K-pop is a very busy niche to keep up with as there are seemingly countless active groups and soloists, and some even put out more than one EP or LP per year. The odds that a year will go by without good music in K-pop are very low. With so many releases, there has to be something for everyone’s taste.
From experimentation that entices the interest of casual listeners to formulaic repetition that K-pop fans love, 2021 was a year with a lot of satisfying K-pop. Among all that talent, it’s only right that our list of Best K-pop albums (which includes EPs and LPs) features no less than 20 works by K-pop idols and a few R&B or indie artists that are changing the landscape for pop as well.
20. Lee Taemin – Advice [SM Entertainment]
SHINee’s Lee Taemin may have gone into an artistic hiatus (due to his compulsory military enlistment), but he left listeners good music to enjoy until he’s back. Advice is less impressive than Taemin’s previous solo works, but it’s still a great example of the unique finesse the singer and dancer brings to K-pop. Taemin proves his versatility in tracks like the doo-wop, R&B “Strings“, and the synthpop “Sad Kids“; and his qualities as an entertainer in “Advice”.
19. Song Heejin – Soda [WatchaMusic]
When a songwriter and music producer is also a recording artist, there’s always a song that they can’t decide if they pitch it to another artist or keep for themselves. For example, the classy “Unnatural“, recorded by the group WJSN, was penned by a songwriter and music producer who also releases her own music: Song Heejin. But judging by her solo debut, Soda, Song has saved some goodies for herself too.
For example, tracks like “Question Mark” and “Get Outta My” would’ve also sounded amazing if recorded by a girl group such as MAMAMOO or Red Velvet, respectively. But we can only be happy that Song Heejin recorded them and released Soda. She’s really good singing soft contemporary R&B (“Dirt”), as well as in upbeat tracks (“Dancing in the Moonlight”). “Tylenol” is the apex of the song’s experimentation. And the funky, smooth homonym track is one of the most refreshing summer releases of 2021. As a songwriter and as a recording artist, Song Heejin is a name to keep an eye on.
18. Baekhyun – Bambi [SM Entertainment]
Bambi, a solo work by the EXO member Baekhyun, is a sultry and elegant set of R&B and neo-soul songs. Baekhyun’s vocal range almost steals the spotlight from the beautiful melodies. The falsettos in “Bambi” and “All I Got” will give you goosebumps. Baekhyun’s sentimentality is on the edge in “Cry for Love”: “Every time that I cry / My tears don’t ever dry,” he sings. Baekhyun reaches great heights with his voice in Bambi; but in spite of how intense these songs are, they’re still smooth and provide a relaxing feel. It’s a short EP, yet it’s rich with emotions and executed to perfection.
17. Younha – End Theory [C9 Entertainment]
The sixth album by singer and songwriter Younha, End Theory, is an emotional piece of art. “Highlight” is, indeed, one of the highest points of End Theory, and “Stardust” is a dreamy pop ballad that can make you feel as if you’re floating adrift in the universe. The new-age-inspired song “Here” is so majestical that it deserves to be experienced at an opera theatre or ballet. Younha’s soft, high-pitched vocals imprint the right emotion that each composition deserves, making End Theory a graceful experience.
16. ENHYPEN — Border: Carnival [Belift Lab]
Sometimes an introduction to a song is so good that it’s a waste that it isn’t a full track. When that happens, the following songs must keep the listener just as interested. That’s the case in Border: Carnival, the second EP by the boy group ENHYPEN. “Intro: The Invitation” is a gloomy alt-rock / new wave track that sets the scene for the trip ENHYPEN takes on a disturbing yet exciting trip, with few moments to breathe in and relax (like the cute “Not for Sale”).
Border: Carnival is, most of the time, a seductive fusion of R&B, dance, moombahton, and reggaeton. The tracks in between the first and last don’t have the same dark edge as the bookenders. Still, it’s music that grabs you by the neck and drags you to deeper depths: the emotional turmoil in “Drunk-Dazed”, the burning desire in “Fever”, the warmth from falling in love in “Not for Sale”.
Trap beats and rock guitars combine in the production of “Mixed Up”. It creates contrast with the airy “Outro: Wormhole”, whose lyrics are metaphorical of ENHYPEN’s journey through different states of consciousness. Though it’s the last track, the lyrics hint at new beginnings: “And when we wake at this tunnel’s end / What vision awaits?”