[The K-Pop 100: Idol Group Songs]
Love them or hate them, the so-called idol groups have been a major engine of growth for the Korean music industry in the last two decades. I can tell you all day about the negative effects they’ve had on the scene, but this is not the time for that. The truth is, K-pop’s idols have given us a veritable treasure trove of good music over the years. The cream of the crop can hold their own against older golden-age gems, as well as against the non-idol mainstream and indie scene’s best.
So here’s a project: let’s try to select the 100 best idol group songs in history. This is the kind of stupidly ambitious and more than a little egotistical idea that led to my (highly flawed) “Best of the Decade” series on this blog five years ago. I thought about publishing this list on Hellokpop, but it doesn’t feel appropriate – too much personal taste went into this, and even my annual year-in-reviews are pushing it in that regard.
Given the thousands and thousands of idol-group songs released over the years, I’m already guaranteed to be missing some things. So in addition to trying to be thorough in my research, I’ve also given myself the following constraints to pare down the universe of possible selections:
- Only songs released after September 1996 are considered. That’s when H.O.T. debuted, and they are generally considered to be the first modern idol group as we know them today. Unfortunately, this means that deserving work by Taiji and the Boys, Solid, Deux, Turbo, and others are left out. CLON and Young Turks Club missed out by mere months.
- Work by sub-units of idol groups count, but solo work doesn’t. This is kind of arbitrary, but it’s to preserve the spirit of “group” music while also ruling out group members turned solo.
- On the other hand, permanent project units consisting of members from different idol groups, such as S, Trouble Maker and Girlfriends, are eligible.
- Should go without saying, but foreign-language tracks released by Korean groups don’t count. (Their Korean-language re-releases do count.)
- What constitutes an idol group? For the purposes of this, the term includes all groups whose work and activity are produced, promoted and overseen at the agency level. Usually this is pretty obvious, but sometimes it’s not: is Fly to the Sky still an idol group after leaving SM Entertainment? What about Shinhwa? So I’ve added the caveat that if a group that used to fit the above definition continues to bill itself as an idol group, then all subsequent works still count. So Shinhwa’s later works count, but only early works from FTTS are considered. Still, judgment calls had to be made.
- Further difficulties abound with teams like UN and Jinusean, which no one in their right mind would have called idol groups in the late stage of their careers. Still, if they were promoted as idol artists at some point, they are eligible for at least part of their careers.
- As a semantic consideration: so-called “idol bands” like CNBlue, FT Island, AOA, and LEDApple are of course eligible. However, Buzz (perhaps the prototype for these) never seemed to be billed as one, so that team is not considered.
(Note that the names given above are no more than examples; a lot of the teams I mention as eligible didn’t make the final cut anyway.)
Here are some loose criteria I considered when making the selections:
- Musical quality. The most important thing. Production, polish, and performance all influence quality, as do less tangible things like how pleasant the whole package sounds, how emotionally appealing it is (if appropriate), how turnt can we get to it, and so on. And some songs age better than others.
- Impact. Are you “Tell Me” by the Wonder Girls and did you orient the entire landscape of mainstream pop towards hook-songs for a few years? Congratulations, you’re on the list.
- Experimentation. Idol music is a business where the safe is valued. A song that tried something weird and intrepid while maintaining quality gets brownie points.
- Parity. There are certain groups who have multiple entries making it into the list. And if I’m being fair, some of those groups probably deserve to have even more entries – such is the nature of creative art. But to avoid making a boring list, and also to be able to recognize more groups than otherwise possible, I’ve made some cuts for teams that have an overabundance of deserving tracks. (They’ll still have more entries than others, just not as many as they could have had.)
The final 100 includes consensus classics as well as some songs that are probably headscratchers. Each entry contains an attempt to explain what is good about each of these tracks. Do note, though, that the little blurbs are in general not trying to justify a particular ranking, or why something is ranked over something else; that kind of relativistic (or worse, transitive) argument is much more nebulous, and to be honest, there is not a huge difference in preference between a song I put at #40 versus one I put at #80.
The list is imperfect, of course – there will most definitely be things I’ve missed. Completeness is not really the goal. But I like it a lot, and hope it will be at least interesting to skim through for you – be it a trip down memory lane, an artist discovery session, or just a good laugh.