WOODZ – “WAITING”
Album: ‘ONLY LOVERS LEFT’
Release Date: October 5
Ah, the song that helped me understand the hype he got in 2020 from a bunch of publications. “Waiting” entices the listener with a guitar, which then provides a steadying rhythm throughout the rest of the song, and the drum hits and claps give it a Latin flair. It’s a simple formula at its core but one that results in a seamless and addicting sound when paired with an arrangement that demonstrates control over the track’s tension. WOODZ’s vocals are a star in their own right, as the light and breathy style exhibited here is an outstanding fit for the engrossing instrumental.
IU – “LILAC”
Release Date: March 25
The type of vocal that works best with city pop is right in IU’s wheelhouse, an effortless combination of velvety and airy, and she delivers that for “LILAC“. The combination of synths and strums provide the necessary throwback feel, and the burst of energy in the chorus provides a better punch than many others in the genre. At its core, it’s a song about saying goodbye to your past self and transitioning to being a boomer, which unfortunately speaks to me now more than ever.
ENHYPEN – “Tamed-Dashed”
Album: ‘DIMENSION : DILEMMA’
Release Date: October 12
HYBE‘s rock-infused turn for their group’s singles has been a pleasant development, at least for my tastes, and this instrumental is another star. The bass guitar that powers the entire track and the gritty-ass synth that kicks in for the chorus make this whole effort work, as the energy from them just never relents. The main drawback of this song is listening to it while driving makes you want to speed and increases your risk of serious injury or death … but on the other hand it rips ass.
CIX – “Cinema”
Album: ‘Hello Chapter 0: Hello Strange Dream’
Release Date: February 2
“Ooooooooooh, cinema, cinema, cinema” about sums up CIX‘s should-have-been breakout track. Sure, the bass guitar and dreamy vocals create a pleasant air to it all, but the simple melody of the chorus featuring that beautiful descending vocal hook is just amazing. It’s one of those songs that you can hear in your mind as soon as you see the artist and title anywhere without anybody even having to press play.
DPR IAN – “Nerves”
Album: ‘Moodswings In This Order’
Release Date: March 12
A thematic turning point on the album, “Nerves” is appropriately desperate, like the bargaining stage of grief. It’s breathtakingly raw in execution, and the upbeat but simple production notes requires that kind of performance to make it work. The lyrics express inner conflict with appropriate angst, and stuff like the “I’m doing fine” repetition completely taking over the song hammers that home. It’s not a song that’s happy escapism like so much released this year, and if you’re in the same headspace as the DPR IAN was when he wrote this then it’s actually painful, but that’s the whole point.
Aespa – “Savage”
Release Date: October 5
Such a polarizing song, but I don’t care what anybody says, the start of “Savage” is close to flawless. From the delivery of the “I’m a killa” opening to the hyperpop production notes to the thumping bass, things definitely get off on the right foot. The chorus avoids “Next Level” kind of repetitive dreariness that goes nowhere thanks to having vocal interjections from Winter and Ning Ning, and the vocal-heavy bridge helps to salvage the back half to an adequate degree. While this was a bit more avant-garde than most K-pop fans would like, ironically I think its strength over similar attempts at this in 2021 is that it has more familiar pop notes to lean on than the rest.
Dreamcatcher – “BEcause”
Album: ‘Summer Holiday’
Release Date: July 30
The creepy soundscape contrasts nicely with the lyrics, which are ostensibly about love but in a possessive Misery sort of way. Melodically, the overwhelming strength of “BEcause” is the riff from an aggressively-plucked string instrument that starts the song and features prominently in the chorus. The drum and bass foundation reminded me of “Sleep Walking“, and the combination of these two elements raises the floor of “BEcause” quite high. The rhythmic “because I like/love you” hook is plenty addictive, and the aggressive ending flourish was a nice touch to a song that has a ton of replay value.
PURPLE KISS – “Can We Talk Again”
Album: ‘INTO VIOLET’
Release Date: March 15
A mid-tempo showcase for the vocals of PURPLE KISS, it’s not necessarily dynamic but it rides a tried and true melodic formula to make an enchanting listen behind the “can we talk again, can we try again” central hook. Some curves are thrown in with the drums and bass, but the throwback R&B intent was made clear at the outset and there’s something satisfying about a group simply delivering on that promise instead of trying to get too wild/cute with it.
NIve – “I’m Alive”
Album: ‘Broken Kaleidoscope’
Release Date: July 27
There’s perhaps no better message to represent the last two years than taking pride in just staying alive even as the world around you collapses into shit, so needless to say I found “I’m Alive” to be a comforting rallying cry. The fact that NIve executes this message through an energetic rock instrumental alongside a repetitive but captivating hook was a pleasant surprise. Absolutely loved his vocal performance here, as NIve himself is what takes this song to the heights that it achieves.
Sunmi – “Borderline”
Release Date: August 6
The tempo is appropriately reserved for a song with this subject matter, focusing on building out a soundscape that represents Sunmi‘s state of mind. The synths are depressed and the atmosphere is smothering, though it actually ends up forming a nice bit of alt rock. Thematically, I like that there’s no happy ending here, it’s just degrees of doubt, anxiety, and frustration, which will ring as relatable to many dealing with mental health struggles. And you know, as much as loud sections of K-pop stans say they love artistry and authenticity and what not, “Borderline” didn’t really seem to be given its flowers from those types.