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.

5. TWICE – Formula of Love: O+T=<3 [JYP Entertainment]

For the last two years, TWICE’s releases have seemed like a lecture on career transition. The group began their stardom with music that is as bubblegum as it can get. They remained the archetype of a “cute” girl group for many years. Many people doubted TWICE could keep appealing to fans as they grow older, arguing that they would lose their innocent glow of young adulthood. 

But six years later, TWICE are still around and cooler than ever. Along with More & More (2020) and Eyes Wide Open (2020), Formula of Love: O+T=<3  uplifts the “pop” in TWICE’s pop star status. Songs like “Espresso” and “1, 2, 3” would’ve fit any previous TWICE album, but they benefit from the maturity TWICE now emanates. Their vocals get better each comeback. “Cactus” shows they can bear a melodramatic ballad.

In terms of songwriting, “Last Waltz” is the most fun and experimental song on the album. Pop music from the 1980s is an obvious influence on tracks such as the synthpop “Scientist”, “Moonlight” (which reminisces DeBarge), and “Real You”. You’ll hear ’70s disco and funk in “F.I.L.A (Fall In Love Again)” and “Cruel”. Between synthpop and disco-pop, TWICE found a place to stand their ground confidently; the album feels youthful and mature at the same time.

If anyone was ever ashamed to admit they enjoy listening to TWICE, Formula of Love: O+T=<3 can change that. Not that this is TWICE’s main concern. Their musicality might be more refined now, but it still sounds true to their origins. Seeing TWICE go from princesses to queens, we can’t help but get “The Feels”.

4. AKMU – Next Episode [YG Entertainment]

Talent runs in the family for Lee Chan-hyuk and Lee Su-hyun, the siblings that make the pop duo AKMU. They wouldn’t need anyone else to create an impeccable pop album. Still, all seven tracks of Next Episode have guest features, each one bringing a different style and feeling to the songs, from rock to R&B.

We wouldn’t expect anything less than prime quality from such an impressive list of collaborators. Next Episode features ballad singer Lee Sun-Hee (a.k.a. Korea’s National Diva); the pop prodigy IU; the respected rappers Zion. T and Beezino; the vocalist of acclaimed indie rock band Jannabi, Choi Jung-hoon; the R&B star Crush; and the gifted pop-rock songwriter Sam Kim.

Next Episode opens in a sultry and intimate note, with the new-wave sounds of “Hey kid, close your eyes”; and closes with the expansive, bright pop-rock, “Everest”. Everything in between is top-notch too.

3. ONEWE – Planet Nine: Alter Ego [RBW] 

The purpose in Planet Nine: Alter Ego is clear: ONEWE wants to take you to another dimension with their music. The album’s art, title, and the lyrics refer to a new planet found far from ours. Planet Nine: Alter Ego is a compilation of pop-rock songs that reach heights of sound and emotion. It’s mixed and mastered to sound like the instruments are reverberating from somewhere out in space. The vocals are pure emotion, and the timbre of the guitar is a charm apart. Their technique is sublime, as is the songwriting. 

Every track in Planet Nine: Alter Ego could be a lead. The EP is cohesive in its rock sound, while it occasionally escapes into incorporating a little bit of R&B (“A.I.”), hip-hop (“AuRoRa”), and electronica (“Veronica”) as well. “Cosmo” is a melancholic ballad, but the energy and the guitar hook in “Veronica” prove that the band is perfectly equipped to bring people together to dance. Planet Nine: Alter Ego should played loud, out in the open, under a sky full of stars. Global stardom is not just something ONEWE is ready for: it’s a necessity.

2. Key – Bad Love [SM Entertainment]

At this point, some are tired of all things retro in K-pop, be it in the music or video and performances’ aesthetics. Newtro (“new retro”) was one of the most common trends in K-pop in 2020; pop, soul, and R&B from the ’70s and ’80s also experienced a K-pop revival in many parts of the world.

Enter Key, seasoned singer, performer, and group member with a rare solid career in K-pop, SHINee. For his first EP, Bad Love, Key used a combination that’s familiar to fans of ’80s music and geek culture: sci-fi, synthpop, and new wave.

Key’s Bad Love is another bet on progressive nostalgia for the ’80s, and it doesn’t care if everyone did this kind of music in 2020. All Bad Love aims for is exciting pop music, and Key achieves just that. The retro-futurism that informs Bad Love is a vision Key fought for, and it was worth it. Sometimes, even clichés are a risk. But Key triumphed: his take on ’80s synthpop is electrifying.

“Bad Love” is the type of song that would not work unless its vocalist had the allure to fill the spacious production and the vocal range to handle the dramatic melodies. Key has it all; he delivers a stellar performance. Who cares if the synths in the opening song resemble The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights”? Paired with a reverb effect on the beats, the magic of synthpop comes alive. When Key starts singing, his voice commands attention; and he upholds it until he takes his very last breath in the song. “Bad Love” is the pinnacle of the homonym EP.

The dancing beats continue in “Yellow Tape” and “Helium”, whose melodies are shaped in the style of R&B. The mellowest track, “Hate That” (which features GIRLS GENERATION’s Taeyeon), is a pretty and welcome pause in all the bombastic feels. “Eighteen (End Of My World)” is an emotional closer.

There are some salient parallels with hits from the last few years, too (besides “Bad Love” and The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights”). You’ll hear it in “Saturday Night” and Maroon 5’s “What Lovers Do”, for example. But similarity, or inspiration, are not necessarily sins. Especially if it’s to create something so good. Bad Love makes a strong case for that. It channels a million things we’ve heard before, but it does it in such an involving way that it’s hard to keep thinking of these comparisons for too long.

Despite clinging to synthpop, there’s a glam rock element to Key’s work in this EP too. He embraces the music with confidence and glamour. Key is just as perfect for tracks like “Bad Love” and “Helium” now as he would’ve been if he had caught the peak of new wave 30 years ago. His attitude justifies the frenzy generated by all these genres from decades before he was born to current trends.

1. TXT – The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE [Big Hit Music]

Pop culture is not just about pop music releases. It’s also about moments that draw and excite people (even if it’s just out of curiosity). It’s about events that make people pay attention and how a present trend reflects its past or will influence its future. To keep the engine of pop running, we need acts that can create momentum, start movements, or upheave them. In 2021, TXT (an acronym for TOMORROW BY TOGETHER) provided one of these moments with The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE.

When they released “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)”, it gathered attention from K-pop fans and from other pop enthusiasts who, at this point, already know that Korea can no longer be ignored as a force for pop culture. The track generated conversations for many reasons: some were about how TXT caught the wave of the alt-rock revival early enough to surf it like kings. Others were about how TXT has always had some “band” vibe, and how they’re embracing that. 

The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE has that quality of youth: it feels dramatic, but it carries energy within to get up again after falling. Angst drives the melodies and lyrics in these tracks, yet somehow it makes you feel alive. For example, in “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)”, the lyrics say “I’m a loser in this game”, but listening to it brings joy. The true melancholic queen of the EP is “Anti-romantic”. 

The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE makes accessible pop that connects with people of different styles and tastes while keeping an identity of its own. “Magic” has the timeless feel of the soul music of iconic boybands like New Edition. Pop-rock “Dear Sputnik” is innocent and filled with adrenaline, like it’s meant to bottle up the energy and resolution of a young dreamer. “Frost” is one of the best songs from TXT’s darker breed.

The music in The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE is excellent. The album consolidates TXT as one of the movers and shakers of Korean pop music.