The Best New K-Pop and J-Pop: April 2021
This piece was originally published on 17caratkpop.weebly.com.
#20: AB6IX, MO’ COMPLETE: HAVE A DREAM
As always, AB6IX delivers a mix of electronic and pop sounds with breathy vocals that make for a cohesive sonic dreamscape. This comeback also deserves positive attention for its title track’s music video. From flashes of symbolic imagery on the screen to leaps through mirrors and doorways into different dimensions, AB6IX’s intriguing world-building is expanded to an unprecedented extent. Fans can rest assured that AB6IX maintains their classic sound while also enjoying some creative surprises.
#19: Whee In, Redd
While there are a few details in this comeback that appear to be nods to her band (she references the MAMAMOO song “Paint Me” in her song “water color,” for example), Whee In gets to shine and distinguish herself as a solo act through Redd. Her debut mini-album and the “water color” music video are as creative and colorful as one would expect from a “water color” concept. In the video, Whee In’s bright blue outfits make her visually stand out from her backup dancers and surroundings. Topping off the pleasing aesthetics is an animated twist partway through the video, turning this release into several works of art at once.
#18: LEE JIN HYUK, Scene26
The biggest takeaway from this release: LEE JIN HYUK is having the time of his life. His contagious enthusiasm helps the “5K” music video come alive, and his charisma makes listeners want to sing along with him well beyond the album’s title track. That is, if listeners can keep up with the cadence: JIN HYUK experiments with a rock-influenced sound on “Asteroid,” rapping in “Wave,” and a slower speed on “Be half-awake.” Scene26 is an embodiment of JIN HYUK’s creative freedom and willingness to play around with various sounds and speeds. JIN HYUK shows that not only does he deserve this time to shine as a soloist, but that he was born ready for it.
#17: SKY-HI, “To The First”
Fittingly, “To The First” feels like a breath of fresh air. In a time when new music releases are an endless churn across an array of platforms, finding a song that truly distinguishes itself from the rest is a more appreciated experience than ever before. In this way, “To The First” is incomparable. A quickening pre-chorus and artful distortions of expected electric guitar sounds are just two of the many details that make it a must-listen.
#16: 3YE, “STALKER”
3YE is reborn through this comeback. Their synchronization is sharper than ever, their music is catchier than ever, and their music video wardrobe is more fun than ever. The group has conveyed a fierce and fearless image since their debut, but now, they perform as if they truly believe in the confident selves they have been portraying this whole time. Their onstage and offstage personas appear as one and the same, making this comeback a memorable milestone in the group’s career.
#15: OnlyOneOf, Instinct, Pt. 1
OnlyOneOf changes up everything for this comeback- their photoshoot concepts, their wardrobe, their performances- except for their signature sound. This provides a great balance of new and familiar material in a release that shows the band’s organic growth. Besides “libidO” showing a mature, previously unseen side of the members, the song and music video captivate thanks to alluring vocals and a dance break-ready bridge.
#14: ONE OK ROCK, “Renegades”
Unsurprisingly, Ed Sheeran’s songwriting and ONE OK ROCK’s fighting spirit make for a winning combination. Very true to form for this band, “Renegades” is an ode to youth, autonomy, and justice. ONE OK ROCK sings about the need for bravery to stand up for one’s beliefs and to restructure society in a way that allows truth, freedom, equality, and individuality to thrive. The video is a triumphant and motivating display of making one’s voice heard, the strength in solidarity, and the importance of amplifying the voices of those who feel misunderstood and forgotten.
#13: WENDY, Like Water
Soft, piano-backed songs set up the perfect stage for WENDY’s voice to stay front and center the entire time. Like Water is, fittingly, a perfect playlist for a rainy day, with gentle sounds and angelic vocals. The music video is also a delight, with WENDY sporting cute, wispy bangs and prom-ready outfits, while sitting among colorful plants and standing amid curtains that mimic the appearance of a cascading waterfall. The lyrics are equally beautiful and tell a universally relatable story. WENDY starts off singing about comforting someone, then switches to singing about needing someone to comfort her, then transitions into singing about the need to comfort each other. It summarizes the key to positive relationships: love and support mutually flowing “like water.”
#12: NU’EST, Romanticize
There are two main reasons why Romanticize stands out amid hundreds of April releases: its standalone nature and the ways in which it gives each NU’EST member a chance to shine. The former reason refers to the cinematic quality of both the comeback’s trailer and the title track’s music video. NU’EST could be starting a new multi-comeback story arc, or this could be just an artsy decision for the moment. Either way, the “INSIDE OUT” video is a must-watch. As for the latter reason to give Romanticize a try, each member has a solo track on which they get to distinguish their sound, both from one another and from NU’EST as a group.
#11: DAY6, The Book of Us: Negentropy - Chaos swallowed up in love
Since dancing and live performances often play a large role in building up excitement for K-pop comebacks, bands who play their own instruments can face an uphill battle to gain the attention they deserve. Luckily, DAY6 has been able to tour internationally and prove they are an exception. But why is that? The Book of Us: Negentropy and the other albums in their “Book of Us” series answer that question.
What makes DAY6 stand out comes down to degree. While many groups sing about loss, heartbreak, and pain, DAY6 does so in an unflinchingly honest, specific, and personal way. Their emotional and vulnerable songwriting is what resonates with listeners around the world, in a beautiful example of how opening up to others can have a healing ripple effect. DAY6 is not afraid to go there, and the degree to which they open up makes for more raw, more authentic, and overall better music. Through songs about going through hard times and struggling in and after relationships, DAY6 provides fans both with solace in the fact they are not alone and a guidebook for how to remember there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
#10: SEVENTEEN, “ひとりじゃない” (“Not Alone”)
SEVENTEEN’s success can be attributed to a mixture of talent and timing. They are spectacular performers with an unmatched level of teamwork, but their timing is also key to their massive worldwide success. Fan-favorite ballads have been released during winter months, when listeners feel the urge to stay home and feel the comfort of slower songs cover them like warm blankets. Fan-favorite high-energy songs have come out when fans’ mood is the opposite, and the desire to listen to feel-good music on a bright summer day is there. “ひとりじゃない” (“Not Alone”) also comes at an opportune time. It makes for easy listening when whiling away the hours on a hot summer day, and it sends a “We’re all in this together” message for those in quarantine, having to host celebrations via video chat. While the song reflects the sunnier disposition brought on by spring and summer, the music video acknowledges that the ways people are enjoying spring and summer might look abnormal this year. By keeping tabs on the public mood, SEVENTEEN always releases the right song at the right time, and this release is no exception.
#9: ITZY, GUESS WHO
Right from the start, ITZY has stepped into every comeback with an impressive boldness, a sense of sureness in their musical path. Their latest mini-album is true to form in this sense, as their fierce personas command attention on high-energy track after high-energy track. On GUESS WHO, ITZY does not box themselves in, toying with an array of musical influences. From the clap-along, cornucopia of sounds on “Wild Wild West” to the CHUNG HA “Bicycle”-Era vibes on “SHOOT!” to the soft-pop, guitar-backed “TENNIS (0:0),” ITZY shows that dynamism in musicianship can simultaneously come from confidence in one’s vision and a willingness to continue stepping outside of the box.
#8: P1Harmony, DISHARMONY: BREAK OUT
Leaning into a more industrial sound is an excellent decision for P1Harmony; this band thrives when creating songs that are best described as controlled chaos. Rowdy and loud, but in a suspenseful and artful way rather than a disjointed one, P1Harmony takes musical risks that pay off and fit well with the action-packed, chaotic energy of their music videos. Also noteworthy are the lyrics to the title track, “Scared,” in which the members encourage listeners to stop worrying so much about other people’s opinions of them and to embrace being different. And as this group proves with their shift in sound, being different is advice worth taking.
#7: KIM JAE HWAN, Change
Those who write off KIM JAE HWAN as a boring ballad singer are proven to be mistaken thanks to Change. The album starts out powerfully with “Pray,” continues its strength with one of the best title tracks of 2021 so far (“I Wouldn’t Look For You”), and remains surprising by ebbing and flowing energy-wise the rest of the time. After mellowing out a bit on “Blue Moon,” for example, JAE HWAN raises the energy on “My Flower,” then retreats to a slower, R&B-esque vibe on “Get Antsy.” The pattern of louder and quieter tracks keeps the listening experience engaging and shows that JAE HWAN deserves to be thought of as a much more versatile artist than he has previously.
#6: BTS, “Film out”
“Film out” is a beautiful ballad with a continuously ascending structure. It has an interesting, unexpected composition, with a chorus that lingers in unexpected spots and vocals that stay at the forefront even when instrumentals seem to retreat. The structure of this song allows for it to feel like it is constantly gaining momentum, in an auditory equivalent of an optical illusion. Whether a hardcore BTS fan who chooses to fixate on the music video’s Easter eggs or a more casual listener, the unique composition of this song allows it to be an enjoyable release for fans of all kinds.
#5: HOSHI, “Spider”
As discussed on a previous podcast episode, HOSHI uses getting tangled in a spider’s web as a metaphor for a messy relationship, an analogy as original as the song itself. In addition to the unique message, “Spider” is a captivating single and music video thanks to HOSHI’s whispery voice and intricate choreography.
#4: THE 8, “Side By Side”
THE 8 struggles to win over a crush in a way that (possibly unintentionally) brings to mind music videos from SEVENTEEN’s early days. The storyline in the older SEVENTEEN song “Mansae” is combined with the aesthetics of the newer SEVENTEEN song “HOME;RUN” to make something brand new. This observation is not to say that “Side By Side” is a carbon copy of previous releases; THE 8 adds a charming, fresh twist to both the sounds and sights of this release. THE 8 from SEVENTEEN and THE 8 as a soloist merge in a new, impressive, and natural way.
#3: milet, “checkmate”
Long-time and new fans alike will be thrilled at milet’s newfound confidence. Departing from her past releases, which often spent extensive time on negative emotions, milet exudes fierceness and a sense of purpose in the video for “checkmate.” Looking and sounding incredible, this new and improved version of the songstress is a delight to watch as she conquers a chess game and lets her powerhouse vocals light up the scene as bright as the walls of fire around her. The larger-than-life music video setting suits the in-your-face nature of the song to make for an explosive, can’t-miss release.
#2: ENHYPEN, BORDER : CARNIVAL
Stay tuned for an in-depth ENHYPEN discography breakdown on an upcoming episode of 17 Carat K-Pop! In the meantime, what to know about this release is that it is classic ENHYPEN. An intriguing music video storyline continues to play out, the title track is an earworm, and influences from various musical genres are mixed together in innovative ways.
#1: KANG DANIEL, YELLOW
KANG DANIEL completes his “Color Trilogy” with YELLOW, an album that is primarily dark and eerie but finishes on a brighter note, a sign of finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. He is finally ready to experience joy after one last, intense trip through the dark recesses of his mind. Each song has a haunted feel to it, as if listeners are stomping through a haunted location with him. After feeling his pain, listeners also get to share his feeling of relief on “Save U,” a hopeful note on which this saga ends. After learning to find strength after struggle and happiness after hardships, KANG DANIEL deserves to be viewed the same way as favorite book and movie characters are. Fans can feel emotionally invested in his character’s journey, pleased with his reawakening, and bittersweet over the end of an era. YELLOW is a touching full-circle moment for both KANG DANIEL and his audience.
See the link below for a playlist of the songs referenced here, and click here to read about last month’s picks!