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20. Nell – 마음을 잃다 (Losing the Mind)
Album: Healing Process
Healing Process was a crucial album in Nell’s rise to a premier position in Korean rock. Almost universally acclaimed, the album served as the completion of Walk Through Me‘s emotional modern-rock style and a basis for the band’s next outing, the deviating Separation Anxiety. The most impressive component in Nell’s music is usually the lyrics; the music is always written excellently, the band performs flawlessly, and vocalist Kim Jong-Hwan has a very emotive, unique voice, but at the heart of Nell’s popularity and the quality of their albums has always been the poetry that this band weaves together.
“Losing the Mind” is a love song. Yet it manages to distinguish itself through the way it expresses emotion–the word choice, the diction, gives depth and dimension to the familiar topics of longing and loss. Nell doesn’t say “I still miss you” or “I still remember you”; rather, it asks,
“How long will you remain
Breathing inside me, alive inside me
When were you thinking of dying for me”
This kind of writing could easily turn melodramatic. But there’s no excess, nothing overdone in this song. Nell keeps “Losing the Mind” crisp and sharp, ripe with only solitude and pain. The instrumentation accompanying the soliloquy sounds almost like a traditional ballad, had it not been for the guitar plucking its way through the entire song. It creates a reverberating stage for Kim to cry his heart out. Both the music and lyrics leave a lasting aftertaste–something to remain in your head and make you think. And that’s exactly what Nell does best.
“As time flows, as my mind flows
So should you flow away
But it’s really easier said than done
Because of your memories, living inside of me
My mind, my time, all ceased
I’m unable to even make any memories
And remain in parting”
19. 박기영 (Park Ki-Young) – 그대 때문에 (Because of You)
Park Ki-Young is an artist who’s covered both ends of the spectrum. Previous works like “Blue Sky” and “Butterfly” consolidated Park’s reputation as one of the very few solo female rock artists in the Korean mainstream; on the other hand, Bohemian and its lead single “Because of You” departed from heavy style and moved into a more public-accessible modern-rock genre, with the song eschewing any guitar sounds to begin with.
The result was my favorite single of Park’s ever, and one of my favorite songs period. “Because of You” marries nostalgic sensibility with an analog soundscape: everything from the lyrics to the instrumentation to the vocal performance has a decidedly wistful tone to it. Park’s prowess shows through in the effortless way that she flows through the song. It’s obviously not the same shouting style from her rocker days: this voice is much lighter, the falsettoes more natural, the enunciation more breathy.
The track feels like it never really climaxes. No explosive ending, no sky-is-the-limit shouting. And oddly, that’s its greatest strength. The suspense, accumulated slowly throughout the engaging melody, is released just as naturally as it was built up. That’s the exact effect that’s needed to accompany the complexity of the narrator’s resignation; it’s what makes the song so much more moving, that much more tragic. Plus, It fits the theme of the album so well–emotions rooted in Bohemianism.
18. 리쌍 (Lee Ssang), featuring ALi – 내가 웃는게 아니야 (I Ain’t Laughing)
Album: Library of Soul
10 years after their debut, members of hip-hop duo Lee Ssang claimed their first #1 single with “I Ain’t Laughing” in 2005. The duo’s creative energy and ingenuity had been noted early, and they had enjoyed successes with their music before, usually dealing in everyday themes and personal reflection. What was so different about this one, that it became the breakthrough that finally put these talented people on the mainstream map?
“I Ain’t Laughing” assumes the usual melancholy undertone that so many Lee Ssang tracks tend to have. In fact, it’s rather dark–darker than the majority of the songs contained in Library of Soul, which is sort of a let’s-have-an-uncomfortably-close-look-at-the-problems-of-our-society-and-yourself kind of album to begin with. You know what I’m talking about. But it’s still a love song, and that makes its greatest strength possible. This will be discussed a little later.
Rapper Garry puts in his characteristically blunt, brusque performance–his rhymes and flow aren’t the illest (he’s not a very flashy lyricist to begin with, but sometimes does write incredibly clever lines when the song calls for it), but that’s okay–remember, love song. Not a cypher. His skill with presenting the human psyche honestly (and very bluntly) shines as he raps furiously about the night our protagonists broke up, and later the dazed reminiscence of happier memories.
The beat, engineered by the other member, Gil, is minimalist but powerful–heavy drums and an ambient jazz soundset is punctuated by the occasional piano for some of the most downcast atmosphere you’ll ever hear. Featured vocalist ALi, who does in fact use two capital letters in her stage name and therefore I didn’t make a typo, contributes a bridge with an exotic voice uncannily similar to that of the usual Lee Ssang staple, Jung-In.
All of this comes together for a great track, but what truly characterizes this song and made it so popular in the mainstream is the chorus, sung by Gil. It’s amazingly addictive for a sad song–the husky voice sort of half-humming, half-singing the words
“I ain’t laughing when I laugh
I ain’t walking when I walk
I’m just in your memories
Waiting for you with them tears”
over and over and over again (of course, the above is translated). Gil is usually just as expressive as Garry, and this song is no exception; even though his only lines in the song is that chorus (granted, it’s repeated a lot) and a bridge section, he conveys half the entire spectrum of human misery in those lines.
Simply sorrowful at times and outright maniacal at others, “I Ain’t Laughing” was a step forward in narrative rap. Every single component of the song is integral, but the duo’s excellence in crafting that melodious refrain is something that will remain in the public memory for a long, long time.
17. Wonder Girls – Tell Me
Album: The Wonder Years
What is Wonder Girls’ most iconic song? Most would say “Tell Me”. What was 2007’s most iconic song? Again, “Tell Me”, no question. In fact, what was the most iconic song of the whole decade? While some would argue with me, I would still say “Tell Me”. It was this insanely successful track that brought about Wonder Girls’ meteoric rise to the top of the Korean scene, a trend that some described as the “Tell Me Syndrome”.
It seems like a rather simple song to have been so popular. But as is often the case, simplicity is a great strength here. The retro sound, powered by chiptune and light electronica, is irresistibly charming, and keeps the entire song engaging and never overwhelming. The song is structured cleverly; while I prefer the original, rap-less version of the song, even the promotion single containing then-new member Yubin’s verse always has something interesting to offer the ear throughout the 4-minute runtime.
The thing is, no one (including me) cared about any of this when the song came out: we were all too busy listening to that ridiculously addictive chorus. This may have been JYP Entertainment’s single greatest stroke of musical genius ever.
“Tell me, tell me, te-te-tetete tell me”
If it wasn’t for this looped refrain, “Tell Me”‘s success would not have been so explosive. It’s the kind of thing that gets stuck in everybody’s head forever; in the actual song, it works wonderfully well with the rest of the melody and gives it unmistakable character. It’s repeated about five million times throughout the song, but it’s not annoying–rather, it’s more fun, more addictive each time that it’s repeated. What a feat.
It’s interesting, because musical prowess is not what holds this track together and ensured its success. The music is engineered well, as I mentioned above, but it’s nothing exceptional compared to everything else in this competitive list. While main vocal Sunye possesses impressive skill, the other members, at least at the time of this recording, were not all that great singers. The chorus is awesome, but it’s only part of the thing I’m about to mention. What truly makes the song is that irresistible charm: listen to the song, watch the video, and you’ll see what I mean. Everything is so silly. It’s in such good spirit, and such a lot of fun. It’s as if Wonder Girls stopped caring that this was a song to make money off of, and instead decided to simply enjoy the song themselves.
Regardless of the success that the girls were expecting (I’m willing to bet that JYP was more than happy to rake in the money, though), it obviously worked out well for this group. “Tell Me” is a song that had essentially every single piece of its choreography named, popularized, and imitated by the public. It’s the song that received the heaviest level of airplay for literally months and months. It’s the classic that paved the way for future runaway hits like “Nobody”. The track trumps over other decade mega-hits like Hyori’s “10 Minutes” and mainstream classics like Insooni and Lee Juck’s remake of “거위의 꿈” (“The Goose’s Dream”) on either ubiquitousness, popularity, or both. Instantly recognizable and intensely memorable, “Tell Me” remains the most iconic song of this decade.
16. Brown Eyes – 벌써 일년 (Already a Year)
Album: Brown Eyes
(Song starts about a minute and a half in.)
For some reason, male R&B in Korea seems to be at its best with duet artists. There are solo R&B artists like Wheesung and Kim Jo-Han, among others, that are just as excellent, but for me the best of the best has always been with duos, the likes of Fly to the Sky or Vibe. Brown Eyes, consisting of the incredibly talented Naul and Yoon Gun, is the very first of these R&B duos; in fact, they are one of the artists that helped assimilate the genre into the mainstream.
“Already a Year” is a medium-tempo R&B ballad. The duo presented the textbook example for how medium tempo should be done through this debut single. Notice the subdued feel of the beat and instrumentation; the way in which, no matter how subdued that beat is, the vocals still manage bring out an avalanche of emotion. Any good songs of this genre should rely upon the vocal performance, not the music, to deliver its payload of sentiment; “Already a Year” does just that. The two artists control the flow of their art tightly; no overreliance on ad-libbing, no uncomfortably heavy “cow herding”. The track is filled with plain, austere singing, but neither of the duo is afraid to let it rip when needed. In some ways, I think this contained previews of basically all the types of R&B vocalizing that would become popular over the next 10 years. So far ahead of its time in both musicianship and presentation, it’s no wonder that “Already a Year” doesn’t even show a hint of aging, after all this time.
15. Epik High, featuring 타루 (Taru) – 1분 1초 (A Minute, A Second)
As I see it, Epik High is one of the greatest musicians in Korea at the moment–in all senses of the word. One of the things that make it so is the trio’s versatility. They’ve produced some of the sharpest, harshest criticism at society’s flaws; some of the darkest, most maniacal forays into the human psyche; some of the most uplifting, good-hearted life stories. They can also be very sentimental when they want to be. Supported by DJ Tukutz’s arrangement skills, Tablo’s superlative, honed-at-Stanford lyricism, and Mithra Jin’s emotional delivery, they can put out something as heartbreaking as “A Minute, A Second”.
The track screams (no pun intended with that album title) “EXPERIMENTAL” all over the place. The rare all-analog instrumentation is one place. Tablo’s striking opening soliloquy is another. The track starts with a hauntingly beautiful piano line (electronically adjusted for sustain length, but that’s it), which is followed by Taru’s purposefully plain voice singing the chorus. Where the song really starts is after that: Tablo suddenly starting to half-rap, half-sing, and half-narrate a verse. (Yes, 3/2 is the new 1.) Lifelessly, as if thinking about something distant, he illustrates a moment from the past. Then, while the track speeds up, he starts singing more as he begins to snap out of it. By this point, the song’s already firmly within the “sad” territory.
As the two rappers exchange verses, as Taru continues her austerely touching chorus, as the music speeds and slows and pushes out and subsides, the boundaries begin to blend together. The above distinctions don’t feel like separate components, nor are they noted that way. The only thing the listener feels is the narrators’ mounting despair, the overwhelming sense of loneliness, the intense suffering. The track transcends the usual range of human sensation, but does not quite venture out into the madly surreal; it’s in a curious limbo, like the subject of the song itself.
By the time it’s over, the listener is left breathless. And, in the case of an amateur critic, marveling at the amazing achievement that Epik High has wrought through a simple experimental EP.
14. Brown Eyed Girls – L.O.V.E
Album: With L.O.V.E, Brown Eyed Girls
Brown Eyed Girls’ transition from a Big Mama-esque soul quartet into a more accessible dance group didn’t happen overnight. Between the heaviness of sophomore album떠나라 미스김 (Leave, Miss Kim) and the decidedly bubbly sound of sophomore mini-album My Style (in terms of other B.E.G. songs on this list, between #68 “Came to Me” and #79 “Abracadabra”), there was With L.O.V.E.
This first mini-album, and its lead single “L.O.V.E.”, was a departure from all the B.E.G. sounds that we’d come to know. An urban-electronic soundtrack, highlighted by punchy bass beats and tasteful strings, plays under the vocalist trio’s seductive harmony. Each main vocal puts in a laudable performance: leader Jea holds the melody’s balance down with her low tones, while Narsha’s alluring chorus and Ga-In’s enchantingly sweet verses add a degree of sophistication. This was also one of the few B.E.G. songs where rapper Miryo received a significant portion of the track playtime, and her melodic verses are immediately likable.
The track is full of such classy attitude. The girls are as carefree as they are chic; they don’t sound too invested or like they’re particularly trying hard, and that is what allures the listener more. Even the bridge before the final refrain retains the reserved elegance of the rest of the song, as the instrumentation mounts in suspense. I feel that this mini-album marks the one point in Brown Eyed Girls’ career where they struck the perfect balance. As another critic put it: “not quite Big Mama, not quite Wonder Girls; yet both Big Mama and Wonder Girls at the same time.” Indifferent but not haughty; pleasant but not fervent; seductive but not distasteful. It remains to be seen whether anyone will ever pull it off as well as B.E.G. did here, but thus far I’m not seeing a single contender.
13. MC Sniper, featuring 유리 (Yuri) – 봄이여 오라 (Come Spring)
Album: How Bad Do U Want It?
Today, MC Sniper is often seen more a businessman than a rapper. He’s received his share of criticism even before that, predominantly about his supposed lack of lyrical skill. It’s true that he’s not a particularly brilliant rhymer or flow writer, and as a result his lyrics are often rather plain on the ear. That said, I still think that in his particular brand of hip-hop, there’s no one who can even come close to matching his achievements.
That “brand” is difficult to put into words. In the Korean scene, it can be conveniently lumped under the term “neo-hiphop”, but no such term exists here in the States. Essentially, MC Sniper excels at hip-hop that is based more on the heart than the mind. Other rappers might amaze listeners with a crazily well-written verse; Sniper would probably prefer to leave an impression with a solitary piano line, or with the emotion in his lyrically plain rapping. A lot of this artist’s tracks are melancholy, moving, and filled with echoes of real pain, real joy, real life. Which is what makes them more powerful than most other mainstream music today.
Even though Sniper’s most recent album, Museum, had some exceptional tracks, I feel that his greatest achievement comes from his previous, fourth album How Bad Do U Want It?. The lead single, “Come Spring”, perfected that whole emotional-hiphop idea. The piano loop, sampled and re-imagined from the Japanese classic “Haru Yu Koi” by Yumi “Yuming” Matsukoya, is the immediately distinctive component: it’s exquisitely sorrowful, but has a certain groove that allows it to holds up remarkably well with the rest of the beat. MC Sniper then begins to drop the verses in his trademark deep tone. The lyrics are, as they’ve always been, fairly austere to the ear, but there’s surreal beauty in the diction used here. It’s a string of poetic expression after expression, and though it is rather lacking on sensible transitions, that disorganization does help to make the narrator’s confusion and turmoil feel more genuine. Featured vocalist Yuri provides the change in pace to balance Sniper’s charged rant, and her soothing chorus (also sampled from Yuming) is in fact the perfect supplement to that piano loop.
From the birth of hip-hop all the way to today, some questions have plagued the genre: how do you move souls with it? How do you get people to reflect on it, get the music to resonate as something more than just a catchy hook or a clever line? Hundreds of rappers around the world have tackled these questions, and some have found excellent solutions. With “Come Spring”, MC Sniper joins the ranks of those who have solved the puzzle, one way or another.
12. 서태지 (Seo Taiji) – 아침의 눈 (Morning Snow)
I’ve never had to invent a whole musical genre before, but I imagine it must be pretty hard. No matter what you do, it’s bound to feel like you’re making an arbitrary distinction between your “new” genre and something that exists already. So I’m more than a little impressed at the accomplishment that Seo Taiji’s Atomos represents: the invention, and a convincing one at that, of a real new genre. He calls it “nature pound”. Pound on nature… so like, knock on wood, right? Ha-ha.
No, but seriously. The album’s pre-release singles gave listeners a good idea of what this new genre was going to sound like, but we had to wait until “Morning Snow” to hear it in its full glory. The most easily noticeable element is the instrumentation: the music works like a metaphor for the natural phenomena that it represents. The piano has a flowing, clear quality; the guitar loops in a cycle; the touched-up strings sound intentionally washed out. Also found here is the other characteristic of nature pound: shattered beats. It’s not discernible in the early verses, but basically at any point of the song where the piano and guitar play together (most notably after the 3-minute mark), it’s easy to hear the nearly random placement of notes and beats. Even the drums go into snare roll during the second verse. And there’s just so much going on. Seo and his engineering team has gotten better and better at managing intricacies in their music over the years, and it’s quite a feat that everything somehow stands out in the avalanche of sounds.
On top of the gorgeous melody, Seo lays his vocals down. His lyrics are known for making absolutely no sense unless you have prior knowledge of what the topic is, and this one deviates only slightly from the norm. The poetic sense is sharp; we see that as snow melts and flows, time flows, and when it rains, he will cry with the flowers. This is just about the only part of the song that makes colloquial sense, though. Seo’s lyrics are also known for often being metaphors of something completely different–hence the lack of comprehensibility. Oh, I’m sure this all represents something bigger, too. But actually, that’s not very important.
“Morning Snow”s strength is its ability to blend things until the listener finds him/herself part of the music. For example, the chorus of the song blends into the rest of the song and is hard to identify; what you think is the beginning of the refrain is actually not. Seo sings in his trademark, hard-to-decipher style; it blends into the music, seeming to fade away eventually. The instrumentation remains admirably discrete on a technical level, but to the listener all of that also blends naturally. It’s a great set-up for anyone to lose themselves while listening. And for those blissful few minutes, it’s tough to not feel overwhelmingly refreshed, purified, cleansed.
11. Lexy, featuring Teddy – Let Me Dance
It’s very, very difficult to find an artist who can sing, rap, and dance at the S-class. In that way, Lexy is one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever listened to. Her multiple adeptness was first unleashed in 2003 with debut album Lexury; it became a hit worthy of the artist, managing to spawn three number-one singles from the single disc.
“Let Me Dance”, the last single from that trilogy, is the most striking one by far. It’s a lightly-electronic club track, characterized by a kinetic beat and non-stop verses. The beat ran the cutting edge of sophistication at the time, with an elegant piano accompaniment laying down the foundations and moderately used strings and analog drum machine filling in the rest, and holds up remarkably well against today’s more heavily electronic dance beats. Lexy’s vocal prowess here is formidable; she has a very rich tone to begin with, and while a bit of that shows through in the later parts of the song, for most of the song she keeps it intentionally subdued and seductive while retaining the power. Lexy also has a decent rap tone, and briefly shows it off in the bridges.
Teddy, a 1TYM rapper and currently producer for YG Entertainment, puts in an extensive performance, to the point that I consider “Let Me Dance” as more of a duet than a Lexy song featuring Teddy. His verses are characteristically charismatic, and one of the highlights of the track is the back-and-forth dynamics of Lexy and Teddy shooting back at each other near the ending.
“Let Me Dance” is a club anthem on one level, but it’s also a showcase of the excellence that can result when great concept-work meets perfect talents. It’s a shame that even Lexy herself, after three additional albums of varying success, has never been able to match this track, but that is another point of emphasis on the level of its quality.
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