The Best New Music: July 2023
A ranking and review of the twenty best new releases from K-pop, J-pop, C-pop, and T-pop artists!
#20: Nana Ou-Yang, “Mama Said”
“Mama Said” proves Nana Ou-Yang can pull off a pop-punk pivot. A murmuring bass provides the right background for her cavalier attitude, and she wards off monotony by adding percussion and unexpected volume changes. Whether reiterating what “Mama Said” loudly or while whispering, the repetition proves that she knows what is expected of her; she just doesn’t care! She is determined to go her own way and sings about doing so in the bridge, but while maintaining an “I don’t care” demeanor. Nana Ou-Yang channels the angst warranted by punk-infused pop and the catchy repetition warranted by pop-infused punk! “Mama Said” is a good song, but it becomes a great one because of her skill with emotional yet understated delivery.
#19: Defying Decay and Violette Wautier, “Clouds”
“Clouds” is proof that some collaborations with artists who seem worlds apart are still worth trying. The alt-metal act Defying Decay has surprising compatibility with the sweet-voiced Violette Wautier. She joins the band’s musical world effortlessly, making the music video feel like a natural conclusion in Defying Decay’s trilogy. It is a Bonnie-and-Clyde-inspired finale, but the appeal of the song itself comes from its autobiographical nature. They play characters in the video but let the lyrics tell their real-life story, about reaching for the sky and redefining what’s possible when pulling off a genre pivot. The band concludes one narrative while starting the next one, and Wautier perfectly smooths this transition.
#18: from20, “Beat It”
As discussed a ridiculous amount of times already, from20 knows what his musical sweet spot is and continues to thrive there! “Beat It” further solidifies his image as a dependable maker of synth-focused gems. The one drawback is how short the song is, but that hopefully works to his advantage when it comes to social media buzz and wider recognition! Another admirable trait to this release is its emotive group choreography. Never before has from20’s solo music video packed such a powerful punch, and it’s thanks to changing his focus from his demeanor to his dancing.
#17: Jung Kook ft. Latto, “Seven”
While there is much to be said about intricate soundscapes, there remains a timeless appeal to relatively simple, crowd-pleasing hits! “Seven” has that straightforward appeal: It has proven to be chameleonic through remixes, a vibe that varies between the clean and explicit versions, and a chorus that goes from annoying to an earworm! Having an initial dislike for the song and its repetitive, basic chorus is understandable, but so is the impulse to keep on playing the song “just one more time,” because of Jung Kook’s mellifluous voice, the danceable UK garage beat, and the extra bit of personality added by Latto’s rap. Overall, “Seven” is a malleable summer jam.
#16: ITZY, KILL MY DOUBT
With decadent layering and no shortage of auditory zigzags, ITZY’s latest release is a very colorful treat! The “ITZY like that!” declaration, “Lalala” moments, and horns exude summer party vibes in “CAKE.” They sing about treating life’s hardships as a cakewalk, and that mindset shift continues with “BET ON ME” and “None of My Business.” The second half of the album moves from a theme of gaining confidence to fully having it. “Bratty” and “Psychic Lover” remind listeners who’s boss. The best is saved for last: the techno-synth, surprise-filled “Kill Shot.” Its brevity makes it suitable for an album intro, but it seems right as the conclusion in hindsight. ITZY make sure people remember their name by capping off their assertions of self-worth with what could pass as their theme song!
#15: MISAMO, Masterpiece
Masterpiece aces its assignment as the perfect musical accompaniment for the artwork-themed “Do not touch” music video. More often than not, the songs maintain a sultry and R&B-derived sound, a relatively slow contrast to TWICE’s group-wide bubblegum pop; this TWICE subunit expands their artistry through this release. Their voices stay in-control and calm; they sound confident that their flirtatious words will bring listeners under their spell when the time is right. Masterpiece is an unrushed and cohesive release that impresses with its tonal contrast to the image for which the members have been previously known.
#14: UVERworld, ENIGMASIS
The songs in ENIGMASIS make for a wild ride! Each instrument delivers 110 percent, charging forward like time is of the essence. Voices follow the instruments’ leads when it comes to having a literally and figuratively loud presence, making these jams unforgettable! The songs might be UVERworld’s most eclectic ones yet. Standouts include the sonic whirlwind that is “VICTOSPIN” and the saxophone/drum/guitar combination that makes up “FINALIST” (ft. ANARCHY).
#13: JUN, “PSYCHO”
JUN questions who the real freaks in this world are while unleashing his own inner freak, and he wonders which norms need to be destroyed while literally destroying things! He effectively acts out the song’s themes in subtler ways too. There is an unsettling, mad gleam in his eyes as he unleashes a maniacal laugh that makes the line between laughs and screams feel comically flimsy. His mad mind seems to control his surroundings more than anything; fires starting and other chaos ensuing seem to be of his own doing without any visible movement. He contemplates how “In this world, desires become sins / Innocence becomes assimilated and gets mocked / Don’t think it’s surprising, both you and I exist as freaks / Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re an exception.” In other words, everyone is mad here! So he decides to embrace his inner madness, choosing screaming/laughing instead of clinging to apathy, like he once did while walking on a treadmill, just going through the motions of daily life.
The final meaningful moment in the “PSYCHO” music video is when a rose and chains tumble out of a box. JUN ends in the outfit and setting he started in, and the rose’s symbolizing of escape is further tempered by the presence of the chains. JUN has freed something, but he is still constrained. He has challenged social scripts but resorted back to them at the end of the day. How much this reversal is intentional or due to forces outside of JUN’s control is left up to interpretation.
JUN shows the seismic impacts each individual can have on an environment, how easy it is to redefine go-to behaviors and attitudes, and how jumbled one’s feelings can get upon unleashing that potential.
#12: EXO, EXIST
EXIST strikes nice balances between suggestive and overt lyrics, R&B/pop and synth-pop material (with other influences sprinkled throughout too), and busier and less-busy instrumentals. Easy-listening songs like “Cream Soda” and “Love Fool” are between more alternative, funkier ones, like “Another Day” and “Regret It.” It was an interesting choice to make the pre-release singles from the former category only. Fans first got a clear understanding of EXO’s feelings through the straightforward and relatively simplistic “Hear Me Out” and “Let Me In.” Later, the comeback revealed more intricate instrumental impulses and more abstract lyrical tendencies. At first listen, EXIST seems less exciting than previous EXO eras, but there appears to be much more to these songs upon further listens. This is a classic EXO album, albeit in surprising ways.
#11: NiziU, COCONUT -Deluxe Edition-
COCONUT has plenty of polished pop bops, but NiziU’s most exciting new tracks are the ones that stray from their typical path. The bass sputtering in “All right” gives it an ironically malfunctioning feel, and “Take it” pairs attitude with angelic, high-pitched voices. A high-pitched celebration is also the theme of brassy songs like “Love & Like” and “LOOK AT ME,” but the mood mellows out for songs like “Raindrops” and “secret.” Further showing NiziU’s range are fast-paced dance-pop numbers like “PRISM” and “JUMP.”
#10: ODD EYE CIRCLE, ODD EYE CIRCLE <Version Up>
ODD EYE CIRCLE show an exciting return to form. They maintain their musical color, defined by synth experimentation. The album has no throwaway songs, but particularly worth checking out are “My Secret Playlist,” for its interesting tempo shifts, and “Je Ne Sais Quoi,” for the bouncy beat and heavenly, unison choruses. ODD EYE CIRCLE effortlessly follow up one another’s solo lines without missing a beat; they thrive as a team by knowing what instrumentals best suit them and how to best complement one another’s solo moments. In short, ODD EYE CIRCLE make it obvious that they are not new to this.
#9: TREASURE, REBOOT
While REBOOT has its chill moments, it more often revels in a party-ready atmosphere. Drumrolls, chanting, brass instruments, funky synthesizers, and quick pacing make it hard to nominate just one track for the most celebratory! However, “G.O.A.T” makes for the best concert encore choice, especially if performed with a live band. TREASURE have certainly hit a refresh button sonically, and they prove to have done so visually too, trading in bright and peppy aesthetics for darker, more suave ones. They further show newfound maturity in songs like “THE WAY TO,” which is perhaps their best song to date for showing pure vocal talent. The final bow on this present, though, is the reminder that “old TREASURE” is still within them: The “BONA BONA” music video ends with a return to previous videos’ bright and happy mood. TREASURE prove their artistry is expanding instead of replacing anything.
#8: Aimer, Open a Door
Listening to Open a Door is a brisk and all-consuming experience. Speedy percussion and guitars heighten the sense that there is no time to waste; Aimer’s angst, euphoria, and everything in between stay striking. There are some emotional palette cleansers sprinkled between lightning-fast rides, though, including the road-trip-ready “Oaiko” and the relatively light follow-up to “escalate,” “spiral dance.” “Open a Door” and “SKYLIGHT” are more examples of perfectly-titled songs. The story comes full circle by both starting and ending with an atmospheric number; listeners feel like they “open a door” into Aimer’s psyche, explore its many layers, and then exit, seeing “SKYLIGHT” on the other side.
#7: SHOWNU X HYUNGWON, THE UNSEEN
With HYUNGWON producing a couple of the songs, SHOWNU helping create the “Love Me A Little” choreography, and both of them sticking to their signature vocal deliveries, this subunit has MONSTA X’s fingerprints all over it. However, contrary to the frenetic energy and bustling soundscapes of MONSTA X’s Korean-language releases, SHOWNU X HYUNGWON achieve sonic richness in subtler ways. They also bring out a large degree of irony in their lyricism. “Love Me a Little” implies they will feel satisfied with just a little bit of love reciprocated, but their angst and noises like breaking glass reveal their restlessness and desire for more. The B-sides also feature sound effects and vocals that give away the true depths of their feelings. Some of MONSTA X’s previous work can be interpreted as showing similar contrasts between what people say and truly feel, but SHOWNU X HYUNGWON sharpen that contrast and separate their sound from the group’s in the process.
#6: Janice Yan, Changing Room
Changing Room has a smart tracklist order, starting off with shimmery dance pop songs before shifting to a broad array of ballads. It is fortunate that “Get Over Yourself” gets to be a single; that rock ballad shines particularly bright, with its unique contrast of powerful singing and Xiao Bing Chih’s rugged, memorable rapping. More down-the-middle ballads use strings and pianos to highlight Yan’s performative range and depth. Changing Room has a strong beginning, middle, and end, but for different reasons. Listeners are effectively reeled in with breezy dance numbers before Yan cranks up the emotional intensity and degree of vocal contrasts.
#5: KARDI, Inside Out
Inside Out is a soundtrack for an ominous party! Echoes and an evil laugh are just two of many twists that add extra personality to these pop/rock/rap concoctions. Rugged guitars and distorted vocals steal the show in songs like “AMOG,” while songs like “Skybound” utilize the potential of percussion to generate live-show-ready fervor. Both the rousing, one-of-a-kind head-bangers and power ballads are much more than those descriptors, and the subversion of genre expectations allows this album to linger in listeners’ minds. Additionally, the audience is left in thought over the “PARTY” and “Skybound” music videos. Long story short, surreal symbolism and a hallucinatory feel keep the sense of intentional discombobulation strong! KARDI are the “something different” for which music enthusiasts are looking.
#4: KISS OF LIFE, KISS OF LIFE
Through pre-debut solo tracks and music videos, one by one, audiences have met the members of KISS OF LIFE and gotten to know their different personalities and strengths. NATTY’s “Sugarcoat” video shows her dancing to a throwback R&B beat. BELLE’s “Countdown” video shows her turmoil over perfectionistic expectations and finds a fitting musical accompaniment in pop-rock. JULIE’s “Kitty Cat” is drenched in attitude that is emphasized with a deep bass and a “the world is my oyster” demeanor. HANEUL’s “Play Love Games” is the most down-the-middle pop offering and complements her video character’s flirty demeanor. The group-wide tracks further show sass and star power, the former emphasized in “Shhh” and the latter in “Bye My Neverland.” KISS OF LIFE is crowd-pleasing, versatile, and a strong introduction to a group in which each member proves to have an essential role.
#3: G.E.M., Revelación
This C-pop artist’s first Spanish-language album is impressively immersive. It offers the perfect musical accompaniment for each situation of which it puts listeners right in the middle. Eerie echoes, the sound of rushing water, rattling noises, spooky piano-playing… it all adds up to a cinematic sensation. Even G.E.M.’s moments of silence are utilized to trigger a certain all-encompassing sensation: She pauses at unexpected moments, as if something has abruptly jolted her or redirected her attention. Another ominous surprise is her switch from drawn-out notes to breathless delivery. It sounds like her words cannot come out fast enough, and they spill over each other like she is issuing an urgent warning. Moments of silence and sonic richness alike keep listeners in an unsettling but moving trance, regardless of each song’s genre.
#2: NewJeans, Get Up
The qualities that keep people listening to NewJeans on repeat are numerous: the ASMR-type appeal to their relatively quiet voices, the way instrumentals never overpower their voices and have both repetition and movement, the primarily youthful and relatable lyrics… their demeanor has an appeal that cannot be given a singular explanation. The second a NewJeans song begins, listeners know it’s NewJeans, and Get Up reiterates that they’ve found a signature sound, always familiar but never derivative. NewJeans’ skyrocketing fame makes sense, given their mix of fluid and detail-oriented musical instincts and effective balancing of repetition with freshness. Plus, their music videos oscillate between obvious and ambiguous sources of appeal.
#1: NCT DREAM, ISTJ
How many more ways can it be said that NCT have a special sonic formula all their own?! For the upteenth time, NCT DREAM apply that formula, bringing together an enormous amount of ingredients that should not work together but become deliciously diverse delights! Aside from one-of-a-kind, busy instrumentals, this is another classic NCT release thanks to its messages. NCT DREAM continue to sing about crushing on someone and wanting time with them to last forever. The new additions to their collection of metaphors for first love include ocean waves, being shaken up inside like a “Yogurt Shake,” and feeling like they’re in the “Wild West,” uncharted emotional territory! They also pick up where some past songs left off, returning to the topic of going for a walk with a crush in “Like We Just Met” and calling “Blue Wave” the sequel song to “Dive Into You.” NCT DREAM keep on finding new ways to describe young love, and that willingness to try anything matches their youthful image.
To learn more about these picks and find out who got honorable mentions, listen to the corresponding episodes of 17 Carat K-Pop!
“Best New Music: July 2023”
“Best New Music: Girl Group Special!”
An episode all about NCT DREAM’s ISTJ
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