K-Pop Roundup - March 2014

Our K-pop roundups continue with another exciting month. We got the long-awaited return of 2ne1, the unexpected return of Super Junior-M, and a big debut from Toheart. 2014 keeps shaping up to be a strong year for K-pop.

March was an undeniably exciting month for K-pop. With 2ne1 returning around the same time as Girls' Generation, the two popular girl groups went head-to-head on the charts and the music competition shows (and Girls' Generation did a little bit better on both). In addition to that "rivalry", March saw comebacks from Orange Caramel and Super Junior-M, as well as the debut of a new collaboration, Toheart.

2ne1 - "Come Back Home"

2ne1's second full-length album was supposed to come out back in 2012 when the outfit released its awesome single "I Love You", but the album kept getting delayed. Finally, almost four years since its first full-length, 2ne1 is back with a brand new album, Crush. To celebrate the occasion, the four-member girl group put out two singles and videos, "Happy" and "Come Back Home", and while both songs are great, "Come Back Home" has become the more successful song, and is more representative of the album’s overall sound.

The song is an eclectic mix of reggae and trap, with one of their catchiest hooks to date. The girls sing longingly about a lover who left them, begging him to "come back home". But the music video places that simple theme in a complex sci-fi setting. The video takes place in a world where humans can choose to live in a simulated "Virtual Paradise", and Dara's boyfriend chooses to leave her for the allure of the virtual world. She and the other 2ne1 girls, led by CL, take matters into their own hands, start a riot, and destroy the "Virtual Paradise" system. It's also worth mentioning that the video version of the song replaces CL's second verse rap with the acoustic version that is included on the album, making the song even more interesting and eclectic.

Toheart - "Delicious"

Toheart is a new duo consisting of SHINee's Key and INFINITE's WooHyun, and "Delicious" is the group's debut single. The song is a very strong start for Toheart, with its insanely catchy melody and a playful, sorta homoerotic music video. The up-tempo track features driving drums and rhythmic guitars while Key and WooHyun compete over the affection of a girl, telling her that their love is "so delicious" and it's really carried by their two personalities. Although WooHyun is clearly the better singer, Key's raspy voice and energetic delivery add to the song's playful tone.

The video includes the album's "Intro" track before the song proper, and then concludes with an instrumental version for a credit sequence, allowing more screen time for Key and WooHyun to interact and give the slash fiction fans what they want. Throughout the rest of the video, the two show off tight choreography in brightly-colored suits, wait at a diner for their date, and have a pillow fight on their bunk beds. And what more could you really want from them?

Orange Caramel - "Catallena"

Orange Caramel -- a sub-unit of After School featuring Raina, Nana, and Lizzy -- is back with its new single, "Catallena". The song mixes contemporary pop with an Italo-disco style and incorporates a Punjabi folk song, "Jutti Meri" (and if that's not post-modernism for you, I don't know what is!). But Orange Caramel has always been very much its own thing, so this odd smashing of genres and styles is expected to an extent. The outfit has its own quirky brand of aegyo, and the high-pitched charismatic singing on "Catallena" is just the right kind of campy.

The music video has become a source of controversy and is currently banned from being shown on KBS (the Korean Broadcasting System). The organization claims that the video "makes light of human life" by showing the girls as sushi and under plastic wrapping. Really, it's just a playful video that finds Orange Caramel in quirky, cute sushi costumes, not getting bought, and then eating themselves. After they eat the sushi, though, they think about the lives of the fish and begin to cry. It's a brightly-colored, cool-costumed video that brings out the group's weird sense of humor perfectly.

4Minute - "Whatcha Doin’ Today?"

After last year's "What's Your Name?" -- the band's biggest single to date -- 4Minute returns with "Whatcha Doin' Today?" (such an inquisitive bunch!). Like its previous two singles, "Whatcha Doin' Today?" is produced by Brave Brothers, and as such delivers exactly what you'd expect. The song is fun, with an electro-soul sound, punchy horns, and a catchy wordless hook, but it doesn't stand out as anything too special. Gayoon, and to a lesser extent SoHyun and Jihyun, lead the verses with a light and fun tone, and Jiyoon continues to prove that she's a better rapper than HyunA. Musically, it's status quo for the act, which is certainly not to say that it's bad.

The video, though, is more exciting. "Whatcha Doin' Today?" is all about having fun, and the video makes that very clear. It's a hodgepodge of sets and styles and costumes -- some very sexy, some very cute, some just silly and funny. The group has normally relied on HyunA to be the "sexy one", but here, all five of the girls get to be sexy. They also get to be funny, which is something new for the group.

Super Junior-M - "Swing"

If a K-pop song isn't sung in Korean, is it K-pop? Because of K-pop's increasing popularity, many artists and groups record music specifically for a market outside of Korea. Groups will put out Japanese albums, with music more suited for a Japanese audience and sung in Japanese. But does that make it J-pop? You could argue that it sounds different than J-pop, but because K-pop is such an eclectic genre, there's a lot of K-pop that sounds nothing like other K-pop. So what does K-pop sound like? When is K-pop not K-pop?

In general, I try to ignore these existential questions and say that if a group mostly comes from Korea originally, it's K-pop regardless of the language. And with that in mind, the new Super Junior-M song qualifies for our K-pop roundup.

Super Junior is one of the most successful K-pop groups of all time, and Super Junior-M is one of its five sub-units. The M stands for Mandarin, as the group is marketed to a Chinese audience. "Swing", the title track from the sub-unit's third mini-album, is an electro-dance track with a driving beat, an obligatory dubstep breakdown, and some unusual vocal harmonies in the chorus. Even if it doesn't have any swing music, the eight boys keep the track interesting and exciting with energetic and charming vocal deliveries.

But the song is really just a vehicle to get them to dance, and the video does just that. It focuses on wide shots of the whole group to capture the sharp dance moves, and the simple color scheme keeps everything fixed on the member's moves. So whether you want to call this K-pop or Mandopop, if you like watching good-looking guys dance very well, "Swing" is for you.

* * *

Next month, one of my favorite groups, Crayon Pop, is making a comeback. So for that reason alone, April is going to be exciting, but I'm sure we'll find that there are plenty of other great songs to discover next month!


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Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

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