Ah, brackets. They aren’t just for March Madness anymore. Nope, you can use them any time of year to determine everything from the best snack food to which Disney film reigns supreme. We here at Academic Exiles decided to spend our Memorial Day answering a question that weighed heavy on our minds: What is the greatest K-pop boy group? Well … not really. The best K-pop anything is Big Bang, so there wasn’t really a question of who would take the top spot. Our bias is just that strong. Even our friend Kelsey, the wild card we brought in to ensure no ties, confessed early into the proceedings that Big Bang was going to win for her, too. So was this whole endeavor pointless? Some may argue that it most definitely was, but I’d like to remind those individuals that life, and K-pop brackets, are about the journey not the destination.
To create our bracket, we went to Ranker to find out what the internet thinks is the crème de la crème of K-pop. There were two basic conditions bands had to meet to be included in the bracket:
- Groups must have at least three members.
- No subgroups or label groups à la SM the Ballad or YG Family
We then placed the top 32 groups that met the criteria into the bracket based on their ranking, and we were ready to determine the best K-pop boy group—subjectively. For judgement in the first round, we watched the first music video that came up on YouTube for each group. In the following rounds, we watched old favorites (or songs we’d at least heard of) and the occasional random video that wasn’t related to music. As you can see, it was all very scientific.
BTS (1) vs. Stray Kids (32)
The first match-up should be an easy one, with the first seed going against the last. And well, this was, but it wasn’t the easiest pairing of the night.
Kelsey (K): An easy victory for the Bangtan boys.
Stephanie (S): If the song was “Hellevator,” this would be a much harder call. As it stands, “District 9” is not as good a song, and it’s referencing an intellectual property I care much less about. BTS.
Amanda (A): In the heat of the moment and because it doesn’t matter, Stray Kids. On the official record, BTS.
Winner: BTS (3:0)
B1A4 (16) vs. MBLAQ (17)
A much more interesting match-up in terms of ranking. Also, the three of us didn’t really know much about either of these bands, so there wasn’t any bias going in.
K: B1A4. “Smoky Girl” is generic.
S: I am distressed that B1A4 keeps singing about how they are “rolling in the deep,” which feels misguided. I mean, they have to know about Adele, right? Still, the song has more personality and the video is better. B1A4.
A: I would bob my head to “Smoky Girl” if it came on in the club. “Rollin’” is bad. MBLAQ.
Winner: B1A4 (2:1)
CNBlue (9) vs. U-KISS (24)
Another not so exciting pairing. While none of us are huge fans of CNBlue’s music, we do like the members individually. Yong Hwa will always be Shin Woo, the man with the worst luck at romance. Jong Hyun is just so beautiful; plus, he was On Dal. Min Hyuk is adorbs in Heirs and also real life. And the bassist certainly exists. It was pretty clear who was going to win.
K: “Starting Over” is fun and sweet. “Neverland” is nonsensical and bad. CNBlue.
S: Why is there no Peter Pan imagery in “Neverland?” They just seem to be in cold places, which doesn’t make sense. Am I missing something? It’s got to be CNBlue; just look at Jong Hyun.
A: CNBlue. What even is U-KISS?
Winner: CNBlue (3:0)
Seventeen (8) vs. FT Island (25)
Finally, a challenge! Jeremy from You’re Beautiful versus an undoubtedly catchy, effective pop song.
S: “Clap” isn’t my favorite from Seventeen, but I do like it. The video is also fun. But “Take Me Now” is so different, both in terms of other groups on this bracket and other FT Island music I’m familiar with. It’s got a punk-ish, alternative edge. I’m giving it to FT Island.
A: I’m a big fan of the sit-dancing in “Don’t Wanna Cry,” so that video may have gotten Seventeen the win, but I’m lukewarm about “Clap.” I also appreciates that FT Island is trying something different. Jeremy for the win!
Winner: FT Island (2:1)
Super Junior (4) vs. EPIK High (29)
An interesting match-up! EPIK High is a group Amanda and I knew more by reputation than music, and Super Junior is usually fun.
K: EPIK High
S: The emerging Latin influence on K-pop is often pretty hit or miss for me. “Lo Siento” is better than others, but I still don’t love it. It also doesn’t hold a candle to classic SUJU. “Home is Far Away” is not what I was expecting from EPIK High, but I like it. EPIK High.
A: I’ve listened to some EPIK High, and “Home is Far Away” is not what I was expecting either. EPIK High.
Winner: EPIK High (3:0)
BTOB (13) vs. iKon (20)
All I knew about BTOB going in is that it’s fun to say phonetically. On the other hand, I was familiar with a handful of songs by iKon. The same was pretty much true of Amanda and Kelsey as well. It looked like it would be another easily decided pairing.
K: I really like the choreography in “Love Scenario,” especially when they dance in a circle. iKon.
S: I surprisingly am feeling “Missing You.” I’m not sure why I’m surprised, but I am. However, it is certainly no “Love Scenario.” I mean the dramatic coat dancing alone is enough to clench the victory, and on top of that, the song is great. iKon.
A: iKon. It’s catchy as hell, and I’m a sucker for Bobby’s face.
Winner: iKon (3:0)
Beast/Highlight (12) vs. B.A.P. (21)
How to handle Beast and Highlight? They’re enough of the same band that separating them feels wrong. So, even though Ranker had Beast at 12, we threw Highlight in there, too. We actually ended up going with Highlight for the video because it’s more recent. B.A.P is … fine, I guess. The overdramatic music videos can be fun, but musically they tend to fall a bit flat for Amanda and I. This is Kelsey’s first encounter with either band’s musical stylings.
K: Highlight. (She would later claim this was a joke, but the round was already over and she never officially changed her answer.)
S: I hate “Plz Don’t Be Sad.” The lyrics are awful. The last thing I need is a man telling me I should smile because it’s better for my pretty face. I also don’t get the Highlight aesthetic. It’s so different from Beast. You’d think their style would have matured but the opposite happened. I don’t always like B.A.P., but anything beats Highlight. This is my first time hearing “Hands Up,” but I legitimately enjoy it. B.A.P. by a mile.
A: The only thing good about Beast was that it featured a literal Big Bang reject, and Highlight doesn’t even have that. I don’t like B.A.P, but until the “Hands Up” video I didn’t realize there were so many attractive members. B.A.P.
Winner: B.A.P. (2:1)
SHINee (5) vs. 2AM (28)
Perhaps the easiest round yet. Some dudes singing ballads against SHINee. Please, “Ring Ding Dong” is the greatest thing to ever happen to mankind. Although 2AM had a slim chance of an upset because they have Chang Min, the man who gifted the world with “Moment” from Heirs, which is a glorious achievement and the K-drama ballad to end all K-drama ballads.
K: “Never Let You Go” is boring. SHINee
S: “View” is a legitimately good song, which isn’t always the case with SHINee. Also, have you seen Minho’s arms in the music video? SHINee
A: Aww SHINee! I can appreciate a good ballad, but “Never Let You Go” didn’t do the trick. SHINee in a landslide victory.
Winner: SHINee (3:0)
EXO (2) vs. Wanna One (31)
An easy path to victory for EXO? Maybe for most people, but Amanda and I tend to think the group is a little overrated. Not that we hate them. We really like some songs, but most of their music is underwhelming. “Energetic” is great, so Wanna One isn’t immediately down for the count. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Wanna One is also a reality show creation with an expiration date, which is some nonsense.
S: I’m almost sad to say it, but EXO is just better.
A: “Monster” is another song with lyrics that rub me the wrong way. I’m not down with the whole stalker becoming lover thing. But the lyric “Ring, ring boomerang” is unforgivable. Apparently, EXO had an easy path to victory after all.
Winner: EXO (3:0)
Monsta X (15) vs. Block B (18)
A good match-up. Both have songs we all enjoy, but the presence of Zico gives Block B a clear edge, especially with Amanda.
K: The part where the little girl dances is almost unfair. Block B
S: Block B.
A: Monsta X is good, especially when they go “Drama-ra-ramama-ramamama-hey” (these might not be the exact lyrics from “Dramarama”), but Block B wins. This song is a jam.
Winner: Block B (3:0)
2PM (10) vs. Boyfriend (23)
We had no idea what to expect from Boyfriend. Nothing could have prepared us for what we would bear witness to.
K: I’m pretty sure any praise given to Boyfriend would be super hypocritical, especially since Amanda and Stephanie are especially vocal about girl groups being too cutesy and cloying. 2PM.
S: “My House” is kinda a nothing song with a stupid Cinderella-inspired music video. But I can’t in good conscious choose Boyfriend. 2PM.
A: Boyfriend isn’t good; it’s great. I’m really feeling the video, but I also want to make very clear that I never want to see anything by them again. Still, Boyfriend gets my vote.
Winner: 2PM (2:1)
Infinite (7) vs. NU’EST (26)
NU’EST actually gave us some trouble. We watched “Where You At?” before realizing it was by a subgroup, NU’EST W. Embarrassing, especially since I praised the band for showing restraint and only having four members. Imagine our surprise when we learned the band actually has … five members? The idea of a subgroup that doesn’t include one band member is so baffling and petty seeming we had to investigate. Turns out Minhyun is in Wanna One, and the rest of the band is going by NU’EST W because they’re waiting for him to return. (Get it? I bolded the ‘w’ in waiting to make it easier, but if that wasn’t explicit enough, the ‘w’ in NU’EST W stands for wait.) The jury’s still out as to whether “Where You At?” is an appropriate representation of NU’EST since it includes most of the band, so we went ahead and watched “Face,” too.
K: Infinite doesn’t leave much of an impression. Both of the NU’EST songs are more distinct, and “Face” is very catchy. NU’EST.
S: I don’t hate anything in this match-up. “Tell Me” and “Where You At?” are both songs I can enjoy, but it is a fairly mild enjoyment. The video for “Where You At?” is a little more batshit, so I guess that’s a plus, but honestly, those two songs are pretty evenly matched. It’s a good thing “Face” is awesome or else this round would have been difficult. NU’EST.
A: NU’EST. “Face” is a jackpot. I can’t stop listening to it.
Winner: NU’EST (3:0)
Big Bang (3) vs Shinhwa (30)
The easiest match-up in a night full of easy match-ups. Big Bang is definitely on T.O.P. (I apologize; Amanda made me include that joke.) At this point, I just filled in Big Bang as the winner of the entire bracket.
Videos: Big Bang “Bang Bang Bang” vs. I literally don’t remember which Shinhwa video we watched
K: Big Bang.
S: I will choose “Bang Bang Bang” over literally anything else. Big Bang.
A: Big Bang,
Winner: Big Bang (3:0)
TVXQ (14) vs. Winner (19)
TVXQ presented a unique problem with putting them in the bracket. It’s now a duo, but it originally had five members. Amanda wanted “Mirotic” to be eligible, so we decided to include the original five and forget about any subsequent material.
K: “Winner is a loser” is one of my K-pop mantras. TVXQ
S: I kinda want to go with Winner because Amanda just told me Mino is thought of as the love child of G-Dragon and Taeyang, which is just beyond amazing. But “Everyday” is overly produced and not that catchy. Mino is the true winner of this round, but my vote goes to TVXQ.
A: I think I’m the only one with an idea of what’s going on in “Mirotic.” I’m also consistently disappointed by Winner. TVXQ.
Winner: TVXQ (3:0)
VIXX (11) vs. Teen Top (22)
Teen Top was another unknown element, but their name frankly didn’t inspire much confidence.
S: One of the members of Teen Top’s mouths freaks me out. Also, I like “Scientist” both as a song and video. VIXX.
A: No one in Teen Top is how I imagine T.O.P. was as a teenager. This is very disappointing. VIXX.
Winner: VIXX (3:0)
GOT7 (6) vs. Astro (27)
A truly heart-wrenching match-up, but one that was ultimately easy to call.
Videos: GOT7 “THE New Era” vs. Astro “Crazy Sexy Cool”
K: I’m not the biggest GOT7 fan, but I’m learning to appreciate them. GOT7
S: I love Astro’s music videos. They’re just so cute and colorful without it feeling like they’re trying too hard. *Cough* Highlight *Cough* If “Breathless” was the video that came up, I may have had to go with it. It’s the band pretending to be actual soda bottles, and there’s a random goose! I like “Crazy Sexy Cool,” but not more than I like GOT7. Plus, “THE New Era” is a cool song. GOT7
A: “THE New Era” almost threw me into an existential crisis when I realized Jackson isn’t in it. I don’t understand how it can be a GOT7 song with six members. I like it, but it also makes me panic and worry that Mr. Wang is getting ready to exit the band since his solo stuff has been successful. Even worse, that solo stuff is god-awful. I mean, “Papillion” is okay, but “Fendiman” is an artistically bankrupt, sponsored-by-Fendi, Migos rip-off that offends me to my core, especially since Jackson is great and I expect better from him. Because of this, I’m tempted to go Astro, but ultimately, I’ll stick with GOT7. I watched all three goddamn seasons of their reality show, and it might be the pinnacle of entertainment.
Winner: GOT7 (3:0)
*Update: Amanda has just seen an Instagram post in which Jackson performs with GOT7 in Moscow, and she is feeling better about the future of the band, though she is still disappointed in “Fendiman” and considers it an insult to her ears.