The Best and Worst of K-Pop: July 2019

Every time you turn around there’s a K-pop act debuting or coming back, and it’s pretty much impossible to keep up. But dammit, we here at the Academic Exiles try our hardest, consuming just about every new music video we come across. Knowing that busier (and probably saner) people don’t have time to obsess over new K-pop music, we decided to provide a monthly rundown of the best and worst in K-pop, compiling our five favorite and five least favorite title tracks of the month. In typical Academic Exiles fashion, we’ve released our July lists almost halfway through the month of August, but like I said, we have a lot of music videos to watch. So here are the best and worst K-pop title tracks of July 2019, as chosen by two friends with too much time on their hands. 

WORST

“Room Shaker” by Ailee

S: I feel kinda bad for including this since it’s widely speculated that Ailee was shut out from any broadcast performances for this comeback. But then again, I can’t say “Room Shaker” was really missed. It’s far from the worst song on this list; it just doesn’t work for me. Ailee apparently went with a song that didn’t really spotlight her vocal range to showcase other abilities and talents. I guess you can’t just belt all the time, and it’s nice to see her stretching herself. Unfortunately, the result is a pretty basic song that groups like Blackpink and CLC can and have delivered better. Plus, the lyrics are a little dumb: “Go merry go ’round / Go merry go / Go merry go ’round / You know what I mean.” No, no, I don’t.

A: I’m all for K-pop idols shining “like chandelier icicles hanging from the ceiling.” I also enjoy vocalists with pipes powerful enough to shake a room. But somehow, Ailee’s comeback fell short for me. As much as I wanted to see her show a different side of herself by taking on a girl crush concept, the song relied too heavily on an annoying beat and awkward dance moves to do her any favors. 

“What a Life” by EXO-SC

S: I had no idea that Chanyeol and Sehun lived like Taoist hermits, but “What a Life” taught me that. So, that’s a bonus for this song. It’s probably the only bonus this song gets, but hey, it’s the small things that matter. This is a dumb song that is more than a little obnoxious sounding. At the same time, I kind of adore it. Too bad I just can’t ignore the “hate” part of this love-hate relationship. 

A: Don’t get me wrong, I adore Sehun and Chanyeol, but they need the support of EXO’s talented vocal line. Chanyeol sounds fine, but Sehun sounds as monotone as ever. However, I do enjoy this song as a guilty pleasure. It’s basically like Winner’s “Everyday” except with weaker rappers, prettier faces and an extreme misunderstanding of Taoism (unless they’re referring to the ex-EXO member). Like Kai, I am impressed with Sehun’s ability to pull off yellow plastic gloves, but I’d rather listen to Baekhyun. 

“Icy” by Itzy

S: When a song starts Hey! Hey! Hey! Yo! / Woo! Beep, beep,” it’s usually a bad sign. I know we’re probably in the minority for this song, but Amanda and I don’t like it. I find it just aurally unpleasant—pretty damning for a thing that you, you know, listen to. 

A: Oh shit, Itzy stole Ailee’s look! And I must say they both look great in their Fendi crop tops, but unfortunately, they both also disappointed in their summer comebacks. Itzy has a bit of an identity crisis. They claim they’re “cold” and “different,” but they’re really just JYP’s version of Red Velvet or Blackpink mixed with watered down feminism and BTS’s love yourself message. I don’t buy for a minute that these ladies have “icy” demeanors; they’re cashing in on a moment, both in K-pop industry standards and in women’s activism. However, they just debuted this year and have already made some catchy hits; hopefully they’ll evolve into more interesting, self-aware artists. 

“Gleam” by Mamamoo

S: This song is kinda whatever, but it’s on here for one reason: It’s a terrible ad. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with the fact that Mamamoo made a commercial. If I felt some kinda moral outrage about using K-pop music videos to sell things, “Cool Love” would be here instead because that thing just about shoves Pepsi down your throat. “Gleam” does throw a lot of sunglasses at the viewer, but I have no idea what brand they are. That’s not a super effective way to sell something. And to top it all off, this video is set in a dark bowling alley. Why are they wearing sunglasses anyway? It’s freakin’ July. Go to the beach, or at least, do something outside.

A: In “Gleam,” Mamamoo does what they do best: Have fun and look cool. In the video, they perform their laid-back love song while donning multiple shades of glasses and. . . .

What a second, this isn’t a comeback. This is an eyewear commercial! I’ve been scammed! And what is this even an advertisement for? I never saw the name of the brand anywhere. Look, I’m here for idols getting their coins by doing some endorsements—we’ve even created an award for it—and Hwasa is the best model you can get for pretty much anything. But an advertisement posing as a music video that doesn’t even show you the brand? Pssht. Amateurs. Mamamoo deserves better. 

“Boom” by NCT Dream

S: I don’t hate this song. It’s probably the song I like most that made it onto the worst list. That being said, Chenle’s red cornrows are unforgivable. S.M. needs to stop trying that style with their idols. There’s a chance people will be offended, and it never looks good. Why risk it? On a more musical note, Mark’s absence is really felt on a track this hip-hop forward, which isn’t doing the group any favors.

A: Just because a song was deemed one of our least favorites of the month doesn’t mean we hate it. This is a solid, catchy pop song and probably one of the better songs to have “Boom” in the title. I’m also happy to see that NCT Dream has ditched sailor costumes and other apparel befitting toddlers. Unfortunately, they’ve replaced that style with Chenle’s bright red cornrows, and there are some things that are just unacceptable. 

HONORABLE MENTIONS 

“Blue” by Sungwoon

“We Don’t Talk Together” by Heize ft. Giriboy

BEST

“U.N. Village” by Baekhyun

S: It’s hard to believe that a song that heavily features “relaxing and chilling” could come from Baekhyun, but here we are. Chanyeol and Sehun are Taoist hermits, and Baekhyun just wants an intimate moment with a special someone. A song about a romantic walk in a prestigious neighborhood in Seoul doesn’t necessarily sound like a winner, but “U.N. Village” delivers a laid-back groove that works. Earlier this year, Chen’s solo release was full of ballads, which I appreciate, but it’s nice to see Baekhyun mixing it up with something more modern and a little cooler. 

A: Isn’t it tough to be a K-Pop star? Poor Baekhyun, chilling in one of Seoul’s most expensive areas with some lucky lady. But in a way, I guess it is tough. It’s difficult to find privacy or enjoy intimate moments when you’re in one of the world’s biggest boy bands. As he suggests at the beginning of the song, even his most sacred spots become hot spots for EXO-Ls, and he has to prove to people that they don’t actually know him. This track and the rest of City Lights show a more subdued, sexy side to this extra entertainer.

“Time of Our Life” by Day6

S: Day6’s recent string of comebacks have really been working for me. “Shoot Me” was overdramatic fun, and “Days Gone By” was a great ‘80s throwback in a genre overcrowded with them. “Time of Our Life” continues the winning streak. Frantic sounding in a good way, the song’s got a fun, belty chorus that makes me wish I had a better grasp of Korean so I could sing along … okay, I’m probably going to sing anyway.

A: We adore the men of Day6, and they’ve been cranking out the hits this past year. “Time of Our Life” is probably the most celebratory K-pop song of the year so far. The band plays and sings with everything they have, thrilled to have made it to this point in their careers. And who wouldn’t want to celebrate with these guys? 

“What Are You Up To” by Kang Daniel

S: I don’t have a lot to say about this song. It’s nice; I like it. Would I care if it wasn’t from Kang Daniel? Perhaps, but I’d certainly care less. All the Wanna One guys have been doing well, but still, it’s good to have Kang Daniel return to the center of all our hearts. (Although, between ongoing legal disputes, a dating scandal and not attending Wanna One’s anniversary dinner, he might not occupy that space for a lot of fans much longer.)

A: Legal troubles with his former label might have forced Kang Daniel to delay his release by eight months (which is like eight years in K-Pop time), but nothing can keep down the nation’s center. After winning his case, he debuted with the mini-album Color on Me, which broke the record for most album sales in a week by a Korean solo artist (set earlier in the month by Baekhyun). Unlike Sungwoon’s “Blue,” Daniel’s title track embraced all the colors as he danced throughout a series of bright rooms and donned an amazing purple jumpsuit.

Honestly, his popularity is still a bit inexplicable for us; sure, he’s great, but is he really that great? No. But we’re not going to knock down a man who stuck to his guns in an industry notorious for exploiting its artists. And this is a good song. It manages to convey the clang of a phone ringing while still sounding bright and refreshing. It captures the impatience of waiting to hear from a loved one without getting annoying or cloying. He isn’t the best singer, but he penned a nice summer song.

“Humph!” by Pentagon

S: Pentagon is back with the teenage feels, and the group proves it’s a formula that works. While still no “Shine” (alas, few things are), “Humph!” is a lot of fun. Tackling the childish tendency to act like you don’t like your crush, Hui continues to prove he’s one of the most exciting idol songwriters. The song is playful with an easy-going vibe and an ear-wormy chorus that strategically walks the line between catchy and annoying. Plus, it’s got a bright, school-themed video to match. 

A: Pentagon shines brightest when they embrace their inner children and are incompetent at expressing their emotions—like in “Shine,” the best K-pop song of 2018 according to three of the premier industry experts. In “Humph!,” they take on the roles of frustrated schoolboys whose feelings aren’t taken seriously unless they act like little assholes. As silly as it is, it does kind of represent how toxic masculinity can manifest in young men who are expected to hide their sadness. Also, props to their hair stylist for Hui, Wooseok and Yuta’s new dos. (I’m sure others had good hair, but those are the only members I know.)

“Face” by Woosung

S: Pentagon may have the market cornered on adolescent emotions, but it’s The Rose’s Woosung who delivered the most simplistic of confessions: “I like your face.” It’s a memorable hook, and it helped make the singer’s solo debut my favorite song of July. Woosung’s unique vocals are in the spotlight, bolstered by a funky but unobtrusive instrumental. It’s a cool song with a provocative music video, featuring one of South Korea’s top drag queens and plenty of striking imagery. Word of warning: Be wary of some of the other songs on Wolf; Woosung can be a provocateur of a different kind. I recommend sticking with the good vibes of “Face”

A: Who doesn’t like a man and a song that manages to be both sexy and adorably exuberant? I’ve been somewhat interested in The Rose for a while, particularly for Woosung’s unique voice. Here, he trades in his normal angst for pure joy, treating a hot night with a girl like a trip to the ice cream bar. The song has a fun video to match that challenges beauty standards and features some tantalizing jello-slapping. What can I say—I like his face. However, I’m not so sure about the rest of this mini-album, Wolf. “Face” is a pretty major shift from the previous track, “Moon,” in which he angrily asks if someone is retarded. So maybe just listen to “Face.” 

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