The Best New Music: June 2023
A ranking and review of the twenty best new K-pop, J-pop, C-pop, and T-pop releases!
#20: Shawn, DOCASA
Unconventionality is the name of Shawn’s game! Unexpected sound effects join a choir and slow percussion in “Slow Lane.” An equally unique sound is present in “Picasso.” His voice enters a higher pitch and a hazy filter in “U R MY TOBACCO,” and it stays in that strange haze in the piano-backed “Weird Love.” The distorted synths in “DOCASA,” the indescribable character of “TIKTOK NO REASON,” and the cavernous feel of “Mom Don’t You Cry” are just a few more of the ways the songs on DOCASA stand out. “BlahBlahBlahBlahBlah” is the ultimate album epitome, a testament to Shawn’s skill at merging the qualities of cavalier and passionate presentations.
#19: luz, “Ruthless”
What if vampires and werewolves were added to a mashup of Coraline and Alice in Wonderland?! The answer is the “Ruthless” music video, a campy delight that perfectly suits the song’s frenetic pacing. The “Alice” character attends a merry dinner party that takes a sinister turn. She appears to be a goner but suddenly fights back, revealing her vampire identity, seizing on the fact it’s the night of a full moon to exploit a werewolf guest’s weaknesses, and using voodoo-doll-esque magic on luz. There are dizzying numbers of camera swivels and pop-up images that overlap in rapid succession, leaving viewers feeling caught up in the commotion. In short, “Ruthless” is fittingly over-the-top!
#18: Lapillus, GIRL’s ROUND Pt. 2
GIRL’s ROUND Pt. 2 is an obvious step above Pt. 1; Lapillus show noticeable gains when it comes to stylistic confidence. They go full speed ahead with the whistle- and “nanana”-filled “Marionette,” keep the fun going with drumrolls and whistle-laced choruses in “Who’s Next,” cutely chant in unison in “ULALA,” and incorporate an unexpected flute into the chorus of “Paper.” Each song has at least one earworm quality. They also impress with an improved stage presence, interacting with the camera and exuding a take-charge demeanor in ways that come across as more authentic than ever. They show off a “We run this town” attitude in more unexpected ways too, like by seemingly intimidating the video’s extras! Those expected to be backup dancers in the “Who’s Next” music video just run right past Lapillus, as if daunted by the task of dancing with them!
#17: meme tokyo., MEMETIC INFECTION
While mostly staying in their electro-J-pop wheelhouse, this girl group mixes things up and avoids sounding derivative of their past eras. MEW and SAE prove to be a dynamic duo in “TWEED,” and NENE and MITSUKI have an exceptionally eccentric collaboration in “Melt.” Funky and fun digital distortions always abound in meme tokyo.’s work, but they do so now even more than usual. Further helping the new and improved meme tokyo. shine is the tracklist order. Group-wide songs start and end the show, while the tracks in the middle contain more experimentation and subunits that are pleasant surprises.
#16: REN, Ren’dezvous
The “Ready to Move” music video seems random at first but intentional on second thought. The song channels a feeling of restlessness, a desire to go exploring without limitations, so it makes sense why REN ignores norms. He wears a dressy ensemble and looks out-of-place but content about it at the beach and while taking a drive. He dances through a thunder and lightning storm, and he still has energy in spades towards the video’s end, when he dances concerningly close to fireworks! His happy-go-lucky state is apparent in the B-sides too, which are largely upbeat synth-pop jams. Not every aspect of this comeback is all sunshine, though, and one signal of discontent is a scene in the “Ready to Move” video where REN is trapped in a cube. This detail adds an ambiguous twist that will hopefully be teased out further during future musical chapters!
#15: YENA, HATE XX
While YENA can pull off pop-punk angst well and proves so with “WICKED LOVE” and “BAD HOBBY,” she shines the brightest when playing the role of a bubbly cheerleader, so it is a relief that she returns to the candy-colored, cartoonish realm of the “SMiLEY” and “SMARTPHONE” eras for “Hate Rodrigo”! While the initial lack of clarity over the song’s meaning was disappointing, the eventual explanation was a relief: The song is the opposite of an Olivia Rodrigo diss track. YENA sings “Hate you!” in the sarcastic tone people do when they admire someone and are irritated by the jealousy they feel. YENA dedicates the music video to Olivia and sings about her wish to someday be as cool as her. While the song’s title could have been different and avoided drawing pre-release ire, the song itself is a catchy tribute to a fellow pop icon that keeps YENA’s personal touch apparent. “Hate Rodrigo” does not imitate Olivia Rodrigo’s style so much as it nods to it in ways that suit YENA’s image.
#14: 同理 Zunya, Grateful
When it comes to making a long album an attention-holding one, 同理 Zunya makes all the right moves. He oscillates between rapping and singing and between autotune-drenched songs and ones that let his pure vocal talent shine. He keeps mixing things up by breaking the album into segments with interlude “skits,” choosing varied collaborations, and adding unexpected finishing touches ranging from the electric guitar’s reverb to surround-sound moments. The catchiest song is “Vanished.”
#13: Meng Jia, aka Jia, JIALAND
Smartly, JIALAND starts and ends with its strongest points and keeps its lower tempos for the middle. “BXXXH,” the opener, and “KNOCKOUT,” the finale, are EDM bangers. The former incorporates rapping in a way that sounds the opposite of disjointed, and the latter incorporates traditional instruments with a similar seamlessness. Between these jams are “GOOD GOOD LOVE” and “ILLUSION,” both featuring Meng Jia’s alluring voice and a more laid-back mood. JIALAND is a fun soundtrack for both highlights of a weekend: a night out and a chill day afterwards!
#12: TNX, aka THE NEW SIX, BOYHOOD
In the “Kick It 4 Now” music video, no matter what color TNX’s matching outfits are or what setting they switch to, they keep on dancing! They don’t miss a beat when changing looks and locations in the blink of an eye, flexing an ability to stay on the same page that is particularly commendable at such a relatively early point in their career. The members have a natural rapport, which is evident through the ways their voices harmonize too. The cherry on top is this era’s clever marketing. The fake newspaper stories and advertisements set BOYHOOD apart from other summer comebacks.
#11: fromis_9, Unlock My World
“#menow” is an apt song title for fromis_9. This era speaks to their natural evolution, staying in the same space thematically but evolving in terms of their teamwork and collective identity. They opt for a hushed delivery, a literally quiet but figuratively loud presence, in songs like “Attitude” and “What I Want.” They shine with their go-to synth-pop sound in songs like “Don’t Care” and “Prom Night.” They switch to a lower tempo for “My Night Routine” and end on an uplifting note with “Eye Contact.” All the while, they keep the listening experience easy-breezy and the perfect match for the “#menow” music video, which has self-explanatory situations. The members make obvious their desire to explore the great big world as their fullest selves and start to do so, climbing over a padlock-covered fence. Earlier in the video, there are vlog-style sleepover scenes that reinforce the group’s approachable and down-to-Earth image. fromis_9 have an admirable certainty of what messages they want their music to convey and deliver those messages endearingly and effectively.
#10: Jeff Satur, “Lucid”
This romantic, moving ballad’s music video is a spin on Beauty and the Beast, with fellow shining star Nene playing the Beauty and Jeff Satur playing the Beast. But this is not just a must-watch and must-hear for those who are suckers for fairytale love stories. Jeff Satur’s luscious voice can sweep anybody into a tranquil state, like the permanent state of lucid dreaming about which he so heavenly sings. The lyrics express his longing to make a love linger: “I know that nothing ever lasts, even the good things / If we chase the past, we can only dream / But while it’s still lucid, I’ll drown… Before daylight breaks us at the seams / Before the night ends, all just a dream.” The lyrics follow a poetic rhythm that is obvious at times (like “seams” and “dream”) and more subtle at others (like the way one could pronounce “things” and “dream” with emphasis on the “ee” sound in both). The lyrics form a sort of rhythmic poetry that prevents the “tale as old as time” premise from seeming like mere mimicry.
#9: LUN8, CONTINUE?
LUN8’s debut is one of K-pop’s strongest of 2023 so far, because of endearing music video adventures and songs that balance the trendy with the timeless. The low-fi “Voyager” and pop-rock “Wild Heart” are loop-worthy and the perfect soundtracks for their wholesome music videos, the one for “Voyager” featuring a pillow fight and day at the beach and the one for “Wild Heart” featuring the members running together with coordinating outfits and carefree grins. LUN8 are simply as likable as it gets!
#8: 8TURN, UNCHARTED DRIFT
The trailer explaining 8TURN’s musical world is about blurred lines between reality and dreams. The members chase after a golden, magical bird in what is presumed to be the imagined world, but upon waking, that bird from the dream appears as a member’s phone lock screen. They seem to be able to bring symbolic aspects of their dreams into the real world, and this messing with the boundaries between the conscious and unconscious minds is fertile ground for future intrigue. In addition to setting up a premise rife with possibilities, 8TURN’s comeback excites for its incorporations of old-school hip-hop, R&B, and even gospel influences. Topping it all off is the “EXCEL” video, with fireworks and hijinks galore! 8TURN’s catchy tunes prove that no matter where their story goes from here, it will be worth the wild ride!
#7: P1Harmony, HARMONY : ALL IN
Read the full album review here!
#6: SHINee, HARD
SHINee are as naturally synergistic as ever, and they seem to be having more fun than ever too! A go-to remains their beautiful, passionate harmonies, but they do not shy away from chances to just rap or do some talk-singing too! They make plenty of time for frivolity between more emotional moments! Reinforcing the fact SHINee is picking up right where they left off are this era’s teaser videos. While ambiguous, one interpretation is that they allude to a story that is Horton Hears a Who! mixed with The Truman Show, or a similar story about one world existing within a bigger one. This aligns with past SM Entertainment Music Video Universe theories detailed in episodes of 17 Carat K-Pop and explains SHINee’s consistent appeal.
#5: ATEEZ, THE WORLD EP.2: OUTLAW
While appearing intentionally more unpolished than in previous eras, ATEEZ stay committed to their specific, ongoing video narrative. Alter egos, cryptic missions, and efforts to establish a new and improved world all remain, but the end results feel less certain now, due to a heightened devil-may-care spirit. The “BOUNCY (K-HOT CHILLI PEPPERS)” music video is controlled chaos; ATEEZ’s characters seem to be both winging it and acting like they were born ready for whatever the heck is happening! Any detail that is pre-planned masquerades as spontaneous, including the moves inside a boxing ring, the loose dance moves, the camera’s pivots, and the unapologetic use of vocal filters (at one point, it appears that the high pitch of their voices is actually coming from a parrot!). ATEEZ epitomize not taking oneself too seriously, and they stick to uncompromisingly explosive energy throughout the B-sides too.
#4: B.I, TO DIE FOR
In addition to being two albums in one (featuring six older songs and nine new ones), TO DIE FOR tells multiple stories through multiple timelines. One way to take in B.I’s story is by following the tracklist order: He decides to ride the “Wave” of feelings that hits him while on “The Island of Misfit Toys.” He is willing to “Die for love,” and by being willing to “Dare to Love,” he believes he has a “Beautiful Life.” He gets deep in a “Cloud [of] Thought” that leads him to feeling reborn, with a new pep in his step and a superhuman confidence level, hence the name of the last new track on TO DIE FOR, “MICHELANGELO.”
A very different interpretation comes from reading the video titles as they correspond to the tracklist, instead of numerically (for example, reading the title of “Episode Nine,” “Time Is Up,” before the title of “Episode Seven,” “Give Me a Breath,” because the ninth video’s corresponding song comes before the seventh video’s in the album). In this order, “Who are you” and “Hello Stranger” come before “At the moment,” which comes before “Time is up.” The story appears to play in reverse: Instead of experiencing and then embracing being in love, B.I hits rewind and revists the scary time before that love was in his life.
Yet a third way to interpret this story is through watching the “Episodes” in numerical order. Through that lens, the videos show B.I both mid-flashbacks and in the present day, fighting to keep the loved one from his past in his present.
TO DIE FOR can be interpreted as the story of discovering how great love is, discovering how sad a lack or loss of love is, or a mix of the two through a flashback-riddled series of clips. Regardless of which timeline is the audience’s focus, the experience is interactive and exciting. Multiple routes are offered to reach the same endpoint: a realization of how essential love is in everyone’s lives.
#3: TAEYONG, SHALALA
SHALALA demonstrates how TAEYONG is carving out a distinct visual and auditory niche for his solo work. His songs and videos are like the television adaptations of diary entries from different years and moments in his life. “Episode” topics include revisiting childhood memories with fresh eyes (“Back to the Past”), first love (“Move Mood Mode”), profound loss (“RUBY”), and a period of feeling misunderstood and isolated (“404 File Not Found”). TAEYONG creatively brings to life his highs and lows and adds silver linings to all his memories, having fun with hypotheticals. What keeps this release so fun and listenable are those “What if?” aspects. The “T or Y” videos have a “Choose Your Own Adventure” format; viewers are directed to a different video depending on which letter they click after watching the first one. TAEYONG also considers alternate storylines by cosplaying as four different characters from four different eras in the “SHALALA” video. He considers the ways things would have or could turn out differently by traveling through space and time while framing uncertainties as possibilities. He asks himself, “Who was I?,” “Who am I?,” and “Who do I want to be?,” making SHALALA and its visual components feel like not just his diary brought to life, but his vision board too.
Hear more about SHALALA on this episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!
#2: KANGDANIEL, REALIEZ
REALIEZ is a thought-provoking reflection on the lies people tell, the potential for those lies to lead to sinful actions, and the question of who deserves redemption. “Why do people come here sinning endlessly? Why am I doing this, and why [do] people have to suffer even after they die?,” his music video character wonders.
Lifetime after lifetime, KANGDANIEL’s character revisits the outskirts of Hell to destroy the new Hell that arises out of lingering sins. He tricks the “Angels of Death” into giving him their magical coins, which, in one interpretation, he uses to pay the fees for the souls who cannot afford the boat ride to Hell. He wants to give those souls closure and help them avoid aimlessly roaming Hell’s outskirts like he does. According to the official story trailer, KANGDANIEL’s magical coins lead to “All the demons of Hell and Hell itself [to be] wiped out. But people’s sins [arise] eventually, and Hell [is] created [again] without fail.” Matthew 10:28 appears at the end of the trailer, slightly paraphrased: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the ones who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.”
The “Wasteland” visuals, both the short and extended versions, are striking scene-setters. KANGDANIEL is surrounded by Grim-Reaper-like characters in front of a blood-red sky with a spooky shadow in it. The suspense rises tenfold with the “SOS” music video, a mini-movie that mixes horror, western, action, and apocalyptic story elements for a fast-paced, absorbing spectacle. All the simultaneous sources of chaos - explosions, physical fights, dark magic rituals - make the post-action scene feel suspicious in its lack thereof. The enemies who were after KANGDANIEL moments ago now appear as identical tombstones in the quiet desert. KANGDANIEL wins a battle, but no one wins a war; the video has neither a big-picture resolution nor a solution for KANGDANIEL’s sense of eternal searching.
REALIEZS’s rich storytelling allows for a myriad of interpretations, and its perpetual state of suspense has a fitting musical accompaniment in KANGDANIEL’s acting and singing talents.
#1: Stray Kids, 5-STAR
Many of 5-STAR’s songs seem to foreshadow each other! “Super Bowl” mentions “Everything inverted,” and the following song, “TOPLINE,” mentions a “twisted Mobius strip” and “only looking up.” The next song, “DLC,” goes off of the “looking up” theme and adds a reference to the sun, and the next song goes off of that reference with the title “GET LIT.” “Collision” compares scattered memories to lingering smoke, and the song that comes after it, “FNF,” mourns what has become only ashes. These are just a few of the myriad of ways Stray Kids’ songs can be interpreted as engaging in a thrilling game with one another. Some songs are confirmed to be overt follow-ups to songs from past eras (“Hall of Fame” is meant to be a continuation of “Victory Song,” for example), and other songs follow each other’s leads with acronyms for titles (like “DLC” for “Dance Like Crazy” and “FNF” for “Flora N Fauna”). Some songs are thematically linked through a confident, cheeky demeanor, while others share deeper emotional contexts. Each Stray Kids song is worth appreciating both solo and as an essential piece of a full puzzle.
While Stray Kids’ new songs are in conversation with other new songs, their new videos engage with videos from past eras. The members resume key roles and return to key symbols and themes in their music video universe, especially in the “5-STAR Concept Trailer.” Several new plot twists enter the picture in the “S-Class” video, however, including a giant sea monster and teleportation!
Overall, Stray Kids’ layered discography continues to be made thoughtfully and artfully.
Hear more about 5-STAR on this episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!
To hear more about these picks and find out who got honorable mentions, listen to the corresponding episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!
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