At times, 2021 had moments full of excitement for what's to come, and at others, a sad spirit of exhaustion and ennui.
To some degree, K-pop reflected this, with many artists singing about a future after the Covid-19 pandemic, and others expressing frustration with the state of the world, and all with the experimentation and finesse associated with the musical scene.
Singles dominate in K-pop, but for those looking to dive deeper here is our pick of the best K-pop albums.
25. Monsta X - No Limit EP
Since 2015, Monsta X have alternated between pulsating dance tracks and sentimental love songs. No Limit starts with the lead track Rush Hour, which feels almost like an evolution of their earliest singles.
There's a whirlwind of sounds and styles on this album, ranging from the sexy chaotic ride of Autobahn to the absolute heaven of the angsty Mercy.
24. (G)I-dle - I burn EP
A raw lushness of spirit pervades (G)I-dle 's latest. A fiery, wintry addition to their I album series, I burn is velvet passion put to music, with the fierce single Hwaa and hypnotic ambience of Dahlia showing the group's range as they express the drama of lost love with their typical flair.
23. WayV - Kick Back EP
Like album closer Good Time, with its pep and a bit of softness, and tracks like Kick Back and Action Figure, this album from the Chinese unit of the larger NCT group is exhilarating.
It also allows WayV's vocals a chance to shine, as the group show their tender side in the ballad Horizon and get sultry in All For Love.
22. Dreamcatcher - Summer Holiday EP
Although Dreamcatcher have made a name for themselves as a gritty, metal- and hard-rock-fuelled K-pop group, Summer Holiday takes a bit of a break from that.
If you've ever gone on an invigorating adventure in the summertime, that is exactly the feeling the members of Dreamcatcher present on this album.
Their normal dramatic style is featured on single because, then there's the bubbly Airplane, the pulsating, yearning Whistle, the groovy city pop of Alldaylong, and the final breezy A Heart of Sunflower.
21. Woodz - Only Lovers Left EP
Woodz has the Midas touch when it comes to songwriting, and the soulful alt R&B singer's latest album is an emotive and funky experience that shows why he is one of the most intriguing talents on the K-pop scene today. As he sings in Thinkin bout you: " It's the way you make my heart sing."
20. CIX - HELLO' Chapter Ø. Hello, Strange Dream EP
The finale of CIX's Hello album series, this five-track EP is a sampler of the boy band's potential since their debut in 2019.
The group lulls listeners at first with Stairway to Heaven, followed by the absolute euphoria of Cinema, then comes out fighting with the seductive Round 2.
The album ends with the funky sentimentality of Everything, but not before the must-listen "rebel without a cause" anthem that is Young. Listening to the songs back-to-back, it may feel like an off-kilter dream, but one you wake up from and find yourself thinking about for years to come.
19. ONF - City of ONF LP
When it comes to synth-pop storytelling, there are few better in K-pop than ONF, whose City of ONF is a pleasure to listen to from start to finish.
There's the exuberance of the singles — the explosive upbeat Beautiful Beautiful, and the pure drama that is The Realist, with the members of ONF showing exactly how they're building a soundscape on their own terms.
18. Seventeen - Your Choice EP
With only six songs, Seventeen's eighth Korean EP is the definition of "short but sweet". It begins with the rollicking laid-back romance of Heaven's Cloud, followed by the exuberance of the single Ready to Love.
Stand-outs Anyone and Gam3 Bo1 follow that, the former a bit of funky pop-rock grunge and the latter going full blown into the world of glitch pop. The slinking Wave and the ballad same dream, same mind, same night close things out.
17. Red Velvet - Queendom EP
Marking the long-awaited return of Red Velvet after a 2020 without any releases, Queendom zooms in on the quintet's vocal prowess.
The title track is a celebratory opening to a series of songs that are a bit quirky, a bit of fun, with some of Red Velvet's R&B "velvet" side blended with their bubbly "red" side, each evoking a sense of comfort and perfectly meshing with Red Velvet's distinct style and past discography.
16. Kang Daniel - Yellow EP
Kang should be a sure-fire hitmaker: He was the most popular contestant on his season of the popular Korean competition show Produce 101, and the centre of Wanna One, the boy band that came out of it.
Yet when he puts out album after album that resonates with his stirring take on dark, dramatic alt R&B and dance tracks, it's somehow still surprising that each of his colour-themed albums shows new depth.
As in his past work, Kang gets intimate on Yellow, which is an emotional exploration of his mindset as a creator and as a public figure, reflecting feelings from paranoia to saving oneself.
15. Epik High - Epik High Is Here 上, Pt. 1 LP
Epik High may not be the typical K-pop idol group, but this long-lasting hip-hop trio's impact on the South Korean music scene is undeniable.
Full of songs that ruminate on existence, love, and everything in between, featuring some of the biggest stars and the most interesting singers and hip-hop artists working in South Korea today, Epik High Is Here is a multifaceted show of Epik High's present, past and hints towards the future.
It's a corona pandemic album that goes beyond the moment, with 10 nuance-filled tracks.
14. Onewe - Planet Nine: Alter Ego EP
A rock-band-K-pop hybrid act, Onewe bring something grandiose to every song; they have a flair for surging, dramatic melodies and captivating verses.
Planet Nine: Alter Ego is their best yet, with touches of sentimentality and playfulness that make for a larger-than-life album that feels both familiar and like something you've never encountered before.
13. Kai - Peaches EP
After last year's self-titled debut album raised the bar high for Exo 's Kai, he followed it with Peaches, which, like the fruit, is a juicy and tantalising musical offering.
A touch of oozing sensuality, a dash of Kai's proclivity for romantic R&B, and a healthy amount of eclectic hip-hop drive this album, which is, as they say, a whole snack.
12. Chung Ha - Querencia LP
Chung Ha has made a name for herself in recent years as one of K-pop's reigning dance queens, with her distinct performance flair and cool-girl-meets-girl-next-door style.
Querencia features the girl who went from Texas to Seoul to stardom singing about who and what she is at this stage in her life — initially inspired, it was reported, by conversations with her therapist.
This trilingual album (Korean, English and Spanish) draws on a wide range of genres and international music scenes to deliver a fluid soundtrack as Chung Ha shares this part of herself with the world.
11. NCT 127 - Favourite LP
NCT 127's music is always a bit eclectic, and their LP Sticker in September was just that.
When the extended, "repackage" edition Favorite dropped the following month, it became apparent the few additional tracks, from the titular Favorite to the suggestive, melodramatic Love on the Floor, turned a good album into a great one.
NCT 127's sound could be described as part exquisitely crafted chaos, part harmonious delight, and that's what Favorite serves up.
10. CL - Alpha LP
You don't really know what to expect from an album that starts off with a cameo from John Malkovich on a song dedicated to the Spicyness of Koreans, except that it will be full of excitement.
In a way that's a metaphor for CL's career: A sense of assuredness that whatever she does will be excellent, but an equal sense of disoriented "what is happening?"
CL was a member of 2NE1 and became one of the most prominent solo stars in K-pop before practically disappearing. But Alpha puts that all to rest, with the singer reminding us why we will never find another like her, as she declares that she's doing everything My Way.
9. IU - Lilac LP
For over a decade now, IU has shared a bit of herself with the public eye, with every release feeling like a page torn out of her diary. Lilac reflects that, like opening a window into her life on a breezy spring day.
Musically, each song on this purple-hued release is a different sort of confection, refreshing in its own way.
The album is a comforting listening experience filled with touches of nostalgia, jazziness, liveliness and sentimentality, in a way that is quintessentially IU.
8. Shinee - Atlantis LP
A long-awaited album from the prominent, ever reliable K-pop group, Atlantis, and its earlier version Don't Call Me, is what 2021 needed: addictive, retro-inspired dance tracks overflowing with soulful lyrics.
Atlantis smoothly entices the listener into a sense of comfort as the four vocalists' tones blend together like the most perfect perfume. There's a bit of groove, a bit of funk, a bit of random electronica and rock, but at any moment, this album screams Shinee.
7. Twice - Formula of Love: O+T=<3 LP
Twice have become synonymous with bright, colourful dance hits, but in recent years they've delved into a bit more of a mature sound, and this Formula came to a head on their third LP.
Fronted by the kind of almost, but not quite, minimal synthwave bounce of Scientist, which declares that love may not be a science, this album proves that Twice have found the perfect recipe for an album that showcases everything they have to offer.
There's a bit of fun, like on the quirky Real You, a bit of drama, like on Last Waltz , a bit of late nights fuelled by Espresso, and an anthem where the girl group declare they are K-pop ICONs.
There may not actually be a recipe to figure out how the heart works, but with the stellar Formula of Love, Twice have just about written one for us.
6. Younha - End Theory LP
Younha's been around since the early 2000s, when she became a huge star in South Korea and Japan, and her style has varied from commercial pop rock to as indie as a former hitmaker can be.
End Theory is Younha's bit of pandemic pop, created while ruminating about time and existence, but don't be fooled into thinking it's full of angst and sadness. End Theory is, above all, euphoric in its dedication to waxing poetically about life and what's to come.
The star of her own stage, Younha's always been about that Big Picture, and the album lets her voice soar with emotion over sweeping, exhilarating instrumentals and melodies.
5. Stray Kids - Noeasy LP
For years, Stray Kids have been called out for their "noisy" alternative take on aggressive, in-your-face music.
This year, they put that reputation in the spotlight on Noeasy, an album of sophisticated, slightly over-the-top tracks that are a bit rambunctious in the way they put the kitchen sink (and then some) into the instrumentals.
Maybe it's not for everyone, but Stray Kids' brand of Thunderous, often off-kilter and unsettling music doesn't pull any punches; the 14 songs alternate between softer moments that show off the band's sweet vocals, and more intense ones where they come out with a raging tune that leaves you wondering what in the world you have just listened to, before you play it again and again.
4. Aespa - Savage EP
There's a lot to say about everything Aespa are doing in 2021, and why their first album, Savage, is "I-C-O-N-I-C."
It's hard to find music from rookie K-pop groups that feels new, but Aespa's sci-fi storyline and their addictive, high-energy singles make them a must-watch group.
Moving beyond their singles, the other tracks on Savage show new facets 0f the quartet, like the slightly sweeter side on Yeppi Yeppi and the darker elements on the revenge-fuelled I'll Make You Cry.
Between those two, the anthemic Iconic and the ambient Lucid Dream, this album may be a "mini", but it is promising so much more.
3. Tomorrow X Together - The Chaos Chapter: Fight or Escape LP
The quintet known as TXT spent much of 2021 evoking a sense of youthful angst with their pop-rock-fuelled singles, and when those sit beside the trendy-sounding B-sides, the album is a singular experience of just about pop perfection.
From start to finish, Fight or Escape vibrates with the energy of Tomorrow X Together's members and the eclecticism of their musicality, creating a sense of pure Magic.
Above all, they find an orderly path through the chaos of their varied tracks, each one weaving its own spell, especially the invigorating Frost , which is TXT at their best.
2. Key - Bad Love EP
Nostalgia for the music of yesteryear has been rampant over the past year or two, and Key jumped down the rabbit hole to create an album of the music he grew up with that is essentially a love letter from '90s kids everywhere.
He has the disco funk of the exhilarating single Bad Love fronting it all, as he tries everything from groovy falsetto to '90s synth wildness.
According to reports, Key spearheaded the Bad Love album and didn't back down from his vision, despite backlash from his company, and the result is clear: Key, in charge, knows exactly what he's doing.
1. AKMU - Next Episode EP
AKMU may not be the biggest K-pop act in the world, but their collaborative Next Episode is a world of its own making and is the latest hit from the South Korean sibling duo, who have a big following at home.
Featuring a different guest artist on each track, Next Episode is a downtempo album that, like many of AKMU's releases, has more than a hint of nostalgia and reflects universal experiences.
As a whole, the album feels less like a pop music release and more a work of cinematic art, blending the group's typical whimsy with poignancy.
There's a sense of storytelling in each song, whether it's the groovy, inspirational hit Nakka with IU, the retro synth-fuelled Hey kid, Close your eyes with Lee Sun Hee, reflecting the horrors of adult life through a child's experience, or the lofty, aspiring, quasi-power ballad Everest with Sam Kim.
As the Next Episode of AKMU's artistic journey, it truly feels apt: this is an album unlike anything AKMU have tried to date, and its release heralds the next stage of their career in the most engaging of ways.
Beyond these albums, if you're looking for some non K-pop idol releases, here are five suggestions from bands, hip-hop, R&B, and alternative artists:
- Hoppípolla And Then There Was Us
- Peakboy Loop
- Park Hye Jin Before I Die
- The Volunteers The Volunteers
- MRSHLL XYZ
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.