K-Pop 2021: Top 3

May this come in a little late but find you, nevertheless, well. Only appropriate; this could be the first year I’ve been current with K-pop groups enough that a ranking is even possible. I’m still digging through the archives, but 2021 was a big year for comebacks. Strangely, none of these entries are group efforts. I guess that while the industry is recovering still, they’ve found that solo outings are more manageable? Either way, I heard some great stuff. What were your picks?

Number Three: “Second,” Hyoyeon

Is there anyone cooler than Hyoyeon? I wager no. “Second” is her follow-up to the very popular “Dessert,” and it’s a friendlier, easier vibe. While scoring a lot of points for being hyper-cute, I honestly believe it demonstrates greater range for our vocalist, backed up by Bibi in the bridge. As I discover, Hyo is primarily known as a dancer, and I fully appreciate that. It’s thrilling to watch her work with far more complicated choreography than the viral-ready arm-pumping of “Second” — whether “Next Level” or Moonbyul’s “Lunatic” this year, I guess it’s a thing to turn your song into a “[song] challenge” — including taking the stage with Seulgi for GOT the Beat, who I know to be a machine — indeed, Hyo was the original.

But I have a strange kind of respect for the members of Girls’ Generation who not only continue as part of Oh!GG (Taeyeon, Sunny, Hyo, Yuri, Yoona) but maintain a consistent solo music career (Taeyeon, Hyo). No disrespect to the others who’ve ventured into acting and business and emceeing, but I’m always surprised by Hyoyeon. She’s a well-rounded idol, not content to play a single, even superlative, role. With “Second,” I think that husky, scratchy quality to her voice is optimized for a brilliant sound. This is a funny point to argue, but I do sense that Korean is a somewhat awkward language for singers, and yet Hyoyeon makes it sound really, really good.

Number Two: “Hello,” Joy

I do not want Joy’s solo debut to get lost in the annals of Red Velvet history just because the album was entirely cover songs. If the project was to showcase Joy’s individual vocal talents, “Hello” offers an incredible showcase. While Wendy’s title track “Like Water” from the same year is beautiful and can still make me teary-eyed, I was expecting from her solo album something far closer to what “Hello” later gave me, a big and booming piece. From what I’ve observed, I’d almost characterize Joy as a reckless presence in the Red Velvet soundscape, especially in contrast to the silky-smooth Seulgi. She tends to go really big, and I like that a lot — that’s my favorite sound in K-pop, the soaring, go-for-broke quality that Red Velvet captures in its wide experimentation.

“Hello” is full of trumpets and percussion, and arrives at something between inspirational and celebratory. It’s the kind of thing I’d love to blast out of the car driving down the ol’ coastal highway, but I’d have to put it on a CD first (no joke) and find an ol’ coastal highway. But it’s Joy’s voice that elevates the piece, and here, a star is born. Despite the singularity of its mission — to be loud and fun — like Hyo, Joy exhibits a stellar range, peaking with moments of beauty. Of course, I look back and realize that this should also be no revelation. Joy has always been a musical marvel, with those standout moments in “Butterflies” or “Rookie.” She’s always trying something new, and maybe an original tracklist would’ve made for a better story, but Joy remains the center of this one anyway.

Number One: “Lilac,” IU

I’ll have to defer to the professionals here, as NME listed IU’s “Lilac” as their best K-pop song of 2021 (out of 25, including boys). This was the first time I’d listened to IU — an embarrassing gap in my studies — but what an introduction! There’s such an elegance to this song, and the way IU slides along the scale from delicate to powerful is incredible. I can see why everyone who learns about IU instantly falls in love with her. The video is a lot of fun, finding all sorts of way to express her charisma. “Lilac” is such a perfect song, with poetry for lyrics and a harmony of vocals and instrumentation.

The spring is short, but it comes again

Honorable Mention: “Queendom,” Red Velvet

Of course! I absolutely loved Red Velvet’s 2021 return, and it’s a tight race between “Queendom” and “Knock on Wood” for me. To speak to “Queendom,” however, it’s among their top-tier title tracks (which tend to be a comparative mixed bag, if we remember oddities like “Cookie Jar” and “Power Up”), but what I most appreciate is its place in the sequence after “Psycho” and “Monster,” a double-threat that had me worried for a second that Red Velvet was following a trend. Like with Apink’s recent direction, continued into 2022 with “Dilemma,” these were darker in tone, more trendy. “Queendom” is all color and life, and it’s wonderful.

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