2012 in Review: Part 1 – Introduction
[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!