Friday, December 28, 2012

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.

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