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Links to old reviews will be provided when applicable, though those ratings may be somewhat out of date.
2. TVXQ – Rising Sun (2005)
At its best, K-pop offers a sense of widescreen ambition, and no other producer is more responsible for that than Yoo Young-Jin. He’s been at the helm of SM Entertainment since the beginning, pulling from a diverse set of influences to craft what’s now known as SMP, or “SM Performance” — a K-pop sub-genre all its own. And within the songs of this genre, Rising Sun (순수) is his crowning achievement.
Channeled through the immense force of TVXQ’s performance, the song is unlike anything you’ll hear anywhere else. It’s nothing short of a K-pop rock opera, breathlessly experimental and always entertaining. It delivers more in its four minutes and forty three seconds than most full albums dare to offer. And yet, the song never collapses under the weight of its ambitions. It’s legendary in the truest form of the word, idiosyncratic yet vital to K-pop history.
Put on your headphones and join me as I break down this song and explain why Rising Sun deserves its place at number two.
Music: Yoo Young-Jin
Lyrics: Yoo Young-Jin
00:00-00:23 – This introduction may only last twenty-three seconds, but there’s much to unpack here.
Rising Sun opens with jagged percussion, roughed at the edges. Then, an intimidating thud sweeps in like a wrecking ball, in time with the first distorted battle cry: “rise up!” This ushers in at atmospheric bed of strings, descending synth flourishes and a muffled vocal that oscillates like waves pulsing through the dramatic instrumental.
The introduction’s second battle cry is preceded by chugging guitar, building expectation as the production grows more aggressive and exciting.
00:23-00:38 – When Rising Sun finally hits, it slams in with gale force. This is K-pop as orchestral movement, melding symphonic pomp with a heavy dance beat and surging rock guitar. If this doesn’t give you goosebumps, I think you’ve visited the wrong site! It’s one of K-pop’s most grandiose moments, perfectly teasing the unbridled verve that Rising Sun is about to deliver.
00:38-01:01 – This song has so many segments that it’s hard to label anything as a verse or breakdown or bridge. We haven’t yet reached Rising Sun’s melody. Instead, the track punches with an aggressive rap verse, punctuated by anguished, overpowering screams in a daring arrangement.
This segment borrows heavily from Yoo Young-Jin’s hard rock leanings with groups like H.O.T and Shinhwa from the late 90’s. In some places, the energy of this verse even flirts with the extreme sounds of screamo. But unlike those earlier works, it’s perfectly distilled into the DNA of the track. The shouting elements are used as percussive drive, adding emotion without derailing the momentum of the track.
All the while, the chugging guitar and sweeping strings provide an ornate, incredibly theatrical backdrop that makes the over-exertion of the rap feel less silly and jarring than it might have in a different song. It helps that the flow is incredibly rhythmic, barreling forward with a distinct pattern that uses that angry “No!” as an anchor point at the beginning of each line. It’s almost melodic.
01:01-01:17 – Most of the instrumental falls away to provide a moment of open space, as the first of several key melodic refrains unveils. This is a gorgeous moment, made even more so by the incredible vocal color of Junsu – one of K-pop’s most stirring vocalists.
This shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. The production completely changes here, with the guitar-and-strings bombast replaced by atmospheric synth. But, I love how Rising Sun rips the rug from underneath listeners, only to slowly reincorporate its central elements. Though not exactly the same in structure, the movement of this verse feels very much like the song’s first few seconds.
01:17-01:31 – The beat slams in once more for the second part of this verse/pre-chorus. Young-Jin uses a very similar sound here as he does on Catch Me, augmenting the strings with a rippling synth loop as Jaejoong’s vocal is supported by immense layering.
Of course, the star of this segment is the melody itself, which intensifies as we hit a searing power note that brings us into the chorus. It’s unimaginably dramatic.
01:31-01:51 – This chorus is everything. “Towering” feels like an understatement for just how immense its sound is. All five members join in unison for a powerful blend that clobbers the listener with militant precision. The melody is as epic as songwriting gets, soaring to new heights as the full brunt of the instrumental rushes back in.
Like SHINee’s Sherlock, Rising Sun’s chorus sweeps in on a high and tumbles into a comparatively reserved, rhythmic refrain before reaching to the heavens once more. I love this approach to melody-writing. It’s diverse in structure but grandiose in impact.
And as if this chorus hasn’t already hit hard enough, it concludes with an elongated, impossibly powerful cry. There’s not an ounce of energy left unused.
01:51-01:59 – Rising Sun swerves into a hard-hitting rap breakdown, and it feels as if we’ve entered the fray of battle. Yoochun’s delivery absolutely pummels the listener into submission. It’s as much heavy metal as it is hip-hop.
The thudding percussion echoes this sentiment, taking no prisoners as it rips through the track. I particularly love the simple, distorted guitar riff that laces this breakdown. Everything’s turned up to eleven here, yet the arrangement never feels cluttered.
01:59-02:07 – This is echoed by an impish, rapid-fire verse from Yunho, whose lighter, more playful tone perfectly contrasts the aggressive drive of Yoochun’s flow. Take note, idol rappers and current-gen producers. THIS is how you do a post-chorus rap break.
02:07-02:22 – This additional refrain – almost a post-chorus, actually – is one of my favorite moments in Rising Sun. It rears its head so unexpectedly, in a place during the song that you’d never think to put it. At this point, most tracks would revert to some form of a second verse. Instead, Rising Sun greets us with another hook as powerful and memorable as its chorus.
Icy synth traces the melody line as Changmin’s vocal is echoed by the rest of the group in a brilliant call-and-response structure that’s undeniably funky. The crunch of guitar accents their equally edgy reply, adding great texture to this segment. Importantly, the percussion never lets up, proving that you can introduce a distinct new melodic refrain without it becoming an energy-killing diversion. Rising Sun always feels like the same song throughout, even as it twists in daring directions.
02:22-02:37 – Next, we have another pre-chorus. This one borrows most of the melody from the first, but feels quite different simply because it emerges from such a contrasting point in the song. It’s almost as if Young-jin took the second part of Jaejoong’s earlier pre-chorus and built upon it. The instrumental doesn’t drop out like before. Instead, we meet this moment at a high point and go from there, extending upon the tease that Rising Sun presented in its first ninety seconds.
The strings are used particularly well here, gaining prominence as the melody ascends. This adds a great swell to the instrumental. It gives the effect of “opening up,” as if thus far this song had been stuck in a single room but all the doors are now pulling open to reveal a much bigger space. It’s hard to imagine Rising Sun growing any more immense, but that’s the brilliance of it. It kicks off at an “eleven,” and only becomes more imposing from there.
02:37-02:54 – This is K-pop’s greatest fake-out moment. Everything you know about pop music would lead you to expect a second chorus here. Instead, the instrumental pulls away and Changmin takes us on a breathless vocal climb, soaring and looping for a full ten seconds as the symphony accompanies him on this fanciful flight.
If the preceding pre-chorus had pulled open those metaphorical doors, we’re now yanked into the sky, weightless and disoriented but loving every moment of the experience. Like all of my favorite K-pop songs, it’s a tactile experience.
02:54-03:07 – After being swept off our feet, we’re thrown into what feels like a totally different song. Bhangra beats compete with a bouncy synth loop and vocal accents. It’s as if we’ve traveled into the middle of someone else’s party, utterly distinct from Rising Sun’s rock opera flair.
This really shouldn’t work. The transition alone is impossible to get right. Yet, Rising Sun has set us up to defy expectations thus far, and the sense of movement provided by Changmin’s vocal eases us into this breakdown with utter precision.
It helps that this instrumental is deeply funky – exciting enough to support its own track, actually – and the group is up for the challenge it presents. I love how their vocals become part of the rhythm here, functioning in the same manner as the rock guitar did during that first post-chorus rap break.
03:07-03:26 – We then move into another distinct melodic breakdown, where Yoochun and Changmin take hold of the beat and offer their own interpretation. Their vocals glide over the percussion with nimble finesse as Young-Jin bolsters the arrangement with moments of layering and ad-libs. This is easily strong enough to function as an entire verse for a completely different song. The fact that it’s part of Rising Sun’s bridge/breakdown is mind-blowing. The fact that it actually works is pure genius.
03:26-03:36 – Not to be outdone, Yunho delivers another killer rap verse as the beat intensifies. The oscillating backing vocal during this section is incredibly unique, bringing a hypnotic tribal influence to the track.
03:36-03:43 – At this point, TVXQ have really painted themselves into a corner, right? I mean, how do you work your way back into Rising Sun’s guitar-and-strings bombast? From structure, to rhythm, to arrangement, these segments are so distinct.
Yet, all it takes is one perfect power note, stretched to the sky. I still don’t know how this works as well as it does. My only guess is that this impossible transition succeeds on the strength of its own audacity.
03:43-04:03 – Across four minutes, Rising Sun only repeats its chorus once. Think about how iconic this refrain has become, and realize that that was accomplished with minimal repetition across this relatively long track. That’s pretty amazing, and a testament to just how flawless the chorus is.
The melody gains new weight as it crashes in for a climactic wallop, even more grandiose than before thanks to that bonkers dance break that ushered it in. Rising Sun knows how to dish out its ingredients in thoughtful doses, setting each element up for maximum effect.
04:03-04:18 – And here we get that post-chorus melody from before, now in its rightful place directly after the chorus. It feels different this time around. That’s the importance of a meaningful structure. Specific segments hit in different ways depending on where they’re placed. Not enough pop songs experiment with that.
04:18-04:42 – We end the track with an echo of its introduction. Yoo Young-Jin seems to favor this cyclical structure in his compositions, yet he always makes sure that the finale feels different than the intro. In this case, the “rise up” cry is deeper and more aggressive than the higher-pitched version in the introduction. And though the same rough percussive elements are there, the full brunt of the instrumental is also present right from the start.
Even those oscillating vocal flourishes remain, though they’re filtered in a way to suggest finality rather than emergence. The balance and contrast between these two segments is quite fascinating, and gives Rising Sun a book-ended structure that may not be easily apparent upon a casual listen.
Yet, like the ending of a great book, the song leaves you satisfied, while craving more. It’s a masterpiece from start to finish, experimental but approachable. It’s the sound of a producer and his muses going wild and throwing everything they’ve got into a song.