Legend has it that IATFB hired me on the pretense of writing about ballads on this website, something he absolutely hates to do himself. But this was shortly before my brain was shattered into a million fragments by reality television. My last ballad article for Asian Junkie was … uhhh, June? But while some people might define this long delay of doing my actual job as “procrastination” or “behavior of a lazy slacker” (sorry, POD48 fans), big brain readers might understand that this is a deft, long-tail strategy to make sure my last article of the year is saturated with the good stuff.
So with about six months of balladry to sift through, here’s some of my favorites of the year, along with some just-dropped freshness.
SEVENTEEN – “Same Dream, Same Mind, Same Night”
On my theoretical list of best ballads this year, SEVENTEEN would’ve ranked a couple times, once for their cover of “Is It Still Beautiful” for Hospital Playlist 2 and once for this little bit of pastiche from their ‘Your Choice‘ EP released in June. Comparisons to Bruno Mars‘ “Versace On The Floor“ are apt, but while the brassiness of “Versace” hits closer to Quincy Jones-type power ballads, “Same Dream” for me channels the boy band renaissance of the late 90s, specifically I’d say 98°‘s version of “I Do (Cherish You)“ or *NSYNC‘s “This I Promise You“. Very much school prom slow dance, and it hits all the required notes, from the swelling harmonies in the chorus to the huge dollop of reverb.
IU – “Strawberry Moon”
IU has been very busy during COVID, hitting #1 a couple times with her big, post-daesang album, LILAC, as well as on a collaboration with AKMU for their album. In October she released this power ballad, featuring no collab, no big concept, no gimmicks. Just a digital single that was pure pop and highlights all the tonal quirks we love in IU’s voice.
“Celebrity” and “LILAC” felt like IU experimenting with various trends to varying degrees of success. And while she’s able to do drop-pop and city pop better than the vast majority of K-pop idols, those singles didn’t really feel like the best IU had to offer. “Strawberry Moon” feels purely like an IU song through and through. This is a song, if you covered, you’d have to sing it like IU sang it. The pixie-ish way she hits those syllables in the verses, the breathy pre-chorus, the effortless belting in the triumphant refrain.
It feels like a peak song for her, as essential to IU’s resume as, say, “Always Be My Baby” is for Mariah Carey‘s discography. People will be covering this and singing it at karaoke for a long, long time to come.
If there existed Ballad Madden, IU would be a 99 and Taeyeon would be a 97, and songs like “Strawberry Moon” (which Taeyeon has been trying to replicate for her entire solo career) would be proof of the inches of separation in between.
KLANG – “If”
Soloist KLANG is Park Da Eun, who absolutely destroyed on season four of I Can See Your Voice. She’s been doing some steady OST work since then, and this in particular was a nice little offering attached to a short, four-episode, under-the-radar mini-drama starring Girl’s Day‘s Minah.
It’s nice to see that KLANG’s husky, soulful voice isn’t being pandered to by the composition. It’s common for a lot of lazy producers to simply pigeonhole a voice like hers as a preexisting paradigm. After her appearance on ICSYV I expected her career to go down a dark path of second-rate Adele covers. But “If” stands solidly as it’s own track, and thus Park Da Eun is allowed to use her unique timbre to play around with the pleasantly sweet melody. It’s cool to hear an unconventional tone in an incongruent setting; it’s even cooler to see it succeed.
Kep1er (Dayeon, Chaehyun, Youngeun) – Taeyeon’s “This Christmas”
If you think my brain trauma has recovered enough to see this in the queue and not take a swing at it, I am sorry to disappoint you.
Kep1er, the group sourced from Produce-but-don’t-say-it’s-Produce Girls Planet 999, are off to a rocky start with COVID (supposedly) delaying the debut album until after the New Year. I thiiiiiink this is the first real video of them performing a song that’s not “O.O.O“, but even if I’m mistaken, this holiday offering answers the question of who will be the main vocalists in the group.
Chaehyun of course is the de facto point person in all things vocals, but surprisingly, Youngeun is also here. She was more known for her dance abilities, but definitely didn’t slouch in the vocal department. I honestly expected Mashiro to be top three, potentially.
Anyways, it’s a nice cover. Chaehyun obviously isn’t plagued by the singing yips that hounded her on GP999. Multiple takes helps in that regard. It’s also apparent Kep1er’s not going to be a big vocal group; most certainly they’ll focus on dance and performance concepts. They’re probably on par with the OG I.O.I in the vocals department.
JENYER (Feat. Gayoon) – “SOOP”
Since 4Minute‘s disbandment back in 2016, Jiyoon, now known as JENYER, has carved out a nice little solo career for herself, writing/composing most of her own material but not really participating in the promotional circuit. After separating, the 4Minute members never seemed particularly close except for JENYER and Gayoon, the latter which went on to concentrate on acting only. “SOOP“, released back in August, not only marks the first time these two have collaborated since the end of 4Minute, but also the first time Gayoon has sang new material at all.
“SOOP” has a lot sonically in common with Red Velvet‘s “Psycho“; the slow, orchestral bounce expressing an off-kilter descent into mental instability. It also feels like JENYER’s voice has gotten lighter over time? Or like the huskiness isn’t there at least in this performance. Gayoon sounds like she’s never taken a day off.
2YOON honestly should’ve been something more like this than the yeehaw hoedown that was “24/7“.
Eric Chou – “You Don’t Belong To Me”
As the writer of a ballads column, I’ve been a fool to not touch on the work Eric Chou has been doing recently. He’s the undisputed Mando-ballad king at this point, contributing OSTs for hit romantic dramas and movies, as well as blockbuster standalone singles. His October single, “你不屬於我“, is for the Taiwanese drama More Than Blue, an adaptation of the Korean 2009 film of the same name.
When I first heard “You Don’t Belong To Me” (at karaoke, naturally), the melody sounded so timeless that I had to check if it’s a cover of an older song. It’s not! Which is a testament to how well constructed it is.
I love when pop music tries to break things down and shatter the mold, but I don’t think ballads needs to follow the same logic. I really appreciate a solidly constructed piece of work that serves as a clean platform for a singer to do their work. “You Don’t Belong To Me,” and honestly most of Eric Chou’s other songs, are of that vein. Ballads are to singers what monologues are to actors, and a song like this is basically Hamlet.
And with that, my last column of 2021 is in the books. Thanks to you all for reading, whether it was about ballads, Chinese entertainment regulations, reality TV, or whatever.
Have a happy new year!