July 2020: Highlights

I guess this is the accidental no-boys-allowed edition which is a good time to ask where all the great K-pop boy bands went. With any luck, YG’s new group set to debut in August will be neither male equivalent-BLANKPINKs, nor the type of clones who take all their inspiration from BTS like most of the recent crop of boy bands (though with a title like THE FIRST STEP : CHAPTER ONE, it’s not looking good). I have listened to every major boy band release this year, from SF9 to to 1THE9 to AB6IX to ATEEZ and everything in between and can’t help wondering — when is SHINee coming back?

Ayumi Hamasaki: OHIA no Ki // Dreamed a Dream
(2020.07.04) // (2020.07.31)

Despite cancelling her remaining tour dates, Ayumi Hamasaki has been working as always in 2020. In July, the singer released her first two digital singles of the year, the first an ode to her infant son whose existence she revealed in a surprise post on the first day of the New Year (sadly, my response was eerily prescient). “OHIA no Ki” debuted on the finale of the height-of-soap drama based loosely on her early career, Ai Subeki Hito ga Ite, starring Kalen Anzai and Shohei Miura. The song is typical of many Ayu ballads, and should come as no stylistic surprise with long-time producer Kazuhito Kikuchi at the helm. Kikuchi, who worked on past singles like “appears” and “HEAVEN,” hits all of his signature beats: soft pianos and swelling strings playing tag amidst a playground of leisurely vocals and an ascending major key chorus. It’s very pretty, but too similar to previous ballads to be anything more than another extremely competent, but rote, single. Its sweetest spot is the story, Ayu’s lyrics expressing the type of sentiments able to melt the freeze off the iciest cynic, sharing slices of the joy, fear, and relief that mark the firsts every parent experiences with a child. You really have to be a toad not to appreciate its charm, at least a bit. The second single, “Dreamed a Dream,” is the Tetsuya Komuro-penned comeback that fans have been waiting for. Komuro, busy spending the last few years lapping up nostalgia projects and taking liberties with words like “retirement,” took the time to produce this new single, which luckily has more teeth than his first contribution to the 46/48 franchise, a late-stage trf outtake, presumably. This is a very comfortable space for Ayumi, and like “OHIA no Ki,” it doesn’t add anything novel to the canon with its frenzied pace, thin guitar solo, and piano exit, but it’s nice to see jacket art that isn’t B&W or sepia-toned, and this year we really have to take any positives we can get.

Red Velvet-IRENE & SEULGI: Monster
(2020.07.06)

While track records are never 100%, there are some labels you intrinsically expect to deliver great hits. SM Entertainment is up there in the Top 5 (or 3, as it were…): there are few records labels, let alone Korean ones, that have released more enjoyable groups and hit songs than this monolith, and when word started going round about a favorite group’s new sub-unit, I couldn’t help but prepare myself for new favorite songs. But, alas, never 100%. So where does Monster go wrong? This EP feels half-baked, a collection of B-sides and filler album tracks, like Red Velvet’s Velvet side without any of the mystery or understated cool. Its inability to be more like Red Velvet shouldn’t work against it, yet “Jelly,” the EP’s most RV-esque track, is its strongest and least mid-tier. This is the kind of disappointment that hits on two levels – dashed expectations, and abuse of an otherwise high-quality production. The lazy name of this sub-unit should have tipped me off, but old loyalties die hard.

Katy Perry: “Smile”
(2020.07.10)

A new album from Katy Perry was obvious considering how many singles she’s released since Witness. The real kicker here is that “Smile” is 100% okay. The mellow vibes of neither “Harleys in Hawaii” nor “Never Really Over” provided any clues as to where the Katy of Teenager Dream was hanging out these days, but at least they weren’t as insufferable as “Never Worn White,” with its very Beyonce-at-the VMAs reveal (that’s two pop titans taking cues from Queen Bey in the same column!) or as boring as “Daisies.” My expectations for Smile were immediately relegated somewhere to the basement, next to that new Hitomi Arai single, but this lead-single is decent enough to have piqued a very, very mild interest. The album cover had me hoping for a concept a little more along the lines of Chaplin’s “Smile” (I am going to be disappointed if it’s not sampled anywhere on the album) but the performance video is more of an undeveloped alternate-universe Joker, one where Arthur Fleck’s mental health is quite stable, actually, and his passion and talent for bringing laughter and joy to the world was acknowledged and rewarded accordingly, leading to a happy and fulfilling career and personal life. So, very mindful, enlightened, centered, me-time Katy Perry, ca. 2020! I’m not sure the world is ready to receive a record as earnest as this right now, nor does it seem to promise any retribution for the tiresome C-level hits we’ve been getting since, oh, “Wide Awake.” I’m happy for Katy, but I’m not exactly sure this hyper-positive me-time is meeting the moment.

YUKIKA: Soul Yeoja
(2020.07.21)

Consistency is still a problem in K-pop. Look, of course it makes sense, from a money-making standpoint, to put all your resources into creating one hit single and culling the budget for album tracks that often exist for purposes of extra “content” rather than artistic continuity, but it’s harder to reconcile with the genre bait-and-switch that promises listeners something truly innovative, only to be a one-off. As far as I know, one of the few to really commit the whole way though was Wonder Girls. So YUKIKA’s Japanese city-pop angle is a revelation, a chance to truly give the industry something that’s maybe no longer fresh (not after almost a decade of Bandcamp tributes), but certainly different. Too bad it falls just short of committing all the way. Soul Yeoja leads with its jazzy, laid-back singles like “SOUL LADY” and the glimmering “NEON 1989,” the album giving every indication of a proto-Korean Dance for Philosophy before devolving into standard K-pop. Take “Yesterday” or “Day for Love,” which go for the bare minimum in vintage before “pit-a-pet,” an adorable homage to puppy love, boasts all the familiar tropes found on a standard GFRIEND or OH MY GIRL album. The songs themselves deserve little of the blame, for what is proving to be a lack of commitment on the production side. An album like Feel, that takes the less-traveled road of bravely ignoring the pressure to drop a traditional K-pop ballad, deserves every morsel of praise in its critical arsenal, but it’s hard to throw kudos to an album that chooses to play it safe when it’s clearly capable of taking it all the way. I like this album, and certainly appreciate what it’s doing the majority of the time, but I want to love it, and all I can do, now that YUKIKA is a full-length album in, is imagine the potential.

Kylie Minogue: “Say Something”
(2020.07.24)

Anything longer than 24 months is too long without a Kylie Minogue album, especially when that last album was Golden. While it’s nice to see artists try something new, it’s always disappointing when those visions don’t quite work the way they might have been pictured in pre-production. So it was good news when late last year Kylie spoke to The Guardian about working on new music that would get her “back on the dancefloor,” hinting at “grown-up disco,” and dropping the tantalizing adjective “shimmery.” This month, we finally get a taste of what she was talking about when Minogue announced her new album, Spartanely, but hopefully not too tastefully, titled Disco. The album cover is a thousand word, 12-pt font, double-spaced essay to describe that genre’s campiness, but the lead single “Say Something,” is mostly silent on the subject. The short pop song is less Golden Age-Donna Summers and more Sally Shapiro minus inspiration. There’s still plenty of unheard content on the album to look forward to, but if it’s just more of this, it’d do better to drop the “grown-up” tag and commit to youthful hedonism. It’s greedy to expect two world-class revival records in the same year when we already got Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, especially when no one was expecting Minogue’s so soon, but you can’t dangle an album cover like that with Kylie Minogue’s name on it and not deliver 100% of the fun and cheese it implies.

Taylor Swift: folklore
(2020.07.24)

Who knew that seven years after Queen Bey dropped Beyonce to an unsuspecting nation always hungry for “content,” that surprise album-drops would be one of the defining moves of her legacy? While she may not have been the first to do so, “a release of this nature was unheard of from someone of Beyoncé’s magnitude,” and since then, pop stars from Ayumi Hamasaki to Ariana Grande have labored in secret, only to parachute in from seemingly nowhere with full-length albums. But in fact, at this time last year, when Swift was spending months hyping her newest album Lover, it was still one of the few things she hadn’t done. The element of surprise and capture just doesn’t fit Swift, who’s prone to elaborate teasers, extended to heighten anticipation with her audience. Incorporating hidden images, weaving clues in visuals, and even working seemingly innocent hints into interviews is how she operates. This kind of fan interaction takes lots of time and forethought, none of which were given in Swift’s first official out-of-nowhere album drop folklore, announced less than 24 hours before it hit streaming platforms (and a record sixteen different physical versions). The confirmed album artwork down through the list of producers and co-writers were maximized to prepare listeners for an understated album of slower, more acoustic numbers, an album very different from the niji-iro Lover (though it’s a shame that Swift is making the rookie mistake of equating black & white photography and lowercase lettering with maturity, and sophistication). Slower, more acoustic numbers were never my favorite Swift tracks, so I went in with low expectations and suffered no disappointment. It’s a fairly satisfying album to listen to, and gives fans some primo content to chew, but it’s re-play value is nearly non-existent for me. I’m on the cynical side of the fence here with Andrew Unterbreger, who points out that “[b]y releasing it overnight with what for her is an unprecedentedly minimal amount of build-up, she frees Folklore from all of these questions and expectations [that “would have marked something of a risk if rolled out like one of her previous albums.”] If fans love it and consume it like crazy, then great. If it gets a lukewarm response critically and/or commercially, then she can underplay it as a quarantine-released personal project, not subjected to the same standards as one of her ‘official’ albums — like a mixtape, basically.” Very, very smart move though Swift is still too big to fail completely, and the sound here isn’t radical enough from songs here and there to divide fans as, say, Gaga’s Joanne did. If anything, it’s a return to Swift’s story-telling and songwriting roots with all the maturity and technical experience that she has acquired over years of honing a skill that is as second nature to her as posting cat pictures. Many songs have the usual stylistic notes and flourishes of a Taylor Swift chorus, citing note changes and key shifts present throughout her previous albums that identify her as succinctly as a sticky thumbprint. I’m not completely immune to its rustic-chic charm, but I’m no fan of the National or Bon Iver sound, so my curiosity tapers here. That’s the drawback to surprise-albums: the anticipation is always, if not more than, half the fun, so as quickly as it arrives it can be forgotten, like the last twenty tumblr posts you just scrolled through, and the twenty after that.

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.