If there’s anything we’ve learned about IU over 15 years of her career, it’s that she is a storyteller above all else. While she’s also a singer-songwriter and an acclaimed actress, her talent for capturing emotions from fresh perspectives is unparalleled – it’s the rich narratives she builds out of relatable, simple terms that slot her as a generational talent.
As poetic, romantic, heartbreaking and wondrous as it is, IU’s world is also deceptively simple, astoundingly vivid and welcoming to all. Going from a young, doe-eyed girl to a confident woman, her legacy has endured on the back of songs where she invites us into her world openly and often, speaking to her subjects on a level more humanising than most.
In celebration of her 15th debut anniversary, here is a list of essential IU tracks.
Above The Time (2019)
Last Night Story (2017)
Sleepless Rainy Night (2017)
If the saying “kill them with kindness’ were a song, it would be IU’s ‘BBIBBI’. While the singer has a reputation for being more approachable than most, but she uses ‘BBIBBI’ to signal that she’s not free real estate for baseless rumours and criticisms.
“If you cross this line, you’re an invader / My manners are only till here,” she puts her foot down. Call it public service on IU’s part for all of us people-pleasers, but we were on all her side when she clarified that putting down healthy boundaries is not selfish or arrogant.
Good Day (2010)
Is it ever possible to talk about an IU essentials list without including one of her most important hits? While ‘Good Day’ might seem hopelessly naive and endearingly juvenile compared to her later work, it also stands as proof of IU’s personal journey as an artist.
From a young, starry-eyed girl who has yet to know heartbreak to a self-assured woman who knows and loves who she is, ‘Good Day’ stands as the glorious first chapter of one of K-pop’s brightest career trajectory, which is why it deserves a spot on this list. Not to mention, we still can’t get over that high note.
On ‘Lilac,’ IU softly, yet decisively bids a loving farewell to her twenties and welcomes her thirties with open arms and an uncharacteristic curiosity for the future. But that’s not the only thing that makes ‘Lilac’ a crowning jewel in IU’s career.
Since she debuted at the age of 15, one would argue that IU has had to do more growing up than most. After all, finding oneself and knowing who you are could have not been easy given her public stature. Yet, IU walks into a new era self-assured and content, carrying an “orgel box” of memories and treasuring the “last page” of her twenties – whatever happens, she’ll be fine.
Love Poem (2019)
It’s hard to write about ‘Love Poem’ without feeling at least a little bit biased. Personal affections aside, it’s the simple fact that ‘Love Poem’ makes everyone feel seen, heard and validated. When IU tells us that it’s okay to let tears flow and that she’ll walk by us through this unusually long night, it’s hard not to choke up.
What we also appreciate about ‘Love Poem’ is IU’s conscious decision to let us fight our own battles. Rather than assume control of the narrative, she decides to be a constant support and wait for the day when the long night ends, thus carving out a small sliver to fall back on when things get tough.
Modern Times (2013)
‘Modern Times’ – off of IU’s eponymous 2013 album – often gets overlooked for its more popular counterpart ‘Red Shoes’. It’s criminal, really, because ‘Modern Times’ packages the energy of the era it pays tribute to perfectly. A playful jazz progression complements IU’s youthful infatuation with the infamous and mysterious “Mr. Chaplin”.
But what truly makes the song so endearing is how expertly IU uses her songwriting to imply more than meets the eye. “When you see me again, say hello,” she sings, further promising, “I’ll see you again, Mr. Chaplin.” While it may, at first, seem like the equivalent of a schoolgirl’s infatuation with a much older man, IU’s writing belies her sincerity. By the time the song ends, she leaves us wondering whether, one day, instead of passing by each other, she and Mr. Chaplin might walk beside each other.
My Old Story (2014)
Even though it’s a cover of Cho Baek-de’s song from 1984, it’s quite impressive how perfectly ‘My Old Story’ fits into IU’s larger discography. While the original had a rugged appeal thanks to the acoustic treatment, IU brings a cinematic flair to her version, adding soaring melodies and amplifying a young woman’s longing in ways only she can.
At times, the song almost gives us a look into the events of ‘Good Day’ from a different perspective. Where she walked with a spring in her step on ‘Good Day,’ the somber tones of ‘My Old Story’ are shadowed with melancholy that only comes with resigned acceptance of heartbreak. IU sounds decidedly more subdued on this one, as if observing the naivete of her old self with a wistful smile on her face and a pang in her chest.
‘Lilac’ was IU’s confident declaration and acceptance of where she is in life, but ‘Palette’ belies an internal struggle and exploration that all of us experiencing mid-life crises know all too well. In many ways, ‘Palette’ is akin to a coming-out story – when we begin, IU appears to grapple with her new identity. Gingerly, she lists down her changed preferences, as if expecting the critiques and the hate to come rolling in any moment.
But as we go further in, and G-Dragon’s soft rapping assures her that it’s okay for her to be herself even in the in-between years of her life, the confidence amplifies the openness of her voice. “I got this, I’m truly fine,” she might have been addressing herself, but it’s a message heard by everyone hovering a pen over a blank page of their lives, wondering what they might fill it with.
Pierrot Smiles at Us (2014)
Tracks like ‘Pierrot Smiles At Us’ are instrumental in noting just how much IU internalises a lot of her anguish and occasional frustrations. While the song might be a cover of Kim Wan-sun’s 1990 hit, IU uses her voice to paint an unsettling picture of loneliness and fear as she finds herself increasingly out of step with the people around her.
“Behind that laughter, there are tears that no one knows of,” the contrast between her words and the song’s jovial, showtunes-style progression amplifies the tension. Instead of Kim Wan-sun’s relatively upbeat retro-pop progression, IU settles on a melodic loop eerily reminiscent of a spiral, somewhat signifying that we’re going towards an unhealthy attachment in order to avoid confronting the reality.
The Visitor (2019)
One could almost consider ‘The Visitor’ and ‘Modern Times’ complimentary tracks, given that both speak of an infatuation with someone out of reach. But where ‘Modern Times’ exemplified IU’s youth and playfulness, ‘The Visitor’ is far more sensual and mature.
Unlike the awkward, yet seemingly interested Mr. Chaplin, this visitor is far more aware of the power they hold over IU. There is no awkwardness in IU’s interactions with ‘The Visitor’ here – in this dangerous dialogue, IU clearly is on the back-foot. But who hasn’t gone against reason and given into their desires every once in a while? It may hurt, but IU makes the pain look bearable.
While ‘Zezé’ was met with some controversy upon release, it’s easier to analyze the song in retrospect. The song paints a borderline unsettling picture of young Zezé being manipulated by an entity. Fifteen years into IU’s career, however, it’s clear that IU puts herself into young Zezé’s shoes, a subtle nod to debuting at the age of 15.
Not only did she have to go through growing pains in the public eye, but also dealt with the struggles of being a young woman presumptuously being told to act in certain ways to keep her longevity intact. ‘Zezé’’s upbeat progression hides the grim realities of being a young female star in the industry – making this one of her darker tracks.