Kpopalypse’s top 30 songs from the Dark Ages of k-pop (pre-2008)

Kpopalypse is back by popular demand with more fun song lists for you to enjoy!  Let’s take a look at some early gems of k-pop!

It’s well-documented that I don’t think much of k-pop songs that existed before Korean pop’s Golden Age of 2008-2011, and I’m not alone.  Flat muddy productions, combined with too much adherence to dated Western pop trends consigned all the pre-Golden Age k-pop to international cultural irrelevance, and looking back on the bulk of the material it’s easy to see why we had to wait for 2008 for a Hallyu Wave to build.  However that doesn’t mean that there weren’t still some songs that I think are worth paying attention to.  I thought that while you caonimas wait for my next lot of end of year lists, you might enjoy a quick peek at some of those few songs that I do like from back in the Dark Ages before k-pop in general learned to stop sucking and be relevant.

Some criteria:

  • Mostly feature tracks only but there are a few exceptions, just because.
  • K-pop is defined as loosely as possible, so this list is “popular music in Korea”, not specifically “idol pop”.
  • Some videos may have been uploaded recently but all songs are from 2007 or prior.
  • These are only my opinions of what music I like the most, nothing to do with popularity, chart performance, cultural relevance, etc.
  • No my opinion is not better than yours.  Why do some people keep insisting that I think this?  Fucking weirdos.
  • I did about a year of research for this list so if your faves aren’t here it’s probably on purpose, feel free to tell everyone how upset you are.

Let’s get it started!


 

30. Sand Pebbles – What Should I Do

Let’s start off with a real blast from the past.  Quite a few of the songs on this list were remade later by newer groups, and that’s in many cases how I found out about them.  However it doesn’t really bias the list as a whole, because a song usually has to be of a certain quality in the first place to be considered worth remaking.  In this case “What Should I Do” was remade by T-ara, who actually only took the verse and pre-chorus of the song and disregarded the rest.  I like what T-ara did with it much better than the original but there’s no denying that there’s a cool (and very different) psychedelic pop song here in the original form, even if it was clearly recorded before the invention of the click-track as the band don’t seem to be able to play their instruments quite in time.

29. Papaya – Listen To Me

Another song that was remade, this time by Oh My Girl who stuck pretty closely to the original song with the exception of inviting Skull and Haha to rabbit on all over it, but then Papaya’s version has unwelcome reggae dickheads jabbering away over the top of the mix as well.  Once again I think Oh My Girl improved on the original, Papaya’s version seem honestly a bit dull when they’re listened to back-to-back, but then that’s the whole point of a remake, to bring something up to modern standards.

28. Seo Taiji – Ultramania

Nobody will ever remake this though, surely.  BTS did in fact awkwardly remake a different Seo Taiji song recently, but I think them and everyone else would be wise to stay away from “Ultramania”.  Seo Taiji’s nu-metal style just looks kind of silly, with him and his band hopping around amusingly in obviously choreographed ways probably gleaned from watching too many Korn and Limp Bizkit videos.  Still I can’t deny that there’s something catchy about it that makes me want to smash things… like seven-string guitars, which should all be turned into firewood.  An extra string is just cheating, guys.  Stop using hax or I’ll report you.

27. UN – Pado, Wave

I don’t know why the United Nations have a k-pop song about a pedophile ring or whatever, I guess it was a social concern at the time or something, I feel fortunate to be completely out of the loop on whatever this means.  Anyway for whatever reason it exists, and the song is decent by Dark Ages standards and also really goes hard with the palm trees and toot-toots.  I feel that it could be argued to be the birth of toot-toot bullshit music in Korean pop… and you thought Stellar were the first ones with that.

26. 1TYM – Hot

Here’s one of the many things that YG Entertainment was up to back in the Dark Ages, and it’s about 276 times better than any rap music that they give any of their new groups to perform.  Listening to “Hot” in 2017 is a frustrating experience, as it’s clear evidence that YG can produce decent rap music, they just don’t want to anymore.  I must feel about this like how you Americans feel when you look at your manufacturing industry.

25. Goofy – The Rule Of The Game

A lot of early k-pop videos have strange ideas about how to present the performers vs the dancers, and after watching this a bunch of times I still don’t know whether Goofy is the name of the male, the name of the female, or the name of them both as a co-ed group.  I also don’t know why the blindingly obvious RUN DMC sample is thrown in there at the start, but then in the early days of k-pop when it had zero international penetration producers could get away with that sort of thing without a bunch of people jumping up and down and screaming “plagiarism” in their high-chairs while drooling all over their bibs.

24. Lee Jung Hyun – Wa

Every Lee Jung Hyun song and video ever is on some level of “what the fuck is this shit”, but “Wa” certainly more so than most with its bizarre intro and a look which isn’t quite like anything else in k-pop even today, except other songs by Lee Jung Hyun.  Her songs are mostly very upbeat four-on-the-floor dance music with those stabby keyboard riffs, which was a bit overdone back in those days but sounds like a breath of fresh air in 2017 when nobody wants to go over 120 BPM lest they trigger the health conditions of poor sensitive millennial snowflake fans.

23. Epik High – Fan

I have mixed feelings about most of Epik High’s work even when they were supposedly “good” (too many R&B concessions overall, which is also why Dynamic Duo and CB Mass don’t appear anywhere on this list), but “Fan” is a bit different for them and sort of like a T-ara rap ballad on steroids.

22. So Chan Wee – Tears

It was pretty common about 15 to 20 years ago for trot and technoey-discoey shit to flirt with each other a lot, as trot performers rushed onto the first k-pop wave to update their sound for the 21st century.  “Tears” is a great example of this trend, and is essentially a trot ballad with a double-time techno beat added.  It was just the kick in the ass that this style of music needed at the time, and we also got lot of silly space-age fashions out of it.  I wonder when net-gloves will become a thing, I suspect that I will probably die before they come into fashion in my neighbourhood.

21. Crash – Machines Of Silence

Thrash metallers Crash had a lot of cool songs and there’s not a great deal of quality difference, this is just the one I could find the best video for.  The group sound a lot like Chaos AD-era Sepultura here with similar grinding riffs and a vocal delivery to match Max Cavalera, but obviously done on a much lower budget.  Still, they get points for high determination levels, and it must have really sucked being at the frontier of trying to make South Korea accept this kind of music back in the day.

20. Dalparan ft. E-Pak Sa – Lies (end theme)

Here’s the token odd-one-out OST song, for a great film called “Lies” (Geojitmal) from the 90s which is as close as I’ve seen Korea get to porn.  This was quite possibly the first pop song from Korea that I ever heard, and I thought it was great.  The context of the film helps the song no end – after watching 90 minutes of unhinged, nearly plotless BDSM, this bratty-sounding song rolling over the end credits is the film’s final “fuck you” to both its audience and Korean conservatism in general.

19. Young Turks Club – Jung

Ah, the days when co-ed groups were a thing.  This song has the distinction of having the male raps mixed terribly to the point where they’re nearly inaudible, which was also a problem that SM Entertainment experienced with a lot of their 1990s releases from H.O.T.  However Young Turks Club have a much better song here than anything H.O.T got within a million miles of, and recently girl group Tren-D improved this song even more by adding more girls and burying the hiccup noise that happens at the end of every bar a little further back in the mix.

18. Hyun Young – Sister’s Dream

Okay, so it’s just O-zone’s “Dragostea din tei” (aka the “Numa Numa” song) redone but since when is that a bad thing.  Let’s be honest, the real reason why that fat guy in his computer chair singing along to it went viral a few years back is because the song is cool and we could relate to the dude enjoying it so much.  Plus this Korean remake has Hyun Young who looks ridiculously attractive especially in all the schoolteacher scenes.  I know she has ten tons of makeup on here but I appreciate the effort.

17. Baby V.O.X Re.V – Never Say Goodbye

I honestly don’t know why this is called “Re.V”, and whether it’s a subunit, or a reformation, or what.  However what I do know is that this T-ara mid-paced ballad by numbers and that’s something that I’ll always calmly accept in k-pop as long as it’s done right.

16. Drunken Tiger – 8:45 Heaven

One of the very few instances of a slow, piano-driven hip-hop song that works, probably because they didn’t throw the beat out with the bathwater (for fucking once).  If there’s one thing that the Dark Ages did a little bit better than k-pop today, it’s rap music overall, because there were less dicksucking trends to ride on in rap music back then.

15. Tae Jin Ah – Companion

Sunny likes Tae Jin Ah and Sunny has nice boobs, therefore Tae Jin Ah is good.  Also good is this song, which isn’t his best but it was his best before 2008.  Like all trot performers, every Tae Jin Ah song is basically the same, but nobody complains when their favourite restaurant serves up the same awesome meals every day, do they.

14. Brown Eyed Girls – Oasis

This song is actually a complete ripoff of a western song and I don’t know what the western song is, but I do know that the computer game Wizball also ripped off the same song for one of its pieces.  Anyway it doesn’t matter, it’s a cool song even if the video has Gain getting molested by the other girls in a field, or maybe it’s cool because it has Gain getting molested by the other girls in a field which is something that always seems to be happening to her in videos.  Maybe this video shoot gave her the taste for classy-sexiness that she then pursued to a greater degree later in her career.

13. Seeya – Hateful

Before T-ara there was Seeya, which was MBK’s training ground in great songs, epic overblown drama videos and annoying their own artist roster.  Just as well for that because we got this great song even if half of everything else Seeya did was a complete bucket of shit.

12. Kooki – Choae

“Choae” gets extra points for theremin use, a much under-utilised instrument in pop music due to its extreme technical difficulty.  Theremin is an easy instrument to make noise with but a real bitch of an instrument to actually play melodically, which is why most people in groups who use the instrument don’t bother with melodies and just use it to make those 1950s sci-fi space alien noises.  The theremin player in “Choae” nails everything however, and the rest of the song is cool too.  The bitchstares from the girls also meet required standards, a welcome change from today’s forced k-pop aegyo.

11. Shin Jung Hyun And The Men – Beautiful Rivers And Mountains

Shin Jung-Hyun was a pioneer of Korean popular music and you should look him up because the history of his career is worth a read.  Anyway this was his “fuck you” song when the totalitarian Korean government of the day wanted him to write a song about their government palace or some bullshit, and the result was musically about as modern as Korean music at that time was allowed to be.

10. Lee Jung Hyun – Nuh/You

As mentioned before, Lee Jung Hyun has lots of strange songs, and “Nuh/You” is the best one, combining all the things that make her better material great – weird intros, thumping techno madness, odd arrangements and bizarre aesthetics.  Everyone makes far too much fuss about the ancient Egyptians if you ask me just because they knew how to use a protractor properly or some shit, but if it’s Lee Jung Hyun (or Iron Maiden, or Nile) doing the Egyptology bullcrap I suddenly don’t mind.

9. Girls’ Generation – Into The New World

“Into The New World” is one of the most important songs in k-pop, forging the template for the modern sound and style of k-pop girl groups as we know it today.  Just ask Apink and Gfriend, who pretty much owe their entire careers to Girls’ Generation’s success.  There’s been several attempts at the template since, (the most obvious being Gfriend’s “Glass Bead“, an almost note-for-note, chord-for-chord soundalike) but none have surpassed it without also straying from the formula.  It’s also a damn good song, a really melodically-busy version of western 90s idol pop that threw out k-pop’s common (at the time) circle-of-fifths progressions and R&B stylings for something fresher and more fun.

8. Yu Chae Young – Emotion

Like with almost everything else on this list, rubbishy production hides a great song.  “Emotion” is fairly typical of the first wave of idol pop – fast tempo, lots of then-fashionable electronic sound, and muddy, dull mixing.  What’s different about “Emotion” is that the basic building blocks of the song are good enough to compensate for this.

7. BoA – No. 1

Easily the best song BoA ever got involved with, “No. 1” suits her musically as well as thematically because she’s pretty much the one running shit at SM these days.  Your biases in EXO and NCT probably don’t even get to change toilet rolls in the gym bathroom until she says it’s okay.  Also it’s refreshing to see BoA in a video from back in the days before she shaved half her face off.

6. S#arp – 100 Days Of Prayer

Back before T-ara, there was S#arp, who had a bullying controversy of their own, except that while T-ara’s situation was pure fanfiction, S#arp’s bullying incident was a real thing that actually happened.  I couldn’t give a fuck anyway though, that girl with the Flock Of Seagulls hair and the fucked up teeth is fucking cute, whether she was victim or perpetrator she would have been my bias back in the day if I was following k-pop at the time.  Also this song is a retro 80s pop gem before retro 80s pop gems were even a thing in k-pop.

5. Girls’ Generation – Girls’ Generation

Girls’ Generation’s self-titled song was actually a remake, but Girls’ Generation’s version is so good and has obliterated the original in popular culture to such an extent that it’s now impossible to listen to the old song without hearing Girls’ Generation’s faster, punchier, sparklier version inside your own head.

4. Kim Wan Sun – The Dance In Rhythm

This song was penned by the aforementioned Shin Jung Hyun (see #11 above) who wrote songs for many other performers, and comes off like a twisted Korean Kate Bush.  The entirely legit, non-pitch-corrected singing of Kim Wan Sun only makes it even better, with the singer hitting almost none of the notes correctly, adding to the song’s beautiful surreal effect.  In 50 years this sound of beauty will be forgotten as vocalfags wank themselves to death over the sound of “real vocals, man” generated by machines that can do everything perfectly except perfection.

3. Click B – Love Letter

Click-B’s “Love Letter” is a great upbeat melodic pop song, and was remade into even better form recently by Berry Good, but it wasn’t really a literal remake but more of a “song sharing” as both groups are under the same songwriting roof (also see: Red Velvet remaking all of S.E.S’s old trash).  This promotional video is oddly only half the song’s length and is also drowned out by annoying overdubbed cheering, but you can check the whole thing out here, or even better just listen to the Berry Good version.

2. Jang Nara – Sweet Dream

“Sweet Dream” is such a disgustingly good song that my mother even did a cover version of it and couldn’t improve it.

1. MC Sniper – Pine Tree, Pine Tree, Lush Pine Tree

Easily the song that has made the most impression on me of any Dark Ages k-pop song, across any genre of popular music in Korea.  In the chorus the song is sampling an old Korean pre-democracy folk song, and the title (according to a certain caonima who filled me in, you know who you are, thank you) is alluding to how pine trees are evergreens and can survive through harsh winters, which was basically a message to all the oppressed in a non democratic Korea that they should hang in there through the tough times.  I don’t know the song’s words but MC Sniper waves his hands around and points at the Korean flag a lot so I get the general idea, and it doesn’t stop this song from being incredibly moving and awesome anyway.  This is what appropriation sounds like when it’s done right, and the main lesson I’m getting from all this is that good music thrives under conditions of oppression.  Maybe that’s why Korean pop still occasionally produces quality songs to this day.


That’s all for this post!  Hopefully you enjoyed this Dark Ages retrospective!  More posts soon!

15 thoughts on “Kpopalypse’s top 30 songs from the Dark Ages of k-pop (pre-2008)

  1. I remember exactly which song oasis is a copy of and I can hum it from beginning to end but a) I only remember it as gibberish so I cant look for the lyrics and b) I cant figure out if its from the sixties or seventies so this is truly a dead end.
    Also bless you for those Lee Jung Hyun songs!

  2. “Into the New World” and “Fan” were the two songs I knew would end up here, and I kept forgetting to check out 1TYM’s “Hot” till now! Hopefully it stays stuck in my head for a good while.

  3. Was hoping to see Wonder Girls’ Tell Me (2007) somewhere in this list, given that it was probably the one song that marked a huge shift in K-Pop’s music direction from “organically written bluesy crap” to “synth-driven hook-based songs people actually want to hear”.

    And I recall TVXQ’s Rising Sun as their only good song pre-split, would’ve wondered what you thought about it. Anyway I’m glad that I didn’t miss much.

    • As a Gfriend fan who’s watched and heard both versions recently, I can say it was improved (and the video vastly improved by the wonderful top Korean Director, Hong Won-ki of ZanyBros.) But I also await our Oppa’s witty comment.

  4. Few songs worth noting:
    BoA – Valenti, Key of Heart
    Jewelry – How are you
    Wonder Girls – So Hot
    Koyote – Passion, Genuine, 1 2 3 4
    Kim Jong Kook – Lovely, Today more than yesterday
    DIVA – That’s what love is
    MC Mong ft. Kim Tae Woo – So Fresh
    MC Mong ft. LISA – A Letter I write for you pt.2

  5. I have Jang Nara – Sweet Dream on my youtube playlist for “old” kpop and jpop songs, really cute song. Felt a bit strange the first time I found it because I only knew her from the kdrama world before that.

  6. Glad to see “Fan” on the list. I don’t know if it’s my favorite Epik High song, but it’s an iconic summary of everything that is wrong with K-pop fan culture. But your stated qualms about Epik High are silly. The comment about r&b stylings is particularly head-scratching. There’s some r&b influence present in a few songs on their most recent album Shoebox, but hardly at all in earlier albums. To my ear, their sound is more influenced by trance, minimalism and disco.

  7. Love this list, it brought back some nice memories.
    I remember when I was a kid and my dad had a bootleg CD of some kpop and Jang Nara’s Sweet Dream was one of them along with Cherry Filter’s Flying Duck and Romantic Cat and No Brain’s You’ve Fallen for Me. My dad and I would butcher Kim Gun Mo’s wrongful meeting and So Chan Wee’s Tears on road trips. Good memories.

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