KPOP START UP: Best of the Decade

A few weeks ago I came across Billboards list of the 100 Best KPOP Songs of the 2010s and I thought, what better way to wrap up the Start Ups for 2019 then to do a recap of the decade! Below you'll find the songs we've picked from the Billboard list as well as what Billboard had to say about them. Cause honestly they explain it way better than I ever could.

18 - Twice, TT (2016)

How do you follow up a career-making viral hit like TWICE's "Cheer Up"? Do it again, but even better. The decade-defining girl group solidified their legacy with this gooey synth-pop track that created a new go-to phrase for K-pop fans worldwide. ("TT" jokingly refers to dramatically crying over something, the top of the Ts are one's eyes, the vertical lines represent streaming tears.) From Nayeon's opening "Ba-ba-ba-baby" to Sana's "na na na" line, plus the "I'm like TT/ Just like TT" chorus, this song boasts an earworm for anyone and everyone's taste. --J.B.

15 - Seventeen, Very Nice (2016)

Self-producing idols Seventeen have worked with everything from warehouse party-ready tech house to syrupy Brat Pack balladry since their 2015 debut, but it was the funky-fresh pop sound of “Adore U” that established the start of their career. The sound distinguished them in a bloated K-pop industry, and the group went on to perfect it three singles in on “Very Nice,” a boisterous ode to heart-bursting young love. Opening with a vocal kick-in-the-face from main vocalist Dokyeom, this track keeps the energy at a 15 out of 10 with its shouted refrain and busy horns, thanks to Bumzu and member Woozi’s adept production. “Very Nice” brims with a playful, rambunctious energy that forces you to smile, even when you’re a stone-faced actor at Korea’s equivalent of the Oscars. --M.M.

13 - Wonder Girls, Be My Baby (2011)

After temporarily abandoning their post as K-pop's top girl group to follow theirBillboard chart promise in America, Wonder Girls returned to Korea to remind everyone just what what made the industry fall in love with them. Honoring their longtime status as the queens of retro concepts, the outfit smashed back onto the scene with a song that boasted a feel-good Motown vibe with punches of hard-hitting, modern-day synthesizers. Expectations were high for this true K-pop comeback, but WG proved the power in staying true to one's artistry with only the slightest updates to create maximum satisfaction. --J.B. 

12 - EXO, Call Me Baby (2015)

The year before “Call Me Baby” came out was a fragmented one for EXO. With two members leaving and the future of their Chinese subunit, EXO-M, hanging in the balance, they needed revamping. Breaking away from the bass-thumping, power-packed dubstep bravado of “Overdose,” this track drew heavily from early ‘90s pop, tailored to perfection for each member’s strengths. Not only did it set the stage for a musical space that EXO would claim entirely for their own, but the music video is symbolic of the members coming into their own as individuals. Forgoing the schoolboy outfits of “Growl” or the contrasting co-ords of “Overdose,” this one was sartorially adventurous in letting each member’s personality shine through -- a literal graduation ceremony for what went on to be one of the most influential K-pop acts of the decade. --L.S.

9 - f(x), 4 Walls (2015)

There’s a current of anxiety underneath the surface of “4 Walls.” It’s there in the enigmatic lyrics, the undulating sub-bass, the fidgeting garage house beat. When “4 Walls” came out, it marked the first single that f(x) released without Sulli. Her absence had cast a shadow over the song, making its uneasy tone readily apparent. For a song with a chorus that bellows out that “Love is four walls” -- that love was a means to emotional security -- why did Amber exhibit cautiousness in her mid-song rap verse? Why did she confess, “I had the answers but now they mean nothing”?
Since Sulli’s passing, the song’s looming dread has only magnified, but so has the poignance of its bridge. The sudden key change brings with it a sense of sublime bliss; it’s only natural that Luna pleads “bring me with you” in this brief moment of serenity. Life can be confusing and unpredictable in its unwieldy journey. There are moments of fear and disappointment and sadness amidst those of deep, genuine love. But it’s that love -- more durable, more permanent than steel frames and concrete -- that’ll get us through every trial. --J.M.K.

7 - BTS, Blood, Sweat, And Tears (2016)

The most seminal acts in pop have a moment when they’re no longer standing on the precipice of greatness -- a little nudge sends them hurtling through the annals of fame. For BTS, “Blood, Sweat & Tears” might just have been that moment. This addictive union between tropical house and moombahton pegged BTS as a formidable act, one who could just as easily navigate the minimalism of “Save Me” as they could the grandeur of “Blood, Sweat & Tears.” The midas touch to this was, of course, the gloriously luxuriant music video, drawing upon biblical and literary motifs to show us how temptation lures us to fall from grace -- which was paralleled by the decidedly mature, borderline sensual looks the members sported. Lush, emphatic, and captivating, “Blood, Sweat & Tears” might have been the last calm before BTS took the world by storm. --L.S.

5 - Girls Generation, I Got A Boy (2013)

“I Got a Boy” is a heroine’s journey into the new world of K-pop’s genre mish-mashing. This is the defining song when you talk about what sets the industry’s song structures apart. Written in 15 minutes, the labyrinthine composition shapeshifts every few seconds into a completely new genre. Each section has its own sound, and the abrupt transitions break the boundaries between hip-hop, rock, and electro-pop. The pop behemoth’s playful relationship to BPM is echoed by Jessica’s immortal words: “let’s bring it back to 140.” Hyper-segmentation is almost built into the K-pop framework as groups have so many voices to spotlight. Girls’ Generation just happened to make that the defining characteristic of “I Got a Boy.” The elasticity of this career-defining anthem goes to show that K-pop can be anything, sometimes all at once. --C.K.

4 - 2NE1, I'm the Best (2011)

Before “Gangnam Style” galloped onto the global stage, 2NE1’s “I Am the Best” defined K-pop for Internet denizens who, under the girl group’s tutelage, came to know the Korean industry as sleek and styled to the nines. Produced by YG stalwart Teddy Park, the maximalist self-confidence anthem packs a refrain of “bom-ra-ta-ta-tas” that transcends linguistic barriers, Middle Eastern strings backing CL’s stand-out middle eight, zooting synths, a frenetic electronic soundscape, and a flashy music video featuring Illuminati conspiracist bait to complete the formula.
But even with its grandiose elements, a single with lyrics like, “If you planned to guess my worth, then I’m a billion dollar baby” would have fizzled in the hands of a less self-assured act -- it’s “I Am the Best,” not “I’m Decent, I Guess.” But 2NE1 supplied confidence by the truckload -- notably via the rapper and leader who goes by the name of CL -- and filled in the track’s blanks with aplomb. Undeniably iconic, “I Am the Best” will always be the track that bulldozed into our lives and pulled so many of us into the wondrous world of Korean pop. --M.M.

2 - Red Velvet, Red Flavor (2017)

The best pop songs can take a basic human emotion and make it the biggest, most extraordinary thing in the world -- despite such familiarity, certain feelings can be rendered anew through precise distillation and amplification. It’s the reason “Red Flavor” was such an undeniable hit since day one and remains ever-beloved by fans worldwide -- it overflows with an exuberance that’s palpable from the very first second.
Red Velvet have one of the most impressive and wide-ranging discographies of any K-pop group ever. From the sophisticated R&B throwback “Automatic” to the frenetic Shibuya-kei-indebted “Russian Roulette,” the ornate balladry of “One of These Nights” to the brass-and-rap hypnotism of “Dumb Dumb,” they could never be pinned down by their self-imposed “Red” and “Velvet” concepts. “Red Flavor” is most akin to the dubstep cheerleader romp of “Ice Cream Cake”-- itself a symbolic baton pass from f(x) to Red Velvet as the best idol group alive -- but packages its kitchen-sink extravagance into an easily digestible form. 
Most importantly, the song’s evocations of a bright summer romance are felt in every flourish and quirk. There’s swirling chimes and girlish sighs, chipper woodblocks and resounding horn stabs, drumline percussion and flagellating vocal samples -- production and songwriting duo Caesar & Loui broughteverythingto the table, because a lover can changeeverythingabout your outlook on life. Beyond the bricolage, “Red Flavor” features moments of sweet repose that lead to a final, heartfelt confession that the “summer flavor” they adore so much is “you.” In three short minutes, Red Velvet make tangible the most ineffable of things: love. --J.M.K.

For the full list of Billboards 100 Best KPOP songs of the decade, click here.

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