Now that 2021 is (finally) dead and gone, it’s time for us to dive into all the songs that played out as the soundtrack of our year, and determine which ones kept the bar on the ground and which ones were able to take it to the next level.
In short – what were the 10 best K-Pop songs of 2021?
First things first, I’m gonna be honest with you guys – music-wise, this was not the best year for K-Pop. This does not mean that there weren’t any songs released over the past 12 months that I enjoyed – au contraire, I actually loved many of last year’s releases (and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this article). But let’s call a spade a spade!
Compared to say 2017 or 2018, when there were smashing and revolutionary hits every month, and countless artists were making moves with their music – 2021 cannot be classified as K-Pop’s top year by any means…
But the beauty of this genre is that you are always going to find good music if you know where to look. Although last year appeared to be dominated by pots and pans and other noisy sounds, plenty of different styles were explored – from R&B-tinged tracks and punk influences, to groovy beats and melancholic ballads, there was something for everyone!
And despite not having too many memorable hit songs that will transcend generations, there were some silver linings – several artists were able to leave their mark on the industry, in one way or another.
But let’s stop dwelling on the past now, and explore our 10 Best K-Pop songs of 2021!
10 -Gone by ROSÉ
Something that seems to be difficult for current K-POP artists to grasp is that songs don’t need a huge production to stand out – sometimes you can tell enough without saying much. Gone by ROSÉ is a prime example of that.
Contrary to the title track On The Ground (which is an EDM-infused pop zinger), Gone is a mellow and minimalistic gem, with simple strummed guitar chords and heartfelt lyrics. But it’s exactly this ‘less-is-more’ nature that makes this song perfect. Over the humble melody, ROSÉ’s vocals shine in all their sweetness, and turn the somewhat-boring tune into an enchanting lullaby that is sure to become addictive.
9 – Dive Into You by NCT DREAM
Just like its members, NCT DREAM’s sound has grown up over the years, and it’s now evolving from a simple youthful naïveté to a grand artistic experience. Dive Into You feels like the perfect soundtrack for this leap into adulthood.
The lyrics are sweet and tender, as they sing about a relationship between two people by comparing it to a whale and the ocean, and the boys’ light and sharp voices are the perfect narrators for the story. But the instrumentation is where things truly hit home.
Guitar arpeggios swing like ocean waves on a breezy sunny day, and give the track a romantic and melodic feel that make for the catchiest summer tune. All it takes is one dive into this song, and you will not be able to get it out of your head any time soon.
8 – NAKKA by AKMU (feat. IU)
What happens when two of K-POP’s biggest stars join forces and come together for a song? Well, as it turns out, what we get is NAKKA.
As a synthwave track, NAKKA is AKMU’s contribution to the ‘newtro’ trend that swept KPOP in 2021. In all honesty, it’s not an overly complicated song – it relies on the same set of synths throughout most of the track, and the vocals of the three artists are kept on a rather monotone level. But this is because NAKKA – similar to most other synthwave songs – has a ‘miss it if you blink’ type of production.
Through layers of electronic riffs and sinister beats, the track manages to create a diversity of sounds without too much pretentiousness. Vocal theatrics are not needed, as the simplistic nature of the vocal delivery adds to the hypnotic charm of the staccato rhythm.
NAKKA is the musical version of a trust fall, and not simply because that’s what the lyrics are about – with its descending chords sequence, the song melodically mimics falling down. And it’s up to us listeners to trust AKMU and IU to catch us before we hit the ground.
7 – Spider by HOSHI
Even when he performs amongst 13 men with SEVENTEEN, HOSHI has always managed to catch my attention on the stage. Thus, it’s no surprise that his solo debut is the quintessential definition of ‘eye-catching’ – sultry, sleek and intoxicating, Spider is a definite testament to HOSHI’s ability to hold his own on a stage.
Spider is a minimalist bass-driven R&B dance track, with a charismatic electric guitar breakdown after the bridge that serves as the perfect soundtrack for a seductive dance break. HOSHI’s vocals swing between sharp falsetto to a powerful delivery, and a sleek whisper-like syllable-by-syllable in the chorus that adds to the song’s sensual nature.
Admittedly, the track is nothing groundbreaking from a musical standpoint. Bass-driven R&B dance songs are something we have heard before from several KPOP male soloists (e.g. Taemin), and especially nowadays. But although the song definitely has a familiar feel to it, HOSHI adds his own je ne sais quoi with his performance, taking the track to its full potential.
Right from the get-go, the performance is utterly captivating – he begins by hanging upside down from metal bars (which are then used as props in the choreography), looking exactly like a spider. He then moves through the stage in a smooth and sharp manner, yet still powerful in its delivery, swaying flirtatiously with the dancers. In short – the performance is the exquisite cherry on top of the whole comeback.
6 – Red Lipstick by Lee Hi (feat. Yoon Mirae)
Lee Hi’s take on the retro trend is nothing short of great. With disco touches and funky synths, the song encompasses musical elements from both the 80’s and 90’s. And that’s not all – if you listen to the melody and pay attention to the production, you might notice some early-2000’s influence. The result of these three different eras coming together is a groovy, upbeat track that shines on the addictive simpleness of its hook.
But what I deem the most fascinating and fun aspect of this song is how unexpected it is coming from Lee Hi. Although some of her past tracks have been on a more upbeat side, most of her recent music has been more ballad- and R&B-ish, showing off her wonderful vocal colors. Whereas Red Lipstick is a cheeky tune that demands to be danced, not only listened to. Nevertheless, Lee Hi’s soulful voice embodies the trend, and adds texture to the track in a mesmerizing manner.
With her charismatic rap verse, Yoon Mirae ties the song together – her voice contrasts the singer’s vocals, and brings Red Lipstick to a satisfying close.
5 – 0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You) (feat. Seori) by TOMORROW X TOGETHER
Among all the EDM drops and retro beats that have reigned supreme in KPOP over the past few years, TXT’s more recent sound feels like a breath of fresh air. Instead of the usual cookie-cutter and shock-value productions, the group dared to set free their emo self for the bombastic and vibrant track, 0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You).
The song is a bold and blaring take on the connubium between rock and KPOP, as it immediately overwhelms you with all its power. From the get-go, a chanted refrain is unveiled and thunderous drums take over just to overflow in the thrilling chorus, making your heartbeat race and your body reverberate in trepidation.
The genre is a perfect match for the members’ vocals, allowing them to showcase their more raspy and husky tones in a refreshing manner. The cathartic way in which they chant the chorus is particularly ear-catching, as the rawness and desperation in their voices enables you to feel every emotion they’re trying to convey as if it were your own. But that’s why I Know I Love You represents a singularity not only in KPOP, but in recent music in general – it’s rare to find a song that is not only meant to be listened to, but it’s meant to be lived.
4 – Sticker by NCT 127
Last year, NCT 127 have once again proven they are in a league entirely of their own. They have realized that nowadays, it’s not enough for a song to just be good – it must get people talking. And Sticker definitely fits the bill.
The instrumentation feels like a bacchanal of disjointed sounds, but somehow empty and subdued to the powerful vocals at the same time. It is a plethora of frenzied beats and a dirty bass line accompanied by a shrill flute and piano, with exquisite harmonies tying the disorienting spaciousness together. The song is the textbook definition of chaos, but that’s exactly the point.
The track’s confusing nature is what lures you in and compels you to replay it again and again, thus captivating whilst disarming you. As you’re trying to make any sense of it, Sticker will surely remain glued to your mind like a sticker (pun intended).
3 – BAD LOVE by KEY
Just when we all thought we had had enough of the retro trend which dominated K-Po in 2020, SHINEE-member KEY decided to throw his hat in at last, giving the throwback renaissance a proper goodbye.
Plenty can be complimented on this retro-futuristic track – the synthwave-influenced production gives an inimitable nostalgic feel to the song, and KEY’s powerful vocals dance over the beat with commendable mastery.
But what truly ties the song together in a seamless manner and gives it the timeless appeal, are the album and music video aesthetics. KEY is well-known for his attention when it comes to fashion and aesthetics, which he incorporates in all his projects, being heavily involved in their creative direction.
Thus, it comes to no surprise that Bad Love has such remarkable visuals. With morbid pink aliens and PVC space suits, safety goggles and David Bowie-inspirations, he has understood what ‘retrofuturism’ means in a way no one else has, and executed it in a way no one else could. Bad Love is exquisitely and unapologetically KEY, and that’s precisely the beauty of it.
2 – Next Level by aespa
If you’re looking for a song that makes perfect sense right off the bat, Next Level is not the one for you. Encompassing various melodies and rhythms throughout its verses, the track feels as if someone had taken different songs and then extrapolated one bit from each, to mash them together in one huge musical cauldron. Nevertheless – it worked, as the result ended up becoming the most addictive K-Pop earworm of the year.
With its punchy electro beats, powerful vocals and confident rap verses, Next Level’s confusing identity is bound to become enticing and intoxicating, making its way into your mind one way or another. Even if it takes you two or three (or more) listens to really get this song, soon enough you won’t be able to say ‘next level’ without singing it and doing the iconic ㄷ point move of the choreography (I can attest to that!).
1 – LILAC by IU
After a four-year wait, IU once again proves the magnitude of her musical capability with her fifth studio album ‘LILAC’. Wanting to venture in different styles and sounds, the 10-track record has a more playful and adventurous approach to production, seamlessly transitioning from elegant disco pop to heartfelt ballads.
However, IU’s most inimitable quality has always resided within her storytelling and songwriting abilities, which are undoubtedly present in this album, and particularly strong in the title track LILAC. In this song, the 29-year-old singer uses the symbolism of lilac flowers and the spring season to narrate her most relatable tale yet – bidding farewell to your 20s and embracing your 30s.
Encompassing guitar, disco- and a notable city pop-influence, LILAC tells this bittersweet story by filling the listeners with nostalgia of their youth and blissful optimism for the future over the groovy melody. IU’s angelic vocals are a treat for the ears (as usual), injecting the track with dynamism and energy as they soar over the beat like a light spring breeze.
Focusing on the new doors that will open rather than on the ones that will close, LILAC is a wonderful way for both us and IU to bid farewell to the singer’s roaring 20s and welcome the next chapter in her life with open arms. As IU herself sings, “Could this last goodbye be any more perfect?”.
Do you agree with our list? What was your favourite K-pop song and album of the year? Let us know in the comments below!