Welcome to 2019! After a year of recalibrating and restructuring, the K-soul team is back and ready to dive into a new year of music, event coverage, media analysis, opinion pieces and more. To kick off some old and new members of the K-soul U.S. editorial team have taken a stab at our favorites from 2018. No matter if you’ve followed K-pop to the second this last year or if you’re wondering on where to begin, here are our (in no particular order) recommendations and recaps for the year:

Pentagon – Shine

The undeniable earworm of the year, “Shine” rightfully propelled Pentagon to the spotlight. The track is flawless mix of their vocal talent penned by four of the originally ten member group that marked the beginning of a new and clearly successful sound for them. From the piano-led backtrack to the incorporation of many viral dance trends, “Shine” brought K-pop into a playful Spring season and refused to let go throughout the rest of the year. – Samantha Marie Lifson

Seventeen – Thanks

Seventeen member and designated producer Woozi once said that if he were to write a song dedicated to the fans, he would call it “Thanks”. Whether or not it was a coy hint at the future release of this track, or a spur-of-the-moment answer, the song just so happens to be one of the best examples of emotional EDM in K-pop, and one of Seventeen’s most unique releases yet. Droning, distorted strings and shattering synths craft the perfect backdrop for “Thanks,” a sentimental piece that stands out against most of Seventeen’s saccharine discography. The song ebbs and flows, and despite its heavy and repetitive chorus, never tires the listener out. – Dhania Kamayana

Taeyeon – Something New

Taeyeon’s first single of 2018 brought exactly what it promised in its title — “Something New.” Her standalone harmonies in the intro set the stage for an unpredictable musical experience, before we’re dropped into the groovy R&B sound that carries through the rest of the song. Taeyeon has tried many different genres in her decade-long career, and through “Something New” she has shown her ability to continue to change and experiment after Girls’ Generation’s legacy. – Shelly Pires  

Yong Jun Hyung – Go Away

Not many can do melancholy in the way of Highlight’s Jun Hyung. The song blends Jun Hyung’s unique rapping and singing tone with a backtrack that begs listeners to dance despite its pragmatic, if not a little forceful, meaning. His first full album Goodbye 20’s is an emotionally evocative, chic masterpiece that evokes the emotions of looking back on the ups and downs of one’s twenties. And “Go Away,” as the album’s title track, then becomes the breakup anthem icing on the cake of the relatable album. – SML

NCT Dream – We Go Up

It wouldn’t be 2018 without a nod to NCT Dream and their achievements, as both a part of SM’s ambitious 18– now 21— part collective, and as their own unit. “We Go Up” paints a perfect picture of youthfulness with its rhythmic cowbell and heavy horns, highlighting the various sonic textures presented in the song. It’s a sparse-yet-noisy, fast-paced hip-pop anthem that puts listeners in a one-two step alongside the jabby, brash vocal flourishes that persist throughout the song; a courtesy of eldest member Mark. It’s energetic without needing to rely on melodic complexities to embolden the song’s message: we’re young, but ready to take on the world, and this is what we’ve got. – DK

Pristin V – Get It

The five members of Pristin’s sub-unit Pristin V brought us back to the girl-power pop of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s with “Get It.” Compared to the energetic and somewhat cheeky tunes Pristin put out in 2017 “Get It” is aggressive and confident, urging the listener to be bold and get what their heart desires. The term “girl-crush” has gained popularity in the K-pop sphere, and Pristin V embody it perfectly in this release. – SP

Seungri – 1, 2, 3!

While the hyungs are away, BIGBANG’s youngest will slay. Seungri wasted no time with his second studio album The Great Seungri; and calling himself “great” was an understatement. Undeniably pop, and addictive with its guitar riffs and clap-ready beat, “1, 2, 3!” calls back to Seungri’s equally engaging earlier releases like “Strong Baby” and “Gotta Talk to U” while highlighting his growth both as singer-performer and songwriter. Seungri has always been one part of the five-piece excellence making up BIGBANG, but this year allowed him to shine in a way that was exclusively his own. – SML

Day6 – days gone by

Despite coming at the tail-end of 2018, “days gone by” is one of JYP boy-band Day6’s catchiest releases, perfectly encompassing the current nostalgia-driven state of media and entertainment. Day6 has shown such impressive musical growth since their unforgettable “Every Day 6” project of 2017, and while this year’s releases feel ostensibly sparse in comparison, we’re always pleased with how their titles play with fresh concepts, while their b-sides compliment the energetic pop-rock-punk tendencies of “How Can I Say,” “Blood,” and “I Need Somebody” that compels listeners to them in the first place. – DK

Red Velvet – Bad Boy

Red Velvet started off the year on a high note with the playful and sultry “Bad Boy.” The relatively simplistic backing track, with its lighthearted and hypnotic repetition, acts as the perfect backdrop for Red Velvet’s sweet and smooth vocals. The girls brag about their ability to take a “bad boy down” with a confidence that shines not just in the song itself, but also in the music video and their performances. In “Bad Boy,” Red Velvet don’t need to try to be the hottest girls in town — they just are. – SP

BIGBANG – Flower Road

This veteran group with four actively enlisting members did not let the military stop them from releasing music or topping charts. “Flower Road” is the perfect farewell but be back again, ode to their musical career, gift for their fans. The synth of the backtrack pops between lovingly fitting lyrics penned by G-Dragon and T.O.P. Emotional yet optimistic, BIGBANG beckons fans through the progression of their musical career; starting and ending with a nod to their youth via the calling out their own name. – SML

VIXX – Scentist

VIXX always bring something interesting to the table. Their narrative approach to releases has matured alongside the group, with “Scentist” being the latest addition to the storybook that makes up their most iconic releases. Nothing about “Scentist” is subtle. Each melodic nuance recalls the nodes of sensuality and sensitivity that read in the song’s lyrics, following a protagonist’s drunk-like stupor into love. Sparse rhythms and delicate chords craft a dreamscape that the listener can’t help but be drawn into, an effect that is highlighted in the development from the drawn-out pre-chorus into the dynamic chorus. “Scentist” evokes the VIXX of old: daringly experimental, emotional, but always, somehow, inherently them, showcasing their growth into one of k-pop’s most elegant acts. – DK

Heize – Jenga

Heize delivered a stunning performance through “Jenga,” where her light and airy vocals perfectly contrast the standing bass on this jazzy track. The piano seems to fall over itself, and the layers of harmony in the chorus echo the Jenga puzzle she uses to describe her love in her expertly-crafted lyrics. Her musical sensitivity has been a constant since her debut, and nowhere is that more clear than in “Jenga.” – SP

EXO – Bad Dream

The seventh track in EXO’s only full-length release of 2018 Don’t Mess Up My Tempo is an exhilarating callback to the experimental, ostinato-speckled (a la “What is Love,” “Lucky One”) electro-R&B slow-jams that have coloured sizable portions of the group’s discography since their debut in 2012. “Bad Dream” rejects the formulaic inclusion of a rap section despite EXO having a dedicated “rap line”, instead allowing those members to contribute to the complex harmonies and supporting vocals that make for the backbone of this track, and undeniably the album as a whole. The minimalist nature of the song offers new perspectives into the group’s musicality, making it easy to anticipate how EXO’s discography will grow beyond their near seven years together– a sentiment that reverberates throughout all of Don’t Mess Up My Tempo. – DK

Kim Dong Han – Sunset

Previously the youngest member of now-disbanded project group JBJ, Kim Dong Han began his solo career on the right foot with the expertly-crafted single “Sunset.” In this track, he sheds his maknae image and seamlessly takes on the mature aura required of such a hard-hitting track. His youthful voice stands out among the deep punctuating bass in a blend that makes his solo debut a resounding success. – SP

IZ*ONE – La Vie en Rose

Any concerns over melding K-pop trainees with their debuted AKB48 J-pop counterparts were thrown away with IZ*ONE’s “La Vie en Rose.” Just as the group rings in the marriage of 2018’s Produce 48 winners under one title, their debut unites cute and powerful styles in one unique and addictive track. Whether you’ve followed the girls through their televised journey or hopped onto the train now, “La Vie en Rose” has universal appeal that reminds us why these twelve girls are this year’s “nation’s choice.” – SML

BTS – Paradise

Alongside the slew of BTS’ phenomenal achievements this year is “Paradise,” the fifth track off of the album Love Yourself: Tear. A refreshing return to the sounds of The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, “Paradise” is a true and honest testament to the growth of producer and member Suga’s, as well as BTS’, journey through musical and lyrical maturity. A gentle reminder to tackle life at your own pace, but for a lot of listeners that have been with the group since their 2013 debut, also indicates of how far the group has come since the sentiments of their early tracks. “Paradise” fits snugly within the state of BTS’ current sound, offering fans solace in their hopeful lyrics while also providing the listeners that favour their R&B sound with a fantastically-produced track that speaks to those that fell for their music so many years ago. – DK

UNB – Feeling

Formed through the survival show The Unit, UNB is a group whose members all have experience in the music industry, which is perhaps what allowed them to come together in perfect sync for their debut single “Feeling.” The dance pop track starts off with a simple piano intro and subtle verses before building up to to a punching chorus that makes you want to get to your feet and jump. “Feeling” is an ambitious start for a group with an uncertain future like UNB, but the members all rise to the challenge and excel. – SP

(G)-IDLE – HANN

“HANN” threw away all conventional pop trends from the year and reminded us not only of the power female artists hold in the palms of their hands, but of why we’ve been anticipating more (G)-Idle since their fantastically catchy debut. “HANN’s” steady build from verse to hook to chorus keeps us on edge until the steady whistling of the chorus can loop us through this song like a rollercoaster. Just like former CUBE entertainment alum 4minute’s 2012 release “Volume Up,” “HANN” has an alluring, mysterious, and sexy that left it on repeat after its August release. – SML

SHINee

Against all odds 2018 became the year of SHINee and we would be remiss not to mention it. SHINee released an impressive array of music this year including a three part album, a repackage, three Korean solo releases between members Jong Hyun, Onew, and Key, and two Japanese solos from Tae Min and Key. We struggled between us trying to decide what to feature in our top 18. In the end, we settled on highlighting the course of their 2018 careers rather than forcing our hands to pick one to two tracks.

As with their entire discography, SHINee’s 2018 dabbled between genres, starting with the emotional, electro-pop “Good Evening” and running through elements of tropical house (“I Want You,” “Countless”) to ballads (“Our Page”); and that’s only in their singles. They begged listeners to dance with tracks like “Jump” and “Chemistry.” They let their experiences and emotions punctuate self-penned b-sides like Key’s “You and I.” They treated fans to one more five-member bop in “Lock You Down.”

Individually the members of SHINee indulged in different styles including R&B, electronic, pop, and musical theater. Starting with Jong Hyun’s predominantly self-written and composed posthumous Poet|Artist, which contained tracks that took us on compelling compositional rides like “Take the Dive” and “Only One You Need,” had us chuckling at his wit like “Waffle (#Hashtag),” and left us feeling sexy like “Rewind.” SHINee members Key and Onew took the solo release torch with fervor, complimenting Jong Hyun’s solo with two debuts of their own in November and December. Both Face and Voice indulged in the individual flavors of both members. Through Key, we saw a unique marriage of sound with two male vocalists in “One of Those Nights,” a song that’s blend of R&B with house supplemented the already sentimental and compelling tones of Key and Crush; following with an album of pop and EDM anthems. On the other hand Onew showcased the drama of his tone and his love of Opera-esque performances. And while we’re only focused on Korean tracks for this piece, we must give a nod to Tae Min who showed incredible musical development through his self-titled first Japanese full album.

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