predia’s “Kindan no MASQUERADE”

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It’s hard to compete with E-girls, who are one of the best J-pop groups we have right now (that the biggest influence on E.G. CRAZY/”E.G. COOL” is 1990’s Janet Jackson, makes it all the better), but I’m slowly warming to predia. They’re striving to have the same kind of edge without the benefit of distinctive and well-known individuals in their group — and the word individual is important here; we can instantly pick out faces and personalities like Ami, Reina Washio, and YURINO (or at least, personalities as they’ve been sold to us), but does a casual fan know any of the members of predia? The latter functions more like a collective unit than E-girls does, and its telling that an inability to connect with the group on any level other than superficial is mostly because none of the members stands out as more talented, or particularly interesting, than any other. I’m sure more enthusiastic fans beg to differ. Furthermore, because predia doesn’t have the advantage of sub units, like E-girls’s conjoining of dream, Happiness, Flower, etc., there’s less chance to see different sides of any of the members in other iterations.

Still, predia functions along much of the same ideology: a tougher, more-than–just-idols group (Avex would call them a “dance group,” I guess) that is built to increasingly appeal to female fans rather than male ones. It’s part of what I like about them so much. The other part is their music, which in a bid to compete against a group like E-girls, increases the chances that they’ll come out with something I like. Their new single “Kindan no MASQUERADE” is a great example of the type of aggressive pop that has become their hallmark. It’s nowhere in the realm of the funky-dance and cool that a group like E-girls now pulls off backwards and in heels, but there’s a studied skill and sharp attention to detail in the choreography, and the absence of a make-believe coyness, the sugar-coma levels of cute of a group and song like, say, Country Girls’ new “Peanut Butter Jelly Love.” They’re essentially incomparable, is what I’m saying, an instant plus.

I doubt that any one member of predia will eventually make inroads like former label-mates PASSPO☆ did, but it’s an appreciated alternative, and if their producers can break through the business-as-usual pop songs to release something that transcends their niche among the more mature sounds of groups like Da-iCE (say, a “Pink Champagne” or “E.G. Anthem“), they might prove some staying power beyond what anyone could easily estimate as their shelf-life. And hey, E-girls aren’t perfect either: they could take some tips on ways to fit all the girls on a jacket sleeve without resorting to terrible Photoshop templates.

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2016’s song of the year: Arashi’s “Fukkatsu LOVE”

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It’s hard to believe we used to live in a time before Arashi: Arashi on variety programs, Arashi playing over the closing credits of dramas, Arashi acting in dramas,  Arashi making headlines for the perceived injustice of seeking out romantic relationships in their private lives, Arashi selling mascara and phones and cooking oil, Arashi’s promoting their new single, new concert, new album, and on and on. But when exactly did Arashi become the elder statesmen of Japanese boy bands? Is it just the logical conclusion to aging, to the company’s new marketing image that imbues the members with an impossibly smooth image of playful sophistication and wisdom, the kind that comes when you’ve seen it all and mastered each and every task the record label has thrown at you, from complicated dance moves, the proper time and way to tell jokes, to mentoring your juniors, and dressing up in giant foam popcorn hats?

Maybe it was LOVE or THE DIGITALIAN, but it seems as if Japonism was something of a turning point, as the group’s post-Tohoku album seems to have solidified their status as representatives of the nation, as torchbearers, as a solid and comforting definition of a nation and a pop culture in a time when people are happy to bond over comforting assurances of greatness in the same way generations have during the uncertainty and fear that follows natural disaster. The pride and unity worked, and not just because of the underlying message — even as months passed, it was hard not to return to the album time and again this year, to its Johnny’s-typical melodies and carefully interwoven traditional elements (taiko, shamisen, etc.) blasting through the same old sludge any Johnny’s album can often be. I never would have believed it myself, but here we are. Can I take back its honorary mention in last year’s list to include it in my top ten? It’s an album I keep finding new things to love about.

apptatsuroEven more than Japonism, was the group’s follow-up single “Fukkatsu LOVE,” which already promised to be amazing upon the announcement of its producer Tatsuro Yamashita’s involvement. Yamashita was a beast in the 80’s, the type of king who lorded over his tiny City Pop kingdom as a benevolent, jovial ruler who took the time to nurture his craft and give his songs the care and attention they deserved. Like the best pop music, his songs are deceiving. They’re simple: simple bars, simple melodies. The lyrics? We’re talking Japanese 101, the stuff you can translate after a few days of relaxing with the Oricon Top 10 and a couple lessons of survival phrases. So then why are they so addictive? How do they manage to so perfectly encapsulate their time and place in the canon? How do you resist snapping your fingers and tapping your toes when something like “Love Talkin’ (Honey It’s You)” comes on? And good luck not being bewitched by his work on “Fukkatsu LOVE.” There’s nothing even the most ardent indie-kid who eschews commercial pop for the dreck that Pitchfork sometimes hoists out of the nowhere-deep can do about the fact that despite City Pop’s long comeback on the fringes of independent and hipsters’ record players, it took a group like Arashi to make it more than just a trend in name.

You can break it down, from the first guitar riffs, to the call and responses, to the jazzy breakdowns, to the countless climaxes the song ascends to, all the way down to the lyrics. The lyrics! They contain not one, but two of the most quintessential lyrics in Japanese pop songs of all time. If you have listened to five J-pop songs, you will have heard “yume no naka e” or “ame no naka,” and the best ones will make these cliches sound not like the stale drivel that keeps the Oricon chart floating year after bloated year, but like actual narrative. The disco strings help. The disco strings are everything. Yamashita produced this tribute to his own craft with his first great single of 2016 (the second was “CHEER UP! THE SUMMER“), with subtle tweaks (the speed, for one, is just that bit faster than what he probably first envisioned). It’s both commentary on J-pop and celebration of it: the story of a wounded heart, a lost love, the pain and romance of longing, and the triumph of reunion. Tale as old as time, etc., but from the master of nostalgia, loneliness has never sounded so aspirational.

The B-side, “Ai no COLLECTION” is so successful at its attempt at stealing glory, it’s a wonder they didn’t save the song as a future single (or maybe they did that with “I seek“?); in fact, you can hear a few other songs that must have been composed around these session on their new album Are You Happy?: triple openers “DRIVE,” “I seek,” and “Ups and Downs,” which all feature the same kind of tasteful disco-pop before the album hits a comfortable groove with more of what we’re used to hearing from Arashi (“Bad boy,” “Mata Kyou to Onaji Ashita ga Kuru,” and that ballad that’s actually, really now, great). It’s a successful follow-up to Japonism, though nowhere in the same realm.

apploveforsalWe can argue and complain about how the past decade or so has seen a swift decline in the quality and variety of music that used to define modern Japanese pop music, largely due to groups just like Arashi and their female-idol counterparts in Akimoto-driven AKB-sister groups, even as we praise them for contributing to some of the most fun singles of the year (we all know “LOVE TRIP” was pretty fun). Pop music is nothing if not the definition of fast-paced change, with songs jumping in and out of relevance before we’ve even finished downloading them. Because of this, it’s sometimes easy to dismiss every big K-pop single as just the next song to tide you over until tomorrow’s rookie group debuts, or SM Entertainment unleashes SHINee’s tenth comeback. In Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, David Hajdu recalls how

“[P]eople of mid-century America talked about the body of songs that were currently popular as “the hit parade,” a phrase that vividly captured the fleeting nature of hits. They pass by, one after another. To experience hits is very much like watching a parade, and our impression of a song is like a moment impressed on the eyelids during a blink. Open your eyes, and a new part of the parade is in front of you. The things that caught your attention for one moment — the twirl of a baton, the turn of a melody — is gone, and something else — a decorated float, a pounding dance tune — has replaced it.” (pg 71)

So, too, in Japan, generations removed from 1940, we still live in a world constantly pining for what we don’t have just yet. And still, nothing else released after February 24 of this year has stayed with and impressed me as much as “Fukkatsu LOVE” and its B-side. There have been good songs, some great songs, and some really, really great songs, but none that have tugged at me so persistently that I’ve been forced to re-consider, recall and realize all over again what J-pop is, what makes it different and special, and so amazing, and what drew me to it in the first place.

J-pop needs a group like Arashi, now more than ever. With the demise of SMAP, and the schizophrenic nature of a group like Hey! Say! JUMP (are they standard Johnny’s? Are they K-pop Johnny’s? They have really great songs followed by okay-ish to not-so-okay pop that makes them seem a little hectic. A.B.C.-Z. and Johnny’s WEST might be terrible, but at least they’re consistent). Johnny’s is desperate to pass the torch with swift and silent fanfare to distract from the fact that their longest running, and arguably most successful Japanese boy band of all time has suddenly decided to call it quits because reasons, shaking the foundation of J-pop as we know it — even if you don’t care for SMAP, their ubiquitous presence has touched just about every corner of Japanese pop culture, an impressive feat not worth ignoring.

apparashiareyouHow much of Arashi’s popularity is real versus the careful manufacture of the  company’s almost dynastic, but slowly ebbing monopoly over media? (Think about their resistance to the Internet and its inherent power to equalize and neutralize and divide pop culture, while providing alternatives and putting the nature of its dissemination in the hands of fans and fandoms and ah, yes, I see your point Japanese entertainment companies, but the capitulation is inevitable and you’d be wise to find ways to make it work rather than sulk and refuse to find ways to make it work). I’m not talking about the members’ inherent talent, charisma, and good looks, which they have all so obviously spent years and millions making sure they have or appear to have. But what other boy band had Tatsuro Yamashita? SMAP did have Yasutaka Nakata, once, long ago now, but it was clearly one of his chopping-block singles. It might seem sinister or oddly disconcerting that pop greats like Yamashita would “deign” to work with just another idol group, but on the contrary, history has shown us that only the greats had the privilege of doing so. Perhaps we’re living in an age where the well-respected have decided to join ’em, rather than beat ’em, but maybe there’s something worth examining here. Let’s put it another way: will it be AKB48 or Perfume or Arashi performing at the 2020 Olympics?

Perhaps Hajdu is right and “[i]mpermanence is a necessity of the pop culture ecosystem” (77), and next year we’ll have forgotten about all of this year’s hits, as most of us did 1997’s and 2009’s. Maybe “Fukkatsu LOVE” was not meant to be enduring in any way beyond the space between when it was released and then usurped by its predecessor. But I can’t help but think that the greatest hit makers, Max Martin, TK, Yamashita, Ohtaki, and Nakata among them, somehow managed to crack the code of the medium, without compromising their approach from a place of love and respect for the form and its possibilities. The greatest pop songs last two minutes and fifty seconds with the capability of landing on many arbitrary lists, but the greatest ones linger on and on, longer than anyone ever planned.

Top ten albums of 2015: Honorable mentions, Bollywood, etc.

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Honorable mentions:

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callme’s Who is callme?: More than just Perfume knockoffs, this is a solid electro-pop debut that runs just a little long at 16 tracks.

Arashi’s Japonism: Idol seniors expand on the recent national pride movement with an album heavy on traditional instruments. I’ll give them their due.

JUJU’s WHAT YOU WANT: Fun disco-pop from an underrated stateswoman of J-pop.

AILEE’s VIVID: R&B vocal powerhouse finally given songs that aren’t just Beyonce-replicas (bonus points for the track featuring Amber).

Flower’s Hanadokei: Ballad masters hit all the sweet spots with this beautiful collection of slow-tempo torch songs.

Hey! Say! JUMP’s JUMPing CAR: Fun boy band idol pop that see-saws between cutesy idol pop and EXILE-light jams.

The Only Three Bollywood Soundtracks You Need, 2015:

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01. Amit Trivedi: Bombay Velvet
02. Sanjay Leela Bhansali: Bajirao Mastani
03. A. R. Rahman: Tamasha

Top Ten English Language Pop Albums of 2015:

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01. Adam Lambert: The Original High
02. Justin Bieber: Purpose
03. Ellie Goulding: Delirium
04. Selena Gomez: Revival
05. Madeon: Adventure
06. Carly Rae Jepsen: E-MO-TION
07. One Direction: Made in the A.M.
08. Hilary Duff: Breathe In. Breathe Out.
09. Marina and the Diamonds: FROOT
10. Miami Horror: All Possible Futures

Top ten albums of 2015, #2: Wonder Girls’ REBOOT

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wondergrroeappWonder Girls: REBOOT

The praise that rolled in for Wonder Girls’ comeback REBOOT are not without cliches: “late 80s nostalgia,” “synth-pop that is so utterly ’80s it defies logic,” “a vintage synth-pop dream on VHS,” etc. It’s simply impossible to talk about this album without using the words “retro,” “vintage,” “synth,” or “throwback,” so let’s skip them and get to the heart of why this album succeeds where so many have failed: this album is the perfect marriage of a razor sharp understanding of pop music and the skills of master producers who use just the right sound effects to achieve that scary-good level of authenticity. It’s the addition of a visually accurate mock up of all the best and worst things we loved about 80’s music videos. It’s the keytar. It’s the breathless vocals and cascading star bursts on “Candle,” the drawn out “eh eh eh”s on “Baby Don’t Play,” the alluring anonymity of “John Doe,” and the euphoric, chilly shadows of “One Black Night.” REBOOT isn’t just an attempt to revive the best of Madonna’s golden era, or cleverly appropriate a culturally significant touchstone as the title, it’s a thank you to the decade that taught us how modern pop music should be made: with an emphasis on the now, on how it should be listened to after the fact, and how we should see it when we get older. There’s nostalgia, yes, but all of our accumulated nows, too, everything we’ve heard and experienced to help us appreciate what a wonderful “then” it was, without having to sacrifice our own “now” to have it: we get K-pop AND Carly Rae Jepsen AND Donna Summer AND The Beach Boys (if that’s your thing), and what a wonderful world we live in that we can experience all of it in what was once the distant future.

Top ten albums of 2015, #6: Negicco’s Rice & Snow

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Negicco: Rice & Snow

There’s been no shortage of words spilled over Negicco’s origin story: to sum up, they’re often painted as the humiliated local ambassadors of onions who gained critical appeal after a few strategic collaborations with Yasuharu Konishi and other indie-approved creatives. Their early singles were simple at best, utilizing the resurging idol boom without any particular focus on what made Nao, Megu, and Kaede different. Initially, there wasn’t much, and even today, it’s a scramble to identify what makes any of the three girls unique. What makes Negicco, as a unit, stand out, has very little to do with the three girls themselves, and almost everything to do with their roster of producers who have created an airtight homage to the girls’ roots (snow and rice being hometown Niigata’s main exports). In fact, the central marketing technique involves pushing these names to the forefront; as Memories of Shibuya writes: “Far from the usual idol-group scenario of songwriters being kept behind the scenes as the girls take center stage, the press for Rice&Snow loudly trumpets the assortment of Shibuya-kei luminaries handling composition duties on the album.”

And Rice & Snow is indeed all very shibuya-kei, with its hallmark array of genres and sounds. Sparkling pop standard “TRIPLE! Wonderland” opens the album followed by respites in bossa nova (“CREAM SODA Love”), 80’s synth (“Futari no Yuugi”, Hiroyasu Yano in a clear nod to Haruomi Hasono), drum n’ bass (“BLUE, GREEN, RED AND GONE”), and atmospheric electronica “(Space Nekojaracy”). There’s at least two songs that utilize hand claps, and a few more that capture the same sing-along spirit. The magic is that you don’t actually have to care why that makes this album more “hip” than say, E-girls’ E.G. TIME. They’re light, sentimental pop songs you can enjoy without any of the baggage that comes with every other idol group, and as long as they keep a tight line-up of producers, the girls might stand a chance at  a lifespan just a bit longer than them, too.

Top ten albums of 2015, #8: E-girls’ E.G. TIME

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egirlsappE-girls: E.G. TIME

So here we are. The 2015 J-pop magnum opus. The album that quietly dropped on the very first day of the year and still beat out hundreds of other J-pop albums to make this list. You’re not going to find any surprises on E.G. TIME: this is unadulterated dance music, Avex Trax-style, with elements of idol pop’s optimism and verve, touches of trendy EDM showers, and the conspicuous vowels of Japanese punctuated by American words and phrases. It’s an update on 2014’s COLORFUL POP, tweaking the tracks for the ultimate frenetic dance-pop, a brand that EXILE does more or less successfully. It’s a massive girl-group firing on all cylinders, optimizing their key members for optimum vocals and choreography. The album comes charging in with singles “E.G. Anthem -WE ARE VENUS-” and “Mr. Snowman;” they’re no “RYDEEN ~Dance All Night~” but for mood-setting, you can’t get closer to this album’s raison d’etre. Add in a chunky Yasutaka Nakata production, a cover song, several other successful tie-in singles, and the album closes with some merciless reminders of how E-girls have pretty much always been this good, even if it took you this long to notice.

Limited editions of this album also come bundled with footage from E-girls LIVE TOUR 2014 “COLORFUL LAND,” one of the best concerts to be released this year: the opening performance of “RYDEEN” is still the most exciting cold open I’ve experienced all year, and possibly this decade, since Ayumi Hamasaki’s DOME TOUR 2001 A, with it stratospheric production value. It’s also the most fun I’ve had watching a concert performance in a long, long time: COLORFUL LAND is packed with costumes, color, movement, and the crackling exuberance of a group of girls who look seriously thrilled to be doing what they’re doing for their audience.

2015 was the year E-girls proved you can no longer write them off as just another double-digit girl-group cash cow. Any misconceptions you have about pop music from Japan are finally put to rest on E.G. TIME; it’s a vibrant and unique approach to pop that can’t be replicated by anyone else, anywhere else.

Stay Girls: Not Quite a Decade of Girls’ Generation

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It’s almost the year 2015 and I still don’t know all the members of Girls’ Generation. In fact, there’s only a few I do know; there’s Hyoyeon — she’s the incredible dancer who doesn’t get enough screen time, presumably because she’s often ranked last in the attraction rankings; then there’s Sunny — the one who’s really good at aegyo; and now there’s Jessica — she’s the one who just got kicked out of the group, foreshadowing the end of Girls’ Generation and K-pop as we know it. Even though we’re well beyond the Golden Age of K-pop, Korean pop music has always had its defining starlets to keep the wave crashing just a little bit longer. But now that one of the longest running groups is finally experiencing turbulence with its line-up, it’s only a matter of time before Girls’ Generation finally stop being girls.

Like many fans, I came to know So Nyeo Si Dae (or SNSD, or Girls’ Generation, or even Shoujo Jidai, as they’re known in Japan) when they released the super hit “Gee.” Up until then, the group had mostly been coasting on being SM Entertainment’s latest and having one of the largest number of members in its group at that time. Their signature hit wasn’t only a spectacularly catchy pop song, but one that came with a list of grievances, no matter how many people try to find empowerment in its music video. The fact is, that like most of SNSD’s early hits, the songs are all about an object of infatuation, someone so cute, so handsome, so blindingly brilliant, that it renders the girls unable to sleep, stay still, or even make eye contact. Their hearts beat, they blush, they feel shy, oppreul saraghae etc. Their target audience is certainly the boys and men they’re singing about and to, but many young girls and older women love the group just as much. The coordinated outfits, long legs, constant makeovers, and overwhelmingly feminine visuals appeal to those looking not just for lust objects, but role models, someone to illustrate how to be an ideal woman: how she looks, acts, dresses, and flirts. Once you realize how tempting it is to just give in to the idea that the group was allegedly created for ahjossis (middle-aged men) is when you realize how that would ignore the hypocritical and sometimes infuriating messages it sends to girls and young women (and in this, there really is no suitable ranking — which is worse: churning out attractive girls in a factory-style system complete with requisite plastic surgery for the eyes and wallets of men, or in order to educate women on what the proper feminine form should look and act like? It’s a lose-lose).

Sometime after their initial popularity, SNSD slowly began morphing into something some see as empowering, and others as simply arrogance. This change surprisingly coincided with their Japanese debut, a country not exactly known for allowing their large-numbered female pop groups agency. Instead of sweet pop songs, their music took on an edge, a forceful, tough sound more in line with Western pop songs. They (where “they” means mostly male songwriters) also provided countless definitions and contradictions for who they, as girls, were and could be. In “BAD GIRL” on 2011’s GIRLS’ GENERATION, they claim to be the perfect bad girls, presumably a far cry from the blushing good girls who could only hoot hoot hoot when their boyfriend checked out someone in front of them: “You’ll become a prisoner soon / you’ll become a slave” to their unique style, they sing. Yet later on the album on “BORN TO BE A LADY,” they sing “Ah, even if I’m a tiny girl / who doesn’t have any strength / One day, I will become stronger.” In their Korean comeback that same year they proceeded to “bring the boys out” and stop their diet, but just for one day, because they felt like lazy girls. On the Japanese track “Gossip Girls,” they “put up a confident face; however / We are lookin’ for love all the time… / We are lonely girls.” But maybe the ultimate manifesto is the track on their second Japanese album “Stay Girls”: they know they have to grow up, yet “we stay girls / Innocent, pure hearts / no matter what the future holds / Don’t change who you are / Stay girls.” They want to stay girls and they’re going to stay girls, as long as the public demands it.

This isn’t just the indulgent wish of long-time fans: it’s the dream of almost every human being alive — to preserve youth and innocence, even if just on the inside. Ideally, idol groups would also stay young forever, churning out hit after relevant hit, rather than burning out, fading away, breaking up, changing line-ups, or worse: daring to grow older or move forward.

The three biggest entertainment agencies in Korea (SM, YG, and JYP) each have their own unique brand, and SM Entertainment’s hallmark has always been not just creating stars, but creating youthful, upbeat idols who sell charisma like it’s a product. It is a product. As an SM trainee, you are sold just as effectively as you will in turn Samsung phones. But just as there’s a shelf-life to any and all electronic products, so too do idol groups come and go, their purposes varying as far as to entertain, to empower, to delight, or to make you feel bad about that extra ten pounds you carry around. But even SM doesn’t have the power to stop a member from deciding that it’s time to go solo.

Although the announcement that Jessica would be leaving Girls’ Generation was met with some controversy, the general idea is that Jessica wanted out — whether to get married, or to pursue a career in fashion. That the decision was made while Girls’ Generation is still riding a massive wave all over Asia is more than just coincidental — it’s imperative. Says Kpopalypse:

“[W]hen your group is peaking, you’re more valuable. […] [Y]ou’ve got a better chance to sign a deal with favorable terms if you’re already hot in the marketplace as opposed to the newcomer with no bargaining power that you were when you first started training. It’s not uncommon to see the most ambitious members of a group start getting itchy feet especially in the Korean system, because not only are they mostly making fuck all money, they’re all aware that you can’t be an idol group member forever. Eventually your fan base will mature, someone younger and prettier than you is going to take that “idol” spot, and if you don’t have a backup plan, you might not end up with much.”

That Jessica was prematurely kicked out due to a case of sour grapes doesn’t preclude the fact that she would have left the group either by the end of 2014 or early 2015 regardless. Meanwhile, the rest of the girls have renewed their contracts for another three years — perhaps the last three years we might see new material from the group.

Regardless, their older material has already immortalized SNSD as forever-girls, the quintessential idols able to adapt new concepts and personalities by the month: from rainbow-colored skinny jean-clad mannequins, to “marines,” to 1960’s spy girls. In trying to be all things to all people (strong, aeygo, humble, weak, bold, shy, sometimes all in the span of one variety show appearance), we’ll never know how well we really knew any of these young women, except that they were hardworking, talented individuals who were sometimes coerced into doing things they might not have always wanted to, and always with a smile on their face. Because of this, it was easy to feel we owned them, and they owed us, when in truth, we were just lucky to live on the same planet. They weren’t always the girls you wanted your daughter or younger sister emulating, but theirs was probably still the album you turned on when you meant to start straightening up the house and found yourself dancing with the vacuum cleaner. Because in spite of the mixed messages, egregious double-standards, and questionable lyrics, their discography is filled with some of the greatest pop songs of the last decade: memorable, concise, upbeat, and best played loud.

Below the cut, is my personal ranking of my favorite SNSD albums and mini-albums (a very relative list, considering how amazing the discography is overall). I encourage you to build your own. Continue reading