The Best New Music: September 2022
A ranking and review of the twenty best releases from the past month from the worlds of K-pop, J-pop, J-rock, C-pop, and T-pop!
#20: CHANMINA and ASH ISLAND, “Don’t go”
Rather than unfairly divvying up the spotlight or just meeting each other halfway stylistically, both CHANMINA and ASH ISLAND bring one hundred percent of their personal sounds into this song. CHANMINA brings her signature delivery, a cavalier tone that contrasts with her angsty words, and ASH ISLAND brings his signature pop-punk, heavily-autotuned sound. Together, their voices collide in ways that leave listeners thinking “This is such a CHANMINA song!” and “This is such an ASH ISLAND song!” in equal measures. A quick tempo and straightforward message work well with the electronic and rap mix, while the music video works on another level to remind the audience the memories about which they sing are not flying by as fast as desired. In the “Don’t go” music video, CHANMINA wanders a long hallway lined with doors, each door leading into a distinct room. No matter how many escapes CHANMINA considers taking, or how different from each other the rooms appear, the deep imprints of a past relationship’s memories stay with her. While “Don’t go” tries to quicken the pace of disposing of emotional baggage, its music video reminds them that is easier said than done.
#19: CRAVITY, NEW WAVE
No matter what, CRAVITY’s music is infused with a buoyancy and youthful spirit that are trademark to them. NEW WAVE is full of feel-good vibes, and even when their sound gets a bit darker and more distorted, like on “AUTOMATIC,” the essence of each of their tracks remains bright and fun. CRAVITY exude a boyish charm once again with this release, and they kick off the party with “Boogie Woogie,” a track that compels listeners to do just that! “Boogie Woogie” transitions well into “PARTY ROCK,” and the synth focus of the following songs keeps the dance-party atmosphere alive. One mark of a great release is wishing to see songs from it performed live, and NEW WAVE certainly leaves the audience wishing it had come out in time for CRAVITY’s KCON set!
#18: 4EVE, “Jackpot”
4EVE continue to expand their range with each new single. “Jackpot” weaves a variety of sounds into a unique pattern, making it anything but a down-the-middle pop song. The music video is also one-of-a-kind, with the members dancing in an ominous, dark forest before walking into a bright, lush, green space. This garden is where they find their “easy target,” a young-looking, weaponless man. They sing about easily putting this man under their spell, but the joke might be on them - or even the audience! The video ends with a twist that alludes to the audience being the ones ultimately ensnared by 4EVE. Overall, “Jackpot” is a catchy, standout song with a memorable and cliffhanger-centered video!
#17: sumika, For.
sumika keep this album from sounding too repetitive by spreading out the rock ballads in their tracklist. Between them are faster-paced, very lively numbers. Taken as a whole, For. is equally “for” people who want to wallow in deep feelings and people who just want to party! They represent the sonic kaleidoscope that is this album with its stellar cover art as well. For. is an artsy release visually and sonically, and although its frequent focus on percussion layers is to be expected, sumika also demonstrate a willingness to divert from stylistic expectations, playing around with guitar riffs and electronic sound effects as well.
#16: JAY B, Be Yourself
Be Yourself shows a more relaxed JAY B than his previous musical eras have. His infectious, carefree energy is not just obvious throughout the nineties-esque “go UP” and its music video, but throughout the entire album. Be Yourself smoothly transitions from one mid-to-low-tempo, R&B-influenced jam to another one, and the smooth flow aptly represents JAY B’s “cool as the other side of the pillow” attitude. He keeps this release interesting by adding unique touches to each track, like by including catchy whistling in “Livin’” and showing off a widened array of vocal styles on the final track, “Holyday.” Be Yourself is a cohesive and fun release that is a great soundtrack for a laid-back weekend.
#15: Crush and j-hope, “Rush Hour”
Talk about a celebration for Crush’s return to music post-enlistment! “Rush Hour” makes a collaboration between Crush and j-hope seem like an obvious decision in hindsight; it is the team-up people did not know they needed in their lives! While some of Crush’s most famous songs are slower and more serious, and j-hope’s most popular songs now are in the realm of grunge music, they both also pull off upbeat styles with flying colors. “Rush Hour” is a prime example: they make smiling inevitable while watching them lead an on-the-go dance party and declare it to be “Crush Hour”! Crush and j-hope are dynamic with their mere presences, enveloping viewers in a friendly, welcoming feeling as they grin big and dance the night away.
#14: Vincent, “WE ARE YOUNG”
Vincent knows how to perfectly time a song to create the maximum drama. Reminiscent of “Burn It All” in its impressive balancing act between his voice and the instrumental, his newest single proves his knack for great timing is more than a one-time trick. He knows how to use his voice to cue tempo and sound changes for the instruments and vice versa. His guitar-backed vocals are both unassuming and increasingly ominous as the song gains momentum. The second round of the chorus sounds more loud and intense than the first, and a crescendo is reached in an unexpected way in the bridge, when an EDM breakdown puts every other sound on hold. “WE ARE ONE” is a stirring single with unexpected movement and irreplaceable vocals.
#13: ADORA, Adorable REbirth
Fortunately, ADORA returns to the musical theater concept of her “Trouble? TRAVEL!” era. She puts on another show in “Magical Symphony,” this one more ambitious than the last. She skips through a colorful town and charms the townspeople into becoming fellow actors in her production. The result is a large group number in the streets, participants transformed from reluctant to eager characters. ADORA’s latest adventure in a picturesque town is a treat for the eyes and ears, and it leaves room for many follow-up adventures too! She further crafts a musical persona all her own with her B-sides, from the piano ballad “Starlight” to the computer-game-esque “CBGC.” Adorable REbirth is aptly titled, introducing a new chapter in ADORA’s story while staying in the adorable, magical realm of the previous ones!
#12: Nana Ouyang, Live Today
Live Today is a primarily acoustic, dream-pop mood that stands out for its narrative choices. Although pre-release singles are a part of the album, new listeners would not even know it; the singles fit seamlessly into the tracklist, like final puzzle pieces. The tracks are meant to be listened to in order, starting with an alarm clock (in “Ringtone”) and ending with a “Bedtime Story” and a similarly-themed outro, “Nocturne.” Live Today, naturally, walks listeners through a day’s worth of thoughts and feelings. It is a commendable auditory walk-through for not just its seamless transitions, but for the subtler details. Birds chirping, bed sheets rustling… listeners get to hear the story of Live Today in the most realistic way possible. The release of concept albums is not as frequent as it used to be, and Nana Ouyang makes the case for why that trend ought to be reversed!
#11: CHOI YOOJUNG, Sunflower
While this mini-album is rooted in hip-hop and R&B influences, CHOI YOOJUNG also adds a sugary sweetness into the mix! In the “Sunflower (P.E.L)” music video, she goes on a road trip and goofs off with friends, her smile shining as brightly as her seventies-inspired, rainbow-colored wardrobe. The video ends with ending credits paired with home-movie-style footage. Her throwback theme is given extra cuteness with a scene where she paints giant sunflowers. What gives this theme more meaning is its title being a tribute to her late grandfather, who used to say a sunflower reminded him of her. Even sweeter, YOOJUNG makes this comeback her own with the parenthetical “(P.E.L),” which stands for “Power, Energy, Love.” CHOI YOOJUNG’s Sunflower is both light fun and a touching, very personal story.
#10: Bernard Park, To whom it may concern
While Bernard Park sounds lovely throughout this album, the real standout is “All day” for its lovable music video! The video is an animated tear-jerker that stars a variety of creatures of an unknown species who live in a remote area together. They receive an unexpected visitor: a pilot who has to make an emergency landing. The residents quickly step up and offer aid to this weary traveler, giving him shelter and even making him a jacket. A montage of sweet adventures together ensues, with the pilot reciprocating signs of appreciation. For example, when he sees one person looking troubled about a seemingly inadequate choir performance, he makes this person a flute to play instead of singing.
Although everyone seems to genuinely enjoy their time together, the townspeople come to realize that nothing can fully erase the pilot’s homesickness. The pilot’s new friends know what they have to do: they assemble, repair his plane, and give him a warm send-off. As he flies away, the flute-player from earlier in the video is seen sitting on a ledge, playing that precious flute. This wholesome video and its bittersweet ending deserve the full movie treatment!
Aside from the as-cute-as-it-gets music video, To whom it may concern is worth some buzz. The album shows off Bernard Park’s vocal skill and versatility, as he alternates between a higher, breathier sound and a fuller one. “Giving Tree” is particularly beautiful and would sound fantastic with a live orchestra.
#9: SOLE, imagine club
imagine club has the perfect title to summarize its themes and appeal: from the first notes to the final ones, the album maintains a dreamy, atmospheric soundscape. SOLE’s smooth vocals sweep listeners up into an airy and calming mental state. There is also a mystical quality to the “ore ore” music video, in which 2D animations come to life and bounce around SOLE’s workstation. These magical, animated forces bring to life a stuffed toy, seemingly dart between the past and the present day, and overall make for an unpredictable plot. The video ends as curiously as it begins, making a future sequel in order! imagine club is much more than an average R&B album. It is a quirky look into SOLE’s imagination, a glimpse that leaves many questions unanswered in ways that are fascinating instead of annoying. If this release is any indication, SOLE has the creativity and vocals to make this a milestone in a far-from-over career.
#8: ONE OK ROCK, Luxury Disease
On their new album, ONE OK ROCK try new things while remaining in familiar territory. Luxury Disease is a typical ONE OK ROCK album in terms of its heavy guitar and drum emphases, but it stands out from previous releases for its personality. The band excels at channeling the highest highs and lowest lows of younger generations, as always, but they do so with a new degree of playfulness. Songs that ONE OK ROCK previously would have approached with more seriousness are now given a theatrical treatment. Standouts include “When They Turn the Lights On” and “Neon,” both of which bring to mind Queen. ONE OK ROCK’s drama becomes melodrama at times, and this liveliness is prominent throughout the album. Just to name a few of the fun twists: layered synths warp their voices at the beginning of “Prove,” and they suddenly swap drums with guitars during “Let Me Let You Go.” Overall, Luxury Disease is classically ONE OK ROCK, but with more moments of spontaneity than usual and a wider array of influences.
#7: pH-1, BUT FOR NOW LEAVE ME ALONE
The songs on this album fall into three main categories. One category includes songs with a heavier feel to them, ones with a strong reliance on percussion. The second category includes songs with pH-1’s typical hip-hop/R&B focus. The third category includes leisurely, more narratively interesting songs, ones that take on a Tyler, the Creator quality with their unconventional pacing and detours. These are generalizations, of course, and there is much sonic variety within those three categories, but taken as a whole, BUT FOR NOW LEAVE ME ALONE can be seen as an example of an artist flexing his ability to blur the lines between formats and genres. BUT FOR NOW LEAVE ME ALONE is in a lane all its own.
#6: ONEUS, MALUS
ONEUS make a return to the dark and cinematic aesthetics that suit them the best, channeling their inner actors and a fantastical narrative. An eerie intro, “Intro : EDEN,” kicks off the album and is followed by a sorrowful rumination on a past relationship, “Same Scent.” This rumination is somewhat disguised by the reggae rhythms and guitars, but their inner angst returns to the surface on the next track, “STUPID LOVE.” Deep voices pair well with this rock sound and display a new degree of maturity. ONEUS continue to both mine mythological references and intense emotions in “Gravitation,” “Mermaid,” and “FULL MOON,” all the while keeping the songs catchy and not too bogged-down in the details. ONEUS do a great job balancing substance with plain fun.
#5: XIUMIN, Brand New
Brand New is a prime example of how to follow a current K-pop trend the right way! The album makes no secret of its roots in nineties and early-aughts inspiration. Rather than take bits and pieces from those musical eras, this album stays overtly steeped in it. The blast from the past takes on a variety of forms, from the New Jack Swing songs to a retro ballad. It is a throwback in a different way too: the “Brand New” music video shows off XIUMIN’s frost-themed superpowers, a trait emphasized in the early days of EXO’s music video world-building. Furthermore, XIUMIN taps into nostalgia with the video’s premise: he is both the gift deliveryman and the gift itself! Brand New is a welcome return to several kinds of roots: the sound’s roots in past decades, XIUMIN’s roots in EXO, and the lighthearted, childhood pranks that come to mind when watching the “Brand New” music video.
#4: BLACKPINK, BORN PINK
As detailed last month, part of BLACKPINK’s enormous appeal comes from the sheer quantity of things to hear and see in their work. One might start out watching one of their videos or listening to one of their songs and find it to not be their cup of tea, but one is compelled to re-watch and re-listen to answer the questions of “What did I just watch?” and “What did I just hear?”! After a second or third chance, one realizes BLACKPINK’s music just needed time to grow, and different subtleties needed their time to shine after the metaphorical bells and whistles stopped being where their eyes and ears focused. BORN PINK and the “Shut Down” music video maintain this quality. The album covers a broader soundscape than what first meets the ear, and the music video is packed with hidden meaning. Each BLACKPINK member revisits symbols and scenes from previous music videos. Particularly memorable is JISOO’s scene with paparazzi: in “DDU-DU DDU-DU,” she wears a pink wig and faces a wall of flashing lights. Now, she stands tall and proud in front of the cameras, wig done away with, and takes the picture herself. The cherry on top: she does so in front of the image of the wig-wearing JISOO from “DDU-DU DDU-DU”! Although BLACKPINK’s confidence has always been a trademark, it is taken to a new and even less apologetic level in “Shut Down.”
#3: BAND-MAID, Unleash
BAND-MAID have always been intriguing for the inherent paradox in their brand: they dress like maids, in cutesy ruffle dresses and big bows, but they sing about refusing to conform with society’s expectations. They dress the part of a feminine group, but their sound is more metal rock than pop-rock. They embrace another juxtaposition through Unleash: they dress like they always do in the “Influencer” music video and sing about the ways they comply with social expectations, but their lyrics are dripping with irony, indicating there is much discontent below the surface with their current facade.
Unleash takes audiences through the depths of one main train of thought as it evolves, allowing listeners to mull over the complexities inherent within human emotions. After singing about a ferocious love and keeping a lover under one’s spell with ease on “Balance,” they sing a similarly confident message in “Unleash!!!!!,” about the need to take risks and bet on oneself. “Sense” puts toxic positivity in check, sending a reminder that simply believing one can do hard things is not enough. “Sense” encourages people to keep trying outside of the box, if one is unsuccessful in the conventional ways. The lyrics in “Sense” acknowledge that the “right way” to do something is not universal.
BAND-MAID seem to give up and feel a sense of hopelessness grip them on the next few songs; they sing about succumbing to a bleak fate instead of facing problems head-on. They decide to pull themselves out of this dark mental place by posting their way through it. “Influencer” is full of ironic lyrics about magically feeling better after earning likes and followers on social media. Obviously, that strategy doesn’t provide long-term relief, which is why it makes sense that the album ends with “Hate?” A sense of pointlessness in posting becomes their focus, and they express resentment towards those who used them for social media clout or advised them to put such high value on social media fame in the first place.
BAND-MAID hide a dense musical diary inside of cheerful packaging. Unwrapping Unleash reveals a host of relatable thoughts and feelings, making listening to this album and exploring its multiple meanings a thought-provoking, worthwhile source of catharsis.
#2: JUN, “LIMBO”
Drawing from a vast well of influences, JUN brings to life a vision all his own that excites as much as it surprises. Departing from the warm and fresh-faced look he has in the video for “Silent Boarding Gate,” he now wears thick eyeliner and a leather outfit, while dancing and posing amid symbolic objects. JUN’s comeback is also a complete 180 from “Silent Boarding Gate” vocally: he proves he can pull off an autotuned, alternative sound with ease, switching at unexpected moments between whispering and belting out the lyrics.
In addition to taking inspiration from the Greek myth of Narcissus and previous SEVENTEEN releases, JUN speaks volumes through his choreography. A main dance move in his routine mimics the “Limbo” children’s game, and he pushed for the inclusion of laser points in the video to add another childlike aspect to it. By adding playful details, JUN finds clever ways to merge the mature and immature. He himself expresses confusion over where on the spectrum of growing up he currently resides: while the lyrics are about seducing someone and getting them to “escape into [his] limbo,” he also indicates a lack of total control over this “limbo” (“I bite my lip / Trying to see if this is real”). While asserting he has the upper hand in a power dynamic, he secretly admits he is not so sure.
Overall, “LIMBO” leaves each variable up to interpretation, and the ambiguity is what makes this release so impressive. His music video is dark but subtly infused with lighthearted energy, his storytelling is new but also makes nods to SEVENTEEN’s previous chapters, and his lyrics are both bold and sprinkled with self-doubt. Nothing is what it seems on its surface, and perhaps that is the defining trait of the state of “LIMBO” about which he sings.
#1: NCT 127, 2 Baddies
Read my full essay about this release below!
Check out a playlist of these music videos here!
To hear more about these picks and find out which releases got honorable mentions, check out the corresponding episode of 17 Carat K-Pop!