In this first half of the discussion on album releases in 2022, Lo, Chloe, and Sara offer their picks of the best mini albums in their hearts. From older groups to recent debuts, the K-pop scene has shined for the past twelve months to produce hit after hit that tantalized our ears.

Lo: 2022 was definitely a year in music. Not a bad year; in fact I would rate the 2022 K-pop Playlist of Everything (wherein I put everything in a playlist and listen until my brain becomes soup) as one of the most pleasant. We saw the rise of pop punk, a plethora of great soloists, and I feel comfortable saying the overblown multi-part albums titles are firmly on their way out. 

However, there were drawbacks. The most striking was that albums shrank alongside titles. Ten years ago, the typical lengths were eleven songs for an album and six for an EP. Now, it’s eight for an album and four for an EP. A lot of K-pop seemed to be aiming for the “songs to vibe to” niche, where you don’t mind it, but you don’t seek it out, either. And when I think about the year, the things that come to mind are all tales of things going badly–members leaving, scandals over concepts, etc. Looking back, it feels like 2022 was just… there.

Sara: 2022 was something, as you said, Lo! I’ve never felt myself drawn to K-pop girl groups, but this year, my On Repeat was often dominated by them. However, as you mentioned, Lo, the length of albums shrunk; quite honestly, I was surprised when projects I was sure would be considered mini albums were actually full-length albums. I think that’s why I had a difficult time piecing together my album lists this year. Some of my favorite songs were just that—songs. K-pop, especially just-debuted girl groups, has taken a liking to singles that have a penchant for going viral on TikTok and beyond.

Chloe: Like you both mentioned, 2022 was quite a diverse year for K-pop! I loved artists’ willingness to explore new genres, plus bring back nostalgia in exciting and unexpected ways. I also found myself far more drawn to girl group releases than I had in the past—a testament to their tendency toward virality thanks to TikTok’s ever-present hand in shaping what today’s music sounds like. 

Lo, I see that your list of mini albums is filled with female soloists—a fitting choice for this year! Yena’s debut solo album Smiley was a strong contender for my final list. What led you to select it for yours?

Lo: Wow, I didn’t even realize I did that. And it was the entry that I had the hardest time nailing down—Baekho’s Absolute Zero gave it a serious run for its money—but in a year dominated by the anonymity of the vibe, Yena won out via unabashed personality.

Yena doesn’t play by the rules of K-pop. She doesn’t end on the breakup, she opens on it, allowing her to tell a story of a bounce back rather than a fall. She doesn’t play the ingenue or the seductress, but a realistic person who has her petty moments while dealing with a breakup. And she may do pop punk, but she leans hard into a femme variation of it; bright and bold and exuberant.

Because that’s what really makes Smiley special: the conscious, deliberate choice of happiness. Bafflingly, happiness tends to be looked down on, as if being happy is a sign of immaturity or obliviousness. Yena says no, be happy in spite of everything going wrong. She got dumped, guys are pricks, she’s on a rebound, and is in her Stepford Smiler era. But she still opts to find the joy in life rather than wallow in self-pity. And every time I hear “And I say ‘Hey!’”,  it makes my day just a bit better.

Of course, I’m not the only fan of brighter pop music. Chloe, StayC still hasn’t won me over, so what about them put them on top?

Chloe: StayC had a fantastic year in 2021, especially with earworm “ASAP,” which took K-pop by storm last year. That gave the group plenty to live up to with their first release of 2022, and certainly does that and more.

The album is noticeably different in sound compared to Stereotype and Staydom, but in a way that indicates vast growth from both the group and its members. I’ve consistently admired StayC’s ability to play with genre and blend their range of vocals to concoct something that is entirely new and their own, and I love how they mastered that skill and took it to another level here. Title track “Run2U” has the same spunky feel as “ASAP,” but leaves the group’s syrupy, girl-next-door sound for a more mature edge. Even with this shift, the group sticks to what they know best, capturing feelings of bubbling, youthful love—only this time in a far more diverse light than before. The album’s b-sides mostly waffle between nostalgic eras of R&B, but my personal favorite is “Young Luv,” which excels in its kaleidoscopic take on early 2000s pop-rock and stellar vocals.

Speaking of pop-rock, Suho’s album Grey Suit topped your list, Sara. What about it put it at number one?

Sara: It’s no secret that I loved Suho’s solo debut, Self-Portrait, for its art/Van Gogh concept and pop-rock sound. However, I did believe there was a lot of room for growth, especially in genre exploration. Luckily, it seemed like Suho also wanted to experiment more after completing his military service. When I was creating my mini albums list, Grey Suit (released in April) kept popping into my head. 

Overall, Suho makes music on his own terms. Sure, his solo work usually finds its foundation on rock, which clearly had a loud revival in 2022, but he was doing that before the main surge in K-pop. In Grey Suit, he crafts a colorful musical journey by diving into Neo-soul, like in “Decanting,” and a funkier, more playful sound, like in “Hurdle.” “Grey Suit,” the title track, brings in literary influence from the German novel Momo and the Men in Grey, who steal away the colors of life. Then there are Suho’s classic pop ballads such as “Bear Hug” that demonstrate his lyric sensibility and the comfort his songs bring to listeners. At the end of the day, Grey Suit topped my EoY list because it so obviously screams Suho while dedicating space for artistic growth. 

Suho’s labelmate and fellow K-pop veteran Onew appears on your list, Chloe. How did his album make its way onto yours? 

Chloe: Onew is certainly a K-pop veteran, but strangely one who hasn’t had as fleshed out of a sonic world as fellow Shinee members Taemin and Key. With Dice, his second mini album, he makes his musical identity and soloist persona known, extending far beyond what most know him for—his voice. He already has one of the most identifiable and stately voices in K-pop, with a sharp, tinny tone that manages to remain gentle and heartfelt no matter the track, but never had a particular sound or genre tied to his own name. On Dice, Onew finally finds a fitting home in an optimistic, retro-pop sound that I found to be a refreshing departure from his ballad work in prior years and many of this year’s other releases. As far as growth goes, Onew gets a spot on my list for having perhaps the most out of any other artist this year—an amazing feat for such an experienced idol! 

Jamie is another artist who also had exceptional musical growth this year. Lo, what landed her the second spot on your list?

Lo: Typically, there’s a very strong overlap between my best albums and my favorite albums, but One Bad Night is the exception. It’s not something I’ve gone back to, and probably won’t for a long time. This is not a mark against it, but an indication of how completely Jamie encapsulated what a bad night looks like for women.

One Bad Night tells a very ordinary tale—a young woman goes out, and it ends badly. The latter two tracks show her fumbling what could have been an excellent relationship, forcing her to take stock of her choices and hold herself accountable. It’s a very raw duo, and the usage of language—shifting from English to Korean as she stops posturing—is extremely clever.

But the true brilliance lies in the first three tracks, which are terrifying because there but for the grace of God goes I. “Girls”, “3D Woman”, and “In My Bag” are painfully real, showcasing Jamie’s slow spiral from fun to drunk and ego to out of control, all set against dark, atonal synths that scream of danger; screams Jamie doesn’t hear over social pressures to start drinking and the buzz once she does. And the fact is, any woman can end up in Jamie’s position of being too intoxicated to care for herself and not having anyone trustworthy to do so for her. The whole EP has this seedy, viciously real subtext that Jamie is damn lucky that making an ass of herself and screwing up a relationship is the worst thing that happened to her, and she knows it.

One Bad Night isn’t something that I see becoming extremely popular, but it’s something that everyone should listen to once in all its mundane terror.

Pretty much on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is Le Sserafim’s Antifragile. While I liked “No Celestial”, I found the EP as a whole underwhelming. Sara, what won you over?

Sara: Honestly, I’m a bit surprised that Antifragile won me over enough to make it on my EoY album list—and in the second slot, too! As I’m sure many others felt, hearing “Antifragile” for the first time was both instantly addicting and maybe a little grating. Reading Elif’s review, however, changed my perception and convinced me to try listening to the album one more time. What really caught my attention is what antifragility actually is. Rather than just being “not fragile,” Le Sserafim stand tall with confidence, knowing that despite stress and other life hurdles, they will make it through because they know they can. But not only this—the five members know that they grow with each challenge they persevere through. 

They chant their conviction in “The Hydra” and reach the peak of this “antifragility” in the titular track, “Antifragile,” which features reggaeton elements. Le Sserafim create a musically colorful album with the laid back R&B song “Impurities,” bring out their raw, inner rockers in “No Celestial,” and tie it all with an honest pop-ballad that also highlights the strength of their voices, “Good Parts.” The five are not afraid to bring their vulnerabilities out into the light; in fact, maybe they can claim that they are even more “antifragile” because of this. 

I also have to admit, I just really love Yunjin and Chaewon’s voices, and this album ensures the vocals are not too processed (I hate when beautiful voices are squashed), making the listening experience that much better. 

Le Sserafim’s fellow ‘22 debut group NewJeans also made our lists! Chloe, what about New Jeans stood out to you? 

Chloe: NewJeans skyrocketed to stardom with their debut album, New Jeans—and for good reason. The first time I heard the EP’s first single, “Attention,” I was instantly both hooked and completely blown away by how different and fresh their sound was from that of other groups. Whereas many fourth generation groups look to the future in their concepts and how their music sounds, NewJeans broke the mold with this release, instead rooting their sound and concept entirely in nostalgia. 

Between the distinct Y2K pop and R&B influences in “Attention” and “Hype Boy,” plus the doo-wop instrumentation and simplicity of b-side “Hurt,” New Jeans is a foolproof solidification of the group’s vivid musical concept—a rare feat for a debut album. My only knock against it is lead single “Cookie,” which falters given its questionable innuendos sung by a group of teens. Nevertheless, this album excels in its catchiness and willingness to create a sound that is novel yet familiar—much like a pair of new jeans

Moon Sujin is another artist keeping the R&B genre alive and well in K-pop. What put her album at the top of your list, Lo? 

Lo: It seems odd, even to me, that Moon Sujin has been my top EP of the year, because I don’t really like R&B. But I fully recognize that quality is a separate thing from taste, and Lucky Charms is simply immaculate.

This is a 10/10, no notes, EP. Every aspect is flawless. Rather than the 90s influences that are dominating the landscape, Sujin pulls from the 70s, to tremendous effect. The instrumentals are warm and organic, with a lushness to the arrangements. In place of bold, assertive sounds, Sujin favors haze and dreaminess. It creates a sense of heady softness, like sinking into a fluffy, cozy bed. 

That is only enhanced by Sujin’s enchanting vocals. Her voice is like liquid silk, simultaneously melding perfectly with the production to sell the vibe and grabbing the audience’s attention utterly. She seduces via vulnerability, her heart torn wide open and inviting the audience to come to her and soothe her pain. Pair that with her raw, honest lyrics, and the audience cannot help but fall in love. Seriously, Moon Sujin, will you marry me?

Magnetic, devastatingly genuine, and with some of the best production I’ve ever heard, there isn’t a single thing that could improve Lucky Charms. Of course it’s the best EP of the year.

Sara, in a year dominated by soloists and girl groups, you have Onewe’s Planet Nine: Voyager rounding out your list. What about them made your cut?

Sara: Onewe are a band that have their niche (and excel in it), but they still find ways to expand their horizons. Artistic growth is something I pay close attention to, as you may have noticed. Planet Nine: Voyager showed that the band has more up their sleeves, even with their leader, Yonghoon, and eldest member, Kanghyun, currently in the military.

I know ballads aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, yet Onewe build beautiful and resonant atmospheres in their music, like the soft rock title track “Universe_.” Yonghoon’s vocals obviously shine, but so does Kanghyun’s guitar solo, Dongmyeon’s weighty voice, Harin’s drum skills grounding the track, and CyA’s touches of rap. They all contributed to Planet Nine: Voyager in varying capacity, from producing to lyric writing. Onewe take listeners on an out-of-this-world (pun intended) musical experience, vulnerability and emotional resonance being at the core. They sing of genuine love because they have felt it themselves and have decided to nurture it in their music. The five members’ understanding of each other’s individual strengths and their group dynamic—something that takes time to pinpoint—is crystal clear in this mini album. 

Which mini albums impressed you in 2022? Let us know in the comments!

For the second part of the discussion on full albums, check out this post.

(YouTube [1][2][3][4][5][6]. Images via Yuehua Entertainment, Warner Music Korea.)