The Best New Music: March 2023
A ranking and review of the best K-pop, J-pop, and T-pop releases of the month!
#20: Jeff Satur, “Dum Dum”
In “Dum Dum,” Jeff Satur is mellifluous and malevolent in equal measures! His hard feelings about being mistreated in a past relationship manifest as ironclad resentment, and the gory music video confirms this is his villain origin story! (Fortunately, more sensitive viewers can watch the “Dum Dum” English video instead, which focuses on aesthetics over action!). While the choruses are minimal, the verses are tragic poems: “I suffered immensely, then it all became numb / I prayed intensely, then it all became dumb;” “You act like I need you around / But you need to keep your feet on the ground / You say I’ll be reduced to a wreck / But it’s you who sink, last time I checked;” “Our love can never die / It has never lived.” With gorgeous and powerful vocals, the verses rise like tidal waves and come crashing down as he drains himself of these emotions and turns apathetic. Without even watching the video, the evil glint in his eyes and smirk on his face are easy to imagine whenever he resumes the muttered, ominous chorus. Jeff Satur entraps the audience in a tragic story, an impressive feat for a release that at first appears surface-level.
#19: j-hope & J. Cole, “on the street”
Fortunately, J. Cole does not phone it in; he adds a meaningful and lengthy verse to this lofi hip-hop track, to the benefit of both the song and this moment for j-hope, who has looked up to J. Cole since his early career days. This release is also meaningful for both artists because of its full-circle nature. As they both reach crossroads in their lives (j-hope has to take a break from music to fulfill mandatory military time, and J. Cole has floated the idea of retiring throughout the past few years), they revisit where their stories began: on the street, j-hope dancing there and J. Cole filming his debut mixtape there. Starting and ending a chapter of their lives on the street brings home its multiple meanings. Streets can represent both a possibility to go somewhere new and the roads previously traveled, where people get lost and where they refind their bearings. They represent something that is universally known and used but turned into very personalized memories. Most summatively, the street represents the journey being as important as the destination, if not more. For both artists, “on the street” is a symbol of closure and a sign of readiness to move toward whatever lies ahead.
#18: Cherry Bullet, Cherry Dash
“P.O.W! (Play On the World)”’s music video proves that Cherry Bullet can serve both sweetness and sass! They hold the audience’s attention with a confident model walk, colorful settings, and computer-game-esque imagery. The song is about taking gameplay into the “real world,” making the visual business have a purpose beyond aesthetics. As for the B-sides on Cherry Dash, the standout is “Whistle Like That,” a strong follow-up to “Love In Space.” Also in that wheelhouse is the synth pop “Queen.” They mix things up for the Second-Gen-esque “Cloud Nine” and a ballad called “A Winter Star.” Taken as a whole, Cherry Dash is a short and sweet reminder that Cherry Bullet’s music is eye and ear candy.
#17: SUPER★DRAGON, mirror
This group continues to astound with their sonic and performative range. They put unique twists on EDM influences (like “Revolution”), pop formulas (“Don’t Turn It Down;” “Pretty Girl”), jazzy mood-setters (“Honey Baby”), and so much more. They work their magic on any musical category. It is hard to pinpoint the most eccentric song, but a top contender is “Are U Ready?,” an explosive cornucopia of sounds. This group continues to demonstrate versatility with this era’s music videos too: stylistic choices range from rugged and fierce to clean-cut and suave.
#16: CRAVITY, MASTER : PIECE
MASTER : PIECE overflows with contagious enthusiasm. “Groovy” and “FLY” are what happy hits are made of, the rock tweaks to “Baddie” and “Get Lifted” keep the album from feeling repetitive, and “A to Z” opts for maximum fun and surprises. The album ends with “Light the way,” a piano-backed slow song that reminds listeners this group can serve more than just carefree fare. Their infectious joviality extends to the “Groovy” music video, in which they play both businessmen accepting pitches for a TV show and a band who is auditioning. It ends with one member, dressed as a janitor, passing by a screen in the office that is playing CRAVITY’s colorful audition, an unmissable spot of fun amid a dull setting. He smiles and turns to wink at the camera, a cheeky indicator that CRAVITY’s attempt to win over the judges has been a success!
#15: SG, FINALE
From anime scenes to 8-bit storytelling to live-action narratives, the FINALE concept video gives a heads-up that listening to this album is a wild ride! Some songs, like “Instagram” and “Flash,” are in the style of G-DRAGON and other artists who artfully electronify their vocals. Other can’t-miss tracks include the playful “A Bite of Kiss” and “Lotto,” the latter being for fans of “SEXY NUKIM” by Balming Tiger and RM. FINALE’s corresponding music videos deliver even more variety, with a mix of mood-focused and narrative-driven content. FINALE has a track and corresponding visual for every occasion.
#14: IVE, “Kitsch”
Aside from the earworm-worthy chorus, this single deserves buzz for its visually stimulating music video. From a self-portrait mural to wings on fire, the video makes the most out of a minimal amount of props. IVE also make statements less ambiguously, including “YOU’RE SO WEIRD, DON’T CHANGE” in neon lights and “Rock, not guns. Culture, not violence” on the backs of their varsity jackets. “Kitsch” is both catchy and eye-catching, especially because the members are pros at interacting with the camera. They shine in individual scenes, transfixing viewers with confident stares and smiles, and they then shine even brighter in scenes where they dance as a confident collective.
#13: MAMAMOO+, ACT 1, SCENE 1
This MAMAMOO subunit uses theatrics to generate a spunk and sense of humor all their own. They move from setting to setting, as if filming a one-take movie scene, in “GGBB” (“Good Girl, Bad Boy”), while giving backhanded compliments like “you make me laugh, dummy,” and “You cute snake.” They perform on a literal stage in “Chico malo,” dramatizing their regret in their past choice of lovers! Then, in “LLL,” they make up their minds to not let past bad relationships stop them from pursuing future ones. “LLL” stands for “Loved,” “Loving,” and “will Love;” they commit to keeping love in their pasts, present moments, and futures. MAMAMOO+ exaggerate the chip on their shoulders and then resolve to get over it, moving on in unforgettable ways!
#12: BOBBY, S.i.R
BOBBY visually and lyrically represents the life-changing rush that is felt when falling in love, through a pair of singles whose music videos tell parts of the same story. “Cherry Blossom” is about feeling like one’s love is destined to stay unrequited, and “Drowning” is about the opposite, which is feeling suffocated by too much love! The videos show how fast pining can turn into a warning, and BOBBY learns to be careful what he wishes for after a visit to the Underworld in “Drowning”! It is a smart choice to kick off BOBBY’s new solo era by addressing two ends of the lovestruck spectrum. These songs and videos set the parameters of his future chapters in a broad way that guarantees more spectacles are in store!
#11: So!YoON!, Episode1 : Love
Listening to Episode1 : Love feels like listening to a suspenseful audiobook. Layered rock and R&B instrumentals move at an unpredictable pace, making each song feel like a piece of a separate puzzle. The full picture, therefore, feels like something is missing, but that is the point. The unconventional soundscapes are interrupted by sketches that are purposefully unsettling. For example, “zone out; (skit)” is simply the sound of static. Rather than sweeping listeners into one nonstop dream, this album is more nightmare-esque, not letting listeners be lulled into a sense of security and dependability. By design, one never knows when the next jolt on this sonic roller coaster will come. Episode1 : Love provokes a mixed bag of feelings in surprising ways, establishing an interesting blueprint for “Episode2” and beyond!
#10: HUH YUNJIN, “love you twice”
This LE SSERAFIM member impresses with the clarity of her solo creative vision. “love you twice” is an insightful reflection on society’s unrealistic definition of a “perfect” romantic partner (“She’s funny, but never too much / Mysterious, but always in touch”) and the pressure put on female artists that robs them of fully enjoying dream-come-true moments (“In seven years’ time, will I look back and wonder / ‘Why was I such a mess, unable to relax?’ / Got me on edge everyday / Acting chill on stage but melting down when I’m off it”). HUH YUNJIN covers a heavy but necessary subject through an artful but clear-eyed analysis, pairing hand-drawn illustrations with wise words.
#9: CODE KUNST, Remember Archive
Preserving a lifetime of memories in one musical era is a monumental task, but CODE KUNST proves to be up for the challenge. Helping him preserve this “archive” are a colorful cast of collaborators, roughly equal amounts of sampled, digital, and raw instrumental material, and music videos that cover a broad emotional spectrum. The dizzying highs of one’s happiest days are captured in the giddy goofiness that is the literally hand-made “Jumper” music video! On the other hand, in the apocalyptic video for “55,” sudden panic and passion burn deep. From basking in carefree days to contemplating fleeting mortality, CODE KUNST reflects on it all. Even the album’s teaser video speaks to an impressive amount of snapshots in time: a camera slowly pans left to right, revealing different characters and frozen-in-time scenarios as it does. With a disregard for clear-cut genres and visual dramatizations of emotional extremes, Remember Archive is an introspective yet animated exhibition of CODE KUNST’s past.
#8: Billlie, the Billage of perception: chapter three
As discussed in a previous episode (and an upcoming one!) of 17 Carat K-Pop, Billlie have been weaving a fascinating tale since their debut. Through short films and music videos, they have been telling the fictional backstory of a missing girl, Billlie Love, and the attempts of her former peers to find out what has become of her. The most color symbolism continues to be blue and purple, but hot pink now enters the mix. This is just one of countless examples of how Billlie’s new chapter builds off of past symbols. They are clearly playing the long game, leaving a tantalizing trail of new puzzle pieces with each comeback. The magic of Billlie’s story comes from their engaging mysteries, but the Billage of perception: chapter three is commendable for its plain catchiness too, and the “EUNOIA” music video is adorable fun for any pop fan!
#7: xikers, HOUSE OF TRICKY : Doorbell Ringing
xikers’ debut release is a zippy joyride, filled with everything from haunted-house-ready sound effects to Bollywood influences, but it also keeps a solid narrative foundation. These rookies share a fictional universe with KQ Entertainment labelmates ATEEZ. ATEEZ are on a mission to create a new society and make sure another apocalypse never occurs, by vanquishing the evil alter egos who stoked the previous one. To succeed, they need help with directions and advice, which is where xikers come into play. xikers serve as the intelligence unit and assistants to ATEEZ’s daring missions, making this new group complementary instead of redundant. xikers carve out their own niche in an expanding narrative, epitomized by the over-the-top antics in the “TRICKY HOUSE” music video!
#6: BABYMETAL, THE OTHER ONE
THE OTHER ONE is BABYMETAL at the top of their game, weaving EDM strands into headbang-worthy rock songs with operatic finishing touches. Each song is an event, and the fullness within each song is just enough to not be overwhelming. Even the instrumental-only segments of songs stay riveting, with drums and guitars played at a breakneck pace. Standouts include the most J-pop-esque of the songs, “METALIZM,” and “Believing,” for its superior instrumental. Another highlight: watching BABYMETAL revel in their gothic/queen aesthetic! They use spotlights, a runway, larger-than-life props, and elaborate outfits to make the “METAL KINGDOM” live performance video momentous.
#5: TWICE, READY TO BE
READY TO BE is one catchy, danceable track after another. The first in this set of polished pop songs is “SET ME FREE,” a shining example of TWICE’s subversion of expectations in how they apply the concept of empowerment. What on its face appears to be a song about getting out of a relationship and telling a lover to set them free is actually about telling themselves “Set me free!” to throw away their self-doubts! TWICE enjoy being in love but do not need it to feel whole. Their relationships stay on their own terms, as they decide when a relationship is worth pursuing still (“MOONLIGHT SUNRISE”) and when it has run its course (“CRAZY STUPID LOVE”). TWICE emphasize how wanting to be in love and wanting autonomy are not mutually exclusive; their definition of “empowerment” lies not in abandoning cute and flirty songs, but in doing them in a take-charge way. Their own happiness and sense of worth are non-negotiable, and that is what makes a truly empowering anthem. TWICE are clearly “ready to be” the main characters in their own stories!
#4: JISOO, ME
“I fly away like a blue butterfly / It’s all on you that you didn’t hold on,” JISOO sings to her ex. She leaves a relationship by flying “away like a white petal” and leaving nothing “but the scent of a flower” in her wake. “FLOWER” is about gracefully parting ways with a lover and focusing on one’s relationship with oneself instead, emphasized by JISOO ripping off a necklace that has come to represent her former relationship. She also proves to be her own biggest fan by treating herself to an exquisite wardrobe and luxurious travel. She has fun on her own, shows off dance moves that mimic a flower blooming, and dresses as the epitome of elegance. ME’s B-side, “All Eyes On Me,” is just as bold and danceable as “FLOWER” and the perfect complement to “FLOWER”’s theme of flourishing. JISOO’s solo debut is beautiful visually and message-wise.
#3: KAI, Rover
Once again, KAI thrives with R&B and hip-hop material that lets him show off lots of dancing skills. He plays to his acting strengths too, thanks to each song on Rover corresponding to a scene in a short film, FILM : KAI. Besides being a high-stakes crime thriller, the film intrigues with its treasure trove of Easter eggs, related to KAI’s role in EXO’s music video world and the larger “SMCU,” the fictional realm of SM Entertainment’s artists. FILM : KAI muddies the waters between “Good KAI” and “Evil KAI,” a distinction that will surely stay up to interpretation for many musical eras to come. With Rover and FILM : KAI, KAI proves to be a multitalented and enigmatic entertainer.
#2: BamBam, Sour & Sweet
Sour & Sweet is as personal as it is picturesque; the songs and the album preview video are both key to the story. This multi-sensory story starts with “Feather,” which represents BamBam’s uncertainty and fragile emotional state when he starts a new life in South Korea. The slow-paced song and black-and-white sky epitomize how empty and alone he feels. At this emotional low, BamBam comforts himself with “Take It Easy,” which plays as he takes the stage and starts to find his figurative and literal color with a monochrome look. In “GHOST,” he is consumed with thoughts of his late father, and his animated self fails to outrun them; he stays trapped in a haunted woods. After “GHOST” is the video’s climax and album’s title track, “Sour & Sweet.” Smooth city pop soundtracks his transformation from 2D back to 4D and from the dark woods to a vibrant atmosphere. BamBam is in the process of finding himself but still far from finishing that process, represented by the sounds and images going in and out of focus, as if his environment is still just a surreal haze to him. Discontent remains while BamBam’s star shines brighter, and he dances alone while singing shyly in “Let’s Dance.” He appears disheveled while singing about public scrutiny in “about YOU,” and his continued insecurities are seen through the monochrome, loose-fitting outfit he wears during “TIPPY TOE.” However, the latter song is upbeat and flirty, and his new setting includes pops of color and gold framing around a mirror. BamBam is finally letting more of his true colors show and is no longer as afraid of what he sees in the mirror. He further gains courage in “Wings.” As he wears bright red while lying on top of white feathers (the inverse of the color scheme in “Sour & Sweet,” when he wears a white outer layer of clothes and a red inner layer), he sings about his hard-won contentment. Sour & Sweet paints a vivid and profound picture of BamBam’s journey.
#1: Jimin, FACE
FACE crystallizes the sensation of both having and fearing losing it all. The messiness within Jimin’s emotions stay top of mind with unmissable background noises: a muffled house party, an alarm going off, screaming fans, the sound of getting a glass of water, sighs… The purposeful inclusion of the soundtrack of Jimin’s daily life beyond the typical definition of a soundtrack gives each song an intimate feeling, like the audience is visiting the unfiltered, innermost recesses of Jimin’s memories. His message is even louder in the “Set Me Free Pt.2” music video. Literally and metaphorically, the backup dancers can be interpreted as guiding and elevating him, but they can just as easily be seen as trapping and holding leverage over him. The lyrics attest to this sense of feeling conflicted, while the German poem on Jimin’s shirt voices a commitment to never giving up trying to get unstuck. FACE paints nuanced pictures of private and public selves, the endless compromises between the two, and the intense but fruitless desire to make an emotional high permanent. Like Jimin sings in “Like Crazy,” he wants to be “lost in the lights” forever, and realizing this is impossible both “sets him free” and terrifies him. FACE lays bare Jimin’s attempts to make sense of the messiness of life, and he impresses with how he distills that messiness into concise songs and eye-catching choreography.
To hear more about these picks and find out who got honorable mentions, listen to the corresponding episodes of 17 Carat K-Pop!
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