Favorite EPs of 2023

10. Mournful Congregation – The Exuviae of Gods Part 2

I think this might be the first time a funeral doom project made it to my top EPs list. Which begs the question, if a project only has 3 songs but a runtime of 40 minutes is it an album or EP? Anyway, Mournful Congregation’s second part of last year’s The Exuviae of Gods is even better than the first. As haunting as always, each song is filled with heavy, drawn-out riffing in sorrowful atmospheres. The sea of bleakness is occasionally contrasted by glimmers of light amidst the droning growls. There’s something almost spiritual about how the passages slowly march towards an uncertain conclusion.

On the EP’s centerpiece “The Paling Crest”, the acoustic instrumentation transforms slowly with a choir as it progresses through airy melodies. As if journeying through an entire lifetime, the music slowly erupts into a devastating doom riff and pounding drums. The Exuviae of Gods Part 2 excels at this balance between sentimentality and sorrow. Moving as if they traverse the passage of time itself, Mournful Congregation serve as a reminder of the inevitable, a clock ticking down to the final hour. Among all the darkness surrounding it, there is beauty in its acceptance of finality.

9. Aphex Twin – Blackbox Life Recorder 21f / in a room7 F760

The first Aphex Twin release in five years, the Blackbox Life Recorder 21f / in a room7 F760 EP is probably a lot shorter than what you might expect. What’s more, it’s a relatively straightforward project for IDM’s greatest pioneer. Instead of focusing on the ambient spaces between the instrumentation, Aphex Twin seems laser-focused on the drum programming here. Each breakbeat has sharp snares and snappy bass movements that guide the melodies along the passages. It’s a very simple yet precise sound that he plays with on this EP.

Though there’s less progression in the way of melodies, the drum programming is top-notch as they pulse below the surface. “Blackbox Life Recorder 21f” is the best example of this as the punchy snares punctuate the echoing vocal sample. The relative simplicity of the synth lines enhances the atmosphere whenever there’s a slight variation in the movements. Though it feels unusually static for Aphex Twin, the subtle intricacies in the instrumentation are slowly unveiled over repeated listens.

8. Balmora – With Thorns of Glass and Petals of Grief

The debut EP from melodic metalcore band Balmora goes insanely hard. Playing up the early 2000s sound of metalcore, the songs are filled with screeching vocals, melodic riffing, and murky breakdowns. It’s surprisingly faithful to what made that style of metalcore so popular, and they take you on a trip down memory lane. Right after the melancholic piano opener, they burst out of the gate with blistering guitars and furious drumming on “Under the Weight of a Blackened Sky”.

Balmora cleverly avoids sounding derivative by incorporating dense, multilayered breakdowns between passages. The unpredictability always keeps you on the edge of your seat as they shift from guttural vocals to airy whispers. The seven-minute closer, “A Dagger to the Heart of Finality”, is an absolute banger as it shifts from Waking The Fallen-era Avenged Sevenfold melodies to a chugging bass breakdown at its climax. Although Balmora seems enamored with reviving the sounds of melodic metalcore in the most nostalgic way possible, they still bring something fresh to With Thorns of Glass and Petals of Grief.

7. Yhapojj – Evolution of Xur

It’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly Yhapojj clicked for me but it wasn’t until Evolution of Xur that it all connected. I was initially dismissive of this new wave of underground rappers like xaviersobased, nettspend, and phreshboyswag while chalking it up to being too old. But Yhapojj stood out for me thanks to a distinct fusion of cloud rap with lowend beats. The rattling bass and eighth-note handclaps give the songs an intrinsic energy that stands in stark contrast to his laid-back flow.

“1o” might be one of my favorite songs of the year and shows exactly what makes his music so fun. Featuring an airy synth line and chants of “Go, Go!” in the background, Yhapojj hops onto the beat with his mellow vocals. There’s something hilarious about his spacey beats getting interspersed with random werewolf awoos as he raps about women and flexing. Evolution of Xur is absurd in the best way, an EP full of bangers that shouldn’t work but somehow manages to pull it off.

6. Surf Gang & 454 – Fast 5

In recent years, the Surf Gang collective has played a big role in evolving the sounds of New York beyond drill. Led by Evilgiane, they’ve gained prominence for their production work as they mix classic punk, emo, and rock samples with drill. 454 on the other hand, pitches his voice to Quasimoto-heights as he slowly flows through hypnotic beats and psychedelic synths. Ethereal to the touch, 454 projects transport you to nostalgic summer days. Though they don’t appear to share much common ground, both Surf Gang and 454’s ability to genrebend opens up plenty of possibilities on Fast 5.

Fast 5 is Surf Gang’s most melodic work to date as they lay down shimmering synths atop 454’s bubblegum vocals. Opening with “Angel”, 454 croons of his hopeless romanticism “Like a drug, I love how you make me feel”. The bouncy plugg sounds of “Gangster Party” give an iridescent shine to his hypnotic flows and cloudy atmosphere. Full of colorful anthems, Fast 5 showcases the natural chemistry between 454’s airy rhymes and Surf Gang’s celestial production.

5. Magdalena Bay – mini mix vol. 3

The first mini mix from Magdalena Bay since Mercurial World vaulted them into mainstream consciousness, the third installment dives into freer, more experimental territory. Playing with synthpop, chillwave, and electropop sounds, the project branches towards psychedelic influences. More of a collection of loosies than anything conceptual, the individual songs all have a unique identity. Mica Tenenbaum’s high-pitched vocals are as addictive as ever, but the massive reverb on songs like “Tonguetwister” helps match the cascading synths.

The production is impeccable as Matthew Lewin heaps on layers of shimmering melodies and hypnotic drumwork. Slowing down on “Wandering Eyes”, the duo even experiments with a 60s guitar-pop ballad complete with melancholic vocal harmonies. mini mix vol. 3 is a great representation of what makes Magdalena Bay compelling: sugary-sweet songwriting backed with a refusal to take things too seriously. It’s a lot of fun, an assortment of dance floor anthems that’ll get stuck in your head for days.

4. Billlie – The Billage of Perception: Chapter Three

As good as Billlie’s music is, what makes the group so captivating is their unique concept that stretches surprisingly deep. Influenced by supernatural and psychological thrillers, their projects revolve around a missing girl named Billlie Love who disappears. Split between a dream world and reality, the girls must work together to solve the mystery. This EP acts as the third chapter for their Billage of Perception series which is grounded in reality. Taking on the upbeat sounds of funk, nu-disco, and future bass, Billlie continues to push their experimentation to new heights.

Jumping from the disco-influenced opener “enchanted night ~ white night” to the reggaeton beats on “lionheart” sounds strange on paper but Billlie manages it with ease. “EUNOIA” is one of their most memorable title tracks yet with intricate vocal harmonies, synth breakdowns, and beat switches. Though it’s quite straightforward for Billlie’s standards, Chapter Three never shies away from incorporating a diverse set of sounds. If anything, it’s their most consistent body of work to date and drills down on their biggest strengths. With the mystique surrounding Billlie continuing to grow, they show why they’re one of the most interesting K-pop groups today.

3. Yukika – Time-Lapse

It’s not an understatement to say that Yukika has been the most important figure in city-pop revivalism within K-pop since she started her solo career. Since the release of her 2020 album Soul Lady, every K-pop group has looked to her as the blueprint for modernized city pop. Featuring pristine production and silky synths against a brass backdrop, Yukika manages to imbue her distinct flair into each song. Lining up with her retirement announcement, Time-Lapse acts as the closing chapter in Yukika’s illustrious career.

Paying homage to the golden age of City Pop, Time-Lapse is a remake album as Yukika covers a few of her favorite artists. Each song is given a modern revamp with modified arrangements in the instrumentation and synth work. Yukika brings her classic vocal melodies that glide effortlessly alongside the production and carry a longing wistfulness within. While the songs are all immediately recognizable to city pop enthusiasts, there are plenty of elaborate changes to discover from language swaps to new guitar solos. Time-Lapse is a gorgeous sendoff and if this is where it ends for Yukika, it’s been a hell of a ride.

2. Lil Shine – Lovesick

Though Lil Shine’s stint in Reptilian Club Boyz was short-lived before the disbandment, his newest releases have propelled him into a league of his own. One of the most unique PluggnB artists in the Soundcloud scene, Lil Shine’s style of laid-back rapping fits his candy-sweet instrumentals with ease. Singing of heartbreak atop the rumbling 808s and cloudy synths, he brings an inimitable energy to Lovesick.

Lovesick takes a romantic direction with bright melodies and soft piano leads. The lush guitars breathe new life into his hazy approach to PluggnB and give him more space to stretch his musings of yearning. Though it’s heavy-handed with the thematic elements (come on, it interpolates Paramore), the genuine emotion pulsing from the autotuned vocals is beautiful. “Jeans Soaked” is one of the best songs of the year as strings and horns transform into an energetic beat reminiscent of Chicago Bop mixed with Lil Shine’s signature inflections. Lovesick is proof that Lil Shine doesn’t miss even when it comes to his solo work.

1. Hemlocke Springs – going…going…GONE!

going…going…GONE! might be one of the best debuts I’ve heard in years. Hemlocke Springs manages to take the intimacy of bedroom pop and give it an exciting edge of new wave influences and synth work. The syncopated drums march in rhythm to her animated falsetto as she imbues her distinct personality within. It’s rare for a vocalist these days to inject their quirks into the music and Hemlocke Springs feels like a breath of fresh air. You can sense every emotion in the songs from awkward naivety to energetic triumphs.

The creative flows she employs between each verse and bridge have a touch of eccentricity that makes the songs inexplicably familiar. As she grapples with her feelings, she wears her heart on her sleeve: “You say I want to be your girlfriend/It wasn’t really in my plans/When you’re around, I got arrhythmia/So in the end, I play pretend.” The bouncy synth line on “heavun” drives forth an intensity as she rejects greed in favor of genuine connections. going…going…GONE! is an undeniable force, a blueprint for a star in the making.

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I turned my incoherent ramblings on music, anime, and video games into an entire blog.

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