Ever since an October 2011 New York Times account of an absolutely ridiculous-sounding sold-out K-pop showcase at Madison Square Garden, I’ve been spending altogether too much time chasing the feeling that I got watching my first K-pop video. SHINee’s “RingDingDong.” I’ve been able to get that feeling pretty often. South Korea, see, has figured out pop music pretty much perfectly over the last couple of years. Throughout Asia, and in pockets of the West as well, the music coming out of a few different management companies in Seoul has become absurdly popular, and it’s done it by taking the musical and visual vocabularies of late-’90s American teenpop and amping them up into Blade Runner pleasure-bombs, looking and sounding like an optimist’s idea of the future. The clothes and hairstyles and camera-angles and cheesed-out CGI effects are all cranked up way past 10, and so are the songs’ hooks. If you have any love in your heart for willfully weightless, blissed-out, shame-free pop music, there is a whole lot to love in the 20 videos below.
K-pop is a genre in its relative infancy, really only coming into its own in the last three years and pushing itself to giddier heights every couple of months or so. Though many of the stars do help write their own music, the K-pop assembly line is a very serious thing, one that puts even Nashville’s pop-country industry to shame. These management companies find talented kids, spend years training them, and then debut them in boy- and girl-bands that have all been assembled in the least organic way possible. There’s very little pretense at artistic expression here; instead, these groups are hook-delivery systems polished to a blinding sheen. But that all-surface craftsmanship, in its way, can be just as moving as anything else; it’s humbling to watch people so insanely good at what they do.
I should point out, at the outset, that I am no kind of K-pop historian, and almost everything I learned about the genre comes from clicking the YouTube links that appear after a video ends. That means I’m probably missing a ton of stuff, and actual K-pop aficionados will probably get annoyed with me for ranking some things higher than others and for leaving out classics. I’m a total neophyte, and if I’m leaving out anything important, then by all means set me straight in the comments section. Anyway, this list is less about ranking and more about the sheer abundance of awesomeness that K-pop is giving us right now.
13. Big Bang – “Love Song
The track itself is a better Coldplay song than anything Coldplay themselves have done since A Rush Of Blood To The Head. The video, meanwhile, is one long Children Of Men/Touch Of Evil-style tracking shot (with sly edits, sure) that takes place entirely a post-apocalypic wasteland full of flaming debris and exploding car husks that fall from the sky for no reason. There’s nothing about this thing that I don’t love.
7. GD&TOP – “Knock Out”
Probably the first non-English rap song I’ve ever managed to enjoy. (Second if you consider “Gasolina” a rap song.) G-Dragon and T.O.P. are the two rapping member of BigBang, and their all-rap side project is reliably just awesome. G-Dragon’s also one of the musical masterminds behind his own group, exceedingly rare in K-pop, and if I’m to believe Wikipedia, he started rapping after the first time he heard Wu-Tang. But he sounds nothing whatsoever like Wu-Tang! This song was apparently banned in South Korea because “Knock Out” is Korean slang for being drunk, which is awesome. And the video itself takes place in some Bugs Bunnified alternate universe that reminds me, more than anything else, of a prime-era Missy Elliott video. The part where they dance under the tank turret is the best. Also, this one is probably the most immediately Stereogum-relevant song on the whole list. Diplo produced it, swiping a big chunk from Cajmere’s Chicago house classic “Coffee Pot (It’s Time For The Percolator)” in the process.
4. GD&TOP – “High High”
It took real restraint to keep myself from populating the top five entirely with stuff from the BigBang/2NE1 braintrust, and I just couldn’t help myself here. This one doesn’t have the cartoonish avant-garde force of the “Knock Out” video, but it does poppy American club-rap better than any American has done it in many years. I love the way T.O.P. manages to look like Don Draper even with this goofy spaceman clothes, I love the way way G-Dragon says “like ninja,” and I love that dance they do with their hands on the “high high high high” part. More than anyone, I love how these two guys appear to be having more fun than anyone else on the global pop-music landscape. Also, I hope Slick Rick is making so much money from that sample.
2. Big Bang – “Fantastic Baby”
This one is only a few weeks old, so it seems faintly ridiculous to be putting it so high on a best-of-all-time list. But in K-pop, the groups that last do it by pushing their shit to new extremes every time they’ve got a new single out. And right now, BigBang, a dominant commercial force throughout Asia, are Lady Gaga circa-”Telephone.” I mean, look at this thing. It’s a post-apocalyptic Daft Punk adolescent Tumblr fantasy, and nothing about it makes the tiniest bit of sense, the haircuts especially. I can’t tell you how happy I am that it exists. Amrit will tell you: I kept myself awake enough to write all my SXSW coverage stuff by watching this video every 15 minutes.