The Best New Music of Each Month of 2021
A recap of what topped my “Best of the Month” lists throughout the year and what I said about them!
January: NCT 127, “First Love”
“If this single is a taste of what to expect from the band’s upcoming Japanese album, LOVEHOLIC, then listeners are certainly in for a treat on February 17th! This fresh and fun pop song conveys the feelings of euphoria and anticipation that come with being in love for the first time. By provoking these feelings in listeners, this song is a dose of joy and nostalgia in equal measures.”
February: NCT 127, LOVEHOLIC
“This album is Peak NCT 127, another example of their incomparable musical identity and talent. NCT 127 always manage to combine quirky lyrics with bold instrumentals, mix emotional messages with catchy sounds, add unexpected details to otherwise standard pop songs, and often mix and match these seemingly contradictory musical pairings. LOVEHOLIC is no different; NCT masterfully work with rhythms, beats, and lyrics in ways that could easily turn into garbled messes but never do. Any artist can release slickly-produced songs, but it takes a special artist to release those songs with a personalized feel; every NCT song feels at home with them. In other words, no one can do an NCT release quite like NCT can. The music video for ‘gimmie gimmie’ is also Peak NCT 127, not just for its subtle placement of Easter eggs, but also for its mixing and matching of styles. The members seem to take the best outfits from the ‘Regular’ era, combine them with pieces from the ‘Punch’ era, and top it all off with stunning makeup.”
March: ATEEZ, ZERO : FEVER, Pt. 2
“Just when it seems impossible, ATEEZ manage to one-up themselves yet again. This is indisputably the best, highest quality ATEEZ album yet. They 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 ATEEZ have learned to fearlessly chart their own path forward and are now ready to explode onto the global music scene.”
April: 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.”
May: YUQI, A Page
“A few seconds into YUQI’s debut solo mini-album is all that is needed to see her superstar potential as a soloist. The mini-album consists of only two tracks, but she makes good use of every single second. Her powerful, unique voice and cinematic storytelling pack so much into such a short period of time. ‘Giant’ has an animated music video and defiant, confidence-boosting lyrics about recognizing one’s potential to get through tough times and become stronger from them. ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ has an action-packed music video and lyrics about a love for someone that withstands all criticism. These songs have two very different vibes and tell very different stories, yet they share a stellar vocal delivery and a punk-meets-dance-pop sound. YUQI is not waiting to show multiple sides of herself, and the sides she has shown thus far may be just the tip of the iceberg. A bright future is ahead of YUQI, and her phenomenal solo debut is proof of that.”
June: SEVENTEEN, Your Choice
“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.”
July: 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.”
August: 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.”
September: NCT 127, STICKER
“The connective tissue of STICKER is its unapologetic originality and experimentation. Each song is full of color on its own, packed to the brim with unexpected combinations of raps, line deliveries, ad-libs, and instruments. Even on the few songs that are less crowded, the members manage to sound uniquely NCT 127, combining different genres and trying out different vocal deliveries. When put together, these songs form an excellent auditory collage. STICKER encourages listeners to take the time to give each song more than one chance, requiring fans and critics alike to pick up on all sorts of sonic details that make the album’s composition so rich and engaging.”
Read the full review here:
As well as a very subjective one here:
October: SEVENTEEN, Attacca
“Both auditorilly and lyrically, the songs on Attacca cover a range of speeds, moods, and intensities. Songs like ‘To you’ and ‘Imperfect love’ reveal SEVENTEEN’s gentle, insecure side, and songs like ‘PANG!’ and ‘Crush’ emphasize their relatively new boldness and optimism. Regardless of tone, the themes tying all these songs together remain what they always have been for SEVENTEEN’s albums: love and an embrace of the human experience, both because of and despite its emotional extremes. SEVENTEEN convey their emotions in a myriad of ways, and these ways are reflected in these songs in new ways that also manage to carry SEVENTEEN’s trademarks. In short, SEVENTEEN are as authentic as they have always been, and listeners and viewers are better off for it.”
Read the full review below!
November: 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.”
Find out in a “Best of December 2021” episode of 17 Carat K-Pop, coming out in early January 2022!