Korean Boy Bands 101: New School Edition

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This is the second half of the Boy Band Playlist. If you missed the first segment, take a look here. You can find Part 2’s complete compilation on Youtube.

You might recall that, having cut the lengthy list of boy bands in half, we saw a good amount of old school K-pop in the earlier article. I tried to approximate the split along the boy band timeline so that this subsequent segment could be termed “New Wave,” referring to the flood of fresh flower boy faces after a very, very brief recession.

It’s not hard to see how a boy band easily becomes the reason for breathing, believing, even blinking.

While a number of pop cultural trends settled in and persevered, such as sculpted member roles, bipolar genre segregation/hopping and plastic surgery, the new millennium also saw a few shifts. Alongside the growing popularity of K-pop in globalized society came better dance moves, more polished “American- sounding” music and, marginal but critical, diversified companies. Accuracy of English usage has stayed about the same, though.

Out of the complete playlist, I probably listened most to 1TYM, g.o.d and TVXQ, with a healthy dose of Fly to the Sky and Nell. But before we dive into the music, I want to make something clear.

I know that I’ve poked a few fan girl sides here and there, but honestly, there’s no shame in liking a boy band.

I repeat: No. Shame. (Now, being in one… just kidding!!! Really.)

The songs are catchy, the boys are cute and charming, and they can kind of dance. It’s not hard to see how a boy band easily becomes the reason for breathing, believing, even blinking. I myself will admit that I’ve been there, done that.

Just don’t let the infatuation eclipse your other life and/or last for a period of over five years.

1. TVXQ (동방신기) | 2003–2009/present
Starting off with a bang! This group was actually my first introduction to K-pop, and they both scared and confused the heebie-jeebies out of me. I stumbled upon them before their first album during their “The Way U Are” phase, which featured these horrid fake tattoo sleeves, Mufasa-esque hairstyles and lacy gothic red-spattered outfits. Not to mention that whether looking at the group name or an individual member’s name, there were at least three names per entity (case in point, member Kim Jae-joong (김재중), aka Youngwoong (영웅) aka HERO)—talk about a crash course into the world of K-pop. If you compare that with TVXQ’s latest album and the fact that they were created to be a vocal super team with a capella arrangements, you quickly get the hint that their entertainment company, SM, has never been consistent with their music or image.

It being my list (ahem), and this being the group that sucked me in, I’m introducing you to them with Whatever They Say, a mid-tempo R&B track that shows some of their harmonies and is still one of their best songs (translations here). Sadly, despite being THE boy band in Asia, possessing the largest recorded fan club in Guinness World Records and finding incredible success in both Japan and Korea, the group split up after their 2008 hit, Mirotic. Three of the members had filed a court injunction against SM while the other two decided to stay in the company. And continued using the original TVXQ name. Oh, the unnecessary drama…

If you like this, also try: Tonight, Believe (믿어요), Hi Ya Ya (Hi Ya Ya 여름날).

2. SG Wannabe (SG워너비) | 2004–present
A three-member boy band that falls staunchly on the ballad side, SG Wannabe stands for “Simon and Garfunkel” Wannabe. Not sure where they were going with that, but they snuck in to the K-pop scene and quickly made a name for themselves with their impressive vocals. Their success continued with their sophomore album, as they grabbed top spots at awards shows and on sales charts, even above that of typical numbers winners like TVXQ. Sadly, original lead singer Chae Dong-ha (채동하) left the group in 2008 to pursue a solo career and was later found dead in his apartment in 2011. SG Wannabe has since continued on, and their name is still synonymous with solid vocal talent. Here is their first release, Timeless (lyrics here):

If you like this, also try: While Living (살다가), Crime and Punishment (죄와벌), Arirang (아리랑).

3. Epik High (에픽하이) | 2003–present
Epik High first came out back in 2003, but they really started gaining mainstream attention two years later with their third album, Swan Songs. Epik High has since collaborated with K-pop names like Younha (윤하) and former Loveholic vocalist, Ji Sun (지선). Although their hits generally follow common love or self-confidence based themes, they’re also noted for making socially conscious music that combines energetic beats with challenging lyrics. The trio consists of songwriter/rapper and Korean-American Tablo, lyricist /rapper Mithra Jin and producer DJ Tukutz. Since group leader Tablo was falsely accused by online mobsters and suffered company complications, eventually signing a four-year exclusive contract with YG, the future of Epik High seems uncertain. Still the trio’s achievements and music are not insignificant; let’s go back to their 2005 hit single that marked their rise to radio success, Fly:

If you like this, also try: Umbrella (우산), Ride, Love Love Love.

4. Super Junior (슈퍼주니어) | 2005–present
Super Junior is an interesting group. SM’s first foray into the soccer-team-sized pop groups à la J-pop’s Morning Musume, Super Junior started with 12 members in 2005 and extended to a total of 13 the following year. No one was quite sure what to make of them at first, whether and how to take them seriously, especially since they were advertised from the beginning as a sort of novelty group. With K-pop as their platform to the public, many members specialized in certain areas outside of music, such as acting or comedy, or formed subunit music groups. Super Junior also served as SM’s domestic anchor when top acts like TVXQ went abroad to pursue careers in Japan. Member numbers have slowly dwindled, but with the success of Sorry Sorry and their enduring entertainment factor reminiscent of Shinhwa’s humor, it seems like Super Junior is here to stay. This is the first song that featured all 13 members, U (anyone recognize the girl at the beginning?):

If you like this, also try: Twins, It’s You (너라고), No Other (너 같은 사람 또 없어)

5. SS501 (더블에스오공일) | 2005–present
Consisting of five members, SS501’s name is an elaborate piece meaning Super Stars Five United as One Forever. A part of DSP Media, the same company that formed Sechskies, they were often compared to the other five-piece boy band TVXQ. Aside from boy band rivalries, their music also had to vie for the spotlight with the overwhelming attention leader Kim Hyun-joong of We Got Married and Boys Over Flowers fame received. Unfortunately none of their songs ever truly took off, but they charmed fans with their quirky personalities through television appearances and maintained a steady spot in the K-pop landscape. Presenting their first single, Warning (경고):

If you like this, also try: Love Ya, Deja Vu (데자뷰), Love Like This (네게로).

6. Big Bang (빅뱅) | 2006–present
No pun intended, this group is a pretty big deal. Big Bang was created around longtime YG Entertainment trainees G-Dragon and Taeyang, with the auditions and training to become Big Bang being televised prior to their debut. Originally possessing six members, they lost one potential member at the end of the training process and came out as a five-member group. Though Big Bang started off with a more traditional hip hop/R&B sound and enjoyed moderate success, they exploded in 2007 after the release of an original song written by group leader G-Dragon, Lies. G-Dragon was hailed as a musical genius, while the track was lauded for its originality and unique sound. Since then, Big Bang has continued in the electronic vein, and everything they touch seems to turn to gold. With their distinct personalities, the members boast top Korean celebrities among their biggest fans and enjoy successful solo careers. Here’s the hit that shot Big Bang to stardom:

If you like this, also try: We Belong Together, Day By Day (하루하루), Tonight.

7. F.T. Island (에프티 아일랜드) | 2007–present
With their actual semblance of a band, F.T. Island signifies a new addition to the K-pop scene. Yes, their name is still a little silly, signifying “Five Treasure Island” (and yes, there are five members), but they may very well be the first K-pop boy band to be associated with instruments while on stage. Never mind that those instruments never get plugged in. You may never get to actually hear the whole band play unless you attend one of their concerts, but at least their success paved the way for other instrumentally-rooted bands into mainstream K-pop. It also proved that smaller companies outside of the Big 3 (SM, YG, JYP) had something to offer to the pop scene and could potentially compete with conventional trends. FNC Music, which manages F.T. Island, has gone on to produce similar band acts, like CN Blue. As an early K-pop version of pop rock, F.T. Island’s songs mostly sound like ballads over rock instrumentals and highlight lead vocalist Lee Hong-gi’s (이홍기) powerful voice. A quintessential example, Lovesick (사랑앓이) was their debut song and enjoyed eight weeks at the top of the charts:

If you like this, also try: I Hope (바래), After Love (사랑후에), Love Love Love (사랑 사랑 사랑)

8. One Day: 2PM/2AM | 2008–present
You may protest that I’m being cruel or ignorant for lumping these two together, but for the purposes of this playlist, it makes more sense to pair 2AM and 2PM together than to create a separate section for each group. Though both boy bands possess distinct, separate styles, they’re by way of origin linked together as the two halves of “One Day.” Created by JYP Entertainment as two contrasting subgroups, 2AM has four smooth-voiced members who bust out the ballads while 2PM, originally seven hard-bodied members, now six, takes the high-energy road and busts out the dance moves. Collectively, they’re a great showcase of the general genre divide in K-pop, and on their own, each boy band has secured a solid spot in its respective subgenre, despite the onslaught of younger boy bands. Here are the debut songs of each group, 2AM with This Song (이 노래) and 2PM with 10 out of 10 (10점 만점에 10점):

If you like 2AM, also try: Even If I Die I Can’t Let You Go (죽어도 못 보내), A Friend’s Confession (친구의 고백), Like Crazy (미친 듯이).

If you like 2PM, also try: Again & Again, Hate You (니가 밉다), Heartbeat.

9. SHINee (샤이니) | 2008–present
For an SM group, Shinee is a boy band that surprisingly seems to keep a lower profile compared to other successful K-pop acts, as if they still possess something of a rookie status. What is also unexpected is just how solid the group is as a performing act.

Or maybe I’m just continuously being fooled by how young they look.

Anyway, I think Shinee, similar to their sister group, f(x), possesses somewhat of a background role because their “senior” company groups, Super Junior and Girls’ Generation, are still running strong. This gives them a lot of leeway to play around and find their footing in their own musical style. Unfortunately, in real time, that translates to SM spastically messing with their image and trying to reinvent them constantly. Still, Shinee had one of the smoothest debut songs I can ever remember a K-pop boy band being graced with, so let’s just go back to the beginning and enjoy their debut release. Replay (누난 너무 예뻐) is a super catchy track composed by American songwriters and reworked for the Korean culture with playful nuna-ized lyrics:

If you like this, also try: Hello, Stand By Me, Ring Ding Dong.

10. MBLAQ (엠블랙) | 2009–present
MBLAQ stands for “Music Boys Live in Absolute Quality” and was created by top K-pop solo male entertainer, Rain (비), under his own label, J. Tune Entertainment. Despite the hype surrounding their initial debut, the five-member group has had a bit of a tough time. They’ve been constantly compared to another group, B2ST (number eleven below), both boy bands having released their very first songs on the same day of October 14, 2009. And they were effectively sold to another company when Rain sold J. Tune to his former boss and mentor, JYP, before going to serve in the military. It wasn’t a bad move though, as the change has allowed MBLAQ to stretch creatively as members participate in writing and production. They have since expanded beyond pop dance music as well, their original style which can be seen in their debut song Oh Yeah:

If you like this, also try: Cry, Y, It’s War (전쟁이야).

11. B2ST/BEAST (비스트) | 2009–present
A six-member group, B2ST, a.k.a. BEAST (the number two can be pronounced like the letter “e” in Korean), is one of the strongest contenders in today’s boy band scene. To be honest, the trend of focusing on one English word in their songs (Breath, Fiction, Shock, and Mystery come to mind) kind of rubs me the wrong way, but their all-around skills are undeniable. Whoever’s controlling things behind the curtain is doing a lot of things right – B2ST has maintained their cool image, sharp dance moves and catchy vocals since their debut, and is now one of the hottest boy bands in K-pop. A pleasantly impressive surprise came in December 2010, when they released a mini album containing three songs, each one co-composed and performed by a pair in the group. B2ST is currently managed by Cube Entertainment, a company with a curious knack for picking up members who have fallen off other band’s bandwagons (no pun intended). Lead B2ST vocalist Hyun Seung was the almost-member of Big Bang, while Kim Hyun-ah of Cube’s girl group 4Minute was a former member of JYP’s Wonder Girls. Here is B2ST’s first release, Bad Girl:

If you like this, also try: Say No/Take Care of My Girlfriend (내여자를부탁해), Fiction, Fist Tightly Clenched (주먹을 꽉 쥐고).

Comment below to tell us who your lost loves were or if you’ve discovered any new guilty pleasures!

Emilie Chu

About Emilie Chu

Emilie Chu, a self-proclaimed “critical, but shameless, lover” of pop music, recently spent a year in Seoul researching Korean popular music and culture. An advocate of the well-crafted song, she examined the lyrics of well-known Korean tunes, while also investigating their historical and societal ties. For more information on Emilie and her thoughts on popular music, you can head to her blog, songprints.

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