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Beruntung aku berkenalan (kembali) dengan Hallyu di awal 2014, because for the next two years, I got to experience what fans dubbed as the golden era of K-pop. Probably the second, because many also said 2008-2011 (or in between 2007-2012, it’s debatable really) is the first golden era of K-pop.
2014-2016 were definitely my formative years. Segala yang berkaitan dengan Hallyu kulahap, from its pop culture; cultural, social and political history; gender analysis, to US imperialism. I practically watch/listen/read-hopping everything.
Mungkin itu juga sebabnya saat itu aku belum fanatik terhadap apapun, atau siapapun. Variety shows, terutama Running Man, berkontribusi besar atas pengetahuanku karena banyak membukakan jendela budaya populer Korea Selatan yang dari luar seringkali dilihat secara sempit hanya sebagai K-pop, lebih sempit lagi, musiknya idol groups. Itu sebabnya dalam konteks musik, segalanya kudengarkan.
Now, back to mainstream K-pop. More often than not, most albums consist of a few hits and the rest are fillers (and by this, not just K-pop), but 2015 saw a change with many artists released solid songs well-curated albums.
Great songs were released one after another making 2015-2016 arguably the most exciting years for K-pop (on a side note, even “Heard It Through the Grapevine”, the best K-drama of all time (for me lol)), by far, was also released in 2015).
Whether the song(s) laid a foundation for the artist’s future sound or marked a turning point in their sound and artistry, here are the songs that define the year:
11. AH-CHOO (LOVELYZ8) – LOVELYZ
Ah-Choo is that simple, banal, fun song that I just could not stop replaying. There’s nothing much to it, but the notes are so addictive, making you feel like you just took on a happy pill. It also has that happy-adventure animation movie soundtrack feel.
10. IF YOU DO (MAD) – GOT7
GOT7 released ‘Just Right’ (EP) in July, but it is If You Do, the lead single in ‘MAD’ (which was released in September, also as an EP) that marked a turning point, shaping GOT7’s future sound and their more mature and sexier image.
9. BANG BANG BANG (A) – BIGBANG
Never quite a fan of Big Bang’s sound (or YG’s in general), but MADE is phenomenal and Bang Bang Bang from the single album ‘A’ is just too distinctive and iconic to ignore, despite the sound was not much different from most Big Bang’s songs.
8. SPRINGIRLS (SPRINGIRLS ) – SUNWOO JUNGA
Finding Sunwoo Junga was like finding a gem. Whereas so many female vocalists sound pretty much the same (this also applies to male vocalists, don’t get me wrong), especially in mainstream K-pop (though she’s more of an indie artist), her husky timbre (probably a contralto, my favourite type) and her music set her apart.
7. UPGRADER (SIMPLE MIND) – LIM KIM
Upgrader definitely sounds less experimental than Awoo, but this B-side synth-pop was the one that I played in an infinite loop at the time.
6. LOVE ME RIGHT (LOVE ME RIGHT – REPACKAGED ALBUM) – EXO
‘Love Me Right’ perfected the already great ‘Exodus’ album, making it one of the impeccable albums of the year. Love Me Right and Call Me Baby marked a shift in EXO’s music, setting the tone for the group’s future sound.
5. 4 WALLS (4 WALLS) – f(x)
4 Walls is SHINee’s View soul sister sharing a similar sound of electropop/UK garage/house/synth-pop, thanks to LDN Noise who was responsible for both songs’ tunes. ‘4 Walls’ as an album could have been a musical turning point for f(x), but unfortunately, the rest of the songs are just not on par with 4 Walls. Plus, they are on indefinite hiatus now, so what will happen with the group’s future is still unclear.
4. AWOO (SIMPLE MIND) – LIM KIM
My friend, Ninin, introduced me to Lim Kim. I think we were on some sort of a quest to explore the K-indie scene at that time. Simple Mind has a meticulous tracklist that I feel every single song in this album should have been included in every 2015’s best list. SHINee’s Jonghyun composed, wrote, and produced a track titled No More.
3. CALL ME BABY (EXODUS) – EXO
It is extremely difficult to be distinguishable in a saturated industry and to achieve that, an artist must have a distinctive identity to be recognised. Call Me Baby did exactly just that for EXO. The cohesiveness of thumping beats, vocal harmonies (one of the best in the industry), the sliding-staccato sexy choreography topped with a slick (and sick!) look created an identity that is distinctive EXO’s.
2. MARRIED TO THE MUSIC (MARRIED TO THE MUSIC – REPACKAGED ALBUM) – SHINee
Married to the Music is an homage to 80s-90s pop/R&B tunes with a quirky music video that’s reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and The Rocky Horror Picture Show meet American-college-party-turns-into-a-disaster movie
The fact that they played with a completely different theme of the same concept, but taking the oddness up a notch for this song, only strengthens the group’s brand as THE experimental contemporary group.
With this album, the group ventures a new area in their vocal arrangement experimenting with overlaying vocals, equally divided parts (which made possible because they are all vocal lines, though objectively speaking, Minho is on the weak side), and interspersed raps everywhere in between singing parts.
1. VIEW (ODD) – SHINee
View was probably the first song that opened the floodgates of UK-garage/deep-house-infused and retro-inspired songs in K-pop. Odd & Married to the Music also marked SHINee’s another turning point, which they have created constantly with every album up until now (2021) since their third. At this point, we don’t even know what’s a turning point for them anymore because they always bring something new to the table, but Odd was definitely a major one for them as it was also the first album they had direct involvement in the production.
It is still mind-blowing how they thoroughly conceptualised every little detail, from music, vocal arrangement, tracklist, choreography to stage outfits! View & Married to the Music era also have the most gorgeous stage outfits and looks I’ve ever seen K-pop. Not even once did they set a foot wrong in those comeback stages. Brilliant job by Key who since then has been involved in designing SHINee’s stage outfits (and he never disappoints). A truly wholesome experience which makes the series a masterpiece.
Lastly, SM basically crushed 2015 by delivering some of the best albums of the year. Not only did they make brave shifts in musical and artistic direction, but they also executed them flawlessly.