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30. 윤하 (Younha) – Someday
(As with all fan subtitles, don’t trust it completely.)
Young talents are often responsible for some of the greatest innovations in the music scene–and Younha’s 2008 sophomore album, Someday, was one of the best outings Korea ever saw from a teen artist. This immensely gifted piano-rock artist took the excellence found in her debut album 고백하기 좋은 날 (A Good Day to Confess) to unforeseen heights, and the resulting second release combined exhilarating melodies with musical maturity to beget one of the most memorable soundscapes in recent years.
The album was full of standout tracks: bubbly lead single “Telepathy”, winter wonderland-ish followup “Gossip Boy”, and stormy orchestra rock number “Hero” were all well and good. However, one track just stood leaps and bounds over the others: the album-titular “Someday”. The song is a display of raw rock power that Younha hadn’t chosen to share at all until that point (certainly not in the debut album). The moment the intro drops, it’s apparent that this isn’t your typical Younha; neither the solidness of the hard-rock instrumentation nor the seriousness of the melody is something that would have been expected here. The track is explosive in its execution; the guitar and strings synchronize an anthemic accompaniment, while the drums throw down powerful thumps throughout.
Younha’s unparalleled deftness with her voice is always a breath of fresh air. Here she pulls off another laudable performance, mixing her trademark delicate sensitivity with enough power to carry the melody amidst the chaos of instrumentation. We’d heard this style before in tracks like “Delete” before, and it only reaffirms the conclusions drawn from that past: Younha is one of the few artists with a style that flows across genres. Even besides the fact that she doesn’t have to try particularly hard to hit her notes and convey what she wants to, it’s apparent that a change in genre poses absolutely zero challenge for her prowess. Which is plenty reason to be excited about where this still-young artist might go next.
29. 주석 (Joosuc), featuring Ash – 무한대 (Infinity)
Album: Welcome 2 The Infected Area
The fact that Joosuc releases albums, oh, every five years or so these days has a predictably negative impact on his prominence among today’s listeners. But during his prime, this rapper, also known as JC, was one of the most brilliant lyricists of his generation, and one of the few old-school rappers to be able to hold his own against the new-millenium wave of rhyme techniques and trends.
That talent is summed up best in “Infinity”, the title track off of Joosuc’s second studio album. The lyrics of this track are still rooted upon old-school vocabulary rhymework, with two languages augmenting the same rhyme (destiny // test니 하며 // 핑계만 늘어대는 것이 바로 니 best니 // 시작부터 넌 자신에게 패했으니 // 최선이란 말 어색해 like 김치 얹은 pastry), and they’re some of the best lines put together on that basis. While the lyrics aren’t as tightly constructed as those containing today’s syllabic and vowel-driven rhymes, JC makes it shine with his trademark weighty, speedy flow. (Think a huskier-voiced Ludacris rapping in Korean and you’re halfway there.) That energetic flow is more than enough to cover the looser (by modern standards, at least) parts of the rap, but Joosuc is also seen here trying out early vowel rhymes in concert with his usual word-splitting, as seen in lines like “펼쳐나갈 nu era // 선점하면 배당은 두 배다 // 빛나간 자 모두 내놔“.
This rides upon a attitude-ridden Southern beat. The washed-out string sound is just as pompous as JC’s charismatic hook, and the sound in general gives the impression of a 90s’ classic. In many ways, this album was Joosuc’s most-heavily-influenced-by-trends, even more so than the later work of his that was criticized for being too derivative, but he found the creative energy to make “Infinity” solidly his. Before his rhymes and flow style changed, before he started taking regular hiatuses, this was what represented JC’s music–and some the best of Korean hip-hop in the early decade.
28. Rumble Fish – 예감 좋은 날 (A Feel-Good Day)
Album: Swing Attack
In my opinion, 2004 was the best year of this decade for Korean music. One of the reasons for that is the immense influx of creative energy that debuting or breaking-through artists of that year contributed to the scene. Rumble Fish was a major part of that delightful trend; this modern-rock band broke apart from the indie scene into the mainstream with “A Feel-Good Day” that year.
The track is full of subtle attitude: there’s a hint of funk in the guitar arrangement, and the strings and keyboard remain ever so tantalizing. An engagingly constructed melody talks of special days and mundane rendezvous, as vocalist JinYi belts out the chorus. Though she is more familiar as a solo ballad artist these days, JinYi’s Rumble Fish days saw a vocalist suited perfectly to modern rock–with the ability to embellish rich, deep tones with power as well as softness as needed. She handles the potentially difficult melody well, effortlessly moving between the cozy, conversational verses to the driven rant of the chorus.
Those shifts give “A Feel-Good Day” a unique atmosphere. It’s bouncy and fun one moment, then melancholy and mellow the next. When put like that, it sounds like there are definite shifts in-between, but there aren’t. These impressions don’t really occur at different points of the song; one emotion is simply stronger than another at any given point. As a result, describing the overall mood is supremely difficult.
It’s the kind of innovative mood-setting that indie-rooted bands like Deli Spice and Nell used to practice, and Rumble Fish’s creative reimagining of that technique netted them a coveted spot as part of Korean modern rock’s most prominent bands. And, in the meantime, a really feel-good song.
27. 이수영 (Lee Soo-Young) – 휠릴리 (Whistle to Me)
Album: The Colors of My Life
(Song begins for real about two minutes in.)
The late nineties in Korea was a time when successful female solo artists dealt in 1) dance music or 2) dance music. Oh, and also dance music. Lee Soo-Young chose to defy that overwhelming trend, using her voice and voice alone to establish a place in Korean pop for herself. Beginning with her 1999 record-setting debut ballad “I Believe”, Lee has accrued a string of number-one singles and awards–eventually earning her the nickname “The Queen of Ballad”.
The Queen’s sixth studio outing, 2004’s The Colors of My Life, was mostly a shift towards a style of pop easier on the ears. But the lead title “Whistle to Me” actually flew in the other direction: more dramatic, more theatrical, more epic than ever before, the track bordered on an opera. “Whistle to Me” is a little heavier than the traditional ballad: this becomes apparent in the first few seconds, as the orchestra coordinates a sweeping introductory theme along with the expected guitar-drum line. Throughout the track, that orchestra continues to steal the show for the instrumentation team, underlying the majestic melody and complemented by the choir.
But people never listen to a Lee Soo Young song for the instrumentation. No, it’s her vocal performance that counts the most. Ever since her debut, Lee was praised for her unique voice, characterized by usage of nasal tone as well as explosive power and an effortless ability to sing in any style. She has only gotten better as the years passed, and “Whistle to Me” is a commanding showcase of her skill. Her singing here is heartbreaking, approaching a form of controlled wail near the climax. The emotional shifts–from reminiscence to distressed cry to resignation–are portrayed in a level of nuance not usually seen even in ballads.
It’s this moving ballad that netted Lee Soo Young both the 2004 Golden Disk Awards Grand Prize and a second MBC Gayo Award for the same title–if you consider the ridiculous amount of musical excellence that was concentrated in that year, that is a huge feat, possibly eclipsing her 2003 MGA Grand Prize that she received over Lee Hyori’s “10 Minutes”. At the peak of her career, The Queen of Ballad represented unparalleled quality, and with her more recent albums accruing critical acclaim again, no one’s to say that she won’t do it again.
26. T, featuring Tiger JK – Black Diamond
Album: T3 – Yoon Mi Rae
I’m just going to say it up front: Yoon Mi Rae, also known as T, Tasha, and Gemini, among other aliases, is one of the most talented female musicians of all time. Both as a vocalist and rapper, she’s charted areas of soul and rap that no other Korean artist had gone before. As a result, expectations for her albums tend to be very high. 2007’s self-titled “Yoon Mi Rae” was an album that met and surpassed all those expectations. There were multiple masterpieces in this album, all of which had a fair shot at making this list: lead single “잊었니…” (“Did You Forget…”), followup “검은 행복” (“Black Happiness”), and non-promoted singles “Goodbye Sadness, Hello Happiness”, “Honeymoon”, and “Pay Day” were all fantastic efforts from an astonishingly well-made album. The standout to me, though, was lead track (as in, it’s the first track of the album. This song was never promoted) “Black Diamond”.
The track starts powerfully–the orchestra bursts full of swagger upon a steady drumline. The opening is a bit reminiscent of the one in Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are” (or, if it’s hard to hear from that, the track “Been Away” from the Drumline soundtrack, which samples the same melody throughout), except with a little less tempo and a lot more scale and bombast. The track oscillates in its mood, between calmer verses and grander choruses. It’s an anticipatory act; those verses do a great job of building up the tension until it explodes out. It’s one of the best-done hiphop beats in recent memory, and T does not waste the opportunity.
The artist completely controls the track with her performance. A lithe, amiable voice graces the verses as she whispers to her lover; a powerful, dominant one takes its place as she exclaims of eternity and shouts of love. She doesn’t sweat it, either; the vocal track isn’t adorned with a bunch of layering or embellished with ad-libs. It comes straight, with all its raw power and freedom preserved. In addition, Drunken Tiger rapper Tiger JK, who is now Tasha’s husband, breaks out of the harmony of strings and brass after the second refrain and delivers an explosive 8-bar; it’s relatively rare to see this legendary rapper perform a verse with this much bravado and swag, and the novelty is magnified by that beat. The exhilarating synergy between the shared power and finesse of the couple is expected, but still no less breathtaking.
25. 휘성 (Wheesung) – 안 되나요 (Can’t It Be)
Album: Like a Movie
It took years for Wheesung to hone his extraordinary vocals, but it took only one single for him to be ingrained in the public memory for a long time to come. “Can’t It Be” was released before the onslaught of R&B and medium tempo artists during the mid-decade, but the heartwrenching lyrics and melody sung by the then-rookie artist found enough resonance with the mainstream to catapult it to the top of the charts.
The track’s structure is fairly simple, and instrumentation austere. Wheesung again proves that the true virtue of R&B is the voice, carrying up an otherwise mediocre track with emotion. He’s not afraid to use his range, but strives to keep the voice sounding frail and brooding. Which takes a lot of control, but he pulled it off here, and did it better as a rookie artist than even some seasoned vocalists. The cries of pain and tortured love, creations of lyricist Park Kyoung-Jin, intensify with the duration of the song, and have the effect of making the melody sound that much more intense.
It’s easy for an R&B love song to fall into traps and cliches–which makes it that much harder for them to be timeless. But Wheesung’s creation here speaks so well to everyone that it becomes a whole new cliche of its own. I feel that this song has a right to be considered one of the benchmarks of R&B music to come.
24. 자우림 (Jaurim) – 하하하쏭 (The Ha Ha Ha Song)
Album: All You Need Is Love
Jaurim never was a commercially oriented band. But whereas they never compromise their musical direction with popularity, more often than not that direction simply happens to be what floats the mainstream’s boat. 2004’s “The Ha Ha Ha Song” was one such case. Everything in this song screams “experimental”: the outlandish title and lyrics, the nonsensical music video, the exaggerated vocals and moods, even the trippy album cover. Yet it found commercial success, even in the barrage of big-name comebacks in the fall of that year. The reasons are numerous, but it probably suffices to say that it just struck a chord.
“The Ha Ha Ha Song” is a rock track at heart. It’s sort of odd to classify, but it has elements of funk, alternative, jazz, and even chiptune melded onto its rousing melody. Vocal Kim Yun-Ah (no, not the figure skater) puts in one of the best performances of her career, jumping between gravitas and frivolity with unbelievable ease. She first addresses her downcast audience in a grim tone, atop a serious acoustic melody; the song then abandons all pretense of seriousness. Kim’s jubilant “la-la-la”s, the lively brass, and the speediness of the accompaniment are all unapologetically quirky, their spirit indomitable; it’s difficult to feel down while listening to this.
And it needs to be that way, because “The Ha Ha Ha Song” is a message of hope. It’s meant to restore weary souls and empower defeated ones; the lyrics, so flippantly presented, contain encouragement in the form of comedy. Kim’s attitude makes her message comfortably reassuring; when she sings, “A cowardly life does not befit you // Lift your head high, my friend, this is only the beginning”, you’d best believe that a cowardly life does not befit you and that this is only the beginning. Many bands and artists have tried similar things, and while they generally work to a degree, Jaurim’s attempt was undoubtedly one of the best. It’s what people need and want to hear. And like they have always done, with music either serious, funny or both, Jaurim succeeded in bringing it to them.
23. 태양 (Tae Yang – aka Sol) – 나만 바라봐 (Look Only At Me)
Idol artists these days often come with labels designed to communicate how talented, skilled, and/or accomplished they may be. YG Entertainment’s BIGBANG is one such group, and its member Tae Yang received plenty of hype for his promising video-dance style and vocal potentials since the group’s debut. But this young artist’s true prowess was not unveiled until his 2008 solo EP Hot. Collaborating with YG’s crack team of producers and engineers, Tae Yang burst into the spotlight with an impressive array of sophisticated, trendsetting electronic pop and dance tracks, the likes of which had almost never been seen before in Korean music. Oh, this kind of style had existed, and in fact had been rampant at that point. But Hot contained tracks that simply oozed a whole different level of class.
One of the EP’s double lead titles, “Look Only at Me” was revolutionary. It’s a relatively light synth-pop number, but there’s plenty of complexity and weight where it counts. The beat is largely driven by electric piano, with unflinching drums, string and cleverly used synthesizer fleshing out the instrumentation. The level of polish on the electronic components of the beat is indeed commendable; it’s hard to find any faults with it at all, with equalization, track balance, and control all being perfect throughout the track. Technically, the track is flawless.
But that doesn’t necessarily make a good song. “Look Only at Me” sounds as if it was meant for Tae Yang, and him alone: the artist makes the track completely his own, employing his unique texture and style to fit the swings of the catchy melody. He is confident with his bold proclamations: “Even if I cheat on you, don’t you ever do it to me baby // Even if I forget you, don’t you ever forget me lady // Even if I sometimes don’t call and go drink // Even if I lock eyes with another girl, // You should look only at me”. (By the way, these lyrics aren’t what they look like, I couldn’t quote the whole context of the song. Put down the pitchforks!) He illustrates the inner, selfish nature of men through exaggeration, and the end result is actually genuine. Tae Yang’s performance is sleek as much as it is tantalizing; persuasive as much as it is scandalous.
It’s difficult to find a song where it is so clear that nothing was compromised during any stage of production. “Look Only at Me”, from beginning to end, from foundation to finishing touches, was a work of masters at the top of their game. It stands as an example of everything that is right with Korean music right now, as well as proof that boy-band artists should never be generalized simply because of their affiliation. This is the reason that I once chose it as my Song of the Year 2008, and the reason that Tae Yang still has his work cut out for him even after a string of excellent singles and albums. And of course, the reason that it makes it this high on the list.
22. BoA – No. 1
Album: No. 1
BoA, whom you are now seeing on this list for three different songs, has a decade of accomplishments under her belt–yet, she’s still only twenty-four years old. As a young artist, you’re allowed–rather, expected–to go through a few big changes in your style. BoA and SM Entertainment used that fact for all it was worth, shifting her theme and image from album to album as she matured. “No. 1” was the lead single of BoA’s sophomore album, released when she was 15. While not necessarily any more forceful than the debut single “ID: Peace B”, “No. 1” does have some noticeable differences from the themes of that first outing: the rebellious, fiercely individualistic persona is gone, replaced by a more confident and amiable teenager who sings unapologetically of her love.
The greatest strength of SM artists has always been the high-octane melodies bought or crafted for their albums. “No. 1” is, for lack of a better word, catchy. There’s no lack of power in the tune, as illustrated by the punchy bass and drums as well as the blunt synthesizer hits, but the chorus still manages to be speedy and distinctly pleasing to the ears. BoA’s vocals are hardly believable as that of a 15-year-old’s: while not as supremely powerful or technically gifted as some of today’s best young vocalists (IU and Younha come to mind), BoA did (and still does) possess a very unique voice tone, and combined with her good understanding of the song’s melody, “No. 1″‘s vocal track is almost faultless.
BoA’s charm takes care of the rest. She knows how to make her music irresistible–tough when she needs to be, soft and friendly at others. “No. 1” obviously has both, and it worked. The song netted BoA her first true hit in Korea, and solidified her footing as one of Korea’s most prominent artists and eventually the basis for her reign as the “Queen of Kpop”. I suspect that the song’s message had as much to do with its success as its quality: the somewhat-surrealistically sad lyrics (the narrator is singing to the Moon, by the way) is striking to the imagination, and is doubly extraordinary when composed along with the upbeat melody. People wanted a next-generation teen idol: they thought they had gotten one with BoA, but they didn’t know it for sure until “No. 1”.
21. Cherry Filter – 낭만 고양이 (The Romance Cat)
Album: Made in Korea?
Cherry Filter was among the first modern-rock bands of the current mainstream generation, having been formed in 1997 and formally debuted in 2000. A number of excellent, talented female-vocal modern rock bands have since debuted after them, ranging from Rumble Fish to Sang Sang Band to Loveholic to Ex, but none of them have achieved the ubiquity that Cherry Filter enjoyed during its glory days, and none have earned an image as “the first band that comes to mind” as far as those with female vocalists are concerned. (A notable exception is Jaurim, which made its debut much earlier). Cherry Filter established the quirky, accessible rock genre as something truly marketable; they showed that modern-rock could take on all kinds of crazy forms and still be successful. “The Romance Cat”, the breakthrough hit from the band’s sophomore album, was crucial to this history.
I mentioned the word “quirky” above to describe Cherry Filter’s music, and “The Romance Cat” is one of the quirkiest things that they’ve done. The narrator assumes the persona of a homeless kitty, one that knows how to mourn as well as hope–and, true to the title, a hopeless romantic. The lyrics are surprisingly poignant, infusing a conversational tone with jarring imagery. It’s a very melancholy track, written in surreal poetry.
But the rest of the composition won’t have you know it. The music is up-tempo, and the instrumentation charges forward without inhibition. There are some intentional traces of hard rock (especially in the bridges), but on the whole it remains not too much heavier than alternative. The layered melodies converge to the irresistibly sweet chorus: vocalist Jo Yu-Jin soars and shouts this refrain out, accompanied by amusing interjections of lines like “sweet, sweet kitty”, with infectious jubilee.
The contrast may or may not have been a factor in making this song Cherry Filter’s most successful (followed closely by “오리 날다” (The Duck Flies)). Regardless of what it was, “The Romance Cat” did ingrain itself deeply into the mainstream memory, and is still one of the most recognizable rock tracks in Korean music. We no longer really see this kind of experimental quirk in today’s Cherry Filter, but respecting the path they take now is acknowledging the impact that they once made on the scene.
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