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Links to old reviews will be provided when applicable, though those ratings may be somewhat out of date.
1. Infinite – The Chaser (2012)
Trying to put The Chaser (추격자) in words is an intimidating task. How do I aptly describe a piece of music that’s so dear to me? The Chaser goes beyond the mere confines of a pop song, generating the kind of energy I could only describe as “transcendent.” Released on May 15th, 2012, the song actually shares its birthday with me. I’ve always joked that this was some kind of inevitable, written-in-the-stars fate. In any case, it’s the best present I could ever ask for.
The Chaser takes everything I love about K-pop and streamlines it into a taut three-and-a-half minutes. It is production team Sweetune’s greatest masterpiece, and that’s saying something because they’ve racked up quite a few masterpieces throughout their career. It’s also the most undiluted display of Infinite’s sheer talent, drawing upon all their strengths for a tour de force performance. It’s the perfect song for the perfect group, and I don’t know that K-pop will ever deliver something this unflinchingly brilliant again.
Put on your headphones and join me as I break down this song and explain why The Chaser deserves its place at number one.
Music: Han Jaeho (Sweetune), Kim Seungsoo (Sweetune), Hong Seunghyun
Lyrics: Song Sooyoon
00:00-00:02 – To me, this brief percussive opening always sounded like somebody dropping something, as if the listener is stumbling into the track by accident. It catches you off-guard right away, without taking more than a second to do so.
00:02-00:16 – Then the full beat hits, anchored by that otherworldly synth refrain. This distinct loop has so much individual character that it practically acts as another vocal performance within the track. I’ve often used the word “seesaw” to describe its structure, and that off-balance approach offers a welcome spontaneity that enhances the track’s already brisk sense of movement.
This loop actually draws influence from the Korean string instrument haegeum, which gives the production a traditional appeal unique to the culture it stems from. Because of this, it’s the kind of flourish that exists outside of trends. It sounded fresh and surprising back in 2012, and still does today.
As the beat gains prominence, processed guitar adds another layer of rhythm, patterned in an ascending structure that brings us into the first verse with flair.
00:16-00:32 – I love the melody of this verse. It has that same lopsided appeal I’ve written about over the course of the last few days, where the opening phrase is more prominent than what follows. It plays as a declaration followed by subtext, which gives it a punchy rhythm even as the guys’ vocals are relatively subdued at this point. It also allows Sungkyu’s voice to sweep in right as that percussive clap hits, delivering a crisp start to this engaging segment.
The rhythm guitar in the background is far more nuanced than The Chaser’s straightforward kick beat would have you believe, and its nimble performance lends a “light on its feet” playfulness to the verse, setting up L’s terrific flourish that connects this section to the next.
00:32-00:39 – And here we hit that sense of build, as if a metaphorical plane we’ve boarded is beginning to take off. The melody tilts upward, though not dramatically so. In fact, the end of this segment actually dips down again. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from the tense synth accents punctuating the vocals. A layered arrangement lends emphasis to the beginning of each phrase, while a wisp of backing vocals heightens expectations for the pre-chorus’s second half.
00:39-00:45 – This is one of Hoya’s crowning moments. I actually think he sounds a lot like Sungkyu here, bringing a level of vocal panache you wouldn’t expect from the group’s rapper/dancer. As the percussion builds to a frantic fill, the melody goes for broke. The phrasing is elongated, the passion is intensified, and the plane lifts off the runway.
00:45-01:02 – Favorite K-pop moment of all-time, part one.
It’s the payoff. The payoff of all payoffs.
For me, this is the most immense transition of any K-pop song – possibly of any pop song, period. I don’t know that I can fully put into words just how much of a rush this moment is for me. Instead, I’ll try to break down the chorus’s three key ingredients.
1. Vocal blend
It’s just towering, overpowering, staggering – all those effusive adjectives I’ve been hurling around the past few days. Sung entirely in unison, The Chaser’s chorus takes full advantage of that “eighth voice” I wrote about when discussing Paradise. It is as distinct a blend as you’re ever going to hear, and an example of the magic spawned when you bring together the perfect seven tones. There’s so much depth, texture and raw power within this layering that it feels like a hurricane sweeping in.
Sungkyu’s voice is easily the most prominent this time around, but any sharpness of quality it might have on its own is buttressed by the choir of complimentary voices supporting it. The fact that this full blend hits you right from the first note is key to the chorus’s success. Had it slowed or wavered for even a moment, the whole thing might have been ruined.
2. The Melody
We’ve actually heard this melody before, echoed by the track’s opening synth loop. But, it’s fully blossomed now. And when it comes down to it, this refrain is remarkably simple. It’s essentially the same melody line repeated four times. Yet, each repetition carries a slightly different charm. They all kick off in the same way, but each targets a different endpoint. This helps a repetitive hook feel anything but repetitive, delivering an organic sense of imperfect balance that’s incredibly compelling.
3. The Brass
The first time through, you may notice it’s there, but you probably won’t focus immediately on it. Yet, if you were to isolate the stabbing brass accents, you’d retain a perfect sense of the chorus’s core rhythm. It’s an extremely celebratory sound, doled out as exclamation points on the refrain’s first three lines.
01:02-01:10 – It’s here that most modern K-pop songs would jettison much of their instrumental in favorite or a trap breakdown, or some other drastic shift in energy. Rather than do that, The Chaser grafts its opening synth line back onto the track, which just so happens to echo the structure of the chorus. Yet, none of this feels overdone, because it’s in service to an excellent rap verse from Dongwoo.
He brings a different rhythmic flow to the song without sacrificing any of its energy. We’re still cruising along that constant sense of build.
It’s at the end of this verse that we first hear Sungkyu’s gloriously off-beat vocal ad-lib, where his voice is chopped into a chant-like flourish that adds great texture and additional rhythm to the track. At least… I’ve always assumed this was Sungkyu based on the vocal color. As far as I can tell, it’s not properly credited anywhere.
Regardless, I can’t pinpoint anything else in K-pop that sounds remotely like it, and this small addition greatly enhances The Chaser’s unique personality. We’ll hear it pop up again later in the track, to even stronger effect.
01:10-01:17 – As Dongwoo’s verse continues, the guitar gains prominence, bounding forward like the backdrop to a heavy metal track before gloriously fizzling in a spiral of effects. It’s absolutely exhilarating.
01:17-01:25 – Our pre-chorus begins once more as the instrumental ebbs for the briefest moment, offering contrast to the heavy bombast we just experienced. Sungyeol gets his time to shine here (which isn’t always the case on Infinite tracks!), and his restrained performance offers the perfect salve for the moment.
If you listen closely, you’ll notice that that stumbling percussion from the track’s first two seconds is present here, too.
01:25-01:31 – Believe it or not, this is the first time we’ve heard Woohyun on the track. He’ll be the linchpin for important moments coming up, but I think this was the perfect line for him to enter. The melody’s desperate appeal is a perfect match for his emotive style.
An idol group can’t just have amazing main vocals. A producer has to know where to best use them.
01:31-01:46 – We’re back into the chorus, but this time the only voice we hear is Sungkyu’s. This flipping of expectations builds an immense amount of tension, as the instrumental continues to rage underfoot. His performance has a palpable urgency to it, and it doesn’t feel jarring to hear it soloed given how prominent he was in the preceding chorus’s mix.
Very few idol performers could carry this segment the way Sungkyu does. His vocals have so much passion and weight behind them, more than enough to compete with the blazing production. Speaking of which, the celebratory brass is absent from this moment, replaced by quieter synth accents that trace the same rhythm. This gives the chorus a completely different feel, even though the melody is the same.
This arrangement is a brilliant twist on what we’d expect from a pop song, and serves to compel interest as we rocket into the next segment.
01:46-02:02 – Favorite K-pop moment of all-time, part two.
THIS. IS. EPIC.
The full brunt of the chorus rushes back in. The vocals… the brass… all of it unwavering in its force as this chorus reveals itself as a two-parter. This second half is lyrically distinct and melodically similar, but not identical. It enters in a higher key than the first, and weaves through different nuances that give it a character all its own. The vocal blend is also distinct — less Sungkyu-focused and more richly arranged to include a greater palette of tones. It’s utterly brilliant. Pop nirvana.
02:02-02:18 – Also brilliant is this next rap verse, where Hoya offers a breathless climb toward the song’s climax. His flow is perfect here, but this segment is also greatly indebted to its instrumental.
The production moves at a real clip, gathering steam by the millisecond as the heavy rock guitar barrels upward. We hear that otherworldly, swirling vocal ad-lib again, adding to the song’s sense of rash boldness and insistent drive. And placed over the top is a frantic synth loop that sounds like a hospital’s vital signs monitor, pulsing with an alarming speed and ferocity. We’re reaching a critical level, here.
This whole verse has such an incredible speed of movement, as if the song is sprinting with all its might, refusing to look back until it reaches its apex.
02:18-02:31 – We change rhythm again for this bridge, which also acts as the final build toward The Chaser’s climax. Sungkyu revisits the melody from the song’s opening verse, given far greater weight through his emotive performance and an arrangement that layers galvanizing synth and percussion to create an overwhelming sense of tension.
Listen to the synth that soundtracks this bridge’s final moments. It emerges from the same “vital signs monitor” sound that drove the previous verse, but fractures into a more free-wheeling structure that loops in constant ascending spikes. Even on its own, this is an incredibly anxious sound. Grafted to Sungkyu’s bravura performance, the result is practically heart-rending. Just revel in those brilliant echoed effects on his final line, and the way the guitar rips off right before we move into…
02:31-02:47 – Favorite K-pop moment of all-time, part three.
If you were wondering where Woohyun was hiding all this time, it turns out he was only building stamina for this knockout of a chorus.
Just as Sungkyu took the first half of The Chaser’s second chorus, Woohyun does the same here. His re-emergence coincides with a few more welcome key changes, and a goosebump-inducing vocal that has knocked me to my knees on more than one occasion. Within these brief lines, it sounds as if he’s emptying everything he has into this one last spurt. It’s indescribably powerful and cathartic.
This chorus comes fully-charged with an additional synth texture – a spacey electro wobble that traces the lines of the melody while adding a completely new level to the mix. It also happens to compliment Woohyun’s rich tone perfectly.
02:47-03:03 – Favorite K-pop moment of all-time, part four.
The way the full weight of these vocals sweeps in is just majestic. While deceptively simple on first listen, The Chaser’s chorus is an incredibly transitory piece of music. Its impression changes drastically with every small modulation.
The guitar rejoins with a brilliant flourish, its distorted crunch adding even more weight to this already-overwhelming climax. The ceremonial brass is back too, infusing an unflagging optimism that this chase will end in success.
Taken alongside Infinite’s enveloping vocal blend, it’s hard not to get emotional here. The entire production just sweeps you off your feet and into another world entirely. It’s invigorating, and ultimately quite moving in a way that only music can deliver in this way.
03:03-03:20 – But, we’re not quite done yet. The full instrumentation of The Chaser’s chorus sticks around for a final repetition of its opening melody. This time, those effusive vocal ad-libs join the fray as the guys take us out with a final declaration of their intent.
This segment acts as necessary denouement, though it’s no less powerful than the chorus it transitions out of. It’s the third time we’ve heard this specific melody, yet it’s never sounded more assured. The guitar is cranked even further, delivering a crunchy backbone as The Chaser barrels onward.
Finally, all that’s left is one definitive thud of percussion – a suitably commanding endpoint for K-pop’s greatest song.