Way back in 1992, a dropout metalhead by the name of Seo Taiji released the first K-pop song: “Nan Arayo.” It was an ambitious mess of import aisle genres and moods, and it sold millions – making the geeky rebel South Korea’s very own Elvis, Cobain, and Jacko all in one. Since then, the Korean market’s insatiable hunger for big hooks and fancy choreography has saved room for a local flavor: pop music prepared with molecular genre fusions, fermented tonalities, unlabeled arrangement additives, or all the above. Results vary from batch to batch, but if these early months are any indication, 2015 just might be the best vintage in years. It’s only fair that we share.
Red Velvet, “Ice Cream Cake” (SM Entertainment)
Hitting the table like a leftover slice of sibling act f(x)’s tremendous Pink Tape, this fresh-faced girl group’s “Ice Cream Cake” is a treat as unexpected as it is unpredictable. Ingredients include haunted la-la harmonies, headrush melodies that go double-time like a speed rap, and a beat so glitchy it’s best served with headphones. As with f(x)’s classic “Red Light,” the left-field chorus packs a punch, but goes down smooth over time. It is, after all, the SM label’s specialty: bubblegum pop that deeply rewards repeat rotations. (The silky, Janet-smooth “Automatic” is another recent winner.)
Ga-In, Paradise Lost (APOP Entertainment/LOEN Entertainment)
With songs like the harrowing partner rape portrait “FxxK U” (which landed on our 101 Best Songs of 2014 list) Ga-In is a pop star of rare poignance and bravery (not to mention a favorite of women here in abysmally unequal Korea). No surprise, then, that the 27-year-old’s concept EP about the fall of man should bear such delicious, unsavory fruit. Favorites include the Prince-cum-Britney “First Temptation,” shame-free Latin groove “Guilty,” and the playfully jazzy “Apple,” a duet in the Garden.
But best of all is the real-world wisdom of “Paradise Lost.” Amid Sunday morning organs, above heavy industrial throb, Ga-In gives voice to an Eve who never got to say her side of the story. Challenging the oppression it was written to impose, she plants the good book firmly in the fiction section (“They’re making up a story / So that they can control you and me”), argues woman is as good a paradise as the one she supposedly ruined (“Right now, we’re free / No place we want to go back to”), and reminds her Adam that flesh and blood are the only things they know for sure (“I’m real / I’m here / I’m yours”). As with “FxxK U,” the video deepens the effect, ending with our heroine panting proudly before a horrid orgy of men exposed, and all the misery that’s been credited her since that curious first taste.
Big Bang, “Bae Bae” (YG Entertainment)
It’s been three long years since the supermassive boy band Big Bang’s last single, and it was a doozy: “Fantastic Baby,” the virtuoso banger YouTube ranks the most famous Korean song after Psy’s. So for the whole summer, K-pop’s five dark princes will drop a double A-side single (with vids to match) leading up to September’s MADE album. Of the four offerings thus far, “Bae Bae” is the bug-eyed best, a gonzo melange of trap percussion, Jamrock-inflected rap, and contempo country strum and drawl. That it all hangs together so effortlessly, like their eclectic next-season fashion prefs, is Big Bang’s signature. Bonus points for being the first K-pop group to graduate to pill parties and free love, as seen in the gloriously trippy video.
Lim Kim, “Awoo” (Mystic89)
The pitch-shifted synth pop of globally trendy acts like Chvrches and Purity Ring has barely graced the Korean mainstream, but that’s not stopping Lim Kim. The college-aged chanteuse takes a groove cut like Lorde’s Love Club EP and localizes it with melodies strong enough for the karaoke parlor (called noraebang, ‘round these parts), as sung in the smoky voice she honed during her early folk-pop period. Even in an industry that boasts the world’s highest hooks per capita, “Awoo” is one of the year’s most infectious.
SHINee, Odd (SM Entertainment)
f(x) and Red Velvet’s elder brothers follow 2013’s sterling Everybody EP with this loving handful of Holi powder, Odd. Lead single “View” is a wondrously lush riff on the stadium-grade house fad out of the U.K., but the album best honors its name with more cerebral fare like “Trigger,” a leagues-deep wonder of genre juxtaposition. There’s also a suite of great R&B slow burns and breezes, as though an extension of songwriter and top vocalist Jonghyun’s solo mini-album Base, from January. That record, too, is at its best when pushing its refined musicianship toward some irreverent impulse, as in “Neon” – a tastefully paced neo-soul stroll, until it sprints headlong into the type of break J Dilla liked to clock.
4minute, Crazy (Cube Entertainment)
The hit title track is a banger built on hellacious brass loops, some of the year’s fiercest choreo, and good ole black-on-white, high contrast attitude, reminding fans what a menace 4minute can be. But it’s the ballad single “Cold Rain” that’s the real surprise, like a classic No Doubt lament co-written by a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith on one of his jazz kicks. “Cut It Out” is another deft blend, this time of demon-voiced trap and ‘90s europop euphoria. SPIN readers may even recognize frontwoman Hyuna from her classic “Bubble Pop,” which cracked the single digits of our Best Songs of 2011 list.
EXID, “Ah Yeah” (Yedang Entertainment)
K-pop’s feel-good (feel-weird?) story of 2014 was the long due rise of EXID, a talented quintet of young ladies languishing in debt before a hawk-eyed fancam of Hani doing her thing went megaviral. Fortunately, the slightly pervy phenomenon occasioned the realization that “Up & Down” was a pop song of rare construction and replay value. Returning this year with “Ah Yeah,” writer-rapper LE and producer Shinsadong Tiger have concocted a sequel out of jarring jump cuts in genre and groove. Like Red Velvet’s “Ice Cream Cake,” it’s an earworm with a learning curve, though Koreans make it easy on themselves. This stuff plays in the supermarkets here.