Wednesday, January 2, 2013

[korean music in 2012] part 1: top 30 songs

This is the long overdue post of the best Korean songs of 2012! If you've seen my annual posts from 2011 at all, I made a couple of huge changes this time around. Most obvious change would be that in 2011, I only focused on Korean indie music. I made a top 10 list of Korean indie songs and top 10 of Korean indie albums. However, 2012 was the year the word 'indie' started losing meaning to me, as the line between indie and whatever's-not-indie started to blur, and I frankly did not care much if an artist was indie or not. So here it is: top 30 Korean songs of the year.
Another big change would be that in this list there are 30 songs, as opposed to last year's 10. Again, I paid more attention to music in 2012, and the pool of candidates was a whole lot bigger than 2011. In 2011, there were around 150 songs I considered for this list. In 2012, I had 350. I'm not saying 2012 was a better year for Korean music, because I personally don't think it was; I just listened to more stuff on time in 2012. Keep in mind that the length of the lists have nothing to do with the quality of music that year, since it's always subjective to the releases of that particular year.
And the last change  I made is that this list only encompasses songs released from January 1, 2012 to November 30, 2012. None of the December releases are included in this list, because December was an incredibly busy month for me, and I just didn't have the time to check out any new music from December. (Heck, I didn't have time to check out some notable albums from November as well.) I'll include December's music in the 2013 lists, so no worries. I might do that for the future annual lists as well, maybe get them out of the way sooner...
And as far as these lists go, no same artist is listed more than once, except one exception this time because of a certain producer who featured different artists on the two songs I included. I knew both songs had to be on the list, so I made an exception this time. (Both are in the top 10. You might even know who it might be already...)

Anyway, as always, these 'best of 2012' lists are subjective to my tastes, although I do try to look at things from a more critical viewpoint as well. But knowing myself, these lists will be heavily lacking some hip-hop since I don't tend to listen to much of that. (Or any of the non-'pop'/contemporary popular music genres, like jazz, classical, etc.) I excluded the most obvious pick, Psy's "Gangnam Style" because yeah yeah, I know it's a great song, but it has lost its touch since the exposure and it's really not that incredible without the music video. Also excluded for a music video-related reason is G-Dragon's "One of a Kind" - a great song in every aspect, but the music video turned me off so much I started disliking the song, too.

Check under the cut for what I deemed were the best 30 songs of 2012 for one reason or another. Warning you ahead, it's very wordy. Included in the end is a link to the 8track playlist of all 30 songs, so feel free to check that out, if you want to listen to the songs!

Honorable Mention:
요한 일렉트릭 바흐 (Johann Electric Bach) || 장로님 에쿠스 타신다 
from: Zynthar 
The honorable mention goes to oddball Johann Electric Bach's song "장로님 에쿠스 타신다" (he translates the title to Janro-nim Riding Equus). It's sort of a terrible song, especially with all the anti-Christian undertones, but oh boy did it make me laugh. I laughed so hard first time I listened to this song, and then again when I was showing it to friends. I'm not sure if that was the intended reaction he's been hoping for, but I find it so terribly amusing. You can check out the whole album on bandcamp. I strongly recommend it, just for shits and giggles. The man is a genius.

30. Glen Check || French Virgin Party
from: Hate Couture
Rising electronic superstars Glen Check's first album Haute Couture triumphantly announced their return after their rather tentative debut EP and singles. And the catchiest song on the album, "French Virgin Party", gets you on your feet with its addicting beats and catchy melody. And the lyrics are super easy and fun to sing along to. All-in-all, a great party track.

29. 솔루션스 (The Solutions) || Lines
from: The Solutions 
The Solutions' song "Lines" was stuck in my head for ages (along with their other equally catchy song, "(I Couldn't Be) Your One") when I first gave them a try. It's also one of my comfort songs of the year - despite the shaky English (probably the main reason why it placed so low on the list), there are a couple of lines in the chorus that got to me. "The whole world has always been okay, oh please don't be afraid. It's alright" Strangely comforting.

28. EXID || 매일 밤 (Every Night)
from: Every Night 
EXID was the last thing on my radar, so I was pleasantly surprised when I came across their song "Every Night" and really, really liked it. This song has everything a good catchy pop song should have. A hook. A strong vocal performance balanced with interesting tones and lovely rapping. Consistent lyrics. Good production and execution. Plus, I love how they took a previous song of theirs, "전화벨", and  made it so much better by tweaking it here and there and giving it a better melody. And the frankness of the lyrics (booty call, ladies and gentlemen) is admirable.

27. 주윤하 (Ju Yoon Ha) || 당신의 평화는 연약하다
from: On The Way Home
Probably the most frustrating song on this list. The lyrics are some of the most heartfelt and beautiful I've seen this year, and Ju Yoon Ha's whispery delivery in the verses is heartbreakingly perfect. But when he's trying to hold his higher notes, he's kind of shaky and it's so obvious. Such a shame, because this is such a gorgeous ballad, and everything is perfect and I keep coming back to it ... except there's that little thing that irks me every time. Still a great song in theory. I'd love to see a cover of it someday.

26. Spica || Painkiller
from: Painkiller
Spica is such a talented bunch, with each member bringing something to the table. It's a shame they aren't recognized more for their talent, because their debut song "Russian Roulette" and follow-up "Painkiller" were both such strong tracks. "Painkiller" is definitely my favourite though, because it rightfully shows how vocally strong the group is. I'm hoping Spica will regain their footing after the last couple of disastrous comebacks, because let's be real, they can do so much better.

25. Ailee || Heaven
from: Invitation
Ailee completely blew me away with her powerful debut single "Heaven". It's such a great, catchy song, and something that stood out among all the chaotic and messy electronic music that seemed so prevalent in the idol music scene this year. And wow, what a voice. And what a performer. Paired with her phenomenal stage presence, this song was memorable in the best possible way.

24. Infinite || 추격자
from: Infinitize
I enjoy consistency when it comes to music and Infinite's fantastic at that, which I very much appreciate. They have a firm musical identity, and with each song they seem to get better and better at what they do. "The Chaser" is refreshing, while still maintaining that familiarity from their previous songs. And it just screams Infinite.
23. Nell || Cliff Parade
from: Slip Away
If you've known me for a while you might be surprised that a Nell song - a Nell song! - placed so low on this list, but I have my reasons. Yes, I love them to death and they're still my favourite band in the whole entire universe, but I'll never try to force myself to believe that I like something by them solely because they're my favourite band. Unfortunately Slip Away was a weak Nell album, with maybe 3-4 songs that were salvageable at the end of the day. I listened to the album a lot when it was released, but I found myself not going back to it after a couple of months. Now I don't even bother with it anymore. "Cliff Parade" is an exception though, because I have a thing for snare drums, and the climax is simply beautiful.

22. 가인 (Gain) || 시선 (feat.윤종신)
from: Talk About S.
I had a bit of a dilemma deciding which Gain song to pick for the top 30 because I knew I had to put one of her songs on the list. In the end I went with "시선" because it's probably more timeless than any of her other songs on this wonderful EP. The lyrics are wonderful, and paired with the amazingly creepy vocals by Yoon Jong Shin, this song is perfectly delivered with all its sensuality and appeal.

21. Fantastic Drugstore || 아저씨
from: This Is Nothing 
Fantastic Drugstore won me right over with their song "아저씨" when I first discovered them through the shitshow that was Top Band 2. Putting aside all the beef I have with that show though, I guess I should be thankful since I found so many great bands through it. A deadly catchy song with witty lyrics. Must be fun to see live, I really want to see them live!

20. f(x) || Electric Shock
from: Electric Shock
I had the hardest time trying to choose between this and "Jet" but since this was the title track, thought I'd go with this instead.. Again, such great musical consistency, and wacky lyrics that's so f(x), and every member doing what they do best. Amazing song, amazing album, amazing group... f(x) was definitely the girl group of 2012 for me.

19. 이랑 (Lee Lang) || 욘욘슨
from: 욘욘슨
Lee Lang's music has no boundaries. It roams freely, at times making perfect sense, at times all over the place. "Yon Yonson" is hands down my favourite on this album. The aimless lyrics, simple production and barely average vocals... How she manages to make it so memorable and catchy at the same time is purely magical.

18. Black Bag || White One
from: Beyond The Sky
Another Top Band 2 discovery, Black Bag grabbed my attention right away with their imploding "White One". I ramble on about this song for a while in my album review for Beyond The Sky so I won't go into detail here, but even months after first hearing the song, the oomph is still there. I'm still amazed at all the layers and the confident vocals in this song every time I listen to it.

17. Block B || 닐리리맘보
Another song  I reviewed and gushed about how great it was. Again, the fun is still there. This song is a hell of a party to listen to. It's such a shame it went so unnoticed!

16. 온달 (OnDahl) || 닮은아이
from: 달의 뒷편 
Ultimate please-all track of the year. Lovely song. It was one of those safeground songs I played around people all the time because it's such a cute, crowd-friendly kind of a song. And unlike other lighter songs that kinda seems to breeze through, this song stuck.

15. 박지윤 (Park Ji Yoon) || 나무가 되는 꿈
from: 나무가 되는 꿈 
Putting aside all the "성인식-Park Ji Yoon so grown up blah blah" (because hey, she actually got over her old image on her extremely underrated 7th album) this song is beautiful. Written by a personal favourite musician, Kwon Soon Kwan of No Reply, this song is so, so beautiful, with Park Ji Yoon's perfectly executed vocals and heartfelt lyrics. It's simple and breathtakingly grand, all in one.

14. 무키무키만만수 (Mukimukimanmansu) || 2008년 석관동
from: 2012
Mukimukimanmansu's groundbreaking "Andromeda" could have been a more obvious choice but it is "2008년 석관동" that balances their extremely precarious identity with mass-friendliness. Hands down the most "mainstream" song on their mindblowingly bizarre album, it's a gem of a track with its realistic lyrics ("I saw an image of you that I wanted / not realizing that it wasn't actually you"; "we live on, fooling each other").

13. 황보령 (Hwang Bo Ryung) || 비단
from: 이야기해주세요 and Follow Your Heart 
This isn't my favourite track off the Please Talk compilation but it's the one I kept coming back to. (So maybe it is?) Also included in Hwang Bo Ryung=smacksoft's 5th album that was released in November. Awesome guitar effects, and I love how the song highlights Hwang Bo Ryung's fantastic voice.

12. SHINee || Sherlock (Clue+Note)
from: Sherlock
I love songs where a lot is happening and everything just works so well together. Shinee's "Sherlock" is a prime example. Hands down my favourite idol song of the year, "Sherlock" is phenomenal with all its energy and catchiness. Not to forget that Shinee is unbelievably phenomenal live. I didn't dig the choreo very much, but I loved how their MR barely had any backtrack. On top of that, as mentioned before, consistency, awesome execution. Loved the whole Clue+Note thing, too, that was a fascinating touch.

11. Busker Busker || 벗꽃엔딩
from: 버스커 버스커 
Song that dominated all corners of Korea, Busker Busker's "Cherry Blossom Ending" is the song many people will remember down the road, when they are looking back on 2012. Catchy, cute, fuzzy, all the good things rolled into one song.

30~11 are all really amazing songs, but the Top 10 songs are the cream of the crop, with the top 5 being the best of the best. 

10. 고찬용 (Go Chan Yong) || 회전목마 
from: Look Back 
I don't know much about Go Chan Yong's past projects and works, but the moment I heard his song "회전목마" ("Merry-Go-Round"), I knew that I had to listen to the song over and over again and check out more of his stuff. Despite the short length of the track, Go Chan Yong manages to fit in an impressively breathless vocal performance along with lyrics that augment the song's appeal.
The ultimate best-first-impression song of the year, "회전목마" grabbed my attention immediately on the first listen and it has stayed ever since.

9. Gate Flowers || 잘 자라 
from: TIMES 
Oh boy, I do love layered vocals so, so very much. And I love how this song progresses. Solid instrumentals and an excellent vocal performance also add to its merit. The creepy lyrics are a bonus. Brilliant song.

8. Casker || 천 개의 태양 
from: 여정 
Casker will forever and ever hold a special place in my heart. Especially Yoongjin, who has one of my favourite voices in music at the moment. Written by Yoongjin, "천 개의 태양" ("A Thousand Suns") is a song that holds so much emotion, not just in the lyrics but in the delivery as well. It almost physically hurts just listening to it.

7. Primary || 씨스루 (feat. Zion.T, Gaeko of Dynamic Duo) 
from: Primary and the Messengers LP
Groove. Primary's "See-Through" featuring Zion.T and Gaeko is my feel-good jam of the year. Its grooviness is truly timeless, with a mindbogglingly awesome performance by Zion.T, the real star of this stellar track. Gaeko adds a lovely touch with his rap and edgier vocals, but really, it's Zion.T who pulls you in. I dig the lyrics too, because at first it's sort of offensive ("you're different from all those dumb girls chatting away in that corner"; "I see through you"), but hey, he maxes his card trying to be cool, and never gets the girl he "sees through" in the end. A song by men who aren't afraid of some self-deprecating humour. Simply brilliant.

6. 나얼 (Naul) || 바람기억 
from: Principle of My Soul
I'm pretty sure Naul blew everyone out of the water when he released his epic "Memory of the Wind". So thoughtfully arranged, this song is simply phenomenal because you know that only singers like Naul can pull it off. Such a wonderful song that showcases Naul's abilities as a singer. The lyrics are extremely beautiful on their own as well - an honest declaration of love and faith.

5. 잠비나이 (Jambinai) || 소멸의 시간
from: 차연 (Differance)
Who on earth thought that mixing post-rock with Korean traditional instruments would result in such a captivating sound. The song that triggered a post-rock phase for me and the song that I was downright addicted to for a while, Jambinai's "Time of Extinction" is terrifyingly enrapturing with its fascinating sounds and progression. Destructive, masochistic, vivid. It's full of nightmarish wonders.

4. 김거지 (Beggar Kim) || 독백
from: 밥줄 

Simplicity at its best. Beggar Kim won the annual Yoo Jae Ha Music Contest with this song, and deservedly so, as it is one of the most beautiful songs that I had the opportunity to hear this year. Only a few songs have managed to make me cry and this is one of them. Raw, heartfelt lyrics and an honest voice to match them. Some of the best lyrics (I know I've said this a lot, but I really mean it this time!) I've seen. The entire song tugs at your heart. You can check out the translation I did of the lyrics here, because the lyrics are truly something.
 3. Primary || 독 (feat. E-Sens of Supreme Team)
from: Primary and the Messengers LP
It doesn't have an addicting hook, nor is anybody singing their lungs out. In fact, it's not even a typical verse-chorus song. It's just E-Sens and his voice, supported by a beautiful piano track laced with scribbling sounds, Zion.T's supportive backing vocals, and later a subtle string arrangement and solid beats. But that's all this song needs, because it's E-Sens spilling his heart out onto these words, telling it as it is. He talks of his low point, of abhorring himself, of past insecurities and fears. Not remaining on the past, however, he also talks of the future - of emptying himself of the "poison" and holding onto precious things that have been escaping him. We might not have been in the exact same situation as E-Sens, but the fears and mistakes he talks of are universal, things that we have all experienced at one point in our lives. And, just like him, we wish to find the turning point to make everything better again, to hold onto things that are precious to us. Brutally honest, memorable, and extremely motivating, "Poison" might be E-Sens' finest yet.

2. 이이언 (eAeon) || Bulletproof 
from: Guilt-Free
Tragically beautiful. That's what eAeon's "Bulletproof" is to me. Familiar, but distant electronic sounds, and eAeon's frail vocals. The lyrics are vivid with their figurative language ("replacing today's prayers with a small pill / and my chemical peace"), but at times they're literal, almost a bit too honestly ("Just stay with me."). The realization ("not knowing how sad we are"), the begging ("just stay with me"), the lamentation ("I wish I had a bulletproof soul"), it's all here, portrayed so beautifully with the words and the music.  Not only that, it's so masterfully crafted with all the attention to detail. It's a magical song, and I know I will come back to it time and time again.

1. 3호선 버터플라이 (3rd Line Butterfly) || 스모우크핫커피리필
from: Dreamtalk 
And my favourite song of 2012 is undoubtedly "Smoke Hot Coffee Refill" by 3rd Line Butterfly. It hasn't been long since it came out so it might be at a slight more advantage than any of the other songs on this list, but this song deserves all the praise. It really is that good. Similar to eAeon's "Bulletproof", the song is repetitive, but painfully catchy with all the looping of pretty sounds. It's gorgeously layered, and everything - the electronic elements, the different vocals, the guitar, drums, everything - complement each other, and the whole song works so well. The song's already memorable with its repeated line of "smoke, hot, coffee refill, night you rise instead of the moon" - but when Nam Sang Ah's vocals come in, then the guitar, it's a truly euphoric experience. It's almost sad to see the song end, really, because you just want it to go on forever and ever and ever.

The 8track playlist of all the songs is here. It's in order from number 1 to the honorable mention.

also see:  korean music in 2012 part 2; top 20 albums


  1. do you think you could also provide download links for the songs/albums you recc on the whole blog, really. i've been reading through all your reviews and i want to check out many of the albums, but for example, i'm having trouble finding a working dl link for the 3rd line butterfly album.. it would rly help if you gave links along with your posts! thanks

    1. I probably won't be able to provide links directly on this blog for copyright/legal issues (surprisingly, some of the korean bands I talk about on the blog seem to read the blog posts...), but I do upload some music on this closed livejournal community:
      I'll be uploading more music soon (like, a massive dump post!) so if you have an lj account, you should join so you can see the links. if you don't have an lj account, they're super easy to make so I strongly suggest you get one :)