The Best Korean and Japanese Releases of October 2021
For more on this countdown and to find out which new releases get honorable mentions, listen to the corresponding episode of 17 Carat K-Pop, linked to at the bottom of this article!
#20: bugAboo, bugAboo
This song makes for a strong debut. It grabs attention instantly with the sounds of the Wild Wild West, and it holds that attention as it switches to a thrumming bass. The focus then turns to trumpets and saxophones in the high-energy choruses. All the while, bugAboo encounter a myriad of oddities, including ghosts, multi-colored jellyfish, and a bicycle that falls from the sky! As random as this sounds, there is something commendable about artists who are not overly concerned with solidifying a singular musical image. bugAboo are giving themselves time to explore a variety of themes, sonically and visually. With this single, viewers and listeners may not gain a strong sense of who bugAboo are, but they do get their curiosity piqued. There is just something incredibly likable about this group, their memorable sound, and their quirky misadventures! The “bugAboo” music video is bursting with eye-popping visuals, the song is cute and catchy, and this release overall makes bugAboo worthy of a place on K-pop fans’ radar.
#19: OWV, Chaser
As mentioned in a previous write-up, OWV is the perfect boy band for K-pop fans to check out who would like to give J-pop a chance but don’t know where to start. Every song on Chaser could easily be a title track for a K-pop group, winning music shows and becoming a favorite of fans. The boys take turns rapping and singing across dynamic instrumentals that range from celebratory to tropical to dramatic. The tracklist order perfects this variety pack: “Question” allows OWV to let out their emotions before feeling ready to “Party” and to then end the album on a more chill note, with “Fifth Season.”
#18: TWICE, “The Feels”
“The Feels” is an adorable song sung in adorable voices and danced to in an adorable music video! The music video turns on the charm right away, showing TWICE in a pink, larger-than-life closet, debating what to wear to the prom. They then dance the night away at prom wearing contagious smiles and a pastel rainbow of dresses. Whether intentional or not, “The Feels” is extra special for its nods to previous TWICE eras. TWICE put a fresh spin on the wardrobe from the “What is Love?” era, update the plaid looks from the “YES or YES” era, and add tons of sparkles to the outfits that are straight out of the “CHEER UP” era. “The Feels” is a showstopper of a single, and TWICE perform it in a way that is electrifying for fans old and new.
#17: Egoist, “BANG!!!”
“BANG!!!” is what EDM would sound like if played in a haunted house or during the rising action in a scary movie! It bounces between delivering its message in a hushed tone and a loud one. Its chaotic energy is actually its strong suit. This is a one-of-a-kind song on which drums, flutes, pianos, and various sound effects merge continuously and at a breakneck pace. This thrill ride of a song is both movie soundtrack-ready and an impeccable example of how to put a new twist on electronic pop.
#16: DreamNote, Dreams Alive
DreamNote have not had a comeback in nearly two years, but this comeback proves to have been worth the wait. They have a new and improved look and sound, and this transition into a darker concept appears effortless. Playing the role of witches in the “GHOST” music video, the girls let out evil laughs, cause objects to levitate, and walk through a magical palace like they own the place. The dance routine that takes place during the chorus is performed in front of an A Nightmare on Elm Street reference, and the post-chorus features nervous, hushed whispers, as if the girls are reciting an incantation. Additionally, what makes “GHOST” so memorable is the howling that sounds implausibly musical and catchy. Dreams Alive is a spellbinding comeback, and this group’s underrated status is proven by the delightfully spooky “GHOST” music video.
#15: BLITZERS, SEAT-BELT
BLITZERS are endearing as they try to figure out how to fly in the music video for “Will Make a Mistake.” They try using a cannon and homemade wings before deciding to build a giant flying machine. Teamwork makes the dream work, and the members successfully fly through the sky. “The sky’s the limit!” they sing as they literally surpass the limits of the sky, entering outer space! Phrases like that are sprinkled throughout the song, sending a message about dreaming big and taking chances. “Prediction’s a miscalculation,” they assert. It’s a motivating song told from the perspective of an inner child, with an unmatched and pure hope. The album has its more mature, emotional moments too, like on “Love Bottle,” but it mainly projects optimism and adventure. After all, the album is called SEAT-BELT, and it begins with the voice of a pilot captain speaking! BLITZERS invite listeners to join them on grand adventures, and SEAT-BELT makes the audience glad to go along for the ride.
#14: aespa, Savage
aespa have a commanding presence, immersing themselves into the metaverse for “Savage.” Their new music video adds to the storyline that began in previous videos: now that the members have met their avatars, it is time to team up with them to combat a shared enemy. The song is a fitting soundtrack to aespa’s process of constructing and carrying out the next step of their mission in a parallel world.
The metaverse concept is not just what their new music video is all about; the concept is brought into the “real world” with the use of AR technology. Certain physical copies of Savage come with a QR code that unlocks access to virtual adventures. This is what both the metaverse overall and aespa specifically are all about: turning passive audiences into active participants. Fans can become a part of the story, along the way reassessing what they perceive as “real” or not. It is an intriguing concept that not every artist can pull off, but aespa manage to by never breaking character in their music video. They are committed to their roles in this new universe and invite audiences to experience that universe alongside them.
The album’s B-sides allow fans to learn more about who the members are outside of their virtual world. “Lucid Dream” tells a sad story about past love, “I’ll Make You Cry” expresses feelings of vengefulness, and “YEPPI YEPPI” shows their more joyful side. However, another B-side emphasizes who aespa are in the digital realm: “aenergy” sets the scene, describing what superpowers each member adds to their skillset. If the audience is left confused as to when aespa are truly themselves and when they are reverting back to their alter egos’ personalities, they can at least be assured that aespa are just as confused as they are! Their complex storyline continues to be a curious and thought-provoking journey, and both watching and helping it unfold continue to be rewarding experiences.
#13: PIXY, Fairyforest : Temptation
PIXY continue to have comebacks with a gothic princess look that is unique, not derivative. This group shows off its unique color through impressive choreography and cinematic music videos. The new video for “Addicted” plays like a scary movie trailer, with clips shown in rapid succession of fire, chains, blood, breaking glass, more blood, lightning…
The sense of danger remains in the video for “Bewitched,” where PIXY perform complex choreography in the darkness and, later on, while surrounded by flames. The lyrics are similar to those in “Addicted,” describing a gravitational pull towards someone that is irresistible and intoxicating. Some other songs on this album include a haunting introduction, “End of the forest,” and a touching ballad, “Still with me (To.Winxy),” which is dedicated to PIXY’s fans. Overall, this is another strong and distinguishable release from PIXY that makes room to showcase both their edgier and softer sides.
#12: LEE JIN HYUK, Ctrl+V
Read my thoughts on his new album and music video below!
#11: DUSTCELL, 自白 (Confession)
This album is an extended adrenaline rush, taking listeners on a roller coaster of sounds. Each song contains depth, an unexpected structure, and a high energy level. The arguably most DUSTCELL song on the album is “Blaze.” Vocals take a backseat in the choruses, but they return to being a focal point in other moments. The back-and-forth exchange is par for the course throughout Confession. The music constantly quickens or slows its pace, a zigzagging that is somehow exhilarating instead of irritating. Confession may take several listens to truly appreciate, but when that appreciation kicks in, admiration for the album’s multiple dimensions becomes inescapable.
#10: CNBLUE, WANTED
This comeback accomplishes several feats. First of all, the whistles and “la la la” lyrics make “Love Cut” instantly catchy. Secondly, WANTED’s guitar-centered tracks bring to mind past CNBLUE releases and remind fans of the full extent to which CNBLUE have been missed. Third of all, in the video for “Love Cut,” CNBLUE take the cowboy concept that has been popular in recent years and make it their own. In a saloon in the Wild Wild West, the members cross paths with the woman they quickly realize is the person on the nearby “WANTED” poster. After getting trapped and tied up by the wanted woman, in quite the plot twist, the shadow of a hand holding a knife is revealed to actually be one of the member’s hands holding a pair of scissors. They free themselves by literally and symbolically cutting the threads that tie them to a toxic relationship. As serious as this sounds, viewers ought to watch until the very end, when they lighten things up for a blooper reel of sorts during the end credits!
#9: Epik High (ft. GIRIBOY, Sik-K, and JUSTHIS), “Face ID”
Epik High’s return calls for a celebration, and they make sure to act and dress for the occasion. Tablo dons a party-ready, massive hat as the members perform among CGI monsters, aliens, and other over-the-top props and images. The video is a treat that is made all the more fun when paired with this new song, which alters its speed to accommodate the style of each artist. Each verse is given an individual flair for the band member or collaborator who delivers it. As much as fans are excited to see Epik High back in action, the group continues to voluntarily give other artists a spotlight too. Going along with this theme of showing true support for someone, “Face ID” criticizes today’s social media use. In just a few minutes, and while viewers are caught with their guard down, watching goofy antics on screen, the members preach about the need to find authentic connections offline and bring attention to the ways social media emboldens people’s worst instincts. If Epik High can make a lecture this fun and full of wisdom in the length of just one song, it is exciting to think about the potential Epik High Is Here, Pt. 2 has!
#8: Ailee, AMY
The influence of swing music that is present throughout AMY provides ample opportunities to remember how powerful and captivating Ailee’s voice is. The jazzy style of these songs is the perfect fit for her voice, and the way she unapologetically belts out her feelings matches the attitude of her new music video, too. In the video for “Don’t Teach Me,” Ailee attends a masquerade ball. She keeps the crowd at rapt attention and puts a fun, empowering twist on what at first resembles a classic Cinderella story. Ailee carries herself with grace and confidence, and at no point does she let someone else look like the protagonist in her story. On “Don’t Teach Me,” she sings about not falling for a former lover’s lies anymore, and this sense of independence and autonomy permeates the rest of the album as well.
#7: JEON SOMI, XOXO
The standout song on XOXO is “Anymore,” where SOMI shows off a side to her voice that has not been on display before, and the guitar-led instrumental is also somewhat new for her. The ironic “beautiful nightmare” she sings about is aligned with the contrast between her last single, “DUMB DUMB,” and her new single, “XOXO.” “XOXO” replaces SOMI’s previously lovestruck state with one of envy and anger, and the cheerful, whistle-based tune in “DUMB DUMB” is swapped for trap beats and a darker emotional tone.
Although SOMI does experiment with her sound more than ever on XOXO, she is still classic JEON SOMI. Her audacious self steals the show in the “XOXO” music video, where she carries out an elaborate revenge plot on a cheating ex. Her hijinks end ambiguously, emphasizing how there is still so much more to see from JEON SOMI. Her growth, range, and bold personality present themselves more clearly than ever on XOXO and indicate her promising future as a musician.
#6: ENHYPEN, DIMENSION : DILEMMA
Story-wise, ENHYPEN continue on the path they have been going down for a while, but sonically, they take brand new routes. The band explores “new wave” sounds on “Tamed-Dashed,” goes for a more punk sound on “Blockbuster,” and dabbles in electro-funk on “Upper Side Dreamin’.” “Go Big or Go Home” is another remarkable track and is perfect for the dance floor. Every song on DIMENSION : DILEMMA is worthy of being a title track, and the album has the classic ENHYPEN feel of a carnival. By both picking up their story where they left off and trying new things in their music, DIMENSION : DILEMMA is full of both predictable and surprising forms of entertainment that never lose their shine.
#5: WOODZ, Only Lovers Left
Only Lovers Left might be WOODZ’s best release yet, weaving together tracks that each take on a life of their own and reveal a different layer to the vulnerability and pain in his story. “Waiting” is perhaps the best song of WOODZ’s career yet, with excellent production and pure vocal prowess. His voice neither overpowers nor underperforms alongside the instrumental; his inflection fits the speed of the song with perfect timing. Vice versa is also true: the instrumental compliments his voice, adapting to each moment to indicate heightened or lowered intensity. The instrumentals on the B-sides also match the tone and speed of his voice, creating a clear, specific mood for each song. Only Lovers Left is a rumination on multiple levels, and given the fact “Waiting” is reserved for the album’s conclusion, there are clearly more layers to unravel in WOODZ's story. WOODZ is the best when at his most open and honest, and his increased transparency pays off here, heightening the anticipation for his future releases.
#4: luz, Faith
In today’s singles-driven music ecosystem, every opportunity to immerse oneself in a cohesive, full-length album is refreshing. luz delivers this experience, with a rich and refreshing body of work that tells gothic horror stories. Faith is a spooky theater performance in audio form, only interrupting its fast-paced action for sounds like phones ringing, glass breaking, and people screaming. These moments are spread out and not overdone, ensuring they add to the story rather than make it annoying. Just as listeners process an interruption, their focus is redirected to the frantic orchestra. This thrilling album leaves listeners in suspense, bobbing and weaving through haunting instrumentals with unpredictable pivots. The final musical numbers go in a more somber direction, and “Despair” delivers a big finish, voices echoing as if sung by a live church choir. Faith is an enchanting theatrical performance worthy of a standing ovation.
#3: Chanmina, Harenchi
As usual, Chanmina dazzles in each of her music videos, channeling an array of personas. Flutes provide the soundtrack to her time as a queen, ordering her suitors around, in the video for “Picky.” In other scenes, Alice in Wonderland-style, she grows to surpass the size of a house and starts to wear it like a dress, terrifying the men still stuck inside of it.
Similarly bizarre antics ensue in the video for “Voice Memo No. 5.” Chanmina attends a group therapy session where all the other participants are literal clowns. They eventually persuade Chanmina to join them in donning an eccentric look and dancing like nobody's watching.
Then there is the video for “Angel,” which shows an intimate dance between lovers.
This versatility persists on Harenchi’s B-sides. Some standout tracks include the light and tropical “Morning mood,” the hip-hop/rap song “Period,” and the fierce “^_^,” which is driven by a bass and whistles.
Chanmina shows range through her vocal delivery as well. She switches from rapping to singing and back again, sometimes letting the music take the lead and other times letting her voice be the focus. Some songs are fast-paced and have a stream-of-consciousness-style, breathless delivery. Other songs are the opposite, sounding as if Chanmina is choosing each sentence carefully and wishes to linger on each one after saying it. Listening to this album is time that flies by, thanks to its smorgasbord of sounds, mixture of speeds, and vocal delivery that leaves listeners hanging on to every word.
#2: NCT 127, Favorite
Read my Favorite album review below, and listen to my podcast episode about Favorite here!
#1: SEVENTEEN, Attacca
Read my Attacca album review below, and listen to my podcast episode about Attacca here!
Click below for a playlist of the songs referenced here, and click here to for the corresponding podcast episode!