Best of K-pop in 2023 so far (Jan-Feb)

Two whole months have passed since I’ve touched this blog, and I’ve reached the point where I have successfully submitted the majority of my school requirements. Hence, from the two months moving forward leading up to my exams, my main focus shall be on revising and preparing for my exams. Ironically, this also means more time for me do other things too, such updating this blog!

Even though I was quite busy the last two months, I never stopped making time to catch up with the new K-pop releases. I will admit, I have not been particularly impressed with most of them. I have not felt the urge to play them as much as I did with 2022 songs, which is a real shame. This has partially led me to exploring other K-pop ventures such as Boys Planet, which I may (or may not) talk about in this blog depending on how things go. In turn, I did not feel much motivation to write at all. It was not necessarily because of the fact that the songs were abysmal, because they were not. It leaned more to ‘forgettable’. Perhaps, in a way, that is worse.

However, despite this, there were notable stand outs. Some were not obvious stand-outs from the first listen, even repelling me. I would have never thought I would listen to the song again- yet here I am today advertising it all to you. Others were clear winners, and time had only been kind to them, keeping them as fresh as they were in their first listen. Without further ado, here are the standout K-pop songs of 2023 so far!

Killer – Key

This is unquestionably the best K-pop song released over the past two months. It was really a no brainer. Killer takes tried-and-true elements of the 80s synth genre and executes it flawlessly. From its steady and unyielding kick and snare that remained a motif throughout almost the whole song, only pulling back in key moments to maximise the impact of other important sections, to the vocal performance full of character, or even the great use of dynamics to keep the song interesting despite repeating a series of key melodies throughout the song, it does it all with clear passion and flair. It knows its roots. It harks back to the traditional songwriting techniques, which in a sense is what a lot of K-pop songs lack now in an attempt to be “innovative” and “experimental”. Killer is proof that you don’t need to bring something new to the table every time to deliver.

Key has been one of the very few artists who has consistently delivered hit after hit. He has my greatest respect.

Hooks – 10
Production – 10
Vocal Delivery – 10
Overall – 10

Love or Die – TNX

Love or Die belongs to the subcategory of ’emo K-pop love songs’, yet at the same time, it does not lean into the angst as heavily as others do (think Lovesong by TXT). Instead it takes a more carefree approach with a slight hint of sadness and acceptance with its subtle and ambiguous melodies. Love or Die sports a strong chorus, which along with its solid production (great percussion, guitar, and use of pauses) form the basis of the strengths of this song. Because of how sticky the chorus is, it helps the listener appreciate the less memorable parts of the song because it was a great transition into the chorus, especially after a few more listens. Additionally, I do love the vocal layering in the pre-chorus, which really helps bring out the emotion of the song. Along with the vocal effects lathered throughout the boys voices and the solid vocal and rap performance from the members, it makes an easy pick for a 2023 stand out. This was not an instant hit for me at first, but the sticky chorus gave it longevity I did not realize it had.

If there was anything that held me back from giving the perfect score, the vocal delivery in some places did not sound as good as it could be. Some of the vocals sound really thin, lacking the foundation to pull off some verses to its maximum effect. Main Vocalist Junhyeok as usual puts in the work, but I was a greater fan of his vocal delivery in their previous title track, ‘Move’, where his pre-chorus almost-singlehandedly led me to like the song as a whole. But even so, it is solid.

Hooks – 10
Production – 10
Vocal Delivery – 8
Rap Delivery – 10
Overall – 9.5

OMG – NewJeans

I was not a fan of this song initially. Most notably, I felt disappointed by the chorus. 2 months later, my opinion has completely flipped. The more I listen, the more interesting things I found about the song.

The use of very specific and unusual percussion such as the cowbell, among many others creates a very interesting atmosphere in specific sections of the song. Actually, there are really too many things to talk about the different parts of the song in relation to its production so for summarising purposes, I shall shorted it to one phrase- creative, intentional (in relation to its meaning and story line), witty and musically interesting.

The melody of the chorus is especially what makes it interesting and noteworthy. It does not resolve at the end of the phrase ‘come true’, which gives it a very addictive factor, probing the listener to replay the song.

The bridge of the song is a great change of pace that prevents the song from becoming uninteresting after the second chorus.

Overall, it is simply a joy to listen to. I most certainly understand its hype today. If anything, I am still not fully sold on parts of the vocal and ‘rap’ delivery in the song. I much prefer their delivery in ‘Attention’ or ‘Hypeboy’ or ‘Ditto’ compared to here, especially with regards to their vowel accentuations in phrases such as ‘hope that he will come *true*’, where I much prefer how another member says it to the other. Despite this, it is clear that they have thought very carefully about how they would sing every part, and as a whole, it feels wrong to give it 9, so I’m still keeping it at 10. What was more concerning was the post chorus, where the girls ‘rap talk’ is off-beat, with its production running faster or slower than the girls themselves, which is a slight turn off. Overall, the song is still great, but I would not call it perfect.

Hooks – 10
Production – 10
Vocal Delivery – 10
‘Rap’ Delivery – 8
Overall – 9.5/10

Here I Am – Boys Planet

The obvious standout of late December at first listen was ATEEZ’s Halazia. However, while Halazia unfortunately fell off over time (personally), Here I Am grew on me in an unexpected way. For one, I’m the most pleased with its vocal delivery in comparison to other male produce-esque songs. Pick Me Season 2, with all its high notes, sounds pushed consistently. Produce X’s signal song was pretty similar to Pick Me Season 2, written far too high for most trainees to reach which makes the final product slightly uncomfortable to listen to. Meanwhile, even though Here I am still set in that sort of range, it eases it up by being one or two semitones lower for most of the song, which makes a massive difference. Further more, Boys Planet contains on average, the strongest vocalists from any other season, notably Hui, Kim Taerae, Zhang Hao, Yoo Seongeon, and Jay. The quality is evident- the chorus is much more pleasing to the ear compared to Pick Me Season 2, although I still personally find Pick Me Season 2 to be the stronger song.

Another part of it that stands out is the bridge. It has one of my favorite bridges in K-pop over the past few months, namely because of the vocal delivery. Sung Hanbin and Zhang Hao have very pleasing voices, and they very much matched the reflective, sombre, yet hopeful tone at the moment. It was a great change of pace, which gives it unexpected longevity.

The production all-round is quite solid, even if it doesn’t quite reach heights of ‘nayana’. When comparing to most recent boy group releases, it is more interesting. The strings in the introduction in particular make it quite a captivating and memorable moment. Perhaps it has been far too long since a produce-esque survival show came out and I’m biased to it.

Last but not least, the melodic lines are well written. I was able to watch the fancams of 93 trainees without getting tired of it. That enough, says something, and for a while, it was the only song I was singing in the household. Something about the chosen combination of notes hits the soft spot that tugs on your heartstrings.

Overall, as Boys Planet progresses, with me already feeling very attached to many of the trainees of the show, it is likely that I will only have a softer sport for it. It is a good song after all!

Hooks – 10
Production – 9
Vocal Delivery – 10
Overall – 9.75

Teddy Bear – STAYC

If there is something that Black Eyed Pilsung knows how to do, it is how to write good songs. His experience becomes especially evident in ‘Teddy Bear’, because even as it drifts into ‘experimental category’ at times, with almost obnoxiously excessive autotune in J’s line, and a very unexpected rap in the second verse, the song has a solid base to go back to, with an exceptionally strong chorus. Teddy Bear easily has one of my favorite choruses in K-pop in a while. The melodies are simply well written, fleshed out, and fully realized. It is really as simple as that. Traditional song writing does not fail.

Additionally, there is a lot to love about the vocal delivery. Isa’s voice is simply magical, and putting her in the chorus was a very smart decision. It helped increase the memorability of the already great chorus.

The only thing that really holds it back in my opinion is the delivery of the rap verse. It is good, but I’m not completely sold on it. However, it is a relatively minor criticism. Despite being controversial to large number of K-pop stans, I will stand my ground. Teddy Bear is a hit! That chorus is pure pop perfection particular.

Hooks – 10
Production – 10
Vocal Delivery – 10
Rap Delivery – 8
Overall – 9.5

Pull Up – VIVIZ

I was initially underwhelmed by Pull-Up’s chorus, but over time, it only grew on me. Again, Pull-Up is a song that makes the most out strong foundations in the form of traditional song writing. It creates a powerful and provocative atmosphere through the use of heavy bass and the melodic motif that runs through most of the song. It oozes effortlessly cool to the max.

Just like Teddy Bear, even though it enters more ‘experimental’ category with the random insertion of raps at the end of the song and the second verse, the song still holds together through its foundations. Admittedly, while the rap is quite catchy, the delivery was subpar and inconsistent, being lagging behind the beat slightly. Umji did a noticeably better job than SinB. It was the main thing that held it back.

There were also subpar moments in the vocal delivery, especially by SinB in Pull Up’s chorus. However, Umji and Eunha did their parts well. Hence their overall vocal delivery is still solid.

Overall, Pull Up is an easy listen that won’t be difficult to appreciate.

Hooks – 10
Production – 9
Vocal Delivery – 9
Rap Delivery – 7
Overall – 8.75

Fly Away – BXB

Even though this song is rated lower compared to most of the other songs I included in this list, I still included it because they have one of the strongest debuts of the year so far. The song runs under 3 minutes (seems to be a trend lately), yet because of how solid the the song is, it feels more satisfying than a lot of the other debuts lately.

For one, the introduction instrumental is captivating. It feels cinematic. Having a strong introduction is a big plus point which isn’t present in a lot of songs these days. The verses become more dull, but the chorus almost lives up to the promising instrumental. Unfortunately, it still feels a bit unrefined, its potential not fully realized.

The best part of the song is arguably the rap delivery. It is very convincing especially by K-pop standards.

Fly Away has a lot of potential, but it does not fully live up to it mainly due to its short length.

Hooks – 8
Production – 8
Vocal Delivery – 8
Rap Delivery – 10
Overall – 8.5

Ay-yo – NCT 127

Ay-Yo’s melodic lines are far and in-between, and they are not necessarily the most memorable. However, it the song is still a joy to listen to how well-produced it is. The chords, the instrumentals, the moments of silence and bareness, were all chosen so carefully to fulfill the producer’s vision for this song. It is simply incredible to listen to. Every time you think that NCT melodies have already done every possible thing out there, their producers think of something even more innovative and interesting. This is especially the case of Ay-Yo.

NCT’s experience in the industry shows in this song and music video. Every single line feels assured, confident and natural. It carries over into the song. They own the song completely, and nothing can take it away from them.

I can’t really think of how the vocal and rap delivery of this song can be done better by any other group at the moment, and they really made it their own. I think giving full scores is quite deserved.

Overall, Ay-Yo is easily one of my stand out K-pop songs of the year so far. Time has been really kind to it, I disliked it at first listen, possibly because of the unusual style of alternating between instrumentals and singing/rapping in almost every single verse, while I’m used to continuous singing/rapping just like most K-pop songs. But Ay-Yo takes its time. And because NCT 127 are so charismatic, they can afford to take their time and not be swallowed up by the production. That is an accomplishment in itself.

Hooks – 9
Production – 10
Vocal Delivery – 10
Rap Delivery – 10
Overall – 9.75

Shooting Star – XG

Sweet Perfection. It fuses classic old-school hip-hop with a euphoric and modern chorus that won’t ever leave your head. I will admit, I am still slightly put off by the very jarring introduction, with the girls delivering a very powerful rap while heavily laced with vocal effects. But over time, I’ve learned to tolerate it in favor of the rest of the song.

A song like Shooting Star will easily get a high score on my criteria. For one, xG themselves are very skilled, especially in terms of rap. Shooting Star was a revelations for their vocalists as well. With such great vocal and rap delivery, it is really a no brainer to give them full marks. Additionally, its chorus is really quite stupid, because it will be very difficult to forget after the first listen. This already puts it on the 10 in terms of hooks. The only part where I have my qualms with is the production, but even then, I cannot say the song is not well-produced given how great the chorus and pre-chorus is alone.

Overall, XG is definitely a girl group to watch, and Shooting Stars has quickly made its way to one of my most played songs this year.

Hooks – 10
Production – 9
Vocal Delivery – 10
Rap Delivery – 10
Overall – 9.75

Sugar Rush Ride – TXT

Ah. Sugar Rush Ride. I was very disappointed at this song at its release. To this day, I still have some reservations about it, but with more listens, it is hard to deny the appeal of this song. It certainly has its merits.

In terms of Vocal Delivery, it is arguably the best TXT has ever sounded. The little inflections, distortions and manipulation in the vocal delivery was very well-considered, well-practiced, and worked for the song massively. Massive props for the members, especially Taehyun, who clearly took the time to think about how he should sing this song.

Production wise, there is little to fault either. Everything until the chorus is perfect. It feels polished, fresh and exciting. Even though the chorus does kill the momentum built up in the parts before, they quickly build it back. That is its saving grace.

If anything, I have very strong grudge agains the line, ‘sugar rush rush sugar rush rush sugar rush rush raaa’. It throws me off every single time. The song could have done without it.

Overall, it still feels like unfulfilled potential, but it is a good song nevertheless.

Hooks – 8
Production – 9
Vocal Delivery – 10
Overall – 9.25

Final Thoughts

Here is my overall ranking for K-pop songs in 2023 so far!

  1. Killer – Key
  2. Ay-Yo – NCT 127
  3. Here I Am – Boys Planet
  4. Shooting Stars – XG (They are a weird case of promoting in the K-pop industry but they are not exactly K-pop)
  5. Love or Die – TNX
  6. OMG – NewJeans
  7. Teddy Bear – STAYC
  8. Sugar Rush Ride – TXT
  9. Pull Up – Viviz
  10. Fly Away – BXB

What are your favorite K-pop songs this year so far? How do you feel about 2023 in regards to the quality of K-pop?


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