The 40 Best K-Pop Songs of 2021

“Bambi” follows a sensual groove, but it’s the atmospheric guitar and Baekhyun’s silky smooth delivery (those exalted melismas!) that leaves us yearning for more.13. New Jersey’s finest dropped her jolting pièce de résistance, “What Type Of X,” in March, and it’s the perfect introduction to the rapper and performer’s ferocious flair. It’s a symphony of bright, retro sounds, and in today’s K-pop landscape that feels refreshingly new.28. The throughline, of course, is Chanhyuk’s captivating lyricism — his ability to paint a lyrical portrait so vividly and humanly. He embodies it fully, visually and physically. They’re inviting you to put on your sparkliest eyepatch and join them on the dance floor.31. It’s their ability to stand on the world’s biggest stages and playfully ask, “Hate us?” — only to respond to their own taunt with a gleeful and unanimous, “Love us!”18. The lovelorn synthpop track shimmers in the amber of regret, the kind of late summer song that will leave you crying your glitter off on the dance floor. A summer track with a retro-pop pulse, “We Go” is breezy without losing momentum. “Scientist” by TwiceThe yassification of Twice’s sound in recent years has yielded some of the brightest gems of the group’s career catalog. When times got tough, the music got harder to define. “Butter,” with its bright synths and funky bass line, is them confidently acknowledging their own legacy. “After School” by WeeeklyIn lieu of caffeine, listen to Weeekly. The criminally underrated group has been building their own multifaceted soundscape since their debut, but “libidO” takes it up a notch, edging the group closer to ecstasy with its throbbing bass and sotto voce silkiness.22. What makes “Mafia in the Morning” so charming, beyond its unbeatable performance, is the irresistible energy the girls bring to it.23. Boisterous and boastful, the song forges an immersive experience teeming with dynamism and attitude. They are unabashedly fun. They are boys, interrupted, and this year they channeled their teen angst and boyish rebellion into a slew of singles — but “0X1=LOVESONG” stands atop the rubble of their youth as a beacon of real catharsis. In 2019, CIX debuted with the sleek, sophisticated “Movie Star,” and it set them on a path of slinky, understated melodies and sultry performances. Here, in its sparkling melodies and rock-tinged rhythms, the song is a nice bookend to Seventeen’s boyish debut era. But there’s a real thrill to its madness.25. “Bewitched” by PIXYThe allure of rookie group PIXY’s brand of dark, audacious pop lies in the production. “What Type Of X” by JessiBeloved by her peers and (finally) by audiences in South Korea, Jessi has had the kind of meteoric rise this year most people can only dream of, thanks to her 2020 smash “Nunu Nana” and the continued success of her YouTube variety show, where she regularly makes her guests sweat over her refreshingly American candor. “Thunderous” by Stray KidsWhen Stray Kids dropped their second studio album NOEASY in August, it was a playful nod to critics who deride their particular brand of “noise music.” (NOEASY is pronounced as noisy.) But the thing about noise is that it’s impactful, and lead single “Thunderous” is the loudest of them all. (The answer is everything. It’s undeniably vivacious, but there’s a sophistication that elevates it from cute to consistent.8. Yet, the production itself is minimal, subdued even, allowing NCT 127’s vocalists to ground the song in their prowess (and to unleash their growls). “I’m so good with you,” they sing together. (It brings to mind another hooky, empowerment anthem with a club beat: Girls Aloud’s “Something New.”) Everglow’s particular brand of girl crush has always been bold and in-your-face, but “Pirate” is giving camp and attitude. There’s a pluckiness to the group’s vocal delivery — don’t keep them waiting, boy! “Bonnie & Clyde” by YuqiThis year saw the members of (G)I-DLE explore the individual depths of their artistry. “Peaches” by KaiTrue to its name, Kai’s second solo single “Peaches” is both sweet and sensual. It glitters and glitches, rendering the listener completely powerless to its intoxicating spell.19. But there’s something about “Luna” and its potent fusion of synthwave and traditionalism that feels the most like ONEUS. The rookie boy group debuted with “KILLA,” a swaggering electro-house banger with a confident, futuristic swing. Sentimental and saccharine, “My Treasure” ultimately crescendos into something truly magical, showing off the prism of their maturing musicality.38. “Bad Love” by KeySynthwave clearly has K-pop in a chokehold, but there’s not a single artist who embodies this style of exuberant dance music like Kim Kibum, SHINee’s elusive chanteur. In many ways, “Advice” is classic Lee Taemin, otherwise known as SHINee’s eternal maknae and SuperM’s sage chaos master. So while April’s “Mafia in the Morning” seemed like a new direction for the group (more rap, less melody; a vacuous hook), it actually emphasized Itzy’s ability to insert their ethos into any sound. MIRAE only needed one. It’s disorienting, like most NCT releases are, with its industrial instrumental and gurgling synths. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s not revisionist; we know the world is on fire. There’s a frenzied youthfulness to its tone — exuberant in nature, slightly sinister by choice. Is it a song that could have been on Glee? “When I grow up, I want to be like Madonna,” she belts over the thrum of a dance beat. It’s nice to be reminded that there is a future worth living. “libidO” by OnlyOneOfOnlyOneOf attracted a lot of attention this year for “libidO”‘s provocative choreography (just some light crotch-grabbing, NBD), but lost in the conversation was the stellar quality of the song’s funky, atmospheric production. So “Vamos” is more than a debut single; it’s redemption. Offices reopened (somewhat), live music returned (kinda) and we finally put on real clothes (as if). “I want to vogue how I wanna.” There’s truly nothing more gratifying than shameless pop music, and “Madonna” knows exactly what it is: visceral and versatile, just like the fabulous iconoclast who’s singing it.37. If there’s one thing Baekyun knows how to do, it’s ride a note to an electrifying climax. To critics. Despite hope for a “return to normal,” 2021 was a year at odds. Somi’s charisma could power a small town, and while “XOXO” only scratches at the surface of what she has to offer, its stomping beat and anthemic hook begin to cultivate a signature sound — one delivered with a whole lot of gum-snapping, hip-swaying sass.36. It’s the celebratory culmination of a long self-love journey. To you. Full stop. As if Taemin would have left us any other way. Baroque and intoxicating, the song itself is a harmonious dance between major and minor, of rhythmic arpeggios and mesmerizing EDM riffs. To me. “Get me get me now,” they chant on the chorus. “I know it’s real, I can feel it,” Taehyun screams at the top of his lungs — searching for release from his endless ennui.”Hello Future” by NCT DreamIn a year defined by more fear and entropy, NCT Dream’s “Hello Future” seems like a tie-dyed fever dream. No group captures the moody tumult of adolescence quite like Tomorrow X Together. It’s the kind of sound that makes hearts flutter, and it fits CIX like a glove.17. Youth has never sounded this sweet.3. So it makes sense that music would reflect such discordance, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the K-pop industry, which made bigger, bolder strides into the Western market, while pushing the bounds of genre back at home. “Lilac” by IUThis year, IU embraced turning 30 with a real sense of confidence and perspective, and on “Lilac,” aging has never sounded more beautiful. Yet, escapist media allows us to be slightly removed from it, to imagine a different ending. The song’s percolating synth and the members’ bubblegum vocal delivery create a truly inescapable hook, elevating “Love So Sweet” from a sweet, simple pop song to a delectable confection you want to indulge in again and again.24. The progression of the chorus builds to a stunning climax of oscillating harmonies, traditional Korean instruments, and soaring vocals from the members and a pansori singer. For 13 years, they’ve eschewed trends to define their own distinct musicality — from pristine electropop to rhythmic bangers. “Don’t you know I’m a savage?” From its opening line, aespa’s “Savage” is a battle cry, delivered oh-so-deliciously by the rookie girl group currently taking the industry by storm. So open your eyes and let the unbridled hope of “Hello Future” carry you away. “Ready, set, go! Propelled by a trance beat and a swift rock undercurrent, “Bonnie & Clyde” harnesses the full power of Yuqi’s smoky vocals and enticing bravado. But the quintet’s lush vocal harmonies and divine ad-libs elevate even the most standard pop-house beat. “Sticker” is weird. Their releases often fall on opposite poles of the conceptual spectrum: “red,” their bright, quirky side; and “velvet,” their slinky, soulful side. 15. He’s been a student of pop his whole life — Bowie, Gaga, those are his muses. “Advice” is luxurious. With the release of “Rock With You,” however, it seems like Seventeen has found a signature groove. On paper, the frenzied mix of traditional Korean instruments and noisy samples (car horns!) shouldn’t work. They are self-referential. “Cinema” by CIXThe beauty of K-pop and its kaleidoscopic vision is that it allows groups to mix up their sound, to wear new concepts and see what fits. Where else is there to turn while processing those big feelings and messy emotions than music? “We Go” by fromis_9A good way to measure a fromis_9 title track is by how many pixie sticks you’d need to consume to get on their level. “Love So Sweet” by Cherry BulletK-pop has been riding the retro synthwave for the past few years, and Cherry Bullet’s “Love So Sweet” is the latest entry in the canon. Don’t you know you’re talking to a motha-effin rock star?32. It’s dramatic and decadent, teetering on the edge of theatrical. It’s sentimental with an edge — and the members have never sounded better. But through those tears, you’ll find catharsis — and that’s the power of a good pop song.21. (Notably, “Luna” is sung entirely in Korean.) In K-pop, every group has to find that one thing that sets them apart from their peers. But don’t be fooled: It also packs a real punch. Jessi’s never heard of her. “Trust me, close your eyes and fall,” Suhyun and IU sing over a gurgling bass line. Meanwhile, established groups got louder and funkier, finding a groove to call their own and embracing a myriad of soundscapes (industrial! With “Bad Love,” Key is now the master.4. It’s a shame, considering how January’s “My Treasure” set them on a promising path. this is only the beginning of their careers.26. The song, which features up-and-coming singer-songwriter Seori, is overflowing with anthemic melodies, bellowing chants and heavy drums. Its stacked, 11-member lineup includes artists from either disbanded or inactive boy groups, giving them all another opportunity to achieve success. “Beautiful Beautiful” by ONFWhile their peers embrace darker synths and moodier visuals, ONF kicked off 2021 with a blast of sonic sunshine. There’s so much warmth and empathy in Wendy’s delivery. Is it a bop? K-pop legends SHINee fall into the latter category. Relief comes in the form of a truly euphoric climb to a hook so bright and so heightened it will make you forget — momentarily — about your worries and instead escape into an alternate reality where you don’t have any worries at all. Tinged with rock flourishes and taught melodies, “Tamed-Dashed” is an exhilarating adrenaline rush.20. — and an undercurrent of energy conducted through bursts of chirpy synth notes and layed harmonies. “We Go” is nowhere near as relentless and madcap as past singles “FUN!” (it’s literally screaming at you) and “Love Bomb,” but it’s no less charming. “Savage” by aespa”Oh my gosh,” Winter drawls. On “Don’t Call Me,” their first release as a unit since 2018, SHINee takes a hard-spun K-pop sound as it’s currently being expressed — dark synths, clattering hi-hats and weighty beats — and renders it bolder, edgier and more dynamic. Key knows exactly who he is and what he wants to bring to the pop ecosystem, and that’s genuinely thrilling in an industry where control is rarely conceded. “Pirate” by EverglowThe dance floor is where people go to free themselves — a baptism under the hum of the music, through the fog of ecstasy. NCT is a limitless concept — an infinite number of boys, experimenting with unorthodox sounds and rhythms, spinning nothing into something. “Sticker” by NCT 127Was there a more divisive single this year than NCT 127’s “Sticker?” From its biphonic opening flute riff and distorted bass, the disjointed track is an attack on the senses. “Beautiful Beautiful” has everything: harmonized chants, an a cappella section (!!!), funky chords, and an electric guitar solo. “KILLA” by MIRAEIt typically takes rookie groups a few releases to establish their sound. “I’m a different type of beast,” she spits as the guitar kicks in. “Luna” by ONEUSONEUS released a handful of singles this year, each a reflection of the group’s multifaceted sound. The man’s vocal stamina is unparalleled. Absolutely. “Madonna” by LUNAAn icon in her own right, LUNA’s ode to the queen of pop (yes, that Madonna) is as shameless as Madge herself. traditional! They can do it all! “One, two, three, hold your breath and fall.” 9. “Vamos” by Omega XIn a year defined by second chances, Omega X’s debut feels kismet. It’s far from Dreamcatcher at their most screamo, but “BEcause” builds to its own feverish conclusion.34. “I’ve been waiting for you, welcome,” they sing in unison. “BEcause” by DreamcatcherThe industry’s resident alt grrrls are known for their dynamic fusion of heavy guitars, crystalline vocals and nightmarish flourishes. But the lyrics have never been warmer and more potent. As one chapter ends, another begins, somewhere in IU’s eternal spring. “Scientist” shines because it follows Twice’s tried-and-true formula of success — bouncy synths, happy melodies and catchy hooks — while continuing to defy expectations and push themselves musically. And that piano breakdown? “Butter” by BTSOf the countless accomplishments under this song’s belt — 10 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100; 13 wins on South Korea’s music show circuit; and a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance — perhaps its greatest achievement (aside from fueling an entire population’s serotonin intake) is the ease of its smooth delivery. After more than a year away from the stage due to injury, Red Velvet’s shining vocalist returned with a soaring ballad dedicated to her fans. Subtlety? But as Felix says, Stray Kids don’t play by the rules. Like its namesake, “Peaches” is a simple delicacy.29. “ASAP” by STAYCAt one point, STAYC’s “ASAP” was truly escapable. (Think: boys with permed, pastel hair, dancing around their rooms in hoodies and overalls while being bathed in saturated color.) It’s luminous without being too cute, a capital “P” pop song with dreamlike harmonies, sparkling synths and an inescapable hook. It exists on another plane of existence entirely, where desire is expressed through languid motion and hushed whispers. There’s so many textures in its production — the brassy drop, the clanking percussion, the superhero opening, the sly vocal delivery. The wailing guitar is no match for main vocalist Kihyun, while rapper/vocalist/maverick Joohoney — who participated in the track’s writing, production, and arrangement — unleashes his own gravelly power vocal alongside Kihyun for an electrifying conclusion.12. BTS have nothing to prove. A real standout track for vocalist Mina, who anchors the verses with a suave performance, “Scientist” allows all nine members to shine vocally through lush harmonies and quirky vocalizations. “BEcause,” released in July, delivers on all fronts — featuring a frantic drum-and-bass breakdown in the second verse with a sampling of the screeching strings of Psycho’s iconic shower scene. Rookie groups broke through, scoring major hits and taking K-pop to the next level on the global stage. SHINee’s back, indeed.11. After a breakout debut year, “STAYC girls” came back with a mega-bop that, despite its title, was kind of laid-back. “Tell me I look pretty like the first day we met,” she breathily sings over a dreamy city-pop beat. “Like Water” is a soothing balm for a restless soul, a reminder that love — for yourself, and for others — is as essential to the health and wellbeing of the human spirit as water. For good reason: Their discography is full of youthful bops and cathartic ballads. “Eleven” by IVEThere’s not a song on this list that has made as much of an impact in such a short amount of time as the enchanting debut single from rookie girl group IVE. You know that’s a challenge, right?2. The reality is that we lived through the year in a discombobulated half-state. But “Queendom” lands somewhere in the middle. “XOXO” by Jeon SomiThe devil works hard, but Jeon Somi works harder. Their resurgence thankfully led to new music, with the veteran girl group releasing “After We Ride” in August. (Futurism is in their name, after all.) The squelching synths luxuriate in the track’s full-bodied soundscape, but the bombast of the production doesn’t detract from the group’s robust vocals, which soar over the song’s climactic maelstrom of warped beats. “NAKKA” finds the brother-sister duo playing in a new musical sandbox alongside singer-songwriter IU: icy synthwave. “Bewitched’ is a siren call to the dance floor. “It’s not far, open your eyes,” Renjun sings on the bridge. orchestral!). It’s playful refrain of “ladida-do ba-badida” is an earworm by design, bolstered by a pretty melody. From synthwave to hyperpop to pop-rock, K-pop embraced the noise of 2021 through a multitude of hybrid sounds. “My Treasure” by TREASUREAfter a prolific debut year (three single albums and an excellent pre-release track from vocalist Bang Yedam), YG Entertainment’s rookie boy group TREASURE has been relatively quiet on the music front. When the history books are written, their chapter will be scribed in gold. The patron saint of carnal pop released just one single this year before he was called to fulfill his enlistment duties, but it left an immeasurable impact. “Queendom” by Red VelvetNo group wears duality as effortlessly as Red Velvet. “Advice” by TaeminNobody loves drama the way Taemin loves drama. Their music is loud, confident, and a little mischievous. Case in point: “Gambler.” With a rubbery bass and a vigorous electric guitar riff (just listen to rapper I.M slide in on that riffage), “Gambler” is the lethal mix of Monsta X’s hard-hitting sound, suave visuals and synthwave. ONEUS are storytellers, and the beauty of their folk tales is that they weave together past and present so gracefully — creating their own mythos one fable at a time.6. “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)” by Tomorrow X TogetherWhen you’re young, life feels overwhelming all of the time. It’s fun without being all-caps FUN!, teeming with enough feel-good energy to fuel even the cloudiest of days.30. While aespa’s “Next Level” was undoubtedly the song of the year on the Korean music charts, it’s the group’s October release that really proves what these girls can do. That’s what makes it so effusive. “Could this last goodbye be any sweeter?” IU’s ability to spin everyday moments and universal feelings of existential dread into magic is what makes her such a singular voice in the global K-pop landscape. The rookie girl group has been honing their repertoire of sticky, upbeat jams since their relentlessly peppy debut. With its blustering, brassy instrumental and celebratory shout-sing outro, “Vamos” makes it clear that Omega X is more than ready to carry the “noise music” mantle of K-pop’s 4th generation.39. “NAKKA (with IU)” by AKMUSiblings Lee Chanhyuk and Lee Suhyun of AKMU (short for Akdong Musician) are favorites on the Korean music charts. Before you scan for your favorites, a few notes: this list includes only official singles, so no b-sides, and just one song per group or artist is considered (the exceptions being units or soloists who released music outside of their group.)40. It sounds like cotton candy. Released at the start of December, “Eleven” has already taken over TikTok with its percussive pop hook and dazzling choreography — and it’s currently racing up the charts in South Korea. The 20-year-old soloist dropped two impactful singles and her first LP this year, and she somehow still had time to film TikToks with at least 75 percent of the entire K-pop industry. There’s a sharp dissonance between the flute and the melody, the dirty synths and the even grimier vocals. It serpentines its way to your heart, a gleaming bit of brilliance that establishes this entrancing six-member group as surefire supernovas.14. Allow it to wash over your sorrows and let yourself be reborn anew.35. In retrospect, “ASAP” is a self-fulfilling prophecy for the amount of time it takes to get this one stuck in your head.5. It’s no less dizzying and intense as their other 2021 release, “Drunk-Dazed,” but “Tamed-Dashed” beats with a thumping propulsion. “Rock With You” by SeventeenWhen Seventeen debuted in 2015, they quickly became known for their fresh sound, which is often a way of saying “bright and youthful.” But boys eventually become men, and their sound in recent years has teetered from transcendent EDM to slinky melodrama to swing-band panache. You couldn’t open TikTok or scroll through Twitter without hearing the catchiest of hooks or seeing its memorable choreography. LUNA is in on the joke. “Gambler” by Monsta XFew groups have learned to wield their sex appeal like Monsta X. You don’t need a naevis to see that.) Exaggerated and dissonant, “Savage” is a blitz of brash synths, trap beats, punchy rap verses, earworm hooks and piercing vocals. They’re queens for a reason.33. With “Pirate,” Everglow delivers a shimmering sermon: a boisterous club banger anchored by a pulsing rhythm and a girl-power message. “Don’t Call Me” by SHINeeIt’s one thing to push pop into the future; it’s another to dismantle it completely and play with the parts. “Wherever it may be, we’re coming together/ Don’t worry about anything/ It’ll be alright, hello future.” Escapism is a luxury, and we cling to wherever we find it — be it through music, books or other art forms. The queen of the charts welcomed this new chapter with a groovy goodbye to her twenties. It’s an electrifying debut, and the scary thing is… “Like Water” by WendyWendy spent 2020 like so many of us: rehabilitating and reflecting. And they have nothing to apologize for.10. 7. It’s that thrilling discordance that’s afforded aespa this level of success so early into their careers. On “After School,” Weeekly stick to their bubblegum roots while also broadening their musical scope with a deeper, bouncier bass and reggae-infused rhythms. But this year, they embraced a fresher sound. “Bambi” by BaekyunLeave it to K-pop’s reigning king of R&B to get us all hot and bothered before commencing his mandatory enlistment. To Western audiences. It’s physical and addictive, brimming with aggressive bloghouse energy. “Mafia in the Morning” by ItzyIn the two years since their energetic debut, Itzy have carved out a lane all to themselves. “Tamed-Dashed” by ENHYPENDriven by a slick bass line and an anthemic hook, “Tamed-Dashed” is a potent mix of grit and gravitas. Still, “ASAP” is bright, whimsical fun. ambient! “Bad Love” is as much an extension of himself and his artistry as the wardrobe he painstakingly curated for his album rollout, or the pulpy, retrofuturism concept he conceived and fought for. It sounds expensive. There’s a hypnotism to its lo-fi arrangement, which incorporates traditional Korean instrumentation. “Rock With You” allows Seventeen to strut into their new era with purpose.16. 2021 was confusing, and therefore, it sounded confused.These 40 songs span the spectrum of a very dissonant year. Sure. Feel it,” the members chant, celebrating the blissful moments they spend together, after school on their skateboards. “After We Ride” by Brave GirlsFollowing the unexpected and long-overdue viral success of their 2017 sleeper hit “Rollin’,” Brave Girls is the Cinderella story of 2021. It’s a beguilingly compulsive tale of ride-or-die love, and it’s a confident entry in Yuqi’s solo repertoire that cements her as a certified pop girlie with her own color.27.