With all due respect to the ladies, K-pop probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the boys. The Korean-pop explosion we know today was birthed via a boy-band trio (read on to find out exactly who) that led the way for the scene to bring its beloved boy bands, girl groups, solo stars and rappers to international audiences.
Top 20 Essential Boy Band Songs
From the classic acts that are credited for kickstarting K-pop to today’s international forces, here are the 10 boy bands from the history of K-pop every casual fan needs to know, in no particular order.
Seo Taiji & The Boys
According to most followers, South Korea’s “idol” K-pop scene was created upon the 1992 debut of Seo Taiji & The Boys, a trio of hip-hop singer/rappers that fused American pop music with Korean lyrics. The band’s immense popularity helped modernize the country approach to boy band creation, beginning Korea’s still-popular trend of preparing polished acts with in-sync choreography, coordinating fashion choices and genre-melding music.
Their first single “I Know” mixed New Jack Swing with pop synths and hip-hop beats, and wound up breaking chart records in Korea. The commanding track laid the groundwork for the boys to continue experimenting with sounds throughout their careers, mixing everything from metal to gangster-rap into their sound, and adopting different musical “concepts” for each album release. Seeing Seo Taiji & The Boys’ popularity as an opportunity for profit, Korea’s record labels jumped on the new style and began creating copy-cat groups.
The first manufactured boy band to debut under the modern-day K-pop power label SM Entertainment, H.O.T dominated the music industry after exploding with bubblegum-pop smash “Candy,” and created a kind of fan fervor never before seen in South Korea. The quintet’s concerts in the early ’90s and late ’00s caused near pandemonium, making headlines on national news and forcing the country’s Board of Education to make new rules that restricted students from ditching school to see shows. Before the group disbanded in 2001 after five years together, they broke records, sold million of albums and even boasted the first official fan club outside of Korea.
Similar to how *N SYNC soon became the rivals to the Backstreet Boys, Sechs Kies quickly became the only boy band that could compete with H.O.T. While the two groups acted as friendly rivals to one another, their supporters were notorious for creating online ‘fan wars’ that likely fueled today’s hyper-passionate K-pop fanbases. Like H.O.T, the sextet also sold moved tons of albums, sold out concerts in hours and had their own movi,e thanks to the success of hits like “Pom Seng Pom Sa,” “Couple” and “Road Fighter.” The group abruptly announced their decision to disband in 2000, after just three years together, saying they preferred to leave at their height of their success.
Celebrating its 17th anniversary this year, K-pop’s longest-running act Shinhwa continues to live up to its name — which translates to “legend” in Korean. While most groups fail to even reach the five-year benchmark, the sextet has not only managed to stay together, but has become one of the country’s most consistent commercial success stories. The guys count chart-topping hits throughout the years like 1999’s “T.O.P.,” “I Pray 4 U” in 2002, and this year’s “Sniper.” Today, members Eric, Lee Min Woo, Kim Dong Wan, Shin Hye Sung, Jun Jin and Andy — now all in their mid-30s — refuse to slow down, releasing their 12th album, embarking on an Asian tour and even coming Stateside for KCON 2015.
This outfit is one of the initial boundary-pushers for what it meant to be a global Korean act. Most notably, the group lead the way for K-pop to enter and thrive in the humongous Japanese record industry, but also held a Guinness world record for the largest official fan club, broke overseas touring records in Japan and headlined Billboard’s K-Pop Masters concert in Las Vegas — one of the very first large-scale Korean pop shows in America. With more than a decade active, TVXQ! were one of the first acts to defy the usual five-year expiration date for Korean pop acts, setting the stage for other acts to enjoy greater and longer success.
One of the biggest international phenoms to come out of the K-pop scene, BIGBANG blew by boy band tropes by producing and writing their own music, forgoing hardcore choreography and seeing all five members find solo success. BIGBANG currently is the only K-pop act to hold World Digital Songs chart only PSY had previously achieved. Their fanbase, the VIPs, are a force to be reckoned with too — they earned the Best Worldwide Act honor at the 2011 MTV EMAs and cinched Billboard‘s inaugural Fan Army Face-Off in 2014. “Fantastic Baby” is also the K-pop music video with the most views on YouTube, not including PSY.
With their harder pop-rock sound and muti-instrumental skills, FTISLAND was one of the earliest acts to show that an emphasis on musicianship won’t befuddle fans — the band has a following just a rabid as their dancing boy band counterparts. And with each member boasting success on TV and in musicals, you could argue that every member is a Pete Wentz– or Adam Levine-type, instead of one dude getting all the attention and focus.
This septet is the best representation of intense, K-pop boy band choreography, always making a point of improving their dance moves with each new project. With nearly every music video release, INFINITE puts out an accompanying choreography version to highlight their dedication to their steps. But their music is always on point, too, from last year’s excellent “Back” to 2012’s “The Chaser” — Billboard‘s No. 1 K-pop song of that year.
More impressive than Beast’s music is the group’s origin story: Beast’s members were initially known for having very little individual success in the industry (being dropped by other labels, joining groups that never launched) before they were put together by their record label. Despite a slow start, Beast has proven to be both not only a commercially viable act but critically acclaimed as well; member Junhyung has co-produced and co-written a majority of Beast’s material, including “Good Luck,” Billboard’s No. 1 K-pop song of last year.
The five-member boy band quickly hit it big after their 1999 debut, Chapter 1. The group earned an elusive “million-seller” album just two years into their careers and were the last group to sell as much with one album until current K-pop sensations EXO. The band indefinitely went on hiatus to pursue solo activities in 2006, but reunited for a hugely profitable comeback in 2014. They’re not the sole K-pop boy band to successfully regroup, but have since been one of the few K-pop acts to book American arenas like the Staples Center and Prudential Center.