Red Velvet—one of the break out groups of 2015
Maybe it was all a nightmare. After the phantasmagoric horrors of yesteryear, 2015 has seemed like a stroll in the park for K-pop. The specters of bloodletting litigation, occupational fatalities, and time-stopping national tragedy continue to fade from mind, as the Korean pop landscape settles back into the familiar appearance—at least on the surface—of morning calm. Even B.A.P., the boy band who last year filed a nullification suit over a battery of human rights violations, patched things up with their company and returned to showbiz as usual, asking their fans to join them in suddenly forgetting the whole thing ever happened.
Which is the illusion? There’s a smart bet to be made, maybe, but only time can tell. Meanwhile, the massive apparatus behind Asia’s favorite modern fantasy has been able to shift its kilowatts back to the art of music. And it’s shown: 2015 was easily the best calendar-long case for the K-pop art form in at least three years. Eager to make up for the prior lost time, Seoul’s several dozen agencies put on a competitive parade of songs, choreographies, videos, artworks, and accoutrements. It seemed like practically every active group in the industry made a comeback, if not several. And while a few big names squandered their stake in all the momentum going ‘round, 2015’s highlight reel suggests there’s plenty of gas left in a tank that sometimes felt like it was getting light in recent years. In fact, there’s arguably never been a better time than now in K-pop, for diehards and latecomers alike.
Perhaps the year’s most significant takeaway has been the sharp uptick in artists and companies able to adapt K-pop’s explosive immediacy to a more westerner-friendly, album-length experience. With the industry’s traditional one-shot approach to pile-driving absurd investments of talent, time, and capital into standalone song-choreo-video-“concept” gesamtkunst-bursts, the Korean market has always been a singles game far beyond casual spectators’ comprehension. And while that innovation is Korea’s surest claim to global pop history, the Seoul scene’s increasing interests in pairing those meticulous song-scale visions with equally considered EP and album statements are what’s likeliest to attract the western textbook committee’s serious attention in the first place.
SM Entertainment, after a scandalous and embattled 2014, did the most work to emphasize the scope of their philosophy and talent over the past twelve months. Its release schedule brimmed on a monthly basis: they are still the only company apparently unconcerned by the idea of their own idols competing with each other on the charts (a tactical folly known as a “team kill,” the etymology of which traces back to Korea’s obsession with online multi-player games like Counter-Strike). f(x)’s excellent 4 Walls earned the most English-language (and Korean) acclaim, with its sophisticated song structures, deftly re-imagined 2-step and electro-pop production, and its deeply felt meditations on loss and perseverance following an original fifth member’s departure last year.
Given how f(x) has released two albums at least as adventurous and accomplished in the preceding two years, acclaim for another winner comes as little surprise. But they were arguably trumped this year by their younger labelmates Red Velvet, whose debut album The Red makes a strong contender for the pop LP of 2015. Boiling over with daredevil song forms, harmonies richer and smarter than anything on western dials in a quarter-century, and nonstop virtuoso songsmith hooks—without so much as a single English inflection out of place—it's perhaps the strongest top-to-bottom K-pop album to date. It doesn’t hurt that an earlier-in-the-year EP’s singles “Ice Cream Cake” and “Automatic” are equally worthy of the record books.
SM’s oddball boy group SHINee had a strong year, too: Married to the Music’s 54 minutes overflowed with pitch-perfect house-pop crossovers, song-and-dance Off The Wall tributes that could make a grown Bruno Mars cry, and delectably strange, multi-genre pop masterworks (…and, OK, a couple K-ballad clunkers). Lead vocalist, songwriter, and producer Jonghyun also put out a strong solo album and EP, which showcased his deep understanding of R&B as a form to be both finessed and fucked with (plus one incredible live cover of a cover). Meanwhile, megagroup EXO—who lost another Chinese member to contract poachers earlier this year—turned in a remarkably focused album in Exodus, foregoing SM’s uniquely left-field experiments with contemporary pop templates in favor of the best update on R&B-based boy band pop since its circa 2000 heyday. Elsewhere, rallying after star member Jessica’s full-time switch to her budding high-ish fashion empire last year, Girls’ Generation, made a scattershot manifesto with their fifth album Lion Heart, but highlights like the new jack swung “Check” (penned by Teddy Riley himself), primetime Mariah jam “Talk Talk,” and probable f(x) off-cut “Sign,” show it’d be silly not to keep an ear out for them yet.
Of K-pop’s formative “big three” labels, JYP had the most surprising year. For a couple years the once-buoyant bubblegum R&B powerhouse seemed stuck beneath sea level, frequently sounding outdated and underfunded—perhaps thanks to the malaise that followed flagship act Wonder Girls’ long, loss-heavy campaigns in America. But 2015 put them back near the top, with a slew of domestic hits and strong records. Miss A’s Colors EP stirred vibrant concoctions out of winding Korean melodies and a broad palette of contemporary pop styles, while the handsome septet GOT7 at last made good on their potential with Just Right, a confident stride into experimental pop territory far removed from JYP’s usual comfort zones. Perhaps least expected was Wonder Girls’ reconfiguration as a four-piece live band (teaser of the year, by the way), who co-wrote a shockingly consistent and committed late 80s pop album (faithful all the way down to the vocal production). Reboot’s best track might well be its Miami freestyle lead single “I Feel You,” but the album’s impressively high yield suggests a second renaissance for the group, should they and their label continue to put in the work on their transformation.
After their inarguable dominance of 2014, YG finds itself looking back on a more laidback year. Without question, their main event was Big Bang’s first studio material in over three years (a K-pop lifetime), which took the form of a summer marathon across eight smash singles (peaking artistically with the psychedelic alt-rock/trap/country-pop/reggaeton hydra “Bae Bae,” and in terms of sheer weirdness with the even more polycephalous “Bang Bang Bang”). 2NE1 star CL’s American advancement was another highlight, her latest maneuver being the worldbeat banger “Hello Bitches” (which we recently premiered). Otherwise, YG kept pretty quiet: Winner’s second album has been pushed to early next year, a promised Big Bang album built around their many singles has yet to materialize, and debut boy band iKON’s album has been split into delayed EP halves, while the label’s new girl group spent a third year of being just around the corner. Granted, it makes sense given YG’s banner 2014 that they might have a lighter year before laying it on thick again come January.
Beyond these three, FNC Entertainment probably had the best run from a business perspective: endorsement queens AOA have been inescapable all year long in any Korean space big enough to fit an ad, and the label just received an absolutely ludicrous $290 million investment from Chinese wealth machines. But in aesthetic terms, many others fared better. Lim Kim, a 21-year-old singer-songwriter on the Mysitc89 roster, had one of the year’s best EPs with Simple Mind, anchored by the Koreanized future-pop classic “Awoo.” Even then, she was outmatched by her label mate Ga-In. The 28-year-old, decade-long veteran of the industry has gradually carved out a uniquely empowered, and empowering, niche in the Korean pop consciousness. After racking up a number of masterful, status quo-challenging singles in a climate of dismal gender inequality—including the chilling partner rape portrait “FxxK U,” our song of 2014—she turned her attention this year to Hawwah, a concept EP about Eve and the fall of man. Highlights include the Edenic romp “Apple” (below), “The First Temptation” in all its sultry splendor, and the industrial, redemptive churn of “Paradise Lost.” Throughout, Ga-In and her team cleverly subvert sexist notions as old as the good book itself, adding generously to a body of work that has been challenging the social boundaries of pop music—especially those often expected of female musicians—for years now.
Cube Entertainment had a busy year, the best returns on which were 4minute’s bold reinvention (detailed in our feature interview), and seasoned boy band Beast’s overlooked Ordinary EP, which came through with one of the most cacophonous, nihilistic pop salvos ever fired as a lead single. In a pop market that encourages tireless trend-chasing, often to scattered results, Beast is the rare group to have honed a distinctive, consistent voice across their self-composed, self-produced discography—especially one of such dark, measured tones.
Granted, nobody does “underrated” like girl group Rainbow. The persistent septet has been a steady fount of electro-pop gold since 2009 (their gloriously unhinged “Kiss Me” was a 2013 favorite), but still hasn’t made a dent in the Korean market. February’s Innocent EP made for the most unfortunate oversight yet, a thankless six-song triumph that runs the gamut from Paisley Park to the affectless Euro-pop hypnosis PC Music keeps recreating. Similarly slept-on was the fresh-faced eight-piece Oh My Girl’s second EP of the year, Closer. The title track was a quiet storm of trancey dream-pop (with one of the most inspired choreographies of the year), and the other four tracks were across-the-board winners, like the track above—a joyously mathed up complication of first album Ariana. Along with the equally promising 13-dude platoon Seventeen, they’re the top rookies to follow next year.
It remains to be seen whether the tumult of 2014 will return, or if this year’s even keel will continue apace. Likewise, it’s too early to tell if K-pop’s recent commitment to trim, cohesive releases has been a happy accident or a signal of what’s to come. But if nothing else, 2015 proved that such albums don’t need to be outliers. If Korean agencies and their talent can maintain their focus and rapport, then this next year will be the one.