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]
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Wa-suta: Cat’ch The World
OH MY GIRL: Fall in Love
SUPER☆DRAGON: 3rd Identity