2015 Picks: The State of K-Pop

Last year when I wrapped up my Best of 2014 I said that K-pop had reached the end of an era—which also meant that this year would see the entire industry move forward. Move forward it did. K-pop stepped up in terms of music, talent, and diversity in 2015. It wasn’t as obvious over the course of the year as it was all happening—but after spending the previous week listening to (most of) this year’s major releases in an attempt to put together my top 50, I realized that 2015 was an amazing year for K-pop. Probably the best I’ve ever witnessed.

I say this because as I was ranking my Top 50, songs I wanted in my top 10 didn’t even reach the top 20, and songs that would have been in the lower parts of my chart during previous years didn’t even make the cut. I make difficult decisions on my Top 50 every year, but I had to be especially ruthless in my choices this year.

I think this is because of two factors—production quality has gone up, and the industry is more sonically diverse. K-Pop’s production standards have always been high, but I think as the years go by production isn’t so much about spending the most money or using the newest technology, but about learning how to use technology to achieve certain sounds. Vocal processing is more sophisticated and is becoming less and less obvious to the casual listener, the whole retro movement has gone beyond melodies and into arrangement and over-all sound. And second, because of this more musical, more organic, approach to production, K-Pop is expanding its sound. Of course the classics are still around—the innocent girl group, the intense boy band, the drama OST ballads—but they’re more refined, and even these classics are getting fresh new approaches. The bottom line is that there’s a lot more variety in K-pop—the “pop” in K-Pop is no longer confined to just one specific style or flavor of the month, but a broad term for anything that’s popular to mainstream audiences.

A new era doesn’t just mean new sounds and refined sensibilities, but also new faces. If there’s one thing I was most pleasantly surprised at with this year’s Top 50, it’s the abundance of rookie groups. Of course there have been many great rookie groups in the past, but strong debuts were rare and only a handful made it to my Top 50. There are SEVEN rookie acts in the Top 50 this year, TWO of them in my Top 10. As far as I remember, this has never happened before. And of course, a valuable clue about this year’s #1 song. Usually the acts who make it to #1 are more seasoned (DBSK, Younha), but this year’s #1 song is by a relatively young act.

Honestly, I welcome the change—I haven’t been as enthusiastic about K-Pop in recent years because I’ve been craving for fresher, more dynamic sounds. While veteran groups have had outstanding releases, and K-Pop has maintained a certain standard, things weren't as exciting. But with the emergence of several noteworthy rookie groups who debuted with guns blazing, as well as K-pop veterans who have proved to be skillful enough to move with the times, I’m excited for more new sounds executed at the level of technical proficiency K-Pop is at right now. Let my 2015 picks be a testament to dynamism and freshness that mark the beginning of a new era.

For basic qualification rules and other details, see the rules part of my 2014 Picks introduction post.


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