When I was on the Global team at The Motley Fool we had a intern who had a list of “My five favorite…” on a range of topics including Korean pop music a.k.a. K-pop. I didn't care so much for the first, second and third but then Cheer Up! blew me away and I haven't looked back since! Thank you Chandler! There is so much great music coming out of Korea that it is hard to keep up with.
Why K-pop is different—and awesome
There are a handful of big entertainment companies and a bunch of smaller ones that hold auditions for those who think they can be a star and in practice, this means 13, 14, 15-year olds. (Here is the information page for JYP Entertainment's auditions for example. You can read in the original Korean if you wish though it is not strictly necessary to speak Korean.) Alternatively, one of the company scouts might spot you while shopping, think you have the look and personality they want and ask you to audition.
As I understand it, if a child is selected then they leave regular school and move into the company dormitory and will then spend the next few years training more or less full-time in singing and dance. There are constant evaluations and some will drop out. Trainees must behave appropriately in public, are told what to eat, have very limited contact with their families, or anyone else in the outside world and are not allowed to date – the myth created is that K-pop stars are desirable but yet somehow “available”. Indeed, the agreements have been called slave contracts and girls may be required to get cosmetic surgery!
Then in their late teens they will be assigned, or compete for, a place in a group – all girls or all boys – and they will debut. By then, after years of practice they should be amazing… but they are the only visible part. The company employs/contracts song writers, musicians, choreographers, hair stylists, mark-up artists, fashion designers and video/sound producers and technicians to make a complete “product“.
It is worth mentioning that the unblemished image created for K-pop idols means that the lyrics and the music vidoes are free from overt sexual overtones and as best I can tell from subtitles, no one swears. Performers and anyone else in the videos are fully clothed (though I will concede that skirts/dresses can be very short but they wear shorts for safety; it seems that even women showing belly buttons is a bit taboo in Korea). So, good clean fun.
Hopefully the song is a hit and the trainee becomes a star (fans will adore them but they are merely company employees and the company takes the money) but that can bring its own set of pressures, sometimes with tragic consequences as the suicide of SHINee singer Jonghyun demonstrates. More likely your catchy, beautifully executed song will get the interest of a small group of fans that will love it but most will never hear it and after a few years, the group will be disbanded. I make a point to listen to some of the lesser-known groups as some of their songs are as good as any and it is sad that they get so little recognition.
Interestingly, K-pop has a known starting point in the way that Rapper's Delight is for hip hop. In April 1992, 3-member Seo Taiji & Boys appeared on a talent show on MBC, one of Korea's TV networks performing a highly choreographed song that featured rapping. The judges were baffled and they came last. However the public loved it and the song was #1 in Korea for 17 weeks! The song: I know.
Where to start?
If K-pop is completely new to you, I suggest that you start with the following, each of which are mentioned again below. Click the "CC" (closed captions) button on YouTube since many have English subtitles but perhaps surprisingly, they aren't necessary to enjoy!
A song from the world's most popular musical act:
A song from, what was, the most popular girl group:
(See BlackPink below for the currently most popular girl group.)
Not really standard K-pop as it is a solo act with no dancing but it is beautiful (more explanation below):
- A fantastic song from a girl group that even K-pop fans probably know of only dimly, if at all. A great example of why you shouldn't limit yourself to just the most popular and also of a great, really cheap music video:
Such a fun, bouncy song that tells a heart-warming story so you can't help smiling by the end! The music doesn't actually start until about 35 seconds in:
Peter's K-pop selection
(As of 29th October 2023)
I have to mention boy band BTS first because if you have heard of any K-pop group, it was almost certainly BTS as they are huge. They are unusual in that they write a lot of their material
- Boy With Luv (1.2 billion views as of 2021-05-22) I love their 2019 hit but that was the first song of theirs that I liked.
It is also well worth watching the “dance practice” video so you can see the whole performance start to finish. In fact, I often prefer the dance practice videos and the live performances to the music videos.
Indeed there is a huge sub-genre of dance covers and “KPop in public” performances where dance groups from around the world reproduce, or reinterpret, songs from popular groups. For Boy With Luv, I encourage you to check these out:
- 7 young men from Vietnam (over 9 million views!)
- a rotating cast of dance groups
- 5 Korean(?) girls on top of a building
- a fabulous collaboration of 3 members each from 4 girls groups
…and so on.
- Dynamite The first video to hit 100m views on youtube in 24 hours and perhaps not coincidentally, their first song in English.
- Butter BTS broke their own record with this song reaching 113 million views in 24 hours!
Someone at my old office (Dilene) gave me this list of her ten favorite songs. See if you like them:
- I need U
- Best of me
- Blood sweat & tears
- Boy in luv
Click on [CC] control to turn on subtitles. I found the lyrics disturbing, especially
“Hold tight on to me/before I jump on you.”.
- Not today
She told me that, "These ones are less upbeat but beautiful":
If there was a song in my head since mid-2015, it was probably one of theirs. They are wonderful! As with most K-pop, it is not serious music but it is so much fun! Three of the members are Japanese and one is from Taiwan which led to a diplomatic incident with China in 2016. Their songs all have bits of English in them, especially in the chorus, which is good marketing since it is everyone's second language no matter where you are in Asia. I think all the official music videos have English subtitles too.
To the relief of fan's everywhere, all 9 members have signed a new contract as the original ends in October 2022 and there was speculation as to whether they would go their separate ways.
- 2015-04-24 Cheer Up! (The last 20 seconds is odd and completely disconnected from the song; I have no idea why it is included.)
- 2016-05-02 Touchdown (live)
- 2016-05-07 Woo Hoo (live)
- 2016-06-30 Precious Love (live)
- 2016-07-14 Truth A dance practice video – the dance routines require so much precision and you can really see where all the practice time goes which is not evident in the actual music videos; they have to keep shifting positions so that the person singing is generally front and center.
- 2016-10-23 TT I don't especially like this song but I include it as it is their most popular with over 500 million views.
- 2017-02-19 Knock, Knock Possibly my favorite though it is hard to pick. Also the dance practice video.
- 2017-10-30 Likey The official music video has 450,942,423 views as of 2020-05-28 but this live performance is way more fun.
- 2017-12-11 Heart Shaker The video gets weird and disconcerting in a fun way at 2:27!
- 2017-12-21 Merry and Happy
- 2018-01-11 Candy Pop This one is in Japanese! The three Japanese members – Sana, Mina and Momo – had to learn Korean while they were trainng but for the Japanese songs, the other six members had to memorize their lines in a foreign language!
- 2018-02-18 Brand New Girl In Japanese.
- 2018-08-16 BDZ In Japanese) is not an outstanding song but I include it here for its strange video. It may or may not be a coincidence that the key words from the chorus happen to spell BTS.
- 2018-04-09 What is love?. For a severe cringeworthy moment, see well-rehearsed dance cover and skip forward to 1:51 where some older women join in and get in the way.
- 2018-05-21 Really Really This is a fun cover of the song by boy band Winner – see if you like the original better.
- 2018-07-09 Dance the night away
- 2018-11-05 Yes or Yes The official music video is weird whereas this very informal version, shot in vertical like an amateur, looks like a group of friends mucking around https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGT1uFe5Rls. Also worth seeing is the dance routine
- 2019-04-22 Fancy As noted above, there are a huge number of dance covers and videos posted under "Kpop in public" and this was a popular song to cover of which these are four notable examples:
2019-09-23: Feel Special.
This song comes after Mina had to withdraw from performing and her part starting at 1:30 addresses her crisis.
By way of comparison, check out Dahyun's emotional solo; I think the style is better suited to the lyrics of the song.
- 2019-10-29: Luv Me This is one of my favorite songs!
- 2019-12-23: A Christmas present from Nayeon as she covers Ariana Grande's Santa Tell Me
- 2020-06-01 More and More. I am not sure I like it but I included it here because it is their latest and it seems to be popular. Just not with me.
- 2020-06-18 Fanfare! This was a surprise as I had no idea that it was coming though that is usually the case for the Japanese releases and is a welcome return to bubble-gum pop. Bear in mind that only 3 of the 9 members speak Japanese so the other 6 had to just learn their lines phonetically. No English subtitles yet.
- 2020-05-13 Strawberry. This song was co-written by Chaeyoung and it took me a while to warm to it but now I love it.
- 2020-10-26 I can't stop me, the “comeback” single from the Eyes Wide Open album.
- 2020-10-26 Go hard Another song from the Eyes Wide Open album that has an Arabic sound and has what I consider to be the best song lyric ever: “My opponent is the woman in the mirror”.
- 2021-04-20 Kura Kura for the Japanese market. Not a great song overall but it has a great chorus which prompted each of them to do a 30-second video such as this TikTok from Mina.
- 2021-06-09 Alcohol Free A bit of a departure for Twice as it has a Latin vibe to it and I am still not sure if I like it but it may yet get stuck in my head. Music groups with several years of success can either keep doing the same thing forever but that may get boring and they lose their audience… or they can try new musical directions but then they risk losing their audience. This is the single from the album Taste of Love and I've not listened to the other tracks yet. Will update this list soon.
- 2021-06-27 Me! Actually, this is just Tzuyu doing a cover of Taylor's Swift's song but I love it! It is just the sort of catchy, upbeat song that drew me to Twice in the beginning. Also pleasing to see is that Tzuyu appears to have found her self-confidence as in many videos she appears to shy from attention. She should feel confident given all that she has achieved, notably in this video, singing in English. As a bonus, there is a delightful video of “big sisters” Momo and Nayeon seeing it for the first time.
2021-10-10 The Feels Their first English-language song! This got them on The Tonight Show and Good Morning America though apparently the hosts of the latter didn't get it. Their loss. Their loss I think it is one of their best. Also noteworthy:
- choreography video 1 with a static camera
- choreography video 2 with moving camera (31 million views as of 2021-11-17!)
- hilarious “random unit dance”, a variation on the “relay dances” that are often made in K-pop to make use of the vertical video format. They manage to incorporate a very Asian way of making decisions. If you only watch one video, watch this one!
2021-11-10 Scientist A hypnotic song, I loved it from the first listen. As far as I know, this is the first time that Mina has been the opening singer. Some of the comments note that it is in a lower register and that Momo (starting at 2:04) is singing in her natural range and she has such a beautiful, sultry voice. This song is released as part of their Formula of Love album. Associated videos:
- choreography video 1, noteable becaues because Jeongyeon is in it. Like Mina before her, she's had to take time off because she was suffering anxiety attacks. At the end they show an earlier take where Tzuyu forgets the next move; I can feel her soul being crushed. She is the youngest in the group and I suspect that she rarely smiles in performances because she is concentrating so hard on getting her part right.
- choreography video 2 with moving camera
2021-12-19 Snowman, Mina's Melody Project, a cover of Sia's original.
“Please don't cry no tears now, it's Christmas, baby.”
How can we when Mina sings this? She is so sweet, so vulnerable, so precious.
I also draw to your attention to another fabulous cover by a Black man with a gorgeous voice. I have listened to both covers over and over trying not to cry. It has been a fabulous year for us fans.
- 2022-05-27 Monsters, Dayhun's Melody Project, a cover of Katie Sky's original.
- 2022-06-24 Pop!. Nayeon's solo debut! I did see a comment on Reddit where someone said that Nayeon found it strange at first to work with other dancers rather than the other members of Twice since they have been together so long.
- 2022-07-14 Celebrate (Japanese).
- 2022-08-26 Talk that Talk. This is the lead track from their album Between 1 & 2.
- 2022-08-26 Brave. I “slept” on this one until a year after it was released! As sometimes happens with Twice songs, I didn't initially love this one but then it just started playing in my head and stayed there so it took me a while to appreciate how great this song is. I include a concert performance since there is no music video.
- 2023-03-10 Set me free, the lead single from their mini-album Ready To Be. Interestingly, the launched on the American Tonight Show rather than in Korea as they now have global ambitions. The Empire State Building was lit up in apricot & neon magenta, the group's colors and a “world” tour was announced that includes Australia for the first time but not Europe. I initially thought the song was boring but like I had the sense that it might grow on me and I now keep finding it in my head – I didn't initially love Likey or Fancy either but now I love them both. There is a real music video too, of course and having watched that, I encourage you to watch this fascinating analysis on the scene transitions
2023-03-10 Blame it on me. Twice meets rock music! This song, also from Ready To Be,
instantlybecame one of my favorite Twice songs. When Jihyo starts singing at 0:55, I have visions of being knocked over by an ocean wave. There is no music video so I've linked to an unauthorized video where someone has provided translations and worked out who is singing which lines. JYP Entertainment has posted the official version with just a picture of the album cover. I am surprised that it is the least popular song on the album based on views.
- 2023-03-10 Got the thrills. Another “B-side” but the second best song on the new album. It took a few listens for me warm to it but now I love it!
- 2023-03-10 Crazy Stupid Love
- 2023-03-10 Wallflower. Don't be fooled by this song's melancholy tone as it will get into your head and stay there. The lyrics about social isolation resonate with a lot of people – it is the most popular B-side on the album. Now I've listed every song on the album except Moonlight Sunrise which was the album's pre-release single but I thought the weakest song on the album!
2023-07-27 Bouquet (live) from MiSaMo, the sub-unit of the Japanese members Mina, Sana and Momo. The music video for the song was released on 2023-01-24 but at the time I did not really appreciate it whereas this version is just so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes when I heard it. All three of them are perfect in their own way but I am particularly proud of Momo who is primarily a dancer and normally forced to sing outside her natural range. If members had equal time on each song (they don't), she would normally have one-ninth of the singing but here it is one-third so I suspect she was out of her comfort zone. Her voice is instantly recognizable and here she it combines so well with Mina and Sana.
They did five shows in Japan and at the end of this, the final concert, there was a video of support messages from the other members. While Sana and Momo are smiling, Mina appears overwhelmed with emotion. Obviously this was organized by JYPE but if the members don't truly love and care for each other, they are do an incredible job of faking it.
Then MiSaMo were told that Nayeon was in the audience! At 13:12 Mina appears to be trying desperately not to cry (or possibly she is upset that Nayeon is stealing some attention) but I think the former.
- 2023-06-15 Marshmallow from MiSaMo.
- 2023-07-13 Don't touch me from MiSaMo. Like works of art in a museum that are referenced in the video, you can admire but you cannot touch.
On the 6th of July (2023), I went to the Twice concert at the Metlife stadium near New York! What fantastic evening with 50,000+ other screaming fans!! There was a lot of screaming. I've not been to a concert bigger than a few hundred for over 20 years so I had nothing to really compare it to but the members, the band, the set, the everything was perfect. I love them even more now. I pusted a few photos on Instagram and uploaded a video of Yes or yes, What is love & Cheer up
Girls Generation a.k.a SNSD
An earlier nine-member girl group who I'm sure were the model for Twice. Indeed Girls Generation dressed up as flight attendants (twice!) and later Twice did the same which led to accusations of copying though the idea was not new.
My second favorite group after Twice!
- The girl in Astro's music video for Breathless (below) is Yoo-jung and reading the comments I saw that she was a member of Weki Meki. At the time, they had released Crush which has this music video but again, they are best seen in the dance practice. Great song!
- One of my all-time favorite K-pop songs! True valentine (dance practice)
- Moya Moya (dance practice)
- Do whatever you want (dance practice)
- Dazzle Dazzle
It is also worth mentioning that they are an 8-member group whereas almost all K-pop groups have an odd number of members. Having an odd number means that the person singing can be front and center with the other members symmetrically arranged on either side but with an even number they have to be more creative – which sometimes means hiding one member behind that person at the front and center.
(From Big Bang.)
I believe Big Bang were the biggest K-pop group before BTS but I have yet to find any of their songs that I really like. Two of members have done significant solo work since but the band had to break up because the members had to do their military service.
However, I have to mention that one of the other members, Seungri who was part owner of the Burning Sun nightclub, was in a major sex scandal which implicated others in the K-pop industry; it is not clear why that band member is not currently in prison.
Eyes, Nose, Lips This song about lost love is not K-pop in the normal sense of happy & bouncy but it is iconic. One of my favorite songs ever in any genre, ever. There are three different versions to see:
- the music video with English subtitles and also Romanized Korean so you can sing along. Don't be surprised by the low number of views as the actual music video has a 239 million views as of March 2023. I gather this video was somewhat controversial at the time because he appears shirtless—but he has a great body! If the comments to the video are to believed, he is married to the woman he broke up with and then wrote this song for her.
- A beautiful concert performance
- The best duet ever! Seriously, this is amazing. Even more incredible is that they only had an hour or so to practice before filming. Apparently the format of the show is that people send in video of them singing a famous song and when they get that idol on the show, they select from the best videos sent in and let them sing together. The young woman had been on another talent show before but that was her only previous exposure.
- Wake Me Up
(Also from Big Bang)
He and Taeyang started as trainees when they were 12! I have to include two versions:
Although he is famous for the novelty song Gangnam Style (now 4.5 billion views as of Sept 2022!) but he is a serious entertainer. He does a lovely thoughtful song that has two very different versions…
She was in a from the cleverly named 2NE1 and released Don't cry as a solo effort.
- Russian roulette
- Ice cream cake
- Power Up. While we are here, I'll mention that I get more joy than I should watching this video of Twice members cheering on Red Velvet! Someone in the comments suggests that Nayeon should be the president of ReVeluv, the Red Velvet fan club!
- Cookie Jar
- Birthday. I can't articulate what the Red Velvet sound is but this song definitely has it. Note the reference to “ice cream cake” in the lyrics.
I was not paying attention to Red Velvet and I've probably missed some great songs but I was shocked to learn in May 2021 that Wendy fell 2.5m/8ft off a stage during a rehearsal on Christmas Day 2019 and sustained serious injuries. She was in hospital for 2 months and didn't reappear with the group until New Year's Day this year. Knowing this, it is sad to listen to two songs she released in April 2021:
Joy (from Red Velvet)
- Hello This song is a bop! You can't avoid smiling.
- After Like I like this song instantly and it sounded vaguely familiar. I saw something claiming that IVE had sampled from Gloria Gaynor's 1979 anthem to the power of women I will survive. I had to check for myself and indeed it is true. Compare the section 1:14 from Gloria with 0:50 from IVE. This song just reached 100 million views at the end of Sept 2022 and they have several other popular videos. I'm not sure how I failed to notice them earlier.
- I am
Alice, formerly Elris
Another management company took them over and then renamed them Alice which seems idiotic since you now can't search for them easily but I read something that said the Korean characters are better rendered as Alice in English and there was some legal problem with the old name. They released a song Power of Love which is quite different to their earlier work which seems a great way to lose the few fans they had. I feel sad for these girls as there is only so much the performers can do if their management is incompetant and/or underfunded.
Rollercoaster Listen to this once and it will be in your head for a week! (A good thing.)
Impurities This “rookie” group has been incredibly successful since launch. I'm not familiar with most of their music but I do enjoy this relaxing song.
Bubble I loved this on the first time hearing it which isn't even true for many Twice songs. I need to review their back catalog.
Although I had mild interest in some of their early work, I don't particularly enjoy their recent songs but I am including them here because they are so popular – DDU-DU DDU-DU now has 1.1 billion views!
They released How you like that on 2020-06-26 and it set a new record on YouTube of 86.3 million views in the first 24 hours! However, it does not appeal to me – they seem too much like American rappers – though I do appreciate the Arabic(?) vibe at 1:12.
I don't pay much attention to the boy bands but this one caught my attention because they are so good! These guys should be way more famous than they are!
2023-04-20: Astro member Moonbin has apparently committed suicide. From the BBC: Moonbin: Star's death renews scrutiny on pressures of K-pop.
The official music video for Breathless is OK but they really shine on the dance practice video. Keep your eye on the guy in the red and white shirt. In the comments:
Lazy Ace Dia2 years ago
I'm not (usually) gay but Rocky makes me feel things
I'm fine with this
xxPotato Queenxx 6 months ago
Lazy Ace Dia GO HOME ROCKY IS MINE
- Blue Flame
- Really, Really and also the dance practice
- Hands Up. The group somehow lost three members and FNC Entertainment gave no explanation which naturally upset their fans. The entry for the company on Wikipedia claims that FNC stands for “fish 'n' cake”: The name is based on the miracle of feeding the multitude using only five loaves and the two fish. This is because Han Sung-ho is a devout Christian, he uses the name to hope for more miracles happen for the company.
- P.O.W! (Play On the World)
However I am baffled why they produced so little material in the years since. In 2019 there was just a 5-song mini-album Newtro – and one of those songs was an instrumental and the single Woowa failed to chart. The girls are presumably under contract and cannot leave to resume their studies or pursue other employment and MBK Entertainment is presumably still housing and feeding them – and I hope continuing to train them. They released Hug U in mid-2020 but almost a year later, it has only 412,000 views. The final scene looks like they are taking one final photo before they disband. Maybe they have and can get on with their lives without being shackled to a mediocre entertainment company. [Oct 2022 update: They have disbanded and this is their final song - their management company couldn't even post it to Youtube with an English title Rooting For You.
Cuteness overload ahead! The Gwiyomi song. How can this have just 167,000 views? To be fair, it is a derivative of this this. They had more success with WiFi a song that to me sounds similar to Momoland's hugely successful Bboom Bboom (see below). By the time they arrived at Bbyong they had lost 4 members and gained 2.
Oh My Girl
- Windy Day. I just learned (June 2023) that early Twice looked up to them as a model to emulate: Twice being Oh My Girl's Fan for 15 minutes. Part 1. and did a cover of Windy Day
2022-12-09: Why hasn't their management company had them record anything in the 2½ years since V.A.V.I. Girl. They should either do something or disband and let the members get on with their lives.
GWSN a.k.a. Girls in the Park
Bazooka! (Thanks Stephanie!)
I don't particularly like any of their songs that I know of but I am including them here because of them attempting their dance routine while blindfolded!
The company behind them, S.M. Entertainment, is one the big four entertainment companies in South Korea so they can nurture their trainees, create high-quality videos and run effective promotion. This is apparently their first new girl group in 6 years so these 4 young women must be outstanding.
- Black Mamba Their debut single has 148 million views after 6 months!
- Next Level For anyone that knows about video production, I am intrigued by the spaceship module at 0:24—did they make a real, physical thing to show for 1 second in the video, or is it computer generated? Either way, it is impressive.
This group has been around since 2007 with moderate success; I need to dig more into their back catalog. I was saddened to read that one of the members, Goo Hara committed suicide as a result of an abusive boyfriend. Her plight and subsequent trial drew attention to sex crimes against women in South Korea.
This group is I think what is referred to as “second-generation” as they started back in 1997. They had a hit with the utterly hypnotic Dreams Come True which was recently reinterpretted by aespa (see above) which as of 2023-03-19 is closing in on 100 million views. Amazingly the S.E.S. verion is a cover of Rakastuin mä looseriin (I fell in love with a loser) from Finnish duo Nylon Beat!
…and so much more!
I feel I've only scratched the surface and there are new songs and new groups coming out all the time. Other groups I've come across - and this is just the girl groups: A.O.A, APink, BerryGood, Bvndit, CLC, cignature, Dreamcatcher, DreamNote, Exid, Everglow, Fromis_9, f(x), Gugudan, Hwa Sa, I.O.I, Itzy (stablemate of Twice and successful partly because of it), I.Z. One, La Boum, Lovelyz, Orange Caramel, New Jeans, Pledis, Pristin, Purplebeck, UNI.T, WJSN (not to be confused with GWSN!).