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Yes, this is the absolutely definitive top five K-pop songs of all time, according to someone who’s been listening to K-pop for, like, a year. I trust that this list will evolve as I continue on in my Koreaboo journey, so maybe I’ll make it a recurring feature. There’s just something about this music that makes me want to surrender to hyperbole, to shout superlatives and classify things as number one best, not to evangelize but simply to accurately express my feelings. And this isn’t a one-way thing, man. I need to know your top K-pop songs, however you reach me. Email, Twitter, a thrown brick upon the temple, message wrapped around it. Two notes before we begin: first, I’m doing one song per group, so that this doesn’t become a Red Velvet show. And second, you may be frustrated to discover that all these songs are by girl groups. Whenever I say “K-pop,” you know, on the street, a brick in your hand, that’s pretty much what I’m talking about, though that obviously makes for somewhat serious omissions. Whatever! Everybody ready?
Number 5: “Butterfly,” LOONA
So, we start where I did with K-pop, a relatively recent group known as Loona. I got into the entire genre because of an article on I think Polygon talking about the unusual backstory of Loona as well as the Internet meme “Stan Loona,” which shows up in strange places, as befitting its memedom. Basically, Loona is a 12-member group, and they rolled out their members once a month, culminating in the first album. The title track at that time was “Hi High,” which I am so in love with. I think that song is great. But then I got into Red Velvet, and my exploration got away from Loona, which is no fault of their musical output. Their work has variety but also a very smooth, polished sound. Without being in any way science-fictional, they feel kind of futuristic. And I think that’s well exemplified with our number five, “Butterfly.” The crash of that percussion sets the mood for an exercise in controlled chaos, I’d say. Because there’s a lot of intense sound here, not least of which the high-pitched refrain, but it’s never an assault on the senses. Or it is, but in a good way.
Number 4: “Really,” BLACKPINK
Kissing the Ring
Forward now, to something of an obligation on my part, a song by Blackpink, the number one girl group maybe ever, I mean, like, ever, but one largely outside my experience. I’m not an anti-stan or anything, it’s just that I’ve been pacing out my discovery of K-pop groups, however I stumble upon them. For me, it went Loona, Red Velvet, Apink, Girls’ Generation, which is literally backwards, and crosses labels — it’s random. I made an early and abortive attempt to sample Twice, and watched one Blackpink video, and they didn’t leave much of an impression at the time. Still ahead for me are those two groups proper, as well as Mamamoo, GFriend, and others. f(x), perhaps, but gosh, there’s a lot of sadness there. So I fast-forwarded my process a bit and listened to all available Blackpink albums, and chose my favorite track. It’s especially tenuous, then, because I didn’t know my number one on this list was my number one the first time I heard it. Number two, though, on first contact, I knew it was one of the best songs I’d ever heard, but we’ll get there.
So our number four, and Blackpink’s representation here, is “Really,” from their 2018 extended play Square Up. I think what’s fussing me out about Blackpink is the western sound. If I want to listen to K-pop, I’ll listen to K-pop, and the same goes for artists like Nicki Minaj and Megan Thee Stallion, who I also really like. But with their synthesis, Blackpink achieves a unique sound, but it’s not one I’m always looking for. However, it’s vital that this girlcrush sound exists and is so popular, to counterbalance a lot of the cuteness of other groups. And this song strikes a good balance, I think. There’s that soaring melody from the very start, and the whole song has an almost melancholy feel, which is my zone. And the vocals are really powerful, but I have to highlight Jennie. I was blown away by her voice, especially on this track. She’s the one who stood out the most to me listening through all of their music, and I hadn’t looked up who was who until I just had to know who is this? And when I saw it was Jennie, my jaw dropped. For some background, Jennie is probably the most popular Korean. I don’t know how, really, to quantify it, so I’ll just read straight from the Wikipedia:
“Jennie was quickly noticed for her great sense of fashion and was invited to several fashion events like Saint Laurent’s ‘Summer 17 Collection Launch Party’ by Anthony Vaccarello, Chanel’s ‘Mademoiselle Privé’ exhibition, and Prada’s ‘Comics Collection Launch Party.’ House of Chanel then chose her as “House Ambassador” after eyeing the ripple effects of Jennie. She is known to have selling power, as photos on her social media become articles and the items she shows become a trend. While promoting her debut single Solo, Jennie wore various hairpins for her solo stage with a 5-by-5 hairstyle partition. The hairpins instantly became a trend and are referred to as “Jennie’s hairpins” due to the increasing popularity of the items. Forbes acknowledged Jennie’s contribution of “gaining a new foothold in Korea’s beauty trends”, as one of the reasons why Blackpink topped Forbes Korea Power Celebrity in April, 2019. She was also ranked first in the ‘Top 50 Google Worldwide Most Searched K-pop Female Idol 2019 Mid-Year Chart,’ recently released in August, 2019 by Google.”
So it’s shallow of me, but because she’s so popular I attributed that to her distinct physical appearance, in addition to her fashion sense. Largely superficial details, and therefore, she didn’t have to sound like anything. And then, to look at her — I have seen photos of her, and she’s certainly got that bold look, but in repose, she appears quite demure, I guess. That’s coming from the adorable photo of her fighting with Red Velvet’s Irene for the bill while out to lunch in Los Angeles. I’ll give you a few seconds to google her if you’re interested, and you’ll know it’s Jennie in the song because it’s the first voice you’ll hear. Everyone else is really great, too, and so I’d also like to highlight Lisa, who is Thai, not ethnically Korean. Other songs I liked so far from Blackpink: “Forever Young,” “Playing with Fire,” “Don’t Know What To Do,” and “Kick It.” But “Really” got in my brain that way the best K-pop does. I had to restrain myself from listening to it too many times a day, breaking my once-per-day anti-burnout policy. It didn’t work.
Ha Ha Hee Hee Ho Ho.
Number 3: “NoNoNo,” Apink
So our number three here was tough for me. I knew it had to be Apink, a group that has really stolen my heart as of late — I’ve written about them extensively on the site — but would it be their original classic “NoNoNo,” or their recent masterpiece “Dumhdurum,” which carries on the proud K-pop tradition of making music out of nonsense words, like Blackpink’s “DDU-DU DDU-DU” or Red Velvet’s, oh, let’s see, “Zimzalabim,” “Umpah Umpah,” and arguably “Dumb Dumb.” But is that the binary? I’m still in the discovery phase with Apink, and their more recent material, going maybe three or four albums back, is incredible. The atmosphere they create is this, like, fantastic sonic wonderland, not quite as twisty as Red Velvet, but it’s a great feel. Some of my recent favorites: “Good Morning Baby,” “Everybody Ready?” “So Long,” “Once Upon a Time,” “Petal,” “A Wonderful Love,” and “Drummer Boy,” among many others and others still to come, because Jesus they’ve got an extensive catalogue.
But I got to give it to “NoNoNo,” because I’ve listened to that song countless times, and I love it so much. This is a song that really puts the “pop” in K-pop. It feels like a spiritual sequel to “Gee,” the classic Girls’ Generation song. It’s so vibrant and cheerful, but not undisciplined. I really appreciate the strings in the backing instrumentals, which are not the main piece of the production. This is the first Apink song I really fell in love with, and I had the hardest time trying to figure who was who based on the video. Eunji I already knew, because I heard her on this song and looked it up, and then watched one of her K-dramas called Cheer Up which is one my favorite shows ever. Eunji is a powerhouse vocalist, but different than Jennie. As a solo artist, she’s put out some extremely gorgeous music, like “Hopefully Sky,” and “Away,” from this year. It’s that range, and the smoothness, the control — she’s so good. And she gets the chance to show off with “NoNoNo,” belting it out at the end, so be on the lookout for that.
Also Number 3: “Dumhdurum”
All Grown Up!
But we’re not done! I mean, we’re only on number three anyway, but, eh, fuck it. Number three is “NoNoNo” and “Dumhdurum,” because I am a spineless coward. But, man, you’ve got to hear “Dumhdurum,” and I think it’s important to provide that contrast. “NoNoNo” came out in 2013, and “Dumhdurum” was 2020. Seven years of development, but not in terms of quality necessarily — they’re super consistent. I’d say it’s style and confidence. Apink is not some wild group who’s throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. They’ve moved slowly out of their comfortable patterns, and I think that’s totally okay. I mean, this next song is the result, and I am just such a huge fan. Irene and Seulgi from Red Velvet, who I love so much, they came out swinging this year with their subunit debut. I mean, “Monster,” and the epic dance choreography of “Naughty?” And my personal favorite, “Jelly.” I love that song. But for me, I don’t see anything else coming along that tops “Dumhdurum” this year. And if you like it, I highly recommend checking out the video, which will be linked on the site, since I’m not gonna spell that for you. We’d be here all day.
The video is very well directed. Everybody just looks so cool and laidback, and the mise en scène is a kind of “aesthetics of wealth” with dream logic. It doesn’t really make sense, but it’s so specific. And the choreography is something I’d like to touch on briefly. I’ve taken issue with Apink choreo in the past. One of their songs I really like is called “LUV,” and that’s when it first jumped out at me. There’s some flapping bird hands. At 50 seconds in, Chorong walks toward the camera and she’s doing this move with her hands that looks like, I don’t know, spooning the batter into the pan? And it actually shows up again in “Dumhdurum,” like my nemesis. But “LUV” has my all-time favorite dance move, at 2 minutes 14 seconds, where they curl their arms above their head, framing their faces, and then they look to the right really quickly. It’s so good. And that also kind of comes back here in “Dumhdurum,” with the key move. They bring their arms up, elbows and wrists bent, and the back of their wrists are facing their head, like antlers, and they sideways headbang, and I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t do that around my apartment while listening to this song.
Number 2: “Into the New World,” Girls’ Generation
Songs You Can Belt To
What’s your favorite song to sing along to? Because at number two on our countdown is mine, a legendary song from the most legendary group in K-pop, Girls’ Generation. I know what this song has meant to Koreans, I know what Girls’ Generation means to this day. “Into the New World” started life as an emotional song, was imbued with even further stirring energy as a protest anthem, and is ever darkened by the saga of Girls’ Generation. This is where they began, and they went on such a journey, one that left bruises and heartbreak.
So, I missed the boat on Girls’ Generation, because I got into K-pop last year, and they stopped being a thing in either 2014 or 2017, depending on your viewpoint. So first of all, Girls’ Generation is so important to the history of K-pop because they really broke through on the international level. In 2017, Billboard declared them the “Top K-pop Girl Group of the Past Decade,” and they’re huge in Japan, for example. I mean, just legends. Red Velvet, who I’ve mentioned a lot, is their successor, and they have a lot of cute interactions together. Yeri and Yuri are good friends, Taeyeon loves Wendy, and so on. So, they started as a nine-member group in 2007, and in 2014, Jessica left the group on bad terms. I think it’s not speculation that she was pushed out. But you know there’s speculation about why. To date, they’re all on Instagram, but the other eight do not follow Jessica, they don’t interact with her. They don’t talk about her in interviews. And they’re never seen in public together. It’s sad, because incidents like this throw into question again what we already sense is in question, that this is a family or a sisterhood. You want to believe it, but who was there defending Jessica, and who wanted her out? These questions become so natural, and I have my own theories, if you’re interested in hearing them.
It’s also sad because Jessica’s sister Krystal is a member of f(x), and f(x) is the group to which Sulli was also a member, who died most likely by suicide last year. So, if anyone in the business knows what the ugly side of K-pop is, it’s definitely the Jung sisters. But you can still see them in action today; by no means have they slowed down. There’s this one really funny moment in a video from Jessica’s YouTube channel where she’s documenting a trip she took with Krystal to Vermont for skiing. Jessica’s actually from the U.S. — she was born in the same hospital as Tiffany Young, another Girls’ Generation member. So they go into this grocery store to find snacks, and Jessica’s like what’s our favorite snack, and they both say spicy Cheetos or something like that. And Jessica goes over to the shelves where there’s like a wall of these spicy Cheetos with the red bags, and Krystal is filming her being like, “Ah, yes, red hot. Just like her. Red hot anger.” That is the key word I would use to describe Jessica, and that’s even before 2014. She just has this ice queen affect — not like the way people call Irene an ice queen, because where Irene is kind of inscrutable based on most public appearances, Jessica reminds me so much of people I used to know in high school — like, popular girls. So basically, Jessica is the last K-pop idol I’d want to meet in a darkened alley, because she could destroy me with a look and a couple sentences. My self-confidence would just be negative numbers.
So by this description so far, you might think that the other eight members are these finger-tenting villains, but that is so far from the truth. I hate to frame the story of Girls’ Generation with the Jessica departure, but that is how I came to understand the group dynamic and who was who. You have Tiffany and Jessica, who are the Americans, and Tiffany and leader Taeyeon are one of the most legendary ships in all of K-pop. These days, though, it’s easier to ship Tiffany with Sooyoung, because they’re always together, so much so that Sooyoung had a video where she says “At this point you might think Tiffany is my only friend. And you’d be right.” Sooyoung is up there for me, one of my favorite idols alongside Bomi and Seulgi. I like the class clown. And Sooyoung makes a good pairing with Hyoyeon who is also mischievous but far more earnest. She’s got a really good heart, or at least, I’ve seen her cry on television shows and that makes me cry. And this is gonna sound bad, but then there’s Yuri, Sunny, and Seohyun, who I like, but I don’t have a great picture of yet. Again, phases. Yuri’s YouTube channel is great, though. At the time of this recording, she had a bunch of the members over and cooked for them, because she’s trying to be a master chef.
If you’ve been keeping track, that’s only eight of nine, and that’s because then there’s Yoona. I can’t even express how much I love Yoona. She is one of the most beloved idols ever, one of the most successful, and even to look at her it’s like, “My God.” You have an Irene moment. So, the eight members still connect up today. If you want to see them all in action, I highly recommend Sooyoung’s YouTube channel, where she’s documented Tiffany’s 30th birthday party last year. And that’s the thing with Girls’ Generation, is we have all these windows into their lives now after K-pop, and it’s just so heartwarming to see them thriving and having fun or even making new music but on their own terms. Hyoyeon recently put out a song called “Dessert,” which is basically like the Korean version of Kesha? Oh, and I got to mention the stark difference between Jessica and Sooyoung revealed by their respective YouTube channels. Jessica is super cool — she’s a fashionista. She did a “What’s in my bag?” video where she has all these accessories and cool people stuff. Sooyoung did an impromptu “What’s in my bag?” video while on set I think for a drama, and the first thing she pulled out was this plastic bag with seaweed and rice inside. And it looked so gross, all crumpled up and everything, and she was like, “Oh, I see.”
But anyway, this is about “Into the New World,” their debut song. Before all that history and drama and seaweed. Now, I’m gonna sound like a maniac here, but when I sing this song myself and it builds toward the end, I get choked up, thinking about all their dreams and passions. It is for me such a moving experience, and the music video captures a lot of that, I think. This is over ten years ago, so they were definitely babies, and they’re all engaged in some sort of activity, like fabricating a new dress or fixing a motorcycle or flying a plane, or brewing coffee. Yeah, I think Yuri got bitch duty on that one. I’d never say that to her face, of course, because like Dead or Alive, they kick high.
Number 1: “Red Flavor,” Red Velvet
And we’ve arrived at number one. While “Into the New World” was the song that inspired me to do a Top Five K-pop episode rather than a Top Ten Red Velvet, a most agonizing list to piece together, for me, “Red Flavor” is the reigning queen of my heart. To me, it is a perfect song, but I think it also perfectly demonstrates the K-pop genre. Because with idol music, you have so many voices in one song. And this presents a lot of opportunity for these tactical bursts of vocal pitches and qualities, and not a moment in “Red Flavor” passes without just the perfect garnish of Yeri or Wendy or whoever filling in a break between lines. And this has the cumulative effect of making the song feel like a party. You layer on the instrumentals which I’ve only ever been able to describe as concussive, and it becomes this outsized expression of joy — the emotion.
For me, Red Flavor joins a personal pantheon which as I discover is mostly made up of anime music, like “Inner Universe” and “Christmas in the Silent Forest” from Ghost in the Shell and “Before My Body is Dry” from Kill la Kill. Not only is it so good to listen to, it’s come to represent a moment in my life. The music of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex helps me remember the moment I found the thing that I would make if I made things, “Before My Body is Dry” is the moment I felt the most about a work of media during a time when I needed desperately to feel things. These days, Red Velvet has been helping me do that, helping me tap into something inside I didn’t know was there. With all of Red Velvet’s music, with the group themselves, Irene, Seulgi, Wendy, Joy, and Yeri, I find extremely talented artists who sing in Korean. They’ve made the language palpable to me in a way even Korean New Wave movies did not. And the performance of music is such a direct, unmediated expression of talent that I do sometimes feel a sense of ironic pride. Wow, this is what Korean people can do. They can create such a magical sound, make those dance moves so crisp and precise, be infinitely beautiful in spirit and visual — basically goddesses and then… how the shit do I share so much genetic material with these motherfuckers?
We’ll talk more about Red Velvet later, go over the history and anything else, so I didn’t want to dive too deep here. Expect certainly, at some point, a Red Velvet primer. I just find them so endlessly fascinating, both the music they make and their weird, weird personas. Seriously, I thought all K-pop artists must be this strange, because it’s celebrities and everything, but no. Everyone in Apink seems extremely well-adjusted, and Red Velvet is over there just having these stoner conversations. God, I love them so much, and I can’t wait to talk about how that perception has evolved, especially with Irene, who I feel like I understand now. But anyway, that’s it from me. For now.