It’s that time of year again, when we at Seoulbeats look back and name our picks for the best of K-pop. Today, Lo and Vivien are debating who had the best comebacks of 2018.
Lo: Well, this certainly shows the diversity of the year. Our choices cover a huge range of sounds, styles, types of performers and type of comebacks. However, I say we start with our point of commonality. What was it that put Momoland on your list?
Vivien: I also found it interesting that our lists are almost completely different! For me, a great comeback is one that not only gives us a great song, but which also represents an important point in the artist’s career, whether in terms of music, concept or commercial success.
“Bboom Bboom” was the song that put Momoland on the map, setting the tone for future releases like the similar (but still enjoyable) “BAAM”. My guess is that it gained attention by filling a niche that used to be filled by T-ara, as a catchy, addictive dance song (thanks to having the same producer, Shinsadong Tiger). As someone who pays little attention to new groups, it’s an impressive feat to get me to listen to your song even once, let alone multiple times; “Bboom Bboom” was a regular on my playlist this year and so it deserved a place on my list. How about you?
Lo: For me, what put Momoland on the list isn’t the songs themselves— though “BAAM” was my summer jam— but what they meant for the group. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but K-pop is currently drowning under extremely large girl groups with a cute image. “Bboom Bboom” broke them through in a way few of their fellows have managed. Moreover, I like how they did it: by being silly and weird.
In the year 2018, I hit my limit for quirky. It’s become shorthand for cuteness just odd enough to not be boring, paired with saccharine music that no one cares about. But Momoland come off as genuinely offbeat. Sure, it’s a cute weird, but it feels more like Momoland are the class clowns, not discount romcom leads. They’re going full weird while everyone else is dipping in a toe, and it really pays off.
Vivien: Interesting, I hadn’t considered Momoland to be “offbeat”. There’s an element of fun and comedy in their MVs, but I’d say Red Velvet wins for me when it comes to eccentric concepts – “Dumb Dumb”, “Ice Cream Cake” and “Peek-a-Boo” are some of my favourite “offbeat” songs and MVs of recent years. What made you add them to your list?
Lo: What pushed them over the top for me is that 2018 is the year that Red Velvet’s velvet concepts really began to pay off. Their previous velvet releases were musically uninteresting. Even “Peek-a-boo” had that issue– the MV was trippy as balls, but the song was nothing special. “Bad Boy” and “RBB (Really Bad Boy”) proved that softer and lusher did not have to mean formulaic. The vocal lines are more adventurous; the instrumentation has more variety and hooks. Red Velvet retains their wholesomeness and playfulness but pair it with awareness of the risk they’re taking on these darker, edgier boys. It carves a middle ground for Red Velvet between the girls next door and seductresses of the night that feels a lot more interesting, because you get to see those sides clash.
Speaking of carving new ground, what about (G)-IDLE put them on you? They had a great debut, but I felt “Hann” faltered a bit.
Vivien: I agree that “Hann” isn’t as catchy as “Latata”, but I love that it ignores standard K-pop songwriting rules while still being a great song. Leader and rapper Soyeon was responsible for writing both songs, and that gives me great hopes for (G)-IDLE’s future, in terms of music that is interesting and different. I also love that each member has a very distinctive voice and look – it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a group with such strong individual member identities. Add to that the success of Soyeon and Miyeon’s song “POP/STARS” with League of Legends, and I’ve no doubt 2019 will be the year (G)-IDLE makes strides towards K-pop’s own big leagues.
Speaking of the big leagues, ex-I.O.I. member Chungha has been doing pretty well herself. I enjoyed “Roller Coaster” and “Love U”, but personally I’ve always been slightly put off by her singing style; what did you think of her work this year?
Lo: I think she’s a trendsetter. It’s been a long while since there’s been a legitimate solo star– since everyone knew I.O.I was temporary going in, I don’t count Chungha as a member-turned-soloist. I find her to be a captivating performer. MVs, live stages, or albums; she completely pulls you into her world.
I adore Chungha’s image as the HBIC. Her title tracks were clearly chosen for their marketability, as both are her weakest songs, but she used that as a springboard. She’s not helpless over her emotions, but a driven young woman who goes after what she wants. That authority and charisma is amplified on her full EPs, where it’s made clear that Chungha wears the pants and the boys are at her feet, begging for their goddess’s favor. And honestly, her music is pretty excellent. Solid vocals, diverse styles, and crisp production let Chungha put her name on some of the best pop this year. 2018 proved to be the return of the female soloist, and Chungha is one of the best.
But where Chungha is a solist who quickly found her footing, you’ve got a boy group who’s been floundering for a while. I was excited when iKon first debuted, but their mixed output led to me losing interest. What about their 2018 won you over?
Vivien: To be honest, I felt the same until this year. As a supporter of pre-debut iKON in YG’s survival shows, WIN: Who Is Next and MIX & MATCH, the music that followed their much-anticipated debut was disappointingly lacklustre.
Leader B.I was touted as a prodigy and the next G-Dragon, but blaring songs like “Dumb & Dumber” and “Bling Bling” didn’t show the same songwriting talent as his predecessor. The harsh, buzzing synths and basses were particularly off-putting and the songs came off as immature and trying too hard to be cool. They did, however, have strong melodic sections – the prechorus of “Dumb & Dumber” and middle eight of “Rhythm Ta” come to mind – and it wasn’t until “Love Scenario” (and then “Killing Me”) that they seemed to embrace their talent for more melodic songwriting. In doing so, they produced one of the most well-loved songs of the year; their maturation helped create both a great song and a turning point in their career, and so I decided to include them.
K-pop veteran BoA also put out several singles this year, but personally I didn’t hear anything that I thought was groundbreaking; how did BoA climb her way up your list?
Lo: Woman, pure and simple. It, really pushes boundaries into her image. It’s a self-portrait of the person BoA is underneath her career, and not always a nice one. She doesn’t shy away from her tendency to bail when relationships get hard and chase someone new . Moreover, in a year dominated by EDM, she uses real instrumentation, adding horns, guitars, bass, and drums; all of which enhance Woman’s sense of honestly.
Then there’s “Woman”. In my review, I called this song a sledgehammer to the patriarchy, and I stand by it. BoA has been a recording artist for 18 years, and all of them have been filled with men sitting at their keyboards and telling her to be different– be more feminine, don’t mature, change your style. The level of ownership shmoes in their boxers claim over women in the public eye is insane and “Woman” is BoA telling them to shut up. She makes it clear that whatever a woman’s style and attitude is, she is right, so rock it and anyone who disagrees can go to hell. And of course, there’s her upside down walk, which is equal parts incredibly difficult, visually arresting, and a quality metaphor for BoA herself.
I’m in the same boat with Pentagon that you are with BoA. I know they’ve had a few comebacks this year, but the only thing that sunk in was the Hyuna/E’dawn scandal. What about their music put them so high on your list?
Vivien: “Shine” did it for me. I’d checked out a few of their releases before that, and while tracks like “Gorilla” were well-written, there was just something missing and the group fell off my radar. It wasn’t until “Shine” that they really caught my attention – the song had both the feel-good earworm factor and a unique group sound (thanks to E’Dawn and Hui’s distinctive voices and songwriting). It was refreshing, yet quintessential K-pop – youthful, energetic and fun, and I think that helped them rake in the views and add a new lease of life to their career. Unfortunately, the scandal put a damper on things and their follow-up song, “Naughty Boy”, made much less of an impact. Still, if only for the sheer replay value “Shine” had on my playlist this year, Pentagon deserved a place on my list.
That brings us to our number ones! Sunmi definitely deserves recognition for her charisma as a soloist, but without 2017’s “Gashina”, I didn’t like “Heroine” and “Siren” enough to add her to my list. Still, they are definitely good songs; what stood out for you about Sunmi this year?
Lo: See, I feel like “Gashina” is her weakest song– the drop doesn’t work and the harder EDM is a bad fit for her voice. The dreamy synthpop sound she’s moved towards is far more flattering for her huskier tone. I love that she’s moving pop away from tropical house towards more vibrant sounds and complex layering, all with a melancholy undertone that highlights how doomed Sunmi is, because the world doesn’t know how to handle her.
BoA and Chungha are the kickass women we aspire to, but Sunmi is the woman we are. Warning is just that, a warning. She’s the more experienced partner in her relationship, and it’s clear her boyfriend has issues with this. She never hides her desires, her past, or her controlling side, but he can’t handle that Sunmi isn’t the flawless doll she appeared to be, and they eventually break up. It’s not a moment of strength, either– she absolves him of culpability because he is who he is as much as she is who she is. Warning is a cautionary tale to men that women are people, so make sure you can handle more than their facade, and to women that breaking the mold doesn’t mean the world has broken around you. Disregard her, and there is only heartbreak.
Your top choice, BTS, came very close to making my list, but ultimately, I felt like their comebacks were successful– hello, Billboard— but had less to say than my choices. What put them on your number 1 spot?
Vivien: As a longtime ARMY I’m probably biased, but I really feel like BTS earned my top spot this year. What with J-Hope and RM’s mixtapes, they put out a lot of very varied music and despite reaching global stardom, they always tried new things and never pandered to their audience, even if songs harkened back to past eras or incorporated recent trends. I loved “I Need U” and “Run”, and “Fake Love” felt like a continuation of that story, coupled with a stellar MV. “IDOL” was less enjoyable, but I couldn’t deny the creativity or daringness of combining traditional Korean culture with South African beats and meme-style video editing. Meanwhile, Love Yourself: Tear and its repackage were solid albums, showing growth and experimentation with self-produced songs and solo endeavours.
Overall, though, what makes me believe that BTS deserve their success is the completeness and weightiness of their concepts; from teasers and MV narratives to lyrics and album concepts, everything has a deep meaning and no detail is overlooked. We all know K-pop is about the whole package, not just music, and BTS not only deliver on every aspect of their package but do so time and time again; that’s why they topped my list!
Images via, YouTube ,