The Definitive Guide To SM Station Season 1, And Every Song Reviewed (Part I)

SM Station Season 2 is here, so let’s remind ourselves of all the previous Station tracks!

S.M. Entertainment spent 2016 working on a really interesting initiative, SM Station, which had the label release a single every Friday for a whole year. No other project has really reached the scale and ambition of Station in the K-pop world, thanks to the constant output of songs from the label, which featured a huge proportion of the company roster across a huge variety of genres, and even more brilliantly, collaborations with people outside of SM. Collaborations with other major K-pop labels, with huge brands, and with Western artists all happened thanks to the project, and many artists on SM got solos for the first time, to the joy of many fans.

SM Station Season 2 is warming up, and the company has cryptically promised a bigger emphasis on international collaborations, as well as the return of past projects like SM The BalladSM The Performance, or their seasonal Summer Vacation and Winter Garden projects. Let’s have a look at all of the past Season 1 tracks in preparation for yet another year of songs.

Taeyeon – Rain

Station decided to open up strong, with a single from one of their most popular soloists, Girls’ Generation‘s Taeyeon. The story goes that the song was supposedly added to the project unexpectedly without Taeyeon’s knowing, but it certainly ended up being one of Station’s most high-profile tracks regardless. To date, it is the most successful Station track, with over a million digital copies sold.

The track develops more of the acoustic feel she tried on her mini-album I, adding additional elements of jazz and soul. Like all of Taeyeon’s tracks, the chorus serves to showcase her powerful belt vocals to great effect. It’s not difficult to see why the song did so well since its modern, upbeat ballad feel appealed to both the domestic Korean public and international K-pop fans.

Yoo Young-jin x D.O. – Tell Me (What Is Love)

This track is actually an extended update of a short solo track D.O. had during EXO‘s first tour. A duet with SM veteran, Yoo Young-jin, it’s a casual reminder that D.O. is one of the more proficient R&B singers on the label. He’s always had an immediately recognizable voice in EXO’s records thanks to his deeper, fuller tone compared to the lighter timbres of Baekhyun‘s or Chen‘s voices, as well as his agile R&B-style runs. “Tell Me (What Is Love)” doesn’t hugely deviate from the R&B style that EXO work within their music and the minimal backing of acoustic guitars and 00s saw synths serves as a perfect vehicle for showcasing the brilliant vocals across the track.

Kenzie x Yoon Mi-rae x Matthew Tishler – Because of You

The first of the Station projects to feature a non-SM artist, and how better to start out then to enlist the help of Yoon Mi-rae, one of South Korea’s most renowned singers and rappers. The song is a fairly standard ballad, but a lushly orchestrated and achingly beautiful one nevertheless. Two hugely prolific songwriters for SM were involved on the track, Kenzie (EXO’s “Wolf”, Girls’ Generation’s “Oh!”) and Matthew Tishler (EXO’s “Sing For You”, BoA‘s “Don’t Know What To Say”), and the strength of their writing shines through.

Eric Nam x Wendy – Spring Love

One finds that the SM Station tracks tend to be very seasonal. The songs gravitate towards certain genres during different points of the year, and many of the spring Station tracks are ballads or acoustic ditties to suit the mood. That description definitely suits the Eric Nam and Wendy duet, “Spring Love”. The spare, acoustic guitar track is as straight forward a duet as it gets, and thankfully has a strong charming melody to carry it. Eric Nam’s voice is surprisingly light and high for a guy and suits both the whimsy of the song and Wendy’s slightly warmer, R&B-oriented voice.

The song unexpectedly became of the project’s most popular songs, just behind Taeyeon’s “Rain”, despite getting pretty much no promotion whatsoever. It’s perhaps a sign of both Eric Nam’s and Wendy’s untapped star potential.

Yoona (feat. 10cm) – Deoksugung Stonewall Walkway

Another floral springtime affair, this Station track pairs Girls’ Generation’s Yoona with indie duo, 10cm. Yoona is one of the less utilized members of the ultra-popular girl group, and the song showcases one of Station’s principles that has many underappreciated people on the label given the time to shine. There’s nothing particularly complex about this song, but it’s both cute and suitably cheery. The budget on these Station tracks is probably not that big hence simple and digitally strong releases become the norm.

If people are curious about the obtuse name of the song, Deoksugung Stonewall Walkway is one of the more famous roads in Korea thanks to a myth that accompanies it: couples who walk along the road will eventually break up. The lyrics turn the myth on its head, saying that even walking on the road won’t break them up.

Heritage x Jonghyun – Your Voice

Another springtime coffeeshop ballad, this time with a few more jazz inflections. SHINee‘s Jonghyun comes off as understated throughout the warm, lounge-style track, taking turns with members of Heritage, who also provide flawless harmonies at points (and a captivating acapella bridge towards the end). The uncomplicated arrangement and live-style mixing leaves everyone’s vocals sounding fairly organic and bare, which is fine since everyone happily carries a tune with no difficulty whatsoever. It’s not one of the more exciting Station releases especially when surrounded by other similarly relaxing tracks, but it’s certainly one of the most pleasant.

Curiously, this was one of the few Station tracks without any form of promotion or music video whatsoever (the other notable one was also one of Jonghyun’s Station tracks). It’s difficult to say why, but one assumes that the second season of Station will hopefully be a bit more organized on this front.

Amber – Borders

Probably the first Station track to be a bit faster and non-traditional. It’s a vast departure from the likes of “Shake That Brass” and one can tell that Amber has been trying to release more serious music such as “Borders”. Many of Amber’s recent solo tracks have been self-organised, although that may also be due to the lack of attention that SM has been giving her.

“Borders” ended up being a polarizing release. First of all, it’s entirely in English, and many of the lyrics ended up being awkwardly delivered at best. While you can tell how personal the track is, the general trend of Amber actually being a better singer than a rapper comes up once again. The 00s vibe of the anthemic chorus works pretty well on the track, and it sees Amber sing far higher than she usually does and bring out some interesting tones in her voice. Overall, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine hearing this on American radio in the late 00s along the likes of huge Kelly Clarkson ballads, or as a substitute “Love The Way You Lie”. Despite some of the flaws of the track, it’s easy to see the potential the track has all around (and some of her later releases like “Need To Feel Needed” perfect that formula).

Moon Jung-jae x Kim Il-ji – Regrets and Resolutions

One of the interesting things about SM Station is that it seems that its main aim hasn’t been profit. More than anything, it has served as a public relations project: cross-company relations, internal relations with idols, having a constant public presence every week, and diversifying their image. This song fits into that last category, showing off more to the company than just their idol groups.

“Regrets and Resolutions” sees pianist Moon Jung-jae team up with flutist Kim Il-ji to deliver a surprisingly compelling contemporary piece. It manages to avoid being complete fluff as many pseudo-classical pieces can tend to be, but has also got a strong positive response from people online that one wouldn’t usually expect from something so out of the realm of pop music. For some, the plaintive opening section with its rolling piano backing may conjure the likes of The Legend of Zelda or Studio Ghibli films.

Perhaps the highlight of the whole thing is the piece’s contrasting B-section, which features an elastic, leaping flute melody which is genuinely incredibly catchy. It appears abruptly twice through the piece, marked by a sudden change in tempo (and the second time it comes around, it’s just introduced by three bashed, weird chords). It’s potentially one of the most unorthodox releases of the entire project, but certainly not one to skip over.

Vibe x Chen x Heize – Lil’ Something

With “Lil’ Something” sees the first danceable, upbeat Station track. The Vibe-produced duet between EXO‘s Chen and upcoming star Heize is a straight-up disco and funk affair. Chic-style guitars and a ferociously energetic bassline make for an irresistible combination (as the likes of “Get Lucky” proved in the West), and it suits the two incredibly well. Chen has a fairly versatile voice compared to other vocalists in EXO and shines on the song’s groove, while Heize uses the track to showcase both her singing and rapping. Not all of the Station tracks are so straightforwardly fun, which makes “Lil’ Something” one of the more unique ones to come out of it.

M&D x Wheein – Narcissus

Station managed to remind everyone of all the acts on the label that people may have forgotten about. “Narcissus” marked the return of the oft-overlooked M&D duo, i.e. Super Junior‘s Heechul and TRAX‘s Jungmo. The two indulge in old-school soft rock and trot music, and generally things you wouldn’t be surprised to hear during very dramatic K-drama scenes. This time, the two were joined by MAMAMOO‘s Wheein, one of the stronger vocalists in the industry (and, indeed, her ad-libs towards the end of the track are incredibly impressive, and manage to keep up with Jungmo’s wailing guitar lines). One would be forgiven for thinking it’s just another ballad but if melodrama is what you’re looking for, then you’re in the right place. The most surprising part of the song by far is the hard rock, modal breakdown in the middle, which is a little reminder that Jungmo and his guitar is as important a part of the music as the vocalists are.

Kim bum-soo x Kenzie – Pain Poem

It’s fitting that the first person to have a repeat Station was SM’s most prolific songwriter, Kenzie. R&B and soul singer Kim bum-soo is well-suited to the emotive, melancholic ballad. It’s interesting to hear this song in the context of “Narcissus”, the Station the week before it, since they’re both ballads, but are executed in two very different ways. “Pain Poem” is driven mostly by Spanish-style fingerstyle guitar, which is often just as intricate and melodic in nature as the vocals. There are three or four elements at most in the track (vocals and guitar, which are joined halfway through by strings and light percussion), which adds to the sense of intimacy. At the very end of the song, the penultimate bar suggests a resolution to a homely major chord but instead leaves the melody hanging and goes to a minor chord first, which is a nice, dramatic trick to add in.

Inlayer – MINDJACK

The unconventional Station releases continue. If the company was trying to prove their diversity, Station has certainly done that in heaps. Inlayer, a 4-piece metal band, were given a guest space on the Station schedule all to themselves, adding a little bit of edge to SM’s pink and sweet Youtube channel. The track itself is a pretty serviceable piece of progressive metal, with a few elements of djent thrown in. It’s worth noting that’s surprisingly light for a metal track, perhaps to appeal to the wider audience that releasing onto a platform like SM has provided them with. The mix of electronics, very melodic guitar and pretty non-abrasive and clean bass actually makes this a much easier listen for people who haven’t listened to metal than one would expect.

R3hab x f(Amber+Luna) – Wave

2016 saw a lot of new things for S.M. Entertainment in general. Alongside SM Station, the company also launched their ScreaM Records EDM label. “Wave” is a little taste of what that label is being used for, and it’s pretty promising. Having a specialist sub-label like ScreaM Records allows SM to experiment more with their music without conflicting with main releases (in many ways, matching the philosophy of Station too).

“Wave” is the first Station track to feature a big Western name, with DJ, R3hab. It’s surprisingly impressive that the label roped in such a well-respected and international artist, and makes the company’s claims of more international collabs for SM Station Season 2 to be even more exciting. You can see why f(x) members Amber and Luna have been roped onto the track, since the group has always had an affinity with electronic and dance music, especially after 4 Walls. It’s not the most revolutionary electronic track anyone’s ever heard, but it’s unabashedly fun, Luna’s and Amber’s vocals shine on it, and it sounds ready to play to a bunch of people who don’t realize it’s even in Korean at Ultra Music Festival.

An alternative remix produced by Xavi&Gi (a Costa-Rican and South Korean duo) was also released on ScreaM Records as well, which is refreshingly new for K-pop. Remixes have never been a big thing in the Korean pop industry as opposed to in the West, so the shifting attitude to that is interesting to see.

Baekhyun x K. Will – The Day

“The Day” sees EXO’s Baekhyun pair up with K. Will. K. Will is pretty renowned for his strong ballad-centric voice, and Baekhyun is basically known for the same thing. The 00s Brit-rock style of the song — the crystalline guitars and reverberating strings — gives it a suitable sense of gravitas, which is fairly important when the two are creating vocal fireworks across the top.

It takes a while for the song to really climax, but when it gets there, it’s incredibly effective. Two strong male voices in harmony is a rarity but works well here, and the two bat solo parts between each other with immense intensity.

Dana – Touch You

Many people may not be aware of SM’s soloists. Dana is likely a completely unknown name to most, but she’s a veteran of the company (most well known as part of the group The Grace). After who knows how many years, she’s has been given a song, one of the beautiful things about Station. Dana’s been involved in a lot of musical theatre in recent years, which made this song pretty self-explanatory. The dramatic, heartstring-tugging strings, soaring melody, and touch of whimsy (take the out-of-nowhere upbeat frenetic piano near the end) are touchstones of the genre, and she makes it work well. The sheer number of ballads in SM Station is mildly overwhelming but, for fans of them, the quality luckily does not drop at all.

Lay – Monodrama

Lay‘s Station feels very interesting in the whole scheme of things. He’s the last Chinese member in EXO, and a variety of factors have always made his presence in the group fragile at best: Korean-Chinese politics and Lay’s health, to mention two significant factors. He had clearly been clamoring to release some solo material, and Station is the perfect outlet for that. The project functions as incredibly good public relations and little things such as this is bound to keeps lots of people in the company (who would otherwise feel underappreciated) happy.

The song itself is another non-Korean-language release (and the success of “Monodrama” on the Chinese charts showed Station’s presence across the whole digital platform), and a self-composed one as well. It’s a fairly simplistic but compelling R&B ballad, driven by a deft guitar line. Lay is not the strongest singer in EXO, but has a clear tone not often heard on intimate tracks like this. The most interesting part of the track is the traditional Chinese instrumentation that comes in quite prominently at the very end: an unorthodox twist to the traditional R&B formula.

Yoon Jung-soo x Kim Sook – You’re The Boss

Yet another one of the more bizarre SM Station tracks, featuring comedians (neither linked to S.M. Entertainment at all) Yoon Jung-soo and Kim Sook. This seems to mostly function as an advert for the company’s karaoke app, Everysing. Neither’s what one would call a trained singer, per say, which makes for an interesting song. That said, both of them have a relatively husky, rich tone, which suits the genre: straight up trot music, Korea’s traditional musical pop form. There’s actually not a lot to say a lot about the track since it’s as archetypal as a trot song can get. For fans of trot who want more, Heechul and Jungmo’s duo project will certainly satisfy you.

Tiffany – Heartbreak Hotel (feat. Simon Dominic)

With “Heartbreak Hotel” makes the next Girls’ Generation member to feature on SM Station. The song was originally supposed to be on Tiffany‘s debut EP, I Just Wanna Dance, which is immediately obvious. It keeps in line with the moody pop songs inspired equally by Western 80s synthpop and 90s R&B that gave that EP its unique vibe (one that didn’t end up being that popular in Korea, just because of how foreign it was to the domestic audience). If anything, this Station track probably expands on that vibe, being moodier, more nocturnal and now adorned with an off-kilter rap verse courtesy of Simon Dominic. While this song unsurprisingly didn’t see a lot of success in native Korea, it’s still one of the most viewed Station releases, and its international appeal is palpable. Its chorus is laden with melancholy, and the production is gloriously dramatic.

BoA x Beenzino – No Matter What

Following Tiffany’s song is another one of the most Western songs in the entire Station catalogue. The whole idea that American pop trends cross over to the K-pop market some time later tends to be true, although it’s usually SM artists that play more straight to the original trend. Here, we see BoA tackle tropical house pretty well, with her nimble voice well-suited to the breezy atmosphere of the song. It is a slightly more organic take on the genre, since guitars fill out the track, and the tropical drop’s distorted vocals are doubled by breathy relatively unprocessed panflutes. It’s also really interesting to see a veteran artist like BoA paired with a fairly new rapper such as Beenzino, who excels on light-hearted tracks like this (especially after being on tracks of similar whimsy such as “Mannequin” with Primary and Suran, or his own breakout hit, “Dali, Van, Picasso”).

Additionally, this outing into trop-pop marks the first properly summery Station track. The strategy of releasing songs appropriate to the season is both obvious to see and effective since it helps maximize the digital selling power of those songs.

Lee Dong Woo x Orphée Noah – Definition of Love

A left-field collaboration between Swedish jazz musician Orphée Noah and comedian/singer Lee Dong Woo, “Definition of Love” ends up being a surprisingly endearing weird little tune. While it starts off as a Disney-esque romantic neo-soul sort of thing, Lee Dong Woo’s robotic mantra of a refrain interjects out of nowhere. Most curiously is when Orphée starts singing a completely different (slower and more intimate) melody at the same time, and the two eventually link up at the end of their phrases. The song definitely requires a few listens to really capture every element: besides the voices, both the percussion (varied and chaotic) and the piano (light and effortless) are doing radically individual and intricate things as well. The overall result is an instrumentally light, but musically dense track.

It’s amazing how actually diverse the releases on SM Station Season 1 ended up being, with one-off oddities feeling like the norm rather than the rare exception. One hopes that SM keeps this up for their second season.

Leeteuk x Suho x Kassy x Cho Yeongsu – My Hero

Not entirely the most interesting Station track of the bunch, but is rather charming. It’s essentially a tribute to Korean athletes (nicely timed just before the Olympics in Brazil last year). It features both the leaders of Super Junior and EXO, Leeteuk and Suho. It also rather curiously features fairly unknown solo artist, Kassy (and also a bunch of athletes singing as a backing choir). It’s as straightforward as an orchestral ballad gets — lush string arrangements, with tactical helpings of horns and guitar — and suits the montage music video rather well. Others online have humorously compared it to an old-timey Korean Christian track, which one could take as they will.

J-Min x Sim Eun-jee – Way Back Home

Yet another of SM’s tragically underutilised soloists, J-Min finally is starting to get some more tracks, including a spot on SM Station. Somewhat like Dana, J-Min excels at melodramatic ballads that stem from the tradition of musical theatre (J-Min stars in the musical adaption of Boys Over Flowers this year). J-Min’s delicate vibrato (although, one should note that she does have a surprisingly powerful voice and is very capable of sustaining certain notes with suitable gravitas) fits the song very well, making her one of the more successful balladeers across SM Station’s attempts.

Interestingly, the video features Red Velvet’s Yeri. While she doesn’t quite have the strongest voice amongst SM’s acts, it’s promising to see even those who didn’t end up with songs participating in some way or another.

Cha Ji-yeon x LDN Noise – My Show

While technically a Western collaboration, it’s not that unexpected, as LDN Noise are one of the main names working behind the scenes for S.M. Entertainment. The London-based duo’s UK-influenced dance production has seeped into a huge number of songs for almost every SM artist, and it only makes sense to have them feature at least once on Station. “My Show” pairs the producers with Cha Ji-yeon, a musical actress and interesting departure from the SM acts LDN Noise usually produce for. Compared to the likes of f(x) or SHINee, Cha Ji-yeon delivers her lines with a playful, theatrical manner, giving it the feel of R&B-inflected US garage. The fast, almost-rapped second verse evokes the likes of Wicked‘s “Popular”, a musical Cha Ji-yeon was involved in, as does the chorus’ insistence of “I need a show”. The whole effort quite spectacularly ends up being one of Station’s most overtly poppy, Western and energetic releases.

f(x) – All Mine

Let’s follow up one of the project’s danciest songs with…another one! f(x) have been deathly silent lately with “All Mine” being one of the only reprieves to that. It’s another outing into f(x)’s rejuvenated affinity for dance music. Where 4 Walls dealt with UK dance music, “All Mine” is firmly festival-ready American-style EDM instead. It’s a sound fairly new to both K-pop and to f(x), but it feels like a very natural progression to what they’ve been doing. It’s pretty much as straight-forward a track as you expect, with an anthemic beat, a stomping house hook and enough reverb to fill a stadium. It’s a track that Luna shines on a lot, thanks to her bright and clear soprano vocals that shine above the flurry of synths present. Every element fits quite happily, including Amber’s rap which interestingly acts as an extended pre-chorus (and hence feels like a natural momentum builder, rather than something just shoved into the song).

NCT 127 x Coca-Cola – Taste The Feeling

Ah, yes, a collab between NCT 127 and, uh, Coca-Cola? Indeed, one of the interesting things to come out of Station is the few tracks that are actually collaborative efforts with a company rather than another artist. In this case, we have a surprisingly high-profile commercial for Coca-Cola (which also doubles as promotion for the Olympics). It is pretty much a cover of the song of the same name that was made for the Coca-Cola campaign in the west by Conrad Sewell so isn’t the most interesting song to talk about. That said, their voices work well on the track and it’s good to see such mainstream promotion of SM’s newest group.

Girls’ Generation – Sailing (0805)

“Sailing” was a celebration of Girls’ Generation’s 9th anniversary. It’s not a revolutionary song by any means, but a very beautiful tribute to the group’s distinguished career. It’s a delicate, Disney-style piano-and-strings ballad — perhaps the most straight-forward ballad in the entirety of Station — that helps showcase the group’s strong dynamics. Two of the group’s more underutilised vocalists (Sunny and Sooyoung) are refreshingly given plenty of time at the forefront this time, to the extent that Sunny actually gets more lines than Seohyun, one the group’s main vocalists. The wistful refrain of “Sailing into the night” works incredibly well, as does the bridge which instead of building to a climactic last chorus instead quietens down to the bare minimum of vocals and piano. It’s somewhat fitting that at the centre of SM Station Season 1 is perhaps the company’s most influential and celebrated group. 2017 marks Girls’ Generation’s momentous 10th anniversary, making them one of the longest running K-pop groups in the entire industry, and fans can expect plenty from them this year.

Let’s quickly go back to how Season 2 has been going so far. It’s unsurprising that S.M. Entertainment has brought back the project for a second year in a row: the first year was deeply successful from the perspective of fans and clearly, despite the amount of resources that went into it the first time around, the company believe it’s worth it to keep it going. Everything is more polished, shinier — take the new intro and fancy new logo, for example. We’ve already seen the first international collaboration with world-renowned jazz musician, Stanley Clarke, and a solo comeback from BoA with her current popularity on the second season of Produce 101. The quality and quantity of content are undeniably better this time around, which is in itself an impressive feat. One of the complaints about Season 1 was some of the sloppiness behind certain releases (delays and music videos that never materialised were a problem that did plague it from time to time), and Season 2, a month in, has so far done so well as to avoid those issues. One can only hope that it keeps up like this, because the whole project remains one of the most refreshingly unique initiatives in the industry at the moment.