The 250 Greatest Idol Group Songs of All Time (2020 Edition)
50. Brown Eyed Girls – L.O.V.E.
After two tepidly received full-length albums to start their career, BEG finally hit gold with an EP. “L.O.V.E.” was the group’s first number-one single, and richly deserved it was. The track was fully on board with the house-electronic boom in K-pop at the time, what with the thumping synth drums and smooth arrangement. That turned out to synergize incredibly well with the group’s vocal talent, and “L.O.V.E.” became a showcase for confessions in forthright declaration (Miryo and JeA) as well as in sweet whisper (Ga-In and Narsha). Nega eventually milked this style dry with BEG as well as with Sunny Hill, but the first time was magic.
49. Shinhwa – Perfect Man
In a fifth album full of sleek and stylish beats, “Perfect Man” was the sleekest and most stylish of them all. It was perhaps Shinhwa’s most overt commitment to a rugged masculine image, and so each string layer and effect track added another tinge of resolve to the scrappy melody, which was brimming with attitude and power. The way the song was put together ensured that it felt constantly, excessively charged: for example, the bridge was stretched to two parts to accommodate an extension of the chorus, and the final refrain was overlapped with Eric’s relentless rapping to create the rushing sensation. This dedication rendered even the little flaws – Kim Dong-wan straining to grate out those highs – appropriate in the name of unkempt appeal, and shaped “Perfect Man” into a tour de force.
48. Lovelyz – 지금, 우리 (Now, We)
Lovelyz’s first show-winning single was indeed their best, an embrace and also an extension of the same innocent-love concepts that endeared the group to so many. Yoon Sang and friends supercharged a predictably bright arrangement with relentless drums and chopped synths, while the melody sprawled into open, sustained notes and lush harmonies. The falsetto-lined airiness of the chorus brimmed with barely contained excitement, singing of ecstatic disbelief at a reciprocated crush (which was a long time coming in Lovelyz’s tales). It was infectiously joyful, and as it hurtled towards a thrilling singalong conclusion, “Now, We” gave cathartic closure to a narrative spanning multiple albums.
47. Baby V.O.X – Get Up
With the addition of Yun Eun-hye Baby V.O.X finally completed the lineup changes, and with the subsequent release of “Get Up” the group finally set its identity in stone. Its overtly sexy concept was a first-ever attempt for a K-pop girl group, making this song the prototype of countless songs to come. The ominous tone and catchy, rhythm-oriented chorus further differentiated “Get Up” and also justified a dedicated rapper position for Kim E-Z, in an era when teams like Diva, S.E.S and Tashannie were all providing wildly different approaches to girl-group rap. A choir of errant voices in the background and the chorus’s countermelody built a pervasive allure. From this point on, BV forged their own path forward.
46. Loona Odd Eye Circle – Sweet Crazy Love
The sounds of “Sweet Crazy Love” were evocative in the most visceral ways, yet also snapped in lockstep with the story being told (though the lyrics likely came later). Its opening motif of staccato strings and piano stirred into the silence like the “frozen hearts awakening one and two”; like a paintbrush, “filling in color at the moment of touch”, that rhythm continued to pat dreamy warmth into the arrangement. The production was measured and paced: the beaming pads of the prechorus, the three-step cadence of the highlight refrain, even the snares switching to claps as Choerry broke out into satin rap verse. These crafted a deeply satisfying treat and a fitting lead to what remains legitimately one of the best girl-group albums in K-pop.
45. Exo – Monster
Minimalism was the right design choice for “Monster”, which moved ever so ponderously yet only with purpose. The ominous pulse was just about the only thing injecting pitch into the arid verses, with the gaps between vocal phrases remaining potent and unfilled; the wave of energy in the chorus came in sustained, stringy synth notes that were more foil than main act. That provided space for the dispassionate harmonies to glisten in icy beauty, as Exo delivered another ode of unbridled obsession to add to the label’s fruitful list (with this one getting extra points for managing “antimony” in a sentence). The song still remains the peak of SM’s austerity style.
44. (G)I-dle – Latata
(G)I-dle was built differently from the get-go, and “Latata” had to show that off in a persuasive way. Directed with confidence by a once-in-a-generation creative talent in Jeon Soyeon, the song married a burning moombahton rhythm and a satisfyingly percussive vocal line. The heavy-set melody was inordinately somber for a fresh-faced group, and that gamble paid off as the members’ passionate performances brought the fiesta narrative to life. It was a glimpse into the gravity that (G)I-dle would come to command much sooner than later, and one of the most striking debuts in K-pop history.
43. ONF – 사랑하게 될 거야 (We Must Love)
Though a modicum of justice was restored when an artfully reimagined rendition of “We Must Love” blew up on Road to Kingdom, the original remains an underappreciated modern classic. Hwang Hyeon and ONF crafted a devastatingly earnest tale in just over three minutes, painting a love story in the language of causality. It was frankly a cliché – love as destiny – but the execution is key, and “We Must Love” did every little thing just a little differently. From a reticent intro broaching the subject to inventive expressions invoking entanglement and parallel worlds, the lyrics fleshed out a uniquely persuasive song while delivering memorable lines like “My immunity to sorrow is stronger than yours”. A breathtaking progression that merged the pulsing potential of future bass with electric catharsis was a masterstroke in completing the track.
42. Girls’ Generation – 소녀시대 (Girls’ Generation)
A good way to pay homage to the song that became your group’s namesake is to cover that song and make it the title song of your debut album. So SM and Girls’ Generation did with Lee Seung-chul’s 1989 hit, and as much as the thing has been covered over the years, this was the definitive remake. The fact that the original was sung from a flustered teenage girl’s perspective fit right in with SNSD, and the electric arrangement and fun vocal embellishments imprinted this timeless melody onto a new generation. Thus “Girls’ Generation” gave momentum to the attention that “Into the New World” garnered, and SNSD never looked back.
41. S.E.S. – I’m Your Girl
The modern Korean girl group was born with “I’m Your Girl”. The song didn’t quite share the remarkable and nearly prescient sophistication of S.E.S’s later work, but it was still a monumental piece of work: from the enrapturing opening moments to the hip-hop beat to the bubbly melody to the unexpectedly spicy rap breakdown, “I’m Your Girl” was a collection of seemingly discordant parts that masterfully came together; fittingly, each of those elements now represent whole subgenres. K-pop girl groups became a thing because of the success of this song, and it’s only right that the song that started it all is a classic in itself.
40. god – 길 (Road)
It was an austere song from a group whose middle name was austerity, and like many of their songs, the value was in the lyrics. In an unsettled time both for the group (following leader Joon Park’s almost-expulsion from the squad and subsequent uproar) and for many teens and young adults in a post-crisis economy, god sang – without embellishment – of the struggle that they had with their future, of the role of destiny, and of dreams. The steady hand of “Road”‘s melody, the repeated phrases, and gentle backing from the strings and timpani all sought to stay and comfort. People still testify to the powerful effect that “Road” had on them back then, and its message still rings true for listeners today.
39. Blackpink – 뚜두뚜두 (Ddu-du Ddu-du)
If scale was what you were after, “Ddu-du Ddu-du” was your alpha and omega. The dragging bass of the hard-as-nails trap beat was a rude awakening, and the song quickly sprawled into a showcase as Lisa and Jennie exchanged fierce verses while Rosé and Jisoo led a melodic respite to be subverted into the iconic chorus. And true to Teddy form, the real catharsis was to be found in the song’s last leg, as its steady Asian-inspired undercurrents finally surfaced in a booming outro. Blackpink’s capacity for focused intensity and YG’s resources made for a kind of experience that couldn’t be found anywhere else in K-pop – not to this level of fidelity – and listeners felt its pull, catapulting the track into the first billion-viewed video by a K-pop group.
38. Vixx – Hyde
Vixx in 2013 was a case study on how to beat an oversaturated market. The Jekyll and Hyde horror theme was a unique idea, and releasing the album in two steps and creating a thematic transition between them was excellent execution. “Hyde” itself, of course, was sublime: the track’s glitch and dissonance controlled the tension, while the chorus validated it with explosion. As Kim Eana’s carefully constructed personae meshed with electric performances (no one has matched what Ravi did with the rap bridge here), it became transcendental. I cannot think of many songs in K-pop that have been more fun to listen to than “Hyde”.
37. Sechs Kies – 사나이 가는 길: 폼생폼사 (The Way This Guy Lives)
The kitschy, moonlit intro melody was good enough, but the shouted verse that followed was perhaps the best use of a chant in K-pop history. Often imitated, never bettered. In between the members’ relentless belting of the “I live and die by the pomp”, the lyrics told a funny tale of a self-proclaimed macho man’s breakup, set to a ridiculously addictive beat and funky riff: it was a campy guy movie translated into idol pop. Over 20 years later the vocal flairs are still unparalleled, and I’m not sure Kang Sung-hoon’s wiry stanzas or Eun Ji-won’s growl rap would be done any better today. It may not have been the title track, but “This Guy” was the song that defined Sechs Kies.
36. SHINee – 1분만 (One Minute Back)
SHINee’s music has always had a flair for the dramatic, but perhaps never more than in “One Minute Back”. There were tons of tension built up in the verses and bridges, as the narrator suspects and privately denies that his lover is cheating in front of his eyes. Following a wonderfully urgent prechorus, that tension exploded out in the delayed-beat chorus, where the narrator chooses to turn back the clock and act as if nothing happened. The ebb and tide of the sharp composition, the emotion mounting and cascading in SHINee’s petitions, made for a gripping experience. It was great storytelling and even better sonic drama, an unpromoted and underrated classic.
35. Wonder Girls – Why So Lonely
From Why So Lonely [single] (2016)
Written/composed by Hyelim (Wonder Girls), Sunmi (Wonder Girls), Yubin (Wonder Girls), Hong Ji-sang
Arranged by Hong Ji-sang
Links: music video, audio, stage
The synthpop revival of Reboot was an all-time great concept on its own, but “Why So Lonely” made even better use of Wonder Girls’ band configuration. The reggae bass and offbeat guitar were inspired choices; the heavier guitar riff coming in to reinforce the chorus was further brilliance that had the track truly singing in a distinct way. The members put in perhaps the best, most nuanced performance of their careers, one that’s especially fun to return to in light of their solo successes since. With a self-produced track, Wonder Girls rekindled the glory of the group’s peak, garnering explosive popularity and critical acclaim alike. It was the perfect way to send out one of the genre’s most decorated groups.
34. TVXQ – Tonight
We all knew TVXQ could sing, and I always thought that was advertised ad nauseum. But “Tonight” makes one wonder if SM couldn’t have done even more, much more, with their talent. Few groups then or now could pull this off, and 15 years later it remains arguably the greatest-ever R&B performance by an idol group. Warm harmonies, ear-pleasing melisma, and soaring highs abounded (Jaejoong with the exquisite falsetto, particularly), and the round-song structure in the refrain meant that we could hear those twofold. Topping it all off were the beautiful lyrics, their poetry flowing, their intimacy disarming: “Like a child soaked in falling rain // Like a love sprinkled upon the plains”…
33. Twice – TT
That chorus was just one of the most effective writing jobs in this genre, ever. In just two characters, the crying emoticon encapsulates everything: a little bit of actual sadness, yes, but also fretfulness, playfulness, good-natured resignation, and any of the myriad other things we choose to pack into our compact, digital missives daily. As Twice’s wholesome energy was funneled into a coming-of-age crush story, set to a sleek and chill but melancholy-minor arrangement, “I’m like TT” served as a pithy and catchy cry for all the pouting and bargaining. Listening back to that playing out over the spirited, subtly and satisfyingly harmonizing vocals, it’s hard to name anything more quintessentially Twice than “TT”.
32. Seventeen – 고맙다 (Thanks)
From Director’s Cut (2018)
Written by Woozi (Seventeen), Bumzu, Hoshi (Seventeen)
Composed by Woozi, Bumzu
Arranged by Bumzu, Park Gi-tae (Prism Filter)
Links: music video, audio, stage
As an expression of gratitude blurring the line between love song and fan tribute, “Thanks” had to hit certain sentimental notes. The song did that, and it delivered its apology and redemption with an astonishing sharpness. Washed-out guitars and distant sequencers meshed seamlessly into the backdrop of Bumzu and Woozi’s Pledis-style future bass, and that analog nostalgia became catharsis as the song progressed through the tantalizing dual prechorus and to the eventual, electric drop. It was a perfectly engineered, sonically crystalline moment: Seventeen ringing out the titular “Thanks” – go-map-da – with the accompaniment at rest and the second syllable suddenly gathering a mass of harmony. As we’ve written before, a master class on how to do this kind of song.
31. 2NE1 – Ugly
Catharsis, validation, freedom: “Ugly” captured all of these things. Starring a narrator struggling with self-esteem and valuation, 2NE1’s best song attempted to give voice to an underrepresented group and poke at an unhealthy culture, at a time when such things were still far from the collective consciousness of K-pop. The cynic might have said marketing ploy, but the members’ emotional performances made it persuasive; meanwhile, an explosive full-band arrangement and the racing, liberating refrain provided satisfying payoff. 2NE1 dared to be different in the space of girl groups and reached success in unorthodox fashion, and “Ugly” reflected that in triumphant anthem.
30. Rainbow – Mach
From Mach [single] (2010)
Written by Song Soo-yun (Sweetune), Han Jae-ho (Sweetune), Kim Seung-soo (Sweetune)
Composed by Han Jae-ho, Kim Seung-soo
Arranged by Kim Seung-soo, Han Jae-ho, Hong Seung-hyeon (Sweetune)
Links: audio, stage
A bit of a forgotten gem nowadays, “Mach” still shines radiantly in Rainbow’s unfortunately cut-short 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 the fleeting passion of the lyrics came together in one immensely attractive package, and though Go Woori‘s verse was all too short, even that was weirdly appropriate in this powerful track that ended much, much too early.
29. Red Velvet – Ice Cream Cake
As reminiscent of F(x) as it was at the outset, this bubbly track felt right in the hands of this younger SM team, and both Irene and Joy lent unexpected oomph with punchy rap bars (yes, they’re Kim Ximya’s) that helped make Red Velvet’s style stand out. This label’s familiar sense of unfit was right there in the chilling chants and discordant bells, while throbbing bass, sweeping synths and stutter beats put together an exciting composition to counter. Red Velvet’s spunky delivery met that energy, and the group’s distinctive lyrical universe was already being constructed in these form-shifting and efficiently evocative lines. A still-unmatched thrill of a listen.
28. Fly to the Sky – Sea of Love
Because I consider this album to be the cutoff of Fly to the Sky’s tenure as an idol duo, a few more great songs (even under SME) had to be cut from our list. In this transition period Hwanhee and Brian were playing a balancing act between dance artist and R&B vocalist, and “Sea of Love” became something wonderful as a reflection of that. A longing nostalgia pervaded the lyrics, and from the opening wave recording to the breathtaking chorus, there was scale and wonder built into the medium-tempo composition. Yet there was also a lively groove to the whole thing, which made room for choreography but more importantly gave the song an accessible verve. The pair’s rapport did the rest through complementary harmony and vocal weights that felt just right.
27. F(x) – 제트별 (Jet)
Electric Shock has a strong claim to being the best idol album in K-pop, and “Jet” has a claim to being its best track (though another song places much higher on our list for significance reasons). Those ascending synths, layering and boldening like a revving engine, and the breakneck speed of the absorbing bridge were not only a refreshing listening experience, but also thematically appropriate. The harmonized chorus was satisfying in a thirst-quenching way. The ultra-simplified lyrics, in the absolute peak of F(x) fashion, took both interpretability and context to their logical frontiers while retaining irresistible charm. It was a cohesive and persuasive achievement, leading “Jet” to become the first (and still the only) non-promoted idol group song to receive a Korean Music Awards nomination.
26. Girls’ Generation – 다시 만난 세계 (Into the New World)
The beginning of it all: how many foresaw the juggernaut at the time of this adorable little debut? An infectiously positive vibe powered the song, which leveraged a sonorous melody and wholesome lyrics to immediately give SNSD a niche. Ever-observant Kenzie had the group play to its strength in numbers on the voluminous chorus while navigating the tall task of distributing lines nine assertive ways; these experiments bore important fruit not only for SNSD’s distinct style but also for idol pop production in general. So it was a great song; I will also admit, though, that half the fun is in seeing the tremendous efforts of a rookie SNSD in the perfectly synchronized choreography.