20140126_seoulbeats_koreaWith New Years marking a new beginning in 2015, it’s time to follow through on our new years resolutions with this new, fresh start.

It’s also a good time to look back at the year we waved goodbye to: 2014.

The year of 2014 will be known as one of tragedy in the Kpop world. Scandals, breakups, and bad news dominated much of the headlines. To top off the apocalypse of last year, the unfortunate incidents of the Sewol ferry sinking and the Ladies’ Code accident soured much of last year.

However, for much of the gloom 2014 had, there were many groups that also shined during this time in the motherland. But the question begs: how can we tell which singers actually shined last year in Korea?

While the easy answer would be to look at the Melon, Billboard, and Gaon charts to see which ones charted the highest, these sales figures can also be misleading. Numbers are important, of course, but like in sports, they rarely paint the whole reality.

Music shows, such as Inkigayo, Music Bank, and M! Countdown are a step better, as they represent a better indicator than pure sales. If a group dominates a slew of music shows a couple weeks in a row, it indicates that they have some popularity behind them.

But I feel the best method to find the most popular is very simple, yet hard to do if you don’t live in Korea: talking to the locals and seeing what’s being played in the country.

20140126_seoulbeats_gtg_girlsdayBy talking to Korean natives, you get a feel of what’s popular and trending with much less bias towards chart sales or music shows. While people may use the music charts as a recommended list for songs to check out, fans won’t just like a song because it sells well. After all, very rarely would you hear “I like Girls’ Day’s ‘Something’ because it was number one on the Gaon Music Charts last week.” People generally like a song because it sounds good. And if it’s popular, even better.

By living in Korea, you get to hear what gets played on the radio at coffee stores and restaurants, can ask the natives if they’ve heard of a particular group or song, and talk to Koreans past the age of 16 – since past the page of 16 or 17, most older Koreans grow out of idol worship – what’s popular.

Also, many K-pop acts become more popular not from their K-pop singing, but from their acting endeavors in dramas and movies. Since many Koreans in their late teens and early twenties phase out of the K-pop scene, seeing these idols on their favorite TV shows and films oftentimes piques their interest in mainstream pop again.

With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the groups that were popular in Korea in 2014.

20140126_seoulbeats_gtg_sistarA Pink has emerged as one of the big hitters in 2014. Their songs have been played all over radio stations in Seoul. Many locals also know who they are, as Eunji became more known from her acting role in the hit drama “Reply 1997”. Their poppy songs “Mr. Chu” and “Luv” also received much playtime and made their rounds on TV. They parlayed this success into having their first solo concert in January 2015.

Continuing with the female idol theme, Girls’ Day is another winner in 2014. Continuing off their strong 2013 showing, the following year cemented their reputation as one of K-pop’s premier girl groups. Their songs, “Darling” and especially “Something” could be heard nearly everywhere in Seoul during their release. University students, in particular, also recognized a Girls’ Day song by hearing the first few seconds of the song.

Sistar also made their presence felt with their summer songs, “Touch my Body” and “I Swear”. While the former song with the same name as the Mariah Carey 2008 hit did okay, it was “I Swear” that was their big song.  The four also furthered their solo careers. Hyorin was featured in the OST song from the hit drama “My Love from Another Star”. Soyu also did a collaboration with Junggigo, “Some”, while Dasom and Bora were also in the dramas “Melody of Love” and “Doctor Stranger”, respectively.

20140126_seoulbeats_gtg_aoaAOA was perhaps the biggest surprise this year in female groups. Until this year, they were really under the radar.  But 2014 would be their crowning year. After a 180 change to a sultry, sexy image, armed with miniskirts and high heels, people soon took notice. “Miniskirt”, “Short Hair”, and “Like a Cat” were three MVs that showcased their new, alluring look to the approval of many, especially guys.

While the four groups above all posted strong results, one notable group that has fallen from its lofty perch is Girls Generation (SNSD). The female group that once oozed all-kills, platinum-hit albums, and an incredible aura of K-pop invincibility did not fare too well in 2014. While “Mr.Mr.” was a catchy song in this humble author’s opinion, Korea did not share the same opinion.

While “Mr.Mr.” sold quite well and had over 20 million views on their YouTube MV, this is one case where numbers do not tell the whole story. Despite its success on paper, many Koreans did not consider the song a great success, at least to SNSD standards. The MV’s quality was also questioned. There were rumors that a large portion of the original “Mr.Mr.” footage went missing, so parent company SM Entertainment hastily cobbled together a music video before the release date.

20140309_seoulbeats_snsdvs2ne1Further adding to SNSD’s woes was Jessica’s sudden departure from the group. Members come and go in K-pop all the time, but the fact that the famed nine would now be only eight made waves throughout the nation. Newspapers, gossip sites, and Korean TV were all talking about Jessica’s departure throughout the week, showing SNSD’s large influence in the Korean music industry.

The other reigning female group, 2NE1, did quite well with “Come Back Home”. Applauded by music critics and fans here, they felt it harkened back to the older 2NE1 hits. But before their success, there was some worry, as they felt their album would be overshadowed by the SM ladies. Back in February 2014, 2NE1 and SNSD actually went head-to-head against one another, as their songs were released on the same week.

A Pink, Girls’ Day, Sistar, and AOA’s songs did quite well. Living in the shadows of 2NE1 and Girls Generation in years past, it is safe to say that these four groups are now some of K-pop’s most known female groups.

20141223_seoulbeats_winner_minoMoving on to the male groups, the big winner is WINNER (pun intended, of course). Through a competition show, “Win”, YG Entertainment promoted the group and hyped them up even before their debut. Add to the fact that WINNER would be YG’s latest boy band, following Big Bang nine years earlier and you can see how the excitement built up to insane heights. This, in turn, created an incredible hype machine that had fans eagerly waiting for Winner and YG’s other boy group, iKon.

Although WINNER’s dominance wasn’t as crazy as EXO’s “Growl” craze in 2013, YG’s group was surely everywhere in 2014.

Speaking of EXO, they’re still as big as ever. They’re hugely popular within the teenage, female fandom with tens of millions of views on their MV “Overdose”. The group is seen on advertisements all over Seoul while selling out their May concert in less than two seconds.

But despite EXO doing incredibly well on paper, something was off with the group this year.

It felt like EXO was not as dominant as in 2013, as outside of the teenage fans, they weren’t as talked about in the city.

Instead, WINNER was the new “it” male group and resembled EXO during the “Growl” year. WINNER was grabbing all the headlines, the talk, and the praise from university students and older. Their songs were heard on radio more, while “Overdose” would be played here and there.

20140126_seoulbeats_gtg_blockbEXO, for some reason, was not as talked about in Korea, despite their massive success. In fact, they were more known for Kris’ departure and later Luhan following suit than for “Overdose”.

Perhaps it was because “Overdose” did not match “Growl” heights of hysteria. Or maybe it was because two of their members left the group. Whatever the reason, it felt like EXO was a bit underrated this year.

Another male group that did well was Block B. Their song “Her” was all over the airwaves in late 2014, with many people recognizing the song. Again, if the local populace can recognize a song – and not just the hardcore, teenage fans – that’s usually a good sign that the group is known. Block B definitely fit that description this year.

Crossing over to the non-idol groups, we come to Akdong Musician. The brother-sister group had a great year, with their flagship song “200%”. This song was played around the city so much that the word “over-saturated” comes to mind. Yet, many here didn’t mind at all, as the words “yes, I’m a soldier… for you” was hummed all over Seoul. The duo was also nominated for a slew of awards at various music awards shows as well.

Yet, as strong as some of the idol groups and Akdong Musician did last year, 2014 will be known as the year of the collaboration.

20140126_seoulbeats_gtg_sane_rainaSongs such as Soyu x Junggigo’s “Some” and San E x Raina’s “Midsummer Night’s Sweetness”, Huh Gak x Eunji’s “Break Up to Make Up,” “Your Scent” by Jungin x Gary and IU x High4 “Not Spring, Love or Cherry Blossoms” were heard all over cafes and city streets. In fact, due to the success of collaborations last year, it may be little surprise to see 2015 featuring even more crossovers, particularly between hip-hop and pop singers.

Rounding out the stars that shined, we end it with two solo singers.

Big Bang’s Taeyang hit gold with his song “Eyes, Nose, Lips”. He has been known to be a solid solo singer, as seen from past hits like “I Need a Girl” and “Wedding Dress”. “Eyes, Nose, Lips” is no exception. Praised by many, the song has also been given remakes and covers, such as from Epik High’s (and fellow YG label mate) Tablo.

IU was the other solo singer with a great year. Whereas fans only cheer their favorite bias, IU receives so much applause from all fan groups, it’s safe to say she’s widely respected in the Korean music industry. Her poppy, ballad songs, as well as her looks and charm, attract a legion of fans, regardless of which fandom you’re in. She is one of the few K-pop stars that is universally loved by nearly all fans.

20140126_seoulbeats_gtg_iuMany artists wanted to work with the solo songstress, as just collaborating with her is huge for ones’ career. Take the aforementioned IU x High 4 song “Not Spring, Love or Cherry Blossoms”, where having IU’s collaboration efforts also helped High4 get on the K-pop map.

She also won a slew of awards at last year’s music awards, including “Artist of the Year” at the Melon Music Awards. To say she is a household name is very accurate, as she could be considered the solo queen of K-pop.

While there are other artists that did well last year here in Korea, such as G.O.D and MC Mong, the artists above are the ones that stuck out to this esteemed author. They received a ton of airtime, were the talk of the town, and were known to people outside the teeny-bopper age range. As one can imagine, many of these artists also dominated the music shows, the awards shows, and record sales as well.

Now over to you. Which artists do you think should be popular in Korea? Are you surprised by the artists mentioned above? Which artists are popular overseas? Sound off in the comments below.

(Images via Green Tea Graffiti, Lonely Planet, SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment)


Jason works in the Korean music industry as media in Seoul, Korea. His work has been featured on BBC World, Yonhap News, Soompi, and other media publications. He writes for the Asian pop culture site Green Tea Graffiti.  If you want to read more on the Korean music industry in-depth, check out just how hard K-pop stars work in his Behind the Kpop Scenes exclusive or tweet them at @GTGNews.