Despite hope for a "return to normal," 2021 was a year at odds. Offices reopened (somewhat), live music returned (kinda) and we finally put on real clothes (as if). The reality is that we lived through the year in a discombobulated half-state. So it makes sense that music would reflect such discordance, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the K-pop industry, which made bigger, bolder strides into the Western market, while pushing the bounds of genre back at home.
From synthwave to hyperpop to pop-rock, K-pop embraced the noise of 2021 through a multitude of hybrid sounds. When times got tough, the music got harder to define. Rookie groups broke through, scoring major hits and taking K-pop to the next level on the global stage. Meanwhile, established groups got louder and funkier, finding a groove to call their own and embracing a myriad of soundscapes (industrial! traditional! ambient! orchestral!). 2021 was confusing, and therefore, it sounded confused.
These 40 songs span the spectrum of a very dissonant year. Before you scan for your favorites, a few notes: this list includes only official singles, so no b-sides, and just one song per group or artist is considered (the exceptions being units or soloists who released music outside of their group.)
40. "Vamos" by Omega X
In a year defined by second chances, Omega X's debut feels kismet. Its stacked, 11-member lineup includes artists from either disbanded or inactive boy groups, giving them all another opportunity to achieve success. So "Vamos" is more than a debut single; it's redemption. With its blustering, brassy instrumental and celebratory shout-sing outro, "Vamos" makes it clear that Omega X is more than ready to carry the "noise music" mantle of K-pop's 4th generation.
39. "My Treasure" by TREASURE
After a prolific debut year (three single albums and an excellent pre-release track from vocalist Bang Yedam), YG Entertainment's rookie boy group TREASURE has been relatively quiet on the music front. It's a shame, considering how January's "My Treasure" set them on a promising path. Is it a song that could have been on Glee? Sure. Is it a bop? Absolutely. It sounds like cotton candy. Sentimental and saccharine, "My Treasure" ultimately crescendos into something truly magical, showing off the prism of their maturing musicality.
38. "Madonna" by LUNA
An icon in her own right, LUNA's ode to the queen of pop (yes, that Madonna) is as shameless as Madge herself. That's what makes it so effusive. LUNA is in on the joke. "When I grow up, I want to be like Madonna," she belts over the thrum of a dance beat. "I want to vogue how I wanna." There's truly nothing more gratifying than shameless pop music, and "Madonna" knows exactly what it is: visceral and versatile, just like the fabulous iconoclast who's singing it.
37. "XOXO" by Jeon Somi
The devil works hard, but Jeon Somi works harder. The 20-year-old soloist dropped two impactful singles and her first LP this year, and she somehow still had time to film TikToks with at least 75 percent of the entire K-pop industry. Somi's charisma could power a small town, and while "XOXO" only scratches at the surface of what she has to offer, its stomping beat and anthemic hook begin to cultivate a signature sound — one delivered with a whole lot of gum-snapping, hip-swaying sass.
36. "Like Water" by Wendy
Wendy spent 2020 like so many of us: rehabilitating and reflecting. After more than a year away from the stage due to injury, Red Velvet's shining vocalist returned with a soaring ballad dedicated to her fans. "Like Water" is a soothing balm for a restless soul, a reminder that love — for yourself, and for others — is as essential to the health and wellbeing of the human spirit as water. There's so much warmth and empathy in Wendy's delivery. Allow it to wash over your sorrows and let yourself be reborn anew.
35. "BEcause" by Dreamcatcher
The industry's resident alt grrrls are known for their dynamic fusion of heavy guitars, crystalline vocals and nightmarish flourishes. "BEcause," released in July, delivers on all fronts — featuring a frantic drum-and-bass breakdown in the second verse with a sampling of the screeching strings of Psycho's iconic shower scene. It's far from Dreamcatcher at their most screamo, but "BEcause" builds to its own feverish conclusion.
34. "Queendom" by Red Velvet
No group wears duality as effortlessly as Red Velvet. Their releases often fall on opposite poles of the conceptual spectrum: “red,” their bright, quirky side; and “velvet,” their slinky, soulful side. But "Queendom" lands somewhere in the middle. It's playful refrain of "ladida-do ba-badida” is an earworm by design, bolstered by a pretty melody. But the quintet's lush vocal harmonies and divine ad-libs elevate even the most standard pop-house beat. They're queens for a reason.
33. "What Type Of X" by Jessi
Beloved by her peers and (finally) by audiences in South Korea, Jessi has had the kind of meteoric rise this year most people can only dream of, thanks to her 2020 smash "Nunu Nana" and the continued success of her YouTube variety show, where she regularly makes her guests sweat over her refreshingly American candor. New Jersey's finest dropped her jolting pièce de résistance, "What Type Of X," in March, and it's the perfect introduction to the rapper and performer's ferocious flair. Subtlety? Jessi's never heard of her. "I'm a different type of beast," she spits as the guitar kicks in. Don't you know you're talking to a motha-effin rock star?
32. "Pirate" by Everglow
The dance floor is where people go to free themselves — a baptism under the hum of the music, through the fog of ecstasy. With "Pirate," Everglow delivers a shimmering sermon: a boisterous club banger anchored by a pulsing rhythm and a girl-power message. (It brings to mind another hooky, empowerment anthem with a club beat: Girls Aloud's "Something New.") Everglow's particular brand of girl crush has always been bold and in-your-face, but "Pirate" is giving camp and attitude. They're inviting you to put on your sparkliest eyepatch and join them on the dance floor.
31. "We Go" by fromis_9
A good way to measure a fromis_9 title track is by how many pixie sticks you'd need to consume to get on their level. "We Go" is nowhere near as relentless and madcap as past singles "FUN!" (it's literally screaming at you) and "Love Bomb," but it's no less charming. A summer track with a retro-pop pulse, "We Go" is breezy without losing momentum. It's fun without being all-caps FUN!, teeming with enough feel-good energy to fuel even the cloudiest of days.
30. "Peaches" by Kai
True to its name, Kai's second solo single "Peaches" is both sweet and sensual. It exists on another plane of existence entirely, where desire is expressed through languid motion and hushed whispers. There's a hypnotism to its lo-fi arrangement, which incorporates traditional Korean instrumentation. Like its namesake, "Peaches" is a simple delicacy.
29. "Beautiful Beautiful" by ONF
While their peers embrace darker synths and moodier visuals, ONF kicked off 2021 with a blast of sonic sunshine. "Beautiful Beautiful" has everything: harmonized chants, an a cappella section (!!!), funky chords, and an electric guitar solo. It's a symphony of bright, retro sounds, and in today's K-pop landscape that feels refreshingly new.
28. "Bonnie & Clyde" by Yuqi
This year saw the members of (G)I-DLE explore the individual depths of their artistry. Propelled by a trance beat and a swift rock undercurrent, "Bonnie & Clyde" harnesses the full power of Yuqi's smoky vocals and enticing bravado. It's a beguilingly compulsive tale of ride-or-die love, and it's a confident entry in Yuqi's solo repertoire that cements her as a certified pop girlie with her own color.
27. "KILLA" by MIRAE
It typically takes rookie groups a few releases to establish their sound. MIRAE only needed one. The rookie boy group debuted with "KILLA," a swaggering electro-house banger with a confident, futuristic swing. (Futurism is in their name, after all.) The squelching synths luxuriate in the track's full-bodied soundscape, but the bombast of the production doesn't detract from the group's robust vocals, which soar over the song's climactic maelstrom of warped beats. It's an electrifying debut, and the scary thing is... this is only the beginning of their careers.
26. "Sticker" by NCT 127
Was there a more divisive single this year than NCT 127's "Sticker?" From its biphonic opening flute riff and distorted bass, the disjointed track is an attack on the senses. There's a sharp dissonance between the flute and the melody, the dirty synths and the even grimier vocals. Yet, the production itself is minimal, subdued even, allowing NCT 127's vocalists to ground the song in their prowess (and to unleash their growls). NCT is a limitless concept — an infinite number of boys, experimenting with unorthodox sounds and rhythms, spinning nothing into something. "Sticker" is weird. Full stop. But there's a real thrill to its madness.
25. "Love So Sweet" by Cherry Bullet
K-pop has been riding the retro synthwave for the past few years, and Cherry Bullet's "Love So Sweet'' is the latest entry in the canon. The song's percolating synth and the members' bubblegum vocal delivery create a truly inescapable hook, elevating "Love So Sweet" from a sweet, simple pop song to a delectable confection you want to indulge in again and again.
24. "Mafia in the Morning" by Itzy
In the two years since their energetic debut, Itzy have carved out a lane all to themselves. Their music is loud, confident, and a little mischievous. So while April's "Mafia in the Morning" seemed like a new direction for the group (more rap, less melody; a vacuous hook), it actually emphasized Itzy's ability to insert their ethos into any sound. What makes "Mafia in the Morning" so charming, beyond its unbeatable performance, is the irresistible energy the girls bring to it.
23. "libidO" by OnlyOneOf
OnlyOneOf attracted a lot of attention this year for "libidO"'s provocative choreography (just some light crotch-grabbing, NBD), but lost in the conversation was the stellar quality of the song's funky, atmospheric production. The criminally underrated group has been building their own multifaceted soundscape since their debut, but "libidO" takes it up a notch, edging the group closer to ecstasy with its throbbing bass and sotto voce silkiness.
22. "After We Ride" by Brave Girls
Following the unexpected and long-overdue viral success of their 2017 sleeper hit "Rollin'," Brave Girls is the Cinderella story of 2021. Their resurgence thankfully led to new music, with the veteran girl group releasing "After We Ride" in August. The lovelorn synthpop track shimmers in the amber of regret, the kind of late summer song that will leave you crying your glitter off on the dance floor. But through those tears, you'll find catharsis — and that's the power of a good pop song.
21. "Tamed-Dashed" by ENHYPEN
Driven by a slick bass line and an anthemic hook, "Tamed-Dashed" is a potent mix of grit and gravitas. There's a frenzied youthfulness to its tone — exuberant in nature, slightly sinister by choice. It's no less dizzying and intense as their other 2021 release, "Drunk-Dazed," but "Tamed-Dashed" beats with a thumping propulsion. Tinged with rock flourishes and taught melodies, "Tamed-Dashed" is an exhilarating adrenaline rush.
20. "Bewitched" by PIXY
The allure of rookie group PIXY's brand of dark, audacious pop lies in the production. It's physical and addictive, brimming with aggressive bloghouse energy. "Bewitched' is a siren call to the dance floor. It glitters and glitches, rendering the listener completely powerless to its intoxicating spell.
19. "Butter" by BTS
Of the countless accomplishments under this song's belt — 10 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100; 13 wins on South Korea's music show circuit; and a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance — perhaps its greatest achievement (aside from fueling an entire population's serotonin intake) is the ease of its smooth delivery. BTS have nothing to prove. To Western audiences. To critics. To you. To me. When the history books are written, their chapter will be scribed in gold. "Butter," with its bright synths and funky bass line, is them confidently acknowledging their own legacy. It's the celebratory culmination of a long self-love journey. It's their ability to stand on the world's biggest stages and playfully ask, "Hate us?" — only to respond to their own taunt with a gleeful and unanimous, "Love us!"
18. "Cinema" by CIX
The beauty of K-pop and its kaleidoscopic vision is that it allows groups to mix up their sound, to wear new concepts and see what fits. In 2019, CIX debuted with the sleek, sophisticated "Movie Star," and it set them on a path of slinky, understated melodies and sultry performances. But this year, they embraced a fresher sound. (Think: boys with permed, pastel hair, dancing around their rooms in hoodies and overalls while being bathed in saturated color.) It's luminous without being too cute, a capital "P" pop song with dreamlike harmonies, sparkling synths and an inescapable hook. It's the kind of sound that makes hearts flutter, and it fits CIX like a glove.
17. "Rock With You" by Seventeen
When Seventeen debuted in 2015, they quickly became known for their fresh sound, which is often a way of saying "bright and youthful." But boys eventually become men, and their sound in recent years has teetered from transcendent EDM to slinky melodrama to swing-band panache. With the release of "Rock With You," however, it seems like Seventeen has found a signature groove. Here, in its sparkling melodies and rock-tinged rhythms, the song is a nice bookend to Seventeen's boyish debut era. It's sentimental with an edge — and the members have never sounded better. "Rock With You" allows Seventeen to strut into their new era with purpose.
16. "Advice" by Taemin
Nobody loves drama the way Taemin loves drama. He embodies it fully, visually and physically. The patron saint of carnal pop released just one single this year before he was called to fulfill his enlistment duties, but it left an immeasurable impact. In many ways, "Advice" is classic Lee Taemin, otherwise known as SHINee's eternal maknae and SuperM's sage chaos master. Baroque and intoxicating, the song itself is a harmonious dance between major and minor, of rhythmic arpeggios and mesmerizing EDM riffs. "Advice" is luxurious. It sounds expensive. As if Taemin would have left us any other way.
15. "Eleven" by IVE
There's not a song on this list that has made as much of an impact in such a short amount of time as the enchanting debut single from rookie girl group IVE. Released at the start of December, "Eleven" has already taken over TikTok with its percussive pop hook and dazzling choreography — and it's currently racing up the charts in South Korea. It serpentines its way to your heart, a gleaming bit of brilliance that establishes this entrancing six-member group as surefire supernovas.
14. "Bambi" by Baekyun
Leave it to K-pop's reigning king of R&B to get us all hot and bothered before commencing his mandatory enlistment. If there's one thing Baekyun knows how to do, it's ride a note to an electrifying climax. The man's vocal stamina is unparalleled. "Bambi" follows a sensual groove, but it's the atmospheric guitar and Baekhyun's silky smooth delivery (those exalted melismas!) that leaves us yearning for more.
13. "Gambler" by Monsta X
Few groups have learned to wield their sex appeal like Monsta X. Case in point: "Gambler." With a rubbery bass and a vigorous electric guitar riff (just listen to rapper I.M slide in on that riffage), "Gambler" is the lethal mix of Monsta X's hard-hitting sound, suave visuals and synthwave. The wailing guitar is no match for main vocalist Kihyun, while rapper/vocalist/maverick Joohoney — who participated in the track's writing, production, and arrangement — unleashes his own gravelly power vocal alongside Kihyun for an electrifying conclusion.
12. "Don't Call Me" by SHINee
It's one thing to push pop into the future; it's another to dismantle it completely and play with the parts. K-pop legends SHINee fall into the latter category. For 13 years, they've eschewed trends to define their own distinct musicality — from pristine electropop to rhythmic bangers. On "Don't Call Me," their first release as a unit since 2018, SHINee takes a hard-spun K-pop sound as it's currently being expressed — dark synths, clattering hi-hats and weighty beats — and renders it bolder, edgier and more dynamic. And that piano breakdown? SHINee's back, indeed.
11. "Thunderous" by Stray Kids
When Stray Kids dropped their second studio album NOEASY in August, it was a playful nod to critics who deride their particular brand of "noise music." (NOEASY is pronounced as noisy.) But the thing about noise is that it's impactful, and lead single "Thunderous" is the loudest of them all. Boisterous and boastful, the song forges an immersive experience teeming with dynamism and attitude. There's so many textures in its production — the brassy drop, the clanking percussion, the superhero opening, the sly vocal delivery. On paper, the frenzied mix of traditional Korean instruments and noisy samples (car horns!) shouldn't work. But as Felix says, Stray Kids don't play by the rules. They are self-referential. They are unabashedly fun. And they have nothing to apologize for.
10. "NAKKA (with IU)" by AKMU
Siblings Lee Chanhyuk and Lee Suhyun of AKMU (short for Akdong Musician) are favorites on the Korean music charts. For good reason: Their discography is full of youthful bops and cathartic ballads. The throughline, of course, is Chanhyuk's captivating lyricism — his ability to paint a lyrical portrait so vividly and humanly. "NAKKA" finds the brother-sister duo playing in a new musical sandbox alongside singer-songwriter IU: icy synthwave. But the lyrics have never been warmer and more potent. "Trust me, close your eyes and fall," Suhyun and IU sing over a gurgling bass line. "One, two, three, hold your breath and fall."
9. "Scientist" by Twice
The yassification of Twice's sound in recent years has yielded some of the brightest gems of the group's career catalog. "Scientist" shines because it follows Twice's tried-and-true formula of success — bouncy synths, happy melodies and catchy hooks — while continuing to defy expectations and push themselves musically. A real standout track for vocalist Mina, who anchors the verses with a suave performance, "Scientist" allows all nine members to shine vocally through lush harmonies and quirky vocalizations. It's undeniably vivacious, but there's a sophistication that elevates it from cute to consistent.
8. "Lilac" by IU
This year, IU embraced turning 30 with a real sense of confidence and perspective, and on "Lilac," aging has never sounded more beautiful. The queen of the charts welcomed this new chapter with a groovy goodbye to her twenties. "Tell me I look pretty like the first day we met," she breathily sings over a dreamy city-pop beat. "Could this last goodbye be any sweeter?" IU's ability to spin everyday moments and universal feelings of existential dread into magic is what makes her such a singular voice in the global K-pop landscape. As one chapter ends, another begins, somewhere in IU's eternal spring.
7. "Luna" by ONEUS
ONEUS released a handful of singles this year, each a reflection of the group's multifaceted sound. But there's something about "Luna" and its potent fusion of synthwave and traditionalism that feels the most like ONEUS. It's dramatic and decadent, teetering on the edge of theatrical. The progression of the chorus builds to a stunning climax of oscillating harmonies, traditional Korean instruments, and soaring vocals from the members and a pansori singer. (Notably, "Luna" is sung entirely in Korean.) In K-pop, every group has to find that one thing that sets them apart from their peers. ONEUS are storytellers, and the beauty of their folk tales is that they weave together past and present so gracefully — creating their own mythos one fable at a time.
6. "ASAP" by STAYC
At one point, STAYC's "ASAP" was truly escapable. You couldn't open TikTok or scroll through Twitter without hearing the catchiest of hooks or seeing its memorable choreography. After a breakout debut year, "STAYC girls" came back with a mega-bop that, despite its title, was kind of laid-back. Still, "ASAP" is bright, whimsical fun. But don't be fooled: It also packs a real punch. There's a pluckiness to the group's vocal delivery — don't keep them waiting, boy! — and an undercurrent of energy conducted through bursts of chirpy synth notes and layed harmonies. In retrospect, "ASAP" is a self-fulfilling prophecy for the amount of time it takes to get this one stuck in your head.
5. "Bad Love" by Key
Synthwave clearly has K-pop in a chokehold, but there's not a single artist who embodies this style of exuberant dance music like Kim Kibum, SHINee's elusive chanteur. "Bad Love" is as much an extension of himself and his artistry as the wardrobe he painstakingly curated for his album rollout, or the pulpy, retrofuturism concept he conceived and fought for. Key knows exactly who he is and what he wants to bring to the pop ecosystem, and that's genuinely thrilling in an industry where control is rarely conceded. He's been a student of pop his whole life — Bowie, Gaga, those are his muses. With "Bad Love," Key is now the master.
4. "After School" by Weeekly
In lieu of caffeine, listen to Weeekly. The rookie girl group has been honing their repertoire of sticky, upbeat jams since their relentlessly peppy debut. On "After School," Weeekly stick to their bubblegum roots while also broadening their musical scope with a deeper, bouncier bass and reggae-infused rhythms. "Ready, set, go! Feel it," the members chant, celebrating the blissful moments they spend together, after school on their skateboards. "I'm so good with you," they sing together. Youth has never sounded this sweet.
3. "Savage" by aespa
"Oh my gosh," Winter drawls. "Don't you know I'm a savage?" From its opening line, aespa's "Savage" is a battle cry, delivered oh-so-deliciously by the rookie girl group currently taking the industry by storm. While aespa's "Next Level" was undoubtedly the song of the year on the Korean music charts, it's the group's October release that really proves what these girls can do. (The answer is everything. They can do it all! You don't need a naevis to see that.) Exaggerated and dissonant, "Savage" is a blitz of brash synths, trap beats, punchy rap verses, earworm hooks and piercing vocals. It shouldn't work, but it does. It's that thrilling discordance that's afforded aespa this level of success so early into their careers. "Get me get me now," they chant on the chorus. You know that's a challenge, right?
2. "0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)" by Tomorrow X Together
When you're young, life feels overwhelming all of the time. Where else is there to turn while processing those big feelings and messy emotions than music? No group captures the moody tumult of adolescence quite like Tomorrow X Together. They are boys, interrupted, and this year they channeled their teen angst and boyish rebellion into a slew of singles — but "0X1=LOVESONG" stands atop the rubble of their youth as a beacon of real catharsis. The song, which features up-and-coming singer-songwriter Seori, is overflowing with anthemic melodies, bellowing chants and heavy drums. "I know it's real, I can feel it," Taehyun screams at the top of his lungs — searching for release from his endless ennui.
"Hello Future" by NCT Dream
In a year defined by more fear and entropy, NCT Dream's "Hello Future" seems like a tie-dyed fever dream. It's disorienting, like most NCT releases are, with its industrial instrumental and gurgling synths. Relief comes in the form of a truly euphoric climb to a hook so bright and so heightened it will make you forget — momentarily — about your worries and instead escape into an alternate reality where you don't have any worries at all. "I've been waiting for you, welcome," they sing in unison. "Wherever it may be, we're coming together/ Don't worry about anything/ It'll be alright, hello future." Escapism is a luxury, and we cling to wherever we find it — be it through music, books or other art forms. It's not revisionist; we know the world is on fire. Yet, escapist media allows us to be slightly removed from it, to imagine a different ending. "It's not far, open your eyes," Renjun sings on the bridge. So open your eyes and let the unbridled hope of "Hello Future" carry you away. It's nice to be reminded that there is a future worth living.
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