Best New Music: September 2023
A ranking and review of the best releases of last month from Korean and Japanese artists!
#20: Nerd Connection, Hard To Explain
“Planet Earth” is an explosive opener that seems hard to follow up, but the rest of Hard To Explain proves to be up to the task! The momentum never slows on this EP, and even when the band rocks out at a slightly lower tempo, like in “Been This Way,” the emotional fervor with which they perform does not lessen in the slightest. The songs’ climactic feel does not overextend its welcome, staying long enough to intrigue but not so long that it feels redundant. Hard To Explain is an enjoyably in-your-face collection of songs that benefits from its brevity, and while the entire EP is a must-listen, the most can’t-miss songs are “Stand Up” and “I Robbed a Bank (Remastered ver.).”
#19: HWASA, “I Love My Body”
In the “I Love My Body” music video, HWASA never falters in her confidence and parades through various settings while rocking a versatile wardrobe. “Every feature, one by one, I look pretty good,” she asserts, and she chastises haters for “talking smack” when she’s “worth so much more than that.” She concludes with a strut into the sunset and an A-tier hair flip! She repeats “I love my body and my hair be so shiny,” but she also says things like “Got way too many standards, not sure what’s right,” criticizing the beauty standards set by society at large and giving up the endless pursuit of meeting their ever-shifting qualifications. HWASA’s video shows the feeling of freedom that can come to those who stop caring about what others think of their appearances, and this song further empowers by requiring listeners to repeat “I Love My Body” every time they mention it! In several ways, this single makes a persuasive case for unconditional self-love.
#18: I Don’t Like Mondays., RUNWAY
With city-pop tints, improv-feigning piano bits, a laid-back tone, and smooth blends of guitars, percussion, and synths, RUNWAY maintains a clear and high-quality musical color. Whether reflecting on a summer fling that seems destined to fizzle out (“Summer Ghost”) or showing fresh determination to make a relationship work (“Beautiful Chaos;” “conversation”), I Don’t Like Mondays. prove to be naturals at musical storytelling. Some songs are more melodic than others, but all of them play a meaningful role in RUNWAY’s cohesion and overarching mood. The best songs are “WOLF VIBES,” which has high potential to energize a live crowd, and “Sin City,” for the lyrical thought pattern’s organic evolution. In short, this band makes song-making look easy!
#17: Ms.OOJA, 40
Through 40, Ms.OOJA looks back on the past four decades of her life; it is not so much an advice book as it is a diary. She does not pretend to have learned the keys to a good life; all she can do is be an open book and hope others can find clues in her handling of things. She reflects on how her views have evolved regarding true love (“True”), true loss (“Epilogue”), and a true state of limbo (“40”), finding simple yet malleable ways to explain complex emotions. For example, “Desert” uses several sand metaphors for a relationship that has run its course: a dry landscape, an hourglass, and a material under which one can get stuck. One symbol covers feelings of love, running out of time, and feeling stuck all in one song, an album epitome! Further making the thematic richness more digestible are switches from ballads into more up-tempo tracks, like “Little Car.” This album has what it takes to be a companion to people of all ages who seek guidance and clarity throughout life’s ups and downs.
#16: EVNNE, Target: ME
This new boy band has a strong debut release in Target: ME. It runs the gamut from West-Coast-hip-hop influences to a Baltimore club instrumental, and quirky sound effects are sprinkled throughout the entire album. The stylistic range matches the topical one, which covers young love, the desire to live in the moment, and much more. The mini-album concludes with a fan song, “Even More,” for which two members have writing credits. EVNNE are clearly ready to make a splash in the K-pop scene and have a relatable and welcoming image that ought to draw in new fans swiftly.
#15: FTISLAND, Sage
Sage is promoted as FTISLAND’s fresh start, as they emulate birds who enter a new world upon breaking out of literal shells. Furthermore, they pledge to take the lessons learned while in their “old worlds” and apply them to their new ones. In “Sage,” they sing, “I’ll leave behind the old me / And set out on my own path,” and “More pages waiting to be filled… I want to be born anew.” Wanting something and actually achieving it are obviously different things, which comes to mind when they sing “Set you free / Like a midsummer night’s dream,” a reference to the name of a previous FTISLAND song. They seek to start over but realize that cannot be absolute; they carry pieces of the past with them whether they want to or not. If maintaining pieces of the past is inevitable, then they might as well use those pieces to craft a better future and “live a life of wisdom,” and this album’s lyrics show their attempts to do just that. Ballads and pop-rock songs alike move from one motivating emotion to another: loneliness, angst, fear… Sage tells a believable and easy-to-follow story that can keep listeners company as they set out on their own journeys, hoping to start over to the extent possible. In short, Sage vouches for the band’s maturing character.
#14: Kep1er, Magic Hour
Kep1er’s new songs have dashes of sass inside sugary-sweet packaging! Bouncy, perky jams with engaging chants and euphoric high notes come with declarative statements about Kep1er leaving their mark and knowing they have what it takes to bewitch their crushes. They also treat themselves like literal art, becoming parts of the museum’s paintings in the “Galileo” music video. Both Kep1er’s new songs and music video have an interactive feel to them, and the excitement remains with a listening experience that goes back to their familiar hit sound (“Galileo” is in the same vein as their smash-hit debut single, “WA DA DA”). They also try new things, splitting into first-time sub-units for the hip-hop “TAPE” and the Latin-inspired “Tropical Light.” Magic Hour is the most Kep1er comeback to date!
#13: Loossemble, Loossemble
To fans’ delight and relief, this group of LOONA members maintains LOONA’s true colors! In familiar ways, lovely, airy voices steal the show, both when harmonizing and in isolation, and danceable beats are the norm. The story told through the EP and the “Sensitive” music video, as detailed in an episode of 17 Carat K-Pop, have a surprisingly high number of nods to LOONA’s past eras, from the visual symbols to lyrics’ color-themed analogies. As Loossemble embark on a new journey, they do not forget the narrative foundation of the “LOONAverse” lore upon which their separate adventures are built; their story is a respectful sequel!
#12: CRAVITY, SUN SEEKER
With SUN SEEKER, CRAVITY remain as enthusiastic and youthful as ever, and their boundless energy is channeled in surprising new directions in the “Ready or Not” music video. The video alternates between “Ready” and “Not” phases, back and forth between a comic book realm and the 4D world. As for the songs themselves, they maintain brightness with plenty of ad libs, sound effects, and dynamic mixes of rapping and singing. The final track, “LOVE FIRE,” conjures up the image of sitting around a campfire as someone strums a guitar and others whistle and clap along. This conclusion is both fitting in its own right and fitting to follow up “9 o’clock,” whose title has a special hidden meaning for fans and can put them in a content state of reflection.
#11: PURPLE KISS, FESTA
PURPLE KISS seem to be checking off an obligatory box for K-pop groups by having a summer-themed release fronted by a breezy pop song, but a closer look reveals the many ways they make the concept their own. The group balances flirty, suggestive connotations with cute and youthful ones in “7HEAVEN,” and they strike another typical-for-them balance between singing about their excitement (in the title track) and putting guardrails around their optimism (in “Mistake”). They indirectly recall the “don’t cast pearls before swine” reference from a previous song with the lyrics “It’s useless attention / I don’t want it” in “Biscuit.” Other ways they bring to mind older PURPLE KISS songs are more likely to be coincidental, like when they use the phrase “fade away” again in “Mistake.” But regardless of how intentional or not the ways FESTA brings to mind their past eras are, the point is that PURPLE KISS have an admirably distinct way with words and the talent to give each song the most shine possible.
#10: DPR IAN, “So I Danced”
Artists like DPR IAN do not come around very often, ones who fulfill the best aims of music: connecting and lighting a spark inside people, getting people to see each other in a new light, and somehow giving audiences both a look at how that artist’s mind works and a tool to see their own minds through a new lens. His auditory and music video universe are a fascinating mix of escapism and introspection. Their over-the-top, vivid adventures are all-consuming to watch, yet they are also the opposite of a distraction, helping people feel a closer connection to their most core senses of self. The wonderfully bizarre worlds of his alter egos make for highly effective, absorbing analogies upon which audiences can build. “So I Danced” is no exception, and the brilliance of DPR IAN’s latest era is detailed much more in the podcast episode below!
#9: KEY, Good & Great
The fun KEY had while recording these songs is obvious! He thrives with a disco-inspired, synth-heavy soundscape, and he treats “Bring the feeling of being ‘good and great’ to life” as a requirement, not a suggestion! He shines the brightest with the most retro-sounding songs, “Can’t Say Goodbye” and “Intoxicating,” although he impresses with a switch to R&B in “Mirror, Mirror” too. As for this era’s visual components, an office concept is made the opposite of boring and basic. The teaser videos and “Good & Great” music video follow KEY through a week of work, which involves a frozen-in-time phase, a curiously-dressed boss, and constant glitches that remind the audience his reality is less guaranteed than one assumes. It is an understatement to say KEY takes a plain concept and makes it unpredictable and party-ready!
#8: XG, NEW DNA
NEW DNA explains why XG are suddenly everywhere! This girl group has captured the world’s attention because of their signature swagger. Whether going off of UK drill, Jersey Club, hip-hop, and/or R&B influences, XG stay confident in their ability to experiment. A lot of girl groups can pull off a wide range of styles, however, so what makes XG different? That comes down to narrative. Countless groups sing similar messages about “Make this world your own!,” but they make their words literal. They literally create a new world, where they run the “PUPPET SHOW”! Their group name refers to “X-GENE,” their EP title represents their creation of a peerless class of never-before-seen people, and their music videos are audacious attempts to depict a new world for their video characters to inhabit! XG’s music video world is constructed in real time, keeping viewers invested in the process at every step and feeling like witnesses to the creation of something remarkable. XG reinforce their “redefining the world” mission with a song called “NEW DANCE” and songs that redefine slang terms, like “GRL GVNG” (aka “Girl Gang”) and “TGIF” for “Thank God I’m Fly”!
#7: BOYNEXTDOOR, WHY..
This boy band has such a baked-in concept that keeping the audience surprised requires more effort than it does for acts with more flexible images, but so far, BOYNEXTDOOR prove to be up for the challenge. They remain the opposite of boring in the “But Sometimes” music video. Part of the action unfolds in the “real world,” while other antics ensue in a miniature CGI realm. The miniature world exists within the suitcase that the “real-world” members drag behind their vehicle, suggesting that they can control the directions of their miniature selves. There are also scenes involving a “kiss cam,” fires, and a mysterious red door. BOYNEXTDOOR choose curveballs over cliches through their lyrics as well. Their new songs have witty self-deprecation, like when they comment in “But Sometimes,” “I widened my shoulders so you could lean on me, but now / They just make it hard to move through the metro,” and “I was the fool / Everything sucks.” Their pity is balanced with playfulness again for a fun conclusion in “ABCDLOVE,” with a high-pitched computer voice making their complaints for them!
#6: DAWN, Narcissus
While DAWN covers an admirable musical range and shows off his vocal talent more than ever, the most exceptional element of this new era is its visuals. Subverting expectations, Narcissus is about self-loathing, focusing on the “alone” aspect of the classic myth. He effectively acts out his inner anguish, stumbling through a halfhearted dance routine in the “Heart” video and staying solemn through the “Star” video. The latter has a clever optical illusion of sorts: The space around DAWN first resembles a starry galaxy, but those white specks turn out to just be bits of paper, debris that surrounds him as he stands on a dark, empty road. The camera gradually moves from DAWN appearing upside-down to him appearing upright, and this slow shift forces the audience to sit with the same uncertainty and discomfort DAWN is experiencing. With this comeback, DAWN finds creative ways to demonstrate the feeling of losing one’s other half. He arguably saves the most touching moment for the last song, when he sings about sinking into an “Abyss” of emotions in solidarity with someone struggling. It’s an empathetic message that reinterprets an abyss as symbolic of solace over feeling stuck. Fittingly, this album starts with flipping the Narcissus script on its head and ends on a similarly subversive note.
#5: Eric Nam, House on a Hill
Eric Nam continues to release music that reaches exactly who needs to hear it. From “forever undefined” to “Fear and doubt are my closest friends,” his forthright lyrics strike a chord, prompting people to see themselves in his own story. Besides initiating introspection, House on a Hill endears by pairing serious topics with danceable and/or foot-tap-worthy beats! He keeps things lively while saying the quiet parts out loud, things people might not even recall thinking until hearing someone vocalize those innermost thoughts. The visual components of the House on a Hill era also have more substance than what first appears. The music videos bookmark surreal scenes between mundane ones. A relatively banal banquet in “Don’t Leave Yet” becomes a madcap evening, and a subway ride in “Only for a Moment” starts and ends as if the mid-video horror movie sequence was all in his head! While it would be nice if the clarity of Eric’s lyrics extended to the clarity of his videos’ meanings, the room for interpretation perhaps sends a stronger message than a straightforward one ever could. Aren’t Eric’s videos just like life is, a series of monotonous days interspersed with surprises that in hindsight feel like fever dreams?! And isn’t it just life to never fully learn why strange things unfold in the ways they do?!
#4: D.O., Expectation
Expectation is simultaneously a breezy delight to listen to and a substantive reflection. D.O. is a natural crooner, with a voice perfectly suited for K-drama-style romance stories. He makes the melancholy and the mundane sound as melodic as his assessment of a relationship’s rockier chapters, ensuring a smooth-as-silk transition from song to song.
D.O.’s story begins with a flexible wish: somebody to love. He celebrates finding one and compares the relationship to the fictional ones he wishes to emulate in “Wonder,” and he furthers the theme of manifesting his ideals into existence in “I Do” (“Seems all I did was imagine and it came to life”). The album’s tension reaches its apex in “Lost,” as D.O. scrambles to find a sense of direction after losing his other half, his north star. “It’s a harsh, common reality,” D.O. admits of break-ups.
The second half of the album embodies D.O.’s state of mind, one that is stuck replaying old memories of the romance’s most too-good-to-be-true moments. He contemplates what could have been had the “short story” ended differently in “Ordinary Days,” an acoustic ballad about life losing its thrill. The tedium of D.O.’s now-lonely days remains in “The View,” in which he sings about missing his former loved one and being unable to move on. “Lost” concludes the album, an acoustic refrain that reiterates D.O.’s wistfulness.
Expectation revels in a relationship’s honeymoon phase before “Lost” and stays in a state of feeling stuck after “Lost.” D.O.’s romantic story stays down-to-earth and direct, traits present in this album’s corresponding videos too. He tells a charming but realistic love story in straightforward, effective ways.
#3: The Rose, DUAL
Naturally, this album showcases The Rose’s duality! But rather than take the predictable route of going from “Dawn” to “Dusk,” this album takes that route and then a second one. Both the first half and second half of DUAL start with a scene-setting instrumental (“Dawn” and then “Dusk”) that leads into a soft song (“You’re Beautiful” after “Dawn” and “Angel” after “Dusk”). Then comes an emotional outburst: In the first half, they sing about someone who makes them sick on indie-rock “Nauseous,” and in the second half, they sing about a mentally dark place in “Eclipse.” The mood then swings upwards for the rest of that album’s half (in the first half, “Back To Me” is followed by the more pop-leaning “Lifeline;” in the second half, “Alive” is followed by the more pop-leaning “Cosmo” and “Wonder”). DUAL feels like listening to two albums in one, and compounding its multitudes are mid-song lyric switch-ups. For example, in “Eclipse,” they go from saying, “Deep inside my broken mind / I am haunted by the things I find” to “Deep inside my complex mind / I am pleasant by the things I find” (emphasis added). And in “Wonder,” they go from saying “I wonder” to “We wonder,” concluding the album with an invitation to greet the sun alongside them when it inevitably rises another day.
#2: V, Layover
V proves to be an A-plus student of jazz and classical music! He takes an alternative approach to both genres, keeps a firm commitment to throwback aesthetics, and adds personal touches to his music videos, making this release a trip through the decades. The most summative descriptor of Layover is “timeless.” V blurs auditory and stylistic timelines, making trends all his own and creating a soundscape and visual realm that is confined yet creative and curious. The album title further vouches for the release’s timelessness. A layover can evoke all sorts of feelings: nerves, fear, anticipation, disappointment… It also represents a point between destinations, neither where one started nor where one plans on landing. This metaphor is eternally relevant, broadly applicable, and yet perfectly timed for V himself to use, as he gets his solo music career going. V contemplates what his solo future holds, and he does so in ways that are both stuck in the past and tied to the here and now.
#1: KIMSEJEONG, Door
Stay tuned for a separate write-up about this great album!
To learn more about these picks and find out who got honorable mentions, check out this episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!
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