The Best New K-Pop and J-Pop: May 2021
This piece was originally published on 17caratkpop.weebly.com.
#20: The Volunteers, The Volunteers
Famous solo singer Yerin Baek effectively reintroduces herself as a true rockstar through her new band’s debut album. This new project solidifies Baek’s status as a multifaceted, unstoppable artist. The album is long enough to show the various dimensions of the band’s sound, yet short enough to prevent it from turning into a slog. Listeners can go back-and-forth between swaying and head-banging to the music, all the while being hooked by Baek’s voice. In sum, the band impresses with an album that shows the world who they are and their musical range.
#19: Eric Nam, Armaan Malik, and KSHMR, “Echo”
This three-way collaboration is a testament to the power of the internet at its best. “Echo” is both the product of a friendship that started online and of entirely remote work. “Echo” is noteworthy for reasons beyond the logistics of creating it, however. The song is about questioning when to let go and when to hold on in a relationship, and if salvaging what remains of a relationship is worth the effort. By singing about universally relatable topics, this collaboration exemplifies the ways music can unite people through shared feelings and experiences. It serves as a beautiful example of how human connections and a song’s resonance transcend geography.
#18: OH MY GIRL, Dear OHMYGIRL
True to form, this group delivers the best the "quirky K-pop” sub-category has to offer. From watching a UFO to playing arcade games, the “Dun Dun Dance'' music video will make the audience want to join the group on their adventures. DearOHMYGIRL is the soundtrack for a wholesome summer playdate, an adorable mood boost that invites listeners and viewers to sing and dance along. If the concept of “summer fun” was an album, it would be this, so there is no time to waste: everyone should press play and join the party!
#17: ONEUS, BINARY CODE
With charisma that shines as bright as their sparkly “BLACK MIRROR” music video outfits, ONEUS’s star power reaches a new peak. They are at the top of their game as they perform synchronized choreography that seems to perfectly match with the video’s scene changes. The catchy single is made all the more memorable with such a high-quality, attention-holding video. The group’s star power shines equally bright on the album, especially on a rock remix of their hit song, “Valkyrie.”
#16: LiSA, LADYBUG
In celebration of her 10-year career anniversary, LADYBUG is appropriately party playlist-approved. Between tracks that have her signature rock sound, LiSA plays around with more electro-pop elements than usual, making for a fresh, high-energy collection of songs. LADYBUG is a delightful tribute to LiSA's career so far and an exciting reminder that she still has surprises up her sleeve.
#15: from20, “from20” and “Cigarettes&You”
To say this pair of singles makes for a solid debut is an understatement. Percussion and synthesizers accompany a one-of-a-kind voice to make for a nostalgia-tinged, loop-worthy listening experience. from20 further displays his artistry by mastering the balancing act between specificity and generality. He sings with enough detail to help listeners visualize his story in their minds, yet at the same time, he sings about topics that are broad enough for listeners to establish their own personal connections to the material. Just as there are layers to the songs’ structures and distinctions, there are layers to their messages as well, and some of those layers look like whatever picture the listener paints.
#14: TO1, RE:BORN
Through synchronized choreography and matching uniforms, TO1 sends a welcome message to fans that they are not going anywhere. This rebrand is truly just the beginning for this dynamic group, and they clearly have much more to show the world musically in the future. RE:BORN hopefully serves as a taste of what’s to come from them: songs with more memorable and jam-packed instrumentals than ever before, queued up perfectly by a suspenseful album introduction.
#13: EVERGLOW, Last Melody
The girls once again make their presence loud and clear, only this time, it’s from a new planet. The fast-paced music video for “FIRST” shows the girls harnessing light-themed powers after landing in a new location. The video involves a metaphorical bang (the girls confidently repeat “You know that I come first”) and ends with a literal one (of confetti). Lots of fun is had with electronic keyboard sounds, helping this song stand apart from their previous singles and stressing the fact this is the dawn of a new musical era. The two other tracks on Last Melody allow EVERGLOW to show their range, which is much appreciated. However, the B-sides are simply the cherries on top; “FIRST” is enough of a treat on its own. It begs to be performed in front of a live audience, in all its confetti-and-fire-filled glory.
#12: Bling Bling, CONTRAST
Bling Bling’s comeback feels like several comebacks in one. After releasing teaser content with cutesy imagery, the group has come out with a surprisingly fierce new single, “Oh MAMA.” Every time it sounds like the song’s climax has passed, another catchy component is thrown into the chorus. Surprises are also interspersed throughout the music video, as animated scenes appear between dance sequences. Those who dislike these darling divas’ debut release should still give this one a chance. This comeback balances sassiness and sweetness in the perfect recipe for making new fans out of past critics.
#11: Gaho, “Rush Hour”
“Rush Hour '' is hands-down the best song of Gaho’s career so far. The pacing is perfect, with momentum building up to the chorus, a headbang-worthy beat drop near the end, and “ba-ba-ba-da”s that require singing along. Fittingly, “Rush Hour '' is best played at a high volume on car speakers. The song contains infinite reasons to smile and move to the music, as does its charming music video, where Gaho sets up an impromptu concert to entertain those stuck in traffic.
#10: HEIZE, HAPPEN
HEIZE’s voice is always a warm welcome, a voice that could make singing aloud the phonebook sound captivating. A top-tier delivery is to be expected from each of her comebacks, but what remains unpredictable are the stories her songs tell. This time, she contemplates the meaning of fate and if there is such a thing as coincidences. She somehow manages to take a theme this broad and apply it to an album with a full-circle, satisfying ending. The final track, “Destiny, It’s just a tiny dot.,” nods to a lyric from the opening track, “HAPPEN.” At the same time, room for interpretation is left open by the “HAPPEN” music video, in which there is an unexpected perspective shift at the end. In sum, this comeback both allows for HEIZE’s signature sound to thrive and provides something new, with multidimensional yet cohesive storytelling.
#9: GWSN, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOON
While there is something to be said for albums that follow a clear pattern of ebbs and flows, there is also something special about the listening experience when an album is essentially divided in half. The first half of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOON contains a whirlwind of pop and rock vibes, while the second half includes softer songs that let the members’ vocals take center stage. The “Like It Hot” music video is also can’t-miss material, with countless paintings in vivid colors serving as the main prop.
#8: MINGYU, WONWOO, and LeeHi, “Bittersweet”
Sometimes, a simple, scene-setting instrumental and lovely voices are all that are needed to make a song stand out from the rest. “Bittersweet” is a prime example, perfect for listening to on a rainy day or in a coffee shop. This song is easy listening, yet it is also deep in meaning, as the lyrics attempt to make sense of which parts of a “bittersweet” relationship are “bitter” and which are “sweet.” “How did love become love?” serves as the introductory prompt. Lyrics like this, so short yet so thought-provoking, permeate the song. In less than three minutes, everything from jealousy to a lack of openness in a relationship are addressed. At the end of the music video, there is a wholesome and very SEVENTEEN-esque plot twist that leaves viewers focused on what is “sweet” more than what has gone “bitter,” leaving anything but a bad taste in viewers’ mouths.
#7: ONE OK ROCK, “Broken Heart of Gold”
This is ONE OK ROCK doing what they do best: amplifying the feelings of younger generations and reminding them of the light that is always at the end of the tunnel. Rather than embrace toxic positivity, ONE OK ROCK aims for cautious optimism, letting fans know that it is okay not to be okay, but that it is also important to remember things will get better. “I love myself, but not today” and “I smash my broken heart of gold” are just two of the lyrics that find a way to verbalize seemingly contradictory thoughts that can coexist. By injecting a sense of levity into lyrics about pain and hopelessness, listeners’ feelings are validated while acknowledged as temporary. “Broken Heart of Gold” is a stirring anthem for those who feel bruised but not broken, not whole but not empty, down but not out.
#6: TXT, The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE
The premise of this TXT era is both literal and symbolic: the members’ world is falling apart around them, but they have no chance of escaping the wreckage, as they are frozen in time. The following sense of dread is rooted in a fear of the unknown. On “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You),” the members sing about where their sense of stability comes from: love. When everything in the world feels confusing and scary, a key anchor to hold onto is a loved one. This is just one of many messages in this album that is worth reflecting on, and it’s one of the many reasons why TXT has fans from all walks of life who relate to their work. There are lighter elements to appreciate about this release as well, including a music video that is chock-full of Easter eggs. From hiding symbols in their music video to prompting introspection through their lyrics, TXT’s latest chapter contains innumerable layers for fans of all degrees to enjoy.
#5: NCT DREAM, Hot Sauce
NCT DREAM has mastered the NCT Key to Success: never be afraid to mix everything into one album. Snapping, clapping, quirky sound effects, beautiful harmonies, funky keyboard notes, guitars… every sound and genre has a place in their work. NCT DREAM manages to execute this formula in an irreplaceable and inexplicable way, in which the sonic cornucopia they create sounds wonderful as opposed to disjointed and unlistenable. It is hard to pick a standout moment, or even a standout song, on Hot Sauce, as every part of their work has so many. As all NCT subunits do, NCT DREAM does not worry about choosing one specific image for a specific comeback. Once again, they go from showing their most energetic to their most soft and contemplative selves and back again, both on the album and in the accompanying music videos.
#4: BTS, “Butter”
Although BTS is rightfully known for their incredibly layered, detailed storytelling, their light and fun tracks can be just as enjoyable. This is certainly the case for “Butter,” which arrives at the perfect time to be an early “Song of the Summer” contender. BTS’s pivot from deeper storytelling to a simpler song speaks to the band’s versatility and artistry. Part of being a successful artist is staying aware of the public mood and knowing when the timing is just right for a release, and “Butter” is the danceable, synth-pop earworm the world needs right now.
#3: MANACLE, Liberation
Liberation, ironically, is the perfect music to play in an escape room or during a movie’s chase scene. From crashing guitars to eerie, nursery rhyme-esque background noise, the busy, The Nightmare Before Christmas-adjacent instrumentals are both creepy and quirky. This album is a whirlwind of thrills and chills, chock-full of musical layers that fly by at a breakneck pace. Liberation is jam-packed with both layers and reasons to keep an eye on these rising J-rock stars.
#2: TAEMIN, Advice
Advice is both a very TAEMIN release and something brand new from him. His signature breathy vocals return, but he tries out a different vocal delivery on songs like “SAD KIDS.” His Joker-esque alter ego returns in the new music video, but in a more confident form than ever. This mix of old and new comeback highlights has something for every type of fan. While this album and the “Advice” music video are ripe with material for super-fans to analyze and theorize over, they are also enjoyable for more casual listeners. Through both classic pop songs and slower, more emotional songs, TAEMIN articulates feelings of love, loss, dreams, identity, fear, hesitation, and memories, in ways both moving and unique. Outside of TAEMIN’s over-the-top music video universe lies a very human story. TAEMIN is both larger-than-life and very down-to-earth, both playing roles and showing his true self. Perhaps disentangling what elements of his work are just an “act” and which are parts of “the real him” has been his overarching message all along.
#1: YUQI, A Page
A few seconds into YUQI’s debut solo mini-album is all that is needed to see her superstar potential as a soloist. The mini-album consists of only two tracks, but she makes good use of every single second. Her powerful, unique voice and cinematic storytelling pack so much into such a short period of time. “Giant” has an animated music video and defiant, confidence-boosting lyrics about recognizing one’s potential to get through tough times and become stronger from them. “Bonnie & Clyde” has an action-packed music video and lyrics about a love for someone that withstands all criticism. These songs have two very different vibes and tell very different stories, yet they share a stellar vocal delivery and a punk-meets-dance-pop sound. YUQI is not waiting to show multiple sides of herself, and the sides she has shown thus far may be just the tip of the iceberg. A bright future is ahead of YUQI, and her phenomenal solo debut is proof of that.
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 to read about last month’s picks!