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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


Blackpink, ‘DDU-DU DDU-DU’

Since 1996, the YG model has been to pick idols with superstar potential and give them tracks that put their charisma on full display. But it had not been executed so flawlessly until the arrival of Blackpink, whose 2018 single, “DDU-DU DDU-DU,” just booms with confident “girl crush” energy. Each member’s charms are on display: Jennie’s raps are thrilling, Lisa performs with a wink and a smirk, Rose’s unique vocal timbre shines, and Jisoo’s quiet confidence balances it all out. Like most of their hits, it was crafted by YG resident producer Teddy Park, who perfected and popularized K-pop’s EDM trap template. BLACKPINK have since taken that sound to global heights, but “DDU-DU DDU-DU” remains iconic. —C.L.


Cho Yong Pil, ‘Short Hair’

With Cho Yong Pil’s whimsical falsetto, otherworldly analog synths, and major seventh chords, “Short Hair” was a revolutionary force in Korean pop, offering listeners an escape from the pentatonic melancholy of trot. While the influential balladeer had already established himself through the rock band Atkins and his 1976 hit solo debut single, “Come Back to Busan Port,” this song marked Cho’s triumphant return after a marijuana scandal and performance ban, setting the stage for his enduring popularity. Released during the revolutionary spring of 1980 — Jang Hoon’s 2017 drama A Taxi Driver, which is set during that period, uses “Short Hair” in its introduction — the freewheeling song has since become inextricably associated with the liberatory spirit of the Eighties. —J.G.


BTS, ‘Spring Day’

A timeless meditation on friendship, sorrow, and regret, “Spring Day” is a brilliant example of BTS’ unique ability to sum up complex emotions into universal pop songs. The soaring 2017 power ballad is full of lush vocals and soulful rapping, as the group movingly evokes powerful feelings of loss, memory, and hope for the future: “The morning will come again/Because no darkness or no season can last forever,” they sing. Widely understood as a tribute to the predominantly teenage passengers who drowned in the Sewol Ferry disaster of 2014, “Spring Day” creates powerful art out of deep desolation and remains arguably the most beloved song in the group’s rich catalog. —J-H.K.


IU, ‘Good Day’

Arguably the country’s most popular singer-actor of her generation, IU steadily gained recognition after kicking off her career in 2008, but was still finding her musical footing at the start of the 2010s. Then came 2010’s “Good Day.” Upon first listen, it’s a bouncy, sweet tune, bolstered with orchestral instrumentation and synths. Then the production shifts into funk-inflected pop, as bold horns and dulcet, layered vocals emphasize IU’s bright, bold, and candied sensibility. “Good Day” glides along key changes and soars with the momentum of confessed love — hitting a three-note jump in IU’s voice so singularly spectacular that it instantaneously launched her into the realm of legendary Korean singers. —T.H.


H.O.T., ‘Candy’

Mixing a hip-hop ethos with a pop sensibility, “Candy,” from We Hate All Kinds of Violence, the debut LP by SM’s H.O.T. (Highfive of Teenagers), set the bar for every K-pop boy band’s sugary-sweet summertime earworms to come. Considered one of the first idol groups and credited with establishing the popularity of boy bands, H.O.T. were early progenitors of Hallyu and featured some of the best-known voices in the early years of K-pop. A perfect playful match for the group’s rainbow clown suits and oversized mittens, “Candy” is effervescent and enduring, a jubilant classic. —M.S.


Girls’ Generation, ‘Gee’

“Gee” isn’t so much an accounting of a “first love story,” as Girls’ Generation’s Tiffany promises in the song’s intro, as it is a testament to the way love — and all of its indescribable ecstasies — can be translated through pop music. This enduring hit overflows with rapidly repeated syllables, every utterance becoming an onomatopoeic expression of joy. That bolsters how the song wields aegyo (a Korean term for cutesy behaviors and speech) as a dizzying, maximalist aesthetic. Like no other K-pop song before it — or since — it’s a pure distillation of the giddiness of infatuation.Amazingly, “Gee” almost never happened. SM Entertainment planned to release “Dancing Queen” as the lead single from the group’s debut EP in 2009 — presumably as a response to Wonder Girls’ retro hit “Nobody.” Upon showing “Gee” to the record label, producer duo E-Tribe were told that the song’s lyrics were childish and the melody was weak. Previous E-Tribe songs for Lee Hyori, KARA, and Nassun had hinted at the simple immediacy they’d perfect here, but “Gee” was even more powerfully direct, especially the way the song’s glittering Shibuya-kei synths continually build, capturing how a crush can energize us. Thankfully, E-Tribe stood their ground and were proved right when the song quickly took off, spawning the most viewed K-pop music video up to that time (until Psy’s “Gangnam Style” ascended to the throne in 2012). Fourteen years after it came out, “Gee” still feels like a revelation, and that’s because love always does too. —J.M.K.