The year may already be halfway over, but it’s undoubtedly been some of the busiest past six months as far as mini album releases go in recent memory. With so many releases comes plenty of musical diversity — unlike in recent years, no one or two genres or trends have necessarily dominated this year’s releases so far. Chloe and Lo discuss their top picks for mini albums of the year so far!
Lo: 2023 has certainly been an interesting year in comparison to the last few years. Most noticeably, the slowing of the musical avalanche that set in during COVID. The last few times I’ve assembled by bi-annual playlists, they were so long that I felt compelled to put my affairs in order and make peace with my god. Then, there’s the resurgence of the 5- or 6- track EP instead of the 4- track EP and 7- track album.
Chloe: 2023 has been a fascinating year indeed! As with the increased prevalence of the 5- or 6-track EP that you mentioned, Lo, it seems as though other elements of K-pop album releases have become even more uniform in just the past six months alone. There are less full length albums, more EPs, and nowadays more single albums that feature one title track and two additional songs. At the same time, the industry and its releases also feel more diverse than ever, which our lists definitely speak to. How did you go about nailing down your top three for each category, Lo?
Lo: There’s always a balancing act in play. The three major elements are always the music, the lyricism, and the performance; it’s just weighing the proportions that cements things. Sometimes, there can be severe weaknesses overshadowed by streaks of greatness, others have the power of a solid, cohesive whole. And then there are projects where everything is a 10/10, and you can’t find a flaw if you tried. That’s Strawberry.
Epik High’s projects have become more personal and less commercial over the last five-ish years, with Strawberry as the zenith of that. Listening to it doesn’t feel like something they wanted to do, but had to do. It’s a desperate attempt to work through a decade of lingering anger and resentment after being witch-hunted, in the hope that this will finally help them let go.
That decade is the killer. It’s not the raw rage, but the slow fury that just hasn’t gone anywhere. Tablo is still trying to wrestle with the fact that most people who tried to ruin his life for kicks are just out there, leaving him still feeling vulnerable. Mithra Jin takes up philosophical musing about the source of such actions mirroring his inability to do something to help, while DJ Tukutz provides a musical backdrop that is calming on the surface, but carries a discordant undercurrent, belying his own simmering darkness.
But what ties it all together is the sense of resignation. Over the last thirteen years, Epik High have watched internet harassment of celebrities has become common, even de rigeour. And it’s not likely to go away anytime soon. Strawberry comes off as them speaking their piece about life on the other side of the screen, knowing it probably won’t change anything, but unwilling to keep it inside.
Meanwhile, NCT is a group I’ve always been ambivalent about. As someone who’s just here for the music, I’ve never really appreciated their rotating concept. But Perfume did impress me, and is probably my favorite NCT release. What put it on top got you?
Chloe: I’ve followed NCT’s releases closely over the years, so when SM Entertainment announced officially announced an album from new subunit NCT DoJaeJung, featuring members Doyoung, Jaehyun, and Jungwoo, I had high expectations — and I was ultimately blown away. As a whole, Perfume is one of the most cohesive and surprisingly unique releases of the year so far, despite its simplistic outward appearance. At its core, it’s a silky, scrumptious amalgam of the genre of R&B and ballad b-sides that DoJaeJung’s home group of NCT 127 do best, only more comprehensive, sleeker, and bolder. Some tracks risk erring on the side of cheesy, but upon reaching the end of the album, it’s easy to see that Perfume’s ‘90s-era R&B-inspired sound isn’t just an act, but somewhere where DoJaeJung’s voices feel right at home.
The album has an entrancing way about it, thanks especially to the trio’s varying vocal tones (Jaehyun’s deeper, honey-like vocals, Doyoung’s sweet and gentle falsetto, and Jungwoo’s tinny tone), which consistently compliment each other in unexpected concoctions across the album. Title track “Perfume” kicks things off on this exact note (quite literally) as all three members combine their voices into one hypnotic harmony, drawing listeners in under their sultry spell.
That hypnotic throughline stays for practically the entire album, from the seductive and rhythmic b-side “Kiss” to moody number “Dive” to the track that started it all in 2022, “Can We Go Back.” On all six tracks, DoJaeJung add their vocal color to the R&B of the genre’s own heyday, ultimately reinventing a version of the genre at its peak of their own.
(G)I-dle is another group known for curating a very specific musical aesthetic across their albums with each new one they put out — what put I FEEL at number two on your list, Lo?
Lo: I’ve always been a big fan of (G)I-dle. Soyeon is a generational talent as a lyricist and composer, with Minnie and Yuqi really coming into their own over the last couple years. And I am delighted to see them taking on the Y2K sound, because this is probably their best work. I Feel is certainly their most cohesive, with strong bass lines across the whole EP, some great guitar riffs mixed with lighter synths that work together to hold together the disparate moods. I Feel truly feels like the same person on six separate days– different attitude, same core.
But that’s just window dressing to the heart of the matter: I Feel is deeply, often uncomfortably, relatable. I was born in ‘94, so this sound is perfect nostalgia for me; from when old enough to start liking things on my own but too young to notice any flaws. I spent most of high school wearing black and sneering at girls who liked popular things to cover my crippling insecurities (I’ve recovered), I ping-pong between wanting a soulmate and never wanting anyone, and I routinely question the judgment of whoever decided I was allowed to be in charge of myself.
Though, that’s what being in your twenties is like: swirling chaos as you flip-flop from being on top of the world to barely being able to work a toaster, and every aspect is just as genuine as any other. I Feel is just that reality set to some catchy, groove-laden music that demands the audience pay attention to it. And there is some comfort, as I struggle through life, of being firmly reminded that no matter how it feels, I am not alone in it.
On the other side of the 2000s- throwback sounds, we have TXT’s Temptation. What about it won you over?
Chloe: After a year and change of TXT sticking to the Y2K pop-punk trend in their releases, I was excited for the group to finally break that mold with their latest album. A little unlike Perfume, Temptation’s tracks appear more musically diverse, and in ways all over the map, upon first listen. However, when taken altogether alongside the album’s alluring and well-crafted storyline, it’s one of the year’s most convincing, narratively-driven albums to date. To top it off, each track falls entirely outside the box of what may typically be expected of TXT, making Temptation a true feat in experimentation and in the group’s ability to succeed at tackling any genre they choose.
As the EP’s name suggests, Temptation is another chapter in TXT’s continued tale of youth — this time discussing the loss of it, along with the quintet’s desire to never let it go by way of temptation.
First track “Devil by the Window” introduces this plotline vividly, with the TXT meeting the titular character of the “devil” who dares them to remain in their youth — for better or for worse — across the rest of the EP’s four remaining tracks. They find out plenty about themselves after making their deal with said “devil,” from reaching whirlwind, saccharine highs that they compare to that of a sugar rush on the poppy, early aughts-inspired “Sugar Rush Ride,” to finally coming to their senses on the standout, Afrobeats-inspired “Tinnitus (Wanna be a rock).” When they finally bid their youth goodbye on acoustic lullaby “Farewell, Neverland,” they truly make it feel as though the story of Temptation, and their youth (as bittersweet as it may be) has ended. Between all five tracks, TXT know how to tell a story with their sound — even more impressive here as they do just that by way of a mix of genres largely brand new to their musical toolbelt.
Viviz is another group that seems to be growing with every album they put out. What put VarioUS at number three on your list?
Lo: I think it’s accurate to say VarioUS is the evolution of Viviz into their next form. There have been moments of darkness on their previous releases, and those were usually the standouts. VarioUS sees them fully embrace that darkness to become sultry, confident, and aspirational.
Musically, VarioUS is a wonderfully cohesive piece of music. I like a round of genre roulette as much as the next girl, but there’s something delightful about a project that is a clearly defined whole. It pulls mostly from 70s music, particularly R&B and disco, but with occasional flairs of city pop and jazz. The end result is a lush arrangement laden with good grooves and sticky hooks that shimmers without ever outshining the vocals. And what vocals they are. SinB, Umji, and Eunha are mesmerizing. The harmonies are gorgeous, and they get to lean hard into their lower registers for a silky yet commanding performance. It’s not quite at the danger of a femme fatale, but Viviz make it clear that they’re running the show and you can either get on board or get out of their way.
The lyrics just add the cherry on top. There are the expected tracks of dumping undeserving men, but they don’t flounder in that persona. Rather, they follow it up with tracks like “Love or Die”, a challenge for a suitor to nut up or shut up, refusing to be strung along, “Vanilla Sugar Killer”, a celebration of the girls night out, and closer “So Special”, which highlights the need to be able to build your own self-confidence. These layers make it clear that Viviz value themselves and their relationships, having too much self-respect to allow themselves to be treated poorly and actively cultivating those bonds that matter. VarioUS is what you want to be: glamorous, confident, and surrounded by people who care about you.
Rounding out your list is Woodz, who I’d argue also had an evolution on OO-LI. Is that what cinched it for you?
Chloe: Absolutely! One thing about Woodz is that with every album he puts out, he evolves, reveals a previously unseen side of himself, and invites us into a rich, meticulously-built musical world. OO-LI is no different, and as its title suggests hits the last point to an even greater degree (“Oo-li” translates to “we” or “us” from Korean). From opening track “Deep Deep Sleep” to closer “Abyss,” Woodz brings listeners on a journey through an entirely personal tale, which we experience right alongside him. By exploring different genres and styles of music throughout the EP (R&B, rock, ballad), Woodz is able to paint an intense, raw picture of his emotions and of his journey as a singer — inclusive of both the good and the bad.
What really sold me on this album was how honest and genuine it felt, especially within a discography that has already had so much truth built within it. Overall, I found OO-LI to be a major step-up from Woodz’s previous album, Colorful Trauma. As with TXT, the 2000s-inspired punk-rock trended suits his wide-ranging vocals well, but he comes across as the most true to himself he’s ever been on OO-LI.
That takes us through our top mini albums of the year so far! It’s already been an incredible year for growth and evolution so far for various artists, with hopefully more to come.