Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Best of 2020: Top 10 K-Pop Albums

When you’re locked down at home or the studio, you can write some pretty good tunes. That’s the message the K-Pop industry (and its satellite subgenres) sent to album fans all over the world in 2020. It was an embarrassment of audio riches this year, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I listened to a higher percentage of it than in any previous year (thanks again to the great Stankpop community). But I think I’ve proved my point that the state of K-Pop album production is in a better place than it was half a decade ago, so I won’t open the floodgates for honorable mentions like I did last year. Music is of course intensely subjective, but know that every single record on this page comes with my enthusiastic recommendation.

And yes, this is where the SM boys ended up; thanks for asking.

1-3 tracks = N/A

4-7 tracks = mini album

8+ tracks = full album

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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MINI ALBUMS

5. Maria – Hwa Sa

The first MAMAMOO soloist to put out an EP I’ve enjoyed the whole way through, Hwa Sa’s big collaboration-heavy year unleashed Maria as its crown jewel. Brazenly self-reflective in a way not attempted by too many K-Pop group members, Hwa Sa uses her English name as a motif repeatedly throughout the seven tracks, letting in just one featuring artist – DPR Live – on penultimate Salsa-tinged track I’m bad too. The bounteous strings and piano on soaring spiritual closer LMM really sit with you after the mini album is done, feeling like an emphatic answer to the question posed by the diary entry of an introductory track; WHY is the big industrial centrepiece that helps get you there, though, and there’s more sardonic fun to be had within the shifting beats of the Zico-produced Kidding.

4. Jackpot – Elris

Shifting gears to something far fluffier and more energetic; Elris’ fourth mini album is a surprisingly great sugar hit with some serious crunch on hand to substantiate things. The introduction is a brilliantly-constructed 75-second build that might make you wonder why so few producers get their own intros so wrong – it slots right under the title track with ease and improves it out of sight. But the delightful carefree chorus of the headliner isn’t even close to the best thing on the EP, as the three ballad-free follow-ups absolutely fly by. This Is Me is a harmony-rich dose of old-school K-Pop energy that’s honestly just a better song overall (which someone behind the production must have realised, because there’s a well-produced dance video for it). But if the bass and vocals are the star there, Like I Do announces its intention to fill your headphones with delectable bell-chime treble from its first moment. Final track No Big Deal is the mini album’s secret weapon, letting the vapours of its celestial pre-chorus sprinkle over an aloof hook with minimal backing. Colour me mad-keen for the next Elris package.

Click here to let the tunes roll on

Best of 2020: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

Lockdowns, quarantines and shutdowns slowed a great many things to a halt in 2020, but they couldn’t quite stop the music, and across the ever-widening scope of Korean tunes crammed under the label of “K-Pop”, there was plenty to get excited about. A lot of the best tracks this year released without the slick music videos that would qualify them for the ninth edition of this list (!) – we will get to the album B-sides of 2020 in short order, fear not – but the headliners still provided just enough quality to make for a top fifteen that I really enjoy. You might too, particularly if you enjoy the kind of synth-heavy 1980s throwback sounds that the industry regularly utilised this year.

I must send my apologies to the boy group stans out there – this is the first time ever that the list hasn’t featured a single male voice in the top five. That’s probably a teensy bit tied to the fact that this is also the first K-Pop list I’ve ever written without a single entry from SM Entertainment – Oh how far we’ve come.

As always, a quick shout-out to the 2020 Korean releases that definitively slap but don’t qualify for the list’s criteria: ChungHa’s funky jam Dream of You (with R3HAB), Eden’s LEEZ team-up Paranoid, and BVNDIT’s  gloriously cheesy Cool are all exclusively in English (with the latter also breaking my one-song-per-act rule); THAMA & SOLE’s chilled masterclass Google Map does not have a music video (nor is it a B-side), putting it in technical no-man’s land; and the sensational K-RnB giga-collaboration Automatic Remix is over 15 minutes long so there’s no way I’m talking about it here.

Another massive shout-out to the community of This Week in K-Pop‘s Stankpop podcast, which just finished its first full year of shows under the new call-in format. Without their vast and illuminating tastes, this 2020 list would have been a complete shambles. Anyway, get your headphones on, crank up the volume and let’s get into it.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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15. I Can’t Stop Me – Twice

We start without wasting time – Here’s an immediate hit of that ’80s sound with which this past year seemed infatuated. Constructed by an eclectic mix of international producers, the synth-loving headliner to Twice’s excellent 2020 full album puts the light and breezy energy the group brings so consistently to use over a slamming stadium beat that only briefly gives way to the omnipresent industry trap sound. Can’t Stop Me‘s oddly thin vocal production isn’t the top-drawer stuff you often get with Twice (see the group’s recent collaboration with the League of Legends team) but the rest of the song’s parts more than make up for it.

14. Ohio – Crush

In this house we sure do enjoy a bit of experimental percussion, and Crush’s Ohio is ear-catching from moment one. Like a controlled tumble of wooden toys looping forever, the crunch of this beat is set in perfect contrast to some of the smoothest pipes in K-Pop – each half of the song enhances the effect of the other. The encroaching piano seals the two halves together, only dropping out twice to let some more acapella touches breathe over the beat. By the time the bass guitar swells underneath Crush’s falsetto for the final flourish, Ohio has established itself as one of the more successful spicy songs in Crush’s extensive discography.

Click here for more tunes

Best of 2020: Five Special Awards

Got the usual mixed bag here – the same three ultimately meaningless but fun-to-write awards I’ve been unable to fit into any other lists for a few years now, joined by two new ones – and I’m hoping one of the new two has the staying power to return next year. But we will see. Not much more to say on these ones, other than that they’re a bit wordier than they were last year. Here we go.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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Best Third-Party Game Publisher

Activision

Do not adjust your screens; they’ll still take your money any way they can (as will any of these companies) but due to the widespread delays and unique challenges of game development in a pandemic, the infamously small-output habits of the modern-day Activision did not come off quite as cynical in 2020 as they have in recent years. EA’s only decently-received new release of note was Star Wars Squadrons, although they did make a few unusually consumer-friendly moves by leading the pack on cross-platform play throughout the year and adding their services to Xbox Game Pass by year’s end. Bethesda had to make do with just Doom Eternal and an expansion for The Elder Scrolls Online before ending the year as a Microsoft first-party studio. Capcom essentially only had the Resident Evil 3 remake; Konami stayed disappointingly dormant; and Focus Home Interactive was understandably unable to back up their stellar 2019 efforts. Ditto for 505 Games, although Journey to the Savage Planet is rad.

That left five major third-party publishers in the running. 2K Games deserves a mention for at last giving people a decent mainstream golf game in PGA 2K21, as well as bringing almost the entirety of the Borderlands and Bioshock series to the Switch in fine fashion. XCOM Chimera Squad is excellent – as well as cheap – and the Mafia remake wasn’t awful, but the 2K challenge ends there. Sega cannot be discounted in a year where it released the absolutely wonderful Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Sakura Wars and Streets of Rage 4 – not to mention a sequel to Puyo Puyo Tetris – but alas, we move on. Ubisoft was sitting pretty in 2020 thanks to its decision to delay literally every big game in its holster out of 2019, prompted by the poor critical and commercial reception of Ghost Recon Breakpoint. As a result they were able to unleash huge open world adventures Watch Dogs Legion, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Immortals: Fenyx Rising in consecutive months despite the pandemic, right after re-launching their much-improved game client Ubisoft Connect. They also launched their own battle royale title Hyper Scape, though opinions differ on that one to be sure.

For me 2020 comes down to two publishers in the end. The crown could quite easily have gone to Square Enix on the strength of its Japanese contingent alone – the Trials of Mana remake gives the Japan-only 1995 SNES classic a properly impressive modern presentation, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory surprised plenty of people with its content, and Final Fantasy VII Remake is a triumph on plenty of fronts. However, despite a thoroughly enjoyable campaign, Marvel’s Avengers has utterly failed to justify itself as an online experience, and the less said about the XIII remake the better. No, the most consistent game publisher of 2020 was somehow Activision-Blizzard. The extremely pretty Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War successfully evokes the variety and value of the first Black Ops title a decade ago; World of Warcraft: Shadowlands has recaptured a ton of lapsed players; and Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time proved that not only is there still an audience for the marsupial mascot in 2020, but you can still make a really good game for that audience. The clincher? Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 is simply one of the very best videogame remakes I have ever played.

Runner-Up: Square Enix

Click here for more random awards

Best of 2019: Top 11 K-Pop Albums

Yes, this is where I’m putting that extra point from the shortened consoles list.

2019 was in my estimation the craziest year for quality K-Pop mini albums I’ve yet experienced. For a significant chunk of this year I toyed with the idea of outright replacing this list with a top ten purely devoted to the EP format. With the extra point and more honorable mentions I’ve pretty much ended up with one anyway, which is great because thanks to an expanded K-Pop recommendation circle I did uncover a good amount of worthwhile full albums in the end as well. I may have bent some rules, but I’m really happy with the list this year. Happy listening!

1-3 tracks = N/A

4-7 tracks = mini album

8+ tracks = full album

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VR BEST OF 2019 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is rarer than an EA game without microtransactions. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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MINI ALBUMS

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6. Kill This Love – Blackpink

Yes indeed, once in a while a YG girl group actually releases enough songs at the same time to count as an album! In Blackpink’s case, the loooooong time between drinks just about paid off in 2019, because Kill This Love brings three A-game B-sides and a pretty decent remix to slot in under the bombastic title track and create a winning EP. First-change rumbler Don’t Know What To Do leverages the drop-happy stylings that have helped slide Blackpink out from under 2NE1’s shadow, while Hope Not finally brings back the all-too-brief magic from the group’s debut year acoustic B-side Stay. The sealer is the middle track, however: Kick It is a low-key better song than the actual lead single, Kill This Love, which is no dud itself. Uniting big drop with strumming flourish, it rocks.

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Best of 2019: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

We back with an eighth attempt at summing up the year in K-Pop, as I bring you my fifteen personal favourite songs deemed worthy of music videos. As always, that’s the distinction: These aren’t my favourite music videos per se; I hadn’t even seen most of these MVs before starting to write the list. I rank these songs based mostly on the songs themselves.

A massive shout-out has to go to the community of the recently-reborn This Week in K-Pop podcast, which is now a Twitch call-in show airing weekly on Sundays at either 3pm or 8pm CST depending on the week. Those lovely people are responsible for just over a third of the list, as I once again spent about two thirds of the year not listening to a lot of Korean music. They know how to recommend the good stuff.

And for what it’s worth, this might be my favourite list of honorable mentions ever. There wasn’t much separating them all in the end. It was a good year for K-Pop, particularly for pop-adjacent rock bands and emerging solo artists. Let’s dig in!

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VR BEST OF 2019 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is rarer than an EA game without microtransactions. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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15. Umpah Umpah – Red Velvet

We begin with yet another Real Summer Jam from what is now my most featured K-Pop act ever. Red Velvet brings those unchallenged layers of harmony and that quirky bass sampling as brightly as ever, but now featuring late stage vocal ad-libs and references to their own half-decade career (Wasn’t it just yesterday they debuted?) By RV standards Umpah Umpah is actually rather straightforwardly produced – I guess after going B-side-level weird with earlier 2019 single Zimzalabim they needed a palette cleanser – but it’s still got that wonderful flavour you expect from the group’s upbeat output.

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Best of 2018: Top 10 K-Pop Albums

Here we are at the big three, and my most difficult list of the year. Seriously, I had more trouble ordering this one than I did any of the others (It’s always the biggest effort to format too). There are so many different moods that albums are capable of putting you in – or sustaining – so every time I came back to the draft I shifted, added or removed something. This is the most accurate representation of my favourites that I could come up with at this point in time. Turns out it’s the poppiest album list I’ve put together for several years. I usually like to highlight song collections and/or artists that didn’t make my singles list on this page, but this year there are quite a few albums containing singles that either made this year’s main Top 15 or the honorable mentions. Also, I may have just realised while typing this that literally half these albums are from SM Entertainment. Whoops.

For the purposes of this list, a mini album is between four and seven non-instrumental, non-remix tracks long. Eight or more of these makes a full album instead.

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VR BEST OF 2018 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. If you actually agree with me 100%, that’s odd, but let’s have a beer. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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MINI ALBUMS
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5. Blooming Days – EXO-CBX

As always, I love a good attempt at a structural gimmick when it comes to albums, and Blooming Days has a doozy – seven tracks, one for each day of the week and its corresponding mood. Though title track Blooming Day – sitting in the Tuesday slot – is not one of the strongest products to come from the EXO family stable, the rest of the album does a reasonably good job of putting together an aural week that you can experience in less than half an hour. The strongest three tracks, neatly enough, are the opener, the exact midpoint and the closer. Monday Blues is just so good at nailing the bleary-eyed feeling of staring at a week of work ahead, Thursday evokes that knowingly premature daydream of a fruitful weekend and Lazy takes the album’s best backing track and uses it to transport the listener to a sun-soaked picnic. The first of several SM Entertainment albums on this page, I can recommend Blooming Days wholeheartedly to any listeners out there who like to count tracks in their head.

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Best of 2018: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

What a difference a single year can make.

2018 was arguably (and this really is arguable because music is so subjective) a significant step up over 2017 for that unique range of K-Pop sounds that have kept people like me connected – however loosely – to the industry for so long. But 2018 was also the year that I spent the least time listening to K-Pop since this list has been a thing. That’s not necessarily an indicator of the future – for the first half of the year it wasn’t clear whether the podcast I relied on for most of my K-Pop exposure was on hiatus or actually done (It turned out to be the latter) and I also stopped listening to the curated playlists I would normally enjoy while running because of a shockingly persistent knee injury. During that lengthy period I only really listened to the biggest-name releases, though I eventually readjusted my habits – quite late in the year it must be said – and took in a whole bunch of K-Pop at once. That probably had an impact on my positive outlook for the year, because I didn’t have to wade through as much average sameyness, but I maintain that I still find this Top 15 stronger than last year’s. Take that as you will.

The list only considers songs that have a corresponding music video (with one odd exception) and have a significant amount of Korean lyrics within them. It’s an audio-first critique, however – Some of these MVs I hadn’t actually seen before I sat down to write this. It’s restricted to one song per act. Oh, and if this is just about the only K-Pop stuff you’ve watched this year, I recommend hovering over each video and turning off the automatic captions as you go. They’re distracting and usually not exactly poetry when translated. That’s just the way I do it, though. You do you.

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VR BEST OF 2018 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. If you actually agree with me 100%, that’s odd, but let’s have a beer. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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15. POP/STARS – K/DA

What’s that? This doesn’t count? I’m using a League of Legends promotion as clickbait? I am outraged at the mere accusation. Have you heard this song? Against all odds, what could have come across as a cheap attempt to cash in on LoL‘s sizeable Korean player base is in reality a hyper-polished production effort worthy of a top tier K-Pop label, complete with affectionate nods to such tried-and-true Korean music video tropes as rapid-fire freeze-frame poses, member-specific sets, stationary expensive cars, minimal footage of actual dancing and an ultra-serious group logo stinger. Featuring just enough Korean language to count for this list – duly provided by a third of (G)I-DLE – POP/STARS was composed almost entirely at RIOT Games, which seems unfair to the rest of K-Pop because it is a banger. Check out the hologram-infused live performance of the song at the LoL World Championships if you fancy.

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Best of 2017: Top 10 K-Pop Albums

As we roll into the business end of these countdowns and the final hours of 2017, it bears mentioning how difficult I found it to finalise these last three lists. You’re about to see two Top 15s where previously there was only one, but I very nearly made this one the third. If it weren’t for the fact that I couldn’t find another list worth cutting down to compensate, I would have. 2017 was that good of a year for K-Pop albums – especially in their shorter “mini” format. I’ve often joked that all a K-Pop album has to do to get my attention is not put its MV track in the first slot, and maybe divide some group members up for solos/duets (i.e. just not be generic) but I can’t even fall back on that crutch this time, because so many albums did just that in 2017. Some even went a step further in the structural experiment department.

Wow, this is such a nerdy list.

I consider mini-albums to be between four and seven tracks long. Anything shorter than that is a “maxi single” or “single album” (Not even my words), anything longer is a full album.

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VR BEST OF 2017 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. If you actually agree with me 100%, that’s strange. Intriguing, but strange. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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MINI ALBUMS
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5. Eclipse – EXID

They say necessity is the mother of invention and in the case of EXID’s Eclipse that certainly rings true. By all means, on an album you can pair off your members or give them solos to spice things up and make the group feel more like everyone is putting in work, but when you’re also down not only your most gifted vocalist, but one of the most gifted vocalists in all of K-Pop, you need to take things a step further. Eclipse somehow works without the incapacitated Solji thanks to a heavy injection of driving electronic bass as well as some truly impressive fill-in work from secondary vocalist Hyerin. Album opener Boy is the tone-setting stylistic codifier, giving each able member her own unique stanza but leaving the hook entirely electronic. Its lyrics are a prologue of sorts to MV track Night Rather Than Day, which works far better as an audio-only throwback to the group’s early sound (The video is pretty awful). But Eclipse‘s greatest achievement is How Why, which has such a booming chorus that I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of electro-EXID.

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Best of 2017: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

NOTE: This list was already written when we received the news of the apparent suicide of SHINee’s Kim Jonghyun. At the time of publication this development is still less than a week old, but I cannot write it into the main article without sounding flippant about it, and so have left the list un-edited. Kim Jonghyun was literally the first male voice I heard after discovering that I liked K-Pop, and his voice also kicked off my first K-Pop Top 15 at the end of 2012. His loss has rocked the K-Pop community worldwide, and on a personal note has hit me just as hard as the Chester Bennington tragedy earlier this year. I can only imagine how his family must be feeling. He will be missed.

Ah, 2017. If you were a K-Pop fan around when I started being invested in the genre (is it even a genre anymore?) half a decade ago, and you’re still here, then congrats. Your ears have clearly been through a lot and your tastes must be resilient. Though 2016 saw many more big-name K-Pop groups bite the dust, the official dissolving of Sistar and the Wonder Girls in 2017 – alongside respective three-member exoduses from T-ara and Girls’ Generation – meant a 2017 K-Pop fan can hardly be accused of holding on to past glories.

There were quite a few fresh influences and trends worth getting excited about this year, even if they flooded the market so quickly it was hard to find quality at times. The most prevalent surely must be the KARD-and-Winner-led influx of tropical house, because at one point it felt like every group was trying on the sea-and-sand beats. Korea’s ongoing recent fascination with contemporary EDM beat drops also spread into the realm of American DJ collaborations this year – particularly so among the top-tier boy groups – and that helped solidify BTS in rarefied air on the Billboard Top 10 Artists chart in the USA. It seems K-Pop’s year-on-year growth in online popularity around the world has reached a point that no “niche” categorisation can hold back some fandoms. Let’s not forget that we now live in a world where the CinemaSins guy can riff on a Red Velvet video and get views for it. But fear not, because K-Pop was still pulling out plenty of offbeat gimmicks all its own in 2017, from the song-a-month themed schedule of Day6 to the slow revelations of new LOONA members one solo performance at a time. I found a decent amount of K-Pop to enjoy in 2017, and hopefully you did too.

As always, some rules I like to hold myself to: No more than one song from each act and no B-sides. A song needs to have its own official music video and be sung primarily in Korean to be on the list, even though this disqualifies some pretty good songs like Girl Next Door’s Deep Blue Eyes, EXO’s Electric Kiss and Dumbfoundead’s Water (although, to be fair, the latter comes from an actual American rapper). Here’s my sixth annual K-Pop Top 15 list.

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VR BEST OF 2017 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. If you actually agree with me 100%, that’s strange. Intriguing, but strange. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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15. Don’t Wanna Cry – Seventeen

It felt like this song was around every corner when I was looking for K-Pop throughout the majority of 2017 – on YouTube, on curated streaming playlists, on podcasts – and for good reason. It may not have the most exciting backing track, bridge or rap section, but it sure has one catchy hook. Some nights I just can’t get that chorus line out of my head. I want to scream it out right now. Also, it’s Seventeen, so the choreography is amazing and executed with ridiculous accuracy to boot. Who actually wants to cry, though, Seventeen? Who?

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I Went to Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses at the Sydney Opera House

Oh look, a post that isn’t ludicrously lengthy.

At the end of last month I put to bed a small regret of mine – Half a decade ago I was presented with the opportunity to attend the Sydney debut of Symphony of the Goddesses, a worldwide concert tour immediately following on from the special Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary concerts in Japan and the USA. For reasons I can no longer remember clearly (probably funds), I did not take this opportunity. Naturally I regretted my decision pretty soon after the performance dates arrived and several of my friends raved about how good the show was. I told myself the next time I had such a chance I would not let it pass. But for years, no such chance appeared.

So when, after years of sporadic worldwide tours with varying set lists, the announcement was made that Symphony of the Goddesses would be returning to Sydney harbour this year, no price would have been too high for me to snatch up a ticket. Two years after entering the opera house for the first time to attend the Pokemon Symphonic Evolutions showcase, I was back in the venue’s main concert hall to take in the fully-realised music of one of my absolute favourite media franchises. And what an evening it was.

There are three main reasons I’d go to see an orchestral performance of a videogame music selection – The atmosphere, the craft and the arrangement. Hardly groundbreaking reasons of course, and I’m sure the majority of the people in attendance on the night had similar motivations. Atmosphere is created mostly by said people, whose collective energy and passion tend to elevate an event that otherwise gets by on a uniquely strange blend of nerdiness and class. This department provided the largest point of difference between the Pokemon concert and the Zelda one for me. At the Pokemon event, there seemed to be more themed and/or casual dress in and around the hall, while during the concert the audience reacted loudly to each track and arrangement – especially the more widely recognised ones. While the Zelda show was hardly black tie – and cosplay was there if you looked for it – I definitely noticed more of a conservative attitude to dress code in general. What’s more, during the concert you could tell a crowd favourite by a groundswell of hushed whispers and gasps rather than whoops and shouts. I can’t quite put my finger on the reason for this (perhaps Zelda’s slightly older fanbase, or the fact the concert landed on the exact weekend of PAX Australia in Melbourne) but it certainly lent the atmosphere a more reverential tone and allowed quieter pieces – of which Zelda boasts several – to shine.

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