As far as names go, we side with that of the title over that of the artist…
Madeleine Lee: Winner started as the scrappy, artsy Team A on a reality show called YG’s WIN: Who Is Next, and were chosen by audience vote to debut over the more hip-hop focused Team B. Team B generally performed better on the show, but for the most part were not very memorable, and Team A had an X-factor in their blend of personalities and musical styles (three members are songwriters; one likes rock, one likes rap, and one likes electro) that audiences preferred. But you wouldn’t know it from the boringly competent “Empty.” It could be that it wasn’t written by them (in fact, it was written by two members of Team B, but let’s save the favouritism accusations for the message boards), but the Winner-composed second title track, "Color Ring," is just as bland, only it’s bland rock melodrama instead of bland laid-back beats. Honestly, “Empty” is better with the (self-choreographed) dance; as goofy as the moves are, they lighten the otherwise drab mood of the song and bring out its sweetness. 
What I was trying to get at in my blurb, or what now comes after my blurb, is: What should Winner sound like? 2014 S/S is a lovely, competent album, but it’s mostly genre variations on the mood of “Empty” and “Color Ring” (with the exception of Mino’s solo track "I’m Him" - strobe warning for that video). It’s in line with what YG’s idol groups have been putting out lately - Big Bang’s "Bad Boy"; 2NE1’s "Missing You", which Winner covered earlier this year - but for those artists, that was but one direction they’ve taken out of many, whereas for Winner, this is the sound they are being steered toward, and knowing the individual preferences and output of the members, it sounds a bit like a compromise.
We know that this sound has been chosen on purpose because of the Winner TV clip of YG reviewing Winner’s self-composed tracks for the album, and from even before that on WIN's second song battle, when Team A were assigned Tamia’s “Officially Missing You” and hip-pop Team B were assigned Justin Bieber’s “Baby”. It’s a logical division to differentiate the two teams. There are two things that YG as a label is known for, as embodied by their mascot/golden boy G-Dragon: authentic-feeling rap swagger, and authentic-feeling serious artistry. YG the CEO wants Team B to embody the former, and Team A/Winner to represent the latter.
As touched on in my blurb, “Empty” was written by Team B’s Bobby and B.I, the team’s central pillars and the only two members who stood out on WIN. (Whether or not you believe Team B was intended to become Winner, it’s clear YG wants them to debut, or at least those two; Team B’s second elimination show starts this week, after which the surviving members will debut as a group called iKON.) They know Team A well as people, not just musicians, and as unexciting as “Empty” is, it definitely sounds like it was written for Winner. Or at least, it doesn’t sound like it would work for Team B. (On Twitter a few months ago I was thinking out loud about idol composers who are bad at line distribution being unable to not hear their own voices in a song. “Empty” is the opposite, and the line distribution is good both for equality and for voice suitability.)
And maybe the whole reason for forcing this overly polished sound on Winner is that they don’t even have an ideal sound. As someone who became a fan of the group based solely on their predebut television appearances, I’m not even sure what I want Winner to sound like if it’s not this. Maybe I want a stronger difference expressed between the three songwriting members? While they didn’t write the whole album, their contributions are being emphasized, and ideally Winner’s music would be guided by the kinds of songs they’re writing, rather than them writing songs to fit the group’s tone, as if they’re freelancers to their own group.
For now, YG clearly wants to make Kang Seungyoon the primary songwriter of the group. Team A’s original compositions on WIN,"Smile Again" and "Go Up", were mainly written by him, and they fit in with a certain YG style (like Big Bang’s "Love Song" or 99-era Epik High) which matches the general tone that’s been established for the group’s music, plus an audible rock influence, similar to his (not self-composed) YG solo releases. "Smile Again" made it onto 2014 S/S, but with the distorted guitar backing switched out for a generic 2NE1-esque electro beat, to its detriment, I think. (For better or for worse, this also smoothed out KSY’s most audible songwriting tic, which is a very strange, sometimes atonal ear for chord arrangements.) I found Taehyun’s songs the most musically interesting on the album, especially "Tonight", and he and Mino were shown to be the most playful in studio on WIN - but Mino’s only compositions on this album are collaborations with Seungyoon, likely done in a similar arrangement to how it was shown on WIN, where Seungyoon came up with the chords and Mino or Taehyun made a beat arrangement. It would be nice to hear more strongly what they can do individually.
That said, ultimately the problem both for YG and for me as a fan is expecting Winner to put out polished, artistically mature material when really they are not that developed as artists. Yes, they’ve had a lot of practice as trainees, but practice is not the same thing as experience. Not that I trust in YG ever having a plan, but it’s likely that their sound has been guided in this slightly anonymous ballad-y direction to differentiate them enough from Big Bang and the future iKON and to give them space to grow in, rather than forcing them out on their own. Give it a few albums, maybe, for Winner to find their voices.
Yesterday BTS released a teaser for their next album, Dark & Wild, featuring the intro track composed by Rap Monster, just as the teaser for Skool Luv Affair did. I watched it once without subtitles, once with subtitles on, and marvelled at the transition from light to dark (made obvious by the visuals, but they’re only there to mimic the music), and the way the crescendo of both the track and Rap Monster’s intensity, vocally and lyrically, is controlled, shaky, until it finally boils over at the end.
A few hours later, I saw the film Boyhood, which I mostly enjoyed (having gone in with zero expectations) and in which I could feel, as many other people have also said of the film, many, many echoes of my own childhood. That said, coming out of Boyhood, the other female friend I saw it with said, “I’m waiting for Girlhood." I agreed; we get glimpses of the protagonist’s sister’s childhood alongside his own, and they rang just as true to me, but then the camera would pan away or cut to something else.
Nevertheless, I could still read a lot of my own experiences in Boyhood, and I think that’s what makes it successful. That’s also what makes the Dark & Wild intro successful. One of my writing teachers told me that it’s the specific details that make something relatable, and that’s what’s at work in both film and song. “Should we make a contract? How many kisses per day, how many messages? How’s that?” really does sound like something that would be sputtered during a break-up fight, something that would be ridiculous if it wasn’t also so painful. Obviously it doesn’t feel entirely right and good to say that something entrenched so deeply in the male perspective can also represent my female experience - isn’t that the major problem of representation in media? But for me, at least, this is mitigated somewhat by Boyhood and the Dark & Wild intro telling such specific stories. I’ve seen it argued that this is another problematic representation of love as either “crazy” or nothing, like too many other K-pop boy group songs to name. But for me, anyway, I don’t hear this as ideal love, either before or after the turn,* just like the story of Mason’s life isn’t the story of an ideal life. It’s just a story, coming from one place, not telling you what to feel but telling you that someone else has felt it too.
*Then again, I am also coming at this from the perspective of having gone through both the illusion and the disillusionment, so I can read it this way. Boyhood had several adult characters there to offer countering, post-disappointment perspectives. Just because I can hear the hyperbole in Rap Monster’s first verse as doomed rather than ideal doesn’t mean an audience that hasn’t gone through this already, i.e. BTS’s target audience, will too.
HA:TFELT, “Ain’t Nobody”. Watch this, and then watch HA:TFELT (aka Yenny/Yeeun of Wonder Girls)’s #hashtag interview with 1theK, where she discusses her involvement in the album from composition to choreography to jacket art, and mentions using the name HA:TFELT to indicate that her material sounds very different from what one might expect from a Wonder Girls member. It’s been a season of girl group members releasing solo singles, but HA:TFELT skews darker than others. The mini album, Me?, moves between a down acoustic singer-songwriter style ("Iron Girl", featuring Lim of Wonder Girls) and electronica both spacious ("Truth") and severe ("Bond"), the same way “Ain’t Nobody” goes from piano to dubstep death and back. Rock is also an underlying influence; the vocal swells and quiet-loud structure of “Ain’t Nobody” sound as much like the rock ballads of the 80s and 90s as they do R&B.
The depth of this exploration is unexpected, but HA:TFELT has been writing towards this direction for a while: there’s the slow R&B of "Girlfriend", from Wonder Girls’ last album Wonder Party, and "If That Was You" from Sunmi’s Full Moon, which adds a stronger beat and melancholy piano. In the rock direction, "Me, in" was her adaptation of Shin Joong-hyun’s psych-rock "Beauty". Me? drifts a bit at the end when it’s time for the requisite ballads, but even those sound more alt-rock than standard. For any idol to be able to put out an album like this, not just a solo but an artistic expression, is a rare opportunity - especially for a woman, and especially given the tiny number of prominent female idol composers. HA:TFELT seems confident in her vision, with an album both cohesive and diverse.
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 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.