K-pop may center around music, but it’s really an all-encompassing media package that comprises video, fashion, makeup, choreography, and concept (among dozens of other factors).
The album, then, is a strange and insular unit of measurement to apply: How are you supposed to gauge the success of a work when all you’re looking at is a cross-section? Still — since there’s no denying that K-pop is a significantly musical venture, there will always be value in tracing its sonic evolution, and the album is still the best way to do that.
It’s a fortunate fact when you consider that the story of K-pop music in the 2010s reads more like a riddle than a novel. Obviously, it’s not far-fetched for a 2010 track to sound like it’s from a different universe than one released in 2019, but there’s a much more defined musical shift in the decade, originating somewhere around 2015, that spontaneously erupted into a bottomless schism separating two very different musical attitudes in K-pop. It’s the distance between the angsty chaos of BTS’ Dark & Wild (2014) and the heady sonic explorations of its followup, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Pt.1 (2015). It’s the gap separating 2NE1’s meteoric potential as realized in Crush (2014), from the group’s devastating disbandment just two years later.
Pin it on the glimpses of global success that acts like Psy and Girls Generation afforded, but when K-pop’s record labels set their sights on global appeal in the early decade, they reached out for it in their music. Producers turned up the hip-hop and R&B influences. Synth sounds blossomed from electro-pop to encompass UK garage, house, and synth-pop. Budgets expanded. Everywhere, Korean labels scrambled to find the perfect mix between Western influences and their own instincts.
What resulted was a decade of K-pop music obsessed with experimentation and reinvention. The period’s best albums construct a brilliant mosaic of past and future, West and East, sophistication and camp, avant-garde and earworm. To commemorate the decade in K-pop, Billboard has compiled a selection of the era’s 25 greatest albums.
18. 2NE1, Crush (2014)
K-pop’s crossover trajectory in the States is often reduced to chart stats. It’s true that Crush hit No. 61 on the Billboard 200. But the LP’s real claim to fame in the U.S. is that it made 2NE1 a critical darling in a market where K-poptimism still hasn’t taken hold. The quartet’s sophomore album traverses a genre-blend of EDM, trap, and reggae — and standouts include the sensory overload of “Come Back Home” and the deceptively cheerful pop of “Happy.” But “MTBD” is the show-stopping centerpiece where CL’s ferocious flow takes no prisoners amid twitching triple hi-hats and the bass going “boom boom boom.” The relatively restrained full-length proved 2NE1 knows when to pull back after firing on all cylinders. — C.K.
* irrelevant parts omitted