While social gatherings of all kinds are beginning to return in parts of the world, it will be a while before concerts—especially ones that require international travel—make a complete comeback. For the K-pop audiences eagerly waiting for their favorite idols to perform in their countries, there is, thankfully, a bountiful supply of new music released since the start of the year. The standout K-pop songs of 2021 to date reveal influences from a range of genres, including pop-rock, R&B, and synth-pop, reflecting the sheer variety of music from South Korea. The tracks come from artists with a broad spectrum of experience—from hip-hop trio Epik High and soloist IU, who debuted in 2003 and 2008, respectively, to girl groups who just launched their careers in 2020.
In no particular order, here are the best K-pop songs of the year so far.
“After School,” Weeekly
With only two E.P.s under their belt before releasing their latest project, We Play, the seven members of Weeekly have already earned great renown as rising icons of cheery pop. “After School” has only strengthened that reputation. An instant energy booster with an upbeat melody, the track describes the anticipation of waiting for the last school bell to ring and the boundless freedom that comes with it. “Ready, set, go! Feel it,” the members chant. Weeekly may be singing about the activities that happen after classes, but “After School” invites all to revel in the rush of being free of responsibilities—academic or otherwise—for three minutes.
“0X1=Lovesong (I Know I Love You),” TXT ft. Seori
Among the rock-heavy songs from K-pop artists over the years, TXT’s “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)” is a standout—and not just on the charts, where The Chaos Chapter: FREEZE, the album on which the track is a lead single, ranked fifth on the Billboard 200. In this angsty and grungy number, the five members sing of being swallowed by darkness with only the object of their affection shining as the source of light. TXT delivers the lyrics (R.M. of BTS contributed to writing) with explosive force, the most impactful being vocalist Taehyun’s coarsely growled lines. Singer-songwriter Seori’s dulcet tone adds a smoothness to the track, rounding the rough edges from the voices of TXT members.
“illa illa,” B.I.
“illa illa”—titled haebyeon or “beach” in Korean—tugs at the heartstrings from its first moments: “Oh, at the end of my sleeves is a beach/’cause I wiped out the water flowing on both cheeks,” B. I sing. This title track for his first album as a solo artist (he left boy group iKon in 2019), B. I sing aching lyrics that compare his tears to the sea. As he effortlessly shifts between singing and rapping across mellow instrumentals, the artist adds to the vivid imagery with piercing lines like, “I’m swept away again by the waves that sway around my eyes.” And while it’s tempting to focus on the limitless nature of the ocean at beaches, B.I.’s metaphor doesn’t end there. On the other side of the water is dry land, and in the song’s final verses, the artist triumphantly sings of not shedding new tears. “Though I know it will crumble/I probably build a sandcastle again,” he declares with the breadth and depth of emotions he conveys, B.I. It shows he’s as much a storyteller as he is a songwriter.
In a March 2021 interview with W Korea, singer-songwriter I.U. explained the meaning behind her new album’s name, which is also the single lead title. “Lilac,” she said, means “memories of youth” in the language of flowers. And the title track is all about celebrating those memories while recognizing their ephemeral nature. “Love me only ’till this spring/ Like a warm breeze,” sings the veteran artist. While many of I.U.’s tracks are sung in a weightier fashion, her singing here is airy and delicate —whether in the soft falsetto or the whispery ooh’s that fill the post-chorus. Like the “misty dream” and the falling lilac petals she sings of, I.U.’s timber echoes the transient quality of memories.
Don’t let the references to “Neverland,” “Tinkerbell,” and “fairytale” fool you: “Bambi” is not a song for children. The R&B track from EXO vocalist Baekhyun’s latest project—released before his recent military enlistment—explores slightly more mature themes than your average bedtime story. Over groovy guitar licks, Baekhyun croons of a special someone he refers to as his “Bambi.” “It’s a perfect night for you,” the artist sings. The track is smooth and sensual, particularly seductive when his voice soars into falsetto. And when Baekhyun describes the night rain “dripping down on us all night until the morning,” the wordplay in the song’s title becomes apparent. Bam means night in Korean, and bi means rain. As much as “Bambi” alludes to the fictional deer, it also refers to the picturesque scenery in which Baekhyun hopes to spend time with a lover.
“ASAP” may not be the type of instant earworm that its predecessor, “So Bad,” was, but its charm is undeniable once the song’s melodies take hold. While a punchy chorus and fast-paced tempo marked STAYC’s debut single, the new track features more laid-back tunes over a slower rhythm. Combined with a catchy instrumental hook, the song has all the breezy and bouncy summer bop ingredients. Stacy’s charisma is on full display as the members playfully ask for their other halves to appear before them, well, ASAP. Throughout the track, they give themselves a vote of confidence with this spunky spoken reminder: “I think I’m cool.”
“Beautiful Beautiful,” ONF
“Beautiful Beautiful” takes no time to build up energy. From its opening, the track announces its arrival with a booming motif of “prrrum’s” and “pump’s” in a lively melody. The introduction sets the mood: the six-member ONF’s song is a refreshing banger that should be the soundtrack to all self-directed pep talks. “I’m beautiful, sing it,” the group rouses in the chorus, followed by declarations about shining like brilliant stars. And after more than a year of putting hopes and dreams on hold because of the pandemic, who doesn’t want to join in on verses about making a toast to ourselves? Aside from the rejuvenating lyrics, the track brings a sonic surprise when members sing the motif in softened voices a cappella and with mild beatboxing in the background. It’s a moment to catch a breath before momentum kicks in for the track’s high-spirited finale.
“Love So Sweet,” Cherry Bullet
In “Love So Sweet,” Cherry Bullet captures the spectrum of sensory experiences that come with being in love. They describe the sounds from the 20-decibel whispers between lovers to the “lump-dump lump-dup” beating of the heart and sing of the taste that is “Sweeter than candy/ sweeter than chocolate.” The result is a sugary aftertaste, as the seven members of Cherry Bullet deliver their lines in honeyed tones. The highlight of this energetic synth-pop track is its hook. First, there is a whistled melody over quiet drum beats. Then, the artists join in on this same tune with a string of feathery “da’s.” “Love So Sweet” may sound light, but it’s packed full of flavor.
“Next Level,” aespa
The first listen of “Next Level” raises many questions: Why does it sound like there are two songs in one? What do lyrics like “Kwangya” and “Naevis” even mean? (They are, it turns out, vocabulary for the fictional S.M. Culture Universe to which the four members of aespa and their virtual avatars belong.) But at a certain point, these thoughts fade into the background as the addictive quality of this hip-hop dance track takes over. The anthemic chorus is infused with snappy energy, one that compels the listener to transform any stroll into an imagined runway strut when the rap verses beginning with “I’m on the next level” start to play. The track is also refreshing in its song structure. K-pop songs often (but not always) share standard placements of verses, choruses, and bridges in their composition. “Next Level,” with its mid-track tempo changes, brings an unexpected but welcome variation.
“Rosario,” Epik High ft. CL, ZICO
“Rosario” is all about turning the flack from haters into fuel. Much of the diss track is directed toward those who continuously attack with their words in this collaboration between the Korean hip-hop trio Epik High, CL, and ZICO. But the seasoned artists are unbothered instead of focusing on an imminent moment of triumph. “If you weren’t around when I shed tears/you’d better not be around when I’m smiling,” Epik High leader Tablo raps over a slick guitar riff. CL continues the train of thought—”Go ahead, tear me to pieces and talk your sh-t,” she sings in the chorus before proclaiming, “Out of my way, I am a legend, and I’m here to stay.” Released in January, amid an overall feeling of defeat in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Rosario” has become an anthem of victory.