Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Top 20 K-pop Songs of 2015

If Dazed magazine, who I am honoured to freelance for, can do it then so can I. Everyone needs a Top 20 K-pop songs of the year. Don't they? Well Dazed's list was interesting, and we share some songs, but mine is generally quite different. For casual browsers maybe one of these will get stuck in your head, but here are 20 tracks from 2015 that reconfirmed my love for all things K-pop...

20) Psy (with CL) - Daddy

Okay, look, those of us who love K-pop tend to get frustrated when people who don't know the first thing about the 'demarcation' say 'Oh you mean stuff like Gangnam Style?' And, no, no, no - you have to mention you mean stuff that is anything but Gangham Style. See, most K-pop sounds nothing like Gangnam Style. Nothing. And most of us had it as odds-on for Big Bang or 2NE1 or Girls' Generation to be the big breakout act - not Psy! This fact is not to detract from the fine fella of course. He's really quite brilliant and one hell of a performer (I've seen one of his live shows on DVD) and Gangnam Style is actually an astute - and very, very, very funny - piece of social commentary about the titular area in Seoul. Plus, the video has Hyuna in it. Which gets it extra points. However, for my money, Daddy is far better. If you are going to do novelty pop-comedy then this is the way to do it. Record label YG (one of the 'big two' along with SM) is clearly pushing CL from 2NE1 to high heaven in anticipation of her American debut, so she gets a few words in the lead-up to the chorus. This track could be, and should be, at least as huge as Gangnam in the West (it is an anthem in waiting for drunken Brit-pissheads out on the pull) but I guess that depends on how much YG wants to cough-up on another international push for their most famous artist...

19) Hyuna - Roll Deep (with Jung IllHoon of BTOB)

I was surprised CL's sonically redundant Hello Bitches made the Dazed list but not Hyuna's Roll Deep. After all, Hyuna pushes the 'bad sexy bitch' image far further (and more successfully) than CL, who takes a lot of her schtick from the 4Minute star. Moreover, Hyuna's sound continues to be admirably adventurous. The video itself is typical Hyuna - lots of flesh and butt-shaking (she does seem to like the controversy that comes from the Korean moral police censoring her videos) but the song itself is also as infectious and unpredictable as it gets. True, it isn't nearly as bonkers and brilliant as her 2014 release Red (which has a chorus that claims 'a monkey's butt is red, red is Hyuna, Hyuna is red, yeah') but seeing one of K-pop's most beloved babes back in action is always something to cherish.

18) Miss A - Long Song

Miss A had the challenge in 2015 of coming back from their absolutely outstanding, continent-conquering 2013 single Hush, and the solid album that accompanied it. Hush upped the foursome's obvious sex appeal, with a breathy, provocative chorus and dance, as well as some beautiful but understated acoustic guitar parts, and Love Song more or less continues where that left off. I was disappointed the band did not push the more widescreen sound-scapes of Hush with this year's signature single Only You but Love Song gave the girls a far more ambitious tune to promote with their mini-album Colours. Miss A's Suzy (placed at the far right) is still one of K-pop's most iconic characters, largely thanks to her famous role in the hit drama Dream High, so this was always going to be a highly anticipated comeback (the video for Only You has 40 million views on YouTube). Not quite reinventing the wheel, but good enough.

17) AOA - Heart Attack

Okay, let's not dick around here - AOA know what image they are selling and it is perfectly evident in the video below. They started out as a weird mix of legitimate 'look we play our instruments' band and sexy rookie-girls which resulted, oddly, in their finest period of music: Elvis and Get Out, especially. This is AOA's best song since Get Out, with an absolutely enormous stadium-pop chorus, that once heard is hard to knock out of your brain. Lyrics, as expected, are borderline obnoxious ('you make my heart flutter, I feel 18 again' - honestly guys?) - but hearing this blast out at top volume from many a bar and restuarant in Seoul this summer meant it got jammed in my head relatively fast. AOA and songwriters The Brave Brothers obviously have a good relationship, and the girls pull-off their rather conventional sound a lot better than the others artists the musicians have worked with (see: T-ara). That is, frankly, a testament to AOA themselves - all of them being actual instrumentalists and probably far more musically-savvy than their submissive-sexy-cutsie image does justice.

16) B.A.P. - Young Wild and Free

After the lawsuit from hell, one of the most disturbing and revealing in all of K-pop, B.A.P. made good with their management and decided to be rock stars again. It feels a bit odd to label B.A.P. as 'pop' when their sound is frequently as aggressive and heavy as any alt. rock band you might want to name, and Young Wild and Free does the lads proud. This is the first song of my Top 20 that is also on the Dazed list, although they gave B.A.P. a placing in their Top 10. I still think B.A.P.'s finest moment is the aural orgasm of 1004 [Angel] - which also features the sort of superhuman dance moves known only to members of Shinee - and this is not quite of that standard. Still worth well more than the lousy $16,000 the band members claimed they were being paid by management though...

15) Exo - Love Me Right

Dazed had this at number three, which seems like quite a stretch to me... Exo probably hit their peak with Growl and last year's phenomenal hip-hop-rock-pop snarl Overdose. By contast Love Me Right... I dunno, it is strong but it does nothing to advance the Exo sound. It is infectous, it sounds great, the production is slick, the vocals are solid but it kind of begins, moves along and ends as a relatively traditional piece of Western chart music, which is not really what K-pop is all about... It just feels as if, after last year's Overdose - which set the bar insanely high - we should be getting something equally mind-blowing. Not that SM will be too concerned: Exo are still the biggest thing in K-pop, Love Me Right was a monster hit and the band's potential - as long as more members don't call it quits - is vast. The lads are charismatic, ridiculously good looking (the crowd reactions to some of their live performances still crack me up), talented, and they can dance their asses off. Yet, much as I enjoyed Love Me Right, and some of the subsequent album, I hope that their soundscapes become a little edgier in 2016...

 14) GOT7 - Just Right

This is number two for Dazed and it was certainly one of the great surprises of the year. It just sort of... well... it does the sort of thing you don't expect a jumpy-hoppy boy band song to do. I can't quite put my finger on the main chorus... it sounds half-way like an early 90s club track tinged with a slight baggy feel (I don't think I am imagining that). Yet it is still clearly rooted in saccherine chart-pop - even if it is far too far out to exist anywhere outside of South Korea. It is insanely addictive and once heard hard not to hum along to. I don't know - I like it but it confuses me. It feels as if I have heard this song ages ago and now it is repackaged in the Korean lingo and with 21st century production values. Maybe someone else can help me out...

13) T-ara - For You

For whatever reason, T-ara - coming off their best single to date (2014's absolutely massive-sounding club thumper Sugar Free) ditched the EDM approach that had been serving them so well and hooked up with AOA regulars The Brave Brothers for the turgid nostaglia-tinged disco-lite snore So Crazy. As I mentioned in the AOA entry, The Brave Brothers are more 'miss' than 'hit' - and T-ara obviously struggled to adapt to this lightweight bubblegum-pop sound. Simply put: it just isn't them. So Crazy was an inevitable flop - dragging K-pop's most consistently excellent singles band (argue) down by quite a few notches (and Jesus, dressing them up as stripper-sailors??? Does anyone even realise Boram is about to turn 30 and is starting to look seriously uncomfortable with this sort of thing?). Thankfully, B-side 'For You' is at least four star T-ara: beautiful, a little breathy and highlighting, in the chorus, the gorgeous vocals of Soyeon, one of the most underrated pair of tonsils in Seoul. Had it been released as an A-side this could have, likely, retained the band's reputation as the Queens of the Club Anthem. Unfortunately, it was ditched in favour of an A-side that does a group of this size and fan following no favours at all. Check out this beautiful acoustic rendering of For You as well. This would be Top 10 if it had been unleashed as the main attraction.

12) Super Junior - Devil

Super Junior have had to adapt to members coming and going for years due to South Korea's military service rules (22 months! Yikes!) but losing the uber-charismatic, and slightly rotund, Shindong is a serious blow to the band. Even in the video to Devil he is quite clearly missed - his exceptional dancing skills, coupled with his decidedly un-boy band girth, is always one of the highlights of a new Super Junior preview and performance. With this said, the group's new outing is tight, mature, funky-as-feck and led by an indie-guitar riff that reinvents the Super Junior sound all over again. Congrats to one K-pop's longest reigning idol bands - and a flagship of the SM brand - because this is one of their most impressive accomplishments to date. Even as the big 3-0 and beyond hits most of the men, it is evident that they are here for a good few years yet.

11) Taeyeon  “I (Ft. Verbal Jint)”

Another Dazed pick, Girls' Generation leader Taeyeon had one of the most anticipated songs of the year with her solo debut. This lush and breathtaking ballad won her critical plaudits and shot up both the Korean and World Music charts. It might seem a tiny bit smug that the leader of Asia's biggest girl group, who has been rumoured to be dating G-Dragon (and was previously hooked up with a member of Exo) would be singing about finding her confidence in the face of adversary but Taeyeon was always a bit... Goofy? Dorky? Maybe even a tad shy? Truth be told, we might never know the real Taeyeon until, like The Wonder Girls' lead vocalist Yenny, she actually writes some of her own material and throws her image to the wind in the process (such was Yenny's outstanding, self-lacerating Aint Nobody from last year - the sole K-pop song so far to even throw a little trip-hop into the mix). In the meantime, though, this is still a stunning solo debut and the accompanying mini-album is pretty damn brilliant too.

10) Girls' Generation - Lionheart

Okay this is where I cheat. To be honest, this should and would be my number two but I don't want to come across as too much of a fanboy. I was shocked Dazed left SNSD out of their top 20 list. Not only was Lionheart an absolute triumph, reinventing the girls as fifties doo-wop performers, it was one of their finest singles to date. It also eliminated the horrible smell of their stale summer 'anthem' Party, which  seemed to play out solely as an extended advertisement for Thai Airways. Nevertheless, as a group that appears to start from scratch with every new single, reimagining their sound on a ridiculously regular basis, Lionheart is pure genius - building to a beautiful harmony in the chorus and also, finally, giving Hyoyeon's husky voice a little more room to breath. It has been a long time coming. The track also re-established the Girls' Generation brand, with a long-awaited fifth Korean album (their first in two and a half year) that was perhaps their strongest indigenous long-play to date.

And we can't be friends if you don't like the below video.

9) 9 Muses - Hurt Locker

Another brilliant guitar-line - this time introducing a quirky, sonically schizophrenic, occasionally seductive but nonetheless huge anthem that was one of the year's best. Dazed has this at number eleven in their list and it was definitely a 2015 standout for me too. The lead into the chorus ('whatcha gonna do?') is a perfect tease to the epic club-beat that eventually takes over. This was designed to be a summer dance hit and, unsurprisingly, it was. In all honesty, this would have been a brilliant post-Sugar Free T-ara song. Instead, the largely underrated 9 Muses broke out with this cracking offering. It sits comfortably at the peak of my top 10 countdown. Fittingly, at number nine...

8) Exid - Ah Yeah

'Where do you live? Do you live alone?'

Number 20 for Dazed, this fits further into my Top 10, thanks to just the right amount of sass, sexy and social commentary. A rare K-pop song that laughs aggressively at masculinity, the single evolves into a double chorus before slowing down into the opening refrain and going for broke all over again with a euphoric burst of pop-enthusiasm. It leaves you breathless on the first listen and, rest assured, you probably will not be able wait for the second spin. From one of the most promising and popular rookie bands in the country, Ah Yeah anticipated late-in-the-year single Hot Pink. Yet, it is their earlier triumph that gets the nod here - definitely one of K-pop's highlights in 2015.

7) Red Velvet - Ice Cream Cake

It was SM rookie band Red Velvet, and their late-summer single Dumb Dumb, that got Dazed's nod for K-pop tune of the year. However, I was far more taken by Ice Cream Cake - which begins with a la-la-la-la vocal part that actually evokes something from The Omen rather than a blistering chart hit. From here, the song enters into a fierce dance beat with some half-spoken, half-sung vocals before slowing down and then exploding into a burst of electro-pop violence. The chorus seems to pause for a second before the girls finish things off with a more traditional piece of harmony. At first listen it is almost impossible to imagine getting your head around this monster - but once it is digested (no pun intended) Ice Cream Cake proves to be another rewarding SM-masterpiece. Even throwing in an unexpected rap and a random back-and-forth chant, this is K-pop at its very best - with every new twist and turn delivering a fresh burst of sonic heroin. When pop music can produce experiments as amazing as this it is a great time to be alive!

6) 4Minute - Crazy

The Hyuna-led band came up trumps with this energetic early-year gem which confidently goes from hip-hop to synth-pop to the sound of glass breaking and a slooooowed down bridge into a chorus where all hell erupts. Is it 4Minutes best single to date? Quite possibly. At first it sounds like a cross between typically well-produced pop-purity and something that sounds sort of riot grrrl-inspired with its in-your-face aggression (as possibly unintentional as that 'inspiration' might be). It is both beautiful and kinda ugly at once - but on repeated listens the latter part becomes somehow even more anticipatory than the former. As with the best K-pop songs this the sort of composition that takes a few listens to really appreciate, but - as with some of 4Minute's other masterpieces - it soon becomes apparent that this is an effort to cherish. Considering the younger age of Hyuna and company the future for this group is almost unimaginable.

5) Shinee - View

I never thought, in my wildest dreams, anything from Ibiza could ever inspire anything worthwhile. Then came View by Shinee. SM has been on a bit of a club bender this year - and whilst I would argue that F[x] got the slightly better deal with 4 Walls, and Girls' Generation picked the short straw with Party, it was Shinee who really capitalised on the typically hot South Korean summer months (and generally boozy culture) with this magical slice of house music ala SM Entertainment. Still one of K-pop's supreme singles bands, Shinee's View did not disappoint. Arguably more accessible than the band's Michael Jackson-homage Married to the Music, and less derivatively 'glam' than 2013's super-hit Everybody, this is well deserving of the top five placement it finds itself in. Purely artistically, this might be Shinee's finest short-play so far and its widespread acclaim surely bodes well for SM's future investment in the superstars.

4) Wonder Girls- I Feel You

Amazingly missing from the Dazed list, this throwback to eighties synth is gobsmackingly excellent. Coming off the back of her solo high, it would have been understandable if Yenny gave the Wonder Girls a wide berth but instead she helped to re-invent the now-foursome with a concept album that sounded as if it was, for the most part, beamed out of the new romantic era circa around 1983. As far as unexpectedly awesome returns go, Reboot by The Wonder Girls is a gold-standard album and this lead-off number was so bloody brilliant - and the video so sexily self-aware of current K-pop flesh-flaunting controversies - that it was impossible not to be reminded of how much the once-reigning supergroup have been missed.Whilst it is doubtful The Wonder Girls will ever be the all conquering force they once were, as in the 2011 days of Be My Baby (never mind the not-quite-US breakthrough Nobody), groups as talented as this (with Yenny, who also writes/ produces being odds-on as K-pop's finest femme-vocalist) come along once in a generation. So appreciate them while they are still here.

3) Big Bang - Bang Bang Bang

This year's Made was Big Bang's best album to date - and for anyone who knows just how spectacular this fivesome are that is one hell of a compliment. The group announced their new LP with the melodramatics of Loser and the more experimental Bae Bae (the latter making the Dazed list), but it was with Bang Bang Bang that the group finally had a loud, lavish dance-rock anthem that rivalled even set-list stalwart Fantastic Baby. Clearly designed to be blasted out of parties and nightclubs across Asia, at the early hours of the morning, this muscular-mosher changes tempo at an alarming rate before a race to the end that, on first listen, seems unwilling to conclude. In truth, the Placebo-meets-Bowie glam of Sober and the fragile beauty of Let's Not Fall in Love were probably my personal favourites from the Made album, but it was Bang Bang Bang which really indicated K-pop's most legendary band of boys (calling them a 'boy band' is an insult!) were back in action. With a G-Dragon solo return planned for 2016 it is an exciting time to know that YG's flagship group are still on top of their game. And then some.

2) F[x] - 4 Walls

Dazed had this at number four so almost something in common! Claiming that 4 Walls evidences the 'next sound evolution' in K-pop, the magazine summarises the adventurous and ambitious beauty in this instant-classic perfectly. However, what also needs to be mentioned is that 4 Walls is not even the best song on the quartet's new album. Easily clocking up the LP of the year, F[x] - who are often labelled as K-pop's token 'hipster' group (it is worth noting that they, and Hyuna, are unique in playing the SXSW Festival in Austin) - are now in a position where they out-experiment the sound of any 'great new hope' band hopelessly peddled by NME journos. So what exactly does the future hold for them? Western dominance seems unlikely given how radio unfriendly the hits are (seriously, listen to Red Light and imagine it on your car radio inbetween Coldplay, U2 and jingles about the weather) and yet the in-sync dancing and generally lavish videos just feel... odd. Especially at this point of artistic development where the band continue to craft entire albums full of five star excellence. This is a band whose sound makes Arcade Fire seem lazy. But who knows? It is a testament to the relentless SM and K-pop machine that a group as mind-boggling awesome as this even exists.

1) Girls' Generation- Catch me if you Can

The fans seemed to be split on Catch me if you Can.The girls' first post-Jessica single, however, saw a fit-as-fuck eightsome take on the EDM thump more typical of T-ara and run with it through a heavy-sounding, attitude-packed electro-blast of ear-piercing proportions. Turned up loud it sounds positively otherworldly - with a chorus that breaks down into a beastly loud repetition of electro-brutality. At first it just leaves you wondering what the hell is even going on but when you finally 'catch-up' this is Girls' Generation's most ambitious epic since I Got A Boy in 2013 (still, arguably, K-pop's artistic peak). Nevermind the naysayers, Girls' Generation continue to secure their place as a world-beating band - and it is with pushing the very boundaries of their previous sound-scapes, and adapting to new genres, that Taeyeon and company will continue to move forward, both as an artistic and commercial force. For me, this was the best K-pop had to offer in 2015 - a year that gave us an array of classics.

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