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! ^_^