The Best End-of-2021 Music Releases
An appreciation post for the best K-pop and J-pop releases that came out too late to be added to some writers’ “Best of 2021” lists!
#20: SMTOWN, 2021 Winter SMTOWN : SMCU EXPRESS
While this album is heavy on slow and sentimental songs, there are a few high-tempo songs with which pop music fans will fall in love. The album starts off with aespa’s new version of an S.E.S. classic, “Dreams Come True.” Their version is accompanied by a new music video, in which the girls revive the spirit of the original while adding traits to their performance, settings, and looks that make the video unique to them. This remake is extra meaningful when considering “First/Second Generation” icon BoA’s hands-on leadership during the creation of this “Fourth Generation” remix. The remix both is a nostalgia trip and symbolizes the dawn of a new era. This is not to say aespa aim to replace older artists in audiences’ minds, but rather pay homage to them while reminding audiences it is time for the SMTOWN world to expand. In short, aespa’s “Dreams Come True” adds without taking anything away. Along the same lines, newer K-pop generations’ creativity is present on “ZOO.” “ZOO” is a hip-hop jam full of personality and deserving of its current TikTok popularity. The song is sung by GISELLE of aespa and TAEYONG, JENO, HENDERY, and YANGYANG of NCT, and its dance routine is choreographed by TAEYONG, an artist with sharp instincts about which songs are worth promotional pushes. The third standout track on this album is “Hope from KWANGYA,” which, as discussed in a previous piece, reinforces the theme of new beginnings. “Hope from KWANGYA” remixes “First Generation” boy band H.O.T.’s song “Hope,” altering the structure to accommodate members of the SM Family both old and new. Overall, this album attests to how the talent and strong intuition of older SM Entertainment artists persist in the company’s younger artists.
#19: Little Glee Monster, Toumeina sekai (Transparent World) (Special Edition)
Once again, Little Glee Monster present a combination of pop ballads and more up-tempo tracks, the throughline being their signature harmonies and passionate delivery. Little Glee Monster embody the energy of each song, transforming their presence to give each song the personalization and care it deserves. The lively, trumpet-filled “Hurry up!!” is particularly of note, as is “ToumeinaSekai.” The other songs on this EP are not new but are excellent choices to revisit. If this group’s lengthy song compilations look overwhelming, this 22-minute one will do the trick, giving listeners a taste of why they ought to give this group’s music a try.
#18: MY FIRST STORY, “Paradox”
With a pop song’s structure and a rock spirit, “Paradox” has the best of both worlds. The chorus is repetitive but not to a point that is overkill, and the instrumental flow keeps the song from sounding like a generic pop-rock hybrid. A dark and distorted bass underlies a voice that sounds at times more pained than determined and at other times vice versa. “Paradox,” and MY FIRST STORY in general, contain multitudes.
#17: Moon Byul ft. Mirani, “G999”
“G999” is a nineties hip-hop-style jam that pairs Moon Byul’s and Mirani’s unique voices with a catchy beat. The concave-lens cover image and retro television look of the music video shots compound the nostalgia factor. While this single is featured on a January release (Moon Byul’s new mini-album, 6equence), it deserves a spot on a Top Twenty list in its own right. It is a great choice for a pre-release single, not giving away everything fans could expect from her new project but providing enough of a taste to keep anticipation high. “G999” is both smart promotion-wise and just plain fun!
#16: Unknöwn Kun, “メアりみ” (“Marry Me”)
This bouncy, feel-good pop song mixes playful sounds with dramatic strings to make for a release that sounds as cute as it looks. Lots of instruments and ad libs are mixed and matched, while Unknöwn Kun sings about a sweet romance that plays out onscreen via adorable animated scenes.
#15: Ms.OOJA, “Who Are You”
“Who Are You” weaves a delightful tapestry of bass guitar, piano, and percussion layers that pair flawlessly with Ms.OOJA’s voice. The repetition is limited by a mellowed-out bridge, before the passion and volume of the choruses come surging back. Backup singers add even more to the atmosphere created by this song, making it a lively listen that never loses its spark.
#14: TWICE, Doughnut
Topping off a prolific year of new releases is this sweet treat! In the music video for “Doughnut,” TWICE show off a new, more graceful side to their dancing skills as they twirl around in gorgeous dresses. The video is not just visually delightful, but also humorous, as the “crime scene” that needs investigating refers to the “bloody” scene where an oozing jelly doughnut lies! TWICE liken their feelings for someone to a doughnut, since those feelings are in an “infinity loop” and a hole is left inside of them when their lover is absent. Both poised and goofy, “Doughnut” shows how TWICE continue to balance maturity with a youthful spirit.
#13: Girls2, “80’s Lover”
While Girls2 is always a great option for those who want to give J-pop a try and are fans of K-pop girl groups, “80’s Lover” is particularly poised to serve that purpose. Fans of fromis_9 will love this playful piece of pop perfection. The music video exudes good vibes, as the girls pose in front of a wall of streamers and sport a mix of formal and casual pieces. After falling in love with “80’s Lover,” listeners ought to feel compelled to give Girls2’s other 2021 singles and music videos a chance, which are compiled on their new album, We are Girls2.
#12: Xdinary Heroes, “Happy Death Day”
This new boy band has generated intrigue since long before their debut single was released. A series of debut teaser videos alluded to each member’s role in a cinematic universe, where life takes on a degree of magic when music is added to it- or, perhaps, the music and the magic it unlocks are always present, if only the members stop to seek it. A less endearing lesson is taught in “Happy Death Day,” which reminds listeners and viewers every birthday can be thought of as yet another year closer to death! The boys hijack a birthday party to sing this reminder, clad in eye-popping suits and makeup. While this video can be interpreted negatively (they irreversibly ruin a little kid’s special day!), it can also be interpreted as a harsh but needed reminder: each day is precious, and time on Earth is fleeting, so it’s important to treat each day like it’s the last. Hence why they try to mess with social norms, question the status quo, and experiment with their looks. It’s no accident they have an unmissable presence in the music video, rocking out as if no one is watching. Xdinary Heroes incorporate an appreciation of music and a dark sense of humor into their work, leaving it anyone’s guess how sweet or unnerving their future releases will be!
#11: IVE, ELEVEN
This girl group’s debut proves to have been worth all the pre-debut hype. “ELEVEN” introduces the world to these high-energy, multitalented individuals with a larger-than-life stage presence. From dancing in front of showers of sparks to performing synchronized choreography while looking sharp in white suits, it is no wonder IVE’s eye-catching debut video has attracted so much buzz! As for the songs themselves, “ELEVEN” messes with the expected formula, powering down in the pre-choruses before abruptly resuming a fast pace. The B-side, “Take It,” is also a must-hear for its feisty lyrics.
#10: ATEEZ, ZERO : FEVER EPILOGUE
This album is a satisfying end to ATEEZ’s “ZERO : FEVER” series. The best full-circle moment comes from the music video for “The Real - Heung Version,” in which the classroom setting ATEEZ previously showed immense stress and worry in (during their “Diary Film”) becomes the place in which they now throw a party. ATEEZ’s expanded emotional depth and more mature outlook on life lend themselves well to this release’s graduation theme. After some new, contemplative songs, ATEEZ classics get the remix treatment on this album, showing they have grown up without losing their original identities. An “Ode to Joy” interpolation is added onto “Answer,” “WAVE” is shortened and given an orchestral makeover, and a choral symphony joins“WONDERLAND.” ZERO : FEVER EPILOGUE concludes with “Outro : Over the Horizon,” which is both summative and hints at many more adventures to come.
#9: Awesome City Club, “Let me breathe”
Amid a string of releases this past year, “Let me breathe” stands out as Awesome City Club’s best. Its pace is neither meandering nor rushed. Synths and pianos play in a way that is both lively and chill, as if the song knows it will do what it needs to do right on time without trying! The song is well-paced, catchy, and an example of the unique musical lane Awesome City Club find themselves in: making synth-filled, pop, and rock-influenced music with a sing-along nature and equal time for each band member to shine.
#8: UVERworld, 30
In the same spirit as their pre-release singles, UVERworld bring a mixture of styles to this memorable and thoroughly enjoyable album. “EN” starts off the album giving listeners a heads-up to expect not just variety among songs, but also within them: suspense builds up until a scream, followed by angry rapping. UVERworld alternate between using a growly register and artfully electronified vocals on the tracks that follow it. Whether synth-heavy, guitar-heavy, or both, these songs appeal to different musical preferences. The most interesting mixture of sounds is on an older hit, “AS ONE,” which features a series of beat drops, hushed tones, and a rap-driven backing track.
#7: BamBam ft. SEULGI, “Who Are You”
“Who Are You” is a smart choice to have as BamBam’s follow-up single to “riBBon.” With “riBBon,” BamBam proved he can pull off fantastical, Wonderland-esque concepts. He rocked bold outfits and flew through the sky while singing about simply feeling good. On “Who Are You,” BamBam offers a clear contrast. This music video shows him dressed in black and singing about the struggles of navigating a complex romance. The video leans heavily on ambiguous symbolism and features a contemporary dance routine that proves BamBam can exude elegance just as much as cuteness. “Who Are You” cautioned audiences against jumping to conclusions about BamBam’s musical identity prior to the release of B, his new album, making it a great choice for a pre-release track. “Who Are You” shows how BamBam’s music cannot be neatly summarized with one label. He does go back to pastel places and light, joyful themes on his newer single, “Slow Mo,” but this only increases the volumes with which “Who Are You” speaks to his versatility.
#6: Billlie, “snowy night”
Billlie are rookies worth keeping an eye on, as they are crafting a very unique musical world. Borrowing a film style like that of stop-motion animation, the members are seen traveling through a snowy environment in an alternate reality. Their escapades related to an abominable snowman appear to end, until one of the members realizes a piece from the alternate world came back into the “normal world” with them. Containing five short chapters, “snowy night” is as much a full sequel to their first single as it is one big teaser for the third installment in an unpredictable story.
#5: Hello Sleepwalkers, Muyu No Hateyori
At a rapid pace, this rock group powers through seven surprising, colorful songs that each take on a life of their own. Granted, there are some more mid-tempo moments, like on “Kako No Shikiso,” but for the most part, this album takes listeners on a fast-paced ride. The most memorable songs are “Kyogensho,” which requires listening to with headphones on to get the full effect (it makes for a fly-on-the-wall listening experience when hearing a male singer in the left ear before a female singer in the right ear), and “Denno No Umi,” where electronic sounds crash into each other atop a fiery drum performance.
#4: MONSTA X, The Dreaming
Clocking in at just 28 minutes, this album is both primed for radio play and perfect for people craving new music but low on time to discover it. The Dreaming is leaps and bounds better than MONSTA X’s first all-English album, ALL ABOUT LUV. That was also a great album, but The Dreaming shows off more of the band’s vocal versatility. The members fit a surprisingly wide array of vocal deliveries into these songs, and they further flex their musical growth by covering more mature subject matter. As MONSTA X grow up, they also turn back time, invoking strong nostalgia for nineties boy bands with their music.
#3: Reol, The Sixth Sense
“Boy” proves to have been a great teaser for what to expect from Reol’s latest album: busy and surprise-filled instrumentals paired with a one-of-a-kind voice. Reol once again delivers stellar electro-pop on every track, and she continuously throws unexpected sonic details into her work that keeps it personalized. She zigs the second listeners expect her to zag. Additionally, Reol solidifies her image as an icon with a series of stylish promotional images. This musical era shows Reol staying firmly in her sweet spot.
#2: EVERGLOW, Return of The Girl
Return of The Girl is the perfect soundtrack for a night out with friends, or maybe just a confidence-boosting dance session at home alone! This whirlwind of flirty and fun anthems is a great way to return some pep in one’s step in just seventeen minutes (although there is also room made on the album for calming down, with the piano-led “Back Together”). As for the album’s single, “Pirate,” EVERGLOW continue to excel at confident, impressive performances. Their mere presence is commanding enough, making their extravagant wardrobe choices and spaceship location mere bonuses!
#1: NCT, Universe
Universe is aptly titled, as NCT continue to put a little bit of everything into each individual record. A galaxy of sounds and styles can be found on Universe. Traditional instruments and modern pop sounds, rapping and singing, danceable tracks and slower ones, sweet and sentimental songs between light and goofy ones… the list is endless. Their sweet, charming side shines on songs like “Vroom” and “Beautiful,” while their rap and R&B sensibilities steal the show on songs like “OK!” Some songs allow them to prove their vocal skill, like “Round&Round,” and some help reinforce how catchy NCT’s instrumentals are, like “Miracle.” Universe is another unpredictable delight that is predictably worthy of replaying again and again. The music videos that complement Universe are just as versatile, adding different sporty, sweet, and intriguing entries into the NCT Cinematic Universe.
More on NCT’s discography can be found in episodes of “NCT Talk” and at the links below!