Lo and behold! We are here!
Let’s put it short and simple: this is MY list of the best Korean pop songs of the year. What a year, though! While we are still on uncertain times, 2021 proved to be a period of refresh, with South Korean acts pumping out comebacks that were unique and fresh, debuts coming in left and right (with many more to come in 2022), and BTS continuing to dominate the world as we know it.
We’re going to take a look back at the fifteen of the year’s efforts, and yes, they are ranked. So, without further ado…
Here is my list of the best K-pop songs from 2021!
Love So Sweet
from the mini-album “Cherry Rush”
Are you surprised to find this song on here? You should be, considering I haven’t made any mention of it on any of the prior lists, and my review for it just had it on 4.5 stars… but that’s the power of what a full year can do to you.
“Love So Sweet” is the redeeming track of the year, having been on the radar for a while, and bouts of listening to it here and there. Perhaps what’s drawn me so much more to it now is Bora, Jiwon, and May’s trials through Girls Planet 999, and it having been Cherry Bullet’s most recent comeback – and I think having heard its candy-coated, sugary sweet, but incredibly catchy, bubblegum-dance-pop tone more than once or twice has really made me think that love really is so sweet.
If you want something infectious for your ears, “Love So Sweet” is a good start. ⬛
After ‘We Ride’
aka: Sulbeoleut (Unjeonmanhae Geuhu)
from the repackage mini-album “After ‘We Ride'”
If I had this list include a 2017 track, I would, but that would just not be right… because “Rollin'” really deserves something. Yet, it’s not even just “Rollin'”… hell, it’s not even just “We Ride” that deserves any recognition. No, we really need to talk about “After ‘We Ride'” also.
“After ‘We Ride’” might be the best repackaged comeback of the year, having been released not even three months after the girls’ much-anticipated summer comeback, and it is probably the most bittersweet of the songs on this list – its lyrics hark back to “We Ride”, a touching but sad perspective of what’s happened to the girls thus far, and its heavy use of 80s city-pop to amplify “We Ride” and its more future funk jive adds to it in such a melancholy way.
There’s a sense of nostalgia and beauty here that I think needs to be heard to be believed. ⬛
from the mini-album “cignature 2nd EP Album ‘Dear Diary Moment'”
cignature virtually had no comebacks within the year, and things were starting to look a little dire… until November, when cignature, now with two new members following the leave of two founding members, announced they would return… and what a return!
You might think you’re getting into some usual K-pop territory with a title like “Boyfriend“, but you are sadly mistaken. Instead, we are treated to what almost feels like a Jack Antonoff-Taylor Swift tribute, a fresh sound that one hasn’t quite heard in K-pop for years, an ethereal instrumental that harks back to the 80s all while still feeling true to K-pop’s electronica sound. “Boyfriend” packs it all with punching lyrics and soothingly-delivered vocals.
It’s a shame how under the radar this is, but one can only hope that they continue this sound further on. ⬛
Dun Dun Dance
OH MY GIRL
from the mini-album “Dear OHMYGIRL”
How do you follow up one of the biggest hits of 2020 into the next year? “Dun Dun Dance” is the answer.
Hot off the heels of their breakthrough success with “Nonstop” and “Dolphin”, OH MY GIRL continued the streak of hits into 2021 with the springtime release of “Dun Dun Dance“, and there couldn’t have been a better track to really spring us into the summer. With its funky but sweet instrumental that has the influences of ‘Say So’ written all over it, “Dun Dun Dance” is a fun, grand time.
Even if its title is just a tad ridiculous, it is bound to get you to dun dun dance, even year-round. ⬛
from the single “ELEVEN”
There might have been a slight joke here in putting it at #11, but then I checked my preliminary rankings, and lo and behold… “ELEVEN”.
The term “monster rookies” doesn’t even scratch the surface for this debut track; IVE, Starship Entertainment’s newest girl group featuring two former IZ*ONE members Wonyoung and Yujin, declared that they have what it takes to become the next big stars with “ELEVEN“, an Arabian-tinged dance-pop track that, at first, will have you cringing, before you’re enveloped in its Ryan S. Jhun melody that will then have you going 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, making you feel like 11.
“ELEVEN” is the hot debut of the year, and frankly, if they were the reason IZ*ONE couldn’t extend their contracts further, I have no qualms. ⬛
from the single “Celebrity”
What a year for IU… she’s had so much releases in 2021 that it was hard to really keep track of what was the best from her catalog this year. That said, I gave it some thought and I immediately knew which I had to choose.
“Celebrity” is IU’s best track of the year, having set the mark of amazing songs right at the start of 2021, and it happens to also be one of the best K-pop tracks of the year; it’s gotta be the booming melody that complements IU’s soft vocal, complete with snaps, synths, distorted vocalizations, and twinkles that give it a sort of Western-pop feel. It’s fresh, crafty, and all around really delightful to listen to. IU really has a knack for writing songs that don’t feel harsh on the ears, all while still sounding catchy and worth the listen.
IU is most certainly THAT celebrity. ⬛
WOULD YOU RUN
aka Ujuru (WOULD YOU RUN)
from the mini-album “VENI VIDI VICI”
And the best play on words for 2021 goes to…
But no, seriously, what a great trick of the use of the Korean language, because this incredibly catchy banger (there’s gotta be one of them on the list) will most definitely make you run (the song on loop). “WOULD YOU RUN“, otherwise pronounced “Ujuru”, which means ‘to outer space‘, is TRI.BE’s last comeback of the year, and having debuted in February (on my birthday), they weren’t holding back. Produced by EXID’s LE with Shinsadong Tiger, “WOULD YOU RUN” is the hyperspace dance track of the year, filled with booming bass, 90s sampling, and a beat that’s familiar but oh-so-infectious.
Now, would you run to the moon for TRI.BE? Because I would. ⬛
from the mini-album “We play”
Weeekly was never on my radar, considering their prior releases have been, for the most part, subpar. However… after enough convincing by Twitter and by their many fans, who have propelled this to millions of views, Weeekly is now on a list of groups for anticipated comebacks.
But why, you ask? Well, it has to be because of “After School“, and no, it’s not the K-pop group that is still in disbandment limbo; no, “After School” is the third title track from the girls of Weeekly, who take a throwback-like melody and twists it around to give it that modern hip feel. There’s something so remarkable about its candy-coated, bubblegum hip-hop, almost-90s teen pop vibe, because, while it feels that way, it also never fully dwells on it. It still feels fresh despite being so nostalgic… and that chorus. What a chorus.
Catch me looping this after school, kids. ⬛
from the mini-album “TURN OVER”
Get ready to be sad… and be sexually aroused at the same time?
As I’ve mentioned before, SF9 has always been on my radar, what with that funky “Now or Never” being one of my favorite K-pop songs… but coming at a very close second is the melodrama that is “Tear Drop“, which has the men opting to go for a melancholy heartbreak route that isn’t very evident nowadays, and it is delivered without the need to over-exert any full emotion… instead, it’s surprisingly quiet, with the strange electro beat pulsing behind the vocals. It is sad, but it also feels so… enticing.
It could be the fu~ fu~ fu~, it could be its occasionally twinkly melody, but it’s definitely this for sure: SF9. ⬛
from the mini-album “I AM ME.”
If there had to be a comeback that I had been waiting for for so long, it would be from Weki Meki. I mean, how do you follow up the banger that was “COOL”? Is that the end? No, in complete contrast, that’s not the case… and what an unexpected play of events.
“Siesta” is that follow-up, and in fact, it completely tones down everything you felt and heard from “COOL”. Spanish for a nap, “Siesta” might seem typical of an upbeat fall track on the outside, but when you grasp the idea behind the song and the overall joyous house melody that ebbs and flows throughout, you get a full understanding of the song’s beauty.
If there was an award for the most wholesome, re-energizing, and joyful track of the year, “Siesta” would most definitely win. ⬛
from the single “Butter”
Color me surprised but… a BTS song made it into the list this year?!
That’s not to say I don’t like BTS’ songs, but I always find better songs; that’s not the case for “Butter“, which hit me like a brick of its namesake. There’s just really no denying the feel of funk music, and “Butter” doesn’t hold back when it utilizes that sort of genre and then mentions all the many influences of its genre (there really ain’t no Usher) into its lyrics like it wants to be meta.
I have to give it to BTS, they have smoothly buttered all of us in the West, and I don’t think we’ve spread it enough. ⬛
from the album “ONF: MY NAME”
The little drummer boy has nothing on this rum pum pum of a banger.
ONF really made quite the impression on me in recent times, having released fantastic tracks that, while all in the same sort of sound, feel fresh every single time. Yet, it’s the 2021 release of “Beautiful Beautiful” that really lived up to its name, and made me feel more complete than ever. It’s a synth track, filled to the brim with electronica, but contains enough power to feel anthemic and joyous all in one. It also contains rock elements that give the song a fantastic edge.
ONF have done the unthinkable: making a song so beautiful, it had to be said twice. ⬛
from the mini-album “BORDER : CARNIVAL”
The last of the boy-group tracks on my list, and the first of the top three, ENHYPEN made their mark a year prior with the horror-tinged style in “Given-Taken”, and while that might have been one of the best debuts to come out in recent years, it was their follow-up that put ENHYPEN into full perspective.
Following on the horror concept, “Drunk-Dazed” is a dark electronica track that pulses and vibrates with every beat, banging its bass in the room you’re situated in. Distorted vocals are abound, adding to the horror aspect. While this isn’t a concept that’s entirely new in K-pop (see Dreamcatcher), this is a track that feels unique all on its own; hypnotizing, alluring, but all the while, thrilling.
“Drunk-Dazed” might get you bloody drunk for more. ⬛
from the single “STAYDOM”
2021 was perhaps the year of things going viral, and I’ll never fail to mention “Rollin'” at any point here, but there’s also one OTHER song that found itself on that spectrum, and it happened to be a 4th generation girl group.
STAYC really said it’s going down, and they sure as hell did with that viral choreography from “ASAP“, a whistly, bubblegum-pop, hip-hop-tinged dance track that’s so breezy, that I think it’s really cool. This first comeback would eventually propel the girls further into the spotlight, and maybe it has something to do with how infectious “ASAP” is in parallel with its easy-to-follow choreography.
Whatever it may be, STAYC girls may want it to go down, but it’s only up from here, girls. ⬛
from the single “Next Level”
What did you really think was gonna be number one?
Not even making ANY of my prior lists (a true mistake on my part), “Next Level“, a cover of a soundtrack entry from Hobbs & Shaw (yes, that Fast & Furious movie), with some additional SM touches, is this year’s best track… for many good reasons.
The fact that it is the monster track that threw “Rollin'” off its tracks, to its incredibly fun dance, but it’s not even all that – it’s that this song is just the right fit for aespa’s “Black Mamba”-style, where every line bites with fire, adlibs are too hot too hot, and Naevis is calling… there’s so much to really enjoy about this song that doesn’t take itself all too seriously, all while seriously writing itself into aespa’s (and frankly, SM’s) KWANGYA lore.
2021 started K-pop off by rollin’ through, but it wasn’t until close to the halfway mark that we were taken to 2021’s next level. Now, watch me while I work it out. ⬛
And that is the top 15 of 2021’s Korean pop offerings!
2021 had a lot of really good choices; so much so, I am actually contemplating doing an honorable mention list so that some K-pop stans aren’t all totally left in the dust, but that might be coming sometime into the next year. I’m hoping that 2022’s roster is going to be just as stellar as this year’s, and considering everything that’s still going on with the world, we’re still getting fed some of the best K-pop tracks South Korea is crafting.
I’ll definitely be posting more reviews into the next year now that I have a lot more time to get to it, so anticipate a lot more K-pop reviews.
I hope you enjoyed this list, and the many others that have come this year. If you want to share your top 15, please share below. Otherwise, have a great end of the year, and stay safe!