By Elizabeth de Luna
The year of our Lord 2020 sucked (zero out of 10, would not do it again), but somehow, it still managed to be pretty stellar for Korean pop music.
The industry was quick to respond to the pandemic with digital alternatives for in-person meet-and-greets and now stands at the forefront of virtual live concerts and augmented reality technology. BTS climbed even higher into the echelons of global culture, nabbing their first Grammy nomination along the way. NCT pushed boundaries of size and sound with a gargantuan two-part album, Resonance. And the debuts of a handful of impressive new groups propelled the promise of K-pop’s next generation.
It wasn’t all great — parts of the industry (and fandom) still struggled to differentiate culture from costume, failing outright to make Black fans feel welcome. And the ripple effects of corruption were revealed to have upended the careers of dozens of trainees and idols. Despite this, K-pop remained a much-needed source of comfort during an unpredictable year, as most of us used music to cope during quarantine.
We may have had more time to listen to new music in 2020, but it’s always difficult to keep up with the hamster wheel of K-pop releases, especially those that aren’t promoted as title tracks. MTV News put together our annual list of best B-sides with that in mind. Here are 23 songs that weren’t chosen as singles but are nonetheless singular among the thousands of tracks released this year.
23. Weeekly: “Top Secret”
Weeekly’s “Top Secret” is one of the simplest pop songs on this list but, boy, is it catchy. All seven members of the newly-minted girl group have serene voices, but Seoun’s sparkling vibrato and Monday’s soft tone are the stars here. Weeekly debuted in June and quickly carved out a space for themselves with their earnest lyrics about youthful passion and growing up. The music video for their latest single “Zig Zag” is especially charming, with unique choreography that involves the girls pushing large blocks across the stage. Weeekly were recently named Rookie Girl Group of the Year by the Korean public, so keep an eye on them because they won’t be a secret for much longer.
22. JOOHONEY: “Smoky”
JOOHONEY’s powerful delivery is a trademark of his work with Monsta X and it’s also a defining feature of his October mixtape, Psyche. On “Smoky,” he describes stumbling through a world obscured by darkness in a slow buildup to an emo-rock chorus that’s perfect for screaming along. “I want to go back to my childhood,” he raps at the end of the second verse, foreshadowing the choir of children who join him for the poignant bridge. There, he delivers an uplifting message as if speaking from the perspective of a close friend: “Love, pain / It’s all just in the moment / Believe in yourself.”
21. A.C.E.: “Clover”
A.C.E. are generally underrated as a group and underappreciated as vocalists (do yourself a favor and watch them annihilate this Blackpink cover), but in 2020, it feels like they might finally be getting the attention they deserve. Any of the three b-sides on their EP HJZM: The Butterfly Fantasy are worth highlighting, but “Clover” is perhaps the most unexpected. A.C.E.’s lead singles are usually hard-hitting hype tracks, so the heart-fluttering sweetness of lyrics like “I feel like a wave called ‘you’ will hit me” extends A.C.E.’s ample range. Do I also like this song because it reminds me of David Archuletta’s 2008 seminal classic, “Crush”? Maybe. If you’re interested in what else A.C.E is capable of, check out the soothing, worship-music passion of “Stand By You.”
20. IZ*ONE: “Open Your Eyes”
“Open Your Eyes” closes out IZ*ONE’s BLOOM*IZ with a bang. It combines the members’ sugary vocals and a killer chorus with influences of tropical house to achieve a surprising intensity. The title is a fun play on the group’s name (pronounced “eyes one”) as well as the formal greeting that the 12 members recite in unison when introducing themselves: “Eyes on me! Eyes on us when we become one!” The group is slated to disband in April 2021, but four months is a lifetime in K-pop. While it’s all but certain that IZ*ONE has more music on the way, their legacy includes some of the genre’s strongest singles of the past two years.
SF9: “Like the Hands Held Tight”
Listening to SF9’s “Like the Hands Held Tight” brings to mind images of outlaws and galloping horses, sunsets and bank heists. Acoustic guitar and distorted trumpets accompany the confessions of someone who knows their actions are irredeemable but begs to be loved anyway. “I’m the bad guy / Dangerous, for you I can endure anything,” the members sing. “Like the hands held tightly, I love you.” Appearing on SF9’s January album First Collection, the release was followed by the June single “Summer Breeze,” whose Wild West whistles and gun-slinging choreography are an even more overt nod to K-pop’s yeehaw agenda.
18. Baekhyun: “Poppin’”
It’s immensely satisfying to listen to the warm, brassy timbre of Baekhyun’s voice as it ricochets up and down. The power-vocalist is a pro at conveying the playful sensuality of “Poppin’” and the delicious single “Candy,” both from his second EP Delight. Delight was the first solo release in South Korea to surpass the sale of 1 million copies since 2001, and if you treat yourself to it, “let’s get this poppin’” will be stuck in your head for weeks.
17. NCT 127: “Love Me Now”
The release of NCT 127’s bombastic “Kick It” was one of 2020’s biggest moments. “Love Me Now” is lighter and sweeter, the sparkling pink-heart emoji to “Kick It”’s black one. The Korean title of the song translates to “Echo” and the lyrics — “My heart keeps ringing it, without a pause / This echo that spreads” — pair with a call and response of “I want you to love me now” in the chorus. The effervescent EDM track was crafted in part by frequent SM Entertainment collaborators Mike Daley, Mitchell Owens, Deez, and VEDO, and it was featured alongside a selection of quality B-sides on the album Neo Zone. The collection sold more than 1 million copies and debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, cementing a stand-out year for NCT 127, whose star was already on the rise at home and abroad.
16. Everglow: “No Good Reason”
Everglow is known for their badass, bruising singles, but they shine just as brightly on a handful of softer B-sides. “No Good Reason” is comforting and surprisingly emotional. The song’s consistent tempo, structure, and composition reflect the compatibility of the couple described in its lyrics. “To me, you’re always spring,” vocalist Mia sings. “I can’t find some good reason to let you go / Seems like even I didn’t know / Your presence in my heart.” “No Good Reason” competes with 2019’s “Hush” for the group’s best B-side ever, and that might have something to do with the fact that the tracks have nearly identical production teams. Like the song says — there’s no need to mess with a good thing.
15. (G)I-DLE: “Luv U”
The four Korean tracks off (G)I-DLE’s April EP I Trust are refreshingly experimental and underscore the group’s signature mix of seduction, power, and calculated restraint. Sandwiched between singles “Oh My God” and “Lion” are the gloomy “Maybe” and the confessional “Luv U.” The percussive tongue clicks and slick production of “Luv U” are particularly compelling, especially when augmented by flirty choreography that walks the line between sexy and sweet. (G)I-DLE have already promised a new album in January, and if it’s anything like I Trust, you can bet we’ll be seeing the group on best-of lists in 2021.
14. WayV: “Domino”
Though WayV is billed as a Chinese pop group, their music is produced by South Korean agency SM Entertainment and they primarily promoted in the country this year as a subunit of K-pop umbrella group NCT, so they get a spot on this list. Listening to “Domino,” a glistening cut off their first album Awaken the World, feels like ascending to another plane. After being lulled by the meditative bass and layered vocals, you’re suddenly elevated by the soaring belts and falsettos of Ten, Kun, and XiaoJun. They describe a love that makes their body ache, like the chill of the wind or cold of the rain, until the bitterness seeps inside them and they concede, “I can feel it in my bones.”
13. SuperM: “Wish You Were Here”
SuperM’s first album Super One is chock-full of banging B-sides, from the sexy, euphemistic “Drip” to the tropical “Big Chance.” “Wish You Were Here” is the catchiest of them all, with a bouncy, lilting chorus that you’ll have trouble getting out of your head, as well as lyrics that sound like a postcard you’d write to an ex from a melancholy beach vacation. This musical style is an exciting departure from SuperM’s solid debut EP, which was more closely aligned with SM Entertainment’s signature R&B and hip-hop-driven sound.
12. ATEEZ: “Horizon”
When ATEEZ dropped their fifth EP Treasure Epilogue: Action to Answer in January, they gave us both the banger “Answer” and one of 2020’s most experimental K-pop tracks, “Horizon.” The latter has an unusual structure — mostly a mix of refrains, pre-, and post-choruses — and is imbued with the kind of expansive emotion and focused intensity that defines Ateez’s nascent career. “Somewhere between the sea and the sky / Now you gonna take me there,” ATEEZ demands before the chorus explodes with all the chaos and distortion of a black hole. The last 50 seconds are especially exhilarating, a climactic resolution to a song that encapsulates why ATEEZ is hailed as a leader of K-pop’s fourth generation.
11. ENHYPEN: “Intro: Walk the Line”
Intros don’t usually make for noteworthy B-sides, but the opening of ENHYPEN’s debut EP is an exception. Australian member Jake narrates the first chapter of ENHYPEN’s story, describing their new destiny of “carving sunrise” between chants of “walk the line.” That “line” may refer to the horizon, or the liminal space between day and night, a nod to the group’s vampiric concept. The lush, nostalgic production ends in a shimmering siren song that definitely deserves a full track of its own. Big Hit, the ball is in your court!
10. Tomorrow X Together: “Ghosting”
“Ghosting” begins with a whisper. “You disappeared / Like a faint ghost,” murmur Soobin and Hueningkai, before the song envelops you in a whirlwind of electric guitar, crisp drums, and twinkling synths, as if to drown out all other thoughts. The lyrics detail the tediousness of drifting apart from a friend and watching them move on. As you get ghosted, you become a ghost of yourself, “ask[ing] in the empty void / What am I to you?” The subject matter is trademark TXT, whose music indulges youthful longing, confusion, and worry, often over a pop-rock guitar riff.
9. GFRIEND: “Labyrinth”
Picking between GFRIEND’s fan-favorite B-sides “Labyrinth” and the epic “Here We Are” is no easy task, but the funky thrills of the former make it harder to resist. There are similarities between “Labyrinth” and the group’s 2017 hit and K-pop classic “Fingertip” — a talkative electric guitar, ever-present drums, and layered synths — which is evidence that their sound has matured without losing its identity. The production team behind “Labyrinth” is also a blend of old and new: It includes frequent GFRIEND collaborator Noh Joo Hwan and Big Hit talents Adora and Frants. Their fruitful partnership reflects the promise of a new relationship between GFRIEND’s home Source Music and Big Hit, which acquired the label last year.
8. Hwasa: “LMM”
Many of the lyrics on Hwasa’s debut EP María read like soul-baring diary entries. “Why are you trying so hard? You’re already beautiful,” she asks herself on the dancey title track. That same introspection is present on the solemn ballad “LMM,” which stands for “Lost My Mind.” The lyrics, written by Hwasa, are sparse and deliberate. “Do you wanna get some more? / Do you wanna go somewhere?” she asks wearily, her voice dancing with violins and piano. It’s unclear whom she’s speaking to, but “LMM”’s music video suggests she is again in conversation with herself. In the video, she walks calmly under a shower of arrows, untouched, until shooting herself in the back.
7. Stray Kids: “Any”
Between their first album Go Live, its repackage In Life, and their Japanese EP All In, Stray Kids has released one of the most consistent discographies of the year. They continue to build upon the biting intensity of their signature sound (“God’s Menu”), experiment with production (“Tortoise and the Hare”) and find new ways to feature member Felix’s husky bass (“Pacemaker,” “Airplane,” and “TA”). Nowhere is this development more apparent than on “Any.” The song’s metallic highs are a natural progression of producing trio 3RACHA’s skilled hand in AutoTune and voice effects, while the play on words (the English title sounds like the Korean word for “no”) highlights their aptitude for bilingual lyricism. The song describes a state of chronic indecisiveness and dissatisfaction, but the production makes it clear that Stray Kids know exactly what they want.
6. Day6: “Afraid”
In 2020, pop-rock band Day6 reached into their chests, pulled out their guts, and laid them bare in their music. On “Zombie,” the lead single off their album The Book of Us: The Demon, they describe the daze many of us have found ourselves in this year. On “Afraid,” they struggle to fight off demons and fear reaching out for help, worried their dark thoughts may dim the light of the people they love. “I’m so afraid that you’ll become like me,” they admit. “I can’t let go or hold on to you / What should I do?” After the album’s release, the group announced they’d be taking a hiatus to allow members Sungjin and Jae to seek treatment for anxiety. Jae has since become a vocal advocate for mental health awareness among teenagers and young adults, making the answer to “What should I do?” very clear: Take care of yourself and ask for help.
5. BTS: “UGH!”
The biggest band in the world released many spectacular B-sides this year (“Moon,” “Louder Than Bombs,” “We Are Bulletproof: The Eternal”), but none feel as cathartic as “UGH!” RM, Suga, and J-Hope growl in repulsion, releasing their disgust at critics who are too swept up in anger to consider the long-term effects of their outbursts. An opening gunshot seems to signal the beginning of a race, but it takes on a new meaning by the end of the track as J-Hope cautions, “I can rage, but if there were to be damage done / To others’ lives, I don’t like [it]… Someone’s rage becomes someone’s life.”
4. Woodz: “Accident”
“Accident” is a cut off Woodz’s Equal, the long-awaited first album from the multi-hyphenate performer also known as Seungyoun Cho. The 24-year-old has worn many hats: a rapper in the currently inactive Chinese-South Korean group UNIQ, a vocalist and rapper in the grievously short-lived X1, and a songwriter for artists like Super Junior-D&E and Suran. On the self-produced Equal, Woodz’s immense musicality is on glorious display. “Accident” stands out for its pop-tinged take on the kind of nocturnal ruminations and soaring falsetto you’d hear from Dean or The Weeknd. At first, Woodz is forgiving of a former lover, telling them “It’s an accident, not your fault,” but after a stratospheric climax, the blame shifts. “It’s not an accident, it’s your fault,” he croons. “You know.”
3. STAYC: “Like This”
Six-member STAYC debuted this year with earworm single “So Bad,” but their superb B-side “Like This” could have easily taken its place. An innocent intro of tweeting birds drops, without warning, into an addictive combination of driving hi-hats and floating staccato synths. The song feels like it belongs in 2010 in the best way, and the alternating sweetness of Sieun and Isa’s vocals with the deeper tones of rappers J and Sumin are a highlight. STAYC is managed by production duo Black Eyed Pilseung, who have created hits for artists like Sistar (“Touch My Body”), Twice “(Likey,” “TT,” “Cheer Up,” “Fancy”), and Chung Ha (“Rollercoaster,” “Gotta Go”). With a debut this strong, STAYC seems primed to follow their lead.
2. Taemin: “Clockwork”
Taemin’s Never Gonna Dance Again: Act 1 and 2 are two of the best K-pop albums of the year, hands down. They’re immaculate from start to finish, but “Clockwork” feels especially meaningful for 2020. The lyrics (by “Top Secret” and “Start Over” writer Lee Su-Ran) describe a world warped by memory and cyclical limbo. “My time is my world / It’s like clockwork / Trapped in this circle,” Taemin sings in palpable despair. The song opens with reflective chords reminiscent of one of the greatest finales in musical theatre, Sondheim’s “Being Alive,” and ends with a similarly emotional release. Taemin wails in frustration as the plodding piano and ticking second hand loom like ever-present spectres of time, marching onward and slowly falling away.
1. BoA: “Start Over”
All hail the queen of K-pop, who celebrated 20 years in the industry this month with her tenth album, Better. The provocative “Temptations” is a top contender for the project’s best B-side, but “Start Over” is the real hidden gem. BoA’s tangy, raspy-edged timbre is a compelling match for the song’s pleading urgency and breathless declarations of “You’re gonna love me, let me start over.” The emotional and musical range between this track and Better’s breakup B-side “Cut Me Off,” on which she deadpans “If we stick together, we’ll get tired / So cut me off / You can do it,” proves that BoA’s still at the top of her game. As if there was ever any doubt.