The Best New Music: January 2024
A ranking and review of the best new K-pop, J-pop, and T-pop releases!
#20: NARIN’s January Releases
This marvelous acapella group has done it again! With stamina, range, and an approachable demeanor, they guarantee covers and original songs alike get deserved new or renewed acclaim. They added their magic touch to several songs in January: They gave an excellent, modern update to the decades-old “After The Play Is Over,” got creative with a coffee-shop-themed medley of Jung Kook’s solo songs, and knocked it out of the park with the catchy single “NANANA.”
#19: NAQT VANE, Dispersion
Dispersion is an amalgamation of sub-genres that also manages to have a cohesive foundation. Whether percussion-driven (“NOWVERSE,” “Odd One Out”), more down-the-middle pop (“CHRONIC,” “Loopers”), or slow with orchestral flair (“Reminiscing”), the songs share a vocal style and engulfing sensation. Echoes and synth hazes abound, giving versatile songs a shared overlay that clarifies what identity is made out of the sum of seemingly disparate parts. Dispersion has both layers and through-lines.
#18: BABYMONSTER, “Stuck In The Middle”
Those who did not care for BABYMONSTER’s debut single, “BATTER UP,” ought to still give “Stuck In The Middle” a chance. The group shows a brand new side to themselves and has a better opportunity with this ballad to prove their vocal chops. “Stuck In The Middle” also benefits from its universal appeal, with relatable lyrics about feeling trapped in a confusing, unlabeled phase in a relationship. The members sadly sing about their wish for clear answers, and they do so in beautiful settings and while in princess-like dresses. “Stuck In The Middle” is well-done and ought to draw more public acclaim to this rookie group than their debut single did.
#17: JEONG SEWOON, Quiz
JEONG SEWOON warms up winter with this sunny release! His easy-going nature is ever-present, as he sings mid-tempo, feel-good songs with gentle guitars, groovy synths, and an earnestly cheerful voice. The message of Quiz is “Don’t worry about a thing,” and that request to just enjoy the present moment is the theme of the “Quiz” music video. He smiles serenely while chilling poolside and while walking around on a sunny day, singing about how “The problem itself is the problem.” He finds freedom in realizing what he thought was his problem might not be: “My answer isn’t in the answer sheet.” He lives life on his own terms and shows the relief that comes from doing so. Quiz is a helpful reminder that everyone’s “answers” to life’s tests are different, and that is no cause for concern!
#16: yama, awake&build
yama’s new album is hard to categorize but can somewhat be summarized as “city pop meets down-the-middle-J-pop,” although there is much more to it than that. There are ballad-like songs next to racing rock songs and some danceable moments. She keeps her soundscape vast and her vocals surprising. One moment, she is rushing through a song, and in the next one, she is slowing things down and unveiling her inner songstress. Her higher-pitched delivery is extra remarkable in “Hidamari,” keeping the audience’s attention during a relatively simplistic number. Her high voice also proves to be an asset in “Halo,” contrasting in a surprisingly complementary way with BotchiBoromaru’s voice. awake&build has an apt title, offering a soundtrack to the feeling of constructing something new in real time.
#15: Jeff Satur, “Ghost”
The “Ghost” video brings to life a complicated love story, one told through a mix of ambiguous anecdotes and complex emotional residue. The uses of presumed flashbacks and the ways certain items trigger memories of rosier romantic times ensure that each scene holds the gravity of words left unsaid. While it is difficult to keep a summary of “Ghost” succinct, the video’s official description gives it a try: “Sometimes relationships are like a game of hide and seek. But this time… I’ll stop seeking, cause I know I [will] find just a ghost of you.” The video explores this contradiction, the allure of a relationship that simultaneously incites betrayal and sorrow. The video’s scrambled chronology and ambiguous role assignments (Jeff could just as easily be interpreted as playing a single character in various situations as he could be seen as playing multiple characters) keep it unclear which person in the relationship has stronger lingering feelings. Physical objects that trigger the characters’ memories could easily represent an understanding or a denial of the fact that the romance can never return to its previous form. Varied interpretations aside, the choices of Jeff’s character clearly impact the choices and feelings of his loved one, and vice versa, making this video emblematic of the cosmic connection that leaves some lives irreversibly intertwined. Jeff Satur’s moving voice is the final piece of the puzzle that brings this mini-movie to life.
#14: COME, Colors
Between an unassuming intro and an odd outro are underrated dance songs, making the Colors listening experience a contained and short but sweet escape. “LOSE” is a super-early contender for one of the best singles of 2024! It is a cross between Zior Park and Jung Yong Hwa, with some nonsensical backup repetition, serious vocal power, and an attention-holding music video. COME flexes his voice in different ways in the other songs, powerfully belting out “DIVE” and hitting high-pitch-demanding notes in “Call your name.” He shows many “colors” with this EP and bookends the colorful songs with a surprising start and finish!
#13: iScream, Selfie
Now is the best time to get into this J-pop girl group, whose new album is a smorgasbord of their sonic styles. There is classic J-pop appeal in songs like “Pom Pom Pop,” songs that will please ballad fans like “Kuchiyakusoku,” an alternative sound to songs like “iSyyy like that,” and a digital focus to songs like “Koisuru Planet.” They additionally show they are in lanes of their own making through songs like “Catwalk,” which seems to travel in multiple directions at once; “Yumeiro Tear Drops,” which takes an alternative approach to ballad construction; and “Love Me Better,” which moves from an electronic sound to a guitar-focused one that makes for a nice lead-in to the last two songs, which are pop-rock standouts (“Rock Steady” and “The Finest”). iScream take a one-of-a-kind approach to making every song, making the album-listening experience feel much shorter than it actually is and giving listeners plenty of reasons to stay hooked long after the final notes.
#12: Sakurazaka46, “Ikutsunokoronimodoritainoka?”
This song frames existential questions in ways guaranteed to resonate with younger generations. The group ruminates over a state of languishing. They wonder, “Are the happy days gone?” while also asking, “Did I really have that much fun back in the day? / Probably not so special.” What at first comes across as a yearning for youth becomes a warning against romanticizing childhood memories. “Days that I picture are fantasy / They just look beautiful,” they remind themselves. Neither thriving nor despairing, Sakurazaka46 speak to the nuances of a transitional life phase with refreshing pragmatism. The images provoked by their words, like “Alone at a playground in the dark,” remind the audience that childhood isn’t all fun and games, while lyrics like “If you don’t have expectations for tomorrow you won’t get hurt” place value on youths’ psychological inclination to live in the moment. This song looks at long-term and short-term thinking alike with critical eyes, observing both childhood and adulthood as they were and are, rather than what they could be or could have been. Making the song even more meaningful is the music video’s main character: a young woman in a bright orange ensemble, who spins and smiles while clearly enjoying being the center of attention. The character who shows others how to get out of their funk is the one who marches to her own beat, another welcome statement.
#11: TWS, Sparkling Blue
TWS (pronounced “To Us”) describe their sound as “boyhood pop,” and the “plot twist” music video matches that label to a T. “plot twist” is the epitome of youthful and energetic, from the physically taxing choreography to the premise of trying to make friends on the first day of school. The wholesome hangouts in the “FIRST TIME” series of preview videos and the upbeat sounds throughout Sparkling Blue further solidify their bright-eyed image. No detail appears to have been overlooked with this group’s concept: Subtle sonic additions, like a bicycle bell ringing, and choosing to release documentary-style content prior to debut keep TWS’s fresh-faced, boy-next-door demeanor overt. This image is one of the reasons why labelmates SEVENTEEN came across as so endearing in their own early eras, and PLEDIS Entertainment is smart to both rekindle that sense of unbridled innocence and not just copy SEVENTEEN. In other words, TWS’s and SEVENTEEN’s debuts share a source of appeal, but the former’s is distinct from the latter’s.
#10: YENA, GOOD MORNING
It would be unsurprising to discover overlap between YENA’s and Red Velvet’s fans; both acts pair cute-as-can-be styles with spooky ones! In YENA’s case, this takes the form of a character with superpowers (her hero or villain status is up to interpretation), a leather-clad, pink-pigtail-sporting, sword-wielding fighter who seems equally prepared to fight as she is to throw a dance party! “Good Morning” alternates between action shots and performance ones, between black-and-white and in-color scenes, and between comic-book-esque moments and ones that bring to mind a live-action TV show. YENA beams while singing about living in the moment and wishing people “Good Morning,” but her sword skills and edgy outfit choices bring her sweet, innocent image into question! YENA further shows her multitudes on the album’s B-sides, “The Ugly Duckling” in particular ensuring the audience doesn’t get so fixated on her video adventures that they forget about her natural vocal talent!
#9: EVNNE, Un: SEEN
When it comes to solidifying a group identity early on, EVNNE are making all the right moves. Un: SEEN features bold beats, heavy bass, layered vocals, and fun chanting, making each new song both interesting and a natural follow-up to the songs on their debut project, Target: ME. Their songs command consistent attention, and that bold, fixating presence meets its visual match in the “UGLY” music video. Dance scenes in dark, leather looks are interspersed with strange, levitation-filled scenes and 2D pop-ups. Both EVNNE’s songs and new video are action-packed whirlwinds that make replays in order.
#8: Hui, WHU IS ME : Complex
The two words that best sum up Hui’s solo debut: “surprise party”! The pivot from funk-pop and dance-pop to pop-rock mid-album, the distinct collaborators, Hui’s enviable vocal flexibility, and the “Hmm BOP” music video’s surreal dance party all keep audiences on their toes. Hui boasts a prolific resume of writing and producing credits, so it is about time he got to have his own solo moment in the spotlight! WHU IS ME : Complex is that much-deserved moment and is like a box that overflows with contagious feelings that he has been stockpiling for years! While no song deserves to be overlooked, “Hmm BOP” is a smart choice for a main promotional track and matches the exuberance of its music video.
#7: GARNiDELiA, Ten
This J-pop duo remains sensational! The instrumental buildup in the opening number, “-Ten-,” has a “not a moment to waste” feeling, and that momentum is sustained over an impressive time frame. The group continues to show preferences for electronic and pop sounds, but they shake things up again and again, adding rejuvenating post-chorus guitars (especially in “Soten”) and brassy finishing touches (like in “Gen Ai Yugi”). In addition to experimentation, the listening experience avoids tedium by ending with “Only,” which differs from the rest of the tracks the most, and “Future Wing,” which concludes the show with some of MARiA’s best vocals. Since GARNiDELiA’s sound is as conspicuous as ever, the title track’s music video benefits from its “less is more” approach; it plays with light, shadows, and hologram-esque filters in lieu of a plot. Overall, Ten is a testament to GARNiDELiA’s deserved longevity and enduring intrigue.
#6: SEOLA, INSIDE OUT
SEOLA tackles the concept of loneliness in novel ways. In “Let’s Talk (Loneliness),” she objectifies loneliness, describing it as a shape-shifting force that keeps pulling her. She fears the return of that force in “NO GIRL,” but “Without U” shows that she will not let the fear of being alone cause her to stick in an unhelpful relationship any longer. The growth in self-awareness throughout the mini-album is seen in the “Without U” music video, during which SEOLA appears miserable when alone but all smiles when with a companion - who is actually just another version of herself! Her newfound confidence is further made evident through clever details, like the video’s widened screen after she becomes her own best friend. SEOLA’s lyrics and video both show how much bigger and freer one’s world can look after reframing independence as worth embracing.
#5: IU, “Love wins all”
While an apocalyptic video premise is nothing new, the “Love wins all” music video stands out, both by having IU’s heartfelt and romantic ballad as the soundtrack and for the use of two key symbols. One key symbol is a massive clothes pile. As IU and her lover (played by V of BTS) run from the presumed source of the ongoing apocalypse, they move past this pile. At the end of the video, their clothes fall from the sky and are added to it. The second key symbol is a video camera, one they use to literally see the world through a new lens. When holding up the video camera, their surroundings turn festive instead of dystopian. These symbols have a fascinating juxtaposition: While the clothes are a physical form of memory preservation, the camera is used for memory alteration. The clothes left behind are a means of keeping the past in the past, leaving it untouched. Conversely, the video camera revisits memories in an attempt to rewrite the past, making it appear rosier than it might have really been. “Love wins all” is a clever representation of the power of love and the simultaneous urges to revisit and close previous chapters of it.
#4: milet, Anytime Anywhere
milet’s music remains remarkably agile and detailed. Layered piano, guitars, and strings swell as her voice rises in intensity, and she sounds just as passionate when the sonic waves crash. Across just four songs, she sings about gratitude for “clear and painful memories” (“Anytime Anywhere”), trusting that the painful aspects of them will eventually fade away; a desire to return into a lover’s arms (“bliss”); a wish for full disclosure (“Higher”); and a fighting spirit despite having “broken wings” (“Wings”). Anytime Anywhere is a four-track ode to love, one that stays as deeply felt and powerfully communicated in times of struggle and separation as it does in times of euphoria. Finishing touches that compound the emotional blows both ways include stunning high notes and a two-in-one ballad approach (“Wings” goes from sounding like a simple ballad to a power ballad).
#3: AB6IX, THE FUTURE IS OURS: FOUND
THE FUTURE IS OURS: FOUND is the perfect follow-up to THE FUTURE IS OURS: LOST. While the latter dwelled on internalized frustrations and fears, the former looks outwards and finds optimism through openness. In the LOST-era main music video (“LOSER”), the members ran through a tunnel with a dead end, symbolizing a sliver of hope but also an air of fatalism. In the new music video for “GRAB ME,” the members do something even better than break through that dead end: They learn how to dance in the rain, rather than continue waiting for the storm to pass or for the dead end to magically disappear. Multiple B-sides mention the tunnel: in “WHISTLE,” they sing, “City lights illuminate me at the end of the tunnel / We’re never coming down… We are the future now / I’ll paint a perfect future for you.” In “TRAVELER,” they sing, “Facing the light at the end of the tunnel… Bye to my past, which was only dark.” When they are not singing about becoming their own light in the absence of any, they sing about the key to discovering that inner light: love. “GRAB ME,” “ALL NIGHT,” and “ILY (I LOVE YOU)” thank their loved ones for helping them see possibilities where they used to see just shut doors. THE FUTURE IS OUR: LOST did have a “The future is ours for the taking” mentality, but it was muted in comparison to how prepared for that future they seem now, thanks to the strength they have found through companionship. This AB6IX era furthers a motivational story about what makes journeys worth the roadblocks.
#2: (G)I-DLE, 2
The strong suits of (G)I-DLE’s first album, I NEVER DIE, return on 2. They slip vulnerable confessions between songs that embody their devil-may-care personas, balance moments of vindictiveness with ones of pure pain, and bring back lyrics from older songs (such as a callback to “MY BAG” in “Rollie”). They convincingly play the part of villainous characters who relish the demise of their enemies (“Revenge,” “Doll”), but they just as convincingly act the opposite (“7Days,” “Fate”). A juxtaposition even greater than the one between their alter egos and vulnerable sides is the one between the singles’ music videos. While “Wife” takes place in a blank, white setting, where the members wear identical, all-white outfits, “Super Lady” is a silver-filled, sparkly, larger-than-life spectacle! (G)I-DLE do not just have an extreme back-and-forth between identities; they also explore what the extremes of one extreme look like! They take their confident personas to maximalist (when singing about being a “Super Lady”) and minimalist (when singing ironically about doing stereotypically feminine chores in “Wife”) heights! Overall, 2 and its videos are expansive forms of expression that manage to be both exaggerated and confessional. They wear confident masks that slip from time to time, but they are always ready to readjust them - as long as they are the ones who get to do so!
#1: ITZY, BORN TO BE
Both sonically and visually, ITZY make their mark as a group and on their own, making BORN TO BE feel like many comebacks in one! The group-wide songs on BORN TO BE are assertive, enthusiastic anthems. Their vivaciousness rises tenfold with the corresponding music videos, which flex their dancing skills in different ways: “BORN TO BE” keeps the spotlight on large-scale formations and movements, “UNTOUCHABLE” stays choreography-focused but also focused on settings and special effects, and “Mr. Vampire” flexes dance skills while highlighting symbolic props. Further proving the boundlessness of ITZY’s conceptual range are the solo songs and videos. YUNA charms in a pink-heavy room while singing a bubblegum-pop delight, “Yet, but.” CHAERYEONG surprises with the mature, flirty “Mine,” which has an ambiguous music video in which she both follows her own lead and chases after herself. RYUJIN is a dark, gritty movie character in the pop-punk “Run Away.” YEJI rocks red hair as fiery as her personality, along with a new piercing and heeled boots, while dancing through “Crown On My Head.” Lastly, LIA delights with “Blossom,” an R&B-influenced song that ought to resonate with everyone who worries they are not growing fast enough. This comeback proves ITZY were “born to be” eye-catching, multifaceted entertainers.
To learn more about these picks and find out who got Honorable Mentions, listen to the corresponding episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!