The Best New Music: July 2022
A ranking and review of the twenty best K-pop, J-pop, and T-pop releases from the past month, as well as one extra-impressive, category-defying release!
#20: 4EVE, “Boutchya”
Continuing the self-love theme of “Exceptional,” although taking it in a very different direction, 4EVE deliver another empowering anthem. The message of “Boutchya” is one of firm opposition to wasting any time with a sub-par lover, and the confident message goes with a fun dance routine and a catchy, whistle-centered hook. 4EVE invite viewers and listeners to join their dance party, embrace the single life, and prioritize friendships over romantic relationships. It’s a great “Girl’s Night” song choice and another example of why 4EVE deserve a larger global fandom!
#19: Youngtak, MMM
Pop music lovers ought to give this trot artist’s latest release a chance. It is much more versatile than a stereotypical trot album, full of danceable tunes and charismatic vocal deliveries. “MMM,” which stands for “Manners Maketh Man,” is paired with an enthusiastic, likable music video. Synths and playful guitars make “Chatter” another standout. Mellower guitars are the focus of “Second Chance” and “Spaceship,” and the album grows even more stripped-back upon reaching “Be The Moon.” However, the downturn energy-wise does not last long, and a brassy, saxophone-filled number follows “Be The Moon,” “What Happened?” The final few tracks on MMM take a turn for the slow and romantic, keeping MMM balanced as opposed to overwhelmingly high-spirited. Overall, MMM is eccentric and eclectic, sure to win over fans who initially assume it is not for them.
#18: TO1, Why Not??
Despite bump after bump in the road, TO1 have managed to not just survive but thrive as a group. They outdo themselves once again and have clearly given their all to Why Not?? The songs feel fast-paced but have a simultaneous undercurrent of ease; their energetic delivery remains measured thanks to the stable tempos and relatively carefree instrumentals. TO1 encompass multiple moods at once in Why Not??, something that is to be expected already upon hearing the album’s explosive introduction, “Boom Pow.” The funk-pop “Drummin’” also delivers, reviving the marching band concept that has not taken center stage in the K-pop scene for far too long. With a style all their own yet the ability to bring to mind older K-pop icons (Afterschool’s “Bang!” era comes to mind when watching the video for “Drummin’”), TO1 have what it takes to continue to persevere.
#17: WINNER, HOLIDAY
WINNER are back and full of as much infectious energy as ever with HOLIDAY, crooning and chanting their way through layered, sound-effect-filled jams and pop sub-genre hybrids. The light and fun feel of HOLIDAY is brought to life with the “I LOVE U '' music video, in which the members try to make their own romance movie, to humorous results. HOLIDAY pops with personality and is exactly the kind of feel-good release WINNER’s fans have been waiting for for an extended period of time. The most can’t-miss B-side: “SWEET HOME,” which turns a ballad into a varied, interesting track of which YOON-biased fans will be particularly fond!
#16: ITZY, CHECKMATE
“I’m going wherever I want… don’t need no guidance / I’m making my way, I’m on my way up,” ITZY declare on “SNEAKERS.” “Gonna get, get what I want,” they assert on “WHAT I WANT.” “You dumped me, pathetic,” they say on “365,” taunting a past love who is beneath them. CHECKMATE is chock-full of lyrics like these, delivered with ITZY’s trademark sass. CHECKMATE is full of confident bops that stand out not just for their lyrics, though, but for their sonic variety. Funk-pop elements pepper “SNEAKERS,” an industrial layer drives “RACER” forward, the attitude that drenches “WHAT I WANT” is distinct… ITZY continue to find new ways to reiterate their messages of empowerment and self-respect. They do so visually too, showing how they can do anything they set their minds to by taking on a wide range of dream jobs in the “SNEAKERS'' music video.
#15: HyunA, Nabillera
HyunA is back and as bold as ever! From singing about being “fly like a butterfly” on “Nabillera” to being someone’s ultimate muse on “Picasso & Fernande Olivier,” HyunA remains a colorful character with confidence in spades. On the other hand, HyunA opens up about the fear of being alone on “Watch Me” and struggling to move on from someone on “Bad Dog.” However, she frees herself from her fears by reminding herself of her irreplaceability. She tells herself she deserves to live a carefree, spontaneous life in “whatever” and strikes many fierce poses while wearing attention-grabbing looks in the video for “Nabillera.” HyunA admits to having some vulnerabilities, but she challenges self-doubts head-on and makes her fierce, unapologetic persona feel more authentic by doing so. In other words, Nabillera allows HyunA to prove she is the confident icon fans know and love by showing how human and multifaceted she is. She shows how she is so much more than an archetype. She admits she sometimes gets insecure but refuses to let insecurities consume her, and the lyrics most emblematic of that are her references to her previous hit songs. For example, on the title track, she references “Red” and “Bubble Pop!”: “Left a message with my red lipstick / I see a bubble, then I pop it with my edge”!
#14: STAYC, WE NEED LOVE
While STAYC’s debut single, “SO BAD,” emphasized their spunk, “ASAP” focused on their catchy choreography, and “STEREOTYPE” focused on their unique personality, “BEAUTIFUL MONSTER” changes things up by giving their vocal skills the center stage. This refreshing new release shows off a new color in STAYC’s sonic rainbow, as they sing about love in a more mature way than they have previously. They mark the true dawn of a new STAYC era visually as well, wearing sweet dresses and dancing amid unexpected animations in the music video. “BEAUTIFUL MONSTER,” as well as WE NEED LOVE’s B-sides, are still pop songs, but their underlying acoustic tones dial down the expected bubblegum nature of this release. WE NEED LOVE is a new release both literally and metaphorically, and its surprising contents reiterate STAYC’s star power.
#13: P1Harmony, HARMONY : ZERO IN
Read my thoughts on this release here!
#12: [Alexandros], But wait. Cats?
This house party soundtrack moves at a breakneck pace, breezing through diary-entry-esque lyrics without taking time to linger on them. Rather than psychoanalyze their sorrows, [Alexandros] opt to just see the bright side of the things that frustrate them! They prioritize fun over introspection, although the release is still substantive thanks to its visual companion. The “we are still kids & stray cats” lyric video features a man with a TV for a face, fearful cats, and lyrics that appear at times vertically and at other times horizontally across the screen. The viewing experience is discombobulating on purpose, leaving viewers feeling as confused as the cats look! A lot about this visual is up to interpretation: are viewers meant to see themselves represented by the cats, by the TV-headed person, or by both of them? Why are stray cats and kids comparable? What does the person with a TV in lieu of a face mean? The ambiguous meaning of this release keeps it as engaging as it is high-speed. But wait. Cats? is a great J-rock album that uses silliness to get across its thought-provoking ideas.
#11: ZICO, Grown Ass Kid
ZICO was so dearly missed while he was away in the military! ZICO’s exciting return does not disappoint, and he maintains his typical levels of braggadocio and wit. The songs are on the same page when it comes to instrumental business, but they stand apart when it comes to more specific sonic influences. “Trash Talk” is a funky trap song, “SEOUL DRIFT” is a synth-focused number, and “Nocturnal animals” is an alt-R&B track. His range applies to the album’s accompanying visuals as well: he throws a dance party mid-apocalypse in “Freak” and rides his bike through futuristic surroundings in “SEOUL DRIFT.” This is as stark of a contrast as can be: “Freak” shows the future looking dystopian, and “SEOUL DRIFT” portrays the future as full of cool technology. ZICO visually contemplates two possible futures and expresses an attitude of “Either way, I don’t care, and I’m just going to enjoy living in the moment”!
#10: ATEEZ, THE WORLD EP.1 : MOVEMENT
There are many reasons to be impressed with ATEEZ’s newest album, but the biggest one is arguably the myriad of ways in which it circles back to previous releases. Sonically, they draw clear lines connecting “Outro : Long Journey'' to a new song, “Sector 1.” “Dear Diary: 2016.07.29” references July 29, which is the release date of their new album. They nod back to previous releases through the “Guerrilla” music video’s familiar symbols. The lyrics are also full of references to past songs, from lyrics that compare tears to a river (in “The Ring'' and “Outro : Over the Horizon'') to ones that lament how hard it is to determine what is the truth (in “The Real'' and “Sector 1”). Sonically, ATEEZ lean into a rock-inspired sound more than ever, adding screams to “Guerrilla” and running through a list of emotionally-charged words under a thick bass on “PROPAGANDA.” ATEEZ’s new album is both a tribute to their past work and a hint at their future chapters. It revisits some themes core to ATEEZ’s world - teamwork, youthfulness, adventurousness - in brand new ways, and that is a testament to their talent.
#9: aespa, Girls
As detailed in this episode of 17 Carat K-Pop, aespa continue to spearhead the SM Entertainment Cinematic Universe’s origin story, revealing new components of it with every release. This time, their “ep.2 Next Level” short film lays out an explanation of their ultimate goal and the obstacles they are bound to face as they dimension-hop to achieve it. The “Girls” music video is fittingly cinematic, with the return of often-repeated symbols, constant interactions with the camera, as if breaking the fourth wall, and swordsmanship on display. aespa’s roles in the SMCU are clarified more than ever before, but much room is still left to interpretation, making “Girls” an exciting continuation of their story but nowhere near an ending. As for the album’s B-sides, they tend to focus less on suspense and more on friendship. For example, “Lingo” is about a bond so close that the members feel like they have a language all their own. “ICU” sends a message of consolation, backed by a sweet piano melody. “Life’s Too Short” reminds listeners to not get too caught up in internet drama. Overall, aespa show off their multitudes and prove they are ones to watch with Girls.
#8: CHUNG HA, Bare&Rare, Pt. 1
Bare&Rare, Pt. 1 is such a feast for the eyes and ears that it is thrilling to remember this is just the first part of CHUNG HA’s new era! CHUNG HA smartly opts to give listeners a little bit of everything in one release, as opposed to reserving just one specific type of song for part one. She pivots between dramatic, sultry vocals on songs like “XXXX” and “Crazy Like You” and dreamy synth pop songs like “California Dream” and “Sparkling.” “Good Night My Princess” is another standout, both in terms of its stunning vocal performance and its personal nature, having been written by CHUNG HA as an ode to her mother. “Nuh-Uh” leaves the album off on a mysterious note, giving Bare&Rare, Pt. 1 some cohesion by ending on a similar note to that of “XXXX.” After listening to an album bookended by dark, dramatic songs, the audience’s attention can move towards a music video full of light fun! “Sparkling” is a visually arresting video, full of enough color and glitter to put any other fictional aquatic world to shame!
#7: Perfume, Plasma
Perfume excel once again at delivering pristine and experimental J-pop songs. Plasma is a sonic playground with a song for every type of pop enthusiast. The experimental and immersive nature of Perfume’s album is compounded by the “Spinning World” music video, in which they portray wind-up toys and dance robotically. “Plasma” sets up a one-of-a-kind mood, starting off the album with synths interrupted by dramatic drum beats and sinister whispers. Electric guitar riffs and high-pitched vocals carry “Time Warp (Version 1.1),” and the following tracks quicken the pace and add in more guitars. Things slow down relatively on “Flow” before entering full-on EDM territory with “Mugen Loop.” “Drive’n The Rain” brings a city pop vibe into the picture, high-pitched vocals regain attention on “Hatenabito,” and “Android And” kicks the intensity of “Hatenabito” up a notch. Lastly, “Sayonara Plastic World” ends the album with a song fit for a movie’s ending credits. Listening to Plasma is a full-on experience, leaving pop music fans satisfied in every way.
#6: SEVENTEEN, SECTOR 17
Read my write-up about what makes this release so unique and impressive here!
#5: PURPLE KISS, Geekyland
While there is nothing wrong with a “typical” summer-themed comeback, there is something to be said about K-pop groups who insist on maintaining a certain aesthetic year-round, and PURPLE KISS do so with Geekyland. The aesthetics of the “Zombie” era return in the music video for “Nerdy,” which includes a movie’s worth of spooky, magical mayhem! Supernatural powers wreck havoc as the group sings about wearing their “nerdy” label as a badge of honor. Their signature violins and highly-distinguishable voices personalize this catchy track, and their vocals remain irreplicable on the B-sides too. They lure listeners in with the mystical intro (“Intro : Bye Bye Bully”), then present the perfect soundtrack for a host of hijinks!
In a smart move, PURPLE KISS opt not to let their quirky visuals entirely distract from their vocal prowess by singing their highlight medley a capella. Even before Geekyland’s official release date, fans were motivated to gin up excitement for PURPLE KISS’s next chapter through that reminder of their raw talent. PURPLE KISS remind audiences their work has substance and silliness in equal measures!
#4: Xdinary Heroes, Hello, world!
It is only Xdinary Heroes' first comeback, but they are already vastly expanding their music video world and musical range. They dabble in a vast array of rock influences across five lively tracks on Hello, world! They further introduce themselves as versatile artists through their scheme in the “Test Me” music video. The opening message on the screen reads, “If you rig a rigged system, are you a villain or a hero?” They let viewers chew on that as they compete in a Battle of the Bands contest that is rigged against them - until they show their willingness to play hardball and find a way to overcome their initial disqualification. Their act of defiance is an attempt to beat their ultimate foe, an android called Roboctopuss. Their mission to sway the game in their favor ultimately pays off, but their “hero” status does not become universal. In a moment both humorous and revealing, a fellow subway passenger looks up casually and hears the muffled sounds of Xdinary Heroes performing their song in the neighboring subway car! While Xdinary Heroes are competing in surreal adventures and emerging victorious, the people who are just going about their daily lives remain oblivious, only warranting the band a passing glance! Xdinary Heroes become heroes to themselves and for themselves, period. While “Test Me” adds a fun plot to the band’s storyline, it also reiterates the ethos behind the group’s formation: Xdinary Heroes find ways to be heroes by simply being their “Xtraordinary'' selves!
#3: ENHYPEN, MANIFESTO : DAY 1
As detailed in this episode of 17 Carat K-Pop, to say ENHYPEN’s world-building is unique is an understatement, and it remains so through their latest comeback. Symbols of opulence and immortality return in their comeback teaser images, and supernatural powers abound in the video for “Future Perfect (Pass the MIC).” Also on-brand are the album’s intro and outro, which narrate the latest chapters in their story of learning to deal with “lines” and draw their own. On the other hand, this comeback is full of surprises, including a title track inspired by drill music.
What takes MANIFESTO : DAY 1 from good to great are the little things. For example, in “Future Perfect (Pass the MIC),” “You stay?” is a line repeated three times in the song. It is said by all the members in the beginning and fewer of them later on, and the dance movements grow looser during each time they say it. Another example: they demonstrate their “illogic is logic” mentality on “ParadoXXX Invasion” by repeating “No paradox” and “Like paradox” back to back, as if they cannot decide which of these obviously contradictory phrases is more applicable. Then there are the references to the “sunset-tinted wind” and the “melancholy summer sea,” which bring to mind previous references to Shakespeare’s and other writers’ sun-related and ocean-related metaphors. ENHYPEN’s body of work continues to rope in literary connections in clever ways and expand their story, sonically and lyrically. For both those who like to wax poetic about the deeper meanings of songs and those who are just looking for a good time, MANIFESTO : DAY 1 is worth a try.
#2: j-hope, Jack In The Box
Jack In The Box manages to be both nothing like what audiences expected from j-hope as a solo act and what should have been expected from him on second thought! Rather than putting on a temporary persona, acting different for the sake of acting different, j-hope presents a new side of himself in a way that feels and is organic. He picks up where his previous songs left off thematically, and his new sonic direction helps bridge the past and future of his musical journey. The album starts with the story of Pandora’s Box, a narration that pays extra attention to the story’s ending: at the bottom of the box of horrors lies hope. “Hope gave people the will to carry on living amidst the pain and strife,” the narrator says. The following songs are a conversation of sorts with himself, as j-hope contemplates where to find this hope in the bottom of the box, and if he is responsible for finding it. After all, if he considers himself to be the hope, who will be his hope? And what will it take to find his own hope, separated from all the darkness under which it is buried? Ironically, discovering hope requires mining through all sorts of dark emotions and memories, a journey on which “Jack” goes through in Jack In The Box. Jack finds diamonds in the rough throughout his journey: the realization that distinction can exist without discrimination (“= (Equal Sign)”), the possibility of finding a quiet place to contemplate where he is headed (“Safety Zone”), the voices of the future (a children’s choir in “Future”). The grit his mission requires matches the grittiness of his new songs. By the time the album nears its conclusion, it becomes clear how unclear j-hope’s situation is! His quest to find Hope separate from Jack seems to have only reiterated how inseparable they are.
Turning to the visual components of this release, j-hope seems to realize that he has been going about this all wrong: instead of trying to find pure, singular sources of hope, he should try to make do with the Hope that comes with Jack! He learns to make the most of things and surpass any obstacle in “MORE,” when he approaches life with a “Bring it on!” mentality. And although in the video for “Arson,” he expresses frustration with the crossroads at which he finds himself (“Put out the fire, or burn even brighter?”), he also manages to keep on walking. His white jumpsuit from the “MORE” video is also in “Arson,” but it is now dirtied by the smoke and fire, instead of remaining untainted. j-hope’s surroundings are not the colorful or clean ones they once were, but he does not treat their destroyed state as absolute. j-hope’s new music videos represent Jack In The Box’s message about the importance of not letting perfection be an enemy of the good. j-hope searches for his “Hope” by turning “Jack” into a sidekick, rather than a thorn in his side.
Jack In The Box does not necessarily end decisively, but this actually brings home its message more than any complete ending would: life is an endless journey towards finding the place where Hope’s and Jack’s impulses can coexist and balance out each other.
#1: DPR IAN, Moodswings In To Order
Read my separate essay about this release here!
To hear more about these picks and find out which releases got honorable mentions, check out the corresponding episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!
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