10 Best K-pop Albums of 2020
This year was one of transformations, self-empowerment, a search for identity outside fame and a whole lot of magic
10. Better – BoA
On her 10th studio album, K-pop legend BoA brings back early 2000s R&B and pop, reminiscent of iconic moments from J.Lo, Beyonce and Ciara. Title track “Better” screams this stylistic choice, elevating it with a string section and a thrumming, weighty bassline. The singer-songwriter dives into dark pop (“Temptations”), piano jazz (“All That Jazz,”) nu-disco (“L.O.V.E,”) and a heady Neo-soul/deep house blends (“Got Me Good.”) BoA is bold and fearless in her lyricsm, unafraid to discuss her vulnerabilities, desires from life, love and success. It’s a fantastic bookend to two decades of outstanding artistry from one of K-pop’s biggest names.
9. First Collection – SF9
This LP earned SF9 their much-deserved first win and for good reason. The group’s first studio album spans several genres, giving us a true look into exactly what this nine-member collective is capable of. SF9 mastered house with last year’s “Now or Never” and chose to lead with an elevated version of that strength on “Good Guy.” The infectious release immediately set the tone for the record–elegant, modern and luxurious. While deep house is the opener, SF9 refuse to be boxed into the genre, adding soul and funk (“Shh”), dancehall (“Fire”), pop (“Dance With Us”) and more to show various colors of their artistry and why they’re worth paying attention to. The contemplative, soaring “Like The Hands Held Tight” is the underdog of First Collection, seeped with complex adlibs and emotional verses complemented by a haunting soft rock vibe.
8. KAI (开) – Kai
Kai’s solo debut has been one of the most anticipated events in K-pop and with this self-titled record, he proves why the wait was very much worth it. Filled with synthy and sensual R&B, hypnotic verses and bold dashes of trap, KAI (开) finally unveils the vision the musician has for himself. Lead single “Mmmh” (co-produced by R&B artist Junny) is playful and sexy, hooking itself into every listener’s brain with its incredibly clever yet simple vocal refrain on the chorus and cementing the idea of who Kai is as an artist. “Amnesia” is an absolute triumph thanks to Kai’s dreamy adlibs and effortless falsetto, while “Ride or Die” (produced by AOMG’s Cha Cha Malone) dips into Eighties and alternative R&B and “Hello Stranger” uses a blend of R&B and guitar to unique effect. Bold with hits of nostalgia, breathy vocals and chic, sleek production, the six-track record gives us the clearest picture of who Kai is outside of EXO and SuperM–all without sacrificing the strong foundation in R&B and trap he built with both groups.
7. minisode1: Blue Hour – Tomorrow X Together
The most fascinating aspect of TXT’s artistry is their ability to present music that is both whimsical and ominous. Listening to an album from them is like floating through a dreamscape that can quickly evolve into a nightmare, and minisode1: Blue Hour is no exception. It’s glorious, unnerving and powerful in its ability to convey reality through fantasy. On the five track EP, the quintet contemplate the pain and loss caused by COVID-19 (“We Lost The Summer,”) the desire to escape reality and stay forever in a beautiful memory (“Blue Hour,”) lost relationships (“Ghosting”) and the inevitable passage of time (“Wishlist.”) The record is flushed with retro sounds like disco funk, 2000s soft rock, synth pop and indie rock–all of which evoke a sense of nostalgia for decades of music this generation will never live through and there’s both beauty and tragedy in that: a signature TXT trait. Written by Charli XCX, “We Lost The Summer” stands out the most with the way it outlines the way the entire world lost a part of their 2020 with the pandemic. The lyrics are melancholic but the light tropical dancehall melody pushes listeners to keep their heads up for tomorrow. “Wishlist” is another highlight of the record, a pop-rock number that sees songwriting credits from members Yeonjun, Huening Kai and Taehyun.
6. In Life – Stray Kids
Although they established themselves as a leading act in the fourth generation of K-pop a couple of years ago, Stray Kids really hammered in the point with their first studio album Go Live and its following repackage, In Life, both released this year. Filled to the brim with gritty, self-produced experiments in EDM, trap, hip-hop, rock and more, this 17-track LP packs a punch like no other and serves as a diary of the eight-member group’s hardships, aspirations and emotions since their debut in 2018. Written and produced primarily by the group’s members Bang Chan, Han and Changbin (known collectively as 3Racha), In Life made a splash with “God’s Menu” and “Back Door,” both aggressive and confident trap declarations of the group’s determination to rise in the music industry and stick with their fans through it all. Other highlights on the record include the soul/trap number “Airplane” about keeping your head high and moving on to the next stage of life with no regrets and the clever, pun-fueled trap anthem of the underdog “Easy.” The crowning glory however is the album opener, “The Tortoise and The Hare,” a slow trap, hymn-like track that sees the members relish in wordplay, puns and constantly changing tempos.
5. María – Hwasa
Mamamoo’s Hwasa dove deep into her own psyche to deliver a record that deals with her own identity, the trials of an idol in the spotlight, femininity and the human behind the celebrity we see on our screens. The title track “María” blends latin pop with trap and piano to delve into the shifting perspectives of Hwasa and her ‘alter ego’ (and baptismal name) Maria, setting the thematic base of the EP–confronting and comforting oneself. The vocalist took on a lot of the songwriting and production on the record in collaboration with several prominent names in the industry including rappers Zico and DPR Live and producer Park Woosang. María features a lush soundscape within its seven tracks, featuring blends of R&B and Bossa nova (“I’m Bad Too”), piano-synth (“Kidding Me”) and breathtaking piano pop ballads (“LMM,” “Intro: Nobody Else.”)
4. 回: Walpurgis Night – GFRIEND
2020 marked a glorious new artistic path for GFRIEND. The six-member group underwent a glorious transformation in their sound and look, taking on a dark and glamorous vibe beginning with the EP 回:Labyrinth. The record marked the first in the 回 (turn-around) series which would eventually become the LP 回: Walpurgis Night. The title is a reference to a festival associated with witches and fits GFRIEND’s mystical new perspective that dives into mythology and magic. “Apple” is perhaps one of the most striking singles of the year, drawing listeners in with its whimsical and slightly unnerving blend of hypnotic breathy vocal refrains, thrumming percussion and steady bass. The record sees songwriting credits from deals with themes of finding ones own identity (“Mago”,) female empowerment (“Better Me”) and faith in destiny (“Wheel Of The Year.”) In terms of sound, GFRIEND explore disco-pop, pop rock (“Love Spell,”) and EDM (“Labyrinth,”) with the members showcasing a variety of vocal scales that raise goosebumps.
3. Equal – WOODZ
With Equal, Cho Seungyoun aka WOODZ finally gets the big break he deserves. Having originally debuted in 2015 under the (then little-known) K-pop group UNIQ, WOODZ also spent the next few years releasing a lush collection of music as a producer and solo R&B artist which went pretty under the radar. With UNIQ on an indefinite hiatus since 2018, he got a chance to debut again as a member of the short-lived X1 in 2019–which sky-rocketed him to fame but also cut short a second run with a group. His experience, perseverance and tremendous patience both pay off on Equal however, which cements itself as one of the most refreshing and polished records of the year with its tight R&B production and emotional thematic elements. On Equal, WOODZ explores different shades of love, life and death, loneliness and mental health; he oscillates between playful and angst-ridden, sometimes within a single track. There’s a simmer of dark love that hides under the funky whistle-led “Love Me Harder,” an examination of paranoia in the alt R&B “Noid” and the angst of lost love in the soaring, vocal phenomenon that is “Accident.” Collaborators on this record include prominent artists like Colde and Punchnello, both of whom contribute on tracks with fascinating instrumentation–tropical hip-hop (“Waikiki”) and discordant synth-trap (“Buck.”)
2. Eyes Wide Open – Twice
Without question Twice’s best record to date, Eyes Wide Open is a smorgasbord of hardcore drops, haunting melodies and outstanding vocal flexes. Every track was an adventure to listen to, taking turns with drops you wouldn’t expect and swerving into dark synths and trap (“Bring It Back”), unnerving minimalist tropical blends of pop (“Hell In Heaven”), disco-funk to keep with the 2020 trend (“Up No More”) and of course soaring eighties pop with the lead single “I can’t Stop Me.” Members Jihyo, Nayeon, Dahyun, Sana and Chaeyong are heavily involved in the album’s songwriting and the record features collaborators like Dua Lipa, Heize, LDN Noise on production and writing, making Eyes Wide Open the start of a new artistic era for the nine-member pop powerhouse.
1. Map of the Soul: 7 – BTS
With more records broken than ever, Billboard Number Ones and a Grammy nomination, 2020 has undoubtedly been the Year of BTS. While “Dynamite” and their November release BE won them most of these accolades, it’s the February LP Map of the Soul: 7 that still stands true as their magnum opus thanks to its incredibly powerful songwriting, production and thematic elements. On the 20-track Map of the Soul: 7, BTS have shown us more about themselves than they ever have before, given us deep glances into their deepest fears and biggest aspirations. The members have all flexed their various skills to the max, whether vocals (“Louder Than Bombs”,) rap (“UGH!”,) songwriting (“Black Swan”) or production (“Filter,” “Interlude: Shadow,”) and the effort to make it as meaningful a record as possible comes through right away. With solo tracks, sub-unit offerings and prominent collaborators (Troye Sivan, Sia, Ed Sheeran), MOTS:7 allowed BTS to set a new standard in pop culture and global artistry.