This decade set the stage for K-pop to make its mark on the larger world. Over the past 10 years, the South Korean music industry has embedded itself deeper into the American consciousness. This takeover was two-pronged: Psy helped usher in the streaming era with his inescapable hit, “Gangnam Style.” Then BTS broke endless records to become the biggest boy band on the planet. Now, the floodgates have opened, and K-pop keeps getting bigger.
That’s a win for music around the globe. While the Korean industry gets pegged for its transformative approach to Western styles, it also happens to be a site of tremendous innovation. Where else could you get such boundary-breaking experiments in song structure, remixing, or genre-mixing?
K-pop’s amorphousness has traversed an endless stream of trends over the past decade. We’ve heard songs inspired by everything from dubstep to retro concepts to future bass to Latin pop to tropical house. Some flavors of the month hit their expiration dates too soon, while others stick around far longer than anticipated. One thing remains: K-pop’s cross-genre approach is as complex as ever.
To commemorate the decade in K-pop, Billboard selected the greatest songs of the era, from cult favorites of the indie world to the inescapable hits that crossed all borders. Here’s our list of the 100 best K-pop songs of the 2010s, with a Spotify playlist of all 100 at the end.
100. Chungha, “Gotta Go” (XII, 2019)
While Chungha had always been a promising performer, “Gotta Go” was a marked transition in her discography, which only got more confident and experimental throughout the year. Doing a complete 180 from her previous “girl crush” concepts, the song’s sultry darkness hit the right mark for an image overhaul, setting her up as one of the most promising talents of the next generation. — L. SINGH
99. Produce 101 Season 2’s Nation’s Sons, “Never” (35 Boys 5 Concepts, 2017)
Korea’s reality competition series Produce 101 has provided moments of musical brilliance along with dramatic camera pan-ins since 2016. Season 2’s nonpareil was “Never,” a propulsive tropical-house track carried by the diverse voices of the then-hopefuls, from Woojin’s husky rasp to Jaehwan’s compelling belt. Its take on the most ubiquitous trend of the late ‘10s even bowled over those who hadn’t watched a millisecond of Produce — now that’s impact. — MONIQUE MELENDEZ
98. GFriend, “Navillera” (LOL, 2016)
It’s not easy to follow up your biggest hit with your best song. But GFriend pulled that off by giving their cute-concept-next-door a retro twist. Aside from their wholesome image and impressive choreography, this six-piece shot to the top with a characteristic sound: orchestral pop melded with electric guitar. “Navillera” elevates their discography to another level with squelching synths plucked out of a vintage anime opening. If their concept is “flying to the sky like a butterfly,” Yuju’s belted high notes take them there. — CAITLIN KELLEY
97. WJSN, “Secret” (The Secret, 2016)
The 13-member-strong WJSN found their sweet spot early in their careers with their sophomore release “Secret.” The sublime synth-pop sound still acts as an anchor for the girl group to soundtrack their intricate dance formations and otherworldly music videos, all kicked off by this dreamy single. — JEFF BENJAMIN
96. NU’EST “Overcome” (Q is., 2016)
There’s an elegance with which “Overcome” traverses its many musical passages. It begins as a sultry ballad à la Ciara’s “Promise,” abruptly shifts gears into a pre-chorus drawn from Ghost Town DJ’s “My Boo” and then fires off a dramatic chorus complete with post-dubstep wobbles. Through this constantly shifting musical landscape, NU’EST sound like they’re on an arduous journey to reassure their lover. As the song quietly ends, we finally get the full scope of where their heart’s at: “You’re all I need.” — JOSHUA MINSOO KIM
95. GOT7, “If You Do” (Mad, 2015)
Since entering the scene in 2014, GOT7 have proven one of their strongest points as a group is their ability to tackle all kinds of genres and moods. But the late-2015 single “If You Do” marked a turn towards sentimental R&B for the band that remains a cornerstone of their sound today. — J.B.
94. Pristin, “Wee Woo” (Hi! Pristin, 2017)
With a promising start and an unexpected disbandment after just two years, Pristin’s all-too-quick time together will likely go down as one of the decade’s biggest K-pop mysteries — especially when one considers how strongly they began with this disco-tinged bubblegum thumper. “Wee Woo” stands not only as one of K-pop’s best debut singles, but a lasting reminder of what could have been. — J.B.
93. TWICE, “Fancy” (Fancy You, 2019)
The Nation’s Girl Group sped into their final year of the decade on the rollercoaster ride of a single “Fancy.” The Black Eyed Pilseung-produced hit marries TWICE hallmarks — a serotonin-spiking chorus, twee vocals, and an earnest embrace of love — with sharp retro synths and tempo changes that keep you on your toes. Equal parts coy, cheeky, and chic, “Fancy” is a sonic evolution that refuses to compromise the girl group’s essence — who wouldn’t fancy that? — M.M.
92. Lee Hi, “Breathe” (Seoulite, 2016)
Jazzy songstress Lee Hi offers comfort to those having a hard time with this motivational track. “Breathe” assures listeners that they’re doing well, even when sighs come frequently. The lyrics were written by Jonghyun of SHINee, and the poignant song has become a memorial of sorts after the artist’s passing in 2017. A go-to during hard times, it is a masterpiece. — TAMAR HERMAN
91. Hyukoh, “Comes and Goes” (22, 2015)
Hyukoh may have happened upon fame, but the band’s sleeper hit, “Comes and Goes,” cemented their position as one of the seminal indie acts of the decade. Through its shoegaze guitar loops and home-movie aesthetics, the song depicted the very real emotion of being left to flounder with the memories when someone leaves. Deceptively cheerful and unpolished, it augmented Hyukoh’s global appeal and helped other indie rock outfits find their voice in the oft saturated mainstream. — L.S.
90. SHINee, “View” (Odd, 2015)
As UK garage regained popularity in its home country with artists like Disclosure, K-pop acts started adopting the sound too. “View” kicked it all off, opening the floodgates for other takes on retro dance music after EDM and dubstep’s decline. The song was lush and breezy, taking you to the “beautiful place” SHINee sang about. It marked a significant change in SHINee’s sound, as well as the beginning of producer duo LDN Noise’s indelible influence on K-pop. — J.M.K.
89. Beast, “Good Luck” (Good Luck, 2014)
Quick: Name a better track opener than Yoseob’s attention-demanding vocals on “Good Luck.” The group’s 2014 single upgrades the melancholic electronic pop sound Beast showcased in “Shadow” and “Fiction,” melding classical violins and piano melodies with sleek production and vocal performances that make the heartbreak palpable. On “Good Luck,” Beast highlight exactly what made them one of the top boy bands of the era. — M.M.
88. PSY, “Gangnam Style” (Psy Six Rules, Part 1, 2012)
While “Gangnam Style” will go down in history for its viral dance craze and record-breaking YouTube video, it should also be remembered for lyrics that cleverly poked fun at high-class society. PSY’s larger message was wrapped in a slick electronic production, his signature gusto rapping and, of course, that horsey dance that put made Seoul’s rich neighborhood, and K-pop, on the world map. — J.B.
87. Epik High, “Run” (Epilogue, 2010)
There are few songs as invigorating as the propulsive “Run,” an Epik High intensity introduction to the new decade that flits between melodic, sing-song raps and dramatic, desperation-infused choruses. With an orchestral instrumental layered throughout and lilting keys driving much of the tune, “Run” is at once evocative and energizing, and it will run a marathon around your head for days. — T.H.
86. MBLAQ, “Smoky Girl” (SEXY BEAT, 2013)
Prior to “Smoky Girl,” producer Primary and vocalist Zion.T collaborated on three songs that appeared on the former’s debut album. Both had a hand in this song — that’s Zion.T’s “oh oh oh’s” you hear in the chorus — but it’s MBLAQ who sell the sleek, sultry tone that it needs. The subtle shifts in the throbbing beat channel the sensual energy of nightclub pursuits, where getting lost in the music goes hand in hand with getting lost in someone else. — J.M.K.
85. Taemin, “Move” (Move, 2017)
By far the sexiest K-pop song of 2017, “Move” by SHINee member and soloist Taemin eschews the genre’s mountainous peaks for a restrained sound that invokes Depeche Mode and The Weeknd alike. With its forbidding analog synths and Taemin’s breathy vocals, “Move” possesses an unnerving seductiveness that leaves you with a chill. Taemin’s atypical single moved listeners, and with its sensual, distinctive choreography, it became K-pop’s most bewitching phenomenon. — M.M.
84. Girls’ Generation, “Mr.Mr.” (Mr.Mr., 2014)
After they brightened up the world with “I Got a Boy” in 2013, Girls’ Generation’s following Korean single showed the group’s maturing style with the R&B-electro-pop fusion of “Mr.Mr.” Surrounded by dance breakdowns and synth-laden harmonizing, the Girls served up strong, domineering verses, while the chanty chorus blended sounds associated with the ‘70s to create an addicting earworm — T.H.
83. NCT U, “The 7th Sense” (NCT 2018 Empathy, 2016)
The kickoff single of SM Entertainment’s NCT boy brand, “The 7th Sense” is a seductive alt-R&B track fueled by trap percussion, dramatic raps, and slinking verses. It was a promising “long-ass ride” that introduced several members of NCT and hinted at what was to come, with the mesmerizing tune heralding the upcoming boy bands NCT 127, NCT Dream, and WayV. — T.H.
82. Se So Neon, “A Long Dream” (Summer Plumage, 2017)
“A Long Dream” was a debut powerful enough to peg Se So Neon as a singularly encompassing act. Held together on a delicate, prickly string by vocalist So!YoON!’s unique adenoidal voice, “A Long Dream” tugged at the nuanced threads of human nature wrapped up in a confluence of psychedelia, jazz, and synth-pop. No surprise that within a year of their debut, they’d become one of the most fresh, distinctive voices to emerge from the Korean indie scene. — L.S.
81. DAY6, “I Wait” (Sunrise, 2017)
DAY6 kicked off their Every Day6 project with “I Wait,” and oh, what a blessing it was. Gone was the softness of their previous releases. “I Wait” was tighter and cleaner, held together by addictive electronica and synths, reaching an exciting crescendo in the chorus before crashing perfectly into waves of cymbals. Think if the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus had a child with The Academic. DAY6 were on a musical zenith throughout 2017, and “I Wait” was the perfect introduction to hurl us into this new era. — L.S.
80. BTS, “I Need U” (The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 1, 2015)
Before Ellen and Fallon and the U.N. came knocking, BTS was still striving for a breakthrough in South Korea, if you can believe it. On 2015’s “I Need U,” the group turned away from the old-school hip-hop of their earliest EPs towards an emotive electronic sound and a labyrinthine “BTS Universe” narrative. The rest is music history. “I Need U” shot BTS to new heights in South Korea and rewrote the fortunes of today’s biggest boy band. — M.M.
79. DALSooobin, “Circle’s Dream” (Circle’s Dream, 2017)
The artist formerly known as Subin turned — err, rolled — over a new leaf on “Circle’s Dream.” She accents the shapely subject matter with clever tricks, rolling her Rs on the Korean onomatopoeia for “rolling.” Her fourth single could be described as the angular cousin to Halsey’s infamous “Colors” — and not just because of the lyrical similarities. The K-pop soloist’s track is emblematic of the influx of indie-pop aesthetics in the idolsphere (*cough* Rosé’s Indie-Pop Voice *cough*). — C.K.
78. Hoody, “Hangang” (no album, 2017)
Hoody’s become one of the leading figures in Korea’s underground R&B scene for her subtly addicting songs. Here, she sings of the Han river as something that signifies her lover and their current relationship. As the song progresses, it does so with the ease and comfort of quietly moving water; she’s content, appreciative of this time spent together. “Hangang” becomes the soundtrack to her infatuation, and the song’s diaphanous atmosphere makes it easy to keep listening. If she could, Hoody would stay in this moment forever. — J.M.K.
77. WINNER, “Empty” (2014 S/S, 2014)
After they left us empty-handed for nearly 10 months after WIN: Who Is Next — the reality show that formed WINNER — ”Empty” was the perfect debut for a promising act. A delightfully succinct hip-hop and R&B medley with only acoustic guitars to fill the silence, “Empty” gave the members ample chance to shine through. — L.S.
76. Super Junior, “This Is Love” (This Is Love (Mamacita), 2014)
Though they may be known more for dance tracks and their pivot to Latin-pop in recent years, Super Junior is at their best with more vocal-focused songs, and 2014’s “This Is Love” is a standout. Full of groove and smooth crooning, it has a rhythmic bounce that makes it hard not to dance along as the act sings sweetly about a love for the ages. — T.H.
75. OFFONOFF, “Dance” (boy., 2017)
“Dance” is a moody, nocturnal R&B track suffused with longing for an unrequited love. Vocalist Colde switches effortlessly between singing and rapping, relaying his commitment to making a would-be partner swoon in the process. Even more convincing: 0channel’s intimate production, unhurried but assured. “Late at night I think of you,” goes the chorus. You can imagine him swaying side to side with the beat, wishing he could hold this person in his arms. — J.M.K.
74. SunWoo Jung-A, “Springirls” (no album, 2015)
IU once said that when she listens to this song, she feels like a “cool person.” It’s not hard to understand why. SunWoo Jung-A constructed an understated jam built around a funky bassline — and it’s worthy of any “C A T”-walk. The respected indie singer was inspired by “women walking in a sexy and cute style,” and it shows. “Springirls” celebrates women owning their own style — it’s a feeling that translates when you hit play. — C.K.
73. Sistar, “Alone” (Alone, 2012)
All lush synths and retro-inspired perfection, “Alone” is symbolic of their transition into more confident, mature women who claimed agency over their bodies and sexuality throughout their career. It is where we see the first hints of the diverse, powerhouse act that Sistar evolved into, commanding attention in a room just by being in it. — L.S.
72. Seo Taiji, “Christmalo.win” (Quiet Night, 2014)
Back in 2014, South Korea’s “President of Culture” gifted the world with this synth-rock takedown of societal norms. The predecessor of K-pop as we know it, Seo continued his legacy of using music as a way to criticize the intensity of capitalism through this unnerving track. It electrifies with its theatricality, and the accompanying Tim Burton-like music video features the witchy characters of Halloween-town facing off against the corporate folks of Christmas-world. — T.H.
71. Taeyang, “Eyes, Nose, Lips” (Rise, 2014)
As Korea’s “Prince of R&B,” Taeyang draws from reference points familiar to Western listeners in this piano-driven ballad. “Eyes, Nose, Lips” outlines the traces of an ex-lover, as he reflects on his regrets. This torch song is so all-consuming, it literally goes up in flames by the end of the D’Angelo-indebted visual. No wonder the accompanying album, Rise, made him Korea’s highest-charting male singer on the Billboard 200 at the time. In other words: dope tearjerker… congratz!!! — C.K.
70. Wonder Girls, “I Feel You” (Reboot, 2015)
Everything about “I Feel You” feels right, and this ‘80s-vibing song fronted Wonder Girls’ revamp as a band-focused team with an alternative member lineup. The smooth, synth-fueled pop-rock leaned into the K-pop act’s earlier legacy of serving up addicting, throwback-feeling hits, while updating their group identity. — T.H.
69. Oh My Girl, “Closer” (Closer, 2015)
No one expected Oh My Girl to dive into the majestic dream-pop of “Closer” to follow up their punchy-cute debut, but the outfit wholly embraced this trance-y whirlwind of a track. A balance of delicate melancholy and hopeful energy expressed the beginning of a new love. This dreamy style eventually became OMG’s signature sound, solidifying their place in K-pop. — J.B.
68. B1A4, “What’s Happening?” (What’s Happening?, 2013)
This pop-rock rollercoaster throws the rules aside in favor of creating a tune that’s a little bit humorous, a little but funky, and a whole lot of fun — even if it is about finding out you’re being cheated on. With perky guitar riffs, overexaggerated raps, and a clap-happy chorus, it’s not really clear “What’s Happening?” throughout much of this iconic B1A4 track. But that’s part of why it’s so memorable. — T.H.
67. 2NE1, “I Love You” (no album, 2012)
The most spoken-of tracks from 2NE1’s CV fall squarely under the categories of booming and brash (“Can’t Nobody,” “Fire,” “I Am the Best”), but one of the quartet’s finest works is the reggae-prog house longing of this track. “I Love You” came two singles after “Hate You,” but the irony of the titular contradiction was trumped by the brilliance of its complexity. It peels away the quartet’s well-dressed outer layers to reveal a more tender, vulnerable 2NE1. — M.M.
66. IU, “Twenty-Three” (Chat-Shire, 2015)
In an industry fixated on the image of perfection, identity can become a bit of a fun-house mirror. But that’s just another reason to have fun with it. To commemorate turning “Twenty-Three,” IU transformed her life into multiple-choice riddles that don’t necessarily have answers. As she navigated the topsy-turvy world of her newfound womanhood, she shed her “Nation’s Little Sister” title to weave intricate tales about self-perception. — C.K.
65. BIGBANG, “Fantastic Baby” (Alive, 2012)
There is no song quite as definitively tied to BIGBANG’s legacy as one of K-pop’s top acts as “Fantastic Baby.” This electrifying hip-pop track is an anthem built on a solid foundation of catch phrases; “boom shakalaka” has gone on to become synonymous with the act. This legendary song helped propel the group’s popularity into the west, and it still has us all “dance dancing” like “lililalala.” — T.H.
64. Sunny Hill, “Midnight Circus” (Midnight Circus, 2011)
There is something magically deceptive about Sunny Hill’s “Midnight Circus.” The tinny beats, off-kilter brass, and squelching strings offset a wide array of music elements, including a prominent accordion riff. The theatricality of this acid jazz-infused tune was transposed into a visual delight in its music video, which turned the members into the stars of the titular event. “Midnight Circus” was a gamble for Sunny Hill, who previously focused on soft pop and ballads — and it paid off as one of their most iconic songs. — T.H.
63. AKMU, “200%” (Play, 2014)
With a feel-good debut single that combined folky pop and bouncy hip-hop, AKMU struck K-pop gold on the first try, making good on their promise after winning the popular Korean competition show, K-pop Star 2. Siblings Chanhyuk and Soohyun, respectively 19 and 16 years old at the time, proved themselves to be one of the scene’s most charming and dependable duos with this release. — J.B.
62. IZ*ONE, “La Vie en Rose” (Color*Iz, 2018)
“La Vie en Rose” is the best example of a great song being, first and foremost, the most important aspect to a successful K-pop debut. After IZ*ONE formed on the popular Produce 48 singing competition, the odds still felt stacked against the Korean-Japanese girl group. They faced lower-than-expected ratings plus tensions between Korea and Japan, but the ambient, mid-tempo track cut through the noise to solidify undeniable interest in the outfit from the get-go. — J.B.
61. Jay Park feat. Hoody & Loco, “All I Wanna Do” (Everything You Wanted, 2016)
The most unassailable Jay Park song of the decade is also the best Korean RnBass song of the decade. It drifts along smoothly, every handclap and synth flutter adding a little flair to a song that’s as self-effacing as it is charming. The song succeeds because neither the music nor the lyrics ask for too much: “All I wanna do is kick it with you,” sings Park and Hoody. Cha Cha Malone’s production imparts the relaxed comfort that comes with simply hanging out with a loved one. — J.M.K.
60. G-Dragon, “Crooked” (Coup d’Etat, 2013)
G-Dragon was considered a king long before Coup d’Etat came out, but “Crooked” remains his crowning jewel, or at least one of them. This self-destructive quasi-fantasia is a song for the days you’re stifled, suffocated, and angry at nothing in particular. “Crooked” is where G-Dragon showed his more vulnerable and honest side, yet came back stronger than ever. Infused with haunting siren-synths set against a cacophonous backing track, it basically set the tone for angsty rock tracks at YG Entertainment. — L.S.
59. Dean, “Bonnie & Clyde” (130 mood: TRBL, 2016)
With Dean’s R&B finesse being the bedrock as he forays into heavy trap (somewhat of a trend du jour in 2016), “Bonnie & Clyde” remains a standout track on his debut album. The loosely structured song is a warning against the dangers of becoming friends with benefits. Dean veers between his characteristic falsetto and staccato raps throughout the song’ loose structure, giving us a track that upped his status to “one to watch.” — L.S.
58. Taeyeon feat. Verbal Jint, “I” (I, 2015)
Kim Taeyeon is the leader of the era-defining Girls’ Generation, so her solo debut was expected to have a Beyoncé-level execution. But instead of bombastic, Taeyeon went subtle with this tender-yet-soaring anthem that channels one’s inner voice to have confidence in the world and embrace the beauty of life. — J.B.
57. Luna, “Free Somebody” (Free Somebody, 2016)
This future house-inflected jam builds off of f(x)’s electro-pop sound, and it’s almost a direct spinoff from “4 Walls.” But Luna uses that familiarity to distinguish herself as a dance-pop heavyweight. She might be one of K-pop’s greatest powerhouse vocalists, but she got her start as a dancer. This song, co-written by JoJo, just happens to play to both of those strengths in equal measure. Her solo debut deserved to be a smash hit, but it lives on as a testament to her star power. — C.K.
56. KARA, “Pandora” (Pandora, 2012)
Imagine if, instead of teeming with the world’s evils, Pandora’s box contained metal riffs, cinematic strings, and a 140 BPM instrumental befitting of an action-packed anime series. You’d have KARA’s “Pandora,” a high-octane pop journey that epitomizes the synth-laden Sweetune sound that defined the girl group for much of their career. Though KARA may be most known for the single-that-wasn’t-originally-a-single “Mister” and The Butt Dance, “Pandora” is the group at its musical peak. — M.M.
55. VIXX, “Shangri La” (Shangri La, 2017)
VIXX are renowned for their experimental concepts, but “Shangri La” saw the band at their most cohesive as they returned home to draw on familiar elements. The sensual, haunting alt-R&B track was peppered with traditional Korean instruments, references, and motifs. Their complete surrender to their concepts is what makes them exceptional stars. — L.S.
54. Zico, “I Am You, You Are Me” (Break Up 2 Make Up, 2016)
It would be hard to imagine the rebranding of idol rappers as “artists, baby” without Zico. Block B’s leader is one of the most prolific songwriters, and he brought a bit of auteurship to the industry with his biggest solo hit. On “I Am You, You Are Me,” he takes matching couple outfits to their solipsistic endpoint, merging his identity with his lover. There’s an elegance to his play on mirrored images, and this lush R&B track reflects his dexterity as a performer. — C.K.
53. Girl’s Day, “Expectation” (Expectation, 2013)
Girl’s Day underwent multiple transformations throughout their eight-year career, from night-and-day concept changes to member departures and additions. As a four-member unit that would become the group’s most prolific lineup, Girl’s Day hit their stride with 2013’s “Expectation,” a dance-pop romp with a dizzying bridge that is one of the industry’s best to date. Starring a love interest with eyes for someone else, Girl’s Day ramps up the charms to put him (and us) under their spell. — M.M.
52. 4Minute, “Crazy” (Crazy, 2015)
This empowering song spends its length speeding along wild snare beat twists and clapping turns, driving the world “Crazy” with its sonic, trap-infused intensity. Horns on loop take center stage, second only to the impactful delivery of the domineering raps and dynamic verses, as the quintet sing about how they’re enjoying life. — T.H.
51. Heize, “Don’t Know You” (/// (You, Clouds, Rain), 2017)
The ambient, jazzy feel of “Don’t Know You” brought Heize to new heights in South Korea, where the artist is both a popular singer and rapper. “Don’t Know You” stood out as simultaneously reflective and groovy. The song’s disco-meets-R&B instrumentals bounce along over layered harmonizing, emotive rap, and a piano melody, captivating and nuanced in its composition. — T.H.
50. EXO, “Growl” (XOXO (Repackage), 2013)
Six years ago, EXO fever officially began, marking one of the fastest takeoffs for a K-pop group to hit sensation level.”Growl” was, no doubt, the cornerstone of the phenomenon. The ingenious blend of the sparse, Southern hip-hop beats and dynamic bubblegum-pop melodies showed EXO had the potential to win over a whole new generation of fans around the world. — J.B.
49. FTISLAND, “I Wish” (Five Treasure Box, 2012)
A shining example of the genre-less freedom K-pop artists can have in their singles, FTISLAND switched up their usual punk and heavy-rock sound by infusing it with Spanish guitar and a twist of tango. Of course, the group’s signature energy and lively vocal delivery from singer Hongki were all on display — particularly on the rockin’ chorus — to hook in longtime fans even with this swerve in their sound. — J.B.
48. EXID, “Up & Down” (Up & Down, 2014)
EXID had a few ups and downs after a promising debut, but the sleeper success of this trip-hop, trumpet-infused extravaganza was the perfect prelude to the new version of the quintet. That, combined with a deliciously pop-artsy music video reminiscent of Orange Caramel’s “Catallena” brewed up a success formula that EXID revisited multiple times in their career, particularly in “Ah Yeah” and “Hot Pink.” — L.S.
47. SHINee, “Lucifer” (Lucifer, 2010)
“Her whisper is the Lucifer” assure SHINee in this Bebe Rexha-penned hit, a game-changing tune that raced toward its finish line propelled by frenzied electro-pop and futuristic synth effects. With its “loveoholic robotronic” energy, the song showed the world a new side to the quintet as something a bit rougher and edgier than their earlier hits. It was accompanied by isolation-heavy choreography that showcased the act’s compelling synergy. If hell sounds like this, sign us up for an eternity with “Lucifer.” — T.H.
46. After School, “Shampoo” (Virgin, 2010)
From drumline divas to tap-dancing vamps, a shape-shifting girl group like After School cannot be tied down to one to one sound, but the outfit undeniably shines when they embrace a sentimental concept. Composed in a stunning waterfall of swirling synthesizers, this single boasts one of K-pop’s most unique takes on romance, using “Shampoo” as a poetic metaphor for a love that can sweetly envelope someone like a lingering scent but also sting your eyes if treated without care. — J.B.
45. TVXQ!, “Keep Your Head Down” (Keep Your Head Down, 2011)
After a seismic split led to an unclear future for TVXQ! in 2009, the newfound duo became a variant of the Gods of the East that heated up 2011 with this domineering track. Returning with “Keep Your Head Down,” they served up the verses and raps with a theatrical flair surrounded by dramatic horns and gritty, industrial electro-pop melodies. The track hit its mark to announce “the return of the kings,” revitalizing the career of one of K-pop’s most prominent acts. — T.H.
44. HyunA, “Bubble Pop!” (Bubble Pop!, 2011)
Quirky, cutesy, sexy K-pop at its best, “Bubble Pop!” was an early viral hit that showed the scene’s potential in captivating larger, international audiences on YouTube. The effervescent production of “Bubble Pop!” recalled some of Britney Spears’ most experimental B-sides, but the main fixture was HyunA’s ability to move from kitty-cat coos on the hook to self-assured declarations (“There isn’t any better than me”) as well as some fascinating moments of introspection (“What if I laugh sometimes when I’m depressed?”). Ms. HyunA truly embodied this track, and it rightfully became a defining moment in making her one of K-pop’s top, boundary-pushing divas. — J.B.
43. LOONA/ODD EYE CIRCLE, “Girl Front” (Mix & Match, 2017)
With “Girl Front,” songwriters Hayley Aitken and Ollipop channel elements from the Odd Eye Circle members’ individual singles and transform them into a track that embodies the giddiness of having a crush. This is a song about mustering up the courage to tell someone you love them, and every bit of instrumentation showcases the varying concomitant emotions. Most brilliant is the chorus’s wavering vocal melody and its evolving tone: at first chipper, and then teeming with infatuation. It all leads to a final, fearless decision: “I’ll say I love you!” — J.M.K.
42. ZE:A, “Ghost of the Wind” (Illusion, 2013)
Though ZE:A’s brand may have been eclipsed by the individual members’ variety show and acting careers, the group’s discography contains a number of overlooked gems, notably their apex “Ghost of the Wind.” Produced by K-pop virtuosos Duble Sidekick, this is ZE:A’s most sophisticated work, with its swirling strings, hollow operatic chants, and consistent thrum of energy. Raps are interspersed throughout the song, matching the polished instrumental’s momentum beat for beat, while mature vocal performances convey the haunting tale of an all-consuming love. — M.M.
41. Dalshabet, “Someone Like U” (Naturalness, 2016)
This underrated girl group delivered a retro concept in the form of synth-pop standout, “Someone Like U,” which rollicks along with funky instrumentals and the act’s sassy vocals. Layered choruses soar, culminating in the swaying call-and-response of breathy harmonies and taunting chants. The act served up one of the most fun and vengeful breakup tracks ever, as they pray for the object of their affection to meet someone just as terrible as they are. — T.H.
40. BIGBANG, “Bae Bae” (MADE, 2015)
After BIGBANG starved us for three years, the cosmic kitsch-art heavens opened up to give us the brazen, promiscuous satisfaction of “Bae Bae.” One of the early appearances of trap in K-pop, this track found the sweet spot between heady stuttering beats and experimental guitar riffs, set to the crooning of vocalists Taeyang, Daesung, and Seungri, and offset by G-Dragon and T.O.P’s frenetic rapping. The song was also famously inspired by the artworks of Francis Bacon, which is easy to spot given how the music video deliciously peeled back the members’ outer layers and exposed all of our inner hedonists. — L.S.
39. AOA, “Miniskirt” (Miniskirt, 2014)
AOA (hey!) upgraded their sultry “Confused” sound on “Miniskirt,” ditching the former’s jazz-bar piano and sharper horns for a smoother mid-tempo instrumental dotted with “oohs” and coos and a million little “heys.” Vocalists Yuna and ChoA showcase the elasticity of their voices, shifting from whispery, come-hither lines to limber belts and ad-libs, while Top Madam Jimin adds a chewy rap that gives the song an impish twist. It’s sultriness served up with a wink, a smile, and a little bit of bite. — M.M.
38. Block B, “H.E.R” (H.E.R, 2014)
“H.E.R.” is the brightest spot in Block B’s genre-hopping discography founded on rowdy hip-hop that blurred the lines between idoldom and the underground. This Zico-penned single is a patchwork of sounds that weaves electro-pop, funk rock, and rap breaks together. The song title — a play on the English “her” and Korean “heol” — figures into the semi-instrumental chorus, a precursor of K-pop trends to come. This track switched up the taxonomy of “bad boy” concepts. Suddenly, Block B’s brash presentation got a lot more colorful — and the spectrum of conceptual possibilities widened a little. — C.K.
37. BTS, “Spring Day” (You Never Walk Alone, 2017)
“Spring Day”’s existence is probably the most accurate representation of BTS’s artistry. They could have continued riding on the worldwide frenzy of “Blood, Sweat & Tears,” but they chose to release a poignant, visceral study in the very human challenge of coming to terms with a great loss. Everything about “Spring Day” plucks cruelly at a taut nerve: the lyrics that vivisect loss, the motifs of remembrance, and the looming spectre of something sinister in the video. All of this leads to the bittersweet moment of the boys reuniting, when they finally move on together. In this journey of growing up, you never walk alone. — L.S.
36. 2PM, “A.D.T.O.Y.” (Grown, 2013)
In case you didn’t catch the acronym, 2PM transformed into hopeless loverboys destined to “All Day Think of Only You.” This ode to romantic obsession conjures a suspenseful buzz, as the looping strings resemble horror orchestration retrofitted to a love story. The breathiness of their vocal delivery — shoutout JYP’s method of “half-air, half-sound!” — underscores the all-consuming nature of their emotional intensity. The beast-dols flipped the script on the gendered connotations attached to sexy concepts, delivering an iconic chair dance complete with delicate hip swaying. You could say “A.D.T.O.Y.” expanded the canon of boy group concepts. — C.K.
35. Pentagon, “Shine” (Positive, 2018)
Boy bands in the late ‘10s ditched school uniforms and pastels for BDSM gear and edgier (read: EDM) sounds, leaving a pronounced void of lighthearted boy band fun. Our saviors Pentagon lean in hard with the blushing boyishness on “Shine,” which features babytalk and throat clearing as musical devices, a frustratingly catchy piano loop, and the most open embrace of loserdom in popular music since Beck made it his calling card. The Pentagon members capitalized upon their talents — songwriting, producing, performing — to give us pure fun when we needed it the most. — M.M.
34. IU feat. G-Dragon, “Palette” (Palette, 2017)
After wrestling with her identity as “Nation’s Little Sister” on “Twenty-Three,” IU found serenity with who she was on “Palette.” She does so through simple self-reflection — she prefers short hair over long hair now, but still thinks she looked pretty during her “Good Day” era; her favorite color is purple instead of hot pink; she still loves Corinne Bailey Rae, whose music has considerable influence on this song. Sometimes, it’s in acknowledging the little ways in which you’ve changed and stayed the same that you can remember that life is one of constant growth. For IU, it was enough to help her feel “truly fine” and, ultimately, “truly found.” — J.M.K.
33. f(x), “Rum Pum Pum Pum” (Pink Tape, 2013)
“Rum Pum Pum Pum” is centered around the kind of extended metaphor you can sink your teeth into. f(x)’s eighth single builds a densely crowded sound out of off-kilter harmonies, a bite-sized samba motif, and the melody from “The Little Drummer Boy.” The Korean title, “cheot sarangni (? ???),” refers to wisdom teeth — and it’s a pun on “cheot sarang (? ??),” which translates to “first love.” Told from the perspective of the wisdom tooth, their first love story grows so crooked that the cavity must be extracted — leaving a lasting gap when the relationship ends. Queen “Rum Pum Pum Pum” deserves the type of crown a dental hygienist could love. — C.K.
32. Mamamoo, “You’re the Best” (Melting, 2016)
Mamamoo are at their best when they balance their flashy vocal chops and jazz-inflected instrumentation with a healthy dose of playfulness. On “You’re the Best,” they find a perfect middle ground that allows their show tunes-y affects to convey the thrill of being in love. But during the pre-choruses, they let their guard down to deliver heartfelt confessions that reveal how much their lover means to them — at one point, so much so that it makes them anxious. You can sense the butterflies in their stomachs. — J.M.K.
31. Apink, “%% (Eung Eung)” (Percent, 2019)
Apink took everyone by surprise when they released “%%” predecessor “I’m So Sick” — the angelic, girl-next-door members had transformed into fierce, sharp-tongued, self-assured goddesses. It could have been a one-off experiment, and the resulting success would have been chalked up to good fortune. But this track was the proud declaration that this new Apink was here to stay. Seeped in a retro funk-fantasy circa the ‘80s, “%%” is where Apink quite literally took control not just of their daring new personas but also — as the music video suggests — their love lives. They may be seasoned players in the industry at this point, but their latest single proves that experience does not equate to comfort-zoning yourself into complacency. — L.S.
30. miss A, “Bad Girl, Good Girl” (Bad But Good, 2010)
When K-pop stans debate the all-time best debut, you can be sure “Bad Girl, Good Girl” will be the first point of discussion. miss A’s introduction stood apart as they took a detour from cute concepts to put their own spin on “girl crush.” These monster rookies embodied the type of “bad girls” who tell their gossipmongering classmates to “shut up, boy!” There are no frills to this tightly produced dance track — just leotards. — C.K.
29. iKON, “Love Scenario” (Return, 2018)
With a rollicking piano refrain, brassy melody, and folksy percussion driving much of it, “Love Scenario” is all about a break-up that can be looked back on positively, and it was exactly what 2018 audiences in South Korea were looking for. This song, which is allegedly inspired by the final scene of La La Land, is both exuberant and restrained, with this subdued hip-pop offering up iKON’s biggest hit to date. Minimalistic and melodic, it’s a Gen-Z update to the idea of easy listening. — T.H.
28. Sunmi, “Heroine” (Warning, 2018)
Without “Heroine,” the ferocity of Sunmi’s “Gashina” and “Siren” don’t fully make sense; it’s the centerpiece of a trilogy of singles filled with drama and redemption. Inspired by the ’80s film 9 1/2 Weeks, “Heroine” lays bare the mores of a s–tty, selfish boyfriend that Sunmi feels compelled to stay with. “Do whatever you want, even if you’re mean […] even if it hurts me,” she aches. There’s a looming sense of sadness that underpins her triumphant vocal delivery, and it renders the title both poignant and grim: she’s only considered a heroine for staying obedient, for persisting through a hurtful relationship. — J.M.K.
27. Red Velvet, “Bad Boy” (The Perfect Red Velvet, 2018)
While Red Velvet had played with the idea of something darker in the occultish extravaganza of “Peek-a-Boo,” their complete surrender to the darkness in “Bad Boy” had us reaching for Holy Water. Counted as their most daring release, the sultry, sensual, and tantalizing “Bad Boy” is the perfect representation of their mature “velvet” persona. Most remarkable, however, is how tactile the sonic and visual layering of the song is — touching on the softness of each member before swelling into a sweeping chorus of harmonies. It speaks to the underlying emotion of donning your armor for a boy who’s obviously bad news. The Perfect Red Velvet, indeed. — L.S.
26. BLACKPINK, “Whistle” (SQUARE ONE, 2016)
Producer Teddy Park’s most impressive feat this decade was the incorporation of country pre-choruses in otherwise non-country songs. You can hear it in BIGBANG’s “Bae Bae” and BLACKPINK’s “As If It’s Your Last,” but it’s most perfectly utilized in “Whistle,” one of two singles that introduced BLACKPINK to the world. As a debut, it succeeded in showcasing the four members as ineffably cool, something that can be attributed to Jennie and Lisa’s sneering rap verses and the instrumentation’s effective use of negative space. The song ends with a sudden melding of its disparate musical parts — a quiet but resounding bang that overflows with confidence and made BLACKPINK’s “girl crush” concept feel impossibly fresh. — J.M.K.
25. T-ara, “Roly Poly” (John Travolta Wannabe, 2011)
K-pop and disco make beautiful bedfellows, and nowhere is that better demonstrated than on T-ara’s “Roly Poly.” Once you hear Qri’s playful la-la-la-la-love confession, you know you’re in for a treat. This song resuscitates the era of Fiorucci with a quirky melody and a chorus that rolls around in your brain long after one listen. With each sound T-ara glommed onto, from disco to Spearsian pop, the members committed 200% and adroitly pulled off each and every one. And that’s how we should remember T-ara: not for the scandal that surfaced during the Summer of “Roly Poly” and cruelly torpedoed the group’s career at its height, but for the diverse hits K-pop’s top chameleons gave us. — M.M.
24. Sistar, “Touch My Body” (TOUCH N MOVE, 2014)
K-pop songs rarely sound this flirty. From Hyolyn’s introductory declaration of “I know you want it” to Bora’s staccato-sung “here, here, or here?,” “Touch My Body” brims with brazen playfulness. It’s all heightened by Black Eyed Pilseung’s production, with bubbling synths and cartoonish horn arrangements contributing to the song’s liveliness. The chorus’s steady beat keeps things grounded to ensure the titular request reads earnestly, and the song ends up mirroring the woozy pleasure of summer flings. For years, it felt like summers would be incomplete without a smash hit from Sistar, and “Touch My Body” was the best of them all. A particular line captures its essence succinctly: “This feels like paradise.” — J.M.K.
23. Wanna One, “Energetic” (1X1=1 (To Be One), 2017)
Mnet irrevocably shook up the K-pop industry with Produce 101 — and Wanna One became the central showpiece of the entire series. In 2017, the show whittled contestants down to eleven finalists, formally introducing them to the world as a whole unit with “Energetic.” This adrenaline rush of a song immediately shot them to the top of the charts, forming a snapshot of the 11-piece’s dynamism. The choreography calls for a human piano, as the song starts out as a ballad then lifts off into a high-octane dance cut. While the fate of Produce’s legacy remains up in the air, it’s undeniable that this temporary group left their mark on the K-pop landscape. — C.K.
22. Brown Eyed Girls, “Sixth Sense” (Sixth Sense, 2012)
Brown Eyed Girls have spent their decade-plus time together pushing musical boundaries, but they truly outdid themselves here. The track opens with the women readying for battle with cinematic strings backing liberated declarations to the call-and-response chorus. In what is K-pop’s most ambitious bridge of the decade, the wonder women combine their superpowers with a fierce section from rapper Miryo, followed by a power-packed vocal belt from JeA that leads into a whistle note belted from Gain, that’s picked up and finished by Narsha. Truly, any artist needs a “Sixth Sense” just to be able to master and perform such a complicated track. — J.B.
21. Zion.T, “Yanghwa BRDG” (no album, 2014)
Through his quiet revolution, Zion.T has proven himself to be a nuanced artist with the singular ability to be in tune with human emotions. Nowhere is that better expressed than on “Yanghwa BRDG,” titled after the eponymous bridge on the Han River in Seoul. Almost childlike in its lyricism, the song reads like a love letter to his father, who spent his days driving a taxi up and down the Yanghwa Bridge, trying to provide for his family. Accompanied by soft, rhythmic bongos and sophisticated orchestration, it’s a poetic depiction of growing up working class, where you inherit needs and duties instead of dreams — a role that the child in “Yanghwa BRDG” might not fully understand but takes pride in nonetheless. — L.S.
20. Orange Caramel, “Catallena” (The Third Single Catallena, 2014)
Orange Caramel were magical girls with a wink, in all of their hyper-pigmented glory — and they were at the height of their powers on “Catallena.” This song presents a K-pop take on disco while sampling a Punjabi folk song called “Jutti Meri Jandiye.” There’s the infamous howl at the beginning of their live stages, where the camp agenda was on the menu as they dressed as different food items. After all, this three-for-one deal play pieces of sushi in the surreal MV. Make no mistake, they were in on the absurdity of their concepts, which only intensified their shine. Although this After School spinoff was too short-lived, they live on in our “Candy Culture”-coated memories as the quirkiest subunit of all time. — C.K.
19. Ladies’ Code, “Galaxy” (MYST3RY, 2016)
For much of its runtime, “Galaxy” sounds weightless — lush waves of synths and sparkling chimes make you feel like you’re floating among the stars. But when the chorus kicks in, effervescent jazz instrumentation snaps you back to reality, or at least a simulacrum of one. With its expansive and celestial atmosphere, “Galaxy” places listeners in a liminal space between life and the afterlife — a purgatorial stasis that leaves one anxious, hopeful, and mindful of one’s own presence. After the tragic deaths of Ladies’ Code members EunB and RiSe, this single felt like Ashley, Sojung, and Zuny were reflecting on the day they’d meet their old friends. “Hi, I’ve waited for you,” they patiently sing. For three-and-a-half minutes, it sounds like they’re on the precipice of a loving reunion. — J.M.K.
18. TWICE, “TT” (Twicecoaster: Lane 1, 2016)
How do you follow up a career-making viral hit like TWICE’s “Cheer Up”? Do it again, but even better. The decade-defining girl group solidified their legacy with this gooey synth-pop track that created a new go-to phrase for K-pop fans worldwide. (“TT” jokingly refers to dramatically crying over something, the top of the Ts are one’s eyes, the vertical lines represent streaming tears.) From Nayeon’s opening “Ba-ba-ba-baby” to Sana’s “na na na” line, plus the “I’m like TT/ Just like TT” chorus, this song boasts an earworm for anyone and everyone’s taste. — J.B.
17. KARA, “Step” (Step, 2011)
There are few tracks out there as euphorically festive as KARA’s “Step,” which starts strong and keeps the momentum building throughout. With addicting “lalalas” and verses growing and dropping in tonal intensity — leading to the surging chorus full of bright synths and pulsating beat — the song is impossible not to dance along to. In an industry defined by genre-blending and experimentalism, “Step” holds nothing back while surging forward in confidence that it is one of the purest pop confections out of K-pop this decade. — T.H.
16. Rainbow, “A” (So Girls, 2011)
Hindsight is 20/20 — it’s how and why we know Rainbow deserved so much more for the top-notch singles they graced the industry with. On “A,” yet another gem from the Sweetune collection and the cream of Rainbow’s crop, there’s no time wasted on easing you in. Snappy synths and surf guitar rush to meet you right at the outset. With its vibrant instrumental, electrifying chorus, and Woori’s nimble rap (seriously, that’s a lot of syllables to pack into a few bars), “A” will go down in the books for more than just its “scandalous” shirt-lifting choreography. Flirty, fizzy, and downright fun, “A” still gets an A+++ close to a decade later. — M.M.
15. Seventeen, “Very Nice” (Love & Letter (Repackage), 2016)
Self-producing idols Seventeen have worked with everything from warehouse party-ready tech house to syrupy Brat Pack balladry since their 2015 debut, but it was the funky-fresh pop sound of “Adore U” that established the start of their career. The sound distinguished them in a bloated K-pop industry, and the group went on to perfect it three singles in on “Very Nice,” a boisterous ode to heart-bursting young love. Opening with a vocal kick-in-the-face from main vocalist Dokyeom, this track keeps the energy at a 15 out of 10 with its shouted refrain and busy horns, thanks to Bumzu and member Woozi’s adept production. “Very Nice” brims with a playful, rambunctious energy that forces you to smile, even when you’re a stone-faced actor at Korea’s equivalent of the Oscars. — M.M.
14. Lim Kim, “Awoo” (Simple Mind, 2015)
Before Lim Kim became a bona fide art-pop star, she graced the K-pop industry with “Awoo,” an unforgettable slice of post-Chvrches synth-pop. In the song, she wields her sultry drawl as a weapon, letting every word spill out of her mouth with a knowing sense of power. Her goal is to lure a lover, and she lays out specific steps in the most procedural of manners as producer Primary follows her lead. Vocal edits dot the verses in mesmerizing fashion before they mutate into an amorphous, cavernous haze: an indication that Kim’s all but ensnared her target. The chorus acts as a sudden release of tension as she lets out the titular howl, proud of her success; she knows she’ll win every cat-and-mouse game. — J.M.K.
13. Wonder Girls, “Be My Baby” (Wonder World, 2011)
After temporarily abandoning their post as K-pop’s top girl group to follow their Billboard chart promise in America, Wonder Girls returned to Korea to remind everyone just what what made the industry fall in love with them. Honoring their longtime status as the queens of retro concepts, the outfit smashed back onto the scene with a song that boasted a feel-good Motown vibe with punches of hard-hitting, modern-day synthesizers. Expectations were high for this true K-pop comeback, but WG proved the power in staying true to one’s artistry with only the slightest updates to create maximum satisfaction. — J.B.
12. EXO, “Call Me Baby” (Exodus, 2015)
The year before “Call Me Baby” came out was a fragmented one for EXO. With two members leaving and the future of their Chinese subunit, EXO-M, hanging in the balance, they needed revamping. Breaking away from the bass-thumping, power-packed dubstep bravado of “Overdose,” this track drew heavily from early ‘90s pop, tailored to perfection for each member’s strengths. Not only did it set the stage for a musical space that EXO would claim entirely for their own, but the music video is symbolic of the members coming into their own as individuals. Forgoing the schoolboy outfits of “Growl” or the contrasting co-ords of “Overdose,” this one was sartorially adventurous in letting each member’s personality shine through — a literal graduation ceremony for what went on to be one of the most influential K-pop acts of the decade. — L.S.
11. Gain, “Bloom” (Talk About S, 2012)
“Bloom” is a fantasia dedicated to, well, deflowering. The MV starts off chaste enough as old film captures wholesome moments at home. Then lush orchestration gives way to a funky guitar riff, and Gain enters a “whole new world.” The visual’s portrayal of sexuality was shocking in the world of K-pop, where sex is often relegated to subtext. How many K-pop divas could get away with a self-pleasure scene? Gain pulled off a delicate balance: she pushed the boundaries of taste while retaining a sense of wonder. You could say she planted the seed that it’s worth it to test the limits of decorum. — C.K.
10. Primary feat. ChoA & IRON, “Don’t Be Shy” (2, 2016)
It doesn’t get much chiller than “Don’t Be Shy,” one of the greatest reggae-fueled Korean songs of all time. The track features a creeping rhythm, paired with the eerie crooning of former AOA member ChoA, and a brief rap bridge. “Don’t Be Shy” is as haunting as it is captivating, and it is paired with a seance of a music video to match. The unique style of “Don’t Be Shy” made it an instant underrated classic, with its spooky groove serving up a timeless sonic experience. — T.H.
9. f(x), “4 Walls” (4 Walls, 2015)
There’s a current of anxiety underneath the surface of “4 Walls.” It’s there in the enigmatic lyrics, the undulating sub-bass, the fidgeting garage house beat. When “4 Walls” came out, it marked the first single that f(x) released without Sulli. Her absence had cast a shadow over the song, making its uneasy tone readily apparent. For a song with a chorus that bellows out that “Love is four walls” — that love was a means to emotional security — why did Amber exhibit cautiousness in her mid-song rap verse? Why did she confess, “I had the answers but now they mean nothing”?
Since Sulli’s passing, the song’s looming dread has only magnified, but so has the poignance of its bridge. The sudden key change brings with it a sense of sublime bliss; it’s only natural that Luna pleads “bring me with you” in this brief moment of serenity. Life can be confusing and unpredictable in its unwieldy journey. There are moments of fear and disappointment and sadness amidst those of deep, genuine love. But it’s that love — more durable, more permanent than steel frames and concrete — that’ll get us through every trial. — J.M.K.
8. BIGBANG, “Bad Boy” (Alive, 2012)
BIGBANG’s brand of emotional hip-hop didn’t so much stand out for its reinvented sound, but for how it captures a sentiment that could only be expressed by the superstar boy band. Co-written and produced by leader G-Dragon, “Bad Boy” is a prime example of the star’s ability to tap into a dynamic yet moving style with the mellow, near-melancholic delivery tempered with hum-along-to melodies and relatable lyrics. That fascinating juxtaposition of ideas has been present throughout BIGBANG’s decade-plus together, but “Bad Boy” stands as the anthem that best encapsulates the quintet: rooted in the best parts of rap, mixed with unexpected and evocative pop moments, and all shared via lyrics that read like a private journal or a drunk voicemail. — J.B.
7. BTS, “Blood, Sweat & Tears” (Wings, 2016)
The most seminal acts in pop have a moment when they’re no longer standing on the precipice of greatness — a little nudge sends them hurtling through the annals of fame. For BTS, “Blood, Sweat & Tears” might just have been that moment. This addictive union between tropical house and moombahton pegged BTS as a formidable act, one who could just as easily navigate the minimalism of “Save Me” as they could the grandeur of “Blood, Sweat & Tears.” The midas touch to this was, of course, the gloriously luxuriant music video, drawing upon biblical and literary motifs to show us how temptation lures us to fall from grace — which was paralleled by the decidedly mature, borderline sensual looks the members sported. Lush, emphatic, and captivating, “Blood, Sweat & Tears” might have been the last calm before BTS took the world by storm. — L.S.
6. SHINee, “Sherlock (Clue + Note)” (Sherlock, 2012)
K-pop’s approach to genre-bending often gets called “Frankensteinian” — but SHINee takes that description literally. Their ninth single is a remix splicing two B-sides that leap-frog across the song structure. It’s not hard to sleuth out which album cut each segment originated from. The bulk of the instrumentation is taken from “Clue,” with a beat made out of a digitized kettle, little spurts of brass, and the recurring sound of shattered glass. But the incendiary chorus is all “Note,” and the soaring strings from “Spoiler” sound right at Holmes at the start. At the same time, the lyrical overhaul jumbled the B-sides into a ransom “Note” of a storyline. The newly interlaced lines reconstructed “Sherlock” into a whodunnit about a love crime. K-pop is nothing if not transformative, and the best songs test the boundaries of pop. “Sherlock” places a magnifying glass over the ways the Korean industry’s innovation is pushing music forward. — C.K.
5. Girls’ Generation, “I Got a Boy” (I Got a Boy, 2013)
“I Got a Boy” is a heroine’s journey into the new world of K-pop’s genre mish-mashing. This is the defining song when you talk about what sets the industry’s song structures apart. Written in 15 minutes, the labyrinthine composition shapeshifts every few seconds into a completely new genre. Each section has its own sound, and the abrupt transitions break the boundaries between hip-hop, rock, and electro-pop. The pop behemoth’s playful relationship to BPM is echoed by Jessica’s immortal words: “let’s bring it back to 140.” Hyper-segmentation is almost built into the K-pop framework as groups have so many voices to spotlight. Girls’ Generation just happened to make that the defining characteristic of “I Got a Boy.” The elasticity of this career-defining anthem goes to show that K-pop can be anything, sometimes all at once. — C.K.
4. 2NE1, “I Am the Best” (2NE1, 2011)
Before “Gangnam Style” galloped onto the global stage, 2NE1’s “I Am the Best” defined K-pop for Internet denizens who, under the girl group’s tutelage, came to know the Korean industry as sleek and styled to the nines. Produced by YG stalwart Teddy Park, the maximalist self-confidence anthem packs a refrain of “bom-ra-ta-ta-tas” that transcends linguistic barriers, Middle Eastern strings backing CL’s stand-out middle eight, zooting synths, a frenetic electronic soundscape, and a flashy music video featuring Illuminati conspiracist bait to complete the formula.
But even with its grandiose elements, a single with lyrics like, “If you planned to guess my worth, then I’m a billion dollar baby” would have fizzled in the hands of a less self-assured act — it’s “I Am the Best,” not “I’m Decent, I Guess.” But 2NE1 supplied confidence by the truckload — notably via the rapper and leader who goes by the name of CL — and filled in the track’s blanks with aplomb. Undeniably iconic, “I Am the Best” will always be the track that bulldozed into our lives and pulled so many of us into the wondrous world of Korean pop. — M.M.
3. INFINITE, “The Chaser” (INFINITZE, 2012)
There are few greater examples of symphonic synth-pop than INFINITE’s 2012 magnum opus, “The Chaser.” As near to perfection as any human creation can be, this K-pop classic spends its time reflecting the emotional turmoil of someone unable to move on, infusing a sense of staid fury into its groovy strings and pounding, synthesizer-fueled melody. The song surges and pulls back from the eventual climax as each chorus builds in intensity, bolstered by ‘80s-inspired rock instrumentals that glimmer with hints of funk. Each member’s verse — whether it’s an agile rap or a rhythmic affirmation of love — is filled with a sense of dire fervor, building in magnitude as the song progresses. With determination rather than desperation fueling the lyrics, the landmark single never falters in its dramatic pacing.
A song that amps its sonic elements up with each and every moment, “The Chaser” flies towards its end with a last minute tonal shift, keeping the melody the same but throwing in a key change that turns everything on its head. As it arrives at the pulsating descent, the song culminates in Woohyun delivering the soul-stirring anguish of his verse for a grand finale — leading into a sonorous final declaration, before the sudden cool-down. With pristine, layered production, “The Chaser” scatters nuanced sonic elements around each and every beat, with something new to discover in its depth upon each new listen. The song has gone on to develop a cultish following of sorts among K-pop fans, due to both its excellent production value and the dynamic, sleek choreography. — T.H.
2. Red Velvet, “Red Flavor” (The Red Summer, 2017)
The best pop songs can take a basic human emotion and make it the biggest, most extraordinary thing in the world — despite such familiarity, certain feelings can be rendered anew through precise distillation and amplification. It’s the reason “Red Flavor” was such an undeniable hit since day one and remains ever-beloved by fans worldwide — it overflows with an exuberance that’s palpable from the very first second.
Red Velvet have one of the most impressive and wide-ranging discographies of any K-pop group ever. From the sophisticated R&B throwback “Automatic” to the frenetic Shibuya-kei-indebted “Russian Roulette,” the ornate balladry of “One of These Nights” to the brass-and-rap hypnotism of “Dumb Dumb,” they could never be pinned down by their self-imposed “Red” and “Velvet” concepts. “Red Flavor” is most akin to the dubstep cheerleader romp of “Ice Cream Cake” — itself a symbolic baton pass from f(x) to Red Velvet as the best idol group alive — but packages its kitchen-sink extravagance into an easily digestible form.
Most importantly, the song’s evocations of a bright summer romance are felt in every flourish and quirk. There’s swirling chimes and girlish sighs, chipper woodblocks and resounding horn stabs, drumline percussion and flagellating vocal samples — production and songwriting duo Caesar & Loui brought everything to the table, because a lover can change everything about your outlook on life. Beyond the bricolage, “Red Flavor” features moments of sweet repose that lead to a final, heartfelt confession that the “summer flavor” they adore so much is “you.” In three short minutes, Red Velvet make tangible the most ineffable of things: love. — J.M.K.
1. IU, “Good Day” (Real, 2010)
As the decade comes to an end, the name IU has become synonymous with descriptions like “unbeatable chart-topper” and “fearless artist” in Korea. But at the start of the decade, this was not the case as the honey-voiced singer-songwriter was still trying to find her place in the industry. All that changed with the holiday single “Good Day” that brought the then-17-year-old sensation to national attention, and officially began her reign as chart queen.
“Good Day” is the epitome of K-pop’s rare ability to cross unexpected genres and make them mainstream, as orchestral instruments harmonize with unexpected blasts of brassy horns. Throughout the subtle key changes in the track, IU’s saccharine pop delivery glosses everything over to make these mastermind musical decisions essentially undetectable. With one song, IU the vocalist makes her true debut, with a comforting, sweet, and easy-to-sing-along style on the chorus — while letting listeners hear her true potential when the high-pitched climactic note hits on each refrain. It feels as ambitious and complex as it does straightforward and effortless, a delicate balance that can only be pulled off by a musician like IU, who continues to influence generations of future singers.
While the K-pop scene has grown in its international influence and acts as a roadmap to the world’s pop future — thanks to its tentpoles, like forward-thinking song structure and genre-spanning appeal — ultimately, it all comes down to strong music at the core. A song like IU’s “Good Day” defines this decade not only because it speaks specifically to the 2010s, but because it speaks to any decade and ultimately lets musicality take center stage. Strip away the chart success, the visuals, the media hype, the videos, and the choreography — what needs to be left is a game-changing song, sung by the right artist. — J.B.
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