The Best New Music: April 2023
A ranking and review of the twenty best new K-pop, J-pop, C-pop, and P-pop releases!
#20: from20, “Bad Revenge”
While from20’s leather look and vocal tone bring to mind Michael Jackson, this song is in from20’s personal wheelhouse. He moves on from a breakup by getting buff and planning to make his ex jealous, but hints of remaining vulnerability peek through his “I’m over it” facade. Flowers soften his appearance, and he admits in the song to crying before he “made a banger.” “Bad Revenge” is an addictive synth-pop jam that keeps from20 in his musical sweet spot, and it is further commendable for having more depth to it than what first meets the eye.
#19: JOSH CULLEN, “Pakiusap Lang”
“Rap” and “ballad” might not seem like they belong in the same sentence, but JOSH CULLEN proves they can! He sticks to rapping in “Pakiusap Lang,” but it is a ballad, with lyrics that agonize over whether or not a loved one is just as committed as he is to their relationship. His desperate need to believe in his relationship’s potential longevity takes an even more unconventional form with the synthesizer voice that stars in the choruses! The song uniquely, simultaneously makes it sound like JOSH CULLEN is having fun and fears the end of the honeymoon phase is just around the corner.
#18: BOL4, Love.zip
BOL4 could sing an encyclopedia’s full contents and still sound riveting! She has a marvelous, one-of-a-kind voice, and it shines in every track she graces. Gentle guitars and pianos accompany her latest love stories, and this release is even sweeter thanks to its aesthetic choices. In the “FRIEND THE END” music video and comeback teasers, pastels, pearls, and florals reign supreme, and home-movie-style footage adds an extra dose of charm. BOL4 delights with both pretty songs and visuals.
#17: NAME, “ON PLAY”
NAME exude likeability and a girl-next-door charm, but they also seize the opportunity music videos provide to have unrealistic adventures! Some scenes focus on their time hanging out together, playing video games and rocking cute casualwear. Other scenes show individual members in front of eye-popping backgrounds and decor. They merge relatable and non-relatable traits in the dance scenes, doing a routine that looks fun to copy while rocking double-denim, Y2K-trend-approved looks in front of a wall written on in black marker. NAME combine approachability with out-of-the-box visuals, making the catchiness of the song itself just a nice bonus!
#16: KIM WOO SEOK, Blank Page
KIM WOO SEOK’s new era stays loyal to his musical preferences: gentle guitars, synth-pop, and some R&B ingredients. What is different now is the scale and striking quality of his visual storytelling. The “Dawn” music video literally takes his story to new heights! He dips a toe in the world of acrobatics, and when on the ground, his backup dancers guide him through more intricate choreography than in videos prior. His wardrobe is also newly expansive, featuring an enormous red hat that pops with his all-black outfit and a range of colors and prints in other looks. The video’s eyebrow-raising ending guarantees that this always-improving performer still has many surprises on the horizon!
#15: TEMPEST, THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
This boy band has carved out a unique niche for themselves in K-pop. Their brand can best be described as unconditional (and perhaps unwarranted!) optimism. After all, their debut track is “Bad News,” a very upbeat song with a super-colorful, smile-filled music video! Ironic humor is the name of the game again in “Dangerous,” in which the boys grin, dance, and play throughout a winter storm. Details like rhinestone face stickers and confetti make for unnecessary but welcome finishing touches! Their unbridled positivity shines throughout THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM, which brings to mind Block B, thanks to hip-hop influences and a wisecracking nature.
#14: Nene (aka Zheng Naixin), “All About That Day”
While this song came out in March, its music video came out in April and takes the song’s impact to a new level. “All About That Day” does not just impress because Nene herself wrote and directed it, but because she did so in skillful ways. The emotional highs and lows of a relationship unfold in ways that seem unpredictable but obvious in hindsight. Nene describes meeting who she thought was the love of her life as being like “The lightning in the dark,” unable to be bottled and recreated. The most powerful scene is towards the end, when her and her ex spot each other at a party. The silent stares from across the room feel like they last forever, when the scene is actually quite short, which is exactly how it feels when that scenario unfolds in reality! By seeing the looks in their eyes, hers being one of longing and loss and his containing flashes of that but more indifference than anything, this video leaves viewers feeling Nene’s pain. Adding another dimension to this sorrowful story: the fact concert footage appears during it. This adds a whole other meaning to Nene’s words when she wishes for people to always remember her. Whether referring to lovers or fans, this story is emotionally effective because of its universal, central theme: the desire to be loved. The video ends with a quote on the screen from artist Amrutha Vedula: “Some people are not meant to be in your life forever. But they [are], in our memories.” “All About That Day” powerfully preserves what once was and what may never be again.
#13: LEE CHAE YEON, Over The Moon
This comeback has treats for both the eyes and ears! The “KNOCK” music video is a colorful joyride, with bright settings, artsy transitions, and constant camera angle switch-ups. It stays visually stimulating when LEE CHAE YEON changes into her nighttime alter ego, a vampiress who performs in a bright red dress underneath a beautiful starry sky and full moon. The songs are just as engaging, especially the full-speed-ahead “I Don’t Wanna Know.” From the bouncy “Line By Line” intro to the final track (the pop ballad “Like A Star”), LEE CHAE YEON takes her audience on a vivid adventure.
#12: GIUK, Psycho Xybernetics : TURN OVER
With the concept of time travel tying all of his songs together but lots of sonic variation among them, GIUK shines as a multifaceted, solo storyteller. He mixes rap, rock, electronic, pop, hip-hop, R&B… sources of inspiration that are as endless as his creative ambitions! GIUK gives his all to even the album’s intro, not wasting a second of his solo debut to tell a warp-speed, one-of-a-kind story in his own voice. After taking a “TIME MACHINE” to 2100, the mood drops as he reflects on a taxing 2020 in “UNBLOWN.” He regains some mojo in 2021 with “EGO,” 2050 with “LOVE VIRUS🖤,” and 2062 with “RARITY.” An autotuned rap and hip-hop focus center his experience in 2077 (“XYBERNETIC”). He ends in 2090, during an “APOCALYPSE” with a soundtrack that has an appropriately fast pace and punk spirit.
#11: Xdinary Heroes, Deadlock
This comeback moves away from the Sci-Fi-adjacent and campier elements of Xdinary Heroes’ past eras and more in the direction of straight-up hijinks. They have already shown the methods to their troublemaking characters’ madness, and now it is time to focus on the mischief itself! The playful pop-rock “Freakin’ Bad” proves to be the perfect soundtrack to their jailbreak. Having fun and ignoring the rules stay the names of the game throughout the rest of the album, as they throw in one sonic curveball after another. Electric guitar riffs, humorous chants, whistles, racing percussion… they treat each song like they are making it up as they go! Xdinary Heroes prove once again to be relentlessly experimental and carefree.
#10: TAEYANG, Down to Earth
With a writing credit on all six songs, Down to Earth stays authentic while showing how TAEYANG’s mindset has naturally evolved since his hiatus. The message of the “Seed” music video is clear, with black-and-white scenes leading up to a scene in color when the sun shines again, and the other music videos corresponding to this era (“Shoong!” and “VIBE”) also keep attention on visuals over plots. This is a smart decision; it allows this era’s emotional heft to come from TAEYANG’s own words. In “Seed,” he nods to eighties and nineties Korean pop with a piano ballad about wanting someone to be “the twilight in [his] somber night.” He pays another romantic tribute to a lover in the mid-tempo, seventies-funk-inspired “Inspiration.” The other B-sides are “Reason,” in which strings accompany an emotional apology for being a “silent sinner,” and “Nightfall,” which stresses his desire to return the favor and be a source of light for his loved one. Down to Earth is musically a look into TAEYANG’s past and thematically a look at the new seeds he is planting.
#9: DAWN, “Dear My Light”
“It’s okay if I lose everything / As long as I can see you dazzling,” DAWN insists. He sings about his earnest desire to watch his former flame keep on shining, despite the pain it brings him. Besides wishing an ex well instead of harboring resentment, “Dear My Light” is refreshing for the ways it highlights what many hidden facets of lasting love resemble. The video shows DAWN posing as if he is an art exhibit, displaying one form after another of what it really looks like to still care about someone after they have left your life romantically. Continuing to love someone after setting them free does not just resemble a peaceful smile or obvious pain. It looks like running in slow-motion (back to or far away from something is up to interpretation). It looks like lying on a stretcher, leaning over a sink, being attached to a harness (again, whether the harness symbolizes a chance to fly higher than ever or a puppeteer’s strings is up to interpretation). It looks like being stuck in a daze during a press conference. It looks like standing alone in the freezing cold. The list goes on and on, and DAWN’s variety in how he conceptualizes his current emotional state makes for a thoughtful and nuanced portrayal.
#8: CHANMINA, Naked
This album is a testament to CHANMINA’s dexterity. Her range encompasses, just to name a few, autotuned rap (“RED”), punk-tinged pop (“Mirror”), and EDM-adjacent bangers (“Love Face”). The music videos that accompany the songs in this album further show her range: “Sunflower” tells a Webtoon-esque story, “Don’t go” makes a visual metaphor out of seeking but never getting a place to drop off emotional baggage, and “You Just Walked In My Life” derives its meaning in less abstract ways. In the latter video, CHANMINA looks ethereal in white while doing an aerial routine and wooing someone in a dreamy forest. It is a surprising but welcome subversion of the song’s context, which is about him seducing her. CHANMINA bares it all on this album, showing her vulnerable and take-charge sides in ways both visual and auditory.
#7: MARK, “Golden Hour”
It is hard to imagine a greater clapback than “Golden Hour”! This song is MARK’s response to a Gordon Ramsay tweet that roasted his attempt at making eggs! Although MARK sings about “calling Gordon now, cause it’s the golden hour,” the rest of the song shrugs off the insult. Instead of being humbled by Gordon, MARK is emboldened and gets ahead of future mockery by accepting an oddball, amateur image in advance! He makes people laugh with him instead of at him, treating his lack of cooking skills as just part of his identity. The underlying message of “Golden Hour”: it doesn’t matter. The audience can do what they want with that phrase, but at the end of the day, MARK’s message is that nothing outside of oneself matters: labels, expectations, demands… What constitutes a “good” chef anyway?! Many images flit across the screen throughout the video, giving viewers no chance to fully react to any one of them. This is interspersed with scenes where MARK treats the world as his literal playground. Viewers are left wondering what “real” even means: when the sunset selfie he takes turns out to have been just in front of a picture of a sunset, does it still count as a sunset selfie? Are the bandmates that wear mascot-like heads using the heads to show or to cover their true selves? And if nothing that flashes across the screen is in “real life,” then what is? MARK wonders, “Everyone is being everyone but themselves, here but not around. Wait, but what does that mean?” Just like the surreal landscapes MARK inhabits, the audience can interpret “Golden Hour” as very philosophical, but they are reminded that it’s just a diss track! The mix of the surreal with the mundane helps MARK make his point: life ought to not be taken too seriously, and weaknesses can actually turn into fun aspects of one’s personal brand!
#6: NCT DOJAEJUNG, Perfume
It is important to have a clear and condensed artistic vision for a subunit to prove its worthwhileness. NCT DOJAEJUNG, consisting of DOYOUNG, JAEHYUN, and JUNGWOO from NCT, deliver that. Their debut is centered around the theme of perfume, so the marketing concept and dance moves that mimic putting on fragrances write themselves! The effortlessness of the promotional strategy matches the ease with which the members harmonize. They work smoothly together both vocally and while acting in scenes together in the corresponding videos. They do not have to stretch in order to encompass many topics while keeping the signature “scent” of this album intact. They refer back to the same motif for an array of situations, using perfume as a symbol of everything from sweet nostalgia for the days of being lucky in love to traces of past love that overstay their welcome. These three prove to make a great team capable of carrying out a clear concept with flying colors.
#5: IVE, I’ve IVE
“ELEVEN” proves to have been just the tip of the iceberg for IVE; the group’s new songs are even more anthemic. The ascendant feel to “Blue Blood” and “I AM” leads into their catchy pre-released single, “Kitsch,” and then an exciting smorgasbord of sounds. The first three songs pique interest that is then sustained across feel-good jams (“Lips”), songs with unexpected layering choices (“Next Page,” “Heroine”), and a power ballad of sorts (“Shine With Me”). As for the “I AM” music video, it literally takes IVE’s fearless image to new heights: they dance on top of an airplane and turn an airplane runway into their fashion runway! Whether in the air or on the ground, they walk and perform with boundless boldness. They confidently strut around in chic outfits, both during that impromptu fashion show and in a fancy hotel. Their enviable confidence can be heard as well as seen; this album screams “empowerment.”
#4: WOODZ, OO-LI
“Journey” tells a profound tale of finding worth from within. “When I paused my step / Comes a flood of pain,” WOODZ admits, but he sings about the “blue sky and wide oceans” that are buried deep inside. Stopping to process feelings instead of running away from them pains him, but he withstands waves of pain by knowing he can mentally escape to his “little island.” “When I walk through this door / Far beyond on the endless road / Will there be the sun shining down on me?,” he wonders. He finds the courage to find out by reminding himself that a sense of stability and peace is already with him; self-reliance enables his journey. “I might lose myself when I leave, but / Deep inside… on my little island / Is where I have kept myself intact / So I’m ready to journey again,” he declares.
Picking up right where the “ABYSS” video leaves off, WOODZ wanders through the same building, but with a new level of self-awareness. Previously, he succumbed to literal darkness, lying in a dark and empty room, all the fight taken out of him. Now, he roams all over the place, indoors and outdoors, diamonds dropping in his wake. “ABYSS” visually represents feeling trapped, and “Journey” does not necessarily depict the opposite. Rather, “Journey” portrays newfound resolve to stop feeling trapped, to value oneself enough to give oneself permission to explore without a clear destination in mind. WOODZ gives himself grace to not have a clear answer, which allows him to soak in the journey.
In OO-LI’s B-sides, WOODZ sings about growing like a phoenix out of ashes. After craving a “Deep Deep Sleep” to distract himself from the problems that are “Drowning” him, a realization hits him. In “Busted,” he sings about figuring out the source of his pain is a lack of reciprocation. His emotional effort is unmatched, wearing him down and making him reach his wit’s end. He calls it quits with accepting an unfair share of emotional investment and decides he is “Ready to Fight” to be given what he deserves. What’s gotten into him? “Who Knows”?! But he goes from feeling undeserving of even one person’s comfort to a “take me as I am” attitude. He goes from despondent to defiant, feeling strong enough to carry himself with dignity and determination.
#3: Marz23, Not So Far Away
Not So Far Away tells a turbulent and full story through unpredictable mixtures of punk-pop, rap, hip-hop, and rock. The album’s gloom is driven by self-loathing, bitterness, and regret, feelings brought to life through the album's skits and instrumentals. However, to say listening to this album is a downer is reductive; it is imbued with silver linings. Catchy beats and repeated reminders that the rainbow will emerge after the storm ensure the story is not nihilistic. Marz23 visually and sonically covers inner struggles, but alongside them is a persistent resolve to push through them. In the video for “Self Hatred,” one version of Marz23 delivers a picture of Superman to the version of himself that sings about the need to get away from an “inferiority complex.” Marz23 also proves to be his own savior in the title track’s video: he climbs a ladder up into the sky, even though he has to take breaks and literally weather a storm during the journey. He never reaches a destination, ending the video still on that ladder but much higher than he once was. That is what Not So Far Away is in a nutshell: an honoring of one’s resentment towards an unforgiving world mixed with determination to stay the course and trust that hard times will have been worth it. Marz23’s message is not that everything is good, but that it will get better, an honest and humbled assessment that ought to resonate with anyone questioning fate.
#2: Agust D, D-DAY
Read the full album review below!
#1: SEVENTEEN, FML
Read the full album review below!
For more thoughts on these picks and lots of honorable mentions, check out this episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!
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