Last year, I split my favorite tracks of the half-year between title tracks (or songs with music videos and performance videos) and B-side tracks. But after my Top 60 of 2020 at the end of the year, I decided to just mix all my favorite tracks together, regardless of whether they’re titles or album tracks.
It’s been one year since I’ve started to regularly do quick thoughts on what I’m listening to each week. And by now, maybe you’ve gotten a bit of an impression of what kind of music I enjoy.
When it comes to making lists like this, I’m pretty indecisive. There’s so many songs I would love to choose. But I gave it a try. So without further ado, here are my 40 favorites of 2021 so far!
40. “Breathing” by WEi
WEi has had some great B-side tracks. And “Breathing” is one of them. From their album Identity: Challenge, released earlier this year, “Breathing” shares a similar style and vibe to songs like “Timeless” and “Hug You” which I loved last year. A sort of soft dance track that compliments their vocals so well. It’s my type of style and I would love to see WEi churn out more similar tracks.
39. “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)” by TXT (TOMORROW X TOGETHER) feat. Seori
“0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)” is a soaring rock-infused track. A different vibe, certainly from their summery-last release “Blue Hour.” But different from most of what they’ve released so far and certainly from most of what K-pop is doing today. In that sense, it’s a very refreshing and even bold direction to take for a group that has showed their artistry and versatility already so far since their debut. The song features passionate, romantic lyrics of finding love in the midst of chaos and nothingness. Quite a dramatic theme. And the cinematic music video does well to enhance that vibe. Amazing comeback. I’m excited to listen to the rest of the album.
38. “One” by DAY6
Not wanting to sound pessimistic, but we just might have seen the last album release from a five-member DAY6 with last April’s The Book of Us: Negentrophy – Chaos Swallowed Up in Love. I’d love to be proven wrong. But nonetheless, the album was another strong collection of songs from the band. My favorite track from the album though is “One.” It’s a type of song that we haven’t really heard from DAY6 in a while and it’s really my favorite kind of DAY6 music, to be honest.
37. “Burn It” by Golden Child
Golden Child returned with a bit of a curveball, but a good one. “Burn It” signals the group fully leaping into its more mature sound that they’d been growing into the last year or so. The reggaeton-infused song is a very appealing listen. And an interestingly dramatic vibe as well that lends itself to the cinematic music video.
36. “Close” by AB6IX
AB6IX’s “Close” is an excellent comeback. The pop dance track is a bright track about a strong and supportive love. The group is at their most charming with their charismatic performance matching with the romantic, hopeful lyrics. Upon first listen, it’s definitely one of my favorites from them.
35. “Your Ocean” by Hoppipolla
YouTube recommendations come through again as they introduced me to the band Hoppipolla. Formed on the JTBC series Superband in 2019, the band returned with its 2nd mini album. And its title track “Your Ocean” is a beautiful, emotional rock ballad. I loved it immediately and definitely encouraged me to check out the rest of the album and their previous releases. Thank you YouTube!
34. “Magellan” by MOVNING
If it’s not YouTube recommendations, it’s Arirang and Pops in Seoul that introduce me to new artists. Like they it did this time with alternative rock band MOVNING. “Magellan” is an emotional rock ballad and it is certainly a great introduction to the band. I’m definitely on my way to checking out their discography since their 2016 debut right now!
33. “I Got U” by LUCY
I first got to know of LUCY a few months ago and really enjoyed their music. So I’m definitely happy to see they’ve made a comeback with this great track “I Got U.” A perfectly romantic and encouraging summer anthem.
32. “Let Me Fly” by Produce 101 Japan Season 2
Produce 101 Japan Season 2 has crowned its winners. Season 1’s “Tsukame” is my favorite Produce “Pick Me” theme and I had been looking forward to see season 2’s. They definitely didn’t disappoint. If season 1’s was a bit more of a rousing anthemic song, “Let Me Fly” feels a little more subdued by comparison. But that’s part of what makes it so great. Coming from a toku fan like myself, “Let Me Fly” sounds like the ending theme to a Kamen Rider or Sentai movie. Or even a nostalgic youth coming of age film. That pretty much guaranteed that I would love it. I feel like it’s such a unique style compared to the other “Pick Me” songs which tended more to highlight that trainee appeal call to the national producers. Instead, this feels more like a personal affirmation, thus a bit more inspiring and uplifting in comparison.
31. “I Wouldn’t Look For You” by Kim Jae Hwan
Former Wanna One member Kim Jae Hwan released his third mini album, anchored by the title track “I Wouldn’t Look For You.” The emotional acoustic rock song has the singer taking a great step forward with his sound and style. Having released a couple of wonderful ballads since his solo debut, Kim Jae Hwan pairs his strong, smooth vocals with a melodic progression that results in a dramatic track that really commands attention. The music video also enhances the passionate performance he effortlessly delivers with the track.
30. “Used to This” by Jang Hanbyul
It was so awesome to see Hanbyul back with a brand-new song. And it is an excellent one. The fun, playful track is a definite warm mood maker. It’s honestly been a while since I’ve seen Hanbyul performing. And his on stage and music video performances for this song reminded me of his wittiness, charm and charisma. As well as his smooth vocals of course.
29. “Love%” by Demian feat. DAWN
My favorite new artist of 2020, the talented Demian returned with his fourth single “A Blue Not Blues” and its title track “Love%”. His most uptempo track yet has Demian introducing a different side of himself with this moody dance track that will have you vibing in no time. The bouncy melody is a fascinating contrast to the almost melancholic lyrics. And the dramatic music video, which has Demian showing off his acting skills for the first time, is a perfect visual pairing for the song. Definitely something different from him, but as great as all his releases so far.
28. “Universe” by DONGKIZ
Criminally underrated DONGKIZ returned with another great track. “Universe” saw the group back to a bit of a brighter concept after last year’s darker and sexier “Beautiful” and “Lupin.” “Universe” is sort of a balance between the bright, upbeat image they debuted with and the more mature sides they were able to effectively show off last year. And it results in a thoroughly enjoyable, fun and charming track. Complete with another great performance from the group of course.
27. “Bandi” by Jeongmin feat. 9F
Just a couple of weeks since the release of the great “#Young,” former Boyfriend member Jeongmin returned with another excellent release. The powerful rock ballad “Bandi” has Jeongmin expressing being the bright light for someone who may need it in their time of loneliness and hardship. Just an excellent, affecting track with Jeongmin’s vocals indeed shining once again.
26. “SIP” by Lex
BIGFLO member Lex released his first solo single with “SIP.” The very personal lyrics, written by Lex, resonate over the soulful R&B track as he chronicles his own journey while offering hopeful encouragement. I’m a fan of BIGFLO and Lex, so I’m so happy to see him finally getting to release some solo music. I’m looking forward to more from Lex (he continues to host Arirang Radio’s Music Access and will be in an upcoming Korean BL drama) and hopefully BIGFLO soon!
25. “Moon Rider” by BDC
It took eleven months for BDC to release new music between their debut in 2019 and the release of their first mini album last year. They cut that wait time in half this time as they continue their The Intersection series with “Discovery,” their second mini album. The rookie group took a huge leap forward with their release last year. And they continue their growth and evolution with the title track “Moon Rider.” A catchy dance track, “Moon Rider” allows the three members of BDC to be their most confident yet. Strong vocals matched with a great performance make for an instantly engaging comeback.
24. “What I Said” by VICTON
My initial reaction after first listening to the track and watching the music video was:
— LJ D. Banatao (@lesterjeff) January 11, 2021
Indeed, VICTON very well snapped in the most unexpected way. At least to me. My favorite VICTON title tracks are “Remember Me,” “Time of Sorrow,” “Nostalgic Night” and “Howling.” So you can get a sense of the kind of style I might prefer.
So “What I Said” is definitely different. But I do enjoy it much more than “Mayday.” It’s the kind of rousing, powerful track you can’t help but vibe with. Do Hanse definitely takes the spotlight in this track in a way he hasn’t yet in any other title track. And his rap definitely helps confidently set the tone.
23. “Sugar” by Kim Wooseok
UP10TION’s Kim Woo Seok comeback track “Sugar” is definitely a different vibe of a track from his solo debut. “Red Moon” was an uber-sexy, dramatic dance track. “Sugar,” meanwhile, is brighter, romantic though with still a bit of flirty playfulness sprinkled in. It’s definitely as sweet and tasty as the title suggests. The line “You got the best of me, you got it all.” in the chorus is especially catchy and perfectly captures the overall good vibes of the song. A great comeback track.
22. “Seoul” by GHOST9
“Seoul” is definitely my favorite title track so far from rookie group GHOST9. The rousing invitation to South Korea’s capital metropolis is an energetic dance track. The proud lyrics play as both a celebratory party night anthem and a Seoul tourism ad. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The vibrant music video brings it all together with GHOST9’s fiery performance sealing the deal. “Seoul” definitely has you wishing you were partying there right now. (Safely of course.) Or at least driving across the many Han River bridges blasting this song at full volume.
21. “Eyes on You” by Heo Chan (VICTON)
I first have to admit that my VICTON bias is Heo Chan. But even more than just my bias in the group, I feel a great camaraderie with him ever since I found out he was a big fan of Lee Gikwang. Though I must also point out Heo Chan was my bias before I found that out. So this was just another reason for me to solidify my choice.
Going into my first listen of the album, I didn’t know which tracks were the solo tracks from Seungsik, Chan, Sejun or Hanse. And after that first listen, I decided on “Eyes On You” as my favorite track. Little did I know that it was indeed Heo Chan’s solo track. Such a great showcase of Heo Chan’s musical style and a great opportunity to show off his individual talents.
20. “Son of Beast” by TO1
I love this track! TO1 (formerly known as TOO) came roaring back with “Son of Beast.” The group signaled their rebirth after some label troubles with this excellent title track and equally great album. The catchy dance track and its infectious hook of a chorus where the boys confidently proclaim they are a “son of a beast” is just irresistible. Melodic, soft verses and bridge paired with powerful raps and the earworm of a chorus all make for one of the best and most likable tracks of the year so far!
19. “Scared” by P1Harmony
Super rookies P1Harmony are back and just as fearless as their rousing debut. “Scared” is a catchy, dramatic track about self-confidence and affirmation. As P1Harmony encourages you to keep your head up, they also get you to vibe with the defiant, self-assured music and lyrics. It’s a fun contrast to have the music go so hard, yet the lyrics be so uplifting.
The group’s powerful dance performance is also a sight to behold and matches well with the on-point vocal performance. Member Theo especially gets a chance to shine with the song’s impactful pre-chorus. A very strong first comeback for P1Harmony.
18. “S.O.S (Movie Version)” by Monkey Majik
The ending credits for "Zero-One Others: Kamen Rider MetsubouJinrai" though. The stunning close-up portrait shots of Jin, Horobi, Ikazuchi and Naki. The amazing ending theme "S.O.S." by MONKEY MAJIK. I'm tearing up just thinking about it. 😭 #ゼロワンOthers #仮面ライダーゼロワン pic.twitter.com/jnmlrxpkXK
— DryedMangoez (@dryedmangoez) April 26, 2021
Zero-One Others; MetsubouJinrai absolutely wrecked me. And its ending theme by Monkey Majik playing over stunning portraits of the four antagonists-turned-protagonists just capped off the roller coaster of emotions. Absolutely amazing track and perfect for this film.
17. “In The Dark” by Jeong Sewoon
Jeong Sewoon has been one of my favorite solo artists. Though he has had plenty of fun, upbeat songs (Some of my faves are “Just U,” “Baby It’s U,” “Waterfall”), my absolute favorites from him are the ones that are perfect for my Night Drive playlist. (See “No Better Than This,” “Your Favorite Song”) His latest title track “In the Dark” definitely slots in with the latter. The seemingly moody, rhythmic music of the track is an interesting balance with the actually uplifting lyrics. It’s a very appealing combo that highlights who he is an artist.
16. “O@SIS” by 2Z
2Z is one of my favorite debuts from 2020. And they returned with the release of their first full album. “ACT1” has all the excellent songs they released last year and three new tracks, including the dual title tracks “O@SIS” and “Stupid.” The rousing, funky rock track “O@SIS” and the bright synth-rock “Stupid” are both great examples of the band’s talent and versatility. Definitely a good introduction for anyone who might not have listened to them yet. But a sign that you should definitely check out their strong discography so far.
15. “libidO” by OnlyOneOf
OnlyOneOf has been one of the most daring, most creative groups out there. Their debut “savanna” was just a taste of things to come for the group. And their latest title track “libidO” is probably the best example yet of just how much the group intends to push the envelope and offer something unique and different in what can sometimes be a sea of sameness. As the title may suggest, “libidO” takes on a bold approach as the group sings of an uncontrollable desire that one can try to suppress. But doing so only has an even bigger impact on one’s behavior. The rated 12 (!) music video and subsequent music show performances may surprise some people. But they are a perfect visualization of the song as well as OnlyOneOf’s fearless musical and performance style.
14. “Story” by A.C.E
A.C.E has had some rousing title tracks, but my favorite tracks from them have been their B-side tracks. “Story” from their latest album is one of them. A beautifully mellow pop track where the group’s smooth vocals pair with a night drive-worthy melody.
13. “Inside Out” by NU’EST
. Almost a year since their last release, Romanticize is the group’s first full-length album in seven years! I had to go back and check to see that the title track for that album was “Good Bye Bye.” And that definitely put things into perspective. NU’EST has been through so much during their career. And when many groups call it quits after the requisite seven years (some unfortunately not even making it to seven), seeing NU’EST be able to keep going and finally finding major success has been so exciting to watch. They’ve certainly come a long way.
And the title track for this album “Inside Out” certainly exemplifies their experience and maturity at this point in their careers. The song is an uptempo house track that at the same time feels measured and mellow. The lyrics, the performance and the visuals all come together in a sophisticated and confident way.
If you’ve followed the group’s discography since their debut, it is very easy to see their evolution and growth. Slowly, but surely, NU’EST always took steps forward while still maintaining a voice, style and sound that was distinctly theirs.
12. “My Name” by D-CRUNCH
D-CRUNCH title tracks so far have been the sort of strong personality, tough guy image that many groups like to turn to. That kind of powerful, hip-hop-infused dance track. But the group switches it up with their latest release and it might just be their best title yet. It definitely suits them.
“My Name” is a perfect dramatic tack with soft verses and a powerful chorus that includes a drop, yet still actually has sung lyrics. It’s amazing that many choruses of title tracks today feature almost no lyrics and instead rely on electronic music to connect verses. That makes “My Name” even more of a standout. And the performance that goes along with it just shows a wonderful and welcome growth for the underrated group.
11. “Anymore” and “Answer Me” by Chan
YouTube recommendations come through yet again with this excellent track from soloist Chan. “Answer Me” is a vibe of a song. The soulful R&B track features Chan’s warm vocals telling a story of longing after a separation.
But what’s so interesting is that after discovering “Answer Me,” I checked out his song “Anymore” featuring BIGONE which was released a few weeks before. And turns out it’s actually the precursor to “Answer Me.” “Anymore” has Chan telling a girl he does not love her anymore in quite an insistent and confident way. But Chan’s vocals and the music give off a hint of vulnerability. And that perfectly leads into “Answer Me,” which of course, talks about actually missing that same girl.
So I definitely suggest listening to “Anymore” first and then “Answer Me” after. One of the best music experiences you’ll have this year!
10. “Not The End” by HIGHLIGHT
It was a wonderful day when Highlight made their long-awaited comeback with new mini album The Blowing and the amazing title track “Not the End.” “Not the End,” co-written and co-composed by Joo Chan Yang, Lavin and (one of my ultimate biases!) Lee Gikwang, is a beautifully warm and hopeful title track. The group effortlessly conveys the emotional, yet optimistic lyrics with their smooth vocals while the song’s warm verses lead into the bright, soaring chorus. It’s just a perfect track to signal the group’s comeback and illustrate their experience and maturity after more than ten years in the industry.
9. “Us At That Time” by Kim Woo Seok
Stan talented people! I enjoyed watching Kim Woo Seok on seasons 2 and 3 of Voice, in his supporting role on my favorite 2020 drama A Piece of Your Mind and most recently in Scripting Your Destiny. Definitely a talented actor deserving of a lead role very soon. But I was pleasantly shocked to learn he has a beautiful voice as well! And not only that, he’s also performed on stage in musicals.
His warm vocals are on full display in “Us at That Time,” one of two OSTs from his recently aired tvN Drama Stage episode “Lucky.” A stunningly beautiful love song where his soft voice matches so well with the piano and guitar. The song begins in a wonderful acoustic vibe before crescendoing into a soaring climax at the end, including Kim Woo Seok’s voice. I can’t even describe what a wonderful feeling I had listening to the song and then realizing the voice belonged to the actor Kim Woo Seok.
Also listen to the other track from the OST, “Like a Star,” an equally beautiful performance from him as well:
8. “In The Dark” by Bobby
Bobby’s album Lucky Man is just excellent. And if I could, I’d probably put most of the album’s tracks here on my list. But to represent the album and the side of Bobby I really like, I have “In The Dark.” Though Bobby certainly owns the stage when he goes hard, I prefer the softer side of this multi-talented artist. I was pleasantly surprised by his album Love and Fall which is still one of my favorite albums by a Korean artist. And I was looking forward to this new release. It had everything I hoped for and as you can enjoy in the MUPLY “All The Playlist” medley above, there’s a track for just about any and all tastes. And all from one talented artist.
7. “Down” by A.C.E
A.C.E teams up with American electronic music duo Grey for fun and playful romantic track “Down.” The summery pop track gets some EDM flavor from Grey and the group’s always silky-smooth vocals seal the deal. “Down” could be one of the most appealing and enjoyable tracks of the year. And the fun the guys have in the music video is irresistible.
6. “Pray” by Kim Jae Hwan
“Pray” by Kim Jae Hwan is definitely one of the biggest surprises for me this year. A really stunning and beautiful track. Kim Jae Hwan is backed by a choir as he sings emotionally about finding the strength amidst hardship and struggles. Everything about the song is just breathtaking and just needs to be listened to to really get the full experience. Words don’t do it justice.
5. “Want” by Woonie & Yonghyeon
TST member Yonghyeon collabs with Woonie on the release of “Want.” This smooth R&B dance track is irresistible. The only downside is that at just over two minutes, it is too short! It’s definitely a song you want to vibe to for much longer. Yonghyeon has also teased more solo releases in the future, so that is something to look forward to. Just an excellent vibe of a track.
4. “Antidote” by Kang Daniel
Kang Daniel is a special artist. He has been able to deliver consistently amazing performances while having to deal with many struggles, including his mental health. And that battle is the focus of his latest album Yellow. Like “Paranoia” released in February, this album and title track “Antidote” is very personal. Expressing his feelings and what he’s been through, through music presents an enthralling experience. It’s almost indescribable being allowed in to his thoughts in this way. But he lets it all out there and it is truly captivating.
“Antidote” is a fascinating experience on its own. The melody is an absolute vibe and you’ll find yourself grooving to it almost immediately. But then you listen and look at the lyrics and remember what the song is actually about. That dramatic contrast is so fascinating.
I must say, I was waiting for a big rousing climax that never came. The song seemed to be building up to one and I think it would’ve been amazing. But again, the song is a personal and introspective track. Really, just the way he is able to express himself in this way is truly mesmerizing. You’re left in awe. And the entire album experience is one to be had as well, especially as a musical journey through Kang Daniel’s healing process.
3. “Dionaea” by ORβIT
ORBIT has wowed me since their debut. “Universe” is one of my favorite songs of 2020. But what really impressed me was how stunning that debut truly was. The visuals, the glossy music video, the performance; you’d never think they were runners-up on Produce 101. Now with the release of their first mini album, the group is back to show off once more.
Leading off the album are two title tracks with music videos for each being divided between the Japanese and Korean lines of the group. Both “Dionaea” and “Blind” are very different vibes, but equally amazing. But “Dionaea” is definitely my favorite of the two. It is an absolute vibe and right up my alley. The group perfectly brings to life the lyrics written by June. A combination of both soft and passionate vocals match the dreamlike melody. Just stunning.
2. “Aurora” by ONEWE
ONEWE has had breathtaking tracks before, but “Aurora” is something else. This is an absolutely stunning track and might just be one of the band’s absolutely best. Yonghoon’s incredible vocals again help the track soar to unbelievable heights as the band comes together to bring this emotional track to life. It has such an epic feel to it, something that I don’t think ONEWE has yet done with their music. Certainly many emotional and powerful tracks. But “Aurora” is on a different level. Very much title-track worthy. And I would be over the moon if they were to release more tracks like “Aurora” in the future.
1. “Cinema” by CIX
I absolutely love CIX’s “Cinema.” When it was first released in February, I said it would probably end up close to the top of my favorite tracks of the year list. And at this halfway point, it remains #1. Though a couple of the tracks here on this list were possible as my #1, I always came back to “Cinema.”
The fact that it is reminiscent of my two favorite tracks from them certainly helps. In fact, “Rebel” and “Revival” were two of my favorite songs of 2020. But this mid-tempo synth-pop track delivers an airy, dreamlike aura (with a sprinkling of well-placed funk) that matches the romantic lyrics. And the group’s smooth vocals bring it all together into a song that you won’t ever get tired of.
I’ll say it again, six months from now, “Cinema” will probably be right up here on the list.