The Best New Music: October 2023
A ranking and review of last month’s best releases from K-pop, J-pop, C-pop, and T-pop artists!
#20: Karencici, “Bad Girls Behave”
While Karencici’s willingness to explore different styles is commendable, she has found her sweet spot with this throwback R&B sound. Her smooth voice and sultry lyrics paired with a deep bass and dreamy background vocals make for a winning combination. Her confidence appears consistent and genuine, and she shows off sparkly makeup and fluid dance moves. This song stands out for both Karencici’s personalization and its unexpected format: It is more like one long verse than a series of verses, choruses, and a bridge.
#19: AILEE, RA TA TA
This short but solid EP packs a powerful punch, thanks to AILEE’s old-school flair and exceptional voice. She belts out “I’ll hold you” with enviable vocal control and power. After showing what she’s got, it’s time for fun, and the dance song “RA TA TA” delivers it in spades. The song’s music video is filled with sparkly outfits, oozes enthusiasm, and has an extra bit of sauciness with Lil Cherry’s feature. Lastly, “Big It Up” concludes RA TA TA with the razzle-dazzle of the title track and the vocal prowess of the opening number; she combines the strengths of both previous tracks to go out with a bang!
#18: Reina Washio, For My Dear
This album can most succinctly be described as earnest, understated pop. Reina Washio’s ode to a loved one is delivered neither with a whimper nor a bang; the soul of the album is felt in subtler ways. Relatively subdued, mid-tempo pop songs sit next to layered ballads. The melodic mixtures veer in a digitized direction at times and a rawer one at others, but steady percussion, go-to guitar notes, and other sonic choices keep the tone cohesive. “Say No” is the perfect example of Washio’s distinct type of J-pop, which has classic pop-song repetition combined with pensive tendencies. Washio reflects on a shade of gray between appreciating and fearing love’s power over her. She ruminates on various dimensions of love, always in ways that accentuate her distinct, delicate voice.
#17: Nissy, “When You Were Mine”
Ever the entertainer, “When You Were Mine” has a short film for a music video. The story strikes the right balance between being too predictable and not clear enough in its direction. Nissy can be interpreted as playing multiple characters or the same character during different time frames, his fairytale romance can seem real or imagined, and it remains unclear which factors deserve the most credit for getting him and his love interest back on good terms. The bouncy but predictable pop song gets a makeover when stretched out over seven minutes, interrupted with romance-movie-ready moments, and converted into a piano-backed instrumental for a while. This is a dependably catchy addition to Nissy’s discography that is packaged in a refreshingly creative way.
#16: Whee In, IN the mood
Although these songs are low-to-mid-tempo, the listening experience is no slog. Whee In brings a unique style to each one, thanks to vocal talent, entertaining collaborators, and smart instrumental layering. The album is well-produced and has a natural flow, and while the best moments are when her inner flirtiness and sass come out, like in “17,” her voice deftly evolves to suit an acoustic-guitar-focused slow song (“Bittersweet”), a pop-rock ballad (“Here I Am”), R&B songs (like “Bite Me”), and everything else the material warrants. Whee In represents the album’s premise of simply doing whatever she’s “in the mood” for, and her easygoing mindset is apparent in the “In The Mood” music video, too. She tries out a range of settings and outfits, a calm smile on her face the whole time. This release’s theme of just doing what one pleases works because of the believability and personality through which Whee In exemplifies it.
#15: EPEX, Prelude of Anxiety Chapter 2. ‘Can We Surrender?’
EPEX solidify their style through these four songs. The songs cover serious topics with a fitting sense of urgency that is made pleasurable to listen to, thanks to pop formulas, group chants, and fast-paced instrumentals. In other words, they convey negative, intense emotions in energizing ways. While some songs are relentless in their rage, like “FULL METAL JACKET,” others are tempered with a groovy bass and synths, like “No Roof.” This mini-album is a classic EPEX one, just with the intensity turned up and the attention to detail increased.
#14: SUNMI, STRANGER
The audio and visual versions of this story have interesting distinctions. When just listening to the EP, SUNMI appears to tell a story about a single character she plays, someone who goes from brushing off a potential lover (in “Calm myself”) to running away with that person (in “STRANGER”) and sounding like she does not regret that decision (in “Call my name”). But across a series of videos, SUNMI plays multiple characters: the creator, the Frankenstein-like creation, and some bit parts, like a mansion’s cleaning staff. When SUNMI is playing which role is murky at times, like when she seeks inspiration from getting struck by lightning, which alters something in her brain and makes her movements appear mechanical, and when she finds the monster’s missing screw and takes it for herself while dressed as a maid. The roles besides “FrankenSUNMI” seem to be making themselves more and more like “FrankenSUNMI,” highlighting the ways creators and their creations, even their most monstrous ones, are not so different after all.
Another perspective through which to analyze this story is the monster’s. She goes on strange and spooky adventures with a mystery man over whom she’s grown smitten. Meanwhile, her creator is back at the mansion, panicking over her creation going missing. SUNMI is worried about what another SUNMI is up to, a return to the overall message of this era about people having to reconcile that, at the end of the day, every version of themselves is ultimately still themselves. The STRANGER era explores what different sides of SUNMI think and desire and tries to make sense of them through a freakishly fun set of songs, videos, and characters!
#13: ITZY, RINGO
“RINGO” is the epitome of ITZY and the perfect song choice to start an album with a bang. The fearless music video begins with a little girl reading Snow White and seeing the illustration of a poisoned apple be replaced with a picture of a sword. The video ends with the lyric “It’s my scenario” appearing on a page of the storybook, reinforcing that this is the opposite of a damsel-in-distress story. While some of RINGO’s B-sides show ITZY’s softer side (like the Japanese version of a fan song, “Trust Me (MIDZY)”), they more often keep the spotlight on their infectious energy and uncontainable spunk. ITZY’s gutsy, multidimensional selves come into full view through this release.
#12: CHUU, Howl
The mascot for Howl is an adorable, friendly, CGI monster who comforts CHUU in the title track’s music video. CHUU sings about feeling powerless to change the whole world, but with the monster’s help, she converts despair into hope and realizes that she can at least change her tiny corner of it. The monster’s presence is enough to comfort and strengthen her. Whenever the monster cannot be by CHUU’s side, his palm-sized sidekick takes his place, ensuring CHUU never feels alone. Howl’s other songs also tap into the themes of possibilities, imagination, and people’s need to believe that someone is looking out for them. “Underwater,” “My Palace,” “Aliens,” and “Hitchhiker” all bring to mind a specific setting and topic, yet their titles and lyrics stay vague enough to make the songs timeless and applicable to all. The joyful spirit CHUU’s gentle friends have cultivated in her is clear and contagious in the “Hitchhiker” and “Underwater” videos. She blissfully explores new-to-her worlds, one being under the water and one being a foreign town. Overall, Howl is an endearing way to teach an age-old lesson: that the bravery needed to try new things is easier than people think to get, as long as there is a little help from their friends.
#11: Jeff Satur, “Black Tie”
Jeff Satur effortlessly changes his voice while telling this story, going from boldly conveying bitterness to speaking in an ominous whisper, mimicking the elitists by whom he feels deceived. His character questions why he is still shut out of the highest social circles, despite doing everything expected of him to become “one of them”: “I’m in my black tie / Are you not satisfied?” His resentment sounds like resolve for revenge by the song’s end, when the instrumentals rapidly escalate alongside his volume. With his voice alone, he convincingly plays both a victor and a victim, casting blame on those who promised him the world if he conformed to their ideals while blaming himself for being naive. Satur’s goosebumps-inducing voice leaves listeners hanging on to every note, making the elegant music video pretty to watch but unnecessary to keep audiences hooked!
#10: Cyndi Wang, BITE BACK
BITE BACK is roughly half ballads and half upbeat pop gems. Fans of the former will find “Insincere” particularly commendable, and fans of the latter need to hear the buoyant “Just break up.” BITE BACK is the best of both worlds, a nice balance between moments of levity and depth, and the instrumental variation also helps maintain interest. Strings, guitars, and pianos each get time to play separate starring roles in the ballads, and the up-tempo tracks switch up their paces and synth details just as often. Each song on BITE BACK stands apart from the others and comes together to make for a colorful variety pack.
#9: IVE, I’VE MINE
I’VE MINE is like three comebacks in one! Each of the EP’s singles shows a distinct side to IVE. “Either Way” is a slow song about what other people think of them, “Off The Record” is a pop song about what the members think of each other, and “Baddie” is a trap and bass-heavy song about what they think of themselves. The music videos are just as varied: “Either Way” focuses on dramatic close-ups, “Off The Record” is about a girls’ night in, and “Baddie” features the members making a scene while channeling feline alter egos! I’VE MINE’s singles are impressive for their throughlines, too. While staying completely different stylistically, all three songs tackle the theme of validation, both internal and external, and all three videos incorporate elements of literal magic into the plots.
#8: Sakurazaka46, Shoninyokkyu (Special Edition)
“Shoninyokkyu” is a stellar title track with an exhilarating EDM/industrial instrumental. Its title, which translates to “Esteem Needs,” is what the music video and lyrics are all about: prioritizing one’s self-perception above others’ perceptions. The B-sides also assert a commitment to living life on their own terms and have dexterious instrumentals that prevent redundancy. The best songs are the weirdest ones, like “Don’t cut in line,” with its strange talking/rapping/singing blend, and “Sukimakazeyo,” an impactful finale with unique spacial qualities. This group practices what they preach about ignoring trends, and it beyond pays off!
#7: Reol, BLACK BOX
This electro-pop dynamo keeps getting better! Although some tracks are more dance-pop than the warp-speed EDM fans know and love from her, Reol’s version of a low-tempo song is still faster and more exciting than some artists’ highest-tempo ones! BLACK BOX is a massive sugar rush of raps, vocals, and eccentric sounds, and the rush only wears off the slightest bit before returning to peak sweetness again and again. After an intoxicating array of electronic and pop delights, listeners get a few final treats: the rapid rock song “Naked” and a “first take” version of “THE SIXTH SENSE.” The exhilarating speed of BLACK BOX, only tempered for brief periods of time and “tempered” being a relative term, matches the unmanageable joy of the “DDD” music video. As the most unconventional of dance parties unfolds and Reol sings an anti-conformity message, there is a clear sense that there is no time to waste before letting one’s true colors show all at once.
#6: Xdinary Heroes, Livelock
Xdinary Heroes continue to be true performers, not just musicians. No dimension is overlooked; their sound, fashion choices, video premises, lyrics, and everything else simultaneously come across as instinctual and carefully curated. They make it look easy to bring a story to life through sound and to keep a story going in compelling, rather than annoying or derivative, ways. The songs on Livelock have appeal for both pop and rock fans, and the group walks the line between those genres by knowing what degree of angst is enough to not sound melodramatic and what degree of vividness is enough to paint clear but not too-clear pictures. They set the scene for listeners and let the audience’s imaginations take the wheel after that. Another balance they strike is between coming across as sincere and aloof; they sound neither desperate to the point of despair nor confident to the point of being uncaring. They truly sound and look invested in the adventures for which they provide the colorful soundtrack. The most can’t-miss tracks are “Freddy” and “PLUTO.”
#5: TAEMIN, Guilty
The apple on the Guilty album cover is both symbolic of temptation and the album as a whole! The listening experience starts out at its most dramatic, and the deeper into it listeners get, the less he sounds like TAEMIN, his music videos’ evil alter ego, and the more he sounds like just Taemin. His cold exterior is slowly but surely exposed as nothing but a top layer. A soft, vulnerable side of him emerges, and his voice adapts to each phase of this unveiling process with remarkable flexibility and fluidity. From playful to aching, TAEMIN narrates a sweeping internal transformation, one made more immersive with the additional voices that often accompany his own in the background. The songs have the feeling of listening to conversations; his spirited inner monologues clash, much like his dual video characters.
#4: NCT 127, Fact Check
As explained again and again, NCT have a go-to formula that blends an array of sonic and thematic influences that is astonishing in both its scope and success; what some artists cannot pull off are dynamic delights that are second nature to NCT. Fact Check is no exception; it is relentlessly engaging. The styles range from Afrobeats to pop-punk, the topics range from romance to self-hype, the moods range from bouncing-off-the-walls energetic to slow and sorrowful, and unique details are tossed into the tracks at unexpected times. This comeback’s visual components are just as expansive and refuse to choose between aesthetic and narrative strong suits. The superpower-filled “Fact Check” music video features both iconic locations and a fantastical premise, and the hype for that video has been effectively built up with a character-clarifying “Deities of Seoul” concept video and a murder-mystery-themed “Fact Checkmate” YouTube special. In terms of marketing and the music itself, this era “checks” off many boxes!
#3: DPR IAN, Dear Insanity…
Read about what makes this release so remarkable in this essay!
#2: TXT, The Name Chapter: FREEFALL
Read about what makes this release so remarkable in this essay!
#1: SEVENTEEN, SEVENTEENTH HEAVEN
Read about what makes this release so remarkable in this essay!
To hear more about these picks and find out who got honorable mentions, listen to these episodes of 17 Carat K-Pop!
“Best New Music: October 2023”
“SEVENTEENTH HEAVEN (Seventeen Talk, Vol. 15)”
“DPR IAN’s Cinematic Universe”
“The Name Chapter: FREEFALL and What’s Next for TXT”
“Fact Check (NCT Talk, Vol. 20)”
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