Omakase 2016 Top 10: Aaryn Does Kpop
2016, man. Hell of a year.
My view of kpop hasn’t really shifted from 2015, the year I made contact, when everything was shiny and new and more than a little morbid. Kpop is still very weird: it gives me the same queasy feeling I get following college football, but kpop has way less money on the line and slightly less devastating injuries. I stick with it because it’s like nothing else on earth, and because it continues to surprise. Anything where people like Dahyun and Yerin can be a star is something worth keeping tabs on.
Here are my ten favorite releases of the year.
10. Can You Feel It - PENTAGON
CUBE Ent. had a very long, very bad year. They broke up their flagship girl group, 4minute, to focus on the most bankable star within it, Hyuna. Defensible, if devastating. At least her song was alright / did alright. Other than that, well, I’m looking at their roster, and I’m not seeing a lot of hits in 2016, or even potential hits, with the exception of PENTAGON, their new boy group.
Here are some important PENTAGON facts:
- There are 10 members
- A pentagon has five sides
- The group was assembled through a reality TV show, which is increasingly the smartest way to debut a pop group in Korea if you can afford it and if you control it (instant fandom!)
- Their first single was called ‘Gorilla’
- It’s alright and kinda capitalized on Harambe memes, but accidentally-maybe
Their second single, Can You Feel It, is here because it checks off a lot of boxes that I’m looking for in a kpop song, and because it recaptures some of that old CUBE magic that, for a minute, had them threatening to turn the Big 3 of kpop companies into the Big 4. There’s a million hooks crashing into each other, all held together by a sick horn riff, and there’s a marching band sub-theme, criminally underutilized in kpop. Also there’s some very clever use of projectors. It’s a solid effort from a group I was expecting to completely ignore.
9. Trick or Treat - Grace
Grace is clever. Her debut song, “I’m Fine” paired a brilliant, sardonic hook (it's a play on every ESL lesson ever) with an extremely low-budget, gonzo music video designed to turn heads and get clicks. She got YouTubers to React to it, a very clever move, and parlayed that notoriety into a slot on Korea’s premiere female rapper reality TV show, Unpretty Rapstar. Her performance on the show was…uneven, but Crazy Grace made for an engaging character. Trick or Treat, her Halloween-themed followup, does more with less again, proving that Grace is here to stay. Never has something so blown out sounded so compulsively listenable.
Also she’s saying “shh, boy, sugar,” FYI.
8. Fantasy - VIXX
VIXX is kpop’s most consistent I-like-art-type boy group and, while cracks have started to show in the formula, this year they delivered several excellent additions to their canon. While kpop continues to adapt faster and faster to western tastes (dancehall-lite officially landed this year), VIXX stays consistently quirky and operatic. That’s Moonlight Sonata, yeoh.
7. L.I.E. - EXID
EXID’s rags to riches story is kpop writ small. Hitmaker Shinsadong Tiger’s personal group seemingly couldn’t land a hit until, on the verge of disbandment, a horny male fan’s video of Hani dancing went viral. Song blew up, the similar followup song blew up, the similar followup followup song blew up, and EXID is suddenly legit. L.I.E. played with the format enough to be rewarded by yours truly, eschewing an overt dance track for a ballad variant that bangs. Also, the MV is definitely Grand Budapest Hotel inspired, which isn't something I knew I wanted until this MV came out.
6. Monster - EXO
EXO is an incredible dance/performance group that ends up with great songs sometimes. This one counts. The jumpsuits look great.
There’s more context to EXO but if you’re trying to avoid a whole mess, I would say that you need to know two things: Growl is one of the greatest kpop songs ever and that Wolf is probably the greatest mess ever produced by human beings. EXO contains multitudes.
5. Russian Roulette - Red Velvet
To my knowledge, nobody had gone all in on the Soviet aesthetic until Russian Roulette. This was surprising because, well, the Soviets kind of knew what they were doing (at least in that regard). Unsurprisingly, it worked really well for Red Velvet. The song has a light industrial, motorik feel to it, playing into the music video of their previous (good) release, Dumb Dumb. Idols as studio-assembled automatons, who would have thought.
More music videos need intragroup violence.
4. Fxxk It - BIGBANG
I’m going to get this out of the way upfront: this is basically a Chainsmokers song. All the hallmarks are there: it’s got a midtempo beat, an aura of faint melancholy, a gentle cloak of soft EDM touches. It’s a Chainsmokers song except with, you know, actual singers (GDragon excepted), pathos, and a little more polish. BIGBANG has been around forever; over 10 years of real-time, a thousand years of idol time. They’re not done, technically, not yet, but members are starting to undertake their state-mandated two year enlistments with the military (told you kpop was weird) and who knows if they’ll ever comeback in the same way. If not, well, then they went out on a beautiful note. It's more than most groups get.
Taeyang’s hair is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.
3. Someone Like U - Dal Shabet
This song should have been a bigger hit. This group should be more popular. The world should be a better place. In a year where a lot of groups, there and here, went back to the 80s, Dal Shabet did it better than everyone. This is a perfect pop jam.
2. Sse Sse Sse - Yezi ft. Gilme, KittiB, Ahn Soo Min
Remember that throwaway mention of Unpretty Rapstar? Rap music is increasingly huge in Korea, and not just among young men. There's enough commercial interest in rap music that there are multiple reality TV shows around it, and there's enough interest beyond that that there's a rap reality TV show based around female rappers. However, interest doesn't always translated into, well, quality.
A lot of the output ranges from bad to misguided, and you better believe Korean teenagers have figured out what 'naega' sounds like. This song comes from Season 2 of UPRS, where the winner, Truedy, a signee of the company that runs the show, was basically in lowkey blackface the whole time. Yeah. Koreans don't have a real good handle on race. Balancing her was Yezi of Fiestar, the true champion, who had a breakout run on the show. Reality TV sometimes works.
Anyways, Truedy has basically vanished and Yezi got an minialbum out of her breakout performance (Cider is also particularly good) and this collaboration is the standout for me. There's a lot you can read into this song, especially in the context of how Korea (and the world) handles the fairer gender, but, among it all, a bunch of female rappers got together to talk a bunch of shit and it sounded awesome.
1. Liar Liar - Oh My Girl
I’m going to immediately undercut my number one ranking by saying that this song definitely isn’t for everyone. This isn’t even the best Oh My Girl! song (that’s Closer). It’s a little shrill. It’s definitely frantic. But it’s my 2016 kpop experience as I want to remember it: trap horns underpinning a Digipedi music video, Mimi rapping, nothing making sense and everything being alright.