It’s March 2020, so that means it’s time for Academic Exiles to finally publish our list of the top 20 K-pop songs from 2019. Along with our friend Kelsey, we compiled our individual lists and used some sort of point system to make the final ranking—let’s just blame math for why this post is so late. This time, all three of us actually kept to our rules and only selected one song per artist, and each song is a title track (or at least it has a music video) consisting of mostly Korean lyrics. So without further ado, here is the definitive K-Pop ranking that is, in Academic Exiles fashion, extremely relevant, important and timely. Hey, we got in before St. Paddy’s Day. Erin go Bragh, everyone!
Honorable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order By Artist)
Baekhyun, “U.N. Village”
Chen, “Beautiful Goodbye”
FT Island, “Quit”
Hoppipolla, “About Time”
Jea ft. Cheetah, “Dear Rude”
Key ft. Soyeon, “I Wanna Be”
Lee Hi ft. B.I., “No One”
Mommy Song, ZiorPark, Wonstein and Kim Seungmin, “Noise”
NCT 127, “Highway to Heaven”
Park Bom ft. Sandara Park, “Spring”
Taeyeon, “Four Seasons”
TXT, “Run Away”
20. “Regulus” – Onewe
Amanda (A): A melodramatic pop-rock love ballad overflowing with floral and galactic metaphors—definitely sounds like a Stephanie song. But I like it too. It might be hammy af, but in this song and others, Onewe shows a talent for seamlessly incorporating hip hop and autotune to create a signature sound. Also, Yonghoon’s part in the chorus has kind of an Eddie Vedder vibe. Don’t get me wrong, he sounds nothing like Eddie Vedder, but they’re both fun voices to imitate dramatically. 2019 was Onewe’s debut year, but they’ve already shown that they’re ones to watch.
Stephanie (S): In part, the end of the year best list is a way for me to redeem bad calls I’ve made. Last year, I atoned for dismissing FT Island, and now, I’m giving another band its due. In August, I chose “Red” by The Rose over Onewe’s “Regulus” for our monthly recap, and in retrospect, that was a mistake. No offense to The Rose, “Red” is a fun summer bop that I still enjoy, but I became legitimately obsessed with “Regulus.” It strikes the perfect balance between grungy, emotive alt rock and modern K-pop trends. For me, that’s a pretty irresistible match-up, and I listened to this thing non-stop. It got to the point where no matter what I was watching, the music video was basically what the YouTube algorithm would always recommend next. And most of the time, I would just let it play. I was hooked. I still am.
19. “Gotta Go” – Chungha
A: After I.O.I. dispersed, I really wanted to like Chungha. With her dance moves, big voice and gorgeous looks, there was no question she had the makings of a pop diva, but the songs she released in her debut year as a solo artist didn’t do much for me. Fortunately, she kicked off 2019 with “Gotta Go,” her spin on Cinderella. Though the hook comes from the catchy instrumental, the sex appeal and longing are courtesy of Chungha’s passionate vocals and sensuous dancing. After delivering other strong songs last year, I’m fully behind Chungha—especially when a mulleted Rich Brian is sitting behind her on a motorcycle.
S: Chungha’s solo stuff before 2019 didn’t do much for me. I really wanted to like “Roller Coaster,” but something just didn’t click with that song. With “Gotta Go,” the singer switched gears, and the change of pace paid off. Gone were the bright, summer-ready bops, and in their place, was something darker and more seductive. Spinning the Cinderella fairy tale into a metaphor for being unable to commit, “Gotta Go” is catchy with a cool synth instrumental. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the song’s theatrical choreography. Was there a more iconic dance move in 2019 than that prayer hands thing? I think not.
18. “Twice” – South Club
A: After releasing punk and blues-infused rock music the past couple years, South Club returned with this deceptively simple pop-rock diddy. Celebrities aren’t exactly known for their sincere apologies or remorse, but Taehyun understands that he should be slapped across the face for his wandering eye. Instead of moping about how his relationship ended with fellow Korean singer-songwriter Jang Jane and begging for forgiveness, he quietly conveys his love and regret in a song that’s both sweet and sad. It’s good to have South Club back.
S: More emotive, alt rock-inspired music from a K-band? Yeah, this is another Stephanie pick. I’m a big fan of South Club and its frontman Nam Taehyun, and this comeback felt a little more impactful since it followed what had been a particularly rough year. The new music’s release was pushed back, Taehyun’s label dissolved, and he dealt with a lot of personal drama and tragedy. It was awesome to see him come out the other side with a new label and a great single. “Twice” is melodic and catchy, with just enough sadness to give some poignancy to what otherwise is a pretty sweet sounding song.
17. “Focus On Me” – Jus2
A: JB wants to be a sexy crooner so bad. I mean, D’Angelo’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love” is what inspired him to be a songwriter. 2019 brought JB closer to his goal when he teamed up with Got7 bandmate Yugyeom to form the subunit Jus2.
“Focus On Me” is basically a sleek club version of “Look.” Though it isn’t groundbreaking by any means, the deep house influence gives it a nice groove. Their voices nicely complement each other, and Yugyeom shows off some crisp dance moves in the video. But what can I say, even with emo under-eye piercings, I’ll always focus on JB. This song was definitely my 2019 jam.
S: I’m a little surprised by Amanda’s subdued description of this song. She literally called it “legendary” at one point last year, and while perhaps a little hyperbolic, it’s not difficult to see where her enthusiasm comes from. Understated and effortlessly cool, “Focus On Me” is the kind of club music that is perfect for beautiful, rich people who are emotionally dead inside. And I mean that as a compliment. It may not be the sexy baby-making jam that JB yearns to release, but this chill track is pretty undeniable.
16. “Chronosaurus” – Stray Kids
A: This is actually Kelsey’s pick, but I’m glad it made it to the list. Last year, the Stray Kids were yelling at us to go our own pace, but “Chronosaurus” suggests that their pace might be a little too fast. The group tends to oscillate between being cute and angsty, and this song is definitely at the angsty end, but there’s something different about it. Both the song and music video offer a thoughtful exploration of time and blind ambition that’s somehow hopeful and hopeless at once. With the clock ticking and the drums crashing, it isn’t short on drama, but it also doesn’t feel forced. This year saw a more mature side to the Stray Kids (but not too mature; I mean, the song title is a dinosaur pun), and it’ll be interesting to see how the group continues to evolve. We miss you Woojin!
S: I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t give “Chronosaurus” a fair shake when it came out in April. The title literally translates to “time lizard,” and it definitely calls to mind time-traveling dinosaurs. I knew what I was imagining was going to be nowhere near what the actual song delivered. I mean, look at how somber the music video is. It’s not the fantastical romp I yearn for. But that’s a me problem. Brash and tense while remaining undoubtedly cool, what “Chronosaurus” actually delivers is something worth acknowledging. And while that title may be misleading, I can’t resist a good pun. Kronosaurus is an actual species of dinosaur, but it doesn’t time travel, it swims.
15. “GOTTASADAE” – BewhY
A: BewhY took hip hop braggadocio to biblical heights that not even Kanye can reach. Like many songs from The Movie Star, “GOTTASADAE” blends classical and EDM to create a sound that’s both epic and fresh, but the dramatic instrumental never drowns out BewhY’s effortless, rapid-fire rap. With his rap virtuosity, singular vision and innovation, BewhY might really have the world in his hands.
S: BewhY first came to my attention as the guy who had to publically insist that people stop confusing him with the scandal-plagued B.I. Not the most auspicious introduction, but the next time he was on my radar was Amanda telling me she had found her new favorite Korean rapper. I won’t pretend I know a lot about K-hip hop, and it may be slightly uncouth to put “GOTTASADAE” on a K-pop list, but the song is undeniably great and more than merits a mention as one of the best of 2019. Bombastic and dramatic, the track never pauses for a moment, pushing forward as BewhY builds aon empire. Accompanied by an atmospheric music video that is equal parts bizarre and creepy, there’s a lot to unpack. Much more than than this little blurb could ever do justice.
14. Lit – “Oneus”
A: Oneus is easily my favorite group to debut in 2019, and “Lit” is the first single that has let them just have fun. But what really makes this song exciting is how Korean it is. Sure, several K-pop hits mix hip hop and traditional Korean instruments, but this is a full-blown Korean festival. The lyrics describe Chuseok, or the Harvest Moon Festival, and are almost entirely in Korean. The video also includes the group dancing in hanbok-inspired outfits in a setting that resembles palaces and hanoks. It’s a perfect dance hit for autumn that boldly refuses to pander to Western audiences—something that K-pop needs a lot more of.
S: “Lit” doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel with its combination of traditional Korean instruments and modern hip-hop production. It certainly wasn’t the first song to do it, and it’s not even the only song on this list to play with tradition. Still, it’s bold and refreshing, earning it’s slangy title. It’s a celebration all about just feeling awesome, and honestly, who wouldn’t want to attend? Oneus had a very strong debut year, and “Lit” was a fun way to cap it off.
13. “Fame” – MC Mong ft. Song Gain and Chancellor
A: South Korea has had a wild year of famous people fucking up, but one of those fuck-ups came back with a lot to say about the dangers of fame. Though MC Mong shares hip hop’s fondness for dissing other rappers, his boasting in this song is that of a mature man who’s found deep satisfaction in his life rather than of a hot-headed young artist who’s fallen under fame’s spell.
But what shines more than anything is MC Mong’s love for entertainment. Tapping into his acting experience, he gives us a slew of vibrant characters in the music video. The song conveys an irrepressible joy that transcends age and musical trends. Piling onto the joy, Song Ga-In manages to sneak in with some irresistible trot. It’s not hard to understand why his comeback was a hit.
S: I can’t resist a good “boom shakalaka,” and it seems neither can the people of South Korea since this track became one of the handful to achieve a perfect all kill in 2019. “Fame” is just a cool song. It’s exuberant with attitude and personality to spare. The music video strikes that perfect balance between stylish and goofy. Also, there’s a dude in a holographic tracksuit. You just can’t resist a holo tracksuit.
12. “Goblin” – Sulli
A: In the prologue to the music video for “Goblin,” Sulli says, “I just want to end it,” a statement made wrenching after her untimely death just a few months later. “Goblin” demonstrates that in her short life, she possessed a unique ability to explore emotional nuance.
A lot of K-pop idols, particularly the women, can be described as quirky—some of them made this list. But nobody’s quirkiness is quite as dark and strange but still somehow effervescent. The music video claims to be about a girl with multiple personalities, but her puzzling lyrics and musical shifts make the meaning broader and slippier. The whispering voices, creaky door and chimes are straight from a horror movie, while the bright chorus has a sweet familiarity, as if a monster is giving us a warm embrace—or we’ve decided not to be afraid of the cat without the fur, I guess. “Goblin” is a truly special song that only gets better the deeper you dig into it.
S: I have a confession. I didn’t listen to “Goblin” before putting together this list. It came out in June of 2019, right before I decided I would try to listen to every K-pop comeback and debut each month, and after Sulli’s passing, it felt a little disingenuous to explore the singer’s solo debut when tragedy and a little morbid curiosity would be my major motivations. But I’m grateful that both Amanda and Kelsey included the song on their lists. The unique blend of haunting atmosphere and sing-song melody makes for an unexpected listen. A creepy instrumental builds dread, which eventually breaks unexpectedly in the jaunty, catchy chorus. “Goblin” is weird, but in the best way.
11. “%% (Eung Eung)” – Apink
A: Long gone are the days of matching doll dresses and spelling out “love.” In the past two years, we’ve seen Apink give us a more mature side without abandoning their sweet femininity. Equal parts hip, cute and weird, Apink’s “%%” effortlessly shows off their divine vocals, and who can listen to enough Eunji? The cold yet whimsical synths pair perfectly with the lyrics about their struggle to find someone worthy enough to crack their icy demeanors. Considering the long obsession for creating the perfect woman in fantasy, sci-fi and even real-world developments in AI and robotics, it was refreshing, funny and a bit creepy to see Apink build their own dream man through some sort of ultra-fem magic. Whatever magic they’ve been using the past couple years, it’s resulted in their best work.
S: We did Apink dirty last year by disregarding “I’m So Sick.” In our defense, the group had never really appealed to us before. How were we supposed to know they had undergone a complete sound and concept transformation? It just goes to show that with K-pop it’s crucial to always pay attention. Now, we can make up for past mistakes, by praising the group’s “I’m So Sick” follow-up, “%% (Eung Eung).” The song continues Apink’s evolution away from bubblegum-y pop to more sensuous, mature dance tracks. With a more subdued instrumental than most girl crush concepts, the focus is really the vocals. That’s a big part of the appeal. I don’t like when techno hooks and EDM drops completely overwhelm songs. Apink sacrifices none of the attitude or style while delivering a superior sound.
10. “Flower Shower” – HyunA
A: Nobody has had a career quite like Hyuna’s. She’s shown many sides of herself, from the female monster to the bubble popper. With “Flower Shower,” she reveals yet another layer. The song lets her be quirky and sweet but still a little naughty. This playful, refreshing diddy always adds an extra spring to my step and makes it feel like spring even as the temperature drops.
S: It’s kinda hard to believe HyunA debuted 12 years ago, but it’s even harder to imagine a K-pop landscape without her. She’s been in multiple groups (both girls and co-ed), changed companies, launched a successful solo career and been too sexy for Korea to handle on multiple occasions, but she’s always managed to come out on top. After a dating scandal led to her ousting from Cube, 2019 offered the chance at another triumphant return for the singer, and the comeback track didn’t disappoint.
“Flower Shower” is bright and pop-y, but it has enough of an edge to suit HyunA’s style. The verses are definitely the high points. I like her as a rapper, but it’s nice to see her applying her unique vocals as a singer. The chorus is built around an EDM drop, something I’m not a huge fan of, but here, it’s got a bright, quirky flavor that fits well with the rest of the song. What can I say? I find this song charming. I’m charmed.
9. “Under Cover” – A.C.E.
A: A.C.E. tends to be too much for me. Songs like “Cactus” and “Savage” have their merits, but the group’s talent gets buried under blaring EDM noise. But “Under Cover” is maximalism done right. The in-your-face guitars are a welcome departure from the heavy bass and electronic hooks that dominate pop music. A.C.E.’s ace, if you will, is Byeongkwan, his powerful yet easy delivery defining the entire character of the song. Donghun also deserves a shout out for the pre chorus, where he shows off strong vocal control without resorting to belting.
Lyrically though, this song comes off as pretty creepy. Lines like, “there are no exits for you” are straight-up rapey, and that’s not okay. Having said that, I don’t know how seriously we should be taking these guys. I mean, they keep saying they’re going to sneak up on this girl (also creepy), but there’s nothing sneaky about them. Their bombast is so outrageous and in contrast to their mission to slyly win over this girl that it feels like they might be hiding their own insecurities. Maybe they’re “under cover” as playboys. Or maybe I’m insecure because I’ve been jamming out to this kinda gross song for months without knowing what I was listening to. At this point, my feelings about the song are complicated.
S: I guess “Under Cover” gets to join the hallowed company of EXO’s “Monster” and Monsta X’s “Trespass” in the This Song Slaps As Long As I Don’t Think About the Lyrics Too Much Club. I’ll be honest, I didn’t check a translation of the song before putting it on my best list. I had no clue what it was about. Espionage, maybe? But like really in-your-face spying with little subtlety. Regardless of questionable content, this song is basically the K-pop equivalent of a kick to the head. Combining hip hop swagger with a heavy metal-esque guitar line, it’s a blast of pure energy. A.C.E.’s more EDM-inspired songs failed to capture my interest, but give me a killer rock instrumental on a dance track, and I’m in. I’m even willing to forgive some creepiness.
8. “Vibe” – 1Team
A: A lot of times with idol groups, more is more. More members, more noise, more dancing—you get the idea. But 1Team kept it simple with their debut single “Vibe.” It’s just one team with five members doing the shoot dance in an empty pool. If you thought YOLO songs were played out, you’re probably right, except in this case. This has to be one of the most endearing songs about partying and living in the moment out there. Similar to Winner, they also manage to seem cool even when they behave like cute goofballs. With “Vibe,” 1Team effortlessly displays their personality and talent, and we hope to see a lot more of their vibe this year.
S: What is the titular “vibe” 1Team is espousing? I’m not sure. Maybe something about wearing pastels and doing meme dances. Whatever it is, I’m a fan. Laidback without approaching lethargic territory, “Vibe” is a party anthem for those of us who don’t live life in the fast lane. It’s a quirky debut from a group I’m excited to heart more from.
7. “Want” – Taemin
A: Somehow we’ve managed to write a blog heavy on K-pop content for over two years without gushing over Taemin. His music, dancing and aura transport me to some sort of underground queer club where nothing makes sense to me, but everyone looks super cool. His come-hither looks are as ethereal as they are sultry. Taemin doesn’t just have a vibe; he is a vibe.
Putting my nonsense gushing aside, “Want” is actually one of the weaker Taemin offerings for me. It has the sexy groove, sleek look and fluid dance moves that we’ve come to expect from him, but it maybe feels a bit too expected. Like I said, he’s known for a sleek look and fluid dance moves, so is it really a stretch for this guy to be hanging out with snakes slithering on him, or lounging seductively in a room with dense fog? Still, even one of our least favorite Taemin title tracks cracked the top 10 of our best songs list. As long as Taemin is out there Taemining, we’re very happy people.
S: Amanda pretty much said it all. “Want” is undeniably a Taemin track. It’s sleek, sultry and a little off-putting at times. Classic Taemin! But maybe too classic. The singer has been sleek, sultry and a little off-putting for much of his solo career, and it’s often in service of songs that are more exciting. But even when Taemin is phoning it in a little, he’s still excellent. Obviously, I enjoy “Want” (it’s hot, hot), but while it’s undeniably Taemin, it’s not peak Taemin.
6. “Lalalay” – Sunmi
A: Sunmi consistently cranks out catchy hits and iconic dance moves, but what really makes her exciting is that she isn’t afraid to get super weird and explore bold concepts. Her butterflies, wig twirling and cheeky wordplay add up to another anthem empowering women to fly above naysayers.
S: You can always count on Sunmi to deliver songs that are both catchy and clever. As with most of her tracks, a large portion of what makes “Lalalay” great comes from breaking down the lyrics. The “lalalay” of the chorus plays with Korean slang for party girls (nallari); the Taepyungso, a traditional wind instrument that features heavily; and “nal-la,” which means “to fly.” The result is a charming takedown of critics and a reassertion of Sunmi’s individuality and influence. The music video is fittingly weird with striking imagery (and Sunmi clones) to spare.
5. “Home” – Seventeen
A: When we were ripping on “Hit” in our August best and worst list, I contrasted that song with “Home,” which I described as “both big and spare, catchy and intimate, making it an innovative, refreshing song.” It’s this innovation that propelled “Home” to the number one spot on my year-end list. Stephanie and I may not like everything Seventeen makes, but we have mad respect. This group should not work. I mean, even though they’re four short of seventeen, there’s still way too many of them. Plus, they’re at Pledis, a notoriously shitty company. But they manage to give every single person a chance to shine while experimenting with their sound.
S: Seventeen pulls off the impossible in “Home.” In a song that has essentially no rap parts, the members of its hip hop unit feel necessary, crucial even. It’s even more impressive when you consider that with 13 members, the track finds a place for everyone. It’s kinda insane how balanced it is, and that diversity of voices definitely elevates “Home.” Mixing a traditional ballad and modern R&B, it feels like a symphony of opposites. It’s powerful yet subdued. It’s full of warmth, but also longing. This is the emotive, atmospheric vibe that I’m always excited to see being experimented with in K-pop.
4. “Boy with Luv” – BTS
A: Deceptively sweet, “Boy with Luv” might be as much of a thank you letter as an identity crisis. Beneath the smiles, frothy aesthetic and clumsy English that everyone expects of K-pop is a group worried that their identity has been completely subsumed by a persona imposed on them. The song voices the Bangtan boys’ concern that the depth and solemnity of their trilogy on self-love has been stripped away as they’ve come to care only about receiving the love and adoration of fans who have helped them climb to the top of the music world.
Because their identity crisis is so slyly hidden under layers of bubblegum pink and even a feather boa, “Boy with Luv” still makes for an ebullient, perhaps a bit too saccharine, listen. Is Halsey necessary? Not really, but at least she provides some queer representation and shares the same values. Is this Suga’s best rap? No, ironically, this concept is too sweet for Suga. But even if it’s not my favorite BTS title track, it’s easily one of the year’s best.
S: My feelings on “Boy with Luv” are pretty similar to my feelings on “Want.” Do I love BTS? You know it. Do I love this song? Not really. Don’t get me wrong. I like it a lot. I sing along, and I gush over how fun the music video is. But let’s be honest, by BTS standards, it’s a pretty middling comeback. That being said, middling BTS is still really, really good. It made it into the top 5 with none of us feeling that passionately about it. That’s kinda impressive in its own right. “Boy with Luv” is pure pop spectacle. It’s bright and infectious, and while it may feel a little surface level, what a delightful surface it is.
3. “Say My Name” – Ateez
A: More rookie groups should be like Ateez. I mean, why wouldn’t you have a title track that’s all about getting people to say your name at the beginning of your career? Though “Say My Name” and most Ateez songs are silly, over-the-top and loosely inspired by pirates—which should be a recipe for disaster—their boundless energy and promising talent as well as their songs’ undeniable hooks make everything come together for a whole lot of fun. Stephanie and I have been particularly fixated on Hongjoong, whose natural flows and delivery make him a fitting captain of the S.S. Ateez.
S: “Say My Name” took me on a journey, and it’s probably not one you would expect. I stumbled across the song after largely not caring about Ateez’s debut and first comeback. I watched the video and was surprised that I liked it. I told Amanda about my discovery. We both listened to the mini-album and decided … that we actually didn’t like the song. That second listen turned into a third, and well, maybe it was okay. Confused, I pushed forward, and then something clicked. I didn’t like this song. I loved it.
I’ve had songs grow on me in the past, but never have I done two 180s in such quick succession, resulting in a complete 360. What a ride. That’s partly why I chose “Say My Name” as my top song of 2019; it’s by far the one that got the biggest reaction out of me. It’s loud and full of a tough guy posturing, which seems like a bad thing, but Ateez delivers it with such infectious energy that I don’t care. There’s an earworm-y melody, unique vocals and some truly delightful choreography. What more could you want?
2. “Money” – Dawn
A: The price we pay in pursuit of wealth isn’t exactly an original concept, but the lyrical deftness and attention to detail in Dawn’s solo debut give the topic a fresh take. Like the money he seeks, the song has a pop-friendly sheen but a grittier substance. The music video depicts Dawn in garbage-chic apparel as he runs, lurches, dances and air-drums across an abandoned building like an addict prowling for his next hit. From his nasally voice to the way he moves, Dawn is a strange and striking performer. Now that he’s free from Cube, he has fully blossomed into an exciting new artist. Hopefully “Money” is a sign of more great work to come.
S: When Dawn was ousted from Pentagon following his dating scandal with HyunA, I was worried. I was worried the group would not recover from the loss, and I was worried that it marked the end of Dawn’s career. Thankfully, my concerns have proven to be unfounded. Pentagon has some solid comebacks, and signing with P Nation, the artist formerly known as E-Dawn was given the chance to redebut with “Money.” Striking a balance between mellow pop and melancholic hip-hop, the song suits his unique style perfectly. It’s got a broody, grungy energy that recalls some of the angstier endeavours of G-Dragon (always a good thing if you ask me), while still offering its own sound and style. From dancing and singing to raping and producing, Dawn has proven that he’s a talent that shouldn’t be ignored.
1. “Face” – Woosung
A: Who doesn’t like a man and a song that manages to be both sexy and adorably exuberant? I’ve been somewhat interested in The Rose for a while, particularly for Woosung’s unique voice. Here, he trades in his normal angst for pure joy, treating a hot night with a girl like a trip to the ice cream bar. The song has a fun video to match that challenges beauty standards and features some tantalizing jello-slapping. What can I say—I like his face.
S: While assembling this list, Amanda made an observation: Collectively, we tend to ultimately favor bright songs that simply leave us feeling happy. Last year, those losers in love Pentagon took the top spot with “Shine,” and this year, it’s another simple, catchy love confession at No. 1. It’s hard to get more basic than telling someone you like their face, but Woosung does it with such charming enthusiasm, it’s impossible not to be won over. “I like your face” is a memorable hook, and the singer’s unique vocals are in the spotlight, bolstered by a funky but unobtrusive instrumental. It’s just a cool song, and after listening, I can’t help but feel good. I guess you could say, “Face” takes me to space.