It’s the heart of K-pop’s summer season, which means a flood of high-profile releases and a bump in refreshing tunes. Indeed, that adjective can describe all of July’s Unsung Artists. From beach-ready party tracks, to songs featuring relaxed and airy production, these female artist-dominated releases (the phrase ‘summer queens’ exists for a reason) embrace the summer spirit.

As K-pop somehow continues to increase its already massive global popularity, it’s also interesting to note that two tracks here are high-profile singles or pre-releases marketed with a mix of K-pop and Western pop strategies. But while many early English-language and Western-feature tracks drew criticism from K-pop fans for lacking creative cohesion and conviction, these songs comfortably fit within their artist’s discographies, and their novelty is interesting instead of gimmicky. Despite inevitable stumbles exploring new pastures, K-pop continues to grow and evolve in exciting ways.

Swan – “Twenty”

One of two main vocalists for Purple Kiss, maknae Swan makes a solo debut with Twenty, a puzzling but charming single album. The same-named title track attempts to balance melancholy and cheer in its coming-of-age story, alternating between slower, introspective verses and an upbeat chorus with a dash of lyrical complexity:

Let’s all dance

Any way you feel, any way you want

Hold me close, fly away

I luv u, shining on me bright, you’re my only light

The tightrope walk doesn’t always work, but a jazzy throughline keeps the song mostly in one piece. The part-vintage, part-fairy tale styling and sets in the otherwise simple MV are also an inspired choice. The single album’s b-side, the soft ballad “Be my everything,” also has obvious shortcomings: its extremely high key challenges even Swan’s considerable abilities and strains her usually rich and warm tone. Ultimately though, Twenty succeeds as a showcase for Swan thanks to its quirky appeal and, as the MVP, the irrepressible force of her vocal talent.

NMixx – “Party O’Clock”

Continuing the fairy trend, NMixx throw a magical soiree in the forest in “Party O’Clock.” Besides being a light-hearted summer hit, the track represents a major, largely positive, shift for the group. Since their debut in 2022, NMixx’s aggressive genre-mashing ‘mixx pop’ style has proved attention-grabbing but divisive, and a major breakthrough song or moment has alluded them amidst a crowded girl group field.

“Party O’Clock” is a smart and catchy pivot. Unlike its very pretty pre-release “Roller Coaster,” which ironically was criticized by some as too plain, “Party O’Clock” doesn’t jettison NMixx’s signature experimentalism. There are still kitschy raps, sonic change-ups, and amusing nonsense lyrics: What “beep-beep jingling jingling / keep-keep mingling mingling” is trying to communicate is a mystery for the ages. However, what “Party O’Clock” does that is new is to nest these wacky elements amidst a flood of gorgeous melodies. The song has a hook woven into every section, from verses, to choruses, to pre- and post-choruses. NMixx, who are a vocally-stacked group, have never sounded better, and their artistic playfulness has never gone down so easy, like a glass of lemonade equal parts sweet and sour.

The song’s refreshing quality is reflected in the colorful, performance-focused MV. Every visual screams summer comeback, but without relying on overly trope-y signatures. Instead of beaches, NMixx dance in flourishing fields and forests. A more expected technicolor palette is replaced with glowy and sun-kissed shades. The MV’s first sound being cicadas, synonymous with summer in many parts of the world, is an especially nice touch. “Party O’Clock” isn’t revolutionary, but funnily enough, that’s what makes it unique for NMixx, and the track’s ease and confidence speaks of a bright future ahead.

TXT, Jonas Brothers – “Do It Like That”

Speaking of hooks, “Do It Like That” is nothing but them. The track is two and a half minutes of breezy vibes, making for an unexpected yet pitch-perfect collaboration between TXT and the Jonas Brothers. It’s almost funny that within all the K-pop and Western pop features and remixes, no one before really thought of pairing a popular boy group with…another popular boy band. The result is supremely balanced, vocals blending seamlessly in the recording and compatible performance energy in the MV, despite the two groups’ parts clearly being recorded separately. Even the solution to that is elegant though, with the MV following the classic white box formula, meaning the groups’ separate sections sit side-by-side comfortably with no jarring cuts.

The minimalism of the MV works particularly well because the song is a simple delight. It’s unabashed summer party-pop and all the better for it. Catchy to a fault, TXT are running “Do it Like That” ragged on TikTok, but honestly, that’s fine. A song this fun is gonna take more than a few million plays to get old. And for those interested in the story behind this collab hit, head straight to TXT’s simultaneously staged and candid, and at times hilariously awkward behind-the-scenes videos of the recording process, a fascinating testament to the tricky but earnest work that goes into meeting across languages and industries to make music.

Sandara Park – “Festival”

In the cameo-packed MV for “Festival,” Sandara Park has the time of her life in a whimsical amusement park, complete with dancing lollipops, a car shaped like a tennis shoe, and some of the most creatively cutesy styling K-pop has mustered in a while. It’s fanatically cheerful, almost to a fault, but a few elements stop this helium-filled balloon from floating off into outer space.

The first is that “Festival” is an update of an Uhm Jung Hwa song of the same name from 1999. The original track is intensely, wonderfully 90s in its style; according to a Music Camp stage from the MBC archives (absolutely required viewing), the track has not one but two disco dance breaks which are literally announced by a shout of “disco, disco, disco.” Comparing Park’s updated 2023 “Festival” to the original makes for great fun, and the fact that Uhm Jung Hwa stops by for the last chorus of the song in the MV lends the whole thing a lot of warmth.

The second saving grace of “Festival” is its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it undercurrent of poignancy. Despite the relentless happiness of the production, the lyrics tell a more well-rounded story from the opening lines:

Forget about unhappy days in the past

Brightly shining world is coming, say hi

Above the sun, a thrilling riding

I’m ready to fly high

“Now it’s time to smile, smile again,” sings Park, later adding “this is my first day, ready for a change.” That it is Park singing these lines, decades into her career and all the ups and downs that have undoubtedly come with it, gives them added weight, as does the palpable optimism her performance radiates. “Festival” is a track with a great history and a surprisingly relatable message, but it’s Park’s absolute commitment which sells the song and makes it something worth smiling about.

(G)I-dle – “I Do”

An 80s synthpop-inspired advance single from (G)I-dle’s upcoming English-language debut EP Heat,  “I Do” boasts by far the most sophisticated MV of this month’s Unsung Artists. After a newscast warns of a comet hurtling towards earth, a teenager sees a suspiciously spaceship-looking object land in the forest and encounters an alien, played by (G)I-dle’s Minnie. There’s a twist though: when Minnie sneezes, she warps and is replaced by Miyeon. And so it goes throughout the MV, with each member of (G)I-dle circling through a single body.

On face-value, “I Do” is a narrative MV. In its five-minute runtime, a chaste romance blooms between the alien and the teen before they are forced on the run by ominous hazmat-suit wearing figures. The story ends when the alien uses a powerful orb to disappear herself and the aggressors, protecting her friend. Everything is filmed with cinematic panache, especially a lovely concluding montage of the couple, and the performances from the young actor and (G)I-dle are strong, particularly Minnie and Shuhua.

Beyond the storyline though, the initial concept of a shared body remains the MV’s most compelling feature. This is emphasized by the fact that the song’s all-English lyrics don’t describe aliens or first crushes, but rather romantic rivalry:

Don’t you go falling in love

Trust me she’s not the one

She won’t ever love you like I do

Hold you like I do

Know you like I do

Are the different (G)I-dle members representing different parts of the same person? Or are they multiple distinct people in one body? Are they working together, or does each have their own desires and motives? It’s a fascinating puzzle that the MV doesn’t care to solve, but that’s frankly fitting for a pre-release. “I Do,” which is now being used on the 88rising YouTube channel to soundtrack an ongoing series of love stories, is stellar in its raising-anticipation role. Dreamy, memorable, and intriguing, it makes September’s Heat feel well worth the wait.

(NME, TikTok, YouTube[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]. Lyrics via YouTube[1][2][3][4]. Images via 88 Rising, Cube Entertainment, HYBE, JYP Entertainment.)