[kpop] the state of debuts, 2013

Looking over the list of debuts this year, it was incredibly dismal. I recognized a few– HISTORY, Wa$$up, Royal Pirates– but I could not remember any of their debut songs. I could tell it was a terrible year for debuts, because though I do not really follow kpop, I do follow a number of Shawols who do. I remember when NU’EST and BAP came out, my Twitter timeline had more than a few mentions of both (more like a vomit and some people switched fandoms), but this year, buzz surrounding rookies has been small.

Instead of talking about disappointing debuts, let us talk about the kpop groups that finally broke through the barrier this year: f(x), Crayon Pop, and EXO.

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The release of Pinktape was the first serious album of f(x), and brought together what f(x) is good at paired with its oddly consistent, signature electronic sound. Listening to f(x)’s previous releases, it just all climaxes into that album, more mature and more confident. f(x) is fast emerging as a counterpart to SHINee, though they still do have a lot of catching up.

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Crayon Pop had a surprise hit with Bar Bar Bar, but the challenge in 2014 will be proving that they are not one-hit wonders, because frankly, their other songs are disasters and really shabbily produced. Crayon Pop hit the magic formula by a long shot with a catchy song and a funny dance, but I do not think they necessarily have the raw talent to push through (note: Bar Bar Bar is not in my music library).

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Last, but probably the most “wtf was that” group of the year, EXO. To me, EXO is the epitome of why S.M. is the 800-lb gorilla in the room. As the huge company, S.M. can attract the very best talents, and even if the material is a tad mediocre (cough, MAMA), once EXO hits their stride, they are fantastic. While on the surface, EXO may seem to be the reincarnation of Super Junior, they are far more meticulously crafted and far more talented as performers. Again, due to its 800-lb advantage, S.M. can increasingly reach for better songs, produced by a broad range of international professionals. Could Growl have been composed by in-house S.M. composers or Korean production houses? Decidedly not.

I believe 2014 holds the most promise for EXO, because as they are a boy group, they tend to get more Westernized, mainstream pop, whereas f(x) and Crayon Pop are girl groups and must play up the high-pitched aegyo expectations of Korean society from time to time. It is no coincidence that the enduring gold standard for girl groups in kpop is SNSD’s Gee, not 2NE1′s I Am The Best. Speaking of YG, I have no idea what happened to the “you pick who debuts” game, which was largely unpopular, pathetic, and needlessly mercenary. YG could have spent that time building up rookies’ popularity, as surely in 2014 S.M. will be assaulting us with new groups as they have revealed new rookies as well.

As for debuts in 2014, I only have one question: where is Jino? (Apparently he is starring in a musical in Japan and still is under S.M., but seriously. What about his Korean activities?)

[kpop] 2013 retrospective: top 10 singles

I always claim I am out of kpop, but I never really left. Limiting SHINee to three spots, here are top 10 singles sung by Korean artists that I have (embarrassingly) played the most this year. Note that this list is only based on play counts– if I were to do a top 10 based on my actual judgment, this following list would be very different.

10. Rum Pum Pum Pum, f(x): Finally, a girl group manages to crack my listening habits. f(x) shed most of the cute with Pinktape, and the result is a solid electro album.

9. Coffee Shop, CNBlue: Blame Lee Jonghyun. Nonetheless, the rest of the album was lackluster and sounded increasingly similar to their previous work. I am getting worried that CNBlue is running out of ideas.

8. Black Pearl, EXO-M: I panned XOXO when it came out, but I still kept it in my library. I rediscovered it this fall and have fallen in love since, and also gotten a lot angrier that some of these amazing ballads were not given to SHINee. Shawol through and through, eh? Nonetheless, EXO-M continues to surpass my expectations, and I think vocally (not counting the rapping) possesses the edge over EXO-K. Continue reading

[review] SHINee’s 2012 Gayo Daejuns & SM The Performance’s “Spectrum”

KBS Gayo Daejun

(1) Sherlock (Clue+Note) [Remix], SHINee

Does not Minho look totally fat?!

Does not Minho look totally fat?!

First impressions– Minho’s outfit is terrifying. The rest are okay, and I guess can appeal to my hipster tastes, but why is Minho always put with these awkward knee-length suit combinations? With pink highlights to boot? Just because he is the tall one in this group with model looks does not mean he looks good in everything. In fact, these pink highlights are absolutely in the wrong positions; they make him look look chunky instead of svelte. However, you will be happy to learn the Minho was on key! Twice! Even if barely. In fact, this whole performance was nothing short of wildly impressive. I was so moved that I am downloading the performance as I type.

This performance was completely live, though sadly, the MR backing was too loud for most of the members except Jonghyun. Nonetheless, despite Jonghyun having the loudest natural volume, sometimes the MR even crept up upon Jonghyun. Overall, Jonghyun was incredibly energetic in this performance, growling into the microphone all over the place and channeling beasts. Perhaps he has a special lady friend he was thinking of as he performed? This was one of the more aggressive performances of his I have ever seen. Jonghyun’s scatting was amazing, throwing caution to the wind, and came out sounding studio-recorded–it was a pity that the MR was fighting his voice for prominence. Jonghyun needs to be punted back to Immortal Song or better yet, Jonghyun should become a solo act (likewise, S.M. The Ballad should release more material).

Key handled the first chorus, Jonghyun got dibs on the second chorus, and Onew rounded off the third, though only for one line. Key really is a power singer, and I do not think I give him enough credit because I am always hounding him about his raspiness. Good job, Key, really. I think being in a musical has really helped him strengthen his voice for longer periods of singing and more intense choreography. That being said, I wish Onew could sing power parts more. If there is one New Years’ resolution I could give to SHINee’s producers, it is have Onew and Jonghyun swap parts–Onew handles the higher pitched power wailings and Jonghyun handles the smooth basses. Onew and Jonghyun are both extremely competent singers at any range, and that should be showcased and used more.

The dancing was sharp, as usual, and in sync. I never have much to say about dancing because from the past five years, SHINee has been very responsible for dancing, and I have come to expect nothing less. They have not delivered below par, ever.

Overall, the song performed was not the complete song Sherlock (Clue+Note), but a remix version, including the scatting and bridge of Clue, and then ending with Note. Musically, the connection from Clue to Note could have been handled a lot better; essentially, it was just like an awkward pause, or a “we must have something” moment. Perhaps a dance break would have disguised the awkwardness a bit more. Speaking of awkward, this was the performance in which Taemin ripped his pants.

(2) 90s songs medley, Idol Super Band

*most of the videos have been removed. When I have time, I will try to find a video to put here, otherwise please Google the songs yourself for the time being, or watch the full show.

For reference,
Guitar: Jinwoon (2AM) & L (Infinite)
Bass: Jinyoung (B1A4)
Drums: Minhyuk (CN Blue)
Keyboard: Taemin (SHINee)
Vocal: Jonghyun (SHINee), Changmin (2AM), Yoseob (Beast)

Continue reading

[kpop] best rookie groups 2012

This very biased selection is based on quality of members–mostly dance and singing, but looks are considered as well, debut track(s), and live performances.

EXO was easily the most anticipated group to debut this year. Though not of epic proportions, their tracks are slickly produced and the groups are well-balanced with many talented individuals in each. At any rate, their debut was more solid than f(x), Super Junior, and even, SNSD. If SM plays their cards right, 2013 could be a very large year for EXO.

NU-EST played their cards extremely well, despite holding a few weak cards. A well-written debut song, one of the first to capitalize on the ‘new’ europop invasion, and including one very intriguing member, Ren. Dancing and lives are unspectacular though, and the shock of a pretty face will not last forever.

Regarding true singing talent, Lunafly and Busker Busker, in this respect, are both promising.

I hesitate to include BAP, but I see way too many BAP fans around me to think of them as a minor rookie group. They did have a nice, unified concept in debut; but alas, their track to me was stuck in the 2005, way too brassy and heavy, trying out a 2PM concept that barely fit.

A.cian‘s whole debut album is a beautifully crafted imitation of europop. That’s about it. Due to the constantly changing nature of kpop, I doubt they will release a europop album like this next time– if there is a next time.

Like A.cian, Cross Gene delivered an amazingly crafted imitation of europop for their debut. The facts that they have Japanese, Chinese, and Korean members and released simultaneously in Japanese and Korean are very nice bonuses. Another great bonus? Their live singing is A-OK (but please hire another choreographer).

Rounding out the last of the europop imitators, we have A-JAX. Someone fetch them a new stylist.

[review] Tohoshinki’s “ANDROID.” (Toho, never come back to Korea please)

The latest release from Tohoshinki is “ANDROID”, a mini-album with two songs: ANDROID and BlinkANDROID is the lead single, and rightfully so, its hook is so infectiously catchy and singable, along the lines of Superstar. Changmin and Yunho’s vocals are incisive, precise and energizing– as usual. The only squabble is the incognruous dubstep bridge, which is quite late to the jpop scene considering Daichi Miura’s release of Black Hole more than half a year ago. The “modest gothic remix” of ANDROID is not bad either, definitely a treat for those of us who like mainstream metal, like Seether or Linkin Park.

The music video and choreography for ANDROID is nothing spectacular, but due to the eargasms that the song itself induces, I forgive them for all of their funny outfits (and people were complaining that Sexy, Free & Single had weird fashion). I would rather a strong song rather than a flashy video.

so, about dem outfits..

Blink is a weaker version of ANDROID, mostly due to a less catchy hook and its lusterless bridge, but nonetheless, a strong track as well. Its vocal strings of “Nananana” reminds me of f(x)’s tendency to use nonsense syllables, indeed in their latest track Electric Shock, they sing “Nananana” as well. However, the biggest difference between these two songs is that Blink is a strong track all together. Electric Shock is punctuated by many empty-sounding singing breaks that ruin the upbeat pace introduced in the beginning. f(x) gets a lot of heavier electrodance beats, but sometimes I feel like they are lost kids running around a supermarket, and their vocals float around aimlessly; whereas Changmin and Yunho are experts at anchoring and drawing listeners in.

Overall, I am very impressed with the level of consistency two-member Tohoshinki in Japan promotions is able to produce, from Tone to Still to ANDROID. Yunho now raps very little, and I am very grateful for this trend because his nasal voice fits extremely well in these two tracks. I will say it again, that yes, I am very grateful for a Changmin and Yunho duo, for they suit each other perfectly. Beginning with Japanese LP Secret Code, Tohoshinki has developed a signature sound: thick-textured electrodance, with a bit of electro-ballads, usually more up-tempo than down. This contrasts with TVXQ in Korea, which is still electrodance but cleaner, and more R&B influences. A comeback in Korea is probably in the books for later this year, but if that never happens, that is fine with me– as long as we see another Japanese LP. Pretty please.

[kpop/rumor] Sulli & Taemin couple rings. verdict: you are all way too paranoid.

I saw this about a month ago, and I thought it was pretty interesting. Rumors about f(x)’s Sulli and SHINee’s Taemin have been starting since 2010. Before you look at the ‘evidence’, keep in mind that:

  • They both work under the same agency, so they share stylists, who have the access to the same wardrobes.
  • It could also be a case of sponsored jewelry.
  • Sulli wore it only once or twice whereas Taemin has been wearing it much more frequently during Sherlock promotions.

To be honest, even if they were a couple, no one should be that surprised. Despite all of Taemin’s feigned innocence, I am willing to lay down big monies that he has had at least one girlfriend before. How can he not? He is handsome and surrounded by many pretty women. In variety shows, the idols that have retired often talk about the times they vehemently deny their romantical adventurings when in fact they were sexing it up big time.

So now, onto the ‘evidence’!

[kpop/review] Taemin and that abyss on Immortal Song: ep. 3, 4, 5

Third performance; “I Don’t Know” by Uhm Jung-hwa

In terms of emotion and connecting to the song, this was much better than Taemin’s first performance. It was like he had monitored his first performance and then methodically worked out what needed improving. Even so, I still could not shake the feeling that it was still rather stock. Taemin hit everything, he modulated his voice correctly, he looked down when he was supposed to, and yet, what still frustrates me is that he never makes one movement that seems unrehearsed, that seems spontaneous, that disturbs one piece of hair on his perfect head. At his climaxing note, it was all very correct, but at the same time, did we really feel the buildup to this climax? Did we really feel a sense of relief when he returned to the chorus?

Of course, we must return to my number one complaint against his voice; his ‘thickness’. It much more regulated this time around, but it still lacked clarity. When I mean ‘clarity’, I do not mean we understand everything he sings, but rather we can distinguish it from background music, and indeed, in some cases, the background music overwhelmed Taemin’s vocals.

Taemin seems like he does not wish to take risks, or even worse, he knows he cannot take risks and come out the stronger.

Fourth performance; “Terminal Mapo” by Silver Bell Sisters

The first thing I typed while watching it was, “good god not more dancing this song is not his style at all”.

As I complained in my second review and in my review of his fifth performance (below), having Taemin dance so much is a mistake. Especially this time around, because this kind of doo-boppy, sort of happy piece is not a place to choreograph Taemin’s signature pop-and-lock. Compare to Kyuhyun’s performnace of an upbeat, happy duet with Kim Min Jong, in which they choreographed this silly dance at 1.59s:

Notice another thing? Both Kyuhyun and Kim Min Jong were smiling and so obviously enjoying themselves. Mapo Terminal is likewise a fun song, but Taemin’s facial expression for the majority was a stoic stone. Notice one more thing? Other than silly dance in the middle, Kyuhyun does not do any complicated dancing for the rest of the song, and yet delivers a performance, in my estimation, even more upbeat and engaging than Taemin. It would have been better if Taemin had minimal choreography so he could focus on bringing the best vocal performance to the stage. That is what a singer is; someone who can move others just by opening their mouth.

Likewise, with his third performance, Taemin is missing clarity. He is missing dynamic modulations; the entire song was mostly just one volume. He had lots of backup singers. He got covered by background music sometimes because he did not project. I do not usually comment on clothing, but he could have worn something colorful to emphasize the upbeat nature of the song.

There is, however, one golden spot: 3.19s. Taemin just lets go for a bit, and it is actually quite beautiful. But then after a few seconds of looking into the black abyss, Taemin runs back to his safe cave.

Fifth performance; “Wrongful Meeting” by Kim Gun-mo

When considering Taemin the performer, I actually quite liked the performance.

When considering Taemin the singer, I was highly dissatisfied.

f(x)’s Amber guest appearance! Taemin three dance breaks! Pretty trance lights! Trance clubby music! All in all, a very exciting performance. Yet–

Like with his second Immortal Song performance, Taemin falls back on his go-to crutch, dancing. Some people may say it is playing to his strengths, but I disagree. This show is called “Immortal Song”; naturally, everything but voice is supposed to be secondary. Then why does Taemin have so many dance breaks compared to the other participants? Even in the original song, there are only two places where one can have epic dance breaks, but coincidentally, Taemin’s song is arranged so that there are three dance breaks. Hmm.. Taemin is really sticking to his cave this time..

From the start, Taemin had heavy backing vocals (singers whom you can see at 7.05s), and his high note was safe and boring. I was impressed by his accuracy but then immediately dissatisfied with how he elongated the note and let it die out so ignominiously. It was a good stock performance by Taemin, his thickness of voice did not show as much, but then again, this song was not as hard to sing as his previous choices. He simply did not have to bring out his terrible throaty voice; moreover, he did not have the time and space to do so as he was vigorously dancing; in this way, this performance is very true to Taemin’s real ability as a singer (which is a sad revelation as I head off to listen to SHINee’s Sherlock).

This was an example of a performance that drew perfectly from everything, from the environment, the music, to the performer itself, to hide weaknesses in each. To distract from Taemin’s emotionally flat voice, we had the dance and flashing lights and orange jacket. Additionally, the arrangement of the music was terrible– the rough transitioning from trance to live band music and back to trance, and back and forth, but then we did not pay attention as our attention was riveted to this young man in a orange flashy jacket, this young idol, this young entertainer, this young performer.

read review on Taemin’s first performance, second performancesixth / seventh performance on Immortal Song