As more and more groups debut each year, it’s becoming more important for groups to establish themselves in some unique way. They need to stand out or have some characteristic that distinguishes them from the rest of the pack. Aside from extraterrestrials traveling to Earth and eccentric marketing tactics, an aspect that that proves significant is the group’s sound. It’s the part of the music that tells the listener that it’s a certain band. It should be present in all the group’s works, even though there might be progression through different styles.

A large part of sound has to do with the voices of the group members. It makes sense: often voices will be used in the same manner if it provides the desired impact or is well suited for a certain part. For example, SHINee‘s Jonghyun often is the one holding the long notes or doing the ad-libs. Big Bang‘s Taeyang tends to sing the chorus because his voice best brings all the other voices together. Since it’s the same set of voices used to create music in groups, it should bring familiarity to the music anyways. But that isn’t always the case, especially as some members improve to acquire a larger skill-set. Sound also has much to do with the type of music the group progresses into and how they still integrate characteristics that are true to themselves. Unfortunately, in K-pop, it’s possible to hear several of a group’s songs and still not find out what their true concept is, especially since songs tend to be doled out by an entertainment company. Along that note, I’m still not sure what f(x)‘s concept is as a group. I liked “NU ABO” and some of their songs prior to that, but then “Danger” came out, changing their sound quite a bit. It was slightly off-putting to see such a huge change, but it seemed to work out for the better as “Danger” claimed multiple triple crowns on music shows.

Aside from establishing that sound, it’s important to keep changing it while keeping it–a confusing concept. A group needs to keep progressing and developing their sound, but keep it the same just enough to retain their identity. They have to be careful to not continue with the same sound, even if it was successful the first time around. Although it seems as if using a very similar sound the next round of promotions should not be a detriment, especially if the sound was well-received the first time around, it really should be avoided due to how the K-pop system works. Listeners are always looking for something new and development of groups as they progress their sound and adapt to the changing trends. Releasing similar content may work with groups that have strong fanbases, but for the rest, it’s merely a bore, even if it’s done well.

Three groups that I find to have found themselves in an unfortunate rut, sound-wise, are Infinite, 2AM, and Super Junior. While there most likely are other groups, these are my picks from the groups that I enjoy listening to.

First up is Infinite. This group made a strong debut in 2010 with “Come Back Again.” Though the majority of the vocals were from leader Sung-kyu, it was a unique, guitar-based entrance into K-pop that should have gotten more notice than it did. The next landmark in their music journey came from “Before the Dawn (BTD)” in early 2011, though it was more for their perfect execution of a physically demanding dance move than the strong music. Finally came “Be Mine” in mid-2011. A solid song, it became Infinite’s first win. Up to this point, Infinite had a steady progression of sounds. Within all their (title) songs, you could look forward to a hard edge mixed with dramatic electronic touches. Their sound was growing distinct. But then “The Chaser” came out. Don’t get me wrong: I like this song. But what I don’t like is how similar it is to “Be Mine.” The background music is lighter than “Be Mine,” but is still along the same vein as the previous, sounding like an ’80s rehash of the song. Even the subject matter is similar. Had the song been in Over the Top, it would have fit well as a supporting song. The rest of the new mini-album, Infinitize, has the same issue. It’s been heard before, making it snooze for anyone trying to find something new and exciting from the group, which has great potential.

2AM: Ballad group. The concept is thrilling because of the focus on music and vocal ability. However, I think it does the group a disservice as it limits what they can truly do. 2AM’s first win on a music show came with “Can’t Let You Go Even If I Die.” The song had an impact and truly demonstrated that each member had true vocal ability. But then along came “I Was Wrong.” Lo and behold, there was a dance routine, faster tempo, and change in style while the slight melancholy overtones were still around, something to be expected with progression. But apparently some fans decided it didn’t fit the group; I thought they did just fine with the puppet movement. Thus, when they came back later, it was without any routine and with another strong ballad. But it was along the same lines of “Can’t Let You Go Even If I Die.” “I Wonder If You Hurt Like Me” is a spin on their previous hit: soulful, captivating, but oh-so-boring. While they are a ballad group, 2AM should be able to move past their mastery of sadness and pain and sing about brighter days. It would be nice to see those vocals turn joyful and upbeat.

Perhaps the kings of keeping the same sound are Super Junior. After their smash hit “Sorry, Sorry,” SM Entertainment and the founder of SMP (SM Performance) style, Yoo Young-jin, kept with the same vein of music to create “Bonamana.” I didn’t mind that similarity. “Bonamana” was “Sorry, Sorry’s” darker and more sensual brother that worked just fine. But round three, “Mr. Simple,” pushed the extent of the use of the concept too much. It felt like a mash-up of “Sorry, Sorry” and “Bonamana,” a lame effort to put out an album just for the sake of putting another one out. The sound was chaotic, electronic, and used far too many sound effects. “Sorry, Sorry” was simple, “Bonamana” was darker, and “Mr. Simple” was just harsh to the ears, but the biggest downfall for Super Junior is that they all sounded too similar to be three different full-length albums. The three in combination made Super Junior’s sound become synonymous with copious amounts of processing and little talent when in actuality, the group has several talented members. As the group is coming out with their sixth album this year, it would be to their benefit to ditch the full force of SMP and instead focus on their vocal abilities, creating real music that hasn’t been hacked into pieces by editing software. They could go back to “Sorry, Sorry” and instead progress from that.

But enough of the unfortunate. While those are just of the groups that could do more exploration with their capabilities and likes, there are groups that have been fairly successful in creation of a sound and development of it to suit their selves. My picks are MBLAQ, B1A4, and the Brown Eyed Girls, though I’m sure you could pick out others.

I’ve always seen MBLAQ as an underdog. They’re successful, but not as successful as they have the potential to be. From their debut single, “Oh Yeah,” up until now, with “It’s War,” MBLAQ has this incredibly chic and polished sound that transitions well to different styles. Their music has been different from the others, from their returns to Spanish influences to the large orchestral impacts that seam well to make dramatic music. Another aspect that factors in more with MBLAQ than with other groups is their dance performance. Even though the discussion is about sound, MBLAQ’s dance performances do a splendid job of staying in your mind as something distinctly MBLAQ. There’s the guitar-playing from “Mona Lisa” and the upper body rolls from “It’s War.” When you hear that part of the song, you see those moves clearly, which is most certainly not the case with most songs from even the most popular artists. As a result, MBLAQ’s music becomes even more defined. That refinement in MBLAQ’s music brings it to a higher quality that can’t be replicated by other groups. And with every new release, they bring something new or revisit something old, but with a twist, which is how groups should progress.

Although B1A4 is still technically a rookie group, they have done fairly well in projecting their image through their title songs. “O.K.” and “Beautiful Target” were remarkably cute and got past my aegyo-barriers in an embarrassingly fast amount of time. Their abrupt progression to maturity in “Baby I’m Sorry” should have changed their sound, distorting it because cute does not fit mature, but instead, when I heard the sound, I just immediately accepted that it was the group. B1A4 tends to have similar beats in all their music, which works well to accommodate their vocal abilities. They also spread lines among their members in fairly predictable manners, with maknae Gong-chan usually getting the least. With all of this, it seems as if their music should have fallen into a rut. But instead, B1A4 has done pure exploration by trying to perform music from both ends of the spectrum. While they still have a lot of maturing to do, they have done the super cute music and the more mature music while keeping musical similarities through technical aspects and their voices. But everything else has melded into something more along what they like, especially as leader Jin-young is at the helm of their music production. It has allowed for greater incorporation of their styles, which most likely will remain similar through their years as a group.

My last pick is my favorite girl group, the Brown Eyed Girls. Four ladies with sensational voices that are truly capable of a wide range of emotions and styles. Their popular dance song “Abracadabra” showed that these girls could be just as sexy as those much younger than they while still providing strong vocals. “Sixth Sense” and their entire album, Sixth Sense, only compounded on their strong image, but added in a rebellious touch. “Cleansing Cream” continued with that matured sound, adding a greater range of emotions and feminine delicacy. It’s fair to say that the Brown Eyed Girls have a distinctly womanly sound that is full of maturity and power, even when there is vulnerability. They have been able to carry that unique sound because it is theirs: they own it, and no other group could sing the same songs and have the same impact. It may be because their image is full of maturity, but that image couldn’t have been formed without the vocals to back it up. The background music that accompanies their music tends to be full, rich, and not overly complicated, complementing their voices instead of attempting to overwhelm them. The group’s music ends up being a wonderful delight to look forward to.

So what do you say, Seoulbeaters? Do you have a favorite sound among the groups you listen to often? Any opinions on which groups need to just move on? Leave us a comment below!

(woolliment, sment, SMTOWNrainyyonme, jtunecamp, officialBEGchB1A4, 2AM)