Over the past two decades, dozens of noteworthy K-pop hits have shaped the industry into what it is today. Here are just a few of the highlights that for various reasons are still relevant today, listed in the order they were released.
1. Seo Taiji and Boys, I Know (1992): All right, so this is going way back, but Seo Taiji and Boys are key to K-pop’s past and present, as many accounts point to this song as the start of the genre itself. Keep an eye out while watching the music video and you’ll see Yang Hyunsuk, founder of YG Entertainment, among the Boys.
2. Wonder Girls, Nobody (2008): “Nobody” marked a turning point in the international spread of K-pop, with its English version becoming the first K-pop group song to enter Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in America. Its retro sound (I mean, retro even for 2008) is emblematic of the beloved group’s classic style.
3. TVXQ, Mirotic (2008): Less than a week after the release of Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” came TVXQ’s “Mirotic,” the first Korean album to break half a million sales since Seo Taiji himself four years earlier. It was also the group’s last Korean album with their original lineup of five, and is internationally regarded as one of the most important K-pop releases of all time.
4. SNSD, Gee (2009): “Uh-huh, listen boy! My first love story!” The ubiquitous “Gee” by SNSD has been called the most popular K-pop song of the 2000s. While I myself vastly prefer the group’s following singles “Genie” and “Oh!” there’s just something legendary about “Gee” that demands a place on this list.
5. Super Junior, Sorry Sorry (2009): “Sorry Sorry” was huge for the legendary group Super Junior, becoming their first song to see explosive international chart success in multiple countries. It’s also one of the most readily recognizable staples of Korean pop culture, and for good reason—that hook is arguably the catchiest of the last decade.
6. Brown Eyed Girls, Abracadabra (2009): Brown Eyed Girls are too often forgotten in the long and complex tale of K-pop history, but their bad-girl concepts helped paved the way for later groups such as 2NE1 and 4MINUTE at a time when cute concepts were flooding the girl group scene. “Abracadabra,” at the time extremely controversial, takes the crown as group’s most groundbreaking (and jammable) single.
7. SHINee, Lucifer (2010): “Lucifer” is like if “Mirotic” and “Sorry Sorry” had a lovechild that later grew up to become sharper, slicker, and hotter than both of its parents. Sure, that’s coming from someone with something of a SHINee bias, but there’s no denying that “Lucifer” is one of the best K-pop songs of all time and a crucial moment in the group’s career.
8. IU, Good Day (2010): While IU’s image was mostly cutesy and juvenile before this song, she officially became Korea’s sweetheart with the release of “Good Day,” her first hit that demonstrated her vocal abilities to the fullest. She remains the country’s most beloved pop musician to this day, and it’s all due to this song. And that riff in the verses that changes instruments like four times? Iconic.
9. 2NE1, I Am The Best (2011): Everyone should know every word to this song, which many consider the biggest song of 2011. Its aggressive electronic beat is quintessentially K-pop, and the profusion of gleefully unapologetic vocal hooks is never-ending.
10. BIGBANG, Fantastic Baby (2012): If Seo Taiji is the reason K-pop exists, then BIGBANG is the reason K-pop exists as we know it today. “Fantastic Baby,” which I’m sure everyone looking at this list has at least heard of, is without a doubt one of the biggest K-pop songs ever, setting myriad records that were not broken for years despite the ballooning influence of the internet on the Hallyu Wave shortly after the song’s release. While slightly lesser-known hits such as “Haru Haru” and “Love Song” (among others) also deserve to be recognized for their impact, it’s “Fantastic Baby” that is the most indispensable song on this playlist.
Do you see the group that introduced you to K-pop on this list? What are your favorite K-pop songs from past generations?
Listen to this playlist on YouTube here.