Best New K-Pop, J-Pop, and C-Pop: July 2021
This piece was originally published on 17caratkpop.weebly.com.
#20: OHTORA and maeshima soshi, “STARGAZER”
Sometimes, all it takes to make a song loop-worthy is one component. In this case, that variable is the instrumental. “STARGAZER” is light on lyrics but makes up for that with its intense sound. The song starts off unassuming but quickly escalates to a breakneck pace. A simple drumbeat is replaced with a frantic, fast-paced beat and high notes that are artfully electronified. “STARGAZER” is a high-energy thrill ride begging to be given several EDM remixes.
#19: HA:TFELT (ft. Keem Hyo-Eun), “Summertime”
With her gorgeous blonde hair and beautiful voice, HA:TFELT makes every single and music video an absolute delight. She possesses effortless grace and charm that make the simplest premise (in this case, having fun on the beach and partying with friends in the summer) seem worthy of a music video. She has the It Factor, and it shows more than ever on this song and in this video. Her voice glides through this breezy summer song, showing how she can turn the mundane into the magical with just her innate star power.
#18: milet, “Ordinary Days”
If there is one thing milet can be counted on to do, it’s deliver gripping, raw, and irreplaceable vocals. While “Ordinary Days'' is a departure from some of her darker content, she is no less invested in conveying the emotion of it with the utmost passion. Her hopefulness rings as true as her sorrow does in her other material. Every milet song guarantees authenticity in every note, regardless of the emotion being conveyed. Further putting her artistry on display is the choice of album cover art: milet stands in a cage of flowers. The juxtaposition of symbols of peace and of feeling trapped serves as an accurate representation of milet’s discography overall: a coexistence of pain and joy, fragility and strength. “Ordinary Days” carries on milet’s tradition of bringing listeners on an emotional ride.
#17: Even of Day, Right Through Me
The members who make up this DAY6 sub-unit bare their souls on Right Through Me. Their songs tell stories of anxiety, fear, and disappointment with unflinching vulnerability. This is not to say their album is all doom and gloom, however. It has an interesting ebb and flow. For example, the mood turns further down in “all the things you wanted,” but the energy finally comes back up on the following track, and on the next track comes a more playful sound. The last track, “LOVE PARADE,” keeps this lighter energy going, indicating the members have been through the darkest emotions and are now on the other side of them, feeling optimistic and comfortable as their newly single selves.
Overall, Right Through Me embodies the stages of grief, taking listeners through waves of rage and heartbreak before reaching a sense of acceptance. This album both reminds fans of how idols are just as human as everyone else and can serve as a balm for anyone who is dealing with a breakup.
#16: MINZY, “TEAMO”
MINZY continues to excite with each comeback, as each era of hers is very different from those prior. “TEAMO” is no exception. The Latin-inspired, highly danceable track is accompanied by a music video featuring sparkly outfits and fierce choreography. The song and video have all the ingredients a summer jam needs, and they remind fans why they are fans of this versatile superstar in the first place.
#15: TAEYEON, “Weekend”
Riding in a Barbie-esque plane while sporting a vintage, Barbie-esque wardrobe, TAEYEON brings to mind the simpler days of childhood. She sings sweetly about the joys of free time and feeling a reprieve from responsibilities. As she sings about all the fun things she is looking forward to doing during the weekend, she performs choreography to which it is easy to follow along. Overall, “Weekend” is a bright and cheerful dose of nostalgia.
#14: Nicholas Tse, “Confrontation”
This rock ballad is so well-done, simply listening to the instrumental on loop is exciting; synths and guitars play off of each other in unexpected ways. The thought-provoking lyrics are simply a bonus. “Confrontation” grapples with how to understand the surprisingly thin line separating concepts like right from wrong and morality from immorality. Tse also questions how to distinguish between a defensive and offensive posture and an inevitable consequence versus a preventable one. Tse tries to make sense of the shades of gray that exist between contrasting topics, and he raises these philosophical questions across a captivating instrumental to make for an all-around excellent song.
#13: E.SO, “Orgel”
E.SO is an exciting new artist who deserves much more attention. She is already proving to be effective at delivering an important, powerful message through a unique format. The “Orgel” music video starts off with her tied up in puppet strings in a dark and spooky setting. E.SO stuns with her delicate voice, one that is enhanced by a music box-esque instrumental. By the end of the video, the eerie atmosphere lingers, but E.SO is finally freed from the puppet strings and celebrates by twirling around the room. The music video makes for a gothic ballet of sorts, as she embraces a dark princess aesthetic while acting out her quest for autonomy.
#12: J SOUL BROTHERS III, “JSB IN BLACK” and “KICK&SLIDE”
K-pop fans will love these songs, which would fit well alongside PENTAGON’s and SUPER JUNIOR’s songs on a playlist. There are many details in both of these J-pop songs that are the same ingredients used to give K-pop songs their extra oomph: a beat drop and standout note in the bridge (of “JSB IN BLACK”) and a chanting, whispered catch phrase (“And we back and we back / JSB in black”), just to name a few. Then there are the sounds thrown in to further set the scene in listeners’ minds, such as the clinking of glasses at a dinner party. These songs are full of fun without being overstuffed; every detail has a purpose and makes the songs better.
#11: JEON SOYEON, Windy
In an impressive feat, SOYEON makes working at a fast-food restaurant look wildly entertaining! She sports a cute, trendy uniform, sings alongside burger mascots, and dances while she mops the floor. Yet she has fun with a sense of irony in it, singing “welcome to adult world” in a sarcastic way and revealing her boredom on the job in other music video scenes. “BEAM BEAM” has a bite to it in more ways than one, as do the other songs that are a part of this burger joint-themed release. The album is dripping with attitude, as SOYEON sings and raps about both growing up and staying young. Growing up is no party, but SOYEON decides to make it one, trying to bring fun wherever she goes.
#10: KINGDOM, History Of Kingdom: Part II. Chiwoo
Picking up seamlessly from where they left off in History of Kingdom : PartI, KINGDOM continues to spin tales of power and passion. The “KARMA” music video maintains the feel of their last single’s video, “Excalibur;” it serves as a historical fiction mini-movie of sorts. B-sides like “Eternity” continue the blockbuster OST vibes. And like any good movie, KINGDOM’s songs have layers to them. On some tracks, the instrumentals are worth paying the most attention to (namely “Magical”), while other songs leave room for vocals to steal the show (“MAKE US”). Overall, KINGDOM’s new album contains many reasons to love their music and be impressed with their storytelling.
#9: AKMU, NEXT EPISODE
In one of the best releases of AKMU’s career so far, they begin a new chapter, as the album title suggests. The concept of the new musical era they are embarking on is a term they’ve coined “transcendent freedom,” which is “extraordinary power that goes beyond people’s physical limits, allowing people to unplug from any external influence.” In a literal sense, this means defying gravity and explains the upside-down moments in the “NAKKA” video. On a symbolic level, the term applies to embracing the decisions that are the opposite of the norm or expectation. In “BENCH,” they find contentment just in relaxing on a bench, appearing unmoved by the flash mob parading down the street. In “NAKKA,” Suhyun chills next to a massive hole in the ground, instead of moving far away from it, and she appears equally calm while standing in her upside-down bedroom. The only emotion she expresses is shown through brief, sly smiles, as if to reassure viewers that she will be just fine. There are scenes that one would assume would cause fear and chaos all around them, but these two go on with their lives as if surreality and reality are one and the same. This album is accompanied with intriguing videos about an alternate reality, making the album feel like a companion novel to this first installment in a new movie series.
#8: D.O., Empathy
It is fortunate that D.O. has chosen to stick with the sound of his previous single, “That’s okay,” for his debut album. He knows what types of songs he sings best and sticks to them. Even the video aesthetics of his new single, “Rose,” bear similarities to the best aspects of “That’s okay.” Parts of the picturesque neighborhood through which D.O. bikes turn into 2-D animations, and the video for “That’s okay” is a similarly cute cartoon. D.O. not only has an impressive voice, but a swoon-worthy one, as he gets sentimental about love and relationships across acoustic tracks.
#7: Shota Shimizu, HOPE
HOPE makes for a low-key album that fans of some AOMG artists will love. These (mostly) mid-tempo tracks make for easy listening, although there are points when Shimizu displays more emotion and vulnerability. It is a satisfying listen, and what makes it all the more worthy of attention is the sweet music video for “Curtain Call.” Shimizu joins ONE OK ROCK’s Taka in an empty auditorium to daydream about the day their time to shine will come. After lots of hard work, the singers get their “big break.” It’s a feel-good video for a song worth swaying and singing along to with a best friend.
#6: AleXa, ReviveR
It is refreshing to finally meet the “human AleXa,” as release after release from her so far has focused on the “evil AleXa” from a parallel universe. It is finally time to see the other half of her music video world. And what better way to be introduced to “human AleXa” than with Y2K vibes, in both her wardrobe and songs?! On both “Xtra” and “Obsession,” “human AleXa” introduces herself with a sass and spark that is all her own, from her quirky lyrics to her hot pink hair.
#5: BTS, “Permission to Dance”
BTS often comments on the purpose of their work as musicians: they view it not as a mere possibility, but an obligation, to use their music to help others. Whether that is through offering messages of solace or just giving fans a reason to smile, BTS ensures each song of theirs is a step towards their goal of making life better for their listeners. “Permission to Dance” is a perfect continuation of this mission. During this period of both relief and renewed fears surrounding the state of the pandemic, BTS wants fans to know they do not need to wait for a certain “right moment” to start feeling happy again. BTS permits fans to have a moment of joy right here, right now, regardless of what is going on in the world. There is something truly groundbreaking about reminding people to stop and find pockets of joy amidst the chaos, and BTS is continuously producing more of those pockets of joy in fans’ days through their songs and videos. “Permission to Dance,” like BTS singles before it, is not so much a happy pill as it is a permission slip people did not realize they psychologically needed. The positive ripple effect of BTS’s music is on full display, as people from all walks of life can now recreate the music video scenes of people in similarly diverse circumstances taking a moment to dance away their worries.
#4: TWICE, Perfect World
Never have lyrics like “Get out” and “Get lost” been delivered so sweetly! TWICE shows organic maturity on Perfect World, but they still have a cute, youthful image that makes their feisty lyrics all the more delightful to hear. Perfect World is not just a fast-paced, sassy pop album, but one that is topped off with a dose of sweetness that only TWICE can deliver. This album pops with personality, as does the theatrical music video for “Perfect World.” As explained in a previous “Best of the Month” piece, TWICE continues to not just grow but expand, adding more and more colors to their music. TWICE does not sacrifice sweetness for sass or appreciation for bitterness. They sing about relationships in a way that contains multitudes and a new level of maturity.
#3: Dreamcatcher, [Summer Holiday]
Dreamcatcher knows what they do best and sticks to it. As is to be expected, their latest album is a collection of synth-pop and pop-rock songs that are prefaced with a dramatic, instrumental introduction. However, Dreamcatcher also manages to show a side of themselves on [Summer Holiday] that they never have before. They both deliver more of what fans love to expect from them and something fans did not see coming. The best example of this balancing act is “Alldaylong.” It could be considered a light, “typical” summer song for a K-pop group, but Dreamcatcher adds their personal style to it, adding synths and vocals that have a vaguely distant, echo-type feel to them. Dreamcatcher adds a bit of mystery and drama to every song they touch, meaning that whenever they show a new side of themselves, fans can rest assured they will not sacrifice the other sides of themselves while doing so.
#2: F.I.R., Diamond Heart
This pop/rock album seamlessly weaves layers of instruments and voices into its songs. It is an incredibly rich album, with each element of each song working in tandem to smoothly move from lyric to lyric, song to song. Strings, flutes, pianos, guitars, drums, and even ocean waves all find their perfect place. The fullness of each song is satisfying without being overkill, making for a wonderful and attention-holding listening experience.
#1: NIve, Broken Kaleidoscope
NIve both defeats and sidesteps expectations. This album has its more somber moments, but on the whole, it is a celebration filled with stomping and cheering. The sound conjures up images of a rock concert in the Wild West. The western/rock/pop songs are paired with addictive vocals to make for a listening experience that is an absolute blast. NIve is in a genre all his own, with the only predictable aspect of this release being his excellent voice. A K-pop album that sounds like this has not come out for quite some time. This is a fresh and incredibly fun release by an artist who is one to watch.
Click here for the podcast episode featuring further commentary on both these picks and some honorable mentions, follow the link below for a playlist of the songs referenced here, and click here to read about last month’s picks!