While a lot of the intrigue behind K-pop is the glitz and glamour of the songs and music videos, it’s the whole albums what makes listeners stay and creates fans. As we stated on the best songs of 2015 list, this year shined for its superb releases by Korean artists. 2015 was also a great year for the full album, since many more artists ventured out to release more material. The mini albums, for their part, gave us solid songs that can’t be considered fillers, since many stand on their own. Everyone released material this year: big acts had long awaited comebacks and smaller acts became true stars, which made this list hell. However, someone has to make the tough decisions, and here are our favorite 20 albums of the year.
20. MBLAQ – “Mirror”
Although they are now left with just three members, MBLAQ’s craft hasn’t been lost. If anything, they’ve only grown and gotten better. There’s more room for their individual talents to truly shine through; G.O’s tender voice, Seungho’s hypnotic transitions, and Mir’s sweet raps. It was a brilliant idea to have a mirroring short introduction track prior to each song on the album. The short intro sets the mood and gets you ready for what’s to come. “Mirror” displays a number of different emotions and feelings; it depicts a story. A story that starts out with the feeling of loss, anger, pain, and longing, which later on transcends into the feelings of love, hope, and strength. And oh, how about those heart-rending piano intros and interludes? Swoon. This album was MBLAQ’s way of saying, “We’re doing just fine,” and it shows.
19. FTISLAND – “I Will
Eight years after their debut onto the K-pop scene, the idol rock band FTISLAND finally came into their own with “I Will.” The self-composed album is a symphonic take on the band’s style. The album is split into three parts, broken down by “Intro,” “To The Light,” and “Find The Light,” to guide the listeners through FTISLAND’s album, which is a little bit insightful, a little bit dark, and a whole lot of fun. There’s a story to tell, starting with the bombast of songs like single “Pray” and “Black Chocolate” taking us into a world of aggressive alt rock, to more earnest simple rock songs like “BPM69” and “Do You Know Why?” Lead singer Lee Hongki is very much the backbone of FTISLAND, but “I Will” features the other members’ voices and instrumental solos throughout, exploring the group’s dynamic as band first, idols second. Don’t miss out on upbeat tracks like “Time To” and “Shadow,” which show a side to FTISLAND that’s previously been kept mostly to their Japanese language albums. In fact, don’t miss out on anything and just listen to this excellent album from start to finish. “I Will” is the zenith of FTISLAND’s career, and we couldn’t be happier to see this idol band grow into their own.
18. GOT7 – “Just Right”
GOT7 has had a swell year both in terms of the music they produced and their surge in popularity. This mini-album that they released in the middle of the year is full of fun yet diverse songs, from the chill “Before The Full Moon Rises” to the more sensual “My Reaction.” Each member’s talents are showcased in this album, be it their amazing vocal colors or their rapping skills. Their continuous artistic growth is also evident in “Just Right,” as they continue to discover their identity as a group and as musicians.
17. Dynamic Duo – “Grand Carnival”
Dynamic Duo can never seem to disappoint. Every track on their “Grand Carnival” album has such a melodic feel good vibe. Each song makes one want to kick back, relax, chill, and simply groove to each dulcet beat. This album is a great mix of old and new school hip-hop, with heavy reminisces of Nujabes, Tupac, Nas, and Talib Kweli. And oh, what’s with rappers featuring their kids in their songs? Like how Gaeko had his son in “How Are You.” It’s as if they know I have a tremendous soft spot for cuteness overload. The duo, Gaeko and Choiza, are truly a rap pair made in heaven; their flows effortlessly bounce off one another and in return make for great music. “Grand Carnival” really is dynamic.
16. Lim Kim – “Simple Mind”
Ever since her appearance on Superstar K, Lim Kim has been going from strength to strength with every release. “Simple Mind” is her best to date, exemplified by the glorious one-two punch opening of single “Awoo” and “Love Game,” both of which showcase a perfect combo of indie and pop. Her use of synths in those are some of the best of the year but she offers more than just that. The rest of the album is more expected of a solo female artist, but Lim Kim imbues it with an eccentric edge. Her whispery voice elevates ballads and helps a song like “Upgrader” become more than album filler by adding slight inflections here and there. “Simple Mind” is a short sharp run through a not so simple mind.
15. Brown Eyed Girls – “Basic”
One of the best things about K-pop is that groups can release albums with the weirdest concepts and no one makes a big deal about it. This year, Brown Eyed Girls did it best with an album about astrophysics. The songs on “Basic” deal with a range of ideas from wormholes to fractals. Where the lyrics span worlds, the music of “Basic” spans genres. It covers a lot of what we know and love from Brown Eyed Girls, acid jazz, bossa nova, motown, disco, and more. Always ones to push boundaries the music equals the otherworldly nature of the lyrics in many cases. The country and orchestral oddity that is “Atomic” especially boggles the mind. “Wave” is another highlight with its silky groove and biting beat that comes and goes to create quiet but beautiful climaxes. With only one misstep (the generic “Light”), “Basic” proved that Brown Eyed Girls can still be edgy while maintaining a supremely impressive quality.
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14. Day6 – “The Day”
JYP Entertainment’s newest boy band Day6 made a remarkable name for themselves through their debut album “The Day,” which showcased different sides of themselves, from playful and fun to heartfelt and sincere. They defied conventional K-pop band standards by having almost all the members sing in the songs while still playing their various instruments. This cohesive album is proof of their potential and they’re definitely up and coming stars we can look forward to in the future.
13. SHINee – “Odd”
When SHINee released their “Misconceptions” series, it was hard to think that they were ever going to top those albums. But they proved us wrong when they released “Odd.” The album had Shawols (SHINee’s fans) reminiscing about past tracks with “Love Sick,” a track that is a continuation of their first track, “Replay.” Moreover, their first single “View” became an instant hit, making the listeners feel like it’s an up-tempo ballad, but then the chorus hits, and that deep house bass converts the whole thing into a fun and dancy tune. The album takes you in a rollercoaster of emotions that’s full of ‘90s inspired hip-hop, deep house, electro, and classic pop that we are used to hearing from the group.
12. MFBTY – “WondaLand
The hip-pop album from some of the most talented hip-hop artists in South Korea today is one of the best things out of Korea this year. MFBTY, which consists of Korean hip hop’s royal couple Yoon Mi Rae and Tiger JK’s and rapper Bizzy, is all about experimentation and trying new things out. “WondaLand” is an whirlwind journey through MFBTY’s eyes, beginning off with the airport invoking “Welcome to WondaLand.” The group keeps it straddling K-pop and K-rap, but no two songs share the exact same musical style. “WondaLand” gives all three members of MFBTY, and their varied guests including Yoon Mi Rae and Tiger JK’s son Jordan, a chance to express their own styles of music, no matter how broad they are. Singles like “Buckubucku,” with its wild variety of featured artists including experimental group EE and BTS’ Rap Monster, and “Bang Diggy Bang Bang,” are bangers that draw the whole album together. But it’s in meaningful songs like “Hollywho” and “Rebel Music” where the listeners are offered real insights into MFBTY’s world outlook. “Let It Go,” featuring BEAST’s Yong Junhyung, takes the melodic elements of Yoon Mi Rae’s ballads and combines it with Kelis’ “Milkshake” to to create one of the most stimulating Korean songs of 2015.
11. GOT7 – “MAD”
Just as “If You Do” was the song that made us all realize GOT7 matured, the album, “MAD,” reiterated just that. Compared to “Just Right,” “MAD” is less colorful, but it still gives us upbeat songs with a smoother, dance hip-hop sound. Moreover, this mini album is way more flavourful than any of their previous releases, with rap-driven songs like “Raise Your Hands” or the funky, signature Youngjae-JB vocal slayage in “Tic Tic Toc” and “Good.” “MAD” reminded listeners that while they pull off the cute and lively concept well, they’re artistic men whose creativity is also evolving — and we’re definitely buying it and here for it.
10. Wonder Girls – “Reboot”
To go with their perfect throwback single “I Feel You,” Wonder Girls releases an album full of ‘80s style stompers. As a complete album, it works so well as the concept is stuck to with every song and they progress naturally and satisfyingly. It plays like the soundtrack to the most amazing ‘80s film you’ve never seen. The dreamy slow burn of “Rewind” even references films. Even Yubin and Hyelim’s “Back” which at first sounds like an embarrassing hip-hop pastiche becomes not only great but an honest throwback. The instrumentals throughout the whole album give it this honest edge, from the twinkly synths to the guitars that ground everything. This was a true reboot of the highest order.
9. Kim Sung Kyu – “27”
INFINITE’s Sung Kyu made his comeback as a soloist this year with album “27” to significantly more commercial success than with his debut, and for good reason. The album was unique, varied, and yet extremely cohesive. He experimented with a few genres and collaborated with different artists, but still managed to make these sounds his own. With addictive title tracks such as “Kontrol,” to reflective duets such as “Reply,” there were no songs in this album that were sub-par and all served to show Sung Kyu’s wonderful ability as a vocalist.
8. G.Soul – “Dirty”
I don’t know why G.Soul had to be a JYP trainee for 15-long-years, but if working on your craft for that long enables someone to put out something like “Dirty,” then we better start shipping a lot of idols back to the studios. Especially considering that a cohesive album, or mini-album, for that matter, seems to be a lost art in K-pop. Not in G.Soul’s case though, even if he’s not really K-pop per se. This year, K-pop groups like SHINee and f(x) also gave dance music a try, but when you have “soul” in your name and you come from the company of Asia’s Soul, you know you’re in for something good. In mere five songs, the singer took us through a deep house journey full of eroticism, embellished with his high-pitched R&B vocals. Because just as the title suggests — sorry, kids — this album is freaky and it makes you want to get your freak on with someone. Having debuted only this year and “Dirty” being only his second mini-album, we can expect great things from G.Soul.
7. EXO – “Love Me Right 2nd Album Repackage”
This year, SM Entertainment decided to appeal to a more broader audience with Western sounds such as house and funk, and EXO’s repackaged album for “Love Me Right” is proof. A long departure from the teeth-baring wolf boy images from yesteryear, the boys came back with a more polished look and sound. This may come off as daunting at first, especially for the veteran fans, but for a group with some of the strongest vocalists in the K-pop genre, it works. The colorful voices of each member complements the brasses and riffs in the title “Love Me Right” and B-side “Tender Love” well, while also enabling them to take us back to our ‘90s boy band days in “Call Me Baby.” The album also features something that the group does best — R&B and ballad tracks. The smooth “What If..” and slow “My Answer” is testament that the group never forgot their roots, so long-time fans should not have to worry. Best of all, the album saw the debut of “Beautiful” and “El Dorado,” two tracks that were kept under wraps ever since their features in the boys’ individual debut teaser videos back in 2011/2012. “Love Me Right 2nd Album Repackage” offers the group an opportunity to recruit new fans, while maintaining their already large and well-established fanbase. As their company’s most prized act, we can always expect great things from EXO no matter what their next experiment may be.
6. BTS – “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Pt. 2”
Continuing BTS’s two-part album project is “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Pt. 2,” which quickly became as popular, if not more, than the first part of the installment. Whereas the first part underscored the anguish and grief in its title song “I Need U,” this expressed a more daring and reckless side to youth with the hit “Run.” From the start, the rapper Suga’s intro “Never Mind” catapults us into an aggressive sermon about why the youth should ignore the critics. There is more of an edge to this album, as evident in the use of more traditional rock instrumentals in some of its songs. But an album that is all grit could potentially get boring fast, which thankfully is something that the group does not have to worry about. There’s practically a song fitting for every genre. From the body-roll worthy chorus of “Dead Leaves” to the soothing “Butterfly,” there is no limit to what the boys can do. Perhaps this is why the album did so well not only in their native Korea, but also internationally as reflected in its title as the highest ranked album worldwide for an Asian act on the iTunes chart. Indeed, with solid releases such as “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Pt. 2,” it won’t be long before BTS becomes a common household name (if not already).
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5. Hyukoh – “22”
2015 was Hyukoh’s year, and the release of the EP “22” was one of the best things any Korean indie band has ever done. The album keeps Hyukoh’s soft rock, tropical feel that the band introduced in debut album “20,” but goes on to explore deeper messages. The meaning of Hyukoh’s music is extremely accessible, with songs like bouncy first track “Settled Down” being completely sung in English. The EP, which contains a total of six songs, shows off Hyukoh’s artistic style at its best, taking the listeners off into the deep end with mood-maker “Mer” and the slightly aggressive (at least for Hyukoh) “Hooka.” And there’s no way we can overlook Hyukoh’s hit song, “Comes and Goes.” The song, ostensibly the one that rocketed Hyukoh to fame, is a soft take on the what it’s like to be in love and growing up. Oh Hyuk’s voice and the rest of the band’s instrumentals are melodious rock at its very best and the song deserves to be replayed over and over again.
4. Primary – “2”
Primary’s “2” album showcased a lot of diversity. Everything ranging from all the various artists that featured on his tracks, to the different beats he played, whether it was some good ole funk, slow disco, jazz, and reggae. “2” offered the best of both worlds; a great selection of unique singers and rappers, paired with addictive bass lines. Lyrically, each song sends out a strong message; anxiety of a new found relationship, how appearance shouldn’t matter when one is out to have a fun night, the excitement of breaking out of their adolescent years, finally growing up and getting paid, and knowing that sometimes you just have to get away. It makes me wonder what Primary’s thought process was in order to sort out who would be great for what, and what it might’ve been like if the artists had done different tracks than the ones they ended up on. Regardless, “2” was a wonderful album and we can only anticipate to see what else he has up his sleeve for 2016.
3. Red Velvet – “The Red”
Ever since debut, it was clear SM Entertainment’s newest girl group Red Velvet was somewhere between the two spectrums of the uber feminine Girls’ Generation and the experimental f(x). However, “The Red” finally allowed the quintet to come out of their sunbaes’ shadow and shine for their own talents and charms. “The Red” showcased Red Velvet’s, well, red side: lively, hip-hop pop dance hybrids. For this album, we didn’t get any velvet songs, meaning the sultrier alternatives, but we do get glimmers of it in songs like “Oh Boy,” “Campfire,” and “Time Slip.” Their first full-length album showed that Red Velvet’s concept and forte indeed is the quirky, lively release like “Ladies’ Room” and “Red Dress.” f(x) is no longer the only experimental group in SM, but where the quartet is always fresh and are maturing into grown women, Red Velvet picks up where they left off and exudes youth and an addictive vibe.
2. BIGBANG – “MADE”
Even if we didn’t get a proper full album from BIGBANG this year (we’re lumping them all together though), their “MADE” series was worth the long wait. BIGBANG’s comeback came with eight new tracks that showed us different and new sides of the group. From classic a la “Fantastic Baby” hits like “Bang Bang Bang,” to the new and experimental track like “Sober,” and more mature outlook with “If You,” the group surprised with incredible music. With this compilation, we got to hear more from each member; we got to hear T.O.P. sing more in the tracks, a comeback from GD & T.O.P., and Seungri exploring more of his vocal range. Not only did they deliver great tracks, but each song came with amazing visuals. From the movie posters for each track and the stunning music videos, every piece continued the cinematic theme of this whole era for BIGBANG. An excellent album to dance to and get crazy, and even to just burst into tears. It was definitely worth the wait.
1. BTS – “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Pt. 1”
2015 was a busy (yet successful!) year for BTS as they embarked on a two part album adventure with their “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life” series centering on the subject of youth. The first part of the series, which featured the title “I Need U” and its follow-up “Dope,” marks the first album in which all the members participated in either the composition, production, or lyric-writing process. And, well, for a first, it is pretty impressive to say the least. From member V’s self-written “Hold Me Tight” to the youngest Jungkook’s own outro “Love is Not Over,” the album nicely displays the group’s well-groomed individual talents. Not to mention it also showcased their usual lively personalities as well, with tracks such as “Boyz With Fun” and “Converse High,” the latter of which was a literal song about a shoe. Seriously, who thinks of these things? Through “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Pt. 1″ the boys tell us personal stories that the youth can relate to, whether it be about moving on from a chapter of one’s life, a hopeless love, or an article of clothing that drives one mad. Besides the catchy tunes and gorgeous aesthetics, it’s an album with a purpose and meaning, which is exactly why it has landed itself on the top of our list.