A vast industry like K-pop has an equally wide range of evergreen songs. Here are some essential K-pop tracks you should know about.
Years ago, K-pop was perceived as a revision of western pop music tendencies. From criticizing the idol system as a ‘factory’ to focusing on ‘slave contracts’, misconceptions were sundry.
Today, as K-pop becomes an increasingly global product, the perception is visibly different. With a reformed image as a global musical trendsetter, increased interest in the music itself is natural.
When you think about K-pop, you think about addictive beats, earworm hooks, dazzling production and enviable fashion. The way to this point, however, was paved by some classic hits. These are songs that have stayed with us over the years, that send us into a frenzy of memories or evoke feelings of pride at having experienced the phenomenon first hand.
Of course, being the vast industry K-pop is, it’s almost unfair to condense it into 10 tracks. These ones, however, are curated with the aim to provide a broad look at the genre’s evolution.
So, if you’re a new K-pop fan looking to expand, here are 10 essential K-pop tracks you should know.
Orange Caramel – ‘Catallena’
Want a song that perfectly embodies the ethos of K-pop? ‘Catallena’ does just that and wraps it up in a bow. This banger by Orange Caramel infuses samples of the Punjabi folk song ‘Jutti Meri’ with circa-ABBA disco and snare.
The meta concept presents members as food ingredients, each priced differently for their quality. It’s jarring and borderline voyeuristic in nature, but ‘Catallena’s polka-dotted lightness is relieving. It doesn’t take itself very seriously, and that’s what makes this one an essential K-pop song for the ages.
Girls’ Generation – ‘I Got A Boy’
The writer will admit she doesn’t much care for ‘I Got A Boy’, but she does appreciate its impact. ‘I Got A Boy’ is not a song you would expect of Asia’s top girl group in their prime.
Its roller coaster instrumentation is in places downright confusing, making it less of a track and more an entire musical. Seriously, there are at least five different genres fused into one, but it encapsulates the adventure in K-pop perfectly.
As you get into K-pop, ‘genre’ becomes a loose term. Even so, the crossover always reflects a composite picture. Girls’ Generation, however, didn’t care much for comfort when they frankenstein-ed musical polar opposites.
They did something right, though, since this one has a place in history as one of the defining K-pop moments of the decade.
IU – ‘Good Day’
With IU nearing the 12th anniversary of her debut, ‘Good Day’ seems like a long time ago for one of Korea’s most loved artists. It brings back memories of a 17-year-old IU, then just two years into her career and still somewhat unknown.
This saccharine pop number changed that overnight. Throughout the song, IU’s delicate voice contrasts the grand orchestration, eventually reaching a crescendo underlined by her powerful high notes.
More than that, ‘Good Day’ is a classic because of how clairvoyant it is of IU’s unconventional career trajectory. As we look back on her reputation as one of Korea’s most refined soloists and uncontested chart-topping queens, we realize that the impact of ‘Good Day’ almost predicted it.
TVXQ – ‘Mirotic’
Okay, this touches a nerve with early K-pop fans. Mirotic was the last time we saw TVXQ as a quintet. Shortly after the release of the album, three members left amidst a very public feud with their company. Despite that, the album’s legend status remains uncontested: it is still TVXQ’s best selling album to date.
Showing the members escaping from a witch, ‘Mirotic’ was an addictive, sultry window into the more mature side of TVXQ. The song was temporarily deemed unsuitable for under-19s, prompting the group to release a cleaner version. Despite this, Mirotic went on to become the unofficial “Album of the Decade”, elevating TVXQ to legend-status.
EXO – ‘Growl’
After an underwhelming debut, EXO could easily have been a miss if ‘Growl’ hadn’t come along. At first, the monotone music video looks uncharacteristic of K-pop, but the song quickly makes it clear why.
From brilliant harmonization to the clean-cut choreography to the catchy earworm of a chorus — ‘Growl’ required no frills. It was a rookie group leaning back on the strength of their vocals and performance.
With ‘Growl’, EXO became the first act in 12 years to sell a million copies of an album. What followed was a glowing career marked by more broken records for one of the decade’s most influential acts.
BTS – ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’
Speaking of ‘essential’ K-pop tracks, have you heard of this little underground act called… BTS? Many would argue that the title of a “classic” suits ‘Dope’ more, but let me make my case. While ‘Dope’ made BTS an act to watch closely, ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’ propelled them to global stardom.
Weaving a biblical fantasy of tropical house and moombahton, the song represented BTS’ varied musical landscape. Knife-point choreography, dazzling production, and an alluring, evocative tale — ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’ is K-pop at its best. It was also BTS’ grand arrival on the scene, telling the world that they were truly ready for stardom.
f(x) – ‘4 Walls’
Before I’m slammed with divided opinions, let me just say that every f(x) song is a classic. ‘4 Walls’, however, is on this list because of its representation of f(x) as a diverse, frenetic force.
That’s not to say that all of their songs didn’t stir up an electric intensity in us. ‘4 Walls’ takes the crown for not just its musical layering but also its choreography-less music video.
Musically, it is the delicious sweet spot between deep house and UK garage. Thematically, it draws on the crippling tension of not wanting to leave the comfort of love — the ‘four walls’ — but hating knowing that you’re also essentially trapped.
We didn’t know it at the time, but ‘4 Walls’ was to be goodbye, it was an apt one.
SHINee – ‘Replay’
Will any essential K-pop tracks list ever be complete without the ‘Princes of K-pop’ SHINee? No. Need to name an experimental group in K-pop? You’ve got SHINee. Need to trace the origins of complex choreography coupled with live vocals? That’s how SHINee roll.
Need to pinpoint the exact moment skinny jeans took over K-pop fashion? Well, here’s ‘Replay’, which, by the way, is also known as one of the best K-pop debuts ever.
Rarely do we come across an act so perfectly balanced that taking anything away seems like a travesty. Largely considered a risky debut, it’s perfectly self-explanatory in retrospect. SHINee was never meant to do things the popular way. ‘Replay’ might not have been a defining track for SHINee, but its brimming potential hinted at things greater to come.
Big Bang – ‘Bang Bang Bang’
There’s no other way to put it: ‘Bang Bang Bang’ is pure chaos. The literal embodiment of ‘you speed up, then you slow down’, except you do it with trap breakdowns. I thought about putting ‘Fantastic Baby’ (another classic) here, but the audacity of ‘Bang Bang Bang’ is a siren’s call.
Building a crackling intensity with a 90s-inspired dance beat, ‘Bang Bang Bang’ climbs higher to the point of no return. Then, it dissolves into a frenetic trap-heavy extravaganza as the group takes a shot right for our hearts.
This certainly wasn’t Big Bang’s first No. 1, but it did present the group at their cohesive best. We haven’t heard from them in a while, but we will always have ‘Bang Bang Bang’.
2NE1 – ‘I Am The Best’
When we think about the confident, zealous self-assurance of K-pop’s girl group goddesses, four queens saunter in and take their rightful place on the throne.
For some, 2NE1’s ‘I Am The Best’ is an essential K-pop track by virtue of having pulled them into K-pop. For others, it’s the gold standard of anthemic bangers about self-confidence, less performative, more assertive.
Flitting between member CL’s free-flowing rap and an electronic soundscape often bordering on jarring, the track sounds off an alarm to those who dare doubt your strength. In their short-lived time as an act, 2NE1 gave us all our personal mantra for taking on haters and also cemented their status in the upper echelons of K-pop: they really are the best.