20140605_seoulbeats_15&We’ve now launched into the second half of the year now, and after taking stock of the state of K-pop so far this year — from MVs, to K-indie releases, to debuts, to comebacks, and even a detour into the world of K-dramas — we’ve finally arrived at the heart of the business: the music.

Of course, whether it is actually music that is being sold may be debated, but that doesn’t mean that the music is released isn’t any good. Doing things a little differently than the other midyear reviews, our writers present their three top full-length albums and mini albums, respectively, with varying results.

Best Album

Rank Joyce Lo Gaya
1 Taeyang – Rise 15& – Sugar 2NE1 – Crush
2 Akdong Musician – Play 2NE1 – Crush Akdong Musician – Play
3 B1A4 – Who Am I? M.I.B – The Maginot Line The Barberettes – The Barberettes

Best Mini

Rank Joyce Lo Gaya
1 CN Blue – Can’t Stop Hyosung – Top Secret Wheesung – The Best Man
2 Sunmi – Full Moon Ga-in – Truth or Dare Sunmi – Full Moon
3 Beast – Good Luck Girl’s Day – Everyday 3 4Minute – 4Minute World

Joyce: I was this close to putting 2NE1 on my list

20140605_seoulbeats_taeyang_rise[1]Gaya: That was me with Taeyang‘s Rise, actually; I’ve been really impressed with YG‘s albums this year, but I listened to The Barberettes‘ eponymous album the other day and just fell in love with their voices, melodies and general quirkiness. Sorry Taeyang, but your abs could only get you so far.

Lo: Massively unpopular opinion — I don’t really get the hype over AKMU. Objectively,I understand it. Their work is very artistic and organic, very honest. But I didn’t really enjoy listening to it, and that’s the big thing in my books, which is why my top mini is Top Secret. Groundbreaking artistry, no. Fun, yes.

Gaya: I completely get what you mean about AKMU, Lo. I’m not the biggest fan of the kind of whimsical music that AKMU is known for, but I have utterly fallen in love with Soo-hyun‘s voice. She sings everything so effortlessly, and Chan-hyuk is a great foil. I love how the two siblings work together, and would probably listen to just about anything they sing with (almost) no complaints. Also, “Melted” is genius, and probably my song for the year.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I share the love for Top Secret. “I Hate Night Time” was fantastic, and it just makes me angry that TS went with “Good-night Kiss.” There are only three songs on that mini, and they still managed to miss the best song! K-pop really needs to stop doing that, it’s so frustrating.

Lo: Understandable. I just have a thing for confident women acting like women instead of girls, and Top Secret is full of that. Actually, that explains the first 5/6ths of my list.

20140517_seoulbeats_HyosungJoyce: I concur with Gaya about AKMU. Their style of music and voices does not really appeal to everyone as pop should, but their talent is undeniable. I initially listened to it multiple times because I had to review it, but I slowly found the songs sticking in my head. It has that magical soothing quality that K-pop songs rarely have.

Lo, that’s probably why our lists differ so much. I hardly ever get super into a female artistes, so it’s actually surprising that I really enjoyed Sunmi‘s Full Moon. There were songs covering different tempos and styles, and they all appealed to the listener in its own way to draw them in. For me, albums are the best when there’s variety, and the variety doesn’t turn me off.

Lo: So what you’re saying is, albums should be cohesive, but the songs shouldn’t all sound alike?

Gaya: I think Full Moon is a great example of this. The different styles featured in the mini are all tied together by a mature, sensual sound that resonates through each song.

Joyce: At least for me to like an album, the main criteria is that all the songs have to appeal to me. And usually, if there are some songs that sound too alike, it’s unlikely that I will enjoy them as much. So for an album to not become too repetitive, it has to cover a pretty wide base of different genres and styles, which eventually creates a cohesive album. And I totally agree with Gaya, about Full Moon. Listening to it, Sunmi’s sound is pretty consistent throughout, but each song has differing tempos and its own unique quality and colour that continues to hook the listener in.

Lo: I agree completely, which is why Sugar is my top album over Crush or Maginot Line. Objectively, both were better albums than Sugar, but Sugar manages to have a distinct sound without any repetition. Crush lacks that cohesiveness, and Maginot Line lacks that diversity.

I really liked Full Moon as well; it was the one that almost made it for me. It really showed an elegant maturity from Sunmi that I wasn’t expecting.

Gaya, how’d 4Minute World end up on your list?

20140702_seoulbeats_4minute_worldGaya: Because 4Minute World is pretty bombastic. Well 60% of it is, but I don’t mind the other 40% either. The other reason it made my list is because I feel that the music expands upon what 4Minute have been doing since last year; and it’s always great when established groups experiment with different group splits for songs.

I will say that competition for 4Minute’s spot was fierce: Everyday 3 was very close.

Joyce: 4minute is one group that I can’t seem to get into, perhaps just not my cup of tea. I have enjoyed some of their B-sides before, but their title tracks always strike me as a little… gimmicky.

I definitely thought CN Blue‘s Can’t Stop would have ranked on more lists. It was such a solid album, from the personal compositions by Yong-hwa, down to the solid vocals, and not forgetting the musical growth and diversity of the songs. The artistes’ connection to their songs is so much more tangible when they have a personal hand in the production, as with the case with AKMU as well.

Lo: I felt the same way about Can’t Stop as I did about Play. Objectively, I know it’s good, but, on a personal level, kind of bores me. I think they’re both just to gentle for my taste. I like music to get me going, make my blood rush. I enjoyed “Cold Love,” but the rest of it just . . .meh. Real instruments can be high-energy and rocking, too! See The Royal Pirates‘ “Drawing the Line” which came so, so close to making my list.

Gaya: The same way you can’t get into 4Minute, Joyce, I just can’t get into CN Blue. I listened to Can’t Stop, and while I liked it it just didn’t get me like the albums on my list did.

By the way, I’m interested to hear more about The Maginot Line, Lo; why did it make your list?

20140702_seoulbeats_mib_maginotlineLo: The Maginot Line was the album that really shocked me with how much I liked it. It’s what hip-hop, all hip-hop, should be. It’s not an album full of love songs, or loaded with odes to money, cash, and hoes like most rap is. Instead, The Maginot Line is an attack. The first track, “Stop Playing Around”, is an accusation that other musicians are just playing around, releasing crap music in the pursuit of money. “Dirty Bounce”, “Reading”, “M.I.B. Is Coming Out 2”, and “Gangkwang Suwollae” are all in the same vein.

It’s an album that forces it’s listeners to think. Even understanding the title requires thought. The (first) Maginot line was a French defensive strategy, an ‘impenetrable’ defensive line built in the 1930’s. And it failed. Massively. Yet, it would have worked if Germany had used older, familiar military tactics. It was shattered because Nazi Germany changed the game. In The Maginot Line, M.I.B are not said line; they are trying to destroy it by refusing to stick to old methods.

Joyce: It seems rare for an album to be so well-planned in terms of amount of attention paid to the message and album title.

Perhaps the fact that an entire album is represented by one title track is diluting the quality of the album. Why put so much effort into all the songs, when you really only need one really good song to grab attention?

In this vein, I think this might be why the YG albums all ranked so high on our lists. I’m not a YG stan by any chance, but the fact that the three albums all had 3 accompanying MVs is somewhat of a testament to the ‘title-trackness’ of the B-sides. And this is a good sign of an all-rounded album.

20140107_seoulbeats_girlsdayLo: Agreed. One of the requirements for all my picks was that it had to be a good album- if the B-sides where phoned in, it was automatically disqualified.

Gaya: Overall, our lists are all so different, which either reflects the quality of music released so far this year, or reflects our different tastes. Which one do you think it is?

Joyce: Isn’t it both? We evidently have different tastes, yet we all managed to find something of standard that we enjoyed. If you’re into indie folk, there’s Akdong; if you’re into girl power, there’s 2NE1; if you’re into hip-hop, there’s M.I.B; if you’re into R&B, there’s Taeyang. And even if you’re want simple K-pop fare, groups like B1A4, Infinite, 4Minute, and Girls’ Day made some pretty great music this year.

I wouldn’t say that the quality of K-pop is rising, since we only picked out the gems and there are a ton of non-gems lying around. But there are definitely quality releases over an widening spectrum of genres, which is a good sign for us all.

Lo: What stood out to me was the high production quality this year. In a time where American pop producion seemed lazier than ever, I was blown away by how many k-pop albums had just excellent production work.

The other thing that I noticed was how few albums there were. My initial list for minis had a dozen releases, but my album list had half of that.

Gaya: The preference for minis continues; but, I do think there were more full length albums these last six months than we usually get to see. That’s partly due to YG pushing out its much awaited albums, but we’re also seeing younger acts like 15& and The Barberettes making their presence felt, as well as slightly older ones like B1A4 and M.I.B.

(Images via YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, TS Entertainment, Cube Entertainment, Jungle Entertainment, Dream Tea Entertainment)