Elise’s Top 10 Korean Songs of 2012
Psy – “강남 스타일 / Gangnam Style”
I have a love/hate relationship with this song and the phenomenon that has surrounded it this past year. I’m excited that a K-pop song has gone mainstream, but I’m disappointed it was this song and video. K-pop is so much more than some goofy guy in sunglasses doing a ridiculous dance. Not to mention that it’s really painful to continually hear “Gang-nam” mispronounced when it’s not even hard to pronounce.
For years, many different K-pop groups and solo artists have actively been trying to break into the American market (and therefore the global market), but have not quite succeeded. While international superstar singer/actor/dancer Rain made it onto the Colbert Report, and the Wonder Girls — whose “Nobody” was the #1 song in Asia in 2011 — even toured briefly with the Jonas Brothers; the American market is the largest and hardest to break in to in the world. Very talented groups like Big Bang and 2NE1 are able to sell out arenas in the US, but mainstream American culture is oblivious to music sung in any language but English (with the exception of a few Spanish phrases tossed in).
In 1963 Kyu Sakamoto was the first and only Japanese, or Asian, artist to have a song hit #1 on the American Billboard Hot 100 Chart with his song “Sukiyaki.” Fifty years later Psy from South Korea started a global dance craze, broke records worldwide, but was only able to cling onto #2 on the chart. Of all the K-pop artists who could have broken out globally, I never imagined it would be Psy; he wasn’t even trying to become famous in America. But don’t discount him, either. Just like Ke$ha, his image is more calculated than it appears to be. Psy has had a few hits here and there in Korea, and has been working behind the scenes for years, producing some of K-pop’s biggest hits in recent years. He even attended the Boston University and the prestigious Berklee School of Music, though he didn’t graduate from either.
Outside of South Korea, Psy is under the management of Scooter Braun, who also happens to be Justin Bieber’s manager. This partnership might extend his relevance, but regardless of Psy’s fate “Gangnam Style” is an indication of something bigger. While mainstream America had been oblivious of K-pop and the Korean Wave, South Korea has been slowly spreading its popular culture with great success throughout Asia, Europe, South America, and the Middle East. Cassette tapes with K-pop songs are even sold on the black market in Pyongyang, North Korea. We’ll have to wait to see the fate of his global fame; many believe he will fizzle out in a world of fleeting Internet fame. I, like many others I’m sure, am waiting anxiously for his next single. The pressure is on, Psy.
Neon Bunny – “왕자님 / Oh My Prince”
Neon Bunny got her start as a session keyboardist with The Black Skirts, then released her debut solo album in 2011. After conquering the title of “Best Pop Album” at the Korean Music Awards, she came back in 2012, taking a darker direction with the Happy Endings EP. While keeping her pop sensibilities, Neon Bunny took a nostalgic trip back to the 1980s and the era of dark synth pop. “Oh My Prince” shows us that Neon Bunny isn’t afraid to mess around with a darker sound.
Mukimukimanmansu – “내가 고백을 하면 깜짝 놀랄거야 / If I Confess, Be Totally Surprised”
I was pleasantly surprised to discover Mukimukimanmansu this past year. These two girls, Muki and Mansu, formed a band and created their own style of music, basically not giving a damn about who likes it. Muki plays the jango, a type of traditional Korean drum while Mansu plays guitar, and the girls actually got their record deal due to a YouTube video of one of their gigs being broken up by the police, giving them some real indie street cred in a country dominated by sugary pop. While their music may be difficult for fans of K-pop, Muki and Mansu make some refreshingly different music, unlike anything I’ve heard come out of Korea.
G-Dragon – “ 크레용/ Crayon”
Before Big Bang was even an idea at YG Entertainment, G-Dragon was writing songs behind the K-pop scenes, so it’s only natural for him to keep busy outside of Big Bang. After his amazing debut solo album Heartbreaker, I wasn’t too surprised to see that his solo follow-up One Of A Kind was the best selling album in September in South Korea. Everyone knows G-D is the master of swag, but they don’t realize he’s also a musical and lyrical genius. Every song on the mini-album is great, but “Crayon” is on a whole different level. For the full effect, you have to watch the music video; G-Dragon is back and clearly isn’t holding back. “Crayon” is crazy and chaotic in the best way possible, try to keep up!
Seo In Young – “Anymore”
It’s been very easy for me to discount Seo In Young. She’s had a long career from being a sexy solo singer, to a member of the pop group Jewelry, to an annoying fake wife to rapper Crown J on the TV show “We Got Married.” It probably doesn’t help that her first name sounds suspiciously close to the Korean word for “doll.” To be honest, at one point I was worried her nose would go the way of Michael Jackson’s due to her repeated plastic surgeries.
However, I was very surprised when she came back with her solo single “Anymore”, and I actually really liked the song. “Anymore” not only showcases the production skills of Kush (who likes to work with Teddy, 2NE1, and Big Bang), but the actual vocal skills of Seo In Young; it’s a departure from the typical pop songs she usually does. Seo In Young herself realized the importance of this song and made a conscious decision not to go the traditional route by promoting it on live TV shows. It’s typically a given that K-pop artists will perform their latest single on multiple shows, trying to get as much exposure as possible in a competitive market; but Seo In Young’s “Anymore” did well without the traditional promotional route.
Primary – “요지경 / [Magic Glass] Zoo (feat. Supreme Team, Yankie, Mellow)”
South Korean producer Primary gifted us with his Primary and the Messengers LP this past fall, and it was a great album for many reasons. First of all, this album is just really good. Dynamic Duo, Supreme Team, Dok2, Beenzino, Jay Park, Zion.T, Gary from Leessang, Rhythm Power, Yankie, and many more are featured. In the “Zoo” music video, Primary plays the instruments with a box (the album art) on his head, hiding his face from the viewer. This is fitting, as he never sings; he stays behind the scenes, making the rappers and singers shine. Dynamic Duo even jokes that he is a “music pervert”; this is fine by me as long as he is not an actual pervert, because he is incredibly talented; he took on many different sub-genres and succeeded.
This album was also a great vehicle for Supreme Team’s E-Sens to make his comeback to the industry after over a year of jail time for using marijuana, which is illegal and very looked down upon in South Korea. The timing is also somewhat fortunate considering the fame of Psy, who had his own marijuana scandal several years ago. While this sort of thing is a really conservative society can be career-threatening, Koreans have gotten more liberal in recent years. This coupled with the recent popularity of Psy has forced even the Korean government to award Psy for his global cultural achievements — South Korea’s economic plan is to get people to like Korean culture, then get them to buy Korean products, and it’s working by the way. Psy even tried to dodge his mandatory military service, something that all South Korean men must do two years of before turning 30. He is making the government and society more accepting and supportive of scandalous celebrities, because he’s spreading Korean pop culture globally, which is what the government and conglomerates like Hyundai, Samsung, and LG have been trying to do for years.
Any way, “Zoo” appeals to both my pop and hip-hop sensibilities, and is just a fun song. Check it out!
Big Bang – “Fantastic Baby”
Big Bang’s comeback this past year was highly anticipated, and they did not disappoint. In an album full of hits, “Fantastic Baby” stayed at the top of the charts the longest, and even made an appearance on the American hit TV show “Glee.” The guys just finished a completely sold-out world tour on a massive scale, even having to add extra dates, proving their global popularity. While on tour, the guys promoted T.O.P’s upcoming solo debut, so we have something to look forward to in January!
2NE1 – “I Love You”
The fiercest girls in K-pop came back in July with a sexy concept and a new, more mature single to match. I was pleasantly surprised by this song, which manages to be so smooth and gets you dancing before you’ve even realized it. Obviously one single in a year is not enough; the girls have been extremely busy. They released an album in Japanese, have been working on English material with mega hit producer will.i.am, and oh yeah, conquered the world with their sold out “New Evolution 1st World Tour.”
Lee Hi – “1,2,3,4”
Despite only winning second place on the reality TV show “K-Pop Star”, Lee Hi has already set records with her debut solo single “1,2,3,4”. As YG Entertainment’s CEO Yang Hyun Seok is one of the three judges on the show, the agency snatched up the 16-year old singer as soon as it had the chance. Although she’s still very young, Lee Hi has amazing vocal control and range, and this K-pop style nod to Motown is a perfect display of her talents.
Ailee – “Heaven”
Korean-American singer Ailee made an explosive solo debut with “Heaven” at the beginning of 2012, instantly launching her straight from another singer trying to make it to the top tiers of K-pop. Of course she had some help, the song was written and composed by K-pop veteran Wheesung, but I’m sure even he had no idea how powerful this song would be when combined with Ailee’s amazing vocals.