Once again, our Mid-Year Reviews are coming to an end, capped off the examinations of the best albums and mini-albums that 2018 has to offer. Margaret, Qian, and Lo have gathered together to share their views on the top releases of the year, and ask the timeless impossible question: underneath the flash, dances, and MVs, who had the best music?
Qian: I don’t know about you guys, but 2018 so far has been a little disappointing.
Lo: You took the words right out of my mouth. I don’t know if it’s the logical conclusion of breakups and member losses or if there’s just something in the water, but 2018 has been pretty lackluster so far. And yet, like any lackluster year in music, there has been good stuff; it’s just in places you don’t usually look. If you showed January Lo my picks, she wouldn’t believe you, because there is only one artist I was a serious fan of, my picks are 5/6’s dudes, and there is a real lack of pure pop, which is usually my thing.
Qian: Speaking of lackluster, I’ve just noticed I reviewed all 3 full albums on Margaret’s list, and I made it clear I’ve been let down by all 3. With that in mind, I’m just curious, what made those albums your top 3?
Margaret: That’s interesting, I didn’t realise it was you who reviewed all three of those albums!
Eau de VIXX did take a more muted approach, which could have been viewed by some as a reduction in the dynamism of their music, but I instead saw it as a deliberate move to create a sense of mystery and seduction, which was very much in line with their whole concept for the comeback. Each individual track on the album had its own flavour which I very much enjoyed, but there was still an overall cohesion to the entire album, not unlike how a perfume consists of individual notes that revealed as it wears throughout time. I find myself coming back to different tracks of this album and discovering hidden gems.
Yes, many of the tracks off NCT‘s Empathy had been previously released, which was a letdown. However, if you look at just the tracks for the music, I’d argue that each one has its individual character and style, and could actually stand alone as a single (and many of them have, as previously-released tracks) — simply put, each one packs. punch. I am partial to NCT’s experimental concept, so I am all for the quirky groovy music that changes with every subunit.
Everyday was a surprise, since I had heard mixed reviews about the album. Although the tracks are eclectic, all of them retain that sophisticated and sleek sound that Winner is known for. One of my personal criticisms was that the title tracks for Fate Number Four and Our Twenty Four sounded too similar. It made me concerned that they would be heading down the path of releasing same-but-not-really tracks in the foreseeable future. But with Everyday, the group proved that they were capable of pulling off a diverse range of styles and genres.
I noticed that you both put down Jonghyun‘s Poet | Artist, which is my honorable mention, on your lists. May I ask why the album made it onto your top three?
Lo: This is the hard one to talk about. As a long-time Jonghyun fan, Poet | Artist is unquestionably his best work, and his most experimental, pulling not only from 80s and 90s R&B, but new jack swing, house, and trance music. It’s got this wonderfully languid sound that serves to highlight the bite of songs like “#Hashtag”. Moreover, Poet | Artist feels so very honest, like Jonghyun laid himself bare in his music instead of hiding behind sex and glamour. It gives us a glimpse into the mind of a true musical talent, lending an unspoken comprehension of who Jonghyun was. And while it feels like a knife to the heart every time it comes up, there is no doubt that I would hold Poet | Artist in equally high esteem if it hadn’t been his last work. If anything, I’d probably like it more.
Qian: “Shinin” was sweet, but I thought Jonghyun was pulling his punches for a title track. And then, as if on cue, Jonghyun took his gloves off and delivered haymaker after haymaker, kicking off with “Only One You Need”, which is decidedly my favorite K-pop song of 2018 thus far. It follows a tried-and-true formula, but something in his voice and the instrumental just makes the song sound so accessibly urgent and vital. The lush and exciting production continues throughout the album: what began as an acoustic track developed into something immense on “Take the Dive”, the brass finale on “Sightseeing” made a great song magnificent, and the marriage of obscene sensuality and house on “Rewind” is enough to make you breathless. Throughout the album, Jonghyun carries himself with such grace and panache, that as the final chords of “Before Our Spring” are played, you indubitably wish you knew him better. It really is, for the lack of a better word, a masterpiece.
Lo: Yet, you didn’t give it your number one spot. What about Sound Doctrine pushed it over Poet | Artist for you?
Qian: Honestly, Lo, Naul has my top spot simply because Sound Doctrine is as good as the genre can get. The entire album is one glorious 70s R&B/soul throwback, and if you grew up listening to bands like the Bee Gees, the waves of nostalgia might overwhelm you. The tracks are all simple love songs, and though the singular subject matter can wear on you, Naul manages to make every instrumental take a life of its own, such as the breakdown on “Baby Funk” and the gorgeous finale on “Stand Up”. Sound Doctrine also has Naul’s best vocal performances in years, and you can feel him giving his 100% on every single track. His cover of Enchantment’s “Gloria” has me falling out of my chair from the very first note. So despite enjoying Poet | Artist’s tableau of musical styles, I’m even more impressed with how Naul stuck to a single one and made something equally wonderful out of it. That is why Naul has my top spot.
That being said, Lo, I’m curious what stood out for you on Love Yourself: Tear and The Chance of Love. For me, while being a definite improvement, Tear still didn’t impress me much as BTS’ previous works.
Lo: Love Yourself: Tear surprised me. The shift into glittering 80s synth tones was a huge draw, but what really pulled me in was the vulnerability on display. Tear just had this feeling of openness, playing the sleek instrumentals against the raw emotions. The exhaustion on “Airplane part 2”, the loneliness of “Fake Love”, “Paradise” and the desire to just sit for five minutes; it all feels like a rum and coke — something sweet to help cope with the burn. Then there’s “The Truth Untold”, which is poignant and expressive and heartbreaking. It is the song that turned a good album into a great one.
As for The Chance Of Love, that came out of left field, but much like Sound Doctrine, won me over by being really good. I’ve never been much of a TVXQ fan, but this blew me away. It’s utterly timeless, mixing swing, funk, dance, sleaze, acoustics, rockabilly and more. I honestly have no idea what genre to call it. The Chance Of Love is just warm and inviting. TVXQ’s vocals are perfectly matched, light but entrancing, especially when playing against the gooey, seductive production. The emotional tones also jump around, from the purity of “Love Line” to the sleaze of “Bounce” to the playfulness of “Wake Me Up”, but they all feel like different aspects of one relationship, a love that’s not only new but real in its nuance.
Qian: “Out of left field” sums up the rest of our lists pretty well. There’s so much variety on it, the only EP we have in common is Exo-CBX’s Blooming Days. I was ambivalent towards “Hey Mama”, but I appreciated Exo-CBX’s commitment to a more cohesive, nuanced soundscape on “Blooming Days”, even if they didn’t fully commit to the 7 days of a week concept they were clearly gunning for. On the whole, it’s a lot more what I expected from them compared to their debut EP. Margaret, what did you think of this album?
Margaret: Qian, you took the words right out of my mouth! I really enjoyed how Blooming Days was more on the mellow side, with all of the tracks sounding very balanced on the entire album. In contrast to Exo‘s often hard-hitting and powerful tracks as a group, CBX really showcases the diverse styles that the members can take on — successfully.
Qian: On the other hand, I thought Pentagon’s Positive hit all the right notes, despite my earlier indifference to their music. Despite being a mini album, it still manages to feel like a complete package with its multifaceted appeal. Each track is strong and deserves its place on the album, with a gorgeous introduction on “Off-Road” and a charming if predictable conclusion “Let’s Go Together”. Also, I was very happy to hear the rap-line flex on “Do It For Fun”. It’s a very strong EP, and Pentagon’s on the right track.
Of all the picks, though, VAV is one group I’m genuinely shocked to see on your list, since I’ve written them off entirely after their lackluster debut. Lo, what’s great about Spotlight?
Lo: It’s a spectacular piece of dance-tastic retro pop, that’s what. Like you, VAV wasn’t remotely on my radar, but Spotlight placed them front and center. Spotlight is 70s funk and 80s energy, with verve and bite. The baselines of “Gorgeous” and “Dance With Me”, the arrogance of “Give It To Me”, the xylophone of “ABC (Middle Of The Night)”; they all just pull you in and carry you away in a solid cohesive mass of passion and bliss. This is even more impressive because half the tracks are previously released singles, and I had no idea until I had to figure out why Spotify kept skipping half the EP. Spotlight is a damn fine piece of music, and a good reminder that a lackluster debut doesn’t mean a lackluster career.
Then on the other end of the spectrum, I have Honestly by Eric Nam. Nam has always been one of those artists who I respect much more than I like, and I’m not one for WGWAG music, but Honestly just works. The issue with most sparse arrangements like this is that if any element isn’t at 100%, it sounds terrible. With Honestly, everything is at 110%. The instrumentals are flawless, the mixing is on point, using the space created by the bare-bones as an additional element, adding a great deal of poignancy.
But the real star here is Eric Nam’s killer vocals. His voice is raw and massive, filling the gaps in the production with pure heartbreak, frustration, and honesty as he digs into the ugly emotions we all have in relationships. Staying with someone because you don’t want to be the bad guy, anger at being dumped, wishing to hell your ex would just leave you alone so you can move on; these aren’t things anyone likes to admit to, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel them.
Margaret, you also have a male soloist ranked 2nd on your minis list, Jooyoung. Personally, I found it a bit lacking in tension, but what made Fountain stand out to you?
Margaret: Fountain made my list because I really enjoyed how chill and laid-back it was. You’re right, Lo, in that it isn’t too hard-hitting, but it’s because of this more mature style that it made my list. This is his first comeback since being released from the military, and it’s clear that his style and sound have grown; the nuanced, subtle tones in his music are extremely unique, and I can’t wait to see what he does next!
Aside from Jooyoung who is signed under Starship, Monsta X is another Starship group who made my list. The Connect is an unexpectedly wonderful album that really strayed away from their typical style. “Jealousy”, for example, uses interesting rhythms and harmonies which are rarely, if at all, used in K-pop. The group has also started taking part in the music production process, so it’s great to hear their own individual styles come through.
Qian: I enjoyed Fountain for what it was, and I appreciated how the sparse instrumentals brought out the best in his voice, but with altogether unmemorable melodies, I thought the album lacked impact as a whole.
My final two picks are similar in that they’re both wildly adventurous listens. As a rising electronic singer and producer influenced by big names like Aphex Twin, CIFIKA came onto my radar after she released her much-lauded collaboration “Momom” with Oh Hyuk. Her sophomore effort Prism is a layered, nuanced, intricate electro-pop statement that displays all of her potential, from the glitchy, industrial “Prosper” to the buoyant calm of “WATER”. In particular, the standout track “PIETA” is lovely, beginning over bouncy, muted beats, and layer after layer of vocal and instrumental elements are progressively added for an amazing climax. In short, it’s a very promising and exciting mini, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be on the top of my minis list.
In contrast, Asian Chairshot throws subtlety out the window for amazing results. A hard-hitting fusion of psychedelic rock, garage rock, and traditional Korean music, IGNITE is fantastic. It constantly subverts expectations: the opening track “Run and Play” begins with festive Pungmul arrangements, but swiftly evolves into an explosive rock anthem. The starting mellow chords of “Dream” feels like a chance to take a breather, only for the chorus to develop into something massive. The ethereal “Numb” seamlessly transitions into the frenzied and feverish “Wake Up”. In short, IGNITE is a rollercoaster ride. It’s Hyukoh’s 23 — another immense, grandiose album — on steroids. And if the occasionally spotty vocal layering and mixing were better, it would definitely have been first on my list.
Lo, I see you have Chungha’s Offset as your top pick. I loved “Rollercoaster”, but I must confess that I didn’t listen to the rest of the album. What put Offset above the rest?
Lo: Offset‘s main appeal for me is Chungha‘s unquestioning confidence. The whole EP, from start to finish, is bursting with Chungha’s perfect acceptance of her own choices, especially given that the entire mini is about relationships. Not love, but the other types of relationships that run close — a primarily sexual relationship, a fling, and an ex she remembers fondly. Even “Rollercoaster” is more about how love makes Chungha feel than anything else. Offset is the mindset of someone who’s past the point of proving themselves; she is who she is, no apologies.
I also love the diverse display of genre. Offset has tropical house, a piano ballad, reggaeton, and 40s swing music, all held together by the uniform themes and Chungha’s solidly dynamic voice. More than anything, though, Offset is the one release I haven’t stopped listening to since it came out. It never stops being compelling. In a year where a lot of K-pop went in one ear and out the other, I have to give props to the mini that never left.
So that’s 2018 so far. It’s gotten off to a slow start, but there has been solid music. Just not among our usual suspects. If nothing else, that should make the rest of the year fairly interesting.
(YouTube . Featured image illustrated by Vivien Wu. Other images via Big Hit Entertainment, In Next Music, SM Entertainment, Starship Entertainment, Stone Music Entertainment)