Footnotes: A Year in K-pop, 2011

I had an unusually difficult time trying to figure out how to structure this list, and these difficulties mostly stemmed from the realization that I generally have a hard time picking favorites when it comes to K-pop. To be more specific, I don’t completely love everything and I don’t completely hate anything. But I guess that’s how K-pop is supposed to work. The idea behind popular music is that it’s supposed to be popular amongst everybody, which thus implies that the whole concept of ‘artistic taste’ kind of goes out the window.

Popular music runs on the promotion of catchy lead singles, and the process of creating a successful lead single itself is an art. It’s easy to write off pop music as being insubstantial fluff made only to attract an audience of unpolished ears and eyes, but it is that assumption that helps set apart a good lead single from a poor lead single. With K-pop being more visually- and performance-oriented than any other pop genre, the K-pop lead single is its own animal. 2011 was fortunate enough to have a good share of well-produced lead singles, with less attention paid to gimmicks and more attention paid to originality and detail.

There wasn’t a single promotional track that stood out above the rest this year, and it was impossible to deem one song as the “best” in 2011. But to me, this is a good sign. For one, it means that there was a good diversity in music within the K-pop scene this year, and that despite the differences in style within each lead single, the quality was still consistently high. More importantly, it made for an overall more interesting K-pop scene. It’s nice to have a “Sorry Sorry” or a “Genie” pop up every now and again, but sometimes it’s better to have a garden rather than a giant magnolia tree amongst a field of weeds. 2011 was a garden year, and this list reflects that: it’s a smorgasbord of the lead singles that not only caught my attention this year, but also proved themselves to be strong as a promotional single in some aspect, whether it be through live performances, music videos, concept design, or the music itself.

So without further ado…

TONIGHT – BIG BANG

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Released February 23rd

This promotional cycle seemed to be kind of lackluster for Big Bang, and I can’t seem to put my finger on the reason why. The hype was there, the song was good, and Big Bang pulled off killer performances as always, but there was just something about this promotion that made it strangely forgettable. The members’ solo promotions seemed markedly more memorable than the group promotion, which somewhat worries me because, well, Big Bang is still Big Bang, y’know? But in any case, the song isn’t to blame — it’s a solid track that sticks to the basic denominator of Big Bang’s hip-hop style while infusing modern elements and beats. And, of course, the performances — GD’s overly gratuitous guitar smashing at the end of every perf was excessive, but one can’t deny that it made an impact.

BEFORE U GO – DBSK

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Released March 14th

Oh, DBSK. I don’t know what to make of you anymore, what with your newfound penchant for bad electronica and bullseye patterned fur suits. But I’m glad that I still have this gem to salvage from you. I was so (so, so, so) excited for this song — not because it resembled anything DBSK released when they were still five — in fact, I don’t think DBSK ever released an R&B monster like this one, but that might have to do more with the timeliness of musical trends above all else — but because it was a chance for Changmin and Yunho to properly prove themselves. And prove themselves they did; Yunho and Changmin exhibited an extraordinary amount of growth in vocal ability, and it still kind of blows my mind that Yunho, the weakest vocalist of the original group, is shouldering half the vocal weight in a heavy-duty R&B ballad. As for Changmin — while I still find his voice to be grating and somewhat uncomfortable to listen to, there’s no doubt that he’s leveled up quite a bit. And, of course, it certainly helps that the song is just plain good — this is Yoo Young-jin doing what Yoo Young-jin does best, and the results are just stunning. Also — most impressive SM music video to date? For all its ridiculousness and excessiveness, it’s still pretty great.

INTUITION – CNBLUE

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Released March 21st

CNBLUE seemed to be everywhere this year, didn’t they? They released their first full-length album in March, but somehow managed to stay in the K-pop scene throughout the entire year and just kept showing up with new songs from that album. CNBLUE has a really consistent sound, which makes it easy to accuse them of being unoriginal and repetitive. But CNBLUE also straddles that delicate line between mainstream and non-mainstream, which then allows them the luxury of staying true to their style while enjoying the popularity of a devoted fanbase. I think that’s the main difference between CNBLUE and FT Island; FT Island has already secured their place in full-blown idoldom and hasn’t looked back since. CNBLUE, however, seems to be solidifying their role as K-pop’s resident rock band gone mainstream-but-not-quite…and honestly, that’s a pretty good place to be.

MIRROR MIRROR – 4MINUTE

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Released April 5th

4minute sits in a funny place with me. The amount of talent in 4minute is astonishingly low and unevenly distributed, but Cube does a ridiculously good job of making 4minute look ridiculously good, and “Mirror Mirror” is a good example. The music video is crisp and well-produced; it’s everything I could ever ask for in an idol-pimping video. And while the song itself isn’t all that great, it fits 4minute well, and they did a good job promoting it. As a performance group, there’s not much to be said about them. But I like to think that Cube uses 4minute to display their production chops above all else. 4minute is a vehicle for Cube’s creative staff, and as long as Cube’s creative staff is doing a good job, then there’s really nothing wrong with that.

TO ME… – RAINBOW

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Released April 6th

I think I’m always going to cheer for Rainbow regardless of what they do, because it’s so obvious that they’ve been forgotten amongst the slew of mediocre girl groups that debuted at around the same time as them. Rainbow is a classic example of a group that improves steadily with every release; “Gossip Girl” was a straight-up hot mess, but “A” and “Mach” were pretty good and “To Me” has turned out to be one of my favorite girl group songs this year. Rainbow’s vocal sound has a classical ring to it that I really like, and their vocal style is slightly more conservative than that of other girl groups. There’s something about Rainbow that’s just so clean, and it draws me to them. “To Me” is a respectable song that hasn’t received nearly enough recognition. For a group that’s signed to a large company like DSP, it’s surprising that Rainbow doesn’t have a better street cred, even after two years after debut. But good things come to those who wait…right?

DR. FEELGOOD – RANIA

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Released April 6th

Rania, Rania, Rania. Started off so strong, pattered away so quietly. Honestly, there was lots I disliked about Rania, but even then it was impossible to deny that they were a talented group with so much potential and so much to add to the K-pop scene. On the one hand, I wish that they hadn’t come on so strong with the sex with “Dr. Feelgood,” but at the same time, it would’ve been twice as hard for them to get any startup recognition in the first place. It frustrates me to no end that they were dragged along by Teddy Riley from the very beginning, and were then dropped faster than you can say “girls bring the out.” In a perfect world, these girls would get picked up right away by a sensible company who knows the worth of their talent, and then they would proceed to blow all the other groups out of water. If only, if only.

OK – B1A4

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Released April 21st

Best debut of the year? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I haven’t heard a male idol group debut with B1A4’s level of vocal versatility and stability since SHINee, and while it’s clear that the B1A4 really can’t dance, that’s not stopping them. B1A4 has put on pitch-perfect live performances since their debut, and let’s be honest: when was the last time we ever heard a pitch-perfect anything in K-pop? That alone should be enough to set B1A4 apart from the rest, but what I really love about B1A4 is their complete disregard for the traditional seriousness of being a so-called “singer.” Their songs and performances are always fun and quirky without ever sacrificing the integrity of their vocal performances. “OK” was a great debut song for B1A4; it captures their quirky, fun attitude to a T. Their subsequent releases generally run along the same grain — and while the songs are fun and exciting, I don’t think they do the greatest job of catching people’s attention or allowing B1A4’s abilities to shine. It’s a shame that B1A4 doesn’t have the amount of widespread attention that it deserves (since most of the attention seems to have been diverted to Boyfriend…seriously, what the eff), because there’s something golden about this group that’s just waiting to explode. Rumor is, One Way’s Chance will be writing B1A4’s next track…and by God, if the combination of B1A4’s talent and the sheer quality of Chance’s songwriting skills doesn’t catch everyone’s attention, then I don’t know what will.

FICTION – BEAST

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Released May 17th

Beast done good this year. I think they’ve been strong from the very start, but it wasn’t from this year that they really found their footing. Fiction and Fact was my favorite album this year, and the higher-ups at Cube made a good decision in using “Fiction” as the lead single. It was a risky move — “Fiction” is a low-key song that doesn’t smack you in the face like most lead singles do. But it sticks with you. It’s so obvious that great care was taken into creating “Fiction,” and I appreciate that kind of detailed work from anyone. Stick that with a group that’s as talented as BEAST, and you’ve hit gold.

HANDS UP – 2PM

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Released June 20th

In terms of pure production and promotional value, “Hands Up” was the definition of unimpressive. But it was fun to watch — and for a group like 2PM, that may make all the difference. 2PM does fun, clubby stuff like “Hands Up” best, and what’s strange is that they debuted doing fun, clubby stuff, but somehow veered into the land of emoness and glittery eyeshadow and managed to stay there for more than a year. “Hands Up” prompted me to finally breathe a sigh of relief — there isn’t another K-pop group that does the club thing quite like 2PM, and it’s good to see 2PM reclaim their original concept. But more importantly, the release of “Hands Up” also accompanied the release of a strong album that showcases 2PM’s musical versatility — and who thought that 2PM would actually be known for their music? In comparison, the year that spanned between the releases of 01:59PM and Hands Up was a period of non-growth for the group. Hands Up was a big step forward for 2PM, and it’ll be interesting to see where they’ll go after adapting this different style.

I AM THE BEST – 2NE1

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Released June 24th

Because what isn’t an end-of-year list without 2NE1? It seems as if 2NE1 is best at making a lot of noise wherever they go, and “I Am The Best” did a good job of exemplifying this. I don’t think I’ll ever come to completely love 2NE1, but they put on a better show than any other K-pop girl group, and I think most other girl groups would have a hard time pulling off half the stuff that 2NE1 can get away with. “I Am The Best” is a ridiculous song, but 2NE1 sells it and more. Additionally, “I Am the Best” also heralded an impressive full-length album with a surprising amount of musical variety. The risk that comes with producing a group like 2NE1 is the fear of getting stuck in a concept rut. But the ballads and midtempo tracks on the album do a good job of bypassing this obstacle and making 2NE1 a little more multidimensional.

MONA LISA – MBLAQ

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Released July 12th

Man, MBLAQ, do I have to start taking you seriously now?! “Mona Lisa” was probably the most surprisingly impressive release of the year, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised; most of the older “respectable” sunbae boy groups who debuted in the mid-2000s had a rough first year after debut before falling into their stride by their second year. Both of MBLAQ’s releases this year (BLAQ Style and Mona Lisa) were remarkably strong, and it’s becoming increasingly tempting to want more. Like U-Kiss, it’s obvious that a good amount of careful planning went into creating MBLAQ’s last two singles, and it shows. Combined with strong live performances and a decent music video, “Mona Lisa” became one of the most memorable singles of this year, if only because it came from a band whose musical career until now was lackluster at best and laughable at worst. But “Mona Lisa” was an ambitious project with something to prove, and MBLAQ did it justice.

GOODBYE BABY – MISS A

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Released July 18th

My opinions of miss A have flip-flopped ever since their debut, but the release of “Goodbye Baby” and their first full-length album had miss A ending 2011 on a good note. There’s no doubt that miss A is chock full of talent, and is arguably one of the most promising new girl groups that’s debuted in the past two years. But even the most talented group isn’t impervious to bad, gimmicky music — and that’s exactly what hurled miss A back into the background. “Breathe” made me facepalm like no other group has made me facepalm, but thankfully, miss A saved themselves with “Love Alone” and “Goodbye Baby.” Plainly put, I loved everything that went into the production of “Goodbye Baby” — song, music video, choreography, everything — and though one can easily argue that “Goodbye Baby” is a “Bad Girl Good Girl” clone, I like the idea of miss A having a consistent musical style. Extra points if that musical style isn’t chained to a time period, a la Wonder Girls.

NEVERLAND – U-KISS

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Released September 1st

I feel like I’ve already said a ton about U-Kiss’ transformation this year. Maybe it’s because I just like a good underdog story and I’m really, really hoping for U-Kiss to become the underdog story of 2012. With the release of “0330,” it was clear that the old U-Kiss was gone and over with — a prospect that, considering the sheer quality of “0330” and the Bran New Kiss mini album, I would’ve been more than happy with. But “Neverland” surprised me. For one, it maintained some of the dark, gothic, eyeliner-stained elements that defined U-Kiss before 2011, but re-introduced it in a way that seemed a lot easier to swallow. This was primarily aided by the fact that the song was really, really good. Judging from their appearances in “Tick Tack,” it seems as if U-Kiss will still hold onto the studs-and-chains look, but it won’t become their main image. The musical variety on the Neverland album as well as the Bran New Kiss mini shows evidence of U-Kiss’ musical evolution and versatility. For all their lack of raw talent, U-Kiss has a great production team at their back, and when the production team alone is capable of making such dramatic changes within a group, then it becomes difficult to not expect even more of them.

STEP – KARA

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Released September 6th

By definition, “Step” wasn’t a very good promotional single. The music video was bright and colorful but nonetheless forgettable; the live performances were inconsistent; the outfits should’ve come with an epilepsy warning; the choreography was downright vulgar at points. But “Step” was probably one of the most straight-up fun songs this year, and it stood out amongst many of the overly serious and dramatic singles that showed up on the K-pop scene this year. I love KARA because they put out fun, poppy music, and “Step” was funner and poppier than any of their previous releases. Additionally, there was some really great production work in the vocals of the song — a point that’s often neglected when it comes to hyperactive dance tracks like “Step.” KARA is DSP’s main commodity, and I’m curious to see how DSP will invest in KARA as they maintain dual careers in Korea and Japan.

A-CHA – SUPER JUNIOR

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Released September 19th

It was obvious that “A-Cha” was destined to be a disaster from the start. The song was bad, the music video was bad, the concept was black turtlenecks for goodness’ sake. Everything about “A-Cha” screamed lack of effort, and it seemed almost criminal for anyone to actually like it, for fear that it would validate the producers’ laziness in creating this song. But there was one thing that saved “A-Cha” from the pits of lead single hell: the members themselves and their control of the song during their live performances. “A-Cha” is a ridiculously hard song to sing; the entire chorus sits on a high A, and it’s hard enough for a well-trained classical tenor to hit that note consistently, let alone a bunch of dancing boys who are singing while doing sophisticated choreography at breakneck speed. But Super Junior pulled it off anyway, and then some. Their live performances of “A-Cha” were consistently energetic and fun to watch; the sheer energy from the performances was enough to make me forget exactly how bad the song was. I could go much deeper about how Super Junior’s consistently made up for SM’s lack of effort, but I think that Super Junior’s work in salvaging “A-Cha” speaks for itself.

SIXTH SENSE – BROWN EYED GIRLS

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Released September 23rd

Brown Eyed Girls’ last two releases have both managed to stir up the K-pop waters, and while it can be argued that this can easily come across as being gimmicky, I don’t see anything wrong with it. I’m not a big fan of “Sixth Sense” itself and I found the music video, while interesting, to be slightly overdone — but there isn’t another group like Brown Eyed Girls in K-pop, and “Sixth Sense” is one of those songs that can’t be pulled off by anyone other than Brown Eyed Girls. It’s a song that other artists are afraid to cover. “Sixth Sense” is sharp, fierce, powerful, and above all, intimidating — and while it’s easy to toss the word “fierce” around K-pop to refer to any song with ‘tude, it’s rare to come across a song that’s genuinely intimidating. “Sixth Sense” is an intimidating song, and Brown Eyed Girls played up that intimidation factor to the max. As a promotional single, “Sixth Sense” was well-executed in all aspects: the song is powerful and strong; the music video was great; the live performances served to stun every time. Granted, “Sixth Sense” might not have that mass appeal found in your usual promotional single, but the tone of “Sixth Sense” itself seems to plow right through that logic and stand on its own.

PARADISE – INFINITE

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Released September 26th

Infinite, I think you and I will get to know each other better in this coming year. Infinite was the group that was all over my radar when they debuted, but quickly faded out of my field of vision as hordes of other boy bands started debuting after them. But “Paradise” made me take note of Infinite again, and I’m glad to see that Infinite is still as good as when they first debuted. The reason why I like Infinite is because they’re attention-grabbing. Everything about Infinite comes off as being striking and statement-making, setting them apart from the rest. There’s something about their vocal sound that’s a bit whiny and grating, but I’ll get over it. I think they’ve still got a lot to prove and they haven’t quite found their musical niche just yet, but “Paradise” does a good job of exemplifying their statement and style as a group.

DON’T TOUCH MY GIRL – BOYFRIEND

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Released October 6th

Boyfriend makes me uneasy. For one, they’re under Starship Entertainment, which is the same company that dared to put Hyorin in a group like Sistar. But “Don’t Touch My Girl” was an all-around solid and suitable track for Boyfriend. The interesting and slightly unnerving thing about Boyfriend, though, is the fact that the members are all so young; three out of six of the members are only 16, and if one looks at SHINee’s Taemin and how he’s changed from debut until now, it really makes you wonder what Boyfriend will look like a mere four years from now. But for the time being, Boyfriend is doing some solid work with their current material; their greenness and naivete is obvious, but Starship has done a good job of easing them into their material and not allowing them to get in over their heads. Their material is easy enough for them to handle, but never comes across as being simple or immature. “Don’t Touch My Girl” is the epitome of this characteristic — and while there’s nothing particularly special about it, it’s a nice song to listen to and it suits the group well.

THE BOYS – SNSD

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Released October 18th

This song has been out for two months and has created a splash that far exceeds the length of its existence. “The Boys” isn’t a very strong song by itself, and it certainly doesn’t help that it’s been packaged with SNSD’s weakest full-length album to date. But nevertheless, “The Boys” deserves to be commended because it’s one of the few, few instances where SM has had the balls to take a few risks and think outside the box. For starters, the mere interaction between SM and Teddy Riley gives me hope that SM will integrate more musical diversity in their repertoire, even if it’s through osmosis. Secondly, SNSD adopted a completely new and different concept for “The Boys,” and what’s more, they followed through with it. Everything from their outfits to their stage attitude reflected this new attitude — an attitude that was maintained throughout the length of their promotional stint. And lastly, “The Boys” marked SM’s second real attempt to enter the US market, albeit in a rather artificial manner. But the fact that SM put so much thought into appealing to an American audience for a mere maxi-single is encouraging. While 2011 was a year of slip-ups and sloppiness for SM, it’s nice to see that they put in an A-plus for effort in designing “The Boys.” (And let’s all admit it: as fugly as some of SNSD’s outfits tended to be, it was nice to see them not in uniforms for once.)

TROUBLE MAKER – JS & HYUNA

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Released December 1st

Cube is good at taking smart risks, and the creation of a two-person co-ed group like Trouble Maker was one of their best moves. For whatever reason, gender segregation in K-pop is a nearly impenetrable phenomenon in K-pop, and “Trouble Maker” is a good example of the wonderful things that can happen if that gender divide were to be broken and male and female K-pop stars were allowed to collaborate. Not everything has  be as sensual or provocative as “Trouble Maker;” rather, I’m glad that “Trouble Maker” was able to set the bar and push some boundaries in terms of male/female interaction. In addition, “Trouble Maker” was just a flat-out good, catchy song with an impressive music video and choreography that left an impact without being trashy. K-pop needed a brazen, aggressive act like Trouble Maker, and Hyunseung and Hyuna delivered. There’s a lot of uncovered territory in the land of male/female collaborations, and I hope that the hype sparked from Trouble Maker inspires other similar acts.

2011 was my K-pop identity crisis year — I think I spent more time this year questioning my continued interest in K-pop than I have any other year. But I suppose this is something that’s to be expected. It’s been two and a half years since I first started K-popping, and it’s gotten to the point where I’m no longer in it for the fandom or the mind-numbing fun. I’ve come to the horrific realization that I take K-pop really seriously and have immersed myself in it in the way that one would usually immerse oneself in more intellectual things like politics or sociology or wine connoisseurism. It’s gotten to the point where my love for K-pop and the entertainment industry is starting to play into my choices for jobs and internships, and I can’t decide if this is because I’ve finally realized my true passions in life, or if I’ve become deluded to the point of no return (read: unemployment and hermitry).

But for now, I’m hoping to make some changes in my K-popping habits and learn to enjoy the entire K-pop scene for all that it’s worth. I’ve picked up a lot of good music just by watching music shows from beginning to end and refraining from skipping over artists to whom I otherwise wouldn’t pay an ounce of attention. The K-pop scene is changing, and it’s becoming a musical force to be taken seriously. Most importantly, it’s easy to forget that these pieces of music — so-called “pop fluff” that we feel so at liberty to criticize — were all once the brainchild of a lyricist; the treasured creation of a songwriter. A ton of work goes into producing one fluffy K-pop single, and as much as it puffs up our pride to shoot down the bad songs as soon as they’re released, I think it takes a certain amount of patience and humility to appreciate each song for its artistic worth. This, then, is my goal for 2012: to re-appreciate K-pop, not for the sake of the pretty pop idols or for the catchy, mind-numbing tunes, but for the people behind the scenes who, despite working for the K-pop machine, still maintain an effervescent passion for music.

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  • wow very good review of the year. i think the only song i truly liked was intuition and Acha, and they both took me a while of repeated playing to like

  • Thekaine

    Excellent review, as always. And I hope to continue reading your insightful and witty thoughts in the upcoming year ^^