Best New K-Pop and J-Pop: August 2022
A ranking and review of the twenty best K-pop and J-pop releases from the past month!
#20: YENA, SMARTPHONE
It has been far too long since this adorable superhero’s last adventure! YENA is back for more quirky antics in a world with the aesthetics of a children’s TV show. This time, she redirects her focus to her tech skills and combats various mascots to reach her destination. She also makes time for multiple dance breaks on a playground! She exudes an immeasurable amount of likability through SMARTPHONE’s B-sides as well, delivering happy, sing-along-ready songs that are sure to “Make U Smile”!
#19: HA SUNG WOON, Strange World
Given the fact this is HA SUNG WOON’s first comeback since joining a new agency, it is a great time to re-introduce his multitudes. The Strange World highlight medley video shows off his boyish charm, as he poses in a scene resembling a school play in some moments and sits inside a hand-drawn, 2D television in others. His more mature and confident side gets the spotlight in the “FOCUS” music video, where he searches for a mystery woman by following the lit flame she carries. He also shows off multitudes when it comes to his dancing and singing skills. He rocks a leather, cowboy-themed ensemble while showing off fancy footwork in the music video, and he channels a sweet, welcoming demeanor on the album’s B-sides. HA SUNG WOON might feel like he’s in a “strange world,” but the dualities in his musical identity make that “strangeness” a good thing!
#18: LEE JIN HYUK, 5ight
LEE JIN HYUK has outdone himself on 5ight. His boundless energy and willingness to experiment sonically are made clearer than ever with this one-of-a-kind release. Busy, in-your-face instrumentals make some songs, like “Crack” and “Jungle,” stand out, while his personality is what shines the brightest on songs like “Morning Call” and “TOY.” Another commendable trait: his fashion sense! In the “Crack” music video, he rocks a mix of playful and businesslike attire, swapping a blazer for a sparkly top and back again. The dress code seems to be “a little bit of everything,” with formalwear that matches his sense of self-worth and sparkly pieces that match the flashy nature of the song. As LEE JIN HYUK sings about feeling tangled up in love, he paints over his self-doubts by dressing for the part of a confident man.
#17: from20, “Chemical”
from20 is back with another single from his musical sweet spot: a synth-heavy sound, wistful lyrics, and storytelling that matches the simple and straightforward with the specific and personal. In the “Chemical” music video, from20 alternates between sitting in an auditorium and walking through rooms that each focus on one or two specific colors. The music video doubles as a lyric video in some scenes, with the emotion in certain lines emphasized by their appearance on the screen. The words’ appearances change forms, from looking like movie subtitles to resembling an inner monologue. They even tilt sideways, representing from20’s feeling that his world has turned on its head. from20’s unique ways of getting his message across continue until the end, when he grabs the microphone and performs on the stage. He goes from being the audience member and feeling lost, wandering from place to place and experimenting with different colors, to being the star of the show. While rocking out, he wears a bright yellow outfit, indicating he has been through the worst of post-breakup feelings and is now emotionally prepared for sunnier days ahead, days where he will proudly be the main character in his own life story.
#16: DUSTCELL, Hypnotize
The energy level throughout Hypnotize is tremendously high; the album is controlled chaos in the best way! At a dizzying speed, DUSTCELL alternate between singing and rapping over layered, electro-pop instrumentals. Electric guitar riffs and strings in “Missing” make it a standout, and “Honey Bee” is equally memorable for its guitars and frenetic piano-playing. The catchiest elements of other songs are harder to isolate, like on “ID,” which includes buildup after buildup, leaving listeners guessing as to when the final peak of the suspense will be reached. An industrial sound guides “SANDBAG,” but the focus returns to electro-pop for the last two tracks. “Vagabond” is a great choice to conclude the album, with its instrumental-only moments and fun vocal filter. In many different ways throughout the album, DUSTCELL’s strong suits are accentuated.
#15: YOUHA, love you more,
This underrated artist is at her personal best on love you more,. Her alluring vocals and varied instrumentals keep listeners guessing. The EP begins with dark, crashing synths and a distorting vocal filter. The intrigue remains on “Last Dance,” a dreamy song with a sultry music video. “Flower Rain” speeds things up, as YOUHA sings in a rap-like way and changes up her register. “We” resumes a slower tempo, a fitting falling action before the conclusion: “NUMB,” a rock-influenced sound that makes sure love you more, ends as compellingly as it begins. YOUHA is a promising artist with a voice and personality that are worthy of career longevity.
#14: JAEHYUN, “Forever Only”
The only downside to JAEHYUN’s new single is that it is just that: a single! Hopefully, many more acoustic-guitar-driven love songs are in his future. As if his voice is not swoon-worthy enough, he channels NCT 127’s “Highway to Heaven” era with his classic fashion choices and sunny location. The camerawork keeps the video from feeling static, with changes in the fogginess or clarity of the image, pivoting to black-and-white imagery for a moment, and changing to and from concave-lens shots. JAEHYUN also makes this song stand out with the lyrics. He ruminates on how ironically temporary the feeling that a love will last forever is, and how quickly that feeling can be washed away like an ocean wave. Ocean analogies are nothing new, but the poetic word choice stops his use of it from sounding cliche: “How familiar these streets / Still, we’d get lost in them.” With his cool and classic image, his romantic and thought-provoking words, and varied filming styles, “Forever Only” tells a love story as old as time with a brand new feel. JAEHYUN proves he is adept at taking a concept and making it anything but generic.
#13: CRAXY, Who Am I
“This wasn’t a dream. It was all real, and I’m standing right in the middle. Where should I go?... Who am I? I don’t know myself… I keep living in the dark. Tryna make myself bright… under the ground,” CRAXY say in the Who Am I intro. This inner monologue sets the scene well for the music video’s premise: CRAXY are “undercover goddesses,” suppressing who they have imagined they are to search for who they really are. In a dark, underground kingdom, they explore the dark and hidden recesses of their minds. However, their confident personas do not stay suppressed forever. They can’t help but declare themselves “queens of this jungle” on “LION,” for example. The danceable beats and explosive dance routines that accompany the songs on Who Am I solidify CRAXY’s fierce, unapologetic persona, but their desire to discover their true selves outside of that persona is a prevalent part of this comeback, too. CRAXY’s storytelling is impactful in more ways than one and is at its personal best.
#12: LUCY, Childhood
Childhood has much reflective, serious material, but it also takes a more celebratory turn at times. Particularly fun songs include “Domino” and “We will fly away,” the latter bringing its message to life thanks to the strings’ ascending structure. The mix of melancholy and passionate moments across a spectrum of emotions pertains to the “PLAY” music video as well. The members engage with props that represent going through the daily grind of adulthood. To break their slump, the members consciously choose to bring their inner child back into the picture. They host a birthday party for a little boy, complete with a disco ball and bubbles galore. They cheer up as this little boy runs around their instruments and paper planes fill the air. This little boy, who presumably represents the little kid that has been re-awakened inside of LUCY, crystallizes the song’s message in one scene the most: an adult stands in the glow of a spotlight, looking afraid and alone. Later, when the little kid stands in that same spotlight, he grins and soaks up every second. One interpretation: this scene represents how the situations that are approached differently during one’s youth - with vigor, excitement, optimism - are, in the abstract, the same situations faced as adults, only now reacted to with apathy or sorrow. The situations people endure as adults and as children are more alike than it seems: they endure good and bad days, they have to fulfill certain obligations… If this is just life, LUCY decide they might as well bring along their inner child for the ride! They consciously choose to reconnect with their youthful spirit and untap the potential to inject their daily routines with a new zest for life in the process.
#11: Araki, Idea
Idea involves foot-tapping and head-banging in equal measures! This rock album has plenty of EDM moments too, like on the rapid “Gold Tokio” and the quirky chaos that is “Kyushi Issho.” Some songs take the unique, unapologetic spectacle to even higher heights, like “A New Voice,” which has some odd sound effects and a cartoonish feel. Those who prefer Araki’s more punk side will enthuse over disc two, which includes “0 Game” and “Until the End.” There are a few more measured moments throughout Idea, when the tempo becomes more consistent and less frenzied, but these moments are exceptions to the wildly-entertaining norm!
#10: IVE, After LIKE
Once again, IVE pack quite a punch with just a two-track release! “After LIKE” has the disco flair necessary to complement IVE’s sparkly party outfits and fireworks-filled music video. The song includes part of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” paying homage to an ultimate classic while not borrowing too much from it. IVE’s music video particularly stands out as classically IVE with its color scheme. Each member is associated with a different color: deep blue, light blue, hot pink, red, forest green, and sunflower yellow. They each wear an outfit that matches their respective color, while posing in a room focused on that same color (with the exception of the light blue scene being an outdoor platform instead of an indoor room). The rainbow of personalities that make up IVE come together symbolically later on, when a silhouette appears in front of multicolored backdrop. With “After LIKE,” IVE deliver a vivid comeback in more ways than one, and they make this release engaging with the B-side, “My Satisfaction,” too.
#9: CIX, ‘OK’ Episode 1 : OK Not
Still inspired by Dante’s Inferno, CIX focus on the “Purgatorio” portion of the story this time, as revealed by the quotes featured in this comeback’s teaser content. Suspense-building symbolism reigns in the video for “458,” including angel wings and flaming steel. The dramatization is not just for the sake of dramatization, however. Beyond the literary tie-ins to the past, CIX embody the intensity of youths’ emotions in the present day. “458,” slang for “ILU” (“I Love You”) and also the last digits of the speed of light, is about simultaneously wanting to run from and towards a crush. The tremendous pain and equally tremendous joy that come with falling in love are visually represented in a way that shows how the stakes could not possibly feel higher.
This release is also notable for its B-sides. “Without You” has well-placed sounds and voices; the members do not sing over each other in a distracting way, and the instrumental stays singular yet layered. Sonically and format-wise, “Bend the Rules” certainly does! Then there is “Drown in Luv,” which fittingly ends the album with the same mood as the opening number. CIX bring a cinematic story to life with “458” and keep the movie-worthy status going throughout the rest of the album.
#8: TWICE, BETWEEN 1&2
With the “Talk that Talk” music video, TWICE tap into the current wave of nineties and Y2K nostalgia while putting a personal spin on the trend. They rock classically TWICE outfits and perform choreography with many classically TWICE details, like the formation of “L,” “O,” “V,” and “E” with their arms in quick succession. TWICE take on a new role as stylish, code-cracking spies, and when they finally find the QR code they were seeking, viewers who scan that code are redirected to the Instagram post from when TWICE first announced their official fandom name (ONCE). It’s a sweet reminder that TWICE might be getting older, but their love for and gratitude towards ONCE remain as strong as ever. Similarly, BETWEEN 1&2 represents both the humble TWICE of the past and the newly-confident TWICE, who are more hands-on than ever before in writing and composing their music. TWICE weave together nostalgic details and newly-personalized touches, ensuring ONCE know they can always count on TWICE to deliver interesting and sweet surprises, both visually and sonically.
#7: milet, Always You
As discussed countless times before, milet is a stellar artist with endless potential and raw talent. She proves it for the upteenth time on Always You, which includes a cheerful, relatively light title track but richer, classically milet B-sides. milet’s voice directs the course of “Clan,” starting before the deep percussion joins her and moving in a way that ensures the piano knows when to leave the queue. In “Into the Mirror,” instead of her vocals starting the action again, a synth slinks in before her, followed by a thud. There is another surprising moment later on, when the strings are replaced with repeating “Into the mirror,” then a heavy silence. Once again, milet shows off a mastery of directing her songs’ movements, artfully structuring the placement of both sounds and silence. The heavy silence during “Into the Mirror” is well-placed and amplifies the intensity of the instrumental surge that follows it. In a symbolic moment, milet ends this song and album with her voice sounding like it is coming out of a phone’s receiving end, a twist that has appeared in several of her previous songs.
In addition to the many subtle details that make her releases stand out, milet also keeps them just plain fun! The “Always You” music video tells an endearing story of friendship between her and a once-lonely, WALL-E-esque character. milet and her new robot friend take pictures together, watch a movie, go skateboarding, chill by the pool, have a dance party, and play chess (a nice nod to a previous milet single, “checkmate”!). milet then returns to the same tree she found the robot sitting under earlier, and she keeps this friend company with a smile as radiant as her cute, yellow dress.
#6: 4s4ki, Killer in Neverland
Killer in Neverland is a hyperpop dream from start to finish. This eccentric artist, who brings to mind Grimes, electronifies her vocals and instrumentals in artful ways that create a futuristic atmosphere. There are some more down-the-middle J-pop songs, like “Bystander” and “BOUNCE DANCE,” but they are outnumbered by the songs with a vibe all her own. This vibe puts listeners at the center of the scenes. “SUCK MY LIFE3” leaves listeners feeling like they are listening to 4s4ki’s live performance from a room down the hall. “into the darkness” puts listeners in the middle of a haunting, ritualistic chant. “Sword of preemptive attack” leaves listeners fearing their phones are experiencing a major glitch! The unpredictable, untamable energy generated by 4s4ki’s music makes it worth remembering. Other standout songs include the punk-leaning “paranoia,” the BIBI-esque “ring ring, you kill me,” and the pre-released “LOG OUT,” a collaboration with the also-eclectic maeshima soshi.
#5: BLACKPINK, “Pink Venom”
At long last, BLACKPINK are back with another larger-than-life music video! After going so long without a proper comeback, it is in order for BLACKPINK’s return to come with a bang, not a whimper, and they certainly deliver. “Pink Venom” explains BLACKPINK’s massive appeal: there are millions of things to look at and to hear in their singles; they are the ultimate spectacle. There are so many details to pick up on that re-watches are required to catch them all. First of all, references to their group identity appear, including a black apple with a bite taken out of it that reveals a pink inside. Secondly, the special effects are massive, including smoke, water, and fire. Third of all, the looks are top-tier, with inspiration for days when it comes to braided hairstyles, detailed eye makeup, fancy dresses, and more. Lastly, pairings of members vary. This time, LISA and JENNIE trade raps on the second verse, and JISOO and ROSÉ team up for the pre-chorus and bridge. Why are BLACKPINK so popular? “Pink Venom” answers that question: it boils down to never knowing what to expect from them, but knowing that whatever it is will be a feast for the eyes and ears. Their aesthetic is the indescribable mixture that is inevitable when four distinct artists team up and merge old and new themes in their work. The smorgasbord of buzz-worthy details in their songs and videos keep people coming back for more.
#4: BE:FIRST, BE:1
BE:FIRST prove that “Betrayal Game” really was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their catchy bops! There is not one sonic focal point on BE:1; different songs are centered around different instruments, and what ties them together instead are the members’ distinct singing voices and rap styles. A few highlights: “Scream” is a very fun, percussion-focused song, funky electronic sounds rule on “Spin!,” and the piano shines on “Grateful Pain.” Not every song zeroes in on just one key sound: “Message” is a guitar-backed pop ballad, “Brave Generation” merges rock and electronic sounds, and an electronic orchestra makes “Gifted.” a welcome surprise. A vast array of sonic influences are present throughout BE:1, and the places where they fuse together are unpredictable. Versatility is the name of the game when it comes to BE:FIRST, and this group is particularly worth a try for fans of CRAVITY and SUPER★DRAGON.
#3: Novel Core, No Pressure
Time goes by in the blink of an eye while listening to this charismatic album with wide-ranging appeal. Addictive basslines are the foundation of earworms like “TROUBLE” and “BABEL.” Fans of WOODZ will love the guitar-based “No Pressure.” Synthesizer enthusiasts will revel in “JUST NOISE.” “HAPPY TEARS” is a road-trip-worthy, feel-good, piano-focused number. “Untitled” has the feel of a bonus track, separated from the rest of the release stylistically and format-wise by coming after a six-second skit. Each song is a loop-worthy gem for its own reasons, but the real crown jewel is “Imaginative Fantasista.” Backed by a jaunty guitar, Novel Core plays the role of a conductor in the music video, who instigates a flash mob of sorts in the middle of a stuffy dinner party. His ringleader role adds a dimension to the foot-tapping good time that “Imaginative Fantasista” already is on its own!
#2: Billlie, the Billage of perception: chapter two
A podcast episode all about the magical, fascinating world in which Billlie’s music videos and stories exist is coming soon, so subscribe to 17 Carat K-Pop (on any major podcast platform or here) to not miss it!
#1: KEY, Gasoline
KEY embraces a quirky collection of cinematic influences head-on, bringing together elements of old SciFi, horror, and animated films. While working off of these sources of inspiration, KEY adds in his own origin story, becoming a new god in the “Gasoline” music video. He re-creates himself in real time, flaunting shiny, androgynous outfits and maintaining control of his environment. The best distillation of KEY’s new era is represented by the book he holds in a teaser image: How to Be Scary and Cute. Indeed, KEY’s “Gasoline” music video and teaser videos mix unsettling details with funnier ones! His Halloween-ready aesthetic is more camp than gore, more playful than fear-inducing.
Gasoline is in the same sonic territory as BAD LOVE, but it still follows this comeback’s theme, thanks to a mood rooted in retrofuturism. It is partially a G-rated spooky movie soundtrack and partially a retro, synth-heavy party playlist.
KEY makes it known that he had a lot of fun and involvement in the making of Gasoline, its teaser content, and its title track’s music video. His distinguishable cinematic flair ensures he will continue to effectively balance older sources of inspiration with creative and surprising twists.
To hear more about these picks and find out which releases got honorable mentions, check out the corresponding episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!
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