Top 100 (Korean) Songs of the Decade: #10~#1
Previous Entry (#20~11):
10. g.o.d. – 길 (The Road)
Album: Chapter 4: 길 (The Road)
(Song starts about two minutes in.)
Formerly five-man boy band g.o.d. (stands for Groove Over Dose. Yeah, everyone ignores it.) had talent that remains questionable–a couple of the members were okay at rap, and the four members besides lead vocal Kim Tae-Woo had only so-so singing ability before some went solo. What isn’t questionable is the importance of the social messages that their songs contained, compared to the slightly less concerned idol groups today.
“The Road” was actually not as popular as their former “To Mother” or “Lie”, among others, but to me the song signifies the apex of g.o.d.’s musical achievement. The five members’ easy vocals float over four minutes of minimalist instrumentation, where strings (both soothing and haunting at once) punctuate acoustic guitar and appropriately light percussion; the two lead vocals, Kim and Son Ho-Young, cry out with characteristic emotion. What really makes this song is the lyrics: in a time of uncertainty for many teens and young adults, when a still-recovering-from-crippling-recession left little opportunities, g.o.d. sang of the struggle that they had with their future, of the role of destiny, and of dreams. Large numbers of people still testify to the powerful effect that this song had on them when they were young, and I feel that its message, summed up by the chorus, rings more true than ever today.
Why I am I standing on this road
Is this really the road for me
Will my dreams come true at the end of this road?
What do I dream about
Who is that dream really for
When I achieve that dream, will I be able to smile?
9. Clazziquai Project – 내게로 와 (Come to Me)
Album: Instant Pig
Many listeners forget the fact that, for all their relative obscurity until a couple years ago, Clazziquai Project had some of the greatest impact on the Korean pop scene today. These are the artists that effectively introduced electronica and house to the Korean mainstream, long before they were considered cool. It took until circa 2008, four years after Clazziquai’s debut, until electronica became the #1 trend in Kpop–but as far as I’m concerned, no one still does it quite like the originals.
Instant Pig is considered one of the best albums in Korean history, and we don’t need to look any further than “Come to Me” to see why. There are two versions of this song: a house version, released with that album proper, and a mellotron remix version, which was released with the repackage. Both versions are fantastic in their unique ways; my personal preference goes with the latter version, though. There’s so much character packed into this song’s instrumentation alone–the pumping bass kicks, the dreamy mellotron, the ambient-but-effective synth effects are just a part of the incredibly atmospheric music. Kim Sung-Hoon (aka DJ Clazziquai) then adds his trademark melodywriting skills to the mix to produce something truly exceptional. The two vocalists, Alex and Horan, harmonize that melody beautifully with words just as dreamy as the mellotron piano that powers the song.
In a way, “Come to Me” is both the epitome and apex of Clazziquai’s music. It’s even dreamier than “She Is”, more fun than “Lover Boy”, more atmospheric than “After Love”, more seductive than “Love Again”–and more Clazziquai Project than anything else. “Come to Me” still remains the standard to which I compare all other electronica, and I’m not sure if any artist will be able to top the achievement that Clazziquai set through this song and its album.
8. 이승철 (Lee Seung-Chul) – 하얀새 (White Dove)
Album: Reflection of Sound
As a twenty-year veteran of the music industry, Lee Seung-Chul has produced some of the most memorable songs ever–the fact that the band Buhwal’s (Lee was the vocalist of this band throughout the 90s and on and off in the new millennium) greatest hits are still being sung and remade is testament to that. “White Dove”, a single from Lee’s eighth studio album Reflection of Sound, was a culmination of his experience and the skill that helped him get to where he is today. The lyrics are both hauntingly poetic and heavily metaphorical–similar in function to YB’s 2006 single “1178” (that song just barely missed making the Top 100 list), which was an emotional commentary over the split Korea’s, “White Dove” works both as a love song and a pacifist message, but with emphasis mostly on the love song part.
The music is expertly crafted, with neither acoustics nor strings overdone; the presence of a harmonica to mimic the melody is especially interesting. The structure is exhilarating as well: a soothing, lullaby-like verse builds up to a rousing chorus, and the song becomes nigh anthemic by the time it flows from the bridge and into the climax, where Lee simply leads as a choir harmonizes the melody. All of this is tied together by that signature, effortlessly soft style of singing that only Lee Seung-Chul has. The effect is cathartic.
7. 리쌍 (Lee Ssang), featuring 정인 (Jung-In) – 리쌍부르쓰 (The Lee Ssang Blues)
Album: 재, 계발 (再啓發) (Re-enlightenment)
Hiphop duo Lee Ssang loves wordplay. The Korean title of “The Lee Ssang Blues” is intentionally misspelled; the title of the “Re-enlightenment” album is a pun on a homonym that means “Reconstruction”; heck, in their third album they even made the group name “Lee Ssang” into a pun.
Perhaps that has to do with why their music is so successful. That wordplay segues right into clever lyricism when it comes to their rap, which is only one part of their standards of excellence. “The Lee Ssang Blues” was the lead title of this duo’s second ‘official’ studio album, and I am not hesitant to call this one of the greatest rap songs of all time. Before there was “I Ain’t Laughing”, there was this. Vocalist/producer Gil’s talent shined in the reggae-themed, laid-back yet tightly-controlled beat; rapper Garry wrote one of the most impressive displays of his soulful flow; and featured funk artist Jung-In put in an exotic performance as always. In a scene that was beginning to be dominated by extremely commercial hip-hop, Lee Ssang went to do the music that they wanted; there they have remained ever since.
6. Cherry Filter – 여신의 나무 (The Goddess’s Tree)
Cherry Filter produced a number of hits, a few of which have made this list. Those are songs that have attained both commercial and critical success. On the other hand, “The Goddess’s Tree” is a relatively unknown track–it was released as part of Cherry Filter’s 2007 remake album, Rewind, but never became a promotional single. As you may have noticed if you are a Japan-inclined reader, this track is a remake of Hajime Chitose’s hit “Wadatsumino Ki”–Cherry Filter kept in close contact with the original artist as they worked, eventually reinventing a groove-based ska-jazz song into a dramatically focused rock ballad.
“The Goddess’s Tree” keeps the same theme–in fact, almost the same lyrics as the original. It’s quite remarkable that the lyrics seem to have transcended the language barrier, sounding just as touching and musically appropriate in Korean. I’ve heard few songs where the vocals and music flow together as well as this; the narrative legend is powerfully recounted by Jo Yu-Jin’s chameleon-like voice, and the sheer force of the band’s performance and heavy usage of strings strikes like a storm, rather reminiscent of the turbulent waves that Jo sings to. The experience is like that of watching an epic: it leaves you breathless, with an unforgettable impression of what you just heard lingering behind. “The Goddess’s Tree” is something that really needs to be “listened to”, rather than just “heard”.
5. 서태지 (Seo Taiji) – Heffy End
Album: 7th Issue
Seo Taiji may “only” have three entries in this Top 100, but if I were to do a list like this for the 1990s, I can all but guarantee that about half of the top 10 would be by either him or his former Taiji and the Boys. Such influence no longer describes Seo today; however, his music has only evolved with every iteration, and each time it was a sensation. His sixth album, Ultramania, popularized metalcore in the Korean mainstream; 7th Issue did the same for nu metal. “Heffy End” is a part of my personal troika from that album (composed of this song plus “Robot” and “Live Wire”), and it is absolutely glorious. The guitar work is more intricate and better executed than ever before; the rhythm is lively, punctuated with downbeat breaks; Taiji’s vocals, while not exceptionally powerful, retain the essence of explosiveness; the track is put together with confident finesse. And of course, the paradoxically uplifting tone that so many Taiji songs assume elevates (sinks?) “Heffy End” to a depth that is rarely seen and seldom replicated.
4. Drunken Tiger – Good Life
Album: The Legend Of…
I maintain that Drunken Tiger’s golden age is, in fact, right now. While the dependable presence of DJ Shine is missed, Tiger JK has improved the DT brand of music to a legendary stature; he continues to push the boundaries of Korean hip-hop in ways never attempted before. That said, it may seem contradictory that I put a 2001 track as, by far, the highest ranked of Drunken Tiger’s songs. The reason is simple: “Good Life” was a crowning achievement for Korean hip-hop during a time when such a thing barely existed. The very impetus for the creation of this song was to rebel against a less-than-supportive-for-hiphop recording label, by promoting something that could never be popular in the mainstream: rap verses that continued for overly long periods (by the time’s standards), an uncomfortably engineered beat, an infinitely repeating (and therefore quickly stale) chorus.
But it didn’t happen like this duo imagined: “Good Life” garnered explosive popularity, eventually topping mainstream charts and becoming a perennial karaoke favorite for youth and salaried men alike–and known today as one of the tracks that popularized the hip-hop genre in Korea. The aforementioned chorus and interjections like “one shot” contributed to the song’s success, but even from a musical standpoint “Good Life” is quite interesting.
Both JK and Shine conjured up some of their best verses to date–showcasing flow that was highly sophisticated for its time (almost on par with their seminal “Do Y’all Know Hip-Hop”) while still accessible enough for non-rappers to be able to imitate. This was also an early attempt to infuse melody into rapping: the chorus, while not as catchy as a hook song, opened up possibilities, and listeners can clearly hear the melody in DJ Shine’s second verse. The minimalist composition, while dated-sounding today, is a great complement to the song’s cynical theme. It’s no wonder that “Good Life” holds up so well nine years after its humble release.
3. 박효신 (Park Hyo-Shin) – 그 곳에 서서 (Standing There)
Album: Soul Tree
(For some reason, all the quality-sound copies of this video on Youtube are gone. This one’s subtitled in some language that I don’t even recognize, but it was the only one I could find.)
As perhaps Korea’s best–and that is not much of a stretch–vocalist today, Park Hyo-Shin can afford to take risks. “Snow Flower” (covered earlier on this list) as well as 2007’s The Breeze of Sea were such risks, where Park abandoned his traditionally heavy, soul-influenced voice for a lighter, less ad-lib-appropriate tone. It turned out successful, but sometimes I miss this guy’s unparalleled R&B performance. “Standing There” is perhaps Park’s heaviest outing of all time–there is more weight, more gravitas, more soul here than ever before. His voice always steals the show, and it’s no exception here: from the opening falsetto to the sustained exposition to the explosive finale, it’s controlled expertly for maximum effect, and it’s done in a way that you’ll be too busy listening to care. Composer Shin Jae-Hong’s masterful pacing keeps the emotion sustained throughout a refrain that could easily be overwrought, but care is taken to let loose when it’s needed: the climax, introduced with the oh-so-rare-in-modern-soul saxophone, reaches stirring heights as Park changes key and strings provide supporting wind. To complete the troika, lyricist Chae Jung-Eun stays rather far away from R&B cliches, instead opting for handsome, urbane expressions. Truly a glorious moment in Korean R&B.
2. Kinetic Flow, featuring 이루마 (Yiruma) – 몽환의 숲 (Forest of Phantasm)
Album: Challenge 4Da Change
Kinetic Flow is a relative unknown among the mainstream. In fact, they’re probably one of the least famous artists in the entire list. The duo, originally signed with MC Sniper’s Sniper Sound Records and a part of his crew Buddha Baby, made an unimpressive (though by no means incompetent) mainstream debut with “헤어지던 밤” (“The Night We Parted”), the lead single off of first album Challenge 4Da Change. However, listeners discovered an absolute gem contained in that album. “Forest of Phantasm” was never promoted as a single, for unfathomable reasons; but word of its unbelievable quality and ingenuity spread across the Web among impressed listeners, eventually making the song Kinetic Flow’s signature track and one of the most famous tracks released by any Sniper Sound artist.
One only needs to listen to the first few seconds of “Forest of Phantasm” to realize that it’s no ordinary rap track. A mystical piano line, written and performed by well-known professional pianist Yiruma, forms the base loop, to which an unobtrusive bass and drum line are added. ULT then starts rolling off the first verse in his charismatic style, supplemented and completed by Bido Seung-Woo’s melodic rapping. As furious as their flow actually is, the lyrics are easily decipherable and truly captivating: the protagonist is led by surreal happenstance into the titular forest of phantasm, where all pain is forgotten and only the senses exist.
The song is heavily sexual, but its tasteful use of innuendo (“Where sharing of the physical sense // Overrides the five others”, or “Forget your pain // in the melody solely ours, // in the gauntlet of senses // my hand already at the end of her skirt”, and so on. You get the point.) euphemise (no, not a word) the track for all but the most prudish. The verses are full of the duo’s clever rhymework, and are presented flawlessly: ULT’s second verse and the beginning of Bido’s final verse are especially impressive. The chorus was lyrically controversial among hip-hop listeners, for the supposedly awkward placement of words like “adrenaline” solely for the purposes of rhyme, but further debate showed that the lyrics make sense in addition to sounding very cool. There’s honestly nothing that I can come up with to slam on this song, even if I wanted to.
“Forest of Phantasm” is a heartbreaking narrative, weaved in meaningful words and ingenious rhyme and told upon a beautifully surreal soundscape. Such an achievement deserves to be recognized for the masterpiece that it is, and that is why it places as my greatest hip-hop song of the decade, as well as the second greatest song, period, of the decade.
1. 박정현 (Lena Park) – 꿈에 (In Dreams)
Album: Op. 4
(Music video: contains the original instrumentation)
(Live: instrumentation is slightly different)
Op. 4 was released shortly after Lena Park’s return from her studies at Columbia University, and at a potentially unfortunate time–namely, in June of 2002, when all of Korea was swallowed up in the fervor of the World Cup being held on home turf. But it still managed to achieve huge sales and popularity, establishing itself as Lena Park’s magnum opus as well as one of the best albums of all time in Korean pop. It’s just a couple indicators of the amazing quality of this album, particularly its lead single “In Dreams.”
If I made a list of the most dramatic songs of all time, “In Dreams” would top that one too. The track seems to have been planned from the ground up to resemble an opera–and it certainly sounds like one. It’s about a girl who, in her longing for her lover, meets him in her dreams, and eventually has to let him go even in there. This explains one of the song’s most remarkable points–the number of different moods that characterize different parts of the song.
Following a subdued woodwind/piano intro, Lena Park sings (rather, almost whispers) calmly for the duration of a verse, just like a girl who met her lover for the first time in years would (We shall call this kind of situation a “ground state”.)
“What to say… my heart is so nervous
We meet exactly as we used to be”
But it’s not long before accented piano chords begin pacing the silence, and Park projects heavily, expressing her yearning to not ever wake.
“I know this is only a dream
But if I could stay like this, just sleep forever…”
You’d expect the chorus to go further out from here on. But no–the refrain returns the mood to ground state, as if to pull back before a storm. The lovers are having a happy reunion.
“You hold me like you used to
You console me, asking how hard it’s been
You hold my hand, telling me to rest my soul
Your hands are as warm as they used to be”
The song lacks a second verse. Yep, an R&B track without a second verse. Instead, the bridge shifts the mood again, as the tempo (rather, the pacing) speeds up, guitar and bass comes in with guns blazing, and Park, the dynamic vocalist she is, builds suspense with powerful intonation. She’s wonderfully expressive here; you can almost hear the panic as she tells and promises various things.
“I’ll never let you know that this is a dream
I’ll be really good, so you won’t think of anything else
Don’t go now, just stay here with me
I won’t wake either, I won’t send you away again”
It’s an only too natural lead-in for the second refrain, which shares the same melody and lyrics as the first, but could not be any more different otherwise–the instrumentation is expansive, the vocals sweeping, and the presentation with grandeur.
“Please say it… that you’ve missed me as much as I have you”
An extended intermission follows. Except I’m not sure if that’s an appropriate word, because I think this is the single most outstanding piece of the track. It’s led by a dreamy guitar solo, with heavy pianowork lending weight; toms and cymbals resound, and Park lets loose with all the power of a true diva. (This section really just needs to be listened to rather than read about, and I’m not saying that just because I suck at describing music in words.)
The finale of the song is two minutes long–if you’re thinking that’s one heck of a long finale for a six-minute track, you’re right. But not a second of it is wasted time. Lena Park goes back to ground state for a refrain:
“Looking at me, joyful like a fool,
You give a sympathetic smile, a sad smile
And apologize that you have to go
Then you knew, like I did, that this was all a dream
But still, thank you, for meeting me like this”
That’s when a whole choir comes in with the drums to help her bring the excitement right back up. Eventually everything returns, as Park’s vocals soar explosively and the choir continues to provide support. The end is near, but the track is ready to shine the brightest before the fall.
“Now you hold me, calling it a farewell
I’ll smile for you, even if I don’t want to let you go
You turn away, like you did before
When I wake up, I’ll be alone again
You walk away–that’s familiar to me
Let me cry now… I don’t want to send you away, but I can’t see you anymore”
The denouement that follows is almost bittersweet–its lyrics are, yes, but also because of the overwhelming finality. Park is spent, the instrumentation and choirs are gone.
“I open my eyes again, and my heart is cold
Thank you, and I love you
I’m okay now, you don’t have to come again…”
The song is a symbol of completeness. The theatrics work perfectly as Lena Park puts in one of the best performances of her career (which, incidentally, took weeks of vocal arrangement to perfect), and the surreality of the setting work together with the grand scale of the instrumentation to present an unforgettable experience.
Then again, similar praise could be bestowed upon other songs on this list. In fact, other songs often have even more polish, even bigger scale, and even more emotion than this. Why, exactly, is “In Dreams” the greatest song of the decade, rather than “Forest of Phantasm”, “Standing There”, or any of the other 97 songs on this list and the hundreds more that didn’t make the top?
At the end of the day, it’s not about the sum of the parts–music is about what sounds great, as well as what moves people. “In Dreams” was not only outstanding from a technical, analytical perspective, but also on the most basic, instinctive level. It’s a song that sounds excellent. It’s a song that’s incredibly meaningful. In my opinion (and perhaps only in mine), “In Dreams” is the best-sounding, most meaningful song released in this past decade. No other artist, Lena Park included, was able to make a track greater than this; and truthfully, I’m beginning to wonder if I ever will hear one that does top my favorite song of all time. At that point, it’s a no-brainer–“In Dreams” most definitely takes #1 on this list.