After ranking my favorite rookies of 2021, I turn my attention to K-pop’s more established artists. This year, the criteria is the same as ever:
- Quality of work
- Quantity of work
- Influence of work on the industry
As usual, the first criteria far outweighs the next two, and is entirely subjective. This is not a countdown of the most successful acts in 2021. This is a celebration of the groups/artists that really shaped the year for me. Rookies are ineligible, as they have their own countdown.
Lucy opened the year with a few great OSTs before releasing the first in a string of albums. They secure their spot on this list thanks to their consistency (and standout June album Gatcha). They also began to gain notoriety after the Olympics, due to a shoutout from the National Archery Team. Who knows how high they’ll climb next year?
Last Year: n/a
2021 Singles: Hero, I Got U, Irrelevant Answer, Rolling Rolling
GHOST9’s first full year was marked by a steady stream of comebacks. Along with a couple great title tracks, the guys’ output bore plenty of standout b-sides. Line-up changes made for a disappointing capper to their 2021, but the group continues to carve out an exciting niche for themselves.
Last Year: n/a
2021 Singles: Seoul, Up All Night, Control
Aespa may not have released all that much music, but they owned 2021. Their Next Level feels like the most influential idol track of the year, and their debut mini album unveiled their unique colors. The stage is set for the girls to become a leading force in the industry, and I can’t wait to see where 2022 takes them.
Last Year: n/a
2021 Singles: Forever, Next Level, Savage
Twice have been a stalwart on this list for a couple years now, and that’s thanks to a matured sound that sees them embracing their strengths. They were as busy as ever in 2021, releasing a killer full-length album after blitzing the market with both Korean and Japanese comebacks. They also tackled their first English-language single to great success.
Last Year: 9
2021 Singles: Kura Kura, Alcohol-Free, Perfect World, The Feels, Scientist, Doughnut
I wouldn’t have expected TXT to embrace an angsty teen-rock sound, but it turned out to be a match made in heaven. After a hit-or-miss 2020, they were extremely consistent this year. They may have only released one album in 2021, but they milked that album for all it was worth — releasing no less than four music videos. They also continued to advance into global markets, gaining fans all over the world.
Last Year: 6
2021 Singles: 0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You), Magic, LO$ER=L♡VER, Frost
ONEUS didn’t take time to breathe this year. If we count their ONEUS Theatre project, they delivered five singles. That’s almost a bi-monthly schedule! These singles were all completely different from one another, yet each was delivered with such panache. The group offered a little something for everyone, and this versatility gained them many admirers. Their sales blew up and they seem to be on the path for continued success.
Last Year: n/a
2021 Singles: No Diggity, Black Mirror, Shut Up 받고 Crazy Hot!, Life Is Beautiful, Luna
4. GOLDEN CHILD
Don’t let the tumble in ranks fool you. I think Golden Child actually had a stronger 2021 than 2020. There are just a few other acts that stood out more this year. As usual, the group consistently released fantastic music — both title tracks and b-sides. Their YES album is one of their best, and August’s Game Changer includes some of their strongest work. A near-constant promotion schedule (4 mvs, plus 5 special unit mvs!) kept them in the public eye. Sales increased and individual members found their niche in variety and dramas.
Last Year: 1
2021 Singles: Burn It, Breathe, Ra Pam Pam, DDARA
Special Unit MVs: Singing In The Rain, Poppin’, That Feeling, Out The Window, Game
3. BRAVE GIRLS
This time last year, I would have been shocked to hear that Brave Girls would feature on any of my year-end lists. But, Rollin‘s resurgence was a K-pop miracle. The group’s time in the spotlight could have easily started and ended there, but they took the opportunity to release their best work yet. They totally owned the summer, become the first artist in Bias List history to top my monthly round-up feature for three months straight. While so many of their peers opted for a trendier girl crush style, Brave Girls took a more melodic approach and delivered bonafide K-pop classics.
Last Year: n/a
2021 Singles: Red Sun, Chi Mat Ba Ram, Pool Party, After We Ride
SHINee really deserve to be a joint number one on this list. The only thing holding them back is their own legacy. They’ve had so many amazing years in the past that you just expect them to be fantastic. But, how many groups in their thirteenth year release an album as great as Atlantis? How many release solos as amazing as Key’s Bad Love? Prior to Taemin’s enlistment, the guys made early-2021 their own, delivering exactly what the fans wanted. It’ll be awhile before we hear from the group again, but Key, Onew and Minho have more than enough K-pop cachet to hold things down until the eventual reunion.
Last Year: n/a
2021 Singles: Don’t Call Me, Atlantis, Superstar
Solo Singles: Key – Hate That, Bad Love // Taemin – Advice
When I think back to K-pop in 2021, my mind will likely go straight to ONF. After years of frustratingly infrequent releases, they blitzed the market with comeback after comeback. Then, the guys hit us with a plot twist. It turns out, this imperial phase heralded a full-group enlistment and extended hiatus. But, if you’re going to bow out for a while, I can’t think of a better way to do it. ONF kicked off the year in stunning fashion, maintaining that excellence all the way into December. Through it all, longtime collaborator Hwang Hyun supplied daring, infectious music that stood apart from every other group in the industry. ONF found success through their own unique vision. There are few things more satisfying than that.
Last Year: n/a
2021 Singles: My Name Is, Beautiful Beautiful, Ugly Dance, Popping, Goosebumps
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My guys just keep winning! I find myself getting emotional when I think back on the year they’ve had – it’s such a rare kind of magic to have witnessed.
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This is exactly my list, except BDC and Seventeen would be somewhere higher and TXT would rank third just because Freeze was such a great album, GolCha would slightly lower, and SKZ would be in the honorable mentions.
It is insane how much stronger 2021 as a whole was than 2020.
Oh I was supposed to par this in the comments, not the replies
Our list was very similar:
3. Golden Child
I pretty much fully agree with this list. I’d probably switch out TXT and Ghost9 for Dreamcatcher and Enhypen.
I do agree with your statement on ONF tho. They went with an absolute bang. Not only did they release a lot of music but it was all great stuff as well. Personally, this year cemented ONF’s status in my upper echelon of kpop groups and I will definitely be waiting for their return.
There is something so utterly satisfying about groups that were already your favorites having outstanding years. Long before 2021 started Shinee and Oneus were already my two favorite kpop groups ever, so watching both of them absolutely shine in 2021 was more than I could have ever asked for as a fan.
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all my predictions are correct wow..
anyways, you put TWICE at #4 in 2019. Which year is stronger for you?
Pretty much fully agree with this list! Love seeing Twice so consistent, like you mentioned – their musical maturation has been amazing to follow the last few years. And ONF’s grand year before their group enlistment is perfectly fitting. Would definitely also have Shinee, Brave Girls, Oneus, TXT, and aespa on my list too.
I agree but I would add RedVelvet in there somewhere especially all that they went through the past two years.
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I think the main criteria for me are:
1. How much I enjoyed their music/performances/other content,
2. How happy they make me, and
3. How stable they are in the industry
PENTAGON: I picked them up with RtK on the strength of their back-catalogue and how much I liked “Dr. Bebe” and “Daisy”, but they fell off my radar during their musical hiatus after “Do or NOT”. I was expecting a CB announcement after Jinho was discharged but now I’m wondering if they’re waiting on Hui for a group comeback. Ah well. There are other fishes in the sea.
A.C.E: I love A.C.E and wish that this year hadn’t felt vaguely disappointing after the fire that was “Favorite Boys”, but so it goes. It wasn’t a bad year for them, and the market seems to have adjusted such that military hiatuses aren’t the death knell they might have been. It’s been good to see them doing more acting and hosting gigs, so even if they’ll probably on the back-burner as a group for a while, it doesn’t feel like the end.
10. WOODZ: Not having followed the Produce shows, WOODZ crept onto my radar gradually and ended the year strong.
9. BDC: “Moonlight” won me over and once their sound clicked, I was onboard. I love their stages, too, which helps with the “making me happy” factor.
8. GHOST 9: I’ve noticed that the artists on this list tend to release EPs or albums more often than singles, and I like that. GHOST 9’s EP are absolutely top for me – I’ve playlisted every single song they’ve released and I’m not sure there’s any other artist I can say that for. Things still feel shaky after the line-up change, but “Control” has been growing on me and I’m cautiously optimistic to see what they do in 2022.
7. SHINee: One of the first k-pop artists I encountered, of course, I love “Sherlock” but had a hard time connecting to their other group music. I got into Taemin’s solo stuff pretty quickly though, and was curious to see what their long-awaited (by people other than me) come-back as a full group would look like, and wow. I get it!
6. VICTON: Including Seungwoo and Hanse’s solo releases they only had three releases plus the special single this year, but I loved so much of their album, was absolutely blown away by “Take Over”, and find them so entertaining on variety that that got me through the year. I hope they continue to release music while the military shuffle plays out, but they seem to be popular enough in other areas that I’m not especially worried about them.
5. TXT: After adding ATEEZ to my list of groups whose non-musical content I watch, I decided that list was closed, but TXT have been poking at my resolve there, and the punk-rock-pop thing they’ve been doing this year hits all of my buttons. As much as I have a soft-spot for underdogs,
4. MCND: I discovered them early in the year and absolutely love their combo of dance, rap, and performance skills. They’d have been higher on the list except for their age, which makes a lot of their non-musical content less entertaining for me than idols with another few years under their belt. TOP’s track record with boy groups makes me a little nervous for them, but so far so good. “Movin’” wasn’t my favorite but it wasn’t terrible and I love how they’ve established a sound and stuck with it.
3. Stray Kids: It was a quieter year for them musically, but they killed it on KINGDOM and watching their popularity explode was very satisfying. The b-sides on “NOEASY” grew on me a lot and “Christmas EveL” has been a joy. They’re the group that pushed me over the line from casual to serious k-pop fan so I’ve got a lot of bias there.
2. ONEUS: The thing with them is that they’re not my favorite anything – SKZ are my favorite rappers, A.C.E my favorite vocalists, ATEEZ my favorite performers – but they’re really, really good at everything, and every single release they put out this year was great in a different way. The triple-punch of performance videos for “Shut Up Crazy Hot”, “Lit” and “Thriller” blew me away even before the fantastic “Luna” capped off an amazing year.
1. ATEEZ: The last group I added to my list of “learn names, watch non-musical content” back during KINGDOM ended up grabbing me pretty hard. Musically there are other groups I like more, but they’re such engaging performers on and off stage that I’ve got to give them the top spot.
Rock: Adios Audio, Hoppípolla, LEE SEUNG YOON, LØREN, N.Flying, NELL, NIve, ONEWE, PITTA, 10CM
Vocalists: Ailee, AKMU, BIBI, BoA, eAeon, Gaho, Harrianne, KEEMBO, Taeho, Younha
Hip-Hop: Aquinas, Ash-B, B.I, BIG Naughty, Epik High, Han Yo Han, Huh!, Mirani, punchnello, sokodomo
I absolutely have to agree that this was ONF’s year. I was so happy to see them coming out more consistently after Road to Kingdom, and with more attention on them. I became a fuse after Road to Kingdom and I’ll never forget it. I’ll stick by them during the enlistment because “The Show Must Go On” and I know they will be back blazing hot after their military enlistment.
Secondly, Oneus oh my goodness. I started stanning them this year and apparently it was the year to do it. They lit things up with No diggity (quite literally in the music video), kept it going with an even stronger black mirror, got hype up with their theatre projects (Shut Up Crazy Hot looking at you), and then ended it with a big finale of Luna. If that isn’t plot development, I don’t know what is.
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I couldn’t agree with this list more honestly. ONF is love, ONF is life.
So true about SHINee. When you think about where they are in their career, it’s incredible that they are still putting out top tier songs and aren’t just riding along on nostalgia at this point. Legends.
I cannot agree more with the Top 5. Each and every one of these groups on this list had fantastic years, All of them released incredible music and all of them rose to great success! Especially ONEUS and Brave Girls, the former winning their first music show win with Luna and Brave Girls cementing themselves as one of K-pop’s a-listers.
Beyond that, I feel like TXT and Aespa would be slightly lower for me. For the former, I wanted more new music because their full album was excellent and for the latter, they felt more like a rookie group if anything. Lucy’s discography grew alot this year and I am hoping they continue this route. WOODZ would most definitely be higher for me and I am happy to see GHOST9’s evolution as artists.
But if anything, this year was all about that Top 5, each whom released work which has placed on my Top Ten Singles:
After We Ride
SHINee should be up there in the number one spot as well because they are all great singer and rappers the facts that they been around for a while since 2008 and still going strong they music makes you feel good make you dance make you cry it is a shame that they are not known al around the world and that’s makes me sad because they are SHINee 5 Superstars and that’s no joke these young men are amazing
i don’t even know half of these groups so how are they on top. This is very biased
oh, are you serious?
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