Best of Kpop 2010
If 2009 was the year of American crossovers, 2010 was definitely the year of scandal and bad music. Not that there isn’t always bad music in Kpop, but there seems much more of the bad this year than good. Still, not all was drab, there were some releases that felt nice and different.
I can’t complain about the dramas. I watched a buttload of dramas this year and it was a pretty satisfying year of dramas. It wasn’t all great, but there was enough good all around to make this a pretty decent year in dramaland.
This post will be divided up into music and dramas, though I concentrate mostly on music, since I will go much more in-depth for dramas in my upcoming monstrous review post.
SONG OF THE YEAR
S.M. the Ballad’s “Hot Times”
I was ready to admit defeat and give up on 2010 music…until this sweetamazinggorgeousbaby song came along. It will probably not be given the attention it deserves, but this is easily the best song of the year for me. The song is strong, simple, and clear. To me, Kpop consists of two extreme ends of the spectrum — either it has a tendency to go all out, or it’s positively soporific. What Kpop needs to do in order to progress is to go back to the basics. Minimalize. Strip everything to its foundation.
And this song fits all that, to a T. The idea is so simple it’s almost laughable — take some of the best singers you have, give them a song that both requires and shows off their amazing singing abilities. That’s it. No complicated “concept.” No “hook” chorus. No repetitive dance. Simple and to the point. So easy on the ears and so powerful at the same time. This song is a complete winner for me.
VIDEO OF THE YEAR
TOP’s “Turn it Up”
To be perfectly honest, I don’t love this song because it’s so one note, but this video draws me in every single time I watch it. I have to watch it from beginning to end every time. This video is my pick for video of the year because it’s sharp, simple, and in black and white. None of these are crazy concepts, but I love how arrogant and accomplished the final product is. Like, yes I’m going to make a black and white video using one set, yes I’m going to have a monkey in it, and yes I’m going to dance like a penguin, but guess what? I’m still a bigger badass motherfucker than you will ever be, so eat my shit.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
There really is none. There wasn’t a single album or mini-album that I loved so much that I had to marvel at how good it is. There are a bunch of decent albums — BoA’s “Hurricane Venus,” 2AM’s “잘못했어,” Taeyang’s “Solar,” but at the end of the day, none of them were great.
I think this speaks to a more general problem with Kpop that’s becoming rampant nowadays: the disregard of the album. There are so many groups out at any given time that companies have no choice but to push their groups to comeback every 2-3 months, which not only renders the word “comeback” completely meaningless, but means that products get shittier and shittier. With the need to come back so quickly, there can’t possibly be time to actually sit down and create an album, which I’m sure takes a lot of time and money. So instead, you get shorter and shorter albums, more filler tracks, less quality.
And then off every promotional mini-album there’s maybe one or two good tracks, and the rest don’t sound like the lead singles at all in terms of style, or they just suck. What the hell?! Maybe this is why the Korean music industry is a dwindling piece of crap. Maybe everybody needs to stop obsessing with quick output and concentrate on better product, which in the long term brings in a bigger audience and a less obsessive fanbase. You can only do so much by relying on your constantly loyal small group of fans, because it seems like the casual listener just doesn’t exist in Korea. You either like this band, or you like another band. You don’t casually discover something.
I think somebody in Korea HAS to recognize this as a problem, because they can’t possibly not be wondering why the Korean market is so pathetically small relative to how rich the nation is, and why everybody’s outsourcing their talents to Japan and America. There is something WRONG with the whole music structure and it just gets worse and worse with every manic desire to pump out a new group and reap any profits to cover their losses from training dungeons and dungeons filled with trainees.
DANCE OF THE YEAR
After School’s “Bang”
There was no dance that particularly stood out to me, and I don’t like that most of the award shows so far have pretty much ignored a good majority of girl groups, always in favor of boy bands, and not half the stuff nominated should even ever be considered, like 2PM’s “I’ll Be Back” dance. That being said, I think After School’s “Bang” has great choreography. I like that they stuck to this concept and went all the way with it — meaning they didn’t half-ass it. They didn’t just use the marching band image as a concept, they actually incorporated it into the dance to make it legitimate.
After School isn’t a group full of natural dancers, but they always get great choreography and everything is executed extremely well. The moves are tight, visually it looks great, and the moves “make sense” when I watch the girls dance. I’m not a dancer, only a consumer of pop dancing, but I think you can definitely tell when a dance just doesn’t make sense. The song itself wasn’t a great song, and the structure of it was weird — the bridge is so unfitting — but it made for great live performances.
DEBUT OF THE YEAR
Miss A, easy. Everything I’ve liked about Kpop this year has been all about being LOW-KEY. This debut nearly had no hype, no concept. Just a song, a dance, and four amazingly well-rounded girls. No back-up dancers, no flashy outfits (though not wearing a big diaper would’ve been nice). The song is not the best, but it’s a grower. I think as Kpop gets more and more saturated, it’s important to prove that even when you strip away all the frills, you’ve still got skills (unintentionally lame rhyme).
MOST ANNOYING SONG
Man, I tried to like this song. I thought maybe the choreography could save it. I even had it on my playlist for a couple of weeks. But there’s no doubt about it — this song is one of the most annoying songs of the year. I don’t think it’s a bad song, and I do think there’s a distinction between bad songs and annoying songs, but this song is annoying.
First, why is this entire song a climax? The worst thing about it is that it’s basically one annoying shout that pretty much persists throughout the entire duration of the song. There’s no story, no ebb and flow. IT’SJUSTONELONGSHOUTLUCIFERLUCIFERSHOUTSHOUTSHOUTLUCIFERLUCIFER. It drives me fucking insane.
And a second part to is that hardcore SHINee fans are really, truly annoying. I used to subscribe to the school of thought that you should be able to enjoy Kpop separate from the fans, but it’s really not possible to do that as an international English-speaking fan. All the resources that international fans rely on ultimately pool together in a few niche spots on the net, which means that most of the international fandom relies on those few places for all Kpop news and information. When you have so few resources, it becomes inevitable that you run into the same people over and over again. In that, it’s inevitable to have a group of fans ruin your experience of a group.
That’s like me telling you that for this holiday season, the entirety of New York can only shop at Macy’s, H&M and Gap at Herald Square. ONLY those stores. It doesn’t make any sense at all that you should just separate yourself from all those other shoppers and experience your shopping experience as its own entity, because it’s not possible if all of NY has to share your resources. The same thing goes for Kpop. I want to go into these spots on the net for information about the general Kpop sphere, but if I have to deal with ridiculous SHINee fans day in and day out, even if I try to ignore them, they will spill over. And that’s what happened with this comeback. So my dislike for “Lucifer” is two-fold.
MOST DISAPPOINTING COMEBACK
I didn’t have the highest of hopes for this comeback, but even then, this was a lame comeback. I generally really like Se7en. I like his voice and I love the way he dances. But, truth be told, I always thought he got the weakest stuff in YG. Even in the height of his glory days, which I think would be during “Passion” and “La La La,” I felt his music wasn’t really strong. I don’t think this is a reflection of the production going on at YG at his time, because even now, with Taeyang and Se7en promoting almost side-by-side, you can see the differences in their music. I know that Taeyang’s image has always been “harder” than Se7en’s, but even with past hits like “Look Only At Me” and “Wedding Dress,” they were definitely some of the softer songs that Taeyang got, and even then there was some weight to his songs.
Se7en’s songs seem to always coast on an uncertain beat, and it just doesn’t feel strong enough to me. That’s why I felt “Better Together” was a little lacking. It’s a decent song, and definitely grew on me as I listened to it more, but it wasn’t mindblowing at all in any sense. And the fact that he couldn’t scrape together more than a mini-album after a 4 year absence from Korea is really telling of where YG’s priorities lie…which doesn’t even make sense because YG is managing two groups, one that was not active and has not been active for the past two years at the time of Se7en’s comeback, and two solo performers. Um. No excuse.
LADY OF THE YEAR
Dude, this woman was everywhere! f(x)’s comeback for NU ABO was a launching pad for a host of other things, which include her stint on “Invincible Youth” and then “We Got Married.” Victoria’s got several things going for her that makes her so popular with the audiences, 1) she’s the exotic Chinese one, 2) she can do splits and stretches like you have no idea, 3) she’s got an odd personality, this so-called 4D-ness, 4) she’s gorgeous. I’m sure #4 was the most important part in elevating her success, but as a legit pop star, she’s not the best. She won’t ever be able to sing, and I know she’s supposed to be a good dancer, but SM hasn’t really let her show that off yet.
She’s a good person to have as a regular on a variety show because they will ALWAYS use her Chineseness as a running joke, and her odd personality makes for good, random moments when you’ve got an ensemble cast. She doesn’t wow you in a way that alienates people with her popularity (which I think happens a lot with Yoona and Taecyeon) and she isn’t completely forgettable (like Sori and Ju-yeon on Invincible Youth), so she’s a great in-between. Plus, the older people on variety shows LOVE her (Kim Tae-woo on IY, and every old person on WGM, lol).
GENT OF THE YEAR
Even my bias aside, Song Joong-ki has had a phenom year. He started the year off with a minor role in Will It Snow for Christmas, then got a part in OBGYN and then just wrapped up Sungkyunkwan Scandal. That’s two full dramas for the year, which is pretty damn good. Neither one of those were leading roles, but he played an important enough a role, and added more to his resume.
Aside from that, he’s been the host of KBS’ Music Bank for a solid year-ish now (does anybody know when exactly he started?) and was added as a permanent guest on SBS’ Running Man. By default of being host of Music Bank means that he is just at the center of a lot of what goes on in Kpop, and then his foot into variety shows is something for the older audience in Korea. He’s got it ALL COVERED, ladies and gents. This is definitely the most popular he’s ever been since his debut, and I’m sure he will go on to do even more things next year, which includes a movie with Han Ye-seul. I can’t wait!
DRAMA OF THE YEAR
This was a tie between “Cinderella’s Sister” and “Secret Garden,” but I simply couldn’t call it so quickly for SG because only half the show has aired.
Like I said earlier, I watched a lot of dramas this year — good, bad, horrible, mediocre. Despite the fact that CS did not turn out the way I wanted to in the final quarter, this is still one of the best dramas I’ve watched in the years I’ve been watching Kdramas. The characters were all compelling and nobody was written in just for the sake of creating drama. Sometimes, I feel that a lot of characters in Korean dramas might as well not exist if not for the fact that they serve as shallow obstacles for our main characters, but I like that each character had their own backstory and their own dreams and desires, however selfish or selfless. If the mom wasn’t the way she was, the stubborn daughter wouldn’t be the way she was, she wouldn’t have the childhood friend she had, who wouldn’t have met the competing love interest, who was the older brother figure to the rice wine factory’s daughter, who was raised by the single dad, who will act as the much-needed dad to the stubborn daughter. See what I mean?
This story was in no way perfect, as I’ve complained how horribly disappointed I was in the second half of the drama. But still, this was an intensely interesting character study, and part of why I’m so attached to this drama is because of how strong the two female leads were in this story. This was, de facto, Moon Geun-young and Seo-woo’s drama. This was not Moon Geun-young and Chung Jung-myung’s drama. This was the two actresses’ drama, and neither one of them are the straight-laced, squickly types that Korea so loves, which in turn made me love them even more.
I’ll get more into this drama for my drama post, but this drama was 2010 for me.
ACTOR OF THE YEAR
Kim Jae Wook
What a break-out actor of the year. Who knew Waffle Prince had it in him? (I really hate that nickname, by the way.)
I don’t think anyone expected him to be as good as he was in “Bad Guy,” and he certainly was the single most compelling element in that drama. He was dark and he was playful. There’s no doubt how much more he added to his character, because the relative lack-of-depth for most of the other characters in this story proved to me that he couldn’t have just been a special case. He made that role his, and I respect that for someone who came into the industry by way of being a looker.
And now in “Mary,” he is definitely on the softer end of the spectrum, which is not unwelcome if not for the fact my hate for the drama. There are some moments of downright cuteness that makes me feel really awkward because I expect him to be angry and intense all the time, so I guess he’s got range, eh? So he’s good at what he does, and he’s a looker. What’s not to win?
Runner-up: Song Joong-ki
ACTRESS OF THE YEAR
She’s kind of in a similar vein to Kim Jae-wook, now that I think about it, in terms of the characters they had to play. She started the year off with one of the best Kdrama performances I’ve ever seen as Eun-jo in “Cinderella’s Sister,” and now is ending the year with whimsical boho Mary in “Mary Stayed Out All Night.” The contrast is huge and it’s so unsettling because how can one actress play such vastly different characters? I think it’s a testament to how much skill she has. On top of that, she appeared in the stage production of “Closer,” and while I have no way of verifying how she did in that, I don’t expect anything less than great. Certain people are meant for certain things, and Moon Geun-young is definitely meant to give life to characters and create a story for viewers to watch.
I know that prior to “Cinderella’s Sister,” Moon wasn’t in a lot of drama productions, but I do hope she continues to do at least a drama a year because she’s too talented to not always be exploring and pushing her own boundaries by playing more and more characters. I can say with confidence she’s easily the best actress within her age group, and better than a lot of actresses who are older and more established than her. She’s definitely a national treasure.
Runner-up: Kim So-yeon
Have to give a shout-out to Kim So-yeon because she’s my homegirl. She ended last year as a hardass North Korean spy in “Iris,” and then transitioned almost immediately into the girly, frilly “Prosecutor Princess,” which I thought was a really lackluster drama with few heartfelt moments. Nonetheless, there was also a huge image change, and then she jumped into “Dr. Champ,” which just wrapped up not too long ago. With Kim, I feel she is as good as her material is, which is to say that she can’t necessarily make badly written characters shine. Ma Hae-ri in “Prosecutor” was horribly written and incredibly blah, and even she couldn’t help that. There was definitely more edge to her Kim Yeon-woo in “Dr. Champ,” and I think Kim So-yeon definitely had it in her to up the ante as required in that drama. So you win some and you lose some with Kim, but she’s definitely had a fruitful and ambitious 2010.
SOUNDTRACK OF THE YEAR
This was a great soundtrack. I think that instrumental soundtracks are usually superior to pop-filled ones, because instrumental ones help you draw an image of a story. That, and the music directors on most pop soundtracks have 0 taste. It’s always the worst mish-mash of songs EVER. (“Boys Over Flowers” soundtrack, anyone?)
CS’ soundtrack had an element of fairytale whimsy for the scenes that required it, and then the slower, more thoughtful songs for the darker scenes. There is a progression and a story in the soundtrack, outside of the drama, which just goes to show the kind of preparation that went into this production. To top it off, there’s “It Has to be You,” the only time I’ve ever liked Yehsung’s singing. I don’t like overly dramatic theme songs, and this one was just a tiny notch away from being over dramatic, which to me means it was just right.
SOUNDTRACK SONGS OF THE YEAR
Cinderella’s Sister’s “Minor Waltz”
and Baek Ji-young’s “That Woman”
I just couldn’t narrow it down to one song, so there you go. I love “Minor Waltz” as a song for the drama soundtrack, and as a song by itself. When I listen to it, my heart just hurts. I like the build-up in the song: soft-single piano notes, which eventually swells and swells into strings before it dies back into single piano notes, and then makes the final leap back into strings. This song was always used so beautifully in the scenes of the drama, which always captured a desire to run and run and run in silence and solitude, which I think reflected Eun-jo’s character perfectly.
Baek Ji-young’s contribution to “Secret Garden” surprised me, because though she has been an OST queen for the past year and a half (with songs for Iris and Ja Myung Go), I’ve never loved her songs. But this one! This one is perfection. I love this song not the way it’s used in the drama, but for the lyrics and the way the lyrics are sung. There’s such an interesting structure to the way Baek says the words in the first three lines that matches the rigid tempo. The extremely polite speech with the stark piano notes makes the song even sadder, like the person who’s doing the loving is prepared to take it on as a lifelong duty, and is reporting to the parent of the lover that he will do his best until he dies. All of this is how I interpret the song, of course, but the beginning of the song really makes it for me.
Runner-up: Lee Sun-hee’s “Fox Rain”
Phew! Drama review coming up soon-ish.