The year in K-pop…so far!
Credit: Mashable / Bob Al-Greene
2023, you’re flying by. Join Mashable as we look back at everything that’s delighted, amazed, or just confused us in 2023.
The year of the girl group is here to stay. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the wonderful world of K-pop, where rookie girl groups like New Jeans, IVE, Le Sserafim, and Fifty Fifty aren’t just making waves — they’re creating tsunamis in the industry, shaping trends and amassing global followings.
As K-pop enters its fifth generation, acts are experimenting with fresh sounds and getting more personal than ever. While BTS members Jimin and SUGA expressed their individual artistic visions through incendiary solo work, boy groups like Tomorrow X Together, Stray Kids, and NCT Dream extended their worldwide dominance with chart-topping releases that underscored their singular strengths. Soloists Lee Chaeyeon and DAWN unleashed their most compelling sides, and a new AI girl group hit the scene with a real bop.
With so much going on in K-pop at all times, it can be hard to know where to start. So Mashable has got you covered.
In no particular order, here are some of the best K-pop songs of 2023 so far. And because sometimes you have to listen to more than just the single to get to the truly transcendent stuff, this list contains both singles and B-sides.
“Welcome To MY World,” aespa
Known for their powerful hooks and addictive melodies, aespa is one of the leading girl groups of their generation. Their high-concept fusion of pop, maximalist EDM, and hip-hop blurs the line between fantasy and reality (as in, their vocals are so distinct they sound unreal to the human ear), and while their lead singles often pack a punch, “Welcome to MY World” introduced a softer, but no less impactful, side of Karina, Giselle, Winter, and Ningning.
Here, they demonstrate their range and control, crafting a hazy and heartfelt invitation to their fantastical musical realm. “In different languages / Your truth remains the same / Again, feels like we are one,” rapper Giselle sings. The song serves as the opening track of their EP, My World, and its production is bolstered by dreamy guitar riffs and swelling orchestration that give it a cinematic quality. Perfect for a Main Character montage moment or a midnight lullaby, “Welcome to MY World” is just a glimpse at all of the twinkling surprises in aespa’s universe. —Crystal Bell, culture editor
“Dear My Light,” Dawn
Last November, we got confirmation that love isn’t real when K-pop couple Dawn and HyunA announced the end of their six-year relationship. Their love story had been legendary in the industry, the duo having defied their company to make their romance public back in 2018, so the news came as a huge shock to fans.
Dawn’s heartbreaking ballad “Dear My Light”(opens in a new tab) is about their breakup, and it hits like a punch in the gut. Released in April, the gentle, stripped-down acoustic single directly addresses HyunA(opens in a new tab), likening her to a bright light and expressing gratitude for their time together. Dawn’s clear, melancholy vocals convey honest love and a mature acceptance of the situation, but also a completely raw, broken desolation.
“Thank you, you were everything,” read the English-translated lyrics. “I was happy like the world was mine / It’s okay if I lose everything / As long as I can see you dazzling.” Though the pair are still on friendly terms, with HyunA publicly supporting DAWN’s release(opens in a new tab), “Dear My Light” makes it devastatingly clear that there are still a lot of painful emotions involved. —Amanda Yeo, reporter
“Cupid,” Fifty Fifty
No chorus has ever chorused the way Fifty Fifty’s “Cupid” does. The girl group, who debuted recently in 2022, smashed their way to the top of the charts and TikTok’s song hall of fame thanks to their sophomore single. The viral hit also bowed at no. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100, climbing onward and upward for good reason: Listening to “Cupid” feels like you’re walking through a hazy, glistening pink cloud with pop harmonies serenading all around you.
The song is dopamine personified and has clearly rung its way into everyone’s hearts (stans and “locals” alike), plus that key change in the end? Chef’s kiss. It’s a 10/10 song to listen to whenever you want to feel like a main character in a rom-com, and it’s arguably one of the most refreshing songs we’ve gotten in K-pop this year. Do yourself a favor and listen to it, that is, if you haven’t already come across the millions of TikToks on your FYP page. —Yasmeen Hamadeh, contributing entertainment writer
“OMG,” New Jeans
Newcomers New Jeans deliver artful restraint in an industry that often indulges a “more is more” approach to production. On “OMG,” the quintet delicately captures the internal ambivalence of crushing on someone, bouncing between blissful hope and apprehension: “Can this be real?” they ask themselves, “Oh my, oh my God, it’s only you… Asking all the time about what I should do… I know, I know, I’m going crazy right?” Paired with NewJeans’ playful Y2K-inspired aesthetic, “OMG” uses the timelessness of first love to bring a fresh perspective and sound to K-pop’s newest generation. —Elizabeth de Luna, culture and tech reporter
“I Am,” IVE
As a writer I might be biased, but no lyric has emotionally affected me the way “be a writer, the genre is fantasy” has. I can only describe it as reinvigorating, which is also how I would characterize the entire song. IVE’s “I Am” may not be as spunky and trendy as the group’s pre-release single, “Kitsch,” but it delivers on pure energy and joy. It’s an immediate dopamine hit. It makes me feel like I can see sound, run through walls, and jump out of an aircraft à la Wonyoung in the music video. Who needs a parachute when you’re flying high on exuberance and a dream!
But the thing that really makes “I Am” stand out is that it doesn’t adopt the hyper-confidence of the girl crush genre or even bask in the playful narcissism of IVE’s patented chaebol crush vibe(opens in a new tab); instead, the song offers a simple reminder that true self-assurance comes from trusting and believing in yourself. So set yourself free and write your own story. —CB
On stage, there is no one more captivating than Kai. Fluid, precise, charismatic — he communicates through his body. A master of seduction, the performer has showcased his artistic growth and versatility through a trio of solo releases, but “Rover” — with its soulful vocals, catchy hook, and powerful rhythm — casts the ultimate spell. Kai has always utilized the allure of duality; the dichotomy between his persona and person is one his most magnetic strengths. On “Rover,” he embodies a suave new alias: Mr. Rover. Take a ride with him (interpret that how you will), and you’ll find the liberation you so desperately seek. —CB
I’m not yet convinced that virtual artists can rival living, breathing ones, but MAVE: could change my mind. The computer-generated quartet is a digital front for real singers and dancers whose voices and movements are used to create their pixelated counterparts. “Pandora” is an excellent pop track and a vibrant debut, reminiscent of K/DA(opens in a new tab)‘s declarative “POP/STARS.” And like K/DA, MAVE: is able to move past the gimmicky trappings of their tech thanks to truly great music and killer choreo. Though “Pandora’s” moves are, admittedly, still performed better by humans(opens in a new tab), MAVE:’s appearances on Korean music shows(opens in a new tab) have been impressive. And with tech’s rapid pace of improvement, it’s likely MAVE:’s graphics will soon match the magic of their music. —EDL
“Haegeum,” Agust D
The only thing better than Agust D’s “Haegeum” is its Tarantino-inspired music video. The main track off the rapper’s third album, D-Day, “Haegeum” is more like a battle cry rallying everyone up to obliterate the status quo and unapologetically do their own thing. It’s the perfect song to hype yourself up to whether you’re going for a night out or to your nemesis’ home for blood-thirsty revenge (there’s no in between). Everybody say thank you to our favorite, devilish king of rap, who’s babygirl personified on the weekends, for giving us another absolute banger. —YH
“Unforgiven,” Le Sserafim
Girl group Le Sserafim’s latest single is an outlaw’s anthem, the perfect song for riding off into the sunset, guns blazing. And the quintet wants you to join them in breaking the rules. “Come to that faraway land with me… Cross the line with me,” they beckon over a sample of the iconic whistling theme of Clint Eastwood’s 1996 Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Other Wild West ear candy, like the buzzy jaw harp and plucky acoustic guitar, are thoughtfully incorporated into “Unforgiven” by Grammy-winning producer Nile Rodgers. The result is an addictive modern throwback you’ll have trouble getting out of your head. —EDL
“Farewell, Neverland,” Tomorrow X Together
Tomorrow X Together aren’t the first artists to reinterpret Peter Pan, nor will they be the last. But “Farewell, Neverland” captures the heartbreak of saying goodbye to your childhood innocence in the bittersweet way that only TXT can. It’s both devastating and hopeful, the longing to hold onto the carefree world of childhood while also embracing the challenges of moving forward into adulthood.
A B-side track off The Name Chapter: Temptation, “Farewell, Neverland” emphasizes the group’s musical maturity and versatility. Vocally, they’ve never sounded better, especially Soobin and Beomgyu, who convey a range of emotions throughout the second verse. Meanwhile, the minimal production incorporates subtle electronic elements, acoustic guitar, and ethereal melodies, creating a fairy tale-like ambiance that sets TXT apart from their contemporaries. They might be saying goodbye to Neverland, but Tomorrow X Together will never shy away from sentimentality. —CB
“Left Right,” XG
“Left Right” is the kind of delicious R&B dance track that Cassie could have dropped with flair in the mid-2000s, but it’s XG’s performance of the song that makes it girl group material. Styled to Y2K perfection, the septet — who are from Japan and trained under a K-pop system, promoting in South Korea — executes the choreo with superb and satisfying precision, proving that synchronization is, indeed, a superpower. The song is a masterful ode to 90s and 2000’s songstresses. Its only flaw is its misguided use of AAVE, and Black fans have noted that phrases like “we don’t want no opps” feel wrong in the mouths of non-Black artists. A remix of “Left Right” gives credit where credit is due with a feature by queen Ciara herself,(opens in a new tab) so we’ll hope the global girl group’s next release fully appreciates Black music without appropriating it. —EDL
“Like Crazy,” Jimin
Park Jimin recognized that the K-pop industry needed a giant slay, and he delivered oh-so slayfully. “Like Crazy,” the titular single off the BTS vocalist’s first solo album, Face, is the perfect song to dance to, sing along to, and even get a little bit sexy to. Its synth-pop instrumentals are resonant of the likes of The Weeknd at his best, and there’s a reason why “Like Crazy” was the first song by a Korean soloist to ever top the Billboard Hot 100. The music video? A slay. The choreography? A giant slay. Jimin’s vocals? A siren call. “Like Crazy” is just a massive serving of [profanity redacted], and I’ve never wanted to get lost in the lights with Jimin more. —YH
“Broken Melodies,” NCT Dream
You can always count on NCT Dream to serve up melodic, youthful pop. Even when they’re emo and in their feelings they’re keeping the vibes bright and upbeat. “Broken Melodies” is a heartbreak anthem full of irresistible harmonies and vocal riffs, memorable hooks, and relatable lyrics for any young person suffering through a LDR (long-distance relationship). A song like this sounds almost nostalgic in today’s modern K-pop landscape. It harkens back to the halcyon days of One Direction and their infectious pop sound — when a single, sustained “yooouuuuUUU” could make you feel infinite while riding shotgun in your best friend’s car, starring in your very own teen movie. —CB
“KNOCK,” Lee Chaeyeon
Put some respect on Lee Chaeyeon’s name. As one of the members of IZ*ONE, the incredibly popular temporary group that rose to fame in 2018, Chaeyeon hasn’t had the same level of solo success. Having previously struggled to find her own artistic footing, “Knock” sets her on the right path. It’s deliriously catchy and shows off her unparalleled dancing skills with an electrifying, head-turning performance. Its thumping bass is the heartbeat of the song, pulsing with unrestrained energy and real oomph before crescendoing to a rapturous chorus. It’s a certifiable earworm. Finally, a track and a performance worthy of Chaeyeon’s immense talent. —CB
“Hall of Fame,” Stray Kids
There’s no better word to describe Stray Kids — their essence, their performance, the music that they make themselves — than confident. Their unrelenting confidence is the lifeblood of their work. So it feels right that they’d kick off their most recent EP, 5-Star, with a testament to their swagger. “Hall of Fame” gives credence to their desire to engrave their names in the stars, to make history and enter the titular Hall of Fame. The opening track is exhilarating from start to finish with its maximalist maelstrom of whirring synths, heavenly melodies, gritty percussion, and distorted flourishes.
Stray Kids know how to make an impact. (With over 5.1 million stock pre-sales recorded(opens in a new tab) for 5-Star, the numbers prove it.) They have a knack for crafting high-energy tracks with strong, resonant beats. Yet, despite their unyielding confidence in themselves, they never wander too far into arrogance. “Hall of Fame” expresses their constant desire for more — to be more, to achieve more, and to create more. For Stray Kids, it’s never about the destination; the journey is eternal. —CB
Amanda Yeo is Mashable’s Australian reporter, covering entertainment, culture, tech, science, and social good. This includes everything from video games and K-pop to movies and gadgets.
Crystal Bell is the Digital Culture Editor at Mashable, where she covers digital trends, TikTok crushes, and youth culture. Previously, Crystal was the Entertainment Director at MTV News, where she helped the brand expand its coverage of stan culture and K-pop across platforms. You can find her work(opens in a new tab) on Teen Vogue, PAPER, Nylon, Elle, Elite Daily, and around the internet. She’s especially fluent in fandom and will gladly make you a K-pop playlist.
Elizabeth is a culture reporter at Mashable covering digital culture, fandom communities, and how the internet makes us feel. Before joining Mashable, she spent six years in tech, doing everything from running a wifi hardware beta program to analyzing YouTube content trends like K-pop, ASMR, gaming, and beauty. You can find more of her work for outlets like The Guardian, Teen Vogue, and MTV News right here(opens in a new tab).
Yasmeen Hamadeh is an Entertainment Intern at Mashable, covering everything about movies, TV, and the woes of being chronically online.