Mid-Year Check-In: My Favorite K-pop Releases of 2021 (So Far)

I genuinely can’t believe we’re already well into July!!! Seriously, where has the time gone??? Since we’re officially over midway through 2021, it’s time for me to make another “halfway point” post about the K-pop releases that I’ve spent the most time and energy on from January to June. I tried this out last year, and it was super interesting to see how my preferences shifted significantly by the time I got to December. I feel like my current tastes and favorites are rather predictable at this point, but I’m very curious how my experiment will turn out this time around.

Up until now, I’ve mostly been relying on my memories and immediate feelings when I do the rankings for these posts. So this time, I decided to make more *official* placement criteria. I chose my 25 most liked comebacks and debuts released from January to June (title tracks only) and ranked them all on five separate lists: how much I liked the song/dance/music video, my most played songs, and my overall engagement level. Then I scored each release by taking the average of those five rankings, and I made this post based on those results. (Though my new system basically ended up reflecting the order I was thinking of anyway, so I still stand by using gut feelings.) So the rankings aren’t purely based on what I liked the most or thought was the best – it’s also a breakdown of how I interacted with K-pop over the past six months. And as always, this is all based on my own personal opinion!

Special Mentions

If you read my mid-year check-in post for 2020, you might remember that I had 30 songs on that list instead of 25. That was because last year I had large amounts of free time thanks to COVID-19, and I took the opportunity to reconnect with a lot of K-pop groups and explore more than I had in previous years. Unfortunately, 2021 has brought about a significant job change and a much more hectic schedule. These days, I barely have time to check out releases and write reactions to them… so sadly, I end up not listening to at least half of the singles I cover once my post is published. To tell the truth, I don’t have more than 25 favorite releases right now. That being said, there are a handful of comebacks that I think are really well-done but just ultimately aren’t my style. So I made this “Special Mention” section to show I recognize how good they are – even if they’re not for me personally!

  • “Odd Eye” by Dreamcatcher (MV here/initial reaction post here)
  • “Paranoia” by Kang Daniel (MV here/initial reaction post here)
  • “Inside Out” by NU’EST (MV here/initial reaction post here)
  • “0X1=Love Song (I know I Love You)” by TXT feat. Seori (MV here/initial reaction post here)
  • Ready to Love” by SEVENTEEN (MV here/initial reaction post here)

#25. “Bicycle” by Chungha

Querencia (1st full album)
MNH Entertainment
February 15, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

Chungha is supremely talented and capable of pulling off many different styles and concepts, and I’ve enjoyed every single she’s made since she started out as a soloist. However, I’ve also been waiting for her to drop a true girl crush song for years… and I finally got it with “Bicycle.” It totally delivers on everything I’ve ever wanted from her: a hook that’s catchy yet filled with attitude, a choreography equal parts feminine and fierce, and a dance break worthy of her superior skills. There are also elements I wasn’t expecting but loved, like the glamorous yet dangerous music video or that sassy rap break in 100% fluent English. Despite all that greatness, I must admit I ranked “Bicycle” low because it didn’t captivate me as much as some of Chungha’s other singles. But although it didn’t end up holding my attention for too long, I’m still grateful it was pretty much exactly what I asked for.

#24. “Love So Sweet” by Cherry Bullet

Cherry Rush (1st mini album)
FNC Entertainment
January 20, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

It hurts my heart how underrated Cherry Bullet is… I genuinely never see anyone talking about them, and it makes me so sad. (Though I just saw a few members will be on upcoming survival show Girls Planet 999, so I hope that helps them get some more recognition.) They have so much to offer, and that’s incredibly apparent in “Love So Sweet.” The reason it’s lower on my list is mostly because I wasn’t that invested when it came out – it’s basically Cherry Bullet’s take on the synthpop/”newtro” trend, which is not something I’m personally into that much. But as the months have gone by, I’ve realized how much of a hidden gem “Love So Sweet” is. It’s so shimmery and delicate, with a catchy chorus and classic girl group dance moves. While I generally don’t go for cutesy stuff, this song really is the perfect amount of sweet without getting too sugary. I still hope Cherry Bullet doesn’t stray *too* far from their original video game concept – since I find it a lot of fun – but I’m also perfectly satisfied with quality comebacks like this.

#23. “What I Said” by Victon

VOICE: The Future is Now (1st full album)
Play M Entertainment
January 11, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

A first full album is often a major milestone for K-pop groups – aka a big deal – so the title track is often designed to make a splash. That’s exactly what Victon did with “What I Said,” an intriguing Latin-pop inspired number with a memorable melody and a grooving beat. The whole thing is a vehicle for their ambition, from the charismatic lyrics to the spitfire rapping to the powerful choreography. I particularly enjoy the chess aesthetic in the music video, which is a nice visual representation of the power moves they’re making as they plan for the future. Up until now, I liked Victon fine but hadn’t personally connected with any of their music. “What I Said” is a game-changer for me, leaving a lasting impression even after I’ve reviewed dozens of comebacks. Though Victon got a popularity boost after Seungwoo and Byungchan went on Produce X 101, it seems like they could stand to use a little more recognition. So hopefully, this comeback helped put them on the map for others like it did for me.

#22. “Tail” by Sunmi

Tail (2nd single album)
ABYSS Company
February 23, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

I said earlier that my level of investment in each release was a major factor in my rankings, but Sunmi’s “Tail” is a bit of an exception. To be honest, I probably didn’t spend more than a week on it. On top of that, it actually has the fewest plays out of all of the songs on this list. However, I included it because I think everything about it is A+ level work, and I wanted to highlight that. “Tail” is full-on seductive, blending Sunmi’s unique and sultry vocals with a jazzy musical arrangement to make them extra alluring. It pairs well with the vintage noir style of the music video, which is an intriguing storyline of Sunmi as a cat woman seeking revenge against an ex lover. What’s more, that concept is carried over into the amazing choreography filled with tons of sexy and slinky moves. It’s delightfully scandalous (at least by K-pop standards), and I found it all so thrilling . I haven’t been that into Sunmi’s music since “Gashina,” but she reeled me back in with this one. It’s sheer artistic excellence, and it’s pretty much perfect in my book.

#21. “Don’t Fight the Feeling” by EXO

Don’t Fight the Feeling (special album)
SM Entertainment
June 7, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

This ranking is a bit low for EXO considering they’re one of my all-time favorite groups, but I couldn’t put it higher is because they didn’t really promote it. There just wasn’t a lot of content for me to consume like I normally would – particularly any performance or choreography videos, which I REALLY wanted to see. Plus I have to admit, I’m a much bigger fan of dark and edgy EXO than I am of fun and happy-go-lucky EXO. But just like the name of their new single “Don’t Fight the Feeling,” I ultimately couldn’t resist the feel-good vibes. The whole comeback just radiates positivity and happiness, and I can’t help but smile whenever I listen. It’s also a genuine pleasure to see the return of Xiumin, D.O, and Lay (even if the latter was through AR). I can’t wait for EXO to be a whole group again, but I do think these different combinations of members show them in an interesting and new light. Frankly, I’m super touched they even made this album given how they’re going in and out of the military. So although “Don’t Fight the Feeling” doesn’t surpass most of my favorite EXO songs, I treasure it for the gift that it is.

#20. “Unnatural” by Cosmic Girls

Unnatural (9th mini album)
Starship Entertainment
March 31, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

Cosmic Girls is in their fifth year, so a comeback like “Unnatural” was the perfect moment for them to start maturing their image. It’s a genuine bop, with a classic and timeless feel that reminds me of second generation girl group music (a sound I sorely miss). I especially appreciate how it contrasts the softer more feminine vocals of half the members with the confident belting of the other half, successfully showing off the group’s full range and versatility. True to its title, it’s also a relatable song about feeling awkward and not like yourself when someone you’re attracted to is around. It’s a difficult concept to portray visually, especially since K-pop emphasizes looking perfect and flawless all the time, but I think Cosmic Girls pulled it off pretty skillfully. “Unnatural” is yet another example of how they really do have everything they need to be successful, so I sincerely hope people will stop sleeping on them before it’s too late.

#19. “Bambi” by Baekhyun

Bambi (3rd mini album)
SM Entertainment
March 30, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

Much like “Don’t Fight the Feeling,” “Bambi” ends up towards the back of this list because of the lack of content and performance video. (The latter especially bothers me, because the dance parts shown in the music video are fantastic and I NEED TO SEE THE WHOLE THING.) Both comebacks actually got the same score based on my new system – along with Cosmic Girls – but I gave “Bambi” the highest rank because it was the release I was the most invested in out of the three. In fact, it’s turned out to be my favorite of Baekhyun’s singles so far. I’ve always thought of him as a skilled singer with a wide range of talents, but “Bambi” still took me completely by surprise. R&B is such a wonderful match for his smooth and rich voice that I sometimes get goosebumps when listening along. Plus it pairs perfectly with the dark and moody music video and the sensual choreography (or at least, the parts that I can see). I usually associate Baekhyun with his offstage image of the overly talkative jokester, but “Bambi” has helped me realize that he can definitely be sexy when he wants to.

#18. WayV, “Kick Back”

Kick Back (3rd mini album)
SM Entertainment
March 10, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

(As always with WayV, I acknowledge that they’re not *technically* K-pop but still include them since they’re an NCT subunit and they’ve been promoting in South Korea.) “Kick Back” made it onto this list pretty much through the power of its catchiness, because it’s been played a LOT in this household. It’s a staple on my daily commute playlist, and it’s still currently in my Top 10 most listened to songs on Apple Music. It’s just so darn fun and easy to sing along to! And the memorable key point choreography is definitely a plus – WayV makes walking with their knees at a bent angle look so easy, but in my experience it’s most definitely not. I originally thought “Kick Back” would be too lowkey for me since I prefer WayV’s more epic sounding music, but there’s actually a nice mix between the laidback snapping beats and the more dramatic sounding string sounds (and Xiao Jun’s soaring vocals). It’s not as high-impact as I’ve come to expect from WayV, but it’s definitely worth playing on repeat.

#17. “Ponzoña” by PURPLE KISS

Into Violet (1st mini album)
RBW Entertainment
March 15, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

PURPLE KISS is one of two brand new groups who appear on this list, and “Ponzoña” was the first debut of 2021 that I really took notice of. I usually give rookies three releases or so before I form a full opinion, because they often need time to find their footing and establish their image. But with PURPLE KISS, I was surprised and impressed by how “Ponzoña” made its mark right out of the gate. I just love how it sounds brooding and maybe even haunting, but it also feels mysterious and glamorous. Not many girl groups do darker concepts – in sound or aesthetic – so that choice definitely helped PURPLE KISS stand out. The music video is absolutely gorgeous, with so many stunning supernatural and occult references and some intriguing spider and snake imagery. I’ve been waiting for a new girl group from RBW Entertainment for a while, and PURPLE KISS definitely lived up to my expectations. I sincerely can’t wait for their next comeback.

16. “Dun Dun Dance” by Oh My Girl

Dear OhMyGirl (8th mini album)
WM Entertainment
May 10, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

Oh My Girl has become quite beloved in South Korea over the past couple of years, so much so that I’m guaranteed to hear at least one of their songs every time I venture out in public. (And I’ve been following them since way before they were this popular, so I honestly couldn’t be prouder.) “Dun Dun Dance” is their latest bop, and its cute and bubbly energy has proven a surefire hit with my elementary school students. It’s definitely the kind of K-pop that the Korean general public likes, but it still lets Oh My Girl be their silly quirky selves – which I really appreciate since that’s why I got into them in the first place. While “Dun Dun Dance” wasn’t an “instant love” for me, it definitely has grown on me over time… that catchy melody eventually wore me down. Plus the fun and adorable choreography is definitely one of the most entertaining I’ve seen so far this year. I definitely will be dancing along to this one all summer, and perhaps even beyond.

#15. “HWAA” by (G)I-DLE

I Burn (4th mini album)
Cube Entertainment
January 11, 2021
Read my review about it here.

I’ve always considered (G)I-DLE a highly artistic and creative group, and “HWAA” is some of their best work so far. I’m not surprised at all that it’s their most successful comeback to date. It’s an emotional and compelling break-up song, and the music video beautifully blends the three distinct aesthetics mentioned in the evocative lyrics: snowy and icy white, flower-filled spring, and pure red fire. (The story of the song is how the aftermath of a break-up is like a cold and frozen winter, and emotions hot as fire will help you thaw and arrive at a peaceful spring – aka a sense of closure.) It also draws a lot of musical and visual inspiration from traditional East Asian instruments and aesthetics, which is always something wonderful to see. “HWAA” has admittedly faded from my memory just a little bit, which is the downside of its being released all the way back in the beginning of the year. But it was undeniably the first comeback of 2021 that I was truly absorbed by, and I still love it every time I return to it.

#14. “Gambler” by Monsta X

One of a Kind (9th mini album)
Starship Entertainment
June 1, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

When I first wrote about “Gambler” on this blog, I was on the fence because I had a hard time remembering literally anything about it besides “My suit is black, my suit is fresh.” (Still an iconic line, though.) Monsta X songs usually give me a distinct impression right from the get-go, and I’m not used to having to wait for them to grow on me. But “Gambler” eventually worked its magic, and now I fully appreciate all it has to offer – plus I’m giving it bonus points for a smooth and polished choreography that truly lets my bias Hyungwon shine. (So proud he got center for the dance break!) “Gambler” effortlessly combines all three signature sounds that Monsta X has developed over the years: powerful aggressive hip hop, edgy rock, and sophisticated sexy pop. The result is a classy and stylish yet hard-hitting number that highlights the manliness and maturity of a boy group entering its veteran years. I still prefer the Monsta X songs that go a *little* harder, but “Gambler” is definitely a good look on them.

#13: “Butter” by BTS

Digital single
Big Hit Music/HYBE Labels
May 21, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

“Butter” is a solid and well-crafted recipe for success: addictive melody, jazzy synth pop vibes, colorful and charming music video, and sleek choreography. It’s most certainly my favorite BTS song they’ve released since the Love Yourself trilogy, which was probably when I was the most into them. That being said, I barely interacted with it all aside from the occasional listen a couple times a week. Actually, I made a conscious effort to not spend a lot of time on it so I could ultimately enjoy it more in the long run. BTS is so popular I literally hear their music everywhere I go without even trying. I burned out on “Dynamite” REAL quick because of this, and I didn’t want that to happen again. So since I minimized my exposure to “Butter,” it still feels fresh and exciting to me whenever it comes on. And hopefully, that means I’ll be able to enjoy it for a good long while without getting tired.

#12: “Alcohol-Free” by TWICE

Taste of Love (10th mini album)
JYP Entertainment
June 9, 2021
Read my review about it here.

TWICE is usually known for bright energetic bubblegum pop, so their shift to something subtler and gentler was an unexpected yet welcome surprise. “Alcohol-Free” is a calm and delicate love song about being so spellbound by someone you feel drunk around them, and it’s so shimmery and pleasant that listening to it always makes me feel rejuvenated. The bright and tropical music video makes it so easy to imagine relaxing at the pool or the beach with a refreshing beverage in hand. (I probably can’t actually go anywhere for my summer break, but this song will still be my soundtrack even if I end up doing a staycation.) To tell the truth, “Alcohol-Free” doesn’t make as strong an impression on me as TWICE songs normally do – which is why it ultimately lands just outside the Top 10. But everything about it is such a joy to listen to or watch that I’m still highly entertained.

#11: “On the Ground” by Rosé

R (1st single album)
YG Entertainment
March 12, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

BLACKPINK has a lock on the glamorous girl crush image, but Rosé decided to go a different route for her solo debut. While the music video for “On the Ground” still looks as luxurious as you might expect (with some seriously gorgeous outfits), the song itself is fairly down to earth. I like how the verses have a more mellow acoustic vibe, and then the uplifting electropop chorus changes things up. It’s just lowkey enough to appeal to the Korean general public, yet energetic enough to stand out. I’m generally into BLACKPINK more for the music, but I feel like “On the Ground” helped me learn more about Rosé both as person and a singer. I appreciate that she used this moment to reflect on her career and her path to stardom, and her message of already having everything you need to be successful is important and relatable. Honestly, I didn’t expect to like “On the Ground” as much as I do. I totally thought I’d get a few listens out of it and leave it at that, but here I am still singing along four months later with no end in sight – and that’s genuinely one of the most pleasant surprises of my 2021 so far.

#10: “Make It” by 2PM

Must (7th full album)
JYP Entertainment
June 28, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

After a long hiatus of five years (!!!), 2PM made their triumphant return with the effortlessly alluring “Make It.” Though the pleasant and jazzy arrangement is quite minimalistic compared to what most K-pop boy groups are doing these days, it effectively highlights the song’s two star elements: charming vocals and appealing melody. “Make It” is about being irresistibly attracted to someone at first sight, so much so that you just have to approach them. (The Korean title “해야 해” roughly translates to “I’ve gotta,” at least according to the music video’s English subtitles.) Although such a fateful romantic encounter is wishful thinking for most of us – as evidenced by the fantasy-style music video where the members are so drawn to one woman they fail to notice meteors falling from the sky – this comeback sure makes it fun for us to dream about it. As the K-pop fan who’s almost always older than everyone else, I live for these sophisticated “gentlemen” concepts from guys who are actually close to my age. So it’s no wonder I fell hard for “Make It,” and it easily soared straight to my Top 10 after only a couple of days.

#9: “ONE” by ASTRO

All Yours (2nd full album)
Fantagio Entertainment
April 5, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

ASTRO’s mostly been releasing mature and classy songs over the past couple of years, but they decided to slightly shift gears with “ONE.” While it still has the same smooth and polished quality of their recent singles – with an emphasis on those beautifully clean soaring vocals – this time they threw in a bit of light EDM to pack some more punch. Though I always like ASTRO’s music, I do find the techno elements a refreshing change of pace that livens things up a bit. It also pairs well with the sleek yet dynamic choreography, an area where ASTRO always excels. To be honest, “ONE” got a little lost in the rush of May and June comebacks. But before that, it was one of just a handful of 2021 releases that I truly felt I connected with – which easily secured its inclusion in the upper ranks.

#8: “Vanilla” by LIGHTSUM

Digital single
Cube Entertainment
June 10, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

LIGHTSUM is the second 2021 debut to make this list, and their appearance in my Top 10 is definitely the big shocker of this post. (At least, it is to me.) I didn’t think I’d be that interested in them because of their young age and concept, so I was fully expecting to just listen to “Vanilla” and watch the music video for my post before moving on. To my complete surprise, I actually ended up really loving it. Now it’s genuinely my favorite song so far this year, and that’s something I never could have foreseen. I generally don’t like cute music, but this is a case where a song is just so bubbly I can’t resist. It’s full of bright and fun energy, and the melody is absolutely infectious. It strikes the perfect balance between being adorably sweet yet playfully sassy, and it reminds me of some of my favorite girl groups in their early years. I’m still not planning on following LIGHTSUM closely because of that age gap, but I will be bopping to “Vanilla” for a good long while.

#7. “House Party” by Super Junior

Renaissance (10th full album)
SM Entertainment
March 16, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

While there are other K-pop groups who have released relatable songs about how COVID-19 is affecting us all, Super Junior delivered the quarantine anthem we needed with “House Party.” It’s basically a PSA for safe health practices in song form, and I honestly respect them a ton for using their comeback as a platform to help promote social distancing. Despite the somewhat unique subject matter, the song sounds like classic feel-good Super Junior – complete with their trademark old-school dance moves and even more old-school style. They’re as funny and lovable as ever as they encourage us to keep up the good work, but they do throw a curveball with that tough trap style interlude warning people to take the pandemic seriously (which I immensely appreciate). While I enjoy “House Party,” it’s admittedly not my favorite Super Junior title track. But it is my most-listened to song so far this year, AND it’s managed to hold that title for at least three months. That’s pretty rare for this fickle K-pop listener, so their placement here is a no-brainer.

#6: “Hello Future” by NCT Dream

Hello Future (Hot Sauce repackage)
SM Entertainment
June 28th, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

“Hello Future” was released literally days before the end of June, so I’m a little surprised it got so high up on my list. But the reason why is because I instantly connected with it, and I truly believe it’s one of my favorite NCT Dream songs so far – I’m sensing it might eventually become my favorite out of all of them. “Hello Future” perfectly captures the essence of who NCT Dream is as a group, combining their signature fresh and joyful energy with a heartwarming message of spreading peace and love. Everything about it shows exactly what makes them stand out: clear and pure vocals, stylized rapping, slightly experimental sound, captivating choreography, and unique aesthetics. NCT Dream started out as teenagers, so their music career has always been very closely tied with their journey to adulthood. “Hello Future” reminds us of their youth-oriented concept that they began with, but it’s also quite special because it shows us just how far they’ve come.

#5: “Atlantis” by SHINee

Atlantis (Don’t Call Me repackage)
SM Entertainment
April 12, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

“Atlantis” is actually a unique case for me, as it’s the only comeback that’s consistently moving up my list of favorites. In fact, it’s also the only one that’s ended up significantly higher than where it started. I liked it from the start, but I didn’t spend too much time on it since I was too tapped out from going all-in on SHINee’s other 2021 comeback. But as time went on, I found myself going back to it over and over again and enjoying it more and more. Now, I’m glad to say that I fully appreciate “Atlantis” for the masterpiece that it is. Everything about it is just so beautiful: the fluid and flowing choreography, the gorgeous aquatic aesthetic, and the enchanting song itself. There’s just something so compelling about the melody and the epic arrangement, and those soaring vocals and harmonies stir up emotions in my heart every single time. It’s so hard to articulate how I feel about it; you really just have to listen to it to see what I mean. But it’s quintessential SHINee at their best, and yet another perfect example of their amazing talents and artistry.

#4: “In the Morning” by ITZY

Guess Who (4th mini album)
JYP Entertainment
April 30, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

ITZY normally excels at music that’s equal parts fun and attitude, but they decided to head to the more powerful side girl crush for “In the Morning.” It was a bold move that ultimately got mixed reactions, including my initial one. (Though in my case, it was about my discomfort over the gun imagery in the dance and it didn’t have anything to do with the track or concept.) While I get the impression that aggressive “tough girl” songs like “In the Morning” can are be polarizing – and I understand why – I’ve always really enjoyed that style. So because of my natural preference for strong and edgy music, “In the Morning” is currently my second most-played song. ITZY most definitely has the confidence and charisma to pull off such a fierce concept, and I admire how they truly go for it and don’t hold back. And I think the lyrics comparing the pursuit of a potential love interest to the popular Mafia game are incredibly clever. So “In the Morning” may have been a risk for them, but it certainly paid off for me.

#3: “Don’t Call Me” by SHINee

Don’t Call Me (7th full album)
SM Entertainment
February 22, 2021
Read my review about it here.

Since both of SHINee’s 2021 songs placed super high on this list, it might surprise you to learn that my infatuation with them is a rather recent development. I’ve always been fond of them, but up until this year they were the SM group I was probably the least attached to. Of course, that all changed once “Don’t Call Me” came out. Though SHINee are basically the concept chameleons of K-pop, it somehow never occurred to me that they would go for a bold hip-hop themed track… but they did, and they pulled it off amazingly. The song is so catchy and interesting (love all the layers the interjections add), and the choreography is highly entertaining. Plus its story of shaking off a clingy ex is incredibly relatable, especially since I’ve gone through something similar before. I loved “Don’t Call Me” so much that it easily topped my favorites list for several months – something only a handful of K-pop releases ever end up doing. It ultimately got eclipsed by two newer songs on this list, but I know I will most definitely keep coming back to it for a long time.

#2: “Hot Sauce” by NCT Dream

Hot Sauce (1st full album)
SM Entertainment
May 10, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

The fact that a such a quirky and out there song like “Hot Sauce” has essentially become NCT Dream’s breakout hit is so bemusing to me. I feel it’s the kind of track that fans love but non-fans might find a bit strange. But I genuinely don’t think it would have gotten the same response if they had released it even a year ago, so it’s also a testament to just how mega popular they’ve become. And there’s definitely plenty here to like: the hard-hitting music, the powerful choreography, the hilarious music video, etc. (Seriously, only NCT Dream could make a whole storyline about selling a line of hot sauce.) Initially, I liked “Hot Sauce” but I didn’t love it… yet somehow, it’s managed to take over the last couple months of my K-pop experience. I listen to it all the time, and I’ve even seen every single performance on YouTube. I’m still a little mystified as to how it won me over so completely, but I guess it’s proof that it really is addictive.

#1: “Next Level” by aespa

Digital single
SM Entertainment
May 17, 2021
Read my initial reaction to it here.

Choosing first place was a hard decision, because “Next Level” and “Hot Sauce” were – and still are – essentially neck and neck. Based on the new ranking system I used, they’re literally separated by a point. But at the end of the day, I went with “Next Level” because it’s more my style overall. Also, it provided a much-needed dose of girl power in a year that I feel has been pretty dominated by boy groups so far. I love how it sounds so sleek and chic, but it also has an edgy bite to it. And though it does seem to be three or four songs rolled into one (classic SM), it flows pretty smoothly from one section to the next. I found it catchy and addictive from the beginning, and it’s literally smashed its way up to third place on my Apple Music Replay stats in just over a month. I also think the choreography is pretty much perfect, which scores major points in my book because I’m so dance-oriented. And while I do find aespa’s whole cinematic universe kind of confusing, the music video for “Next Level” made me excited to learn more. I’m slightly surprised that aespa ended up all the way at the top of my list since I feel like I’m still getting to know them, but I’m certainly happy to see them there.

It is absolutely no surprise to me that my Top 10 is filled with SM artists, because that’s almost always what happens… though they do seem to be dominating a lot more than normal. I always try to be open-minded and listen to lots of different releases from many K-pop artists, so seeing all of the SM comebacks so close together at the top makes me feel a little awkward. But I promise that they’re not there because of their company name! Actually, before this year I didn’t have that strong of a connection to SHINee, NCT Dream, or aespa compared to some of their other labelmates. So the reason I ranked those comebacks highly is because I liked them so much that they helped me get into those groups even more. In any case, 2021 definitely been an interesting year for K-pop so far. There’s still a lot to come, and I look forward to revisiting this list in December and seeing how much has changed!

SOURCES: YouTube*, ABYSS Company (Sunmi), Big Hit Music (BTS/TXT), Cube Entertainment ((G)I-DLE/LIGHTSUM), Fantagio Entertainment (ASTRO), FNC Entertainment (Cherry Bullet), JYP Entertainment (2PM/TWICE/ITZY), KONNECT Entertainment (Kang Daniel), M&H Entertainment (Chungha), Play M Entertainment (Victon), Pledis Entertainment (NU’EST/SEVENTEEN), RBW Entertainment (PURPLE KISS), SM Entertainment (Super Junior/SHINee/EXO/Baekhyun/NCT Dream/WayV/aespa), Starship Entertainment (Monsta X/Cosmic Girls), WM Entertainment (Oh My Girl), YG Entertainment (Rose)
*Music videos for “Ready to Love,” “Inside Out,” “0X1=Love Song,” and “Butter” are distributed by HYBE Labels.

IDOLS IN FEATURED IMAGE (L-R): Giselle/aespa (SM Entertainment), Wooyoung/2PM (JYP Entertainment), Moonbin/ASTRO (Fantagio Entertainment), Jaemin/NCT Dream (SM Entertainment), Yeji/ITZY (JYP Entertainment)
All photos in the featured image are teaser photos for comebacks mentioned in this post.

2 thoughts on “Mid-Year Check-In: My Favorite K-pop Releases of 2021 (So Far)

  1. Hahaha I’m not at all surprised by how many SM artists are in your top 10! (Love to see it)

    Though, I guess I am surprised at just how much you like ‘Vanilla’ since I don’t always associate the bubbly vibes with your tastes (but it’s a great song so … of course!), and also 2PM too because it’s really minimalistic for what I expected you to like – but think this just goes to show how good these songs are!

    Super excited for the next 6 months!

    Liked by 1 person

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