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.