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Links to old reviews will be provided when applicable, though those ratings may be somewhat out of date.
8. EXO – History (2012)
In addition to being one of my favorite producers, Thomas Troelsen is largely responsible for getting me into K-pop. Long before I listened to Korean music, I was completely absorbed in a small, mid-00’s wave of electropop/rock/glam bands from Scandinavia. Troelsen produced for a few of them, and also fronted incredible groups of his own like Private and Superheroes. Naturally, when I saw his name attached to K-pop acts, I knew I had to check them out. The rest is history.
Speaking of History, this is my favorite EXO song. It’s not one that I think most fans would call iconic or groundbreaking, but I maintain that it’s their very best. Like so many of the greatest pop songs, it’s taut and cohesive, and those qualities contribute to an unbelievable sense of rhythm and funk. It’s like a tightly-coiled spring, flush with tension and strength.
Put on your headphones and join me as I break down this song and explain why History deserves its place at number eight.
Music: Thomas Troelsen, Mikkel Sigvardt, Yoo Young-Jin
Lyrics: Yoo Young-Jin
00:00-00:10 – Above all else, History’s success hinges on percussion and vocal. The first of those elements is introduced right away, initially through the sputtering of various beats. The most prominent percussion here sounds like Tabla, though I could be misidentifying that. The real beauty of this introduction comes during its second half, which hits us with a rapid-fire round of drum and synth that creates an aggressive, overwhelming effect. What a way to kick off a song!
00:10-00:35 – And here we have the combination of percussion and vocals. I love how they hit exactly together – that lyric “listen” dropping on the same beat as the drum. These two elements are so closely married throughout the entire song. A forceful, unison arrangement makes sense right off the bat.
This impossibly groovy instrumental brings guitar into the fold (played rhythmically, of course) and supports the main vocal with an influx of funky background responses. It’s all about a nimble sense of rhythm here, and EXO nail it.
00:35-00:53 – History cruises into its chorus, which comes sooner than expected. It’s more like an extension of the verses, given prominence through some dynamite vocal layering. You’re going to see me write about “blend” often when it comes to my favorite songs. It’s one of the elements of pop music I hold most dear.
Though EXO’s music utilizes vocal arrangements very similar to their agency peers, there’s no blend quite like theirs. It’s overwhelming here, especially when their voices are chorused to high heaven for the elongated, reverb-heavy climax to this segment. It’s one of my all-time favorite moments in K-pop – just a searing sound.
And like the first verse, this chorus kicks off with the vocal firmly fused to the percussion, continuing to foster that sense of constant rhythm.
00:53-01:06 – This post-chorus (or, chorus pt.2, if you will) is so freaking dynamic. You’ve already got that towering vocal blend, but then you bring back the rapid-fire drum and synth from the song’s intro to really drive the melody home. This frenetic energy would be satisfying on its own, but then it’s ripped away in favor of a deep, insistent groove before slamming back in again.
History plays with the rhythm so well here, pushing forward and pulling back but never interrupting the flow. It gives the effect of being yanked into the air and thrown back down again, which is one of my favorite sensations in pop music. The fun, simple choreography further heightens this arrangement.
01:06-01:14 – There’s a brilliant sense of weightlessness here, as most of the instrumental is filtered out. The tempo doesn’t change, and you can still hear echoes of the beat pushed far in the background, but the open space adds great tension to the vocal.
01:14-01:31 – …and, that tension makes this little beat drop all the more effective. We’re basically back to verse one’s instrumental, but it gains renewed vigor thanks to that small bit of emptiness that preceded it. The guys riff on the central melody here, imbuing the verse with some great vocal flourishes that build upon History‘s central ingredients.
01:31-02:02 – The chorus and post-chorus repeat again, though that’s not a bad thing. I could listen to this pairing a million times and still not be sick of it. The vocals absolutely shred, as usual.
02:02-02:24 – Into the bridge now, which opens with that same rapid-fire beat we’ve now grown accustomed to. The melody here is a natural extension from the chorus, underlined by History’s unyielding instrumental.
This term has been way overused now, but can we just mention how much this production slaps? That beat is a force to be reckoned with. I’ve also always loved how the climax of this segment echoes in layers. Again, very rhythmic. Every single moment in History is working together to build and maintain that rhythm. It never once flags.
02:24-02:41 – History spawns from an era where songs paid extra attention to their bridges. This one happens to have three distinct parts, which you don’t hear very often anymore (especially within a three and a half minute song). Part two is the closest we get to a slowdown in energy, though the instrumental brings in some synth pads, buried pretty deep in the mix, that contribute to a sense of build even as much of the beat is stripped away. It’s here that the guys get to showcase their vocals on a more individual level, though this piece is most important as a set-up for what comes next.
02:41-02:58 – This is one of my favorite K-pop rap segments. I love how Baekhyun’s power vocal overlaps with this moment, adding transition as the energy amps once more. On the Korean version of History, this is a quick sparring match between Chanyeol, Sehun and Kai, with the three occasionally rapping together for added impact.
I love when idol rap feels like sport, as if the performers are tossing the ball back and forth in perfectly choreographed synchronicity. It’s an immensely fun flow, tailored to accentuate the structure of the rhythm and build momentum as we enter the final chorus.
02:58-03:30 – And then this final chorus brings it all together. Of course, the vocal arrives right on beat, but this time there’s a hip-hop echo to the central melody, adding a jolt of spontaneity and personality to keep things from growing stale. History draws to its finish without needless fanfare. The last thing we hear is that gorgeous vocal blend fading into the ether (or maybe toward “Exoplanet,” where the group claimed to originate during this charming debut era).