Twenty-One K-Pop Songs You Need to Know

Ray Seol

This playlist is a curated selection of K-pop tracks, encompassing seminal works that have significantly influenced the genre, contributions from historically significant artists, artists signed to the industry’s foremost labels, selections from indie musicians, and even a Korean American hip-hop duo. Brought together to celebrate “Hallyu! The Korean Wave” at the MFA, these songs illustrate the diverse elements that render K-pop a distinct musical phenomenon. Though this compilation does not exhaustively enumerate all noteworthy K-pop artists, it serves as an introductory framework for engaging with the expansive and dynamic world of K-pop music.

Join Seol on Wednesday, April 10, for “K-Pop and Beyond,” a deep dive into the history of K-pop. Attend in-person or via live stream.

A Man in the Yellow Shirt

Han Myung-sook

“A Man in the Yellow Shirt,” sung by Han Myung-sook, marked South Korea’s initial venture into American-style pop music and quickly garnered the interest of musicians around the world. The track’s ascent to global recognition didn’t rely on traditional advertising methods but was driven by a natural spread of enthusiasm among its listeners. Its viral spread began when soldiers in the US Eighth Army, stationed in South Korea, became captivated by the song’s catchy melody and shared it across American military installations in Asia. This groundswell of popularity led the US Eighth Army’s entertainment branch to partner with Han, arranging a Southeast Asian tour to showcase her musical talent in nations including Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

Beautiful Woman

Shin Joong-hyun

Shin Joong-hyun, a pioneering force in the Korean rock scene, has left an indelible mark with his distinctive approach to the genre. He has sold more than 400,000 records, and his work from the 1960s on reflects a deep commitment to blending rock and roll with the unique elements of Korean musical heritage. Shin’s dedication involved extensive exploration of traditional Korean melodies, rhythms, and lyrics, aiming to forge a novel “Korean rock” genre. This creative journey culminated in 1974 with the release of the iconic song “Beautiful Woman,” which highlights Shin’s innovative fusion of styles.

You in Vague Memory

Hyun Jin-young

A K-pop pioneer and SM Entertainment’s first signee, Hyun Jin-young emerged as a pivotal figure in the early days of Korea’s b-boy scene, playing a crucial role in the evolution of K-pop alongside icons like Seo Taiji and Boys, and DEUX. Hyun’s unique contributions set him apart, especially his exceptional singing. Through original compositions such as “You in Vague Memory,” Hyun was instrumental in introducing new jack swing to South Korea and skillfully merging it with the country’s budding hip-hop scene. He was at the forefront of incorporating Western influences into Korean music, significantly shaping its development and direction.

Hayeoga (Anyhow Song)

Seo Taiji and Boys

Recognized as Korea’s most influential and popular boy group in the early 1990s, Seo Taiji and Boys holds an iconic status in the history of K-pop. The group’s emergence marked a critical moment in the K-pop industry, heralding the first pop culture phenomenon of massive influence. Before its arrival, the Korean music scene was predominantly influenced by ballads and traditional trot music. Seo Taiji and Boys introduced a groundbreaking blend of genres—with hip-hop at the forefront—reshaping the musical landscape. Blending rap and rock with traditional Korean instruments, “Hayeoga,” also known as “Anyhow Song,” is one of the group’s most creative tracks.

Turn and Look at Me


Within the vibrant sphere of contemporary music, where K-pop and hip-hop are at the forefront, DEUX, featuring Lee Hyun Do and Kim Sung Jae, is a seminal group. Its level of recognition may not have reached the heights of Seo Taiji and Boys, but its influence was equally transformative, introducing groundbreaking music and a unique style that marked a significant shift in the music industry. DEUX epitomized authentic hip-hop in Korea. In contrast to Seo Taiji, celebrated as a “cultural president” for his innovative merging of musical traditions from diverse racial origins, DEUX concentrated purely on hip-hop. By choosing not to blend various genres, it aimed to introduce styles created by Black musicians in America to Korea in a way that felt genuine and relevant to the domestic audience, ensuring a deeper connection and impact. “Turn and Look at Me” is not only one of DEUX’s most popular songs, it also demonstrates the group’s exceptional musicality.

Descent of Warriors (Age of Violence)


A void emerged in the world of teenage idols after Seo Taiji and Boys disbanded in 1996. This gap was swiftly filled by H.O.T. (an acronym for High Five of Teenagers), which emerged as the inaugural idol group orchestrated by SM Entertainment. Its debut was met with an immediate and overwhelming response, propelling the group to the forefront of South Korea’s music scene during the late 1990s and early 2000s. H.O.T.’s influence wasn’t confined to South Korea; it also made significant inroads in the Chinese-speaking market. This cross-border appeal played a crucial role in the genesis of hallyu, or the Korean Wave, underscoring the group’s impact on popular culture across Asia. “Descent of Warriors (Age of Violence)” is the lead single from H.O.T.’s debut album, We Hate All Kinds of Violence (1996).

How to Run from the Sun


Born Jung Ji-hoon, Rain significantly contributed to the globalization of K-pop and the broader Korean Wave. His career took off in the early 2000s with a focus on R & B and hip-hop, and he quickly established himself as a multitalented entertainer in Korea. Rain’s role in the 2004 hit Korean drama Full House catapulted him to fame across Asia, showcasing his acting skills alongside his musical talents, and setting the stage for his international breakthrough. His historic 2006 concert at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City marked a pivotal moment for K-pop on the global stage, making Rain one of the first Korean artists to headline at such a prestigious venue. “How to Run from the Sun,” from his second album, Rain 2, is a remarkable track that established Rain as an iconic dance musician in Korea’s R & B scene.

ID; Peace B


BoA’s debut at age 13 and rapid rise to fame with her album ID; Peace B marked a significant chapter in K-pop history. The singer’s unparalleled success in Japan, where she maintained a dominant presence for more than a decade, set a precedent for K-pop artists aspiring to make it big internationally. Notably, BoA’s fame in Japan boosted her popularity in her native South Korea, creating a reverse-import phenomenon. The singer’s achievements extended beyond music charts: as a cultural ambassador, she represented both South Korea and Japan at international events, and she was one of the few non-political figures invited to presidential dinners in both countries. Furthermore, BoA broke new ground in the global market by becoming the first K-pop artist to have an album debut on the Billboard 200, paving the way for future artists. Her story is not just about her music but also about breaking cultural barriers and setting new milestones for K-pop on the world stage.



TVXQ was the first Asian group—and first all-male group—to top the Oricon Weekly Chart in Japan. As a pioneers of the second generation of K-pop idols, TVXQ gained immense popularity and a dedicated fan base. Its success in Japan, a testament to their efforts in mastering Japanese and overcoming challenges, set a new precedent for K-pop’s global reach. By the late 2000s, the group’s live performances in Japan underscored its significant role in K-pop’s international expansion. Released on January 14, 2004, “Hug” is TVXQ’s first single.

Tell Me

Wonder Girls

The Wonder Girls debuted in 2007 with “Tell Me,” marking a significant moment in the second generation of K-pop. The group’s subsequent hits, “So Hot” and “Nobody,” broke away from the prevailing ballad trend, cementing its status as a top girl group in South Korea. Wonder Girls made history by being the first female group to win a major award when it beat out rivals like TVXQ and BIGBANG. In 2009, the group expanded its reach internationally, with “Nobody” achieving success in Asia and the United States, including a spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and setting the stage for future K-pop acts to achieve global success.

Sorry, Sorry

Super Junior

The legendary South Korean boy band Super Junior was instrumental in launching K-pop into the global limelight. Its innovative foray into Latin American markets, and the inclusion of one of the first non-Korean members in a K-pop group, significantly widened the genre’s global reach. By playing a key role in the Korean Wave, Super Junior extended K-pop’s influence well beyond Asian borders, enchanting international audiences. The group’s strategic approach to market expansion, its role as a cultural ambassador, and its efforts in building a worldwide fanbase solidified its position as a cornerstone in K-pop’s global ascent. The title track from Super Junior’s third album, released on March 12, 2009, “Sorry, Sorry” emerged as a highlight and became a cultural phenomenon, captivating audiences to such a degree that its accompanying choreography was widely recognized and effortlessly performed by individuals throughout the country.


Girls’ Generation

Girls’ Generation, also known as SNSD, stands as a foundational pillar of the second-generation K-pop idol phenomenon. It has played a pivotal role in propelling the Korean Wave into Japan, but its influence extends well beyond, sweeping across Asia to engage audiences in Chinese-speaking regions, and even reaching into Western countries. In partnership with BIGBANG, Girls’ Generation has spearheaded the hallyu movement, significantly enriching the K-pop music landscape both within Korea and on the international stage. The group’s impressive array of accolades reached a peak in 2017, when Billboard honored it as the top K-pop girl group of the past decade. This accolade solidifies its members’ statuses as “K-Pop Emperors,” befitting for a group whose legacy has made an indelible impact on the world of music. “Gee” continues to be celebrated as the group’s most triumphant song. It ascended to the top of the Japanese Oricon Daily Singles Chart, distinguishing Girls’ Generation as the first Asian girl group to attain such a milestone, and it also secured a position as high as second place on the Weekly Singles Chart.

Fantastic Baby


BIGBANG played an important role in propelling K-pop to global fame, leaving an indelible mark on music, fashion, and popular culture around the world from the mid-2000s to the late 2010s. G-Dragon, the group’s charismatic leader, has garnered attention not only for his musical prowess but also for his fashion-forward initiatives. He broke new ground as the first Asian male appointed as a Chanel Global Ambassador and established a landmark partnership with Nike, becoming the first South Korean to do so. His recognition as a fashion icon emphasizes the global impact of Asian fashion. “Fantastic Baby” is a single off BIGBANG’s fifth EP, ALIVE, released in South Korea on February 29, 2012. The song previously gained significant popularity in Japan. After BIGBANG’s comeback, the song climbed to as high as eighth place on the Billboard Japan Hot 100 chart. It remained on the chart for a total of 76 weeks, until January 13, 2018.

Gangnam Style


Psy (Park Jae-sang), a South Korean artist known for his diverse talents as a singer, rapper, songwriter, composer, and producer, embarked on his musical career with the debut of his first album, PSY from the Psycho World!, in 2001. His international breakthrough came in 2012 with the viral hit “Gangnam Style,” a song that, along with its humorous music video and energetic stage performances, captured global attention. On December 21, 2012, the song’s music video surpassed one billion views on YouTube, setting a new record at the time. Today, the video has accumulated approximately five billion views, underscoring its enduring popularity and impact.

Blood Sweat & Tears


Since 2017, the South Korean boy band BTS has risen to global prominence, drawing parallels with the Beatles due to its significant cultural and economic influence. Its musical achievements aside, BTS plays a crucial role in bolstering South Korea’s economy. Forbes reports that the group’s single “Dynamite” has contributed approximately 1.7 trillion Korean won to the country’s GDP. In total, BTS’s endeavors add about 5.7 trillion Korean won ($4.2 billion USD) to the economy each year, establishing the group not only as a musical icon but also as key cultural ambassador and economic driver worldwide. BTS crafts a unique worldview through its music, addressing the thoughts, concerns, and aspirations of teenagers and young adults, alongside the complexities of life and love. The group presents these themes cohesively in diverse music videos that create organic narrative of interconnected stories. “Blood Sweat & Tears” is the lead single from BTS’s second studio album, Wings, released on October 10, 2016. The song is widely regarded as one of the group’s breakthroughs.

Seven Rings


With its impactful lyrics and vibrant performances, YOX, created by Korean American rappers Lyricks and JL, has become a notable force in hip-hop. As a pioneer among Korean American hip-hop groups, YOX has significantly shaped the underground hip-hop scenes in both Korea and the United States. The duo, whose name reflects its members’ shared Chinese zodiac sign, embodies themes of resilience and determination in its music. YOX broke into the limelight with the 2016 hit “Seven Rings,” demonstrating its ability to navigate complex issues such as identity and social justice with finesse. Merging classic hip-hop sounds with Korean cultural elements, YOX has left a lasting impression on the genre, fervently supporting Asian American visibility and combating discrimination. “Seven Rings” showcases the group’s exceptional musical talent and captivating performance prowess.



BLACKPINK, a globally celebrated K-pop idol group, features members from diverse backgrounds: South Koreans Jisoo and Jennie; Thai-born Lisa; and Rosé, who hails from New Zealand with dual South Korean citizenship. Emblematic of the third generation of K-pop, the group has achieved international acclaim—something reflected in its strong presence on prestigious charts such as Billboard and recognition by major publications like Forbes, Rolling Stone, Time magazine, Bloomberg, and Japan’s Oricon. Since debuting in 2016, BLACKPINK has enjoyed escalating success both in South Korea and internationally, solidifying its position as a global icon. The group’s performance at Coachella in 2019, where it became the first K-pop group to serve as a sub-headliner, marked a significant achievement. BLACKPINK not only outperformed the headlining act, Ariana Grande, in social media engagement, but it also established itself as a group of world-class stars. “Whistle” is the lead track off the group’s debut single album, Square One, which came out in 2016.

District 9

Stray Kids

Stray Kids, an eight-member multinational boy band formed by JYP Entertainment in 2018, has achieved remarkable success, including securing four consecutive first-place finishes on the Billboard 200. A testament to its rapidly growing global fan base, as of 2023 the group has amassed more than 15 million followers on its official YouTube channel. The channel features a wealth of high-quality content that highlights the unique dancing, singing, and songwriting abilities of each member. “District 9” is the lead single from Stray Kids’s debut EP, I Am Not, which was released on March 26, 2018.

Say My Name


ATEEZ is an eight-member boy group that debuted under the KQ Entertainment agency in 2018. The group’s name, ATEEZ, stands for “A Teenager Z,” which signifies “everything about teenagers.” Just four months after the group’s debut, it performed across North America and Europe on its Expedition Tour. ATEEZ achieved significant popularity overseas, ranking fifth on the Billboard World Chart and first on the iTunes Album Chart within its first year of activity. Following its debut, the group continued to build international popularity with performances at events like KCON and MAMA. In 2023, the group’s release The World EP.Fin: Will ranked first on the Billboard 200 Chart, setting a new record and making it the only group from a small agency to achieve this feat. This marked the seventh time in K-pop history that a group reached the top of the Billboard 200 Chart. “Say My Name” serves as the lead single for ATEEZ’s second EP, Treasure EP.2: Zero to One. Recognized for its impact and popularity, the song was chosen by Billboard as one of the standout K-pop tracks of 2019.



An emerging global phenomenon from the record label ADOR, a subsidiary of entertainment company Hybe, NewJeans has been making waves both domestically and internationally with its music, produced by renowned Korean producer 250. Marked by significant achievements on the music charts, the group’s acclaim has soared. Remarkably, its song “Ditto” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at the 96th spot on January 18, 2023—a rare feat for idol groups, who typically spend years cultivating a fanbase before making such an entry. This achievement places NewJeans among the elite few in k-pop history, alongside giants like BTS and BLACKPINK, to have multiple songs charting on the Hot 100. “Ditto” also secured a spot on the UK Official Singles Chart Top 100 for two consecutive weeks in January, 2023, underscoring the group’s burgeoning international acclaim.


Balming Tiger

Since its inception in 2018, Balming Tiger has emerged as a groundbreaking indie and alternative collective, redefining the underground K-pop scene with its eclectic musical blend. Combining a genre-defying approach with clever, satirical lyrics and innovative music videos, the group has carved out a distinct identity. Its audacious defiance of traditional music and artistic conventions has garnered global acclaim, leading to international performances. Composed of a diverse mix of musicians, producers, and visual artists, Balming Tiger is celebrated for its creative artistry and dedication to teamwork, aiming to forge a lasting influence on the world stage. “Buriburi” is Balming Tiger’s newest release, a testament to the fact that its creative journey never ends.


Ray Seol EdD is assistant professor of Professional Music at Berklee College of Music.