2019 has been a rollercoaster of a year. With events ranging from BTS appearing on Saturday Night Live to the ever-expanding horror story that is the YG/Burning Sun/corruption nightmare, it’s been a hard 6 months to gauge. Yet, at the core of it, we as K-pop fans are here for the music, and Lo, Abigail, and Janine have gathered to discuss the best albums and mini-albums 2019 has to offer.
Lo: I’d like to get started by offering a statement on music this year: Fuck the monogenre. Reviewing options for this list was the most grueling runthrough I’ve ever done because everything sounded the same. This was a mind-melting blur of pop centrism, bland production, and honestly boring music that I’m hoping gets kicked in the ass as we head into the second half of the year. Never before has listening to music made me feel so utterly miserable.
Abigail: I partly agree with this sentiment. On one hand, there is no denying that there has been a lot of filler for the first half of the year. The music has started to blend in with one another, making one song indistinguishable from the next. However, as long-time and serious consumers of music, especially K-pop, we’ve heard so many sounds come and go that our expectations have naturally grown even when the music quality has remained stagnant. This isn’t an excuse to justify the dull sounds currently being transmitted by many artists, but I definitely took this into consideration when picking my top albums and EPs. It was quite a snoozefest.
Janine: I’m desperately trying to be a half-glass-full kind of gal here, y’all. I will say, it was relatively easy to pick who I liked. I don’t mind EDM so it wasn’t a hardship to listen to so many poppy releases, but it was tough to pay attention. I agree, after a while, everything started blending together into a generic sound. I would have loved to see more artists commit or experiment with the genre elements to set their work apart.
An example of this (with mixed results) is Junho’s Two. The songs I liked the most were the ones where he really leaned into electronica and J-pop sounds. There are some gems there, but the quality wasn’t consistent so much I couldn’t put it on my list. I gravitated towards albums that didn’t pander to trends, but I probably will return to those who executed them well.
Lo: The obvious place to start is our one point of commonality — Taemin’s Want. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. R&B is not usually my thing, but this EP is enthralling. The seduction, the pull, the undertones of menace; it all worked. The dark edge in the production is subtle and deft, feeling more organic and thus more earned than a lot dark turns this year. Moreover, Taemin himself gave a stellar performance. In a year where most music pushed me to tune out, his delivery kept me grounded and keeps ringing in my head. “Never Forever” in particular is haunting as he mourns a relationship that’s falling apart because he and his lover just aren’t compatible long-term.
Abigail: That is exactly where Taemin’s Want took me. Taemin has mastered the art of seduction where he just keeps on pulling you in, with the climaxes coming at the most unpredictable moments. The chorus line of the title track “Want” is rough with synth-pop instrumentation, and yet Taemin’s vocals are oozing with smoothness and delicacy. “Artistic Groove” is another standout for me, as it effortlessly blends R&B and EDM to birth a soulful melody that can have anybody on their knees. There is absolutely no denying that Want will be among the best mini albums of the year, even as we move to the second half of 2019.
Janine: Want was one of my easiest picks. Taemin’s performance style and confidence as an artist has been growing consistently over the years so this mini-album feels like a real moment. The title track and “Artistic Groove” stood out to me too as highlights of the record but there isn’t a weak track on the album.
Moving on, Lo and I share a top pick for minis. Epik High’s Sleepless in _____ was another no-brainer. I am a sucker for a concept album and even more so for a record executed so well. The lushness of the production and lyricism made this album stand out in a way that I won’t forget anytime soon. I’ve had it on repeat during late night writing sessions and the replay value does not diminish. What did you enjoy about it, Lo?
Lo: I’m an insomniac, and Sleepless in _____ nails the feeling of being dead tired and unable to sleep; eaten alive by anxiety and drowning in isolation. The production is magnificent, sparse but with enough layers that something new always pops. The hooks are sticky and ring in my head for days afterwards. And it has many of the issues I’ve had with music this year — a midtempo mixture of hip-hop, electronica, and R&B, relying on repeated riffs and loops. However, it works here because it’s done well. Tablo, Mithra Jin, and DJ Tukutz put in the work to create a piece of music that resonates across genres while remaining interesting to the ear.
Then there’s the pick that surprised me: Twice’s Fancy You. I’ve always been fairly lukewarm on Twice; not really enjoying the sugar high all their music seemed to emulate. But Fancy You blew me away. The experimentation with new sounds, like the funk bassline on “Turn It Up” or the multi-tracked chorus of “Girls Like Us”, proved what Twice is capable of moving forwards. More than anything, though, Fancy You is pure fun. So much music this year has been living in the darkness or too cool for school- see my other picks— but Fancy You is pure enjoyment; all sugar, no guilt. It’s music that makes me smile, and it came at a time when I really needed that.
You both listed Dreamcatcher’s The End of Nightmare. They’ve never really clicked for me; what was it about them that won you over?
Janine: Dreamcatcher’s work has always stood out to me because of their concepts. I’m a pretty eclectic music listener and the J-pop/ baby metal genre sneaks its way into many a playlist, so Dreamcatcher is right up my street. I found I could not stop listening to “Piri” after its release ,and the album as a whole was just as strong. The consistency and growth they’ve shown by really diving into their rock influences is something that sets them apart from the pack. I also like to hear how confident the members are in their delivery of these persistently catchy but still hard hitting songs.
Abigail: As a conceptual group, Dreamcatcher have been a breath of fresh air. Their dark aesthetics, coupled with their vibrantly dark sound, is nothing short of an amazing experience to witness. Although I know many K-pop listeners won’t be too keen on their overall style, coming from a fan of J-pop music, Dreamcatcher most definitely sparked my attention. Their mixture of pop and rock on “Piri” is an addictive trance that never fails to get me hyped.
Even in their slow moments, such as “And There Was No One Left”, the group still knows how to put on a charming and entertaining performance, which has a lot to do with the fantastic production of the bassy chorus. I hope that for their comebacks to come, Dreamcatcher go deeper on the edginess both in style and in music.
Honestly speaking, NCT 127 probably took a page from Shinee and lines from Exo with their latest EP Superhuman. Not to say that this is particularly a bad thing; after all, they reside within the same company. Plus the pay off earned them the second spot on my list; without a doubt, NCT 127 came and delivered. “Highway to Heaven” is one of the greatest opening tracks on any EP thus far. The group’s harmonies are undeniably attractive to the ear and when the chorus kicks in, “Highway to Heaven” becomes an experience. The boys also aren’t afraid to play savvy with the song “Fool” that succeeds with its minimal but bouncy production. It seems to me, that with every release, NCT just keeps breaking their own caliber.