[The K-Pop 100: Idol Group Songs]
10. Fly to the Sky – Sea of Love
“Sea of Love” is what a lot of dance tunes, even many in this list, are not: evocative. A longing nostalgia pervades the song; the lyrics do part of that work, but “Sea of Love” works more effectively through its sounds. From the opening wave effects to breathtaking chorus, there is scale and wonder built into the medium-tempo composition that sets the song apart. Hwanhee and Brian also enjoy the best-balanced vocal rapport of their FTTS careers in this album, and it shows in their complementary harmony and weights that feel just right.
9. Big Bang – 거짓말 (Lies)
Few songs better capture the songwriting trend of the late 2000s: simple and addictive melodies with basic accompaniments. Behold, the hook song. Alongside “Tell Me”, you could put “Lies” at the forefront of that revolution – in achievement as well as chronologically. A forlorn, memorable piano loop and a chorus more focused on rhythm than pitch were breaths of fresh air, and the brisk pacing and minimal clutter made for a clean package all around.
8. Rainbow – Mach
A bit of a forgotten gem nowadays, “Mach” stands out even more than “A” in Rainbow’s otherwise unfortunately mediocre discography. Here’s a song that never even got proper promotional push, yet note the clean-cut brass and marching cadence that would become Sweetune‘s trademark, already perfected here. The fatalistic flair added by the minor chords and fleeting passion of the lyrics combined in one immensely attractive package, and though Go Woori‘s verse was abortive, even that was weirdly appropriate in this powerful track that ends much, much too early.
7. Shinhwa – Brand New
The energy of “Brand New” is such that, when recalled years later, the string line that powers the song’s chorus seems to have been much more vibrant than it actually was. The composition is a hot mess of those strings infused with a little electric guitar and lots of cymbals; synths are used in the verses, but they bow out for the important parts. The analog sound was at once rugged and sophisticated, and the complementary traits of the six members – Eric‘s impossibly chic delivery, Kim Dong-wan‘s machismo, Shin Hye-sung‘s finesse, and so on – completed Shinhwa’s magnum opus. That closing chorus remains one of the enduring exhilarating moments in idol pop history.
6. F(x) – Airplane
In a sophomore album of unprecedented sound quality, “Airplane” was the most unflinching track of all. Synths of abrasive texture and aggressive rhythm rolled seamlessly into a gorgeous melody; innocent yet bittersweet lyrics, making use of plentiful airborne imagery, took flight in F(x)’s hands. The track harnessed the group’s penchant for the surreal without sacrificing coherence. For all these reasons, “Airplane”, in my mind, remains the best idol-group song of the 2010s so far.
5. Koyote – 순정 (Pure Love)
The intro, sampled from the London Boys, was good; the iconic chant that followed was exquisite. It’s kind of to the point where the rest of the song is completely overshadowed, but “Pure Love” is worthy: it was faithful techno, milking its addictive melody and complete with lots of fun details in the accompaniment. Shin Ji‘s high notes are ones that won’t be replicated now even by the singer herself, and the choreography did “Gangnam Style” 13 years early. What a song.
4. H.O.T. – Candy
“Candy” is the earliest and most important song on this list. It launched the era of the modern idol group, and without its hit status and H.O.T.’s ensuing success, who knows how many of these groups would even be around? That accounts for most of this high placement, but this is a great song in its own right too. The random sampling is a bit too much, maybe, but other nineties tropes like orchestra hit and crude drum are actually a breath of fresh air nowadays. The very packed instrumentation is still rousing, and the anthemic chorus still uplifting.
3. Wonder Girls – Tell Me
“Tell Me” was such a successful transplant of the 1980s, Stacey Q and all, that it spawned a few years’ worth of retro mega-hits ranging from Wonder Girls’ own “Nobody” to a sizable part of T-ara‘s discography. It also permanently changed the landscape of mainstream K-pop: after this song swept Korea off its feet, the industry reoriented towards idol pop more than ever before and launched third- and fourth-generation idol groups at unprecedented pace. But even if you dislike the perpetual idol red ocean that this song helped create, it’s hard to deny the simple brilliance here. Bouncy chiptune, insidiously infectious melody, Sohee‘s timely “omona”. Maybe it was a song destined for history.
2. Brown Eyed Girls – Abracadabra
If “L.O.V.E.” turned the Brown Eyed Girls’ career around, “Abracadabra” put a turbo boost on it. The collaboration of Hitchhiker and Lee Min-soo was one of the first K-pop songs to reach into more “hardcore” EDM, riding on the coattails of the scenewide electronic boom from 2008 but also taking it a step further. It’s hard to find any faults here: the heady, ringing house beat and thick truncated synths make for a breathless listening experience, even as the members’ vocal prowess is tuned towards a masterfully clinical performance. It’s hard to deny “Abracadabra”‘s impact nor its claim for the top spot, but for the fact that it (just barely) wasn’t the first song to do what it did…
1. Girls’ Generation – Gee
Five months before the release of “Abracadabra”, another girl group turned the scene on its head with a sound new to idol pop. The E-Tribe team took elements like ambient bass and abrasive synth timbres, hardly mainstream things, and made a bubbly electropop beat with them; then they grafted on a love-at-first-sight narrative and the vocals of a group that was coming off of cutesy performances like “Kissing You”. This unlikely marriage turned out to be explosive. Not only did we have a completely unique and indelible hit in “Gee”, we would have further such gems down the road. This successful experiment is indirectly responsible for much of the variety we see in idol pop compositions today, not just in synthpop and EDM but even in other styles. Like S.E.S.’s work did a decade before, “Gee” showed that there was plenty of room for artistic expression and experimentation even in this commercialized setting. This time, the rest of the scene got the hint. “Gee” is an exhilarating listen, an influential milestone, and the best idol-group song in K-pop.