Just like last year, my K-pop Christmas present is the kick-off to the year-end music festivals. First up is SBS’s Gayo Daejun, which is typically notable for its star-studded, primarily big-name line-up that includes artists from YG Entertainment.
Coming in, I wasn’t all that excited about the year’s Gayo because most of my favorite songs of 2018 came from lesser-known artists who wouldn’t be performing. But, perhaps these lowered expectations paid off, because I found tonight’s show to be pretty strong.
The stage looks bigger and more imposing each year, and tonight’s was particularly expansive. I love that it looked like its own galaxy, complete with swirling walkways leading into smaller stages that were closer to the audience.
The artist roster announcement that kicked off the show was kind of odd (were all the idols told to look pissed off when they walked onstage?), and I wasn’t a fan of the popularity contest it devolved into as host Hyunmoo selectively called out some of the bigger names while other groups stood awkwardly behind him.
But, nobody’s here to take a deep dive into the nuances of stage introductions. Below are my ten favorite performances of the night. And before I get crucified for my choices, it’s important to note that I give much heavier preference to remixed or rearranged versions of songs than standard performances or medleys that could be seen on any weekly music show.
**Videos will be replaced with official versions when (or if) they’re released**
I wasn’t a fan of Heroine’s meandering remix, but you can’t go wrong with this trio of incredible Sunmi songs. She had the strongest material of the night to choose from, and that was nearly enough to find a spot in the top ten.
I still don’t think that BLACKPINK had a strong year musically, but this was a potent medley of their hits with Forever Young as a great finish.
I’m a sucker for groups covering older K-pop songs, especially if it’s a performance made up of members from various acts. I think I would have chosen a boy group track with a little more impact (you can’t just mention Sherlock in the pre-performance video and not perform it!), but this was still a lot of fun. Dreams Come True is one of those evergreen tracks, isn’t it? Sounds just as good now as it must have back in the 90’s.
(Also, I’m lowkey hoping that “Newtro” — new + retro — becomes next year’s defining trend)
10. New Wave (Stray Kids, (G)I-DLE, The Boyz)
I love a rookie, and I love a remix. None of these mixes felt particularly inspired, but this was a great trio to put together. There’s a fierce energy that’s unique to rookie acts, and that was on display tonight even without full songs performed.
The girls had some of the best (and most festive) staging of the night, and the idea to split into units for their 2018 material was inspired. I’ve been hit or miss with their more recent title tracks, but they played to the stadium very well. The dance breaks were particularly well-done.
8. EXO – Miracles In December
Ok, so Miracles In December is one of my favorite K-pop ballads of all time, and it feels like we don’t get to hear it performed all that much anymore. This was gorgeous, and I’m so happy that they kept it stripped back to focus on the trio of amazing voices.
I was pretty cool on Mamamoo’s singles this year, but they’re still one of the best live acts around. Both mixes of their songs were effective tonight, with the tango-to-EDM rendition of Wind Flower a real knockout.
I didn’t expect them to deliver what amounted to a greatest hits performance before IDOL. Nor did I think it would have a loose, live-band vibe with minimal choreography. Honestly, I’m still not entirely sure how I felt about it. The songs were great (obviously), but the medley as a whole didn’t leave the kind of impact I’d hoped for. The segue into Fire was the performance’s high point, as well as the flashes of iconic choreo that we got.
Ah, Call Call Call, the legendary Korean single that never was. Oh My was fine (and brief), but I kind of lost my mind when they transitioned to Call. This is the Seventeen I like best: high energy, powerful vocals and kickass songs with a bit of rock guitar and funk thrown in.
4. Global Wave
Korea’s full-fledged embrace of Queen has been one of the most wonderful (and inexplicable) trends of the year, and I PRAY that this theatrical rock influence finds its way into 2019’s K-pop. The arrangement here was a little messy, but the sheer amount of giddy joy onstage easily makes this one of the night’s highlights.
I think Kai wins the MVP award of the night. Not only did he pull off wearing what looked like a half-bra, but he delivered one hell of a solo dance performance. I’ve been kind of hesitant on Love Shot, but this was a commanding performance that totally took advantage of the song’s charms. Tempo was almost as dynamic, and offered a suitable finale to the night.
For me, the percussive re-imagining of Killing Me was the night’s most successful remix. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I kind of think it improved on the original. The decision to perform Love Scenario in a loose, stadium-ready manner also paid off, as the song’s ubiquity and familiarity make it perfect for a large venue. I loved the extra orchestral instrumentation and the sing-along nature of the performance.
Without a doubt, the first great performance of this year’s Gayos. I’ve been hoping for a medley performance like this for two years now, and this was a great venue for it. I loved how the white boxes almost positioned the guys like avatars that could unlock new songs and sub-units. It was such a smart visual explanation for a group concept that really isn’t that difficult (but is often pitched as such). The unit performances were great (poor Mark, having to run between basically every different unit), but Black On Black was the standout. I’ve never been a big fan of the song, but as a performance piece it really can’t be beat. This was the best rendition I’ve seen, made even more bombastic by a horde of backing dancers.