Friday, December 30, 2011

[#1] DBSK/HoMin - "Back To Tomorrow"

From: "TONE" (Album)
Released: September 2011, Japan
Rating: 5.00

Surprised? Nah, you know me well enough already.

I tried really hard to keep a DBSK/HoMin/JYJ song off the top spot this year, and I even thought of just revealing the top 5 songs out of order, because I know that there are people who will write me off and start raising hell if DBSK end up on top. Again. But after certain events, like hearing "TONE" in CDQ on extremely nice speakers, screw that.

Everyone has to understand that unlike other people, or even the people who raise hell at my choice, I like DBSK because of the music. My fangirling works the other way around -- I hear a song I like, I do my research, I hear more songs I like, I recognize their voices, I start learning about the members, I hear entire albums of brilliance, I pick a favorite voice, which becomes my favorite member altogether, and I begin spazzing on Twitter over their cats. For me, the music always comes first, and I'm a Cassie because of all the brilliant songs.

So if DBSK, or any part of, keep coming on top of my best of lists, it's because they really deserve it. I have explained time and time again that I KNOW DBSK aren't perfect, I know they have their flaws, I know they've had some really bad songs over the years, and before "Mirotic" they couldn't really hold a solid live performance in Korea, but the good outweighs the bad. At the end of the day they are immensely talented, they can carry themselves on stage like no other boyband in K-Pop right now, and they have some of the best material the Asian pop music industry has to offer.

"Back To Tomorrow" is one of those songs. It's epic, it's well-sung and well-arranged, and above all it's a beautiful song. I wouldn't describe it as stunning or gorgeous, because there's something lacking in those words, something inferior. Beautiful is a more apt term. Simple, but straight to the point, like the song itself.

You have all these heavy instruments, a bass line you really feel in your bones, a confident yet gorgeous string section, this very light, but firm, piano line, and despite everything happening, the song has such a strong sense of dynamics. The verses are quite packed, but them literally there's a BAM and everything explodes. And that explosion will literally reduce you into a puddle of goo because it's so beautiful.

The melody is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and Yunho and Changmin do it flawlessly, but one thing I noticed is that the melody is actually pretty tame compared to the epic instrumental. It sounds so humble and effortless. It's as if Yunho and Changmin are like "you want epic, here you go" without lifting a finger. Of course the song still has conviction, but unlike other acts, they don't have to try too hard to deliver something amazing.

With everything going on all over the place, you'd think that either the elements clash, or the melody will sound disjointed from the instrumental. They don't, and it's not. Everything gels together in the most natural way possible. Kind of like when you mix the yellow and white of an egg, and the mixture turns out yellow, but a little lighter than the original yellow. "Back To Tomorrow" is exactly like that.

To put it simply, the songwriters, and the arranger, knew exactly what they wanted, and they knew exactly what they were doing when they executed it. And Yunho and Changmin went in and executed it flawlessly, to make my favorite song of 2011.
[FULL][AUD]Tohoshinki - Back to tomorrow from manaras on Vimeo.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

[#2] Lee Haeri - "Can You Hear Me?"

From: "Tears of Heaven Soundtrack" (OST)
Released: March 2011, South Korea
Rating: 4.95

In this world, there are emotionless ballads, there are ballads that give you goosebumps, there are also ballads that make you cry, and then there is "Can You Hear Me?".

"Can You Hear Me?" is beyond crying, it's beyond goosebumps, it's a million light years above emotionless -- it literally makes you want to crawl under a rock, curl up into a ball and curse everything for making something beyond stunning. It's as if you want to cry because it's so gorgeous, but your body says otherwise, because it's above gorgeous.

The song was for "Tears Of Heaven", and basically the reason why I even know of this song is because I wanted to hear a Junsu-Haeri duet recording but ended up with a Haeri song. Not that I'm complaining.

It's a very simple song, if you listen carefully. There's nothing out of the ordinary, nothing outside the standard piano, drums, bass, electric guitar here and there, and some strings later. However the song's beauty lies in the way everything was put together and executed. How Haeri's vocals were literally made to float above the very simple and light instrumental, and how the arrangement was made in such a way that the song builds up in an excruciatingly slow place, then dies down right away, leaving you stunned and wanting more.

And Haeri's voice is of no help to the situation, as usual (for those who didn't get it and might lash out on me because of that, I mean that it's just as stunning as the rest of the song). It's gorgeous, smooth and very feminine, but at the same time it's also mature, and her technique is really something else. The maturity, the stability, the control she has over herself to keep from just screaming her way through the entire song, now THAT is singing.

Like I said, the song itself is actually really simple. And if you notice, she doesn't really have any extremely high notes either, just a few at the tail end which she executes flawlessly, but apart from that the melody is very basic. What Haeri has is one, obviously a stunning AND learned voice, and two, emotion. I know I probably sound like a broken record already, but really, music is half heard and half *felt*. And this song, Haeri's vocals in particular, is the epitome of that.

[#3] DBSK/HoMin - "Before U Go"

From: "Keep Your Head Down Repackaged" (Album)
Released: March 2011, South Korea
Rating: 4.75

It was a fierce battle between what's now my #2 song and this, but in the end, I'm afraid my beloved HoMin, and their gorgeous Korean single, will have to settle for #3 this year. But #3 is incredibly high too!

I really meant to publish this later in the evening because of my "11 albums you HAD to hear in 2011" post, so throughout the day, I was thinking of an appropriate food analogy for this song. I had a few ideas, including (leche) flan, and even royal icing for a while, but then I thought that maybe I should rest from comparing songs to food for a bit.


"Before U Go" is definitely not butter because even if butter is really smooth, it's kinda gross once it's melted and oily. Definitely not. So I went through the other possibilities, and I eventually settled. "Before U Go" is caramel. The hot, thick, incredibly sweet kind. It looks unsuspecting, it actually looks like your standard confectionary, but when you eat pure, newly-melted caramel it's so sinful. But so amazing, so much so that sometimes you need a sip of water because it's too much, but you still keep eating.

And because it's so sweet, caramel actually becomes a bit salty sometimes. It has dimension. "Before U Go" has dimension.

The song itself is so smooth, the orchestration, the melody, the background vocals, everything is so polished and smooth, but done with conviction -- that's the smooth, sweet part. The instrumental is very basic, but the melody oh my gosh the melody. It's a difficult song to sing, you have long lines that don't allow for much breathing, and high notes all over the place, but when it's sung well, the heavens rejoice.

The salty part is courtesy of Yunho and Changmin's vocals. They're not smooth like Kyuhyun or Jaejoong, they're not big like Junsu or Yesung, they're a bit thin around the edges, and not too flexible either, kind of like a thin sheet of plastic. You can bend it a bit, yes, but you can't really make it a completely different shape if you don't melt it or anything. But it's that firmness and the character of their voices that gives the song the dimension it needs.

But even with the dimension and the sinfulness, caramel is very basic. It's classic. You can put it on anything and everything, just like how "Before U Go" has the ability to transcend time. The song could very well be a classic, because despite everything going on, the foundations of it are very basic.

"Before U Go" is truly one of the most stunning, yet classic, songs you will hear.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

11 Albums You HAD to Hear in 2011

I thought of mixing things up a bit this year, so instead of just laying down the best albums that came out in the past twelve months, I'm going to be talking about the albums that caught my ears, and maybe even eyes, this year. They are on the list not necessarily because they're amazing albums (but I have those too!), but because they've been talked about, or they've broken records, and basically because they've caught my attention. Therefore, I won't just be talking about the music, so I hope it's a welcome change!

The rules:

1. This list is exclusively for releases which contain FIVE (5) or more tracks. A mini-album must have the minimum five tracks, whereas a full-length one should feature at least TEN (10) original tracks. Only cuts which were released for the first time in 2011 are eligible to be counted. For example, in SNSD's Japanese album "GIRLS' GENERATION", "Genie" and "Gee" were Japanese singles in 2010, not 2011, and so they will not be included in the final, technical, count (exclusively for eligibility and classification), however they can be talked about in the review proper.
2. The featured artist must be an idol or idol group and of Korean nationality, regardless of where the album was released and what nationality the production staff were.
3. The featured artist must be the sole artist on least 75% of the songs on the album. So, for example, G.NA's "Black and White" (let's pretend rule #1 doesn't exist for now, because half of that album was from 2010) contains TEN (10) tracks. However, in SIX (6) of those ten tracks, she shares credits with other artists. Therefore, the album is disqualified.
4. One album per artist, regardless of territory. If the artist had two albums this year, only one can appear on the list.

I will not be writing full reviews for the eleven albums on the list, however, if available, I will refer you guys to my reviews of the albums, or singles. I don't have enough time to write eleven full reviews, but I hope the 2-3 paragraphs I wrote will suffice.

The Album: Super Junior - "Mr. Simple"
The Format: Full-Length
The Release: August 2011, South Korea
The Lead Single: "Mr. Simple"
The PRN Review: N/A
The Reason: Because according to Hanteo, and several other Korean sales charts, this is the biggest-selling album in Korea for 2011. So far. Do I think it deserves that title? Honestly, no. And that's why it caught my attention, because this is the business side of the industry at work -- you don't just have to have superior material to be popular, you also need buying power and armies of fans who will buy anything you release at the drop of a hat. And sometimes, you can't have both. The material on "Mr. Simple" aren't the dregs of the earth or anything, but so much more could've been done, considering that one, Super Junior aren't completely lacking in talent, and two, SM Entertainment clearly have the money and manpower to get better material. I mean, if you put together a sub-par album then put Super Junior's name on it, since the buying public is stupid, then no one will really notice how bad the album is, right? "Mr. Simple" also demonstrates how stupid all these capitalists are for thinking that we're stupid.
The Recommended Track(s): "Opera", "My Love, My Kiss, My Heart"

The Album: Wonder Girls - "Wonder World"
The Format: Full-Length
The Release: November 2011, South Korea
The Lead Single: "Be My Baby"
The PRN Review: Full Review, Best of 2011 - "Me, In"
The Reason: Best album of the year, and most definitely worth the long wait. I went from being this close to absolutely hating their Korean material, to worshipping the ground they walk on. I don't do that very often. But somehow, in this massive shift, the Wonder Girls managed to keep the sound that makes them, themselves. "Wonder World" is cohesive yet diverse, it's fresh yet familiar but confident, and the material is not only top-grade, it's also well-executed. Outstanding song selection and strong production, but not too strong, giving the album some character. Catchy hooks, simple melodies, a whole array of synth loops, and everything your standard pop album has to have these days, but done in a sophisticated and musical manner.  "Wonder World" is pop down to the last note, and it's not ashamed of that, but it also has kick. With tracks like "Me, In", why wouldn't it? It's one of those albums that you have to listen to from start to finish over and over and over again.
The Recommended Track(s): "Girls Girls", "Me, In", "Stop!", "Sweet Dreams", "G.N.O."

The Album: BEAST - "Fiction and Fact"
The Format: Full-Length
The Release: May 2011, South Korea
The Lead Single: "Fiction"
The PRN Review: Full Review, Best of 2011 - "Though I Call"
The Reason: BEAST are solid proof that effort can, and will, go a long way. They have talent, they have good songs, but unlike other acts, they also put in actual effort to make up for what they lack in. Even if they got what is possibly the best material Cube ever provided, the album was a success because they knew how to deliver the material and how to make it work for them. The songs on "Fiction and Fact" have the potential to be classics, and it's not exactly impossible now that BEAST have the influence they have now. And also, the material allowed us to both look at how far BEAST have come, but also see what they still have to improve on, and something to make us look forward to their next release.
The Recommended Track(s): "You", "Virus", "Though I Call"

The Album: DBSK/Tohoshinki/HoMin - "TONE"
The Format: Full-Length
The Release: November 2011, Japan
The Lead Single: "Why? (Keep Your Head Down)"
The PRN Review: N/A
The Reason: It's DBSK, that's why. Even if it's just Yunho and Changmin now, doesn't mean it can't be brilliant. Despite the fact that DBSK are of Korean descent and thus are eligible for the "K-Pop" categories of major Japanese retailers' charts (like other Japanese-language releases by K-Pop acts such as SNSD and KARA), they do not appear on them. Instead, they are counted as a J-Pop act and are the only K-Pop group ranked alongside J-Pop artists. (see: my soompi article on HMV Japan's year-end rankings) Despite the influx of Korean acts in Japan, DBSK (and BoA!) are still much, much higher up the respect ladder than everyone else, and this album is solid proof of that. While the rest of the Hallyu wave is merely scraping the surface of Japan, DBSK are already a part of the Japanese industry. "TONE" is an amazing album, whether you hear it in CDQ or MP3, because every single track matters, and every single track was thought through and delivered outstandingly, but with such ease. Filler tracks, what filler tracks?
The Recommended Track(s): "Back To Tomorrow", "Thank U My Girl", "Duet", "I Don't Know"

Tohoshinki - Superstar PV from cTVXQmusic on Vimeo.

The Album: SNSD/Girls' Generation - "GIRLS' GENERATION"
The Format: Full-Length
The Release: June 2011, Japan
The Lead Single: "Genie"
The PRN Review: Single Review - "Mr. Taxi", Best of 2011 - "Let It Rain"
The Reason: It was SNSD's first Japanese album, the best-selling K-Pop album in Tower Records Japan during the first half of the year (despite being out for only a month prior to the chart), and it was their ticket to this year's Kouhaku Uta Gassen. In short, it was massively successful. And it's probably one of the most cohesive SNSD albums. Ever. With material from Swedish producers like Jörgen Elofsson, strong A&R, and generally okay vocals from the girls, this is probably the best album SNSD have ever released. Of course "Gee" sticks out like a sore thumb, and so does "Genie" at times, but the album proper, and the new material first heard in Japanese, is really good. Months after it's release, and a few hundred plays later, the good songs are still as good as they were back in June.
The Recommended Track(s): "you-aholic", "Let It Rain", "BORN TO BE A LADY", "Mr. Taxi"

The Album: MBLAQ- "Mona Lisa"
The Format: Mini
The Release: July 2011, South Korea
The Lead Single: "Mona Lisa"
The PRN Review: Best of 2011 - "Mona Lisa"
The Reason: Apart from actually being a good, solid album, "Mona Lisa" was what I had been waiting for since day one. Like I said earlier this month, this EP is still not enough to make up for the disaster of the debut they had back in 2009, but it's a step in the right direction. We have actual songs now, people, ACTUAL SONGS! They've managed to deliver good, solid songs, without losing the MBLAQ sound, a bit thin around the edges and trying to be a Michael Jackson song, among others. And, I never thought I'd say this, but the album is filled with gorgeous songs. Stunning, almost. Everything, from "Mona Lisa" down to the last track, they're all such a pleasure to listen to. "Mona Lisa" is as cohesive as it is gorgeous, and it's also one of the few albums I can listen to without skipping a single track.
The Recommended Track(s): "Mona Lisa", "One", "말하지 말걸.."

The Album: Brown Eyed Girls - "Sixth Sense"
The Format: Mini
The Release: September 2011, South Korea
The Lead Single: "Sixth Sense"
The PRN Review: SOOMPI - single review ("Cleansing Cream")
The Reason: "Sixth Sense" is girl group master class, courtesy of the Brown Eyed Girls. Even if you don't like their music, because even I'm very picky with the BEG songs I like, you have to hand it to these girls because my gosh the attitude is literally spilling out of the album. Even for a toned-down song like "La Boheme", which is also my favorite track. It's half the material, because the songs are so distinct yet tie together nicely, and half their strong vocals. They pull off the material because they actually have the vocals to jump through hoops and fire. While all the other girl groups were either going the cute route or trying way too hard to be edgy and "fierce" (I'm talking to you, SNSD and "The Boys"), the Brown Eyed Girls don't even have to lift a finger and BAM you have "Sixth Sense", both the album and the gorgeous, gorgeous single. Listen to it for the sake of hearing what kind of attitude everyone else should be channeling, regardless of the song.
The Recommended Track(s): "La Boheme", "Sixth Sense"

The Album: Big Bang - "The Fourth Mini Album"
The Format: Mini
The Release: February 2011, South Korea
The Lead Single: "TONIGHT"
The PRN Review: The First Quarter Report
The Reason: Big Bang not only did a lot for their careers this year, they also did a lot for K-Pop. I know I kept quiet about their EMA win, but I'd rather it be them than a lot of other acts who could've very well been nominated as well, because even if I don't worship Big Bang, they, as musicians, have my respect, something I don't give out a lot in k-pop. Their 2011 offering was tight, cohesive, strong, and distinctly Big Bang. Catchy hooks, synths all over the place, and your usual Big Bang chaos were all present, but with a fresher, more current sound. Even without watching their performances and just listening to the album, I could literally imagine the five of them running around and going wild on stage.
The Recommended Track(s): "SOMEBODY TO LOVE", "TONIGHT"

The Album: Infinite - "OVER THE TOP"
The Format: Full-length, counting the repackaged tracks
The Release: July 2011, South Korea
The Lead Single: "Be Mine"/"PARADISE"
The PRN Review: N/A
The Reason: To the industry, and the fans, Infinite's success was one of the year's biggest surprises. You have here a group from a rather small talent agency, with okay, but not brilliant or stellar, vocals, and they actually won Inkigayo and M!Countdown this year. And who were they up against on Inkigayo? Oh, no one. Just the Brown Eyed Girls, KARA, Super Junior, B1A4, Davichi and Sung Shi Kyung. Although 4 wins is a far cry from the likes of DBSK, Big Bang, SNSD, BoA and a host of others, they have laid down the foundations, and they can only go up from here. "OVER THE TOP" is not the year's strongest album, but it's a solid effort, and a solid base to take off from now that Infinite are no longer rookies. It's a well-rounded and well-done album, that's very sure of itself, but it also leaves a lot of room for Infinite to grow with their subsequent releases, which I'll be eagerly waiting for!
The Recommended Track(s): "Amazing", "Julia", "Be Mine", "Paradise", "Because", "Tic Toc"

The Album: G.NA - "Top Girl"
The Format: Mini
The Release: August 2011, South Korea
The Lead Single: "Top Girl"
The PRN Review: Best of 2011 - "Banana (Feat. SWINGS, JC지은)"
The Reason: Because everyone should know of the injustice that is being done to G.NA. Sure, she's not the best singer in k-pop right now, she's a bit flimsy around the edges, but she's probably the most stable and one of the best voices in Cube! And she got *this* as a "big comeback single"? Blasphemy. The rest of the album, although the two recommended tracks are pretty, sound like leftovers from BEAST and 4Minute (and 4Minute didn't exactly get good material this year either) and even if I like "Banana", G.NA can't sing that song live even if she tried really hard. It's such a waste, because k-pop finally gets a young solo artist that is more pop than ballad, and who is actually from a talent agency with actual influence in the industry, and they just ruin her. "I'll Back Off So You Can Live" was light years better than this, I want that back.
The Recommended Track(s): "싫어", "Without You"

The Album: JYJ - "IN HEAVEN"
The Format: Full-length
The Release: September 2011, South Korea
The Lead Single: "IN HEAVEN"
The PRN Review: Full Review
The Reason: With all the intrigue that surrounded JYJ this year, and will probably continue to surround them next year, it's good to know why SME is so afraid of them that they take all these drastic measures to ensure that JYJ never promote this album on Korean TV, including banning "Pierrot" for mentioning "PSM", which apparently means "President Soo Man". JYJ denied it, and even if it's most probably true that it has something to do with SM, they didn't explicitly state it for heaven's sake! A "guess" cannot be grounds for banning a song. It's also good to know why, even amidst all the stupidity JYJ were faced with, this is still one of the biggest-selling albums of the year. Despite not being spoon-fed prime material from local and foreign songwriters and not boasting of "foreign producers" (they've already had their fill of that, thank you very much), JYJ deliver a solid effort with "IN HEAVEN". There's much to improve, yes, and it's only right that they learn to walk before they run, but for what it is, "IN HEAVEN" is a good album.
The Recommended Track(s): "Get Out", "Boy's Letter", "IN HEAVEN", "You're"

Agree? Disagree? What albums did I miss out on? Comment away! ^_^

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

[#4] Infinite - "Nothing's Over"

From: "INSPIRIT" (Single)
Released: March 2011, South Korea
Rating: 4.60

I must keep surprising you guys. Don't think that I didn't have an extremely hard time deciding which song to include this year, because believe me, I did. So before you start raising hell about how it should've been "Be Mine" or "Paradise" or even "Before the Dawn", I bring you a food analogy. (I couldn't help myself, I'm sorry!)

"Nothing's Over" sounds like a steaming hot bowl of ramen, whether Japanese, Korean (Ramyun) or even Chinese if you want (La Mien). It sounds like ramen because ramen's quite unassuming, I mean a bowl of soup with some noodles and a few bits and pieces of meat isn't something to write home about, right? Wrong. Ramen may be simple in theory, but getting the elements, the soup, the noodles, and even the toppings, right is truly a science. I didn't think that way when I was a kid, but when I went to Shanghai and Xian last year and tasted the real thing, MY GOD was I missing half of my life (the other half of course is Xiao Long Bao, but I'll save that for another song).

But we deviated a bit on that last bit. My point is, you may *think* that ramen is a very simple dish, and "Nothing's Over" a very simple song, but they're not, because it isn't the idea that carries the package, it's the execution.

And "Nothing's Over" was spot-on.

It matched their vocals extremely well (we're talking about the recording here, not the live performances), so much so that even the possibly boring chorus wasn't as boring as it could have been. So let's just say that the vocals are the noodles -- it seems like they're very basic to make, but making them well, so that they're nice and firm but still soft and chewy, is extremely difficult. Then you have to match the noodle to the specific type of soup stock, which in this case, is the melody and song itself.

And the instrumental is stunning. It's kinda like the toppings, meat, dumplings, whatever else, it gives the food dimension, but also choosing the wrong toppings for the noodles and soup can completely destroy the dish. Not in this case. Everything, from those warm electric guitar lines to the trumpet-like sounds to the percussion, they make sense together, and gel the entire song together.

But also, to take things a bit more literally, "Nothing's Over" sounds very familiar, it sounds very warm. The vocal treatment and instrumental sound like they can envelope you in a hug any time now. It sounds like a bowl of your mom's (Or dad's!) homemade ramen on a cold, rainy day.

So, apart from probably making you all salivate with hunger over ramen, that is also exactly why Infinite are the most junior act in the top five this year.

Monday, December 26, 2011

[#5] Seungri - "What Can I Do"

From: "VVIP" (Mini-Album)
Released: January 2011, South Korea
Rating: 4.50

Surprised? You shouldn't be, because I believe I've made it clear in the past that Seungri's "VVIP" is one of the few albums I will gladly shell out money for, just to hear in CDQ. His entire solo effort this year was so strong and cohesive that I had a hard time choosing which song of his to put on the list!

From the very beginning, "What Can I Do" was my favorite track from the EP, and months later it's still as glorious as it was when I first heard it.

It's very synth-heavy, with the instrumental packed beyond belief and Seungri's vocals just adding more to the mix, but everything just works together. The melody breaks the very stiff and packed instrumental, and Seungri's strong vocals carry both the airy and powerful sounds so, so well and that hit of nasal-ness actually adds to the sound instead of turning people off -- it's as if this song was made for him.

One of the main things I like on the song is the use of dynamics all throughout. Everything is packed together, yes, but the instrumental isn't ALL in your face, it pulls back at times and lets the brilliance of everything sink in, before completely letting loose, and even then you can still hear everything that's going on. And it sounds so sophisticated when you take a step back to just take everything in.

"What Can I Do" sounds like a cup of Filipino hot chocolate, the really, really, reaaaaaaaaaally thick kind that you can either drink or dip churros in. It's kinda like you boiled a bar of dark chocolate with 2 or 3 teaspoons of water. It has this really thick, almost gooey, texture, but it's still fluid and it isn't just flat sweet, it's a bit bitter around the edges, but by the time you're done drinking it you're literally O.O And it's for that reason that this song has to be heard in 320kbps AT LEAST, and if possible, physical CD quality.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

[#6] Wonder Girls - "Me, In"

From: "Wonder World" (Album)
Released: November 2011, South Korea
Rating: 4.40

I've made it no secret that I think "Wonder World" is one of the best albums of the year, and that initially, my favorite song was "Girls Girls", which they're now promoting (and we see the return of my knack for predicting post-album singles!), so you must be wondering, why is "Me, In" on the list and not "Girls Girls"?

Apart from the fact that I genuinely like "Me, In" just as much as "Girls Girls", no matter how much I like "Girls Girls", even if I overplayed it a bit and now it's pretty generic for me, any other girl group can put out something like that, and there are a host of other girl groups who can actually pull it off too. Some better than the Wonder Girls, live at least. And it's stupid how they gave Sohee so many singing parts when they probably already knew they'd be doing this live.

"Me, In", however, is a different story. It's a cover of a Korean rock classic, so I've heard (both figuratively and literally), and I'm not very fond of the idea of covers altogether, but for the Wonder Girls it works. And it's not like they're putting out multiple albums full of covers (*ahem*WESTLIFE*ahem*), so all is good. And really, there are only two our three other groups who I can imagine pulling "Me, In" off as well as the Wonder Girls. Yes, BEG is one of those groups.

I watched a live performance of the original version of this, and it was all loud, high-intensity, near-screaming (in a good way) and it came off really as a hardcore rock song. The shift from that to this is really something else. It still sounds like a rock song, but much tamer around the edges and slightly more pop.

You have attitude, spunk, class and a hint of pop all rolled into one. That, paired with Ye Eun and Sun Ye's stunning and powerful vocals, which were vital to the success of the delivery, and wow. Just, wow.

And what I find even better is that even if, when you think about it, it's really out of sync with the rest of the album because everything else is so pop and then you have this rock song in the middle of it all, it actually blends with all the other tracks on the album, due to the production and the vocals, but without losing some semblance of individuality.

So it's only right that they're the highest-placing girl group on my list this year.

[#7] SNSD/Girls' Generation - "Let It Rain"

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you all had a great day spent with your loved ones, and that you got lots of presents and ate a truckload of food! :D But on to today's matter.

Released: June 2011, Japan
Rating: 4.30

Despite the fact that I'm not your biggest SNSD fan, and there are so many things I find unfair in the way their Japanese career is going, their Japanese album was clearly light years ahead of anything they've put out, and so I had quite a difficult time deciding which song to put on the list. For a while it was "Mr. Taxi", then it became "Bad Girl", then "you-aholic" then actually "I'm In Love With The HERO", before I settled on "Let It Rain".

This is something I don't think they'd ever make a major release in Korea, and that's one of the main reasons why I settled with "Let It Rain" as somewhat the representative Japanese song (even if I hear there's a Korean version). It's something they'd do only in Japan, not because this is better or anything, but because this is simply not Korea's taste. It's too slow to be danced to so it will never be a lead single, but on the other hand it doesn't fit the standard ballad OR midtempo formula, so it'll just be another overlooked album track in Korea.

In one word, the entire song is epic. The bass line is felt rather than heard, and all the instruments, though amazing in themselves, are slightly dulled to let the vocals float. The structure is simple, but the melody is gorgeous and flows so well with the rest of the song. And, above all, "Let It Rain" is so easy to listen to. It has some bite around the edges, courtesy of the vocal treatment, but as a whole it's so smooth.

I have another food analogy for this song. The instrumental kinda reminds me of plain tortilla chips, which are okay on their own, but a bit flat and more focused on texture than taste. But then you add in this awesome tomato or garlic cream dip, which in this case is the melody and vocals laced together, and everything explodes in your mouth. Or in this case, your ears.

Friday, December 23, 2011

[#8] DGNA/The Boss - "Lady"

From: "Lady" (Single)
Released: October 2011, South Korea
Rating: 4.20

Laugh at me all you want, but I actually liked "Lady", and this is a list of my favorite songs, so this belongs here. "Lady" is a gorgeous song, but it also made some kind of statement -- that just because The Boss come from an obscure little agency, doesn't mean they can't be talented, because my goodness are they amazing.

And actually, this is their first formal ballad release. Which is surprising because they've always been pushed as an "idol group who can sing" and usually in Korea that equates to ballads. But I'm not complaining, because I liked their uptempos!

Everything starts out simple enough, with minimal instruments and their gorgeous voices, but slowly, the entire thing just explodes into a glorious mix of epic instrumentals and a gorgeously sung melody. By the end my jaw dropped, and when the resolution came around everything just went blank. The good kind. The kind where you're literally stunned and can't say anything cohesive anymore,

The vocals, oh dear Lord the vocals. They may not be up to par with older, more experienced singers, but for their calibre, my God. The harmonies, the solo lines, the belting -- stunning. Their vocals literally shine, and after hearing this, I don't think anyone can discount the fact that, vocally, they're one of the best idol groups in a long time. Like I said earlier this year, there's still so much they have to improve on, but put them beside any of the newer idol groups and they crush them.

Which is why, even if "Lady" in itself is pretty generic, and if you're not listening well enough it can bore you, they've made it work. The arrangement is simple, but the vocals carry the entire song.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

[#9] BEAST - "불러보지만 (Though I Call)"

From: "Fiction and Fact" (Album)
Released: May 2011, South Korea
Rating: 4.10

I swear, I keep changing the songs at the last-minute. When I locked the list, the BEAST song I chose was "You", and it's a gorgeous song, but as I listened to it throughout the month, I got bored. Here comes "Though I Call" to the rescue. Actually, this song was one of my first favorites on the album, but I guess time when against it so when I was choosing songs last month, I completely forgot about it. Thank goodness I remembered it in time.

2011 was amazing for BEAST, with "Fiction and Fact" easily being one of the best albums of the year. The A&R was spot-on, and the delivery impeccable -- they tried hard, and it shows. Of course that probably cost Cube an arm and leg, thus leaving nothing for everyone else under them, but I can deal with that. Cube has a lot of redeeming to do in 2012 though, and it better start with G.NA.

But anyway. "Though I Call" is a lot like me other favorite BEAST songs, actually -- "내 여자친구를 부탁해 (Say No)" and "Oasis". They're the songs that really show them putting an effort into their vocals, because let's face it, they weren't the best when they debuted. But, once again, hard work pays off, and their vocals have greatly improved.

The song sounds so BEAST, with the synths, the rapping and the melody all thrown together, from the opening alone you know it's a BEAST song. But it also has grace in the delivery of the vocals and the instrumental. All the elements explode when they need to, but also know when to hold back.

And really, the sweeping melody and the simple but well-orchestrated instrumental make the song such a joy to listen to.

[#10] Kim Junsu - "You Are So Beautiful"

From: "Scent of a Woman Soundtrack" (OST)
Released: September 2011, South Korea
Rating: 4.00

Screw all the other drama theme songs that came out this year, "You Are So Beautiful" is ballad master class with the god of ballads, and you really can't do better than that.

It has a quaint melody, with some quirk around the edges, and it's not all tear-jerking melodrama. It's also not too big on the high notes, but not completely lacking in them either. Reminds me a lot of slightly creamier fro-yo, a bit creamy, but still tart.

Junsu's vocals are the highlight and focus of the song, and everything is stunningly perfect -- from the technique, to the belting, to every single little detail of his vocals. Not too much screaming, but not too much airiness either. It's just the right mix of dynamics to leave you stunned at the end of it all.

That, laced with a straightforward, what you hear is what you get, instrumental that goes straight to the point, makes Junsu's voice stand out even more. The instrumental is still gorgeous though, with a touch of electric guitar behind the gorgeous strings and the crisp piano line.

Throw all of those together, and you have one of the most stunning ballads of the year.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

[#11] Brown Eyed Girls - "Sixth Sense"

We're finally at song #11, which means that starting tomorrow, up until new year's eve, I will be revealing my top ten songs of the year. One by one. Oh the agony. Mwahahahahahah! So which song just missed the cut?

From: "SIXTH SENSE" (Album), South Korea
Released: September 2011
Rating: 3.98

And this, my friends, is how you sing a song. It is also how you make a song with attitude. And to top it all off, I actually adore "Sixth Sense". Kick, attitude, punch, whatever you want to call it, "Sixth Sense" is it.

Basically, the reason why this song works so well is that they can actually sing. Extremely well. If they didn't have the vocals they do, this song would have been a pure and utter failure, not to mention a disgrace. And the good thing is that they actually show it off, but not too much.

The chorus is a mix of screaming and melodic singing, and although it's a bit anticlimactic (not as much as it was when I first heard it though), it does the trick. It's a scream-fest, yes, but it's a melodious and ever so slightly feminine, scream-fest. They scream enough to wow you (and make you go O.O), but they also dilute it enough to keep your eardrums alive, and let you recover from the shock.

Let us take a moment to drop everything and worship the verses of this song. They are stunning. Smooth, melodious, slightly interesting, but powerful and catchy at the same time. But they're also rather simple, with the right amount of repetitiveness, simple enough to remember after a few listens here and there.

The entire song has a pinch of arrogance to it, but that's exactly what it needs. The arrogance leads to punch, and the punch leads to power, and the power leads to a strong, literally stunning, song.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

[#12] Kim Jaejoong - "I'll Protect You"

From: "Protect The Boss Soundtrack" (OST), South Korea
Released: August 2011
Rating: 3.95

I like ballads. I like sweeping melodies and gorgeous string sections and I like it when they're put with stunning vocals. And thank goodness Jaejoong got some sort of solo song this year, and that solo song was stunning, or I would've raised hell.

If you didn't watch PTB but listen to "I'll Protect You", it doesn't come off as one hundred percent an OST song, because it has a little more than your generic piano, strings and maybe some canned drums in the arrangement, and the melody is out of the ordinary. It has character, and can actually stand apart from the drama.

"I'll Protect You" is smooth, courtesy of the instruments AND Jaejoong's voice that is the epitome of smooth, but has punch, courtesy of that gorgeously real, yet smooth, drum part, and again, Jaejoong's flexible voice that goes from smooth to powerful in a single song. I know I don't say anything much about how voices express emotion, but really, Jaejoong captured it perfectly, and instead of his breaths being annoying and his technique over-the-top, they add to how the song feels over-all.

Everything starts out simple. Minimal instruments, a piano and guitar line, but then the chorus hits and the instrumental gradually explodes, but Jaejoong's vocals don't, and he keeps that tone for majority of the song, until of course, it's time for everything to just go wild, and those gorgeous high notes he does at 2:38 and especially at 2:58 make me ready to kill to see him sing this live.

"I'll Protect You" is a stunning song, done gorgeously, by a gorgeous and learned voice. What more could I ask for?

[#13] Brave Girls - "Do You Know"

From: "The Difference" (Mini-Album), South Korea
Released: April 2011
Rating: 3.89

The Brave Girls are the highest-placing rookie group on this year's list, and believe me, they deserve it. "Do You Know" is simple, it's clean and unlike all the other idol groups who make a contest out of their debuts, this is like the Brave Girls saying that they're above competition. Because they are.

Again, a very simple song, but it does the trick. It's sophisticated, it's graceful and it's laid-back, but it has conviction. Nothing on this song sounds lazy, nothing sounds half-baked, and that alone betters a handful of other girl groups. The smooth sound doesn't bore you to death, it relaxes you, and lulls you to sleep. This sounds like white chocolate -- smooth, creamy beyond belief, but convincing and sure.

Put together the fact that it was actually sung well, and that they can actually perform this live, and this is a recipe for a brilliant song. And what I really appreciate about the vocals on this is that they're not forced. No excessive belting, no trying to out sing everyone else in the band, and the vocals really match the sound of the entire song.

I can listen to this for weeks and not get sick of it. Strong production, and a simple, yet effective and well-done sound.

[#14] IU - "Someday"

From: "Dream High Soundtrack" (OST), South Korea
Released: January 2011
Rating: 3.85

"Someday" was actually the very first song I put into this year's list, and no, this is not on the list just because IU's releases have always managed to miss the cut-off date by a few days/weeks, because really, "Someday" is a stunning yet simple song.

Scrap all the fancy studio effects, the vocal gymnastics and whatever other frilly things people add to songs these days, and you're left with a gorgeous melody accompanied by a simple, yet timeless arrangement and good vocals.

One of the things I value the most in a song is simplicity. You have a point to put across, I understand, but there are many times when less is indeed more. The simpler it is, the more people can imitate it, and the more people imitate it, the closer it is to becoming a classic. I always raise this point, but it's true -- even if arrangement and technology and effects are very important, the melody is the part that will ultimately transcend time. In pop, when you remix a song, you take the melody and slap it on top of another arrangement. Again, the melody.

"Someday" shows off IU's vocals, not in the screaming, "I can hit notes this high" way, but in how she delivers something simple. The true measure of a singer is not how high he/she can go, but how he/she makes use of his/her vocals and technique to deliver the simplest melody. A good singer doesn't show off, but doesn't shy away either. And that's exactly what IU did with "Somebody".

[#15] Big Bang - "SOMEBODY TO LOVE"

From: "BEAUTIFUL HANGOVER" (Single), Japan and "BIG BANG 4TH MINI-ALBUM" (Mini-Album), South Korea
Released: August 2010 (Single) and February 2011
Rating: 3.75

Up 'till last weekend, the Big Bang song sitting on my year-end list was actually "Love Song", but when I looked over the list again the other day, I realized that I put "Love Song" in because I liked the idea of it, what with it being pretty far from the usual Big Bang sound, and not because I genuinely liked the song. So here we are, and my favorite song from them this year is indeed "Somebody To Love".

Although originally released in Japan last year (and was it just me or did majority of the sound sound like it was in English?), they re-recorded it and put it on this year's Korean release. And I adore it, because I genuinely like it, and also because it sounds like the Big Bang I came to like, and respect.

You see, that's the very reason why I respect Big Bang. They can experiment with God knows what, they can jump through hoops and fire, but at the end of the day they know how they are, and they know how to show people that they haven't forgotten.

The song is synth-heavy in the sense that the song revolves around them, but the synths themselves aren't that heavy, so you have enough room to both hear the instrumental, and the melody itself. It's kind of like a chewy cookie - even if it's really creamy and packed, there are little gaps/holes for it to breathe.

Gorgeous melody, well thought-of arrangement, and over-all, a song I'd gladly listen to over, and over, and over again.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

[#16] 2NE1 - "Ugly"

I apologize in advance, but I'm having a hoard of friends over for lunch and a sleepover today, so my mind is in a different place right now. D:

From: "2NE1 2ND MINI ALBUM" (Mini-Album)
Released: July 2011, South Korea
Rating: 3.70

I've been really quiet about 2NE1 this year, but in my defense I was so busy that I hardly paid attention to the acts I didn't genuinely like to start with. However, listening to the EP a month late, I found this gem.

The really cool, no actually, amazing thing about "Ugly" is that when you look at the individual elements, it sounds nothing like 2NE1. The heavy synths (although there are still synths) have been replaced by an electric guitar line, no studio-made loops, instead there are actual, real drums, and the vocals have no extremely obvious processing. AND CL IS SINGING. It's about the farthest you can go from the 2NE1 sound, just before heart-wrenching piano ballads, and yet when you stop thinking of all the nitty gritty, it actually *does* sound like a 2NE1 song.

I have several guesses as to why it still sounds like a 2NE1 song, but they're far too tentative so we'll skip them altogether. However, there are a few elements that 2NE1 couldn't do without on this song. Despite the differing lyrics, the chorus is actually repetitive, and so is the middle 8.

The selling point for me was the melody. It's gorgeous. Simple, repetitive at times, but gorgeous. And they're all singing! I move to get rid of Dara, because CL and Minzy should just take over, with Bom having the occasional singing part. That would be perfect, thank you.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

[#17] After School - "Bang!"

From: "Bang!" (Single)
Released: August 2011, Japan
Rating: 3.70

Even if "Because of You" will forever be immortalized as one of the most brilliant After School songs on the face of the earth, and for just writing it, Brave Sound was resurrected in my books, "Bang!" made me realize that given the right material, the girls in After School actually have talent. "Bang!" single-handedly proved that repertoire is crucial to a band's survival, and it frankly, they haven't released anything better since then.

So you could imagine how much I freaked out when I heard this Japanese version.

The Korean version of "Bang!" was very stiff, with the chanting AND the in-your-face-and firm drum rolls. Everything sounded so.. angular. I liked it, and the drums were indeed the focus of the song, but there's only so much of it that you can take, especially when you hear a much more fluid version, courtesy of the Japanese re-arrangement.

Basically, what happened between the Japanese and Korean versions is that a bunch of new instruments were added, everything was made much more intense, but they also made the song much more rounded and less stiff. However, all of that was done without losing the attitude and a bit of the crisp sound of the Korean version. And, like the Supernova song, the Japanese lyrics had something to do with it too.

It's a fresh take on a now-classic After School song, and it takes the fluidity of the new After School sound and incorporates it into the package. What you get is again, a balance.

[#18] MBLAQ - "Mona Lisa"

If this, or any of my recent reviews, sounds a bit off, you'll have to forgive me. We're right on schedule, yes, but it's a pretty tight schedule until we get to the top ten songs, so I'm writing all these reviews with the flu and migraines left and right. I'm sorry. D:

From: "Mona Lisa" (Mini-Album)
Released: July 2011, South Korea
Rating: 3.65

Again, I was debating between this song, and "Cry" from their earlier release this year, because really, "Cry" is stunning, but I believe "Mona Lisa" is the song that really put them somewhere musically. The possibilities of them ever completely making up for the travesty that was "Oh Yeah" are next to none, but at least now we're assured that MBLAQ are capable of actually making a good song.

Not just decent, but good. They can't sing it live to save themselves, but as a recording, and as a song, it's really good. And actually, it sounds a bit like what "Oh Yeah" should've been, had it not been blasphemous, what with the Mexican thing going on.

Vindication? Maybe. Does it make up for "Oh Yeah"? Again, definitely not.

They were given that oh so valuable second shot, and kudos to MBLAQ, because they got it spot-on. It has sophistication to it (which MBLAQ are in dire need of), but it's also not afraid to pack a punch. Strong production, a tight, yet fluid arrangement, and something that can actually make use of their arrogant vocals. It has enough K-Pop to make it familiar, but enough of the guitars and the Mexican-ish sound to make it interesting. It doesn't bore us to death, but it's not completely alien to us.

The entire song is very tight, clean where it's supposed to be, and chaotic where it's called for, but it's not too crowded. It's packed enough to give you an entire song, with a catchy melody, instruments running around all over the place and everything in between, but it has enough "air", so to say, to allow you to take everything in as it goes.

It makes you want to press repeat, not because you didn't catch a few of the gazillion different things happening throughout, but because you liked what you heard and you genuinely want to hear it again.

[#19] T-Ara - "Cry Cry"

From: "Black Eyes" (Mini-Album)
Released: November 2011, South Korea
Rating: 3.60

So many acts proved me wrong in 2011, including T-Ara in the latter half of the year. I've never really liked T-Ara singles, and apart from a few album tracks I liked here and there, none of their major releases were really exceptional songs to me. They were almost always exceptionally bad, to be completely honest with you, what with "Bo Peep Bo Peep" and "Yayaya" leading the pack.

However, "Cry Cry" is in a league of it's own as far as T-Ara singles are concerned. First of all, it completely disregards my theory that Core Contents only knows how to produce two kinds of songs - cheesy, cheap uptempos, and stunning ballads - because even if this is kinda like a ballad, it doesn't fall into the likes of Co-Ed School's "The Words That Make My Heart Beat", and it most definitely isn't a cheap uptempo either.

It's like they put together the two styles, took the best, and added some finishing touches here and there. It's catchy, it has this cool dance break, and it's sophisticated. That sophistication is what I've been looking for from T-Ara for like forever.

This song also finally, truly, convinced me that T-Ara CAN indeed sing (I can hardly remember them from their debut, actually, I don't know who's who), and that all those cutesy songs weren't just to hide the lack to talent, but were a disgrace, because they're a lot better than a handful of over female idols. It's probably more of an injustice than Luna's injustice on practically every f(x) song, because it concerns majority of the band.

I get the impression that they're trying to make "Cry Cry" some kind of mexican-ish song like MBLAQ's "Mona Lisa", but they failed and settled for a late 1990's Britney/Christina/every other Maratone and/or Max Martin-produced boyband/pop princess sound, which works for me too! Clean, but not too clean, production, a smooth, well-sung, melody, and everything in between make for a song I've looped countless times.

It's the last stretch of 2011...

We're already in the second half of December (!!!!), and so before everything gets chaotic, both on Pop Reviews Now and in real life, I think it's best if I lay out everything that's gonna be happening on the blog during the last few days of 2011. Believe me, there's a lot happening this year.

So today is the 17th of December, so right now we're at song number 20 on this year's top 50, and we are right on schedule. Songs #19-#11 will be revealed between tomorrow and December 21st, and from December 22nd to December 30th, songs #10-2 will be staggered, one a day. On December 31st, I'll reveal my favorite song of 2011, as well as a few of YOUR favorite songs (deadline to send in your reviews is December 25th!).

If you'd like to place bets on what the rest of my top 50 is, like McRoth and Ree did the other day, just for fun (I'm too broke to give anything away!), you may do so on this post and I WILL give out clues. ;D

I also kicked off this year's Holiday special today, with a review of "2011 SMTOWN Winter: The Warmest Gift". Part 2 will be published any time from tomorrow to the 24th, just in time for Christmas day. I may or may not do episode recaps of music shows that do Christmas specials, I'll think about it.

And, of course, after Christmas everyone will be fussing over year-end specials and Gayo Daejuns. I WILL be doing recaps of all 3 music shows' year-end specials, and by the first week of January I'll put out something like what I did for last year's Gayo Daejuns.

[#20] JYJ - "소년의 편지 (The Boy's Letter)"

From: "IN HEAVEN" (Album)
Released: September 2011, South Korea
Rating: 3.58

So. Here we are. It's time for me to talk about a JYJ song. I notice that whenever I say something positive about JYJ, I'm labelled as an obsessed "fangirl" (which I am, but in this sense it's most probably derogatory), however when I point out that they're people too and they have flaws, either people call me an anti-fan for "putting them down" and/or "not encouraging them", or tell me I'm over-thinking things. So I assume, the solution is shutting up about anything JYJ-related, which, of course, I refuse to do. So I'll go on with this review.

I'll say flat-out that this song is far from perfect. It is, but just like why I like DB5K in the first place, the good far outweigh the bad, and so this is on the list, at #20, whether anyone likes it or not. It's imperfect because of how the song is structured itself -- it's too long in a bad way, and it drags on at the end.

In my opinion, the song should've ended at the 3:36-mark, after, or during, Yoochun's part. It should've been done by then, because essentially, that piano part, and even Yoochun's solo itself, was actually already the resolution. It's like having your happily ever after in a story, then having this really useless, fluff-fest, of an epilogue that involves the main characters having a kid. It's like a sequel - it's not necessarily that bad, but it's as if you're milking a dry cow, nothing will come out of it.

Don't get me wrong, those extra 2 minutes are stunning, with all their voices soaring in different, yet cohesive, directions and really showing off just how talented all three of them are, but one, like I said a while ago it drags, and two, it hardly has anything to do with the song proper anymore.

But, again like I said a while ago, the fact that it's a gorgeous song in itself far outweighs that. In fact, I kinda like cheesy, fluffy sequels. For fun.

"The Boy's Letter", despite being dragging at the end, when you pass that, the song is really something else. It was made to show off Jaejoong and Junsu's vocals, and it's one of the few songs on "IN HEAVEN" where they got Yoochun's part spot-on. It's a very JYJ ballad, with all the strings and whatnot, and it's really what these three do best.

I'm getting carried away here, aren't I? Basically, the reason why this is on the list is because I like it. Because it's a joy to listen to a well-sung ballad, and because the good qualities surpass the bad.

[#21] Miss A - "Goodbye Baby"

From: "A Class" (Album)
Released: July 2011, South Korea
Rating: 3.53

2011 was very good to Miss A in terms of success, and even if A Class was half-unoriginal, the new tracks were actually pretty good.

"Goodbye Baby" gives off a very nonchalant attitude. It's edgy, it's smooth and it's somewhat sophisticated, but it sounds very effortless. It's right smack in between heavily-orchestrated and the wild, running around stage-type songs in the sense that it's still structured and it's still serious, but it's also very second nature to both Miss A and the people behind the song.

There's a thin line between effortlessness and laziness, but this song is certainly far from lazy. Very far. Their vocals, although very smooth and somewhat laid-back, still manage to pack a punch, and the instrumental has enough quirk to sustain. And, despite the fact that I'm not the biggest fan of the singing style JYP forces down his acts' throats (literally!), it actually works for this song, because if it was sung straight without the "JYP technique", one dimension of the song would've been lost in the shuffle, and this song is all about dimension.

Let's backtrack a bit. I said that "Goodbye Baby" is smooth, and that's another really important element of the song. The vocals, even if they're slightly disjointed due to JYP, are very smooth, silky smooth even. They add to the over-all sound, and laced with the instrumental this entire song sounds like a smooth cup of coffee, with just a little extra creamer.

Bottom line is, "Goodbye Baby" is catchy, it's an effective pop song, but above all it's well-done. In being well-done, it becomes a pleasure to listen to, and that's a really important trait in a song - it has to be easy to listen to.

Friday, December 16, 2011

[#22] Secret - "Neverland"

Just a quick reminder of what this list actually is -- it's a list of my favorite songs this year. So whether that is "credible" or not is really none of my business, these are the songs I enjoyed listening to this year, along with justifications on why I liked them. That's it.

From: "Moving in SECRET" (Album)
Released: October 2011, South Korea
Rating: 3.5

The deal-breaker that ultimately put this on the list instead of "Together", is that horrid rap part on "Together" that really doesn't match the song and makes me cringe every single time. If not for that, "Together" would've been gorgeous from head to toe. But "Neverland" is too!

Again with the balance -- parts of the song remind me of pre-"Magic" Secret, with that hint of innocence and that somewhat generic R&B sound. But actually, they pull off that sound pretty well! And you can see that their sound now, albeit not that much more mature and still a bit confused around the edges ("Shy Boy" sticks out like a sore thumb, I tell you), is definitely much more sophisticated in terms of production and execution. In short, they have more money now.

But really, the melody is gorgeous, and the instrumental, though simple, does the trick. With those seemingly distant strings and that thumping, yet gentle, bass line. And actually, the whole song sounds very gentle, even how they treated the higher parts, everything sounds rounded and gentle. Kinda like a chiffon cake, to be honest with you. (I'm sorry, you guys must be saying "AGAIN WITH THE FOOD ANALOGIES!")

So that's why I used to use this as my lullaby!

The 2011 Pop Reviews Now Holiday Special Part 1: "2011 SMTOWN Winter: The Warmest Gift"

Just a quick explanation of how I'm doing this year's Christmas posts. So, obviously this SM TOWN Christmas album is part 1, and for part 2 I'll be reviewing some of my favorite K-Pop Christmas offerings, both old and new. Rules and stuff will be discussed in part 2. But now, on to more important business.

It's been a good three years since any sort of SM Town release, the last being the half-SM Town Summer 2009 EP with Super Junior, SHINee and DBSK. If you remember correctly, we were told that the other half of SM Town, namely the girls, would be featured on the Christmas album. Well, clearly that didn't happen. But FINALLY, SM has decided to put something out in time for Christmas. Is it any good? Well, that's a pretty long story.

When news of this album first broke, I was ecstatic. Of course, SM Town isn't SM Town without a fail Yoochun English rap, a Jaejoong/Lina or Jaejoong/BoA duet, or some goofing around courtesy of Shindong and Eunhyuk's rap part, but I could do without that if it meant getting one song with everyone thrown in, acting happy in a fake-snow wonderland. Right? That was until I found out that not only was there no group song this year (WHAT KIND OF BLASPHEMY IS THIS?!), but the album would be 100% English. Let's just say that if Yoochun, who actually spent more than a few days in the US, manages to epicly screw up all his English parts, what more the others. And let's face it, there are only a handful of SM Town artists who can actually speak good English. I'm still thinking of whether or not BoA is in that handful.

And once again, my psychic powers did not fail. The English is horrible. I'm an English major(well, comparative literature, but I'm still under the English department), I know. But the bad English isn't really the big problem, it's the fact that it's in English.

Let me put it simply, the album is too Americanized. It's hardly K-Pop anymore. Say all you want to say about how K-Pop is just a rip-off of Western music, but you know, even if majority of the songs probably are, you can tell the difference between K-Pop and American pop. You know why I'm into K-Pop? It's because I'm so sick of US Pop, and here we are, back to the very sound I want to avoid.

The problem with it sounding too American is that one, obviously they're not American, but two, really now, what good, distinctively Christmassy POP songs have the Americans contributed to the standard Christmas repertoire? "All I Want For Christmas Is You"? Seriously now. "Last Christmas"? You have got to be kidding me. They're merely pop songs with Christmas lyrics about gifts and snow. There’s so much more to a Christmas song than that. This SM Town album sounds like a confused Rat Pack-turned-makeshift Christmas album, to be completely honest.

This album is massively confused. Massively. So either the song itself isn't K-Pop enough, or when they finally get the song choice right, they screw up the execution. My prime example? Jang Ri In's version of "Oh Holy Night", which is actually one of my favorite Christmas songs. The girl has a gorgeous voice, she really does, and what does she do? She murders the song. All those runs and those strange sounds she makes with her voice. No, just no. There's a reason why the Christina Aguilera Christmas album was a complete failure.

Yes, I'm very picky with Christmas songs, but that's only because my childhood was filled with some of the most gorgeous Christmas songs anyone will ever hear. I grew up not only listening to them, but singing them as well. I know my Christmas repertoire - everything from the classic Handel's "Messiah" to Filipino novelty Christmas songs where you make sounds out of combs and pieces of wax paper, to the most tear-jerking, yet most distinctly Filipino Christmas song you will ever hear, I've sung them all. So imagine going from all those, to a bunch of pop songs that don't even sound like Christmas. They are inferior not because they are pop songs, there are some gorgeous pop Christmas songs (DBSK's "Winter Rose" for heaven's sake!), they are inferior because they don't sound like Christmas, they don't serve their purpose.

You want me to tell you what Christmas sounds like? Christmas sounds like a cup of hot chocolate, rich and creamy and sweet, it sounds like a thick blanket wrapped around you, keeping you warm. It sounds like bells ringing in the distance and lights all over, it sounds like you're being surrounded with your family and friends and you're all happy. Christmas songs literally wrap you around in a nice, warm, hug, and refuse to let go. Christmas is such a simple feeling, but it overpowers everything else. Now regardless of how that gets translated into music, that's the standard framework of a Christmas song, and the minute you deviate from that even a bit, you lose the Christmas. All of it.

I don't care if you want to add electric guitars (like Aly&AJ's "Greatest Time of the Year"), go all-out with synths and loops and the works (surprisingly, JYP Nation's "This Christmas"), make everything epic and waltz-y (a-la DBSK's "Winter Rose"), keep it to a bare minimum (Josh Groban's "Thankful), or even make it kinda reggae-ish (like the brilliant Nota a cappella version of "The Little Drummer Boy", complete with a RAP PART), bottom line is that it has to leave people warm and fuzzy.

With the SM Town album, I felt nothing. Nada. Zilch. The entire album sounded like a pop album released any time BUT the holidays, it sounds so clean, too clean almost, and Christmas is not a cleaning contest on who can use the most sanitized production, it’s a contest of who can make the most emotional, goosebump-inducing song. No feeling whatsoever, they all sound like robots. Don't get me wrong, there are gorgeous songs on this album, namely BoA's "Distance", that song is stunning, but they're just not Christmas. Let me put this nicely, even T-Ara's "O My God", which I'm not even sure if it's a Christmas song, sounds more like Christmas than this entire album put together.

Unlike your usual pop song which lasts for a few months before becoming completely irrelevant, when you release a Christmas song, the standard shelf life is forever. Yes, forever. For the good ones, at least. My Christmas playlist this year includes pop Christmas songs that were released as early as 1998. 98 Degrees, BSB, that staple *NSYNC "O Holy Night" 5-part a cappella arrangement, Blue's "Gift", Aly&AJ, and even the DBSK Christmas EP - they're all still relevant. That's because Christmas never grows old, and people will always have a need for a Christmas repertoire. Which is why no one should be surprised that the most familiar "classical" pieces are in fact the Christmas offerings.

In simpler terms, "2011 SMTOWN Winter: The Warmest Gift" is more novel than it is lasting. The arrangements are faddish, the over-all sound very current, but under those you have nothing that can transcend time and cement these songs as Christmas staples. In colloquial Filipino/Taglish, this album is a "one time big time", and does not have the lasting qualities of other, better, Christmas releases. And actually, some of the songs on this package sound more like they belong on the acts' respective albums, and not a CHRISTMAS-themed compilation.

Super Junior's "Santa U Are The One", excusing the horrid English on the chorus (Ear after ear? Seriously?), sounds like a pop song they just slapped some bells on, and some lyrics about happiness and Santa. That's it. It's SO Big Time Rush (but even BTR made a better Christmas song than SuJu)/One Direction ala-"What Makes You Beautiful". I mean it's an okay song, nice and happy and upbeat, and I'd probebly listen to it a lot if it were not for the "ear after ear", but that's all it will ever be, and that's not it's purpose. When I first heard this, I thought it sounded nothing like Christmas, as in nothing at all, but actually, after listening to the rest of the album, this is probably the song that's closest to getting what Christmas songs should be. But still not enough.

I hate the covers on this thing. I hate them. DBSK's "Sleigh Ride" is the biggest disappointment. Because seriously, we went from "Winter Rose" to this monstrosity. This is one of the rare instances that I will consent to a version in another language, because seriously, DBSK should've just done an English version of "Winter Rose". Now THAT is a song that can be milked for all it's worth, because it’s shelf life is literally forever. But no, they had to give DBSK a cheesy cover of "Sleigh Ride", that actually makes them sound sleazy, to be honest.

And really now, SHINee's "Last Christmas" has got to be one of the worst covers of one of the most cheesy, cheap Christmas songs ever released.
It was bad enough when Wham! did it, for heaven's sake. Then they SM-ify everything? Oh dear. The production is okay, and I kinda like the outer space-like synths, but you mix those with some of the most uninterested, boring and lazy vocals I've ever heard from SHINee and you have a disaster. I'm serious, they all sound bored out of their wits, which they probably were, and for once, I would've liked Jonghyun to go wild, because seriously, I fell asleep listening to this song, and not in the good way.

J-Min's cover of the John Lennon song "Happy X-Mas (War Is Over)" is okay, nothing special, and the girl has a nice voice, but once again, it sounds so uninspired. And boring.

As far as "The First Noel" covers go, DBSK win by light years. So I thought that since SM was behind their cover, the Jang Ri In verson would be really good too. Boy was I wrong. I like some parts of the arrangement, like the simple piano part, those gorgeous strings, and the drums, but you know what it sounds like as a whole, including that oriental-sounding instrument? It sounds like an American's attempt to make something "oriental", like "Ninja Assassin" or whatever. And that really disturbs me, because Jang Ri In is CHINESE, and SME is a KOREAN company. I don't get it, and don't think I ever will. To top it all off, like I said earlier, the vocals totally ruined the song. Totally. Why do you have to put all those unnecessary runs and strange vocal techniques into a song that's supposed to be nice, and quiet and simple then it's supposed to explode, but in the really big and tasteful way. Then Ri In just does a Christina/Mariah on it.

BoA's "Distance" is gorgeous, it really is. I love it and I'll probably be looping this for the next few days, but it's still not Christmas enough. "Distance" actually reminds me a lot of a Stacie Orrico/Young CCM-type song, in terms of treatment. The harmonies, and even the instrumentation, sound like something straight off Stacie Orrico’s self-titled album. Which is very, very, VERY far from Christmas. And that bugs me. There's a difference between "gorgeous pop song" goosebumps and "Christmas song" goosebumps, and the goosebumps I got this time were the "gorgeous pop song" ones. Basically, the only part of the song that made it remotely Christmas is the lyrics, and that's a foul. Which is such a shame because BoA has had some really amazing, really Christmassy, releases over the years, and even if "Distance" does match up in terms of gorgeousness, it fails at being Christmas. When you talk of BoA Christmas songs, "On December 27th" is still, hands-down, the best of them all, not even "Meri Kuri" comes close.

SNSD’s “Diamond”, and I'm not sure if I've ever used this analogy, but it kinda sounds like something that would fit right in to the Christmas talent show set list on "Mean Girls", you know, when the slutty, popular girls trying to sing and dance at the same time in skimpy Santa outfits and high heels? Maybe not that drastic, but the chorus is EXACTLY like that. However, the middle 8, and that small bit before it (which I presume is Sunny's part) is gorgeous. Stunning, almost. And actually, it's probably the most Christmas I've heard on the entire album, but then we go back to the uninspired chorus. It's not as boring as the SHINee track, but even for SNSD they can do better.

f(x)'s “1,2,3” also sounds nothing like a Christmas song, bar those strings which were probably just thrown in last-minute. It actually sounds more like the theme song for a FRIENDS rip-off, like, really. It sounds like it belongs on a Disney chick-flick soundtrack (Kinda like that song that's on the "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen" soundtrack, which, conveniently, is also called "1,2,3"), not an SM Town Christmas album.

While we're on the topic of songs that sound like they belong elsewhere, CSJH (DANA&SUNDAY)'s "Amazing" sounds more like a charity single ala-Destiny Child's "Stand Up For Love". Pretty far from Christmas, if you ask me. Not that I oppose to Christmas ballads, but again, there's a way to do it without completely missing the point. And it's not that I don't like the song either, I do, it's gorgeous and Dana and Sunday's voices are stunning and the middle 8 kills me every single time, then by the time that stunning piano line comes in just before everything explodes with the chorus behind I die again, but yet again, THIS IS NOT CHRISTMAS. Same goes for Kangta's "For The First Time", Kangta's voice is stunning, but this sounds more like a Disney animated fairytale song that plays just when the prince is about to kiss the princess/girl. It actually sounds like something straight out of Aladdin. Again, pretty far from Christmas, if you ask me.

TRAX's "Like A Dream" sounds like what I kind of expected TRAX to do, but it's too clean, like they sucked all the emotion out of the song and left it to rot. In terms of "band"-ish K-Pop Christmas offerings, actually Infinite's "Lately" takes the prize. I'm sorry, TRAX, but this song sounds more like those tracks you put behind a montage of tour videos and screaming crowds and bands going wild on stage. All in back and white. And in reality, those tracks are usually the cheesiest, filler of filler tracks.

And, of course, a special Christmassy wrap-up:
The most Christmassy song: Thankfully, "Santa U Are The One"
The great, but not Christmassy songs: "Distance", "1,2,3", "Amazing"
The worst song: "Last Christmas"