Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Essential K-Pop Songs of 2015

The time has come to share more music randomness from South Korea. This year was tougher than last to sort out the top five slots. There was so much variety and throwbacks to decades past that incorporated old and new genres that I love. Like last year I wanted to highlight a few songs and the artists that made an impression on me. I hope you find something here that entertains you.

Do not be afraid, my friends. The whole point of this list is to present something unfamiliar that you wouldn't have discovered otherwise. Let's go!

5)Wonder Girls - I Feel You

Album: Reboot
Back in 2007, Wonder Girls was perhaps the first k-pop group that I became familiar with and they dominated the airwaves in Korea with some catchy hits. Over the years some members changed, others worked on solo projects for a while, and the group went on hiatus in 2013. They reformed this year as a four member band with an 80's concept, playing instruments for the first time as part of their performance.

I was happy and surprised to find an upbeat number with a music video that captures the neon haze and ridiculous glam of the eighties so well. Even the production quality and mix feels very true to form for the retro sound. Plus, there's something very entertaining to me about a girl performing rigid dance steps in heels and one-piece swimwear while jamming on a keytar. If any of this rings your bell I highly recommend checking out their entire eighties themed album Reboot that features this song. It's a solid eighties concept album that does everything from Madonna-esque dance pop to darker synth-rock, and the whole thing sounds truly truly truly outrageous.

4)Lim Kim - Awoo

Album: Simple Mind
There's something so lovely about Lim Kim's voice. Her breathy singing is unique - often ethereal - and I've enjoyed every song she's put out. So I was thrilled to see her release a full album this year.

"Awoo" has a less than conventional sound with its up and down pitched melody, and simple bass line, but it's that voice that makes it so pleasant and pulls the whole thing together. So many of the tracks on the album are a dreamlike experience, with her quiet voice guiding you over heavy electro beats. I highly recommend listening to it as you drift off to sleep.

If you ask me what is supposed to be going on in the video, it's hard to say. There seems to be a teasing theme going on, and Lim Kim acting like a cat, but besides that I don't have a clue. It's very colourful, well produced, and suits the unusual sound of the song. Like a lot of Korean music, it's the quirkiness that draws you in, and Lim Kim is a talent to watch.

3)Hyukoh - Hooka

Album: 22
Hyukoh is a four member indie band that have been part of the underground music scene for a couple years, but really gained wider success this year with multiple hits. Oh Hyuk, the leader of the band, has been especially busy collaborating with other singers and producers throughout the year and he has lent his soulful vocals to several songs that I love.

While there were other songs for Hyukoh that peaked higher on the Korean music charts in 2015, "Hooka" was the one that I kept coming back to again and again for its chill intro that builds into a solid blues rock tune. The style and especially the chorus reminds me of The Doors, but I have no idea where the band draws their inspiration. I haven't gotten that specific vibe from any other tracks.

Many of their songs have both English and Korean lyrics, but the English is easy to miss because of pronunciation and unclear meaning. I don't consider it a downside, but just an element of their style. In "Hooka" the harsh pronunciation adds intensity as the song progresses.

All in all, Hyukoh is band I'm excited to see more from in the new year. I think you'll agree.

2)Brown Eyed Girls - Brave New World

Album: BASIC
In Korea, Brown Eyed Girls have been making an impression on the music scene for a decade now, and the song in question is from their sixth album, proving that these girls are still working hard to be innovative and to last in this competitive industry. You may even be vaguely familiar with them if you happened to watch Psy's follow up song to "Gangnam Style". In his music video for "Gentleman", the core dance choreography is lifted directly from BEG's hit song "Abracadabra". One member of the group, Gain, even appears in the video alongside Psy performing the dance she made famous.

When I first listened to "Brave New World" it caught me a little off guard. The song changes gears throughout and it felt jarring in the beginning. It was on repeat listens that the song took hold in my brain and I could appreciate the brilliant composition.

"Brave New World" opens strong with a throwback sound reminiscent of late 70's Michael Jackson, then quickly shifts into a more modern beat. The instrumentation driving the song is amazing and I love how the contemporary pop elements melds with an underlying orchestral arrangement that's sprinkled with funk and disco. The chorus hits hard with powerful vocals, and then I can't sit still. Later in the song listen at the rap breakdown (at the 3:17 mark) where the song filters down to something new, and then builds back up with strings as the beat returns. Every time I listen I keeping hearing new details.

The music video also fits the song well, with it's futuristic imagery and settings, and the ladies look stunning. Overall the song is excellent for its creative arrangement, the strong vocals, innovative transitions, blending of genres, and wrapping it all up in a stylish presentation. I can't get enough of this song, and I hope you give it a listen, or two.

1)Red Velvet - Dumb Dumb

Album: The Red
Okay you guys, this last one is crazy as fuck. The first viewing is an all out assault on the senses, and the song is wild and bombastic. Red Velvet debuted in 2014 with four members: Irene, Wendy, Seulgi, Joy, and most recently, Yeri joined in 2015. Fun Random Fact: Wendy grew up in Canada from an early age and auditioned here before joining the group.

The music video alone is worth checking out for the insane production value and screwy imagery. You have objects smashing apart in slow-motion, a rag doll robot dance, cloned girls marching down conveyor belts, giant mechanical claw arms, impossible boxes of flailing legs, and so on. Some people say the imagery in the video is depicting the manufactured idols of the Korean pop industry. That would explain the cartoonish factory producing and packaging identical looking girls. In that way Red Velvet could be making a statement about itself as a group and the nature of pop idols in Korea. Or it could just be more typical wacky k-pop stuff.

Despite being a rookie group Red Velvet is quickly gaining success with the release of their first full album The Red. It hit Number One on Billboard's World Albums Chart in September and this video was ranked #9 in Rolling Stone's 'Best Music Videos of 2015'. Honestly, I don't think I listened to another current album - K-pop or otherwise - more than "The Red" this year. It's just that much fun.

"Dumb Dumb" is brassy, experimental, and like the rest of the album, bursting with energy. These girls have real talent, and their vocals shine on every track. If you enjoyed this, then I recommend "Ice Cream Cake" their single from earlier in the year which I feel is easily as good as "Dumb Dumb", but I didn't want a group or artist appearing twice on the list.

It may seem like nothing but flashy nonsense to some, but Red Velvet delivered a crazy upbeat song with a memorable music video, in one of the best top-to-bottom pop albums I've heard in some time. Check it out.


AlleyBetwixt said...

Great list!

Extremely cool that you focused on the albums as a whole. Total agreement on these choices. Such fantastic complete albums in 2015. I really hope it continues through 2016. It's a fairly special thing for the Kpop industry to be doing at all. Albums usually have lots of filler in pop. Hopefully less of that and more awesome music to come!

I think I'm gonna go listen to Reboot again. It's so glorious.

Rock on, dude.

RyHo Magnifico said...

I like the Lim Kim stuff! I always enjoy these lists, because I have absolutely no frame of reference when it comes to K-Pop so I'm learning something completely new each time you write one.

Great stuff!

Shane said...

Thanks so much, Alley! Kpop has been impressing me more and more each year, and I hope the hits keep coming for 2016. Already with a new album from Mamamoo on the horizon for next month, I'm pretty pumped. I'm sure you are too. Don't stop a rocking over at Kpoppy.

Glad you enjoyed the list, Ryho! You honestly can't go wrong with any Lim Kim release if you choose to listen to more. I noticed that her album and "Awoo" in particular popped up in other forums like /r/music last year and I hope she gains more popularity outside of Korea.

Peace out!