August has been one of the busiest and most exciting months for K-pop all year. With so many releases from big acts like Kara, Sistar, and Spica, along with some exciting debuts, it was tough to choose what to include in this roundup. It’s really felt like everyone rushing to put out a summer single before we move into the fall, which has left us with a ton of great music!
Ha:tflet – “Ain’t Nobody”
This year we’ve seen a number of Idols going solo, and for the most part, they’ve played it safe. It’s easy for someone like T-Ara’s Hyomin to put out a straightforward Brave Brothers-produced track and have it become a hit. And it would have been easy for Yenny of Wonder Girls fame to do the same; her former bandmate Sunmi did it with the title track to her first mini-album, Full Moon. But instead, she decided to take a higher road, creating a new identity, HA:TFELT, and putting out an album that, quite simply, sounds unlike anything I’ve ever heard in K-pop before. That’s not to say that the album or “Ain’t Nobody” is all that strange or particularly original, but there’s something about the production and approach to songwriting that feels distinct and fresh in a K-pop setting.
The verses of the song take on a simple, piano-driven arrangement, showcasing HA:TFELT’s emotional vocals while she sings of unrequited love. But in the chorus, everything opens up and bursts into a dubstep-tinged anthem focusing on her powerhouse voice; the section is followed by a trap beat for the post-chorus hook. What really makes the song so effective, though, is the emotional power in HA:TFELT’s vocals throughout, and this is amplified by the highly-stylized music video. Looking destroyed and defeated, HA:TFLET wanders out of her apartment and into the city. She walks into the middle of the street, stopping a car in its tracks and falling down to the ground for an expressive dance. It’s not necessarily traditional choreography — rather, more intense, abstract body movements, and it really captures the inner turmoil of her character. Yenny’s choice to recreate herself as HA:TFELT and to put out a more nuanced and vulnerable single than was necessary was a bold move that, at least artistically, completely succeeded.
San E – “Body Language (feat. Bumkey)”
Rapper San E follows up his chart-topping duet with After School’s Raina, “A Midsummer Night’s Sweetness”, with “Body Language”, a duet with soul singer Bumkey. “Body Language” has also gone to No. 1 on Korea’s Gaon Singles Chart and it’s not hard to see why. The track is a slow-jam sex song, with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek so that it works both as a sexy R&B song and as a parody of sexy R&B songs. Sure there’s a lot of “I’ll give it to you, girl”, but there’s also a fair share of lines like, “I’m glad I downloaded the Karma Sutra app”, and that touch of humor adds a nice levity to “Body Language”.
The song is about exploring sexual fantasies like playing Student/Teacher and Doctor/Patient, but the music video adds another layer to the role playing. It opens with typically sexy shots of a hot girl laying on a bed, but we then see that San E is playing a video game, called Body Language, where he gets to play out these role playing fantasies. So San E isn’t taking part in the role playing, he’s playing a game where he’s role playing cliché sex fantasies. Actually, there’s never any sex — every time he gets close to sealing the deal in the video game, he loses, game over. This detachment from the actual sexy parts allows the video to indulge on sexual imagery and keep cutting back to San E or Bumkey for humor. And at the end of the video, San E wakes up on the couch, wads of toilet paper disposed on the table next to him, and he has a bit of a tantrum realizing he spent his night playing a sex video game and masturbating.
Taemin – “Danger”
If I was allowed to pick which member of SHINee should have a solo career, Taemin wouldn’t be my first choice. He actually might be my last choice, so I went into this with pretty low expectations. Fortunately, I was wrong to do so. “Danger” and its accompanying album Ace manage to show Taemin in his best light. The single is a sleek dance track that bubbles with the same excitement as a SHINee track and allows Taemin to get by on charisma where his vocal abilities might fail him. Plus, the song is filled with hooks, ensuring that it will be stuck in your head for days, and that always helps.
To go along with the sleek exciting track is a sleek exciting music video, though it doesn’t have as much impressive dancing as one might expect to see from Taemin. It has good dancing, for sure, but the focus is put instead on the cool “dangerous” aesthetic. The video gets the job done, but often feels a little trite. It’s as if SM Entertainment said, “The song is called ‘Danger’? Let’s throw in a motorcycle! A gun-shaped guitar? Why not!?” But mostly, “Danger” and Ace far exceed my expectations and actually make me pretty excited to see what else Taemin might do next, though I’m certainly more excited for the SHINee Japanese album coming out next month.
Peppertones – “Campus Couple (with Okdal)”
For their follow-up to 2012’s Beginner’s Luck, veteran duo Peppertones have returned with a collection of delightful power-pop track for their fifth album, High Five. The band also released music videos for over half of the songs, and while all of them are very good, I kept coming back to this one. “Campus Couple”, featuring vocals from the indie pop duo Okdal, has a charming vintage pop quality to it and an adorable back-and-forth vocal about collegiate love. But it’s also compositionally sophisticated while remaining accessible and catchy. The verses switch keys every four measures (G major for the guys and E major for the girls), reminding me of Mike Viola’s “Strawberry Blonde”, which uses the same modulations.
For the music video, Peppertones and Okdal were filmed on four separate iPhones, walking around a college campus and singing along to the track. The video plays all four iPhone videos next to each other, and it gives it an amateurish sweetness that fits the song perfectly. This cute/sophisticated dichotomy runs throughout all of High Five, making it one of the most intriguing power-pop records of the year so far, regardless of language.
Orange Caramel – “My Copycat”
For its second official single this year, After School sub-unit Orange Caramel continue to offer up Hi-NRG dance music with a quirky, corny humor to it. “My Copycat” is driven by an edited saxophone loop with a steady dance beat behind it. The three girls sing with an ecstatic tone about their frustration in a relationship. They just want their boyfriend to do everything right, act the way they want him to act. Is that so much to ask?
The music video goes in a bit of a different direction, though, and builds on their reputation for strange and creative music videos. This time around, it’s like a live action Highlights Magazine, where you’re shown two images and have to find all the differences. They also do a bit of a Where’s Waldo thing as well, and it’s all a lot of fun. Sure it might not make sense with the lyrics, but it’s very entertaining anyway, and that’s what Orange Caramel is all about.
Sunny Hill – “Monday Blues”
Sunny Hill is a group that has gone through a lot of changes over the years. They debuted as a co-ed trio, added some members, lost their guy, and are now coming back with their first official single as a four-member girl group. But, with a few exceptions, what hasn’t changed is their focus on subversive or satirical songs and videos, and luckily “Monday Blues” stays true to that commitment. Like their classic “The Grasshopper Song”, “Monday Blues” concerns itself with the pains of working, but this time it’s less allegorical and a bit more focused on sex. The girls are stuck at work, but they’re fantasizing about an attractive co-worker, just hoping the work week will end soon.
The video takes the concept literally and shows the girls frustrated in the office. They’re falling asleep at their desks, they’re getting harassed by their boss, and they just want to get out of there. Finally, they all meet in the bathroom and decide to rip up their work, change out of their outfits, and have a party, turning their office into a chaotic mess. They even get the guy. That is, of course, until they wake up and realize it was all just a fantasy. But “Monday Blues” and its accompanying Sunny Blues album show that Sunny Hill really can get on quite well without Janghyun and that the ensemble is still capable of making interesting music and fun, satirical music videos.
EXID – “Up & Down”
It’s been a long time since we’ve heard anything from EXID, but its last single, 2012’s “Every Night” is one of my all-time favorite K-pop tracks. So naturally I was excited to find out about this comeback, and luckily for all of us, it doesn’t disappoint. “Up & Down”—not to be confused with the girls’ other song “Up & Down” from the Incarnation of Money soundtrack—is their first track with their new label, Yedang Entertainment, but they’re still with long-time collaborator Shinsadong Tiger as their producer, and so even though the direction is different for them, the quality is definitely still there.
“Up & Down” has a lot of similarities with “My Copycat”, actually. The two songs are both driven by a looping sax riff and focus on a light and fun concept, but “Up & Down” has more of a hip-hop flavor to it, and also manages to be a bit more musically interesting. The song contains fierce rap verses featuring LE, switches gears for an indelible pop chorus, comes back for saccharine pop melodies in the second verse, and has a trap hook laced throughout, its eclecticism echoing the lyrics feeling of being pulled up and down by a significant other.
For the music video, the girls also seem to pull from the Orange Caramel playbook, with bright colors, absurd imagery, and a tongue-in-cheek humor. But in “Up & Down”, EXID also indulges in sexy dancing and phallic imagery. Hani seems practically obsessed with inflating and deflating a balloon that resembles a penis, and all the girls—in tight, low-cut leather pants—perform almost comically suggestive dance moves. It’s not the kind of song or video I was expecting from EXID, but it manages to show off the members’ skills and penchant for odd song forms while injecting a bit of playful humor into the mix, which is always welcome.
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After the craziness of August—and this summer in general—hopefully September will see K-pop slow down a bit so we can appreciate all this amazing music easier.