Best of 2020: Top 10 K-Pop Albums

When you’re locked down at home or the studio, you can write some pretty good tunes. That’s the message the K-Pop industry (and its satellite subgenres) sent to album fans all over the world in 2020. It was an embarrassment of audio riches this year, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I listened to a higher percentage of it than in any previous year (thanks again to the great Stankpop community). But I think I’ve proved my point that the state of K-Pop album production is in a better place than it was half a decade ago, so I won’t open the floodgates for honorable mentions like I did last year. Music is of course intensely subjective, but know that every single record on this page comes with my enthusiastic recommendation.

And yes, this is where the SM boys ended up; thanks for asking.

1-3 tracks = N/A

4-7 tracks = mini album

8+ tracks = full album

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VR BEST OF 2020 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. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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MINI ALBUMS

5. Maria – Hwa Sa

The first MAMAMOO soloist to put out an EP I’ve enjoyed the whole way through, Hwa Sa’s big collaboration-heavy year unleashed Maria as its crown jewel. Brazenly self-reflective in a way not attempted by too many K-Pop group members, Hwa Sa uses her English name as a motif repeatedly throughout the seven tracks, letting in just one featuring artist – DPR Live – on penultimate Salsa-tinged track I’m bad too. The bounteous strings and piano on soaring spiritual closer LMM really sit with you after the mini album is done, feeling like an emphatic answer to the question posed by the diary entry of an introductory track; WHY is the big industrial centrepiece that helps get you there, though, and there’s more sardonic fun to be had within the shifting beats of the Zico-produced Kidding.

4. Jackpot – Elris

Shifting gears to something far fluffier and more energetic; Elris’ fourth mini album is a surprisingly great sugar hit with some serious crunch on hand to substantiate things. The introduction is a brilliantly-constructed 75-second build that might make you wonder why so few producers get their own intros so wrong – it slots right under the title track with ease and improves it out of sight. But the delightful carefree chorus of the headliner isn’t even close to the best thing on the EP, as the three ballad-free follow-ups absolutely fly by. This Is Me is a harmony-rich dose of old-school K-Pop energy that’s honestly just a better song overall (which someone behind the production must have realised, because there’s a well-produced dance video for it). But if the bass and vocals are the star there, Like I Do announces its intention to fill your headphones with delectable bell-chime treble from its first moment. Final track No Big Deal is the mini album’s secret weapon, letting the vapours of its celestial pre-chorus sprinkle over an aloof hook with minimal backing. Colour me mad-keen for the next Elris package.

3. Equal – WOODZ

This guy just was not on my radar before 2020, but after managing the difficult task of releasing two good mini albums inside the same year, he sure is now. Before the vaguely western-movie-flavour of Woops!, on one of K-Pop’s best nights for new release music, Cho Seungyoun treated us to the mild horror/lo-fi/trap/very-loud-into-very-soft EP treat known simply as Equal. This pack of tracks is an expression of unbridled creativity inside the K-pop music sphere the likes of which I have seldom heard. LIFT UP is easily the best album-opening B-side I heard throughout all of 2020, and Accident mirrors its pulsing non-sequitur kick-off before making its mark with a tortured falsetto refrain. On NOID, WOODZ launches proceedings with a robotic zip that echoes faintly throughout the remainder of the song while piano samples and harmonies underscore his unrelenting three-minute flex. Waikiki is one of the most inexplicably exciting lo-fi beats I’ve heard; Memories proves that yes, this dude can croon over distant wailing guitar; and BUCK brings Punchnello in for a sticky chanting rhythm reminiscent of old Outkast – and also 2012-era G-Dragon. Not to put pressure on the guy, but…

2. The Book of Us: The Demon – Day6

Day6 have been around making a LOT of music for long enough that this album’s sudden appearance on my radar should probably raise some eyebrows – I’ve already had people tell me it has a different sound from what the instrument-toting quintet usually puts out. But as a pop-leaning rock record it is just so well-produced and so much fun. Day and Night opens the album with a vocal cycle that sounds straight out of an ad for a hip mobile service carrier, but the rest of the song is full and wondrous. Lead track Zombie is probably the least band-sounding song I’ve heard from Day6, but it definitely fits the album’s impressive production level – even if it is nestled right above the Kings of Leon guitar riff powering Tick Tock. We get some tasty Led Zeppelin guitar on STOP, a Skillet through-line on Afraid and an assured flickering Moody Blues riff on 1 to 10 – but all of them still remember to pack catchy choruses. Love Me or Leave Me follows the promising trend of every 2020 album putting its best song right in the middle of the tracklist; it’s an incredible vocals-and-drums showcase that got me on my feet plenty of times this year. What an album.

1. All Out – K/DA

I’ve been wanting to give this unlikely crossover of talent its proper due for two years (Pop/Stars grew on me after I listed it perhaps more than any K-Pop song ever), so it’s quite fortunate that Riot Games’ first attempt at a full EP release is this ridiculously good. Like the two major MV-toting song releases from K/DA to date, All Out is maybe only half (ish) Korean, but that’s never stopped me from celebrating a K-Pop album in the past – and this one sure is worth celebrating. Pre-release single The Baddest improves out of sight when stripped of the pressure of following up Pop/Stars without a proper music video, transforming into an artillery salvo opening track that slams the brakes right into the beginning of headliner More.

Then Riot’s extensive team of collaborators truly starts to flex, bringing in Kim Petras and a dark snaking beat for the incredible headphone-spreading, teen-journal-entry-on-a-pedestal Villain. Drum Go Dum is the weakest track on the album, but its post-chorus is silky-smooth and the double-time 30 second finale really takes off. All this kinda feels like a lead-in to the final track, however: a make-good on the threat posed by combining top-tier western production with a top-tier K-Pop group. I’ll Show You is near-perfection in three minutes and nineteen seconds; a 1980s aerobic-stage beat that knocks speakers down, subtle supporting synth with meaningful pitch and a chorus that explodes with euphoric, inspirational glee. Twice’s Jihyo demolishes the point role with ample support from four of her fellow members plus Bekuh Boom and Annika Wells, leaving little room to think about what wonders the next K/DA project might hold.

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Honorable Mentions

—77.82X-78.29 – Everglow

This is a stunning, dense collection of quality tracks (No Good Reason is easily one of the best B-sides of the year) but in a highly competitive crowd it just misses my top five because A) its lead MV track already topped my K-Pop Singles list so it’s had a moment already; B) it has one of the worst names for spoken recommendations I’ve ever seen and C) it only has four tracks. You should listen to it anyway.

–?depacse ohw – Seori

Another absolutely awful title for an EP, but if you’ve ever wanted to hear what the memetic ‘indie girl voice’ sounds like singing Korean, Seori has you covered. She’s also got you when it comes to soaring ethereal hooks that defy prediction and leave a lasting impact. This EP is unlike anything else released this year.

–[12:00] – LOONA

This might be the most painful set of album honorable mentions I’ve ever had to write; this is yet another absolute gem of a mini-album with a pretentious title. LOONA managed to join WOODZ in rare company by going two from two with mini-albums, but their 2020 opener [#] (…yep) lacks the strong recurring synth of this follow-up.


FULL ALBUMS

5. Super One – SuperM

SuperM leaps over the corpses of past SM Entertainment project groups and into legitimate stayer territory with Super One, a titanic full-lengther that revisits an eight-year-old SM trick last seen on SHINee’s Sherlock – combining two tracks with the same BPM to create a third, then lining them up to kick off an album. The shocking thing is that this in no way overshadows the rest of the piece; the tail on this thing wags for an hour, splicing MV tracks further down the track list than you might think and firing off B-sides with serious production effort. The veteran trio of Taemin, Kai and Baekhyun have plenty of time to show off their vocal chops while their busy NCT colleagues keep the energy relentless – amusingly even on the cheesy ballads. Tracks like Together At Home, Big Chance, Line ‘Em Up and Step Up keep the production variety coming in a way not often seen in the output of SM male artists, and Wish You Were Here is an all-time great B-side from the label. I still can’t believe this album is a real thing, let alone one this well-made.

4. Stella I – Stella Jang

As the Korean music industry has reliably produced for a long time, 2020 gave us a smorgasbord of full-length albums interested more in chill vibes than thumping beats or catchy hooks. And while relative small-release veteran Stella Jang does smuggle some catchy hooks into her first LP release – starting with jazzy MV track Villain – the former French resident produces a powerhouse 40-minute listen that’s liable to knock you out with notes lighter than air. The all-acapella opening, the playful guitar of the low-key hilarious Bourgeois Emotion and the otherworldly Forever form a trio that lets listeners know this album will be perfectly fine weaving between English and Korean tracks; from there we’re in the hands of a singer-songwriter who seems to be acting on Sunday-styled whims. The carefree afternoons, nostalgic evenings and depressing week-ending nights are all thoroughly present and accounted for. It’s probably also worth mentioning that the stunningly beautiful Choose You was the only song to get a tear out of me this year.

Bring on a ‘Stella II’, please.

3. Neo Zone: The Final Round – NCT 127

When NCT 127’s Neo Zone hit in early 2020, it was already a powerful record smuggling a surprising set of smooth tunes underneath one of the group’s shoutiest singles, soon-to-be Just Dance headliner Kick It. Jams like Pandora’s Box, Not Alone, Day Dream and Dreams Come True are all incredibly smooth not only vocally but production-wise, expanding into every corner of listeners’ headphones and surprising people like me who believed this group was just all about the noise. And don’t get me wrong – I’ve got a lot of time for their particular brand of noise, which is still here in the form of Mad Dog and Sit Down! But moments like those are outnumbered.

Then came nothing less than the most fascinating album repackage I’ve ever heard in K-Pop. The label with the most famous itch to add one or two songs to the top of an existing album and call it a new release – occasionally destroying the flow and/or tone of said album in the process – here looked to touch up a pre-existing release with actual care and ambition. Neo Zone: The Final Round brings a new, even noisier lead track (that critically goes loud from the very first beat) in the form of Punch, but that doesn’t just shuffle Kick It down a space at the top of the album; it sends former opener Elevator (127F) all the way to the final track slot (where it somehow works even better), adds another mid-tempo winner with NonStop, then gives Kick-It a fresh lead-in track for good measure. Then Make Your Day – one of the best boy group piano ballads I’ve ever heard – enters just before the already-established pre-Mad Dog interlude, thus pushing that interlude to the midpoint of the whole piece and turning it into a neat two-halved odyssey with much better balance between loud and soft. As you can see I could geek out about this album structure for a long time yet, but suffice to say I really like this one.

2. Eyes Wide Open – Twice

Five years after JYP’s last great full girl group album – the Wonder Girls’ legendary 1980s concept record Reboot – a worthy challenger to the in-house crown has arrived. With alarmingly dependable quality throughout its runtime to go with its classy album cover (which evokes SNSD’s phenomenal Japanese debut almost a whole decade ago), Twice’s Eyes Wide Open is a must-listen for anyone who’s ever enjoyed a Twice song. Each consecutive track is like a new gift with layers to unwrap over multiple plays, and that oh-so-crucial stream of variety within the Twice pop wheelhouse is on show around every corner. When the vocal production is a bit light on a song, the (often retro-tinged) backing track comes to the rescue – and vice versa. More often than not they are both on point, of course, but this is a collection of songs utterly free of duds. I’m particularly a fan of the high-energy midsection – Bring it Back, Believer, Queen, Go Hard and Shot Clock – but this thing winds down gradually like a champion; Say Something is a city pop classic waiting to happen.

Because of the way the K-Pop studio system seems to throw around producers and distribute tracks, we may never see Twice firing on all cylinders like this again, so if this kind of straightforward pop is your bag, I’m sure you don’t need any encouragement to enjoy the tunes to the fullest. This is largely a one-mood record, to be fair – it works best when you’re already up and moving – but if you ask me, Eyes Wide Open is without question the second truly great K-Pop album of the new decade.

1. Dystopia: The Tree of Language – Dreamcatcher

We didn’t have to wait all that long for the first. February 18th, 2020 at long last turned the steadily-improving Dreamcatcher into the very best versions of themselves for one glorious, all-killer LP with very little interest in brakes or even genre labels. The unique star-aligning combination of well-practiced rock-fuelled concepts, DC’s oft-forgotten lighter history as more traditional girl group MINX, and a confident producing duo at the peak of their EDM-loving powers; Dystopia: The Tree of Language is a stone-cold triumph that simultaneously sounds like nothing else within the K-Pop industry and does a bunch of things better than said industry.

The Tree of Language begins and ends (if you ignore its stunning Siyeon solo bonus track – which you shouldn’t) with the kind of guitar-thrashing rock intensity for which Dreamcatcher has been most famous since their debut. But the album’s X-factor comes from the decision to deviate into stripped-down horror (Red Sun), jaunty pseudo-jazz/new jack swing (Jazz Bar, Daybreak) and lashings of funk (Black or White). The quiet genius from producers Leez and Ollounder lies in the way each song ties into the same identity: at several points throughout its whirlwind sub-40-minute runtime, The Tree of Language checks in with a ripping guitar, flaring bass line or orchestral flourish to remind you of its DNA, and there’s an otherworldly coherence to the album as a result that allows it to defy the often-monotone trappings of similar power-pop/rock records. Every second rock-led track hides a head-banging EDM hook to boot – because why not, really – and everything comes together to create one incredible package. I’ve always wanted to like Dreamcatcher’s rare genre-hybrid approach to K-Pop, and Dystopia: The Tree of Language has finally given me reason to.

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Honorable Mentions

–Better – BoA

Fresh off winning Billboard’s K-Pop album of the year, BoA’s follow-up to my own 2018 list-topper can’t quite match up to that album’s surreal achievement in pop tuning in my opinion, but it’s still a fantastic package. It doesn’t start all that well – which probably got it down here – but songs like All That Jazz, Gravity, L.O.V.E, Start Over and Cut Me Off show consistent variety and passion- actually is it too late to bump this one up to the main list?

–Aquarium – Bronze

Simultaneously a 2020-appropriate 1980s synth tribute and a gallery of wonderful RnB featuring artists, Bronze’s Aquarium makes the most of its nine tracks with robust per-song lengths and a laconic energy that persists throughout each vocalist’s unique offerings. Instrumental midpiece Magnolia is the glue holding everything together, boasting a saxaphone through-line to die for; but keep an ear out for city pop specialist Yukika and f(x)’s versatile Luna.

–Vol.1 – Choi Yegeun

Choi Yegeun’s powerhouse vocal performance starts from the very first funk-injected track of Vol.1, an album with a long subtitle that no websites seem to be able to agree on. It then proceeds to carry through poppier moments (like Scarecrow), jaunty distractions (Mama Said), flavours of jazz (SuperMoon, I Know) and downbeat show-off opportunities (Gloomy Story, Where I Stand), but the funk influence is never far away. A tremendous follower on a Stella I kind of afternoon.

A small bonus this time around – The year was so good for hidden gems that I made the best 20-song playlist I could out of 2020 album B-sides (with one bonus remix track) and put it up here. I tried to keep it to one song per artist and make it flow decently front-to-back, and I’m fairly happy with the result, but there you go. Give it a listen if you feel like it.

One response to this post.

  1. I’d argue “Untouchable” was the best b-side from Everglow’s album, but they just don’t miss. “This Is Me” and “Love Me Or Leave Me” are some of the best b-sides this year and of course, DC take the crown with their god-tier full album.

    I’m really excited to see where both Elris and DC go next year. I have high hopes for Leez and Ollunder winning their much-deserved producer awards.

    Reply

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