2016 was a rough year for much of the world, and tough in many ways for K-poppers as well. We lost a few great, spectacular, legendary groups, watched groups split, and saw more idols struggling with injuries, and especially being more open about mental illness and other difficulties. And yet, we came out of it with some really wonderful music this year. It sure helped us all get through the year.

January — The Hip Hop representatives of 2015, Gary and Gaeko, carried the opening of the new year, with January’s first hit “Lonely Night”. 2016 really took off with the release of Suzy and Baekhyun’s “Dream”, which went straight to the top of the charts. 2016 was also the inaugural year of SM Entertainment’s new release platform, which served to highlight new (and sometimes strange) collaborations, individual SM artists singles, as well as being a holding pen for all of SM’s otherwise very random advertisement releases (ie. NCT 127 x Coca Cola for “Taste the Feeling”).

Zico got off to a very good start this year with his first solo single, “I am You, You are Me”. He also continued his trend of 2015 of collaborating with many different fellow artists, his first being January’s release “It Was Love” with Luna of f(x).

We also saw the long-awaited, though perhaps somewhat overrated, solo debut of Super Junior’s main vocal Ryeowook. While his album did fairly well on the charts, the single “Little Prince” fell a bit flat. Similarly, Teen Top managed to hit #1 with their 7th mini album, Red Point, but their main single “Warning Sign” did not do as well.

SM Entertainment also took to the stage in January to announce their new plan for world domination, known as “New Culture Technology” or the rookie boy group NCT, an internationally-localized group with an unlimited number of members. More from them later.

February — Taeyeon kicked off her year featuring on Crush’sDon’t Forget” in January, but it was her chart-topping SM Station release, “Rain” that really caught everyone’s ears. She had a very busy year overall with her follow up EP Why in June, and another SM Station single, “11:11” in November, as well as contributing a song, “All With You”, to the Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo OST.

However, it was the comeback of rookie group GFriend with “Rough” that took over the month of February. Only Twice’s subsequent bestsellers would beat out the catchiness of their colleagues for the girl groups of the year.

March – Mamamoo kept strong, building on their releases of  2014 and 2015 with the new “You’re the Best”. Lee Hi released her second album, Seoulite, 3 years after her debut. The album was produced by Tablo and the title track, “Breathe”, was composed by Shinee’s Jonghyun, and it succeeded in taking #1 for the week on the Gaon chart.

Of course, the charts were completely taken over when the star-studded setlist on the Descendants of the Sun OST was released in mid-March. With high profile names like Gummy, Davichi, K.Will, and Yoon Mi-rae, the individual songs soared right to the top. The award-winning drama, claiming the highest ratings for eight solid weeks, was spurred on by the success of the likes of “Talk Love” (K.Will), “You Are My Everything” (Gummy) “Once Again” (Mad Clown & Kim Na-young), “This Love” (Davichi), “How Can I Love You” (Xia Junsu), “Always” (Yoon Mi-rae), and “Everytime” (Chen & Punch).

March also saw the return of 2015’s R&B wunderkind, Dean. He released his first EP, 130 Mood: TRBL, with the singles “Bonnie and Clyde” and “D (Half Moon)”, featuring Gaeko. The album charted on both the Gaon chart (#10) and the Billboard World Albums chart (#3). He also featured on the single, “Starlight”, from Taeyeon’s June album.

April – The idol groups mostly took the month off, which allowed some soloists, and lesser known, artists to poke their heads through. Jang Beom-jun, of Busker Busker, started off with “Fallen in Love (Only With You)” while the duet of APink’s Jung Eun-ji ft. Harim wrapped up the month with “Hopefully Sky”. 10cm managed to slip in the “What the Spring??” and actually ended up having one of the best-selling songs of the year.

The first NCT unit, NCT U broke onto the scene with two singles, “7th Sense” and “Without You”, two perfectly crafted pop songs with music videos that highlighted their flashy and highly syncronised dancing.

In the last week of April, the first massive hit of the year came around. You know, the one that all the idols start dancing along with and all the MCs start singing whenever they get the chance, the one that’s stuck in everyone’s heads. This year, it was Twice’s “Cheer Up”. I bet you just started singing it, right?

“Cheer Up” charted for 3 weeks, but its streak was broken in the middle by the release of Akdong Musician’s 1st mini-album and the single “Re-Bye”, and wrapped up finally by Baek A-yeon’s popular “so-so”.

Seventeen released their first full-length album, Love & Letter, and single “Pretty U”, right around the same time. This was probably the only reason “Pretty U” didn’t hit the top of the charts, as the album itself did make it to #1.

June – Urban Zakapa started off the month with “I Don’t Love You”, another very popular non-idol hit of the year. They were only unseated by one of the year’s best-selling albums, Ex’act, with EXO’s most popular singles of the year, “Monster” and “Lotto”.

EXO did very well overall in 2016, between their three best-selling album releases, Chen’s solo work, their SM Station release “Dancing King” featuring Yoo Jae-suk, Lay’s debut solo album (which topped the charts in November), and their first sub-unit, EXO-CBX, with “Hey, Mama!“. And they wrapped up the year with a record-breaking 4 Daesang awards, including their 4th in a row at the Golden Disk Awards.

Despite EXO’s dominance on the album charts, a couple songs still managed to climb past “Monster”. The AOMG crew managed to chart during the summer with “Good” by Loco, Gray, and ELO, and also “Comfortable” fronted by Simon Dominic, featuring Gray and One.

June also threw fans into confusion with the sudden announcement of 7-year-old group 4Minute’s disbandment, making their February comeback with Crazy suddenly their last. “Hate” was certainly a high note to end on, since it sadly ended up that way.

July brought about another relative unknown – Heize, who participated in the show Unpretty Rapstar in 2015. She released a second EP, titled And July, with singles “And July” and “Shut Up and Groove”, both featuring the ever-more popular Dean, and did respectably on the charts.

The other hits of the summer were Sistar’sI Like That”, Wonder Girls’ retro “Why So Lonely”, and the appropriately named “Summer Night You and I” by Standing Egg. The second NCT unit was also announced, NCT 127 with the single “Firetruck”. The third installment of NCT 2016 was also announced in August to be called NCT Dream, and their first single “Chewing Gum”.

August – We were waiting on the edges of our seats for the debut of YG Entertainment’s new girl group, Black Pink, and we were (mostly) not disappointed when they finally released “Whistle”, followed up by “Boombayah”.

August (fittingly in name) also saw the release of BTS’ Suga’s Agust D mixtape. While the two singles were pure fire, the rest of the songs publicly opened discussion of mental health issue idols face. Considering the hiatuses of Crayon Pop’s Soyul, B.A.P’s Bang Yong-guk, and Weekly Idol’s MC Jung Hyung-don this year, and hiatus and subsequent removal of Nam Tae-hyun from Winner in December, all for mental health reasons, maybe it’s a good idea to have an idol put the conversation right in front of our noses.

On a different emotional note, fall winds brought in a new wave of heart-felt ballads in the form of Ailee’sIf You”, Han Dong-geunMaking a New Ending to this Story” (actually a 2-year-old song seeing a resurgence), and Lim Chang-jung’s “The Love I Committed”, which charted for three weeks and by many accounts was the top best-selling single of the year. Finally, Park Hyo-shin opened October with “Breath”.

October – News of old first generation comebacks had by now gotten everyone excited and the legendary Sechs Kies did not fall flat with their new release “Three Words” and the spectacular remake of their old classic “Couple”. S.E.S also announced they would be coming back in the first half of 2017.

Shinee came back with their fifth Korean album, 1 of 1. Successfully reviving a retro boy band sound, their music video, song, and dance for “1 of 1” highly entertained fans for weeks. The incredibly catchy, yet soothing “Tell Me What to Do” came by way of the album’s repackage. Jonghyun also released a new solo album with, “She Is“. 

The fall releases could not be complete without BTS. They dropped their second full album, titled Wings to great critical acclaim – it became the highest charting and best-selling K-pop album in the US ever and was chosen as the “Best Kpop Album of 2016” by Billboard. The album’s single, “Blood Sweat and Tears”, also hit the milestone of becoming the group’s first Gaon chart topper. Their previous album of this year, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever, with the incredibly hype single, “Fire”, also made the Gaon chart, peaking at #4.

Our representative girl group of the year, Twice, came back again at the end of November and hit their own set of milestones with “TT”. They entered the especial club of staying-on-top-of-the-Gaon-chart for four or more weeks. Only Miss A with “Bad Girl, Good Girl” and IU and Psy (“Gangnam Style”) have done better. Additionally, both their music videos for “Like Ooh-Ahh” (their debut single) and the earlier 2016 mega-hit “Cheer Up” surpassed 100 million views on YouTube, making them only the fourth K-pop girl group to hit 100 million views, and the first debut music video to do so ever.

November – Things finally had settled down a bit after the excitement of the fall releases and noteworthy news stories. Kim Heechul paired with Min Kyung-hoon for the SM Station release “Sweet Dream” and Taeyeon dropped another single in “11:11”. Zico returned with Crush and the well-rounded ace of the year Dean, in “Bermuda Triangle”.

The end of November was the most shocking of all with the sudden announcement of the disbandment of 2ne1. Minzy had already left the group in April, but there was still hope among fans that they would continue on as a trio. However, it was not to be – their last single, “Goodbye” was released in early 2017.

December brought about Jung Seung-hwan’sThe Fool” and Heize’s solo single, “Star”. And finally, the thing we’d all been waiting for though many of us had given up hope, the MADE album. Big Bang, as their last comeback before enlisting, finally released the complete album they’d been talking about for a year, with three new songs, “Fxxk It”, “Last Dance’, and “Girlfriend”. “Fxxk It”, as is to be expected from the Fantastic Kings, held the #1 spot on the chart for the last three weeks of 2016.


I’d like to wrap up this year’s review with a highlight from the end of year KBS Gayo celebrations. Shinee’s Jonghyun collaborated on stage with a great legend of Korean music, Lee Juk. They, along with the rest of the performers of the night, sang a heart-warming rendition of the classic “Don’t Worry”, which was made famous again in the OST of last year’s Reply 1988. It’s not often an almost 30 year old song becomes that popular. Perhaps someday, through all the changes in the industry, all the ups and downs, we’ll someday see some of the big hits of 2016 making the rounds again.

Read our other posts in this series:

History of K-pop: 1992-1995, The Beginning

History of K-pop, 1996: The Creation of Idols

History of K-pop: 2005, the year of the soloists, the rise of Epik High, and the debuts of SS501 and Super Junior

History of K-pop: 2006, Emotional Ballads and High-Kicking Dancing

History of K-pop: 2015, Old Faces Return, and New Faces Make History

[YouTube: (1)(2)(3)(4)(5)(6)(7)(8)(9)(10)(11)(12)(13)(14)(15)(16)(17)(18)(19)(20)(21)(22)(23)(24)(25)(26)(27)(28), Billboard, Images via JYP Entertainment]