It’s been a decade since BoA and Wonder Girls became the first K-pop acts to arrive on the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 charts in 2009, and since then the South Korean music industry’s presence in the global music scene has grown exponentially.
With this growth has come a type of K-pop that is always pushing the boundaries and limitations of traditional song structures and genre norms; the question, “What makes K-pop, K-pop?” has become almost philosophical.
In a year of immense tragedy and unnerving legal issues, many artists released albums that addressed their feelings about the end of the decade, and shared how they want listeners to approach the world. Others spent their time ruminating on interpersonal relationships, leaning into the age-old godsend of pop music’s ability to give humanity an escape from the world via captivating love songs.
This year, Billboard critics picked the best K-pop albums with these narratives — as well as accomplished musicianship — in mind. The list below features releases that touched on a range of emotions: some were happy, some were sad, some were full of anger. They also featured a multitude of genres: some were pop, some were hip-hop, and some were like nothing you’ve ever heard before.
25. Day6, The Book of Us: Entropy
This year saw Day6 share part of their story through their The Book of Us album series, with July’s EP, subtitled Gravity, followed by October’s LP, Entropy. The pop-rockers’ unleashed “Sweet Chaos” through the 11 tracks of the latter, littering them with hope and anxieties about romantic moments and life itself. The Book of Us: Entropy introduces new sides to the band, through a listening experience that is like a whirlwind of emotions leading to an entropic state, one moment quirky and dynamic and the next mellow and melancholic. — TAMAR HERMAN
24. Mamamoo, reality in BLACK
If black is the absorption of all visible colors, then Mamamoo’s second full-length album had an appropriate title: reality in BLACK featured the largest array of musical styles the group had tackled to date. That lead single “HIP” had flourishes of electro swing — a genre they hinted at in the outro of their very first music video — was a sign of the ambition to come. Opener “Destiny” is a country western song with an erratic hip-hop outro, “Universe” is R&B that’s as sweet and elastic as taffy, and “ZzZz” is elegantly carnivalesque. Mamamoo, ever-capable of projecting charisma in their vocalizing, handled every song with a charming effortlessness. — JOSHUA MINSOO KIM
23. ATEEZ, Treasure Ep. Fin: All To Action
From its atmospheric, chant-filled intro “End of the Beginning” to its callback-infused outro “Beginning of the End,” ATEEZ’s first full-length album is a true trove of musical riches. Treasure Ep. Fin: All to Action leans into the group’s prior releases, keeping their typical introspective bombast while showing new sides to the team with the infusion of new musical styles, with songs flitting between genres to create an album that’s almost cinematic in feel. Impressive and rousing, it’s a fitting finale for their debut album series, and preps ATEEZ for a new stage of their career. — T.H.
22. BoA, Starry Night
If consistency was currency, then BoA would be the richest Korean artist of the 21st century: her discography is an embarrassment of riches. Starry Night may not boast the flashiest of songs, but it showcases an artist with an enviable level of confidence. BoA’s voice — simultaneously lucid and robust — sensitively maneuvers between charming ballads and slick, mid-tempo R&B. She constantly works in conjunction with the instrumentation — jazzy Rhodes chords, buoyant house beats, sturdy funk basslines — to ensure these low-key songs are riveting. It’s accomplished so naturally that it’s easy to take her talent for granted. — J.M.K.
21. Tomorrow X Together, The Dream Chapter: Magic
In their first year out, Tomorrow X Together proved that they’re a group that shines beyond their (undoubtedly, excellent) pop singles with their early promise felt in their first full-length project. “Can’t We Just Leave the Monster Alive?” and “Magic Island” see the guys nuzzling into warm electro-pop, paired alongside the rambunctious vigor of the bouncy “Popping Star” and “Angel or Devil.” But they also show their power as vocalists on R&B ballad “20cm” with Magic painting them as full-fledged, well-rounded performers. — JEFF BENJAMIN
20. SF9, RPM
After the exhilarating maturity of Narcissus, SF9 continued on their journey of musical evolution with RPM, which saw them adroitly traverse the fine line between soft, silken smooth pop, electrifying synths, and hard-hitting raps. The album packs a ferocious punch end to end, pulling us further into the enchanting universe of SF9, whether it’s the futuristic dystopia on the eponymous “RPM,” the addictively ambitious “Dreamer,” or the compelling earnestness of “Liar.” Every song crafts and fuses genres expertly, setting SF9 up as ones to watch for 2020. — L. Singh
19. Oh My Girl, Fall In Love
Everything that was lovely and precocious from Oh My Girl’s May release The Fifth Season was revisited and then enhanced in the repackaged Fall In Love, which arrived in August to add boisterous electro-pop seasonal feels on songs like “Bungee (Fall In Love)” and “Tropical Love” to sit besides OMG’s earlier fare of melodic synth-pop, such as on “The Fifth Season (SSFWL),” and the fierce vibes of brassy stand out “Checkmate.” Since their debut, OMG has served up captivating pop songs built around the excellence of its members’ voices, and Fall In Love is the perfect culmination of it all. — T.H.
18. IU, Love Poem
Over the six tracks of Love Poem, IU shows us what an excellent purveyor of emotions she is. On “Blueming,” there is the foot-tapping, finger-wringing hide and seek of courting; on “Love Poem,” the shattering resignation of accepting that you’ve lost this love, but also the steely determination of holding on until your fingers bleed. Love Poem is a thesis making you feel entirely helpless and human as you taste varieties of love and heartbreak on your tongue. More than that, it’s a testament to IU’s exceptional command over her artistry: she swallows, soars, reaches into the depths of your heart and pulls on the strings. She is the product of cosmic serendipity, and we will never have another of her calibre. — L.S.
17. Monsta X, Follow-Find You
While Monsta X became more known for a more hardcore approach to K-pop, Follow-Find You sees the band returning to lighter fare. The EP was introduced with the serene synth ballad “Find You” before the release of energetic party single “Follow,” which recalls some of Monsta X’s most dynamic releases. The two energies are represented throughout the EP with edgy cuts like the industrial “Monsta Truck” and boom-bap–inspired “Disaster,” paired with the acoustic-leaning “U R” and the warm and brassy “Mirror.” — J.B.
16. BTS, Map of the Soul: Persona
In the year of BTS, the act furthered their messaging from exploring self-love to understanding oneself, and fittingly moved on from the Love Yourself trilogy to ruminate on Jungian psychology in the form of Map of the Soul: Persona. Each of its seven tracks explore a different element of identity while simultaneously reveling in all that BTS and their fandom ARMY have achieved, with nods to the act’s earlier releases littered throughout. Both celebratory and thoughtful through its blend of songs that serve up poetic, witty lyrics alongside charismatic melodies and beats, Map of the Soul: Persona is exactly the type of reflective pop music that BTS excels in, and it’s precisely what the world needs at the end of the 2010s. So take one shot, two shot, and drink to “Dionysus” while ringing in the new decade. — T.H.
15. Ailee, Butterfly
Ailee has consistently blown listeners away with her soulful, Beyoncé-like vocals and Butterfly is a timestamp for her growing musicality and genre exploration. Butterfly dives into the hip-hop sound with the anthemic lead single “Room Shaker” while the starlet soars through euphoric electronic-pop (on the standout album opener “Midnight” and sassy “Fire”), snappy electro-R&B (“Love,” “Heartcrusher”), power ballads (“You Are Precious Because of Who You Are”) and her signature brassy soul (“Want It” and “Headlock”). — J.B.
14. TWICE, Feel Special
If Feel Special sounds slightly different than what you’re used to from the decade’s top girl group it’s because it was, well, special. “Rainbow” and the title track share comforting, encouraging messages inspired by the group’s personal struggles delivered via the sophisticated pop production that only TWICE can pull off. Their maturity is also felt as they venture into more melancholy territory on “Love Foolish” and show gratitude by co-writing a thank-you track to fans on “21:29,” marking the first time all nine members wrote on a song together. — J.B.
13. Sumin, OO DA DA
Sumin’s versatility is hard to deny: she’s written songs for Red Velvet and BTS, covered Twice’s “TT,” made a collaborative mini-album that mined R&B’s past, and was featured on addictive dance tracks from Jengi and SHAUN. While last year’s Your Home saw Sumin dipping her toes into art pop, OO DA DA finds her diving in completely. There’s footwork-like drum programming on “MEOW,” PC Music influence on the dizzying “BEE,” and an astral slow jam in “STARDUST” — at a mere 18 minutes, this mini album is more densely packed with ideas than releases twice its length. To boot, the music came accompanied with a seven-minute music video that matched its kaleidoscopic breadth; Sumin’s ambition is relentless. — J.M.K.
12. Baekhyun, City Lights
A consummate performer after years as central vocalist in EXO, for his solo debut Baekhyun let his more sensual side show on his sleek debut EP City Lights. Everything about the album is smooth, with alt R&B taking center stage, whether it’s when he sings full of desire in single “UN Village” or creates an addicting dance track in fan-favorite “Betcha.” It may just be his first album but City Lights’s excellence brightened up the world in 2019, and is hopefully just the first of what’s to come from soloist Baekhyun as he begins pursuing this new solidary path alongside his career in EXO. — T.H.
11. Heize, She’s Fine
By the time one is through She’s Fine, the phrase itself has been woven into the tapestry of one’s soul, taking on a whole new meaning. Accompanied by the illustrious likes of sunwoojunga, Colde, Simon Dominic, and others, Heize employs her R&B, hip-hop, and jazz roots to interpret the meaning of being fine from multifaceted lenses: as a distraction (“She’s Fine”), as selfless but unrequited devotion (“Tree Only Look At You”), or as the bittersweet consolation that one may not be fine now, but things will look up eventually (“E.T.”). Satin-soft sensitivity wraps the album in warm comfort, drawing one into Heize’s heart and proving why she is one of the most colorful and exciting artists of her generation. — L.S.
10. Crush, From Midnight to Sunrise
From the lush piano chords that open the record, From Midnight to Sunrise sounds like a classic soul album you’d put on a turntable and let the jazzy mood wash over you. The LP stirs together ’80s-inspired synths ballads, acoustic R&B, and even bumping clubby beats, but it all keeps the artistic vision intact to make this a body work best experienced as a full listening session — preferably late at night. — J.B.
9. Dreamcatcher, Raid Of Dream
Here is a theory: one night, things at an Evanescence party got intense. They got the cauldron out, cast a few spells and bam! We had Dreamcatcher. With this album, they said goodbye to their “Nightmare” era and ushered in a new mythic world of Lovecraftian horror, ensnaring us with visions of chimerical dreams, unbreakable curses, and strange visitors in the middle of the night. Woven seamlessly into their characteristic rock sound is eerie dubstep and soft pop that gives a deceptive pause — a deliciously thrilling album to accompany a dark night. — L.S.
8. Stray Kids, Clé 1: Miroh
Stray Kids produce and write their own music, but Clé 1: Miroh was their clearest musical vision yet as a multidimensional, genre-less group. The EP has honest songs about navigating life, like electro-hip-hop banger “Boxer,” the rap/rock hybrid of “Maze of Memories” and R&B throbber “19,” uplifting anthems in the EDM-inspired “Victory Song” and rousing title track, and some brilliant deeper meanings; “Chronosaurus” combines Chronos, the Greek god of time, and Kronosaurus, a humongous crocodile-like dinosaur, to represent time as a monster. — J.B.
7. Giriboy, 100 Years College Course
Another year, another reason to admire Giriboy’s chameleonic navigation of both pop and rap. While the main event on 100 Years College Course is the vibrant posse cut “I’m Sick,” there’s much to admire in every song. “Rain Drop” interpolates Migos’s “Bad and Bougie” but sounds like a nauseous hangover, “Bitter Worlds” is lackadaisical and unexpectedly therapeutic, and the Heize-featuring “Traffic Control” is built around a lively bossa nova rhythm. Giriboy blends it all with ease, and he could teach many people a thing or two about making a coherent album from songs employing disparate styles. — J.M.K.
6. GOT7, Call My Name
GOT7 were at their most cohesive meandering through the complexities of loss, repentance and undying fidelity on Call My Name. Helmed by the title track “You Calling My Name” — easily one of the best title tracks of this year, with sensual R&B that devolves into titillating disco — the album hops from trop-house to trap and soul, all bound together by a maturity that we’ve been getting peeks of since 2018’s Eyes On You. Let’s all raise a toast to this glow-up: we were neither ready nor worthy. — L.S.
5. LOONA, [X X]
LOONA collected a large fanbase for the forward-thinking, experimental synth-pop gems shared ahead of their debut with their sophomore release fully delivering on that promise. A tightly packed project leaving no room for filler, [X X] gets the title for best K-pop girl group album for tracks that move the listener through their own journeys like the twisty production on “Colors” and the blend of high and low vocals through “Curiosity.” But the heart of the project undoubtedly comes from the inspiring lead single “Butterfly” which carries a palpable emotion all the way through the heartbreaking album closer “Where You At.”? — J.B.
4. EXO, OBSESSION
Polarizing their fandom by introducing their evil doppelgangers X-EXO, EXO dove deeper into their mythology through this treatise on desire and inner conflict, but it’s not the only thing that makes OBSESSION such an exceptional album. Transitioning from one genre to another with astonishing fluidity — from the steady bass and looping synth vocals on “Obsession,” to the reggae riffs on “Trouble,” to the sensual, buttery dance extravaganza on “Groove,” to classic, thumping hip-hop on “Ya Ya Ya” sampling SWV’s “You’re The One” — OBSESSION is EXO’s most artistically diverse and sound work yet, proving that being an industry veteran does not mean retreating into your comfort zone. — L.S.
3. Lim Kim, Generasian
Throughout the past decade, the boldest music coming out of Korea was always K-pop. Its audacious genre-blending was a source of constant marvel, and those in the underground rarely reached such iconoclastic levels of songwriting. Lim Kim’s Generasian is the rare exception of an album removed from the industry that constantly stuns for its maximalist patchwork of sounds. There’s traces of FKA twigs’s otherworldly R&B, M.I.A.’s globe-trotting brand of hip-hop, and the brash sound design of deconstructed club music.
Kim had found her time in K-pop to be unfulfilling: she felt confined by how she, as a woman, could present herself. Generasian finds her transcending any and all limitations: “I refuse to be your slave,” she announces on “DIGITAL KHAN.” There’s a boundlessness to these songs that’s even felt in the incorporation of traditional Korean music. “MINJOKYO (ENTRANCE)” makes reference to sinawi shamanism, has pansori vocalizing, and traces of court music. Lead single “YELLOW” has a modernized take on gayageum sanjo but throws in the sounds of taepyeongso and kkwaenggwari to create a sublime anthem of Asian femininity. On Generasian, Lim Kim defined for herself who she could be — as a woman, as an Asian, as an artist — and every genre-agnostic song carried these declarations with genuine fearlessness. — J.M.K.
2. Sulli, Goblin
As an idol who was criticized for innocuous actions, yet remained brazenly outspoken on issues related to feminism and harassment, Sulli was a star worth admiring for reasons far beyond her artistic endeavors. Goblin is consequently a challenging listen in the aftermath of her death — its lyrics, all of which she co-wrote, are lived-in and thought-provoking, inevitably drawing listeners to the mental health struggles she had commented on. But despite the potential for being overwhelmingly somber, these tracks are comforting in their honesty: Sulli’s experiences are put into song, and swaths of people can feel spoken for.
Most intriguing about Goblin is how its songs teem with a provocative curiosity: of self, of mortality, of a (head)space in which one can live peacefully. The title track reckons with the allure of disparate, intrusive thoughts and is set to music fit for childlike fantasies: homey accordions, bright metallophones, plinking pianos. “On the Moon” has a similarly pleasant aura whilst making reference to Galaxy Express 999, a film and manga series that features a train whose final stop leads one to finding immortality. “Dorothy,” the most arresting of B-sides this year, melds reverberating piano keys with a jungle beat. Its new age veneer and plaintive, pensive ambiance forges a place of comforting repose: an oasis that seems frozen in time. There’s a sense that despite the stresses and pains of life, she found contentment. She exists still, in her songs and in her actions — Goblin reassures us of that, all while providing inimitable comfort. — J.M.K.
1. Seventeen, An Ode
After starting out their career making a name for themselves with one bright and fresh hit after another, Seventeen have spent much of the past two years sorting out what it means to be a boy band maturing away from its original musical styling. As an act that has had members producing its music since the start of their career, the 13-member team has been able to experiment and try out new things over the years while attempting to sort out what it means to be Seventeen. An Ode is the culmination of that, as a pristinely-produced 11-track LP that spends its time showcasing the group’s distinct artistry while showing that they haven’t left their youthful, playful past behind wholly but have grown into their own sonically.
Beginning with the promise of sharing their rambunctious “Hit” sound with the world in the straight up banger of an opening track, the poetic nature of An Ode begins with the melodious “Lie Again,” which leads to the drama of the introspective lead single “Fear.” “Let Me Hear You Say” with its rollicking take on Seventeen’s brand of playful electronic dance tracks follows and opens up the album to its central section, leading into the section where smaller units of members get to show off their musical flair.
The atmospheric rhythmic ballad feels of “247,” which features the act’s performance team, are followed by the primary vocalists coming together on “Second Life” to sing about their hopes for another lifetime together with a loved one, before the act’s foreign members team up on the funky standout “Network Love,” which takes a few groovy moments to explore what it means to be in relationships in the digital age. The siren-fueled hip-hop team’s “Back It Up” completes the unit-oriented part of An Ode, and leads into the final three songs of the album. Things close out with a Korean version of previously-released Japanese single “Happy Ending,” but the group’s early style of warm and bubbly songs appears on “Lucky” and “Snap Shoot” before it arrives.
Throughout it all, An Ode may be aimed at listeners but it is truly an homage to Seventeen’s thoughts and artistry, and showed us all how to remain earnest to an identity while still evolving. And it’s an instant K-pop classic because of it. — T.H.