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Lo: Looking at our lists, its’ fascinating that, while our EPs cover a wide variety of genres and artists, our album lists are far more cohesive, only diverging on the top spot. 

From the moment I heard it, I knew Epik High’s Epik High Is Here, Part 2 would be the album to beat for the rest of the year. I loved the first part, a very conscious hip-hop group wrestling with their impact or lack thereof, but Part 2 delves into the impact success had on themselves. Everyone likes to talk about the cost of fame, but tracks like “I Hated Myself” and “Family Portrait” make this one of the few times where it seems like success might not have been worth it.  Yet, in the end, success wasn’t even the goal. It was satisfaction in their lives and their work that Epik High chased and gained, and that will last far beyond any measure of fame or fortune.

Honestly, one of Part 2’s greatest strengths is highlighting how working for their own fulfillment enabled their success. They have kept the laurels of Korean hip-hop by never resting on them, always seeking to best themselves and that continues. Combine some Tablo and Mithra Jin’s sharpest lyrics, filled with callbacks and inside jokes, with instrumentation and production from DJ Tukutz that is almost score-like in how well it frames the storytelling, and Part 2 is a tour de force of ego, regrets, pain, hurt, pride, and artistry. Plus, I got to see them in concert, and that elevated the tracks to a whole new level. “Face ID” in particular goes off live. Though I’m still wondering what happened to the bus driver…

Part 2 is an album that fully embraces what Epik High has become, and the journey to get there. Full of references and callbacks, it invites fans to share in their music with Epik High as a lodestone: pulling people in and giving them direction and comfort, because even when you’re lost, Epik High is here.

Meanwhile, your list is topped by Younha’s End Theory: Final Edition, which is perfectly understandable. No one has a voice like her, and she came a hairsbreadth from getting onto my list. Yet, I just felt her songwriting felt safe, like she and her producers rested on her voice rather than take the risks she can definitely handle.

Cheska: While there has been a stellar amount of EPs, there’s a lack of full albums, which easily makes it an easy decision for me to put Younha on top. The fact that she already released an impressive 11-track album before the end of 2021, she surprises with an addition of three tracks for the repackage edition.

Younha has a beautiful and extensive discography, but End Theory: Final Edition is her most mature work to date—thematically, lyrically, and musically. She talks extensively about the whole process in an eight-part mini documentary, which made me all the more appreciate the album as a whole. If there’s one word I can use to describe this album, it’s transcending, and it perfectly captures Younha’s visual imagery of time and space, life and death, beginning and end.

Oftentimes, artists simply add new songs at the beginning of a repackaged album. For Younha, however, the tracks are carefully arranged so that you would actually get lost as to which songs are newly added. That’s how sonically seamless the album is designed.

While the album is immersive, I am delighted to hear both new and familiar Younha in this album. It was refreshing to hear her ethereal voice amidst the high energy country pop “Oort Cloud”, the EDM-heavy “P.R.R.W.”, and the jazzy RnB “Tik-Tok” . One of the additions in the repackaged version, “c/2022YH”, which the Korean title is actually another word for comet,  is reminiscent of her 2007 debut song, “Comet”. Compared to her past releases about heartaches and break-ups, “Event Horizon” is a bright track about coolly accepting endings as they mark new beginnings. Lastly, Younha’s crystal clear voice just shines brightest with stripped down, minimalist tracks such as the poignant “Stardust” and the resonating “Here”. Whatever end theory Younha is thinking, I just hope she continues to make beautiful music.

I see that we both unanimously agree with (G)I-dle and Taeyeon. (G)I-dle made a terrific comeback, with “Tomboy” going viral and appealing even to the general public. What else are your thoughts on the group’s album?    

Lo:  It’s not a secret that I’ve been a fan of (G)I-dle since debut. Soyeon is a generational talent, mixing devastatingly sharp lyrics and dark, captivating music with the unending struggle of being a woman in a world determined to hold us down. I Never Die serves as the culmination of (G)I-dle’s struggles with femininity and power by finally saying “fuck it”. 

The anger of “Tomboy” and “Liar”, the heartbreak of “Never Stop Me” and “Already”, the exhaustion of “Escape”; it’s all an expression of being absolutely done with everything.  They have cut themselves free of the weights of expectations, finding the scorn and judgment easier. They’ll be the villain, the tomboy, a liar, the crazy ex, whatever anyone calls them if it means living on their own terms. Most strikingly, the gender dynamics they’re burning down are never directly referenced. But why would they be? As anyone raised to weigh every action and ensure its “nice”, “polite”, or “ladylike” can tell you, oblique and ever-present is gender bias’s s.o.p.

I Never Die also showcases (G)I-dle as a group. I love Soyeon, but many of their earlier works tended towards “Soyeon and back-up performers”. Here, she still has half the writing credits, but Yuqi and Minnie make up the other half. The line distributions are more even and the production flatters everyone, including the richer tones of Miyeon and Shuhua. Everyone gets a chance to shine, a track where they have the best part. I Never Die shows them as a true five-hander: diverse, well-balanced, yet still maintaining cohesion as a group.

What put them on your list? Similar things, or different routes to the same destination?

Cheska: I absolutely echo your thoughts of (G)I-dle having this “I don’t give a damn” attitude to the world with I Never Die. A lot happened to the group prior the creation of this album, and the girls channeled their frustration brilliantly.

There has been a wide array of girl crush concepts out there, but none of them nails, hammers, and seals it to a tee like how (G)I-dle in this album. Girl crush isn’t just supposed to be a concept when you’re donned in leather jackets or when breaking windows—it’s a rebellion. (G)I-dle elevated the prevalent girl crush concept so eloquently that it’s difficult to actually label it anymore as “girl crush”.

I Never Die is a celebration and declaration of the group’s identity. They sing it loud and proud with the line, “It’s neither man nor woman”. They’re the villains who will never die. And they’re shiny beautiful red five diamonds.

Of course, my love for pop punk and rock is undeniable for this album.  “Tomboy”, “Never Stop Me”, and “Liar” are automatic faves, but I am surprised at how much I like the production brilliance of “Already”, penned by Minnie. There’s this dreamy, indie pop feel to it, which brings out a different depth to the voices of all the members. Yuqi and Minnie should definitely write more in (G)I-dle’s future albums! (By the way, I absolutely love Yuqi and I couldn’t stop listening to her solo single since it came out.)

Just like (G)I-dle, Taeyeon shares the same venture into something new in her third full-length album, INVU. I and My Voice will always be close to my heart, and with an otherworldly voice like Taeyeon what else can’t she do?

Atmospheric, I believe, is what Taeyeon is after despite the diversity in genres in all 13 tracks. She opens with the synth-pop and house-infused “INVU”, which is both subdued and mystical. I admittedly wasn’t a fan of it at first but eventually, I was drawn in after a number of listens. Towards the middle of the tracklist is where the album peaks, with some of the best produced K-pop songs I’ve heard in a while. “Can’t Control Myself” brings me back to the 2000s when emo rock ballads were a thing. The album also picks up with what I would refer as the “holy trinity” of this album—the funky “Toddler”, which may be the best track in the album (you can never go wrong with a good bassline), the transcendent and melancholic “Siren”, and the dark eerie rock “Cold as Hell”.

Without a doubt, INVU is stellar but not enough for me to be blown away like her past albums. What do you think, Lo?

Lo: Oddly enough, this is probably my favorite Taeyeon project, outside her one-off single “11:11”. I’ve never really been invested in her, never minded hearing her songs, but also never felt compelled to seek out more. And INVU definitely engages in album tentpoling– make sure tracks one, three, the exact middle, and the closer are solid, and you can get away with the rest being filler, which are exactly the tracks you accurately highlighted as the standouts.

What really won me over was the lyrical content. INVU paints Taeyeon as someone who falls in love hard and fast; often with her being more invested than her partner. Rather than romanticize that trait, as is usual, painting her as an optimist in love with love who will one day find The One, Taeyeon knows and hates this about herself. The intertwined threads of self-awareness and self-loathing elevate INVU beyond the typical breakup album because from the beginning, she can see the end, and is perfectly cognizant that it’s her fault.

Taeyeon’s relationship is not healthy, and the way she expresses that knowledge is both vivid and telling. This is an album that invokes the images of self-immolation, killer sea monsters, and Hollywood movies, all mixed with a fervent desire to not care. It sets her up as someone who has decided that since this relationship will not be permanent, it’ll be dramatic. Because if it was this phenomenal trainwreck, then her emotional investment is valid. It was this toxic mess she had to deal with, and if she can stop getting over-involved, that’ll be great. INVU shows what happens when someone is aware of their flaws, but has not done anything to overcome them; just hoping the universe will sort it out, all set against Taeyeon’s ethereal voice and clean, lush, production.

So, that was 2022 to the halfway point! There’s been a lot of good so far, and I have a lot of hope for the second half of the year. Musically, at least.

(Images via Cube Entertainment, YouTube [1], [2], [3], [4])