Best of 2014: Top 10 K-Pop Albums

VR_Bestof2014

I’m not going to lie – this is a list I do mostly for my own amusement, as I know that K-Pop fans who actually devote the time to listening to albums are kind of scarce. And yet, if you’re reading this, then you are either one of those rare people, or you’re at least curious. In any case, please make yourself at home, sit back and relax as I present to you my ten favourite major album releases in Korean pop music over the course of 2014. In my humble opinion there was a decent amount of good stuff to be found this year.

The list is split into two top fives – one for Mini Albums (essentially EPs) and one for Full Albums, which qualify when they contain eight or more tracks.

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VR BEST OF 2014 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 spooky. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.
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MINI ALBUMS
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5. Holler – TaeTiSeo

I’m sure it isn’t an original expression of opinion to say that the only thing holding up the overall quality of Girls Generation’s non-Japanese album output over the last several years is the work of TaeTiSeo, also known as “What happens when you distill a nine-member group down to its three best / most complementary voices”. Indeed the second album from the SNSD sub-unit is a strong sophomore effort that only falls short of their 2012 debut Twinkle by virtue of having one less track. Holler sees Taeyeon, Tiffany and Seohyun harmonise their way around a handful of vocal showcase songs that push their range and certainly do no harm to the future prospects of these three superstars of Korean pop. The mid-tempo ballads are there, as expected, but Holler also ratchets up the tempo more than Twinkle did, resulting in the highly enjoyable StayEyes and Adrenaline, not to mention a general ‘all seasons’ feel.


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4. compoSing of Love – Almeng

Almeng’s debut album compoSing of Love has a structure as fresh to K-Pop as that of the group itself, with a track layout that complements the opposites-attract dynamic defining Almeng’s sound. The duo’s call and response intro (which cleverly foreshadows each remaining track via concise phrases) is a smooth lead-in to the two released singles Half an Hour and Phone in Love, each of which bounce naturally between Hae Yong’s soaring notes and Choi Ryn’s sassy rap stanzas. Then the album gives each member an individual showcase, with Hae Yong owning the early-2000s pop sound of Poor Girl by interacting instead with featured rapper LOCO, before Choi Ryn does it all on the catchy Fool Boy. Almeng sticks the landing with Again, as the members come together once more for their own take on the stock Korean piano ballad set-up. And it just works.


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3. Secret Summer – Secret

Building off the strength of their amazing single I’m in Love, Secret takes their reputation for strong B-Sides and crafts something resembling a concept EP, of all things, on their 2014 release Secret Summer. The five tracks chart the progress of a character through the inception and destruction of a relationship, and then beyond into a new personal paradigm of self-worth. The songs unsurprisingly leverage the group’s two strongest assets, powerhouse vocalist Jieun and storied rapper Hana, to typically powerful results, but the much-improved pipes of one-time dance specialist Hyosung is also highly evident on the record, enriching the varied beats of clock-themed centrepiece Look at Me, punchy salvo U R Fired and relaxing final word I Would Do Well to no end. A good Secret mini album is not an unusual thing, but it’s evident the group has stepped up in more ways than one with this release.


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2. Overdose – EXO-K

It is positively un-SM-like how good EXO’s album releases have been since they debuted. This run must surely end soon, and I’m sure it will, but in the meantime it is well worth giving Overdose a listen in its (brief) entirety. Well, the Korean version at least – I can’t comment on EXO-M’s version of things as I never ended up picking it up. Following the album’s excellent title track, the incomparable voices of D.O. and Baekhyun anchor Moonlight, a ballad guided by a distant electric guitar and exploding into life on the final chorus. Then Thunder goes all old-school N*SYNC and nails it, decorating a handful of plucked chords with falsetto calls and a snare-heavy bridge. I don’t even know how to describe the almost-tribal sound of Run, but it sounds awesome, and it leads into the old-time oriental flavour of Love, Love, Love, where Chanyeol’s raps and a strange elemental-themed chorus bring another EXOllent release to a close. I’m sorry, I really am.


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1. Hello – MAMAMOO

I already took the time to sing the praises of 2014 rookies MAMAMOO on this year’s K-Pop singles list, but the group’s fantastic debut didn’t simply begin and end with Mr Ambiguous. No, WA Entertainment also issued a lesson to aspiring rookie groups on just how to do a debut mini album, as Hello is a near-perfect example of one. Mere seconds into its opening track, which sees the four ladies crooning all 1950s-style into a mic, you know what MAMAMOO is all about, and to think it actually introduces the group members by stage name – What a thought! The hit lead single then barrels in, before the tempo drops for Geeks collaboration Heeheehaheho, all awash with impressive vocal acrobatics, and just when you think you’ve figured out the group’s shtick, they begin to stress the next best thing about the group – their surprising rap talent – with two verses on the funky Baton Touch and then a straight-up hardcore rap solo by member Hwa Sa on I Do Me. The album’s quality is sealed by the appearance of the group’s team-up song with male artist Bumkey, the superlative Don’t Be Happy, and just like that MAMAMOO’s reputation is off to the best start possible.

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Honorable Mentions
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A Talk – Hyuna
It barely qualifies at only four tracks long, but Hyuna’s A-Talk is an unrelenting sprint through upbeat songs heavy on that signature rap style that sounds like she’s high all the time, which is actually growing on me. Plus, massive points for featuring the badass LE on the final track.

Mr Mr – Girls’ Generation
The best compliment I can give to Girls Generation’s troubled album comeback this year is that it isn’t nearly as uneven or uninspired as their last effort, which is hardly high praise. But it does have some good songs, chief among them the funky closer Soul and yet another winning SNSD mid-tempo ballad in Back Hug.

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FULL ALBUMS
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5. Mamacita – Super Junior

The fact that Super Junior’s SEVENTH album is as good as it is makes very little sense to me. The ridiculously long-lasting supergroup has had a checkered record history to put it mildly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they often repeat patterns in album composition, and suffice to say I have heard far more vanilla piano ballads from the guys than I ever needed to. That Mamacita only has one, and the album’s closer at that, is a refreshing surprise. The rest of the album maintains a constantly upbeat feel, backed by booming choruses on Evanesce, a festival atmosphere on Shirt, powerful beats on Raining Spell for Love and more. All of which throws the steady understated rhythm of the wonderful Midnight Blues into sharper relief. The elder statesmen haven’t faded just yet.

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4. Shoebox – Epik High

When Korean hip-hop veterans Epik High signed with mega-label YG Entertainment and released an unusually upbeat album in 2012, longtime fans of the group feared they had lost an element of their identity. But 2014’s Shoebox makes it abundantly clear that the trio never lost anything. From angsty opener Encore to ponderous finale Shoebox, Tablo and Mithra’s easy flow and angry tone shifts are well intact, as is DJ Tukutz’s penchant for constructing appropriate beats for each song. This is an album that really feels like a hip-hop piece, packed as it is with big-name featuring artists (coming to a head on the SEVEN RAP VERSES of the infectious Born Hater), lengthy profanity-laden stanzas and varied sampling. Critics and Epik High fans alike adore it, and the only reason it isn’t higher on my list is that its constant melancholy tone means you really have to be in a certain kind of mood to listen all the way through.


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3. Red Light – f(x)

Once again strutting into the distance with the title of best SM Entertainment album of the year, f(x)’s somewhat surprising mid-2014 return with a full set of unique audio delights almost exactly a year after their last one was a reason for celebration, and while the group’s promotion schedule disappointed many, their album certainly did not. Playing out as somewhat of a “Pink Tape Volume 2″, Red Light may not be quite as consistent as its predecessor (the weirdly under-produced Summer Love track comes to mind), but its high points are just as noteworthy. The idea-stuffed Rainbow, Alphabeat-esque bouncer Vacance and emotional end note Paper Heart ooze creative energy. The catchy build-and-break-down structure of Dracula makes it one of the group’s best songs. And then there’s Milk, which not only eclipses every other song on the album, it’s easily my favourite K-Pop B-Side of the year. That’s right, again.


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2. Crush – 2NE1

No K-Pop album of 2014 starts with more immediate intent than Crush, which kicks into gear with a pumping dance floor friendly track of the same name that forced its way into the heads of 2NE1 fans the world over when it released all the way back in February. Pitted opposite SNSD’s comeback album Mr Mr in a much-hyped (and not really accurate) “girl group war”, 2NE1 came out on top rather easily thanks to some smooth production and a nice varied sound that stays compact within 10 tracks. MTBD, the EDM-heavy rap solo by group leader CL, is one hell of statement, and I dig the Korean appropriation of 2NE1’s Japanese hit Scream, but for me it’s the softer moments that make Crush the foursome’s best album yet. The jazzy vibes of If I Were You, the reverberating piano line of Good to You and the classy lounge grooves of Baby I Miss You come off as effortless, and the acoustic take on lead single Come Back Home that closes out the album puts the standard version to shame.


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1. Play – Akdong Musician

Another year, another former ‘K-Pop Star’ TV show finalist at the top of my personal K-Pop album list. Like fellow YG signee Lee Hi before them, endearing brother-sister musical duo Akdong Musician boast a sound that lacks a so-called ‘traditional K-Pop feel’ – It’s a little more raw and heartfelt, and it results in some truly spectacular songs on the group’s debut album Play. Following a strong opening salvo made up of “AKMU”‘s three 2014 singles, the album settles into a comfortable pace of gentle acoustic beats and absolutely gorgeous harmonies, peaking with the speedy Artificial Grass, carefree Anyway and contemplative Galaxy. There isn’t a weak track on the thing, though, and I eagerly await what kind of sonic evolution the talented duo has in store for us on the next step of their hopefully long and fruitful career.

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Honorable Mentions
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First Sensibility – B.A.P
It is quite surreal indeed that this is a K-Pop album I saw performed almost in its entirety in the flesh by B.A.P when I attended their Sydney concert back in May. Said concert gave me even more reason to like an already pretty good album, which houses some missteps but really brings the goods with fun songs like SPY, Bang X2 and Check On.

Tense – TVXQ!
I haven’t heard a poor TVXQ! album since the group became a duo, and Tense does not break this trend. Though occasionally sounding unintentionally hilarious, especially when attempting English lyrics, Yunho and Changmin belt out some fun tracks on the album. The sweet backing track of Off-Road, the sheer energy of Double Trouble and the playful rhythm of Steppin’ stand out in particular, though the album could have used a bit less ballad.

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