Before we get into the actual rankings, here is a quick roundup of K-Pop artists who were considered. They are organized by their debut year. Part 1 is the list of the artists who debuted before 1990.
All of these singers are all pretty famous, and their songs are worth listening to if you want to get the full context of the prevalent music within the genre and the era. The Korean included Korean names of the singers/bands so that readers may copy/paste the names in Youtube search window. Amazingly, Youtube has a pretty decent store of many songs – even those belonging to the real old oldies.
Ha Choon-Hwa (하춘화), 1961
In 15 words or less: Renowned trot singer with many connections with the politically powerful.
Maybe she should have been ranked because… Recording 2,500 songs over 45 years of career must count for something.
She was not ranked because… Trot is (for now) a diminishing genre with minimal impact on pop culture. Ha did not change that, nor did she dominate the trot era as much as other trot singers who are ranked.
Song Dae-Gwan (송대관), 1967
In 15 words or less: Trot singer who is still going strong.
Maybe he should have been ranked because… He still drives the trot scene of today.
He was not ranked because… That does not mean much.
Song Chang-Sik (송창식), 1970
In 15 words or less: One of the flag-bearers of the folk rock movement in the 1970s.
Maybe he should have been ranked because… Some of his songs like Whale Hunt (고래사냥 ) are iconic.
He was not ranked because… He did not have much influence otherwise, and quickly joined the softened folk rock trend in the late 1970s.
Whale Hunt by Song Chang-Sik
Yang Hee-Eun (양희은), 1971
In 15 words or less: Perhaps the greatest female folk rock singer.
Maybe she should have been ranked because… See above.
She was not ranked because… Much of her success was fueled by Kim Min-Gi (김민기) who composed her songs. Kim deserves the rank.
Tae Jin-A (태진아), 1972
In 15 words or less: The current face of Korean trot.
Maybe he should have been ranked because… Right now, his name is the first to come up if one asked Koreans, “Name one trot singer.”
He was not ranked because… The diminished influence of trot makes his influence accordingly small, and he did not exactly dominate when trot was the dominant genre. But this was a close call.
Tae Jin-A's live performance of Tears of Yours (당신의 눈물)
Hye Eun-Yi (혜은이), 1975
In 15 words or less: Disco queen of the 1970s.
Maybe she should have been ranked because… She went on tours in Southeast Asia, perhaps making her the first “Korean wave” star.
She was not ranked because… Her peak was just not that special.
Lee Su-Man (이수만), 1975
In 15 words or less: The progenitor of corporate bands.
Maybe he should have been ranked because… H.O.T. BoA. DBSK. Super Junior. Girls’ Generation. Just a few groups that went through Lee’s production company, SM Entertainment.
He was not ranked because… Close call, but Lee did pretty much nothing as an artist of his own right.
Love and Peace (사랑과 평화), 1978
In 15 words or less: The pioneer of Korean funk.
Maybe they should have been ranked because… Their experiments in funk and soul were innovative, and some of their songs like It’s Been a While (한동안 뜸했었지) are iconic.
They were not ranked because… Fairly or not, right now their achievements are not valued as highly as other artists who were their contemporaries.
Shim Soo-Bong (심수봉), 1978
In 15 words or less: Significant trot singer.
Maybe she should have been ranked because… She had some iconic songs like Men are Ships, Women are Ports (남자는 배 여자는 항구).
She was not ranked because… She was present at the scene when President/dictator Park Chung-Hee was assassinated. She was banned from public appearance for a long time since. Through no fault of her own, her music career was never the same.
Men are Ships, Women are Ports (남자는 배 여자는 항구) by Shim Soo-Bong,
one of the most popular trot songs ever.
In Sooni (인순이), 1978
In 15 words or less: Most famous mixed-race person in Korea until Hines Ward appeared.
Maybe she should have been ranked because… As Korea is becoming more racially diverse, her influence in pop culture and Korean society at large is increasing.
She was not ranked because… Even with recent highlights, she just did not have the public’s attention as much as the top 50.
Jeong Tae-Choon (정태춘), 1978
In 15 words or less: Very popular folk rock singer who resisted the dictatorship until the bitter end.
Maybe he should have been ranked because… Jeong led the charge on the censorship in music under the dictatorship, going so far as releasing an album without going through the government first – which may as well have been a death wish at the time.
He was not ranked because… At the end of the day, his songs did not withstand the test of time, unlike other late 1970s/1980s artists who are ranked.
Peregrine Falcon (송골매), 1979
In 15 words or less: The last flash of Korean rock’s golden age in the late 1980s.
Maybe they should have been ranked because… Their songs still rock, and the leader Bae Cheol-Su (배철수) would go onto play a fairly significant role as a prominent radio DJ.
They were not ranked because… Close call, but the bottom line is that their influence was not as great as those who are ranked.
Will Love Everything (모두 다 사랑하리) by Peregrine Falcon
Kim Hyeon-sik (김현식), 1980
In 15 words or less: One of the most recognizable voices of the 1980s Korea.
Maybe he should have been ranked because… See above. Also, a couple of his songs like I Had Loved (사랑했어요) and Like Rain, Like Music (비처럼 음악처럼) are very iconic.
He was not ranked because… VERY VERY close call, but he did not live long enough (as he died in his early 30s,) and his influence was not big enough to overcome his short lifespan.
Like Rain, Like Music (비처럼 음악처럼) by Kim Hyun-Sik.
Kim Su-cheol (김수철), 1983
In 15 words or less: Created a successful hybrid of traditional Korean music and rock.
Maybe he should have been ranked because… See above. Also, arguably one of Korea’s best guitarists ever.
He was not ranked because… He fully turned to creating traditional Korean music, and accordingly cut off his influence over pop culture.
Fire Engine (소방차), 1987
In 15 words or less: Arguably, Korea’s first boy band.
Maybe they should have been ranked because… See above.
They were not ranked because… They disappeared with just a few hit songs with no lasting influence – not even in the field of boy bands.
Story of Last Night (어젯밤 이야기) by Fire Engine
(Warning: The Korean will not be responsible for gouging of your own eyes after watching the video.)
Park Nam-jeong (박남정), 1988
In 15 words or less: One of the finest dancers in late 1980s Korea.
Maybe he should have been ranked because… His signature dance moves are still recurring in current K-pop dances.
He was not ranked because… He just wasn’t that influential.
Yoo Yeong-seok (유영석), 1988
In 15 words or less: The man who figured out Korea’s ballad formula.
Maybe he should have been ranked because… Churning out above-average ballad songs for 20 (!) years such that fellow musicians made a tribute album celebrating those 20 years probably should mean something.
He was not ranked because… Close call, but there are others who figured out the formula just as well as Yoo did; unlike them, Yoo never had a period of utter domination.
On Days When Tears Well (눈물나는 날에는) by Yoo Young-Seok,
as a part of a band called Blue Sky (푸른 하늘).
This song is an excellent display of Korean ballad formula.
Lee Sang-Eun (이상은), 1989
In 15 words or less: Probably the most talented female singer-songwriter in Korean folk rock.
Maybe she should have been ranked because… Lee tossed away a very promising career to study more music abroad for four years. Then she came back and produced a series of incredibly diverse and innovative albums incorporating everything from jazz to Korean traditional music. That counts for something, right?
She was not ranked because… Not when the ranking is based on influence. Lee was critically acclaimed, but was never a huge presence in the minds of Korean public. Nor did she leave a measurable imprint on the artists who followed her. She may have been (and is still) too far ahead of her time.
Music video of Bird (새) by Lee Sang-Eun
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