This decade set the stage for K-pop to make its mark on the larger world. Over the past 10 years, the South Korean music industry has embedded itself deeper into the American consciousness. This takeover was two-pronged: Psy helped usher in the streaming era with his inescapable hit, “Gangnam Style.” Then BTS broke endless records to become the biggest boy band on the planet. Now, the floodgates have opened, and K-pop keeps getting bigger.
That’s a win for music around the globe. While the Korean industry gets pegged for its transformative approach to Western styles, it also happens to be a site of tremendous innovation. Where else could you get such boundary-breaking experiments in song structure, remixing, or genre-mixing?
K-pop’s amorphousness has traversed an endless stream of trends over the past decade. We’ve heard songs inspired by everything from dubstep to retro concepts to future bass to Latin pop to tropical house. Some flavors of the month hit their expiration dates too soon, while others stick around far longer than anticipated. One thing remains: K-pop’s cross-genre approach is as complex as ever.
To commemorate the decade in K-pop, Billboard selected the greatest songs of the era, from cult favorites of the indie world to the inescapable hits that crossed all borders. Here’s our list of the 100 best K-pop songs of the 2010s, with a Spotify playlist of all 100 at the end.
67. 2NE1, “I Love You” (no album, 2012)
The most spoken-of tracks from 2NE1’s CV fall squarely under the categories of booming and brash (“Can’t Nobody,” “Fire,” “I Am the Best”), but one of the quartet’s finest works is the reggae-prog house longing of this track. “I Love You” came two singles after “Hate You,” but the irony of the titular contradiction was trumped by the brilliance of its complexity. It peels away the quartet’s well-dressed outer layers to reveal a more tender, vulnerable 2NE1. — M.M.
4. 2NE1, “I Am the Best” (2NE1, 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.
*irrelevant parts omitted