"Candy" - H.O.T. (1996)
The group that really began this era for me (and for most K-pop fans around my age) is H.O.T. Standing for High Five of Teenagers, this was the first group major label SM Town produced. The formula is pretty standard - five guys with fresh faces and marketability singing catchy pop tunes while dancing on stage in ridiculous costumes. Retrospectively, their debut outfits were brilliant. Oven mitts as accessories? Oversized jerseys with your names emblazoned in case you lose your memory in a car crash? Skiing goggles perched on top of your head? Seth Green took pointers for his role in "Can't Hardly Wait."
"Eusha Eusha (으샤 으샤)" - Shinhwa (신화) (1998)
Soon after, my affections turned to the megaband Shinhwa (신화). As they come from the same label as H.O.T., the two groups have very little differences. Six members, around the same ages, two rappers, three crooners, etc. What really won me over with Shinhwa's mega power was really their marketing. In the early 2000s, they went on a slew of variety shows, the most memorable being "장미의 전쟁 ( War of the Roses)" and "X-Man." Their addicting and winning personalities were the topic du jour of many sleepless nights in my college dorm. Besides, how can you hate on the first Korean pop group to take nude photos?
"Get Up" - Baby V.O.X. (1999)
The girl groups had their own spotlight. The two biggest names in the game were S.E.S. (Sea, Eugene, Shoo - the three members) and FinKL (Fine Killin Liberty - bless), but hands down, my favorite group was Baby V.O.X. (Baby Voices of Xpression - not any better, I know). Five members with a sound and vibe similar to the Spice Girls, I couldn't get "Get Up" off repeat. Plus, I used to think that I looked kinda like Kim EZ (김이지) and wanted to rock crop tops all the time.
"Black Cat (검은 고양이)" - Turbo (1995)
Of course I would be remiss if I didn't mention Turbo, whose song "검은 고양이"(Black Cat) didn't define the hellish two months of my parents' life when I played the song on repeat until I broke the CD. While Kim Jongkook (김종국) is enjoying his solo celeb life as a regular on SBS' "Running Man," he had his start as a falsetto crooning singer. As a group, Turbo didn't really make a break through until its second revival, and I would be lying if I didn't say that "Cyberlover" enjoyed its fair share of airtime in my sad Sony boombox. And with that, we entered the 2000s, which was a whole other story.