Monday, December 29, 2014

Must Listen K-Pop Songs of 2014

Today's list serves two purposes: to introduce you to songs you would never have listened to otherwise, and to acknowledge one of my guiltiest pleasures ... K-Pop music. Even though I lived in Seoul for over three years, it wasn't until I returned to Canada that this unexpected obsession began to form. I became drawn to the hypnotic and polished music videos, the vibrant enthusiasm of the performances, and all the absurd details that add charm.

Let it be known that this list is not strictly for the pop genre. While some of my choices here lean more into R&B, hip-hop, and so on, I'm using K-Pop as a blanket term for any popular songs from Korea, regardless of genre. So, open your mind and ears, grab some headphones, and let's get to it.

5. Hi Suhyun - "I'm Different"

Our first song is collaboration between Lee Hi and Lee SuHyun, two talented young singers with unique vocal styles that turned out to be a perfect match. There is a music video for the single, but I decided to post the song alone because the video was made almost as an afterthought when the song became popular, and I feel like its presentation will distract from the song.

The song has a sweet groove to it and there is an uncanny 60's sound to this catchy beat. It doesn't feel overproduced, and the vocals really shine. If you enjoy the vintage sound, you may soon find this on a loop in your playlist.

4. Dynamic Duo - "Summer Time"

Comprised of Choiza and Gaeko, this hip-hop duo has been making sick music for over a decade. When I stumbled upon Dynamic Duo it was a goldmine of incredible songs and collaborations with a wide array of talented artists. "Summer Time" is a good example of their often playful style.

I love the neon hues of the music video and that it looks like some cartoonish detective show where the two members are playing every character. I couldn't say what story they're trying to tell or why it appears to be an endorsement of Dunkin Donuts besides the fact that they share initials. The song is compelling nonetheless. If you find yourself rocking to this beat, you should immediately check out tracks like "Hot Wings" and "Baaam" from their album last year titled Lucky Numbers.

3. SISTAR - "Touch My Body"

Speaking of summer, in July this excellent 4 member girl group released an infectious single that became an instant hit, dominating the #1 spot on all music charts in Korea. I love everything about this song and video, from the inexplicable sax playing Korean Elvis, to the unusual trying-to-remove-underwear-wedged-in-ass-crack-without-using-hands dance move. More than any other K-Pop song I listened to this year, "Touch My Body" sounds catchy and mainstream enough to be a hit on the American music charts. It sounds like pure unfiltered joy, and let's be honest these girls are easy on the eyes.

SISTAR has been around since 2010 and are known for their signature sexy style, but here they are presenting themselves in a more playful, flirty manner. It's just a goofy summer party that had me grinning from ear to ear. After the second listen I welcomed this earworm to lay eggs in my brain, and if this song doesn't win you over I'll gladly eat my watermelon shorts.

2. Seo In Young - "Thinking of You (feat Zion T.)"

Not only is this a relaxing and sweet song, it's easily one of the most beautiful music videos of the year. Seo In Young - aka "Elly" - is a former member of the longest running Korean girl group, Jewelry, and she sounds amazing paired with the soulful voice of newcomer, Zion T. I'm secure enough in my masculinity to say that I often swoon over his songs.

"Thinking of You" is a mellow, yet emotional song about different perspectives of a breakup. You may not understand the lyrics, but the feelings are apparent, and the vibe bittersweet. Combined with the psychedelic and sexy visuals this song captures the perfect mood, and it feels refreshing. I could jam to this all day.

1. Mamamoo - "Piano Man"

I honestly can't get enough of this song or this group. Mamamoo debuted at the beginning of 2014 and I've adored everything they've put out and collaborated on this year. The group is a vocal powerhouse with a wonderful old school but modern style. And yes, a weird name.

"Piano Man" is their most recent single and it has a bit of everything. There are little hints of jazz, swing, ragtime, and big band throughout the song. The more I listen, the more I appreciate the instrumentation and cool piano licks that dance around the vocals. There's a sick rap break from Moonbyul and the harmonies of Solar, Hwasa, and Whee-in give me chills. The music video is packed with energy and it's the perfect example of why I'm finding so much enjoyment in K-Pop. It's lively, creative, and a flat-out wonderful performance.

More than any other Korean group or artist I'm excited to see where Mamamoo goes next. Considering that they're still a "rookie" group, they are truly killing it with each new single and live performance. "Piano Man" is a song that brings the heat and keeps impressing upon repeated listens.

Moving forward I hope to make this an annual list if the hits keep coming. While it's hard to find music that can appeal to a majority of people, I hope that you've found something in this list that put a smile on your face. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Weird Christmas Traditions Returns

Every time I decide to write one of these lists I’m shocked that I can dredge up even more tales of odd and wonderful Christmastime traditions, but here we are again and I’ve amassed five more of the weirdest Yuletide customs from around the globe.

5. Pictures with Santa… and High-Powered Firearms (USA)

In Scottsdale, Arizona hundreds of people from around the community flock to the Scottsdale Gun Club to get a wonderful, traditional photo with Santa. The big man in red isn’t so much the focus of the photos, though. No, it’s probably the $80,000 Garwood mini-gun that the club has setup in the background. This bad boy would make Arnie proud.

At $10 a pop, you and your family can be fitted with your choice of machine guns, pistols, rifles, and racks upon racks of belt ammunition. Don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking, “But, what I really wanted was a picture of Santa with a grenade launcher. Christmas is ruined.” Fear not! Grenade launchers are also available at the club. You can even go classic and get a picture with a good ol’ AK-47.

Described by the club as “… fun from those who support the second amendment and those who don’t”, they state that, “Whether you’re a gun advocate or not, you should have a lot of fun with it.” And who wouldn’t!

I don’t think anything properly expresses the true holiday spirit like a rosy-cheeked child holding a high-powered boomstick, draped in ammo like Rambo.

4. Family Saunas (Estonia)

How many times have you been sitting in a nice steamy sauna, the woes of your day evaporating slowly from your muscles, and thought to yourself, “I really wish I had my family here to enjoy this with.” Well in Estonia, your dreams can be answered.

Estonia has an interesting dichotomy to their Christmas traditions. A blend of Pagan and Christian events are observed. There’s mysticism, spirituality, and Christian themes at play, but everything looks like a very traditional Christmas you’d see anywhere in North America.
The party starts on December 21st for Estonians with St. Thomas’ Day and runs right until the Epiphany on January 6th. In some areas it is stretched out one extra day, until St. Canute’s Day on the 7th. The Christmas Holidays, specifically, are celebrated from December 24th to the 27th.

Known as jõulud, the celebrations have as much to do with the Winter Solstice, and the impending cold and dark, as they do with the birth of Christ. On Christmas Eve many interesting traditions are kept, including fortune telling, but there was one in particular that caught my eye.

After preparing the traditional jõulud feast, and before church services are held, all the Estonian families will find a nice sauna to spend the afternoon together in. How does that all go down? Well first everyone gets naked, bathes, lathers themselves up in honey, and then wile away the afternoon, whipping one another with birch twigs to really massage and clear your skin.

I love spending time with my family around the holidays, I really do, but I don’t want to get naked with them and practice S&M right before church.

3. Danny and his Grandmother’s Cookies (South Africa)

You might think that from a geographical standpoint that South Africa wouldn’t really practice Christmas traditions, but being that it was mostly populated by European colonies, the customs found a home there. From what I can tell, in fact, Christmas is pretty traditional in South Africa. But, like good ol’ Krampus, there’s nothing like a story of absolute terror to keep those kiddies in line.

During the seemingly normal Christmas festivities, families will gather up all of their children on Christmas Eve, to tell the story of a young boy named Danny. You see Danny lived with his Grandmother and in preparing for Christmas and Santa, she had baked a batch of delicious cookies for the jolly old elf. Those cookies were so tempting that Danny couldn’t contain himself, and he ate the whole batch.

So what did Grandma do? Did she tell Santa and have Danny’s presents turned to coal? Nope. Did she scold him for what he’d done and make him bake a fresh batch for the Claus? Wrong again.

No, in a fit of rage she brutally murdered her grandson. Now, his ghost haunts South Africa during the Christmas holidays, reminding young children that they need to be good, practice patience, and not be greedy or their grandparents will take their lives away from them.

2. Las Parrandas de Remedios (Cuba)

Cuba has a pretty interesting history with Christmas. For 30 years it was outlawed by Castro after he declared the government atheist in 1969, and it was only in 1998, prompted by a visit to Havana from Pope Jean Paul II, that Cubans were allowed to practice the traditions of Christmas once again.

One of the more elaborate events in their Christmas celebrations is Parrandas, which is essentially a huge carnival. The most famous Parrandas celebrations happen in the city of Remedios, where Parrandas was first conceived.

The story goes that a priest, Father Francisco Vigil de Quiñones, wanted the townspeople of Remedios to come to midnight masses during the week leading up to Christmas. In order to keep people from going to sleep Father Francisco would send the altar boys from his parish out with pots and pans, which they would bang while singing at the top of their lungs. Eventually this turned into a kind of street party and that tradition has remained until this very day.

Today’s Parrandas is a far cry from the street parties of 200 years ago. There are several events that take place during the carnival, which begins at 10:00PM. The first is rumba dancing with fireworks known as palenques. These fireworks are meant to be completely soundless in their launch, but burst over the crowds of dancers, surprising and scaring them as they dance in the streets below.

In the second event, massive floats are pulled into the city’s plaza, each created and decorated by different cities surrounding Remedios. The floats are decorated in your usual lighting and colours, but also each float has actors who are meant to signify the theme for the year, and a story which is read aloud as their floats make their way to the plaza. There’s one caveat: the individuals on these floats are not allowed to move in any way as the float is moving some 40m. It is considered a “demerit” to the district if the actors move on their floats.

The final piece is a row of 20,000 rockets, which span up to 4 city blocks, and that are lit off and explode in the sky in a volley of fireworks. After the rockets, mortars are launched (for good measure), which are meant to be the exact opposite of the palenques set off at the beginning of the carnival; they are loud and canon-like to announce the end of the festivities.

1. A Christmas of Fear (Iceland)

For most of the the Americas Christmas is a time of warm hearths, music, family, and all those gumdrop dreamin’ kids, but I’ve also found another prevailing element to Christmas outside of North America: fear.

I’ve already visited the Krampus in my previous list, so you know this sort of thing exists, but Austrians have it easy compared to Icelanders, who have to deal with a broad menagerie of monsters trying to eat them at Christmastime.

First there’s the Yule Cat, or Jólakötturinn. A massive, man-eating beast, the Yule Cat is said to prowl on - get this - those who have not received new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. In what has to be one of the most direct examples of fear being used to drive the masses, wealthy farm owners used to give clothes to the workers who finished their Autumn wool preparations. In order to make sure they worked fast enough, they came up with the Yule Cat and the story that if they didn’t finish by Christmas Eve they’d be devoured by a monstrous beast.

Over time the Yule Cat was enveloped by Icelandic folklore and became the pet of the Giantess Grýla, a gruesome witch who lives in the mountains of Iceland. Once a year Grýla descends from her lofty perch and using her innate ability to detect misbehaving children, she captures bad kids all over Iceland, brings them back to her cave, and makes them into her favourite dish: a nice hot stew.

If that wasn’t enough, Grýla managed to entrap a few husbands along the way. With her third husband, Leppalúði, Grýla birthed a brood of child-eating troublemakers known as the Yule Lads, or Jólasveinarnir. The Icelandic version of Santa Claus, for all intents and purposes, the Yule Lads or usually portrayed as pranksters that cause all kinds of havoc in the countryside. There are thirteen Lads in total, and in many ways remind me of Snow White’s dwarves. Their names describe each of the Yule Lads’ specific traits; there’s Sheep-Cote Clod who likes to torment sheep and sheepherders, Bowl-Licker who, well… lick bowls, Sausage-Swiper who steals sausages, and Stubby… you get the idea.

Although there seems to be a lot of fear-laden tradition here, there is some good. The Yule Lads, for all their mischievery, also reward good children. If a child has been good all year and places their shoes outside their window-sills on the thirteen nights before Christmas Eve, they may receive a present from one of the Lads. If they were bad, though, they might receive a rotting potato! You know, if they don’t eat those children instead.