The Best K-pop Songs of 2023

The soundtrack of 2023 according to me, myself, and I

Happy almost 2024! Can’t believe we’re almost there… I still remember drinking a shot of blue curacao a friend’s dad gave me to drink at a Y2K New Year’s Party back on the verge of this millenia. Yes, I am dating myself here. But it’s hard to believe that we’re already 24 years into the 21st century. At this point, many of the artists referenced in this list weren’t even born in the 20th century, and music has developed a lot since then. But strangely enough, this year was definitely, almost defiantly, reliving the trends of the Y2K era, which you’ll hear repeatedly in this list.

Like last year, I don’t see the point really in ranking a personally-created “Best Of” list. As such, this list is unranked, and more generally just featuring songs that I want to talk about and want people to hear. I feel like it’s a bit more generic than I’d like, but these really were the songs that defined my year. I guess I really am just a basic bitch.

Before we begin, please be aware of changes coming to this newsletter in 2024, when I will be leaving Substack.

I made an Apple Music playlist of songs I particularly enjoyed this year, so if you’re interested in some music you may have missed, please take a listen. You’ll see nearly 90 made the cut of potentially being on this list. I didn’t pick more than one by each artist for this list, but you’ll see some repeats there as I was deciding what to include. Or just wanted to listen to while working on this. But I didn’t really feel like blurbing around 80 songs, so tamped it down a bit pretty much based on me wanting to write about things or not. My list, my rules! (And to be honest, I am simply running out of time so had to cut down… I wish this wasn’t a work week for me, but sadly it is.)

If your favorite song isn’t here, it may be featured in the album’s list. Or I just didn’t care for it, and you should try to belatedly convince me otherwise why I’m wrong!

One thing that making this list made me realize that I really did like more releases from guys than I expected, though the ladies still won this year overall.

I am not rewriting blurbs for (G)I-dle’s “Queencard” or IVE’s “I Am,” but you can read what I had to say about those two songs that I love a lot at NME, and why I think they’re two of the best songs of the year.

Eve, Psych, & Bluebeard’s Wife - Le Sserafim

Whenever I did something silly, or full blown fucked up, this year, I had my go-to anthem in the form of “I’m a mess, mess, mess in distress / but still the best dressed.” So thank you so much for that, Le Sserafim. In all seriousness, the jersey club beat of “Eve, Psych, & Bluebeard’s Wife” is almost adamant in its straightforward nature, with only a few diversions of the song to different melodic feels. Instead, it creates a platform for the powerful declarations and smooth power whispers of the Le Sserafim crew, capturing everyone’s attention and ears with their captivating delivery. “I, wish, for what’s forbidden,” they sing. I wish for more Le Sserasfim of this sort, I say.

Will I Ever See You Again? - Red Velvet

Spoiler: I’ll be talking about Red Velvet’s album in my album list, because I couldn’t for the life of me pick one out of all those songs and really mean it. But because I limited myself to one song per artist/unit here, I decided for “Will I Ever See You Again.” At times, “Will I Ever See You Again?” almost slows down to nothing, with only a repetitive beat in the background, but then it soars. The lush velvety vocals – with some standout adlibs – and the spritely, atmospheric EDM chorus have such a grip on me, and they still haven’t let go.

Good Day (Special Daileee) - Weeekly

To be honest, it’s been a minute since Weeekly really impressed me, or released music of note, for that matter. So needless to say, I didn’t expect “Good Day,” a song for their fans to declare that the group is “graduating” from their schoolgirl era, to get stuck in my head and heart. But this perky, maximalist tune won me over with my first listen. There’s EDM propulsiveness, there’s rock strings and drums, there’s sparkling synths, and there’s even some country. In recent years, K-pop girl groups have typically avoided full blown saccharinity typically for singles, perhaps in attempts to be taken more seriously and more mature by those in the world who think that there’s something wrong with bubblegum pop. Well, I for one don’t think there’s anything wrong with a peppy pop song, and Good Day is the motivational anthem 2023 needed.

Face-off - Jimin

This song is haunting from the first moment of the creepy circus-style music until everything fades out following the release of, dare I say, pissed-off anguish expressed by Jimin throughout “Face-off.” As an introduction to Jimin’s first solo album, it’s not remotely what I felt like we’d get from Jimin, but it sets the stage for what he presents throughout the rest of Face with its slinking drama and his direct panache. As the song progresses, we, the listeners, get to bare witness to the evolution of emotion from calm to incensed, as trap beats and off-kilter keys and strings set the playground for the BTS member. It’s a song that leaves you eager for more like… What’s next? And luckily, there’s the rest of the album to answer that question.

Welcome to MY World feat. naevis - aespa

I think it could be argued that there are a lot of great songs from aespa this year, because… Honestly, I for one didn’t expect to love their Tetris movie tie-in!!! Aside from that, aespa released a lot of good music this year, but I’m still in awe of the blending of their voices on “Welcome to MY World.” With only four members, we regularly hear what each member of aespa has to offer on all their singles, but it’s rare that the production of their songs is so simple. Starting with some simple guitar riffs backed by the sound of crickets chirping before building into atmospheric trap, and then soaring towards the melodic, almost orchestral synths, the complexity of the song is deceptively restraineed, allowing the quintet’s voices to play around, weaving in between the melodies, over one another and with one another. It’s sheer sonic beauty in my books.

Megaverse - Stray Kids

Starting with a fuzzy synth and dramatic drumline before introducing Felix’s deep-toned French countdown intro into Bang Chan’s fourth-wall-breaking sing-song deadpan, “Megaverse” starts strong and keeps building in intensity. It’s a prototypical Stray Kids song in this way, playing around with tonal shifts seemingly crafted to match each member’s preferred vocal performance style. While an overall storming stomps and trap  beats, along with screeching synths, drive much of the track to the boisterous finale, subtle nuances permeate, like a choral harmony in the backdrop. Stray Kids spend every song’s length painting a picture of their own story, and “Megaverse” is a grand adventure in this.

The Rizzness - Taemin

There are few consummate performers as attuned to his craft as Taemin, whose solo career is an show of auteristic development few other in K-pop match. “The Rizzness” leans more heavily into hip-hop braggadocio than is typical for him on other standout tracks, but this man has consistently shown new facets of himself while building off of what he’s already explored. It all feels very fitting in the push-and-pull of this song as he swaggers, croons, and, somehow, audibly expresses raising his sonic eyebrow as if daring listeners to question him and the level of his craft.

Cupid - Fifty Fifty

As sad as the saga of Fifty Fifty was this year, it’s undeniable how big of a year they had with “Cupid.” While I’m personally sad we’ll never get another excellent album from them as last year’s, at least they went down making history with this captivating, harmonious decrying of the mythical Cupid for not sending enough love one’s way. Whenever I hear this song, it always reminds me, strangely enough, of Disney’s early classics, like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, with the lilting “na na”s. There is something a bit animated princess-esque about “Cupid” in general, with its lovelorn harmonies and repeated refrains. It’s the layered blending of the quartet’s vocals that I think really makes this song special, and finding a way to make the evocative tones of each one reflect her own take on the situation, even the spitfire raps are full of sweet-toned anguish. I think this song’s production is extraordinary, but comes to life by the member’s vocals. It’s a pity things ended up the way they did, so that we will never hear them sing together again.

Bite Me - Enhypen

If you don’t think the syncopated, chanty “oh my, oh my god” of the pre-chorus isn’t pure art, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. “Bite Me” is sultry and smooth on the surface level, but it’s the driving sense of funk that elevates this song. That bassline and beat underlies everything Enhypen puts forth, whether it’s the come-hither demands or the rousing declarations of finding salvation in this rather sexy love. Ending things out on about 20-seconds of a heartbeat-like beat and horn-like synths? Perfection.

The Bat - NCT U

There is pretty much nothing that NCT won’t try once, and this NCT U song inspired by Batman’s Batmobile? Artistic camp at its finest featuring Taeil, Johnny, Yuta, Jungwoo, Hendery, Jeno, and Jisung, there are a variety of artistic styles at play here, both from the members themselves with their overlapping performances and the frenzied production choices. Listening to the first half-minute of the song, it’s unclear what “The Bat” will sound like. It’s whispers and industrial hip-hop and a call-out verse. That verse is interrupted that 35-second mark with a fabulous little blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “tik-tik-tok- oohhh,” and things take off from there. Building with pre-chorus verses, taking off with frenzied tip-tap trap beats leading to the bold chorus before turning towards spitfire raps… And then restarting again. I’m not sure if I’d trust NCT U to drive the Batmobile, but they definitely can have the aux cord.

Drink it, Girls - Jo Yuri

Between being cast in the next season of Squid Game and a series of truly excellent releases, Jo Yuri’s being set up really strong for coming years. And I’m here to tell you that her Drink Now, Work Later S2 song is her best one of this year. It may be a soundtrack addition, but with a jazzy kick-off and freewheeling between each line’s discordant style “Drink it, Girls” is tipsiness embodied with her playful sassiness and pizzazz.

Time Difference - INFINITE

I said it when it came out, and I still hold that INFINITE’s best song on their first independent album is “Time Difference.” That’s probably because it’s so stereotypically INFINITE, that sort of stirring, melodic synthpop that they do so amazingly. There’s a bit of a soft elegance to the production so it feels less uproarious perhaps than previous renditions of this same style from INFINITE, as if touched with the regrets that come with age, not the impassioned angst of youth. But what the production pulls back from, leaning towards softer keyboard riffs and steady, ambient synths, the members fill in with verses that alternate between bold and withdrawn as they weave in and out of one another’s distinct tones. I would love to hear this whole thing amped up a bit in a live performance, but that may very well ruin the touch of regret that permeates.

Flower - Jisoo

Jisoo’s “Flower” is a bit of a wonder: it’s muted, almost lackadaisical, at times, but yet one of this year’s most-captivating earworms. The song’s title refers to the aftertaste of a relationship reflecting the scent of a flower, as if all that’s left is not substance but only a lingering scent, and the blank spaces of the tune emulate that sort of lack where something once was by leaving a lot of room. Tinged with the feelings of a woman blossoming after being scorned, the snapping, plinking beats of the verses lead into the twinkling pre-chorus only to take a twist into a crunchy, groovy chorus. Jisoo’s elegant public image and raspy tone elevate the song, binding the coy sense of the song and her “done with that bullshit” attitude into a song that blossoms into something truly special.

Memories - RIIZE

After the great SM experiment that is NCT and its many acts that have increasingly veered towards more dramatic singles, I think it was kind of fascinating for RIIZE to set up SM’s new boy band era via pre-debut with the upbeat “Memories.” The song begins with a callback to a much older SMTOWN track and definitively introduces RIIZE’s upbeat, euphoric style that they’ve showed the world so far. To some degree, this could have doubled for an early NCT Dream song from a years ago, but in 2023 where K-pop songs typically veer away from full-blown pop playfulness, this is a breath of fresh air as it flip-flops between boyish cheer, jaunty raps, and a captivating pre-finale bridge that tones things down, as if recalling a memory that has faded with time.

Shot Glass of Tears - Jungkook

While I probably listened to “Seven” (the explicit version, of course) more than “Shot Glass of Tears,” there’s always something special to me when BTS sings about drinking. They say that alcohol brings out truth, and it truly feels like the songs of theirs that focus on booze are always either intimate or boldly forthright. “Tell me, am I ever going to feel again? Am I ever going to heal again?” this golden superstar queries.  On “Shot Glass of Tears,” Jungkook’s mournful, regretful, and perhaps hopeful, balladry is guided by piano, building with an aural effect that emulates a chorus. The song seemingly emulates the highs and lows of drinking when in one’s feels: it starts off slow, gets rousing as if the alcohol has hit, and then falling down again. It’s simple and relatable to the emotional whirlwind experienced by many who seek solace in drink during rough times, and beautiful for it. (Drink responsibly!)

Fast Forward - Jeon Somi

If you put “Fast Forward” in a playlist alongside Kylie Minogue’s “Padam Padam” and Troye Sivan’s “Rush,” you’d have this year’s superior dance song trio. I firmly believe this song should have been one of this year’s biggest hits on dancefloors around the world. When I first heard from a peer in the industry that she’d be vogueing and channeling the divas of  pop with “Fast Forward,” I was a bit surprised and and couldn’t imagine it, since it felt very different from what she’s done in the past. But in “Fast Forward,” Jeon Somi speeds along to a new place in her career that feels all at once refreshing and comfortable, bringing us a bright house song that encapsulates the glorious feeling of giving your all to the dancefloor.

The Feeling - SHINee

As much as a song can emulate the way a person experiences euphoria by fully throwing themselves into enjoying the here and now, SHINee accomplishes it with “The Feeling.” Something about the song lends itself to being compared to what it must feel like when a baby bird takes off and achieves lift for the first time after leaving the nest, soaring high into the sky. Propulsive, funky instrumentals blend with ambient synths, there’s something daydream-esque about this tune, which flies towards great heights propelled by the members’ vocals. At this point, it’s fair to say that few are as harmonious of a group vocally than SHINee, who make the immensity of “The Feeling” look easy and natural, even while acknowledging that moving on from something without looking back towards regrets is, in fact, one of the hardest things a person will ever experience.

Huh?! - Agust-D and j-hope

One of my favorite things about this song is that even before it really begins, you have an idea of where BTS pair will go as they confront online haters: it begins with a distorted, deadpan voice, ostensibly a modulated version of the chorus sung by Agust-D himself, “What the shit, do you know about me?” As the song progresses, awash in NY drill drama, Agust-D shout-sings the line repeatedly with various addendums, coming to the forefront rather than a distorted whisper. The aggressiveness of the chorus, however, is toned down with his breathless verse, where it almost is like he has so much to say he can’t get it all out in one bar when directing his attention to those who have so much to say about him but know nothing about him. In contrast, j-hope’s straightforward, rhythmic verse almost comes across devil-may-care in contrast, but he’s clearly no less serious as the two play off one another like the different sides of a coin saying the same thing.

Space and Parade - NCT 127

To be honest, I’m cheating here and blending two songs into my NCT 127 pick, since I pretty much exclusively listen to them together, back-to-back as if they were made that way. But the glistening, saxxy ambiance of “Space” with its focusing on the grandeur of the simplicity of the members’ voices is an experience that can’t be missed. The drops into the echoing repetition of the song’s title, is wrapped in rich verses until the ultimate grooving, stomp-your-feet-and-clap-your-hands finale.

I feel like when you listen to to back-to-back with “Parade,” you get perhaps the perfect middle ground of showcasing NCT 127’s noisier and softer typical b-sides. A celebration of everything that NCT 127 is, its swaggering hip-hop verses are cushioned by sweet-toned exultations of the vocalists . I truly can’t pick, so here we are. I’m a libra, I’m sorry!

Fighting feat. Lee Young Ji -  BSS (Seventeen)

This pump-up anthem got me through many hard moments this year, and for that alone I’m putting it on this list. Bless comedic hype songs that understand what life is like with verses like, "Gotta keep going, what else can you do?" Bless Boo Seung-kwan. Lee Seok-min. Bless Kwon Soon-young. Bless Lee Young-ji. Let’s all keep fighting (in the Korean inspirational way, not the violent English way) in 2024 too.

Broken Melodies - NCT Dream

Oh dear, oh dear. NCT Dream has perhaps broken my heart with how glorious this one is. That is, of course, a facet of the song, which at face-value is a beautiful, slightly whimsical, power ballad about long distance and love that is out of reach.  I think this may be the best combined vocal performances we’ve ever seen from NCT Dream thus far, with everyone sounding sharper and more comfortable than ever before (despite the angst of the lyrics). But on a meta level, it’s such a wonderfully crafted song. You get a line like the titular, “Lonely harmony's broken melodies,” getting a fuzzy synth immediately after then pick up the melody right after for the next verse, literally breaking up the melody. “And I hate singing” gets screamed-sung. “Let’s turn it into something,” turns the song around, leading to the pre-finale and a switch-up towards hip-hop.

Holy Moly - IVE

IVE released so many songs this year that I had a really hard time picking what song I wanted to feature on this list. I opted for “Holy Moly” solely because I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else writing about it for any end-of-year lists, and I need everyone who hasn’t heard it to stop reading and go take a listen right now. Allegedly created in the same session as IVE’s debut track “Eleven,” “Holy Moly” picks up where that song left off, with the captivating, ethereality of their very first single while expanding on it. The chorus is positively hypnotizing, leaving behind an atmospheric, almost magical feeling driven by warbling flutes and twinkling chimes before plunging the song into a punchy rhythm and quirky raps. As the song speeds towards its finale, plunking strings come to the forefront, apparent that they’ve been around for a while but you’re just noticing them now thanks to the song’s grandly layered production.

Here We Go Again - Jini

Jini, formerly of NMIXX, released a truly great debut in the form of her An Iron Hand in a Velvet Glove EP. While I wasn’t a particular fan of the stalwart single, “C’Mon” with Amine, “Here We Go Again” is as near as you can get to dance-pop perfection. After starting off slow, almost tauntingly, “Here We Go Again” is driven by a fizzy, funky string melody until it settles down again, only to build up once more, emulating getting back together with someone after being Done. Or so you thought. Jini plays with her delivery throughout the track, showing off her range as she expresses both a sense of being absolutely, positively done while still eager to start this love up all over again. The final line, “Like, damn!” is a pretty good summary of how this song will make you feel after hearing it for the first time. And then you’ll probably hit repeat. Trust me on this one.

Perfume - NCT Dojaejung

I really think we need to swear at everyone who didn’t make “Perfume” one of the top songs of the year. It’s so sleek and groovy in its R&B styling while evoking the allure of perfume with a sultry, sexy even, bounce in its step from three of NCT 127’s best vocalists. It has some fun too, with the penultimate back-and-forth of playfulness before laying forth the finale bolstered by some gorgeous harmonizing. If I could bottle this sound up and spray it every morning, I’d be one happy girl.

Attitude - fromis_9

The opening song to the best album of the year (yes, I said it!), “Attitude” is drama incarnate. You can practically imagine the members of fromis_9 staring down the recording mic with eyes full of intensity as they let out the full force of this sleek dance track. A pulsating undercurrent of clapping beats and subtle snyths propel this song forward as its pacing weaves in and out, the vocals explosively driving it forward only to crash down during the blended implosion of the chorus.

OMG - NewJeans

Starting with creeping synths and a declaration of the song being about you, baby, the song evokes everything from Y2K R&B to UK garage as the quintet’s voices whirl in and out conversationally, with melodious lines draped in reluctant dreaminess and eager delight. The rhythm of “OMG” is driven predominantly by trap beats and those woozy synths introduced early on, with echoes of the five members of NewJeans playing around the latter half of the song, before settling down on as staid of a note as it begins. Arriving on January 2, “OMG,” cowbells and all, kicked off a great year for NewJeans. After showing that they knew what they were doing during their 2022 debut year, 2023 has proven to be the year of NewJeans, and “OMG” still remains a high note.

Rover- Kai

Kind of, jokingly, annoyed at how badly Kai made everyone his bitch this year with “Rover,” a song that has sent me flashing back to elementary school recess thanks to what I have to assume are references to the children’s game, red rover. A remake of the same song originally sung by Bulgarian singer Dara, this is yet another track on this list that is all about getting up and dancing, which makes me think that maybe after the Y2K R&B and jersey club trends fades it’ll be dancehalls time to rise… Anyway, thank all things holy for Kai continuously serving ups dance songs that know how to get down and dirty.

Super - Seventeen

With a Korean title referring to the Monkey King myth, it’s fair to say that “Super” feels larger than life. It reinvents itself every moment into something grander than what came before, a powerful testament to what Seventeen stands for and aims to achieve with their career. When the frenzied chorus arrives, “I love my team, I love my crew,” Seventeen declare. This year, Seventeen have a lot of songs that felt very relatable, between “F*cK My Life,” title needing no explanation, and “God of Music,” expressing their love of music. But they couldn’t do the rest without the rest of Seventeen, and I think the hectic, forceful passion of “Super” is elevated by that centering of their group amid all the whirlwind.

CoolAs - Key

Dear fucking lord, Key, how are you so smooth? That’s what I wonder to myself after each listen to “CoolAs.” Drawing on the ‘80s’ disco and funk for inspiration, the song is deceptively laidback but sweeps along with bouncing beats and squelching synths.  This song shouldn’t come across remotely as as authentic. It should seem like the cheesiest shit under the sun. But Key has spent much of his solo career dedicating himself to reimagining the sounds of yesteryear that influenced his childhood (he was born in 1991), and the talented pro that he is fully encapsulates the swaggering, swooning delivery so that it comes across not only as confident but correct. Truly, there is nobody as cool as Key.

Honorable mentions..

Soñar (Breaker) by NMIXX

I really enjoy this song but it came out so recently I can’t decide if I love it like SOTY love. So honorable mention.

Priority by Changmin, Taeyeon, & Winter

Technically an album from last year, but damn this is such a beautiful song.

Left Right - XG

XG are determined not to be considered K-pop, so it felt weird to include them in this list but I wanted to give this song a shout out.

Do or Die - Lim Young Woong

This man just wants all the older fans out there to have fun and take care.

Note: I’m publishing this without much editing because I want to get it out in a semi-timely manner. Because of that, I ask that you please don’t screenshot and take elsewhere as when I have more time this week I’ll go back in to clean it up a bit.