A Year in Music: 14 Korean Pop Surprises of 2014

I never fail to become surprised by the fact that a year no longer exists, and when I go back to think about what I’ve accomplished in this past year on the blog, the situation looks pretty bleak. I’m not alone as K-pop certainly didn’t have a fantastic 2014 either, but today I’m not here to talk about kpopocalypses or a quiet year in K-indie. In theory, the end of the year is about celebrating what we have and welcoming a fresh start, and to be honest, I couldn’t be more thankful to another year in the Asian Entertainment world with great people. Like last year, we have my friends guest blogging, and to change things from the indie focus we had last year (or just be lazy, take your pick), we all decided that we might as well talk about music in general. I mean, who cares about labels when it comes to enjoying music?

I decided to start things off with what I think are some of last year’s surprises in Korean Pop music (and its Japanese derivatives) through a personal lens. We’re not going to get around the fact that this was one weird year for everyone, and I thought that maybe the things that surprised me would provide a different view of K-pop than the one we’ve been bombarded with recently.

Younha, “Love Pulse (feat. Olltii),” “Wasted,”

Younha_Wasted

What kind of list of mine would this be without a Younha track (0r two)? “Love Pulse” was one of many collaboration/promotional tracks Younha released this year (and with even less promo than normal…like no one had any idea it came out), and it’s my addiction despite not being imaginative. I love when Younha pushes her music into House territory because her voice is made for it, and seeing her sing a unabashed club tune was really fun during a rather slow year for her own tracks. In a way, “Love Pulse” is the “response” to my many concerns with “Subsonic” on Subsonic. “Subsonic” had so much potential that got wasted in build-up that went no where (a la her collab with Justin Oh). It was such an imbalance that I personally had to make a “Short Ver.” of the song (cutting out the 1:30 intro) just to make the payoff in the latter end of the song weigh out better. “Love Pulse” may be the simplest of House music, but its cleanliness does wonders in its favor.

“Wasted” was the sole original release from Younha (with “Umbrella” being a beautiful remake), but even this track feels like it belongs in the hands of another. The Kim Jong-wan penned song speaks to the kind of sound Nell would have, and for Younha, this iconic tone becomes disadvantageous. She can’t sing the song without a set of presuppositions about how she should sing it. When that happens her freedom as an individual artist gets tarnished; she can’t make choices for herself. She is…a caged bird.

I can’t singly blame Younha or Kim Jong-wan for what happened with “Wasted,” and I bet Kim gave the song with the best intentions. However, that feeling of “this is not Younha” will not go away–and I don’t think it ever will.

Surprise #1: Younha didn’t release a song this year that blew me away. The consolation? She didn’t even release a song that was truly hers.

MYNAMEFive Stars and Shirayukki

MYNAME is a hilarious part of my Kpop repertoire because I literally came upon them because I was assigned to write about them.  I don’t think the editors really knew about the group apart from their Korean singles, so I’ve yet to find out why they wanted someone to write a sort of retrospective for them (they were having a Korean comeback). On a whim I said I would–I knew I was doing a terrible job of keeping up with Non-“Big 3” acts and wanted to start look beyond my comfort zone.  Lo and behold, I hit gold on my first shot, and now I’m probably one of the few English Kpop bloggers who are huge proponents of MYNAME (actually, I might be alone here, but whatever). In Korea they are more hit and miss from the album standpoint, but in Japan the group is super solid and vibrant. Yes, their Japanese music brought me to them and that’s what has kept me around, but I think they would have grabbed my attention from the start in Korea if the production quality was akin to what it is in Japan.

Then again, given that their music isn’t particularly exceptional in either country (it’s your everyday electronic pop), it’s remarkable that they’ve held my attention for as long as they have. I think what makes them so strong is that the average vocal talent works out to be rather high–or if it’s not raw vocal talent, the edge is in how they take advantage of their strengths. This group consistently uses its voices to put out music with heavy vocal components, even if the track ends up on the blander side. That’s often more meaningful than having a catchy, robust track because I gain reason to seek out MYNAME instead of following the trends. I may not end up listening to a strong track, but I enjoy hearing them anyway.

TLDR; if you want to hear a male version of Japanese SNSD go look up all of their stuff. They have everything from the lyrical electronica to the cheesy.  Also, all their album intros/outros and interludes are fantastic.

Surprise #2: Who knew MYNAME would be more than a one hit wonder in my eyes? Keep doing your thing, boys.

Zhou-Mi, Rewind

I was laughing off all the album teasing that Zhou-mi had been doing for the past year or so…mostly because I had no faith in SM ever giving the guy a chance, let alone within Korea. To my surprise, Zhou-mi was gifted with an entire mini, and a good mini at that. Yes, it’s very much classic early 2000s pop, but what matters here is execution. Zhou-mi has a knack for cheese R&B, and “Rewind” and “Why?” play heavily to those strengths. I’ve rewinded “Rewind” (hehe) more times than I would like to admit, but here I am writing that I did so anyway. The rest of the album is equally nice and simple, and I’m really pleased that SM let him record his album in Chinese and gave him music that appears to be “his” even if it’s as manufactured as the rest.

Surprise #3:  Zhou Mi not only released an album, he released an album worthy of my time.

DBSK, “Spellbound”

TVXQ_Cover

I know I wrote extensively on “Spellbound” when it came out, but I cannot reiterate enough how incredible it is to see such a powerful release from a group that seemed to be falling apart on the musical front. DBSK has always been amazing performers, but their musical decisions have erred due to a good dose of youthful-hip-electronica. While the duo pulled it off because their vocal consistencies are rather tinny, the overall impression of DBSK remained underwhelming given their history. With Tense, the duo took the mature, jazzy theme and ran with it, and the epitome of this change is undoubtedly “Spellbound” even if it’s only found in the repackage. On the other hand, it’s a shame that two full length releases in Japan were not enough for Tohoshinki to reclaim the musical self-respect they had in Tone.

Surprise #4: DBSK is dying a rapid death in Japan musically, yet released one of the best songs they have ever done in Korea. I would have laughed if you told me this was going to happen in 2011.

Ha:tfelt, Me?

Yeeun_1

I didn’t expect this at all given Ye-eun’s work with the Wonder Girls. The little composing Ye-eun did for Sunmi (the acoustic version was beautiful) did not prepare me either for the album that she dropped. I won’t crown Me? the best of 2014, but I think that Ye-eun is the first major idol to write whatever the hell she wanted no matter how divergent that product was from her idol-group work, and if an audience found her, so be it.  Overall, Me? is a transformative work that does deserve the minimum of accolades, if not more. However, I was pretty disappointed with the choice of “Ain’t Nobody” as the title song, because it really doesn’t perform well and leaves a poor impression of what was to follow in Me?. But what ended up surprising me more was that Jonghyun, who similarly released a “I’m doing what I want” kind of album, recently made the exact same error with “Crazy.” Ye-eun though did not have the luxury to perform other B-sides, and did not get saved the way “Deja-Boo” and “Love Belt” are saving Jonghyun at the moment.

Nonetheless, Ye-eun is marking a new era in idol-group to solo territory that I think will continue, and Jonghyun is living proof of it. I only hope that she makes better title track choices.

Surprise #5: 2014 was probably the year to fly solo with roaring color, and 2015 doesn’t seem to be stopping the solos anytime soon.

Shannon, “Daybreak Rain”

shannon

Shannon Williams, for those who are unaware, is British-Korean and was raised singing Opera (i.e. she has some vocal chops). I think she was featured on Star King (with Shinee) 6-ish years ago, and she ended up signing with CCM (through DapSound), which is currently known as BMK. She’s 16 now and finally debuted with the R&B number “Daybreak Rain.”

Shannon is channeling a bit of BoA (or early G.NA)with this debut–a marriage of masculine and feminine performance attributes–and she’s basically killing it. “Daybreak Rain”‘s simple guitar spotlights Shannon’s voice while being simple enough to be catchy, and while I wish she went a bolder route, “Daybreak Rain” is beautiful enough that I’ve been playing it continuously. It’s unfortunate that she hasn’t been able to perform outside of Inkigayo, though I’m glad that she was still able to pull off a concert for her fans. She deserves the attention and fandom, and while she might not be the diva vocal bombshells Hyorin and Ailee are, she gives them a run for their money.

I guess Korea just isn’t ready for her yet.

Surprise #6: K-pop managed to let a girl dance.

Song Ji Eun “25” and “Don’t Look at Me Like That”

SJE_25

There are a million and half ways that “25” could have gone horribly wrong. It has every tacky pop trend in existence including weird trumpet/sax/plastic whistle stuff driving the song, awkward talk-rap, thin falsetto, whisper singing, etc. I generally keep away from music that seeks to diminish the importance of singing (looking at you YG) yet “25” doesn’t give me reason to run away. Song Ji Eun may lack the depth of voice to really make “25” shine, but I think she does an excellent job of pulling together something that is as elegant in its verses as it is snappy in its chorus. The treatment of the higher pitched lines as a toss away and increased attention towards whispy lower octaves works heavily in the song’s favor; it creates a ton of texture in the song, and texture is the often the thing that elevates a simple composition to one that you’ll listen to with a smile months later.

“Don’t Look at Me Like That” plays the same cliché game that “25” does, though not quite as well. Someone at TS Entertainment probably said that they needed a “powerful” sad song for Song Ji Eun and this is what the machine spit out for them. The song is no “Crazy” in its “omg- this is actually really good”-ness– but there’s nothing amiss about it either: no awkward beat, no weird transition, no useless instrumental break, and no random rap. Ji Eun could have made it better by singing through the words rather than shouting the end of every line, yet something about the song works anyway. Props to the composer for creating something so ordinary with so much potential.

Surprise #7: You can pull out every trend in the book and still succeed.

Hyorin & Jooyoung — “Erase (Without Iron)”

hyorin_jooyoung

I never liked Starship duets until this one–Soyu‘s wispy excuse for vocal tone (she can do soooo much better) has become the most irritating thing since the “boyband virus” and it reached a all time new low with her Urban Zakapa collab; her group-mate Hyorin has a tendency to either try too much or not try at all, so I was really wary of what would come out of “Erase.” To my surprise, the track has become one of my biggest addictions of the year. Hyorin finally found a partner that could balance her out and fight in her range (believe it or not, he’s the dominant voice when I listen), and Jooyoung is a good vocalist on his own right. He has a crazy clean voice (almost too clean–he’s not as great to listen to on his own), and his voice compliments Hyorin’s so well.

The dance version below is the only version of the song I could find that removed the needless rap section from the song. Removing the rap maintains the flow of the piece and siphons away the cliché construction, which improves the song’s overall reception a lot. When the whole piece is smooth, I start to focus on the delivery; and here, by delivery I mean that Jooyoung’s part is my favorite thing since sliced bread. (Okay, not really, but you get my point. His part was the most convincing. Hyorin still overdoes it.)

Surprise #8: Balance might be a miracle in K-pop duets, but not impossible. 

2NE1 – “Gotta Be You”

2NE1crush_dara

I’ll preface all of this with the fact that I found Crush a messy album even though commercially, things were good for 2NE1. But among an album of meh, “Gotta Be You” (Bom has not sounded this clean in forever) and “Scream” wouldn’t stop running through my head. This probably means that my ranking of tracks would roughly go from least refined to “most refined”; I chalk that up to the fact that the simpleton in me likes the kind of music that doesn’t involve to many “eh eh eh”s and weird transitions.  The last progressive yet assertive and complete track of 2NE1’s was “Fire,” and that’s only because the transitions were A+ and the thematic center was really strong. I doubt we are going to get that kind of experimental and grounded 2NE1 again, though after a horrible 2013 for the group, I’m just happy that we got a 2NE1 at all to talk about.

(Congrats to 2NE1 for getting “I am the Best” in all those Microsoft ads, btw.)

Surprise #9: 2NE1 will always find a way. The only problem is that survival doesn’t equal excellence.

f(x), Red Light

fx_redlight

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that SM’s year was crappy as heck. Stocks are a significant part of a company’s success markers, and let’s just say that those numbers did not look good…at all. In such a terrible year, SM didn’t do so badly musically, although whatever good they did there got overshadowed by the PR nightmare. SNSD released a solid, but bland mini, DBSK regained some confidence and refinement in Tense, Super Junior put out their best album since Sorry Sorry, Exo proved to not be a one-hit-wonder with the rather likable Overdose, the new group Red Velvet stole my heart (whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy), and our dear little underdog f(x) did Pink Tape‘s excellence justice with the not as well received Red Light.

So yes, I chose Red Light to be the representative SM album, and I think it does a great job capturing the strengths and weaknesses of SM’s year. Sprinkled among the many (many for SM) missteps are signs of genius–for example, “Milk” is Indian-inspired done right, “Red Light” is two steps away from perfection (seriously, I love it), “Butterfly” is the new “Airplane”–i.e. EDM junkfood, and “All Night,” is K-pop embrace of 80s music (thanks Nicole!).

Speaking of Nicole (from Pop Reviews Now), she brings up in her review of f(x)’s “All Night” a increasing tendency for western bloggers to claim f(x) as K-pop’s hipsters, and end up reveling in what is really just kitschy. I don’t disagree with the over-under-ratedness (what the heck is that?) of f(x) in the international community, but I do believe that f(x) is doing something really different in the scope of K-pop girl groups. What is that exactly? Becoming the potpourri of K-pop with a little bit of depth–just enough to be respected in a sea of K-pop girl groups.

A long time ago, I said that the number 1 way to identify a good album is when there is significant disagreement over which songs are “the best.” Red Tape, based on the reviews I’ve read, fits that bill well. At the end of the day, we have something memorable in Red Light, even if that product has some visible scratches. At minimum, it means that I’ll bother pull it from the shelf every once in a while and dust it off. It’s worth that.

Yes I like “Dracula,” don’t hate me.

Surprise #10: SM fails even when it succeeds.

Taeyang, Rise

I had a hard time picking which of the five commercially successful YG albums released this year would become representative of the pack, but I finally settled on Taeyang because he embodies the fundamental shifts going on at YG in terms of consolidating the company’s image after taking in impressive acts like Lee Hi, AKMU, and Epik High. Big Bang was of course the flagship money earner for the company, but with the unprecedented (or ‘precedented’ depending on your outlook–yes I made that word up) acceptance of their new artists (including Winner), YG was able to afford push the boundaries of what the company perceived to be “YG” and that change even trickled down to Big Bang. Daesung is off doing Trot–I doubt that would have happened before, and here we have Taeyang finally releasing his second album of things that are completely. not. him.

Frankly Taeyang’s image is a mishmash of “I have absolutely no idea what you are” and “let’s put every trendy hook ever but cover it up in some artistic angst” when it comes to his albums. While I don’t consider either statement a compliment of any sort, I do carry respect for Taeyang and what he does. Rise was chalk full of songs of that were almost great but included some element that threw a wrench in the whole track a la Red Light. On top of that, when the songs are collected as a whole, we’re back to the issue of confused identity. Nonetheless, Rise takes talent to sell, and Taeyang has that skills and flamboyance to do it. I loathed “Eyes, Nose, and Lips” yet I haven’t forgotten the melody to this day.

It’s the same way I dislike Hi Sohyun‘s song but can’t forget it. And that takes a different kind of talent, a talent that YG has.

Surprise #11: YG is moving away from their “hip-hop” only branding while maintaining the YG style they’ve always had.

KARA, “Mamma Mia”

KARA

Let me be the first to come clean–I didn’t think KARA would make it alive after their “collapse.” Sure they had their main vocalists sticking around along with their visual, but I’m inclined to think that when member line-ups in an established brand change drastically, the group often ends up with music that is a mere shell of its previous incarnation (see DBSK). KARA however did the exact opposite with the addition of Young-ji. With Day and Night they’ve legitimately become a different yet credible version of themselves that holds up to the legacy of the five-membered KARA.

Let’s be clear, Day and Night is no masterpiece that I’ll croon over forever like Supersonic. Nevertheless, it’s a self-assured, clean jam that you won’t regret having heard even if you never step within one foot of the album again. Day and Night takes advantage of a big band 90s pop anthems that are pleasant and nostalgic. “Mamma Mia” also falls squarely into this territory, but with a stronger hook than the album’s b-sides (I took a pretty strong liking to “24/7,” probably because I’m a sucker for those early 2000s K-pop tracks) that even gets me humming to myself at random times.

(BTW, here is a cool an soft-EDM take on “Mamma Mia.” If instead you’re in an ABBA mood now…here you go.)

Surprise #12: Sometimes a trip to towards death is what gives rise to life.

Seo Tai Ji, Quiet Night

STJ_QuietNight

I don’t want to steal the thunder of my compatriot Emily nor do I want to give up on my album series that I’m horribly beyond on, but I do want to say that the father of K-pop has produced an album that goes against all expectations of him, yet embodies him more than I think his original music did. Maybe I’m presumptuous about a lot of things related to musical intent, yet my gut feeling is that Quiet Night is the album Seo wanted to release his entire life; music that is effusive, music that lives in the past, present and future simultaneously, music that feigns seriousness. The album’s intense thematic consistency from song to song suggests that maybe Quiet Night is really a bunch of variations of the same musical idea; a single hypothetical “song” re-envisioned in different contexts. That kind of continuity is rare in music, and it’s always a joy to find albums that embody it.

In any case, Seo Tai-ji may have left behind everything that made him K-pop’s first idol, but I think he just might be a phoenix.

Surprise #13: Longevity is in the eye of the beholder.

Eddy Kim, “Empty Space”

I generally shy away from OST tracks that are not instrumentals because 70% of the time the music takes on the same boring ballad, folk, or pop anthem formula. Rarely do I see music directors put in the effort to craft music that could exist independently of the 30 second snippets that appear in the show.

This year though, was different. The amount of “experimentation” be it in application of music (hip-hop in a traditional sageuk) or the music itself (more refined pop-fare from artists like Mamamoo) is unlike any other year I’ve been in KDramaland. I no longer shy away from OSTs, and while I do continue to be burned by uninspired background music, I find myself more and more excited to take risks for the chance that I may stumble upon that music gem.

But here I have neither Mamamoo nor Block B–I have Eddy Kim’s “Empty Space,” a song I chose merely because it was the first one I saw.

Which proves my point.

Surprise #14: In a year where the idol music industry fell flat, drama OSTs have done the opposite. I hope success in both areas are not mutually exclusive events.

(All Media belongs to respective owners.)

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One response to “A Year in Music: 14 Korean Pop Surprises of 2014

  1. Reblogged this on RandomSoju and commented:
    Shannon Williams, wow. Adding to my watch list lol Once again Splash educates me in k pop land. Thanks to Splash of Inspiration for an informative and interesting post, we get too little of these from Splash!

    Like

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