You should know that I don’t listen to a wide enough range of songs that my best-of lists should be taken too seriously. There are entire subgenres I’ve missed (hyperpop, for example). I’m not sure what a wide-enough range would be: something along the lines of the famously wide-ranging playlists David Cooper Moore makes for his own benefit. So you are free to enjoy the more eclectic underpinnings of the countdown over at Grooves ‘n’ Jams, and then come back here, where the emphasis is less on eclectic and more on idiosyncratic.
The songs below are listed in alphabetical order by first letter of the title; I don’t, in all honesty, have a Song of the Year, anything that impressed me as much as “Volume Up” did in 2012 or “What’s Happening” did in 2013. But all of them either compelled multiple listens, some thinking, or both at once. The playlist is here, if you are as ambivalently dependent on Spotify as I am.
I found this very late, thanks to an interview with Shelhiel that some good soul posted on /r/popheads. (Ignore the pictures in the article, which make Shelhiel look like a knockoff Gackt.) “AAA” is pretty slight in its subject; if you wanted to be mean, you could call it a more relaxed Malaysian-Chinese version of Hall & Oates’s “Rich Girl.” But something about this song just works for me. I’m not sure what it is, exactly; some combination of the self-deprecating video, Shelhiel’s singing contrasted with NYK’s more twangy flow, the careful spacing of the song so we have time to linger over each element. Of all the songs on this list, “AAA” is the one I’m most sorry didn’t get the Jukebox’s eyes on it; I would have liked to have heard some other opinions on this one.
The video looks like it received the absolute minimum of effort (and, being a Japanese release, it isn’t even fully on Youtube) and the group itself is dead. But they went out with a song that finally, finally shows off their strengths as an older and wiser group able to handle a more subdued backing track, but also has room in the middle for Jeonghwa and Hani to get ridiculous. I’m sorry we’ll never get to see them try to avoid cracking up while performing it live.
I almost took this one off the list once I’d heard it too many times. (There’s a phenomenon I think of as the Hey Ya! Effect, where you switch from one Atlanta radio station to another, only to find that both stations are playing the same song at the same time. This happened to me a couple times with Ariana Grande’s “Positions” and Dua Lipa’s “Break My Heart,” but it happened most often with “Blinding Lights.”) That said, I spent too much time marinating in pop music in the 1980s to not like a song that marries the Weeknd’s cocaine-and-regret schtick with “Young Turks.” And I do like “Sin City’s cold and empty / No one’s around to judge me,” as if he needs someone to judge him, and suffers in its absence, like a Nathaniel Hawthorne character who’s wandered too far west.
Generally I’m not a fan of you’re-so-bad-for-me-but-so-hot! concepts, but trust Taemin to put it over elegantly. I’m not as entranced by this (or him) as some of my Jukebox colleagues were, but it’s still a good listen; I think in the long run it’ll prove more memorable than “Move.”
This is Tetsuya Komuro at his Tetsuya-Komuro-est, and if it were 1997 and practically everything coming out of Japan sounded like this, we’d all be sick of it, but it is not 1997 and thus I have plenty of room on my playlist for that commanding stomping chorus. In the current Dance Dance Revolution difficulty ratings it’d be at least a 16.
Admittedly the official ranking is “Eung Eung (%%)” > “Dumhdurum” > “I’m So Sick,” but that’s praising with faint damnation. On the one hand, “Dumhdurum” isn’t as intriguing as “Eung Eung (%%)”; on the other hand, Namjoo finally isn’t being drowned out, and Chorong and Eunji get paired in the prechorus to deliver emotional contrast.
I didn’t particularly take to this the first time I heard it; I appreciated its ambition, but didn’t think it hung together enough to stay memorable. If you’re simply listening to the song—if you’re not watching the music video and/or you’re not already used to thinking of A.C.E. as an underappreciated group—I’m not sure how well this holds up. But it got stronger, rather than weaker, on repeated listen.
This is paint-by-numbers K-pop male group angst. I am a longtime Infinite fan. Infinite, with two members still in the military and two just out, is not recording right now, and I am willing to consider successors. If you, too, like paint-by-numbers angst delivered well by attractive men, consider getting on the VICTON train. A lot of the time they don’t have the material they need (neither “Nostalgic Night” nor “Mayday,” their other two singles this year, is as good as “Howling”) but when they do get decent material they can put it across well.
I would glom on to the 1975 song that sounds the most like it was a leftover from the I Like It When You Sleep recording sessions. Also the one that gets better if you subscribe to the theory that “I found a hotel, I called up the twins” is Matty Healy making a Shining reference because he can.
Fair warning that this is one of those songs that works better if you don’t understand the original Korean; that “Got no time for haters” bit is a lot more fun if it’s not being directed at a love interest who’s acting too standoffish for the singers’ liking. That said, of all the ’80s-inspired songs this year, this was one of the most fun, to the point that it made Twice’s “I Can’t Stop Me,” which came out later, feel slightly limp in comparison.
Discussed in Part 9 of the Ninety One Series. When I was drafting this list I wrote that it’s better than any of the songs on the 91 EP (so is AZ’s “Andromeda”, by the way), and then I finally got to hear “Taboo.” “Taboo” is the best song on the 91 EP, and it’s not even close. “Taboo” is not on this list because I heard it for the first time ten days ago, and I want to review it properly, and also continue being a cranky, capricious writer who excludes songs from her best-of list on arbitrary grounds.
Discussed here. May 2021 grant, among its other blessings, a living wage for these guys.
This style of song is usually too thudding to work for me, and I’ve generally found most of Mamamoo’s discography to not live up to their best work (“Piano Man” and “Windflower”), so I almost gave this a pass, and was surprised on how readily I accepted its bombast. I think this only works because it’s Hwasa, and because it’s Hwasa going more personal than the song structure would suggest.
Why did “Oopsy” get no love? “Dazzle Dazzle” got ignored, which is fine, since it’s not very good; “Cool” showed up on end-of-year lists despite being mostly awkward. (I actually prefer the English version of “Cool” to the Korean one; the somewhat topsy-turvy nature of the lyrics make the song seem like more of a lark, and therefore more likeable, as a whole.) In between is “Oopsy”: not a stellar song but a very pleasant one, sensible in sticking to its theme, disjointed but in a way that feels reflective of the members’ singing styles. I think the music video’s attempt at static glamour detracted from the song, hence my linking above to an alternate presentation.
Discussed here. I will add, since I snarked on Monsta X’s 2020 output in my original review, that “Love Killa” is decidedly okay and yet probably deserves mention on year-end best-of lists anyway solely for how damn good Hyungwon looks in the video.
Discussed here. Room for the Moon would have been one of my candidates for album of the year if I had enough stamina to listen to albums.
This was apparently one of the biggest Japanese hits of the year; I only heard about it through Patrick St. Michel’s work. I’m not quite sure why it didn’t generate more buzz over here—Lord knows it’s pretty enough, and Rena Ikuta’s voice has a texture that keeps it from sounding twee. It’s possible that a song with a somewhat romantic take on suicide was not what people wanted to hear in a pandemic year, understandably enough. As I write this one of my daughters is in the living room replaying the first Class Trial of Danganronpa, so maybe my household just has an unhealthily high tolerance for Japanese pop culture in which young-adult characters meet bloody ends.
Discussed here. It grew on me over time, though I still think “I’d rather be drunk, but at least I’m alive” is a better version of the line.
It seems wrong to say that IV of Spades is my favorite Filipino group when I know pretty much no other Filipino groups, but that’s where we are. If you have algorithm-style “If you like IV of Spades, you’ll like X” recommendations, send them my way. Do they have pretty guitar? Because this song is awash in pretty guitar.
This is mainly here for that shift in tension that occurs for the first time around 1:08, but the choreography doesn’t hurt at all.
They had one singer with a very distinct voice as of “U-gui”” (you’ll hear her at about 1:34) who either isn’t with the group anymore altogether or just isn’t in “Xac.” Which is a shame, but “Xac” is still a nicely done song. It won’t shock you; if anything it’s a bit of a throwback in its standard-pop-song structure. The video reminds me slightly of 2NE1’s “Come Back Home,” but “Come Back Home” felt like a slightly grating disappointment, whereas I had much lower expectations—“oh, that Mongolian group we covered that one time is still around? Good for them!”—and thus more room to be pleasantly surprised.