Lines of Sight: A Year in K-pop, 2012
It’s always a good feeling whenever I put together one of these end-of-year posts and am met not only with a ridiculously long list of songs from this year that I loved, but also an even longer list of songs from this year that I didn’t get a chance to listen to. Even though my view on K-pop this year was fairly peripheral (and this may or may not have anything to do with my, erm, revitalized obsession with SHINee), the view from the periphery certainly wasn’t bad. I’m certain that the lengthy backlog of 2012 music that I’ve saved for 2013 (B.A.P.! NU’EST! Spica!) won’t be disappointing, either.
That said, here are the top 16 K-pop lead singles that caught my eye this year. (Year-end album/general music roundup post will be up in the coming days!)
“Nalina” – Block B
Released February 2
This song is almost intolerably noisy and obnoxious, but let’s face it: it’s not as if Block B was ever one for subtlety to begin with. There’s no doubt in my mind that despite their “hip-hop roots,” Block B is an idol group through and through, and it’s refreshing to know that neither the members nor their management have tried to make themselves out to be something that they’re not. There’s a lot of noisy and obnoxious K-pop out there (see: “Lucifer,” “Maxstep“), but most of it is not intentionally noisy and obnoxious like “Nalina” as much as it is a consequence of producers not knowing what works best for their group. In the end, a song like “Nalina” works because every part of it is intentional.
Block B will never not be noisy and obnoxious; they will never be subtle — and that’s how it should be.
“Sherlock” – SHINee
Released March 19
I think a lot of us weren’t really sure what to make of “Sherlock” when it was first released. “Sherlock” is not a strong pop song by any means; there’s nothing “pop” about it, and its musical theater-esque sound comes across as more strange than innovative. On top of that, there’s something mildly disconcerting about how “Sherlock” is essentially the product of two weak songs roughly cobbled together. Nevertheless, credit is due to SM for giving SHINee such a ballsy song. “Sherlock” was such an outlier in terms of musical style when it came to the current hip-hop and R&B trends in K-pop, but at the same time, it wasn’t a strong enough song to make any waves or even really hold its own in the K-pop scene. SHINee’s not yet in a point in their careers where they can release untrendy, mediocre shit and still have it become a cultural and commercial success. And it’s not as if SM exactly has a reputation for being innovative and unique either, so something coming out of left field like “Sherlock” is bound to be risky. In other words: I’m pretty sure a song like “Sherlock” didn’t receive too much love outside of SHINee’s fanbase. But is that really a bad thing?
If anything, “Sherlock” is arguably the one song that showcases SHINee’s live performance skills at their absolute peak, and it’s not too difficult to see why. I think SM seriously underrates and undersells SHINee’s performance skills to the point where it’s almost criminal, especially in regards to the overseas market where, when you’re competing against Japanese and Western music giants, K-pop’s only real selling point is the strong live performances. Currently, the SHINee members are roughly at the same age as DBSK when they started playing entire arena tours in Japan completely live, and there’s reason to believe that SHINee could do that and more. The fact that SM gave SHINee a song like “Sherlock” demonstrates their faith in SHINee to pull it off, but it’s a bit of a waste if the only venue in which SHINee is able to show off their abilities to pull off this song is in a KBS music show studio.
“Hey You” – CNBLUE
Released March 26
I don’t follow CNBLUE nearly as closely as I used to. Ear Fun was pretty failsafe as far as CNBLUE’s music goes, and with a band like CNBLUE I really doubt that they’ll ever release anything that falls outside the fold of their current sound. At the same time, it’s kind of nice to know that they’ll always be a constant in the noisy, variegating world of K-pop.
The opening piano chords of “Hey You” was what really drew me in initially, and while the rest of the song doesn’t really distinguish itself from the rest of CNBLUE’s repertoire, it’s nonetheless comfortably unoffensive. I really love the contrast in style between Yonghwa and Jonghyun’s parts in the song, though. Jonghyun’s voice is so underused in CNBLUE’s songs, and even when it is used, it’s often carelessly thrown in between verses with no real regard to its unique timbre.
“The Chaser” – Infinite
Released May 5
Infinite’s been around for a couple of years now (I can still remember when they first debuted!), and I think they’re one of the few K-pop bands who have really established a strong musical identity for themselves. Believe it or not, this is a fairly risky move for any pop musician; it’s practically expected of pop artists to constantly change their musical style in order to keep up with trends and audience tastes, and it’s particularly pervasive in K-pop where idol groups are literally supposed to be able to do everything, the least of which is to be able to produce every genre of music imaginable. Infinite, however, has stuck with the same style of music since the beginning, and they’ve done a good job of working with and evolving their own style.
I had “Paradise” on my end-of-year list from last year, and there’s no denying that “Paradise” and “The Chaser” are similar…but not in the sense that they’re both products of the same lack of creative inspiration. While other groups have released songs that mimic Infinite’s style (see: Boyfriend’s “Janus,” A-JAX’s “2MYX“), there’s no denying that this sound — electronica fused with classical elements and punctuated by dynamic vocal lines and choruses — originated with Infinite (as far as K-pop is concerned), and to date, Infinite’s really the only band that has managed to do it justice.
“Run” – Younha
Released July 2
There aren’t many praises left about this song that haven’t been sung. Supersonic was an incredible album on the whole, but “Run” sticks out so much above the rest because it’s that kind of song that hits a certain spot in your heart, to the point where it almost aches. Younha’s voice is so clear and so pure, and “Run” does a really remarkable job in magnifying the brightness and joy in her voice. I’m still hesitant to listen to this song sometimes because it really hits me in a way that makes me feel almost vulnerable.
“Sexy, Free & Single” – Super Junior
Released July 3
This is my favorite SM-produced single from this year, no lie. I really liked this song because it was nice and evenhanded, and was compelling in parts without being overbearing. The production value of the song was remarkably high in comparison to Super Junior’s previous releases. Most importantly, “Sexy, Free & Single” bore an air of sophistication and age-appropriateness, the latter of which I had previously believed to be a given when you’re dealing with idol stars approaching their 30s. This probably goes without saying, but I would really hate to be a guy in my mid-20s and still have to deal with being dressed in this get-up — for an album promotion, no less. At this point, I think it’s hard not to feel a little bad for the Super Junior members, considering that most of them didn’t really sign up to be in a group like Super Junior to begin with, and the prospect of getting stuck with awful material probably adds an unfair amount of insult to injury.
In short, there’s nothing — literally nothing — embarrassing at all about “Sexy, Free & Single.” Which, if you ask me, is pretty impressive.
“I Love You” – 2NE1
Released July 7
It’s a little hard to believe that this was the only thing of consequence that 2NE1 released this year, and to be perfectly honest a part of me wishes that YG would just leave it at that and have 2NE1 “work” with Will.i.am for their rumored US debut album for the rest of eternity…if only because it’s almost guaranteed that 2NE1’s comeback single next year is going to be obnoxious as all hell, and after hearing “I Love You,” the prospect of 2NE1 returning to “I Am The Best” tryhardism seems utterly unappealing.
Not that “I Love You” is the epitome of 2NE1 greatness, obviously — no one can deny that only 2NE1 can do what 2NE1 does — and there’s stil something about the lack of cohesion in “I Love You” that bothers me. But if there’s one thing that “I Love You” does right, it’s showcasing the girls’ voices. 2NE1 doesn’t do ballady stuff often, and whenever they do, most of the parts get handed off to Bom. Putting aside the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of Bom’s voice, it’s obvious that all of the 2NE1 members are capable singers, and “I Love You” illustrates that in an almost understated fashion. And I welcome the idea of 2NE1 doing anything “understated” with open arms.
Also, how hasn’t Minzy gotten a solo gig yet. How.
“Pandora” – KARA
Released August 22
Look, I love Kara and all but there’s always going to be something about their music that makes me think that it’s not real music. Video game music, anime opening music maybe, but not real music. But you know what? I’m okay with that, because I loved all of their previous releases, I loved “Pandora,” and I’m probably going to love whatever campy pop fluff they’ll release next. I think a song like “Pandora” is tangible proof that music doesn’t have to be substantial or even “good” to be enjoyable. I enjoyed “Pandora” enough to follow it on music shows for a solid month (i.e. basically marriage) and I still listen to it from time to time. Which is why it’s on this list. And that’s that.
“Uncommitted” – XIA
Released August 27
I think this was the song that Junsu fans — myself included — were waiting for ever since Junsu began pursuing solo activities. There’s no denying that Junsu has the vocal chops to do pop/R&B music proper justice, and “Uncommitted” is a great song that doesn’t go to great lengths to prove Junsu’s impressiveness as a vocalist. But at the same time, “Uncommitted” makes me wonder if Junsu’s voice really fits R&B music all that well. Junsu’s performance in “Uncommitted” lacks the soul that seems to be ever-present in Junsu’s singing, and though a part of me feels like this might have to do with a language barrier (an issue I discussed in greater detail here), it’s not as if Junsu’s performance in JYJ’s English album was really lacking, either.
Having listened to Junsu’s voice tackle virtually every genre of music except R&B for so long, it was as if I had expected Junsu’s voice to fall perfectly in line with any R&B work he did. But as great as “Uncommitted” was (and don’t get me wrong, it was pretty great; it’s one of my favorite JYJ-related works to date), it didn’t really do it for me. “Uncommitted” is a pretty safe track as far as R&B music goes, and Junsu’s voice is so unconventional to the point where it almost seemed as if Junsu was singing a cover of another artist’s song. I’d really like to see Junsu try R&B again with a song that’s not quite as safe; something that can really capture the ubiquities of his voice in a positive light.
“Stop Girl” – U-Kiss
Released September 20
It’s pretty much an injustice that this song didn’t receive even half the praise that it should have, because this was, hands down, the strongest all-around release to come out of K-pop this year. Everything about this release was perfect: the music video was beautiful, the choreography was smooth and dynamic, and even Eli and Dongho’s rapping was (dare I say!) compelling. And, no, the song didn’t buck any musical trends…it took those same pop-R&B trends and kicked it up three million steps higher than anyone else in the K-pop industry. TAKE THAT, SUCKAS.
I really don’t have much else to say about this apart from more incoherent babbling (but only because this song is really that good), and some leftover disgruntled whining about how a song as good as “Stop Girl” couldn’t even save U-Kiss from further K-pop anonymity. But I’m starting to run out of energy shaking my fist at the evil K-pop Powers That Be, because as much as it makes me sad to see U-Kiss work tirelessly to find a place in the limelight that might never be theirs, it doesn’t change the fact that their music is really great and that they’re doing everything right in making themselves better musicians and a better group. For what it’s worth, you’ve got a fan in me, boys. ♡
“Style” – Rania
Released September 21
Same goes with Rania. Even after a year, I still can’t get over how strong their debut was, and it’s a shame that Rania’s suffered so much damage since then via losing members and public recognition. “Style” is a good song, and while it’s definitely a sigh a relief knowing that Rania was still able to pick up material from YG after being unceremoniously dropped by Teddy Riley, “Style” didn’t have nearly the same punch and impressiveness as “Dr. Feel Good.” Nevertheless, it’s a strong song that was presented with confidence, which is really valuable considering Rania’s constant state of flux and uncertainty as a group.
Rania is still very much a group in transition, but even as they’re finding their footing, their work has been consistently solid.
“Catch Me” – DBSK
Released September 24
Let’s just forget the music video and choreography to this song ever happened, yeah? Because “Catch Me” is not a bad song. It really isn’t. It might even be a good song. As far as DBSK’s new macho-men-kings-of-the-universe image is concerned, “Catch Me” does a good job at delivering DBSK’s group concept while staying within the bounds of conventional sanity. It’s not one big scream a la “Keep Your Head Down.” There’s, like, musical variegation. And stuff.
In all seriousness, “Catch Me” has a really compelling vocal line for a song that’s as electronica-heavy as it is, and everything in the song flows surprisingly well considering how much is going on. Even the dubstep break — though unnecessary — fits in fairly well. Ultimately, I really liked how the song was vocally driven, especially considering how Yunho and Changmin’s vocals are, in my opinion, pretty underrated…to the point where one can’t help but feel as if the producer is taking blatant advantage of their vocal ability in some of their music. Like, as much as we all make fun of Changmin having an obligatory scream in every DBSK song, that shit’s pretty impressive no matter how you look it. And those cool vocal riffs that Yunho and Changmin pull off in every song? You couldn’t hear them do any of those just three years ago.
I’ll even venture a little further and say that their live performances (yes, with the hulk stomp and everything) were really impressive as well. I think DBSK as it currently stands serves as a great testament towards the discipline instilled in SM artists. Like I said in a previous post: DBSK’s probably going to get really ridiculous material until the day they retire, but you know that they’ll do an incredible job of pulling off that material and still manage to make all the rookies look stupid even when they’re dressed in matching army green sweatsuits with Christmas lights wrapped around their forearms.
“Bloom” – Ga-in
Released October 5
“Up until now, Brown Eyed Girls received so many 19+ ratings on things and we didn’t understand the reason why, so this time, we decided to just express as much as we wanted and aimed for a ’26+ rating’.”
This song is on this list for that quote alone — not necessarily because I’m a fan of all things racy, but because I respect Brown Eyed Girls’ decision to release material for grown-ups because they are grown-ups, and it is ridiculous for grown women to act like little girls just because that’s what the MOGEF has deemed “family friendly.” What I love most about “Bloom” is that it doesn’t intentionally try to push any buttons, but rather lets artistry and creativity take the reins with no restraints. As ridiculous as this might sound to our Western gaze, the concepts explored in “Bloom” are pretty uncharted territory as far as Korean pop is concerned, and “Bloom” handles it gracefully and beautifully. Ga-in is the perfect artist for this song, and her performance is nothing short of spectacular.
“I Don’t Need a Man” – miss A
Released October 15
This be the Wellesley anthem right here, yo.
While there’s a lot of discussion and analysis to be had about the content matter of this song (The Grand Narrative provides a pretty good discussion of this song in juxtaposition with Ga-in’s “Bloom,” conveniently), it doesn’t change that this is a fun, upbeat piece that has a great video and solid choreography. And while I don’t fully buy into any message it might have that points towards its support of “independent ladies,” it’s funny and quirky in all the right places and gains a few extra points for not falling into the oppa-pandering cliches that most girl groups are subject to. While it’s not meant to be a piece of radical feminist expression, the effort is clear.
“Don’t Hate Me” – Epik High
Released October 19
I wasn’t really planning on this song making this list, as it seemed like the overwhelming public response (mine included) to 99 could have been expressed with a collective disappointed sigh. At the same time, I think Epik High’s had to deal with some pretty unfair judgment from us fans for the past year or so, with the move to YG and the subsequent release of “Don’t Hate Me” and 99. There’s no getting around the fact that “Don’t Hate Me” is pretty mainstream and (gasp!) a bit shallow, especially for Epik’s standards. But is it really that wrong for Epik High to release one fun, shallow song that doesn’t venture into the pits of musical depression or provide witty commentary on the evils of modern society?
I think Epik High totally deserves to promote a fun song where Tablo gets to sit in a shopping cart during live performances. They totally deserve to have an MV filled with little kids dressed up like movie villains. They totally deserve to do whatever the eff they want. They’re Epik High, for chrissakes.
“1, 2, 3, 4” – Lee Hi
Released October 29
Guys, I think I found my new noraebang song, haha.
Lee Hayi was my favorite contestant from K-pop Star and as much of a beef I seem to have against YG, I’m glad she ended up joining their ranks because it’s clear that they know what they’re doing with her voice. Sure, it can be said that “1, 2, 3, 4” sounds a little too similar to Duffy’s “Mercy” to really be counted as a testament to YG’s supposed genius, but even the fact that they were able to create a decent “Mercy” knockoff is reason enough for praise.
A part of me is really hoping that Lee Hi will be marketed as an idol and will make as big a splash onto the K-pop scene as IU, if only because the K-pop scene as it currently stands could really use a fresh perspective on what female voices sound like. While it’s good to know that the trend of cutesy, “Gee”-era chipmunk voices is pretty much past, there’s still not nearly as much variegation in female voices as there is in male voices. Lee Hi’s voice is not all too unique by Western standards, but in K-pop, her voice is in a class of its own. And yet, she’s no indie artist; she’s an idol that made her way to the stage through a show named K-pop Star, for goodness’ sake. I would really love for a voice like hers to be accepted into the mainstream, in the hopes that this will open up opportunities for more diversity in voices in the future.