The 25 best K-pop songs of 2023

For a second year in a row, the ladies are leading the charge in K-pop. It didn’t matter if their songs were vulnerable confessions of love or empowering, tongue-in-cheek anthems, whether the groups were rookies itching for their first hit or seasoned veterans showing everyone how it’s done, they were all one simple thing: inescapable.

Beyond their popularity and catchiness, these girl groups also managed to capture the essence of pure joy in their songs. While music can teach important life lessons or impart sage advice – and these tunes accomplish those of as well – who’s to say they can’t do all that while having us, say, twerking on the runway?

While the boys did try to put up a fight – special shout out to the likes of Key, SEVENTEEN, Kai and more – 2023 was a girl’s world, and we were all just living in it. From hypnotic Jersey club bangers to macabre love stories, here are the 25 best K-pop songs of the year.

Puah ZiWei, Commissioning Editor (K-pop)

Words by: Daniel Anderson, Tássia Assis, Sarina Bhutani, Carmen Chin, Sara Delgado, Rhian Daly, Lucy Ford, Tamar Herman, Joey Levenson, Ivana E. Morales, Puah ZiWei, Tanu I. Raj, Abby Webster, Gladys Yeo

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

25. RIIZE, ‘Memories’

In many ways, RIIZE’s ‘Memories’ is less one song than three – which makes sense as a boyband under SM Entertainment, whose groups have made a trademark of whiplash-speed tempo and melodic breaks in their tracks. ‘Memories’ builds on that legacy, with distinct verses, pre-choruses and rap breaks all building towards one of the most euphoric choruses of the year.

If the start of this year was all about Y2K, we’re rounding it out with a move slightly into the future. The song’s stellar chorus screams 2010s pop euphoria, all sun-drenched key changes that sound like the promise of a never-ending summer. LF

Best bit: The joyful crash of the very first chorus. It makes way for one of the finest, bounciest, most ‘ain’t life grand’ choruses of the year that will have you punching the air.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

24. IVE, ‘I AM’

The soaring sound of a jet plane doesn’t typically open up glittery dance tracks promoting self-love and discovering one’s best life, but IVE leaned into the high-flying journey towards finding one’s own way in ‘I AM’.

Built on thumping beats and shimmering synths, ‘I AM’ spends its time pushing and pulling between back-and-forth harmonising and building high notes. It’s as if the song is pacing itself with moments of melodious contemplation and bursts of dynamism, before ultimately deciding that it wants to surge forward once and for all, declaring itself a high-octane pop declaration to find out who ‘I AM’. TH

Best bit: The phrasing of lines like “Life is a beautiful galaxy” and “Be a writer, the genre is fantasy” bring a sense of wonder to the intimate journey towards self-discovery and self-love.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

23. Jeon Somi, ‘Fast Forward’

Who said K-pop has left house music behind? Jeon Somi’s ‘Fast Forward’ kept the beat pumping and our heads banging. The singer quite literally cycled through aesthetics and eras in the search for true love – going from anime-core barbie to futuristic fantasia.

Ironically, it seems this search would also be an endless loop much like the progression of the song – keeping us trapped in a melodic prison of longing and loneliness. Ridiculously catchy, fast-paced – ‘Fast Forward’ was a much-welcomed throwback to the era of crying in the club. TR

Best bit: Somebody crown Somi as the queen of the catchy chorus, because it took us a while to get this one out of our heads.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

22. NMIXX, ‘Roller Coaster’

NMIXX may have fallen off the radar for many K-pop fans, but us – and so the underrated ‘Roller Coaster’ has not gone unrecognised. The song evokes the tropical house mastery of classic K-pop bangers – think SHINee’s ‘View’ and f(x)’s ‘4 Walls’ – but lends it a tinge of innocence and girlhood that makes it feel like a spritz of cool water in the hot summer.

NMIXX’s roster of gifted vocalists are given plenty of space to prove their mettle and absolutely do; Lily and Sullyoon in particular lift this song to breathtaking heights. Some may argue that ‘Roller Coaster’ doesn’t exactly fall under NMIXX’s brand of experimental music, but it’s hard to fight against a feel-good tune evoking the inherent romance of summer. CC

Best bit: The song could not have ended on a better note than the outro performed by Kyujin and Jiwoo.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

 

21. Jungkook, ‘Standing Next to You’

Few times has a song hit the bullseye of “K-pop with a Western focus” like Jungkook’s ‘Standing Next to You’. In fact, this might be the best example that K-pop can export uniqueness without losing itself in the process – even when sung entirely in English.

It envelopes the listener in brass, bass and glitter, and the BTS maknae has never sounded so confident. Although largely inspired by Michael Jackson – complete with falsettos and dance moves – it’s Jungkook’s star power that shines through, and ultimately asserts him as a global pop prince in the making. RD

Best bit: The second part of the chorus, where Jungkook is passionately proclaiming the deepness of his love (“You know it’s deeper than the rain / It’s deeper than the pain”), yet finds the time to cram in a BTS reference (“When it’s deep like DNA”) into the mix.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

20. IVE, ‘Blue Blood’

Pulsating percussion forms a steely spine throughout this number, elevating the frosty anthem into a marching battle hymn. Each member’s husky voices adds delicious layers to their sibilant siren song, crescendoing with piercing strings that are as every bit as haunting as the resolute declarations of “I’m blue”.

While ‘Blue Blood’ had the unenvious responsibility of kicking off IVE’s much-anticipated debut studio album, ‘I’VE IVE’, it delivered aloof seduction as the girls wrap South Korea’s curiosity about blood types around their manicured fingers. DA

Best bit: Each time they ask, “What’s your blood type”, but you know it’s rhetorical because they are too cool to ever be a match with you.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

19. NewJeans, ‘ETA’

There’s an inherent paradox in ‘ETA’. The poppy, uplifting beat belongs right at the heart of a Brazilian baile funk, mixed with influences from Baltimore club classic ‘Samir’s Theme’ and a deconstructed ‘Think’ break sample. It’s a pocket-size dancefloor hit meant to be played on loop.

But then, the lyrics coax the listener to break up with a cheating boyfriend, all in intimate, journal-like anecdotes. “The day you couldn’t come to my birthday party / The day Hyejin got in so much trouble,” the quintet whisper in angelic voices, as if we were just there, living through these moments with them. It’s that relatability that makes ‘ETA’ another instant classic by industry-igniters NewJeans. TA

Best bit: The addictive “What’s your ETA? What’s your ETA? (Mm-mhm-mm)” chorus. Good luck not getting it stuck in your mind for months.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

18. KISS OF LIFE, ‘Sugarcoat’

There have been many attempts by K-pop acts to recapture the magic of ’90s R&B, but Natty’s ‘Sugarcoat’, which served as a precursor to KISS OF LIFE’s banger debut, hit the nail right on the head. The groove of ‘Sugarcoat’ hinges almost entirely on Natty’s smooth but powerful vocal delivery, of which she offers up plenty.

She fully leans into the sound and takes control of the music, letting her voice come to the forefront. Not only does it highlight how adept Natty has become as a singer, but KISS OF LIFE’s general musicality as a four-piece that’s unafraid to steep themselves into nostalgic genres and reinvent them for new and old audiences alike. CC

Best bit: Natty hitting every single note of that beautiful rapid-fire, falsetto pre-chorus with razor sharp accuracy.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

17. BIBI, ‘Hongdae R&B’

In this moody R&B number dedicated to Seoul’s famed Hongdae street, BIBI peels back the vibrant exterior of its bustling nightlife and promise-filled music scene, diving into its gritty underbelly.

The song takes us on a journey through the “toothless, needlessly pricey” neighbourhood, introducing the motley cast of characters lurking in its background: the half-hearted indie guitarist and his intoxicated girlfriend, “gangster” underground rappers and celebrity oppas notorious for seducing young women. A tragically astute exploration of youthful aspiration and where it goes to die, BIBI’s soulful, vulnerable pen and voice are the perfect instruments for bringing that image to life. GY

Best bit: The languid, seamlessly fluid sing-rap delivery in the second verse.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

16. fromis_9, ‘Attitude’

Born of humble beginnings, fromis_9 have truly come into their own, and ‘Attitude’ is an emblem of their newfound carefree confidence. The song feels like a spell wrapped in a satin veil that unfolds into a risk-taking adventure for the ages – those that go into the unknown but linger forever in the memory.

Vivid yet seductive, with an air of burning desire, fromis_9 declare their intent to take on the liberation that’s just within reach: “Don’t stop me now / Watch me / My flame that explodes silently.” IM

Best bit: The delightful pre-choruses where Jiwon and Hayoung give us the track’s most unabashed declaration: “Waiting for the show / now count to three and throw me all.”

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

15. ATEEZ, ‘Bouncy (K-Hot Chilli Peppers)’

What would K-pop be without a little earworm? Whether you love it or hate it (or Stockholm-syndromed yourself into liking it), there’s no denying that ATEEZ’s ‘Bouncy (K-Hot Chilli Peppers)’ will leave an impression that won’t be easy to forget after just one listen.

ATEEZ have always trafficked in extremes, with a penchant for irreverence and sonic noise, but ‘Bouncy’ takes it a step further. Undoubtedly their most playful and successful title track to date, ‘Bouncy’ revels in chaos, mixing distorted arrangements with aggressive autotune and, somehow, it pays off. SD

Best bit: The infectious trifecta of pre-chorus, Hongjoong-led chorus and post-chorus.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

14. aespa, ‘Drama’

The K-pop canon has no shortage of badass anthems but, in November, aespa offered up one of 2023’s strongest, most intriguing additions to the collection. ‘Drama’ put the girl group in the driver’s seat, confidently taking the wheel as they warned the world of what to expect from them. “I bring all the drama-ma-ma-ma,” they cautioned over a metallic, ominous instrumental that was both experimental and accessible.

In case you didn’t get the message the first time, Winter made it crystal clear in the outro, with a declaration that could double as a comment on aespa’s trajectory this year delivered in deceptively sweet tones: “You know, I’m savage / Unstoppable, baddest.” RD

Best bit: The whole first verse is packed with lines that scratch your brain exactly the right way, from Karina’s “Ziggy, ziggy, zag, I’m new” to Ningning’s infectious “I li-li-like me when I roll / Li-li-like me when I’m savage”.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

13. NCT Dream, ‘Broken Melodies’

Leave it to NCT Dream, the cheeriest of the NCT units, to gift us with an unexpected glam rock-leaning gem. ‘Broken Melodies’ is NCT Dream at their most anthemic, showing a sonic side of the septet we’d never quite seen before.

Soft-strummed guitar riffs lead the arrangement, intermixing with skittering drum beats and honeyed harmonies. Though the bridge might seem slightly out of place with the guitar-drum patterns upon first listen, the impossible-to-resist melody of the staccato chorus fully seals the deal. SD

Best bit: Chenle’s final high note.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

12. VIVIZ, ‘Untie’

Remember when GFRIEND dropped the magnificent ‘Mago’ and (sadly) dipped? It’s taken VIVIZ a moment, but Eunha, SinB and Umji have finally picked up where their original group left off, and the result is a provocative, bewitching runway banger that feels like a natural evolution for the beloved trio.

While you’re hypnotised by the four-on-the-floor beat, VIVIZ cast a spell with their raspy, whispered vocals, compelling you to keep the song on repeat – not that we’d have refused – all while commenting on the hollowness of social media. No notes. PZW

Best bit: Try to resist the urge to go “Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, all tied” randomly after listening to this masterpiece.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

11. tripleS, ‘Speed Love’

In tripleS sub-unit LOVElution’s B-side ‘Speed Love’, crush-induced nerves verge on panic, as sparse piano chords capsize into flighty woodwinds and slick drum ‘n’ bass. Stumbling through a romantic confession, the girl group seem impatient to get it all out of their system: “I just want to rush this,” they sing, and the giddy production is all too happy to oblige.

Clocking in well under three minutes, ‘Speed Love’ extends the experimental rookies’ run of short bops with real staying power. (Even sans their usual ‘la-la-la’s, this chorus is guaranteed to race through your head for days.) The group’s breadth of releases this year have ranged from good to great – and if K-pop is an endurance sport, surely that qualifies them for both marathon and sprint. AW

Best bit: The mercurial flute that quite simply runs laps around the already impressive instrumentation.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

10. Kai, ‘Rover’

‘Rover’, a remake of Bulgarian singer Dara’s song ‘Mr. Rover’, is, to put it bluntly, a song to shake ass to. Kai has an airy, husky timbre that pairs beautifully with the stripped-back nature of his previous releases, but, with ‘Rover’, the incubator of this year’s most infectious hook and dance challenge, he shows how addicting it can be while floating above something more thunderous and demanding.

The song, dripping with confidence and sex appeal, is a showcase of how well his voice can meld to what’s beneath it, as it bobs and weaves between sultry R&B verses, Reggaeton-thumping choruses and a spine-tingling bridge that gives his stunning lower register a moment to shine. LF

Best bit: The final chorus and outro that is a feastful tour of what Kai can do with his voice, as it blends from a rapturous riff over the song’s main hook into some ASMR-adjacent speak-singing straight from his lower register.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

9. Red Velvet, ‘Knock Knock (Who’s There?)’

One thing about Red Velvet? Every one of their songs takes you into a world of its own, whether it’s a jungle safari bursting with life or a violently kaleidoscopic theme park.

With ‘Knock Knock (Who’s There?)’, the quintet combine an eerie sample of ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ with the sophisticated harmonies often associated with their sensual “velvet” side, lulling listeners into a fantastical yet desolate supernatural realm where Halloween is forever. Musically and lyrically, ‘Knock Knock (Who’s There?)’ is an atmospheric track overflowing with artfully constructed imagery, making it one of their strongest offerings to date. GY

Best bit: The angelic harmonies towards the end of each chorus as they sing: “Got a devil, on my shoulder / A gently whispered voice.”

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

8. NewJeans, ‘OMG’

NewJeans’ deeply-infectious ‘OMG’ perfectly encapsulates the group’s spirit. With a touch of sass, the song’s prominent bassline and funky drumbeat do all the moving while their vocals take on a more laid-back, effortless approach.

Their perennial cheeky lyricism is also on full display here, as the girls pine hopelessly: “Oh my, oh my God! 예상했어 나 (I knew this would happen) / I was really hoping that he will come through.” When you inevitably catch yourself singing along, you can’t help but feel as though you’re in a back-and-forth with all five members. It’s a masterclass of immersive world-building in a simple, short-and-sweet track. JL

Best bit: The surreal, yet somewhat beautiful music video that accompanied the release of the song.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

7. SEVENTEEN, ‘Super’

“Feels like I turned into Son O-gong,” SEVENTEEN shared on ‘Super’, a statement that, by the end of 2023, became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The mythical Chinese character is known for his colossal strength and ability to defeat the best warriors and, while the boyband might not have gone into battle, this year they dominated K-pop, racking up record-breaking sales and their first Album Of The Year award at MAMA 2023.

Is it any wonder when the music was as good as this blistering single – a high octane ode to the group’s resilience and determination whose power never weakens, no matter how many times you listen to it. RD

Best bit: It’s a toss up between every gleeful “Da-rum da-rim-da” and Woozi’s ending moment full of “ener-energy”.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

6. FIFTY FIFTY, ‘Cupid’

FIFTY FIFTY’s meteoric rise in the K-pop scene was marked by both triumph and adversity. Their retro-pop breakout hit, ‘Cupid’, took the entire world by storm with its infectious bubblegum vibes and disco-inspired synths. An equally catchy (if not better) English version catapulted the song to even greater success, thanks in-part to a reworked bridge and the quartet’s flawless English pronunciation.

However, behind the scenes, the group faced challenges with their agency ATTRAKT, with three members – Sio, Aran and Saena – now no longer part of the group. Despite these setbacks, FIFTY FIFTY’s musical impact with ‘Cupid’ remains undeniable, proving that their talent and resilience shine through even in the face of adversity. JL

Best bit: (Former) Lead singers Sio and Aran flexing their talent with powerful vocals across the song’s bridge.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

5. Key, ‘CoolAs’

From its sparkly opening notes to the a capella final seconds, ‘CoolAs’ is one of 2023’s masterpieces. It grabs you with a slinky bassline, reminiscent of Beyoncé’s ‘Virgo’s Groove’ and Moloko’s ‘Sing It Back’, and grounds the boat while Key is, well, being Key. By that, we mean to repeat his own lyrics: “I’m impeccable, I’m exceptional.”

Thankfully he knows, because this B-side (that should very well have been a single) captures his versatility, sass and panache like few others. And his confidence is contagious – once it’s over, you may not be “dripping ice” or hearing a “choir full of angels”, but you’ll feel at least a little bit as cool as one of K-pop’s best soloists. TA

Best bit: The conviction with which he delivers lines like “Turning these heads like spectacle / Green with envy like vegetable”, making them iconic instead of ludicrous.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

4. NCT DoJaeJung, ‘Perfume’

Though NCT’s sound is typically that of sensory overload, sub-unit DoJaeJung find their calm in the chaos with ‘Perfume’, the group’s sweet, yet sultry debut single.

The track’s top notes are the trio’s honeyed harmonies, with each member’s vocals perfectly complimenting that of the others, while the base note, the soul of the track, is its musky, R&B melody that can’t help but linger in your mind. Together, Doyoung, Jaehyun and Jungwoo create impact through surprising softness, uncovering new layers to the beloved veteran boyband. SB

Best bit: Jaehyun’s silky smooth solo during the interlude hits all the right nerves (and is even better when accompanied by its equally satisfying choreography).

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

3. LE SSERAFIM, ‘Eve, Psyche, and the Bluebeard’s Wife’

What’s so great about ‘Eve, Psyche, and the Bluebeard’s Wife’ is how understated it is. The Jersey club-inspired, uptempo track rests on a consistent electro progression, rarely deviating from a beat that’s nothing short of addictive. To this, LE SSERAFIM add almost laid-back vocals, weaving a story of power that fosters and simmers in silence rather than break down the door with a bang.

The steadiness is a spell meant to keep us bound; the lyrics, our call to wake from the slumber of submission. But what’s more devastatingly beautiful are moments building up to it – the “boom, boom, boom” of your heart when you go from wishing for “what’s forbidden” to actually breaking the rules. TR

Best bit: Yunjin’s deep vocals kicking off the song with “I’m a mess, mess, mess – safe to say, we were left “mess-merised”.

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

2. (G)I-DLE, ‘Queencard’

After last year’s ‘Nxde’ and ‘Tomboy’, (G)I-DLE returned in May with yet-another tongue-in-cheek take on bold femininity, challenging the status quo with confidence-booster ‘Queencard’. A sassy, campy ode to loving oneself and being the queen bee of your own life, this tune masquerades as hot girl shit while letting listeners in on the joke regarding double-standards about women, especially those living in the spotlight.

Quirky, tempo-shifting pop-rock drives the push-and-pull of the melody, as the members drop deadpan, sassy one-liners, conversationally driving the song towards the rousing chorus that celebrates twerking on the runway. TH

Best bit:Queencard, I’m hot / My boob and booty’s hot” – but I’m still wondering… Which boob?

Ryan Gosling - ‘I’m Just Ken’

1. NewJeans, ‘Super Shy’

When NewJeans arrived in 2022, it was both swift and surprising – without any lead-up, Minji, Hanni, Danielle, Haerin and Hyein entered into our lives and held us rapt with lowkey, ’90s-inspired R&B singles, a shock to the K-pop ecosystem. Their sophomore EP, ‘Get Up’, is likewise understated: NewJeans moon over boys and catch all the feels to minimal club beats. Each offering is chock full of that girlish magic, but the soft, dreamlike drum ‘n’ bass of ‘Super Shy’ has its own special way of worming into hearts (and minds).

In their quest to court a crush, the quintet serve up schoolgirl doubts with a quiet confidence: “I’m super shy, super shy / But wait a minute while I make you mine, make you mine”. Their hushed talk-singing charms the most, and that’s part and parcel of NewJeans’ success – they’re able to make themselves heard with only a whisper because everything from the marketing to the music itself beckons you to lean in and listen. ‘Super Shy’ comes together as the perfect K-pop package, solidifying NewJeans’ status as the girl group we’re sure to be talking about for years to come. AW

Best bit: Hyein and Minji’s staccato ask-out: “Find a lil’ spot, just sit and talk.” Name the time and place.


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