[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
Welcome back to our 2012 In Review series! We foray into arguably the heart of K-pop today – namely, the scene of ballad and down-tempo pop music. If anything, this genre’s only gotten bigger lately with the surge of indie bands and artists joining in the fray and a resurgence of folk music. (And yes, folk is classified into this category – this might change next year, but we’ll see.) An interesting tidbit: the picks in this category are really, really young this year. There are only a handful of featured artists that are over the age of 30 (only two over the age of 45), surprising results in a field that tends to be defined more by tempered emotion and the wisdom of years than any other genre.
The other thing about this category is that it’s very long. The honorable mentions list for songs here is by far the longest of any genre, and that’s after reducing the initial list by close to half. Selecting honorable-mention album picks was also difficult, as I have tried to limit total album picks to just ten for each category this year. These works you see below are the real deal.
Again, please remember that the Album of the Year and Song of the Year (and their runner-ups) are not included in the genre categories. That means that there could be a ballad (or any other genre) album that isn’t being honored on this page because it’s the album of the year. As always, honorable mention picks are sorted by alphabetical order of artist names.
Best Pop/Ballad Album 2012
Lucia - Décalcomanie (read our review)
Ballad albums without throwaway minutes are hard to come across, and the fact that Décalcomanie does not have a single filler track is a big boon. It helps, too, that these non-filler tracks it does have are warmly composed with soft but impactful instrumentation; that the moving melodies, particularly in I Can’t Fly and 그대의 고요 (Your Tranquility), deliver elation and exhilaration in a universal language; that the exquisite writing, which explores the finer nature of love, remains tender and thoughtful throughout; that Lucia’s nuanced, breathy performance keeps the album sensibly grounded. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, this is a breathtakingly beautiful work in all senses of the word.
Runner-up Pop/Ballad Album 2012
Yang Yang – 사랑의 노래 (Song of Love) (read our review)
“Some people just see life more beautifully than others,” I wrote in my review of this album. Song of Love then, in the summer heat (northern hemisphere here), was like a breath of fresh air offering gulps of unfiltered joy with healthy doses of serenity and respite. Half a year later, in a different season, it tastes just as rich. The generally minimalist instrumentation, often starring just a guitar or violin, is still calming and an invitation to sit down a moment to really listen. When Yang Yang elects to go loud – as in 정답은 사랑 (The Answer Is Love) - her sure-handed direction and memorable tunes still drive deep. Her melodies, which she takes care to keep as accessible as any pop song’s, are still engaging. Most importantly, her message is still heard, loud and clear. We still learn from its empathy, understanding, and yes, love. This is the value of an album that has both simplicity and timelessness.
9 and the Numbers – 유예 (Reprieve)
They achieve deepest resonance with simple, uncluttered sound.
Lee Han-chul – 작은 방 (Small Room)
A layer underneath the iconic optimism of Superstar lies a more pensive Lee. He’s pretty fantastic, too.
Lena Park (Park Jung-hyun) – Parallax (read our review)
2011 was her biggest year in the 14 since her debut; this is her biggest step since Op. 4.
Lucid Fall – 아름다운 날들 (Beautiful Days)
An exercise in holiday mellowness, quietness, and lip-biting deliberation.
Park Ji-yoon – 나무가 되는 꿈 (Tree of Life) (read our review)
I’ll be the first to admit that my score was off by a half-star or more. Park’s incisive lyricism and deep atmosphere are exquisite.
Park Soyu – Lonely Planet (read our review)
A wonderfully broad spectrum congeals in a nuanced exploration of ‘imperfection’.
Ravie Nuage – 하비누아주의 (Ravienuaism)
The band’s nature-themed imagery and accompaniments embrace both serene backdrops and sweeping vistas.
Younha – Supersonic (read our review)
Younha takes flight again, and past struggles are washed away by the album’s power and dedication to sound.
Zitten – 백야 (White Night)
Sung Yong-wook illuminates with powerfully distilled emotions and a compelling and intricate instrumentation.
Best Pop/Ballad Song 2012
Park Soyu – Oheyo
Going into this process each year, I usually have a pretty good idea of who I’m going to pick for each category. That wasn’t the case for this particular category, and when I had finished weighing merits and eliminating things, Oheyo was left standing. It’s a pick that I didn’t expect to make, probably one that no one else is making, and I’m still processing it as I write. (My Best Hiphop Song pick last year – Paloalto‘s Stay Strong – was similar.) That said, Oheyo deserves and has every claim to win this. A careful arrangement, the kind that Park Soyu has quickly established as her trademark, steps up; strings are nearly perfect, breaking through a surface of bells and rushing acoustics to set the anthemic tone. The lyrics offer a lot of food for thought (refer to the linked review above for more discussion on this) while being viscerally evocative. And the gorgeous composition culminates in one of the year’s truly great chorus lines, with both scale and rousing singalong moments. Everything you’d want in a seminal pop song is here.
Runner-up Pop/Ballad Song 2012
Zitten – 백야 (White Night)
It’s one thing to write beautiful lyrics, but another thing entirely to deliver them the right way. Fortunately, Sung Yong-wook is masterful at this. His warmly intimate prose and surreal, vivid imagery comes to life in an airy and almost-imperceptibly trembling performance. Pacing further helps to immerse us: the first verse, which represents coming to consciousness and gathering one’s bearings in a strange place, is punctuated by tame piano, while the second verse has instruments gradually added to it as the narrator starts learning and noticing things about this night-less place. White Night is an exemplary case of a musician using all the tools available to him to construct a scene that is more than just one-dimensional. Its four minutes do a better job of conveying a wondrous sense of discovery than some entire albums do at conveying their message. That’s not an exaggeration.
Arosaegin – 나에게로의 여행 (Journey to Myself). Dramatic escalations and unorthodox progression give this old-school rock ballad a unique flavor.
Autumn Break – 근황 (How-to-do). When Gyepi starts talking directly to the listener – that’s when this touching single goes from good to great.
Ben (of Bebe Mignon) – 오늘은 가지마 (Don’t Go Today). You’ve heard this kind of chorus before, but darned if it’s not effective every time.
Choi Baek-ho – 뛰어 (Run) (Featuring Park Ju-won, Malo). The weight of a 41-year career is felt in each cathartic call for celebration.
Daredaa (Reach the Moon) – 별의 축제 (Festival of Stars). Lovely lyrics and breathless sound – sort of like Rooftop Moonlight meets Lalasweet.
Fromm – 사랑 아니었나 (Wasn’t It Love). Husky tone and a rich instrumentation in happy union.
Herz Analog – 살고있어 (I’m Living) (Featuring So Soo-bin). [Read our related review] Vintage ballad in the Pastel Music tradition.
J Rabbit – Looking Around. It’s a realization of this duo’s tremendous potential – pretty melody, grand arrangement and all.
Kim Beggar – 독백 (Soliloquy). The anguish is piercing. “Nothing can I love, nothing is beautiful to me, what should I do…”
Kim Il-du – 문제없어요 (No Problem). A man’s expression of purest love, in the most meaningful way in the world.
Kim Sat-byeol – 운동 (Exercise). [Read our related review] This crowd-funded project exemplifies why indie music exists. An obscure but precious discovery.
Kiss Me Joy – 안녕 (Goodbye) (Featuring Kim Ji-min). [No studio version on YouTube] Back to basics: a melody this compelling will always trump fancy tricks.
Lee Eun-mi – 세상에서 가장 큰 피그미 (The World’s Biggest Pygmy). [No studio version on YouTube] Lee’s charismatic vocals make anything work, but when paired with a rousing track…
Lee Han-chul – 사랑 (Love). [No studio version on YouTube] Unobtrusive and harmless, but will catch ears regardless.
Lee Sol-ee – 건 (乾) (Dry). The final minute of this song, following the labyrinthine second act – that is the sound of madness.
Lena Park – 도시전설 (Urban Legend). Parallax had several tremendous tracks, but it’s fitting that the best one (and the one that grows on you over time) comes from Jung Suk-won.
Lucia – 그대의 고요 (Your Tranquility). Listen to the earnest melody, feel the eager happiness.
Lucite Tokki – Grow to Glow. [Read related review] That piano rhythm is another example of Lucite Tokkii’s expanding spectrum.
MIIII – 별이 운다 (A Star Weeps). Could have ended up trite, but execution saves it. Also, it’s much longer than it feels like.
Naul – 바람기억 (Memory of the Wind). One explosive hook was all Naul needed to run away with this one.
Nine9 – 약속해 (Promise). Taking a breather from Dear Cloud‘s modern rock, Nine9 finds a cozy home.
NY Fish – 여기에 (In This Place). Here, in this place, is an understanding comfort, a triumphant contentment.
Poetree – Lost (Featuring Jung-yup). Repetition strengthens messages. Fact.
Ravie Nuage – 바람, 바람 (Wish, Wind). [No studio version on YouTube] Small touches – like the extra section taken between verse and chorus – add to the satisfaction of their wholesome sound.
Rooftop Moonlight – Bird (Featuring Yoo Sae-yoon). Old love is forgotten and something new is in the air – or so we think. Its beauty is in its ambiguity.
Sonyun – Last Day (Featuring Kim Bada). Leave it to these guys to turn a love song into an epic.
Soriso – 영웅 (Hero). A stirring tribute to parents everywhere.
Summer of Thought – 안녕 (Goodbye). A slight hint of retro in the melody, and a lot of it in the sensibilities.
Untouched Wind – 정말 지금일까 (Is It Really Now). Cryptic lyrics add a contrasting dimension to this appropriately breezy piece.
Waikiki Brothers Band – 메아리 (Echo). Kim Jin-woong‘s steely voice speaks volumes on its own.
Yoon Gun – 힐링이 필요해 (October Rain). A fairly significant genre change, but he handles Britpop just as well as R&B, and with as much emotion.
Younha – 소나기 (Rain Shower). A tour-de-force vocal performance from Younha, perhaps the best of her career, is put to great use on the sonorous finish.
What do your picks look like for this category? Discuss with us in the comments, and join us tomorrow for Part 7 for a rundown on all the smaller (but no weaker) scenes!
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely of the reviewer and not of hellokpop as a whole.
Release: October 17, 2012
Distributor: Danal Entertainment
Genre: Pop, ballad
I was really, really high on Lucia’s 자기만의 방 (A Room of One’s Own) last year. It was generally well-received, but as far as I’m aware no one else gave it anything as high as my 4.5-star rating. I still abide by that review, but perhaps that is a disclaimer that’s needed before I start talking about Décalcomanie.
So Lucia is back with this ten-track EP. (You read that correctly – ten. For an EP.) This time, the entire album is hers; label mates like Epitone Project and Sentimental Scenery took a back seat, as Lucia composed and wrote each song in Décalcomanie.
With that level of control comes a new-found consistence. This album is, even on first listen, a lot more cohesive than A Room of One’s Own. The instrumentation remains more or less homogeneous – primarily piano- and string-based, always pleasant and played straight at some times and jazzy at others, then some sprinkles of other acoustics.
But what really makes Décalcomanie come together are the motifs. Lucia has said that the album’s theme is ‘exhilaration’, and her greatest success in this work bringing that emotion to life musically. This is found in voluminous tracks like I Can’t Fly and 그대의 고요 (Your Tranquility), both of which develop a humble opening melody into grand, rousing refrains. These feel similar in approach to Lena Park’s experiments with grandeur in Parallax – I Can’t Fly is even lyrically reminiscent of Park’s 그렇게 하면 돼 (That Will Do It). Still, Lucia works in her touch: her focus is tenderness rather than power. She breaks and pulses her voice rather than belt, and eschews sharp notes in favour of lots of breathy air.
The instrumentation follows suit. Again, Lucia builds this scale and volume using finesse; ringing piano chords and assured strings effortlessly ramp up the energy, even while leaving plenty of space for the artist’s burgeoning vocals to fill. This approach appears again in I Still Love, where a rock sound-set is used to provide an ambient, diffracting backdrop rather than as centrepiece, and in 보통 (Average), where Lucia defers to a soft chorus to express an uncontainable sense of eager love.
The ‘exhilaration’ theme is not limited to the sweeping ballads. 필로소피 (Philosophy) sings of an improbable happiness borne out of a tumultuous relationship, while 소중한 사람 (Precious Person) and 신이 그를 사랑해 (For God Loved Him) express the instinctive joy of belonging and of possessing. These are the more obvious applications. Surprisingly, even the gloomier tracks here can be read in the same context.
Lead single Savior is a sad song. The narrator chastises herself for not having known that a loved one had been her “savior”. But in this case, that very discovery is the source of a weird, primal kind of elation. The narrator says: now I know. I was mistaken, but now I know and that is what’s important. There’s a sense of regret in repetitions of “You were my savior” at the refrain, but in context this is drowned out by the stronger sense of catharsis. 연극이 끝나기 전에 (Before The Play Ends), on the other hand, focuses on a psyche frozen in the past, in a moment of glorious enrapture.
With these thematic layers as well as the poignant language and nuanced sound, Décalcomanie shapes up as a rich album. There’s a lot to listen to and listen for here. Save for a little repetitiveness by the end, this is a well-paced work with no throwaway tracks. With its tender and crisp sensibilities, Lucia’s EP is a quintessentially autumnal album; then again, maybe things like this are simply timeless.
Tracklist (recommended tracks listed in bold)
1. 소중한 사람 (Precious Person)
2. I Can’t Fly
3. 그대의 고요 (Your Tranquility)
5. 필로소피 (Philosophy)
6. What Should I Do – Featuring Zitten
7. I Still Love
8. 보통 (Average)
9. 연극이 끝나기 전에 (Before The Play Ends)
10. 신이 그를 사랑해 (For God Loved Him)
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? Tell us in a comment below! Requested albums will be considered each week and may be selected to be reviewed in the subsequent week.
Release: June 15, 2011
Distributor: KT Music
Chances are, even if you don’t know who Taru is, you’ve heard her voice before. Since her 2007 debut as the vocalist of electronic-alternative band The Melody, and subsequent transformation into a solo artist, this singer-songwriter’s lithe, delicate voice has been a draw for listeners and an asset for herself. The once-”Goddess of Hong-dae” (referring to the college town around Hong-Ik University in Seoul, a central scene for Korea’s indie musicians) went on to participate in a huge number of commercial songs, while working closely with other indie big-names like Humming Urban Stereo and fellow Pastel Music artist Sentimental Scenery. (In Sentimental Scenery’s newest album, she is featured in the title track as well as in another that was originally a commercial tune.) Even mainstream-focused listeners have probably heard of Epik High‘s 2008 masterpiece 1분 1초 (1 Minute, 1 Second), where Taru sang the well-known chorus.
But sophomore album 100 Percent Reality throws a lot of Taru’s previous images out the window. This is a thematic and genre-wise departure from Taru’s two previous major releases, EP R.A.I.N.B.O.W and studio LP Taru. Everyone knew Taru was a versatile vocalist, but in general she used to stick to electronic pop and shibuya-influenced electronica, with some ballad streaks thrown in. On the other hand, this album, which was written and composed from beginning to end by Taru herself, is much more heavily pop ballad. The focal point of her music seems to have shifted a bit.
An emphasis on ballads means attention to emotions, and Taru proves to be more than deft in this regard. From the heartbreaking, escalating climax of lead single 여기서 끝내자 (Let’s End It Here) to the steady, soothing mystique of 내 사람 (Mine), the singer covers a very wide spectrum of the genre; her voice audibly adapts and takes on different forms, as moods and instrumentation do the same.지금이 아니면 (If Not Now) is intensely memorable for its gorgeous melody and accompaniment, perhaps the best out of any song released so far this year, as well as the hauntingly evocative lyrics and restrained performance.
Of course, there are also some reminders of the bubbly easy-listening fare from the past. 아이스크림가게, 팬시보이 (Ice Cream Parlor, Fancy Boy) is one such throwback, complete with ear-pleasing atmosphere and an unsuppressed quirk. 이슈 (Issue) is another, and has Taru channeling a little old-school Park Ki-Young in a traditional upbeat alternative track. I’d call 말해줘요 (Tell Me) a third, but this one is a little harder to classify–it marries the obligatory (for a Taru album, that is) social critique track with a ballad soundset of escalating grandeur and scale. (This particular case is reminiscent of Death Cab For Cutie‘s Transatlanticism.) Tell Me actually deserves a lot more scrutiny than I can give it in an album review–it’s a very sophisticated piece of work, where the message is visible but not obvious, impressed upon listeners but not forced. The accompaniments speak volumes as they crescendo and subside; the lyrics are innocent yet poignant and nuanced.
That such tracks emerge is a testament to Taru’s skill as a singer-songwriter. As mentioned, she wrote and composed the entire album by herself (you’ll see the songs credited to a “Kim Min-Young”, which is her real name). While she had some help from fellow Pastel Music labelmates–Epitone Project‘s Cha Se-Jung rearranged Taru’s version of Let’s End It Here to create the featured duet version performed with Zitten‘s Sung Yong-Wook (also from Pastel) and Sentimental Scenery helped arrange Issue–the finished work is fully a product of Taru’s own artistic freedom. Which is how 100 Percent Reality gets its distinguishing characteristics: genuineness and authenticity. This album has very little that feels artificial. No tragic melodies written to force tears, no elements included just to sound cool.
I mentioned the climax to Let’s End It Here earlier. Taru said she wrote the song based on her experiences, and perhaps because of that, there is no forced emotion here. The faint, longing melody is just as visceral as the lyrics are austere. The climax in question, where Taru and Sung repeat a harmony of “잘라내자” (“let’s cut it off”), is the best example: it’s a simple expression, a curt and blunt way to express what’s happening. It’s emphasized again and again, each time more emotional than the last, as the strings and guitar race to a breathless conclusion. There are many such memorable moments throughout 100 Percent Reality; each one is powerful precisely because it’s so real. The album is sometimes a five-minute dramatic epic and sometimes a snapshot of everyday life, but it’s always refreshingly candid.
One thing I found notable: 100 Percent Reality is nominally eleven tracks long, which is sort of on the lower end for a full-fledged studio release, and three of the last four tracks are different arrangements of Let’s End It Here. The “band version” is actually interesting, but the solo version is mostly redundant and the radio edit predictably so. (Not that they shouldn’t be there, but the ordering is a little odd.) But it’s clear that this album is not lacking in effort, lengthy or not.
100 Percent Reality is an achievement, and it’s also a promising sign of things to come. This is likely only one slice of what Taru can show listeners, just like how her first album and the more recent Mr. Destiny were other slices of their own. She’s said before that she does not want to be bound by genre or structure; that’s exactly what happened here. What the future has in store for her motto of “music that comforts” is yet to be seen, but in the meantime, 100 Percent Reality is one of the best albums in recent memory.
Tracklist (recommended tracks listed in bold)
1. Moment In Love
2. 지금이 아니면 (If Not Now)
3. Love Me
4. 여기서 끝내자 (Let’s End It Here) – Duet with Sung Yong-Wook of Zitten
5. 아이스크림가게, 팬시보이 (Ice Cream Parlor, Fancy Boy)
6. 이슈 (Issue)
7. 말해줘요 (Tell Me)
8. 여기서 끝내자 (Let’s End It Here) – band version
9. 내 사람 (Mine)
10. 여기서 끝내자 (Let’s End It Here) – solo version
11. 여기서 끝내자 (Let’s End It Here) – radio edit
Photo credit: maniadb