K-pop encompasses anything and everything under the umbrella of pop music in South Korea written between the late 1990s and today. Boy bands and girl groups, known colloquially as idols, making upbeat dance songs represent the current trend, but hip-hop, folk music, power ballads, EDM, and more can also fall into the K-pop genre. But chances are K-pop appears overwhelming to non-fans, particularly those outside of South Korea and who shun anything that falls remotely in the pop genre. Luckily for new listeners interested in this specialized brand of international music, K-pop artists have been using English lyrics more frequently and broadening the scope of their outside influences. While K-pop still has plenty of bubblegum pop, we’re highlighting important records in the K-pop canon that explore the greater depths of the genre. Put away your “”Gangnam Style” dance moves and check out the 10 best K-pop albums for people who don’t like K-pop.
Sibling duo AKMU, short for Akdong Musician or “Mischievous Child Musician,” released its debut album Play in 2014, after winning a Korean competition show in 2013. Foregoing the usual highly produced sound of the K-pop world, AKMU’s style pairs modern folk with childlike innocence, showcasing the sibs’ vocal and lyrical excellence. Play offers listeners a taste of the genre bending entity that is K-pop, but does so in a gentler way, foregoing auto-tune and making the most of acoustic and vocal clarity. Play’s biggest strength is AKMU’s capability to take ownership of such varied songs, highlighted by the two singles off of the album. “200%” is a cute, romantic pop song that matches AKMU’s age, while “Melted” is the emotional opposite—a beautiful, heartbreaking ballad about growing up in a cold world.
Ever since the breakout success following the group’s 2008 debut, SHINee has been a stellar, accessible act in the K-pop world. The male quintet’s 2015 Odd incorporates the very best of funk, EDM, and R&B to create one of the most experimental albums K-pop has seen from a boy band this year. Filled with hybrid songs that overlap genres as diverse as deep house and swing, Odd thrives on the different vocal styles of SHINee’s members and never being satisfied with the previous song. Despite the laidback style that many of the songs on Odd exhibit, SHINee is actually known as one of K-pop’s most popular dance groups, with cutting edge dance moves that are just as technically creative as the song’s they’re performed. Moody and bright all at once, Odd is one of the best pop album’s out there today and a must for anybody trying to see what K-pop is all about.
A bit more electro than pop, Clazziquai Project represents the more adult aspects of K-pop. The group’s tenth album, 2014’s Blink, brings together the electronic elements and ballads of K-pop and introduces a softer, medley of tender emotion. Groove and funk show up amidst the electro-pop tracks, while the evocative vocals and lyrics reflect on the simple side of love and life. Blink keeps itself safe by never going too far off into the deep end of saccharine pop songs, and solidifies itself in the K-pop genre as an outlier, a softer version of what many think of K-pop. But the up-tempo inspirational tunes alongside a bit of melancholy don’t lie: This is K-pop at some of its finest, most mature moments.
A member of Big Bang, easily Korea’s most talented boy band today, Taeyang is one of the best examples of K-pop singers fusing hip hop, R&B, soul, and EDM. Each song on Rise offers something new, with Taeyang’s crooning voice pulling it all together. K-pop as a genre doesn’t let itself get boring, and Rise is the exact same way. There’s a new sound with each song, with club bangers and ballads playing together nicely when performed by K-pop’s most soulful bad boy. Taeyang’s crisp, swoon-invoking vocals and the outstanding composition of the songs on Rise will make even the most discerning music listener take a moment or two to stop and abandon previous misconceptions about K-pop.
Other than idol groups, ballad singers are also mainstays in K-pop. Female duo Davichi released Hug earlier this year, with brand new power ballads to add to their already extensive repertoire. With impressive vocal range and warmth, Davichi are recognized in Korea as two of the most talented singers today. Hug conveys the pair’s unity and harmony when together; neither vocalist is innately more talented than the other, and each song highlights the interplay between their vocals. Just as the two voices work together to create impressive contrast, Hug thrives on duality. Davichi excels at capturing ups and downs musically and lyrically: Singles “Cry Again” and “Sorry, I’m Happy” are paired together to express the high and lows of romance, one as a melancholic, slow song of heartbreak and the other as an unapologetic, bombastic tune celebrating the end of a relationship.
While a member of highly popular boy band INFINITE, Kim has followed in the footsteps of many other K-pop idols and pursued a solo career. His first solo effort, Another Me, arrived in 2012 and this year’s 27 shows even more impressive growth with its impressive amalgamations of rock and pop. Again proving K-pop’s malleability, 27 combines synth, industrial rock, and pop beats with the vocal colors of Kim’s raspy voice. The expressiveness of Kim’s voice is always at its best, but the album doesn’t shy away from going between soft ballads and pop-rock songs that come together to create a single solid entity.
Making two EP’s with the same name is something that only one of K-pop’s most iconic girl groups could pull off, but that’s what 2NE1 did in 2011, releasing their second self-titled EP, 2NE1. Even though it’s an EP, it’s one of the most iconic albums in K-pop history, with 2NE1’s most internationally famous song to date—the pumped up girl power tune, “I Am The Best.” Elsewhere on the EP, “Lonely” and “Don’t Cry” take a bit of a step back from 2NE1’s heavy electronic sound and introduce more basic, vocally impressive sounds, while “Ugly” melds the two. 2NE1 introduced the world to the feminism anthem style of K-pop that sets 2NE1 apart from the rest of Korea’s girl groups, and is one of the finest examples of finding the balance between full-blown pop and the more considerate side of music.
Simplicity is at its finest when it comes to Roy Kim, a Korean folk ballad singer who spends time between albums attending Georgetown. 2014’s Home is a solemn folk-pop album that connects to the listener’s very essence through it’s simple sounds and Kim’s heartfelt voice. Home is a breath of fresh air amongst many K-pop albums, with gentle acoustic elements, and a title song that is written from the perspective of Kim’s dog that waits patiently for his owner to come home. Home makes the most of both pop and folk influences, and even takes a full-blown turn into country territory towards the end, but is a true pleasure to listen to as Kim makes the most of his expressive vocals.
The princess of K-pop is easily IU. With the mellow and sweet vocal aura reminiscent of another era, some of IU’s biggest successes have been with throwback tunes. 2013’s Modern Times utilizes this with retro-inspired big band sounds, with jazz and swing elements interspersed with pop. IU tones the album’s more bombastic tunes down with a mix of soft pop songs that makes the most of her vocal range, which was how she made her name in the K-pop world in the first place in 2010. Every time Modern Times threatens to go off into the deep end, it bounces back and revives itself with a new style or a new collaborator, many of whom are legends in the Korean music scene. With so many different styles, it’s easy to find something for everyone on this album, and get a good taste of what makes IU so popular within K-pop.
After garnering the attention of the world as one of the most iconic K-pop acts in 2009 with the song “Sorry Sorry,” Super Junior has continued to be a steady purveyor of K-pop dance songs. It would be harder to find a more stereotypically K-pop group than Super Junior. With a decade in the industry, 11 members, and distinct vocal styles, the boy band continuously explores and matures. In particular, 2014’s This Is Love represents everything that K-pop has to offer—a multi-member boy band excelling at singing a variety of slickly-produced pop songs with elements of R&B and general hilarity thrown in for good measure. K-pop as an entity can’t be removed from dance songs, and few do it better than Super Junior, who turn even the most soulful song into a dance stage.