Best of 2018: Top 10 K-Pop Albums

Here we are at the big three, and my most difficult list of the year. Seriously, I had more trouble ordering this one than I did any of the others (It’s always the biggest effort to format too). There are so many different moods that albums are capable of putting you in – or sustaining – so every time I came back to the draft I shifted, added or removed something. This is the most accurate representation of my favourites that I could come up with at this point in time. Turns out it’s the poppiest album list I’ve put together for several years. I usually like to highlight song collections and/or artists that didn’t make my singles list on this page, but this year there are quite a few albums containing singles that either made this year’s main Top 15 or the honorable mentions. Also, I may have just realised while typing this that literally half these albums are from SM Entertainment. Whoops.

For the purposes of this list, a mini album is between four and seven non-instrumental, non-remix tracks long. Eight or more of these makes a full album instead.

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VR BEST OF 2018 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 odd, but let’s have a beer. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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MINI ALBUMS
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5. Blooming Days – EXO-CBX

As always, I love a good attempt at a structural gimmick when it comes to albums, and Blooming Days has a doozy – seven tracks, one for each day of the week and its corresponding mood. Though title track Blooming Day – sitting in the Tuesday slot – is not one of the strongest products to come from the EXO family stable, the rest of the album does a reasonably good job of putting together an aural week that you can experience in less than half an hour. The strongest three tracks, neatly enough, are the opener, the exact midpoint and the closer. Monday Blues is just so good at nailing the bleary-eyed feeling of staring at a week of work ahead, Thursday evokes that knowingly premature daydream of a fruitful weekend and Lazy takes the album’s best backing track and uses it to transport the listener to a sun-soaked picnic. The first of several SM Entertainment albums on this page, I can recommend Blooming Days wholeheartedly to any listeners out there who like to count tracks in their head.

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4. PRISM – CIFIKA

Cifika has come a long way since she debuted as a Soundcloud hopeful just two years ago at the ripe age of 25. Now hanging with YG’s Hyukoh and Crush’s crowd, having toured the US for the longest tour in the history of Korean acts, the electronic producer / haunting vocalist is now K-Pop adjacent enough to put on this list and that’s pretty great, because PRISM is a pretty great slice of mid-tempo techno introspection. Apparently lacking an MV track, Cifika drops some intense quarter-life crisis lyrics here that transcend language through constant unrelenting rhythms both morose and optimistic. You can dive into them if you wish or you can just let the tracks wash over you – The effect is honestly pretty similar. From booming bass opener Prosper to ethereal parting shot Water, Cifika’s angelic tones and industrial undercurrents twist together to form a memorable 20-minute journey that makes me thrilled to see where she will go next.

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3. I Am – (G)I-DLE

To finish up my (G)I-DLE worship for this week, let’s talk about I Am. Accompanying the fairly so-so MV release of Latata – which leads off the album – this mini hides a fantastic tail that starts immediately with $$$ – which, yes, is my personal pick for B-Side of the year. In an era where EDM beats can be heard filling out almost every new group’s requisite mini album, “Dollar” stands out with an ear-catching opening, an intriguing bridge-backer and a hatful of clean shifts between different punchy percussion styles – Crank the subwoofer for this one. It’s not an island in a swamp, however – the album keeps delivering with the loud proclamation of Maze’s chorus and the beat-infused lounge rhythm of What’s in your house? before finally giving Soyeon a rest on lovely K-ballad Hear Me. Awesome, now I don’t have to type that awful group name for another year.

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2. Something New – Taeyeon

As the leader of Girls’ Generation, I doubt it’s a stretch to say that I’ve been listening to Taeyeon’s voice for longer than just about any other K-Pop vocalist, so the fact that I had to check that it was still her singing on three separate occasions during my first listen to this album is a testament to both the versatility of her pipes and the success of her “something new” mission statement. I’ve already talked about the arresting opening that begins the title track and the album, but after that one fades and she’s done walking all over NCT’s Lucas on All Night Long, we get Baram X 3, which uses a streetcorner party vibe to launch a catchy hook line that infuses her voice with a hitherto-unheard biting vibrato. Then it’s standard mid-tempo SNSD goodness on One Day before Circus digs up the music box spirit of Britney Spears’ Everytime and gives it a big pre-chorus build leading into a string of airy pixie notes that are clearly just out of Taeyeon’s comfort zone – though she captures the sound just as effectively as everything else on the album. Something New is a fresh direction with the same old top-drawer execution.

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1. Summer Magic – Red Velvet

This group always charts somewhere on this page every year and 2018 is as good a time as any to give then a top spot. Of the three multi-song comebacks that Red Velvet brought us in 2018, the one smack-bang in the middle brought the most summery vibes – and the best stuff (although Sassy Me from that late-year EP is admittedly a banger). Few sounds are as instantly transportive as the opening bars of With You, which might make you long for an immediate beach trip before it’s done. The bird call sample and jungley bass that underscore Mr E‘s verses call back to RV’s 2014 debut Happiness, along with last year’s Zoo – Then the chorus hits and suddenly you’re listening to a straight toe-tapper.

Mosquito is the flyer of the “really weird but amazing” flag that has practically become Red Velvet album tradition by this point, and its “na na – ze ze” chorus call may be as reluctant to leave you alone as an actual mosquito if you’re not careful. Hit That Drum is the first all-out dance floor jam the quintet has put out in a very long time, and it’s a hype-up highlight, but even it manages to stick to the summery concept via its deep, echoey African drums. The album appears to wind down with the bubbly Blue Lemonade, but then there it is: An English version of early 2018 audio snack Bad Boy, which is probably one of the least cringey (a low bar I know) official translations of a K-Pop song I’ve ever heard. Red Velvet get to have their cake and eat it too, sealing Summer Magic as my number one mini album pick for 2018.

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Honorable Mentions
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Wonderlost – Crush

The best track is the last one, where Cifika joins in the laid-back party Crush has been throwing for a few songs, but the rest of that party is also a real good time. Zico, Sik-K and Hoody are just some of the guests who swing by and they each sprinkle their own flow onto Crush’s always-smooth vocals.

CLC – Black Dress

Mid-tier girl group CLC hurtles in out of nowhere with a cavernous title track and a B-Side in Distance that is so good it inspired the Korean rarity of a retroactive music video release. Like That uses distortion to great effect and album ender 7th is one of the better K-ballads I’ve heard in a bit.

Red Diary Page 2 – Bol4

Having seemingly shortened their very Korean name, the duo formerly known as Bolbbalgan Sachungi has created yet another smooth wintry soundtrack. Wind is as delightfully airy as any combination of that title and that voice can possibly be, Travel is an energetic song I dead-set should have put in my honorable mentions the other day (what the hell, here’s a link) and Dear Teddy Bear proves that these guys really need to get a full rock band behind them more often.
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FULL ALBUMS
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5. Love Yourself ‘Tear’ – BTS

BTS may have completed their latest conceptual album trilogy in 2018 with the sonic odyssey that is Love Yourself: Answer, but I prefer the second effort in said trilogy because it’s a great 45-minute listen that kicks off with just about the smoothest damn thing you heard this year, the V solo on a bed of sound known simply as Singularity. I’ve heard few better album openers in my time. The Truth Untold brings back Steve Aoki from last year’s fruitful Mic Drop partnership and lets him score the group’s four main vocalists as they belt out a slow-building angsty melody. 134340 lays a base of simple guitar chords under a flowery flute for a quirky highlight, Magic Shop hits you with a stadium-friendly wall of sound and Airplane Pt.2 brings that sweet Latin flavour underneath a half-boast, half-rant about the travel life. Eventually we hit the album’s concluding track, the eponymous Tear, which returns the favour doled out in the Aoki track by giving the spotlight entirely to BTS’ stellar rap line. That goes about has well as can be expected. Meaning it’s amazing.

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4. Sound Doctrine – Naul

I had no idea who Naul was when I came across this album, but my word, what a talent. Apparently a veteran of the Korean music industry, his Soul Doctrine is a wondrous example of how to stack an album with K-power ballads and still keep the interest of people like me, who lack a satisfactory grasp of Korean. This is because every other track on the album is a funk-laced smooth jam, and Naul belts out notes on those just as silkily as on the stand-and-deliver songs. The opening track, Soul Funk, is so confident in the power of keyboard and waa-waa guitars that it’s almost completely instrumental, and it sets the tone for the likes of ’70s throwback Stand Up and the unfiltered brass / synth combo within lead single Feel Like (which sits in the second-to-last track slot because why not?). The ’90s soap vibes of Blue Wing fit astonishingly well among these more upbeat tracks, but arguably the song that best encapsulates the album’s spirit is Heaven, because it’s an almost 50-50 ballad / funk composition. And it’s bloody great.

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3. Summer Nights – Twice

Though I thought Dance the Night Away was the weakest Twice MV release of the year, the treat of a full album it brought along with it is worthy of sitting on the top shelf of the group’s material. Taking the already-good What is Love? EP from three months earlier and adding enough songs to ensure I no longer needed to stress about fitting it onto the Mini Albums list, Summer Nights is a repackage that feels cohesive and fun in a way few others do – least of all Twice’s last attempt at one, the 2017 band-aid bootleg Christmas album Merry & Happy. From pseudo-tropical second track Chillax through the super-silly Sweet Talker, the short brass blares and shorter syllables of Ho!, the smooth rolling chorus of Dejavu and the not one but two acoustic-based closers Say Yes and Stuck, this is indeed a top choice to stick on during a balmy summer night.

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2. Love Shot – EXO

Another repackage – this time of an existing full album – that elevates its original source material, EXO’s Don’t Mess Up My Tempo gets a good polishing thanks to a few additional tracks and we’re left with the diamond that is Love Shot. The way that the simple and unexpectedly beautiful acoustic ballad Wait transitions straight into the filthy industrial beat of Sign almost justifies the repackage by itself, even if the track order suggests it might have been accidental. High points are strewn throughout the expanded album, like the headphone-optimised Trauma, the smooth-listening Ooh La La La and the wistful Smile On My Face. But ultimately it isn’t individual tracks that make Love Shot stand out. It’s the single unified sound you get from the album. If you want a solid hit of that EXO blend of confident audio, you can hardly do better than Love Shot.

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1. Woman – BoA

Not only is BoA back in form, but in a year when she also – unbelievably – released her first-ever Korean mini album, the ensuing 9th full-length BoA studio recording may be the K-Pop queen’s actual best album. The three-year break she took from LP production seems to have paid off in spades, because Woman is extremely well-constructed, balancing the 32 year-old’s vocals sublimely against other musical elements. It’s varied, featuring a fabulously catchy EDM bouncer in I Like It!, a decent tropical house song (shock horror) in the form of No Limit and a silky vocal showcase, If, featuring a single electric guitar for accompaniment. Its lead single Woman doubles as a powerful opening statement of intent, its closer, the disco-flourished I Want You Back, is a killer, and there are enough delicious 1980s and 1990s sounds peppered throughout to give Taylor Swift’s modern tunes a run for their money. One of the album’s two excellent centrepieces, Little More, has to be my pick of the bunch. It builds on tasty alto notes and subtle funk guitar licks before unleashing a falsetto chorus on chunky bass that just made me get up again while I was writing this. And you can hear trumpets during the bridge. As if anything less was appropriate for royalty.

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Honorable Mentions
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Sun and Moon – Sam Kim

Opening with one hell of an uplifting guitar swelling tune then going straight into a low-energy bop with Zico in it (that guy must have so much dirt on the industry with all the featuring credits he’s racking up), the multi-talented Sam Kim purrs and falsettos his way through eight tracks of smooth funk and acoustic wonderment.

Empathy – NCT 2018

This was very high up on the main list in an earlier draft but then I found out the track listing was almost entirely made up of singles from NCT U, NCT 127 and NCT Dream’s last couple of years, which kind of feels like it’s cheating. I cannot stress enough how consistently good they sound played back-to-back though. This is still a very strong album.

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