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50. 싸이 (Psy) – 챔피언 (Champion)
Album: 3싸이 (3Psy)
This tune here probably sounds familiar to you. It’s the famous “Axel F” track from Beverly Hills Cop; Psy was by no means the first artist to sample it, but he probably did put the weirdest spin on it. This reimagining is based on techno, with old-school synthesizer and analog drum machine filling the beat. The familiar melody is used as an intro and background, throughout and up to the chorus; the actual chorus and tune are original.
A majority of Psy’s songs have this in common: they are extremely danceable. That means they’re upbeat, energetic, vibrant, and entertaining, with a bit of the magic ingredient (whatever it may be) that completes the concoction. His greatest hits were all that way–“Bird”, “Celeb”, “We Are The One”, and the most recent “Right Now” all followed that formula. “Champion” is one of those songs as well: the supercharged beat is there, as described, and Psy’s signature entertaining, not-quite-virtuoso-but-good-to-the-ear rapping makes the rest of it. As a club anthem, it fits the bill; as a pick-me-up, it works equally well. But this one’s different from Psy’s other similar successes by way of a message. The lyrics are pretty funny, but this time they have an important empowerment theme. The titular “champion”, as Psy makes very clear about 400 times, is you. It’s you because you shout. It’s you because you rock to music. Because you enjoy life. Because it’s you. Because you’re you. And you’re a champ.
[As an aside, this is a track perfectly suited to a concert, which Psy knows. Hence the remix of this song, which is breathtaking–full orchestra and band accompaniment, with scale befitting one of his year-end concerts. I almost consider it better than this version, but as far as I know there is only one location on the Internet where it is still publicly available, and it cannot be linked to.]
49. 별 (Byul) – 12월 32일 (December 32nd)
Album: 12월 32일 (December 32nd)
Ballad, as a Korean genre, always runs the risk of becoming stale. This pervasive style is therefore always trying new innovations and tricks, some of them more successful than others. In 2002, during a time when the ubiquitous rock-ballad had fallen out of style, a nineteen-year-old JYP artist debuted with (you guessed it) a ballad album. While not the groundbreaking, trendsetting blockbuster that you may expect from reading the introduction, Byul’s “December 32nd” showed how a solid, well-made track can come to vibrant life without such innovation if it’s with a little bit of personality.
The eerie, atmospheric wave tones serve as a backdrop to the interesting usage of woodblocks and clock-ticking sounds, which in turn serve as a backdrop to Byul’s vocals. Still in her teens at this time, the artist’s voice is noticeably young–it is a little floaty at times, and in general shows some areas of improvement. She does, however, nail the important part of a ballad: the emotion. The idea of a girl refusing to see a new year come until her lover (ex or not, we are not told) returns is melodramatic at best, but the artist gives such a wrenching performance that it can be forgiven. Byul narrates her story calmly as she nurses her heart; she appeals dramatically as she gives up on it. The youthful voice only serves to add a dimension of sensibility that will not be found in her later work. I do not think that any other voice could have successfully replicated the desperation of the song’s late chorus.
There is no January 1st for me,
My calendar hasn’t ended yet
It’s the 32nd, the 33rd
Until you’re back,
It will still be December for me
48. Baby V.O.X. – Play Remix (Korean)
Album: Ride West
Baby V.O.X was one of the second-generation girl groups that sprang up all over after the success of first-gen pioneers S.E.S and FIN.K.L. The group had its glory days and fading moments; Ride West, released as the seventh and final album of Baby V.O.X. proper (I say “proper” because the group was rebooted with new members and new direction under the name “Baby V.O.X. Rev” in 2007.) , is solidly in the latter category. However, I still consider its “Play” to be one of V.O.X.’s best outings, and certainly my favorite out of their work.
“Play” is a heavy club tune. The bass rumbles assuredly along with the low-tone strings, punctuating the drum track as well as giving seductive energy to the song. This bass-string alignment is in fact the greatest asset the song has going for it: it’s deliriously heady, but still grounds the track with weight and prevents it from being just another flimsy club anthem. It’s a type of production not heard anymore these days–the rise of electropop saw to that–but the old-school feel is more appreciated than ever in today’s synth-saturated scene.
47. 마야 (Maya) – 진달래꽃 (Azalea)
Album: Born To Do It
“진달래꽃” (“Azalea”) is originally a poem published in 1925 by writer Kim So-Wol. Expressing the grief of parting in a uniquely Korean sentimentality, the piece has since become one of the most well-known and highly regarded poems in Korean literature. An entirely new generation of young Koreans were treated to the message of this work when up-and-coming rock artist Maya debuted in 2003 with its musical adaptation.
The poem itself is a masterpiece of poignant sadness, and Maya takes care to preserve that feeling. The entirety of the four stanzas and twelve lines of the poem (it’s really a very short piece) is used as the song’s chorus, with tasteful original writing filling out the rest. However, the song’s real uniqueness comes from the contrast between the melancholy, grieving lyrics and the unexpected vigor of the music. “Azalea” is closer to punk than it is to ballad, and the heavy sound and sharp beats transform what would be a listless soliloquy into a emotionally charged, powerful ride. All throughout, the grim melody carries the equally hard-set lyrics to something straight out of an epic.
Even at time of release, the song’s decidedly 90s feel was a point of contention; today, that retro feeling is only compounded. However, there is no denying that “Azalea” is still a tremendously moving track, combining a timeless sentiment with reviving energy.
46. 박정현 (Lena Park) – 달 (Moon)
Album: On & On
Following the career-defining success of her 2002 magnum opus Op. 4, I can only imagine that R&B diva Lena Park (or Park Jung-Hyun, if you’re more accustomed to that name) must have labored through great pains to formulate her next outing. After three years, the much-anticipated fifth album dropped, and while it didn’t replicate the commercial success of the previous album, On & On succeeded in adding several more masterpieces to Park’s repertoire–the most prominent being lead title “Moon”.
“Moon” is a departure from all of her earlier work. Gone are the R&B beatwork, the crazy melisma, the electronic soundscape. The song utilizes a very acoustic, analog grouping of instruments; piano, orchestra set, drums, choir. Along with the instruments, her tone also changed; “Moon” is mystic and mysterious, calm and patient; it’s very loathe to show its true colors until near the end. The suspense buildup is done remarkably well, with a flute-ridden chorus and intermission giving way to strings and piano and eventually into the full orchestra expansion of the climax.
The track is carried by a strong melody line, a fresh, almost lullaby-like wonder. Park is right up there with artists like Hwayobi and Lim Jung-Hee in vocal prowess, and in fact overwhelms almost any other artist in the country in terms of range and technique. Plenty of that can be found in “Moon”; but also in her arsenal as a vocalist is theatrical ability, and this really shines in the song. This track isn’t quite as dramatic as, say, “꿈에” (“In Dreams”), but that’s like saying Tyson Gay isn’t quite as fast as Usain Bolt. Some things just cannot be compared to. Lena Park, with sheer force of voice, turns a lullaby into an opera by song’s end, and it’s a breathtaking show.
45. 박효신 (Park Hyo-Shin) – 눈의 꽃 (Snow Flower)
Album: 미안하다, 사랑한다 OST (Mianhada, Saranghanda Original Soundtrack)
Soundtracks are a dime a dozen, but sadly the vast majority of Korean ones tend to fall into cliches. Movies are a little better than TV shows, but both groups can be fairly similar. I maintain that the mid-2000s was the best time ever for soundtracks–we got tons of unique gems from TV shows as well as movies, a few of which have even made this list from their all-around excellence. One of the standouts from 2004 was R&B artist Park Hyo-Shin’s “Snow Flower”, used as the main love theme of storied miniseries Mianhada, Saranghanda.
The song is a remake of Japanese artist Nakashima Mika’s 2003 hit “雪の華” (“Snow Flower”, go figure), and borrows a lot of elements from it. The instrumentation is similar (including the bell intro), with a little more grandiose presentation on the remake’s side; Park Hyo-Shin departs from his previous heavy, soul-shaking vocals to one closer to Mika’s calm true-tone; even the lyrics are similar. All of these retained elements plus Park’s added lyrics and flawless performance makes for an achingly gorgeous atmosphere, and makes “Snow Flower” just about the most emotionally loaded song you’ll ever hear.
44. M.C. the Max – 사랑의 시(時) (A Time of Love)
Album: Love is Time Sixth Sense
Although it’s probably safe to say that it will never return to its former glory, pop-rock band M.C. the Max (stands for “Moon Child the Maximum”–don’t worry too much about it) produced some of the greatest ballad tracks in Korean history during its heyday. It all started with the second album that put this young band on the map–and the lead title that spurred that turning of heads, “A Time of Love”.
Like the previous entry, this track also has Japanese ties–it was written by Tamaki Koji, lead vocalist of Japanese rock band 安全地帯 (Anzen Chitai), and two different versions of the song were jointly released by Anzen Chitai and M.C. the Max, under the title “Chocolat” by the former and as “A Time of Love” by the latter. Both are fantastic, and I’d recommend a listen of “Chocolat” to anyone.
“A Time of Love” thrives on its austere, solitary atmosphere. Vocalist Isu puts in the best performance of his career, past and future–the song isn’t technically complicated, but Isu pulls off the emotion of excruciating loneliness perfectly with his reluctant verses and hollow falsetto. Gifted jack-of-all-trades instrumentalist J. Yoon plays some regally somber violin and bass, and while his position is almost always obscured, drummer Jun Min-Hyuk does his part well as always. (We unfortunately do not hear his vocals in this one.)
The cryptic lyrics finish up the presentation, and we have one poignant piece. Slow at times and downright dreary at others, “A Time of Love” is a song that many artists would not know what to do with if given to perform–but M.C. the Max pulled it off.
43. 두번째 달 (Dubonchae Dal – The Second Moon) – 서쪽하늘에 (In the Western Sky)
Album: The Second Moon
Second Moon, the exceedingly large-scale debut project of the eponymous international (but still Korea-based) music group, is without a doubt one of my favorite albums of all time. In fact, I suspect that I’ll be writing on this thing as a whole sometime soon, but I digress. “In the Western Sky”, the second track in the album, is the only instrumental track to make this Top 100; the song exhibits such personality and emotion as to be more meaningful than most songs that have lyrics.
The 5-minute journey opens with acoustic guitar and violin introducing the main theme. It’s a breezy, open melody, reminiscent of an epic-film’s soundtrack, but it retains a certain lightness in its rhythm. As the scale expands, so does the scope of this melody: it twists and turns, skipping between instruments, flowing freely. About halfway in, the exhilaration becomes infectious; the bustling sounds invite the listener to share in its majestic freedom. The imagery of the sky is highly appropriate, as the listener feels the transcendental senses of lift, of ascension. The track concludes with a lengthy outro of an energetic, vigorous amalgam of traditional flute and acoustics. All throughout, the sheer technical intricacy of and cohesion between the track’s pieces and instruments continues to be marvelous. In fact, Second Moon’s work is possibly some of the best technically directed music I’ve heard.
But you know what the best part about this entry is? All the descriptions I use in that above paragraph could totally be replaced by anything you feel while listening to the track. That’s how you know an instrumental has attained the ultimate greatness. A Zen moment of instrumentals, if you will: it’s of such great quality that people can stop talking about how good or bad it is and focus solely on the feelings that it evokes.
42. 1TYM – Hot 뜨거 (Hot)
Album: Once N 4 All
For a while, 1TYM used to be one of very few popular mainstream hiphop group that was larger than a duo. As such, they walked a fine line between ‘selling out’ to the ever-commercializing hiphop market and losing their mainstream status completely. I think they did a good job; true to YG Entertainment standards, they produced very high-quality material whose subject matter and presentation did not alienate the public. The epitome of such efforts can be seen in “Hot”.
This lighthearted track thrives on accessibility. The beat is sophisticated, but not overly complicated; the members don’t get a whole lot of bars each to fill, but all four put in respectable performances, ranging from Teddy’s 101 on swag to Jinhwan’s fronting; despite being a rap song, the track follows a structure closer to traditional pop. All of this pales, however, in comparison to the ridiculously addictive hook. It’s slightly punny and all funny; it was certainly the main cause for the song’s popularity on release. Of course, credit goes to these lyricists for crafting the clever chorus that perfectly fits the party mood of the song.
All this talk of ‘accessibility’ and ‘fun’ might make you think “Hot” is nothing but an exercise in mediocrity. I call it a textbook exercise in making the mainstream want your music, as opposed to making music that the mainstream wants.
41. 인순이 (Insooni), featuring 조PD (Cho PD) – 친구여 (Dear Friend)
Album: A to Z
Among the artists still active today, Insooni is probably one of the most legendary. This prolific musician debuted in 1978, and has since released 19 albums, 14 of them studio. She has produced work all over and across genres–ballad, pop, dance, disco, hiphop, techno, swing, funk, trot, she’s touched it all. Even more impressively, she continues to innovate and try new things with every outing. Her 2009 single “Fantasia” not only featured surreal atmosphere and intense choreography, but also some active use of auto-tune. Tell me when you find another artist in her fifties who does that.
“Dear Friend”, featuring rapper Cho PD, was one of the lead titles of Insooni’s sixteenth album Higher. This song was voted the consensus Song of the Year 2004 by several publications, among some incredibly heavy competition, because of the message it carried both internally and externally. In the former way, “Dear Friend” is a song about, well, friendship, and the sanctuary from this harsh world that friendship forever represents. Nostalgia and old sensibility are big themes in the anthem that the two artists weave, and it’s more than enough to bring a smile to anyone’s lips, old or young.
Externally, though, “Dear Friend” has another key significance. It’s not every day where an established legend in pop works together with a young rap artist–in 2004, it was nearly unheard of. This was more than a year before featuring became a common sight on the Korean scene, and you could even say that “Dear Friend” was the song to jump-start that bandwagon, as opposed to MC Mong and Kim Tae-Woo’s “I Love You Oh Thank You” getting the honors.
It’s not all about the cultural significance, either: “Dear Friend” is a delight on the ears, coming from a blend of Insooni’s signature power vocals, Cho PD’s equally signature overly-well-enunciated flow, and a bumping techno-dance track. The music is generally controlled very well, appropriately taking a backseat to the two artists’ synergy. The rousing, anthemic melody ties everything together and into a memorable product definitely deserving of all its honors.
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