Following our mid-year reviews of K-dramas, music videos, and K-indie, we now move on to albums.
As the K-pop wave rolls on, there has been no shortage of music produced. While we have been flooded by mini albums, though, there have only been eight full-length albums so far. Still, our writers ended up with a pretty diverse list.
Here, Lo, Madi, and Qing discuss the albums—released between January and now — that caught their attention.
|1||Rainbow – Prism||Shin Hyesung – Delight||AkMu – Adolescence Vol.1|
|2||Winner – Exit : E||Eric Nam – Interview||Day6 – Daydream
Winner – Exit : E
|3||Fiestar – A Delicate Sense||AkMu – Adolescence Vol.1||Eric Nam – Interview|
|1||Kim Jaejoong – No.X||Taemin – Press It||Lee Hi – Seoulite|
|2||Jonghyun – She Is||Lee Hi – Seoulite||Jonghyun – She Is|
|3||Lee Hi – Seoulite||Mamamoo – Melting||Mamamoo – Melting|
Lo: I find our lists for full-length albums kind of hilarious. Discounting Young Forever, there were, like, 8 albums released between January 1 and May 31. You’d think there would be more than one album we all liked enough to put on all of our lists.
Qing: Since we’re on the full-length albums, shall we start by talking about our choices for those? Also, what’s your criteria for a good album?
Lo: For me, there are a few things I consider: artistic quality, replay value, the songs as pieces versus the whole album, vocal performance, and how much an album makes me feel when I’m listening to it. However, my golden rule is adapted from years of being a genre film nerd in a world of aspiring directors: the primary value of a work is whether it succeeds in reaching its goals. The action movie that nails being a fun action flick is a better movie than a so-so drama, because the action movies writers, directors, etc. actually achieved what they wanted to do. In music, this means that I favor the fun pop albums that never grow old over more artistic fare that I don’t connect to.
Of course, the ideal is when those to combine, which I found in No.X. This album is not just my favorite of the year, it’s in the running for my favorite of the century. BTS doesn’t get me. Kim Jaejoong gets me. It’s all grit and raw emotion, reeling from heartbreak to vengeance to love to heartbreak all over again. No.X is the album for the misfits of the world, the people who find themselves in cycles of emotional anguish and bad relationships, but find normality a prospect worse than any love turned sour. No.X is an album that almost feels like it got ripped out of my soul; I connect with it so much.
Qing: Having an artistic goal and achieving it is quite crucial. There are so many times I’m faced with a piece of K-pop, whether a song or MV or album, and it makes me think, what are you trying to do here? Are you even trying to do anything? So I appreciate it when a work pops up with a clear sense of purpose.
Lo, what you’ve described is pretty much on my list as well, but in addition I look out for these: coherence—thematic or aural—but not to the extent of uniformity, the way tracks are arranged on the album, meaningful or unexpected lyrics, the artist’s own creative input (if applicable), and whether the album shows and develops the artist or group’s colour.
Two key deciding factors for me are the quality of the lyrics and the sense of emotional connection unique to each listener and reviewer. No.X had great songs, and Jaejoong’s delivery was stellar, but I just couldn’t connect with the music and all the belting and rawness. These factors were also what helped me rank Lee Hi‘s Seoulite over Jonghyun‘s She Is. Both albums are neck-to-neck in terms of musicality, but the sad songs on Seoulite got me more. Jonghyun’s artistic intent was well-expressed in She Is, but it was pretty much confined to the topics of sex appeal and flirting. Seoulite tried harder to reach out to listeners with the messages in songs like “Breathe” and “Fxxk Wit Us” that are addressed to urban dwellers and adolescents.
More than that, though, Seoulite is cohesive, but versatile at the same time. The variety of sounds capture the feelings of city life. The songs also brought out the best of Lee Hi’s husky voice, just as her voice brought out the potential of the songs.
Lo: I back everything you have to say on Seoulite, Qing. I wasn’t a fan of Lee Hi before, but I am now. Seoulite managed to do the impossible: make me like sad songs. I don’t like sad. I like poignant, tragic, melancholy, bittersweet, and morose, but sad music always make me feel like my emotions are being exploited.
Seoulite, though, avoids this because if anyone’s emotions are being exploited, it’s Lee Hi. The personal element is so clear that I feel the urge to mail her some Ben and Jerry’s, because this album is heartbreaking. It’s not something I personally connect to, but the story told is fascinating for me to watch. There are a few tracks that have creeped into my heavy rotation, mainly “Fxxk Wit Us” and “Official”.
Qing: “Fxxk Wit Us” came as a surprise to me, but Lee Hi’s comments in an interview helped me to look past its seeming aggressiveness. It expresses her feelings about adults telling her what to do in a patronising way, and that is something I can connect with considering how there are always these articles criticizing Generation Y floating around. So even though Lee Hi didn’t have as much direct input as Jonghyun in terms of composing and lyrics, her voice still came through clearly.
Madi: I personally really like Lee Hi as an artist because I feel like she brings something new to the table. Not to say there aren’t soulful sounding artists out there, but it’s something about her voice specifically that just resonates deep in my soul. It’s something intangible that I can’t put into words.
The sense of keeping an album on repeat, coherency, and many of the items you both mention determine what makes it onto my list.Also, if an album can play in to some sort of story line in the order of tracks, I’m easily suckered into liking it. I’ve also come to notice that I tend to have an older/first gen artist on my list. Just curious to know if any of you happened to listened to Shin Hyesung‘s mini album, Delight?
Qing: Delight has a vibe that reminds me of Eric Nam‘s Interview, except it’s more soulful. But before we go into mini albums, Madi, what made Taemin‘s Press It your top choice?
Madi: When it comes to Press It, I guess I didn’t know what to expect. But one thing I didn’t expect was to be blown away by the sound, lyrics, dynamics, and growth coming from Taemin.
Normally, I ease into albums and if by the 5th play-through I’m not hooked, I move on. Taemin didn’t give me a chance to even consider moving onto something else; I fell in love with the album within the first listen. Honestly, I can’t even recount how many times I’ve listened to it.
I wasn’t sold on She Is. It’s a good album and I can appreciate that; if this list was a top five, it would definitely be on there. She Is is on both of your lists; if you had to convince me it should be in my top three, what would you say? And what about Press It kept it off both of your lists?
Lo: Like Qing said, Seoulite and She Is are neck and neck when it comes to musicality. I love Jonghyun’s R&B style; it melds flawlessly with his voice. She Is also carries the variety within genre, less so than Lee Hi, but still very present. The looser, more playful “White T-Shirt”, the melty “Orbit” and “Moon”, the sleazy “Dress Up”, and “Suit Up”, which is joining “Paradise Lost” and “Take Me To Church” as one of the most beautiful, tender songs written about sex ever.
As to why the album should be in your top 3, Madi, I couldn’t tell you because the reason it’s in mine, and above Seoulite, is very personal: I don’t do relationships, I do sex. The butterflies and shy glances and the sacred first kiss, that holds no interest for me. I respect the heartbreak and loneliness Lee Hi feels, but I connect much more to Jonghyun’s expression of the emotional through the physical, as that’s how I process romantic relationships. Plus, She Is has “White T-Shirt”, which is my favorite song of any of my picks.
Qing: I sat through two or three listens of Press It, and I remember thinking that I liked what I was hearing. The harmonizations in “Soldier” were great, and “Sexuality” is a jam. It wasn’t that the album was no good; it just didn’t stick with me enough to edge out the others.
I couldn’t relate to the content of She Is as much as Lo, but the music stood out for me. It’s fun, funky and fresh, but sophisticated at the same time. It’s unmistakably Jonghyun, but it develops his style in a new direction as well. While Taemin experimented with new sounds too, Jonghyun’s album was more coherent.
Coherence is the main reason I debated over putting Mamamoo‘s Melting on my list. It’s not unusual to pop in a more upbeat track between slower ones to change up the pace a bit, but the order in which the tracks were arranged in Melting felt especially haphazard. The album ricocheted between fast and slow, instead of building the pace up or bringing it down gradually. But I eventually chose it over the others because the genres chosen — a blend of R&B ballad, folk, and jazz — were apt and diverse. The songs made the best of Mamamoo’s vocal prowess, but also pushed them to try new sounds.
Madi, what did you like about Melting? And Lo, did anything about the album miss the mark for you?
Lo: One word: En-er-gy. I love Mamamoo, but Melting drags. “You’re The Best”, “Funky Boy”, “Emotion”, and “Cat Fight” are all good songs, but they’re surrounded by snooze fests. It’s not the slower tempos, it’s that the mid-tempo pieces have no drive, no momentum pushing the song forward. It’s the difference between driving 55 mph in a 40 zone, and driving 55 mph on I-88 for an hour because the state of Illinois decided to rip up the whole interstate at once. The former is exhilarating and the latter is rage-inducing, even though you’re going the same speed.
Madi: When it comes to Melting, I agree with Qing in a sense. Even though the track order felt haphazard and that’s something that normally annoys me, it didn’t on Mamamoo’s album. Also, for a female group, it was strange that I started to like the album the more I played it. Sometimes, I’ll listen to a female group’s album once or twice, if I’m able to do it. But that didn’t happen with Mamamoo. That’s one of the reasons why it’s on my list as well.
Lo: I think we’ve pretty well covered the full albums, now onto the minis! You both listed Interview, which I felt a bit meh on. What about it spoke to you?
Qing: I tend to favor ballads and folksy sounds. Interview is a mini album you can enjoy casually, such as when it plays on the streets or in a cafe. But it also has enough to draw me in when I sit down to listen to it without dividing my attention on other tasks.
I liked Eric Nam’s earlier releases, especially “I’m OK”, but the ballads here have an indie sound and an acoustic, at times jazzy, slant that brings out his voice much more. Like what She Is was for Jonghyun, Interview moves Eric a step forward in his musical development.
Madi: Interview, I felt, kept into the general theme for an interview. The MV for “Interview” helped with that vibe along with the title track “Good For You” and even “No Comment.” “Stop the Rain” might have not gone with the theme, but it seemed to me to be a follow up for the two first tracks mentioned.
While I was excited for Winner‘s comeback, their album was good, but not great. Can you tell me why it made it onto your lists?
Qing: EXIT : E brought out the distinct vocal colours of the members. There’s a dash of sensuality in “Baby Baby” and “Sentimental”, and a defiant streak in “Immature”. Winner has serious vocal chops, but they don’t take themselves too seriously — the songs have this mischievous tone that I’ve come to see as one of their unique traits.
That said, although I enjoyed listening to EXIT : E with all its fun and expressiveness, I didn’t feel as much for the tracks (other than “Pricked”). That’s why it ended up in a tie with Day6‘s Daydream: Winner has an edge over Day6 in terms of the quality of their music, but Day6 is a cut above lyrics-wise.
Daydream has a narrative flow to it, going from the theme of ending relationships, to a new attraction in “Blood” and “Hunt”. These topics are familiar, but the lyrics put a fresh spin to them. There’s just always something deliberately there for balance and subtlety, pulling Day6’s music back from being too cliche or in-your-face.
On the whole, Daydream develops Day6’s distinct musical qualities without restricting their sound, kind of like tree branches that are sprawled in different directions but ultimately connect to the same trunk. The mini album was also full of little surprises, like the juxtaposition of upbeat music with unexpectedly darker lyrics in “For the First Time” and “Blood”, or the acapella opening of “Letting Go” and the twinkling ending.
Lo: For me, Exit: E did what Seoulite couldn’t: it made me feel exactly what Winner did. The loneliness of “Baby Baby”, the middle finger of “Immature”, and the rawness of “Pricked” just pour from the tracks. Winner just exudes genuine emotion; the tint of personal experiences and heartbreak all over the album. The rock sound, cohesive and solidly Winner, but never repetitive, really shone through on this album. All in all, Exit: E is a rich, layered album that pulls you in every time you hear it.
And yet, my first place goes to Prism. Rainbow is one of my favorite groups, with one of the most solid discographies in K-pop, and their C-list status kills me. I adore their self-confidence and ceaseless pushing of boundaries. They do not tremble and play shy, but strut their stuff, made powerful with love in “Whoo”.
They refuse to settle for either innocent or sexy in “Black and White”, mercilessly search for better boys in “Click!” and sing about being the other woman and how they refuse to feel guilty because they’re not cheating in “Eye Contact”, all paired with fabulous retro pop music.
A Delicate Sense by Fiestar is a study in contradiction, fragile music and a powerful story. It is the most cohesive album on my lists, full of themes of an unhealthy relationship held together by sex over electronica music that is, for lack of a better word, delicate. The ladies of Fiestar are putting up tough fronts, placing themselves as equals in the relationship; but as the album goes on, it reveals the truth. The pleading for sex reveals the distance and power imbalance in the relationship; the equating of love and sex points to an entirely physical relationship.
The music, electronica pieces in minor keys, filled with fragile, breathy vocals builds the unease in the listener, all coming to a head in “Come and Go”—they’re the other woman, and sex is literally the only basis for the relationship. It’s tragic, but realistically so. I’d have put it higher, if not for how much is left to implication, and the music slipping from cohesive to repetitive. Still, I am appalled at everyone, myself included, who slept on A Delicate Sense.
Qing: While I didn’t have a hard time forming my mini list, there wasn’t an obvious first for me. I eventually picked AkMu‘s Adolescence because the thematic focus was more meaningful to me, compared to Daydream or EXIT : E. The lyrics are refreshing and comforting; the album reaches out to AkMu’s peers, reflecting and sharing their insecurities, but in an ultimately uplifting way. There is a balance of childlike wonder, vulnerability, introspection, and maturity.
The duo also managed to experiment with different sounds, while retaining a distinctly AkMu quality to their music. Maybe it isn’t the kind of album that will blow you away, but it’s very thoughtful and well-put-together.
Madi: I think it’s fair to say that since there were so many mini albums, there’s a distinct taste in music between us. While with full albums, since there were few in number, we were bound to align at least one of them between us.
With Hyesung’s Delight, there is a sense of a stereotypical cheesy love song like “Roco Drama” but it’s irresistible. Hyesung has always had a soothing voice that’s nice to listen to and vocals you’re drawn to. I’m sure something we can all agree on that his “type” is ballads and it works for him, yes, but even the more mid-tempo, not too upbeat shines through on this album. In a way, with being an older fan so to speak, I connect with this album for it has a bit more mature feel than most younger groups hitting that “noona/nuna” stage. So instead of using that, Hyesung uses the “young lady” feel, which sets it apart in that age range.
While I wasn’t entirely sold on Adolescence and there was no song that wrecked me the way “Melted” did, I can’t deny the Nation’s Siblings’ talent. Even though “How People Move” was a quirky song, the lyrics are what hook you in because they seem to be silly.
But when you sit down and really think about “How People Move” and what if people didn’t move, they bring to light the simplest of ideas that you don’t think about in the busy hustle and bustle of a day. AkMu grabs your attention with the things that pass us in life that we don’t stop to think about.
“Re-bye” is a song I connected with on a personal level. I look at those lyrics and I just see this journey we call life and just how that songs fits into how my past has shaped who I am today. With lyrics like “I’m used to footsteps that come and go. There’s nothing more shameful than not being used to the farewells,” which have caused me to not get attached to people because they’ll eventually leave anyway, but it still hurts every time they do. And even: “A person who shares a lot is called an idiot in this era. The only thing that remained in my hands is a loss,” which has turned into me learning to not let people in to not feel a sense of disappointment when they understand the type of person I am and it’s not something they can handle or deal with.
Lo: I liked Adolescence, but “Haughty Girl” just slammed the momentum of the album to a halt, and again with “Around”. But the other tracks were good, grandiose explorations of the mundane.
Although we’ve discussed an extensive list, there are bound to be some albums that we’ve missed. Readers, what are your favorite albums of 2016 so far?
(Images via CJ E&M, DSP Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, Liveworks Company, Rainbow Bridge World, SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment)