Call them EPs, call them mini-albums, there’s no denying that this short-form medium is still a crucial building block for an artist’s development – and yet they often get overlooked when it comes to year-end roundups. For starters, it’s hard to even quantify what delineates an EP from a single or an album; is it number of tracks? Run time? Ultimately, we leave it down to the artist themselves to indicate how they see it fitting in their discography.
We’re passionate about EPs, and when it came time to suggesting ones that had stood out this year our team came up with an overwhelming response. We’ve narrowed it down to 25, the cream of the bountiful crop. From fascinating introductions to promising new artists, to small top-ups from creators exploring new avenues, to spur-of-the-moment collections inspired by unexpected circumstances, they’re all short and compelling snapshots into the creative state of some of our favourite music makers.
For this list, we’ve opted not to rank these EPs, instead putting them in alphabetical order. Enjoy our 25 picks, and you can listen to a Spotify playlist of our highlights here. Stick around for our favourite songs and albums of the year, which we’ll reveal over the next couple of days.
Aseul – Slow Dance
Far removed from the perfected sheen of K-pop, Aseul is among a young generation of Korean artists doing things their own way. Her brand of bedroom pop – if you insist on describing it as such – is intimate and lush at once, and she’s only grown more assured (and certain of her sound) with each successive release. Her latest EP – which she personally views more as a brief album – Slow Dance builds subtly upon her last (and arguably strongest) release, Asobi. It’s perhaps less immediate, but where its predecessor is built for warm days out, Slow Dance is very much for quiet nights in, hence perfectly suited to our cramped COVID quarantine reality. A truly delightful slice of indie pop, it’s sure to make you a fan if you’re not one already. – Chase McMullen
Birds ov Paradise – Till dig
This is the one you’ve been looking for. Yes, I say that with confidence. A truly effervescent showing of hypnotic ambient-tinged techno, Birds ov Paradise‘s Till dig occasionally verges on deep house, as well. Hell, I can never decipher all these (largely) arbitrary genre distinctions, what I do know is this damn thing will knock your socks off. A crystalline cave of sound, subtle and grand at once, as at home being employed for relaxation, head-bobbing, or dancing, this one of those rare genuine knockout electronic EPs. Enjoy yourself. – Chase McMullen
Closedown – Bask in the Dancing Light
[Tiny God INC.]
It’s no coincidence that this up-and-coming Ohio emotive hardcore act share a name with arguably the most beautiful song on The Cure’s Disintegration. The first sounds we hear on Closedown‘s stunning debut EP could easily be mistaken for something emanating from Robert Smith’s Fender VI guitar. Throughout Bask in the Dancing Light, the group’s masterful quiet-loud dynamics feel like a push and pull between The Cure’s melancholic romanticism and blackened post-hardcore’s urgent-yet-nihilistic rage.
Opener “Erase Me” questions why we’re born in the first place, finding comfort in the prospect of ceasing to exist. “To Shake with the Earth” contemplates our inability to enact meaningful change in a world rapidly going to hell in a hand-basket, whilst evoking the apocalypse with some post-rock inspired instrumental flourishes. Finally, the closing title track finds morbid release in lighting a match to the godforsaken garbage fire. The lyrical intensity is matched throughout by songwriting that takes unexpected turns and ratchets up the drama at precisely the right beats. The prospect of an imminent full-length from this emerging group is exciting indeed. Closedown may well be sick of this world, but they’ve clearly got a lot to give. – Andy Johnston
Elah Hale – Room 206
After five years, the breakout Tumblr star Elah Hale finally delivered on her promise of a debut, and the results are top-notch. Hale’s made-for-TV-movie rise to prominence is an inspiring one for any young artist hoping to achieve some notoriety for their art; she self-produced material that went viral and was picked up by Interscope at the age of 17. Her debut EP, Room 206, is packed full of easy-going and authentic soul, highlighted by quaint introspection that her icons took years to perfect – she does it all with little flair and makes it look damn good.
“My House” ended up being the soundtrack to the summer for many, as the pandemic secluded us to our homes. “I bought some real bad wine / Do you wanna drink it at my house?” seems like the type of statement we were all making in the age of social media. Bragging about our self-medication daily during this lock-in stasis was another characteristic that Hale utilized on Room 206. On “One Star Rating” she likens a romantic relationship to an Uber ride, and on “ITPA” she sings about what most kids her age sing about – sex – but instead of making it gratuitous or hidden, she’s direct, which is refreshing in this day and age. – Tim Sentz
Grand Pax – PWR
London’s Grand Pax – real name Annie Pax – is a collector of colours and emotions. On the trippy triptych PWR, she collated three tracks of mellow R&B and brooding pop that drifts in and out of consciousness. The tracks are warm with compassion and sweetness, emanating soft colours of dusk hues. Her music makes one feel nostalgic for nothing in particular, but feel nostalgic nonetheless. Her opaque songwriting lends the listener a clean palette to paint their own memories and longing feelings onto.
The title track – accompanied by an exquisite video from filmmaker Nettie Hurley – is a moving portrait of female friendship and burgeoning sexuality. “One of Us” bubbles with the slightly simmering reserve of someone who wishes to explode in a frenzy of loving ecstasy. While on “Blur” she intones “Come and dance when the moon is thick / I wanna be more than a move / be more than just a quick ‘think about it’ / come on think about it.”
Taken together, PWR is a coming-of-age tale of finding and losing both love and friendship; in other words, it’s the story of entering and embracing the uncertainty of being in one’s early 20s. That Grand Pax was able to release a further three-track EP of equally strong quality (Wavey) shows that she’s ready to test herself with a full LP, which hopefully isn’t far away. – Conor Lochrie
Green-House – Passiflora
Olive Ardizoni, better known as Green-House, arrived in a major way this year. Making waves in the electronic community with the gorgeous New Age ambient of Six Songs for Invisible Gardens, they seized the moment, forging placidly ahead. They’ve delivered two excellent EPs since, one as a member of supergroup Galdre Visions, and the other, Passiflora under their own moniker. Largely a continuation of the energy found within its predecessor, the EP nonetheless feels its own, consisting of one long-form track, stretching their blissful sound beyond 20 minutes. Music of innocence, approached with “intentional naivety”, it proves a bit of a cure-all for the year’s innumerable ails, if only for a few precious moments. Absolutely essential listening for fans of ambient and electronic music alike. – Chase McMullen
Hidden Mothers – Hidden Mothers
Last year, this Sheffield blackgaze group stoked some not inconsiderable excitement amongst underground metal fans with a debut standalone track that scratched that very particular itch normally only ever relieved by the likes of Deafheaven, envy, Oathbreaker or Møl. On their self-titled debut EP, Hidden Mothers deliver on that promise with an expertly-composed blend of post-hardcore, blackened screamo and colossal post-metal.
Opener, “Beneath, to the Earth” is a genuine contender for metal song of the year. The multi-part epic delivers unbearably dramatic tension, ecstatic catharsis, hulking riffs and even a beautiful, delicately sung section that bears the stamp of The Antlers’ open-hearted vulnerability. The remaining two tracks are no slouches either. It’s a testament to this young group that they have clearly taken immense pains to carefully consider every transition, resulting in tracks that don’t feel as long as their runtime and carry the listener along with inexorable momentum. Benefitting from production by Pijn’s Joe Clayton, Hidden Mothers has a rich, heavy, full-bodied sound to match its considerable ambition. It’s been a banner year for music in this vein, with bands like Infant Island and Respire delivering career-best works, and, with this EP, Hidden Mothers have made it clear that they won’t remain underground for long. – Andy Johnston
Hwa Sa – María
The youngest member of K-Pop girl-group MAMAMOO, Hwa Sa released her first solo mini-album this year, and titled it after her Catholic name: María. As implied by this title, this project is incredibly personal, brimming with a fierce vulnerability and attitude that has made her a unique artist in the industry. From the beginning she surprises with a short introductory ballad called “Nobody Else”, sung entirely in English, where she reveals “People tell me to be nice / I forgot how to smile.” Lead single “María” is a Latin-influenced proclamation of self-love and reassurance that simultaneously directs a fiery gaze at her detractors and calls them out for wasting their energies on hating her. Across the six tracks she displays many different facets of her personality, from the pain of a decaying relationship (“LMM”), self-deprecating accountability (“Twit”), and lack of romantic reciprocation (“Why”). María, with all its varying tracks, gives a raw and frankly stunning glimpse inside Hwa Sa’s mind that will also help listeners to bandage the wounds on their heart. – JT Early
illuminati hotties – FREE I.H: This Is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For
[Self-released/Big Scary Monsters]
So, technically, this is a ‘mixtape’ rather than an EP or mini-album, but that categorisation comes about more as a necessity of the situation Sarah Tudzin found herself in after the break down of disgraced label Tiny Engines than anything else. However, the fire from that fallout plus the casualness that the classification ‘mixtape’ allows has resulted in 24 minutes of pure adrenaline-fueled fun and experimentation from illuminati hotties on Free I.H – one which we have to highlight.
There’s plenty of fury aimed unwaveringly at the label, especially in the early tracks like the vicious punk of “free ppls” and the crunchy and tropical pop rock of “melatonezone”. Tudzin also takes a couple of her less-than-flattering glances at herself on the heartbreaking earworm “freequent letdown” and the less-endearing-more-searing “WATTBL”. Best of all, she also allows herself to just have pure fun, as on the skit “K – HOT AM 818” and most impressively on the mid-album tentpole “content//bedtime” where her caffeinated wit and character fully unfurls itself across four minutes of call-and-response mayhem that is ripe to whip up a crowd when she gets back on the road. Although clearly bruised and bothered throughout, Free I.H proves that Tudzin is not one to be messed with, and for all of us on the sidelines pogoing along while we sip the tea, it’s endlessly enjoyable. – Rob Hakimian
Irene & Seulgi – Monster
A sub-unit of Red Velvet, born partly of pure necessity (due to their larger group’s leading vocalist Wendy’s injury), Irene & Seulgi nonetheless makes perfect sense. The two share a particularly tight relationship, and that closeness (and chemistry) is clearly displayed on this delightful slice of mature K-pop. From the sleek menace of the sinisterly catchy title track, to the placid and emotive “Uncover”, Monster deserves its place alongside Red Velvet’s best work. Add in the inclusive nods to the group’s LGBTQ+ fanbase, and you have a genuinely important musical moment within Korea’s 2020 scene. – Chase McMullen
James Blake – Before
As James Blake has grown as a Grammy absorber and in-demand producer, his LPs have remained a home for a surprisingly serious tone, something never hinted by the upbeat non-album singles he regularly drops. James Blake may not have made an LP in the style of those singles yet, but he’s met the demand halfway: an excellent 17-minute EP. Before showcases everything James Blake has been good at this decade, from the strange loops, vocal shifts, and other inspired off-kilter production choices of his CMYK days, to the confident blue-eyed soul vocals of his recent songwriting-focused releases. Even for the James Blake fan who wasn’t sure what to make of the more loved-up The Colour in Anything and Assume Form—perhaps especially for that fan—there is a lot to like in these four tight songs. – Josh Sand
Joanne Robertson – Painting Stupid Girls
Joanne Robertson’s Black Moon Days soothed my collegiate soul in 2015, and Painting stupid girls feels like an appropriate follow-up to that album’s acoustic magic. It is even more relaxing, with a lo-fi sheen (take a look at the cover to get an idea of the sound) and Robertson’s vocals floating about. You might catch a familiar melody here or there (“wheels” reminds me of the “windmill, windmill” bridge of “Feel Good Inc.”), but these gentle songs are brilliant originals. “Peacecraft” rounds out this collection with a strong vocal performance, in which Joanne Robertson conveys the vivid emotion of a true artist. If the title didn’t clue you in, she does paint, after all. – Ethan Reis