Aug 04, 2023
The 100 Best Korean Pop Songs Of All Time
By Rolling Stone The birth of modern K-pop is often dated to 1992, when Seo Taiji and Boys, a dance-oriented trio led by an ex-metalhead, performed their song “I Know” on the South Korean network MBC.
By Rolling Stone
The birth of modern K-pop is often dated to 1992, when Seo Taiji and Boys, a dance-oriented trio led by an ex-metalhead, performed their song “I Know” on the South Korean network MBC. Not only did the group’s original blend of Korean ballad melodies with New Jack Swing, rap, and dance music shock the general public, but their dancing and aesthetic, heavily inspired by Black American trends of the time, appealed to a generation of young people eager to embrace contemporary Western culture.
Thus was born a multi-billion-dollar industry, now embraced globally across generations and cultures. K-pop’s enormous success is still predominantly fueled by the enthusiasm of teens and young adults, passionate devotees who look to their idols for belonging and inspiration. Though K-pop boldly mashes together genres from all over the world (sparking its fair share of conversations about the ethics of appropriation), it has still maintained its distinctly Korean ethos. It’s a culture that values the collective, looks toward innovation, and is highly attuned to emotions — resulting in cutting-edge songs and performances that explode with feeling, yet are accessible to a mass audience.
What truly binds the industry now is its perfection-honing training system and emphasis on highly conceptual multimedia storytelling. That industry has birthed two of the world’s most influential and bestselling artists today, BTS and Blackpink, and its powerhouse labels (like Hybe, SM, and YG) have proved remarkably consistent in creating new stars. Yet as more artists of non-Korean citizenship and ancestry have risen as “K-pop” stars in recent years, the label is being questioned by some critics and fans who see it as a tool to pigeonhole artists from being recognized on a broader scale. Even BTS leader RM told Rolling Stone in his May 2021 cover story that he sees the group as existing outside of K-pop: “Our genre is just BTS,” he said. “That debate [between whether BTS is K-pop or pop] is very important for the music industry, but it doesn’t mean very much for us members.”
Long before these Hallyu stars, plenty of homegrown artists paved the way for K-pop’s popularity and eclecticism. Our list of 100 Greatest Songs in the History of Korean Pop Music was led by Rolling Stone contributor Michelle Hyun Kim and crafted by a panel of music journalists and critics, both based in South Korea and the United States, who have been writing about Korean music for years. After an initial ballot vote and series of heated debates, we arrived at a list that looked beyond the strict definition of K-pop as a hitmaking business in order to tell the broader history of Korean popular music.
The earliest entry on the list dates back to the 1920s, an era when recordings captured burgeoning artists living under Japanese occupation singing Korean lyrics atop songs from Europe or Japan. From there, the list spotlights artists throughout the 20th century who were the “idols” of their day, making folk protest anthems, ballads of mourning and change, as well as trot — a form of Korean popular music that derives from traditional Korean music, Japanese enka, and American and European ballads.
Elsewhere, there are trailblazing experimentalists and indie crossover artists whose early adoption of funk, pop, soul, and rock helped establish mainstream familiarity with those sounds. Then, the story catches up with K-pop proper in the Nineties, as we celebrate the biggest and most ingenious hits that were either musically groundbreaking, or influential to how K-pop is marketed and consumed.
What follows is not only the story of Korean popular music, and how it birthed the K-pop business, but also how a small peninsula nation learned how to make art in the face of colonialism and political change, culled sonics from all corners of the globe, and keeps striving to find new ways of distilling the purest, most thrilling aspects of the human experience into four-minute packages of pop revelation.
Hear this playlist on Spotify.
After winning the singing competition program K-pop Star 2, AKMU (Akdong Musician) brought an indie-pop sensibility to the Korean mainstream with their 2014 chart-topping debut, Play. The album of bright acoustic guitar stylings, sweet hooks, and quirky songwriting — courtesy of co-writes from member Chan-hyuk — was led by single “200%,” a delightful teenage love song that perfectly encapsulates the sibling duo’s strengths. Su-hyun’s vocals are dulcet and fresh, as she sings of blushing “like a strawberry,” while Chan-hyuk is both goofy and sincere, reciting a fun tongue-twister before singing of “blossoming romance.” With its groovy beat of jazzy horns, “200%” was the sunny opening to the act’s singular take on pop. —M.H.K.
Decades before K-pop idols were wooing international audiences, the Kim Sisters did it first — while dancing and playing their own instruments. Formed by their mother, Lee Nan-young, during the Korean War to entertain U.S. troops, sisters Suk-ja and Ae-ja and their cousin Min-ja sang in English, which they memorized phonetically. By the late 1950s, the trio were performing concerts in the U.S. and were regular guests on The Ed Sullivan Show. Their sweet harmonies are highlighted on their effervescent version of the Coasters’ rock & roll classic “Charlie Brown,” a fine example of why the Kim Sisters were the first Koreans to break the U.S. market. —J-H.K.
VIXX kicked off their career in 2012 and quickly made a name for themselves as a uniquely conceptual boy band, with each single containing a mini theatrical narrative. With “Shangri-La,” they blended future bass with traditional Korean instrumentals and aesthetics, including fan dancing — making such gestures cool again in K-pop. Because it refreshed old cultural touchstones in a modern way, the song gained a lot of attention ahead of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, becoming a symbol of national pride. Now, it’s not uncommon to see idols pulling from the traditional to make trendy new songs. —T.H.
TOMORROW X TOGETHER first emerged as the junior boy band to BTS under Big Hit Entertainment (now HYBE), but they’ve quickly found their own voice. Since debuting in 2019, the quintet has delivered sparkling dance-pop and trap-pop hits, while proving they can also excel at big, moody anthems. Their 2021 single “0X1=Lovesong (I Know I Love You)” is an ideal emo rock scorcher: Taehyun’s raspy pop-punk vocal on the cheer-along “I! Know! It’s! Real! I can feel it!” refrain at the end of the song’s pre-chorus is worthy of the Warped Tour main stage, while the hefty production is big enough to fill an arena. —M.S.
K-indie rock trio Busker Busker’s “Cherry Blossom Ending” conquered Korea’s music charts upon its release in 2012 and continues to chart domestically every spring. The breezy, cheerful melody, accentuated by frontman Jang Beom-june’s liltingly sweet vocals, is often heard playing throughout the streets of Korea come March or April, giving it the nickname of Korea’s unofficial “spring carol.” The single’s commercial success subsequently inspired many other Korean artists to produce similar songs about seasons. —R.K.
Cutting his teeth on collaborations with underground rappers in the early 2010s, Zion.T found his biggest hit with 2014’s “Yanghwa BRDG,” making him Korea’s first indie R&B singer to become a star. Over a bed of dreamy Rhodes piano and swelling strings, he masterfully sings about his childhood of watching his taxi-driver dad go to work and having to take on that same responsibility as a breadwinning adult. These earnest admissions of filial piety resonated with the Korean public (some interpreted it as a tale of suicidal ideation), and Zion.T paved the way for a whole scene of emotive stylists to come. —M.H.K.
If you could package boyish romance with its cheerfulness and endearing awkwardness, then “Shine,” the hit single from third-gen boy group Pentagon, would be a product flying off the shelves. Switching between straightforward declarations and hesitant throat clearing, these men own up to being losers in love with utmost pizzazz. Propelled by an off-kilter piano loop, the song began climbing the Korean music charts throughout 2018 due to its catchy “na na na” melodies, soaring R&B ad-libs, coltish cheers, and deadpan raps. While most boy bands have opted for drama and brashness in recent years, “Shine” proves that optimism can reign supreme. —T.H.
As the story goes, South Korea’s Seventies folk movement was born out of a teahouse called YWCA Green Frog. There, songwriter Yang Hee Eun met singer Kim Min Ki, a chance encounter that blossomed into a legendary creative partnership. “Morning Dew” was born in that context, a song that has resonated in thundering choruses at protests in Korea throughout the past five decades — from the Eighties democracy movement to the ongoing struggle over accessibility in Seoul’s public transportation system. The song, whose mention of a graveyard has been associated with revolutionary martyrdom, was banned in 1975 by the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship before becoming a staple in the progressive songbook in the Eighties. —J.G.
With the numerous controversies he’s racked up, Jay Park has earned his status as K-pop’s R&B dirtbag crush. Yet the former 2PM member from Seattle won over the Korean public and a global audience with his solo albums, released throughout the 2010s, which captured his sexy, yet surprisingly sweet Korean-American “Asian baby boy” charm. Helmed by K-hip-hop producer Cha Cha Malone, “All I Wanna Do” showcases Park’s appeal with a hook that asks the listener to simply kick it, balanced by the essential feminine energy of R&B great Hoody. Still one of Park’s most recognizable hits, the DJ Mustard-indebted single helped popularize the icy R’n’Bass sound in Korea. —C.L.
With their breakthrough hit “Me Gustas Tu,” GFriend made the Korean public’s heart flutter. The synth-pop earworm explodes with electric guitar riffs, vibrant strings, and a New Jack Swing-inspired beat, as the voices of the six members confess their wide-eyed love with both airiness and intensity. The song’s success solidified their energetic “power innocent” brand. Their resilient spirit was on display in a viral moment from 2015: Performing “Me Gustas Tu” in the rain, members of GFriend kept getting up after repeatedly slipping on the stage. It’s a testament to the tenacity they’ve displayed throughout a career of refreshingly sweet hits. —T.H.
Styled after American swing and country music, Han Myung-sook’s 1961 megahit “The Boy in the Yellow Shirt” captivated the nation because it was so different from the popular melancholic trot songs of the time. The refreshingly bouncy tune caused yellow shirts to fly off the shelves and inspired a blockbuster film with a similar name. Its popularity even spread to Southeast Asia and Japan, where Han traveled to perform as Korea’s first Hallyu star. It went on to be covered by foreign artists in the Sixties and Seventies, including the famous French singer Yvette Giraud and Japanese icon Michiko Hamamura, making it an enduring international crossover hit. —R.K.
In 2020, Aespa became the first K-pop group with their own AI avatars — meaning, the quartet is actually an octet, with half of its lineup composed of digital “ae” performers. All of that ambition comes to a head on “Next Level,” an addictive sci-fi pop smash that is exemplary of an industry always looking to expand performance through transmedia storytelling. A remake of a B side from the 2019 Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw soundtrack, the track’s wobbly bass is the backdrop for Aespa’s steely-eyed raps about confronting a villain called Black Mamba and heading off to an imagined land called Kwangya. It set the tone for the singular group and a music industry looking toward the future. —M.S.
When 1TYM released their self-titled debut single in 1998, the four-member rap group found inspiration in Dr. Dre’s slick West Coast production — a likely byproduct of leader, producer, and lyricist Teddy Park being raised in a Los Angeles suburb. Those ideas reached a creative peak in 2003’s “Hot,” a braggadocious party-starter with synths channeling Eminem’s impishness. Unbothered and cocksure, the chorus adopts the stuttering cadence of a beatboxer’s record scratch imitations, and alternates between Korean and English deliveries of the title. In this distillation of language into pure rhythm and texture, “Hot” becomes the rare example of a rapper’s “hook song.” It’s an inimitable earworm. —J.M.K.
Before Mamamoo debuted in 2014, the idea of a K-pop girl group pulling from mature sounds like swing, rootsy R&B, and soul would seem out of the ordinary. With “Décalcomanie,” the four members shifted these expectations. The song’s giant chorus features massive vocal harmonies that bleed perfection into jazzy percussion. It’s a landmark and prescient track that hits with the sass of a burlesque show, complete with a rap detour from group member Moonbyul. As Wheein sings in the second verse, “A woman’s intuition is indeed fast.” —M.S.
Having already made an impact as the wunderkind of forward-thinking boy group SHINee, Taemin opened doors for androgynous expression in K-pop with his 2017 solo single, “Move.” Combining Eighties New Wave synths with sensual R&B melodies, the pulsating track captures delicately shifting dynamics between lovers. “Your elegant gestures/your subtle gaze,” he whisper-sings, building a sense of enigmatic seduction. These phrases were set to moves by choreographer Koharu Sugawara that are equally fluid; Taemin said his intention was to “[mix] both feminine and masculine movements together.” Though the song wasn’t a commercial smash, its genderless choreography became a sensation among idols and dancers, and it remains iconic for its alternative representation of sexuality. —M.H.K.
Born in the underground rock scene that developed in Seoul’s Hongdae area during the late Nineties, rock band Cherry Filter launched into stardom with the spunky pop-punk of their 2002 sophomore album, Made in Korea? Frontperson Cho Youjeen set the act apart with her scratchy growl, which is on full display on “Sweet Little Kitty,” a scorcher that pairs punk riffs with soaring pop melodies. With their subsequent albums, issued throughout the 2000s, the band made forays into jungle (“Another Blood of Witch”), techno (“Come to Me”), and rap-rock (“Hawaiian Blues”) — proving themselves to be a fearless group that could keep up with the times. —J.G.
The best evidence that Stray Kids are one of the global leaders in fourth generation K-pop? “God’s Menu,” the perfected vision of their noisy, explosive trap-pop. The song kicks off with a hard-as-hell verse from Changbin, who alongside Bang Chan and Han make up the boy group’s writing and production sub-unit 3RACHA. From there, the band’s electric bravado is amplified by the best baritone in the biz, Felix, as he sings, “Cookin’ like a chef/I’m a five-star Michelin” with the same heft as an Eighties goth-punk crooner. With “God’s Menu,” Stray Kids take the bad-boy concept and set it aflame. —M.S.
In the history of South Korea, 1988 was a seminal year: The Eighties democratization movement culminated in the end of authoritarian rule, and the country hosted the Olympic Games for the first time. Characterizing the ebullience of the period is Shin Hae-chul’s electrifying performance of “To You,” with his band Muhangwedo, which won that year’s edition of the MBC College Music Festival, a long-running singing contest that launched many K-pop careers. The song has it all: a grandiose synth intro, a passionate guitar solo, and pure youthful energy, earning Shin the title “Demon King.” It kickstarted a wide-ranging career that dipped into space rock, techno, and film scoring, making him an experimental pioneer in Korean pop music. —J.G.
In interviews, most first-generation Korean hip-hop artists say they learned of the genre through U.S. Armed Forces Network Korea broadcasts. R&B star Yoonmirae embodies that history in her family background — she was born to a Korean mother and a Black father who served in the USAF and spun tunes for AFN Korea — and music career. In the late Nineties, she would help popularize hip-hop in K-pop in the group Uptown, and then with her romantic and creative partner, Tiger JK, through their trio MFBTY. “Black Happiness” is an uplifting anthem to her biracial background, showcasing both her rapping and honeyed croon. —J.G.
Girls can curse, drink whiskey, and dress however they want, (G)I-DLE declared with “Tomboy,” the ferocious pop-punk hit that solidified the quintet’s status as a girl group that sneers at convention. Penned by leader Soyeon, one of the only female idols who writes and produces her own music, the track roars with alt-rock guitar riffs and pummeling drums. All the while, the members deploy cheeky kiss-offs to their exes and reject being a “blond Barbie doll,” punctuated by bleep-censor sound effects. That a song with a bridge that goes “Neither man or woman” could go to Number One in sexually conservative Korea is legendary in and of itself. —M.H.K.
No group better showcased the creative restlessness of Korea’s 1990s underground than Pippi Band. Born from the rock band H2O and emerging from the clubs of Hongdae, the trio were exceedingly hard to pin down. Their most memorable anthem, “Mr. Simpatico,” is a groovy New Wave song complete with hand claps, schoolyard taunts, whirring synths, and Lee Yoon-jung’s signature childlike vocals. It’s carnivalesque and shamelessly brash, yet still makes room for a sticky hook of nonsense words. Proving their versatility, the band soundtracked Jang Sun-woo’s 1997 indie film masterpiece, Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie, before the members pioneered the country’s art pop and dance music scenes through their solo careers. Pippi Band may have been short lived, but their eccentricities and ambition made them peerless. —J.M.K.
Emerging as HYBE’s first girl group in 2022, LE SSERAFIM is an anagram for “I’m fearless.” Following their debut smash “Fearless,” they cemented their standing in the industry with their follow-up single, “Antifragile,” a reggaetón bop co-written by Honduran pop singer Isabella Lovestory, in which member Hong Eunchae does a mean Rosalía impression. A prime example of how K-pop’s maximalist aesthetic constantly pulls from experimental sounds across the globe, the song was one of the first to establish K-pop’s current perreo trend. —M.S.
“Baby … you are … just right!” GOT7’s Mark raps, kicking off his group’s biggest hit — a bubblegum EDM banger with an empowering thesis statement, and a dash of additional edge from BamBam and Jackson’s verses. The song’s writer, JYP Entertainment founder J. Y. Park, knew how to best utilize the group’s skills — it’s no wonder that some of its members would go on to compose and contribute lyrics themselves. “Just Right” is all breezy guitar riffs, uplifting “ooo-hoos,” and rap breakdowns that together prove just how much they love you, girl. —M.S.
In the mid-2000s, Cyworld, an early internet social media platform similar to MySpace, became all the rage in Korea. Supplying the background music for many homepages was Clazziquai, an indie rock band that brought bossa nova cosmopolitanism from Shibuya to Seoul with their debut album, Instant Pig. Combining the futurism of electronic dance music with down-to-earth acoustic stylings, the group became the torchbearer for K-shibuya-kei, the Korean interpretation of Shibuya-kei’s everything-goes, dance-influenced pop. While tracks like “My Life (Boom Remix)” matched skittish jungle breakbeats with lounge-y vocals, it was the house-influenced cool of “Sweety” that reigned supreme in the genre. —J.G.
Having met at a church in Los Angeles County, Solid’s members began writing songs for the Taiwanese American boy band L.A. Boyz before forming their own group and moving to Korea in 1993. After partnering with ballad songwriter Kim Hyeong-seok, they catapulted to fame, introducing Korea to contemporary R&B. On their best-known single, “Holding on to the End of the Night,” they channel Boyz II Men, bridging Korean melancholy with their distinct American accents, which only make the emotion feel more potent. Such yearning proved undeniable and cemented the group as the first Korean Americans to break into the Korean pop market. —J.M.K.
“Up & Down” is a song built on a double-entendre, made even more hilarious by how EXID seem to be in on the joke. The girl group found their mainstream breakthrough with this hit single, which is about the ups and downs of a relationship, accompanied by a highly suggestive dance where they tilt their pelvises back and forth. It birthed an infamous fancam (individual-focused video) of member Hani that garnered over 30 million views — proving that horny men have power in determining the commercial success of K-pop girl groups. But the song is still a classic on its own merits: Over Shinsadong Tiger’s loud horn-centric production, the girls are sweet and alluring, while rapper Elly provides cheeky contrast with her grab-you-by-the-balls delivery. —C.L.
Since 2015, these “beast idols” — or incredibly fit and sexy performers — have built a criminally underrated discography of raucous dance-pop anthems that seamlessly incorporate hip-hop. On “Dramarama,” the hit that brought Monsta X their first music show trophy, the original seven-man lineup shows off their fun side, reciting the title as a hypnotic incantation. Over a throbbing bass line, funky rhythms, and searing guitars, the group takes listeners on a wild ride topped off by the signature swaggy raps of I.M and Jooheon. —J-H.K.
After recording some of the earliest K-pop songs to feature Latin-style beats, Baek Z Young became the “Queen of the Original Soundtrack,” or OST, the pivotal music that backdrops Korean dramas. One of her most popular songs, “That Woman” — from the 2010 hit K-drama Secret Garden — is a perfect ballad. In it, Baek Z Young inhabits the role of a woman just asking to be loved — her vocals rise and fall, as her yearning emotions follow suit. Since then, her career has become a blueprint for K-pop idols to pivot into the OST form, continuing their singing careers beyond their group days. —C.L.
Bursting on the scene in 2015 with their unique style of boisterous hip-hop, iKon proved themselves to be masters of the pop breakup anthem with “Love Scenario.” The YG boy group’s earworm topped the Korean charts for six weeks straight, making it the longest running Number One song in Korea up to that point. Written and produced by leader B.I, the song strikingly conveys both yearning and gratitude through the simple hook, “We were in love/And that was enough.” Matched with a steady cowbell, its circular melodies were simple enough for elementary schoolers to sing along with (so infectious, in fact, that the song was banned in some classrooms), while rappers Bobby and B.I added complexity with their affecting verses. —M.H.K.
Part of Korea’s wave of techno and Eurodance-inspired acts in the Nineties, Turbo became bestselling stars thanks to hits driven by a sense of pure madness and fun. Originally a duo of Kim Jong-kook and Kim Jung-nam (who was later swapped for Korean American artist Mikey), the act brought high-speed rapping, frenetic hip-hop moves, and a dash of romantic appeal to their futuristic stage performances. Though it wasn’t their highest charting single, 1995’s “Black Cat Nero,” a remake of a classic Italian children’s song, is still beloved for its flapping cat-ear choreography, pounding bell sounds, and simple melody. After all, K-pop is a genre that loves novelty. —M.H.K.
Epik High established themselves in the Korean hip-hop underground throughout the early aughts, with their lyrically dense songs considered a block to mainstream popularity. Six years into their career, the trio released the bestselling Remapping the Human Soul, a 27-track album that explored philosophical and societal themes, but was buoyed by its lead singles that perfectly blended EDM, pop, and hip-hop. On one of those hits, “Love Love Love,” Epik High take the listener through all the stages of love, from blissful infatuation to a painful breakup. Capturing the chemistry of MCs Tablo and Mithra Jin, while DJ Tukutz backspins a record like it’s 1975, it’s an eternal bop. —J-H.K.
Love and Peace introduced funk to Korea with their 1978 debut album, It’s Been a Long Time, regarded as one of the best albums to ever come out of the country. Written by folk-rock legend Lee Jang-hee, the title song seamlessly melds Korean lyrics with a track that’s fun and funky enough to get spins at a Seventies roller-rink alongside KC and the Sunshine Band or Hot Chocolate. The result was an instant classic that surprised the Korean public, becoming one of the biggest hits at the time and garnering the group numerous accolades. Currently the country’s longest-running band, Love and Peace helped break open the doors for modern Korean popular music. —R.K.
On their 2016 mainstream breakthrough, “Very Nice,” SEVENTEEN use maximalist carnival sound effects — circus-like horns, ramped-up crowd cheers, and even random slurping noises — to express the rush of young love. With lyrics that illustrate a date scenario with music theater-like dramatics, the song cemented the 13-member act as leaders of the sweet, bubbly, boy-group concept, as well as performance masters who could pull off their complex, Michael Jackson-inspired choreography. The high-octane anthem also proved the hitmaking abilities of member Woozi and producer-songwriter Bumzu, who have built the majority of SEVENTEEN’s discography that made them today’s global bestsellers. —M.H.K.
When is a post-breakup sob session also a reason to get on the dance floor? When it comes in the form of Sistar’s “Alone,” the Number One hit that established the girl group after they made a splash with their 2011 debut. Crafted by Brave Brothers (the songwriter-producer who also made hits for After School, 4Minute, and others), the song is a slinky hybrid of house and early Nineties R&B with a neon-bright gloss. As the members list ways they plan to work through their feelings, the catharsis arrives in the steely-eyed determination piercing through their exquisite vocal performances. —M.J.
With their genre-spanning sound and undeniable charisma, BIGBANG were among the first hip-hop idols to break through the K-pop mainstream and play U.S. arenas. The bestselling and most streamed single in South Korea of 2015, their trap-EDM hit “Bang Bang Bang” had immediate impact upon arrival, with newer groups still covering it seven years later. It’s an instant mood-booster; just witness the energy that members Daesung and Taeyang channeled during their iconic 2018 military service performance. Today, the group is still regarded as industry titans whose individual members can still spark buzz with solo material. —K.K.
One of the leading girl groups in the late Nineties and early 2000s, Fin.K.L helped lay the foundations of what would become a multi-billion-dollar industry. After debuting with the slow R&B ballad “Blue Rain,” Fin.K.L made a complete 180 with “To My Boyfriend,” a single with a summery, upbeat melody. Although the members initially thought its lyrics were ridiculous — the opening line goes, “Take a look at me and say I’m pretty” — it was exactly the kind of fun, feel-good love song that domestic audiences were seeking from idols at the time. The success of the bubbly tune, along with the members’ cute image in the music video, greatly influenced the style and visual aesthetic of subsequent K-pop girl groups. —R.K.
Pioneers of their self-coined strain of Korean punk called “Chosun punk,” Crying Nut inspired generations of future bands with their 1998 debut album, Speed Up Losers, which sold more than 100,000 copies that year — then an unimaginable feat for an underground group. The title song builds up with jangly chords and rollicking drums before launching into a hortatory anthem about riding horses. Such nonsense lyrics would become their trademark in hits like 2006’s “Luxembourg” and 2009’s “Pigeon,” proving that absurdity and pugnaciousness could cross over in the Korean mainstream. —J.G.
Across the cover art of Park Mi Kyung’s sophomore album, the phrase “JUNGLE NEW STYLE” is emblazoned in all caps. The singer backed up this bold claim by opening the LP’s hit single “Eve’s Warning” with nature recordings and a frenzied breakbeat. Though the dance anthem (crafted by Chun Sung-il of early boy band NOISE and producer Kim Woo-jin) is slightly bubblegum, it’s underlined by a troubled sadness: Park bemoans her cheating partner, yet pleads for his love before descending into delusion. As she belts her vocals with decorum, met by the doltish raps of Clon’s Kang Won-rae, it’s clear that “Eve’s Warning” understands the dance floor as a site of musical and emotional flux. —J.M.K.
While the West was obsessing over boy bands like ‘NSync and the Backstreet Boys at the turn of the century, g.o.d. (Groove Over Dose) were establishing themselves as one of the biggest teen-pop sensations in Korea. “To Mother,” a soulful R&B ballad, has a progressive narrative: The boy band sings from the perspective of a child who admires his widowed mother and defends her against societal vitriol. (In South Korea, like many parts of the world, unwed mothers and widows face discrimination.) Its minimalist production of handclaps, synths, drums, and a cymbal hit draws attention to the group’s laid-back rap verses, syrupy harmonies, and vocalist Taewoo’s emotive vibrato. —M.S.
Trot legend Lee Mija has scored multiple hits over the decades, but her 1964 breakthrough, “Camellia Girl,” remains her best-known song. The theme to a movie of the same name, the mournful track topped Korea’s music charts for an unprecedented 35 consecutive weeks and sold over 100,000 records — a feat unheard of at the time. Trot had started to lose its footing ever since Han Myung-sook’s “The Boy in the Yellow Shirt” gave Koreans a taste of Americanized pop, but “Camellia Girl” single-handedly revived the genre. Its commercial success was a pivotal indicator that the domestic Korean music market could thrive. —R.K.
Between 2010-16, Orange Caramel, a “candy culture”-branded offshoot of the girl group After School, leveled up kitsch in K-pop. Their best quirky dance number was “Catallena,” a high-energy anthem about a bewitching woman, with a meme-ready music video that depicts the trio as mermaids turned sushi. The festive disco-meets-hi-NRG song is a whirlwind of sounds: A Punjabi folk sample meets siren synths, twinkling chimes, rollicking strings, and jazz beats. Their comedic exclamations amid the coquettish and bi-curious verses are the cherries on top of this delightfully exuberant single, making for a perfect pop bonbon. —T.H.
Off the heels of their rambunctious 2016 debut single, “Fire Truck,” and then the decidedly avant-garde pop of 2017’s “Limitless,” NCT 127 found their musical sweet spot with “Cherry Bomb.” The always-experimental group’s exploration of noise music throughout their career has relied on the ability to mix and mash up sounds that shouldn’t work but somehow do. Here, nursery-rhyme kitsch blends with warped bass wails, as a parade of electronic effects collides with over-digitized raps and chanting. Amid it all, the group also delivers seductive, otherworldly R&B balladry. When it comes to making K-pop at its most ambitious and explorative, “Cherry Bomb” is a masterwork. —T.H.
Started by Lee Juno of Seo Taiji and Boys, Young Turks Club were one of the most thrilling co-ed groups of the 1990s, adeptly traversing genres with every song and lineup change. Their most popular single, “Affection,” remains an enduring hit for good reason. Penned by Yoon Il-sang, who helped define ’90s K-pop with tracks for Turbo, Goofy, Cool, and more, the song brought the sorrow and sensibilities of trot into a new era. It features paranoid-sounding raps in the midst of moody synth melodies, and brokenhearted confessions accompany looping breakbeats. Few singles from the era bridged generations of musical ideas so effortlessly. —J.M.K.
The history of Korean popular music traces back to the turn of the 20th century, when Korean lyrics were sung atop songs imported from Europe and Japan. While these pieces first contained moralizing lessons, they later touched on themes of nature, love, and emptiness. Yun Sim-deok’s “Hymn of Death” has remained the most popular and enduring song from this era, largely due to the oft-told story about the singer’s death by suicide alongside lover Kim Woo-jin. Recorded in Japan and adapting a melody from Romanian composer Ion Ivanovici’s “Waves of the Danube,” the song sees Yun question the futility of life, bemoaning this “world of tears.” “Hymn of Death” is an early summation of how Korean music would look for the following century: It captures the anguish of Koreans in the midst of colonial rule and occupation, and how artists persisted to create distinctly Korean songs while navigating international sounds. —J.M.K.
One of Korea’s earliest girl groups, the duo Pearl Sisters took the nation by storm with their 1968 debut album, featuring their most iconic hit, “One Cup of Coffee.” The experimental track was originally written and performed by Korean rock legend Shin Joong-hyun (who also produced their entire album), but it’s their version that Koreans immediately recognize to this day. Psychedelic guitar riffs and steady drumbeats provide a tense rhythmic backdrop as the Bae sisters frustratedly chant: “Ordered a cup of coffee/I’m waiting for you to come.” The effortlessly catchy tune led to them becoming the first girl group to receive top honors at a Korean music awards ceremony. —R.K.
In the Nineties, DJ Doc was essential to the development of Korean hip-hop, frequently fighting airplay bans for decrying social injustice and censorship in the entertainment industry. Still active today, the trio defined the sound of the Y2K era with their funky party anthems, especially the Boney M.-sampling “Run to You.” Part euphemistic love call, part quick-fire rap rejoinder, “Run to You” has become a timeless hit, iconic for its come-hither “Bounce! Bounce! Bounce!“ shout-out section — that’s become a must at noraebang karaoke. —T.H.
A classically trained musician who wrote and arranged his own songs, Yoo Jae-ha cemented his legacy as the “father of Korean ballads” with his only studio album, Because I Love You, released months before his death at age 25. Though it wasn’t initially embraced by critics because his use of contrapuntal melodies was deemed too offbeat for radio, the LP’s title track set a new standard for how ballads could sound. With beguilingly forthright vocals, Yoo delivers wistful, lovesick lyrics, accompanied by luxurious strings that add credence to his sincerity. —J-H.K.
During the early to mid-1990s, Roo’Ra — alongside peers Kim Gun Mo and Two Two — defined a pivotal era of reggae-influenced K-pop. While the group’s crowning achievement “3!4!” is less obviously indebted to the genre than other hits, Lee Sang-min’s eccentric rapping can be seen as an outgrowth of Jamaican toasting. Elsewhere on the summery party song, the group sings of celebrating life, and its hook of incanted “la la las” sounds as if they’re manifesting good fortune. The anthem has come to represent K-pop’s first steps into experimenting with global pop sounds outside of the U.S. or Europe. —J.M.K.
In the first two years of their career, BTS made rebellious, angsty hip-hop music dedicated to people who felt suffocated by societal expectations. But by becoming more vulnerable on their impeccably composed hit “I Need U,” the septet nabbed their first win on a South Korean music show. The song sees them switching between hope and hopelessness as Suga declares in the intro, “Because of you, I’m broken,” with his bandmates quickly following, “I need you girl/You’re so beautiful.” After the verses build with the desperation of one-sided love, the song explodes into a transcendent dance chorus. Its gentle synth wind instruments almost cruelly convince listeners that everything will be OK. But BTS knows better. —J-H.K.
The finest moment from the septet Infinite, “The Chaser” is a reminder that at its peak, love should be feverish and breathtaking. Production team Sweetune, who crafted Infinite’s previous singles, fires on all cylinders, taking the verve of freestyle and marrying it with the maximalist hi-NRG of Stock Aitken Waterman. Blaring trance synths intertwine with guitars that maneuver between disco and power-metal pastiche. The septet match this intensity with impassioned singing, pursuing love as if they’re superheroes saving the world. —J.M.K.
Contributors: Michelle Hyun Kim, Regina Kim, Kristine Kwak, Maria Sherman, Maura Johnston, Joshua Minsoo Kim, James Gui, Tamar Herman, Jae-Ha Kim, Crystal Leww