It’s time to wrap up our extensive review of SM Station Season 1!
Last time, we covered the first half of S.M Entertainment‘s weekly digital singles project, taking us from Taeyeon‘s “Rain” all the way to Girls’ Generation‘s “Sailing (0805)”, with a lot of interesting and unique detours along the way.
Onew x Lee Jin Ah — Starry Night
“Starry Night” sees SHINee‘s Onew pair up with K-pop Star alumni Lee Jin-Ah for a charming coffee shop jazz ballad. What’s immediate to point out would be that Lee Jin-Ah has an incredibly distinctive tone: liquid, delightfully childish, and somewhat reminiscent of J-pop singers (think Kyary Pamyu Pamyu or Perfume). She dominates the song, but Onew’s versatile and warm voice acts as a very appropriate counterweight to that, giving a much-needed depth to the harmonies.
The song itself functions as the ultimate easy-listening experience. It’s set to a minimal mix of piano, jazz bass and brushed percussion, as well as some occasional string parts that wander in and out of the song. It picks up some surprising pace by the end of the track though, for those accustomed to the dreamy, relaxed pace at the beginning.
It’s worth catching all the various modulations in the track as well! There is a glorious total of four key changes in the song that you can try to spot for yourself (as well as the separately counted jazz improvisation bridge towards the end).
Pantene x Yuri x Seohyun — Secret
The second of the two corporate collaborations after NCT 127‘s outing with Coca-Cola, “Secret” is essentially a very extravagant and glamorous Pantene commercial. Well, the music video is at least, since it’s 4 minutes of Yuri and Seohyun doing hair flips with their luscious locks (at normal speed, in slow-motion and sped-up, no less). The video also marks a return of the now rarely seen “SM brightly-lit box set” to great effect. The song itself is surprisingly high-octane as an advertisement for healthy hair follicles. The UK garage and future house-inspired beat is similar to many of the other dance-inspired songs that SM’s acts have dabbled in recently, but comes off as even more aggressive. The techno rave synths straddle the line between cheesy and exhilarating incredibly well, and there’s also something very sensual about the whispers and hushes in the song (that are a more literal look at the name of the song).
“Secret” also adds another two Girls’ Generation members to the list of those who have participated in a solo Station track, and it’s not difficult to see the dominance of the group amongst the whole collection of songs. It’s unsurprising, of course, and proof of the continuing strength and influence that they have.
Park Jin Young x Hyoyeon x Min x Jo Kwon — Born to be Wild
For many reasons, this song lives up to its name. First of all, there is the rather primal joy of hearing the iconic ‘JYP’ whisper (or, indeed, JYP‘s charming face) in a SM-branded music video. Secondly, seeing members from three such well-respected groups (Girls’ Generation’s Hyoyeon, Miss A‘s Min, and 2AM‘s Jo Kwon) collaborate is a rare spectacle to behold, and they even gave themselves the rather lively unit name of Triple T. The song itself is a mildly Middle Eastern-inspired dubstep-infused dance track, with an irresistible shout-style chorus. It’s more a performance song designed to be a show of pure attitude, rather than a vocal showcase, but it does its job incredibly well. This performance aspect was definitely not missed by those in charge, as it ended up being one of the few SM Station tracks that were actually promoted on music shows.
Perhaps the actual wildest thing about this entire thing is the music video. There are many descriptors that one could use for it, but none would really do it justice. You get the sense that it should really come with a medical warning of some sort. It’s somewhat a shame that it looks like every single Instagram filter was applied to it at once, since the choreography and dark, industrial set are otherwise pretty playful and interesting.
Hitchhiker — $10
Hitchhiker can easily lay claim to the title of having the weirdest songs on the entire SM label. Hitchhiker is the personal project of one of the house producers at S.M. Entertainment, responsible for various tracks for the likes of BoA, Girls’ Generation, SHINee and Super Junior. He got attention from internationally famous producers such as Diplo after the release of his first track, “Eleven“.
“$10” is essentially a very bizarre dance track. You almost want to dance to it, but the incessant refrain of “$10, $5, $5, $10, $5” in this deadpan shout comes out of left-field, to the extent of being actively uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is somewhat a given with Hitchhiker’s music, of course. Each element of the song makes sense in the context of their function, but there is always an unexpected touch. There’s a trap beat in there, but the song is also propelled by rattling organic metallic percussion at certain points as well. Instead of a normal synth loop, you get this ethnic Asian string instrument playing (which gets even more ridiculous as it gets pitched and warped beyond belief). Hitchhiker is making some of the more experimental electronic music on the Korean scene (and maybe even globally), and it is both interesting and refreshing to see such a large music label give this sort of music a platform.
It would be amiss not to mention the visuals. The Hitchhiker persona is always accompanied by this metallic CGI astronaut figure that generally dances around in real street scenes. You probably shouldn’t try to read into it too much, as the intent mostly seems to be to completely confuse you. There’s a touch of Dadaism in the bright red fish-headed people, or the mouths superimposed on random objects like playing cards and money bills.
BANA — Pit-A-Pat 250 Remix
Yet another completely bizarre Station release, featuring a fairly mysterious producer under the name of BANA, releasing a chaotic remix of BoA‘s 2004 track, “Pit-A-Pat”. The original track is basically completely unrecognizable, having been transformed into a PC Music-style, super sugary club rave sort of thing. BoA’s vocals get chopped up and pitched up chipmunk-style into this shrill shriek, against the backing of old-school video game synths. It’s intensely fun, albeit mind-scratchingly confusing. The video certainly doesn’t help either. This is another one of those tracks that proves that there is something for everyone in SM Station.
Yoo Jae Suk x EXO — Dancing King
In perhaps Station’s most high-profile release, we see national funnyman Yoo Jae-suk team up with EXO for what was basically a guaranteed hit. As part of a task on hugely popular variety show Infinite Challenge, Yoo Jae-suk was to join EXO on stage at one of their concerts, giving us this Latin-style summer pop anthem (somewhat misleadingly released in September). It’s a surprisingly interesting addition to EXO’s discography, as the band usually alternates between cute, and sexy and dramatic. A song this playful would make sense with EXO-CBX, the EXO subunit that debuted soon after this Station release.
The song is reminiscent of many of the club anthems that blew up in the early 10s, especially with its big festival synths and robotic brass. There’s a vague LMFAO-style element to the instrumental dance hook too, which is only meant as a compliment for a song this carefree (and you might have caught the shameless callback to “Wolf” before the final buildup). Yoo Jae-suk himself gets a surprising amount of vocal parts in the song—and he’s genuinely not that bad.
Bada x Ryeowook — Cosmic
“Cosmic” served as Ryeowook‘s final offering to fans before entering military enlistment. As one of Super Junior‘s strongest vocalists, this song shows off his vocals suitably. It’s also a duet with S.E.S.‘s Bada, who is one of Ryeowook’s idols. It would have been very tempting to release a brooding, slow ballad, but “Cosmic” is instead a surprisingly lively pop-rock sort of affair. The drums hit hard, and the guitars echo along in the far distance to dreamy effect. The song’s name suits it well, thanks to its spacey and weightless vibe. In the final chorus, both singers release some incredibly impressive belt notes, and manage to thrive against the huge instrumental without any trouble at all.
While Station is certainly a place for experimentation, a fair number of the tracks would be very solid main project tracks. “Cosmic” could have been a very clean addition to Ryeowook’s EP, The Little Prince, for example.
Amber x Luna (feat. Ferry Corsten, Kago Pengchi) — Heartbeat
As part of promotion for SM’s Spectrum Dance Music Festival (and further promotion for SM’s ScreaM Records EDM sublabel), Amber and Luna team up once again for another dance track. As the members of f(x) prove, they’re very much suited to the genre, with the sort of voices that work very well against big house beats. Roping in a name like Ferry Corsten on a track like this is fairly impressive from SM.
It’s not quite as bombastic as their previous collab, “Wave”, but it instead has a fairly icey pop house feel (the Swedish House Mafia vibes are fairly strong with this one). Interestingly, this track was also released in English (and Luna’s pronunciation is surprisingly good throughout). There’s definitely a sense that SM know the appeal of certain songs and their audience—in this case, the phenomenon of big dance festival-ready tracks is firmly rooted in the West.
Alesso x Chen — Years
There’s actually very little to say about this track, because it’s essentially a Korean remake of an English track that Alesso released a few years ago. Still, Alesso is probably the singular biggest Western name in the entirety of SM Station Season 1, thanks to hits such as Tove Lo-featuring “Heroes” or his remix of OneRepublic‘s “If I Lose Myself”. To see him associated with one of Korea’s biggest boybands and sandwiched into a diverse, mildly experimental release project such as SM Station is somewhat of a curiosity.
It is at least interesting to compare the English version (featuring Matthew Koma) and this new version featuring Chen of EXO. The original version with Koma is defined by his smokey and slightly raspy voice. Chen’s version takes on a whole new quality, because of his bright and resonant tone. He sings the main refrain of “These will be the years” with belting confidence, where Koma opts for a more restrained rendition.
It’s perhaps producers who are looking towards the East for collaborations the most now. The language barrier is not necessarily as important when it’s generally background music at a club, festival or party (see the now stratospheric popularity of “Despacito” or indeed the original phenomenon of “Gangnam Style”), and that’s not to rule out the option of a K-pop singer singing in English—the number of English-speaking idols is only on the up.
Henry x Soyou — Runnin’
“Runnin'” is an outing into soft acoustic R&B, the sort that has befitted Henry in recent years in the notable absence of Super Junior-M. He’s never had the most impressive voice at all, but his warbly vibrato and sweet, slightly childish voice work well in a song like this, where a vocal light-show isn’t actually what you’re looking for. Sistar‘s Soyou is known for her breathy vocals, whose appeal can often be very dependent on their context. Here, they work in good contrast to Henry’s vocals, and compliment his incredibly well when they’re singing in harmony.
It’s one of the more traditional and public-friendly releases from Station, especially considering the few tracks preceding it (and the immediate ones following it as well). Of course, not every Station release needs to be experimental. The reprieve of a simple, easy-listening song is appreciated and needed in the grand context of the whole scheme.
BeatBurger — Music is Wonderful (feat. BoA)
Funnily, we almost immediately get another house track in the style of Alesso and his contemporaries, quite soon after the actual Alesso track. Many people may not be aware of BeatBurger, another one of the many acts on S.M. Entertainment that only occasionally get their moment out in the sun. For all intents and purposes, it’s the personal musical project of a small group of behind-the-scenes people at the label (sound directors, instrumentalists, performance directors and so on). It’s, of course, no wonder that they can get a legend such as BoA immediately on the track.
The entire song is pretty much the exact formula for an emotive anthem: huge amounts of reverb, ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s as background vocals, guitars and resonant pianos, and of course a drop the size of a small galaxy. It’s a surprisingly short song, only clocking in at just over two minutes, which is far less indulgent than many other similar songs tend to be. It does further add to the idea that Station is, to some extent, a series of experiments and sketches rather than fully-fleshed ideas.
Yoon Do-hyun x Reddy x G2 x Inlayer x Johnny — Nightmare
In perhaps one of the more improbable scenarios imaginable for Station, Inlayer get a second release, bringing their djent-y brand of metal back to SM’s pink headquarters. It’s a rather all-star lineup, with a lot of cross-genre pollination. The main charm of the track is the idea of G2 and Reddy rapping over this intense metal backing, but established rock singer Yoon Do-hyun sings a guest verse as well.
Perhaps most curious is the addition of Johnny. He hadn’t debuted in NCT yet, but the various appearances he was making prior to his debut (in J-Min‘s music video for “Ready For Your Love”, DJing at Spectrum Dance Festival, and DJing once again in this Station release) were clearly to hype up his appearance. It’s not entirely clear what he contributed to this track (perhaps a minor hand in the production), but it certainly does the job of letting people know he exists.
Joy x Seulong — Always In My Heart
This song ended up being a surprisingly successful hit, selling an excess of 400,000 downloads in Korea. Even with the more commercial and public-friendly songs (such as this one, which feels pulled straight out of a K-drama), it’s difficult to say how well they’ll actually perform since Station releases get such minimal promotion.
There is at least some star power on the song. Both Red Velvet and 2AM are nation sweethearts, and it’s not the first appearance of either group on Station (after Jo Kwon’s feature on “Born to Be Wild” earlier in the year). Neither Joy nor Seulong are bombastic vocalists, but both have warm and delicate tones that suit an OST-style ballad quite well. What’s more notable is that both of them manage to showcase their acting ability in the music video incredibly well. Both have dipped their feet into the acting industry, and have the sort of friendly actor-style faces that the public favor. For all intents and purposes, the music video is a mini K-drama in itself, and a reminder that the visual aspects of Station (i.e. releasing a music video every week) are equally as impressive as the music itself.
Sunday x Kim Taehyun — Still
Station’s capabilities of resurrecting long-abandoned groups and names continue to impress. Sunday of The Grace makes a re-appearance (the second The Grace member to feature on SM Station after Dana‘s solo), joining Kim Tae-hyun of DICKPUNKS for a breezy autumn ballad that was criminally neglected. There’s an old 00s Japanese bluesy feel to the track that feels particularly nostalgic and the melody feels relaxed and conversational.
The music video features the young talents of Kim Dohyun and Kim Haeun, two child models from SM, in case you were wondering what SM didn’t do. It’s of course adorably cute.
Heechul x Min Kyung Hoon — Sweet Dream
This rather inconspicuous ballad ended up being Station’s second-best seller in Korea. The reasons aren’t surprising though, since the two singers Heechul and Min Kyung-hoon are also cast members on popular variety show Knowing Brothers, with the rest of the cast featuring in the music video. TWICE‘s Momo also features prominently, which is star power indeed. The video is intensely funny and hilariously low-budget, which adds an absurd element to the super-intense TRAX-esque rock ballad playing over the top. Heechul has featured in Station before, in “Narcissus”, and he proves himself again and again as a very capable ballad singer. His rich, emotional voice works well against these traditional old-style pop songs.
S.E.S. — Love [story]
Last year became quite the year for K-pop reunions. Much like SECHSKIES revamping their hit “Couple” with a modern touch, S.E.S. have gone for the same, restoring their 90s hit “Love” with a new pristine shimmer. It’s slightly faster, slightly more energetic and more overtly feel-good. The most noticeable change is how much the vocals have improved, and there are new, incredibly showy runs and high notes from Bada in particular (as well as a new rap from Shoo). It still retains that same timeless R&B charm that has made it a song with such longevity.
It feels very celebratory to have a song from one of K-pop’s first successful girl groups on a project such as Station, and being responsible for a group such as S.E.S. is something SM can be very proud of indeed, and quite rightfully is.
Hyoyeon — Mystery
“Mystery” marks Hyoyeon‘s solo debut, following in the tracks of many of her Girls’ Generation peers. Although described as “Latin pop” in a press release, it leans more towards an Eastern flavor, employing Middle Eastern scales and Indian tabla extensively in the song (as well as a riff played by some sort of pungi-like instrument, the pungi being an Indian flute well-known as what snake-charmers play).
Hyoyeon’s reputation is foremost as a dancer, having been part of many performance projects within SM in the past, as well as participating in shows like Hit The Stage. It’s unsurprising that a song like “Mystery” serves to showcase her performance skills. It’s not the most vocally challenging song (although she certainly doesn’t slack in that department either, and her delivery is ferociously alluring), but has an addictively re-watchable choreography and video to go with it. It’s somewhat easy to be forgotten in Girls’ Generation if you’re not a main vocalist or just really popular, but Hyoyeon does an incredibly good job at making sure no-one forgets her.
Jonghyun — Inspiration
Rather bizarrely, Jonghyun gets sidelined once again in the Station department. Like his previous Station release, “Your Voice”, “Inspiration” was mysteriously and inexplicably under-promoted on all official channels. A video teaser was released, although the actual video wasn’t. Even the official audio doesn’t exist on the SM YouTube channel.
It’s a shame since the track is well-deserving of the attention it missed out on. Jonghyun has always been one of the more unique K-pop idols due to his strength as a songwriter, particularly when it comes to sexy R&B slow jams. The story goes that he was originally going to give “Inspiration” to NCT U, something that you can definitely hear to some extent thanks to its nocturnal, moody trap-infused feel that they cultivated with “The 7th Sense”. At the same time, Jonghyun quite obviously makes the track his own with his delivery, especially when he launches into his falsetto ad-libs. It’s a track of extremes, with some particular showcase on his lesser-used lower range as well as his falsetto—and even a rap as well.
Shin Yong Jae x Luna — It’s You
It’s now sufficiently close to holiday season that SM feels it appropriate to start releasing festive tracks for SM Station. Of course, that calls for some slow, calm ballads which aren’t always to everyone’s taste. That said, SM do a pretty good job of making them as intensely likable as possible, so it’s very difficult to complain.
“It’s You” progresses along with a gentle waltz-like feel, with very little in the way of instrumentation besides piano and strummed guitar for the most part. There is a hidden complexity to the song, with its ever-shifting chord progression. The chorus never quite happens the same way, being harmonized in subtly new ways each time it occurs, only reaching the most expected version on the final, resolving chorus—a neat little trick to keep it from ever being too repetitive.
Luna’s and 4Men‘s Shin Yong-jae‘s voices work in good contrast to each other, and SM’s running record of great duets seems to be fairly flawless in this respect. Shin Yong-jae has a warm, R&B-oriented voice, which works well with Luna’s brighter voice, which is particularly brilliant in the high notes of the chorus, where they rise above everything else in the song with a certain crystalline beauty.
Wendy x Moon Jung-jae x Nile Lee — Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
One of SM Station’s last little surprises was this entirely English track from Red Velvet’s Wendy. It sees her tackle the holiday classic, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, and it’s tempting to call it one of the most enchanting versions of the song (despite there being literally hundreds of versions of it).
Wendy and Red Velvet haven’t been around for the longest time, but she’s already making a name for herself as one of K-pop’s most promising vocalists. Her voice is very much front and centre in this track, and it resonates with a warmth yet surprising clarity that works well to promote the festive air of the song. It’s particularly impressive when she sings the last note of the line, “shining star of the highest bough”. It’s not oversung as tempting as it is to do but instead launched with a quiet, restrained power. The whole arrangement is overwhelmingly charming as well, seeing the return of Moon Jung-jae as the pianist for a second time during Station, which is showcased incredibly well during the little jazz break towards the end of the song. It all adds up to surprisingly fresh and timeless take on a song that could have been very lazily done.
SMTOWN x Steve Barakatt — Sound of Your Heart
The very last SM Station release of 2016 was quietly epic. While the song was essentially another gentle winter ballad, the cross-group collaboration was a treat for fans. The Steve Barakatt-composed track featured Yesung, Sunny, Luna, Seulgi, Wendy, Taeil, Doyoung and Lee Dongwoo, spanning five of S.M. Entertainment’s groups and a strong soloist as well. There’s a certain Band Aid quality to it, especially when they sing all in unison during the chorus, and it’s no surprise that this track was associated with a UNICEF event.
People weren’t entirely sure whether this was the last Station or not, prompting a lot of reflection after its release. SM had only really said they were doing SM Station ‘for a year’, but people didn’t know whether that meant the end of 2016, or after a full 52 weeks’ worth of songs. It certainly kept people a bit uneasy with no real announcement about it. For, uh, less than a week.
TRAX — Road
Surprise! Station isn’t dead yet—especially not before they showcase TRAX in full on the project. While TRAX’s guitarist Jungmo has been on Station before, this is the first time we’ve heard vocalist Jay here, and actually on any new material at all for 5 whole years.
As we see new bands enter the K-pop consciousness, such as the rising popularity of Day6 in the past year, it’s nice to see older bands still doing stuff. They’re certainly one of the most capable bands out there doing that K-drama-esque light rock sound that lightly pulls on your heartstrings. It’s fairly straightforward for the most part, but there are some lovely harmonies in the chorus and the contrast between the fuzzier and cleaner guitar tones used throughout is interesting.
Yoon Do Hyun — Sparks Fly
Quite funnily, this song isn’t too far off stylistically from Taylor Swift‘s own hit, “Sparks Fly”. Yoon Do-hyun‘s folk rock background is showcased thoroughly here to great effect. People might file this as yet another Korean ballad that Station has done, but it comes across as fairly different to any other ballad on the project: there’s nothing quite this restrained (with pretty much just acoustic guitar and some atmospherics), and nothing this Western-sounding, since it draws a lot from 00s indie rock and American country/folk music. You can hear it on the steel guitar that shimmers in the far background, and in the delicate finger-style guitar technique that’s utilized throughout. It’s overwhelmingly nostalgic and lovely.
Yesung x Seulgi — Darling U
A final outing into the world of Korean indie R&B here thanks to Yesung and Seulgi. There’s something lightly Crush-like or Dean-like with this, albeit a bit sweeter and more straightforward. It’s lightly sauntering thanks to its relaxed but bouncy beat, and the instrumentation works to make it as dreamy as possible (jittering guitars, gentle oohs and aahs, and soft warm Wurlitzer chords). Seulgi sounds lighter and more delicate than she usually does on the average Red Velvet song, but she sounds just as great with this technique, particularly here.
There’s also a lot of interesting chords and jazz harmonies in this, so definitely don’t just count it out as a filler song.
Punch — When My Loneliness Calls You
The final trick Station has up its sleeve (although the list seems endless) is collaborating with a drama. “When My Loneliness Calls You” acts as part of the Missing 9 OST, a K-drama that also had Chanyeol in, which is cute considering his and Punch‘s insanely popular collaboration on the Goblin OST, “Stay With Me” (and, indeed, Punch also collaborated with his fellow EXO member, Chen on the Descendants of the Sun OST for “Everytime”). It’s a very acceptable tie-in, if a bit mellow to be truly interesting. There is howeve a curious French pastoral element to it, with the addition of harmonica. The chord progression is incredibly wistful, and you can hear the steadiness of it in the descending bass notes. There’s not a huge lot to be said besides it being a very solid addition to Punch’s repertoire of K-drama ballads.
Suho x Song Young Joo — Curtain
Quite fittingly, “Curtain” draws a final curtain to SM Station Season 1. It’s probably the most simple song on the entire project, being just EXO’s Suho‘s voice and piano (provided by jazz pianist Song Young-joo). It’s certainly an interesting choice to feature him on the final Station, especially considering he’s from a group with such prominent vocal talent in its vocal line. He’s definitely one of the group’s more underrated vocalists, with a much more delicate and subtle tone. “Curtain” isn’t too vocally taxing and neither does it need to be because Suho carries the emotion of the song well through his vibrato and breathy falsetto. For fans of EXO, he’s also definitely one of the vocalists who’s improved the most in the group, and it comes across here.
The shot of the Inception-style spinning top at the end of the music video seems like a rather cheeky nod to them announcing SM Station Season 2 soon after but Station could quite have easily been left as this one season and still have been a little moment of brilliance.
Of course, Season 2 is now firmly underway. It’s interesting seeing how it’s shaping up compared to Season 1. The most overtly distinct thing about it is how much more focused it is on promoting acts outside of the company, pushing the concept of Station to its very extreme. Rather than being a way to promote the label’s own acts, SM seems to see themselves as curators of new and under appreciated talent. The Open Station concept has played well (with the likes of Astrid Holiday who were presumably found by it), and there’s plenty of underrated Korean acts (both old and new) in the mix. There’s not been anything quite as high-profile as Taeyeon‘s “Rain”, but I think SM understand that there doesn’t have to be.
It’s quite amazing that SM have decided to bless fans with another season of the project. Many naysayers may have seen Season 1 as a waste of resources, but the company clearly consider it a worthwhile endeavour (and, of course, it’s not as if SM is lacking in these resources anyway). There’s not been any signs of some of the things they’ve promised yet—SM Summer Vacation, SM the Performance, and so on—but one hopes that they’ll deliver. There were certainly some mishaps with Season 1 (consider Jonghyun’s total lack of music videos or promotion), but Season 2 hasn’t had any mishaps yet. On the contrary, it’s been providing masses of extra content that the first season didn’t have, and it shows the newfound confidence of a company that know what they’re doing this time, and that their focus is simply on making the experience as streamlined and as ambitious as possible.
Here’s to more seasons of Station. K-pop’s all the better for it.