Partly for the prolific volume of projects artists release each year and partly for the fluid definition of an album (running anywhere from three to 13 tracks), an annual ranking of K-pop albums is never easy. As South Korea continues to extend its global musical influence, certain projects transcend hit-song compilations, presenting larger visions and conceptual narratives.
In 2023, stars like V, WOODZ and ONEW used their latest solo projects to share the music that inspires them at their core as artists and let listeners settle into sonic worlds they’ve developed. Meanwhile, artists like IVE, SEVENTEEN, Kim Sejeong, TOMORROW X TOGETHER and BTS’ Suga as Agust D used their projects to show their range as artists whose inspirations run deep and varied, offering satisfying surprises for audiences. Meanwhile, the likes of JOOHONEY, (G)I-DLE, Stray Kids and NCT DREAM used their projects to speak to the topics most important to them and their fans.
While artists who have operated in the Korean entertainment system are typically lumped into an all-encompassing “K-pop” term, several projects that would have caught fans’ attention are challenging to deem as K-pop. A slew of top-notch projects like Jung Kook’s Golden, (G) I-DLE’s Heat, DPR IAN’s Dear Insanity, Mark Tuan’s Fallin’, Yerin Baek’s New Year, Eric Nam’s House on a Hill all deserve their rightful acclaim, but this K-pop list focuses on albums with Korean as the primary language.
In 2023, K-pop represents far more than music from idols as more artists dabble in new genres, soundscapes and inspirations to encompass burgeoning Korean sub-genres in this space. The albums that moved us this year speak to the continuing importance of full-length projects even in an increasingly single-focused global market. (And speaking of singles, check out our list of the 25 Best K-Pop Songs of 2023 here.)
IVE, I’ve IVE
After releasing a consistent string of smash singles through 2021 and 2022, IVE wasted no time bringing out a whole album of hits on their debut LP. Not only does I’ve IVE deliver on the girl group’s earworm expectations via the bendy pop-bop “Kitsch,” thundering anthem “I Am” and the call-to-order album opener “Blue Blood,” but it also showcases the girls’ strong songwriting capabilities. Rappers Rei and Gaeul co-wrote multiple tracks, leader Yujin is credited as the sole lyricist on the sweet and synth-y “Heroine” and Wonyoung wrote the entirety of surging electro-pop cut “Mine” and the fan-dedicated “Shine With Me.” — JEFF BENJAMIN
Kim Jae Hwan, J.A.M (Journey Above Music)
After years of trying his luck across different singing competitions—and eventually hitting it big with a fourth-place finish on Produce 101 and a spot in the boy band Wanna One—Kim Jae Hwan quickly established himself as a powerhouse vocalist. For his sixth mini album, the solo star refreshed his palette with the moving, folk-pop buzz track “Spring Breeze” and the unexpectedly funky pop jam “Lucky!” which features iKON’s Bobby (but wouldn’t sound out of place with a Bruno Mars appearance). Bouncing through tracks backed by vintage synthesizers, rhythmic R&B production and jazzy pianos, J.A.M (Journey Above Music) brings KJH out of his big-ballad comfort zone to mark his most ambitious solo effort yet. — J.B.
NewJeans, 2nd EP ‘Get Up’
While NewJeans’ grasp on the market saw them send three singles to the Billboard Hot 100 (including a career high with “Super Shy” at No. 48), ignoring the rest of the Get Up listening experience is a huge mistake. With the quintet’s soft voices juxtaposed over throbbing 808s, album opener “New Jeans” sets the scene for some sonic experimentation, such as on their hyped-up track “ETA.” Despite the final two tracks clocking in at less than three minutes combined, the dreamy neo-soul of the “Get Up” interlude moving into the satisfying syncopation of EP closer “ASAP” leaves the listener satiated but more than ready to take in whatever NewJeans brings for next year. — J.B.
Red Velvet, Chill Kill: The 3rd Album
It’s been six years since Red Velvet released a new full-length album, with 2015’s The Red and 2017’s Perfect Velvet considered some of K-pop’s best modern-day LPs. Only time will tell if the girl group’s highly anticipated return to the full-length album format can forge a lasting legacy compared to its predecessors, but this album boasts numerous shining moments. The opening duo of “Chill Kill” and “Knock Knock (Who’s There?)” sees the quintet blend bright melodies with dark, brooding pop themes, harking back to signature Red Velvet hits like “Bad Boy” and “Psycho.” Deeper into the record, “Will I Ever See You Again” is a Technicolor dream woven with dancing synths while “Underwater” emerges as one of Red Velvet’s most satisfyingly sultry moments. — J.B.
CAMO, Pressure Makes Diamonds
Since hitting the Korean hip-hop scene in 2020, CAMO’s icy blend of hip-hop and pop melodies has solidified her as a must-watch MC. Her debut full-length serves as a canvas for CAMO’s full experimental range, showcasing her ability to seamlessly traverse musical landscapes, with the unexpectedly low-key “Six Weeks” unveiling an emotional, acoustic side, too. Pressure Makes Diamonds also boasts an eclectic guest list featuring top names in Korean hip-hop (like Jay Park and Sik-K) along with rising female rap talents from around the world (Tommy Genesis from Canada; Awich from Japan), positioning CAMO to keep pushing the boundaries of hip-hop and pop inside the ever-evolving landscape of Korean music. — J.B.
Taeyang, Down to Earth
Not only is Down to Earth Taeyang’s first solo album in six years, and first project under new home THEBLACKLABEL, the six-song EP stays true to its title as one of the year’s most honest releases. The sophisticated mix of tracks brings out big-name features: BTS’ Jimin on the R&B-tinged lead single “Vibe,” which earned both artists their first Hot 100 entry when it entered at No. 76 this year; BLACKPINK’s Lisa on the melodic “Shoong!”; and rapper Beenzino on the jazz-pop treat “Inspiration.” But the album’s crowning moment comes from the piano ballad “Seed” with its potent lyricism and heartfelt intensity, making this the singer-songwriter’s most moving and compelling vocal performance to date. — JESSICA OAK
Kim Sejeong, Door
Celtic K-pop, anyone? Opening with what’s best described as a Korean-pop take on a lively Irish jig, “Voyage” sets the tone for Kim Sejeong’s first full-length album to cover a range of listening experiences. Letting her pure vocal timbre lead each track, the singer-actress dives into crunchy electronica on the single “Top or Cliff”; enlists unexpected psychedelic and punk rock influences for “Jenga”; and brings us into an intimate, acoustic jazz-vocal performance on “If We Do” (complete with a trumpet solo). While Sejeong has spent time as part of girl groups I.O.I, gugudan and SEMINA since entering the industry in 2016, the star’s lyrical and production contributions to the 11-track Door show she has tons more to show as a musician. — J.B.
D.O.’s dramatic rush of smooth falsetto notes in “Ordinary Days,” silky high notes on “Lost,” emotional depth on “The View” and shadowy croons on lead single “Somebody” display the EXO member’s propulsive sense of rhythm, not to mention a vocal timbre that is easily embedded in a blend of polished and acoustic productions. One of the most enjoyable vocal performances of the year, Expectation follows the EXO member’s debut EP Empathy from 2021. Hopefully, this extraordinary voice doesn’t wait as long for another solo project. — J.O.
Jinyoung, Chapter 0: WITH
After spending more time focused on his acting career, Jinyoung made his long-awaited return to the music scene with his first solo album, Chapter 0: WITH. The lead single, “Cotton Candy,” is a sweet, dreamy pop track that highlights Jinyoung’s soothing, suave vocal finesse. Beyond his musical comeback, Jinyoung’s natural choreography skills also reappear via the pastel “Cotton Candy” music video, where the star’s model-like good looks and elegant dance skills take center stage.
Entirely penned by the GOT7 member himself, Chapter 0: WITH is a showcase of Jinyoung’s full talents as a songwriter. With credits as a co-composer and producer across the EP as well, Jinyoung’s first full solo project (after more than a decade in the K-pop scene) was more than worth the wait. — J.B.
NCT DREAM, ISTJ: The 3rd Album
ISTJ is named after the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality of someone who is “Introverted, Sensing, Thinking and Judging” — and NCT DREAM’s third full-length album hardly stays in one sonic or stylistic lane. Case in point: the hip-hop–inspired lead single/title track encourages listeners to break out of preconceived expectations and connect as humans. The poignant buzz single “Broken Memories” affirms the unit’s pop prowess, accentuated by a remix featuring “Golden Hour” singer JVKE, while the infectious, lively harmonies of “Yogurt Shake” hold the potential to spark a viral TikTok dance challenge. But among all the genre and shape shifting, the album concludes with “Like We Just Met,” a heartfelt ballad penned by all the members expressing their hope to stay with fans for eternity. — J.B.
Billlie, The Billage of Perception: Chapter Three
A testament to the girl group’s unwavering commitment to excellent musical experimentation, Billlie’s third installment in their Billage of Perception series is another top-to-bottom victory. B-side gem “lionheart (the real me)” boasts a thumping chorus that could easily contend as lead single material while “nevertheless” emerges as one of 2023’s most creative K-pop creations with the record firing out vocal distortions, childlike squeaking, lush harmonizing and powerful belting within seconds. But with its dreamy synth-pop production and seductive, staccato chorus, “EUNOIA” became the breakthrough single for Billlie, earning their first No. 1 spot on a Korean music chart, which will hopefully be vital in propelling Billlie forward with the momentum they deserve in 2024. — J.B.
ASH ISLAND, ROSE
A leader in Korea’s new generation of rappers, ASH ISLAND has grown up in front of audiences with his sophomore full-length, delivering on the early promise he showed as a teen competing on the Korean TV show High School Rapper. The mature, Paul Blanco-featuring opener “Goodbye” sets the tone for the LP’s blend of pop, rock, R&B and hip-hop. As made clear from singles “WONDER” and “Rose in the Heart,” the 24-year-old seems set on using this LP to spotlight more of his singing, using well-placed features from MCs like The Quiett and Chillin Homie to deliver on the harder hip-hop front.
ROSE was a satisfying, cohesive project at nine tracks, but ASH sweetened the experience with July’s three-track EP More Roses, which included equally excellent tracks such as the Auto-Tune ballad “Black Rose” and the R&B-doused dance cut “Smoking Roses.” Putting both projects together makes for some of the best R&B/pop/hip-hop hybrids from Korea this year. — J.B.
TOMORROW X TOGETHER, The Name Chapter: Temptation
Renowned for pushing sonic boundaries, TOMORROW X TOGETHER seized their inaugural No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart with an unprecedented level of accessibility while staying true to the group’s whimsical musical storytelling. Opener “Devil by the Window” highlights the group’s versatility from the start before infectious lead single “Sugar Rush Ride” follows for one of TXT’s catchiest pop singles to date. Collaborating with Coi Leray, the buoyant “Happy Fools” injects an extra dose of energy into the album (with all five members, as well as Leray, co-writing on the R&B/Bossa nova hybrid) while “Tinnitus (Wanna Be a Rock)” ventures into new territories with Afrobeat influences. Not just a chart triumph, The Name Chapter: Temptation further solidified TXT’s position as a trailblazer on the global music scene. — J.B.
EXO’s seventh full-length album is a dazzling catalog of all eight member’s unrivaled greatness as a vocal group. The tight, nine-song project flows from vocalists Chen, Baekhyun, D.O., Suho, Xiumin and Kai with ease and confidence while rappers Chanyeol and Sehun add an additional layer of depth with their charismatic flows. Genre-blending standouts include the infectious vocal performance on the opening track and main single, “Cream Soda”; an energetic R&B-pop blend in “Regret It”; soaring synth-pop on “Cinderella”; and the seductive-but-mellow vibe of buzz track “Hear Me Out.” — J.O.
One of the creative forces behind Monsta X, JOOHONEY breaks free from all expectations for his first full solo endeavor. The six tracks of Lights serve as a melting pot of the star’s diverse musical influences, seamlessly blending his singing and rapping abilities while spotlighting his appreciation for hip-hop, rock, jazz and traditional Korean music. Lead single “Freedom” isn’t just a testament to JOOHONEY’s multifaceted styles, but sends a crucial message to the K-pop community to inspire artists to break free from constraints and expectations to recognize their creative and emotional needs. — J.B.
ENHYPEN, Orange Blood
Throughout ENHYPEN’s Fate World Tour this fall (which landed the boy band on this year’s overall Top 100 tour ranking), the septet hyped up November’s Blood Orange album as “the comeback of the year” and their excitement was well warranted. Not only was lead single “Sweet Venom” one of 2023’s smoothest disco-pop offerings to date, but standout B-sides like the surging “Blind” mark some of ENHYPEN’s best vocal performances while “Orange Flower (You Complete Me)” sounds prime for a viral crossover like the guys’ TikTok hits “Polaroid Love” and “TFW (That Feeling When).” The results led to a new best sales week for ENHYPEN when the EP entered the Billboard 200 at No. 4 earlier this month with 90,000 equivalent album units earned. — J.B.
Stray Kids, 5-STAR
Stray Kids continued to dominate the U.S. with their summer full-length album 5-STAR, securing their third consecutive No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and their most successful sales week to date in America. Not too surprising given the 12-track project acts as a testament to the meticulous attention the group pours into each composition, with Stray Kids’ production unit of 3RACHA (a.k.a. Bang Chan, Changbin and HAN) boasting songwriting, composition and production credits across every track. 5-STAR challenges SKZ in unprecedented sonic ways, exemplified by the ambitious and genre-defying lead single “S-Class,” but also in standouts like “TOPLINE” (featuring Korean rap legend Tiger JK — the group’s first-ever collaboration on a record) and the fan-dedicated, all-English track “Youtiful.” — J.B.
Agust D, D-Day
Introduced by an eye-opening Disney+ documentary and brought to life through a world tour, D-Day emerged as a poignant, intimate glimpse into Suga’s captivating mind. In the third project under his Agust D moniker, Suga delves into his most personal reflections on record, exploring loneliness, freedom and letting go of the past. Beyond the lyricism revealing Suga’s innermost thoughts, the emotional weight of discussing his health and family in the standout track “Amygdala” are heightened by deft production decisions like Suga’s singing and use of Auto-Tune. D-Day also pays tribute to one of Suga’s personal musical heroes, as the gorgeous and haunting “Snooze” features legendary Japanese composer and producer Ryuichi Sakamoto, as well WOOSUNG of The Rose. Tragically, Sakamoto passed away less than a month before the album’s release, infusing D-Day with a sense of legacy and cross-generational continuity. — J.B.
(G)I-DLE, I Feel
Living up to their name as a self-producing group, (G)I-DLE wrote nearly everything on their I Feel EP with members Soyeon, Minnie and Yuqi taking lead roles in songwriting, composing and production. Perhaps more than ever, the girls’ personality is felt as the outfit moves through a range of everyday perspectives: “Allergy” lists all-too-real anxieties around hating social media, pressure to snag name brands and keeping up with your peers in the latest #challenge (“She’s so pretty, yeah, so lovely / Shе got everything, why am I not her?”) while “Queencard” is about comedically embracing your inner queen bee (“Queencard, I’m hot/ My boob and booty’s hot/ Spotlight, look at me/ I’m a star!”). Lower-key tracks like the emotional synth-pop cut “Paradise” and minimalist “Peter Pan” detail growing pains throughout adulthood. It all comes from (G)I-DLE’s heart, making this an important chapter for a group growing up with their fans. — J.B.
SEVENTEEN, 10th Mini Album: FML
SEVENTEEN’s landmark 10th Mini Album: FML (which stands for either “F–k My Life” or “Fight for My Life,” depending on which interpretation you take), signifies the group’s largest chart triumph (its their biggest sales week in the U.S. yet) and showcases the group at a new pinnacle of creativity. The tightly packed EP deftly balances SEVENTEEN’s signature blend of genres, emphasizing their versatility and musical maturity by going from the group’s most subdued single yet on “F*ck My Life” before moving to their intense heroic anthem “Super,” where the guys declare, “I love my team, I love my crew!”
Meanwhile, the unit songs “Fire” (highlighting the Hip-Hop Team), “I Don’t Understand but I Luv U” (Performance Team) and “Dust” (Vocal Team) stand out as some of each subgroup’s best and most unexpected work to date by subverting each team’s genre expectations—especially the Performance Team’s slow-grooving song. As FML shows SEVENTEEN navigating life’s complexities, their latest release not only breaks records for the crew but also celebrates an enduring innovation on the global music stage. — J.B.
ATEEZ, The World EP.Fin : Will
Not only is it ATEEZ’s longest album to date at 12 tracks, The World EP.Fin : Will is also the group’s most ambitious—and confident—endeavor. Listening to ATEEZ albums is akin to embarking on a cinematic journey, and Will is no exception, capturing the listener’s attention with the declarative intro “We Know,” where the guys speak directly to all enemies and nonbelievers: “You better run…/ My mic is on.”
The album’s tracks traverse highs and lows, as well as a deeper exploration of each member’s individuality with the octet recording album tracks as units or solos for the first time. But main single “Crazy Form” elevates ATEEZ’s signature fiery energy to new heights, undergoing a production switch-up and culminating in an anthemic march that boldly declares, “We’re changing the game/ Ayy, oh, ayy, we’re dancing every day.” It’s a timely manifesto for a group who just defied industry odds with their first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 earlier this month. — J.B.
aespa, My World: The 3rd Mini Album
aespa’s My World: The 3rd Mini Album had high expectations after unveiling four excellent new tracks (“Salty & Sweet,” “Thirsty,” “I’m Unhappy” and “‘Til We Meet Again”) at their first-ever solo concert Synk: Hyper Line in February. The album starts with the majestic “Welcome to My World,” a synth-pop marvel with a captivating, curious “feature” from the mysterious AI being within aespa’s lore, Naevis. While lead single “Spicy” delivers aespa’s signature sonic booms, its music video showcases the group’s more human side as the cool girls ruling their school. — J.B.
WOODZ’s OO-LI album is a transformative journey for the artist, marking his first release under EDAM Entertainment as the inaugural musician signed to the company formed for beloved K-pop icon IU. The project commenced with the pre-release buzz single “Abyss,” whose music video opened with a title card promising, “A very personal story by WOODZ.” Setting the intimate and honest tone for the project, the sincerity extends beyond the touching lyrics and delivery of “Abyss” to the gospel-infused main single “Journey,” undoubtedly reflecting WOODZ’s venture into a new chapter with EDAM. Venturing deeper into his love for rock, standout B-sides like “Drowning” and “Busted” showcase WOODZ’s vocal power over production that takes inspiration from punk and metal.
But amidst the heavy rock influences, WOODZ shows he has surprises for listeners with a track like “Deep Deep Sleep,” the all-English album opener that highlights his falsetto and soulful side, adding a moody and mysterious twist to the album. OO-LI not only captures a key moment in WOODZ’s artistic evolution but proves he’s one of the most exciting K-pop artists in the game with a range that distinguishes him from his peers. — J.B.
Incorporating V’s ingrained love of jazz music (he played saxophone in his childhood), Layover is a considerable departure from any BTS album, presenting the star in a realm all his own. An old soul, V’s first solo record unfolds as a lo-fi soul, jazz, and R&B journey where singles like “Love Me Again” and “Slow Dancing” bring a blend of romantic melancholy, with the commitment to V’s musical vision evident in decisions like an unconventional but lovely flute solo in the latter. At less than 20 minutes, Layover is a succinct, yet immersive, listening experience, becoming progressively smoother and sweeter throughout until it culminates in the falsetto-led finale “For Us” and a piano-based alternative version of “Slow Dancing.”
Teaming up with ADOR CEO and NewJeans’ mastermind Min Hee Jin, each track is complemented by its own music video to immerse fans in V’s world, with each visual awash in vintage filters to recall past decades. With a slew of live Tiny Desk Korea and band session performances that deepen the connection and help bring his vision to life, Layover lays the foundation for what promises to be a fascinating solo career for the BTS member. — J.B.
ONEW, Circle – The 1st Album
While it’s somewhat criminal to think that 15 years after ONEW’s debut with SHINee in 2008 we only just received his first full Korean album, the singer-songwriter himself would say that now was the perfect time for Circle. A musical journey unlike anything released this year, ONEW shared that he had attempted to record the album’s title track before dropping his Dice EP in early 2022, but felt it wasn’t at the level of perfection it deserved and held onto the song. ONEW then involved himself in every aspect of Circle‘s production process, from meticulous mixing and mastering to tuning, beats, recording and mastering, attesting to the singer-songwriter’s dedication to artistic expression.
The single “O (Circle)” opens the album with an intriguing blend of electronica and strings, while its gospel-tinged chorus emphasizes lyrics about the circular nature of life and how memories, feelings and dreams are all fleeting. The 10 tracks on Circle develop unique transformations from start to finish: the breezy melodies in “Cough” are paired with loneliness-themed lyrics and a melancholy instrumental breakdown, while “Rain on Me” starts with aggressive acoustic guitar strumming before transitioning into an atmospheric, percussive ballad. Sweet surprises abound, too: ONEW scats on the jazz-rap hybrid “Caramel” and gives a glimpse into his indie-rock side on “Parachute.”
The album’s effortless flow is anchored by ONEW’s famously solid yet understated vocals. As Circle concludes with the tender piano ballad “Always” which addresses themes of loyalty and resilience, the listener wonders if it’s an allegory for ONEW’s public journey through health challenges, including vocal cord surgery. Even without any writing credits on Circle, ONEW’s presence is undeniably felt in this seamless collection that boasts an emotional depth brought on by 15 years in the game. That’s the kind of introspection you can’t rush or doctor through A&R but need to cycle through and arrive at when the moment is right. From scheduling this album’s release to the messages on the final track, time is definitely on ONEW’s side to deliver such a project. — J.B.