The early 2010s marked an era where K-pop was highly experimental — both sonically and conceptually. One of the most defining assets of this era was the generous amount of idol interactions it granted. Collaborations between idol groups, such as Girls’ Generation and 2PM’s “Cabi Song” and bold bantering on variety programs like Strong Heart, are a rarity nowadays. As a result, second generation K-pop fans grew familiar with various groups, making every variety program and music show a highly anticipated event. I, among many seasoned fans, bore witness to K-pop’s growth into the phenomenon it is today. Reminiscing on the second generation of K-pop, here are 10 iconic releases that veteran and new K-pop fans must revisit.

Girls’ Generation – “I GOT A BOY” (2013)

You can’t leave out Girls’ Generation’s campy hit, “I GOT A BOY,” when discussing the most iconic hits of the early 2010s. Released on the first day of 2013, “I GOT A BOY” kicked off the new year with a sound far ahead of its time. The song’s eclectic sound structure — fusing elements of pop, dubstep, and R&B — still makes for a fresh listen a decade later. Although “I GOT A BOY” was met with mixed reviews during its release, the song’s distinctive musical structure would set the precedent for experimental releases like aespa’s “Next Level.” It is no surprise that these unique musical elements, coupled with high-energy choreography in colorful streetwear, made for one of K-pop’s representative songs. 

INFINITE – “The Chaser” (2012)

Beginning as a small company miracle, INFINITE proved time and time again that their capabilities are endless. Crowned in lists by Billboard, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork among many, INFINITE’s “The Chaser” remains as one of K-pop’s most praised releases. Fusing 80s synthpop with an endlessly accelerating build-up, the song stands against the test of time while evoking an otherworldly sense of nostalgia. INFINITE declare, “Protect her, so she won’t forget me / I will go till the end to the place where my person is” as they plead for their lover’s return. INFINITE’s dynamic performance and Sweetune’s genius producing make for a lethal combination that will have you chasing after another listen. 

Girl’s Day – “Twinkle Twinkle” (2011)

Although best known for their sultry sensations like “Expectation” and “Something,” Girl’s Day are experts at executing the cute concept. Girl’s Day’s third release, “Twinkle Twinkle,” is a bright and bubbly love letter to their rocky relationship. Adorning smiles and frolicking in frilly school uniforms, the girls sing, “I’m scared our loving relationship is going to grow apart.” The juxtaposing image of the solemn lyrics and aegyo-filled performance reminds us of a beloved, by-gone era where eccentric concepts were the norm. With its endless charms, “Twinkle Twinkle” remains an irresistible relic of the second generation. 

BEAST – “FICTION” (2011)

From just the introductory sound of a pencil against paper, veteran K-pop fans can recognize the classic that is BEAST’s “FICTION.” Inspired by a true story that shook the entertainment industry, Shinsadong Tiger composed BEAST’s award-winning hit. In a beautiful blend of emotional vocal belts and intense rap verses, BEAST’s talents are the perfect vehicle to convey this tragic tale of ill-fated love. “FICTION” can’t be discussed without mentioning the chorus’ shuffling choreography — praised as one of the most quintessential moves in K-pop. The track garnered newfound appreciation from fourth-generation listeners thanks to (G)-IDLE’s MINNIE, ITZY’s Ryujin, STAYC’s Isa, and LEE CHAE YEON’s cover for SBS’s 2021 Gayo Daejeon. Beginning anew as HIGHLIGHT, the members continue to perform this legendary track and fittingly rewrite their own history. 

IU – “Good Day” (2011)

Are you really a longtime K-pop fan if you haven’t attempted IU’s three-octave high note from “Good Day?” This 2011 release would solidify IU’s title as the “Nation’s Little Sister,” a title rightfully deserved as she earnestly confesses “I like you, oppa, what do I do?” in this song. Portraying an innocent young love while pulling off a string of difficult vocal notes is no easy feat, yet IU is completely in her element. IU’s stellar acting abilities also are on full display in each of her live stages, as her interactions with her dancers are reminiscent of a romantic musical. Though IU would go on to release sensation after sensation, there is something so nostalgic about “Good Day” that never fails to make listeners emotional. 

KARA – “Lupin” (2010)

2010 was a highly competitive year for K-pop, with groups vying to dominate the new decade. “Lupin” shared a strong declaration as KARA fearlessly entered this new era, “Climb towards the top / Take on the world.” KARA’s fresh, girl-next-door image from their previous release “Wanna” would turn a complete 180 with this comeback. KARA’s dramatic concept change was inspired by the fictional character Arsène Lupin, who was a master of transformation. Confidently strutting across the stage and hitting sharp isolations, the girls’ new dark look was loved by the public. The song’s plan to seize the world acts as a prophecy, as KARA would break records and celebrate a successful 15-year reunion with their long-awaited comeback, “WHEN I MOVE.”

SHINee – “Sherlock” (2012)

“SHINee’s back” certainly belongs in the K-pop hall of fame for legendary taglines. MINHO whispers this phrase in “Sherlock” as the instrumental builds into a crescendo, and we witness one of K-pop’s most creative releases. The genius behind “Sherlock” lies in multiple factors, one of them being that the song itself is a hybrid remix of two tracks — “Clue” and “Note.” Merging the most striking moments of each track, the final product compares seizing one’s heart to uncovering a mystery. Tony Testa’s choreography (rumored to be one of the most expensive in K-pop history) is the finishing touch to this thrilling detective case that we continue to revisit. Fifteen years into their dazzling career, their shine is yet to be dulled as they recently released their impactful eighth studio album, “HARD.”

After School – “BANG!” (2010)

Masters of concepts and the standard of synchronization, After School’s performing prowess is best described by this netizen comment: “If other girl groups are just armies, they are a special force.” “BANG!” is a feast for all senses, as the girls dominate the stage with their overflowing charisma. With an intense drumline opening and knife-sharp choreography, this marching band concept is one of many innovative performances that the girl group boasts. It is difficult to define a singular standout moment with Jung Ah’s “kung kung kung” killing part, Bekah’s english rap, and Raina’s impeccable high notes. Featuring lyrics like “We are, oh After School up / All of you move” and “Only thing you have is being pretty,” After School warned their competitors that they are a force to be reckoned with. 

B.A.P – “ONE SHOT” (2013)

Who remembers when K-pop acts would release full-on cinematic masterpieces for music videos? In this riveting music video, B.A.P’s “ONE SHOT” effortlessly glues viewers to their screen with its action-packed plot and thrilling performance. Omitting spoilers, “ONE SHOT” tells a captivating tale of friendship and betrayal with a dramatic plot twist. Amid the intense acting scenes, the members demonstrate that they are not lacking in a single department. From hard-hitting rap verses, to impressive vocal skills, to a difficult choreography consisting of push-ups and jumps, B.A.P prove that they live up to their title of “Best, Absolute, Perfect.” 

2NE1 – “IT HURTS” (2010)

Priding themselves in numerous party anthems and globally-loved dance tracks, 2NE1 would set the standard for future generations of K-pop. Though solemn and serious is not the concept one would attribute to 2NE1’s image, “IT HURTS” demonstrates 2NE1’s strong versatility. This emotional, R&B ballad was released in their critically acclaimed debut studio anthem, To Anyone, slowing down the pace from tracks like “Can’t Nobody” and “Go Away.” The girls grieve over their partner’s newfound relationship, as they sing, “You’ll probably repeat those promises you made to me with her” and “Am I no longer in your heart now?” Slow, heart wrenching ballads are hard to come by in this new generation, making this song hit even harder than ever as BLACKJACKS yearn for a full 2NE1 reunion. 

Looking to diversify your K-pop playlist even more? Check out some viral K-pop B-sides from 2022 here!