All across the United States celebrations are taking place commemorating the 4th of July. For our friends not familiar with the date, July 4th marks the anniversary of American independence, a national holiday, celebrated with parades, barbeques, and of course, fireworks. I grew up not too far from the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., and used to go watch the fireworks on the National Mall every year with my family. I still remember the awe of watching those huge explosions as they illuminated the night sky.
With that in mind, what better way to celebrate this great day than by looking at some K-pop hits that exploded like fireworks in their own right? We’ll take a look back at some of the songs of your favorite singers that lit up the charts and helped put them on the K-pop map. It may not be their debut song, but it was the song that made them famous. I’ll try to avoid repeating songs and artists that have already been covered on the WBW features so don’t freak out too much if some obvious songs don’t make the list but a few of them will definitely make their way into the fold. I hope everyone has a happy Fourth and enjoy the show!
“Candy”, H.O.T., 1996
OK, so even though I just said I would try to avoid songs that have already been covered, how can you not include the song that, in my opinion, was the beginning of the modern K-pop movement? H.O.T. or High-Five of Teenagers (you gotta love that name), was the brainchild of Lee Soo Man of SM Entertainment and was the first idol group as we know them today. Members Moon Hee Jun, Tony An, Jang Woo Hyuk, Kangta, and Lee Jae Won debuted in 1996 with their song “Warrior’s Descendent” but the song caused more controversy than anything else. It was their second single “Candy” that blew up like a ticking time bomb of bubblegum, idol goodness. The song was a massive success and was the catalyst of H.O.T. becoming the biggest group in K-pop. Their success spawned a number of copy cats and changed the way the Korean music industry did business forever. So the next time you listen to your favorite idol group thank Lee Soo Man and the boys of H.O.T. for that.
“Why Heaven”, Lee Ji Hoon, 1996
Like the boys of H.O.T, Lee Ji Hoon was still in high school when he released his first album ‘Rhythm Paradise‘ in 1996. His first single from his first album, “Why Heaven”, became an instant mega-hit making Lee Ji Hoon a star overnight and had the ladies of Korean swooning over the thick-lipped balladeer. The song was a heart wrenching ode to a dying lover and staying with each other until the end. Lee Ji Hoon went onto become a very popular actor and released other albums but it was this song that made him a star.
“Young Love”, Yangpa, 1996
Yangpa (real name Lee Eun Jin) means onion in Korean but although her namesake is known for the harsh sulfur compounds when cut, Yangpa’s voice is about as soft and rich as they get. Her debut single “Young Love” was about as impactful as a debut can be. Not only did the song reach number 1 on the music charts but it helped her win the KBS Artist of the Year award and the SBS Best New Artist award in 1997. Yangpa recently made her return to the K-pop scene with a new mini-album and it’s great to have her voice back.
“Nightmares”, Yoo Seung Joon, 1997
Another repeat WBWer, Yoo Seung Joon left quite the mark on K-pop despite his truncated career. From his debut album ‘West Side‘, “Nightmares” was eye opening for fans as Yoo brought a new kind of energy and style to the K-pop world along with that spikey, gelled hair that Korean-American guys spent hours trying to emulate. The song also happened to be pretty darn good and would be the start of his meteoric rise to fame. It’s been chronicled many times but it really is shame that he can’t perform on a Korean stage any longer.
“To Heaven”, Cho Sung Mo, 1998
Cho Sung Mo has to have one of the most iconic voices in K-pop and it was his debut single “To Heaven” in 1998 that introduced all of us to it. The song was a beautiful ballad which Cho was able to express it with his melodic voice and helped him earn the KBS and SBS Best New Artist award. The music video for the song was also a landmark work which featured uber-stars Lee Byung Hun and Kim Ha Neul before they were uber-stars. It started the trend for these mini-movies acting as music videos and many of his later songs would also follow the same pattern. “To Heaven” was also the first music video I downloaded entering college thanks to LAN lines instead of annoying dial-up (another one to add to the “Yes, I’m Old list).
“Do You Know Hip Hop” & “I Want You”, Drunken Tiger, 1999
A double entry from the best rap group in K-pop history, the two songs were a part of the group’s debut album, ‘Year of the Tiger‘. While rap has been a part of and is still a part of K-pop, no other group embodied the spirit of the genre in Korean music as well or as organically as Drunken Tiger. Tiger JK and DJ Shine made a name for themselves by taking on themes that were traditionally off limits and in a sense, keeping it real. The group introduced Korean audiences to something that was closer to the true rap, hip hop style than they had seen before. Although Tiger JK has mellowed out since his early days, I think that militant Korean spirit still lives on and drives his current work as well. These guys definitely deserve their own WBW article and believe me, that’s in the works.
“Shaky Friendship”, Hong Kyung Min, 2000
Although he had released two albums previously with moderate success, it was this 2000 dance track that blew up the charts and put Hong Kyung Min on the peak of the music charts. Dubbed the Korean Ricky Martin, the song rode the Latin wave that was popular at the time and turned a rock ballad singer into a booty shaking dance singer. You’ll find the crooner these days on the show ‘Immortal Songs 2‘ getting back to his rock roots but let’s not forget about the song that detonated him into stardom.
“Like Yesterday”, J, 2000
An underappreciated singer (and a fellow Northern Virginian), J (Chung Jae Young) debuted in 1998 with her albums (a dual album concept) ‘J: Blue‘ and ‘J: Gold‘ in 1998. After a tepid response from fans, the singer took a year off to tweak her style and released her sophomore offering, ‘In L.O.V.E‘ in 2000. It was the single from her 2nd album “Like Yesterday” that became her breakout hit and popped onto the music charts. The sweet, soulful song showcases J’s wispy and almost ethereal voice and while she hasn’t been in the limelight recently, it’s always a good time to take a look back and listen to this classic.
“Already One Year”, Brown Eyes, 2001
When you think about it, Brown Eyes, comprising members Naul and Yoon Gun, is a pretty amazing group. The singers are two of K-pop’s most under-the-radar crooners but their vocal talent is undeniable. The group made their debut with their album ‘Brown Eyes‘ and the title single “Already One Year” fused pop with R&B and was a huge success that summer. Brown Eyes and each individual member have gone on to release many more works but this was their big blast single. Many fans might recognize Naul not only for his great voice but his long term relationship with actress Han Hye Jin and as to when they’ll actually tie the knot. And yes, that is actress Kim Hyun Joo featured in the music video.
“As Time Goes By”, Yoon Mi Rae, 2001
We’ll round out this list with one of my absolute favorite singers in any country, Yoon Mi Rae. Natasha Reid, aka Tasha, aka T, debuted as the lead singer for hip hop group Uptown in 1997. After a few of the members ran into some trouble, she teamed with singer Annie to form another old school group Tashannie (their song “Day by Day” is another classic). So while she was fairly well known, “As Time Goes By” was her first solo success and was became a #1 hit song in early 2002. The emotional ballad about a woman trying to get over lost love showcases Yoon’s soulful voice and is in my top 10 favorite K-pop songs of all time. Of course Yoon is now a household name with her marriage to Tiger JK (their song Jordan is about as cute as a kid gets) and her role as a judge on the singing reality show Superstar K. However it was this song that helped her solo career explode and has been covered by many singers over the years and most recently by Lee Hai of Kpop Star fame.
What are your favorite songs that helped the artist create a bang on the K-pop stage?