Future K-pop connoisseurs will remember 2015 as a vintage year. And rightly so — I mean what hasn’t happened in Korean music over the past 12 months? Almost all of the big-name acts you care to mention have released albums, a few lesser-known groups have surprised us, some exciting rookies have appeared on the scene, and there has been plenty of juicy gossip to keep us all busy.
So, as we prepare to close the book on 2015, and without any further ado, join us as we look back at the year that was in K-pop.
Read our list of defining moments and then head to the comments section to tell us what you think were the most notable K-pop events in 2015!
1. A Gazillion New Groups Debut
Do you know your DIA from your DiaGirls? Your myB from your M.A.P6? How about your Road Boyz from your RubberSoul? Or your Playback from your PlanC? If you don’t, I honestly don’t blame you. Keeping up is nigh on impossible these days.
There has surely never been a year quite like 2015 for new groups; over 100 new boybands and girl groups debuted this year, with varying levels of success. Some, such as Seventeen, GFRIEND, and N.Flying, look like they are already on the road to gathering significant fanbases.
Others have already fallen by the wayside, including Brave Entertainment act 1PUNCH, who debuted early this year and “practically disbanded” only eight months later, with member One opting to join the ranks of YG Entertainment.
And some acts were presumably in such a rush to join the fray they (presumably) didn’t have time to think of better band names.
Wanna.B and Oh My Girl look like they might have staying power, but OMG, girls, you wannabe coming up with some better names than that.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
In some cases, such as new boyband P.L.O…
…it is more a case of what were they thinking with a name like that?
Despite the glut of new acts, however, we also had to say goodbye to a few groups — and some fairly good ones, at that. Bob Girls, Airplane, C-Clown, F-ve Dolls, Scarlet , and EvoL all hung up their microphones this year. That’s some pretty decent acts fallen by the wayside right there, Soompiers.
2. BIGBANG’s Supermegacomeback
Three years is a very long time in K-pop, and for BIGBANG fans, the wait for new material was painstaking. Yes, sure, there had been solo projects, collaborations, T.O.P’s movies, and so on, but what most K-pop fans really wanted to see was all five members back in action together again.
Perhaps YG Entertainment anticipated this and instead of releasing a single 8-track album, the agency instead decided on the “M.A.D.E” series, a comeback split over the space of four months, with two new songs released per month from May through August.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the boys followed it all up with monster 62-date world tour that saw them travel to the Americas, Australia, and all over their native Asia, with a monster crowd of 220,000 turning up to m in the Tokyo Dome.
Truly fantastic, baby.
3. B.A.P’s Journey from Studio to Courtroom (and back again)
It was the lawsuit that threatened to derail not only one of the most vital boybands in K-pop, but also a fairly significant Korean talent agency.
In November 2014, the B.A.P members rocked the music world when they went public with grievances against TS Entertainment, accusing the agency of making them work to so-called “slave” contracts.
The parties headed to the courtroom, the boys hoping to take TS to task for inadequate compensation for their services. The process was bitter; the group was unrelenting, TS seemed unmoveable. And the fans? Well, they were just losing their minds.
There seemed to be no way out.
I have no particular axe to grind here, but from a purely musical perfective, B.A.P and TS just belong together.
Because along with TS’s favored producers, B.A.P has released some of the most essential K-pop boyband songs ever made: “1004 (Angel),” “One Shot,” “Warrior,” “No Mercy,” “Hurricane,” “Badman.” Pretty much nobody out there makes music quite this good.
Sure, B.A.P might have gone off to work with another agency. But realistically — and certainly musically — things would not have been the same.
On and on the case dragged (as only K-pop cases can), until we all just pretty much lost hope.
Then, all of a sudden, in summer everyone just decided to kiss and make up.
Within months, the unthinkable was actually happening: a comeback was on track. It culminated in the “Matrix” EP, produced by Bang Yong Guk, but also featuring “Blind,” a collaboration with TS’s go-to production guru Park Soo Seok, the mastermind behind a hatful of hits for TS’s other two big name groups, Sonamoo and Secret.
Predictably, “Matrix” is utterly phenomenal, featuring not just lead track “Young, Wild and Free” (a gloriously B.A.P-tastic, TS-tastic feast of crunching rock guitars, atmospheric synths, and floor-shaking beats), but also this sort of thing.
As the boys sing in the “Young, Wild and Free” chorus, “I know we’re better together.”
From a audio geek’s perspective, the TS and B.A.P reconciliation is the best bit of news we have had all year.
4. Reality Show-Created Groups Take Over
WINNER had already caused a stir in 2014 after claiming victory in 2013 reality show “YG’s Win: Who Is Next?”
But rather than being an anomaly, it looks like WINNER ended up setting a new trend.
In the past few years, a slew of reality audition show solo stars have debuted, with varying degrees of success. Sure, the likes of Seo In Guk and Lee Hi got their breaks through such programs, but there are countless other albeit talented and charming solo acts who have just fallen by the wayside.
Remember Nam Young Joo? Or John Park? Nah, didn’t think so.
But recent times have seen agencies look more seriously at the idea of building multi-member groups via TV shows. Following 2014’s “Mix & Match,” YG decided to spend a lot of time and money on turning iKON into a high-quality, polished K-pop boyband. The hard work has certainly paid off:
JYP has also been at it, crafting multi-national girl group TWICE via the Mnet reality show “Sixteen.”
Expect a lot more of this sort of thing in 2016.
5. “King of Mask Singer” Invades Our Screens
Since it piloted in February this year, “King of Mask Singer” has become the TV show to watch if you have a thing for K-pop. Almost everyone who’s anyone has appeared on the show, making for some quite outstanding viewing.
The pilot itself was star-studded to say the least, with K.Will, 2AM’s Jo Kwon, and Hong Jin Young taking part. The revelation — of course — was EXID’s Solji.
Later episodes featured some jaw-dropping stuff from f(x)’s Luna, B1A4’s Sandeul, Lee Hong Gi of FTISLAND, Ken of VIXX (who really needs a solo release at some point) and even “Unpretty Rapstar” contestants Jessi and Cheetah.
It was show-stealing stuff for Kim Yeon Woo (goosebumps time for this song) and Gummy, both four-time winners. And nobody could quite believe it when Melody Day’s Yeo Eun came out of almost total obscurity to claim the crown in August.
6. SM Changes Musical Direction
I’ll come out and say it. I have never really been enamored by SM Entertainment’s audio output. For some reason, the music has almost always failed to really grip me in any way. Until recently, that is.
I just found it all quite twee and middle-of-the-road. Songs like f(x)’s “Hot Summer” and SHINee’s “Sherlock,” they just weren’t doing anything for me.
There were hints of a change in direction with Girls’ Genereation’s “Mr Mr” in February 2014, a very complex and well-crafted song. The same could be said for Zhoumi’s solo effort “Rewind” in October last year.
But this year, the agency has gone in a direction I personally find very interesting indeed. Whereas in musical terms, YG used to regularly knock SM out of the park, the boot has been on the other foot this year. While YG artists are producing the same kind of music they have always made, SM artists are going to places I did not imagine they would ever explore.
SHINee’s “View” was a delightful two-step UK garage throwback — the first time a K-pop act has pursued a sound like this.
They followed this up with a retro, bass- and 808-infused dancefest in the form of “Married to the Music.”
EXO’s releases this year have been just as good. As mentioned elsewhere on this site, there is probably no boyband album out there quite as well-made as “EXODUS” and its repackage.
Even f(x) has released some audio fire this year, words I thought I would never type. The “4 Walls” album is a very unexpected visit to deep house territory for the girls.
And surprisingly, it is a style that fits them like a glove. The title track in particular almost sounds like it was inspired by the work of edgy dance DJs like Maya Jane Coles or Nora En Pure .
“Rude Love,” meanwhile, begins as a blissful tribute to this kind of late-1980s house sound, and then plunges into pure 2015 deep house waters.
SM, you need to keep this up; you are starting to even win the attention of skeptical old music nerds like me.
7. The Great Female Rap Explosion of 2015
As if “Unpretty Rapstar” wasn’t exciting enough, there was also “Unpretty Rapstar 2,” — almost as much fun (if not more) as its predecessor.
Jessi, Cheetah, and Kissum have all gone on to bigger things since series one, and you can imagine that this time next year we will probably be saying the same thing about the likes of Truedy, FIESTAR’s Yezi, and my pick of the whole bunch, KittiB.
Add to that some tried-and-tested fire from the old hands at this game (such as LE and Miryo) and you have what has unquestionably been the best year yet for Korean female rappers.
8. NS Yoon-G Quits K-Pop — or Does She?
One minute the web is alive with rumors that NS Yoon-G has called it a day, the next her agency is furiously denying her retirement.
Make of this what you will, but NS Yoon-G deserves a mention here not because she has ever set the K-pop world alight (which she hasn’t if we are being honest, although this was a beast of a track). She deserves mention because she is symptomatic of what is happening in K-pop right now.
Let’s be honest, the biggest waves in solo K-pop this year have not been made by specialized solo artists — they came in the form of solo releases by members of boybands and girl groups. Think AOA’s Choa, SHINee’s Jonghyun, Teen Top’s Niel, Secret’s Hyosung, 4MINUTE’s HyunA, and Girl’s Day’s Minah.
Solo artists like NS Yoon-G, ALi, Chaeyeon, NC.A, Huh Gak, and Seo In Young have all released material this year, but most of it barely even showed up on the radar. A few years ago, solo stars ruled the K-pop roost. The world belonged to the likes of Lee Hyori, Rain, and Se7en.
Things have changed very quickly through, and 2015 has confirmed what we all suspected at the beginning of the year — that solo singers are no longer the zeitgeist.
If you want to stand out in K-pop right now, you need to be in a group of some sort.
9. EXID Mania Moves Into Overdrive
EXID’s meteoric rise to fame this year was as sudden as it was unpredictable. A middling group that never really won much in the way of attention, they leapfrogged dozens of bigger names and landed right at the very forefront of the girl group hierarchy.
The whole of Korea has fallen in love with EXID. Over 37 million plays (and counting) on the “Up and Down” music video (and almost 32 million on the follow-up “Ah Yeah”) is no small feat. But the girls did not stop there — in fact, it was only the beginning.
They smashed K-pop records left, right, and center. They recently joined an exclusive clutch of acts who have won SBS’ “Inkigayo” with three different songs in the space of one year.
And to top it all, Hani, Solji, and co seem to have done it with what sounds like three versions of the same song. Synthesized brass hooks (distorted, but still audible on “Hot Pink,” very noticeable on the other two), plus sub bass and aggressive drum sounds galore. Basically, the instrumentals on all three of their big 2015 hits sound a little too similar for comfort.
And the vocals? This is where it gets even more noticeable. Hani sings a bit, LE raps a bit, Hyerin does chorus part one (lots of high notes), Solji does chorus part two (even more high notes) and Junghwa pops up somewhere or other along the way. Rinse and repeat.
But instead of getting sick of this, it turns out we positively cannot get enough of it. If next year sees EXID release “Up and Down” parts 4 and 5, expect those to obliterate the 2016 charts, too.
From K-pop also-rans to the queens of the crop — a spectacular and completely unprecedented year. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, EXID are a K-pop phenomenon.
10. Girl Groups Go Viral
With somewhere in the region of 200 active girl groups currently plying their trade in the K-pop arena, it is becoming increasingly hard to get noticed.
Sure, if you just happen to be represented by one of the big three agencies (YG, SM, or JYP), fame will come looking for you. No expense is spared for the likes of miss A, TWICE, 2NE1, Girls’ Generation, or f(x). But if you are not a member of this quite exclusive club, you will need something a little special if you want to step with the big-agency girls.
In the case of SISTAR and Girl’s Day, the sheer force of having outstanding members like Hyorin, Soyu, Hyeri, and Minah might be enough. In most cases, not even that will do.
But, as we discovered at the end of 2014, there is one more route to fame: the viral video.
The now-infamous Hani of EXID (yep, them again) fancam has just under 18 million hits at the time of writing. And there was yet more “Up & Down” viral fun in the form of this impromptu backing vocal track-free performance…
…which convinced the world (if the world needed any more convincing) that Solji is possibly the fiercest female vocalist in K-pop right now.
But it wasn’t just EXID who rode the viral video wave this year. Rookie act GFRIEND even got folks in the UK and the United States talking. It all started when a camera-toting fan captured member Yuji’s tumblefest on a stage so wet seals would have refused to perform on it.
Web users were awed by the girls’ unflagging commitment to their cause given the appalling conditions. And as a result, the group’s sophomore hit “Me Gustas Tu” rocketed back up the charts two months after its initial release, much to the girls’ delight.
Big agencies are so passé. Set malfunctions and fan videos were what it was all about in 2015.
Well, you’ve read our take on the big events of 2015. Now it’s over to you, Soompiers! What events defined the year for you? How will you remember this year in K-pop? Let us know in the comments below!
timmydee is a music geek with a penchant for pop, an enthusiasm for electronica, and a hankering for hip hop.
*The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not necessarily represent Soompi as a whole.