The Best K-pop Albums of 2023

Albums were not really a thing for K-pop in 2023. That is a wild thing, considering that over 22 million K-pop albums sold in the first half of this year. But when I talk about albums, I mean quality albums.

Curated collections that go together, and are put out as such. Nowadays, many K-pop acts forego albums entirely, opting solely for singles. Or, if they do release an album, it’s often full of filler, such as remixes or alternate language versions. It feels like the art of an album is getting lost as songs get increasingly shorter. Even many albums on this list, I feel like the first half is amazing, while the second half of the album is just Solidly Good But Rarely Great. That’s not to say there weren’t good albums, short or otherwise, but when I was thinking of what I enjoyed this year, it felt like a few albums that everyone agrees are wonderful, a few personal ones, and then far and few albums of worth aside from that.

Before we begin, please be aware of changes coming to this newsletter in 2024, when I will be leaving Substack.

Like my songs list, I’m not ranking these. Unlike my songs list, I’m going to try to be as concise as possible because I’d like to hit send on this before 2024 arrives here in New York City.

I hope you all enjoy, and have a happy 2024!

An Apple Music playlist featuring all the albums I considered as possible Best Of can be found here.

Notes on K-pop’s Best of 2023 songs list

I’ve IVE - IVE

The forceful of elegance “Blue Blood” leading into the anthemic glory “I AM” into the playful, quirky Y2K ode of “Kitch”? For that alone, IVE have one of the best albums of the year, but the remainder of its tracklist similarly shows all that they have to offer with bold, captivating flare. Each song feels like a different “Day in the life” of what IVE have to offer, pinballing between bold, synth R&B, funky dance numbers, and charming pop balladry.

Chill Kill - Red Velvet

When I first heard this album before it came out, I was pissed. How dare someone in A&R at SM pick the lush “Chill Kill” as the single when the playful creepiness of “Knock Knock (Who’s There?") is right there! But then I got addicted to the velvet glory of “Underwater” and the bright EDM of “Will I Ever See You Again,” and the rest of the album sucked me in with each repeated play, and now I see the vision of “Chill Kill” being the single that sets the stage for this album. I especially love how “Scenery” appears to be a nod back to “One of These Nights,” one of Red Velvet’s most underrated songs. My only complaint now? We had The Red and Perfect Velvet as their full-length albums so far, so it feels sad that it broke the nod to their group name. There’s a mini named The Velvet, so they couldn’t do that but I would have loved something like Killer Red Velvet, idk.

Unlock My World - fromis_9

Whoever decided this was the right direction for fromis_9 in 2023 deserves a raise. A huge bonus, at the very least. This dramatic, groovy series of songs falls firmly in the “dance the night away in your sexiest little black dress and let everyone look at you in awe” soundtrack column. There are the richer, slower moments, then the hesitant, fuck it all feels nestled in between exquisite house and R&B productions. If this is the world as run by fromis_9, I vote them dictators for life.

Circle - Onew

“O (Circle)” is perhaps the magnum opus of Onew’s career, which is saying something considering he is a member of the legends that are SHINee. The only reason I didn’t put it on my Best of Songs list is because I equally think that other songs on this album are just as gloriously a show of Onew’s talent. The album overall is a little laid back, awash in fantastical relaxation with a hint of nostalgic regret, especially in the first third while the second third goes straight into the realms of funk and disco to liven things up. The final third is a mix of both, equal parts Onew’s sentimentality and whimsy.

Get Up - NewJeans

I’m honestly so mad and never going to get over that this album is not even 13 minutes long. It’s so good. NewJeans are just so good at expressing the refined, waifish cool girl vocalizing that blend with throwback nostalgia melodies that have captivated music lovers around the world this year. I have a particular soft spot for “New Jeans,” but “Super Shy” and its frenetic blend of drum and bass and jersey club is the star of the show. I’m still praying 2024 gives us an extended version of this album, or at least the haunting harmonies of “Get Up.”

Seventeenth Heaven - Seventeen

Gotta say, any album that features a song expressing thanks to the “God of Music” if it exists has already won my heart, as someone whose life has been defined by her love of music. That aside, I think Seventeenth Heaven’s ‘70s-esque daisies and bright blue sky pattern evoke a sort of flower power energy that pervades the album, even when in the latter half it gets a bit darker and moves into bolder hip-hop and sweet balladry after more funky, playful moments in the first half. It’s a short album but each song says something very particular about Seventeen and their music in 2023, with throwbacks to their early days while still firmly showing they have directions they’re still heading in.

On My Youth - WayV

When you look a the larger NCT discography, I think that On My Youth may be one of the more underrated greats. WayV have always leaned into a bit more of a more theatrical and mature (debatable) form of eclectic boy bandery than their NCT 127 and NCT Dream counterparts, and this album is the culmination of what they’ve been building up to. It spends much of its length in darker, pop R&B places before bringing in gritty, yet playful, hip-hop bangers. There’s an overall sense of nostalgia (perhaps K-pop’s theme of the year), calling back to the early aughts in their performance styles, with some truly awe-inspiring harmonizing from the vocalists and rather chanty, deadpan verses from their rappers. Funky, glitchy synths pop up at almost every twist and turn in the more upbeat songs, while the slower moments aim for acoustic sensibilities. Each song is great on its own, but I think as a show of everything that WayV has to offer, On My Youth is phenomenal.

The World EP. 2: Outlaw - ATEEZ

I love ATEEZ’s dedication to being the ultimate K-pop theater kids. Each song of Outlaw thematically stands on its own, musically rambunctious and full of lyrical storytelling. But coming together in an album where you can practically visualize the performances this sword swinging, flag waving crew will create? Art.

Layover - V

V’s creative solo endeavors have typically been more blues than pop, so it’s no surprise that Layover is an album awash in softer, lo-fi jazz moments. The title refers in a way to a layover, or a moment in between going from one place to a new destination, and it does feel to some degree that this is an album for those moments, where one maybe needs a soothing, restful listen while stressed or anticipating what’s to come. One of my favorite moments is just before the 2 minute mark in “Love Me Again,” when the song becomes awash in ambient, glistening synths. It’s almost like a mini layover of its own, getting to the end of the song when it picks up the original melody and V begins singing again. I don’t think this is an album for everyone always, but in a 2023 that was very tumultuous it was like a warm, sonic hug at times. It also doesn’t hurt that he put his dog on the cover, as if it’s an homage to where he’s found solace and happiness. I definitely didn’t buy a specific version solely because Yeontan is so cute.

ISTJ - NCT Dream

After debuting as teenagers and growing up in the spotlight, even when they were supposed to break up as they became adults legally, NCT Dream continues to figure out a way forward where there’s a bit of bright, refreshing joie de vivre on their path to growing up. This album especially encompasses that, keeping to an overall refreshing feel with interesting production choices, while also experimenting with what the Dreamies can sound like. As it progresses, it shows how comfortable they’ve become as they’ve grown up, while still retaining their essence.

The Name Chapter : Temptation - Tomorrow X Together

When I was asking around to both readers of this newsletter and my friends what their favorite musical moments of the year were, a lot of people pointed to the afrobeat confection that is “Tinnitus (Wanna be a rock)” by TXT. But in all honest, it’s just one of the starring moments of their Temptation album which, like many temptations, is short and fleeting, and leaves you wanting more once you’ve tasted. It’s only five songs, but each one shows the quintet’s versatility at switching things up to fit whatever comes their way, with hushed falsetto feeling as comfortable on them “Devil by the Window” as the textured angst expressed in “Farewell, Neverland.” “Sugar Rush Ride” rightly became a hit this year with its confectionary rollercoaster of a pop-rock switcheroo, but I think the whole album is worth its time in the spotlight.

Expectation - D.O.

Another one of those albums that I found myself listening to on tough days this year, D.O.’s warm tone relayed across the tracks of “Expectation” feels like a contemporary pop hug to your soul. It’s not a particularly experimental or complex album, and firmly falls within the realm of easy listening. But the amount of people who told me in passing throughout the year that they loved this album for the momentary release it could give them? It may just be some soft and sweet pop moments, but it works so well.

D-DAY - Agust D

For years, Agust D (aka Suga of BTS aka Min Yoongi) has been sharing his struggles and feelings with the world via both his solo ventures and his songwriting for BTS as well as that for other artists. D-Day, as the title suggests, is the culmination of it all, following his previous Agust D and D-2 albums. It’s raw, and agressive, and soft depending on the moment, because it is made up of all that encompasses Suga, as he relays it with hip-hop-based tracks that draw facets of his musical inspiration ranging from traditional Korean gugak to a feature from the late great Ryuichi Sakamoto. The accompanying concert was a raw, theatrical experience, fitting of such a monumental half hour of music.

5-STAR - Stray Kids

Stray Kids have perfected their sort of gritty, eccentric hip-pop anthems full of brash and bold, but true, declarations of their career and lives, and 5-Star is a testament to that. It’s first half especially is rowdy and almost forcefully daring anyone to dare and call them out for being anything other than the “S-Class” superstars that they are. The second half continues this showcase of Stray Kids’ ethos but moves a bit more into the realm of funky pop and dance music, with a few heartfelt moments thrown in. It’s an album full of energy and vigor, and a testament to everything Stray Kids have achieved thus far.

Born to be XX - Kiss of Life

This is a group to keep your eyes on, least of all because the production of everything they’ve released so far has been engaging to the nth degree, with their debut album’s solo from Natty, “Sugarcoat” gaining a lot of attention in South Korea. But this album, their second EP, enters the realm of excellence with its dedication to rich R&B and playful hip-hop. It’s full of forthright lyrics built upon the rich vocals of the four members, and leaves us wanting more from this rookie team.

Honorable mentions, which I enjoyed but loved a little bit less than the aforementioned releases:

Heat - (G)I-dle -This is a (G)I-dle album that’s sort of not a (G)I-dle album, in that none of the members, particularly Soyeon, have any writing credits. Because of this, their first English album feels like a glimpse at what an alternate universe (G)I-dle would look like with more straightforward pop influences. The femme fatale rollicking dance track “Eyes Roll” is a stand out that should not be missed.

Exist - EXO - This is a pretty good album, but sadly comes from a group I always expect greatness from when it comes to their full-length albums. Glorious moments abound, least of all the rapturous “Let Me In” and the sleek, flirtiness of “Cream Soda,” but as often as I listened it never went from B+ tier in my mind when it comes to EXO’s discography.

Door - KIMSEJEONG - This is a really gorgeous, folksy po album that I think sets the bar high for Kim Sejeong’s future albums.

Fact Check - NCT 127 - Like the EXO album, I feel like Fact Check had high expectations in my mind that it didn’t meet, as great as NCT 127 sound on it. It’s kind of cheating on my part that I put “Space” and “Parade” both as a combined listen on my song list, so sue me.

To. X - Taeyeon - I kind of regret not putting “All For Nothing” on my songs list, because it’s definitely one of my favorite musical moments from Taeyeon in ages. Or maybe “Fabulous”… Regardless, this album overall is a wonderful listen from a truly talented singer, but I am leaving it as an honorable mention because it’s a bit seasonal in feelings so I’m not sure if in six months from now I’ll feel that way after she’s released another album.