Each member tries to pull off the group’s spin on the iconic “arrogant dance” but ultimately fails because they’re crying, puking or suffering from a killer headache. I guess, like a night of heavy drinking and hard partying, love ultimately makes fools of us all.
6. “Fiancé” by Mino
A: The English translation fooled me into thinking this song was all style and no substance, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did result in its low ranking on my list. (BLACKPINK, however, managed to break my top 10; nobody said I was consistent.) Since then, I’ve learned from a helpful YouTuber that Mino’s wordplay and references can’t be captured in an English translation. Turns out “Fiancé” isn’t just a cool-sounding jam; it’s a nuanced story about lust and longing. Fortunately, Kelsey and Stephanie helped it earn a higher spot.
S: When Mino was in high school, he wrote a song called “Dear My Wife.” It’s delightful to see that he’s still so dedicated to the idea of matrimony. Chock-full of references to everything from 1960s trot songs to children’s rhymes, “Fiancé” is the kind of song that begs to be unpacked both musically and lyrically. Even it’s damn title is a play on words. Cleverly constructed lyrics show the rapper’s descent from longing for a lost love to a kind of frenetic madness. And in the second verse, he’s just real horny. Witty lyrics, a unique sound and a bit of raunch? Sign me right up.
5. “Our Page” – SHINee
A: SHINee didn’t make putting together this list easy. All four of their singles were strong contenders, but feeling sentimental, Kelsey and I selected the one that paid the most direct tribute to deceased member, Jonghyun. It isn’t innovative or even unexpected, but no SHINee fan can listen to this heartfelt ballad without getting at least a little choked up.
S: The power of “Our Page” is undeniable. I still get a lump in my throat whenever I hear it, and my mom cried the first time she read the translated lyrics. The song is even more impactful knowing that the members penned the heartfelt words themselves. Rather than saying goodbye, SHINee focuses on Jonghyun’s legacy and the unbreakable bond between them: “The pretty words you left behind become a poem, become a song. Our voices are flying. We know it’ll reach you wherever you are.” It’s somber but ultimately hopeful and fits the group perfectly.
4. “Baby Don’t Stop” – NCT U
A: Neo Culture Technology (yep, that’s really what NCT stands for) is S.M.’s shameless, capitalistic scheme to make money off of one boy group for all eternity. Currently consisting of 18 members and multiple subgroups, NCT has a convoluted set-up, but I can’t deny that many of their songs sound cool, especially “Baby Don’t Stop.” NCT U showed some uncharacteristic restraint in this song by featuring only two members of their limitless group, Taeyong and Ten—who also happen to be two of the most attractive members. Taeyong’s whispered raps, Ten’s silky vocals, smooth choreography and a captivating beat make this easily the sexiest song of the year.
S: In some ways, I object to NCT out of principle. Like Amanda mentioned, it really feels like S.M.’s grand money-making scheme and an innovative way to exploit artists. Eighteen members! No one’s making any money for a long while, and I personally don’t have the time to figure out who is featured in each song. But their music draws me in like a moth to a capitalistically questionable flame. Smooth and sexy, “Baby Don’t Stop” proves that a well-balanced duo is sometimes better than a group. From the thumping bass and sweet synths to the gruff whispers and sultry vocals, somehow this song makes lyrics like “Stay clay sketch dirt dough, I’m gonna knead your body” sound sensual and not just weird and/or creepy. That’s no small feat.
3. “Fake Love” – BTS
A: BTS is throwing a lot at us in “Fake Love,” and I’m not sure it all works. Having said that, it succeeds at demonstrating the existential dilemmas that trip us up on our roads to self-love. “Fake Love” is a testament to BTS’s intricate songwriting and ambitious concepts.
S: Are the Bangtan Boys intentionally referencing Eyes Wide Shut? Is J-Hope trying to score a Snickers promotion? Did Kookie just kill Jimin with that weird water feature? These are just some of the questions raised by the “Fake Love” music video. But the song manages to be a catchy bop while also exploring heavy themes like the loss of personal identity to please someone else. Premium BTS. Plus, who doesn’t love the way Jimin sings the words “fake love” in the chorus? I heard the song on the radio once at 6 a.m., so you know it was big.
2. “Love Scenario” – iKon
A: A good song doesn’t have to have an elaborate concept or intricate dance, and few groups know that better than iKON. With “Love Scenario,” the message is simple—we broke up, but our memories live on. With break-up songs, you often get one of two things: an angry anthem or an Adele-esque ballad. But “Love Scenario” is a bittersweet bop that acknowledges the heartache of an ended relationship while realizing that everything turned out as it should, their old flame having given them experiences that’ll last a lifetime. I’ll never grow tired of this infectious tune, and if I knew any Korean, I’m sure I’d sing along every time I heard it.
S: iKon often goes bombastic, and I’ll be honest, it can get annoying. I don’t really enjoy listening to “Dumb and Dumber” or “B-Day,” and I have to moderate my consumption of “Rhythm Ta” lest it gets stuck in my head and I start to beg for the sweet release of death. “Love Scenario,” however, is deceptively simple and laid-back. There’s no howling or screeching, and thankfully, nothing has started poppin.’ It’s just a catchy melody (with the perfect amount of cowbell) and a bittersweet reflection on a failed romance. Plus, the video features both sexy coat choreography and circle dancing. You really can’t got wrong.
1. “Shine” – Pentagon
A: An awkward adolescent’s anthem, “Shine” is made to be cranked up by teenagers who need to unleash their feelings for someone in the privacy of their room—or for Stephanie and I to obsess over for most of this year. Its infectious energy and dance moves can brighten up the worst of days. Sure, Pentagon has several talented members, but this song’s success can be attributed to Hui’s powerful vocals and E’Dawn’s screechy voice and quirky persona. Sadly, we may never hear the likes of “Shine” again after Cube forced E’Dawn out of Pentagon over a petty relationship scandal, but we look forward to the oddball rapper’s next move.
S: “Shine” really is a song that is of 2018. As Amanda notes, there’s a good chance we’ll never hear something quite like it again. It was written by Hui, E’Dawn and the producer Flow Boy, and it’s unique appeal feels intrinsically linked to E’Dawn’s performance and energy. As if to prove that point, Pentagon’s E’Dawn-less follow-up track “Naughty Boy” just didn’t have the same magic, despite coming from the same writing trio. While I worry about the future of both Pentagon and E’Dawn, I still can’t help but smile whenever I hear those opening piano notes. Oh “Shine,” I’m a loser who loves you, indeed.