The Top 10 K-Pop and K-Indie Songs of 2011

Each year here at WDBM, the station staff votes for our favorite songs of the past year.  I love year-end lists, and usually have no trouble contributing my votes, however when I looked at the hundreds of songs that have been added to The Impact’s daily rotation in the past year, I couldn’t find more than a few songs that I had even heard.

Sure, I’ve become somewhat discouraged with indie music – how can you not with band names like “Girls,” “Boat,” “Yuck,” or “Wire?”  But this isn’t to say that indie rock isn’t good enough; it’s simply that in 2011, K-pop has become more relevant than ever.  I’ve been immersed in it completely, and it’s highly addictive.  If you’ve heard about the Korean Wave or K-pop and are wondering what it’s all about, keep reading.  If you are more into indie music and would rather die than listen to pop music, KEEP READING.

Minnesota electronic duo Elite Gymnastics discovered K-pop on the Internet and even wrote a featured Pitchfork article backing their case.  College Music Journal profiled 2NE1 at their performance in New York City.  I promise you’ll hear about K-pop in 2012.


Top 10 K-Pop Songs of 2011


10] 2PM – “Hands Up”

If you haven’t listened to this song turned up real loud with the bass all the way up DO IT.  My boys 2PM came back in 2011 with the dance hit “Hands Up,” with a video to match.  Just like the guys it’s fun, energetic, and a little goofy.  Japanese fans noticed, and 63,000 showed up to a single event in Chiba to celebrate the release of their “Ultra Lover” Japanese single.


9] Kim Yeo Hee – “Half”

There is something very refreshing about Kim Yeo Hee, despite the fact she is better known as the “Apple Girl,” as in Apple the company.  She first appeared in 2010 in YouTube videos doing her own versions of pop songs using iPhone apps and her voice.  Her talents were quickly recognized and she sprung to K-pop-level fame in no time.  The video for “Half” shows us her quirky side and reminds us she’s not just another manufactured K-pop star, but a self-made talent.  Though the studio version of “Half” might be mistaken for any other K-pop song, it’s the acoustic videos of the song that reveal Kim Yeo Hee’s ear for music and adorable genuine smile; you can tell she’s having a great time.


8] KARA – “Step”

2011 allowed K-pop veterans KARA show their potential.  Though they officially made their way into the Japanese market at the end of 2010, KARA showed Japan everything they had in 2011, grossing over 17 million US dollars in profits in Japan alone, as well as breaking record sales in Japan.  They’ve definitely stepped up their production from their early “Pretty Girl” days.  The “Step” music video suits the song perfectly: a colorful, flashy, and fun pop song; and it currently boasts over 20 million hits on YouTube.  The girls are working on debuting a new smartphone app to teach Japanese fans to speak Korean, and hopefully continuing to spread the Korean Wave further than the Japanese shores.


7] Wonder Girls – “Be My Baby”

I don’t even know where to start with the Wonder Girls.  They’re the reason I got into K-pop several years ago, and though they’ve been mostly quiet for over a year, they completely blew me away with the release of Wonder World.  Not only is the album’s production crystal clear, but the girls also get to show off their great English accents, and even rapping skills.  The first single “Be My Baby” exploded in early November to become the most viewed K-pop music video in Korea in 2011.  Choreographed by Jonte, who also choreographed Beyonce’s infamous “Single Ladies” video, the video is fun to watch and I dare you to not dance along.  Keep an eye out for the Girls as they’ll be making their American TV debut this February with “Wonder Girls at The Apollo” on Teen Nick and releasing an English album!


6] Girls Generation – “The Boys”

To be honest, I was not impressed with “The Boys” the first time I heard it.  But the same can be said of the first time I listened to Girls Generation’s mega-hit “Gee,” which has since wormed its way into my collection of all-time favorite K-pop songs.  This nine-member powerhouse is more than a force to be reckoned with.  After conquering South Korea (and probably the North, I hear K-pop gets smuggled in sometimes), SNSD went to Japan (known there as Shojo Jidai) and absolutely shattered albums sales records, grossing over 52 million US dollars in Japan alone.  Touring with fellow SM Entertainment artists, SNSD sold out concerts in Paris and New York City.  The world better watch out, as SNSD is teaming up with Interscope to take on the European and American markets.

5] GD & TOP – “Knock Out”

Even though GD & TOP’s self-titled album came out on December 24 2010, I listened to it throughout 2011.  G-Dragon and T.O.P are from my favorite group Big Bang, and G-Dragon is easily my favorite member.  He’s been writing songs since he was a kid, and with the help of producer Teddy Park (former member of 1TYM), blurs the lines between pop, hip-hop, rock, electronic, and rap.  The only thing that could make this better?  Throw in Diplo, the mastermind behind Major Lazer and a lot of stuff you’ve probably listened to, who created the beat and you’ve got a song packed full of real swag.  After working with the duo, Diplo declared in a blog entry: “anyway im moving to Korea now.”  Unfortunately, in a ridiculous move the three major networks in South Korea banned the song and video due to its use of slang that might “damage the national psyche.”


4] IU – “You and I”

There’s something about IU that makes her undeniably charming; she can sing, dance, play guitar, and write songs, all while looking adorable and being completely modest.  She has a fondness for fairy tales, which is revealed through her music and lyrics, and has been able to compete and win against seasoned veterans.  “You and I” is no exception, killing all the competition on the charts to become the number one song of the year in Korea with only one month left in the year.


3] 2NE1 – “I Am The Best”

When my girls 2NE1 debuted back in 2008 I knew their natural talent and fierce personalities would show the world what K-pop is made of.  With this year’s “I Am The Best” the girls proudly declared what they already knew to be true, and with MTV Iggy’s announcement of 2NE1 as Best New Band In The World, it was official.  Fans second that, with nearly 27 million hits on the music video which shows that they can look hot and kick ass, all while wearing six-inch kill heels.  2NE1 hasn’t just raised the bar for K-pop artists, they’ve created a new one.


2] Sistar19 – “Ma Boy”

Girl group Sistar is relatively new to the K-pop game, with a debut in summer of 2010.  When they came out I assumed it was another manufactured girl group, but with the release of subgroup Sistar19’s “Ma Boy,” Hyorin and Bora were able to showcase their singing and rapping talents, as well as pure charm.  The music video is simple by K-pop standards, with the girls in an apartment, a white set, and what appears to be hangar or warehouse.  The dance to “Ma Boy” is deceptively simple, kind of like the song, which doesn’t sound like much at first but turned out to be one of the best songs all year.


1] Hyuna – “Bubble Pop!”

If you were a fly on the wall of my car this year, I promise you’d absolutely hate this song; I’ve listened to it more times than I’d like to admit, and may or may not have listened to it on repeat for weeks.  2011 saw 4minute’s fearless leader came back with her second debut single, the highly addictive song “Bubble Pop!”  It has a music video to match – it’s sunny, cute, sexy, and fun, just like Hyuna.  Aside from spurring arguments between me and my boyfriend over how short is too short, Hyuna got her choreography banned from television and public performance by the Korean Ministry of Gender and Family for being too sexually explicit.  Although she had to quickly wrap up “Bubble Pop!” promotions, the risk paid off as she received international attention – SPIN Magazine recognized the song as number 9 on their 20 Best Songs of 2011 list, and the video currently has over 23 million hits on YouTube.

Top Ten Korean Indie Songs of 2011


10] Dringe Augh – “Flair”

Folk artist Dringe Augh released his first full-length album on Electric Muse Records this year, the first release since his 2009 EP Individually Wrapped, and he’s succeeded in making a really beautiful and relaxing album.

9] Go Go Star – “Black Comedy”

My favorite space disco punk rockers came back in 2011 with the album Black Comedy after a three-song teaser in early 2010.  Along with a theatric video that shows off their dark artistic sense, the singer likes to do back flips at live shows, adding to their crazy appeal.  I love Go Go Star because they’re like the anti-K-pop.


8] Mighty Coala – “Seoul”

I’m a real sucker for cutesy songs that sound like a warm spring or summer afternoon, as well as songs that sound old.  This song combines both, and I love it.


7] Big Baby Driver – “You Gonna Quit Me Blues”

Indie folk group Atombook’s leader made her solo debut this year with the self-titled Big Baby Driver album, done in the style of American blues and folk music.  Although the album has its fair share of Konglish song titles like “Let’s Breaking Down” and “Constantly Vanishing Me”, it’s a beautiful and sincere record.  CyWorld, which is basically Korea’s version of Facebook or MySpace, does a series called “Indie2Go”, similar to La Blogothèque’s Takeaway Shows; you can check out Big Baby Driver doing a version of “38,000 km Past Big Baby” here

6] The Black Skirts – “Chivalry”

Frontman Brian Cho of The Black Skirts came back in July with the full-length album Don’t You Worry Baby (I’m Only Swimming).  I’d fallen in love with The Black Skirts ever since I heard the single “Dog” from Brian’s 2008 album 201, and have been a dedicated fan ever since.  Cho grew up in America, which explains his Western indie-rock sound, but was heavily influenced by veteran Korean punk bands like Crying Nut and No Brain.  Fortunately for me, Cho stays true to his Korean roots and sings in Korean; many foreign indie artists try to sing in English in hopes of making it into the illusive American market, but many songs end up being almost comical, with terrible English grammar and pronunciation.  The Black Skirts have been extremely popular as far as Korean indie rock goes, and were able to release this album on their own label doggyrich.


5] Jang Gi Ha and the Faces – “Still No One I Want To See”

My favorite weird indie-rockers Jang Gi Ha and the Faces came out with their self-titled album this year, and ended up hanging around the top of the Bugs Indie Charts for a while.  I can’t say they’re for everyone, but there’s something really refreshing about something so weird coming out of Korea when it can seem that K-pop songs are made in a big factory somewhere by a couple of musical robots.

4] Mate – “Yeah”

Mate debuted a couple of years ago as a handsome trio out to make heartfelt emo-indie music.  Though they’re not the loudest guys, they showed us in 2011 that they are capable of creating a good rock song.

3] Neon Bunny – “Long-D”

Neon Bunny is the moniker of Lim Yoojin, who just released the album Seoulight on the Black Skirts’ label doggyrich.  Lim played keyboard here and there for the Black Skirts, and in 2011 finally released her debut single full-length album.  The electronic sound fits well with her name Neon Bunny, and something about it all reminds me very much of Seoul at night.


2] Idiotape – “Idio_T”

This electronic trio features a lot more than your typical laptop-rock group.  On drums there’s DR, beating the crap out of his set and giving it all he’s got; DR is key to the group’s live show, adding an element of raw energy.  They caught the ear of the right people, and in 2010 co-headlined a show with Fatboy Slim at Seoul’s Global Gathering DJ Festival.  Last year I caught them at SXSW in Austin and interviewed the guys, you can check it out here.  Above is a link to a live performance, but the video doesn’t do justice to the actual experience of seeing Idiotape live.  At the SXSW Seoulsonic Showcase, they blew out the electricity in the club three separate times, and the audience was so pumped they were not only willing to wait for the power to come back on, but were going crazy cheering the guys on.  At a festival with hundreds of bands playing in every possible place, an audience willing to wait for the power to come back on says a lot.


1] The Black Skirts – “Weather”

Sometimes, predictability is good.  When I hear a new song from the Black Skirts, I expect it to be good, and that’s just what I got from “Weather.”  Here’s a solid indie rock song that got played way too many times in my car.  [Read more about The Black Skirts above.]