The Best New K-Pop and J-Pop: August 2021
A ranking and review of the top twenty new releases from K-pop and J-pop artists!
#20: MIRAE, Splash
Splash features more of all the best features of MIRAE’s debut mini-album. This is a collection of fast, electronic-meets-pop songs with unexpected sonic details added every here and there and some fierce beat drops. Splash is a predictable thrill ride from MIRAE, and more of the same is a good thing in this band’s case. Granted, the group does expand their repertoire a bit with “Don’t Stop,” a pop-rock jam, and the “Splash” music video indicates they are dipping their toes into new territory storyline-wise, but their signature sound is relatively consistent so far, and it’s so catchy that it is beyond fine for them to pause before taking the plunge into a totally new musical direction.
#19: Yong Yong, Rain Star
As fun as it can be to watch artists shake up their images, it’s also nice to know some artists have a more reliable sound. Yong Yong is classically Yong Yong on this pair of singles, showing off her distinguishable voice literally and metaphorically. Yong Yong’s style and songs are so one-of-a-kind, she could remake the same song again and again and still leave listeners wanting more. “Rain Star” is far from a carbon copy of her other singles, but it is certainly covered with her trademarks. “Rain Star,” as well as “Don’t Worry, Dear,” add more bold, colorful, enthusiastic jams to her discography. Her spunk is all over the “Rain Star” music video as well; she performs in a gymnasium as if it’s a sold-out arena show. Given the call-and-response-ready chorus, the fact Yong Yong has the potential to deliver stellar live performances is made clearer than ever.
#18: Anonymouz, Essence
After grabbing listeners’ attention with “Lips,” Anonymouz holds onto it for several more songs and makes Essence loop-worthy. It would be no surprise to find out Ariana Grande’s early albums have served as a source of inspiration for Essence; doo-wop and jazzy details, plus her captivating voice, keep her sound from being forgettable, completely down-the-middle pop. Confident and catchy, Essence is a treat to listen to, beginning with a pop gem and ending with an equally wonderful ballad.
#17: SOMI, “DUMB DUMB”
The only thing to dislike about this release is how hard it is to stop the song from getting stuck in one’s head all day long! The chorus includes super-catchy whistling, and the whispered lyrics are a memorable contrast to SOMI’s bold delivery on previous singles. She also shakes things up this time with a concept that is the opposite of overused (when was the last time people heard a song about dancing on someone’s head and then watched that person literally do so in a music video?!). “DUMB DUMB” maintains SOMI’s trademark boldness and eye-catching wardrobe, but everything else about this release is brand new for her. In other words, SOMI once again delivers a fun concept, but this time, it’s a new brand of fun!
#16: Golden Child, [Game Changer]
This comeback is like two separate comebacks in one. An apocalyptic scene in the “Ra Pam Pam” music video makes for an unexpected contrast to the lighter summer jams on [Game Changer]. There is further versatility in the album itself. Up-tempo pop bops precede the more sentimental, rainy-day songs, and vice versa. Also notable is how the band’s clean-cut image persists, yet they still find ways on this album to show a more mature side (for example, they mention getting ready to propose to someone in the delightful “Bottom Of the Ocean”). Ultimately, Golden Child effectively uses [Game Changer] as a way to show how widely their discography and sound have grown since their early days.
#15: ONF, SUMMER POPUP ALBUM [POPPING]
The word that best fits the reaction this comeback provokes is “smile.” From the adorable video for and lyrics to “Popping” (“Hey you there, hey you there / Please don’t sing sad song”), to playful B-sides like “Summer Poem,” to a quirky igloo setup the members goof off in during the album highlight medley video, there are infinite reasons to smile when checking out this release. ONF is a ray of sunshine that listeners are sure to cherish as summer comes to a close. The band’s music and new title track send a message that can brush away any end-of-summer blues.
#14: JAY B, SOMO: FUME
It has only been a few months since JB from GOT7 became JAY B the soloist as well, but it seems as if JAY B the soloist has been years in the making already. JAY B makes the most of his debut solo mini-album to show the world how his sound is distinct from GOT7’s. SOMO: FUME moves from one R&B beat to the next, features collaborations with artists who sound like seamless fits for their songs (without distracting too much from JAY B’s great voice), and overall leaves listeners with a sense of who JAY B truly is. It is exciting to hear JAY B bask in his musical sweet spot uninterrupted, and this mini-album is a great symbol for the start of this new chapter in his career.
#13: Sayaka Yamamoto, “Don’t hold me back”
If Sayaka Yamamoto was still in an idol group, she would be the perfect candidate for every position at this point: the dancer, the rapper, the lead vocalist, and so on and so forth. Through “Don’t hold me back,” she shows off her growth and many talents in less than four minutes. The song itself is also perfectly structured to highlight her variety of talents. After showing off her powerhouse vocals on the verses, she raps through the song’s pre-choruses on top of anthemic percussion. Her voice and the dramatic instrumentals reach their crescendo in the choruses. The rising action, climactic choruses, and falling action make this song both well-made and memorable. The song is great, Sayaka Yamamoto is great, and together, they make for a perfect pairing.
#12: KEY and TAEYEON, “Hate that…”
The “Hate that…” music video amplifies the song’s meaning, in part thanks to this duo’s real-life friendship. KEY and TAEYEON take an unrealistic premise (they are literally on different planets in the first part of the video) and somehow convey such authentic emotions while doing so. While they follow a surreal plot, they display a natural chemistry and sense of loss over a long-gone relationship. The power of this platonic relationship helps spread the song’s message about the power of romantic ones too. TAEYEON and KEY are the perfect partners for giving this song the emotional impact and beautiful harmonies that it deserves.
#11: TXT, The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE OR ESCAPE
Although this album repackage includes just a few new songs, these songs contain sincerity and intrigue. This repackage is no gimmick; the new songs are meaningful additions to the stories the original version of this album tells. Speaking of a natural story continuation, “LO$ER=LO♡ER'' leans back into the pop-punk, angst-driven sound of “0X1=LOVESONG.” Rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon by bringing back that 1990s/2000s trend, TXT’s sound seems to have gone in that direction naturally. In other words, TXT’s latest singles just happen to sound trendy; they are leaning into their authentic angst, and that emotion just so happens to align with the current uptick in pop-punk releases. TXT’s singles sound trendy not because of consciously trying to make them so, but because TXT’s openness and honesty help them stay aware of the current public mood.
Equally meaningful on this album repackage is “MOA Diary,” a sweet “fan song” on which all five members have writing credits. The fact this song is full of references to TXT’s previous releases, combined with the fact the members’ actual diary entries are featured in their physical album copies, emphasize the ethos of TXT. This group embodies an unfiltered openness, a raw expression of relatable feelings, and a promise to stay as open in the future as they prove to have been in the past. TXT is an open book, and fans new and old are better off for it.
#10: SUNMI, 1/6
Last time it was Catwoman, and this time it’s Regina George; SUNMI continues to take movie references and run with them down unexpected paths! If an artist is going to take inspiration from a movie as ubiquitous as Mean Girls, the artist better be very creative in the use of that influence, and SUNMI unquestionably is. Rocking Mean Girls-inspired looks, SUNMI goes from trashing her bedroom in a fit of rage to fending off zombies inside a video rental store in no time! Creative and surprising music video aside, 1/6 is a release worth checking out for its smooth, retro-tinged, attitude-filled pop songs. This comeback is yet another example of how SUNMI adds her distinct personality into every release.
#9: HA SUNG WOON, Select Shop
Every song on Select Shop is further proof of how likeable HA SUNG WOON is. His wonderful, smiley self stars in the “Strawberry Gum” music video, which is an upbeat delight. Playfulness is woven into the B-sides as well. “Magic Word” embeds quirky details into a synth instrumental, “Cake” is a great follow-up to his first album’s single, “Bird,” and “Let’s Sing” is perfect for a joyful road trip. Then there is “Galaxy Dust,” which manages to sound both close and far away. His delicate vocals give an intimate feel to an outer space-themed song, a testament to his creativity and skill. If his bubbly personality does not charm listeners, his more sentimental, softer side on display in songs like “Galaxy Dust” sure will.
#8: I Don’t Like Mondays., Black Humor
There are a few broad categories the songs in Black Humor can be placed into: there are emotional, slower songs that are more engaging than expected (“Aikotoba,” “gift”), retro-pop jams (“Plastic City,” “MOON NIGHT”), and jazzy songs (“Chizyowoyumemirusakana”). These types of songs do not take up separate blocks of the album; they are in a random order that makes the fun of first-time listening worth savoring. Adding to the element of surprise is the delivery of certain lyrics. For instance, “ZENBUANATANOSEINANDA” sounds melancholy, but its chorus is punctuated with F-bombs. Understated deliveries like this are what ensure Black Humor keeps listeners guessing and entertained. Although the album contains 17 tracks, the time spent listening to them all is over in the blink of an eye.
#7: Red Velvet, Queendom
The best three words to describe this mini-album: magic, optimism, and confidence. Red Velvet brings on the charm with sugary-sweet pop songs, beautiful harmonies, and empowering lyrics. The sorceresses rightfully claim their crowns in the “Queendom” music video. The best part: they invite listeners to claim their own crowns, too, singing about how everyone has their own unique color to add to the queens’ “rainbow.” The video is as rewatchable as its “La-di-da-doo-ba-ba-di-da” chorus is catchy. Viewers can be easily swept up in the magic of their ride through the sky and their Wonderland-inspired tea party. The vibe of “Queendom” might be too cutesy for some people’s liking, but that is no reason to not give this album a chance. “Hello, Sunset” is a nice way to chill out at the end of the album, “Better Be” adds a dash of sass to this release, and “Pose” includes an assortment of unexpected sound effects. Queendom is both a versatile and a cohesive mini-album with pop songs of all kinds, and its title track has the catchiness and visual delights to boot.
#6: from20, “Because it’ll be faster for you to forget me than me loving you”
As mentioned in previous “Best of the Month” write-ups, from20 has taken no time at all to discover a signature sound that suits him perfectly. His newest single is yet another example of his trademarks: funky synths and lyrics that are simultaneously universally relatable and specific to his experiences. In an interesting continuation of the story in his previous songs, from20 reframes his feelings about the end of a relationship not as bittersweet, but as only bitter. He convinces himself that no longer should he wallow in wistfulness for his romance to be rekindled; he is better off leaving those feelings and never looking back. This sudden sense of urgency to run from a relationship explains the replacement of the mid-tempo pace of his previous singles with a rapid one. Likewise, the memories he was once nostalgic for are replaced with images of bloody and dangerous scenes. This single is a continuation of what from20 does best lyrically and sonically, but this song and its music video are enveloped by a new feeling and perspective. It is very exciting to wonder what from20 will release next, because whatever it is, it will surely sound excellent.
#5: MCND, THE EARTH : SECRET MISSION Chapter.1
#4: milet, Ordinary days
Going off of previous praise, milet remains an outstanding vocalist with a gift for delivering powerful, raw performances. Last month’s single, “Ordinary days,” turns out to have been the perfect sample of what was to come. This EP’s B-sides are as punctuated with personality and passion as “Ordinary days” is, if not more. Complex emotions are conveyed with ease throughout her work, as she makes time to linger over every syllable and wallow in every emotion. The best B-side to demonstrate her multitudes as an artist is “Castle.” The first half of “Castle” is a dark and somber ballad, but after a moment of silence and a brief giggle, the tone pivots, and the second half of the song takes on a more “dancing while crying'' feel. She continues expressing conflicting feelings in “Hit the Lights,” an aching song that ends the album on an ironic note (the album starts with milet making peace with the end of a relationship and ends with the words “stay with me”). Overall, milet’s voice alone takes listeners on journeys, conveying a sense of intimacy and vulnerability that exists alongside inner strength and confidence. Each note is worth reveling in as much as she does.
#3: TEN, “Paint Me Naked”
The “Paint Me Naked” music video simply screams “TEN”! TEN at his most authentic is artsy, quirky, colorful, stylish, bold, fun, and charismatic. “Paint Me Naked” is all of the above. The video is both G-rated and a bit mature, the lyrics are both carefree and passionate, and the song is both unexpectedly guitar-driven and expectedly loop-worthy. Whatever viewers and listeners expect from the teasers is not what they get- they get so much more! Yes, this solo release allows TEN to show off a more mature side to his musical identity, but it paints a picture of who TEN is in other ways too. The multitudes of TEN are on full display, and getting to watch him step out of any boxes regarding who he is as a musician is a wonderful surprise.
#2: Stray Kids, NOEASY
Keeping up the magic and momentum of the smash hit “God’s Menu” is no easy task, but Stray Kids prove themselves ready to accept the challenge. Their new songs reinvent the boisterous atmosphere and in-your-face sound of “God’s Menu.” “Thunderous” is aptly titled, but every other song on NOEASY also lives up to the word alluded to with the album title, “noisy.” Stray Kids treat “making noise” as a compliment. They mix brass, industrial, and synth sounds, just to name a few, into these songs. “God’s Menu” seems to have been just the beginning; all pre- “God’s Menu” releases, in hindsight, feel like they are at a low simmer. The members’ feelings have boiled over, delivering a hefty serving of spite to all their critics who would rather they make their songs less crowded. As the lyrics in “Thunderous” state (“Man, I’m not sorry”), Stray Kids is the epitome of unapologetic. Some songs certainly sound less chock-full than others; “Gone Away” is a touching, slower song, and “Surfin’” is a lighter, tropical bop. However, these songs simply bring the energy down from a ten to a nine, and they are followed by songs that rise again to a ten out of ten. Stray Kids have thrown the kitchen sink at this album and have managed to create something worthy of a chef’s kiss. They have cooked up a release that not only sends a message about their desire to keep making “noise,” but also about their worthiness to hold the attention that comes with it.
#1: GRAY, Grayground.
This is hands-down GRAY’s best body of work so far. His album’s title is spot-on, as this album is a sonic playground listeners will want to revisit again and again. He manages to make all but one track on Grayground. a collaboration, yet the album does not sound overstuffed as a result. Each collaborator contributes a sound to their song that is truly valuable and distinct. GRAY makes the featured artists his equals. Loco, LeeHi, and GRAY expertly play off of one another’s energy on “Party for the Night,” DeVita lends her heavenly vocals to “Rise” to make the tropical vibe sound anything but generic, and Coogie picks up what GRAY puts down, keeping GRAY’s sound going in his own quirky verse on “I Don’t Love You.” GRAY shows off a wide variety of sounds throughout his many collaborations, yet the tracks still seamlessly transition from one to the next. An album with so many different voices and vibes could have easily come out sounding terrible, but GRAY manages to make this mix fantastic. Each detail in each song feels purposeful, and when taken together, all those details form an album that is GRAY’s Goldilocks album; every ingredient put into each song is put into it in just the right amount.
Click here for the podcast episode featuring further commentary on these picks and on some honorable mentions, click here for a playlist of the songs referenced here, and click here for a playlist of the music videos discussed here!