The 12 Best K-Pop Albums of 2018

This may have been the year that America finally made room for South Korean music. While K-pop has had a seat at the head of the global table, it had yet to join Club America, an exclusive joint that happens to be going through an identity crisis. Over here, pop has been sliding down the charts, abdicating the throne to trap and SoundCloud rap. Meanwhile, Korean music (specifically pop) has been flourishing, gathering fans and plays at an exponential rate.

It would be a disservice to say that this was a watershed year for South Korean music, as many in the U.S. like to say, because it’s been a massively successful global industry for decades. But 2018 was undoubtedly a major year for its visibility in the Western world. BTS topped the Billboard 200 chart twice, spoke at the United Nations, and earned a Grammy nomination, while BLACKPINK became the fastest Korean girl group to reach 550 million music video views and collaborated with Dua Lipa. Korean artists embarked on world tours, including GOT7 and Monsta X (who closed iHeartRadio Jingle Ball). Most importantly, Korean artists made some of the most interesting, innovative, genre-bending albums this year — the kind of creative work that needs no translation.


But while K-pop (as well as K-hip-hop/rap, rock) is getting more attention, South Korean music is still fighting to assert its validity as a legitimate competitor on the world stage and shake off its status as a fleeting “phenomenon” attributed to its vocal fans. It is music that has even outgrown the sweeping “pop” label — it’s really more a watercolor of genres.

Picking the best from music from groups that produce multiple albums a year in addition to solo work is especially difficult; by default, this list cannot be comprehensive. Still, it aims to span the spectrum of releases. Ahead are some of the best Korean picks from this milestone year.

12. Day6 Shoot Me: Youth Part 1

We would be remiss not to recognize the five-piece who breathe life into their heartfelt anthems with every guitar strum. As is true with many Korean bands, Day6 doesn’t quite belong in the K-pop bucket. Day6 is a rock band who play their own instruments. They have shaken up the popular music landscape this year, challenging the unfair stereotype that Korean music is manufactured and sterile. From the punchy title track “Shoot Me” to the anthemic “Feeling Good,” Shoot Me: Youth Part 1 is a photo album of the rollercoaster that is coming of age.
11. Mamamoo Red Moon

As demonstrated in the four-season concept of their most recent LPs, the four women of Mamamoo have also matured as seasoned artists in their own right, taking more risks in their music and trusting their talents enough to pull it off with confidence. Of their work this year, nothing brought the heat like this summer’s Red Moon LP, led by Latin pop hit “Egotistic” and laced with smooth “Midnight Summer Dream” and refreshing “Sky! Sky!” It seems like Solar, Moonbyul, Wheein, and Hwasa are finally hitting their stride.
10. SHINee The Story of Light: Epilogue

If SHINee had decided to disband after the passing of beloved member Kim Jonghyun at the close of 2017, few would have faulted them for it. But this year proved one of unmatched strength of the remaining members of the group, who turned the darkest times into an opportunity to pour messages of hope and passion into their music. This album is both distinctly SHINee-esque — showcasing members Key, Onew, Taemin and Minho’s rich, illustrative, and powerful vocals — and slightly out-of-character, like when they play with drowsy dance-pop synths on “Good Evening” and bouncy tropical house sensibilities on “Countless.” The future of the group is uncertain again as Onew begins his mandatory military service and other members focus on solo work, but no obstacles can dull SHINee’s — well — shine.

By all accounts, NCT breaks all the rules. Its rotating roster of sub-units (in America, we might call them spin-offs or musical collectives, except that they're completely different) continues to shape-shift and confound. Its cultural makeup is diverse enough that it intentionally subverts the inherent “Koreaness” of the genre. Most notably, this collective really doesn’t seem to care whether or not it stays on trend. NCT 2018 Empathy, the group’s first album with all 18 members, is an amalgamation of some of the best work that they have done so far, from the hypnotic trap track “The 7th Sense” to the soaring ballad “Without You,” since their 2016 debut. In a time where pop seems to have largely stalled, there’s nothing more refreshing than hearing sonically creative work with daring production. This willingness to break the mold is what somehow ties the NCT vision together.
8. BLACKPINK Square Up

Blackpink continues to be one of the most mystifying acts in K-pop. Since their 2016 debut, the group has only released nine songs — nearly each one topping the global charts (especially hip-hop/electro-pop standouts “As If It’s Your Last” and “Playing With Fire”). Their only full album which contains their entire discography is sung in Japanese. Thankfully, this summer Blackpink released Square Up, a four-track LP fronted by "DDU-DU DDU-DU," the highest-charting Hot 100 song by female K-pop act. It shimmers with signature Blackpink cheekiness and effortless swagger, momentarily satiating the fans who are waiting for more.
7. Sunmi Warning

“Who’s running the show?” This question opens Warning, former Wonder Girls member Sunmi’s second LP. The answer, which you should know, is revealed in the end: “Me.” Throughout the five songs that comprise this September release, it’s apparent that we’re just guests in Sunmi’s seductive and dangerous world. No track reflects this more than standout hit “Siren,” where the singer likens herself to the Homeric character and describes a fatal attraction. This song alone makes it easy to see why so many are all-too-happy to fall under her spell.
6. Monsta X Take.1 Are You there?

Up until this year, Monsta X had a distinct character to their sound that had been all but perfected: aggressive, energetic, and seductive. That is, until Take.1 Are You there?, an album that highlights the septet’s dynamic range and evolution since their 2015 debut. A few tracks like their lead single “Shoot Out” and “Heart Attack” still glisten with the spitfire raps, passionate vocals, slick electronic production, and pops and growls that have defined much of their work. But it’s the more quiet moments, like the stripped-down, luscious “Myself” and the ethereal “Underwater,” that showcase the team’s impressive duality.
5. BoA Woman

This might be BoA’s ninth full-length album, but the pop icon still has much more to say. Not only did the industry vet come back with a vengeance, but she used this album to make a statement about inner beauty and female empowerment that is often left unsung in a society where gender politics remain risky territory. Woman is filled with lush R&B, trap, and future bass tracks that show BoA’s ability to keep up with trends without compromising her style. Title track “Woman” is BoA’s manifesto, with throbbing bass is laced with the click-clack of stilettos. She wrote all the lyrics for that song and she’s frequently credited as a co-composer on the album, so she’s walking the walk – in six-inch heels, no less.
4. EXO Don't Mess Up My Tempo

K-pop fans aren’t used to having to wait long for new music, a luxury that many realized they took for granted during the year EXO took to release their November comeback, Don't Mess Up My Tempo. The wait was worth it. The album is one of the band’s most fully actualized releases yet, building on melodies and themes of their past and leveraging the nine members’ greatest strengths: their vocal power (no more evident than in the a capella bridge of lead single “Tempo"), their sexy swagger, and the versatility of each member. EXO seems to get better as time goes on, so we’ll forgive them for making us sweat this time around.
3. Red Velvet The Perfect Red Velvet

Irene, Seulgi, Wendy, Joy and Yeri delight at every turn with expressive and powerful vocals, telling stories that transcend language barriers. They each stand confidently on their own, but shine even brighter when they’re united. The Perfect Red Velvet ebbs and flows between the sultry R&B standout track “Bad Boy” (arguably one of the best K-pop songs of the year, period) the cheeky, bright “Peek-A-Boo” and breathy, synth-laden “Look,” all the while painting a prismatic picture of femininity.
2. Key Face

When you’ve performed as part of a group for over a decade, it’s easy to lose your individual sound. But with Face, SHINee’s Key showed that he has a clear sense of self as Kim Kibum. This work highlights the singer’s retro taste and penchant for high drama, both of which are highlighted in glam-rock firestarter “Good Good” and Skrillex-penned groovy EDM track “Chemicals.” But it also contains honest, introspective moments, like “This Life,” which examines a moment of uncertainty. Face’s 10 tracks are ambitious for a debut solo album, which in itself is a testament to the supportive environment that helped nurture him.
1. BTS Love Yourself: Tear

BTS proved nearly untouchable this year, making headlines for their passionate fanbase (called ARMY), for breaking records on the Stateside charts, selling out stadiums around the world, and for speaking out about self-love at the UN. At the core of that success is their music. Most of it is self-written and produced, all assembled from a seamless blend of unique musical influences from South African dance music to traditional Korean pansori. It is all bursting with honest, raw emotion that speaks directly to young people.

Love Yourself: Tear is the middle chapter of the three albums in BTS’ Love Yourself series. It is by far the darkest, as it explores the hard reality of facing insecurities and self-doubt to heal. And it resonated: in May, it became the first album by a Korean act to top the Billboard 200. Tear is a journey, from the smoky, brooding opener “Singularity” (“My agonizing phantom pain is still the same, have I lost myself, or have I gained you?”) to the frustrations expressed in “Fake Love” (“I grew a flower that can’t be bloomed in a dream that can’t come true”), to the warm, safe haven described in the fan-dedicated “Magic Shop” (“You gave me the best of me, so you’ll give you the best of you”). One of the most powerful B-sides is “Paradise,” a welcome exhalation that presents listeners with the option to ignore ambitious dreams and instead be content in the here and now.

The album is undoubtedly some of the best work BTS has produced yet, providing a catharsis for both the group and all those who listen. The septet took a leap of faith this year, and the result has inspired across cultures and languages.
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