Top 100 (Korean) Songs of the Decade: #40~31

Previous Entry (#50~41):

40. Verbal Jint – Overclass
Album: Modern Rhymes EP
Release: 7-13-2001

The impact that Verbal Jint has had on the Korean hiphop scene cannot be overstated. This supremely talented lyricist burst out onto the underground in 2001 with Modern Rhymes EP at the ripe age of 21, and it was nothing short of revolutionary: the rhymework and flow that this total rookie brought to the table trumped anything else that had ever been attempted in the Korean language, and this technical brilliance also came with entertaining, conversational topics and unforced, natural structure. “Overclass” is a standout track from this standout album: I had a very difficult time choosing between this and lead title “사랑해 누나” (“I Love You Nuna”) to put on this list, as the two songs are similar in their sound as well as impact.

A very minimalist beat consisting mostly of keyboard and drum machine lay down the stage for VJ to drop his verses. (This arrangement is also seen in the aforementioned lead title.) The then-young rapper’s lyrics are confident and unflinching: his voice at this point is still a bit light and lacks the swagger that he’s developed for himself over the years, but he knows he’s got something special in his verses–and he’s not hiding it. Verbal Jint warns other rappers to move over for him, especially spewing some biting words to a few anonymous 90s rappers that kept the scene stagnant. He instructs his elder musicians to either get on the bandwagon of the new movement or be buried in history. He’s an experienced listener as well as MC, and genuinely concerns for the scene: his urges are meant to keep Korean hiphop vibrant and developing.

This may be similar to the standard self-assured fare we see all the time in hiphop, but VJ actually had substance behind his claims, which he deftly proves by expressing all of the above in astonishing, never-before-heard rhyme technique. The message is strong, but listeners are probably almost always distracted by the technical excellence here: for example, “Overclass” contains what used to be the longest uniform rhyme scheme in the Korean language in its second verse, at 19 syllables. (To clarify, this means that the entire 19-syllable phrase is followed by another, different 19-syllable phrase that rhymes exactly in every syllable.) While not as rhythmical or pronounced as later, more advanced rhymes like the ones written by Unbomber (who dethroned VJ from the longest-rhyme title) or Fana (who, in my opinion, is currently the best rhyme lyricist in Korea today), the very fact that this kind of rhyme was even conceived and written back in 2001 is telling of Jint’s genius.

There is no exaggeration when I say that Verbal Jint changed the very core of Korean hiphop with this album. Later work by both VJ himself and other rappers may sound better, flow better, and maybe even have better lyrics. But very few can claim having changed the way we think about rap in an entire language, and that’s exactly what Overclass did.


39. Wax – 화장을 고치고 (After Fixing Makeup)
Album: Wax02
Release: 8-9-2001

Wax is hard to pin down. This prolific vocalist has experimented and found success with all kinds of genres–in fact, “Opah” and “Money”, two of her greatest hits, were  techno tracks, and well-received fifth album followup “Goodbye” was a hypnotic alternative number. Recently, she has attempted crossovers with trendy pop and club tunes. But her roots have always lain in ballad–the vast majority of her hits are composed of heart-wrenching lyrics, soulful emotions, and melancholy sensibility. It is no surprise, then, that her greatest achievement is also a ballad.

“After Fixing Makeup” is an austere piece. There’s not much in the way of flashy instrumentation or vocal tricks. Rather, a lone acoustic guitar plucks its way through the melody, accompanied by the occasional bass or drums or mild string. It’s left up to Wax the vocalist to make this piece emotive; the music isn’t going to do it for her. And what a job she does. She’s singing a stale after-love story, perhaps just a little better written than the norm, but she makes it sound like the first time all over again. Her voice is compactly powerful–it’s not breathy nor is it heavy, but it has this ability to project while remaining fragile. She’s feeling the heartache, suffering, yearning, regret, hatred, confusion. She’s feeling it all. The performance leaves a ringing aftertaste, the kind that leaves a listener stunned and, eventually, thoughtful.

It’s been hard for traditional love songs to make this list, because they often offer very little innovation regardless of how good they sound. Sometimes, though, one comes along that comes very close to capturing the essence of human love in a song of few minutes. “After Fixing Makeup” is one such attempt, and indeed it comes very, very close–perhaps the closest we can ever hope to get.


38. 패닉 (Panic) – 로시난테 (Rocinante)
Album: Panic 04
Release: 12-8-2005

Since their debut in 1995, male duo Panic has amazed fans and critics alike with each new outing. The genius songwriting and lyricism serves as a basis for the innovations they try in every album; 2005’s Panic 04, while not the runaway success that their earlier work and solo outings were, continued the trend. Lead title “Rocinante” is an exercise in imaginative austerity: Vocalist Lee Juck’s trademark top-notch writing delves into rich literary allusions as he invokes the tale of Don Quixote (hence the title), while rapper Kim Jin-Pyo lays down his ultra-baritone verses atop a refreshingly sweeping instrumentation.

The capstone of any Panic song is the lyrics: this duo always wrote profound, abstract lyrics (represented best by their debut hit, “Snail”), differentiating themselves from similar artists with their creative use of language and innovative themes. “Rocinante” is one of those uplifting, feel-good, get-your-arse-up-and-go-out-into-the-world-and-be-strong-because-you-can-do-it-here-have-some-more-dashes songs, told in an infinitely more inspiring way. Lee Juck and JP assume roles of a weary traveler in a surreal atmosphere, soothing his horse and resolving to reach the windmills of La Mancha. The lyrics are, of course, generally applicable, and the listener is invited to go with the narrators as they ride away. The lyrics’ imagery of endless meadows, windmills, and herds of sheep keep the song aesthetically beautiful while not making it melodramatic.

There’s not much in the way of instrumentation save the guitar, a string line, and percussion section, but there’s so much scale to the music–the drums do an especially great job of lending kinetic energy to the song and making the imagery come alive. Generally, the music takes a backseat here, but where it shines, it’s plentifully bright.

“Rocinante” succeeds as a wonderfully rousing anthem. It takes on a mission to not only be an engaging piece of music, but also to empower and reassure weary souls. They tell us to weather the storms without fear, to follow the windmill dream. To see the beauty of life, to be the valiant knight. It’s a noble achievement, and a kind that we do not see nearly often enough in music anymore.


37. Loveholic – Loveholic
Album: Florist
Release: 4-25-2003

Modern rock band Loveholic, unlike what is the norm for a lot of similar bands, have stayed curiously snugly in the “safe zone” of love songs. No matter, though, because true to the band’s name, love songs are what they do best and most uniquely. Their debut album Florist was a fresh sensation upon release, marrying the crystal vocals of lead singer Jisun with the then-increasingly-popular modern rock soundscape. Self-entitled lead single, Loveholic, became an instant classic by taking those characteristics in the most mainstream-friendly direction possible.

At first listen, it’s hard to tell that this is a song about, well, a loveholic. It’s upbeat and uplifting, complete with warm, pastel-y guitar tones and a soft choir chorus that wouldn’t be out of place in a Kidz Bop album (not that the song is childish). There is no trace of the madness or obsession usually associated with the suffix -holic. The song is written at quick tempo, and Jisun’s catchy chorus makes for a very accessible singalong.

As you may expect if you listen to any music, the true tone lies in the lyrics. Jisun’s emotive voice finds a place to belong in the claustrophobia and desperation of these lyrics. It’s a girl pouring out her rather disturbed heart in a really happy-go-lucky way. People try this stuff all the time, but in Loveholic’s case, the contrast works especially well due to the duality of the lyrics–they’re very simple and even repetitive (the whole song is composed of about five stanzas… which doesn’t sound all that bad, until you consider that two are choruses and the second verse almost exactly mimics the first), but at the same time constructed with some gorgeously poetic expression. I’m always very appreciative of artists that try to say things in new ways, and Loveholic’s imagery of abandoned cameras, mourning rain (read: not morning), and dancing smoke definitely qualifies in my book.

Make no mistake, “Loveholic” is very good at getting its point across. Its complexity does not detract from the track’s coherence, but only adds to the tragedy at its core. That’s the reason that the band Loveholic was able to make as powerful an impact with its music as with its name. This band released many more innovative, styled love songs through its career, but none hit home harder than the absolute desperation of “Loveholic”.


36. 이효리 (Lee Hyori) – 10 Minutes
Album: Stylish…
Release: 8-14-2003

Lee Hyori was pretty popular before 2003. As leader and by far the most popular member of girl group FIN.K.L since the quartet’s debut in 1998, she became the idol of countless young men and women across the peninsula. And then she decided to go solo, and Stylish… dropped in 2003.

Then we found out what “popular” really meant.

Lead single “10 Minutes” catapulted into the top of essentially every chart ever, swept sales, and became one of those universal jams. Lee Hyori became a true household name, and at that point, no artist other than perhaps BoA shared her level of star power and influence. The reasons for its ubiquitous popularity are manifold, and a lot of it is best left to social analysis. But I digress–my purpose is to talk about the music, because after all, popularity didn’t get the song into this list.

The best thing Lee Hyori did about this song was setting its direction. From the provocative first note to the addictive refrain to the memorable outro, “10 Minutes” is full of delicious attitude. And rightly so, considering that the song happens to be about Hyori guaranteeing a guy that she will be able to seduce him during the ten minutes (hence the title) that his lover is gone for. She knows what’s more important between the fact that the couple goes way back, and the fact that the man’s more attracted to herself at the moment. (Hint: it’s not the former.) She’s unapologetic as she points out how dowdy his girl is, and persuades him to leave her when she returns.

It’s an idea that could easily become unsavory. But Hyori achieves an engaging mix of chic and elan: she’s detached, but still cares enough to make it real. This same flair is reflected on the beat. Punctuating guitar and an elegant string melody kill the track with class, while a rich bass track and uptempo drums provide the vitality to keep it alive. It stands up remarkably well to the test of time–seven years after its release (at time of writing), the music still sounds fresh and not at all outdated. If anything, it’s a testament to the sound polish that could be achieved by a well-engineered track even without the excessive electronic overtones we tend to get in our dance music nowadays.

While “10 Minutes” is a tremendous song in all of its parts (and, indeed, one that gets better with age and repeated listening), Lee Hyori’s perfect handling of her assigned persona was most likely the key to its becoming a classic. It must have been a bit of a gamble for a former teen idol still retaining her cherubic image, but looking back to the execution and success of this outing, there shouldn’t be any doubt that gambles sometimes do pay off.


35. No Brain – 청년폭도맹진가 (Rioting Youth Marching Anthem)
Album: 청년폭도맹진가 (Rioting Youth Marching Anthem)
Release: 7-7-2000 (Yes, I know, I made a mistake!)

(Before you say anything, yes, I do realize that this was released in 2000 and ineligible to be on the list. However, it was much too late by the time I did the research on specific release dates–I wrote this up thinking that it was actually from 2001, and couldn’t restructure the list before deadline.)

In my opinion, rock is at its greatest when it has its edge: it doesn’t necessarily have to be aggressive, the music had better have a certain vitality to it. Punk band No Brain is a band that’s got one razor-sharp edge in that regard. While some of their recent work has lost  a bit of the distinct sharpness, the early days of this talented group still stand as some of the greatest in Korean rock.

The rather descriptively titled “Rioting Youth Marching Anthem” is similarly explicit in its presentation. The first stanza of the song sums it up rather well:

일곱번째 나팔소리가 천지에 진동할제 (Whence the seventh trumpet reverberate in all heaven and earth)
조심스레 갈고 갈아온 이 칼을 뽑아드노라 (Pull out this carefully sharpened sword)
저주받은 자의 애닯은 혁명이로다 (‘Tis the desperate revolution of the accursed)
광풍속으로 달려들제 (Charging into the storming wind,)
비명속에 나뒹구는 저 원수의 주검을 보리라 (We shall see the corpse of the enemy, broiling in agony)
성난얼굴로 돌아보라 피를 흘리게 하라 (Look back with a furious expression, make them bleed)

If you’re listening to the video right now, this is most likely a bit jarring. “RYMA” isn’t one of those aggressive-sounding hardcore tracks. It’s most similar to, for lack of a closer substitute, a march in this beginning section. Yet the lyrics are uncompromising: as the music builds up to a tightly-wound and kinetic (but still bright and march-y) punk track, vocalist Lee Seung-Woo continues to speak in imagery of war, battle, blood, and glory. The song paints a picture of a nocturnal rebellion of the oppressed youth, and it certainly isn’t clean and tame. The music, though, is still curiously happy compared to the subject matter. And people are smiling and laughing in the music video. What’s going on?

Like I said above, rock doesn’t have to be aggressive to be edgy. No Brain encapsulates that theorem in “RYMA”. The track has no thundering riffs, no octuple bass drum hits, no deep chords. The tempo’s nice and steady. However, consider the energy that the sound still contains: the same slow guitars and periodically-slowing beats still have the push to make people move. The brilliant guitar work of Cha Seung-Woo is showy and playful while retaining power. Even the march beat packs explosive kinetic energy–no part of this track is wasted, all of it going into the construction of an upliftingly powerful piece of music.

It’s that surface duality that is the truly chilling aspect of “RYMA”. The lyrics are fierce and violent, no two ways about it. The lines are saturated with the raw desire for rebellion, and nothing can contain that. When that’s laid atop a tune like this, though, it’s seemingly harmless. In this way, No Brain achieved two goals: saying what they wanted to say, and gathering popularity for it.

Popular culture gives youth a direction to follow, an outlet of freedom for them to pour out their suppressed emotion. In post-Seo Taiji Korea, many musicians rose up to take that job; I think that, with “Rioting Youth Marching Anthem”, No Brain came the closest to providing both of those, in addition to forging a name for themselves. What a band.


34. Drunken Tiger – Liquor Shots
Album: 하나하면 너와나 (One Is Not a Lonely Word)
Release: 8-13-2004

One Is Not a Lonely Word was the first Drunken Tiger album released by Tiger JK alone; the other member, DJ Shine, left between this album and the previous, fourth outing, 뿌리 (Roots). No doubt, many listeners were concerned about what this would do to the music of this legendary duo; their worries were proven premature when One Is Not… dropped. While the unique flavor of Shine’s rapping and lyricism were missed, JK filled in with double the amount of his own sharp flow and witty lyrics, and the direction of one artist rather than two arguably made the album much more focused.

“Liquor Shots” was released as the lead single of the album to immediate surprise. This is not typical DT fare. A Jamaican rhythm complete with touches like steel drums and funky acoustics plays under the vocals. It’s an extremely effective tool in making the track sound sophisticated while not losing the fun touch. However, Tiger JK wouldn’t be a good MC if he relied on a beat, no matter how excellent, to drive the song forward. His lyrics are on point as ever, with easy-to-follow rhymes and familiar self-empowering theme. I believe that this album marks the point where JK’s soliloquies and reflective lyrics really started to mature. “Liquor Shots” doesn’t contain the super serious stuff of 1945 Liberation or Sky Is the Limit or Feel gHood Muzik, but the artist’s playful yet meaningful introspection is poignant.

JK also tries some fun things with his flow. He’s noticeably more slurry than before in this song–appropriate, since it’s sort of about liquor. It allows him to make rhymes off of words that usually don’t work together, by slurring or omitting parts of them. The flow itself is a lot slower (in fact, JK’s speed has tended to decrease throughout the years) than before, but he’s right on top of that funk beat; he accentuates its lulls perfectly with such tight rhythm that there’s really no dead timing. That carries over to the excellent hook; it’s such a blast to listen to that even a critic starts to ignore the technicalities, not that there’s anything wrong there.

As one of the most famous yet still most down-to-earth lyricists in Korea, Tiger JK has walked a long path towards greatness. Each of his albums is a little piece of hiphop history–this fifth outing and its “Liquor Shots” being a turning point. Just a little more drunk than his usual self, a little more fierce, JK’s performance here is delightfully true to Drunken Tiger’s namesake.


33. W – Shocking Pink Rose
Album: Where the Story Ends
Release: 3-15-2005

The quirkiest songs are often some of the greatest. I remember first seeing the title of this song (I was the ripe old age of twelve) and having no idea what it meant. In fact, at age 18, I still have no idea what it’s supposed to mean. What I do know is that indie band W created a real masterpiece of a song and put that title on it.

From the outset, it’s not quite the average fare. A dry-voiced vocalist counts off beats, before a lone guitar starts playing with barely audible electronica and he starts singing some cryptic words. It’s pretty short, so I’ll actually translate the whole stanza over.

“David Bowie의 노래를 뜷고 뛰쳐나온 너의 뒤틀린 웃음 (Your crooked smile, having broken through David Bowie’s song)
다른 빛깔의 눈동자 위로 각기 서로 다른 시간을 비추며 (Upon pupils of different colors, each reflecting a different time)
Let’s try 너는 내 곁으로 (Let’s try you coming to my side)”

Immediately, this raises some questions. What the hell does this mean? Does he mean that the crooked smile broke through the song? Or that the person broke through? Is he talking about pupils different in color from his own (i.e. a foreigner), or someone with the odd-eye syndrome? Why David Bowie and not The Riot Squad?

The listener has scarce time to brood over these questions, however, before the guitar is joined by a full electronica sound library and the track starts speeding up.

“경직된 진실, 유연한 위선 (Rigid truth, flexible hypocrisy)
어차피 선택을 피할 수 없다면 (If a choice is unavoidable anyways)
정면 돌파의 너의 가치는 (Then frontal assault, your value)
그 누구도 값을 따질 수  없는 것 (Cannot be appraised by anyone)
Let’s try 다시 내 곁으로 (Let’s try you coming to my side again)

A chord shift follows, and the lyrics start showing more coherence.

“되는 데로 토해 놓은 목소리 (A voice thrown up without care)
비릿하게 울려오는 속삭임 (A whisper that resonates fishily)
은밀하고 치명적인 거래 (A transaction clandestine and fatal)
달콤하게 졸인 시럽처럼 (Like a syrup boiled down sweetly)”

This is the chorus. After this, the bridge and chorus repeat over and over.

“Shocking pink rose
젖은 입술을 반짝이며 너는 내게 말했지 (You told me, letting your wet lips shine)
Rocking till you down
“지금 너에게 잊지 못할 밤을 만들어 드리지” (“To you right now, I’ll present a night you’ll never forget”)
Midnight 나의 시간으로 (Midnight, to my time)”

It’s got to be one of the most oddly worded one-night-stand tales I’ve heard. Which, naturally, makes it stand out from the bunch. You can call this urban, coolchic, quirky, or any of the bunch, and it’ll fit. Importantly, though, “Shocking Pink Rose” is also the apex of escapism (which is not a bad thing!). The connection with the subject matter is obvious, but there’s also the fact that the casual, minimalist electro sound is a mask for a layered, fascinating story. There’s a delicious overtone of allure and temptation, and it’s a curious contrast to the dry, deadpan vocals that deliver it.

This very odd song never has a dull moment–some form of its quirkiness is always driving it forward. The excellent sound direction (there are lots of subtle touches to listen for), the on-the-money lyrics, the attractive delivery, and the atmosphere come together into one of the nicest-sounding tracks this side of Clazziquai. Experience it, rather than try to understand it–because that’s the way “Shocking Pink Rose” was intended.


32. 자우림 (Jaurim) – 청춘예찬 (Glory to Youth)
Album: 靑春禮讚 (Glory to Youth)
Release: 9-29-2005

Simply put, Jaurim’s music rocks the soul of the listener. They sometimes achieve this directly, with heavy sound and an in-your-face approach, but more often they do it indirectly–preferring to let the words and sounds speak for themselves. “Glory to Youth” is somewhat of both.

First impression: this is an extremely eerie song. The atmosphere is heavy, suspenseful, mysterious. Vocalist Kim Yun-Ah is usually a power singer in this band’s outings, but here she eschews that in favor of lighter, cleaner vocals. The performance of the first verse is mournful and brooding. A precarious mix of falsetto and whisper sets that tone, as the haunting strings and guitar create an extremely dense background. The first minute and a half of the song is spent in this way, as vocals and chorus as well as instrumentation build up tension to an unsustainable level.

The tension is released first through a slightly more kinetic bridge, as a continuous melody is introduced for the first time in the track and drums get the music moving. The refrain follows, but in not-quite-full-blown fashion; it is explosive in its release of tension, but the pitch does not rise higher and Kim’s singing stays effortless. So it feels as though there’s still something heavy lingering on the track, not quite resolved nor addressed.

This uneasiness is what symbolizes the track. It’s constructed to be uncomfortable, even though the title may not suggest it. There is no “glory” to be found in this song; rather, it is the lamentations of a weary, youthful soul. Youth is devoid of hope, of will, of strength. She is accompanied by isolation. She sings, “The world is so blindingly wide and bright // And youthful me, I despair my own youth”. The one thing she has left is desire; but that desire is for an unreachable star.

Metaphors of angels and January suns abound, and the beauty of the writing is not lost in the despair. It actually stands out more because of it. The words paint such a clear picture of pain and misery that it’s hard not to notice what they do. The haunting atmosphere is helped along by the use of unorthodox sounds like the traditional flute during the intermission and percussive guitar.

“Glory to Youth” shatters the illusions that the listener may have had about youth; it is time-appropriate, in an age where young people do not have a guaranteed future nor an always-happy prospect. It is so dark and breathtaking a portrayal, in fact, that it could serve just the opposite purpose–an eulogy to death. This precarious tale is a wake-up call, for listeners to smell the ashes.


31. 거미 (Gummi) – 기억상실 (Amnesia)
Album: It’s Different
Release: 9-9-2004

A gradual descent into madness is all but a natural progression in love songs. But just how well it is portrayed is anything but natural, and it makes or breaks the song. “Amnesia”, the lead title of Gummi’s sophomore outing, does this better than almost any similar song that I’ve heard.

This song benefits from a tremendous soundtrack–it’s an R&B number at its base, infused with a haunting arpeggic piano line and a blunt hi-hat/snare drum beat. Strings are used to subtle effect and everything is mixed perfectly to YG standards. (Gummi was a member of YG Entertainment at this time.) But Gummi is one of the strongest vocalists of this generation, and doesn’t require any of that for a riveting performance, as she proceeds to show.

Following a lengthy piano intro, the track opens a whisper. Gummi sings a single verse atop piano before the rest of instrumentation breaks in with a dramatic two-beat; the track then quickly ramps up to a proper ballad. The first chorus is subdued, with the vocalist dutifully following the melody with restrained force and upon a string lead. The second verse opens the exact same way, with a piano-only verse followed by dramatic two-beat; whether this is supposed to symbolize the titular “Amnesia”, I’m not certain. This is when Gummi starts letting go with her power; she tells her love that she is blind and cannot find him, in freely flowing melisma. Throughout the bridge, she wonders whether he will love her again if she becomes pitiful.

The final chorus is one of the most intense moments in pop music:

“I put make-up on, and erase
I take out clothes, and wear them
No matter what I do, not a single thing
Can I remember
I look for my old, smiling self,
Who used to hear ‘I love you’s
For you, who will return
I must remain the same
But I just, can’t,
Remember a single thing”

I can’t really translate the bluntness and chaos of this, but the desperation and madness grows as the instrumentation climaxes. Gummi allows a double-track of herself to sing the main lines while she lets it rip. The vocals are remarkably well-controlled throughout this; she doesn’t lose the main melody or take away from it, and is careful to make it sound just perfect. Listen to it rather than read about it.

In the end, a truly chilling after-love story emerges. It’s a very incisive and oddly satisfying delving into the psyche of insanity, presented with all the measures of madness. As long as the point of music is to represent the human mind, “Amnesia” will remain a classic.

Next Entry (#30~21):


2 thoughts on “Top 100 (Korean) Songs of the Decade: #40~31

  1. Pingback: Top 100 (Korean) Songs of the Decade: #30~21 « Found In Translation

  2. Pingback: Top 100 (Korean) Songs of the Decade: #50~41 « Found In Translation

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