December 16, 2011

Top 11 K-Pop Albums of 2011

From breezy indie trance to melancholic electronica, this is the year the world caught the K-pop bug.

2011 is the year SM Entertainment artists conquered Paris, Big Bang won in the MTV EMA, and Pitchfork, the untouchable bible of hipsters, published an article on K-Pop. It is also a year of great singles (10cm’s “Beautiful Moon,” Sistar’s “Ma Boy” and Infinite’s “Be Mine” notably) and diverse musicality, with the indie scene getting mainstream recognition. This Best Of list aims to capture the constantly changing landscape of Korean music, and also hopes to introduce the less known bands who are pop geniuses in their own right. So I am a man with mission. Fighting!

#11 Hands Up by 2PM

Hands Up by 2PM

When it comes to muscular beats, and just being muscular really, 2PM is the group to beat. JYP continues to write heavy dance floor anthems for the group, and puh-puh-puh-put your “Hands Up” is the laser cutting through the dark of club land. As with any proper disco album, heartbreak is the thump behind the bass, the raison d’etre for reckless dancing, which “Without U” celebrates in all its sweaty glory.

Watch Video: 2PM – hands Up


#10 Eye to Eye Mini Album by Eye to Eye

Eye-to-Eye mini album

Old school acid jazz, the swinging soulful kind with layers of smooth as honey vocals, makes a comeback with Eye to Eye’s debut album. Members Soo Hye, Na Rae, and Jin Sun sing like angels hell-bent to inject some soul into Seoul’s autotuned pop machine. The result is oftentimes breathtaking; album track “Day by Day” is bottled longing on a summer’s day while single “Like a Man,” with its strutting horn section, finds the girls growling for respect.

Watch Video: Eye to Eye – Like A Man


#9 Wonder World by Wonder Girls

Wonder World by Wonder Girls

The Wonder Girls return to familiar 60s pop kitsch with “Be My Baby” but this time around, they’re armed with more than just one hit. Wonder World circumnavigates different eras, from the 70s swagger of “Sweet Dreams” to the new wave riffs of “Super B” to the flirty house of “G.N.O.,” all pinned down by electronic bleeps and heartbeats. It’s a surprisingly cohesive album, but the bigger surprise is the restrain of the production, which lets the girls’ vocals shine.

Watch Video: Wonder Girls – Be My Baby


#8 Seoulight by Neon Bunny

Seoulight by Neon Bunny

It’s impossible not to fall into a happy trance—a delicious state of forgetfulness—when “Can’t Stop Thinking About You” plays its flippant pop riff and Neon Bunny coos her obsession over and over. Seoulight is an album that takes you gently by the hand and lets you drift into twee-electronic wonderland effortlessly. That’s the thing, and that’s the genius bit, it has never been this easy to submit to subtlety. (With special thanks to GA Ramos for the reminder.)

Watch Video: Neon Bunny – Can’t Stop Thinking About You (Audio)


#7 Mr. Simple by Super Junior

Mr. Simple by Super Junior

Hello, Siwon in neon green boxer briefs. (The end.) Super Junior’s fifth album goes through the motions of dancey synthpop shamelessly autotuned, still, why fix it if it ain’t broke? “Mr. Simple,” “Opera” and “Be My Girl” relentlessly reel you into SuJu’s brand of funky, clanging pop. But it’s when the boys take things down a notch—the easy, urban track “Walkin” and acoustic toe-tapper “Sunflower”—that they become more creative, and a little less simple.

Watch Video: Super Junior – Mr. Simple


#6 28 by Dalmoon

28 by Dalmoon

Dalmoon, which means rooftop moon light, says it all. It’s music that tiptoes around your subconscious, lilting and dreamy, before planting itself firmly in your memory and becomes the soundtrack to solitary walks when you are a little happy and the world is a little sad. Excuse me for getting carried away but there is (an unbearable) lightness in the meandering folk of Kim Yoon Ju and Baek Se Jin. The xylophone, the piano, the simplicity of it all, is quietly affecting, hushing the din in your head.

Watch Video: Dalmoon – 옥상달빛


#5 The Boys by Girls’ Generation

The Boys by Girls’ Generation

Girls’ Generation is a force of nature and they know it. With The Boys, the girls are declaring war with stomping beats and a shy wink, a very deadly combination if there ever was one. Lead single “The Boys” is cheerleading in stilettos; “Hollaback Girl” with glittering sass. But more than the bold declarations of bringing the boys out, it’s the nod to 60s girl groups that make this album a more sonically exciting record. “My J” and “Lazy Girl” up the cute factor but it’s the doo-wop delightful “Say Yes” that signs, seals and delivers the pop goods.

Watch Video: Girls’ Generation – The Boys


#4 Just One Trip by Monni

Just One Trip by Monni

Memory is a powerful thing, and a song attached to a memory amplifies a passing moment to a discourse of meaning. On indie band Monni’s third album, singing and songwriting have both been fine-tuned to perfection, so fine-tuned that the songs draw out very particular responses. Album opener “Don’t Hesitate” shimmers and jangles; open-road happiness it is. “Sunshine,” a delicate duet, gauzy and hopeful. “Past the Wind to You” soars as Kim Shin Ee’s voice falters, and then an inescapable memory of someone mouthing the words of the same song while I watch fascinated from across a room. Just One Trip is rock, yes, but it also disarms with its see-through loneliness and earnest, unshakeable pop hooks. Keep the soju coming please.

Watch Video: Monni – Sunshine (Audio)


#3 Tonight Special Edition by Big Bang

Tonight Special Edition by Big Bang

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, G-Dragon, Big Bang’s main songwriter and band leader, is fucking genius. The band’s trademark mix of hip-hop and dance is at its most confident in tracks like “Tonight” and “Hands Up;” T.O.P.’s gravelly rapping is still the perfect counterpoint to Daesung and Taeyang’s smooth vocals. But the biggest surprise here is the U2-esque “Love Song,” a guitar-riff driven, new wave tinged track that could possibly be one of the best songs released this year, K-pop or not.

Watch Video: Big Bang – Tonight


#2 Fact and Fiction by B2ST

Fact and Fiction by B2ST

A relatively run-of-the-mill boy band, B2ST (or BEAST) has been churning out moderately successful hits for the past two years, but it is with Fact and Fiction that they have hit their stride. And hit the ground running. “Fiction” is pop perfection, with Yoseob’s falsettos anchoring the melodic despair of rewriting one’s fate in love; “Fact” is the antithesis with its somber, staccato drumming and mournful vocals. “You” on the other hand is a shamelessly sweet ballad that puts the boys’ powerful vocals front and center. The thing with pop acts is that they are material dependent, and Fact and Fiction is just brimming with hits intelligently arranged as an album so the dance tracks never overwhelm the quiet moments. Plus, the special shoebox edition comes with a free shirt.

Watch Video: B2ST – Fiction


#1 2NE1 Second Mini Album by 2NE1

2NE1 Second Mini Album

I have to agree with 2ne1’s album opener track, they are the best. Whether it’s dance, punk synthpop, or being lonely, CL, Minzy, Dara and Bom sing brilliantly, bluesy even, against the science fiction disco dings and rattle of their catchy, hyper pop. Every track in this second mini album is a pop gem, short, sweet and demanding to be remembered like it’s the only song in the world. With nods to Blondie and TLC, “Ugly” is anything but. It is classic 2ne1, feisty and stubborn but also secretly heartbreaking.

Watch Video: 2ne1 – Ugly


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