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    30 Songs That Helped Define K-Pop In 2018

    From seasoned pros (BTS, EXO, Red Velvet) to newbies on the scene (Iz*One, (G)-Idle, Stray Kids), 2018 gave us a year of great songs to listen to *into* 2019.

    2018 was an amazing year for K-pop, as we saw BTS continue their U.S. domination and other groups like NCT 127 and Monsta X perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Jingle Ball, respectively. And as usual, new releases kept us on our toes with their catchy beats, creative lyrics (especially those penned by the artists themselves), all-out music videos, and killer styling.

    Here's a look back on some of the year's best:

    (There are so, so many new K-pop releases each year that deserve our attention, so let me know what your favorites are in the comments!)

    1. "Bad Boy" by Red Velvet

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    Red Velvet's been coming out with hit after hit for many seasons now (Do I still get "Ice Cream Cake" stuck in my head? Only all the time!), but "Bad Boy" revealed a side of Red Velvet that all of their fans have been waiting for — or didn't know they were — and proved that their R&B-inspired "velvet" side is just as well-executed as their colorful, summer-y bops. Main dancer Seulgi mentioned studying Rihanna for this drop, which goes to show how intently and passionately K-pop groups train for their concepts.

    2. "Anpanman" by BTS

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    Yes, yes, global stars BTS's two ~main~ singles this year were "Fake Love" (which they performed at the Billboard Music Awards) and "Idol" (which had a remix version that featured Nicki Minaj), but my vote is for another track off of their #1-charting Love Yourself: Tear album because of its endearing message. Allow me to explain:

    "Anpanman" is the name of a super popular Japanese children's character by the same name — he doesn't have any real superhero powers like Batman or Superman, but helps in any way that he can and stays by your side whenever you need him (he has super hearing, so he can hear anyone's calls of distress)! For example, his head is made out of "anpan" (a red bean pastry) and he offers hungry people a bite of his head (despite the fact that this weakens him — but don't worry, a new head can be baked for him). So, just like Anpanman isn't a real hero with much to offer or show off, but only in terms of his efforts and heart, BTS feels the same way as artists and role models — and just by continuing to be themselves, they call themselves a "new generation Anpanman." These are the kinds of meaningful, down-to-earth lyrics BTS fans (aka A.R.M.Y) love 'em for!

    3. "Latata" by (G)I-DLE

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    We stan queens with one of the most powerful (and successful) debuts in recent times! A lot of groups don't find their groove until a few comebacks into their careers, but (G)I-DLE blew that out of the water with this punchy single that proved they're a force to be reckoned with. From their slightly moodier sophomore single, "Hann (Alone)" to their flash mobs in NYC's Times Square and Washington Square Park, we can only expect more of the unexpected from these commanding ladies!

    4. "Shine" by Pentagon

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    Despite my conflicting feelings about E'Dawn's departure (I do however enjoy his newfound status, alongside Hyuna, as Instagram couple goals), this is still one of the biggest bops of the year. From the quirky outfits, retro hairstyles, to the viral shoot dance move, this song is filled with spirit, cute and bashful lyrics, and shows off the boys' prolific energy. Their follow-up single, "Naughty Boy" is just as silly and enjoyable. Cheers to Pentagon finding their stride and showing us more sides of them as time goes on.

    5. "Ddu-du Ddu-du" by Blackpink

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    Every time Blackpink releases a new song, we forgive them for making us wait so long — "Ddu-du Ddu-du" is no expection with its enticing visuals (Rosé perched on top of a column and swaying with her regal white dress and cape is my 2019 mood), powerful choreography, and the sass/confidence we crave from K-pop females. But pleasepleaseplease, release a full-length album next time around, so we can binge-listen to more than one song!

    6. "Boss" by NCT U

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    Am I low-key intimidated by them in this music video? Yeah. Do they look amazing doing it? Also yeah. Does this song make me forget about my anxiety and feel like a — wait for it — boss? Absolutely. *stares down my enemies*

    7. "Bbibbi" by IU

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    IU's no stranger to growing up in the spotlight (she started her music career at age 15) and smartly uses her songs "Bbibbi," which refers to the beep of a pager, to convey her thoughts about privacy and maturity (also see "23" and "Palette").

    "Bbibbi" is probably one of her cheekiest and most blatant songs yet, addressing that she has no room in her life for critics and naysayers trying to spot something different or less than ideal to latch onto — and to anyone concerned, she's "still me, still me, no need to be surprised" and "if you cross this line, it’s a violation, beep." Performed with the backdrop of her well-known colorful sets (and color-coordinated for the "yellow card" reference), it's a delight for the eyes and ears.

    8. "Tell Me" by Infinite

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    I haven't even given myself time to process the fact that it'll be a while until we get a full Infinite release (due to mandatory military enlistments) because I've just been listening to "Tell Me" nonstop. Unlike their previous singles, "Bad" and "The Eye," this one's a little lighter and suitable for everyday listening.

    Infinite is known for its hyper-precise and -synced dance moves, intense imagery, and unique retro-synth sounds (with the occasional feature of classical instruments, which I so love!), but I think "Tell Me" achieves a better balance of intensity and softness — even though the lyrics are still tinged with sadness, it seems a bit more upbeat at face value (probably thanks to its EDM leanings). And can I just say Dongwoo kills his singing parts?

    9. "Travel" by Bolbbalgan4

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    I heard this song playing in the shops of Seoul just as much as those of girl groups, which surprised me in the best way since I, of course, am obsessed with this pop-indie duo. Co-written and co-composed by Jiyoung (the angelic-sounding vocalist), "Travel" is such a carefree anthem that'll make your spirit instantly feel lighter — whether you have a trip coming up or just feel like jetting off and unplugging, get that OOO message ready.

    10. "Love Scenario" by iKON

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    I love seeing and hearing iKON's softer side, and I hope it's not just me. Well, I know it's not just me, because this mellow breakup song held the top spot on Korea's Gaon Weekly Chart for six weeks, which might not seem like a lot for the American music circuit, but it set a record for number of weeks at #1 and became the fastest song to reach 100 million streams (19 weeks). Even though it's about the end of a relationship, its message is uplifting, reflective, and cordial — therefore it sounds like a relatively happy tune, which is why I think it's so easy to listen to.

    11. "I'm So Sick" by Apink

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    Typically known for charming, bubbly songs like "Five" and "Mr. Chu," I 100% dig this more mature and sultry image coming from the sextet — from the lyrics ("So baby, bye bye bye"), dance, down to the facial expressions, Apink's confidence is just oozing through. This song is one of the reasons why I love K-pop so much: you never quite know what you're going to get.

    12. "Tempo" by EXO

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    The triumphant intro and Chen's "I can't believe" Hook. You. In. From start to finish and all of the tempo switch-ups in between, this song represents why EXO has one of the most innovative sounds in the industry — well, for many reasons, including having a large company backing you up, seasoned writers and producers crafting many of their songs, and more impactful, spaced-out releases. Besides the fact that EXO, to begin with, is made up of super skilled performers and diverse members of different strengths, the song is chockfull of attitude, funk, strappy dance moves, and mesmerizing blue contacts (Hello, Chanyeol) that require many, many watches to fully digest each detail — hey, no complaints here.

    13. "Get It" by Pristin V

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    If I had to, for whatever reason, pick an entrance song for myself, it'd be this one. It's not really about what the lyrics say in this case, but the tone and attitude behind the lyrics — and do these girls BRING it.

    Not only does "Get It" give me major inspiration in terms of styling and makeup, I can't help but walk a little taller and jut my hips out ever so slightly on my way into work. It's sometimes harder to get excited for a subunit release over an entire group release, but this one just killed it for me.

    14. "Oh My!" by Seventeen

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    Besides being the kings of lip tints (seriously — what brand do they use?) and extremely synchronized dancing (there's 13 of them, after all), "Oh My!" embraces the brightness and youthfulness only a bunch of talented teens/young adults can write, produce, and perform perfectly. Whether all together or as subunits, Seventeen's always grinding and putting out catchy AF tunes.

    15. "What is Love" by Twice

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    Twice, K-pop's leading ladies of bubbly pop, killed it with this sweet, drummy song best summed up as 💞✨💃😍. Call it the best kind of cheesy. The music video is chock-full of cute Hollywood movie references, which makes it all the more fun.

    16. "It's You" by Sam Kim ft. Zico

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    Sam has one of those voices that just melts in your ear and can soothe any heartache, and teaming up with Zico's sharp rapping (he's literally the big brother in this song, giving Sam advice on a girl) is just a recipe for success. The lyrics are super sweet and relatable too, depicting the awkwardness and frustration of that pre-relationship stage — "I wanna know, just tell me if you really like me" — which really hits home for anyone, really.

    17. "Siren" by Sunmi

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    Sunmi's the queen of the "running around, gracefully spazzing out, and dancing like no one's watching" music video — and I've never wanted to be on a music video set more, tbh. This former Wonder Girls member has been stunning us with alluring performances since her 2013 solo debut, "Full Moon" to her permanent soloist comeback, "Gashina," and "Siren" shows she has no signs of slowing down — all hail Queen Sunmi!

    18. "District 9" by Stray Kids

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    With some of the best rappers in K-pop (in my personal opinion), I think Stray Kids does the dynamic, angsty aesthetic extremely well — just listen to "Hellevator" and "Voices" for further proof. That's not the safest concept to play off, especially for a new and very young (in age) group, but they own it. When I interviewed them at KCON NY, I could feel the energy radiating from them and the whole vibe made it obvious that I had to keep an eye out for them.

    19. "La Vie en Rose" by Iz*One

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    Created out of the hit reality show Produce 48 — a collaborative effort between Korea's Produce 101 show and J-pop idol group, AKB48 where 96 contestants/trainees from Korea and Japan competed for a spot in the final 12-person group — Iz*One's debut was the perfect combination of cutesy and powerful, down to the rap. Can't wait to see what their future holds!

    20. "We Go Up" by NCT Dream

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    As seven of TIME's most influential teens of 2018, NCT Dream hit their stride with this carefree, "wild and free" anthem, "We Go Up." This is the first NCT Dream song I've really loved — I think it strikes a wonderful balance between their bubblegum-y "Chewing Gum" debut and their more hard-hitting "Go." I mean, can you listen to this song and not feel happy? The bright locations, colorful hair, and fun dance moves depict the perfect teenage summer.

    21. "Bboom Bboom" by Momoland

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    This sleeper hit succeeded in putting Momoland on the map (to date, it has a whopping 300 million views, which makes them part of an elite group of K-pop groups that have achieved such a number). With its quirky dance moves (DJ-ing, finger hearts, raise the roof, "Great!" thumbs up, etc.), silly expressions, and an amazing rap breakdown, it's safe to say "Bboom Bboom" was stuck in every K-pop lover's head at some point this year.

    22. "Spring Breeze" by Wanna One

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    As Wanna One reaches their end (*sob*), their latest album really demonstrates their maturity as artists. Like BTS's "Spring Day," songs about spring are often about meeting a loved one in due time — in this case, it'd make sense if it's a love letter to their fans. All the feels! "Flowerbomb" is my second favorite and falls in a similarly dreamy vein.

    23. "I Love You" by EXID

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    This comeback witnessed the triumphant return of the group's main vocalist, Solji, after a near two year hiatus due to her hyperthyroidism diagnosis — and damn, let me just say, I missed these girls altogether! Besides the ample makeup inspiration, "I Love You" brings on lots of unique and slightly crazy visuals (throwing up, being stuck in weird spots, dramatic karaoke sessions, etc.) that EXID became famous for. Call it attention-grabbing, la-la-catchy, and an explosion of retro color.

    24. "Millions" by Winner

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    In my mind, "Millions" is a follow-up to last year's "Really Really," — it has a similar lighthearted, flirty vibe but it's slightly more hopeful. Instead of pining after the girl, this is a song about being in a relationship and letting someone know the uncountable/millions of reasons you like them. In a V Live broadcast, Winner said that "fans give us so much love for small things that we never would have thought of," so just like fans love them for millions of reasons, everyone else in the world is worthy of being loved for millions of reasons — which, like, AWWWWW.

    25. "Circus" by Taeyeon

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    Taeyeon, leader of Girls' Generation, is my favorite female soloist. Her soft vocals are widely demonstrated on her latest EP, Something New, but my favorite number is the stripped-back, piano-driven "Circus." Even if you don't look up the lyrics, you feel waves of emotion listening to this. From the slight buildup in the bridge to the whispery chorus, "Circus" is a subtle showcase of her range — and like most of her other songs, I always find that listening to her songs soothes my mind.

    26. "Spotlight" by Monsta X

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    Originally released in Japanese, this number is a bop and a half! I prefer the Korean version a little more, but in any language, it's yet another perfect capture of Monsta X's "beast idol" image with their signature punchy raps, confident lyrics, and what I can only imagine would be incredibly hyped choreography — the whole production makes me feel as if I'm front row at one of their concerts, jumping right along.

    27. "Starry Night" by Mamamoo

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    This music video set (which is somewhere in New Zealand, I believe) is one of the prettiest ones I've seen, and this powerhouse vocal quartet fits the vibe perfectly with tousled/windswept hair, boho-inspired clothing, blonde/orange-hued hair, sultry gazes, dreamy makeup, and lots of aimless and very scenic wandering. I first listened to "Starry Night" at home on a chill night and it gave me literal goosebumps — Mamamoo knows how to create A Big Mood.

    28. "One of Those Nights" by Key ft. Crush

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    Key: a fashion icon, hair experimentalist, Dior foundation lover, and now, finally, a soloist 10 years after he debuted in SHINee ("Good Evening" is a honorary mention on this list!). "One of Those Nights" is extremely relatable and heart-strings-tugging all at once. His and Crush's slightly breathy vocals perfectly meld together — "I can’t be in this space where you left me / I can’t pretend to be strong anymore." And those dancing in the rain visuals, so beautiful.

    29. "Black Dress" by CLC

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    Any girl group dancing in matching black suit separates will earn a A+ from me. These seven girls deserve more props than I think they get — this song is a dark-leaning, girl-power banger. I swear Cube has a reputation for attracting very distinct female rappers, 'cause Yeeun's part (1:19) is the highlight for me. That, and Seungeon's solo dance right before (1:11). And Eunbin's pole dancing (2:16, 2:34). And Yeeun chopping her hair off (2:30).

    30. "Shoot Me" by Day6

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    The boys have done it again and written/composed another emotional rock ballad that depicts the intricacies and hardships of relationships — something they've been doing extremely well since their debut ("I Smile" is my favorite). Similar to what the lyrics indicate, the music video is like a hyper-real Korean drama with shots exploding everything and things breaking this way and that — with separate shots of the band singing and playing their hearts out. It's the perfect song to get all of your frustrations out to.


    It's the end of 2018, and we're looking back on the year. Check out more of our Best of 2018 coverage!