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In the new year, it’s as good a time as any to explore different genres of music. At this time last year, I had just started listening to K-pop and, looking back, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But it’s not just me- with the recent international rise of stars such as BTS, BLACKPINK, BIGBANG, and Girls’ Generation as part of the Hallyu (Korean) Wave, the global music scene has begun to sit up and take notice of K-pop. A blend of genres like pop, rock, hip-hop, EDM, and R&B with roots in traditional Korean music, K-pop is home to a host of world-class dancing machines, rap gods, and vocal powerhouses. However, many abroad are reluctant to begin exploring the genre, due in part to the language barrier and the negative reputation of K-pop fandoms as a whole caused by toxic fanbases. To combat this and hopefully draw you further into the genre, I have curated a list of songs for you featuring not only the best of K-pop, but also songs that are very similar to Western music, for those seeking recommendations closer to their comfort zones. 

 

Happy listening!

“Singularity” - BTS (Love Yourself: Tear, 2018)

Sung by vocalist V, “Singularity” is all about the loss of love, with lyrics comparing heartbreak to a frozen winter lake. The combination of V’s haunting baritone and the Daniel Caesar-like R&B and soul vibes make for a dark, somber, and heartbreaking track. 

“HOLO” - LeeHi (HOLO, 2020)

In “HOLO” (Korean for “being alone”), a power ballad about moving on from heartbreak, LeeHi’s rich, throaty vocals are evocative of Western songstresses such as Christina Aguilera and Ke$ha. With its catchy and empowering gospel choir-like chorus sung mostly in English, “HOLO” is a song to uplift you from the depths of post-breakup anguish, to remind you that one day the loneliness will stop, and that you deserve more than constantly comparing yourself to others.

“W.A.U. (What About U)” - YOOK SUNGJAE of BTOB (Yook O’Clock, 2020)

In this surprisingly danceable breakup anthem, BTOB vocalist Sungjae channels the mood of lonely people who can’t stop thinking about their former partners. With its alternating electric guitar and EDM synth melody, “W.A.U.” is reminiscent of songs by popular electronica hitmakers like Kygo, Zedd, and Martin Garrix. 

“As If It’s Your Last” - BLACKPINK (As If It’s Your Last, 2017)

Though any other list would be quick to recommend Blackpink’s trademark hits “DDU-DU-DDU-DU,” “Kill This Love,” and “How You Like That,” my personal favorite is “As If It’s Your Last,” which is an underrated gem in comparison. A passionate, synth-heavy song about holding onto the night, “As If It’s Your Last” took on a different sound from all of their previous works while still remaining quintessentially Blackpink.

“Traveler” - SUPER JUNIOR-K.R.Y (Traveler, 2020)

Despite the rise of newer idols, Super Junior (who debuted in 2005, a whopping fifteen years ago) is still going strong. In this recent Japanese-language release by SuJu’s vocal line, Ryeowook’s high, clear vocals, Yesung’s husky baritone, and Kyuhyun’s smooth midtone combine to form a light, airy soft rock track that would make a perfect opening theme for any anime series. 

“OCEAN VIEW” - Rothy ft. CHANYEOL of EXO (OCEAN VIEW, 2020)

With the growing popularity of TikTok, numerous K-pop songs have found their way onto users’ For You pages, and Korean artists have even turned to the app to promote their songs through dance challenges. “Ocean View” ’s bright melody, lively beat, and summery, nautical theme radiate such TikTok vibes - and I don’t even use TikTok… 

“Dolphin” - OH MY GIRL (NONSTOP, 2020)

A performance of “Dolphin” by Music Bank MCs OH MY GIRL’s Arin and TXT’s Soobin recently went viral, spawning a namesake “Dolphin Cult” on TikTok with its simple, cute choreography, bubbly melody, and earworm chorus that will live permanently in your mind rent-free. 

“Feel Special” - TWICE (Feel Special, 2019)

A song that has become an anti-Trump anthem of the 2020 presidential election after finding its way onto TikTok as an audio for glittery fancams of Georgia flipping blue and other Democrat wins, “Feel Special” was a piece that helped to usher in TWICE’s graduation from cutesy album concepts to more mature ones. Amidst the shimmery, percussive house beats, the lyrics (which are based on the members’ meaningful relationships with one another) express thanks for someone who has helped them “feel special / No matter how the world brings me down.” 

“God’s Menu” - Stray Kids (GO LIVE, 2020)

This edgy, addictive track by Stray Kids features powerful raps, inventive culinary-themed lyrics and choreography, and hard-hitting trap and EDM beats. “God’s Menu” has been one of SKZ’s most successful songs to date, helping them to earn a huge influx of new fans as well as their first platinum certification for GO LIVE. 

“Tempo” - EXO (DON’T MESS UP MY TEMPO - THE 5TH ALBUM, 2018)

One of EXO’s most iconic comebacks to date, “Tempo” is a lively hip-hop/dance pop track featuring a biker gang theme and funky, pulsating beat. Though the song does in fact “mess up the tempo,” we’re treated to a gorgeous, unexpected a capella bridge with a mesmerizing harmony that showcases each of the singers’ breathy vocals.

“Intro: Persona” - BTS (MAP OF THE SOUL: PERSONA, 2019)

This rap solo by leader RM samples BTS’s song “Intro: Skool Luv Affair” as a throwback to the rap- and hip-hop-heavy concepts of the group’s early days. In “Persona,” a dynamic anthem of self-exploration inspired by the ideas of psychologist Carl Jung, RM’s rich voice and powerful rapping style combine to create a song reminiscent of American rap stars like Wu-Tang, Nas, and Eminem.

“Timeless” - NCT U (Timeless, 2018)

Though NCT, like most other K-pop boy groups, is primarily known for its edgy album concepts and impressive choreographies, songs like “Timeless” show that their vocalists are forces to be reckoned with as well. Members Taeil, Doyoung, and Jaehyun showcase their dynamic harmonies and vocal ranges in this haunting piano ballad about painful memories of a former lover.

Interested? Listen here!

Alison Sun (she/her/hers) is a second-year Computer Science major (for now) at UCSC who tries her best to be a bright and sunny presence to those around her every day. When she's not toiling over Python, you can find her bullet journaling, rereading her favorite romance novels, or dancing to Twice's "Fancy" at her desk. If you're reading this, she would like to remind you to go drink some water.
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