Katherine’s Top K-Pop Releases of 2020: #1-10

I’m really excited about this year’s Top 10 because it’s a little different from past ones. As a K-pop fan, I usually just jump from one comeback to the next and love whatever’s trending at the moment. So normally, my Top 10 list is filled with songs from the end of the year – generally October, but sometimes in November or even December. Many early songs often get moved out of the Top 10 and get relegated to a few spots down. But for the first time in a while (maybe ever), the majority of the songs here are from the first half of the year! Also, this list is not dominated by SM artists for once – which is nice, because it shows that my tastes diversified a *tiny* bit over this year. That being said, there are three SM artist songs on this list, and they all happen to involve one person… Taeyong. Apparently, 2020 was the year when he almost became my ultimate bias. (I’m still sticking with Donghae since I’ve actually met him and all, but Taeyong was everywhere this year.) So, my #1 song of the year is one that he’s a part of… but which one is it?

DISCLAIMER: This list is 100% based on my own opinions and feelings, and is not a ranking of what I objectively think are the best songs of 2020.  The rankings are based on things like how much I like the song/choreography/music video/styling, how many times I listened to the song, how long I was into the comeback/debut, how many related videos I watched, etc.

#10. “Secret Story of the Swan,” IZ*ONE

IZ*ONE has established a very specific sound for themselves while building their discography. Their music can mostly be classified as catchy synthpop or electronic pop, delicate yet bright and bubbly. So when “Secret Story of the Swan” came out, it was a complete surprise. I remember being totally thrown for a loop when I first watched it; it wasn’t what I was expecting at all, but it was a wonderful surprise. While I love everything about “Secret Story of the Swan” – and I do mean everything – what really impresses me is how IZ*ONE successfully made such a drastic change to their music without sacrificing their overall concept and brand. In many other girl groups’ hands, “Secret Story of the Swan” would have become a total girl crush song, with every aspect of the comeback trying to embody its dramatic sound. IZ*ONE took a more unique approach, leaving all the intensity in their music and applying their trademark aesthetic to everything else. So we still got everything we love: graceful choreography (except for one kickass dance break), a stunning and vividly colored music video with pastels galore, and the most gorgeous – and sparkly! – outfits. IZ*ONE had an unexpected setback with the Produce vote scandal last year, but they overcame it and returned with a vengeance. And while all three of their comebacks were highly successful in Korea, I think “Secret Story of the Swan” was both a creative and commercial triumph.

#9. “God’s Menu,” Stray Kids

I really hesitate to refer to “God’s Menu” as “noise music” because I know that carries negative connotations, but that’s really what it is – it’s loud, powerful, aggressive, and all over the place. I get that’s overkill for some, but not for me! I love the songs that make me want to get up and move; or in this case, bang my head along to the beat. More importantly than that, I was just so interested by the whole chef concept. I really loved how Stray Kids drew these parallels between cooking and making music as creative processes. (Note that I also read Food Wars around this time, so I really felt that I understood this metaphor.) And I was so impressed with how they committed to it, even wearing chef costumes during promotions. The cooking motions they added into their choreography like seasoning food or flipping pans were highly entertaining. Up until 2020, I was pretty ambivalent about Stray Kids – perhaps stubbornly so. They’ve been incredibly creative from the get-go and they’ve made a lot of good and unique music, but most of it just didn’t fit my personal taste. However, “God’s Menu” was a TOTAL GAME CHANGER. It was just so out of the box and different, and that fascinated me. I really appreciated how they just went for it. So “God’s Menu” was the song that made me a Stray Kids fan (albeit still a casual one), and I’m very excited to see what they will do next.

#8. “Break All the Rules,” CRAVITY

“Break All the Rules” is the only debut song to make my Top 10, and I honestly love it so much. It goes hard, which is always a plus in my book, but that power is nicely balanced by the members’ smooth vocals. It has all the elements that would be appealing to your average pop listener, but it still manages to sound really unique. And the chorus is just so freaking catchy. Plus the polished choreography is really well done and matches the song nicely. As a debut song for CRAVITY, it was smart in that it was fast-paced and thrilling, but not as aggressive so they could set themselves apart from other boy groups – particularly their seniors and label mates Monsta X. And it shows enough diversity that I can easily see them going down either the more intense road or the bright and fun road. Many rookies often need a couple of releases to really solidify their presence (I go by the three song rule), but CRAVITY gave an amazing first impression right from the start. Their debut was so well done that I was genuinely shocked it didn’t create more buzz – and I STILL never see people talking about them. Personally, they made the biggest impression on me out of all the rookies this year. And I genuinely wasn’t expecting to like them so much! I just clicked on their music video because I just wanted to support the Produce X 101 trainees after everything they went through, particularly Jungmo. (And yes, I am STILL salty that he didn’t get into X1 – MNET manipulated my vote!) However, I quickly became a fan because of their excellent songs and performance skills. They have so much potential, and I can’t wait to see how they grow over the years.

#7. “More & More,” TWICE

“More & More” was basically the first major concept change in TWICE’s five year career. (“Feeling Special” was definitely more mature, but I personally think it still fit right in with the rest of their music.) It’s not as dramatic a change as I would have liked – since they’re still a top girl group and very much in the public eye – but I was obsessed with it. While “More & More” is as light and catchy as ever, there’s a sensuality to it that really shows how the girls have grown up. TWICE sings of how their love interest might pretend they’re not interested but will always end up coming back for more, which is enhanced by the song’s hypnotic and mesmerizing qualities. (Funnily enough, this song unintentionally describes my fan experience with TWICE. Half the time I wasn’t really interested in their comebacks, but I always ended up coming around in the end.) Those themes of desire and indulgence are also really enhanced in all other aspects of the comeback. The choreography isn’t outright sexy – they still have to cater to the general public – but it is very alluring and enticing. And the music video really doubles down on those Garden of Eden/forbidden fruit vibes. The ladies of TWICE have always been stunningly beautiful (I’ve seen them up close), but they look like straight up bohemian nature goddesses here. It’s a very grown up image for them, and it was the perfect start for transitioning into the senior stage of their career.

#6. “Lovesick Girls,” BLACKPINK

As much as I love BLACKPINK and their fierce party jams, I was getting really tired in 2020 and I really needed something different from them. (My complaint is not with the group themselves, but YG and their insistence on recycling the same formula over and over.) Thankfully, they delivered for their full album comeback – and I could not be more delighted. “Lovesick Girls” is an upbeat and bouncy song reminiscent of early 2010s pop. It actually reminds me of a lot of music that I used to listen to in college: “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn, “I Love It” by Icona Pop, early Katy Perry, and some others I’m probably forgetting. Yet much like “Dancing On My Own,” this song’s positive and energetic sound masks a sad subject – BLACKPINK are the “lovesick girls” because they can’t break the cycle of falling in love and getting hurt. The lyrics “We were born to be alone, so while [are] we still looking for love” REALLY got to me. As a single woman whose dating prospects are 0 while I’m living in South Korea because I’m a brown girl and double 0 because of the pandemic, that line felt like my life motto in 2020. And while I rarely get emotional over K-pop, I cannot watch the music video without tearing up or full-on crying. The girls do a really good acting job, and their scenes reminds me of past difficult relationships. Especially Rosé, whose scenes were a dizzying but accurate depiction of how fast things can switch from wonderful to terrible and back again. “Lovesick Girls” is ultimately not my favorite BLACKPINK song, but I really cherish it because it’s a breath of fresh air and the musical change so many of us were asking for. It shows a more authentic side to BLACKPINK rather than their “fierce queens of K-pop” persona, and I sincerely hope it’s a sign that more diverse music is to come.

#5. “Apple,” GFriend

Much like the apple offered by Eve or the apple eaten by Snow White, “Apple” is all about temptation. It was the lead single off of GFriend’s album titled Song of the Siren, which turned out to be a highly appropriate title. I was completely mesmerized by “Apple,” both by listening to it and watching it. The arrangement is so mystical and alluring, and the melody is so seductively captivating. I genuinely feel like it transports me to another world when I hear it. While this is definitely GFriend’s easiest choreography, I think it’s also the one with the best musicality – meaning it matches the rhythm and vibe of the song almost perfectly. As for the aesthetics, they were stunningly gorgeous. The music video looks like a fairy tale or one of the fantasy novels that I love reading, and there are so many beautiful details to unpack. I know the plots of K-pop videos tend to get jumbled in favor of all of the pretty shots, but I was so curious to know what the story was. And the outfits are honestly my favorite of the entire year. I’m not sure which I like best: the red and silver sparkly dresses, the white ones that make GFriend look like Greek goddesses, or the black ones that make them look like glamorous witches. I have gone back and forth with GFriend nearly my entire time as a K-pop fan. Up until this point, their music tended to be either really emotional and sentimental or something sweet and fun. All of which is great, but doesn’t resonate with me as much as other types of music. Since their fans and/or the general public seemed really resistant to GFriend’s changing their concept, I just never expected them to do something like “Apple.” And I was over the moon when they did.

#4. “Kick It,” NCT 127

Apple Music tells me that “Kick It” was my most listened to song of 2020 (by one play), and I’m not surprised at all. There was a period in March where I was at work and sitting at my desk alone for eight hours every day because COVID-19 delayed the start of school and all the other teachers got to stay at home. So, I went all in on the “Kick It” comeback – I watched the music videos and performance videos dozens of times, plus all of the variety show appearances and NCT channel videos. I haven’t really done that for at least three years, so that should show you how invested I was. As for why I was so into “Kick It,” it was because it had everything I love in a comeback. Like I said with Stray Kids, I can see how a song like this would be noise to some people, but it’s what I live for. NCT 127 has always marched to the beat of their own drum, and I love their songs that are so wild and out there. Also, the killing part of the performance is iconic – so simple looking, but actually pretty difficult to execute correctly. And I loved the aesthetic of the music video and all of the martial arts references. As for the outfits, they were… something. (I just find it so hilarious how half of the members are constantly exposing their skin to some degree and half of them are COMPLETELY covered up.) NCT 127 reached new heights of popularity this year, and I’m just so proud that it was with such an unconventional song like “Kick It.” It means that they didn’t have to sacrifice their artistry for success, and it validates the creative choices they’ve made their entire career. While I love “Kick It,” it lost out to some of the more recent releases because they’re a little fresher in my mind. But make no mistake: it was definitely a staple of my 2020 K-pop consumption.

#3. “Helicopter,” CLC

If you asked me about underrated K-pop groups, I could easily tell you a dozen – but CLC will ALWAYS be the first name I mention. They have never gotten the recognition they deserve, and half of that is their own agency’s fault. First, they got a bunch of hate because everyone thought Cube was trying to turn them into the next 4Minute, whose disbandment was still fresh. Then, they were quickly overshadowed by (G)I-DLE just three years into their career, a time around when they should be peaking and seeing the most success. (It’s notoriously difficult for agencies to maintain two girl groups with the same level of popularity, and the older one usually ends up suffering.) While it did take a while for CLC to find their creative footing, they have consistently been delivering good music with powerful messages for YEARS at this point. And yet, hardly anyone talks about them. But despite all this, CLC remained (outwardly) unbothered. In fact, “Helicopter” was an ambitious comeback that fired on all cylinders. You can practically hear the determination in the percussion and the resolve in the soaring vocals and Yeeun’s charismatic rapping. The choreography screams “girl power” – especially for Seungyeon, who was full-on flexing her main dancer status. And the music video is nothing but epic with its dazzling light show. “Helicopter” promotes an important message of taking control of your own destiny and never losing sight of your goals, as evidenced by the repetition of “never give up” in the chorus. Which is quite bittersweet, given their mistreatment by their own company and Elkie’s recent decision to leave the group. But at the same time, I can tell this comeback wasn’t just a concept for these ladies, and I get the sense that they truly believed in the lyrics they were singing. I have no idea what the future holds for CLC, and as sad as it is to say, this could very well have been be the last comeback we got. But “Helicopter” was nothing but a creative triumph, and it will remain a high point in their discography no matter where it is.

#2. “Tiger Inside,” SuperM

“Tiger Inside” is my favorite SuperM song by far because it’s so unique and creative. SM has been having them push songs with more of a Western influence (or at least what they *think* is Western influence), but there’s an exotic quality to “Tiger Inside” that makes it way more intriguing. Like the rest of SuperM’s singles, it’s still quite experimental in sound and has those edgy elements that go hard. But it isn’t so rap/percussion heavy, which allows more room for smooth vocalists like Baekhyun and Taemin to shine. The song is all about how there’s a fierce animal hiding inside some people, and I think that the music and choreography do a really good job of keeping things restrained and unleashing that ferocity at exactly the right moments. I mentioned before that I was heavily swayed by Taeyong, and that most apparent in this release. He’s pretty well known for his duality – charismatic and sexy AF on stage, but a total marshmallow off of it – and he best embodies the qualities of someone with a more hidden wild side. (Don’t even get me started on the actual growling; I’m of two minds and I can’t decide which one wins out.) In all honesty, I truly believe that “Tiger Inside” was the song that SuperM should have been promoting to the American markets. There’s an argument that K-pop is not really it’s own genre of music because it just copies everything else. I don’t necessarily agree with that; while K-pop obviously borrows heavily from other genres, I do think it has developed some unique characteristics over the years. “Tiger Inside” has some of those qualities, and I have trouble imagining a Western artist releasing a song like it. So, I think SM missed an opportunity to use SuperM and “Tiger Inside” to show the United States what K-pop can truly sound like.

#1. “Make a Wish (Birthday Song),” NCT U

I picked “Make a Wish” for first place because I am absolutely enamored with it. It was my #2 most played song on Apple Music, which is significant because nearly all the songs in the Top 10 are from the first half of the year. Why do I like it so much? The whistling hook and the chorus are super catchy, but vibe of the the song itself is lowkey enough that it doesn’t get repetitive after many listens. And the choreography is super satisfying – I love how half of it is all smooth and groovy (ugh so many body rolls), but the other half is really sharp and staccato. There are so many great little details in the performance, like Shotaro’s perfect neck isolations and how Xiao Jun constantly changed up his killing part. I watched every single video of “Make a Wish” on music shows, and I never do that. Song and choreography are usually my biggest determining factors for this list, and “Make a Wish” passed both with flying colors. It should be no surprise to regular readers that an SM song made the top of my list; it’s been that way ever since I became a K-pop fan. 2020 was truly the year of NCT for me – nearly all of their singles made it into my Top 50 – so it’s only natural that one of their songs would take #1. And “Make a Wish” had a huge advantage because it featured many of my biases from the NCT units: obviously Taeyong, but also Xiao Jun and apparently Jaemin. (I say “apparently” since I’ve never really had a definitive NCT Dream bias, but I guess it’s him right now.) However, I ultimately chose “Make a Wish” because it’s a song I genuinely could never get tired of. Given my short attention span with K-pop, I only happen upon songs like that once or twice a year. So this time, there really could be no other song in first place.

And that’s a wrap on 2020! (And I was only a few days late with these posts, yay!) It was a super sucky year with everything going on, but at least we got some great K-pop. Though I was always concerned about the idols’ safety, I do appreciate that the industry was able to function pretty close to normal despite everything going on – the major difference being no live audiences or regular concerts (which really was a pity). I’m sure that it was all done so the companies could keep making money and not really for the idols’ benefit, but I’m happy that so many artists were able to keep some sense of normalcy and could go on performing and doing their jobs. I’m definitely glad to see 2020 go, and I’m looking forward to seeing what 2021 will bring.

Bye bye 2020~

SOURCES: YouTube, Cube Entertainment (CLC), JYP Entertainment (TWICE and Stray Kids), Off the Record Entertainment (IZ*ONE), Source Music (GFriend), SM Entertainment (NCT U, NCT 127, and SuperM), Starship Entertainment (CRAVITY), and YG Entertainment (BLACKPINK)
“Secret Story of the Swan” music video is distributed by Stone Music Entertainment.
“Apple” music video is distributed by Big Hit Labels.

The idols in the featured image are:
*Hyunjin / Stray Kids / JYP Entertainment
*Yeeun / CLC / Cube Entertainment
*Taeyong / NCT, NCT 127, and SuperM / SM Entertainment (shown here as a member of NCT U)
*Sowon / GFriend / Source Music
*Jungmo / CRAVITY / Starship Entertainment
*Mina / TWICE / JYP Entertainment

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