Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

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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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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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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Best of 2016: Top 10 K-Pop Albums

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One of the symptoms of the churning waters of 2016 in K-Pop was the comparative evaporation of full album releases from big players in the industry. Whereas every previous year I’ve done this countdown has brought a reliable salvo of well-polished, high-variety SM releases – usually led by f(x) – and a breakout LP or two with strong devotion to a decidedly non-Korean concept – think IU’s Modern Times or Wonder Girls’ REBOOT – 2016 had neither. If your first thought is that this might translate to a bloodbath of competitive mini-albums, you’d be right, as hedging bets seemed to be the name of the game for the big Korean entertainment companies this year. Luckily there were still some real gems spread throughout the year for fans of longer form K-Pop, and you can find my favourites below.

For the purposes of this list a mini-album is a release between four and seven tracks long, while a full album holds eight or more.

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VR BEST OF 2016 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. Music is a very personal thing and if you actually agree with me 100%, that’s strange. Fun, but strange. Respectful disagreement is very welcome.

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5. The Velvet – Red Velvet

I’m just such a sucker for clearly defined concepts when it comes to albums of any kind, so Red Velvet’s The Velvet was always going to have a bit of a leg-up in a crowded year for quality K-Pop minis. As a follow-up to last year’s energetic, off-kilter The Red, the idea behind The Velvet is to show off the softer, more conventional side to the quintet that is in theory build into the group’s very identity. And for the most part, it pulls the idea off, with only the robotic rhythm of Cool Hot Sweet Love there to indicate that this is even the same people who did The Red. While some may find the lower tempo and less experimental flavour a bit boring, if the 90s warble of lead track One of These Nights is any indication of the kind of song we’ll get in the future from this half of the Red Velvet discography, I’m in. And that’s before I mention Rose Scent Breeze, the most glorious instance of cheesy, karaoke-friendly ballad goodness I’ve heard in a long time. I have screamed out the chorus of this song on late drives home more times than I care to admit.

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Best of 2016: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

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Wow, five years of listening to K-Pop. I’m not sure how to feel really.

When I first discovered the increasingly wide genre back in 2012, talk of a “five year curse” was prevalent – the idea that K-Pop groups, especially female ones, seem unable to stay together for much longer than half a decade. And though the supposed rule has hardly been exact in its application, 2016 is sure as hell going to be remembered as a year of falling dominoes in the world of K-Pop groups. In the same year that the Brown Eyed Girls celebrated an unprecedented full decade without a member change, the likes of Miss A, Kara (for real this time), 4Minute, Rainbow and 2NE1 – all of whom were in top form when I started out – bit the dust. Other big acts lost important members (B2ST) or finally shuffled off to their mandatory military service (Bigbang), in the process well and truly solidifying the shift in Korean music generations that arguably started in 2014. The landscape is now almost unrecognisable from the days of Gangnam Style.

Of course some things never change, and history is bound to repeat. Though there are more successful soloists, more acoustic guitars, more rappers and heavier EDM beats around than ever before, K-Pop’s affiliation with cutesy girl group concepts returned in a big way in 2016 – especially among mid-tier acts – with barely a trace of the often-tacky “sexy” stylings of the last few years. And while we’re on the subject, it’s kind of a cool novelty to see each of the Big Three Korean entertainment companies bringing a properly successful female group to the table at the same time. That arguably hasn’t happened since 2012, at the tail end of the Wonder Girls/SNSD/2NE1 glory days. Now we have Twice/Red Velvet/Blackpink, and they have cute/weird/cool covered quite well respectively.

But I’m not here to write a dissertation; I’m here to count down my top 15 favourite K-Pop songs of the year, and there are a lot of different kinds of tracks to cover. So let’s do that, for the fifth time on Vagrant Rant.

No more than one song from a group/solo/collaboration can be eligible for this list, and it only takes into account songs that have a corresponding music video and feature Korean language lyrics. Every aspect of the release, visual and otherwise, is considered, but overwhelmingly the audio comes first.

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VR BEST OF 2016 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. Music is a very personal thing and if you actually agree with me 100%, that’s strange. Fun, but strange. Respectful disagreement is very welcome.

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15. Last Dance – Bigbang

I hope you’ll allow me a sentimental entry to kick things off.

Bigbang may be a YG Entertainment act, and true to their label they tease fans regularly with releases that don’t actually release for months or years after they are first mentioned. But they’ve been around in some way or another, without any real hint of breaking up, for ten years, and the gigantic quintet has given us a lot of fine memories. So on the eve of their mandated military service they released, alongside two other pretty decent songs, this heartstring-puller, and its emotional impact feels earned. Last Dance gives Bigbang a contemplative track that feels rather, shall we say, final, particularly alongside its brooding MV. There ain’t nothing wrong with it musically, though, providing plenty of Bigbang staples like growling Daesang/smooth Taeyang vocals, a bassy T.O.P rap and a soaring chorus that ends with a definitive full stop. Good luck to ’em.
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