Previous Entry (#20~11):
10. g.o.d. – 길 (The Road)
Album: Chapter 4: 길 (The Road)
(Song starts about two minutes in.)
Formerly five-man boy band g.o.d. (stands for Groove Over Dose. Yeah, everyone ignores it.) had talent that remains questionable–a couple of the members were okay at rap, and the four members besides lead vocal Kim Tae-Woo had only so-so singing ability before some went solo. What isn’t questionable is the importance of the social messages that their songs contained, compared to the slightly less concerned idol groups today.
“The Road” was actually not as popular as their former “To Mother” or “Lie”, among others, but to me the song signifies the apex of g.o.d.’s musical achievement. The five members’ easy vocals float over four minutes of minimalist instrumentation, where strings (both soothing and haunting at once) punctuate acoustic guitar and appropriately light percussion; the two lead vocals, Kim and Son Ho-Young, cry out with characteristic emotion. What really makes this song is the lyrics: in a time of uncertainty for many teens and young adults, when a still-recovering-from-crippling-recession left little opportunities, g.o.d. sang of the struggle that they had with their future, of the role of destiny, and of dreams. Large numbers of people still testify to the powerful effect that this song had on them when they were young, and I feel that its message, summed up by the chorus, rings more true than ever today.
Why I am I standing on this road
Is this really the road for me
Will my dreams come true at the end of this road?
What do I dream about
Who is that dream really for
When I achieve that dream, will I be able to smile?
Previous Entry (#30~21):
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”
Previous Entry (#40~31):
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.
Previous Entry (#50~41):
40. Verbal Jint – Overclass
Album: Modern Rhymes EP
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.
Previous Entry (#60~51):
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.]
Previous Entry (#70~61):
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.
Previous Entry (#80~71):
70. Crash – Crashday
Album: The Paragon of Animals
Thrash metal band Crash have always been innovators in their field–at one point, they even attempted a techno-based metal sound. Returning after nearly a decade of hiatus, it appears that Crash decided to return to its roots. “Crashday” is more than a little thrash–it goes somewhat heavier, but the influence is there nonetheless. The immediately noticeable element is the technical excellence of the sound being offered here. The intricate guitars are equally richly placed in both the melody and the riff, and the explosive drums never rest for a beat in their tremolo. The song’s plethora of melodies and solos seamlessly merge, its wildly varying acts and sections flowing naturally. Vocalist and guitarist Ahn Heung-Chan growls, shouts and sings equally effectively, the latter as well-placed oases in the barrage of sound, and guitarist Yun Du-Byoung contributes ear-popping solos. The quality of the work speaks for itself: this took a lot of effort and careful composition. It took a return of the masters at the top of their form for the first truly satisfying metal track in years to emerge.