As K-pop continues to move full-steam ahead toward favoring compact tracks and EPs over longer-form content and albums, artists are especially challenged with ensuring their musical visions resonate with listeners in increasingly trimmed-down time frames.

Although this trend prompted a high quantity and frequent rate of releases in 2023, quality in mini albums surely remained. Writers Chloe and Siena discussed their top EPs of 2023, and what made them stand out amongst so many options.

Siena: Well, well well: I think we have similar taste! It’s amazing that we’ve created lists bracketed by the same choices amidst a packed K-pop landscape, and one that increasingly leans towards EPs and singles versus full albums. That both artists in question – NewJeans and Enhypen – are under behemoth label HYBE is also fascinating. I’d wager that’s a testament to the sheer number of HYBE groups, but also to the vast resources HYBE is willing to wield to source excellent songs (whether through contracting with in-house songwriters, international hitmakers, or supporting their self-producing artists).

Besides NewJeans and Enhypen, my shortlists for mini and full albums included BoyNextDoor, Fromis 9, and TXT. There’s a lot of things to complain about when it comes to HYBE (and most K-pop companies for that matter), but for now, music quality isn’t one of them.

But enough with my context rant! On to the music itself. Our shared third pick, Enhypen’s Dark Blood, excels on many levels. As a horror-influenced concept album, it’s cohesive and bewitching from start to finish. The EP’s cinematic concept trailer (one of my favorite pieces of visual media to come from K-pop this year) set a high bar for the album it advertised, but Dark Blood doesn’t fall short. What I appreciate most about the EP is its non-paint-by-numbers versatility. Unlike so many other K-pop releases, Dark Blood doesn’t tick off the expected list of high-octane title track, uptempo performance b-side, sweet ballad, et cetera. Instead, from the theatrical “Bite Me,” to the atmospheric “Chaconne,” to album highlight emotive rock ballad “Bills,” Dark Blood contains a collection of thoroughly distinctive songs – distinctive from each other, and distinctive amidst the wider music scene they exist in.

Chloe, what drew you to Dark Blood

Chloe: It’s interesting – I participated in this year’s Mid-Year Review for albums, and although Dark Blood came out just before we published our lists, it did not make mine then! My list then included selections from NCT DoJaeJung (still on my list this year), TXT, and Woodz, but the more I listened to Dark Blood as the months went on, the more I was impressed by the sheer cohesion and unconventionality of it as a whole. As you mentioned, Dark Blood is a horror-influenced album (a concept that inherently can be easy to take in too obvious of a direction), but Enhypen avoid any overdone tropes from track to track by stretching the motif outside its conventional form.

Title track “Bite Me” isn’t overly bombastic, and instead features a carefully organized and articulated combination of earwormy hooks and eerie instrumentals that liken it to an early-00s boy band release. There’s also “Fate,” which introduces the Renaissance-era, vampirical setting of Dark Blood perfectly, while “Sacrifice (Eat Me Up),” “Chaconne,” and “Bills” expand on that universe through an unexpected but solidly-executed mix of genres including reggae, rock, and R&B, respectively. 

All in all, I found Dark Blood to be an important stepping stone in Enhypen’s overall lore and discography, but also in expanding our idea of what K-pop can sound like, even within the confines of popular tropes and concepts, like horror. 

Someone who especially excels at pushing boundaries is DPR Ian, who you chose as your number two pick. What landed him that spot for you?

Siena: When DPR Ian burst onto the Korean indie scene with his solo debut EP Moodswings in This Order around three years ago, it was as a strikingly fully formed artist. A dive into his background provides some explanation for this: Legal name Christian Yu, he’s actually been in the industry for over a decade, first as an idol in the short-lived group C-Clown, and then as indie label Dream Perfect Regime (DPR)’s co-founder and music video mastermind. Even so, his immediate clarity of vision and identity as a soloist was impressive. Drawing heavily from his own experiences with bipolar disorder, Moodswings is mature, tinged with dark humor, and, well, deliciously moody.

DPR Ian has been loyal to both Moodswings’ subject matter and signature qualities in subsequent releases, including this year’s Dear Insanity…which could run the risk of becoming repetitive. Fortunately, his trajectory has been upward, not flat. In particular, Dear Insanity marks a high point in DPR Ian’s music quality. For one thing, he’s never so fully integrated the wry playfulness of his music videos into his lyrics and production, and this gives the EP a lightness and ease his previous releases lacked. And on the subject of production: From dreamy soundscapes, to classic indie rock touches, to epic flourishes that would fit right into a video game soundtrack, the EP’s production is full of inventive yet cohesive fluctuation. Spoken samples, audio effects, and ambient noise are also applied with masterful precision to keep listeners on their toes.

Occasionally, the swerves can feel a bit heavy handed, as in the excessively hard-hitting last minute of intro “Famous Last Words.” Overall, however, the result is an invigorating and often dazzling EP. The euphoric opening of “Violet Crazy” and the bouncy instrumental chorus of “So I Danced” are two of my favorite musical mic drops this year.

Speaking of musical prowess: Your second pick from DoJaeJung, brimming with vocal excellence, just barely missed my top three. What secured its spot on your list?

Chloe: As someone who’s followed NCT 127 for a long time, I’m consistently struck by how dynamic and dimensional the group’s R&B b-sides are, and how often I wish one would make its way to title track status to bring more attention to the group’s prowess in the genre. Luckily, my wish came true, albeit unexpectedly, in the form of an album from NCT’s latest subunit consisting of vocal heavy hitters Doyoung, Jaehyun, and Jungwoo. 

Like you mentioned, much of what constitutes the success of Perfume is the trio’s vocals, and the satisfying and electrifying ways in which they mix and mesh together. Between Jaehyun’s deep, honey-like tone, Jungwoo’s nasally but delicate timbre, and Doyoung’s high, wispy voice, NCT DoJaeJung and thus Perfume contain an incredible degree of balance that allows for abundant layering between the three members’ vocals without any of the tracks ever feeling weighed down. 

Title track “Perfume” is a prime example of this. A structurally simple blend of R&B, funk, and ‘90s boy band pop on its surface, the track grows more complex and entrancing as the members’ wide vocal ranges and undeniable vocal skill enter the mix, fusing together in a series of perfect harmonies (literally). “Kiss” and “Strawberry Sunday,” two other standouts on Perfume, are as saccharine and gooey as they are bewitching, again providing the trio with a straightforward slate to color with yet another exhilarating blend of flirtatious vocal textures and harmonies. 

There are still moments where Perfume risks taking its affinity for its particularly sultry and glitzy brand of ‘90s-era boy band R&B too far, almost to the point of kitschiness. But, as with the rest of the album, DoJaeJung’s vocals hold their ground and then some to keep that threat at bay. 

That leads us to NewJeansGet Up, our shared pick for the best mini album of the year! I’m so interested to hear what led you to choosing this as your number one pick, but I’ll start off by saying that one of my only critiques of the EP is that I wish it was longer. At the same time, however, I also found this “weakness” to actually be one of the EP’s strengths — perhaps its own conciseness is also a factor in what makes it so intriguing and striking as a whole? 

Siena: I completely agree that Get Up’s length is both a pro and a con. On the one hand, the EP isn’t satisfying in the traditional sense. The whole set of six songs passes by in what feels like the blink of an eye, and tracks like “ASAP” and particularly the hauntingly beautiful “Get Up” feel like teasers (emphasis on the tease) for full songs that will never be. 

On the other hand, Get Up’s length arguably contributes to its looping potential: It’s so good, and so short, that the only option I found to cope with my frustration was to play it again! The EP’s runtime is also genuinely a symptom of choosing quality over quantity, a hallmark of NewJeans’ career so far. The refusal to overstretch songs like “Super Shy” and “ETA” past their natural ending points, around the 2.5 minute mark, is what makes them such killer and effortlessly cool. While most comebacks are lucky to manage a single attention-grabbing title track, Get Up is a collection of blockbuster singles delivered with nonchalant confidence, and that’s ultimately why it was my EP of the year. 

Chloe, what made Get Up your top choice too? 

Chloe: Part of NewJeans’ success is that they have so few releases, and that the releases are so short and succinctly good (as with this one), that they naturally leave listeners wanting more. Like you mentioned, the tracks on Get Up are swift and to the point, but each still stands on its own while also harmoniously intertwining together to form one ultra-cohesive EP. 

On top of that, the album also contains immense proof that NewJeans are far ahead of their competitors in their craft. The mini is an unrivaled mix of influences from UK garage, Jersey club beats, and Y2K R&B that still retains, if not sharpens, NewJeans’ signature delicate and nostalgic style to its most pronounced degree yet. Each track leaves behind the traditional elements of what typically makes K-pop “K-pop,” only further emphasizing that no other group or act is really on NewJeans’ wavelength. If anything, groups new and old made even more of a point in 2023 to ride the stylistic wave NewJeans popularized with their debut, then polished here on Get Up. The album’s sheer influence alone easily pushes it into best mini album territory for me, but it’s the EP’s ambiance of effortlessness in conjuring up such understated yet invigorating and fresh pop music in particular that secured my top spot.

Well, that brings us to the end of our discussion on the best mini albums of the year! Overall, 2023 brought us so much diversity and newness in sound, and we can’t wait for more in 2024.

(YouTube: [1] [2] [3]. Images via: ADOR.)