Finally, a post to absolve myself from the guilt of not posting anything for months! Behold, my dear readers, this is what college life does to a poor writer. I apologize profusely for my absence but, as this school year is winding down, I thought this would my last chance to squeeze in a post before I drown in finals. Instead of having to go through the agonizing process of choosing one K-pop release to review, I decided that there were too many standouts in the first half of this year so I would write small blurb-like reviews for standout tracks.
And thus, I decided to just go for it and craft two different versions of a playlist. Think complementary versions of Pokemon games (i.e. Pokemon Sapphire and Ruby, Blue and Red, White and Black, etc.). Being a very fast-paced industry, a lot has happened in the K-pop realm since I last wrote about it. Many groups and soloists held their comeback campaigns and, of course, rookie groups sprout up like weeds nowadays. Here are some of the tracks that have been released so far this year that stood out to me the most.
In this “dark version” of the playlist are songs that convey heavier, darker themes. These are the sexy, darker, or just emotional songs that have captured my heart thus far this year. Click here for the “light version”, which contains the more upbeat songs that attracted me this year so far!
The Line Up
(Songs: 10 | Duration: 39 minutes)
I honestly do not know why “Come Back Home” got so popular when “Crush” was THE killer 2NE1 track of the album. Picking up where “I Am The Best” left off, this is 2NE1’s second round of ego-tripping and what a track “Crush” is. If you are a Blackjack, this track will feel right at home. Ominous electronic instrumental, CL’s signature fierce rapping, hook heavy chorus, Bom’s strong vocals, this song has all of the trappings of a signature 2NE1 banger. I just love all of the elements of the song because everything just sounds bold, rambunctious, and frenetic so it is difficult to feel bored when listening to this song. I also appreciate how 2NE1 tracks tend to have shoutouts to their past songs. It’s like a shoutout to their veteran fans and a nod to the hits that have gotten them to where they are now. In a way, they are backing up their bark by reminding us of their past hits. After a series of seemingly disparate and frilly single releases, “Crush” signals the return of 2NE1’s reign in K-pop. After listening to this song, at worst, you will feel exhausted; at best, you will feel so empowered and ready to do that 2-mile run even though you haven’t run a lap in two months.
Ace of Angels never stood out too much for me among the influx of rookie girl groups in K-pop but the latest entry in their discography is rather solid (in fact, it even earned them their first Inkigayo win). Of course, this is unsurprising as this song is a Brave Brothers song through and through. There is just something undeniably charming about the mingling of the retro and the contemporary and BB knows how exploit that charm to craft potent pop singles left and right. “Miniskirt” follows the BB pop song formula rather religiously – addicting ooh’s during the chorus with sprinklings of ahh’s, hey’s, and BB’s signature growls throughout the song, retro instrumentals, ample use of falsetto, an obligatory rap section, a subdued bridge that leads to an explosive final iteration of the chorus, complete with the vocal powerhouses of the group belting out and ad libbing, all wrapped up in a “sexy” concept. One could argue that the song is formulaic – it is but why mess with a formula that works, especially when you are a rookie group and aren’t in the position to mess around? It is evident that Choa’s vocals are the strongest in the group as there is oomph to her vocals as opposed to the other girls. That’s not to say that the other girls can’t sing – the rest can hold their own with their vocal parts too and I really like the other vocalists in the group as well. My only gripe with this song would be that Jimin’s extremely nasally delivery during her rap section is jarring to the rest of song. Otherwise, this is a very strong single that has put AOA on the K-pop radar.
The slick guitar loop and the simple beat convey so much sass and class that I was already hooked from the first few seconds of the song. Ga In’s vocals are on point in this song – her vocals don’t explode but rather angrily simmer, which is perfect for a song speaking out against sexual abuse. Ga In’s delivery of the chorus is perfectly spiteful and the risk she took by using an English expletive as an integral part of her chorus and even the title of her song is very commendable and appropriate. The detuned guitar sounds that mark the end of the chorus sequences are especially a nice touch, giving the song an unsettling feel. Bumkey’s additions are very welcomed as Ga In’s slightly thin vocals get stale after a while and Bumkey’s nasally and more prominent sounding vocals shake up the dynamics of the song a bit. This track is arguably the most edgy song I have encountered thus far this year, not only for the content of the lyrics and the title but also for the accompanying music video. Ga In’s maturity is evidenced in both her portrayal of a sexually abused woman in her music video and in her sophisticated delivery of the song. Obviously, this song took the fast lane to being banned on music shows but this song will be one of the winners this year in my book.
After being obsessed with Sunmi’s first single, “24 Hours”, I had high hopes for her first album release. Luckily, my expectations were met with “Full Moon”. The piano carrying the chord progression and the saxophone sample blaring in the background keep the song classy while the jazzy syncopation in the percussion keeps the song interesting and moving along at a nice steady pace. Sunmi’s vocals follow Ga In’s example in that Sunmi doesn’t belt but rather whispers though her vocals are thinner than Ga In though and sounds significantly weaker as a result. However, her wispy vocals work here because they are aided by the masterfully crafted instrumentals. The Brave Brothers just know how to K-pop because their retro music meets RnB/Hip Hop thing just works. I absolutely love the instrumentation because it is so jazzy and slick and Sunmi’s soft vocals perfectly balance out the rougher sounding percussion. Unfortunately, the rap section is the Achilles heel of this track as Lena’s cringeworthy English lines and poor delivery contrasts badly to the more mature sounding Sunmi, detracting from the quality of an otherwise spot on single. Sunmi’s subdued, delicate vocals make the song sound much more intimate and sexy and the whole vampire theme is dark and sensual, continuing the obsessive love concept that Sunmi established in “24 Hours”. In an industry where girl groups bounce from one concept to the next disparate one, Sunmi’s adherence to her dark, obsessive love concept and simmering sexiness theme is much welcomed.
Out of the recent string of solo releases, I would argue that Jiyeon’s was one of the stronger ones. It definitely beats G.Na’s uninspired “Secret” to a pulp. Definitely appropriate for this version of the playlist, the MV and the song were both very dark. The hip hop beat and strings and the piano are definitely nice touches but the rainy sound effects and the quiet acoustic guitar in the background makes the soundscape even more vibrant, establishing this song as more mature than your average pop track. The song itself does get stale before it gets to the bridge, which is a letdown because, for a song with such interesting instrumentation, I expected the melody to at least follow suit. The “never ever” and “ooh” hooks don’t really catch on too much so the choruses are a bit underwhelming but the bridge redeems the song somewhat because the melody here sounds, by contrast to the rest of the song, beautifully different and much more exciting and Jiyeon shows off her falsetto a lot in this section. The inspired instrumentation, courtesy of Duble Kick, would have worked so much better with more interesting verses but I think Jiyeon’s release is nonetheless solid.
One of the three divas that released a solo release around the same time, Hyosung’s “Good-night Kiss” easily surpasses G.Na’s boring “Secret” and definitely rivals Jiyeon’s “Never Ever”. It is tough for me to determine who, out of Jiyeon and Hyosung, has the better single but Hyosung seems to have the upper hand in this contest for me just because “Good-night Kiss” is just more exciting of a listen than “Never Ever”. We got some surprising bouts of trap, catchy snaps, very interesting vocal and instrumental samples, and much more catchy hooks. Hyosung’s vocals aren’t exceptional but they aren’t bad by any means. This song definitely has much more potential for commercial success than Jiyeon’s darker single as it sounds much more exciting and accessible. It’s difficult to go wrong taking the dance pop route in K-pop but more mature works tend to be less well-received as the audience’s age range leans toward the younger range. I really appreciate how this song never sounds stale as it shakes things up instrumentally or melodically every few measures. All in all, this is an excellent first solo release from Secret’s Hyosung.
EXO has come a long way since their “MAMA” days. They have evolved from erratic, theatrical messes of lead singles to a much more refined and cohesive titular track. “Overdose” does not play the “let’s see how many elements we can squeeze into a track before it’s too psychotic to be called music” game. Instead, it is much more straightforward of a song while still keeping the aspects of EXO’s past singles that were successful. Baekhyun still gets to do his signature wailing during the bridge, D.O. still gets plenty of lines to belt, rappers still get a few lines to rap. The inclusion of Sehun’s part is at best jarring for how amateur it sounds compared to Chanyeol and I often question his place in EXO – the title of best dancer does not go to him, neither does the title of the lead rapper. The kid doesn’t sing either so what the hell does he do? Regardless, “Overdose” is a truly potent track because it is exciting, ominous, and grand without being obnoxiously messy like “Wolf” or “MAMA”. The choreography is very neat to watch as well though the head-bobbing that some of them do during the last part of the first chorus (D.O. is especially good at it) is hilarious to me for some reason. I am digging that driving hip hop beat and the abrasive synths; “Overdose” is what “Wolf” tried to strive for but failed to achieve – powerful yet polished.
TVXQ’s latest album was filled to the brim with gems and “Smoky Heart” is no exception. The electric piano playing in the background and the masterful and suave vocals create such a slick track. It sounds like something EXO would strive to sound like only TVXQ has the upper hand in this genre as the duo are K-pop veterans and their vocals are refined by years of experience and maturity. The echoing beat that drives the track along at a steady pace makes the soundscape much more bare and much more intimate. Because there aren’t too many layers of instrumentation cluttering up the song, it sounds simply sophisticated. Though, it may seem like this song would drag on, I think it is a song that, if you are in the right mood to appreciate it, will sound heavenly.
The “Crush” album was a very strong release from the fierce ladies of 2NE1 but that’s to be expected of course. They explored a wide range of genres in their album but I feel that the ladies had the most shining moments of the album in this track. “If I Were You” opens up to a swinging beat and a moody piano accompaniment, immediately establishing a melancholy mood for the song. Dara’s vocals in this track sound pretty good and she definitely shows that her vocals have improved since her debut days. CL, Minzy, and Bom’s soulful and emotional rendition of the choruses were particularly stunning and CL’s part during the bridge was just beautiful. The final iteration of the chorus, where things reach its climax, was beautifully layered with ad libbing and vocalization. I love the quirky distorted strings sample played during the chorus and it adds some needed texture and excitement to the chorus of the song. The piano becomes very haunting as the song drags on as it acts as the backbone of the entire song and is what carries the song’s pace. I think this track is the most vocally impressive track on the entire album because everyone sans Dara (though props to her for her improved vocals during the verses) gets to belt it out in a way that isn’t obnoxiously powerful but emotionally subdued.
At first, the dramatic opening made me think it was going to be a ballad of some sorts. It kinda is but the piano quickly shifts to a jazzy progression and I am taken aback. The strings in the background keep the ballad mood going but the jazzy pianos keep the verse sounding especially dramatic. The pre-chorus is where the song transitions into ballad territory as the strings section become more prominent. The chorus sports a beautiful acoustic guitar accompanied by some an awesome strings section. I think the contrast from the jazzy verses and the emotionally-charged choruses is artistically brilliant. The wistfulness conveyed by the song in general is just absolutely chilling and Akdong Musician’s vocals and rapping are tastefully sad. The MV for this track is equally stunning; I love the concept behind it and the message it conveys – one of love and acceptance. It is a cold world out there and it is a guarantee that you will encounter bad people in the future but there will always be that promise of encountering kind and welcoming people. I would argue that “Melted” is the most artistic, emotional, and genuinely sung track released thus far this year; the immensely positive response to this song by the K-pop community would support my assertion.