the k-pop top 40 of 2021

There’s a video shared in this delightful Discord server that inspired me in finalizing this list. I do believe this has always been how I sort my picks, but some points raised on that online rant (the disclaimer says so) kinda corroborated with the choices I made this year (and over the previous installments of this post, I guess).   

In that video, OP talked about how some of the recent comebacks in 2021 have sparked discussions among fans – ranging from how “disappointing” they were to how a specific release marked a group’s “last great era”.

What piqued my interest though is the focus on the “bigger” groups. To me, it seemed like this wave of “disappointment” came from people who simped a specific group from a more prominent agency. It’s just an assumption though, but that’s what I got from it tbh.

It’s alright to feel unsatisfied at times or even provide constructive criticism at something you follow closely. You’re not bound to like everything that you hear or see, and you have all the right in the world to express it.

It is also not wrong to be a loyal fan. Hell, I’m still a SONE…and an OT9 at that! I can’t possibly lift my own chair and invalidate the thoughts of some just to prove a point because I’m no different.

However, if I can shoot that one advice (unsolicited yes, and also…get it?), I’d say cast your net wider. This industry has been saturated as hell ever since the 2nd generation so maybe the best time to explore is now? It’s not dropping your ult (you call them as such for a reason), just think of it as an interesting detour. This might not apply for casual fans but for those who have sunk deep into the blackhole that is K-Pop, it will probably be of great help.

Make that saturation work for you! The shelf life of a K-Pop group is always unpredictable, so why not check out that $2 MV of a nugu group and later, discover an arsenal of bops in their first (or only) single album. It kind of worked for me for the last 12 years, so I guess it’s worth a shot. That mantra led me to some of my all time favorites like 9Muses, Snuper, Stellar, to name a few.

Ok, let’s proceed because I’m making it sound larger than life (partly true for me). Here are some of my favorites this year that you might wanna check out:

NOTE: Most of these are title tracks or those that got such treatment (just to follow the Top 40 theme I committed to lol).

Bubbling Under

40. Rub-a-Dum | – A lot of girl groups with the (I hate this word) “girl crush” concept this year gravitated towards some worldbeat for inspiration. Some of them turned out to be…meh. At least make it interesting – like this one.
More Would You Run?

39. I Cook | Heygirls – A smaller group taking over the sound left behind by some prominent group and then turning it into a chant to hypnotize and manipulate oppa? To quote Lee Hyori: “Heygirls, u go girls!”

38. O.O.O (Over&Over&Over) | Girls Planet 999 – This is how you rebrand the totally fair and just Produce series. Make the signature song sound a little different so that people will think it’s not gonna be the same pag all over again!
More GP999:  Shoot! (Pop!Corn)

37. Weekend | Taeyeon – A disco pop ditty about self-care is probably what we need in these dire times, so although Weekend may feel oddly familiar at some points, it deserves a pass. Also, this just diversifies Taeyeon’s catalogue even further so I guess she still wins.
More Girls’ Generation: Second (HYO), Melody (Oh!GG)

36. Advice | Taemin – This is just another chalk down in the list of Taemin perfecting his overall sound and vibe. Nobody in the game can serve what he does, and Advice just proves it.
More SHINee: Don’t Call Me, Atlantis, Bad Love (Key)

35. All In | DKB – The best thing about Brave Bros’ resurgence this year is that people will be reminded of his best trick – recycling his own songs! All In is basically two older BB songs combined and yet…it’s still a serve!
More DKB: Rollercoaster

34. My Treasure | Treasure – It’s nice to see anyone from YG try something new, period. This was a pleasant surprise in so many ways and here’s hoping this variety trickles down to their other acts. *coughs*you fill in the blank here*coughs*

33. Drink It | The Boyz – Of all the things that TBZ released this year, it’s this straightforward, vampiric side hustle (aka Universe release) that really stood out. This could’ve been an incredible Halloween comeback!
More TBZ : Thrill Ride, Maverick, Candles

32. D-D-DANCE | IZ*ONE – An amazing way to introduce the group’s musical trajectory if they kept the show going. A little more mature, but still IZ*ONE to the core. Truly one of the best modern K-Pop groups!

31. Door | Kwon Eun Bi – Speaking of IZ*ONE, former members have also started pursuing their individual careers. One of them being Eunbi, who is serving some slinky jazz-pop in this track. A good start, but it’s clear they’re still figuring out where she rests well as a solo act.

The Top 30

30. Glassy | Jo Yuri – Another IZ*ONE member who’s still trying to figure out her path post-group is Yuri. This whimsical bop paired with her charismatic performance may be an indication of what she can explore.

29. Alcohol-Free | Twice – A Twice single that does not divide the house is a Twice single lacking impact! (think Signal, Fancy). Regardless of what has been said and done, this is still one of the best summer singles out there as it serves you camp, luau, garlands, flower crowns, piñatas, family-friendly party ideas and drinks…amongst other things. Stay pressed!
More Twice: Scientist

28. Chi Mat Ba Ram | Brave Girls – More than anything, Chi Mat Ba Ram serves as a victory lap for a group who just had the best plot twist of their lives. The song is really nothing special on paper, but just like their determination and charm, it sure is infectious.
More Brave Girls: After We Ride

27. We Go | fromis_9 – I always thought this sound fits fromis_9 like a glove as evidenced  by last year’s Feel Good, so it’s nice to see them stick with this cute, summery style. Yay for consistency!
More fromis_9: Talk and Talk

26. Good Vibes Only | Girlkind – Definitely one of the most underrated yet the best, summer offerings out there. A song called “Good Vibes Only” carries a lot of expectations and the girls did not disappoint at all. Of course, did we expect less from the makers of Rollin’?

25. Summer or Summer | Hyolyn & Dasom – Leave it to the original summer queens to cover all bases when it comes to a perfect K-Pop summer bop. This is a Sistar Summer Special in every way, and it’s just half of them delivering the goods! What more if Bora and Soyou joined in?
More Sistar: A-Ha (Hyolyn)

24. LO$ER=LO♡ER | Tomorrow x Together – This takes me back to singing along to Simple Plan’s Untitled after getting a scolding for going home late…and that’s good enough for me! But what makes this really work is how they sell the angsty, restless vibe of the song with all their strength. From the way the thrash around, to how they’re dressed, and how they perform – it’s so captivating that it becomes…too real. Just amazing.
More TXT: 0x1 = Lovesong (I Know I Love You)

23. Loved You | BAE173 – This Big Bang-inspired track is a great way for a group like BAE173 to take some space in this crowded arena of idol groups with concepts overlapping each other. And they’re going for the BB midtempos which are some of their best.

22. Hey kid, Close your eyes (featuring Lee Sun Hee) | Akdong Musician – A harrowing, melancholic song with a message so universal it can be contextualized to however it resonates with you. Special shoutout to featured guest Lee SunHee and those vocals that made this track’s spirit soar even further.
More AKMU: Nakka (featuring IU)

21. Ring Ring | Rocket Punch – While this concept feels a little too 2020 and late, there’s always room for newtro goodness in this house.

20. Tiki Taka | T-Ara – With the resurgence of older groups taking over 2021, things just elevated to the next level when T-Ara decided to join the group chat! And to bring with them two tracks that prove why they are a force to be reckoned with is the icing that completed this one heck of a hag cake! All Kill seems more familiar with those who followed them, but the edge of Tiki-Taka is its ability to blend in with the times.
More T-Ara: All Kill

19. Queendom | Red Velvet – It’s always been a question when it comes to Red Velvet as to what their next move will be – considering the extreme range of concepts they have served throughout their career. Well, Queendom really said let’s go for chic and feminine! A perfect, strategic move considering how 2020 was just the worst for them.
More Red Velvet: Hello (Joy), Like Water (Wendy)

18. Red Lipstick (ft. Yoonmirae) | Lee Hi – Sis is legit having her Kylie Minogue moment here and we love to see it! Throw in some Yoonmirae bars and we got ourselves a bop we hope she does more of.

17. libidO | OnlyOneOf – This song is best explained through a Dolly Parton soundbite: “Once you get past the shock [of the ridiculous way I looked], then you will see there are parts of me to be appreciated.” And by that, we mean this song which is a dark, pulsating jam about well…libido. It is what it is for the MV, just give libidO (the song) a shot.

16. Crazy Night | Dongkiz – What gg apologists should accept this year is this scalding tea: boy groups one upped them in so many ways! Take for example this Dongkiz track and how it is a reminder that K-Pop sounds at its absolute best when it bears a semblance of having fun. Let the new kids lighten up a bit, damn!   
More Dongkiz: Universe

15. Love So Sweet | Cherry Bullet – This group may seem to hop from one sound to another in the hopes of a hit but what makes it tolerable is that the output is never half-assed. Last year, we had the Beethoven-sampled Hands Up, and for this year, we get a little more recent with Love So Sweet. Versatile queens!

14. The Moment | Yukika and Pat Lok – It’s so nice to see our Soul Lady still booked and busy even after the many changes in her career. What will remain steadfast though is her advocacy to bring the citypop agenda to the forefront and for that, we are thankful. The Moment may sound like it swerved a little from her signature style but a few spins of it will tell you that it is the same Yukika Teramoto that we all adore.
More Yukika: Insomnia, Loving You

13. Zombie | Purple Kiss – Purple Kiss is probably one of the many groups in this generation that’s still trying to find their spot, but this track might just be the one they’re looking for. There’s a clear inspiration used here (just listen carefully) but it is saved from being a rip-off with the right dash of K-Pop charm and saccharine. I mean, zombie-bae-bae-bae?!
More Purple Kiss: PONZONA

12. Blind | Ciipher – Oh, to be blinded for so long from the existence of this song?! If I missed out on this, I’d be as mad at myself as last year when I forgot to add Dreamnote’s Wish to my list. Anyway, back to the amazing Ciipher…this delicious blend of deep house, pop-rock, and a little disco is a reminder of why I enjoy listening to K-pop in the first place: it’s euphoric!  
More Ciipher: I Like You

11. Unnatural | WJSN – Perhaps one of the most consistent groups in modern K-Pop, Unnatural signals a more mature approach to their sound but still ensuring that it remains on brand – cosmic, so to speak.
More WJSN: Easy (WJSN The Black)

10. Next Level | æspa – Thank heavens SM packaged æspa the way they are right now because without this outrageous (at times, silly lbr) concept they’re shoving down our throats, they’d be another one of those newbies out there. This is why Next Level feels more like of an actual debut because it perfectly captures the crazy insides of the universe being introduced to us (and how we’re all slowly getting swallowed into Kwangya like what Cell did to Android 17 lol omg).
More æspa: Forever, Savage, Dreams Come True

9. Luna | ONEUS – This style is nothing new to the group (see 2019’s Lit) but it’s nice to see them tap into it once again because it’s literally their edge against their contemporaries. Actually, we have their agency (RBW) to thank with their penchant of giving their tracks a little traditional flavor and I think that should be normalized among idol groups. It’s the perfect gateway for cultural exchange, how could you pass on that?!
More ONEUS: Black Mirror

8. Ugly Dance | ONF – Remember what I said earlier about boy groups winning this year? ONF is the one leading that pack with not one but four extremely impressive releases. It’s actually mind-boggling to pick which best represents their amazing run but we’ll give it to this one. Ugly Dance takes off from their first offering, the majestic Beautiful Beautiful, and runs off with it a little further.
More ONF: Beautiful Beautiful, Popping, Goosebumps

7. Like It Hot | GWSN – Last year’s Bazooka felt like the girls strolled to a totally different park but now they’re back to their lane with Like It Hot. What seals the deal with this song is that aside from the classic ethereal GWSN vibes in the verses, it descends into an incredibly funky trip when the chorus hits. It’s an experience.

6. Bewitched | PIXY – PIXY emerging as polished and distinct right off their debut is what a lot of groups would die for (and that includes the popular ones). The whole Temptation EP is just solid proof of the potential this group carries and I’m one of those who can’t wait to see more.
More PIXY: Wings, Addicted, Moonlight, Call Me

5. RING X RING | Billlie – Billlie emerging as polished and distinct right off their debut is what a lot of groups would die for (2). Seriously, them, PIXY, æspa, and Dreamcatcher (STAYC to an extent) are hard carrying this generation of K-Pop it’s ridiculous. A spin of their most recent EPs and you’ll get what I mean. It helps that Billlie are under the direction of some of the most prolific songwriters and composers in K-Pop – which resulted to the amazing and unsettling RING X RING.
More Billlie: snowy night

4. BEcause | Dreamcatcher – The way Dreamcatcher had me fooled with this one. For BEcause to be packaged as a summer single only to end up as one of their strongest tracks carrying their signature style is one of the smartest moves this year in K-Pop. Dreamcatcher has proven time and again that they are a master class in terms of sticking to and nurturing your strengths as a group.
More Dreamcatcher: Odd Eye

3. Feel Like | WOODZ – Woodz is one of the few idol male soloists out there so he’s someone I always root for. And boy, he does not disappoint. From last year’s Love Me Harder, he leads this soundscape to a more rugged dimension with the sensual Feel Like. That dirty guitar riff (mixed with a little inspiration from one of world’s naughtiest songs aka Fever) just won’t let up!
More WOODZ: Waiting

2. ASAP | STAYC – Leave it to Black Eyed Pilseung to come up with K-Pop that resonates with the oldies (eg. me) and the kids of today. ASAP is every bit of a song from this generation but it carries the nostalgia of beloved syndrome songs that dominated back in the day.
More STAYC: Stereotype

1. Tail | Sunmi – TLDR version, it’s nice to see something a little more “mature” from K-Pop this year!

But to get into the specifics, I love a K-Pop release with a fully realized concept. You can tell it from the details that went into this song.

First, that deliberate callback to what I would argue is Sunmi’s best song aka 24 Hours. If there’s a track from her catalogue that matches Tail really well, it’s that one. Second, the music video with Sunmi feeling a little bit yummier the way Michelle Pfeiffer did in Batman Returns just makes a lot of sense. Third, the song’s story translated wonderfully through the intricate choreography. Tail is a prime example of utilizing all the tools in the box at their most optimal in order to tell a story.

The only artist that I can think of who subscribes to this stylistic choice is Ga-In. While Tail is tamer (waaaay too tame) compared to any Ga-In release, it’s good to know that there’s still comebacks as rich and layered as this in K-Pop. And that is why Tail is this blog’s song of the year!

More Sunmi: You Can’t Sit With Us

Before we wrap up, let’s take time to recognize a song that really defined a huge part of K-Pop in 2021.

0. Rollin’ | Brave Girls – At this point, it’s stupid to deny the impact of this song to the K-Pop scene. It’s a reflection of the sad truth that there are a lot of groups out there who are struggling to get a fraction of spotlight – with some not even getting any at all.

It is a testament to how success in this industry is sometimes dependent on luck. I mean, these girls performed in military bases (dust and all) to no avail…until that video surfaced. Right before they were about to announce their disbandment. Imagine?

Most importantly, it’s a reminder that there are tons of hidden gems out there from groups you may have not heard of so just like what I said earlier, cast your net a little wider!

Here’s the full playlist for your listening pleasure:

What are your faves this year that may or may not have been on this list? Comment down below and let’s talk.  Until the next one!

Featured image: Screengrab from GWSN – Like It Hot MV

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