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70. Crash – Crashday
Album: The Paragon of Animals
Thrash metal band Crash have always been innovators in their field–at one point, they even attempted a techno-based metal sound. Returning after nearly a decade of hiatus, it appears that Crash decided to return to its roots. “Crashday” is more than a little thrash–it goes somewhat heavier, but the influence is there nonetheless. The immediately noticeable element is the technical excellence of the sound being offered here. The intricate guitars are equally richly placed in both the melody and the riff, and the explosive drums never rest for a beat in their tremolo. The song’s plethora of melodies and solos seamlessly merge, its wildly varying acts and sections flowing naturally. Vocalist and guitarist Ahn Heung-Chan growls, shouts and sings equally effectively, the latter as well-placed oases in the barrage of sound, and guitarist Yun Du-Byoung contributes ear-popping solos. The quality of the work speaks for itself: this took a lot of effort and careful composition. It took a return of the masters at the top of their form for the first truly satisfying metal track in years to emerge.
69. 김범수 (Kim Bum-Soo) – 보고 싶다 (I Miss You)
Album: 보고 싶다 (I Miss You)
The litmus test for a ballad? See how enduring it is. Listen to it several years after release, and see if it’s still moving, still emotional, still effective. Kim Bum-Soo’s “I Miss You” passes all three tests. The song, originally the titular single of Kim’s third album, gained enormous popularity as the main love theme of TV miniseries “천국의 계단” (“The Stairs of Heaven”) and became his breakthrough hit. “I Miss You” is remarkably austere, if you could tell from the title. There isn’t much by way of instrumentation, so we are left with Kim Bum-Soo’s vocals to make the song. He sings the wistful melody with passion, dipping into his considerable talent along the way. The non-falsettoed high notes are unparalleled in clarity, vibration, and more importantly than either of those, emotion. It’s an impressive enough effort that countless young men gave themselves ruined vocal cords trying to emulate it at karaokes. And guess what? People are still doing that. Litmus test… check.
68. Brown Eyed Girls – 다가와서 (Came To Me)
Album: Your Story
Beginnings were humble for today’s top stars Brown Eyed Girls. The talented quartet debuted as a ‘faceless group’: they did not appear on any visual media other than music programs, choosing to not even show up in their own music video. The mystery campaign worked somewhat, but it didn’t save “Came to Me” from the resulting obscurity. And it’s a shame, because I’d have loved to see this become more popular. “Came to Me” is a hybrid soul track, employing R&B elements into soul. The accordion (or just electric piano, I could be mistaken) accompaniment adds a unique flavor to the strings-and-drum-programming beat, and it’s engaging ground for our three vocalists to do their thing. This group has a well-balanced vocal range, from Jea’s husky tone to Narsha and Ga-In’s lighter voices, but all are equally powerful while complementing each other. Rapper Miryo pitches in one of the best 4-bars of all time; her verse really should be longer than that, but she manages with the little time. The theatrical, dramatic structure ties it up well and into the best soul track you’ve never heard of.
67. 지누션 (Jinusean) – A-Yo
Album: The Reign
One for the money, two for the show. The Elvis line has had remarkable tenacity in recurring in music all over the place, but as far as I know, Jinusean’s “A-Yo” is the only Korean song that uses it. That line is just one example of the efforts that this hip-hop duo put into bringing the nearly nonexistent Korean rap scene back in 2001 up to speed with the rest of the world–even if it means putting a recognizable line or two in. Following the trends, “A-Yo” makes use of a piano loop, and boy, does it work. I’m pretty sure it’d rank within the top ten loops I’ve ever heard. While the two rappers’ verses, speaking about all the clever uses of the versatile exclamation “A-Yo”, wouldn’t quite blow minds in today’s much more developed scene, they are more than good enough, and both have excellent abilities in getting the meaning across. An interesting traditional-instrumentation interlude adds to the fun, and we have one of the best rap songs to come out of the early decade.
66. 윤도현 (Yoon Do-Hyun) – 사랑했나봐 (Maybe I Loved)
Yoon Do-Hyun’s namesake band have done some ballads over the years, but usually they’re a hard-rock band. So it was a bit of a departure to hear this artist’s solo outing feature a traditional ballad. The result was one of 2005’s greatest hits, “Maybe I Loved”. This austere track sings of the usual deal about loneliness and abandonment after parting, but like I always say, it’s all up to the artist to make it fresh. Yoon Do-Hyun does it with an atypically resigned diction and a lean singing style as devoid of excess as possible. Suddenly the track is much more wistful; the relative lack of emotion in Yoon’s singing also helps that feeling to an extent. Artists do what they can do to make ballads work; you know it worked when you hear something as thoughtful as “Maybe I Loved”.
65. Se7en – 라라라 (La La La)
I feel like “Se7en” would be a great stage name to have–you can make all sorts of puns with it, even when they don’t work too well as is the case with the guy’s fourth album Se7olution. The obscenely popular (at least in 2006) YG Entertainment artist took a little departure with lead-title selection here: following suit with the toned-down nature of this outing, he did not pick a crunk&B or club song as his lead single. “La La La” is a R&B pop ballad (that’s a mouthful), distinguishing itself by a very prominent harpsichord track that carries the song. The cool, collected melody and Se7en’s captivating performance is a nice contrast from both the artist’s old music and the overwhelming flood of electronic-heavy pop that has been just about the only pop around for the past few years.
64. 진보 (Jinbo) – U R
If you know Jinbo at all, you probably know him as a hip-hop producer. The man released an album of his own entitled Afterwork early this year, and it might be the best decision he ever made. Lead single “U R” is a prime example why. The song is kind of hard to classify; I suppose you can call it pop or electronica, but I wouldn’t be totally happy with either (or even electropop). Whatever it is, it’s a thrilling ride as the artist effortlessly flows through several distinct sections. There’s a section that features moody saxophone and piano, plus a rich blend of different musical elements and street sounds thrown in, as Jinbo both raps and sings; a section with heavy electronic distortion, as the melody transitions while keeping the main theme alive; a section where a flute performs loops as Jinbo raps ever so lightly; a jazzy piano section, as Jinbo narrates his outro. This isn’t all; a great thing about “U R” is that you get to simply take in the expansive range of all the sounds that hit your ear, at once and sequentially, if you wish, but you can also spend time piecing out all the little bits and pieces that come together to create this urban harmony. Sometimes you can’t make it out, sometimes you can. But “U R” deserves tons of credit if only for the fact that it makes listening to music an active experience again.
63. 옥주현 (Ok Joo-Hyun) – 난 (亂) (Turmoil)
Like her groupmate Lee Hyori, who also placed a song on this list, former FIN.K.L. lead vocalist and national angel Ok Joo-Hyun returned with a solo outing in 2003. That’s where the similarity ends, though–Ok decided to stick with her strong suit of singing. “Turmoil” (no, it’s not “I”, for all the Korean readers that are curious), the lead single of this solo debut, is a massively scaled ballad tour-de-force. It gets the instrumentation deal right: the mantra “You never use a decently sized orchestra when you can use the biggest darned one ever heard in a ballad” is strictly heeded to here. (Yes, I did make that up, and no, the record doesn’t stand anymore, since Lee Soo-Young’s “Whistle To Me” topped it in 2004. In fact, I have no way of knowing if this one was even was a record in the first place. So I guess never mind.) An arpeggio sets the heavy mood as Ok opens with a soliloquy in her characteristically breathy voice. Much care is taken to ensure the orchestra’s scale is appreciated fully: each bow stroke and timpani roll is carefully placed. The tremendous pent-up suspense is released slowly and only a little at a time; the chorus is too slow-paced to do it at once. Ok’s explosive vocals don’t really get a chance to shine, but knowing how to manage emotion in songs like this is a telling sign of a mature vocalist–she’s up to the challenge. The majestic composition ends on lingering piano, and the epic is complete.
62. 조성모 (Jo Sung-Mo) – 너의 곁으로 (To Your Side)
Album: 파리의 연인 OST (Lovers in Paris Original Soundtrack)
Popular shows beget popular soundtracks. This was certainly the case with “To Your Side”, which was the main love theme to the SBS production Lovers in Paris (Les amoreux à Paris, if you prefer) and sung by one of the most prominent (though not always the best) ballad singers in the nation, Jo Sung-Mo. This one was a massive departure from run-of-the-mill TV show soundtracks, which tend to be either 1) Overly rhythm-centric rock ballads with infinitely replayable (and therefore annoying) choruses or 2) Overly emotional ballads, again with infinite replayability. “To Your Side” eschews both. It opens strong with an atmospheric guitar intro and never looks back. The pop ballad has a tasteful melody, sung in Jo’s trademark airy alto; there’s also a remarkably kinetic rhythm sustained throughout, and it comes together into one bold statement. But here’s the crucial achievement of this track. “It’s too good to leave as a piece of a soundtrack” would have been the reaction upon its release; “This is a great soundtrack” was the reaction that it eventually received. “To Your Side” was a large catalyst in the trend towards innovation and the change in perception of TV soundtracks; while we still have a long way to go after six years, if it wasn’t for this, all those Korean soap opera watchers may still be listening to completely intolerable crap.
61. 이적 (Lee Juck) – 다행이다 (Fortunate)
Album: 나무로 만든 노래 (Songs Carved From Wood)
Some have called Lee Juck, sometimes lead vocal of pop duo Panic and sometimes solo artist, a genius. I’d be inclined to agree, but I think of him more as a guy who has an intuitive grasp on how the human mind works. For his third solo album’s lead single, “Fortunate”, he departs from the heavy topics and themes of some previous work and returns to something based more on pathos. “Fortunate” is the confessions of one happy man, not endowed with much but not caring. All the austere, untarnished snippets of stories about his lover mentioned in the song are incredibly moving precisely because of their simplicity and everydayness. True to his reputation as a master lyricist, Lee Juck writes these lines in brilliant poetry. This one was a huge hit at weddings all over, and it’s not hard to see why.
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