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Links to old reviews will be provided when applicable, though those ratings may be somewhat out of date.
7. Infinite – Back (2014)
Back arrived on the heels of one of Infinite’s most successful Sweetune-produced tracks, and offered a more emotional contrast. Although it wasn’t the first time the group worked with production team Rphabet, it would kick off a collaboration that would last for years. Back remains the best example of what Rphabet can bring to Infinite’s dramatic sound, and a thrilling display of structural experimentation. It’s one of the most idiosyncratic tracks of its decade, proving that big musical ideas can pair with raw emotion and melodic heft to create a truly stunning product.
Put on your headphones and join me as I break down this song and explain why Back deserves its place at number seven.
00:00-00:15 – Back opens like a movie, its mournful piano joined by the mysterious sounds of car tires on pavement and Dongwoo’s simple, but effective, plea: “can you save me?”
Curiosity builds right from the start, along with a foreboding mood that instantly feels unique within Infinite’s discography.
00:15-00:31 – The melody starts to unfold – a slow broil as Sungkyu invites us into the song. His phrasing echoes the dramatic piano. This arrangement is typical of a K-ballad, but already you get the sense that Back is building to something more. Even though this vocal performance is relatively subdued, it carries a great deal of emotion. I love the end of this verse, as Sungkyu’s deeper-than-normal tone descends to a whisper. The mystery of Back continues to unravel.
00:31-00:45 – Sungkyu’s vocals give way to Hoya, who is remembered by most as a rapper and dancer. Here, he tackles a full-on vocal performance with undeniable flair. His high-toned voice compliments the instrumental. The production continues to gather steam, as violins are brought in to further the idea that we’re in the middle of a tense climb toward something much more explosive. Hoya’s theatrical, stretched out phrasing contributes greatly to this verse’s sense of movement.
00:45-01:00 – And here’s the guy whose voice was made for a track like this. Woohyun attacks this verse the way he always does, with power that feels drawn from the ground itself. Meanwhile, the instrumental continues to snowball, this time with a haunting, wobbled synth effect brought in to compliment the piano and strings.
01:00-01:17 – We’re over a minute in, and Back still hasn’t reached that explosive point we all know it’s building to. This verse is unbelievably tense, and Sungkyu’s vocal performance – now in its upper register – is the perfect choice to bring that tension to life.
To my ears, Back’s first minute and seventeen seconds offers the greatest sustained build in all of K-pop. It’s raw, physical stuff – the kind of set-up that gets your hair standing on end when watching a horror movie. The instrumental here is immensely effective, with the strings gaining prominence and that whirring, emergency-light synth becoming more frantic. Eventually, it all gets sucked into space to clear the way for that same central message from Back’s intro: “Save me.”
01:17-01:32 – After eighty-seven seconds of increasing tension, the pay-off had better be satisfying. And at this moment, Back delivers a beat drop for the ages. The beat drop, as far as I’m concerned.
Every instrumental element rushes forward again, forged into a blunt sledgehammer of sound that hits with seismic force. That siren synth becomes an anchor around which a maelstrom of electronic noise circulates, including Infinite’s own vocals, pitched and warped to become part of the track’s barreling percussion. It’s a towering sound, made even more so by the relative silence that preceded it.
01:32-02:02 – An instrumental this majestic deserves an equally-impressive melody, and just as the song’s hitting its mid-point, we finally hear its chorus. To be fair, Back has been driven by a variation of this melody since the start, so the wait really doesn’t feel that long.
There’s a wonderful desperation to this refrain and the performance of it. As with most Infinite tracks, The Sungkyu/Woohyun duo takes the reins during the more powerful parts of the segment, though L and Hoya do a great job setting them up. Their voices are stretched into infinity, as if being sucked into the whirlwind of the overpowering instrumental. It’s a bravura performance, as expected from this group.
02:02-02:18 – Here’s where Back becomes utterly transcendent. As if one mammoth beat drop wasn’t enough, the song delivers the mother of all second beat drops, distinct from the first and continuing to build upon the track’s structure. The intricacy of production here is almost unimaginable, with the percussion taking on a totally different rhythm without upending the flow of the song. The beat accelerates to a gallop and a new synth line is brought in before fizzling in a beautiful spiral of distortion. I particularly love the end of this dance break, which sounds like twisted rock guitar – an open musical wound.
Moments like this are why you so often see me complain about second-verse trap breakdowns in modern K-pop. Second verses can be SO impactful, and the chance to really stretch the limits of a production. This is one of the finest examples of that.
02:18-02:32 – Like many of the songs in my top ten, Back opts for a second verse melody that differs from the first. Like the breakdown that preceded it, this verse builds on everything that came before, offering a jolt of emotion that maintains the sense of desperation delivered by the chorus.
02:32-03:02 – However, a pop song thrives on repetition, and it’s important to hearken back to melodies the listener is familiar with. As the instrumental pulls back, we’re greeted by the same refrain that opened the track, this time adding Dongwoo and Sungjong into the mix. A few additional instrumental flourishes are brought in here – most notably some Spanish guitar, which was actually used as the main theme for Back’s initial teaser video. What a red herring that turned out to be!
On another note, it’s a testament to the strength of Back’s melody and performances that the song can maintain such momentum even as the percussion is stripped away… especially in the wake of such a furious breakdown.
03:02-03:19 – You might expect Back to drive right into its chorus here. That’s what most songs would do. Instead, we’re presented with another pre-chorus build, distinct in sound and structure from the rest of the track. The percussion becomes more insistent as Sungyeol delivers a pleading verse, structured with a more forward-moving rhythm than much of the track.
This leads into in incredible power note from Woohyun. Seriously, every idol group should have a Woohyun. Vocals like this provide a climax that no production flourish or tightly-choregraphed dance routine can replicate. It’s just raw, unbridled emotion.
03:19-03:54 – And if you think Woohyun’s done after his first volley, he’s got more up his sleeve. His vocal overlaps with the final chorus and carries through, augmenting the melody with another cathartic high note. Sungkyu gets in on the action to, but Back’s final moments are The Woohyun Show, though and through.
Like several songs composed by the Rphabet duo (or BLSSD on his own), we only hear Back’s chorus two times. The song is also longer than a normal title track, clocking in at just under four minutes. You’d think it would be difficult to make a pop song compelling without a chorus rearing its head every thirty seconds, but Back proves that you can sustain interest through experimentation. It’s a killer K-pop moment, simultaneously draining and exhilarating to listen to.