Clockwise from top: ENHYPEN, aespa, IU, B.I Credit - BELIFT LAB; 131LABEL; EDAM Entertainment; SM Entertainment
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 fear and questioning and then back again.
In no particular order, here are the 20 best K-pop songs and albums 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. Featuring a softly whistled tune in the hook and whispered hushes throughout, the song is light and subdued as Cherry Bullet asks for the romance at its center to be kept a 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.
Though ENHYPEN released two gripping title tracks in “Drunk-Dazed” and “Tamed-Dashed” this year, it’s the B-side “Fever” from EP Border: Carnival that proves most arresting. “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. The sunny melodies, fast-paced tempo and lyrics about eagerly anticipating the freedom that comes with the end of class all serve to create this euphoric anthem. 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.
Just days before he enlisted for military service, Taemin dropped a song that will hold his fans over until he can return 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 emphatic final 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.
Leave it up to Everglow to release another high-octane banger before the end of the year. By now, the regular champions of the girl crush concept have accumulated a handful of anthems brandishing self-empowerment in their arsenal. “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. The track sets itself apart by turning the standard song structure on its head, with a jumbled order of its pre-chorus, chorus and refrain. 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. The singer-songwriter, who launched his career as a member of boy group Uniq in 2014, has been building a kaleidoscopic discography as a soloist in the past few years. 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.
For a song about urging a soulmate one has not yet met to appear as soon as possible, “ASAP” is markedly laid-back. But the slower tempo by no means results in a lack of energy. Rather, the hook forged by synth notes resonant of video game beeps and a pulsating syncopated rhythm anchor this bouncy track that propels the listener to sway side-to-side. 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
When SEVENTEEN commits to a concept, the group does so whole-heartedly. This time, the image in question is the rock aesthetic. Inspired 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 Waterfall is as much about reaching the end of the road as it is about starting on a new one. The rapper, singer and songwriter left boy group iKon in 2019 following allegations that he bought illegal drugs, and this album is his first as a solo artist. Across the 12 tracks written by B.I are aching expressions of pain and sorrow as well as apathy. 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. But a message of hope ultimately emerges, because where there are images of loss across the album, there are also opportunities for fresh 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”). Nowhere is this attitude more obvious than in 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 Querencia from soloist Chung Ha. 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,” No Easy makes it clear that the eight member-act has no plans to lower the volume. Instead, they intend to ramp things up a few notches. “So they call me ‘the one shouting’ oh/ It’s Changbin, I choose my own path,” the rapper spits 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, her words conjure a cosmic scene made more magical by her airy, angelic tone. End Theory began with an existential quest. “There were claims that years 2019 and 2020 should be repeated again,” Younha said in a behind-the-scenes video about the making of the album, for which she wrote and composed the majority of the tracks. “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. And while the songs follow this theme, the more obvious common denominator across End Theory is how Younha flexes 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: Fight or Escape, 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). Luckily for fans, three of those tracks appear on the same album: The Chaos Chapter: Fight or Escape. “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 in part inspired by a nickname coined by fans—then shrugs, “So what if it’s childish? It’s like us.”
Most Popular from TIME
Asked about the meaning of her latest album’s name, singer-songwriter IU told W Korea in March that it was an 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. The song reaches its climax as her voice soars to a high note at the declaratory 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. Before its release, the group shared that Devil would pick up where the fictional events in its previous project LIVED end (think cursed kings and vampires). “It depicts ONEUS’s current state after choosing ‘life’ at the boundary between life and death,” they said, according to 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= <3, TWICE
Once again in 2021, TWICE proved itself to be one of K-pop’s most prolific acts—and with the quality to match. After releasing a Korean EP and a Japanese album earlier this year, the nine-member powerhouse dropped this full-length project with a deep trove of 16 songs. 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. Described by Momo in 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 Name, ONF
After debuting in 2017, ONF has consistently released theatrical, dramatic bops. This year, the six-member act dropped its first full-length album 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, a city pop-leaning number, tells of dreaming of a light that shines beyond the darkness.