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Links to old reviews will be provided when applicable, though those ratings may be somewhat out of date.
5. TVXQ – Catch Me (2012)
After a messy agency rift that resulted in three of its five members leaving the group, it’s easy to imagine a world where TVXQ ended in 2010. And, it still would have been an incredible run for the group. But, thank goodness Yunho and Changmin were able to reinvent themselves as a duo, borrowing much of DBSK’s signature sound while growing into a distinct force of their own. Though their big 2011 comeback Why (Keep Your Head Down) may reign as the most iconic of their title tracks, none sounds quite as immense as Catch Me. I still remember the first time I heard this song. It blew me away back then, and delivers the same rush nearly eight years after its release. This is K-pop in all its epic, over-the-top glory, fueled by performers who are more than up for that challenge.
Put on your headphones and join me as I break down this song and explain why Catch Me deserves its place at number five.
Music: Yoo Young-Jin
Lyrics: Yoo Young-Jin
00:00-00:07 – This being a Yoo Young-Jin production, you’d expect to hear r&b and rock influence. But, Catch Me opens with a full-on electro-club instrumental. The fact that Young-Jin tried his hand at this genre is immensely rewarding, and he brings an incredible weight to it. These opening synths are just gorgeous.
00:07-00:33 – I mean, come ON. These vocals? Talk about kicking off your comeback with full power! Yunho and Changmin’s lines echo in a wave, supported by orchestral-meets-electro majesty. The arrangement stretches to the heavens themselves, resulting in a sound that will knock you to your knees. I lose it every time Changmin’s vocal rises… and keeps rising toward a point few idol artists would dare.
This is a statement of intent, a throwing of the gauntlet. It’s unbeatable.
00:33-00:49 – A robotic vocoder brings us into the first of many breakdowns, when the beat drops and the energy hits like a ton of bricks. The first time I heard this, I thought that I had some audio enhancement setting enabled on my device, because the instrumental sounded so larger-than-life, like an extra, undefinable layer had been brought in. Surround sound, to the max.
We’re nearly a minute into Catch Me and we still haven’t entered the first verse. So many of my favorite K-pop songs share this quality. They’re given space to fully indulge themselves. It’s a confident approach. Catch Me is assured in its ability to draw attention. It doesn’t have to rush.
00:49-01:04 – As the first verse officially begins, the instrumental is stripped to its thudding kick drum, only to re-assemble as we make our way through this segment. The rumble of electronic distortion becomes more prominent, twisting to support Yunho’s clear vocal. All the while, the rhythm remains insistent.
01:04-01:18 – This segment, which functions as both verse and pre-chorus, has a wonderful build. Symphonic elements are reintroduced as the melody begins its ascent. There are some great vocal echoes used to heighten Changmin’s main performance.
01:18-01:33 – There’s something to be said about opening a chorus on its climax. Most choruses would opt to build toward a high point. Catch Me’s works in reverse, sweeping us off our feet with a brilliant, layered melody before descending to a more subdued aftermath. This has the effect of catching the listener off guard and adding a rush of energy right off the bat. It helps that TVXQ’s blend is incredibly tight, with the two voices forming one distinct sound.
The synth-piano that opened the track also makes a reappearance here, adding stately appeal to an already grandiose segment.
01:33-01:49 – And like so many of my favorite songs, Catch Me doesn’t stop at one single refrain. Its chorus is divided into two parts, with this follow-up offering a more rhythmic counterpoint to the soaring melodies that preceded it.
It’s no less majestic in delivery, though. Yunho and Changmin continue to sing together, their blend becoming even more powerful as the strings section gains prominence and the rhythm experiments a bit. I particularly love the rapid-fire drum-fills that briefly support the “I’m serious, I’m serious” hook. There’s a lot of small nuances hidden within this deceptively simple dance-floor instrumental.
01:49-02:04 – Dubstep breakdowns were par for the course in 2012-13, and most of them were integrated very poorly (similar to today’s trap breakdowns, in fact!). Here, we have dubstep influence grafted onto the existing song, rather than a complete shifting of its sound. The familiar wub wub of the instrumental is augmented with swerving synths that give this breakdown a very dramatic appeal.
Smartly, TVXQ’s vocals continue through the entire segment, structured in a halting rhythm that’s distinct from the preceding melody but not unwelcome. The layering has a different texture to it as well – more aggressive and raw.
02:04-02:18 – Most importantly, this breakdown sets up a brilliant turn into the shortened second verse. I love the moment when the beat drops again and we’re cruising along that beautiful, anthemic melody. It’s an absolutely euphoric feeling.
02:18-02:33 – A killer Changmin power note bridges us into the second chorus, which is bolstered by further ad-libs. The most interesting of these is an elongated “yeah,” that begins to stretch into the same ascending note that Changmin delivered at Catch Me’s onset. Ultimately, it’s cut short before hitting that full climb. What a tease.
02:33-02:50 – Rather than repeat the second half of its chorus, Catch Me swerves into a different melody. I can’t overstate how brilliant this is. It prevents the song from feeling beholden to some lockstep pattern, and increases the momentum tenfold.
The backing vocal arrangement here is breathless and immense, borrowing those power notes from the track’s introduction and laying them underneath this already galvanizing refrain. The electronic beat is incredibly exciting, pulsing with unabated energy. The melody itself offers a natural extension of the chorus, growing toward a seemingly big payoff before unexpectedly plunging downward towards an oddly subdued close. But, it turns out this is only a set-up for…
02:50-02:56 – If a note could kill you, this climactic moment would be marked as the cause of death for many fans. I don’t even know how Changmin conjures such a sound, but it truly is a wonder of the world. It’s piercing, overpowering and incredibly effective at delivering the kind of spike that a song like this thrives on.
02:56-03:27 – This is a very long breakdown, and has potential to completely destroy a song’s flow. But, Catch Me has already delivered a taste of dubstep, so it doesn’t feel out of place. It helps that TVXQ’s impish rap has such a compelling, otherworldly flow to it. It’s bookended by the towering layer of vocals that has become an SM staple, as the guys’ voices are juiced up for maximum power.
This segment jettisons all the symphonic synth flourishes that have driven Catch Me up to this point, replacing them with a percussive instrumental that really feels like a proper breakdown. It’s integrated well into the existing song, flanked on both sides by theatrical power notes that offer a natural segue between Catch Me’s various parts.
I imagine that this breakdown is probably the song’s most polarizing element. I happen to adore its aggressive drama.
03:27-03:42 – And you know what? It hasn’t finished yet! If you’re going to opt for a breakdown this immense, you have to go all the way.
The groove becomes even more complex during this second half, as the melody is replaced by chopped vocal samples from the guys themselves. Its incredibly theatrical, as Yunho and Changmin’s voices are repurposed as part of the rhythm, screaming and shrieking and panting as the hulking instrumental twists and warps like abused shrapnel.
The strings re-enter here as well, delivering an icy accent to the burly dubstep beat. It’s moments like these that Yoo Young-Jin really gets to display his genius as a producer. The arrangement is complex and interesting, yet never loses Catch Me’s central through-line. That balance is very hard to accomplish.
03:42-03:45 – This is a brief moment, but worth mentioning. I mean, how do you effectively transition out of such a musically daring breakdown?
It turns out that all you need is a few seconds of galloping percussion and filtered electronic build, fizzling like a firework. It gets the job done perfectly.
03:45-04:16 – And after nearly a minute of diversions, Catch Me’s chorus comes roaring back, intense as ever. It’s the full two-parter this time, delivered for only the second time throughout the track. And, it’s as immense and satisfying as ever, given renewed power through the guys’ imposing vocal layering.
04:16-04:39 – The song ends as it had begun, with that rhythmic, “catch me if you wanna” breakdown from its first minute. This time, the segment is given more weight with the addition of strings, marking it as a climax rather than another unneeded breakdown.
Catch Me’s cyclical format helps it feel approachable and memorable despite all of its structural diversions. When it comes down to it, it’s a simple refrain, driven home repeatedly in different ways. Like so many of my favorites, you can’t help but come away from Catch Me feeling as if you’ve experienced a real moment. It’s larger-than-life, befitting Yunho and Changmin’s immense talent and charisma.