SB’s End-of-Year panels would not be complete without capping off the Best Albums list of 2018. Aastha, Abigail, and Cy have gathered together to share their views on the top releases of the year. As well as sharing what made these records stand out in a year full of special, surprising, and anticipated comebacks from across South Korea.

Cy: This is another list that was absolutely painful for me to narrow down to just six albums. I’ve been compiling a list of 100 albums from all over the world the entire year, and a great deal of them are from Korea.  This is an instance where the only sure thing was the #1 full-length album. South Korea definitely had a fantastic year musically. There was so much to sift through from all genres.

Aastha: I totally agree. Covering a variety of genres, the releases this year have been diverse, which makes it difficult to pick just a handful out of numerous available choices.

Cy: All of us seem to be drawn to Shinee’s latest offering (though I chose just the first in the series). What was it about the album, Aastha and Abigail, that affected you enough to have it high on your favorite albums lists?

Abigail: I can confidently say that 2018 was a great year for music and it is no denying that this year has been a prevalent one for Shinee as well. The Story of Light is an album that fully embodies every musical aspect of Shinee’s being down to the clear-cut harmonies, emotional melodies, and electro-pop sounds that are at their most refined in the group’s latest work. Standout hits like “You & I” and “All Day All Night” remind me why Shinee will be the best to ever do it. This is an album that shows the group at their peak and at their most electrifying height.

Aastha: Spot-on, Abigail. The Story of Light – Epilogue showed how the group has evolved in their musicality, while sticking to the electro-pop sound that Shinee is known for. I was drawn to the versatility they showed; the groovy, bass-heavy “Jump”, the eclectic “All Day All Night”, the balladic “You & I”, and the upbeat “Countless”, amongst many other impressive tracks. Shinee has always had a strong discography, in my opinion, and The Story of Light – Epilogue was a splendid addition. What drew you to the first part of the series, Cy?

Cy: Quite frankly, Ep. 1 sounded like Shinee was proving a point. Yes, there’s still something bittersweet about continuing, but we can move on from this. The music on Ep. 1 showed them continuing on a path they started with Odd Eye: eclectic work that focuses on musicality, nuance, and maturity. This is a group that’s been in the game for a decade and continues to evolve. While Eps 2 and 3 were obviously of the quality we expect from Shinee, it was more giving us what they’re known for to acknowledge their past (Ep. 2) and being able to keep up with the times and do it equally, if not better, than their juniors (Ep. 3). They really took on the mantle of house and its subgenres with vigor. Ep. 1 just highlighted that they’re not afraid to explore and experiment and do it in a big way, no holding back, and unapologetically.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is exactly the reason why Jonghyun’s final gift was so high on my list. That young man never apologized for his craft, never once backed down from a musical challenge. He was completely open with himself and his art, and Poet | Artist was the perfect example of what he was capable of. He explored musical depths that people don’t give him enough credit for. As tough as this is to say, Poet | Artist was a period. No… it was an exclamation point.

But beyond that, our lists differ (even though before I decided on my six, I had at least one album from each of your lists on mine). Gotta say I’m pleased to see elements of indie!

Abigail: Indie really proved itself this year with so many great releases coming out of the genre that ,, on many levels, at a better continuous quality than what was being released from the mainstream. A great example is Indie artist YESEO who released her pop electronic album Damn Rules. The LP is slick with synth sounds and shiny trap beats that blend perfectly together to amplify the hard-hitting beat drops that showcase YESEO’s talent for mixing and producing. Songs like “Honey, Don’t Kill My Vibe” showcase the pop infectious side of YESEO who has repeatedly shown her genius in cultivating hypnotic chorus hooks that are perfect for any dance floor. Whether she sings in English or Korean, YESEO’s sultry voice is hard to dismiss when it comes to her more stimulating and electrifying songs, particularly on “Damn” and “I Don’t Give A.”

On the other side of the Indie spectrum, we have the majestic SOMA whose voice feels like honey dripping through the fingertips. I can’t get enough of her musical artistry that lingers between melancholia and soulful tranquility. Her influence is very much rooted in R&B and Jazz, which when blended together in Spring Breeze creates emotionally steeped sounds, sometimes sensual, other times mournful. The song “Pollen Allergy” is laced with guitar riffs that accentuate SOMA’s tender vocals and demonstrates the enthralling power of her heart-rendering melodies. Other tracks like “Almond Blossom” are excitingly lustful as they take on a seductive groovy tone that expels SOMA’s own passion for her work.

I’m curious, what drew you guys in to your indie picks?

Cy: It was almost a given that most of my picks were going to come from indie artists. I’m just a big supporter of artists who fall outside of the K-“pop” title and drip all of their soul into the art and the art alone.

Quite frankly, Jjang You is my favorite male MC from South Korea. Since his debut with duo ILLAP and his work with Jflow and ARwwae in WAVISABIROOM, I’ve been impressed with every permutation of his distinct musical personality. He’s just got a vicious delivery. KOKI7 is an explosive piece of hip-hop that melds his mellow tone with something a bit more sinister around the edges.

On the opposite end, you have PUNCHNELLO, who did more to stretch his compositional and production skills than his MCing. at 5:43am was melodic, mesmerizing, had a clear narrative and used aural imagery to tell its story. From the moment the first notes of the album literally wept through my speakers I was in love.

Plainly put, CIFIKA is an absolute angel. Her voice has the kind of tone that puts the twinkle of gold and silver to shame. The fact that she throws it on top of some bone-chilling electronica makes her probably one of the most effortlessly creative electronica artists in Korea, possibly the world. Without meaning to draw comparisons, it’s hard not to hear the influence of Bjork in her work. But CIFIKA is an artist apart. With PRISM, the woman takes the gritty crunch and snarl of machine work and pairs it with the vocals of some divine being. She manages with just her voice to make the industrial something holy.

Now, Decadent…. All I can do is sigh when it comes to this band. Since their debut EP, last year’s “A,” I’ve been just obsessed with their music. Their self-titled LP was pure magic. First and foremost, lead vocalist Dennis Jin’s voice is a work of art. It’s raw, emotional, and one of the hugest instruments I’ve ever heard. He’s got a range that’ll make you want to punch a wall! Then there’s their lead guitarist, Pahk Chang, who just lays into that thing like he’s got a point to prove. Their music is evocative, emotion-laden. There’s some heavy blues in there that tears at my soul. The final track on the album, “B,” was enough to make it my favorite album from Korea.

Aastha: I’ll admit that I’m not really versed in the genre of Indie, but the few K-Indie artists that I’ve managed to listen to are very talented. Like you mentioned, Cy, PUNCHNELLO’s at 5:43am is a masterpiece. YESEO is another favourite. In fact, I struggled between choosing Tiger JK’s Rebirth of Tiger JK and Aseul’s Asobi, which shone in its New Pop/R&B glory.

The reason Rebirth of Tiger JK inched higher is because the entire album is captivating from start to finish. It took me two days to thoroughly listen to and appreciate each of the 30 tracks present in the album. From an old-school Hip Hop vibe in “Timeless” to a modern-sounding “Van Gogh”, and with hard-hitting beats in songs like “Mantra” and “Gozip2” alongside more balladic tracks like “Beautiful”, Return of Tiger JK was a winner. Tiger JK presented a consistently impressive album, with incredible musicality displayed in each song.

As for The Rose… well I’m not sure if they qualify as Indie anymore, but they did have their humble Indie beginnings. The entered the mainstream with Void, drawing heavy influences from Pop and Rock. There are only four tracks on this mini-album, but every song has a powerful instrumental track, coupled with strong vocals. Even though the mini has a combination of slower songs (“I.L.Y.”) and fast-paced songs (“Baby”), it has a very cohesive sound that makes it easy to listen to, which can be difficult to achieve with the Pop Rock genre.

I see that you have Hyukoh on your list, Abigail, who are also known for their Indie-Pop Rock genre.

Abigail: I’ve come to accept that every year Hyukoh decides to release something, it will automatically end up on my best albums list. Their sound mix of alternative to pure rock was both ambitious and atmospheric on their latest record, 24: How To Find True Love and Happiness. The title track “Love Ya!” is a symphony to the many different forms of love. Like many of Hyukoh’s noise heavy tracks, it both conjures feelings of happiness and melancholy as the instrumentation slowly builds in a crescendo to the bombastic chorus climax. In contrast, “Citizen Kane” might be the band’s most influenced hard rock track to date. It carries a punch until the end with the heavy bass drums and the intense lead guitar solos follows suit. On the pace that the band is heading, Hyukoh definitely has the potential to break into the western market and set a spotlight onto the endless talent of Korean indie musicians.

Although Hyukoh’s 24 was just an EP, they proved you can pack something large-scale into a compact release while still holding significant substance. A perfect example of this is mega rookie girl group LOONA and their infectious EP, [++]. This mini album is the definition of a pop-perfect record filtered through catchy hooks, fantastic melodies, and vocal sugarcoated harmonies. The group certainly hits the ground running with the song “Hi High” as it intros with spacious synths that rocket into a peppy chorus of bubbly dance pop. They even put their own spin on the tropical house trend with “Heat” as it takes a more 90’s vibe approach. One has to thank the group for not ending their EP with a ballad as “Stylish” is the perfect track to end on with its sleek production and a luscious chorus hook that is set to get stuck in your head!

Aastha, I see you have another favorite group of mine, Dreamcatcher, on your list! A group that nearly made my top 3.

Aastha: Actually, Alone in the City was the first mini-album I had heard of Dreamcatcher’s — the music video for “What” had intrigued me to give them a listen. I really liked how they used the idea of loneliness across the album to tie all the songs together, consistently bringing up the concept of isolation and longing in every track. Not only that, Dreamcatcher stepped out of their usual rock-inspired music, and gave us tracks of other genres: “July 7th” of the reggae genre, and “Wonderland” of the R&B genre. My favorite point of this album was that it ended with “July 7th”. It was just so refreshing to hear an album close with something other than a ballad. With only five tracks of varying genres, I wouldn’t have expected for a mini to have sounded so put-together as theirs did, nor would I have expected such conscious thought to go into picking the songs such that the lyrics of each song showed a common theme.

Perhaps it’s obvious already, but I’m really drawn to albums that attempt step out of the artist’s usual musical style, as well as albums that show continuity or consistency in terms of the lyrics. That’s why, other than Dreamcatcher’s Alone in the City, Eric Nam’s Honestly is one of my top picks.

Eric is associated with more balladic, soothing tracks; in Honestly, he went in a different direction with a Pop-influenced vibe throughout the mini. The Tropical House influence, coupled with his toned-down, powerhouse vocals, brings a certain energy to the track. Even “Honestly”, which was more balladic in its execution, had some Electro-Pop instrumentals going on in the background. It’s no new fact that Eric Nam has strong vocals, so I thought it was impressive that he dialled back on it this time to show his versatility in attempting different types of music. The mini-album doesn’t only highlight his inclination to Electro-Pop and synth but also introduces some reggae. Eric, too, keeps his album cohesive by revolving the tracks around the notion of a lost love.

From what I see, other than Indie and Hip Hop, all three of us have a few “mainstream” K-Pop acts on our lists. What caused these picks to be in your top few?

Cy: Honestly, there was no question that Jonghyun’s final album was going to make my list. I know there are many people who still haven’t listened to it.  A year later, and it’s still too soon. It still stings. Listening to his final offering gave me the closure I needed. But that’s not why it’s on my list. The sheer amount of artistry on that album… Jonghyun poured every part of who he was as an artist, and yes, a poet, into its creation. Even in title, Poet | Artist defined his genius, his scope. He fully embraced every genre he dabbled in: R&B, neo-soul, house. Everything I wanted to say about the album I said in my review. I will say, fans of the man, take your time of course, but don’t deny yourself a chance to hear something truly special, just for music’s sake. I won’t ask you to detach Jonghyun from it. That would actually defeat the purpose of the album itself. I will say listen to it knowing that Jonghyun was exactly who he said he was: a poet and an artist.

Abigail: I am actually among those who have yet to listen to Jonghyun’s final offering. Part of the reason is the knowledge that Poet | Artist will be the last original work in which I will ever get to hear Jonghyun’s voice. There is no doubt that I will get around to it but when I am ready and in my own time.

Apart from the K-Pop acts you guys have mentioned, I do think EXO deserves a nod of praise for their latest album, Don’t Mess Up My Tempo. Although EXO didn’t do anything revolutionary or experimented with genres apart from their usual sound, they certainly hold a level of professionalism and artistry that I have always gravitated towards. Just like the group itself, this album is sleek and groovy with near perfect production and replay value that makes each track irresistible. In addition to their pop-trap title track, songs like “24/7” are standouts as they go for mid-tempo pop with hints of R&B that are prevalent sounds within EXO’s discography. The song “Oasis,” a fan favorite, is dreamy with its melody harmonization that mixes piano over hi-hats while “Ohh La La La” sees the group going for a more Latin pop influence and executing it well. There are few groups that can construct an album as well as EXO with every song being as good as the next. Although they have proven themselves already, EXO is still the pinnacle of K-Pop excellence, not only in sales but in artistry and in their music, where it counts the most.

Aastha: I loved Exo’s “Love Shot” and “Damage”! (I generally enjoy music produced by LDN Noise; “Damage” was an immediately categorised as a jam once I heard it.)

It was choosing between BTSLove Yourself: Answer and RM’s Mono for me. Undoubtedly though, RM’s Mono was my favorite album release of the year. Mono is RM personified. It brings all the convoluted, confusing feelings of self-love, the pain and growth that accompanies that process, and the unavoidable loneliness that adulthood. It’s raw and unfiltered. It’s direct and depicts the notion of simplicity, and yet presents complex lyrics and/or complex instrumentals. Mono is instrumentally very different from BTS’ music, or any of the music that RM has put out as a solo rapper-songwriter. Each track shows a part of RM and how he thinks; he was very conscientious in the message he wanted to put across, and reiterated it throughout each track. Tracks like “moonchild” and “uhgood” are lyrically intricate, and show his very personal point-of-view on maturing and growing up. On the other hand, tracks like “everythingoes” and “badbye” feature a more composite instrumental and vocal layering. All in all, I think Mono was an honest album that featured all of RM’s strengths: impressive lyrics, great production, and splendid rapping, and it’s no surprise that the album was acclaimed a success.

Cy: In the end, though our lists were mostly drastically different, I think we were all searching for the same thing: excellent composition and some lyrical strength. For many that might be the sleek professionalism found in K-pop production. For others, it might be the raw and fearless nature inherent in indie. Whatever it is, there’s no doubt Korea had a brilliant (and abundant year) for music.

(Images via SM Entertainment, DRDRamc Entertainment, Big Hit Entertainment)