IU – “Strawberry Moon”
Album: ‘Strawberry Moon’
Release Date: October 19
While there’s a lot of hype behind most IU songs, especially when she explores trendy genres, there’s something to be said for just delivering a timeless mid-tempo pop effort, and “Strawberry Moon” might end up being her longest lasting 2021 endeavor. It’s a relentlessly bright, uplifting, and hopeful quasi-ballad with a vocal peak at the close that puts a nice ribbon on the package.
Rocket Punch – “Ride”
Album: ‘Ring Ring’
Release Date: May 17
While the title track was strong as well and got a lot more hype, “Ride” was an absolute tour de force in the synthwave trend. As somebody who has an affinity for songs that making you want to floor it at night on the highway, this was perfect for that setting and the “ride ride ride/look look look” repetition gives it a hook that appeals to a wide range of pop sensibilities.
B.I – “WATERFALL”
Release Date: June 1
In a twist of irony, while B.I was on his search for musical genius through trying to trip on LSD or whatever the fuck, he actually did find a bit of magic in his fall from grace. Now tracks like “WATERFALL” come off as a genuine and compelling form of musical expression, especially contrasted with peers whose image revolves around superficial fronting towards haters and what not. Throw in a simple but addictive beat behind the rather minimalist choral chanting of “oh whoa” and you have one of the best hip-hop tracks of the year out of Korea.
BDC – “MOON RIDER”
Album: ‘The Intersection: Discovery’
Release Date: March 8
“MOON RIDER” is dominated by its outstanding chorus that really kicks into gear during its back half with the pitch shifting higher and the vocal burst of “oh naye soneul jaba, jeo dare ollata” serving as a hook that digs in and doesn’t let go. The verses are less noteworthy, but they do enough to recycle the track back to the chorus, where the propulsive beat and a touch of strings takes over as the impossible-to-resist refrain repeats.
PURPLE KISS – “Zombie”
Album: ‘HIDE & SEEK’
Release Date: September 8
1. “Zombie bie-bie-bie, bie-bie-bie-bie-bie-bie-bie, zombie.“
2. “Ai kkamjjagiya!“
3. “Aya yayahae ayahaehea.“
Creating hooks and generally memorable moments in songs can seem so simple (and silly) in retrospect, but PURPLE KISS have them in droves and it makes their efforts so easy to get into. The most surprising thing? All of that listed probably aren’t even the best part of “Zombie“, as there’s a whole other section of chorus that serves melody to the listener and would stand alone as year-end list deserving in its own right. Add in quality idol rapping (from a Japan native to boot) and plenty of appropriate attitude in the group’s performance, and you get an outstanding earworm of a song.
Younha – “Stardust”
Album: ‘End Theory’
Release Date: November 16
For me, the thing that separates compelling ballads from just emotional wailing over piano and/or acoustic guitar is a feel for creating impressive melodies. Younha and whoever she works with on production seem to understand this best, and their ruthless execution elevate her ballads above the crowds of balladeers beneath. “Stardust” is ethereal throughout, utilizing a slow build that pays off in spades thanks to a jubilant chorus that’s worth repeating with growing intensity. Younha’s vocals are both gentle and powerful when required, and a gorgeous orchestral backing that enters makes this truly special. The songwriting supplements “Stardust” instead of trying to make it work by itself, which makes the ballad of fated love impactful and emotional.
DPR IAN – “So Beautiful”
Album: ‘Moodswings In This Order’
Release Date: March 12
“So Beautiful” served as my personal introduction to DPR IAN, and man this is my kind of understated track. Everything the production does here is so polished and it all works, from the rain in the intro to the beautiful strings to the whistling somehow being able to carry the post-chorus. There’s a noir atmosphere that’s created by the production, carrying a darkness and sense of dread to it, yet there’s also an almost sensual nature as well that’s trying to fight through that. DPR IAN’s vocal color is a breakout star in being able to express the nuance. “Let’s take a trip down a dark place, baby“, indeed.
Cherry Bullet – “Love So Sweet”
Album: ‘Cherry Rush’
Release Date: January 20
Some songs take a while for me to fully appreciate, but “Love So Sweet” was not one of those songs. From the moment they dropped the “20, 20 dB naman deullige soksagyeo jweo” line I was sold, and the “love love love love so, sweet” to bookend the packed chorus was a nice addition as well. The propulsive beat and synth keys is enough to capture anybody’s attention, and it simply never lets up the momentum and rhythm it generates. What a thought, huh?
Stray Kids – “MIXTAPE : OH”
Release Date: August 23
Talk about setting your audience up for one thing and delivering something else. Rather than “MIXTAPE : OH” being some kind of macho posturing nonsense, Stray Kids instead deliver a jubilant and charming pop track. Having the boys hit hard on every beat in the chorus was an effective way to compliment the instrumental melody, but it then really takes the next step when the group begins shouting out “HEYYY, CAN I CALL YOU BABY“, sealing the song’s chill but fun outdoor party atmosphere. I can just imagine how well this would play in concert, assuming humanity doesn’t end before they’re afforded the chance.
HA:TFELT (Feat. Keem Hyoeun) – “Summertime”
Release Date: July 14
Man, the carefree nature of this one really grew on me. It was a bit of odd timing to drop this as the transition to fall was starting, but it’s honestly less of a summer song and more of a dancing-like-a-fool-while-smoking-weed-in-the-desert kinda vibe. HA:TFELT‘s mature vocal carries this and makes it feel unique, and the hooks of the chorus really dig in over time.