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K-pop songs of the year

The best K-pop tracks of 2021

From aespa to ASTRO, Baekhyun to bugAboo, we look back on the K-pop tracks that ruled the year

TextTaylor GlasbyIllustrationMarija Marc

After a hellish 2020, we hoped for a return to a semblance of normality, and, as a K-pop fan, that meant live experiences. By late 2021, in-person fansigns had restarted, 2022 tours were booked and 200,000 lucky fans caught BTS at LA’s SoFi Stadium. It was a happy end to a year that’d begun with an ugly bang as bullying and sexual harrassment scandals engulfed South Korean athletes, actors, and pop idols.

A chain reaction set off by accusations of school bullying against twin volleyball players Lee Jae-yeong and Lee Da-yeong, online communities were soon flooded with similar accusations. Nearly two dozen claims occupied the spotlight for months with a range of outcomes, from apologies and lost careers to accusers admitting their stories were false, opening up public debate around both the deification of celebrities who are essentially strangers to us, but also the knee-jerk reaction of cancel culture.

Away from scandal, last year proved that even in the face of a pandemic, K-pop could not only survive but thrive. It came as no surprise, then, that some of 2021’s biggest announcements came via business deals: HYBE acquired Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings (home to Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber) for an eye-watering one billion US dollars, SM Entertainment and MGM Television are creating a survival show to extend their boy group project, NCT, and there was talk of South Korean entertainment behemoth CJ ENM partnering with HBO for another show, one to create a Latin-American boy group.

This company-led step up makes the past couple of years the most concerted, full-scale shift towards globalisation – outside of fandoms – K-pop has seen since the late 00s. Alongside it came a swathe of English-language releases; BTS released “Butter” and “Permission To Dance” to phenomenal success, Rosé chose English for her solo debut “On The Ground”, TWICE’s “The Feels” was the first English single of their career, MONSTA X released their second all-English album, and Chung Ha collaborated with Dutch DJ R3HAB for “Dream Of You”. (Note: As ever, Dazed’s end of year list is focused on Korean-language singles).

Next year, K-pop’s expansion – western or otherwise – won’t rest solely upon putting together foreign-sourced groups but in diversifying creatively and technologically. Four labels (YG, SM, HYBE, and JYP) have announced their intent to launch NFTs and/or cryptocurrencies. Boy group Treasure are currently starring in their own web-based drama show, BTS, TXT, Enhypen have comics and novels on the way, and SM Entertainment continues to build on aespa’s AI use and KWANGYA lore. We’re at a fascinating and important point in K-pop’s evolution but before looking forward, we must, of course, jump back into 40 killer K-pop tracks which owned 2021.


There’s been an uptick in girl groups embracing forceful, horror-lead concepts and PIXY (who only debuted in February) are poised to play a key part in K-pop’s gothic pantheon.


Everglow powers up an intensely layered instrumental with an impressive assuredness that delivers high octane pop drama to both ear and eye.

38. 3YE, “STALKER”

The trio don’t lack ambition on “Stalker”, as a beefy percussive pre-chorus build gives way to a driving, melodic chorus that’s locked and loaded for repeated plays. 

37. ASTRO, “ONE”

K-pop’s enduring love of Michael Jackson subtly underlines the eruptive chorus and choreography, but ASTRO captains “ONE”, their cool panache slicing through raucous synths.   


Lisa of BLACKPINK’s jaw-dropping style and charismatic stage presence is indelibly stamped on her debut solo single, whose playful switches in pace give her plenty to get her teeth into.


“Cinema” is a charming and enduring grower, marrying wistfully delicate vocals and an anchoring instrumental that gently pushes forward the song at every turn. 


Don’t let that saccharine hook and chorus fool you – “ASAP” has bite, particularly in its rap sections, as STAYC dream of a perfect relationship which is, ultimately, within themselves.


Idol groups turning to live instrumentation is always welcome and by doing so, Pentagon turns “Do Or Not” into a warm but bittersweet anthem with an anthemic kick.

32. ITZY, “LOCO”

ITZY’s hard-to-beat presence and performance prowess on the frenetic but melodic “Loco” demonstrates why this quintet is one of the shining lights of fourth generation K-pop.


Their first single in 20 months delivered summertime sweetness, elevated by Red Velvet’s extraordinary ability to hone a solid cut of synth pop into a bright gem with heart.


The powerhouse group changes gears into far slinkier territory without skimping on the charismatic emotiveness and storytelling they’ve become renowned for.

29. WONHO, “LOSE” 

Moody and sultry within its shell of nu-disco strings and with a pulsing bass that unfailingly pulls you into its groove, Wonho continues to flourish as an all-rounder soloist. 


One of K-pop’s most gifted singers goes for a smoky concept and minimalist instrumental, a canvas upon which he paints his iconic range and effortless dexterity. 


Portraying his struggle with anxiety, Kang plunges into a lurching instrumental where his clean vocal reigns triumphant amongst the warped screams and horrorshow brass.


There's a lot to unpack on one of SM's infamously complex productions but Winter’s opening line, the epic pre-chorus, and goosebump-inducing ad libs are a good place to start.


EXO’s trademark sublime harmonies return in this short but feel-good track which bubbles with exuberance and a thick, ushering bassline that sweeps you off your feet.


Thriving with beautifully rich vocals and contrasting textures – the urgency of the chorus and velvety verses – Nu’Est, now 10 years into their career, are still a force to be reckoned with.

23. HWA SA, “I’M A 빛”

Phonetic wordplay between 빛 (meaning ‘light’) and ‘bitch’. A taut breakdown featuring the gayageum. Hwasa’s unmistakable voice and confident insouciance. What else do you need?


Piano notes swiftly climb and fall, staccato lyrics jostle, and Taemin pushes his voice into his upper register on this unsettling track with its intimidatingly beautiful video.


Switching between sincere resignation and 90s teen humiliation, Sunmi’s twinkling synth number also features a zombie-packed video to complete a pop culture extravaganza.


With its shouty, chanted chorus, this was to many the Dreamies’ NCT-ification, shifting their bubblegum pop closer to the abrasiveness of sibling groups like NCT 127. But “Hot Sauce” is also a natural fit with the fabulous absurdism of (labelmates) EXO’s 2017 hits “Kokobop” and “Power”. The MV’s titular concept is exaggerated and the tweaked effects play a vital role (a refrain is given a garbled, computerised voice). The balance between man and machine, and humour and gravitas, is precarious, which only makes “Hot Sauce” more enjoyable in its risk-taking. NCT Dream play their vocal delivery straight but their physical performance with a knowing smirk never too far from the surface, playing on K-pop’s unmatched ability to combine the sublime with the outré, with a captivating result.


ENHYPEN’s complex storytelling is also one of K-pop’s more profound. Beneath the premise of dimension-hopping vampires, it's a tale of fame, desire, and personal growth. “Tamed-Dashed” offers the option of giving into all their new life tempts them with or running from it, the kicker being both paths risk landing them in the same place because fame and success are deceptive. So ENHYPEN chose neither, retreating into a summer of boyish energy, mirrored in the driving quickness of the song and the echoing lightness of the chorus that sounds part dream-like/part safe haven. It’s short lived, for yearning and a sense of loss emerges on the hook and lingers on the bridge, a stirring reminder that youth and innocence is fleeting and, in reality, we’re eventually unable to hide from hard life choices everyone has to face.   


Call it ‘girl crush’ or ‘brat-pop’, but this kind of delirious, chant-y sound has become a bit of a stalwart amongst K-pop’s fourth gen girl groups. Any trend makes it harder for a new group to stand out when numerous acts are dipping into the style, but with a legendary producer (Shinsadong Tiger) behind you, you’ve got a damn good chance at making a splash. TRI.BE’s (pronounced ‘try-be’) debut is all the more impressive considering the gloriously demanding show pony of an instrumental, laden with dozens of synth ad libs and a thumping, dancefloor-minded chorus. But, unfazed, the septet uses a well-rounded diversity in their vocal colour (and some power notes from Songsun) to clamber on top and stay put, spitting out the title refrain like a call to arms that cannot be ignored.

17. TXT, “0X1=LOVESONG (I KNOW I LOVE YOU feat. Seori)” 

The emo/pop-punk resurgence was the perfect duelling ground for the self-loathing and hope in “Lovesong”, on which TXT berate themselves as losers who’ve found atonement and self-acceptance through falling in love. Their situation, however, stays fraught and complicated. “Save me”, they beg, but where R&B vocalist Seori overlaps their voices, she, too, sings “I know I love you / Say you love me, say you love me”, as if for all TXT’s declarations, they’re struggling to actually speak it aloud to the one they adore. There’s an addictive melancholy pre-eminent in “Lovesong” that the mighty, anthemic chorus balances against, but as the song’s last hoarse line echoes through the emptiness, the flame of love sputtering bravely in near darkness is the image that sticks the longest.


80s synth nostalgia is still running hot with K-pop’s songwriters and producers but there remains more to give from its melodic heart. Particularly if, like “Love So Sweet”, there’s the inclination to create friction between its parts. This contrast has the vocals bouncing from coquettish on the verses to a punchier delivery on the pre-chorus, while most effectively playing out on the chorus itself: a quick hit of pop that falls into the track’s most intriguing element, a whistled refrain with a clacking beat, like the boots and gear of a hundred marching troops. The unexpectedness of this addition is the perfect foil for an impactful bridge (which main vocalist Bora helms with just the right dash of dramatic), but it’s the balanced game of sonic tennis throughout that keeps you coming back for more.


As an uplifting heart-warmer that evokes a frothy, rom-com third act – of running through the streets to the one who almost got away – there’s a deceptive lightweightness to the chorus of “Rock With You”. This is, of course, far from true. Seventeen’s north star has always been choruses with the sticking power of super glue: here, they’re just being very good at being very subtle. The vocals traverse gruff to an airy smoothness in an almost call-and-response style, which neatly burrows into the consciousness and stays there. The crunch of guitars hefts the track’s energetic drive, but when it brakes for a lovely, introspective bridge, it highlights how much Seventeen’s sound has followed their own personal maturation, shifting from the corybantic mayhem of their rookie years to something more considered, yet still irresistibly gratifying.


Whereas the influence of Michael Jackson on ASTRO’s “ONE” is subtle, “Black Mirror” openly fanboys, from the choreography and costuming to namechecking track titles. The homage, however, stops short of the music. There’s the slap of funk bass and washes of strings, elements that comprised the backbone of 1979’s Off The Wall, but ONEUS’s composers have recalibrated the analogue into a cool, impersonal sheen of digital production. It’s a canny twist; a thumping, computerised nu-disco backdrop for the song’s flesh and blood lament – the loss of human connection within the technological age. ONEUS implore that we rediscover ourselves, and love, in real life, and through infusing the super glossy production with an upbeat, irrepressible warmth, they close the song’s contextual circle by representing the exhilarating moments they want us to seek out. 


There’s always power in simplicity, and “Easy” finds it through a sultry funk bassline fitting snugly beneath vocals that skim between breathy tease and assertive determination. The overall mood, with its suits ‘n’ boots and sensual choreography, is one of seductiveness, but the truest execution of that concept lies in how unhurriedly this track moves. There’s no rush towards the chorus, which itself unfurls like a cat stretching in sunlight, nor does Exy’s rap – lengthened with well-placed vocal frys – break the atmosphere of languid sophistication. As a sub-unit of WJSN (Cosmic Girls), there are fitting flourishes of burbling synth that bring a cool, space-age touch of lounge to “Easy”, but WJSN The Black are a long way from the main group’s pastel-drenched singles yet have made an enviably seamless journey.


Stray Kids charge up their us-against-them narrative with traditional Korean instruments and modern effects, from car horns to warped snares and, effectively, press a giant detonator button. “Thunderous” and its vertiginous chorus drops make for a loud and oh-so brash piece of work but it’s as pleasingly and meticulously constructed as a fight scene. The verses’ rapid line trades land like stinging slaps and the punch-kick combination on the post-chorus snarl, where every syllable is accompanied by a smash of percussion, sends you reeling. Although this cinematic era of Stray Kids could solely rely on the heft of an explosive chorus, “Thunderous” is also pithily droll in its lyricism, making it a triple threat – big, clever, and unafraid to revel in both whilst jabbing a finger into your chest. 


K-pop is no stranger to setting a mood with the lugubrious brass of old cowboy Westerns, but on “Bugaboo”, the trumpets are flipped towards a tongue-in-cheek frivolity that re-colours the concept. The whips crack like punctuation marks, and Eunchae’s “alright, alright, alright” is (perhaps unintentionally) as close to an idol’s Matthew McConaughey impression as we’ll ever get. Without the clarity of production, which understands that less can be more, “Bugaboo” could have been disjointed and overblown. Instead, the atmospherics – like the flute on the second verse or the bridge’s doomy percussion – balance out the bubbly chorus, and the transitions in pacing are impressively clean. The deeper you dive into “Bugaboo” the more there is to find, so strap in.


If a family tree of K-pop songs existed, there’d be a winding line between “Vanilla” and Girls’ Generation’s 2012 gamechanger, “I Got A Boy”, on which the gear changes are so pronounced it pushes the song into other lanes entirely. Lightsum’s intro of military drums are the biggest clue that those sugary opening verses are a ruse: post-chorus #1, you’re flung into a fat, squawking EDM breakdown, followed by a rap verse that sneers more than you’d expect from a song about ice cream, then swerves back to a butter-wouldn’t-melt pre-chorus. Sure, it’s manic, but this noisy switch-up style is a key pillar of K-pop, a sound that didn’t bother ripping up the rulebook but wrote itself a new one. It’s not easy to embody successfully either, but Lightsum and “Vanilla” keep that classic flame well and truly lit. 


For all its candy coloured visuals and a deep, gently bouncing bassline (the perfect backdrop for TWICE’s vocal range), “Scientist” has a sharp eye for its intended target – the bumbling yet arrogant suitor who thinks they can calculate their way into the heart. The lyrics are zinging stings (“Rather than Mr. Know, all genius Einstein / More like a bulldozer curious Frankenstein / Charge forward, clumsy yet fascinating”) yet TWICE give the track an almost lullaby quality, breathy in places and sweet in others. This juxtaposition is at the heart of the song, where the subject is chastised but encouraged to do better. When it kicks up a gear on the post-bridge refrain and outro, “Scientist” rightly celebrates, not the invisible lover and a more successful attempt at romance but the members, who refuse to settle for something mediocre. 


Only Dreamcatcher could release a slice of dark rock-pop about obsessive love in the midst of summer, a time when most groups’ concepts involve dancing on a beach. “BEcause” takes an Addams Family-meets-Veruca Salt approach to its slightly unnerving subject matter, the combination creating fantastically unhinged lyrics – “It’s okay, even if you reject me / Another voice of mine will call you instead” – matched to a capricious instrumental. Their signature J-rock meets K-pop sound thunders on the pre-and-post choruses, but the best of the atmospherics and madness lie in the rap verse (drum & bass teamed with a carnival organ that wittily mirrors Psycho’s stabs of strings) and a delicate yet menacing bridge. As choices go, they’re bold, but Dreamcatcher’s gothic-on-steroids approach carries them with aplomb.


MONSTA X’s forte is in lending flamboyant concepts gravitas, without stripping the spectacle of pomp; “Gambler” is no different in its ambitions but, in the hands of rapper Joohoney (who wrote and produced it) the execution makes this a new kind of beast in their discography. There’s an inviting loucheness draped across much of it, and an effortless confidence that sees even the chorus downplayed – the honking electronic brass is deep and muted, the bass slinky and throbbing – but it’s with reason. “Gambler”, if you like, is indeed a game and the prize is a finale of aural pyrotechnics. Guitar riffs barrel in off the bridge, strutting and preening over the synths, a car screech-effect squeals beneath an ad lib, and Minhyuk, Joohoney, and Kihyun belt through their lines to create a level of high drama few pop groups can match.


Led by solid funk and disco influences, “Zombie” utilises an isolated electric guitar riff as a punchy transition, airy strings on the chorus, and plenty of bass to keep it at a pacey clip. On paper, it’s straightforward but this is merely a reliable base camp from which to scale to greater heights. Its secret weapon is two-fold – run riot with a visual mash-up of concepts (horror, girl crush, cute) and unleash Purple Kiss vocally. Yuki’s snappy raps give the track a sharp edge, the truncated title refrain is an earworm, and Na Goeun’s power note soars off the bridge, but it’s the unexpected – the scream, lip trill, and yelps, the chants pushed low in the mix – which, although as song elements are small, allow the group to infuse “Zombie” with a hugely enjoyable sense of identity.


Few singles this year have been as pointedly bewitching as the slither of Woodz’ “Feel Like”, on which he is a man ensnared by lust. His opening verse is coy and teasing but the reverberating, pulsing bass is the raw portrayal of that desire. A fusion of pop, rock, and R&B, the instrumental takes on the role of an inner voice, and nowhere is this more apparent than the chorus, where Woodz stretches his falsetto over a taut, skin-tingling guitar riff. There’s a strange brutality to “Feels Like”; he knows he’s trapped between pain and pleasure (“Yeah, I'm addicted to you...The poison love that tightens me”, he sings), but while Woodz – the singer – never loses his cool, that second voice – the guitar – yowls like a caged wild animal, taking this song to places K-pop doesn’t often venture.


At face value, “Atlantis” is an intimidating premise with a near-total onus on the group’s vocal prowess to succeed; the first verse comprising only of a compact bass guitar line, leaving Taemin and Key to create the melody and tension. It’s akin to taking a deep breath before plunging into water, and, true to its submerged namesake, the verses and pre-chorus surge like waves before tumbling into a synth and string-soaked chorus, undulating beneath the band’s unmistakeable harmonies and ecstatic, show-stealing ad libs. After 13 years as an idol group, what SHINee doesn't know about the skill of showmanship probably isn’t worth knowing, and it’s how they transform “Atlantis” – which would sound overwrought in anyone else’s discography – into a dazzling two minutes and 58 seconds of charismatic drama, power, and damn good fun.


Brave Girls debuted in 2011, had a complete lineup change in 2016, and were on the verge of disbandment in 2021. Thanks to a video compilation of their 2017 track, “Rollin’”, going viral in South Korea in February, thus was born the resurgence of the year. Even more gratifyingly, “After We Ride” was no quick cash-in (a “Rollin’” part II, if you like) but a sparklingly and considered approach to 80s pop, with lush production (fall instantly for its “ooh-ooh-drive” refrain, rock guitars, and cascades of electronic drums) and graceful melodies. These alone would have made “After We Ride” a stand-out but in capturing a chest-emptying sadness in its lyrics and transposing it onto the most bittersweet of vocals, it elevates the song’s nostalgic core into the essence of a timeless break-up anthem.  


With a song as fiercely dramatic as his stage presence, Key is utterly compelling on his second solo record. Retro is his natural stomping ground and “Bad Love” embraces its 80s roots (namely Laura Branigan’s classic, “Self Control”) using cool, aloof synth before mainlining glorious excess on the chorus – hissing EDM risers, layers of Key’s backing vocals, and a thunderous roll of drums, thick with a gated reverb effect. It’s a commanding instrumental, but Key’s voice is the biggest starburst here, whether on the tricky second verse – stepping notes up and down on each syllable – or the wild ad-libs or the way he belts through the pain of heartbreak, pushing back the darkness yet not quite close enough to the light that might heal him. This is his tour de force, and it’s magnificent.


The space carved between the video’s gritty dystopian city (complete with hordes of militia and surveillance machines) and the song’s funk-influenced dance-pop is home to a message that strikes a chord: be yourself and love yourself in a world that keeps trying to make you in its own image. Reveling in the emotive and rebellious power of that declaration, the song builds around the heart-thumping thrill of the chanted “Brrram bbabam” refrain, but this is just one exultant moment in a track brimming with unbridled joy. Almost everything – from the string runs to guitar riffs to the Tarzan-cry ad libs – rockets “Beautiful Beautiful” ever upwards, and just when you think there’s nowhere possibly left to go, it resets itself for a triumphant outro with the jaw-drop of an acapella barbershop vocal. It’s audacious, and spectacularly so. A flawless and life-affirming shout from the rooftops.