It’s always a good year for K-pop if you know where to look. In 2021, we went to the “Next Level” with Aespa, got “Real” with ATEEZ, and caught “The Feels” with Twice. From noisy boy-group bangers to soft K-drama soundtracks, there was something for everyone. And looking back, it’s impossible to state which songs were objectively the best—as the K-pop industry continues to grow, there’s more than enough variety to cater to every individual taste. That’s why this year, I’ve decided to get personal. Here are my 10 favorite K-pop songs of 2021, from the soloists, duos, and groups that got me through a year of long pandemic walks and even a misguided at-home dance practice.
10. Lee Hi Featuring B.I., “Savior”
What a year for K-pop’s tiniest singer-songwriter with a very big voice. Lee Hi dropped the smooth, R&B-influenced 4 Only in September, earning herself an immediate, unwavering spot on this list (and in my headphones). The only question was how to choose just one song. Despite my four-month love affair with old-school bop “Red Lipstick,” I landed on the more profound and soulful “Savior.” The track is lovely, the music video is a stunner, and it’s a thrill to see Lee Hi and rapper B.I. working together once again after their respective departures from YG Entertainment. Years after their first collab on “No One,” the friends are both thriving under new management and churning out hits. In addition to “Savior,” Lee Hi also featured on “Daydream” from B.I.’s debut solo album, Waterfall, another highlight of the 2021 K-pop slate. Redemption stories rarely sound so sweet.
9. Seventeen, “Anyone”
This year, K-pop’s most charming theater kids somehow got more popular, more talented, and objectively a lot hotter—already a high bar to begin with, but one they easily cleared with new albums Your Choice and Attacca. (Not to mention their many solo releases; brief round of applause for her majesty “Spider.”) But my favorite of Seventeen’s 2021 songs was the B-Side “Anyone,” which earned the illustrious honor of the no. 1 spot on my personal Spotify Wrapped—and therefore making it a lock for Seventeen’s installment on this list. Not only did I stream “Anyone” to death, but I also watched Seventeen’s many performances on loop, always in awe of how well the 13-member group manages to highlight each individual singer, dancer, and rapper. That said, the MVP of “Anyone” might just be sharp-faced, soft-voiced Vernon, whose baritone and fan-favorite choreo at 2:27 was deservedly worshipped all over social media.
8. AKMU Featuring Sam Kim, “EVEREST”
We’ve reached the section on the list reserved for Kate’s Sad Quarantine Walking Soundtrack. In 2021, this esteemed, gloomy distinction goes to brother-sister duo AKMU’s collab album Next Episode, which featured an admirable lineup of K-pop easy-listening royalty. And while lead single “NAKKA” with IU was the primary crowd pleaser, my top spot ultimately goes to “Everest,” featuring K-drama crooner Sam Kim. Kim and AKMU’s Lee Suhyun are accompanied by minimal guitar on the slow-paced track, which builds gradually to a flawless, belted bridge by two of the world’s warmest voices. If you have a slow trudge around your neighborhood coming up, there’s no better song. You may even work your way up to a slow jog by the time it’s through.
7. TXT Featuring Seori, “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)”
From Machine Gun Kelly to WILLOW, there was no escaping the pop-punk resurgence in 2021, and the K-pop industry was no exception. HYBE boy group TXT served as the perfect rebellious vehicle, as they spent 2021 transitioning from their previous sugary sound to a more mature, mutinous series of singles. Most recently, they made waves with Hot Topic anthem “LO$ER=LO♡ER” (they cuss now!) but their best track of the year was “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You),” featuring up-and-coming soloist Seori. TXT is well-suited to the pop-punk sound for numerous reasons, primary among them the pipes and presence of gravely belter Taehyun. But the boys of TXT are also fitting representatives of young rebellion because they debuted with something to prove: that they could stand alone without constant comparison to any of their predecessors. And if past hits hadn’t earned them a spotlight already, “Lovesong” cemented TXT’s status as rockstars all their own.
6. Taemin, “Advice”
“I’ve written enough about Taemin,” I told myself, furiously swapping different groups into the last empty spot on my list. “Everyone already knows how I feel about ‘Advice,’ I called it a Haunted Girl Summer Anthem on every available platform. I should really give this spot to Enhypen or Aespa.”
[Record scratch; freeze frame.] I bet you’re wondering how we ended up here. Well, I am who I am (a loud and annoying SHINee fan), and Taemin is who Taemin is, K-pop’s most thrilling and ostentatious performer. There’s no one like him, and thank god he gave us this last absurd gift of a song before temporarily putting his career on hold for mandatory military enlistment. “Advice” (or “Beethoven’s 69th,” as I previously dubbed it) gives us Taemin at peak creature of the night. He pounds on a piano in full body paint, gyrates around in a slim checkerboard suit, and, most memorably, smashes through the final chorus in a cropped Supreme sweatsuit that may be the K-pop fit of the year. (2:32. Just trust me.) And this is all beyond the song itself—Taemin’s reputation as the industry’s best dancer is essentially set in stone, but his vocals and production have rarely been more reckless and riveting than on “Advice.” Apologies to Enhypen and Aespa, but I did not take my own advice.
5. Epik High Featuring CL, Zico, “Rosario”
“There are debates online as to whether Epik High is K-pop or not. … We don’t mind what we get classified as,” Epik High’s Tablo told Time in 2019. Hallelujah for that, because it would have cut me to my core to leave Epik High’s fiery “Rosario” off this list due to a pesky pop/hip-hop technicality. The long-time industry icons joined forces with idol rapper greats CL and Zico on their bold, Latin-influenced track, resulting in a ridiculous melange of K-pop prestige—not to mention an elite banger. “I am a legend and I’m here to stay,” former 2NE1 frontwoman CL sings, describing not only her own flourishing solo career but that of everyone else on the song. Zico takes no prisoners either (when does he ever?) and ultimately “Rosario” serves as a staggering display of confidence and self-satisfaction from a group of artists who have been there, done that, and are very much still doing it.
4. CIX, “Cinema”
Ask my wide array of K-pop-focused group chats what new song they’ve had on repeat most this year, and the answer will likely be “Cinema” by criminally underrated boy group CIX. After debuting in 2019 with steamy sensation “Movie Star,” CIX settled into a dramatic, distinctive sound—until 2021, when they broke out the perms and pastels for singles “Cinema” and “Wave.” The latter was a standout in its own right (along with the accompanying album), but my heart belongs to the infectious, undeniable cheer of “Cinema.” As a fan of CIX’s earlier discography, I was initially apprehensive about their new vibe (overalls? Must we?) but as soon as Bae Jinyoung oooooooh’d his way into that buoyant first chorus, I was in, knee socks and all. Say what you will about the many talented fourth-generation boy groups, but no one nails a chorus like CIX. And please, let’s spare some love for rapper BX, who left his comfort zone far behind on this track as he donned a plaid bucket hat and temporarily switched to singing. Now that’s poetic cinema.
3. Sunmi, “Tail”
For the uninitiated, an important thing to know about K-pop veteran, Wonder Girl turned soloist, and love of my life Sunmi is that she has never half-assed a music video in her entire life. In “Tail,” her first single of the year and one of the best of her career, Sunmi went full Halle Berry with an overabundance of latex, acrylics, and murderous intent. Add to that some sultry, cheeky dance pop and deliciously inspired cat-tail choreography (I recommend the dance break at 2:23) and you’ve got yet another Sunmi classic for the history books. And speaking of overcommitted music videos, Sunmi’s only competition for this particular spot on the list was herself—later in the year, she pivoted from Catwoman to Buffy for the upbeat, retro “You Can’t Sit With Us.” She fought zombies, defended the world’s last video rental store, and proved that all music videos should have at least one fight scene. Also a man should probably die. Two-for-two, no notes.
2. Weeekly, “After School”
As K-pop girl groups go, I tend to prefer the edgier fare of acts like Everglow, Mamamoo, and Blackpink. So if you had told me in March that a twee little tune by rookie girl group Weeekly would beat all of the aforementioned groups to become my second-favorite song of the year … well, I’d probably blame TikTok. First, my algorithm started slowly feeding me guilty-pleasure content—videos of people at the gym or at work listening secretly to “After School” for a quick shot of serotonin during a long day. Then came the choreography videos, and sitting home alone in early 2021 quarantine, I watched people all over the world hop around to that sugar-sweet chorus and thought to myself, “These moves look easy enough. I can do this.”
I could not. Choreo mishaps aside, that “After School” hook has not left my head for nine months straight, and at this point I couldn’t be happier. Cutesy K-pop doesn’t get better than this.
1. Key, “Bad Love”
Has anyone had a better 2021 than the flashy, ever-entertaining Key? First, SHINee’s sassiest singer joined his group for their long-awaited comeback in February with “Don’t Call Me” and “Atlantis,” and he followed that with a year full of scene-stealing appearances on Korean variety show Amazing Saturday. But the highlight of Key’s 2021 came in September, when he released his retro-themed solo album Bad Love. Sure, maybe 2020 was the year of throwback, ’80s-inspired K-pop songs, but Key was in the military then, so he gets to have his vintage moment now. And what a moment it is! The blingy, bedazzled music video, an apparent nod to (and improvement on) 2019’s Joker, sees Key whirling his way through a chaotic talk show appearance and old-school movie sets. Jam-packed video aside, the real highlight of “Bad Love” is the funky choreography and that soaring, synth-heavy chorus. It’s hard to remember, as he belts his way through the outro at 2:53, that Key isn’t technically the main vocalist or the main dancer of SHINee—a real testament to the group’s depth. But Key can do it all, and he’s always flourished on his own terms, whether in 2018 with “One of Those Nights,” 2019 with “I Wanna Be,” and now with “Bad Love.” Key picked up his career in 2021 like he never left, and he’s thriving now more than ever. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does in 2022.