In celebration of The Bias List’s fifth year anniversary, I’ve embarked on my most ambitious project yet. After years of hemming and hawing, I’ve finally ranked what I consider to be the best 100 songs in K-pop.
There will never be a definitive list of this nature, because it’s impossible to rank something that’s inherently subjective. Please feel welcome to agree, disagree, argue and justify, but at the end of the day know that this list is personal. If we happen to share a similar taste in music, it may match closely to your own list. If not, I hope you enjoy reading (and discussing) anyway!
Links to old reviews will be provided when applicable, though those ratings may be somewhat out of date.
10. Infinite – Paradise (2011)
The brilliance of Infinite, apart from their unrivaled string of Sweetune-produced music, is how the group fashioned idol performers out of voices you would usually find elsewhere. This is especially true for Woohyun’s rich vocal color, which is most often reserved for balladeers, and Sungkyu’s expressive, alt-rock quirkiness. Tether these tones to more traditional idol pop and you’ve got something very unique and special. This is on full display throughout every Infinite single, but Paradise stands as a particularly great showcase.
Put on your headphones and join me as I break down this song and explain why Paradise deserves its place at number ten.
Music: Kim Seungsoo (Sweetune), Han Jaeho (Sweetune), YUE
Lyrics: Song Sooyun, Kim Seungsoo (Sweetune), Han Jaeho (Sweetune)
00:00-00:15 – One of the most stirring intros of any K-pop song, Paradise’s opener wastes no time unveiling the grandeur of its instrumental. I love the heavy kick percussion here, joined by electric guitar and those incredible, overwhelming strings.
00:15-00:25 – Can we talk about the satisfying texture of L’s vocals? He doesn’t often get respect as a singer (most likely because he’s in the same group as Woohyun and Sungkyu), but the guy can emote. An excellent choice to kick off verse one.
And speaking of verses, the melody here is surprisingly rhythmic, grooving along the instrumental in a way you wouldn’t necessarily expect from this kind of song.
00:25-00:35 – And here comes Sungkyu, adding that great nuanced performance he always delivers.
00:35-00:46 – Speaking of underrated vocalists, let’s talk about Sungjong as well. Sure, he’s not a “singer’s singer,” but I’d argue that his light, ethereal tone is one of the more vital parts of Infinite’s signature blend. It fits especially well with orchestral material like this, flanked by a power vocalist like Woohyun.
00:46-01:07 – The “pre-chorus” segment has enjoyed renewed spotlight thanks for EDM’s growing popularity, and this is where we find the majority of builds within modern K-pop songs. Yet, most of them are pretty formulaic. Paradise’s pre-chorus is odd in the sense that it builds tension without utilizing much of an ascending melody. Instead, the arrangement (those guitars!) and the urgency of the group’s performance fuel the momentum. It’s a brilliant push-and-pull structure that’s also supremely catchy.
01:07-01:33 – The squeal of guitar brings us into an absolutely incredible chorus. I often classify Infinite as a group of eight voices – seven individual tones plus that unbeatable blend when they come together. You don’t often hear layered falsetto so prominently used in a K-pop chorus, and it gives Paradise an otherworldly tone. Some have compared it to the Bee Gees, but it’s more robust here. Couple that with aggressive asides from Dongwoo and a note-perfect pop melody, and you’ve got something really special. The guitar-shredding outro is pure heavy metal, which is a genre that doesn’t immediately come to mind when considering this song.
01:33-02:15 – Back to the verse/pre-chorus structure, which doesn’t vary much from the song’s first forty-six seconds. But, since I didn’t mention it already, I’d like to call attention to that sneaky little flute-like synth that runs through this portion, offering a counter melody and instrumental flourish to the guys’ vocals.
Pre-chorus two is even better than the first, upping the drama courtesy of the Sungkyu/Woohyun pair, which will always be my unrivaled K-pop vocal duo of choice. Woohyun’s extra, emotive ad-lib launches us into the second chorus with aplomb.
02:15-02:35 – God, this chorus hits like a sucker punch each and every time. Infinite perform Paradise with the intensity a dance track during live stages, including hard-hitting choreography usually reserved for more upbeat material. It warrants the effort.
02:35-02:47 – For me, Dongwoo’s flow here has always had the sensation of “tumbling down,” like his verse is staggering to the ground from exhaustion. It’s a unique approach, made better by the unyielding instrumental that supports it. It’s also brief, which was a wise choice for this track.
02:47-03:09 – Much of the production is stripped away from this final pre-chorus, which isn’t an unusual trick leading into a song’s climax. It works especially well here because the vocals are so strong, and to their immense credit, Sweetune decide to add a gorgeous cascade of shimmering synth to the mix, injecting a new texture to an already-packed instrumental.
Right before that, there’s another new addition, and I can’t tell if it’s guitar or synth. In either case, it’s wonderfully rhythmic. This final pre-chorus concludes with Woohyun, master of power notes, rattling off a short but stirring ad-lib as we enter the final chorus.
03:09-03:37 – There’s nothing too new about this last chorus, but I don’t think there needed to be. It successfully drives the song home with the same level of cathartic emotion that fuels Paradise from its very first moment. Just incredible stuff.