The Best New K-Pop and J-Pop: April 2022
A ranking and review of the twenty best releases of the past month!
#20: BE:FIRST, “Betrayal Game”
After releasing a colorful, cheerful single, “Bye-Good-Bye,” BE:FIRST have proved they can pull off a “bad boy” concept too. Alluring vocals with electronic flourishes are layered on top of a continuous, catchy bassline and lots of snapping. They trade singing for rapping at points, further reiterating their versatility as a group. They sing about their willingness to throw caution to the wind and play the “Betrayal Game,” an interesting framing of the “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” premise. If this is the end of the world, they agree to just “love the oblivion.” “Betrayal Game” reinterprets an age-old theme in a way that suits this group and is also just plain catchy!
#19: JO1, “YOLO-konde”
When a song’s chorus is an eleven out of ten energy-wise, it is very easy for the verses and bridge to sound disconnected from the chorus. Crafting the sound of a natural rise and fall from high to higher tempos can be difficult. “YOLO-konde” does not succumb to that challenge, opting to just sidestep it entirely! “YOLO-konde” decides to keep the energy level exceptionally high in every part of the song. The song avoids being too repetitive, however, by frequent changes in vocal delivery and the addition of suspenseful beat drops. “YOLO-konde” is a unique EDM-rap blend that is unpredictable yet consistent.
#18: NiziU, “ASOBO”
“ASOBO” means “Let’s play” in Japanese, and NiziU certainly do! They sing and dance as their board game comes to life. Being surrounded by animals in some scenes and in school in others gives this video the vibe of a Dreamworks animated musical mixed with a youth-centered comedy movie! The music video entices a younger audience, but the song’s message ought to resonate with all ages: “Life is not a test.” The lyrics are full of advice that seems simple yet so hard to follow, such as “take a difficult task and treat it like a game / When [you] overcome it, [give yourself] an award.” In the most adorable way imaginable, NiziU remind audiences of the necessity of taking breaks from work to decompress and have some fun!
#17: Ayumi Hamasaki, “Nonfiction”
Ayumi Hamasaki tells a compelling tale in dual scenes. In a hot pink room, objects poof in and out, whereas in a dark party room, attendees put on a dramatic performance. Unnatural behavior is occurring in both settings, so which one is “real” and which one is just a show is up to the audience to determine. Fittingly, this song is all about questioning what the listeners’ “nonficton” is compared to their “fiction.” Aside from “Nonfiction” being lyrically and visually compelling, it is well-produced and oozes personality. A dramatic drumroll ensures Ayumi Hamasaki gets the grand introduction she deserves, and there is an unexpected pause in the music to make room for a knowing laugh, as if she knows something the audience doesn’t. Her compelling voice and the danceable beat make this pop song next-level enjoyable.
#16: meme tokyo., Animore
This pair of songs may be an acquired taste, but they ought to impress those who crave listening to something unconventional. After a few listens, the initial chaos shows its melodic colors. “Animore” is a rock-meets-hyperpop thrill ride on which aspiring EDM DJs ought to take notes. “Overnight” is also high-energy, but less high-tempo when solely compared to “Animore.” “Overnight” is more of a crowd-pleaser, with its harmonized chanting and “getting ready” playlist-worthy status. Both “Animore” and “Overnight” are a cross between AKB48 and Brave Girls, with the addition of sonic elements all their own.
#15: VERIVERY, SERIES 'O' [ROUND 3 : WHOLE]
In “Series O,” the members of VERIVERY have entered a new, mysterious world of darkness, and this comeback serves as a culmination of their triumphs and tribulations in that strange world. The “Undercover” music video both starts and ends mid-action, continuing their world-building while showing there is still much more to come. There is clearly much more to come from VERIVERY sonically as well: the songs on SERIES 'O' [ROUND 3 : WHOLE] range from Latin hip-hop to R&B to EDM. There are moments of cuteness and sentimentality that follow commanding anthems, and these multitudes make VERIVERY a group in which it is worth getting invested.
#14: MIYEON, MY
MY effectively shows the world who MIYEON is on her own. MIYEON stands apart from “Miyeon from (G)I-DLE,” and she proves she deserves this time to shine solo. Her delicate, distinct voice carries songs like “Rose'' and “Softly.” Her vocals show their more powerful, passionate colors on “TE AMO,” and she further shows her range on the rock-based “Drive.” In addition to the sound of her solo music, MIYEON distinguishes her style from (G)I-DLE’s through fashion. The “Drive” music video doubles as a mini fashion show, with gorgeous dresses, statement-making accessories, and a cute and casual double-denim look. MY has a style all MIYEON’s own, “style” referring to every meaning of the word.
#13: WAGAMAMA RAKIA, “GR4VITY G4ME”
This song is compulsively loop-worthy; it starts without a moment to spare and ends abruptly, tempting listeners to replay it due to unfinished business. Rapid percussion and guitars guide the verses into headbang-worthy pre-choruses. The rock choruses have the perfect amount of angst to not turn off pop music fans but still appeal to emo fans. The screaming makes for a compelling contrast from the periods when their voices slip into hushed tones. Their whispers come across as ominous instead of calming. Just as fluidly as they slip from yelling into whispering and back again, they also alternate between rapping and singing. Overall, this song is catchy, distinct, well-structured, and a strong case for checking out this group’s other material too.
#12: BOL4, Seoul
With a new hair color and increased level of introspection, Seoul is beautiful in ways both literal and figurative. BOL4’s timeless, remarkable voice is back, sharing stories of confusion and clarity, insecurities and self-love, and other contrasts between who she was and who she is today. By choosing to cover topics related to her past and future at the same time, she ensures this comeback feels authentic instead of an attempt to check a thematic box. The fullness of who BOL4 is can be felt through this album, yet the album carries a lightness throughout that keeps it from being bogged down in seriousness. By channeling feelings of nostalgia at the same time as feelings of hope for a brighter future, BOL4 shows the world her artistry’s timelessness and ensures her music stays compulsively listenable.
#11: Misako Uno, All AppreciAte
All AppreciAte has all the staples of a good pop album: some ballads, some bubblegum songs, and a tracklist that is overall more danceable than not, and always feel-good. Standouts include the catchy “Lan-dadi” and the beachy, breezy “Shall we?” The corresponding music videos add to All AppreciAte’s likeability. Colorful cartoons cover the screen in the video for “SMILE PEACE,” impressive anime illustrates the video for “Candy,” and the video for the ballad “All AppreciAte” has a therapeutic quality to it, as viewers watch Misako Uno slowly paint a rainbow in a cozy outfit. Then there is “KOINO WANA SHIKAKEMASHO FUNK THE PEANUTS NO TEEMA,” whose music video… defies explanation! At times incredibly quirky and at times standard pop (in a good way!), this album has much to AppreciAte!
#10: EGOIST, “Gold”
While EGOIST stay true to their anime-rock roots, this song has appeal for pop and rock music enthusiasts more broadly. Many elements come together to make this song pull off its drama: piano and guitar riffs, a choir of backup voices, and EDM breakdowns. As kaleidoscopic, fast-changing images fill the music video, they sing an empowering message, encouraging listeners to not just go for the gold, but to recognize the gold that already exists within themselves and the preciousness of that inner gold. After all, others can take away one’s gold medals, but no one can ever steal one’s inner gold. With “Gold,” EGOIST channel the spirit of an empowering pop song while performing a sonically rich, fiery rock song.
#9: BIGBANG, “Still Life”
“Still Life” contains hidden depths that take time to fully recognize and appreciate. While a slew of new K-pop releases have leaned into rock influences, BIGBANG stand out from the rest by opting for a seventies/eighties rock sound in particular. As for the music video, each member represents a multitude of deeper themes. As each of them represents one of the four seasons, they sing about a sense of incompleteness without one another. A year is incomplete with less than four seasons, and each season has its own attributes elemental to its existence. BIGBANG show they require the presence of four seasons to complete their metaphorical year. Each member gets to tell a personal story during a dramatic walk in a different location. There is some straightforward messaging, like G-DRAGON’s appearance in front of a “Wrong Way” sign, but there are also messages that are easier to miss, like when he carries an umbrella that is black on the outside and keeps its rainbow stripes on the inside. Even their lines of sight speak volumes, such as when T.O.P stands on the moon while getting a clear shot of the Earth, from which he feels literally and figuratively distant. From accessories to settings, “Still Life” is much more than what meets the eye at first, and the song itself is more worth appreciating than it first sounds.
#8: IVE, LOVE DIVE
There is much to appreciate about IVE’s latest comeback. For starters, its title has a dual meaning, referencing both their fandom name, “DIVE,” and the concept of diving headfirst into love. Secondly, the dress code can best be summarized as preppy pageantry. The “High-Teen” concept gets a fresh take with the members’ princessy crowns and heels. The fun extends far beyond their outfits: as their voices echo their excitement back to them, they go for a ride above the clouds and dance in front of a magical castle. The cherry on top is the B-side, “ROYAL,” which adds even more confident fun to this release. LOVE DIVE is a short and sweet comeback that captures IVE’s charm.
#7: Little Glee Monster, Journey
Every Little Glee Monster song can best be described with one word: full. Each song weaves together a rich tapestry of instruments and harmonies. Soundscapes are crafted with the feel of a live orchestra, although a few songs are more down-the-middle pop than dramatic. Each song on Journey is a powerful statement. The group leans into the live performance-ready status of their music with a performance in a church in the “Your Name” music video, but they pivot to pure cutesiness with the scrapbook-themed “WONDERLAND.” With Journey, Little Glee Monster show their multitudes and ensure each track lives up to its full potential.
#6: Moon Byul, “C.I.T.T (Cheese in the Trap)”
Just as it seems like the pop-rock trend in new K-pop releases may be at its saturation point, Moon Byul reinvents the wheel with this beyond-quirky single. This pop-rock song contains many unexpected additions, like computer game noises, and its lyrics cover a classic concept in an unconventional way, by using “cheese in the trap” as a metaphor for trying to woo a crush. A teaser trailer for the music video shows “Dr. Moon Byul” delivering a tutorial on how to “steal the cheese,” using a mannequin for demonstrations. This professor’s advice is fine on paper but takes a turn for the absurd in practice. When she advises teaching a crush a sweet phrase, she demonstrates via yelling into a megaphone in the mannequin’s face, and when she advises doing something instead of just saying something, she whips out a chainsaw! In the full-length music video, Moon Byul’s nerdy character tries to learn from Dr. Moon Byul, both by watching the instructional video and allowing Dr. Moon Byul to pull the levers in her brain! “C.I.T.T” and its corresponding videos use bizarre, comical extremes to demonstrate the things people will do for love and the ways the advice lovestruck people give themselves tends to not work out as neatly as they envision it will! In short, Moon Byul finds an unrealistic, funny way to express a very relatable feeling.
#5: TAEYONG and Wonstein, “Love Theory”
The first half of a 17 Carat K-Pop episode is dedicated to “Love Theory” for good reason! The song and music video are as delightful as they are refreshing. The aesthetics somewhat fall under the category of “Quirky K-Pop,” but they also somewhat do not. The song lyrics seem to fall under a “Light and Sweet Songs” category but are more in-depth than they first sound. This release is an unconventional, label-defying treat. TAEYONG airs his frustrations over love’s complexities while spending time in a cute, hot pink room and analogizing love and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Just as that theory seems contradictory and confusing in some ways, so too does a crush. To clarify what his feelings mean and how he should proceed, TAEYONG seeks Wonstein’s advice, which he cheekily delivers at times (“What you lack, son, is jashingam / In English, ‘Confidence’") and refrains from sharing at others (“Gotta pay me something for a consulting”). “Love Theory” simultaneously encapsulates childlike joy and wonder at experiencing an intense emotion and the nerdy rabbit hole one could go down (and this writer admittedly has!) pondering the experience from the perspective of a scientific metaphor. “Love Theory” embodies both a child’s and an adult’s views on love, and it does so in a cute and unique way.
#4: SEVENTEEN, “Darl+ing”
As detailed at length in an episode of “17 Talk,” “Darl+ing” contains multitudes in a classically SEVENTEEN fashion. Its structure makes room for different combinations of members to get time to shine, its lyrics include some fun nods to their previous releases, and its message is as sweet as ever. They repeatedly correct themselves as they start to say “Dialing you” and change course, saying, “Sorry, darling you-hoo-hoo.” This “yoo-hoo” might be a nod to the group’s debut single, “Adore U,” which includes a “Yoo-hoo!” in the chorus. Another example of a possible hidden reference: MINGYU and WONWOO sing “the taste of this tequila I'm drinking now / Isn't bitter,” and they released a collaboration last year titled “Bittersweet.” These are just two of the many examples of how SEVENTEEN personalize their songs, and they up the likeability even more through “Darl+ing”’s outdoor, flower-filled music video.
#3: MONSTA X, SHAPE of LOVE
“LOVE” is quite possibly one of the best K-pop title tracks of 2022 so far. It blends the sounds of several MONSTA X eras into a new concoction that feels both true-to-them and new-to-them, comfortingly familiar yet not derivative. “LOVE” has the pacing of “Love Killa,” the saxophone layer from One Of A Kind, the nineties-boy-band vibes of The Dreaming, and a music video wardrobe reminiscent of “GAMBLER” and “FANTASIA.” Regardless of how many of these details are actually intended to bring back memories of their previous works, the fact that they do is a testament to the coexisting stability and range in their musical identity. MONSTA X are adept at repurposing elements from previous eras. A particularly touching example of a throwback: Joohoney says “Life is flow” in “Love You,” just like he does on the song “FLOW,” a confidence-building song about learning to roll with the punches. MONSTA X indirectly let fans feel a sense of closeness while listening to their new material by recalling past songs that have left fans touched. SHAPE of LOVE sounds like a MONSTA X album through and through, a recollection as well as a new chapter. Put simply, these songs are meant for MONSTA X. From Joohoney’s charismatic raps to I.M and Joohoney’s dynamic back-and-forths to Kihyun’s outstanding vocals, SHAPE of LOVE fits the members like a glove.
#2: Dreamcatcher, [Apocalypse : Save us]
In previous Dreamcatcher music videos, a purple portal has been the sole route to and from an alternate reality. In the “MAISON” video, there are purple, pink, and blue portals, continuing their story while literally adding more dimensions to it. “MAISON” shows Dreamcatcher encountering new villains and utilizing new superpowers. As Dreamcatcher’s cinematic music video universe is expanding, so too is their discography’s range. There are three main categories into which the songs on [Apocalypse : Save us] can be put: there are beautiful ballads (like “For” and “Winter”), there are pop-punk headbangers (like “Beauty Full” and “MAISON”), and there are synth-heavy pop songs (like “Cherry (Real Miracle)” and “Playground”). Tying this variety pack together are Dreamcatcher’s trademarks: an instrumental introduction (“Intro : Save us”) and an equally atmospheric interlude (“Skit : The seven doors”). [Apocalypse : Save us] surpasses Dreamcatcher’s high bar for compelling and one-of-a-kind storytelling, and it changes things up without taking any piece of Dreamcatcher’s core identity out of the picture. This is not even the full extent of reasons to praise this album, as the fact each member gets their own solo track has not even been brought up in this review yet! Not to mention the way “MAISON” serves as a warning about the climate crisis. The bottom line: there are endless angles from which to appreciate this release, and [Apocalypse : Save us] proves Dreamcatcher have vast potential.
#1: SUHO, Grey Suit
Read the full essay about this release below!