Best of 2021: Top 10 K-Pop Albums

2021 may have thrown my Korean music listening habits all sorts of curve balls, but at the end of it all, this consistently maddening list was once again the hardest and most time-consuming one to construct. No matter how much musical content I skip, there is always a mountain of quality Korean album content to grace my ears; there are always tight calls to make in the ordering of those albums; always moods ready to take hold and change up how I respond to them at any given time. Those moods were quite often on the more negative end of the spectrum this year, and 2021 was a particularly strong year for ballad B-sides, so you may see that reflected in the rankings.

In any case, the list before you now is done now and I’m pretty confident it represents a strong line-up of audio quality. Headphone up.

A special mention this year has to go to LambC’s excellent full-length album treat I’ll see you when I see you, which would have ranked very highly on the list except it’s entirely in English – It didn’t quite feel fair giving it a proper ranking given what I’ve disqualified in the past. But please, go listen to it.

1-3 tracks = N/A

4-7 tracks = mini album

8+ tracks = full album

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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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MINI ALBUMS

5. I burn – (G)I-DLE

One of the coolest things to come out of (G)I-DLE’s fruitfully unexpected partnership with League of Legends is the fast-tracking of star member Soyeon to the role of group producer, and never before has the leader been given as much control over a multi-song project as she has with I burn. Conceived as a spiritual continuation of the HANN vibe that punctuated the group’s debut year back in 2018, I burn’s title track HWAA can’t help but feel a tad derivative as a result – at least when experienced alone. Listen to the entire EP, however, and you just might find the most sonically consistent mood piece in mainstream K-Pop this year.

Building out of seven sombre piano notes that spread out and become a melancholy intro with light – but not airy – vocals, the mini album finds an ethereal pocket and stays hovering there, doing somersaults for occasional flair but never threatening to break out into a sprint – or quite dipping into ballad territory. It’s all full-sounding, lower-register vocals mixed around one another at a mid-tempo pace on moody backing tracks. Even Where is love, the danciest track on the thing, uses all the trappings of a modern girl group B-side without actually raising the heart rate. The best tracks are the final two, LOST and DAHLIA; they work because the embers within the preceding songs have been fanned with such a steady, unbroken pace, and what’s left is a chance to really smoulder with style.

4. Stairs – Stella Jang

Stella Jang at last puts her trilingual songwriting prowess into album form with Stairs, the pocket follow-up to last year’s full-length easy listening triumph Stella I. Though 2021 was the most prolific year in Jang’s fringe-skimming career – she released singles with wistful thirty-something relatability, understated city-pop panache, and ragtime reimagination while cameoing on that aforementioned LambC album – another sustained studio session was always going to hold the greatest potential for another hit of that emotional resonance she managed in 2020.

In mid-October we finally received that hit: a piano instrumental backed with faint heartbeats and footsteps in stereo giving way to an English lead track packing plenty of Jang’s signature bitter whimsy. A pair of Korean tracks follow – an old-timey lounge-leaner and a mid-tempo acoustic jaunt – neither one losing that paradoxical tone. Then the finale: a full-on French flex with simple ambitions that ties together the European undercurrents of the whole EP and promises to open yet another avenue for a discography that is finally starting to gather some real steam.

3. Planet Nine: Alter Ego – ONEWE

The increasing acceptance of actual bands into the stables of K-Pop labels not ostensibly known for employing instruments isn’t just allowing for said labels to diversify their sounds; it’s starting to produce some delightfully confusing emotions for yours truly. Some of the songs on ONEWE’s Planet Nine: Alter Ego (yay for another needlessly complex album title) sound like they wouldn’t have been out of place on my CD rotation as an angsty teenager in the mid-2000s. Exhibit A: The wistful, bellowing chorus of the lovesick AuRoRa, which kicks off the tail of the EP following lead single Rain to Be, which I talked about last week.

But that’s not all this handy mini-album can do; the chorus of the similarly-themed Veronica brings in a decidedly bubblier J-Rock riff to encourage some different emotions (both name-themed tracks incidentally ascended to get their own music videos later down the track). LOGO scrubs up the processing to let a single electric guitar sing before hitting the ground running on a soaring anthemic chorus line, while A.I. brings out a relentless circular rhythm that carries the EP’s momentum through to its final stretch. You could do much worse in the growing Korean pop-rock sphere than this gem.

2. Only Lovers Left – WOODZ

This dude, I swear.

Cho Seung-yoon just keeps on proving that every previous group he was ever involved with was just holding him back. As WOODZ, he released two of my favourite minis last year; in 2021 he backed that up with the fabulous Only Lovers Left. More tonally coherent than his previous album work, the EP cares not for convention; it shunts its title track to the final slot and gets busy reminding the listener – perhaps more than ever before – that WOODZ may be able to set up a mean track but he’s also a fantastic singer.

Only Lovers Left kicks off with an immediate vocal showcase for the talented soloist, rumbling in from the back of the headphones with acrobatic falsetto on Multiply. That higher register is kept warm by Thinkin Bout You, before the production tricks come out to join it on the appropriately tasty funk backing of Sour Candy. But like quite a few of 2021’s best albums, this release only gets better later on: Kiss of Fire cracks the whole thing open with a sumptuous bass guitar break before Chaser lives up to its name by washing away any inclination that you may have already heard the best song on the album.

1. Cycle – Xydo

My most played K-Pop album of the year (according to Apple Music) also happens to be my favourite; Cycle hooked me on release at the end of June, right as I was beginning to set foot back into the world of Korean music, and so far it hasn’t let go. Much like WOODZ, Xydo has a history proving he isn’t afraid to make liberal use of honeyed falsetto, but on magnificent opening track Flower he takes that reputation to the next level by forming a formidable partnership with relatively unknown singer Jue. Her purring low vocals gel so well with Xydo’s impressively sustained head voice that it makes you wish they would sing together forever – and then she joins him in the high notes, and you know you’re listening to something special.

MV track Paradigm is actually the most stripped-back song on the album, playing out almost like a highly-polished acoustic demo designed to show off that falsetto ability. Spicy centrepiece I Can’t Fall in Love plays around with tumbling, interrupted percussion and key distortion as a way to slide briefly into the lo-fi land that also introduces Stay, another song where the mic is shared – this time with Jade – though there’s also a smooth lounge flavour to the R&B sound. Then comes Reborn, the sensually declarative finale with enough punch-through-steel slow bass energy and gospel-esque vocal certainty to serve as the opener to any album (a theory I tested on the playlist linked at the very bottom of this page). If you’re like me, this only makes you want to hit the replay button even more.

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Honorable Mentions

–Hide & Seek – Purple Kiss

Newcomers Purple Kiss had two mini albums worth listening to in 2021, and while the unexpectedly heavy pop-punk energy of My Heart Skip a Beat is worth the price of debut effort Into Violet, Hide & Seek packs a slightly stronger punch overall thanks to the title-worthy Whisper, the cloud-surfing chill of ZzZz and the absolutely manic Cast pearls before swine.

–Bad Love – Key

Coming from an iconic boy group featuring the sheer talent overload of the late Jonghyun and current SM solo king Taemin was always going to make it hard to debut an album on your own steam – but 2021 saw Key (and Minho, while we’re at it) finally do just that. Key’s proven flair for the camp and the retro coalesce beautifully on Bad Love – the lead track of which is a certified factory synth banger and the rest of which ain’t half bad either. I particularly dig the Danganronpa sound font of Yellow Tape and the crackly Zelda dungeon energy of Eighteen.

–Return of the Girl – Everglow

Everglow spent most of the year giving the impression that 2021 wouldn’t feature a new EP at all, but their second comeback of the year brought a late twist – and that twist brought a delightfully light opener with an out-of-nowhere anthemic chorus, a return to the 1980s sound that served them so well in 2020, and a pair of filthy finishers that bring the kind of rhythmic noise assault usually reserved for the group’s title tracks.


FULL ALBUMS

5. NOEASY – Stray Kids

Now this is a fascinating album that makes some choices worth talking about. With a tongue-in-cheek slice of deep blue cover art in real danger of becoming iconic already, Stray Kids’ second full album NOEASY rips and tears for twelve straight minutes from whirlpool opening call-out anthem Cheese through bass-up banger SSICK, only thinking about slowing down at track number six – right after The View, a considerably brighter song that could quite easily have been the showpiece title track if this was 2016. This EP-length segment is a thrill ride as electric as that cover design promises.

Then NOEASY slows down for a stretch of time almost as long, and tries to be different without the go-hard commitment this explosive group is so very good at showcasing; this leaves the album’s sound hovering in a frustrating no-man’s land. Luckily the final stretch picks things up again as the group breaks into sub-units for some properly fun arrangements – including Gone Away, which is somehow the third ballad on the album’s tracklist and easily its best – before Wolfgang brings us back to that adrenaline-streaked opening stanza by way of cavernous Halloween hip-hop. If that entire low-energy middle section had been torn out, NOEASY could have challenged for my album of the year, but as it stands it’s just a really good one worth kicking off this list.

4. A.M.P – Jerd

A full-length Korean lo-fi album! From an up-and-coming K-R&B talent last heard crooning on Chancellor’s talent-stacked 15-minute 2020 mega-collab Automatic Remix! With proven featuring guests from Hi-Lite Records! I may not ever be as thorough as I think I am when it comes to digging for hidden Korean gems, but Jerd’s A.M.P is the first album I’ve heard that successfully recaptures some of the magic from offonoff’s flash-in-the-pan 2017 opus Boy. Though it can’t quite match that stunning LP on a production level, Jerd’s consistently smooth vocals provide a strong counterpoint – and help to anchor the album’s sound when the sonic groundwork gets spicy.

Not that it ever gets too weird – A.M.P’s ability to hover in just the right chill-vibe sweet spot is its greatest strength – but there’s some fun to be had with back-to-back phone-themed songs Missed Call and Phone Phobia, the latter of which brings in the always-valuable Samuel Seo. Horizon is the champion relax-and-study beat of the bunch while closer Squash brings the requisite 2020s lashing of city pop – and not coincidentally the most hopeful tune. Silk Road stands as the almost five-minute-long centrepiece where Jerd lays down her mission statement between vocaloid-esque distorted choruses across two different backing tracks; the song handsomely binds together a rock-solid lo-fi production effort.

3. Formula of Love: O+T=<3 – Twice

Back to team JYP, and on to a second full-length album in as many years for K-Pop ambassadors Twice. A name like Formula of Love may suggest a tracklist laced with experimental sounds, but Twice already has a lengthy and confident history of marrying disparate elements to create memorably unique B-sides. The extra layer of experimentation here comes in the form of production gimmickry, language balance, and sheer length. The title track is to my knowledge the first Korean K-Pop song to be mastered in Dolby Atmos spatial audio for Apple Music, and it’s a cool effect to be sure, but at 15 tracks – four of them fully in English – this is also the kind of album to give longtime JYP fans nervous Wonder Girls flashbacks on the first listen.

Luckily, that fun B-sides tradition continues here, and for the most part the English tracks don’t fall too far into the misguided western trend-chasing of a decade ago; for example ICON manages to overcome the expected cringe factor with a quick enough pace and a punchy, contagious bravado. Meanwhile songs like the double disco-infused F.I.L.A and Push & Pull, the reggae-tinged 1, 3, 2, and the dark-edged vocal production showcase Last Waltz all bring that reliably energetic Twice spice that keeps you guessing and maybe even dancing. At almost an hour long, Formula of Love has to work a bit harder than usual to avoid outstaying its welcome, and it just about manages that.

2. Lilac – IU

K-Pop has only become more artist-driven in terms of music production over recent years, but industry veteran IU clearly has no intention of sitting on her laurels as one of the earliest singers to break into that space. Her fifth full album embodies a breezy springtime spirit not often heard from the often backward-looking, theme-leaning superstar. There are hints of the retro on slower contemplative tracks like Empty Cup and Hi Spring Bye, but all three promoted singles carry dazzlingly upbeat energy in their own ways – and who else but IU could drag DEAN out of his creative cave to perform a jaunty song like Troll?

But if you’re reading this and you’ve already heard Lilac all the way through at least once, you know which song towers over everything else on the album. My Sea certainly isn’t the first power ballad IU has put out and it probably won’t be the last, but it’s a five-minute emotional sledgehammer of a tune that transcends language barriers with stunningly beautiful layers and phases; it dead-set brought tears to my eyes the first time I heard it, and it’s my pick for B-side of the year. The most confident flex about the song, however, is the way IU transitions straight back into upbeat track land again with Ah puh after it’s done. The legend is in fine form.

1. Atlantis – SHINee

In 2021, every SM Entertainment boy group except EXO put out a full-length album, considerably adding to the already throwback-heavy feeling of the year in K-Pop. Even more fittingly for this mood, three of those albums received repackaged releases; unfortunately, following a wondrous 2020 execution of the idea, NCT 127’s follow-up attempt actively made its source album worse. Lucky, then, that the baton of repackage excellence was picked up briefly by NCT Dream – and scooped up with championship grace by SHINee. I want to hug whoever was in charge of Atlantis’ track order – and yes, this is going to get real nerdy, but you signed up for that when you clicked this.

What makes Atlantis such a spectacular repackage starts with the weirdly short length of its base album, the promising-yet-uneven Don’t Call Me. Most repackage efforts are actively fighting against their tendency to turn a substantial listening session into an overblown one; but adding three stellar songs to a nine-track LP amounts to a significant chunk of the experience, leaving a near-perfect length in its wake.

That’s not all: Atlantis recognises the momentum-generating power of the formerly mid-album acid-funk bop CØDE and promotes it to the crucial second slot, sending down the softer-impact tracks in exchange and sealing them off with brilliant new low-tempo / high-energy songs Area on one side and Days and Years on the other. There’s even a slight shuffle at the end of proceedings to break up the album’s smooth run home with up-tempo flavour in the form of Body Rhythm, which works nicely bisecting whistle-tune Attention and silky part-time acapella finisher Kind.

What’s left, ultimately, is a top-tier pop album by any metric; SHINee has also at last attained repackage redemption six years after they ruined Odd. But I’m not bitter.

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Honorable Mentions

–The Renaissance – Super Junior

Another one of those full-length SM albums, Super Junior’s tenth LP is a delightfully filler-free listen that does bring those bellowing ballads (including a remake of Raining Spell for Love), but also remembers to pack the up-tempo goodness in the form of the chaotic Paradox, the clean album closer Tell Me Baby, and not one but two whistle-based toe-tappers (The Melody and Mystery).

–4 ONLY – Lee Hi

Lee Hi at last properly revisits the soulful stylings of her phenomenal debut album eight years ago, this time with assistance from the AOMG crew – who happen to know a thing or two about R&B. Raising the curtain in partnership with fellow ex-YG star B.I, this smooth 10-tracker is joined later on by K-hip-hop royalty Yoonmirae; there are also detours into faux-disco and retro patter-pop, but it’s buttery solo jams What is Love?, ONLY and Intentions that lift the album to its highest points.

–Change – Kim Jae Hwan

If you listen to one honorable mention this year, make it this one. Ex-Wanna One member Kim Jae Hwan’s 2021 album is stacked with vocal flexes on swelling backing tracks, the standouts of which are opener Pray, summer chiller Lululala and HYNN power duet Without You. It probably would have been on the main list with just a couple more tracks, but at exactly eight (filler-free) songs it scrapes onto my decade-strong definition of a full album while calling itself a mini. I’ve never been in that classification limbo before with an actual good album, so here it lands.

The bonus is back! Using the template I started last year, I made the best 20-song playlist I could out of 2021 album B-sides (plus one bonus 3YE remix track just like last year) with a one-track-per-artist rule and put it up here for your perusing pleasure. It’s got a more relaxed feel front-to-back than 2020’s playlist did, but there are some spicy songs in there too.

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