The Best Albums of 2023 So Far, Part 4
A ranking and review of the 100 best albums of the year from K-pop, J-pop, and C-pop artists!
#25: TAEYONG, SHALALA
SHALALA demonstrates how TAEYONG is carving out a distinct visual and auditory niche for his solo work. His songs and videos are like the television adaptations of diary entries from different years and moments in his life. “Episode” topics include revisiting childhood memories with fresh eyes (“Back to the Past”), first love (“Move Mood Mode”), profound loss (“RUBY”), and a period of feeling misunderstood and isolated (“404 File Not Found”). TAEYONG creatively brings to life his highs and lows and adds silver linings to all his memories, having fun with hypotheticals. What keeps this release so fun and listenable are those “What if?” aspects… He asks himself, “Who was I?,” “Who am I?,” and “Who do I want to be?,” making SHALALA and its visual components feel like not just his diary brought to life, but his vision board too. Read more here!
#24: IVE, I’ve IVE
“ELEVEN” proves to have been just the tip of the iceberg for IVE; the group’s new songs are even more anthemic. The ascendant feel to “Blue Blood” and “I AM” leads into their catchy pre-released single, “Kitsch,” and then an exciting smorgasbord of sounds. The first three songs pique interest that is then sustained across feel-good jams (“Lips”), songs with unexpected layering choices (“Next Page,” “Heroine”), and a power ballad of sorts (“Shine With Me”). Read more here!
#23: 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 hits rewind 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!
#22: Stray Kids, THE SOUND
As always, Stray Kids sing and rap empowering, boisterous anthems between slower songs about persistent hardships. A huge chunk of their discography is about feeling ready to take on the world, but another huge chunk is about lingering doubts. In other words, their message remains “We can do it,” not “We have done it.” Their refreshing honesty about how facing obstacles is easier said than done keeps their songs authentic… The songs oscillate between pep talks and admissions that they fear getting close to people… But despite the worries that plague them, in the end, they commit to giving relationships a try. They end the album with the lyric “I’m still right there,” a comforting reminder that the pain that comes with any relationship does not necessarily warrant fearing and running away from it. Stray Kids’ message about needing each other to navigate the “broken world,” as they put it in “Lost Me,” remains as relevant as ever. Read more here!
#21: PURPLE KISS, Cabin Fever
One might expect an album about romance to start with songs about feeling lovesick and end with songs about either becoming lucky in love or realizing one did not need that love in the first place. Cabin Fever flips that narrative: It starts with the insistence that PURPLE KISS do not need a lover to feel whole, and the second part of the album gives rise to their doubts in that assertion. This suits the group’s music video characters, who are witches with a stone-cold, “I’m above human feelings” facade that remains through the first part of Cabin Fever. They sing about emerging “straight out of Hell” in “Intro : Save Me” and taking people under their spell in “Sweet Juice.” “T4ke” talks down to those who pursue them: “You are just a transitory fairytale;” “You need me;” “I will brutally show you a bad dream / To me, it’s just a heavy, sweet cream.” That song contrasts with an older PURPLE KISS song called “Cast pearls before swine.” They once sang about advising themselves to not waste time on people who don’t recognize their full value, and they now sing about actually taking that advice. They have stepped into their power: “Born to be queen… You can’t ever ruin me.” But the urge to conceal humanness, even from oneself, can only last so long, and their mask of apathy starts to slip while on “Autopilot.” The members are no longer in control and sing about feeling detached from their emotions. The following song (“agit,” meaning “hideout”) clarifies that they see this detachment in a negative light. The members’ self-imposed limitations on pursuing love - and the ensuing sense of “Cabin Fever” - further erode with the final track, “So Far So Good.” They sing about finally taking a chance on love; they give themselves permission to let their guard down. PURPLE KISS tell a fantastical yet very human story of building armor around oneself and gradually accepting the cracks it forms. Read more here!
#20: ATEEZ, THE WORLD EP.2 : OUTLAW
This album is buildup on top of buildup; it is all climax! ATEEZ’s raps burst out of them faster than ever, their pivots between deep-voiced moments and high notes are quicker than ever, and their instrumental layering is at its most uncompromising. No aspect of a song is treated as a bonus; each element unapologetically seizes a spotlight and shares the main stage! A myriad of moments while listening to this album provoke a visualization of the live experience, jumping and dancing along in a state of uninterrupted euphoria. ATEEZ make their un-self-consciousness contagious, keeping the listening experience a tremendous thrill! Rapidly spiraling synths start the show with a bang… Another particularly effective detail is the way words are repeated in “Wake Up,” like an incantation! That manifestation song feels impossible to ignore; it really is a rousing directive to “Wake Up,” because the sonic roller coaster is not slowing down anytime soon! Read more here!
#19: Rei Yasuda, Circle
Stirring vocal performances are paired with equally affecting visuals to make for profound proof of Rei Yasuda’s irreplaceability. Her raw delivery can strike a chord in even the coldest listeners. She sings not as if she has overcome the hardships about which she sings, but as if her emotions are still unhealed and unfolding. She represents her vulnerable state with mood-setting visuals: barren settings, thick smoke, the absence of most colors… Although the emotional draw of these songs is heightened with the corresponding videos, images come to mind through the listening experience alone. Listening to songs like “HOME THERAPY” and “us” triggers a sense of joviality, songs including “Not the End” and “blank sky” trigger despair, and songs including “each day each night” and “Sunday Morning” provide the chance to mellow out; they are a balm after feeling rawer wounds.
#18: 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.
#17: P1Harmony, HARMONY : ALL IN
HARMONY : ALL IN is both emblematic of P1Harmony’s group concept and a testament to each member’s solo star power. Each song strikes a balance between individual spotlights and time for them to shine as a unit. They ensure listeners get a chance to shine too, with lyrics akin to pep talks and vast potential for daydreaming about singing along to these songs live someday! P1Harmony’s genuine desire to hype both each other and the listeners up makes the listening experience a joyful and unifying one… HARMONY : ALL IN is an invitation to forget about one’s troubles for a quick and guilt-free dance party! Read more here!
#16: MONSTA X, REASON
REASON is more instant cannon in MONSTA X’s discography, mixing things up just enough to keep listeners hooked but guessing. It remains evident that the group takes a hands-on approach to writing and producing. From JOOHONEY’s ad libs to KIHYUN’s high notes, each member’s personal strengths get to shine and be flexed in new, irreplicable ways. The best songs: “Crescendo,” which melds drill music with traditional Korean instruments, the vivid “LONE RANGER,” and “Beautiful Liar,” which takes listeners on an exhilarating ride and gives HYUNGWON’s voice a bigger-than-expected spotlight. Read more here!
#15: WOODZ, OO-LI
WOODZ sings about growing like a phoenix out of ashes. After craving a “Deep Deep Sleep” to distract himself from the problems that are “Drowning” him, a realization hits him. In “Busted,” he sings about figuring out the source of his pain is a lack of reciprocation. His emotional effort is unmatched, wearing him down and making him reach his wit’s end. He calls it quits with accepting an unfair share of emotional investment and decides he is “Ready to Fight” to be given what he deserves. What’s gotten into him? “Who Knows”?! But he goes from feeling undeserving of even one person’s comfort to a “take me as I am” attitude. He goes from despondent to defiant, feeling strong enough to carry himself with dignity and determination. Read more here!
#14: Marz23, Not So Far Away
Not So Far Away tells a turbulent and full story through unpredictable mixtures of punk-pop, rap, hip-hop, and rock. The album’s gloom is driven by self-loathing, bitterness, and regret, feelings brought to life through the album's skits and instrumentals. However, to say listening to this album is a downer is reductive… repeated reminders that the rainbow will emerge after the storm ensure the story is not nihilistic. Marz23 visually and sonically covers inner struggles, but alongside them is a persistent resolve to push through them… Read more here!
#13: JOOHONEY, LIGHTS
LIGHTS is a moving full-circle moment for JOOHONEY, encapsulating his emotional transformation from darkness to not pure bliss but genuine contentment. LIGHTS exudes authenticity for not being an “Everything’s okay now!” story, but an “Everything will be okay” and “You can do hard things” one. LIGHTS doesn’t have all the answers, but it has something better: a reminder that the keys to handle life’s biggest obstacles are already within oneself. Read more here!
#12: TWICE, READY TO BE
READY TO BE is one catchy, danceable track after another. The first in this set of polished pop songs is “SET ME FREE,” a shining example of TWICE’s subversion of expectations in how they apply the concept of empowerment. What on its face appears to be a song about getting out of a relationship and telling a lover to set them free is actually about telling themselves “Set me free!” to throw away their self-doubts! TWICE enjoy being in love but do not need it to feel whole. Their relationships stay on their own terms, as they decide when a relationship is worth pursuing still (“MOONLIGHT SUNRISE”) and when it has run its course (“CRAZY STUPID LOVE”). TWICE emphasize how wanting to be in love and wanting autonomy are not mutually exclusive; their definition of “empowerment” lies not in abandoning cute and flirty songs, but in doing them in a take-charge way. Their own happiness and sense of worth are non-negotiable, and that is what makes a truly empowering anthem.
#11: Epik High, Strawberry
Epik High have an enviable way with words. They say so much with so little, like in “On My Way”: “Paid the price, but I gave it all for free”... The group makes clear that haters and doubters are not forgiven, and Epik High will persevere not just despite them but to spite them. They embrace defiance over defeatism. They commit to being the bigger person with songs like “Catch”: they believe their “villain arc” is justified, but they later admit to still having the capacity for openness and compassion by saying “Just call, and you know I”m on my way.” Strawberry addresses resentment and resolve, lightening things up along the way with zingers like “My MBTI is IDGAF.” It would not be an Epik High album without quips like this sprinkled throughout the deeper commentary! Strawberry tells a three-dimensional story with the insight and wit for which Epik High are rightfully known. Read more here!
#10: ØZI, ADICA
Fans of DPR IAN will love ØZI’s work. Although ADICA (aka “After Dark I Come Alive”) is different from DPR IAN’s music sonically, his visual stories are compelling for similar reasons… Literal zombie references and horror movie-esque visuals dramatize the person behind the persona. Ironically, the confessional songs ring truer thanks to these exaggerated visuals; they make the lyrics more memorable. Whether singing about his inner demons or painting a mental picture of literal “Zombies on the run,” ØZI confronts his insecurities and fears with a unique style of horror… ØZI’s lyrics demonstrate the push and pull that one’s inner demons can have, at times seeming like a source of safety and at times proving to be just a crutch. Read more here!
#9: BABYMETAL, THE OTHER ONE
THE OTHER ONE is BABYMETAL at the top of their game, weaving EDM strands into headbang-worthy rock songs with operatic finishing touches. Each song is an event, and the fullness within each song is just enough to not be overwhelming. Even the instrumental-only segments of songs stay riveting, with drums and guitars played at a breakneck pace. Standouts include the most J-pop-esque of the songs, “METALIZM,” and “Believing,” for its superior instrumental. Read more here!
#8: (G)I-DLE, I feel
“Queencard” is delightfully immodest, and the group has some of their most sensual songs yet in “All Night” and “Lucid.” However, other songs on I feel speak to lasting insecurities… The album ends with “Peter Pan” and an expression of guilt for not growing up faster. By returning to old subject matter, they reinforce the fact their journeys to self-love are not linear and have moments of stagnation… They use levity and nostalgia to send a message about learning their worth and then use lyrics as a reminder of coexisting self-doubt. Read more here!
#7: NCT DREAM, ISTJ
How many more ways can it be said that NCT have a special sonic formula all their own?! For the upteenth time, NCT DREAM apply that formula, bringing together an enormous amount of ingredients that should not work together but become deliciously diverse delights! Aside from one-of-a-kind, busy instrumentals, this is another classic NCT release thanks to its messages. NCT DREAM continue to sing about crushing on someone and wanting time with them to last forever. The new additions to their collection of metaphors for first love include ocean waves, being shaken up inside like a “Yogurt Shake,” and feeling like they’re in the “Wild West,” uncharted emotional territory! They also pick up where some past songs left off, returning to the topic of going for a walk with a crush in “Like We Just Met” and calling “Blue Wave” the sequel song to “Dive Into You.” NCT DREAM keep on finding new ways to mash sounds together with reckless abandon while sustaining their catchy elements, and that fearless, adventurous approach matches their youthful image.
#6: Jimin, FACE
FACE crystallizes the sensation of both having and fearing losing it all. The messiness within Jimin’s emotions stay top of mind with unmissable background noises: a muffled house party, an alarm going off, screaming fans, the sound of getting a glass of water, sighs… The purposeful inclusion of the soundtrack of Jimin’s daily life beyond the typical definition of a soundtrack gives each song an intimate feeling, like the audience is visiting the unfiltered, innermost recesses of Jimin’s memories… FACE paints nuanced pictures of private and public selves, the endless compromises between the two, and the intense but fruitless desire to make an emotional high permanent… FACE lays bare Jimin’s attempts to make sense of the messiness of life, and he impresses with how he distills that messiness into concise songs and eye-catching choreography. Read more here!
#5: Stray Kids, 5-STAR
Many of 5-STAR’s songs seem to foreshadow each other!... Stray Kids’ songs can be interpreted as engaging in a thrilling game with one another. Some songs are confirmed to be overt follow-ups to songs from past eras… and other songs follow each other’s leads with acronyms for titles… Some songs are thematically linked through a confident, cheeky demeanor, while others share deeper emotional contexts. Each Stray Kids song is worth appreciating both solo and as an essential piece of a full puzzle. Read more here!
#4: Agust D, D-DAY
D-DAY sends Agust D’s most timely and multifaceted message yet. He hits the nail on the head when it comes to the root causes of many social ills and finds clever ways to reveal the remedies for those root causes. D-DAY explores the reasons people are so quick to villainize each other, especially online, leading to the revelation that a truly free society is achieved through solidarity, patience, and centeredness, quite the opposite of what social media incentivizes… D-DAY digs deep to assess what is causing societal damage and how to reverse course, and the importance it places on solidarity, curiosity, and mindfulness are worth commending. Read more here!
#3: SEVENTEEN, FML
FML is like a look through one’s closet. Some outfits have been reworn countless times, while other pieces one might have no memory of owning. Through SEVENTEEN’s latest release, they give fans comforting lyrical and thematic familiarity while bringing to the forefront aspects of their soundscape and visual storytelling about which fans had never known. SEVENTEEN are shining brighter than ever and showing off more of what’s been inside them all along. FML is unsurprisingly catchy and unexpectedly take-charge, a testament to the group’s tremendous growth in ways both internal and external. Read more here!
#2: ENHYPEN, DARK BLOOD
Through Webtoon episodes, music videos, short films, song lyrics, and even album teaser images, ENHYPEN weave a multimedia tale that astounds in unexpected ways. They are not telling a generic story that intrigues for its vampire theme and “save the princess” narrative. The story runs much deeper than that, encompassing the following realizations and then some: they have more in common with their enemies than they think, true power does not come through material indulgences, and eternal life is no life at all if it lacks the inclusion of others.
With immortality comes the realization that one is isolated from society in ways that reveal themselves to be curses more often than blessings. ENHYPEN learn to keep their egos in check, because true power comes from fighting for a legacy bigger than personal ambitions. Read more here!
#1: TXT, The Name Chapter: TEMPTATION
The Name Chapter: TEMPTATION tells the story of one of TXT’s nights in Neverland. They start out feeling a natural high, the mood boost children get when their need for instant gratification is met. The first few songs and the “Sugar Rush Ride” music video are about these easygoing days that are to Peter Pan’s liking. But when the high wears off, so does the novelty. There is nothing beneath the surface in Neverland; it is actually a sad, broken place. It is a barren wasteland with dreams and futures unfulfilled, inhabitants who refuse to grow into new, better versions of themselves, and discarded sources of long-term satisfaction.
TXT know now that people cannot develop a perpetual sense of inner strength and an appreciation for sunnier times without weathering some storms. Peter Pan has prohibited them from experiencing those storms, so TXT learn that a true, long-lasting, and substantial escapism comes from confronting adulthood head-on and leaving Peter’s alleged miracle cures for their pain in the past. Read more here!
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Check out 2022’s Top 100 List here!