The Best New K-Pop, J-Pop, and C-Pop: March 2022
A ranking and review of the twenty best releases of the past month!
#20: eSNa, “Lovely Day”
Come for the cute Valentine’s Day decor, stay for the adorable puppy in a tuxedo! As eSNa sings about her disdain for performative displays of affection (“I don't like the color pink, and Lord knows I don't like flowers”), she finds herself swept up in the spirit of the day anyway (“But to my surprise, I had some lovin' for some givin'”). Two realizations are clear by the end of the song. One is that eSNa’s problem with days like Valentine’s Day is not with the actual content of those days but the underlying premise of setting aside certain days to treat a loved one right (“Don’t let one day… be the only day you try your best”). The second realization: the loved one she is singing to is her adorable dog! “Lovely Day” is a charming music video for a song that does not compromise its honesty for sweetness. It reminds the audience to appreciate their loved ones every single day, including furry friends!
#19: NAME, “Say My Name”
“Say My Name” is a prime example of how C-pop songs could become smash hits among K-pop fans if only the promotional infrastructure was there. “Say My Name” has the melodic complexities of a K-pop song and a music video with comparable strong suits, with its cinematic visuals and emphasis on choreography. There are two main standout moments during the song and video: the dramatic pre-choruses, which seem to add sounds as they progress, and the final part of the video, when the dance routine’s tightness reaches a new peak. The unconventional placement of the dance routine’s climax leaves the audience ready to press “Replay” and give the video a closer look. The song itself also deserves several replays before formulating an opinion about, as there are several hooks listeners can latch onto, and each layer deserves its own time to shine.
#18: KIM WOO SEOK, 3RD DESIRE [Reve]
Read my coverage of this comeback here!
#17: THE 8, “Hai Cheng”
This beautiful ballad from SEVENTEEN’s THE 8 proves his artistry expands well beyond pop songs like “Side By Side.” While “Side By Side” allows for an endearing music video to be the focus, the attention moves to THE 8’s impressive, irreplaceable voice on “Hai Cheng.” Although the song shows off his unique musical style, it also feels particularly touching given the metaphors used that also appear in SEVENTEEN’s music. The core metaphor in “Hai Cheng” is ocean waves, representing everything from choppy waters in a relationship to the color of a loved one’s eyes. He also uses the ocean in a simile: “Listening to the waves crashing onto the rocks side by side / Is like whispers in my ear / At times too careless / At times too careful / Afraid I might wake up from this dream.” Like ocean waves, references to flowers (“When blossoms bloom expressions”) and shadows (“The silhouette of the shadow”) bring to mind SEVENTEEN’s repeated usage of those same metaphors. “Hai Cheng” is both a song that lets THE 8’s solo star shine and an indirect reminder of THE 8’s irreplaceable role in SEVENTEEN.
#16: Perfume, “Flow”
Perfume prove why they deserve their status as influential figures in the global spread of J-pop enthusiasm. Their outstanding impact on the world of J-pop is felt with “Flow,” an accessible song for new-to-J-pop listeners that does not betray Perfume’s musical roots either. Perfume manage to bring out universally appreciated elements of pop music in their work in a way that feels inventive rather than compromising. “Flow” is a reminder that their songs are not watered-down J-pop, but a new spin on it. The “Flow” music video is also commendable. The members continuously create and then destroy CGI worlds with a mere wave of their arms, as if they are painting vivid scenes on an Etch A Sketch. The ever-changing image on the screen is positively mesmerizing. In short, “Flow” is another visual and auditory success for Perfume.
#15: MOONBIN&SANHA, REFUGE
REFUGE proves that MOONBIN&SANHA are capable of making a performance feel full with just the two of them. This is not to say anything against their band, ASTRO, but it is a commendable feat to command as much attention as a group-wide performance can with just a duo. “WHO” is the right call for a title track and reinforces this duo’s star power. The music video, inspired by exorcism-related stories in Webtoons and movies, takes place in a dark chapel. The scene gains suspense as the lyrics do: they go from saying “Run” to “Run / Who’s the greatest?” to “Run / Who’s the greatest? / I’mma run.” Interestingly, they assert their dominance on “WHO” to an extreme extent, yet they expose their vulnerability on “Ghost Town,” another single off of REFUGE. “WHO” is about clinging onto someone or something, while “Ghost Town” is about letting go. REFUGE covers a broad spectrum of emotions in ways that are effectively exaggerated for cinematic appeal.
#14: Cherry Bullet, Cherry Wish
Cherry Bullet prove their comeback has been well worth the wait! The “Love In Space” music video makes up for lost time with a visual feast. After dancing in a decadent party room, the girls follow a magical cat with color-changing eyes into an elevator that transports them into a magical garden. A tree grows and light pink flowers bloom before their eyes, making the garden full of flowers and butterflies even more picturesque. The group dabbles a bit in a new-to-them style too, rocking leather outfits and delivering the “Love In Space” verses in a rap-like fashion. The group further tries new things on the album’s B-sides. From the retro flair of “Hiccups” to the chipper “KKa KKa” to “My Boo,” with its funky synth breakdown and playful chanting, the group reminds fans why they have waited so long for their return and prove they have taken the past year to grow and prepare some fun surprises!
#13: OH MY GIRL, Real Love
OH MY GIRL make an adorable, fortunate return to the CGI-filled realm they inhabit in the “Nonstop” music video. The magic of “Dun Dun Dance” is recaptured too, by each of them once again getting solo shots in different settings that match their personalities. The “Real Love” music video is as charming as its song is, effectively channeling the sense of amazement and wonder that comes with falling in love. They compare the feeling to being exposed to fresh scents and new sounds, as if a whole new world is unfolding before them. They bottle this excitement and save some for the album’s B-sides, which are classically OH MY GIRL in their cuteness and playfulness. However, songs like “Kiss & Fix” show off a matured, more controlled vocal delivery. Real Love is a testament to OH MY GIRL as they are and to their very organic growth.
#12: KWON EUN BI, “ESPER”
This moombahton song sounds straightforward on its face, with KWON EUN BI boasting about how she contains multitudes and has talent in spades. However, lyrics like “Surprised by my hidden self” take on a new meaning with the “ESPER” music video. She plays a detective who is tasked with carrying out a hit on someone while trying to avoid a hooded woman who roams the woods. It turns out this woman she is told to fear is herself, and the hood-wearing KWON EUN BI takes the detective KWON EUN BI to safety. While interpretations can vary, one lens through which to see this story is one of self-discovery. “Once the full moon rises, I can be anything,” she asserts, after realizing all the tools she needs to tackle fearful situations are within her already. She strengthens her resolve and learns to question the voice within her that perpetuates self-doubt. The sinister premise of the music video compels the audience to stay put as KWON EUN BI takes the story in a lighter, more metaphorical direction. The storytelling through “ESPER” is compounded by the use of color. The pop of red on the “evil” KWON EUN BI (the hood), on the detective KWON EUN BI (the lipstick), and in the detective KWON EUN BI’s hands (the envelope with her enclosed mission) simultaneously draw a throughline between the two KWON EUN BIs and show how miniscule the differences between them really are, along with how easy it can be to ignore those differences (in this case, represented by ignoring the envelope’s directions to do something immoral in order to prove oneself worthy).
#11: Cheng Xiao, “Lonely Beauty”
(Note: although this song is from late February, the music video’s official release date is March 1st, and since this review is focused on the video, this release qualifies for a “Best of March” win.) There are many ways to interpret the presence of a little girl in Cheng Xiao’s music video. It can represent a younger version of Cheng Xiao, but it can also represent the generation growing up after Cheng Xiao’s. Either way, the little girl faces a host of symbolic obstacles. She is surrounded by people in gas masks carrying torches, has a plastic sheet draped over her head, and is later left in a glass box. She is treated as an object, and the gas mask-wearers are the spectators. This action unfolds while Cheng Xiao sings a tragic tale to unexpectedly danceable music. The contradiction actually emulates, rather than distracts from, the song’s core message: it’s lonely to be treated as a beauty, since society’s definition of who is one is so narrow. Those who do not meet a social expectation of beauty are scoffed at, but those who do face their own struggle: they become objects of the public’s gaze and fascination. Cheng Xiao ruminates on this double-edged sword while dancing a carefully choreographed number and singing about wanting to let go instead. Perhaps she can release her inhibitions upon waking up, but that thought is quickly shut down as the camera zooms out. At the end, the image of Cheng Xiao waking up appears to have just been part of the show, one the little girl now watches on a TV screen. There is no escaping from certain social influences and pressures, and “Lonely Beauty” sends that message in ambiguous, compelling ways.
#10: MIYAVI, Strike It Out
Fortunately, these two songs remain in the same vein as the songs on Imaginary, MIYAVI’s latest full-length album. Thematically and sonically, they could easily be added onto a deluxe edition of Imaginary, although they certainly do deserve this spotlight on their own. “Strike It Out,” true to MIYAVI, is a rousing anthem that preaches unity and perseverance. The music video shows how people from all over the world feel lit from within by the same magical force; there is something supernatural and surreal about tapping into a person’s full potential and realizing the butterfly effect that can result from it. “And in this moment… we share this fate,” MIYAVI reminds them. The video represents how letting one person’s light shine as bright as it possibly can does not diminish one’s own light in any way. On the contrary, it triggers the lighting-up of fires within more and more people.
If listeners are just looking for a good time, “Dumb” is a must-listen! “This goes out to the people gone mad / Feels good so you know that it’s bad,” he sinisterly sings. The distorted vocals, electric guitar, and evil laughter make “Dumb” worth head-banging to - even before the hard EDM beat enters the picture!
#9: TVXQ!, Epitaph
“Epitaph -for the future-” is both an excellent song on its own and an excellent choice for TVXQ! specifically. With the sounds of a marching band colliding with operatic rock and a host of other instrumental styles, the song demands nothing less than a massive stage presence. TVXQ! deliver, with powerhouse vocals and an attention-holding music video.
While it is reasonable to see working with only one other person as a hindrance when planning a larger-than-life performance, TVXQ! prove they do not see it that way. In fact, they reinforce the fact there are only two of them and still manage to make their performance feel complete and commanding. In the “Epitaph -for the future-” music video, U-Know enters the doorway on the left, labeled “Heaven,” and Max Changmin enters the doorway on the right, labeled “Hell.” In “Hell,” Max Changmin plays a rowdy, uncontrollable character, while U-Know remains clean-cut and focused in “Heaven.” Both of them throw themselves into their respective characters, allowing them to tackle this challenging song with ease. They treat the album’s B-sides with a similar degree of intensity and personality, making this release an instant TVXQ! classic.
#8: SUPER★DRAGON, Force to Forth
From the next-level rapping on “2U” to the rock anthem “Shut Up, Shout Out,” SUPER★DRAGON know how to keep listeners’ energy at a fever pitch. Granted, there is also a ballad, “-Tweedia-,” but overall, Force to Forth is a bold force to be reckoned with, and each song distinguishes itself with a unique combination of tempos, instruments, and vocals. EDM, rock, and pop fans alike will find something to love about this album.
The opening number, “Welcome to my hell,” accurately sets the tone for the rest of Force to Forth. It teases a combination of eerie and carefree moments, a back-and-forth between rapping and singing, and a pendulum swinging wildly between a feeling of complete control and one of losing it all. “Welcome to my hell” teases both the house of horrors in store and the cavalier attitude with which the band will walk through it. In terms of both instruments and vocal delivery, “Welcome to my hell” is a taunting teaser for the twists and turns to come.
#7: Nogizaka46, Actually… (Special Edition)
“Actually…” is one of Nogizaka46’s best songs to date and the perfect album opener. The atmospheric, suspenseful buildup in the first half leads into a more peppy, on-brand second half. This back-and-forth between dramatic and lighter feelings comes and goes throughout the album, ensuring long-time fans get more of the sound they love from the group and new fans get a reason to give this group a chance.
With over forty members, saying it is a challenge to structure songs for this group is an understatement, but these songs manage to repeatedly do so effectively. When instrumentals swell, the group’s harmonies recede and vice versa. The group’s unified voice is akin to that of a live choir performance, and this release knows just when to turn the volume up or down on this choir. Unique combinations of instruments have their moments to shine that keep their distance from the moments where their vocals deserve that spotlight. There is a lot to love about Actually…, and the song structures ensure each reason is realized on its own.
#6: Solar, 容 : FACE
Even this album’s premise on its “face” is worth appreciating! The Chinese character for Solar’s middle initial translates to “fresh face.” Although the inspiration for this album stems from something personal, Solar intentionally broadens the scope of her message. Rather than solely sing about self-love, she instead sings about the many shapes and forms in which beauty comes. In the video for “HONEY,” Solar channels a different persona for every outfit and scene, with each outfit a different color. Challenging restrictive beauty standards is a deep premise, but she keeps this album light and fun with her humorous lyrics and expressive voice. “Wearing a cropped T-shirt, it was red,” she says on “HONEY,” a reference to Winnie the Pooh. “It’s okay to overflow,” she says on “Big Booty.” “Even your dad jokes / Almost like Jimmy Fallon show to me,” she says flirtatiously on “chap chap.” 容 : FACE is as vibrant of an album as the rainbow of colors she rocks in the “HONEY” music video, and Solar’s cheeky commentary keeps 容 : FACE from being too serious.
#5: KIHYUN, VOYAGER
“Voyager” is a great key word around which to center a solo debut: it is broad enough to allow for experimentation across tracks yet clearly defined in a way that keeps that experimentation from lacking cohesion. KIHYUN delivers this concept at its full potential, covering a spectrum of vocal pitches and personality facets across three pop-rock tracks. In the “VOYAGER” music video, while beaming and looking fully in his element, KIHYUN rocks out to a tale of falling in love and feeling free as a bird. On “, (COMMA),” he uses grammar as a metaphor for his relationship, pleading for his relationship to be a small reprieve (a comma) instead of an ending (a period) or a question mark. He pivots from a higher register on “, (COMMA)” to a lower one on “RAIN,” singing as if dark clouds have suddenly replaced the sunny, bright blue skies in his story. With newfound angst, he likens the feeling of missing a loved one to getting stuck in a downpour. Overall, KIHYUN covers an impressive array of emotions and musical styles in just three tracks, making VOYAGER an exciting indication that this is just the tip of the iceberg for his solo capabilities.
#4: NCT DREAM, Glitch Mode
As detailed time and time again on this show, NCT take on an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to music that turns messes into magic, and this release is no different. NCT DREAM continue NCT’s tradition of daring to pair sounds and styles together in ways that shouldn’t work but manage to anyway. Each song is sonically chaotic in the best way! Sounds that might be just plain annoying on their own, like sirens, are given a melodic makeover when paired with sing-along-ready chanting, for example. It is hard to be annoyed by a noise when that focal point is replaced by a fun, engaging one. From “Wee ooo wee ooo” to “Ayy ayy ayy,” NCT DREAM can make anything fun to sing along to! The near-overload of sounds sweeps listeners up in a contagious, celebratory mood. The ultimate feeling when listening to this album is one of happy confusion, a sense of having no idea what is going on but being glad it’s happening!
Glitch Mode’s party-ready soundscape has its moments of relative calm, such as the R&B-based ballads “Teddy Bear” and “Never Goodbye.” However, a high-energy follow-up is never far behind.
Aside from the fullness of these tracks, Glitch Mode is highly enjoyable for its classic hip-hop inspiration, pleasant harmonizing, and cute title track video. The “Glitch Mode” music video premise is NCT Music Video Universe theorist fodder that is also fun for audience members who are not in the loop. The members play two roles: game store employees and Cupid-like characters. After the machines in their matchmaking headquarters (aka the “Dream Lab”) “buffer” to the point of a full breakdown, an inexplicable, indoor snowstorm causes the video game store to freeze. Their “Cupid” characters are unprepared for the intensity of the crushes they have to respond to, causing a communication breakdown in an unimaginably bizarre way!
Overall, Glitch Mode has many layers to appreciate and is an engaging comeback through and through for fans of all kinds.
#3: Red Velvet, ‘The ReVe Festival 2022 - Feel My Rhythm’
In a cross between a garden party, an art exhibit, and a ballet recital, Red Velvet’s new music video takes their signature style to the next level. “Feel My Rhythm” has a princess-ballerina aesthetic and the energy level of a live theater production. Over-the-top antics ensue in an on-brand way; Red Velvet solidify their unique image by leaning further into the quirky, visual extravagance for which they have become known.
Red Velvet do not provide an equal, formulaic mix of comeback concepts. Rather, they merge concepts together in unpredictable, unconventional ways. “Feel My Rhythm” pairs a classical music sample with trap beats. “Rainbow Halo” centers angelic, high-pitched voices that are abruptly replaced with bold, dynamic deliveries on the track that follows it, “Beg For Me.” “Good, Bad, Ugly” mixes airy and deep layers. The ways in which Red Velvet prove they can switch things up on a dime throughout this album are endless.
With storybook aesthetics and theatrical flourishes (not to mention the Easter eggs tying the “Feel My Rhythm” music video to the larger SM Entertainment Cinematic Universe, in ways that will be addressed in an upcoming episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!), Red Velvet ensure this comeback is one to remember.
#2: Stray Kids, ODDINARY
Read my review of this album here!
#1: (G)I-DLE, I NEVER DIE
Read my full review below!