Continuing their conversation, and moving on from EPs to full albums, Chloe and Siena discuss the musical and conceptual elements that determined their top picks of 2023.
Chloe: As with previous years, we saw less and less full-length K-pop albums in 2023, but that’s no surprise. Whereas last year, most participants’ picks (including mine) centered around soloists, it’s interesting to see that our lists this year are mostly filled by groups, including our shared pick, Red Velvet. Even my shortlist of albums that ultimately didn’t make the cut included groups (fromis_9, EXO, TripleS), so it’s fascinating to see that increased representation all around.
But back to Red Velvet, who I chose as my number two pick. Since their debut in 2014, the group have become best known for their hauntingly decadent sound. Chill Kill stays true to this representative concept, but is also the darkest and most mature they’ve ever taken it, and the result is magnificent. Eponymous title track “Chill Kill” may be one of the album’s weaker selections, but it eases listeners into the balance between the ‘red’ and ‘velvet’ sounds the group consistently weave through their discography to give them their very name, which they especially rely on to create Chill Kill’s bone-chilling sound.
It’s the album’s b-sides that do this especially well, though, with standouts like “Knock, Knock (Who’s There?),” “Underwater,” and “Nightmare” lending to its chilling macabre with total ease. While many of the b-sides lean more ‘velvet,’ opting for slower tempos and darker lyrics, the scattered ‘red’ moments of upbeat, lullaby-like melodies and choruses uttered through what I imagine to be spooky smiles push Chill Kill’s ambiance into truly eerie territory. As with Enhypen’s Dark Blood, I’m always impressed by a successful horror concept, and Red Velvet absolutely knock it out of the park in their own style here with Chill Kill.
What about Chill Kill impressed you, Siena?
Siena: I think you summarize the album’s impact super well. I’d also add that Red Velvet’s vocal prowess, and the consistent ingenuity of their production, really help Chill Kill feel a cut above. Let’s be honest: K-pop has many excellent groups whose strength doesn’t necessarily lie in the studio. Red Velvet are not one of them, and I think their career-long track of fabulous b-sides owes a lot to that. One of my favorite songs on the album, “Will I Ever See You Again?,” is a relatively simple ballad. However, gorgeous vocal deliveries and modern production choices elevate it to something special, and that’s a pattern that repeats throughout the album; if “Will I Ever See You Again?” is a good ‘velvet’ example, “Iced Coffee” shows the ‘red’ side of the equation.
As you noted, Red Velvet’s concept is distinct, with distinctive sonic results. In Chill Kill specifically, they use their signature contrast to create a unique mood I can only describe as optimistic melancholy. Title track “Chill Kill” is maybe the most exemplary of this, and though I, like you, was initially cold on it compared to the album’s b-sides, it’s been a real grower for me. Both “Chill Kill” the song and Chill Kill the album are testaments to Red Velvet’s ambition — no one is playing it safe here. A handful of the album’s later tracks are less memorable for me, which is why it’s my third pick, but it undoubtedly is a standout of 2023.
Chloe, your third place choice is also from a girl group, fourth-generation superstars Ive. What drew you to their first full album, I’ve Ive?
Chloe: As the group’s first album after a series of smash singles and title tracks, I’ve Ive is an envy-provoking feat to say the least. Oozing with an air of unabashed coolness and confidence, the album is a culmination of everything the six-piece group stand for — even though they’re at the very beginning of their career. As with NewJeans, Ive had plenty to prove after they rose to the top of the K-pop scene with lightning speed via a mere trio of singles and not even a mini album to their name yet, and this album surely solidifies their spot.
I’ve Ive is particularly strong in how it showcases what Ive are capable of outside of their anthemic title tracks. The record is electrifying and crisp through and through, but never to the point where its overarching sound becomes brittle enough to make a facade out of the group’s clear underlying strengths: striking vocals, brazen self-assuredness, chic production choices. Rather, the album colors Ive’s world with a spectrum of genres and styles — from the galvanizing march of opener “Blue Blood” to the subtle yet sweeping melodies of b-sides “Lips” and “Heroine” to the buggy synths of “Hypnosis.” Title track “I AM” may not be their best, but it’s incredibly representative of I’ve Ive as a whole, taking listeners on the group’s shimmering, limitless flight toward self-love and unstoppable conviction. While I wish there was an ounce more cohesiveness amongst the b-sides, this is a sturdy record all around — not just within Ive’s growing discography — and for that reason earned the third spot on my list.
Speaking of growing discographies, B.I’s is one that I simply can’t get enough of. What put To Die For at your number two spot?
Siena: To put it succinctly, To Die For impressed me through its sheer creativity, a hallmark of B.I as a songwriter and performer stretching back to his days as iKon’s leader. His esoteric flair has only grown as a soloist, and this is while his output has ballooned: To Die For was joined in 2023 by EP Love or Loved Pt. 2, both of them completing separate ongoing thematic musical projects started in 2021 and 2022 respectively. Evidently, writer’s block is not an issue B.I is currently facing.
In its eight tracks, To Die For covers an absurd amount of musical territory, with a rap-heavy intro and outro sandwiching tracks featuring EDM, indie pop, rock, jazz, and ballad stylings. Nevertheless, To Die For creates a consistent musical mood of off-kilter playfulness. Lyrically, the album is blisteringly romantic with a heavy dash of nihilism. A hollered line from featured artist Crying Nut in the b-side “Beautiful Life” sums it up: “Since living is like hell, why don’t we give love a try?”
Speaking of featured artists, one of my favorite parts of To Die For is B.I’s skillful use of guest talent. Highlights here include Lil Cherry’s deliciously vicious verse on “Wave” and Jessi’s spellbinding contributions to title track “Die for Love.” The only real wrench in To Die For’s brilliance is how its self-hype opening and closing songs, “To Die” and “Michelangelo,” clash with the album as a whole. It could be an interesting conflict, particularly given the implication in “To Die” that the life-affirming love the album is obsessed with might be a love of music rather than romantic connection. The big swing doesn’t quite hit though (not enough follow-through), which is a shame. Still: I’ll take an ambitious release with downsides over a snooze-fest any day, and To Die For is nothing if not fabulously and fascinatingly risk-taking.
Chloe, your final choice is also an icon of innovative ambition. What made Agust D’s D-Day your top album of 2023?
Chloe: One of Agust D’s most striking talents is his ingenuity — musically, lyrically, and thematically — and on D-Day, this crystallizes into its peak form. As with To Die, D-Day stretches its soundscape over multiple genres and styles in the span of just ten songs, so much so that the album feels longer and denser than its 32-minute runtime technically allows for. The album approaches genres like classical, jazz, rock, trap, ballad, and traditional Korean music with both nuanced precision and necessary ambiguity, allowing them to fuse with one another and the featured artists who appear across the album and have established ownerships over musical stylings of their own (IU, The Rose’s Woosung, the late Ryuichi Sakamoto, and BTS’s own J-hope) to forge an overarching sound that comes extremely close to being truly original. Agust D’s own technical abilities as a rapper and carefully-made choices to utilize his singing voice also elevate D-Day’s innovative blend of the contemporary and tried-and-true to its own class of artistry.
Where D-Day really differentiates itself, though, is in its innately personal mode of storytelling. Agust D has already established himself as an artist who speaks the truth about both himself and the society he exists in, regardless of ‘Agust D’ as an identity existing as the alter ego to his mainstream self, BTS’s Suga. But on D-Day, he’s brutally honest in his lyrics to an equally blunt and refreshing degree, delving into his innermost thoughts on modern societal pressures (“Haegeum”) and personal traumas (“Amygdala”) in such an outspoken manner as if to set any troubles or traumas that plague his mind free. Still, D-Day remains relatable to a wider audience — a true testament to Agust D’s ability to speak to anyone and everyone this record ultimately reaches.
Siena, your final pick features some of my favorite b-sides from this year. What made Shinee’s Hard your top album of 2023?
Siena: B-sides are indeed the name of the game when it comes to Hard. In my opinion, title track “Hard” is Hard’s only significant weakness, a shallow and forgettable song eclipsed by its album companions. Nevertheless, Hard is, for me, strong enough in all other respects to still land on the top of my list. In ten tracks, the album traverses a wide variety of production styles and moods with finesse, from the buoyant pre-release “The Feeling,” to the cheeky yet smooth “10x,” to my favorite b-side of 2024, the stunning “Sweet Misery.” The group also find an excellent balance between indulging in Shinee-typical stylings, most prominently a flare for retro influences, and keeping things fresh and unpredictable.
What makes Hard’s array of tones click and coherent — and what makes it an exceptional album period — is the versatile charisma of Shinee’s members. The album radiates industry-veteran ease, and the vocal prowess and pure confidence of each participant is what packs each b-side with so much punch. As many of Shinee’s members reach new heights in their individual solo pursuits (Onew’s Circle album and Taemin’s Guilty EP were both releases that just missed my album lists), it’s perhaps not surprising to see them excelling in partnership, but it’s still a delight. At its best, a K-pop group brings together individuals into a sum which pulls from the talent of its part to create a towering wave of sound and star-quality. Hard is a peak example of the potential magic that can result.
Introspection, fantasy, and versatility: these are just a few of the standout qualities of 2023’s finest releases. Will 2024 see a continued decline in full versus mini albums and singles? What musical trends will dominate, and what new stars will rise to the top? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure: there’s a lot to look forward to!
(Lyrics via Genius. Images via 131 Label, HYBE, SM Entertainment, Starship Entertainment.)