Making the case for The Red Summer
This is a tough one. For me, Red Velvet has an almost spotless discography, a blunting effect on my critical thinking, because it’s always “Wow, this song is amazing,” and “Wow, this song is amazing.” Not only that, I haven’t thought about them in terms of albums, unlike other musical acts. Best Paramore album? Easy. Pound for pound, it’s Brand New Eyes. I think it’s just the time in my life I experienced these groups. As a kid, I was getting into music (late) while CDs were being phased out for MP3s, but I still had CDs, and I’m still burning CDs today because the aux jack in my car doesn’t work anymore. I only started listening to Red Velvet in 2019, and I use Apple Music, so from my perspective, Red Velvet is just a mass of songs which I discovered bit by bit and sorted into various playlists. This had the strange consequence of “headcanon,” where songs with no real relation to one another have a strong connection in my mind, like the sequence of “Ice Cream Cake,” “Russian Roulette,” and “Peek-a-Boo.” For whatever reason, that’s how that trilogy goes, despite that “Peek-a-Boo” predates “Russian Roulette.”
When I did finally start thinking about Red Velvet by album, my first candidate for “best” was RBB. Yes, it was the most recent I’d really dug into at the time, but it was also strange even for Red Velvet. The title track may not be an all-timer, and I think it disappointed fans in the wake of their ultra-popular “Bad Boy” — “RBB” stands for “Really Bad Boy,” but it’s not a sequel — but the B-sides are all very good. “Butterflies” is one of the best Red Velvet songs ever. A quick glance online, I see gestures toward Perfect Velvet as perhaps the Internet’s answer. Now, I was prepared for this, because I know how popular “Kingdom Come” is. A great song, no doubt, and personally, I’m in love with “I Just.” It’s a weird one, but it clicks with me (and has one of my favorite videos). And then there’s “Peek-a-Boo,” which is a Red Velvet classic, one of the best songs to introduce the group to a new listener, I think. However, Perfect Velvet is weighed down by two things: one, “Attaboy” is their only song I can name off the top of my head I would consider “bad.” I remember being unimpressed by some of their early tracks, but haven’t gone back to check. Still, I was seriously caught off-guard by “Attaboy,” with the weird stoner opening and overall discordant sound. It’s all stops and starts, and the staccato, shouting verse doesn’t make use of the group’s vocal talents. That chorus, too — I guess it’s good to know even superhumans have limits. In fact, I almost need “Attaboy” to exist and be bad because it slots into the narrative that Red Velvet music is so carefully engineered that when the engineering is bad, everything goes wrong.
What I didn’t know at the time, again a product of my experience through Apple Music, is that Perfect Velvet in some versions also includes an album I understood to be separate: The Perfect Red Velvet. Now, The Perfect Red Velvet would be an honest contender for best album, but it’s only got three songs: “Bad Boy,” “All Right,” and “Time to Love.” So if you’re combining Perfect Velvet and The Perfect Red Velvet, which were produced at the same time and it’s all very confusing to me, then yes, that’s an extremely strong lineup. “All Right” is another one of their all-time best songs, presaging Apink’s brilliant “Eung Eung” with that immersive ‘80s synth. It’s got some crazy vocals, with Seulgi and Wendy trading high notes. And then “Time to Love” is my preferred slow Velvet, over other greats like “Moonlight Melody” and “One of These Nights.” However, there’s the second thing. If we’re talking about albums, then narrative cohesion must be a factor. I don’t recognize a throughline between the tracks on Perfect Velvet, though its extended length might account for that. I think it’s an important consideration, though not the only one, as their most thematically singular album, Summer Magic, is a relatively weaker package (also my first, so maybe I just wore it out).
I think the best marriage of track quality and narrative is The Red Summer. Yes, this is tilted because I believe “Red Flavor” is their best song, and one of the best songs ever made, but that honestly isn’t the basis of my calculus. So let’s break it down, knowing already that “Red Flavor” is a masterpiece.
The second track is “You Better Know,” which slows things down but only to hold back a surprise burst of energy. If “Red Flavor” was out of control, “You Better Know” dials its intensity up and down in a really satisfying way. Then we have “Zoo,” which is so painfully close to perfect it kind of drives me nuts. If “You Better Know” was Carly Rae, “Zoo” is straight-up Kesha. This is a party song so bombastic that Seulgi actually does the Tarzan yell, and that just should not work. It should not sound good, but it sounds amazing. My only gripe is the second part of the bridge — isn’t great, with the “la, la, la.” Other than that, it’s definitely a song whose intensity I’ve tried to match driving late at night on the L.A. freeway.
The move from “Zoo” to “Mojito” begins to reveal the character of the album, recontextualizing what’s come before. This isn’t a true Velvet, sad song, but it’s in that zone of melancholic pop that the group does so well, like with “Cool World” and “Body Talk.” It sounds sad, but it keeps moving, and I just love the way Yeri pronounces the word “mojito” at the end of the chorus. I mean, the whole group says it, but I hear Yeri the most, and after all, she did invent English. “Mojito” is our bridge into the Velvet piece which closes out the album, “Hear the Sea.” Though the album’s songs overall strike a sound balance between vocals and instrumentals, “Hear the Sea” offers an opportunity for the girls to show off, and that’s always welcome. There’s plenty of range, but it’s the soft, haunting quality that lingers.
I’ll grant there is no star standout track here, no iconic Wendy solo, tongue-tying rap sequence, or trailblazing experiment. “Red Flavor” might be a modern K-pop standard, but it’s a piece that fastens the crown atop the head rather than reaches for it. Red Velvet does both, so while this post is making the case for The Red Summer as their best album, it’s also making the case for their best album being their most solid work, the one that helps define and cement their status. It’s supremely confident, and feels like a miracle even amidst a stunning body of work.
Every track, including the slower-paced or lower-energy “You Better Know” exemplifies the simple rule that Red Velvet laid down in my brain and now separates “good” from “great” in K-pop generally — they go all out. Seulgi goes big to kick off the chorus and Wendy belts it out in the bridge. I’ve spoken about this before, but to me, still, K-pop is kind of a speciality genre. It’s more of a mood or a zone, and so I prefer a certain kind of specific character. I want that big feeling, the emotion, the energy. Seulgi’s Tarzan yell — I mean, that’s still jaw-dropping. This is what defines Red Velvet to me, the soaring voices that, if I’m not being careful, give me a catch in the throat when I’m not expecting it.
I mentioned that Summer Magic was my first Red Velvet album, and I suppose that’s odd, because I spent so much time talking about how I didn’t think in terms of albums. When I was first getting into K-pop, it was a slow and cautious process. I thought the music was alright, and more intriguing than heart-stopping. I’d carried around Summer Magic for a while, sampling other groups, and I gravitated toward “Mosquito.” I didn’t realize the iceberg just below, because as soon as I decided to really explore Red Velvet, it was instant hit after hit. I couldn’t believe — and am still reconciling with — how good their music is. Basically, it’s just unfortunate timing that their most recent album at the time, Summer Magic, was one I didn’t fall in love with, because there were plenty more waiting.