The Best New Music: May 2022
A ranking and review of the twenty best K-pop, J-pop, and T-pop releases of the past month!
#20: P1Harmony and Pink Sweat$, “Gotta Get Back”
This multilingual, mellow jam brings together Pink Sweat$’ and P1Harmony’s signature sounds in equal measures. Pink Sweat$’ smooth voice makes the most of a simple instrumental, and P1Harmony’s singing and rapping add to the song’s memorableness. The laid-back music video is also likable, as the guys walk around New York City wearing cute clothes and natural smiles. From the opening notes to the “da da da”s that play them off, they all perform with a pleasant, carefree attitude. They sing about missing a loved one but infuse that sad message with a sense of calm and optimism. “Gotta Get Back” is the best kind of collaboration: it is the product of a natural friendship between artists, gives both artists time to shine, and sounds sunny and sweet.
#19: FAKY, “Diamond Glitter”
“Diamond Glitter” is a great example of how a cute and fun pop song is all it takes sometimes for a mood boost! This quirky earworm mixes a playful piano with a fiddle and other unexpected details. The group skips their typical emphasis on individual members’ vocal strengths, opting this time for lots of chanting in unison that reinforces the song’s celebratory feel. This jam is a highly danceable one over which all pop music fans ought to enthuse. The music video, where the members dance in bright, eccentric outfits, is even more encouragement for listeners to let loose and unapologetically express themselves!
#18: NCT DREAM, Beatbox
It comes as no surprise that “Beatbox” is a TikTok hit! It is hard not to smile when listening to it, and when watching its adorable music video. NCT DREAM grab their boombox and party until long after the sun sets. They keep the nineties nostalgia going with a retro, handheld video game and nineties street style. “Beatbox” brightens up this new and improved version of NCT DREAM’s latest album, Glitch Mode, but the other new tracks serve to increase the release’s emotional substance. “To My First” reflects on a past love, “On the way” is a consoling song about putting all worries aside, and “Sorry, Heart” tells a story of pain and regret. The combination of these new electronic/R&B tracks and the new music video make for a worthwhile Glitch Mode repackage.
#17: HIRAIDAI, HOPE / WISH
HOPE / WISH makes the case for reviving the popularity of albums with long tracklists. It includes songs for plenty of preferences and avoids growing dull with quirky details sprinkled throughout them. An animated voice accompanies HIRAIDAI’s on “takara-mono,” starting the album in a celebratory mood that is present in the concluding song, “WISH,” too. Alongside high-energy pop songs are pop ballads and a folk-rock-inspired song (“subarashikijinsei”). All the while, HIRAIDAI sings in a carefree way about looking on the bright side, living in the moment, and appreciating loved ones. HOPE / WISH is the soundtrack for a healing summer afternoon, and it has pleasant twists and turns that make a full listening session worthwhile.
#16: GOT7, GOT7
The most succinct way to summarize GOT7’s music: a synthesized remix of R&B. Their discography is R&B with a heavy synth twist. This mix of genres that defines GOT7’s style is back on their self-titled album, the first release since moving to Warner Music and returning from a group hiatus. This album symbolizes their fresh start in a way that is sure to please their fans; the group is back in their musical sweet spot as if no time has passed since their last comeback. With GOT7, the group clearly hopes to stress that breakup rumors have no merit, and this message is reinforced through the clear teamwork required to bring this album to fruition. The members were very hands-on in the making of this album, made space for each member’s voice to shine throughout these tracks, and took virtual meeting after virtual meeting to make sure this project crossed the finish line. The members’ dedication to GOT7, even amid solo promotions, is touching to see and makes this album a delight on several levels. On top of the emotional satisfaction of this release, the “NANANA” music video is a must-watch. It keeps the good vibes going, with pastel, greenery-filled scenes.
#15: from20, “WEOL”
As addressed time and time and time again in these “Best Of” write-ups, from20 knows just where his musical sweet spot is and has been flourishing there ever since. His latest offering from that space: another nostalgic, synth-heavy, headbang-worthy blast. “WEOL” tightly packs together percussion and synth layers to heighten its sense of suspense and uncontained frustration. from20’s voice adds an emotional edge, coldly stating his firm beliefs in some instances (“... when you turn around… you'll go out, hanging with other guys”) and lashing out in others (“I can feeeeeeeel / I’m feeling it so dumb”). A marked contrast from the confident character from20 played in his last comeback, “James Dean,” he now lives in a state of distress, a fog of post-breakup confusion and fatigue. As he relearns who he is outside of a relationship and severs the confident persona that accompanied it, it is likely this chapter in his musical journey is just getting started.
#14: Ciipher, THE CODE
The two key strengths of this release: its storytelling and its variety. This rookie group’s cinematic world-building continues, as they confront a dizzying maze and flip between an animated world and the “real” one in the “Fame” music video. As for the variety, THE CODE includes the “future-pop” song “Fame,” the nostalgic “You,” the sing-along-ready “Stay,” the rock-tilted “Slam The Door,” and the genre hybrid “On A Highway.” Add in the fact the members are heavily involved in the making of their music, and their skills and storytelling are a surefire formula for their career’s longevity and uniqueness.
#13: ASTRO, Drive to the Starry Road
Drive to the Starry Road is a catchy, feel-good summer soundtrack, and its accompanying “Candy Sugar Pop” music video is the perfect companion. The whimsical, CGI-filled, colorful music video captures the mood-boosting essence of this album perfectly. In addition to the music video, another highlight of this release is its solos. From mellow to playful to mature, the individual members’ songs allow them to show their versatility and express their individuality without compromising the album’s overall light, cheerful feel. Their different tastes musically are explored enough to keep things interesting but not enough to distract from this release’s dominant flavor: carefree, danceable fun!
#12: iKON, FLASHBACK
FLASHBACK is aptly titled; it both reflects on the past and flashes forward to the future. Its songs explore various facets of relationships in ways that sound at times like classic iKON and at times like something brand new from them. Songs like “DRAGON” have funny metaphors (the members sing about looking literally fly and literally walking through fire!), but songs like “BUT YOU” contain more serious messages (while expressing dissatisfaction with a relationship, they question if they are “lingering or… just used to it,” meaning they are not sure if they are holding onto a relationship in the hopes of preserving it or just because they fear what happens if they let it go). Another song that shows notable maturity: “NAME,” when they sing, “I’m sorry, my pride must have blinded me / I couldn’t see your tears.” FLASHBACK is full of both serious and silly moments, funny commentary and somber realizations. FLASHBACK shows iKON in the process of growing up, maturing while holding onto the youthful outlook of “Old iKON.” Through creative lyrics and instrumentals that indicate their future musical direction, iKON touch on a host of feelings and thoughts regarding situations in their past and present.
#11: WOODZ, COLORFUL TRAUMA
WOODZ channels his inner actor in the “I hate you” music video. Dressed to match the punk sound of the song, with a mad glint in his eyes, he vents his frustrations with a past lover while visually representing his feelings of being stuck on Memory Lane, wishing he could just forget this person from his past. Interestingly, he appears the most claustrophobic in scenes when he is alone, rather than when others join him in the elevator. He is trapped in some way in every scene - in plastic, in a box - but he appears exceptionally unhelpable when left by himself. Perhaps what he really craves is not what he convinces himself he does, which is forgetting someone, but the reassurance that being single does not equate to being alone in life. Ambiguous music video aside, COLORFUL TRAUMA is both an emo breakup album and so much more. WOODZ is a true rockstar on each track, his voice feeling right at home when backed by punk-pop instrumentals. “I hate you” is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unapologetic statements. Standouts include “HIJACK,” which is about taking risks and embracing spontaneity, and “Dirt on my leather,” which kicks off the album promising a listening session full of rock and roll.
#10: JEONG SEWOON, Where is my Garden!
Everything about this release oozes likability! Sitting in his garage in the music video for “Roller Coaster,” after watching a pandemic-related news story, JEONG SEWOON watches a commercial for a new roller coaster, which he immediately starts to fantasize about riding and eventually does - via his virtual reality headset! He also spends time in his garage playing instruments, riding around in a miniature, motorized car, and grinning while singing about living life with an “I’m along for the ride” attitude. “I enjoy this unpredictable rhythm,” SEWOON says about life throwing him for loops. His roller coaster analogy fittingly summarizes his sunny outlook, as he makes the most out of life’s ups and down, twists and turns. “Fear, that’s another name for thrill,” he decides, and his embrace of the unknown future allows him to live carefree in the present moment too. This endearing attitude permeates the whole album, which SEWOON has called a “musical garden.” It successfully soundtracks feelings of recharging and relaxing on a summer day, learning to always look on the bright side.
#9: VICTON, Chaos
Full of ambiguous plot points and dramatic gazes, the “Stupid O’clock” music video has the makings of a movie trailer. Just when the plot and intentions of the main characters appear clear, the scene tricks viewers once again. For example, the aftermath of a robbery makes it appear as if the members have not taken anything of value; they may have just created chaos for the sake of chaos (hence the album title!). While their rebellious streak is ceaseless in “Stupid O’clock,” VICTON show off their softer side on the album’s B-sides. “In Love” is a love song that doubles as a fan song, and “Dear. young” is a ballad with lovely harmonies. On the other hand, songs like “INK” and “Stay” bring the energy back. The album starts off strong, with “Bonnie and Clyde” maintaining the bassline focus of the track that precedes it, “Stupid O’clock,” but the rest of Chaos changes things up, letting new sounds take over and new sides to VICTON present themselves. The songs on Chaos are at times cinematic and at times just plain sweet, but they are always entertaining.
#8: KANGDANIEL, The Story
KANGDANIEL summarized this album perfectly in a recent interview, saying that his previous releases featured him as the main protagonist, and now he plays the narrator for The Story. He has transitioned out of the “main character” role and now has an omniscient one, telling listeners a series of short stories. This new-to-him approach to storytelling is intentional. KANGDANIEL feels like he has shared enough of his story with fans, and now it is time to listen: “After Yellow, I said, ‘Okay, now that I’ve talked about what I have inside, I now have to listen to others. I have to turn it the other way around.” As KANGDANIEL’s “Color Trilogy,” progressed, the albums’ content grew darker and more mature. Post-Yellow, The Story’s relative lightness makes sense. Yellow contains the message that it is always the darkest before dawn, and The Story is that dawn. His new music video for “Upside Down” sonically represents this dawn, as he takes the topsy-turvy state of his life in stride. He has emerged from Yellow with a newfound confidence that he can take on the world and a sense of responsibility to hold listeners’ hands as they now try to follow in his footsteps. While KANGDANIEL does not sing about having everything figured out, he now sings about having the courage and trust in himself to try, and he uses lessons from his journey inwards to show how replicable his path is. Overall, The Story is aptly titled, encapsulating universally relatable themes in a way that is an interesting pivot from his past releases.
#7: YERIN, ARIA
Following a piano introduction fit for a Pixar film (“Intro : Bloom”), ARIA tells stories of self-love and becoming the main character of one’s own life story. Former GFRIEND member YERIN tells sweet, endearing stories about her newfound confidence. Amid vivid colors and flowers as far as the eye can see in the music video, she sings about finding her own true colors and letting them shine in “ARIA.” “Believer” cutely describes turning nerves into excitement about taking a risk and no longer hiding any side of oneself. “Lalala” is about falling in love and likens the sensation to flowers blooming. Lastly, on the ballad, “Time,” she sifts through memories of a past relationship and puzzles over which ones to discard and which ones to remember fondly. Although self-love is the focus of ARIA, it also addresses loving others. Regardless of who is being loved, the songs relate to one another by always conveying a sense of wonder and joy at feeling love in the first place. An embrace of love and life is at the core of ARIA. ARIA, both visually and metaphorically, illustrates how bright and full life can feel if one is not afraid to show one’s true colors to the world and to fall in love without fear.
#6: milet, Walkin’ In My Lane
As laid out in a previous essay, milet amazes with her vocal power. The rawness in her voice and the ways she makes it conform to a song’s message and mood is a chameleonic and astounding feat, and she shows off this talent yet again on these three tracks. In “Walkin’ In My Lane,” she pauses for a moment to allow for instruments to refind their places in the background, as if her silence is meant to remind them to file in line behind her. As if under her command, the piano stresses its presence when milet’s inflection beckons it to, such as when she says the “bye” in “goodbye.” The instruments act as team players with milet’s vocals, amplifying her literal voice in ways that also amplify her metaphorical one. “Love When I Cry” is another sonic journey, with bouncy synths and spaced-out snapping that slide away to let her voice ring more powerfully during the cavernous choruses. The heaviest feeling is saved for last, on “My Dreams Are Made of Hell,” but milet uses vocal commands to tuck moments of levity into its structure. She whispers “slower” to prompt the instruments to slow down, says “faster” to prompt them to speed up, ensures strings back up her vocals later on, and delivers some lines in a mischievous whisper, like “Christmas is coming.” Walkin’ In My Lane is a trifecta that proves milet’s dexterity at leaving a lasting impression and keeping listeners invested in her musical storytelling.
#5: LE SSERAFIM, FEARLESS
FEARLESS is, naturally, a collection of unbothered, confident anthems. What makes this album more than just another bold pop release, however, is the group’s irreplicable dancing. The mesmerizing choreography starts at the very beginning of the “FEARLESS” music video, when each member does a perfect hair flip, one after the other, going down the line. Their synchronization and formations never miss. The dance routine also allows for an interesting contrast with the song’s delivery: as the members sing in hushed tones, they take on eye-catching, powerful dance moves. Their presence is literally quiet while being metaphorically loud, and this combination is what distinguishes LE SSERAFIM. Additional contrasts in “FEARLESS” reinforce their uncompromising self-presentation, such as one member wearing her boxing gloves with her prom dress. The album’s B-sides carry on the same tone, a seemingly permanent sense of sureness in who they are, and an alternative, surprising soundscape. The best B-side is “The Great Mermaid,” which puts the “breaking out of one’s bubble” metaphor in the context of the literal bubbles in which a mermaid could get trapped! While LE SSERAFIM’s upfront, fierce persona is guaranteed to stay, they reassure audiences they will not grow boring by keeping FEARLESS and its music video one-of-a-kind.
#4: 4EVE, “Exceptional”
This Thai girl group deserves to stay on K-pop girl group fans’ radar. 4EVE’s music involves many of the same elements praised in K-pop releases, including extensive instrumental layers and genre-blending. At the same time, 4EVE march to the beat of their own drum, combining modern and traditional instruments with changing tempos to allow “Exceptional” to live up to its name. The music video leaves a lasting impression, using clear but thought-provoking visuals to send a message. A mysterious hand gives each member a different name tag and a sin corresponding to what they are doing. For example, the member enjoying a buffet gets a name tag that says “Hello, my name is Gluttony,” and the member surrounded by shopping bags gets a name tag that says “Hello, my name is Greed.” But towards the end of the video, without changing what they were doing when they were given those labels, each member peels off their name tag to reveal a new one underneath. These once-hidden messages are affirmations of their worth, such as “Hello, I’m celebrating my appetite” and “Hello, I earned it.” Instead of a standard “Be yourself” message, 4EVE go a step further, not just reassuring themselves they are perfect the way they are, but also that they have the power to push back against what are considered “flawed” ways to be in the first place. They change their narratives to not just embrace who they are, but to simultaneously reframe the circumstances under which they used to belittle themselves. 4EVE do not let society define who they are and what they should be ashamed of; they refuse to be shamed into beating themselves up over self-indulgence and confidence. “Exceptional” is a colorful song made all the more memorable with its accompanying music video, which finds a way to make profound points about a global culture of perpetuating self-loathing with the use of a prop as simple as name tags.
#3: Nissy, HOCUS POCUS 3
Building off of previous chapters, Nissy continues his story of parallel worlds and alter egos in the video for “Trippin.” After delivering a show-stopping performance that thrills the audience, Nissy’s state of euphoria dissipates as quickly as a blast of light appears. The light shoots down a (presumably unconscious) version of himself. While the audience relentlessly cheers the performance, oblivious to the commotion backstage and the loud thud with which this other Nissy has hit the ground, Nissy rescues this character, zapping away with him to an unknown location. In addition to this “To be continued” music video ending, Nissy also ensures this new musical era is a magical, memorable one with an album packed with catchy bop after catchy bop. A pre-release ballad, “kimini fureta tokikara,” is included, but HOCUS POCUS 3 is otherwise a nonstop party. Nissy experiments with combinations of piano-focused, guitar-focused, and percussion-focused instrumentals while telling emotional stories in a carefree way. While watching the “Trippin” music video, the audience takes Nissy’s side and can grow angry at the unconcerned crowd that ignores the other Nissy’s plight. On the other hand, while just listening to the album, listeners feel like they are just one with the crowd, immersed in a party atmosphere so lively that there is simply no room mentally to even notice a noise backstage. In other words, the audience is so focused on Nissy that they have no time to learn about the presence of the other Nissy! Nissy is simultaneously the object of affection in this story and an ignored disturbance. Nissy’s new music tells a multifaceted story in a way that comes across as effortless.
#2: TXT, minisode 2: Thursday’s Child
In classic TXT fashion, every aspect of this release is the result of careful thought and narrative skill. The fashion, the performances, the lyrics, the interpretable details in the “Good Boy Gone Bad” music video, instrumental choices, and even their facial expressions have been carefully chosen. The result of paying major attention to minor details is the difference between TXT and other boy groups. What makes TXT stand apart is the extent to which they psychoanalyze their own intentions and find ways to make meaning out of visuals and lyrics. Rather than just sing about being a “Good Boy Gone Bad,” for example, they seek to understand why they are compelled to “go bad.” Previously, instead of just singing about feeling like a loser on “LO$ER=LO♡ER,” they thought deeply about what makes someone a loser or a lover. The dollar sign and heart in the song title represent their conclusions, and this insight is brought up again on the new album, with “Trust Fund Baby” (“I'll never be a trust fund baby, no / Why can't that life ever be minе? / An empty wallet with the namе of a heart / That is even more empty than that / Lover with no dollar sign”). This is just one example of how TXT always ensure their newest chapter builds off of the thought processes and themes laid out in the chapters before it. As TXT grow and learn about themselves and their place in the world, they share what they are learning through musical and visual symbols. A separate piece elaborating on this release’s meaning is coming to this newsletter soon, so be sure to subscribe to not miss it!
#1: SEVENTEEN, Face the Sun