The Best New Music: June 2022
A ranking and review of the twenty best K-pop, J-pop, and C-pop releases from the past month!
#20: Zunya ft. 熊仔 (KUMACHAN), “Forty To One”
A dizzying array of fast sounds power through this theme song and make it worth putting on a loop to fully give enough time to appreciate! The action-movie-esque music video matches the song’s intensity and breathlessness, and it ends in ways up to interpretation that, like the song, leave the audience wanting more. “Forty To One” is a compelling, underrated song that makes for a great heist soundtrack!
#19: hitorie, PHARMACY
This percussion-heavy collection of jams is a great synopsis of who hitorie are and why their music deserves a place on playlists worldwide. At times grungier and at times lighter, sometimes more stripped-back and other times compounded with an array of instrumental layers, PHARMACY is an engaging but cohesive release. The most notable tracks: “Quit.,” which brings strings into the picture for a grand finale, and “Deneikaiki,” which takes the energy boost from the track before it (“Neon Beauty”) and kicks it up another notch.
#18: PIXY, Reborn
PIXY have done a great job settling into their personal identity, putting their own twist on K-pop/rock. Their album appears aptly titled, since they indicate their world-building has just begun with the title screen of the “Villain” music video: “Dark City Ep. 01 - REBORN.” PIXY add unique personality to each track on this album, adding sultry vocals to the otherwise-bouncy “Natural,” working with unexpected tempos and sound spacing on “Deja Vu,” belting out a rock gem with “Swan Song,” and adding echoes to the background of the otherwise-consoling “Greetings.” Through the “Villain” music video and their new mini-album, PIXY embody new and intriguing characters who are worth keeping an eye on to see what happens to them next!
#17: KARD, Re:
Bringing back the moombahton inspiration used in “Red Moon” is Exhibit A for why KARD have been sorely missed! They each add their own special ingredients into their newest earworm, “Ring The Alarm.” Other tracks on Re: include a tropical love song, “Good Love,” and a B-side that equally demonstrates what individual skills each member brings to the group, “Break Down.” Through the title track and B-sides alike, KARD show off their distinct skills. It is not just the rap skills of some members and the powerhouse vocals of others, however. What makes KARD shine is also in their signature fashion senses, shown off in the video for “Ring The Alarm.” Each member has a unique style in every sense of the word, and these combine to make musical magic that is classically KARD!
#16: BTS, Proof
BTS use Proof and its new songs to reflect on their past and present, but they decline to elaborate on what their future has in store. Similarly, the “Yet To Come (The Most Beautiful Moment)” music video includes symbols that pay homage to BTS’s past eras without introducing new material. While this release might feel lacking, it is actually the opposite; it is as complete in its purpose as BTS have ever been. The choice to leave future plans vague, only to say with certainty that the best is still “Yet To Come,” is classic BTS. If they had clarified where their story goes from here, it would not be truthful, and BTS ensure their stories are anything but manufactured. As sad and serious as fans might feel while watching a music video that could not possibly be more symbolic of the end of an era, and as much as fans desire a clear answer as to when BTS’s break will end, “Yet To Come” perfectly matches BTS’s current message. They are just as nervous and uncertain about the future as everyone else, and they try to see the hope and possibilities in that uncertainty. They close a chapter of their lives with the same nostalgia and conflicted feelings as the audience who has grown up with them. It is always bittersweet to turn the page, but it must be done to see what unpredictable joys await in the rest of the book! All this is to say that BTS’s anthology album and new music video for “Yet To Come (The Most Beautiful Moment)” are the epitome of what led to a BTS fandom in the first place: the group’s relentless honesty, refusal to put on a facade, mix of pragmatism and optimism, and desire to cherish past memories only to the extent that it does not interfere with the necessary journey onwards. “Yet To Come” is such a BTS song, and its music video intentionally does not clarify what the group’s future has in store, because our guess is as good as theirs!
Besides “Yet To Come,” the other new tracks on Proof are as follows: a testament to their effortless genre-bending and genre-blending (“Run BTS”), the official studio release of an older fan favorite (“Born Singer”), and a ballad just as touching as “Yet To Come” (“For Youth”).
#15: Stray Kids, CIRCUS
Although this Japanese release is partially just new versions of older tracks, this album has the same bravado and likeability as any fully-new Stray Kids release! “CIRCUS” is a show-stopping single, packed with sound effects and merry instrumental layers. The song is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink creation, and listeners are reminded of how well Stray Kids handle this approach by both listening to the song and watching the lively music video. “CIRCUS” is a fiery and fierce single perfect for Stray Kids, and this is crystallized through their ways of blending in with the crowd in the video. They sing “Welcome to my home” while truly appearing right at home amidst the literal circus in which they perform! After “CIRCUS,” listeners get to enjoy the energetic “Fairytale,” Japanese versions of “VENOM,” “MANIAC,” and “Silent Cry” (a standout B-side from NOEASY), and a display of their impressive vocal variety with “Your Eyes.”
#14: HEIZE, Undo
HEIZE remains consistent in her vocal delivery and stage presence, yet she ensures Undo is not just “been there, done that” material with the track videos that accompany its songs. HEIZE’s mellifluous voice breezes through track after track, as expected, but the unexpected twists come in with the visuals. She rocks a darker look in the video for “Distance,” exudes bohemian chicness in “About Time,” and narrates an animated love story in “SUPERCAR,” just to name a few. What makes these track videos not just aesthetic but intriguing are the presumed connections between their stories. For example, HEIZE returns to the same setting for both “Real LOVE” and “Love is alone,” which could be commentary on love’s paradoxical feeling of isolation. Also, “About Time” features a montage including a host of settings seen elsewhere, hinting at this song being the link connecting all the other plot points together. Overall, Undo is ambiguous, aesthetic, and admirable.
#13: Kep1er, DOUBLAST
In this feel-good follow-up to Kep1er’s explosive debut, the group invites fans to “Kep1er Island” for a summer vacation! The “Up!” music video mixes a Claymation-esque aesthetic with all the classic props found in a tropical getaway. They welcome viewers to join them in a fun dance while performing with contagious smiles and amid hyper-bright surroundings. More summer fun is on the B-sides, including a cute love song, “Attention,” and the touching fan song, “Rewind.”
#12: woo!ah!, JOY
JOY, fittingly, is a happy pill in album form! The songs are cute and bouncy energy boosts. The new, summer-ready bops “Go Away” and “Straight Up” are followed by the pre-release hit “Catch the Stars.” The group’s new video for “Danger” exudes a comparable degree of charm. woo!ah! visually represent the happy nerves and fears that come with crushing on someone, with a stream of 2D animations popping before them, a turbulent elevator ride, and a robotic vanity that appears to have a mind of its own! This fun house of a world is more than just symbolic of their ready-to-burst emotions, though, with plenty of details added for simple aesthetic purposes! The members wear cute matching outfits, dance in colorful rooms, and end in a place full of purple clouds and confetti. JOY is full of visual and auditory delights and perfectly matches with woo!ah!’s style and reputation as adorable “Hi-Teen” artists!
#11: HUTA, aka LEE MINHYUK, BOOM
The passion and effort put into BOOM is evident from start to finish. HUTA spent a full year writing, self-producing, and recording this album, which is ages long in K-pop years! He knew the prolonged period of work would pay off, taking time to channel different sides of himself on different tracks. He has also found ways to smartly highlight different talents at different points, with his singing skills not having to share too much of the spotlight with his rapping skills on some songs and vice versa on others. In addition to singing and rapping, HUTA proves he is a triple threat and then some with the “BOOM” music video. Backed by an intense trap beat, he gives the rapper in him the limelight while performing sexy choreography. If his bolder songs are not one’s style, there are plenty of more mellow tracks on BOOM to enjoy, including the R&B “Us Together” and the top-tier ballad “STAY.”
#10: SUNMI, Heart Burn
SUNMI continues to excel at smooth pop tunes, letting her alluring vocals and a simple instrumental tell the full story. She prevents this comeback from feeling repetitive and uninteresting, however, thanks to her always-intriguing, mysterious music video. From 1856 Texas to 1928 Bogota to 1969 Tokyo, SUNMI jet-sets across continents and time periods, seducing men wherever she goes and leaving them to writhe with heartsickness as she leaves. SUNMI once again nails her acting role, appearing cavalier as an evil, red glint appears in her eyes and she twirls without a care in the world from one misadventure to the next. Meant to be a partner song to “Pporappippam,” SUNMI takes the same topic of a previous release - acting on impulse as a result of intense love for someone - and applies it in a newly-ominous way. In “Pporappippam,” she simply tries to woo a crush. Now, that is not enough, and she seeks a new high through leaving others as transfixed as she has been. She succeeds at her mission to leave her lovers feeling as overpowered and disarmed as she previously felt. But again, beneath all the drama lies a relatable and straightforward story. Her message also rings loud and clear in the city pop “Childhood,” a B-side about puppy love that reminds the audience she still has an innocent worldview in her too!
#9: ONE OK ROCK, “Save Yourself”
Lead singer Taka’s impressive, unforgettable voice steals the show on this rock band’s new single, which serves as an exciting teaser for the sound to expect from their September album release. In classic ONE OK ROCK fashion, “Save Yourself” strikes a defiant tone, repeating the need for one’s significant other to meet them halfway. The song is an explosion of the emotions that seem to have been building in them for quite some time, as they have put an unreciprocated amount of support and care into a relationship and have finally had enough. “Save Yourself” is a passionate plea and classically ONE OK ROCK in the best way.
#8: JO YURI, Op.22 Y-Waltz : in Major
Dashes of sass and seriousness keep this album from being oversaturated with sugary sweetness! The title track, “Love Shhh!,” is meant to mean both “Shhh!” and the similar-sounding expletive. JO YURI sings about not wanting to talk about a romance, and this hesitancy to kiss and tell can be interpreted in two different ways. She might not want to open up because the relationship was full of “Shhh!” On the other hand, it might be such a special memory that she wants to keep the details private, just between the two of them. This album is able to resonate with different listeners in different ways, depending on what circumstances they relate to more. Lucky-in-love listeners can happily dance along to “Love Shhh!,” feeling on top of the world, smiles as big as JO YURI’s as she parades through the music video in extravagant outfits. They can similarly feel jovial listening to the whistle-filled “Rolla Skates.” On the other hand, listeners looking for solace through music post-breakup can appreciate wallowing in their emotions when listening to songs like “This Time” and trying to find comfort in the “waltz” about which JO YURI sings. JO YURI is “waltzing” into a new stage of life that is lighter and happier post-relationship, and listeners who can relate can take comfort in this album’s proof that post-breakup pain is more temporary than it feels.
#7: OMEGA X, Story Written in Music
Describing the plot of the “PLAY DUMB” music video is challenging, and perhaps, given the title, that is by design! The confounding series of events includes giant tennis balls becoming everything from meteors to works of art. The giant tennis balls both wreck havoc and cause joy throughout the town. Regardless of how much the “PLAY DUMB” music video is supposed to make sense or not, it sure is lots of fun and is a testament to OMEGA X’s willingness to think outside of the box (although, on the other hand, they do appear inspired by IT, in a clever scene where one member replaces the phrase “Time out” on another’s cast with the words “Over time” instead). The goofy fun continues throughout the highlight medley video, previewing each track on the album while the members run around and goof off together. OMEGA X’s endearing, childlike nature persists on the live-show-ready “Airplane,” the confident “Bounce With Me,” and the summery “Dance With U.” More mature offerings on the album include the pop ballad “Binary Star,” the vocal standout “Dry Flower,” and the guitar-led slow song “Love.” This comeback is full of both wacky adventures and more sentimental moments, but the choice to spend more than half of the time focused on fun hijinks over more serious material is a smart choice; Story Written in Music screams “summer fun”!
#6: MARiA, Moments
GARNiDELiA fans will be anything but disappointed by MARiA’s latest solo release! She sings J-pop gem after J-pop gem, with her now-classic soundscape of bubblegum beats mixed with electronic flourishes and dashes of anime-rock. Aesthetically, MARiA’s new era is also sure to be a crowd-pleaser. She rocks glittery hair and eye makeup, a sleek, short haircut, and a one-of-a-kind ensemble, both on the album cover and in the video for “Think Over.” The most memorable and loop-worthy tracks: “Think Over,” which sounds a bit like “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd, “Star Rock,” which veers into dance-pop territory, the eclectic “Pray,” and the exciting collaboration with fellow icon luz, “Cafe Latte no Uta.”
#5: WONHO, Facade
From the camera angles changing as if to comply with his hand gestures to the ways lights glint off of WONHO’s outfits, every detail in the “CRAZY” music video appears perfectly tailored to him. He stuns in a tight-fit t-shirt in some scenes and an all-leather look in others. He alternates between jamming out on a guitar and dancing with moves as slick as his hair. Despite his rugged persona, though, WONHO demonstrates duality through this release. Facade sandwiches vulnerable, fearful tracks between dark, bold flourishes. The B-sides allude to WONHO’s ego being more of a “facade” than it first seems. On Facade, WONHO gives fans more of what they love and expect from him while also opening the door for a new, more complex self-image to become public. The bottom line: WONHO is just getting started.
#4: luz, “Carnival”
Camp, catchiness, and a cornucopia of sounds collide on this prime example of “Halloween in Summer” done right! Dressed up in his signature vampire costume, luz hosts a tea party that can best be described as an anti-Wonderland, a gothic and bloody good time! This story’s “Alice” enters a haunted world behind a magical door, where her fellow dinner party guests are the stuff of nightmares. “Carnival” sonically encapsulates the frenetic energy of the music video: it moves at a breakneck pace, some lines are delivered so quickly it is as if his rap-like lyrics are racing against the frantic piano notes, and other moments slow things down to give listeners the sensation of being jolted. This feeling is not a bad thing! It is akin to being delightfully startled when watching a scary movie; feeling unnerved is the point. luz gives this single his all and treats both the song itself and its visual partner in the ways an author carefully crafts the wording throughout a book, constantly aware of the ways a story can land differently even with one minor change. The ways in which luz dials up the drama - his acting, his outfit, his vocal delivery against a frenzied backdrop of noises - appear intentionally disorienting and bring the story to life.
#3: LOONA, Summer Special [Flip That]
Subscribe to this newsletter to not miss my separate essay about this release, coming soon! In the meantime, check out the latest volume of “LOONAverse Talk” here, and catch up on every “LOONAverse Talk” episode here!
#2: WAGAMAMA RAKIA, ONYX
This cohesive collection of genre-hybrid songs is simply excellent and leaves listeners craving more. Each track subverts expectations in fresh ways - a flute trilling here, an ominous whisper there - to make each song sound irreplicable. The members fuse electronic and grunge sounds, excellently structure their songs to leave the maximum impact on listeners, and volley between rapid-fire rapping and drawn-out, anthemic emo performances. WAGAMAMA RAKIA are a cross between electro-pop/rock stunners like Reol and PassCode and punk icons like Avril Lavigne. Yet they are also refreshing in their authentic spin on various rock-adjacent genres, and ONYX is headbanger after headbanger.
#1: NAYEON, IM NAYEON
It is an understatement to say NAYEON’s solo debut is exciting and adorable! NAYEON proves a sugary-sweet pop sound can be anything but boring, and she gives cheerful pop bops the shine they deserve with her eye-catching, instantly-lovable “POP!” music video. Rocking over a dozen outfits and dancing through nearly a dozen settings, NAYEON maintains a radiant smile, infectious energy, and the message that the world is hers for the taking. “POP!” is an astoundingly delightful, catchy, and captivating music video with as much brightness as any TWICE music video, if not more. IM NAYEON is not all sunshine and rainbows, however: she experiments with her style on B-sides like the dramatic “SUNSET” and the moody “ALL OR NOTHING.” The can’t-miss B-side, however, is her collaboration with Stray Kids’ Felix, “NO PROBLEM.” NAYEON’s youthful, high-pitched voice works surprisingly well alongside the depth of Felix’s bassy one. IM NAYEON excels at showing the world who NAYEON is as a solo star, what she is capable of, and why her global acclaim is so well-deserved!
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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