The 21 Greatest K-Pop Songs of All Time
June 1 2012, 9:15 AM ET
by David Bevan and Chuck Eddy
From lapsed '90s metalheads to the glossiest Girls of today's Generation, the best of the sublimely shiny sound that's sweeping the world
Twenty years after its birth, Korean pop music has made its way from Seoul to Singapore to San Antonio, São Paulo and back again, "outbubbling" — as SPIN's Chuck Eddy phrased it last year — its Western counterparts by tweaking and perfecting the formula on which they've long been based. It's music that demands to be mainlined (hooks come sharper, choruses larger, visuals brighter), its gloss equaled only by the aggressiveness with which it's been delivered to the international marketplace in recent years. By now, its catalog of classics is deep enough to warrant a Best Of list of its own, one we've assembled with our ears pointed to both past and present: The 21 Greatest K-Pop Songs of All Time, a singles wrecking crew whose final, odd-numbered tally is a loving tribute to one of the current moment's most beloved girl groups, 2NE1. DAVID BEVAN
21. SoolJ feat. Suh Ga Young - "Waiting 4 U" (2011) (Video Source: chaos2997)
SoolJ is an underground rapper carrying on a Korean tradition that dates back at least to the Wu Tangish turn-of-the-millennium group Drunken Tiger. His freestyle battles with the even more verbally dexterous Huckleberry P are easily located on YouTube, but he's also made more commercial singles that angle toward metal-rap ("Vision"), emo-rap ("Men Also Cry"), and quiet-storm rap ("Love in the Rain"). His 2011 mini-album Electro SoolJ was, as its name suggests, a turntable-scratched electro-funk (via hip-house, big beat, maybe Latin freestyle) move, and three of its seven tracks were mixes of this nervously lovely, inexorably propulsive, female-vocal-assisted, virtual-reality-video-themed single. CHUCK EDDY
20. Shinee - "Lucifer" (2010) (Video Source: SMEnt)
A total romp. The top boy band from leading talent agency SM threw down a hammer in "Lucifer," the lead single from their album of the same name and a quick-cutting Europop hybrid that breaks down late 'N Sync single "Pop," juices it, and builds it back up again. Bigger, stronger, faster. D.B.
19. TVXQ - "Doshite Kimi o Suki ni Natte Shimattandaro" (2008) (Video Source: FahrenheitJonas)
The cheese levels here are high, but that harp melody is quiet fire. "Doshite" featured prominently on the mighty TVXQ's (Tohoshinki in Japan) fourth Japanese album, The Secret Code. It's a study in slow jammage whose rough English translation (according to Wikipedia) is "Why Did I Have to Completely Fall In Love With You?" lest you question the ache in their gilded voices. D.B.
18. Wonder Girls - "Be My Baby" (2011) (Video Source: Wonder Girls)
Persistent energy has been expended in attempting to break these ladies Stateside: In 2009, they toured with the Jonas Brothers; this year, they filmed a TV flick for TeenNick. Given that they're far from Korea's most exciting group, it's hard not to wonder whether the industry considers their blankness an obligatory trait for Western tween-crossover appeal. Regardless, this vaguely retro-diddy-bopping ditty doesn't embarrass itself even despite its title's blasphemous Ronettes swipe. Hints of modern-day R&B melisma, rappish breakdown, no Spector-melody menace — but as long as it doesn't portend K-pop being Americanized out of existence, you can live with all that. C.E.
17. IU - "Boo" (2009) (Video Source: LOENENT)
During a taping of popular music program Inkigayo that we attended in Seoul last December, my interpreter leaned in to alert me that the pop chart show's host, IU, was the "hottest idol" in all of Korea at the time, clearly outshining many of the artists she featured. Though she's come to specialize in syrupy ballads, "Boo," an early single from 2009, stands out because it aims for subtlety. Just some fits of clean guitar, a minimal but uptempo beat, and a vocal performance that's playful throughout. D.B.
16. T-Ara - "Roly Poly" (2011) (Video Source: LOENENT)
T-Ara are a girl group seemingly lacking major talents, and it's difficult to remember whether they have five or six members at any given moment. But their singles are hard to resist. There's the robotic "Bo Peep Bo Peep" (pronounced "boppy boppy"), which is not about sheep; there's the stuttering "Yayaya," with its bizarre desert-island video full of ill-advised Native American stereotypes. And there's "Roly Poly," which anxiously liquifies Latin counter-rhythms and handclap breaks and disco toot-beeps à la '80s Italo duo Fun Fun, but with Far Asian-evoking Yellow Magic Orchestra-style synth parts. The video, at full mini-movie length, lasts 12 minutes. C.E.
15. Super Junior - "Sorry Sorry" (2009) (Video Source: SMEnt)
At the time that Super Junior unleashed this, their best-selling single to date, the boy band behemoth sported 11 members. That's more than the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync combined. "Sorry Sorry" is a spartan slab of hiccuping, high-wire Euro-pop (as is the SM way) that makes wonderful use of Auto-Tune and the word "shawty." D.B.
14. Kara - "Step" (2011) (Video Source: DSPKara)
Though their "butt dance" would make their "Mister" clip web-famous, the dizzying central hook behind "Step" is Kara's best asset. It shape-shifts between Euro-pop and '80s soft rock, Korean songwriting duo "Sweetune" going so far as to steal swatches from the Edge's introductory guitar salvo on "Where the Streets Have No Name" for the bridge. Shameless, streamlined fun. D.B.
13. Big Bang - "Bad Boy" (2012) (Video Source: BIG BANG)
After an unfortunate marijuana scandal sidelined group leader G-Dragon for the better part of 2011, Big Bang made a triumphant return: onstage at talent agency YG's Family Concert in December and on-record with "Bad Boy," a piano-based R&Breeze that, like the rest of their recently released Alive LP, was penned entirely by GD. And though some might point to "Love Song" or "Tonight" as the group's finest hour, nothing they've has done as a unit up until now has approached the anti-gravity pop smarts to be heard in the Diplo-assisted GD&TOP collaboration "Knock Out." "Bad Boy" recalls Boyz II Men and Justin Timberlake, but Big Bang's four very distinct personalities combine here for a single more singular than any of their K-pop peers can lay claim. D.B.
12. f(x) - "Nu Abo" (2010) (Video Source: SMEnt)
The mark of a particularly potent K-pop song is one that can make you feel like you're hearing 80 songs fit neatly into one — sometimes you recognize a hook with every passing measure, sometimes you hear them all at once. Written and produced by a team of Danish popsmiths that includes Cutfather and Thomas Troelsen (one of the minds that brought you Junior Senior's forgotten 2003 smash, "Move Your Feet"), "Nu Abo" is a schoolyard-taunting, Britney-esque monster that sounds like dueling iPods and still allows for a thick layer of crowd noise. D.B.
11. Girls Generation - "Run Devil Run" (2010) (Video Source: SMEnt)
You'll notice that, within the three-and-a-half-minute span of "Run Devil Run," we're only given a snippet of solo. It's highly orchestrated, high-fructose vocal layering of the highest order: nine voices, nine tentacles, absolutely no seams. This is stone-cold sass that — though it cribs pop pin-up signifiers stretching back 50 years — echoes a more disciplined (and chaste) re-imagining of the Pussycat Dolls. D.B.
10. E.via - "Pick Up! U!" (2010) (Video Source: missyshany002)
The woman born Lee Ok Joo — who plays piano, writes her own songs, raps unbelievably fast but stays unbelievably cute doing it (check out her possibly Pitbull-inspired "Shake!"), and looks younger than her 1986 birth date suggests — put out four EPs between 2009 and 2010. Given that she didn't emerge from Korea's usual idol-making machinery, she might've had little chance at superstardom anyway, but her bedroom panting and alleged Japanese slang references to breasts in "Oppa! (Can I Do It)" sealed the non-deal. A shame, because the Pikachu tribute/Tom Tom Club imitation "Pick Up! U!" is as adorable as pop music gets. C.E.
9. 2NE1 - "Ugly" (2011) (Video Source: 2NE1)
Though "Ugly" scans like aggressive homage (or a rip, if you'd like) to TLC's 1996 body-image breakdown "Unpretty," its impact is more akin to the world-beating bubble-grunge of Kelly Clarkson's "Since You've Been Gone." Loud and brash, tender yet heroic, it encapsulates just about everything that's so immediate about the 2NE1 crew. And on the strength of CL's volcanic vocals, the four unleash here what's arguably the most ferocious chorus in K-pop history. D.B.
8. Norazo - "Curry" (2010) (Video Source: Clarice005)
Norazo — pretty-boy singer/guitarist/straight man Lee Hyuk and goofier and older-looking singer/dancer Jobin — are as much a comedy as music duo, even if Hyuk actually has a perfectly lush and rangy rock voice, capable of metal operatics atop a Eurocheese-disco beat. Among their quirky singles are one where Superman brags about wearing red underwear over blue pants, a maritime number called "Mackerel" that lets them dress up as pirates, and "Best Salesman," a celebration of customer service and waving arms 'til your pits sweat. "Curry," given its Middle Eastern guitar line, picked-radish-incorporating recipe tips, and video chef hats, might be their pinnacle. C.E.
7. GD&TOP - "High High" (2010) (Video Source: superkp0p)
Hair-gelled boy-band cuties — low-top-faded G-Dragon and new romantically silver-white-pompadoured TOP, both from ubiquitous chart-toppers Big Bang — grow up, toughen up, sex it up (their logo risks Playboy infringement), and hit the night in expensive suits. "Like ninjas," they say. Old-school ones: "Mistah G, in da club, in my B-boy staaance." In the video, they raise glasses to a dance floor with way more Caucasian than Asian girls on it, and their music grows gruffer and faster as it buttaflies higher and higher, then suddenly explodes into a playground chant: "G-H-E-T-T-O! E-L-E-C-T-R-O!" This is how LMFAO and Far East Movement want to sound. C.E.
6. BoA - "Eat You Up" (2008) (Video Source: mimencet0)
By the time she dropped this, her first English single, in 2008, 25-year-old BoA (birth name: Kwon Boa) had been at it for nearly a decade — first as a teenaged SM trainee (got her start at 11), later as a K-pop pioneer whose polish as both performer and multilingual pop idol allowed her to conquer the supposedly impenetrable Japanese market (the second largest in the world). Though "Eat You Up" didn't take upon arrival, it's hard to hear why a pop offering this muscular (it's got a chorus like a Clydesdale) couldn't put a dent on American charts right this second. D.B.
5. SNSD - "Gee" (2009) (Video Source: SMEnt)
This reality-show-spawned nonet's most transcendent single, though later-2009's Italo-fuzz-dance-chorused "Genie" comes close. "Gee" — sung from the P.O.V. of a shy girl blinded by a handsome boy, with an impossibly light and carbonated chorus — went No. 1 in Korea for nine weeks. SNSD's hits have been huge deals ever since, and under the name Girls Generation, they've been marketed to the world: In "Gee"'s Japanese video, they show more midriff but less leg; this year, they put out their U.S. debut album, complete with a Snoop Dogg remix of "The Boys." On Letterman, they awkwardly wore knee-high leather boots and tried hard to swagger. C.E.
4. Seo Taiji & Boys - "Nan Arayo (I Know)" (1992) (Video Source: joonshik)
Where it all started: This topped Korea's singles chart for 17 weeks, a feat never challenged. But American servicemen importing Western pop and hip-hop probably deserve some credit. The record seems to sample Milli Vanilli and Public Enemy, and the boy trio's dance moves in the video are all-out Hammer/New Kids/Kid 'N Play new jack, even if they're wearing Crayola-colored outfits and the homemade-looking clip's mostly set in a decidedly non-urban wheatfield. Taiji himself became a solo rock star and recorded a later nü-metal version that upped the already riffy guitar quotient. Another member, Yang Hyun-Seok, went on to found the mighty YG Entertainment, still one of Korea's dominant music companies. C.E.
3. 2NE1 - "I Am The Best" (2011) (Video Source: 2NE1)
"I Am The Best" might've been the best single released on the planet in 2011, even if not for its apocalyptic/futuristic video that kicks off on a catwalk and escalates into straightjackets, train-track breakdancing, ice-cream cone rabbit-ear hats, and devil-horned hairstyles well before the aluminum bats and machine guns come out so 2NE1 can smash and shoot up the place. The stomping title hook sounds like "Neh-guh-ché Challa-GAH"; other big nonsense hook is the machine-gunned "bum-ratta-TATTA ta-tatta tah-tah." Then there's the froggie-reggae dancehall ("hot-hot-hot-hot FI-ya") and Alice Cooper ("billion dollar baby") references. Lyric plot: Hitting the city, taking no shit. World-class throat: CL. C.E.
2. HyunA - "Bubble Pop!" (2011) (Video Source: 4minuteofficial)
After opening with riffs out of Plastic Bertrand's Belgian bazooka-punk classic "Ca Plane Pour Moi," "Bubble Pop!" onomatopoeically fills its archetypal title's promise — 4minute member/Wonder Girls alumnus HyunA's flirty-coy "ooh-ooh oh-oh" breaths sound like bubbles popping, as do the beats until the insane and seemingly tacked-on electronic ("dubstep," some say) breakdown in the middle. Butts in the video bounce buoyantly and bubbliciously as well. So no wonder hep Western blogs embraced it, boosting it toward millions of YouTube views within days. In Korea, it was "banned" after it already hit. My three-year-old daughter still thinks it's about bursting bubble wrap. C.E.
1. H.O.T. - "Candy" (1996) (Video Source: gganpoongi)
That loopy, light-headed intro melody; that bouncy, boomeranging chorus; reggae-informed, Smash Mouth-indebted, 8-bit-encrusted everything. Seo Taiji may have laid K-Pop's foundation a few years earlier, but it was H.O.T., a boy band engineered in part by SM kingpin Lee Soo-Man, that ushered in the "idol" cult that's propelled Korean pop cultural product as far and wide as it's come in the past ten years. Without relying heavily on visuals (the theme park romance of its video is a gas, though) like every idol group it's spawned since, they delivered a Platonic ideal that made good on its title. D.B.
mods, i put the video sources next to the songs, cause it's easier for me that way. i hope that's okay.