the best of kpop 2021 so far

We are at the middle mark of 2021! Crazy how time flew by.

With that comes a new list, one that I have been meaning to do ever since the year started. I’ll be listing out fifteen of Korean pop music’s best efforts for the year, and this time, I won’t be putting them in any order. It is merely just a list of the best tracks that have made their way into our earlobes for the year… so far.

And what a half-year it has been! From the likes of BTS buttering up our eardrums to STAYC catching up to us ASAP, the outlook of the genre’s music is fantastic for the remainder of the year. Without further ado, let’s get to the list of 2021’s best Korean pop efforts, with the hope that you might agree (or disagree) with what I’ve got here…

화(火花) by (여자)아이들

from the mini-album “I burn”
Released: 2021/01/11

To kick off, let’s start this list with one of the first stellar hits from 2021’s K-pop offerings: “HWAA“, which is, by far, the group’s best effort. With a hypnotic and haunting instrumental built from the influences of world music, swift raps from K-pop prodigy Soyeon, and the amazing, unique vocal deliveries of each vocalist, “HWAA” will have you screaming fire with them.

You can check out my brief review of the song here, along with the other tracks on the accompanying mini-album. ⬛

Dun Dun Dance by 오마이걸 (OH MY GIRL)

Dun Dun Dance by OH MY GIRL
from the mini-album “Dear OHMYGIRL”
Released: 2021/05/10

One of the hotly-anticipated releases came from the WM Entertainment girl group OH MY GIRL, who demolished K-pop with the ever-so-catchy “Nonstop”. In the first half of 2021, the seven-member girl group opts to go for a ‘Say So’-tinged disco-pop track rather than follow the ongoing trend of tropical house… and boy, does it work. “Dun Dun Dance” is a fun fun dance song that exudes so much joy at its 3:40 runtime that it feels like it’s been going on for forever. With its sweet, summery charm, “Dun Dun Dance” is guaranteed to have you feel so haiiiigh~

To make things sweeter, the entire mini-album is a fresh, put-on-repeat experience that I cannot recommend enough. I’ll review it… someday. ⬛

On The Ground by 로제 (ROSÉ)

On The Ground by ROSÉ
from the single “R”
Released: 2021/03/12

If Taylor Swift somehow made her way into the Korean pop scene, it would definitely sound along the likes of ROSÉ’s “On The Ground“; that’s not a jab at how the song sounds – in fact, it is probably why I like it so much. It feels separate from the girl-crush aesthetic of ROSÉ’s group, BLACKPINK, and what separates her solo effort from JENNIE’s is that it feels… grounded (pun intended). Perhaps everything I need is on the ground, if the ground was covered in the guitar-pop-and-synth edge this song has. ⬛

After School by Weeekly (위클리)

After School by Weeekly
from the mini-album “We play”
Released: 2021/03/17

Perhaps what surprised me from releases of the year is how invested I suddenly became in Play M’s Weeekly, and it is all thanks to “After School“. I only wish we were talking about the mourned second-generation Korean pop group, but this is, rather, a song by a youthful seven-member group that will have you singing that cool, winging that cool. As cringey as that sounds, there’s just something so charming about this song and its lyricism towards extracurricular activities… maybe it’s the 90s vibe? Maybe it’s the nostalgia for me? Maybe. I just know I’m on the Weeekly train now. ⬛

Butter by 방탄소년단

Butter by BTS
from the single “Butter”
Released: 2021/05/21

I was infamously a BTS hater (at least, infamously to my circle of K-pop-loving friends), but I’ve grown up. I’m not going to deny that I do enjoy myself a piece of the chicken nugget that is HYBE’s immensely popular seven-member boy band (have you tried them sauces yet, lol). I’m also not going to deny that I really like “Butter“, a Michael Jackson-, Usher-inspired ditty that still feels Korean pop, feels fresh, and is easily spreadable (I hope your mind is not in the gutter). I’m just glad they didn’t opt for margarine on this funky track. ⬛

Drunk-Dazed by ENHYPEN

Drunk-Dazed by ENHYPEN
from the mini-album “BORDER : CARNIVAL”
Released: 2021/04/26

Speaking of HYBE… let’s talk “Drunk-Dazed“, the comeback release from I-LAND-formed ENHYPEN. I like drinking; it’s fun. Do I like getting drunk? No, but it’s still fun. Do I like getting dazed? No, but I imagine it’s still pretty fun. Do I like getting drunk-dazed? Thanks to ENHYPEN, hell yeah. That said, ENHYPEN loves their horror concepts, and the roughness in the sound of their comeback title track really gives the concept some oomph. If I wasn’t already a stan from “Given-Taken”, then consider me there with this haunting dance bop.

Oh, and in case you missed it, I reviewed this track and its mini album here! ⬛

WE GO by 프로미스나인

WE GO by fromis_9
from the single “9 WAY TICKET”
Released: 2021/05/17

Wiggle your way out of this one… but fromis_9 just keep getting better with every new song. “WE GO“, being the latest, is a prime example because, simply put, it is their best title track. Everywhere, there’s a hook. There’s a hook here, there’s a hook there. “WE GO” has a hook (if only Derrick Berry had a hem…). Jokes aside, fromis_9 proves that a catchy, sunny summer, including travel opportunities, are on its way, not hindered by the woes of last year. ⬛

ASAP by STAYC (스테이씨)

from the single “STAYDOM”
Released: 2021/04/08

STAYC, girls, is it going down? As soon as possible!

Perhaps the most surprising to show up on this list since I’m still a “SO BAD” stan from top to bottom, there is just something so full of charm in “ASAP“, the very first comeback from the six-member girl group. Perhaps it’s that Tik-Tok-worthy dance of theirs, perhaps it’s that whistle melody that has you feeling hypnotized, perhaps it’s that entire hook that will have you feeling decalcomanie… whatever it is, I think it’s ‘really cool’. ⬛

I’m Not Cool by 현아

I’m Not Cool by HyunA
from the mini-album “I’m Not Cool”
Released: 2021/01/28

Miss HyunA is BACK… she’s BAAAACK!

After taking some time away from the spotlight, HyunA’s made her long-awaited return in 2021 with “I’m Not Cool“, a Middle Eastern-inspired dance/hip-hop track, snake charming from top to bottom, that will have you feeling like salmosa, whatever the hell that means. Regardless, it’s the fact that HyunA no longer has to take herself seriously and that she simply just wants to have fun is what makes this K-pop track exactly the opposite of what it claims to be, and that’s being pretty cool. ⬛

Can We Talk Again by 퍼플키스

Can We Talk Again by PURPLE KISS
from the pre-debut single “Can We Talk Again”
Released: 2021/02/03

2021 is no stranger to hot debuts, including that of RBW’s PURPLE KISS, who also happen to be the sister group to the legends known as MAMAMOO. So, consider it absolutely no surprise that PURPLE KISS follow suit with anything vocally-powered, especially with pre-debut release “Can We Talk Again“, establishing every member’s vocal prowess on a mellowed-down R&B beat that hits with every pulse. Can we talk again? I doubt it. I’m pretty speechless with this. ⬛

그라타타 (GRATATA) by 핫이슈 (HOT ISSUE)

from the mini-album “ISSUE MAKER”
Released: 2021/04/28

Hello? HOT ISSUE? 4minute would like a word – and that word is “GRATATA“, a debut that manages to pull all the stops in everything that is girl-crush, and with so much ease, let me tell you. Having come out following an onslaught of girl-crush debuts that are far too many to list, HOT ISSUE’s debut has them all left for dead with its gun-shot references, vocal deliveries, and insanely catchy hip-hop/dance instrumental. There’s some high hopes for these famous snipers, and I cannot wait for the next issue to be hotter… ⬛

Bicycle by 청하

Bicycle by CHUNG HA
from the album “Querencia”
Released: 2021/02/15

While we were out of luck for an I.O.I reunion release prior to this, we were never out of any content from the I.O.I members, and CHUNG HA was no exception. Now, get out of her way-ah, because “Bicycle” is going broom broom broom into your area with its incredibly hard dance sound, and before you know it, it’s freaking over. Unique amongst all the other vogue-like tracks in her discography, “Bicycle” will have you shelling out some money for your own so that, you too, can ride it to this track from her very first album, which also contains some of her best work. ⬛

libidO by OnlyOneOf (온리원오브)

libidO by OnlyOneOf
from the mini-album “Instinct Part. 1”
Released: 2021/04/08

I’m gay.

Maybe even gayer now that I was exposed to “libidO“, the extremely sensual synth track from 8D Creative’s seven-member boy band. For that, I have to say… thank you 8D Creative, and thank you OnlyOneOf. ⬛

Celebrity by 아이유

Celebrity by IU
from the single “Celebrity”
Released: 2021/01/27

If you had to be the song to war with a now-popular track that came back after 4 long years, and still manage to be immensely popular, then you deserve to be on any half-year (hell, even year-end) list. I could say more about that, but it would involve me delving into another song that I love and frankly, the catchiest IU pop song, “Celebrity“, doesn’t deserve that. No, “Celebrity” deserves every bit of attention it asks for – it is crafted with typical pop elements, but altogether, it shines like its namesake, cementing IU as the K-pop singer-songwriter we deserve. ⬛

Beautiful Beautiful by 온앤오프 (ONF)

Beautiful Beautiful by ONF
from the album “ONF: MY NAME”
Released: 2021/02/24

I saved this one for last – it’s my favorite K-pop release of the year so far, and frankly, it deserves all the attention it is going to get.

ONF, the brother group of OH MY GIRL, singlehandedly destroyed every release on this list with a a synthy hard-hitter in the form of “Beautiful Beautiful“, which takes on elements of all their previous releases, merging all of them together with a rum pum pum that will give the little drummer boy a run for his money. ONF came back with a vengeance following Road to Kingdom just a year ago, and the momentum is still going. It’s beautiful. ⬛

And there you have it! Those are the fifteen Korean pop tracks that got me through the first half of 2021. Now, I’m curious to hear about yours! What were your fifteen (or less) favorites of the first part of the year?

Let me say, if we match, you have amazing taste.

Now, stay safe, folks, and let’s hope for an even better second half!

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