We’ve come to an end of an especially tumultuous year in K-pop. As tradition dictates, Aastha, Lo, and Qian have gathered together to share their views on the top full albums of 2019.
Lo: I have to say, 2019 was not a fabulous year in music. I will readily admit that things picked up in the second half of the year, and my semi-annual binge was significantly less horrible, but this year had a lot of “pleasantly decent” and not a lot of out-and-out great.
Qian: Not just in music: 2019 was as far away from fabulous as you could possibly get. On the plus side, the albums that did stand out are absolutely fantastic, and it’s nice to see our lists being so diverse.
Let’s start with the crowd-pleasers: Day6. For me, Entropy’s diverse sound and experimentation was a pleasant surprise and a great step forward, especially on tracks like “Emergency”. I had concerns that we’d get the same Day6 sound as before, but I really enjoyed the direction and risks they took on this album, even while keeping their track record of great choruses, strong melodies, and killer instrumentation, like on “Deep In Love” and the title track “Sweet Chaos”.
Aastha: What drew me to Entropy was the wide range of genres on the album: from electro-disco and Latin-inspired beats to soul and rock, Entropy was a musical manifestation of the term itself. In the variety of genres they covered, Day6 managed to make this musical disorderliness sound progressive and made it engaging. “Rescue Me” is by far my favourite, with its heavy metal influence and intense, grungy vocals. Regardless of the releases this year, Day6’s Entropy would have stood out; the album is intricate and intriguing in its production.
It’s also why I was drawn to Taeyeon’s Purpose. Purpose establishes Taeyeon as an artist: the album is musically complex, and the songs take on a gorgeously darker tone. It’s not as though Taeyeon had to prove her vocals to anyone, but her rich and stable notes drive each and every song to perfection. From “Spark” to “LOL” to “Gravity”, Taeyeon serves artistic excellence as she explores rock-pop, R&B, ballads, and contemporary pop.
Though there aren’t any songs that are instrumentally exceptional, the production of Purpose was done specifically to cater to Taeyeon’s range as a vocalist. Despite not having many notably uptempo songs, Taeyeon inserts a burst of excitement in each track, making the entire album a memorable one. Purpose exudes the confidence that Taeyeon has as an artist.
What made you pick your other choices?
Lo: I will readily agree that Taeyeon herself sounded fantastic on Purpose, but the rest of the album wasn’t really there for me. An A+ vocal performance doesn’t compensate for lesser instrumentation or lyrical content in my books.
No, my choice for “Artist statement album by a solo female” is She’s Fine by Heize. While it has dropped down a slot since the Mid-year Review, the album itself is a 2019 standout. It’s one that perfectly captures the pure weight of being a woman in the modern world.
While much of it is about her struggles with celebrity, the real issue is being forced to keep a mask in place while you crumble inside. That concept of smiling and protesting that no, really, you’re good even when you’re clearly not was ingrained in me young, and hearing it reflected back just made me feel less alone. When paired with the delicately distressed production, it becomes even more potent, as even with the moody, downbeat production, there is enough bounce and groove to give She’s Fine a touch of optimism, a reminder that “fake it till you make it” has worked before and likely will again.
Qian, you picked From Midnight To Sunrise, and took to it immediately. What about it rocketed it to such an esteemed place on your list?
Qian: I’ve been worried about Crush for a while now. I wasn’t quite as taken with his recent features and offerings as I would have liked, but I guess this is like a Travis Scott situation: “feature” Crush and album Crush are leagues apart. Simply put, From Midnight To Sunrise is the most gorgeous album I’ve heard this year. The harmonies, Crush’s honeyed vocals, the old-school bluesy production, and the detailed instrumentation makes for one of the smoothest albums I’ve heard this year.
I mean, just listen to the strings that come through on the last minute of “Alone”, paired with throwback electric piano chords that Crush just rides as he comforts his lover in sorrow. The magnificent, show-stopping, lush “Sunset”, which Vivien in her review of the album rightfully compared to a track that would not be amiss in Bon Iver’s grandiose self-titled album. The lurking double-bass on the opening track, the muted flutterings of the piano keys on “Nighty Night”, Crush’s take on swanky New Jack Swing on “Ibiza”, the funky bassline of “Butterfly” amidst Crush’s falsettos, I could go on.
Mixed and mastered to perfection, From Midnight to Sunrise is a beautiful 80s R&B album depicting Crush’s day with his lover, and all its accompanying moods. The only thing keeping it from the top spot was its relatively late release date, and dethroning my top pick immediately would be hyperbolic and would reek of recency bias.
Aastha, you considered putting Crush as well, but stuck with Off Duty. What made you continue with Dynamic Duo?
Aastha: If it wasn’t for Dynamic Duo’s Off Duty, Crush’s album would have definitely made it to the top three for me. But Off Duty won my heart. Gaeko and Choiza came forward to present an album that had the right balance of experimental instrumentation, classic K-hip hop elements, and the newer, R&B-hip hop genre that you tend to find nowadays (common with artists like Dean, DPR Live, Zion. T and Crush).
The album starts off so strong with “2040”, a trap-inspired track that boasts their skills as rappers and producers. The instrumental is — I dare say — haphazard, featuring a weird mix of sounds and instruments, constantly changing tempos. Yet, the rap flows tie it all together to introduce Gaeko and Choiza as experts in their game (“I’m your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper”) in Off Duty.
What’s wonderful about Off Duty is that it shows how Dynamic Duo have been paying attention to musical trends since K-hip hop kicked off.
Tracks like “Desperado”, “Massacre” and “Livin the Life” remind me of Tiger JK’s Drunken Tiger, which was another favourite of mine. These are fun, classic tracks that engross you with their beats and their storylines. “Massacre”, for example, is hilarious! Featuring comedian Yoo Byung-jae, the persona in the song is a rapper trying to rap, only to get constantly interrupted by family members and phone calls. It’s so enjoyable to listen to! “Livin the Life”, on the other hand, is sampled off Seo Taiji and Boys’ “Come Back Home”. Heavily distorting it, Dynamic Duo added cymbals, drums cheers and synths to create a boisterous soundtrack for you to really believe you’re living the life.
But that’s not all: Off Duty also features slower, R&B-inspired tracks like “Blue”, “Career High”, and “Return”. These are groovy, modern tracks that make for easy listening. With swanky, slick instrumentation, the production of these tracks is impeccable. Featuring Crush and Sole, “Blue” might be relatively simple in its construction, but the quick synth beats and percussion make for a nifty, sophisticated track. Similarly, “Career High” relies on a soft piano and strings notes. These are paired with a staccato-like rap, only giving way to slow and dragged enunciation in the chorus, smartly making the track engaging when it could have faded into the background.
All in all, “MSG” sums up Off Duty well, and it explains why I love the album so much. Dynamic Duo contrast their gritty, hard-hitting rap syllables with Penomeco’s softer vocals, creating a wonderful combination of classic and modern styles of hip hop. Dynamic Duo’s Off Duty left me missing nothing, and I loved the album from start to finish.
Lo, what drew you to AkMu’s Sailing?
Lo: There are a lot of elements that really draw in the listener: Suhyun’s powerful yet delicate vocals, the nuanced composition, the careful vocal interplay. But what it all adds up to is an album with an immediate poignancy. It’s a melding of heartbreak, joy, denial, and regret that is instantly apparent and relatable.
Honestly, though, I just like what it did as a primarily acoustic album. There’s this idea that acoustic music has to be simple, sad, or both. Here, AkMu showcase a fantastic range of styles. Opener “Chantey” uses scales and strings that are reminiscent of religious music, while “Should Have Loved You More” has crunch and grit from rockabilly, and “Fish In the Water” sounds more like an Appalachian folk song than anything else.
All this is married to flawless vocals. Chanhyuk is no slouch; his quiet intensity gives Sailing some much needed stability, but Suhyun gives a knockout performance. Every note is reverberating with raw emotion, whether pain, relief, doubt, or acceptance. Add in her power and control, and if she doesn’t rip your heart out and stitch it back together three times over, there’s something wrong.
On the opposite end of the music spectrum is my top pick, Oh My Girl’s The Fifth Season, because I am the Lorax of pop music. It definitely improved as the year went on because it is a great pop album. It never wore out its welcome, the light, airy tones remaining fresh after six months of heavy rotation. It also showed great musical growth for Oh My Girl, giving them a maturity much of their earlier music lacked, as well as expanding into other sounds, such as the latin influence on “Checkmate” and the seedy, sleek “Vogue”, which I consider one of the best songs of 2019. But above it all, every time I listened to this album, in part or whole, The Fifth Season made me smile, and in this hellscape of a year, I feel that ought to be rewarded.
While my top pick changed from the mid-year review, Qian, yours did not. What about Bewhy’s The Movie Star kept it your number one?
Qian: Simply put, Bewhy himself.
I’ve always admired how Bewhy managed to carve out a lane in the Korean hip-hop scene by accompanying his rapid-fire raps with a Christian twist. I loved his previous full album, The Blind Star, where he hesitantly juggled his rise to fame amidst his continued devotion to God, backed by a clash of orchestral pomp, slick auto tune and elements of grime in an apt symbolization of his inner conflict.
His sophomore effort, The Movie Star, has none of that hesitation left: confident and self-assured, Bewhy has created one of the wildest albums I’ve heard all year. There is so much about the chaotic, Jpegmafia-esque production on this album that rightfully shouldn’t work, from the dissonant opening brass on “Won”, to the absurd beat switch on “Challan”, to the unnerving carnival sample on “Damm Gut”, all backed by bass lines so filthy they sound like they’ve been through hell and back.
But Bewhy remains a cut above: as the title track “Gottasadae” demonstrates, his rapping grips you by the balls and commands your attention, anchoring you as Bewhy navigates the wild, infernal production without breaking a sweat. The accompanying features are also fantastic: Crush murders “I Did It”, Verbal Jint does his thing over “The Greatest”, and in a touching ode to their friendship, C.Jamm returns singing on the gentle “Transcend”. For his technical prowess, the risks few other artists would take, and the absolutely bonkers production, Bewhy rightfully claims my top spot once again.
All in all, despite a rather terrible year, we’ve been blessed with some absolute gems, especially in the second half. Going into 2020, I think I speak for all of us when I say we only have three wishes: that our favorite artists continue to drop great music, that they keep their personal lives scandal-free, and for Dean to quit testing our patience and drop 130 Mood: RVNG.
Stay tuned for the second part of the End-of-Year Review discussion on mini albums. Also check out our past album discussions here: seoulbeats.com/tag/best-albums/
(Youtube , Images via YG Entertainment, Stone Music Entertainment, Amoeba Culture, JYP Entertainment)