[2012 in Review Series]
0. Prelude – Best Album Art
2. Best R&B/Soul
3. Best Rock/Alternative
4. Best Rap/Hip-hop
5. Best Dance/Electronica
6. Best Pop/Ballad
7. Best Crossover/Miscellaneous
8. Best Original Soundtrack
9. Best Collaborative Work
10. Label of the Year
11. Rookie of the Year
12. Song of the Year
13. Artist of the Year
14. Album of the Year
15. Concluding Remarks
Here we are, folks, at the end of another great year in music. That means our Year in Review series is back, and the 2012 edition is packed with more timeless contributions to the annals of Korean popular music than ever. That’s not just a figure of speech – this year’s picks are actually more numerous and more comprehensive than the 2011 installment. You can see this year’s categories above – hopefully you enjoyed the prelude article – and starting today, we’ll unveil one category a year leading up to the final article on December 31. Sometime afterwards, we will also have a readers’ poll for all of you to participate in choosing your own very best of the year – so stay tuned for that too!
If you’re interested in numbers, this year’s list was composed after reviewing a total of 1,639 lead singles and an additional 800 (approx.) album tracks released between December 1, 2011 and November 30, 2012. (I unfortunately don’t have a precise count for albums.) A total of 286 singles and 141 albums were initially chosen as candidates, and ultimately this pool was narrowed down to the 196 singles and 66 albums that you will see recognized in this series. (The “prelude” article from last week, “Best Album Art”, had 197 candidates that were eventually narrowed down to 100. Over half of those albums are also represented in the series proper.) The final list features 210 primary artists.
The reviewed pool was not complete by any means; consider that over half of the 1,600 lead singles were parts of EPs and LPs. Additionally, a significant portion of Korea’s more obscure scenes – such as jazz and ethnic music – were not covered, although they are all represented to some extent. Nevertheless, my hope is that this ends up being one of the most comprehensive 2012 K-pop roundups you can find on the Internet.
2012: Events and Trends
As is traditional (for all of one year), I start off the series by doing a quick recap of the year’s biggest events and trends in K-pop. Let’s take a look at what had people talking this year.
1. Op, op, op, op, oppan Gangnam Style: Really not much more to be said here. 11-year veteran Psy became a worldwide sensation in the truest sense of that word with viral single Gangnam Style, going places that no Korean artist had ever gone before. At time of writing, Gangnam Style is the most-viewed and fastest-growing YouTube video of all time at 957 million views, with 1 billion surely in hand within the year. It reached #2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for seven weeks, a feat no Korean artist had even been close to. It topped mainstream and online charts elsewhere. It swept social media and traditional media alike, not only in the United States and Korea but quite literally all over the world. With politicians, athletes, musicians, actors, and other celebrities worldwide joining in the spread, Gangnam Style became 2012′s definitive cultural phenomenon and household name. No one expected Psy to be at the center of such a breakthrough, and I’m not sure we completely understand all of it even today. One thing is certain: the success of this thing is going to be researched and debated for years to come.
2. The decline of idol group dominance: Before Gangnam Style, Busker Busker ruled the scene in the first half of the year. Fresh off of a second-place finish on audition show Superstar K3 (more on this in a bit), the indie band released a self-titled debut album in March and never looked back. Sales figures exploded, netting Busker Busker the coveted “perfect all-kill” (topping every major chart in the country) as well as the first sweep of Melon‘s top three monthly spots in that chart’s history en route to over 25 million downloads, by far the most of the year. This was but one example of the ways in which the K-pop mainstream scene branched out from the usual idol-group domination. Ailee, Juniel, Lee Hi, and more made forceful commercial and critical debuts, even as Verbal Jint, G.na, Ga-in, Lee Seung-gi, and others continued to make waves of their own. Sales figures still show continued dominance by established idol groups, but the relative struggle of most of 2012′s rookie idols are potentially telling. Is the five-year reign of idol groups on the mainstream ending?
3. Bigger roles for audition shows: You could argue that at least part of the above phenomenon was due to the rising popularity of audition shows. And heck, two of the above artists are in fact from those shows. With the sustained success of the Superstar K series and less spectacular but steady influence of Top Band and The Great Birth, everyone wanted to get in on the fun this year. So we saw K-pop Star yield such rookies as Lee Hi and 15&, while The Voice Korea got us Son Seung-yeon and Hayena, and so on. There were some odd cases – Show Me The Money probably caused more headaches than it was worth for Mnet, while Top Band 2 ended up being more like I Am A Band 2 with its roster dominated by established bands – but in general, the shows did what they were supposed to. Previous contestants of these shows such as Busker Busker, Huh Gak, Ulala Session, Jang Jane, Kim Greem, John Park, Seo In-guk, Kim So-jung, HarryBigButton, Kim Ji-soo, and more were all staples on the mainstream scene this year; newer ones like Roy Kim seem like locks to become the same. The shows themselves are beginning to die out, but credit them for providing a welcome influx of talent that will be around for years.
4. Evolutions in sound philosophy and design: Several artists surprised us last year with creative sounds – Idiotape, The Koxx, and Sentimental Scenery come to mind immediately. That trend has kept up in the indie scene this year, with Glen Check and No Respect For Beauty leading the way in bold new directions of electrorock and postrock, respectively, while eAeon took the full-synthetic route and presented us with sounds we’ve never heard before. Artists like The Solutions, Born Kim, and Jambinai mixed and matched diverse genres and crafted their own paths, while Lowdown 30 and Naul completed striking reinterpretations of blues metal and deep soul. Perhaps most exciting is that none of the artists are done yet – sound experimentation is becoming more sophisticated and bolder by the year, and these and other teams will undoubtedly continue to explore the cutting edge.
5. Scandals, scandals and more scandals: On the sobering side of things, K-pop also had its share of regrettable incidents. Block B‘s February gaffe, where the members came across as insensitive and even offensive to Thailand’s flood victims while allegedly trying to interview lightheartedly, continued to bite the group for weeks as a Stardom Entertainment (then Brand New Stardom) official’s comments and fake news reports added fuel to the fire. The summer was alight with controversy, as first Nickhun was arrested for a DUI and then the T-ara Twitter scandal erupted. T-ara, along with alleged details of an internal bullying of member Hwayoung, dominated the Internet as well as entertainment news for days even amidst the Olympics fever, taking repeated clarifications from both Core Contents Media and Hwayoung herself to simmer down.
The end of the year had the tabloids milking details out of an alleged relationship between IU and Eunhyuk in perhaps the year’s silliest scandal. Finally, rumors of discord between longtime friends Kim Jang-hoon and Psy struck in the midst of the Gangnam Style mania as Kim attempted suicide in October, and a media circus followed as unrelated third parties sued and escalated the deal way beyond the core issue – that of an alleged concert plagiarism and staff poaching by Psy. This story had a happy ending, at least, as Kim and Psy were able to make up. There were other scandals, large and small – but even with just this, what an eventful year it has been.
There’s my recap of this year in Kpop, and that will wrap up Part 1 of the “2012 In Review” series. Join us tomorrow as we kick off the reviews with the best R&B and soul music of 2012!
Release: July 3, 2012
Distributor: A&G Modes
Was there any 2009 release that was a more massive letdown then Younha‘s Peace Love & Icecream? It was painful to see the promising young artist, whose astonishing sophomore album Someday (2008) had dazzled every critic in the land (I’m being quite literal), release a flawed and incomplete album that was riddled with plagiarism accusations. The fact that the titular acoustic track was actually good made the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the album that much more lamentable. Growing Season and One Shot, while better, did little to undo the damage.
Fourth album Supersonic comes out of the aftermath. The lawsuit is over, and Younha is with a new agency. The most obvious result of this change is a renewed focus on rock. Whereas Someday experimented a bit with that, its base still remained accessible piano-rock and pop ballad; that approach goes out the window here, as Younha references modern, punk, and nu metal to forge the album’s harder tracks.
Titular opener Supersonic hits the ground running with velocity and palpable groove in its riffs. The track still plays close to a rock ballad, but its instrumental heaviness is a reassuring sign of Younha and producer Lee Kwan‘s (who also oversaw the 2009 albums) commitment to change. Rock Like Stars has attitude to match its steady tempo, although it struggles to be engaging. Complexly layered and spliced No Limit completes the album’s troika of heavy tracks with a clear reference to Seo Taiji‘s nu metal phase in Live Wire (2004).
These tracks are successful on the whole, not least because of Younha’s deftness in navigating them. This artist’s vocal prowess isn’t exactly news, but it really shines when we examine her versatility in different settings. She puts some croon into her voice and steels her notes to follow Supersonic‘s explosive but melodic chorus one moment, then replaces that with a subtle, playful drawl and drag to go along with the uptempo No Limit the next. She’s exceedingly comfortable in each environ, and that turns what could have been an instrumental showcase into solid songs.
Younha’s vocals are on further display in Supersonic’s ballads, most prominently in 소나기 (Rain Shower) and Set Me Free. These two, while still ballads, are affected by the album’s focus on rock; they borrow from the modern rock and post-Britpop of bands such as Nell and Coldplay in crafting spectacular atmosphere and packed sounds. (Kim Byung-suk‘s work in these tracks should be enough to quell concerns about his melody-writing ability.) But far from being drowned out, Younha thrives in this dense setting.
With authority, she takes over and drives Rain Shower to a thrilling climax. It’s the album’s best performance by far; it has been a while since we’ve heard Younha let it rip like this, and the result is as emotional as it is cathartic. She lets the instrumentation do some more of the work in six-and-a-half-minute epic Set Me Free, especially when it comes to creating scale and spectacle with dramatic snares and rushing string/guitar riffs, but she handles the lesser-but-crucial vocal parts with the delicacy of a veteran band vocalist.
There’s some other interesting experimentation here. People, lead single Run, and Driver all incorporate synthrock to various degrees, and they sound pretty good. Various elements like Younha’s Rihanna-channeling in Driver and Cho Gyu-chan‘s imaginative lyrics in 크림소스 파스타 (Cream Sauce Pasta) give further novelty to the album. Tiger JK, John Park, and Jay Park are all welcome voices, and while they don’t contribute all that greatly, they represent new avenues of collaboration for the future.
One thing to note, however: as divergent as this album is from Younha’s prior career, she didn’t write or compose many of its songs. That’s not to say that her creative participation was low, since it appears that she worked extensively with the producers to craft the album. But curiously enough, the lyrics of Run, No Limit, and Driver – three songs that seem fairly explicitly to deal with Younha’s struggle with her former agency – are all listed as being written by others, which made me do a double take. On the other hand, Younha did co-write and co-compose Set Me Free, arguably the album’s most significant track (both musically and lyrically).
Supersonic isn’t a masterpiece, and it doesn’t quite reach Someday‘s level of consistent excellence. That said, you’d be hard-pressed to find a work of this much ambition from an artist Younha’s age. Her music has seasoned through adversity, and I believe her personal prowess is greater now than ever. Supersonic is, instead, a triumphant return and new beginning.
Tracklist (recommended tracks listed in bold)
3. Rock Like Stars – Featuring Tiger JK
5. No Limit
6. 소나기 (Rain Shower)
7. 우린 달라졌을까 (Would We Have Been Different) – Featuring John Park
8. Set Me Free
9. 크림소스 파스타 (Cream Sauce Pasta)
10. 기다려줘 (Please Wait)
11. Driver – Featuring Jay Park
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely of the individual and not of hellokpop as a whole.
Have a recent release that you’d like to see reviewed? Feel free to tell us in a comment below! Requested albums will be considered each week and may be selected to be reviewed in the subsequent week.
On the 29th of June , We Alive released Younha‘s video teaser for her anticipated comeback album Supersonic. The video displays Younha standing still with her eyes closed while beams of light are flashing from behind her. The music accompanying the video increases as the camera draws closer towards Younha’s face.
A representative from We Alive stated:
“Younha artistic appearance is etched into this upcoming fourth album and is filled with songs that Younha wanted to sing and wanted to show her fans. This opening teaser is not very vivid but we wanted to create a mysterious feel by focusing on Younha standing in the light and the camera closing up on her. We ask for your love and support.”
Supersonic will be released on the 3rd of July and will feature Jay Park, Ra.D, Jo Kyu Chan, Tiger JK, and John Park. Younha will also hold her comeback concert Run on July 28. Take a look at the teaser below:
Release: November 15, 2011
Distributor: Loen Entertainment
‘Tis the season, and the music scene will have you know it like no other. I’ve already lost count of how many Kpop artists – mainstream and indie, old and young, groups and individuals – have taken part in the annual December wave of releasing holidays-themed music in the last couple weeks, and there will only be more to come. In particular, Kim Dong-ryul was ahead of the curve this year: not only did his holiday release, puntastically titled KimdongrYULE, come in mid-November, before pretty much anyone else, but his is also a full-fledged Christmas collection that also doubles as a regular studio release. This is always a cool concept, and while they’re fairly rare (Park Ki-young released a similar concept album last week, but she’s the only other one so far this year), these collections tend to draw more attention. Especially so when the artist is Kim Dong-ryul, one of the most consistently high-selling ballad artists in the land.
KimdongrYULE tries to catch two birds with one stone. As Kim himself says, this is the culmination of his decade-old goal to make an authentic Korean winter album. But in a more subtle way, the album also tries to be a collection of good ballads in their own right. In other words, it blends the line between purely functional music and pop music, and brings both under its wings. That much is evident even from the album’s composition: while most of its eight tracks are indeed carols or similarly holiday-themed, a few – including the lead single – have nothing to do directly with Christmas. But more on this later.
On the yuletide-celebration side of things, KimdongrYULE is as close to seminal as it gets. Kim’s soft, sometimes jazzy style of composition and arrangement, which uses a lot of sounds like electric piano, gentle strings, and light percussion such as bells, lends itself to Christmas music rather well. From the holy serenity of choral Prayer to the warm coziness of ballad 크리스마스잖아요 (Because It’s Christmas) to the festive grandeur of the newly rearranged carol 크리스마스 선물 (Christmas Present), Kim covers essentially the whole range of traditional holiday music in the first three tracks. 한겨울밤의 꿈 (A Midwinter Night’s Dream), a jazz ballad track which, along with Christmas Present, is a remake of a track from Kim’s 2000 album Hope, rounds out the Christmas lineup along with duet 새로운 시작 (New Beginning).
겨울잠 (Hibernation) is a little different: accompanied only by the warmth of his intentionally untuned piano, Kim sings an austere, solitary melody in beautiful, expressive language. It’s a great track of its own, but it also acts as a setup for lead single Replay. To be clear, Replay is not holiday material at all. Nor is it quite like Hibernation. Nor is it in the style of Monologue (2008) and other soft, easy-listening works that have become Kim’s trademark. It’s instead a devastatingly emotional and massively scaled ballad, in vintage Kim Dong-ryul form. A return to roots, if you will. Replay‘s operatic score and structure employs the same kind of brooding, slow buildup and intense climax as Kim’s celebrated older works like 기억의 습작 (Etude of Memories), and the song eschews elegance for rawness. Dramatic instrumentation leads the song to stormy waters, where Kim’s vocals, normally calming and reassuring, cry out with unkempt ferocity.
Why is this track included on KimdongrYULE, let alone as its lead single? That’s a good question, and I’m not sure what the answer is. Kim says he wrote Replay in the early 2000s but set it aside at the time; that would explain the similarities to older albums. But for whatever reason, he chose to dust it off and put it on his holiday album, and that gives KimdongrYULE a whole additional dimension. It’s no longer merely a Christmas collection, but rather a work that, as said above, blends the line between functional and popular music. There is deliberate intent in this. Kim didn’t throw in a completely out-of-place track and call it good; there’s a setup for Replay in Hibernation, and upon closer look, the song’s theme fits in with those of solitude and isolation found elsewhere on the album. Take a step back, and suddenly some lyrics of KimdongrYULE seem a bit melancholy for holiday music.
By the time uplifting closing track 우리가 세상을 살아가는 법 (How We Live This World), a goodie bag of sorts for ballad fans featuring nostalgia-inducing, 90s-style instrumentation and a massive star-studded cast of 18(!) ballad artists (see the tracklist for the full cast), ends, the feeling is strengthened. By combining two distinct and generally discrete fields of music, Kim Dong-ryul has created new nuances and subtleties. KimdongrYULE‘s Christmas songs are lovely, and the ballads evocative. When they come together, each is even more so.
Tracklist (recommended tracks listed in bold)
2. 크리스마스잖아요 (But It’s Christmas)
3. 크리스마스 선물 (Christmas Present)
4. 겨울잠 (Hibernation)
5. 새로운 시작 (New Beginning) – Featuring Park Sae-byul
6. 한 겨울밤의 꿈 (A Midwinter Night’s Dream)
8. 우리가 세상을 살아가는 법 (How We Live This World) – Featuring Yu Hee-yeol, Lee Sang-soon, Yun Sang, Jung Jae-hyung, Na Yun-gweon, Lena Park, Jung Sun-yeong, Ha Dong-gyun, John Park, Harim, Lee Juck, Lee Young-hyeon, Kim Jae-suck, Hwang Sung-je, and Sweet Sorrow (In Hojin, Song Woo-jin, Kim Young-woo, and Sung Jin-hwan)
Photo credit: maniadb