The Best New Music: January 2023
A ranking and review of the best K-pop, J-Pop, and C-pop released last month!
#20: OnlyOneOf, “chrOme arts”
Once again, this group thrives when working with a heavily-distorted instrumental and sultry dance routine. The group’s choreography always impresses, but it does so even more following the release of solo singles that have shown off each member’s different musical strengths. With “chrOme arts,” they quickly discard their individual musical identities and resume performing as one clean unit with ease and synchronicity. In addition to not missing a beat when it comes to weaving between formations, they never miss when it comes to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it outfit changes. They go back and forth between white shirts and black crop tops, keeping the audience interested despite the video’s lack of a plot or detailed setting. All eyes are fixated on the group and ought to stay that way for the foreseeable future!
#19: Shingo Katori and SEVENTEEN, “BETTING”
There is nothing not to love about this feel-good jam! Former boy band member and current solo star Shingo Katori perfectly matches the high energy and likability of K-pop sensation SEVENTEEN. It is always impressive to hear SEVENTEEN make room for so many members to shine solo during a song, so it is even more impressive that they make room for Shingo Katori on “BETTING” too! Each individual’s moment manages to not feel rushed but does stay brief. Vocals ping-pong off of each other in ways that are complementary and cohesive. “BETTING” unleashes a torrent of enthusiasm and theatricality that suit both artists and brings to mind SEVENTEEN’s beloved “HOME;RUN” era!
#18: Jinyoung, Chapter 0: WITH
Jinyoung is the epitome of clean-cut in the stylish “Cotton Candy” music video that suits his voice as much as his personality. His voice breezes through the disco-funk-influenced single and remains just as lovely to hear on the album’s lower-tempo tracks. Adding substance to the light and fun single is its ambiguous music video. Jinyoung plays the role of an unintended leader. A group of dancers follows him everywhere, but so does a cloud over his head. In the post-party scenes, the dancers disappear and leave him with remnants of past fun. The scenes where Jinyoung is alone with his memories can be interpreted in many ways, one being that true loneliness is not resolved with just the physical presence of others. Their mental and emotional presence are required to be truly happy, which is why Jinyoung feels most blissful when thinking about the one who makes him see life as being as joyful and sweet as cotton candy: his crush!
#17: OFFICIAL HIGE DANDISM, “White Noise”
“White Noise” zigs when it seems ready to zag, seeming to settle into a certain rhythm but then escalating without warning. After guitar riffs kick things off, strings are ushered in, and this is just the first in a series of surprising instrumental switch-ups. “White Noise,” ironically, is a colorful song that adds unnecessary but welcome additions to the party as it unfolds! Compounding the song’s excitement is its music video, which shows racing motorcycles, giant amps, and camerawork that never stops swerving. Watching and listening to “White Noise” is like getting on a rollercoaster ride, and it leaves one with the desire to hop back on the second it’s over!
#16: Im DAI, “Dying Message”
This release’s only downside is its lack of a music video! “Dying Message” has a distinct, eerie vibe that balances the sounds of things that go bump in the night with melodious traits, like a haunting choir. Im DAI excels at bringing to life the feeling of desperation and dire circumstances about which she sings. This single is especially worthy of the attention of those who loved SUNMI’s dark, dramatic “TAIL” era.
#15: PRIMROSE, RED MOON
After an absorbing intro and bold title track, PRIMROSE show their softer side with bright B-sides, “COMELY” and “PLAY.” The accompanying music videos also celebrate PRIMROSE’s multitudes. “PLAY” shows the members doing just that, laughing and running around on the beach and on a road trip together. “PRIMROSE,” on the other hand, is full of detailed choreography, large formations, and picturesque details. RED MOON is a strong debut release and gives the world a taste of who PRIMROSE are without erasing all doubt. In other words, the group does a great job presenting their group identity while indicating they still have more to reveal!
#14: BABYMETAL, METAL KINGDOM
This J-rock group has marked their grand return with a triumphant and true-to-them EP. “METAL KINGDOM” seizes attention with its big, operatic quality. Their voices stay atop rapid percussion in some parts and fall below electronic layers in others. They lean heavier on quirky EDM influences in “Monochrome.” The EP concludes with “Divine Attack - Shingeki -,” which has full-speed-ahead guitar and percussion. It ends in fittingly dramatic fashion, with their voices becoming one as strings and bells play them out. BABYMETAL leave a major impact on listeners with just three songs, boosting the anticipation for their upcoming full-length album!
#13: TAEYANG ft. Jimin, “VIBE”
What the “VIBE” music video lacks in plot it more than makes up for in visuals, from the constantly-changing lighting to the leather-filled wardrobe. Since some of TAEYANG’s most popular solo songs are his most emotional ones and BTS member Jimin is known for his group’s substantive discography, it is refreshing to see both artists take a break to just let loose! Seeing artists from different generations of K-pop boy bands team up and show off a laid-back attitude and confidence that appear more genuine than ever is a welcome indication that they have both settled comfortably into their next musical eras. They have gained clear skills in terms of stage presence, making this comeback single as meaningful for fans to watch as any deeper song of theirs is!
#12: YUGYEOM ft. Sik-K, “Ponytail”
YUGYEOM has entered 2023 keeping the nineties/early-aughts trend in K-pop alive and well! This R&B number has brassy tones and guitar riffs that up the danceability. The release’s sense of nostalgia is further provoked by the music video’s 4:3 aspect ratio, a go-to two decades ago. “Ponytail” is also a mood-booster for showing a refreshingly relaxed side to YUGYEOM; this single’s style clearly suits him best!
#11: Novel Core, iCoN
In the best way, iCoN is a zigzagging thrill ride that favors variety over cohesion. The songs flip the formula for an album’s success on its head: rather than immediately grab listeners’ attention with catchy hooks, for example, these songs keep listeners confused at first and bring in the catchy components later! Each song is like a present wrapped in several layers, and each gift box is chock-full of surprises. The best songs are “iCoN,” which is noisey in the best ways, and “SORRY, I’M A GENIUS,” a fun mix of power-rapping and a cavalier delivery.
#10: TWICE, “MOONLIGHT SUNRISE”
In typical TWICE fashion, this single is a treat for both the eyes and ears! The music video has many charming details, from the glowing butterflies to the adorable dance moves. Other cute and very on-brand elements: the way the lights in the windows of a city building form the shape of a heart, the flowers that suddenly bloom in a pastel-painted room, and the building that resembles a heart-shaped locket! Sonically, the song mixes Miami bass with R&B to complement the members’ high registers in surprising ways. “MOONLIGHT SUNRISE” is a lovely teaser of what is to come when the group returns for a full comeback in March!
#9: SF9, THE PIECE OF9
First of all, SF9’s comeback impresses with its tracklist order. The album’s most climactic tracks are smartly placed in the middle. The title track, “Puzzle,” is a source of rising action, and “Stay with me,” a ballad, dissolves the suspense at the end of the adventure. Second of all, SF9’s comeback is worth paying attention to because of its storytelling. The cryptic, mysterious “Puzzle” music video features many images flashing across the scene in the style of an action movie trailer. The energy rises further as the lights start to flash and the group launches into a high-intensity dance break. THE PIECE OF9 might be a personal best for SF9, with storytelling that has become more detailed and cinematic than ever!
#8: Ayumi Hamasaki, Remember you
Remember you is filled with highs and lows, and fortunately, the highs are more frequent and intense than the lows! After a series of speedy dance-pop jams (“23rd Monster” being the standout for its spacial qualities), an instrumental interlude indicates the start of a slower chapter. The energy returns after that but slows down once again for a dramatic conclusion, “Just the way you are.” Remember you has just the right amount of danceable songs to keep the album entertaining, just the right amount of slower songs to dispel notions of tedium, and just the right amount of dramatic flourishes to make the emotional highs and lows memorable.
#7: HUH YUNJIN, “I ≠ DOLL”
LE SSERAFIM’s HUH YUNJIN shows off solo star power in spades in “I ≠ DOLL,” which cleverly refers to both being called an “IDOL” and insisting “I [am not a] Doll.” The angst-ridden song, which she co-wrote and produced, is both a diary entry and a series of affirmations to repeat in a mirror. She sings her refusal to believe she is “just a pretty face” and a “doll to [mess] with,” and rather than internalize public scrutiny, she thumbs her nose at it. She channels her anger productively, not waiting for the world to accept her to start accepting herself. She keeps up her positive self-talk despite the critiques that continue regardless of her self-presentation, as visualized by her hand-drawn, animated self in the music video, who tries on many different looks. No matter what her animated self wears or what she does, critics follow, and she just becomes even more steadfast in her resolve to ignore them as a result. “I ≠ DOLL” is an inspiring reminder - for celebrities and non-celebrities alike - to take pride in being oneself against all odds.
#6: MOONBIN&SANHA, INCENSE
INCENSE takes the foundation of REFUGE and improves upon it. They further hone their mysterious and dark aesthetic with the “Madness” music video. The stark black, white, and red color scheme, intense choreography, ambiguous symbolism, and stunning makeovers bring to life a gothic mad scientist aesthetic! The song itself also shows a new and improved MOONBIN&SANHA, with SANHA trying out rapping and MOONBIN earning a writing credit. “Madness” is EDM/pop, but the B-sides cover a wider spectrum. “Perfumer” is an alluring mood-setter, songs like “Chup Chup” add some levity, MOONBIN’s solo (“Desire”) is a mature R&B song, and SANHA’s solo (“Wish”) is a lovely, guitar-based ballad. MOONBIN&SANHA zero in on one narrative visually while expanding their style sonically.
#5: Hua Chen Yu, 希忘Hope
Fortunately, Hua Chen Yu’s new songs are in his dependable style. He flourishes with long, sweeping songs and the ability to show off a large vocal range. The choir of backup voices echo him, become one with the percussion and guitars, and expand each song’s emotion and power. This album would sound incredible with a live band and choir, especially if performed in tracklist order: the album starts out strong and keeps up its heavy momentum until the final track, which lightens things up and turns the audience into sing-along participants instead of tense observers. 希忘Hope is a journey and fittingly ends with a sign of, well, hope!
#4: NewJeans, OMG
As detailed in an episode of 17 Carat K-Pop, “OMG” is another classic NewJeans song in several ways. NewJeans’ singles do not have one sole “It” factor; they keep people watching and listening to pick up on more and more subtle details over time. This accumulates into feeling impressed with their care to both sonic and narrative detail and their individual strengths. “OMG” mixes hip-hop, UK garage, trap, and R&B styles, but that description does not do the song justice. Similarly, it is hard to neatly summarize the premise and appeal of its music video, which draws from the movie I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK. NewJeans’ releases need to be seen and heard to get the full picture, and that substance and uniqueness are what make OMG original and commendable.
#3: NCT 127, Ay-Yo
Following the release of a new selfie-style video for “1, 2, 7 (Time Stops)” to celebrate “127 Day” (January 27), NCT 127 use Ay-Yo to maintain the charm offensive! This album repackage proves its worth with busy, hip-hop-rooted additions that embody the group’s identity. They remain as entertaining as ever, piling on layers of instruments, sound effects, and vocals with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. Besides the experimentation, the new songs are Peak NCT in the ways they turn noises that would typically be annoying into catchy ones! They work their magic with sharp alarm sounds on “Ay-Yo,” softening the edges with galvanizing chants and smooth, flexible vocals. With “Skyscraper,” they again turn a mess into a melody and spit raps at an exhilarating speed. They give “DJ” their all too, but in a very different, more cheerful way. As is to be expected from them, they are not afraid to sound over-the-top, “feeling wonderful” loudly and proudly! Visually and sonically, Ay-Yo is NCT 127 in their wheelhouse - their unconventional, versatile wheelhouse!
#2: MONSTA X, REASON
REASON is more instant cannon in MONSTA X’s discography, mixing things up just enough to keep listeners hooked but guessing. It remains evident that the group takes a hands-on approach to writing and producing. From JOOHONEY’s ad libs to KIHYUN’s high notes, each member’s personal strengths get to shine and be flexed in new, irreplicable ways. The best songs: “Crescendo,” which melds drill music with traditional Korean instruments, the vivid “LONE RANGER,” and “Beautiful Liar,” which takes listeners on an exhilarating ride and gives HYUNGWON’s voice a bigger-than-expected spotlight. The single’s music video amps up the song’s suspense, including Easter eggs long-time fans will appreciate and large special effects that keep it enjoyable for casual fans too.
#1: TXT, The Name Chapter: TEMPTATION
Read a separate essay about TXT’s profound storytelling and listen to the corresponding podcast episodes at the links below!
“The Name Chapter: TEMPTATION Study Guide”
To hear more about these choices and find out which releases got honorable mentions, listen to the episodes of 17 Carat K-Pop that are linked to below!
Best of January, Part 1:
Best of January, Part 2:
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