The 10 Best One Direction Songs
Simon Cowell pulled One Direction together in 2010 after Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson and Liam Payne had each auditioned as solo artists on The X Factor UK. Better together, at least at the time, the five-piece came in third place in the singing competition. But at this point, mentioning their stint on the show feels as necessary as tracing Justin Bieber’s success back to his time on YouTube or Ariana Grande’s on Nickelodeon. While important stepping stones and key parts of their stories, the feats pale in comparison to literally everything that came after.
During their almost six official years together, 1D completely redefined the notion of a boyband. They didn’t dance, the concept of coordinated or matching outfits didn’t last past the first tour, and they were the first to wield the passion of fandom paired with the power of social media to achieve ongoing international success. Of course, a huge part of the story of One Direction was the deafening screams of fans wherever they went and the social frenzy of having five boyband heartthrobs back in the pop culture conversation for the first time in a long time. But more than that, it was the music. It was the five albums shared in as many years — four of which topped the Billboard 200 — and the six singles that landed in the top 10 of the Hot 100. And even beyond that, it was the deep cuts and should-have-been singles that still spark conversation long after the prime of One Direction.
The band began their now-indefinite hiatus after a final performance together in 2015, which means they’ve officially been broken up for longer than they were together. The further we move past the days of One Direction as a fully functioning unit of performers, the more it all begins to blur together like something out of a fever dream — it all went by so fast. For fans, this time of year in particular recalls the five-year cycle of the band’s album releases. Memories flood with the nights when the album would leak days before its release to a frenzied fanbase attempting to hide the evidence from their Twitter timelines whenever one of the five members would come online. Every passing November brings with it the lingering recollection of what it was like to hear a brand new One Direction song for the first time — and a new extreme to which you’d go to experience that electric feeling again.
The space becomes more and more distant in the passing years as these memories span nearly a decade in the past. The group’s debut Up All Night arrived 10 years ago today in the wake of lead single “What Makes You Beautiful” and altered an entire chapter of pop music history. Still, while Styles, Malik, Horan, Tomlinson, and Payne all boast fruitful solo careers that push further and further away from the need, if even the want, for a One Direction reunion, the age of streaming and social media has presented their music with everlasting admiration.
I’m of the personal belief that One Direction’s music has never received the recognition that it deserved on any meaningful level. That could be due to the way general audiences approach and interact with boybands, or any artist backed by passionate teenage girls, or it could be that they were just on the brink of breaking through to the critical skeptics when they called it quits. Regardless, the legacy of One Direction as musicians is one I’m certain will only strengthen through the lens of hindsight. Not only is the amount of music they released in such a short period of time while constantly on tour commendable, the quality of it all remains praiseworthy.
There was no simple way to assemble 10 songs that were the right collection, because there are countless iterations of One Direction songs that border on perfection by pop standards — one would be to just list the entirety of their album Four and another would be Take Me Home cut “Back For You” repeated 10 times. This is simply one variation of many.
"Same Mistakes" (from Up All Night, 2011)
One Direction’s debut album Up All Night is full of pretty great pop songs that look pretty bad by the standards of their later projects. They were fresh off of The X Factor, and songwriting camp-born singles that fit the boyband formula were being thrown at them left and right while they worked toward finding some semblance of an identity as a band of true musicians. The group only received writing credits on three of the album’s 18 songs, but among those sits “Same Mistakes,” the tale of a cyclically toxic relationship told through the strongest songwriting on Up All Night and One Direction’s strongest vocal performance at the time.
“Maybe looking closer/ There’s more to discover/ Find out what went wrong without blaming each other,” a baby-voiced Styles extends in the first verse. Listening back a decade after its release, the vocals oozing from the track sound so pure and young –– incredibly strong for their age but nowhere near the potential they’d reach in the coming years. There’s a noticeable absence of Louis and Niall’s vocals, but between Styles’ lead vocals, Payne’s cadence, and Malik’s stellar high notes and ad-libs, it feels like they’ve cracked the boyband code.
"Best Song Ever" (from Midnight Memories, 2013)
While always brilliant performers, One Direction were notoriously terrible at picking the right combination of singles for each album cycle –– or, more likely, their label was. Four got “Steal My Girl” when “No Control” and “Stockholm Syndrome” were right there. Take Me Home got “Little Things” and “Kiss You” when “Over Again” and “Back For You” were obviously better choices. But kicking off the golden era of Midnight Memories with “Best Song Ever” was one of the few times they really got it right. There are few other places within the band’s discography where they sound like they’re having as much fun as they are recounting a night to (barely) remember over the thrilling guitars on “Best Song Ever.”
The “Ow!” ad libs sprinkled throughout the song are so perfectly over-the-top in their exclamations, but never more so than when Payne, Horan, and Styles tackle the second verse. “Said her name was Georgia Rose/ And her daddy was a dentist,” Payne sings, setting up the scenario. “Said I had a dirty mouth (I got a dirty mouth),” Styles slides in with Horan before driving it all home: “But she kissed me like she meant it.” For as playful as the song is –– even its music video is a perfect capturing of the best kind of pop spectacle you can ask for from a boyband –– it also features stellar vocal performances from Malik and Styles laced all throughout the final chorus.
"They Don’t Know About Us" (from Take Me Home, 2012)
“They Don’t Know About Us” is easily the most boyband-core song in One Direction’s discography. The “they don’t want to see us together” meets “loving behind closed doors” narrative seems like it was pulled straight from the boyband fanfic-bait handbook. Famously, the group opted out of quite a few boyband obligations, including wearing matching outfits and dancing. But you can practically envision the NSYNC*-level choreography the five piece would be tearing through for the harmonious chorus: “They don’t know about the things we do/ They don’t know about the I love you’s/ But I bet you if they only knew/ They would just be jealous of us.”
The song admittedly borders on predictable, but One Direction does this heart-eyed brand of pop music so well that you have to forgive them for it. Tomlinson, Horan, and Malik turn the bridge into a playground –– driving the narrative home, dropping into a whisper here, soaring into a high note there. The arrangement puts “They Don’t Know About Us” over the top, opening with a simple piano melody littered with acoustic notes before plummeting into a heap of percussion.
"Over Again" (from Take Me Home, 2012)
One Direction had already been used as a vessel for a number of Ed Sheeran-penned songs by the time they arrived at “Over Again,” but the Take Me Home track yielded the best results yet from the pairing. Until then, the band had always seemed to stick consistently to full-blown ballads or explosive pop numbers. “Over Again” finds them somewhere in between, gliding through each verse at a rapid pace at no sacrifice to the passion seeped in each lyric. The band plays into the rise and fall of the instrumentation as they attempt to locate the broken link preventing them from fully connecting with a partner.
Malik ultimately steals the show on the bridge, offering up an unexpected yet masterfully delivered verse with a striking ultimatum: “You’ll never know how to make it on your own/ And you’ll never show weakness for letting go/ I guess it’s still hard if the seed’s sown/ But do you really want to be alone?” The rest of the song is littered with his ad libs weaving throughout the cinematic climax built by the punching drums and guitars that unexpectedly drop out at the very end. So individual in its arrangement and delivery, there’s still nothing like it to be found in their catalog.
"Better Than Words" (from Midnight Memories, 2013)
Pulled from the group’s exemplary third studio album Midnight Memories, “Better Than Words” is the cleverest work of songwriting in One Direction’s discography. It builds itself around song titles, opening with its own and branching out through some of the most iconic love songs in pop history: Boston’s “More Than A Feeling,” Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love,” Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling,” Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch,” Usher’s “You Make Me Wanna…,” the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” Drake’s “Best I Ever Had,” Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby,” Adele’s “Someone Like You,” the list goes on.
Backed by the slickest guitars on the album, the five-piece plays into the amorous tone of the song, ad-libbing their way through a seamless vocal performance. “Better Than Words” sets the bar high as it takes expressing your feelings with a handmade mixtape or a shared playlist to another level. It combines the act with writing a love song in someone’s honor to craft the ultimate romantic endeavor.
"Walking In The Wind" (from Made In The A.M., 2015)
As pop music history has proven to us time and time again, boybands aren’t built to last. One Direction burned bright and blazed for years, doing more in half a decade than most of their predecessors managed to in any amount of time. But when it was time to say goodbye, the departure was subtle. “Walking In The Wind” appears towards the end of Made In The A.M., the group’s fifth album in just as many years, which would become their last before they embarked on an indefinite hiatus.
“We had some good times, didn’t we? We had some good tricks up our sleeve,” Horan offers, soaking in nostalgia for the near past that went by too fast. “Goodbyes are bittersweet/ But it’s not the end, I’ll see your face again.” It’s the most closure One Direction can extend as they’re singing just as much to each other as they are to their fans. The promise that a goodbye isn’t forever, and that the memories remain even as the moments that create them become few and far between, is a melancholic note to depart on. But even over the warmth of the song’s production, One Direction taps into what feels like their most personal and emotional lyrical performance to encapsulate the feeling of uncertain change with a cushion of familiarity, one thing that will always be constant.
"18" (from Four, 2014)
There isn’t a love song in One Direction’s entire catalog that comes close to topping the ethereal execution of the ballad “18.” Written by Ed Sheeran specifically for the band, the song contains itself to a warm acoustic space for a beat before soaring into a grand vocal performance brimming with emotion as they build each lyric into a fairytale love story. The beauty of “18” rests in its commitment to not try too hard. The writing is personal and vulnerable without forcing its way there, ending the first set of lyrics with the quiet confession “Baby, I don’t want to feel alone.” At its core, the song makes the decision to endure the trials of love feel effortless. When One Direction collectively lands on the sentiment “And all I can do is say that these arms were made for holding you,” they arrive there without complication. There’s certainty in Horan’s “Yet all along, I knew we’d be fine” and promise in Styles’ “To be loved and to be in love.” If the feeling “18” evokes could be bottled and sold, it would never stay in stock for long.
"Where Do Broken Hearts Go" (from Four, 2014)
While a case could be made for 90% of the tracklist to Four, it would be criminal to not highlight “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” as one of the greatest pop songs of the past decade. It’s a masterclass in regret for the one that got away featuring five lovelorn singers going to the ends of the earth to find them just to beg for forgiveness. Horan opens the song with a staggeringly poignant introduction and what might be his best verse on the album, if not within the band’s entire discography.
Elsewhere, Styles resolves “Shadows come with the pain that you’re running from/ Love was something you never heard enough/ Yeah, it took me some time but I figured out/ How to fix up a heart that I let down” as the full band submerges into all out stadium rock on the last line. “Are you sleeping baby by yourself/ Or are you giving it to someone else?” and “Tell me, will you ever love me again, love me again?” are the critical questions of the song, and the lack of response drives the band up a wall. By the end, their pleas are doused in desperation as their vocals ricochet off of the relentless percussion and the handclaps buried beneath it.
"What A Feeling" (from Made In The A.M., 2015)
Releasing “Drag Me Down” as the lead single to Made In The A.M. as a means of reintroducing the band as a four-piece following Malik’s departure was understandable in a sense, but imagine a world in which “What A Feeling” was the lead single instead, or even just a single in general. Nothing on pop radio at the time sounded anything like it, and it demanded your attention almost immediately on the sheer strength of its quality, outshining every other song around it despite being buried 10 songs into a 17-track album.
The smooth thrum of the guitar whisks together to shape the sultry tone of “What A Feeling” while all four vocalists pace the track with crooned harmonies. “What a feeling to be right here beside you now/ Holding you in my arms/ When the air ran out and we both started running wild/ The sky fell down,” they harmonize together as the drums drop out of the first half of the addictive final chorus. It’s just their vocals over a plucky guitar in the most glorious mixture of tones and textures. With Made In The A.M. marking the last new music we’d receive from One Direction, “What A Feeling” would have been the perfect opportunity for the band to go out on a blazing high note –– a reminder of why they were the biggest band on the planet.
"Fireproof" (from Four, 2014)
One Direction’s surprise release of “Fireproof” as the lead promotional single to their fourth studio album, aptly titled Four, marked one of the most memorable days in the band’s fandom. It had been nearly a year since any new music had arrived from the group and fall –– prime One Direction release season –– was approaching. Getting a kick start on inarguably the best time of year, “Fireproof” was shared in September 2014 as a free download available for 24 hours only. In that short space of time, the song was downloaded over 1.1 million times.
It’s a short song, wrapping up in just under three minutes, but it’s impeccable –– a perfectly executed pop song of Beatles proportions. “Fireproof” makes room for all five singers without crowding their vocals, carefully spreading their talents across each segment of the song with enough breathing room to maintain their radiance. The kick of the bass drives the song forward from the very beginning. Then, the harmonized backing vocals drop in while Styles eases into the story: “I think I’m gonna lose my mind/ Something deep inside me, I can’t give up.” Seamlessly, Horan swoops in with a caveat: “I’m feeling something deep inside/ Hotter than a jet stream burning up.”
There are songs in One Direction’s discography that are lyrically and musically more intricate, more vocally challenging and more in line with the notion of boyband pop than “Fireproof.” But the excellence of the song lies in the fact it doesn’t need all of that. It doesn’t need to fight against the rest of their music for the spotlight. Because as the other songs tire themselves out after a set of rotations, “Fireproof” never loses its stamina. In a perfect world, the 15-second guitar solo that pierces the midpoint of the song would be a minute longer. Even without it, the entire last minute of the song leaves a feeling of yearning so strong that the force of Styles dragging out the last word of each line of the final chorus feels like a heavenly free fall. The only fix is to play it again.