The Best K-Pop and J-Pop Releases of January 2021
This piece was previously published on 17caratkpop.weebly.com.
#20: AB6IX’s Releases
A jam-packed release schedule gives AB6IX the chance to shine their brightest, showing different sides of themselves. They add a Korean rap and Lee Daehwi’s instantly recognizable vocals to a remix of “Fallin’ (Adrenaline)” by Why Don't We, a departure from AB6IX’s typical synth-heavy sound. Also a departure for them: a softer, contemplative tone, taken in their latest single, “STAY YOUNG.” AB6IX is finding other ways to reinvent themselves this year as well. On SALUTE: A NEW HOPE,there is an alt-rock version of “SURREAL” and a disco version of “BLIND FOR LOVE.” Through their new collaboration, music video, and album, AB6IX proves that crafting a signature sound and adding unexpected detours on a group’s sonic journey are not mutually exclusive goals for which to strive.
#19: IZ*ONE, “D-D-DANCE” Single and Music Video
IZ*ONE managed to use details from previous K-pop music videos in brand newways. Dancing on a stage among the stars, IZ*ONE is surrounded by hourglasses, doorways, and other props seen in plenty of other music videos. Yet with a sound and a wardrobe that uniquely blend retro and modern elements, “D-D-DANCE” and its video are in a lane all their own.
#18: Little Glee Monster, GRADATION Compilation Album
With 49 tracks and their instantly iconic Pentatonix collaboration, Little Glee Monster presents their strongest argument yet as to why they deserve to shine. Doo-wop-inspired sounds are mixed with gorgeous harmonies and a standout sonic structure (the placement of a guitar riff in “Echo” is a particularly standout moment) throughout their catalog. Little Glee Monster’s songs carefully manage their momentum to remain unexpected and exciting contributions to a very distinct discography.
#17: IU, “Celebrity” Single and Music Video
As IU dons beautiful, prom-ready gowns and is surrounded by admirers, she sings lyrics with dark undertones. “Celebrity” reflects on fame and the imposter syndromethat can come with it. IU gives a pep talk to herself, reassuring herself that she deserves her accolades and attention, but her facial expressions give away the fact she cannot fully convince herself of that. This message is stressed when IU sings about a past release (she references being “not fully bloomed” when she writes love poems, a reference to her Love poem album and its single, “Blueming”) before switching gears to envision a hopeful future (she goes on to sing about how even in winter, flowers can find ways to bloom through cracks in the ground). “Celebrity” adds layers to the perceptions the public has about getting treated like a princess.
#16: HyunA, I’m Not Cool Album and Music Video
HyunA’s highly anticipatedcomeback does not disappoint. With a sassy attitude and Lisa Frank aesthetics, the “I’m Not Cool” video shows the HyunA fans know and love, back and better than ever. HyunA embraces a rainbow wardrobe, intricate hairstyles, loud makeup, and attention-getting dance moves in a clear message that she does not care about the labels thrown at her. HyunA provides a prime example of the joy that comes from embracing one’s inner weirdo!
#15: LiSA, “dawn” Single and Music Video
LiSA’s latest music video proves both why she is an impressive songstress and a style icon. Wearing a black minidress, purple hair, and dark lipstick, LiSA rocks out in front of a flaming archway. Just as the video starts to seem boring, a thought-provoking symbol enters the picture: a human-sized figure made of glass shards and a mirror in place of a face, whom LiSA directs her singing towards. Much is left to interpretation about what this means, which is part of the video’s appeal. With “dawn,” LiSA lives up to her reputation as a J-pop/rock icon who always leaves fans intrigued and eager to find out what directions her songs and videos will take next.
#14: Hayeon, “Walk Away” Single and Music Video
Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon’s little sister is ready to shine in her own right. In her first official comeback (she debuted with “Eyes on You” in 2020), Hayeon tells a unique story that is the epitome of the “quirky K-pop” sub-category. In a presumed mix of fairy tale references, Hayeon travels to a “guest house” and spends an afternoon with a giant dog. A man wearing the head of a dog mascot joins Hayeon to play in the snow, have a tea party of sorts, and sing a song while playing the piano. Many questions remain when the video ends, but perhaps that is by design. Viewers’ curiosity as to where the story goes from here is peaked, and the bizarre premise of the story is a way for Hayeon to start leaving her mark on the world of K-pop right away.
#13: TXT, STILL DREAMING Album and “Blue Hour (Japanese Version)” Music Video
Although STILL DREAMING mainly consists of Japanese versions of TXT’s previous releases, it is still a noteworthy addition to their discography. It serves as a reminder that TXT has a unique ability to inject magic and whimsy into any version of any track. “Blue Hour” is proven to be an enduring earworm, and in its new music video, the fun and energy remain as high as ever.
(Also worth noting: details in the “Blue Hour (Japanese Version)” music video further affirm the TXT Music Video Universe-related theories outlined in the TXT-dedicated episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!)
#12: (G)I-DLE, I burn Album and “HWAA” Music Video
With “HWAA,” (G)I-DLE continues to smartly lean into their strong suit: songs with a similar vibe to “HANN” and “LION.” (G)I-DLE continues to redefine themselves while simultaneously drawing on their musical strengths, making I burn feel like it does not derive from their previous releases so much as enhance the sense of identity that comes through them. The result is a cohesive collection of songs that would sound out-of-place if sung by any other act.
(G)I-DLE’s latest comeback is not just a treat for the ears. The “HWAA” music video is a visual delight, with a seemingly infinite pool from which to draw wardrobe, hair, and makeup inspiration.
#11: Solo Releases from Members of Stray Kids
It is a delight to watch I.N’s confidence blossom these days, an observation that is affirmed when watching the video for “Maknae On Top.” I.N shares the mic with some of his bandmates but eagerly holds onto the spotlight throughout the video. The Latin-influenced song is a testament to both how much I.N has come into his own as an artist and a subtle reminder that I.N remains a proud member of Stray Kids and a proud promoter of Stray Kids’ core message: embrace individuality.
HAN paves a musical path all his own as well, although he does so in an entirely different way. With lyrics about feeling lonely and out-of-place, HAN’s song “Alien” is a reminder that although Stray Kids are learning to be proud of how far they’ve come, they still struggle with insecurities when pondering where they still want to go and how they can get there.
#10: A.C.E, “Fav Boyz” Remix and Music Video
In addition to just being a catchy song, promoting a “Favorite Boys” remix is a great idea marketing-wise. To tide fans over until their next official comeback, A.C.E is essentially going on a second round of promotions for a fan-favorite track. By tapping frequent K-pop collaborator Steve Aoki and the rapper Thutmose, “Favorite Boys” feels new again. Add a new music video that departs from the aesthetics of the original, and this song getting so much attention in its several forms feels like anything but overkill.
#9: OWV, Ready Set Go Album and Music Video
The only issue to take with the Ready Set Go mini-album is its brevity: the three tracks on it leave listeners wanting much, much more. Still, OWV is laying the groundwork for an impressive, long-term expansion in terms of popularity and impact. By drawing on some of the structural elements of K-pop songs and filming music videos in settings reminiscent of K-pop videos (for example, a chandelier-filled mansion), OWV is poised to win over K-pop fans who desire a gradual introduction into the wonderful world of J-pop.
#8: Cherry Bullet, Cherry Rush Album and “Love So Sweet” Music Video
Aptly, Cherry Bullet finds their sweet spot with this comeback. These girls shine brightest when performing cute love songs in a Barbie Dreamhouse-esque setting. Cherry Bullet takes the energy and likeability from “Q&A” and kicks it up a notch with their new mini-album. Cherry Rush is full of addictive hooks and lyrics that are, well, so sweet.
#7: BAEKHYUN, BAEKHYUN Album and “Get You Alone” Music Video
With gorgeous vocals that could make singing the phone book sound enthralling, BAEKHYUN takes basic instrumentals to new heights. In other words, when it comes to songs, BAEKHYUN turns the ordinary into the extraordinary.
BAEKHYUN adds his irreplaceable charm and charisma to the “Get You Alone” video as well. BAEKHYUN plays two roles at once: a confident talk show host and a timid, nervous viewer who calls into the show seeking dating advice. The premise is an adorable and original story that makes the charm of BAEKHYUN’s persona all the more obvious while listening to the album.
#6: BOBBY, LUCKY MAN Album and “U MAD” Music Video
Showing noticeable growth from his debut solo album, LOVE AND FALL, iKON’s BOBBY finds his musical sweet spot on LUCKY MAN. Leaning into a new, more industrial sound suits him well and perfectly matches the tone of his “U MAD” music video. The fast-paced, action-packed mini-movie brings home the message that BOBBY on his own is an artist worth paying attention to for years to come.
#5: U-KNOW, NOIR Album and Its Accompanying Music Videos
In a smart marketing move, U-KNOW promotes each song on this album as a title track, giving each song a short film to go with it. The addition of cinematic stories gives this album the feeling of watching a TV show, with each song serving as an episode in a binge-worthy season.
Aside from the catchy songs, the video content on its own deserves applause for its versatility. Whether a fan of comedy (namely “Loco (House Party)”), action (“Thank U”), romance (“La Rosa”), or animated films (“Need You Right Now”), there is a mini-movie for every taste.
#4: BAND-MAID, Unseen World Album and Its Accompanying Music Videos
Unseen World is not BAND-MAID’s debut release, but it can still serve as a great entry point for new fans. The album and its accompanying music videos embody the talent and intrigue that warrant this J-rock group’s appeal. On a spectrum with warm, youthful concepts on one end and intense, angst-ridden concepts on the other, BAND-MAID always finds a way to reside on both ends at once. Wearing frilly dresses and fancy hair accessories, the girls express rage over feeling controlled and a fierce desire to break free. While standing amid smoke and fire and standing on a car, they sing about discovering one’s inner light and letting it shine unapologetically. BAND-MAID contains multitudes that intrigue and impress. Come for the captivating videos, stay for the relatable feelings expressed alongside in-your-face instrumentals.
#3: DREAMCATCHER, [Dystopia: Road to Utopia] Album and “Odd Eye” Music Video
Stunning hair makeovers, a music video setting that is literally out-of-this-world, and a surprising ending make the “Odd Eye” music video a must-watch. As for the album, DREAMCATCHER leans into making the type of music they do best: pop-rock songs with pounding beats and one-of-a-kind vocals. DREAMCATCHER’s latest release has zero skip-worthy songs, and the video for its A-side earns its place in the DREAMCATCHER canon.
#2: Epik High, Epik High Is Here 上, Pt. 1 Album and “Rosario” Music Video
As elaborated on in the Epik High-dedicated episode of 17 Carat K-Pop, this trio is masterful at weaving together different narratives into stories that both carry emotional weight on their own and as parts of broader stories that continue throughout their albums and musical eras. A star-studded batch of collaborations mixed with Epik High’s signature contemplative lyrics combine to make this new release both classic Epik High and far from boring.
If listeners fail to be intrigued by Epik High’s storytelling, they must look up the lyrics and watch the music videos that accompany these songs. The band’s masterful way with words deserves listeners’ full attention; their music cannot be fully appreciated when consumed passively.
#1: NCT 127, “First Love” Single
If this single is a taste of what to expect from the band’s upcoming Japanese album, LOVEHOLIC, then listeners are certainly in for a treat on February 17th! This fresh and fun pop song conveys the feelings of euphoria and anticipation that come with being in love for the first time. By provoking these feelings in listeners, this song is a dose of joy and nostalgia in equal measures.
Save this playlist to hear the songs recommended in this article!