K-Pop Starter Kit: 21 Groups to Know in 2021

One of the wonderful things about K-pop is that there’s genuinely so much to discover. Dozens of groups (and soloists) are regularly releasing and promoting new music, with more joining the ranks each year. When you’re a brand new fan, the sheer amount of songs and albums out there can definitely be overwhelming. And as both a K-pop blogger and a multifan, I always have tons of artists I want to recommend to newcomers. So for the next part of this column, I’ll be introducing numerous K-pop groups through several super long themed list articles. This post kicks things off with some of the industry’s “big names” – aka the ones who are well-known and/or currently on the rise.

I realize that a post about “popular” K-pop groups could get controversial real quick, and I want to make it very clear I’m not trying to start any debates or fanwars. This is primarily supposed to be a beginner’s guide for new fans, and there’s really no other deeper meaning or hidden agenda. But just in case, here are some extra disclaimers to (hopefully) avoid any potential misunderstandings:

  • This is NOT a post about who *I* personally think are the “best” K-pop groups. I don’t believe the artists I chose for this list are better than everyone else, nor do I think they’re the only popular and successful ones out there. I selected the groups for this list by looking at different aspects of the K-pop industry and comparing what I found to my observations and experiences as both a long-time fan and a person living in South Korea. I’ve approached this like a research article, not a subjective opinion essay. (You can see more about my selection process below.)
  • This list is comprised of groups that debuted between 2012 and 2019. While I specifically chose to focus on third and (early) fourth generation groups, I’m not purposefully ignoring industry veterans or invalidating their accomplishments and effects on K-pop. I fully plan on covering older groups from the first and second generations in more detail later, either in another list article or in a different series I’m planning about K-pop history. (There’s also a separate upcoming post for rookies, which is why you won’t see anyone who debuted in 2020 or later here.)
  • Though K-pop has many controversies – often involving big name groups or idols – I didn’t take past issues into account while making this list. I always try to remain neutral on this blog and focus on the music, which is why certain situations weren’t a factor in my selection process. I also know fans often respond differently to various incidents, and I believe people have the right to their own feelings and opinions. So while I acknowledge some of the groups and idols on this list don’t have perfect pasts, I leave it up to the reader to look into their backgrounds and decide for themselves.

Selection Criteria

All the groups on this list meet two specific conditions. The first requirement is that they all have sizable fandoms, both in South Korea and internationally. (Though they don’t have to be equally popular in both fandom communities.) Again, I mostly determined this through research – which you can see in my long list of sources at the end – but a lot of it also corresponds to my experience as a K-pop fan for the past five years. Here are the main elements that I looked at, in no particular order:

  • Music show wins
  • Album sales (physical copies)
  • Digital sales, streams, and downloads (mostly for Korean music platforms)
  • Platinum certifications by Gaon (for album sales, streams, and downloads)
  • Awards and nominations
  • YouTube music video views
  • YouTube content views (dance practices, performances, online segments, variety show clips, etc.)
  • Any kind of accomplishment that’s unique and rare in K-pop
  • Social media presence (Twitter, Tumblr, etc.)
  • Visibility in the Western K-pop community – mostly the U.S. since I’m American (as are a good portion of my readers) and this is my frame of reference that I can confidently speak on

The second requirement for groups on this list is that they must be recognizable to the Korean general public. For this, I drew from my own time living in South Korea and I talked to Korean people I know (friends, coworkers, and students). This condition actually ended up being the deciding factor – if a group is on this list, it’s because the Korean people I know can recognize them. It’s obviously not a foolproof system since I don’t know everyone in South Korea, and I also don’t live in Seoul (where I think the general public is familiar with more artists). So do take it with a grain of salt – but for what it’s worth, the names that came up the most were pretty consistent with what I found through my research.

In order to show why the groups I’ve chosen are big or trending names, I’ve listed three achievements for each one in their write-ups below. However, please note those aren’t the ONLY three reasons that they are popular or successful. If you click on the articles I’ve embedded and/or my sources at the end of the post, you’ll notice the same names often keep popping up on a bunch of different pages. Everyone I chose has numerous wonderful accomplishments – way more than three each – but there are too many to include in this already crazy-long post. It’s just a glimpse so you can get a brief idea!

21 K-pop Groups to Know in 2021

(Listed in order of debut)

NU’EST (뉴이스트)

Agency: Pledis Entertainment (which became part of HYBE Labels in 2020)

Debut Date: March 15, 2012

Members: Aron, JR, Baekho, Minhyun, Ren

K-pop is a fast-moving industry where everything is very much focused on the present. It’s not an environment that allows “late bloomers” to do well, but NU’EST is part of a select few to become famous after being practically unknown for years. Facing disbandment in 2017, they drastically reversed their fortunes when four members competed on then-popular survival show Produce 101 and won over tons of new fans. (The fifth member, Aron, didn’t participate due to an injury.) When Minhyun made it into the lineup of project group Wanna One, the others formed the popular subunit NU’EST W during his hiatus – and they continued to see great results after his return. Now they’re well-respected industry veterans with solid careers both together and as individuals, and they remain one of the rare success stories that includes such a major turnaround.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
NU’EST is the only boy group who won their first music show trophy over five years after debut. (It was 5 and 1/2 years if you count subunit NU’EST W, and 7 years as a full group.)“Where You At” (NU’EST W, 2017) / This emotional and reflective breakup song is mixed with elements of EDM to interesting effect, and it makes excellent use of Baekho’s signature power belting.
NU’EST has won at least one music show trophy during promotions for every comeback they’ve had since Produce 101 (3 comebacks as NU’EST W, and 4 as a full group).“Bet Bet” (2019) / While this intense track is a little more dramatic than NU’EST’s typical music, the romantic “fairy tale come to life” aspect works in their favor – especially on the aesthetic front.
NU’EST has won a bonsang prize from at least one major awards ceremony every year since Produce 101 (as NU’EST W in 2017 and 2018, and as a full group from 2019 on).“I’m in Trouble” (2020) / This pleasant and palatable track is quintessential NU’EST as a mature senior K-pop group, contrasting a smooth and sexy sound with super sleek choreography.

EXO (엑소)

Agency: SM Entertainment

Debut Date: April 8, 2012

Members: Xiumin, D.O., Kai, Sehun (active) / Suho, Baekhyun, Chen, Chanyeol, Lay (on hiatus) / Kris, Luhan, Tao (until 2014/15)

EXO isn’t in the spotlight much right now since the members are going in and out of the military, but don’t let that fool you because they’re a VERY big deal. They quickly hit superstar status in their rookie years, becoming major household names and dominating a huge portion of the 2010s with an impressive string of achievements and industry firsts. They were such a phenomenon that they were practically untouchable for a good few years of their career, and they’re so famous a good portion of my students can still recognize them. (EXO was at their most famous around the mid 2010s, so well before a current elementary schooler’s time.) Their popularity was – and still is – so massive that it had a big hand in shaping the K-pop culture into what it is today, and they’re a major part of why it spread across Asia before going global. What’s more, all the members have established successful individual careers as soloists, actors, and models. So EXO might seem inactive, but make no mistake – they’re most definitely some of K-pop’s power players.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
EXO was the first boy group to get 100 music show wins, and the second group overall. (The first group to do so was their labelmate Girls’ Generation.)“Growl” (2013) / The song that launched EXO to megastardom is a cool and slick K-pop classic that doubles down on those iconic boy band vibes.
EXO was the first K-pop group since 2001 to sell a million albums, and they currently have six “million sellers.” Member Baekhyun is a double million seller soloist, the first one since the early 2000s.“Monster” (2016) / This rough and gritty track was the perfect background for EXO’s first dark concept as they drove fans wild with their thrillingly edgy sound and style.
EXO won at least one Album of the Year daesang prize during awards season for five years in a row (2013 to 2017), often receiving them from several major awards ceremonies.“Love Shot” (2018) / EXO is no stranger to sexy concepts, but they really pulled out all the stops for this alluring number and its unforgettably seductive choreography.

BTS (방탄소년단)

Agency: Big Hit Music/HYBE Labels

Debut Date: June 13, 2013

Members: Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, Jungkook

BTS is undoubtedly K-pop’s shining star these days. They’re so famous they don’t even need an introduction – even people who barely know anything about K-pop have heard of them. I’ve been in South Korea for nearly three years, and I haven’t gone one day without seeing their picture or hearing one of their songs somewhere. Their incredible accomplishments are so numerous I couldn’t possibly list them all in just one post, and the ones I chose are just hints of the enormous success they’ve seen over the years. They’re so influential that they recently spoke at the United Nations General Assembly, and it wasn’t even their first time. It’s truly amazing, especially since they started out as an unknown group from a tiny company in a market so saturated that new acts weren’t likely to survive. (BTS is actually the only K-pop group that debuted in 2013 and is still actively promoting.) No one could have guessed how far their star would rise five years ago, but now we all know that it’ll just keep going higher and higher .

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans*
BTS has the highest album sales out of any K-pop group. They were also the first group to have albums that became double, triple, and quadruple million sellers.“Blood Sweat & Tears” (2016) / Released just when BTS was getting popular in South Korea, this spellbinding song about temptation is truly a masterpiece for both the eyes and ears.
BTS was the second boy group to reach 100 show music wins after EXO (and the fourth group overall). They currently have the most music show wins out of any group, counting just over 150 trophies.“Spring Day” (2017) / This gentle and sentimental ballad never fails to touch hearts, and its beautiful music video is a subtle yet moving tribute to those who passed away in the Sewol Ferry tragedy.
BTS has six music videos with over 1 billion views on YouTube, and many of their others have hundreds of millions of views. “DNA” is also the most watched K-pop boy group video on YouTube. “IDOL” (2018) / BTS were on the verge of global superstardom when they dropped this rousing self-confidence anthem that enthusiastically celebrates their past, present, and future.

(*I mostly recommended earlier BTS songs since I think their more recent hits are very well-known, even to newer K-pop fans.)


GOT7 (갓세븐)

Agency: Formerly JYP Entertainment (2014-2021), but all members have since signed with other companies

Debut Date: January 20, 2014

Members: Mark, Jay B, Jackson, Jinyoung, Youngjae, BamBam, Yugyeom

Many K-pop groups have tons of passionate fans from around the world, but this is especially true for GOT7. I went to several concerts in Seoul in 2019 (pre-COVID), and theirs was the only one I attended where a large amount of the audience was both non-Korean and non-Asian. GOT7 built a strong international fanbase from their debut thanks to their appealing music and their relatable personalities, becoming one of several rising boy groups in the mid-2010s who were really popular overseas. It took a little longer for them to get the same kind of recognition in South Korea – but when K-pop started becoming a global phenomenon, they saw tons of success both domestically and abroad. By the time they reached the end of their contract at JYP Entertainment, they were seen as highly respected seniors among their fellow K-pop groups. GOT7 is technically on an indefinite hiatus as the members pursue their solo careers, but I still included them because it’s clear both the fans and the industry are fervently awaiting their return.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
All of GOT7’s albums released since Gaon changed their certification system in 2018 have been certified platinum for selling over 250,000 copies.“Just Right” (2015) / This quirky yet endearing fan favorite piles on the feel-good vibes with charming vocals and heartwarming lyrics.
GOT7 won a bonsang prize from at least one major awards ceremony from 2016 to 2020.“Lullaby” (2018) / This dreamy bop truly fires on all cylinders with its soaring chorus, energetic beats, and funky dance moves.
GOT7 has an impressive social media presence – in 2020 they were #12 on Billboard‘s Social 50 Artists chart, #9 on Tumblr’s Top K-Pop Groups, and the #5 most mentioned K-pop artist on Twitter. “Eclipse” (2019) / GOT7 gets real and shows their vulnerable side as they sing about struggling with anxiety, voicing concerns that are excellently visualized in the impactful music video.

MAMAMOO (마마무)

Agency: RBW Entertainment (Wheein moved to a different company but is still participating in group activities)

Debut Date: June 18, 2014

Members: Solar, Moonbyul, Wheein, Hwasa

Since I started living in South Korea, I’ve noticed that MAMAMOO is pretty darn famous here. They obviously have tons of overseas fans, but the amount of popularity and recognition they have in their home country is on a whole other level. Based on the Koreans I’ve talked with, it seems like they’re the “cool girls” of K-pop. (Probably because they’re a little older than most of today’s girl groups.) They’re certainly established industry veterans, with a stellar reputation as vocal powerhouses. But it’s not just within K-pop – their music is super trendy, and it frequently proves to be a hit with both fans and the general public. They’re also well-known both as a group and as individuals, since all four of them have successful solo careers. Particularly Hwasa, who’s had two hit singles. They’re definitely one of the groups that I hear and see everywhere, and that doesn’t seem like it will change any time soon.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
MAMAMOO has won a bonsang prize from at least one major awards ceremony from 2018 to present. (They’ve won awards before that was well, but 2018 was the start of the streak.)“You’re the Best” (2016) / MAMAMOO’s breakout hit showcases the jazz and swing-inspired sound that defined their early years, and the light-hearted music video highlights their fun-loving attitude.
MAMAMOO won the girl group survival show Queendom in 2019, further cementing their popularity in the K-pop world. “Starry Night” (2018) / This calming latin music inspired song blends sweet and soothing vocals with a gentle melody and a breezy arrangement.
MAMAMOO’s YouTube channel is the #6 highest-earning Korean celebrity channel in 2021, with over 6 million subscribers.“HIP” (2019) / MAMAMOO’s triumphant post-Queendom comeback is a sassy blend of pop, jazz, and hip hop that claps back at all the haters.

Red Velvet (레드벨벳)

Agency: SM Entertainment

Debut Date: August 1, 2014

Members: Irene, Seulgi, Wendy, Joy, Yeri

Red Velvet has been charming fans both in South Korea and all over the world with iconic bops for years. They’ve turned out hit after hit, and almost all of their songs have been well-received by fans and the general public alike. Their name is a reference to their original dual nature – upbeat energetic pop for “red,” soft and smooth R&B for “velvet” – but their varied discography proves they’re total concept chameleons who can pull off any style or genre. (It was difficult to choose just three tracks to recommend, because many of them have performed so well.) Sadly, they had to take a long hiatus at one of the highest points in their career when Wendy had a serious stage-related accident. And in such a fast-paced industry like K-pop, a year and a half without new music can be a lot to overcome. But their triumphant return in 2021 was just as successful as always, definitively proving their staying power and their hold on the K-pop world.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
Red Velvet has 79 music show wins, and they’ve won trophies for nearly every release since 2015. They’ve also had three “grand slams” (one trophy from every music show in one promotion cycle). “Red Flavor” (2017) / This is one of Red Velvet’s iconic “red” singles with its bright and vibrant pop sound and classic choreography, and it’s so bubbly and refreshing it easily evokes summer.
Red Velvet received a Certified All-Kill in 2019 for “Psycho” and a Perfect All-Kill in 2018 for “Power Up” – both rare occurrences for K-pop group songs. “Peek-a-Boo” (2017) / Red Velvet definitely has a quirky streak, and they’re at their most creative in this playful yet unsettling number and its delightfully creepy music video.
“Psycho” placed #9 on Gaon’s 2020 Digital Chart and was the only K-pop song in the Top 10. This is especially impressive considering it was released at the end of 2019 and had very little promotions.“Psycho” (2019) / Red Velvet’s signature “velvet” track hit it big with its sultry and appealing R&B sound, contrasting glamorous and elegant visuals with the story of a very messy relationship.

Oh My Girl (오마이걸)

Agency: WM Entertainment

Debut Date: April 21, 2015

Members: Hyojung, Mimi, YooA, Seunghee, Jiho, Binnie, Arin / JinE (until 2017)

Oh My Girl really popped up on South Korea’s radar in the last couple of years, and they’ve become an “it group” fairly recently. But the truth is, they’ve been consistently delivering quality tracks from the beginning. They weren’t initially well-known to the public when they debuted, but they slowly kept working their way up the ladder step by step until they finished in 2nd place on Queendom in 2019. It was a major turning point in their career, and I’ve actually seen the effects of this boost in popularity firsthand. When I told my students I liked Oh My Girl before Queendom aired, none of them knew whom I was talking about. But one year later, their music was playing everywhere and all those kids were constantly dancing to their songs. So it might have taken a while for these ladies to get to the top, but they can certainly enjoy the view now.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
In 2020, Oh My Girl earned bonsang prizes from the Golden Disc Awards, the Seoul Music Awards, and the Soribada Awards. They also were a Top 10 Artist at the Melon Music Awards and won “Song of the Year – April” at the Gaon Chart Awards.“Closer” (2015) / This underrated gem features lilting vocals and a haunting chorus, and it lets Oh My Girl show off their inherent grace and elegance with lyrical choreography and fairy-tale inspired aesthetics.
Oh My Girl’s breakout hit “Nonstop” ranked #13 on Gaon’s 2020 Digital Chart (the second highest girl group release), while their B-side “Dolphin” placed #22. Both songs have also been certified platinum for passing 100 million streams.“Liar Liar (2016) / Oh My Girl is well-known for their playful side, and this cutesy pop number highlights that sense of whimsy with a catchy chorus and a wonderfully eccentric and clever music video.
“Nonstop” was the #10 most watched music video on YouTube in South Korea in 2020, and one out of four girl group songs to appear on the list.“Nonstop” (2020) / Oh My Girl’s breakout hit combines a refreshing melody with entertaining choreography and the girl group’s signature infectious energy.

Monsta X (몬스타엑스)

Agency: Starship Entertainment

Debut Date: May 14, 2015

Members: Shownu (on hiatus for military service), Minhyuk, Kihyun, Hyungwon, Jooheon, I.M / Wonho (until 2019)

Monsta X is one of those K-pop groups who’s just as popular globally as they are domestically. They gained a large overseas following in their early years, beloved by fans around the world for their “manly men” image. In fact, they’re frequently recognized as one of the artists who helped make strong and powerful dance music so popular with K-pop boy groups today.) Having an international fanbase helped them immensely when K-pop started getting more attention from the West a few years ago. They were one of the first groups to start seeing success in the United States, and they’re the only one in recent years that’s released a full album of English songs. They’re an established and highly respected senior group in South Korea now, but they have no intentions of leaving the international music scene – a second English album is on the way.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
Monsta X has had five albums certified platinum by Gaon for selling over 250,000 copies (since the new certification system started in 2018).“Dramarama” (2017) / Monsta X earned their first music show win with this attention-grabbing mix of hip hop and rock and its interesting time travel themed music video.
Monsta X has won at least one bonsang prize at a major Korean awards ceremony since 2016.“Shootout” (2018) / This perfect example of Monsta X’s trademark powerful music shows off their hard-hitting rap skills, intense vocals, and heart-stopping dance moves.
Monsta X ranked #4 on Hanteo’s 2021 mid-year report of Top 50 Artists based on Global Album Authentications.“Love Killa” (2020) / Monsta X seamlessly transitioned to a mature and fatally sexy image with this smooth and sophisticated number.

SEVENTEEN (세븐틴)

Agency: Pledis Entertainment (which became part of HYBE Labels in 2020)

Debut Date: May 26, 2015

Members: S.Coups, Jeonghan, Joshua, Jun, Hoshi, Wonwoo, Woozi, DK, Mingyu, THE8, Seungkwan, Vernon, Dino

SEVENTEEN is often name-dropped as one of the biggest boy groups in K-pop, and they’ve been generating buzz since their debut. They quickly built a solid reputation for themselves as a self-producing group, and they were one of the first to help make idol composing more common in this day and age. They’re also frequently complimented for their many talents, particularly their stunning choreographies and superior dance skills. I always knew they were popular, but I truly didn’t understand just how much so until I moved to South Korea. I hear their music everywhere here, and many of my coworkers and students enjoy their songs. Plus whenever they have a comeback, my local K-pop store is filled with fans buying albums. I’ve only ever seen this happen for a few groups, which I take as direct evidence that they’re a pretty big deal.

SOME Major AchievementsRecommendations for New Fans:
SEVENTEEN was the fourth group to become a “million seller,” and they currently have four albums that have sold over a million copies. Their latest hasn’t officially been certified yet at the time of posting, but it had 1.4 million stock pre-orders.“Don’t Wanna Cry” (2017) / SEVENTEEN doesn’t usually pick sad and wistful music for their title tracks, so this beautiful break-up song was surprising and moving as they poured their emotions into their riveting performances.
SEVENTEEN has won at least one bonsang prize at a major Korean awards ceremony since 2016.“Oh My!” (2018) / This sweet and light-hearted single is exactly the kind of fresh and wholesome music that SEVENTEEN became known for, and it will easily put a smile on your face.
SEVENTEEN has a large social media presence – in 2020, they were #5 on Billboard‘s Social Artist 50 chart, #7 on Tumblr’s Top K-pop Groups, and the #7 most mentioned K-pop artist on Twitter.“Left & Right” (2020) / SEVENTEEN proves their penchant for dance jams with this fun and funky bop that has a ridiculously catchy melody and choreography you can’t help dancing along to.

TWICE (트와이스)

Agency: JYP Entertainment

Debut Date: October 23, 2015

Members: Nayeon, Jeongyeon, Momo, Sana, Jihyo, Mina, Dahyun, Chaeyoung, Tzuyu

TWICE is without question one of the most famous and beloved girl groups of K-pop’s third generation, if not of all time. I was a brand-new K-pop fan when they dropped their breakout hit “Cheer Up” in 2016, and even a newcomer like me could tell how explosively popular it was. They’ve been superstars since that moment, dominating the K-pop scene with their catchy music, iconic choreographies, and stunning visuals. Nearly every one of their releases has been a hit that’s talked about for weeks on end, and their massive list of accomplishments more than speaks for itself. They’re most definitely household names, too – I haven’t met any Korean people who don’t know who they are, and a large number of my students are indeed passionate ONCEs. These ladies show no signs of slowing down after six years, and they will certainly continue to leave their mark on K-pop for years to come.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
TWICE was the second girl group to reach 100 music show wins, and they were the third group overall. At the time of posting, they have 117 total wins. The highest amount of trophies they’ve won for one song is 13, which was for “TT” in 2016.“TT” (2016) / TWICE has several cute and upbeat songs accompanied by cosplay style music videos, but the Halloween themed “TT” is an absolute classic. The melody and choreography are so iconic they’re still recognizable after five years.
TWICE has won at least one bonsang prize from a major Korean awards ceremony since 2016 (often several), and they also have a few daesang prizes for “Song of the Year.”“Feel Special” (2019) / TWICE started maturing their image with this sophisticated song, contrasting elegant choreography and glamorous visuals with moving lyrics that hit you right in the feels.
All of TWICE’s albums released in 2018 or later have been certified platinum by Gaon. They also have four songs that have been certified platinum in streaming and three in downloads.“I Can’t Stop Me” (2020): TWICE went all-in on the synthpop trend that swept K-pop last year, delivering a fast-paced and exciting bop that was faithful to the 80’s in both style and sound.

Brave Girls (브레이브걸스)

Agency: Brave Entertainment

Debut Date: 2011 (original members) / February 16, 2016 (current lineup)

Members: Minyoung, Yujeong, Eunji, Yuna

(NOTE: Brave Girls technically debuted in 2011 with different members, but I’ve put them at this point on the list because the four current members -aka the lineup that got famous – all joined in 2016.)

I mentioned earlier that K-pop really lives in the now – if a comeback doesn’t end up being successful, a group usually has to try again with the next one. However, Brave Girls has completely broken the mold with a “rags to riches” story the industry has literally never seen before. Some formerly unknown groups have gotten their breakout hit once they’ve caught the general public’s attention, but so far Brave Girls is the only one to become super famous from a song released several years ago. This spring, they became an overnight sensation thanks to a viral fanmade compilation video of them performing their 2017 single on music shows and for the military. It seemed like the whole country went to check out that track – which led to them topping digital charts, racking up some music show wins, and signing a massive amount of endorsement deals. It’s no wonder that Brave Girls is THE name on everyone’s lips in South Korea right now.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
Brave Girls won their first music show trophy for “Rollin'” – a song they released four years ago – in March 2021. This win came approximately five years after the current members joined the group, and almost a decade after the original lineup debuted.“Deepened” (2016) / Brave Girls’ current lineup is getting all the love, but it’s worth checking out the their first release with some of the previous members. While it looks and sounds pretty sexy, it’s also surprisingly soft and vulnerable.
“Rollin'” earned a Perfect All Kill back in March. There have been eight songs that gotten Perfect All Kills in 2021 – Brave Girls is one of the three K-pop groups who received one. (The others were BTS and recently aespa.)“Rollin'” (2017) / Brave Girls rose to fame with this sleeper hit, delivering a certified bop with irresistible energy and eye-catching choreography. It’s so massively viral that I’m convinced all of South Korea knows about it by this point.
“Rollin'” placed #2 on Gaon’s midyear digital chart for 2021, while “We Ride” placed #12. “Rollin'” was also one of three K-pop group songs in the Top 10, and it was the highest ranking one.“We Ride” (2020) / This mellow city-pop style song has also seen a lot of love from the Korean general public, pairing a catchy melody with touches of melancholy.

NCT (엔시티)

IMPORTANT NOTE: In this post, I’ve separated NCT and its Korean subunits and treated them as three distinct (yet connected) groups. I was originally going to put everything under one section, but I ultimately decided to split them up since NCT 127 and NCT Dream essentially function like all the other boy groups in this post – and more importantly, all three have seen their own kinds of success recently. I didn’t write about WayV because they’re China-based, and are therefore more of what I call “K-pop adjacent.” But I definitely encourage you to check them out if you’re interested in NCT, because they have some awesome music.

Agency: SM Entertainment

Debut Date: April 9, 2016
(as NCT U)

Subunits: NCT U (changing lineups) / NCT 127 / NCT Dream / WayV

“Resonance” is actually a mash-up of several songs on NCT’s Resonance albums (both Pt 1 and Pt 2).

Members:
Debuted in 2016 – Taeil, Taeyong, Yuta, Kun, Doyoung, Ten, Jaehyun, WinWin, Mark, Renjun, Jeno, Haechan, Jaemin, Chenle, Jisung
Joined in 2017 – Johnny
Joined in 2018 – Jungwoo, Lucas
Joined in 2019 – Xiao Jun, Hendery, YangYang
Joined in 2020 – Shotaro, Sungchan (these two are the only ones who aren’t in a fixed unit yet)

Up until recently, NCT was in a pretty solid place. They weren’t necessarily considered a top group, but they’d always done well for themselves with a good amount of accolades. Then something happened last year – to this day, I’m still not sure exactly what the catalyst was – and NCT EXPLODED over here in South Korea. Again, they weren’t exactly hurting before… but there’s a very noticeable increase in things like music show wins and album sales, and it’s absolutely astounding. I generally go to my local K-pop store once a month, and it’s been filled with NCTzens buying albums every single time I’ve visited this year. They’re the only fandom I regularly see there outside of any group’s comebacks, so I’d say that’s pretty darn huge.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
NCT was the fifth group to become a “million seller,” and both Resonance Pt. 1 and Resonance Pt. 2 have sold over 1 million copies. “The Seventh Sense” (2016) / NCT’s very first song had all the qualities they would eventually become beloved for – smooth vocals, attention-grabbing rap, impeccable dancing, and intriguing aesthetics.
Resonance Pt. 1 and Resonance Pt. 2 placed #4 and #9 respectively on Gaon’s year-end album sales chart of 2020.“BOSS” (2018) / This cool and charismatic track is a favorite of long-time fans that boasts a powerful beat, a hard-hitting choreography, and endlessly confident energy.
NCT was the #2 most mentioned K-pop artist on Twitter in 2020, and they were also the #6 most tweeted about musician in the United States for that year. “Make a Wish” (2020) / This smooth and sexy single marked the start of NCT’s rapid rise to the top in South Korea, creating an instant crowd-pleaser with its addictive whistle hook.

NCT 127 (엔시티 127)

Agency: SM Entertainment

Debut Date: July 7, 2016

Members*: Taeil, Johnny, Taeyong, Yuta, Doyoung, Jaehyun, Jungwoo, Mark, Haechan / WinWin (until 2018, when he got moved to WayV)

(*Johnny and Doyoung were added to the group in 2017 while Jungwoo joined in 2018, which is why you won’t see them in some music videos.)

NCT 127 was originally supposed to be the NCT subunit that was based in South Korea. (The “127” in their name is a reference to the longitude part of Seoul’s coordinates.) And while they did see some initial success in Seoul, they also gained a huge international following in their early years. This allowed them to become one of the groups who were easily able to benefit from K-pop going global in the West – particularly in the United States, which comprised a major portion of their successful 2019 world tour. Though their next tour got put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this fortunately resulted in them starting to gain more momentum in their home country. Their recent release “Sticker” is undeniably one of the most successful comebacks of 2021 so far, propelling them to new heights and resulting in new personal bests. Plus their current repackage is doing pretty darn well, too.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
NCT 127 was the third group to become a “million seller,” and their 2021 album Sticker sold over two million copies. The repackage Favorite has also sold one million copies so far.“Cherry Bomb” (2017) / This unique song is proof that NCT 127 is at their best when they’re being experimental and out there, blending the group’s overflowing confidence with a thudding beat.
NCT 127 earned 10 music show wins for their recent single “Sticker,” including their very first trophy from Inkigayo and their very first triple crown. They also earned six of these trophies in one week, achieving a rare “grand slam.”“Superhuman” (2019) / This futuristic sounding track is a little underrated compared to some of NCT 127’s other singles, but its soaring vocals and overall uplifting feel are a reminder they can do pretty much anything they set their minds to.
Sticker debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200, marking NCT 127’s highest ranking yet. It’s also been on the chart for six weeks and counting, making it the second longest charting 2021 K-pop album.“Kick It” (2020) / NCT 127’s hit martial arts inspired release certainly packs a punch from arrangement to aesthetics, with a bold sound that isn’t afraid to get loud and wild.

NCT Dream (엔시티 드림)

Agency: SM Entertainment

Debut Date: August 24, 2016

Members: Mark, Renjun, Jeno, Haechan, Jaemin, Chenle, Jisung

In the beginning, NCT Dream was a subunit for SM Entertainment’s teenage male idols. The idea was that they would have a youthful concept, with the members “graduating” and joining other subunits once they turned 20 years old. (This is why the oldest member Mark left in 2018 and didn’t participate in a couple of releases.) But the group proved to be so popular with fans that SM Entertainment ultimately reversed their decision, keeping the original lineup and adding Mark back in. And this proved to be the right choice, because NCT Dream’s 2021 comebacks have skyrocketed them to new levels of success. My students had no idea who NCT or any of their subunits were two years ago, and now they’re constantly singing and dancing along to “Hot Sauce.” What’s even more remarkable is that all of the members are basically college-age – meaning that they have plenty more time to further their influence on K-pop.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
NCT Dream was the seventh group to become “million sellers” with their first album Hot Sauce, which went on to sell over two million copies. “My First and Last” (2017)/ This super sweet and heartwarming song is a prime example of NCT Dream’s initial fresh and youthful sound.
NCT Dream has one of the highest numbers of music show wins for any group so far this year, earning eight for “Hot Sauce” and six for “Hello Future” (fourteen total).“BOOM” (2019) / This track was released when NCT Dream was starting to grow out of their teen years, and it definitely shows – it’s very cool and confident, as well as just a little bit edgy.
NCT Dream ranked #1 on Hanteo’s midyear list of the artists who contributed to K-pop the most so far in 2021. “Hot Sauce” (2020) / NCT Dream’s quirky rollercoaster ride of a breakout hit cleverly compares their explosive energy and surprising talents to the spicy zing of hot sauce.

BLACKPINK (블랙핑크)

Agency: YG Entertainment

Debut Date: August 8, 2016

Members: Jisoo, Jennie, Rosé, Lisa

BLACKPINK was pretty much successful from the get-go since they were a highly-anticipated group from one of K-pop’s most prominent companies, but they reached a whole new level of popularity when their hit song “DDU-DU DDU-DU” took the world by storm in 2018. They’ve been smashing all kinds of records ever since, and I’d be hard-pressed to fit all of their many accomplishments into one post. They’re so famous that they have a lot of visibility both in and out of the K-pop world – they’re easily recognized by most Koreans I know, and I have quite a few friends who aren’t K-pop fans but love their music. Not only have they achieved a ton as a group, but they’re also super successful individually. So far, three members have released extremely well-received solos. (The remaining one, Jisoo, is focusing on a drama.) On top of that, they’re so stylish that each member is a global ambassador for fashion houses like Dior, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, BVLGARI, and more. Music, acting, fashion – it truly seems like there’s nothing these superstar ladies can’t do.

SOME Major AchievementsRecommendations for New Fans
BLACKPINK is the #1 most subscribed artist on YouTube (not just in K-pop). They have four music videos with over 1 billion views, and “DDU-DU DDU-DU” is the most watched K-pop group video on YouTube with over 1.7 billion views.“Whistle” (2016) / While this cool and laidback song seems to be the more underrated of BLACKPINK’s double debut tracks these days, it was originally quite popular for its chic and trendy vibes .
BLACKPINK was the sixth group to become a “million seller,” and they were the first girl group to do so. They’re still currently the only girl group who’s sold over a million copies of one album.“As If It’s Your Last” (2017) / BLACKPINK normally has a very powerful image, but they were able to show their girlier and more fun-loving side with this energetic and enthusiastic summer bop.
BLACKPINK has had seven songs debut on Billboard‘s “Hot 100” chart since 2018 – four singles and three collaborations (with Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, and Selena Gomez). Rosé and Lisa have also ranked on the chart as soloists.“DDU-DU DDU-DU” (2018) / There’s no doubt this song is a modern K-pop classic, because everything about it is iconic. It’s the ultimate girl crush release that looks beautiful and sounds fierce, and its impact on K-pop was monumental.

The Boyz (더보이즈)

Agency: Cre.ker Entertainment*

Debut Date: December 6, 2017

Members: Sangyeon, Jacob, Younghoon, Hyunjae, Juyeon, Kevin, New, Q, Ju Haknyeon, Sunwoo, Eric / Hwall (until 2019)

(*NOTE: Cre.ker Entertainment officially merged with Play M Entertainment to become IST Entertainment shortly after I originally posted this.)

Most of the groups I’ve covered so far have either been famous for the get-go or have recently had their breakout hits, but now I’m transitioning to fourth generation groups that are on the rise. Their accolades might not be as numerous right now, but their popularity is steadily increasing with every release. The Boyz are an excellent example of this. They had a solid fandom from their debut (especially internationally), but competing on boy group survival shows Road to Kingdom and Kingdom has clearly done wonders for them. In fact, I’d actually argue they’re the boy group that’s gotten the biggest boost from the franchise – in other words, they’ve had the biggest visible changes when you compare their career both before and after appearing the show. They’re definitely rising fast, and it’s clear they’re coming into their own. Based on what I’ve seen these past two years, I have a feeling they’re going to make it really big very soon.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
The Boyz were the winners of boy group survival show Road to Kingdom in 2020. This allowed them to compete on follow-up show Kingdom in 2021, where they ultimately went on to take second place.“Reveal” (2020) / The Boyz had a youthful vibe as rookies, and they successfully matured their image during this comeback with this single’s perfect balance of romantic and sexy (plus some interesting wolf-inspired choreography).
The Boyz had one music show win before Road to Kingdom, but their number of trophies has gone up significantly since then – their comeback after Road to Kingdom earned four wins, while their comeback right after Kingdom got five.“The Stealer” (2020) / Riding the momentum from their Road to Kingdom win, The Boyz seamlessly slipped into “smooth operator” personas to steal fans’ hearts in this fast paced and charismatic song.
The Boyz have had three songs top Gaon’s weekly download chart: both their post-Kingdom franchise comebacks “The Stealer” and “Thrill Ride,” and Kingdom original song “Kingdom Come” (which also placed #1 on Genie).“Thrill Ride” (2021) / This cheerful and light-hearted summer bop is a throwback to the fresh and bright sound that The Boyz favored in their early days, and its buoyant beat and melody are pretty irresistible.

Stray Kids (스트레이 키즈)

Agency: JYP Entertainment

Debut Date: March 25, 2018

Members: Bang Chan, Lee Know, Changbin, Hyunjin, Han, Felix, Seungmin, I.N / Woojin (until 2019)

Stray Kids is super popular in the international K-pop community, and they’ve pretty much been that way from the start. They quickly gained a reputation as a self-producing group with hard-hitting music, attracting tons of fans from all around the world. (I can personally confirm this, because I saw them at KCON a few months after their debut and I remember the fan response at their meet and greet was wild.) Many of my fellow international K-pop friends include Stray Kids on their bias list, and I always see a ton about them on social media. While they’ve always done well for themselves in South Korea, their path to fame has seemed to be a little slower compared to their global popularity. Thankfully, it seems like things are rapidly changing – they recently won Kingdom and saw a lot of domestic success with their first post-show comeback. They’re entering their peak years at the top of their game, and it looks they’ll just keep going up from here.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
Stray Kids’ Deadpool-themed cover of BLACKPINK’s “DDU-DU DDU-DU” is the most viewed Kingdom performance on YouTube, and it even sparked a celebrity friendship with Ryan Reynolds.“My Pace” (2018) / Stray Kids pour all of their energy into this rocking self-confidence anthem, bravely declaring they’ll go at their own speed and encouraging their listeners to do the same.
Stray Kids are the latest group to become “million sellers” (the eighth group overall), and they’re the first group from JYP Entertainment to sell over a million copies of one album.“MIROH” (2019) / This exciting EDM song is your typical Stray Kids dance jam that hits hard in all the right places, and its soaring chorus and empowering lyrics highlight their ability to inspire.
Stray Kids has a massive global presence in K-pop. In 2020 they were #13 on Billboard‘s Social 50 Artists, #2 on Tumblr’s Top K-pop Groups, the #4 fastest rising K-pop account on Twitter, and the #4 Top K-pop Artist on Spotify.“God’s Menu” (2020) / This track is definitely a wild ride, with a unique rhythm and arrangement that shows off Stray Kids’s creativity. The lyrics cleverly compare making music to cooking food, which is brought to life in the sharp choreography.

(G)I-DLE ((여자)아이들)

Agency: Cube Entertainment

Debut Date: May 2, 2018

Members: Miyeon, Minnie, Soyeon, Yuqi, Shuhua / Soojin (until 2021)

(G)I-DLE found the spotlight practically the moment they debuted, quickly drawing attention as a self-producing group – a quality that’s somewhat rarer in girl groups at the moment. (Their leader and resident composer is former Produce 101 contestant Soyeon, who was pretty famous pre-debut thanks to her time on the show.) They also caught the eye of global fans thanks to their three non-Korean members, making it easy for them to establish solid fanbases both at home and abroad. They got some extra popularity from an unexpected source when Soyeon and Miyeon voiced two characters in League of Legends‘ virtual idol group K/DA, which has since become an ongoing collaboration where they’ve featured in three different songs. (G)I-DLE went on to earn even more recognition from their third place finish on Queendom in 2019, establishing their reputation as a group that was creative in music, performance, and aesthetics.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
(G)I-DLE has at least one music show win for every one of their releases since their debut, most recently grabbing ten trophies for “HWAA” in 2021.“Hann” (2018) /This beautifully haunting breakup song contrasts a pretty melody and a gorgeous music video with emotionally distant lyrics.
(G)I-DLE won six rookie awards during the 2018-2019 awards cycle, and three of them were from some of the major Korean awards ceremonies.“Lion” (2019) / (G)I-DLE proclaims their right to be both fierce and feminine in this masterpiece in this majestic arrangement that’s powerful yet poignant.
(G)I-DLE ranked #10 on Spotify’s 2020 list of Top K-pop Artists, and was one of four girl groups to appear on the list.“DUMDi DUMDi” (2020) / (G)I-DLE’s dance jam is an absolute bop, with a refreshing hook and warm energy that will easily bring summer to mind.

ATEEZ (에이티즈)

Agency: KQ Entertainment

Debut Date: October 24, 2018

Members: Hongjoong, Seonghwa, Yunho, Yeosang, San, Mingi, Wooyoung, Jongho

In my five years as a K-pop fan, I can confidently say that ATEEZ has one of the strongest international followings that I’ve seen – which is the main reason why I included them on this list. The sheer amount of global fans they’ve amassed in three years is honestly super impressive, particularly in the West. They’ve been all over social media ever since their debut, and I actually get a lot of requests to cover them on this blog (more so than any other group, actually). Their level of popularity in South Korea doesn’t seem quite as high yet, since the few Korean students and friends of mine that recognized them were the ones who are generally up on the trends. So they’re probably the most “up and coming” in South Korea on this list, but they’re definitely right on the edge of mainstream success. They recently placed third on Kingdom, where their creative performances scored well with fellow competitors and the expert judges. And they’ve been consistently getting bigger with every comeback, so it’s really only a matter of time until they make it big.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
ATEEZ has an enormous social media presence – in 2020 they ranked #8 on Billboard‘s Social 50 Artists and #3 on Tumblr’s Top K-pop Groups. They also placed within the Top 10 of several Twitter lists, both for K-pop Twitter and in the U.S.“Wave” (2019) / ATEEZ is typically known for intense music, but they redirect that energy in a more upbeat direction with this heartwarming summer groove and its irresistible dance beats.
ATEEZ ranked #2 on Hanteo’s 2021 mid-year report of Top 50 Artists based on Global Album Authentications.“Wonderland” (2019) / ATEEZ goes on an adventure in this epic song, delivering powerful choreography and thudding percussion that will rattle your soul.
ATEEZ’s latest album Zero Fever: Pt. 3 earned the 5th highest number of first week sales for any boy group album on the Hanteo chart, and it also debuted at #42 on the Billboard 200.“Answer” (2020) / ATEEZ pours everything they have into this beautiful and moving gem, mixing their signature dance music with vocals that truly tug at the heartstrings.

ITZY (있지)

Agency: JYP Entertainment

Debut Date: February 12, 2019

Members: Yeji, Lia, Ryujin, Chaeryeong, Yuna

ITZY is without doubt a leader of the fourth generation. They shot straight to stardom with their very first release, and they’ve been a household name ever since. I moved to South Korea about a week after they debuted, so they’ve basically been as active for as long as I’ve lived here. And because of that, I can definitively confirm that they’re one of the most popular girl groups in the country right now. I frequently hear their music when I go out, and I see them in ads everywhere. My students are obsessed with them, and they know the lyrics and choreography to every single one of their songs. Even some of my older coworkers are aware of them, which is telling since they don’t usually know newer groups. And it’s not just in South Korea, either – ITZY has a ton of fans worldwide, and the fandom is noticeably growing with every comeback. They’re clearly a force to be reckoned with, and they have a bright future ahead of them.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
ITZY is currently the fastest girl group to win a music show after debut, setting the record at just nine days. They’ve also won at least one trophy during every one of their comebacks so far.“Dalla Dalla” (2019) / The K-pop world quickly fell in love with ITZY’s charming and bubbly debut, complete with an unforgettable chorus and instantly iconic choreography.
ITZY swept the rookie categories of the 2019/2020 awards season, earning the best new artist prizes (for a girl group) from all the major awards shows.“Wannabe” (2020) / Equal parts energetic and edgy, this song mixes fierce dance moves with upbeat and confidence-inspiring lyrics.
ITZY’s music video with the highest view count is “Wannabe,” which was also the #6 most watched music video on YouTube Korea in 2020 (the second highest ranking for a girl group). “Not Shy” (2020) / ITZY keeps exploring their charismatic image in this sassy and jazzy bop, but they keep things fun in their Western-themed music video with a cute twist ending.

TXT (투모로우바이투게더)

Agency: Big Hit Music/HYBE Labels

Debut Date: March 4, 2019

Members: Yeonjun, Soobin, Beomgyu, Taehyun, HueningKai

TXT, also known as Tomorrow by Together, was the other super rookie group to come out of 2019. There was a lot of anticipation and attention surrounding their debut, given the agency they come from and their company seniors’ star power. But not only did TXT meet (and surpass) the K-pop community’s expectations, they quickly established their own identity and started racking up achievements. And while they already started out strong, their results keep getting noticeably better with every release. Having lived in South Korea since their debut, I can tell you that they’re definitely growing in popularity here. Some of my older students quickly latched onto them from the beginning, and I’ve noticed more students become interested in them with each passing year. I also regularly encounter fans at the K-pop store whenever it’s comeback time. As TXT transitions to their peak years, it’s clear we’ll keep seeing bigger and better things from them.

SOME Items of NoteRecommendations for New Fans
TXT earned their first music show win just over a week after they debuted. They’ve also won at least one trophy for all of their releases so far. “Crown” (2019) / TXT is bright-eyed and fresh-faced in this endearing debut song, with an enjoyable chorus and satisfyingly crisp choreography.
TXT swept the rookie categories of the 2019/2020 awards season, earning the best new artist prizes (for a boy group) from all of the major awards shows.“Run Away” (2019) / This spellbinding song has a light and whimsical feel that’s straight up magical, but its emotional and yearning undertones will also touch your heart.
TXT’s album The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE is currently the longest-running K-pop album of 2021 on the Billboard 200, having charted for 13 weeks.“Blue Hour” (2020) / TXT gets groovy in this slightly retro track, doubling down on the feel-good vibes with sweet melodies and funky dance moves.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading this absolute mammoth of a post and staying to the end. It took me over two months to put this all together, and it’s definitely a labor of love – so I hope it was useful to you in you some way. If you’re a new fan and you’ve decided to check out some of these groups, please let me know what you think! And if you’re a longtime fan who stopped by, feel free to leave some other recommendations! The next list article will be about third and (non-rookie) fourth generation K-pop groups that I personally want to show some love. I’ll try my best to get that out as soon as possible!


NOTE: The featured image is a custom design I requested from my friend specifically for this blog and this column. Please do not alter it, repost it, or re-upload it without my permission. If you want to see the artist’s work, you can go to to her Instagram account here and/or her website here.

MUSIC VIDEO CREDITS: YouTube, Big Hit Music (BTS and TXT), Brave Entertainment (Brave Girls), Cre.ker Entertainment (The Boyz), Cube Entertainment ((G)I-DLE), JYP Entertainment (GOT7*/TWICE/Stray Kids/ITZY), KQ Entertainment (ATEEZ), Pledis Entertainment (NU’EST and SEVENTEEN), RBW Entertainment (MAMAMOO), SM Entertainment (EXO/Red Velvet/NCT), Starship Entertainment (Monsta X), WM Entertainment (Oh My Girl), YG Entertainment (BLACKPINK)
*Though GOT7 has since left JYP Entertainment, the music videos in this post were released while they were still with the agency.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Some of the music videos I linked are under the YouTube accounts of distribution companies like 1theK, CJ E&M, Stone Music Entertainment, HYBE Labels, etc.

RESEARCH RESOURCES:
Billboard – (1)
Pages from Group Profiles I previously made – (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15)
Soompi – (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17) (18) (19) (20) (21) (22) (23) (24) (25) (26) (27) (28) (29) (30) (31) (32) (33) (34) (35) (36) (37) (38) (39) (40) (41) (42) (43) (44) (45) (46) (47) (48) (49) (50) (51) (52) (53) (54) (55) (56) (57) (58) (59) (60) (61) (62) (63) (64) (65) (66) (67) (68) (69) (70) (71) (72) (73) (74) (75) (76) (77) (78) (79) (80) (81) (82)
Tumblr – (1)
Wikipedia – (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11)
Gaon Chart, Hanteo Chart, iChart, Spotify, Twitter, YouTube (described in the Soompi articles linked above)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: