I know I still have a long way to go on my K-pop journey, and am in no way claiming the authority necessary to even ask this question. But sometimes there’s music so compelling that the only way to express my feelings is with superlative. It’s shortsighted, and I’ve been burned on listicles before (because I live dangerously, apparently), but this is my current thought process. Sometimes I think I know which is number one, but then it changes. I do know better than to ask for input, unless the spiders have opinions, but if you’re reading this sometime in the future, let me know your take, and your top three. And don’t forget to like, comm– oh, right, spiders.
“Red Flavor,” Red Velvet (2017)
So, this was my conclusion the last time I did this, on a now-deleted podcast episode for the now-deleted With Eyes East podcast — “Top 5 K-Pop Songs.” “Red Flavor” is such a powerful song, bursting with life and energy, and Red Velvet is my favorite musical act. Any hesitation at this point is threefold: one, I’ve talked about “Red Flavor” a lot already, so it doesn’t feel like I’m actually expressing anything. Two, it’s a very popular song and hardly needs whatever “bump” I’d provide. Three, of the three songs we’ll talk about today, I’ve heard it the most frequently and it doesn’t stir the exact same emotions anymore. That’s sad, but you know, I have “Queendom” and “Knock on Wood” just this year. “Red Flavor” will always hold a special place in my heart, and it does make for a satisfying pick. It’s bright and peppy but distinct, and a perfect gateway to Red Velvet.
“Wind Flower,” Mamamoo (2019)
Choosing “Wind Flower” at number one is probably the reasonable conclusion. It is the first song — aside from Blackpink B-sides — I’d show anyone who was hesitant about K-pop, as it isn’t bubblegum or even fast-paced but downright gorgeous. Mamamoo is known for its powerhouse vocals, and all four members get a chance to shine, backed up by a moody, even kind of jazzy production that works in guitar and trumpets. I do like Mamamoo overall, but “Wind Flower” and “Um Oh Ah Yeh” are definite highlights.
“Yeah,” Apink (2011)
Apink’s early material is really stunning. In their seven-member days, they had a consistent, arguably repetitive sound, but the tracks themselves were clever and even emotional. Because the group was going for that soft, romantic cuteness, they achieve a genuine feeling with their music. It might be something as simple as “yearning for boy,” but it’s all in the execution, and it allows for surprisingly intense vocal performances.
At first, “Yeah” blended in with their “regular” sound, and it’s even got a forgettable title. Upon repeat listens, however, it stood out. Speaking to intensity, it’s Bomi’s final delivery of “geureoke nae maeumeul neon moreuni” that gets me, because it’s so heartfelt I can almost feel the pain it must’ve required. The translation is surprisingly impassioned: “I wonder if you really know how my heart feels / Do you really not know how I feel?” but I could sense the melancholy with her voice alone.
In terms of its writing, by Shinsadong Tiger, “Yeah” could be considered mildly subversive in this Apink era, especially since the accelerated pace of the song doesn’t draw attention to its themes. It sounds like some sort of running song, like from Sonic the Hedgehog (though Lost Labyrinth is the truer comparison). I love that juxtaposition of the backing track that pulses forward despite what the lyrics are saying. It’s an interesting, bittersweet approach that also works for Red Velvet’s “Cool World.”
The funny thing is that while at this point in my life I’d be comfortable calling “Yeah” the best K-pop song I’ve heard, I wouldn’t describe it as Apink’s best. That must be “Only One,” which occurs farther along in their history and feels like a thematic climax. It’s quintessential, and so beautiful, with Chorong’s vocals being especially haunting. And while the video is predictably cute, the visuals match the song’s strong nostalgic feeling, with soft focus and a desaturated palette.
So much to say it’s an inexact science. But today I wanted to highlight both “Wind Flower” and “Yeah,” as they both express this central tension: “Wind Flower” is an arty, sumptuous piece and ideal posterchild for the genre, but “Yeah” is the truer representation. It is what you see when you close your eyes and think “K-pop girl group,” it’s just the best possible interpretation of that sound.