2. HA:TFELT, “Ain’t Nobody”. The idol/artist stuff about Wonder Girls’ Yeeun has made up a large part of the story of this song; maybe it shouldn’t, but the song just works so well as a vehicle for the artistic intent behind it. It holds on tight to maintain the balance between control and release, hope and darkness, power and vulnerability.
3. Block B, “HER”. It’s a rare retro-styled song that doesn’t sound at least a little like it’s been dusted off first. (Even my favourite song of last trimester, Spica’s “You Don’t Love Me”, is guilty.) “HER” sounds more like falling madly in love with every record in your grandparents’ house while they’re all falling on your head.
4. Taemin, “괴도 (Danger)”. It sounds like Michael Jackson, which is on-brand for a member of SHINee. But where SHINee’s interpretation of Michael Jackson always emphasizes the purity of the pop that drove innovation, “Danger” is about the risk-taking.
6. Infinite, “Back”. Unlike the lukewarm "Last Romeo", this was swiftly inducted into the canon of the best Infinite singles, right up there with "The Chaser", "Paradise", and "Be Mine". Like those songs, each subsequent listen is just as good as the last, with the promise of what feels like the only meaningful beat drop in the world and another repeat of the divinely syncopated chorus.
8. Secret, “I’m In Love”. Motown never really stops being revived in K-pop (your own Gordyism reference goes here; this is mine), but it seems particularly strong in girl groups this year. “I’m In Love” would be a strong example in any year, but this year it’s notable for the most subtle saxophone of a saxophone-laden season.
9. f(x), “Red Light”. Dissonance is not inherently musically valuable. What is good about “Red Light” is not that it’s more chaotic than a usual idol song, but that it has a sensible structure beneath the clattering and ticking clocks. The most thrilling part, to me, is when the verse melody comes back under the chorus at the very end - it’s the trap closing in on you.
10. History, “Psycho”. Best instrumental of the trimester, thanks to beatmaker east4A (aka the fucking guy who made fucking "Bubble Bath"). As for the singers, History have never sounded more like SHINee with nicer vocal tones and significantly less vocal power than they do on this mini album, which is not a bad thing. Here they slither and flex at all the right places.
11. GOT7, “A”. In a bit of sneaky songwriting, the instrumental of “A” never lands on the I chord, even when the vocal melody reaches for the right note - just right for a song about how perfect your relationship with [GOT7 member of your choice] would be, if only you could meet in the middle.
12. Beast, “Good Luck”. Yong Junhyung’s compositions fit so neatly into Beast’s catalogue that it’s surprising that this is only his second title track for the group. He also wrote the majority of the songs on the album, and they sound like the group’s old Shinsadong Tiger-produced songs grown up enough to understand the darkness they were only role-playing before.
13. MR.MR, “Big Man”. Ever since The SNSD Incident, MR.MR’s material has had a misogynist flavour to me, which would be unfair…if they weren’t also releasing totally unsubtle cock-wavers like this. “I’m always big man” being sung in falsetto is not irony, it’s arrogance.
14. U-KISS, “끼부리지마” (Quit Playing). U-KISS is now 6 years old and well overdue for a mature image. The video tries to impose this on them, equating “mature” with “oversexed” with uncomfortable results (at least "Shower Later" was funny). The song does it more naturally by bringing out what was already there, emphasizing the smoothness of their vocals and reining in the usually OTT English raps to a well-snarled “naaa-sty”.
I wanted to keep this to 15, but there were too many singles I liked this time, so I might as well mention the rest of them in brief: - NU’EST, “Good Bye Bye”: Textbook uptempo R&B, both in the sense of “unadventurous” and in the sense of “perfectly executed”, with swirls of dubstep for flavour (remember when that was supposed to be NU’EST’s thing?). - Orange Caramel, “나처럼 해봐요” (My Copycat): So "Lipstick" was Eurodance and this is electroswing and that makes them totally different? Whatever, let’s jive! - Boyfriend, “너란 여자 (Obsession)”: Another “Growl” derivative, but the low brass gives it extra toughness. - Girl’s Day, “Darling”: Girl’s Day have done cute a lot in the past, but this is the new mature Girl’s Day, for whom cuteness is only accessible in retro-recreation form. - Ladies’ Code, “Kiss Kiss”: Likely their final single, an echo of last year’s perfect "Pretty Pretty"; one of the best videos of the year, funny and sly and bright; hard for me to think about now.
Bonus albums list (* indicates a mini, links are to my favourite non-title tracks):
As in the last trimester, both BTS and B1A4 released albums that were very good overall but that had merely average title tracks. "Danger" is a direct improvement on “Boy In Luv” (as Dark & Wild is both a continuation of and a direct improvement on Skool Luv Affair), and "Solo Day" is more focused than “Lonely”, but this summer had too many singles that were stronger than either for me to put them on the list above. The same thing applies to Winner’s 2014 S/S: it’s a smooth listen overall, but neither "Empty" nor "Color Ring" on its own sticks out enough as a single to me, chart dominance or no.
Infinite, “Back”. Both the song and video feel like classic pre-“Chaser” Infinite (compare: the orchestral sweeps of "Tic Toc", the ambiguous ending of "BTD", or "Paradise" for both); “I want you back” is a classic boy band lyric, and the instant-classic chorus is a perfect setting for it. The structure of this song, however, bewilders me:
(AA’ BB’) CC A’ BB’ A’ CC
where the part in parentheses is the part before the beat drops and CC is the chorus. The first part is over a minute long in a roughly 3:30 song; after a few listens, I can get into it, but only because I know “I want you back, back, back, back, back” is waiting for me on the other side.
Today’s Inkigayo stage, I think, had the right idea by inserting a huge break between the slow part and the beat; if nothing else, this allowed us to hear what the song might sound like if it just started at the beat drop, i.e. much better. I think the advantage of the current symmetrical, CABAC structure is that it gives us enough of a taste of the chorus without killing it, but I’m curious as to how one more chorus in the middle might sound. Or maybe I’m just addicted to that rhythm.
As for the video, it’s the group’s best since "The Chaser", though the “save the girl” plotline did make me go back to F.CUZ’s “NO. 1”, where a (strangely faceless) woman with a sword single-handedly saves all of the bloodied, beaten members - not that it’s mishandled here, though, just tired. However, with that said, the fact that they (seem to) fail to save the girl is refreshing. Purportedly, part 2 is coming tomorrow, but as it is, the open ending made me like it better immediately. In fact, the real triumph of this MV is that it makes the intro seem necessary: it bends the opening action sequences past “Acting!” and into full melo mode.
If you squint, this is also a “favourite singles of 2014 so far” list, albeit not in this order (and minus Psy). One thing that all of these MVs have in common is that their descriptions can double as descriptions of the songs, too.
1. Topp Dogg, "아라리오" (Arario). Takes something rote (the “girls, cars, higher status than you” type of hip-hop video), throws a traditional aesthetic on it, and becomes instantly more fun and interesting than the original. (See Radio Palava’s great analysis on the aspect of play in this video, too.)
2. 4Minute, "오늘 뭐해" (Whatcha Doin’ Today?). A wild ride through 4Minute World, where it’s always a competition for who can be the most over-the-top, and at the end of the day everybody wins.
3. Gain, "진실 혹은 대담" (Truth Or Dare). Cheeky and self-aware, from casting Gain’s friends as her haters to the obvious wink to (and one-upmanship of) “Blurred Lines”.
4. Orange Caramel, "Catallena". Sweet without being cloying, and while it’s not afraid of looking silly, silliness isn’t the end goal, which is what makes it work. The sushi/mermaids concept is played with enthusiasm, and the colours pop.
5. SPICA, "You Don’t Love Me". An homage that uses all the conventions of what it’s paying tribute to, but still feels fresh. Some of the asides fall a bit flat (the uncomfortably objectifying rap break; the toilet?), but most are played perfectly, props and all.
6. History, "Psycho". PROBLEMATIC SUBJECT MATTER ALERT! (I agree with the argument that at least the “I love you so much I’ll never leave you alone” thing is openly presented as problematic here, but the “psycho”/MPD concept ain’t great, either.) Aside from that, a gorgeous, cinematic and genuinely edgy aesthetic from the most adult boy group going right now. (Sorry, U-KISS, you tried it.)
As a bonus, last year’s "난 너한테 뭐야" (What Am I To You), which plays like a New German Cinema short, tops my hypothetical favourite MVs of 2013 list.
7. GOT7, "A". Bright and sunny, with appealing cartoon colours and perfect comedic timing (which in the song translates to perfect deployment of instrumental change-ups).
8. PSY, "Hangover (feat. Snoop Dogg)". THAT FEELING WHEN YOU ARE DRINKING TOO MUCH SOJU AND YOU ALREADY KNOW THAT WHEN YOU WAKE UP TOMORROW YOU WILL WANT TO DIE BUT YOU DON’T CARE BECAUSE THE FOOD AT THIS PLACE IS TOO GOOD AND THERE ARE AT LEAST 4 MORE STOPS LEFT ON YOUR ITINERARY AND YOU’RE HAVING TOO MUCH FUN TO LEAVE DO YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT WATCH THIS VIDEO AND YOU WILL KNOW
9. Akdong Musician, "200%". The nostalgic look and feeling plays off the freshness and energy of the song. Both are charming, and emphasize that one of AKMU’s best features is not showing maturity for their age, but displaying it to the fullest.
10. Beast, "Good Luck". Obviously, any Wong Kar-Wai homage is an instant contender for this list, even one that’s so blatant about it and has unnecessary streetwear costume choices. (What was wrong with the suits?) It doesn’t have the Tumblr aesthetic appeal of last year’s "Shadow (그림자)", but it compensates with a stronger song.
11. Taeyang, "눈,코,입" (Eyes, Nose, Lips). (AKA “chain, nipples, abs,” tbh.) Starts small, then builds until it overflows. Sure, the burning poster is a cliché, but in the moment, it’s the only ending that satisfies.
12. Girl’s Day, "Something". If you’re gonna do a Park Ji-yoon homage, you might as well go for the fucking Park Ji-yoon homage.
Special mention: VIXX, "기적 (Eternity)" dance version. The atmosphere is nice and all, but what’s really important is the choreography, which supports the song and lifts it towards the sublime (especially when done live).
A few days before Infinite’s 4th anniversary, Jessica and I got together on Skype (thanks for nothing, Google Hangouts) to listen to, discuss, and get a little fannish over their newest album, Season 2.
Maddie: (gets on knees) (sings you Woohyun-esque ballad) Jessica: (helps you up since if you’re Woohyun then you’re injured in like 17 different places at this point)
1. SPICA, “You Don’t Love Me”. The logical conclusion of K-pop/Motown comparisons, though it comes off more like a Broadway musical version, if just because of the feat of having so many different big voices in the same place.
2. 4Minute, “오늘 뭐해 (Whatcha Doin’ Today?)”. The album is called 4Minute World, and the song in combination with the video gives us some idea of what this place is like: somewhere where the sets are glam, the humour is wicked, twerking is expected, and somewhere, there’s always a parade.
4. AOA, “짧은 치마” (Miniskirt). Brave Brothers is Brave Brothers is Brave Brothers. This is probably the wrong single for AOA - at the very least, it isn’t making use of their full potential as a hybrid rock-dance group - but they put energy into it, and it’s hard to imagine it without Jimin’s distinctive nasal delivery.
6. B.A.P, “1004 (Angel)”. B.A.P are never not going to be grandiose and overdramatic, but “1004” scales back the ambition to a more reasonable level - it’s actually a pop song.
7. Gain, “Fxxk U (feat. Bumkey)”. Originally this spot belonged to the cheeky title song of "Truth or Dare", but “Fxxk U” and its slightly too well-oiled backing beat is the one that lingers in my head the most. I’m still not sure whose side it wants to be on, and I wish it had a conclusion, but I’m beginning to think the slightly nauseated feeling I get by the end is intentional.
10. Orange Caramel, “Catallena”. What if Orange Caramel devoted themselves entirely to exploring subgenres of disco for the rest of their career? Wouldn’t that be great?
11. Jay Park, “Metronome (feat. Simon Dominic and Gray)”. Jay’s always better when he leaves the rapping to others, and now he can work on getting his single-note delivery just urgent enough. “Metronome” is unexpectedly dark, and moves like its title promises.
12. EXO-K, “중독 (Overdose)”. It’s no "Growl", but it’s no "Wolf" either (and anyway, if what everyone wanted was another “Growl”, BTOB’s “Beep Beep” wouldn’t have flopped). It’s an uncertain time for EXO, but if nothing else, they’ve found the sound they needed, one that emphasizes their strengths enough to bulldoze over their weaknesses.
13. B1A4, “Lonely”. Jinyoung’s trying new things, and even if the melodies sound a lot like his old things, the chill synths and cooed vocals are a nice change. Who Am I is the best album of the year thus far, with a good shot at winning the whole horse race by December.
15. BTS, “상남자 (Boy In Luv)”.Skool Luv Affair is another strong contender for album of the year, continuing the group’s interweaving of classic R&B pop with swaggering rap energy. (According to Last.fm, the song I listened to the most between January and April was “어디에서 왔는지” (Where Did You Come From), satoori pickup lines over squishy synths.) The most fun bits of “Boy in Luv” are the thrashiest ones, and that snotty rhoticized “eo” vowel in the prechorus (so “-ssuh” comes out like “-ssur”).
Bonus albums list (* indicates a mini, links are to my favourite non-title tracks):
BTS, “BTS Cypher Pt. 2: Triptych”. If you’re not sure why these three young men are filled with so much vitriol, first read Radio Palava’s summary/analysis of the beef between B-Free and BTS, which touches on many points of the ongoing rapper vs. “idol rapper” debate. Without going so far as to name him - this isn’t "Control" - “Triptych” is without a doubt directed at B-Free. To that end, getting Supreme Boi to produce and feature on this is exactly like getting your big brother to handle the kid who’s been bullying you at school, but the three rappers are no pushovers themselves. While I admit that I’m a weak judge of technical skill aside from “what sounds right to me”, I like that this track showcases each rapper’s own technique and ability: J-Hope’s melodic flow, Rap Monster’s quick (and bilingual!) wordplay, Suga’s rapid-fire delivery.
Something I find interesting about this track is that unlike on their first cypher track (translation here), they aren’t trying to defend themselves against the “idol rapper” tag, which is what I would have expected. If anything, the majority of their brags here seem based in the fact that they’re idols and why that makes them superior, from “leading hallyu” to being constantly on TV to, of course, getting money. These lines of Suga’s verse make it clear that they don’t want to be ashamed of being pop idols, and that they feel it gives them just as much credibility as underground rappers, if not more:
When you were playing underground, BTS was playing at ground level Compared to you who sleeps all night, I’m a workaholic, shopaholic
The second line is particularly interesting. BTS as a group constantly emphasize how hard they work, how many hours they put in the practice room; for instance, they’ve released two Christmas singles with the concept of “we’re too busy for Christmas” ("A Typical Trainee’s Christmas" and, after debut, "A Typical Idol’s Christmas"). This is not at all unusual for an idol group - I’m not sure that anyone nowadays has any illusion that idols get more than 4 hours of sleep on a typical night - but it’s rarely been seen in the context of boasting. They’ve done this before, too, as far back as "We Are Bulletproof Pt. 2": “When you guys partied,” Jungkook says in the first verse, “I gave up sleep for my dreams.” (Though at the end he still calls out “you who are called rappers because you can’t sing”, i.e. the origin of “idol rapper” as an epithet.) It’s an ingenious move, given that hard work already equals credibility in the rap narrative. And no matter what you think of their makeup or their female fanbase, that’s one thing an idol rapper can’t be accused of faking.
2. Nine Muses, Prima Donna Title track: "Gun"; also: "A Few Good Man", "아님 말구" (Whatever) This year, Nine Muses have remained one of the most reliable great singles groups. So what could be better than an album where every track still sounds like a single? Not in the sense that they’re all too bold, crowding each other out for the spotlight, but in the sense that they’re all perfectly formed and self-contained.
4. Zion.T, Red Light Title track: "Babay (feat. Gaeko)"; also: "She (feat. Beenzino)", "Neon" Zion.T’s jazz-inflected delivery has been heard on enough K-pop tracks this year that his inclusion on this list isn’t that offensive. The most unique voice in the game right now also proves to be one of the most versatile.
6. MBLAQ, Sexy Beat* Title track: "Smoky Girl"; also: "Dress Up" MBLAQ continue to be the most well-ripening of 3rd-gen idol pop’s beastly boy bands, and R&B fits them well. Producer Primary moves his retro fascination forward to the 90s and strikes gold.
8. SNSD, I Got A Boy Title tracks: "I Got A Boy", "Dancing Queen"; also: "Look At Me", "XYZ" The theatrical single got a lot of attention on its own, but it functions best as an overture for its namesake album, in which SNSD take on any number of genres - albeit at a less frenetic pace - and sound like the right women for the job every time.
9. VIXX, Voodoo Title tracks: "저주인형" (Voodoo Doll) (link goes to clean version), "대답은 너니까 (Only U)"; also: "B.O.D.Y." While it eventually peters out into filler, the first eight or so tracks demonstrate the leaps and bounds the group has made since last year’s debut. It’s developed, without losing the whimsy and camp that took them this far in the first place.
10. G-Dragon, COUP D’ETAT, Part 2* Title tracks: ”미치GO”, ”삐딱하게 (Crooked)”; also: ”너무 좋아 (I Love It) (feat. Zion.T and Boys Noize)” It’s probably against the rules to split it up like this, but the first “half” of the year’s event album (the black cover, “Coup D’Etat” through “Who You?”) is soggy and can’t bear the weight of its guest features. It’s the second half that’s got the brains, the swagger, and the joy, and that deserves to be celebrated.
11. B1A4, What’s Happening* Title track: ”이게 무슨 일이야” (What’s Happening?); also: ”별빛의 노래” (Starlight Song) The gravitas they fought for with last year’s In The Wind hasn’t gone anywhere; if anything, it’s what allows the title track to be such a release. It’s serious, but never veers into soppy. Opening track “Starlight Song” is the brightest example of a B1A4 that can tone it down without muting their colours altogether.
12. BTS, O!RUL8,2? Title track: "N.O"; also: ”팔도강산” (Satoori Rap), ”진격의 방탄” (Attack On Bangtan) The rookies of the year in 10 tracks: a brainy single that both expresses their generation’s point of view to adults and incites their peers to action; the use of hip-hop vocabulary ("cypher", the mid-album skit) to bring it closer to idol pop, rather than to hold it at a distance; and a high-energy finish that anticipates the future to come.
The hype for Trouble Maker’s return was initially generated with a single picture posted on HyunA’s Instagram, becoming headline news all over the internet. Moreover, as an extension of their new single “Now”, the group ran unorthodox “No Tomorrow” marketing strategy, providing an extraordinary experience by bombarding audience with prerelease contents as if there were no tomorrow. …
For their new single “Now”, Trouble Maker once again teamed up with “Trouble Maker” producers Shinsadong Tiger, Rado and LE to recreate the magic. As the song tells a story about an unstable love, the music video also portrays a couple at risk with its vivid colour, unique camera angels and Trouble Maker’s signature choreography. …
Trouble Maker is back and they won’t condone banality.
BTS, “팔도강산”. The title is an expression that means “the scenery of the eight provinces of Korea”, but in English this song is commonly called “Satoori Rap” - satoori meaning “provincial accent”. Three of Bangtan’s rappers trade off in this song in the dialects of their native regions: Suga from Daegu (North Gyeongsang dialect, stereotyped as sounding macho and tough), J-Hope from Gwangju (Jeolla dialect, stereotyped as sounding chatty and bubbly), and Rap Monster from Seoul (whose dialect forms “the basis of the standard language of both North and South Korea”). If you’re not familiar with Korean it may do well to skim the charts on this Wikipedia page to get an idea of the array of standard verb endings, as that’s where much of the diversification of Korean dialects takes place. You may also want to check the video’s subs against pop!gasa’s, which have a few footnotes (such as the one about "Is that the guy?").
"Satoori Rap" is lots of fun. Bangtan is a young group - their full Korean name translates to "Bulletproof Boy Scouts" - and the three rappers chomp into the retro-styled beat with relish, and even relief at being able to use non-standard language. If you’ve ever fretted over the line between adaptation and appropriation, this song is a good example of the former: it uses rap as an artistic form in order to express a concept that’s unique to the culture that’s making it, making use of existing cultural signifiers rather than trying on or imitating another culture’s.
In fact, satoori itself has lately been the subject of appropriation. For instance, the opening stanzas of B.A.P’s "No Mercy" are all in Gyeongsang dialect, though Bang Yongguk is from Incheon (near Seoul); Rap Monster alludes to Seoul guys putting on a Gyeongsang accent to sound manly in his verse. It’d be interesting if Gyeongsang satoori starts being used as the language of rap, in a parallel to AAVE - considering the two have similar low status relative to the standard accent when spoken, though obviously AAVE has racial and class associations that are not as strong or even present with Gyeongsang satoori.
The way the song is arranged reinforces the dominance of “standard”/standardized language, by having the two regional accents banter back and forth and then the Seoul speaker coming on to give the last word, the clowns followed by the voice of authority. The overall message is one of national unity, ultimately arguing against the regionalism it’s all about: “Why keep fighting, in the end, it’s all the same Korean…We can all communicate from Munsan to Marado.” (Bangtan have a weirdly self-conscious nationalistic streak: their variety show, Rookie King,opens with a parody of national anthem sign-on reels, and a punishment on one episode of the show required Rap Monster to sing "Dokdo is Korean Land" in drag.) Still, the song’s main source of joy is in its celebration of diversity, and, as if realizing this, the after-school-special moral gets the heck out of the way for the gleefully shouted dialect of the chorus.