The Best New K-Pop and J-Pop: November 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: Yaffle, Reconnect / Grown
These two songs, released to promote Pokémon’s 25th anniversary, are fittingly celebratory and surprisingly catchy. “Reconnect” features a frankly bizarre mix of sounds, including party noisemakers, a drumline, and a rap with a zigzagging tempo. “Reconnect” is certainly an acquired taste, but “Grown” is more of a crowd-pleaser. It starts out in exactly the same way as “Reconnect,” but it quickly diverts into a new mash-up of voices and sound effects. In lieu of a bridge, the song ends with what sounds like a remix of the chorus, starring a synth-coated bass, the catchiest detail in the whole mixture. Once listeners adjust to these songs’ frenetic energy, they will willingly go along for the ride. These songs make for an enthusiastic party, meaning Yaffle aces the assignment and delivers well-produced additions for a party playlist.
#19: TO1, RE:ALIZE
RE:ALIZE leaves room for every TO1 member to shine. Those with deeper voices get the spotlight in the rap-heavy “Prayer,” and those with a higher register get to shine on the emotional “In My Light.” The vocal variety continues with the laid-back “Mirage” and the dramatic “Golden,” the most exciting B-side of which to visualize a live performance version. It is easy to picture the “No More X” music video being just an introductory chapter in a larger story, taking place at a mansion full of potential symbols. Even if this story arc goes no further in the future, it is still enjoyable for its explosiveness. Fireworks, a swarm of bats, and a thunderstorm all threaten to interrupt the group’s show-stopping choreography but never do.
#18: UVERworld, AVALANCHE
This pair of J-rock songs stands out for both simple catchiness and surprisingly deep messages. “AVALANCHE” asks listeners if they are “ready to go... Create a new world,” and if they are hesitant, they can rest assured that “Even [after] dark night, the dawn will break again / And I will take you to the light.” The chorus is performed with heavily synthesized vocals to create a very unique effect that brings to life the message in the song. The “darkest before dawn” theme comes alive as their voices repeatedly rise above and sink back down into the thick synths. “ET” also plays with synthesized voices, but its instrumental focuses more on staying a suitable speed and mood for dancing. UVERworld sing messages of consolation in the most unexpected format, making AVALANCHE not just a rare delight but a sign this band is one to watch.
#17: Reol, “Boy”
“Boy” starts off unassuming, leading listeners to believe they are tuning into a chill, acoustic guitar-based song. That expectation quickly goes out the window, as electronic instruments swell and Reol’s trademark sound commences. The song has more unexpected twists throughout, as Reol alternates between pitches and vocal filters, sometimes sounding close and other times far away from the listener. “Boy” is both another classic Reol song and another classic Reol music video, with a hard-to-describe, ambiguous, intriguing concept. Two plots are acted out at once: a performance in an empty tunnel and a performance with mannequins as props. If not intrigued, viewers will at least enjoy the “Boy” music video for its manicure and outfit inspiration!
#16: T-ARA, Re:T-ARA
Both “ALL KILL” and “TIKI TAKA” exude the allure and catchiness of previous T-ARA releases. This “Second Generation” K-pop girl group has been sorely missed, and they are right back in their sweet spot. “TIKI TAKA” is classic T-ARA, an earworm with a fun hook and sultry whispering. “ALL KILL” brings the sounds of the Wild West to a pop jam. Both songs sound like two songs in one, making this EP feel like a gift that keeps on giving. The music video for “TIKI TAKA” is also a treat, as the members attend a lavish party in all-black outfits, red lipstick, and lots of gold jewelry. Overall, T-ARA continue to be the same stylish group fans love and have missed.
#15: SF9, RUMINATION
When it comes to their 2021 releases, SF9 seem to have saved the best for last. RUMINATION includes a diverse array of tracks that allow the members to play around with their vocals more than usual. For example, “Dreams” allows them to sing in a higher register, and “For Fantasy” features echo-y voices. The tempo slows down and speeds up again repeatedly, such as when the slow, rainy-day vibes of “On And On” transition into the party-ready “Scenario.” What also takes this album to the next level is its storytelling. More than just a catchy song, “Trauma” addresses the end of a relationship and the desire to not give a past love space in one’s mind any longer. RUMINATION is more than just an average K-pop album, and this is further proven through its visual components. At a recent press conference, the members confirmed RUMINATION is meant to be a prequel to 9lorioUS, and this reverse chronology makes watching the “Trauma” video all the more worthwhile, to analyze for nods to their previous eras.
#14: Gaho, Fireworks
Fireworks is aptly titled, as it explores the concept of being in love in all its complexities. The songs show off many of Gaho’s true colors, and he gets to be introspective on some tracks and less serious on others. The first song, “OOO,” sounds like the music that plays during the opening scene of a movie. It draws the audience in with its tambourine, clapping, and “la la la la'' chorus. The party continues on high-energy songs like “Anyway” and “Part time lover.” A more serious mood is present on other songs, like “Crush” and “Like the moon.” All the while, percussion, guitars, and a top-tier voice keep listeners’ interest.
#13: HA SUNG WOON, Electrified : Urban Nostalgia
Playing these electrifying songs can light up any boring night, and the lyrics take fans down memory lane. For example, “Fairy Tale” repeatedly references “blue,” the name and theme of one of his previous title tracks. The new title track, “Electrified,” also invokes nostalgia by continuing the mood of his most recent comebacks. However, its music video distinguishes it from past releases. He goes on adorable adventures in the video, flipping a giant light switch on and off and transforming the town every time. He uses a record store’s loudspeaker system to get his crush’s attention, hosts an impromptu dance party outside of the store, and overall seems to bring the party everywhere he goes. This album is both cute and emotional, a great mix for an album symbolic of the end of a musical era (this is HA SUNG WOON’s final album with Star Crew Entertainment).
#12: ONEUS, BLOOD MOON
A key word to summarize BLOOD MOON is “balance.” The album balances older songs with brand new ones, higher-energy songs with slower ones, and modern pop sounds with traditional instruments. The memorable music videos for “LUNA” and “Intro : Window” feature elaborate dance routines, complete with fans. Alongside songs released previously (the buoyant “Life is Beautiful” and bold “Shut Up 받고 Crazy Hot!”), new songs find a home. The songs that mix things up include the sentimental “We’re in Love” and the R&B-influenced “Who You Are.” BLOOD MOON is a versatile delight, and its music videos are positively stunning.
#11: Younha, END THEORY
From the album cover to the “Stardust” music video, everything about this comeback is simply beautiful. Younha’s stunning voice enchants across eleven tracks. The instrumentals vary, but none feel out-of-place when wrapped up in the passion and sentimentality conveyed through her voice. Despite the tone of this album appealing to ballad fans, END THEORY is anything but dull and repetitive. “Oort Cloud” has a triumphant feel, and “Tik-Tok” is a mid-tempo song with whistling, synths, and strings, just to name a few. The “Stardust” music video kicks the charm of this comeback up yet another notch. Younha looks up at colorful, cosmic phenomena as she, long story short, reunites with and heals a younger version of herself. “Stardust” is a touching and gorgeous video that complements this album perfectly.
#10: Billlie, the Billage of perception : chapter one
To stand out from other new K-pop groups, it requires more creativity and thought than ever, given the increasingly saturated market. Billlie have risen to that occasion, delivering an impressionable and one-of-a-kind debut mini-album. “RING X RING” follows the girls’ adventures in the mysterious house of a character named Billlie Love. The up-in-the-air ending features a cluttered attic, full of potential clues for where Billlie is and where the group’s search will take them next. The B-sides are also unconventional in the best possible way. “flipp!ng a coin” is a fitting song to play in an arcade and is perfect for fans of MOMOLAND’s “Thumbs Up.” “everybody’s got a $ECRET” is a surprising mix of attitude and softness. They go down a more bubblegum route with “the rumor,” give a ballad a try with “FLOWERLD,” and switch to a mid-tempo sound on “the eleventh day.”
#9: KAI, Peaches
On Peaches, KAI is back to serving up silky-smooth vocals on intoxicating R&B songs, sandwiched between hip-hop songs that feature a side of his voice in stark contrast to that on the other tracks. KAI’s artistry is taken to the next level thanks to his new music video and the album’s introductory short film. The latter starts off with a likely nod to Narcissus, a character in Greek mythology who falls into a river after falling in love with his reflection. After this happens to KAI, he ends up floating in an underwater world, before his shadow that remains on land starts to dance. There are multiple ways to interpret his incorporation of a story about the sins of excessive vanity, but one likely explanation: “Peaches” is a love story made to sound all the more appealing by freeing KAI from viewing himself as being “above” others. By letting his guard down and letting his feelings leap out of him (hence his dancing shadow), he opens himself up to the sweetest of romances from which to learn and gain humility. Peaches expands KAI’s musical storytelling in a way that appeals to his strong suits.
#8: BACK-ON, Still B / O
Last month’s single off of Still B / O, “Beyond sadness,” is proven to have been the perfect encapsulation of what to expect from this album: high-speed rock and roll with sound effects constantly crashing in and vocal deliveries abruptly changing mid-song. The songs have the feeling of being improvised, as if the members decided to just freely go where their creativity took them, thinking of which voices to sing in and which instrumentals to mix together on the spot. It is an attest to their artistry that they turned this unpredictable whirlwind of an album into not trash but treasure. For those who prefer genres besides rock, “Bring the noise” is worth giving a try. It brings to mind “First Generation” SM Entertainment artists in a way that is not derivative. It starts out sounding like the machine they are making the song on is malfunctioning in a melodic way, but partway through, its vibe transforms into nineties R&B.
#7: from20, 20
To reiterate a point brought up time and time again on 17 Carat K-Pop throughout the year, it is impressive that from20 has found his musical sweet spot so soon in his solo career. He has constantly released synth-driven tracks that blend deep, emotional reflections with much less serious and more personalized lyrics. In other words, since day one, from20 has performed the perfect balancing act between telling universal and personal stories. 20 concludes his tremendous year and shows him continuing to make the kind of music he does best. It serves not so much as closure, but rather a milestone marker. The final track, “20,” has lyrics that are seemingly in response to his debut solo single, “from20.” In “from20,” he sings, “They say loving, breaking, I know it's painful / But I know I will go through the dark side of bloom / It's our life / So boy, don't cry.” In “20,” he reflects on the time he told himself that: “Underline on my diary / Used to write it when I feel lonely / Yeah ’Boy, Don’t cry’ / ‘It’s alright’ / Now I’m grown up much as Andy / Want this story happy ending.” In “from20,” he plans to “stay forever young,” but in “20,” he says “Goodbye [to his] youth.” Chronologically, the first and last songs in from20’s 2021 discography engage in a dialogue that is satisfying despite its incompleteness. from20 sings not about figuring out what growing up is really all about, but about making peace with his past views of adulthood. When it comes to his future, from20 is now focused not on knowing so much as embracing the unknown.
#6: Rei Yasuda, It’s you
“It’s you” lays bare the intense emotions about which Rei Yasuda sings, and she does not break character as she raises her voice and transitions into powerful choruses. As the song’s lyrics express waves of cautious optimism, confidence followed by doubts again and again, so too does Rei Yasuda’s voice. At times quiet and tense, at times bold and loud, she takes listeners on a journey with her voice and leaves them wanting more. Her voice has the feel of someone processing raw emotions in real time. Thanks to her vocal versatility and beautiful tone, her music can serve both as an engrossing listen and lovely background music. It’s you is a great listen for any time of the day, any occasion, and anyone who simply wants to wallow in feelings. The EP’s second half includes “A Perfect Sky” and a first-take version of “Brand New Day,” which inject optimism into this release. As great as It’s you is for wallowing in emotions, it also carries more hopeful tones that solidify its status as listenable for any occasion.
#5: TWICE, Formula of Love: O+T=<3
The irresistibly charming “SCIENTIST” music video doubles as preparation for what to expect throughout this album: song after song bursting with TWICE’s sugary sweetness and dashes of sass. As satisfying as this album is for long-time TWICE fans, new listeners can also find something to love about it. They personalize each song with their trademark cuteness and upbeat sound, but they also show an organic maturity. TWICE has not done a 180-degree pivot, growing up overnight. The authenticity of their evolution is what keeps fans old and new pleased and excited. Each B-side is notable, but particularly commendable are the most new-to-them ones. The sub-unit songs allow combinations of members to show off new flavors of the TWICE brand, “CACTUS” slows things down, “Icon” delivers high-energy fierceness in a quirky way, and “CRUEL” has vocals that echo in unexpected ways. The B-sides that are the most worth looking forward to watching live someday are “F.I.L.A (Fall In Love Again),” thanks to its “la la la la la” choruses and clap-along nature, and “LAST WALTZ,” for its drama. TWICE’s new album is truly sugar, spice, and everything nice! They continue to try out new things while never changing their image to the point where it feels like a forced pivot.
#4: GARNiDELiA, Duality Code
Duality Code is a delightful romp through the many sub-genres GARNiDELiA excel at incorporating into their J-pop tracks. It is a dazzling mix of jazzy, percussion-led, electronic, piano-based, and guitar-driven songs. The album starts with “Love On!,” a superb blend of EDM and rock. Other standout songs include “Uncertainty,” for its quirky piano, “Seeker,” for its relatively mid-tempo pace, the cinematic “Milk Caramel,” and the toku-led “Stellacage.” The album concludes with “Reason,” a song as equally high-energy as the opening number, tying this varied yet cohesive project together in the best way. There is even a Christmas song on the album, which emphasizes what a present Duality Code truly is!
#3: Hwa Sa, Guilty Pleasure
All Hwa Sa needs to put her best voice forward is the backing of a simple bassline. Hwa Sa does a lot with a little, crooning her way through these understated, bass-driven anthems. Her voice a capella would be captivating on its own; the twisty instrumentals are just a welcome bonus. “FOMO” is a sultry R&B song in the first half, and after a surprising break mid-song, the latter half allows Hwa Sa’s voice to take on a Billie Eilish-esque quality. “Bless U” is also like two songs in one: the first half sounds like a typical ballad, but then an unexpected rap verse enters the picture. Hwa Sa keeps listeners guessing, and her irreplaceable yet chameleonic voice ensures they will embrace more surprises from her in the future.
#2: B.I, COSMOS
COSMOS truly is an out-of-the world release that is just as impressive as, if not better than, WATERFALL. “Alive” fits at an intersection between melodic and fast-paced rap. The song manages to not have a choppy, start-and-stop format, however, and this smooth blending of speeds and sounds continues on the Wild-West-meets-nostalgic-rock sound of “NINETEEN.” “NERD” plays with its speed throughout too, with faster verses and slower choruses. The songs on COSMOS are engaged in a melodic push-and-pull that makes each song unique, both from other artists’ songs and from each other. The most typical pop song, for lack of a better term, on the album is its title track, an upbeat song about a crush. In the “COSMOS” music video, B.I practically skips his way through town while daydreaming about his crush, and a confetti blast corresponds to him locking eyes with her from across the street. It is a loveable video that decides to leave the heavier subject matter to the B-sides. B.I’s ambitions for this project appear as expansive as the universe about which he sings, and those seeking fresh new tunes are better off for it.
#1: MONSTA X, NO LIMIT
It starts off with silence except for a long, lone whistle. Suddenly, I.M says, “EAT THIS!” With that, listeners are off to the races for the rest of the album, a thrilling and mostly fast-paced delight that carries all the hallmarks long-time fans expect from MONSTA X. Ad libs galore, layers upon layers of instruments and sound effects, and tongue-in-cheek comments keep NO LIMIT entertaining from start to finish. They treat their new songs as continuations of songs from their previous eras (specifically, the members have drawn parallels between “Rush Hour” and “Trespass” and “Mercy” and “Nobody Else”). But the songs on NO LIMIT pack a punch regardless of how familiar listeners are with their previous releases. MONSTA X continue to impress with not just high-quality songs, but with their hands-on approach towards crafting them. Their writing and production credits on this album emphasize how the group’s ambition is greater than ever, and that confidence is well-deserved.