The end of the year countdowns are finally here! As always, things kick off with the big one… The Bias List’s top 50 songs of the year! Each day this week, I’ll be counting down ten of the year’s best, until number one is revealed on Friday.
To be eligible for this top 50 list, songs must have had a Korean release as a title or promotional track between Dec. 1st, 2018 and Nov. 30th, 2019.
Curious about last year’s countdown? Check out the masterpost here!
10. BTS – Boy With Luv (ft. Halsey)
Bucking global trends, BTS opted for a breezy pop track to lead their 2019 campaign. Boy With Luv is bright and uncluttered and as exuberant as they’ve ever sounded, pulsing on a roller-rink-ready disco beat that still makes room for several hip-hop verses — each with their own flow. Halsey’s vocals add texture to the hook, but never overpower the group’s unflagging charisma. There were more ambitious title tracks this year, but few had a sturdier, long-lasting appeal. (full review)
9. Stray Kids – Side Effects
The first time I heard Side Effects, it felt like the pop song manifestation of a headache. And judging from its lyrics, that’s exactly what Stray Kids intended. It just refused to go where I wanted it to, to conform to the template set up for it. But, that’s the brilliance of Side Effects. It pulls back and takes its time, making its moments of unbridled aggression all that more dynamic. It’s one big build, teasing and teasing until it clobbers you over the head with a sledgehammer of throbbing electronics. Nothing else this year felt remotely like it. (full review)
8. A.C.E – Under Cover
Too often, modern K-pop latches onto one pre-packaged genre and fails to do anything interesting with it. Tropical, trap, EDM, moombahton, etc. But songs like Under Cover go the extra mile and throw everything they can into the blender. Some distorted hip-hop here, rock guitar there — gunshot percussion in the second verse for good measure. However, none of this experimentation would mean anything without a great melody. Under Cover’s chorus is a whopper, building to a frenzied heavy metal pop hybrid. (full review)
7. ITZY – Dalla Dalla
A good debut track should bound out of the gate as a statement of intent, grabbing listeners by the collar and refusing to let go. In this way, Dalla Dalla‘s unrelenting verve proved to be the perfect platform for ITZY’s introduction to the K-pop world. No other 2019 song cat-walked its way into public consciousness quite like this. Polarizing as its sonic shifts may be, this piecemeal collage is held together by a mammoth chorus and infectious confidence. It stuffs itself to the point of bursting, sampling an entire wardrobe of ideas but always returning to its megawatt hook. (full review)
6. NCT 127 – Highway To Heaven
So many of my favorite pop songs pass the “road trip” test, instantly recalling long stretches of highway with the windows down and a muffling breeze forcing you to crank the music even louder. Never mind that road trips are never actually that transcendent. This is idealism we’re talking about, and Highway To Heaven harnesses that “anything is possible” propulsion in aural form. It’s a pop tonic, culminating in one of the year’s best power notes courtesy of underrated vocalist Haechan. This nostalgic style is not usually within NCT 127’s wheelhouse, but it should be. (And yes, we’re just going to pretend that the needlessly horned up English-language version doesn’t exist.) (full review)
5. TXT – Run Away
After the buoyant synth pop of Crown, few would have expected this guitar-laced anthem from TXT. But, the guys found a way to deepen their sound without resorting to (too many) trendy tricks to get the job done. In an age where the classic pop chorus seems to be a fading antiquity, Run Away ran the opposite way and leaned into its punchy, arena-ready hook. A sense of fantastical whimsy gives the track its own identity, while the members’ wide-eyed earnestness sells the sentiment. This was one of the few big 2019 releases that actually brought me back to the styles that caught my ear when first falling down the K-pop hole years ago. (full review)
4. ATEEZ – Wonderland
If you know anything about me, you’ll know that I love a good rock opera. Wonderland isn’t quite rock, but it’s filled to the brim with bombastic musical elements that make it a showstopping performance piece. ATEEZ themselves described the track as “intense” all the way through, and that’s about right. It’s the culmination of an incredible year for the group, fully harnessing their pirate aesthetic for a modern hype-track reinvention of the classic sea shanty. Wonderland offers boundless energy and commanding vocal turns, flipping expectations by structuring its verses as rowdier and more grandiose than its chorus. And there’s cowbell! Honest-to-goodness cowbell! What more could you ask for? (full review)
3. ATEEZ – Wave
Of all the ATEEZ title tracks, Wave isn’t particularly flashy. And when it comes down to it, the song doesn’t offer the kind of genre-bending frenzy that has put their music on the map. In many ways, it’s the exact style of tropical pop I often complain about. But Wave is special. It works within its own constraints to craft a perfect summer anthem, drawing out the best from the group’s vocalists while wielding Mingi’s distinctly low tone like a bludgeon for its catchphrase chorus.
No song that rests on “hakuna matata” as a central refrain should be this deliriously great, yet ATEEZ transform a cliche into a rallying cry through the sheer force of their personality. But, what really sends Wave soaring is that final, galvanizing refrain. It’s a piece of melody so sublime that its sheer boldness has given me goosebumps on more than one occasion. Songs rarely end on this kind of a high anymore, but Wave leaves you feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and hyped, with a pureness of sound that no amount of swaggering bluster can match.
2. TXT – Crown
When TXT’s Crown was first released, I remember some bemoaning it as “just another boy group track,” devoid of the layers of meaning infused into much of big brother BTS’s work. I don’t think this is true. In fact, I can’t recall another K-pop song that sounds like it. Yes, there have been plenty of bright boy group tracks in the past, but none has quite the same cadence as Crown. However, this alone is not enough to vault the song to my runner-up spot.
What makes Crown truly outstanding is its choice of synth textures and vocal effects. As with anything, the appeal of different soundscapes is subjective, but the specific tones present during Crown‘s chorus evoke a strong sense of nostalgia unlike anything else I heard this year. More and more, K-pop listeners are besieged with the same sample-pack electronic flourishes, which ultimately renders so many comebacks interchangeable. Crown‘s brilliant synth lines exist of their own accord, and instantly give TXT a unique identity.
The guys’ voices are pulled and twisted just enough to give the track a fantasy-like appeal without sacrificing the charm of their performance. This, combined with a lively melody and personality-rich delivery, makes Crown the aural equivalent of sunshine in a bottle — relentlessly upbeat but never cloying. Even an errant second-verse “skrrt” can’t dull the enthusiasm. (full review)
1. Stray Kids – Miroh
Right from the start, as emergency sirens fade in and Felix’s introductory monologue booms with cinematic presence, you can tell that Miroh isn’t going to be a typical K-pop track. Yet despite the theatrical opening, Miroh is remarkably streamlined. No other 2019 release accomplished so much with so little. Taking the rap out of the equation, the song’s melody boils down to only two refrains, and they’re often layered right on top of each other. But, by changing the key and intensity of these lines, Miroh is able to fashion a diverse, thrilling EDM/hip-hop mash-up that feels constantly in flux.
In my mind, Stray Kids’ rap line is the best in the idol business at the moment, and Miroh capitalizes on this by utilizing their talents to power the most vital segment of any EDM track: the pre-chorus build. Their breakneck pace, coupled with the hypnotic loop running underneath, forge an explosive sense of rising tension that culminates in a beat drop/chorus pairing for the ages.
I often talk about my love for songs that constantly gain momentum. In a world of half-time trap breakdowns, this quality is becoming frustratingly rare. But Miroh has a not-so-secret weapon in a form we don’t often hear in idol music. From the beginning, the song is pulled forward by a melodic chant that underlines most of its verses and pre-chorus. Miroh uses this refrain to refuel itself, adding layers of energy like a little pop song turbine. Thanks to this unyielding intensity, no song this year felt as widescreen and climactic. (full review)