2016 mid-year report

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The first half of 2016 hasn’t been anywhere as interesting as 2015’s, but we’ve gotten some great new tracks and albums from producers as varied as Tatsuro Yamashita and Max Martin, as well as some up-and-coming producers from all over the world. I’ve chosen to focus on East Asian pop in this post, and have spent the last couple of weeks frantically catching up on everything I might have overlooked; still, I’m sure I missed a few things that will hopefully make its way to my ears by the end of the year. Until then, I hope you’ll find one or two things you might have missed here as we take the time to reflect on the last six months in music. As always, you can follow the notable releases tag over at the tumblr to keep up in real-time.

K-pop: The Gold, and the Silver

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Is there such a thing as a Silver Age? If so, K-pop might be in it. You might be disheartened enough to argue that we’re actually in a Bronze Age but it hasn’t come to that yet; let me make a case.

There have been signs of K-pop’s demise for a couple of years now, signaled by what Jin Min-Ji calls a “generation shift” caused by the expiration of the contracts many idols signed at the era’s beginning. “A multitude [of] second generation members’ contracts, which usually last seven years, have either terminated or are close to termination. An So-hee from Wonder Girls, for example, left the group in 2013 after her contract expired with JYP Entertainment. Other singers that left their groups are Jia from Miss A last month and Sulli from f(x) in August 2015.” In addition, members who have stuck around long enough to find out that the entertainment world isn’t all glitz and glam, are burning out and leaving to find other lucrative work that’s less stressful, demanding, and sometimes, the equivalent of unpaid labor.

Jessica’s departure from SNSD has turned out to be something of a game-changer: since then, we’ve seen Golden Age groups 2NE1, BEAST, and 4minute split, as members have departed on somewhat shaky terms. This leaves room for a new crop of K-pop groups, many which are attempting to imitate the sounds of their forerunners. For example, OH MY GIRL, Lovelyz, and G-Friend, all of which released solid EPs this year, are really just attempting to recreate the magic of the early years of a group like Girls’ Generation, while TWICE is exploring an edgier side in the style of 2NE1. Their efforts are rather admirable, particularly A New Trilogy and Snowflake, but it remains to be seen if a new crop of producers and songwriters will emerge parallel to this “second” generation to carry on the torch of a Teddy Park, E-Tribe, or Shinsadong Tiger; in fact, it seems K-pop is tending to outsource a lot more of its songwriting now, which is not a criticism, but an observation that it might be harder to find writers of hits as prolific as there once were. In addition, now that record companies and agencies finally have some working statistics for modern K-pop, many glitches and experiments can be ironed out, or expanded upon, even pushed to its very limit. This all has the potential to change the look and sound of K-pop as it moves forward.

Because a lot of groups that have managed to stay together are losing popularity, or simply, running out of ideas (BIGBANG comes to mind) there has also been a clear shift this year to giving surviving members solo opportunities. This is notable, since K-pop’s modus operandi is single-sex boy and girl groups, rather than solo artists. This year, we got additional solo work from AMBER (f(x)), Tiffany (SNSD), JONGHYUN (SHINee), Taemin (also SHINee), Luna (f(x)), Jun Hyo Seong (Secret), and an uncomplicated bit of J-pop from former KARA member NICOLE’s Japanese debut album bliss. Tiffany’s and Taemin’s stand out in particular, as SM Entertainment rarely disappoints (SNSD’s Taeyon’s solo effort notwithstanding, aside from last year’s lead single “I” — her next solo effort comes out in a few days as of this writing). “I Just Wanna Dance,” received mild reviews, but I find the song, and its sister follow-up “Heartbreak Hotel,” a slice of ethereal pop. It can easily be too slow for some listeners, and too fast for the others, but its mid-tempo essence is refreshing, and the fact that they held back on letting Tiffany go too crazy with the vocals is a sign of a wise restraint.

Taemin’s “Press Your Number,” on the other hand, channels his group SHINee’s endless, and welcome, repetition of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. I gushed a bit about the music video earlier, and the dance version of the PV is worth taking a second or third look, just to admire the grace and power Taemin brings to every step of the choreography. The album, too, is full of smooth R&B hooks, and stiller moments, like the lovely little balled “Soldier.” In other words, it’s nice to see that Jo Kwon’s solo album I’m Da One was good for something, even if it was just setting the precedent for seriously fun male solo albums.

Finally, I just really like Luna’s Free Somebody. The title track, which was penned by “The Family,” a songwriting trio from the land of the universe’s reigning country of pop production, and also, surprisingly, JoJo (yes that JoJo) is a tribute to Europe’s easy way of slipping electro-house and nu disco into the mainstream. I could easily see this song fitting onto a Kitsune Maison compilation with no problem, and that fact tickles me.

Even though the continued demise of K-pop’s Golden Age is disappointing, it’s also bringing forth a new crop of groups, mostly-successful solo work, and interesting outside collaborations (it’s less surprising that Skrillex worked with 4minute this year, than that the group is breaking up immediately following it). Hopefully, these new shifts will eventually be brought into the fold, making way for positive developments. It’s jarring not to have a seemingly endless procession of amazing song after incredible rookie group debut after excellent song like we did in 2011 or 2012, but none of this is alarming enough to signal the end. Not yet. In fact, the only true disappointment is that in a year ripe with them, CL has yet to release her promised solo debut.

J-pop (Idols and otherwise)

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If you had told me as early as last year that my favorite song of 2016 would probably be by boy-band Arashi, I would have scoffed and continued finding the band as joyless and mediocre as ever. And yet, here we are, halfway through the year, and nothing has come close to “Fukkatsu LOVE” and its B-side “Ai no COLLECTION.” Sure, there have been songs that have been more upbeat, more powerful, and more fun (if you’re short of time, Namie Amuro’s “Mint” covers all of those bases), but none have rivaled “Fukkatsu” for atmosphere and production. The song, which was penned by legendary City Pop producer Tatsuro Yamashita, is similar to the general patterns of any Arashi song, and yet, completely different. For Yamashita, “smooth,” and “cool,” are less adjectives than steadfast principles to his success. The song, with which its throwback sounds to the early 80s could have been something of a risk for a group that has done phenomenal with its Johnny’s formula, adapts to the group’s somewhat elder statesmen status (the group debuted in 1999 — for all you collectors out there, it means their first single was issued on 3″ mini-CD, rather than the standard 5″ maxi). It’s a mature, relaxed look and sound for the group, with its subdued coloring and formal wear. Finally being allowed to act their age (the oldest member is 35) and associate itself closer to SMAP is doing this idol group a service, leaving the more strenuous tasks to juniors like Hey! Say! JUMP and A.B.C.-Z. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for that Yuma Nakayama follow-up (one year since Tokoton and not a word).

Other male groups that have stood out to me have been Da-iCE, which has been a sort of slow burn. It’s not surprising that some of the most interesting music is coming from the groups that are competing with their Korean peers overseas: there’s big bucks and, seemingly, bigger respect from groups who can bring something other than the standard “idol sound” to the charts. Your preference is a matter of opinion: there’s interesting things on both sides of the divide, and generally, even an EVERY SEASON has its pitfalls (imagine, for a moment, a man like Daichi Miura getting his hands on a song like “Got Your Back” and how much it would have made a good song incredible). As a counterweight, there’s NEWS’ QUARTETTO, which I find a perfect blend of the two.

One of the most interesting developments of the year to watch has been Avex Trax’s entrance into the idol world. Japan’s biggest independent label is on record as one of my favorite labels of all time, if not number one. They’ve made inroads beginning a couple of years back, choosing, wisely to develop and sustain their roster of dance-pop oriented groups like FEMM, Fairies, and FAKY, but groups like X21 have done better than a few of those. Without a signature sound, the only way I can describe it is idol-pop with a sheer of professional polish all over it. Wa-suta’s The World Standard and Cheeky Parade’s second album are the highlights, bringing to the endless churn of singles put out by groups like AKB48 (whose year-defining senbatsu single “Tsubasa wa Iranai” didn’t come close to last year’s “Bokutachi wa Tatakawanai“) a bit more gravitas. The attention to detail is surprising for songs that don’t sound much different than their more experienced contemporaries over at places like King Record. Still, iDOL Street, the name of Avex’s subdivision dedicated to idols, is a growing and interesting venture for them. SUPER☆GiRLS , the first group signed, has been something of a mixed bag, but it’s worth looking out for Wa-suta, and in the coming months, BiSH, who were signed earlier this year.

In addition, Avex has their hands full with dance groups like GEM, whose debut album Girls Entertainment Mixture, following a number of singles since 2013, has been one of my most-played of the year. Even though they’re under the same umbrella as CP and S☆G, they’re still a basic Avex dance-group like Fairies. The biggest criticism at this point is that Avex seems to be scrambling to debut and develop as many groups as possible, in the hopes that one or two will make an impression long enough to stick around. In other words, hopefully FEMM won’t be tossed aside for a group like FAKY, which hasn’t fulfilled any of its promise (perhaps one or two of the members will get solo opportunities? They’re too talented to throw away), and will start work on their follow-up album (as of this writing, a new single has been announced, but not released). You can always tell when a group has made it by the imitators that follow; if they all sound like Faint Star’s “Never Ever,” I won’t complain.

That leaves me wondering where groups like Prizmmy☆, Dorothy Little Happy, X21, or TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE will fit into the coming year. The latter, in particular, is now at something of a deadlock. They were Avex’s first and most successful idol group in a long time, with amazing New Jack Swing albums to back them up, but with the official departure of member Ayano Konishi, they’re unsure which direction to take them now that they’ve declared themselves artists, rather than idols. So far, they’ve been spending most of 2016 performing overseas, pushing a dead album onto the masses. It’s been six months since REFLECTION and there’s been no sign of a new single in the works; the style and tone of it will be telling of the group’s future.

Other groups that have failed to release follow-up albums, have been PASSPO☆, who so impressed me last year, callme, E-girls (just a greatest hits here), and palet, though I’m eagerly looking forward to any upcoming singles or projects that might still make it before the year is up. In the end, it’s been BABYMETAL’s continued success story overseas that has been J-pop’s crowning achievement of 2016 so far; the fact that METAL RESISTANCE is so great only makes it sweeter.

Going Solo

Here were the big solo releases of the year: Namie Amuro’s “Mint,” a grand pop gesture if there ever was one (hopefully, a new album follows her soon-to-be-released summer single), Ayumi Hamasaki’s M(A)DE IN JAPAN, which I’ve already discussed here (worth noting, though, is the constant cropping up of the term “renaissance” to describe this phase of her career, to which: maybe? Things like that usually only become clear after the fact, so I’ll sit tight for now), and the wild card, Mamoru Miyano’s “SHOUT!” He’s no Luna Haruna, but the anime-pop solo work of this voice actor has been a refreshing change from your everyday Nana Mizuki. Someone has to fill in for Yuma Nakayama.

Odds and Ends

One of the biggest stories in J-pop this year was the affair between Gesu no Kiwame Otome.’s Enon Kawatani and Becky, a talento. Unfortunately, the news overshadowed the release of the group’s album, Ryouseibai, a solid bit of J-rock, that runs just a bit too long to be truly outstanding. The J-rock album to beat this year has been uchuu,’s +1, a solid debut full-length from the indie group that graced us with HELLO, HELLO, HELLO, last year. I’ll be keeping my eyes on them.

But what is it good for?

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Which leads us to the biggest disappointments of the year. Of note, there have only been two: Perfume’s COSMIC EXPLORER and Negicco’s Tea for Three. Perfume’s is the least surprising, with the quality of Yasutaka’s Nakata’s compositions on a decline for the past few years; still COSMIC EXPLORER, unlike LEVEL3, left so little room for surprises, such as a “PARTY MAKER” or “Clockwork,” that its two interesting songs “Miracle Worker” and “FLASH” pale in comparison. Negicco, who showed such promise after years of toiling in obscure ridicule, set such a high bar with Rice & Snow that Tea for Three is less a disappointment, than a given. It’s an okay album for a group that released okay singles leading up to it, with a few stand-outs, like “Kounan Yoi Uta.” I’ll take it, but I’m not happy about it.

 

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Top ten albums of 2015, #9: Ayumi Hamasaki’s A ONE

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Ayumi Hamasaki: A ONE

“I felt the past me was “already gone”, but now I feel ‘She’s still here. For good or bad, I’m still the way I was.’ […] I feel this album taught me that I haven’t changed much since I created A Song for XX. My surroundings may have changed, but there’s still a part deep inside of me that thinks ‘People are born alone and will die alone.’ The people who related to songs like A Song for XX have changed as well over the years, that’s what I thought. But with this album, I feel like we can say ‘In the end, we’re still the same’ to each other.” Ayumi Hamasaki, 109 News

ayuaoneapp2It has been more than ten years since one of Ayumi Hamasaki’s albums has landed in my best of the year list. Despite being one of my favorite recording artists of all time (maybe THE defining influence on my appreciation for Japanese pop music), her albums haven’t resonated with me since, truthfully, (miss)understood. But she’s remained a fascinating figure to watch develop, both personally and musically. Since her skyrocket to celebrity, she’s experimented with a wide palette of genres, even when those explorations haven’t proved successful (NEXT LEVEL, Colours) or noteworthy (Rock n’ Roll Circus, LOVE again). Love songs is the only recent album that sparked a bit of joy into her discography, thanks in large part to Tetsuya Komuro — to see these two perfectionists finally in the studio together is a Holy Grail moment in J-pop — even when her career tanked further during her Vegas-wedding and divorce. That’s when everything burst into flames: the poorly-received, scraped-together confessional, an ill-conceived rebound album (and boyfriend…which…), and the stretch for brand-name producers with capital EDM beats in a bid to remain relevant. Of this time in her life, Hamasaki recalls, “I feel like I was trying to run away from the biggest slipup [sic] in my life. ‘I’ve done something horrible’ — I couldn’t shake that feeling. And when I felt it would continue to shadow me my entire life, I just felt so pathethic [sic]. I felt ‘nothing makes sense no matter what I sing’ when making music.” It all but effectively burned her brand to the ground. Until atonement. Until A ONE.

Let’s assume for a moment that it’s not an L missing from that title, but a T. It’s penance, a musical redemption fit for a queen; royalty kneeling before us with all her weakness and vulnerability. The album’s track listing is stately, the songs almost all expansive ballads or power anthems, songs that fill first rooms, then stadiums, then quiet corners. Komuro and Hamasaki have managed to pull off an unlikely coupling of humility and bravado where once all we had was elaborate window-dressing: the pomp and flash of big hooks and bigger, more universal (read: generic) sentiments. There are still moments of intimate intensity, like fan favorite “The Show Must Go On,” but it’s not attention-seeking; it’s the honest statement of someone’s not always-pleasant reality. It’s the subtle ways we communicate the unspeakable truths of our every day. It’s the occasional detail that relieves us of shame, but with the grace that keeps our dignity intact. It’s the universal created by just the right personal reveals, a return to one’s “true core.” It’s the Ayumi I’ve known and loved, the album I’ve been waiting for over a decade to hear, a road map to the things she’s always been capable of if she could only remember what she’s fought to embrace – that everything she’s done was already enough.

2015 mid-year report

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2015 has offered a number of notable releases so far: so much so, in fact, that narrowing it down to discuss the highlights without resorting to a wall of YouTube videos is difficult. For the purposes of this blog, I’ve chosen to focus exclusively on Japanese and Korean pop, omitting digressions on American pop, electronic, and Bollywood soundtracks, which sometimes crop up here. I think you’ll find plenty to sample and I encourage you all to share anything you may have found particularly awesome that I missed.

The Annual Yasutaka Update

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So here’s a first: Perfume released a new single and it barely registered. The trio has been getting more Internet buzz over their SXSW performance (I mean, it seems pretty cool, but it’s kind of hard to tell with all the annoying camera angles and visual effects splashing across the actual performance). For years now, Perfume has focused on live, especially overseas, performances, and songs that enhance those performances: singles aren’t so much indicative of Nakata himself, Perfume-as-statement, or even advertising anymore — they’re just the fuel that keeps the tour bus rolling. It’s hard to be completely disappointed by a Perfume single, though. Even when the A-side isn’t the newest addition to your workout playlist you were hoping for, the B and C-sides always offer alternatives. That said, “Relax In The City” isn’t bad, but it is largely superfluous next to “Pick Me Up” and “Toumei Ningen.” As Kashiyuka pointed out in an interview, it’s very Yasutaka Nakata to hide the more commercial crowd-pleasers at the back (remember “Hurly Burly” on Spending all my time?) He’s one producer who likes to dole out rewards only if you’re paying attention.

capsule’s latest original album, WAVE RUNNER, is something of a mixed bag with few really great standout tracks; it’s business as usual as the follow-up to the experimental CAPSLOCK. We also got Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s single “Mondai GIRL.” While I appreciate Kyary as an artist, I’m not always happy with Nakata’s work with her, but “Mondai GIRL” proves how perfect the pieces can fall into place when the producer steps away from the xylophones. As always, the kiddie orgel ticks and marching drums are almost completely absent from every great Kyary song: I’ll remember this every time Mito Natsume releases any music with Nakata and won’t even bother. Instead, it’ll be nice to see if Nakata produces any more one-offs like the excellent “Music Flyer” on E-girls’ E.G.TIME: I always enjoy hearing what magic he can conjure for artists outside of his usual roster.

Girls On Top

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Thanks to some wrinkle in time, we were blessed with four long-time top Avex female artists’ albums this year. Are you there God? It’s me, grateful. To halt anticipation, I’ve never been a Kuu fan, despite my repeated visits to her back catalog, so WALK OF MY LIFE is a non-conversation. To a large extent, neither is Ayumi Hamsaki’s A ONE. But the album has some really beautiful moments: this is the first Ayumi album in years that has felt like a solid, cohesive whole. It has some breathtaking moments (the last two minutes of “Out of control,” “The Show Must Go On,” the lively cover of “Movin’ on without you” — wow! What a gentle, grand statement that Ayumi covered a Hikaru Utada song to prove that any competition between those two was always fabricated by the record companies and not by the two women themselves) that really round out what have been some truly awful career lows.

Obviously, Ai Otsuka’s LOVE TRiCKY is my favorite of the four so far (read the full review here), but it’s worth spilling a few words on Namie Amuro’s _genic, an album so uniformly perfect, it’s almost not worth listening to more than once. This album is pure pop gold, but it offers little extra on repeat listens. As Otsuka’s album is dark and vulpine, Amuro’s is effortless and seasoned. _genic is trendy hooks, high production value, and class: it’s hard to find cracks in something that already seems iconic, songs that were precisely chosen to bewitch you in the first 20 seconds, except that it’s perhaps all just very glossy surface, and I imagine many people can find fault in that the same way some people prefer the pops, hisses, and scratches in a vinyl record over 320kbps mp3 files. You can’t please everyone.

K-pop

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Post-Golden Age, good, but not necessarily great, things are happening in K-pop. Ever since Jessica’s departure from Girls’ Generation, we’ve gotten a lot of artists mimicking their debut album in a very short nostalgia turnover: OH MY GIRL’s “Cupid” and G-Friend’s “Glass Bead” are the first that come to mind. The standouts for me this year so far have been AMBER’s solo EP BEAUTIFUL, miss A’s fun “Dareun Namja Malgo Neo” and BoA’s “Kiss My Lips” (the single, not the album, which is just okay). I get the feeling many people haven’t been wowed by BIG BANG’S MADE project, or maybe that perception is just an extension of my own disappointment. The group’s releases used to be events that seemingly everyone in the K-pop fandom could get behind. Now it just seems that stretching out singles over the course of a few months is tedious and suspect, kind of like splitting the last season of an iconic show in two. Sometimes it feels that the context of other songs on an album can really change your mind about particular songs that just seem off: now all these stand-alone tracks feel obvious and not a bit whelming. Just because G-Dragon composed it and T.O.P has a really cool new haircut doesn’t make it worthy of applause, or the music videos any less problematic. Basically I’ve largely ignored the new songs up until now due to meh.

Idol Corner

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OK guys, brace yourselves, we’re gonna crank this one out, because idols are everywhere now and you can’t download a rar file or follow a tumblr without stumbling across this stuff and it’s been my year’s goal to start embracing more idol-pop and I feel I’ve mastered the rhythms when I can make a statement like: And anyway, there’s some decent stuff out there. On principle I cannot in good conscience discuss AKB48 anymore, so let’s just say that whether or not you believe that good music can stand on its own, far apart from its commercial, or more prurient interests, AKB always manages to get in those one or two songs that surprise you: if among the deluge of choices on their new album Koko ga Rhodes de, Koko de Tobe! (with all editions packing thirty-eight songs) you can’t find at least two songs that make you hesitant to dismiss the music completely, maybe J-pop is not the genre for you.

We had fantastic albums from Negicco and Luna Haruna and an okay album from Avex idols X21, and more of the same from Johnny’s groups like Hey! Say! JUMP (again, again there’s usually at least one song I can sink my teeth into, and so it is with JUMPing car‘s “Boys Don’t Stop”). I’m not sure if Shoujo X is commendable just because X21 is an Avex group and I’m now so deeply invested that to reject outright any of their output without giving it an honest try is so repugnant that is sends me into lonely spirals of repeat listens, but it’s a group that I’ll be monitoring in the future.

PASSPO☆’s Beef or Chicken? has had the most repeat value for me this year, an album that I keep playing over and over because of how fun it is. The promo “Honey Dish” is the album’s highlight, lending it the vintage-y pop style the album was going for, without abandoning the group’s hard rock style or falling into the Meghan Trainer trap of cloying, wince-inducing brass as Yuma Nakayama’s “YOLO moment” — I genuinely like this guy and think he has potential as a soloist, but the YOLO reference feels dated and the 50’s soda shop-pop doesn’t feel fresh enough to be a classic, rather then just a hopeful, throwback. I’m on board for rolled up jean cuffs and ties under varsity jackets, but only if the angle is more than just earnest heartthrob: am I the only one who feels this is really more of an homage to the 80’s-referencing-the-50’s? It just screams 80’s teen flicks more than 50’s surf movies. I guess I just want to like the guy more than I do and will scale back my ire when it’s so hard to find good male solo artists.

And finally, here are some interesting newcomers to keep an eye out for: Maria’s “HURRICANE” is an adorable slice of “chame-rock” (playful/mischievous rock). I understand that after the perceived success of BABYMETAL et al., there’s a push for more rock/metal idols but even more hyper-specific, with just-that-little-bit-different angle, but this one seems a little more Blue Hearts than so many of the heavy metal idols coming out. Everyone’s Ramones bangs are a great backdrop for the song (a cover of Chanels/Rats & Star), even when the backpacks look like a pain to dance in. Cupitron and callme are both going for Perfume tributes here — callme even has the unoriginal primary colored square mod dresses going for them — but they’re both worth keeping an eye on. callme are Avex (yeah, there’s that) and are composed of former Dorothy Little Happy members. Cupitron’s outfits were designed by Tomoe Shinohara, which is enough to pique my interest. Ayumikurikamaki: This is just fun.

Special mentions

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Shout outs to the following fun records:

Hanae’s Jokyo Shoko
uchuu,’s HELLO, HELLO, HELLO, (token J-rock)
E-girls’ E.G. TIME
Sakurako Ohara’s HAPPY

For more great music I haven’t featured here, please browse the Notable Releases tag over at tumblr.

On the horizon

Here are a few things I’m looking forward to in the rest of 2015: Girls’ Generation’s new album (sometime in July?), more singles from TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE (an album might not be imminent this year, but I guess anything’s possible), more stuff from Tomomi Itano (whose “Gimme Gimme Luv” will be a great summer single), Ayumi Hamasaki’s mini-album (August), CL’s debut (I don’t think this will necessarily make her a huge overseas contender, but I’m criminally curious what this will look and sound like), anything more that will or will not happen with f(x) this year, and finally, an honest to goodness fun Bollywood soundtrack, which has been seriously lacking this year.