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K-Pop Unmuted: Jazz & K-Pop

On Episode 28 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Stephen Knight is joined by musician and podcaster Rhodri Thomas to discuss Jazz and Kpop. We talk about the influence of jazz on a dozen Kpop songs. We also discuss our K-pop Unmuted picks, The Snowman by Jung Seung Hwan, and Bboom Bboom by Momoland.

You can listen to this episode, and previous ones, of KultScene’s K-Pop Unmuted on Soundcloud, iTunes, and Stitcher.

Let us know what you think of K-pop in 2017’s latest and KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

The Big Three: K-Pop Record Label Mid-Year Review

taeyeon bigbang twice jyp yg sm

Whether you’re an Inspirit, Pink Panda, Blackjack, S<3NE, B2UTY, or anything in between, you probably know the names of some of K-pop’s biggest record labels. From SM to YG to JYP to Cube to others, each label plays a huge role in the present and future of K-pop’s stars and the industry as a whole. And every year, some labels grow in power while others get closer and closer to obscurity.

Halfway through this year, some labels have tons to work on, while others are definitely killing it. Let’s take a look at some of K-pop’s biggest record labels and talk about their strengths and weaknesses from throughout the year. The evaluation will be based on the following five categories: Artist Management, Artist Popularity, Music Quality, Music Popularity, and Overall Success. For the first part, I’ll be discussing SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment, affectionately known as the Big Three labels. With the biggest overall success, popularity, market share in some areas, these companies are on a separate level than other labels, and therefore deserve an article of their own.


Also on KultScene: Unicorn’s “Unicorn Plus: The Brand New Label” Album Review

SM Entertainment

SM Tiffany Taemin Taeyeon NCT U

The worldwide leader of K-pop entertainment is still thriving. With major artists like EXO, Taeyeon, Red Velvet, and more leading the first half of the year, SM has clearly spared no expense in maintaining its seat on the throne for K-pop kings and queens. It seems like every week or two brings a new album release out of SM, along with actual weekly song releases through SM’s ambitious STATION music project. Collectively, the frequency and efficiency with which SM releases are things other labels can only dream of emulating.

And with that, there’s an emphasis on solos and subunits. So far, we have seen solo releases from Taeyeon, Tiffany, Jonghyun, Taemin, Yesung, Ryeowook, Luna, Amber, to name a few, with rumored solos in the works for Seohyun, Yuri, and Onew. The amount of fanbase power that each artist, whether in solo, subunit or full-group releases, ensures SM’s continued relevance and money-making abilities. Each mini-album sells a few ten-thousand albums and brings the label more profit. Artists are also receiving more creative freedom, with SHINee members Taemin and Jonghyun having extensive control over their own solo releases. With Taemin, NCT’s Ten, and Hyoyeon all participating on Mnet’s “Hit the Stage” in addition to tons of schedules for non-enlisted Super Junior members, Girls’ Generation members, and f(x) members, it seems SM is also doing a good job of keeping its artists within the spotlight.

SM’s only major weakness this year, however, is completely self-inflicted (and also very noticeable). With minimal promotion for some solo releases and a seemingly compulsive desire to dive into alternative and electronic genres, SM is losing the Korean crowd on digital charts. EXO’s “Call Me Baby” made #2 on 2015’s First Half-Year Gaon Chart, proving that “Call Me Baby” was a strong and popular release throughout and beyond its promotion cycle. On 2016’s Half-Year Chart, the highest-charting SM song is “Everytime” by Chen and Punch at #11. This song wasn’t even part of SM’s promotions, as it was part of the “Descendants of the Sun” OST. Aside from a few STATION releases that went without promotion on music shows and 2015’s “I” by Taeyeon, the only SM song in the Top 100 that was actually promoted this year is EXO’s “Monster,” which sits at #100. Clearly, SM is taking horrible losses in the digital market.

It seems, however, that SM knows their songs aren’t demolishing the charts, and seems to value the quality and quantity over digital success and public popularity. While it might be frustrating seeing our faves so low on the charts, SM seems to have an agenda — even with new group NCT, which is aiming for world domination. We’ll just have to wait to see more of what SM is planning. The only other weakness is scandals, which have hurt artists like Krystal, Kai, Victoria, Lay, and Zhoumi. Since we have yet to see the full effect of these scandals in the context of a musical release (except for Zhoumi, but there aren’t many negative effects since he was never super popular in Korea to begin with), these scandals are still only minor losses for SM.

For the first half of 2016, they get a solid 8.5/10 from me.

YG Entertainment

yg akmu akdong musician winner lee hi

Angry fans everywhere can tell you that YG is slacking. The once-great label was home to domestic and international chart-topping groups, with huge fanbase power in tow. Now, it’s another story, and YG is entirely to blame for its mistakes. As expected of a group with ten years under its belt, BIGBANG is slowing down with releases, especially considering the fact that none of the five members have enlisted in the military yet. As a result, we are left with the remains of 2NE1, which continues on a downward spiral of mismanagement, and newer artists like WINNER, iKON, Lee Hi, AKMU, and, originally “by the end of July” now August 8th, Black Pink. These artists are by no means bad, but YG fails to give them the proper management to make them succeed. They still don’t make many TV appearances, and have huge hiatuses between comebacks. Lee Hi lost a lot of traction and momentum once YG delayed her comeback for over three years — WINNER had a similar situation, waiting over a year for a comeback as well.

This isn’t to say that YG doesn’t have some successes this year — while many say that WINNER’s comeback was a failure, this isn’t entirely true, as their one mini-album yielded three top ten singles this year. Lee Hi shot the same number of songs to the top ten with her album “Seoulite,” and Akdong Musician achieved a number-one hit with the catchy “Re-Bye.” Even iKON got into the top three without any promotion with “#WYD.” Not everything is in shambles for YG, as their newer artists are clearly decently popular, but there’s definitely a lot to criticize.

Let’s look at the current situation — 2NE1’s three-member summer comeback is nowhere in sight, WINNER’s E.X.I.T. series, which was supposed to yield four albums throughout the year, has only seen one album release with the year’s seventh month having come to a close. iKON’s July comeback never happened (aside from a few random singles), BIGBANG’s MADE album from last year is still lost in the void, and only the next week will be able to show us whether YG actually puts out Black Pink on August 8th like the company is saying. It seems the only good things about YG this year are the quality of the music (even though it takes an eternity to be released) and sub-label recruitments from HIGHGRND and The Black Label. On the whole, YG gets a 4/10 from me. Burn.

JYP Entertainment

GOT7 JYP Wonder Girls TWICE Baek Ah Yeon Baek Yerin

Arguably the most successful label of the year, JYP has made quite a comeback of its own. I love a good underdog, and seeing JYP rise from the ashes of its pre-2015 decline has been quite exciting. With the explosive success that is TWICE, the label is definitely raking in the dough this year. Based on further analysis of the Gaon Chart, it’s evident that TWICE’s second mini album “Page Two” has already sold more than any previous Wonder Girls or Miss A album, and TWICE’s two mini albums have, in less than a year, collectively outsold the entirety of Miss A’s discography. With tons of CFs and variety appearances in tow, TWICE has clearly given JYP new life.

But TWICE isn’t JYP’s only success this year. With successful releases from Baek Ah Yeon, Baek Yerin, and Wonder Girls, the label is a huge success in terms of musical and artist popularity this year. Wonder Girls is an especially large win, considering that the group was in danger of becoming irrelevant after last year’s “I Feel You.” Through “Why So Lonely”’s breakthrough success (the song still tops charts almost a month after release), Wonder Girls have proved the resilience of both their group and their label. JYP teaches us all that a label is truly successful when both its older and newer groups can make waves in the K-pop world.

Along with profits piling in from TWICE, GOT7, and a successful Japanese release from 2PM, JYP is killing it in all aspects of success. It’s also definitely notable that its artists are being promoted well — many are given creative freedom, constant releases, and stable promotion. Each TWICE member has made upwards of seven or eight variety appearances since debut. While Tzuyu and Sana are currently the most popular members, JYP is taking the time to bring Jihyo and Momo some attention as well, given their recent appearances on shows like “King of Mask Singer” and “Hit the Stage,” respectively.

Keeping all of this success in mind, JYP has taken a few hits this year, specifically in GOT7’s scandal and Fei’s recent solo release. While GOT7’s controversial actions definitely hurt their reputation in Korea and possibly abroad, the group still has a lot of room for upward advancement, given their increasing sales and ability to tour worldwide. Fei was never incredibly popular, and her recent support of China in the South China Sea dispute has really hurt her Korean reputation as well. The result was catastrophic — the single fell off of most charts within a day of release. Recognizing these minor losses as nothing more than, well, minor losses, JYP gets a stellar 9.5/10 from me.


Also on KultScene: An Ode to SHINee on the Eve of KCON LA 2016

And that wraps up the Mid-Year Review of the Big Three. For the first time in years, it seems like JYP has become the overall best label of the year so far. We can only hope that their success continues, while praying that SM can get themselves a hit or two before the year’s end and that YG lives up to at least a fourth of its promises.

The ranking is as such:

  1. JYP Entertainment — 9.5/10
  2. SM Entertainment — 8.5/10
  3. YG Entertainment — 4/10

What do you think of the Big Three so far this year? Share your thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

Wonder Girls ‘To The Beautiful You’ Song Review

Wonder Girls "To The Beautiful You"
The comeback queens of 2015 have returned to provide more retro stylings. With “Reboot” last year, Wonder Girls delivered the album of the year and proved that you can go totally old-school and still sound up to date. It was their dedication to not just the look but the sound of their music that did this. The gimmick of becoming an idol band had little to do with it, although when they performed “I Feel You” completely live it was a marvel to behold.

WIth the release of their next album cover for “To The Beautiful You,” it seemed Wonder Girls didn’t star far from the throwback them. Its psychedelic imagery perfectly evokes the ‘70s. To top it off, the album was first released on vinyl at the Seoul Record and CD Fair. Clearly JYP Entertainment and the girls, who are getting more involved with the creation of their music, are sticking to a more physical sound. Pre-release single (I think) “To The Beautiful You” proves this. With no music video to speak of yet, we looked at the song by itself.


Also on KultScene: Disproving the 7-Year Curse: The Slow, Painful Death of 2nd Generation K-Pop Girl Groups c

Like “I Feel You,” “To The Beautiful You” chooses its moments wisely in terms of switching between highlighting vocals and music. “To The Beautiful You” revives a ‘70s rock sound put through a more modern pop filter. It’s softer but just as assured. It also recalls pop music from the ‘00s when the genre almost primarily focused on using band sounds, like most of Girls’ Aloud’s career. The best thing about all of this is you can easily imagine the girls playing this. Produced by frequent JYP collaborator, Frants (who has produced for G.Soul and Day6) and with lyrics by member Sunmi, Wonder Girls have transported us into the time when the electric guitar was the most powerful instrument on earth.

Hyelim’s guitar is the clear standout, the staple of all ‘70s rock bands; it’s the main melody maker for tracks like this. On “To The Beautiful You” she slides between simple but evocative licks and gentle strumming to pick up the pace in the chorus. Her most effective work is also her most subdued though. In the verses her bars are made up of a few chords and some palm muted notes. It’s these slightly muted notes that work so well, a small detail that creates the world of the sound like nothing else in the song.

This time Sunmi’s bass and Yeeun’s keys take the supporting role to Hyelim. Yeeun especially plays backup, her keys tend to play almost the exact same melody as Hyelim but toned down slightly. She is not totally in the shadow though. In the chorus, while Hyelim is providing some scratching to keep up the rhythm, Yeeun replays the lick from the opening. It’s a wonderful mix of sounds, each one so assured in its place. Yubin’s drums as well are quite prominent. Her tom-heavy beat drives the verses along as the girls coo quietly, helping to bridge us over to the abrupt chorus. They also add nice variations to the second verse.


Also on KultScene: Podcast Guide For Fans of All Things Korean Pop Culture c

These whispers are perfectly pitched. It’s a sound suited especially to Sunmi, who talks to us in the opening, calmly ushering us into the Wonder Girls world. Each of the girls performs to the top of their game: Yeeun’s chorus belting contrasts well with her own softer moments while the double rap between Yubin and Hyelim is one of their most dynamic to date. It all culminates with great harmonies as the whole quartet sings the hook together towards the end. It gives us a climax without having to disrupt the relaxing flow of the music.

This being an exclusive vinyl release means we can’t glean much more information as of yet. What it does though is prove Wonder Girls were not merely lucky with their ‘80s fun last year. Everything about the sound of this song is premeditated retro. Its release on vinyl is indicative of this and also appropriate given the specific sounds of the song. The only version online right now is a rip from one of the vinyls from the Seoul fair so at the end you can hear the needle being lifted. At first I didn’t notice it, then I thought it was a sound effect, and now I think it is just how this version was recorded. Either way it shows just how well this song fits on a record player, something that could be said of probably zero other K-pop records.

How do you think Wonder Girls did on the song? Share your thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

Video of the Top 25 Korean Songs of 2015

BTS

So far 2016 has been a slow year, aside from Dal Shabet nothing of any interest has been released. This has led us to looking back at how great of a year 2015 really was. To celebrate it, one of our writers cut together a video of the top 25 songs of the year as voted for by the KultScene writers. As you may have seen our top 50 list, this video takes the top 25 and edits them together in inventive ways. This is something to celebrate the year in music with, but mostly we hope you have fun watching it.

What was your favorite Korean song this year? Share your picks and thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

August’s Best K-Pop B-Sides

August B-sides
As another month comes to an end we can safely clock August as another great month for K-pop. To celebrate I’m going to look back at some b-sides that might have unfortunately gone unnoticed. With another slew of high profile releases there’s plenty to discover. This month we have lots of retro goodness, with influences coming from all over the world giving a new lease of life to K-pop.

Primary feat Sunwoo Jung-A and Gaeko “Paranoia”

If there is one artist continually releasing great work this year it is Primary. He’s had songs out nearly every month since the start of the year and there has always been something interesting amongst them. These have culminated in the fantastic album “2” and my favourite from it “Paranoia”.

“Paranoia” is a wonderfully slow and restrained piece of trip hop. Primary has never been afraid to show off his parade of influences within the genres he has worked in. He invigorates these with a new modern life while never forgetting what made them special in the first place. This time he takes on that very British style of trip hop. The echoey drums recall Portishead and give the song its gloomy feeling. What really makes it though is Sunwoo Jung-A’s mournful voice and Gaeko’s energetic rap.They seem to be directly referencing the British artists of that time like Thom Yorke of Radiohead and rapper Tricky. It lends an authenticity but mostly makes the song work totally.


Also on KultScene: Sunday Playlist: K-Pop Beach Songs

B1A4 “You Are A Girl, I Am A Boy”

More 90s alternative influenced music here with B1A4’s “You Are A Girl, I Am A Boy”.

Okay that may be a bit of a stretch this time but it was the first thing that came into my head when I listened to this track. The reverb laden guitars immediately brought Sonic Youth to mind. This thought was quickly dispelled but that doesn’t lessen the effect of the guitar. It’s an entirely new sound to be found within K-pop and is why this song is on the list. This use of the live band sounds are what set apart B1A4 for me. Amongst many samey hip-hop influenced boy groups they stand out thanks to this and their distinctive voices.

SHINee “Chocolate”

Retro was certainly a major theme for august. SHINee as always delivered an amazing throwback with the whole of the “Married to the Music” album. Jonghyun’s effortlessly sexy “Chocolate” stands out.

“Chocolate” goes for retro synths in a big way. They sound almost 8-bit and hit with a strong but smooth force. There’s layers to them that feel almost physically tangible. The verses that change tempo and general intricacies of the song make it something more than your average album cut. It’s clinically sexy yet has delicate touches that elevate it above other sexy sounding songs.


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Wonder Girls “One Black Night”

Speaking of retro, I don’t think any K-pop group has ever pulled it off as well as Wonder Girls have with “Reboot”. With that “Reboot” and “I Feel You” they have released probably the best album and song of the year all while also learning and playing instruments for it.

With an album this good it’s hard to pick just one b-side. So I’m just going with my mood right now which means “One Black Night”. Ever since I first listened to “Reboot” I felt like it was a soundtrack album to some amazing 80s movie that never existed. If so then “One Black Night” would play when the main character is at their lowest point so they go out to get totally wasted for one black night.

The song starts off slow with a plodding piano and stripped back drum beat. It recalls member Yenny’s solo work as HA:TFELT, mixing solemn piano melodies in the verse with crashing electronic sounds in the chorus. The emotions are also similar, ones of pent up angst finally being released in cathartic acts. In this case drinking and embracing.

Girls’ Generation “Bump It”

Girls’ Generation came back again before the summer officially ended with their album “Lion Heart” and there’s a lot to get stuck into. Most may have assumed that with a double single release there wouldn’t be much left of interest. They would be wrong.

Album closer “Bump It” is the highlight as it cleverly walks the line between the Girls’ Generation we know and love and the Girls’ Generation many want to exist. By that I mean it starts off like a fairly standard sweet ballad before turning urban pop at Tiffany’s request. With the singles being a great signifier of what Girls’ Generation can be, this is the perfect song to close out the album.

What it does really well is using both styles within the song. Once the ballad part at the start ends it would have been easy to leave out but the piano remains and reinvigorates the song at the chorus. Similarly towards the end when Taeyeon is about to begin her crooning, Sooyoung cuts in with a rap to make sure one style does not win over the other. Girls’ Generation are at their best whee unpredictable like this.

Is there any other August K-pop B-sides you loved? Share your picks in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.

SHINee, Wonder Girls & T-ara: Single Roundup Review

Wonder Girls
Sometimes I think I’m not harsh enough on K-pop releases. Nearly every one of my reviews has been overwhelmingly positive. Those were all genuinely great releases, though, and I don’t think any differently now. Maybe K-pop is not as perfect as I thought it was, and I was adjusting my opinions to fit that. Then this week happened. Three titans of K-pop SHINee, Wonder Girls, and T-ara released equally exceptional new songs. As the kids would say, what a time to be alive.

These vanguards of K-pop are also a good example of a few different sides of the genre. Wonder Girls and SHINee deliver perfect 80/70s throwbacks in different ways and T-ara pull off the best generic Brave Brothers track since AOA’s “Miniskirt”.

SHINee “Married to the Music”

SHINee already showed us that they had the 90s sound and look down to a tee, and this time they take on the music of the 70s. Michael Jackson’s style in particular can be heard, which isn’t a surprise given his clear influence on Taemin’s solo and SHINee’s concept in general.

The first thing you’ll notice about “Married to the Music” is how wacky and fun the video is. It takes most of its inspiration from the 1975 cult classic, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” It shows the boys from SHINee drinking some weird drinks that change their disposition (alcohol! gasp!) and having a wild time in a creepy house. Heads are chopped off, eyeballs popped out as events get stranger by the second. It is by far the most fun video of the year so far. It’s great to see SM actually trying with their videos as well. When they actually put effort in, and take SM artists outside of boxes, SM Entertainment makes the best video they have ever done.


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It’s disappointing then that the lyrics don’t match up with the video at all then. They’re pretty standard, about loving a girl. Even the music metaphor isn’t interesting as it’s always about the girl and not actual music, which could have been cool and unsurprising given SHINee’s seeming love of music, especially Jonghyun.

This disappointment doesn’t last long though as the song more than makes up for it. “Married to the Music” continues the retro theme with funky aplomb. The thing I really like about this song is the wide use of actual instruments over electronics. Apart from the drums it sounds like an actual band could have played this. The wandering bass that carries the song is particularly satisfying and reminiscent of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. The slick guitars provide the funk like no synths can. That’s not to say it’s devoid of electronics though, they are used sparingly to good effect at louder parts of the song like Minho’s rap. The song is a blast and has no trouble keeping up with the outrageous video.

Wonder Girls “I Feel You”

The throwbacks continue with the return of the legendary Wonder Girls. I got into K-pop in late 2011 so missed most of the Wonder Girls mania. So, they never really meant a lot to me apart from having some good songs. However, when the teaser came out for “I Feel You”, the single for their new rebooted band lineup, I fell in love. The MTV inspired video and 80s synth-pop sound appeared so perfectly realised. With the release of the video, this love turned out to be complete.

Like SHINee, it’s the dedication to being retro that really sets Wonder Girls apart. So often recently we have seen groups tack on the most obvious elements of 80s or 90s pop to make their song a retro throwback. The general sound and look of these songs are usually still quite modern, though, so it tends not to work. What Wonder Girls have done is transport the 80s to today and given it modern production values and edgy sexiness. Even with that, “I Feel You,” still sounds like it could have been from the actual 80s.

This is clearly evident in the synth hook that introduces the song. It’s an intoxicating riff that doesn’t outstay its welcome and eventually becomes the hook of the song. This is why the actual chorus comes across as quite flat at first. Sunmi’s softer, kind of talk singing over the chorus doesn’t inspire you to sing along but allows the synth riff to shine once she’s finished. It also works to carry over the sensual feeling of the verse which features similar sexy, whispered vocals. The addition of rapping that can sometimes make a retro K-pop track quite jarring doesn’t even stop “I Feel You” for a moment. Yubin’s deep, sensual voice fits perfectly with the rest of the vocals making her rap more a slightly faster verse than a whole new part.


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The music video also completely nails the 80s retro feel. The attention to detail in some of the images is brilliant and quite funny at times. If you ever thought the video was kind of cheesy at times, don’t worry: That’s the point. The opening is probably my favourite where Sunmi turns to the camera, smiles then zips down her shorts to reveal the group on stage. For whatever reason the turn before she smiles makes it for me; it seems unnecessary but works so well. I also love the shots of the girls as they rap the post-chorus part. They have two of the girls in each shot and pull focus as they rap. It’s the type of shot that would never be seen today and is the kind of detail that makes this song and video one of the best of the year so far.

T-ara “So Crazy”

For better or worse, Brave Brothers has become a mainstay of the K-pop environment. His safe but effective music has been increasingly popular in the last few years making him the go to guy for a hit. So his pairing with the once loved T-ara is an appropriate one. Ever since their scandal in 2012, T-ara have had a hard time regaining their popularity in Korea. Instead they have mainly focused on promoting in China where they have had unprecedented success. They, of course, have not given up on their home country though and are teaming up with Brave Brothers for “So Crazy” their new single.

While “So Crazy” stays true to the Brave Brothers form in structure and use of sounds, it is still an incredibly exciting track. It moves at intense speeds. The song doesn’t quite explode until the first chorus but the opening verse is deceptively quick and full to the brim with different sounds. Bouncing horns and layered vocals build anticipation before the song takes off. Its a sound that fits T-ara like few other groups. Their vocals lend to the high-pitched layers especially using the slightly weaker Jiyeon with a stronger vocal like Hyomin’s or Soyeon’s.

“So Crazy” is Brave Brothers at his absolute best. Of the three songs I’ve talked about so far, it is probably the least interesting and yet it remains the most exciting and listenable. His ‘oh oh oh’ hook once again works its magic. The song has an unhinged quality that is usually absent in Brave Brothers songs. It hits all the same beats as any recent AOA song yet there is always so much going that it never bores and feels like it could lift off into the stratosphere at any time.

What do you think of these three songs and of the current state of K-pop? Share your thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter,Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.