Best of 2017: Top 10 K-Pop Albums

As we roll into the business end of these countdowns and the final hours of 2017, it bears mentioning how difficult I found it to finalise these last three lists. You’re about to see two Top 15s where previously there was only one, but I very nearly made this one the third. If it weren’t for the fact that I couldn’t find another list worth cutting down to compensate, I would have. 2017 was that good of a year for K-Pop albums – especially in their shorter “mini” format. I’ve often joked that all a K-Pop album has to do to get my attention is not put its MV track in the first slot, and maybe divide some group members up for solos/duets (i.e. just not be generic) but I can’t even fall back on that crutch this time, because so many albums did just that in 2017. Some even went a step further in the structural experiment department.

Wow, this is such a nerdy list.

I consider mini-albums to be between four and seven tracks long. Anything shorter than that is a “maxi single” or “single album” (Not even my words), anything longer is a full album.

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VR BEST OF 2017 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 strange. Intriguing, but strange. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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MINI ALBUMS
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5. Eclipse – EXID

They say necessity is the mother of invention and in the case of EXID’s Eclipse that certainly rings true. By all means, on an album you can pair off your members or give them solos to spice things up and make the group feel more like everyone is putting in work, but when you’re also down not only your most gifted vocalist, but one of the most gifted vocalists in all of K-Pop, you need to take things a step further. Eclipse somehow works without the incapacitated Solji thanks to a heavy injection of driving electronic bass as well as some truly impressive fill-in work from secondary vocalist Hyerin. Album opener Boy is the tone-setting stylistic codifier, giving each able member her own unique stanza but leaving the hook entirely electronic. Its lyrics are a prologue of sorts to MV track Night Rather Than Day, which works far better as an audio-only throwback to the group’s early sound (The video is pretty awful). But Eclipse‘s greatest achievement is How Why, which has such a booming chorus that I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of electro-EXID.

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4. The Sun, The Moon – Kisum

I cannot remember listening to a Korean album of any kind that is so dominated by one track – and one that isn’t even the promoted MV song to boot. The Sun, The Moon in Love is a lead tune with the kind of presence that washes over an album, especially one as coherent in its calm as this one. The song’s heavy reverb effects contrast wonderfully with its persistent rhythm and rarely-seen Kisum harmonising, making good use of stereo headphones in the process. I can hardly believe it wasn’t given top billing. The album’s MV song Sleep Tight is even pushed to the very last track slot – albeit paired with an acoustic version of itself – which ultimately proves to be a smart move given how much its subject matter puts a natural cap on things. The songs in the middle are yet more examples of magnetically laid-back rhymes – No-one does chilled afternoon hip-hop like Kisum, and The Sun, the Moon is some of her best work yet.


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3. Red Summer – Red Velvet

Red Velvet’s published song collections are a bit hit-and-miss if I’m honest, but the group is just so active that they can’t seem to stay off this list of mine each year. The conceptual devotion they seem to exhibit every second album is regularly a treat for K-Pop album geeks like myself and Red Summer is one such morsel. If the “Red” in the name doesn’t tell you that you’re in for some tunes from the weirder RV drawer then you won’t have any doubts by the time you hit the midpoint of the mini. Zoo packs exactly the kind of crazy vocal shenanigans that make this five-piece’s Red concepts so much fun, with its deliberately untidy trumpet fanfare and honest-to-goodness Tarzan yelps. This coming straight after one of the year’s best b-sides, You Better Know, where bellowing vocals rise to meet the challenge of resounding synth fountains. Mojito evokes a chant-laden beach party while Hear the Sea builds off piano and strings to present a breezy ending note that completes Red Summer’s sonic trip through a sweltering summer day.


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2. You & Me – KARD

Continuing with the spicy structural gimmicks, KARD’s You & Me not only buries its lead song in the very middle of the album, but with Trust Me it takes one contemplative track and spawns two interpretations of it – the first with a tasty thumping beat and the second with a slower, more industrial sound. Each version is tackled by a different boy-girl pair and each version is strong on its own merits. You’d think this choice might be my highlight of the bunch, but you’d be wrong. Opening track Into You is an absolute show-stopper, riding a title-line-into-house-beat-drop up there with the very best of the year. Neither Push & Pull and Jinikka are bad songs either, especially once BM starts laying into the mic on the latter for a surprisingly aggressive rap. After plenty of single-song releases, KARD sure makes a hell of an impact with their first proper mini.


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1. Act 2. Narcissus – Gugudan

Gugudan’s first full year of activity was a promising statement of intent – an assurance that the group and their producers would be unafraid to try some slightly left-of-centre production in pursuit of that elusive bright sound so many girl groups strive for. With their second mini, the aptly named Act 2, they go beyond hitting that mark. The album feels like a delirious downward staircase, with each track carrying less energy than the one before (even if the difference is slight through the first three tracks) but each one like a smile in audio form. From the bombastic opener Rainbow, which is almost impossible to listen to without being on your feet, through lead MV track A Girl Like Me (which I’ve already talked about), the restless clock rhythm of Hate You, bouncy afternoon jam One Step Closer and the enjoyably cheesy K-ballad Make a Wish, Act 2. Narcissus is a five-star five-track wonder that any fan of Korea’s patented girl group sound should not miss.

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Honorable Mentions
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Coming To You Live – DPR Live

There’s just something about a guy confident enough in his debut EP to give each track a full video, not to mention a colour-coded symbol to match. DPR Live is a confident guy. When his debut houses such energetic bravado hip-hop as Right Here Right Now and Know MeComing to You Live ends up good friends with the repeat button.

Circle’s Dream – Subin

This four-track expansion of the mesmerising Circle’s Dream single keeps the unique tone of the song alive across a selection of minimal-accompaniment tunes that make you feel like sitting down and contemplating life. And also contemplating how one exceptionally gifted soloist could have been hidden inside Dal Shabet for so long.

–A Flower Bookmark #2 – IU

More unapologetically Korean than anything she’s done in years, the deliberately named A Flower Bookmark #2 is a throwback to the 2014 cover album of the same name, and though its reinterpretations of old Korean hits don’t hold any nostalgia for me, IU’s vocal range makes them a joy to listen to in a cafe setting. Well, except for the very 1960s-sounding Last Night Story. That’s a banger anywhere.

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FULL ALBUMS
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5. We’ve Done Something Wonderful – Epik High

Hyped as one of the most cameo-laden albums of 2017, Epik High’s first full album in three years is indeed teeming with big-name featuring artists from within YG Entertainment’s chill sub-label HIGHGRND, the wider YG family and just K-Pop in general. Led by none other than IU on piano-driven track Love Story, the train of guests includes Crush, Simon Dominic and Kim Jong Wan, but the best material arguably comes from the YG contingent. Oh Hyuk’s silky tenor pipes completely sell Home is Far Away, Akmu’s Suhyun keeps it simple but stunning on relapsing piano track The Benefits of the Heartbreak and Mino backs up his stanza on 2014’s Born Hater with a more venomous turn on No Thanxxx. The standout, however, is Lee Hi, whose ludicrously booming vocals take so naturally to the all-English Here Come the Regrets that you’d swear she was fluent. Even if it isn’t the unified melancholic masterpiece that Shoebox was, We’ve Done Something Wonderful is a worthy next chapter for the industrious Epik High.


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4. 4×2=8 – PSY

The very thought that a work of PSY might end up on this list seemed so far-fetched for so long, but I clearly just wasn’t paying enough attention to the guy’s work. It turns out that PSY’s well-known live performance chops translate pretty well into album production, because 4×2=8 feels like an effortless endeavour. The commanding soloist cruises through a pair of pumping title tracks before hitting his own suite of collaborations, which actually make the album feel like a nice companion to Epik High’s 2017 effort. Excepting anyone from Blackpink, just about every YG featuring artist that doesn’t appear on We’ve Done Something Wonderful shows up on 4×2=8, meaning fans of the label will definitely enjoy the hour-and-a-half sound session that results when you play them back-to-back. PSY even chooses to devote his final track to an Epik High collab, Auto-Reverse, and its fantastic. Other highlights include 90s house pair We Are Young and Love (the latter with Taeyang), gloriously gaudy guitar shredder Rock Will Never Die and sassy, stripped back G-Dragon duet Fact.


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3. Holiday Night – Girls’ Generation

We now take a (brief) break from YG-produced albums to turn our attention towards one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. Mere weeks before three members announced their departure, Girls’ Generation quietly released their best full Korean album since 2010’s Run Devil Run. They did so – rather poetically I might add – by following a slightly-modified blueprint of their debut 2007 album. For whatever reason producers outside of Japan only seem to be able to get the best out of SNSD when they stick to what the group pulls off best – mid-tempo belters with minimal (but not absent) frills – so that’s what Holiday Night uses as its bread and butter. That isn’t to say the album is boring – far from it – but the days of tragically misguided sound combinations, loose attitude to coherence and weird line distribution seem to be in the rear-view mirror here. That’s probably due to some penmanship from actual group members alongside the return of producers from that first album, including Mr SM Entertainment himself, Lee Soo-Man. Sane album structure prevails, with four upbeat tracks, then two beautiful guitar/piano songs (including the emotional, prophetic One Last Time) then a trio of jazzier jams and finally yet another knockout SNSD power ballad to add to the considerable pile. Whatever happens next, at least Girls’ Generation had a good Korean album this decade.


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2. Winter – Akdong Musician

Just making the full-album cutoff at eight tracks and just making the 2017 cutoff with a release date of January 3rd, Winter is Akmu’s first attempt at an LP since their breakout debut record three years ago, and it’s just as good. If anything, depending on your tastes it might actually be better, because there is much more confident experimentation on show here. You still get your heart-melting acoustic ballads and low-key cafe songs, rich harmonies and all, in the form of excellent opener Live, title track Last Goodbye and soaring closer Will Last Forever. But the off-beat creative well from which sprung last year’s How People Move is flooding here, bringing out the frantic piano flourishes of Reality, the ultra-relaxed tropical guitar of You Know Me and the addictive syncopation of Play Ugly. The album’s chronological midpoint represents the cross-breeding of Akmu’s two sides, with Chocolady the sumptuous result.


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1. boy. – offonoff

Tablo-led YG subsidiary HIGHGRND continued to go from strength to strength in 2017, churning out some quality LPs for fans to chew on. But as good as the likes of Hyukoh, Code Kunst and of course Epik High gave it, two of their juniors upstaged them. Extremely chilled-out hip-hop duo offonoff made a terrific first impression with boy. (weirdly stylised title and all), hinting at a bright future under the burgeoning label. There are two types of good albums: The more commonly-attempted-but-rarely-nailed spice of life tracklist, which keeps listeners on their toes and offers a cycle of flavours; and the holistic offering, which keeps the mesmerised listener locked in a single mood or frame of mind. The latter is what boy. goes for and gets oh-so-right, making for the perfect companion to an afternoon train ride, sunset walk on the beach, or indeed as one track off the album mentions, a stop by the skate park. The songs on this album blend together in the best way, always anchored by the rap-and-vocal dynamic that offonoff already seem to have down pat and seasoned by a sprinkling of guest artists (including, of course, Tablo, because why the hell not). By the time your ears reach the year’s best album-closing song, the self-remixing Overthinking, you may not even have noticed almost an hour has passed.

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Honorable Mentions
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My Voice – Taeyeon

Taeyeon’s promising solo career continues its momentum with My Voice, the tenacious SNSD frontwoman’s first shot at a full-length song set capable of holding a listener’s attention. It’s pretty good. Though lacking the sonic variety of labelmate BoA’s work (the natural in-house comparison), My Voice is no ballad bore, and Taeyeon’s superior singing voice ensures soaring songs like Time Lapse and sultrier beats like I Got Love and Eraser are equally impressive.

Merry & Happy – TWICE

It’s hard not to give a mention to an album that contains both Heart Shaker and Likey – Twice’s dual-pronged assault on 2017’s final quarter – even if the attempt to repurpose the original version of the album, Twicetagram, into a Christmas collection is sloppy at best. Cohesion aside, there really are some good b-sides on this album, from the sporty pump-up jam FFW to the super-catchy 24-7 to the truly speaker-shaking Rollin.

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