10 Best K-pop Albums of 2018
Whether you look at BTS’ global takeover, Jonghyun’s emotional magnum opus or Sunmi’s empowering self-appreciation, there’s no question that 2018 was a defining year for K-pop
Reinvention, experimentation and bold strides into new production experiences are just some of the things K-pop artists dabbled in this year, spanning a genre list that includes Latin pop, future bass wobble synth, electronica, funk, neo soul, early 2000s soft roc, a capella and hard-hitting trap rap. Whether you look at BTS’ global takeover, the late Jonghyun’s emotional magnum opus or Sunmi’s empowering self-appreciation, there’s no question that 2018 was a defining year for South Korean music’s place in pop culture.While senior groups like VIXX and EXO make an appearance thanks to their consistent excellence, the rookies aren’t too far behind—Stray Kids’ surprised everyone with their heartfelt lyricism and confidence while LOONA’s eerie debut redefined the narrative for girl groups.
10. Take.1 Are You There? Monsta X
Monsta X prove the long game is worth playing and finally carve out a sure identity for themselves with their second studio album Take.1 Are You There? The record amplifies and refines Monsta X’s signature aggressive dubstep/trap flavor, pushing intricate synths on the intro “Are You There” and its follow-up “Underwater” before slamming right into some earthquake-inducing future bass with “Shoot Out,” the group’s breakthrough single of the year. Other stand-out moments include the surging brass section on “Mohae” and the mix of soaring vocals and hazy rock and roll vibe on “Myself.” Each song on the record features sharp twists and turns, flipping from rap to vocals to make it seem like there are several tracks within one song. All members have contributed lyrics and music to Take.1 Are You There? and rapper Jooheon shines in particular due to the sheer speed and tight delivery of his verses.
9. Empathy, NCT 2018
NCT’s debut LP Empathy takes the crown out of all of their collective releases this year simply because it serves as such a fantastic introduction to the current roster of 18 members. From the initial buzz around the group created by the hair-raising, thrumming trap-techno intro blend “Neo Got My Back” (and its equally striking viral music video) to the feel-good 2000s pop-R&B of “Touch,” and the dynamic, shifting trap on “Black on Black” (the only track which features all 18 members,) the LP showcases the group’s penchant for diversity, dynamism and evolution. While the 13 tracks do include a few older releases like 2016’s single “The 7th Sense,” and vocalist/dancer Ten’s 2017 solo “Dream in a Dream,” Empathy is still the truest representation of what this entire team is capable of together.
8. I am YOU, Stray Kids
It’s a little difficult to believe Stray Kids debuted just this year. Because within those 12 months, the nine-member group have dropped four award-winning EPs, 18 music videos and an engaging reality series. They’ve cemented their space in the industry quickly thanks to their stellar lyricism and self-produced tracks and I Am YOU stands a cut above the rest of their discography because of its emotional, heartfelt take on friendship, parental relationships, life and love. It makes several old-school style forays into soft rock, neo-jazz and hip-hop blends, embracing nostalgia on “You” and “I am YOU.” “My Side” see-saws between the group’s rappers and vocalists, jumping back and forth from acoustic hope to hard rock aggression while “N/S” reverts to today’s ever-popular trap-rap combo. With most of the songwriting and production by 3Racha, a trio within the group, I am YOU is a testament to Stray Kids’ strong work ethic and hints at their bright future as an iconic name in K-pop.
7. [+ + ], LOONA
After almost two years of world-building, solo singles and sub-unit releases, [+ +] (read as plus plus) is the first record that sees all 12 members of LOONA come together. Tightly produced and unapologetically experimental, “favOriTe” serves as the perfect introduction to the band; the track is full of attitude and features crunchy, jazz-infused pop, deep bass and complex background vocal harmonies. Lead single “Hi High” is one of the most interesting releases of the year, dabbling with Hi-NRG, an uptempo genre that blends disco and electronica that builds to create the effect of a constant rising crescendo. Another highlight on [+ +] is “9,” composed by Canadian R&B artist Daniel Ceasar, thanks to its mournful violin refrain in the chorus and deceptively cheerful tropical build-ups. There’s a thrum of eeriness and danger that runs throughout the EP courtesy discordant background adlibs, haunting harmonies and of course LOONA’s general delightfully creepy vibe. [+ +]’s only drawback is its length—at the end of the six tracks you’re left strangely bereft.
6. Return, iKON
Opening with the lead single “Love Scenario” that collected hearts across the world with its bittersweet, endearing take on love, Return surprised fans by deviated from the swag-heavy hip-hop iKON built their foundation on. Nostalgia-inducing soft rock (“Jerk” and “Don’t Forget,”) dreamy funk (“Beautiful,”) pop-R&B blends (“Best Friend”) and relaxed hip-hop ballads (“Hug Me”) introduced a brand new dimension to iKON’s aristry, making them appear more relatable and down-to-earth. The lyricism in Return mostly centers on moving on from failed relationships, finding solace in good friends and other similar coming-of-age moments. Leader B.I. adds a vicious bite to the record with his electro bounce-heavy solo “One and Only” which outlines his difficult journey through the music industry, while iKON’s love for saucy rap rears its head briefly on the energetic trap banger “Sinosijak.” B.I. deserves a little extra appreciation for being involved in the writing and production of every single track on Return with the likes of “Gangnam Style” hitmaker PSY and veteran YG Entertainment producer Teddy Park.
5. Don’t Mess Up My Tempo, EXO
EXO made their much-awaited comeback this year with their fifth studio LP Don’t Mess Up My Tempo, and its excellence comes as a no surprise to anyone who is familiar with this band. The nine-member group cruise through genres effortlessly on DMUMT, starting off strong with lead single “Tempo” which taps into funk, disco, R&B, trap and a subtle touch of flamenco before taking a twist and blowing audiences’ minds with the greatest a capella bridge in K-pop history. “Ooh La La” brings in a fresh burst of bossa nova while “Gravity” seems to expand on the spacey, electro-funk the band first experimented with on their 2016 studio album Ex’Act. “Bad Dream” and “Oasis” are particularly haunting, sophisticated doses of synth pop and the vocal harmonies on all 11 tracks set a new industry standard probably only rivaled by EXO’s labelmates SHINee and NCT.
4. Warning, Sunmi
Every track on this record is a statement of power and independence. The synth/bass-drum heavy opener “Addict” sets the tone immediately with Sunmi’s rhetoric query, “Who’s running the show?” followed by her confident answer, “Me.” The ex-Wonder Girl dips into Eighties vibes with “Siren,” ventures into jazz tones on “Black Pearl” and “Curve,” before ending on a shimmering acoustic ballad “Secret Tape.” Her lyricism within the continuing arc of the singles “Gashina,” “Heroine” and “Siren” takes control of the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ or ‘emotional woman’ trope before finally serving the conclusion; ackowledging pain, anger and desperation before firmly putting it all in the past and learning to love and appreciate yourself. Warning is especially powerful because Sunmi was involved in the production process of almost all the tracks.
3. Eau de VIXX, VIXX
If you’ve been trying not to fall into VIXX’s trap of seduction, intricate instrumentals and symbolism, Eau de VIXX is the final push into the void. The group’s third LP is a treasure trove of experimental, detailed and fearless genre-hopping. The lead single “Scentist” gives the album an atmospheric introduction and sets the tone for drama with luxurious, thrumming synthwave and soaring vocals that cruise seamlessly into “Odd Sense.” The arrangements on the electro house infused “Silence” and “Trigger” plus the neo-soul heavy “My Valentine” and “Circle” are some of the most creative this year (the members of VIXX, especially rapper Ravi, were heavily involved in the album’s lyricism, production and arrangement which definitely makes for bonus points.) The album also features a re-release of the band’s 2017 viral crowning glory, “Shangri La” which blends traditional oriental instrumentals with future bass wobble synth. Eau de VIXX is also perhaps VIXX’s most cohesive album yet—the only points of discord on the track list are the disco funk fuelled “Good Day” and “Navy & Shining Gold” which create a jarring contrast from the rest of the LP’s sleek electro-house production and angsty allure.
2. Poet | Artist, Jonghyun
Released posthumously after his passing in late 2017, Poet | Artist is a stunning summation of SHINee member Jonghyun’s versatility as a producer and songwriter. Starting with the glimmering, disco-fuelled “Shinin’” before moving into the lush, dream pop soundscape of “Only One You Need,” Poet | Artist takes just minutes to outline Jonghyun’s ability to make wholly different tracks part of one cohesive story. The vocalist produced and arranged almost every track on the record, packing in creative blends of funk (“Sightseeing”), lo-fi and ambient (“Rewind”) and dubstep (“Grease.”) Poet | Artist is also abundant with Jonghyun’s long-favored genres like R&B, neo soul and jazz, and it almost feels like he poured his entire being into the record in a bid to let his fans see as much of himself as possible. It gets difficult to listen to at some moments due to the onslaught of emotion–the closing track “Before Our Spring,” a bluesy piano ballad that outlines his personal struggles but attempts to comforts listeners, is one such moment: “I know this sounds foolish/But I’m afraid to go to you/Even if you don’t understand/It’s alright, it’s alright/Because there’s still a lot of time/Before spring will come.” Poet | Artist is bittersweet—awe-inspiring in its detail, finesse and lyrical impact, but also a reminder that there never will be anyone quite like Jonghyun.
1. Love Yourself: Answer, BTS
The biggest boy band in the world scored their second number one on the Billboard 200 this year with this album and with good reason. Love Yourself: Answer concludes BTS’ Love Yourself series (which previously featured Her and Tear) and is perhaps the most powerful representation of the emotion, positivity and strength that has always run through the core of the septets’ artistry. In addition to its cultural impact and the countless global barriers it has broken, Answer outlines the group’s ventures into diversity with Latin pop (“Airplane Pt. 2”), rock (“Fake Love”), heavy piano ballads (“The Truth Untold”), South African house (“Idol”) and more. Answer saw BTS work with the likes of Nicki Minaj, Steve Aoki and MNEK and even expands on previous releases like “Serendipity” and “DNA,” giving them remixes or a few extra minutes of instrumentals that add even more depth. The rap line’s Trivia trio of songs “Just Dance,” “Love” and “SeeSaw” are particular stand-outs while vocalist V’s solo “Singularity” (written by leader RM) is quite possibly one of the best tracks of 2018 thanks to its heartbreaking lyrics, intoxicating neo-soul and slow R&B.