If you were around when EXO were still rookies, you’ll know they were the biggest K-pop boy group around for literally thousands of miles. One of the first groups to fully embrace the Chinese market, their strategy to create two subunits focusing on the Korean and Chinese markets respectively gathered a lot of attention and built them a solid fanbase, in not only Korea and China but most of Asia.
Fast forward six years and EXO are now certified sunbaes, with numerous music show wins and end-of-year awards under their belt. While they lost some momentum with the departures of members Kris, Tao and Luhan, and the enforcement of China’s Hallyu ban, EXO’s popularity has stayed impressively consistent over the years, as shown by the success of their most recent album, Don’t Mess Up My Tempo. Throughout all these years, they have rarely failed to deliver on both the amount and quality of their music and performances, always keeping busy with either group, subunit or (in Lay’s case) solo comebacks.
As such, their discography is pretty massive. We previously covered the best non-title tracks from their teaser era, but EXO have put out an impressive number of full albums and EPs, each with their own highs and lows. Cherry-picking a few highlights from these was no easy task, but I’ve done my best below to pick out the songs I personally think represent EXO at their best.
In 2017’s The War, EXO donned mullets to promote the summery title track “Ko Ko Bop”, but album opener “The Eve” would have been no less of a great choice for the position. Composed by SM’s own Henry among others, “The Eve” is a powerful, attention-grabbing pop track that opens the album with a bang (and some body rolls). Tastefully sparse instrumentation, a killer melodic hook and epic lyrics about starting a revolution make it one of the more memorable and impactful songs from the album:
Distorted truths, the lies that were taught
A voice of change, a wave is rising
The one to create an ocean that will swallow it all
The repackage of the album, named The War: The Power of Music, saw several new songs added to the tracklist, including the understated RnB track “Sweet Lies”. Owing to their talented and versatile vocalists, EXO have made a number of decent attempts at RnB on their previous releases, but “Sweet Lies” is the most mature and modern of them yet. Adopting trendier, dark and minimalistic instrumentation, the song creates a dreamy yet sinister atmosphere to go with the lyrics’ theme of deception and deceit, penned by Chanyeol and RnB singer G.Soul:
Sweet lies, sweet lies
The sweetest lie in the world, baby
I tell her
Sweet lies, sweet lies
If this is what you want, I’ll do it all
It might be because it was released when I was most invested in EXO, but I have always considered Growl, the repackage of their first full-length album, XOXO, to be one of their best albums. Aside from the career-definingly iconic single, “Growl”, the album was full of solid tracks that efficiently showcased EXO’s vocal and rap skills, as well as artful song selection on SM’s part. With tracks as good as “Baby Don’t Cry”, “XOXO”, “Heart Attack” and “Peter Pan” among others, Growl was an album that had the ability to convert listeners who had never even seen EXO’s faces into fans (assuming they overlook the mess that is “Wolf”).
It was difficult to choose just one representative from this album, but “Don’t Go” has an emotional, heartstring-tugging quality that none of the others on this list have. With a pleasantly light and airy RnB-acoustic instrumental and plenty of room for the vocals to spread their wings, “Don’t Go” has that sentimental feel that songs performed at the end of a concert tend to have – the kind that can bring a tear to your eye if the timing and atmosphere are right. Soaring vocals and angelic harmonies bring out the beauty of the song’s lyrics, which compare a girl to a butterfly:
Yeah, to the place you live, take me with you
Oh, I’ll follow you even if it’s at the end of the world
Please don’t escape from my vision
Don’t disappear even when morning comes
Your walk is the walk I dream of
You are my one and only beautiful butterfly
A firm favourite of mine and without a doubt one of EXO’s best songs in recent years (if not ever), “She’s Dreaming” is a melancholy pop-RnB song from the repackage of their third album, Lotto. While the title track of said album was questionable at best, they more than redeemed themselves with this gem of a track. Featuring gorgeous vocal melodies, lyrics (written by EXO’s very own Chen) and arrangement, “She’s Dreaming” perfectly evokes a white dreamscape, with a sense of intimacy perfectly reflected in the lyrics:
She’s dreaming, she’s dreaming
You’re asleep in me, I can’t help but smile
I’m just looking at you
Because when morning comes, you’ll wake up as if nothing happened
As a song which demonstrates great vocals, rap, lyric-writing, composition, and production, “She’s Dreaming” is one of those songs that I always compare EXO’s other non-title tracks with. Importantly, it’s both artistically distinctive and mature – on-trend enough to sound modern, without being a carbon copy of some other chart hit, and with enough depth to be interesting and timeless, without being inaccessible or overly “artsy”.
Songs like these give me the hope that, despite being a wholly manufactured group, EXO are continually growing and developing as musicians. While it may be wishful thinking, I would love to see them become artists that can create great music and performance even without the hand-holding of their company. With talent as abundant as theirs, a more independent EXO would no doubt be able to generate continual success, longevity, and relevance, even in a market that sees new groups debuting every other day and under a company whose attention is always limited and never guaranteed.