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.

 

Top ten albums of 2015, #4: Red Velvet’s The Red

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redvelvettheredRed Velvet: The Red

A lot of the criticism that Red Velvet gets stems from their perceived inheritance of everything f(x) lost with the departure of Sulli. They’re considered knock-offs, the worst kind, that don’t even get original material but hand-me-downs and rejects, the stuff f(x) probably took a hard pass on. But it’s impossible to compare the two when f(x) released such a dismal follow-up to two of the greatest K-pop albums of all time. I didn’t hate 4 Walls, but it certainly has none of the subversive elements of Pink Tape or ambition of Red Light. Even if you like both SHINee’s “View” and title song “4 Walls” despite the fact that they’re so similar (maybe that’s why you like them? I know I do), it’s hard to find redeeming qualities in duds like “Glitter” and “Traveler.”

On the other hand, label mates Red Velvet might still be considered rookies, but their album sounds more like what 4 Walls could have been if it wasn’t constrained by f(x)’s need to stay so Insta-hip. “Dumb Dumb” has the effusiveness of “Cheos Salangni (Rum Pum Pum Pum)” even when it doesn’t have any of the underlying mystery. Unburdened like their veteran superordinates, Red Velvet is able to embrace tried-and-true K-pop formulas like “Huff n’ Puff” and “Red Dress,” songs that might not be particularly special, but that have such high production value and catchy staying-power, it’s impossible not to find yourself scrolling past 4 Walls to get to The Red again. “Oh Boy” knows all the right ways to emphasize keyboard, while more R&B numbers finally perfect the group’s earlier attempts with “Automatic.” By the time “Cool World” hits, it’s easy to forgive SM’s relentless attempts to keep reminding you they created once-legendary group Girls’ Generation and would like to continue breaking out that sound just to remind you on “1 Day.” The Red might not be a perfect album, but it has so many hooks hanging on impeccable arrangements, it makes 4 Walls sound less and less the cool comeback it was supposed to be. It’s official: Amber too good, too pure for this world.

Top Ten Albums of 2014

apptop1010. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: PIKAPIKA Fantajin

I’m under the impression that this is not the best Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has to offer; depending on who you ask that would be her debut Moshi Moshi Harajuku or Nanda Collection and let’s just say I didn’t care for Nanda Collection. Kyary can sometimes be a mixed bag of sounds, but we can aways expect producer Yasutaka Nakata to sprinkle her songs with child-like xylophones, even when her latest conceit is turning 20 and becoming an adult. Kyary represents the child in all of her fans, even when she’s clearly moving forward in “Yume no Hajima Ring Ring,” – only three albums old, and she can’t help nostalgically looking back before moving on. There’s beauty in that kind of hesitation, a gentle reminder that who we are comes directly from who we were. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu was and, until he takes someone else under his wing, always will be Nakata’s most divisive project, the kind you’re either upset to see occasionally sprouting in his other work like ugly weeds or happy to find expanding like interesting fauna.

apptop909. 2NE1: Crush

Too little, too late? Well maybe, but you almost can’t help but continue to love any project CL is attached to. For a while the promises of an American takeover derailed the group to the point of obscurity, releasing half-hearted singles like the Instagram filtered “Do You Love Me?” I certainly don’t think 2NE1 will ever surpass the highs they reached with 2011’s “Naega Jeil Jal Naga” (think about how it’s still hitting the shores of the West in commercials as if it’s brand-new while the rest of us yawn and try not let the hangover dilute its magic). Still 2NE1 tried their best with this one, and there are still remnants of what made the group a trailblazer: CL’s “Menbung” solo, for one, a song produced almost exclusively to be played loudly in a car with the windows rolled down. The one glaring omission is “I Love You,” replaced by a Korean version of Japanese single “SCREAM.” Even though 2NE1 was left behind in the great K-pop races, it’s nice to see them still soldiering on, despite how much it seems their hearts are no longer in it.

apptop808. Tomohisa Yamashita: Asobi

Yamapi is famous for his dual career aspirations: forever chained to focusing on the Johnny’s pop music that won over his diehard group of fans, he’s consistently dabbling in dance music, particularly in the songs he composes on his own: is Asobi Yamashita’s reward for playing by the rules? A bit of indulgence in a passion that satisfies him musically so he will continue to put out albums like YOU? While I think YOU isn’t necessarily a terrible album, it is safe, a lot more safe that his collaboration with house producers Shinichi Osawa and Yasutaka Nakata. Asobi is the perfect antidote for fans who prefer songs like “Hit the Wall” and “Turn Off the Lights” to “Daite SENIORITA,” and as a dance album, it holds its own against the EDM-heavy banquet that Top 40 still feasts on, years after the genre hit its mainstream peak.

apptop707. Ai Otsuka: LOVE FANTASTIC

As the Oricon charts become increasingly irrelevant, their reflection of both the everyday musical tastes of the common Japanese person, and the quality of music remain at odds. And though Avex Trax had an incredible year, they seem to have less luck with their roster of seasoned professionals than they do with newcomers and girl groups (often the same thing). LOVE FANTASTIC is not the best album Ai Otsuka has come up with, but it it the most complete. It illustrates the warmth and grace she brings to love songs (“Gomen ne.,” “Mawari Mawaru Mawareba Mawaro”) and the fun she has with upbeat pop/rock numbers that sound like indie circuit-approved staples (“LUCKY☆STAR” and “9”). She may not have had the sales numbers, but Ai Otsuka can still have it both ways when albums come packaged in such understated elegance.

apptop606. TaeTiSeo: Holler

TaeTiSeo is Girls’ Generation’s vocal powerhouse subunit, consisting of three of the group’s strongest singers: Taeyeon, Tiffany, and Seohyun. In their second mini album, they have ample room to show off their technical skills and range, though lead single “Holler” sometimes veers a little too close to K-pop’s fascination with endlessly recreating Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” My vote for favorite track goes to “Adrenaline,” a song whose drums double down with each escalating vocal track, truly capturing the thrill and excitement inherent with encountering a crush. Holler is a far step up from the poppy Twinkle, a showcase to SM Entertainment’s progress in action.

apptop505. f(x): Red Light

No, it’s not Pink Tape, but SM Entertainment’s answer to one of the best pop albums of all time was more of the same, with surprisingly efficient results. I can understand how some might see Red Light, and K-pop in general, too clinical, with too much emphasis on production, order, and reliability, but I believe that is K-pop at its best. And Red Light has plenty to offer in terms of novelty: rare instrumentation, deliciously catchy choruses, and the right vocalist for every line, utilized for maximum synergy. Read more about this album here.

apptop404. Michiru Hoshino: E・I・E・N Voyage

There’s no shortage of idol groups reaching back into the Golden Age of Idols to resurrect the nostalgia and vivacity of an era that still marked the beginning of a brilliant future rather than the beginning of the end. Ever since idols and idol groups made a comeback in the 00’s after the 90s’ “artist” boom, it only made sense that producers and composers would look backward to see what worked. Mostly, that seems to be cute girls in mid-century fashion, back when we could still glamorize airplanes and stewardesses, those ever beautiful, slim, neatly pressed, highly-coiffed women who existed solely to bring us an extra pillow and refill our whiskey. There’s no shortage of this motif, from Girls’ Generation’s second album, to Vanilla Beans, to the group PASSPO☆ that banks its entire existence upon the concept. This goes hand in hand with the reemergence of shibuya-kei, which largely lagged behind when Perfume came along, now quickly catching up to help struggling idols like Negicco. So it makes sense that former AKB48 member Michiru Hoshino would embrace the concept as well, tackling the shibuya-kei aesthetic for her solo career. The album E・I・E・N Voyage is largely successful, for what it lacks in famous brands like Konishi Yasuharu or Yasutaka Nakata, it makes up for in pinning the atmosphere down to a science. You couldn’t hear greater horns or steel drums on an authentic bossa nova compilation, while the sparse production, sounding largely like it was made out of Hoshino’s bedroom on a budget computer program, adds the modern, 21st century touch (I’m thinking paricularly of “Hanshite…” or “Seikan Renraku-sen ~Night Voyage~.”). In that way, this isn’t shibuya-kei in the sense of nostalgia or a blatant recreation of 60’s jet set pastiche, but in the sense of aligning herself outside of the mainstream idol scene as if getting as far away from her recent past as possible. Many other idols would do well to follow this example, not because the mainstream is horrible, but because it really is just different, slower, anti-AKB pop music that reminds you, for a moment, what it was like when possibilities were more abundant than the number of girls in your super group. Natsukashiii~.

apptop303. YUKI: FLY

Having never been a YUKI fan, I was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected wonder of her seventh studio album. FLY is for the YUKI fans who loved the single “JOY” and wondered where the rest of the songs from that recording session ended up. The first few tracks of the album are light dance-pop at their most simple and effective, with the middle portion are reserved for more standard YUKI tracks with rock and jazzy influences. Unfortunately, the album isn’t given any space to breathe, and so is forced to take on more than it can handle: everything after around track ten might as well not exist, bringing the album’s momentum to a jarring stop in order to re-live the early 00’s worst production sin: just because you can fit up to 80 minutes of music on a CD doesn’t mean you have to.

apptop202. Far East Mention Mannequins (FEMM): Femm-Isation

Far East Mention Mannequins are not from this planet. We’re not exactly sure which planet in which galaxy would have the proper elements to nurture the lives of mannequins but astrophysicists are presumably working on it. Until then, we should just be glad they’ve managed to travel all the way out here and manage to assemble such a talented team of visionaries including LiKi inc., HIDALI, GM Atelier, maximum 10, EPOCH, OKNACK Films, and Avex Trax. While so many J-pop groups in the last half decade are cookie cutter girl and boy groups with little to offer outside of the usual, FEMM is one of the few innovative, truly experimental groups outside of the indie scene (technically Avex Trax is an indepenent label, but their business practices make them all but major label in theory): not only did they eschew physical CD sales to shack up with YouTube (a union that would make every other Japanese major label queasy just to consider), releasing singles in full, each accompanied by bright, splashy music videos that challenge the alliance between movement and music, fashion and the human body. Though I’m not sure how comfortable I am with women essentially posing as living dolls, with all the inevitable objectifying that comes with it, and the novelty of the genre — largely eletcro-pop with a heavy, trendy EDM influence — wears off, it doesn’t diminish how much it stands out from other popular Japanese music in the mainstream. Maybe like Lady Gaga, it’s not about how most of the music is just Euro-fluff the Swedes have been doing for decades, but about how we challenge norms (“Fxxk Boyz Get Money“), question the quotidian and illustrate how little you have to stretch to stand out when every other #1 Oricon single is an Arashi song. It helps if you’re meme-ready. By 2014 we were all dying to buy into the narrative of a pair of beautiful mannequins even if they could never take us home to their leader.

apptop101. Jolin Tsai: Play

Up until this point, the closest Jolin Tsai has come to impressing me with an entire album was 2012’s MUSE, which unfortunately  contained one too many fillers that weakened the glue that made so much of the album’s wink-wink pop pretensions so fun. Without necessarily being able to articulate why, Play, which boasts equal number of ballads as it does dance-pop, feels like an almost perfect approximation of pop in 2014. First, there’s the delightful music video, one of my favorite of the year. While many of Tsai’s videos focus on magnifying pop trends to the point of satire, “Play” focuses on critiquing the image each one of us projects to the world: regardless of whether you’re a pop princess, a rich snob, or a frugal hipster, we’re all subconsciously competing for the scarce resources of attention, and the ultimate self-congratulations of surpassing our peers. Except, that is, for Jolin, who rises above it all, the incomparable, original superstar who can poke fun at herself and her career without missing a dance step. From the album’s cover art and packaging, to the ballads on the album, everything is big and everything is about how we present and look at women as objects, clothes hangers, lovers, and even, as actual people. Only skimming the surface would give the impression that Tsai is a lot more dense than she lets on, merely a puppet to be paraded about in couture. In response, Tsai collaborates with #1 Japanese diva Namie Amuro to say, “I don’t need you anymore / I’m not your girl.” Not to mention the truth bombs she drops all over “Play” and the graceful self-preservation of “Zi Ai Zi Shou“: “My moments of sweet happiness and lonely sadness are not someone else’s novel / Concerning the matter of my most private life, please do not listen to hearsay.” There’s also heartbreaking comfort in the album’s closer, “Bu Yiyang You Zenme Yang,” a tribute to the beauty, surrender, and courage of falling in love. This is an album concerned with more than just the surface, rewarding the effort it takes to unwrap and understand what lies beneath what only appears to be another pop star bending to the power of pornographic imagery to sell albums.

Honorable mentions under the cut. Continue reading

f(x)’s “Red Light”

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f(x) / Red Light / July 07, 2014

The big question about f(x)’s new album was always going to be whether or not it stood up to last year’s Pink Tape. As far as perfect pop records go, there weren’t many contenders to Pink Tape, which kind of puts f(x) in a unique position: for some reason, I get the sense that they might not be as widely regarded as Girls’ Generation or 2NE1 (says totallyamazing: “SM has successfully sold me f(x) as the oddball younger sisters of Girls’ Generation” and mixtapesandlinernotes asserts: “It’s days like this I’m thankful that f(x) is on the fringes of the SM talent pool”), yet their output is at times far superior. Both groups have already released albums this year: GG’s Mr.Mr. inspired a collective meh from its audience, and 2NE1’s CRUSH wasn’t necessarily bad, but it was unfortunately released far too long after their last mini-album, making some wonder whether the wait was worth it, or if there should have been more substance to something that took, three singles notwithstanding, almost three years to finally cultivate. But Red Light, mere days after its release, is already respected as one of the best albums of the year, a quintessential collection of pop standards, all hovering somewhere around the three minute mark to boot.

While Red Light is certainly a more mature work than its predecessor, it functions as more of a darker sequel to the art-house aesthetic of Pink Tape (though we’re still forever jumping over Instagram filters and Urban Outfitters ads since the inception with these guys). Many tracks neatly book end each other, such as the lead electro-pop singles (“Cheos Salangni (Rum Pum Pum Pum)” and “Red Light“), the two retro (70’s disco strings in “Signal,” smooth 80’s synths in “All Night”), hip-pop (“Kick” and “Mujigae”), and the ballad ending tracks (“Ending Page” and “Jongi Shimjang (Paper Heart)”). Rather than trying to surpass the work of Pink Tape, the writers emulate a lot of what worked so well, with an overwhelming degree of success. One can’t hold a grudge against this, anymore than a group that succeeds by making drastic changes you’re not partial to. For its part, the rest of the album is just as young and  slick as we’re used to expect from the group, with subtle elements defining what really makes the album stand out (the bhangra drums on “MILK” are a particularly interesting choice, the way the last syllable in Dracula is drawn out in “Dracula” turns the sinister saccharine, and “Vacance” is a great companion to GG’s “Europa”).

Red Light will surely go down as one of the year’s highlights, especially where K-pop is concerned: there’s only a few more “comebacks” before all the major labels have flexed their finest, and the rookie groups continue to flail at a spectacular level. Red Light, while simple at its core, and almost elementary in its lyrics, is filled with some of the healthiest hooks and this-is-my-jam opportunities we’re likely to see all year.

Welcome back appears

The state of East Asian pop music can now be summed up in three words: South Korean. Dubstep. What once seemed a sort of hip novelty has quickly become the most irritating trend that refuses to die softly. It’s greatest example, Hyuna’s “Bubble Pop!” is a prime example of what can make it so difficult to care about: unlike miss A’s expert weave of electro house in album Touch, “Bubble Pop!” strives for at least three different genres without providing any glue. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve missed a lot. And I’m going to make up for it by talking about three or four of my favorite, least favorite, and most interesting musical moments of 2011, April onwards; blink and you’ll miss the Cut Copy reference.

Yasutaka Nakata, etc.

There are a couple of different ways to approach some of the best music that was released in 2011, and Yasutaka Nakata’s work is as good a place as any to start. Yes, Perfume’s JPN was annoying in all the ways it was the best: as long as you didn’t think too much about how it was mostly a singles collection with very little original material (and everyone did), it’s really a generous serving of everything Nakata does so well, without all the annoying self-involved navel-gazing that can happen on albums like STEREO WORXXX.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu also happened this year, in case you didn’t know. And though it’s a shame one of her songs ended up on JPN, she still brings something quintessentially Japanese to the mix. I guess I’d like to believe that everything she does is tongue-in-cheek, which makes what she has to say about being Harajuku’s fun house mirror that much more worthwhile. But even if it wasn’t, there is nothing ambiguous about what she, or Perfume are doing. The titles of the albums (JPN and Moshi Moshi Harajuku) are homages in themselves, proud labels that no Korean pop star wants to stick on themselves. Yes, Perfume is on a major label now and Kyary seems to have made some kind of inconsequential mark on Scandinavia, but these aren’t artists trying to do or be anything different than they already are. This is Japan. This is our pop music. Irrashaimase.

South Korean Pop Music

K-pop is everywhere: it’s on The Singles Jukebox, it’s being championed by rock critic Frank Kogan, it’s on David Letterman, it’s being analyzed and dissected in really awesome, really smart ways all around the web. And that 2NE1 video! Best pop song of the year? You don’t say! It’s amazing how much effort has been put into making K-pop a thing and how quickly it’s caught on when compared to the months and years and decades that Japanese pop/rock has tried to crawl into the market (J-pop could take a note here and there). Then again, it’s also amazing how long Korean pop music has actually been around, and how little anyone seems to think it existed pre-2NE1.

Yet I love how exuberant and free of burden all of the songs seem to be: they are unfettered by turmoil or angst or the general day to day shitstorm of life. In some ways, this creates quintessential pop narratives, even when it’s bizarre and sometimes tasteless. It’s the type of sound that practically begs you to feel guilty, and if I believed in guilty pleasures, I might feel somewhat paranoid about my enthusiasm for stuff that still kind of makes me cringe sometimes.

Still, for every Big Bang and 2NE1 and “Hot Summer” and “Oh! Honey,” we get “Bubble Pop!” and “FACE” and a neverending series of Japanese language crossovers. I like Korean pop, and as anything I really like, I want to see it grow and evolve and stop resorting to dubstep breakdowns or cliche representations of gender. I want to see it go beyond crafting brilliant dance singles to craft one, just one, slow song that doesn’t sound like it was written for Toni Braxton in 1994. One of my top ten albums of the year was a Korean pop album, but it wasn’t one you’ve probably heard much about: it’s Neon Bunny’s Seoulight and it was not performed on Inkigayo or accompanied by a career-defining music video. It has no trademark single easily recognizable by a syllable or phrase: it’s just a great album, made up of more than mostly filler. There’s a lot of debate about K-pop’s longevity, it’s ability to really go anywhere, but whether or not it continues to crop up on Pitchfork or simply recede into its own home field niche market, is irrelevant: we’ll always have 2011.

Group Therapy

2011 was also pretty great for EDM of any kind: if at some point you considered yourself a music fan this year, you probably heard it somewhere, even if what you heard was just pop music’s appropriation. My favorite song of the year was probably Above & Beyond’s “Sun & Moon.” But the most disappointing album of the year (besides Cut Copy’s Zonoscope) was Group Therapy, the album on which it was released. When you coin a defining phrase for a genre, practically renaming that genre in the process, there’s a type of pressure so immense it threatens to collapse on itself. Group Therapy wasn’t a terrible album, it just wasn’t as epic as it should have been. Or rather, it wasn’t as therapeutic as its live component was meant to be — enough that speaking about seeing the group live on the North American leg of their “Group Therapy Tour” makes me a bit uncomfortable.

There were a lot of albums this year that seemed to be just a little less ambitious than advertised: Shonen Knife’s Osaka Ramones was supposed to be a fun covers album, instead it was just another useless, mediocre version of songs that don’t need any improving, remixing, or alternate versions. Ayumi Hamasaki’s FIVE, “BRILLANTE” aside, is now that mini-album sandwiched between what are now two really interesting albums (whether they are conventionally bad or good is irrelevant). I liked Hunx and His Punx’s Too Young to Be in Love and Mind Spiders’ self-titled debut, but these are not albums I have given much thought to since the year ended. Yet I still think about Hamasaki’s impromptu marriage and her sincere belief in its grit, this album, Love songs, that is so clearly written for and about it, and then, last month, Party queen, and how quickly we are able to change our minds, and not bother to suffer over it.

In a way, trance music is the best place to tread this territory, as it’s probably some of the saddest music you’ll hear. There’s a lot of crossover between electro and prog right now, a lot of stuff like BT & Adam K’s “Tomahawk” that illuminates whole new corners that EDM has forgotten to scavenge, but there is still the “Never Let Me Go“s next to the “Let Go“s and the “Never Go Back“s with the “Start Again“s. It’s in this frame where it becomes visible that sometimes Group Therapy tries so hard to make a statement that it forgets to say anything. It also forgets its own purpose in the process: trance music is meant to be played to massive crowds and a sea of bodies so dense, one’s life is threatened by an enthusiastic groover’s elbow. For an album summing up what makes the genre so unique, so all-encompassing, there’s a lot of shuffling self-reflection, a lot of time spent alone among the aural equivalent, with minimal instrumentation and lyrics that sometimes border on the nonsensical. Though it succeeds in avoiding the sometimes too-literal weakness of vocal trance, it fails to capture what the lead singles so simply summed up in a few lines: I’m sorry. I’ll never get over you. I won’t forget about the people I love. This song is going to help me. That’s what music does.

Speaking of the Power of Music

Ayumi Hamasaki’s concerts haven’t exactly been the stuff of legend lately. They’ve just been a lot like what everyone else is doing with more useless dance interludes (really, it doesn’t take that long to change an outfit). But after the earthquake in March, she decided to nix the “~HOTEL Love songs~” thing (a full-blown concept based around the idea of her and at-the-time husband Manny, I’m guessing) and bring it back to the one thing she seems to be forgetting about lately: her music. The “POWER of MUSIC” live is Hamasaki at some of her finest diva moments (even though her vocals aren’t always up to the challenge). There’s a simple stage set up in what alternately resembles a roulette wheel and a giant record player with some moving pieces here and there, but that’s about it. Songs get whole new arrangements or take their cues from classical versions we’ve heard from previous remixes. There’s minimal monologuing, which is always appreciated. The song choice is a little dubious, but it’s more a chance to show off how lasting and epic Hamasaki’s back catalog is: it’s a huge pay-off for long-time fans who have context and experience to witness how thrilling it still is to hear “Boys & Girls” live or how huge “A Song is born”‘s leap can be from one continent’s tragedy to another. There were rumors a while back that this might be turned into a live album, and for Hamasaki’s first and only live album, I don’t think Avex could go with a better choice. It’s pretty seminal in its own way, complete without being overwhelming, stripped down without losing its lushness. And also, she looks like a goddess, so there’s that.

It’s the opposite from my other favorite concert released in 2011, Tomohisa Yamasahita’s “Asia Tour 2011 SUPER GOOD, SUPER BAD.” Where Hamasaki brings herself and the crowd to tears, choking up lyrics like they’re repressed memories, I’m fairly certain there is not a single song Yamashita actually sings live. It’s two hours of really incredible Japanese pop music, bereft of audience banter and any kind of actual emotion. I don’t know why this concert happens to work, but Yamashita is actually a fairly superb performer. No, not exactly the type of guy who will happily run through all the concert gimmicks while refusing a paycheck for the encore, but certainly a professional entertainer. The outfits are a bit Justin Timberlake circa N’Sync, yet I am still all about feeling this man in his jewelry or whatever the hell that line in that amazing song that has yet to have a studio release is (seriously, help me out): but he had an incredible dual album of the same name, a duet with Namie Amuro, and hasn’t been around for two decades, so he’s someone to look out for.

Finally, “Perfume Live @ Tokyo Dome” was more a victory lap, but it was still super fun. There’s some cool lasers and minimal fireworks at the end during “POLYRHYTHM” (which, if this doesn’t provoke some sort of welling up of emotions, either because you are a huge fan and seeing Perfume play the Dome is a sort of triumph you can share in, or because they hit those ‘works at just the right moment, when you’re exhausted from just watching all three of them sweat it out in dance routine after dance routine, and you’re forgetting how many songs there are in their discography but damn, “POLYRYTHM” is still one of the greatest pop songs ever put to sound system and it’s just so lovely), but it’s Perfume, and it’s still pretty amazing how far they have come and how far they can still go.

Oh and one more thing

“Born This Way” is a great album. Even after all that squawking about herself during endless concert monologues, and that annoying title track, there is something fundamentally wonderful about Lady Gaga’s album. There are open roads, confessional bar stools, heavy metal lovers, and a sheisse on top of it. Juggling Christian metaphors, big Broadway numbers, and teenage punks running around with their parents’ hard-earned money is almost more than one album can take, but Born This Way‘s single failure of trying on too many things at once is like saying that human beings are failures for doing the same. This is Gaga’s statement album, and beneath the ode to an ex-boyfriend that seems to choke every song, there is also some pretty fallible, ugly, and beautiful music.

Without further ado, here are my “best of” lists for 2011.

Top Ten Albums of 2011

01. Perfume: JPN
02. Lady Gaga: Born This Way
03. Neon Bunny: Seoulight
04. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Moshi Moshi Harajuku
05. Yelle: Safari Disco Club
06. Tomohisa Yamashita: SUPERGOOD, SUPERBAD
07. Cults: Cults
08. Escort: Escort
09. Kaskade: Fire & Ice
10. Hunx and His Punx: Too Young to Be in Love

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Five Quiet Disasters of f(x)’s “NU ABO”

Because this song is already critically lauded by just about the entire Asian pop community (finally! Our first consensus! If we had our own Singles Jukebox, this would surely crack at least an 8.00+), I’m not going to bother sitting here and talking about how great it is (it is!). Like 2NE1’s “Try to Copy Me,” it’s just about the apotheosis of everything wonderful about Korean pop groups. And as f(x)’s first mini-album has a bit of competition from girl group 4minute, who released their first Japanese single, the girls have had to come up with some extra special material, which is mind blowing in its own right – aside from the two slower songs at the end of the album, NU ABO is hand-picked for supremacy. From the title track, to “ME+U,” the album manages to be fun, with more than a hint of indulgence in its own genre.

The video for “NU ABO,” too, has the requisite mix of street-dancing and clothes so loud, it could only take a unique combination such as f(x) to wear them before they wore f(x). Regardless, this mix also means giving in to some of the more absurd fashion choices. The following five are a few of the worst:

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