WOODZ – “Kiss Of Fire”
Album: ‘ONLY LOVERS LEFT’
Release Date: October 5
Actually, WOODZ is the one who has been on fire this year. Folks…
Seriously though, “Kiss Of Fire” presents a compelling instrumental, expressive vocals, and an indelible chorus. It’s mainly synthy R&B with a darker atmosphere to it thanks to a deliberate pacing at times, but the drop into the chorus is where the song really takes off, introducing a funky, grimy bass line and a two-for-one melody fronted by “you got that kiss of fire” and “it’s just the way you burn me” hooks. Doesn’t mean much, but WOODZ has easily been the 2021 king of making me groove along to his music in my living room while hoping nobody is secretly recording me.
SE SO NEON – “Joke”
Release Date: November 23
Yet another song that did the bulk of its convincing within the first 30 seconds or so, especially with the “I don’t want to kill you, but 1, 2, 3, I’m gonna shoot” start to the lyrics. Look, what can I say? It’s SE SO NEON‘s fault for immediately introducing that funky guitar loop and screeching synth that sounds like it could’ve been from the soundtrack of the modern Ghostbusters remake or something. The somewhat distorted vocal performance is absolutely enchanting, and for an alt rock song the chorus is addictive and melodic as hell. The fact that this borderline unhinged performance is in the context of making a lover who has done wrong beg for forgiveness is just the cherry on top.
TXT – “Frost”
Album: ‘The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE’
Release Date: May 31
“Frost” has some similarities to fellow list member “Savage” from Aespa, at least in terms of the clinky hyperpop foundation for the verses. While that sound is … dividing, I actually think the disorienting nature of it with a booming beat compliments rap verses extremely well. Leering and creeping synths help contribute to the pre-chorus build, and everything gets unleashed in the chorus that has an engrossing, borderline punk vocal and is not nearly as “noisy” as it appears. A menacing overall track, this is the kind of hip-hop fusion by idols that I can get used to.
PIXY – “Bewitched”
Album: ‘Fairyforest : Temptation’
Release Date: October 7
PIXY straddles the line between basic girl crush and darker pop sensibilities, but on “Bewitched” they commit to the bit by going all-out sinister with the atmosphere, and the song (and concept as a whole) benefits from this. Both the production and the vocals give the impression of being dragged down or slowed in a fog, and they later break out of that as the tempo ramps up and drops into an addictive rhythmic chorus that reminded me a bit of TAEMIN from a few years back. It features a bass line with some real grit, and adds a surprising dash of retro synth that really puts the finishing touch on the impressive instrumental. An enchanting effort, PIXY finish things off with capable vocal flourishes.
TK – “Red Light”
Release Date: January 17
A no-frills retro effort, execution had to be high in order to make this work, and that’s basically TK‘s day job. The foundational beat keeps the song moving, and a timeless guitar riff comes into and fades out throughout the song but leaves an impact whenever it appears. Sprinkle some light synths over the track from time to time and the formula is already complete, but the production is so slick, and it ends up with such a foot-tapping rhythm, that it excels.
Sam Kim – “Love Me Like That”
Album: ‘Nevertheless Original Television Soundtrack Part 6’
Release Date: July 24
Being honest, Sam Kim could’ve probably just looped “I get defensive, and insecure, my own worst critic behind a closing door, I’m fragile” for three minutes and that would’ve been enough. With production this sparse, of course the vocal and songwriting was going to have to be the selling point, but this acoustic, confessional-style ballad hits all the right notes even for somebody like me, who rarely even wants to listen to acoustic ballads to completion. 10 years from now the first 15-30 seconds of this will probably still be referenced and/or used.
MOLDY & Sylarbomb – “Pacific Ocean”
Album: ‘Sci-Fi Short Film’
Release Date: April 21
“Pacific Ocean” fulfills my fantasy of having video game soundtracks sampled into hip-hop … even though this is not actually a sample. Regardless, the melodic instrumental loop gives off pure water level/stage vibes and it’s hard not to appreciate. Meanwhile, the flow of the rapping is diverse, and the “surfing” repetition that serves as a bit of a reprieve in the middle of the song is surprisingly impactful due to that amazing instrumental looping away behind it.
Eric Nam – “Any Other Way”
Album: ‘Any Other Way’
Release Date: November 12
If you hadn’t figured it out by now, I enjoy myself some smooth, palette-cleansing pop efforts. Straightforward doesn’t bother me as long as the execution is there, as not everything has to get overly complicated. Well, Eric Nam‘s buttery vocal delivering “cause I, wouldn’t have it any other way, oh oh, any other way” along with a light electric guitar appearance is more than enough to make “Any Other Way” work.
Zior Park – “MODERN FOX”
Release Date: June 3
‘SYNDROMEZ‘ was my introduction to Zior Park, and he certainly succeeded in his relentless pursuit to do something different, with “MODERN FOX” representing the album’s standout. A song essentially about the feeling of not belonging and society constantly trying to mold you to their will, he likens it to attempting to domesticate a fox and expresses exasperation towards it. Given his mission as an artist, the chugging guitar and consistent beat somewhat ironically makes for a simple production, but Zior Park turns himself into an instrument of sorts, delivering an idiosyncratic vocal that’s playful, sorta crazed, and colorful. The repetition of the “I don’t care” hook helps him express everything in a unique way while still producing catchy music.
Jackson Wang – “LMLY”
Release Date: March 26
Jackson Wang‘s hip-hop career was just not for me, but his turn towards a more mainstream pop identity of late has been a pleasant surprise, and “LMLY” is by far his best effort as a soloist. The propulsive synth underpinning the production keeps the momentum surging forward, and it has almost a soft rock vibe to it that’s helped along by a warm vocal that expresses a bittersweet energy perfectly. My expectation was the initial “don’t leave me loving you, whatever you do, don’t leave me loving you” hook would conclude the pleasantly melodic chorus, but it surprisingly took a further step up which sees the vocal really coming to life, and that helped cement “LMLY” as one of the year’s best from the plentiful retro synth pickings.