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.

10. ONEUS – Blood Moon [RBW]

Boy group ONEUS didn’t waste their chance to showcase their Korean roots to their global audience. Traditional Korean music (called Gugak) meets EDM and rap in Blood Moon, and the combination is drop-dead gorgeous.

ONEUS is joined by Gugak singer Choi Ye Rim in “Intro: 창 (窓 : Window)”. Choi plays the role of a ritual leader summoning the ONEUS members as she sings: “The six demons who are banned from death / (…) On the blood moon night, they appear”. When she holds the note in the lyric “나타난다 허더라” (“They appear”), she is followed by a bass-boosted synth. Then, the ONEUS members enter the song; their raps adding even more energy to the experience. It’s a moment that will give you shivers.

The second track, “Luna”, is not as raw in its incorporation of traditional music, but its production is equally fascinating. It combines trap music and synthpop beats with reverbs that recall ’80s pop, Gugak strings, and flutes. The chorus’ melodies are rapid, but they’re sung smoothly. In the transition from the bridge to the last chorus, background vocals emulate Gugak style of singing as well. The sequence made of “Intro: 창 (窓 : Window)” and “Luna” is one of the most beautiful things that happened in K-pop this year.

The following tracks go in a different direction. The mellow synth-hip hop style of “Life is beautiful” and “We’re in love” are among Blood Moon’s best tracks. The haunting beauty of the first track and of “Luna” will linger in your mind.

This is not ONEUS’ first time incorporating Korean traditional music elements into K-pop. They’ve done it before with “가자 (LIT)” (2019). Nevertheless, Blood Moon is ONEUS’ finest album.

9. GWSN – The Other Side of the Moon [The Wave Music]

One of the most obscure dance releases of 2021 is also one of its best. The Other Side of the Moon shows an intriguing palette of the girl group GWSN. It has darker shades that aren’t too obvious: instead, they incorporate a bit of cuteness and a pop appeal to the gloomiest harmonies. The dark concept of The Other Side Moon is the perfect cue for the GWSN members to explore the lower regions of their voices (as in the first verse of “I Can’t Breathe”).

The lines between what’s playful and what’s mischievous are somewhat blurred in the songs in The Other Side of the Moon. It’s all deliberate, though: GWSN are crafting their own brand of terror dance-pop. However, some of the lyrics go too far in their aim to be scary. The music in “e i e i o”, for example, is eclipsed by its lyrics about hunting a boy. Nonetheless, the production makes this track superb. “e i e i o” has a groovy bassline, and the instrumentals are minimalistic in the right measure.

Even in tracks that are not faithful to the album’s concept, there’s an effort to bring listeners some differentiation. For example, the housey-R&B “Starry Night” takes a different turn at the bridge. In the jazzy “I sing (Lalala)”, a guitar plays a gorgeous melody in the background, like a shy companion to the piano and bass.

It’s a fine line to walk, for sure: dark concepts are always on the verge of being creepy. Still, The Other Side of the Moon is one of the most interesting albums created in 2021. It places GWSN in a unique position among groups that are trying melodies and arrangements that range from the conventional in K-pop.

8. (G)I-DLE – I Burn [Cube Entertainment]

Fire is synonymous with destruction. But it can also mean reconstruction, as in passion and rebirth. These are the feelings in (G) I-DLE’s I Burn: the search for a fire to keep a heart warm before it is broken. These feelings are translated into the music through a theatrical combination of EDM and elements of traditional music from ancient Asian cultures (such as chordophones and woodwinds). The opening song, “Hann (Alone in winter)”, has the cadence of a waltz. It works as a melodramatic annunciation of the burning ache heard in “HWAA (화 (火花)”. 

There’s a notable commitment to fulfill an artistic ideal in I Burn. For no other reason would the EP’s lead single have a hook that consists merely of one word: “HWAA”. It’s not just any word, though: in Korean, it can mean ire or flower, while in Chinese it means spark. The meanings are all fitting. However, it’s still a noteworthy choice for a K-pop song to have a simple and monothematic melody in the chorus. When has a K-pop chorus melody relied that much on one single note before? It’s not common, and it may seem like a meaningless detail, but it makes a difference. The chorus in “HWAA (화 (火花)” is hauntingly beautiful.

Additionally, there are several details in the instrumentals of “HWAA (화 (火花)” that deserve a closer listen. For example, a string that plays low in the first chorus and louder in the second. The fire in I Burn soothes throughout the EP. The (G)I-DLE members present smoother versions of their vocals in “Moon” and “Dahlia”. I Burn is set for spectacle and accomplishes it by building an enthralling soundscape.

7. OH MY GIRL – Dear OHMYGIRL [WM Entertainment]

In a year when many K-pop girl groups have explored more experimental sides to their music, Oh My Girl shone like no other. Dear OHMYGIRL is opened and closed by safe pop tracks, but the middle songs are the closest to an indie, alt-pop album by a K-pop group we ever heard. That’s a compliment, but not because it’s a shame to be associated with K-pop. It’s because distancing itself from K-pop formulas is hard to do. K-pop actually embraces all kinds of sounds. Nearly everything has been done in K-pop; sounding fresh is not an easy task. But Dear OHMYGIRL is a breath of fresh air.

The EP peaks in the lo-fi, dream pop “My Doll”. The verses start with delicate vocals that are processed in the chorus, creating a cold, robotic atmosphere. It depicts the feelings of growing up and losing touch with your innocence. “Quest” is another high point, with its old-school video game sounds. It recalls the carefree instrumentals of the Soundcloud rap of 2015/2016, such as Lil Yachty’s “Minnesota“. These arrangements trick you into thinking they’re simple when actually, that’s where their brilliance lies. 

In its less daring moments, Dear OHMYGIRL is still dynamic and fun. “Dun Dun Dance” is a friendly, innocent disco-pop song. “Who comes, who knows” is trap and bossa nova. No genres repeat in Dear OHMYGIRL, and all of them are amazing.

6. IU – Lilac [EDAM Entertainment]

Artist IU is a gift that keeps on giving. Her ability to deliver good music and flawless vocals is a sure thing. IU has been doing this for over a decade, and Lilac is proof she still has a lot to offer. In Lilac, IU’s music is irresistibly danceable, as in the tracks “Lilac” (which has a city pop feel to it), “Celebrity” and “Coin”. Yet she still keeps her foot in other territories where she’s dearly loved as well: you’ll hear R&B in “Troll”, and “Empty Cup”, and romantic ballads in “Hi Spring Bye”, and “My Sea”. 

Another genre IU does well in is “Ah puh”. Yes, it deserves to be a genre of its own, one that is very specific. Sound-wise, Ah puh mixes funk, rock, and R&B. Songwriting-wise, it plays with repetition and stuttering in a way that sounds mostly onomatopoeic. “Ah puh” is the most unpretentiously fun track in Lilac. It might please those who enjoyed her playful R&B in hits like “BBIBBI(삐삐)” (2018), but it has a funkier, Prince-like vibe to it. “Flu” also plays with repetition in lyrics and melodies.

Lilac has all aspects of IU: mellow and romantic, but also witty and fun, with the bonus of some different and new sonic colors added, as well.