The 20 Best K-pop Albums of 2018: Critics' Picks
It’s hard to overstate the breakthrough K-pop albums have had on American charts this year, where the presence of Korean artists on the Billboard charts has been at an all-time high.
The Billboard 200 was graced by 10 albums from K-pop artists in 2018, more than tripling appearances on the chart in 2017. BTS alone showed up three times -- twice with albums that hit No. 1. Other appearances included BLACKPINK, EXO, J-Hope, Jonghyun, Lay, NCT 127 and RM.
But beyond the numbers, there were a lot of career-defining records from acts with names big and small. Our list includes strong debuts, records marking a disbandment and albums where every song stands on its own. While some acts released more than one album in 2018, we decided to limit everyone to one eligible album to capture the breadth of so many great releases. Here are our 20 favorites from 2018.
20. BLACKPINK, Square Up
Few K-pop albums have been as highly anticipated in recent years as BLACKPINK’s first EP Square Up. Coming two years after they exploded onto the scene in 2016, the quartet released their four-track album as a testament to their dedication to rambunctious, hip-hop infused dance music. Exuding confidence, sass and an overpowering sense of chic, the album is fronted by their group's Hot 100 -harting single “DDU-DU DDU-DU.” It went on to become the all-time highest-charting album from a K-pop girl group to hit the States, debuting at No. 40 on the Billboard 200. -- TAMAR HERMAN
19. Cosmic Girls - WJ Please?
If their name is any indication, Cosmic Girls know how to make dreamy pop concoctions. “Save Me, Save You” leads this 2018 EP with glitchy synth-pop set atop pounding percussion. The intricate textures full of twinkling details makes this track feel magical. But the deep cuts hold their own: “You, You, You” sounds like an ‘80s workout tape in space. “I-Yah” has the melodrama of an INFINITE track. Then they go for baroque on “Masquerade.” WJ Please? is one of those rare mini-albums where every song is out of this world. -- CAITLIN KELLEY
18. GOT7, Eyes on You
A compact collection of R&B-tinged tracks, Eyes on You sees GOT7 doing what GOT7 does best: matching shapeshifting production with a blend of tender and powerful vocal moments. "Look" marked one of the year's most ambitious and enjoyable singles, setting the stage for cuts like the blend of soft and hard-hitting house on "Hesitate" and jumping from snappy trap production to the uplifting anthem on the fan-dedicated "Thank You." With the septet having a strong hand in their set's writing and production process, eyes should continue stay on the GOT7 guys in the years to come. -- JEFF BENJAMIN
17. Loona, [+ +]
Loona is finally whole, after over a year of pre-debut promotions. The 12-member girl group already proved their versatility -- and knack for sparking fan theories. But their debut mini album met (hi) high expectations: Lead single “Hi High” is so energetic that it sounds like an engineer pressed fast-forward on it. This year, girl groups took on darker concepts than ever before, but Loona’s future is looking bright. -- C.K.
16. Seungri, The Great Seungri
When you’re one of the biggest personalities in K-pop, you need an album to match your extra-ness. “1, 2, 3!” delivers on the call for grandiosity with an anthemic “whoa oh oh” chorus over swirling synths. It was inevitable that Seungri would peacock on a track about attracting a lover. Meanwhile, “Where R U From” has the playful attitude of a Psy banger, and the music video goes fittingly OTT at a U.N. meeting, with caricatures of world leaders. Then there’s “Mollado,” a Latin club banger that builds and breaks in all the right places. The BIGBANG maknae has clearly forged a sonic path of his own. -- C.K.
15. NCT 127, Regular-Irregular
Every good K-pop album has a strong concept, and with Regular-Irregular, NCT 127 delivered a high-brow vision for their debut full-length that arguably exemplifies Korea's pop-music scene. Utilizing the title's dueling motifs, the first half of the album offers what can be called a "regular" K-pop album, with the statement-making single "Regular," and various dips into various genres from EDM-pop to '90s-R&B and a quintessential ballad. The "Irregular" side sees the guys delivering hard hip-hop, electro-funk and even an English-language track -- the combination of the two making for one of K-pop's most ambitious projects of 2018. -- J.B.
14. iKON, Return
While iKON have been known for a cool image, Return revealed the septet's inner insecurities over beds of smooth hip-hop and R&B. The guys crave connection on the deceivingly upbeat "Love Me," tell their girl they know she loves another guy on the mournful "Just Go" and humbly try to appreciate a failed love on the piano-led "Love Scenario" -- which became one of the year's biggest hits. iKON's B.I wrote and produced on each track, but his solo song "One and Only" is the LP's most raw moment, where the group's leader discusses blazing his own path over making safe, chart-friendly music. -- J.B.
13. Monsta X, Take.1 Are You There?
If you played a word association game with Monsta X, you’d likely think, “vicious, energetic, hard-hitting.” You wouldn’t be wrong, as they bring a new sophistication to the menacing side of their discography. They burst in on “Shoot Out” with a rumbling wall of noise that launched a million memes. (The requisite gunshot sound effects later make an appearance on “Oh My.”) But the album’s standout track veers on the softer side of the spectrum: “Myself” is a dreamy incantation that builds up to a soaring electronic chorus. Clearly, this hip-hop boy band knows how to cool down after the adrenaline rush. -- C.K.
12. VIXX, Eau de VIXX
The always-conceptual, aesthetic-focused VIXX flex at their most creative for their third studio album. With the boy band's members having a heavy hand in the lyrics and production, they explore different genres with each song, showcasing various sides of the group. The lush synth work in lead single "Scentist" and R&B-tinged "Circle," clubby cuts "Trigger" and "My Valentine," seamlessly aligned with the acoustic, jazz-leaning "Resemble" and funky "Good Day" prove that the Eau de VIXX is as varied in its flavors as it is enjoyable. -- J.B.
11. (G)I-DLE, I Am
(G)I-DLE arrived in May with the release of I Am, and they have rapidly gone on to become one of the most popular new K-pop rookie groups of 2018. Fronted by their hit single “Latata,” this six-track EP explored a vivacious soundscape full of R&B and hip-hop-infused electro-pop, introducing the new act in a fierce, refreshing way before closing out with ballad “Hear Me.” Fiercely sweet, I Am raises anticipation for what the new girl group has to offer in coming years. -- T.H.
10. Drunken Tiger, Drunken Tiger X: Rebirth of Tiger JK
Since 1999, hip-hop crew Drunken Tiger has helped to bring the genre to the forefront of the South Korean music industry. But with Rebirth, its frontman Tiger JK -- who is now synonymous with the Drunken Tiger name -- puts the moniker to rest. The album includes 30 tracks over two albums and features over 20 collaborators, almost as if presenting a modern day Drunken Tiger crew (which includes a wide array of artists, like Yoonmirae and BTS’s RM). The album knows where it comes from and the weightiness it deserves as a send-off for Drunken Tiger. It flits between sonic styles and emotions, often bombastic, occasionally flippant, and all at once an epic requiem for one of the industry's most iconic acts. -- T.H.
9. SHINee, The Story of Light: Epilogue
One of the most innovative acts in the K-pop world, SHINee returned this year with their 10th anniversary Story of Light EP album series, concluding it with this compilation LP. Full of punchy, retro-leaning electro-pop and atmospheric R&B tracks, there’s a sense of nostalgia served up by the group’s impassioned vocals as the members lean into the sort of expressive pop they’ve led over the past decade. A brilliant listening experience in its own right, The Story of Light: Epilogue is even more impactful for being a poignant display of the team’s capability to keep shining following the passing of Kim Jonghyun last December. -- T.H.
8. Nu'est W, Wake,N
The finale of their run as Nu’Est W, a unit featuring four of the five Nu’Est members, Wake,N ended 2018 with six brilliantly composed tracks. Opening with haunting, impactful performances in the form of slow burn “L.I.E” and anxious synth-pop single “Help Me,” the EP then shifts gears and becomes more intimate, turning toward solo tracks from each of the members: Aron revels in laidback minimalism with “Wi-Fi.” Ren’s vocals soar on rock power ballad “You & I.” JR explores dark, electrifying bitterness in “I Hate You.” Then the album concludes with Baekho serving up all the “Feels” in his groovy, impactful dance track. Though it may be called Wake,N, Nu’est W’s latest EP is one dream of a listening experience. -- T.H.
7. Pentagon, Thumbs Up!
Pentagon had their breakout moment with their quirky spring smash "Shine," and that innovative spirit transferred to their entire Thumbs Up! EP. From mashing a sing-song-y style with layered R&B harmonies on lead single "Naughty Boy" to blending acoustic and stadium-sized guitar licks through anthemic choruses on "Just Do It Yo!!" -- this makes for one of the most satisfying boy band releases this year. -- J.B.
6. RM, mono.
BTS is basically just competing with themselves at this point. RM unseated bandmate J-Hope as the highest-charting Korean soloist on the Billboard 200 without much promotional effort. The leader has always been a connoisseur of contradiction -- his first mixtape, RM, reveled in his multifaceted nature, while here, he compresses opposing ideas into homonyms on “seoul”: “I’m leavin’ you/ I’m livin’ you.” Travel is his mode of existence as a touring superstar, but he’s still trying to catch up to his real self. mono. is the abbreviation of inner worlds that aren’t bound by one meaning. -- C.K.
5. EXO, Don't Mess Up My Tempo
EXO’s Don’t Mess Up My Tempo only arrived at the start of December, but it was certainly worth the wait for the vivid music it had to offer. Fronted by the funky a cappella-pop hybrid “Tempo,” which was released in both Korean and Chinese versions, the album features nine other new, expertly crafted EXO songs. The group put forth sounds both old and new, as several tracks revisited melodies and styles they’ve explored on albums in the past, like “Gravity” revisiting the melody of last year’s “Power.” Tempo genre-hops with ease as EXO incorporate elements of synth-pop, hip-hop, EDM, alt-R&B and Latin pop throughout, serving up one of the sleekest pop albums we’ve seen this year. -- T.H.
4. Heize, Wish & Wind
Heize is Korea’s patron saint of uneasy listening. Melding hip hop with jazz, her relaxed tunes mine painful experiences with specificity. This gorgeously textured EP is jam-packed with intricate details that take her songs to another level. The extended metaphor of “Jenga” forms the building blocks of lyrics about a tempestuous relationship. The fluidity of the switch between her rapping and singing is seamless on “but, are you?” On “Sorry,” her voice starts skipping when she sings “I’m just a machine who can’t be emotional / A machine who sings.” No wonder so many are braving the elements of her overcast moodscapes. -- C.K.
3. Sunmi, Warning
Sunmi opens her second solo EP with “ADDICT” by confronting us with the rhetorical question, “Who’s running the show?” Then the end cuts out to her chilling answer: “Me.” This declaration of control is not without warrant: Warning is the first solo album where her name is all over the songwriting credits. Lead single “Siren” brings all of the representations of power to a head. “Get away out of my face” is the barbed hook that anchors this eccentric spin on power-pop anthems, while the title of the track is a play on the double meanings of the mythological seductress and the danger signal.
The K-pop veteran’s album is full of challenges to outside views of her: “The beautiful me of your fantasies doesn’t exist,” she scolds on “Siren,” only to chip away at her defiance on the velvety smooth “Black Pearl.” Warning is a beautifully fragmented manifesto on self-perception that proves vulnerability and aggression can be two sides of the same coin. -- C.K.
2. Jonghyun, Poet / Artist
Before Jonghyun left us too soon in late 2017, the superstar recorded what would be his final full-length album -- in a stunning, albeit bittersweet reminder of the beloved singer, songwriter and producer's incredible talents. Poet / Artist explores the star's ability to take his Elvis Presley–like croons and apply it to anything from glittery disco-pop, experimental electronica and jazz ballads. In one of K-pop's most poignant and haunting musical moments this year, album closer "Before Our Spring" sees Jonghyun describing the tough times he's going through now as a cold winter, before attempting to comfort the listener, and insisting the metaphorical spring will be coming soon.
While it may be a tough listen for fans, the album is a beautiful, telling snapshot of the artist and poet Jonghyun was, and will continue to be for so many around the world. We miss him, but we'll always have the music. -- J.B.
1. BTS, Love Yourself: Answer
Over the past two years, BTS has risen to the top of the global music industry, selling out concerts around the world and making history time and time again In the middle of it all, they released their Love Yourself album series, through which the group weaved a thematic discovery of self-love. It culminated with the August release of Love Yourself: Answer, which followed second entry Love Yourself: Tear to become the group's second Billboard 200 chart topper, debuting at No. 1 upon its release. Divided into two discs that codify the songs of the Love Yourself era, Answer is a testament to BTS’ artistry and dedication to a creative narrative.
The first disc takes listeners through a multi-tiered perusal of the emotions that lead one to discovering self-love as a motivator for happiness and external love -- while the second features other songs, and then some additional variants, such as the Nicki Minaj featuring version of single “IDOL.” The primary essence of Answer’s grandeur lies in its first 16 tracks, which are split into three segments in parallel to the album series itself, each closing out with the respective song: “Tear,” “Her,” and “Answer: Love Myself.” With each third, BTS present a wide array of music, moving seamlessly between the likes of smooth alt R&B, sweet synthpop and angst-imbued hip-hop through both joint and solo tracks. They lyrically vacillate between representing the most intimate sides of the self and expressing universal emotions relating to love and identity.
Things culminate on an emotional, philosophical high with the closing four songs, as Jin’s “Epiphany” leads into the uplifting drum and bass of “I’m Fine,” a foil to the group’s 2016 single “Save Me." It is in turn followed by the declarative anthem “IDOL,” which incorporates traditional Korean musical elements, while everything is brought neatly to a close with the sweeping optimism of “Answer: Love Myself.” Though some may feel it’s a lot to ask of pop music to have substance as well as style, BTS’ Love Yourself: Answer lacks in neither regard. -- T.H.