Posts Tagged ‘countdown’

10 Games From the Last 10 Years I Should’ve Ranked Higher

I thought I’d never do this, but ten years gives you a bit of a stretch to think.

It takes time, careful consideration and countless drafts to finalise an annual videogame countdown; some would say such an abundance of effort is a waste. But as far as I’m concerned it’s all fine and dandy, because the result is a ranking that might as well be cast in iron. Once published, it’s not just that I back my choices confidently; the order I’ve chosen becomes unquestionable canon within my head, ready to reference at a moment’s notice as if it was as tangible and unchanging as a musty library book on a shelf.

But I’m also human, and looking back on a decade worth of Game of the Year countdowns earlier this year pushed up an eyebrow or two. Not only that, but the absences of a few great games I played too late from some past years’ lists now stick out as annoying missed opportunities under the cold glare of hindsight. But what if there was a way for me to purge those small frustrations – gathering as they have over years – via a nice neat list? Well, luckily there is, and you’re about to read the result.

Of course there’s always a danger with this kind of project that picking at one thread will unravel several more. So to avoid a chaotic, sprawling tinker-fest and the potential 50+ item list that may have produced, I set up a few tiny rules:

  • Games that might have hypothetically risen up a list just because I overrated titles appearing above them cannot qualify – no Steven Bradburys here, positive vibes only;
  • Even if my newfound appreciation for one of these ten games has arrived courtesy of a newer, shinier and/or more accessible version of said game, I must make an effort to judge it based on the version(s) available in that relevant year;
  • Most importantly of all: I must be able to justify these inflated rankings as if I was still in the year they were published, but had way more free time (or just better time management). This is probably the trickiest part and there’s obviously no way I can do it flawlessly, but I’ll try.

Persona 4 Golden

2 0 1 2

Original Position: 4th
Where It Should’ve Gone: 1st

Starting off with a bit of a free hit here, as once I completed it Persona 4 Golden landed in my all-time videogame top five – and it hasn’t left that club since.

Looking back on my janky first public GOTY list today is a cringe-inducing experience for me – I sure did make some sweeping statements about Halo 4‘s multiplayer – but it’s surprisingly easy to put myself in the somewhat rigid mental space I was in a decade (!) ago, because the videogame analysis zeitgeist was in such a distinctly turbulent place that hasn’t quite been replicated in any year since.

2012 was the last full year of a GFC-stretched console generation; incessant commentators predicted the industry’s downfall as two woefully mismanaged new platforms began their all-too-short lives. Major triple-A releases were in short supply, and as those ten main list entries and five (unexplained) honorable mentions reflect, the industry was only just beginning to erase the prestige line between full physical game releases and “downloadable” games, as we used to call them. Despite their quality, there is just no way the 2012 version of me would have been able to give either Journey or The Walking Dead a fair crack.

Still, one of those aforementioned new platforms was the Playstation Vita, and I played arguably its best game over an intense four-month period straddling the end of 2012 and the start of 2013.

I probably haven’t written enough about Persona 4 Golden over the years considering the special place it holds in my heart – perhaps a better chance to dive into all that in earnest will arrive another day. For now all I’ll say is that the very best parts of the game take place much further into its hefty length than I had the time to reach by the end of December 2012, and even if that weren’t the case, the game (and series) has a knack of making you appreciate its characters and setting steadily more the longer you spend playing.

As good as Pokemon White Version 2 is – and if anything, its seam-bursting suite of content and still-unique approach to storytelling within the mainline Pokemon series has only made it more revered in 2022 – P4G still has it beaten for legacy. Had I somehow managed to play at warp speed and finish it before the end of 2012 the game’s impact on me may have been dulled slightly, but it’s hard to see a world where it wouldn’t have been the first-ever Vagrant Rant Game of the Year.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

2 0 1 4

Original Position: Honorable Mentions
Where It Should’ve Gone: 5th

I don’t know where my head was at for this one. This is the only game on the list that I haven’t played at all since writing the original countdown, meaning the considerable appreciation growth curve I’ve been on since has come about purely through the added context of a chorus of critical voices praising its many design accomplishments. All the little ways decorated developer Retro Studios pushed past the expected bare-minimum quality line of the early-2010s 2D platformer add up over a meaty campaign loaded up with wondrous mechanical ideas and packed with deviously-hidden secrets. No new idea outstays its welcome, yet each one is explored with a near-perfect difficulty curve. The visual presentation is artistically stunning, the controls are fluid, the musical tracks often soar. And the weird thing is that I knew all this while I was playing through the game in co-op with a mate.

The problem for both its initial reputation – and indeed my 2014 ranking of the game – is that premium-priced 2D platformers felt like they were a dime a dozen throughout the very late 2000s into the early 2010s. Nintendo was responsible for the lion’s share of these, and the company’s comparative lack of output in other genres ensured a palpable fatigue among fan circles that was difficult to avoid. Amusingly enough, Tropical Freeze was essentially the last of them, but of course we didn’t know that at the time.

Nonetheless, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a 2D platforming masterwork, and belongs right under the one-two punch of the Danganronpa titles and Nintendo’s formidable Kart/Smash Wii U combo on that 2014 list. I’m convinced that with a bit more time spent ruminating on the game, I would have – and should have – given it the rank it deserved.

Continue reading

Best of 2021 Closer

Ah, 2022. Welcome. It’s good to see you. Such promise you hold.

I mean, I’m sure we’ll get some good Marvel movies, and maybe even the last of the 2020-delayed crop (Top Gun Maverick and Mission Impossible 7 are at the top of the hype pile for me). And K-Pop will do its thing and continue to mutate in enough directions to produce quality tracks. But most of all, 2022 promises a properly spread-out videogame release schedule, perhaps to an extent not seen since the legendary 2017. The first quarter alone looks unambiguously stacked, ready to start millions of players off already behind on their backlogs. Bring it on.

Until it gets going, here’s the best stuff I watched, played and listened to in 2021:

1. Top 10 Disappointments

2. Five Special Awards

3. Top 15 K-Pop Singles

4. Top 10 Movie Characters

5. Top 5 Game Consoles

6. Top 10 Movie Scenes

7. Top 10 Gaming Moments

8. Top 10 K-Pop Albums

9. Top 15 Games

10. Top 10 Movies

Thank you.

Best of 2021: Top 10 Movies

What a difference twelve months makes.

The year in general may have felt like its own form of tired sequel when all was said and done, but after scrambling to the finish line in 2020 and doing my best to bask in the unexpected, I finished 2021 having seen 31 whole new-release movies. Sure, that’s mostly because we got almost two years of delayed blockbusters crammed into one, but numbers are numbers.

More movies means I can be more confident of a quality list that properly reflects my tastes, but it also makes ordering the movies a tad trickier. I found this year in particular that quite a few of the films I saw came off somewhat uneven, with plenty of individual elements worth praising but almost as many misfires. That, of course, just makes them more fun to discuss, which in turn tends to make me like them more. Some even make this list. Because I will be vaguely gesturing towards such individual elements, you may find slight spoilers here, but it’s unlikely.

Let’s finish this thing.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

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.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

10. In the Heights

My most anticipated movie of an uncertain year for movies – mostly cause I knew I’d enjoy at least some of it, and that first trailer was incredible – John M Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage musical In the Heights is exactly the visual feast fans could’ve hoped for. Though it hacks one of the main characters’ stories to bits in the name of streamlining an already-long runtime – and the musical already lacks the plot momentum of Miranda’s Hamilton – some of the other changes to the source are neat, efficient and well-executed. Some of the stage songs even take on new life with the visual flair added in the film, while the ones that were already highlights take another step up.

9. Raya and the Last Dragon

It’s a bit of a struggle to articulate what I enjoy so much about this movie, but ultimately I think it comes down to a simple claim: Raya and the Last Dragon features the best-looking hand-to-hand combat scenes I’ve ever seen in an animated film. Any criticism that it breezes past its cool wordbuilding is definitely valid, but there are plenty of other things to like about the movie: Awkwafina’s larger-than-life performance style almost works better in animation than live action, the entirety of the team-gathering second act is good fun, and the central message about old wounds preventing current growth is poignant. I stand by what I said back in July: It’s my favourite non-musical Disney animated feature in twenty years.

CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THE LIST

Best of 2021: Top 15 Games

You can try to tell me 2021 was a bad year for good videogames. Tell that to my backlog. Look it in the eyes and tell it.

Don’t get me wrong: 2021 definitely was, without a shadow of a doubt, a slow-starting year for videogames; maybe even the slowest since I started writing these lists. It was also a bit light on Playstation exclusives thanks to development delays. But this was also the first full year of a brand-new console generation out in the wild; the year League of Legends finally began to make good on its promise to expand into other genres (and a Netflix show too); the year Apple Arcade finally drew some attention from core gaming audiences with a suite of nostalgic releases and the exclusive new Mistwalker RPG Fantasian; the year the whole Pokemon Unite thing happened; the year Microsoft’s XCloud mobile streaming service expanded to PC, Xbox consoles themselves – and Australia.

There was real, exciting movement in the games industry throughout 2021, and the big games – eventually – followed suit. When they did arrive they were continuously scoring over 80 on review aggregate sites, leaving September in particular packed with games lining up to try and distract from one another. More than half of this list’s games come from the release window starting late August and going through October – and only one from traditional powerhouse November. A weird year indeed.

But a good one: I always set a five-hour playtime minimum for a game to qualify for this list, yet I’ve actually finished 12 out of the 15 games on this 2021 list (and two out of the remaining three are JRPGs). Any of my friends will tell you that’s a sky-high conversion rate for me. Quarantines will do that, but so will great videogames. It’s hard to believe I had no room this year for Hitman III, Scarlet Nexus, Returnal, Mario Party Superstars, Monster Hunter Rise, Monster Hunter Stories 2 or Deathloop – into which I put a combined 60+ hours, and all of which I enjoyed. I’ve never actually been in that kind of a position before.

If you don’t see a 2021 game on this page, I didn’t play it enough to qualify. Parentheses indicate on what platform(s) I played each game.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

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.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

15. New Pokemon Snap (NS)

Over the two decades since the original Pokemon Snap came out, the idea of a sequel has naturally been thrown around all kinds of Pokemon fan circles; what most nostalgia-seeped memories tend to forget, however (mine included), is just how short the original game was. Pretty much accidentally designed for the repeatable game rental market, you could see all the game’s content in an afternoon if you knew what you were doing. Knowing this Bandai Namco concocted the clever New Pokemon Snap, which is not only the sequel we’ve been asking for, but the significantly more substantial sequel we didn’t know we wanted.

Carrying many more areas stuffed with randomly-shifting occurences, stacked with secrets, and teeming with Pokemon hiding four different scoring poses each, the completionist player has a ton to do in New Pokemon Snap – even before the chunky free content update released months after launch. The week of near-day-long sessions I played with my siblings passing the controller around was an absolute blast.

14. Shin Megami Tensei V (NS)

As a “JRPG guy” without the time or attention span for the truly unforgiving genre entries these days, the entire mainline Shin Megami Tensei series has mostly passed me by. That finally changed with the long-awaited open-world-ish fifth entry, a truly ambitious shift for both the series and Nintendo – who slapped their publishing label on the game and gave it their main first-party slot right in the middle of November (knowing Pokemon was coming out the following week to clean house, sure, but it was still a big deal).

SMT V may not care all that much about its story or supporting human characters, but it stands as a shining testament to the merits of a rock-solid battle system using a crisp UI – especially when paired with deep team customisation mechanics built to last. Boasting a stunning main character design and truly rewarding nook-and-cranny exploration, this is a game I suspect I’ll be playing for a long time yet.

CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THE LIST

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

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

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.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-


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.

Click here to let the tunes roll on

Best of 2021: Top 10 Gaming Moments

While this year provided plenty of unscripted moments during the chaos of multiplayer videogames (I could probably make an entire second list made up of just Monster Hunter Rise, It Takes Two, Knockout City, WarioWare: Get It Together, and Halo Infinite shenanigans), I was fortunate enough to play through a ton of new single-player story-driven adventures in 2021, so only some of those multiplayer games make the cut. That’s not to say it wasn’t a really good year for playing games with friends – it really was – but it was also good eating for the spoiler-type moments that are so much fun to talk about at a time like this.

And so, much like with yesterday’s list, today needs a hefty spoiler warning. Proceed with caution.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

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.

SPOILERS FOLLOW.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

10. Fireworks – Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

In late June 2021, we arrived once again at that special moment that comes around maybe twice a decade: The first exclusive videogame made for a new Playstation console by a Sony-owned studio. And Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is extraordinarily keen to mark that occasion with a celebration of both its own series history and the unique technical possibilities of the shiny new PS5. Our titular heroes must navigate a parade and re-enact key moments from the series (all of it went over my head personally, as a franchise newcomer) as beautiful effects whiz past them – then suffice to say things go wrong and the seams between dimensions start showing.

Cue colourful effects-laden battles, instant portal-based relocation and that money shot from the game’s first trailer with all the rapid-fire playable segments in entirely new worlds that load instantly. The fruits of Mark Cerny’s hardware design team in building that PS5 SSD storage interface are plain to see right here – and nowhere else in 2021. This is a breathtaking way to start a game, and the moment “next-gen” arrived for me.

9. Compton’s Cook-Off – Psychonauts 2

Psychonauts 2 is an unbridled fever dream of level ideas, some of which feel almost purely conceptual – such as the psychedelic sense-collecting saturation overload that changes the game’s art style – and some almost too real – like the lavish casino as a direct metaphor for the American medical system. But the most ludicrously pitch-perfect combination of idea, presentation and gameplay I found in the game is Compton’s Cook-Off, a section where you must participate in a hilarious imaginary game show called “Ram It Down”.

You’re given anthropomorphic ingredients to pluck from the audience and place in bigger anthropomorphic kitchen appliances – which you must reach within a strict time limit using precise platforming towards increasingly-difficult recipe requirements – all while a boisterous television host throws sly taunts your way. The sequence is frequently hilarious, decently challenging and a ton of fun.

CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THE LIST

Best of 2021: Top 10 Movie Scenes

When you bring back blockbuster movies, you bring back spectacle and surprise and scale, and that makes this year’s list very different from 2020’s. Though I really did enjoy putting together last year’s list, the bombastic highlights were much easier to pick in 2021; in fact there are multiple films on this page packing more than one worthy scene, so I had a grand old time choosing. We’re looking at plenty of big action beats, coils of tension, a surprise or two, and a whole heap of spoilers.

Seriously, don’t read this if there were any big movies you missed in 2021 – especially that really recent big one that everyone’s been talking about.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

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.

HUGE SPOILERS FOLLOW!

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

10. Train Fight – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

For my third mention of Shang-Chi this week, we have this fabulous character-revealing martial arts platform from the film’s first act. The one-vs-many showdown on a bendy-bus is actually quite similar in both setting and narrative purpose to another great sequence in Nobody, but of the two I think this one is more flashy and fun. With great choreography, every kind of dynamic camera move in the book, well-paced comedic beats, a properly crunchy soundtrack, and a (literally) crowd-pleasing final move, the constant momentum of the fight makes it easily the action highlight of the movie’s first two hours.

9. Scorpion vs Sub-Zero – Mortal Kombat

Speaking of martial arts scenes, Mortal Kombat fans get to see two rounds of the series’ most iconic rivalry in action within the 2021 movie of the same name: Once when neither combatant has reached the full extent of their powers in the extended prologue, and once for the grand finale of the whole (and I use this word loosely) plot. The second fight doesn’t really do anything super different from previous movie iterations; it’s really just playing the hits with much higher-quality stunt work and special effects. But the build-up to Scorpion’s re-entrance is a lot of fun, and if the thing you pay to see in a Mortal Kombat movie is the best thing about that movie, it’s kinda hard to complain.

CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THE SPOILERS

Best of 2021: Top 5 Game Consoles

In all kinds of ways, 2021 was a tired, drawn-out sequel to 2020; a reminder that the rollover to January 1st each year is ultimately pretty arbitrary. But while there was arguably more room for optimism in some parts of life this year, just try to get yourself a PS5 to see how little has changed in others.

Indeed the first full year on the market for Sony and Microsoft’s new machines was slower than some might have hoped, both in getting stock to people and in releasing mind-blowing exclusive games; this kept their last-gen siblings well in the conversation all year. But the experience of using each console did improve substantially, and Nintendo predictably bounced back strongly to keep them on their toes.

This is how I would rank the current five major consoles (disregarding PC and mobile) in order of the impressions they made on me in 2021.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

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.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

5. Playstation 4

LAST YEAR: 1st

It feels pretty weird having the Playstation 4 at the bottom of this short list, especially after a show-stopping 2020 when the sales titan ushered in its much scarcer successor with a powerful final salvo of acclaimed exclusive games. But even though the lack of PS5 availability has funnily enough made the PS4’s 2022 look mighty tasty – as plenty of next year’s Sony headliners will land for the last-gen machine as well – 2021 will still enter the pages of history strangely blank.

In terms of games not available on Nintendo or Microsoft consoles, the PS4 got a simultaneous release of Kena: Bridge of Spirits alongside the PS5, and received a down-port of uneven PS5 launch title Godfall nine months after the fact. Spider-Man made his promised Sony-exclusive debut in Marvel’s Avengers as DLC, but that’s… it? The only actual 2021 PS4 exclusive of any note I can find in the data is Chicory: A Colorful Tale, which was thankfully extremely well received, but I’m drawing a blank on anything else worth mentioning (EDIT: less than a week before I published this Chicory came out for the Switch and no longer counts, oops). The champion console also received essentially no new firmware features, although I doubt many people were expecting any. So, uh, bring on 2022 I guess.

CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THE LIST

Best of 2021: Top 10 Movie Characters

What a line-up of scene-stealers we had at the movies (or, you know, in our homes) in 2021. That probably has a fair amount to do with all the delayed 2020 flicks that crashed on top of this year’s cinematic plans, but you analyse the hand you’re dealt, as it were. This is yet another year without any protagonists on the list, but that’s just the way it shakes out more often than not. The human focus of a film’s story doesn’t tend to capture my attention quite like the good old extended cameo or enjoyably hammy villainous performance – or indeed both at once.

This list is rarely the place to find in-depth plot spoilers, but it’s still worth being careful if you consider yourself behind on major blockbusters this year.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

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.

Spoilers may follow.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

10. Luisa – Encanto

Encanto is packed with super-powered characters that get very quick introductions (this is a Lin-Manuel Miranda work, after all, so the words-per-minute can get a real workout) and then have to fight for character arcs while staying under a Disney animated movie runtime. So it makes sense that the character with the most physically apparent power – and the solo song with the most words in it – would present the best opportunity to kick off the movie’s themes of familial expectation. But my word, do her voice actress Jessica Darrow and the entire animation team run with that opportunity. Luisa is consistently entertaining to watch and “Surface Pressure” is a throwback to the golden age of chaotic Disney visual storytelling within a musical number.

9. Cipher – F9: The Fast Saga

That’s right: the main villain from the eighth Fast & Furious movie appears in the ninth one trapped in a giant glass case for most of the runtime, wearing a bowl cut, and is still more memorable than John Cena’s primary antagonist in this one. That might be because Charlize Theron is allowed to have a lot more fun than Cena – whose comedic timing in at least two other 2021 movies proves how wasted he is playing the stoic, burdened younger brother of Dominic Toretto – but also because she commits to looking and sounding even more cartoonishly evil than she did in F8. The degree of ham in her performance is a perfect fit for this franchise, so it’s a shame she won’t be coming back for any more movies.

CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THE LIST

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.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

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.

-◊-◊-◊-◊-

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.

CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THE LIST