Best of 2015: Top 10 K-Pop Albums

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Another year, another dual-pronged countdown for the uncommon – and much appreciated – K-Pop album fan. If you’re reading this you’re probably either looking for some recommendations to expand your music horizons, or you are in very, very deep with Korean pop music. Sometimes the flashy K-Pop surface singles aren’t what you feel like listening to, and you want to see what weird and wonderful B-sides/album compositions are out there in the K-Pop world.

Well the good news is that 2015 was just as good a year for Korean albums as it was for the MV tracks, and I’m here to give you my opinion on some of the better ones. This time around, you might actually be able to listen to these in full, because 2015 wasn’t just a big year for K-Pop albums in terms of quality, but in terms of accessibility.

That’s right, the advent of Apple Music back in June was a pretty sizeable game-changer for album fans living outside of Korea. Due to the California giant’s insane worldwide reach, most K-Pop releases make it onto iTunes, and that phenomenon translates to Apple Music streaming availability almost one-to-one. So if you have a membership you can now browse the delights and the duds of K-Pop’s longer form to your heart’s content. For real.

As usual the list is split into two top fives – one for Mini Albums (your EPs, basically) and one for Full Albums, which qualify when they contain eight or more tracks (like LPs, yo). Also, there are a couple of albums that would have made this list – Big Bang’s MADE and iKon’s Welcome Back – had their labels not insisted these releases “aren’t complete yet”. So I gave them the benefit of the doubt for next year.

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VR BEST OF 2015 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 weird. Cool, but definitely weird. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.
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MINI ALBUMS
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5. Pink Funky – MAMAMOO

MAMAMOO’s early momentum continued in 2015 with a huge number of individual member collaborations, MV releases and infectiously energetic live performances, and they backed it all up with a strong mini-album that can sit nicely next to their incredible debut EP. The songs plug into MAMAMOO’s duelling styles with panache, leading off with brazen brass loops and Moonbyul hip-hop on Freaking Shoes, sailing through squeaky synths on Um Oh Ah Yeh , syncing up with their flagship retro concept on No No No and then hitting it out of the park on the Sunday afternoon jam Self Camera. Even the comparatively generic ballad A Little Bit and the hook-lite Esna vehicle Ahh Oop! are improved by rounding out this fun sophomore effort.


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4. BASE – Jonghyun

The solo debut of SHINee’s primary vocal powerhouse Jonghyun is perhaps surprisingly good. While some SHINee fans would argue such a release has been overdue since Jonghyun’s show-stopping solo cover of Alejandro Sanz’s Y Si Fuero Ella way back on the group’s first album, the recent track record of SM soloists has been chequered at best. And yet BASE is nothing if not coherent, guiding listeners through a tour of seven funky and contemplative tracks with the same transitional smoothness present in the young man’s truly top tier vocals. Given how many different (shockingly un-SM) guests star on the album, this is quite a feat. Jonghyun’s talents are certainly wider-reaching than I expected.


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3. CHAT-SHIRE – IU

As K-Pop as a whole begins to get more comfortable with the idea that it isn’t the end of the world if some artists write their own songs, a pretty obvious fact came to light: More creative voices means more variety in the industry. In the case of IU, the extremely popular soloist behind last year’s excellent throwback album Modern Times , that meant an unbottled dose of bizarre this year. From that crazy-eyed teaser image to those creepy drawings on the cover to the disturbing lyrical inspiration for Zeze, IU’s first “entirely self-composed” offering CHAT-SHIRE presents a slate of off-colour, dingy fairytale interpretations that sound pretty unlike anything she’s done before. The mini-album makes liberal use of three-part self-harmonies that run the sound gamut from soothingly beautiful on The Shower to vocaloid-esque on Glasses to almost demonic on Twenty-Three. It bounces from downbeat to upbeat and back again and sounds good pretty much no matter what it’s doing, because the increasingly unhinged star has a killer voice and, as it turns out, a killer ear for composition.


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2. Simple Mind – Lim Kim


One of the most thrilling things about K-Pop in 2015 was the increased exposure that different subgenres, styles and artists received, allowing for decidedly more “indie” sounds like that of Lim Kim to bubble to the surface. Kim’s voice is very, very different from the K-Pop female standard, and as Simple Mind clearly shows, when you pair it with a range of prominent producers and a bit of imagination, you get stellar results. The dual-single opening of the mini-album, featuring the great backing tracks and breathy vocals of Awoo and Love Game, just works so well, and the lazy tones of Barama prove why Kim has done so many collaborations, her voice bouncing off Beenzino’s casual rap style effortlessly. You First is the sassy powder keg of the album, featuring a jilted Kim slowly baring her soul before signing off with a pair of F-bombs, while No More‘s whistley precision chorus brings the whole thing to a head. Upgrader feels like a bonus track, with its roaring 1980s synth coming out of nowhere, but it’s still a good listen, and Paper Bird‘s bare-minimum freeform acoustic sound pulls everything in for a contemplative finish. Onward and upward for Lim Kim, then.


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1. Crazy – 4Minute


Back on top of this list after a year’s break, the 4Minute team delivered yet another varied, energetic mini-album in 2015. Featuring a generous sprinkling of artist authoring, Crazy starts strong with its smash hit title track – which already came close to topping another of my lists – before slowing down for a reverberating bass line on the verses of Cut It Out, which plays with tempo change-ups and lyrical bravado. Tickle Tickle Tickle is the album’s strange, slowly-unwrapping centrepiece, melding jazzy sounds with sliding vocal notes and catchy spoken samples, pairing nicely with the slightly more melodic – though still definitely experimental – ICatchShow Me rolls up as the closer of the album proper, and its anthemic, Jiyoon/Gayoon-dominated sound makes for a punchy finishing platform before slow, crackling bonus track Cold Rain brings the tempo down like a hot chocolate at home following a weird – but unforgettable – night out.

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Honorable Mentions
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Beautiful – Amber
Surely the most-requested soloist release in the entirety of SM’s vast stable, f(x)’s Amber delivered a belated 2015 solo debut that suffered from some strange choices at the time of release, like the decision to use the upbeat but vapid Shake That Brass as the lead MV promotion track instead of the heartfelt Beautiful, as well as to cover an already phenomenal f(x) tune – Goodbye Summer – with new English lyrics and without Luna. But it’s still near-impossible not to fall for the charismatic mini-album, as Amber dispels misconceptions about her singing ability on Love Run and Heights.

Colors EP – Miss A
Miss A’s 2015 return continues their impeccable record of quality mini-albums, and while it’s no Touch, Colors only enhances the girls’ reputation as EP specialists. It does start a bit slowly, but really gets going when the breakdown-injected piano track Love Song rolls in, paving the way for the tasty percussion and high-register vocals of Melting and the vindictive fun of I Caught Ya – with bonus cowbell. Colors leaves its best song till last, too – the smooth Shoji Meguro-esque Stuck. At this point I don’t even care if they never release a true full album, cause they have this other stuff down.

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FULL ALBUMS
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5. Kiss My Lips – BoA

The 8th album (!) of one of Korea’s longest-running soloists BoA brings together a good smattering of outside influences to add to the songwriting chops she showed on 2012’s Only One, her last release of any real magnitude. And from the sultry tones of the eponymous opening track, the vibes are good. Lead MV track Who Are You is 90% nostalgic BoA, complete with high-pitched 1990s synth dressing on the chorus, and 10% rather un-SM rapping (courtesy of Gaeko). From there it’s mostly highlights, with minimal filler ballads and the like. Driving bass guitar and disco flourishes on Smash, industrial Eurythmics stylings on Shattered, stuttering acoustic guitar on Eddy Kim duet Double Jack, delicious violin, piano and bells on the lyrically frantic Clockwork, understated vocal dominance on Love and Hate, and finally sassy hater-slamming on triumphant manifesto Blah – all good stuff. Kiss My Lips will hardly appeal to those who find BoA’s unique voice too nasal, but for fans it’s a hell of a treat.

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4. Odd – SHINee

SHINee have released so much material in the two years since their last full Korean album that the gap seems quite a bit longer than that. But following countless promotional singles, smaller releases and Japanese work, Odd was worth the wait. Aptly titled, Odd is a strange collection of experimental tracks that could sit neatly next to f(x)’s Pink Tape and Red Light (not to mention the album up next on this page) in a polished spice-of-life playlist. Whether they are drawing from the funk/creepiness duality of their 2013 double album Misconceptions on songs like Odd Eye, Black Hole and Romance, mining an EXO-esque sound on Trigger, trying out hip-hop beats on Alive, going all 12-bar-blues with “Real brass, by the way” on Woof Woof, or falling into step with hypnotic Eurodance on MV track View, Odd is a really good, upbeat SHINee album – possibly their best since A.MI.GO all the way back in 2008.

Note: The album was repackaged with four additional tracks as Married to the Music later on in 2015, but I don’t particularly like any of those four tracks and they do stretch the length of the album a bit too far if you ask me.


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3. The Red – Red Velvet

The Red is the final piece of evidence that the personnel-depleted f(x) are done with the sound that put them on top of several K-Pop pundits’ album of the year ratings for the last two years – but their label is not. Now the realm of the bright-and-punchy, experimental, chant-heavy pop song belongs to fellow SM act Red Velvet. That isn’t to say the group is derivative per se – the freshly upgraded quintet pack a couple of key differences from their sister group that help to differentiate themselves a bit, most notably a conceptual commitment to uniformity that bleeds over from the group’s visual style into their across-the-board vocal performance. So highly-produced songs that treat unified vocals as one instrument among many, like Dumb Dumb, Red Dress, Don’t U Wait No More and Cool World, arguably work better than they could have with f(x). And they aren’t the only highlights of The Red, as more standard contemporary K-Pop fare like Campfire and Day 1 are fun, and Ladies’ Room wins points for thematic creativity in a musical genre very much lacking in that area.


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2. Basic – Brown Eyed Girls

I’ve perhaps been a bit guilty of not giving the releases of the Brown Eyed Girls a great deal of attention since getting into K-Pop, but Basic is too good to ignore. Now veterans of a decade in the industry, the four talented women of BEG still have incredible voices, and their recent switch to a new label has clearly given them fresh impetus to bring the good stuff. A mature conceptual piece that frequently draws parallels between astrological and intimate matters, Basic dances from track to spellbinding track without hitting a single dud. Slow jams Light, Wave and Fractal are powerful vocal (and Miryo rap) showcases, as is the mesmerising Obsession. Nods to 1960s sounds mirror the constant space-time motif on Higgs, Warm Hole and Brave New World. Time of Ice Cream is a hell of a lazy kick to launch the album. The Cuban influence of Dice Play is irresistible. Atomic, the album’s unmistakable climax, takes the listener on a ride through increasingly explosive choruses and key changes. None of the songs forget to be catchy. I’m not going to make the mistake of missing the next thing BEG bring out. That’s for sure.


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1. REBOOT – Wonder Girls

It was tough to see my top spot going to anyone else in 2015. In a year when JYP Entertainment thoroughly reasserted itself as a “Big Three” player in the K-Pop sphere, with strong releases from Twice, GOT7, Miss A, 2PM, the members of 15& as well as Jin-Young Park himself, it was the return of the group who made the company famous that arguably brought the best music. REBOOT is quite simply the most committed, highest quality 1980s tribute album I’ve ever heard, and while that means its audience is inherently limited, if you have ever had an interest in the synth-crazy sounds of the affluent decade you simply must give it a listen. The album is so good at what it does that it convinced me to break my four-year self-imposed restriction on reviewing K-Pop albums. It’s very, very good to have the girls back.

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Honorable Mentions
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RM – Rap Monster
Yes, it’s technically a “mixtape”, but BTS leader Rap Monster’s debut solo release RM has enough tracks to qualify for this part of the list anyway. The meaty release holds multiple MV tracks, impressive technical rap showcases and lyrical struggles in multiple languages, proving there’s a lot more to the young star than first meets the eye. “RapMo” takes his raps plenty seriously but isn’t afraid to have fun either, alternating deeply personal declarations with hyperbolised bravado and guest appearances from his bandmates. Disappointingly unavailable on iTunes, you can listen to the whole mixtape here.

4 Walls – f(x)
Yes, I’ve let my inner f(x) fanboy show a little on this page, and they also brought out a new album this year. Much dance-ier than any of the group’s previous efforts, 4 Walls brandishes a modern European club influence more than any other major album release I heard this year, and while the now-foursome is still ironing out the kinks of this new sound, there is no denying that the Amber-Krystal-Luna vocal axis remains a real weapon, and tracks like Glitter, X, Rude Love and When I’m Alone bring that weapon into line with euphoric, full backing tracks to craft more f(x) magic.

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