Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Back row: Liam Payne (Karwai Tang/Getty), Zayn Malik (Steve Granitz/Getty), Niall Horan (Mike Marsland/Getty), Louis Tomlinson (Roy Rochlin/Getty), Harry Styles (Theo Wargo/Getty); Front row: One Direction in 2012 (Taylor Hill/Getty)  

From boy band to men: A decade of One Direction’s musical evolution in 60 minutes

Back row: Liam Payne (Karwai Tang/Getty), Zayn Malik (Steve Granitz/Getty), Niall Horan (Mike Marsland/Getty), Louis Tomlinson (Roy Rochlin/Getty), Harry Styles (Theo Wargo/Getty); Front row: One Direction in 2012 (Taylor Hill/Getty)  
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

On July 23, 2010, there was a ripple across the pond. During production of the seventh series of the U.K.’s The X Factor, five young lads—Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson—failed to make enough of an impression on the judges to advance to the next round as individuals. But in a savvy move, X-Factor judge and V-necked superproducer Simon Cowell pulled the five teenagers aside and gave them a second chance—they would continue on in the competition as a group under Cowell’s tutelage. The boys were elated and quickly united in their mission, unanimously agreeing over text (as the story goes) to be known as One Direction. When the series hit British airwaves, fans immediately took to the mop-haired teens, watching their real-life friendships blossom as they tore their way through the competition. On December 12, 2010, they finished third on The X-Factor; their consolation prize: A reported £2 million record deal with Cowell’s Syco Records.

A decade later, it’s hard to believe that the members of One Direction—1D for short—were once the underdogs. By the time they arrived in America for their first stateside tour, the buzz over pop music’s “next big thing” was already deafening—some even likened it to Beatlemania. While their refusal to dance meant they weren’t exactly following in the choreography-heavy footsteps of the boy bands before them, it only helped make them that much more appealing: They were the every-lads, just five young guys who wanted to make music and have a good time. Mischievous, but not dangerous. Charming and crush-worthy, but relatable. Their music and image was perfectly manufactured to lean into these qualities, the boys maintaining a sense of goofy realness even under all the gloss—for a while there, it really did seem like they were having a blast. But the nonstop cycle of albums and globe-trotting took its toll, and during the group’s fourth world tour in five years, it was announced that Zayn Malik would leave 1D in early 2015. Later that year, the group released Made In The A.M. (which some suggested stands for “After Malik”), shortly followed by the announcement of a hiatus starting in 2016. In the years since, Niall, Zayn, Liam, Harry, and Louis have all released solo singles and albums, carving out space for themselves and defining their personal sounds in the shadow of One Direction.

If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that you’re either holding on to some affection for the former reigning boy band (without a doubt, BTS now claims that crown), or you can’t believe we’re about to argue that they have enough worthwhile songs to fill out an hour-long playlist. Either way, welcome! Whether you love or loathe One Direction and their record-breaking career, venturing back through their discography provides a fascinating look at the evolution of a boy band—how five young performers grew up within the contract-laden confines of the mainstream music machine, and how they found their voices while millions of Directioners (the moniker for self-described 1D stans) clung to their every word. From the starry-eyed teenage debut, Up All Night, to the (varyingly successful) string of solo adult albums, this Power Hour distills a decade of One Direction down to the tracks that highlight their growth as a quintet, eventually a quartet, and then as individuals. These are the enduring songs that define their legacy and prove that, once these five set their sights on music stardom, the only direction they could go was up.

“One Thing” (2011)

There are more than a few similarities between “One Thing” and One Direction’s inescapable breakout hit “What Makes You Beautiful,” both from the debut album Up All Night: Both are driven by a clap-heavy beat and a buoyant guitar riff, and both have a chorus that begs to be shouted by adoring fans. Aside from giving all of the members their moment to shine vocally, “One Thing” ultimately stands out as the group’s definitive early single because of its intriguing ambiguity. What is that “one thing,” anyway? Like Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” the lyrics keep things vague, allowing the listener to imagine they’re the one One Direction can’t get out of their heads.

“Kiss You” (2012)

After the runaway success of the group’s debut, One Direction turned it all the way up for album two: Take Me Home is a proper charm offensive with the goal of world domination. Its third single “Kiss You” leans hard into their goofball personas, a gonzo love song that promises to, “show you off to all of my friends, making them drool down their chinny-chin-chins.” Childish? Maybe so, but the song relishes in its youthful energy. By the time it reaches the “na na nas” of its final bridge, you’re putty in the hands of one of 1D’s catchiest tunes. Frenetic yet perfectly polished, “Kiss You” is a sugar rush from start to finish.

“C’mon, C’mon” (2012)

When laying out the groundwork for Take Me Home, Simon Cowell reportedly challenged industry hit-makers to submit “potential No. 1s,” effectively tasking top songwriters to compete for their slot on One Direction’s sophomore album. This go-big-or-go-home approach meant that the record was a near-exhausting barrage of bumping back-beats and radio-ready hooks. Still, “C’mon, C’mon” stands out—it’s One Direction at the group’s most celebratory and joyful. Indicative of the album’s more electronic sound, the song emphasizes its drum-machine wallops and New Wave synths to irresistible effect, and then drops them out for a split-second before launching into a soaring chorus. It’s all over in less than three minutes, but “C’mon, C’mon” is the kind of song that buzzes in your head for much longer.

“Through The Dark” (2013)

Now certified global pop stars with a splashy tour documentary under their belts, the members of One Direction were out to prove that they could adapt to a more mature milieu for 2013’s Midnight Memories. With artists like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers giving the year’s adult contemporary charts a folksier makeover, a number of the album’s cuts followed suit. Midnight Memories’ most successful foray into folk-rock, “Through The Dark,” doesn’t shy away from its influences; following “Little Lion Man’s” formula, it kicks off with a lone acoustic guitar, gradually building to a rollicking chorus built for boot-stomping (its pop sheen also means it holds up better than a lot of that era’s hits, which already sound like relics). The song had its broadcast debut on a Paul Rudd-hosted episode of SNL where—despite some visible discomfort—the quintet showcased their knack for harmonies, proving to the show’s late-night audience there was talent behind all the hype.

“Happily” (2013)

Along with the group’s new, grown-up sound, Midnight Memories found One Direction ditching the playful innuendos for (slightly) more overt pillow talk. Near the album’s midpoint, on “Happily,” Payne sings, “It’s four A.M. and I know that you’re with him; I wonder if he knows that I touched your skin.” It’s not quite scandalous, but the guys’ music had to go past puppy love if they wanted to be taken seriously as artists. Elsewhere, the refrain exclaims, “I don’t care what people say when we’re together,” painting the picture of a forbidden romance, giving the band’s young queer fans (of which there were many) enough wiggle room to find themselves in its narrative. With its clap-and-shout catharsis, “Happily” might be the closest thing 1D has to a queer anthem.

“Fireproof” (2014)

While some cited One Direction’s fourth album Four as evidence the group was losing a bit of its luster (the unimaginative title only highlighting this inevitability), in retrospect, it also produced some of their most potent and thoughtfully constructed tracks. “Fireproof,” for example, channels breezy ’80s Fleetwood Mac for a tambourine-fueled testament to a love built to last. That a guitar riff takes the spotlight for its second bridge instead of another round of “na na na’s” showcases a wizened restraint—that the group had grown beyond the need for another radio-ready sing-along. Noted Directioner Mitski (who once tweeted, “disrespect 1D, disrespect me”) also gave the song her stamp of approval with a killer, fuzzed-out cover, showing that even indie rockers couldn’t resist the charms of One Direction.

“Night Changes” (2014)

Boy band music videos have traditionally served up big concepts and even bigger budgets, but One Direction’s date-night clip for “Night Changes” displays simple brilliance. With the video’s handheld point-of-view cinematography, viewers are given the opportunity to spend a special moment with each band member—a wine-and-dine with Zayn, ice-skating with Harry, cozy board games by the fire with Niall—until they all go a bit off the rails. Indulgent, earnest, and goofy, it endures as 1D’s definitive video. Musically, “Night Changes” creates a similar romantic atmosphere, employing “ooh ooh” backing vocals and a heartbeat bass drum to woo listeners into its mid-tempo easy-listening before sealing the deal with an irresistible key change.

“Stockholm Syndrome” (2014)

With its insinuation that falling in love can feel a bit like its titular psychological condition, “Stockholm Syndrome” has some questionable sexual politics. Nevertheless, the song is an absolute pop banger, putting some arena-ready “oomph” behind another classic One Direction hook. Like many of the group’s later tracks, “Stockholm Syndrome” wears its influences on its sleeve, recalling The Police’s post-punk energy with its bouncing guitar riff that swells to match the “whoas!” of its chorus. It should come as no surprise that the song became one of the rare 1D covers Harry Styles would trot out on his first solo world tour—it highlights both his lower-register timbre and his powerful belt, planting the seeds for the rock star to come.

“Olivia” (2015)

Throughout its tenure, One Direction endured many comparisons to The Beatles, largely in terms of the group’s status as an inescapable global phenomenon. But if there was ever a track that sounded like kin to a Sgt. Pepper’s diddy, it’s the vibrant, utterly sunny “Olivia.” Co-written by Styles, the exuberant love song is a time machine unto itself and a joyful standout among the band’s winding discography. Backed by a full orchestra, the track is an indulgent celebration of all-consuming devotion. With the power of hindsight, it would be fair to also view it as foreshadowing for what could be expected from Styles’ then-forthcoming solo effort: something vintage and infectious.

“History” (2015)

The band’s announcement of an impending “extended hiatus” was met with global devastation from long-time devotees, but not that much shock. Even before Malik’s abrupt departure in March 2015, the young men had been ruminating on their inevitable transition into solo work since the year prior. “History” was more than a folksy, guitar-driven culmination of years of hard work; it was also a fitting sign-off. Equipped with a rousing hook, the final single from the then-quartet rang like a cozy bar’s last-call anthem and a loving farewell to the band’s “historic” era.

ZAYN, “BoRdErZ” (2016)

Malik explained his exit from one of the biggest modern musical acts in pop culture as an opportunity to show off his more authentic self, a way to make the music that he actually stood behind. As the first 1D member to build up his solo persona, his Mind Of Mine may have caused some understandable whiplash for those familiar with the music he was making just a year prior. Leaving the palatable, family-friendly rock-pop archetype behind and leaning more into hazy R&B and sensual soft funk, “BoRdErZ” bared no hints of Malik’s glossy boy band roots and became one of the stronger songs among the bunch. It was also one of eight collaborations with Grammy-winning songwriter-producer Malay, and a promising look at Zayn’s growth as an artist (groan-inducing stylization of track titles aside).

Louis Tomlinson & Steve Aoki, “Just Hold On” (2016)

Not every One Directioner has managed to comfortably find a distinctive sound beyond their boy band roots. Since the band’s break, Louis Tomlinson has released a handful of singles and, as of this year, a debut album with Walls, although none of it has really resonated on the same scale as his former bandmates. But in 2016, Tomlinson teamed with super DJ Steve Aoki for his first official solo venture. “Just Hold On” was everything a listener would need from an EDM-pop jaunt: catchy, uplifting, and a solid addition to any festival lineup. It was also a sound that Tomlinson never fully revisited, later opting for the more rock-driven soundscape that underscored the majority of 1D’s discography. Now the track largely exists as a memento of a fairly untrodden path toward house and dance stardom that very well could have set him apart from the rest of his former bandmates.

Harry Styles, “Carolina” (2017)

Of the five original 1D members, Styles, unsurprisingly, has managed to cultivate the biggest solo career. With his boisterous style and generation-defying sound, critics often cite classic rock tentpoles like Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney in their praises. “Carolina” crystallized Styles’ appreciation of ’60s and ’70s rock in a rollicking ode to a girl he met once. Upbeat and reverent, the song became a tour favorite and a late-blooming summer jam. Years later, it endures as a testament to Style’s determination to make music that could fit in any decade and possibly outlast us all.

Harry Styles, “Kiwi” (2017)

Easily the star of Styles’ debut, “Kiwi” is nothing but fun, unabashed rock. The opening verse—“She worked her way through a cheap pack of cigarettes / Hard liquor mixed with a bit of intellect / And all the boys, they were saying they were into it / Such a pretty face, on a pretty neck”—worked hard to cement a much older point of view for 1D’s breakout star. Its energetic spirit also signaled a budding soloist who was willing to exist outside of a single box, setting him apart from his former bandmates as one of the strongest songwriters in the group.

Niall Horan feat. Maren Morris, “Seeing Blind” (2017)

Chalk it up to his ever-present grin, but Niall Horan certainly earned a reputation as the cheekiest of One Direction’s merry pranksters, which made his folksy, assured solo debut that much more surprising. Flicker had one hell of a saucy single in “Slow Hands,” but it’s “Seeing Blind”—a swooning duet with country superstar Maren Morris—that best carved out a niche for Horan in a post-One Direction world. His reedier voice trades off with Morris’ full-bodied twang in the verses before the two combine for a gorgeous harmony in the song’s sweeping refrain. “Seeing Blind” is a honest-to-goodness country love song with crossover appeal that, like Tomlinson’s EDM dabbling, proves the guys didn’t need to stay in their former band’s pop-rock lane to succeed.

ZAYN, “Imprint” (2018)

With Icarus Falls, Malik offered a lengthy, 27-track followup to Mind Of Mine that truly highlighted his solo potential. It didn’t quite garner the same commercial success as his debut, but it did carve a viable path forward for a growing alt-R&B artist. It’s a shame that we never saw a more robust celebration of Malik’s second album outside of its more favorable critical reception: Icarus Falls provided more than its fair share of both genre-bending entries and straightforward grooves like “Imprint.” Sleek and laid-back, the easy tune was a nice bridge between the two projects, changing the pace of the album and solidifying his signature sound.

Harry Styles, “Adore You (2019)

There are a few genres at work in Fine Line’s second single, the ever-charming “Adore You.” Rock, pop, disco, and funk have ways of registering a little differently with each listen, but all are bolstered by a thumping baseline and Styles’ soulful vocals in a true go-for-broke love jam. Though the subject of an elaborate (and rather brilliant) viral marketing campaign, “Adore You” absolutely sells Styles’ abilities as a wide-ranging artist on its own merit, employing lush background harmonies and an alluring energy that makes it difficult not to fall for his inherent charm. Of all the mellifluous things to come out of One Direction’s break, this track is by far one of the best.

Niall Horan, “Heartbreak Weather” (2020)

If 1D were still around to grow the band’s collective sound, its current music would likely be comparable to Horan’s “Heartbreak Weather”—that is, breezy, guitar-heavy, and pleasantly melodic. Its snappy (figuratively and quite literally) bridge is so reminiscent of a One Direction hit that it sounds like a Made In The A.M. bonus track in the best way. Out of everyone, Horan held tightly to the playful spirit that catapulted the band into superstardom while injecting his own innate folksy musicality, crafting an ethos that is still very much his own. Heartbreak Weather’s title track was not only an ideal opening track for casual listeners, but a security blanket of sorts for fans who still miss the spirited group that started it all.

Bonus: A Viral Moment For “Act My Age”

Since we’re just shy of 60 minutes, there’s time to wrap up this Power Hour with One Direction’s most meme-able moment to date. When “Act My Age” was released as an extra track on the “Ultimate Edition” of 2014’s Four, it felt like something of a lark: The band sings about getting “fat and old” over what is, essentially, an Irish jig on adrenaline. According to Knowyourmeme.com, Twitter user @hozierlesbian—in a stroke of genius—spliced the song’s raucous strings over video of a family’s impressive synchronized dance to Freco and Merlo’s “Drop.” Then, in early 2019, the edit fell into the right hands on Twitter, and a brand new reaction meme was born. Those unfamiliar with the One Direction deep cut were mystified by the clip’s “pirate music,” but longtime Directioners clocked the song immediately. The surprising viral moment for “Act My Age” may have spiked over a year ago, but it speaks to the fact that the earnest, irresistible spirit of One Direction’s music lives on, even if the band’s in no hurry to come back from hiatus any time soon.