20 K-Pop Songs That Defined The Past Decade

2020 marks the start of a new decade, so it’s the perfect time to reminisce and take a walk through some of the best K-pop of the past one! K-pop has exploded over the past 10 years, bringing us countless dance hits, sizzling summer tracks, heart-wrenching ballads, and empowering anthems. Obviously the 2010s are filled with too many well-deserving hits to name on one list, but the 20 songs featured here pushed boundaries to infuse K-pop with exciting new sounds, achieved immense popularity, and became K-pop classics that truly defined the 2010s. So to ring in 2020, here are 20 songs that defined the past decade, in order of their release!

1. “Bad Girl, Good Girl” — miss A (2010)

It’s been almost 10 years since miss A debuted with “Bad Girl, Good Girl,” but the attention-grabbing “you don’t know me” is still one of the most iconic song intros in K-pop. The track was sexy and daring for a debut, but it served miss A well: it slayed the music charts and swept several awards in 2010, setting the ladies up for major success both as a group and eventually as solo artists. Plus, this choreo just doesn’t get old:

2. “Fiction” — Highlight (formerly BEAST, 2011)

A lot has changed in both K-pop and Highlight since 2011: the group has gone through some lineup changes and switched names since their debut in 2009. But just a few notes of the intro to “Fiction” are enough to put any longtime K-pop fan in their feels. The song’s mournfulness is haunting yet cathartic, and the so-called “penguin dance” of the chorus quickly became the “it” dance of the year, cementing BEAST’s place as one of the defining boy groups of the early 2010s.

3. “I Am The Best” — 2NE1 (2011)

2NE1 was one of the defining K-pop acts of this decade, and their versatile discography featured hits ranging from the wistful “Lonely” to the reggae/hip-hop “Come Back Home.” But “I Am The Best” is their crowning jewel: a badass proclamation of self-confidence featuring the girls decked out in leather and spikes, literally smashing records — as if we needed a reminder that they’re K-pop royalty! The song was featured on American TV shows and commercials years after its release, proving that this hit never gets old.

4. “Step” — KARA (2011)

As we mourn the recent loss of Goo Hara, we can celebrate her life and her legacy: KARA brought us hit after hit before their disbandment, and “Step” is perhaps one of the most characteristically K-pop K-pop songs to exist. It’s upbeat, cheerful, impossibly catchy, and set to a music video filled with bright colors and a dance that makes you want to get up and join — there’s a reason this song has been featured on arcade dance games and caught attention worldwide.

5. “Bubble Pop!” — HyunA (2011)

“Bubble Pop!” is an iconic song of this decade, and a career-defining track for HyunA, showing that no one does sexy quite like this queen — the song’s choreo isn’t afraid to get a little risqué! “Bubble Pop!” made it to the U.S.’s World Digital Song Sales chart, and was even featured on an episode of the American show “Family Guy.” “Bubble Pop!” is such carefree, flirty fun that we’re not surprised it has gone down as a K-pop classic!

6. “Gangnam Style” — PSY (2012)

PSY singlehandedly launched K-pop into the global spotlight when “Gangnam Style” rose to viral fame in 2012. It’s still one of the most-viewed YouTube videos ever, thanks to a combination of the MV’s meme-worthiness and the fact that the song manages to be both whimsically weird and downright lit (c’mon, you know it’s catchy!). But it’s more than that: “Gangnam Style” is actually a social commentary; a parody of the elite Gangnam area and the wealthy Seoulites who live there. Plus, we dare you to name a more iconic dance from any music genre.

7. “Fantastic Baby” — BIGBANG (2012)

BIGBANG’s impact on K-pop simply can’t be understated as the group, guided by G-Dragon’s songwriting and producing talents, constantly pushed the forefront of new trends and sounds in K-pop, influencing countless junior artists along the way. From the R&B/hip-hop “Bad Boy” to the quirky “Bae Bae,” BIGBANG has done it all — but “Fantastic Baby” is probably the most representative of the group’s immense discography. Everything from the looks (TOP’s mint hair? GD’s infamous “seaweed” ‘do?) to the phrases (“boom shakalaka,” anyone?) to the flawless beat make “Fantastic Baby” one of the best dance songs of the decade.

8. “Sherlock” — SHINee (2012)

After the major success of their insanely catchy electronic-dance hits “Ring Ding Dong” (2009) and “Lucifer” (2010), SHINee made a return to their signature jazzy style with “Sherlock.” The song not only forever changed the way we hear the phrase “I’m so curious,” but also showcased the members’ vocal talents and harmonizing abilities. “Sherlock” is also a creative masterpiece in more than one way: it’s actually a hybrid of two other songs on their album (“Clue” and “Note”), and its dance, crafted by a choreographer who has worked with Michael Jackson, remains one of the most dynamic and interesting choreographies in K-pop. Their live performances of “Sherlock” blew us away, and reminded us that no one can do it like SHINee!

9. “I Got A Boy” — Girls’ Generation (2013)

Of Girls’ Generation’s formidable discography, “I Got A Boy” stands out as the most remarkable and experimental. The track tells a story by shifting through nine distinct sections, each noticeably different in tempo and tone, that somehow work together to form a cohesive masterpiece of a song. It was the first to perfect this eclectic style that can be heard in some more recent K-pop hits (think some of NCT’s singles or SuperM’s “Jopping“). The MV for “I Got A Boy” is wacky, colorful, and features the girls in all kinds of fashion that we don’t even know how to describe — but it’s hard to look away, and impossible to get bored with this varied and totally addicting song.

10. “Eyes, Nose, Lips” — BIGBANG’s Taeyang (2014)

The sheer simplicity of “Eyes, Nose, Lips” allows Taeyang’s emotions to shine through, and this raw emotion is precisely what makes the song so captivating. “Eyes, Nose, Lips,” which was written for Taeyang’s now-wife Min Hyo Rin in the earlier stages of their relationship, swept “Song of the Year” at multiple awards shows. The track is paired with a gorgeously stripped-down MV of the singer, bare-chested, pouring his heart into the song. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call this the ballad of the decade!

11. “Touch My Body” — SISTAR (2014)

SISTAR weren’t called the “queens of summer” for nothing, and SISTAR summers have been another defining part of the 2010s: while the group was still together, we could always count on these ladies to deliver a sexy warm-weather anthem. While we loved hits like “Give It To Me,” “So Cool,” and “I Like That,” “Touch My Body” is the height of flirty, carefree, summery fun — with a choreo that SISTAR nails, but that many a boy group member has parodied to hilarious effect!

12. “Call Me Baby” — EXO (2015)

Growl” may have been EXO’s major breakthrough, but the group achieved the pinnacle of boy band perfection in “Call Me Baby”: it’s just the right blend of playful, flirty, a little sexy, and unbelievably catchy. As if the leather jackets, hint of eyeliner, and outrageously flirty facial expressions (looking at you, Kai and Chen!) of the MV weren’t enough, the way the camera follows the boys as they glide across various sets and through their downright addictive choreography makes this a video that we can watch again and again. And of course, the MV ends with the guys breaking it down in the classic random warehouse set that we have come to know and love this decade.

13. “Breathe” — Lee Hi (2016)

The 2010s have also brought unprecedented tragedy in the K-pop industry, and in the wake of bad news, many members of the K-pop community have turned to Lee Hi’s “Breathe” as a source of comfort. Listening to this soulful ballad feels like getting a healing hug from an old friend; and in addition to its beautiful melody and Lee Hi’s sparkling vocals, “Breathe” is made all the more special by the fact that it was written by SHINee’s Jonghyun.

14. “Cheer Up”  TWICE (2016)

“Cheer Up” was not only the best-performing song of 2016 in terms of streams and downloads, but also the track that established TWICE as one of the top K-pop groups of the decade. It showcases each member’s unique talents, has an iconic choreography, and spawned many an imitation of the famous “shy shy shy” line. In signature TWICE style, it’s quirky, upbeat, and infectiously catchy: “Cheer Up” has been stuck in our heads since 2016, and it never fails to cheer us up!

15. “Blood Sweat & Tears” — BTS (2016)

BTS has had too many hits to count since their debut in 2013, but “Blood Sweat & Tears” marked a turning point for the group as well as for the landscape of K-pop. The song’s beats made it one of the first major forays of a K-pop group into the tropical house genre that has since become pervasive in the K-pop of recent years. “Blood Sweat & Tears” is also the full package: the music video set new aesthetic standards with its richly artistic backgrounds, its elaborate storyline based on the novel “Demian,” and its iconic dance. The track won BTS numerous awards and well-deserved recognition that began their trajectory into worldwide renown — K-pop was never the same after “Blood Sweat & Tears”!

16. “Palette” — IU feat. G-Dragon (2017)

The so-called “Nation’s Little Sister,” IU has been one of the most prolific K-pop artists of the decade since her 2010 hit “Good Day” launched her into the spotlight. But the singer-songwriter’s work has become more reflective over the last few years: beginning with “Twenty-Three,” IU has started to pen more autobiographical songs — and personal though they may be, these tracks are incredibly relatable. In “Palette,” IU is figuring out what she likes and who she is as she grows up and approaches adulthood. And, in keeping with the genre-mixing that K-pop has embraced more and more, IU features a rap verse from G-Dragon, who reassures her that it’s ok to just be herself. It’s a career-defining song for one of the top artists of the 2010s!

17. “Red Flavor” Red Velvet (2017)

Is there a song that captures the feeling of summer as perfectly as this one? Listening to “Red Flavor” recalls the feeling of the summer sun on your skin, the excitement of summer romance, and of course, the taste of sweet fruity treats. The combination of Red Velvet’s signature quirky style with warm-weather vibes was bound to make “Red Flavor” a hit: it earned spots on music charts around the world and even became one of the songs that Red Velvet performed during a historic 2018 concert in North Korea. This is a track we’ll be bringing out every summer for at least the next decade, too!

18. “Energetic”   Wanna One (2017)

Starting with the first season of “Produce 101” in 2016, survival shows have become a defining feature of the K-pop industry and produced many top groups of recent years. Supergroup Wanna One’s hit “Energetic” characterizes the style of these groups with its youthful infectiousness, and also deserves a spot on this list for another reason: in line with the increasing trend towards idols that are also songwriters/producers, it was written by PENTAGON members Hui and Wooseok. This collaborative effort among idols from various agencies gave us one of the best dance tracks of recent years!

19. “Love Scenario” — iKON (2018)

It’s hard to exaggerate the popularity of “Love Scenario”: the song spent a record-breaking 6 consecutive weeks at the top of Korea’s Gaon Chart, won numerous year-end awards, and was even loved by kindergarteners and elementary school students in Korea. The track owes its success largely to its simple, easygoing melody, which speaks to a larger trend towards minimalism in 2018 (like in PENTAGON’s “Shine” or IU’s “BBIBBI“). For a breakup song, it’s neither sad nor relieved, but strangely affirming, making it one of a kind!

20. “DDU-DU DDU-DU” — BLACKPINK (2018)

BLACKPINK has succeeded with every single they’ve released since their debut in 2016, but they really took the world by storm when they hit us with that ddu-du ddu-du in 2018. The music video for “DDU-DU DDU-DU” still has the most views (over 1 billion!) for a K-pop group, and the MV and song were named among the best of the year on multiple lists worldwide, from The New York Times to Rolling Stone magazine. It’s easy to see why: the flashy visuals, rich colors, and jaw-dropping fashion match the song’s fierce beats and unforgettable chorus.

Honorable Mentions

Because it was almost impossible to narrow down to 20 songs, here are five that almost made the cut and that we couldn’t resist mentioning.

1. “Hands Up” — 2PM (2011)

2. “Roly Poly” — T-ara (2011)

3. “The Chaser” — INFINITE (2012)

4. “Rum Pum Pum Pum” — f(x) (2013)

5. “Up & Down” — EXID (2014)

Hey Soompiers, which of these songs are your faves? What other songs would you add to this list? Let’s reminisce in the comments!

hgordon stays up way too late on weeknights marathoning K-dramas and trying to keep up with the latest K-pop releases. Follow her adventures in Seoul on Instagram.

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