Thursday, January 17, 2013

[korean music in 2012] part 2: top 20 albums

Finally! And out of sheer laziness, once again I'm posting the yearly review post in mid January. Wow. Maybe one of these days I'll actually post them before the year's over. (Probably not.)

This is the best albums post. It took me a lot longer than expected because I kept finding music from 2012 that I haven't listened to yet, and I wanted to check them out before making the list. And then I ran into the problem of narrowing the list down, which was extremely difficult. I knew my top 5 albums, but there were so many other albums I thought were worth talking about. In the end, since I couldn't narrow it down to 10 (+3) like last year, I decided to go with 20 albums. This is what I consider 20 of the most notable albums from 2012. I listened to roughly 110-120 Korean albums this year, including EPs and compilations. The album cover quilt above includes most of the 2012 releases that I checked out. (I'm sure I'm missing a few. I didn't keep a good track of everything for the earlier half of the year...) I honestly considered not making the album list because the 30 top songs post took me ages and I was stuck, but I knew I had to make the post, since I spent so much time thinking about it. Again, a couple of things:

  • This list only includes albums released between January 2012 and November 31, 2012
  • This list is subjective to my tastes, as you can see from what I generally listened to over the year. For example, it's severely lacking hip-hop since I didn't listen to any of that this year except for a couple of albums. 
  • Although the ratings are subjective, I did try to look at them from a more critical point-of-view, taking into consideration things such as: lyrics, continuity, originality, musicality, execution, etc. 
Check under the cut for the full list! This list took way too long, and it's very poorly written & probably won't make much sense. I apologize in advance.

Honorable Mention:
Various Artists || 이야기해주세요 (Please Talk) 
2012.08.21 | Mirrorball Music 
And the honorable mention - because I have to have some every year - goes to this wonderful compilation. Created by various female artists of the Hongdae music scene, this compilation is dedicated to comfort women. Most songs, excluding 2 or 3 (I believe), are original songs written for the compilation. Some songs talk about the controversial issue of the comfort women, while other songs talk about gender issues prevalent in modern society. If I had to give this album a rank on the list it'd probably be in the top 5, but I really thought it was beyond ratings and numbers - it's not just a body of music, but something a lot more. Hence, honorable mention. But probably more than any other album on this list, I'd suggest this one to you - some phenomenal songs on this album, and it's seriously one of the best purchases I made in 2012!

20) 전기뱀장어 (The Electric Eels) || 최고의 연애 (The Greatest Dating) 
2012.10.12 | Soundholic 
After two extremely promising EPs (one of which placed honorable mention on last year's album list), The Electric Eels released their first full-length album. This album is a gem, with its catchy feelgood rock tunes. As an album it's extremely successful - all the songs flow incredibly well together, while maintaining individuality. The only issue I had with the album is that it had many songs I was already familiar with - out of the 12 songs, 4 were songs from their previous EPs, and those seem to be better than the new songs still - but nonetheless, a fantastic album that's extremely fun to listen to. 

favourite tracks: 최신유행, 최고의 연애, 저녁의 노래 

19) Nell || Slip Away
2012.04.10 | Woollim Entertainment
I know I love to put this album down since it's probably my least favourite Nell album, but not considering its predecessors, it's really not that bad - especially compared to some of the other albums that were released this year. Nevertheless, I've given this album more than enough time to impress me and stay with me. But it failed to do so, after maybe two months of listening. (I think the fact that it was released so early in the year also had a say in how low this album placed on this list - if it was released in November, it'd probably higher.) The production value of this body of music is still amazing, and the overarching theme of "slipping away" maintains a wonderful continuity throughout the album. I wish it was more memorable, that's all. 

favourite tracks: Go, Beautiful Stranger, Cliff Parade

18) Glen Check || Haute Couture 
2012.02.28 | Soundholic 
The coolest of the hipsters. Seriously, this is Pitchfork material right here. I'm sure if Glen Check was active abroad, they'd be quite big, maybe have their songs on a CW show or two. Anyway, enough of how I think they'll be a hit abroad - this album is bold, in-your-face and addictive. Not only that, it fuses an extremely sophisticated allure with accessible, danceable electronic beats, giving the group a very distinct identity. If there's an electronic group that stands out the most in the scene right now, it's Glen Check. 

favourite tracks: French Virgin Party, Bataille!, 60's Cardin 

17) 이랑 (Lee Lang) || 욘욘슨 (Yon Yonson) 
2012.08.06 | Luova Factory 
Probably one of the most eye-catching debut albums of the year, Lee Lang's Yon Yonson flows from one track to another without any particular elements that stand out. One might even call it a typical boring female singer-songwriter folk album. But what makes this album so special is how untouched, how untamed it is. Lee Lang doesn't have a formal training in music, nor does she even listen to much music. She doesn't even have a particular musician she looks up to, and basically only music she's actually paid attention to is Amateur Amplifier and Disney tunes. In this day and age, when basically every other musician has post-secondary education in music, and extensive background knowledge in the field is almost a must in the scene, Lee Lang's music is refreshing and noteworthy. Not only is the context of the album extremely precious, the songs are a joy to listen to with witty lyrics. 

favourite tracks: 너의 리듬, 오리발나무, 욘욘슨

16) 몸과마음 (Momguamaum) || 데자뷰 (Deja Vu)
2012.04.04 | BGBG Records
I still find it hard to believe that Momguamaum is a trio because their work sure doesn't seem like it's only three people making those sounds. It's so choke full of impact despite only being 4 tracks long, with each member bringing a very impressive performance. And how great is that album cover?

favourite tracks: 불꽃놀이, 오직 당신 뿐 

15) 이스턴 사이드킥 (Eastern Sidekick) || The First 
2012.08.17 | Fluxus 
I quite enjoyed Eastern Sidekick's second EP which I reviewed here a while ago, although I voiced some concern for lack of originality and the vocals in that review. After listening to their first full-length album though, I feel like I really understand their charm now. The songs that were on that EP might have sounded a lot like American garage rock but they show more complexity in this album with the other tracks. Moreover, their songs are strangely addicting. Really. I keep finding myself coming back to them. And I really appreciate the vocal Oh Joo Hwan's vocals now - it's perfect for the kind of music they're pursuing. An incredibly solid rock album. 

favourite tracks: 무지개를 위한 싸움, 흥겨운 노래, 떡 

14) 꿈에 카메라를 가져올걸 (Kumca) || 소실 (Disappearance)
2012.04.18 | Independent Release 
I talk in great length about this EP in the review I wrote for it, so I won't go into much detail here. But the wonder remains. Kumca's dream world is still there, in its warped beauty.

(side note: the EP was actually released independently by the band in 2011, but Mirrorball Music started distributing in 2012, so I decided to include it in the list. I first encountered their music in 2012, anyway.) 

favourite tracks: 비상구, 오후 세 시, 테러 

13) 블랙백 (Black Bag) || Beyond the Sky
2012.01.11 | Ruby Records 
Another EP that I talk in great detail in a review, and whose title track ("White One") was included in my top 30 song blog post! Again, I keep coming back to this album - it's still inconsistent, but every single song on this EP is so, so great. It's right up my alley, I really love sounds like theirs. I'm really looking forward to what the band does next. 

favourite tracks: White One, Beyond the Sky, Bright Light

12) 버스커 버스커 (Busker Busker) || Busker Busker 
2012.03.29 | CJ&M Ent 
Busker Busker's debut album didn't have that big of an impact on me at first but it definitely grew on me, and now I really enjoy listening to it. It's such a good example of a fantastic pop music album - it's honest, it's catchy, it's approachable. All the songs are great and nothing is particularly out of place. It really deserves all the praise it's been getting, because it's a really good album, and it's definitely one to remember. 

favourite tracks: 여수 밤바다, 벚꽃엔딩, 외로움 증폭장치 

11) Galaxy Express || Galaxy Express 
2012.11.26 | Loverock Company
Galaxy Express' daring self-titled 3rd album is something that I only got to listen to recently, as I was compiling the top songs post. But from the very first time I listened to the album, I knew that this was a keeper. Possibly one of the best 'rock' albums I've listened to in recent times, Galaxy Express is one hell of a roller coaster ride, with head-banging rock jams to slower rock ballads. I'll probably be reviewing the album very soon! 

favourite tracks: Cha! Cha! Cha! Cha!, 너와 나, 언제까지나 

10) f(x) || Electric Shock 
2012.06.10 | SM Ent.
Unfortunately the only idol album to make the list this year. But oh boy, how great is this mini. Seriously, f(x) gets better and better with each release, and they've done it again with Electric Shock. Far too often idol groups fill their albums with filler tracks, but Electric Shock is an exception, as every song on this album is just killer. Some may have beef with their wacky, nonsensical lyrics, but if it's a concept, it works damn well, and I really dig it. Sulli and Victoria seem to have completely mastered the half-talking/half-singing thing, while Luna sounds great as ever. Krystal is lovely, and Amber's rap is much appreciated. This mini isn't just a great idol album (it's a phenomenal idol album), but it's also a pretty brilliant electronic album. Let's hope that the quality stays, and SM won't screw them over any time soon. 

favourite tracks: Electric Shock, Jet, 훌쩍 (Let's Try)... but the whole mini, honestly!!! 

9) 로다운30 (Lowdown 30) || 1 
2012.03.06 | Stoneage Records 
When I first encountered Lowdown 30's song "Asphalt" I was completely blown away. Not only did it use autotune in the most weirdly awesome way possible, it had some of the sickest basslines and Joosuc's macho rap was kickass. I knew I had to check out their music, and I wasn't let down at all when I gave their second album 1 a listen. It's the kind of blues rock that's so extremely refreshing, especially if you are me and only tend to listen to pop/alternative rock/electronica. The performances on this album are phenomenal, and their sound is so captivating. I've never really listened to much of blues rock, but Lowdown 30's music really inspired me to make sure that I check out more from the genre.

favourite tracks: 플라스틱에로모듈, 서울의 밤, 너의 조각

8) Casker || 여정旅程 (Voyage) 
2012.10.25 | Pastel Music
I wonder if Casker will ever release something that will let me down? Even though this album didn't impress me as much as its predecessors - Polyester Heart, in particular - I still had such a great time listening to this album, and there are some songs on this album that are so, so brilliant. From the feelgood "The Healing Song" to the heart-wrenching "A Thousand Suns", Voyage holds so much of Casker's trademark sensibilities that I came to love over time. Albeit not being the best Casker album, it's still a very well-produced and executed pop album with tunes that will stay with me for a while.

favourite tracks: 나쁘게, 편지, 천 개의 태양

7) 9와 숫자들 (9 and the Numbers) || 유예 (Delay) 
2012.11.15 | FarGo Music
9 and the Numbers' self-titled first album is probably one of my favourite albums from 2010 and their recently released EP is an excellent follow-up. The sentiments on this album are so very attractive. Not only that, their songs are so damn catchy. Overly complex arrangements and progressions seem to be the trend in Korean pop music nowadays with pop tunes exploding with different sounds, all trying to grab your attention. But here is 9 and the Numbers, with their humble music that's catchy in the simplest ways - and they're definitely staying. I might forget the over-dramatic, hook-loaded pop tunes, but I'll remember 9 and the Numbers and their simple but addicting tunes.

favourite tracks: 눈물바람, 유예, 착한 거짓말들

6) 잠비나이 (Jambinai) || 차연 (Differance)
2012.02.02 | Estella
Jambinai's music is a nightmare. A beautiful kind of nightmare that you can't turn away from. It's terrifying, majestic and engrossing, all in one. One of the most vivid and memorable instrumental albums from the year, Differance showcases all the amazing talent in the group in their songs while painting a vivid picture with their sounds. It's one of the most visual albums of the year.

favourite tracks: 소멸의 시간, 감긴 눈 위로 비추는 불빛, 텅빈 눈동자 (part 2)

5) No Respect For Beauty || Why Perish 
2012.02.29 | Pastel Music
It was Jambinai's Differance that started my post rock phase in 2012 but it was No Respect For Beauty's Why Perish that won me over completely. Their music is emotionally complex - it's dark, but there's something more to it - a faint glimpse of hope, perhaps. Armed with great performances on the three instruments, Why Perish is an incredibly satisfying experience. It's amazing how lyrical their music can be - without actually having any lyrics.

favourite tracks: The Walls Between Us, Owls on the Ground, Day of Departure

4) 정차식 (Jung Cha Shik) || 격동하는 현재사 (Turbulent Present)
2012.01.30 | Capsule Roman
If I could go back and redo my best of 2012 list, Jung Cha Shik's first solo album 황망한 사내 would be number 1, no doubt. Jung Cha Shik's first album is honestly the best album I've heard in a really, really long time, and I could not listen to anything else when I first got into that album. The follow-up to that album is 격동하는 현재사, which almost works as a prequel to his first album, with unexpected electronic elements that are prevalent throughout the album. If 황망한 사내 was full of self-torment and the fight with one's inner demons, 격동하는 현재사 displays the same man's instinctive desires openly for everyone to see. And it's glorious. The provocative, almost raunchy themes work fantastically with the melodies (which are very trot-esque at times) and the tacky electronic beats. It's a great work of art, shameless and bold.

favourite tracks: 미드나잇 워머, 만추, 위대한 촉수

3) 프라이머리 (Primary) || Primary and the Messengers LP
2012.10.31 | Amoeba Culture
Who is this Primary and how is he so good at creating these amazing songs? From heart-felt confessions to the tongue-in-cheek party jams, Primary proves that he can do anything with his colossal 2-disc Primary and the Messengers LP. So much variety, but he maintains his distinct colour in each song, while bringing out the featured artists' best qualities. That's why this album works so well. He really knows how to use the featured artists' talents to maximize the appeal of the songs. And let's not forget the man's own talent, which can be seen through the high production value of the album. A great hip-hop album for those who might not be as engrossed in the genre, and a real treat for hip-hop fans, Primary and the Messengers LP is a please-all kind of an album.

favourite tracks: Happy Ending (feat. Jinsil of Mad Soul Child, Gaeko of Dynamic Duo), See-Through (feat. Zion.T, Gaeko of Dynamic Duo), Poison (feat. E-Sens of Supreme Team), 3호선 매봉역 (feat. Paloalto, Beenzino)

2) 3호선 버터플라이 (3rd Line Butterfly) || Dreamtalk
2012.10.08 | Beatball Music
After series of disappointing comebacks and follow-up albums, 3rd Line Butterfly's Dreamtalk was a really hard blow to the head. Coming in with no real expectations since I didn't particularly listen to much of them or really love their previous albums, I was sucked in immediately by their mindblowingly captivating sounds. First it was the vocal Nam Sang Ah's unique voice that really drew me in, but as soon as I started paying attention to all the combination of the sounds on this album, I realized that this album was a truly memorable piece of work. Harmonious amalgamation of familiar alternative sounds with just the perfect amount of experimental elements.

favourite tracks: 스모우크핫커피리필, 너가 더 섹시해 괜찮아, 헤어지는 날 바로 오늘

1) 이이언 (eAeon) || Guilt-Free
2012.02.02 | Elephant Music

In the end, it was eAeon and his first solo effort Guilt-Free that I knew from the beginning would top this list. I'm terribly biased when it comes to eAeon/Mot, and after the long hiatus, I had a lot of expectations for Guilt-Free. And it didn't let me down at all. It was everything I wanted it to be and more. Not only is this album a real feat in electronic music, it's also the album that appealed to me the most emotionally and thematically.

Everything sounds a bit strange in this album, a bit surreal. It's definitely based on the realness of our world, but there's the undeniable surreal factor to it, something that's very out of place. And at times, the lyrics themselves reflect the surrealism ("window car apple hat / falling up / falling up"). But there are certain moments in the songs that draw you in with how human they are. "Bulletproof", "나의 기념일", "Sad Mannequin", even "5 in 4", they all have those sentiments. Busker Busker's 1st album and 9 and the Numbers' EP (both of which placed on the list) make music that warmly embraces you and comforts you. But eAeon's album doesn't embrace you, nor does it outright comfort you. It just grabs you by your wrist. And it refuses to let go. That's what Guilt-Free is to me. The reoccurring theme of decadence is too depressing to be really satisfying, and the sounds make the music feel distant. But in music's strange ways, Guilt-Free is comforting. Perhaps why we're so drawn to tragedies could explain for this phenomena. I felt comforted by the songs, because they're true to the desperate feeling of denial, to the fear of falling apart. The album is beautiful and tragic. And it still hasn't let go of me.

previously: korean music in 2012 part 1: top 30 songs


  1. Thank you! That's really helpful. From what I've already heard, Jung Cha Shik and eAeon are really impressive and beautiful at the same time. Looks like a good year for Korean music - even not including you-know-who.

  2. Very nice list. And a couple of bands I've never heard of before that I'll have to check out -- always a plus.

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  6. I LOVE EAEON Thank you this list was wonderful!

  7. Great list! Helpful indeed :D btw, F(x)'s best album is definitely Pink Tape (2013) but that would fall into last year's list :]