It’s here! It took way longer than expected, but McRoth’s Residence is finally proud to present our staff picks for ‘Top Korean Songs of The Year: Mid Year Roundup‘!
Unlike previous years, there won’t be a crazyass list of rules and regulations. This year, I said eff it and let’s make this a free for all. I recruited four of McR’s writers to help me contribute to this amazing list of songs, and they’ve pulled through, sending in five songs a piece, totaling in 25 songs in all.
Joining me this year are veteran writers lolpenny and drowningn00b, along with noobies TESTAMENTVM and Compliant. Each of us was in charge of coughing up five Top Korean Songs. Songs that we deemed worthy of placing at the top of the first half of 2012, that possess a high level of musical quality, appeal and merit to our liking, and let’s just say that the scope of this year’s list is far wider than any TKSO of years past. We’ve provided small blurbs as to why these songs placed on our lists and why they rule, along with an audio link to each one.
In addition to the top 25 songs, I’ve compiled a list of ‘Honorary Mentions‘. Five songs a piece is fucking hard to narrow down, so we’ve thrown together a shorter list of songs that were shy of making it to the top, but were still deserving of our praise and approval.
And that’s about it for this little preface, so sit back and enjoy this year’s TKSO, and join us in December, when we do this all over again for the second half of 2012!
Also, don’t forget to follow McRoth’s Residence on twitter, like it on Facebook and follow me on tumblr for continuous updates on reviews and every other piece of awesome that you can find on here and more.
Compliant’s Top Five
HershE (Ailee, Hyorin, Jiyeon) – “Super Star” (listen)
Season 2 of Dream High featured one of the “illest” collaborations I’ve ever seen. I mean, I thought TaeTiSeo was a pretty solid combination, but HershE makes them look like flyweights. You have Hyorin, the leader of SISTAR whose deep, husky singing was the best among female idols until Korean television rode her voice to exhaustion. You have Ailee, the new #1, the golden voice to do justice to every song she’s ever sung. And you have…Jiyeon from T-ara.
A great collaboration means nothing, though, if the song falls flat. When I heard the bass-heavy dance track pulsating in the intro, I was hyped for something upbeat, but I was also hoping that it didn’t take anything away from the actual singing. Usually, when you have a dance track like that, it’s tempting to just throw in some mediocre singing and let the instrumental carry the entire song. But HershE would have none of it. They took the synth and compounded it with some serious belting and crooning (and even rapping!) to turn this song into one of the best of the year.
JC Ji Eun – “My Song” (listen)
In 2007, JC Ji Eun released her one and only album with YG Entertainment. Since then, she’s been banished to OST exile, thrown randomly into a girl group (Lady Collection), and tossed around from label to label as nothing more than a featurette. Five years later, “My Song” is the first song JC Ji Eun can finally call her own.
The track starts with a sequence reminiscent of indie music, and is followed by a soft acoustic guitar solo. Some nondescript beats get added on, and a single cello builds the song up to the chorus. While JC Ji Eun does seem to have lost some of the depth in her voice over the years, everything’s sung with the same passion she’s ever had. Up to this point, though, the song is really more of a teaser than anything. After the second chorus, a guitar interlude is thrown in to foreshadow the coming of something bigger. Sure enough, after the bridge, the singing becomes rife with emotion. It is here that Ji Eun leaves everything on the field, just as the song dissolves into the acoustic solo from whence it came.
Jo Kwon – “Who’s Loving You Now?” (listen)
This release is pretty recent, but it features 2AM leader Jo Kwon moving away from his group’s more conventional ballads and dabbling with a much more Americanized sound in an almost-experimental solo work. In “Who’s Loving You Now?“, the repetition of a single piano key sets the tone for the rest of the song. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see that one note being used to construct the entire song.
Accompanied by a thundering bass drum, Jo Kwon makes his entrance with a vocoder-enhanced vocal run consisting of actual notes and melodies. The atmosphere builds with more and more toms being added until a string section puts some serious depth into the song. Listening to it makes you feel like you’re floating aimlessly in some galaxy far, far away with pretty colours in the background. Kinda like when Yoshi faces a boss in Yoshi’s Island.
There are no fancy vibratos in this, but Jo Kwon’s voice manages to complement and accentuate the ethereal feel of this song.
SPICA – “Russian Roulette” (listen)
If I were to pick a Spica song, it would’ve been “Painkiller” by default, but you could actually make a case for any other song on that mini-album. It seriously was that good. Although its lead single status made this seem more like a convenience pick, “Russian Roulette” was ultimately chosen because it was the most polished piece that Spica had to offer. At first sight, the song is essentially an R&B ballad hidden under the veil of a fun instrumental and some playful whistling. The intro contains a lot of the typical cheesy rapping you find in K-Pop girl group songs, but every member carries a tune with a clear but resonant timbre – be it smooth, husky or otherwise. The singing itself sounds completely effortless.
For most of the song, the pacing stays more or less the same, save for a few guitar riffs and a good bang bang bang bang bang to lead the song into the well-harmonized chorus. The latter half of the song provided ample opportunity for members to alternate solos and do what they do best as individuals – some belting here, some dolphin register notes there, and some rapping elsewhere. The one drawback was ending the song with nothing more than the instrumental and generic whistling … but that’s just nitpicking. Because I was left wanting more.
Younha (feat. John Park) – “Would We Have Changed” (listen)
She paid her dues in Japan before debuting in Korea. She produced some seriously catchy rock music with nothing but pianos and guitars. But after seeing her Japanese sales dwindle, and facing a long legal battle over the status of her contract, Younha has seen better days. She teams up with John Park in “Would We Have Changed“, her first release since cutting ties with Lion Media.
The best thing about Younha’s and John Park’s singing is that there’s no wispy emotional I’m-about-to-cry essence lingering about – just a consistently clean, rich timbre. Each verse begins with a solo, but once the drums kick in, Younha and John Park harmonize brilliantly as they build up to the chorus. When the string section comes in, cycling between the same eighth notes and eighth rests, the pacing is not unlike that of an upbeat yet inspiring OST track. As the song progresses, the second chorus ends with Younha holding the last note, a sustained pitch that gets superimposed by that beautiful harmony she’d executed with John Park a seconds earlier. It’s the harmony, the composition, and the pacing that qualify “Would We Have Changed” for the mid-year roundup.
TESTAMENTVM’s Top Five
BIG BANG – “Monster” (listen)
It’s always a fun parlor game among fans to try and guess the ‘meaning’ of a song. Many have conjectured that the inspiration for the song came from Daesung’s accident, while others have posited that this song is about G-Dragon’s marijuana incident. Although Big Bang has shied away from assigning a definite ‘meaning’ to a song, I think it’s safe to say that this song, which is wonderfully composed and structured (much like “Lies” – a hybrid of dance-pop and ballad genres) is much more complex and listenable in light of the context of the twin scandals that rocked Big Bang earlier last year. I say this because many times, songs are produced, with topics that are so generic and … to see Big Bang write a song, drawing directly from life experiences that was a shared public experience … a problem unique to them, and take that pain as artistic material to write a song about betrayal.
Busker Busker – “Cherry Blossom Ending” (listen)
Busker Busker may not have won Superstar K3, but none of that matters now, as they’ve already surpassed Ulala Session (the winners) with the incredible success of their debut album (‘1st‘) and follow-up release.
The winsome simplicity, and spring-like optimism of “Cherry Blossom Ending” has enraptured Korea, and despite their limited television promotions, the same kind of craze that surrounded 10cm‘s “Americano” and Standing Egg last year has resurfaced in full force for the trio.
I included this song, not only for its listenability, but of the promise it represents. Korea has often glorified kpop at the expense of its own indie scene, but it’s songs like these that give me hope that the Korean music market will one day be more than kpop. Which is good for everyone … i’m excited to see the kind of cross-pollination and collaborations that we see in American pop music now – B.o.B. x Taylor Swift, or Lana del Rey x A$AP Rocky, or Maroon 5 x Wiz Khalifa – emerge in k-Pop.
MBLAQ – “It’s War” (listen)
I included this gem because not only was it MBLAQ‘s first real hit – they finally won number one on a music program, and were able to launch an Asian tour (BLAQ% tour), but it’s the first “orchestrated” pop song we’ve heard in a while.
K-Pop has been tending towards dance-pop (and now, popstep), for some time, so it was a pleasant surprise to hear a great song that bucked the trend. Don’t get me wrong – synths are nice and all, but they can’t replace the kind of color or emotional response of an acoustic instrument. And there’s a certain power that comes from having an orchestra – a grandness, for lack of better words – that digital synths don’t quite deliver.
Miryo – “Party Rock” (listen)
In what had to be one of the cruelest ironies in K-Pop this year, Miryo (one of the most underappreciated female rappers in all of K-Pop), finally got her debut album, but “Party Rock”, one of the best tracks on her album, literally got no love.
I blame a lot of this on her company (Nega Network) for pushing her to promote some half-ass ballad instead of this rocker. “Party Rock”, produced by The Koxx (Korea’s favorite indie-synthrock outfit), is not only infectious, but sounds super Western – as in, this could have been a demo offered to Maroon 5.
Congratulations to Miryo for being bold and pursuing an edgier sound, and shame on Nega Network for doing such a poor job of promoting her.
TaeTiSeo – “Twinkle” (listen)
Yes, SM Entertainment totally jumped on the retro/funk bandwagon (those trendhumpers), but as we all know, it’s all in the execution. And by God, did Taetiseo steal some of Secret’s big brass swag in “Twinkle” (see that’s what happens when you go to Japan, TS Ent! People steal your swag).
Furthermore, thanks to some serious gospel voicing, we now have concrete, beyond-all-doubt proof that Tiffany and Seohyun can actually sing. Amen to that.
Drowningn00b’s Top Five
3rd Line Butterfly – “Utterly Sexy”
If anyone followed American television this season, you would have recognized the growth of the “quirky funny girl” shows, like “Whitney”, “2 Broke Girls”, “Funny Girl” and “Girls”. It felt so new that television blogs lit up. And with South Korea’s portrayal of women largely as submissive aegyo eggheads, I had no hope the trend would catch. Thank goodness for indie music, specifically 3rd Line Butterfly. When the lead track to this group’s latest EP, “Utterly Sexy“, begins with Namh Sang-Ah’s “stut-tu” singing, you know you’re in for some weirdness. And it doesn’t stop with her; the rest of the band plays with odd synth loops, hand claps, and a bass drum so intense you can’t help but grin weirdly to.
What I love is how awkwardly fun it all is. Much of the song’s composition is staccato, with little flow between the notes and segments, creating a tension between the different parts The way she sings the lines “Dangerous/ Mysterious/ Mm, are you?” is like she’s inviting the dark with the naivete of Red Riding Hood with the savvy of Linda Lovelace. And its so honest!
The conventional things, like washboard abs and long legs, are not what we find sexy. It’s the little things you notice in private, like “messy hair, [and] dancing toes.” So get your awkward sexy on, Neighbours!
4minute – “Volume Up” (listen)
We love to hate on 4minute, and with good reason. And here at McRoth’s Residence, we had a couple haters of their recent single, “Volume Up“. From the reviewer lolzpenny:
“’Volume Up,’ to put it lightly, is fifty different kinds of painful. Bleating sax solos frame the song and interrupt the chorus like a bucket of cold water.”
And from the boss himself, McRoth:
“Like, it’s awful. Composition-wise. Structurally. Vocally … it’s a mess.”
But those are exactly the reasons why I love it! With this mini, 4flops and Cube Entertainment have embraced the girls’ trash-pop origins from their “Hot Issue” and “Hit Your Heart” days. The sax lines, the spectacular Engrish, and Shinsadong Tiger’s blur of a production make for the best mess of sound from these girls, ever. “Volume Up” is just like 4Minute; too many disparate parts to make sense together, but like heroin, you come back for more.
Park Ji Yoon – “Tree of Life” (listen)
There were a lot of great indie records in the past several months. A megaton of artists came back with exceptional work. From Nell, Urban Zakapa and ShinChiReem. But Park Ji Yoon’s “Tree Of Life” came out on top for me.
Like confidence, the song starts quiet, unsure of itself. Slowly, this No Reply-produced track, along with Ms. Park, gains momentum and confidence, enveloping you in a wall of sound. And when it hits its ultimate climax, “Tree Of Life” never loses sight of itself. When the shrill begins, instead of turning you off, you root for her, amazed that something so beautiful could be made from the artist who, only years ago, had her coming out party to a song about burgeoning sexuality. I have one word left to describe Park Ji Yoon’s stellar “Tree Of Life”: gorgeous.
The United93 – “Kung-Fu Fighters” (listen)
This year, I have the great privilege to be part of the panel discussion on the current season of ‘Top Band 2‘, hosted by the incomparable koreanindie blog. It’s a lot of fun to trash this show, from the terrible editing to the unfair advantage built into the selection process. But the best part of the show is discovering the new faces in rock, from the fresh-faced and ajosshi combo of Metallatem+ to the operatic group Ishtar. But of all the newbies, I gravitated to the young’ns of The United93, a punk-DJ hybrid band with energy to burn. Like punk, they’re loud and brash, and the DJ scratching by Blau is reason enough to believe Korea’s obsession with electronics can work with rock music, and well. And with a mini titled ‘Fuck Yeah, Live Junk!‘, how can you go wrong?
Verbal Jint – “Monsoon” (listen)
If you told me five years ago that I would like Korean hip-hop enough to be one of my top songs, I would check my pulse to see if this was hell. But with YG Entertainment as the gateway drug, I discovered the vast underbelly that is the k-hip-hop scene. And this year, it underwent a couple of changes, and for the better.
Like I mentioned earlier, dork hip-hop gained wide favor, with Geeks leading the pack. A lesser known but more interesting change was the influx of “drug-induced” hip-hop. The trend was slow in coming, with the pairing last year of Orijin and Degalo, and the hip-hop/nu-jazz hybrid, “Hello Brazilian Taco”. But leave it to the best to blow it out of the bong water. The Psycoban-produced track for Verbal Jint, “Monsoon”, is lo-fi at its finest. Under a thick layer of fuzzed vocals and bass, “Monsoon” blazes along its three minutes with a tight production.
For this year’s version of Missy Elliot’s “The Rain”, VJ and Psycoban came in just in time for this list.
lolpenny’s Top Five
A Pink – “Hush” (listen)
In an industry full of half-baked idol groups throwing synthesized beats against the masses to see what sticks, it is brilliantly strange to see a poised, consistent group like A Pink grace the stage. Their newest track “Hush,” flies in the face of the idea that synth-based pop must be tactless, messy, abuse the bass to be relevant.
“Hush,” like A Pink’s entire repertoire, is pretty and clever without sacrificing mainstream appeal.
Brian Joo (feat. Tiger JK) – “Taking Leave of You” (listen)
Personally, I don’t think Brian Joo gets enough credit for his musical prowess, but until his recent EP I only knew him as the guy who got in a dramatized bitch fight with G.NA on some variety show. But all that sass melts away in “Taking Leave of You,” a surprisingly heartfelt mid-tempo ballad. Brian’s breathy timbre matches the relaxed composition perfectly and Tiger JK’s chill, bouncy rap lines are just the icing on the cake. But don’t let all the indulgent piano mashing fool you, that man is still his man.
Miryo – “Dirty” (listen)
I am fairly certain that Miryo is the literal embodiment of cool. “Dirty” gives a metaphorical middle finger to all the expectations her solo debut came with as it shirks her masculine Brown Eyed Girls Persona for a cuter, punk rock motif.
It should be uncomfortable, the eccentric combination of rap and power pop, but Miryo is obviously a magician because “Dirty” couldn’t be any more impressively well-balanced if it tried. And then, as if that weren’t enough, Miryo sings the chorus herself. How’s that for a plot twist.
Miss A – “Lips” (listen)
Why the jerky, off-kilter “Touch” was chosen as the promotional single rather than “Lips,” the world may never know. But whatever, it’s fine.
Anyway, “Lips” combines a much smoother melody with heavy percussive beats to create a catchier, sexier product. Plus, the song has moments of true genius. I mean, they construct instrumental fills out of what is essentially white noise. Basically, if you don’t like Miss A you are lying.
SHINee – “Stranger” (listen)
This is usually how I prefer SHINee, as loud and abrasive as possible. And really, “Stranger” is just proof that you don’t have to change directions and styles in the middle of songs just to make them interesting. Super Junior should take note.
“Stranger” follows every rule in the pop song progression rule book and is better for it. It’s predictable and succinct, but SHINee’s vocals and the transgressive beat make up for it ten-fold.
McRoth’s Top Five
Ailee – “Heaven” (listen)
The powerhouse rookie of the year. The most vocally impressive among all K-Pop singers. Quite possibly the strongest female soloist in years, Ailee came out with a vengeance. A thirst to deliver a very high level of musicality to K-Pop, and she’s successfully done so, winning the world over with her incredible vocal talent in the process.
Ailee is unmatched, undisputed and untouchable. Her vocal prowess is obviously immense, and she put it in full display on her solo digital single “Heaven“. Structured in a classic pop format, it swells at a comfortable pace and hits you with a strong, repetitive hook. The true shining glory of this song is – of course – Ailee’s singing, which strikes in all kinds of ways, from a smooth head voice, to strongass belts that shatter through the ceiling of the break down of the song. Ailee possess one of K-Pop’s weighty-est chest voices, and she knows precisely when and where to launch it at full power for the greatest effect. It’s amazing that a singer of this caliber has entered K-Pop, because she’s setting the standards so, so high now for vocal performance, and anything less than that is child’s play.
EXO – “Into Your World (Angel)” (listen)
Oh, EXO. How far we’ve come in such a short amount of time. We developed such an odd relationship long before your debut, yet I’ve somehow come to forgive your million teasers and bold (albeit refurbished) sound, as I’ve also come to admire the ambitious fervor behind it all. You were clean and crisp in the advances before your debut, while sloppy and self-conscious once you were here. Yet, through all the hype and the gloss, you’ve grown. You’ve grown as performers and you’ve grown on me as idols. I have a fucking favorite now. I may even secretly stan you little shits. Not because SM Entertainment made it so easy to, but because you’re starting to show so much promise as one of SM’s strongest debuting rookies to date and your talent is palpable. It’s obvious.
The one moment that truly set you on my radar though, is when I listened to your song, “Into Your World (Angel)“. Not only is it pretty, it’s ridiculously beautiful. From the distant high hats to the subtle tambourine, metronome-like claps and airy harmonies. Everything falls perfectly into place, and your gorgeous voices shine like gems in every fucking second of this breathtaking number. And then that chorus. My God, what a chorus. It sets a solid, paved road in your future to do incredibly great things with your talent and I am all in, baby.
John Park – “Falling” (listen)
My one true love in K-Pop. My ultimate bias and the reigning king of my heart, it’s no surprise to anyone that this suave mo’fo made it onto my top Korean song’s list. John Park took his sweet time to release his first official debut mini-album, and boy was it worth it.
“Falling,” the lead single to his 2012 mini ‘Knock‘, is to this day the best song to be released in K-Pop this year. It moves from one measure to the next in smooth sweeps and simple structure. The guitar lead carries the groove of the song, while John Park’s voice propels it across a sea of lustrous nuances in a gorgeous falsetto (of all things) and only dropping down to his lush and husky low end for small moments of intensity and power. The melodies are fucking stunning and the chorus is one of the most memorable of the year.
It’s uplifting, airy and exceptional for a ballad, and listening to John Park’s resonant voice spew into my ears every time makes this song even more worthwhile.
Lena Park – “실감 (Feeling)” (listen)
If Lena Park missed a slot on my list of Top Korean songs, after releasing the mesmerizing ‘Parallax’ especially, I don’t think my future self could ever forgive my present self. I think I would want to punch myself in the gut.
‘Parallax’ is a very recent release, but one of the most amazing, aurally, of 2012. With intricate orchestrations and imaginative compositions, Lena Park’s work this year is as luminous as ever. Fresh and contemporary even, you can hear pressing nudges of electronica embedded into “실감 (Feeling)”, one of my favorite tracks on the album, and my Lena Park pick for TKSO. The song begins with traditional Korean grander dressed with a huge stringed section, pounding piano line and trembling timpani and segues hauntingly to the body of the actual song, an emotionally driven mid-tempo. The combination of all the instruments creates such a spacious and roomy track, and it’s quickly multiplied when the backup vocals kick in at the middle eight, broadening this sucker even wider, clawing at every inch of the audio spectrum with every measure of its final breaths. It’s an epic song in every sense of the word, taking contemporary tools and utilizing them in creative and magical ways. Lena Park is an amazing artist, and this song (in addition to the album) proves exactly why.
Sunny Hill – “The Grasshopper Song” (listen)
Sunny Hill is a unique and peculiar group in K-Pop, and they’ve battled to hone in on that uniqueness without turning it into a gimmick, and I feel like they safely landed on a perfectly quirky spot this year with their early release of “The Grasshopper Song“.
Riddled with an interesting beat, colorful meters and vibrant melodies, Sunny Hill slayed it on all levels with this one. The song is not only addicting, but really well balanced between intricate structure and mainstream appeal. In addition, Sunny Hill managed to inject a meaningful message of freedom and going against the status quo, setting a very different mood to the overtly shallow scene in K-Pop. Like, these guys are my heroes right here.
2NE1 – “Be Mine”: a refreshing “I Don’t Care”-style reggaeton song that maximizes 2NE1’s vocal strengths by (finally) giving most of the song to Minzy and CL, and putting Park Bom in a better position to excel by keeping her within her range and within a respectable volume level in the chorus.
B.A.P – “Warrior”: strong, brave and down right exciting, BAP proved to be one of this year’s formidable rookies, dropping mad swag, fierce rap and (surprisingly) solid vocals in their bold debut single, “Warrior”.
BIG BANG – “Bad Boy”: wannabe-gangastas or not, “Bad Boy” laid down more swag than K-Pop was ready for and made the guys of BIG BANG sound totally badass over an urban beat and slick melodies.
Dalmatian – “E.R.”: The bass drum does its best imitation of a heartbeat to enhance the E.R. effect, and sets the crisis-like tone for the rest of the song. Large chunks of the song do end up sounding rather monotone, but it’s really the audio-fed imagery that sets this song apart.
f(x) – “Beautiful Stranger”: Through rapping and singing with an actual melody, Krystal, Luna, and Amber give “Beautiful Stranger” the momentum to ride into the harmony-rich chanting of the song’s title before slowing down and beginning the journey once again.
Fame J – “Sniper Sound Vs. Over Class”: With great hip-hop talent spitting hot fire, Fame J’s debut production with Leo Kekoa, San.E, K.Jun and Illinit was made to break some bottles.
Infinite – “The Chaser”: Infinite returns to being Infinite and releases yet another wonderful tune filled with interesting instruments and melodies that suites them to a T.
JJ Project – “Hooked”: JYP’s most promising rookie group, and the company’s strongest release so far, JJ Project proved that having the energy of 100 suns really does make a different, and this song takes that energy and channels it in all the correct ways.
She’z – “My Way”: a catchy dance track that’s enhanced by some pretty awesome guitar riffs throughout, the band’s vocals have a certain depth to them, and the chorus is one that makes you want to sing along and feel young again.
SHINee – “Sherlock”: Theatrical, loud and hectic, this song is a flashback to 2009’s “Juliette”, except this time hyped up on steroids.
Ulala Session – “Beautiful Night”: Fun soundscape, great sense of humor and awesome shouting.
Yoon Jong Shin & Lena Park – “Arrivee”: Haunting, heartbreaking and romantic, with a side of French accordion.