10. ONEUS – LUNA
Sometimes there comes a track which is a near flawless combination between artist and song and in ONEUS’ case, Luna showed us just how incredible the boys could be when they combine their high concept imagery with an equally striking song. Luna, to put it simply, is the ideal k-pop song, bringing together traditional Korean influences and melding them with a pulsing synth wave beat which brings just enough of a trendy touch to appeal to the masses. But the grand, sweeping chorus at the tracks core is what makes Luna a transformative experience, leaning fully into a gorgeous, extended melody that swirls like the clouds parting to give way to the moonlight. And by the time the dramatic, all hands on deck climax rolls around, Luna has already delivered a near perfect musical moment and ONEUS’s strongest yet.
9. Yuqi ((G)-idle) – Bonnie & Clyde
When I heard that Yuqi would be releasing a solo single, I didn’t really know what to expect. And given that (G)-idle had been a very hit or miss group for me, I wasn’t really hinging my bets on the release of Bonnie & Clyde. But if this track taught us anything, it was that the best of surprises usually come from the most unexpected of places. Bonnie & Clyde is an absolute stunner, taking influence from the kind of dramatic, powerful, neo noir esque female fronted singles of the 80’s and tacking on a a majestic chorus which pulses with an unrelenting sense of drive and majesty.
It’s the strongest all english single out of Korea this year, putting a greater focus on production and performance than lyrical wordplay, something many English language k-pop tracks fall victim to. Instead, Yuqi’s performance is what elevates Bonnie & Clyde into something special. Her husky voice is the perfect complement to the powerful, trance rock production, giving an already tense performance a sense of real drama and personality.
8. Key (SHINee) – Bad Love
Key has always been a showman and very open about his love for the 80’s, two things that I always wished he would combine for a world shattering single. And with the majestic Bad Love, he granted that wish. A modern day sci fi epic in song form, Bad Love is high concept k-pop at its most undiluted, powering forward on a heavy, synth laced beat which just oozes with panache. Its distorted opening instrumental catches the ear instantly, transitioning perfectly into the intense thumping beat that acts as a dynamic through line for a track that gets more and more overwhelming the longer it goes. And not just for the listener though. The production plays out like a tug of war situation, always feeling as though it’s going to grow too powerful to contain before Key reels it back in with that dramatic shout and soaring chorus.
7. TXT – LO$ER=LO♡ER (review)
TXT’s embrace of alternative pop rock was one of 2021’s most promising and unique, taking an already strong singles run and injecting it with a newfound, melodramatic energy. Of their two big singles, LO$ER=LO♡ER was the more restrained, hinging more heavily on atmosphere and emotion than its predecessor. This resulted in a track that many didn’t have the most instant of impressions on but one that only got more and more effective as the plays and months went on. From its insistent soft rock instrumental to the boys great, raw performance, every element in LO$ER=LO♡ER comes together like a nice circle.
I adore how the verses have an ascending structure, gradually getting more and more stuffed before coming to a head with that fantastic climactic rap and chorus. It’s a track that plays around with its themes, feeling at times insecure, vulnerable and isolated, only to transform those emotions into a rousing cry that resonates with youths all over the world. The chorus is the perfect summer road trip singalong and when tacked onto a message as powerful as this, LO$ER=LO♡ER stands as a complete triumph.
6. SHINee – Atlantis (review)
A tour-de-force performance of a track that could only be performed by legends who were up to the task, Atlantis is the undiluted pure, aggressive funk that I wanted from SHINee’s long awaited comeback. SHINee have always excelled when they go for the pop jugular and with Atlantis, they returned to the sheer intensity that powered their many classics. This is SHINee at their absolute best, powered by a stunning vocal performance and unique instrumental that allows the boys to really transform it into their own playground.
There’s just something so satisfying about a group leaning into everything that makes them so special and when the climactic high note that punctuates each chorus is supported by that shaky, undulating beat, it’s a near out of body experience. SHINee have one of the most instantly recognisable and powerful vocal blends in the industry and the arrangement here amplifies it to immense levels. Every single line is delivered with a sense of urgency, layering the boys vocals to create moments which stretch an already potent melody to extraordinary levels.
5. Golden Child – Breathe (review)
One part of one of modern K-pop’s most legendary comebacks, Golden Child’s Breathe has a lot of significance in the history of good ‘ole KBopped. From being the first ever rave review to the first ever post-release 10/10 to being my most listened to song of 2021 according to Spotify wrapped, It’s a fair to say that I was completely bowled over by Breathe. And when the song is this damn strong, it’s not hard to understand why. As a complete antithesis to the emotive Burn It, Breathe laid its sights on a brighter, more nostalgic sound, tacking a sticky new jack swing beat with an immense, almost otherworldly chorus that absolutely soars. And this is because Breathe is a track that’s polished to perfection, making perfect use of almost all of its instrumental elements alongside empty space to make sure that every single element hits incredibly hard. And while many bright songs may come across as too saccharine or bland, Breathe has heart, something it conveys every time that mammoth chorus comes around and embraces you like a big, loving hug.
4. TXT – 0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You) (feat. Seori) (review)
TXT had ventured down the rock route once before during their debut with the superb Run Away but till May this year, it was a sphere that largely remained untapped. And as someone who adored (and still does love) Run Away I always held out for the boys to return to that sound. And with the immense, angst ridden 0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You), TXT returned to to the driving percussive rock I was hoping. But with a twist.
You see, this song, despite being rock based like Run Away was a completely different genre. With this, the boys shot their shot at emotive, punk rock and gave us a real moment, complete with thundering percussion, searing guitars and a performance that feels pained enough to actually feel conniving. The stadium conquering chorus is a rallying cry against the kind of complicated emotional turmoil faced by teenagers and an unrivalled moment of catharsis that feels truly deserved in a way that very few do. One that shoots straight for the heart of those issues with a musical package that feels just as raw and chaotic as its subject matter. A realisation that our once bubbly Cat and Dog‘s had grown. A realisation that just like everyone and everything, shifting emotions are a natural due process thanks to the ever moving nature of time. A realisation that, despite all our troubles, you just got to keep going..
3. Brave Girls – After We Ride (review)
After ruling the summer with the incredibly optimistic Chi Mat Ba Ram, Brave Girls returned with the gorgeous, synth laden, tears on the dance floor masterwork that is After We Ride. This is my kind of pop song, heavily indebted to the 80’s synth pop craze and combining that aesthetic to an incredibly melodic and emotional soundscape that instantly feels nostalgic. It harnesses a gorgeous, almost ethereal synth based instrumental that surges with a real sense of emotion, pulled back in the way many modern pop songs are but overcoming its competition with a near unrivalled sense of atmosphere. The production carries a much more mature energy that has become all too rare in a k-pop landscape dominated by younger groups.
It’s the most atmospheric single of the year, opening with one of the most emotional hooks of the year in the form of a swirling, near ethereal chant that conveys the kind of melancholia that can only be understood by those stuck in the everlasting loop of longing for someone who despite once being incredibly close, now always seems out of reach. And though many tracks would be satisfied with a hook this strong to do all the heavy lifting, After We Ride is home to another whopper of a hook which it saves for each of its choruses’. A gorgeous, vocal led centrepiece that resounds with an unprecedented level of nostalgia that manages to completely wash over the listener.
Lyrically, it’s a song about getting over the past, a message that it conveys expertly through its musical direction by structuring the entire track as a journey. When that surging, wistful opening hook reappears during the tracks climax, it feels different. It feels triumphant, powerful and assured. It feels like a statement of acceptance. A mental breakthrough. A moment of real musical and mental catharsis. Electric guitar and all.
2. ONF – Beautiful Beautiful (review)
ONF have long given us tracks that can be described as lightning in a bottle but few tracks will ever feel as truly alive and loose as the all killer no filler glitchy electro-funk pop masterpiece that is Beautiful Beautiful. Opening with its strongest and most recognisable hook, Beautiful Beautiful demands instant attention with an oft repeated but incredibly potent “Brrram Bbabam” before Hyojin lends us an all too familiar introduction to the futuristic cityscape that ONF have oh so loving created for us. It’s rare you get a modern K-pop track lay out its strongest assets within its opening few seconds but Beautiful Beautiful revels in its unflagging energy and sense of confidence
The song is just stunning from start to finish, harnessing the groups buoyant pop sound for a track that grabs you by the collar almost instantly and just refuses to let go. There’s not a single misstep here. Not one. Beautiful Beautiful doesn’t know the meaning of random momentum killing breakdowns or weak melodic phrasing. It’s got one mission and one mission only. And that’s to entertain. And boy does it succeed in that regard. If Russel Crowe somehow in some form walked out of the music video and delivered his iconic “Are you not entertained?!” speech from Gladiator then I wouldn’t even miss a beat to say that yes. Yes I am.
Beautiful Beautiful isn’t just a song but a moment. It’s a bright, incredibly optimistic, irresistibly buoyant and wonderfully crafted pop song that even goes out of its way to fit in an acapella breakdown during its bridge to make sure that the listener is never, I repeat NEVER, bored. For the uninitiated it may seem all seem a little too much too quickly. But with a song like Beautiful Beautiful, that sense of disorientation is what makes the final result all the more extraordinary.
1. Golden Child – Burn It (review)
The best moments in K-pop history aren’t just fantastic musical moments. They aren’t just chart topping hits by big name artists. They aren’t just one great chorus after another. But rather, in my opinion. The best moments in K-pop are when a group returns with a fully realised concept that is ambitious, engrossing and most importantly, musically transcendent. And though it didn’t hit me instantly, Burn It is undoubtedly one of those moments.
K-pop (and music videos in general) have had a long history with zombies in their music videos and while many have used them as nothing more than a gag reel to backup their bright overtly cheerful pop track (don’t get me wrong I do love many of those), Burn It takes a much more grounded and realistic approach. The solemn, rawness of the track is a perfect complement to the gorgeously shot 7 minute long cinematic music video which contains a surprisingly deep and affecting plot with nothing more than a stunning soundtrack and excellent shot composition. And this symbiotic relationship between music video and song is what truly makes Burn It shine.
It’s one transcendent moment after another, bringing the kind the kind of gravitas that few tracks can ever come close to, let alone match. Very few times have I come away from a song overcome with both hope and shock but with every listen the Burn It clocked in, the more and more I grew to love this insanely ambitious track. From the quiet, instantly gripping opening verse, accompanied by nothing more than a gorgeous flute sample to the exhilarating central hook that combines a powerful yet incredibly raw vocal performance with a rousing, chant heavy post chorus that further exemplifies the pleading, yet surprisingly hopeful nature of the track, every single moment in Burn It feels meaningful. They feel integral to the entire package, fully committing to the melodramatic soundscape without a hint of restraint to give us the one message I think we all needed not just in 2021 but for the foreseeable future.
That despite everything.
Even if you feel the world is collapsing around you.
You will be fine.