Soloists dominate first half of 2017

So far, 2017, has been a slightly underwhelming year for K-Pop. There haven’t been that many outstanding tracks in the first half of the year. Many of my favorite groups released mediocre tracks which meant my Top 10 list had a lot more soloists than usual. Considering this, I am happy that a number of excellent albums that have come out this year.

These are not necessarily the most popular artists and these are albums that I might have easily overlooked. But there is some really good music that I hope listeners do not miss out on. As with all album listens, it really helps to read the lyrics in order to better appreciate the works. These albums may not have individual tracks that really stand out but the albums, as a whole, are cohesive and well-crafted.

Jonghyun- The Collection: Story Op.2

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I have been a big fan of Jonghyun’s solo work and his last album She Is was one of my favorites last year. I enjoy his quirky style and I see his albums as an opportunity for him to experiment outside the SHINee style. Honestly, I was pretty disappointed by the title track, Lonely. I did not expect the rest of the album to be much different. I was pleasantly surprised when I gave the entire album a listen. The songs are not necessarily linked to each other and therefore have a lot more variety. The compilation album is entirely written and co-produced by Jonghyun himself. As always, the highlight is his unique vocals.

Favorite track: 따뜻한 겨울 (Our Season)

 

Zion. T- OO

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Many feared that we would lose the Zion. T style music after he moved to YG Entertainment but OO assured us that we can continue to expect his unique music no matter what company he is with. In this album he sticks to his signature R&B style with some hip-hop and jazz. As with much of his work, OO makes for easy listening in large part because of his laid back vocals. This whole album goes to further establish his musical identity while also showcasing his skills as an artist.

Favorite track: Complex (feat. G-Dragon)- you need the lyrics to really appreciate why G-Dragon is such a great choice for a featuring artist.

 

Jung Joon Young- The First Person

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I enjoy pretty much all the music Jung Joon Young has ever released. First Person shows a different side of Joon Young where, instead of the usual rock sounds, his deep vocals take center stage. This album has more emotional and melancholic tracks. It highlights his versatility and ability to create some excellent ballads while staying true to his style.

Favorite tracks: Sympathy (Orchestral version), Echo

Akdong Musician (AKMU) – Winter

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Although, I have enjoyed all of AKMU’s previous title tracks, I had never been tempted to check out their full albums. Winter was an exception. This album really defines and establishes the AKMU sound. Their ability to make fun, lively songs about everyday things, is what sets them apart. Winter gives them another opportunity to show off that style while still maintaining a sense of growth.

Favorite tracks: Play Ugly, Reality

 

PSY- 4×2=8

PSY_4X2=8

It is easy to forget that there was an entire 10 track album behind I LUV IT and New Face. You really have to check out the lyrics to understand what makes the album special. The themes presented in the tracks include, references to his own works, his relationships with other people, and his own growth. The collaboration tracks are particularly well done.

Favorite tracks: LOVE (feat. Taeyang), Auto Reverse (feat. Tablo) [It is hard for me to be unbiased when it comes to Tablo but their track, about fears of growing old and being forgotten, is my favorite.]

One word I would use to describe all of the albums I listed would be introspective. Whether the artist is defining their musical style or making observations about their own lives, the content for each of these albums is very personal. With all the latest comeback announcements, I am hoping the rest of the year is better for K-Pop. I look forward to more great albums in the next half of the year.

Are there other albums that you would consider must-listens of 2017? Do let me know so that I can continue to explore.

Good Call, HIGHLIGHT!!

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When I first heard that BEAST was leaving Cube and creating their own company and rebranding, I was apprehensive. BEAST’s Fiction was the reason I was drawn to K-Pop. Losing the brand name “BEAST” was a concern but my bigger question was, “What musical style are they going to adopt if they are no longer BEAST?” After listening to Calling You, their first re-packaged album, I have no concerns about continued high-quality releases from them.

The vocals have always been BEAST’s biggest strength and they have put that to the best use in their debut album. Their experience is very evident. They seem to have figured out what works for them, as a group, and created a sound that best utilizes those strengths. They chose not to go back to their earlier hype songs like Shock and concentrate on what they do best, ballads and slow jams. This does not mean that Calling You is a collection of “boring ballads”, in fact it is more uptempo than a lot of their recent works and a perfect fit for a group that has been in the industry for 8 years.

One of my favorite changes HIGHLIGHT has made is cutting back on the rap. The prevalence of rap and hip-hop in K-Pop has gotten to be overwhelming and is much better suited to the younger groups than veterans like these guys. Although Yong Jun-hyung’s rapping style is one of my favorites in the industry, I love his singing voice. On the other hand, cutting back on the rap gives little opportunity for Yoon Doo-joon’s, not-so-impressive vocals to shine. The best decision they have made is to keep the music production in-house and let Jun-hyung create his magic. He is one of my favorite idol producers and Calling You is yet another chance for him to give is great music.

They debuted with their pre-release ballad It’s Still Beautiful. And just like the title suggests, the track is absolutely beautiful. They keep the spotlight on their incredible vocals to create an extremely restrained track. The few harmonies that exist are very soft. The piano is the only accompaniment and that allows the emotional song to truly shine. You don’t need to watch the video or read the lyrics in order to feel the kind of emptiness that this track conveys. My favorite track of the album.

Highlight:  Jun-hyung singing the entire last verse.

Please Don’t be Sad was their official debut title track. It set the tone for what we could expect from the new group, HIGHLIGHT. It was significantly more upbeat than much of their recent discography but did not go overboard like BEASTis YeY. The verses had a much bigger impact than the chorus but the entire track is addictive nonetheless. It is not my favorite track on the album but, understandably, the most successful.

Highlight: The MV and Doo-joon’s entry verse about half way into the song.

They also released an MV, Calling You, for one of the tracks added to the repackage. I would categorize this track as mid-tempo. It has a sort of lazy, relaxed feel to it almost like the guys would sing this in regular life. The MV added to that feeling by using a very relatable theme. After a few listens you will notice that it is definitely an ear-worm thanks to an incredibly catchy hook. The verses on the other hand are not particularly memorable. The pre-chorus is essential to giving the song some much needed energy.

Highlight: The MV and a chance for Yang Yo-seob to show off his vocals in the midsection of the track.

Start and Dangerous are both stripped down R&B tracks that follow production styles very similar to that of It’s Still Beautiful. There is very little instrumentation and the focus is, once again, on the vocals and harmonies while layering their variety of vocals to add more texture. Dangerous in particular, highlights Yo-seob’s beautiful voice that gets sort of lost in some of the other tracks. This track was produced by Lee Gi-Kwang and you can tell the slightly more fragmented feel as opposed to Jon-hyung’s very smooth approach.

Their other repackage addition, Sleep Tight, is my least favorite of the tracks on Calling You. There is nothing particularly wrong with the song but the rock influences don’t suit the guys’ sounds as well as other styles. I usually do enjoy pop-rock sounds like that of FTISLAND and DAY6 but not from HIGHLIGHT. Despite having those rock influences, that are relatively rare in K-Pop, Sleep Tight comes off as being kind of generic.

Overall, Calling You, I would say, has exceeded everyone’s expectations as well as found commercial success. In fact, this album has had more sales than any of BEAST’s recent mini-albums since Midnight Sun. I am very glad the guys are back looking much happier and involved in plenty of solo activities including production, acting, and musicals. Now we just need to see Doo-joon return to drama-land with another comedy.

I would say, “Good call, HIGHLIGHT” on your decision to leave Cube, and rebrand yourself. I am sure the creative freedom can do nothing but good things for their music.

Highlight: I will be seeing them at KCon NY in less than 2 weeks. It might not be the BEAST that gave us Fiction, but it is a a more mature and exciting HIGHLIGHT. For me, getting to see them is a dream come true nonetheless.