2015 was a fantastic year for pop fans, with the likes of Carly Rae Jepson, CHVRCHES, Marina and The Diamonds, and many others blessing us with sensational albums. But pop music is a global entity, and East-Asian countries have garnered a reputation for producing unique brands of pop. Over in South Korea, K-Pop had a spectacular year and it is definitely a rewarding musical culture to explore.
All-female groups are relatively scarce in post-2010 Western pop music, but K-Pop boasts an abundance of girl groups who released fantastic tracks throughout last year. Established groups returned to dominate the charts, with tracks such as 4Minute’s frantic EDM-laced banger ‘Crazy’, EXID’s brassy and upbeat ‘Hot Pink’, f(x)’s homage to UK garage ‘4 Walls’, and The Wonder Girls’ delightful 80’s throwback ‘I Feel You’. While these tracks were well-received in Korea, other incredible songs were unfortunately overlooked: ‘Hurt Locker’ by 9 Muses and Rainbow’s ‘Black Swan’ both failed to scratch the Gaon Chart’s top 20 (Korea’s equivalent to the UK’s Official Singles Chart), despite being two of the year’s best releases. Despite established girl groups crafting a viciously competitive pop landscape, it is still rather surprising that the best track of the year comes from Red Velvet, a relatively new group. Having only debuted in 2014, it is staggering to witness the degree of polish to their track ‘Dumb Dumb’, a mechanistically perfected fusion of brass hits, complex drum machine loops, vocal hooks and a rap break featuring ten Michael Jackson song title references. What more could you ask for?
But while the girl groups had a truly magnificent year, male groups also gave us some brilliant tracks. Big Bang was the clear standout amongst these boybands, releasing 8 music videos after a three-year hiatus. These tracks show an incredible degree of versatility, ranging from down-tempo pop/rock/trap hybrids such as ‘Bae Bae’ to club-ready cuts including ‘Bang Bang Bang’. While Big Bang were omnipresent, other male groups produced contending comebacks. BTS’ rap-heavy ‘Dope’ and ‘I Need U’ ensured their place as a long-term fixture of the K-Pop scene, and SHINee returned with retro concepts, exemplified by their hits ‘Married to the Music’ and ‘View’.
One aspect of Korean pop music which distinguishes itself from other forms of pop is the integration of rap into the vast majority of tracks. While the quality of the rapping varies massively between groups, it has pushed the whole genre to the forefront of Korean media consciousness. In fact, several TV competition shows pitting rappers against one another have emerged in recent years. Unpretty Rapstar, dedicated to showcasing female rappers’ talents, has helped catapult the careers of its stars. Highlights include Cheetah’s fierce pop/rap hybrid ‘My Number’, Jessi’s feisty ‘Ssenunni’, Yuk Jidam’s reflective ‘On & On’ and Kisum’s smoothly uplifting ‘You & Me’. But no female rapper has caused as much controversy as Yezi, who made a huge impact during her appearance on Unpretty Rapstar’s second series. ‘Crazy Dog’ – featuring deliciously dark and offensive lyrics over an industrial electronic trap backing – established Yezi as a serious rapper, contrasting with her polished image as an idolised entertainer.
K-Pop is a diverse cultural movement that encompasses a range of musical genres in lieu of being strictly pop-oriented. Lim Kim released the whimsical ‘Awoo’, featuring skittering percs, bizarre synths and Kim’s uniquely husky vocals. Singer-songwriter Neon Bunny’s ambient electronic style was furthered by her release ‘Romance in Seoul’, and made waves in Korean indie music circles. Hyukoh (an indie band based in Seoul) set the Korean musical scene alight with their refreshingly organic sound. The soft-rock style of ‘Wi Ing, Wi Ing’ sold nearly a million copies in Korea, one listen guaranteeing that you will be forever hooked.