Sunday, January 26, 2014

[1st Half] 25 Best K-pop Albums of 2013

What Korean Music Offered the First Half of 2013:

The belated post that I’ve been working on for a while. I've had the pleasure of listening to a wide array of Korean releases the first half of last year. Spanning different genres, I've immersed myself in all that Korean music has offered. There wasn’t one release that was far and above everyone else, but rather a collective balancing act that emerged. Due to the amount of stellar releases the first half of 2013, I have decided to write up this post listing some of the more remarkable releases.

This list only includes albums released in the first half (January 1, 2013 to June 30, 2013). There wasn't really a special criteria, but I did try my best to look at everything objectively, keeping track of each one’s musical originality, lyrics, value, etc.

As always, keep in mind that this list is subjective to my tastes and even though I took a broader view, it may be missing releases unknown to me. Leave me with your thoughts at the end with the albums you cherished.

Honorable Mentions (Best Albums - Cemented Releases of 2013):

The two albums listed below are excluded from the “25 Best” crowd due to the fact that being an amateur music commentator, I did not want leave the other albums at a disadvantage. Had these two been included, they would undoubtedly be deserving of the top two positions due to their significance. Taking these two out of the running makes the list more interesting for me and much more difficult to compile.

1. 나윤선 (Youn Sun-nah) - Lento
2013.03.12 / Jazz / Hub Music [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: Lament, Momento Magico, Arirang

Based purely on musical notes and uniqueness, this album released by Youn Sun-nah for sure is one of the best last year. It certainly deserves spots on critics top albums but for a casual listener like myself, I feel as though my musical preferences and grasp diverges too far. I fear I may be diminishing its prowess and Youn Sun-nah’s brilliance, but feel being honest is probably the best way to go. All the tracks are grand, but the album not being anywhere near my playlist stops me from cementing it. The jazz vocalist retains her originality while tackling instrumentals, one after the other, through her musical ingenuity. The track “Momento Magico” stands to be the best testament to the point made earlier. Her voice guides the listener throughout, its impact far-reaching.

2. 이승열 (Yi Sung Yol) - V
2013.05.23 / Rock, Post-Rock / Fluxus [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

There are no simple words to describe V. The whole album rides on creating an ecstasy inducing experience. The instrumentals sharply reflect that, there’s heavy usage of classical Indian melodies and sufi music alongside Middle Eastern influences. Yi Sung Yol’s usage of such external devices develops to become its strength as well as its weakness because the implementation, while exhilarating, turns out to be heavily repetitive seeing as how the melody doesn’t venture out to embrace other variations within the genres. Due to the first seven songs ranging in length from five minutes to ten, the albums lends itself easy to feelings of alienation. In terms of composition, what we have here is some of the best grasp of musical interpretation, transitioning from simple ideas to grand tunes.


The 25 Best K-pop Albums of 2013 [Released between January 1, 2013 - June 30, 2013]

25. 씨스타 (Sistar) - Give It To Me
2013.06.11 / Dance / Starship Entertainment [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Give It To Me in regards to the sound it dabbles with works best as an extension of Alone. The familiarity and refined tunes the album offers makes this one of the better girl group releases among a first half filled with uninspired ones. Even though not groundbreaking in any sense, the overall product is pleasing. The instrumentation, while one-dimensional in its use of similar tunes, is reassuringly solid and gives the release a unified ambiance. Hyorin, the unquestionable star of the album, turns in an exceptional performance. The other two vocalists also turn in favorable performances. Bora’s verses and inclusion feels like an act of self-indulgence and disappoints. The album does contain its share of fillers in the latter half.

24. 2PM - Grown
2013.05.06 / Dance / JYP Entertainment [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Grown as evidently clear is quite different from prior 2PM releases. This time around, they shed their dance and electronic side in favor of a retro one. The group has grown and come beautifully into their own. The best aspect of it is the clear direction and execution, save for the two title tracks, which aren’t bad but the choice of effects make them seem disoriented and less of a standout. The other tracks offer lite R&B tropes and hover between forgettable to quite impressive. The members display significant improvements and try out different melodies rather smoothly. It’s even more impressive considering Junho and Jun.K had a hand in some of the compositions. The ceiling gets raised with this mature release and overall, a job well done.

23. 엠블랙 (MBLAQ) - Sexy Beat
2013.06.04 / Dance / J.Tune Camp [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: 스모키걸(Smoky Girl), Celebrate

MBLAQ’s album works when Infinite H’s didn’t because of the way the members' voices were used. Both groups had Primary, Zion.T and other trendy underground composers produce for them. That much becomes clear due to the distinguishable instrumentation and verses, styles Primary likes to dabble around with. This album gets more love and therefore goes further. The R&B beats are squeaky clean and the precision praiseworthy. “Smoky Girl” is the it track of the album with banging, sophisticated beats alongside a funky delivery. The repetition within surprisingly adds more flavor to the song instead of becoming a derailing factor. The other tracks are less memorable but there's something for everyone here.

22. d.ear - Love Graphy
2013.01.22 / R&B/Soul, Ballad / RealCollabo [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

R&B powerhouse RealCollabo’s newest addition, d.ear explores various sides and shows a lot of shifts. The instrumentation themselves don’t have much of a variety to them, soft and delicate, their mechanisms become quite predictable by the middle portion. Being an R&B release, I didn’t hold out for banging beats but I would have definitely liked to see some deviation as a counter to the monotony. The tracks that do work are marvelous and offer some of the more notable R&B verses of last year. “너를 그리다 (Drawing You)” offers pure comfort and the moody chorus becomes the highlight of Love Graphy. There’s room for improvement composition-wise but that doesn’t take anything away from d.ear’s smooth burst onto the scene.

21. 스몰오 (Small O) - That Will Fall
2013.02.21 / Rock, Indie / Fluxus [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

The band’s mini comes off as very refreshing, the methodical procession of the tunes in line with their musical direction. It’s not everyday that you see a band slow down and release a throwback album standing out from the current scene. The scattered repetitive lyrics, harmonious atmosphere and grand use of instruments makes this album an electrifying one. The overlying issue it faces is the lack of creativity with regards to the lyrics and the lack of an comprehensive stamping melody. The title track “That Will Fall” is a perfect example of the album’s shortcomings, the melody keeps on repeating in a cycle that derails its original creativity. “Magi” and “Elephant” on the other hand rise up to the challenge with their soaring tension and pulsating beats.

20. EXO - XOXO (Kiss & Hug)
2013.06.03 / Dance / SM Entertainment [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: Baby Don’t Cry, Let Out The Beast, Heart Attack

It’s really a shame that this solid album was put through the tough test of overcoming a pretty disastrous title track. “Wolf” isn’t half as bad but it is clearly lacking in many departments, the piercing verses and particularly the lyrics. Move beyond that and you have a pretty strong album filled with nice songs, save for some clear knock-offs off western counterparts. “Baby Don’t Cry” is a beautifully arranged track that just melts in your ears. Some of the other tracks waver between appearing generic and unique. That is exemplified best by “Peter Pan”, which has clear lines showing distinction but the generic rap drags the song down. “Let Out The Beast” is a stellar and all-around trendy dance song that makes good use of all the members.

19. B.A.P - One Shot
2013.02.12 / Dance / TS Entertainment [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: Punch, One Shot, Coma

B.A.P’s ability to make difficult songs sets them apart. Literally, almost all of their tracks are adrenaline rides and there is often an aggressive rage present with lyrics that match the tone. One thing they have yet to learn is that same strength they make use of continuously also carries a recipe for disaster. The producers need to learn to use Daehyun more effectively and stop giving him screeching high notes. Everyone can see their cards clearly with one look at their discography, which is a result mainly due to the heavy promotion cycle TS employed right from the get-go. But the formula keeps working and it’s evident with this release. This EP is clearly one of their strongest one to date, with “One Shot” being the crowning achievement.

18. 윤하 (Younha) - Just Listen
2013.05.02 / Rock, Ballad / Wealive, CJ E&M [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: 봄은 있었다 (It Was Spring)

Just Listen coming from Younha is strangely plain yet enchanting enough to glide above the rest. For people who are already fans of her work, it’s a special treat but for casual observers, not without its disappointing moments. Undoubtedly one of the strongest vocalists, Younha has the vocal color to make any track stand out and her technique is still as impeccable as ever. The release is ambitious with inclusion of reggae, folk and rock tunes but themselves alone appear a bit monotonous and dull. “봄은 있었다 (It Was Spring)” is one of the more consistent tracks and is one magnificent ballad that establishes Younha’s strengths perfectly.

17. 긱스 (Geeks) – Backpack
2013.04.29 / Hip-hop / WA Entertainment & Grandline Entertainment [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: Lights On, Wash Away, Siren, Love, Life 그 한가운데서

Backpack is very easy to listen to and considering Geeks are relatively new, a well-produced album that sums up the contemporary mainstream Korean hip-hop scene. Geeks’ appeal and consistency is what makes them unique and why the album feels so relatable. The arrangements are lively and full of pleasant sensations. The only minor flaw is that the lyrics in quite a few number of tracks venture off into tangents, which makes it seem that Lil Boi and Louie are trying to desperately incorporate rap jargons that aren’t needed. The tracks in the album all go together and the composition is formulaic. Without a doubt one of the stronger hip-hop album releases. “Wash Away” featuring Ailee is a gem.

16. Lucia (심규선) – 꽃그늘 (Flower Shade)
2013.04.18 / Ballad, Indie, Folk / Pastel Music [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: 사과꽃 (Apple Blossom), 그런 계절 (That Kind of Season), 담담하게 (Calm)

I was very excited about this 5-track EP release and wondered how this one would stack up against her first album, Décalcomanie. Coming from Pastel Music, one of the finer labels in the Korean indie scene, Flower Shade does not disappoint. While Décalcomanie had a more of a enchanting sound and disney-esque instrumental usage, Flower Shade withdraws itself from all that jazz and redundancy. Lucia’s releases are always personal but here, the emotional restraint is more evident along with melodies that are more haunting. Instrumental-wise, the tracks derive a lot from each other and collectively carry a singular sentiment. They are also more of a second thought here as the focus is mainly on Lucia’s vocals, which are captivating as always.

15. Zion.T - Red Light
2013.04.09 / Hip-hop, R&B / Amoeba Culture [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: 뻔한 멜로디 (Two Melodies), Click Me

By now, we’ve all become acclimated with Zion.T and his style of singing. Red Light initially came off as very expected and underwhelming. The arrangements felt very basic and the repetitive lyrics unoriginal. At first listen, I only liked the track with Crush and the 2013 reprisal of an older track, “Click Me.” It took a while before I was impressed by the body of work and even now, I’m not completely sold. My opinion changed after I saw how difficult it is incorporating melodies within electronica. The instrumentals used in Red Light are mainly electronic, with a slight TOKiMONSTA edge to them and seeing Zion.T take a stab and succeeding at mixing well-developed melodies overwhelmed me. As far as the lyrics go, I’ll take them to be characteristic of Zion.T and his eccentric nature.

14. 피노다인 (Pinodyne) - PINOcchio
2013.04.02 / Hip-hop / Hi-Lite Records [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: 쓰다 (To Write), 벽 (Wall)

PINOcchio is highly polished and in that regard, one of the more thoughtful hip-hop album released the first half of the year. It seems like a complete throwback rap album and the improvement from their first album PINOvation is noticeable. Soul Fish and Huckleberry P rap effortlessly and the release seems something out of the ordinary, with its easy-going style and unassuming front. There are no hidden intentions here. The featured artists also contribute a lot, especially Ven with his soulful voice in what can only be said to be best track.

13. 클래지콰이 (Clazziquai Project) – Blessed
2013.02.05 / Electronica / Fluxus [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: Blessed, Brown Gold Eyes, 여전히 (Still)

Blessed contains some very neat sets of instrumentals by DJ Clazzi, and makes the job of providing vocals easy for the other two member vocalists of Clazziquai Project. Alex and Horan’s vocals are ridiculously soft and the delicate treatment makes the experience a dreamy fusion of synth pop and indie melodies. There are also instances of angst present. The abundance of indie type of tracks is what makes this album stand out. “Brown Gold Eyes” is unbelievably smooth and a pure pleasure to listen to. The fillers are there, an album that has something to offer at every turn. What an uplifting release and bless whoever thought up the album art!

12. 샤이니 (SHINee) – The 3rd Album Chapter 1. ‘Dream Girl - The Misconceptions Of You’
2013.02.19 / Dance / SM Entertainment [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

SHINee has had an eventful year, to say the least. If there’s one thing the many releases did, it made their color more apparent and stand out. Their prominent genre of choice, an EDM fueled drive with sharp melodic turns makes the first chapter of their 3rd album memorable. The intro “Spoiler” begins much like “Sherlock” and performs its job perfectly summing up the entire release. Lyrical foreshadowing included! It’s great how each one of the tracks stand out and the beats are especially unique. “Dream Girl” is undoubtedly the force of the album and the best title track among a bunch SHINee released, the chorus is especially a treat. The vocalist hold their own and give a strong performance. This one was definitely one of the best boy group album released last year.

11. 솔튼페이퍼 (Saltnpaper) - Saltnpaper
2013.04.15 / Folk, Rock / Dream Factory Club [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: 모자 (Hat), Autumn

Saltnpaper, known previously as MYK, whom Epik High fans might be familiar with makes a u-turn with this self-titled personal production. Saltnpaper sheds his rapper persona with the help of popular musician and producer Lee Seung Hwan. The album feels authentic and sincere with its fusion of indie folk and rock. Tablo reaches out with a feature on “LoveStrong,” where the rappers trade lines on a track that is underwhelming but nonetheless a decent listen. There’s no doubt about the amount of effort MYK put in and in his consequent releases, I expect improvements, in the form of more creative verses and intricate beats. MYK is fluent in his delivery and that is made distinguishable by “Hat,” which is an inspiring track and a breath of fresh air.

10. 이하이 (Lee Hi) – First Love
2013.03.28 / R&B/Soul / YG Entertainment [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Those who read the review for First Love should already be familiar with the amount of adoration I had for this release. It wasn’t so much about the tracks themselves but just how they collectively stacked up to form a credible and authentic tracklist. At the same time, it’s the effect of Lee Hi as a budding vocalist that carries the album beyond and till this day, makes this one of the best debut albums. The emergence has been remarkable and the many YG producers that worked on this album have a big hand in the aftereffects. For once, there were no gimmicky tracks and everything felt timeless and singular because of it. There’s some clear distinct tracks, and many of them stay true to its form, be it Soul, Jazz or Indie.

9. 임헌일 (Lim Heon-il) - 사랑이 되어가길 (Into Love)
2013.06.04 / Rock / Neowiz Internet [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Lim Heon-il of rock band Mate has an intriguing voice and uses that methodically as he proceeds through the tracks in Into Love. There’s also a vulnerable side to his voice and in various tracks that can be classified as rock-ballads, it shows. The album doesn’t quite live up to the expectation set by the beginning track “다시, 시작 (Start, Again)” because the others beside it don’t explore the rock sound intricately as much and stay slow. The lyrics offer hope and in “은혜 (Grace),” the rocker diverts and sings about God, which is quite odd for a rock release like this. The diamond in the rough mentality of many tracks are enjoyable and the production atmosphere highly contagious.

8. 박새별 (Park Sae-byul) - 하이힐 (High Heel)
2013.05.28 / Ballad, Rock / Antenna Music [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

High Heel may be a bit overrated in terms of its musicality but with its procession doesn’t disappoint. It’s a bit out of ordinary and dated in terms of the sound it incorporates but not without its charms. There’s no track that stands out from the rest but overall, it’s solid and hard to figure out. There are definitely disney-esque sounds Park Sae-byul makes use of but it’s not in any way messy or excessive. It’s actually quite the opposite, the simplicity of the piano rolls along with jazzy chords is what makes High Heel unique along with Park Sae-byul’s sweet vocals. “사라지는 것들 (Things That Disappear)” makes quite the impression and is a memorable one with its calming tunes.

7. 넬 (Nell) – Escaping Gravity
2013.06.10 / Rock / Woollim Entertainment [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: Ocean of Light, Haven

Escaping Gravity can precisely be described by the sequence of its leading track, “Boy-X.” The beginning keynote sets out the chord progression of the entire track to become highly predictable. The songs themselves are highly individualized and therefore appealing yet, certain striking parts are unattractive with too many effects. Nell seems to be going through a phase where they are trying new things, such as partially relying on electronic synthesizers. Slip Away and Holding Onto Gravity did hint at the change and it takes its full form here. “Ocean of Light” and “Haven” are the best out the experimental bunch. It’s not that the EP is low-quality, just that anything short of extraordinary coming from Nell is surprising.

6. 오지은 (Oh Ji-eun) - 3
2013.05.14 / Rock, Indie / Happy Robot Records [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: 고작 (Merely)

Oh Ji-eun with 3 shows how there are no bounds for those with passion equipped with the right mindset. The tracks are full of themselves, in a good way and brimming with confidence. That makes the ballad of Oh Ji-eun different from the usual sentimental ones. The core instrumental is stable enough that it allows Oh Ji-eun to propel lively verses filled with high-octane passion and energy. Even when the beats get gloomy, Oh Ji-eun's commanding voice and eloquent delivery keep the tracks level-headed. 3 is perfect for slow days and quiet contemplations and brings to mind someone resting by the fireplace doing productive work.

5. 디어 클라우드 (Dear Cloud) - Let It Shine
2013.04.24 / Rock / MY Music [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: See The Light, 12, U, Polaris

Dear Cloud continues their streak of upbeat and jubilant releases with Let It Shine. This side of emotional emergence is welcome and Dear Cloud makes perfect use of it here, with triumphant beats and meditative guitars. The album feels of the moment and therefore the ambience, though slightly idealistic, doesn't feel excessive. Nine9 makes a mark with the aura of her voice and leads perfectly as the front-woman. Let It Shine has something for everyone and is heartwarming and inspiring.  Let It Shine comes close to being the perfect album and is one with a filler. It's just that good, and goes a long way in showing Dear Cloud's allure and magnetic charisma.

4. 선우정아 (Sunwoo Jungah) - It’s Okay, Dear
2013.04.02 / R&B, Soul / Magic Strawberry Sound [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: 주인공의 노래 (The Song of Hero), 뱁새 (Baepsae), 비온다 (It’s Raining)

Prior to this, Sunwoo Jungah had already made quite the splash with her production work with YG artists and was most notably involved in Lee Hi’s debut album First Love. The savvy vocalist has a soulful exterior but her style is definitely funky to the core. It’s not everyday you hear poppy jazzy beats coupled with soft verses but those are the best parts of It’s Okay, Dear. Never has the genre sounded this good in Korea. There’s a wide array of rich instrumentals used here with all of them distinctive and full of live. “주인공의 노래 (The Song of Hero)” and 뱁새 (Baepsae)” borrow much from each other yet have individual charms that shine and it’s Sunwoo Jungah at her best with soft vocal sets.

3. 옥상달빛 (Dalmoon) - Where
2013.05.06 / Indie, Soft Rock / Magic Strawberry Sound [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: 괜찮습니다 (It’s Okay), 유서 (Last Will), 히어로 (Hero), 하얀 (White)

The duo’s literal translation would be Rooftop Moonlight but they are known by Dalmoon and Okdal as well. Their name confusion aside, they are one of the premier indie duo in punching out new tunes every year. The core element of their music hasn’t changed and the discography reflects that but their tunes are getting more mature. The sound of Where is distinguishingly natural but the emotional dialogues are still candid as ever. “하얀 (White)” is the demonstrative track here and secures the bottom line here poignantly just like how “정말 고마워서 만든 노래 (The Song I Wrote Out of Thanks)” captured the essence with an emotional overture in their last album 28.

2. 권순관 (Kwon Soon-kwan) – A Door
2013.04.11 / Ballad, Rock / Happy Robot Records [Listen to the Album]

Favorite tracks: Home Again, 그렇게 웃어줘 (Just Smile Like That), Keep Going

Kwon Soon Kwan of No Reply, who goes by moment just because he can, swayed us all to his side with A Door. The contradiction within the album begins with the tunes used, which are glistening yet the melody and lyrics are melancholy and partly somber, as evident by the lyrics of “그렇게 웃어줘 (Just Smile Like That).” The vocalist's voice is monotone yet strikingly attractive and soft. All in all, the release is charming and the instrumentals are beautiful.

1. 한희정 (Han Hee-jung) - 날마다 타인 (Everyday Stranger)
2013.06.05 / Indie, Rock / Pastel Music [Listen to the Album]
[Buy: iTunes, YesAsia]

Favorite tracks: 나는 너를 본다 (I See You), 날마다 타인 (Everyday Stranger), 흙 (Soil)

Let me begin with the album art, which is deserving of its own accolade. Everyday Stranger is what every artist would dream of releasing. It’s got an intriguing of sounds that Han Hee Jung makes perfect use of. The result is an ecstasy inducing experience that makes this album stand out. There's sounds Han Hee Jung has previously never experimented with in her features and it's gratifying just having the chance to listen to the tracks.

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