As a blogger, I am tasked with one job and one job only – to write about what I am passionate about. I had one job. Many apologies to my readers; I have been drowning in this sea of college life and it seems that I haven’t been able to secure an island of reprieve until now. It’s a small island but I’ll take it.
Of course, this is another catch up playlist where I will update you on what has been reaching my ears from the K-pop realm since I went MIA around August. All of these great tracks have kept me relatively undeterred by the doom and gloom atmosphere of K-pop recently. Hopefully, you all have been holding up well despite all of the drama that has happened in the industry. Regardless of all the scandals and lineup changes, the K-pop machine is still churning out some great music and I hope to highlight some of the standout tracks of this summer/fall.
The Line Up(Songs: 18 | Duration: 1 hour, 8 minutes)
Secret‘s latest foray into K-pop is a very seductive, cohesive package and their lead single is definitely one of the more solid releases this year from any girl group. All of the ladies of Secret are blessed with at least some vocal talent and this song is evidence. Oddly though, despite having a rather successful solo debut, Hyosung pales in comparison to Jieun and it shows in this track, particularly during the middle eight, when Jieun pretty much upstages Hyosung with her belting. Hyosung’s thin, wispy vocals just aren’t strong enough to handle this song and her live performances really show (the difference between Hyosung and Jieun is like night and day during this part especially). Jieun has the power to the carry this song and rightfully gets the bulk of the vocal work in this song. Hana‘s rap is not one bit jarring and is a welcomed change of pace in the song and I love the breakdown of the instrumental during her portion; it’s pretty badass. Part of the magic (LOL) of this song comes from the exciting yet refined instrumentals, which feature some urgent-sounding, bombastic hodgepodge of horns, some groovy guitars, and a driving beat during the intense choruses and verses, with some light jazzy piano and percussion during the quieter moments. The very strong production helps elevate this song from “just another nugu group trying to sound sexy and retro again” to “damn, classy, werk, yass”.
There really should be more cross-group, co-ed collaborations in K-pop because we get some really steamy gems like this. The saxophone riff (like any horn-y riffs used in K-pop, hehe) signals the sleaziness of this song and we get some smooth sounding instruments here to accompany some pretty smooth vocals. Kevin, Kyeong Ree, and So Jin aren’t vocal masters by any means but the collection of their voices make for a unique listen. The relatively quick tempo of the song create for an engaging listen and the contrast between Kevin’s lower, sleazy tone and the girls’ wispier, higher voice also helps to spice things up before the song gets boring.
I’m not sure what pink and white balloons, a toy robot, and a teddy bear have to do with being 25 but regardless, this is a solid Duble Sidekick track from Secret’s vocal powerhouse. To continue with the saxophone theme from “Knock”, the quirky, abrasive saxophone riff combined with the bumping beat create a potent instrumental hook during the post-chorus sections, when Jieun pulls an f(x) and speak-sings about how beautiful it is to be 25 years young. The retro meets hip hop/RnB formula still works and those post-chorus sections are particularly addictive. Vocals are relatively spot on; Jieun has a very pleasant tone to her voice though can get a bit shrill when she reaches the upper registers of her range. Regardless, “Twenty-Five” is a solid solo release single – it’s definitely Jieun’s time to shine.
I have always been a fan of Sunny Hill‘s quirky yet critical title tracks. While they dialed back the social commentary in this release, one can still find subtler jabs at society in “Monday Blues”, which shows that Sunny Hill is still at it. The fun, upbeat instrumentals, complete with whimsical strings, soulful oohs, and catchy claps, complement a sassy and classy performance from the women of Sunny Hill (with their male member now taking the helm as producer). This is one of a couple releases this year that I wish received a bigger response because it’s such an engaging and exciting song – something we K-pop fans really need due to the gloomy state K-pop is in currently.
선수입장 [catchy whistling, folk/country influences, very refreshing and even more upbeat than “Monday Blues”]
Get The X Out [despite the aggressive title, a slow, whimsical, melancholy waltz that climaxes to a grand middle finger to Sunny Hill’s ex-lover]
I am not a huge fan of aegyo-pop (I draw the line at Orange Caramel and, even then, I still cringe a bit at their sugary vocals) so when I heard Crayon Pop was debuting a sub-unit (why they decided to go with the twins is beyond me), I tuned out. However, boredom took the best of me and later on I decided to explore what this saccharine duo had to offer. Well, I found a sugarcane plantation but that was expected. However, what wasn’t expected was how much I was grooving to this gem. “Feel So Good” is electroswing meets aegyo and, if you have been reading my past reviews, you know how much I love electroswing. The ragtime piano driving the syncopation in the background, the thumping beat that aggressively drives the song along, and the various other musical treats stuffed in the song are such a delight to listen to that it makes Strawberry Milk‘s whining actually kinda bearable.
The jazzy piano samples and that strong driving beat ornamenting this track give this song that classy touch that a sappy song like “예뻐졌다” desperately needs. Not sure if Zico‘s inclusion in the song was necessary but I suppose it was more for insurance as this was Park Boram‘s debut single. Pretty solid debut single though, if you ask me (and apparently a ton of other K-pop fans too considering how high this single charted). Boram has a very lovely voice and has the strength and conviction to carry the song without sounding obnoxiously cutesy. I love how this song bounces along as it progresses through the various sections of the song. All in all, it’s a very pleasant listen that isn’t too cutesy and isn’t too belt-y, perfect for accenting a sunny day.
I chose this over the mess that is “Sugar Free” because this is a much more cohesive song than that EDM-crazed yet vocally boring title track (or tracks because there are a billion and four versions of the song and accompanying MV). Similar to Park Boram’s “예뻐졌다”, this song bounces along a swinging beat but this time with some adorable French instrumental accents thrown in for good measure. T-ara actually gets a chance to shine vocally in this track and they demonstrate their vocal prowess relatively well. Nothing exciting but my expectations aren’t exactly high for the group. For a B-side track, “남주긴 아까워” is a solid piece of pop. Light and bouncy with all the familiar accoutrements of a K-pop song, you should put this on your sunny day playlist as well.
This is another track that I wish had garnered a larger audience. As the title implies, “위아래” is a roller coaster of a listen, in a good way. LE is absolutely badass and commanding with her rap sections and the fact that she was one of the lyricists and producers for the song shows her versatility in the music industry. Hani‘s pre-chorus sections are filled with some trippy harmonies and melodies whereas Hyerin and Solji belt the crap out of their choruses, when all hell breaks loose and the horn section is let free. That last iteration of the chorus has to be the most epic section of any K-pop song released this year so far. JungHwa is the miscellaneous member of the group as her brief verse is a bit jarring to the song and is the least interesting section of the song. “위아래” is pop with an edge and I like that; wish more K-pop fans could have given some love to this somewhat overlooked gem.
Now, I know what you might be thinking – doesn’t this sound suspiciously like Ariana Grande’s “Problem“? Why, yes. Yes it does. Is that a problem (hehe)? No. In fact, while Grande’s track’s awfully unfulfilling choruses led to that track’s demise, “Eyes” has much more going for it. The fact that the song blossoms to some whimsical, explosive choruses instead of some wimpy whispers like in Grande’s track, the fact that there are three divas on this track instead of one diva and whatever an “Iggy Iggs” is, and the fact that “Eyes” sounds much more complete of a song should all convince you which track is superior out of the two. My only gripe with the song is that the choruses and the song in general are too short but, hey, can’t have too much of a good thing, right? Looks like Grande got three more problems with Taetiseo.
Holler [the title track is pretty banging, got that electroswing class along with SNSD’s very best vocalists, what could go wrong with that combination?]
Adrenaline [fast-moving, catchy pop track with some nice melodies and lovely vocals, as always]
I just cannot make this playlist without including this bombastic song. Not sure why Hyuna, or anyone, would want to brand themselves as a single primary color but damn, who cares? Let it be known, “빨개요” is a badass track. Hyuna may not be the greatest rapper in existence but that fact is irrelevant in this track – Hyuna sounds badass and that’s all that matters. We got some intense rap verses where it’s Hyuna featuring Hyuna featuring Hyuna, followed by a softer, more melodic pre-chorus where Hyuna feigns vulnerability (something about being lonely or whatever), which all goes to naught when the song transitions to an explosive chorus that samples a Korean children’s rhyme. Like I said, badass. I’m being a little sarcastic but still, this electropop, trap-infused track was THE jam of the summer -“빨개요” was the “full option” (whatever the hell that means) of K-pop summer 2014.
Bangtan Boys was one of the boy bands I recently got into over the summer (thanks to my cursed sasaeng fan sister) and I must have an affinity for Korean rap/hip hop because I absolutely love BTS’s material. “2학년” has a special place in my heart because every time I hear “bang it, bang it, bang it”, I just imagine my sister bobbing her head like crazy (love ya, Jen) to the song. This song is essentially BTS’ way of acknowledging the fact they officially have weight in the industry now, after releasing their first full-fledged album and though they have come a long way – from chasing their dreams to burning it on stage now, as they state in the lyrics – they still want to retain that sense of honesty when it comes to their music. I think that’s part of the reason why their fanbase is drawn to BTS – the fact that they put a lot of effort into upholding this realness to their music. In an industry where boy bands are expected to be squeaky clean, it’s refreshing to hear some honesty, some rawness in K-pop.
Rain [a somber track with an equally somber jazz piano loop and some straightforward hip hop beats, rappers and vocalists alike get to shine here]
Danger [dark and aggressive, very edgy and angsty title track, exciting and accompanied with some badass choreography, definitely deserved much more love during its run on music shows]
After having to experience a pretty severe scandal, I really love how Ailee turned the tables around with this triumphant release. I would like to think that this song is her way of sending the middle finger to whoever initiated that scandal. This is a typical Ailee title track – she belts it out during the chorus sections and shows off her lower register during the verses. I adore the verses because of how catchy it just sounds – the catchy melody, the catchy tambourines, the catchy beat, everything was just a neat setup for an explosive chorus. Not surprisingly, during the last iteration of the chorus, Ailee fabulously decorates her already gorgeous vocals with some strong vocalizations and ad libbing, crafting a grand finale to her restraining order of a song.
미치지 않고서야 [a solid, feel-good RnB/hip hop song, lovely vocals and melodies countered by some good ol’ fashioned rapping grâce à Dynamic Duo]
A trippy take on Sistar‘s summer hit, “Touch My Body”, Glen Check did an absolutely amazing job on remixing the song. The remix sounds like a classier, house version of the original as it ditches the blaring horns for some wonky yet refined electronic instrumentation. This is like runway music and I think it really fits with Sistar’s mature, super model kind of image that they seem to have. The ladies always manage to pull off being sexy without being cringeworthy and instead always adding that mature and classy touch to their sexiness and I think this song exemplifies that quality of theirs.
OK GO! [Sistar took a page from 2NE1’s book and this is their version of CL and Minzy’s collab single “Please Don’t Go”, switching back and forth from rap verses to melodic choruses, very upbeat and sassy]
I Swear [the afterparty track to their “Touch My Body” festivities, very sappy and old-school, lovable track all around]
When I first saw that IU was collaborating with Seo Taiji, I brushed it off, thinking it was another one of those boring and breezy RnB/hip hop collabs because, let’s be real, those were popping up quite a bit over the summer. However, I was blown away by this release. From the story conveyed through the lyrics and the stunning music video to the ethereal, trippy electronic beats, this song is a rare masterpiece in K-pop. IU’s thin, delicate voice lends itself to these kinds of songs and really contributed a lot to the mystically melancholy mood set by the instrumental. Seo Taiji also released his rendition of the song as well but I prefer IU’s over his as IU’s vocals sound much more stable and fitting for the song than Seo Taiji’s (Seo Taiji is rather pitchy and vocally unstable during his live performances). However, I would definitely recommend watching both versions of the music videos (watch IU’s version then Seo Taiji’s) as both tell the story from two different angles.
HA:TFELT‘s EP was a masterpiece and I wish I had the time to fully review her brilliant album because I have lots to say about it. However, let’s just say that HA:TFELT’s stubborn adherence to realizing her own conception of her solo debut paid off because “Me?” is a beautiful album, a rare unicorn in the K-pop industry. With folk-rock influences, “Peter Pan” is a piece that develops as the song goes on. Starting off with just a guitar to accompany HA:TFELT’s beautifully vulnerable-sounding vocals, the verses lead to an even barer chorus section. Using silence as an instrument, the lessening of instrumental layers during the choruses made HA:TFELT sound even louder and resonant. Eventually, the song leads up to an explosive final iteration of the chorus, when HA:TFELT belts it all out, when the electric guitars and raw drums let go; certainly this is a beautifully cathartic ending to a well-crafted song.
Honorable Mentions (honestly, anything else on that “Me?” EP but if I really had to enumerate some choice picks):
Nothing Lasts Forever [very melancholy and heart breaking, the peculiar processing on HA:TFELT’s vocals, the low grumbling piano, and the jazzy percussion create a very haunting track]
Iron Girl [a tough sounding title to accompany an equally tough sounding song, electric guitars carve the soundscape for some sultry and emotional vocals, Lim sorta pulls it off during her rap sections]
Akdong Musician is just a magical duo, churning out some magical tracks left and right. I love the wondrous kind of feeling I get from this piece. The duo’s vocals are on point as usual and the instrumentation is bare and acoustic, which is where AkMu feels right at home, of course. For me, the release of “시간과 낙엽” signaled the bittersweet end of a summer and, though I couldn’t understand what the lyrics of the song were, I felt the song and I think that’s more than enough for me as a consumer of K-pop. Like I said, Akdong Musician is a magical duo and their magic is how they can convey emotions in a way that break linguistic barriers.
Ugh, my sister keeps getting me entangled into one boy band fandom after another and Infinite is yet another boy band I sorta got into during the summer (not as much as say GOT7 or BTS though). I love the fakeout moment in this song, how it starts off with a haunting piano line and some dramatic vocals and then JUMP. The electronic beat and the strings section kick in – yeah, it’s actually a more upbeat song than as advertised during the first minute of the song. “Back” is filled with this sense of urgency and the drama level is to the max here. Very standard K-pop boy band fare but what sets this release apart from the pack is the masterful vocals and the retro twist that is unique to Infinite. I would love to hear this during a dramatic montage in the middle of an action movie because this is where “Back” beckons to be played. I’m not usually a sucker for these kinds of songs but I actually like the Infinite charm and have enjoyed a few of their past major releases like “The Chaser“, albeit it was only through cursory listens, so “Back” resonating with me wasn’t really a surprise. That and how my sister abused the replay button for this song over the summer may have had something to do with it too.
I round out the playlist with my current jam. I absolutely love this song and Epik High is a legend in the industry so the caliber of this track and their album “Shoebox” was not unexpected. The jazzy piano chord progression and the straightforward and strong hip hop beat is haunting and Epik High’s flow is sick as always. Tablo and Mithra‘s rapping always make me fall in love with the complexities and intricacies of the Korean language. Balancing out the rap sections is a very subdued vocal section for the chorus and though Jo Won Sung, who sings in the original version of the song, did a very nice job, I really like how the chorus is being sung by different YG vocalists for each of Epik High’s rendition of the song. Out of Suhyun (of AkMu), Lee Hi, and Minzy (of 2NE1), I prefer Lee Hi’s performance because her soulful, deeper voice made the song sound more somber and fuller as a result. The title of the track is pretty clever as well. “헤픈엔딩” [hepeun ending] means a careless ending in Korean (“헤픈” could also be a pejorative adjective for “slutty” according to WordReference.com) and, at one point during the song, Epik High states “happy ending, happy? No, hepeun”. Multilingual word play, pretty nice.
Rich [polished and classy, slick raps accompanied by slick piano loops, Taeyang’s inclusion is a welcomed one]
Born Hater [who doesn’t love some braggadocio and some middle fingers to haters from some of the most skilled rappers in the business? “I hate my haters, obviously”]
Amor Fati [“God doesn’t love me”, very heavy and cynical lyrics, pensive and darker than most of the other tracks on this album, beautiful]