2014 can best be defined as the year in which the K-pop industry all but imploded. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of positives to take away. From domestic abuse to adultery and blackmail; idols leaving their companies to idols passing away, it was a tough year to get through, quite honestly. However, amid all the madness that seemed to cloud K-pop in 2014, the one bright light was the one thing we’re all truly here for: the music. There was some truly incredible work coming from South Korea. It was nigh on impossible for our panel to narrow down the options to just three full-length and three mini-albums. However, there’s one thing we were pretty much unanimous about: the veterans killed the music scene this year, and they’ve got the sales and chart presence to prove it.
|1||Epik High – Shoebox||Epik High – Shoebox||Epik High – Shoebox|
|2||4Men – 1998||Akdong Musician – Play||Nell – Newton’s Apple|
|3||JYJ – Just Us||Crush – Crush On You||JYJ – Just Us and Fly to the Sky – Continuum|
|1||Eddy Kim – The Manual||WINNER – 2014 S/S||Eddy Kim – The Manual|
|2||Space Cowboy – Extremely||Mad Clown – Fierce||Royal Pirates – Drawing the Line and Love Toxic|
|3||MBLAQ – Broken||Ailee – Magazine||Boys Republic – Real Talk|
Camiele: First topic for discussion: Epik High wrecked every bias list! What do you guys think it was about Shoebox that pretty much shut everybody else down this year?
Andy: I’m not sure if it was due to withdrawal or what, but Shoebox seemed to just speak to people. There were many different sounds, tackling various topics, and the featurings were chosen well. Even from the title tracks, you saw that Epik High wasn’t just going to stick to one concept, which I liked. Variety is the spice of life. From the beginning, something about the album hits you, and every song is so solid and unique that it’s impossible to pick a favorite one. Epik High’s ability to write poetic lyrics definitely helps—they are lyrical geniuses, if you ask me. Combine that with kickass music skills, and it’s a win all around.
I think, from some comments I saw, that people saw the album as Epik High returning to their roots. I don’t necessarily buy that, since Epik High has done many different styles throughout their 11 years in Korea. How can people celebrate depressing lyrics but dismiss the happier tracks of 99? People go through different phases of life, good and bad.
Camiele: I think it’s equal parts missing Epik High in general and just wanting something new, exciting, original. There’s been just a bunch of generic music coming out of Korea for the last few years. A veteran group like Epik High, one respected especially in the hip hop community worldwide, coming back and creating music that’s both lyrically powerful and musically complex, and having that album actually recognized during both weekly and year-end awards shows is a testament to that.
Sidrah: Epik High is just the bomb. Shoebox has indeed been a welcomed change to the scene this year, and I agree that its popularity proves that music fans were just waiting for something that shows creativity and individuality, rather than just the same old generics of K-pop.
Andy: We only picked four K-pop groups combined. We mostly picked soloists or others. Why is that? Did K-pop groups let us down this year, or is just everyone else releasing more impactful music?
Camiele: You could very easily make the argument that a vast majority of the groups have hit a plateau or just haven’t been all that interesting. I mean, it’s all the same shade of candy pop or dubstep or faux-gangsta. Now, I’m personally not a fan of Super Junior, Girls Generation, or 2NE1, so their albums weren’t on my radar. But I heard mixed reviews (erring more on the side of good) for these groups. They have one thing in common: they’re all veterans. Newer groups have become more miss than hit lately. Considering how many crop up, that’s not surprising. But solo artists tend to dig a bit deeper. It’s just them. They can’t depend on other members. It also helps to have creative support from your label, hence why my choices for best mini aren’t from the Big Three.
Andy: I do agree that the groups have been more of a miss. Many are just younger versions of other groups, who aren’t that great to begin with. K-pop needs a bit of a shake-up, which the veterans provided.
Sidrah: From the younger groups, I think only a select few have really stood out this year. Personally, I’ve been feeling very inclined towards the YG rookies, hence why I put WINNER on my list. Normally I wouldn’t pay much attention to the new kids; however, I’m quite partial to artists who are readily involved in the composition and production of their music. Therefore, I’ve been relatively impressed by them in the sense that the music they make is actually made by them, unlike the majority of other groups. I think that self-composition factor just hits you on more of a personal level and is probably why I’m beginning to find other rookie groups to be a bit lackluster.
Camiele: I, too, appreciate that they’re encouraged to write their own music. However, because they’re more or less a rookie group (been around for a year), I think they’ve still got a little ways to go before their music really impresses me. A couple songs on their mini were impressive, but then the rest all sounded pretty much the same. That’s why I couldn’t really put them on the list.
MBLAQ released two minis this year: Broken and Winter. I favored Broken more because, as would seem to be the theme for Winter, the latter was just way too ballad heavy for me. Though the piano accompaniment of each track was beautiful, I loved the depth of Broken. Nevertheless, Broken was a beautiful mini-album, and since it was the last before Lee Joon declared he was going to concentrate more on his acting and Thunder decided to try his hand as a full-time producer, I think it holds some significance as far as fans of the group are concerned.
Andy: Broken was definitely more my speed than Winter—though it was beautiful. I only hope that MBLAQ is still releasing music, because my poor fangirl heart couldn’t take them splitting.
Clearly, we haven’t been entirely impressed with K-pop groups this year, but have loved the veterans and a few rookies. The mini category also seemed to give us issues, which I think speaks to the fact that there were some good ones out there that may not have necessarily been marketed as noisily as others. This is probably emphasized by the lack of Taeyang on the list. He had one of the biggest releases this year and is absent. Are we making a mistake leaving him off?
Camiele: I don’t think we’re making a mistake, as such. After all, it’s what albums impressed us personally. It’s not based on how big the release was or not. And while I did love Rise overall, I felt there were only a few songs on that album that left a deep impression on me, while more of the tracks than I would’ve expected sounded alike. When I choose an album I count as Top 3, it’s got to be an album that in its entirety captures me and keeps me that way every time I listen to it. As you said, “big release” mostly has to do with how well an album is marketed. “Big” doesn’t mean “good,” and “good” certainly doesn’t mean “best.”
Andy: Agreed. I still don’t like “Ringa Linga” and think it’s just Taeyang singing GD.
Sidrah: I wasn’t a fan of “Ringa Linga.” I prefer Taeyang’s more Soul/R&B stuff; I just find they suit his voice much better. Though Rise is a solid album and definitely one of the better releases of the year, I didn’t find it to be all that memorable. I think maybe it’s because I absolutely adore both his Solar and Hot albums, so I can’t help but compare a lot of his new stuff with the old. Plus, when it comes to marketing, you hit the nail on the head there, Camiele. SNSD had a pretty big release with Mr. Mr., and I don’t know many people who would consider it as one of their better releases. It all just comes down to a matter of preference really.
This year the non-K-pop groups and the soloists seem to be doing amazingly well. It’s nice to see that our top choices are pretty diverse when it comes to musical genres and also aren’t so dominated by the big idol groups such as Super Junior, etc. It just illustrates how the others have really managed to shine this year.
I’m interested to know, what motivated you both to pick Eddy Kim’s mini-album? I’ll be honest, I have never really paid much attention to him.
Camiele: The Manual was just a simple, beautiful album. The lead single struck a heavy chord with me when I first heard it, and the album overall was just an honest-to-goodness clean album. Especially for a debut, there’s so much depth and power, but without all the fuss of overproduction. It reminded me a lot of Javier Colon‘s debut album: a voice and simple music. Just truly lovely.
Andy: Eddy Kim has this soothing, raw vocal, and his debut mini seemed to be just him, his thoughts, and his guitar. I’m a bit of a sucker for that type of music—which is why I also considered Roy Kim. It’s simple and beautiful. It stood out for me, and it has this charming quality that makes it seem more like an intimate conversation about life and love and less like an album.
That wraps up our discussion of our favorite albums. What are some of your favorite albums from 2014? Which albums do you think we should’ve considered, or given another listen to?
(Images via C-JES Entertainment, Mystic89, YG Entertainment)