Even diehard fans will admit that it’s tough to find an entire K-pop album worthy of being labelled brilliant from start to finish. But there were a select group of artists who proved the notion wrong with cohesive bodies of work in 2014. (And see our list of the 20 best K-pop songs here.)
10. Rain – Rain Effect
The K-pop veteran’s first release since being discharged from South Korea’s mandatory military service, Rain showed how to make a comeback people would pay attention to with a collection of the year’s best beats. There were hot singles (“La Song,” “30Sexy”) and on-point collaborations (HyunA on the zippy “Oppa”), making for a template any star away from the spotlight would be wise to use.
9. CNBLUE – Can’t Stop
A release that could get even a K-pop skeptic’s head bobbing, tracks like “Can’t Stop” and the Coldplay-esque “Like a Child” are some of the most accessible Korean rock tunes to come out of the scene this year. Meanwhile, the album gets deeper into the scene with cuts like the gritty ballad “Cold Love” and feisty rock jam “Diamond Girl.”
8. Epik High – Shoebox
Shoebox is not only the best hip-hop album to come out of the K-pop scene this year, but also the most brilliantly dark. There’s arresting lyrical content from the band detailing private struggles (“Amor Fati”), laments (“Happen Ending”) and angst (“Spoiler”), which all get a backdrop of top-notch, lavish productions.
7. B.A.P – First Sensibility
While the boy band initially found fame for hip-hop/EDM offerings, B.A.P’s first full-length album embraced a slew of new genres to excellent results. The gospel-pop sound made popular by OneRepublic leads the album via first single “1004 (Angel),” but there’s also hard rock (“BangX2”), ’90s hip-hop (“Spy”) and dance-pop (“B.A.B.Y,” “Lovesick”).
6. Taeyang – Rise
The BIGBANG member’s summer record is the shining example of how to make a good R&B album today. There aren’t many elaborately flamboyant moments, but instead an emphasis on vocal performance (“Eyes, Nose, Lips,” “Let Go”) and strong melodies (“Stay With Me,” “Love You to Death”) with a few tracks allowing for experimentation (“Body,” “Ringa Linga”). America responded to Rise by breaking the record for highest-charting album for solo K-pop acts.
5. HA:TFELT – Me?
Originally known as Yenny from the beloved Wonder Girls, the singer rebranded herself as HA:TFELT for her debut release Me?. Dabbling in everything from trap to EDM to indie folk, the starlet made not only her emotions raw (felt in songs like “Peter Pan” and lead single “Ain’t Nobody”), but even left her vocals unedited in the brilliant “Nothing Lasts Forever” that appears to have her voice recorded on a laptop.
4. Seotaiji – Quiet Night
The K-pop legend broke his five-year hiatus with this fascinating deep exploration of old-school synthesizers. There’s an unshakeable Nightmare Before Christmas feeling throughout the disc, most obviously felt on tracks like “Christmalo.Win” that mentions elements of both Christmas wine and trick-or-treating, while album closer “The Christmas Miracle” finishes the LP with woodwinds, squishy synths and jingle bells.
3. IU – A Flower Bookmark
Having already conquered pop, folk and jazz on her past albums, the honey-voiced singer really went back to basics to remake hit songs from past decades and update them for a modern-day audience. The result is a soothing mix of classic K-pop melodies, some that have been given a fascinating sonic spin, like the disco-flavored cover of “Pierrot Laugh at Us.”
2. Nell – Newton’s Apple
The strongest rock album of the year, Newton’s Apple highlights Nell’s vocalist/chief composer Kim Jong Wan’s clever and honest songwriting skills, best heard on the single “Four Times Around the Sun” and “Grey Zone” (the latter track featuring the band pushing themselves to record in English). All the lyrics are wrapped in warm, lush arrangements and instrumentals that enchant the listener simply by themselves.
1. 2NE1 – Crush
The phenom’s second full-length proved more than worth the nearly-four-year wait with Crush bringing everything 2NE1 fans were waiting for. The album sees the girls exploring new sonic territory via the reggae/trap hybrid single “Come Back Home,” straight-up R&B cuts “Baby I Miss You” and “Good to You” as well as leader CL rocking out solo on “MTBD.”
But opening the record with “Crush,” with its bewitching Middle-Eastern vibe and aggressive attitude similar to their signature hit “I Am the Best” proved that the girls know where their roots lie and they’re happy to treat fans while still evolving as artists. Fans responded accordingly and Crush debuted at No. 61 on the Billboard 200, marking the highest chart position and biggest sales week for a K-pop album ever.