Continuing from the first part of the Mid-Year-Review albums discussion on mini albums, Lo, Abigail, and Janine discuss the best K-pop albums of 2019.

Abigail: On the polar opposite end of the dark EPs we’ve discussed, you have Oh My Girl, who thrive under a very saturated sweet aesthetic. Their full length album, The Fifth Season, was a beautiful and pleasing attempt at showcasing the group’s ability to capture the sweetest of life’s moments.

“Tic Toc” and “Shower” don’t shy away from the bouncy and light-heartedness that runs through the group’s discography. Except now, the girls have perfected the formula, and aren’t just releasing saccharine fillers. Instead it feels like these songs truly matter in the overall conception of the album. Meanwhile, songs like “Crime Scene” showcase the musical growth of the group with a much more expanded edge in experimenting with sounds that they had previously ignored. Overall, it’s such a solid project from a girl group far too overlooked. 

Lo: I agree with you on The Fifth Season 100%. It’s light and airy in that classic Oh My Girl style, but it’s filled with more gripping tracks that resonate with darker undercurrents. “Crime Scene” and its guitar riff is one, but the track that really put The Fifth Season on my list is “Vogue”. It’s edgier, thrumming, with a sexual tone that really moves Oh My Girl forward from girls to women. Really, that’s what so fantastic about this album: Oh My Girl have nailed down how to retain airy and light without being innocent and childish. They’ve proven that they can expand how we perceive certain tones, and I’m looking forward to more.

The Black SkirtsThirsty tops both of your lists, but it didn’t command my focus when I listened to it. What did you find so captivating about it?

Janine: The Black Skirts are a group I have often found myself listening to, alongside rock groups like Car, The Garden, and Hyukoh, whenever I’m feeling a little cooler than normal. The opening acapella vocals of “Wrong Question” drew me into a nostalgic mood for when I was an all-black-wearing, straight-edge scene kid, playing songs I was sure would make people understand me if they only listened. I loved how emotionally direct the tracks are.

The production manages to communicate the exuberance of a live performance while experimenting with sounds in a way you only can with studio capabilities. Thirsty runs the gambit from overwhelmingly dense layered sounds to sparse atmospheric and experimental, sometimes in the same track. “Island (queen of diamonds)” is one of those vast, spiralling songs, but honestly it’s difficult to single out a track as my favourite. “Sangsu station” uses sampling and electronic percussive elements along with live instruments to create an ethereal, shimmering separation in the tracklist to the more upbeat half of the album. I’ve got way too many thoughts to put down about it, but I really enjoyed how the band showed their range and challenged themselves.

Abigail: The Black Skirts have always captivated my attention with their lo-fi melodies and acoustic production. Like Janine mentioned, Thirsty is an album that incorporates both spacey and experimental instrumentation. Take the track “put me on drugs”. The song feels suffocating under the weight of the high pitched keyboard keys and the non-stop drumming. However, the feeling is reconciled with Jo’s singing, which projects flutters of melancholic angst and loneliness. “Holiday” is another standout; it brings me back to the slow jam ballads on their previous work, Team Baby. There is no denying Jo’s immense talent for production and songwriting which is why it earned my list’s top spot.

It was The Black Skirts who led me to discover the band Jannabi. They are another brilliant indie rock group, resembling bands like Wetter and Hyukoh. Their single, “for lovers who hesitate”, was nothing short of a hit in Korea, topping several music charts which earned them great accolades and in increase in popularity.

In their latest LP, Legend, Jannabi’s production is at points dreamy, with full orchestra symphonies introducing songs like in “land of night” turning the song into something out of a Peter Pan musical with a full choir finish. The group also showcases their edginess in “bad dreams” which has a steller guitar riff that plays into the melody of the song as band leader Choi Jung-hoon sings about ghosts and the perservent of time. I highly recommend this group to any K-indie heads who are looking for charming and dreamy addtions to their playlist. Jannabi won’t disappoint! 

Janine: We may be on a similarly indie dreamy wavelength, Abigail — my Oohyo obsession is mostly due to how otherworldly Far From the Madding City sounded to me. It’s an album of mostly dream-pop influenced electronica, exploring the themes of isolation and uncertainty. It’s intended as a meditation on city life but more often addresses connections and relationships in its lyrics. The lyrics don’t always hit home for me: the Korean verses sometimes speak more clearly to a mood of loneliness and intimacy in their vagueness than the English ones, which sound blunter than I like. “Pizza sucks without you” in the song “Pizza” come across as alternately trite and poignant, depending on my mood.

The production and instrumentation are more appealing but this, I’m aware, is strongly a matter of taste. The electronic drums and use of repetition may seem like a slog, but they stuck out to me as a complement to her personal intimacies. It’s not a perfect album, but the ambience and mood affected me in a way that I won’t forget. 

I might be in a very moody place because my third pick is also a deeply personal, somewhat dour record, Bang Yongguk’s self-titled first independent album. Yongguk’s foray into expressing his struggles with mental illness, relationships, and life in general, is cathartic and at times uncomfortable, but it is fascinating. Like Far From the Madding City, it’s introspective. But where Oohyo distances herself with synths and falsetto delivery, Yongguk is raw, and his pain is so raw it’s almost bloody. Even when he murmuring his lines backed by soft instrumentation, he is melancholic and weighty in his delivery. It’s not an easy album to listen to, and I would understand it’s not to everyone’s taste but again, it is unforgettable, so it made my list.

Lo, you have a rap record of a different sort. How did Heize make your list?

Lo: She’s Fine is an album that resonates with me as a woman. Heize’s struggles to put up an acceptable front while crumbling within are extremely personal, but I’ve had my own problems in this vein.  Her issues include hiding relationships, trying to be a supportive partner, fears of inadequacy, and job stress, all while trying to seem like she’s got it all figured out. Really, who hasn’t been there? And as a woman, it’s so much worse, because showing any emotion is too much.

But what really won me over is the production — moody and downbeat, with heavy emphasis on percussion and beats. Yet, there’s enough energy in the melody and light touches of synths to keep She’s Fine from going full melancholy. It’s the musical embodiment of saying “seriously, I’m good” when everyone knows you’re not, but you aren’t broken enough to accept the help. You keep hoping that if you say it enough, it’ll be true, and that blend of depression and optimism is potent.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Hutazone, by Lee Minhyuk of BtoB. Much like Twice, this album came from an artist I’d never noticed one way or another, then surprised me and won me over by being a splash of color in this grey year. It’s a fun game of genre roulette, ranging from energetic flex anthems to acoustic guitar ballads to silly love songs. Yet, it’s all held together by Minhyuk’s balancing act of open vulnerability and utter ego. His delivery on tracks like “All Day”, “Fallin’” and “Tonight” is playfully seductive, but then there’s “Pretend I Don’t Care” and “Waiting For You” where his heartbreak is placed on full display. Rather than feeling discordant or dishonest, Hutazone comes off as showing Minhyuk at his best and worst. The end result is an LP that’s warm and inviting, one that makes the listener feel special, as if Minhyuk is opening up to them and them alone. 

2019 has been a rough year for music so far, with the vast majority being bland and ummemorable. Yet there are diamonds in this rough, and I’m hopeful the year will pick up as we move forward.

(Images via YG Plus, YouTube [1], [2], [3])