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).
Will our flaming ambivalence finally push this flop past 80 million views? Stay tuned…
Madeleine Lee: You know when you’re so drunk that every song is only the hook part, and every time a new hook comes on there’s some wasted bros yelling in your ear about “THIS FUCKING SONG,” and eventually you can’t even make out the individual words? Now what if it was really just the same song playing the whole night? (Points awarded for the parts where the trap beat turns into samulnori, and for making a way better SNL Korea digital short than anything SNL Korea itself has been able to come up with; both of these things are more clever than this song deserves.) 
I liked everyone else’s blurbs better than my own (so go read ‘em), but I wanted to expand on the last part of mine a little. I’ve only seen a few SNL Korea skits, so clearly my actual point of comparison was American SNL and The Lonely Island. I do think this MV would make a great Lonely Island-esque short for SNL Korea about partying in glamorous Incheon (and to be honest, I’d accept the music better as parody if it were), considering that the few musical sequences I’ve seen on SNL Korea itself have been duds (BEG’s gets too bogged down in its message; Jay Park’s gets too Robin Thicke).
I feel like I’m too hard on SNL Korea for being not funny to me, though, considering that what I do find funny includes the frequently racist/sexist/homophobic Gag Concert - as long as it’s not being one of the above, but sometimes when it is. As it happens, Gag Concert's former segment “The Boy Band” gets a lot closer to the kind of musical comedy I'm thinking of. When it ran, the skit was a weekly send-up of fashion trends, as performed by macho idol boy band Jeongukgu (meaning “Nationwide”, and naturally the skit was also something of a send-up of idol boy bands themselves). The song is the same in every sketch, following a template of “if you think this fashion is bad, it could always be more extreme”. The skit also places strong emphasis on “proper” gendered behaviour; a typical example is this one "for girls who think their boyfriend is too feminine". At the height of the skit’s popularity, Jeongukgu released a music video, "Fashion City", continuing the theme of giving terrible fashion advice in order to satirize a trendy look, though more generally than in their weekly sketch format. Musically, the song is identifiably post-“Gangnam Style” in its rhythms and beats, but it sounds more like the experience of walking through the club district and hearing different parts of “Gangnam Style” and/or “Gentleman” as you pass each one (which is kind of what I was going for with the description of “Hangover” above, though “Hangover” sounds in-the-room rather than on-the-street).
Other musical comedy groups are less pointedly specific than Psy or “The Boy Band”; UV’s “Itaewon Freedom” is as much celebration as it is satire, and Norazo are more weird than wicked. As well, there’s an earnestness in these songs, and even in “Fashion City”, that “Hangover” lacks. It’s not that Psy himself is capital-I Ironic, I think, so much as that as long as he thinks it’s funny, it’s funny.
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)
Madeleine Lee: Over the past two years, EXO’s singles have been a whirlwind tour of different identities as the group struggled to find its own. They’ve been a DBSK reboot (your own lawsuit joke goes here); they’ve been rap-step; they’ve been Blackstreet, to the most (and most deserved) success. “Overdose” is, at last, a single that sounds like something they’ve done before, and this is not a bad thing, because what it recalls are some of their strongest album tracks: Mama's "Machine" with the chorus and raps, XOXO's "Heart Attack" and "Black Pearl" for the melodies and beats. The Korean subgroup’s vocalists are shouters, not crooners, and the song accepts this as a strength, so that even that wonky note in the chorus sounds convincing when barked aggressively enough. I’m not sure how I’ll react if the next single sounds like this, or the next three singles, but for now, I’m glad the group is returning to its own catalogue, not trying to emulate someone else’s. 
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 energetic, 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):
MBLAQ, “남자답게” (Be A Man).Broken, MBLAQ’s newest mini, picks up where last summer’s Sexy Beat left off, with another thematically and musically coherent collection of songs that continues their movement away from the overstatement of early singles like "Y" and towards a smoother sound. Sexy Beat played with different contemporary R&B sounds, opening with something like a Neptunes beat through a broken speaker and closing with a shimmering 90s house track, neither of which are common entries in the current K-pop musical lexicon. Broken gives us the all-ballad version; none of its seven tracks are for the dance floor, but they’re all executed with the same level of variety and invention.
After being disowned by spiritual father Rain and freelance producer Rado, who between them composed most of MBLAQ’s songs up to 2011, MBLAQ have been in need of a producer to define them. The usually reliable Dublekick Music proved to be a mismatch — 2012’s 100% Ver. (see the hyper-macho "전쟁이야" (This Is War), or don’t) and especially its repackage BLAQ% Ver. contain the most unlistenable, tuneless entries in the band’s catalogue since their debut. Dublekick’s contribution to Broken is curbed to a single song, "열쇠" (Key), which fortunately plays as subdued as the other tracks.
Increasingly, MBLAQ are becoming self-sufficient, as is the trend nowadays among idols that want to be seen as serious about their music. While none of the members are full-fledged producers in the vein of Jinyoung, Zico, Junhyung et al., the four tracks composed by Thunder and G.O dictate the tone of the album, particularly Thunder’s. He had a hand in both the opening and closing tracks of Sexy Beat, and here he once again contributes the intro and the most upbeat track, "12개월" (12 Months), whose strident guitar strumming pattern gives the album the closest it has to a danceable beat.
"Be A Man", the title track, is composed by Korean R&B legend Wheesung (which if nothing else explains why it’s clearly set in his native key rather than in any member of MBLAQ’s). It took me a few days to warm up to, but it’s a song that only reveals more depth the more that you listen to it, and it lingers after it ends. Rather than fiddling with the beat to create drama, it starts with emptiness and builds from there; that climactic string and vocal swell at 2:21 is fully earned. I’ve seen a few comparisons to NSYNC’s "Gone", and I definitely hear them, too. Even the titular refrain works as a refraction: one song takes place in the present of a breakup ("Should I be a man and let you go?"), while the other is after the fact ("I’ve tried my best to be a man and be strong"). And as with "Gone", "Be A Man" is proof that a group’s "mature" phase is not an ill-fitting costume, but something they’ve grown into. While I’d hesitate to confirm that this is MBLAQ’s new direction (Sexy Beat's repackage was the more conventionally idol pop-soundingLove Beat), I’m glad that, at least for now, it’s where they’re heading.
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.
G-Dragon’s recent album Coup D’Etat was initially released online in two parts. While the choice to divide it was likely a practical one, it functions well symbolically, too. The lead single from part 1 is the Diplo-produced “Coup D’Etat”, while part 2 is represented by “삐딱하게”, or “Crooked”. “Crooked” was written by GD and YG’s go-to producer Teddy in order to fill in what they felt the album lacked - a stadium-sized anthem, something for an entire crowd to sing. So they made the opposite of “Coup D’Etat”: a rock song about heartbreak with lyrics entirely in Korean, meant not to promote the individual but for the use of the collective.
It’s the same dichotomy GD used on last year’s One of a Kind mini, where the opening electro-rap track declared, “Yes sir, I’m one of a kind,” while the closing track featured the singer of alternative rock band Nell on guest vocals and a group singalong of “We wild, we Rolling Stones”. It’s an easy shorthand: modern hip-hop, with its built-in narrative of self-propelled upward mobility (ignoring its roots in and continued obligations to a larger community), versus arena rock, a genre intended for a giant audience and a universal scope (ignoring the fact that it was built on any number of oversized egos). To deepen the extended metaphor, whereas GD’s rap and hip-hop borrowings are often specific - a Kanye grunt here, a Missy guest spot there - the rock in “Crooked” comes from a more generalized conception, visually represented by the self-referential punk looks GD sports in the video. (Shooting in London localizes it somewhat, but the line from the Sex Pistols to “Crooked” is a very, uh, twisted one.) It doesn’t matter that in “Crooked”, GD sings about “I”, not “we”, because it’s the experience that’s meant to be universal. Very few people are in a position to stage a coup of the music industry, but everyone’s had their heart stepped on in a way that makes them want to act out.
So why write this universal heartbreak anthem entirely in Korean? Having no English in a song isn’t just rare for GD, but rare for any non-ballad K-pop song since 2000. There’s no real intellectual explanation for “Crooked” having no English, except that Kwon Jiyong is Korean, and for all his jet-setting ways, that’s his default language and his default perspective. Of course, as a native English speaker, I automatically parse certain sounds into English anyway - “beoreokbeoreok”, for instance, becomes “what up, what up”. (Sidebar: this isn’t entirely a miracle of linguistics. The anglophone lineage of modern idol pop, especially G-Dragon’s, has led to some flattening of Korean vowel sounds when they’re sung or rapped in order to bring the sound closer to English - compare GD’s pronunciation of the “o” in oneulbam, “tonight”, to the isolated Forvo version.)
So perhaps language isn’t a barrier to universality after all. With “Crooked”, the lyrics are important, but the reason the song was written is in the music: a feeling that can carry across a stadium, a feeling that even if you don’t know what’s being said, you’re not alone.