In the blink of an eye, we have reached the halfway point of 2020. Each year seems to up the ante of the tragedies of the previous year, but Lo, Aastha and Anna have gathered to discuss the mini-albums that have made the past six months better.
Lo: Welp, 2020 so far has been an exciting game of apocalypse bingo! That said, I feel that the one area that hasn’t devolved into utter chaos, at least partially, is the music scene. No sign of the mono genre this year! We were absolutely spoiled for choice when it came to the EPs; this list required some excruciating cuts. The biggest and most painful of those was the elimination of Day6’s The Book of Us: The Demon, which topped both of your lists. What about it won you over?
Anna: The trilogy of The Book of Us over the past two years–which also includes Gravity and Entropy–has been really satisfying, but The Demon definitely resonates the most with me overall. A cohesive portrayal of an imbalanced relationship across experimental tracks of various genres, this album was both a musical and emotional journey. The band masterfully taps on sentiments and thoughts that we’ve all had in our lives, making each lyric hit close to home. It could also be about the timing when the album was released–title track “Zombie” is probably a perfect embodiment of the mental states of most of us right now. There is so much comfort in knowing that there are other people who share the same thoughts as you, that you are not alone in this battle, and I think Day6 successfully conveyed that here. What did you like about it, Aastha?
Aastha: I’ll say, the only good thing going for 2020 is the notable quality of music that we’ve gotten thus far. A far cry from last year! As for Day6, honestly, The Demon deserves a place on the list just for the consistency in quality Day6 has given us with the The Book of Us series. But saying that is doing an injustice to the EP. The trilogy has always shown vulnerability in its lyrics and overall message, but The Demon brings comfort to the listener with its relatability. Day6 went deeper and darker with the latest installment, displaying maturity and reflection. Like you, Anna, I thought “Zombie” hit achingly close to the heart of listeners. There’s a different type of solace that comes with lyrics that don’t try to make you feel better, but rather just empathise with how you might be feeling.
The Demon also features tracks like “STOP” and “Love Me or Leave Me” that have melodically enrapturing sounds, undoubtedly leaving them highlights of the EP. They strike an impressive balance between having a sound that is quintessentially Day6 but also not; the instrumentation and lyricism show Day6’s ability to progress and develop their sound while maintaining the unique value that comes with their discography. The Demon is cohesive and impressive in portraying Day6’s polished creativity, and that’s why it’s an EP I just had to include in my list.
What was it about April that gave them the edge over Day6 for you, Lo?
Lo: I love pop music. Always have, always will, and I consider it one of the hardest genres to achieve excellence in. April’s Da Capo is excellent, from start to finish. It’s dominated by a range of influences from R&B to nu-disco, but always held together into a cohesive whole by the thrumming energy that runs underneath the instrumentation, and by April themselves. The sextet are positioned as cool, confident and in control of themselves and their relationships. They are the queens, and all others are there for their amusement; it’s wish fulfillment of the highest order.
But what really pushed it over the top and onto the list was that Da Capo showcases the problems with that. “Da capo” is the musical term for “from the beginning”, and that is the theme of the EP. April are trying to start a relationship, but it never works out. They play mind games, they deign to allow boys to date them, they dig and dig into their boyfriends’ deepest feelings– at one point literally comparing his heart to a .zip file– but offer nothing of themselves in return. “Doll” showcases the slow death of a relationship, but April just blame their boyfriend and wish they could go back to the early days. This juxtaposition of infectious dance grooves with the reality of what unchecked ego really looks like made Da Capo one of the most interesting EPs of the year.
Anna, what about Yook Sungjae pushed him onto your list?
Anna: Although Sungjae’s Yook O’clock isn’t the most musically diverse album out there, it is one of the most enjoyable mini-albums I have ever listened to. None of the songs are skippable, as they are all grounded by catchy melodies and Sungjae’s beautiful voice. I love him as a member of BtoB, but he definitely holds his own as a solo artist in this album. There is just something magical about the thickness of his voice, and the way his emotions are so well conveyed in every note he sings makes every track seem an exploration into Sungjae’s personal life story.
Familiar, comforting ballads comprise most of the album, but the fun is kept alive with quirky tracks like “Chicken”. Just imagining Sungjae singing the line “I want to be a chicken” (extremely sincerely, nonetheless) cracks me up. Fellow members Peniel and Ilhoon also get to flex their composing skills with their features on this album, and the tracks are wonderful opportunities for the respective duos to display different musical styles than they would have as BtoB. “Hypnotized” in particular starts off with Sungjae singing a haunting melody, before developing into a full-on hip-hop track with Peniel’s aggressive rapping and the incorporation of atmospheric electronic sounds. The whole album is simply a pleasant gift for all who listen to it, and it sufficiently showcases Sungjae’s charms.
Aastha, what about Younha’s mini-album stood out to you?
Aastha: Younha being on my list was a surprise to me, truth be told. I’ve stated this many times, but ballads are never my top picks and I tend to skip them. However, Unstable Mindset awed me when I first heard it. The tracks flow seamlessly from one to another, and it’s an EP that’s so easy to play on repeat without ever getting bored of it. Younha’s vocal ability is mesmerizing, and she has this amazing talent of being able to transport her listeners into another world with her songs.
“Dark Cloud”, for example, is executed in a way that it paints a picture of grey skies and gentle but persistent rain everytime you listen to it. As the lyrics mourn the end of a relationship, so does Younha’s voice. She brings the listener on a journey as she oscillates between having a subdued, wistful quality in her vocals to a tumultuous and painfully emotional one. Younha can magnetise anyone with the way she emotes via her singing, and I, too, was not insusceptible to her.
Younha makes Unstable Mindset a cinematic delivery of art, packed with sentimental turmoil and lined with repressed sorrow. It is a faultless EP, with emotion dripping from every note.
Anna: Unlike you, Aastha, ballads are almost always my favourite part of each album, which is why Hoppipolla’s Spring to Spring is my final pick. This band was created during the final rounds of JTBC’s Super Band, along with a host of other bands (Lucy, Bandage, and others). The synergy this unique band shares cemented their victory in the competition, and it plays out perfectly in this debut album as well. Hoppipolla desires to bring hope and comfort with their music, and the emotions they evoke with each song they create does just that. They are also well-equipped, given that the band comprises two sentimental vocalists, a soulful cellist and a gifted guitarist.
Despite vocalists I’ll and Ha Hyun-sang having distinct styles and vocal colours, their voices blend nicely to create a harmony like no other, and they are truly stronger together, even as they are respected solo artists outside of this band. I’ll also took charge of the musical direction of this album, composing several tracks including the title “Enough”. His understanding of his fellow members, their instruments, and their musical strengths is evident in the way he effectively layers the tracks. Hong Jinho’s cello in “Our Song”, for instance, weaves constantly between creating a background atmosphere where the vocals can shine, and building the emotion and intensity of the track. He starts off most of the pieces of this album, which gets listeners nicely settled into the fabric of the music before the guitar or the vocals start to come in. It is rare that bands have classical instruments like the cello, but it is one of the main reasons why Hoppipolla is so special, and so needed in this music industry.
As a classical musician myself, it delights me to no end to hear the beautiful instrumentation of this whole album, and how the spotlight is constantly placed on the musical interludes that are led by Hong Jin-ho and Kim Young-so. Spring to Spring can only be described as a delight to the ears, and I honestly cannot wait for more from Hoppipolla.
How about you, Lo? What landed (G)I-dle that coveted top spot on your list?
Lo: The first time I heard I Trust, it blew me away. The darker tones, the seediness, the lush instrumentation, the power and richness in the vocals, the authority resonating with every note. The composition pulls from house, hip-hop and even industrial in places, and blends them all seamlessly. Moreover, I Trust is one of the few times I’ve heard atonal elements used where the end product still sounds melodic. Everything just builds into a whole that is menacing yet compelling; all the more so for how effortless (G)I-dle make their coronation sound.
Then, I read the lyrics, which… have you ever seen a piece of art that infuriated you because never in a million years will you ever be able to achieve half of that? Yeah, that was me with I Trust. The deftness with which Soyeon weaves her tale of lust, hedonism, and regret is amazing. “Maybe” remains my favorite track, dissecting the expectation that women perform all emotional labor in a relationship and support their man unquestioningly and revealing how toxic it truly is, but it’s hardly alone. “Luv U” delves into how knowingly entering a relationship with someone stable doesn’t actually make it a good idea, while the two versions of “Oh My God” showcase the difference between going along with something and choosing it for yourself. The entire EP resonates with the difficulties of being female. That menace and power in the production is the muscle (G)I-dle needs to be able to live on their own terms, because fear is what keeps people from forcing them back into their boxes.
I Trust really convinced me that Soyeon is going to be one of the breakout stars of her generation, but Aastha, you’ve got a tried-and-true veteran artist on your list. How did Chocolate clinch the last spot on your list?
Aastha: I’m not sure if it’s my more-than-a-decade-long fanship of Changmin that’s speaking, but Chocolate is an all-rounded EP that encompasses Changmin’s solo artistry and leaves you feeling nothing but charmed. Chocolate doesn’t let down in energy in any song, hitting hard and strong from start to finish.
With just six songs, Changmin manages not only to boast his incredible vocal range, but also his ability to pull off almost any genre, along with his song-writing capabilities. From the trendy pop “Piano” to R&B-inspired “High Heels” to funk-rock “No Tomorrow”, the EP is a treat to listen to. More so, since it would have been easy for Changmin to throw out a six-ballad EP while staying in his comfort zone. In fact, just “Piano” and “Lie” (with its Chungha feature) had me struggling to decide if I should place Chocolate higher than Unstable Mindset instead.
The mini-album ends too quickly, and even months on, I feel the same. The production on each track is impeccable, minimal where it needs to be, and grandiose otherwise. It plays with Changmin’s vocal range so wonderfully, flaunting how comfortable he is engaging with deeper, lower vocals just as he is with his longer, higher notes. Chocolate is pulled off flawlessly, and Changmin makes each song feel effortless, where it would have been a struggle for many vocalists to pull off most songs the way he did. With the combination of faultless production, Changmin’s vocal mastery, and his sentimental lyrics-writing, I knew I had to include Chocolate on my list.
Changmin is not the only one to have dropped their first mini-album this year. I see you have Moonbyul’s Dark Side of the Moon on your list!
Lo: It is, but it was a close one. The other truly hard cut I made was actually Dark Side of The Moon over Unstable Mindset. While Younha gives a better performance, I feel Dark Side ultimately is a more complete package. The production is richer and more complete, with a great deal of space to allow Moonbyul’s voice to echo through the tracks. There’s a great deal of variety the genres she uses, from industrial on “Eclipse” to the plunking piano of “Moon Movie” to the woodwinds of “Ijildo”. Yet, the consistently darker tones give the EP a unified sound, as everything sounds, well, dark.
That really is what pushed Dark Side Of The Moon over the edge for me. I love art that tells female stories, but traditionally those have a very limited scope. Women are trained by society to hide anything not “acceptable” by labeling it as unladylike or inappropriate and shaming women who break those rules. What Dark Side of The Moon does is lay bare how much women are told to hide so as to not offend people. Ego, confidence, self-loathing, depression, apathy, insecurity, hedonism, and post-break-up weirdness are all things Moonbyul discusses. Her entire EP revolves around herself because her life revolves around herself; how she’s coping with a break-up or wants a new man, or how she’s depressed and can’t get out of bed. Her “dark side” is the full, internal life of a grown woman, and yeah, it’s messy. It’s chaotic. It’s dark. But it’s honest in a way rarely seen, and I not only enjoy and admire Dark Side of the Moon, I respect the hell out of Moonbyul for making it.
I think that wraps us up on the EPs of 2020. Now onto the albums!
Stay tuned for our albums discussion here.
(Images via JYP Entertainment, RBW, DSP Media, Cube Entertainment, Moss Music, SM Entertainment, C9 Entertainment. Youtube )