The Best New Music: May 2023
A ranking and review of the 20 best new K-pop, J-pop, C-pop, and P-pop releases!
#20: ONEUS, PYGMALION
After a twisty introduction and the orchestral, emo-pop “ERASE ME,” ONEUS show off their gentler side. “Unforgettable” is an earworm with a wholesome, camping-themed music video. “ECHO” proves they can nail a performance that requires switching into both a higher register and a slower tempo. Their voices get one more chance to shine in the guitar-filled slow song “Halley’s Comet.” PYGMALION, named after the term referring to the power of positive thinking to influence results, is strong proof of concept. ONEUS’s apparent effortlessness with which they charm viewers primes the audience to enjoy the “ERASE ME” video even more, with its charismatic choreography, flashing lights, and snappy outfits.
#19: INI, DROP That
The “DROP That” concept trailer doubles as a likable introduction to this J-pop boy band. The future-focused voiceover is paired with a montage of memories, and after sharing a bit about their past and future, they show off their present-day charms, goofing off in an arcade and dancing together in bright colors. While “FANFARE” is the right call for this EP’s main single and is possibly INI’s best song to date, “DROP” is also a must-listen. Its hip-hop sound and playful chanting bring to mind P1Harmony and THE BOYZ. The other tracks, “Let’s Escape” and “INItialize,” are feel-good, guitar-and-percussion-focused songs with surprising finishing touches. The main takeaway: this is a group who doesn’t take themselves too seriously but does plan to stay striving.
#18: BTOB, WIND AND WISH
WIND AND WISH is filled with BTOB’s dependable melodrama! Their emotional deliveries engage in an interesting dance with lighter instrumentals. They have clearly refined over time a “dance ballad” genre all their own. BTOB thrive under their self-written rules for making music, rules that encourage ignoring genre restrictions and merging dramatic and carefree stylistic choices. WIND AND WISH has emotional lyrics that are packaged in danceable, catchy ways! The title track is the epitome of this: while singing about hoping their message reaches someone they deeply miss, they spend the waiting period dancing and posing in a flower field!
#17: Karencici, Everybody Loves Me
Everybody Loves Me is chameleonic but cohesive. Karencici’s voice slides effortlessly between and among tempos and moods, ranging from punk to autotune-heavy R&B. The fluidity keeps these songs perfectly aligned, yet this condensed package does have surprises inside. Karencici knows what works for her musically and picks and chooses which elements of genres with which she wants to play. The best example of her knack for smooth experimentation: “She Don’t Mind,” which manages to pivot from a slow R&B song into a rapid one with a rapping/singing combination.
#16: ASH ISLAND, ROSE
ASH ISLAND shows his duality with ROSE’s corresponding music videos, celebrating rosy days with bright colors and blue skies in “WONDER” and reflecting on thornier moments in the literally and figuratively darker “Rose In The Heart.” The album oscillates between self-hype and post-breakup pain. In between these opposites lies a deep well of emotions that ASH ISLAND mines through without sacrificing his signature delivery, and while taking breaks for songs that are not so deep. He tempers his usual bravado with confessional lyrics, but he still knows how to have fun! ROSE shows ASH ISLAND’s discography’s natural outgrowth in both style and substance.
#15: AB6IX, THE FUTURE IS OURS: LOST
AB6IX stay in familiar territory sonically but take their visual storytelling to new heights. Even when the purposes of the decor and props in the “LOSER” music video are hard to nail down, their presence is worthwhile for at least aesthetic reasons! A vibrant purple sky, bursts of dark smoke, a coffin, and stained-glass church windows create an ominous but visually stunning atmosphere. The scenes are also filled with symbols of light and hope, including glowing butterflies and newly-blossomed flowers. The video has engaging twists and turns, the most clever one being their spin on a voodoo doll concept. One of the members appears trapped in a life-size maze, but it turns out to just be a tabletop diorama. What the normal-size members do to the tiny one affects the normal-size version. The video’s other puzzles include a billboard that says “Lost & Found” and blocks the end of a tunnel. The members run toward this exit, getting closer to what they’ve been looking for, but it is a dead end at the same time. The coexisting feeling of being stuck and being close to a reprieve matches the juxtaposition of “LOSER”’s upbeat sound and bleak lyrics! AB6IX ace their assignment, sonically and visually embodying the concept of being lost but knowing, as the album title suggests, the future is still theirs for the taking.
#14: YAO CHEN, YAOCHEN
A dynamic album introduction, “Welcome to Yao’s land,” leads into the defiant, EDM/rap “YAOCHEN.” The self-titled album includes the similarly assertive “I’m so hot.” In between are songs with gentler instrumentals and more vulnerable reflections. This release’s corresponding music videos expand on these layers, with YAO CHEN playing an aggressive troublemaker in the action-packed “YAOCHEN” video and appearing calm and collected in the “Lonely” one, gathering his thoughts on a picturesque hiking trip. It is an interesting choice to portray himself as an intimidating rabble-rouser in the self-titled video and song, while saving his reservations for the B-sides and “Lonely.” YAO CHEN wants the audience to associate his name with a fearless persona and processes raw feelings when no one is looking. This release sends the message that YAO CHEN is a work in progress, negotiating his public-facing self in real time. He easily contains his feelings in some instances and cannot do so in others, allowing his work to hold multitudes.
#13: MIRANI, The Drift
In The Drift, the joy is in the details. The sonic texture is continuously tweaked in ways that enhance instead of distract from each song’s impact. A distorted, autotune filter here, a pitch change there, a suddenly hushed delivery… MIRANI performs as if improvising while making careful choices. Her ear for detail is evident and gives each song an indecipherable quality, and the intrigue is compounded with punchy lyrics. She sounds humorously cavalier while delivering certain lines, like in “BAD BOY,” in which she compares a past relationship to a drink: “It shattered, but not bad”!
#12: ONE N’ ONLY, Departure (Special Edition)
Departure (Special Edition) offers new fans a great introduction to a diverse slate of this J-pop group’s offerings. Feel-good pop songs include “We’ll rise again,” “Reflection,” and “Step Up.” The cuteness is cranked up a notch in “LUCKY” and “Good Day.” To name a few more gems: a smorgasbord of sounds makes “CIRCLE” a whirlwind to listen to, and EDM elements electrify “Last Forever.” Other songs sound perfect for different K-pop boy group fandoms: “Set a Fire” is OnlyOneOf-esque, and “Departure” brings Stray Kids to mind. Overall, Departure (Special Edition) finds numerous ways to prove and justify this group’s appeal.
#11: iKON, TAKE OFF
TAKE OFF is a delightful summer party soundtrack and proves that classic iKON is back and better than ever! “U” and “Tantara” are great choices for singles; they overflow with authentic and contagious enthusiasm. The music videos have the energy of a summer comedy movie, taking car troubles in stride on their way to a party in “U” and getting into an unserious dance-off of sorts in “Tantara.” The good times keep rolling with the album’s B-sides, although they do take party breaks for slower, more emotional numbers. The last few tracks feel like bonus tracks; they are sonically separate from the tracks before them but are welcome add-ons that let certain members shine solo. Overall, TAKE OFF proves iKON still have the can-do attitude of their early days, evident in solo and group songs alike.
#10: KARD, ICKY
This group impresses with the specificity of their creative vision. It is hard to put a finger on exactly what their image is, but they have one-of-a-kind material that fits them like a glove. They return to a moombahton sound for “ICKY,” an over-the-top title track with a bizarre video setting and unapologetic innuendos. “Without You” shows what makes this group stand out in a different way: they can go from rap-centered to vocal-centered formats in a snap. KARD save the most rapping for the B-sides, giving both the singers and rappers spotlights with different parts of this release. There is no competition, and what keeps KARD’s work unique is this treatment of everyone’s contributions as essential. Their songs commit to incorporating four different creative visions into the same release, a commendable feat. KARD’s hands-on approach to their music ensures it stays bold and buzz-worthy.
#9: ATBO, The Beginning : 飛上
The scene-setter for this comeback is an endearing mini movie, in which the boys help a fellow member fix his plane to finish his journey. Once their mission to help this stranded pilot succeeds, the scene goes from black-and-white to color. In the final moments, a voiceover reminds them this is still just the beginning of their story. Plus, the audience learns the action has been unfolding on a patch of land floating in the sky, a welcome twist to a plot that at first unfolds predictably. ATBO’s pivot to a more youthful, joyful concept suits them well, and their willingness to keep exploring musically is fortunate. The songs range from pop/R&B to New Jack Swing. With a versatile soundscape, a cute visual complement, and a meta plot twist in the “Next to Me” music video, ATBO prove to be ones to watch.
#8: SB19, “GENTO”
In a teaser trailer, the poor, despairing residents of an apocalyptic town gather around a light source and try everything to reignite it, to no avail. Their luck changes upon SB19’s dramatic entrance, and the group saves the day in the story’s follow-up, the “GENTO” music video. “GENTO” plays off of the word “ginto,” which means “gold,” and as SB19 sing about refining their skills into gold after extensive effort, the townspeople’s prayers are answered and the light returns. The premise might sound simple and formulaic, but there are two ways it sidesteps those descriptors. First of all, the story’s meaning runs deeper than it seems: no single SB19 member saves the day on his own. The song and video speak to the importance of teamwork, plus perseverance, thinking outside the box, and realizing that little efforts add up to make big differences. Second of all, the “GENTO” video ends with a plot twist: the golden light appears to envelope SB19; they are shrunken inside of it, and aliens stare down at them, Horton-Hears-a-Who!-style! Both the “GENTO” music video and its teaser trailer justify their melodrama with an ever-relevant message about what makes the world go round and a last-minute narrative curveball.
#7: DeVita, Naughty
As always, DeVita’s exquisite vocals carry these R&B songs! DeVita knows how to use her voice for the maximum impact, and she has what it takes to pull off these songs’ lustful themes. She proves to sing as compellingly with this naughty material as she does with G-rated subject matter! There is more of the latter with the music videos: she shows a strong stage presence with her dance moves in “Ride For Me” and strikes an unexpectedly comical tone with “Naughty.” Naughty is aptly titled, but DeVita’s divine voice and fun videos ought to satisfy a wider crowd!
#6: Dreamcatcher, [Apocalypse : From us]
Dreamcatcher take full advantage of the storytelling potential in their ongoing music video world-building and go-to album template. After “Intro : From us” reels audiences in, they maintain a commanding presence across pop-rock jams. The final track is the slow, guitar-backed “To. You,” but it fits with the other tracks because of the thick synth layer over their voices. It is lighter than the other tracks but shares the sensation of being trapped in something all-consuming. Dreamcatcher’s story cohesion extends to the “BONVOYAGE” music video, which has plenty of Easter eggs to enthuse long-time fans and plenty of superpower-themed antics to entertain more casual viewers.
#5: aespa, MY WORLD
The smart MY WORLD promotional strategy has kept fans guessing. From the teen movie vibes of “Spicy” and “Thirsty” to the more sensual tone of “Salty & Sweet,” almost every song on the album has a standalone video to go with it. On the other hand, the videos are not quite standalone; they are connected through a sense of mystery in the moments when 4D, 3D, and/or 2D worlds collide. The “Everything is not what it seems” reminder is most prominent in “I’m Unhappy.” The members run in slow motion away from something and look somber while in typically jovial atmospheres, like a school dance. They sing about feeling like odd ones out when looking at others’ seemingly perfect lives on social media. How much is the cheerfulness and confidence the members exude in the other track videos just an attempt to fit in?
While trying something new marketing-wise, aespa continue making the same social commentary they have since day one. As detailed in previous episodes of 17 Carat K-Pop, aespa’s in-depth world-building grapples with the blurred lines between digital selves and “real-life” ones, between what one is certain is “the real” version of oneself and what is being done for the sake of content. aespa’s story is one that simultaneously plays into expectations and subverts them, emulating “#LifeGoals” with a foreboding undercurrent. The group’s self-discovery is a journey inevitably linked to their digital footprints, making their story resonate with younger generations in an unmatched way.
#4: LE SSERAFIM, UNFORGIVEN
With UNFORGIVEN, LE SSERAFIM go beyond maintaining their uncompromising self-presentation and dare to get even bolder! They decide to stop waiting for others’ approval and light their own path, a resolve that goes to chaotic extremes in their new music videos! They take over a saloon, dancing on top of the tables, in “UNFORGIVEN,” and they mark their territory at the skate park by shooting an arrow into the ground in “Eve, Psyche & The Bluebeard’s wife.” The latter video puts a fun spin on a gory folk tale, skipping to the ending, when the wife who avoids the same tragic end as Bluebeard’s previous lovers gets ownership of Bluebeard’s fortune. The girls treat themselves to whatever they want, and what makes this story even better is the “We deserve it” message in place of an “I deserve it” one. In both new videos, teamwork-requiring dance moves take center stage. Particularly cute is the way they join hands and raise their arms together during the “UNFORGIVEN” choruses. The narration in an album trailer reiterates their “stronger together” mentality: “Do you want to be forgiven? You don’t have to. I’m unforgiven too. Alone we meander, but together we adventure.” They wear the “outsider” label as a badge of honor and form a team of unapologetic misfits.
#3: (G)I-DLE, I feel
(G)I-DLE indulge in the aesthetic realm of nineties and early-aughts teen comedies but rewrite the endings to be refreshingly real. “Allergy” and “Queencard” are two parts of the same story, the former ending with SOYEON ready for plastic surgery and the latter showing her suddenly running away, deciding she doesn’t need it. The story could have stopped there, as just a straightforward “from insecure to secure” narrative. Instead, they opt for a messier ending: SOYEON does realize she is beautiful as she is, but she does not completely fall in love with herself either. (G)I-DLE gain confidence during their new videos, but they are playing characters at the end of the day. Behind the scenes, as their song lyrics attest, they continue to crave admiration and feel compelled to cater to society’s standards. Unlike in the movies, where characters’ decisions can seem detached from the world in which they live, (G)I-DLE do not deny the social factors that influence them. Everything can feel rosy at the end of a movie, but (G)I-DLE’s story arcs are more nuanced.
“Queencard” is delightfully immodest, and the group has some of their most sensual songs yet in “All Night” and “Lucid.” However, other songs on I feel speak to lasting insecurities. They express feeling incomplete without a loved one in “Paradise”: “In the monotonous city / You are the only color / That’s filling my everyday.” They describe losing control of their romantic feelings and being “drunk in a flower called you” in that song as well, a lyric taken directly from their older song “DAHLIA.” Notably, “DAHLIA” also includes lyrics about believing color cannot be added into their lives without a loved one: “I’m getting more and more colored with you;” “The color of this love is growing thicker.” The album ends with “Peter Pan” and an expression of guilt for not growing up faster. By returning to old subject matter, they reinforce the fact their journeys to self-love are not linear and have moments of stagnation.
Taken as a whole, I feel and its music videos make the stuff of diary entries fun and digestible. They use levity and nostalgia to send a message about learning their worth and then use lyrics as a reminder of coexisting self-doubt.
#2: JOOHONEY, LIGHTS
LIGHTS is a profound personal statement that audiences will not soon forget. After releasing MIXTAPE [ Psyche ], a heavy release from a darker period of life, JOOHONEY sounds newly emboldened, having been through the fire and risen from the ashes.
The songs on LIGHTS zig when they are expected to zag. “FREEDOM” starts off as a piano ballad before a deep bass quickens the pace and steals the show. His expressions sound pained in “Voice” but are accompanied by an unassuming trap beat. Other surprises include the rapping alongside a jazzy piano in “Monologue” and the way he firmly states “I’M DONE” following soft-voiced echoes in “Evolution.” More worth celebrating than JOOHONEY’s new sense of freedom to experiment musically, though, is his new sense of freedom to simply be himself.
What makes LIGHTS exceptionally powerful is its way of sharing hard-earned lessons without sounding patronizing, overgeneralizing, or preachy. JOOHONEY gets candid about going through a dark time mentally, and he does not offer a silver bullet for how others can see light at the end of the tunnel. His assessment is realistic: JOOHONEY cannot guarantee a future of pure sunshine if one follows his advice, but he can insist that trying to find the sunshine within every day and knowing it’s there is worthwhile. As he puts it in “Monologue,” hope is “hiding… in the dark, everywhere.” He promises that “Crawling is better than nothing” in “Evolution” and reminds people tough times always pass in “FREEDOM”: “Even your pain and the unbearable moments of suffering / Are swept away by the flowing wind.”
The most touching moment in LIGHTS is during the grand finale, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” A choir of children’s voices joined JOOHONEY in “SMOKY,” echoing his sentiment about trying and struggling to move forward. Now, a choir of adult voices accompanies his own, emphasizing his newfound confidence that he can handle whatever the “grown-up world” throws at him. “SMOKY” was JOOHONEY telling his inner child everything would be okay, and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” shows a grown-up JOOHONEY finally believing that.
LIGHTS is a moving full-circle moment for JOOHONEY, encapsulating his emotional transformation from darkness to not pure bliss but genuine contentment. LIGHTS exudes authenticity for not being an “Everything’s okay now!” story, but an “Everything will be okay” and “You can do hard things” one. LIGHTS doesn’t have all the answers, but it has something better: a reminder that the keys to handle life’s biggest obstacles are already within oneself. As he puts it in “Voice,” “We are the keys.” The lessons JOOHONEY has learned and shares about valuing oneself, trusting in one’s ability to get out of a dark hole, and knowing the sun will rise again tomorrow are invaluable.
#1: ENHYPEN, DARK BLOOD
Read the full album analysis below, and check out the corresponding podcast episode here!
For more on these picks and to find out who got honorable mentions, listen to the corresponding episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!
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