The 20 Best K-pop Albums of 2017: Critics' Picks
Singles may be the power players in K-pop, but it’s the albums where the genre's artists are most able to express themselves -- and in that respect, 2017 didn’t disappoint.
With popular Korean musicians getting more experimental this year than ever before, there were numerous albums that deserved recognition, and so this year Billboard’s Best K-pop Albums of the Year list has been expanded for the first time to 20 rather than 10.
From the albums that were perfectly in tune with the sonic trends of 2017 to those that explored their own distinct style, these are our picks of the best K-pop albums of the year.
20. Lee Hyori, Black
The word “comeback” is a loanword that loses the impact of its English meaning in the ceaseless grind of K-pop promotion cycles, as it’s applied to every new release. But Lee Hyori’s return to the spotlight after a long hiatus proved to be a welcome self-examination of the split between her celebrity persona and her real life. The mostly self-composed album bucks music trends to incorporate unexpected genres like country blues in an industry that leans heavily into hip hop. This pop icon divorced herself from the stasis of superstardom in Seoul to immerse herself in experimentalism, making Black one of her most colorful albums yet. -- CAITLIN KELLEY
19. Twice, Twicetagram
While TWICE have become queens of the irresistibly catchy single, their debut full-length Twicetagram proves they can craft an entire collection of incredible bubblegum hits. Lead single "Likey" was one of 2017's most addictive tracks, but it's hard to even say it was the strongest pop cut on the LP. The punchy chants on "FFW," the light techno-pop vibe on "Love Line" and the guitar-infused dance breakdowns on "Missing U" all have production elements that the world's pop stars dream about, and TWICE deliver it all with their signature sweet vocals, proving that they can craft a body of work that satisfies way past its single. -- JEFF BENJAMIN
18. Seventeen, Al1
The 13-member boy band has always been known for experimenting with different sounds, and their Al1 EP ended up crafting some of K-pop's most impressive electronic cuts of the year. The first single "Don't Wanna Cry" utilizes the same melancholy-EDM that made The Chainsmokers famous, but the whistle hook-heavy "Swimming Fool" and the tribal-influenced "My I" show they can successfully integrate into other sides of a genre and think of music in multidimensional ways. -- J.B.
17. Taemin, Move
Enigmatic in style and non-conformist in its messaging, the SHINee member’s second full-length solo album is a dark, sensual approach to K-pop laden with brooding synths and smooth R&B. Individually, each track is a clean-cut pop production defined by dynamic elements, like the funky dichotomy of “Crazy 4 You,” the piping synths of “Stone Heart,” or the soaring vocals on “Love,” but combined Move is an epic show of Taemin’s artistry. -- TAMAR HERMAN
16. CNBLUE, 7 CN
From the opening notes of "Between Us," it was clear that CNBLUE is experimenting with yet another side of the rock world, this time incorporating exciting electronic elements into their sound. From the blend of sweet synths and brassy horns on "It's You" to the stunning, five-minute album closer "Royal Rumble" -- which sounds more like a full-fledged dance track -- sprinkled with singer Yonghwa's laid-back, impassioned croons and Spanish guitar strums, this new EP all-but-confirms CNBLUE as a true, multi-genre experience. -- J.B.
15. Taeyeon, My Voice
One of the most established young vocalists in K-pop, the Girls’ Generation member’s first LP is a reflective, nostalgia-tinged pop album that explores the singer’s titular voice through a variety of genres. My Voice is playful at times and evocative at others as it flits through musical styles, but throughout the listening experience, it is Taeyeon’s crisp vocals that are front and center. Whether sassily rapping on the paunchy pop-rock of “Eraser,” crooning her way through the sleek R&B of “Sweet Love,” or liltingly soaring through the ambient electro-pop of “Time Lapse” or the single “Fine,” the K-pop star’s full range is on display in this album. -- T.H.
14. Zion.T, OO
Fronted by the groovy soul vibe of the passive-aggressive “The Song,” OO is an emotive biography of Zion.T’s thoughts on his life and successes. With sounds like the jazzy scat of “Complex,” a collaboration featuring G-Dragon, and the bossa nova groove of “Cinema,” the smooth-crooning soloist offered up an explorative taste of his brand of alt-R&B through this pristinely crafted second EP. -- T.H.
13. B1A4, Rollin'
B1A4 brought out its eclectic side on Rollin’, where the boy band took on some of the biggest trends of the year to immense success. The glossy tropical house-rock hybrid of the title track sits beside their sprightly interpretation of EDM on “You Need Me,” and they offer up a whimsical take on groovy synth-pop with “Love Emotion.” The upbeat pop-rock of “Smile Mask,” the falsetto-laden EDM of “Call Me,” and the the soft rock ballad “Like A Child” round out the EP, managing to sound all at once very 2017 while still distinctly sounding like the quirky pop styling that the boy band excels at. -- T.H.
12. Glen Check, The Glen Check Experience
Perhaps the most sonically adventurous release on the list, the electronic powerhouses crafted a mish-mash of sounds and influences -- everything from Weeknd-esque R&B to dreamy guitar and harp work -- to prove that a "Glen Check Experience" is one unchained by traditional sound and song structures. -- J.B.
11. EXO - The War
After five years of ruling the K-pop scene, EXO could have easily let their summery single "Ko Ko Bop" outshine their new material with its seasonal electo-reggae sound, but The War is a fully realized, electro-pop tour de force. The effervescent chorus in "What U Do?" rivals some of EXO's biggest earworms while the guys plead for commitment on the aggressive glitch-pop in "Forever," get sensual over electro-funk on "Touch It" and mix bitter heartbreak with icy synthesizers on "Going Crazy." Mixed with the largest songwriting contributions from its members yet, this Billboard 200-charting hit proves the K-pop kings have much more area to explore and conquer as artists and song producers. -- J.B.
10. Red Velvet, Perfect Velvet
This nine-track album is a deeper glance at the darker, more mature side of Red Velvet, highlighted by the titular Velvet reference. And as a full-length work it doesn’t disappoint from start to finish. Overflowing with lush pop, there’s a heavy emphasis on romantic, R&B leanings on this LP as displayed through the euphoric harmonizing of the slow-burns that are “Kingdom Come” and “Perfect 10.” But the girl group’s typically idiosyncratic sound is still present. Tracks like “My Second Date,” with its stilted beat and dubstep drop, and the Hitchhiker-produced synth miscellany of “I Just,” give this quintet the space to experiment, offering up some of Red Velvet’s best vocal performances to date. -- T.H.
9. Suran, Walkin'
Despite opening the EP with a soft "annyeong" (the Korean word for "goodbye"), the listener is quickly introduced to Suran's musical world with the twinkling, melancholy "Walkin'," which sonically embodies trying to be strong when hurting. Things only continue to get more sonically fascinating from there as the soloist takes us through a slew of different moods and genres -- featuring collaborations with artists like Dean, Changmo, Swings and BTS member Suga on the producer for standout track "Wine," all tied together by Suran's entrancing, heartfelt rasp. -- J.B.
8. Highlight, Can You Feel It?
A lot was at risk for Highlight -- the boy band formerly known as Beast, who left their original record label and lost the right to their name -- but their debut EP under a new name and company proved to be a release just as complex as it was entertaining. Lead single "Plz Don't Be Sad" let the guys' personalities shine with its energetic, dance-inspired production as the guys try to uplift a hurting lover, but Can You Feel It? also proved the guys still can keep their place as ballad kings, with buzz track "It's Still Beautiful" marking one of the band's best to date. -- J.B.
7. Heize, ///
Rainstorms have long been a musical archetype for troubling times leading to renewal, and Heize's /// EP uses the theme to examine a failed relationship. Over gorgeous, melancholy R&B grooves, the singer-rapper admits to taking a lover for granted on "Don’t Know You" -- one of the best K-pop singles of the year -- as "Dark Clouds" explores her faking happiness while battling a depression from missing him. The "Rainin' With You" interlude simply combines piano and a pencil writing backed by the sound of a light rain, transitioning into "You, Clouds, Rain," where Heize accepts her situation and vows to live life once again when her personal and emotional rainstorm eventually ends. And with such an impressive release, the skies look sunny and clear for Heize's future. -- J.B.
6. Bobby, Love and Fall
There were few more heartfelt moments in K-pop this year than the opening verses of “Runaway,” one of the lead singles from Bobby’s first solo album. Escapism is a major theme throughout Love and Fall, with the iKON member telling Billboard earlier this year that much of the album was inspired by films and photography. Playing up a diverse blend of musical styles, the rapper seamlessly moves between heavier hip-hop, like on the swaggering “Up” with WINNER’s Mino, and mellower alt-R&B, as on the dreamlike “Secret” (featuring DK and Katie Kim). With each track co-written by the artist himself, Love and Fall is one of the most finely crafted albums released by any Korean artist this year. -- T.H.
5. JJ Project, Verse 2
Five years after their electro-rap-inspired debut with "Bounce," GOT7 members JB and Jinyoung -- originally known as JJ Project before joining the boy band -- have clearly grown up as evidenced by their mature EP. Now, the duo opts for electronica-dipped rock and R&B, all topped off with tender harmonies. The mood is set with the synth groove of opener "Coming Home," before the rock/pop-inspired lead single "Tomorrow, Today" delivers the set's emotional climax. "On&On," "Icarus" and "Find You" work in of-the-moment melancholic moombahton and EDM, but the guys make it their own with their vocal blend and chemistry. -- J.B.
4. Baek A Yeon, Bittersweet
No song on Baek A Yeon’s third EP describes the vocalist’s enchanting style quite as well as “Magic Girl.” A twinkling piece of ‘80s-inspired power pop, the soloist draws in listeners with her warm vocals over fantastical melodies, before waking them up from the dreamy state of the song with an impish, piano-based bridge. That tune, and the album as a whole, is hypnotic in its pop glory, and lives up to Baek’s reputation within Korea as one of the country's most captivating young female soloists. As a whole, Bittersweet features a wide array of sounds that blend to create an otherworldly listening experience. Jazz is particularly prominent on the album, with bossa nova vibes on the single “Sweet Lies” and a more playful brassy sound on “Just Friends." There’s also more traditional pop balladry on “Screw You” and “The Last of You,” while the outlier is “Jealousy.” Featuring Jimin Park, the trippy hip-pop back-and-forth conversation between two friends is another standout that reflects the bitter yet sweet nature of this EP. -- T.H.
3. BTS, Love Yourself: Her
Undeniably the biggest Korean album of the year, after it made history by peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard 200, BTS’ Her is a testament to the septet’s style of expressive K-pop. In addition to the singles “DNA” and “MIC Drop,” that latter of which went on to be remixed by Steve Aoki and become the highest-charting song by a K-pop group ever on the Hot 100, the album is filled with songs infused with messages aimed directly at listeners. Whether it’s teasing their fans about their passionate love for BTS in “Pied Piper” or tackling financial concerns of the YOLO generation in “Go Go,” the EP is rife with meaning.
And though there's a sense of divide on Her, that variation enhances the album all that much more. It can be neatly split between the first half and the second, into dance music and hip-hop, and raw sentimentality -- the future bass ballad “Dimple” and the ambient, reflective, physical album-only track “Sea" contrasting with the swaggering "MIC Drop" and the laudatory recording of RM's acceptance speech at the BBMAs. With these elements juxtaposed beside one another with ease, Her acts as a witness to BTS' versatility. -- T.H.
2. Epik High, We've Done Something Wonderful
There is no unwarranted self-praise in the title of Epik High’s ninth studio album. A testament to the hip-hop group’s impact on the industry, the 11 tracks of We’ve Done Something Wonderful feature a maturing of the trio’s sound after over a decade as leaders of South Korea’s hip hop scene. Loyalists may argue that Wonderful is a step away from the gritty hip-hop Epik High cut its teeth on, but the album’s melodic approach to emotive hip-pop just adds further layers to one of Korea’s most impressive musical careers.
Like much of their work, Epik High incorporated features with other Korean artists on the majority of the songs on Wonderful, including the singles, and it is in those collaborative moments that the album shines. The jazzy, swaggering vibe of “No Thanxxx” overflows with the raps of Epik High’s members plus Mino, Simon Dominic, and The Quiett, while emotional depth comes out of the dark, electrifying vibe of “Here Comes the Regrets” with Lee Hi and the desperation of “Lost One” with Nell’s Kim Jong Wan. Only a handful of songs, including the choral-infused “People Scare Me” and the haunting career retrospective “Bleed,” feature the trio on their own, but it is on those solo Epik High tracks that the act is at their rarest. -- T.H.
1. IU, Palette
For too long, K-pop stars have been disregarded for crafting albums filled with fluffy, throwaway pop cuts with little esteem for deep-digging stories. IU's Palette album was the year's shining example of the power in personal K-pop with a release that employed loads of different sounds and stories to share insight about the star beneath the gorgeous gowns and pristine makeup. From the first lyric of intro track "Dlwlrma," IU shares that "This is a secret," laying the groundwork that the listener is about to embark on a personal, special journey with her. We dive deeper into her brain on the lead single "Palette," to learn about the preferences of the woman IU has grown into today, while songs like "Jam Jam" and "Ending Scene" explain what life and love are like when you're one of the most talked-about stars in a music scene.
Palette is a rare glimpse into what life is really like for an entertainer in K-pop -- which is characterized by big smiles and glossy productions – and IU isn't afraid to showcase the moments of self-doubt, worry and gloom, and them explain them in the music styles and genres she sees most appropriate. "I'm truly fine," she declares on the hook of "Palette," and an album like this -- with its many ups and downs -- proves the importance of a musician exploring these different aspects of real life and expressing them in the ways they know best in order to, ultimately, be just that. Music is a powerful tool and while the K-pop scene may be a goldmine of glittering pop and gorgeous visuals, its stars are still human. An album as impressive and sonically diverse as Palette proves why injecting an artist's personal experiences into their music can lead to their greatest work yet. -- J.B.