And we’re back. A few days ago I created nominations for what I would consider to be the best K-Pop acts of the past year. Today we will be breaking down my Thoughtful Bear awards. I do not care for your bias artists, I don’t even care my bias artists. I literally just decided on what I thought sounded the best versus what sold the most. Again, like last time let me remind you that I absolutely do not have any credentials. Maybe you think BTS deserves every single award because they literally have the best numbers, that’s fine! Maybe you think the same for Twice and that’s fine too! I will be 100% transparent in my breakdown of why I believe that these artists deserve my highly coveted prizes.
(By the way, since I’m being transparent. My ultimate bias group is BTS, my bias male solo is a toss up between Taemin and Baekhyun, my female solo bias is Chung Ha, and my bias female group – it was Twice but recently not so much).
Rookie groups this year were pretty meh. Last year we had TXT, ITZY, Everglow, ONEUS, Cherry Bullet, AB6IX, X1, and of course SUPER M. I understand that rookie groups don’t get much exposure, especially when from a smaller company but the cream does rise to the top. Fortunately for groups like Treasure and Enhypen, you get huge labels promoting you, so even when you do flop musically (they didn’t), you do get the proper amounts of exposure. That being said, Enhypen was the real deal. Although I do think that they do sound a lot like TXT, that’s actually a good thing as TXT was THE rookie boy group last year. I hope though that they keep evolving and changing their sound because they are majorly talented (very much like every single fourth gen group). Treasure would be a solid runner up. They’re also incredibly talented but at the same time, they really don’t make any music that sounds uniquely them. Their music is very average compared to other seasoned male K-Pop group.
“oH lOOk ThE Bts bIAS GaVE bTs aN AwARd” – shut up. This is not even BTS’ best song this year, or the best song on that album. Musically speaking, I think this was a weaker comeback (I still enjoyed it though) and I wasn’t head over heels for this song. BUT – is this comeback one of the greatest comebacks ever for BTS? Yeah 100%. This was the comeback that was supposed to lead into their world tour, maybe the last tour as OT7. This was the comeback with the greatest American promotion ever by a K-Pop group. ON was in Grand Central Station, it was done with a marching band, it had two music videos, it had the boys looking grungy and departing from their flashy designer aesthetic to return to the era of sleeveless Jimin and rocking that wannabe all black rocker look from 2013 and 2014. This was a one of a kind promotion/comeback/concept and is one of the greatest comebacks in the history of K-Pop. You can’t change my mind and I don’t even love the song like I should as an Army.
That being said, Seventeen’s Home;Run was a smash hit as well, blending the big band/musical theatre concept with K-Pop showing that Seventeen is as musically on point with any group in K-Pop. Itzy rocked the choreography in Wannanbe, making Ryujin’s (she’s my bias) shoulders the eighth and ninth wonders of the world. Taemin’s haunting choreography with the tied hands . . . goddamn dude, why you always gotta be so damn alluring. As for God’s Plan, also an A+ concept with the kitchen theme, absolutely love the music video, and my favourite song out of all the songs listed here.
So let me explain something to you guys, about me. Growing up, Michael Jackson was my favourite artist. I loved his voice, his dance moves, his music videos. I loved how he was never super masculine like other male rock stars. He was ethereal and I feel the same for artists like Prince as well. And although we will never get another MJ or Prince, we have Lee Tae-min. He is sexy, raw, dynamic, fluid – everything you could want from an artist that transcends the genre. He’s got haunting vocals that wake the senses, paired with dance moves that mesmerize you. Last year, Move and Want shook the K-Pop world. I think everybody recognized that no other artist was making music like that or that no other artist was dancing like that. In K-Pop performance is king, even over vocals. Taemin is showing that less is more. Less colours, less explosions, less lighting, less sound, less dancers, but more enticing, more interesting, and more captivating.
As for the other artists, well . . . Wonho man, Wonho. That guy is something else. I genuinely really enjoyed his album and thought that it was a great first solo debut. Open Mind is one of my absolute favourite songs of the year and I am really looking forward to what his next project will be. I am hoping for a party song. Eric Nam is technically “K-Pop” but reminds me of an old ballad singer. Check out his album from this past winter, he really empties his emotions into his songs. Zico’s album at the start of the year captured that unique Zico sound and Any Song was what charmed everyone. I do find that his album that came out in the Spring was less pleasing, but when you’re Zico you tend to try everything that interests you. Baekhyun, best male vocalist, no cap.
So you know how Chung Ha didn’t release an album this year? And then caught the Big C and had to delay more music. Yeah and then she still ended up releasing more music in Korea than any of the other acts nominated in this group. Make it make sense. Performance, check. Vocals, check. Visuals, check. Speaks English, therefore is setup great for the western market, check. She is the only solo female act in Korea that I think can break into mainstream appeal in the west. She has a lovely voice for ballads as heard by her contributions to K-Drama soundtracks. She can also be sexy in songs like Stay Tonight or Dream of You. Or she can step on me (please) with songs like Play. She’s provided an album’s worth of songs this year alone with never releasing an album.
Hwa Sa’s Maria is one of the best songs of the year, but with a short six song album and two additional singles for side projects, it just was not consistent enough with Chung Ha’s discography this year. Same can be said for Taeyeon. Taeyeon’s year end album was one of my favourite little projects released this year and was in contention with “Album of the Year” discussions (but it’s five songs). IU and Sunmi released like one song this year each, both were great and belong on a “top songs of 2020” list but it’s one song, so, you know.
What do you want from me? Look at the sale numbers. Whose song is getting regular play on radio waves in the west? I literally have white friends who snap me videos of them listening to Dynamite. There is literally nothing I can say that you don’t already know. Who has sold more albums than BTS this year? Who has a music video that was bigger than theirs this year? Sorry who? Yeah, no one. They’re the best. Beyond K-Pop, who contributed to all those societal issues in our world? Violence against children, Black Lives Matter, Covid pandemic relief – I really don’t know what else I can say. This is their award and they deserve it more than anyone in the history of K-Pop.
NCT’s Resonance Part 1 was a great project but lacked consistency in Part 2 and Kick It was just not that song in my opinion. I think that Stray Kids are so similar to BTS. If BTS kept with their rap first theme under a bigger label, they would be very much like Stray Kids. Bang Chan is just young Namjoon. Stray Kids are a great group, they make very catchy music, with some of the best music videos in K-Pop. Their “cinematic universe” is as intriguing as anyone’s and they have some absolute hard hitters in the group. I think Hyunjin and Han are two of the best performers among fourth generation K-Pop groups. TXT are the indie scene of K-Pop. They have this sound that isn’t super mainstream but is still very K-Pop. Their concepts of magic and young wonder are truly unique to them and I think that they are one of those groups where the sum is greater than its parts, which is me saying that their chemistry is really good.
I want to dedicate this paragraph to Seventeen. Seventeen is the absolute runner up in this category. Without a doubt. Many groups love to experiment but I literally don’t think that any of them are as consistent with succeeding with experimenting as Seventeen. Musically speaking, Seventeen is so far ahead of the pack compared to the average successful K-Pop group. Moving onto performance, their choreography is amazing. They are so clean, they have such great shapes when they perform and visually speaking it’s very creative some of the things they do onstage. Vocally, they are an S tier group as well. I think that they have the best vocal unit in all of K-Pop right now.
I GOT SOME EXPLAINING TO DO. Does this count as an upset? How dare I make BlackPink lose, how dare I? OK well slow your roll. BlackPink released one album with eight tracks, where I would say five out of eight tracks were good to very good/great. GFriend made an entire album of eleven songs, plus the two EP’s – full of gold. Just one of the best albums from a female group in the past few years. It has incredible range from bops, to ballads, to city pop, to anime sounding music. They were just so much better musically I felt compared to everyone else. Although they are less impressive in performance and don’t sell as much, I think that I will pardon it for the quality of Walpurgis Night.
Mamamoo’s Aya is just not that great, regardless of how good the rest of the small six song album is, you can’t win a whole “female group of the year” category on that. Itzy has great comebacks, great performances, and great promotions but misses the mark with b-sides. Everglow has good comebacks and good albums but they aren’t exceptional which is the problem. They stand out enough as Everglow but not enough to really carve themselves out as a premier K-Pop group (yet). Regardless, with groups like Red Velvet being inactive, Twice not making great music, and IZ*ONE making the same sounding music over and over – girl groups were just kinda meh this year.
Over one million albums sold domestically, seven songs, one album, one solo artist, 0 skippable tracks. The only solo artist to sell over one million albums this year – Byun Baekhyun. One of the greatest vocalists in K-Pop. If Taemin is MJ or Prince, Baekhyun is a crooner like Sinatra or Crosby. His incredibly smooth vocals glide through this album like butter on a warm pan. This album is a continuation of his 2019 album City Lights, which was just a sampler of what his solo activity would be like and boy did he impress. The single Candy is as sweet as it sounds and should attract listeners to Baekhyun’s more mature sound presented in the b-sides of Delight (Bungee and Ghost are two of my personal faves). I am very looking forward to his next comeback.
On the factor of personal enjoyment, Walpurgis Night and Map of the Soul: 7 would be my runner ups. 7 had a few tracks that I didn’t love but you absolutely cannot deny its impact on the world as it literally is the greatest selling album in the history of Korea. I know, that Army is upset but c’mon – you liked every song on that album? Like bias aside, I thought that the vocal line solos were quite weak compared to Wings or Love Yourself era. I also really enjoyed Seventeen’s album this year however, I would have liked for them to add a few more ballads or slower songs into the mix. As with Taemin, I just feel that Never Dance Again had a few skippable tracks but it really did capture the essence of what the singles were trying to do, which is to impact people in a way that K-Pop usually can’t.
NANANANANANANANA HEY NANANANANANANA HEY. C’mon how can you not love this song. It’s catchy, it shows great vocal range, and it’s numbers are ridiculous. It’s the best K-Pop song this year, regardless of it being all in English. If your bias could reach Billboard number one by singing completely in English, they would do it too. Oh and they reached number one with Life Goes On too, so yeah there’s that. In the current state of the world, to release a happy and catchy song reminiscent of the Bee Gee’s and the Jackson 5, it just struck a chord with the society. The promotion online with this song was great too. The Tiny Desk Concert version remains as the GOAT Dynamite performance for me. The only thing that would make this song better for me would be more Jin. I am a Jin bias though, so I will see myself out.
IU for me is a close runner up. The most emotional power ballad of the year, with a message of love and melancholy but still being hopeful. It was just such a breath of fresh air. IU flexed her vocals and served them over a platter presented to us by Min PD. And the live versions of the song? Don’t get me started. Maria and Idea are actually very similar experiences for me. The amount of shock value and the reversal on K-Pop’s mainstream sound were amazing. Musically speaking, I can definitely see other artists bite that sound as well. As for God’s Menu, that was my song this summer. So catchy, it hits like a truck, and I put so much mileage on the road running to that song. It was literally the song I put on that made me run harder when I was tired. God’s Menu might be my favourite song this year, regardless of sales.
Yeah, obviously. Who else could it be? Literally no one else. They made some of the best music of 2020, they sold more than anybody else, and they made the most headlines worldwide. It’s not only hype, it’s real. Is K-Pop still niche? Incredibly so, there are very few casual listeners to the genre, unless you’re BTS. I still wouldn’t consider them mainstream but they’re mainstream adjacent. And them not being mainstream has more to do with the public’s perception of the East than it does with BTS’ quality of work. But even going beyond the genre, the range that BTS showed this year was astounding. Going from something dark like Black Swan, to something reminiscent of a Beyonce Coachella performance in ON, to following the trend of K-Pop in 2020 with a disco track like Dynamite, and then providing the warmest most nostalgic track in Life Goes On. They have shown that they are musical chameleons and can adjust to whatever shifts in the meta there are in pop music. They are the vanguard for pop music trends and if any Korean music act were to ever even sniff even a moderate level of success in the west, they would know that BTS paved the way.
Thanks for reading up to this point! 2020 much like 2019 and 2018 was the year of BTS. This just goes to show that the level of consistency by these guys created by their love of Army and their art can actually create a shift in mainstream culture. 2020 brought some of my favourite music this year and I hope that 2021 will keep that trend up. It does feel sad for myself, making a list of awards without groups like Red Velvet, EXO, or Twice – but I know that they will be back in the next year. Also in 2021, maybe SHINee? Only if we’re lucky. Anyways, have a great holiday season and happy new years, I will see everyone at another time.