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Links to old reviews will be provided when applicable, though those ratings may be somewhat out of date.
4. SHINee – Sherlock (Clue + Note) (2012)
I will always love a good old-fashioned “let’s put on a show!” dance track. Sherlock pulls out all the stops, never once second-guessing its bombastic, brass-powered drama. It’s so stuffed with ideas that SM Entertainment decided to split it into two additional tracks (Clue and Note), with each drawing upon different elements of the main course. This only proves how massive a pop song Sherlock is. It wields enough energy and verve to power an entire album, yet it channels everything into one concentrated burst. The result is enough to knock you off your feet at every turn, driven by a group whose talent and panache is unrivaled.
Put on your headphones and join me as I break down this song and explain why Sherlock deserves its place at number four.
Music: Thomas Troelsen, Rufio Sandilands, Rocky Morris, Thomas Eriksen
Lyrics: Cho Yoon-kyung
00:00-00:09 – Right from the start, Sherlock beguiles with a fantasy-like synth flourish that’s quickly pulled upward in a tense climb to see just how high-pitched it can become before bursting.
00:09-00:19 – This gives way to some deeply funky, rubbery bass that underlines the group’s insistent chant of “SHINee’s back.” Mind you, they’d been away from the Korean charts for almost a year and a half at this point, making Sherlock an honest-to-goodness comeback.
It takes guts to introduce your song with such a confident declaration. Fortunately, Sherlock more than lives up to the promise.
The second part of this segment introduces the instrumental’s stabbing brass, which acts as grandiose percussion throughout the track. Here, it feels like being slapped in the face several times — in the best possible way, of course!
00:19-00:36 – Sherlock drops one of the funkiest, hardest hitting grooves in K-pop and lets it smack us around for a full twenty seconds before we enter the first verse. Those ceremonial stabs of brass continue to drive the instrumental, but they’re supported by an insistent, snare-like kick that strongly echoes much of Michael Jackson’s early-90’s work.
Fused together with this percussive jolt is a sneaky little synth loop, which offers a counter melody that maintains across much of Sherlock’s running time. In any other K-pop track, this would be a dynamite dance break buried somewhere after the second chorus. Sherlock swaggers right out of the gate, assured in its ability to make you dance.
00:36-00:53 – The sounds of shattered glass ricochet in the background, adding a tangible force to Sherlock‘s already-commanding beat. A song like this is a hurricane, capable of destroying anything in its wake.
Like EXO’s History, much of Sherlock’s success hinges on a constant sense of rhythm. The vocals here are vital to that rhythm, offering a staccato performance that really attacks the groove rather than playing second-fiddle or acting as a contrasting melody.
Jonghyun’s performance style always echoed legends like Michael Jackson and Prince – even more than band-mate Taemin’s – and Sherlock is the best example of that. Every breath is important here, and fuels the wickedly groovy arrangement. He’s not only delivering on the lyrical moments. Even his inhalations and exhalations become focal points. It contributes to a sense of primal urgency, like he’s living within the tight, overpowering rhythm.
00:53-01:12 – This is a gift that Taemin shares, and his serpentine vocal delivers the perfect bridge into a more soaring melodic segment. I love how the melody opens up here, only to funnel back into that ultra-rhythmic structure that preceded it. This arc is assisted by a stunning background vocal, layered and warped to sound almost otherworldly. I wish I could isolate this element because I bet it sounds even cooler on its own.
And though he never gets enough credit as a vocalist, Key closes this segment with a commanding turn, playing off the song’s theatrical base with a stick ‘em up “freeze!” before we’re swept into the pre-chorus.
01:12-01:30 – There’s a lot going on in this pre-chorus, all of which comes together to forge an immense sound. The backing vocals have an incredible texture, almost as if they were recorded underwater. They churn through this segment as a constant presence, echoing and accentuating the main melody and offering a sense of fullness as they deliver a tight harmony.
The brass is almost entirely absent from the pre-chorus, only adding emphasis to important melodic peaks. Instead, the vocals drive the energy, climaxing in a spine-tingling power note from Jonghyun, followed immediately by Taemin’s commanding sucker punch. Flanked by the steady crackle of brass, it’s a majestic moment.
01:30-01:48 – How can I describe a payoff this perfect? Sherlock’s chorus is one for the ages, and one that no other group could pull off as well. The refrain is simple and repetitive, driven home by SHINee’s transcendent vocal blend. All five of them are singing with full power, and when those voices are fused together the result is overwhelming.
I can’t overstate how important it is for this chorus to be sung in unison. The rest of Sherlock is already so big. Its chorus has to go for broke. It has to somehow be louder and splashier than everything that came before it, and that’s a tall order given how grand and intimidating the verses and pre-chorus were.
Sherlock‘s chorus will own every fiber of your being. The brass returns in full force, transformed from percussive element to fleshed-out, melodic support. The notes are prolonged and impossibly powerful, as if SHINee are giving every last ounce of their strength to drive this chorus home.
01:48-01:56 – After such an all-encompassing refrain, we need a moment to catch our breath. Minho and Key’s rap is effectively rhythmic and pulls the energy in a slightly different direction without bringing Sherlock to an unceremonious halt. It’s an incredibly short hip-hop verse by K-pop standards, which was the right decision for this song. Anything longer would have begun to stall momentum.
01:56-02:06 – And, if you thought Jonghyun was finished with you yet, you’ve got another thing coming.
His vocals rush back with full power, hitting another climactic note when you’d least expect to hear it. Taemin’s got something to add, too, though it’s more catchy aside than main course.
02:06-02:24 – Ten seconds.
That’s how long Sherlock’s second “verse” lasts. It took a minute and a half for the song to hit us with its first chorus, yet the pause before its second is a small fraction of that time. Sherlock’s structure is very unique in this way, and the result is brilliant. Listeners aren’t given time to reorient themselves before the song’s second wave crashes in, and this bolsters its already-considerable power.
02:24-02:42 – That truncated second verse makes room for an extended bridge, which takes the song through several distinct pieces.
The first is an odd bit of rhythmic melody, where the group unveils an entirely new structure to give the song added oomph and mystery. The percussion is largely stripped away and the brass is completely absent, replaced by a chirpy synth arpeggio that infuses the track with a texture we haven’t yet heard.
In place of Sherlock’s percussive kick, SHINee are left to do the heavy lifting. It’s time to hear how they create rhythm with their voices, and unsurprisingly they don’t disappoint. Like the song’s opening verse, the structure here waffles between more staccato phrasing and elongated notes that give the segment a showy appeal. It all ends in Minho’s robotic, whispered rap flourish.
02:42-03:02 – The brass returns as we enter a more standard bridge. We haven’t heard this exact melody yet, but it shares enough connective tissue with the rest of the song to feel instantly familiar. That’s what a good bridge should do: extend and accentuate, not upend.
I find it fascinating how this segment contributes to a sense of build even though the melody itself is largely in descent. It’s a testament to SHINee’s incredible performance, I think.
03:02-03:20 – And just when you think we might be entering the final chorus, Sherlock drops into another dance breakdown. The instrumental’s rubbery bass gains prominence once more, accented by the insistent brass as Key and Minho deliver my favorite SHINee rap verse.
I love the phrasing here, especially when they draw out the ends of their lines with an ascending key that echoes the synth from Sherlock’s first few seconds. It’s a goofy trick that shouldn’t work as well as it does, yet it gives this breakdown a funky spontaneity that really compliments the production.
Not to be outdone, Taemin comes in at the tail end of the breakdown to hit us with another riveting power note, bringing the track into its final chorus.
03:20-03:38 – Each time we hear the chorus, it arrives with a different set of ad-libs. The “why? 왜?” flourish that’s added to this final repetition is my favorite of all. It existed in the other choruses as well, but was pushed further down in the mix. Here, it explodes with pure desperation.
03:38-03:59 – And how do you suitably end a song that’s this bombastic? You add another over-the-top flourish, of course!
SHINee is not only “back”… they’re in your damn house!
This conclusion has always struck me as so celebratory, and a real throw-down-the-gauntlet moment for the group. “Give it up for SHINee,” indeed! Sherlock knows how to command attention and adulation until its very last moment. It concludes even as its energy is at an all-time high, sending listeners out on a soaring, euphoric feeling that only the best pop spectacles dare to challenge.