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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


S.E.S., ‘(Cause) I’m Your Girl’

After the meteoric rise of TLC in the U.S., Spice Girls in the U.K., and SPEED in Japan, SM founder Lee Soo-man launched Korea’s own definitive girl group: S.E.S. The intro to their debut single, “(Cause) I’m Your Girl,” declares that it’s a “new chapter,” and the act lived up to that claim by taking post-New Jack Swing R&B into the sweetest territories. They sing about everlasting love, their stirring hearts channeled through glistening synths and dreamy strings. It’s the vocal harmonies, though, that flesh out the soft atmospherics, transforming their direct confessionals into something fantastical. The first K-pop group to debut in Japan, S.E.S. helped set the template for Korea’s future girl groups. —J.M.K.


Hyuna, ‘Bubble Pop’

Hyuna got her start as a member of the electro-pop girl group 4Minute, and she might’ve been pigeonholed as their most brutish singer if not for her breakthrough solo single, “Bubble Pop,” a showcase for her multifaceted talent. The song sounds, uncannily, like an advertisement: The horns are endearingly chipper, the coos feel like they’re from a soda commercial, and its jingle-like hook provides the blueprint for embracing summer romance in all its buildup and ecstatic release. It proved that dubstep wobbles could be irresistibly flirty, that Britney Spears’ “How I Roll” could be even more coy, and that Hyuna was Korea’s next unimpeachable superstar. —J.M.K.


TVXQ, ‘Mirotic’

Back when this duo was still a quintet, boy band TVXQ (also abbreviated as DBSK) unleashed “Mirotic,” the wonderfully seductive title track from their fourth Korean studio album. Fueled by a driving bass line and addictive dance hooks, the powerful electro-pop number became the group’s bestselling single and a popular idol cover song for years to come. Although the Korean Commission on Youth Protection deemed its lyrics to be too suggestive — “I got you under my skin” in particular got under the commission’s skin — and demanded the album carry a parental advisory label, Mirotic sold more copies than any other album by a second-generation K-pop idol group. —R.K.


Lee Hyori, ’10 Minutes’

Combining the It-girl energy of Aaliyah with the spunky relatability of J.Lo, Lee Hyori was an inescapable presence in Korea around the release of her solo debut, “10 Minutes.” With its choreography-packed music video that introduced the country to Western pop’s trends — think velour sweatsuits and lots of bare midriff — the singer ascended to stardom as a female idol unafraid to own her sexuality. A change from the cutesy music she performed with Fin.K.L, “10 Minutes” is four minutes of groovy, synth-fueled R&B-pop perfection. At its center is the effortlessly alluring Lee, promising to change your life. —M.H.K.


PSY, ‘Gangnam Style’

Park Jae-sang was already a famous rapper, singer, songwriter, and producer in Korea when “Gangnam Style” became a megahit that had people around the globe singing “oppa Gangnam style” — a catchphrase for a man who thinks he’s a baller. The song and accompanying music video, the first to reach 1 billion YouTube views, took a satirical stab at the money-obsessed nouveau riche. With its earworm EDM chorus, “hey sexy lady” hook, and PSY’s accompanying signature “horse dance” that was emulated by everyone from Britney Spears to Madonna, “Gangnam Style” helped introduce K-pop to the world. —J-H.K.


Deli Spice, ‘Chau Chau’

Like countless young people in the Nineties, guitarist and singer Kim Min-gyu liked U2 and wanted to start a band. So he recruited members through an internet music community called Mosomo and formed Deli Spice, a breakthrough indie band that would become a totem of 1990s nostalgia — as cemented by their inclusion in the 2012 hit drama Reply 1997. The hit single “Chau Chau” remains their best moment, burning slowly over a wistful breakbeat as they etch the lyrics “I can hear your voice/No matter how hard I try to block it out” deep into your memory. —J.G.


Brown Eyed Girls, ‘Abracadabra’

Around the time that Lady Gaga released The Fame Monster, Brown Eyed Girls were putting their own spin on the era’s glossy, yet gritty electro-pop sound with “Abracadabra.” It was thrilling merely for its novelty: They were projecting a grown-woman image by unabashedly referencing sex, and their speaker-box vocals, matched with the track’s fat synths, were the opposite of cute. The hip-shaking move that goes with the song, dubbed “the arrogant dance,” is simple but full of attitude. Brown Eyed Girls were aspirational in how little they cared about what anyone else thought. —C.L.


Lee Nan Young, ‘Tears of Mokpo’

One of the most famous Korean singers of the 1930s and ’40s (and also the mother of the Kim Sisters), Lee is known for this evocative ode to her hometown of Mokpo. Recorded when Korea was occupied by Japan, “Tears of Mokpo” conveys strength and courage for the countrymen who endured colonization. Lee’s plaintive vocals set the tone for this ballad, which is both romantic and nationalistic. The pentatonic scale adds a mournful touch to the lyrics, which are sung from the perspective of a young bride pining for a husband who may not be able to return home. —J-H.K.


NewJeans, ‘Ditto’

When they popped up with their debut, “Attention,” NewJeans’ cultural impact was almost instantaneous. Through their dense yet deceptively hooky hits, they explore themes of coming-of-age girlhood and nostalgia that resonate globally with listeners across generations. The group is the brainchild of Min Heejin, initially a creative director at SM Entertainment with acts like f(x) and Red Velvet who has now successfully broken many of K-pop’s conventions with NewJeans, her first group for HYBE. “Ditto,” their 2022 single, is one of their best. It’s cool kid pop, built from laidback Baltimore club and garage, complete with vocal harmonies reminiscent of Y2K-era Black American girl groups. It’s a dreamy, sepia-toned memory of a teenage crush. —C.L.


BoA, ‘No. 1’

BoA is your idol’s idol. Spanning four Number One albums in Korea and six Number One albums in Japan across three decades, her career runs parallel with SM’s own development as a home of innovative pop. After debuting in 2000 at age 13, the singer and dancer skyrocketed as the first Korean idol to break into Japan with her debut 2002 Japanese album, Listen to My Heart. Then came her most emblematic crossover hit, “No. 1,” featuring glittering dance production reminiscent of Max Martin and innocent R&B vocals. At the center there’s BoA, a girl trying to win back her crush, who grew up to spearhead the Hallyu wave with global hits sung in Japanese, English, and Mandarin. —C.L.


f(x), ‘4 Walls’

Upon their debut in 2009, f(x) were regarded as SM’s experimental girl group. Their standout hit “4 Walls” represented the most evolved form with K-pop’s flirtation with EDM-pop, which exploded alongside the rise of pop-house hits on the charts in the U.K. With its skittering beat and house chords produced by LDN Noise, the intimate track sees the members singing about love as shelter, opening the door for girl groups to create tender dance floor-ready hits. Like Britney Spears’ “Toxic” strings or Robin S’s “Show Me Love” house chords, the synths in “4 Walls” have become instantly recognizable in clubs around the globe. —C.L.


SHINee, ‘Lucifer’

After having a monster debut with “Replay,” SHINee established themselves as one of K-pop’s most respected boy groups for their boundary-pushing production and performance concepts. Their daring aesthetics are exemplified by the punchy electro-pop hit “Lucifer,” whose insistent chorus likens an angel-faced lover to the devil herself — not to mention a co-writing credit for a then-18-year-old Bebe Rexha. While its unison-sung refrain is immediately sticky, its verses and post-chorus allow each member to showcase the individual personalities that make SHINee such a commanding act. —M.J.



Through their debut 2015 single, “Like Ooh-Ahh,” and 2016’s “Cheer Up,” TWICE established themselves as expert purveyors of girlish emotion. Then came “TT,” which saw them perfect adolescent yearning as an art form. They pout and ache and sigh, their rollercoaster emotions mirrored by fluctuating synth tones, and grounded by a bubbly beat that signals there’s hope amid the anxiety and disappointment. It’s one of the best hits from production duo Black Eyed Pilseung, who took a party-ready Atlanta bass groove and made it the site of an all-consuming crush. The emoticon hook sums up the experience, but only TWICE could’ve made it a fount of prismatic feeling. —J.M.K.


Shin Joong Hyun and Yup Juns, ‘Beautiful Woman’

Known as the “godfather of Korean rock,” Shin Joong Hyun is a defining pioneer in Korean pop music. A talented guitarist, brilliant songwriter, producer extraordinaire, and musical mentor, he helped shape the careers of many of Korea’s most notable artists, among them Kim Choo-ja, Pearl Sisters, and Kim Wan-sun. His 1974 hit “Beautiful Woman,” from his former band’s debut album, Shin Jung Hyun & Yup Juns Vol. 1, became such a huge sensation that it was dubbed “the favorite song of 30 million people” (South Korea’s population at the time). Replete with catchy guitar riffs and simple yet memorable verses, the Seventies classic epitomizes Shin’s gift for merging Western psychedelic rock and soul with Korean lyrics — showcasing the infinite possibilities of Korean-style rock. —R.K.


Red Velvet, ‘Red Flavor’

Red Velvet’s feel-good 2017 hit is high-fructose pop perfection, overflowing with effusive metaphors about a love as sweet and fresh as fruit salad. Since arriving in 2014, the group had made themselves known for their pristine upbeat dance and sleek R&B tracks. Their magnum opus “Red Flavor” is the best example of the former category. Composed by Swedish songwriting duo Caesar & Loui, the exuberant song features bright verses and syncopated bridges that are carried by tropical melodies, woodblock beats, wind chimes, and whompin’ synths. If there’s ever a song that sounds like the taste of summertime fun, adventure, and romance, this is it. —T.H.


Super Junior, ‘Sorry, Sorry’

Launched in 2005, Super Junior were the first boy group to break out into subunits with Korean and Chinese members, helping forge the beginnings of K-pop’s Hallyu wave. Of all their supercharged dance hits, “Sorry, Sorry” is their quintessential earworm. The throbbing techno beat drives the tune, but the appeal is in its seductive simplicity, as its sweet hook is made of the words “sorry” and “shawty” repeated in sets of four. The highlight, though, is members Sungmin and Ryeowook riffing off each other during the song’s immaculate bridge. —J-H.K.


Lee Jung Hyun, ‘Wa’

An auteur who forged her own avant-garde performance concepts, Lee Jung Hyun made space for female artists to be creative, wild, and weird. She introduced techno to Korea in the late Nineties with her debut single, “Wa,” whose thumping Eurodance beat meets traditional Korean instrumentation. In live sets of the song, she told the tale of a jilted alien lover by erratically waving around a red fan and shout-singing into a mic placed on her pinky, while wearing traditional garb made with shiny, synthetic fabric. An eternal club hit, “Wa” will always be a much-needed moment of catharsis to bang against the world. —C.L.


Wonder Girls, ‘Tell Me’

Wonder Girls established a blueprint of catchiness with “Tell Me,” one of K-pop’s first modern “hook songs” and one of the first to spark a dance craze through early YouTube with its easy-to-learn choreography. On top of a kitschy, retro-futuristic beat, Wonder Girls beam with fresh girlishness, especially as member Sohee exclaims, “Eomona!” (“oh my!”) in the song’s pre-chorus. As the debut girl group of JYP Entertainment, founded by singer-songwriter-producer Park Jin-young, they became the first K-pop artists to break onto the Billboard Hot 100 with the English version of their 2007 Motown-indebted single “Nobody.” Meanwhile Park went on to oversee the careers of 2PM, TWICE, and Stray Kids — just to name a few. —M.H.K.


Seo Taiji and Boys, ‘I Know’

Modern K-pop not only has an origin story, it has a birthdate. On April 11, 1992, Seo Taiji and Boys released what is widely considered to be the first recognizable modern K-pop song, “I Know,” when it premiered live on a television contest on the network MBC to animosity from the jury, critics, and older musicians. Yet young people across the country reacted in total excitement to the track’s blend of New Jack Swing, rock, hip-hop, and rap — in addition to the group’s expert b-boying. “I Know” jolted awake an audience used to traditional trot and pop music, altering the fabric of the Korean music industry forevermore. —M.S.


2NE1, ‘I Am the Best’

With their 2011 hit “I Am the Best,” 2NE1 established a new industry standard by becoming one of the first K-pop girl groups to break out of the feminine, cute, and innocent image typical of the time. With an instantly recognizable electro beat, the song kicks off with leader CL’s now-iconic rallying cry, “Naega jeil jal naga” (“I am the best”). Hearing those words, unsuspecting fans erupted into cheers when 2NE1 performed the song at their surprise reunion at Coachella 2022. While their earlier releases, like 2010’s “Fire” and “Can’t Nobody,” were just as fierce, “I Am the Best” took everything one notch higher. —K.K.


BIGBANG, ‘Haru Haru’

After spending their early years collaborating with Korean punks No Brain and flirting with Neptunes and Maroon 5-indebted beats, BIGBANG found their musical identity by flipping Japanese deep house into a high-stakes R&B drama. That formula was refined on their wistful piano dance anthem, “Haru Haru,” which features member T.O.P’s sullen anger, as Daesung’s vocals in the chorus soar as if they’re breaking an emotional dam. Halfway around the world, Ne-Yo was channeling tortured romance with “Because of You,” but BIGBANG deliver an unmistakably Korean pathos here, singing and rapping as if on the verge of tears. —J.M.K.


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.