Ever since an October 2011 New York Times account of an absolutley ridiculous-sounding sold-out K-pop showcase at Madison Square Garden, I’ve been spending altogether too much time chasing the feeling that I got watching my first K-pop video. SHINee’s “RingDingDong.” I’ve been able to get that feeling pretty often. South Korea, see, has figured out pop music pretty much perfectly over the last couple of years. Throughout Asia, and in pockets of the West as well, the music coming out of a few different management companies in Seoul has become absurdly popular, and it’s done it by taking the musical and visual vocabularies of late-’90s American teenpop and amping them up into Blade Runner pleasure-bombs, looking and sounding like an optimist’s idea of the future. The clothes and hairstyles and camera-angles and cheesed-out CGI effects are all cranked up way past 10, and so are the songs’ hooks. If you have any love in your heart for willfully weightless, blissed-out, shame-free pop music, there is a whole lot to love in the 20 videos below.
K-pop is a genre in its relative infancy, really only coming into its own in the last three years and pushing itself to giddier heights every couple of months or so. Though many of the stars do help write their own music, the K-pop assembly line is a very serious thing, one that puts even Nashville’s pop-country industry to shame. These management companies find talented kids, spend years training them, and then debut them in boy- and girl-bands that have all been assembled in the least organic way possible. There’s very little pretense at artistic expression here; instead, these groups are hook-delivery systems polished to a blinding sheen. But that all-surface craftsmanship, in its way, can be just as moving as anything else; it’s humbling to watch people so insanely good at what they do.
I should point out, at the outset, that I am no kind of K-pop historian, and almost everything I learned about the genre comes from clicking the YouTube links that appear after a video ends. That means I’m probably missing a ton of stuff, and actual K-pop aficionados will probably get annoyed with me for ranking some things higher than others and for leaving out classics. I’m a total neophyte, and if I’m leaving out anything important, then by all means set me straight in the comments section. Anyway, this list is less about ranking and more about the sheer abundance of awesomeness that K-pop is giving us right now.
20. SHINee – “Lucifer”
A pretty good indication of what you’ll find futher down this list: Flashy choreography, haircuts that seem like they leaped straight from a William Gibson novel, hooks so efficient and powerful that they almost hurt your brain. I don’t think that anyone on earth knows what “love-a-holic, lovertronic” means, and none of us will probably find out either.
19. Girls’ Generation – “Oh!”
A massive hit, and a song that a lot of fans consider to be the defining high-water mark of the entire genre. I’m not as nuts about it, but it is fun in a frothy, sunny way. The video is practically a K-pop take on Saved By The Bell; I can’t seriously imagine what a football helmet even means to Korean culture.
18. Kim Wan-Sun – “Be Quiet”
Wan-Sun has been a star in South Korea since the mid-’80s, and this is the comeback effort that introduced her to the current K-pop wave. Naturally, it features dancers with speakers for heads, a bleach-haired rapper who stomps on a computer keyboard, and a backing track that veers awfully close to early-’90s rave. Fun!
17. TVXQ – “Keep Your Head Down”
In this one, the members of this boy band shoot fireballs from their fingertips, lip-sync in rooms riddled with bulletholes, and swing bits of rubber tubing around like nunchaku. Also, one of them wears a cape and acts like that’s not even a big deal, and there are at least three points where I was convinced that a couple of the boys were about to start making out with each other.
16. f(x) – “Nu ABO”
Everyone’s favorite member of this girl group is Amber Liu, a Taiwanese-American rapper from L.A. who’s probably the single butchiest person, male or female, in the entire K-poposphere. The fact that she can become a teen idol in Korea, a place not exactly known for fluid sexuality, is some kind of testament to K-pop’s power, or to her own charisma, or something. And even though “Hot Summer” has a pink tank in it, the infernally catchy “Nu ABO” probably has their best video.
15. B.A.P. – “Warrior”
DMX-influenced K-pop, it turns out, is a thing that exists. B.A.P. is a new boy band whose name stands for Best Absolute Perfection, which is so awesome but which doesn’t have anything to do with their hardcore persona. And I think it’s pretty great that all the members of K-pop’s most thugged-out boy-band have bleach-blond hair, like they were the evil gang from Meteor Man. Also, the members keep pretending to shoot each other in the head Reservoir Dogs-style, and there’s a guy in a Deadmau5-looking light-up rabbit head who smashes car windows with a sledgehammer.
14. Trouble Maker – “Trouble Maker”
Male/female duets are pretty rare in K-pop, for whatever reason. This is a total event-song, a collaboration between two big stars in Hyunseung of the boy band Beast and Hyuna, a member of the girl group 4Minute and the singer of the awesome “Bubble Pop!,” which you’ll find further down. Naturally, it’s a sexed-up James Bondian fantasy that proceeds according to a logic that I’m pretty sure nobody understands.
13. BigBang – “Love Song
The track itself is a better Coldplay song than anything Coldplay themselves have done since A Rush Of Blood To The Head. The video, meanwhile, is one long Children Of Men/Touch Of Evil-style tracking shot (with sly edits, sure) that takes place entirely a post-apocalypic wasteland full of flaming debris and exploding car husks that fall from the sky for no reason. There’s nothing about this thing that I don’t love.
12. T-Ara – “Roly Poly”
The song’s Euro-club bounce is so relentlessly catchy and direct that it gives me Abba vibes, but for some reason it comes couched in this 12-minute period piece mini-movie in which some lady discovers her old photo album and then flashes back to the days when she and her friends would execute big nightclub dance routines to this song. I have no idea everyone’s saying during the storyline bits. But the part where that stops and the song starts is absolutely glorious, and the dance bit, with a whole ton of moves stolen from John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever throwdowns, is adorable. (It starts around 4:25 if you want to jump right there.) For some reason, T-Ara love making these long-ass videos; the mini-crime movie that they made for “Cry Cry” is even more ridiculous.
11. miss A – “Bad Girl, Good Girl”
Sometimes, the language barrier is no barrier at all. This video, where the high school’s black-clad tough chicks take over the ballet-practice room and stage their own elaborately choreographed routine, is one of those times. Also: Good lord this song is catchy.
10. SHINee – “RingDingDong”
This was the first K-pop video I ever watched, and it turned out to be a pretty perfect introduction. Those haircuts! Those nonsensical English baby-talk hooks! The part where they all inexplicably sprout angels’ wings at the end! What really grabbed me, though, was the beat: A tense and rubbery electro-house thing that managed to be utterly accessible and totally punishing at the same time. Nobody in Europe or America is using those Euro-club tropes better than the producers in Seoul are doing right now.
9. Girls’ Generation – “The Boys”
“Oh” may be this group’s genre-defining classic text, but I prefer the robotic turbo-sass of “The Boys” to that song’s over-the-top cuteness. This one reminds me of Writing’s On The Wall-era Destiny’s Child, if they had nine members instead of four, and the video seems to take place in some supremely girly version of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. It sounds like pure urgency. It’s also the first modern-era K-pop song to get any kind of serious American push, with its English-language version getting an Interscope release and everything.
8. Hyuna – “Bubble Pop!”
This seems to be the American indie-dork massive’s favorite K-pop song, and, I mean, I can’t disagree. It’s practically a fucking Junior Senior song, except with actual good singing, and that chorus sounds like a Fluxpop manifesto brought to glorious life. The video is just an awesomely sunny and flirty good time, with those Roy Lichtenstein comic-book title-cards occasionally turning it into a Monkees clip and that inexplicable dubstep breakdown at the end coming out of absolutley nowhere. The entire comments section on this YouTube video, at least the comments in English, seem to be one vast argument over whether Hyuna is a slut or not.
7. GD & T.O.P. – “Knock Out”
Probably the first non-English rap song I’ve ever managed to enjoy. (Second if you consider “Gasolina” a rap song.) G-Dragon and T.O.P. are the two rapping member of BigBang, and their all-rap side project is reliably just awesome. G-Dragon’s also one of the musical masterminds behind his own group, exceedingly rare in K-pop, and if I’m to believe Wikipedia, he started rapping after the first time he heard Wu-Tang. But he sounds nothing whatsoever like Wu-Tang! This song was apparently banned in South Korea because “Knock Out” is Korean slang for being drunk, which is awesome. And the video itself takes place in some Bugs Bunnified alternate universe that reminds me, more than anything else, of a prime-era Missy Elliott video. The part where they dance under the tank turret is the best. Also, this one is probably the most immediately Stereogum-relevant song on the whole list. Diplo produced it, swiping a big chunk from Cajmere’s Chicago house classic “Coffee Pot (It’s Time For The Percolator)” in the process.
6. 2NE1 – “Ugly”
Rest assured: You will see 2NE1 on this list again. They are awesome, and they’d probably take up a third of this list if I wasn’t limiting things to two songs per artist. But this one gets special consideration because it’s their emo-ballad moment, their obvious take on TLC’s “Unpretty,” and they still dress like refugees from a Hot Topic explosion. Also, if any American emo song in the past five years or so has brought this kind of dizzily positive energy, I haven’t heard it.
5. Super Junior – “Mr. Simple”
There so many people in Super Junior! 13 members! That’s like two and a half American boy bands! Can you imagine the sheer volume of hair product at work here? My favorite member, naturally, is the kinda-fat late-20s guy with the dyed-red pageboy haircut who looks perfectly awkward every time he’s on camera. A friend pointed out that he imagined someone at SM Entertainment looking at an old picture of Joey Fatone, shrugging, and pulling the trigger. This video is almost lo-fi by K-pop standards, built entirely from its choreography. But that choreography is great, and so is the song. Between this, “Sorry Sorry,” and “Bonamana,” Super Junior are the kings of direct, unshakable earworms; good luck getting any of those songs out of your head all day.
4. GD & T.O.P. – “High High”
It took real restraint to keep myself from populating the top five entirely with stuff from the BigBang/2NE1 braintrust, and I just couldn’t help myself here. This one doesn’t have the cartoonish avant-garde force of the “Knock Out” video, but it does poppy American club-rap better than any American has done it in many years. I love the way T.O.P. manages to look like Don Draper even with this goofy spaceman clothes, I love the way way G-Dragon says “like ninja,” and I love that dance they do with their hands on the “high high high high” part. More than anyone, I love how these two guys appear to be having more fun than anyone else on the global pop-music landscape. Also, I hope Slick Rick is making so much money from that sample.
3. Brown Eyed Girls – “Abracadabra”
K-pop videos do future-shock extremely well and cute probably even better, but they don’t often go for sleazy. From what I’ve read, South Korea has pretty stringent rules about anything the tiniest bit explicit, so videos like this one are rare things. But this giddy dominatrix cheesecake confection shows the sort of thing that might happen if those restrictions got lifted. And it’s all incredibly well-done: A merciless electro pulse set to a story that, as far as I can tell, concerns a gigolo figure who gets tortured via shock-treatment. And the hips-rocking dance that the group does on the song’s first verse is pure steely-eyed badassery.
2. BigBang – “Fantastic Baby”
This one is only a few weeks old, so it seems faintly ridiculous to be putting it so high on a best-of-all-time list. But in K-pop, the groups that last do it by pushing their shit to new extremes every time they’ve got a new single out. And right now, BigBang, a dominant commercial force throughout Asia, are Lady Gaga circa-”Telephone.” I mean, look at this thing. It’s a post-apocalyptic Daft Punk adolescent Tumblr fantasy, and nothing about it makes the tiniest bit of sense, the haircuts especially. I can’t tell you how happy I am that it exists. Amrit will tell you: I kept myself awake enough to write all my SXSW coverage stuff by watching this video every 15 minutes.
1. 2NE1 – “I Am The Best”
Images that fill me with an immediate and visceral sense of joy: WWE title belts, spiked gauntlets, futuristic sports cars with gullwing doors, bustiers with nails sticking out of them, CGI trains, CGI pyramids, leather jackets with Misfits backpatches, Westminster-ready poodles, jewelry that spins, cartoonish machine guns, chainmail, designer straightjackets, spinning chairs that quote Scarface, haircuts that look like Viking helmets. The song is ridiculously catchy and propulsive, and everything about the video — the editing, the choreography, the sheer volume of what-the-fuck imagery — works to support it. In the past few months, I’ve watched this video at least 100 times, and I’ve convinced myself that it’s the greatest music video ever made. I refuse to budge on this. I mean, “Thriller” was great and all, but did it have a crew of ’80s-movie punks smashing walls of platinum plaques with baseball bats for no reason? No. No, it did not.