Years may come and years may go, but some K-pop greats stay on forever. Here are the 10 best K-pop songs of 2021. 

It’s that time of the year again – we’re stuck in a limbo between 2021 and 2022 and wondering why we have to be stuck in a capitalistic hell of work when we can all just fuck off and enjoy the New Year. Fortunately, as we always do, we have some good ol’ K-pop to get us through the hard times. 

Where last year was a very welcome callback to the retro era in K-pop, 2021 brought with it the revival of the aughts, with pop-punk dominating in releases from TXT to SEVENTEEN. Despite having one eye on the past, the future and beyond was always in sight – whether it was through fighting lovestruck zombies (as in Sunmi’s ‘You Can’t Sit With Us’) or by going deeper into the virtual world of aespa, as we did on ‘Next Level’ and ‘Savage’. 

After a slightly musically homogenous 2020, the variety of 2021 was a welcome treat for K-pop fans, but there were some tracks that just hit different. In no particular order, here they are: 

NCT 127 – ‘Sticker’

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Is there anyone who doesn’t absolutely lose their mind the minute the flute kicks in? Led by a hypnotic flute that becomes the base of this track, NCT 127’s ‘Sticker’ delighted in its refrained, almost out-of-control intensity, cementing the group’s image as an act that can surprise in their commitment to pulling any concept. 

Taemin – ‘Advice’

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The only valid reaction to Lee Taemin dropping anything is the ‘*chuckles* I’m in danger’ meme, because let’s face it: you are. Taemin’s last offering before he put pause on his career to enlist in the military, ‘Advice’ comes power-packed with the confidence and assurity that Taemin has painstakingly built over the course of his solo career. If this was goodbye, we can’t wait to see him again. 

SHINee – ‘Atlantis’

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Can we just dub 2021 the year of the Great SHINee revival? Because hint, hint: this won’t be the first time a group member appears on this list. While some would say the group’s long-awaited comeback ‘Don’t Call Me’ deserves the award for the better title track, it was ‘Atlantis’’ pure SHINee-ness that – don’t come for me – makes it the superior track. 

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aespa – ‘Next Level’

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This was a great year for aespa – carrying forward the hype of their debut, aespa delivered an equally cohesive and scintillating album. It all, however, started with ‘Next Level’, the genre-bending, roller-coaster track that saw them going from hip-hop to EDM to pure pop within the span of a single song. Turns out, the song is aptly named. 

TXT – ‘0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You) feat. Seori’

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If you’ve never played TXT’s ‘0x1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)’ in a car while pretending to be the protagonist in a coming-of-age movie, what have you even done? It’s got the zeal, the determination, the grit, the longing, the passion, and the soaring chorus – essentially the perfect track for a group such as TXT, whose music reads like a diary of youth. If y0u see more pop-punk riddling K-pop albums in 2022, you have TXT to thank for those appearances. 

ENHYPEN – ‘Drunk-Dazed’

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Any list that doesn’t contain this masterpiece is lying to you, end of story. If there ever was a way to announce your arrival, ENHYPEN cracked it on ‘Drunk-Dazed’ and made it their own. Coming in guns blazing and chest thumping, ‘Drunk-Dazed’ was the first in what became a list of addictive bangers by ENHYPEN, positioning them as one of the most exciting groups of the year. 

Key – ‘Bad Love’

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One of K-pop’s most honest and greatest stars celebrated turning 30 by going back to his roots and turning everything he liked – retro, David Bowie, sci-fi, and fashion – into this enthralling extravaganza. From the retro sounds of the song, to the weirdly mesmerizing artwork featuring goopy aliens, to Key’s fantastic footwork and killer fashion – ‘Bad Love’ was Key at his absolute honest and finest, and a track we went back to again and again. 

TWICE – ‘The Feels’

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TWICE announced their arrival on the world scene by giving us ‘The Feels’, and all we can say is: “Give us ‘more and more!’” Okay, yes, not our best pun, but you understand what we mean, right? Despite ‘The Feels’ being their first English-language single, TWICE came in with the confidence of an act that is absolutely sure of what they are saying, which is what makes it such a delightful pop offering. 

STAYC – ‘Stereotype’

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If there is one act we are keeping an eye on for 2021, it’s STAYC, who made 2021 their own on the viral success of their tracks ‘ASAP’ and ‘So Bad’. It was ‘Stereotype’, however, which proved that their hype wasn’t a one-off phenomenon. Laden with future-bass and synths, ‘Stereotype’ was STAYC’s unabashed declaration that they may be new, but they are certainly not to be underestimated. We heard you loud and clear, girls! 

IU – ‘Lilac’

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With many of our favorite stars from the 2000s hitting 30 this year, it seems as if a generation of fans graduated as well. And while Key welcomed his 30s with the bombastic carnival of ‘Bad Love’, IU chose to say goodbye to her 20s by writing them a ‘Lilac’ love letter. 

The dreamy, pop number compares IU’s time in her 20s to a fulfilling relationship, which has now come to an amicable end as she gets off at a new station. This goodbye, however, is anything but sad – she may no longer be the old IU, but she will never forget the memories of her 20s. If you’re not crying right now, just give the song a listen. You’ll get why we say that we’ll never have another IU. 

You can read more about this topic over at the Asia Pop Observer.