Yes, I'm aware that this post will probably backfire and I'll now get more questions about this shit than ever before, plus a side-helping of a bunch of smartass cunts picking apart this post and telling me that I'm wrong about this or that, pointing out meaningless exceptions, snobbily telling me I'm condescending because I dare to make educational posts about things they already know, etc. Oh well, read on and hopefully the people who strangely like my posts will be more entertained about this bullshit than I was when I wrote it and the rest of you haters will be able to restrain your natural urge to be a snobby elitist cuntosaurus.
So, what technically constitutes an album?
A collection of songs. The very first albums were sheet music sold in a book or folder format, then when audio recording formats finally became cheap enough to able to be purchased by ordinary folk (around 1900), albums became collections of shellac discs that were usually 10" wide (but not always) and designed to be played at 78 revolutions per minute (RPM). 78 RPM shellac was a really crap format though because they only had a playing time of a few minutes per side so you needed multiple discs to constitute an album, plus the weight of the discs was heavy and the audio quality mostly wasn't great. When the lighter 12" 33 RPM vinyl format was adopted by the industry after World War II that could store nearly half an hour of music per side with generally better audio fidelity, people transitioned to this "long-playing" format, hence the term "LP" being used interchangeably with "album" from the 1940s until the late 1980s when compact discs (CDs) finally overtook vinyl as the most popular physical album format. Albums have been issued in several formats since (including cassettes, Minidisc, laser disc and several others) but the most common physical format currently is still the CD.
|10" 78 RPM shellac records, annoyingly heavy, shit-sounding and impractical, only hipsters and your great grandparents own these.|
A mini-album is just an album with a shorter running length. There's no completely set-in-stone global consensus on where that line is drawn, although some countries have rules for determining if a collection of recordings is long enough to qualify as an album for chart purposes and also if mini-albums qualify or not. Korean mini-albums average at about 6 tracks whereas a full album is usually about 12 tracks.
A physical "single" paradoxically has two tracks, the A-side (the song you bought the single for, also called the "feature track") and the B-side, another song. The extra song is there because vinyl has two sides and it was not much extra expense to cut something on the other side of the vinyl and give the consumer an extra track. Singles later transitioned to CDs and are now almost exclusively digital in most markets, however this practice of giving out a free "B-side" track is still common even now as a way to showcase the artist's less commercial material when you also buy their hit. CD singles often have more than one B-side track.
An EP is an "Extended Play" single. The most common format for an EP is four tracks, or two tracks per side of vinyl. Extended Play format was used for artists who released very long singles mainly in the 60s and 70s, that wouldn't fit over the running length of one side of 7" vinyl. It was never the dominant format.
There's also 12" vinyl singles which usually have extended mixes, these are still a popular format for club DJs, plus there's quite a few other terms like "maxi-single" etc which are mainly just record companies making things up as they go along.
What are the main differences between k-pop albums and western albums?
K-pop albums have:
- Much more lavish packaging (usually)
- Big photobooklets with lots of pages (usually)
- As many pervy and slightly creepy photos of your biases that will fit into the space (usually)
- Horrible liner notes where the performers thank God over and over insipidly (usually)
- Photocards and souvenir items (sometimes)
The closest equivalent to Korean albums in terms of physical presentation is the western "box set", except in the west the "box set" isn't the regular edition of the album but a special version.
|Tiffany's god-bothering thank-you notes aren't unusually extreme by k-pop album standards - this emphatic bubblegum-pink religious tract is from the "Oh!" album|
K-pop companies have worked out over the last few years that it's only die-hard fans who buy physical albums these days, so they're meant to be something special for the fans. Insane packaging of k-pop albums really kicked into high gear as a standard practice at the start of the Golden Age (2008-2011), before this CDs were usually in standard jewel cases. Companies now realise that most fans actually already have electronic copies of the music and are buying the physical product chiefly for the photobook, for the same reason that many people who buy vinyl albums these days never play the vinyl and often don't even own a record player - people like to fetishise the package, and fans like to feel like they're supporting the artist by buying something extra.
I have a Korean single and it's called a "single album" but has only two tracks on it, huh?
Korean singles tend to use the word "album" to refer to the book that comes with the CD rather than the CD itself which harks back to the original pre-shellac 19th century definition of an album as a collection of pages, in the same sense as a stamp collector's album. Given the substantial amount of content in a k-pop single's booklet vs what you average western CD booklet has, this kind of makes sense.
|After School Blue's "Wonder Boy" is a "single album" with only two tracks on the CD, but the photobook is just as big and filled with pages of pervy/weird/creepy photos as any full k-pop album.|
Sometimes after an album is released, a k-pop agency will decide to release a follow-up song to promote the album again. The catch is that the follow-up song isn't actually on the album, so they release the same album again a second time, with a different booklet, a different name and with the extra song included. The plan is to make hardcore fans buy the same album twice. SM, Woollim and MBK are all notorious for doing this, but they're not the only ones!
The "repackaging the same stuff with different extra content to grab a second sale" practice actually started in the American market, with CD singles - a company would release a feature track with a couple B-side tracks, then release another single with the same name and the same A-side but slightly different artwork (usually just a different colour) and different B-side tracks. Diehard fans would want ALL the different B-side tracks so they would buy the single twice, and because both singles had the same name it counted in the music charts as purchases against the one item, increasing theoretical likelihood of good chart positioning.
In k-pop, because the photobook is a large reason why people buy physical albums, a repackaged album isn't as much of a rip-off as it might seem, as usually (but not always!) the photobook content completely changes in the repackage.
What are photocards?
K-pop albums for groups often come packaged with a special photocard of a random group member (two at most). Not all agencies do this for every album, but many do. Sometimes the photocards are small laminated things with rounded edges, like miniature playing card size, sometimes they are bigger. The idea is that die-hard fans will want all the photocards, or at least more of them than one purchase will give them, so they will buy the album multiple times. Alternatively, they might want to trade their album photocards with friends, so a conversation like this may transpire:
You: "Have you bought the new Lovelyz album yet?"The net result is the same - somebody buys the album a second time.
Friend: "No, should I?"
You: "Yes! I want a Seo Jisoo photocard but I didn't get one in mine... but you might get one, and then I can trade you for yours! She's the best ever cum in my life!"
Friend: "But isn't she a puppy-kicking rapist?"
You: "No, she's a symbol of freedom from the oppression of rumour-mongers and netizens who'll believe any old shit they read on a gossip site, laying bare the stupidity of the electronic hive-mind and serving as a shining beacon leading the way for society to ascend into a bright future."
Friend: "Okay, I'll buy it just to shut you up and also so I don't ever have to hear that 'best ever cum in my life' joke again."
Just to confuse the issue, some k-pop albums have the actual booklet divided up into separate cards rather than bound pages.
|The best ever photocard in your life.|
What's a "limited edition" album?
"Limited edition" is ultimately sketchy press release jargon that means nothing, because while it may seem legit, all that "limited edition" in practice means is "limited to however many we can sell". For instance, T-ara's "Paris & Swiss" photobook and CD set had an initial run of 7000 copies, a "limited edtion" - however initial orders for the package worldwide exceeded 7000, so the company just said "fuck it" and printed more of them. They could sell more, so they did, and why wouldn't they?
How many k-pop albums do you own?
The amount of k-pop albums I own is usually holding steady at about 100 at any given time. I buy a lot but I also give away a lot of them for radio competitions.
|My k-pop bookcase at home. There's another shelf that didn't fit on this picture, and a few others that are so big that they don't fit in the bookcase at all. Have fun squinting heavily and spotting your faves!|
It depends! They're worth it for me because they're great items for prizes. As for whether it's worth it for you, be aware that the most sensible outlook is to buy it for the photobook.
What about the music on k-pop albums?
What about it?
Well, is it any good?
Generally the feature tracks are always the best tracks and you're wasting your fucking time buying the entire album for the actual music because the rest of it is all bullshit. There are some notable exceptions to this, but usually this is the case.
Are there any other reasons why I should be wary of buying k-pop albums specifically for the music?
Yes, those of you foolishly planning on this would do well to be aware of the following sneaky cao ni ma record company tactics:
- Padding albums with instrumental mixes - sure, aspiring singers or players might want an instrumental mix to practice over, but most people don't.
- Remixes that aren't - watch out for the "remix" which isn't any different to the original apart from a slightly different intro or middle eight bars. MBK love doing this one.
- Foreign language versions - do you really need a song in two different languages you can't understand instead of just one when the songs are otherwise identical?
- Autographed albums - while it's nice to get the scribble of your bias on your album, if he or she signed a thousand albums like this, the value of yours hasn't actually increased that much but the value to the label for them to do this is huge. Say an album sells for $5 more with a signature and your bias spent an hour doing 1000 signatures, that means for one hour's pen-work he or she just made the label $5000.
|Copies of T-ara's AND&END album during 1000-album signing before being shipped to retailers.|
|Tracklist for Stellar's "Marionette" mini album. First track is a really short intro. Track 6 is an instrumental of track 2, track 7 is a not-very-different remix of track 5. At first glance it looks like you're getting seven songs here but you're actually getting only four.|
The problem isn't with k-pop albums, it's with pop albums in general. Most pop albums around the world suck just as much. To understand why, we have to look at the methodology that creates a pop album.
In the early days of contemporary pop album making, the album constituted the hit group's A-side, their B-side, and just enough extra "filler" material to get the album over the line so it technically constituted an album for contractual and chart purposes. These extra "filler" songs would usually be ballads, for the simple reason that ballads have a slower tempo, which means that you can stretch the same amount of song material over a greater length, increasing the chance that you'll need less of these songs before the total running length of the entire album meets contractual requirements to be called an album. If you go to any albums that you own you'll notice that this is true and that the slow songs usually have a greater running length.
Another common variation is the "rejected singles" album, which consists of the A-side, B-side, and the other songs are all tracks that were submitted by songwriters and producers for feature track material but which didn't make the cut. It's easy to spot an album like this, every track is by a different producer! When a pop album is being made these days it's quite common for the executive producers to spread the word that they're hunting for feature-track material through song solicitation services. The best one gets used, the "almost but not quite" ones get album filler status.
It wasn't really until the 1960s when companies started to think of an album as a cohesive whole with different tracks that complement each other or at the very least which are meant to sound as good as the feature track in their own right. However this isn't always the objective that's wanted, it's usually "corporate wisdom" which dictates whether pop albums go down this path of not.
It's worth telling the story of singer K to understand how market pressures may not be always conducive to creating a decent pop album. Singer K was a newly debuted female singer who had a massive, MASSIVE hit about two decades ago with a hugely iconic first single that was everywhere, and I mean everywhere, globally, a #1 hit in several countries, if you're between the age of 25 and 55 and have listened to radio at least once in your life I guarantee you that you've heard of this song even if you don't remember who sung it. We'll call this iconic global pop hit song "Smoking Cock". Once "Smoking Cock" was released, the singer and her mastermind producer J got a big pat on the back by the record label execs who said "rightio, good job team, now get to work on making an album that is just as good", so for the next few months singer K and her shit-hot producer J who co-wrote "Smoking Cock" with her slaved away making a fantastic album. The result was great - each track was a little bit different. Nothing sounded quite like "Smoking Cock" (which while a good song was certainly very one-dimensional), instead each track on the album fit together nicely as a whole and showcased a different unique side of singer K, essentially setting her up for a fate as a critical darling with a long-term career (think Tori Amos, Bjork, etc). Producer J was immensely proud of what he had achieved with singer K and presented the final product to the label:
Label: "Nope, I'm sorry, we don't want it."
Label: "There's no Smoking Cock part 2 here. What are we going to release as a follow-up single? It's too intellectual and fancy, please start again and give us some hits."
J: "But we put our heart and soul into this and it's great! This album will set her up for the long term!"
Label: "We need another Smoking Cock. This album doesn't have it, don't waste our time and money. We gave you clear instructions! This is a business!"
J: "Nope, I'm not doing it."
Label: "Then we'll hire someone else if you don't want to do what you're told."
J: "Fine, fine... I'll get you your fucking hit..."
Producer J reluctantly scraps the album and starts again from scratch at the insistence of the label, this time working with the clear instruction "we need another Smoking Cock or GTFO". Singer K is also unhappy as she also loved the initial album, but she cooperates in the hope that it will all work out in the end and maybe if she maintains her high profile they'll get the leverage to do what they want at some point down the track. With both the singer and producer having lost their creative focus, the resulting album is a weak patchy mess, a collection of songs that all sound more or less the same, similar but slightly inferior versions of "Smoking Cock". The album is released and does poorly critically, landing singer K with an undeserved reputation as a one-hit wonder who got lucky with "Smoking Cock" and doesn't know how to do anything else, which of course only pours salt on singer K's and producer J's wounds as they know this isn't true in reality. The album does well commercially, but disappoints the music-buying public who were getting a little worn out from overexposure to "Smoking Cock" and was hoping for something a little different from her album. As quickly as her success came, the public stopped listening.
Producer J goes back to the label and says "I told you so!" The label says "okay, well the first album was a hit so for the second album you can do what you want"... but by this time it was too late. K and J are now given free reign, and the second album was the departure that they always wanted to make, but by this time singer K had gone dead in the marketplace, nobody was listening and the album completely flopped. The label then cut their losses and removed singer K from the roster. The label simply had no thought about grooming singer K as a long-term artist in the first place, they just got addicted to those quick "Smoking Cock" bucks.
But there are exceptions in k-pop, yes?
Yes. The better albums in k-pop usually happen when one artist gets to work with one producer, or a small group of producers consistently AND those producers show the ability to write decent songs or have a consistent vision driving all the songs. Another exception is when the album has a really good concept that unifies all the songs. The worst albums are usually a different producer on each track, or just a ton of shit ballads clogging up the second half of the album for reasons previously mentioned.
Name some good albums, please.
Oh god. If I must. I do this with extreme hesitation because I don't want people to use this post as a lightning rod on forums to champion their biases and I also think people give my opinions on music way too much unwarranted importance. It's only one person's opinion, calm the fuck down. However if I don't answer this, cunts will keep on asking me until I do so let's just get it out of the way. Just a few examples of k-pop's rare decent albums (pictures not to scale):
T-ara - Absolute First Album - very good album, most tracks are great and the same producers worked with most of them. "Breaking Heart" repackage also exists with two extra songs but inferior packaging.
IU - Modern Times - retro 1930s/40s concept unifies the collection. I think there are two different repackages for this album that you can get, but the extra tracks suck. Not sure how the actual package differs.
Wonder Girls - Reboot - retro 80s concept unifies the collection, the best tracks are great, oddly the feature track is actually one of the worst tracks on it.
f(x) - Pink Tape and Red Light - f(x) get a bit more scope for unusual content than other groups on SM due to their different marketing flavour, therefore less generic ballads and more unique pop songs that can stand on their own. Fans will notice how when f(x) perform on shows they often do non-feature tracks.
2NE1 - To Anyone - same producers for most of it once again, plus they were actually on-form back then and could write things that didn't go SWAGSWAGYOLOYOLO.
That will do, it's enough. You can discover your own good and bad k-pop albums (mostly bad). And let's not forget the one mini-album review that I did and will hopefully never do another of.
What about if I'm a rational person who is buying the k-pop album only for the pretty packaging?
It's worth nothing that different labels tend to package albums slightly differently. Here's what I've noticed from the copious amounts of physical product buying that I do:
SM - always top quality packaging in terms of appearance but frequently impractical as fuck. Good luck working out how to get the CD out without damaging everything around it. You will always get a photocard.
|Girls' Generation - "The Boys" album.|
|2NE1 - "second mini album".|
JYP - not as insane as YG or as annoying as SM, size/scale of the packaging seemingly directly related to how much money the group is making!
|miss A - "Touch" mini album.|
MBK - consistently amazing and generously chunky photobooks for T-ara, smaller packaging for everyone else. They know which side their bread is buttered on. Expect hilarious Engrish usage. You will not get a photocard unless it's a Japanese edition.
|Lots of T-ara albums. Note the size of the bookcase needed to display them!|
|Lovelyz - "Girls Invasion" album.|
|4Minute - "Volume Up" and "4Minute World" mini albums.|
Starship - big pages, so you can fap or cut it out and pin it up to your locker. Thoughtful.
|Inside Sistar's "Touch N Move" album.|
|Orange Caramel "Lipstick" album and photocard.|
Is k-pop album packaging expensive or tricky to make?
Depends on what's used. It's a complex area that I could devote a whole separate post to (but won't). Some basic rules:
- Colour printing is up to three times as expensive as black and white printing. Black and white is rarely a purely aesthetic choice, it's usually used to cut costs. Note that pure black and white is not the same as grayscale (shades of grey), there's an expense difference there also.
- Standard CD and DVD sized cardboard and jewel cases are cheap because they are a standard format that most people use, economies of scale at factories making such items means less costs.
- Economies of scale also mean that companies which move many physical units such as SM pay little per unit for their custom EXO packages for example.
- Graphic design and printing of packages is time-consuming and the number one cause of delayed album releases worldwide.
|Three examples of innovative English usage from the booklet of Gangkiz' "Mama" mini album.|
For the same reason that English crops up in the songs themselves, Engish is trendy in Korea. The more an album is being pitched to young trend-followers, the more English use you can expect in both songs and album art (so for instance, trot and ballad albums aimed at older audiences within Korea often have relatively little English compared to the latest boy-band release). Also some English helps the albums to sell internationally and it's easier for filing and sorting when dealing with multi-regional shippers who are used to dealing with English-labelled product.
|The rear covers of Big Bang's "Still Alive" album, and trot performer Tae Jin-Ah's "I Love You Darling/LA Song" album. Note the differing quantities of English usage.|
Where can I buy kpop albums?
Kpopalypse recommends YesAsia who are reasonably cheap (comparable to western album cost) and so far have never fucked up any of my shipments, they also give free shipping to my country if I buy over a certain amount. I've heard KTown4U (previously known as DVD Heaven) is also good with reasonable costs although I've never tried to buy from there. I don't recommend Amazon, I find their shipping times to be crazy and often things arrive damaged, but people from the Americas might have a better experience. I also recommend staying away from EBay and secondhand sellers. Do you really want a package someone else has already fapped to?
-That's it for this post! Hopefully you've enjoyed this excursion into k-pop albums and never feel the need to ask another question about them again ever! Yay!