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Links to old reviews will be provided when applicable, though those ratings may be somewhat out of date.
Countdown Archive: Honorable Mentions // 100-91 // 90-81 // 80-71 // 70-61 // 60-51 // 50-41 // 40-31 // 30-21 // 20-11 // 10 // 9
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).
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EXO peak: History (number 8) [Sorry Yan, could not resist]
I am a little sad cuz this is like my least favorite song from the mama album, while the title track is easily in my top 10….
But everyone is unique in tastes
Tomorrow I think we will see SNSD peak
Also, in my personal list, 50% songs will be late 90s/early 00s
Also I LOVE the rap section too
i’ve gotten so many non kpop fans into exo with this very song because i don’t think anyone can dislike this song
the only gripe i have is that when i listen to the K version i miss chen and when i listen to the M version i miss baekhyun and kyungsoo
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I personally like the EXO-M version better as Luhan and Tao were my EXO biases back then (Ah the EXOTIC days of the EXO fandom, the was with BAP and being a fan of both groups….)
HelloAll101 , Thank You so much !
Usually I just say the Peaks and Go but now I can actually say my thoughts.
This song is awesome! I never heard the whole song so I was loving this whole post from Start To Finish! And Also! There are two march 2012 Songs in Your Top 10! That surprises me to no extent but March had the best Top 3 with June having the best month!
I’m hoping to See Into The New World or Sherlock Tommorow even if I love both songs!
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No problem dude, may do a few more peaks down the line.
Although I love March 2012, I am kind of upset that September 2011 was under-represented. Same with October 2016 and June 2011
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I Still Love To Make Peaks!
EXO’s Peak: 8 (Peaked Song: History)
Ayy this one is my 2nd favourite EXO song (1st being Mama) as well as one of my top 5 songs. I’m not good with musical terms, so I’d just say “I love you and thank you, Troelsen!”
We all need to thank Troelsen, and beg him to craft these kinds of songs for K-pop once again!
This song really slaps.
Recently RollingStone Magazine revealed their pics for Greatest Boy Band Songs of All Time and it has 9 K-pop entries. You may be interested.
Yeah, I saw that earlier today. Not tremendously impressed by the almost complete lack of Japanese groups, even though they’ve been a huge facet of this format for decades — even more so than K-pop.
Also, I remain continually annoyed at mainstream western media’s inability to write about this subject without simultaneously denigrating it. “unapologetically inauthentic”, “venues full of screaming fans — always young, mostly girls”, etc.
Also ALSO… Moon?!? I mean, come ON. If it didn’t have BTS’s name attached to it, it wouldn’t have even come within striking distance of this list… let alone the top five.
I agree, especially on your point on Moon. By no means it is their best song, let alone worthy of entering any top list of the greatest songs by boy bands. If anything, it doesn’t even qualify for the best songs in K-pop. While it is not bad song, it’s a joke to put THAT among all of BTS’s good songs, let alone other songs like ‘The Chaser’ which received a disappointly low placement on the list. If they were going to BTS, they should have put up Blood Sweat tears or I Need U. They clearly lacked research in terms of K-pop boy band songs.
If they were going to add K-pop songs to that list, the makers of the list should have done more research. Period.
I finally got a chance to look at the list because it wasn’t showing up on a phone web browser.
OK, happy about some kpop inclusions, BUT overall, this is the oddest list. I never knew the Osmonds could be considered a boy band. “Pass the Dutchie” was only a minor hit, and a novelty one at that because everyone knew it was about passing joints around, sung by kids. There is no Menudo. Who the heck are Hi-Five? And somehow BoyzIIMen “One Sweet Day” which is the longest number 1 in the history of Billboard until “Old Town Road” knocked it down a peg only last year, somehow it isn’t on the list at all.
Therefore, a crap list made late some night over too many virtual beers.
(Incidentally, I actually own the BROS album (#72), yeah who? THe became huge crushes in the UK but went nowhere in the US. I only remember the lead single off of it. Fun fact: they were signed by Simon Cowell, BROS and Curiosity Killed the Cat, and Samantha Fox, or so I heard somewhere.)
I became a kpop fan in October of 2018 and mostly listen to my few favorite boy groups so I’ve really enjoyed this list! It’s added a lot of variety to my daily listening. Exo is in my top 3 groups, & I think they have the best vocal blend in kpop. They have three amazing main vocals in Baekhyun, Chen, and DO, four more really solid voices and unique tones in Suho, Xiumin, Lay, and Kai, and Chanyeol & Sehun’s richer, lower voices add a really nice depth to their harmonies. That combination, along with the vocal arrangements within their songs, makes them one of my favorite artists.
I have to say, History is the only song out of the top 10 so far that I’ve heard before & actually liked on the first listen. It would make my list, but it would probably be my lowest ranked Exo song. Honestly, I would put Tempo in my top 10 if not for the voice modulations in the first half of it. It really shows off what Exo can do in terms of solo performance, pairings, harmony, and ad libs. The production is wild, and there are so many great vocal moments within the texture of the song like the a cappella bridge. Plus, it’s Sehun’s best rap performance.
But Love Me Right would take my top Exo spot, & probably a spot in my top 10 as well (although I will never understand what football has to do it). From the end of Baekhyun’s first line, we’re introduced to the super clean harmonies that make the song. Add to that the syncopated electric guitar that starts with Chanyeol’s rap verse and an iconic Sehun line, and what more could you want? The way the guitar plays in harmony with the chorus melody is inspired, and the horn flourishes that pop up throughout the song starting in the second verse are an excellent addition to the texture. It’s classic Exo in the best way.
Exo should have 1 or 2 songs in the top 10, but to be honest this song is not even on my list at all. It took me a while to ponder, but I think the reason is that until earlier this year, about March 8th give or take, my primary place to listen to kpop is / was in the car. All those subtleties in the percussion in this song are nonexistent in the car. Growl, call me baby, love me right, sure sound great. This one, notsomuch.
I didn’t pay attention to this song at all, till i saw it topping your exo list. It got honestly great grooves to it. Not sure if i would put it on my top 1 but, it’s very unique on it’s own right.
I personally can’t wait to see either/or SNSD’s peak! If I am not mistaken, Genie and Into the New World haven’t made it into this list yet. I’m geniunely curious which one will. If I am not mistaken, in your top 10 list of SNSD songs, Genie was your Number 1 and Into the New World was number 2, and yet the only SNSD song that made it your Legendary Song List is Into the New World.This leads me to wonder if both songs will make the top 10 or if you’ll keep Into the New World for it’s timeless quality and leave Genie out.
Or something else entirely… o-o
On a side note, I completely expected History to place in the top 10, although I feel(like some other people in this comment section) that MAMA is better(it just makes you feel something unexplainable especially in the epic intro sounding similar to Gregorian Chants). I also speculate that you MIGHT put it in the top 10 as well, for I previously read your review and it seemed to me that it has a special place in your heart for being the song that cemented your love for K-pop.
It’s really exciting to speculate which song you’ll put in your top 10 next! Even though I don’t agree with all your opinions, you have managed to change my opinion on certain songs and argue your points well.
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