Most fans would argue that it’s tough to find just a few K-pop albums that are solid listens from front to back in a calendar year, but 2015 marked 12 months of such remarkably impressive full-lengths that it’s splitting hairs to decide which of those records should be called the year’s best.
This year, K-pop acts began stepping away from depending on one big single to lead a (usually) lackluster album and created larger bodies of work for a deeper exploration of what makes each act’s identity. The following 10 releases are not just a handful of hot tracks, but an artistic statement. Following Billboard‘s inaugural ranking last year, here are the Top 10 K-pop albums of 2015.
10. Rise as God, TVXQ!
While fans of the K-pop icons won’t have new music from Max and U-Know for at least two years after they enlisted in South Korea’s mandatory military service, TVXQ! did leave their fans with loads of gifts. Rise as God includes some of the finest productions of the year as both singers showcased their individual styles on solo tracks (U-Know opted for slick funk on “Champagne,” while Max jumped into uplifting EMD on “Rise as One”). But most importantly, the tracks where TVXQ! performs together burst with the band’s signature personality and charisma that it felt more like a promising “see you later” than any type of “goodbye.”
9. 17 Carat, Seventeen
The most impressive male rookie of the year, Seventeen came out of nowhere with a cohesive yet diverse set of tracks that showcased all of the group’s promise. Their impressive versatility was clear via the genre-swirling gem of a lead single “Adore U,” the anthemic “Shining Diamond,” hip-hop jams “Ah Yeah” and “Jam,” plus the rock-pop cut “20.”
8. No.5, 2PM
An excellent full-length is dependent on an artist knowing its identity and 2PM delivered what very well may be its most representative album to date with No.5. The group brings their usual array of R&B-tinged jams to the table, but do so in a way that feels way more subtle and sophisticated than past releases with everything from upbeat, swoony singles to sultry knockout numbers.
7. The Red, Red Velvet
The concept behind girl group Red Velvet is to show both bright poppy music (the “Red”) and a sultry R&B side (the “Velvet),” but for their debut full-length the outfit went full Red and created one of the year’s most enjoyable and experimental pop LPs. The brassy “Dumb Dumb” brings funk-pop to a bizarre new land while standouts like “Red Dress,” “Oh Boy” and “Cool World” effortlessly blend the year’s trendiest sounds (synth-pop, trap, ’90s dance) into easily deliciously digestible confections.
6. Chat-Shire, IU
As she continues to demonstrate throughout her career, IU knows how to take the sounds of yesterday and update them to stunning results. Her latest focuses on disco and soul music, yet the subtle ballads “Knees” and the melodica-led “The Shower” speak even louder than the funky-fun up-tempos.
5. Wondaland, MFBTY
A hip-hop album for the world, Wondaland sees Tiger JK, Yoon Mirae and Bizzy (a.k.a. MFBTY) transcend Korea’s rap scene for the year’s most ambitious hip-hop release. Songs like “Bang Diggy Bang Bang” best represent their mission by mixing traditional Korean instruments with thumping beats, all topped off by the trio’s rapid-fire deliveries. After successfully helping usher rap to Korea, MFBTY are clearly looking to widen their reach and do so with fascinating rap tracks deserving of multiple replays.
4. The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt. 2, BTS
Pt. 2 solidifies BTS’ place in the K-pop scene as the band not only showcased their emotional take on hip-hop with the single “Run,” but proved they aren’t afraid to tackle topics typically avoided by most K-pop acts. “Whailen 52” hints at feelings of depression and isolation while “Autumn Leaves” symbolized a relationship slowly dying — both of which use fascinating metaphors to make their points. Meanwhile, the album’s opening and closing tracks, “Never Mind” and “House of Cards,” showcase some of K-pop’s most impassioned rap performances of the year as the band deliver cries of help while balancing the pressures of their careers.
3. Basic, Brown Eyed Girls
Further proving they’re K-pop’s most reliable provocateurs, Brown Eyed Girls’ latest LP doesn’t change up their usual shtick of being genre-less, boundary-pushers. Instead, Basic sees the quartet further refining their role in K-pop with their most sophisticated body of work yet. The group is dabbling in new genres (disco, blues, Latin-jazz) and being even bolder about the topics they’re tackling (“Warm Hole” is a not-so-subtle metaphor to discuss female masturbation) for a sexy release that feels like a true representation of BEG that no other group could successfully pull off.
2. 4 Walls, f(x)
Known for crafting some of the best full-length K-pop albums, f(x) did not disappoint with their long-awaited 4 Walls comeback. Despite losing a member, the group showed they hadn’t missed a beat by embracing trendy dance sounds like deep house on the stunning title track, “Rude Love” and “Deja Vu.” But while EDM might get a bad rap for lack of personality, f(x) put their spin on the genre with their chill-inducing harmonies and unexpected samples throughout. The album closer “When I’m Alone” (which was written by underrated pop heroine Carly Rae Jepsen) sees the group dive into moody synth-pop for their most gorgeous composition yet and indicates there’s so much more to be seen in the group’s bright future.
1. Reboot, Wonder Girls
Much of K-pop is based around the idea of a “concept.” Groups are created with a concept (you’re a cute girl group, you’re a hip-hop boy band) and the beloved Wonder Girls were no exception, debuting with a ’50s/’60s retro sound. After the act went on hiatus in 2013, Wonder Girls reemerged this summer with a new lineup (original members Sun and Sohee left, departed vocalist Sunmi returned) and new concept (’80s pop-rock instead of brassy bops). Sonically, the results were super-impressive with lead single “I Feel You” arguably not even the best on the album. Reboot explores Madonna-esque dance pop (see “Baby Don’t Play,” “Candle”) to dark-leaning synth-rock (“One Black Night,” “Loved”) and even gives a nod to the early days of hip-hop (“Back”).
But most importantly, Reboot showcases the importance of a concept and what happens when an act believes in that concept. Wonder Girls wrote or played instruments (!) on nearly every track. It’s that type of dedication to your concept, nay art, that makes for a body of work that rises above the rest. As previously mentioned, this year was filled with a spectacular amount of K-pop album releases, but the best comes when the act fully embraces what makes them unique.