The Best Albums of 2023 So Far, Part 3
A ranking and review of the 100 best albums of the year from K-pop, J-pop, and C-pop artists!
#50: KARD, ICKY
This group impresses with the specificity of their creative vision. It is hard to put a finger on exactly what their 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 both the singers and rappers spotlights with different parts of this release. There is no competition, and what keeps KARD’s work unique is this treatment of everyone’s contributions as essential. Their songs commit to incorporating four different creative visions into the same release, a commendable feat.
#49: 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!
#48: iKON, TAKE OFF
TAKE OFF is a delightful summer party soundtrack and proves that classic iKON is back and better than ever! “U” and “Tantara” are great choices for singles; they overflow with authentic and contagious enthusiasm… The good times keep rolling with the album’s B-sides, although they do take party breaks for slower, more emotional numbers. The last few tracks feel like bonus tracks; they are sonically separate from the tracks before them but are welcome add-ons that let certain members shine solo. Read more here!
#47: 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” with a soundtrack that has an appropriately fast pace and punk spirit.
#46: SUPER★DRAGON, mirror
This group continues to astound with their sonic and performative range. They put unique twists on EDM influences (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.
#45: 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!
#44: KISS OF LIFE, KISS OF LIFE
Through pre-debut solo tracks and music videos, one by one, audiences met the members of KISS OF LIFE and got to know their different personalities and musical strengths. NATTY’s “Sugarcoat” video shows her dancing to a throwback R&B beat. BELLE’s video shows her turmoil over perfectionistic expectations and finds a fitting musical accompaniment in pop-rock. JULIE’s “Kitty Cat” is drenched in attitude that is emphasized by a deep bass and her “the world is my oyster” demeanor. HANEUL’s “Play Love Games” is the most down-the-middle pop offering and complements her video character’s flirty demeanor. The group-wide tracks further show sass and star power, the former emphasized in “Shhh” and the latter in “Bye My Neverland.” KISS OF LIFE is crowd-pleasing, versatile, and a strong introduction to a group in which each member proves to have an essential role.
#43: 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,” choosing varied collaborations, and adding unexpected finishing touches ranging from the electric guitar’s reverb to surround-sound moments. The catchiest song is “Vanished.”
#42: 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.
#41: 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 allow this album to linger in listeners’ minds.
#40: 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!
#39: EXO, EXIST
EXIST strikes nice balances between suggestive and overt lyrics, R&B/pop and synth-pop material (with other influences sprinkled throughout too), 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.
#38: 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!
#37: 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 amount of danceable songs to keep the album entertaining, just the right amount of slower songs to dispel notions of tedium, and just the right amount of dramatic flourishes to make the emotional highs and lows memorable.
#36: 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!
#35: TAEYANG, Down to Earth
In “Seed,” he 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. Read more here!
#34: 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.
#33: 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!
#32: 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 each song’s 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!
#31: Ryu Su Jeong, Archive of Emotions
Archive of Emotions is steeped in dissatisfaction, wistfulness, and the fear of abandonment, but it is listenable thanks to Ryu Su Jeong’s lovely, high-pitched voice that suits both these R&B/soul songs and their intriguing visual counterparts. Accompanying this album is a series of music videos, the most thought-provoking one being for “How can I get your Love.” What at first resembles a ring and string, like someone is throwing out a makeshift fishing pole to grab something, turns out to be an attachment to Ryu Su Jeong’s wind-up toy character. She sits amid a sea of teddy bears, many of them looking worse for wear. The brighter music videos carry the same solemn undercurrent: in “Grabby Girl,” she sings about feeling high-maintenance but presents herself as having the time of her life just by appreciating the natural world around her. In “Love or Hate,” a split screen shows her living out her happiest and least-desirable lives. B-sides address a “be careful what you wish for” mentality (“WRONG”), exasperation (“Pathetic Love”), and a desire to just follow a loved one around all day instead of going to work (“Fluffy Kitty”)! Lastly, “How Can I Get Your Love” shows Ryu Su Jeong’s desire to get that love while having a fear of jinxing it by saying it’s official. The eventual pain that follows a relationship weighs heavily on her mind, making her ways of expressing her crush heavier than expected, but perhaps also more accurate.
#30: G.E.M., Revelación
This C-pop artist’s first Spanish-language album is impressively immersive. It offers the perfect musical accompaniment for each situation of which it puts listeners right in the middle. Eerie echoes, the sound of rushing water, rattling noises, spooky piano-playing… it all adds up to a cinematic sensation. Even G.E.M.’s moments of silence are utilized to trigger a certain all-encompassing sensation: She pauses at unexpected moments, as if something has abruptly jolted her or redirected her attention. Another ominous surprise is her switch from drawn-out notes to breathless delivery. It sounds like her words cannot come out fast enough, and they spill over each other like she is issuing an urgent warning. Moments of silence and sonic richness alike keep listeners in an unsettling but moving trance, regardless of each song’s genre.
#29: NewJeans, Get Up
The qualities that keep people listening to NewJeans on repeat are numerous: the ASMR-type appeal to their relatively quiet voices, the way instrumentals never overpower their voices and have both repetition and movement, the primarily youthful and relatable lyrics… their demeanor has an appeal that cannot be given a singular explanation. The second a NewJeans song begins, listeners know it’s NewJeans, and Get Up reiterates that they’ve found a signature sound, always familiar but never derivative. NewJeans’ skyrocketing fame makes sense, given their mix of fluid and detail-oriented musical instincts and effective balancing of repetition with freshness.
#28: 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!
#27: Xdinary Heroes, Deadlock
The playful pop-rock “Freakin’ Bad” proves to be the perfect soundtrack to the music video’s jailbreak plot. Having fun and ignoring the rules stay the names of the game throughout the rest of the album, as they throw in one sonic curveball after another. Electric guitar riffs, humorous chants, whistles, racing percussion… they treat each song like they are making it up as they go! Xdinary Heroes prove once again to be relentlessly experimental and carefree. Read more here!
#26: KAI, Rover
Once again, KAI thrives with R&B and hip-hop material that lets him show off lots of dancing skills. He plays to his acting strengths too, thanks to each song on Rover corresponding to a scene in a short film, FILM : KAI… FILM : KAI muddies the waters between “Good KAI” and “Evil KAI,” a distinction that will surely stay up to interpretation for many musical eras to come. With Rover and FILM : KAI, KAI proves to be a multitalented and enigmatic entertainer. Read more here!
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Check out 2022’s Top 100 List here!