2016 turned out to be a busy year for may Korean artists. From singles, to music videos, to albums, fans were showered by an influx of new material almost every day in 2016. And while we’ve already addressed the best Korean songs and music videos of the year, now it’s time for albums. Unlike previous years, this time around, KultScene staff picked the albums we liked the most instead of arbitrarily choosing the best K-pop albums. Some were biased, some were genuinely blown away by new findings. But overall, these albums spoke volumes to us in 2016.
Flight Log: Turbulence by GOT7
GOT7’s Flight Log: Turbulence is the second part of what seems to be a potential (and hopeful) series. All hands were on deck, as this was the first album in which all seven members had full involvement and participation in composition and lyric writing. For the first time since their 2014 debut, JYP Entertainment’s very own founder and notorious whisperer, Park Jinyoung, had no part in the album. Since debuting, “Flight Log: Turbulence” is the first album where lines were so evenly distributed, probably because the members had the most say this time around and were able to divide up the parts on their own terms and not through someone else. The entirety of this album was greatly diversified, unique, and even sentimental at times. Moreover, the member’s individual personalities shone right through each song. These guys were big on dancing from the get-go, so it’s no wonder that Flight Log: Turbulence was heavily influenced with climatic tunes. Most of the songs on this album can easily be dance tracks because, why wouldn’t GOT7 be inclined to break out into some sort of electrifying choreography to express themselves? They’re a little less than a month shy of their three year anniversary but they’ve shown an ample amount of growth, both musically and as entertainers, within the last eight months. GOT7 has had quite the hot year and we can’t wait to see them rise even higher in 2017.
End Again by Ga-In
No one in K-pop crafts a mini-album quite like Ga-In. With the mini-album End Again she approached death with confidence. The album tells the story of Carrie, remembering the time she had with her lover. “End Again” is built upon predominantly orchestral sounds. The sound of each song fits its mood and place in the album. In the opener “Carrie (The First Day),” Ga-In thinks of her conversations with him; they “become songs and remain.” This moves into her death march and single “Carnival (The Last Day),” which ends on a distinctly ominous few notes. “Forest of Fireflies” is the only real solemn moment on the album. It’s her goodbye, a ballad that relinquished the filler ballad title thanks to its placement and beauty. “Secret” is the best of the lot. A sexy take on what came before with pulsing bass that drives the sensual chorus. The album ends with “End Again,” an instrumental that sounds more like an interlude than an ending. Yet in the context of Ga-In’s work, it is the last flicker of life.
130 Mood : TRBL by DEAN
Riding on the buzz of one of the hottest debuts in 2015, singer/songwriter/producer DEAN finally dropped his album this year and showed us all how R&B is really done. And then he took it further. In one word, his debut album 130 Mood : TRBL is perfection. Right from the pounding knocks on “And You (Outro)” to the funkiness of “21,” the album instantly disconnects you from reality for its duration, taking you on a soothingly sexy trip. While two of the songs (“Pour Up feat. Zico” and “I Love It feat. Dok2”) had already been released, he added them to the album’s track list, which only complemented the themes of passion, excess, and heartbreak. While cohesive, every track on the album stands on its own: “Bonnie & Clyde” is hauntingly addictive, “what2do” with Crush and Jeff Bernat just as sweet vocals rip our hearts out with their melodies, and “D (Half Moon)” only makes us fall for the singer even deeper. There’s emotion in Korean R&B, of course, but no one does it like DEAN. He revolutionized the genre by bringing an experimental and trendy sound to it, not to mention he probably single-handedly put the sexiness in it too. 130 Mood : TRBL has it all: soul, falsettos, ethereal harmonies, and raw emotions. And if his multiple collaborations from artists like Heize, Taeyeon, and Zico aren’t an indication that this kid is a musical genius, I don’t know what is.
Daydream by DAY6
DAY6 made me a fan of theirs when they made their debut last year with The Day, but the release of Daydream made me even more convinced that I was stanning the right band. Their musical talents on full display, this album was made up of songs filled with the contributions of various members of the group, whether in songwriting or lyric writing. In particular, the first song, “First Time” was composed by all five members, and it’s truly one of the highlights of this album. Although they’re technically still a rookie group, they already have a unique identity and colour of their own as musicians. The best part? They’re seriously enjoying what they’re doing, and that’s evident from the passion they pour into each of their tracks. 2017 is set up to be a busy year for DAY6, and I do hope they’ll gain more well-deserved recognition in due time.
Also on KultScene: Top Korean Albums of 2015
1 and 1 by SHINee
SHINee’s immense talent is undeniable, and the nostalgia-inducing 1 and 1 is a perfect addition to their eternally-exploratory discography. This album, a repackage of this year’s 1 of 1, turns the auditory experience to retro elements, most noticeably on the new jack swing “1 of 1” and similarly ‘90s-esque “So Amazing.” There’s a very SHINee sense on this album, with each song providing a new sonic attitude, but still extolling the group’s blended vocal skills. Songs like “Tell Me What To Do,” a phenomenal single that’s only low note is a forced rap section, and “Feel Good” seem like natural extensions of 2013’s “Symptoms,” keeping SHINee within the realm of the emotionally charged dancepop music. Individually, each track is a pleasure to listen to, but 1 and 1 as a whole showcases SHINee’s multifaceted approach to music and is one of the best albums out of Korea this year.
Free Somebody by Luna
With triumphant bangers and emotive vocals, Luna‘s solo debut Free Somebody is by far my favorite musical body of work released this year. A six song mini album, Free Somebody allows Luna to shine as both a pop star and ballad artist, alternating slow, evocative songs with EDM-influenced dancepop songs. From the house genre titular track to the introspective “Breathe,” to the climactic “Galaxy,” Luna is swift and confident in creating a diverse and unique musical footprint for herself within the K-pop world. With self-compositions “I Wish” and “My Medicine” shining among dance-oriented gems like “Keep On Doin’,” the album demonstrates Luna’s versatility as a one-woman music machine, full of talent and potential to impact the listener with a variety of genres and musical stylings. In 2016, I deem this album the most likely to both move you to dance and move you to tears.
Infinite Only by INFINITE
A year after their last album came out, INFINITE released their sixth mini-album Infinite Only. The majority of this album was produced by Woollim producers Rpahbet to deliver the signature sound that the group has been expressing for the past few releases. This album is a good mix of fast paced dance tracks to softer rock sounds and ballads that complement the boys’ varying vocal ranges and styles. The title song, “The Eye,” has no rap verses (à la “Back”) and showcases all of the members’ vocals. Some members even participated in writing lyrics and music: Hoya and Dongwoo wrote some of the lyrics for “One Day” and “True Love,” while Hoya wrote some of the music for “One Day.” But if there was one member who seemed to shine on this album, it would have to be L. Compared to previous songs, L’s vocals have greatly improved earning him longer more prominent parts like singing the climax of “One Day” as opposed to Woohyun or Sunggyu (that’s not to say that they were not great, their singing is always superb). Overall, this album was a solid addition to Infinite’s discography that any Inspirit would enjoy.
Wings by BTS
After a long awaited two years, BTS came back with their second full-length album, Wings, and is probably the group’s most eclectic and interesting musical undertaking to date. Headlining the album is the moombahton trap-fused single “Blood Sweat & Tears,” which advances their previous themes of youth during Young Forever to new heights. Here, it depicts the album’s overarching narrative of finally growing up in its lyrics; about how one thinks, chooses, and resists temptations. But not only does the album allow the members to showcase their maturation as artists and as men, it is also gives each of the seven members an opportunity to boast of their individual talents and tastes. From J-Hope’s fun and retro song “Mama” dedicated to – you guessed it – his mother, to V’s neo-soul track “Stigma,” each of the solos suit the personalities of the boys perfectly. A personal favorite is Jungkook’s “Begin,” an emotional synth ode to his fellow members and his rebirth while as a member of BTS. Yet despite all this, Wings is fundamentally a BTS album, and the latter half of the album proves that with classic feel-good songs like “2! 3!” and the fourth iteration of their Cypher series. With such a diverse and personal roster of sounds, Wings caters to both old and new fans. And closing with the optimistic dance interlude “Wings,” the group hints that this is not the last we’ll hear from them yet.
Noir by B.A.P
The busy members of B.A.P released their sophomore full-length studio album, Noir this past November, two years after their first. Alike previous songs, leader Bang Yongguk partook in the composition of all but two tracks on this 13 song album. If Yongguk writes a song, you can almost always bet that that song will more or less have something to do with societal issues. No matter how bright their music may seem to be at times, there’s always an underlying message. “Ribbon in the Sky” (Sewol Ferry incident), and “Kingdom” (monetary corruption) are just two more examples of B.A.P spreading awareness. Noir exhibits a colorful blend of some new, some old, and some we’re still-not-used-to-hearing-from-them concepts. This album was not only the group’s first time experimenting with Jazz (“Le Noir”), but also the first time since debut where the vocalist-line, and rapper-line performed their own songs separately, (“Fermata” and “Confession”). With the members being a bit older now and having gone through more personal experiences, songs like “Walking,” “Chiquita,” “Killer,” and Jongup’s long awaited solo “Now,” have become a bit more relatable since we’re not listening to just empty words. On top of their interest towards love songs, there also seems to be a recurring interest since past releases that displays an eagerness to deliver a more sensual side of them (“I Guess I Need U”). And of course, it wouldn’t be a B.A.P album if there wasn’t the incorporation of yet another heart pounding, dominant track like “Skydive.” The saying “things get better with age” truly translates onto this album. Noir has allowed B.A.P to showcase a different range of diversity in not only their styling, but has also shown their steady musicality growth and the group’s constant experimentation with genres outside of the normal pop and hip-hop scene.
New Pop by Aseul
The Korean indie scene had just as good a year if not better than our much beloved K-pop. Top of that bunch is definitely Aseul’s kaleidoscopic New Pop. The album is best listened to as one whole at all times. The single doesn’t really stand out, and that’s what’s best about this. The aptly titled “Dazed” (the guitars in this are especially amazing) is merely one part of the hazy dream that Aseul beckons us into. Her synths and electronics contrast with fuzzy and clean sounds to shift us around, our state of mind unclear but in digital heaven. Highlight “Weird World” uses 8-bit video game samples sparingly to create its atmosphere. Like in most of the songs, Aseul uses a multitude of different influences without letting them overcrowd her album. It’s the most measured and precise piece of electronica this year.
Q Is. by NU’EST
An art that is practically dead in K-pop is the release of a cohesive album. However, one group that has been keeping it alive is the ever-underappreciated NU’EST with their first mini album Q Is.. (They later released CANVAS, which is just as stellar, truly). The sonic theme throughout Q Is., from the ballads to the up-tempo tracks, is the smoothness of it all. Contrary to most K-pop releases as of late, NU’EST steers away from the heavy trap, noisy, bombastic jams. Instead, tracks like “Lost & Found” and the single “Overcome” perfectly create a house/R&B hybrid with pop vocals. Not to mention that the members got a hand in the songwriting and production of the album, which only makes Q Is. that more legit. The production is intricate without the pretension of showing off a big EDM sound. As mentioned earlier, NU’EST followed up this mini album with a second one as equally genre defying. While heavily underrated, NU’EST as a group and as individuals showed in 2016 their growth as artists, setting the bar way up for what they’ll come up with next year.
Voice by Jung Seung Hwan
I’m a known ballad fan, and have been ever since I can remember, but there are just too many generic ballad singers around. Jung Seung Hwan, however, is different. I’ve followed him ever since he finished K-pop Star and listened to many of his beautiful OST releases in glee. When his album Voice was released recently, however, I listened to it with extremely high expectations. Thankfully, these expectations were met. Right off the bat, his intro track allowed listeners to tune into the album and really experience the outflow of emotions Jung Seung Hwan takes us through. His title track “The Fool” is also an extremely noteworthy one and did well on the charts. It’s extraordinary how effortlessly yet emotionally Jung Seung Hwan sings. The entire album is produced very well, both showing off his strengths as a balladeer as well as maintaining a cohesiveness through all the tracks.
Also on KultScene: Top Korean Albums of 2014
Agust D by Suga of BTS as Agust D
There is no Korean singer who astounded this year as much as BTS’s Suga with his revolutionary mixtape. In the highly image-based world of K-pop, releasing Agust D amidst the group’s biggest year was risky. But rather than ruining his career as a show of weakness, the reflective mixtape resulted in an outpouring of support for Suga for his frank portrayal of his struggles with his career and mental health. As a mixtape, Agust D isn’t as polished as typical K-pop albums, but that’s where the beauty of it lies because it is Suga at his most earnest. The first few tracks, including the title single and “Give It To Me” are full bravado, fitting for someone whose group made history this year, while the second half of Agust D offers more depth and stylistic diversity. The aggressive, desperate flow of “The Last,” which describes the rapper seeking psychiatric help, is the perfect depiction of someone struggling with depression and social anxiety after losing himself in his attempt to reach the top of his chosen industry. The 10-track mixtape’s finale comes in the two final songs, “Interlude; Dream Reality” and the electronic “So Far Away” featuring Suran, both of which are more mellow but an even more unsettling, escapist look into the artist’s mind. K-pop may be filled with dazzling pop distractions, but Agust D is true art.
35 Girls 5 Concepts by Produce 101 Contestants
Not really a collective body of work as much as it is a compilation of singles with different genres and producers in each song, 35 Girls 5 Concepts captured the dreams of Produce 101‘s 35 remaining contestants in mid-March of this year. Creating five temporary groups of seven members each, each song came from a different producer and tackled a different girl group style. From the largely feminine stylings of “Fingertips” to the “hip-pop” genre “Don’t Matter,” the album seeks to capture the nature of girl groups desired by the K-pop market at the moment. And given the show’s incredible relevance in K-pop this year and the contestants’ probable continued relevance in future years, this album serves as the show’s main musical output and the lasting legacy of those trainees still looking for mainstream success or a company group debut. Perhaps we’ll see them soon, but until then, these five songs and their corresponding performances are the pinnacle of a trainee’s hopes and dreams.
Where’s the Truth by FT ISLAND
After announcing that they were going to start creating the music they wanted to do during their 2015 tour, FT ISLAND has done just that this year. Their sixth Korean studio album, Where’s the Truth was released back in July and was entirely self-produced by the members, showcasing a wide range of musical styles. The album starts off with loud and intense rock songs like “Out of Love” and the title track “Take Me Now,” which mirror the harder vibes of their previous release and then gives way to lighter pop-rock songs like “Mask” and beautiful rock ballads “Becoming You” and “We Are…” The album contains great hooks that could get the crowd cheering along. With this album, FT Island was able to establish hard rock roots, but still maintained their old sound (which is not a bad thing); it makes them a truly versatile group.
The Clan Pt. 1 ‘LOST’ by Monsta X
It seems like the trend of splitting a whole album into mini albums and calling it a “series” is a popular one these days because even Monsta X is doing it. The first concept of 2.5 of their “The Clan” project, LOST, was released in April 2016, featuring their usual mix of melodic ballads, such as their pre-release track “Ex-Girl” featuring Mamamoo’s Wheein, and powerful electric hip-hop songs, like “Focus On Me.” With this comeback, the group hopes to express their feelings of pain and confusion, and whether or not it was a result of deliberate intent, the tracklist arguably reflects that. Indeed, the café-friendly “White Sugar” shifts gears into the fast-tempo “Unfair Love” and back down again to the casual R&B “Because of U.” Albeit, LOST is a rather safe enterprise for the group, it nevertheless makes the cut for Best Album thanks to their dynamic and highly produced title track “All In.” Very rarely can I confidently say that a song is magnum opus material, but with this one the septet reached new peaks and marked their positions as musical savants. If Monsta X continues to ride on the direction of LOST, we are sure to expect great promise in the rest of the one and a half installations for “The Clan.”
What was your favorite Korean album this year? Share your picks and thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.