While most the world took its on sweet time coming out from the pandemic-induced nightmare that was 2020, K-pop jumped out of the gate swinging, with milestones, achievements and record-setting feats aplenty in 2021. From Brave Girls going viral with their 2017 single ‘Rollin’’ to BTS’ 11-week run atop the Hot 100, and everything in between, this was a year for the ages.
But in a year full of diverse hits, curiously, a loose theme started to reveal itself while combing through the best and brightest K-pop had to offer this year. Whether it was nostalgia for sounds and trends of the past – be it disco, punk, synthwave or even traditional Korean instrumentation – or keeping an eye on the next level of the music industry, many of this year’s top releases reflected on the nature of time, lyrically or otherwise.
And how appropriate it is, considering the amount of time so many of us have spent in a strange and uncertain limbo, for both us and our favourite musicians to find some form of relief through the same pieces of music, as we slowly but surely return to normalcy. But enough with philosophising the meaning of pop music, let’s jump into it, shall we? Here is NME’s list of the 25 best K-pop songs of 2021.
Puah ZiWei, Commissioning Editor (K-pop)
Words by: Abby Webster, Angela Patricia Suacillo, Bashirat Oladele, Carmen Chin, Gladys Yeo, Lucy Ford, Mariel Abanes, Puah ZiWei, Rhian Daly, Ruby C, Sofiana Ramli, Tanu I. Raj and Tássia Assis
25. ONEUS – ‘Luna’
‘Luna’ is a homecoming of sorts – ONEUS excavate their heritage with hefty use of traditional Korean instrumentation (evoking earlier single ‘Lit’) while lacing in the sextet’s penchant for lush storytelling. Gayageum strings warbling over trap beats touched by ’80s synthwave strike this delicate balance between new and old. With every iteration of the chorus, something new enters the fold: first, a dose of stabbing percussion, then, a rousing climax of vocal harmonies. At times, ‘Luna’ threatens to trip on its own momentum or bend under the gravity and historic pull of its production, but ONEUS never waver in their tightrope walk and the result is nothing short of exquisite. Deep roots make for the sturdiest branches, after all. AW
Best bit: The utter anguish and catharsis of the haegeum on the final chorus, as the string instrument lets loose a noise akin to a feral wail.
24. NCT 127 – ‘Sticker’
NCT 127’s music seems to happen in a liminal space, like a dream that is a carbon copy of reality – yet you can’t figure out why the mirror is blurred or your phone keyboard is blank. Experimentalism is imbued in their essence, a sonic gift that is both brilliant and boundary-pushing.
In that scenario, ‘Sticker’ arrives as one of their most polarising productions. With an instrumental rooted on a piercing flute and a drunken dance between bass and piano, NCT 127 leap through a disorienting spaciousness. What anchors this song is the exquisite vocal performance, each member steering the melody wherever they want through growls and flared inflections. It’s a multidimensional track that unravels with time, and once you ease into its oddness, will be glued to your ears “like a sticker, sticker, sticker”. TA
Best bit: When the song takes another U-turn after the bridge and a wild electronic breakdown invites us to “roll up to the party”.
23. Rosé – ‘On The Ground’
The K-pop world has watched Rosé grow and develop over the past five years, from her humble beginnings with BLACKPINK, that Yves Saint Laurent ambassadorship and, earlier this year, her long-awaited solo debut with ‘On The Ground’.
Here, the Korean-Australian singer opens up and brings us to her reality as she strips off the rose-tinted lens of fame and being a K-pop idol, taking us on a slower and softer ride with acoustic guitars and an understated EDM beat as she reflects on life as a global superstar. It’s vulnerable, electric and a real statement piece. BO
Best bit: That moment before the final chorus, when the instrumental cuts out and it’s just us and her voice. Chef’s kiss.
22. Sam Kim – ‘Love Me Like That’
This low-key viral hit is proof that one need not be the loudest in the room to draw attention. Sam Kim’s ‘Love Me Like That’ isn’t led in by a grandiose introduction or instrumental; nevertheless, it has made listeners sit up and take notice from the very first line and note.
- READ MORE: Sam Kim talks viral success of ‘Love Me Like That’, his OST contribution to K-drama hit ‘Nevertheless’
The beauty of this acoustic confessional is in its simplicity, and its power in its vulnerability. Kim’s gentle, emotive vocals make the perfect conduit for its raw, heartfelt lyrics. Baring one’s soul doesn’t exactly come easy, but with this, we now have a soundtrack for all of our deepest feels. RC
Best bit: If we really had to choose, then it’s the vocal shift in this pre-chorus line: “Keep my heart from building walls / So high, you can’t get through / Treat me soft and tender” – it’s clear that the walls came crumbling down by then.
21. Chung Ha – ‘Bicycle’
“‘Cos I’m the baddest queen / I’m sicker than all of them,” Chung Ha boasted on ‘Bicycle’, the title track of her long-awaited debut album ‘Querencia’. The revving banger proved those weren’t just empty words, with the solo star dominating as she slalomed through alluring, twinkling verses and a chorus so fierce and forceful it left you practically begging to join her biker gang.
- READ MORE: Chung Ha – ‘Querencia’ review: globe-trotting pop bangers from one of K-pop’s most in-demand stars
Even nearly 12 months since it was released, ‘Bicycle’ still provides an instant electric shock of energy with every listen, stoked by Chung Ha’s empowering dynamism that injects the whole song with an irresistible power. AS
Best bit: The sheer – but secure – boldness that drips from Chung Ha’s voice every time she declares, “And when I say it’s done, it’s freaking over”, like a true boss.
20. Joy – ‘Hello’
Joy whisks us back in time with her debut solo mini-album, reimagining ’90s and ’00s hits – now infused with a modern cool and a whole lot of brass. ‘Hello’ is no exception, its giddy optimism characteristic of the early-aughts hitting like a nostalgic gut punch. All bad vibes to the rearview, please: “Don’t cry, today’s a new day / Get ready to welcome it,” the vocalist croons from cloud nine. It’s a reminder, as much as a directive. Joy’s crystalline soprano is a beam of sunshine that cuts through the hazy remnants of winter – thrusting open the curtains and making us wonder why we ever had the place shuttered to begin with. AW
Best bit: The trumpets that punctuate Joy’s bright “annyeong”s like a jazzy exclamation point.
19. STAYC – ‘ASAP’
When we first heard STAYC’s ‘ASAP’, it wasn’t what we expected from the rookie girl group who gave us the powerful ‘So Bad’. On second listen, the whimsical, flute-like synths start sounding that much more catchy. And by the third, if you’re not going “ASAP! / Whoo-woo-oo-oo” during the hook, complete with the dance, what’s wrong with you?
- READ MORE: STAYC’s ‘STAYDOM’ is a low-key, summer-ready comeback that manages to hit all the right notes
There’s something so pure, fun and old-school K-pop about ‘ASAP’ that just cuts to the core of STAYC’s 2021 output. It’s not the confrontational, in-your-face Western-influenced pop most fourth generation girl groups seem to prefer and, frankly, we’re not complaining one bit. Hats off to STAYC, as well as their hit-making producers Black Eyed Pilseung. PZW
Best bit: As we’d like to reiterate, if you’re not going “ASAP! / Whoo-woo-oo-oo” during the hook, you have missed the point of the song.
18. Hoshi – ‘Spider’
As one of the first SEVENTEEN members to break out with solo material, Hoshi has certainly made his mark as a blossoming multihyphenate with his debut solo track, ‘Spider’. Sultry, infectious R&B meshes with glittering synths and inviting vocals – with its evocative lyrics, sleek production and story-infused choreography all expertly sculpted by the SEVENTEEN Performance Team leader himself. After setting the stage with a debut track that’s as enchanting as ‘Spider’, it’s hard not to expect even greater things from Hoshi as we look towards the future. CC
Best bit: Those twinkling beats throughout that creep in quick succession, much like the way a spider moves.
17. Weeekly – ‘After School’
For a group that’s a little over a year old, Weeekly haven’t wasted any time in establishing a trademark bright and bubbly sound that they can truly call their own. It’s certainly evident in ‘After School’, an infectious performance that celebrates the wonder of youth and friendship at intergalactic proportions.
Bubblegum pop (highlight that in bold) and some reggae-inspired bass may seem unconventional on paper, but it’s this off-kilter mix that keeps the lyricism energetic. The group don’t just recount stories of good times with friends, they make you feel it too – thanks to an arrangement that takes the group’s rhythmic vocals and makes it the base of a bouncy,infectious chorus.. APS
Best bit: Monday belting “I’m flying on my shaking heart” on the bridge gives the song so much dimension..
16. D.O. – ‘Rose’
D.O.’s approach to his solo material has always been a tad refreshing – especially when you consider his releases among the sea of sleek R&B that most male soloists tend to offer (see some of his contemporaries on this list, for example).
While he does dip his toes into trends every now and then, as heard throughout his understatedly splendid debut solo album ‘공감 (Empathy)’, D.O.’s specialty lies in the simplicity, and lead single ‘Rose’ checks all the boxes. No frills, just the EXO singer’s honeyed vocals backed by a perky acoustic guitar, ‘Rose’ puts D.O.’s boyish charms on full display and captures innocent romance to a delightful and magnetic effect. SR
Best bit: We can’t help it, but the accompanying music video, which follows an oblivious and infatuated D.O. as he casually maneuvers out of every disaster life throws his way unscathed, elevates the song’s lovestruck message in the most endearing way.
15. Sunmi – ‘You Can’t Sit With Us’
We know – looking at things through a boring, serious critical lens – that ‘Tail’ is the “better” of the two Sunmi singles this year, but there’s no denying that ‘You Can’t Sit With Us’ is infinitely more iconic. There’s that zombie-inspired music video, the gorgeous (and very on trend) Y2K fashion, the obvious Mean Girls reference and an infectious synthwave influence; everything about ‘You Can’t Sit With Us’ is just so distinctively delectable.
And yes, there is Sunmi’s out-of-place “rap” verse that, granted, doesn’t rhyme or make much sense, but something about the way she delivers it that just makes it work… in its own special way. This song just makes a point (point!). PZW
Best bit: Sunmi’s almost mocking, half laughed, half spoken ad lib of “You can’t sit with us!” just before the song ends. Mood.
14. ENHYPEN – ‘Fever’
The crazed and frenzied ‘Drunk-Dazed’ might have been the title track of ENHYPEN’s sophomore mini-album ‘Border: Carnival’, but its second single ‘Fever’ has this undeniable, mesmerising allure that pulls you in, latches on and never lets go – and we’re not complaining.
On this sensual, slow-burning R&B jam, the septet explore the push and pull of wanting something but not being able to have it, immersing us into their painful and pleasurable world: “I cannot touch you, never / But I’m drawn to you / The more I hurt the more I want you.” Just like a fever, it’s sometimes burns with agonising pain, sometimes cold to the point of shivering delirium but all around deliciously enticing. BO
Best bit: Come on, we all know it’s Jungwon’s voice as it reaches the skies singing “Like a fever, fever, fever, fever on the first half of the chorus.
13. Taeyeon – ‘Weekend’
There was a seven month interlude for Taeyeon to return with new music after December 2020’s ‘What Do I Call You’. But similar to how we feel after powering through a week full of dealing with life to reach that much-awaited weekend break, it was definitely worth the wait.
‘Weekend’ is the dreamy disco-city pop breather we all needed in yet another year dominated by the pandemic. The Girls’ Generation leader invites us to put everything on pause, taking time to clear our heads and “do whatever [we] feel like”.This song is the definition of chill. MA
Best bit: The echo-y preview of the chorus that opens the song, before the sudden stop – like a tease to the fun that awaits.
12. Epik High – ‘Rosario’ (feat. Zico and CL)
This epic anthem was part of our ‘The 15 best K-pop songs of 2021 – so far’ feature, and there’s still every reason to feature it again even at the year’s end. As much as it’s a message for haters, ‘Rosario’ is ultimately a compelling proclamation of triumph.
- READ MORE: Epik High’s Tablo: “I’ve gone through long periods where I felt like I was completely alone”
For Epik High, CL and Zico, the true power of these trailblazers is in how far they’ve come in forging their paths, and showing us that we can do the same for ours. As they declare, “I am a legend and I’m here to stay” – and believe it or not, so are you. RC
Best bit: “I paved the way for everyone that is pavin’ the way / You’ve too much to say, ain’t no one givin’ a fuck what you say / Moment of silence” – ‘nuff said.
11. BIBI – ‘The Weekend’
A collaboration between BIBI and 88rising is just so fitting, the release of this song felt almost overdue. A desperate plea for attention from an emotionally-absent fling, ‘The Weekend’ artfully masks BIBI’s underlying frustration with its slick, nonchalant disco-inspired sound. “Why, why, why, why, why, aren’t you into me?” She whines sullenly on the track’s pre-chorus, calling out for a lover who just won’t return her affection, before launching into a groovy, upbeat chorus punctuated by a subtle yet impactful bassline. GY
Best bit: BIBI’s emotionally packed ad-libs in its final chorus are a gratifying juxtaposition of the singer’s internal turmoil and her laidback, broody vocals throughout ‘The Weekend’.
10. BTS – ‘Butter’
Sometimes all you need is a really great pop song to make the world feel a little bit brighter, and BTS’ record-breaking anthem ‘Butter’ does exactly that. Opening with a tantalising kick-drum intro that invites us into almost three minutes of blissfully crunchy synths, reverberating basslines and snappy lyrics, it’s one of the most indisputable bops to have come out of this Summer.
- READ MORE: BTS’ ‘Butter’ is a cool, crisp summer anthem that doubles as a potent shot of self-confidence
Basically, if a song could have a model strut this one would have it. Confidence exudes from the group in ‘Butter’, as each of the seven members is given ample opportunity to flex the unique sex appeal, conviction and attitude they’re unquestionably brimming with. LF
Best bit: The one-two punch rap verse from Suga and RM that feels like a euphoric crescendo after the song’s synth-laced instrumental interlude. It’s the perfect balance of cockiness and charm, and it’s quite literally impossible not to scream, “Ice on my wrist / I’m the nice guy”, when they come in.
9. Lee Hi – ‘Red Lipstick’ (feat. Yoon Mi-rae)
In embracing the glitzy retro trend, Lee Hi invites the world to just let loose and celebrate the moment – or, in the case of her music video, reminisce on the good old days – on her sublime throwback single ‘Red Lipstick’: “Tonight, we are going to get caught up in the vibe / Just groove it without any thoughts in mind”.
- READ MORE: Lee Hi – ‘4 ONLY’ review: a long-waited, soulful homecoming from one of K-pop’s most elite
The cohesive blend of ’90s synths and disco funk complements Lee Hi’s signature soulful vocals well, but it’s in the playfully simple hook where her performance truly stands out. Pair that with a charismatic rapid-fire verse from Yoon Mi-rae, and you’ve got a lively soundscape that draws a five-year wait to a satisfying close. APS
Best bit: Lee Hi’s slow and sultry delivery of this pre-chorus line – “Let me blow your mind / Among these boring people, you seem like Friday night” – really gives the track some dimension, and a little bit of spice.
8. Tomorrow X Together – ‘0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)’ (feat. Seori)
For their ‘The Chaos Chapter’ era, TXT brought back emo and soaked in its stirring power to deliver ‘0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)’. It’s a track that is just too huge to be contained, each element carefully building upon the next until they overflow in a gargantuan, cathartic chorus that makes every cell in your body reverberate.
- READ MORE: Tomorrow X Together – ‘The Chaos Chapter: Freeze’ review: K-pop’s fourth gen leaders find love in a hopeless place
It’s a “main character in a movie” moment, conjuring a myriad of feelings from the unison chants, to the trotting drums, to Taehyun’s striking raspy voice. “I know it’s real, I can feel it,” he sings, and we are left with the certainty that some songs are meant to be lived through and not just listened to. TA
Best bit: The rawness in Taehyun’s verses followed by the liberating chorus, only to be met with the soothing delicacy of Seori’s vocals right after.
7. Taemin – ‘Advice’
Watching Taemin evolve is akin to watching a tiger hunt. Your breath quickens, your muscles tense when you feel him move; he plays with us the way a tiger plays with prey, and when he attacks, you know you’re done for. Time and again, the SHINee member has proven that he has absolutely zero chill – zilch, nada – when it comes to expressing himself through his work.
‘Advice’ takes it one step further and becomes his calling sign. “The more you try to trap me, I’ll go off the rails / so take a good look, If you want to see the end, push my buttons,” he says, punctuating the fact that he doesn’t need anyone else telling him what’s good for him – he’ll take his own advice, thank you very much. It’s also oddly poetic how he chose ‘Advice’ as his last release before enlistment, almost as if to warn people that this is only a pause, not the end. TR
Best bit: Exactly 58 seconds into the song, at the height of the chorus, where the piano and the staccato drums intermingle as Taemin’s falsetto declares: “Best take my own advice.” *Siri, how do I tattoo this particular emotion onto myself?*.
6. aespa – ‘Savage’
On this eclectic fusion of heavy hip-hop beats and brain-scratching synths, the unorthodox quartet of aespa prove once again that they aren’t here to play around. ‘Savage’ is a prime example of the power of controlled chaos, with the sum of its unpredictable, disjointed parts and skilfully complex production adding up to create this relentlessly experimental banger of audacious proportions. ‘Savage’ promises to take you on the wildest journey of your life in just under four minutes, all while firmly establishing the girl group’s distinctive futuristic hyper-pop laced sound. GY
- READ MORE: aespa – ‘Savage’ review: K-pop power rookies stake their claim for greatness with future-facing cyberpunk
Best bit: The soaring, tension-filled pre-chorus of “I’m a savage / I’ll crush you to pieces, oh / I’m a savage / I’ll trample you, oh” – the perfect, heart-racing build-up to the track’s addictive, crunchy sing-talk chorus.
5. STAYC – ‘Stereotype’
Catching the public’s attention has proven to be a harder task than ever for new K-pop groups in this overcrowded industry. Still, STAYC have defied the odds this year with back-to-back viral smashes that have solidified their place as an act with limitless potential, with the sprightly ‘Stereotype’ being their most effective yet.
- READ MORE: STAYC – ‘Stereotype’ review: K-pop’s most promising girl group prove they are anything but cliché
Bubblegum pop meets future bass and flute-like synths on this Black Eyed Pilseung-produced track, finding the middle ground between the hard-hitting ‘So Bad’ and their first viral hit ‘ASAP’, creating yet another masterpiece that’s already been picked up on by a portion of the tastemaking TikTok crowd. CC
Best bit: The bridge, immaculately executed by Isa, which slows things down and takes the song’s chorus on a step lower, making it hit even harder.
4. TWICE – ‘The Feels’
TWICE’s first English-language single showed the rest of the world what ONCE were already well-versed in – a girl group fuelled by the power of bright, positive pop and a knack for concocting bubbly dream worlds through their songs. The unapologetically giddy ‘The Feels’ hit you right in, well, the feels as the group portray the fizzing sensation of your heart being taken over by someone else.
The members’ confident vocal delivery and attitude served as neon flashes through a glittering disco setting, combining to create the perfect soundtrack for whenever you need a boost, or to play out all your romantic daydreams to. RD
Best bit: When Dahyun raps, “Underneath the neon lights, baby / Electricity tonight, baby”, illuminating each word with playful, exuberant spirit.
3. Key – ‘Bad Love’
There’s always something exciting, almost primal, about watching someone be unabashedly themselves. It leaves one a little breathless and completely blinded, as if going through a transformation worth lifetimes in the course of a song. Key’s ‘Bad Love’ is a religious experience on similar levels, primarily because it’s so beautifully, unapologetically, liberally him that you can almost taste his life experience, his thoughts, his likes and dislikes on your tongue.
Over the course of 2020, we saw multiple variations of retro throughout K-pop, but if there was someone who truly understood that era, it was Key – even if the song came a whole year after the throwback renaissance. Among the fascinatingly morbid pink, goopy aliens and PVC space suits, the deconstructed jackets and the David Bowie-inspired look, the booming vocals and the atmospheric synthwave-influence, Key becomes himself and blooms. This may not be his first rodeo, but man is this his most honest one. TR
Best bit: As the track winds down, the stellar chorus segues into a harmonious outro, where Key belts out steady, clean high notes against a minimal drum arrangement, before abruptly being cut off. Did we replay it again and again? You can never prove it.
2. aespa – ‘Next Level’
On the first listen of ‘Next Level’, you may be confused. Maybe even on the second and third, too, as your brain gets used to the unique many-songs-in-one structure and mid-track tempo changes that keep you on your toes. But at a certain point, that confusion becomes thrilling, with the punchy electro bassline, staccato intonation of the lyrics and unquestionably powerful vocals meshing together ingeniously to make one of the most addictive earworms of the year. Confidence exudes from the rookie group in this song in a way that feels like it rubs off as you listen, and as soon as it’s over you’re ready to hit play immediately again to bask in that attitude. LF
Best bit: While not a musical element, at this point, it’s almost impossible to listen to ‘Next Level’ without thinking about the iconic dance moves that accompany it. The arm and wrist choreography has become a viral sensation, and is now so infamous that you can’t even say the phrase “next level” without stomping your body into position on instinct.
1. IU – ‘Lilac’
‘Lilac’, IU’s first album in four years, is nothing short of magnificent. The 10-track comeback record not only reestablished her as an all-rounder, who has the ability to transition from elegant disco pop to soaring ballads to smoky R&B seamlessly, but also as an expert storyteller and songwriter. On the album’s title track, IU tells her most relatable tale yet: the bittersweet journey of letting your youth go.
While age has always played a significant part in IU’s music – ‘CHAT-SHIRE’’s ‘Twenty-three’ is a spunky coming-of-age bop, while the minimalist ‘Palette’ finds her embracing adulthood on her own terms – ‘Lilac’ feels more intimate and knowing than the rest. Seeped in nostalgia, this surprisingly dancey number is a heartfelt love letter to the singer’s roaring 20s before she enters a new decade. “The day when the lilac flower withers, good bye / This kind of ending suits us,” she sighs on the sparkling chorus, as she looks forward to the rest of life’s journey. Trust IU to make breaking up with your young self sound so sweet and poetic. SR
Best bit: Every time the horns kick in – but especially so towards the tail end when it’s paired with IU’s dreamy ad-libs. Instant classic.