2016 mid-year report

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

K-pop: The Gold, and the Silver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J-pop (Idols and otherwise)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Solo

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

Odds and Ends

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

But what is it good for?

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

 

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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