Top ten most disappointing albums of 2020

It’s easy to spot a bad album — with music so devoid of effort, or so enamored with how great it is that it forgets to be good at all, or so earnest that it falls into parody — that it’s hardly fun to pick one out. Most of us will never bother getting all the way through these albums, as the first five or ten minutes renders them completely un-listenable, and anyway, there’s nothing interesting or worth saying about a truly awful record, and the less time spent acknowledging its existence, the better.

In fact, there are worse things out there in the music world, one of those things being an album you really set your heart on loving, heard wonderful things about, or were hyped into a preconceived notion of what you were going to get only to be dead wrong. These disappointments linger far after they have stunned, leaving wounds that sting weeks later because they force us to fundamentally alter the way we have expected a new favorite to sound, or relied upon on an old standby to come through. It might be the way it signals a shift in that artist’s career, foreshadows the end, or hammers the final nail in a coffin you can no longer make excuses for. In the best-case scenario, these might just be growers, or albums that require a different mindset or life stage than the one you’re in. In the worst-case, they are just dead ends in and of themselves, catastrophically and forever irredeemable.

Here are ten albums that dashed my hopes the most this year, listed in chronological order. Will any of these be growers? Only time can tell.

Sakurako Ohara: Passion
(2020.02.05)

Sakurako Ohara’s career started out strong, with two solid albums of casual, mid-tempo J-pop jams in 2015 and 2016. In 2018, she released a slightly less solid, but still enjoyable album that has been followed up by this completely unenthusiastic, limp set of pop standards. With a greatest hits collection that seems to have drawn a line over the inspirational half of her music career, it’s hard to muster any enthusiasm for what looks to be a slow decline into formulaic obscurity.

LOONA: [#]
(2020.02.05)

[#] was the first comeback from one of the best K-pop roll outs in recent memory. The prolonged, dramatic reveal of members through solo singles and social media hype culminated in two mini-albums, and one collection that successfully illustrated and topped years of mystery, talent, and anticipation. But [#], and to a lesser extent, it’s sister EP [12:00], has the girl group following in the footsteps of many go-big-or-go-home groups choosing to compete directly with BLACKPINK rather than their own back catalog. Generic BLACKPINK is as boring as it sounds when ten other groups are trying the same thing, and robbed this group of the unique narrative arc we all deserved.

Sam Sparro: Boombox Eternal
(2020.02.21)

Boombox Eternal, sold as a love letter to 90’s new jack swing, missed a prime opportunity to be at the forefront of an as yet unexplored genre to rely on word of mouth rather than delivery. Weak hooks and lack of direction bog down this record with hints of what could have been, never delivering on its tantalizing promise. I wasn’t expecting Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but when Hangin’ Tough-NKOTB surpasses your best intentions, it might be time to regroup. This could have been so good, and I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the genre’s resurrection here in the West.

Red Velvet-IRENE & SEULGI: MONSTER
(2020.07.06)

My soft spot for SM Entertainment leads me to make a lot of excuses for the label’s choices, including questionable decisions regarding prime girl groups like f(x), or who gets awarded solo EPs, but even I can’t spin MONSTER into anything more than a musical placeholder, one that in the hindsight of emerging drama, throws the future of Red Velvet into even starker question. It would be a real shame if this the final impression we get of one of the best and most reliable things SM had going in many years.

Ayaka Sasaki: A-rin Assort
(2020.07.08)

Momoiro Clover Z-member Ayaka Sasaki is one of the first of the famed idol group to go solo, and expectations were big for a project lead by one of Japan’s most innovative and interesting idol groups. Unfortunately, A-rin Assort relies on torpid idol maxims for the bulk of its run time, never daring to lift the lid off of a human personality to reveal an iota of the person behind the persona. It’s idol oblivion done to death, rendering the point of a solo verklempt: from production to melody, there’s nothing here that wouldn’t be better served in the hands of Team Momoclo.

Summer Walker: Life on Earth EP
(2020.07.10)

At the beginning of the year, I couldn’t get enough of the type of slow, 90’s R&B-pop that was making the rounds from Kehlani to Tink’s Hopeless Romantic, to Summer Walker’s own full-length debut. Half a year removed, and several dozen more of these EPs and albums later, my warmth for the genre has cooled considerably. Perhaps it’s just timing that is working against Walker’s follow-up, but it takes more than B-side-quality material to stand out in one of the year’s now most over-exposed styles.

Ellie Goulding: Brightest Blue
(2020.07.17)

These are the last breaths I can muster over an artist once destined for mega-pop-music fame. Something tragic seems to have happened between the Max Martin-heavy Delirium of 2015, and the singles, collabs, and questionable turns of direction that has lead us to Brightest Blue, an album where more attention and detail seems to have been put into the physical packaging than the music itself. Even Joseph Kearns can’t raise this sunk ship.

Dua Lipa: Club Future Nostalgia
(2020.08.28)

Remix albums can bring old material into fresh light, or they can be self-indulgent marketing tools. I’m inclined toward the latter on this remixed take on the insta-classic Future Nostalgia, produced by The Blessed Madonna. The “club” portion of the title promises nothing already gained on the original, while the kitchen-sink mash-ups seem less curated than desperately frantic, relying less on a genuine vibe than on name-checks as impressive as Gen Hoshino, Jacques Lu Cont, and Madonna herself, and obscure, hip-crowd-approved samples designed less for dancing than status building. This could have been an actual nostalgia-inducing nod to 90s club music in the same aesthetic as Dua Lipa’s entire look in this promotional era, but for anything resembling music you an actually dance to, I’ll take the original.

Katy Perry: Smile
(2020.08.28)

It’s no surprise that the hype around Katy Perry this year has focused more on the 15th anniversary of Teenage Dream and the birth of her first child than on her first album in three years. As one of the biggest pop stars of her time, thanks in no small part to the success of Teenage Dream, it is vertigo-inducing to see how far and how fast Perry has lost the musical thread. I wouldn’t call Smile a horrible album, but it lacks almost everything I look for in an album from a pop superstar, not least of which is genuine enthusiasm for her material. I’m not sure where Perry intends to go after Witness, and then something as bemusing as this hodgepodge of unremarkable songs, but it would have to be near supernatural to get this career kicking again.

TXT(TOMORROW x TOGETHER): minisode1: Blue Hour
(2020.10.26)

TXT(TOMORROW x TOGETHER) had one of the best debuts of the year in 2019, and a serviceable follow-up in the very BTS-like third part of their Dream Chapter. Hopefully, this bewilderingly dull “minisode” is just that, a mere tiny, ever brief blip on the K-pop radar, and not a sign that the group is a one-trick pony, incapable of doing anything more than methodically adding the same kind of fuel to a fire that’s slowly losing its distinctive, incandescent glow.

October 2020: Highlights

Dagny: Strangers / Lovers
(2020.10.02)

Dagny’s story is similar to many pop artists in the age of Spotify: a never-ending stream of digital singles while moonlighting for more well-known pop stars like Katy Perry. Often this entails trying to gain a foothold in the industry by contributing to the packed song-writing labs of today’s Frankentstein-ed Billboard hits (in this case, “Never Really Over,” where she joins seven others with songwriting credits). So it’s nice that Dagny finally gets her moment in the spotlight, here proving she has the ability to surpass the bigger names who might as well admit it’s time to pass the torch. Like the massive hooks of a single like “Come Over,” the entire album is rooted in conventional dance-pop, drawing upon little variety in production for a consistent, rather than diverse, palette of sounds. While it could do with a bit more surprises, it’s not a hard sell in a month where the only other major release from a female soloist was Ariana Grande’s positions, though it’ll really have to fight harder to be remembered in a year full of them.

WJSN Chocome: “Hmph!”
(2020.10.07)

With the world’s eyes on K-pop like never before, the niche groups of the Golden Age, the ones content to focus solely on a domestic audience with in-jokes and culture-specific references, have fallen to the wayside. There is almost no incentive to promote groups like Orange Caramel or Crayon Pop, groups with no chance of making their way outside of Asia without LOLs attached. Since every new or comeback group’s aesthetic nowadays is “cool,” “dark,” or “sexy,” it makes a sub-unit like WJSN Chocome even more novel and enticing. Their cues stem from off-the-wall sub-units before them in sight and sound from gugudan OGUOGU to OH MY GIRL BANHANA (and hey, whatever happened to FANATICS-FLAVOR?), to vintage J-pop (those Chisato Moritaka outfits!), though of course most comparisons to peak-Orange Caramel are most accurate, the eurodance, saxophone-loaded “Hmph!” one big Neapolitan-flavor-melt of uninhibited, geeky K-pop at its best. As these groups get fewer and farther between, it makes the ones that come along just that more radiant.

The Newton Brothers: The Haunting of Bly Manor (Music from the Netflix Horror Series)
(2020.10.09)

Like it’s fellow anthology series, American Horror Story, the second installment of Netflix’s The Haunting series casts many of the same actors in a loose re-telling of Henry James’ The Turning of the Screw. Like its predecessor, the real horrors are those that are less supernatural than ultra-natural, the ghosts of guilt, and shame, and past lives re-surfacing at a person’s most vulnerable moments. The Newton Brothers are back for the soundtrack, although in lieu of composing brand-new themes or re-inventing their sound, they’ve largely expanded upon their original work, dashing off a series of new snippets among a collection rife with quotes from the most iconic themes of Hill House. Luckily, they’ve learned a thing or two, trading in atmospherics for more melody, drawing out the first’s best elements: the eerie, melancholy piano most prominent in cues like “Beginning of the End Movement IV,” eschewing the necessary, but superfluous, sharp violins and abrupt dynamics. This makes for an overall more unsettling, and more listenable, experience of the two outside of their visual elements, perfect for any rainy autumn evening.

Nao☆: gift songs
(2020.10.13)

It’s inevitable, but disappointing, whenever great idol groups peter out. Sure Negicco’s peak-era run was short, ending with Rice & Snow, but at the time, they were as close to a bonafide idol group as possible, one both passionate idol fans and casual indie kids enjoyed. That cred has lent itself to other Tower Records-adjacent soloists like Michiru Hoshino, and to the other members themselves who have been dabbling in the solo waters since at least 2018. Their sounds are similar: last month Keade’s Stardust in Blue and this month, Nao’s gift songs are two EPs as close to mirror images as they get. Nao’s boasts help from groups with some rising clout like the band apart, it’s low-key vibe an antidote to Kaede’s more low-effort attempt. It’s a matter of personal taste, but Nao’s gift songs retains a kind of warm, whimsical charm missing from its sister EP, one closer in sound to the Rice & Snow sound. Neither of these are particularly game-changing, memorable EPs, but their throwback, warm-water oases are refreshing in a desert full of dusty, major-label idol pop that only Keyakizaka46 (RIP, kind of) can nominally transcend.

LOONA: [12:00]
(2020.10.19)

After the long wait after 2019’s double mini-albums, we only had to wait eight months since LOONA’s last, [#], released in February. A disappointing collection to say the least, I’m happy that this month’s [12:00], while still veering into unoriginal territory, is at least less of an attempt to compete on the same sonic world stage as BLACKPINK than more local girl groups, though all the mystery is still visibly reduced by the amount of stock samples in some of the tracks, especially the lead single, “Why Not?” which is clearly stitched together from various sources (check out the first three tracks of Super M’s Super One for an instructional guide in stitching independently-composed choruses, verses, and bridges together to create one massive hit, not unlike the origin story of every K-pop group itself) to encompass a songwriting-credits list as long as some telephone books (for anyone who remembers those) and nearly as many emotional beats. I’m partial to the more straight-forward dance-pop of “Voice,” one of [12:00]‘s strongest tracks, but as someone who no longer falls within their direct marketing demographic, I’m probably mistaken. The rest of the EP boasts some fun tracks, rounded out by obligatory subdued moments. It’s better than [#], but only just enough to keep me interested, rather than impressed.

Carlos Rafael Rivera: The Queen’s Gambit (Music from the Netflix Limited Series)
(2020.10.23)

It’s difficult to make chess, with its stoic concentration, and all the most exciting parts happening unseen, cerebrally, riveting on screen, but with the help of camera angles, quick cuts, and most importantly, a thrilling soundtrack, Netflix makes it seem easy. As one of the only companies poised to deliver a constant avalanche of new content during a pandemic that has shuttered theaters around the world, the streaming service is one of the few sources we looked to for a year bereft of blockbusters and their original scores that would have normally rolled off the assembly line this autumn like Lucy’s chocolates (actually, we did technically get Mulan, and I guess, Alan Silvestri’s score for The Witches, which was fine). The Queen’s Gambit, composed by newcomer Carlos Rafael Rivera, who has but a couple low-key credits to his name, relies on the show’s thematic content, deploying suspenseful strings and lush momentum alongside a gorgeous base of piano for his score, all while maintaining distinct themes for each of the show’s most important matches. Making chess as dramatic as the final game in the World Series has its challenges, and Rivera admits, “I grew up with chess in that my dad played a little, but I never cared about it. But as long as you know that someone stands to lose, you can score for it.” With an arresting story line and such a stunning score, it’s a win-win for the viewer.

Ariana Grande: positions
(2020.10.30)

From the moment the lead single, “positions” dropped, it was apparent this was not going to be Ariana Grande’s experimental album. The question was: just how similar would it be to thank u, next? The answer is, extremely. Throughout her career, as a vocalist with incredible range and skill, Grande has had the pleasure and pain of being compared to Mariah Carey. positions proves that’s where the parallels end: while Grande has a hand in composing all of the tracks on this album, it lacks the melodic depth and dynamism of Carey as a songwriter at the same point in career (Carey’s sixth album was Butterfly, widely regarded as the turning point in her career, and one that has enjoyed not only critical acclaim, but popular support). On the other hand, the comparisons can only increase, as Grande seemingly does her best to imitate not only late-era Carey (specifically Caution), but her closest contemporaries, among them Victoria Monet, whose producer worked on both singers’ 2020 releases (and with Monet making a direct appearance on “34+35).” This doesn’t make positions a terrible album at all, in fact, sonically, it’s just as consistent as its predecessor, and boasts some of the best production on a technical level, of the year. Still, listeners looking for a hit single or a pop number in the vein of “No Tears Left to Cry” or “Into You” will be disappointed. That ship, with Max Martin waving from the deck, has sailed, in lieu of an aggressively grown-up approach that boasts an uninhibited and sexually frank lexicon, a sign of the times for Grande who is coming into her own in the age of The Weeknd.

Meghan Trainor: A Very Trainor Christmas
(2020.10.30)

It’s hard to find holiday music that doesn’t suck the life out of classics that were never meant for a punk-rock or trance-pop remix. They exist, they’re just few and far between — if pressed, I could maybe name five albums right now. Yet every year I subject myself to the new year’s crop in search of the ever elusive black diamond of Christmas music. Among this year’s hopefuls, including Carrie Underwood, The Bird and the Bee, Goo Goo Dolls, and Maddie & Tae, Meghan Trainor is the last person I would expect to produce a serviceable, let alone good, album of holiday classics. But this is 2020, where all bets are off and we’ve truly reached an historical nadir, so here we are, in the muck, with Trainor’s album this year’s Christmas front-runner. Earlier this year, Trainor released a collection of pop music so past its sell-by date, it wouldn’t even have been relevant if it had met its original release date, scheduled for a year earlier. Yet the annoyingly jolly desperateness that hallmarks Trainor’s brand of confused feminism translates well into music that is built on joyful earnestness. In fact, Trainor could have easily taken this to JoJo Siwa-levels of exuberance, instead displaying a tasteful level of restraint on classics like “Silent Night,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that lesser souls have insisted on jazzing up with unnecessary tempo changes. The jazzing up, in fact, is relegated to originals like “Holidays” featuring, of all groups, Earth, Wind, and Fire, “My Kind of Present,” and “Christmas Got Me Blue.” These are not the kind of canon-storming songs planning to meet “All I Want for Christmas is You” on the top of the Hot 100, but you can do a lot worse if you’re desperate to feel some semblance of manufactured holiday cheer this year.

Sam Smith: Love Goes
(2020.10.30)

Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders, recently translated into English, unravels the story of a mass murder through interviews with several people related to the crime. One such character, an editor who worked with the woman who spent her graduate years researching the murders, appears at the climax of the mystery, eloquently musing on the book that he helped eventually publish: “In one sense,” he states, “something can only be recognized as having happened if there is a record of it.” Love Goes is Sam Smith’s record, chronicling what appears to be a very tumultuous time in their life. Like many albums this year, the album was delayed due to the pandemic, and in another sense, for a re-branding, its original title taking that of the then-titular track “To Die For,” where the singer laments not having someone in their life worth that very ultimate sacrifice. It is, instead, now named for a song about the tough decision to walk away from an irreparable relationship: “You’re broken, we know that,” they reluctantly admit, “And if you knew it, you won’t fight me when I say farewell.” It’s a total change to the original way listeners could interpret this album, from a place of reluctance, and of tortured loss looking back, to a more hopeful, forward-facing perspective of resigned understanding and acceptance. The entire album is rife with this kind of bruised sensitivity, with heartache, and a spiritual search for home and acceptance. Its highly personal, self-reflecting lyrical content can seem like the most irresponsible kind of self-indulgence in these times, but the care with which these songs were constructed make it more than just a whiny diary of break-up songs about Sam Smith’s former lovers. But even if it was, Love Goes, as a record of that time in their life, finally shared with the entire world, bears witness. It means it happened, and it means it happened forever.

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 East Asian pop/rock albums of 2019

When Johnny Kitagawa passed away this summer, it was accompanied by a muted, collective sigh of relief, rather than the quiet, mournful sigh at the passing of a legend. I don’t know, maybe people loved this guy, but it seems as if in his last days, Kitagawa was more like the crusty, embarrassing grandpa nobody likes but everyone has to put up with, wielding the iron fist of tradition, opposed to any and all business strategies that might take him and his mega-successful company into the present, let alone the future. On July 9, you could practically see balloons being released into the sky: happy days were here again. Like dominoes, the country’s most successful producer of boy bands began falling into the warm embrace of social media. YouTube accounts sprung up, celebrities appeared on Instagram, wow, album covers weren’t immediately wiped off of the face of the Internet. Meanwhile, Arashi began their Olympic campaign in earnest, uploading videos to YouTube and singles onto the streaming platform Spotify and a member’s nuptials was announced with an eye-roll, merely confirming an open secret.

As far as defining the capabilities and limits of the last decade of J-pop, Johnny Kitagawa’s death is as momentous as any event; it’s sheer lucky coincidence that it happened around the same time the Heisei era ended and the new era, Reiwa, began. Two monoliths passing the torch, one in peace, one fighting the whole way down.

The rest of the musical year has been rather predictable, with the expansion of the 48/46 groups, Gesu no Kiwami no Otome.-clones riding the success of the group’s low-key J-rock, plenty of mediocre solos, and the demise of many more of your favorite idol groups (including E-girls in 2020, which I am not emotionally prepared to discuss at this time). Across the sea, tragedy returned to K-pop once again, claiming the life of more beloved performers, while at the same time, K-pop’s star continued to rise overseas, led by YouTube-trailblazers like BLACKPINK and TWICE, and Billboard-favorites BTS and NCT, while rookies continued to churn out tepid debuts and earnest comebacks. And yet, as always, there was so much music to wade through, that is wasn’t difficult to unearth hidden gems hidden among the tropical-house drops. Like a lot of music released in 2019, I would not necessarily say the year produced many J- or K-pop albums that we’ll still be talking about in a decade or two, but they kept things going moving along nicely, with a few that are worth examining in depth.

LOONA // [x x]
2019.02.19

LOONA could have been nothing more than one of the greatest K-pop marketing campaigns in history, but if so, nobody would be talking about anything more than the process, which isn’t the case. While I’ll never get over the disappointment of the phenomenal pre-debut singles never being collected into a single compilation, the group did release their first original EP, [++], in 2018, which was re-released in 2019 under the title [x x], and included six new songs, all which convey the singular, interstellar space in which LOONA lives, and it is indeed a mood. Unlike TWICE, LOONA comes off as a witchy and wise older sister: check new tracks “Butterfly,” “Curiosity,” and “Where you at,” which build on the older, faster-paced tracks. There’s a subtle brilliance to these songs, an ice-cold chill that benevolently provides as many goosebumps as it does ear worms. We’re all unworthy of a follow-up in 2020, but pray that LOONA chooses to bless us anyway.

Key // I Wanna Be
2019.03.04

SHINee just celebrated ten years since their debut last year, so it was only fitting that three of the four surviving members began prepping for their great military-service hiatus, while baby TAEMIN went off to pursue jopping with the other Korean Avengers on Ellen. Luckily, the group left behind treasures to enjoy during the break, including last year’s The Story of Light trilogy. But the greatest was Key’s solo album FACE, released in 2018, and re-packaged this past March as I Wanna Be. The re-package includes three additional tracks, among them the title track, featuring Soyeon of rookie group (G)I-DLE. This album feels like the true successor to 2015’s Married to the Music, an ode to K-pop boy bands and a testament to the pop aesthetic of SM Entertainment in a nutshell, both which are at their strongest together. The number of hooks on this record are stratospheric, and while I’m not convinced that Key is any better on his own than with his band mates, he brings the exact level of vocal enthusiasm these tracks deserve. It’s a hasty prediction, but this album should be enough to keep fans going for the next two years or so.

BAND-MAID // BAND-MAIKO
2019.04.03

Performers in the Japanese and South Korean music business (idols or otherwise) are some of the hardest working in the world, so you’ll have to excuse me if the constant mantra of Ariana Grande releasing two albums over two years doesn’t impress me much when it is has been de rigeur for a group like BAND-MAID to release a new album every year — and two in 2019. Obviously, the sort of work ethic that pushes K-pop idols to train and perform for 14 hours a day is by no means practical, safe, or just. With a group like BAND-MAID, there is also the possibility of not just physical and mental, but creative, burnout. Up until now, BAND-MAID’s releases have been on a strong, upward trajectory with each release topping the last: they have been featured in the top ten albums of the year list here for the last two years. But interestingly, it is not the late-entry CONQUEROR that makes this list, but the shorter EP released in April, BAND-MAIKO. CONQUEROR is a strong album, but it’s the first one that I haven’t been instantly taken by, and while I let that album continue to percolate and work its magic on me, I’ll let BAND-MAIKO speak for itself. As if to preempt a rut, the group changed things up for this special EP by giving a few of their signature metal hits a traditional Japanese sound, complete with taiko drums and shakuhachi flutes piping into every available space left in the production. This idea could have been a silly, ineffectual gimmick (perhaps like being forced to wear maid costumes?), more Wagakki Band-rip off than genuine novelty, but the melting of the two styles are perfect, offsetting, collaborating, and molding themselves into something just as hard and heavy, but with a unique texture. It also gives the band a chance to ditch the maid outfits and don traditional kimonos in music videos for “secret” and “Gion-cho” — I’m not sure they were any more comfortable to shoot in, but they certainly make for stunning visuals (women’s fashion  throughout history, I guess). So far, the EP has been a one-off, but I wouldn’t mind seeing this little side-experiment blossom into a regular gig. It’s a gorgeous, sweeping testament to how adaptable and open the metal genre is, and how hard BAND-MAID work every day to keep innovating and challenging expectations, while proving the band is anything but out of ideas.

Nao Toyama // Gunjou INFINITY
2019.04.03

Seiyuu solo albums are a hard sell when so many can sound nearly identical. This isn’t inherently a bad thing if that’s exactly what you’re looking for, but it can get difficult to distinguish between them all if you listen to a dozen or so a month. “All pop music sounds the same” is easily one of the laziest insults to hurl, but the older you get, the more you realize there’s nothing insulting about stating merely uninformed facts: after all, even the most manufactured idols can create alchemy with the right songwriters that produce potions that keep a cauldron bubbling throughout the year. Gunjou INFINITY seems to have hit upon that very wizardry, taking Toyama’s lithe vocals and peppy guitars to a level beyond what she hinted at on her debut album. There’s not going to be anything here for those who saw the word seiyuu and immediately turned heel, but for those still on the carousel, check the extra synths on “Action,” the traditional instrumentals woven throughout “Tomoshibi no Manimani,” and the frenetic one-two punch of “Living Dying Kissin’” that make an album like this, adrift in a sea of so many like it, stand out. Nao Toyama has been on my radar since Rainbow, but she hasn’t proven herself until now, a woman more than capable of keeping up with the Nana Muzukis of the world, if given half a chance in a fickle, over-saturated market…and several return trips for draughts of that elusive elixir.

The Dance for Philosophy // Excelsior
2019.04.05

The Dance for Philosophy have been one of the strongest indie idol-groups since their debut, releasing one quirky, vintage-inspired album after another since 2015. While it was easy to lump them in with the rest of the Tower Records-set alongside Michiru Hoshino, Negicco, and especia, The Dance for Philosophy songwriters took their inspiration from 70’s soul and funk, mixing in just a hint of City Pop for thematic relevance. The result has been adorable, dorky albums, almost too earnest for their own good. This year’s Excelsior tries its hardest to be just a but more slick, a bit more chill, but of course it’s a losing battle, and all the better for it. The group is at their best when they’re at their least cool, breaking out all the horns, cliche sparkle effects and almost-Mickey Mousing sound effects on tracks like “IT’S MY TURN,” and “FREE YOUR FESTA.” But it’s smoother tracks like “PARRHESIA” and “HEURISTIC CITY” that hit the sweet spot in-between, and luckily The Dance for Philosophy spend quite some time in this zone. It might not have all the idol bells-and-whistles of their previous albums, but it’s a more mature, albeit tiny, step forward for the group’s sound that I sincerely look forward to hearing evolve at a pace slower than evolution, all the longer to simmer and enjoy.

TWICE // Feel Special
2019.09.23

TWICE had a better year than any other K-pop girl group in 2019, and that includes Internet phenoms BLACKPINK. While the group has always been hit-or-miss for me, never achieving a level of consistency that precluded enthusiasm for comebacks, they scored three amazing releases this year, including two Korean EPs, and an original Japanese album that hit #1 on the Oricon the week of its release. It’s their second EP, Feel Special, that has stayed on heaviest rotation. From the title track on, it’s a burst of sparkling energy, with the dance-pop glitter parade hitting peak ticker-tape on the stomping triplet “Get Loud,” “Trick It,” and “Love Foolish.” The album winds down with “21:29,” the nostalgic missing piece from Seohyun’s 2017 Don’t Say No. It’s a perfect example of K-pop from a group that has released more than seven original Korean mini-albums since 2015, but who still bring enough innovation, enthusiasm, and need to prove themselves to feel like a rookie group.

BABYMETAL // METAL GALAXY
2019.10.11

BABYMETAL were mired in a bit of controversy this year, the type only surprising to those unfamiliar with the Japanese entertainment industry, but enough to derail the group’s international momentum. When Yuimetal was reported mysteriously missing from live shows, conspiracies abounded until a press release confirmed the usual story: Yui Mizuno would not be returning due to poor health. Betrayed fans punished the withholding of information by insta-damning their newer singles as inferior, lacking in the same quality and depth of their early releases. It seemed the group was doomed to the same recycle bin and sudden irrelevance as other Japanese crossovers. So imagine my surprise when I tuned in to the new album and found myself charmed and impressed. METAL GALAXY, five years removed from the group’s debut album, is their poppiest to date, relying on metal as a production style, rather than a genre. The album still soars with riffs and earnest vocals, but it’s softer, a bit more diffused around the edges, with the endearing addition of a ballad and what can only be aptly described as soaring choruses. Rest assured, there are plenty of cheeky moments sprinkled throughout, like the bubbly rap-interlude on “DA DA DANCE.” There’s a reason this album is wedged into this category and not metal: it’s as laser-focused as any idol group on this list, just with a heart worn on a spikier sleeve than most.

TAEYEON // Purpose
2019.10.28

The slow demise of Girls’ Generation, from down-one-member, to down-a-couple-members, to let’s-just-give-them-all-solos, to hmm-how-about-this-pointless-subunit is one of K-pop’s saddest horror stories. This is not to say anything of the solo releases, which for those who have opted to stay with SM Entertainment, are as top-quality as ever, and some, in fact, being astonishingly good. TAEYEON, as one of the three biggest vocal powerhouses of the group, and now the highest-selling female artist in K-pop, has been given solo opportunities since 2010, and official solo albums since 2015, when the albums started to come in earnest. Of all of these, 2017’s Voice has been the strongest collection, but Purpose has blown that album out of the water. While it doesn’t necessarily showcase TAEYEON’s vocals so much as use them in the best, and holiest, way possible, it’s a chance for TAEYEON to get some great pop songs under her belt, by way of the usual overseas heavy-weights like LDN Noise, and Dsign Music who have been behind your favorite East Asian pop songs since 2013. As usual, the music is a mix of glossy R&B influences coating sultry pop (“Ha Ha Ha (LOL)“), and the type of sad song you play on the way home from a long day of work after your exhaustion has got you brooding (“Wine“). TAEYEON is an expert at this point, ringing emotion out of every last note, and so the album feels effortless. TAEYEON might be portrayed as a bit of an ice-queen in the media, but Purpose, both cool and confident, is surprisingly warm.

Hey! Say! JUMP // PARADE
2019.10.30

It will be interesting to see how Johnny’s entertainment will grow, mature, and respond to their musical competition, now that Kitagawa has passed and the handcuffs have come off. As mentioned above, there are already massive steps being taken to join the rest of the entertainment industry in 2020, and it bodes well for the years ahead. There will surely be many great, successful, working things the company will want to hold on to as it moves forward, and one only hopes that one of those things is a rich musical history. It has taken me nearly all of the last decade to truly appreciate the particular style of J-pop that Johnny’s produces, and though I would not call myself a super-fan, and remain skeptical of most of their performing groups, it’s been a wild ride to slow down, and carefully study, understand, and appreciate what these groups offer to the genre. At its worst, they indulge in the sort of outdated, saccharine idol-pop you’d find as filler content on a CD produced in 1978 from the clearance section of Half-Price Books. At its best, it fuses vintage styles with modern production to create something fizzier and more nuanced than the individual pieces, as do one of Johnny’s most successful modern groups Hey! Say! JUMP, whose name alone now endearingly dates them. They’re all set to take over once Arashi vacates the top spot, and aside from drama with a former member who was swiftly and quietly put to sleep like a rabid dog, they seem more than capable of carrying the torch. PARADE is Johnny’s at its best: long, winding choruses, slightly-awkward rap breaks tempered by pleasing disco strings, Western-pop and EDM pop-ups, individual vocals twining into the distinctively joyous group singalongs. It can’t possibly be less-than-average compared to the intellectual records littering year-end lists over at The Ringer or Pitchfork, and it won’t win any awards for bringing anything innovative to the table, but in that way, it’s like Johnny’s itself, leaning so heavily on the personality and charisma of its stars. Perhaps that’s why so many continue to draw from this particular well, year after year, and who’s comparing it to those stuffy lists anyway?

Cosmic Girls (WJSN) // As You Wish
2019.11.19

Like TWICE, Cosmic Girls had two above-average EPs to choose from this year: the frothy soap bubbles of For the summer, a giant, shimmering, sunshine-in-a-bag collection of K-pop, tailor-made for what is still the one season of the year most likely to have you throwing caution to the wind and, if you are unlucky enough to work a 9-to-5 like the rest of us, playing hooky or gazing out the window, wishing you had the guts to do so. But it is As You Wish, their autumn entry, that brings a bit of levity to the songs that showcase how great WJSN is when they are less gimmicky, and focus on what makes them work so well as a group. Some of the same songwriters appear on these tracks, such as FULL8LOOM, but the addition of newcomers KZ, Nthonius, and B.O. add some much-needed gravity to the parade of hooks on tracks like “Iruri (As Your Wish),” “Luckitty-Cat,” and the album’s strongest banger “Badaboom,” which veers into beloved T-ara territory with its catchy, repetition of “Badabing-badabing-badaboom-yeah.” WJSN and TWICE have had a similar musical evolution, and both groups have released work this year that reflects their status as worthy contenders beyond their beginning as SNSD-clones, but WJSN has the added benefit of being the type of group you can always count on to deliver consistency in great songs and great visuals.

Honorable Mentions


Wa-suta: Cat’ch The World
TAEMIN: FAMOUS
OH MY GIRL: Fall in Love
Flower: F
SUPER☆DRAGON: 3rd Identity