2016 rumbles on even longer with still little to show for itself, but that’s okay! The year is still young. What it does however, is lead me back to 2015 to continue remembering what a great year it was for K-pop. The multiple top songs of the year lists that were put out (including ours) were wonderfully varied and each one managed to honor great music. It’s a testament to 2015 that I still felt there were many songs that deserved some end of year recognition. So I decided to make my own alternative best of list in order to celebrate some of those artists.
In this case, alternative does not necessarily mean alternative music. There is still room for K-pop here. Rather, it means anything that didn’t garner as much attention last year, as I personally thought it deserved. To further restrict myself, I also didn’t allow any songs that I had previously written about before. So that counts out BESTie, D.Holic, Fiestar, Purfles, Blady, A.Kor Black, and many more. Instead of mourning all of those amazing girls, let’s move on to the first category.
Idol Solo Debuts
Finally making that long awaited jump to a solo career can be tricky for some idols. There are those who are so popular that no matter what they do it will be a success (G-Dragon, Taeyeon). There are also those who are so talented and charismatic that it’d be hard to mess up an opportunity (Yonghwa, Choa). For the next idols though, their groups were either on the way down or stuck in the one spot. Having a solo career gave them a chance to stand out.
Teen Top have consistently been on the fringes of success. More popular than their immediate contemporaries like Dalmation (DMTN) and Z:EA but less popular than newer groups like B.A.P and BTS, they have yet to carve out a niche for themselves. When lead vocalist Niel went solo this year, to his credit, he did not play it safe. “Lovekiller” is a slow burn that I almost didn’t fully listen to because it was straying very close to ballad territory. That said, the stripped back opening of acoustic guitar and Niel’s sweetly distinct voice is better than what most ballads. If that was all Niel could muster though, it would have been forgettable. Halfway through the song however, a disco drum beat is introduced followed by a funky but subtle electric guitar. Essentially, “Lovekiller” becomes a Michael Jackson tribute. If the music wasn’t enough to signify this, the choreography also literally tips the hat to MJ. This change of pace invigorates the song and is a testament to Niel’s talent. His delicate high pitched voice perfectly suits both musical styles and helps him stand out among other idol soloists.
Also on KultScene: Top 30 Korean B-Sides of 2015
Any of the 2AM members could have gone solo and easily held their own. They were a ballad group and so they had to be great singers. Seulong took his solo work in a completely different direction than previously explored by the group with “Mood Swings.” The song doesn’t take its title to heart — it’s moody but laid back, not making any big jumps to unsettle the tone. Carried by a simple hip-hop beat, the song is tinged with lowkey piano and gorgeous guitar licks that are sparse enough to create a sense of loneliness. The lyrics mirror this. Seulong repeatedly whines lines like “there’s no me.” It’s an almost uncomfortably calm look into a man’s depression. It works precisely because there are no mood swings. It is measured in a way that shows a man who understands his problem. “Feeling the darkness even more,” Seulong yearns for a change. “Mood Swing” is at once beautiful and disturbing.
I don’t think there could be a song more different to “Mood Swing” than Goo Hara’s “Choco Chip Cookie.” It takes its title literally by being a super sweet slice of R&B. It’s the perfect summer song with a laid back electro vibe sprinkled thoroughly with twinkly pianos and synths. Hara does not stick to conventions though, as the structure is not immediately obvious. If you were to identify a chorus you might say the part at 1:15, signaled by the lightest triangle ting. That sounds more like a pre-chorus though, which eventually moves the songs back into its chilled out groove. While the lyrics could definitely be seen as childish, the song is anything but. It is a mature and risky move from Hara to put out a summer song that defies pop music standards, and is more daring than what Kara’s done in the past.
New Takes on the Cutesy Girl Group
Following A Pink and Sistar’s growing success in the last two years, a rise in aegyo (cute) filled girl groups occurred again. Most, however, took from A Pink too much, as very few of them tried to play with the formula at all. Groups like April are great at what they do but have yet to distance themselves from the herd of Fink.L wannabes. K-pop wouldn’t be K-pop without them though, so it’s especially refreshing when groups to take the time to project new ideas onto old trends.
UNICORN came to us with this sole intention, to heal. Not just this tired genre, but to heal us all with their music, just like a unicorn would with its horn. That is their actual concept; can I just say that I love K-pop? Unicorn’s debut single “Huk” is the dreamiest bit of synthpop you will ever hear. Fantasy like guitars mix with the synths and breathy vocals to create this tone in the intro. The production value is much higher than your average rookie group, and it’s the first thing that sets them apart. The second is the use of their rapper. It’s hardly uncommon today to make the rapper the main focus of a group, but here, it changes the song and slips us out of the cute girl group mindset. It is not jarring however, the rap maintains the effervescence of the song by being delivered in a more conversational way. The contrast in the verses between the usual saccharine vocals and the rap give “Huk” an added dimension elevating UNICORN above their peers.
While UNICORN were trying to lull their way into your subconscious, myB was shouting at you to get up and dance. The platinum blonde sextet burst onto the scene this year with “My Oh My,” a song that instantly caught attention due to its energy and cuteness. It wasn’t until follow up “DDO DDO,” however, that did their style really work. The two songs are essentially the same, infectious bubblegum pop that whizzes and bangs at every corner. “DDO DDO” is superior though, merely because its production is a little bit tighter and more organic. Vocally, all the members suit this style, and even the raps are made to be adorable. What myB do best of all the rookie girl groups is dance. The choreography for both songs is intense and, like G-Friend, they can look like a small army when on stage. Next time someone complains about cute girl groups being boring just show them myB.
Europe + Korea = The Perfect Match
Europop has been long been a staple genre of K-pop. It dates back to the earliest groups like H.O.T and Turbo, who just made a fantastic comeback with “Again.” Here we take a look at a classic europop track as imagined by K-pop and something a little more alternative shall we say.
If there was anyone who could be responsible for europop’s ubiquity in K-pop, it’s Sweetune. The producer duo have cultivated the success of groups like INFINITE and KARA off the back of their skills with synthesizers. They brought this sound to Romeo, a rookie boy group who probably had high hopes for this year. Unfortunately, they didn’t go very far but, fortunately for us, their debut single “Lovesick” is a smash. “Lovesick” has a relentless beat but never gets too strong. It’s held back by the retro synths and the sometimes sweet vocals. The problem is that it’s honestly hard to defend “Lovesick” from being little more than an rip-off of 2011-2012 Infinite. Although that is one of the greatest eras for any boy group, it’s also hard to say that’s a bad thing. Romeo ultimately make it work with though their rookie energy and adolescent emotions by taking something tried and true and attempting to make it their own.
Waltzsofa Records are one of the most interesting labels working Korea right now. The music they have released so far is all tinged with the same retro genre sounds, mostly disco. Male vocalist Ban:Jax is one of their artists. He released a number of retro inspired songs this year, each showcasing a different aspect of him. The standout is his collaboration with label mate and producer Humming Urban Stereo “Mid Summer Night.” HUS’s sound is immediately recognizable on this track. His nu-disco synths pop with such clarity, they are one of the most satisfying sounds in pop today. Ban:Jax’s vocals harken back to American soul and are filled with passion. It even features backing vocals that appear to be provided by another label mate, female soloist Risso, whom you should check out too. Each of these elements gets its time to shine in the song before melting together for a strange but amazing climax. “Mid Summer Night” exemplifies what Waltzsofa are about while also offering something new to the great retro collection of 2015.
Also on KultScene: Artist Spotlight: April
The Many Facets of Korean Hip-Hop
If retro sounds are not your thing, then I’m sure you found solace in the mountains of hip-hop that 2015 also had to offer. Thanks to the success of shows like “Show Me The Money” and “Unpretty Rapstar,” hip-hop is becoming mainstream, and, for better or worse, that means we are going to get a lot more of it. Due to the fast turnaround of those shows, simple rap songs that focus on a beat and flow have become popular. It would be a shame if tracks like that become the norm, though, as they can never be more than just alright. Since that’s not the case at the moment, let’s see what else Korea can offer.
As a kind of warm up song for her appearance on “Unpretty Rapstar,” Sistar’s lead vocalist Hyorin enlisted the help of rappers Paloalto and Zico. “Dark Panda” mixes retro with hip-hop to become something entirely modern. It takes cues from British house music and more American hip-hop sounds. The production is masterful, repeating synths create the atmosphere while shorter electro licks come in and out breathing life into the song. Hyorin leaves the rapping to the boys, as she does what she does best. Her vocals here are as beautifully hoarse as usual, but the slow build of the song lets her notes fade out ethereally giving the song an ephemeral beauty. The raps are just as impressive. Hyorin’s vocals and Paloalto’s nasally delivery contrast with Zico’s sharp bites, which at first makes Zico sound out of place. On repeated listens though, it becomes apparent as a way of lifting the song, priming it for a climax. He brings us to that end that is so important.
Zico returns (seriously, how many songs did he feature on this year?) to rap on a track for up and coming soloist Dean, known as Deanfluenza when producing. If Dean’s popularity had started to rise a few weeks earlier, I think he would have made it onto a number of year end lists. That’s no matter to him, though, as he is clearly on the up. “Pour Up” is as smooth as they get. Its electro R&B drips slowly throughout, exuding a serene sexuality. Dean’s voice does nothing to stop these feelings, perfectly measured over the hip-hop beats, as he tells us about his sexual encounters. If Dean does become big in Korea, my great hope for him is to make sex mainstream.
For sure, Supreme Team rapper E Sens has been through a lot the last few years. This year, he produced a great album seemingly on the way back up. When it came time for it to be released however, E Sens was in jail for smoking marijuana. Not great for his promotional chances, but that doesn’t taint the record. Title track “The Anecdote” is the standout for sheer raw emotion. E Sens can lay himself out on a track, exposing his frailties. “The Anecdote” is about his father, who died when E Sens was only nine years old. Any song about a topic like this would be poignant, but E Sens is more revealing than most. He spits about his shame at never being close to his father, about the shame of being poor, about how his father’s death shaped his life. E Sens’ flow suits songs like this. There’s an anger to it, a cathartic energy that drives his honesty. His voice is well accompanied by haunting pianos that repeat over and over. They loom like a ghost as E Sens remembers one.
Are there any songs you think were overlooked in 2015? 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.