From Twice To TXT, These Are The 21 Best K-Pop B-Sides Of 2021
By Elizabeth de Luna
Back in 2020, we looked toward K-pop to be able to see what it can would be and where it might take us. The industry made swift, graceful pivots to accommodate the pandemic, leading the rest of the world into an era of virtual concerts. By the end of the year, several were carefully optimistic because the initial vaccines were approved. “Wouldn’t it be great,” we thought, “if by this time next year, we’d be going to live shows again?”
Just several weeks back, we were close to realizing that bright wish. P1Harmony performed at the Korean Culture Center Night in Los Angeles in what might have been the opening in-person K-pop concert In America since the pandemic started. BTS sold out a four-night run at the shiny new SoFi Stadium in the same city. Ateez, Monsta X, and Twice all reported North American tour dates for early 2022.
Today, as Omicron spreads, that hope flickers. Nevertheless in the face of what seems like near-constant uncertainty, perhaps we should be grateful that K-pop exists at all.
In March, hundreds of songs disappeared from Spotify
because the platform tussled with Korean distributor Kakao M. Entire playlists of curated musical memories vanished. It took nine days for them to return, and while in that time, fans nearly lost their minds. It was a reminder of how much art and fandom affect our happiness, health, and well-being, even any time we can’t physically be with each other to experience them.
So while the K-pop industry expanded and experimented this year — creating new possibilities in both the physical world and in the metaverse
, in real-world dollars and NFTs
— its most compelling draw remained, as habitually, the music. Below are the 21 best K-pop B-sides of 2021.
Cravity: “Bad Habits”
Right after a solid 2020 debut, Cravity
devoted to a new aesthetic in 2021. The concept saw them revving literal and metaphorical engines on title tracks “My Turn” and “Gas Pedal.” Cravity’s strength lies in their ability to augment their organic contradictions — Seongmin’s sugary highs, Woobin’s power vocals, Minhee’s soft vibrato, and Serim’s powerful raps — with clever production. On “Bad Habits,” they drop into surreptitious whispers and balance the textured depths of their ranges with airy pre-choruses. Their experimentation on hip-hop-driven tracks is so successful that it’s easy to forget that the categorize can sing almost anyone under a table
Bobby: “In the Dark”
It was a big year for boisterous Bobby
, who’s built a career on endearing individualism and outlandish charm. He tested the limits of that public image in August if he announced
that he was both engaged and expecting his first child with his fiancée. It was a bold move, considering that adverse fan reactions to romantic relationships can threaten an idol’s career, however Bobby’s never been one for subtlety.
His January album, prophetically titled Lucky Man
, was released ahead of those life-altering evolution. He ricochets like an errant pinball between animalistic rage (“U Mad,” “Devil”) and doe-eyed devotion (“Lilac,” “Ur Soul Ur Body”). It’s especially heartwarming to hear him sing about love, knowing what lies ahead. On “In the Dark,” he repeats a two-word chorus to imitate the recurring thoughts that keep him awake: “At dawn, at dawn, at dawn, I think of you.”
CIX: “Bad Dream”
The fact that CIX
hasn’t absolutely exploded is one of K-pop’s most complex mysteries. Their potential is evidenced in two of the perfect singles of the year (“Cinema” and “Wave”), stunning choreography
, stellar live performances
, plus a solid catalog of EPs in both Korean and Japanese. Something isn’t adding up.
While “Cinema” and “Wave” were buoyant, bright, and boyish, “Bad Dream” is an exhilarating developments of the quintet’s inky, glistening signature sound. The contrasting releases are proof of what we already knew: that CIX’s dynamic versatility is worthy of broader recognition.
ONF: “The Realist”
largely flew under the radar internationally up until they appeared on the reality competition Road to Kingdom
in 2020. Their second-place win in a battle against six other groups raised their profile and helped them land their first appearance on Korea’s Gaon Digital Chart and Billboard
's K-pop Hot 100 with the finale track "New World." "The Realist" is a knowing nod to ONF’s sci-fi concept. The song pulls you across time and space, into numerous dimensions, like a traveler looking for the correct exit. Five of the group’s six members enlisted in mandatory military service this month, so while we won’t hear much from ONF for a while, “The Realist” is a more-than-acceptable parting gift.
Another year, another excellent Woodz
EP. The multi-hyphenate nabbed a spot on last year’s list
, and this year’s collection Only Lovers Left
proves he has staying power. He clinched his first music-show win with single “Waiting” and, while his talents were never in doubt, it’s a relief to be able to see him enjoying a stable solo career immediately after completing stints in two boy groups, a production collective, and as a writer for other artists.
At every turn on Only Lovers Left
, Woodz is burning, bleeding, and puckering up first for kisses and again once it all turns sour. On “Chaser,” he rushes by means of the night in search of an elusive lover, her plastic heart in his hand, in a race against time to reach her before it melts away.
Younha: “Oort Cloud”
The tracks on Younha
’s End Theory
are so routinely good that any could feasibly place on this list. Right after much deliberation, the folksy “Oort Cloud” won out for its infectious positivity and unusual tap dance break. Named immediately after icy debris
at the farthest reaches of our solar system, the song is a stirring call to action urging listeners to “break the shell” and move in back of the last layer of their limitations.
Several mysteries about the Oort Cloud remain unsolved, however it is thought to be the birthplace of comets with the longest orbits. That’s an especially fun fact considering that Younha was nicknamed the “Oricon Comet
” for her ability to shoot up Japan’s music charts in her teens. She is moving into her 18th year in the industry as bright as ever.
AKMU ft. Sam Kim: “Everest”
Brother-sister duo AKMU earned their seventh No. 1 Korean single this year with "Nakka” off their collaborative EP Next Episode.
On deep cut “Everest,” singer-songwriter Sam Kim
duets with vocalist Su-hyun
in a meditative ode to frosty peaks that stretch so high “you can touch the night.” They imitate the slow climb up the mountain by layering guitar and vocals, then kick drum and cymbals, like sheets of fresh snow. "Our new album has a piercing message of transcending freedom," her brother Chan-hyuk explained
at a press conference. The duo hopes the collection encourages a "inner freedom, which permits people to remain unfazed by external forces.”
Key: “Eighteen (End of My World)”
Immediately after dropping Don’t Call Me
and its repackage Atlantis
as a member of Shinee
wrapped his 13th year in the organization. A beloved multi-hyphenate susceptible to snarky cackling
and tipsy livestreams
, Key has become a reliable soloist in recent years with standout singles like “One Of these Nights,” “I Wanna Be,” and right now “Bad Love.” Key’s tender tribute to his younger self is a preference B-side on his September EP Bad Love
. “[‘Eighteen’] is what I'd like to mention to 18-year-old Key,” he told NME
. The result is a love letter to the past that urges little Key to “dream and fly more.” “My eighteen,” he sings. “I would love to watch the end of my world with you.”
Former leader of iKon, rapper B.I
returned in June with his first musical release since 2019, as soon as allegations of drug use resulted in a public fall from grace. On this album, B.I seeks redemption through brutal self-evaluation. He opens “Waterfall” by calling himself a “monster, sinner, and hypocrite,” then explores the advantages of owning up and moving on: “If I wash away all the shameful past… My blood flows flawlessly immediately after I let go… Understanding it, I can picture a new future.” Toward the end of the track, distorted horns herald his second coming. Washed tidy by confession, B.I repeats, “Waterfall, that starts with falling down / That's me.”
’s album Formula of Love: O＋T=＜3
is bursting with banger B-sides in both Korean (“Cruel,” “Last Waltz,” “Push and Pull”) and English (“Icon” and “Hello”), however the addictive “Espresso” is the one to beat. The nine members sing with impressive elasticity, as if their voices are being stretched into taffy. They purr, “E.S.P.R.E.S.S.O, that’s who I am,” over tongue clicks. Four years prior, the sort would have interpreted these lyrics with an airy sweetness or a cheerleader’s infectious pep. On Formula of Love,
those girls-next-door of yore have evolved into impossibly cool girl-crushes, as potent as coffee itself.
Baekhyun: “All I Got”
“All I Got” is what the eyes emoji
would sound like if it were a song: thirsty as hell. “Two small beds stacked next to each other… On a night any time there really is nothing to watch on TV / What can we do?” Baekhyun
asks innocently before pulling out his ace: a goosebump-inducing falsetto. Because the night wears on, his voice rockets to stratospheric heights, his love as expansive as his vocal range.
seemed to bubble under the surface in 2020, although they turned up the heat to a roiling boil in 2021. Their single “After School” was one of the best releases
of the year and so they continue to dole out B-side delight right after B-side delight. “Yummy” is a chipper, staccato banger with the same irresistible you-can-do-it energy of a children’s show soundtrack. The categorize habitually delivers lyrics that celebrate the freewheeling joys of adolescence, and on “Yummy,” that freedom tastes added sweet. “Run noisy for 24 hours… it's OK to prepare a mistake,” they sing. “There will be more exhilarating things!” For more sonic bliss, treat yourself to other divine B-sides like “Uni,” “La Luna,” and “Memories of Summer Rain.”
Chung Ha: “Flying on Faith”
This year, Chung Ha
paved her own lane by means of the the souped-up Querencia
, a superbly super-sized album and the initial in her five-year solo career. Hits like “Gotta Go” and “Snapping” strengthened her reputation for decorative choreography and earworm choruses, however Querencia
is a statement of self.
Chunga Ha learned the word “querencia,” which means a conceptual residence or place of strength, from her therapist. The album is a manifestation of the term, as Chung Ha jumps comfortably between strengths, singing and rapping in Spanish, English, and Korean across 21 tracks plus a handful of genres, including dance-pop, rock, reggaeton, and samba. “Flying on Faith” is perhaps its catchiest B-side. Chunga Ha speaks directly to a partner, explaining how negative thought patterns from past relationships make it hard for them to succeed as a couple.
’s voice sounds familiar, it might be because he sang the theme song
to 2020’s wildly popular K-drama Itaewon Class
. The gig made his pipes recognizable, however not his face or name, as evidenced by a Pixid skit
where two members of the Korean public have absolutely no clue who is. If he begins to sing, their eyes light up in recognition.
Though Gaho started releasing music in 2014 at 17 years old, his first full-length album, Fireworks
, arrived just this year. Already unmatched in his mastery of power ballads, Gaho offers new insight into his potential as he plays with modern pop and rock influences on “Part-Time Lover” and “High.” “Afraid” combines these ideas with Gaho’s athletic vocal length to capture the buzzy bliss of believing in yourself against all odds — and even any time few know your name.
Jeon Soyeon ft. BIBI and Lee Young Ji: “Is This Bad B****** Number?”
!? Jeon Soyeon
calling! The leader of (G)I-DLE
and the most prolific female producer in K-pop dreamt up this collab with rising singer-songwriter Bibi
and rapper Lee Young Ji
for her solo EP Windy
. The finished product is a uncensored chain of phone calls made in search of a bad bitch. Young Ji asks, “Do you know who the fuck you’re talking to?” Before a melancholy Bibi talks sleepily about fellatio and offers to include you in a game of marry, kill, fuck. Soyeon finally hangs up and asks herself, “Why did I make a call elsewhere as soon as I’m here?” Then she checks in to create ensure we’re all on the same page. “You can’t help yet just hope to be piece of it, right?” Right.
Oh My Girl: “Dear You”
Last year, Oh My Girl
’s smash hit "Nonstop" set a record because the longest-running girl sort song in The best 100 of MelOn’s Day-to-day Chart, before their B-side "Dolphin" dove in and beat it. This year’s EP Dear OhMyGirl
is a darling assortment of soft songs emanating nostalgic warmth. The sweetest among them is “Dear You.” The lyrics welcome spring as if it were a person, greeting the little green buds stretching upward from the sleeping ground with fond reverence. Considerate production keeps the song from veering into childishness, enabling it to mirror the soft-hearted outlook of a sentimental adult.
Kai: “Come In”
is a near-perfect, no-skips number of songs hand-picked like fruit at their ripened peak. “Come In” is the most intoxicating of the bunch. Dreamy in its distortion, the song envelops you in ambient warmth, then uses hypnotic repetition to lull the listener into soporific comfort, like musical ASMR. “I get closer to your ear / So that only my breath can reach you,” Kai murmurs above a pulsing rhythm that slowly starts to mirror a heartbeat. “Don't leave me alone, come into me.”
Masters of mystery and magic
may be most at residence among heavy rock and metal, yet they pull off this cool dance-pop bop with aplomb. Most of them of the group’s songs are produced by the same team — Leez and Ollounder, the duo in back of much of Ateez’s music — which means there really is a satisfying consistency across Dreamcatcher’s discography, no matter the genre. The sort generally delivers dark dominance, however went for lighter, brighter fare on this year’s EP Summer Holiday
, resulting in this breezy track about a lover they worry will “disappear in the morning fog,” like a whistle on the wind.
Any time Seventeen
debuted seven years back, their first six singles revelled in the sweaty-palmed thrills of puppy love: racing hearts exploded into confetti
at the sight of their crushes, and so they stoically held back tears
over damaged hearts. This year, Seventeen proved they’re still romantics at heart. “Ready to Love” and “Rock With You” are as sweet as those early singles, with lines like “I’m a fool of love for you” and “No words are enough for you!” While it’s hard to pass up the tasty 8-bit silliness of “GAM3 BO1,” the truth is that “Anyone” conveniently eclipses all their other B-sides and even outshines “Ready to Love.” With maturity in their corner, Seventeen are more self-assured although no much less devoted. “Not anyone can change the only rule in the world,” they promise. “No matter where I am… I'll mention it's you.”
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