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The 100 Greatest Songs in the History of Korean Pop Music

BTS, Blackpink, NewJeans, and many more


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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.

From Rolling Stone US


g.o.d., ‘To Mother’

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.


Lee Mija, ‘Camellia Girl’

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.


Orange Caramel, ‘Catallena’

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.


NCT 127, ‘Cherry Bomb’

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.


Young Turks Club, ‘Affection’

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.


Yun Sim-deok, ‘Hymn of Death’

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.


Pearl Sisters, ‘One Cup of Coffee’

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.


DJ Doc, ‘Run to You’

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.


Yoo Jae-ha, ‘Because I Love You’

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.


Roo’Ra, ‘3!4!’

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.


BTS, ‘I Need U’

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.


Infinite, ‘The Chaser’

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.