The South Korean music industry has produced some of the best videos of the past five years, along with great songs, highlighted by tightly constructed numbers that occasionally caught attention from outside the country’s borders. Yet despite these (sometimes historic) successes, the upper echelons of contemporary K-pop — the groups and artists who appear on weekly countdown shows and can sell out stadiums — haven’t produced many consistent albums, the best usually standing out as fantastic singles collections, not strong long players.
Five-member outfit f(x)’s 2013 Pink Tape, however, was the first contemporary K-pop album to work best in one sitting, with very little lag and some of the most interesting lyrics to appear on a chart-topping single. It could be a woozy listen, yet also one that never let experimentation override catchiness. f(x)’s follow-up to Pink Tape, this month’s Red Light, arrives surrounded by high expectations from K-pop fans, and this 11-song affair isn’t as front-to-back solid as its predecessor. Yet what it lacks in overall cohesion is made up for by some of the most well crafted pop of the year.
Part of Red Light‘s sonic charm stems from the writers and producers behind the songs, a collection from all across the globe who keep the album running at a varied pace. The title track is well-designed suffocation, packed tightly with clock ticks, bass rumbles and stuttering vocals. It should malfunction at any second, but all those elements fall right into place neatly while also highlighting f(x)’s singing. “Butterfly” stomps forward on an industrial-teasing beat, while “All Night” gestures towards disco through squiggly synth lines and the album’s silkiest singing. The most intriguing name behind the scenes on Red Light is American producer Teddy Riley, who has crossed over into K-Pop work recently. His contribution, “Milk,” is a minimalist cut styled after Indian film music, accented by the group’s coos…and punctured by samples of guns being cocked, adding a sinister edge to the track.
Despite frequently staying on its toes sonically, Red Light suffers from a pacing problem. The album is frontloaded with the best material while the backend goes out with a Taylor-Swift-aping whimper (“Paper Heart,” which sounds a little too much like “Begin Again” but with a harder beat). The real slog comes in the middle, a three-track run starting with “Vacance” and ending with “Boom Bang Boom,” each song a trudging run through EDM-glazed pop. f(x) is at their best when poking at contemporary trends rather than aping them. That’s exactly what they do on highlight “Rainbow,” which starts out as a riled-up trap banger, but swivels into the smoothest hook here. It puts the spotlight on what f(x), and Red Light at its best, is capable of.