In a world that’s desperately in need of escapism, there’s no better remedy than the vibrant, ever-changing landscape that’s K-pop. But hallyu wave isn’t just good for infectious, energetic pop gems, although it’s very proficient at those. K-pop has also delivered melancholic, introspective tunes to spirited anthems that celebrate life in the face of global uncertainty – and that’s just looking at what’s been released in the first half of 2021.
While there’s an array of exciting new music releases to come in the second half of the year – including Red Velvet’s long-awaited return and Lisa’s solo debut – let’s take a look back at the 15 best K-pop songs of 2021 so far.
As summer anthems go, BTS’ second English-language single is a versatile wonder. ‘Butter’, with its supremely confident attitude and peacocking groove, is perfect for soundtracking struts around sun-baked streets this season, while the sticky, sweltering atmosphere in its crunching bassline and glistening synths is ideal for nights in sweaty clubs (or daydreaming about being back in one).
- READ MORE: BTS’ ‘Butter’ is a cool, crisp summer anthem that doubles as a potent shot of self-confidence
Much might be made of the world-conquering group’s frequent fuelling of their songs with big messages (and rightly so), but not everything has to have such grand meanings all the time. Sometimes, you just want to listen to a great pop song and forget about anything else other than that for three minutes. That’s a desire BTS tap into on ‘Butter’ – they’ve got the irresistible hooks, all you have to do is dance.
If the last 18 months have often felt like being stuck in first gear, Chung Ha’s ‘Bicycle’ presents a blast of energy and motivation to go zooming forward and leave everyone else in your dust. A banger of audacious magnitude, the title track to her debut album ‘Querencia’ goes from zero to 100 in an instant and takes you along for the ride.
- READ MORE: Chung Ha – ‘Querencia’ review: globe-trotting pop bangers from one of K-pop’s most in-demand stars
“I’ll be the strongest thing don’t miss it / ’Cause I’m the baddest queen,” she purrs over a cool, trap-laden foundation. It exudes the fiery spirit of empowerment and is so unshakeably self-assured it’s hard to argue with her. Instead, you’ll want to jump up on the seat behind Chung Ha and shoot off into the distance with her.
‘You Make Me’
There’s just something so enchanting about the way Day6 can vividly capture genuine emotions through their lens of indie pop rock. ‘You Make Me’, the lead single from ‘Negentropy’, the final chapter in their ‘The Book Of Us’ series, encapsulates the feeling of hanging on the precipice of life. It’s distraught and filled with anxiety, but there are also glimmers of hope and trust; the message is that deep down inside, everyone has the strength to pull themselves back up from the edge.
- READ MORE: Day6 – ‘The Book Of Us: Negentropy – Chaos Swallowed Up In Love’ review: a tale of hope and growth
Day6 have constantly used their music to advocate for mental health, and the song is no different. It’s a timely and empowering reminder in the midst of a global pandemic – a friendly note to self that “being alive is scary and tough”, but after every storm, there’s bound to be a rainbow.
‘Yeonnam-dong’ feat. lIlBOI
“Music takes us where words cannot,” actor Henry Winkler once said. In our present-day pandemic reality, music has become the very link to some of our fondest travel memories, bringing us back to our favourite places in spirit – even if momentarily.
- READ MORE: Dvwn – ‘it’s not your fault’ EP review: soulful resonance served with a side of pessimism
The breezy, jazzy ‘Yeonnam-dong’ is one of those songs, with DVWN’s soothing voice transporting us to a lazy cafe day out in its namesake Seoul neighbourhood. As chill as the song may be, its easy-going vibe isn’t all that it seems; peek into the lyrics and you’ll find a melancholy that is oddly comforting and relatable.
‘Rosario’ feat. CL and Zico
Songs that emit so much power are always a mood, and ‘Rosario’ from Epik High’s latest release, ‘Epik High Is Here 上, Part 1’, is full of it. The acclaimed South Korean hip-hop trio kicked off the year with a great bunch of collaborators for their latest album – including Heize, B.I and Changmo – but none as iconic as K-pop idols CL and Zico on this very track.
From the very beginning, the sultry instrumentals and intoxicating opening draw listeners in, before smoothly transcending to a passionate run of words in its succeeding verses. The angsty, dark and intimate affirmation to battling inner and external tormentors isn’t all aggrieved – but it does asserts reclaiming of oneself, despite the obvious scars. Plus, Tablo spitting “Moment of silence” is a simply breathtaking ending to the song.
Known for their powerful performances, girl group EVERGLOW returned after eight months more confident than ever. This time, they are “warriors from the future”, loudly declaring their readiness to take on the world in ‘First’. With its bold lyrics and trap-influenced sound, ‘First’ is bursting with pure, unadulterated girl power.
Building on of their signature heavy-hitting EDM sound fans have come to know and love, EVERGLOW have outdone themselves with the song’s kickass, hip-hop-influenced choreography. ‘First’ truly is the whole package, showing off the group’s undeniable vocal prowess and ferocious stage presence.
How much of our lives is dictated by fate – can encounters set in stone ever be interrupted by chance? This is the premise of ‘Happen’, a semi-bittersweet song led by Heize’s distinctly versatile vocals against an upbeat, robust bassline.
Here, the singer-songwriter and rapper presents her case for how things seem to happen in their own time and place: “To call it fate / Feels all too achievable / To call it a coincidence / Would need an explanation”. But all it takes is one out-of-place variable to create a completely different outcome. Food for thought, indeed.
Hoshi’s sensual solo mixtape is a theatrical yet elegant piece that ties together the multi-talented artist’s wide skill set of choreography, vocals and songwriting. Hoshi follows the popular minimalist R&B route of many male K-pop soloists take, but makes ‘Spider’ his own by pulling you in with its sultry rhythm and sensual lyrics.
The visual for ‘Spider’ wraps Hoshi’s offering up with a big shiny bow in the form of his stellar self-made choreography. In a captivating sequence of dances, the K-pop idol tells the story of a man who can’t escape from a spider-like lover. Hoshi successfully manages to encapsulate the concept’s essence through his soft yet precise movements. The distinct sound and concept of ‘Spider’ have unexpectedly cemented the SEVENTEEN singer as a solo artist to look out for.
Since her debut in 2008, the K-pop world has watched and grown alongside IU as she became the woman she is today: a respected powerhouse vocalist with an impressive laundry list of accomplishments. Now over a decade later into her career, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter is ready to close that chapter of her life and start anew. ‘Lilac’ serves as a fitting conclusion to her coming-of-age story. A fizzy city pop-inspired toast to her golden years, ‘Lilac’ isn’t just an ode to IU’s roaring twenties, but also a celebration of life.
It’s occasionally bittersweet (“Will you ever forget me some day?”), but reassuring most times (“I especially like the way I look today”). It’s the most confident release any artist has put out so far this year, and it has nothing to do with being dauntless or loud, but about simply embracing the winds of change unflinchingly and with open arms. Just like trees, sometimes in order to grow, we must let go of the beautiful blooms of our past for new leaves to sprout.
While SHINee’s sound has evolved and taken countless forms over the years, the funky, electro pop-driven ‘Atlantis’ feels strangely nostalgic. To longtime fans, ’Atlantis’ is undoubtedly reminiscent of classic SHINee hits such as ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Sherlock (Clue + Note)’. Perhaps it’s the angst-ridden, love-driven lyrics or the larger-than-life spectacle of its production – but it’s still good to have the boys back.
- READ MORE: SHINee – ‘Atlantis’ review: revitalising ‘Don’t Call Me’ with three exceptional additions
And, of course, being the vocal powerhouses they are, SHINee mesh their voices together perfectly on the epic chorus of ‘Atlantis’. Each member also gets their time to shine, with dramatically high notes casually peppered throughout the song from Onew, Key and Taemin, alongside an epic rap verse from the ever-princely Minho.
STAYC’s ‘ASAP’ might not be the most immediate of songs – unlike the instant and addictive quality of their excellent debut single ‘So Bad’ – but the track creeps up on and stays with you. Once you hear this up-and-coming rookie girl group’s sophomore single, there’s little chance of getting it out of your head.
- READ MORE: STAYC’s ‘STAYDOM’ is a low-key, summer-ready comeback that manages to hit all the right notes
Gone is the bombastic and in-your-face vibe of more recent title tracks by other girl groups, giving way to a more delicate, low-key production. But don’t let the song’s modest nature fool you. Its weird but wonderful combination of bubblegum pop and sensual R&B, though initially confusing, becomes an enchanting potion that only STAYC’s hit-making producers Black Eyed Pilseung could craft.
Sunmi has tried her hand at almost every genre and concept over her 14-year career as a K-pop idol, but for the first time in a long time the celebrated soloist has returned to the sultry, seductive sound of her solo debut album ‘Full Moon’. We’re all better off for it: ‘Tail’ evokes the tantalising magnetism of 2013’s ‘24 Hours’ and her 2014 single ‘Full Moon’, but with the added benefit of maturity and creative freedom.
Pair all that with a captivating music video where Sunmi plays a scorned-lover version of Catwoman – more specifically Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic on-screen adaptation of Selina Kyle – and the former Wonder Girls member scores herself an easy home run. While we all love sad Sunmi (who can resist the melancholic allure of ‘Gashina’ and ‘Heroine’?), it’s a nice change to add a little bit of sex appeal now and again.
Red Velvet’s Wendy successfully extends comfort to her fans with her debut solo title track ‘Like Water’. It’s a song that feels like a warm embrace: Wendy captures listeners with her soothing vocals, the ballad’s gentle melody and uplifting lyrics.
- READ MORE: Wendy – ‘Like Water’ review: navigating the ebbs and flows of emotions with vocal fluidity
The straightforward metaphor is a plus for Wendy: People needing people, like how everything in the world needs one of the most basic things – water – has a simple yet poetic symbolism that the K-pop idol effortlessly interprets. Wendy’s honest approach makes what could have been an otherwise ordinary single that much more meaningful and special.
On their most recent comeback ‘Unnatural’, WJSN step away from their signature sound of fantastical, upbeat pop, opting for a more mature vibe – all the while still retaining their trademarks of strong vocals and clean vocal layering.
‘Unnatural’ is a song of forceful yet pleasant contrasts, quickly erupting into a fully-throated chorus from its gentle opening verses. Despite the variety of sounds the track presents, a strong, constant beat sits at its core. ‘Unnatural’ may be a few genres away from the space-themed pop that WJSN are known for, but its out-of-the-world sound is a natural evolution in the group’s musical style.
‘Ain’t About You’ feat. Kiiara
‘Ain’t About You’ gives the classic “it’s not you, it’s me” breakup line a 2021 spin. Featuring American singer-songwriter Kiiara, this track in Wonho’s second mini-album ‘Love Synonym #2: Right For Us’ stands out for its fun vibe, groovy harmonies and ample sass.
- READ MORE: Wonho – ‘Love Synonym #2: Right For Us’ review: a love letter to all the fans who stood by him
“I wish it wasn’t hell / To love you more than you love yourself”, the duo tell each other, adding how a “love that hurts like this [is] so hard to resist”. It’ll also be hard to resist blasting this catchy bop at top volume, while on a long highway drive with the windows down.