10 Best K-Pop Albums of 2021
From 4th-generation stars Stray Kids and TOMORROW X TOGETHER to hitmakers IU and TWICE, here are the 10 K-pop albums that defined 2021 for us
10. I Burn – (G)I-DLE
A continuation of the group’s I album series, I Burn dropped on January 11th and is (G)I-DLE’s 4th EP, arguably one of their best to date. The reflective, emotionally surcharged record paints a storyline of one’s journey towards reconstructing oneself after suffering loss of love, crippling loneliness and heartbreak — much like a phoenix emerging from the ashes. The EP serves to tantalize listeners with versatile soundscape encompassing experiments peppered with electro-rock and pop influences, ancient East Asian instrumentals and, of course, good-old EDM drops. While the dramatic, mid-tempo ballad intro “Hann (Alone in Winter)” boasts haunting, echoing piano harmonies and is a sequel to the group’s prior 2019 release “Hann,” the lead single “HWAA” (meaning “Fire/Flower”) is a dark-pop track with moombahton influences. The latter is accompanied by a dreamy, icy music video featuring elegant red and white ensembles donned by the members, paired with delicate choreography. The melancholic pop track “Moon,” the upbeat dance-pop number “Where is love,” the introspective R&B track “Lost” and the moombahton influenced medium-pop outro, “Dahlia,” which visualizes a passionate, inebriating love affair, makes up the rest of the album. I Burn manages to summarize the cycle of love, loss, destruction, reconstruction and ultimately rebirth, without any superfluousness between the tracks. It succeeds in crafting a soundscape that not only manages to captivate listeners from the start but also leaves them with that perfect amount of yearning for more. The record enters an uncharted territory in terms of (G)I-DLE’s past releases and usual musical style, establishing them as one of the, if not the most, versatile self-produced girl groups in K-pop. – Oysmita Majumder
9. WAW – MAMAMOO
Leave it to K-pop’s vocal powerhouse MAMAMOO to cure your pandemic blues with their sonic superpowers and heartening lyricism. Released this June, MAMAMOO’s four-track EP, WAW is undoubtedly one of the most intimate, vocally robust K-pop releases of the year. Forayed in by the lead single “Where Are We Now,” the quartet offer a deeper look into their growth as artists. With cherished memories documenting the seven years the group has spent as a unit, “Where Are We Now” is a handpicked gift from the members to their fans. Over the years, MAMAMOO has dabbled with a variety of genres, matching them with striking concepts and themes to narrate their stories. With WAW, however, the group makes a conscious decision to ground the record in ballad-rich melodies, making this a simple yet momentous release for long-time fans. The lead single is characterized by a minimalistic blend of mellow piano and soft strumming on the guitar, and allows listeners to focus on the quartet’s exceptional understanding of vocal variation and harmonization. Reflecting on their past, present and future, MAMAMOO serenades listeners with a soothing blend of falsetto-rich harmonies. Lyricism moves to deeper realms with “Another Day”. A generous serving of mellow piano notes with undertones of percussion sounds drives the composition ahead, and is a track you’d expect to hear in a drama. Questioning the future of a relationship, the group ruminates on how to face the truth looming over them: “Or now I don’t think I can say/ The harsh words/ It’s not easy for me either.” Storytelling enters its concluding stages with “A Memory For Life” and “Destiny Part 2.” There’s a tasteful sonic shift in “A Memory For Life” with the jazz-like reminisce supporting the heartfelt lyricism: “Meet me who is falling apart/ How can you do this to me.” “Destiny Part 2” takes a slightly upbeat, orchestral route with Moonbyul’s melodic rap performance dialing up the drama. With WAW, the group eloquently narrates the life of a deep, meaningful relationship. Dramatic, celestial and vocally enriching, WAW may be criminally short, but will always remain as one of MAMAMOO’s most mature and powerful releases.– Divyansha Dongre
8. Fireworks – GAHO
GAHO has consistently stood out in the Korean OST space thanks to his strong vocal numbers, embodying the emotional arcs of some of K-drama’s most-loved protagonists. Taking his versatility outside the boundaries of OSTs, the 24-year old presented first studio album Fireworks on November 23rd. Led by the poignant single “Right Now,” Fireworks is a sonic transcript of one’s dynamic youth. Traversing through a cascade of emotions, GAHO deftly builds the foundation of his record around fleeting romance, happiness, hope, reassurance, friendship and regret amongst other emotions that make us human. The predominantly pop record opens with the alternative rock “OOO” and then progresses to an upbeat space with the pop-synth track “Lost My Way.” The album’s lead single “Right Now” gives listeners a sense of GAHO’s songwriting capabilities and places him as an emphatic artist who isn’t afraid to be the voice of today’s generation. The pop-rock ensemble, with the prominent echo of a pulsating synth sound playing in the background, brews an urgency to take action in the minds of the listeners. GAHO puts a positive spin on a grim state of mind, providing a jolt of motivation to those wanting to embrace happiness; “I’m exhausted and tired/ A ray of hope/ Just been chasing it/ Where to go now/ I’ll go for it. Until the end of my life.” Fireworks unlocks the door to the full range GAHO’s vocal abilities with his gruff tones on “High,” “OOO” and breathy harmonies on “Crush.” The tracklist bounces through genres, oscillating between ballad-inspired track “Crush,” pop R&B tracks “Rush Hour,” “Friend,” “Like A Moon,” and the groovy electronic number “Part Time Lover,” creating a sense of chaos. However, the drunken-frenzy of genres and contrasting emotions is a fitting definition of youth — a time in your life where you’re cruising through a whirlwind of experiences, a blissfully chaotic period you’ll reminisce about later .–D.D
7. Taste of Love – TWICE
2021 was a remarkable year for these K-pop hitmakers. From releasing multiple projects — including the release of their first official English single and wrapping up the year with a world tour announcement — the women of TWICE were on fire. The nine-member group were out to conquer the world with their captivating style, the beginnings of which can be traced back to the release of their June 11th EP, Taste of Love. The summer-themed record epitomized the drunken, dreamy essence of the season. Led by the bossa nova and hip-hop single “Alcohol-Free,” the six-track EP saw members Jihyo, Dahyun, Sana and Nayeon participate in a songwriting capacity. Describing it as an ‘intoxicating feeling,’ “Alcohol-Free” was TWICE’s grand contribution to K-pop’s arsenal of summer 2021 releases. The group’s unique take on love shines across a potion of genres, swinging between city-pop, groovy disco and bright pop synth, making it perfect for the season. They present rich, melodious vocal performances that flesh out the record, especially on the falsetto fantasy track “First Time” (co-composed by Jade Thirlwall of Little Mix). The sensual atmosphere of Taste of Love is further amplified with the vivacious “Scandal” and “Conversations”; While “Scandal” explores the burst of passion that comes with falling in love with someone for the first time, “Conversation” cuts to the chase, describing a love affair that comes with fewer words and more action; “I don’t even have to say it/ Your eyes are calling mе/ Just a little less conversation.” We get to see a tender form of romance on “Baby Blue Eyes” and “SOS” where the group wants to savor the bliss of summer romance longer. While we could have benefited from a slightly longer record, TWICE’s Taste of Love nailed 2021’s K-pop summer vibe, becoming the sonic anthem of the season. – D.D
6. 1/6- Sunmi
One of the most-awaited solo comebacks of 2021, our retro diva of K-pop didn’t disappoint. Released on August 6th, 1/6 is Sunmi’s third EP, and her first one in three years since Warning in 2018. The retro-pop record is dominated by synthwave, dance-pop, city pop and bubblegum pop, and reveals some raw and honest emotions — all of which are explored via the creative lens of Sunmi, who allows us to find solace in her work, as always. The unique album title comes from the concept of the moon’s gravitational pull being around 1/6th that of the Earth’s, and is in reference to a question that has often riddled Sunmi in the past: “On the moon where gravity is one-sixth, will the weight of my anxiety also be one-sixth?” The self-reflective EP is headlined by the flashy, Eighties synthwave-inspired dance pop intro, “You can’t sit with us,” with the title being a reference to the 2004 American rom-com Mean Girls. The choreography in the music video was influenced by the most famous retro icon there is: Marilyn Monroe, herself. The cinematic, Y2K style MV incorporates several action-packed scenes of Sunmi and her girl gang facing off against hordes of zombies in true, main character fashion. “You Can’t Sit With Us” is followed by the lively R&B summer song “Sunny,” the catchy Seventies-tinged indie-rock title track “1/6”— where the singer/songwriter aces the fan-favourite city-pop genre — the post-breakup dance-pop number “Call,” the tropical house inspired introspective track “Narcissism,” and finally the up-close and personal, all-English alt-rock ballad, “Borderline” which gives the listeners a close insight into Sunmi’s own experiences and struggles with Borderline Personality Disorder.
Notwithstanding the sheer depth and brilliance that shines through the entire album, the cherry on top is the fact that Sunmi single-handedly penned the lyrics for all six songs in this EP, which is exceptionally commendable. –O.M.
5.The Chaos Chapter: Fight or Escape – TOMORROW X TOGETHER
Widely regarded as K-pop’s ‘it group,’ TOMORROW X TOGETHER always makes it a point to prove why they’re more than worthy of this mantle whenever they release new music. This year, the quintet managed to outdo themselves by far, with the launch of their sophomore studio album The Chaos Chapter: Freeze, and it’s re-packaged version The Chaos Chapter: Fight or Escape, adding three new tracks to the original eight. The grand, eleven-track record is complete with a dramatic, emotional rollercoaster of a music video for the edgy, punk-rock lead single “LO$ER=LO♡ER,” (shot from the POV of the ‘lover’) the viral, chart-topping R&B hit “Anti Romantic,” the Seori-featurer pop-rock collaboration “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)” along with an emocore remix of the same. Besides having bragging rights for containing the quintet’s first all-English dance-pop track “Magic,” the album also includes the profound, metaphor-laced pop number “Ice Cream,” the autotune-tinged pop song “What If I Have Been That Puma” (which connects to their 2020 release “Puma”), along with the upbeat retro pop number “No Rules and the electrifying hyperpop track “Dear Sputnik.” Penned specially for the group’s highly dedicated fanbase MOA, the softer, more exuberant self-composed pop song “MOA Diary” switches up the overall mood of the album, and finally, the record finds a seamless outro in the rock-influenced hip-hop track “Frost,” arguably one of the best tracks on the album. All-in-all, the hybrid pop-rock record makes for a super fresh and versatile listening experience. From emo-pop punk to electro and hybrid pop, the angsty record is replete with themes of teenage rebellion and is a celebration of the wildly untamed, youthful spirit of Gen Z, right from the start to finish. With their consistent, top notch artistry, TXT have successfully established themselves as one of the pillars of the 4th Generation of K-Pop, and this masterpiece further consolidates that. -O.M.
4. Lilac – IU
When you think about summer 2021, South Korea’s foremost singer-songwriter IU definitely comes to mind, especially her breathy, playful retro-pop lead single “Lilac.” Sharing the same title as the single, the 10-track album is IU’s grand celebration of all things summer and pop. Released four years after her 2017 record Palette on March 25th, Lilac is a celebration of the vocalist’s twenties and a warm welcome to her thirties. As opposed to directing the album from a songwriting stance, IU chose to build and critique the album as a producer, resulting in a splendid mix of genres ranging from city-pop, retro-funk, soothing ballads, indie-pop and mild influences of reggae. A major theme of IU’s thirties involves growth, which she symbolizes by stepping out of her comfort zone on the third track “Coin.” The brassy retro number challenges her abilities as an artist with a chill, melodic rap performance– a first for Korea’s most celebrated vocalist. Of course, it wouldn’t be an IU record without a handful of reposeful ballads, namely, “Hi spring Bye,” “Empty Cup,” and the “My Sea.” Among the three, “My Sea” positions itself as one of the more sincere, symbolic numbers. The ode to coming-of-age emerges from a place of reflection, as IU sings about reconciling with her younger self. Though the journey may be rough like the sea, the singer finds comfort in knowing she’ll always find the path leading her to true self: “But still sometimes/ There will be days in which I’ll lose against life/ Even if I get lost again, I know my way back.” The 5:16-minute-long track (a numerical representation of the vocalist’s birthday) is quintessentially IU with its orchestral composition and robust vocal performance, including an outstanding note stretch in the outro. IU has spent a little over a decade in the industry and, like always, her artistry has only evolved and bloomed into something greater, more powerful and profound.– D.D
3. Bad Love – KEY
SHINee’s KEY is the definition of the word ‘icon’ and proves it yet again with his first release after returning from mandatory military enlistment. Theatrical, sophisticated and dark, Bad Love dropped on September 27th and dives head-first into Eighties pop with bold strokes of R&B and funk. The entire record plays out like a dreamscape or a long-forgotten memory suddenly rising to the surface of your mind, and the effect is tremendously striking. KEY’s soaring but delicate vocals add an elegance that’s unique to him, and he absolutely shines on the synthpop drenched closing ballad “Eighteen (End Of My World)” and the grimy, dangerous Eighties pop title track “Bad Love.” He gets saucy on the more thrilling and fast-paced dance pop track “Yellow Tape” before cruising into the pre-release single “Hate That,” a glimmering, melancholic gem that immediately locked in a place for Bad Love in our top three albums of the year. Featuring Girls Generation leader (and KEY’s longtime friend) Taeyeon and written by SM Entertainment songwriter Hwang Yubi, the track reminisces about a relationship long ended and a desperate love that lingers on: “And I hate that I hate that you’re happy without me/ And I pray and I pray I want you to come back baby.” Both singers’ breathy vocals blend with acoustic guitar riffs and soft R&B to deliver a hazy effect– circling back to reinforce the dreamy, nostalgic atmosphere of the entire record. KEY then goes on to channel Prince as he shows off his incredibly high falsettos against a deep funky bassline on the English language track “Helium,” before shifting gears into disco pop on “Saturday Night” and finally ending with “Eighteen (End Of My World,)”–the latter two written by the vocalist himself. While plenty of Korean artists have experimented with Eighties synth pop in the past couple of years, no one has made a stronger impact than KEY. His confidence in his own talent, his style, and attention to detail are what make Bad Love a timeless album we’ll be listening to 30 years from now with the same amount of reverence we have for it today. –Riddhi Chakraborty
2. Yellow – Kang Daniel
Released on April 13th as the last instalment to his trilogy project to find his colors as a solo artist, Kang Daniel’s award-winning Yellow is a highly vulnerable and honest EP filled with anger, frustration, anguish, fear and hesitation. It’s extremely rare to see a K-pop idol open up this much on a record, and Kang’s bravery in baring his soul to the world is admirable. Yellow builds its bones on alternative R&B, rock, dark pop and hip-hop, and sees the singer-songwriter play with bolder and heavier sounds than his previous records: the bright pop Cyan and dance-influenced Magenta (both released in 2020.) With writing credits on every track– all of which were inspired by his own battles with his mental health–Kang presents a stronger side of himself as a songwriter. The opener “Digital” is a gritty alt-rock, Eighties-inspired (almost vaporwave reminiscent) number that describes the vocalist’s experience of being cyberbullied after rising to fame: “Hide my pain/ Keep the truth deeply hidden/ They wanna take me down/ So critical, enemies invisible/ Oh, give me more, battleground digital/ The lie going on at the moment spreads easily/ How did it get so loud?” The lead single “Paranoia” is even more harrowing and addresses the anxiety, fear and constant self-reflection that depression can ignite. The mood of the track is elevated brilliantly through haunting background vocal reverbs, Kang’s terrified echoing screams and his frantic, monotone rapping right before the bridge. Blended with distortion, alt rock and trap, “Paranoia” is a stunning depiction of being trapped in the prison of one’s own mind. “Misunderstood” brings in rapper Omega Sapien and is more sombre in its synth-heavy, 2000s alt rock-tinged acceptance of the darkness stardom brings into a celebrity’s life. Omega Sapien raps, “Ignore what they say/ Story goes round and round/ Fakes smiles all over my face/ Black tinted windows down.” The second single “Antidote” is the absolute masterpiece of Yellow and brings Kang’s desperation to be saved to a breathless, rock-heavy crescendo as he sings, “I’m looking for the antidote/ Please, end this night/ I’m begging for the antidote/ Please, cleanse it all/ Please let me go/ Take me out of this long darkness/ Just let me go.” On the final track “Save U,” Kang takes a deep breath and assures himself of his own resilience and strength as he tells himself (and his fans) that he’s not about to give up. Singer and rapper Wonstein’s brighter tone uplifts the song and ends Yellow on a hopeful note; despite the sorrow and darkness Kang has seen, he will stand tall and keep going. And we’ll be right there with him. –R.C.
1. NOEASY – Stray Kids
For Stray Kids, 2021 has been a significant year packed full of victories–from new strides in songwriting, production and performance to friendships with the likes of Hugh Jackman and Ryan Reynolds, these 4th Generation Leaders are making their mark across the globe and their second studio album NOEASY is the crowning glory. The 14-track LP dropped on August 23rd and saw Stray Kids tackle a whole new dimension of artistry: noise meets tradition. The title is a play on the words ‘no easy’ and ‘noisy,’ a symbol of the group embracing the criticism they’ve faced over the years for their particular brand of noise music. On NOEASY, the eight members blend traditional Korean instrumentals with pop, trap, hip-hop and EDM to outline their fearless evolution and hunger to innovate. Composed by the group’s inner producer sub-unit 3RACHA (leader Bang Chan and rappers Changbin and HAN), the LP takes on various arcs in its progression, built of segments that convey different messages. The first four tracks–“Cheese,” “Thunderous,” “Domino” and “Ssick”– rip into haters with the signature SKZ trap-EDM combo, slamming the message home. On the lead single “Thunderous,” the group declare their refusal to be silenced, singing, “I was born crooked, my voice can go against a hundred/ If I don’t like something, I’ll talk back until I’m satisfied/ Final warning, immediately back up (Spit it out)/ Act tough (Back off)/ I’ll always say what I have to say.” The track also uses a plethora of Korean puns to pay tribute to the group’s heritage. At this point, NOEASY makes a sudden but smooth transition into a more emotional space, stepping into synth-pop (“The View”), breezy R&B ballads (“Sorry, I Love You,” “Silent Cry,” “Secret Secret”) and soft rock (“Star Lost.”) Finally, we see more individualistic preferences as Stray Kids split into sub-units on the playful “Surfin’” (vocalist Lee Know, Changbin and rapper Felix,) the sentimental “Gone Away”(HAN with vocalists Seungmin and I.N) and (the absolute standout of the album) a dark, seductive R&B number titled “Red Lights” (Bang Chan and vocalist Hyunjin.) The album concludes with the thrilling “WOLFGANG” (which won them the crown on the K-pop reality show <Kingdom: Legendary War> earlier this year) and the emotional pre-release single “Mixtape : OH.” The record is packed full of surprises–we were particularly impressed by “Red Lights” and “Secret Secret”–presenting brand new sides of the group and cementing their message of artists that make a difference. –R.C.