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60. Tei – 사랑은… 향기를 남기고 (Love… Left a Scent)
Album: The First Journey
As far as successful debuts go, Tei couldn’t have asked for a much better one. “Love… Left a Scent” topped one music countdown show’s main chart for five consecutive weeks, setting a new record that was only ever tied once (the contender was “겁쟁이” (“Coward”) by Buzz, if you were wondering) before that show got shut down. Tei is a phenomenal singer–not necessarily endowed with the most flashy technique, but instead with an interesting husky tone and emotional control. Listeners were introduced to both in this song. The rather difficult modern-ballad melody has Tei doing vocal acrobatics all over, but it still somehow manages to convey that emotion of melancholy yearning. The song is doubly effective in that the satisfaction of the final chorus’ catharsis is matched only by the intensity of the brooding aftertaste it leaves.
59. 바다 (Bada) – 오로라 (Aurora)
(It’s a fan-subtitled version, but don’t trust it too much.)
Some songs have this really uncanny capability to musically resemble their subject. On that note, Bada’s “Aurora” is perhaps the closest a song can come to actually ‘sounding’ like an aurora. The former S.E.S. lead vocalist sings a dreamy melody above an ambient, fading electronica track and flowing strings. Bada’s fragile voice almost blends right into the delicate harmony of string and programming; everything is perfectly balanced and presented. If you’re ever looking for a surreal experience in a song, “Aurora” provides the golden standard right here.
58. 화요비 (Hwayobi) – 반쪽 (A Half)
Album: This is Love EP
Over this past decade, R&B diva Hwayobi has developed into an immediately recognizable figure in the Korean scene. You could attribute it to her numerous TV appearances and image-building, but I like to think her music had a bigger part than that. This outstanding vocalist put out a number of hits, ranging from 2004 Japanese remake “당신과의 키스를 세어보아요” (“I Count Your Kisses”) to 2010 killer “Bye Bye Bye”, but I think that this little EP has to take the cake in her discography. “A Half” is a moody R&B pop number (no pun intended) with some interesting qualities. It’s a sad song, but it has enough of a powerful sense of rhythm to almost qualify as a club tune. Hwayobi’s vocals are noticeably huskier than ever here, and she puts on a fascinating performance, expertly harnessing emotions into one tactful, explosive effort. There are signs of thoughtfulness in every part of the song: the careful electronic alterations, the structure, the magnificent vocal track. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that thoughtfulness leads to good music.
57. 신화 (Shinhwa) – Brand New
Album: Brand New
A lot of boy bands have appeared in the Korean scene to date, and a lot of them have succeeded. Among them, Shinhwa is something of a unique case: while the majority of first-generation boy bands like them disbanded after five or so years, these guys remained together, well into their late twenties. So they were able to craft a new sort of identity, one of a charismatic, veteran boy bands who knew what they were doing, as opposed to the youthful, appealing-to-teen-girls kind. “Brand New” is a song released in that era, and Shinhwa’s unique identity permeates itself into every part of it. The dignified, sophisticated tone; the confidence and assurance emanating from the lyrics; the unflinching, even slightly amused vocal performances; and most of all, the unmistakable, charismatic swag that the song gives off. Never mind the top-notch instrumentation and melody composition; it’s all about whether you can make the song your own. And these six guys just did.
56. 비 (Rain) – It’s Raining
Album: It’s Raining
The statement is all over the place. His name is Rain. The album cover screams that It’s Raining. That’s because its title, strangely enough, is It’s Raining. Which has for its lead single a song called “It’s Raining”. Throughout the song, you’ll hear the phrase more than a few times. “World Star” (or “World Hobo”, depending on which side of the fan spectrum you’re on) Rain’s third album was designed and produced to be a blockbuster–with “It’s Raining” at the tip. It was certainly worth the fuss, because this song doesn’t disappoint. The extremely dense electronic beat is filled to the brim with bass synthesizer, treble synthesizer, background synthesizer, highlight synthesizer… basically, all manner of electronic sound that you can think of, and it’s a delight for the ear. These songs have a tendency to get really exhausting to listen to after a while, and the engineers decided to wisely cut it off at about three and a half minutes of running time. That’s plenty of time for Rain and the JYP Entertainment gurus (Rain was part of JYP until his fourth album) to do interesting things with the track. You’ll notice the hissing and exhaling, the “Go Rain, go Rain” chant, the nonstop intensity of the chorus, the strength of even the outro. The song remains engaging all the way through its end, and apparently, through the decade–“It’s Raining” holds up with remarkable integrity even after six years.
55. G.Na, featuring 용준 Yong-Jun) – 꺼져줄게 잘 살아 (I’ll Back Off, So Live Well)
Album: Draw G’s First Breath EP
G.Na is the only artist on this entire list who made her debut in 2010. That says something about the song that got her on the list to begin with. To be fair, the rather mouthfully named “I’ll Back Off, So Live Well” wasn’t the greatest hit of 2010, nor was it the most moving song of the year, nor was it its most groundbreaking development. However, this dance pop track did achieve what I’d been waiting for for years: a true dance song that combines technical perfection with mastery in execution. Yes, you could say that it’s been done, but there were none, ever, that didn’t have me wanting a little more was done. With “IBO, SLW”, consider the technical pieces: the mood-setting, subtle echo and low-boiling wave track; the sheer boldness of the melody and synth; the piano melody-mixing; the drumline’s kinetic energy; the catharsis of the chorus after the chord shift; the immaculate outro. Then there’s the intangible. G.Na’s performance leaves nothing under-said, nothing underdone, no regrets. It feels like the most complete song that you can get. Very few songs achieve that feeling (at least for me), and that’s why this debut single by my (unsurprising) pick for best rookie artist of 2010 gets to place here.
54. 유진 (Eugene) – Windy
Two former S.E.S. members within five spots of each other on this list. Eugene’s solo works take on a more decidedly pop direction. 2004’s “Windy” was her apex and zenith. The song almost sounds like a 90s old-school track, with its mostly analog soundset and relative lack of emphasis on background intricacy. It’s not a bad thing, though–it only makes the addictive melody even more pronounced. The track gains a flair of sophistication from the reversed strings that are responsible for the namesake “windy” feeling, and doesn’t lose a beat through its several act shifts. But “Windy”‘s real greatness comes from its confidence and composure. Eugene doesn’t particularly try to evoke sex appeal, but her bold performance and attitude make for a more enjoyable ride than would have if she did. She recognizes that she’s got a good beat to work with, and improves it with a creative interpretation of the lyrics. Experience doesn’t go anywhere.
53. 요조 (Yozoh), with Eric and Brown Classic – Nostalgia
Album: Brown Classic 1st – Nostalgia
Indie pop artist Yozoh has a very defined character: she sings soothing, fun songs in an airy, cutesy voice. And she’s always carrying that guitar. (She does play it, just so we’re clear.) “Nostalgia” is where she deviated from that winning formula a bit. This collaboration with “culture group” Brown Classic (members include big names like Lee Hyori and Lee Min-Woo, but as far as I know the only member to participate in the single was composer Kim Do-Hyun) and Shinhwa rapper-turned-actor Eric stars Yozoh as the still-adorable but much more dimensioned figure (psychologically speaking–don’t get any ideas). Her story in “Nostalgia” is a more serious reminiscence about the past, of a love that used to be. The irresistible voice remains the same, but it is surprisingly convincing in its portrayal of pain–much more convincing that you’d expect a voice like that to be. The wistful lyrics are gorgeous–it’s three minutes of surreal reminiscence where destiny wakes you up from sleep and clouds approach to envelop you in warmth. The rhythmic, punctuated guitar accompaniment and Eric’s conversational rapping complete the moment.
52. 부활 (Boohwal) – Never Ending Story
Album: 새, 벽 (Bird, Wall; also pun on “Morning”)
Bird, Wall was the last album in rock band Boohwal’s 25-year history that starred Lee Seung-Chul as its lead vocalist, as after this brief reunion the former went on another spree of replacement vocalists and the latter turned his attention exclusively to solo albums. The legendary combination certainly went out with a bang, because the album’s lead single “Never Ending Story” may well be the greatest rock ballad song of all time. Guitarist and main composer Kim Tae-Won wrote an emotionally charged ballad with a gorgeous melody and expansive scope; Lee Seung-Chul digested and interpreted the song in ways that only he could. Kim’s melody, especially at the chorus, flows with incredible power and elation; it’s paced so that it sounds as if it would end any second, but doesn’t–hence the theme of this never-ending story. Lee Seung-Chul sings perhaps one of the most beautifully written love lyrics of the decade in his trademark, effortlessly performed extreme highs. “Never Ending Story” is a work of rock-ballad legends at the top of their game; it’s doubtful that we will ever see one to match this from Boowhal’s future discography.
51. BIGBANG – 거짓말 (Lies)
Say what you will about controversial yet still immensely popular idol group BIGBANG (it’s stylized in capitals), but don’t try to deny their talent. While their massively hyped first studio album, BIGBANG Vol. 1, was one of the biggest letdowns of 2007 in terms of both quality and commercial success (especially compared to the quality of the pre-studio album singles), these five guys totally made up for it with the 2008 mini album Always. Lead single “Lies” was allegedly supposed to be a solo effort by the group’s musical mastermind G-Dragon, until it was deemed too amazing to leave just to him. Discussions of fairness aside, “Lies” is certainly a fine enough track to warrant that.
The song borrows a lot from shibuya-kei, enough that people just consider it a revival of that Japanese genre. The jarring piano loop is at once rhythmic and moving, and beat both punchy and pondering. G-Dragon’s and T.O.P’s rap verses are enjoyably percussive and interesting from a technical standpoint–the former has his attitude-ridden flow going, and the latter displays much more creative rhyming than before in his relatively short verse. Seung-Ri and Daesung split up the two sung verses with solid performances, and Tae-Yang (SOL, just in case that sounds any more familiar) pitches in an expressive bridge in his unique tone. But the real selling point of “Lies” is the very, very addictive chorus: the breathless repetitions of a melodic, kinetic “I’m so sorry but I love you 다 거짓말 (it’s all lies)” is a flash of genius in hook crafting; even though there are strong performances and sections all throughout the song, this chorus is so intensely memorable as to make them irrelevant. Testament to its excellence, “Lies” became one of the forerunners of the now slightly-overdone hook-song craze that hit the Korean scene in late 2008 and thrives to this day.
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