For the last End-of-Year Review, our writers come together to discuss the mini albums and albums that stood out this year. Solo artists, in particular, put out a strong showing.

In the first part of the discussion, Lo and Victoria talk about the adventurous, introspective EPs that captured their attention.

Lo: This year has been a year. The pandemic has continued to cast its shadow over the entertainment industry, even as things begin to return to normal. There have been many musical trends over 2021. Some positive, like, organic instrumentation is making a comeback despite the long synth dominance. Some neutral–the dramatic rise in soloists and solo projects. And some negative, such as the obnoxious onslaught of multipart album projects that rarely earn the ambition behind them and often don’t actually feel connected. If I could, I’d ban colons from K-pop album titles for at least three years.

Victoria: This year also saw many veteran artists getting a second chance at the spotlight. I.M from Monsta X, Yang Yoseob from Highlight, Young K from Day6, Woosung from The Rose, and B.I, formerly of iKon, all had solo debuts, most of them releasing very different music than that of their respective ensembles. 

One that I kept coming back to was I.M’s Duality. It didn’t receive much in terms of promotion, but the whole album is moody, angsty, and laced with Gen Z sass and existential dread. Even the title track “God Damn” is an homage to masochistic pain endured for the sake of unrequited love. Like its name, Duality has a darkness equally dangerous and cathartic. While it does have a quality that feels existential and hopeless, there is also a beauty and rawness to the sound and subjects explored. I.M wrote almost all of the lyrics and digging through the poetic way he navigates tough feelings keeps me coming back for more (pain) even though it was released all the way back in February!

Lo: Soloists really were a huge component of music in 2021. Eight of our twelve picks are solo acts! Staying on my list from the mid-year, though bumped down a slot, is Yukika. She’s one of two artists on my list because I relate to the unhealthy ways they live. In Yukika’s case, I’m drawn to her portrayal of herself as a daydreamer. Usually people who choose to live in fantasies of one’s own design are portrayed as flighty, childish, and immature. Timeabout, however, shows life from the perspective of someone who leans into it.

Yukika’s relationship is almost completely a work of her imagination. Sure, she has an actual man, but she doesn’t spend as much time with him as she spends creating scenarios and reliving their highlight reel to 80s-inspired music. Shifting from pure city-pop to a dreamier, more twinkling sound, she gets lost in her own mind. And yet, there’s an undercurrent of “so what?” to the whole work. Yukika knows her fantasies aren’t real, with the brass and bass breaking through the haze to ground her. But if she can’t actually spend much time with her boyfriend, what’s the harm in crafting a more satisfying dream? If reality is harsh and dull, what is so morally bankrupt in taking time to live how you want, if only in your head?

While Timeabout is a musically cohesive ode to getting lost in your mind, your pick is the exact opposite–WoodzOnly Lovers Left is a breathtaking round of genre roulette. Is that what won you over, or was it some other aspect?

Victoria: You’re right about the genre roulette! One of my favorite things about Woodz has been how he manages to constantly reimagine the sounds and vibes he wants to portray through his music. He writes basically everything himself, and takes creative chances with each new release since he’s revived his Woodz identity. Only Lovers Left is chaotic, but somehow it manages to explore all aspects of love from possessiveness to obsession to puppy love, and then to fiery passion. With so much to offer sonically, lyrically, and thematically, I keep finding myself throwing it back into my rotation. 

Also, Woodz is so remarkably stunning at making each track stand on its own. Sometimes with albums, especially one-off EPs, there are at least one or two tracks that are fine but lack something to draw you back in for another listen. For better or worse, each song on Only Lovers Left is addictive in its own right. 

I think I would argue that another artist that accomplishes this really well is Sunmi. Your pick of 1/6 has so many ear worms, all with their own different colors!

Lo: 1/6 is less of an EP than it is a self-invoked flaying. Sunmi is stripping herself down to the bone, peeling away layer after layer until we are stuck facing her darkest self and the thing that will always cause her problems: her Borderline Personality Disorder. This is her attempt to explain what it’s like living with BPD. 

And what I really appreciated as I re-examined 1/6 is how well the sound of each track matches its layer. “You Can’t Sit With Us” is Sunmi as we know her: 80s retraux, decorating her pain in glitter and pop music. Yet each subsequent track is more off-base, more organic, and more raw,  until we reach “Borderline”, which is pure pop-punk. That too, is for a reason: 1/6 is always pop because Sunmi is pop, and this is her essence. 

It’s so easy, especially for people without mental illness, to see this as a particularly bad day. But 1/6 is not a bad day. It’s Tuesday. Sunmi always has BPD, and this EP is not an unraveling of her mind, but a descent through it. All these layers are built on top of each other, existing concurrently. Even when she’s not actively struggling with her BPD, it is still there, and is still something she has to consider. 1/6 illustrates, with painful clarity, what living with a mental illness is really like. 

And you have your own idol-turned soloist with a highly personal project. B.I’s Cosmos didn’t make as much of an impact on me, with the instrumentals a little too same-y for my taste. What won you over?

Victoria: Honestly, I’m already a bit of a sucker for self-producing idols, but I’ve especially loved seeing B.I re-debut since leaving (or being forced out of) iKon. He has more creative control now that he started his own label and is using it as an opportunity to experiment with his songwriting. Lately his music has taken on a remarkably chill and introspective character, kind of like I.M’s Duality.

Cosmos is admittedly a little same-y in instrumentation, but the lines B.I lays down when he’s rapping keep me hooked. I find each song has a nice balance of quick flow, gorgeous lyrics, chill instrumentals, and groovy choruses each with their own charm. It doesn’t feel confined to the sound of one season, mood, or theme necessarily so I find myself throwing it back into my rotation every once in a while when I’m feeling especially vibe-y and relaxed. 

My favorite songs are probably “COSMOS” and “NERD.” The former has a cute and unbridled happiness to it while the latter, featuring Colde, is unapologetically lonely and sad. The lyrics “This bloody bitterness and suffocating dizziness, the loot left behind by my one-sided emotions” in “NERD” make my heart break in a way I can’t explain.

We’ve talked a lot about indie and solo artists, so I’m really curious about your pick of Purple KissHide and Seek. They’re by far the youngest group on the list and the only group between our picks for mini albums. What made them catch your eye?

Lo: My role as the pop music Lorax continues! Honestly, it was a close call. You’re right that they’re a young group, only debuting this year, but they also embody a lot of trends I liked about 2021. The production is clean and flattering, placing emphasis on crisp, articulate vocals—and Purple Kiss has rich and compelling vocals for days. They embody the “alpha female” concept, exuding power and confidence in a defiantly non-sexual way. They are not powerful because men want them, they are powerful because men fear them. Why else compare yourself to a zombie rather than a vampire

Then there’s the music. Purple Kiss is another who jumped on the return to organic instrumentals while also showing a willingness to play with genre that a lot of pop acts don’t really have. Not disco or funk, but reinterpretations of the reinterpretations from the late 90s and early 2000s. There’s a lot of nu-disco in the guitars, bass lines running just a bit wilder than they should. The pop sheen isn’t tacked on but built in. This is pop inspired by those who wore their classic inspirations on their sleeve, the next step in the evolution of pop. Yet, I’d still call Hide and Seek good, not great.

This is the very rare occasion where a single song can elevate an entire work. “Cast Pearls Before Swine” is spectacular. Finally, proof that the crazy experimental noise rock sound can work as pop music! Its buzzy, crowded, and wears its synths and modulations openly, but is crafted so deftly it becomes a compelling dance track. Then there’s the lyrics, which are fantastically inventive. Dumping someone by saying you refuse to cast pearls before swine is a baller move, making you look erudite while simultaneously calling your ex a pig. And Purple Kiss carry themselves with such sophistication that it instantly sets the tone for them: classy and calm while the world burns on their say-so.

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

(YouTube [1][2][3][4], Images via Starship Entertainment, Ubuntu Entertainment, Yuehua Entertainment, 131 Company, and RBW Entertainment)