The 250 Greatest Idol Group Songs of All Time (2020 Edition)
225. AOA – 사뿐사뿐 (Like a Cat)
Listening to AOA feels a bit different now, after this summer’s revelations of persistent emotional abuse perpetrated by the group’s leader behind the scenes. Nevertheless, “Like a Cat” deserves a spot among the genre’s greats. The deliberate rhythm, crushing drums, and paced tension made for a delectable listen, and Choa’s delivery of the killer chorus – “Gonna walk lightly, lightly towards you / Snap off a rose flower / And put it softly into your arms / I’m gonna give you a shock” – was delicate and attitudinal perfection. It’s hard to imagine embodying the cat in a song any better than this.
224. Kara – Wanna
I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that Kara’s work from this early period was era-defining. Hook songs were still in vogue, and Sweetune – the faithful partner of DSP girl groups then – found ways to maximize the group’s biting charm within a few measures of addictive chorus. “Wanna” did it with a tart and breathless melody where the twirling synths seemed like an extension of the vocals. It may have been overshadowed by a mega-hit side track in “Mister” – that one’s coming up in our list too – but “Wanna” was deserving in its own right.
223. CLC – Show
Speaking of side tracks showing up title tracks! The beating heart of “Show” was its spacious, unapologetic central motif. Debuting in piano and wrapped in a layer of synths for the chorus, that singular melody gave the song a sense of iron purpose. Atop it CLC fired off declarations of attraction and desire, the ending of this story as certain as those metallic synths.
222. April – 따끔 (Lovesick)
I think strings are kind of underused nowadays in the innocent-first-love genre, which is a shame because you get “Lovesick” when you do it well. The sweeping strings set the sunny mood in the song’s intro, and continued to elegantly back the main melody afterwards. (The seamless transitions from choruses into interludes were especially satisfying.) April’s phase-two lineup rode that melody to unexpected heights in the extended final chorus. Strings are underused, I tell you.
221. Diva – 왜 불러 (Why Do You Call)
It was basically a Cool track sung by a girl group, from catchy refrain right down to the little vocal flairs; yet a still-fledgling Diva made “Why Do You Call” wholly their own with breathy performance and charming earnestness. The summery arrangement is surprisingly minimalist in retrospect, but it had just enough fidelity to paint the picture of a sun-kissed seaside and dreamy rendezvous. The basic skeleton of the group’s greatest hit also turned out to be quite expandable, as proven almost 20 years later in a cheeky parody remake by C.I.V.A.
220. MBLAQ – Cry
“Cry”‘s smoothly careening synth line strung together the series of longing, dramatic melodies. It was maybe a little overwrought, but that’s okay. It was a characteristic strength of MBLAQ and their lineage of teachers in Rain and JYP to present consuming performances, the kind that imparts emotion with every inch of one’s body and expression, and the memorable soundmaking of “Cry” helped to redeem that into persuasive territory.
219. NCT U – Without You
This half of NCT U’s debut was a sonic treat, built around a clean melody and satisfyingly rocking arrangement and performed with liberating abandon. The style is yet to be revisited by any other NCT release, though I think it’s still an underexplored space. It was sort of a rediscovery of Yoo Young-jin as well, a reminder that the veteran producer can in fact write lyrics this tender: “This thing called living, this thing called enduring / If we do it together we’ll be a little happier / Connecting endlessly, again / Can’t live without you”…
218. Trax – Scorpio
I remember my bewilderment at seeing “Paradox” being performed on TV in 2004, which turned into appreciation upon encountering the more melodic “Scorpio”. Trax was the first and still the only visual-kei band to debut under an idol pop label in Korea. (The “idol” part being key – obviously not including indie acts like Eve and Madmans Espirit.) SME chair Lee Soo-man made a real effort, too, recruiting X Japan’s Yoshiki to produce the debut album and letting the band cross some lyrical lines that the other groups wouldn’t dare to. The wiry and evocative “Scorpio” was the culmination of these efforts, and while the band didn’t take off, the track deserves to be remembered alongside the more successful K-pop passion projects that would follow.
217. Ateez – 안개 (Mist)
“Mist” wasn’t necessarily characteristic of Ateez’s energetic, sometimes sail-themed debut series, but this slow burn fit the group just as well. Old-school flairs like the punchy keyboard fills cohabited the track with sparkling future bass elements, and the group’s vocalists launched into precarious, soaring exhortations in that smoky air. Good idol R&B is a fair bit harder to find than the equivalent in EDM, so songs like this are always welcome discoveries.
216. Beast – Shock
A lot of boy bands over the years have iterated on this kind of energetic-yet-tender dance track, but Beast hit gold with “Shock”. An appropriately electric arrangement and effortless, satisfying melody line blended seamlessly, and there was no wasted space within the four-minute running time.
215. Girl’s Day – 링마벨 (Ring My Bell)
From Girl’s Day Love Second Album (2015)
Dream T Entertainment
Written by Long Candy, Woo Tae-woon, The Channels
Composed by Homeboy, Radio Galaxi, Long Candy
Arranged by Radio Galaxi, EastWest
Links: music video, audio, stage
A large part of Girl’s Day’s discography was awkwardly stuck between eras of K-pop trends, and frankly “Ring My Bell” was as well. But this song overcame any hint of oldness with attractive sound-making, as the best tracks tend to do. The golden brass textures, confident main motif, and frenetic pace came together in a strangely persuasive and readily addictive concoction.
214. 2PM – Heartbeat
Everything about MBLAQ’s “Cry” up there applies to “Heartbeat” too, 2PM’s first album without Jay Park. One difference is that 2PM’s image (in this period at least) was more youthful, and the urgency in this song had a kind of teenage charm because of that. Sonically, “Heartbeat” remains memorable for the decision to accompany entire verses with only a massive pounding heartbeat and some string pulses. So the members’ performances got laid bare in stark rawness, and from an industry where hiding imperfections is key, that still feels almost refreshing.
213. Luv – Orange Girl
“Orange Girl” is more than just an opportunity to see Jeon Hye-bin and Oh Yeon-seo donning a happy-go-lucky concept in a different life. With Nick Manic in the credits, the track had traces of good American bubblegum of the time in the pop-rock accompaniment and smooth refrain. Even the slightly (very) cringe-worthy lyrics were forgivable in the lens of infectious cheerfulness, in that barren era for idol pop.
212. Seventeen – 아주 Nice (Very Nice)
From Love&Letter Repackage Album (2016)
Written by S.Coups (Seventeen), Vernon (Seventeen), Woozi (Seventeen), Bumzu
Composed by Woozi, Bumzu
Arranged by Bumzu
Links: music video, audio, stage
The stroke of brilliance was in the triumphant brass accompaniment that ate up the entire chorus, of course: it was cheeky and addictive and played perfectly with the song’s daft attitude, as Seventeen breezed through a date night from waking up to the walk home. The iconic sound made “Very Nice” ubiquitous on TV shows and baseball stadiums alike, and earned it a snug spot among the genre’s canon.
211. Taesaja – Time
It was a triumph of concept, for one. But the dapper suits and dandy-boy theme wouldn’t have worked without the right music, and “Time” outshone Taesaja’s title track in that regard. A parting song as earnest as the group’s styling, it married wintry nostalgia with convincing performances and a sophisticated accompaniment. It’s aged in a charming way, and that interlude with the string beat and racing keyboard genuinely holds up. It’s one of the few ’90s songs on this list that you could release today unchanged and still have it work.
210. Twice – Sunset
From Yes or Yes (2018)
Written by Jihyo (Twice)
Composed by Maria Marcus, Lisa Desmond, Fast Lane, Secret Weapon
Arranged by Secret Weapon
Some more slow jam: a bunch ended up congregating around here in the list. The rolling drums and golden-tinged synths of “Sunset” built a passionate backdrop for the members to play off of, and Jihyo’s writing was intensely sensual yet achingly sentimental (not to mention so rhythmic) in one stroke. Perhaps even more than their title tracks, which have also improved steadily for the most part, I think it’s Twice’s ballads that best show the group’s growth over the years.
209. SS501 – Unlock
Like many of their mid-decade contemporaries, SS501 had to learn to speak high-octane intensity like a second language. The title track of the group’s first full album cranked the drama to 11, with the members belting out every line and practically grunting out each syllable. (Kim Hyung-jun and Park Jung-min made this into an art form.) The lyrics were truthfully quite strange, oscillating between rebellious spirit and love confession. But the powerful band-set beat led by thumping strings and the theatrical progression were so explosive, so assured, as to render such quibbles irrelevant.
208. After School – 너 때문에 (Because of You)
Like much of Brave Brothers’ work from that era – in fact, almost exactly following his work on Big Bang’s “Lies” – “Because of You” was one sentimental-sounding loop with a drum machine and some synth tracks. The melody on top was much easier to follow than that of “Lies” but still visceral, and it naturally paired well with rap: Kahi and Bekah collaborated for a whopping 32 bars, which is practically unheard of even today for most girl groups. The combo fast-tracked “Because of You” to smash hit status, and the song remains the signature by which we remember After School.
207. BtoB – 너 없인 안 된다 (Only One for Me)
From This Is Us (2018)
Written by Lim Hyunsik (BtoB), Eden, Lee Minhyuk/Huta (BtoB), Peniel (BtoB), Jung Ilhoon (BtoB)
Composed/arranged by Lim Hyunsik, Eden
Links: music video, audio, stage
It’s actually hard to recall the days when BtoB was just another boy group doing standard boy group stuff, so successful has their pivot to easy-listening pop been. They’ve taken up the mantle of “healing music” and have done well to provide it for years. “Only One for Me” was the distillation of all that know-how: acoustic and warm, like the summer night air that Yook Sungjae sings of, and filled with the comforting spirit of returning home.
206. (G)I-dle – Maybe
From I Trust (2020)
Written by Soyeon ((G)I-dle)
Composed by Soyeon, Collapsedone
Arranged by Collapsedone
(G)I-dle’s title tracks have been pathbreaking in many ways, but the group (and especially Soyeon, the creative mind behind much of the discography) is also really good at straight EDM fare. “Maybe” was a hidden gem in this mold from this spring’s I Trust, tucked away kind of like “Maze” was on the debut EP. The cavernous sound stage absorbed the bass and your attention alike, and the hard-as-nails drop and release repaid all the anticipation and then some. The vocals in those sections were performed with clinical detachment, highlighting the cracks of uncertainty in the narrator’s words.
205. Miss A – Hush
Miss A’s message of independence and empowerment was iconic, but it’s worth remembering that they made some great music outside of that theme too. JYP’s hands-off approach to this album revitalized the group’s sound: the fatalistic mood and breathless melody left room for the members to work in both passion and aggression, and the subtle arrangement changes – from Latin guitars and no percussion to urgent house beats – invited your full attention. It’s a sore disappointment that Miss A subsequently produced just one more album in four years before disbanding.
204. Girls’ Generation – Run Devil Run
SNSD had broken out of the cute-and-refreshing mold with “Genie” already, but it took “Run Devil Run” for the group to complete the bright-dark spectrum. The velvet-smooth harmonization, abrasive textures, and monolithic chorus easily hold up today, and the track demanded more acting flair from the members than ever before. Many of these elements would form the substance of SNSD’s later discography.
203. Infinite – She’s Back
From She’s Back [single] (2010)
Written by Han Jae-ho (Sweetune), Kim Seung-soo (Sweetune), Mithra Jin (Epik High), Song Soo-yun (Sweetune)
Composed/arranged by Han Jae-ho, Kim Seung-soo
Links: music video, audio, stage
Between the punctuated guitar riffs, volumetric harmony, and rousing synths, it’s hard to decide which element is most conducive to “She’s Back” feeling like the quintessential summer single. This was an astonishingly complete package coming out of a virtually unknown group at the time, and a sophomore single at that. Infinite’s excellence was foretold.
202. Sugar – Secret
“Secret” wasn’t a particularly huge hit on release, nor have people dug it up and conferred cult classic status. But it had the easy, bold melody of a Joo Young-hoon dance track and a wonderfully mid-2000s arrangement. That piano/guitar double tap was kind of like Se7en‘s “Passion” in rhythm and Ha Yoo-sun‘s “Question” in texture, the flowing string like TVXQ’s “The Way U Are”, the nonsensical rap insert like basically every idol track back then… it just had a little bit of everything. “Secret” works today as a nice cross-section of all the good that the era had to offer, and still an addictive listen in its own right.
201. Momoland – 꼼짝마 (Freeze)
From Freeze! (2017)
Written by Double Sidekick, Jinri (Full8loom)
Composed by Double Sidekick, Wiikeed, Jinri, Full8loom
Arranged by Wiikeed, Full8loom
Links: music video, audio, stage
“Bboom Bboom” supercharged the group’s career, but “Freeze” was there all along as a song just as good, if not better. It channeled two classic melodies – the hide-and-seek jingle and also the “Entry of the Gladiators” sample – fusing them into an unlikely earworm in the two-part chorus. The breakdown beat holding them together was unapologetically bold. Give me creative recombination all day long.