While the landscape of Korean entertainment can be vast and wondrous, it’s often the little things that make us fall in love, inspire awe, evoke secondhand embarrassment, or sometimes… break our hearts. In this segment, we ask our writers: Among the many things vying for your attention this month, what won and made your heart beat?
Looking back on 2022 through a K-pop lens, my year in music was undoubtedly defined by the opportunity to (finally!) see some of my favorite artists in-person. The fall started off strong with an amazing concert from Sunmi, and then I got to see my first K-pop arena concert with NCT 127. But as they say, save the best for last, and as incredible as the aforementioned pair of concerts was, it’s hard for anything to hold a candle to my last K-pop concert of the year, right at the end of November, from the one and only Ateez.
Approximately five minutes into their first set, I thought to myself “this is going to be the best live music event I’ve ever been to,” and the rest of the concert proved me right and then some. The intensity that Ateez bring to their performances is a huge part of their success, and it comes through video screens with crystal clear clarity. But live?!? It’s an entirely different, borderline overwhelming ball game. Song after song, they brought an awe-inspiring level of vocal and dance energy, spontaneous creativity, and theatrical commitment. I left the venue buzzing from seeing my favorite tracks performed at that level (as I predicted, seeing “Cyberpunk” in person was a lot, in the best way possible), and in love with a whole new group of songs that I hadn’t given much thought to before seeing them live. And Ateez aside, like with NCT 127, I was delighted by how fun and friendly the crowd of thousands was: for example, a total stranger seated next to me offered me a lightstick to use during the show…cause they had brought three! Fan commitment at its finest and most adorable, and with a group this good, that level of appreciation only seems fair. It was truly an amazing experience, and a crowning moment for an autumn of live music that I have so, so enjoyed.
[Music/Idols] Kwon Eunbi, The Ark/Khan
I’ve spent the past weeks discovering new music and reminiscing about old releases, which feels like the perfect way to wrap up the year.
While discussing choreographies for the End-of-Year Reviews, I was delighted by the gem of a comeback that is Kwon Eunbi‘s “Underwater” and its accompanying EP, Lethality. Although the three releases since her debut have sent Eunbi into a genre roulette, they have a shared focus on bringing out her showmanship, rather than burying her performance under excessive layers of concept and styling.
Eunbi has a voice that’s like glass: crystal clear and delicate, but also strong. “Underwater” appropriately fashions her into a siren figure, using the soft powers of her voice to draw in unsuspecting listeners. The song opens lightly, with synths that plink like water droplets beneath her bell-like vocals, but a sinister wobble bass creeps in during the build-up to the chorus. Still, the instrumentals never crowd out the highlight of the song—Eunbi’s vocals.
Looking through my discussion buddy Sophie’s picks led me to revisit releases from the members of The Ark. The group debuted in a time when boy groups like B.A.P, BTS, and Got7 were pushing hip-hop influences back to the fore of K-pop, but hip-hop focused girl groups were still a rarity.
Minju and Yuna’s pre-debut release, “Goodbye Rain”, still takes my breath away after all this time. The choreography is a mix of sharp, powerful moves and delicate hand movements that convey such longing. Looking at the success of NewJeans’ R&B-focused debut, I also can’t help but wonder whether Minju and Yuna’s re-debut with “I’m Your Girl” as Khan might have fared better if it were released more recently. Even though we’re not likely to hear any new music from the girls of The Ark—Yuna has moved to the US and retired from the scene—I’m still glad that we got three solid releases from them that I can go back to.
[Music/Idols, Variety] Great Winter Girl Group Releases from Red Velvet, Wendy, NMixx, Itzy, and SNSD
I love Red Velvet all year long, but there’s something about winter that makes me seek refuge in their music even more. Maybe it’s how rich and warm their lush harmonies and production feel, like a cup of hot cocoa. I’m thrilled with their most recent mini, ReVe Festival Birthday (will this ReVe festival ever end? I hope not, my friends!), but kept returning to main vocalist Wendy‘s Like Water this month. Every track is just so heartfelt, and her live performance of “When This Rain Stops” never fails to bring on the emotions!
Also, I am so impressed with NMixx‘s holiday single “Funky Glitter Christmas!” I admire the boldness of their experimental concept, though I have to admit pretty much all of their prior releases have gone over my head. Luckily, though, this holiday single was a perfect balance of inventive and accessible, and I loved the personality the members brought to this song. I hope the year ahead will be kind to them.
Something else that made me smile was this “ITZY Competes in a Compliment Battle” video. I really love this “Compliment Battle” series because it’s heartwarming to see how the groups react to exuberant praise from the depths of Twitter! Even if you’re not familiar with Itzy, this video is hilarious (Yuna’s comedic timing especially!). I haven’t really been captivated by an Itzy release since the bygone days of “Not Shy,” but I absolutely love their group dynamic and always enjoy seeing what they’re up to. They’ve had a grueling schedule this year with a world tour plus their usual roster of comebacks, so it’s great to see them soak up some well-deserved praise (and hopefully some rest, too).
Lastly, if you need a song to dance to when the clock strikes midnight, the larger-than-life, kaleidoscopic joy of SNSD‘s “Lucky Like That” has made it one of my most-played songs of the year. Hope you all have a wonderful 2023!