Continuing from the first part of the End-of-Year discussion on albums, Lo, Qian, and Aastha discuss the best K-pop mini-albums of 2019.

Qian: Aastha, I’m surprised you hold City Lights in such high regard. In my review, my personal opinion of it was good, but not great. What about it gave Baekhyun your top spot?

Aastha: While City Lights fell short of your expectations, I felt the contrary. Seeing that Baekhyun is a vocalist, I was expecting a boring EP of ballads (which I’m not a fan of) and was pleasantly surprised to see that City Lights was anything but. In fact, it holds a very cohesive, impressive sound throughout. It’s an enticing, sleek alt-R&B EP that makes you want to listen from start to finish, on repeat. 

The minimalism that the mini chose to indulge was the reason I liked it so much. It’s just a personal preference, but it irks me when EPs have songs that fall out outside the sound they were intended to convey; it was satisfying to have an EP where one track flows to the next without jarring the listener. Of course, a track like “Ice Queen” can’t be compared to the better ones like “Stay Up” and “Diamond”, but overall? It’s a great EP. The tracks have been organised in a way to start and end strong, leaving weaker tracks sandwiched between. Regardless, there was a kick in every song, be it Baekhyun’s vocals during the chorus of “Stay Up”, the melodic changes in “Diamond” or the haunting quality of bonus track “Psycho”. 

I’ll be honest — had CL released In The Name of Love even a week earlier, I would have picked her EP as my top pick instead. But the aforementioned reason is why Yunho’s True Colors came in second. From my review, you’ll see that I had little to complain about the EP as a whole, except how out of place “Change The World” was. It just bothered me how there was a ballad in a dance-pop EP, more so to close the entire mini-album.

Ignoring that balladic outro, True Colors had just the right amount of oomph. Each song had its own appeal. Where “Follow” was a punchy, nifty title track boasting Yunho’s vocal range, “Swing” was addictive in retro-inspired dance-pop genre. Yet, while staying true to the overall genre of dance-pop, the EP was balanced by the slower, groovier “Blue Jeans” and “Why”. “Why” is sensual, captivating and exciting, levelling up the EP’s complexity and quality. 

Lo, you have Yunho’s True Colors on your list too. Were there any songs you didn’t like?

Lo: Ah, yes, the album-ending ballad. It’s one of the great frustrations of K-pop. And honestly, part of why True Colors is third on my list. But still, I had to place it on here out of sheer respect for its ambition. 2019 was the year when pop-centrism hit overload. Everything sounded the same, and Yunho could easily have turned in a by-the-numbers EP and ridden his reputation and existing fanbase to a decent profit. Instead, he took chances. He got weird. He used autotune for effect, got robotic, got 80s New Wave-synthy, he got playful with crisp edges and an energetic vibrancy not seen often in a sea of music to vibe to, especially from a mature artist. 

Qian, on the other hand, went for a slower, more meditative album for your third pick. What about Maison and Jiwoo won you over?

Qian: Muted yet detailed, skeletal yet precise, Maison is a mood, a rumination of a relationship in limbo, rife with insecurities and the wool freshly lifted from the lovers’ eyes. Freshly signed to Colde’s WAVY label, it feels strangely appropriate that Jiwoo — or Hayake, in his “rapper” persona as part of Giriboy’s WYBH — sounds like a version of Colde fresh out of the embryo, balancing his deceptively frail, unobtrusive voice with impressive clarity and smoothness. In other words, a perfect match for lo-fi.

The English might throw you on first listen — he studied Psychology and Neuroscience in Toronto — but the shock quickly gives way to wide-eyed admiration: the man’s a goddamn poet. Comparing his relationship to that of a home he comes back to, the amount of aphorisms Jiwoo comes up with on Maison could generate pretentious Instagram bios for months. “What is rare only rarely lasts forever” and “we’ll only miss violets until the roses grow” are especially apt in his meditation on what could have been on the opening track, “Greed”. It’s as if he penned down all his musings during an hour-long shower dead at night. Short, comforting, and deceptively simple, Maison is something special, and proves there’s something worth following there beyond a variation of his labelmate, Colde.

Lo, I noticed you passed on Entropy in favor of Gravity for this year’s Day6 releases. What gave it the edge?

Lo: Part of it definitely lies in the music itself. Gravity has a sense of verve to it that I found lacking on Entropy. There’s a manic energy that runs through the undercurrents, one that’s bottled up and frustrated. It has a sense of almost choking on its percussion and synths, with the bass and guitars acting as valves to let off some of the pressure. “Wanna Go Back” and “Best Part” showcase it well, but even the raucous “Time Of Our Life” still feels like something is trapped behind its frenetic pace.

But the songwriting really seals its edge. Day6 have always had good lyrics, filled with those sharp, precises details that turn a song into a story. The Book Of Us: Gravity is an elevation. This is what it is to be in your mid-20s. Excitement and hope are matched by fear and nostalgia. The dreams of love and achievement are cut off by the realities of adult life. Even living in the moment becomes hard, because you don’t know what to savor and what to let slip by. It creates an atmosphere of pressure and anxiety that you’re living wrong, letting life slip away, but have no idea how to do anything else. Even when Day6 end on optimism, it still carries that sense of choking. 

Now, you put Ateez as your top pick. I liked Treasure, but didn’t love it. Why did you?

Qian: Pure, unadulterated euphoria. I’m probably going to get side-eyed for making it my top pick, but honestly, in a lackluster summer full of middling efforts, Ateez’s Treasure: One to All set the bar pretty high for what makes a “perfect” summer album: no obligatory ending ballad, no weak choruses, outstanding — Jesus Christ, Jongho — vocals all around, this is pop at its most unabashed, at its most joyous, at its most fun.

I am convinced it is impossible to listen to “Illusion” without some semblance of a smile on your face. This sense of joie de vivre is present throughout the mini, and it’s saying something that the outstanding title tracks aren’t even the best songs on the album; that honor belongs to “Utopia”: the moment the manic, urgent, massive chorus of “Utopia” kicks in you know you’re in for one hell of a ride. All in all, Ateez have had a fantastic year, even more impressive being rookies, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us in 2020.

And now, we turn to Sleepless. Surprise surprise, Epik High has managed to turn up at the end of all our lists once again. Despite being a really great piece of work, I’ll admit this particular mini took some time getting into, even more so than We’ve Done Something Wonderful — which initially turned me off with its comparatively unsubtle dive into melancholy — and seeing how this mini immediately resonated with so many other people I still feel like I’m missing something. Do any of you feel the same?

Aastha: I’m one of the people who fell in love with Sleepless In __________  the moment I listened to it. I could go into the technicalities; I could explain how wonderful it was to listen to a track like “No Different”, which had the impeccable combination of Tablo’s fluid rap and Yuna’s smooth vocals layered onto slow, impressionistic percussions. Or I could explain how “Lullaby for a Cat” — with its muffled vocals, lackadaisical piano notes and unhurried strings — still leaves me in awe when I listen to it. 

But the technicality of production is not the beauty of Sleepless In __________. The appeal lies in the fact that the EP depicts an experience that is hard to describe, but so easy to relate to. I mentioned this in my review, but Sleepless manages to grasp at the most abstract sombreness you may feel and makes it tangible. Sure, it’s melancholic. It’s vulnerable. It’s personal and deep and it offers a comfort to listeners that very few musical works manage to do. In fact, the only other album that comes to mind is RM’s Mono. It was the thought behind the album that made it such a memorable one for me. 

Qian: I vividly remember this scene on Dr Seuss’s The Grinch where the titular character describes his afternoon routine, which includes three hours of wallowing in self-pity, two hours to wrestle with self-loathing, and ends with him lying on the bed staring at the ceiling, slowly slipping into madness. It was funny when I first watched it many years ago; watching it now only makes me vaguely disconcerted at how relatable it felt.

It took a good amount of relistens before it finally clicked: this mini makes me feel exactly like that. It is frightening how personal Sleepless In __________ feels to me – kudos to Epik High – but unlike Aastha, I don’t feel comforted by this, I just feel even more sad and lost in thought. Lyrically, this mini is relentlessly biting and profound; from Tablo’s hilariously morose description of his anxiety being that of an eternal trainee on “Eternal Sunshine” to the depressingly circular thoughts of a past relationship on “No Different”, each track has that one line that makes you pause the music and hang your heads in awe and contemplation. 

In terms of production, I was initially turned off by how low-key it all felt — We’ve Done Something Wonderful felt so sonically diverse in comparison — but you inevitably find details to appreciate: the calculated scratches on “Eternal Sunshine”, the reversed synths and drums on “In Seoul”, and the muted chorus of “In Seoul” you can hear on the final track. For me, with Sleepless in __________, Epik High has joined the likes of Sun Kil Moon and Mount Eerie in creating masterpieces that you don’t necessarily want to listen to again. Truly impressive stuff.

Lo: I, on the other hand, relate far more closely to Aastha’s experience with Sleepless in _________. I am a depressed insomniac, or maybe an insomnia-stricken depressive. At the time of writing, it’s been over three months since I managed more than 5 hours of sleep, often plagued with nightmares and odd dreams. Needless to say, I related to this. 

I fell in love from the first note of “Sleepless”. It’s one of those albums whose lyrics I did not need to read to understand. It took a few listens to realize that some tracks are in English. The messy and shifting slurry of misery, anxiety, frustration, acceptance, doubt, and loneliness bleeds through the instrumentation and performances flawlessly. It’s an EP that perfectly captures the isolation of being awake when the rest of the world is sleeping. While you described it as comforting, Aastha, I found it cathartic, a way to express my demons by putting them in words, even if they weren’t mine.

Of course, even without the emotional baggage, Sleepless in _________ is stunning. The precision with which each track was assembled is incredible. It’s played low-key and slow, but there’s always a tenseness present that conveys the feeling of being tired yet unable to sleep.

“Lovedrunk”  has the piano notes that always expect and never hear, conspicuous in their absence. “Rain Again Tomorrow” has Tablo’s rapid flow that always feels like it’s outrunning the music, having to wait for it to catch up, only to take off again. And “No Different” is another contender for Best Song of 2019. From the starkly self-defeating bare-bones production to Tablo’s unhappy semi-self-awareness, it bleeds of repeating bad decisions because they offer certainty and a modicum of happiness, and that is good enough right now. Add in Yuna’s adlibs, which sound like the embodiment of anguish, and you have a masterpiece within a masterpiece. 

Aastha: Be it a personal connection to the music or an impressive technicality to the mini-album, it looks like we’ve all managed to find some gems that impressed us. Despite the underwhelming year that 2019 in K-pop was, here were some musical productions that were still pushing their creativity and presenting some diversity in a seemingly monotonous year.

(YouTube: [1] [2]. Images via: Epik High, SM Entertainment, KQ Entertainment.)