South Korea has one of the fastest-growing and most sonically exciting Pop scenes in the world, so we have decided to bring you “The K-Pop Bulletin”, a column highlighting some of the hottest K-Pop singles of every month.
2017 was kind of a bittersweet year for Korean pop; On one hand, and thanks in part to the power of social media, BTS is now the biggest boy-band in the world, and ARMY is probably the fastest-growing global fandom today. This rise in popularity attracted legions of new fans onto K-Pop, especially from English-speaking countries, and coupled with their performances in different American award shows, the Bangtan Boys managed to consolidate themselves as the spearhead of a new movement in Korean music. On the other hand, 2017 was an eventful and tragic year for many of the most established artists on the scene. Four of the most important girl-groups in history ─ Sistar, 2NE1, Wonder Girls, and Miss A ─ announced their definitive break-ups, and many others suffered the departure of some of their members. To conclude on a truly sad note, on December 18, Jonghyun, the de-facto leader of SHINee, died by suicide, which would also bring back the debate about mental health and treatment of depression in mainstream Korean culture.
But as 2018 rolls in, this frantic industry keeps moving forward; some of its key figures have presented or announced comebacks and album release dates, while the country’s largest entertainment companies are preparing this year’s much-anticipated group debuts. On January 21, the K-Pop scene took a huge step forward for representation with the debut of Holland, the first openly gay idol, and his single “Neverland“, with a music video that contains an endearing same-sex love story.
It’s a bit soon to determine which will be the trends that define the year’s music, but the reliably adventurous South Korean Pop scene has already offered us some wonderful songs this first month. Here are some of our favorites.
Oh My Girl – Secret Garden
From their 2015 debut, Oh My Girl has been the most accomplished of the “girl-group with cutesy concepts singing over a majestic blanket of synths and strings” trend ─ think Lovelyz, WJSN (Cosmic Girls), among others ─, mostly due to the haunting quality of their productions and their incredible commitment to every aspect of these concepts ─ which has prompted prominent critic Jakob Dorof to refer to their single “Closer” as a “K-Pop Gesamtkunstwerk“. “Secret Garden”, compared to their previous material, is surprisingly straightforward, but here it is a virtue, as the main focus is the melding of the vocal melodies with the multi-layered, cinematic arrangements, for a single that’s pure atmosphere, but an atmosphere you can get easily lost in.
Amber x Luna – Lower
Amber and Luna are one half of f(x), perhaps K-Pop’s most musically fascinating girl-group, always forward-thinking, genre-hopping and challenging, but with a very solid execution. They are no strangers to using house music as a foundation, as shown by the dark UK Garage beats on 2015’s “4 Walls” or Luna’s solo piano-house smash “Free Somebody”. “Lower” is a single released on STATION, a division of the titan SM Entertainment that’s more dedicated to electronic music; it’s a vibrant, sensual progressive house number, accentuated by the girls’ delicate, sultry vocals. Here, Amber’s deep tone and Luna’s seductive croon dominate the track, which may feel a bit too restrained for its own good, but the nocturnal, immersive vibe it creates is undeniable.
Mamamoo – Paint Me
Make no mistake, Mamamoo are K-Pop’s most vocally advanced group. All four girls are powerful, wide-ranging, clean singers (in addition, Moonbyul and Hwasa are also amazing rappers), but for some reason, they just had not released a straight-up ballad as a title track until now. “Paint Me” is a beautifully-paced, elegantly structured song, which showcases the vocal stylings of every girl effectively. It doesn’t rely on any big, melodramatic gestures, and it never tries to impress you with empty high–notes or lush crescendos, but its power resides in the distribution of the performances. It works because everything is under control.
Momoland – Bboom Bboom
Momoland‘s “Bboom Bboom” is often described as a “fun”, “giddy”, “goofy” single; sure, the girls seem to have a fantastic time in the music video, and that dynamic reminds us of the playful vibes of groups like Crayon Pop and Orange Caramel, but the track itself is quite a wild ride. Starting with an acoustic guitar strum and brass riffs that give way to a bouncy, funky electropop smash filled with exuberant synth flourishes, the production is very busy but never overpowers the girls’ peppy vocals, and then we get a truly leftfield moment in the second verse, via a powerful hip-hop break. And yet, the song never feels disjointed, and never loses momentum. Producers BEOM x NANG and Shinsadong Tiger ─ the latter famed for his work with groups like T-Ara and EXID ─ have created a charming, energetic, addictive tune. And indeed, it’s fun as hell.
Chung Ha – Roller Coaster
It’s always something great when we see a talented, charismatic performer that we discovered as part of a group getting their chance to shine as a soloist; this is exactly the case with Chung Ha, who rose to prominence in the first season of reality music show Produce 101 and later as part of the brief but massively successful group that resulted from it, I.O.I. “Roller Coaster” is the kind of track that really fits her best, an interesting mixture of different 90’s-indebted dance music styles, which showcases not only Chung Ha’s sultry, gritty vocals, but her abilities as a melodist. The girl’s got hooks for days
Sunmi – Heroine
Sunmi needs no introduction. As part of the recently disbanded Wonder Girls, she has already gained legendary status in the K-Pop universe, and if there were some doubts left, last year she released an absolute monster hit, the tropical house-leaning smash “Gashina”. Her new single, “Heroine” is a strong follow-up, although it’s a conceptual prequel to the 2017 song; while “Gashina” is a post-breakup kiss-off, “Heroine” addresses the imminent end of a relationship, the pains and the anxieties that come with it, but in the end she’s set to overcome everything. Aided by a grandiose electropop instrumental led by dramatic piano chords, Sunmi brings us a message of empowerment, of being true to yourself with or without a partner, and as she makes it clear at the end of the chorus, “the show must go on”. It’s the kind of anthem the Korean scene needed to truly kick things off this year.
Red Velvet – Bad Boy
Red Velvet is one of those groups whose career everyone would love to emulate; constantly experimenting with sounds and visual concepts, but somehow extremely consistent in terms of quality and success. Their new single “Bad Boy” is part of their re-packaged new record The Perfect Red Velvet, and while it doesn’t possess the immediate charm of previous singles like “Rookie” or “Red Flavor”, the R&B-influenced, mid-tempo number is a melodic delight and the vocal layering/production of the track is simply mindblowing. Besides, take a look at that music video ─ they have reached their visual peak.