Best of 2013: Top 10 K-Pop Albums

Bestof13_light

That’s right, this is here now, which means two things:

  1. I listened to enough K-Pop albums, and saw enough merit in them, in 2013 to be able to make this list; and
  2. I really didn’t buy nearly enough English-language music this year to do any sort of countdown relating to it.

If listening to K-Pop is a bit of a niche pursuit in these parts of the world, which it certainly is, then indulging in K-Pop albums is like a niche within a niche. Unfortunately many K-Pop fans never go beyond watching the MVs that, to be fair, kind of define their industry, and they don’t see any reason to do so. Typically K-Pop albums can be shallow efforts to fill a track quota and make more money off the hype surrounding a single title track. My efforts to explore the extensive back catalogue of K-Pop albums in 2012 revealed as much, with some exceptions of course. Something changed in 2013, though. The general standard of albums I looked into this year seems to have raised, for reasons I won’t speculate on. I’m cool with it, though. Particularly noticeable was the output of SM Entertainment, previously one of the absolute worst offenders in this area. They released “full albums”, as opposed to the far more common and easy to release “mini-albums”, for pretty much every major group in their stable in 2013. Most of them were quite good to boot. As the number one record label in K-Pop, I would be surprised if this didn’t influence some of the other companies in some way to put more effort and creativity into their album writing.

Because they have fundamentally different structures, this countdown is actually divided into two top fives: one for mini-albums and one for full albums. An album counts as “full” for the purposes of this list if it has eight tracks or more.

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VR BEST OF 2013 DISCLAIMER
This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. If you actually agree with me 100%, that’s scary. Respectful disagreement is welcome.
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MINI ALBUMS
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5. A’s Doll House – Ailee

Korean-American YouTube singer turned K-Pop star Ailee has one of the most powerful voices in the current industry landscape and she puts her pipes to work in her second Mini-Album A Doll’s House, which manages to trump her debut 2012 effort Invitation despite only featuring one title track (Invitation had two good ones). Said title track, bombastic big band song U&I, is a perfect high-energy opener to the album, before songs like No No No, Scandal and final track I’ll Be OK showcase her mid-tempo proficiency. How Can This Be is an enjoyable 3/4 ballad, but the highlight of the album is unquestionably Rainy Day (audio below) which builds well and lets Ailee hit plenty of vocal heights. As an article on seoulbeats.com so astutely pointed out this year, the song sounds even better with the site Rainy Mood open in another tab.


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4. Fly High – INFINITE H

K-Pop albums claiming to have an hip-hop edge quite often have a very token one, sometimes extending little further than hip-hop inspired outfits in a corresponding MV or casual shouts of English words before the start of a song proper. INFINITE sub-unit INFINITE H, however, manages to pull off some pretty decent rapping verses and beats while keeping the catchiness and general appeal of K-Pop very much present. Two promoted MV tracks, Special Girl and Without You, help the structure of the album, but laconic opener Victorious Way and upbeat closer Fly High are probably my favourite parts of the package, which on the whole is much better than I expected from a group usually more famous for its dancing.


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3. Harvest Moon – 2YOON

I gave 2YOON’s weird and wonderful country music/K-Pop hybrid 24/7 an honorable mention in this year’s singles list because it was an awesome left-field move when it was released, but the catchy song works even better as a lead-in to the sub-unit’s debut album Harvest Moon. Though the other four tracks on the album are perhaps disappointingly less country-influenced, they do feature the odd Shania Twain-esque flourish to tie things together and more importantly, they are all enjoyable songs in their own right. Cameos from a few male K-Pop rappers are fun, particularly BTOB’s own Ilhoon on Nightmare, but it is the screamer Why Not that proves to be (literally) the centrepiece of the album. Main vocalist Gayoon’s formidable voice permeates the track but other half Jiyoon, usually given rap lines in 4Minute’s work, absolutely holds her own on the opposite side of the recording booth, which enriches the song (and the album) immensely.


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2. One Shot – B.A.P

You get a pretty full-on preview of the One Shot mini-album from watching the very expensive MV for its title track of the same name, with the songs Punch and Coma featuring prominently as artificial lengthening tools, but the mini is still most definitely worth a look. Both Punch and Coma are well worth experiencing in their entirety, with the former a wonderfully larger than life showcase for main vocalist Daehyun’s Tourette’s-like big vocal exclamations and the latter an intense rap platform for the group’s celebrated proponents of the discipline. A cameo from talented labelmate songstress Jieun is a bonus there. The album also features the top-drawer single Rain Sound and the restless closer Zero, keeping B.A.P’s impressive mini-album record well and truly intact.


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1. Name is 4Minute – 4Minute

Though I wasn’t a fan of 4Minute’s wildly popular 2013 single What’s Your Name?, the mini-album it belongs to is quite amazing. Opening track What’s My Name? (yes, a different song) makes for a lead-in that actually improved my opinion of the single, which seems to fit better into an EP context than it does on a chart in my opinion. Whatever then hurtles in, with two pulsing rhythms for the price of one, before we get a bass-heavy anthem in Gimme That and then one of the absolute best B-sides of the year in bluegrass closer Domino. For a surprisingly (or not, given the personnel involved) coherent playlist, tack this mini onto the end of Harvest Moon (number 3 on this list). The countrified elements throughout Whatever and Domino match up really nicely with the sub-unit’s effort and you can get all ten songs for just $8 on the Australian iTunes store.

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Honorable Mentions
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2 Cool 4 Skool – BTS
Despite a bit of a cringeworthy title, BTS’ debut release illustrates some of the group’s impressive rap talents. Bonus points for ending with a recording of an improvised round-table freestyle session.

Badman – B.A.P
Clearly incapable of taking a load off, B.A.P returned again later in 2013 with another mini-album, this time with their first real misstep as its namesake lead single. Coffee Shop is a wonderful change of pace for the group, though, as is the dance-y Hurricane.
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FULL ALBUMS
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5. “Misconceptions” – SHINee

This is technically two full albums, but they were released only two months apart and clearly are part of the same overarching project so I maintain that they count as one entry. Either of the two halves of SHINee’s bumper return to the realm of full album releases smashes their last effort, Lucifer (repackaged as Hello) into the dust in my opinion, as there is clearly some real thought put into making things cohesive here. The optimistic tunes were released in February as Dream Girl – The Misconceptions of You and the slightly darker stuff in April as Why So Serious? – The Misconceptions of Me, before the two were brought together in August as The Misconceptions of Us with two bonus tracks. Before anyone outside of SM knew there would be a second half to the album, February opener Spoiler sneakily hid the names of just about every track in the entire project within its lyrics, setting the tone for something special. Both You and Me are packed with highlights – two of which are below – but it is the smooth execution of a fresh idea that really elevates the Misconceptions albums to number five on this particular list.


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4. Modern Times – IU

Everything that made The Red Shoes such a standout single release for me in 2013, and much more, is present in its accompanying full-length album. Big-name LOEN Entertainment soloist IU commits to a decidedly retro sound for the majority of the excellent album, partnering with some real instrumental talent and even some classically trained senior singers to deliver a suite of songs that suit her vocal register to a tee and gel together very effectively. The Charlie Chaplin influence is palpable – the song Modern Times even calls him out directly – but there’s also a nice Latin flavour to many of the songs on show throughout the album. Everybody Has Secrets, featuring the very busy Ga In from Brown Eyed Girls, sounds straight out of a Cuban restaurant live set and, well, there’s a song called Havana. My two favourite tracks, though, have to be the slow build 50cm and the emotional Obliviate, both of which simply ooze confidence.


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3. Growl – EXO

Growl is the only album repackage I picked up in 2013 (there really weren’t many), perhaps a sign of a dwindling trend in K-Pop re-releases. I enjoy the idea of a repackage, though, as it essentially represents a second chance for an album to work itself out through the injection of a few new tracks. The album affected by the Growl “expansion”, if you will, was pretty damn good on its own, so the addition only makes it even better in my eyes ears, especially as it dilutes the impact of the sonic misstep that is Wolf on the album’s flow. With its new skin, Growl the album can boast a handful of worthwhile and varied tracks, from the 80s-style piano ballad with a beat Lucky to the adrenaline-charged Let Out the Beast to the otherworldly Heart Attack to the super-smooth My Lady. EXO are now two from two in terms of major album releases and the dual-ethnicity supergroup is quickly ascending my personal favourites list.


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2. Pink Tape – f(x)

Packaged like an actual pink VHS tape, f(x)’s second full album in four years expands upon the experimental flourishes that defined their excellent 2012 mini-album Electric Shock and in doing so turns out to be my favourite SM Entertainment album yet. It concentrates squarely on the group’s ideal role within the wider SM stable – as tryers of new things – and ends up packing astounding variety as a result, backed up by quality production and great vocals. In order, the album presents a catchy lead track featuring melodies sung in the round, a creepy playground ditty, a confidently harmony-rich diced rock track, a techno-chant hybrid, a 1960s disco tribute, a ridiculously catchy chop-up, an acoustic rotational duet with EXO member D.O., a downright euphoric sweller that is easily my favourite K-Pop B-side of the year (audio below), a call-and-response, a pleasant doo-wop song housing some bitchy lyrics, a vaudeville keyboard and brass piece, and finally an anthemic closer. This is how you do a pop music album, Korean or not.


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1. First Love – Lee Hi

Unbelievably, this was mega-label YG Entertainment’s only full length album release of the year, which is a real shame, because it is freaking incredible. The runner-up of Korean singing competition show K-Pop Star last year, the young Lee Hi has the raw vocal ability to go toe-to-toe with the company’s more established singers, as she proved last week via her collaboration with 2NE1’s Park Bom for a classic Christmas song. But her debut solo album, released back in March, is an absolute home run. Released in two parts over a couple of weeks, First Love boasts two singles and is backed by several of YG’s most influential songwriters, which combined with Lee’s Adele-style voice creates audio magic. Following a typical YG hip-hop style announcement opener, the album settles into a slow-burning pace that continues to hit hard with captivating track after captivating track. The album transcends language; it is one of the only K-Pop albums I have no fear playing for my friends who aren’t into the genre, and nearly every time I do I get a variation of the same comment: “This is pretty good!”


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Honorable Mentions
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Hush – Miss A
Even though half this album is made up of highlights from previous mini-albums, it still qualifies for the full album category because of the way it’s packaged. The album is quintessentially 90’s from the outset and I love that about it. Love is U is almost worth the price of the album alone.

Affirmative, Chapter 1 – D-Unit
The promised Chapter 2 may not have eventuated, likely due to underwhelming sales or something like that, but woefully underrated group D-Unit delivered a collection of songs in 2013 that I played far more than most, never skipping one track. That’s the highest possible compliment I can pay it.

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