The songs that made me want to write about pop

We all have driving forces, and more specifically, for music fans and critics, there's always "that song", or in my case, "those songs", that trigger a decision, a sequence of events. Whether it's becoming a die-hard fan, exploring a new genre or territory, and in my case, deciding to write about music in the first place -- those are all decisions that are most likely (and ideally) triggered by the music itself, by songs or albums or artistry. I'd like to think that you can't like the music without, you know, actually liking the actual music.

The idea for this post came at a very strange and unwelcoming time -- I was studying for an exam on classical literary theory, nursing a migraine and a potential fever when suddenly one of the songs I'll be featuring on this list came up on shuffle and it literally made me stop reading, only to realize how much I loved the song, and actually making me tear up a bit both from melancholy and because it was a genuinely gorgeous song. So once the song ended, I stopped studying for a while and realized that it's actually been a few years since I had actually listened to that song (and not just heard it in the background while studying) and, more importantly, that within those four or five minutes, it had single-handedly reminded me of why I'm pursuing music in the first place. It reminded me of how beautiful music can be, and that the beauty in question was coming from a pop song.

That incident a few months ago pretty much triggered this post, but of course with a few tweaks to the concept. Of all the things I wanted to write about in "celebration" of the blog's fifth year, this post is probably the most apt. While I do have a massive post filled with memories from the past five years, which will come out in time, I also wanted to go back to that very first year, and not only tell, but show you why exactly I started writing about pop music. The mush-fest will come, but I want to start first by putting you in my thirteen year-old self's shoes in the only way I know how -- through the music itself.

It's only fitting that in looking back at five years of writing about music I loved, hated, and was impartial towards, that I look back to the very beginning -- to "those songs". These are the songs that not only taught me what good music is, but which also taught me what to look for in a song, and how to look for them. What I didn't expect though was that I would not only learn something about my personal tastes, but that I'd also have, for the first time, a chance to apply the little that I've learned of critical approaches to art.

All of the songs on this list were released before April 2008, and they were some of the very first songs I listened to, and genuinely liked when I moved away from my parents' tastes in music and started to build my own.

Utada Hikaru - "Final Distance"
Released: July 2001
Past Review(s): N/A

This was the song that gave me the idea for this post -- the song that made me tear up. And it did for all the right reasons. Most of the time, simple works have the power to show emotions better than the difficult or the elaborate, which is basically what "Final Distance" is doing. It's such a simple song, such a simple melody, but it hits every possible spot it can. It's haunting, it's emotional, it's beautiful. Every element in the song matters -- the melody, in all its simplicity, carries the emotion, the piano line gives it body, the strings make it graceful, make it soar, those "ah-ah-ah"'s make it haunting, and the water droplets bring all these ethereal elements back down to earth, they make the song real. You hear everything in the song, maybe not all at once, but eventually you do, because nothing is dead weight and everything contributes something to the whole.

Craig David - "Fill Me In"
Released: April 2000
Past Review(s): October 2008

Growing up with a well-educated jazz drummer as a dad, I always heard him say that being effortless, being "chill" or "cool", doesn't mean being lazy or boring. However it was only when I first heard him play Craig David's "Fill Me In" that I not only managed to fully grasp the concept, but also realize that it was possible in pop music too. "Fill Me In" has got to be the epitome of effortlessness, of the "nice and quiet" pop song, but it's nowhere near boring, and it would be a crime to call it lazy. It's such a good song that it doesn't even need to depend on contrast to deliver the punch -- everything is so smooth, so chill. This is the kind of song that, because everything is in its proper place and everyone knows what to do, it sounds so easy -- they make it sound so easy to pull off, when it's not. People have tried, believe me I went on YouTube to look for covers of this and even if some of them had great voices, most of them treated the effortlessness of the song as laziness. Effortlessness and laziness are two different things, and Craig David taught me that.

Westlife - "Amazing"
Released: February 2006
Past Review(s): N/A

If you've looked through the deeper parts of the blog's archive, you'll know that before K-Pop, I was a Westlife fangirl. Of course now many times I wonder what I ever saw in them vocally, but if there's one thing I can't deny, it's that they've had their fair share of amazing (excuse the pun) pop songs over the course of their career. "Amazing" was one of the first songs that introduced me to the brilliance of Swedish pop composers such as Savan Kotecha and Carl Falk (who co-wrote/produced the song), and later production houses like Maratone. The Swedish-written pop sound is one of my favorites because it puts emphasis on melodies that are strong and beautiful, yet still catchy and single material, just like "Amazing". Whether ballad, uptempo or dance track, the melody is almost always really, really pretty, and I'm all for gorgeous melodies. Sometimes their choice of instrumental arrangements have questionable taste, but what the Swedish do well, those melodies and production quality, they do really, really well.

Alicia Keys - "If I Ain't Got You"
Released: February 2004
Past Review(s): N/A

"If I Ain't Got You" is one of those songs that are practically immortal, the kind everyone knows the words to and attempts to sing along to. It's a beautiful, beautiful song, but what it taught me was that identity means one, singing for your voice, and two, making sure it can only be sung by your voice. I'll go out on a limb and say that no one can sing this song like Alicia Keys, and no one can do it justice like her. Like "Fill Me In", "If I Ain't Got You" is very unassuming, when you hear it the verses sound simple enough and you can just scream through the chorus, but put a version like that beside the original and it's so, so different. This is what pop music is -- it's not just about making a pretty song or having a pretty voice, it's about making a pretty song for a pretty voice. Pop is about the "whole package", yes, but a lot of people mistake that for being able to do things completely unrelated to music. Alicia Keys is the complete package, the right kind.

BoA - "Milky Way"
Released: October 2003
Past Review(s): May 2009

Even if Rain was responsible for my full-fledged interest in K-Pop, in reality my first exposure to it was through a copy of BoA's 2003 album "Altantis Princess" that I borrowed from my best friend back in sixth grade. I couldn't read any Korean, let alone understand any of it, but I knew that I liked "Milky Way" and the second song, which I later found out was "Atlantis Princess". The reason why I not only liked "Milky Way", but also remembered just how much I did, was because at that time my impression of Korean pop was very uninformed and rather negative -- the only Korean channel I had access to was Arirang, and back in 2005/2006 they'd usually only play ballads and drama OSTs. I was eleven in 2005, ballads weren't really my thing (yet!), but "Milky Way" was. In a sense, "Milky Way" set the stage (very early on) for my attraction to K-Pop, and my openness to that attraction.

Aly&AJ - "Something More"
Released: August 2005
Past Review(s): January 2009

I was a Disney kid growing up, so it was pretty natural for me to spend that awkward part of adolescence when you're not sure if you're a kid or a tween or a teenager, with Disney Records acts. People like Jesse McCartney and Raven Symone and a host of others did the soundtracks to all those DCOMs, and that trick worked to make me want to explore their material outside of DCOM songs. In come Aly&AJ, who are probably my favorite Disney Records act. Sure they had their fair share of boring, sanitized covers, but "Into the Rush" is still one of my favorite pop albums ever -- the songs have gorgeous melodies, and I love the idea that they themselves had a hand in the creative process. "Something More" was one of the songs that I really liked from the very beginning, and looking back I understand why -- it had conviction. It was what it was, a Disney Records song, but instead of masquerading as "high art", it clung to its identity. It's not pretentious -- this is really pre-teen music -- but it doesn't demean itself because of it.

Kelly Clarkson - "Since U Been Gone"
Released: November 2004
Past Review(s): N/A

Up to this day, "Since U Been Gone", and the album it came from, "Breakaway", remain the best Kelly Clarkson releases I've ever heard. It's a gorgeous song with such strong, but musical and gutsy production, and it achieves all that with such a sing-able melody, which is no less stunning because of its simplicity. But what this song taught me, more than anything, is that to follow trends is not a bad thing, as long as it's done well. Being timeless is the ultimate goal, yes, but you achieve that timelessness not by copying the past, but by delivering the present well. You call songs like Michael Jackson's "Thriller" or Motown material timeless, but they are so distinct of their time frames and reflect the trends of their times -- what makes them timeless is the fact that they are genuinely good songs. "Since U Been Gone" is one of those songs that when you hear it, you know exactly what era and pop trend it came from, but at the same time it's still anthemic, all these years later.

JoJo - "Baby It's You"
Released: September 2004
Past Review(s): September 2008

The very first pop album I ever bought was JoJo's self-titled debut album in 2004, because JoJo was the very first pop act I really, really liked. If you asked me back then for the reason why I liked her, obviously I wouldn't be able to give you an answer as a elaborate as one I can give you for a song, or an act, that I like now. It was hard to listen to JoJo's first album now as an 18 year-old with a five year-old blog without feeling an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, but with a critical ear. Even then, I tried, and I realized that JoJo was the beginning of a trend in all the acts I liked over everyone else I liked, a trend that still holds true today. JoJo had two things -- a voice (talent), and strong melodies. Westlife had a voice (albeit only 2 or 3), and strong melodies. DBSK all have voices, and strong melodies. JoJo remains Another thing about JoJo's I really liked was that even if her voice was pretty mature already, the producers didn't make her sound like a 40 year-old, and she didn't force her way into it either. She sang well, but she sang well as a 14 year-old. Majority of the qualities I look for in an act today, JoJo has, and I realize now that while my background in music was built by my family, my taste is something I came up with on my own.

Again, thank you so much for five of the most amazing years of my life, for giving me so many chances to do what I love. The negative impression that writers have of "silent readers" is one that I understand, yes, because we all like getting nice comments on the work we put in, but personally I don't care whether you comment or not -- thank you for simply taking the time out to read what I have to say. And don't worry, I have an even mushier mush-fest in store! ^_^


  1. Oh Happy 5th Anniversary! ^__^ I always enjoy reading your posts, Nicole! Final Distance and Baby It's You are such amazing songs so bringing you to write about pop is great!

    Here's to another 5 years to popreviewsnow <3

  2. So nice to know that I'm not the only one who stops and just cries when they listen to Utada Hikaru ballads!

  3. Cheers to your 5 years of successful blogging! I'm not really into k-pop but I enjoy reading your posts. :)


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