The Best New Music: February 2023
A ranking and review of the best new music from the worlds of K-pop, J-pop, C-pop, and P-pop!
#20: KAT-TUN, Fantasia (Selected Edition)
Fans of K-pop boy bands like SF9 and PENTAGON will especially like “Wild Rose,” fans of NINE.i’s recent releases will like “FLIGHT,” and other K-pop fans will surely find their own personal favorites on KAT-TUN’s new album. KAT-TUN prove to be a Japanese group with large crossover-fandom potential, through borrowing from both K-pop songs’ structures and genre-merging habits (“ELIZA” being a great example of the latter). Fantasia (Selected Edition)’s versatility keeps the listening experience high-energy and a surefire pop crowd-pleaser.
#19: OCTPATH, Showcase
OCTPATH have released quite the “choose your own adventure” Showcase! If viewers like music videos with pretty aesthetics as their strong suit, “Perfect” is a must-watch. Those who prefer videos with a choreography focus should check out “Run.” Those who want more of a narrative should watch the mysterious adventures in “IT’S A BOP.” And for those who do not know what exactly they are looking for in a pop video, “Like” mixes different styles together, as the group dances in casual, denim outfits inside a fancy location. OCTPATH have something for every pop music fan sonically as well. Those looking for a fast-paced adrenaline jolt should check out the opening number, “Mind Blaster.” Those looking for busier, more eccentric pop delights will like “Run.” “Our PATH” is a sweet, piano-focused pop ballad. “Lip Service” and “Hot Thoughts” are for those who appreciate electronic influences in pop songs. The list goes on and on, the point being that OCTPATH combine many concepts into this one comeback, delivering the ultimate Showcase of their colorful group image!
#18: oceanfromtheblue, oceanfromtheblue
Smooth-as-silk vocals breeze through these R&B tracks while staying dynamic enough to maintain interest. oceanfromtheblue plays with electronic filters and unexpected sound pairings (such as a rap-like delivery with a piano in “Brother”) to keep listeners guessing. But at its core, this self-titled album is for R&B fans. Other enthusiasts of this album will include fans of The Weeknd’s voice and retro influences.
#17: KEY, Killer
In the “Killer” music video, KEY’s confidence appears more complete and authentic than ever. He has truly come into his own as a solo artist, and it is a delight to see him return to his retro, synth-heavy musical sweet spot. The other new tracks on this album repackage add more danceable delights to the amazing Gasoline. KEY not only proves that Gasoline deserves this encore promotional run with the catchy tracklist additions, but also with the “Killer” music video, in which he solidifies his “key” role in the SM Entertainment Cinematic Universe!
#16: Haven, “Future Somebody”
Fans of Dove Cameron’s latest string of singles will love Haven’s new song. This Singapore-based, multilingual songstress has a sultry tone that pairs perfectly with this single’s dark, crashing synths and meaning-packed music video. She remains both a pursuer and the pursued, bound to a lover by red string but still voluntarily seducing him. The hold a lover has on her transitions from being represented by the strings that connect them and a black flower in one of her hands to a dance routine’s literal push-and-pull dynamic. Eventually, she dances alone and untethered. Whether she is enjoying or mourning this turn of events is up to interpretation, compounding the song’s contradictory feelings. Haven warns a lover to stay away and not think she’s that person’s “future somebody,” but her desire for full autonomy is compromised by her yearning to be loved.
#15: THE RAMPAGE from EXILE TRIBE, ROUND & ROUND
In ROUND & ROUND, THE RAMPAGE dabble in a vast array of genres, mixing and matching rock, pop, electronic, and hip-hop sources of inspiration. Some songs have busier instrumentals than others, so pop music fans of all kinds are sure to find at least one song that suits their preferences. When there is a more down-the-middle pop song, a busier song is not far behind; the tracklist order has the element of surprise. Standout songs include the collaboration with J-rock icon MIYAVI, “ROUND UP,” the retro “Love Will Find A Way,” and the one-of-a-kind spin on a pop ballad, “KIMIOMOU.”
#14: Marz23 and ØZI, “GASLIGHT”
This earworm combines the catchiness of a pop song with the bite of a punk song. With lyrics like “cut the bull,” “get over yourself,” and “Stop your emotional blackmail,” Marz23 and ØZI leave their deceptive exes in the past - but not without a final fright! In the “GASLIGHT” music video, they cannot have a peaceful afterlife, since they hold onto unresolved pain at the realization they spent “emotional debt” on those undeserving of it: “In the end, [you were] just using me.” Craving vengeance even in death, their zombie characters rise to haunt and take anger out on an innocent person. While this person is home alone and watching a movie, they break in, scare the living daylights out of him, and resolve to keep him as shocked and scared as they were upon being betrayed. Rather than haunting the people responsible for their pain, they haunt someone else, a narrative curveball they pull off thanks to their complete character immersion. This catchy but creepy song and video are an unconventional reminder that hurt people hurt people - or, in this case, that hurt zombies hurt people!
#13: HELLO GLOOM, “Dancing In The Dark”
HELLO GLOOM’s usual sorrow is apparent in the “Dancing In The Dark” lyrics: “Romance lost in the night / I’m all alone / Scared every night / In the cold city / Morning clouds are black / I hoped for the best, but it was always bad.” However, his music video is a breath of fresh air, and viewers get to watch his mood improve in real time. The glamorous performers who sweep him up into a glittery party force him to get out of his own head. No longer being alone with his thoughts proves to be revelatory - or does it? The video ends ambiguously, with HELLO GLOOM wearing what appear to be virtual reality glasses. Has he just imagined being in a happier place, literally and emotionally? “Dancing In The Dark” has some doom and gloom, but it also has glimmers of hope that a happier future is within his reach. How much HELLO GLOOM sees the light in the future remains to be seen, which makes this release essential viewing and listening to keep tabs on his still-unfolding story!
#12: TRI.BE, W.A.Y
Fans who were concerned that TRI.BE’s uber-bright and happy image was gone can now be surprised and delighted by its return! After releasing a performance video for “WITCH” in January, which showed an unexpected gothic turn, the group has resumed colorful and cute antics in the vivid and vivacious “WE ARE YOUNG” music video. Everything is rainbow-colored, from puffer coats to butterfly clips. Adorable antics ensue both inside and outside of a rainbow-themed house: they have a makeup party, dance around an arcade, jump up and down on a couch, sing into a hairbrush, and much more, all triggering nostalgia for the days of teenage slumber parties. After surprising viewers by showing off their underappreciated dancing skills and a more mature image, the group has gone back to the style fans know and expect from them. Releasing “WITCH” before “WE ARE YOUNG” was a smart way to prove that a dependable group image and switching things up are not mutually exclusive.
#11: THE BOYZ, BE AWAKE
THE BOYZ provide two listening experiences in one release. One way to listen to this album is straightforward, just enjoying its mix of R&B, pop, dance, and even folk-rock influences. A second way to take in this album is by following its narrative arc. After THE BOYZ become “Awake” and recognize their crush on someone, they pursue that love throughout the rest of the album. They finally get to meet their crush in person in “Diamond Life,” the album’s conclusion. The high-stakes music video for “ROAR” shows how determined THE BOYZ are to reach that state of a “Diamond Life;” they surmount all obstacles to stay the course. “ROAR” is like an action movie trailer, with topsy-turvy camerawork that compounds the sense of discombobulation provoked by the flashing lights, flames, flying debris, and large number of images that flash across the screen. A downpour, a fall into an underground lair, and surveillance do not deter them either. “ROAR” leaves room for a sequel, and with the two-in-one format of BE AWAKE, THE BOYZ prove to be capable of delivering a great one!
#10: Minhyun (aka HWANG MIN HYUN), Truth or Lie
Minhyun has an ear for how his vocal delivery can best complement the instrument and tempo of the moment, a gift he flexes throughout Truth or Lie. Vocals aside, this solo era impresses with its teaser content. Minhyun massively heightened the anticipation around this release through moody, ambiguous videos. In one preview, he gave viewers questions to ponder while awaiting the release day: “Do you usually have a lot on your mind?,” “Are you a perfect match?,” “Do you want to be solved?,” “Do you ever want to break away?,” “Do you believe in destiny?,” and “Did you answer all of the questions sincerely?” The audience kept Minhyun’s comeback on its radar thanks to these prompts. Minhyun has taken the narrative starting point of a lie detector test and run with it, to visually impactful and sonically delightful results!
#9: STAYC, “Teddy Bear”
Everything about this single and its music video is beyond adorable! STAYC chant and sing while accompanied by slide whistles and other fun sound effects. They subvert expectations with the direction of their teddy bear metaphor: rather than just using “teddy bear” as a term of endearment, they sing about wanting to live life like a teddy bear, just sitting back to enjoy wherever life goes! Touches of literal magic and a mix of relatable (squealing with joy after scoring concert tickets) and unrelatable (having a subway turn into a party bus mid-ride!) scenarios make the music video nonstop fun.
#8: WOODZ, “ABYSS”
In WOODZ’s most poignant and personal song yet, he wisely wonders what it means to be truly known. He admits to feeling scared to show his full self to the world and insists “It’s faster for me to give up on myself than for [anyone] to understand [him].” A more ambiguous layer is added to his story with the “ABYSS” music video, in which he plays the role of a bookstore staff member or librarian. He assists patron after patron, giving them individualized attention, but when he walks up to the counter as if he is the patron, there is no one on the other side of the desk to help him. This moment speaks volumes, as does the way an alternate version of himself lies alone in a dark, empty room elsewhere. He is the only despairing presence; the patrons skip along their merry way after getting their deliveries. The version of WOODZ in the dark and empty room eventually does leave, walking out with purpose and new energy, although where exactly he goes remains unclear. “ABYSS” speaks volumes with its library/bookstore setting: in a place dedicated to sharing others’ stories and interacting with others, when do the people facilitating the sharing get to do the sharing? WOODZ spends his days giving others what they want and need, both materially and emotionally, but it is not reciprocated. There are many ways to interpret the music video and many other aspects of it that are worth pondering over, making this single pack as powerful of an emotional punch as any longer release can.
#7: Rei Yasuda, Circle
Stirring vocal performances are paired with equally affecting visuals to make for profound proof of Rei Yasuda’s irreplaceability. Her raw delivery can strike a chord in even the coldest listeners. She sings not as if she has overcome the hardships about which she sings, but as if her emotions are still unhealed and unfolding. She represents her vulnerable state with mood-setting visuals: barren settings, thick smoke, the absence of most colors… Although the emotional draw of these songs is heightened with the corresponding videos, images come to mind through the listening experience alone. Listening to songs like “HOME THERAPY” and “us” triggers a sense of joviality, songs including “Not the End” and “blank sky” trigger despair, and songs including “each day each night” and “Sunday Morning” provide the chance to mellow out; they are a balm after feeling rawer wounds. The tracklist includes songs in these categories in an unpredictable order, keeping listeners engaged. Circle is a very human album from a chameleonic yet dependably astounding vocalist.
#6: Stray Kids, THE SOUND
As always, Stray Kids sing and rap empowering, boisterous anthems between slower songs about persistent hardships. A huge chunk of their discography is about feeling ready to take on the world, but another huge chunk is about lingering doubts. In other words, their message remains “We can do it,” not “We have done it.” Their refreshing honesty about how facing obstacles is easier said than done keeps their songs authentic. They psych themselves up for the battles ahead in “Battle Ground,” in which they remind themselves “More enemies [will] show up as [they] progress.” The following songs oscillate between pep talks and admissions that they fear getting close to people (“Lost Me”) and hurting them (“DLMLU”). “I wonder why the more you like someone, the more it hurts,” they observe in “Novel.” But despite the worries that plague them, in the end, they commit to giving relationships a try. They end the album with the lyric “I’m still right there,” a comforting reminder that the pain that comes with any relationship does not necessarily warrant fearing and running away from it. Stray Kids’ message about needing each other to navigate the “broken world,” as they put it in “Lost Me,” remains as relevant as ever. One way to find connections with others is through the immense power of music, and they also speak to this power visually: a storm literally blows the roof off the place in the music video for “THE SOUND”!
#5: PURPLE KISS, Cabin Fever
In a fictional universe where a group of witches nicknamed “Purky” fend off evil forces, everyone must stay on high alert. Warnings to not look behind the doors and to not pick up the phone are loud and clear. But the “Purky” show a naive degree of confidence, causing their battles against the evil spirits to persist. They have the upper hand in some moments and appear victorious, with their cold stares and entrancing vocals. But in other scenes, they are literally pushed around and taunted by the invisible spirits. The “Sweet Juice” music video has many twists and turns and keeps the fate of “Purky” a mystery. The sinister story further impresses with its specific aesthetic. The group’s wardrobe combines preppy and prom-ready styles, shimmery makeup, and, naturally, a deep shade of purple. Their carefully-curated visuals keep their characters consistent and sink viewers deeper into their music video lore. In addition to storytelling mastery, PURPLE KISS flex their vocal chops and dancing skills through this comeback, the former through the Cabin Fever highlight medley and the latter through the “Intro : Save Me” video.
#4: JOSH CULLEN, “WILD TONIGHT”
Those who have not heard of JOSH CULLEN will be surprised to learn he is a member of the wholesome P-pop boy band SB19! He casts aside all preconceived notions and shows his solo star potential in spades with “WILD TONIGHT.” In the music video, he immerses himself in the role of a vampire, delivering quips about outliving his enemies and getting to watch both their literal and symbolic funerals. An evil smile comes to mind just by listening to him say lyrics like “I hear the people crying / The sound is so inviting” and “I’m at the top of my league… But I came all the way down just to say hi.” JOSH CULLEN further leans into the drama a vampire character warrants with fierce raps and model-worthy stares. A wardrobe that combines glam rock, vampiric, and regal influences reinforces his clear artistic vision. He knows exactly what he wants to be and embodies that persona with flying colors.
#3: BSS, SECOND WIND
SECOND WIND is a curated playlist of mood-boosters for each part of the day. “Fighting” gives listeners a caffeine-like jolt with its celebratory sound and encouraging lyrics for handling hectic mornings: “Gotta keep going, what else can you do?” They encourage listeners to stay optimistic about the day’s potential, because, as featured artist Lee Young Ji raps, even if a day starts with “playing this crumpled life like… Some down-on-his-luck Beethoven,” there are still “more pages left to play”! “LUNCH” is a sweet R&B pop song about making time for a midday break to reconnect with a loved one. “7PM” is a mellow soundtrack for recharging after enduring the daily grind, with lyrics that push for a moonlit dance by the Han River. The final line of both “7PM” and the mini-album is “be here with me,” which perfectly summarizes the story. BSS are ready to be the happy energy boost people need in their lives, reminding them everyone is in this together. SECOND WIND has a pick-me-up for the morning, afternoon, and night, and the “Fighting” music video has contagious positive energy that is great for any time of the day!
#2: Epik High, Strawberry
As detailed in previous episodes of 17 Carat K-Pop, Epik High have an enviable way with words. They say so much with so little, like in “On My Way”: “Paid the price, but I gave it all for free,” “The world is a busy street, but the lights are out for me anyway,” and “Here’s me waving goodbye with a bloody fist.” The songs on Strawberry are not just songs of struggle; they are songs of triumph despite it. This is clear in “Catch”: “You stopped me when I ran / So thank you very much / And I hate you.” The group makes clear that haters and doubters are not forgiven, and Epik High will persevere not just despite them but to spite them. They embrace defiance over defeatism. They commit to being the bigger person with songs like “Catch”: they believe their “villain arc” is justified, but they later admit to still having the capacity for openness and compassion by saying “Just call, and you know I”m on my way.” Strawberry addresses resentment and resolve, lightening things up along the way with zingers like “My MBTI is IDGAF.” It would not be an Epik High album without quips like this sprinkled throughout the deeper commentary! Strawberry tells a three-dimensional story with the insight and wit for which Epik High are rightfully known.
#1: ØZI, ADICA
Fans of DPR IAN will love ØZI’s work. Although ADICA (aka “After Dark I Come Alive”) is different from DPR IAN’s music sonically, his visual stories are compelling for similar reasons. The introduction video is a personal rumination on the nature of identity, one’s inner shadows, how much of one’s self is shared with the world and why, and what it truly means to be authentic. Literal zombie references and horror movie-esque visuals dramatize the person behind the persona. Ironically, the confessional songs ring truer thanks to these exaggerated visuals; they make the lyrics more memorable. Whether singing about his inner demons or painting a mental picture of literal “Zombies on the run,” ØZI confronts his insecurities and fears with a unique style of horror.
ØZI’s lyrics demonstrate the push and pull that one’s inner demons can have, at times seeming like a source of safety and at times proving to be just a crutch. In “Issues,” he insists “I got issues in my brain / And I love it.” But in other songs, he runs from those issues: “Keep the demons outta reach / Just please don’t let them get to me.”
Some of ØZI’s lyrics are the most relatable to fellow celebrities: he admits to feeling pressured to represent an entire industry (Mando-pop) in “Avant-Garde” (“Mando, Mando, this is the way / No ordinary perceptions to break / All in, our future at stake”) and to face constant public scrutiny (“Cameras in my face… Fake a smile everyday”). But at the end of ADICA, he leaves listeners with a reminder that every human can relate in the abstract, because everyone is going through inner struggles: “[T]his is my ego death / Trapped, I’m just like the rest.” The repetition of this final lyric compounds its resonance.
ADICA encapsulates ØZI’s intriguing and personal, yet relatable, form of storytelling.
To learn more about these picks and find out who received honorable mentions, listen to the corresponding episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!
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