Best of 2021: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

This was somehow my tenth year following the Korean music industry, but not all of those years have been the same in terms of interest levels – as you may know if you’ve read any two or more instances of this top 15 list in the past. Sometimes I’m all-in for most of the year; some years I do a big catch-up binge every three months or so, and some years I do all my listening in a dense, borderline-overwhelming chunk at the very end. After an exhausting 2020 where I was back on the week-to-week release grind for the first time in ages, it turned out 2021 gave me a new listening pattern: almost nothing for the first half of the year, then a gradual ramp-up from July onwards.

This meant I got to skip a fair amount of the garbage-wading of last year, and perhaps this year’s list isn’t as authentic as a result; maybe it won’t last as long when I listen to it later. But right now it feels light and fun and I’m digging listening to it on repeat as I write this. On that note, as always it’s worth mentioning that this is always audio-first thing for me: I had seen precisely four out of these twenty-five music videos before I started formatting the list.

It’s also strictly for songs that have music videos and feature at least some Korean language lyrics, disqualifying fantastic songs like Adoy’s Baby. I recommend turning off the YouTube subtitles if they end up automatically playing for you on this page; I’ve just never thought they added anything worthwhile to K-Pop, but that’s a matter of opinion of course.

However, only your best headphones are allowed while you’re here.

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VR BEST OF 2021 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is beyond unlikely. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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15. Beautiful Beautiful – ONF

I daresay a whole lot of people around the world looked to K-Pop for an injection of positivity in their lives, and so I can think of no better way to start this playlist than with a relentless dose of just that. Mid-tier boy group ONF’s breezy Beautiful Beautiful uses a basic 2010s pop template to great effect with a sticky main hook that kicks off the song and comes back with verve time and time again, briefly stopping before the last chorus for a lovely harmonious pseudo-in-the-round session that I wouldn’t mind to hear revisited in a longer form. It’s hard to mess up a backing track like this, but ONF’s vocals elevate Beautiful Beautiful to the next level.

14. BEcause – Dreamcatcher

The year after dropping what I still think is the young decade’s best K-Pop album, Dreamcatcher returned to making powerful standalone title tracks with BEcause, which is nominally a summer track but sure brings plenty of the dark sonic elements that are often associated with the colder months. Opening with suitably creepy nursery rhyme vibes brightened up by Leez and Ollounder’s world-class production, it’s not long before the track is going harder than the operatic pop-rock outfit has for a couple of years: Punchy chants, strangely satisfying note slides, double-time breakdowns, an ethereal piano bridge; this is quality vintage DC and I’m here for it.

13. House Party – Super Junior

If you decided not to remove the English lyrics on this page’s videos then you’ve probably already realised what I only just discovered: This is totally a pandemic etiquette PSA song, and the fact that I listened to it for months without realising that is hilarious to me. It functions amazingly well as yet another reminder of Super Junior’s penchant for unpretentious dance floor songs otherwise, and the trap-beat breakdown – which ostensibly pokes fun at the discography of the veterans’ much younger NCT labelmates – kinda works too (Super Junior wasn’t exactly above such a percussion-heavy move themselves back in the day). SuJu are somehow still killing it a decade after I started listening to them.

12. Hate That – KEY feat. Taeyeon

Straight into another second gen K-Pop fan treat, but one with a very different flavour. Long after the era where K-Pop team-ups had to come from the same label, one of 2012-me’s dream pairings delivers a sultry trap ballad seething with velvety venom. A magnetically understated backing track with a handy dose of distortion keeps the piece together while two SM Entertainment veterans go to work: Taeyeon and Key share the vocal honours pretty evenly despite the latter’s top billing – and this song’s appearance on what is somehow his very first mini album. I do wish the production balanced their vocals more evenly when they’re singing together, but at least you can tell it’s an actual duet and not a simple booth-swap. Love that.

11. Deja Vu – ATEEZ

This is probably the most “vanilla K-Pop” of all the tracks on this list – a far cry from the last time ATEEZ visited my top 15. But I just really like how well it executes that precise mid-2010s boy group energy. Leez and Ollounder bring a bunch of friends – including the always-valuable EDEN – to the production credits of this delightful wooden percussion-based track. Then ATEEZ proceeds to sprinkle plenty of the stuff they’re so good at doing: mixing light and weighty vocals, harmonising in the right places, nailing that quintessential K-Pop pinch-hitting high note around the final chorus, and of course letting Mingi sound pissed off but in a fun way.

10. Hello – Joy

2021 marked the first time a full Red Velvet comeback failed to land with me, although I certainly wasn’t alone in feeling that way. But the year also brought along two separate solo member debut EPs: Wendy went for a full-on power ballad showcase; and Joy went in a distinctly different direction. From the unmistakably cheerful mini album of the same name we get Hello, the first use of a big band chorus in a K-Pop song I’ve heard in years – and it’s been far too long. The sheer hit-you-in-the-face positivity of that chorus is even more effective when the verses are so weirdly downbeat; for me this somehow made Hello the most fitting musical expression of the lockdown mental health experience this side of Bo Burnham. Yeah, didn’t expect that did you? I sure didn’t.

9. Rain To Be – ONEWE

A magical, straight-to-the-point guitar riff provides the basis for five-piece K-Rock outfit ONEWE (not to be confused, as I definitely still do, with non-bands ONEUS and ONF) to absolutely rock your socks with piercing, impeccably well-mixed vocals on Rain To Be. You don’t even need the rather literal music video to picture these guys making dramatic gestures in a deluge, because the execution of that simple repeating note staircase is already committed enough to conjure the image. The guitar solo after the bridge is also rad, and you know I have to give probs to a finale that plays with the beat like that.

8. First – Everglow

After a stellar 2020 where they could do no wrong – and topped my very own singles list – Everglow returned again in 2021 with two more raucous no-chill lead tracks. Because they still do those better than almost anyone else, they were always going to make this list. First was, uh, first up, and also easily my favourite thing they did this year. Announcing their presence with a gloriously overblown string-into-synth fanfare swelling up from the background of your headphones, the six-piece goes a bit more rap-heavy than their previous releases have suggested they need to, but the deeply reverberating chant that opens the chorus is just so incredibly good. Earnest K-Pop swagger at its best.

7. Spider – Hoshi

What a thrill it is to see the track record of K-Pop boy group solo attempts gradually starting to turn around in recent years. Once upon a time a lad who wasn’t already on the G-Dragon level would get a token attempt coming across as mostly safe, boring and short-lived; now look at the likes of Wanna One’s Kim Jae Hwan, GOT7’s Yugyeom and Youngjae, and especially WOODZ of ex-UNIQ fame. All those EXO soloists have some (arguably much more interesting) competition coming up, and Seventeen’s Hoshi just might be my favourite single-song example of the trend in 2021. Here’s an airy, falsetto-flirting jaunt with regular detours into the lower vocal register absolutely laced with sensual flourishes, even without watching the MV. The whole song is constantly building and releasing tension, and doing so in all the right places. It’s the smoothest thing on this list by a country mile.

6. Abittipsy – Youha

One of the easiest first listens of the year, long-suffering former YG Entertainment trainee Youha somehow keeps up with the billowing synth that fills the sound channels on this titanic 1980s backing track – and what a backing track it is. The thing just slams you in the side of the face like a cyborg wearing a mullet and flare pants, and Youha manages to complement it with a smart, breathy performance oscillating between crooning notes, catchy na-na-nas and charismatic sing-talking. By dancing around the irrepressible directness of the track, she adds a level of spice that lifts Abittipsy to the top tier of K-Pop songs released in 2021.

5. Moonshot – N.Flying

Call this the 2021 iteration of Cignature’s Assa: a fantastic song that manages to overcome a jarring – and not exactly infrequent – individual segment. The line “If you wanna change, be not afraid” turns up nine times in Moonshot – and it’s ultimately a sweet message – but the points of emphasis in the pronunciation sound all wrong to a native English speaker, making it a jarring occurrence as long as you fixate on it. Luckily the song also has the best transition into a chorus I’ve heard in years: almost like N.Flying is dragging you up out of a self-imposed funk to get you moving. The rest of the chorus is also fantastic (that trumpet blare in the background is sick) and the patter-rap in the second verse is a ton of fun. There’s a proper old-fashioned double key-change at the finale too, and it brings the song home even stronger.

4. Ring Ring – Rocket Punch

Rocket Punch was a fun group to listen to in 2020; they brought a deliberately silly energy to a wide genre that often finds itself in accidentally silly territory, which made their work remarkably easy to enjoy. They already seem to have dropped that particular vibe in 2021, but if they’re planning to continue replacing it with songs like this it’s hard to be too upset. Ring Ring is another visit to the land of ’80s synth hooks too big to fail, and it is just relentlessly, ceaselessly catchy. Maybe it’s because my dad used to play latter-era Moody Blues hits throughout the house for a good chunk of my formative years, but I cannot get enough of that chorus. This one’s been in my top five since the day I began putting together a 2021 playlist, and I doubt I’ll forget it anytime soon.

3. Hello Future – NCT Dream

Most years as I’m revising this list throughout the year, there are one or two songs that tend to grow on me so much they rise up the positions every time I return to tweak. Hello Future is absolutely one of those very songs, not least because it’s one of the most distinctly rewarding second listens I’ve heard in K-Pop for a long time: that main chorus is initially excellent at subverting pop music expectations by holding a big note when you expect it to move on quickly, so you’re more ready for the way it pops early after you’ve already heard all the ways it gets built around for the remainder of the song (the harmonised title call-out in the background five seconds in also means much more). NCT Dream also successfully recapture the lighter, more outwardly positive tone of their debut after a string of songs that pretty much just sound like NCT 127 tracks (including 2021’s earlier, shoutier Hot Sauce, which I’m not ashamed to admit I also enjoy).

Also, though many of the music videos on this page don’t quite live up to their songs in my opinion, the bright (distinctly not-127) energy of this one almost enhances it, so bravo to the lads. This song never fails to make me ever-so-slightly happier when I listen to it.

2. Second – Hyo feat. BIBI

We’ve already had a song called First, and now in second place we have – of all people – Kim Hyoyeon from Girls’ Generation; bringing what I’d easily consider the shock of the year with Second. Though always a talented dancer (from an era where that was kinda rare) and never lacking in drive, at any given time Hyo was overshadowed by at least five other potential solo hitmakers within the iconic girl group, and her DJing efforts in recent years haven’t quite hit the mark with massive audiences.

Second, however, is a triumphantly clever combination of the disparate elements that make up Hyo’s public-facing persona: a bright yet resilient beat, a TikTok-friendly point dance that wouldn’t be out of place in a SNSD video a decade ago, and a flex of extroverted networking skills to being in just about the least-SM-friendly featuring artist on the scene right now. The stripped-back bass emphasis of that BiBi verse is inspired, too; it hits just as the backing track starts flirting with overexposure and comes directly after a fake-out EDM beat-drop build-up that plays into the image Hyo’s career has cultivated ever since that bizarre Younique Unit video all those years ago. Bravo.

1. Warning – Kimsejeong feat. lilBOI

Like with any of these lists, some years this K-Pop song selection makes life difficult during the moments I struggle to come up with reasons to place one song above another. That’s particularly true at the top; sometimes barely a week goes by after I finalise the ranking and I’m already second-guessing myself. Music, after all, is one of the most subjective and fluid types of entertainment media we have.

2021 did not have that problem.

Warning is a song that sounds like it was built specifically for my tastes, constructed from some of my very favourite musical building blocks and packed start-to-finish with novelty. Raw, crunchy piano turned up all the way like an exposed nerve; rich layering effects that never stay around for long but always come back; flavour sounds that stay interesting without being annoying; sing-talking vocals straight out of the 2015 Lim Kim handbook; a rap cameo that self-remixes the backing track with style; powerful note harmonies synchronised perfectly with each sonic wave. The fact that it’s sung by Kimsejeong of the unfortunately ill-fated Gugudan is the icing on the cake. She truly makes it her own. What. A. Track.

Here’s a link to this countdown in playlist form on Apple Music if you want to listen to it with a bit more coherence.

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Honorable Mentions

–Stalker – 3YE
WATCH: HERE

Three straight years in the honorable mentions for 3YE, the overlooked queens of consistent girl-crush concept executions packing wild production values (and looking like becoming overlooked queens of clever extra-mile remixes too). I mean, this video extends its aspect ratio for the first chorus. Come on, people. The song goes alright, too; in fact Stalker is such a killer playlist-starter that it might have subconsciously influenced my decision to keep the song off the main list this year. Oops.

–Weekend – Taeyeon
WATCH: HERE

I’m sure it would’ve happened regardless, but you can pretty much nail the moment I first heard this Korean summer song to the moment I decided to start getting back into the K-Pop grind this year. The very idea of Taeyeon trying on city pop was a perfectly-timed reminder of the constant promise of spice this industry always holds, and the song itself is a breezy win.

–Vibin’ – Youngjae
WATCH: HERE

You just gotta love a good driving song, and this one comes to you courtesy of another one of those talented male soloists with hard yards in a boy group behind them and a bright future ahead. GOT7’s Youngjae drifts in and out of his high register to elevate a simple track and ensure you want to crank it up on the open road.

–ASAP – STAYC
WATCH: HERE

Another grower I didn’t super-enjoy on the first pass, but that shining Black Eyed Pilseung backing track is just so consistently good that it’s hard to ignore afterwards. The song is at its best when it just lets the track breathe.

–Dive With You – Seori feat. eaJ
WATCH: HERE

Korea’s premier deployer of the “indie girl voice”, Seori jumped well and truly into the spotlight for K-R&B fans in 2021 with a litany of featuring appearances and short solo ventures – the most prominent of which saw her land a credit on the Shang-Chi soundtrack and the coveted guest slot in a song for BTS’ labelmates TXT. But this late-summer beach track is unquestionably her show, and it’s amazing.

–Zombie – Purple Kiss
WATCH: HERE

Two mini albums and a casual controversy in their debut year: Purple Kiss sure did their best to make sure no-one forgot they were around in 2021, and this funk-tinged, candy-coloured horror comeback has similar intentions. It’s real catchy.

–Cinema – CIX
WATCH: HERE

A codifying example of K-Pop’s current fascination with airy male vocals, CIX takes the sound to the next level by breathe-singing their way through a track with its own matching ebb and flow, and the results line up pretty well.

–Make It – 2PM
WATCH: HERE

It wasn’t just Super Junior strutting their stuff like it was 2011; 2PM also gave us all a timely reminder of what modern K-Pop has been sorely missing with a taste of the classy suited-up concept, alongside a touch of weirdly amusing apocalyptic background events in the MV. The guitar-roll-based song quite deliberately mimics the feel of 2015’s My House – which itself had a viral resurgence this year – but that sure ain’t a bad thing in my book.

–Our Youth – Yunsae
WATCH: HERE

It was a rather busy year for continually underappreciated singer-producer Yunsae, and Our Youth is the pick of her 2021 bunch. With a restrained chorus that functions more as a break from the variation in the verses, the song is a proper headphone-filler that manages to stay firmly in the easy-listening sphere without ever being boring.

–Boyfriend – Cignature
WATCH: HERE

Following up on their filthy 2020 EDM double-threat Assa with 18 months of radio silence, Cignature made sure their second year wouldn’t be a non-event with a very late, very surprising ballad that shows off soaring vocals before unveiling a crackling back-beat. This one almost forced its way onto the main list at the eleventh hour.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by ajuric on Dec 24, 2021 at 8:14 am

    Top 15 Yugoslav war singles article when?

    Reply

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