Sep 12, 2012

15 K-Pop Songs I Loved in August 2012


10 K-Pop Songs I Loved in July 2012

10 K-Pop Songs I Loved in June 2012

10 K-Pop Songs I Loved in May 2012

Five K-Pop Songs I Loved in April 2012

10 K-Pop Songs I Loved in March 2012

Five K-Pop Songs I Loved in February 2012

Five K-Pop Songs I Loved in January 2012

We Need to Talk About K-Pop (my K-pop mix)

1. EvoL - “We Are a Bit Different

Okay, first things first: EvoL are very much a post-2NE1 girl group, but rather than dislike them for how clearly they ape their K-pop mothers, I’m more impressed with the way the fundamental 2NE1 sound is yielding its own mutated fruit throughout the K-pop landscape. Before we proceed, let’s look at some comparisons between the “We Are a Bit Different” video and some 2NE1 videos (at one point, there’s even a banner in the background that reads “Evolution,” an unintentional nod to 2NE1’s New Evolution tour):

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, can we agree that “We Are a Bit Different” is a top-notch K-pop club banger? EvoL streamlines 2NE1’s dance-pop sound, not improving it but making it more flexible, though not “watered down”: EvoL have isolated the core elements of 2NE1’s musical DNA and brought them out into the public domain, able to be replicated by future groups. Of course, 2NE1 are defined so much by the presence of four distinct singers and personalities. By contract, EvoL are split primarily between Boms and CLs, powerhouse divas and fierce, warrior-women rappers. That they do this without sounding faceless and generic is what’s most impressive. Also impressive is the way they adapt themselves to American-sounding club jams—a little more emphasis on the “dance” than the “pop” in dance-pop than K-pop usually goes for—without moving away from K-pop’s love of the song.

The chorus is pretty simple, some “ahhs” and “yeahs” and “woos,” but man, are those notes some powerful, absorbing hooks, every bit attuned to the needs of the dance floor and carrying the sympathetic listener upwards and outwards in concentric circles of radiating ecstasy. And then you have the powerful rapping, most notably that of Jucy, the throaty vocalist who chews up syllables and spits them out with de rigeur attitude. Her counterpoint on the chorus (“brrrra!” “ah yeah!”) functions as the perfect release valve to Say’s soaring, tense vocals, like a DJ cheering you on to push your body a little bit more. It all combines to create a truly wonderful weightless feel. Ladies and gentleman, we have your preeminent K-pop club banger of the summer.

2. EXID - “I Feel Good

EXID’s “I Feel Good” makes an excellent companion to EvoL’s “We Are a Bit Different” because it was written and produced by Shinsadong Tiger, the man behind most of 4Minute’s hits, and so EXID are the wonderful nouveau 4Minute to EvoL’s 2NE1 2.0, a pairing of two groups who sound very similar but who have staked out rather different territory. “I Feel Good” has many of the qualities that makes “We Are a Bit Different” so refreshing, despite the obviousness of their influences. What makes EXID stand out despite these similarities is not only Shinsadong Tiger’s involvement—he is one of K-pop best songwriters—but also the uniqueness of EXID’s LE, their charismatic rapper. Her vocals, rubbery and mumbly, ping-ponging around the beat, mark her as one to watch in K-pop. Her tossed-off “I’m so high” captures K-pop fierceness and look-at-me attitude perfectly, and when she sings her “na na na na” hook, her voice becomes a pure instrument in Shinsadong Tiger’s nimble hands, ricocheting through the mix.

3. Junsu - “Uncommitted

How… pretty… is this? Gosh! We have here K-pop’s “Climax.” For his first English-language single, Junsu (aka XIA) lets loose some of the most gossamer-light, painfully beautiful R&B of the year. Skeptical Westerners will probably hate this, because you can totally hear Junsu’s accent (like, gross!) when he sings (even though that makes this all sound so much better! don’t you get it, xenophobes?!), but anyone who truly loves R&B will dig this. Junsu ballet-dances all over this track, threading his voice around the melody like a genuine artist. His voice has all the lightness of a butterfly fluttering its wings against your face, but listen to the lyrics, because man, this is a heavy song: “She’s telling me breaking hearts is a part of me.” Oww! And it’s like Junsu has been reading R&B tumblr opinions or something because he totally gets how that feminine vulnerability in male vocalists is big with everyone now (except, oh wait, that’s pretty much all of K-pop): I mean, how heartbreaking is “She said you’re not the right type, only good for one night”? Only good for one night? Junsu is the one being used and thrown out here, not the woman, and it’s tearing him apart. And what about “But how can I fix something I cannot see”? Or “She said ‘You’re not ready / Baby, you’re not ready for the real thing’”? Excuse me, I have to go now—there’s something in my eye.

4. Tasty - “You Know Me

In case you weren’t aware, K-pop has now fully digested and assimilated EDM, and it’s a glorious thing. Tasty’s “You Know Me” is perhaps the best and purest example of a K-pop dance track, heading further off in that direction than even EvoL’s “We Are a Bit Different.” The chorus is barely a chant (“Neo na ara” / “Do you know me?”), hardly a showcase for vocal prowess, and whatever lyrics there are sound pretty simplistic. You could see the duo Tasty, an EDM sort of take on JJ Project, as mere window dressing for a club track, and in fact, the video foregrounds their dancing as spectacle. After the second chorus, there’s a Skrillexian breakdown, kicked off with a slowly disintegrating “I wanna rock” refrain, vocals sinking into kaleidoscopic dance-floor quicksand. But what calls attention to the fact that “You Know Me” is, and could only be, K-pop is the bridge, complete with key change, in which the track becomes a genuine song—even in their most club-oriented work, K-poppers (thankfully) cannot relinquish their love of the song. And this bridge somehow, strangely, fits the purpose of “You Know Me” perfectly, an epic bit of hands-in-the-air empowerment that urges you on to keep dancing (“Don’t stop it, yeah”). This is followed by some climaxing synth frottage before the song sputters out, its job well done (efficiently and pleasurably).

5. Teen Top - “Be Ma Girl

Teen Top follow up their summery breeze of a song “To You" with a track that’s a little more like the party at the end of summer before everyone heads back to school, full of reckless abandon because the security of assured responsibility is in sight. At this point, Teen Top, with the help of producer Brave Brothers (who is, despite his name, just one person), gets by winningly just on pure vocal tone, and everything else is icing on the cake. I mean, just listen to how impossibly sweet those singers are (their names: Niel, ChunJi, Ricky, and ChangJo): Teen Top’s vocals are so pillowy, they threaten to disintegrate into thin air with sticky sweetness, like cotton candy melting on your tongue. Rappers C.A.P and L.Joe provide the requisite aggressive braggadocio and tough posturing to balance out Teen Top’s quartet of heart-meltingly seductive singers, but despite these two rappers attempts to butt in, their role is only ever like that of the getaway car drivers, cleaning up after the crime has been committed.

6. VIXX - “Rock Ur Body

VIXX’s single this month is another Shinsadong Tiger banger pushing K-pop ever into EDM territory, this time with a dollop of chiptune to start things off. VIXX lack the personality of EXID, but they handle the song well. And as they’ve proven with their last single “Super Hero,” they work best when singing together as a group in unison: the refrain “Rock your body, body” hits you like a brick wall in stereo. They also prove themselves game to relinquishing their autonomy as vocalists, letting Shinsadong Tiger play with their voices like putty (something of a signature trait of the songwriter/producer). Just listen to the “Baby baby baby-baby” in the bridge, which Shinsadong Tiger works into taffy (not unlike the bouncing rubber ball that is EXID’s LE), or the way, leading into the chorus, he pumps “rock your body” up with helium, bumping it up a few octaves. Everything about “Rock Ur Body” suggests experimentation around the edges, while still being committed to pumping out a good pop tune: after the first chorus, Shinsadong Tiger introduces heavy bass and warping, whistling synths (more than a slight nod to Timbaland), as if pulling the ground right out from under us—the effect is not unlike that thing in some video games where the floor gradually shifts from horizontal to vertical, making you scramble to safe ground. And everywhere, there are tiny details rewarding deeper attention, not only swirling synths trapped deep in the mix but also the opening guitar lick that springs to life like a compressed coil before disappearing underneath wobbly synth debris. You have to admire Shinsadong Tiger’s commitment to pop experimentation here, like a great Hollywood director sneaking subversion into an otherwise conventional project.

7. D-Unit - “I’m Missing You

Here is yet another rookie girl group exhibiting the influence of 2NE1, with member Wooram (the younger sister of Boram from T-ara) even sounding a little like CL. And another member, Ujin, was actually a former trainee with YG Entertainment. But the biggest connection is that “I’m Missing You” was written and produced by Kush, who’s worked closely with 2NE1 and Big Bang under Teddy Park before breaking off to work on his own. In fact, “I’m Missing You” was reportedly written for Big Bang to release before it was given to D-Unit. But the girls of D-Unit handle the song very well, proving themselves a group to watch. On the chorus, when they sing “Baby, I’m missing you,” they evoke the song’s feelings well, sounding not just that they are missing their absent lover but that they are desperately looking for him. The chorus generates a searching, tense feeling, suggesting how this heartache will linger on outside the edges of the pop song. If you watch the music video or take a look at any of their live performances, you see a group of tough-looking young women, clearly having inherited their style from godmothers 2NE1. The song turns so well on that signature emotion of 2NE1’s CL: aggressive vulnerability (lunging forward and retreating at the same time). D-Unit are one of many young girl groups who are doing something quietly radical, even if it only ever remains on the level of image: they are refashioning traditional images of the passive, lonely woman, who cannot do anything but wait by the phone or at home for her lover to return (there are hints of both in the video), into something else entirely. The emotions and lyrics say “I’m lonely and need you to return (because I feel incomplete without you),” but everything else, from their style to their dancing, is aggressive, striking, and commanding. In this sense, it’s quite significant that D-Unit are singing a song originally meant for a boy band. This represents a subtle but important shift that transforms the passive waiting into the active desiring (unmistakably gendered female in this context), and no one listening to “I’m Missing You” could miss that D-Unit is working wholly in the territory of the latter.

8. Kara - “Pandora

In the guiding hands of songwriting/production unit Sweetune (Han Jae-ho and Kim Seung-soo), Kara are a force to be reckoned with, and that’s because Sweetune don’t just compose songs, they write compositions. Their best work together is densely layered and elegant, the pop equivalent of Mozart’s grace and Chopin’s lyricism. “Pandora” doesn’t strike me as strong as the masterpieces of the past (“Wanna,” “Lupin,” “Step,” and others), but all the virtues of the Sweetune-Kara collaboration are evident. Together, they naturally create a heart-skipping rush that organically sits within meticulous designed soundscapes. That they manage to generate pure adrenaline, as in “Step,” within such a restrained compositional context is quite remarkable. “Pandora” rewards deep attention, and it may end up sounding quite different to you than how it initially sounded on the surface.

9. G-Dragon - “One of a Kind

It says a lot about G-Dragon, one of the key auteurs within K-pop, that I can praise a singles of his while simultaneously seeing it as a disappointment. Stylistically, G-Dragon flits back and forth between audacious gender-bending and traditional macho posturing, the latter of which is evident here (despite the obvious influence of the most femme of rappers Nicki Minaj here). The track, as sturdy as a tank yet threatening at all times to mutate beyond recognizability, is an impressive platform for G-Dragon to unleash some raps that are astonishingly pleasurable whether or not you speak Korean. But like “That XX,” the other single released so far from G-Dragon’s upcoming EP, “One of a Kind” doesn’t seem to know where it wants to head. G-Dragon sounds frustratingly confused about what identity he wants to assume, but there’s enough pent-up energy here, with no way out, to make it all fascinating. Still, it’s evident that G-Dragon has a lot more than this inside him, and I await his next true masterpiece.

10. AOA - “Elvis”

K-pop now has songs named after “Elvis” and “Madonna,” though neither really has much to do with its eponymous artists. But “Elvis” is an insanely catchy pop song built on the pleasures of the Korean language. There’s the onomatopoeic “dugeun dugeun” (the Korean sound of the heartbeat, or “thump thump”), there’s “Elvis jjirit jjirit” (translated on lyrics websites as “Elvis sizzle sizzle,” which is just fun), and then there’s the duo of “Bing bing bing baby, bang bang bang” and “Koong koong koong baby, kwang kwang kwang” (we’ve yet to see if that means anything or if it just sounds good). And they even manage to squeeze in squeaky, spastic “eeny, meeny, meeny, miny, moe.” (On top of that, looking at lyrics websites, it seems they might even by saying “bling bling” at one point.) So yeah, this song just sounds so much fun, like a bunch of manic pixies hell-bent on letting you know how much they love Elvis (if you can imagine that), and you should savor its exquisite, delicious phonemes.

11. 4Minute - “Love Tension

I see Japanese singles (especially those songs not released in a Korean version, or belatedly so) as K-pop’s swanky version of the bonus track. A pop group’s single releases form a narrative, and just a whiff of a subpar single sends fans into panic mode, but Japanese singles are quite often, essentially, narrative-less, side hustles of the truest kind. Sometimes you get songs that quite obviously appeal more to J-pop listeners, and you occasionally get some real winners (Girls’ Generation are the masters of this, not only with this year’s excellent “Paparazzi” but with their entire Japanese album, one of the finest K-pop full-lengths). 4Minute’s Korean singles are without a doubt their finest work, but a song like “Love Tension” is a delightful amuse-bouche to tide us over until they drop their next masterwork. “Love Tension” sounds very much like J-pop 4Minute, but the absence of Shinsadong Tiger is particularly upsetting: with him, 4Minute sound like mutant cyborgs, but they are mere human beings without him. Yet, “Love Tension” (written by two Koreans and one Japanese-Korean) is quite delightful on its own, with rubbery bass and drums as precisely programmed as military weaponry. In the bridge, it dissolves into pure disco before heading back for a just-earned victory lap.

12. Tiny-G - “Tiny-G

Um, so I feel I’ve mentioned 2NE1 a lot already, but I can’t help it: they are all over K-pop this month. Perhaps labels are realizing that the West craves the sound of 2NE1 more than any other K-pop act (aside from Psy, apparently). Tiny-G haven’t entirely lived up to the teaser video I first saw of them, but how could anything live up to four tiny, cute Korean ladies dressed up in basketball jerseys and looking hecka tough? Nonetheless, “Tiny-G” (and bands will always get points for naming songs after themselves) holds a lot of promise, especially on the chorus. And K-pop is now producing such inventive tracks that you might overlook the casual sonic brilliance of this modest track.

13. Two X - “Double Up

In the context of August’s other release, Two X sounds utterly conventional, but that’s not a bad thing at all. Like many of miss A’s songs, “Double Up” succeeds by just sounding so plainly beautiful, a real song with real singing. The harmonies on the chorus are gorgeous, and the synths are clean and diamond-sharp. “Double Up” just sounds glorious and triumphant, yet another fine single from a rookie group in 2012 (the numbers of which are swelling to the point of now being uncountable).

14. FIESTAR - “Vista

I’m not entirely sold on FIESTAR as a group, but this track is very likable. The snappy, dainty rhythm has a throwback feel (or, more precisely, it recalls the nouveau classicism of a group like Electrik Red, perhaps the most underrated Western girl group active right now), and in the hands of K-pop groups, disco like this tends to sound lovably old-school, almost chaste and innocent rather than sweaty and fiery. And yet, “Vista” doesn’t sound as old-fashioned as one might expect: the part where the piano in the background criss-crosses with the raps is pure, youthful hopscotching joy.

15. E-7 - “U

Approximate, “U” is what you get when you combine Boyfriend’s “Love Style” with Sistar’s “Loving U.” And that’s a good thing. It’s a slice of squishy, teddy-bear-lovable boy band romance, but it’s 2012, so there’s a dash of dubstep, which manages to sound utterly non-threatening (which I’m okay with). The chorus’ “You, ooh you” is rainbow-bright, a pure stream of tingly vocal goodness.

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