Moving on from mini albums, Gina and Lo spotlight the full-length albums that span genres from city pop to jazz and rock, and stand out with their strikingly personal voices.

Gina: But speaking of timelessness, I think that can truly be applied to Yukika’s “Soul Lady” – another sparkling gem that stumped me with how long it took to find her! How did you come across this album? 

Lo: The first time I heard about Yukika was from music blog Spectrum Pulse, which is pretty apropos. Soul Lady is a throwback to city pop, a sound popular in Japan in the late 70s and 80s before fading away, only to see an online revival in the 2010s thanks to reissues and music bloggers.  The main reason I checked it out was curiosity: Yukika is Japanese, reviving a largely faded Japanese genre, in the Korean music scene. I had to hear it.

Soul Lady is timeless in exactly the way you describe — capturing a feeling in time that resonates past that moment.  In that, a definite leg up came from its genre. City pop never had a definition and it’s only two defining features were a sleek, 80s urbanite feel and pulling from western influences. Funk, soft rock, pop, it all got mixed up in city pop. This meant sounds were combined in ways that would not occur to musicians who saw these genres as distinct, and Yukika keeps that going. Funk and arena rock and New Wave and anything else she feels like are melted together into a whole that sounds exactly like the 80s but nothing like anything specific. 

While the progression of the album is interesting, from Yukika’s happiness in love through her struggles to make the relationship work to her eventual realization that it’s not working, what really sells it is Yukika’s voice. Her vocals are sweet and bright, retaining an optimistic tone even through the sadder tracks and giving Soul Lady a sense of dreaminess. Which fits because it is a dream. The opener is “From HND to GMP”, referencing the Haneda and Gimpo international airports, while the closer is “All Flights Are Delayed”. This tale of love and heartbreak is her airport daydream about the life waiting for her in Seoul: tragic but exciting and sophisticated.

Speaking of tragic but sophisticated, Baek Yerin and tellusaboutyourself. It’s another late release and a powerful one. I was a hair’s breadth from putting it on mine! What about it instantly won you over?

Gina: I was already a huge fan of last year’s Every letter I sent you, replaying it way too often. My expectations for tellusboutyourself were high, but I knew from the first teasers that it’d be different than its predecessor: her approach was more haunting, leaning on the darker side of melancholy that left no room for lingering whim or daydreams. The plot behind her MV releases, in particular, revealed an uncomfortable position of intense isolation, misunderstanding, and the depth that desperation can dare to dig if driven enough by loneliness.

How far can these struggles truly take someone, and how wrong (or justified) can it get? Where does love and companionship go utterly wrong, and how selfish can one really be with someone else? These are the questions Baek Yerin has us wrestle with, not just through the music videos but the album in general. The 13 tracks (excluding the “Interlude”) offer multiple lenses into the confusing, painful, yet desirable experiences we can have while being intertwined with others. How intimacy can be sweet or sour, and how independence is also a growing pain. 

With that said, Yerin’s tone in this song is not completely weak or fragile: she moves from angry to bitter, yearning to curious, vulnerable in love to subtly lost in daydreams. But simultaneously, she is intensely open and raw with these emotions, no matter the scale or depth. By curating an album that pulls off these feats, she presents a delicate, beautiful, and intensely personal life record. It almost seems like a privilege to unlock these private stories to dwell on and learn from. Also admirable is the timeless aspect of her music – the album can be considered modern yet classic, vintage yet always current, endlessly relatable and wholly well-rounded. This is a project that will never grow too old to be played again, tuning into another story Yerin has to tell regarding life, love, and healing.

Meanwhile, what is your interpretation of Stella Jang’s first studio album Stella I

Lo: Everything I said about Stella I in the mid-year discussion still holds true. Still a powerful blend of jazz and folk and blues with pop hooks and a lovely, throaty voice that just encapsulates the listener. Still a fascinating tale of consequences and reality and leaning into your bad choices because you’re stuck with them. 

However, as 2020 has gone on, I’ve come to appreciate more and more how much Stella I is the story of a working musician. She’s not lamenting the cost of fame from her mansion and piles of money; she’s thinking about how her focus on her career cost her a great relationship from her studio apartment. It’s Stella Jang stepping back and taking stock; evaluating if the ability to earn a living doing what she loves is worth the toll it takes on the rest of her life. And I think the answer is yes. She might regret outcomes, she might have changed one or two things, but at the end of the day, Stella Jang is a musician, who cannot live a 9-to-5 and pays her rent as an artist, no matter the difficulty or cost. It feels very incidentally brilliant, a potent, relatable masterpiece about life as a working artist, but that was just a side benefit to her working out her demons.

Speaking of demons, Day6 and The Book of Us: Demon. I really enjoyed the previous entry in their Book of Us series, but this one just rang hollow to me. What spoke to you?

Gina: Demon was actually my first album introduction to Day6! I’ll have to give the other editions of this series a try, but overall the band swept me away with their musical and vocal color nonetheless. What got me the most with this album was the raw, dark emotions portrayed in a painfully relatable way. Every progressing track dives in deeper into the consuming darkness they face with every story they tell – how love is cooling down in the face of insecurities, how fear is driving a wedge between the relationship, and ultimately there is no hope for the love that was once alive. Each track has their own distinct story that adds to the melancholy of the album – not to mention how they reveal different struggles. 

First, “Day and Night” acknowledges the wedge that’s starting to split the relationship apart, noting that they’re as different as the sun and moon. Then, “Tick Tock” dwells on denial versus resignation; “Love me or Leave me” is derived from greater angst and impatience, desperately asking their lover to be clear; “STOP” aggressively pushes to just give up; while “1 to 10” returns to the start, reminding his lover that he’s ready to give his all. By the end, the previous anger and frustration melt away into fear with “Afraid,” a somber track that honestly reveals how scared they are that their darkness will bleed into their lover. 

In other words, Demon is a downhill journey through increasing madness and darkness, consumed by the thoughts that ultimately fray the relationship. By the end, they wrap up with “Zombie” once again, albeit the English version, remarking once again how they feel lifeless as a result. Such a heavy album could be a bit too much, but Day6 plays the balance just right – the message is there, but the melodies and voices provide breathing space and different interpretations to make for a unique listen altogether.

As for Taemin, what about his latest album caught your attention, Lo? 

Lo: Part of it is the music — I love melancholy dance music, I love darker tones, and I love sex jams, so all three showing up on Never Gonna Dance Again, Act 2 gives it some very high marks. Then there’s Taemin himself, who gives one hell of a performance across this whole album. Seductive, lonely, and loving in equal parts, his voice is like pure silk. The slick production balances the synths and more processed tracks like “Heaven” and “Exclusive” with more organic instrumentation on “I Think It’s Love”, all while keeping a lustful undertone across the album. Never Gonna Dance Again, Act 2, much like Kai, is sex from start to finish.

However, what gave it the last umph Kai lacked is maturity and experience. The first third opens with Taemin simply looking for a hook-up. He’s well aware that both of them are using sex as a band-aid for deeper problems, and, as “Heaven” shows, leans into it. As the album progresses through the next third, though, Taemin and this girl click outside the bedroom as well as in it. They offer emotional support, think of each other when they’re not around, and take steps to formalize things. The last third has Taemin not only accepting that he loves her, but reveling in it. This was not what he was looking for, but he’s not stupid enough to throw away a good thing just because it wasn’t the plan. You can feel the pain of relationships gone bad in his voice, along with regrets and what ifs. Which leads back to Taemin’s maturity and experience. He’s mature enough to realize that seeking out anonymous sex won’t do more than numb the ache temporarily, and expeirenced enough that when he stumbles into something more, he’s not letting her go.

And last up is T_wo by J_ust, one that you were clearly torn on, considering how late in the game it appeared on your list. It’s a very relaxing, lo-fi piece, but what gave it that final nudge?

Gina: I think that’s the best analysis of Act 2 I’ve ever read! And I do agree that maturity and experience is what differentiates these two albums, but Kai was nonetheless a great start. 

At first listen, T_wo can just seem like any other acoustic/ballad album. But upon closer look, I realized it’s a very soothing album perfect to play on lonely nights. The album takes you through a calm, relaxing journey from start to finish, reminiscing on not just the start or end of love, but the experiences that occur in between. What I’ve come to like about the album is in its dwelling of these minute struggles or memories that may seem passing, but is nonetheless significant. Take for example the second track, “want to go to sleep” – a usual track on insomnia, but masked by a sweet acoustic melody that adds a layer of depth: is it to play down the difficulties behind losing sleep, or is it still a bittersweet walk down memory lane? Most insomnia tracks can be rather depressing, but this one is a light, sad listen.

The seventh track “will be happy” is also the perfect healing balm for all those who may have had a hard time this past year. J_ust reassures the listener that we worked hard today and made it under our warm blankets; to not worry because we’ll definitely be able to conquer tomorrow. That happiness is around the corner, not so vague or impossible as it may seem – comfort and reassurance is found in the simple things, like having met the end of the day. 

A lot of J_ust’s tracks are mellow and soft, focusing on everyday moments of love or wonder – and a handful of them are aimed for musings during nighttime. Considering these elements, this album belatedly made its way into my list in time to become the last selection!

Overall, this year revealed intimate, innovative, and high quality albums that largely stood out for their musical personality. We got to hear new blends of sounds, new collaborations and challenges, and see how personal music can be — particularly in a year as unpredictable and isolating as 2020. Here’s hoping that music continues to grow and create in ways we’ve never seen before — and that we can enjoy them live in concerts once more!

Lo: Music definitely proved to be a sliver of silver lining for this hellscape of a year. It’s always been a tool of connection between people, and 2020 proved that beyond anything. The variety that came out of boredom and isolation is breathtaking. Fingers crossed that that spirit of personalness and creativity carries into 2021– and nothing else!

(YouTube (1), (2), (3), (4); images via Grandline)