In what has been a very difficult year for the world, there’s no doubt that music kept many of us going. Rounding out our End-of-Year review series are Gina and Lo with a two-part discussion on the impact of the pandemic on the music K-pop released, and the albums that stood out.

Lo: As I was compiling my semi-annual binge playlists, I couldn’t help but notice two distinct, likely COVID-related trends: there was a lot of music released in 2020, and far fewer single albums than one usually sees. It’s like everyone bumped up their singles to EPs, EPs to albums, or used the quarantine to finish projects that might have otherwise been back-burned. My point is: 2020 had an unprecedented quantity of projects up for consideration, regardless of quality.

Gina: I actually haven’t noticed before, but you’re right. Ironically, outer restrictions bred more inner creativity. What did come to mind were the refreshing takes that artists revealed with this year’s comebacks — many dared to try new things this year, which shows in our diverse selections. For example, (G)I-dle’s I Trust was a pleasant surprise, as they successfully experimented with an untapped concept and genre. What made you choose the EP as your first choice, Lo? 

Lo: I have been stumping for I Trust since literally the first time I heard it. It was my top pick for the first half of the year, and that choice has never wavered. I honestly don’t know what more I can say. The music itself is stunning; dark and luxurious, mixing EDM, industrial, rock, pop, and hip-hop seamlessly. The melodies are sticky and defined, working the atonality into a larger whole rather than leaving it as is.  Plus, the music provides the perfect backdrop for (G)I-dle’s vocals — the darker, deeper, and richer tones of Yuqi and Soojin, Minnie’s delicately emotive delivery, Shuhua’s innocence, Miyeon’s clear tones, and Soyeon’s cutting, acerbic voice. 

It really shows (G)I-dle reclaiming dark, sensual femininity as a source of female empowerment rather than a male fantasy. The album tells the story of young women seduced to a dark and hedonistic world by a man. Once their relationship sours due to the same old gendered expectations of “women should do all the work in a relationship,” tossed the man and kept the world, ending up in the same place they started, only now, they’re active agents rather than passive victims. I Trust is gorgeous sonically, powerful lyrically, and combines to a potent whole that is, by my mark, the best EP of 2020.

Now, you felt that honor goes to Crush’s With Her, which I liked, but it didn’t grip me. What about it won you over?

Gina: I do have to say, I understand when you say it didn’t “grip” you; it wasn’t the entire EP that won me over, but rather Crush’s approach to curating the songs in it. First off, With HER lent itself to collaborations with female vocals, gathering an eclectic group of diverse colors and ranges. The title of the EP is literal in that he sings “with her,” adjusting to the style behind each song and vocalist. What impressed me was that Crush pulled this off — he molded himself to truly collaborate with every featuring artist while retaining his own sound every time. The five tracks together are cohesive as an EP, providing a short but satisfactory journey to hold onto until the day Crush returns from the army. 

If I were to pick apart the songs, I’d say his collabs with Lee Hi and Yoon Mirae were the strongest gems.  Both “Tip Toe” and “Step By Step” are groovy masterpieces that dance through your head all day, and they highlight the vocals so well. I felt similarly with the tracks in I Trust, which I fully relished from beginning to end. Just like you said, it was a breakthrough project for the girls, with every track highlighting their vocal colors to create a dark, sensual portrait. The EP definitely solidified (G)I-dle’s musical and conceptual identity, and pushed past the expected boundaries!

How would you compare I Trust with Moonbyul’s Dark Side of the Moon?

Lo: Honestly, I wouldn’t. Their only commonality is the darker tone and focusing on the internal lives of their female creators, which sounds like a lot, but really isn’t.  Dark Side of The Moon is more varied musically, the darkness a thematic link across traditional ballads, sparse, dry arrangements, and lush hip-hop. Moreover, Dark Side’s tone isn’t an empowering choice, but a reflection of Moonbyul’s mental state. While I Trust is a deconstruction of a bad relationship, Dark Side is a character study, and the character is not doing great.

Dark Side of The Moon is, well, about the dark sides of Moonbyul and, by extension, life as an entertainer. Not the seeder aspects, but the unseen ones. She reveals herself to be successful, but exhausted and lonely. She’s burning out, losing any drive, can’t keep a relationship, and is not coping by herself. Songs like “Ijildo” and “Moon Movie” lean towards her simply being tired and wanting to enjoy her success for five minutes without needing to work, but when you add in the self-loathing of “Mirror” and hollow emptiness of “Weird Day,” it sounds closer to depression. Honestly, it’s an extremely relatable piece of music. At the core of Dark Side is someone in their late 20s picking apart their life and trying to fix it, with an underlying sense of “I should have my life together by now,” which is pretty universal.

You have your own darker selection in the form of Kai’s solo debut, which is a fairly recent release. What about it rocketed it to the number 2 slot for you?

Gina: Described in this way, Dark Side does seem like an inner journal revealing one’s most personal, darkest struggles. The questions, doubts, and conflicting thoughts must be relatable to nearly every life stage, no matter the specifics. Going so deep as to wind together a compelling, storytelling album is noteworthy for its bravery – both in regards to release and healing. 

Meanwhile, Kai’s debut EP was a recent selection on my part. To be honest, Baekhyun’s second project Delight was my initial choice, snug in its slot since May. But after giving Kai a chance, his silky vocals, his confident sensuality, the high-quality tracks all swept me off my feet from the first listen. As someone who has faltered on following EXO since “Tempo,” I didn’t know what to expect for his specific musical and stylistic direction.  A project geared towards bright tracks easily accessible by the public was my expectation, but fortunately, KAI is a solid collection that solely introduces his distinct artistic color. 

The tracks flow from one to the next in similar ways, keeping the mood alive from start to finish. But every one of them has their own daring sound and message that offers a glimpse into his newfound potential. Giving him his own R&B color fleshed out his potential in a genre not always explored by the group: it’s a perfect fit for Kai. While sensual tracks can also be overdone or repetitive, every song was a fresh surprise – and KAI, by its end, revealed a new artist standing on his own two feet. Solo EPs strike a chord if they introduce an artist as both a solo and still a part of their group, and this was one of those. Not to mention, the whole production shows new ways to unwind and enjoy my night, imagining I’ve got a glass of wine with me to lull me into romantic dreams. I live for this darker, suave, and alluring vibe, and I do wish I can see a dance cover for every one of his songs. In contrast, Luli Lee’s EP is dreamy and retro and everything sweet — what caught your attention the most with Let Me Dive Into This Moment?

Lo: Kai was certainly a pleasant, impressive surprise — it made my shortlist, despite not liking EXO or R&B. It certainly established Kai as a solo presence, and I’ll be keeping my ear open for his next project. But while it tops “Best Sex Jams of The Year,” it lacks that last umph to push it over the top; a deconstruction, a shift from the usual perspective, personal satisfaction, but something that puts it from a great example of a genre to just great.

This brings us to Let Me Dive Into This Moment. Luli Lee had me from the first note — it’s not exactly a secret that I love the 80s, so the New Wave sound got it pretty far. Crunching guitar, synths electric in instrument and infectiousness, some groovy basslines, this is a case study in the power of organic instrumentation over programs. It’s alive in this almost visceral way, with Luli Lee’s husky tones amplifying the sweet music and undercurrent of doubt simultaneously. Let Me Dive Into This Moment is hope and bliss and agony and love and doubt and pain all mixed together and flaying you open.

The one thing I wouldn’t call it is dreamy because Luli Lee is deliberately not dreaming. She wants to… She wants to dive into those perfect moments in life — days when you’re ass-over-teakettle in love, nights when you’re apart but still feel that connection, meet-cutes, and flawless dates. She wants nothing more than to savor those moments and live in them forever. But her heartbreaking delivery makes it clear that she wants it so badly because she knows how rare they are. 

Closing track “The Way I Love You” is truly what elevates this EP, as it’s about the hard times when her partner’s issues — low-esteem, loneliness, possibly depression — flare up and her unending reassurances that she loves them just as they are. Not only does this reassure the listener that Luli Lee is truly devoted to her partner rather than being in love with love, but it reframes the previous four tracks. Suddenly, she doesn’t want to live in those moments just so she can enjoy the fun times and skip the rest, but because it would spare her partner the inevitable bad days that come with a mental illness. 

While Luli Lee has lush 80s dance pop-rock down to an art, Jannabi and Jannabi’s Small Pieces 1 leans far more towards sparse minimalism and a certain timelessness. Is that what hooked you in?

Gina: Haha, I agree about the missing 1% “umph,” but I still give him credit for sweeping me off my feet (and Baekhyun from this list) from the get-go. As for Luli Lee, it’s thanks to your selection that I got to discover an amazing new artist! I haven’t been very familiar with the 80’s sound, but Luli Lee’s EP was the perfect mix of so many elements that kept me hooked until the end. Moreover, your meticulous explanation of every track melding together truly wraps it up into a cohesive, relatable, and bittersweet story. I’ll definitely be tuning into her musical journey from here on out. 

Meanwhile, you hit the nail on the head! That is indeed what absorbed me into his first Small Pieces project — it’s a threadbare collection of folk songs that, upon close listen, feels much more like listening to a kind of musical. Each song is hand-selected in its order, chosen to tell an ongoing tale brimming with theatrics, whimsical memories, and unpredictable instrumentals that highlight Jannabi’s expertise with spontaneity.  Although the start of this EP is acoustic, the group is not limited to it; it’s simply the backdrop to experiment with diverse sounds, dwelling on small yet intricate thoughts through piano, guitar, drums, whistles, and even a choir. 

Personally, the timelessness goes beyond the particular genre or execution that Jannabi portrays: it comes from the experience of tuning back into an old-time classic that I’d left behind but hadn’t forgotten. The delicate, sweet elements of acoustics, folk, and indie make me think back to nostalgic days that weren’t so dark: the definition of timeless, in that its captured mood truly never dies.

Overall, this year lent itself to seeing a greater outpour of creativity and vulnerability. In the face of greater restrictions and isolation, artists have found a way to bring forth music rich in both personality and creativity, depth, and daring.

Stay tuned for the second part of the discussion on full-length albums.

Agree or disagree with any of our mentioned EP’s? Or can you think of other EP’s that could’ve made our list? Let us know in the comments below!

(YouTube (1) (2) (3) (4) (5); Images via Cube Entertainment, Magic Strawberry Sound, Peponi Music, RBW Entertainment, & SM Entertainment)