For K-Pop fans longing for a crossover moment, ‘Gangnam Style’ felt too good to be true. It was the worldwide Hallyu hit that could never have been planned or foreseen, and its success still feels like the happy accident that it basically was.
Whether you hate it or love it, ‘Gangnam Style’ was a watershed moment, and proved that the West will embrace K-Pop in all its idiosyncrasies. As shown this year with Wonder Girls’ lackluster Akon-featuring ‘Like Money’, it just doesn’t work when Korean acts try to play American pop at its own game.
Like Popjustice’s main Top 45 Singles list, I’ve been quite strict on what constitutes a K-Pop Single here. I haven’t included any Korean acts’ Japanese-language material, like the excellent ‘Scream’ by 2NE1 and ‘Paparazzi’ by Girls’ Generation. Equally, album tracks weren’t allowed, like 4minute’s iridescent ‘Dream Racer’ and f(x)’s ‘Beautiful Stranger’, which was co-written by A*M*E.
15. Wonder Girls – ‘Like This’
Though Wonder Girls spent most of the year in a disastrous attempt to ‘break America’, the five-piece came up trumps K-side with this infectious, R&B-tinged pop gem. Basically it was a Korean ‘Get Me Bodied’ with a ‘Stronger’-style flashmob video in an outlet shopping centre.
Best Bit: The chicken leg dance at 1:30.
14. SHINee – ‘Sherlock’
The long-running five-piece’s comeback blew most other boybands out the water this year (Super Junior I’m looking at you) with this hip-hop influenced maximalist pop track with big squelchy brass honks. HRRRRNNNKKKK.
Best Bit: When Jessica from Girls’ Generation appears at 1:43 (for it is she they seek! Hence ‘sherlock’, you see?)
13. KARA – ‘Pandora’
I like to call this one ‘Phantom of the K-Poppera’, because of the incredible horror movie-ish post-chorus hook of “up and up ah ah!”. They’ve chucked a bit of money at the video too. But what’s in their ‘Pandora’s Box’?
Best Bit: All the faffing about with the blazers, like at 1:27 when they grace us with a glimpse of their upper backs.
12. f(x) – ‘Electric Shock’
A squelchy, ‘Pon The Floor’-ish pop banger complete with lightning bolt FX, an addictive chorus and the incredible hook “nanananananana e-e-e-electric shock!“. Though the spaceage pods of the video feel a bit like any old crap that was hanging around the record company backlot, the band’s hefty DMs and dinosaur earrings make up for it.
Best Bit: When Sulli pulls a defibrillator out of nowhere at 1:26 and looks confused.
11. Ga-In – ‘Bloom’
Skip the boring intro to get to the juice at 1:58, when Ga-In awakes from slumber to a coterie of beige-clad Pee Wee Herman lookalikes. The solo star, who’s also a member of the girlgroup Brown Eyed Girls, struts and boob-thrusts on a variety of tabletops amid her creepy dancers in this soaring and oddly moving retro-tinged discoballad.
Best Bit: At 4:30 when she’s stood on the patio furniture and all the CGI flowers in the garden burst into ‘bloom’.
10. Girl’s Day – ‘Oh! My God’
Some K-Pop stars are known for their subtle intonations and heart-wrenching balladry. Girl’s Day are not those K-Pop stars. The video for the delightfully breezy ‘Oh! My God’ features a glitter cannon and bodypopping in a giraffe head at a colourful club called ‘Girl’s Day Moon Night’. It’s a place that I would quite like to go.
Best Bit: When Minah transforms from a library book-toting schoolgirl into the Korean Lady Sovereign at 0:23.
9. GLAM – ‘Party (XXO)‘
An pro-marriage anthem tied up in a sweet, naive-sounding pop track, with skittering synths and a brilliant cheerleader chant of “G-L-A-M!”. The video is lesson in how to lead a procession of helmeted American footballers without making it look like hard work.
Best Best: When Dahee rides a hot air balloon bicycle through the air at 0:36.
8. Hello Venus – ‘Venus’
While most of the videos on this list show teenagers larking about with leather and suspenders, Hello Venus let their youthful side shine. To accompany the earworm dance-pop of their debut single with its hook of “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y girls, V-I-C-T-O-R-Y boy”, a charming school-set video sees them serenading a variety of blazer-clad dreamboats – and a portly teacher who bears a striking resemblance to PSY at 2:32 when he attempts to get down at the disco. Shout out to the turquoise-haired rapper Lime, too.
Best Bit: The snake-hipped policemen in the dance line-up at 1:21.
7. After School – ‘Flashback’
“Bay-baaayyyy!” the eight-piece cry to rival Britney as they go into the soaring synth chorus in this sapphic sauce-pop banger, where they pose in their pants on baroque furniture. It’s all a bit Posh Spice in ‘Headlines’. ‘Flashback’ is completely ridiculous, with a bit about “beautiful magic” where it all drops out, then a pounding 4/4 beat kicks in, with a K-step breakdown and a Madonna reference as Nana declares: “Dance!” and “Strike a pose!” This song makes you want to do both.
Best bit: 2:39 – 2:46 when they concertina out from behind each other. Apparently it’s called the panorama dance.
6. Miss A – ‘I Don’t Need A Man’
They buy their own diamonds and they buy their own rings, you see. Over a noodly musicbox beat, the girlgroup do the unthinkable and give a non-excruciating riff on #swag as they pose by Hagrid-sized Louboutins and lipsticks while bodypopping in starched menswear. There’s an amazing scene under the hairdryers too which is straight out of ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’.
Best Bit: When Suzy emerges from a behind a high-backed gold chair with a dickybow and finger moustache at 3:23 (it’s the picture at the top of this article ‘FYI’).
5. Hyuna – ‘Ice Cream’
The Girl In The ‘Gangnam Style’ Video and 4minute member Hyuna returned this year with the fun and frothy ‘Ice Cream’ . To accompany the single-entendre, the video sees Hyuna hosting a foam party for one, chows down on a radioactive-looking cone and fires a big frothy canon from her ice cream truck. What a mess. But with 2011’s best K-Pop song ‘Bubble Pop!’ to her name, it felt a bit like ‘Ice Cream’ didn’t take full advantage of Hyuna’s platform as the best internationally-known female K-star.
4. 4minute – ‘Volume Up’
The girlband’s best single to date, with a narcotic sax hook and huge ramp up to the delirious chorus. Considering that this is a song about pressing F12 on a Macbook, the video is absolutely ludicrous, with vampires that appear from a cloud of smoke, Hyuna rolling around in the mud, a fair smattering of lesbo moments and a snake.
Best Bit: When, apropos of nothing, a solitary tear rolls down Ji-hyun’s face at 3:34.
3. T-ARA – ‘Day By Day’
I’m not linking to T-ARA’s official ‘Day By Day’ video – a bloated 16-minute futuro-dystopian odyssey which looks fantastic but doesn’t fit with the song. Rather, I fell in love with the song after seeing the intricate live performances, which were arranged by Beyoncé’s choreographer Jonté. The haunting ‘Day By Day’ was one of the most unique-sounding K-pop tracks of 2012, and even though everyone commented that the flute hook was a rip-off of Britney’s ‘Criminal’, that’s no bad thing really. Somewhere between the two rap interludes, “doo doo doo” post-chorus and I’m A Little Teapot dance moves, magic happens.
2. Big Bang – ‘Blue’
There were other Big Bang videos that were more instantly iconic this year, but ‘Blue’ was the ‘Diamonds’ to the ‘Where Have You Been’ of ‘Fantastic Baby’. ‘Blue’ is Not A Banger, but it subtly morphs and builds into a non-boring slowburn anthem, punctuated by G-Dragon’s occasional croon “I’m singing my blu-oo-ooos.” I’ve no idea what they’re talking about, but the breakdown at 3:18 always makes me feel a bit funny, just before it kicks back in and they’re singing their blues again, and singing their blues some more. Despite the song’s non-banger status, Taeyang still manages to get a pirouette in there, too.
Best Bit: The bit where T.O.P pops the collar of his jacket at 02:11. Just amazing.
1. 2NE1 – ‘I Love You’
With a few “oo-wa-oooh, oo-wa-ooohs,” ‘I Love You’ combines the the best bits of pop into a rarefied cavalcade of amazingness. It’s essentially a Xenomania-style medley-in-a-song. The song starts off with an ‘I Feel Love’-esque disco gloss, but transforms into a monster about 40 seconds from the end with a spill-your-drink synth explosion. CL, Minzy, Bom and Dara also rhyme “I love you every day in every way” with “neol saranghae,” the Korean for ‘I love you.’ This is the song that made me most excited about pop this year. You hear something new every time you listen to it.
Best Bit: The shots of Dara among red lanterns in the snow from 1:04 – 1:16, among Mad Men sillhouettes, who – pouf! – disappear into thin air.