Best K-Pop Albums of 2021
Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

The 20 Best K-Pop Albums of 2021

Synthpop, traditional Korean music, pop-rock, and experimental production marked the music of the best K-pop releases of 2021.

15. aespa – Savage [SM Entertainment]

You have to respect a songwriter or producer for taking a risk and deviating from worn-out methods. In electronic music, particularly, these experiments can turn out as a horrible mess — or they can create something new and exciting. The music in Savage, the first full album by the AI-inspired girl group aespa, is most likely to fall in the second category.

Even if Savage resembles the noise-pop of aespa’s label mates NCT, it’s a bit more deconstructed in sound and songwriting. Also, it has touches of cutesy in punctual moments of its melodies. In the first part of Savage, there’s a clear intent to shock and venture into uncharted waters. The unpredictable structure of “Savage”, and the crackling production of “I’ll make you cry”, are notable moments of experimentation.

The second half of Savage plays it safe. It’s almost as if they’re afraid to continue challenging themselves. Even so, Savage is a good post-club album and will go down as one of the most intriguing K-pop works of 2021. If the purpose was to test the limits of how eccentric (in the best possible way) a K-pop album can sound, we can only wish aespa will go even farther next time.

14. Red Velvet – Queendom [SM Entertainment]

When it comes to K-pop girl-groups, Red Velvet are the queens of B-sides. This wasn’t the reason why they named their 6th EP Queendom, but it could have been. The EP features some of their most elegant b-sides to date: “Better Be” and “Knock on Wood”. The R&B ballad “Hello, Sunset” is another beauty spot in Queendom, with its delicate melody and vocals.

But the other side of Red Velvet’s artistic concept (the quirky side) is also present in Queendom. The sassy “Pose” fuses Miami bass beats and electropop. The title track, “Queendom”, might not stand beside Red Velvet’s most iconic singles like “Dumb Dumb” or “Bad Boy”; but it does an okay job in opening the EP, which gets better from there. Queendom develops in ways that are in tune with the distinguished brand Red Velvet built: classy R&B and cute, weird synthpop.

13. Purple Kiss – Into Violet [RBW] 

What is a name like Purple Kiss supposed to mean? It evokes a feeling of elegant seduction. Purple recalls grapes and wine while also being a color that results from a mixture of red (warm color) and blue (cold color). And indeed, Into Violet, the first EP by the girl group Purple Kiss is all that: hot and cold, strong but also blasé – and perfectly balanced. 

“Ponzona”, the group’s first single, is a sensual fusion of rock and R&B. It’s beautified by a piano and occasional violins that add class and mystery to the track. “Can We Talk Again” is a smooth, sexy R&B tune. Please, don’t skip “Skip Skip”: it’s the definite bop of Into Violet. With reggae fusion beats and an ear-catchy chorus, “Skip Skip” could’ve been a hell of a summer hit.

As you continue listening to Into Violet, the music keeps surprising you. In “My Heart Skip a Beat”, the girls’ showcase their rock star element. Produced as a toned-down heavy metal, there’s a witty beat change to trap music after the members sing the last line of “My Heart Skip a Beat” in the chorus. With such a solid selection of songs and all the members in the group involved in the songwriting, Purple Kiss debut in grand style with Into Violet.

12. Lee Hi – 4 Only [AOMG]

Singer and songwriter Lee Hi doesn’t just make music to be listened to: she makes music to be savored. 4 Only is another fine wine, if you will, in her discography. It’s also the most involved Lee has ever been with her music. While writing or co-writing all songs in the album, Lee had a bigger say in the creative directions and production choices this time. The outcome is fantastic.

With “Intentions”, Lee proves we don’t need much more than a guitar, bass, and her vocals to be led to a world of magic. The bass lines are hidden heroes in “Waterride” too, which has a little touch of Motown’s girl groups. Lee delivers her best traits of a soul diva in “Darling”, and proves she’s one of the finest R&B singers of Korea in “Savior” (featuring rapper B.I., a frequent collaborator of Lee’s music), and “Safety Zone”.

There’s also old-school hip-hop to enjoy in songs like “Bye” and “Red Lipstick”, the latter features Korea’s rap queen Yoonmirae. Lee Hi’s sophisticated blend of pop, R&B, soul, and jazz sounds at her most exquisite in 4 Only

11. Youra – GAUSSIAN [Mun Hwa In]

The indie scene in Korea is flourishing. Right now, Youra is one of its most interesting treasures. Her second EP, GAUSSIAN, is a jewel: rare and refined. Youra’s voice falls like a silk sheet on instrumentals in songs like the alt-pop “Zebra”, the lounge pop “Airplane mode”, and on the R&B beats of “Mimi”. There’s even an element of swing jazz in the drums of “Zebra”.

The best track is “PINK!”, which starts with the sound of drumsticks and a guitar that announces a rock power anthem but then it turns into a funky, alternative strand of R&B instead. It’s a grateful surprise, just like Youra herself should be to anyone unfamiliar with her. If she continues the artistic vision shown in GAUSSIAN, her future should be amazing.