This year, K-pop accelerated its expansion into all sorts of mediums—novels, podcasts, documentaries. And yet, for all the satisfaction these new forms brought with them, the music remains the heart of this global phenomenon. Despite the pandemic’s impact on the worldwide recording industry, releases from South Korea saw no decline in quantity or quality, and a slew of artists produced their best work to date.
The K-pop songs and albums that defined the year transported us to places we miss most—from the theater to the jazz bar to the island vacation that lives only in our memories or imaginations. Some prompted nostalgia for things we once took for granted, while others inspired hope for their return. Through these releases, many of our favorite artists experimented with their sounds, all while building deeper connections with an audience they could only interact with from a distance.
In no particular order, here are the 10 songs and 10 albums that defined K-pop’s year in 2020.
“Answer” is a song of triumph and celebration, as ATEEZ makes clear from its first word: geonbae, the Korean term for “cheers!” From the moment vocalist San opens with “let’s make a toast like a thunder” to the track’s final minute packed with booming instrumentals, “Answer” arrests listeners with a grand exuberance shared by the two-year-old group’s best tracks. Released just days into January, the anthem captured the energy of a new decade brimming with potential. As 2020 rapidly spiraled downward, the spirit of collective rejoice in “Answer” has become both a memory of the “before times” and, more importantly, a vision for that moment when we can raise our glasses together again.
“Nonstop,” OH MY GIRL
In a year when a number of K-pop girl groups gravitated toward darker, sexier concepts, OH MY GIRL embraced a bright and youthful image in their tropical banger “Nonstop.” The track channels summer vacation on an island: sunny, vibrant melodies buoyed by upbeat synth notes; dreamy, airy vocals about harboring feelings for a crush. Despite its freshness, the track has a mature sound. Husky-voiced rapper Mimi’s verses contrast with occasional chirping chants, adding a different type of charm to the repeated phrase: “I was a little fluttered.”
Broadway was shuttered for the majority of 2020, but SEVENTEEN brought us theater music, if only for three minutes, with “Home;run.” The orchestral accompaniment of the swing-based track is dramatic and flashy—fast-paced beats resonant of claps and snaps build a groovy rhythm over a majestic brass section. A delicate bridge with jazzy piano riffs leads to the high-energy final chorus, not unlike the instrumental interludes of a musical. In keeping with the Semicolon EP’s theme to “take a break” because “there’s a long journey ahead of you,” “Home;run” invites the listener to revel in the music and join the party onstage—albeit only in our minds.
Of the solo releases this year, Hwasa’s “Maria” leaves the most searing impression. The track is sleek and sultry, oozing with the Mamamoo vocalist’s distinct charisma as she sings in her low-toned, rounded voice over syncopated drum beats. Hwasa dropped her first solo project in 2019, and returned with a much more personal EP using her baptismal name as its title. The words in the Latin-infused track “Maria,” which Hwasa co-wrote, read both like a diary entry and a love letter to herself. The artist wrestles with the public criticism and online hatred she receives, but sings: “Oh Maria, I’m saying this for you/ Why are you trying so hard? You’re already beautiful.”
Retro- and disco-infused tracks from Korean artists were a major trend in 2020, the most visible example being BTS’ history-making “Dynamite.” A number of songs with similar influences received less mainstream recognition, but are standouts in their own ways—case in point: Apink’s “Dumhdurum.” The synth motif in the chorus, formed by a sequence of notes across five keys, is one of the most memorable riffs of the year. But “Dumhdurum” didn’t just leave a mark for its electronic production. The track puts the singing of its members front and center, highlighting these six seasoned performers—Apink debuted in 2011—as they effortlessly command attention with their vocal prowess.
If a good breakup song is one with lyrics that resonate, a great breakup song is one in which the artists unabashedly emote the pain contained within them. PENTAGON’s “Daisy” is this type of song. In the alternative rock track on which group leader Hui and rapper Wooseok contributed to the writing, the members’ voices are saturated with despair and desperation as they lament being “burned by a fake love.” Most poignant is the refrain in which the eight active members sing in unison, “Lie, it’s all a lie, it’s a lie.” The final verse adds depth to the track, using wordplay to reveal a longing: whereas gojinmal, the Korean word for “lie,” was repeated earlier in the song, the members close with gaji ma—“don’t go.”
“Lovesick Girls,” BLACKPINK
The arrival of BLACKPINK’s first full-length album—so highly anticipated the project was simply titled The Album—was one of K-pop’s biggest news events in 2020. While the pre-release singles “How You Like That” and “Ice Cream” with Selena Gomez charted higher on the Billboard Hot 100, “Lovesick Girls” is the true gem on the album. The heavy electronic production characteristic of BLACKPINK’s crowd-riling bops remains intact, but it’s stripped back to accentuate sung melodies from the four members. Their voices are layered over acoustic guitar to create a breezy and mellow ambience, taking a more pensive and melancholic turn from the hard-hitting nature of the group’s 2018 and 2019 title tracks.
“La Di Da,” EVERGLOW
Think of “La Di Da” as the exhilarating theme song to a superhero movie. EVERGLOW takes the listener on an electrifying ride in this track that stands out among the year’s retro-inspired songs for its spunky synth backbone and dynamic melodies. The chorus is the standout, with soaring lines and high notes from vocalists Sihyeon and Mia contrasting with rapper E:U’s lower-pitched, “La di da di da.” As the swift tempo escalates the track’s tension, you can’t help but root for the artists as they proclaim that they “got no time for haters.”
“Not Shy,” ITZY
ITZY’s track released at the start of the year, “Wannabe,” launched a viral shoulder-shimmering dance. But “Not Shy,” dropped in August, is the group’s 2020 release with greater replay value. It’s truly a challenge to tire of the bold saxophone tunes, urgent percussion and the group’s sassy utterance of its own name throughout the chorus. The five-member act has established a repertoire of self-empowering anthems in the short period since it debuted in 2019, and “Not Shy” is all about giving authority to one’s own voice. In the context of admitting a crush—a confession often marked by hesitancy, ITZY snaps, “Why can’t I just say what’s on my mind?” and repeats, “I want you, who cares, ’cause I’m not shy.”
“Kick It,” NCT 127
The bombastic electronic noises in the first few seconds of “Kick It” are jarring. So are the first lines of the track, which are neither delivered as song nor rap but as chants. And yet, this chant—“let me introduce you to some new thangs”—has become one of the most iconic lines of K-pop in 2020 largely because of its overflowing swagger. NCT 127’s martial arts-themed “Kick It” quite literally packs a punch. The jabbing rap verses and thudding bass threaten to knock you down, but the vocalists’ melodies, so sweet and tender, promise to soften the blow.
Map of the Soul: 7, BTS
Produced during the pandemic, Be brought calm and comfort to many this fall. But BTS’ Map of the Soul: 7, released back in February, is the septet’s artistically intricate masterpiece of the year. The generous offering of 20 tracks spanning an hour and 14 minutes allowed listeners to digest and dissect its complexities as the world transitioned to a period of isolation and quarantine. The album cycles through moments of introspection on BTS’ seven-year journey—from reflecting on the beginning of their career (“We are Bulletproof: the Eternal”) to boldly declaring that they welcome the pain that comes with their current level of fame and success (“On”). “Black Swan” is the project’s most arresting track: over serene guitar plucks, the members express the disturbing fear of losing passion for their craft. “The heart no longer races when hearing the music play,” Suga raps. “Oh that would be my first death I been always afraid of.”
Dystopia: The Tree of Language, DREAMCATCHER
Across the K-pop spectrum, some musical genres are more widespread than others. DREAMCATCHER has taken an unconventional path and carved a niche with rock at the core of the group’s musical identity. The act’s first full-length album since it debuted in 2017, Dystopia: The Tree of Language is DREAMCATCHER’s best release yet. Throughout 13 tracks grounded in the artists’ rich vocals, they blend this rock sound with different influences including EDM (“Scream”), Latin (“Red Sun”) and R&B (“Daybreak”). “Jazz Bar,” although less heavy on the rock influences, is the most transporting track on the album, with a simple melody and light piano chords that whisk you away to the dimmed corner of a jazz bar.
In Life, Stray Kids
To get an idea of Stray Kids’ nascent but prolific career, look no further than the group’s two 2020 Korean albums: Go Live, released in June and consisting of 14 tracks, and the repackaged version, titled In Life, released three months later with eight new tracks. This rate of output is made all the more impressive by Stray Kids’ heavy involvement in songwriting, which three members—Bang Chan, Changbin and Han, who produce music under the sub-unit name 3RACHA—have taken part in since the act’s pre-debut songs. Both Go Live and In Life offer a feast of dynamic hooks and festive vibes, but In Life has the slight upper hand in no small part because it introduced the lead single “Back Door”—a high-energy track brimming with pizzazz (and one of TIME’s 10 Best Songs of 2020). The other additions, which include both group songs and sub-unit releases that create more space to highlight each member’s vocal color, see a narrative weaved across cutting off old ties (“Ex,” “B Me”) and strengthening new bonds (“My Universe.”)
While the fierce and bold girl crush image has become increasingly popular in K-pop, IZ*ONE has stayed unapologetically sweet and cute. The 12-member act’s first full-length album, BLOOM*IZ, is a welcome addition to the group’s kaleidoscopic discography—IZ*ONE is quite literally multicolored, with each artist having an official, designated pastel shade. BLOOM*IZ showcases the group at its best, serving up a sonic palette of colors that demonstrates the varied hues and tints in bubblegum pop. There’s the rosy stroke from the chipper “Pink Blusher,” the galactic brush from the bouncy “Spaceship” and the rainbow splash from the album’s title track, “Fiesta,” as described by the lyrics: “When the flowers of various colors bloom and the flower petals flutter off/ The party is at its peak.”
Never Gonna Dance Again: Act 2, Taemin
There’s something bewitching about Taemin’s voice. It’s delicate but not weak, breathy but not lacking substance—something like a gentle caress to the ear. This vocal timbre is at the center of Never Gonna Dance Again: Act 2, one of the most cohesive-sounding 2020 releases. Each track spotlights the SHINee and SuperM member’s singing against a backdrop of instrumentals that gradually soften in progression from the album’s first track to the last. “Idea,” the opener and lead single, features a resounding orchestral bassline while the songs that follow immediately, “Heaven” and “Impressionable,” are marked by deep choral vocals. But the album takes a turn starting with “Be Your Enemy”—an ethereal duet with singer Wendy from Red Velvet—ending with “Identity,” where, for most of the song, deep exhalations replace a percussion section to keep the rhythm.
ALL ABOUT LUV, Monsta X
Though ALL ABOUT LUV made headlines this year for being the first all-English album from a K-pop group in more than a decade, the project isn’t just notable for its linguistic direction. Sweet tunes, dulcet harmonies and tender falsettos abound in songs that range from bouncy electro-pop jams (“Love U,” “Someone’s Someone”) to gentle, synth-infused ballads (“She’s the One,” “Misbehave”). Better known for their aggressive, anthemic bangers, the members of Monsta X here unleash a soft and sensual side as they teasingly sing some of K-pop’s most suggestive lyrics. “I really, really wanna love you/ But I can’t say the word I want to/ ‘Cause they won’t play it on the radio,” the chorus of “Love U” goes. Rappers Joohoney and I.M get a special nod for flexing their singing pipes in this vocal-centric album.
Eyes Wide Open, TWICE
The introduction of “I Can’t Stop Me” alone makes TWICE’s Eyes Wide Open album one of the most remarkable of the year. The nine-member group combined retro influences from the ‘80s with its signature cheery sound for this lead single that is an instant earworm. But it appears on the Best Albums section of this round-up rather than the Best Songs section for a reason: the 12 other tracks from this release, connected by a running theme of light versus darkness, are just as strong. The concept begins in “I Can’t Stop Me” as the chorus says, “I’m surrounded by that spot, spot spotlight/ As it shines on me, I’m swept into the darkness.” This idea extends into “Up No More” which describes spending dark nights alone, to “Say Something,” which paints a picture of waiting for someone under the moonlight. The songs are less about love than they are about feeling torn between the angel and the devil perched on one’s shoulders. What’s captivating about Twice is that even as they sing about inner turmoil, the words are expressed through sweet-toned voices and upbeat tunes—giving the listener a reassuring, revitalizing hug.
Super One, SuperM
In 2019, supergroup SuperM debuted to much pomp and circumstance—the act brought together seven of SM Entertainment’s star idols from the groups SHINee, EXO, NCT 127 and WayV. While SuperM’s first track “Jopping” raised questions about the group’s sonic direction as the song was arguably more embraced for its contribution to memes (“jopping,” a portmanteau of “jumping” and “popping,” is now a part of K-pop vernacular) than to music, Super One proves that this group of artists is here to leave a musical legacy. The range of songs provide accompaniment to every activity one might do in isolation: the hard-hitting title track, “One (Monster & Infinity),” and pre-release single (“100”) can heat up a solo dance party; the ballad (“Better Days”) about this “world full of uncertainty” can inspire a cathartic quarantine cry. But Super One’s high point is the energetic, springy “Wish You Were Here,” whose catchy refrain that begins with “Ba-ba, ba-ra”echoes in the memory long after the album’s final notes have played.
回:Walpurgis Night, GFRIEND
The pandemic certainly did not halt GFRIEND’s musical progress. In one year, the nearly six-year-old group released three albums of varied lengths for the series “回”—a Sino-Korean word meaning to “turn around” or to “return.” But instead of going backward, the six members forge a new path forward with the magical and mystical Walpurgis Night. With tracks packaged tightly around a renewed identity (“Mago,” “GRWM”) and an empowered self (“Better Me,” “Wheel of the Year”), the album stands out for its thematic cohesion—and with a theme particularly resonant in a year when isolation has perhaps created more space for personal reflection. GFRIEND’s 2020 journey is also reflected in the structure of Walpurgis Night, through the inclusion of the group’s lead singles released in February (“Crossroads”) and July (“Apple”). And whereas these songs focused on feeling lost and facing temptations as their respective titles suggest, the final track on this album, “Wheel of the Year,” is about trusting the heart’s compass as one runs toward an unknown destination. It’s apt advice for a moment like this as the pandemic promises to keep getting worse before it gets better.
The Book of Us: The Demon, DAY6
One of the most emotionally impactful songs of the year is, ironically, delivered without any trace of emotion. That is no accident. Day6’s “Zombie” zeroes in on feeling void of purpose—“Breathin’, but I’ve been dyin’ inside/ Nothin’ new and nothin’ feels right,” vocalist Young K opens in the English version—and its message is boosted by the singers’ monotonous tone and cyclical drum beats. Day6 is not the only band in K-pop (the group is formed by musicians on the guitar, bass, keyboard and drums) but it has consistently produced some of the most stirring songs. Besides “Zombie,” plenty of tracks on The Book of Us: The Demon boast memorably penetrating lyrics. The band mourns the end of a relationship in “Tick Tock” and wrestles between letting go and holding on in “Afraid.” The album may not be an all-out remedy for pain itself, but it certainly holds the power to make listeners feel less alone in their own.