Note before you read ahead that this post contains 30 YouTube videos and might take a while to load on slow computers or on your crappy iWhatsit or whatever you kids use these days.
I refer to 2008-2011 as k-pop's first golden age - it's the time when k-pop songwriting not only caught up to but for the first time significantly overtook western pop music in quality and style and created world-beating pop productions that grabbed the attention of global listeners. Before 2008 Korean pop music was always behind the pack in many respects, but by the end of 2011 it was clear that k-pop's songwriting and production values were easily able to better anything that the west was offering. The songs were (and still are) highly derivative - let's be real, everything in k-pop is a western copy, but k-pop was able to transform itself into a superior clone in many respects that combined the songwriting smarts of various eras of western pop with modern engineering and production skills that surpassed many of the originals.
After the 2008-2011 plateau I believe that k-pop has backtracked a little from this point. I've titled this post "k-pop's first golden age", hinting at the possibility that k-pop could have a second golden age. I don't know if or when it will happen, but I do know that if it is coming, we're definitely not there yet. Most musical genres don't peak twice, but at the same time k-pop probably isn't going anywhere and will continue to evolve and adapt, whether the song quality peaks again or not.
A few things:
1. This list is my personal opinion on what the best songs were during this period so if you disagree... that's nice, but I don't really give a fuck so you can spare yourself the energy of pointing out how wrong you feel that I am. I've always known that music is subjective and nobody's opinion is superior so if you feel strongly about anything you read here, think a little before you write that 200 word essay on why your fave got ignored. Maybe do your own list to make yourself feel better, how about that for a suggestion. Then everyone else can hate on your picks and you'll know how I feel.
2. I'm sure many fangirls will disagree with the fact that this list is almost exclusively girl groups, but that's just too bad because with only a couple of exceptions I don't think the male groups had much to offer musically during this period. If I did separate best-of posts for each year more guy groups would have made it on, but I'm not going to do that because I'm too lazy.
3. I'm considering doing a "worst of" list for these years as well but it's very difficult as most of the really shit songs from this era have already been lost in time and their dreadful MVs are proving impossible to track down. Although I'd like to do one, a "worst of the golden age" list may or may not appear at some point in the future depending on how my research goes, but if it does, it definitely won't be anytime soon.
4. Only feature tracks with MVs qualify for this list because I don't have the time/money to listen to every k-pop album ever, plus I want this post to be visually interesting (read: fappable).
5. Where are the nugus? Well, you've got to remember that quite a few of these groups were nugus at the time these videos came out.
6. Yes, I'm biased - what would be the point of this list if I wasn't?
Let's get started.
30. Girls' Generation - Gee
Yes, I've put "Gee" at #30, not #1, I didn't accidentally mix up the numbering order - deal with it, Sones. E-TRIBE were always a production team incredibly ill-suited to k-pop. Their typically densely-textured ear-assault always seemed better suited to some kind of industrial music than k-pop, and given that most of industrial music's greatest artists have long since peaked in terms of creativity I think there's a real market opportunity for them in this area. However, if you put a blindfold on a machine-gunner and ask him to spray an entire box of ammo at a target on the other side of a football field there's still a mathematical chance he'll hit the bullseye eventually, and E-TRIBE's normally wayward aim was true on the day that they penned "Gee" for Girls' Generation. The pacy analog synth-driven backing atonal enough to come from a Front Line Assembly b-side mitigated SNSD's super-cloying aegyo which would have sounded cringeworthy over just about anything else, cementing the group's pop stardom and ensuring E-TRIBE enough of an income stream to make the rest of their songwriting career unimportant. Which was just as well for them, because they never made anything even remotely this good ever again.
29. 2NE1 - I Am The Best
It's hard to imagine in 2014, but there was a time just a few short years ago when 2NE1 were at the top of their game, and every new song of theirs was looked forward to with heavy anticipation as something that would undoubtedly be special. Nowadays the group's releases have sunk in quality so drastically that just the mere suggestion of heavy anticipation of a 2NE1 track reads like a strange scenario lifted out of one of my fiction stories, but this was honestly the way many regular k-pop fans felt back then, even outside of the 2NE1 fandom. The introductory synth riff to this song is as ball-wrenching as it is distinctive, and while the song arguably never peaks beyond the first 30 seconds of shock and awe, "I Am The Best" will remain one of k-pop's best party-starters and speaker-system-testers for the forseeable future. Bonus points for a visually astounding MV with several iconic moments that 2NE1 haven't topped since and likely won't.
28. Brown Eyed Girls - Abracadabra
Every time I go to watch this video, I head into the task with the resolute determination that this time I'm going to finally work out what the fuck's going on in the story. Then I always get distracted at about the two minute mark when Gain (is it actually Gain? Maybe it's one of the other girls, I don't give a fuck) gets slammed up against the wall and her clothes get torn off. Then I sort of lose myself thinking about the sexual appeal of that moment and then the video ends and suddenly I'm like "what the fuck happened what's going on here SHIT I forgot to pay attention again" and then I press play and go from the start of the video and the process repeats itself. All of this constant repetition and replaying has really embedded what I initially felt was a fairly average song deeply enough in my head to earn it a place on this list which I guess was probably the idea. There's a lesson here, k-pop record companies.
27. KARA - Step
KARA's "Step" is one of the straight-up rockingest songs in k-pop, and I'm aware that "rockingest" isn't a word but it describes this song very well as I'll use it if I want to. No surprise that it came from KARA songwriting regulars Sweetune who specialise in sneaking heavy metal influences into pop music (more on that later), this song is loaded with crunchy riffs and a great Queen-style harmonised chorus. It's just a shame that the music video is offputting and one of k-pop biggest eyesores, the set design and fashions on display here are simply terrifying and the MV nearly made it into my colour blindness test post for its formidable retina-shredding power. Like the lights in The Day Of The Triffids, it's possible that no human alive today has actually watched "Step" all the way through and survived with their vision undamaged.
26. After School - Bang!
Out of all the songs on this list, "Bang!" has to be one of the weirdest. Most of the elements in the backing track don't fit together in any way at all except rhythmically, but it all works because it just means more disparate and catchy elements that all get lodged in your head at one point or another. One day it's that dit-dit-dit-dit keyboard part in the chorus that I can't shake, the next day it's one of those stupid raps with the horrible English that gives you secondhand embarrassment just from listening... but thinking about it some more, I must admit that just puts them more or less on par with most western rap lyrics these days. Speaking of embarrassment, I imagine it's pretty difficult for a high school kid to explain their way out of having "after school bang" still sitting in their Google search bar when their parents or siblings want to use the computer so be grateful that this blog post allows you to conveniently find this video without actually having to type that in anywhere.
25. Sunny Hill - Midnight Circus
This song was sort of like "House Of Fun" by Madness given the high-gloss k-pop treatment with juiced-up melodies and production, crazy high-budget staging and hot girls of course. There's a token guy in this "co-ed" group but nobody really gave a fuck about that dude (and he obviously realised it, recently leaving the group to focus on a career in music production). This song is proof that k-pop at its best can and does take musical influence from any goddamn place it pleases, and that's one of the things that has kept me into the genre, the willingness to draw on a wide palette of styles to construct the product. Oh, and hot girls. Sunny Hill were always an A-list group for me, like a more left-field Brown Eyed Girls. Like.
24. f(x) - NU ABO
Everybody who likes f(x) always whines about how SM aren't giving them the same treatment that they give SNSD, but a careful listen to a song like "NU ABO" should tell them exactly why. Play this song, ignore the vocals completely, and focus on the shit in the background. If you're using your ears actively, after a while you'll be asking yourself "wait... what is that fucking shit in the background?". Whoever wrote this song basically just made a dance track full of beats and weird noise. There's not even any chord changes, when they go to a new section, they just replace the weird noise with some other weird noise. As a fan of Merzbow and Einsturzende Neubauten I appreciate this kind of thing, even if it's at nowhere near the same intensity level. Like SM were ever going to give f(x) the SNSD treatment - come on now. It's obvious that they're after something totally different here, a left-of-centre boutique faux-artsy pop group experiment, just to see how it flies. Fly it does. Even Amber's horrible raps can't ruin this, but I understand that she's gotta be there or Sulli's hotness would overload and crack people's computer screens so it's all good. But you can stop asking where your official fanclub name is and where your official colour is and why they don't get world tours and concerts and all that bullshit because SM are actually trying to do something different here for once, so maybe you should appreciate it for what it is instead of whining like a little spoiled cunt, now how about that.
23. 4Minute - Heart To Heart
There was a time when new 4Minute songs didn't sound like they were written by someone trying to impersonate their own fart noises with a synthesizer, and actually had listenable melody, harmony and structure. Listening to them these days, who would've thought? "Heart To Heart" is one of the best songs from back in those times of old, and hearing it in retrospect makes the fall of 4Minute from quality pop vehicles to Bravesound's broken Moog mechanics feel even more tragic. It's enough to make a k-pop music fan want to cry... but if you're feeling down, just skip to 3:30 and check out one of the girls trying to deliver an emotional line directly to the camera with a hairstyle straight from 2NE1's nightmares. You'll cheer back up again faster than you can say "even Dara would sack her stylist for that".
22. T-ara - Bo Peep Bo Peep
Back in the early days of T-ara, CCM ran a poll and asked netizens which song should be T-ara's lead single from their first album, "Bo Peep Bo Peep" or "Like The First Time". Netizens voted slightly in favour of "Like The First Time", so CCM went ahead and released "Bo Peep Bo Peep" anyway, because even though "Like The First Time" is a better song, fucking with netizens is hilarious, right? A song about a nine-tailed fox that kills gullible men after they fap should have tipped off Koreans to exactly what kind of trolling was in store from this group in the years to come, and the hilariously repetitive catchy-from-first-listen chorus and mocking lyrics implying that you're a fucking sheep being led to the slaughter just underline the idea that in the often overly fanservicey world of k-pop T-ara is a group that is not and never will be about what you want. Even the butt-dancing is so quickly cut (an editing practice that would become a T-ara MV trademark) that it's literally impossible to fap to, but like the song says, "don't lose your temper so easily".
21. Orange Caramel - Shanghai Romance
Everybody likes to talk about cultural appropriation like it's such a hot topic these days, so I'd like to say that as a part-Chinese person, I'm deeply offended by Orange Caramel's "Shanghai Romance", how dare these Koreans pretend to be Chinese and make us look all twee and shit and insult my culture by wearing those hats and clothes like it's silly and... oh, who the fuck am I kidding, like I give a shit. Sometimes you just gotta loosen up a bit, take the carrot out of your ass, wipe the turd residue off it and say "well, they didn't mean any genuine harm or insult by it, so okay then, I think I can deal with it, I'll find a way". I actually think it's important in this multicultural global connected world to try and promote getting along with people rather than to nitpick at everything and get people racially fired up about stuff that they probably wouldn't have even thought to be offended by had someone not pointed it out. Although if I ever catch that Raina in person I'll be sure to punish her severely - I'm not sure how, but I'll think of something, probably involving lots of spanking and tying her to that biplane. She's the leader of this group so she has to take responsibility. In the meantime this song is good. Or something. Sorry, I'm a little too distracted thinking about Raina tied to the plane's wings with her bare buttocks exposed to review this properly now, maybe another time.
20. Girls' Generation - Mr. Taxi
Where I live a lot of women are afraid to catch taxis because they're afraid they'll get raped by the drivers. A lot of taxi drivers on the other hand are afraid to drive a taxi because they're worried about getting stabbed by the passengers. Perhaps adding more glamour and glitz to taxis is the key and if everyone sat down, chilled out and listened to SNSD's "Mr. Taxi" for a while that would make everything better... or maybe not, but it's still a great song anyway. "Mr. Taxi" was SNSD's debut original song for the Japanese market (although it did also get a Korean-language release later) and as far as Japanese releases go they never topped that great earworm chorus for sheer catchiness. I guess someone over at SM drunk all the "hypertonic".
19. Sunny Hill - Pray
I always take time out of my k-pop writing routine to regularly take a big smelly literary dump on the worthless ballads that Korean pop music produces. These songs are 99% filler trash usually lazily thrown out by songwriters to pad out the length of an album or mini so it meets minimum contractual length requirements, or even worse, heartless, soulless, showoffy exercises in displaying singing technique to satiate k-pop's legions of obsessive-compulsive sycophantic fans. Of course, I say 99% because very occasionally, a good ballad is produced, and here one is. Showing a rare combination of melodic restraint, brevity, moodiness, sensible lyrics, and even a decent video with a worthwhile subtext (that those who like to parade around morally upstanding religious values are often doing so to cover up the fact that they are just as shady as everyone else), it's easy to see why it got banned from Korean TV - Koreans clearly can't fucking handle this kind of high quality in a ballad. I guess go back to your vacuous sappy candy-coated bullshit, you pathetic Starcraft nerds.
18. Girls' Generation - Oh!
"Oh!" always impressed me as the superior companion song to "Gee", with the same type of production ideas being used but married to a song with better melody and less cloying cheesiness. It's like they listened to "Gee", thought "okay, how can we do that sort of thing again, but make it even better" and scientifically applied themselves in exactly the right areas. While "Gee" gained popularity outside Korea as a gimmicky viral video that spread quickly in computer nerd circles precisely because the aegyo overload didn't translate to western audiences (the true reason for its high YouTube hit rate, something Sones generally ignore), "Oh!" on the other hand was just a solid song with some hot girls dancing that people liked. I don't really "get" the cheerleader thing in this video though, I must admit. My school didn't have that shit, the girls in my classes were too busy getting stoned, applying hairspray and listening to bad 80s music to be bothered with pom-poms and choreography, so watching the "Oh!" MV is like a peek into a parallel fantasy universe where hot girls actually give a fuck about sports. Also the locker room is clean and neat so you know this is pure fantasy. Speaking of fantasy, whoever decided to put Sunny in that red shirt and suspenders was a genius and certainly helped along a few fantasies of my own.
17. Wonder Girls - Tell Me
One of the first really astoundingly good k-pop songs, it's no shock that this smooth and very 80s production comes from JYP, the most unashamedly retro of all k-pop producers. JYP's production here is mid-80s pop all the way, right down to the distinctly inappropriate and hilarious sampled moaning that I'm sure he had a lot of fun creating with one of those five girls (my money's on Sohee). No wonder they all went Christian on him, it was probably a planned tactic to stop him from turning them into k-pop's 2 Live Crew. Plus, what other k-pop video has a streaker in it? Talk about wearing his heart on his sleeve, never mind which girl is the hottest because JYP probably fapped to this before you did.
16. SHINee - Lucifer
I'm sorry but boy band songs are mostly generic as fuck. The music that mattered in the k-pop revolution was nearly all female and the reason is (warning: music theory incoming) because songwriters actually write songs for the guy groups differently, usually favouring simpler harmony and pentatonic instead of diatonic melody. This matters because anyone can shit out a semi-acceptable pentatonic melody over chords I, IV and V after about one improvisation class in any given instrument, but it won't ever sound any more than thoughtless. Maybe it's because the songwriters feel that the crazy girl fandoms will carry the groups to fame with fan power so not much effort is needed in the actual song, but whatever because with SHINee a notable exception was made so bravo to SM for making a guy group song that I can listen to without throwing up. "Lucifer" is actually really cohesive with great synth riffs, a tight structure and just enough blues-scale wank to show that they can sing more than one note but not enough to wreck the thing with aimless warbling like just about every other guy group song from the period. Also, that dance, that fucking dance, easily the most iconic dance in kpop. Props to anyone who can do that, how come the female groups never get dances this cool. Credit where it's due - if there's one area where the guy groups are streets ahead every time it's definitely the dancing, even impressive girl stuff like T-ara's "Lovey Dovey" doesn't hold a candle to the shit that the male groups get forced to do.
15. 2NE1 - Fire
(insert comments about how I don't really hate 2NE1 here but they just can't release anything decent lately here) (insert comments about how "Fire" is really good here) (quick superfluous discussion of the musical content that reveals nothing of worth or at least nothing that I can get called out on by some know-it-all in the comments) (mention Dara's silly hair as a precedent for her silly hair in other 2NE1 videos later) (mention the "street" version and how I didn't include it because visually it's boring and I can't fap to Bom in a hoodie) (throw in a quick reference to the "school" live version here and how my friend used to fap to Minzy dancing like she was getting fucked up against a wall at 1:33 until I pointed out that she was only 15 years old at that time and then he felt like the world's biggest pedo) (insert obligatory Bom plastic surgery joke here) (finish with witty conclusion that wraps everything up neatly and gives everyone positive vibes while still reinforcing my opinion that the last half a dozen 2NE1 feature tracks have all been dogshit)
14. Wonder Girls - Nobody
I know people have been wondering about this and will ask me about it, so here you go: I have searched fucking everywhere to find out what microphone Wonder Girls are using in this video and I keep turning up a blank. It's definitely a copy of the ring-mount carbon microphones that were in popular use in radio in the 1920s and 1930s, but the fact that it seems to fit neatly into a modern microphone stand plus the fanciness and very good condition of the things makes me think this is a JYP studio mock-up. The surround looks at lot like the Blue Ringer shock mount attachment for the Blue Snowball microphone that's been painted gold a bit around the rim to match the rest of the set and costume design, however what's inside it definitely isn't a Blue Snowball. Not that it matters, they didn't ever actually plug any of these microphones in for any of the Wonder Girls' performances of this great song which meshes 1960s Motown melody and harmony with JYP's typical 80s production. So typical of JYP that he's all over the damn video though, you could joke that JYP is the kind of person who would film himself taking a shit in his own videos if he could, but that's not even a joke because that's exactly what he fucking does here. At least he didn't take a shit (literally) on the Japanese version that they did later. Anyway it's a pity JYP didn't realise the strength of and stick with the Motown-meets-80s concept because they would have cleaned up all over SNSD both in Korea and the USA. Oh well, at least they left us with this iconic song.
13. Bom - You And I
...and the best ballad in k-pop belongs to the best singer in k-pop which is 2NE1's Bom. Yeah, I said it. Why is Bom the best singer in k-pop? For exactly the same reason that the vocalfags hate her - she can't fucking sing a note, she strains, she can't connect her notes together - I LOVE IT. Such a commitment to "fuck it I wanna be an idol and no lack of technique is gonna stop me" is not only ideologically highly admirable in a Crayon Punk kind of way but it means that Bom has developed something that no other k-pop singer has - a voice that is instantly identifiable in a blind listening test. In the Korean idol system all idols sound the same because they are specifically trained to sound the same, and then on top of that they all get the same vocal processing, so telling them apart is nearly impossible unless you're an obsessive listener - the homogenisation is so extreme that even the idols themselves have trouble identifying their own singing parts when listening back to the results (proof in an upcoming blog post, anticipate it fondly). If you still don't believe me, check out any forum thread where the audio to a k-pop song by a large multi-member female group has been leaked before any video is made available, and watch people guessing who sung what words at what time. It's the same kind of homogenisation charm-school process that Hollywood actresses from the 1950s went though, and you can't tell any of them apart just from listening to the sound of voices either without the visual or familiarity with the lines of a film to help you along. Everyone can recognise Bom though, her and arguably to a lesser degree AOA's Jimin are the only two distinctive singers that female k-pop has. Also the fact that she can't vocalise much and do the kind of vocal improvisations that other singers do means that the song's delivery has a nice restraint to it which lets the true melody shine without being coated with several layers of unlistenable overdubbed wank (looking at you, Ailee). I really also like the MV for this because I've been in exactly the same situation Bom's character finds herself dealing with in this video, and yes it ended the same way. Trufax.
12. Super Junior - Sorry Sorry
That great opening riff, wow. Slow it down a bit, play it on guitar instead of keys and that first keyboard line could have been lifted straight from a Black Sabbath record. This song can commit any other musical crime that it wants to (and it does) but solid riff-writing is severely underutilized in k-pop (another notable exception further down this list) and "Sorry Sorry" gets full marks for a backing track 100 times more catchy than any of the actual vocals. Maybe that wasn't the intention but it works for me, and it seemingly worked for everyone else too because this song catapulted Super Junior to instant super-stardom. SM retried the "Sorry Sorry" formula again and again by copying the beat and the vocal stylings but they ballsed it up each time because each time they got just a little too fancy with it and when writing riffs simplicity is important [insert "Mr. Simple" pun here]. I've used the dance version of the video because the dance is cool and kind of hypnotic to watch as the group's members swirl up and down across the stage like a human lava lamp which actually gives me even more entertainment than the song itself, great as it is.
11. Girls' Generation - Chocolate Love
It's fitting somehow for the unashamedly ultra-commercial style that is k-pop, that the best song from the most popular girl group in the genre at the time of writing is actually just an extended advert for a fucking phone. Having mentioned this, you could actually be forgiven these days for not even noticing that it's a phone advert, especially given that the 2001 A Space Odyssey obelisk devices the girls are holding are probably now a few generations of technology out of date. Labelmates f(x) had a version of this song too, but it sounds rushed to my ear and the heavier accompaniment rubs too much against the smoothness of the melody - SNSD took the pace down a notch and this gave both the melody and the fairly intricate backings a bit more breathing room so you can actually hear them properly. Also it's nice to see the girls dressing in colours that don't confuse my eye for a change, that's probably helped them work their way a few places up on this list.
10. T-ara - I'm Really Hurt
Remember when Girls' Generation's "Mr. Mr" teaser photos were released and crappy pseudo-feminist bloggers all jumped for joy about the possibly of them doing a "tomboy" concept? "Wow, this could be revolutionary!" they all said, as if what some chicks wear in a fucking corporate rubber-stamped music video makes a difference to the world. Then do you remember the tears that were extracted from these same bloggers when SNSD only wore the suits for about 10 seconds of the video and maybe one live stage and the rest of the time they were in the kinky nurses getup? Ah, fun times. Someone should have told these moral-high-ground-clutching twits that it wouldn't have mattered as doyens of jizz expurgation and fangirl arch-enemies T-ara had already been down this same road before with a song many times better than Mr. Mr. and the entire teenage male population of Korea still fapped. No SM-style baiting half-measures here either, T-ara keep the male getup intact for the whole video, only stopping to change suit colour presumably because cumstains don't show up as much on white clothing. Cross-dressing girls ares always hot (especially Eunjung who was practically born to cross-dress, especially in the bedroom while I conquer/dominate her) and frankly the song being one of the best that k-pop ever produced is just a bonus.
9. 2NE1 - Hate You
The problem with just about every 2NE1 song released in the last 24 months is that the songwriters are really trying to do too much fancy shit to get your attention and prove how cutting-edge they are instead of focusing on making a tune that doesn't suck. It's like the pressure is on: "this song could be their next big hit so we're going to cram everything we possibly can into it to make it the best song ever ever in history ever" and of course whenever songwriters feel intense pressure they tend to respond by writing absolute trendy bullshit (look at the quality difference between what PSY has done pre and post Gangnam Style, for instance). "Hate You" embodies the opposite of that type of attitude - the song keeps it simple with no tricks, no fancy bullshit, just a decent melody, a few rotating chords and some cool synth backing making this easily the best 2NE1 song ever. Also as an added bonus the cartoon CL and Dara are considerably more fappable than their real-life counterparts.
8. f(x) - Hot Summer
K-pop has always been a copyist form and excels at remaking anything western. A revamped, lyrically ultra-sanitised version of Monrose's "Hot Summer" where the girls sing about being literally hot instead of sexual-metaphorically hot shouldn't work in theory, but in practice it does anyway. I guess when you've got Sulli in your group hotness isn't something you need to try very hard at, it just sort of happens naturally. All versions of the song are great and this is the only time f(x) have had a feature track resembling traditional ultra-mainstream pop material, showing that they're quite capable of going down this path should the label choose to let them (spoiler alert: they won't). There's even a Japanese version of this song which I think didn't do that well but I'm linking it here anyway just so I've got quick reference to Sulli wearing slightly different outfits so I can fap some more.
7. T-ara - Why Are You Being Like This?
T-ara get their ABBA on for this amazing retro-styled song and the only thing harder than my erection when the chorus comes in is trying to find a high-quality version of this video that also has the correct aspect ratio. Listening to this gem takes me back to the days when melody was actually important in western pop before rap and dancehall musical influences started creeping in heavily and fucking everything up, fortunately most k-pop producers are my age or older and remember the halycon days of pop music that didn't suck a distended goat's rectum. Not that I'm against rap or dancehall, I like those styles too, but they don't go well with this sort of thing, and there's plenty of proof of that in this song's awkward half-time rap breakdown which is annoying and needless but mercifully short and not enough of an imposition to ruin what is probably one of k-pop's best drunken karaoke singalongs. I don't drink but I almost want to start drinking just to take advantage of how great this song must sound when I'm collapsed on the floor of a karaoke booth choking to death on my own vomit while some girl in a maid outfit tickles my asshole.
6. Secret - Shy Boy
Hey guys and gals, want to call out a k-pop company as being a pack of retards who have no idea what the fuck they're doing? Well, forget about all your usual targets like SM, YG, CUBE, CCM, JYP etc because give or take a few shit songs and an SNS slip-up here and there all those guys are just fine - instead consider to make your first stop TS Entertainment, Secret's record label. Secret walked into major, major fame with the utterly brilliant "Shy Boy", a throwback to 1950s doo-wop music and style. Doo-wop is a music scene analogous to k-pop in many respects that I'm honestly surprised more k-pop fans aren't into, especially given k-pop fans' tedious vocal obsession - unlike k-pop, singing correctly in doo-wop music actually matters. "Shy Boy" was ultra-bright, fun, awesome and of such incredibly high musical and conceptual quality that nobody even noticed or complained that Secret had put most of their clothes back on. Then TS (which presumably stands for "Tough Shit") Entertainment looked at the success of "Shy Boy" and said "hmmm... that really worked out well for us and the fans all loved it, let's make sure we never ever do that shit again" and went straight back to making Secret rip off Beyonce's godawful "Crazy In Love" for the 57th time. Someome should do something about this incredible waste of potential for Secret to be k-pop's first doo-wop/k-pop hybrid group. It's enough to make me want to throw an egg at TS Entertainment's headquarters, miss and hit the gutter, or form a protest meeting and then cancel it at the last minute, because that's what k-pop fans apparently do when they really mean business.
5. Orange Caramel - Magic Girl
In the 1980s, one of the biggest, most successful pop songwriting teams was Stock, Aitken and Waterman (hereafter referred to as SAW). SAW were an unreservedly "high production" trio, much in the style of k-pop production teams: they were always candid about their sometimes controversial techniques, inviting documentary crews to observe the virtues of pitch-corrected vocals (this is pre-Autotune, and yes they could fix vocals electronically back then too), heavy vocal layering and their ability to turn what were basically fashion models with limited musical ability into pop superstars. Their signature sound is a sound that everyone reading this has heard before - think of them as the Bravesound of western 80s pop - they'd reliably milk exactly the same formulas and sounds with each artist and create charting hits with the results, even if they weren't that different to their charting hits that came immediately before. Sadly, the songs themselves were often very lacking, and the trio made their biggest mistake getting mixed up with then-Neighbours soap star Kylie Minogue's career for a quick buck. The Kylie/SAW combination didn't gel, and when Kylie finally realised it in the early 90s in the face of declining album sales she flew the SAW coop to instant international #1 hits while SAW suddenly found their fortunes fading as they were now associated with "that 80s sound" which everybody in the 1990s now wanted to leave behind. Orange Caramel's true concept is basically recreating SAW as it ideally should have been back then - the same sonics and production ideas but with better technology, catchier melodies and more fappable girls (although there's definitely something to be said for the fapability of ex-"page 3 girls" Mel of Mel and Kim and Samantha Fox who also recorded under SAW). "Magic Girl" was the ultimate realisation of this concept, a formula that Orange Caramel has only deviated from slightly ever since (at least where feature tracks are concerned) and just to make it super-obvious the intro even copies Rick Astley's infamous "Never Gonna Give You Up" drum roll; yes, that was a SAW production too. Like Bravesound in 2014, SAW in the late 1980s was everywhere and damn it was annoying at the time but now we reap the benefits thanks to Orange Caramel. Maybe in 20 years from now somebody will repeat history and copy Bravesound's 2014 style to make it better, here's hoping.
4. T-ara - Like The First Time
Here's the song that really sold me on k-pop as an overall genre. I was aware of k-pop's existence ever since 2000, but when I heard "Like The First Time" the deal was sealed and my attitude concerning k-pop changed from "yeah those Koreans I've heard they make pop music like whatevs dude" to "HOLY FUCKING FUCK YEH KPOP YOU FUCK BITCH CUNT WOOHOO". You see, before I found out about T-ara, I was a big fan of English synthpop group La Roux. In fact, I still like them, I think they have some really good songs, but there's just one thing about La Roux that bothers me - their singer Elly Jackson is not that hot (well, not to me anyway - I reckon people into f(x)'s Amber might like her so if you're into her consider yourself notified). When I heard "Like The First Time" I noticed that it sounded quite similar to La Roux's "In For The Kill" but instead of having to stare at an English Amber lookalike for the whole MV, T-ara featured six hot girls dancing (well okay, five hot girls and one that looks like my mum, sorry Boram) and as an extra bonus the song was actually slightly better ("In For The Kill" is a damn good song too so this is very high praise FYI). Before then I always thought that great pop music had to come from ugly people but T-ara proved to me that I can have my rice cake and eat it too... I was thrilled! I've followed T-ara closely ever since and while they may not hit this level of gold again, their hit/miss ratio is still better than any group in k-pop for my money, which is noteworthy in a genre that's known for inconsistency across the board. Also they're hot... well, five of them are. Boram I'll make it up to you with a feature article someday.
3. KARA - Wanna
Don't be fooled by the keyboards and the pretty girls smiling dorkily straight to camera - KARA's "Wanna" is a heavy metal song, straight up. Yes, there are some occasional guitars but ignore them, the elements that make "Wanna" a metal song are actually all keyboard-driven and this would still be a metal song in spirit even with no guitar in it at all. Any metalhead worth their weight in low E strings will instantly recognise the use of metal-style pedal-point harmony at 0:44 that could have come straight from one of Iron Maiden's better songs. I can only guess that songwriters Sweetune are some closet headbangers because this song is loaded with quality heavy metal riff writing sneaking under the radar so it can get on k-pop TV. As someone who listened to metal a great deal in my teens I appreciate the effort, and I appreciate it even more that I get to watch a video like this and look at Seungyeon whose sexy crosseyes are life itself, rather than some dreary stoned acne-scarred male teenagers with long hair and awkward-shaped pointy guitars. Why did I waste my teens being a metalhead, standing in crowds surrounded by other guys equally as ugly as myself, when I could have been fapping it to Girl's Day? Oh that's right, there was no Girl's Day back then. Bless k-pop and culture technology for improving the quality of my life fuck yeah.
2. After School Blue - Wonder Boy
At some point during After School's career Pledis thought it would be a good idea to split the group into two halves and have two separate comebacks. Hey, it makes sense on paper - double your money, right? One half of the group was called "After School Red" and featured Nana and all the members nobody gives a shit about and who were on the graduation (read: firing) list anyway and they put out a song called "Into The Night Sky" which is probably one of Bravesound's better tracks to date but that's not saying a lot. The other half was called "After School Blue" and had all the most fappable members - Kpopalypse bias-list-approved Orange Caramel members Raina and Lizzy, cute multi-instrumental freak (and I mean freak) E-Young and fapworthy Jooyeon, and their song was called "Wonder Boy" and it fucking shat gold. Basically an updated reimagining of John Paul Young's "Love Is In The Air" except not shit, "Wonder Boy" was such a good song and the girls looked so good that Pledis had to enlist the help of boy group Nu'est as their live backing dancers just so ugly fangirls would have something to drool over to stop them storming the TV set and attacking the After School Blue girls in a jealous rage during the performances, like a secret agent breaking into a high-security compound and quickly throwing a guard dog a raw steak before he gets mauled. It seems to have worked as all four girls are reportedly still alive at the time of writing, and although Pledis will probably never do the Red/Blue thing again I notice they're still employing Nu'est, presumably for continual crowd control purposes just in case they ever pull out a girl group song this good again.
Anyone who knows me even a little will find that the #1 is no surprise.
1. T-ara - Roly Poly
You know it had to be this song (or maybe you didn't, but now you do). "Roly Poly" is the ultimate k-pop feature track and the benchmark for which I measure all other songs in k-pop, their quality scientifically measurable using the fundamental unit RP% or "percent of Roly Poly" (don't ask me to ever measure any songs like this by the way, I always just get distracted and end up listening to Roly Poly instead). But what is it that makes Roly Poly so good? Let's break the great features of this song down into dot points because too much truth in a traditional standard paragraph format might just melt your brains.
- Song rampantly steals from The Bee Gees' "Staying Alive" but removes the awful scrotum-bashing male falsetto, to everyone's benefit
- Dance moves and set design in the MV also directly stolen from Saturday Night Fever but I don't have to look at any Scientologists in flared trousers to appreciate them
- Qri's rap at the start and then the drums and bass kicking in is one of the most blissful and effective k-pop intros ever created, equal to 2NE1's "I Am The Best" and Super Junior's "Sorry Sorry" in iconic status, except that Qri is prettier than CL and healthier than Shindong
- Same key and harmonic content as GG Allin's classic punk anthem "Bite It You Scum" (post-scandal arguably the same lyrical message too)
- Hwayoung's rap only goes for four bars and is so comically awful that it's valid conceptual continuity fuel for a thousand Kpopalypse blog posts and a constant reminder of why removing her from the group was a good idea, as if her slackitude and nail-polishing habits weren't enough
- Invented disco k-pop as a subgenre, there was no disco in k-pop before this worth a shit
- Verses so awesome they contain not one but two simultaneous melodies, each of which could carry the song purely on its own
- A chorus that will stay in your head to your grave - maybe beyond, perhaps even the maggots that eat your rotting flesh after you've expired in a freak k-pop dance routine accident will probably sense residual brainwave vibrations of Roly Poly and start lining up and doing the hand-dance together
This post took me fucking forever! Don't ask me to do another one of these fucking mega-lists before the end of the year, when you'll get two of them - my best and worst lists of 2014! Patience is a virtue! All good things come to those who wait! Patience is bitter but its fruit is sweet! Shut the fuck up and wait patiently! Etc!