Crate Digging is a recurring feature in which we take a deep dive into a genre and turn up several albums all music fans should know about.
Let’s start this off by clearing up a big misconception that must be addressed: K-pop is not a genre. A type of music? Sure. An industry? Yes. A musical scene? Definitely. But not a specific genre. Boom, now we can move forward.
In all seriousness, though, K-pop is more of an umbrella term that encompasses many genres like hip-hop, synthpop, rap, EDM, and pretty much everything else –often mixed together into one single song. For categorization purposes, it’s easier to just box Korean idols and pretty much any Korean artist that has a fan base outside of Korea into “K-pop” and call it a day. But when even in the idol world you have groups as starkly different as the bubbly, happy-go-lucky TWICE and the grungy pop-EDM of NCT 127, and then you add popular R&B soloists like Heize or Crush, while also bringing in rappers like Zico into the mix, “K-pop” as a specific genre moniker just doesn’t make sense.
CedarBough Saeji, a professor in Korean Studies at Indiana University Bloomington known as “The K-pop Professor” on social media, points out that one of K-pop’s most distinctive characteristics is that it is genre fluid. In a recent-ish podcast, Saeji explained K-pop with a recipe analogy. “If you’re gonna make banana bread, then you definitely need bananas in there. And you need to have some flour, and some things like that. So what else is there? You need enough of the ingredients that people recognize as being primary ingredients of K-pop. If you have enough of these key elements that make up K-pop, then [that’s K-pop],” she said.
When it comes to production, K-pop is always shifting; songs that are popular now sound very different to those released just two years ago when the trop-house craze was booming, or even that weird dub-step stint eight years ago. K-pop thrives by either beating the trendy sounds of the day to a pulp or living a few years ahead in the pop future — that’s why K-pop songs either age terribly nostalgic or transcend the boundaries of aging.
Also, as an industry, K-pop focuses more on singles than complete bodies of work — though this is slowly changing — and B-sides often serve as fodder to sell the glitzy main song. However, if you consider yourself a multi-fan (meaning a fan of multiple groups in K-pop lingo), you might be more open to explore the albums of many other groups outside of your faves and expand your K-pop experience.
As aforementioned, time isn’t exactly the kindest to K-pop, and while classic songs instantly come to mind, albums are a tougher task. That’s why instead of focusing on quintessential albums, we’re opting for a range of artists and albums that showcase just how genre diverse K-pop really is.
Click ahead to explore 10 essential K-pop albums.
Seo Taiji and Boys — Seo Taiji and Boys (1992)
When it comes to K-pop, we can point to Seo Taiji and Boys as the founding fathers. The trio are credited for revolutionizing Korean pop music — which, at the time, was mainly ballads and trot — when they imported sounds popular in the West and mixed rap, new jack swing, and techno on their 1992 debut, “I Know”, paired with an infectious choreography and trendy fits. Much like the single, the self-titled album incorporated a multitude of genres, sonically falling somewhere between New Kids on the Block, “Pump Up the Jam”, and Milli Vanilli-esque R&B. Their debut album single-handedly shifted the industry’s focus on the younger demographic as the main consumers and thus created what is now the culture around K-pop.
Top Track: “You, In the Fantasy”
2NE1 — To Anyone (2010)
For the longest time, 2NE1 was almost synonymous with K-pop to listeners in the West, and the songs on their first studio album laid the foundation for them to become one of the most iconic groups in the scene. Characterized by their badass image and self-empowering lyrics, To Anyone solidified their impact. True to the trends of the late aughts, the album features heavy Auto-Tuning, repetitive hooks, and electro-pop craziness, but in the best way. At the time, 2NE1 was the only female ensemble blending hip-hop, reggae-pop, and synthpop in songs like “Clap Your Hands” and “Can’t Nobody”, which ended up becoming their sonic identity. The album also highlighted their singing chops on “It Hurts” and “You and I”. 2NE1 went onto have much bigger records, but To Anyone was their first full-length that would influence generations of both fans and K-pop girl groups.
Top Track: “I’m Busy”
IU — Modern Times Epilogue (2013)
Throughout the first part of her career, IU was known as the “Nation’s Little Sister” for having a bright, innocent, Disney-type persona. Modern Times and its reissue, Modern Times Epilogue, changed that. On this album, the singer explored big band on “Red Shoes”, Latin swing on “Everybody Has Secrets”, and also kept it pop-friendly with lead single “Friday”, as well as sprinkle jazz and bossa nova throughout its entirety. Not exactly the album you expected from a then 20-year-old pop starlet. Modern Times Epilogue is a prime example of why K-pop just isn’t a genre, but a genre-fluid music scene that will even invoke gypsy jazz if needed.
Top Track: “Obliviate”
Brown Eyed Girls — BASIC (2015)
By the time BASIC came out, the vocal group Brown Eyed Girls had nothing else to prove, and yet, they put out an album to remind listeners just why they’re K-pop icons. Though sexiness is often used as a concept in K-pop, girl groups are never awarded their own agency over their sexualities. Brown Eyed Girls have never put up with that double standard, and being the queens of provocative, raunchy concepts, BASIC is full the sexual innuendos (masturbation on the brassy “Warm Hole”, sexual yearning on the breezy “Time of Ice Cream”) and sensual maturity (the ethereal “Wave”) that women in their 30s are allowed to experience. Though no song sounds like another, BASIC is consistent in BEG’s strong vocal performances and the tendency to keep pushing the envelope and play with melodies 10 years into their career as a group.
Top Track: “Wave”
DEAN — 130 Mood : TRBL (2016)
Though K-pop artists have been incorporating R&B into their music since the ‘90s, the second half of the 2010’s birthed a slew of exclusively R&B singers and saw the genre break into the mainstream. One of the artists to do so, elevate the scene, and come out on top was DEAN. Blessed with the falsetto of an angel and opting for a hip-hop soundscape, the singer crafted an album that thrusted Korean alt-R&B into the future. There’s something for everyone on 130 Mood : TRBL: ‘90s funkiness with “21”, the trap-infused “Bonnie & Clyde”, and the jazzy piano on “What 2 Do”. Korean R&B is one of those murky territories where one questions whether it’s considered K-pop or not. But with DEAN’s strong global fan base and a presence that rivals idol groups, it’s important to at least recognize his impact on the scene.
Top Track: “Pour Up”
Click ahead for more essential K-pop albums…