In the visual market that is K-pop, concepts are seemingly integral and exceedingly relevant to the market. Concepts often tie promotions, MV’s, and musical content all together for a (hopefully cohesive) comeback or debut, even at times adding to it in creative ways. They build hype and a basis of expectations for waiting fans, a first clue of what could possibly come. Concepts build an image for an artist to work with and sell, even being a gateway in allowing artists to grow as performers.

So far, 2012 brought in a variety of interesting and creative concepts, some good, some bad. We gave you all the opportunity to give us your opinion on who you think had the best concept thus far in the year. Looking at the choices, it seems like there was a preference for the darker, supernatural concepts — à la Junsu‘s “Tarantallegra,” miss A‘s “Touch,” and Big Bang‘s “Monster,” or the alien concepts — à la EXO‘s “MAMA” and BAP‘s “Warrior.” But now, along with my fellow writer Nicholas, we’d like to give our opinion on who we think had the best concept in 2012. As a disclaimer, please remember that our thoughts are just two opinions out of many, and you are free to agree or disagree with them. So with that said, let’s take a look at some concepts, shall we?

Best Concepts

Nicholas: Our first choice for best concept is Jo Kwon‘s I’m Da One, which indeed takes the cake for best concept, both in terms of boldness as well as execution. The sounds are unmistakably a cut above what is commonly heard in K-pop, yet there is something about the whole thing that is so proudly pop. Add to that a consummate performer in Jo Kwon, and the concept flies. It is indeed commendable an album carries so much of a performer’s imprint, and all the better for it.

The argument that some might have with this choice would be how it has not exactly stormed the sales charts, and that the whole concept might be too way out for some tastes. I begged to differ on a few grounds. Firstly, being his first solo album, Jo Kwon was more concerned with leaving an impression on music listeners and showing his personal flair, rather than an album that was sold well, but said less about himself. And it is also very admirable to be attempting to push the boundaries of what is possible in the realm of pop, as well as doing it with such flair.

Jasper: What I loved about Jo Kwon’s I’m Da One is that this album and its concept was so personal — so Jo Kwon in every way — that no one else could have performed it the same way he could. The effort was made by him and solely for him, and he works it magically. From the eye-catching, yet potentially gaudy, pop art in the teaser pictures to the feather-filled stage outfits, there was so much potential to go wrong, but Jo Kwon’s execution made it all so right. The MV was amusing, bright, and fabulous–complete with levitation and a wacky yet enjoyable storyline depicting Jo Kwon being dethroned from his kingdom and finding comfort in a temple of monks. His charisma and confidence in handling a pretty bold concept was undeniable, and while the absurdity of it all might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it was still something refresing and noteworthy in the often repetitive market that is K-pop.

While the synthesized sound of the title track and the Western feel of some tracks might not appeal to everyone, the album as a whole was full of quality pieces that are imprinted by Jo Kwon. And honestly, dude wore 19.5 cm heels and worked it. That itself is to be commended.

Another act that managed to deliver was Sistar with Alone. This comeback had the girls of Sistar go a more classy and sophisticated route yet still remain as sultry as usual.  It was a welcome change from the somewhat disturbing cute-sexy the girls were trying to sell before with previous singles. Furthermore, the subtlety in handling the song was a great surprise and fit well with the sullen theme. While I love her voice to death, I was glad Hyorin didn’t fill the song with her belting as her softer performance matched the mood and allowed her versatility as a singer to be shown. Furthermore, Sistar showed how successful and attention-grabbing a piece without an over-the-top concept could be. Alone boasted only a simple yet effective red and black color palette and a lonely club video to its name, but it managed to make Sistar look gorgeous and alluring throughout, fulfilling its purpose without much complications. And afterall, simplicity is now a virtue in K-pop. The choreography was sensual yet restrained, the outfits were sexy yet classy, and the vocals were on-point. They all come together beautifully to successfully portray Sistar as chic city girls.

Nicholas: Could I give this thing a tie? For one, there was Sistar, which was worth a mention for trading the blatant hooks in return for an instrumental, and gaining a slight air of sophistication with their latest release Alone. Further points would also have to be given to the mini album, which also did echo the theme to some extent. While in contrast, I still feel that they rely too much on Hyorin for the vocals, and the dance moves still have that “try too hard sexy” to them, a 90 degree turnaround for the better is worth complimenting still.

Another act worth a mention was SNSD-TTS. While the song was only above average (and definitely marred by the over-singing near the end), it was a step up for SM in terms of vocal demands and composition. I also liked how by selecting the three better vocalists in SNSD, it helped to advance the “SNSD can actually sing quite well” cause, which they did show off proudly on live stages (well, the later ones) and stage shows. Finally given the success of the whole thing, I could see the whole idea of members with skill sets more focused on a particular side being given songs tailored to those skill sets. It would not be surprising if a dance number came up to give the other members something to crow about.

Jasper: Yes, it did seem to come out of nowhere; yes, they did over-sing parts of it; and yes, it resembled “Lady Marmalade” a bit too much, but SNSD’s subgroup with Taetiseo managed to deliver with “Twinkle.” The whole point of the subgroup was to showcase the better vocalists of SNSD, and as Nicholas described, they did so swimmingly. The over-the-top, glamorous, showgirl concept fit well with the subgroup’s purpose as all it did was allow SNSD to be shown in their best light. The MV was colorful and girly, perfect for SNSD, and while it was cute, it wasn’t processed with unnecessary aegyo. It featured a sort of excess that looked intentional and fun, and the sets were dynamic and diverse yet unified under a common theme of glamour. The simple choreography was understandable considering the more rigorous vocals in the song, and the girls’ potential as performers was finally being highlighted so I have no complaints there. The outfits were generally a hit, being mainly flattering and not to mention individualized, so props to SM for finally bringing it this year.

Nicholas: While their bold concept might not have been to everyone’s taste, I liked how TS Entertainment really sold the thing (right down to the Matokis!!), with our last choice, B.A.P., sticking with it from their debut till now, where most groups stick with concepts for as long as a promotional cycle takes. This was good because the guys had time to improve the concept over time, as well as allow them to have a solid image among the public for what they do.

Add to that TS Entertainment making their live song performances far more impressive on stage, and this group takes a mention for best concept.

Jasper: Despite (or maybe especially) being only rookies, B.A.P.’s well thought-out and well executed concept deserves a big mention. The brutish, masculine concept was something K-pop hasn’t seen before, and the concept ties itself very much in the musicality of the group. The anti-oppression fight songs B.A.P.’s discography is full of is complete with flair and well-delivered–as is the hard hitting, powerful choreography that fit well with the theme and context. While the styling left a bit to be desired, it managed to make its point, being intertwined with a dark, rouge-like color palette the music videos embodied as well. And the way the concept was handled suggests it was planned since the very beginning, being applied in all the pre-debut releases and even the boys’ variety with the use of the Matokis. Everything just manages to tie itself together, and make B.A..P’s gang-like bad boy concept something that exceeded the norm of K-pop.

Honorable Mentions

While those choices were our picks for the best concepts, there were other concepts this year that we feel deserve mention, whether due to notoriety or little shortcomings that kept it from being the top.

Jasper: I’d like to give my personal mentions to the girl groups of JYP, since they were really able to bring it this year with their concepts. The Wonder Girls‘ urban flashmob was fun, casual, and involved, and it was able to help Wonder Girls escape their retro concepts and catch up with the times. The song was laid back and carefree with an enjoyable hook to match, the dance was fun and inviting to join in to, and the music video was simple and able to convey the feeling of a flashmob. Since I came into the K-pop scene relatively late, I never realized how wonderful the Wonder Girls really were, but the sheer confidence and enjoyability of this release slowly taught me why they’re considered to be among the best. And I’d like to give special mention to Lim here: she just didn’t suit the retro concept as well as the others, making others think her addition was useless, though she was really able to step up through this more lighthearted, mellow, and urban release.

Also deserving praise and mention is miss A for their elegant, gothic romance concept. The concept presented itself with some gorgeous visuals, and the delicate and mature femininity demonstrated worked great with the classy girls of miss A. The music video had some breathtaking cinematography, and other then Min‘s somewhat emotionless acting, all the girls were able to play their heartbroken roles well, never mind that the charisma shown on their live performances most definitely made up for any weakness in acting. The choreography, so beautifully restrained and on-point, was executed well, as expected with such a group like miss A. The bandage dress received some mixed reactions, but I enjoyed it as it worked well with the theme, as did the rest of delicate and subdued styling for this comeback. While the sound of title track “Touch” doesn’t cater to everyone’s preferences and isn’t as attention-grabbing as their previous hits, it was still enjoyable, albeit anticlimactic, and the rest of the songs on the album — carrying gems like song “Lips” — more than makes up for it.

Nicholas: While I liked miss A for the fashions, but not the sound, my reactions to SHINee’s Sherlock were the exact opposite. While Sherlock was not too bad a release, with a good mix of experimental ideas (like “Clue” + “Note”), traditional good songs to please the conservative fans, with the boys delivering top notch performances weekly to please, apart from one thing – the teaser pictures. Not only did they make fans fret, they also made us wonder if SM’s theme this year was to shock and troll. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Two things to SM: One, you are selling the image of good looking people who can sing, not Instagram-inspired erotica. Two, at the end of the day, all your guys wear suits or co-ordinated outfits on stage–so that renders the teaser pics moot. While I can see that some attention was drawn to the pictures, such that maybe “intrigue by shock” could work, it also subjected the unfortunate boys to some unnecessary ridicule.

Also, I was mixed about the “created legend” act by EXO and A-JAX. There are two schools of thought to whether this works or not. On one hand, such over the top marketing helps to draw attention and help them stand out in a sea of debuts. Besides such mythological marketing tends to create images of strength, which bodes well for a boy band. However, there is also the belief that such marketing is very off-putting given that it comes off as style over substance and might come across as rather pompous for rookies.

I am of the belief that legendary acts are created through quality performances, not by marketing speak, so if done improperly, the acts would be in the shadows of their created images being unable to live up to the concepts. Now this would probably the last thing they would want, and for fans to see.

And speaking of marketing, for my other honorable mentions, I was also pretty saddened by Cube’s attempt to undersell G.NA’s vocals and ramp up the floozy factor with “2HOT,” which was quite a shame, as she was clearly capable of better.

And being late to the party was another thing Cube could be accused of for concepts, with A-Pink‘s “Hush” being a really late (and less impressive) entrant to retro-funk pop, and BTOB rocking the poor man’s Beast with “Insane.” Still it was not all doom and gloom though, with the two groups quickly releasing new songs to improve their image.

And lastly, from the ‘what were they thinking area,’ comes T-ara’s “Lovey Dovey” (Zombie Version only, the rest were kinda okay). The best way I could describe the concept was: What a scriptwriter wrote after a night out at a club, with a Left 4 Dead gaming marathon and a night of zombie movies. Still, at least it was funny and there was at least an attempt to create a plot (however bad it was).

Ultimately, as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this is applies to the appeal of concepts as well. Some will love some choices, some will hate them, but at the end of the day, concepts are just concepts, whose main purpose is to visually appeal and stimulate fans. And those fans’ opinions vary considerably. These were our choices for the best and most noteworthy concepts for the year of 2012 thus far. So Seoulmates, now I ask you your choices. Did you agree with the poll’s outcome or our list? Did you disagree with both? Feel free to tell us your personal choices below.

(Big Hit Entertainment, Starship Entertainment, SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, Core Contents Media, Cube Entertainment, BeryberyYounG)