About a month after my mid-year countdown of the best K-Pop videos, “Gangnam Style” exploded onto the American shores. Let me say right now, you will not see “Gangnam Style” in the following list of the Top 10 K-Pop Videos of 2012 as I consider it the Asian equivalent of the Macarena. I also imagine the more accomplished South Korean musicians were shaking their collective heads as PSY’s song went viral across the Western world and reduced the breadth and brilliance of Korean popular music to a novelty dance craze.
As I said in July, Seoul is home to a dizzying and dynamic music scene which rivals any on Earth. By sifting through the detritus of the West, pulling out the gems we’ve inexplicably abandoned, then adding their own unique sensibilities, South Korea has given birth to a truly global 21st century pop music. Though still dominated by a handful of major entertainment super-corporations, and the so-called “Idol Groups” they produce, K-Pop has been expanding and diversifying in earnest. Six months ago, this list was almost entirely filled with electro-pop. Now, you’ll note, there is folk, punk, rap and neo-soul to go along with the popton candy.
My hope is “Gangnam Style” is not the end of K-Pop’s inroads to the West. That would be a shame. As in so many things, the East has much to teach the West. If we listen, the music scene in America will stay relevant. If not, they’ll go on without us.
This is not officially on the list but consider it an appetizer to get your brain in the right place. I suspect Muzie thinks of himself as the unnatural offspring of 1980’s Michael Jackson and The Fonz. Further Reading: Love at First Sight.
“Bounce” by JJ Project is like N-Sync and Linkin Park became two 18 year old Korean boys and wrote a song to play at the beginning of basketball games. Also, the glimpse of South Korean high school fashion suggests a world designed by circa 1991 Corey Feldman. Further Reading: License to Drive.
“Life is party/Kinda edgy, kinda sweet/Boom.” True that. Along with Bigbang, Super Junior and Wonder Girls, Girls Generation is one of the biggest exports of K-Pop (they were on Letterman in January doing a Teddy Riley produced single, The Boys). The premise behind them is so brilliantly simple it’s amazing no one’s thought of it before. Instead of four to six cute girls singing insanely catchy pop songs in unison, Girls Generation has nine. Nine is better than Six. That’s just math. While Paparazzi is neither The Girls’ catchiest song nor their most addictive video, it is a welcome addition to the canon, including the opening slice of Americana set to Singin in the Rain, made slightly disturbing by the evocation of the exact era when the U.S. was bombing their country. Luckily, when the Girls begin to deliver their sweet, sweet candy-pop, all such concerns are washed away on a stream of nonsensical English and electronica. Further Reading: “Gee”, “Run Devil Run”, “Oh!”
8. Lee Hi, 1,2,3,4
K-Pop will pounce on any musical trend, digest it then shit it out with all the rough edges sanded off (Wow that analogy got away from me). In Lee Hi’s case, it is the Adele/Amy Winehouse/Duffy school of neo-soul. The song’s definitely got swagger but the video loses points for moving at a weirdly slow pace which suggests everyone is dancing against their will while trying to get a message to the outside world to send help. Also, Lee Hi may or may not be 9 years old. Further Reading: This is Lee Hi’s first single.
7. The Solutions, Lines
K-Pop does The Decemberists! It’s rare for a K-Pop song to be entirely in English. Almost all of them contain some to many English street-slang non-sequitur but The Solutions go the whole way. If you heard this without seeing the video, you’d swear they were from Portland. Further Reading: Sound of the Universe
6. Miss A, I Don’t Need a Man
In the world of K-Pop Girl Idol groups if the Wonder Girls are the Beatles then Miss A are the Stones. While this is very obviously (and intentionally) a homage (or rip-off depending on your view) of Destiny’s Child, it is a perfect little morsel of popton candy. And while one has to question the feminist bonafides of a scantily dressed teen girl group controlled by an old school Korean patriarchal entertainment conglomerate, the girl’s seem to be proud of themselves and the message to teenage South Korean girls is a good one. Further Reading: Bad Girl, Good Girl
You gotta hand it to the boys from Bigbang, they’ve got swagger. In contrast to most of the other massively successful K-Pop groups, Bigbang offers up more than simply super-polished, bombastic Western style technopop. Theirs is a style set apart. In this video, the boys walk around Williamsburg trying to holla at American women with little success. The track itself has got a groove what grows on you. If New Edition was a Korean Idol Band sent from 8 years in the future, they’d be Bigbang. Further Reading: Fantastic Baby and T.O.P.’s ridiculously awesome diamond skull necklace.
While not as glossy as all the other videos, “Like This” is on the list for two reasons. One, it is proof positive the best pop music producers in the world currently live in Seoul. There isn’t one part of this song which isn’t maddeningly catchy. Two, have you ever wished you lived in a musical, where you could just break out in song and everyone around you would know the words and choreography? Apparently, South Korea is that place. It’s as if you went to the mall and 200 people started doing a 21st century version of The Time Warp. Further Reading: “Be My Baby” & Ralph Lauren Polo stores in South Korea.
3. Exo-K, Mama
“Mama” is the debut single of the band Exo, which comprises 12 teenage boys split into two group. They do the same songs, have the same singles, records, etc. But Exo-K is for Korea, Exo-M for China. This is K-Pop in all its nonsensically epic splendor. A 2-minute English introduction (which I’m convinced is the voice of Michael Gambon) introduces the “12 Legends”, who split the Tree of Life and form different yet similar worlds. “The Legends shall now see the same sky but stand on different ground, shall stand on the same ground but see different sky.” There’s Gregorian chanting, fiery Phoenix wings, superpowers, rock-rapping, a techno dance break, a guy with a tattooed face, a butterfly in a sandstorm and lots of teleportation. I can only pray the people behind Exo intend to keep this whole “pop group as superhero elementals” thing going. Further Reading: Exo-M’s version of the same song/video.
2. Galaxy Express, Horongbul
I don’t know the exact translation of “Horongbul” but judging by the chorus it’s something like “AH-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH”. Galaxy Express is based on the old Alice in Chains formula of two lead singers, one who can actually sing and a grizzled dude who looks awesome and yells well. Horongbul is nothing deeper than a fast and catchy punk song. All the pretty post-punk pretenders wish they could rock as hard. Plus, the video looks like someone turned Metallica’s Enter Sandman into a screensaver. Further Reading: Jungle the Black
There can be no doubt G-Dragon, the lead singer/rapper/producer of BigBang, is the transcendent star of the K-Pop firmament. He is making some of the most infectious, creative, deliriously enjoyable pop music in the world. He can sing, dance, rap, produce, is considered a fashion icon in Asia and is ridiculously charismatic. Crayon is one of those pop songs which, once heard, seem as if it always existed. His other single, One of a Kind, and BigBang’s Fantastic Baby both deserved to be on this list. Further Reading: The G-Dragon/T.O.P. rap collaboration “Knockout” from 2010, produced by Diplo and One of a Kind.
Jared Thomas is an author and scriptwriter living in Brooklyn. His works include The Street Dreams of Electric Youth, The Last Amesha, and Gre & The Devil.