The Best K-Pop Albums of 2021
This is part of a series of 2021 wrap-up articles coming out over the next two weeks!
Note: Some parts of this piece are excerpts from reviews written earlier in the year.
#50: ITZY, GUESS WHO
Right from the start, ITZY have stepped into every comeback with an impressive boldness, a sense of sureness in their musical path. This mini-album is true to form in that sense, as their fierce personas command attention on high-energy track after high-energy track. On GUESS WHO, ITZY do not box themselves in, toying with an array of musical influences. From the clap-along, cornucopia of sounds on “Wild Wild West” to the CHUNG HA “Bicycle”-Era vibes on “SHOOT!” to the soft-pop, guitar-backed “TENNIS (0:0),” ITZY show that dynamism in musicianship can simultaneously come from confidence in one’s vision and a willingness to continue stepping outside of the box.
#49: Gaho, Fireworks
Fireworks is aptly titled, as it explores the concept of being in love in all its complexities. The songs show off many of Gaho’s true colors, and he gets to be introspective on some tracks and less serious on others. The first song, “OOO,” sounds like the music that plays during the opening scene of a movie. It draws the audience in with its tambourine, clapping, and “la la la la'' chorus. The party continues on high-energy songs like “Anyway” and “Part time lover.” A more serious mood is present on other songs, like “Crush” and “Like the moon.” All the while, percussion, guitars, and a top-tier voice keep listeners’ interest.
#48: RAIN, PIECES by RAIN
In PIECES by RAIN, RAIN contains multitudes. From the power ballad “Aurora” to the chill, R&B-influenced “MAGNETIC” to the fast-paced “WHY DON’T WE,” RAIN proves his longevity in the music industry is well-deserved. There is no definitive type of vocal delivery, performance style, or instrumental that RAIN excels while working with compared to the others. He continues to masterfully weave between musical paths in a metaphorical dance as exciting as his literal ones. After all these years, RAIN still exudes an “I’m just getting started” energy.
#47: ITZY, Crazy in Love
Checking out one of Crazy in Love’s songs is like tugging on a ribbon that undoes the entire bow on a present and makes seeing what’s inside the wrapping all the more tempting. Once someone starts listening to this album, it is hard to stop, as rocking out to one song triggers the need to rock out to the rest of them. Metaphorically unboxing this album causes a kaleidoscope of colors and themes to spill out, and connecting all of them is ITZY’s bold personality. Taken together, these tracks make for a head-spinning celebration that presents pop music at different points across the genre’s spectrum.
#46: aespa, Savage
aespa have a commanding presence, immersing themselves into the metaverse for “Savage.” Their new music video adds to the storyline that began in previous videos: now that the members have met their avatars, it is time to team up with them to combat a shared enemy. The song is a fitting soundtrack to aespa’s process of constructing and carrying out the next step of their mission in a parallel world.
The album’s B-sides allow fans to learn more about who the members are outside of their virtual world. “Lucid Dream” tells a sad story about past love, “I’ll Make You Cry” expresses feelings of vengefulness, and “YEPPI YEPPI” shows their more joyful side. However, another B-side emphasizes who aespa are in the digital realm: “aenergy” sets the scene, describing what superpowers each member adds to their skillset. If the audience is left confused as to when aespa are truly themselves and when they are reverting back to their alter egos’ personalities, they can at least be assured that aespa are just as confused as they are! Their complex storyline continues to be a curious and thought-provoking journey, and watching it unfold continues to be a rewarding experience.
#45: LOONA, [&]
LOONA know how to leave fans guessing in more ways than one. They remain unpredictable for both the Easter eggs they choose to sprinkle throughout their work and for their changing sound. On this latest stage in their musical evolution, they incorporate the sounds of Bollywood and dubstep into “PTT (Paint The Town),” a triumphant declaration of the desire to take control of one’s destiny. LOONA’s dynamism is further shown throughout [&], as the album includes both upbeat and slow songs. LOONA are commonly seen as top-tier artists for their synchronized performances, a warranted label. However, this new album proves their vocals are also commendable. With a unique title track, a music video full of details that will excite longtime fans, and room made on the album for their singing skills to shine, LOONA have made sure this comeback is one to remember.
#44: WONHO, Love Synonym #2: Right for Us
Striking a balance between humility and confidence is not an easy feat, but WONHO proves he’s up to the task. In the “Lose” music video, WONHO shows off his incredible abs, as usual, but he simultaneously plays the role of a heartbroken man who has lost all confidence. On “Lose,” WONHO sings in a softer tone than on “Open Mind,” his previous single, and his ability to tailor his vocals to the mood of a song persists throughout Love Synonym #2: Right for Us. The album is full of feelings of both self-confidence and raw emotional wounds. Particularly notable B-sides are the nineties-esque “BEST SHOT” and the Kiiara collaboration “Ain’t About You,” the former indicating WONHO’s willingness to explore new sonic directions and the latter being a good candidate for a Charlie Puth-filled playlist.
#43: Golden Child, [Game Changer]
This comeback is like two separate comebacks in one. An apocalyptic scene in the “Ra Pam Pam” music video makes for an unexpected contrast to the lighter summer jams on [Game Changer]. There is further versatility in the album itself. Up-tempo pop bops precede the more sentimental, rainy-day songs, and vice versa. Also notable is how the band’s clean-cut image persists, yet they still find ways on this album to show a more mature side (for example, they mention getting ready to propose to someone in the delightful “Bottom Of the Ocean”). Ultimately, Golden Child effectively use [Game Changer] as a way to show how widely their discography and sound have grown since their early days.
#42: BLOO, MOON AND BACK
MOON AND BACK is a short but worthwhile sonic journey through hip-hop-meets-synth-pop tracks. The first part of the album is defined by a dark, heavy, haunting sound, and the half following “Girl in New York” makes a slight but significant tonal shift. The second half is less dark than the first and adds further levity by ending with a “Girl in New York” jazz remix. BLOO manages to deliver an album that is both comprehensive and anything but dull, fusing genres together in personalized ways.
#41: CL, ALPHA
On ALPHA, CL gives herself time to explore many emotions and facets of her personality. Some tracks are classic CL, with a confident, bold sound, such as “My Way.” Songs like “Paradise” add additional fierceness, as CL raps like she owns the place over trap beats. But there are unexpected, emotional twists and turns as well, like on the string-accompanied “Siren.” These vibes are not mutually exclusive; some of the songs that sound like classic, confident CL in some ways show vulnerability in others. For example, on “Let It,” CL stresses the importance of blocking out gossipy chatter and reminds herself of her true worth. In some ways, this is classic CL, but an underlying vulnerability is also exposed on this song, due to the fact she is acknowledging her awareness of that gossip in the first place. Even just some of the song titles on their own contain multitudes, like “Chuck,” which comes from the Korean word for “pretend.” CL’s musical identity is more uncompromising than ever, and its versatility proves why “alpha” is the right title for her.
#40: DAY6, The Book of Us: Negentropy - Chaos swallowed up in love
While many groups sing about loss, heartbreak, and pain, DAY6 do so in an unflinchingly honest, specific, and personal way. Their emotional and vulnerable songwriting is what resonates with listeners around the world, in a beautiful example of how opening up to others can have a healing ripple effect. They are not afraid to go there, and the degree to which they open up makes for more raw, more authentic, and overall better music. Through songs about going through hard times and struggling in and after relationships, DAY6 provide fans both with solace in the fact they are not alone and a guidebook for how to remember there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
#39: KIM JAE HWAN, Change
Those who write off KIM JAE HWAN as a boring ballad singer are proven to be mistaken thanks to Change. The album starts out powerfully with “Pray,” continues its strength with “I Wouldn’t Look For You,” and remains surprising by ebbing and flowing energy-wise the rest of the time. After mellowing out a bit on “Blue Moon,” for example, JAE HWAN raises the energy on “My Flower,” then retreats to a slower, R&B-esque vibe on “Get Antsy.” The pattern of louder and quieter tracks keeps the listening experience engaging and shows that JAE HWAN deserves to be thought of as a much more versatile artist than he has previously.
#38: Red Velvet, Queendom
The best three words to describe this mini-album: magic, optimism, and confidence. Red Velvet bring on the charm with sugary-sweet pop songs, beautiful harmonies, and empowering lyrics. The sorceresses rightfully claim their crowns in the “Queendom” music video, and the best part is they invite listeners to claim their own crowns, too, singing about how everyone has their own unique color to add to the queens’ “rainbow.” The video is as rewatchable as its “La-di-da-doo-ba-ba-di-da” chorus is catchy. The vibe of “Queendom” might be too cutesy for some people’s liking, but that is no reason to not give this album a chance. “Hello, Sunset” is a nice way to chill out at the end of the album, “Better Be” adds a dash of sass to this release, and “Pose” includes an assortment of unexpected sound effects. Queendom is both a versatile and a cohesive mini-album with pop songs of all kinds, and its title track has the catchiness and visual delights to boot.
#37: Han Yo Han, Han Yo Han
This album is a must-listen for those who have been craving new alternative music but are not sure what kind of “alternative” they seek. Han Yo Han is the answer. He brings electronified vocals reminiscent of RAVI’s and instrumentals reminiscent of ASH ISLAND’s to hip-hop, rap, and synth pop songs. The tracklist order is perfect, with his most fast-paced rapping taking place early in (on “Akrapovic”), in the middle of (“From Today”), and at the end of the album (“You”). This ebb and flow of his fiercest raps allows the intensity of the album to remain until the very end. Han Yo Han never loses steam, and neither does this self-titled album.
#36: DO HAN SE, BLAZE
DO HAN SE emerges as a solo star on BLAZE. He wears his newly self-assured persona like a glove, as if this rapper in him has been waiting in the wings for the perfect moment to emerge. He absolutely thrives when getting to rap uninterrupted, especially on “TAKE OVER.” As for BLAZE’s B-sides, he dips his toes a bit into the worlds of R&B (“Scent”) and rock (“Public Enemy”). BLAZE is a rap album the majority of the time, so these detours come across as dares. DO HAN SE dares listeners to doubt his range and threatens to prove them wrong at any moment by switching genres.
#35: CHUNG HA, Querencia
From the Latin-influenced “Play” to the solemn sounds of “X” to the “7 Rings”-esque pop song “Bicycle,” CHUNG HA’s debut solo album has something for every taste. It is essentially a “Best of CHUNG HA” compilation album; the brand new songs added to the tracklist are just extra cherries on top. The word that best summarizes this album is “range”: from her vocals to her music video outfits to her collaborations, Querencia heaps example on top of example of how CHUNG HA is not carving a musical path all her own so much as zigzagging seamlessly between and among many paths.
#34: WOODZ, Only Lovers Left
Only Lovers Left might be WOODZ’s best release yet, weaving together tracks that each take on a life of their own and reveal a different layer to the vulnerability and pain in his story. “Waiting” is perhaps the best song of WOODZ’s career yet, with excellent production and pure vocal prowess. His voice neither overpowers nor underperforms alongside the instrumental; his inflection fits the speed of the song with perfect timing. Vice versa is also true: the instrumental compliments his voice, adapting to each moment to indicate heightened or lowered intensity. The instrumentals on the B-sides also match the tone and speed of his voice, creating a clear, specific mood for each song. Only Lovers Left is a rumination on multiple levels, and given the fact “Waiting” is reserved for the album’s conclusion, there are clearly more layers to unravel in WOODZ's story. WOODZ is the best when at his most open and honest, and his increased transparency pays off here, heightening the anticipation for his future releases.
#33: SUNMI, 1/6
Last time it was Catwoman, and this time it’s Regina George; SUNMI continues to take movie references and run with them down unexpected paths! If an artist is going to take inspiration from a movie as ubiquitous as Mean Girls, the artist better be very creative in the use of that influence, and SUNMI unquestionably is. Rocking Mean Girls-inspired looks, SUNMI goes from trashing her bedroom in a fit of rage to fending off zombies inside a video rental store in no time! Creative and surprising music video aside, 1/6 is a release worth checking out for its smooth, retro-tinged, attitude-filled pop songs. This comeback is yet another example of how SUNMI adds her distinct personality into every release.
#32: ATEEZ, ZERO : FEVER Part.3
This album is both a welcome repeat of ATEEZ’s formula and something entirely new. Like their ZERO : FEVER, Pt. 2 era, ATEEZ have chosen to promote both light and dark songs as their initial singles off of the album. The contrast allows fans of both of their styles to be pleased, and it allows ATEEZ to both keep telling the same story and start writing new ones. “Deja Vu'' has tons of Easter eggs in it for ATEEZ Cinematic Universe fans to relish in, while “Eternal Sunshine” lets ATEEZ be carefree and spontaneous. ZERO : FEVER Part.3 is yet another example of ATEEZ managing to deliver both action-packed, suspenseful mini-movies and chill, cheerful tunes at the same time. ATEEZ see no need to confine their musical style into one category, and this belief is clear through the B-sides as well. The best of these is “ROCKY,” which is a rousing, mixed-genre anthem.
#31: TWICE, Formula of Love: O+T=<3
The irresistibly charming “SCIENTIST” music video doubles as preparation for what to expect throughout this album: song after song bursting with TWICE’s sugary sweetness and dashes of sass. As satisfying as this album is for long-time TWICE fans, new listeners can also find something to love about it. They personalize each song with their trademark cuteness and upbeat sound, but they also show an organic maturity. They have not done a 180-degree pivot, growing up overnight. The authenticity of their evolution is what keeps fans old and new pleased and excited. Each B-side is notable, but particularly commendable are the most new-to-them ones. The sub-unit songs allow combinations of members to show off new flavors of the TWICE brand, “CACTUS” slows things down, “Icon” delivers high-energy fierceness in a quirky way, and “CRUEL” has vocals that echo in unexpected ways. The B-sides that are the most worth looking forward to watching live someday are “F.I.L.A (Fall In Love Again),” thanks to its “la la la la la” choruses and clap-along nature, and “LAST WALTZ,” for its drama. TWICE’s new album is truly sugar, spice, and everything nice! They continue to try out new things while never changing their image to the point where it feels like a forced pivot.
#30: BAEKHYUN, Bambi
Although the release of BAEKHYUN’s final project before enlisting in the military is a bittersweet gift, it is a gift nonetheless. BAEKHYUN rightly lets his powerhouse vocals steal the show, taking average R&B songs to new heights. His voice never fails to turn the mediocre into magic. If his raw, emotional tone is not enough to leave listeners hooked, watching the music video for “Bambi,” in which he plays a mysterious and dapper train passenger, ought to do the trick.
#29: CNBLUE, WANTED
CNBLUE take the Wild West theme that has become popular in pop music in recent years and make it their own. They do this both through the “Love Cut” music video, which serves as a symbolic short film, and through WANTED, which leans heavily on the guitar-focused sound fans expect and love from them. The album starts off with the very catchy, whistle-filled “Love Cut” and speeds up a notch on “99%.” The group slows things down on“Hold Me Back,” brings the energy back up on “Nothing,” and concludes WANTED with the sentimental “Time Capsule.” This perfect tracklist order allows their single to set the scene, the following two tracks to serve as rising action (that has both forward and retreating moments), “Nothing” to serve as its climax, and the last song to be the falling action and resolution. Each song on WANTED is both its own story and a fitting contribution to a larger sonic narrative.
#28: N.Flying, TURBULENCE
On the original album, Man on the Moon: The “Moonshot” music video setting serves as a great metaphor for Man on the Moon overall. Just as they do in scene after scene of the video’s alternate reality, surprises pop up on track after track on the album. There is a sudden pivot to rapping in the middle of “Moonshot,” unexpected high notes on “Ask,” and a more dramatic sound on “Comma,” just to name a few. Through this new album and music video, N.Flying prove they shine as brightly as the stars they sing about, and they encourage others to let their lights shine as well (“If you wanna change, be not afraid”).
On the repackage: TURBULENCE adds meaningful additions to the original album. “Into Bloom” addresses how experience allows for growth and maturity, and “Video Therapy” is about making a conscious effort to remember and cherish certain memories. Both of these songs go along with the theme of turbulence, as the band sings about learning to handle the sense of life being a forced landing, before one is prepared to process what has taken place and what will happen next. To N.Flying, “turbulence” refers to a period of instability and nerves that is best addressed head-on, rather than ignored or downplayed.
#27 B.I, WATERFALL
This debut full-length album is an excellent introduction to B.I. He shows the world who he is as a fierce solo rapper on some tracks and as a softer singer on others. Rather than introduce his rapping and singing personas separately, he shows how these sides of himself constantly interact. This is a very human album that shows B.I’s multitudes as a person. His character defies labels just as his music does, mixing rock, R&B, and rap influences. The album is bookended by expressions of boldness and determination in very different ways, showing how confidence and vulnerability can coexist. The album opens with “WATERFALL,” an in-your-face anthem, and it ends with “Re-Birth,” a song that exerts a quiter, more conditional confidence. As a whole, WATERFALL is a journal full of complex thoughts and feelings that are conveyed in a myriad of artful ways.
#26: 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. Further elaboration on what makes this album shine is coming soon in a follow-up article and podcast episode!
#25: KAI, Peaches
On Peaches, KAI is back to serving up silky-smooth vocals on intoxicating R&B songs, sandwiched between hip-hop songs that feature a side of his voice in stark contrast to that on the other tracks. By including both song genres he excels at on the same album, KAI presents an exciting duality, even though his music video and its introductory short film have a very singular, specific concept. KAI shows off the layers to his artistry through this comeback, and Peaches expands his musical storytelling in a way that appeals to many of his strong suits at once.
#24: B.I, COSMOS
COSMOS truly is an out-of-the world release that is just as impressive as, if not better than, WATERFALL. “Alive” fits at an intersection between melodic and fast-paced rap. The song manages to not have a choppy, start-and-stop format, however, and this smooth blending of speeds and sounds continues on the Wild-West-meets-nostalgic-rock sound of “NINETEEN.” “NERD” plays with its speed throughout too, with faster verses and slower choruses. The songs on COSMOS are engaged in a melodic push-and-pull that makes each song unique, both from other artists’ songs and from each other. B.I’s ambitions for this project appear as expansive as the universe about which he sings, and those seeking fresh new tunes are better off for it.
#23: NIve, Broken Kaleidoscope
NIve both defeats and sidesteps expectations. This album has its more somber moments, but on the whole, it is a celebration filled with stomping and cheering. The sound conjures up images of a rock concert in the Wild West. The western/rock/pop songs are paired with addictive vocals to make for a listening experience that is an absolute blast. NIve is in a genre all his own, with the only predictable aspect of this release being his excellent voice. A K-pop album that sounds like this has not come out for quite some time. This is a fresh and incredibly fun release by an artist who is one to watch.
#22: ATEEZ, ZERO : FEVER, Pt. 2
This is the best ATEEZ album to date. ATEEZ experiment with everything from gospel influences to eighties synths to saxophone riffs, spanning across an eclectic collection of anthems. Ironically, having more confidence in their musical vision than ever has enabled ATEEZ to stray from that vision more than ever, and their risks pay off massively. This comeback is much more than a catchy album; it is a testament to how they have learned to fearlessly chart their own path forward and are now ready to explode onto the global music scene.
#21: TAEMIN, Advice
Advice is both a very TAEMIN release and something brand new from TAEMIN. His signature breathy vocals return, but he tries out a different vocal delivery on songs like “SAD KIDS.” His Joker-esque alter ego returns in the new music video, but in a more confident form than ever. This mix of old and new comeback highlights has something for every type of fan. While this album and the “Advice” music video are ripe with material for super-fans to analyze and theorize over, they are also enjoyable for more casual listeners. Through both classic pop songs and slower, more emotional songs, TAEMIN articulates feelings of love, loss, dreams, identity, fear, hesitation, and memories, in ways both moving and unique. Outside of TAEMIN’s over-the-top music video universe lies a very human story. TAEMIN is both larger-than-life and very down-to-earth, both playing roles and showing his true self. Perhaps disentangling what elements of his work are just an “act” and which are parts of “the real him” has been his overarching concept all along.
#20: Dreamcatcher, [Dystopia : Road to Utopia]
On this album, Dreamcatcher lean into making the type of music they do best: pop-rock songs with pounding beats and one-of-a-kind vocals. The action starts automatically, with a stirring EDM/rock/pop intro and a dramatic single, “Odd Eye.” The dizzying array of sounds continues on the other songs, and a new instrument takes center stage the second a song starts getting repetitive. For example, the electro-rock jam “Wind Blows” pivots to a piano being the focus for its pre-choruses. The group’s inventive and varied sound persists even on the relatively low-key “4 Memory,” which remains guitar-driven like the tracks preceding it. In other words, this album has both consistency and unpredictability.
#19: Epik High, Epik High Is Here 上, Pt. 1
As elaborated on in the Epik High-dedicated episode of 17 Carat K-Pop, this trio is masterful at weaving together different narratives into stories that both carry emotional weight on their own and as parts of broader stories that continue throughout their albums and musical eras. A star-studded batch of collaborations mixed with Epik High’s signature contemplative lyrics combine to make this new release both classic Epik High and far from boring. If listeners fail to be intrigued by Epik High’s storytelling, they must look up the lyrics and watch the music videos that accompany these songs. The band’s masterful way with words deserves listeners’ full attention; their music cannot be fully appreciated when consumed passively.
#18: KEY, BAD LOVE
BAD LOVE is a very exciting release for those who have been rooting for KEY since his debut solo album, FACE. On FACE, KEY sounds lost in hindsight, trying out a bunch of different styles, sounds, and vocal deliveries. This time, KEY has found a distinct musical lane in which he thrives. From track to track, he revives eighties pop and presents David Bowie-inspired concepts. It is delightful to watch as KEY hones his craft and learns what concepts he is best at, and his latest title track’s music video is a welcome contribution to SM Entertainment’s canon and an impeccable addition to KEY’s discography as a soloist.
#17: LeeHi, 4 ONLY
LeeHi’s signature warble defines another gorgeous collection of songs, each telling a different story and a handful doing so through memorable music videos. The engaging music video storylines convey some unexpected combinations of emotions, such as both joy over a relationship in “Savior” and sorrow for what it could have been instead. However, a refreshing reprieve from dense emotions comes from “Red Lipstick,” a feel-good, retro song that makes listeners want to do as LeeHi tells them: slap on some red lipstick and dance, dance, dance, wherever they are! Overall, 4 ONLY tells a diverse array of stories, and the accompanying music videos reinforce each song’s uniqueness.
#16: SHINee, Atlantis
As detailed in the SHINee-dedicated episode of 17 Carat K-Pop, SHINee’s newest album shows for the upteenth time how they both earn their place in boy band history and deserve credit for redefining and expanding what it means to be a boy band. The songs on Don’t Call Me (and the album repackage, Atlantis) may cover unoriginal topics, but they do so with SHINee’s unmatched sense of individuality. Influences range from house music to R&B to disco pop, and the members’ trademark harmonies tie a bow around this sonically diverse present.
#15: The Chain G, WICKED NIGHT
WICKED NIGHT is a retro-futuristic joyride, a synth-heavy roller coaster in which fans of The Weeknd’s latest album will delight. Further bringing to mind The Weeknd are The Chain G’s cinematic music videos that serve as a visual concept album. In the “Wicked Night” music video, saxophones and guitar riffs accompany The Chain G as he performs a retro song at a fancy party. “Love Again” picks up right where the “Wicked Night” video leaves off, unveiling a more hallucinatory side to the party. The Chain G relishes in this, bearing a Joker-esque-smile. “Love Again” ends in a way that implies the presence of this alter-ego plans to stick around for a while longer, and luckily, an artist with this much star power is destined to stay shining bright for years to come.
#14: ENHYPEN, Border: Carnival
Border: Carnival fits ENHYPEN’s highly specific narrative in ways that stay interesting. From its ominous, twisty intro to its accelerating, “to be continued” outro, the album tells a story that serves as a clear link between their previous and later releases. As discussed on 17 Carat K-Pop, ENHYPEN continue telling tales of “passions and pleasures” through a mix of pop, punk, and electronic sounds that merge to bring to life the dizzying effect their music video characters constantly feel. Border: Carnival is a fitting chapter in this group’s one-of-a-kind story.
#13: Hwa Sa, Guilty Pleasure
Hwa Sa does a lot with a little, crooning her way through these understated, bass-driven anthems. Her voice a capella would be captivating on its own; the twisty instrumentals are just a welcome bonus. “FOMO” is a sultry R&B song in the first half, and after a surprising break mid-song, the latter half allows Hwa Sa’s voice to take on a Billie Eilish-esque quality. “Bless U” is also like two songs in one: the first half sounds like a typical ballad, but then an unexpected rap verse enters the picture. Hwa Sa keeps listeners guessing, and her irreplaceable yet chameleonic voice ensures they will embrace more surprises from her in the future.
#12: TXT, The Chaos Chapter: FIGHT OR ESCAPE
On the original album, The Chaos Chapter : FREEZE: The premise of this TXT era is both literal and symbolic: the members’ world is falling apart around them, but they have no chance of escaping the wreckage, as they are frozen in time. The following sense of dread is rooted in a fear of the unknown. On “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You),” the members sing about where their sense of stability comes from: love. When everything in the world feels confusing and scary, a key anchor to hold onto is a loved one. This is just one of many messages in this album that is worth reflecting on, and it’s one of the many reasons why TXT have fans from all walks of life who relate to their work. There are lighter elements to appreciate about this release as well, including a music video that is chock-full of Easter eggs. From hiding symbols in their music video to prompting introspection through their lyrics, TXT’s latest chapter contains innumerable layers for fans of all degrees to enjoy.
On the album repackage: This repackage is no gimmick; the new songs are meaningful additions to the stories the original version of this album tells. Speaking of a natural story continuation, “LO$ER=LO♡ER'' leans back into the pop-punk, angst-driven sound of “0X1=LOVESONG.” Rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon by bringing back that 1990s/2000s trend, TXT’s sound seems to have gone in that direction naturally. In other words, TXT’s latest singles just happen to sound trendy; they are leaning into their authentic angst, and that emotion just so happens to align with the current uptick in pop-punk releases. TXT’s singles sound trendy not because of consciously trying to make them so, but because TXT’s openness and honesty help them stay aware of the current public mood.
Equally meaningful on this album repackage is “MOA Diary,” a sweet “fan song” on which all five members have writing credits. The fact this song is full of references to TXT’s previous releases, combined with the fact the members’ actual diary entries are featured in their physical album copies, emphasize the ethos of TXT. This group embodies an unfiltered openness, a raw expression of relatable feelings, and a promise to stay as open in the future as they prove to have been in the past. They are an open book, and fans new and old are better off for it.
#11: GRAY, Grayground.
This is hands-down GRAY’s best body of work so far. His album’s title is spot-on, as this album is a sonic playground listeners will want to revisit again and again. He manages to make all but one track on Grayground. a collaboration, yet the album does not sound overstuffed as a result. Each collaborator contributes a sound to their song that is truly valuable and distinct. GRAY makes the featured artists his equals. Loco, LeeHi, and GRAY expertly play off of one another’s energy on “Party for the Night,” DeVita lends her heavenly vocals to “Rise” to make the tropical vibe sound anything but generic, and Coogie picks up what GRAY puts down, keeping GRAY’s sound going in his own quirky verse on “I Don’t Love You.” GRAY shows off a wide variety of sounds throughout his many collaborations, yet the tracks still seamlessly transition from one to the next. An album with so many different voices and vibes could have easily come out sounding terrible, but GRAY manages to make this mix fantastic. Each detail in each song feels purposeful, and when taken together, all those details form an album that is GRAY’s Goldilocks album; every ingredient put into each song is put into it in just the right amount.
#10: ENHYPEN, DIMENSION : DILEMMA
Story-wise, ENHYPEN continue on the path they have been going down for a while, but sonically, they take brand new routes. The band explores “new wave” sounds on “Tamed-Dashed,” goes for a more punk sound on “Blockbuster,” and dabbles in electro-funk on “Upper Side Dreamin’.” “Go Big or Go Home” is another remarkable track and is perfect for the dance floor. Every song on DIMENSION : DILEMMA is worthy of being a title track, and the album has the classic ENHYPEN feel of a carnival. By both picking up their story where they left off and trying new things in their music, DIMENSION : DILEMMA is full of both predictable and surprising forms of entertainment that never lose their shine.
#9: Stray Kids, NOEASY
Keeping up the magic and momentum of the smash hit “God’s Menu” is no easy task, but Stray Kids prove themselves ready to accept the challenge. Their new songs reinvent the boisterous atmosphere and in-your-face sound of “God’s Menu.” “Thunderous” is aptly titled, but every other song on NOEASY also lives up to the word alluded to with the album title, “noisy.” Stray Kids treat “making noise” as a compliment. They mix brass, industrial, and synth sounds, just to name a few, into these songs. “God’s Menu” seems to have been just the beginning; all pre- “God’s Menu” releases, in hindsight, feel like they are at a low simmer. The members’ feelings have boiled over, delivering a hefty serving of spite to all their critics who would rather they make their songs less crowded. As the lyrics in “Thunderous” state (“Man, I’m not sorry”), Stray Kids are the epitome of unapologetic. Some songs certainly sound less chock-full than others; “Gone Away” is a touching, slower song, and “Surfin’' is a lighter, tropical bop. However, these songs simply bring the energy down from a ten to a nine, and they are followed by songs that rise again to a ten out of ten. Stray Kids have thrown the kitchen sink at this album and have managed to create something worthy of a chef’s kiss. They have cooked up a release that not only sends a message about their desire to keep making “noise,” but also about their worthiness to hold the attention that comes with it.
#8: NCT DREAM, Hello Future
On the original album, Hot Sauce: NCT DREAM have mastered the NCT Key to Success: never be afraid to mix everything into one album. Snapping, clapping, quirky sound effects, beautiful harmonies, funky keyboard notes, guitars… every sound and genre has a place in their work. They manage to execute this formula in an irreplaceable and inexplicable way, in which the sonic cornucopia they create sounds wonderful as opposed to disjointed and unlistenable. It is hard to pick a standout moment, or even a standout song, on Hot Sauce, as every part of their work has so many. As all NCT subunits do, NCT DREAM do not worry about choosing one specific image for a specific comeback. Once again, they go from showing their most energetic to their most soft and contemplative selves and back again, both on the album and in the accompanying music videos.
On the album repackage: The album cover art, the new music video for “Hello Future,” and the song’s message exude peak optimism. This is a joyful comeback with too many feel-good elements to count, although a good place to start counting is the new music video. Full of animations and sunny skies, NCT DREAM continue blurring the digital and physical worlds in delightful ways. NCT overall convey an “anything is possible” message, and this subunit’s additions to that message make the case in the cutest way imaginable.
#7: 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. Not all of these mixtures are seen as dichotomous. For example, ad libs are sometimes inserted into slower songs, and a deeper message is sometimes hidden in unassuming, lighter tracks. The different styles NCT experiment with do not always match up in the expected pairings. Universe is another unpredictable delight that is predictably worthy of replaying again and again.
#6: MONSTA X, NO LIMIT
It starts off with silence except for a long, lone whistle. Suddenly, I.M says, “EAT THIS!” With that, listeners are off to the races for the rest of the album, a thrilling and mostly fast-paced delight that carries all the hallmarks long-time fans expect from MONSTA X. Ad libs galore, layers upon layers of instruments and sound effects, and tongue-in-cheek comments keep NO LIMIT entertaining from start to finish. They treat their new songs as continuations of songs from their previous eras (specifically, the members have drawn parallels between “Rush Hour” and “Trespass” and “Mercy” and “Nobody Else”). But the songs on NO LIMIT pack a punch regardless of how familiar listeners are with their previous releases. MONSTA X continue to impress with not just high-quality songs, but with their hands-on approach towards crafting them. Their writing and production credits on this album emphasize how the group’s ambition is greater than ever, and that confidence is well-deserved.
#5: KANG DANIEL, YELLOW
KANG DANIEL completes his “Color Trilogy” with YELLOW, an album that is primarily dark and eerie but finishes on a brighter note, a sign of finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. He is finally ready to experience joy after one last, intense trip through the dark recesses of his mind. Each song has a haunted feel to it, as if listeners are stomping through a haunted location with him. After feeling his pain, listeners also get to share his feeling of relief on “Save U,” a hopeful note on which this saga ends. After learning to find strength after struggle and happiness after hardships, KANG DANIEL deserves to be viewed the same way as favorite book and movie characters are. Fans can feel emotionally invested in his character’s journey, pleased with his reawakening, and bittersweet over the end of an era. YELLOW is a touching full-circle moment for both KANG DANIEL and his audience.
#4: MONSTA X, One Of A Kind
As detailed in a previous episode of 17 Carat K-Pop, MONSTA X show natural growth on their newest album in more ways than one. The subject matter in their lyrics is more mature than ever, and the members have grown into their musicianship, becoming more hands-on with songwriting and producing. When considering their authentic growth, emphasis must stay on the word authentic. MONSTA X have not grown up overnight; the band still sounds like classic MONSTA X. Joohoney and I.M still trade rap lines, Kihyun still belts out high notes, and their songs still layer instrument on top of instrument to an impressive extent. Plus, the “GAMBLER” music video picks up where their previous videos leave off, adding a new installment to their music video universe. This album is both classic MONSTA X and classic in the sense that it is a very original body of work. MONSTA X have challenged themselves creatively by working so much on this release, and their rolls of the dice have turned out to be big winners.
#3: NCT 127, Favorite
On the original album, STICKER: NCT 127 are fueled by an embrace of all musical possibilities, and by not boxing themselves in, they allow door after door of potential musical combinations to stay open. They allow themselves to explore whatever might sound good together and is worth giving a try, and by not automatically discounting the chance that certain vibes can go well together, they entertain the possibilities in which other artists doubt too much to dabble. They always manage to stay in their unique niche while constantly adding more into that niche. Their no-holds-barred approach to making music allows them to both deliver what fans anticipate from them and stay unpredictable. NCT 127 allow a carefree, adventurous, daring attitude to envelope this album and its music videos, but they find a way to also let their voices and dance moves shine. Regardless of what catches one’s eye or ear first, they appear confident that every element of each song and video will have its time in the spotlight soon enough. Read the full review of STICKER here!
On the repackage: NCT 127 continue to surprise and excite. With Favorite, they execute their winning formula once again, adding intriguing chapters to their storyline and turning unconventional sound pairings into catchy tunes. For casual listeners, Favorite is a fun release and has a title track with a captivating music video. For long-time fans, Favorite is all that plus instant canon, giving them new theories to consider and new plot developments to anticipate. In short, Favorite lives up to its name. Read the full review here!
#2: SEVENTEEN, Your Choice
As detailed in a recent essay and podcast episode, SEVENTEEN’s work always maintains several dimensions. It works on an emotional level as well as a more surface-level one. It is both a pick-me-up and a powerfully resonant tale, an energy boost and a reflective, profound form of storytelling. Their latest album encapsulates these multitudes, showing the full extent of their capabilities and natural talent. From their music video aesthetics to their choreography, each element of this release works in tandem to send a strong, clear message about a concept that is essential to understand, yet complex in its definition: love.
#1: SEVENTEEN, Attacca
On Attacca, SEVENTEEN continue to flex their creative muscles in new and exciting ways, while also managing to remain true to their sound on a metaphorical level. They reliably deliver messages packed with deep feelings and prompts for self-reflection. Attacca is as uplifting as it is contemplative, as much of a mood boost as it is an invitation to join them in pursuing the meaning of love. Sweet and serious, with both light and heavy moments, Attacca is instant canon in SEVENTEEN’s discography and a worthwhile listen for non-fans as well. Read the full review here!
To hear about honorable mentions, more thoughts on these releases, and what my selection process was like, listen to this episode of 17 Carat K-Pop, and keep an eye on this newsletter for some upcoming pieces!