The Best New Music: November 2023
A ranking and review of the best new music from Korean, Japanese, and Chinese artists!
#20: Lexie Liu, “delulu”
This hyper-pop fever dream makes listeners feel like they’re losing their minds along with Lexie! The normal-speed song sounds like a sped-up version, as Lexie’s angst-ridden thoughts crash into each other. Her focus shifts in mere nanoseconds, from “I don’t wanna go out today” to “Thinking ‘bout my clueless boy.” Her inner monologue turns outwards, and she frantically moves around an empty room - when she isn’t glumly sitting alone by a birthday cake as a laugh track plays. The “Life feels like a cruel joke” mentality is clear! The song is as fleeting as her moods are, and she speedily slips between English and Chinese and between singing and speed-talking. “delulu” is a short, effective burst of uncontained energy with a distinct, bleak sense of humor.
#19: P1Harmony, “Fall In Love Again”
“Fall In Love Again” encourages emotional openness through a charming, matchmaker-themed video with a twist. P1Harmony’s client is a friendly, lonely monster, and they never give up on their goal of helping the literal monster find love! It’s a comical yet sincere story told through both the video and the group’s signature delivery, one that is both laid-back and optimistic. A relatively equal balance is struck between playful rapping and showing off serious singing skills. “Fall In Love Again” earnestly tries to convince people to follow P1Harmony’s lead and “take a chance” again on love, even after being burned. The song promises the right lover will enter one’s life when the time is right, a simple but important reminder that is very on-brand for these upbeat entertainers.
#18: PINK FUN, Oh! My Oh! My
This C-pop girl group’s EP has plenty of treats for fans of K-pop girl groups! “Oh! My Oh! My” is for fans of STAYC’s “Bubble,” and “All About You” is for fans of Cherry Bullet’s “Love So Sweet.” “LoveMoji” and “Stay” slow things down while staying as sweet-sounding as ever, and “Afternoon Sea Breeze” provides a light, summer-ready energy boost. The group’s music is made even more smile-worthy with the “Oh! My Oh! My” music video. Between scenes where the members try wooing a crush are dance scenes including preppy outfits, lots of bubbles, a touch of magic, and a bright setting with the look of a Polly Pocket playset!
#17: Dreamcatcher, [VillainS]
This era’s “Outfit Of The Day” concept seems less gimmicky in the context of Dreamcatcher’s ongoing musical story. They have concluded the “Apocalypse” era and have started a new era, playing new characters in a new video universe. The focus on styling their new characters feels necessary and more meaningful than expected. World-creating aside, the “OOTD” video is a fun fashion show and has looks ranging from Barbie-esque to all-black with a pop of red. “OOTD” is an introduction to new characters, but [VillainS] is a return to familiar pop-rock territory, giving fans both what they love and reminders that Dreamcatcher’s story is far from done!
#16: Epik High ft. Hoshi, “Screen Time”
“Screen Time” speaks to the strange contradictions inherent to the digital age: People have simultaneously never felt closer or farther apart. “You’re colder than I thought / From your words and happy photographs,” they remark, an acknowledgment that the version of people that is posted online can vary drastically from who they are offline. This is why there is no substitute for in-person time with a loved one: “I miss waking up to your eyes / Now I stare at them on a screen.” They view their phone time as just “trying to kill time,” something they rely on to feel less lonely. Despite the awareness that their phone time is not actually fulfilling their emotional needs, they cannot quit. In the music video, people keep checking their phones no matter what, ignoring the people around them in casual and dire circumstances alike. Even if part of them wants to try a digital detox, it is physically impossible: Rectangular light follows them everywhere, resembling their phone’s glow even when actual phones are not present. From motorcycle lights to Tablo’s empty hands, a phone-like glow lingers. The video ends with a battery life reaching zero and an abrupt time-loop restart; Hoshi is back to where he was at the beginning. Will he make the same mistakes over and over again or choose a new path? There does seem to be a way to wriggle out of a phone addiction’s hold, since the video shows street signs marked “PAST” and “PRESENT” and the members move in the direction of the latter. But that path is far from a walk in the park, as symbolized through the sources of a tunnel’s light being just the phone-screen-type glow and cracks in the walls. Arguably, what makes “Screen Time” the most effective are the roles Epik High and Hoshi play in the music video. The song is not a finger-wagging towards phone-addicted people; they, too, have fallen under the digital world’s spell. In other words, what could sound preachy just sounds relatable, since they do not treat themselves as above the problem.
#15: DINO, “Wait”
In the “Wait” music video, the delight is in the details! While DINO waits for his order number to be called, he finds numerous ways to depict the feeling that time is moving too slowly. His impatience is made palpable through serious facial expressions, group choreography that is the opposite of chill, a fast piano instrumental, and the ways his visual surroundings seem to mock him. For example, opening the blinds creates shadows that resemble the lines on a crosswalk, and that crosswalk’s lines also turn into the infamous “Loading” circle on a computer screen. That “Loading” symbol returns after DINO himself spins in a circle, one of the many times his movements are linked to other visual indicators of his inability to distract himself from how slow time is moving. Other details that emphasize how eternal waiting feels include his flower wilting and becoming his flattened bookmark. Also, the tiny dots that indicate an incoming text extend far beyond the end of his phone screen! Overall, the attention to detail for a release with such a clear-cut premise is impressive; who knew the concept of waiting could be this interesting?!
#14: MCND, ODD-VENTURE
MCND’s grand return surpasses expectations and overflows with energy. The “ODD-VENTURE” music video features years’ worth of comeback concepts all in one: a trip to outer space, a stormy boat ride, an encounter with an enormous shark, a hike in the woods, and even time between adventures in a planning room, as if pitching story ideas in real time! The group also answers “All of the above” when asked what kind of style they want to focus on for the album itself! The tracklist includes enthusiastic anthems, like “ODD-VENTURE” and “Loosen Up,” and lower-tempo songs, like “Treasure” and “Run.” The album is also like several stories in one due to the first half focusing on one-at-a-time vocals more than unison moments, and the second half is the reverse. ODD-VENTURE is a testament to the overflowing excitement the members have to get back on the scene for a full comeback. Their contagious spiritedness and “sky is the limit” mindset form a through line among this release’s different topics.
#13: aespa, Drama
The “Drama” music video starts with the following advice on the screen:
1. “Look back immediately when you feel a presence in the dark.”
2. “If your reflection in the mirror tries to shake your hand, do not let it.”
3. “Light can blind your eyes. Run away at full speed.”
4. “All of the above is false. The only way to escape is by doing the opposite.”
Not much more needs to be said to entice people to watch! They do indeed bring the drama, saving each other from falling off of skyscrapers, encountering mysterious shadows, and flexing swordsmanship. The video is a larger-than-life action/adventure/thriller mini-movie, and it has chic outfits to boot! The mini-album itself has plenty of bold beats and EDM inspiration, although it has lighter fare too and represents the singers’ many facets. With this comeback, aespa bring the thrilling “Drama,” but they also bring so much more!
#12: Jung Kook, GOLDEN
While it would be nice to hear more self-produced and self-written material from Jung Kook in the future, his ease at bringing the songs he’s given to the next level proves that day will be worth the wait! GOLDEN is a solid solo start, proving Jung Kook has what it takes to have Bieber-level pop-star status, if not higher. He makes it seem easy to pull off smooth dance moves and belt out songs like his life depends on it! He effortlessly and piercingly sings ballads like “Hate You” but also masters an early-aughts swagger in songs like “3D.” The perfect finishing touch is “Standing Next to You,” a retro song that is made unforgettable solely because of Jung Kook’s talent and charisma. In short, Jung Kook proves he was born to shine!
#11: WayV, On My Youth
On My Youth is rowdy in more ways than one! The WayV members wreck havoc in the “On My Youth” music video, and the feelings of angst and in-betweenness that characterize young adulthood also have a voice through the songs’ volatility. Visual contrasts, such as preppy attire mixed with bloody wounds and piercings, shine another light on the grueling side of growing up and the relentless search for emotional outlets. Neither clean-cut gentlemen nor fully brazen rebels (after all, they would not try to hide their vandalism from security cameras in the music video if they did not fear getting in trouble for it!), the members act out due to a need for attention they have not yet learned how to harness productively. On My Youth hits the nail on the head when it comes to encapsulating a turbulent phase. Better yet, the concept is explored in personalized ways, with many visual nods to previous WayV videos.
#10: Crush, wonderego
“Hmm-cheat” should be an instant contender for “Best Songs of 2023” lists. It is the kind of pick-me-up that makes people stop what they’re doing to sing and shimmy along! Good vibes abound on the B-sides too, with songs like “Remember Me” and “EZPZ.” However, roughly twenty or thirty percent of the album is more solemn. More “ego”-focused than “wonder”-focused songs include “SHE,” “Harness,” and “Bad Habits” (featuring LeeHi). wonderego shows that Crush is down for a good time more often than not, but he can also get deep in his feelings! wonderego is a musically comprehensive guide to Crush and remains entertaining throughout, sometimes because of his upbeat nature and sometimes because of his heavenly crooning.
#9: TRiDENT, Dream Up
This invigorating EP builds on itself, only getting more engaging as the listening experience continues. After rock songs about being an active participant in one’s own life and going “on the offensive” (in “KICKASS” and “Repaint”), the second half’s lyrics focus more on the bigger picture and feature more electronic, unpredictable twists. The rousing “endroll” advises listeners to cherish every moment like it’s their last, and “NEO FUTURE” encourages them to have faith that their far-from-shore boats will return to shore eventually. Overall, Dream Up goes from straightforward, present-focused rock songs to more metaphorical, future-focused, electronic songs. All the while, TRiDENT insist that people seize the day or regret it later!
#8: NTX, ODD HOUR
ODD HOUR features many instrumental variations, but not to the point where they distract from the members’ vocal chops. This solid release deserves praise for its visuals, too. The “Holy Grail” music video contrasts scenes in a sci-fi city with some in front of a beautiful, painting-like background of the sky. The city scenes involve topsy-turvy camerawork, lasers, and technicolor flashes. In contrast, the scenes with the lovely background have steadier camerawork and a more polished dress code. The video ends with a return to the futuristic, discombobulating city setting, and the members dramatically fall from the clouds, as if Zeus’s electric-blue lightning strikes are forcing them back to Earth. The dual worlds in “Holy Grail” make for a maximalist adventure with mythological subtext, and the story’s breadth equals that of the genre-combining album.
#7: Red Velvet, Chill Kill
The most summative term for this Red Velvet era is “scene-setting;” the videos are literally dark, and the songs are visualization-prompting. Red Velvet weave a dark and twisted fairy tale through the Nutcracker-sampling “Knock Knock (Who’s There?),” the echo-filled “Will I Ever See You Again?,” and the disarmingly playful “Bulldozer,” which includes lyrics like “Sorry you got in my way”! Their delivery couldn’t be sweeter in songs like the harmonious “One Kiss,” “Wings,” and “Scenery.” But whenever their sweet side is clearest, their most sinister side is not far away, and vice versa! Their trademark mix of spookiness, sass, and sweetness also coexist in the movie-trailer-esque “Chill Kill” teaser and the full-length music video. They take a trip to a mysterious, abandoned house, set it on fire, and act like giddy schoolgirls while holding hands and skipping away from the crime scene. Given the time-travel element of their ongoing music video story, the scenes where they celebrate the destruction can be interpreted as scenes from their pasts, whereas their present-day selves do not engage in the same dark magic. The reverse could also be true, and never knowing which side of Red Velvet will present itself next time remains a key part of their intrigue!
#6: King Gnu, THE GREATEST UNKNOWN
There is a song for everybody in THE GREATEST UNKNOWN, partly because it is a nesting doll of songs! The album begins with “MIRROR” and ends with the same title flipped, and certain sonic themes pop up again in surprising moments throughout the listening experience. The songs are in several conversations with one another at once, with dynamic and engaging results. For example, a voice that sounds like it is coming through an intercom characterizes “Ichizu” and, a few songs later, “IKAROS.” The digitized focus of the album’s midpoint recurs with “GLASS WINDOW,” after a relatively melancholy break. Vocals reach a higher-than-expected pitch in “Ame Sansan” and again in “Sanmon Shosetsu,” and between those songs are some of the album’s most affecting moments (the joviality in “BOY” is palpable, and there is an unsettling undercurrent to “Dou”). “RORRIM” closes the show with an array of sounds that has the feeling of the whole album moving in reverse. THE GREATEST UNKNOWN is an entire experience, an auditory journey with so much to it that one can listen to it on different occasions and repeatedly walk away with new sensations and interpretations!
#5: TAEYEON, To. X
To. X is a compact yet complete breakup album. TAEYEON sings circles around the guitar-focused opening songs, which blame an ex-lover for a relationship’s end. The finality and heaviness of this realization fully hit her in the ballad “All For Nothing.” But TAEYEON regains a bounce in her step in the conclusion, “Fabulous,” reminding herself that she might be single now, but she deserves better than her ex anyway! She also refuses to blame herself for a relationship’s downfall in the “To. X” video. She signifies a desire to turn her past relationship into a mere memory by presenting it in a variety of forms, including a flip book and a movie, with scenes shown via projector. Her toxic ex makes it hard to move on, though, making it physically impossible for her to look away and run from the movie reel. She sobs while being forced to relive the nightmare, but she eventually frees herself and sets fire to the film strip, which is labeled “NARCISSIST.” TAEYEON’s resolve to rise from the ashes of a tragic chapter aligns with the head-held-high ethos of “Fabulous.”
To. X does not shy away from the most gut-wrenching aspects of a negative relationship, but it pays attention to the light at the end of the tunnel too. A blink-and-miss-it moment in the “To. X” video symbolizes that glimmer of hope: She turns into a 2D, upside-down character with butterfly wings. This flicker of hope hidden inside of a dark story hints at the inner strength TAEYEON has to emerge from the “cocoon” in which her ex forced her to stay trapped for so long. By the story’s end, TAEYEON can spread her wings and become the “butterfly” she has been all along.
#4: KISS OF LIFE, Born to be XX
KISS OF LIFE have done an outstanding job telling a multidimensional story. The “Bad News” music video paints their characters as purely vindictive, but the “Nobody Knows” video adds thought-provoking context. The bad behavior in “Bad News” turns out to not have been unprompted: The one who dumped a drink on someone’s head did so because that audience member was on her phone during her live performance; the one who aggressively pelted a ball at someone during gym class did so in retaliation for that person’s previous bullying of a peer; the two members who got into separate physical fights did so in self-defense. The fact the girls stay on the run at the end of the story, fearing legal repercussions, and the fact they appear on security camera footage mid-robbery show that explanations for their behavior are not the same thing as excuses for it. They are not off the hook, but the additional context behind their behavior remains crucial for understanding them at a deeper level. The story is much more nuanced than one of heroes versus villains, and this is evident when they team up to raid a celebrity’s house and procure top-secret documents from it (while seeming to steal her jewelry just because they can). They share the classified information with the public, tossing around the documents like confetti at the protest they lead. Depicting something on screen is, of course, not equivalent to endorsing that behavior, and this story is less focused on what people “should” do than why they do it. When immorality and morality collide or have their definitions reassessed, how justified does it seem to take an “eye for an eye” approach to bullies? How righteous does it seem to share information one thinks the public has the right to know but shares in a reckless way? The lack of a tidy ending lets the audience contemplate these questions about human nature.
This release has a lighter side to it too, though, and the album is filled with nineties R&B inspiration! Listeners might feel drawn to KISS OF LIFE for the smooth tunes, but they ought to stick around for the complex video premises. This girl group shows that delivering catchy, fun songs and messages with philosophical heft are not mutually exclusive!
#3: Zior Park, WHERE DOES SASQUATCH LIVE? Pt. 2
Zior Park’s music video realm is like every children’s TV show combined! Human kids sing alongside puppets and other furry characters; some musical numbers are prefaced with a narration; and the action unfolds in a go-to, rainbow-colored setting. The “episodes” follow a rough formula, but their tendency towards the bizarre keeps them surprising. The videos corresponding to WHERE DOES SASQUATCH LIVE? Pt. 2 do not just bring to mind kids’ programming in terms of style, but substance too. Songs like “WALKING THROUGH THE DARKNESS” and “BYE BYE BYE” offer exaggerated depictions of kids’ fears of loneliness and separation. Songs like “QUEEN” teach that it’s okay to be different, and the opening and closing monologues remind the audience not to judge books by their covers. The other songs also find visually stimulating ways of sending messages about empathy and bravery, made effective through go-to TV characters, like rockstars, astronauts, and businessmen.
The admirability in children’s programming lies in hindsight, when one realizes the clever ways life lessons have been buried beneath the visual spectacles. Viewing Zior Park’s videos is like that; one starts out not being able to look away due to the sheer strangeness, but after moving past the over-the-top antics, one keeps watching for the emotional pull. Over time, one can see oneself more and more in the story. Some favorite childhood shows feel very different with age, because while little kids might be solely fixated on the flashy delivery, adults’ attention can move on to the eternally-relevant subtext. Zior Park does not just grab attention but holds it, making sure the show is worth anyone’s and everyone’s time.
#2: Stray Kids, ROCK-STAR
While Stray Kids’ dexterous rapping and singing are as fierce and fun as ever, what really takes ROCK-STAR to the next level are its corresponding videos. The planets in their story’s “MEGAVERSE” are not distinct circles; they are more like nesting dolls. The level of reality each character is in is not always the same, like in “SKZFLIX,” a mini-movie about filming a movie, in which some members play actors and others play the crew members.
There is more intentional confusion about who is “acting” in the “LALALALA” teaser and full-length video, since the members give ominous voice-overs in the former but become main performers in the latter. In other words, “LALALALA” goes from talking about characters about to take the stage to turning the whole world into a stage! It is more accurate to describe Stray Kids’ behavior as not switching roles - from all-seeing observers to protagonists - so much as blurring the lines between them. After all, the elementary-aged musicians preparing backstage for their concert while Stray Kids narrate can be seen as younger versions of themselves! In ways too numerous to list here, there are lots of other ways to read into this story’s layers, including interpreting one character as an imaginary friend.
The “MEGAVERSE” concept that allows Stray Kids to blur the lines between passive and active participants in the unfolding events proves to perfectly suit them, thanks to two details. One is the amusing reference to breaking the fourth wall in the song “MEGAVERSE”! The other is the release of an “INTRO” mini-documentary, which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of ROCK-STAR. In it, HAN says, “This isn’t just about us. We just happen to be standing in front of the camera,” a concise explanation for the group’s appeal. Stray Kids shine by not seizing the spotlight or shying away from it, but by expanding it to envelope everyone! What matters to them is not so much how people interpret their stories so much as the fact they indeed feel invited to help interpret them. However people read into the details is fine with them; after all, they are not the script writers any more than you are!
The Chinese title for ROCK-STAR includes the symbol for “pleasure,” a key word around which Stray Kids have conceptualized this era. ROCK-STAR focuses on asking, “What brings you pleasure?” and letting the audience pursue whatever that is. The album and its videos portray the world as what people make of it, as a limitless “MEGAVERSE” in which people can have a carefree blast, singing “LALALALA” and giving new meaning to “making a scene”! Seungmin attests to this at the end of the “INTRO” documentary: “The present is both the most enjoyable and the most challenging, and it’s also when I feel the most pride, so instead of worrying, I just want to enjoy the present.” They conclude the documentary with a reminder to “just enjoy” this album, telling people to just watch the show after reassuring them they can play starring roles in it!
Further ironic - and exceptional - about ROCK-STAR is how sprawling yet intimate it feels. Stray Kids are talking to absolutely everyone but also sound like they are reaching out to each listener personally, encouraging them to join the show!
Overall, ROCK-STAR is a testament to Stray Kids’ boundless ambition and total embrace of the power life gives people to be free, creative, and joyful.
#1: ENHYPEN, ORANGE BLOOD
As detailed time and time again, this group’s intricate narrative arcs and multimedia storytelling approach make every era feel like a gripping, highly-anticipated sequel! The teaser posters and videos intrigued from the start, featuring terms with religious contexts and ambiguous quotes about the nature of mortality, simultaneously getting fans to be researchers and philosophers! Piecing together the ORANGE BLOOD era’s vocabulary and symbols reveals a fascinating mosaic, a tale that brings to mind ENHYPEN’s past eras but is also no repeat. ENHYPEN’s ongoing narrative, in sum, is about vampire-knights grappling with foreign-to-them feelings like love. The ORANGE BLOOD mini-movie shows their determination to sit with the painful aspects of being average humans, stripped of status and invincibility. Joy feels more rewarding after pain, and time with a loved one feels more special when one does not have a guaranteed tomorrow.
ORANGE BLOOD’s messages rhyme with those from ENHYPEN’s earlier chapters. They view life’s meaning as coming from its impermanence. The unknowns of everything from how much time is left to what tomorrow will bring define humans’ lives and are seen by their characters as sources of excitement, rather than fear. ORANGE BLOOD is another remarkable, rich contribution to ENHYPEN’s discography that interrogates the human condition through pop songs that are deceptively deep. They have found yet another creative way to use a fantastical premise as a tool for depicting and better understanding what it truly means to feel alive.
To learn more about these picks and find out who got honorable mentions, listen to the corresponding episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!
17 Carat K-Pop is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.