When it comes to K-pop, the album experience is a journey that holds immense cultural weight. It’s a land where B-side tracks are just important as lead singles, and each record is tailored to provide listeners with the ultimate experience while shaping the sonic identity of the artist behind it. This year, the strongest albums of 2021 ranged from traditional pop perfection to low-key R&B and alt-rock heaven—showcasing the musical variety of the ultra-popular genre. Ahead, the top 15 K-albums and EPs that made a major impact in 2021.
After years of anticipation from fans, EXO’s tender-hearted vocalist, D.O., finally made his solo debut with 공감 (Empathy). Like his fellow bandmates-turned-soloists, D.O. had the freedom to choose whichever route best suited him—some fans thought it’d be smooth R&B; others figured he’d go with ballads. Fortunately for us, he tiptoed into both sides of the pool and came out with something much more sincere and true to his character. 공감 (Empathy) is the acoustic-pop-R&B dream the world needed after the nightmare that was 2020. D.O.'s always had a rich quality to his voice, but in songs like “It’s Love” and “I’m Fine,” he's able to convey romance with each syllable.
All is right in the indie world once artist, songwriter, and producer Colde makes his appearance. Following his 2019 release of Love Part 1, Colde dropped his third EP, idealism, at the top of 2021. If you’re a longtime fan, you’ve probably come to expect lush melodies and easy-listening tracks from the R&B singer, and you’d be right. idealism takes everything you know about Colde and amplifies it by 10—while throwing you for a loop now and then. Throughout the 24-minute runtime, idealism tackles jazz (“The Museum”), calming ballads (“A Song Nobody Knows”), and even alt-rock in the EP’s opener, “Lighter”—an unexpected and rowdy track from the otherwise modest singer. The replay value of this record is sky high and deserving of your undivided attention.
The K-pop community fell to its knees when EXO announced its latest “special album.” With some members of the group coming home from military service and others starting to enlist, the likelihood of a group comeback seemed pretty low. Thankfully, Don’t Fight the Feeling provided the hopefulness and excitement many yearned for again. The title track, named after its EP, is infectiously cheerful and an undeniable love letter to EXO’s unwavering fan base, EXO-L. The reason this record works so well is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously—you can actually feel the love and care that went into recording each track. As epic as the group’s studio albums are, it’s still a treat to see them let loose and just enjoy each other. Through fan favorites like the funky “Paradise” and the criminally underrated “Just as usual,” Don’t Fight the Feeling offers comfort for those who had forgotten how magical EXO is when they’re together.
Solo artist THAMA has been around for a while, and though you may not recognize his name, his work speaks for itself. Aside from being a well-rounded vocalist, he’s produced for some of the biggest names in Korea, including EXO, Kang Daniel, NCT 127, and Dynamic Duo. As far as personal projects, THAMA’s kept busy with a string of singles and EPs, all revolving around R&B and hip-hop. DON’T DIE COLORS is the singer’s first studio album and serves as an extension of his already stunning catalogue. Six of the 12 tracks feature a variety of artists across the mainstream and indie scenes, adding new layers of depth and character to their respective tracks. With robust vocals and attention to detail, THAMA effortlessly weaves in and out of R&B to hip-hop, soul-jazz (influenced by gospel music), and ballads. He deserves all his flowers for this one.
NCT Dream has had its most successful year to date in 2021. Hello Future—the repackaged counterpart to Hot Sauce—is a timeless tale of Dream’s unbreakable bond as bandmates, friends, and, most importantly, brothers. Together, they venture out and explore what it means to be young adults while keeping their youthfulness close to the vest, and it works like magic. As one of the most engaging albums this year, it’s nearly impossible to choose a standout. The upbeat R&B vibe of “My Youth” is warm and familiar, while “Dive into You” introduces us to a pop-rock version of the group, with boastful band instruments and an irresistible bounce. But “Life Is Still Going On” is the epitome of combining Dream’s childlike nature with a more mature element, such as hip-hop and a trap beat. Each track is brought up to its full potential and solidifies NCT Dream’s place as the future of K-pop.
Debuting under High Up Entertainment in 2020, STAYC was the most pleasantly surprising rookie group of the year. With viral hits such as “So Bad” and “ASAP,” the girl group has steamrolled its way into the hearts of K-pop fans and the music charts of Korea. In their first EP, STEREOTYPE, STAYC capitalizes on the qualities that have made them successful so far and builds on them to create four distinct tracks. All born in the early aughts, the six girls exude relatability in their music—emphasizing the concept of teen spirit or “teen fresh.” STEREOTYPE is refreshingly sweet and girly while making a conscious effort to stand out in a sea of bubblegum-pop numbers. Even with its short runtime, you’ll journey through a myriad of funky synths, acoustic guitar riffs, tropical house, and 2000s R&B without a single skip. It’s become apparent that the STAYC girls are more than capable of cementing their place as leading ladies of K-pop’s new generation.
For a while, there was a lull in the flow of NCT 127 content in 2021. Granted, they had just come off the heels of their expansive Resonance era at the end of 2020 and dropped a Japanese album shortly after—the guys deserved a break. But after the long-awaited announcement, fans welcomed them back with open arms in their latest installment, STICKER. On its own, the 11-track LP is already impressive. But with three extra tracks included in the mix, you get Favorite—its repackaged and better counterpart. It’s no secret that 127—out of any unit—is the one tasked with pushing the limits of what’s considered popular music. Laced with the obvious “neo-print,” Favorite delivers the usual hard-hitting raps, melancholic ballads/R&B jams, and the peppy outbursts of a classic pop song. But like any 127 album, they continuously reinvent the wheel with elements fans have yet to hear, including the future-house influence of “Breakfast” and the dirty-bass-inspired banger, “Love on the Floor.” Through Favorite, the listener can experience the full depth of NCT in all their layered glory.
Arguably one of the most anticipated releases came from SM Entertainment’s aespa, which had already teased fans (also known as MY) with three singles. Then came Savage. Musically, it's a whirlwind of twists and turns. Like their label mates, NCT, aespa takes an experimental approach, then adds melodic harmonies and vocals. Jumping from a stadium-worthy anthem to a cyber-punk blend of hyper-pop, trap, and dubstep, Savage establishes what kind of record it’ll be within the first two tracks. Just as you think you’ve settled into the groove, they’ll flip the script on you and leave you dazed about how you ended up there—not that it matters when you’re enjoying it.
If anyone is going against the grain in the industry, it’s singer-songwriter BIBI, a rising star known for cleverly juxtaposing her “cute” image with taboo topics. In her sophomore EP, Life is a Bi…, she explores the toxic relationships one can form with others—and even with oneself. BIBI uses an upbeat and bouncy rhythm to counteract the depression in her lyrics in “Umm... Life.” Referencing the album cover, which shows the singer surreally bruised, she explains her “black eye” came from the misfortunes of life. Similarly, with the other four tracks, BIBI incorporates fun trap beats and harmonic riffs to lighten up the rather dark undertones behind the messages. Through her artistic freedom and subtle humor, BIBI isn’t afraid to say what others won’t—in fact, it’s her permanent domain.
ONEWE’s Planet Nine: Alter Ego is mesmerizing. The only way to describe their music is “otherworldly,” which is exactly what Planet Nine: Alter Ego is all about. Whether it’s the tropical playfulness of “Veronica” or the haunting hollowness of “COSMOS,” there’s an out-of-body experience lurking in the background of each song by the alternative-rock band. From lead single "Rain to Be" to B-sides like “LOGO” and the city-pop gem “A.I.,” each song feels like it manages to transcend time, space, and reality.
The EXO member has proven there’s so much more to him than meets the eye since his 2020 solo debut. Exactly one year after releasing his eclectic self-titled album, KAI marked his solo return with Peaches. Staying true to the sound created in 2020’s KAI (开), Peaches expands on R&B and hip-hop landscapes with hints of pop and lo-fi elements. But songs like the eponymous title track and the indie-pop-based “Vanilla” are relatively lighthearted and earnest compared to their predecessors. As some have pointed out, Peaches is the daytime equivalent to KAI (开)’s sultry nighttime escapades. Still, that doesn’t mean KAI’s gone fully soft on us, as noted in “Domino”—a place where the singer embraces his lower register wholeheartedly. As someone who was never at the forefront of EXO’s vocal line, he’s clearly come a long way from his “MAMA” days.
Ushering in the 2021 wave of second-gen returns was SHINee, rightfully nicknamed the Princes of K-Pop. Nearly three years of military enlistments took the 13-year-old group out of commission for a while (excluding Taemin), but even with the hiatus, it’s as if they never left. Don’t Call Me, their seventh studio album, is a celebration of SHINee’s triumphant and much-needed return. With top songwriters, producers, and, of course, SHINee themselves, the album refuses to let the group’s sound become stale. Given their success, it would be easy for them to rehash the same concepts and call it a day. But SHINee is too artistic to ever be rote. Don’t Call Me is everything existing fans can expect, with familiar nods to the group’s pop and R&B roots while attracting a newer audience through uncharted territories, such as hip-hop and reggae. Whether you’ve been a K-pop fan for 13 years or three, a crown jewel is always recognizable when you see one.
Harking back to the feel-good atmosphere of the '90s and early aughts, California native MRSHLL sparks a bit of a retro love fest in his EP [XYZ]. It’s easy listening at its finest as the singer visits different stages in a relationship. As a listener, you can usually tell when a record is deeply personal to an artist, and for MRSHLL, it’s clear his relationship with music is a lifeline keeping him tethered to the real world. Standouts from [XYZ] include the required slow jam “DATE NiTE” and the laid-back summertime vibe of “WHAZ GooD,” featuring Yoonmirae and Bizzy, respectively. Although MRSHLL is not one to pin himself down to one style—having done R&B, soul, dance, and house—he seems to have hit a sweet spot in this EP, and we’re hoping it doesn’t stop anytime soon.
The Good Days Boys, a collective of three friends who happen to be incredibly gifted musicians, songwriters, and composers, were one of the biggest K-pop discoveries of the year. The trio includes R&B singers Jimmy Brown and Sweet the Kid, along with melodic rapper Rovv. The Good Days Boys project is a series of single albums and EPs the trio has released throughout 2021. With seven volumes total—at the time of writing this—the series follows the artists through a common thread of sensual R&B and trap-inspired tunes. The Good Days Boys Vol. 5 is particularly a highlight, with four tracks suited for a midnight drive to nowhere, including “tonight” and “would you let me.” Touching on themes of love and lust, Jimmy Brown and Sweet the Kid share equal time in the spotlight, with a powerful cameo from Rovv in “nike.” If this is any indication of what 2022 has in store, you won’t want to miss out on TGDB.
EXO/SuperM member Baekhyun is a constant beacon of light. In his EP Bambi, the vocalist taunts his listeners with breezy falsettos, sophisticated runs, and a rich lower register—enough to send chills down the spine. Bambi is structured around evolving emotions within a relationship. Starting hopeful, “Love Scene” is a tender wish for everlasting love, something you’d find in the movies. But ending in a state of hopelessness, the record closes the chapter with a grieving “Cry for Love”—questioning where it all went wrong. With six distinctive levels of pop, R&B, soul, and jazz, Baekhyun pours his heart out without regret.