The Top 100 Albums of 2023, Part Two
A ranking and review of the top 50!
View the first half of this countdown here!
17 Carat K-Pop is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
#50: SHINee, HARD
SHINee are as naturally synergistic as ever, and they seem to be having more fun than ever too! A go-to remains their beautiful, passionate harmonies, but they do not shy away from chances to just rap or do some talk-singing too! They make plenty of time for frivolity between more emotional moments! Read more here!
#49: TAEYONG, SHALALA
SHALALA demonstrates how TAEYONG is carving out a distinct visual and auditory niche for his solo work. His songs and videos are like the television adaptations of diary entries from different years and moments in his life. “Episode” topics include revisiting childhood memories with fresh eyes (“Back to the Past”), first love (“Move Mood Mode”), profound loss (“RUBY”), and a period of feeling misunderstood and isolated (“404 File Not Found”). TAEYONG creatively brings to life his highs and lows and adds silver linings to all his memories, having fun with hypotheticals. Read more here!
#48: IVE, I’ve IVE
“ELEVEN” proves to have been just the tip of the iceberg for IVE; the group’s newer songs are even more anthemic. The ascendant feel to “Blue Blood” and “I AM” leads into their catchy pre-released single, “Kitsch,” and then an exciting smorgasbord of sounds. The first three songs pique interest that is then sustained across feel-good jams (“Lips”), songs with unexpected layering choices (“Next Page,” “Heroine”), and a power ballad of sorts (“Shine With Me”). Read more here!
#47: KISS OF LIFE, KISS OF LIFE
Through pre-debut solo tracks and music videos, one by one, audiences met the members of KISS OF LIFE and got to know their different personalities and musical strengths. NATTY’s “Sugarcoat” video shows her dancing to a throwback R&B beat. BELLE’s “Countdown” video shows her turmoil over perfectionistic expectations and finds a fitting musical accompaniment in pop-rock. JULIE’s “Kitty Cat” is drenched in attitude that is emphasized by a deep bass and her “The world is my oyster” demeanor. HANEUL’s “Play Love Games” is the most down-the-middle pop offering and complements her video character’s flirty demeanor. The group-wide tracks further show sass and star power, the former emphasized in “Shhh” and the latter in “Bye My Neverland.” KISS OF LIFE is crowd-pleasing, versatile, and a strong introduction to a group in which each member proves to have an essential role.
#46: 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! Read more here!
#45: DAWN, Narcissus
Subverting expectations, Narcissus is about self-loathing, focusing on the “alone” aspect of the classic myth. DAWN effectively acts out his inner anguish in this release’s corresponding videos, and the songs maintain the theme of moving through the world as if in a trance. He is in a zombie-like state, unsure who he is anymore, and the repetitive, relatively simplistic instrumentals offer a fitting musical accompaniment to his sense of having lost his other half. DAWN arguably saves the most touching moment for the last song, when he sings about sinking into an “Abyss” of emotions in solidarity with someone struggling. It’s an empathetic message that reinterprets an abyss as symbolic of solace over feeling stuck, and it also has the dual meaning of comforting both oneself and someone else. This album starts with flipping the Narcissus script on its head and ends on a similarly surprising note. As sorrowful as Narcissus is, it is worth a listen and brings universally relatable feelings to life in ways that audiences will surely appreciate. Read more here!
#44: KAI, Rover
Once again, KAI thrives with R&B and hip-hop material that lets him show off lots of dancing skills. He plays to his acting strengths too, thanks to each song on Rover corresponding to a scene in a short film… FILM : KAI muddies the waters between “Good KAI” and “Evil KAI,” a distinction that will surely stay up to interpretation for many musical eras to come. With Rover and FILM : KAI, KAI proves to be a multitalented and enigmatic entertainer. Read more here!
#43: HeyMen, Shelter
This is much more than just a rock album; it embraces the element of surprise through unique singing voices, the incorporation of synth-pop finishing touches, and tonal switch-ups. Each song could make for a strong A-side, although “Mirror(Tic Toc)” is an ominous mood-setter that serves this album’s promotions well. Shelter is best during its purposefully eerie and odd moments, although they do have an easy-listening crowd-pleaser in “Dive.” HeyMen are setting and rocking out to their own standards, and Shelter is a strong preview of many original releases to come. The most can’t-miss B-side is, fittingly, “B-Side”!
#42: XG, NEW DNA
NEW DNA explains why XG are suddenly everywhere! This girl group has captured the world’s attention because of their signature swagger. Whether going off of UK drill, Jersey Club, hip-hop, and/or R&B influences, XG stay confident in their ability to experiment. A lot of girl groups can pull off a wide range of styles, however, so what makes XG different? That comes down to narrative. Countless groups sing similar messages about “Make this world your own!,” but they make their words literal. They literally create a new world, where they run the “PUPPET SHOW”! Their group name refers to “X-GENE,” their EP title represents their creation of a peerless class of never-before-seen people, and their music videos are audacious attempts to depict a new world for their video characters to inhabit! XG’s music video world is constructed in real time, keeping viewers invested in the process at every step and feeling like witnesses to the creation of something iconic. XG reinforce their “redefining the world” mission with a song called “NEW DANCE” and songs that redefine slang terms, like “GRL GVNG” (“Girl Gang”) and “TGIF” (“Thank God I’m Fly”)!
#41: D.O., Expectation
Expectation is simultaneously a breezy delight to listen to and a substantive reflection. D.O. is a natural crooner, with a voice perfectly suited for K-drama-style romance stories. He makes the melancholy and the mundane sound as melodic as his assessment of a relationship’s rockier chapters, ensuring a smooth-as-silk transition from song to song… Expectation revels in a relationship’s honeymoon phase before “Lost” and stays in a state of feeling stuck after “Lost.” D.O.’s romantic story stays down-to-earth and direct, traits present in this album’s corresponding videos too. He tells a charming but realistic love story in straightforward, effective ways. Read more here!
#40: NCT, Golden Age
One can always count on an NCT album to follow the “NCT Formula,” a sonic spectacle that makes magic out of mayhem! Variety and an all-star team are once again a winning formula for NCT’s corresponding music videos too, which ensure the vibe of each song is felt fully and accurately by the listeners. A youthful song with a pastel-hued video (“Kangaroo”), an attitude-heavy song with an all-black wardrobe (“The BAT”), a victory song with the athletic looks to match (“Alley Oop”), and even a sprawling visual narrative that goes with a Beethoven-incorporating song (“Golden Age”) are just some of the ways Golden Age finds strength in its inconsistencies. This era is a celebration of NCT’s knack for turning improbably chock-full material into quirky and charismatic confections.
#39: Stray Kids, THE SOUND
As always, Stray Kids sing and rap empowering, boisterous anthems between slower songs about persistent hardships. A huge chunk of their discography is about feeling ready to take on the world, but another huge chunk is about lingering doubts. In other words, their message remains “We can do it,” not “We have done it.” Their refreshing honesty about how facing obstacles is easier said than done keeps their songs authentic… The songs oscillate between pep talks and admissions that they fear getting close to people… But despite the worries that plague them, in the end, they commit to giving relationships a try. They end the album with the lyric “I’m still right there,” a comforting reminder that the pain that comes with any relationship does not necessarily warrant fearing and running away from it. Stray Kids’ message about needing each other to navigate the “broken world,” as they put it in “Lost Me,” remains as relevant as ever. Read more here!
#38: Shi Shi, Boomerang
Despite taking a detour from her past, more soulful eras, Shi Shi has clearly put her soul into Boomerang! These songs cover dark topics, like toxic relationships (“TMT”) and feelings of hopelessness (“Try,” “Lucid Dream”), but they almost as often tackle lighter topics, like radical acceptance of one’s circumstances (“Judge Me”) and openness to giving romance another try (“jagi”). The material’s breadth extends to the instrumentals, and when making this album, Shi Shi clearly favored experimentation over consistency. Having been hands-on in making Boomerang, the album is an impressive testament to Shi Shi’s creative vision, one that embraces the “alt” in each genre from which she takes inspiration, including alt-pop and alt-R&B.
#37: 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, in which there is a clear belief that there is no time to waste before letting one’s true colors show all at once.
#36: SINCE, THE SOLOEST
Frankly, THE SOLOEST is a good example of an album’s strongest songs being the ones with less popularity. The singles do not offer a full picture of SINCE’s artistry; there is much more substance to this album than a “Don’t mess with me” attitude. “Blind Melody” addresses the “inferiority complex” that can result from time on social media; “Fake Flower” critiques a materialist culture that ignores deep-rooted, true sources of beauty; and “Marge” reflects on the nature of longing and memories. When SINCE is not rapping about caring deeply or not caring at all, she expresses messier feelings, and she does so in clever, humorous ways. For example, she twists calls to go on a “DIET” into quips about “getting bigger and bigger” and “filling up the stage,” and she insists she’s been “vaccinated” against those trying to “stab [her] with [their] words” in “No Matter What”! The best song on THE SOLOEST to demonstrate SINCE’s multitudes is arguably “SEESAW,” which pairs lines about feeling burdened with ones about resolving to believe that tomorrow will be better.
#35: Xdinary Heroes, Deadlock
The playful pop-rock “Freakin’ Bad” proves to be the perfect soundtrack to the music video’s jailbreak plot. Having fun and ignoring the rules stay the names of the game throughout the rest of the album, as they throw in one sonic curveball after another. Electric guitar riffs, humorous chants, whistles, racing percussion… they treat each song like they are making it up as they go! Xdinary Heroes prove once again to be relentlessly experimental and carefree. Read more here!
#34: 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.”
#33: Rei Yasuda, Circle
Stirring vocal performances are paired with equally affecting visuals to make for profound proof of Rei Yasuda’s irreplaceability. Her raw delivery can strike a chord in even the coldest listeners. She sings not as if she has overcome the hardships about which she sings, but as if her emotions are still unhealed and unfolding. She represents her vulnerable state with mood-setting visuals, but although the emotional pull is heightened with the corresponding videos, images come to mind through the listening experience alone. Listening to songs like “HOME THERAPY” and “us” triggers a sense of joviality, songs including “Not the End” and “blank sky” provoke sorrow, and songs including “each day each night” and “Sunday Morning” provide the chance to mellow out; they are a balm after feeling rawer wounds.
#32: 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 inner monologues clash, much like his dual video characters.
#31: P1Harmony, HARMONY : ALL IN
HARMONY : ALL IN is both emblematic of P1Harmony’s group concept and a testament to each member’s solo star power. Each song strikes a balance between individual spotlights and time for them to shine as a unit. They ensure listeners get a chance to shine too, with lyrics akin to pep talks and vast potential for daydreaming about singing along to these songs live someday! P1Harmony’s genuine desire to hype both each other and the listeners up makes the listening experience a joyful and unifying one… HARMONY : ALL IN is an invitation to forget about one’s troubles for a quick and guilt-free dance party! Read more here!
#30: King Gnu, THE GREATEST UNKNOWN
There is a song for everybody on 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!
#29: JOOHONEY, LIGHTS
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. This release’s musical range and touching meaning attest to JOOHONEY’s hard-earned confidence. Read more here!
#28: NCT 127, Fact Check
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!
#27: (G)I-DLE, I feel
“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… 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… They use levity and nostalgia to send a message about learning their worth and then use lyrics as a reminder of coexisting self-doubt. Read more here!
#26: G.E.M., Revelación
This C-pop artist’s first Spanish-language album is impressively immersive. It offers the perfect musical accompaniment for each situation of which it puts listeners right in the middle. Eerie echoes, the sound of rushing water, rattling noises, spooky piano-playing… it all adds up to a cinematic sensation. Even G.E.M.’s moments of silence are utilized to trigger a certain all-encompassing sensation: She pauses at unexpected moments, as if something has abruptly jolted her or redirected her attention. Another ominous surprise is her switch from drawn-out notes to breathless delivery. It sounds like her words cannot come out fast enough, and they spill over each other like she is issuing an urgent warning. Moments of silence and sonic richness alike keep listeners in an unsettling but moving trance, regardless of each song’s genre.
#25: Marz23, Not So Far Away
Not So Far Away tells a turbulent and full story through unpredictable mixtures of punk-pop, rap, hip-hop, and rock. The album’s gloom is driven by self-loathing, bitterness, and regret, feelings brought to life through the skits and instrumentals. However, to say listening to this album is a downer is reductive… repeated reminders that the rainbow will emerge after the storm ensure the story is not nihilistic. Marz23 visually and sonically covers inner struggles, but alongside them is a persistent resolve to push through them… Read more here!
#24: The Rose, DUAL
Naturally, this album showcases The Rose’s duality! But rather than take the predictable route of going from “Dawn” to “Dusk,” this album takes that route and then a second one. Both the first half and second half of DUAL start with a scene-setting instrumental (“Dawn” and then “Dusk”) that leads into a soft song (“You’re Beautiful” after “Dawn” and “Angel” after “Dusk”). Then comes an emotional outburst: In the first half, they sing about someone who makes them sick in the indie-rock “Nauseous,” and in the second half, they sing about a mentally dark place in “Eclipse.” The mood then swings upwards for the rest of that album’s half (in the first half, “Back To Me” is followed by the more pop-leaning “Lifeline;” in the second half, “Alive” is followed by the more pop-leaning “Cosmo” and “Wonder”). DUAL feels like listening to two albums in one, and compounding its multitudes are mid-song lyric switch-ups. For example, in “Eclipse,” they go from saying, “Deep inside my broken mind / I am haunted by the things I find” to “Deep inside my complex mind / I am pleasant by the things I find” (emphasis added). And in “Wonder,” they go from saying “I wonder” to “We wonder” (emphasis added), concluding the album with an invitation to greet the sun alongside them when it inevitably rises another day.
#23: WOODZ, OO-LI
WOODZ sings about growing like a phoenix out of ashes. After craving a “Deep Deep Sleep” to distract himself from the problems that are “Drowning” him, a realization hits him. In “Busted,” he sings about figuring out the source of his pain is a lack of reciprocation. His emotional effort is unmatched, wearing him down and making him reach his wit’s end. He calls it quits with accepting an unfair share of emotional investment and decides he is “Ready to Fight” to be given what he deserves. What’s gotten into him? “Who Knows”?! But he goes from feeling undeserving of even one person’s comfort to a “Take me as I am” attitude. He goes from despondent to defiant, feeling strong enough to carry himself with dignity and determination. On the other hand, his insecurities linger in the final track, “ABYSS,” adding a wrinkle to this story that is ironed out in OO-LI’s corresponding music videos. OO-LI is both layered and focused on one story. Read more here!
#22: MONSTA X, REASON
REASON is more instant cannon in MONSTA X’s discography, mixing things up just enough to keep listeners hooked but guessing. It remains evident that the group takes a hands-on approach to writing and producing. From JOOHONEY’s ad libs to KIHYUN’s high notes, each member’s personal strengths get to shine and be flexed in new, irreplicable ways. The best songs: “Crescendo,” which melds drill music with traditional Korean instruments; the vivid “LONE RANGER;” and “Beautiful Liar,” which takes listeners on an exhilarating ride and gives HYUNGWON’s voice a bigger-than-expected spotlight. Read more here!
#21: ØZI, ADICA
Fans of DPR IAN will love ØZI’s work. Although ADICA (“After Dark I Come Alive”) is different from DPR IAN’s music sonically, his visual stories are compelling for similar reasons… Literal zombie references and horror movie-esque visuals dramatize the person behind the persona. Ironically, the confessional songs ring truer thanks to these exaggerated visuals; they make the lyrics more memorable. Whether singing about his inner demons or painting a mental picture of literal “Zombies on the run,” ØZI confronts his insecurities and fears with a unique style of horror… ØZI’s lyrics demonstrate the push and pull that one’s inner demons can have, at times seeming like a source of safety and at times proving to be just a crutch. Read more here!
#20: NewJeans, Get Up
The qualities that keep people listening to NewJeans on repeat are numerous: the ASMR-type appeal to their relatively quiet voices, the ways their instrumentals never overpower their voices and have both repetition and movement, the primarily youthful and relatable lyrics… their demeanor has an appeal that cannot be given a singular explanation. The second a NewJeans song begins, listeners know it’s NewJeans, and Get Up reiterates that they’ve found a signature sound, always familiar but never derivative. NewJeans’ skyrocketing fame makes sense, given their mix of fluid and detail-oriented musical instincts and effective balancing of repetition with freshness.
#19: 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… 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. Read more here!
#18: ATEEZ, THE WORLD EP.2 : OUTLAW
This album is buildup on top of buildup; it is all climax! ATEEZ’s raps burst out of them faster than ever, their pivots between deep-voiced moments and high notes are quicker than ever, and their instrumental layering is at its most uncompromising. No aspect of a song is treated as a bonus; each element unapologetically seizes a spotlight and shares the main stage! A myriad of moments while listening to this album provoke a visualization of the live experience, jumping and dancing along in a state of uninterrupted euphoria. ATEEZ make their un-self-consciousness contagious, keeping the listening experience a tremendous thrill! Rapidly spiraling synths start the show with a bang… Another particularly effective detail is the way words are repeated in “Wake Up,” like an incantation! That manifestation-type song feels impossible to ignore; it really is a rousing directive to “Wake Up,” because the sonic roller coaster is not slowing down anytime soon! Read more here!
#17: BABYMETAL, THE OTHER ONE
THE OTHER ONE is BABYMETAL at the top of their game, weaving EDM strands into headbang-worthy rock songs with operatic finishing touches. Each song is an event, and the fullness within each song is just enough to not be overwhelming. Even the instrumental-only segments of songs stay riveting, with drums and guitars played at a breakneck pace. Standouts include the most J-pop-esque of the songs, “METALIZM,” and “Believing,” for its superior instrumental. Read more here!
#16: PURPLE KISS, Cabin Fever
One might expect an album about romance to start with songs about feeling lovesick and end with songs about either becoming lucky in love or realizing one did not need that love in the first place. Cabin Fever flips that narrative: It starts with the insistence that PURPLE KISS do not need a lover to feel whole, and the second part of the album gives rise to their doubts in that assertion. This suits the group’s music video characters, who are witches with a stone-cold, “I’m above human feelings” facade that remains through the first part of Cabin Fever. They sing about emerging “straight out of Hell” in “Intro : Save Me” and taking people under their spell in “Sweet Juice.” “T4ke” talks down to those who pursue them: “You are just a transitory fairytale;” “You need me;” “I will brutally show you a bad dream / To me, it’s just a heavy, sweet cream.” That song contrasts with an older PURPLE KISS song called “Cast pearls before swine.” They once sang about advising themselves to not waste time on people who don’t recognize their full value, and they now sing about actually taking that advice. They have stepped into their power: “Born to be queen… You can’t ever ruin me.” But the urge to conceal humanness, even from oneself, can only last so long, and their mask of apathy starts to slip while on “Autopilot.” The members are no longer in control and sing about feeling detached from their emotions. The following song (“agit,” meaning “hideout”) clarifies that they see this detachment in a negative light. The members’ self-imposed limitations on pursuing love - and the ensuing sense of “Cabin Fever” - further erode with the final track, “So Far So Good.” They sing about finally taking a chance on love; they give themselves permission to let their guard down. PURPLE KISS tell a fantastical yet very human story of building armor around oneself and gradually accepting the cracks it forms. Read more here!
#15: KIMSEJEONG, Door
After the jaunty, Irish-rock “Voyage,” KIMSEJEONG delivers a jazzy delight in “If We Do,” cleverly comparing aspects of a relationship to music genres: Jazz is chosen as the descriptor for brunch dates, rock is chosen for days when a couple argues, and she describes getting lost in someone’s “acoustic” eyes. The third track is an ode to a warm embrace, a piano ballad called “Sea of Hope.” The guitar-and-percussion-focused “Between Summer And Winter” is followed by the most down-the-middle pop offering, “Destiny,” and then “Top or Cliff,” a climax with a fittingly dramatic music video. The witty and retro “Jenga” is about an in-between phase, much like “Between Summer And Winter.” Its comparison of an unsteady relationship to a game of Jenga is both playful and foreboding. The songs that follow “Jenga” also convey multitudes, and she seamlessly shifts from conveying more sorrow than hopefulness to vice versa. Stirring slow songs, “Indigo Promise” and “Send A Letter,” come before “Over The Rainbow” and the rejuvenating finale, “In the Rain,” which is about reconnecting with her inner child. “In the Rain” reflects on the days when a young KIMSEJEONG excitedly ran outside to let rain wash over her, not worrying about grabbing an umbrella before basking in the then-novel sensation. As she got older, that sense of wonder at a natural phenomenon was replaced with caution. Of course, it is not bad advice to remember things like “Grab an umbrella before you go outside when it’s raining”! But there is a sad side to the guardedness that replaces innocence with age. KIMSEJEONG hopes to reignite the aspects of a child’s mindset that left her throwing caution to the wind and in awe over the little things in life… Overall, Door varies in style and substance in ways that accurately capture the variety of complex feelings present throughout one’s life, and the album offers extensive commentary on childhood, adulthood, and the benefits of seeing the two as intertwined. Read more here!
#14: NCT DREAM, ISTJ
For the upteenth time, NCT DREAM apply the “NCT Formula,” bringing together an enormous amount of ingredients that should not work together but become deliciously diverse delights! Aside from one-of-a-kind, busy instrumentals, this is another classic NCT release thanks to its messages. NCT DREAM continue to sing about crushing on someone and wanting time with them to last forever. The new additions to their collection of metaphors for first love include ocean waves, being shaken up inside like a “Yogurt Shake,” and feeling like they’re in the “Wild West,” uncharted emotional territory! They also pick up where some past songs left off, returning to the topic of going for a walk with a crush in “Like We Just Met” and calling “Blue Wave” the sequel song to “Dive Into You.” NCT DREAM keep on finding new ways to mash sounds together with reckless abandon while sustaining their catchy elements, and that fearless, adventurous approach aligns with their youthful image.
#13: Stray Kids, 5-STAR
Many of 5-STAR’s songs seem to foreshadow each other!... Stray Kids’ songs can be interpreted as engaging in a thrilling game with one another. Some songs are confirmed to be overt follow-ups to songs from past eras… and other songs follow each other’s leads with acronyms for titles… Some songs are thematically linked through a confident, cheeky demeanor, while others share deeper emotional contexts. Each Stray Kids song is worth appreciating both solo and as an essential piece of a full puzzle. Read more here!
#12: Jimin, FACE
FACE crystallizes the sensation of both having and fearing losing it all. The messiness within Jimin’s emotions stay top of mind with unmissable background noises: a muffled house party, an alarm going off, screaming fans, the sound of getting a glass of water, sighs… The purposeful inclusion of the soundtrack of Jimin’s daily life beyond the typical definition of a soundtrack gives each song an intimate feeling, like the audience is visiting the unfiltered, innermost recesses of Jimin’s memories… FACE paints nuanced pictures of private and public selves, the endless compromises between the two, and the intense but fruitless desire to make an emotional high permanent… FACE lays bare Jimin’s attempts to make sense of the messiness of life, and he impresses with how he distills that messiness into concise songs and eye-catching choreography. Read more here!
#11: TWICE, READY TO BE
READY TO BE is one catchy, danceable track after another. The first in this set of polished pop songs is “SET ME FREE,” a shining example of TWICE’s subversion of expectations in how they apply the concept of empowerment. What on its face appears to be a song about getting out of a relationship and telling a lover to set them free is actually about telling themselves “Set me free!” to throw away their self-doubts! TWICE enjoy being in love but do not need it to feel whole. Their relationships stay on their own terms, as they decide when a relationship is worth pursuing still (“MOONLIGHT SUNRISE”) and when it has run its course (“CRAZY STUPID LOVE”). TWICE emphasize how wanting to be in love and wanting autonomy are not mutually exclusive; their definition of “empowerment” lies not in abandoning cute and flirty songs, but in doing them in a take-charge way. Their own happiness and sense of worth are non-negotiable, and that is what makes for a truly empowering anthem.
#10: Epik High, Strawberry
Epik High have an enviable way with words. They say so much with so little, like in “On My Way”: “Paid the price, but I gave it all for free”... The group makes clear that haters and doubters are not forgiven, and Epik High will persevere not just despite them but to spite them. They embrace defiance over defeatism. They commit to being the bigger person with songs like “Catch”: They believe their “villain arc” is justified, but they later admit to still having the capacity for openness and compassion by saying, “Just call, and you know I”m on my way.” Strawberry addresses resentment and resolve, lightening things up along the way with zingers like “My MBTI is IDGAF.” It would not be an Epik High album without quips like this sprinkled throughout the deeper commentary! Strawberry tells a three-dimensional story with the insight and wit for which Epik High are rightfully known. Read more here!
#9: DPR IAN, Dear Insanity…
As discussed at length on 17 Carat K-Pop and in this newsletter, DPR IAN’s work is an auditory and aesthetic amalgamation unlike any other. He proves to be an astounding storyteller, bringing his vision to life in ways that include symbolic color choices in his music videos, unconventional song structures, constantly alternating between the voices of different alter egos, and a seamless alignment between the adventures in his beyond-quirky music video universe and his auditory-only one. While there are yet-to-be-revealed characters in his music video world, the main ones at this point are “MITO” and “Mr. Insanity.” The former starred in previous albums, and the latter stars in this newest one. However, like the presence of “Mr. Insanity” loomed large in “MITO”’s eras, “MITO” has a noticeable, albeit cryptic, influence over “Mr. Insanity”’s. For example, the opening track, “Famous Last Words,” narrates a letter addressed to “Mr. Insanity” that warns, “we have ventured too far” (emphasis added) and “I’ll find a way to come back. I always do…” The ways in which these characters - the personifications of two extreme emotional states - find their fates inextricably and intricately intertwined make for a fascinating psychoanalysis. The inherent relationship between seemingly polar-opposite characters is also shown through the tracklist order: The “MITO” eras told a chronological story, whereas Dear Insanity… and its music videos tell a story in reverse, not to mention in a parallel realm.
#8: SEVENTEEN, FML
FML is like a look through one’s closet. Some outfits have been reworn countless times, while other pieces one might have no memory of owning. FML gives fans comforting lyrical and thematic familiarity while bringing to the forefront aspects of their soundscape and visual storytelling about which fans had either forgotten about or never fully appreciated… FML is unsurprisingly catchy and unexpectedly take-charge, a testament to the group’s tremendous growth in ways both internal and external. Read more here!
#7: TXT, The Name Chapter: TEMPTATION
The Name Chapter: TEMPTATION tells the story of one of TXT’s nights in Neverland. They start out feeling a natural high, the mood boost children get when their need for instant gratification is met. The first few songs and the “Sugar Rush Ride” music video are about these easygoing days that are to Peter Pan’s liking. But when the high wears off, so does the novelty. There is nothing beneath the surface in Neverland; it is actually a sad, broken place. It is a barren wasteland with dreams and futures unfulfilled, inhabitants who refuse to grow into new and better versions of themselves, and discarded sources of long-term satisfaction.
TXT know now that people cannot develop a perpetual sense of inner strength and an appreciation for sunnier times without weathering some storms. Peter Pan has prohibited them from experiencing those storms, so TXT learn that a true, long-lasting, and substantial escapism comes from confronting adulthood head-on and leaving Peter’s alleged miracle cures for their pain in the past. Read more about this excellent concept album here!
#6: TXT, The Name Chapter: FREEFALL
The Name Chapter: FREEFALL picks up right where The Name Chapter: TEMPTATION leaves off. The latter ends with “Farewell, Neverland,” and the former’s opening track brings to life TXT’s experience plunging headfirst into reality… TXT’s “FREEFALL” era is about how living with both ups and downs is actually preferable to living with just ups. In reality, they appreciate “That Feeling,” the ability to dream and to be adventurous that Neverland gave them, more than they could when it was their sole emotional state. Taking the bad with the good has given them a permanent energy boost, the opposite of the temporary high from Neverland. Overall, The Name Chapter: FREEFALL embodies the harshness of entering a new life phase while never losing sight of the reasons to stay the course, thanks to the lessons learned in previous life phases. Read more about the story told through their songs here!
#5: milet, 5am
milet continues to wield her voice as a powerful weapon, piercing through any emotional armor listeners have when beginning the listening session and holding their rapt attention with a raw, deeply-felt delivery. This is not just a repeat of milet’s last full album, though: She unleashes her inner rockstar more than ever! milet sings about her highest highs, lowest lows, and everything in between, and she does so as powerfully in ballad form as she does in pop-punk form. In addition to an effortless range and exceptional voice, 5am charms with its winks and nods both among its songs and to milet’s previous releases. For example, in “checkmate,” milet teased the person crushing on her: “It’s 4 a.m, you must be obsessed with me.” Now, she sings about the painful memories that strike her at 5 a.m. Similarly, she sings, “Like your dream will never end” in “Noёl in July” and then pivots to a song where those dreams clearly do, “b r o k e n”! Interestingly, the final track is not “Final Call,” but “December.” Also noteworthy is the tracklist’s combination of new and older tracks, with some of the old ones undergoing a massive makeover and others staying true to the originals’ essences. One main message 5am sends is about the fleeting nature of love and time. In one moment, milet celebrates a new beginning, but there is always the risk it will come to a swift end. milet tells a story that brings together the past and present in ways that remind the audience of life’s state of eternal flux.
#4: SEVENTEEN, SEVENTEENTH HEAVEN
SEVENTEENTH HEAVEN is an homage to SEVENTEEN’s past eras, a reiteration of their discography’s core values, and a galvanizing call to stop hiding one’s light… Their discography has always addressed the desire to be seen and heard, but SEVENTEENTH HEAVEN makes that desire more overt than ever. SEVENTEEN make themselves clear: Everyone is invited to their party, and the power of music to reach people who otherwise feel excluded is something they deeply value.
This era is the epitome of SEVENTEEN’s ability to move people. They double down on their go-to reminders… Everyone deserves to feel like they belong, everyone has an inherent value that can never be taken from them, and everyone deserves to feel the relief that comes with knowing someone is rooting for them. SEVENTEEN’s music says, “We’re here for you and not going anywhere,” and that message of support and acceptance is refreshing and comforting. Read more here!
#3: 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!... 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… 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. Read more here!
#2: Agust D, D-DAY
D-DAY sends Agust D’s most timely and multifaceted message yet. He hits the nail on the head when it comes to the root causes of many social ills and finds clever ways to reveal the remedies for those root causes. D-DAY explores the reasons people are so quick to villainize each other, especially online, leading to the revelation that a truly free society is achieved through solidarity, patience, and centeredness, quite the opposite of what social media incentivizes… D-DAY digs deep to assess what is causing societal damage and how to reverse course, and the importance it places on solidarity, curiosity, and mindfulness are worth commending. Read more here!
#1: ENHYPEN, DARK BLOOD
Through Webtoon episodes, music videos, short films, song lyrics, and even album teaser images, ENHYPEN weave a multimedia tale that astounds in unexpected ways. They are not telling a generic story that intrigues for its vampire theme and “save the princess” narrative. The story runs much deeper than that, encompassing the following realizations and then some: they have more in common with their enemies than they think, true power does not come through material indulgences, and eternal life is no life at all if it lacks the inclusion of others. Read more about their profound storytelling here!
Learn more about these picks through the corresponding podcast episode!
17 Carat K-Pop is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.