Monday, December 31, 2012

Welcome to Year 5 -- I'm just as confused as you are

HAPPY HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE! It's officially January 1, 2013 here in the Philippines, so while I run around with a glass of wine (my first new year as a legal adult! ;D) and most of you wait for the new year to come in your time zones, why not sit back and watch me run around like a headless chicken?

I'm just kidding. Kind of.

I know 2012 wasn't exactly my best year, and therefore it wasn't the blog's best year either, but I really, genuinely thank you guys for sticking with me during a roller coaster of a year.

There aren't a lot of you left, I know that because I read all the Best Of comments and they didn't come in truckloads (that's okay!), but I promise to try my best to make 2013 a lot better, and hopefully attract more loyal readers in the process. The most important thing to me though, and maybe to you as well, is that this year Pop Reviews Now turns FIVE. Yes, I know, time flew faster than all (FIVE!) of my best-of lists combined, but I've come this far. We've come this far.

Five years. Five years. I keep trying to drill that into my head, but it never sticks. It's been five years since I started this blog, not knowing where it would take me, and not really expecting it to take me anywhere, actually. But it took me to places I never knew I'd be able to go. And here we are -- five years. None of this would've been possible if you guys didn't give that insecure thirteen year-old a chance back in 2008.

Thank you for taking time out to not just read my ridiculous theories and messy reviews (even if that's a tiring thing too most of the time), but contributing your opinions and interpretations, especially because I'm only five years into the process of developing my writing style. Your comments made my writing the way it is now, and even if most of the time I get really defensive, you continue to iron out the imperfections in it. It means the world to be able to learn about music not just from my dad or my family who're on the producing side, but from people who are on the receiving end of that music, because without you the music would have little or no purpose. I really wouldn't have it any other way.

Enough of my mush, I'll save the rest for April, when the blog actually turns five. On to more important things -- how will turning five affect the blog?

I don't actually know yet, to be completely honest. Like I said, Pop Reviews Now isn't technically five years old until April, so I might wait until then to start celebrations. I have some ideas swimming around in my head at the moment, but none of them are developed enough to reveal, and none are really permanent enough to start on this early. What I do know now though is that I want to make an effort to write better this year, and I want that effort to show even more because five years in existence wasn't a very easy thing to accomplish.

Which is why over the next few weeks, in addition to (hopefully) writing more reviews, I'll be brainstorming for new ideas, and testing them out little by little. Like I said earlier, your input is probably the most important part of this blog, and I look forward to reading your comments over the course of the year.

But in the meantime, I have a massive Gayo Daejun recap to write once I finally watch the MBC show! Again, happy new year everyone! :D

Sunday, December 30, 2012

[#1] Infinite - "The Chaser"

Format: EP
Released: May
Territory: South Korea
Previous Best of Appearances : #37 -"She's Back" (2010) / #4 -"Nothing's Over" (2011)

Infinite's success story is one I'm more than thrilled to have witnessed from the very beginning, and actually one of my most successful "calls" (or predictions). I've said it before and I'll say it again -- I was on the Infinite bandwagon ever since I heard "Come Back To Me" for the very first time two years ago, back when everyone was unsure of them. But I realize that calling them the second Beast simply doesn't so justice to everything they've achieved.

They've come a long way in terms of both success and musical identity, but they had one, very important trait since the very beginning -- good material. Good material opens so many doors for an act that I'm probably going to spend the next two or three paragraphs talking about everything it affected, and all the doors it opened. Woolim has always done phenomenal A&R for Infinite, and has always made the right decisions for singles and re-releases -- they kept it coming, yes, but they also kept raising the bar in the process. Infinite started out with material a cut above the rest of their fellow rookies and now that as permanent fixtures in K-Pop, they carry on with material that's a cut above everyone else.

So if all an act needs to succeed is consistently good material, what makes Infinite better? It's one thing to get good songs, but it's a completely different story when those songs actually fit the act in question, and even bring out strengths. When those songs put together tell a story, and actually make sense in the process. Now whether this is Sweetune or Woolim's making, the bottom line is that someone got things right, and now Infinite are basking in well-deserved glory because of it. These amazing songs have become synonymous not only with being, well, amazing songs, but also with the fact that it's very hard to imagine them done any other way. People can try, but the original version is always one step above.

That, my friends, is identity.

And it's also for that reason that "The Chaser" is this year's #1 song -- it is everything this list aims to put forward, and everything that I, as a critic, want from a song. Infinite's musical success is made up of two elements of equal weight -- outstanding material, and confident delivery. Those two are also the main elements I look for in a song.

"The Chaser" as a song is really, really good. It's in your standard song structure of verse-chorus, etc. and it has your standard hook, but the way these ver put forward with such brevity, such mastery, is really something else. Every single element on this song, from the millions of synths running around, to the bass line that you kind of lose track of hearing, but not of feeling, was delivered spot-on. It's the epitome of a pop song -- clean, controlled and organized, not a hair out of place.

What made me like it even more is the fact that they took that control, that clean, and they played around with it. Because really, what's music without some fun? The people listening are supposed to enjoy it, but they can't do that unless the people making it enjoy it first. I hear that in "The Chaser", and I hear it in every, single detail. Effortless, but fun, but still pop.

That's ultimately what "The Chaser" is -- a very, very, very good pop song. The best I've heard this year, in fact. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

[#2] Ailee (with Simon D) - "Shut Up"

From: "Invitation"
Format: EP
Released: October
Territory: Korea
Previous Best of Appearances: First Appearance

Like I said yesterday, ranking this year's top three was really a challenge for me, because Younha's "Run", this, and my now-#1 song, are all outstanding songs among a throng of good ones. Which is why for the most part, I just went with my gut feeling. That gut feeling landed Ailee at #2, making her the highest-ranking rookie act, not only this year, but pretty much since I started counting down songs.

And boy does she deserve it. You could say that Ailee got lucky, ending up in an agency that gave her material that suited her and made all the right choices during this extremely precarious debut year, but she would've never gotten that lucky without the voice. Without that powerful yet gracefully beautiful voice, that nice, deep timbre, and the effortless technique she now has.

What I like the most about "Shut Up" is that it's not what most people would give to a voice like Ailee since "protocol" is usually to give them a bunch of ballads and be done with things. But people have to remember that while Ailee does have a voice that can easily slay a ballad, she's also young and this kind of "role model" image should be pushed -- she needs to sing songs for her age, because there will come a time when she'll get too old for things like that.

"Shut Up", above all, is fun. It's something I'd play in the background while running around in the morning, it's something I'd put on to get me in a good mood. It's fresh, it's playful, and Ailee's voice literally glows, almost like it's smiling.

But it doesn't stop there, and I'm really happy that it doesn't. As happy as it is, "Shut Up" also brings out Ailee's beautiful vocals in the process -- not just in terms of emotion, but in terms of all the technical aspects. Contrary to what a lot of people think of up tempos, this is not an easy song to sing. The lines may be short, but listen to how much power it takes to deliver one of those, breathe in between beats, and deliver another one. The belting starts at the first verse, and increases as the song goes along. You really need to know how to sing to pull this song off and not crack a few lines in, and boy does Ailee know how.

This is what happens when you give a good song to a good singer and do a good job delivering it. This is what happens when people in the industry pull themselves together and do a good job because they genuinely want to. This, my friends, is called magic. Or music. Whichever you prefer.

Ripple Top Albums of 2012

 Racer's Top 10 of 2012 (in no particular order

The Cult - Choice of Weapon
Black Bombaim - Titans
Doctor Cyclops - Borgofondo
Orange Goblin – A Eulogy For The Damned
Baroness -  Yellow and Green
Orcus Chylde - S/T
Blood Of The Sun - Burning On The Wings Of Desire
Arkona - Slovo
Heidelvolk - Batavi
Lonely Kamel - Dust Devil

Pope's Top 10 of 2012

1.     Alcest - Les Voyages de l'Âme
Post-black metal with a poppy sensibility and charm, it’s almost toe tapping in its accessibility while remaining rooted in all that is dark and gloomy. More reminiscent to the first Les Discrets album than the follow up.

2.     Diablo Swing Orchestra - Pandora's Piñata

A hodge-podge of musical styles on full display, filled with grooving dance numbers, ultra-heavy operatic metal, and propelled into the cerebral cortex by the most violent drumming of 2012.

3.     Hypno5e – Acid Mist Tomorrow
The long-awaited follow up to the epic debut album, Des Deux L’une Est L’Autre,this French art-metal quartet brought the goods, combining the heaviest off-time metal heard since Gojira, yet extremely accessible and packed with memorable melodies.

4.     Katatonia – Dead End Kings
They could release a platter of shit and it would probably still sound good. Thankfully, Dead End Kings is a return to the form that intrigued me enough to investigate this band back on Viva Emptiness. Gothically dark, haunting and moodier than a gynecologists waiting room, and perfect in every way.

5.     Les Discrets – Ariettes Oubilees

6.     Moonspell – Apha Noir/Omega White
Dark and dastardly, these Portuguese metal mainstays return to the fray with a haunting and demonically heavy epic double LP set.

7.     Mos Generator – Nomads
A triumphant return to the fold, this Port Orchard trio delivered the goods when everyone seemed to forget they ever existed. Soul searching song craft is on full display in this 40 minute gem!

8.     Om - Advaitic Songs
Mesmerizing. Like walking through the Sahara desert with Farflung as your tour guide. Ripe with Middle Eastern tones and themes, yet heavy and accessible at the same time. A complex listen, but one of the most satisfying.

9.     Secrets of the Moon – Seven Bells
Never has evil sounded more brutally beautiful. The bands most focused release to date, clear and concise, the let us know the end is near.

10.  Wo Fat – The Black Code
Dallas, Texas trio has redefined the meaning of HEAVY with this five song marathon of blues-based doom-tinged rawk.

11.  Year of the Goat – Angels’ Necropolis
I fell in love with their 4 song EP from a couple of years ago and to have this drop at the end of 2012 tells me that someone, indeed, loves me. High quality musicianship and song craft, lyrically dark, dripping with images of séances and the Dark One, yet musically accessible enough to bop your head to.

Honorable mention:

Doctor Cyclops - Borgofondo
Dordeduh – Dar De Duh
Blood of the Sun – Burning on the Wings of Desire
Syven - Aikaintait
Xandria – Neverworld’s End
Corrosion of Conformity – S/T

 Woody's Top 10 of 2012. (Very glad this year is over, been a rough one.)

Chips & Beer #3 (magazine)
Corrosion of Conformity - Corrosion of Conformity
Cortez - Cortez
Federale - Not Your Vessel
Groan - The Divine Right of Kings
Mos Generator - Nomads
Dee Snider - Shut Up and Give Me the Mic (book)
Superchrist - Holy Shit
Ufomammut - ORO: Opus Alter
Voi Vod - To The Death

 Horn's Top 10 of 2012

10    Ufomammut, Oro: Opus Alter
9      Nachtmystium, Silencing Machine
8      Serpentine Path, Serpentine Path
7      The Sword, Apocryphon
6      Saint Vitus, Lillie:  F-65
5      Sylosis, Monolith
4      Windhand, Windhand
3      Pig Destroyer, Book Burner
2      Witchcraft, Legend
1      Cattle Decapitation, Monolith of Inhumanity

Ollie's Top 10 of 2012

Wow, Top 10…no easy task by any means…especially as I got it down to around 14 or 15 and should all be in my top 10. I couldn’t really out them in a particular order so the running is purely arbitrary. If I overthink this it could all change so I went with gut instinct!!!

1)       Mos Generator – Nomads
2)       Lord Fowl – Moon Queen
3)       Orange Goblin – A Eulogy For The Damned
4)       Doctor Cyclops – Borgofondo
5)       Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell – Don’t Fear It…Hear It
6)       C.O.C – C.O.C
7)       Imperial State Electric – Pop War
8)       Stone Axe – Captured Live! Roadburn Festival
9)       Alunah – White Hoarhound
10)    Turbonegro – Sexual Harassment

I have to give honourable mentions also to:

Mother Corona – Out Of The Dust
Black Magician – Nature Is The Devil’s Church
Mighty High – Legalise Tre Bags
Sun Gods In Exile – Thanks For The Silver

I could add a load more but it’d get silly!!!

Penfold's Top 10 of 2012

Top 10 of 2012 (in Alphabetical Order):

Alestorm – Back Through Time
Blackfoot Gypsies – On The Loose
District 97 – Trouble With Machines
Ebert, Matt - Hard Work
Gift of Gab – The Next Logical Progression
Random – Language Arts Vol. 1, 2, and 3
Royal Headache – Royal Headache
Sigh – In Somniphobia
Wilson, Jim – Jim Wilson
Wino & Conny Ochs – Heavy Kingdom

Honorable Mentions:

Atherton – No Threat
Brother Ali – Mourning In America And Dreaming In Color
Coup, The – Sorry To Bother You
Fiasco, Lupe – Food And Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1
Immortal Technique – The Martyr
Leiana – Lucky #3
Orange Goblin – A Eulogy For The Damned

Swedebeast's Top 10 of 2012

1. Pale Divine - Painted Windows Black
2. Magnum - On The 13th Day
3. Marillion - Sounds That Can't Be Made
4. Chowder - Passion Rift
5. King Giant - Dismal Hollow
6. Kontinuum - Earth, Blood, Magic
7. Blood Of The Sun - Burning On The Wings Of Desire
8. Killing Joke - MMXII
9. Monolithe - Monolithe III
10. Alunah - White Hoarhound

The Professor’s Top 10 of 2012

1.     Thrice- Anthology
One of the greatest bands of all time (and I’m not exaggerating) puts out their final and most epic piece of work they’ve done.  Anthology is a live album recorded along the final tour of their amazing careers.  It’s a fitting conclusion. 

2.    We’re Doomed- How to Destroy Something Beautiful
When I was given this band to review for The Ripple, I was stunned by the quality of the work here.  Moody, oppressive, gorgeous, sad, and professional, this crew has jumped up into “favorite band” category.   Just waiting on a full length release!

3.    Between the Buried and Me- The Parallax II: Future Sequence
What can you say about Between the Buried and Me that does them justice?  They are some of the greatest musicians in metal.  Hell, in any category.  They create beautiful arrangements that erupt into violent explosion. The Parallax II is far superior to its predecessor, and may be BtBaM’s finest album to date.  That’s saying a great deal.

4.    Deftones- Koi No Yokan
I’ll admit that I was ready to write off the Deftones new album when I heard the single Tempest.  I hate that song.  Still do.  However, the rest of the album is grade A Deftones.  It’s one of the most enjoyable albums of their career.  It’s nice and heavy with just a splash of moody electronica.  It’s great, and I highly recommend it. 

5.    Set it Off- Cinematics
I was stunned when I heard this excellent pop-punk-orchestra affair.  It’s straight up beautiful, with incredible lyrics that are easy to relate to.  It’s catchy as hell and well thought out.  There is a ton of energy involved with this band.  When my band, Cover of Afternoon opened for them, we learned that their live show was as intense and energetic as their album.  Easily the best live band I’ve seen this year.

6.    Wretched- Son of Perdition
If it wasn’t for Between the Buried and Me, this album would win my “Guitar Work of the Year” award..  if it mattered.  Or existed.  These boys can shred.  John Vail is a legendary guitarist, and he’s flanked by the equally talented Steven Funderburk.  Sick stuff. 

7.     Lower than Atlantis- Changing Tunes
It was hard for me to listen to Lower than Atlantis’s new album, because the previous outing World Record is listed as one of my all-time favorite spins.  This album didn’t disappoint.  While not as stellar as WR, It’s a compelling follow-up that has the gorgeous melodies surrounded by the punk guitar.  It’s a great album.

8.    Trioscapes- Separate Realities
Sexy sax jazz metal.  Need I say more?

9.    By the Bull-  Ghosts and Prophecies
An unheralded little band out of Columbia South Carolina, Nick Brewer and co. bring a certain style to their brand of rock.  Part Fall of Troy, part nothing I’ve ever heard, and all freaking fantastic.  The first four tracks of the album stand are amazing.  Especially the acoustic and piano driven The Push. It’s possibly my favorite song of the year.  Check these guys out. 

10.    Jowls- Cursed

I freaking love the aggressive explosion that is Jowls.  This album bleeds anger and is as brutal as any shred metal without being overbearing.  It’s all emotion. I absolutely loved it. 

Mr. Brownstone's Top 10 of 2012

Beach House- “Bloom”
Cat Power- “Sun”
Gotye- “Making Mirrors”
Grimes- “Visions”
Jack White- “Blunderbuss”
Kimbra- “Vows”
Lana Del Rey- “Born To Die”
Passion Pit- “Gossamer”
Sleigh Bells- “Reign of Terror”
The xx- “Coexist”

Old SchoolLists, Lists, Lists!
Racer is at it again.  He wants a Best Music of 2012 List.   A list of bests.  I'm supposed to judge what I've heard in the past year and tell you - in fact, more than tell you - persuade you that I know what's best.  Or, maybe it is so you can judge me and my musical tastes?

Racer, don't you see the whole list thing is what's wrong with the music world?  We all want to take the upper hand in the argument, be seen as the most, come out on top, and be able to look down on the competition.  But, when for the love of music did music appreciation become a contest?

I think it must be ingrained in us to contrast and compare all things and create a little hierarchy of like-kind items and then, to try to impose it on others as "truth". Sure, one apple may taste sweeter than another and be better in your apple hierarchy, but where do you place it in the context of all the fruit you ate this year?  The desire to elevate that which we prefer by subjecting others to our opinions is just misapplied Maslow to music with consequences as serious as misapplied Darwinism to social economics.  What you get when you impose your preferences on others is not what is best.  It may be the most publicized or top grossing, but it is not the "best."  What you get is stuff like "Gangham Style" and Justin Bieber, and I really don't want to go there.

Music is an experience that takes you on a journey. It is not a mineral, fruit or vegetable.  It breathes and moves, has structure and has rules that were made to be broken.  Whether it is The Ben Rice Band on Pour Me Some Whiskey taking you through a scathing slide guitar blues; Heavy Manic Souls' electrified power bluesrock on their self-titled album; Amy Hart's powerful blues-based vocals on Congratulations or Jon Herington showing his funky side on Time On My Hands - all 2012 releases - what do I add if I say they are some of the best blues rock releases of 2012?  Nothing, I add nothing, and it means nothing  unless you also listen and agree. Yet, even that does not mean any of it is "best".

How could it be? Is it even possible to compare releases by The Ben Rice Band, Heavy Manic Souls, Amy Hart and Jon Herington with alternative pop rock such as All The Right Moves'  release The Monster I've Become; Monte Pittman's step from behind Madonna's pointy bra on his album Pain, Love & Destiny'; or Bethpage Black's eclectic rocker Black Magic?  Contrast and compare.   Rule one effort best or better than another? Hardly.

You may hate pop, detest the blues, are non-plussed by alternative rock and only crave the harder stuff like Ripple Music's own Stone Axe's Stone Axe II; Mos Generator's Nomads; or Trucker Diablo's The Devil Rhythm.  So how is it possible with such disparate styles and sounds (and I haven't even mentioned classical, latin, reggae,  metal, country, symphonic, rap, hip hop, jazz, progressive, experimental, stoner, psychedelic, acoustic, emo, gypsy, or any one of a million other human categorizations of the sounds humans make that we call music) anyone can judge one better than another or ever come up with a list of the ten best efforts they heard this year?  It is an impossible, unnecessary and useless task.

The way I look at it we should not compare and contrast to determine which is better or best.  It is all music and, in my humble opinion, in it we should find harmony.  It is not to be placed in a pecking order. So, Racer, you go ahead and rank your aural journey. You won't get a 2012 top ten list from me.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Six rookies to look out for in 2013

A debut is one of the biggest milestones for any act, and not just musically. The debut period lays foundations for the future, foundations that these idols will carry for the rest of their careers, whether successful or not. (Though taking off from the debut period is another milestone in itself though.) This also is why it’s so important to put all your eggs in one basket, just this once -- the competition is fierce, and these acts need everything they can get.

Being a rookie in K-Pop isn't a walk in the park, especially now that the relatively small industry is overflowing with acts from agencies of all shape and size. A lot of rookies, more so those from smaller agencies, just fizzle away into irrelevance and never get their chance in the spotlight. But a competition will always have winners. As we've seen from the previous years, there are acts who got through their debut year with flying colors and went on to see even more success, and there are also those who fly under the radar at first but see massive success in the following years.

The acts on this list fall into one of those two categories -- acts who I think did a phenomenal job this year and deserve to get even bigger, and acts who I think have the potential to do well next year. These are the rookies who proved themselves, whether it be in one area or all, and managed to stand out.

Agency: LOEN Entertainment
Debuted: August
First Release: "Vista" (Single)
Follow-Up Release(s): "We Don't Stop" (November, Single)
Previous Review(s): "We Don't Stop"
Other Best of 2012 Appearances: N/A

As far as A&R and image go, FIESTAR have it. They're girly and feminine, but they pack a punch -- just how I like my girl groups. "VISTA" was a strong effort, a pretty good song, and even if "We Don't Stop" failed as a whole song, as far as musical direction goes, it's right on track. They have substance, and they have an agency that can afford to make them look, and sound, nice and sparkly.

If we talk individual talent, that's something they haven't quite yet been able to show off properly, but honestly I think that if they have good A&R and a good agency, it's something their future material will bring out. And as early as now, some of the girls have already stood out vocally.

They kind of crept up on me, but when I was looking through all the rookies this year, Fiestar is actually one of my favorite girl groups. I guess I didn't really feel it like the other rookies I liked because they're still pretty under the radar, and they've only had two singles out, but I really like them. With the little material and exposure that they had this year, they made me curious enough to want to see big things from them next year.

JJ Project
Agency: JYP Entertainment
Debuted: May
First Release: "Bounce" (EP+Single)
Follow-Up Release(s): N/A
Previous Review(s): "Bounce"
Other Best of 2012 Appearances: Top 50 Songs - #23: "Hooked"

JJ Project was really one of my favorite debuts this year, but then again it's so hard not to like them. They're one step away from annoying, but they don't take that step, so what you get is a playful, mischievous act. Take that mischief and give it good material to play around with -- you have JJ Project. They are proof that getting the right material is, without question, one of the most important parts of a debut, because had they not gotten "Bounce" and the other songs on their first EP, they wouldn't have been as effective as they are.

Another thing I really like about JJ Project is that they know how to sell that sound, without forgetting the fact that they are, in fact, making music. They run and jump around stage like a bunch of little boys, but underneath the image, they're actually stable live singers/performers. And what made them even better was the fact that they debuted during a time when all the rookie groups failed to deliver once they got to music shows.

Like I said earlier this year:
The reason why I like them so much is because they’re convincing, because there is as much effortlessness in their execution as there is conviction. See, this is what I mean when I say that execution matters just as much as good material. While good material will take you places, equally competent execution will drive the point home. 
And that effortlessness is really what you need for material as fun and straightforward as the songs on “Bounce”, because what these two guys do is give the otherwise thin JYP material some spring. Save all that soul for Miss A or half of the Wonder Girls -- I like my boybands jumping through hoops and fire like there’s no tomorrow. ... “Bounce” is what I’ve been looking for in a boygroup for a long time now -- effortlessly fun material, complete with literal jumping around stage.

Agency: YMC Entertainment
Debuted: January
First Release: "Heaven" (Single)
Follow-Up Release(s): "Invitation" (November, EP)
Previous Review(s): "Heaven" / "Invitation"
Other Best of 2012 Appearances: 5 Best Albums - #4: "Invitation" / Top 50 Songs - #2: "Shut Up" (With Simon D)

If I had to name a rookie of the year (which technically I'm doing because I'm saying this right now), without a shadow of a doubt it would be Ailee. From the very beginning the thrust of her career has been clear -- she had a gorgeous voice that could quite literally move mountains, and she showed it off for everyone to hear. But of course, there are so many rookies overflowing with talent, which made me scared for her earlier this year. Thankfully I was proven wrong, because "Invitation" followed "Heaven" and I just fell in love with everything about Ailee. What makes her better than everyone else is the fact that she knows how to bring it, and she does it with material that's practically made for her.

I know I sound like a broken record now, but really, Ailee is lightyears ahead of all the other rookies on this list. With Ailee it's not a matter of "I want to see what you do next", or "I see potential in you", it's more like "I want to see how you stay brilliant". Ailee took all of our existing standards for rookies and she bettered them. All of them. Talent, stage presence, material, promotions -- she did them all, and they brought out her strengths. That's really what a debut period should be -- it should be that time where you show everything off with the hope of people liking it.

Lee Hi
Agency: YG Entertainment
Debuted: October
First Release: "1, 2, 3, 4" (Single)
Follow-Up Release(s): "Scarecrow" (November, Single)
Previous Review(s): N/A
Other Best of 2012 Appearances: Top 50 Songs - #37: "1, 2, 3, 4"

Despite finishing second in the first season of "Kpop Star", Lee Hi was the one who set aside my fears of an audition show for idols. Of course there was "Superstar K" beforehand, but the thrust of the show wasn't as clear as "Kpop Star", where they were literally looking for someone to sign to a big three agency. My biggest fear was how these big agencies were going to sustain, or completely change, the images that the contestants had built up during the show, images they had little control over. I found my answer in Lee Hi, and all the success she had amassed in such a short period.

She has the talent, that's pretty obvious given not only her time before her formal debut, but even after. But she also chose the right agency for her -- YG took her strengths and they made her run with it, which she gladly did. And succeeded. But as with majority of the rookies on this list, the question now is -- "what's next?" She's laid the foundations very well, and now she has to start building her identity. If her foundation is anything to go by, I think we'll see great things from her next year. I hope we do.

Hello Venus
Agency: Pledis Entertainment
Debuted: August
First Release: "Venus" (EP)
Follow-Up Release(s): "What Are You Doing Today?" (December, EP)
Previous Review(s): "Venus"
Other Best of 2012 Appearances: Top 50 Songs - #39: "Love Appeal"

In my books, Pledis is notorious for not delivering the right material for their acts -- After School and Son Dambi are testament to that. But for some strange reason, this year they did pretty well, not with their established acts (AS and Dambi had pretty flat comebacks), but with their rookies. NU'EST, although not on this list, had material they could actually sing, and of course, Hello Venus had "Venus". I loved it earlier this year, and I love it now.
I don't ask much from rookie groups, I just want them to deliver their material with competence, conviction and a sense of togetherness, and I want them to show the beginnings of a musical identity. Surprises of all surprises, I found that in "Venus". While their material isn't exactly top-tier or revolutionary or anything, it's solid, again it shows off what they can do, and at the same time it matches their vocals.

And that continued on to their second EP and lead single, which, despite the fact that it's kind of messy, was cute with substance, and actual singing, as opposed to whining or squeaking. You don't have to be sickeningly cute to be effective, they're proof of that.

Hello Venus is textbook girl group, complete with cutesy material and a girly image. But they're proof that it's not always the mould that's the problem when cutesy girl groups go astray, sometimes it's the group themselves. Or the material they get. Or maybe even both. Whatever it is, they remain one of those groups who do cute the way I like it -- with actual singing, and that extra bit of oomph to give them substance.

Agency: SM Entertainment
Debuted: August
First Release: "MAMA" (EP)
Follow-Up Release(s): N/A
Previous Review(s): "MAMA" (EXO-K)
Other Best of 2012 Appearances: Top 50 Songs - #30: "History" (EXO-K) / Top 50 Songs - #29: "What Is Love" (EXO-M)

Despite what a lot of people may think about my views on EXO, I don't completely hate them. I don't because I haven't heard enough from them, and because majority of the things that went wrong with their debut happened because of SM's sloppy and pointless decisions. First they set extremely high expectations -- EXO were supposed to be SM's golden rookies, all new, shiny and ready for the taking. They hype them up like no other, with teasers left and right. And then, they give EXO a song that needs to be carried, as opposed to one that plays on existing strengths and masks flaws in recording, and especially performance. So because of that, they end up either lip-synching, or going all over the place, during their live promotion cycle. "MAMA" wasn't the right song, plain and simple.

But over the course of the year, I had numerous chances to look beyond what SM set up for them, and honestly they're not half bad. I don't see any clear voices that I haven't heard elsewhere, but considering that their debut single was a product of such bad A&R and they've improved immensely since their debut, it won't take long for me to find one.

So why did EXO take the last spot on the list? Because to me, they are the epitome of "potential". Look at everything they have -- the variety of members, the fan base, and of course SM backing. Take all of those, and EXO could possibly go places next year because so much can go right, despite the fact that so much went wrong this year.

[#3] Younha - "Run"

From: "Supersonic"
Format: Full-Length Album
Released: July
Territory: South Korea
Previous Best of Appearances: First Appearance

The hardest part of putting this year's list together was figuring out how to rank my top three. I had the three songs and they're really something else, but I liked them in different ways and all of them could have easily been #1.

When I first heard "Run", it came off to me as a mix between J-Pop and my impression of a Filipino band called Imago. But it quickly turned into it's own song, and to say I was in love with it would be an understatement.

"Run" is one of those songs that you have to take as one whole entity -- neither the melody nor the arrangement or instrumental stick out more than the other. You have a strong instrumental and a strong melody bound together with an arrangement that knows exactly what to bring out.

A lot of things happen on the instrumental, you have this gritty but epic synth line at the verses, that's magnified by this gorgeous bass line that because of the bareness of the verses, you feel and hear. See this is what I love about "Run", on other songs it's one or the other, but on "Run" it's always both. And of course the verses beautiful set up that stunning chorus that literally does soar. It's epic, but it's also very organized -- there are so many things going on, but it almost explicitly tells you exactly what to pay attention to and think about, and what to genuinely feel.

The melody is gorgeous, and it brings out the grace and the power in Younha's voice. The verses are very flowy, very whimsical, but then the chorus hits and you get this powerful melody that basks in the epicness of everything going on.

I know that this is a short review compared to the other songs in the top ten, but this is just one of those songs that you really have to hear and feel for yourself. My descriptions and praises will give you an idea of why I like it, but it's the experience itself that will really drive my point home.

Pharoah Sanders - Black Unity

Over ten minutes into this fucker, and we've got trumpet over organ over every freakin' type of percussion reasonably imaginable... we start with bass lines like fingertips massaging you... then bells, then maybe a harp...?

Black Unity, all told, is one track, at 37:21... it's an exercise in tribal rhythm: it builds, and it builds and it FUCKING BUILDS, repeating and repeating and reiterating and synonymizing and reflecting and recapitulating... (and during all this where the trumpeter's still trying to out-scream and/or arpeggio Sanders... and he's giving it a pretty good go...!)

Black Unity is the free-jazzish version of black metal and/or grindcore:

it's a delighted, religious swoon of a ceremony, and this ceremony, this sonic invocation... about chaos: a celebration of the unknown, and of our relationship to it... swelling keyboards at 19:30, again....

Dig that xylophone at 19:00... bass plucked at random as though dictated by the Gods... strings plucked above their bridge at 28:00...

It waxes, it wanes... it's sometimes a melody, sometimes a percussion, often both... it's "music" deciding, however coyly, whether or not to make an appearance....

Black Unity shows the majesty of tenor sax, as, above all, a leader, a sonic Herald, a modernized tribal conch shell... it rarely plays, yet completes the scene when it does... and you can feel it, when it's silent, dictating the action from behind the scenes, a leader in sound... but then there it is, with 2:55 left in the tune, swelling in and out over the pulsing organ, so much activity, saying such a simple thing... with 1:11 (left) we're fading out... with Asian harpsichord.... fading out for over thirty seconds... dig that applause... dig that laaaaaast bell....

It's chaos in hand, via reed, as is the way it is, and should forever be... huzzah!


The 5 Best Albums of 2012

After running through everything yesterday, including eligibility and the main criteria, this is it! Let's get right to the list.

#5: Big Bang - "STILL ALIVE"
Released: June
Territory: Korea
Singles: "Blue", "Monster", "Bad Boy", "Fantastic Baby"

"STILL ALIVE" has two of the things I really go out of my way to look for in an album -- identity and cohesion. It has those qualities because one, Big Bang are good musicians, they have the training and they have the experience, and two, they're confident about what they have, and who they are. It's because of that confidence that they're not afraid to play around. If you really are who you are, then nothing will change that.

Another thing I really like about Big Bang is that they're such an animated group, and it shows in their songs. As opposed to groups who bring out the good in their songs on stage (not that it's a bad thing!), Big Bang take the personality on stage and bring it to the recordings. And again, it's not just one personality, it's an entire range of sounds, and of moods.

You have songs like "Feeling" and "Fantastic Baby" which are literally made for the stage with all the energy and catchy hooks left and right, and you have mid-tempos like "Bad Boy" and "Blue" that show off these pretty melodies and their attention to detail. But then you also have songs that are somewhere in between, like "Love Dust", which is kind of dance-y, but not quite, but still a very good song, or "STILL ALIVE", which is epic and the kind of song that would be perfect for an opening song of a concert where everyone's excited, but just staring in awe and not exactly jumping up and down yet.

And all of these songs fit, they all work together to deliver one, solid, album because Big Bang are confident. See what a little brevity can do to an act, and what that brave act can do to an album?

#4: Ailee - "Invitation"
Released: October
Territory: Korea
Singles: "Heaven" (June), "I'll Show You" (September)

At first glance "Invitation" can seem very plain. When you look at the numbers you have a few ballads, a few mid tempos and two up tempos, one of them a disco-inspired one. Looking at that alone it doesn't seem that special, but when you actually listen to the album it's a completely different story.

That's what I like about music, and art in general even. Facts will give you information, yes, but it's the experience that matters. It's the experience that makes the magic, not the facts. And "Invitation" makes magic. Sweet, musical magic.

The binding factor of this album is and always will be Ailee. The songs themselves are pretty ordinary, most of them good at best, but it's Ailee's vocals that give them not just life, but fire. She has the ballad-ready emotion that the industry demands, but she adds spunk and confidence to it. You give "Evening Sky" to a singer with no attitude and I can assure you it'll be a snooze fest.

But of course, this album isn't without that one moment that makes me want to die of beauty -- that moment is "Shut Up". I love it I love it I love it and I don't know how to say it any other way, because really, "Shut Up" is one of this year's most stunning, most brilliant songs. It's the type of song that looks you in the eye and doesn't blink for three minutes, all while having so much fun. And Ailee has so much fun on this song, I can hear her smiling, even with all the post-prod this song went through.

For an act like Ailee, that young, vibrant female solo singer, "Invitation" fits like a glove. It's an album that's mainstream, it's an album that people will listen to, and it's also an album that makes sure Ailee, with her gorgeous vocals, stays in the center. Simple songs for a beautiful voice, "Invitation" is an album I've listened to time and time again, and I have no plans of stopping.

#3: Se7en - "2nd Mini Album"
Released: February
Territory: Korea
Singles: "Even When I Can't Sing" (February)

I don't know if you've already noticed, but all these albums have a point to them, or even more than one, that make them some of the best albums of the year. So what does Se7en's EP have?

One word -- effortlessness.

In music, or at least to me, it's one thing to have good material, it's also one thing to have talent, but it's an entirely different story if you can take that good material and talent, and deliver it with a sense of mastery, with a sense of effortlessness. Music isn't something to be forced, it's something to be fostered. If you're a good musician, a good singer, a good instrumentalist, once you learn how to operate your instrument (a voice is an instrument too) and take care of it, everything else will follow.

This EP gives off a sense of mastery -- Se7en is in his element, and the songs were clearly made for him. Everything is graceful and smooth, and the EP is the kind of pop that really lets you savor everything that happens. You hear everything, and you hear it enough to appreciate it. It's anything but an EP full of noise or elements that just stand there and don't really serve a purpose.

And you really do need that mastery with a purpose when you attempt to do songs like "When I Can't Sing" or "Angel", because that's what they depend on. These are songs with melodies so solid that they're already classics, they're so strong, so imposing, yet so beautiful, that the original version really does need to be lightyears better than the hundreds of talent show auditions that this song will carry. You need that effortlessness for songs like "Make Good Love", songs that depend on the delivery to drive the point home, and you need to notice every single detail, each of the beautiful melodies to make sense of the entire album as a whole.

#2: Girls' Generation - "GIRLS' GENERATION II ~Girls & Peace~"
Released: November
Territory: Japan
Singles: "PAPARAZZI" (June), "Oh!/All My Love Is For You" (September), "Flower Power" (November)

The first time I heard the album in full, I was actually really surprised. I mean I adored "PAPARAZZI" and "All My Love Is For You", but at that point I wasn't really sure what the rest of the album was going to be like. Nevertheless, I was greeted by a strong front -- outstanding material, outstanding production and confident delivery on all twelve songs. If that's not a strong front I don't know what is.

What I like about this album is that this is lightyears better than any of their Korean albums, and more of an album that majority of them will ever be. Musically as well, if this is the kind of material they put out on a regular basis, I wouldn't be as confused towards them like I am now. They're a girl group, they're pop, they need songs that cover for them and carry them, and those songs need to be good. I got that with "Girls & Peace".

The material is very girl group -- it's edgy, trendy, but girly. Tracks like "Flower Power" and "Animal", one of my favorites, provide the edgy, "PAPARAZZI" and "Boomerang" the trendy, with tracks like "TOP" giving the album some kick as well, and "Stay Girls", "All My Love Is For You" and "Girls & Peace" the girly, with "Not Alone" being a pretty ballad to boot. It's a very dynamic album, but what ties everything together is the production throughout, and the idea of this being the epitome of a well-done girl group album. Which it is.

I had two early favorites when this album was new -- "Animal" and "Stay Girls" -- but what ultimately put this album on this list was the fact that by this time, I've literally looped all of the songs for at least two or three days. Even "Oh!". They're really good songs, I could spend several paragraphs talking about why I like each song, but ultimately this is an album with dimension. The more you listen to it, the more you discover, and you'll start to see the appeal of songs you initially didn't really like. It's an album that grows on you, but at the end of the day it's still a really, really good album.

#1: Younha - "Supersonic"
Released: Month
Territory: Korea
Singles: "Run" (month)

"Supersonic" is my #1 album of the year because it's an album I can listen to from start to finish with no exceptions. There's no "Even if this track is pretty boring this other one is really good". There are no apologies to be made and mistakes to be corrected the next time around -- it is what it is, and it's brilliant. But then again, that's to be expected from someone with as much experience as Younha.

I honestly think it's an album that gives off an air of musicality, but it's not pretentious and doesn't attempt to be anything other than what it is. See that's what I hate about some pop acts, they try so hard to be "serious" or "high art" and they're not really any good at it, when, at the end of the day, they're still in pop. So why are they doing pop in the first place? It's as if pop has become a dumping ground of people who can't make it in "serious" music, when there are so many other people actually who take it seriously. There are people who build serious careers around it, and I just hate it when pop is treated like second-rate music, because not all of it is, and it's not like there isn't bad jazz or bad heavy metal. It's just a really big pet peeve of mine, but the absence of that mindset on "Supersonic" is one of the biggest reasons why this is my favorite album this year. It knows exactly what it is, and it does it extremely well.

You have a whole range of material on "Supersonic" -- from the fun, to the gorgeous, the stunning, and the mind-blowing. And I guess another thing that I really like about this album is that despite all the Coldplay references in some of the arrangements, this is an album that sounds Korean. You have your prerequisite Korean ballad melody in "Wait For Me", but it's not set against your usual Korean ballad instrumental -- it has some of the most understated, but most beautiful strings I've heard all year, it has this quaint guitar line, and it has that gentle, but resonating bass line. It's beautiful, it sounds very K-Pop, but it's also Younha.

This is one of those albums where it is literally impossible for me to name my all-time favorite, and not because they keep changing, but because I like them in different ways. Like "Wait For Me", I genuinely fell in love with it because of that beautiful melody and the beautiful delivery that came with it, but then I also adore the John Park duet because his voice is goosebump-inducing in that range and it's an understated epic that I really, really like. "Run" is truly one of the best pop songs all year -- it has all the emotions to pull on heartstrings, all the bells and whistles to get people interested, and it does it all in the most musical, most practiced but effortless way possible. And then you have these very fun songs like "People", which I love because it's so perky and it's the perfect wake-up song to keep me from getting grumpy, and then the Tiger JK track just lets everything loose and does it with so much brevity that I can't not like it.

The rest of the album is like that, and it's really the epitome of what I look for in an album -- songs that stand firmly on their own, but together they make magic and move mountains and everything in between.

Song Review: "Tenderly"

Originally published in 1946, with music by Walter Gross and lyrics by Jack Lawrence, and most notably recorded by Sarah Vaughn, this standard has been published in several striking colors and shapes: generally in Eb, and in either 4/4 or 3/4 time.

Of the literally hundreds of recorded versions of this song, I in particular dig eleven-- those of:

Chet Baker/ Miles Davis (trumpet);
James Carter (bari sax);
Don Byas, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins (with Lionel Hampton), Lester Young, David S. Ware and Dexter Gordon (tenor sax);
Eric Dolphy (solo bass clarinet);
and Billie Holiday & Amy Winehouse (vocal).

Particular Highlights?
Chet Baker: a familiar recitation of the minimal number of notes necessary to recognize the melody (C-D-F E on trumpet); this is my favorite version, probably, with hundreds of plays on iTunes... Chet establishes a familiar refrain (A, A#, E, F), this showing up several times during the piece, and one on which it ends.

Miles Davis: impatiently blurts out the melody at 0:20 (from Miles Davis live at Birdland, 1951-53), but otherwise (and this notably) ignores it....

Don Byas, also with a bitchin version (playing with Sir Charles Thompson)-- Byas' signature "could be crazy loud and brash because of the mechanics of his mouthpiece setup, yet rarely is, and is usually quite subtle" tenor sound, adding a bit of grit and pathos to what could easily become syrupy... Byas' muscular playing (especially for the time), replete with his (at 6:45) restatement of the melody in three octaves, makes this a great version, and just behind Chet Baker's. It ends at 7:00 with beautiful, quick and gentle "inverted U"-shaped runs runs through the melody, à la Coleman Hawkins....

James Carter's starts with a very fragile trumpet with the melody, and his bari sax playfully in the background... a Loki to the Thorish trumpet... and finally David S. Ware's version is Albert Ayler-ly awesome....

It's a great, simply, emotionally-moving tune-- no wonder so many greats had such fun re-reading it.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

[#4] Big Bang - "Feeling"

From: "Still Alive"
Format: Repackaged Album
Released: June
Territory: South Korea
Previous Best of Appearances: "Let Me Hear Your Voice" (2009) / #15 -"SOMEBODY TO LOVE" (2011)

I've always said this, but really, my affection towards Big Bang is more of a respect than anything else, and honestly to me, that's beyond just liking their music, or them. I respect them as an idol group, as an act, and as musicians, because they have proved time and time again how outstanding they are. They're an act who deserve every single success they have.

Initially, my favorite song from them this year was "Love Dust", it's fun with a pretty melody, but the moment I heard "Feeling", I knew there was something special.

At the beginning, the only part that drew me in was the melody, because you all know I'm not a rap person. I mean who wouldn't love the chorus -- it's glorious. Daesung's voice is glorious. And even if Taeyang pales in comparison to the sheer brilliance of Daesung's vocals, it's not as if he completely destroys the thing. He can stand his ground, even beside a voice as beautiful as the one before him.

The melody literally shines -- you have all these things going on behind it, synth lines and chanting and whatever else, but it basks in that. It's so, so smooth, and the placement of that high note (or high noteS rather), is so natural, almost like he's talking to you and not singing. That's another thing I love about the melody, despite the fact that it doesn't make up a lot of the song, you know that this was written by someone who's musically proficient as opposed to someone who just threw a few notes he's heard before and called it a melody. The melody alone will make you want to either dance like a madman or just melt into a puddle of goo.

After the initial shock and high from the melody wore off, I sat down and listened to the song again. I realized that the main reason why that melody works, why it's like this big explosion of... beautiful, is because of the presence of the rap part. Like I've said before, I'm not really a rap person because it's not something I was exposed to as a kid and therefore I didn't really form an ideal without other people telling me what it's supposed to be. That and even if I'm a lit major, poetry is definitely not my strong point.

What I can do is put it in the context of the sound, which is exactly what I'm going to do. Rap is obviously not sung and therefore it's rougher than a melody, but still rhythmic, so you can play around with dynamics and all that. The rap part here provides the contrast that the instrumental doesn't give, and creates a kind of friction with that glorious chorus so that once it's actually time for it to come out, we're all shocked.

But honestly, the thing I like most about Big Bang songs is that as much as you can take it apart, look into everything, then put it back together, at the end of the day it's still good music, and good music is meant to be enjoyed. Big Bang know that, and beyond the gorgeous melody, beyond the friction in the elements, "Feeling" is such a fun song. It's such a joy to listen to it, and effortlessly enjoyable. It's songs like this that remind me of why I chose music.

X-tivity Factor - Planetary Travel

When it comes to music, I usually find a surprise to be a good thing. A surprise means that something is exceeding or working outside of my expectations. It means that something has departed from the status quo, and introduced an element to my listening experience that is fresh, unique, engaging, or a total about face from what I was expecting. I love surprises in my music because it means something new has unfolded in my ears, and therefore I am very glad that I have the opportunity to write about X-tivity Factor’s Planetary Travel, which threw me a pleasing curve on my way to work today.

The majority of promo’s that I receive fit into the rock mold. Therefore when I put Planetary Travel into the player, I was expecting a riff of some sort to jump out at me. What I got instead was a beat, a beat that immediately got my head nodding and my foot moving. You see X-tivity Factor is not a rock band at all, but rather an electronica group from Italy. Having only dabbled in the electronica pool before, it was very pleasing to feel this music take ahold of me and gently coax me into a rhythm. Starting with Galaxy Places, and working through to the very end of its 25:42 run time, Planetary Travel works its magic through the less is more approach. While numerous effects are used with great results, nothing ever gets overly complicated, and more importantly nothing ever takes your mind too far away from the beat, which lies at the very heart of the music. Even the lack of any vocals whatsoever does nothing to hinder my enjoyment of songs like Acid Rain, Hungry Wolf, Lost Species of Earth, and the remastered Vanethian track Dreamscapes. There is a real sense of pleasure in not being required to dig too deep in lyrics, or in deciphering the numerous technicalities injected into a single song, but rather just allowing that single steady beat to carry you.

Part of the joy in having the opportunity to write on albums through The Ripple is experiencing a broadening of my musical horizons. That happened today when a got to listening to X-tivity Factor’s Planetary Travel. The only downside I can see with it is the very short length of the album, which leaves me wanting more. Still if that is the only problem you have, then that is not necessarily a bad thing. I may not be the authority on electronica music just yet, but I do know good music when I hear it, and I certainly did with this album.

--Audio Renaissance

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The 5 Best Albums of 2012: An introduction

Putting together a list of the best albums of any given year has always been a big challenge for me -- even bigger than ranking 50 of my favorite songs. Albums are a lot harder to judge than songs, mainly because you can't just say "okay, all the songs on this album are good" and end it at that. An album is never, ever, just a few songs thrown together, no matter how good those songs may be on their own.

An album is one, solid, cohesive entity -- it's a package. If it wasn't, then what's the use of an album? Acts should just release individual songs and not a group of them. That's why judging one has to be about how the songs work together as much as it is how good they actually are alone, and that's really hard. There are albums with spectacular songs that, when put together, aren't cohesive at all, but then there are also albums with mediocre songs, or a mix of different qualities, that somehow manage to really click, and make for a fantastic album.

But sometimes even an album with chemistry between the songs isn't enough -- having chemistry doesn't always mean that it's the good kind. In some of the albums considered this year, there were good songs that were cohesive with each other, but that cohesion kind of fell flat of what could have been and didn't really live up to expectations.

Thankfully, there are albums that make my job easier by just being their outstanding selves, all while also making my job such a pleasure. There are albums that come with fireworks and explosions left and right, but at the same time have all the foundations laid out firmly. It's those kinds of albums that made the list this year, but first I had to find them, because believe me when I say that there weren't a lot.

So you can imagine how hard it was for me to choose five albums that are really, really, really good. I actually planned to choose ten, but then I realized that some of the albums in that tentative list of ten weren't really that good, and I was only putting them on the list because there was nothing better. So I just cut it down to the five albums that remind me of why I got into K-pop in the first place, and prove that the industry is capable of delivering outstanding material.

Of course, a list isn't without limitations. I couldn't listen to all the albums released in Korea this year, because I'm not a full-time writer (yet!!!!! :D), so obviously the first limitation is that this is a list of the best of the albums I've heard. The rest is below:

1. The album must have been released between January 1, 2012 and December 15, 2012. Albums with singles released prior to January 1st are only eligible if at least 85% of the entire album was first released on or after January 1st. Repackaged albums are eligible, as long as they follow all other rules.

2. The act receiving main billing must be of Korean nationality, regardless of the territory the album was first released in.

3. All releases, regardless of intended format (whether EP or LP), must have a minimum of FIVE (5) original tracks (no covers!), at least 50% of which is credited solely to the "main" artist. Remixes and radio edits will not be counted or reviewed.
For example, Ailee's "Invitation" has a total of six tracks, all first released in 2012. In three out of the six tracks, she shares credits with other artists, meaning exactly half of her album contains tracks featuring only her. "Invitation" is eligible.
4. Special intros, instrumental preludes, etc., are counted as part of the album but are not counted as a track credited to the main artist, unless he/she provides vocals/performance. However, regardless of billing, these tracks will still the judged along with the rest of the album.

I guess that's it. Watch out for the list tomorrow!

[#5] SNSD/Girls' Generation - "Animal"

From: "GIRLS' GENERATION II ~Girls & Peace~"
Format: Full-Length Album
Released: November
Territory: Japan
Previous Best of Appearances: "Genie" (2009) / #19 -"Run Devil Run" (2010) / #36 -"Sunflower" (2011) / #7 -"Let It Rain" (2011)

If there's something I'm thankful for, it's that Japan has given SNSD a chance to deliver some of their best material, and deliver it consistently. I mean, Korea had "Genie" and that's forever one of the best pop songs I've ever heard, but they don't' have a constant stream of amazing material in Korea, they have it in Japan. "Girls & Peace" was a really good album, so much that I really just had to go with my gut when I was choosing which song to include on this year's list.

"Animal" was really my first favorite when I heard the album, and it remains one of the strongest songs among the already-strong album. It's very formulaic, but since when did that become a bad thing all the time?

Like a lot of songs, the melody was the first part to draw me in -- it's stunning, and it's the epitome of a girl group doing tough. You have these very flat, this very graceful, flowy, but urgent bridge, and then you have this scream-type chorus. It's the type of melody that's very simple to pull off so it stays good across a skill set as wide as SNSD's, but without compromising the fact that, you know, it still has to be an actual melody with actual singing involved majority of the time.

As much as the melody drew me in, two things kept me hooked -- the instrumental and the production.

I love the instrumental because despite the fact that it has this very dance/club sound going on the entire time, it doesn't forget the fact that dynamics exist and thus need to be taken advantage of. I love the synth loop at the beginning, and I love how it works with the bass line to give the verses a sense of urgency. And then the build-up starts at bridge, which is my favorite part of the song, and it just ups the urgency even more so that once the song actually explodes with two nice, sharp punches courtesy of the melody and the instrumental, it just blows you away.

And finally, the production on this song is really mind-blowing. The vocal treatment is spot-on -- the verses have character, the bridges have the clarity to show off the high notes, and the choruses have the power to go full steam ahead. And then you have this very clean, very silky, treatment to the entire song, and it just smooths everything out.

"Animal" is a stunning song, it's beautiful but it also literally stuns you. It's songs like this that made me like girl groups in the first place -- they're feminine, they're gorgeous, but they have substance to their kick. But beyond being a girl group song, "Animal" is really one of the most outstanding pop songs of the year. This, my friends, is pop music masterclass.

Top 5 Underheralded, Underappreciated Clash master oeuvres

"Pressure Drop", Black Market Clash

Cover versions are indelibly etched near the top elechons in the Clash musical lexicon ("I Fought The Law", "Police On My Back"); reggae of course features prominently as well (too many to mention); for that matter, "Police and Thieves" is a reggae cover that is often featured among top Clash song lists.  From where I sit however I'd take their rollicking take on the Toots and the Maytals classic any day.  Covers are a tricky business, naturally:  optimally one walks a fine line between roboticallly reproducing the original (why bother) and perverting the original into something uncomfortably unfamiliar, cringeworthy, or both.  The band imbues this classic with just the right measure of infectious abandon without contorting the original beyond recognition.

"Up in Heaven", Corner Soul and Let's Go Crazy, Sandinista

About midway through the sprawling multicultural epic, albeit surely the most polarizing of all Clash albums, lies this one-two-three knockout punch that ranks among the band's most brightly shining moments.  After the merciful fadeout of Lightning Strikes, a catchy four second riff masquerading as a 5 minute funk workout, intones the opening organ of Up in Heaven, one of Mick Jones' criminally overlooked Clash masterpieces.  Where Joe Strummer's ideological fervor often drove the bus through the band's trademark high octane manifestos, sometimes dangerously bordering on the bully pulpit, Jones was always more subtle, more nuanced in his approach to social justice, his signature compositions weaving character portrayals of the everyman struggling to deal with everyday challenges (ie the oft-celebrated "Lost in the Supermarket") rather than polemic bannerwaving.   (Of course, there's always an exception to every rule, witness Strummer's stunningly brilliant "Broadway" on this very album, which easily could have made this list, dripping in pathos as it evokes rain-soaked down and out New York street folks...). In my view nowhere is Jones' essence more evident than in "Up in Heaven", a pleasantly uptempo melody betrayed by a heartwrenching lyrical glimpse into the plight of London's underclass:           

And whatcha gonna do when the darkness surrounds?
You can piss in the lifts which have broken down

You can watch from the debris the last bedroom light
We’re invisible here just past midnight

After the final drums clatter and fade away into that darkness we are startled awake by Strummer's invocation at the outset of Corner Soul.  Loosely based on Enoch Powell's famous River of Blood speech (learn more about it here: : newsflash - apparently xenophobia is nothing new!, and certainly not limited to ultraconservatie militias pacing the Arizona border...), musically Corner Soul defies easy music categorization.  Guitar, bass and drum chug away in an understated reggae vibe, but keyboard effects and ethereal choral vocals give the music a hypnotic depth.  But Strummer's  vocals are the centerpiece of this gem, conjuring up the sceptre of impending violence without rooting it in the historical grounding of any particular set of facts.  Simply riveting, spinetingling listening.

The third track in this sequence isn't the slightest bit opaque, nuanced, or subtle:  it's the Clash at their effervescent, pedal to the metal, celebratory best.  "Let's Go Crazy" is the "Party Rock Anthem" of the Clash anthology if you will - an unbridled celebration of Carnival's ebulllience, with a few touches of Strummer's wryly cynical views of law enforcement, the drug trade, and the like thrown in for comic relief.  The band dabbled in just about every musical genre imaginable on those three discs, sometimes more effectively than others for sure, and this calypso barnburner replete with steel drums, police whistles and streetcorner preachers positively captures the exuberance of this cultural phenomenon. 

  (i LOVE this viewer-created video!)

"Sean Flynn", Combat Rock

"You Know He Heard The Drums Of War."

Such is the haunting refrain that infuses this sinewy, softspoken track  hidden deep on side two of Combat Rock, perhaps the second most polarizing of all Clash releases.  While the karaoke-friendly power chords of "Should I Stay or Should I Go" and the playful blues bar riffs of "Rock the Casbah" (drummer Topper Headon's finest moment?) remain permanently ingrained in top 40 rotation to this day, having rocketed the band's final release to commercial superstardom, Sean Flynn, along with the more widely acclaimed Straight to Hell and Ghetto Defendant, much more effectively capture the band's restless, experimental essence at the sunset of its glory.  No verse, no chorus, no real structure at all; just Jones' undulating, understated riffs punctuated by darting saxaphones and slowly galloping Asianesque percussion, with Strummer intoning with typical passion about the plight of the actor-turned-photojournalist son of the dashing Errol Flynn.  It doesn't characterize his disappearance and presumed tortured death at the hands of Khmer Rouge in anything resembling any sort of linear cohesion so much as summon his spirit cosmically.  It's virtually unfathomble that it was produced by the same quartet that just a few years before was blurting out hyperkinetic, three chord, twominute blasts about rude boys, hateful record company execs,  and condoms, but such was the evolution of the greatest band that ever mattered.  

 --Rhythm Slayer

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

[#6] Miss A - "No Mercy"

From: "Touch"
Format: EP
Released: February
Territory: South Korea
Previous Best of Appearances : #21 -"Goodbye Baby" (2011)

As much as I poke fun at JYP, and everything from his comments on K-Pop Star to his A&R decisions to his compositions, it's not as if he's completely devoid of ability. If he was then he would've never made it that far. "No Mercy" was one of his more brilliant moments this year, even if it was written by Hong Ji Sang (who, coincidentally, also wrote "Don't You Know", my favorite song from 2PM's "Hands Up") and not JYP.

If there's one song on this list that has been my jam for almost the entire year, it would be "No Mercy". I mean I liked "Lips" and "Rock N Rule", but from the beginning there was something more in "No Mercy". When I reviewed the devastation that was "Touch" earlier this year, I said that this should've been the lead single, and I stand by that.

What made me like "No Mercy" at first was the fact that it was so Miss A. It captured that playful spunk to their image, but at the same time it also channeled the mischievous sexiness that they also have. All that in one song? I'm in.

Again, there's a nice contrast between the melody and the instrumental -- the melody is smooth and feminine, but then you have this very funky, almost gritty instrumental. It's that contrast that gives the song direction, really, because individually the melody and the instrumental sound pretty flat. When they come together though, it's like getting mini explosions every measure.

It's also a very confident song. Again, with a contrast as obvious as the one here, it's very easy for one or the other to shy away -- they don't. The vocals are snappy and brave, they give the melody a nice, hard kick, but they also give it a smoothness and grace that only female vocals can give.

I also really like "No Mercy" because despite the fact that the instrumental has all this funky going in, it's such a graceful, pretty song. Which is pretty much why it became "my jam". It's something you can head-bang and dance to, courtesy of the instrumental, but it's also something that's easy to sing along to, courtesy of the melody. It's mainstream, but it's good, well-thought through and confidently delivered, mainstream. Add that to the fact that the production on this is fantastic and it's genuinely a really good song to start with, and you have magic, I tell you, magic.

The Machine - Calmer Than You Are

Oh yeah, now we're talking folks. This Dutch trio knows what it's all about. Just turn off the lights completely, light a candle or two or maybe turn on a lava lamp. Sit down somewhere comfortable, start Calmer Than You Are, crank up the volume, stare at the lights and The Machine will take you anywhere you want to. It's a great journey indeed!

These guys are definitely a stoner band and subsequently references to the mighty Kyuss are impossible to ignore, that goes for every stoner band. But The Machine has something different going on if you side-step the Palm Desert influences. Beyond the stoner heaviness, they conjure spacy, trippy psychedelica akin to get-on-the-magic-carpet-ride and it's an amalgamation I really love. Simply because when blended together the juxtaposition of these two elements has such a calming and soothing effect on me, hence the title Calmer Than You Are perhaps? At the same time it can get me into the groove as well, it just depends on the situation.

Calmer Than You Are is The Machine's fourth full length, the third for Elektrohasch, and for some reason I have totally missed out on them. This is more than redeemed with this offering though. Despite clocking in at just about 46 minutes a distinct jam-feeling is apparent throughout which, after checking out the band's catalouge, isn't strange at all. Up until now The Machine were clearly a jam band but with Calmer Than You Are they have opted for a rawer more distinct sound albeit without losing any of their past. And that works real good for me.

Frontman David Eering - vocals, guitar - uses fuzz and wah wah pedals perfectly and elegantly helping their music to their new-found direction although during the first half of opener Moonward his use of the sitar keeps the link to their past well and alive. The song starts off slowly keeping it stoney and trippy but about halfway in the band, completed by Hans van Heemst - bass guitar - and Davy Boogaard - drums, pounds me into the ground by switching tempo and going all heavy. While David is riffing like there's no tomorrow Hans and Davy's rhythm work simply pummels me into oblivion. It's like a bulldozer on a rampage. And this is how Calmer Than You Are plays out, it switches between slow and heavy without being all over the place instead it works perfectly. The only time the band reverts to the music from their previous albums is on Sphere(...Or Kneiter). At 12:22 they allow themselves room and freedom to improvise and jam and it's beautiful.

Like I mentioned earlier The Machine draws their inspiration from two elements stoner rock and psychedelia. And where so many others fail they are solid, adventurous, skilled and absolutely brilliant. Roaming within a genre that draws so much inspiration from one single band, Kyuss, The Machine have found their own path and there's only one way for them...up! Don't miss out on this three-piece because they deserve to be out there and you'll do yourself no favours by ignoring them. Good stuff indeed.