The last of a series in which regular and guest LKL contributors nominate their CD releases of the year.
As Mark Russell notes in his 2008 roundup, we had some good reissues this year. This is great news, as it shows that the Korean music industry is showing some maturity. Why after all should fans of the great bands from Korea’s past be denied access to their music? Until know it has been extremely difficult for foreigners to explore the back catalogue without resorting to illegal copies. So the re-issue of the complete Sanullim is a milestone, and I also welcome the four Sunflower albums re-released this year. I was hoping to include one of the Sunflower albums on my list of favourite releases of the year, but to be honest their better work came later – so I hope there will be the opportunity next year provided the re-releases keep on coming.
I thought of including a re-release of Lee Seung Chul (이승철) tracks from the 1990s. Lee has a remarkable voice – a mellow tenor – well suited to the ballad style. But in the end I found the album not distintive enough to include. So instead the first item on the list is a reinvention rather than a reissue. Seo Taiji, the man who brought rap to Korea in the early 1990s, has been constantly developing his sound throughout his career. From his early dance-oriented style through explorations with metal and punk, Seo now arrives at a sound he terms “nature pound”. Moai is the first part of a 3-part come-back project, and judging by the quality of Moai the remainder of the project will be well worth investigating. The title track reminded me of up-beat Stevie Wonder – plenty of energy with complex rhythms. This is a great number to get you up in the morning.
2008 was the year of BoA’s heavily trailed assault on the US market. Annoyingly for her, she was upstaged by some young upstarts who happened to catch the attention of Hollywood gossip blogger Perez Hilton. Yes, it’s JYP’s teenage troupe the Wonder Girls. How this happened, who knows. But, just to destroy my credibility… actually, their offering isn’t half bad. Yes, their Nobody is based on the most clichéd chord progression in existence. But it’s overused because it’s good. Oh, and they need to fire their language coach (I want nobody nobody bah tchoo). But putting that aside, it’s a well-produced catchy pop song with a trademark simple dance routine to go with it, and the remixes and B sides are also rather enjoyable. It’s not high culture, but what’s not to like? Plus the promotional video which takes the mickey out of their manager shows that JYP has a sense of humour – albeit toilet humour.
Enough singles. On to the albums.
With the Wonder Girls at the start of their career, who knows how long they will continue? But there’s a veteran of the Korean music industry who can look back on half a century of music, and who still has the popularity to release an album – though for a very different market from the Wonder Girls audience. Patti Kim this year released The One and Only to celebrate her near-70th birthday and near-50th anniversary in the business. It’s a lavishly produced sound, and younger listeners may not appreciate the style, but it’s a comforting disk, with pleasant tunes, particularly the duet with 이문세 in track 6. Well worth tracking down.
Anna’s collection contains two choices which are solo acts from the same band (Bluedawn). I will also feature a solo offshoot of a great band. In fact my band – Clazziquai – also gave birth to two solo acts this year. But while I found the solo outing of Alex rather indistinguishable from your run-of-the-mill ballad album, the solo acoustic project from Horan, Ibadi, was much more distinctive. There seems to be wealth of great female vocalists among the indie labels at the moment – think of Yozoh, Yeongene, Humming Girl – but Horan is one of the best, and Ibadi is a charming album, full of engaging tunes – melodies which tell you a story or lead you on a journey, and instrumentation to divert and delight. It’s like a conversation with your best friend. Story of Us is a CD which has been in my player lots this year.
I’ve saved the best till last. Among female vocalists, Nah Youn Sun is the most versatile, most agile, and has the widest range. After what was for me a slightly disappointing 2004 album “So I am” – which was rather too avant garde for my tastes – her 2007 “Memory Lane” was more approachable, blending jazz and pop. 2008 brings her back with a slight reinvention: an acoustic backing band from Sweden, including Ulf Wakenius, the guitarist from the final incarnation of the Oscar Peterson quartet. The resulting album, Voyage, is astounding. Nah provides us with a number of her own compositions, some American folksong and, bravest of all, a cover of a Tom Waits song (“Jockey full of bourbon” from the 1985 album “Rain Dogs”).
We start the album with an intimate waltz, “Dancing with you” in which Nah’s vocal style is reminiscent of the UK-based jazz vocalist Stacey Kent, with the playful placing of final consonants and the slightly mid-Atlantic accent. We move on to some beautifully controlled, introverted numbers – some like folk songs (“The Linden” and “Shenandoah”), others having a jazz influence (Nat King Cole’s “Calypso Blues”). In these slower, more private tracks the backing band plays almost caressingly – Mathias Eick on trumpet manages to produce a full, rounded sound while still being pianissimo, while Wakenius seems to stroke the guitar strings.
In previous albums Nah has become known for her scat singing, agile, at the top of the register, and sometimes almost sprechgesang in style. Lest you think Nah has lost the knack, “Frevo” is a track of breathtaking virtuosity where she manages to mimic Wakenius’s flamenco style guitar playing and also does an impressive solo. Leaps, glissandi, runs, it’s all here. And the Tom Waits number? It would be a challenge for any female singer to mimic the almost tuneless growl of Waits, and Nah opts for a combination of vocal inflexions, sometimes almost speaking the words, sometimes whispering, at other times scooping up to the top of her range in an effort to portray some of the grotesqueness of the original.
However you look at this album, from the variety of vocal techniques on show and the variety of musical experience, this disk is a triumphant success and without question my release of the year.
Unlike last year, this year I’ve found it hard to restrict my list to five (despite the clear winner). The ones which almost made the cut were
- Park Kiyoung Acoustic+ Best – nice mellow music
- W&Whale Hard Boiled – laid back acid jazz / Latin, taking over where Roller Coaster left off
- Story Seller – energetic rock from the band formerly known as Bloody Cookie
And Jenny Wu didn’t have a chance to write up her choices this year, but on her list were
- Hot Potato Vol 4 – The Journey of Cultivating a Potato Field
- Sister’s Barbershop Vol 5
- My-Q Vol 2 – This is for you
- EZ Hyoung Vol 2 – Spectrum
- The Brown Eyes reunion album: Vol. 3 – Two Things Needed For The Same Purpose and 5 Objects
- Sample Nah Youn Sun‘s Voyage on her MySpace page. Treat yourself.
- Ibadi on MySpace
- Seo Taiji‘s Moai (on location in the Easter Islands) and Human Dream (track 2 of the single – with some robotic choreography apparently known as the Pink Tights Dance) on YouTube
- The Wonder Girls perform Nobody on YouTube
- A selection of poor quality Patti Kim performances on YouTube, mainly uploaded from Korean TV.
Other selections for 2008