Like in any other year, K-pop in 2021 can’t be defined by a single sound or message. Soloists and groups continued pushing the bounds of genre within Korean pop music as they experimented with influences from rock to Latin, R&B to electropop. But if there was one theme that emerged more than others in the lyrics of this year’s top releases, it was a shared reflection on the passage of time, the formation of memories and holding onto hope through it all. It’s only fitting, as so many aspects of our lives remained on pause in 2021 as the pandemic continued to bring more uncertainty. Many of the year’s standout K-pop releases offer comfort and catharsis, as feelings of normalcy give way to Questions and fearThen, you can go back.
These are, in no particular order: the 20 greatest K-pop albums and songs of 2021.
The cameras are rolling from the first moments of CIX’s movie-themed love song “Cinema”—quite literally, as a voice announces, “ready” and “action!” Bright synth notes kick in as the five-member group launches into a metaphor likening a romance to a film, beginning with the opening credits: “The names are engraved side by side,” Hyunsuk describes in the first verse. The cinematic imagery continues, as the artists sing of believing in “the frame called ‘us’” to chasing dreams together in “a screen called ‘tomorrow.’” A vivid serenade that thrums with pizzazz, “Cinema” has the enduring quality of the timeless classics to which CIX compares this courtship.
“Love So Sweet,” Cherry Bullet
If “Love So Sweet” were part of a full course meal, it would be the refreshing pre-dessert that cleanses the palate. The song features a gentle, whispered melody in the chorus and soft, sweet vocals. Cherry Bullet requests that the romantic heart of the song be kept secret. “Love So Sweet” ramps up in the bridge as the group reveals that things are not as sugary as they appear: “One-sided love/ makes me feel bittersweet,” Jiwon sings, before Bora belts a climactic note that seems to unleash the lovesick emotions hidden far too long.
Thought ENHYPEN released two gripping title tracks in “Drunk-Dazed” and “Tamed-Dashed” this year, it’s the B-side “Fever” from EP Carnival: BorderThat is what makes it most compelling. “Fever” leaves a scorching trail, as ENHYPEN describes their bodies burning up from passion. The breathy delivery of the vocals and the exasperated sighs let out throughout the track help signal the rising temperatures, while the instrumentation’s palpitating thumps emulate a fervent heart’s beating.
“After School,” WEEEKLY
To listen to WEEEKLY’s “After School” is to be injected with a dopamine boost. It’s a soaring song with bright melodies and a fast-paced beat. The lyrics are about anticipating freedom at the end of classes. As the beats accelerate toward the spirited chorus, you can’t help but want to line up at the door to join the dance at full throttle when the school bell rings.
Taemin released a song just days after he joined the military. It will keep his fans entertained until he returns to performing. They would be hard-pressed to tire of the haunting yet enchanting piano melody that opens “Advice” with flair then propels the track to its EmphaticLast note. Topped with the SHINee vocalist’s dulcet voice and spurred on by urgent trap beats, this R&B song is a warning to those who criticize the veteran performer. “The more you try to trap me, I’ll go off the rails,” Taemin taunts in the chorus. While the song’s high replay value will make it a playlist regular until the artist’s return post-discharge, “Advice” is sure to have staying power in the years after.
Everglow is expected to drop another high-octane song before the end the year. Regular girl crushes have an arsenal of songs that celebrate self-empowerment. “Pirate,” a rousing number with lines like, “Girls all over the world, dance tonight/ and we could be anything,” is the latest addition to this catalog. With a confusing order for its chorus, pre-chorus and refrain, the track stands out from other songs. Structural technicalities aside, one thing is certain: The six artists are ready to face whatever wave may hit them on their newly boarded ship—and we’re invited to join the crew.
“Feel Like,” Woodz
Bright and silvery, Woodz’s voice is endlessly appealing on its own. But in “Feel Like,” a flourishing guitar tune serves almost like a second voice in a duet, delivering a sonic one-two punch. Since 2014 when he was a Uniq boy band member, the singer/songwriter has built a diverse discography in solo performances. Co-written by Woodz, “Feel Like” is a sultry track about the irresistible pull between two lovers. The artist’s singing is as magnetic as the force of attraction described in the lyrics.
A song that encourages a soulmate one has not yet met to appear as soon as possible, “ASAP” is markedly laid-back. However, the slow tempo does not leave you feeling drained. Instead, this track is buoyant thanks to the catchy hook that synth sounds resonant with video games and a rhythmic beat that makes it pulsating. The members’ distinct vocal colors also make this song uniquely theirs, from the introductory verses by deep-voiced member J to the chorus opened by Sieun’s more high-pitched, feathery tone.
“Rock With You,” SEVENTEEN
SEVENTEEN will commit to a certain concept if they are 100% committed. The image is the rock aesthetic. Inspire by a visual of flames and motorcycles, member Woozi contributed to composing “Rock With You,” which features an electrifying guitar riff, a propelling rhythm and an all-around galvanizing energy. One section that gets the blood pumping more than any other is the second half of the chorus, in which the low-toned voices of rappers singing “baby hold on” are woven together with vocalists’ light falsettos in a dynamic contrast of vocal timbres.
You don’t have to understand Kwangya, the fictional universe in which aespa’s virtual counterparts reside, to be fully immersed in “Savage.” While its lyrics are dedicated to the four members syncing with their digital avatars to launch an attack in this imagined land, the explosive track can be thoroughly enjoyed with minimal knowledge of the SM Culture Universe. The song’s ferocity is evident from its first line, as Winter scoffs, “Oh my gosh/ Don’t you know I’m a savage?” Then, over trap beats and discordant instrumentation, aespa delivers punchy rap verses spelling out why they’re a threat.
B.I’s WaterfallAs much as the goal is to reach the finish line, it’s also about the beginning of a new road. In 2019, the rapper, singer, and songwriter quit boy band iKon. Following allegations that he had bought illegal drugsThis album marks his debut as a solo artist. B.I’s 12 songs are filled with aching emotions of sorrow and pain as well as anguish. Most gutting are the lyrics in “Help Me,” a clear cry of desperation: “The boy in the empty room is lonely/ I want to run away/ Get me out of this abyss,” B.I. sings. There is a message of hope, though, as there are many images of loss on the album. However, these are opportunities to make new beginnings. B.I may have been swept away by his sea of tears, but he’s prepared to build a sandcastle again (as he sings on “illa illa”); he may have “thousands of sorrows hidden behind a mask,” but he’s ready to “peel off all my fake skins” to face them (“Flow Away”). This attitude is more evident than anywhere else. Waterfall’s final track “Re-Birth,” where the album culminates in the artist’s promise to be born again—likely a metaphor for this new chapter of his career.
Querencia, Chung Ha
K-pop has long been a category that couldn’t be bound by genre, and few releases in 2021 prove this as much as QuerenciaChung Ha, soloist. While the album—boasting a generous 21 songs lasting an hour in total—melds influences from R&B and EDM to disco and house, Chung Ha ventures most boldly into the sounds of Latin music. The sonic direction, signaled by the album’s Spanish title which means “a place where one finds peace of mind” as described by a press release, is most notable in “Demente.” It’s a reggaeton-infused collaboration with Puerto Rican artist Guaynaa in which Chung Ha sings in both Spanish and Korean. Querencia also features elements of salsa (“Masquerade”), bossa nova (“Lemon”) and Latin pop (“Play”), embracing the rhythms and textures from the other side of the world.
You couldn’t have missed that “SHINee’s back”—a catchphrase from the group’s songs—with the arrival of “Don’t Call Me.” After nearly three years, during which three group members completed military service, the seasoned K-pop act announced its return loud and proud with this hip hop-heavy song and the album of the same name on which it’s featured as the title track. But it’s Atlantis, the group’s repackaged version of Don’t Call Me, that reigns superior for two simple reasons: the introduction of lead single “Atlantis,” a kinetic electropop song that shows SHINee at its best, and the addition of the breezy “Area” with falsetto flourishes that is the strongest B-side on the album.
NOEASY, Stray Kids
Stray Kids’ latest full-length album is a response to those who criticize the group’s music—best known for hard-hitting rap verses and bombastic electronic production—for being too loud. Titled with a wordplay on “noisy,” It’s not easyThe eight-member-act makes it clear they have no plans to decrease the volume. They plan to increase the volume a bit. “So they call me ‘the one shouting’ oh/ It’s Changbin, I choose my own path,” the rapper Spit out in the opening lines of lead single “Thunderous.” It’s a booming track that hurtles brass instrumentals, car honks and metallic clangs at the listener as the members bulldoze their way from beginning to end. Elsewhere on the album, it’s often the sounds that could be dismissed as mere noise that are the main attraction of songs. The most striking example: ascending and descending scales of shrill xylophone-like dings in “Domino” reminiscent of a row of the rectangular tiles falling.
End Theory, Younha
It’s fitting that the lead single for Younha’s new album is titled “Stardust.” The established singer-songwriter, who first debuted in Japan in 2004 before launching a career in Korea two years later, has an ethereal voice. In “Stardust,” as she sings of a fateful intergalactic meeting, The words of her conjure up a magical scene, made even more special by her angelic and airy tone. End TheoryIt began as an existential pursuit. “There were claims that years 2019 and 2020 should be repeated again,” Younha A behind-the scenes video of her making the album. “All of a sudden, I started to wonder, ‘We decide what the time is, but then, what is time? What is at the end of the time?” The artist sought to answer those questions in her music. The songs all follow the same theme but the common thread across them is the obvious. End TheoryThis is How Younha moves her pipes. Whether the instrumentation is heavy electronic production (“P.R.R.W”), modest acoustic guitar strumming (“Oort Cloud”) or simple piano chords (“Stardust”), her voice remains the star.
The Chaos Chapter: Escape or Fight TXT
If there’s any group with numerous contenders for best K-pop song of the year, it’s TXT (short for Tomorrow X Together). Three of the tracks can be found on one album, which is a blessing for K-pop fans. The Chaos Chapter: Escape or Fight. “LO$ER=LO♡ER,” “Anti-Romantic” and “0X1=Lovesong (I Know I Love You)” vary in genre—emo pop punk, electronic pop and hybrid pop rock, respectively—but all are variations of a boy’s musings on love, and all ooze with teen angst and a rebellious spirit. That energy runs through the other eight tracks of this repackage album, from TXT expressing a desire to be free of limits in “No Rules” to questioning their fate in “Frost.” The project also includes the fan-dedicated song “MOA Diary (Dubaddu Wari Wari),” with lyrics written by the five members. It’s a track that fully celebrates their youth, as TXT sings “Dubaddu Wari Wari”—a phrase Partly inspired by a nickname coined by fans—then Shrugs, “So what if it’s childish? It’s like us.”
Asked about the meaning of her latest album’s name, singer-songwriter IU told W KoreaIn March, it was insa—the Korean word for both “greeting” and “farewell.” Lilac is a goodbye to her twenties and a hello to her thirties, the artist explained, and the flower in the project title has the meaning of “memories of youth.” Across 10 tracks that muse on the fleeting nature of relationships and the lasting feelings they inspire, IU’s masterful vocals are on full display. And while “Lilac,” “Coin” and “Celebrity” are all singles worthy of individual music videos, the meditative “My Sea” is the standout of the album. It’s a stirring ballad about self-discovery, as IU sings of healing from past wounds and learning to find and love herself. As her vocals reach a high pitch, the song hits its peak. At the declaration line, “I won’t pretend I don’t know myself again.”
Oneus’s first full-length album continues with the group’s trademark of pairing their musical releases with storytelling. They shared this before the album was released. Devil We would Pick up from the previous project where you left off with its fictional events LIVEDend (think cursed monarchs and vampires). “It depicts ONEUS’s current state after choosing ‘life’ at the boundary between life and death,” they said, Soompi. But while the fantastical remains a prominent element on the album, it’s the facet most grounded in reality—specifically, messages about humankind’s universal race against time—that is the album’s highlight. ONEUS sings pensive words about seeing an unfamiliar reflection in the mirror while transitioning to adulthood (“Youth”), falling behind others after reaching the starting line late (“Incomplete”) and longing to reunite with someone from the past (“Rewind”).
Formula of Love: O+T= <3TWICE
Once again in 2021, TWICE proved itself to be one of K-pop’s most prolific acts—and with the quality to match. Following the release of a Korean EP, and an album in Japan earlier this year; TWICE released this 16-song full-length project. Formula of Love: O+T= <3 is a feast of genres—from dance-pop (“Scientist”) to disco (“Moonlight”) to R&B (“Rewind)”—and moods, as the tracks convey the spectrum of emotions experienced in the different stages of love. The album also experiments with new vocal arrangements through TWICE members recording in sub-units of three (“Push & Pull,” “Hello” and “1,3,2”). Of all the tracks, “Last Waltz” is the most intriguing lyrically and sonically. Momo describes the track. Elle as “a sad story about wanting to make the day you break up with someone the best, perfect day,” the track surprises when its pre-chorus switches to a time signature of ¾ to mimic that of waltz music.
ONF My NameONF
ONF’s debut in 2017 was a dramatic and theatrical success. The six-member group released its first album full length this year. ONF My Name. It’s a project that, as suggested by the title, acts as a bold introduction for new listeners while reinstating the group’s musical strengths to existing fans. In the playful “My Name Is,” on which all six members wrote lyrics, they introduce themselves through song. “I’m the wimpy kid who wants to be brave,” Wyatt sings self-deprecatingly. “I might look grown up but I’m actually the youngest member,” U chimes in. Besides offering this glimpse of their personalities, the album showcases the group’s versatility through a blend of EDM-based, rap-heavy tracks like “Secret Triangle” and poignant ballads like “Thermometer.” The album’s two standout tracks are “Beautiful Beautiful” and “The Realist.” The first is an exhilarating pick-me-up about loudly singing “I’m beautiful” to oneself. The second track, which is more pop-leaning, describes imagining a world where light shines above the darkness.