Saturday, 23 December 2017

SHINee Were/ Are a Brilliant Band - But Don't Tell That to the UK Media...

Shinee (I will leave off writing SHINee) are a band that features "pretty safe boyband production staples: predominantly light, fluffy disco-funk tracks, with occasional forays into gnarly pop-rock and gauzy alt-R&B" according to Ben Beaumont-Thomas in The Guardian. The same man who recently praised Liam Gallagher, the singer whose audience typically features inebriated and aggressive middle aged beer-bellied men and who has been churning out the same sound-alike guitar chug for over two decades, as an unfiltered star who rescues us from pop boredom (yes, really). In the same article there was the (relatively pointless) comparison to J-pop band AKB48 - Japan and Korea are, let us not forget, totally different countries (and the infamous and disturbing AKB48 incident he mentions has no precedent in Korea). And then there is the comment that two EXO members had left Shinee's SM Entertainment and filed a lawsuit against the label (and it is actually three: Luhan/ Kris and Tao). In actual fact, the SM lawsuit is far more complex than that - all three members, who are Chinese, were accused by SM of illegally promoting in China. After the lawsuit, Luhan became China's second highest earning celebrity - precisely because of his EXO fame (he flogs everything from KFC to mobile phones) - whilst Kris is the tenth biggest money-maker in the country (his image is all over Shanghai right now). Whilst no one is denying the rigid and (more than likely) abusive and domineering nature of training to be a K-idol, the EXO lawsuit also had to do with some business-savvy young men wishing to exploit a far bigger earning potential in their native Mainland China as models, actors and Mando-pop singers rather than undergoing the crippling trials and tribulations for further EXO world tours and dance routines.

And who can blame them?

The death of Jonghyun from Shinee may have resulted in a scramble to cover K-pop (and judging from that Guardian article it is by a writer using Google) but come December 23rd, just five days after the artist's passing, the same newspaper saw no reason to mention the suicide in its pop culture breakdown of 2017. It seems Korea is only of interest to anyone when the North is firing off a rocket launch (clue to those reading only the British media: if there is a war in East Asia it will be over Taiwan, but that is less sexy and takes far too long to explain so it gets less coverage).

                                          Shinee go 'house'. Notice how this sounds nothing like song above. Dig?

SM Entertainment, of course, are the same behemoth who created Shinee. Not to mention Girls' Generation, BoA, TVXQ, Super Junior, F/X, NCT and Red Velvet. Their major store in Seoul, the Coex Artium, located in Gangnam, is a spiralling three story building worth of K-pop geek-gasms: 3D shows, merchandise galore, a museum and restuarant and more. For a K-pop buff it feels like a trip to Disneyland and it has the unenviable ability to make your entire head scramble into mush the second you walk in the door (loud music, life size portraits scrambling for attention in numerous murials, brightly coloured goods and too many fans with pink and purple hair). It is soft-power done brilliantly. And the portrayal of SM as a 'family' of artists is as carefully cultivated as that of Ronald McDonald or Vince McMahon's WWE.

Is there something seriously shady underneath? So it would seem...

Certainly, given the online reports, it does seem that there is really sinister side to the K-pop dream machine - touched upon by The Guardian but somehow pushed to the side in the description of Shinee as a vapid pop band, which could not be further from the truth (I will get to this in more detail soon). As I mentioned in my blog a year ago, K-pop has begun to address issues which were previously considered no-go in South Korea - and SM, to their credit, has largely led on this front. From Taeyeon's heartbreaking ode to suicidal thoughts 'I' to Shinee bandmate Taemin offering a beautifully worded ballad to the 22 month military service that young South Korean men are obliged to undergo. And although the latter is wrapped in metaphor one would need to be a total dunce to miss the central point of the song (also worth noting that a mix of military service and being caught with weed led to a suicide attempt from Big Bang's rapper T.O.P this year). SM band F/X's 2014 single 'Red Light' - a criticism of the Sewol ferry disaster - is still, I think, one of the most harrowing and brilliant pop singles of all time.

The brutal training regimes in K-pop, the 'last man standing' recruitment process, the IV drips (and the IV drips backstage) and the pressure to stay slim - often with a ridiculously unhealthy diet - are well-documented. What makes thing worse is that when K-pop stars are allowed to be 'human' and do gain a little weight - as Yuri from Girls' Generation did in 2014 (and looked all the better for it) - they are dragged through the coals by 'fans' (even if it is online discussions about what 'prompted' the change of shape - as if it is anyone's business).

None of this is taken seriously in the West, per the coverage of Jonghyun's death, because to most readers South Korea is probably some faraway country that they will never visit, populated by people speaking a language that in our post-Brexit wasteland few of us want to listen to or engage with. I get that. Living in China for three years and reading some of the hapless nonsense, published in major newspapers no less, about the country and culture was mind-boggling enough. But the coverage of Jonghyun's death has all-too-frequently smacked of a distant imperialism: witness NME - having to distract themselves from plugging the new Kasabian masterpiece no doubt - to pen a witless and incorrect piece about the band. Did you know that Shinee took a four year hiatus beginning in 2013? No? Me neither because it didn't happen. Did you know that Shinee reformed in 2017 with only one original member of the band? No? Me neither because it didn't happen.

Now I understand that Onew, Key, Jonghyun, Taemin and Minho might not be as well known as, say, Radiohead on this side of the pond but how would the UK media react if someone in South Korea wrote that Jonny Greenwood was the last man standing in the Oxford group who had just gotten back together after a hiatus stretching ten years? In the nation's biggest musical periodical no less. I am fairly sure there would be catcalls about the journalist being an utter idiot - and yet Shinee mean far, far, far more across the Asian continent than Radiohead or Coldplay ever could. It is the Brexit disease - it is not our music, so we need not even bother researching it properly. Yet even allowing for a simple fact check or trying to give their music some credence outside of 'pretty safe boyband fluff' is apparently out of the question. NME has shied away from covering K-pop for years now despite the fact it now seems relatively difficult to ignore its popularity and (I would argue) the fact that it is a fairly major 'alternative' scene in the UK.

There has been a lot of this dismissive-and-yet-needing-a-story-did-you-know-South-Korea-has-a-high-suicide-rate jargon going on in the press which has been eye-rolling to read. My own take, as someone who has spent a lot of time in South Korea and actually loves the country's pop culture and indeed the nation's general evolution from neo-Confuscianism to an Asian tiger and soft power warrior, is that there is a lot to say about Jonghyun's suicide and indeed Shinee's place in the K-pop pantheon. Far from being a fluffy boy band, the group frequently experimented with sounds you would not expect to hear in the sort of Western music that typically gains radio airplay - the jarring dub-step of 'Everybody', for instance, is certainly more interesting than anything one might expect from the too-stoned-to-care, beer-in-the-air, snooze-worthy soundscapes of Kasabian. The group's experimentation with house music, 2015's 'View' does far more to conjur up the smoky 'glory days' of mid-90s indie clubs than those new Stone Roses catastrophes or Noel and Liam's warbles (as does album track 'Feel Good') and last year's 1 of 1 hinted at a similar indie-esque direction that, of all ironies, took its lead from the sort of material that NME was once ahead-of-the-curve in promoting. This approach reached a new left-field turn with their November 2016 single 'Tell Me What to Do' - detailing a love triangle across a more subdued Shinee sound; it felt like a further step into a more downbeat alternative-sounding territory. That its ode to hopelessness and tears marks the band's last major Korean language single is heartbreaking. For most of us, naturally, the band's biggest masterpiece was 2011's 'Sherlock' - a glam rock mash-up of their songs 'Clue' and 'Note' - that merely stands as one of the finest tunes ever concoted. And it is still a go-to tune on my iPad during those times when that dark cloud hovers above me. My favourite part is Jonghyun's high notes - and it is gutting to know that never again can we hear those live... To recognise part of the pressure of being in an SM band is to recognise that the label makes a very clear attempt to reinvent each artist's sound with every record, complete with a punishing concurrent dance routine. It would be nearly impossible to imagine your average UK 'indie' band having to start from scratch every eight months or so - but this is what an SM band has to do. Hiring a journalist who doesn't know his or her K-pop from their J-pop might result in an article that follows a quick trawl of YouTube but it does not even begin to get into what makes the music, and a band like Shinee, such a high-pressure franchise... including the fan expectancy of consistent (visual and aural) comeback and reinvention.

Whilst less noted than Taemin, the solo career of Jonghyun was also generally well-received (headlined by the electro R'n'B of She Is). Inevitably, his duet with Taeyeon - 'Lonely' - which was released just eight months ago now has a sinister edge that cannot be shaken.

It will probably now stand as a suicide anthem, especially reading some of the online comments, although I hope it finds life above this tawdry label.

And, yes, as the mainstream mentioned, Shinee are beautiful: none less so than its leading member. Did Jonghyun's suicide come due to the crippling pressure of fame/ touring/ comeback scheduling/ dieting and/ or the upcoming 22  month military service that would have almost certainly caused a career set-back? It is difficult to know, but I do wish that young men in South Korea were allowed to discuss the horrors of enlistment to the army more openly. I also - and this goes for all of East Asia - feel concern about the Confuscian influence that still demands obedience to hierarchy (including, in South Korea, rite-of-passage-by-liver-fucking-drinking-sessions) and, in turn, leads to such a high-octane society. But these are not my cultures or countries and, heaven's knows, the UK is in such a mess that being stressed about South Korea is not exactly top of my list either. That the country is a part of my everyday life due to its pop culture - mainly its music and cinema - is unavoidable, though, and it does mean I can care about its representation in the UK media.

                                          The bitter, painful irony of Shinee's ultimate 'cheer up' song

Perhaps most annoying has been the 'underneath the glitz' factor: but as I have highlighted in this blog post, there is plenty of K-pop that is downbeat, a lot of K-pop goes into dark areas and there are many K-pop songs that are willing to talk about identity, sexuality, politics and even depression. None of this might fit the script of the 'gorgeous dead K-pop star with dyed hair' but it does not mean it is not there. K-pop, as it stands, is less of a genre or movement as it is a name for Korean language music - some of it written by the stars themselves, some of it written by others, but it would be wrong to assume it is all the same or it is 'safe' (I often think my previous teen dark 'indie music' days, a loyal old Manics fan etc, has found its most logical home in K-pop). And Shinee were always a standout band because of how successful they were in varying their sound.

This might be news to the media - who, unfamiliar with the bands (and, again, I am not expecting them to be obsessives) seek for the old 'it sounds a little like...' fall-out. Caroline Sullivan, who I actually really like, fell into this with Big Bang - comparing them to Justin Bieber. But Big Bang sound nothing like Justin Bieber. And why do we need a Western comparison anyway? Why does any foreign 'boy band' have to sound like an established Western totem? By giving us that totem, in a brief review, one is almost indicating that the Korean group are simply taking from a fakey-foreign sound even when Big Bang sound, I don't know, just as much like flipping Wolf Alice or Suede as they do Justin Bieber.

None of this is to distract from the very real tragedy of Jonghyun. It is heartbreaking to see someone so young kill themselves and if it marks the conclusion of Shinee as a band (and I am unsure how they can comeback from this - what could a new single even sound like?) then I hope future generations will continue to discover what an amazing group they are. I saw them live twice, during the SM Town tour in Tokyo, Japan, 2016 and earlier this year in Hong Kong. Both shows were excellent and my heart aches at losing such a promiment figure. I often joke that K-pop saved my life - regardless, it certainly altered a lot about me: from making me obsessive about the country it came from, and its history, to making me recognise that, in my thirties, I did not have to be that boring old codger who sits at a bar and rambles on about how good music was in the nineties or noughties (I'd take Shinee over almost anything I had in my music collection during either decade). I am but one voice of many, naturally, but I wish some of these artists - seemingly engulfed in a bubble and part of that unstoppable K-pop machine - actually knew what they meant to many of us. Would it change much? Doubtful. But I fear that Jonghyun's death will not be K-pop's last tragedy.

                                         Jonghyun opens this song. Yes, he was beautiful.

In the meantime, my sole hope is that some of these great songs stand out and, in my own wording, and with the accompanying sounds, what made/ makes Shinee so special might become more clear than the UK media reportage has allowed....

                                         Warning: the above song is perfect

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at (Thanks to The Guardian)

Sunday, 17 December 2017


Ugh. Sorry. The Dazed Top 20 K-pop list is really not winning me over this year. It is all subjective, of course, which is why I am offering my own. Cannot believe it has been a year since we last did this but when I say this is the Top 20 K-pop Songs of 2017 I obviously mean this is the Top 20 Songs of 2017. And so many more I could have added. I have limited myself to one song per band but there was a lot to enjoy this year: Suzy's solo bow for JYP (complete with the sumptious Wong Kar Wai inspired video), the mind-melting hodgepodge of Weki Meki's brilliant I Don't Like Your Girlfriend, SNSD's Hyeyeon with the air-punching Wannabe, Hyuna's predictably provocative and amusingly self-aware Lip & Hip, NCT 127's snarling Cherry Bomb and their arguably even better Limitless, IU's effortless cover of Last Night Story, B1A4's understated Rollin, B.A.P's atypical Honeymoon and their first class rocker Wake Me Up, Dreamcatcher's Chase Me - which is what Babymetal might sound like if they were way more interesting - and T-ara's 'is this it?' possible (but not confirmed) final single of What's My Name?

It has been a tremendous year for K-pop buffs but what made the top 20? Without further delay, let us get started...


The year began with this conclusive moment and even then it felt surreal. At the crux of 2014, YG's 2NE1 were, along with Girls' Generation, the top selling and most dominant girl band in Asia. Then it all went wrong. Bom got caught trying to smuggle speed into South Korea and aside from the briefest of reunions all the attention was put into CL and that, it seemed, was that. Minzy did not join the band for the final single but what we did get was a fitting farewell - an acoustic, heartfelt conclusion to an incredible career and a fitting successor (six whole years later) to their standout fan favourite classic single Lonely.


Girls' Generation have ruled the K-pop scene for a decade and as members went on to achieve acting and solo accolades the end was undoubtedly coming. But, whooo boy, did things implode fast. Just three months after the release of their tenth anniversary album the legendary group were no more with Sooyoung, Seohyun and Tiffany calling time on their activities with SM. Some fans, expecting at least the customary Asian (re: Japan, Korea, Bangkok and Taipei) tour were outraged but they need not have been. At least we got a fabulous final album and whilst kiss-off single All Night probably will not be remembered as the eight-some's finest moment it still has enough of the group's genre-bending experimentalism to make your mind scramble and to demand further listens.

And isn't that why we all loved the greatest K-pop group in history in the first place?


Every year it happens. Every year when I do these lists I miss out on an absolute classic and last year it was undoubtedly the outstanding Decalcomanie (yes, quite a mouthful) by Mamamoo, merely one of the greatest K-pop 'belters' of all time. Really. Click and listen. It is stunning. The charismatic foursome's 2017 single Yes I Am is not nearly as strong, but it is still a super-fun example of Mamamoo's brilliant blend of camp, kookiness and high notes. They have reached some admirable heights already and I suspect their sometimes admirably ambitious pop-operas are only getting started.


Pure party this one... get your coat off and get on the floor. Basically. It seemed to come from nowhere and it has just the right mix of retro and right now - which is a bit of a theme to the most DJ-friendly K-pop tunes of 2017. As you will see...


From the opening Spanish guitar to the usual 'hey' (which typically signals the start of an AOA song), Jimin made a cracking start as an artist in her own right. The rapper of the can-you-push-this-any-further K-pop band AOA - who had their own share of controversy this year - this pounding anthem felt as if it had been stolen from the Madchester period and given a spit-shine with 2017 production values. Given the title, the Hacienda-groove is obviously on purpose and, to the surprise of many no doubt, Jimin sells this song far, far better than her sex-pixie reputation would have many AOA-critics believe. A strong round of applause.


Having left 2NE1 in apparently less than acrimonious circumstances - and indeed left CL to falter with her apparent mission to break America (clue: one single but otherwise still waiting) - Minzy made a very cool comeback with this mix of Bollywood, tough vocals, hip shaking, a bit of hip-hop and a dance groove that looks to the future whilst sounding like it has been brewed in the late nineties. This is a brilliant composition and even in a year filled with excellent solo comebacks positively stands tall with 'I am woman, hear me roar' confidence - more than echoed on the fuck-you-YG sound of flip-side Super Woman. As we eagerly await what YG has in store next for 2NE1 alumni Dara and CL, and hope for a Bom resurgence, it is certainly first blood to Minzy in the soap opera ashes of one of K-pop's defining collectives.


Exid had a phenomenal 2017 with their jazzy and whimsical Night Rather Than Day proving to be an appealing and successful diversion from their more identifiable retro-disco sound. DDD offers some fairly sexy and satirical lyrics (in keeping with the provocative video, also typical of the band - this is the same group who had a hit with a tune called Hot Pink, less we forget) and a chorus that feels beamed from the glory days of Studio 54. All sandwiched between an aggressive EDM beat. Will this band ever produce a disappointing shortplay?


So the big news is that BTS (as I predicted a year ago) broke America. Sort of. They played the AMAs and millions of people who had never discovered K-pop (or just thought of it as Gangham Style) seemed to have a collective orgasm. DNA is the strongest BTS single to date and its flawless marriage of indie guitar with the genre's token EDM chorus is undoubtedly brilliant. There is always the worry that your favourite thing becomes the mainstream and DNA might well be the song that pushes a K-pop band further into the mainstream and paves the way for more. With that said, given the likes of NME still have not caught on I am not too worried. Yet.


Veteran K-pop icon Boa delivered her best shortplay to date with Camo. Sounding like pure seduction, it gives her token husky voice a chance to breathe, flirt and ooooooh its heart out - all to a pounding dance beat that should fill the floor at any self-respecting Korean nightclub. It is 'last drink' music - and for good reason. She knows how to get you home.


Super Junior have never been a band that, I felt, released an entire album of classics but their tenth solo LP Play - two and a half years in the making - was tremendous with nary a dud moment. Whilst their 'big' comeback song was the excellent Black Suit, which returned the legendary SM band to their usual sound of suave-pop (it sounds like an aspiring Bond theme at some points), it was their against-type ballad One More Chance that impressed me the most. Featuring a returning Shindong (welcome back) this is a feel-bad weepie that gives the lads - now entering their thirties - a chance to go all bombastic about breakups and even (sssssh) suicide (yes, he really does sing 'I want to end it all'). Brave and bombastic (South Korea's enormous suicide rate is an open secret), it is a shame that the band got plunged into controversy just as they just embarked on their most ambitious comeback to date. I can personally bask in this ballad on repeat.


JYP's biggest band had a few biggies this year as they continued their climb to being one of the hugest selling K-pop bands in history. I have not been big on talent show winners Twice - their bubblegum sound was, I generally felt, aimed at young teens but then mid-year single Signal won me over with its oddball glam-space sound (this is only going to make sense if you click on that link). Even better was Likey a homage to social media romance, with some admitedly dubious lyrics, that still managed to chuck together rap, repetition, synths and a squirrel-voiced chorus that is still lost in my brain and annoying my sleep.

Don't say you weren't warned, you click 'play' on this at your own peril...


I was always bummed at Pledis for chucking away the oh-so-underrated After School in favour of Seventeen but this unexpectedly tough electro-pop gem finally won me over. From the melancholy opening to the build-up of voices and then the eventual back-and-forth chorus medley this is such a well crafted depiction of uncertainty (the chorus is about denying the want of an ex-love basically) that it eventually, especially combined with the dance routine, feels like a genius moment of pop ballet. And, yes, I just said that. Their next single of 2017, Clap, is not half bad either.


G-Dragon's Big Bang bandmate returned with this initially sinister-sounding growl of electro-balladry that emerges into a slow-motion unravelling of the muscular frontman's apparent vulnerability. And that brief break from verse to chorus is such a perfect tease. Taeyang had one of the biggest K-pop solo hits of all time with 2013's beautiful Eyes, Nose, Lips so expectancies were high for this comeback. He, probably for the best, avoided a retread of the angst of that contient-conquering eye-watering ballad, and instead opted for this expression of heart-clenching obsession in the early throws of romance. A shockingly good return.


Last year's standout Monster was not going to be an easy act to follow, but Exo emerged (minus their final Chinese member Lay) with this fit-as-fuck raggae-dance number that sounded like yet another reinvention for K-pop's most consistently experimental boy band. Beginning with the sound of Carribean dancehall, with a whispery sexiness, this evolves into something else completely and, like all good K-pop, keeps you thirsty for the resolution. What times we live in when any music can be this amazing and when a band can continue to produce work of this standard on such a frequent basis.


JYP lost two major acts in the past couple of years with Miss A and then The Wonder Girls but by the sound of this debut effort from new boy band Stray Kids they have things in hand and then some (yes, I know they also have Twice and Got7 but still...) Stray Kids launched themselves into a crowded market and yet accomplished this EDM-fuelled anthem that mixes rap and rage and a huge skin-tearing chorus that is absolutely enormous. This was a statement of arrival and whatever the future holds, it is now unthinkable that Stray Kids will not emerge into major players in the K-pop scene.


You could not move in Seoul or Tokyo without this blaring from cars, shops and restuarants. It was, probably, the song of the summer. Insanely catchy, this was the sound of Red Velvet undoubtely taking the mantle from the soon-to-disband Girls' Generation and the where-the-hell-are-they F/X as SM's top all-female band. No, it doesn't quite reinvent the wheel but - as with many an SM classic - who could expect that lead-out at the end, the mid-song rap or the amount of catches hidden under the bouncy, disco hall stomp? It is a tune that gets rooted into your skull and then demands repeat listening - much like their almost-as-amazing follow-up single Peek a Boo (which should be on here too but I have limited myself to one song per band).


The ex-Wonder Girl Sunmi had one of the year's biggest homegrown hits with Gashina (meaning a 'bitch' - but she is playing with this term thanks to this enormous FU to an unappreciative ex-boyfriend). Sexy, addicitve and featuring a fast-slow tempo that builds to a stop-step chorus is, at first listen, difficult to follow but eventually cathartic, this was and is a solo effort to cherish. And man... that video is all levels of amazing.


YG's new girl group had big shoes to fill after the demise of 2NE1 but they played a blinder with this, their fifth and best single to date. It has three choruses. And each one clings to the next in a sort of build-up of anguish, desperation and then relentless throw-caution-to-the-wind celebration. It is pure pop and yet there is something beautiful about the way the totally divergent vocal ranges compliment one another. It really shouldn't work, especially when Rosé utters her tinged-with-some-uncertainty-wail of  'Kiss me like it’s a lie/ As if I’m your last love' - which breaks into an extended plea - before Lisa picks-up with the central hook of 'As if it’s the last, as, as, as if it’s the last'. It is one of the greatest bridges I have ever heard in a pop song. It's just... awesome.

G-DRAGON - '무제(無題) (Untitled, 2014)

A document to lost love. G-Dragon's comeback was hotly anticipated but who could have anticipated this? Not his usual rock-dance-rap-indie-mash-up but instead an understated piano-led wistful longing for a figure of past (and brief?) romance. His Kwon Ji-Yong concept album promised audiences a more personal look at the human being behind the icon (he has to do military service in 2018) and it was a blinder complete with a literal fuck-you to his critics and schmoozers as the opening track that comes complete with a twisted rambling Shaun Ryder-esque mix of venom and vulgarity. Untitled 2014, however, is one of the most beautiful and delicate pieces of music in recent years and, without a word of English, registered with audiences from continet to continent, resulting in a rare three-date UK tour.


Oh boy, it comes to this.

Maybe it was 2017. Or at least my 2017. Maybe it is just her voice. It broke me. She breaks me though. It was the first concert I wept at. My concert-buddy Naomi wept too. I was all, 'Really? Both of us?' The tour bus afterwards was silent. Everyone, it seemed, had been battered by over two hours of Taeyeon. That soaring chorus. It glides and it punches. It is an indie-anthem with stadium-filling lungs. It is beautiful. Upsetting but haunting. At least at first listen. A simple guitar line opens the song but once you know what is coming that very first few seconds produce goose-bumps. Or maybe I just never fell for the whole diva-this-is-my-pain thing before. There is a first for everything. She's been slowly slaying me for years. I always felt Dog Man Star by Suede was safe as my favourite album of all time. My Voice by Taeyeon replaced it in 2017. From the delicate but hugely ambitious widescreen sadness of Time Lapse to the piano melancholy of Love in Colour and even the confident but against-type smoky strip club sex n'sweat swagger of I Got Love it is perfect. Just perfect.


I'm a huge fan of Walt Disney. There. I said it. I have books galore on the great man (and he was a great film producer and creator) and I roll my eyes at those BFI lists of the best films ever made that don't feature his work - as if Pinnochio and Fantasia, for instance, do not belong on a list of the greatest achievements in motion picture history. Was Walt Disney a racist and a fascist? All evidence indicates he was anything but (in his young years he was actually a radical lefist) but he certainly grew into a conservative and opposed unionisation. Anyone curious about Disney's complexities (and it is worth stating that he put Louis Armstrong on his Disneyland television show even when channels in the South and advertisers maintained they would not carry the programme) can and should access the legions of material that has been penned on the imagineer. He was a troubled, complex man and the more you learn about Walter Elias the more you can begin to appreciate his art.

                                          Walt Disney World, November, 2012

Which brings me to his ultimate gamble - Disneyland, Anaheim, California (followed by Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida). "Ah, but Calum, you hate capitalism," some have said. To which I reply, "And if capitalism has never given us anything to enjoy then we really are stuffed because the last several decades have been for nothing."

So let me try and enjoy Disneyland. Even in my cynical old age I still think there are things to admire in the parks in California and Florida - although Jean Baudrillard probably nailed it best with his description of hyperreality and now, walking around the Magic Kingdom, I cannot help but refer back to his excellent essay. Nowadays I oddly feel it far more difficult to immerse myself in the plastic fantastic of the castles, costumes and cartoon characters come to life as human-sized dollops of fake-fur. Blame it on Baudrillard. Or maybe just a growing pessimism at the ever growing expansion of the Mouse House which, for now, means turning Disneyland into a confused hodgepodge of pop culture that takes in everything from Darth Vader to Robert Downey Jnr.

                                                    Visiting Disneyland back when I was 25 and living in LA

The first Disneyland to open outside of America was in Tokyo. It opened in 1983 and was soon followed by Tokyo Disneysea in 2001. Wikipedia tells me these are the only parks not under Disney economic ownership but you probably would not notice. The Magic Kingdom looks very similar to those in America but my main interest was in Disneysea, which is unique to Japan and gets a lot of raves online. After visiting Hong Kong and having done the two parks in the USA during my lifetime I was a bit fatigued with the Magic Kingdom. Main Street had lost its allure and Space Mountain had been castrated in the Hong Kong park (see below). So it was, then, that Disneysea seemed the best option.

Then you walk in and... Oh really? Two hour waits for rides? Hmmm, well this is when the Fastpass comes in useful, right?

For those who have never been a Fastpass is part of the Disney ticket. You slide it into a machine that offers you (usually) the chance to come back in about 90 minutes or two hours and skip the bulk of the waiting line. The tickets are limited but they are spread around every attraction meaning that if you cannot get a Fastpass for, say, Space Mountain then you probably can for Splash Mountain. Then you go and wait for a ride (say 50 minutes) then by the time you are finished you get onto another one quickly via Fastpass and can then activate another Fastpass once you have used your old one. All told, in the American parks, even on a really busy day, you can probably ride everything thank to the Fastpass system.

In Tokyo, however, the Fastpass doesn't work.

When we get there, Disneysea is packed. Ride waiting times are 70 minutes to over two hours. OK, so we need to Fastpass. But even at 10am the earliest Fastpass available is for 5pm. Do the maths. This means that we get on a total of two rides - one of which we had line up to seventy minutes for. We chose to stand in the queue for Raging Spirits - a rollercoaster which turns out to be snore-worthy. Despite being built in 2005 it chugs along and does very little, with a bog standard track and a tiny loop-the-loop. I'm unsure of what the theme to this even is. Disneysea is (you guessed it) based around the ocean and its many mysteries. Fuck knows what Raging Spirits is doing then - no fish, no water, no nothing... just a crappy, exhausted, boring rollercoaster that you could take your grandmother on.

Disneysea actually does not feel very Disney.

Neither does it feel very Japanese. It just feels... odd. Tacky but not in the way Akihabara feels 'tacky'. It just feels... sullen. The same rocky mountains and coves everywhere but without any sense of exploration or imagination. Or maybe Raging Spirits just made me feel like I had lost 70 minutes of my life and it would be better drinking beer rather than lining up for two hours to experience Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull (not sure what this has to do with sea either, but Wikipedia explains that it is a near carbon copy of the Disneyland Calfiornia ride, which is admitedly first class). Yes, okay, so this is something Tokyo does do - it sells alcohol. The cynic in me believes that this is because the park is awful and the rides are tragic but, either way, it means you can at least have a beer or two before finally making use of your solitary Fastpass. In this case it was to ride something called Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Woohoo... only had to wait seven hours to ride this one (during which I think we circled the park in boredom about sixty times)... apparently one of the best attractions in the park...

And it's crap. Good Lord it's crap. If Tommy Wisseau made theme park rides it would be this. A big plastic mass of garbage that finally picks up some speed and ends. It lasts about 90 seconds and it feels half-finished. I am not even sure what happened on this thing. The effects were of a 1950s Roger Corman movie level. In Kirkcaldy (my hometown) we have something every year called The Links Market. It's Europe's longest running street fair and it takes place every April. It lasts a week and lots of travelling old carney families come in and set-up rides - ghost trains, waltzers, whatever... The crowd for The Links Market is a mixture of young people, mums and dads with an exciteable kid, alcoholics and junkies seeking to pick pockets (to be fair, this is the entire population of Kirkcaldy).

Man, I'm telling you, as low-rent as most of the offerings at the Links Market are, had anyone erected Journey to the Centre of the Earth, there would be moans and complaints. It's that rubbish.

                                                                                                 Beer is indeed sold at Tokyo Disneyland!

So with rides stretching towards the two-and-a-half-hour mark, we opted to leave Tokyo Disneyland. Disappointingly, even the merchandise was diabolical. Then a kind lady came up to us and asked if we wanted two fastpass tickets to the Finding Nemo simulator. It was an act of fluke and we accepted. But the simulator was boring too. Sorry Tokyo Disneysea, but you are officially the dregs of all the Disney parks.

                                                                           Male cosplayers as Disney Princesses in the Tokyo Park. The highlight!

Opening in September, 2005, Hong Kong Disneyland was the second Disney park in Asia. It is easy to access thanks to Hong Kong's excellent monorail system and, obviously, it is the most English-friendly of all three Disney parks. The rides that require any kind of narration are given in English and not Cantonese. The designers have also played it remarkably safe - the solitary park, The Magic Kingdom, is a carbon copy of the ones in California and Florida, albeit far smaller than both. In a way this might make sense - Hong Kong being so densley populated, for instance - but, on the other, it makes the attraction feel like a half-day option at best. In truth, when we attended on a week day, with hardly anyone in attendance, it was possible to get around the park and on every ride we wanted within just two hours. Now this need not be a bad thing. I still remember going to Singapore's excellent Universal Studios back in 2012, finding that no one was there, and still filling up most of the day thanks to some A+ attractions. Unfortunately, Hong Kong Disneyland doesn't have a single ride that is worth doing a second time...

                                                  My only pic of Hong Kong Disney and I have toi be pulling a goofy face!

For a start, and this might be Disney-wide, but Space Mountain is now a mess. Re-dubbed Hyper-Space Mountain it has been reborn as a Star Wars ride with the soundtrack booming at full volume and scenes from the original trilogy playing on giant screens. Alas, this means Space Mountain (sorry, Hyper-Space Mountain) is no longer a dark ride. Instead, you can see each and every turn and, in the full blaze of light, Space Mountain is actually remarkably boring. Slow hand clap to Disney. The other rollercoaster (of sorts) at Hong Kong Disneyland is Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars. This ride is a spin-off from the Big Thunder Mountain ride that typified the 'old West' theme of Disneyland's Critter County and Disneyworld's excellent Frontierland. Hong Kong has a 'Grizzly Gulch' which is, again, like a minature version of the latter two 'lands' and it is not especially visually impresive. The Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars is fairly fun but it won't do much to impress the hardcore thrill-seeker. The only other rides I bothered with in Hong Kong were Mystic Manner, a Haunted Mansion style attraction which is unique to this park, and the Iron Man Experience. The former was the best attraction at Hong Kong Disney and, in its own way, just as good as The Haunted Mansion. The attraction takes in elements of British colonialism, which are obviously especially relevant to Hong Kong, and the thieving of foreign riches (with one item releasing spirits which create havoc in an old colonial house). With this said, Hong Kong and the Opium Wars are not mentioned by name (there is still a lot of pro-British sentiment on the island among native Hong Kongers - and it is interesting to note that the Union Jack flies over the Jungle River Cruise, something that would be unthinkable in the Shanghai park. The flag has oddly been reborn as a sign of protest against Mainland adminstration in Hong Kong, as uncomfortable as many of us - myself included - might feel with it being flown).

As for the Iron Man ride - hmmm, call me a purist but I hate seeing Star Wars and Marvel at Disneyland. They are not part of the Disney lexicon and I would much rather they were kept apart or at least designed as elements of a secondary theme park. Iron Man is never going to feel 'Disney' to me and the ride itself is lightweight. It is a 3D simulator ride, but unlike the excellent and hair-raising Transformers variant at Universal Singapore, this is really tame and one never feels as if they are really 'part of the action'. Whilst the visuals are not bad, and the designers do set the action in Hong Kong (predominantly on Hong Kong Island, which is the area most tourists will be familiar with I guess), I felt that the small screen and the drab 3D effects were positively B-grade. In comparison, I rode Transformers three times over - despite detesting the films - because it is absolutely absorbing and even quite hair raising.

                               Michael Bay might make terrible films but this ride outdoes Hong Kong's Iron Man simulator by a country mile

All in all, Hong Kong Disneyland is a huge letdown. For the entrance price I doubt many adults could find much to do and the merchandise shops and layout are minimal. The park feels unfinished and it has a strangley grubby feel to it (the restuarants are nasty, for instance). When we attended there was only a small crowd - and, perhaps, for very young children there will be a few more things to take in. But this is the least Disney-ish Magic Kingdom park I have been to.

Still better than Tokyo Disneysea though.

Next up, and I was surprised by this, is the best of the three: Shanghai Disneyland.

Just opening a year ago, Shanghai Disneyland has no Main Street and offers a radical rethink of how a Disney park should look and lay itself out. It works well and points to a far more assured Disney experience than Hong Kong or Tokyo. Unfortunately, the same problems that hampered the Tokyo park are in evidence here.

First of all, once again the Fastpass system does not function. In fact, the park offers only two or three chances to get a Fastpass during the day and once these chances are exhausted no more are offered. The third Fastpass opportunity arrives at about 1pm - so you basically have a Fastpass opportunity at, say, 9am and the 11am and then 1pm. After that - none. And as Disney park buffs will be well aware, you cannot get another Fastpass until you have used your original. Does this mean pacing yourself? Not at all. Instead, Shanghai Disney simply rolls all three Fastpass opportunities back-to-back meaning that if the 9am Fastpass opportunity runs out at, say, 9.15am you then get your chance for the 11am and then the 1pm - meaning that all Fastpass opportunities for a given ride can be exhausted and unavailable after 9.30am. To put this into perspective, we got there early and grabbed a Fastpass for the TRON rollercoaster and were then unable to get any other Fastpass for any other ride that day. To add insult to injury as soon as the park clocked about noon the ride waiting times were stretching to three hours.

That's some ill-thought out insanity right there.

I don't understand why the Fastpass system is so badly utilised and misunderstood in Shanghai and Tokyo but it clearly is.

As such, we only got on two rides in Shanghai Disney - TRON (an excellent but far too short rollercoaster-in-the-dark ride which, were it a minute longer, might well be the finest Disney ride of all time) and Pirates of the Carribean. Now the Shanghai Pirates of the Carribean is a totally new imagining of the film franchise and nothing to do with the ride you might be familiar with from the American parks. And indeed it poops all over its now-dated American counterparts from a very high height. This is truly state of the art stuff and points to the future of theme park ambitions. It is breathtaking, frankly, sending viewers on a trip under and over water that totally immerses and amazes, although the entire experience is voiced in Mandarin.


And that was that. With enormous waiting times, there really was not much more to do at Shanghai Disneyland. It looks beautiful by night, though, and it has a lovely Disney-ish feel - far more so than its other Asian counterparts. Merchandise is also pretty good - including a range of classic Oswald the Lucky Rabbit stuff for the ultimate Disney nerds (such as myself).

The most amusing thing for me was wandering around and looking at this little slice of Americana in 'Communist' China and thinking of Uncle Walt spinning in his grave and the youth of Shanghai and Beijing mulling over how normal everything seems: they have their Disneyland, their Metallica concerts, their Starbucks, their McDonalds, Harry Potter, Victoria Secret, Louis Vutton and multiplex cinemas...

Nothing is missing in 21st century China.


Sunday, 25 December 2016


OK so my blog on Asia seemed to have run its course a bit (no update in over a year) but being that DAZED magazine once again posted their Top 20 K-Pop Tracks of 2016 I thought I may as well offer my own again. Especially since I felt their list was actually pretty disappointing and missed out most of the year's standouts. Sorry chaps. This list may well change in time, especially since last year I totally failed to have Oh My Girl and Closer as my number two. Despite the fact it is uniquely beautiful.

I also missed out History and Right to Die. Which fucking rocks (Warning: features six-packed Korean men dry-humping the floor). 

Anyway, 2016 was a strange year for K-pop - 4Minute, Miss A, KARA and (most shockingly) 2NE1 called it quits, whilst CL once again failed to make legway in the USA. Having a seriously dodgy and politically incorrect (re: racist) video, such as that to Lifted (in which a bunch of 'gangsta' black men swap pot with our leggy heroine) probably didn't help matters any. Come on YG - we all know that K-pop often falls arse over fist when its come to race sensitivity but this is fairly shocking...

Yet, 2016 also delivered some of my favourite K-pop songs to date. I already struggled with who would and would not make this list. Songs as good as Luna's house anthem Free Somebody, 2PM's thunderous Promise (I'll Be), Red Velvet's quirky Russian Roulette, Oh My Girl's ridiculously poppy Liar Liar, T-ara's unexpectedly whispy Tiamo, Fiestar's bouncy Apple Pie, Dia's insanely catchy Mr Potter, Hyuna's club-conquering How's This?, Sistar's Bollywood-inspired beauty I Like That and Shinee's pop-tastic 1 x 1 (odds on for video of the year) even miss my Top 20. And Shinee's Tell Me What to Do is pretty much spot-on as well. See entry number six for my explanation.

That this level of creativity is not present below only indicates that, taken in pure quality, this might have been the best year yet for Seoul-sounds.

And 2016 also demonstrated that the genre - if we can even call it such - is still producing the most exciting music on the planet. Having seen many of the acts listed here live over the past year too (including a trio of Girls' Generation concerts) it is really thrilling to also be able to confirm that fan business is as hysterical as it has ever been. Being in the midst of the K-pop boom has been, for me at least, more exciting than my youth as a drunken lad in skinny jeans trying to pull down the 'indie disco' - and if you are new to the wonders of these bands my sole urge is that you attempt to open your mind to something very new. You may well be surprised.

But be warned: this is the addiction that changed my life...


It was a tough year for YG's other hit boy band - with leading man Nam Taehyun quitting the band due to 'mental health issues'. Exactly where Winner go now is anyone's guess but this hit single is one of the band's standout tunes to date with an indie-pop chorus that is absolutely infectious. Ignore the clueless pundits who described Shinee's 1 of 1 as a 'Britpop' throwback. Sonically it was nothing of the sort. But this is the real deal and it wouldn't sound totally out of place sandwiched somewhere between Menswe@r and Stereotypes-era Blur. Really. And no prizes if you can spot the Stone Roses nod in the video.


AOA continue to push the primetime Korean censors whilst drumming up excellent pop music. Ignoring the swimsuits, bum-wiggling and long legs (yes, yes I know that is hard), this is a great slice of vamped-up vaudeville which seagues from stop-start repetition to a violently pronounced chorus that is sheer genius. The accompanying EP, which also highlights the utterly gorgeous eighties throwback 10 Seconds, is one of the year's finest short plays and proof that AOA are not just one of the K-pop's biggest bands because of their skin-flauting... (I even paid double to get an autographed copy of this puppy for fuckssake). Indeed, if 10 Seconds had been the A-side in 2016 I think I'd have pushed AOA into my top ten...


The SM Station, which promised a new weekly tune from one of their artists (most of them as download only) seemed like an ambitious offering but it certainly gave us some absolute gems. Surely the most unexpected of all was the first single from Girls' Generation member - and 'Dancing Queen' - Hyoyeon, a charismatic, charming and often unfairly sidelined (at least vocally) part of the eight-piece supergroup. Even more leftfield was this Middle-Eastern tinged masterwork which compliments her vocal range just perfectly. A solo debut to treasure, Mystery is indication that Hyeyeon's delightfully distinctive husky voice will have a life after the eight-piece band reaches its conclusion.


This is Block B's best single so far. A more gentle and (whisper it) romantic offering than the band usually opts for (I still recall this weirdie making my brain contort when I first came across it during a trip to Seoul in December 2013. Forgive me. I was new to K-pop at the time and it was stuff like that which felt like a neon-tinged injection of awesomeness that my mind could not quite compute... I came home, went to a Cribs concert and felt... dismayed... as if I was on a drug-downer and the drunken colourful world of Gangham clubs and pubs was now as far away as the Moon itself). Toy gave us a far more human side to the group and they played it well. The epic chorus, which changes tempo at the last moment, is danceable but also skillfully emotive. Whilst the accompanying album failed to live up to Toy's excellence, this standout slice of melancholia was one of the most rotated options on my own iPad during 2016.


As T.O.P prepares for military service, Big Bang completed their 'Made' album with three new tracks - of which Last Dance is the easy standout (and god knows what they were thinking with the other two). The Made endeavour is, obviously, now a very clear concept LP - and one of the most striking achievements in K-pop history (even the faults, such as that aforementioned twosome, can be seen as honourable failures in the context of the bigger whole). It was Big Bang, in effect, saying their goodbyes and weighing up the pros and cons of life as thirty-something military grads with lots of cash but a likely inability to reclaim their past success. Made was, quite tenderly, the fivesome proclaiming - 'yeah, this was as good as it gets'. The smart thing might have been for label YG to send them all into the military together, thus allowing for a two year hiatus, but with each artist having such a dominating solo career it is at least understandable why they have opted not to. Last Dance has one of T.O.P's most heartbreaking vocal performances as he admits 'one last smile' and 'It’s not like the world, that I’ve seen and felt'. Buckle up, big guy - you'll break a lot of hearts in that squaddie uniform.

(As a side note, Last Dance and Taemin's more mature Soldier indicates that South Korea's celebrity youth are now, finally, actually allowing themselves to not-entirely-subtly-but-still-carefully vocalise what that impending military service feels like. For anyone unfamiliar with the nation's culutre, this is inifintely more taboo breaking than you might think - far more so than The Sex Pistols mindlessly bellowing 'God Save the Queen' - and if Taemin's tune doesn't touch your heart you might well be made of stone. It was one of the year's edgiest and most thematically groundbreaking songs).

And this is the best Bond track since Tina Turner. Or maybe Gladys Knight. Shame that no one at Eon is ever likely to hear it. Sadly, after their 2015 return from that notorious lawsuit, B.A.P. had another rough year (with member Bang Yong Guk taking a hiatus for the same 'mental health problems' that Winner's press release also maintained). But holy shit if this doesn't rock. This is B.A.P. at their heaviest and, complete with its ridiculously ambitious ten minute music video, this was one of 2016's most bombastic and brilliant comebacks. 


The sound of decadence. Sexy. Provocative. Even a little... sinister? Boom, boom, boom... History are one of Korea's least known and most underrated boy bands. Although as with anything Korean the description of 'boy band' doesn't do them justice because One Direction this is not. This is exactly what you want from a new K-pop song. Join the fandom before History really break out - and on the sonics of something as superb as this, that time can only be soon...


Bubblegum at its best, Exid had a huge 2015 and have never looked back since. Another dance floor anthem that builds into two choruses - one wrapped up in lavishly produced and richly indulged high notes and another that slows down into an extended EDM chant. The two sides, however, work perfectly and after the second or third listen some of the other parts also come together brilliantly - including a token rap from LE and a nice collapse into balladry. Exid also slammed out the more sexually forthright (and outright clubby) Cream in 2016, shot in the shadow of Shanghai's iconic Oriental Pearl, but I'm going with L.I.E as their annual best. And the video is proof positive of why Hani has fast become one of Asia's foremost sex symbols. Just saying (for the curious, she's the one with the short hair who starts the song).


I don't really get SM's NCT project. I suspect it is their attempt to establish somewthing that is a little like Japan's continent-conquering AKB48 (warning: that previous link is not work friendly) as a similarly Asia-wide thing and with interchangeable males (but actual good music). But K-pop is not J-pop and fans become far more attached to a group than the more 'meat in a skirt' thing of AKB48 which rotates members - and nationalised spin-offs - at an alarming rate. Either way, NCT 127's Fire Truck is indier than anything you will hear in any supposed 'indie' bar this year. NME writers, having had to hype years of soundalike Arctic Monkeys albums, would doubtlessly have a mind-melt trying to describe exactly what this sounds like and what it is even doing. At least one thing is for sure: turned up loud this positively burns... And the amazing thing is that this is not even the best song from the NCT experiment. For that... wait until number two...


This is how I want my dance music. Ear-rattling, seductive and nasty... I don't know if this is the sort of thing I would even have dared tackle back in my days of Morrissey-love but this, this, is the sound of too much alcohol. The sound of 'time to go home'. The sound of attempting to recover from a night on a dancefloor. It makes me feel ten years younger. Oddly. Because ten years ago there is no way I would have listened to this. Maybe I am running low on descriptions at this point - but I loved this so song so much a little bit of my heart was chipped away when I learned it played with a Pantene advert in South Korea. Fuckssake. The impossibly perfect Yuri and Seohyun, of course, are two members of Girls' Generation - but hopefully you did not need me to tell you that.


BTS are the heirs to Big Bang and EXO as Korea's biggest thing right now and after storming K-Con in America this year there were even some rumblings about a world tour. Would this also equate with Stateside airplay? To be honest, I'm not sure if the band is ever, much like Big Bang and EXO, going to grab a genuinelly international audience but Fire is that rare thing - an indie-rock anthem that you can honestly imagine playing on Western radio stations (moreso even than Gangham Style). It is certainly far more accessible than a lot of K-pop whilst still rocking way harder than the last stadium trudge-anthem you heard blaring out from a stuffed suit's BMW. Purely hypothetically, if I was going to spend eight (nine?) figures launching any Asian band in the English-speaking world I would, on the strength of this puppy, probably go for BTS... Give this one a twirl and see if you agree.


How the hell did this flop? But flop it did and soon 4Minute were no more - with only Hyuna remaining on record label, Cube Entertainment, as a signed performer. The break-up was ugly but as far as swansongs go this is one of the very best from any band in any genre, ever. Kicking off as a tragic ballad this evolves into a really in-your-face dance thumper welcomed by Hyuna's should-have-been-iconic squeal of 'I hate you'... A brilliant work of pop-art there is no excusing bad taste - and in an alternate world 4Minute are heading into 2017 as arena-headlining heroines and one of the most commercial acts in Asia. Alas, as 2016 taught us, terrible judgement was everywhere...


Girls' Generation member Tiffany had a troubled 2016 - although posting the symbol of the Japanese Imperial Army on your Instagram during South Korea's liberation day will, generally, get you into the sort of hot water that - say - Nazi regalia encourages in the West (unless you are Lemmy). A few fawning, begging apologies later and Tiffany made a sort-of comeback with the Far East Movement, and the excellent Don't Speak, but otherwise the Californian-born Valley Girl stayed wisely quiet. Earlier in 2016, though, she came out with this dreamy widescreen wistful amalgamation of early 90s house and Tori Amos/ Boys from Pele-era road music. It was outstanding and showed the full range of Tiffany's vocal talents too - so much so that future solo projects from the American expat (who, by now, must have had some rush-history lessons on her adopted country and its past) should be anticipated by just about everyone...


Raggae has never had the easiest transition in K-pop - the sound of dance halls and anti-imperialist ethos in the Carribean has been, largely, reappropriated via lots of beautiful Korean men and women as a sexy soundbite which encourages much boobs and bum shaking. At its very worst, we have seen Korean men in dreads pictured pretending to smoke the sort of narcotic that, in Seoul, would get them a spell in chokey, a finality to their career and largescale media and public disgust (yes, weed is taken that seriously). The Wonder Girls, however, take the form and respectfully and expertly intergrate it into a flawless 3.34 minute pop song that chops, changes and surprises at all turns. Still one of Korea's A-list bands, JYP's most enduring act looks unlikely to falter if they continue to serve-up comebacks as mind-blowing as this. And the music video is excellent.


Taemin, the franchise of Shinee, had a phenomenol 2016 with a superb solo album and such breathtaking indigenous singles as Press My Number and Drip Drop. Nevertheless, it is his Japanese shortplay - Sayonara Hitori - that gets the nod here. One of the most spine-tingling numbers to come from SM Entertainment - this is Taemin at his heartfelt best and redefines his image as a mature and sensitive songwriter and performer, something that his output throughout the year consistently cemented. At this stage, in fact, the Taemin image now feels as if it has even outgrown the mammoth of Shinee. And that is no mean feat. But listen to Sayonara Hitori (as well as the above-linked Soldier) and it is nearly impossible not to hear the emerging of a possible 'voice of a generation'. Hopefully SM can give the sexually ambigious - and androgynous - artist enough freedom to continue to explore increasingly more adventurous soundscapes (and themes). With this said, Shinee's really fantastic Tell me What to Do really did deserve a place on this list. So pardon my cheating...

I've opted for a Taemin solo instead - and besides, I don't want my Top 20 to seem like too much of an SM love-fest.

Speaking of which...

TAEYEON - 11:11

At this point Taeyeon is so iconic it feels pointless even writing anything here. Her gorgeous performance of Rain at the MAMA Awards in December only instigated how her very presence sends an audience into a respectful and perfect hush of admiration. When I began this list I opted for one artist and one song because someone like Taeyeon makes it otherwise difficult not to list their other achievements (for anyone curious, summer single Why is an easy 10/10 too). I have gone for 11:11 for the simple reason that it is Taeyeon stripped down, vulnerable, at her most expressive but without the stadium-filling lungs that she is all-too-frequently expected to show (for anyone who remembers last year's solo debut). The only question left for the Girls' Generation leader is exactly where she goes from here. As with Yoona, she has already slayed an entire continent (to the point it feels odd coming back to the UK and not seeing her image, or hearing her music, anywhere) but whether or not her delicate, even virginal, and certainly insanely shy, personality can break further is anyone's guess...


Punky foul-mouthed feminist anthem that subverts the image of the 'crazy' girlfriend (including with a hilarious video). This is forthright and angry, atmospheric and antagonistic with one of the best choruses of the year. Probably should have been one of the year's biggest hits but it wasn't - even in spite of three superior vocal performances (with Yenny from The Wonder Girls already making me ache for her next solo album) and, by K-pop standards, a more 'alternative' approach to the production (just listen to that low-fi but absolutely sublime opening).


With four singles to date the most challenging thing was concluding on which Black Pink number to put in here. Stay gets the placement for its understated acoustic beauty - although the tubthumping instant-classic Boombayah, the midnight-hour rouser Playing With Fire and the more experimental Whistle are all tremendous. Then again, they had to be: with YG's 2NE1 calling it quits, Black Pink had to be something special. Whilst the four beauties (with dyed-blonde Lisa offering a slight exoticisim by hailing from Thailand) fit the physical perfection that detractors of K-pop often focus upon - as opposed to the more ragtag glamour of 2NE1 - the songs speak for themselves. As Black Pink go forward, it will be up to the foursome to cultivate the same dedicated fan worship that each charismatic 2NE1 personality managed to grab - but, at the very least, with debut hits as brilliant as this, they have a far stronger start than their YG compatriots were initially afforded.


NCT U (not to be confused with NCT 127 or, uh, NCT Dream) introduced SM's latest brainfart with the sort of epic guitar anthem that makes pretty much any other guitar anthem from 2016 seem fairly... shite. Ultimately, this sounds so freaking massive that NCT U's follow-up number, The 7th Sense, which in itself is really quite great, was given a pitiful task in even attempting to come on the heels of this outstanding rush of sexual infatuation (cheesy or sleazy? Make your call). It still sounds unbeatable, confident, crooning and totally uplifting - making the decision for further NCT sub-groups seem pointless. After all, SM has pulled off the impossible - a band of pretty boys that sound nothing like flagships EXO, Shinee or Super Junior. Do they really need to make it any more complicated than that?


EXO had so many good songs this year it beggars belief that a band this brilliant remains so unknown outside of Asia (where they are bigger than boiled rice). Even after losing another member, reducing the once-twelve piece to a fit-as-fuck ninesome, their comeback with Monster was lean, mean and - right from the song's siren-fuelled start - sounded like pure unadulterated danger. And with eye-opening lyrics of sexual frustration, that one might not have expected to drool from the mouths of the EXO lads ('I’ll steal you and indulge in you/ I’m gonna mess you up/ I’m engraved in your heart/ So even if I die, I’ll live forever'), this is a testosterone-fuelled dance-rock mash that - at the year's end - plays as a deliberate 'fuck you' to any band even thinking of touching their K-pop crown. Having seen EXO live twice in 2016 I am personally tempted to go so far as to crown them as the best living band on the planet. From their remarkable and varied output over the past year, it is mouth watering to think where this group might be headed to in the next couple of years - providing SM can keep them healthy and manages to retain what's left of the band.


If we are including album tracks... Well, Luna's 'Breathe' from her 'Free Somebody' album might be second only to EXO in 2016 achievements. It is so effortlessly stunning you can escape right into every perfect second.

Close your eyes and turn off the lights...