The 100 Best Albums of 2023
A ranking and review of the year’s best albums released by Korean, Japanese, and Chinese artists!
Note: Some of these albums were reviewed previously in this newsletter, hence the ellipses, quotation marks, and “Read more here!” links.
Please also note that a release had to include at least three songs to be considered an album, and albums and EPs/mini-albums were treated as equal contenders.
#100: Shota Shimizu, Insomnia
Shota Shimizu is a prime example of an artist who uses autotune because he wants to and not because he needs it. He makes the case for electronifying vocals and does so generously in some of the album’s best songs, like “Loser,” “Fallin,” “Insomnia,” and “Memories.” Between those songs are ones that show off his true vocal talent in distinct ways. “Baby I love you so” co-stars a saxophone and choir, and “Moonlight” and “SUMMER” are mellow mood-boosters that still give higher-register notes their due. Sprinkled throughout Shota Shimizu’s experiments with instrumentals, both electronic and otherwise, are relatively stripped ballads that add lyrical density. Overall, Shota Shimizu impresses with the array of ways he proves to be a natural at expressing himself.
#99: Reina Washio, For My Dear
This album can most succinctly be described as earnest, understated pop. Reina Washio’s ode to a loved one is delivered neither with a whimper nor a bang; the soul of the album is felt in subtler ways. Relatively subdued, mid-tempo pop songs sit next to layered ballads. The melodic mixtures veer in a digitized direction at times and a rawer one at others, but steady percussion, go-to guitar notes, and other sonic choices keep the tone cohesive. “Say No” is the perfect example of Washio’s distinct type of J-pop, which has classic pop-song repetition combined with pensive tendencies. Washio reflects on a shade of gray between appreciating and fearing love’s power over her. She ruminates on various dimensions of love, always in ways that accentuate her distinct, delicate voice.
#98: Nerd Connection, Hard To Explain
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.).”
#97: SUPER★DRAGON, mirror
This group continues to astound with their sonic and performative range. They put unique twists on EDM songs (like “Revolution”), pop formulas (“Don’t Turn It Down,” “Pretty Girl”), jazzy mood-setters (“Honey Baby”), and so much more. They work their magic on any musical category. It is hard to pinpoint the most eccentric song, but a top contender is “Are U Ready?,” an explosive cornucopia of sounds.
#96: NCT 127, Ay-Yo
This album repackage proves its worth with busy, hip-hop-rooted additions that embody the group’s identity. They remain as entertaining as ever, piling on layers of instruments, sound effects, and vocals with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. Besides the experimentation, the new songs are Peak NCT in the ways they turn noises that would typically be annoying into catchy ones! They work their magic with sharp alarm sounds in “Ay-Yo,” softening the edges with galvanizing chants and smooth, flexible vocals. With “Skyscraper,” they again turn a mess into a melody and spit raps at an exhilarating speed. They give “DJ” their all too, but in a very different, more cheerful way. As is to be expected from them, they are not afraid to sound over-the-top, “feeling wonderful” loudly and proudly! Ay-Yo is NCT 127 in their unconventional wheelhouse!
#95: THE BOYZ, [BE AWAKE]
THE BOYZ provide two listening experiences in one release. One way to listen to this album is straightforward, just enjoying its mix of R&B, pop, dance, and even folk-rock influences. A second way to take in this album is by following its narrative arc. After THE BOYZ become “Awake” and recognize their crush on someone, they pursue that love throughout the rest of the album. They finally get to meet their crush in person in “Diamond Life,” the album’s conclusion. Read more here!
#94: Ayumi Hamasaki, Remember you
Remember you is filled with highs and lows, and fortunately, the highs are more frequent and intense than the lows! After a series of speedy dance-pop jams (“23rd Monster” being the standout for its spacial qualities), an instrumental interlude indicates the start of a slower chapter. The energy returns after that but slows down once again for a dramatic conclusion, “Just the way you are.” Remember you has just the right amounts of danceable and slower songs to keep the album entertaining and just the right amount of dramatic flourishes to make the emotional highs and lows memorable.
#93: TAEYEON, To. X
To. X is a compact yet complete breakup album. TAEYEON sounds beautiful in the guitar-focused opening songs, which blame an ex-lover for a relationship’s end. The finality and heaviness of this realization fully hit her in the ballad “All For Nothing.” But TAEYEON regains a bounce in her step in the conclusion, “Fabulous,” reminding herself that she might be single now, but she deserves better than her ex anyway! She also refuses to blame herself for a relationship’s downfall in the “To. X” video… TAEYEON’s resolve to rise from the ashes of a tragic chapter aligns with the head-held-high ethos of “Fabulous.”... To. X does not shy away from the most gut-wrenching aspects of a negative relationship, but it pays attention to the light at the end of the tunnel too… By the story’s end, TAEYEON can spread her wings and become the “butterfly” she has been all along. Read more here!
#92: KINGDOM, History Of Kingdom: Pt. VI. Mujin
As always, KINGDOM bring both drama and fun! A flute-led intro leads into “Dystopia,” movie-ready with its swelling strings and angsty delivery. They interrupt their own dramatic storytelling with lighthearted details, though, like “ma-ma-mine”s! The ascending structure and strings return for “Song of the Wind,” but songs like “Elements” make for lighter pop fare. When there are solemn moments in this album, more upbeat ones are not far behind, and vice versa.
#91: HWANG MIN HYUN, Truth or Lie
HWANG MIN HYUN has an ear for how vocals can best complement the instruments and tempo of the moment, a gift he flexes throughout Truth or Lie. Subverting expectations, a piano ballad, “Honest,” starts the album. His voice runs circles around the instrumentals for the guitar-backed “Crossword” and the piano-backed “Smile.” His sultry voice in “Perfect Type” and the addition of brassier elements in “CUBE” make them the most distinguishable B-sides. Despite these solid B-sides, “Hidden Side” proves its worthiness as the lead single, with its shimmy-worthy synths and an addictive post-chorus instrumental. Read more here!
#90: ASH ISLAND, ROSE
This album oscillates between self-hype and post-breakup pain. In between these opposites lies a deep well of emotions that ASH ISLAND mines through without sacrificing his signature delivery, and while taking breaks for songs that are not so deep. He tempers his usual bravado with confessional lyrics, but he still knows how to have fun! ROSE shows ASH ISLAND’s discography’s natural outgrowth in both style and substance. Read more here!
#89: 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!
#88: Hua Chenyu, 希忘Hope
Fortunately, Hua Chenyu’s new songs are in his dependable style; he flourishes with long, sweeping songs. The backup choir echoes him, becomes one with the percussion and guitars, and expands the songs’ emotion and power. This album would sound incredible with a live band and choir, especially if performed in tracklist order. The album starts out strong and keeps up its heavy momentum until the final track, which lightens things up and turns the audience into sing-along participants instead of tense observers. 希忘Hope is a journey and fittingly ends with a sign of, well, hope!
#87: 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.
#86: JO YURI, LOVE ALL
This comeback is all about duality. The main single from LOVE ALL, “TAXI,” lets JO YURI show off her bright and bubbly side. She dances through the city and sings cheerfully about first love. On the B-sides, JO YURI becomes solemn and contemplative. She sings about her relationship turning sour in “Lemon Black Tea,” “Bitter Taste,” and “Hang On.” “Bruise” is the right call for a strong conclusion, a breakup ballad that packs a massive emotional punch. JO YURI gives audiences a view of her happiest and gloomiest sides, proving her readiness to deliver high-quality songs and performances in the future that can avoid tedium.
#85: BSS, SECOND WIND
SECOND WIND is a curated playlist of mood-boosters for each part of the day. “Fighting” gives listeners a caffeine-like jolt, with its celebratory sound and encouraging lyrics for handling hectic mornings… They encourage listeners to stay optimistic about the day’s potential, because, as featured artist Lee Young Ji raps, even if a day starts with “playing this crumpled life like… Some down-on-his-luck Beethoven,” there are still “more pages left to play”! “LUNCH” is a sweet R&B pop song about making time for a midday break to reconnect with a loved one. “7PM” is a mellow soundtrack for recharging after enduring the daily grind, with lyrics that push for a moonlit dance by the Han River. The final line of both “7PM” and the mini-album is “be here with me,” which perfectly summarizes the story. BSS are ready to be the happy energy boost people need in their lives, reminding them everyone is in this together. Read more here!
#84: AB6IX, THE FUTURE IS OURS: LOST
While AB6IX change up their visual storytelling, they stay in their classic wheelhouse sonically, which is very much appreciated! Their distinctive singing and rapping breeze through synth-pop tracks that maintain a playful energy. They stay true to their sound, although they show a natural maturing through more abstract lyricism. They pair the upbeat instrumental of “LOSER” with lyrics about profound loss and emptiness, and they nod to an older song, “Sucker for your love,” in the lyrics to “SUCKER,” a sign that they are still not over the breakup previously discussed. This album is not about having moved on from past pain. Rather, it is about the persisting struggle to endure it, and the ironically cheerful instrumentals keep the audience receptive to that message. Read more here!
#83: NCT DOJAEJUNG, Perfume
NCT DOJAEJUNG’s debut is centered around the theme of perfume, so the marketing concept and dance moves that mimic putting on fragrances write themselves! The effortlessness of the promotional strategy matches the ease with which the members harmonize. They work smoothly together both vocally and while acting together in the corresponding videos. They do not have to stretch in order to encompass many topics while keeping the signature “scent” of this album intact. They refer back to the same motif for an array of situations, using perfume as a symbol of everything from sweet nostalgia for the days of being lucky in love to traces of past love that overstay their welcome. These three prove to make a great team capable of carrying out a clear concept with flying colors. Read more here!
#82: Jung Kook, GOLDEN
While it would be nice to hear more self-produced and self-written material from Jung Kook in the future, his ease at bringing the songs he’s given to the next level proves that day will be worth the wait! GOLDEN is a solid solo start, proving Jung Kook has what it takes to have Bieber-heyday-level popstar status, if not higher. He makes it seem easy to pull off smooth dance moves and belt out songs like his life depends on it! He effortlessly and piercingly sings ballads like “Hate You” but also masters an early-aughts swagger in songs like “3D.” The perfect finishing touch is “Standing Next to You,” a retro song that is made unforgettable because of Jung Kook’s talent and charisma. In short, Jung Kook proves he was born to shine!
#81: ODD EYE CIRCLE (ARTMS), ODD EYE CIRCLE <Version Up>
While it is bittersweet to see only part of LOONA releasing new music, ODD EYE CIRCLE show an exciting return to form. They maintain their musical color, defined by synth experimentation. The album has no throwaway songs, but particularly worth checking out are “My Secret Playlist,” for its interesting tempo shifts, and “Je Ne Sais Quoi,” for the bouncy beat and heavenly, unison choruses. ODD EYE CIRCLE effortlessly follow up one another’s solo lines without missing a beat; they thrive as a team by knowing what instrumentals best suit them and how to best complement one another’s solo moments. In short, ODD EYE CIRCLE make it obvious that they are not new to this.
#80: MAMAMOO+, ACT 1, SCENE 1
This MAMAMOO subunit uses theatrics to generate a spunk and sense of humor all their own. They move from setting to setting, as if filming a one-take movie scene, in “GGBB” (“Good Girl, Bad Boy”), while giving backhanded compliments like “you make me laugh, dummy,” and “You cute snake.” “Chico malo” dramatizes their regret in their past choice of lovers. Then, in “LLL,” they make up their minds to not let past bad relationships stop them from pursuing future ones. “LLL” stands for “Loved,” “Loving,” and “will Love;” they commit to keeping love in their pasts, present moments, and futures. MAMAMOO+ exaggerate the chip on their shoulders and then resolve to get over it, moving on in unforgettable ways!
#79: 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.
#78: 同理 Zunya, Grateful
When it comes to making a long album an attention-holding one, 同理 Zunya makes all the right moves. He oscillates between rapping and singing and between autotune-drenched songs and ones that let his pure vocal talent shine. He keeps mixing things up by breaking the album into segments with interlude “skits;” by choosing varied collaborations; and by adding unexpected finishing touches, ranging from the electric guitar’s reverb to surround-sound moments. The best song is “Vanished.”
#77: Cyndi Wang, BITE BACK
BITE BACK is roughly half ballads and half upbeat pop gems. Fans of the former will find “Insincere” particularly commendable, and fans of the latter need to hear the buoyant “Just break up.” BITE BACK is the best of both worlds, a nice balance between moments of levity and depth, and the instrumental variation also maintains interest. Strings, guitars, and pianos each get time to play separate starring roles in the ballads, and the up-tempo tracks switch up their paces and synth details just as often. Each song on BITE BACK stands apart from the others and comes together to make for a colorful variety pack.
#76: Jia, aka Meng Jia, JIALAND
Smartly, JIALAND starts and ends with its strongest points and keeps its lower tempos in the middle. “BXXXH,” the opener, and “KNOCKOUT,” the finale, are EDM bangers. The former incorporates rapping in a way that sounds the opposite of disjointed, and the latter incorporates traditional instruments with a similar seamlessness. Between these jams are “GOOD GOOD LOVE” and “ILLUSION,” both featuring Meng Jia’s alluring voice and a more laid-back mood. JIALAND is a fun soundtrack for both highlights of a weekend: a night out and a chill day afterwards! Read more here!
#75: So!YoON!, Episode1 : Love
Listening to Episode1 : Love feels like listening to a suspenseful audiobook. Layered rock and R&B instrumentals move at an unpredictable pace, making each song feel like a piece of a separate puzzle. The full picture, therefore, feels like something is missing, but that is the point. The unconventional soundscapes are interrupted by sketches that are purposefully unsettling. For example, “zone out; (skit)” is simply the sound of static. Rather than sweeping listeners into one nonstop dream, this album is more nightmare-esque, not letting listeners be lulled into a sense of security and dependability. By design, one never knows when the next jolt on this sonic roller coaster will come.
#74: Kwon Jin Ah, The Flag
The Flag is a lovely sampling of Kwon Jin Ah’s varied vocal strengths. Her beautiful voice backed by percussion, guitar, and strings lets “Nighttide” perfectly introduce the powerful lead single, “Raise Up The Flag.” “These days” provides falling action with wavy synths and an R&B style. “As I Dream” is a remarkable piano ballad, and she presents a lighter, airier delivery in the guitar-backed conclusion, “Butterfly.” The Flag rightfully keeps the focus on Kwon Jin Ah’s voice and has a tracklist order that follows a natural narrative arc.
#73: PINK FUN, Oh! My Oh! My
This C-pop girl group’s EP has plenty of treats for fans of K-pop girl groups! “Oh! My Oh! My” is for fans of STAYC’s “Bubble,” and “All About You” is for fans of Cherry Bullet’s “Love So Sweet.” “LoveMoji” and “Stay” slow things down while staying as sweet-sounding as ever, and “Afternoon Sea Breeze” provides a light, summer-ready energy boost. The group’s music is made even more smile-worthy with the “Oh! My Oh! My” music video. Between scenes where the members try wooing a crush are dance scenes including preppy outfits, lots of bubbles, a touch of magic, and a bright setting with the look of a Polly Pocket playset!
#72: 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 appeals with its pairing of 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… Read more here!
#71: MIRANI, The Drift
In The Drift, the joy is in the details. The sonic texture is continuously tweaked in ways that enhance instead of distract from each song’s impact. A distorted, autotune filter here, a pitch change there, a suddenly hushed delivery… MIRANI performs as if improvising while making careful choices. Her ear for detail is evident and gives each song an indecipherable quality, and the intrigue is compounded with punchy lyrics.
#70: JIHYO, ZONE
As written about in a TWICE concert review, JIHYO’s solo superstar potential became obvious well before this debut solo release. Her live rendition of “Nightmare” is a powerful marvel, and it proves to be just as top-tier as the studio version. While “Nightmare” is a step above the rest, JIHYO easily pulls off the other songs too, regardless of the genre and topic. She sings everything from dance-pop to R&B to Latin-inspired songs, and whether feeling solemn or sultry, vengeful or victorious, she always knows just how to channel the right mood for the moment. The impact of listening to these songs is therefore able to linger, just like the haunting “Nightmare” presence she sings about having in an ex-lover’s life!
#69: CHANMINA, Naked
This album is a testament to CHANMINA’s dexterity. Her range encompasses, just to name a few, autotuned rap (“RED”), punk-tinged pop (“Mirror”), and EDM-adjacent bangers (“Love Face”). The music videos that accompany the songs in this album further show her range… CHANMINA bares it all on this album, showing her vulnerable and take-charge sides in ways both visual and auditory. Read more here!
#68: TAEYANG, Down to Earth
In “Seed,” TAEYANG nods to eighties and nineties Korean pop with a piano ballad about wanting someone to be “the twilight in [his] somber night.” He pays another romantic tribute to a lover in the mid-tempo, seventies-funk-inspired “Inspiration.” The other B-sides are “Reason,” in which strings accompany an emotional apology for being a “silent sinner,” and “Nightfall,” which stresses his desire to return the favor and be a source of light for his loved one. Down to Earth is musically a look into TAEYANG’s past and thematically a look at the new seeds he is planting.
#67: 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 anchored in the here and now.
#66: KISS OF LIFE, Born to be XX
KISS OF LIFE have done an outstanding job telling a multidimensional story. The “Bad News” music video paints their characters as purely vindictive, but the “Nobody Knows” video adds thought-provoking context… This release has a lighter side to it too, though, and the album is filled with nineties R&B inspiration! Listeners might feel drawn to KISS OF LIFE for the smooth tunes, but they ought to stick around for the complex video premises. This girl group shows that delivering catchy, fun songs and messages with philosophical heft are not mutually exclusive! Read more here!
#65: xikers, HOUSE OF TRICKY : Doorbell Ringing
From start to finish, this rookie group’s debut album paints vivid pictures of a mysterious and engaging fictional universe. The story begins with “The TRICKY’s Secret,” a monologue explaining a strange force in the universe that “gave children abilities beyond what they could bear” and exploited their sense of being overwhelmed. The instrumental makes for the perfect scene-setter, with a thrilling EDM breakdown mixed with evil laughter. Throughout the rest of the album, the instrumentals continue channeling the necessary chaotic energy to bring the group’s adventures to life. Read more here!
#64: IVE, I’VE MINE
I’VE MINE is like three comebacks in one! Each of the EP’s singles shows a distinct side to IVE. “Either Way” is a slow song about what other people think of them, “Off The Record” is a pop song about what the members think of each other, and “Baddie” is a trap and bass-heavy song about what they think of themselves. The music videos are just as varied: “Either Way” focuses on dramatic close-ups, “Off The Record” is about a girls’ night in, and “Baddie” features the members making a scene while channeling feline alter egos! I’VE MINE’s singles are impressive for their through lines, too. While staying completely different stylistically, all three songs tackle the theme of validation, both internal and external, and all three videos incorporate elements of literal magic into the plots.
#63: Sakurazaka46, Shoninyokkyu (Special Edition)
“Shoninyokkyu” is a stellar title track with an exhilarating EDM/industrial instrumental. Its title, which translates to “Esteem Needs,” is what the music video and lyrics are all about: prioritizing one’s self-perception above others’ perceptions. The B-sides also assert a commitment to living life on their own terms and have dexterious instrumentals that prevent redundancy. The best songs are the weirdest ones, like “Don’t cut in line,” with its strange talking/rapping/singing blend, and “Sukimakazeyo,” an impactful finale with unique spacial qualities. This group practices what they preach about ignoring trends, and it more than pays off!
#62: Crush, wonderego
“Hmm-cheat” is the kind of pick-me-up that makes people stop what they’re doing to sing and shimmy along! Good vibes abound on the B-sides too, with songs like “Remember Me” and “EZPZ.” However, roughly twenty or thirty percent of the album is more solemn. More “ego”-focused than “wonder”-focused songs include “SHE,” “Harness,” and “Bad Habits.” wonderego shows that Crush is down for a good time more often than not, but he can also get deep in his feelings! wonderego is a musically comprehensive guide to Crush and remains entertaining throughout, sometimes because of his upbeat nature and sometimes because of his heavenly crooning.
#61: 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.
#60: KANGDANIEL, REALIEZ
REALIEZ is a thought-provoking reflection on the lies people tell, the potential for those lies to lead to sinful actions, and the question of who deserves redemption… REALIEZS’s rich storytelling allows for a myriad of interpretations, and its perpetual state of suspense has a fitting musical accompaniment in KANGDANIEL’s acting and singing talents. Read more here!
#59: KARD, ICKY
It is hard to put a finger on exactly what KARD’s image is, but they have one-of-a-kind material that fits them like a glove. They return to a moombahton sound for “ICKY,” an over-the-top title track with a bizarre video setting and unapologetic innuendos. “Without You” shows what makes this group stand out in a different way: They can go from rap-centered to vocal-centered formats in a snap. KARD save the most rapping for the B-sides, giving the singers and the rappers spotlights through different parts of this release. There is no competition, and what keeps KARD’s work unique is the treatment of everyone’s contributions as essential. Their songs commit to incorporating four different creative visions into the same release, a commendable feat.
#58: GIUK, Psycho Xybernetics : TURN OVER
GIUK gives his all to even the album’s intro, not wasting a second of his solo debut to tell a warp-speed, one-of-a-kind story in his own voice. After taking a “TIME MACHINE” to 2100, the mood drops as he reflects on a taxing 2020 in “UNBLOWN.” He regains some mojo in 2021 with “EGO,” 2050 with “LOVE VIRUS🖤,” and 2062 with “RARITY.” An autotuned rap and hip-hop focus center his experience in 2077 (“XYBERNETIC”). He ends in 2090, during an “APOCALYPSE,” at an appropriately spirited pace.
#57: LE SSERAFIM, UNFORGIVEN
LE SSERAFIM’s group image rings louder and clearer than ever. Their new songs spread messages of simultaneously being stronger together and feeling whole as individuals. They sing about deserving nothing but the best in songs like “Eve, Psyche & The Bluebeard’s wife” and being determined to reach individual goals in songs like “Fire in the belly.” But all the while, the emphasis is on “we”... LE SSERAFIM’s messages, told through everything from choruses to choreography, go beyond self-empowerment to encompass strength in numbers. Stressing sisterhood alongside autonomy shows they are not mutually exclusive goals and expands the variety of the songs’ applicable contexts. Read more here!
#56: EXO, EXIST
EXIST strikes nice balances between suggestive and overt lyrics; R&B/pop and synth-pop material, with other influences sprinkled throughout; and busier and less-busy instrumentals. Easy-listening songs like “Cream Soda” and “Love Fool” are between more alternative, funkier ones, like “Another Day” and “Regret It.” It was an interesting choice to make the pre-release singles from the former category only. Fans first got a clear understanding of EXO’s feelings through the straightforward and relatively simplistic “Hear Me Out” and “Let Me In.” Later, the comeback revealed more intricate instrumental impulses and more abstract lyrical tendencies. At first listen, EXIST seems less exciting than previous EXO eras, but there appears to be much more to these songs upon further listens. This is a classic EXO album, albeit in surprising ways.
#55: TRiDENT, Dream Up
This invigorating EP builds on itself, only getting more engaging as the listening experience continues. After rock songs about being an active participant in one’s own life and going “on the offensive” (in “KICKASS” and “Repaint”), the second half’s lyrics focus more on the bigger picture and feature more electronic twists. The rousing “endroll” advises listeners to cherish every moment like it’s their last, and “NEO FUTURE” encourages them to have faith that their far-from-shore boats will return to shore eventually. Overall, Dream Up goes from straightforward, present-focused rock songs to more metaphorical, future-focused, electronic songs. All the while, TRiDENT insist that people seize the day or regret it later!
#54: B.I, TO DIE FOR
TO DIE FOR tells multiple stories through multiple timelines. One way to take in B.I’s story is by following the tracklist order… A very different interpretation comes from reading the video titles as they correspond to the tracklist, instead of numerically… The story appears to play in reverse: Instead of experiencing and then embracing being in love, B.I rewinds and revisits the scary time before that love was in his life. Yet a third way to interpret this story is through watching the “episodes” in numerical order. Through that lens, the videos show B.I both mid-flashbacks and in the present day, fighting to keep the loved one from his past in his present. TO DIE FOR can be interpreted as the story of discovering how great love is, discovering how sad a lack or loss of love is, or a mix of the two through a flashback-riddled series of clips… Multiple routes are offered to reach the same endpoint: a realization of how essential love is in everyone’s lives. Read more here!
#53: KARDI, Inside Out
Inside Out is the soundtrack for an ominous party! Echoes and an evil laugh are just two of many twists that add extra personality to these pop/rock/rap concoctions. Rugged guitars and distorted vocals steal the show in songs like “AMOG,” while songs like “Skybound” utilize the potential of percussion to generate live-show-ready fervor. Both the rousing, one-of-a-kind head-bangers and power ballads are much more than those descriptors, and the subversion of genre expectations allows this album to linger in listeners’ minds.
#52: Dreamcatcher, [Apocalypse : From us]
Dreamcatcher take full advantage of the storytelling potential in their ongoing music video world-building and go-to album template. After “Intro : From us” reels audiences in, they maintain a commanding presence across pop-rock jams. The final track is the slow, guitar-backed “To. You,” but it fits with the other tracks because of the thick synth layer over their voices. It is lighter than the other tracks but shares the sensation of being trapped in something all-consuming. Read more here!
#51: BamBam, Sour & Sweet
Sour & Sweet is as personal as it is picturesque; the songs and the album preview video are both key to the story. This multi-sensory story starts with “Feather,” which represents BamBam’s uncertainty and fragile emotional state when he starts a new life in South Korea. The slow-paced song and black-and-white sky epitomize how empty and alone he feels. At this emotional low, BamBam comforts himself with “Take It Easy,” which plays as he takes the stage and starts to find his figurative and literal color with a monochrome look… Smooth city pop soundtracks his transformation from 2D back to 4D and from the dark woods to a vibrant atmosphere… Discontent remains while BamBam’s star shines brighter, and he dances alone while singing shyly in “Let’s Dance.” He appears disheveled while singing about public scrutiny in “about YOU,” and his continued insecurities are seen through the monochrome, loose-fitting outfit he wears during “TIPPY TOE.” However, the latter song is upbeat and flirty, and his new setting includes pops of color and gold framing around a mirror. BamBam is finally letting more of his true colors show and is no longer as afraid of what he sees in the mirror. He further gains courage in “Wings.” As he wears bright red while lying on top of white feathers (the inverse of the color scheme in “Sour & Sweet,” when he wears a white outer layer of clothes and a red inner layer), he sings about his hard-won contentment. Sour & Sweet paints a vivid and profound picture of BamBam’s journey.