The full-length album is a dying artform in K-pop; today’s market seems to thrive on smaller-sized media such as the mini-album or the single. But there’s really nothing quite like awaiting the release of a full-length album by your favorite artist and listening to 10 to 15 brand-new song, thoughtfully compiled on one disk. The album is the traditional backbone of the music industry, and today we’re celebrating our picks for the best full-length albums to come out of K-pop this year, as well as reflecting upon the worst.
‘In Heaven’, JYJ
In Heaven won second place in the official album poll, which kind of blows my mind because JYJ fans are notorious for making sure that JYJ wins every web poll that’s ever been created. Or maybe that just applies to Jaejoong fans. Who knows.
Snark aside, however, In Heaven was probably one of the strongest albums I’ve encountered this year, and I’m not just saying that because 2011 was a weak year for full-length album releases as a whole. For starters, every song on the 10-track album was composed by one or more of the JYJ members themselves, which is a rare and impressive occurrence amongst most mainstream K-pop artists. Half of the tracks on In Heaven were previously released via JYJ’s Music Essay minialbum in January of this year, but they were remastered for the In Heaven rerelease. But in my opinion, the most impressive tracks on this album were those not previously included on the Music Essay minialbum. “Boy’s Letter” starts out as a relatively unassuming track, but it’s an extremely strong ballad that boasts an elegantly composed melody and a well-structured climax. “You’re” is a punchy but nonetheless smooth midtempo song that features some great vocal coordination between the three members. “Get Out” is a powerful dance track that’s both amplified and softened by the members’ voices. And, of course, “In Heaven” is the crown jewel of the album: overdramatic, but beautifully so.
JYJ is often accused of being repetitive and unoriginal with their musical style, and after listening to In Heaven, I’m beginning to understand this claim. As composers, the JYJ members are fond of certain sounds and beats, and they use these same sounds and beats over and over in their music. This, combined with consistency in personal compositional style, can cause JYJ’s music to come across as being repetitive or unoriginal. Now, I’m a person who generally likes JYJ’s musical style, so this so-called repetitiveness is far from a problematic issue for me. But even as a fan of JYJ’s style, I think it’d be wise for JYJ to consider collaborating with other composers for their future releases, just to keep things fresh. But of course, this might all be easier said than done, especially considering the amount of legal red tape JYJ has to deal with in order to merely exist in the Korean entertainment sphere.
I really wish the best for JYJ and I hope they succeed, moreso than any other group — not only because they are talented musicians, but because by producing such consistently high-quality work such as In Heaven without the help of a giant entertainment company, JYJ is showing that they have the power to enact change within the K-pop industry for good. But until that day comes, I’m content with JYJ so long as they continue to make good music.
Fiction and Fact, BEAST
Oh, Beast. How far you have come. I’ll start with an admission of guilt — for the first year and a half of BEAST’s career, I was so not into them. And do I regret not being enamored by them during their beginning? No, not really. When BEAST first started out, although they were talented, they were also ridiculously mediocre. I could not stand ‘Bad Girl’. It was every generic and cookie cutter pop song put together in one mess of a promotional single. The concept, the processing, the pretty faces? I’d seen it all before. And so, BEAST became a typical boy group. Nothing special, nothing stand out, and I raised my eyebrows at people who put them on a pedestal.
However, I undermined defining aspect of BEAST. These guys work hard. They’re fighters. They put in effort. With every performance they improved, with every single there was an evident increase in production quality. Somewhere amongst the rocky path they found something of a group dynamic. And now they have an amazing album to really show off all the effort they put in.
It’s easy to make a ‘hit’, just repeat a few words, put it on top of a repetitive beat, slap on the last layer of autotune, and voila! You’re good to go. For ‘Fiction and Fact’, BEAST completely ripped off all the gimmicky layers and the traditional qualities of a pop song, they stripped the songs to the core and worked their way up, perfecting and polishing every layer and be-ridding themselves of unnecessary frills. They worked on almost every song on here to make them, for lack of a better word, as beautiful as possible. Put beautiful songs together, and you have a beautiful album. The mellow R&B tunes on this record are intricate and stunning, and it’s evident that all attention is on creating a good song over creating a one-time-hit. The album’s own promotional single ‘Fiction‘, whilst catchy, isn’t one-dimensional. There’s attention to detail, there’s effort put in to make sure this song remains a classic. And this style is maintained from the intro track ‘The Fact’, to the as mentioned promotional single, to the melodic closing track ‘On Rainy Days’. Together you have a not only stunning, but cohesive album.
The thing that really sealed the deal on naming ‘Fiction and Fact’ one of the best albums of the year is the amount of growth the band has gone through. The album shows how the unique voices of every member contributes to making this album amazing. Even the ever vocally-unfortunate Dongwoon has a place on this record! BEAST has gone from a band that was only good for making the fun-for-a-day pop song, to a band that has the ability to make great music. It’s a hard world out there in K-Pop, what with idol groups debuting every other week, but there’s no doubt BEAST has risen above its peers to a place that’s almost untouchable.
Also, god, those pretty faces.
Wonder World, Wonder Girls
It seems that the acts that impressed me the most this year, are the acts that initially left a sour taste in my mouth. Much like BEAST, the Wonder Girls initially struck me as completely mediocre. Except whilst BEAST was still a rookie trying to find its footing and struggling for wins on music shows, the Wonder Girls were a hot commodity.
When the Wonder Girls went to America , they struggled. They put in maximum effort, with little dues in return. At least that’s what I thought initially — that the endeavor into the US was a complete waste of time and it’s a pity that they had lost their status for an unreachable goal. However, with the release of Wonder World, it’s clear that the Wonder Girls didn’t make poor use of their time in the US. The long leave of absence they underwent was very much worth it when we look at the fruit of their labour. While Wonder World the album was not perfect, it did hit close to home and almost every track on there was enjoyable some way or another. At least I found almost all of them enjoyable, and looking at the poll, so did the majority of you guys. Since Wonder World did win the poll for “Best Album of 2011”! What can I say? Seoulbeats readers have impeccable taste.
I’ve already discussed my love for the album in detail, that being said I have no problem talking about how great of an album it is over and over again. The production of the songs on the album are very western, and you can see how their time in the US has influenced their work. The album is a pop album through and through. The songs stick in your head, but they aren’t redundant and, for a lack of a better word, lazy. Every single song on the album works to make this album stand out as a whole, from the upbeat ‘G.N.O‘, to the sassy ‘Me In‘, and the bubbly but somewhat eerie ‘Nu Shoes‘. The songs work to embed themselves into your mind, but they do so whilst keeping the hooks classy and the melodies clean. Pop isn’t meant to be revolutionary, but contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t have to be trashy either. Wonder Girls ditched the electronica for the most part and embraced the classic sound of pop and found a balance.
Whilst at the peak of their careers, I did question the legitimacy of Wonder Girls being the girl group of girl groups. But with the coming of Wonder World, there’s really no question about it, in terms of production and style, the Wonder Girls are right there at the top. What’s even more amazing is that the Wonder Girl’s lead vocalist Ye Eun composed and rearranged two of the album’s highlights, “G.N.O” and “Me, In”. Well, colour me impressed. She should overthrow JYP in some kind of revolution and make her own entertainment company. Ye Eun Entertainment. YEE.
What’s K-Pop without a little conflict in opinion? Whilst a consensus on the worst/best albums was reached for almost all of the works listed, we couldn’t avoid butting heads over one certain release this year. One calls it one of the best, the other calls it one of the worst. So without further ado…
Pinocchio/Hot Summer, f(x)
Why it’s one of the best: It’s been almost eight months since the release of f(x)’s first full length album, and I’m still struggling to decide whether I love it or hate it. But my New Year’s resolution is to start seeing things in a more positive light, and there’s no better time to start than when writing an end-of-year best/worst album post, right? Right.
f(x) has played the role of the quirky little SMTown sisters ever since their debut, and their first full-length album reflects this image well. I personally enjoyed the music on Pinocchio a lot, but what I found to be most striking about the album was that its music really seemed to be the first of its kind in K-pop. The album on the whole has a strong European hipster vibe to it — if such terms can even be applied to K-pop. Granted, I don’t really know what “hipster music” is supposed to sound like, but I do know that if I were to show some of this music to one of my un-K-poppified friends, they probably would never guess that this album was produced by a large idol-churning company or that the songs were sung by five members of a mainstream K-pop girl group. The music doesn’t adhere to any of the trends I’ve ever seen in K-pop, and it’s even difficult to label it with a genre because some of the stuff on this album is just so different from what we’re used to hearing. There comes a risk whenever one engages in music experimentation, but I think Pinocchio features more hits than misses and that alone should be commended.
I’m curious as to how f(x) will continue their musical career. f(x) will be the next SM group to debut in Japan, and will begin activities in Japan starting next year. I’m crossing my fingers and my toes that their promotional stint in Japan will help f(x) further mature as artists and performers. f(x) is a group that has intrigued me since their debut, but I’ve yet to really see this group come out of its cocoon. But for the time being, I highly recommend that everyone take a listen to this album if they haven’t done so already; while the songs themselves might not to be everyone’s liking, they definitely make for a unique listen. Some suggested tracks: My Style, 아이(Love), Beautiful Goodbye.
Why it’s one of the worst: f(x), I tried to like you, I really did. When f(x) first debuted, I was behind them all the way. They were quirky, they had a solid debut single, they had talent, they had a good image, I was so sure they were going to succeed. Unfortunately for them they debuted at the exact time when SM began to go downhill. And while f(x)’s label-mates DBSK, Super Junior, SNSD, and SHINee, have made some kind of mark on the K-Pop industry and have firmly found a reason to call themselves stars and successes, f(x) is left experimenting with different kinds of grating sounds in hope of finding a worthy hit.
Pinocchio is less an album and more a cheesy mixtape. I mentioned that in Fiction and Fact, BEAST threw away all the gimmick and focused on making music that was timeless. I mentioned in Wonder World, that the Wonder Girls delivered pop songs with class. f(x) somehow manages to do the complete opposite of both. Not only does the album have no structure or cohesion (little of the songs manage to relate in any way to each other, or to the atrocious title track ‘Danger‘ — which is almost a good thing. Almost), but half the songs are completely grating to the ears. Any saving graces that this album has are wedged in between mind numbing tunes that destroy your brain cells one by one. You get your first remotely good track ‘Beautiful Goodbye‘, but as soon as you even attempt giving f(x) a cent of your time, you’re thrown headfirst into the the flimsy and annoying ‘Gangsta Boy‘, and the next two tracks that follow only worsen the situation. They had the potential to end with a bang, but even the glorious SHINee couldn’t save them, with their collaboration ‘Lollipop‘ completely disregarding the abilities of both bands.
When it came down to f(x), I used to give my mind a break, and let my instincts take over. That’s how I managed to enjoy ‘Chu‘ and ‘Nu Abo‘. Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to employ the same tactic with Pinocchio because my instincts are telling me to burn it. f(x) has talent, and I’ve said it before, that their voices do manage to add punch to a song when they’re given the chance. However, they’re never given a chance because they’re forced to sing-talk and cute-sing whenever a song is given to them. And looking at the current trend of things, well… I don’t want to call f(x) a lost cause, but they’re giving me no other choice. Despite the fact f(x) has found mainstream success, take their presence away from K-Pop and you’ll find that you’re not missing out on anything. And Pinocchio as an album does nothing to help them in this case.
There are girl groups debuting left and right, some completely failing, while others are a force to be reckoned with. With so many girl groups fighting to leave a mark, who are f(x) and where do they stand in the grand scheme of things? It truly is a mystery mystery.
왜? (Keep Your Head Down)/Before U Go, DBSK
Someone’s going to accuse me of being JYJ-biased again; I can just smell it.
When I listened to DBSK’s Keep Your Head Down, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad. Keep Your Head Down was Yunho and Changmin’s first release after DBSK’s disbandment, and its mediocrity just doesn’t set a good tone for DBSK’s future activities as a duo.
I don’t think Keep Your Head Down was an outright bad album per se, but my disappointment in this album has left me with a permanent bad taste in my mouth about SM’s management of the duo as a whole. On the whole, I felt that the music on Keep Your Head Down did not suit the two of them well, and it seemed to me that SM was more focused on pushing out a new album as soon as possible rather than giving Yunho and Changmin material that actually suited them. The title track is all kinds of terrible by itself, and judging from a bunch of interviews during its promotional stint, it appears that “Keep Your Head Down” was written after DBSK disbanded, and the main goal behind “KYHD” was to create a song that would capitalize on Yunho and Changmin’s individual strengths. Hence, this monster was born.
This scares me, because while the rest of the tracks on Keep Your Head Down were still kind of okay, there’s a good chance that these tracks were composed way before DBSK’s disbandment, and were probably dug up from the SM basement so that Yunho and Changmin could have something to put on their album. But what happens after this? If “Keep Your Head Down” was SM’s idea of a suitable title song for Yunho and Changmin’s abilities, then I don’t want to know what kinds of “suitable” monstrosities SM plans on cooking up for Yunho and Changmin in the future. “I Don’t Know”, “Superstar”, and other uptempo songs from the duo’s Japanese album seem to be a taste of what’s to come. Oh dear.
So I guess my distaste isn’t necessarily directed towards the album and its music, but rather what the album stands for. As a performance duo, Yunho and Changmin aren’t well-matched for each other to begin with, and it certainly doesn’t help that they’re not getting music that suits them.
Mr. Simple/A-Cha, Super Junior
SM, this year was not your year. Mr. Simple is speculated to be Super Junior’s last full-length album before the group goes on hiatus…and, well, it just wasn’t good enough. The best tracks off this album were a) only included on the repackage, b) composed by the members themselves, or c) both. Considering that repackage tracks are probably courtesy of the SM Basement, it’s a little sad that the tracks with the least thought put into them turn out to be the best ones. And I strongly believe that Donghae and Henry both need to quit Super Junior and start composing full-time for SM because SM sure as heck needs it.
My biggest beef with Mr. Simple is that the album has no structure. The album has no flow, and the moods of the songs are all over the place. This would usually be forgivable if the individual songs themselves were good, but most of these tracks are nothing short of mediocre. Apart from a few select songs, I haven’t listened to this album since its release in August, and I don’t feel that I’ve been missing anything.
It’s a bloody shame that Super Junior has gotten weak musical material for two albums in a row, although it is somewhat understandable — Super Junior was originally supposed to be a motley crew of entertainers, not singers. They weren’t supposed to get good music because that wasn’t their purpose as a group. Super Junior’s purpose was to dominate variety shows and dramas, to spread themselves throughout all facets of the entertainment industry. But in the five years since their debut, Super Junior has grown to be much more musically deserving than that. I really hope that the Super Junior members pursue individual or subgroup activities after Super Junior’s presumed hiatus, because that seems to be the only way the members themselves can truly excel at their areas of expertise. The variety kings can focus on filming variety shows, the radio hosts can stay in the studio all day for all I care, and most importantly, the musicians of the group can finally promote quality music. I still believe that, despite a lackluster fifth album, Super Junior is capable of making good music, but only if they shed the role of omnipresent entertainers and are allowed to be plain old singers.
The Boys, SNSD
SM completely failed to deliver this year, almost every single one of their releases completely fell through the roof. And I hate to say it, but the worst of this was with the ladies of the company. As an album, The Boys sits comfortably at the deep end of mediocrity. The songs are mediocre and little thought was put into forming the album as a whole — a trend which ties almost all of SM’s albums together. The album goes through a variety of genres. From bad songs, to good songs. From anthem-like with the title track ‘The Boys’, to lazy ballads like ‘The Greatest Love‘. From actually decent with ‘Trick‘, and ‘Oscar‘, to tunes that make your teeth rot like ‘My J‘. It’s a mixed platter that makes little to no sense as a whole and leaves you with a taste of bile in your mouth. It’s a bad mixtape you’d give to your boyfriend or girlfriend if you wanted them to dump you.
When SNSD ventured to Japan they shed the cutesy image they had in Korea, and instead embraced a more mature concept. A mature concept that was reflected in their amazing Japanese debut album ‘Girls Generation’ — an album that I recommend everyone listen to because it completely annihilates this one. With such success and growth in Japan, I was left with anticipation on how they’d transfer this growth from Japan to Korea. And their Korean comeback started off great, the concept they were going for was good, the teasers we were met with showed promise, but all my hopes and dreams fell apart once the whole package was released.
Clearly what SM tries to pass off as growth, is really just creating a chant-y title song, and throwing it over a slew of tracks that are almost no different from SNSD’s previous efforts. Package it all in a nice tin container, and behold! SNSD has evolved! And really, it’s typical SM behavior. They put their entire effort into the title track and then dump whatever songs they deem ‘worthy fillers’ into creating the rest of the album. And that’s a bit of a problem when even the title track itself is mediocre, because what you end up with is a unimpressive and not very cohesive end product. SNSD are not untalented, they have some good singers, some good dancers, but most of all they have a dynamic and the potential to pull off great things. Although not all of them have vocals that can be bragged about, almost all of them have a pleasant colour to their voices, and that’s why they can pull off songs like ‘Into The New World‘, and why songs like ‘Star Star Star‘ exist to be great. I like that SNSD is succeeding, but not because I love So Nyu Shi Dae and what they produce, but because I love Sunny, Sooyoung, Hyoyeon, Tiffany, Yoona, Yuri, Seohyun, Taeyeon, and Jessica. And I’d love their success a lot more if SM just let these nine stars come together and shine as a whole like they once did.
An album is a collection of songs that have some kind of relevance to each other, an album has structure and a sense of direction. Whilst some have come out on top, embracing the essence of an album and with it delivering timeless tunes that are bound to be remembered, others have completely let the opportunity to dazzle slip through their fingers. One thing that’s clear is someone needs to go up to SM Entertainment and teach them how to put together an album. Nonetheless, it’s really all up to the listeners discretion, and what bigger gift is there from an artist to us listeners than a brand new batch of songs for us to find a permanent spot for on our iPods? (Or discard forever in our recycling bins, it’s up to you).