2019 was a tumultuous year for K-pop; rocked by scandal, flagrant abuse of power, loss, and tragedy, Korean artists continued to push boundaries nonetheless, making monumental waves abroad and producing some of the year’s most dynamic, interesting work.
This year, BTS smashed streaming records, topped the Billboard 200 albums chart for a third consecutive time with Map of the Soul: Persona, and made history, becoming the first Korean group to present at the Grammys and perform on the Saturday Night Live stage. SM Entertainment supergroup SuperM debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, becoming the second K-pop artists to top the chart. EXO made their triumphant return with Obsession, an album full of broody bangers, funky pop, and sensual R&B. Twice, Stray Kids, and Monsta X sold out venues across North America. And monster rookie groups like ATEEZ, Tomorrow X Together, and ITZY didn’t just come to play — they came to win.
In the world of K-pop, there’s no such thing as “too much,” and the next release — single, album, and music video — is always around the corner. (Stray Kids dropped three EPs, five singles, and 12 music videos this year alone.) With so much work being produced, it can be easy to miss the real gems in a group’s discography.
So here’s to the tracks that often go overlooked with this listening guide to some of the best K-pop B-sides of 2019.
20. Blackpink: “Kick It”
Blackpink is known for their in-your-face anthems and bombastic bops, which is what makes “Kick It” such a standout in their catalog. It’s quintessential for the girl group, confident and filled with attitude, yet softer than their typical tracks. Its mellow trap beat is reminiscent of their debut single, “Whistle.” It’s chill but anthemic — especially as Lisa asserts, “Never needed nothing else / Just a little love from myself.” It’s the ultimate end-of-the-party song, when it’s just you and your friends doing your own thing.
19. Everglow: “Moon”
Making their debut with the banger “Bon Bon Chocolat,” Everglow only released a few songs this year, each sounding completely different from the last. They can go big (hello “Adios”), but the slow-burning “Moon” is their most intoxicating release to date. Atmospheric and playful with trap drums and a bouncy beat, it’s perfect for when you need to dance out your frustrations. With “Moon” Everglow delivers a subtle kind of alchemy, one that leaves you under their spell.
18. Oneus: “Red Thread”
2019 was the year of the rookies. So many talented units emerged, each vying to make their mark with diverse releases and fresh concepts. But no rookie group has as many hidden gems in their young catalog as Oneus. The six-member boy group debuted in January with the moody “Valkyrie,” but it’s the sweeping pop ballad “Red Thread” that showcases the depth of their musicality. Oneus has a flair for dramatics (see: “Twilight”), but “Red Thread” is uncharacteristically stripped down — allowing vocalists Seoho and Keonhee to really shine while rappers Ravn and Leedo take the song to new heights with a pinch of their signature swagger.
17. NCT Dream: “Bye My First…”
“Boom” was a fantastic single. Visually and sonically, it signaled a mature, edgier, era for NCT Dream, the teenage subunit of NCT. In contrast, We Boom‘s standout track “Bye My First…” is bright and poppy, but it still finds the group wrestling with big emotions like first love. There’s something nostalgic about the particular groove on “Bye My First…” — a combination of Jaemin and Jeno’s mellow raps, Haechan’s falsetto, and a strumming guitar that keeps the track light and fresh. It’s youthful without being childlike; this is NCT Dream all grown up.
16. GFRIEND: “Paradise”
It could be argued that any track given the name “Paradise” will be the best B-side on an album. See: “Paradise” by BTS; “Paradise” by NCT 127; and now, “Paradise” by GFRIEND. It’s a funky track with jazzy flourishes (that bassist is the real hero here) and heavenly harmonies. There’s nothing K-pop loves more than an explosive drop, which makes a song like “Paradise” the kind of groovy easy-listening that stands out among the noise. It’s not a boom; it’s a twinkle.
15. Itzy: “Cherry”
Who run the world? Teenage girls. It’s hard to think of a single rookie group that made more of a cultural impact than ITZY, the plucky fivesome from JYP Entertainment. With their vibrant sound and cool-chick energy, ITZY dominated this year with two smash singles, “DALLA DALLA” and “ICY,” which swept South Korea’s televised music shows and became mainstream hits. But “Cherry,” a B-side off their EP IT’z ICY, offers a glimpse into the band’s future. The brooding, minimalist track is an opportunity for members Yeji, Lia, Ryujin, Chaeryeong, and Yuna to flex their versatility with smokey verses and a hypnotizing hook. But the song’s real power is the way in which ITZY assert themselves; they’re not asking for your attention, they’re taking it.
14. EXO: “Baby You Are”
We nearly went an entire year without a single release from one of South Korea’s biggest boy bands, but that all changed in late November with the release of their sixth full-length project Obsession. And lucky for us, when EXO commits to a record, they really commit. But what makes “Baby You Are” stand out on a tracklist jammed with dynamic pop songs and sensual R&B cuts — only EXO could put their rhythmic pièce de résistance in the middle of their album — is that it follows the formula for everything that makes EXO an undeniable force in the industry: a sticky hook, tight vocal harmonies, charismatic rap verses, and lush vocals. EXO doesn’t have anything to prove at this stage of their careers, but a song like “Baby You Are” reminds you why they’re everyone’s obsession.
13. ATEEZ: “Utopia”
Keep your eyes on ATEEZ. It’s been a little over a year since this eight-member group stormed onto the scene with their boisterous pre-debut track “Pirate King,” and the momentum has been building ever since thanks to their powerful performances and memeable personalities. The group is a little rough around the edges — with their punk-rock attitude — but “Utopia” is their most digestible pop effort yet. It’s the kind of song you can’t believe wasn’t a single (though it was later re-released as a Japanese single), an energetic mix of prismatic melodies held down by one hell of a catchy hook. It’s thrilling from start to finish.
12. SuperM: “2 Fast”
On first listen, “2 Fast” may seem like the best song you’ve ever heard. Sure, that may sound hyperbolic, but when you listen to this SuperM track, it feels like you are ascending. To where? Maybe to a place where “jopping” is universally understood. The song — from members Taemin, Baekhyun, Mark, and Lucas — is smooth and sultry, leaning into SM Entertainment’s R&B sensibilities. The bouncy synths and colorful harmonies feel reminiscent of a SHINee cut, but “2 Fast” offers up enough surprises (including an exciting mid-song tempo switch-up) to keep listeners guessing. It’s a song that, like SuperM, never settles into one singular groove.
11. CIX: “What You Wanted”
For a rookie group, a first single is crucial — especially in a year as competitive as 2019. CIX debuted in early August with “Movie Star,” a smoldering pop track with killer point choreography. It’s stylish and well-produced, but it lacks the kind of allure, charm, and energy that B-side “What You Wanted” has in spades. The song is confident, reminiscent of ’90s boy band greatness, and it hooks you immediately with its strong beat, velvety vocal harmonies, and seamless transition between singing and rapping. “Movie Star” left a good first impression, but “What You Wanted” made a lasting one.
10. Red Velvet: “Sunny Side Up”
Red Velvet has one of the most impressive discographies in K-pop, thanks in part to their versatile concept that allows them to produce energetic earworms (“Red”) and smooth R&B tracks (“Velvet”). So it’s not surprising that they’re often referred to as the Queens of B-sides by fans, and “Sunny Side Up” is a worthy addition to their catalog of hidden treasures. A standout cut from The ReVe Festival Day 1, the track is a slinky, laid-back summer jam. “Zimzalabim” was a polarizing single, but “Sunny Side Up” proves that, when it comes to Red Velvet, the vocals are the main attraction.
9. Tomorrow X Together: “Magic Island”
The ballad “Magic Island” might not immediately stand out for listeners of Tomorrow X Together’s first full-length LP The Dream Chapter: Magic, a collection of groovy synths (“New Rules”), R&B cuts (“20cm”), and bubblegum pop (“Poppin’ Star”). But a closer listen reveals the charm of “Magic Island.” It’s a subdued track — with soft keys and airy vocals from members Soobin, Yeonjun, Beomgyu, Taehyun, and Heuning Kai — but it inevitably lulls you into a feeling of deep serenity. Warm and wistful, you’ll yearn for “Magic Island” as the days get shorter and the nights get colder.
8. Stray Kids: “Chronosaurus”
Time — catching up to you, leaving you behind — is personified on “Chronosaurus,” a highlight of Stray Kids’ March EP Clé 1: MIROH. A play on “Chronos,” the Greek word for “time” (leader Bang Chan is a self-proclaimed mythology nerd), and “Kronosaurus,” a prehistoric predator, the title is apt for this haunting track, a sophisticated mix from the group’s powerful rap line and their expressive vocalists. Stray Kids have been moving at a breakneck pace since their debut in early 2018, and “Chronosaurus” — produced by members Bang Chan, Changbin, and Han — is a candid look at how truly taxing the creative process can be.
7. Dreamcatcher: “Silent Night”
To borrow terminology from stan Twitter: Who else is doing it like Dreamcatcher? K-pop’s resident rocker girls aren’t afraid to mix it up, and while their signatures are heavy guitars and soaring vocals, “Silent Night” veers into electronic territory. The drop is subtle, as it switches up the tempo unexpectedly with soft vocals and pounding synths. But the outro is the real gem here: It’s pure and pounding psychedelic EDM. It’s an ambitious move from the industry’s most daring girls, and it pays off.
6. GOT7: “Thursday”
It’s true: GOT7’s “Page” is the B-side of the Year. Or, at least it was until “Thursday.” GOT7 has experimented with various sounds and concepts over the years, but I love playful GOT7. (Think: “Just Right,” “Teenager.”) And this love-struck song, produced by leader JB and featured on the group’s recent Call My Name EP, taps into the group’s playful side with soft vocals, smooth melodies, and a groovy beat. The hushed harmonies are there to remind you that GOT7 doesn’t get nearly enough credit for their vocals.
5. BTS: “Dionysus”
Map of the Soul: Persona is an album full of crisp bops, which makes the mere existence of “Dionysus” a damn miracle. There’s something rather raw and unrefined about “Dionysus” — a rousing prog-rock drinking song produced by member J-Hope — and that’s what makes it so profound. It harkens back to the group’s early days, when BTS’s sound felt more aggressive. The witty rap verses and explosive choreography are classic BTS, so it’s an ambitious statement to add it as the closing track to their most widely circulated record yet — a nod to the fact that, whatever you think about the supergroup’s recent musical direction, you can never take the Bangtan out of the boys.
4. Day6: “Wanna Go Back”
Day6’s discography has zero skips, but no song this year begs replaying button more than “Wanna Go Back.” The chill track is equally bright and wistful — that’s Day6’s entire vibe, after all — reflecting on the halcyon days of youth, when things were simpler, worries were non-existent, and dreams felt within reach. It’s smooth: The song has that “radio up, top down” feeling of a long summer drive. Not to mention, the song gave us one of the best surprises of the year — Dowoon’s vocal moment on the bridge — thanks to the drummer’s sweet baritone.
3. NCT 127: “Highway To Heaven”
Since making their bombastic debut in 2016, NCT 127 have carved out a distinct place within the crowded K-pop market with heavy bass lines, intense swagger, powerful choreography, and a strong emphasis on hip-hop. But the polished “Highway To Heaven” is not what you’d expect from the confident ensemble, and that’s precisely what makes it so remarkable. The shimmering synth-pop banger sounds more like a Carly Rae Jepsen single than anything in NCT’s discography. It’s structured almost entirely around the group’s vocalists — the layered vocals on the hook make it feel massive — and even the rap verses from Taeyong and Mark seem melodic. The euphoric track expands as you listen; by the time vocalist Haechan delivers his heart-stopping note on the bridge, you’re already seeing stars.
2. Seventeen: “Lie Again”
Forget the Darkteen vs. Freshteen debate; it’s all about Softteen. Of all the genres Seventeen showcased on their September release An Ode — the EDM banger “HIT,” the dark and simmering “Fear,” the R&B slow jam “247,” the energetic “Snap Shoot” — “Lie Again” is as close as they come to a ballad. Tinged with sweet melancholy, the song highlights the 13-member group’s vocal prowess, with powerhouses DK and Seungkwan reining it in to display their soft sides alongside the group’s versatile rap and performance units. But this is not your traditional slow dance. Co-composed and arranged by Simon Petren, who produced their seminal “Habit,” the track is at once tender and hefty, its subtle drop and twinkling string effects giving it that burst of energy that’s come to define Seventeen’s diverse catalog.
1. Twice: “Love Foolish”
Full disclosure: Every B-side on Twice’s Feel Special EP is deserving of a spot on this list. It’s their most mature, sonically arresting release to date with spectacular production and individual writing credits from members Nayeon, Jihyo, Dahyun, and Momo. But it’s main dancer (and, on this track, rapper) Momo’s electro-pop “Love Foolish” — featuring dark synths, heavy bass, and sensual spoken-word bits — that might be Twice’s best B-side ever. Moving beyond the saccharine sound that’s made them Asia’s most successful girl group, it’s proof that Twice are capable of so much more than cheery hooks. They’re nine young women who have a lot to say. But the question is: Are you ready to listen?