The phenomenal impact K-pop has had on the music industry at a global level so far has rightfully earned the groups hailing out of South Korea as world-class performers that seemed to have raised the bar how to come across as elite performers. Not only do they prove their might as vocal dynamos but can easily rival the biggest stage productions that have come from the big talents that are also known for putting out elaborate video footage that adds so much more drama to a song. Hailing out of South Korea, there are a flurry of K-pop stars, as individuals and as groups, that have rocked the radio and streaming stations with hit after hit. Among the collection of K-pop stars, there are some that have managed to catapult themselves to an even higher plateau known as superstardom. Although stars have indeed earned their dues, it is the superstars that seemed to have gone above and beyond the call of duty as performers who know how to entertain a captivated audience.
It should be noted here there has been two specific waves, or rather generations as they’ve been called, that have made unforgettable impressions in the music industry at a global level. As we look into the top-rated K-pop groups, both generations have an impressive collection of stars that earn the right to be in the top ten. However, since there can only be ten in total in order to validate the purpose behind this article, the difficult decision involved first takes a closer look to what each of these two generations have offered as the most influential talent the music industry has ever encountered.
The first generation of popular K-pop groups are also known as the pioneers of this particular music genre that has become its own entity, despite adopting the pop sounds that came from the Western nations, especially the U.S.A. The spawn of South Korea’s K-pop landscape served as a bulldozer to invite other artists in the nation to broaden their music style as entertainers.
This wasn’t just limited to singing as the visual appeal of elaborate music videos and stage productions inspired the first wave of K-pop talents to more or less do the same. The first generation of K-pop soloists and groups featured BoA, G.O.D., H.O.T. Rain, Lee Hyori, S.E.S., Sec Kies, Shinhwa, and Turbo as the biggest names that rocked the South Korean audience. From 1990 until 2000, it was this breed of talent that served as key influencers that would spawn the second generation of K-pop talent that would pick up where these trendy superstars left off.
The year of 2003 technically marked the start of the second generation of K-pop superstars that seemed to pick up the mantle of the first generation with ease. Now with the benefit of the internet rocking the world with digital downloads, matched with audio and video streaming, the ability to do what the first generation couldn’t was at their fingertips. This opportunity was thoroughly exploited by the entertainment management companies that wasted no time blowing the global audience away with a new wave of music that caused brand new billboard charts to emerge out of necessity.
Instead of purchasing physical albums, cassettes, and discs, the fans can download and stream to their heart’s content. This is why most of the second wave of K-pop talent share considerably more global recognition as a whole than the previous generation. Now with the global audience having access to styles of music that rival the best the Western nations have to offer, it’s understandable why many K-pop fans may be more aware of groups like Bigbang, BTS, and 4Minute as opposed to BoA, H.O.T., and Seo Taiji and Boys. The second generation also saw an era of K-pop artists engaging ballads and softer song styles that has since become increasingly popular. However, it’s not K-pop without the pop which is a niche the South Korean talent pool has clearly mastered.
The Next Generation
There is also another generation, namely Next Generation, of K-pop artists on the horizon, thanks to Psy’s P Nation, his own entertainment management company he began in 2018. Although he has mostly performed as a solo artist, the man has become one of South Korea’s biggest icons as an entertainer. Psy’s career as a professional entertainer began in 2001, which technically had him serve as a bridge between the first generation of K-pop talent and the second generation.
The height of Psy’s popularity is clearly wedged in the second generation and has continued to break down one entertainment barrier after another as South Korea’s culture is closely watched by its government. As someone who has personally dealt with the roller coaster ride that comes from entertainment management companies and social-political allowances, he has taken that experience to form P Nation. Since then, he has become a key instrument to keep the momentum going where the world of K-pop entertainment is concerned. As the world finally seems to be recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, what K-pop has in store next could very well become something epic.
#10 – Seo Taiji and Boys
From 1992 until 1996, the Seo Taiji and Boys saw Seo Taiji, Yang Hyun-suk, and Lee Juno experiment with several music genres from the North American music industry that served as fuel to fire that was about to burst into what is know known as K-pop. When the discussion of first generation K-pop groups come up, Seo Taiji and Boys is usually among the names mentioned most often.
This is the group that was credited for changing the South Korean music industry as this all-boy band pioneered the sound of rap music as fusion into popular Korean music. In the eyes of many South Koreans that have paid attention to K-pop since the very beginning, Seo Taiji and Boys are considered the godfathers of this popular genre. Unfortunately for Seo Taiji and Boys, this pioneering spirit was not welcome by the censorship and ethics committees.
However, thanks to the internet and the growing influence it had on a population that now had new access to entertainment, K-pop became more than just some momentary fad. It has become integral to South Korea’s pop culture that has so far established it is there to stay. In 1992 and 1993, Seo Taiji and Boys won the Grand Prize at the Seoul Music Awards, which is the equivalent to the Grammy Awards’ version of Song of the Year. It was for “I Know” in 1992 and “Come Back Home” in 1993.
These are the two signature songs belonging to Seo Taiji and Boys that threw them into the spotlight as superstars. In 1996, Billboard Magazine announced the first three albums released by the band each sold well over a million copies. The fourth album, sold over two million copies. Each of these albums are named after the band and are numbered according to the order they were released. At the time, all four of these albums were among the best-selling albums throughout all South Korea. The original trio of Seo Taiji and Boys ran from 1992 until 1996 before they disbanded, each member moving on to either engage in solo projects or other endeavors.
#9 – T-ara
T-ara first formed as a group in 2009 and is the property of MBK Entertainment. At first, T-ara’s very first impression met with criticism that was soon dissolved once the original lineup saw some changes in the talent roster that would work in the best interest of this all-girl talent, as well as MBK. Most of the heavy hook dance singles these ladies are known come from a wave of what is regarded as the second generation of K-pop performers.
The musical influences of Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, and Lady Gaga are evident in this group’s style. This is seen in the variations of the music produced, as well as their stage performances and video productions. In addition to selling millions of recordings to a worldwide audience, these ladies have a flurry of awards, endorsements, and promotions that continue to keep T-ara’s name in the spotlight even after being in it for over twenty-three years now.
At one point, T-ara’s talent roster was at nine ladies but has since dwindled down to four. Currently, Qri is seen as the leader of the group, who joined them before the end of 2009. Eunjung, Hyomin, and Jiyeon were the replacements of Jiae and Jiwon in order to turn T-ara as the power group the fans have come to know and love. All four of these ladies have been with T-ara the longest. Soyeon, who led the group before handing the reins to Qri, was also a long-time member, as was Boram.
These two started in 2009 and remained until 2017, enjoying the height of T-ara’s success when they were at their prime. During the early part of their career, T-ara was consistently ranked within the top twenty of K-pop’s biggest stars and was consistently sharing the top of the female group category with another top female group, 4Minute. In 2009, T-ara tied with 4Minute as Rookie of the Year with the Golden Disc Awards.
#8 – 4Minute
4Minute first formed as an all-girl group in 2009 as the property of Cube Entertainment. The roster featured Nam Ji-hyun, Heo Ga-yoon, Jeon Ji-yoon, Kim Hyuna, and Kwon So-hyun. The girl crush style the ladies in this group portrayed was especially appealing to the female fan base that seemed to idolize this group. The edgy mix of dance-pop and hip-hop was a 4Minute trademark saw them win a 2009 Rookie Award at the Golden Disc Awards, sharing this honor with another superstar group, T-ara.
In 2010, 4Minute was recognized with the New Artist Award by the Billboard Japan Music Awards, beating out T-ara for the title. At the Seoul Music Awards, they won its Bonsang Award in 2011, 2012, and 2014. The star quality of 4Minute, member for member, seemed to be unbeatable. However, the ladies disbanded in June 2016 after contract negotiations with Cube Entertainment fell through. Since then, the ladies have moved on as solo artists.
#7 – TVXQ!
Formed by SM Entertainment in 2003, TVXQ! started off as a five-man boy band that featured the artists of U-Know Yunho, Max Changmin, Hero Jaejoong, Micky Yoochun, and Xiah Junsu. The name is an acronym for Tong Vfang Xien Qi, which means Rising Gods of the East according to the English translation. Not long after the group was formed as a band, they immediately launched into mainstream fame with their first single, “Hug.”
The first two studio albums, Tri-Angle and Rising Sun were 2004 and 2005 releases, respectively, and became top sellers. TVXQ! won over international attention as of 2006, thanks to the best-selling album, “O”-Jung.Ban.Hap., which was followed by 2008’s equally successful Mirotic. As a single, “Mirotic” was so popular that it has since become a staple song of K-pop. Unfortunately for TVXQ!, they ran into legal trouble and internal conflict when Jaejoong, Yoochum, and Junsu attempted to part ways from SM Entertainment.
Prior to these three members leaving in 2010, the fifth and final album TVXQ! released into the Japanese market was Best Selection 2010, an album that topped the nation’s Oricon Albums Chart, which was a first for the group. In 2011, U-Know Yunho and Max Changmin returned as TVXQ! as a duo that saw them release the fifth Korean album credited to the group, Keep Your Head Down. Also, just to make sure Japan didn’t forget the name of TVXQ! they released into that market Tone in 2011 and Time in 2013. Doing so cemented their success in Japan and forged themselves as one of the top touring artists in the nation.
After releasing With in 2014, this charted TVXQ! as the first and only music act outside of Japan to have four number one albums in a row. Within the first ten years of TVXQ!, they physically sold over ten million albums, making them one of Asia’s most successful music acts in their generation. Often, they are referred to as Asia’s Stars and Kings of K-pop due to the immense level of success they have achieved, as well as the contributions made to the Hallyu. TVXQ! have, for now, the most amount of number one singles in the nation of Japan, at least according to the Oricon.
TVXQ! also holds the record for best-selling foreign artist in CD singles in Japan, as well as attendance records in concert tours. As far as Billboard is concerned, TVXQ! not only lives up to the meaning of its name but also has the right to be called K-pop royalty.
#6 – Super Junior
Starting on November 6, 2005, SM Entertainment introduced the boy band, Super Junior. Currently, there are ten men in the group that begin with Leeteuk as the leader, accompanied with Heechul, Yesung, Shindong, Sungmin, Eunhyuk, Donghae, Siwon, Ryeowook, and Kyuhyun. This supergroup are credited as key contributors to the Korean Wave that swept the global music industry, starting with the debut single, “Twins (Knock Out).”
Dubbed by the media as the King of Hallyu Wave, Super Junior’s international recognition began with the best-selling single, “Sorry, Sorry,” which was released in 2009. Over the years, Super Junior divided into smaller groups, simultaneously targeting different audiences with different music styles. Individually, each Super Junior branched out into acting roles, hosting, and presentations, making each entertainer become as well-rounded as it gets. This has resulted in the Korean entertainment managements to better train their music groups to do the same.
As popular as Super Junior became, they were not immune to controversy. In 2009, former Super Junior member, Han Geng, filed a lawsuit against SM Entertainment due to what he felt was unfavorable contract terms, that led him to leave the group in 2011. Other previous members of Super Junior include Kibum who left in 2015 and Kangin, who left in 2019. Although current Super Junior member, Sungmin, is still on the roster, hasn’t performed since 2015.
During the height of Super Junior’s career as entertainers, they enjoyed a four year run as the best-selling K-pop artist. So far, they have earned thirteen music awards from the Mnet Asian Music Awards and nineteen from the Golden Disc Awards. Super Junior was also the second singing group to win Favorite Artist Korea at the 2008 MTV Asia Awards. jtL was the first in 2003. In 2015, Super Junior won International Artist and Best Fandom by the Teen Choice Awards. The fandom belonging to Super Junior have been referred to as Ever Lasting Friends, E.L.F. for short.
October 20, 2015 marked the debut of Twice, an all-girl South Korean K-pop group that was formed by JYP Entertainment. So far, there are nine members of the group that consist of Nayeon, Jeongyeon, Momo, Sana, Jihyo, Mina, Dahyun, Chaeyoung, and Tzuyu. This group was formed under the 2015 television program, Sixteen. Twice made their debut with their EP, The Story Begins. In 2016, the popularity of Twice rose with the single, “Cheer Up,” which was a number one hit on the Gaon Digital Chart and became the best-performing single for the year. It was enough to win Song of the Year at the Melon Music Awards and Mnet Asian Music Awards.
For Twice, the winning streak did not end there, nor did the incredible run of one chart-topping hit after another. By the end of 2020, it was reported Twice has sold over ten million albums in South Korea and Japan alone. This is also the same group that made history with Japan’s RIAJ upon earning a platinum certification for the album, One More Time, as well as the same certification for its title track. Tice also became the first Korean girl group to embark on a Japanese dome tour.
In 2017, Tice made history yet again as the first female Korean act to top the Billboard World Albums and the World Digital Song Sales chart after the release of Twicetagram and its lead single, “Likey.” Twice has been dubbed as the next “Nation’s Girl Group,” which seems to be South Korea’s suggestion once the Girls’ Generation has decided to call it quits, Twice is most likely to assume this honorable role. Much of Twice’s music, plus the music videos that show off their choreography, has spawned dance crazes and viral memes that have been imitated by many, including celebrities.
#4 – Girls’ Generation
Girls’ Generation debuted on August 5, 2007, as a girl group that featured nine members. The ensemble featured Taeyoen, Sunny, Tiffany, Hyoyeon, Yuri, Sooyoung, Yoona, Sehhyun, and Jessica. Their rise to prominence as one of the most popular K-pop groups worldwide also earned them the honorary nickname, The Nation’s Girl Group, in South Korea. This is due to the incredible amount of accolades and awards that seemed to come as natural to these ladies as breathing.
The debut single, “Into the New World,” was enough for the K-pop industry to sit up and take notice but it was “Gee” that served as the big breakthrough that launched Girls’ Generation into a brand new level of popularity that now extended well beyond the South Korean border. From there it was hit after hit that kept the ladies at the top of the charts, perhaps even raising the bar for other K-pop groups, regardless of gender, to step it up.
The second studio album Girls’ Generation released was Oh!, which came out in 2010. This gave them the Golden Disc Award for Album of the Year (Disk Daesang), marking it the first time in history a female act to earn this recognition. This is the same non-Japanese all-girl group to earn a platinum certification from Japan’s RIAJ for selling over one million copies of their eponymous Japanese album in 2011. Also in 2011, Girls’ Generation’s third studio album, The Boys, outsold every other album released in South Korea that year.
The popularity of The Boys, as an album and as a single saw an English-translated version of the single released in hopes to win over the global music scene. It worked. However, it was the fourth studio album, I Got a Boy, and its title track that got all the attention after it was released in 2013. “I Got a Boy” won Video of the Year by the YouTube Music Video Awards. What made, and still makes, Girls’ Generation so popular is the blend of bubblegum pop and electropop that includes hints of hip-hop and R&B.
In 2017, Billboard Magazine cited Girls’ Generation as the Top K-pop Girl Group of the Past Decade. Girls’ Generation is also the first Asian girl group to achieve five music videos that each have one hundred million views on YouTube. Those music videos are “Gee,” “I Got a Boy,” “The Boys,” “Mr. Taxi,” and “Oh!”
#3 – Shinhwa
From the first generation of K-pop superstar groups, failure to mention Shinhwa is not an option. As a second generation K-pop group, the shoe for Shinhwa also fits. Shinhwa was, and still is, the legendary bridge that has made one of the biggest impressions as entertainers South Korea has ever experienced. Shinhwa, in English, has a dual meaning. The first is myth while the second is legend.
This amazing six-man boy band featured Eric Mun, Lee Min-woo, Kim Dong-wan, Shin Hye-sung, Jun Jin, and Andy Lee. Shinhwa was launched on March 24, 1998 by SM Entertainment and made an everlasting impression before signing up with Good Entertainment in 2004. While with SM Entertainment, the group’s first album, Resolver, was released on May 9, 1998, but failed to make a commercially appeasing impression as the industry felt Shinhwa had too much in common with the rest of SM Entertainment’s roster of talent.
Despite the lack of commercial success, Shinhwa still impressed the Mnet Asian Music Awards to earn the win for Best New Artist. In 1999, T.O.P. was considerably more successful for the group, which helped boost interest in Resolver. From that point onward, Shinhwa established a style of their own that proved they were not copycats of previous talent that had rocked the K-pop scene before them. This group’s timing saw a transition of first generation artists passing the torch over to the second generation. Many fans still argue today exactly which generation of K-pop talent should Shinhwa belong to. The most honest answer to give here is both.
The first half of Shinhwa’s career as the property of SM Entertainment places them in the first generation. However, once they signed with Good Entertainment, this is where the second generation classification applies as Shinhwa not only adapted according to the changes that was taking place in the music industry, including K-pop, they helped engineer it. When the contract with SM Entertainment expired in 2003, all six members of Shinhwa signed up with Good Entertainment and assumed creative control over all the material that came out henceforth. However, this was also a time period that saw each group member of Shinhwa embark on solo careers.
There was also a four-year hiatus due to fulfilling the mandatory service the South Korean military has in place upon the male population of the nation that qualify. When the group returned, they formed Shinhwa Company as a means to facilitate their career. The year of 2012 marked the release of their tenth studio album, The Return. Doing so put the sextet in the record books as the first Korean all-boy band to continue performing after fulfilling the mandatory military service demand placed upon them. Shinhwa was also the first K-pop group to maintain a successful career after leaving its original agency. This, however, didn’t go unchallenged as SM Entertainment demanded Shinhwa’s name belonged to the corporation and not to the six men that continued to use it even as they continued to produce music.
Shinhwa enjoyed a remarkable twenty-year career run that saw thirteen Korean studio albums recorded and released, as well as a Japanese album. To date, Shinhwa remains as the longest-running boy band in the history of K-pop and have rightfully earned the designation as legends in any language.
#2 – Big Bang
YG Entertainment first formed the South Korean boy band, Big Bang, in 2006. At first, it was a five-man band that saw Seungri, G-Dragon, T.O.P., Taeyang, and Daesung, each of whom were also dubbed as the Kings of K-pop until 2019. Although Seungri is no longer with Big Bang, his name still commands respect as a world-class performer. Ever since 2006, Big Bang has been instrumental influencers that has seen the Korean Wave of K-pop rival the 1960s and 1980s British Invasions that dominated the North American music charts.
Big Bang has won scores of accolades and awards that include Song of the Year at the 2007 Mnet Km Music Festival for “Lies” and the same at 2008’s Seoul Music Awards for “Last Farewell.” “Haru Haru” and “Sunset Glow” were also song award winners. In 2008, Big Bang won Artist of the Year at the 2008 Mnet Korean Music Festival and at the 2008 Seoul Music Awards. Four of Big Bang’s albums that were released in Japan, 2009’s Big Bang, 2011’s Big Bang 2, 2012’s Alive, and 2016’s Made Series, each earned gold certifications with the Recording Industry Association of Japan (RIAJ).
Alive was the album that produced the insanely popular “Fantastic Baby,” which saw this single earn double platinum certification from RIAJ, as well as well over five hundred million views of its music video on YouTube. From 2006 until 2018, Big Bang was going strong as they consistently found themselves consistently placed as the most powerful celebrities in South Korea. They were also the first Korean artists to be mentioned in the Celebrity 100 list by Forbes Magazine, an event that took place in 2016.
The powerful influence Big Bang had upon the music industry nationally and internationally continued until 2018, just before Seungri left the group. However, as of 2022, G-Dragon, T.O.P., Taeyang, and Daesung have banded together again even though T.O.P.’s exclusive contract with YG Entertainment has ended. There is new music in the works that has Big Bang intending to pick up exactly where they left off.
#1 – BTS
BTS is an acronym for Bangtan Boys and Beyond the Scene. This South Korean group was the first to earn ten million followers on Twitter, and still has a solid fan base that will argue BTS will always remain as the all-time favorite. Also referred to as Bantan Boys, the group first formed in 2010 but didn’t make their debut until 2013. This group is the property of Big Hit Entertainment and has the talent roster of Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook as a septet. When they first formed as a group the music style was mainly hip-hop but have since expanded into other genres.
The lyrics these men have brought forth have typically revolved around personal and social issues that tend to dance with psychological concepts and alternative universe storylines. BTS also became the first Korean group to earn a certification from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), thanks to their mega-hit single, “Mic Drop.”
This was also the first Korean act to have a studio album, namely Love Yourself: Tear, top the US Billboard 200 after it was released in 2018. Adding another feather to the cap of BTS, they are among the few groups since The Beatles to earn four number one albums in the U.S. in less than two years. The second album that also earned this honor also came out in 2018, titled Love Yourself: Answer. It also became certified platinum by the RIAA.
As of 2020, BTS became the first all-South Korean act to reach number one on the Billboard Global 200 and the US Billboard Hot 100 with the single, “Dynamite,” which also earned a Grammy Award nomination. The follow-up singles, “Savage Love,” “Life Goes On,” “Butter,” and “Permission to Dance” has seen BTS become the fastest act to pile up five number one U.S. hits since Michael Jackson. So far, BTS has sold over thirty-two million albums according to the Gaon Music Chart.
To date, BTS remains as the best-selling artist in South Korean history and holds the best-selling album in South Korea with Map of the Soul: 7. BTS is also noted as the first Asian and first non-English act to earn the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s Global Recording Artist of the Year, which was earned in 2020. Time Magazine has also recognized BTS regarding the boys as Princes of Pop, as well as finding themselves listed as one of the most influential people on the internet since 2017.
In addition to the long list of accolades, BTS so far has a collection of six American Music Awards, nine Billboard Music Awards and twenty-four Golden Disk Awards. BTS currently holds the mantle as the leaders going into the third generation of K-pop superstars that have no doubt become inspired by this supergroup that so far hasn’t shown any sign of slowing down anytime soon.
Top 10 K-Pop Groups article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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