February 2020: Highlights

LOONA: [#]
(2020.02.05)

I was ready for the next LOONA project a year ago when they released the brilliant [x x], which made the Top Ten Albums of the Year list, but [#] was not what I was expecting. It seems the group has gone back to the K-pop girl-group-template drawing board with lead track “So What,” a generic chunk of electro-pop I can picture any number of current trendy groups like ITZY or EVERGLOW releasing. It’s not a bad song, but it’s void of any unique identifying marker that makes it unmistakably LOONA, and not, say, peak-era f(x). It’s unclear where the magic of this group has gone: the entire project was founded on an exquisitely drawn-out reveal campaign, capped by an album that seemed just as enigmatic as the girls’ origins. Now that all identities have been revealed, BlockBerryCreative are treading water by falling back on well-worn concepts, in this case, a tough-as-nails clap back anthem that doesn’t float, and stings for all the wrong reasons.

Birds of Prey: The Album // Daniel Pemberton: Birds of Prey OMPS
(2020.02.07) // (2020.02.14)

Ever since Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning Black Panther: The Album lent legitimacy and prestige to film projects, soundtracks curated and/or produced by pop stars have become another sign of a singer’s cultural status. Last year, we had Beyonce’s very serious The Lion King: The Gift and Ariana Grande’s frothy Charlie’s Angels entries, the latter having somewhat bombed, though I personally took it for the escapist, mainstream-feminist bait collection it was and thoroughly enjoyed it. This year’s first entry is Birds of Prey: The Album, and though it lacks a central figure behind it, is filled with original tracks from some of the brightest new figures on Billboard, like Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, Halsey, and Summer Walker. This is somehow even more fun than Charlie’s Angels, boasting fifteen tracks that range from hip-hop, to dance, to silky R&B, all bent on juicing the hell out of the film’s theme of female independence (I’m assuming, based on the trailer — I know nothing about American comic books and super hero films). It doesn’t always stick the landing, but the spirit and energy it gives off feels exciting: production levels on this are turned up to eleven, with the compression and volume mix on these songs dominating every amount of space in the room. Imagine my surprise when Daniel Pemberton’s score was released a week later, the unsuspecting mirror-image to this rainbow-pop palette revealing that parts of the songs were actually extrapolated from the score. Charlotte Lawrence’s “The Joke’s on You” is from “The Fantabulous Emancipation Explosion” and “Harley Quinn (Danger Danger)” brought to life by Jucee Froot’s “Danger.” It’s a chance to play in some of the songs’ scaffolding while also bringing to life a somewhat unorthodox score that relies on its visuals to do most of the heavy-lifting, with tracks sounding less like a traditional score than the industrial beats backing old PlayStation racing video games. Still, it’s a cool twist on a practice I expect to continue seeing pop up, though I suppose it’s too much to hope for a companion to one of the scores I’m most excited for this year: Wonder Woman 1984, which drops in June.

Rocket Punch: RED PUNCH // Cherry Bullet: Hands Up
(2020.02.11)

A few girl-group debuts caught my eye last year, two of which were Rocket Punch and Cherry Bullet. Potential is a weak foundation to base hopes on, but you never really know which group will (or even can) end up being the next SNSD or 2NE1, and that is part of what makes debuts so exciting, and so disappointing when follow-ups fail to hit the same mark. Both groups released new music on the same day, Rocket Punch with their second mini-album, RED PUNCH, and Cherry Bullet with single “Mureupeul Tak Chigo (Hands Up).” The latter is near-abysmal: a sloppy “Fur Elise” sample, the lead (and arguably only) hook, has no chance of carrying this thin, lethargic hip-pop meringue that, as The Bias List points out, “is almost too obvious to work. Its repetitive use borders on cloying.” Luckily, RED PUNCH picks up the slack with lead track “BOUNCY,” a dynamic song with tempo modulations that keep the energy and novelty as bright as the title suggests. The rest of the EP is not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, but it extends the atmosphere introduced on PINK PUNCH, and this undervalued lack of pretense makes it one of the best K-pop releases of the month.

FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC 9
(2020.02.12)

I have long since given up on keeping track of the EXILE TRIBE franchise, mostly because it has never really struck me as worth paying attention to. Furthermore, now that my favorite iteration of this extended universe is coming to an end, it hardly seems worth investing any additional time. Still, it’s always nice to get in on the ground floor of a group: it always feels easier being there from the beginning as opposed to jumping into the middle of a career and playing catch up on albums and singles and scandals before you feel comfortable forming opinions. If you relate to that feeling at all, FANTASTICS is the newest train you still have time to get on before they leave the station for good (that and MCND, who delivered a decent debut mini-album, memorable mostly for the stand-out lead track). The group has released four singles over the course of the past year and just released their debut album FANTASTIC 9 this past month. The album is as predictable an EXILE album as you can imagine: there are no surprises hidden among this bloated 15-track collection (but still only second to the ironman triathlon that is BTS’s new album) complete with two unnecessarily drawn-out instrumental interludes (presumably archived here for future dance-showcases during live events), but it’s also as fun as you’d expect, too: it’s the dancier, poppier, gentler cousin to GENERATIONS. The emphasis here is on dance, not hip-hop, and it all goes down as smoothly as some of the more Western Hey! Say! JUMP cuts. I’m not blown away, but I’m impressed! FANTASTIC 9 needs some serious trimming, but it’s salvageable, and hopefully some of this stems more from an over-eagerness than lack of direction — the former can be harnessed, the latter can pull you under quicksand fast. I don’t think anything can fill the hole that E-girls will leave behind, but there’s potential for welcome distraction here.

KARD: RED MOON
(2020.02.12)

It’s tough out there for co-ed groups, but as someone who got into K-pop because of a group like Koyote, I can’t help rooting for these underdogs. I don’t know what it is about these groups that audiences seem so averse to when they used to be something of a norm — they’re a bit more popular in Japan, with groups like AAA (oops, never mind, they’re going on hiatus) and lol still representing for Avex, a label that never once succeeded at something twenty years ago that they think they can’t keep doing forever (literally no one is asking for more super eurobeat, but like clockwork, compilations continue to be released), but I guess it’s one of the few 90’s touchstones no one is ready to revive yet. Co-ed groups (especially dance-focused ones) peaked in the 90s around the world, with groups like trf, Real McCoy, move, and Koyote, but were left behind in K-pop during the big girl- and boy-group boom of the Second Generation. The last co-ed group I remember making any sort of impact was Co-Ed School, and while there are a couple of co-ed groups releasing music today, something like Triple H is the Yeti of the monster world: seasonal, and rarely standing out. I rather like “Red Moon,”: the song rests comfortably in the footsteps laid by groups before them — upbeat, trendy, and hardly groundbreaking, but extremely competent. Perhaps it’s just easier to market single-gender groups when you’ve got your target audience whittled down to a marketing science, but I’ll always root for those daring to take the difficult road and rising to the challenge.

Tink: Hopeless Romantic
(2020.02.14)

While researching TAEYEON’s solo album Purpose last year, I came across the very Wikipedia-like term “PBR&B,” a “stylistic alternative” to R&B. I”m not 100% sure I can distinguish this sound from contemporary R&B, or maybe this just is the sound of R&B now, and we’ve reached the apex of its transition, the point where it is now the default, rather than the alternative. The Weeknd’s early mix tapes are surely one early iteration, as are artists like Frank Ocean and Drake, but it is really women who have taken the reins of this sound and made it both mainstream and meaningful: SZA, Summer Walker, Kehlani, and Tinashe are just a few that instantly come to mind — Walker’s debut album Over It, in particular is still treading water in the Billboard Top 50 more than four months after its release, and her duet with Usher is a great example of the sound I’m referring to, whatever it may be called. It brings to mind softer 90’s ballads, but without the cheese; certainly more explicit — at times downright crude — but also insanely liberating. I slept on Doja Cat’s Hot Pink last year and after quickly correcting my mistake this month, I was determined not to let anymore of these gems pass by. Tink’s Hopeless Romantic is another addition to this shift in sound, rolling in on a bed of red satin and rose petals. She’s no newcomer to the sound, bringing a near-decade of experience to Hopeless Romantic, and the result is an effortless mix of drum machines set to scandalous soirees and storybook bodice-rippers. Listen, I’ll be happy if I never heard the phrase “in my feelings” ever again, its clipped millennial motto now a lazy shorthand meant to prove, rather than do the work of conveying, depth, but Tink’s use of it is justified. Perhaps in-my-feelings-R&B isn’t any less offensive or silly as PBR&B: it certainly gets to the heart, if not soul, of the matter.

Hitomi Arai: “Shoujo A” PV
(2020.02.19)

It has now been five years since TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE’s last album, a time so interminable as to be equal to a lifetime in the entertainment world. In the idol world, groups have risen, peaked, and fallen in less time. While Avex clumsily fumbles around with what used to be their greatest girl-group of the decade, member Hitomi Arai, has been getting some unusual solo time. Last year, the sub-leader covered Ohta Takako’s 80’s hallmark “DELICATE ni Suki Shite.” It’s now obvious Avex has some grand plan for Arai that involves an older audience that can best appreciate these Golden Age hits with a cover of Akina Nakamori’s 1982 classic “Shoujo A”. But what do these songs really have in common? They were both the first true hits in both artist’s careers and propelled them to stardom — that first-time feeling being what producers are most likely homing in on for Arai herself, who is now no longer a new-face herself, but whose career has stalled so long in TGS that she might as well be. Unfortunately, the covers, while fun natsukashii-bait aren’t strong enough on their own: they’re not different, or improve upon the original, enough to be memorable in any way. The PV for “Shoujo A,” released a month ahead of the official single release, seems redundant, the wig coming off as gimmicky rather than clever after we’ve seen every iteration of this concept, from parodies to critical satires, to really earnest job well-dones over the past decade. But worst of all, Hitomi Arai is clearly a star in search of a galaxy, someone who deserves a lot better than these half-hearted projects that rely entirely on unoriginal, already-proven-successful material. Immediately after watching this PV, I re-listened to Killing Me Softly, the last great TGS album and thought, Is there life after TGS? And wondered why the real question couldn’t be, Is there a way to revive and reignite the magic of TGS? To correct all the mistakes made after the departure of Ayano Konishi?

Allie X: Cape God
(2020.02.21)

Despite my appreciation of Allie X, I wasn’t too impressed by the singles leading up to her new album Cape God. While still steeped in the mystical art-pop style that has become her signature, they seemed a little too self-serious, missing some of the smart humor of tracks off of CollXtion II or Super Sunset. I suppose that’s all par for the course when you’re drawing inspiration from opioid-addiction documentaries, and anyway, no one goes to Allie X for mindless pop formulas (though there are a couple of slightly more conventional bops, like “Sarah Come Home,” and “Life of the Party”). But in the end, despite the whip-quick hooks, Cape God is a slow, quiet burn — there aren’t many bells and whistles adorning this one to make it more palatable for a casual listener, nor have I been able to process my reaction as easily as I can on most first-listens. This is a record I see myself necessarily returning to many times with pleasure, and not a little bemusement, that only time can help clear.

Lady Gaga: “Stupid Love”
(2020.02.28)

Three big music videos were released during the last week of the month: Lady Gaga’s new song for “Stupid Love,” Doja Cat’s “Say So,” and Taylor Swift’s Lover-cut “The Man.” Upfront, the best of these is, Doja Cat’s “Say So,” which is practically a shoo-in for my favorite music video of the year in all its gorgeous, decadent, campy, low-key-is-for-basics glory. But none of these videos are understated — Taylor Swift’s video is as subtle as a hammer to the head, and while I really appreciate its general message and amusing tone, it seems a tad smug about what are essentially very literal retreads of points that have been made for years. Swift (and technology) does an amazing job of transforming into a man, but each scenario is more like a knowing chuckle than a wow, that’s funny and I never thought about it like that before. Is this really an attempt to critique the patriarchy or just one asshole in particular? It is hardly the same. But it’s Lady Gaga’s video that has made the most waves. I’ve read a lot of mixed responses to this and mine tends to err more on the disappointed side. It is indeed a return to Lovegame-era dance-pop, but I would have preferred a continuation of the growth exhibited on Artpop. I know that album divides fans, but it had some amazing album cuts that were lost in the shadow of a mediocre lead-track like “Applause.” “Stupid Love” feels like it hit rewind just a little too long, past both this album and Born This Way. The video, which looks like it was assembled over a weekend in a frenzy of aluminum, spray paint, and hot glue guns is fun (and luckily, Gaga seems to be having a blast filming this), but inconsequential, a mere side quest on the journey that is The Legend of Gaga. It is not impossible that this was rushed due to the song’s leak, so I hope that with time and the proper rollout, Gaga still has some tricks up her sleeve that will make LG6 the true Artpop follow-up everyone deserved. Until then, God bless Doja Cat for getting us through this month.

Top ten debut albums of 2019

After the dumpster-fires that keep erupting around news of K-pop trainees, from grueling schedules to crash-diets to the lack of resources for mental health care, I am continually surprised (and, shamefully, grateful) that anyone still chooses to sign contracts and put themselves through the ringer for a chance at fame and fortune. After all, where would we all be without entertainment companies continuing to debut groups, with rookies taking on the burden of sometimes broken systems to hone an incredible array of talents, with artists continually mixing and matching influences past and present to create new music we’re all just blessed to hear?

We’ve had both disappointing and promising K-pop debuts this year, from the stale tropical and electro house drops that dominated lead singles, to yet another company hoping to hit on the same supernatural alchemy that generated hometown heroes Girls’ Generation and overseas warriors like BTS. On that front we had groups like Cherry Bullet, repping for the Red Velvet-lovers and TXT (TOMORROW x TOGETHER), the latter who in their youthful ear-worms released not one, but two enchantingly sweet takes on pop, channeling all the BTS-but-twice-as-earnest charm they could muster, with a similar look and vibe, too, as if spawned from the very rib of their big brothers (both groups are under Big Hit Entertainment). And it was nice being swept away by the joyful ambition of a group like ARIAZ, whose Grand Opera proved that the staple girl-group sound still has the ability to work new melodies into the same old bottles. I’m not sure any of these groups, from BVNDIT to Purple Beck to Bz-Boys, will have any staying power (especially the last two), but they deliver on everything K-pop promised back in 2009, when the future was a bright horizon promising fresh sounds you’d never heard before in beautiful, unblemished packages. Listening to something like “Drama” or “Dream Line,” you can almost believe that’s how it all turned out.

One of the most interesting things in music this year, previously only hinted at in bits and pieces, has been the mainstream emergence of the late 90’s and early 00’s aesthetic. It’s been done before (actually, as with any recent trend, I can almost always confidently say f(x) did it first), but with the 20th anniversary of Y2K looming, we’ve gotten two albums that solidified their dedication to the Western girl-group boom that gave us such gems as Dream’s “He Loves You Not” and “Hit Me Baby One More Time“-Britney Spears in LIZ’s super fun Planet Y2K and Slayyyter’s eponymous mixtape, the latter whose vocals embrace the same uncanny coo that Max Martin coaxed out of the young Spears, taken to its more gratuitous ends. The former boasts hyper-pop like the ooey-gooey-cheewy “Bubblegum,” Dream-esque “Intuition,” and Ace of Base-lite “Lost U 2 The Boys.” It’s one big celebration of and homage to kitsch Millennium, an early 00’s Kylie Minogue-music video brought to life, with all the glorious, nostalgic elements safely intact. Slayyyter fast-forwards a few years to the MySpace-era, but is no less dedicated to authenticity — it’s more sleazy, more skeptical of what happens when you’ve grown up on a steady diet of plastic backpacks, Von Dutch hats, leaked sex videos, and a wall of carefully curated glitter .gifs. They provide the same time-machine experience, but two very different perspectives, and it’s hard not to find a guilty pleasure in both, and hope to see more from these promising curistas.

J-pop is usually a genre that doesn’t get much representation in this category: it’s harder to get a sense of promise from a genre that has trouble generating hype without making you meet it halfway, and the more time passes, the more difficult the hard sell is. And then there are the logistics. Here are two prime examples of groups that caught my eye in 2019: the first, BBHF, who released two EPs this year (the second one, Family, being the one that piqued my interest when it hit the Oricon top 50), but they are, unfortunately, an old band under a new name, and don’t technically qualify. The second is another indie-rock group, GENIE HIGH, who released their debut studio album GENIE HIGH STORY at the tail-end of November. I was under the impression that they were operating under the obvious influences of Gesu no Kiwami Otome., before learning that Enon Kawatani, the front man of Gesu is actually in this band. Of course! It has all of the Kawatani hallmarks: dandy, ragtime pianos, thin, peppy drums, and vocals that have been coached into constant falsetto icecapades. GENIE HIGH STORY is incredibly fun, interlaced with quirky bits and skits that propel the album along at a crisp speed, and though it is largely inconsequential, it is remarkable for a debut album. Then again, Kawatani is a veteran at this point, and its similarity to Gesu makes it seems like cheating to land in this category. I mean, is SuperM a true debut group for that matter either? I make exceptions, but at the busiest time of the year, I don’t have time to play around with these kinds of logistics. In the end, these lists are as inconsequential as this album will be to the history of J-rock, and in the same sense of amusement, and anticipation of more from this group, I’ll allow it.

The debuts wrap up with two outstanding angles: two metal albums from musicians who, with the power of studio wizardry, turn their one-man acts into the sonic equivalents of group therapy. Discovering that Sermon’s Birth of the Marvellous and Ethereal Darkness’s Smoke and Shadows were essentially the products of a single mind was quite lovely: neither of these albums are seamless at hiding the flaws inherent in attempting to be their own islands, but they are achievements nonetheless, and as debuts, they promise future improvement with a little extra experience and resources at their disposable. Now contrast this with the technical proficiency of a group like Paladin: any band would be lucky to release Ascension as a second or third album, but these guys pulled off a nearly-flawless debut. In some ways this could be a handicap, as it will be hard to top this thrilling mix of thrash and power metal. But I look forward to the attempt and encourage everyone to keep an eye on this group.

Keep an eye on all of these people: the excitement of debut albums is the herald of new voices, new sounds, of getting to be a part of an artist’s journey from day one. They’re all at different stages of their evolution on that day, but Summer Walker, Mabel, Runaway June, and all the artists who didn’t quite make this list, have one thing in common: the ability to blow you away, now or in the future.

Summer Walker: Over It // GENIE HIGH: GENIE HIGH STORY

Ethereal Darkness: Smoke and Shadows // Sermon: Birth of the Marvellous

ARIAZ: Grand Opera // Slayyyter: Slayyyter

TXT: THE DREAM CHAPTER: STAR // LIZ: Planet Y2K

Paladin: Ascension // Sigrid: Sucker Punch

Honorable Mentions

Cherry Bullet: Let’s Play Cherry Bullet
Mabel: High Expectations
Felivers: Felivers
Runaway June: Blue Roses
Dreamchaser: Heart