Weekly Playlist: Rediscovering my (huge) K-Pop library

I got into K-Pop back in early 2009, which is a pretty long time ago already (I feel old all of a sudden), so my music library is also big. Add in the fact that I'm a writer/critic and my stint as a journalist, and that means my K-Pop library is also pretty comprehensive -- I have older stuff from the 90s as well as that entire wave of nugu groups during the debut boom.

So on "slower" weeks like this where there aren't that many major new releases, I usually go back to slightly older songs that I still enjoy listening to. Writing this post made me realize two things -- first that a lot of the older material I listen to are still relatively "mainstream," and also that these are the songs that have lasted, songs that still sound good years later. They were great when they were released, and they've also passed the test of time.

So all this week's playlist features slightly older releases (late last year at the earliest) that I still listen to up to now!

EXO - "Baby Don't Cry" (2013)
I really, really liked EXO's debut LP, and it's something I constantly try to remind people who only read my infamous piece on their debut. "Baby Don't Cry" was one of the clear stand-outs on a very strong LP, and for good reason. It's a very fluid song with a gripping melody and an equally stunning arrangement -- that piano line gets me every time. But what I like most about "Baby Don't Cry" is that it shows EXO's youth without compromising their pop foundations or the musical strength of "XOXO." Amidst all the heavily-produced, "powerful," "pseudo-avant garde" packages they get for lead singles, "Baby Don't Cry" is a breath of fresh air. It's not as stylish as "My Lady" or "Black Pearl," but it's well-done, youthful, fresh pop -- it's classic.

Younha - "아픈 슬픔" (2013)
Younha's "Subsonic" will always have a special place in my library, and maybe even my life -- it came out during a very interesting time for me, and because it was such a beautiful, well-done EP I listened to it a lot. I still do, actually. But whenever I recall December 2013, despite the fact that I was in the midst of writing my Top 50 countdown, "Subsonic" is the release that will stand out. "아픈 슬픔" was my initial favorite, and while I've grown to adore the entire EP from start to finish because every song is strong, this song in particular was very timely. Unlike the title track, "아픈 슬픔" doesn't linger with long instrumentals and goes straight to the point -- straight to the gloriousness that it takes and runs with. To a certain extent it reminds me of a more polished, restrained "Run" because of that subtle, graceful force to the arrangement. "아픈 슬픔" is such a smooth song -- the transitions, the choice of instruments, the melodies are are extremely fluid -- which I think is what gives the song an ethereal quality. The electric guitar line during the chorus gives the otherwise flat, almost antiseptic elements the kick they need -- it's quirky and gutsy enough to serve as a foundation, but graceful enough to flow with the other very ethereal elements.

BEAST - "Beautiful Night" (2012)
"Beautiful Night" came out during a pretty busy time for me (I'm always busy though so that isn't much of an excuse), so I don't really know what public sentiment about this track is -- but I love it. What I've always liked about BEAST is how they took that in-your-face, screaming sound and delivered it with enough conviction to prevent it from becoming a cheap, B-list sound. So by the time "Beautiful Night" came out, they had mastered it enough to put out the perfect balance of in-your-face and trendy. It's something that isn't out of place in a big party because of the instrumentation, and when you think about it party music isn't really "sophisticated" -- club/EDM/etc uses a lot of cheap synth hooks and repetitive "beats." But because of the production quality and even the nature of the melody itself, "Beautiful Night" is also something that can fit in a fashion show or a chick flick set in New York -- it's catchy but with a more complex melodic structure than just a hook, and the sharp production gives it body as a pop song. This was my jam for months back in 2012.

Tablo - "Thank You For Breathing" (2011)
I have immense respect for Tablo as a musician, for his work in and out of Epik High (who I also have immense respect for), most of which I only fully appreciated recently. But better now than never, right? "Thank You For Breathing" is one of those rare rap tracks that I actually listen to for the rap verses. And I think as someone who is more melodically-inclined, that says a lot about the musicality of Tablo's verse and possibly even his abilities as a performer of those verses. What I like most about "Thank You For Breathing" is how the rap lines are accompanied by an equally sharp, but also graceful, guitar line -- that, I think, contributes to the flow of the track. This is one of those songs I can listen to any time of the day -- when I'm sleepy, when I've just woken up -- because it's not just rap that's spitting out words and rhymes, it's rhythmic, melodic verse.

GD&TOP (with Park Bom) - "Oh Yeah" (2010)
I listen to "Oh Yeah" not so much for the rap, and just marginally for the melodic sections -- but more so for the arrangement, instrumentation and the package as a whole. The production work is top-tier YG quality, clean but very rich in bass, the arrangement pulls off some very, very smooth dynamic transitions that make me swoon every time, and "Oh Yeah" as a whole is just really, really well-done fun. There's no other way to describe it actually -- "Oh Yeah" is the kind of fun that you wish you were part of.

G.NA - "I'll Back Off So You Can Live Better" (2010)
G.NA remains one of my biggest regrets because she started out with such a strong, promising release -- she was the first female solo debut from one of the bigger agencies in quite a long time, and a female solo pop act -- but Cube destroyed her. Granted she's no Ailee in terms of vocal abilities, but for K-Pop to use that line of reasoning would be extremely hypocritical -- G.NA sings better than at least half of K-Pop idols. She just needs the right material -- something like "I'll Back Off So You Can Live Better." "Strong woman pop" with the right amounts of femininity and conviction, that's unashamedly pop.

Super Junior - "It's You" (2009)
The repackaged version of "Sorry Sorry" was the first ever K-pop album I bought in physical form, so despite by strong love-hate relationship with them, they'll always have a pivotal place in my K-Pop "career." But beyond that, five years later I still think that "Sorry Sorry" was the peak of SuJu's musical development, and their subsequent releases haven't quite been able to capture that delicate balance between technical, artistic competence and marketability. This is also one of the few albums with repackaged tracks that are equally, if not more, outstanding than the first release -- honestly, I'd by "Sorry Sorry" again just for "It's You" and "Love Disease." (And to a certain extent "Love U More") "It's You" is, to me, not only one of Super Junior's best, but one of K-Pop's most outstanding singles. And that's something repackaged tracks don't usually achieve. It's epic in all the right places and in an entire spectrum of ways -- the verses are urgent in terms of instrumentation but very graceful and slightly melancholic, the chorus has more of a pleading kind of sadness in the melody and an outright, guns blazing instrumental. Couple that juxtaposition of thematically cohesive opposites with SM's strong production quality and just the right amount of catchiness -- repetitive but melodic -- and you have a song with its place in K-Pop history, right next to "Sorry Sorry."


  1. Have you listened to Super Junior's Mamacita album as of yet? Even if you didn't like the title track I think you'll find Mamacita is the biggest upgrade in their musical quality in YEARS. It's cohesive, too! I really think you should give it a listen.


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