Although the number of full-length albums dwindled in 2022, several stood out for their strong notes of vulnerability, introspectiveness, and individuality — especially amongst solo artists. Chloe, Lo, and Sara discuss their top picks of the year.
For the first part of the discussion on mini albums, check out this post.
Lo: While our EPs covered a truly impressive array of genres, acts, and trends, the albums show a stronger sense of cohesion. Most notable is RM’s Indigo, which topped both of your lists. What about that spoke to each of you?
Sara: There’s something to say about artists who know they can grow even more than they have. RM may be a veteran in the music sphere with 15 years under his belt, yet he still managed to bring so many flavors and soundscapes to his first full-length work as a soloist. We are quite familiar with the RM of BTS, the leader who acts as the glue of the group. However, RM the soloist hasn’t had that much time to shine. Enter Indigo. He looks to his past (literally, as some of the tracks were recorded years ago) to move forward.
He doesn’t do this alone, though. This is what made the album stand out to me, besides RM’s introspective lyrics. The rapper and songwriter brought in other musical veterans—some who are even his idols—to add their voices and stories to this archive. Despite this diversity, including in genres, which range from hip hop (“All Day”) to rock (“Wild Flower”) to stripped down indie ballads (“Forg_tful”), Indigo is surprisingly cohesive. The amount of obvious thought, care, and time that went into creating this album as well as its flawless execution is what made it my number one of 2022.
RM’s bandmate J-Hope ended up on my list for similar reasons. From the first second of Jack in the Box, listeners know that they are in for a journey. J-Hope effectively captures a haunting atmosphere that reflects his current state while mulling over his personal demons with old school hip hop beats buoying these emotions. Honestly, when I listened to this album at night, I felt a little afraid. The main dancer and rapper of BTS also strips away his “sunshine Hobi” personality to reveal how he can’t always be the provider of positivity. This vulnerability and the sheer force of the emotion he bares with little hesitancy earned Jack in the Box its rightful place on my End of the Year list.
Chloe, you also have RM’s Indigo as your number one. What about it stood out to you?
Chloe: I honestly wasn’t too sure what to expect from RM with this release given how long it’s been since his last solo venture, 2018’s mixtape Mono, but it’s safe to say he blew me away and then some on Indigo. Aside from being a talented rapper and the leader of BTS, RM is perhaps best known for his inventive, evocative lyricism across his group’s and own discography. He takes that skill to another level on this record, encapsulating the ups and downs of life in your twenties in a way that feels so universal to the average person but also so nuanced to the trials and tribulations of his own life in just ten songs. Indigo also features a star-studded cast of features that each fit their respective parts to a tee, contributing to a diverse mix of genres to transform the album from an exploratory foray through different types of music to a cohesive “archive of [RM’s] twenties” (as is written on the front cover of the physical album). Indigo’s palpable artistry and relatability, even with its obvious personal notes, are what put it at the top of my list.
Epik High has a similar sense of intimacy and relatability in their music. What about their album put them at the top of your list, Lo?
Lo: Epik High Is Here, Part 2 is probably the album that I’ve engaged with the most. I’ve listened to it once a week minimum since it came out, wrote the review, saw them live, it topped my mid year list, and I’d probably put “Prequel” as my favorite song of the year, period. And the reason that it still feels fresh after almost a year is, as you said, the intimacy. The thing that puts Epik High above their peers is how they’ve never stopped putting their true selves into their art.
Most superstars, making a double album 20 years into their career about their legacies and the costs of their choices, would come off as self-aggrandizing or insincere. But Epik High make you feel every inch of their highs and lows in a way that reminds you they are people. They helped found a genre, and have seen it cheapened by those who care only about the money. They made it from poverty to prosperity, but at the cost of their familial relationships. Doubt, victory, harassment, satisfaction, regrets, pride; these are not limited to the rich and famous. Everyone has to reckon with their lives and choices. By sharing their experiences, it comforts those of us who find ourselves in similar circumstances.
On the clear other end of the music spectrum is Key’s Gasoline, which leans toward grandiose musicality.
Given the recent trends towards minimalism, I sincerely appreciate Key’s absolute bombast. This is an album made for arenas in an era of earbuds. It compels the audience to sing along, dance around, and blast it out the windows. Moreover, Key doesn’t get lost in the passion and exuberance, nor does he use the scale and spectacle to avoid becoming personal. Instead, he turns every emotion, from doubt to vindictiveness to ego to joy, up to eleven and puts it on display for public consumption. He plays the parts for our entertainment, but it always remains clear that he is pulling the strings. In the time of relatable entertainers, Key is an unrepentant superstar.
Chloe, is that what won you over?
Chloe: As you said, Key and his music are all about grandiosity and extravagance, but what really blew me away with Gasoline is how vulnerable and versatile it is. I owe this mainly to Key’s extraordinary sense of self as both an artist and as Kim Kibum the person, but also to the full-length album format, which allowed more room for exploration both in sound and of his own inner thoughts.
Gasoline’s sonic theme is instantly recognizable as “Key” — a testament to the theatrical ‘80s synth pop sound he quickly made his own on mini album Bad Love. He largely sticks to it here, but branches off of it in meticulous and meaningful ways so as to broaden his artistic persona. At the beginning of the album, he plays the role of a diabolical villain (“Villain,” “Bound”), layering musical elements like murky basslines and dark synths with his kaleidoscopic vocals. However, as the album progresses, he sheds his layers and lets listeners traverse the inner depths of his mind as he ventures on a (successful) quest to extend both his affinity for dramatics and intimacy to new genres and sounds. As far as worldbuilding goes, Gasoline gets it just right and then some.
Bibi also has quite the musical and artistic persona. What was it about her album that grabbed your attention, Sara?
Sara: To put it simply, I love angry women. I love when women carve a space of their own to be angry, to allow themselves to feel emotions across a wide spectrum. Bibi does just this in her first full-length album, Lowlife Princess: Noir. In this expansive project, the formative soloist takes the role of Oh Geum-ji, a character molded after Lee Geum-ja from Park Chan-wook’s 2005 film, Lady Vengeance. She cuts deep with “Blade,” declaring, “I am the blade, I’m that weapon.” Bibi continues to forge a bloody path with lead singles “Bibi Vengeance” and “Animal Farm” as ambition, confidence, and danger drip from her wispy voice and clean production.
Yet, she isn’t always that “bad bitch,” something she sneers repeatedly in “Bibi Vengeance.” Overbearing questions turn in songs such as “Sweet Sorrow of Mother,” “Loveholic’s hangover” (with Sam Kim), and titular track “Lowlife Princess,” which opens with “I need you,” a desperate whisper that calls back to the beginning of the album. Bibi’s storytelling prowess is truly on display in this ambitious work. And, when combined with the sharp production and dynamism of her voice (she all but screeches in “Lowlife Princess”), Lowlife Princess: Noir is chillingly atmospheric and worth listening to again and again.
Lo and Chloe, your last picks are also powerful female soloists—Hynn and Taeyeon, respectively. How did they grab a spot on your lists?
Chloe: Taeyeon’s INVU is definitely the dark horse of my list, but a well-deserved one at that. As a long-time soloist and the main vocalist of SNSD, her vocal prowess on this album is a given, and certainly one of its high points. However, what ensured INVU a spot on my list is how it harnesses Taeyeon’s vocal power and skill, along with a diverse mix of genres and forthright lyrics, to craft a nuanced but cohesive story of a relationship turned sour — a topic K-pop artists don’t often approach with such a level of frankness.
Taeyeon broaches the narrative of a toxic and at times one-sided relationship with fervent self-awareness, posturing her own faults as the root of its downfall. As she glides through notes of synth-pop (“INVU”), funk (“Toddler”), pop-rock (“Can’t Control Myself”) and even disco (“Weekend”), she simultaneously creates a sense of overwhelming drama and fluttering weightlessness through intense lyrics paired with celestial hums. She pushes and then she pulls; she’s hot and then she’s cold. INVU is a rare body of work — one that diverges down many paths (in perfect harmony) to tell one tenacious story of a love gone wrong.
Lo: Ironically, my third place ended up being a frustrating choice between Taeyeon and Hynn. INVU is the one that seemed like the winner on paper– diverse styles, self-aware lyrics, excellent production– while First Of All is a lot of things I tend to dislike– sparse piano ballads and simpler stories– not because they’re bad, but because the margin for error is razor thin. And yet, First Of All won me over with its devastating beauty.
First Of All is the kind of album that will rip your heart out. The barebones production works to flatter Hynn’s incredible voice. Hynn has what can only be called a “sit down, shut up, and listen” voice: one note and that’s all you can do. She has a phenomenal talent for conveying emotions, and she uses it. Love is never sweeter than from her lips; her breakups feel like a knife in my own heart. Veering between airy, hoarse, whispered, and rich, but overflowing with raw, untempered feelings, Hynn and First Of All are excruciating in their loveliness.
So that was 2022 in music! We covered a huge range of music from a wide variety of artists, which serves as a helpful reminder that no matter how underwhelming and chaotic things get, something always manages to shine through.