2013 was a high-concept, musically diverse year in K-pop. Hip-hop hadn’t yet taken over, and melody was still king. Instrumentals aimed for the rafters of stadiums, bringing in explosive guitar, sledgehammer beats and bombastic electro riffs. Songs played around with structure in artful, unexpected ways, often polarizing opinion before unveiling themselves as future classics.
Here are fifty of those classics, ranked all the way up to my favorite song of 2013!
Curious what I thought about other years? Check out all of my year-end countdowns here!
10. Infinite – Destiny
Destiny was Infinite’s first work with producers Rphabet, and the injection of new energy is felt in every beat of its edgy, aggressively performed arrangement. From the abrasive synth distortion to the swoops of dramatic strings, this is a dance track with bite, and proof of the group’s incredible versatility. (full review)
9. Shinhwa – This Love
After reinvigorating their sound a year earlier, Shinhwa went one better with the immense This Love. The track’s anthemic club sound stands as their most powerful moment, pulsing with dance floor bliss. Nothing about the song is particularly complicated, but each segment ties brilliantly together, culminating in the sky-high, euphoric chorus.
8. SHINee – Dream Girl
It might not be the flashiest or most iconic of SHINee’s singles, but it’s hard to find a better distillation of pure pop hooks and instrumental force than Dream Girl. Its kaleidoscopic wave of melodic twists and turns brilliantly sets up its explosive chorus, which takes full advantage of the group’s powerful vocal blend.
7. Girls’ Generation (SNSD) – I Got A Boy
A Frankenstein tapestry of song fragments, I Got A Boy is one of the most complex, genre-smashing singles in their entire career. You’ll either love or hate its abrupt transitions in sound and melody. Either way, it stands as a fascinating K-pop experiment that unveils like a full-on stage musical.
6. Boyfriend – I Yah
I Yah is a hard-hitting sucker punch of dance pop, with rhythm guitar and synth accents to die for. That overpowering, layered hook is as aggressively awesome as Boyfriend ever sounded, and a perfect encapsulation of the Sweetune appeal. If that wasn’t enough, the song concludes with a mighty key change, sending you out of a high while demanding a quick use of the ‘repeat’ button.
5. ZE:A – The Ghost Of Wind
Melding perfectly-utilized classical elements to a light, funky dance track, The Ghost Of Wind stands apart from everything else in ZE:A’s discography. The operatic vocal sample is inspired, but the track would be outstanding even without it. A ridiculously gorgeous string section lends the track an ornate sense of drama, but Ghost‘s most enduring aspect is its simple, timeless pop melody.
4. EXO – Growl
EXO’s most iconic song, and one of the best known K-pop tracks of the last decade. On its own, the addictive beat would be enough to land solidly in the top five of this countdown, but paired with its charismatic vocal and thumping hook, Growl is almost unbeatable. The extended stage version is essential listening, proving the endless durability of this killer groove. (full review)
3. B1A4 – What’s Happening?
What’s Happening is a bombastic, impossibly catchy burst of power pop. Every bit of it is a sharply-constructed hook, from the sing-song rap segments to the punchy, anthemic chorus. Where other groups would have gone for a cutesier arrangement, B1A4 always found a way to make this youthful sound feel grounded and unexpectedly weighty. In this regard, What’s Happening is their masterclass.
2. Infinite – Man In Love
2013 was a year of contrasts for Infinite. A few months before tackling the darker, jagged electro pop of Destiny, the guys presented the most bubbly, bright pop confection of their career. No one does “bubbly and bright” better than Sweetune, and they anchored Man In Love with a propulsive, wall-of-sound appeal that led with a lethal synth riff before moving onto the squeal of guitars and one hell of a build as the track rockets toward its climax. (full review)
1. G-Dragon – Crooked
Crooked is all about attitude and mood. I can’t think of any K-pop song that better captures the idea of desperation and sadness hidden beneath puffed-up-chest bravado. It’s a raucous sounding track, but far from a party. Instead, the chugging guitar and haunting, siren synth give the impression of a character out of control, in a swirling mess of a situation with no exit. With his gnarled delivery, G-Dragon spits out the hip-hop verses with utter conviction, jeering and hissing towards an explosive stadium-ready chorus that wraps everything up in a potent pop sheen. (full review)