Top 10 Korean Albums Of 2021: Honorable Mentions
Top 10 Korean Albums Of 2021: Part 1
AKMU – ‘NEXT EPISODE’
Release Date: July 26
Notables: “Hey Kid Close Your Eyes”, “NAKKA”, “Stupid Love Song”, “EVEREST”
Honestly, I didn’t expect to put ‘NEXT EPISODE‘ here. At the time of release it seemed extremely top heavy, both in terms of song quality and album order with “Hey Kid Close Your Eyes” and “NAKKA” leading the way and deservedly dominating listen time. Further consideration led me to appreciate the understated melodies of one melancholy, rhythmic track with surprising bite (“Stupid Love Song“) and one slow burn with a hell of a build from the summery tones of two great vocalists (“EVEREST“) that proved to be captivating even as standalones.
Furthermore, the album was structured well, immediately establishing the theme of speaking to those taking the step into adulthood and the scary world at large, written less like a contemporary feeling of the duo and more of a look back that aims to provide guidance and hope to those whose journeys are yet to come. Due to being a collab album, the expectation was that it might be a bit scattershot, but AKMU managed to pull everything together under their cohesive vision to produce a satisfying end result.
TWICE – ‘Formula Of Love: O+T=<3’
Release Date: November 12
Notables: “MOONLIGHT”, “ICON”, “CRUEL”, “F.I.L.A”, “PUSH & PULL”, “1, 3, 2”, “The Feels”
The maturation of TWICE‘s sound started last year and it was surprising just how well they adapted almost instantly. Impressively, their evolution continues with ‘Formula Of Love‘, an album that makes it clear their growing up not only came in the form of songs with darker tones but could be sustained across a shockingly wide range of possibilities. Sure, there were the sounds that ranged from trendy synth-pop to reggaeton to rock ballads, but they also conveyed attitudes that ranged from playful and vulnerable to powerful and self assured.
The album is a true full-length album, and while it isn’t teeming with absolute standouts, there’s just a bunch of quality across the board. Thematically, there isn’t really a deeper ethic to ‘Formula Of Love’, but it feels like a complete accounting of TWICE’s versatility and a showcase for their growth as artists.
WOODZ – ‘ONLY LOVERS LEFT’
Release Date: October 5
Notables: “Thinkin Bout You”, “Kiss Of Fire”, “Chaser”, “WAITING”
At first blush WOODZ seemed to choose a bizarre way to structure his album, as its quality is undoubtedly backloaded, finishing with a great song and then two of the best of the year. But after taking a step back a bit to evaluate it does make sense within the scope of the theme he seeks to convey, as he takes listeners through the experience of love. Things start with heart-fluttering feelings, transitions to both parties changing over time and drifting apart, and then documents the frustration of not being able to reconnect like before.
Being able to construct an effective narrative with authentic emotion while making most of the tracks of outstanding quality is an impressive accomplishment, especially for an artist that’s still in the earlier stages of his career. WOODZ has managed to compile an album in ‘ONLY LOVERS LEFT‘ that much more veteran artists are still desperately searching for, and with it he loudly announces his arrival.
Sunmi – ‘1/6’
Release Date: August 6
Notables: “You Can’t Sit With Us”, “1/6”, “Call”, “Borderline”
Sunmi seems to prefer singles and she’s never released a full album, which is unfortunate because if the ‘1/6‘ mini is any indication, she certainly has the chops to do so. An expert by now in retro themes, Sunmi continues to take listeners down that path with the delirious “You Can’t Sit With Us“, which one could almost categorize as delusional fantasy. It feels purposeful because as the album continues the sounds modernize a bit and the subject matter becomes increasingly grounded in reality, with layers of her persona being revealed and topics like depression and regret explored. Eventually she depicts herself with a striking vulnerability and highlights her inner battles, penning lyrics about the feeling of losing oneself and attempting to reconcile the front stage/back stage aspects of her identity.
Musically, things range from bold and anthemic to introspective and gloomy, from synthwave to alt rock, and Sunmi makes most of the songs resonate. While she’s always delivered a sense of a genuineness since she’s staked out on her solo career, ‘1/6’ doesn’t shy away from hard realities and ends up as her most personal and moving effort yet.
Younha – ‘END THEORY’
Release Date: November 16
Notables: “P.R.R.W.”, “BIG PICTURE”, “Wish”, “Oort Cloud”, “Truly”, “Stardust”, “Savior”
Given my general animus towards ballads, on the surface it might be a bit surprising to see ‘END THEORY‘ here, but Younha bypasses any potential issue by making vocal-centric music that’s also captivating from a production standpoint. Even the ballads stand out as compelling on this diverse album, which is why it’s arguably the best of the year. ‘END THEORY’ takes the listener on an epic, spacey musical journey that at times feels grounded in reality and at times feels almost existential in nature, but whichever it is Younha makes the experience feel exhilarating.
As important as anything is her vocal performance, not only the powerful belting but the emotion she instills in everything and her ability to find the right tone for each instrumental moment, whether gentle or exuberant. But in the end what separates this from her contemporaries is her ability to recognize, include, and extract melodic elements for every song no matter what the tempo, genre, or subject matter, which is important since she fearlessly tackles seemingly anything and everything. Whether a slow-building piano-centered epic, a brisk EDM track, or a roaring foray into country, the versatility is on full display for ‘END THEORY’ and the end result is an album that deserves to be one of her crowning achievements.