2021 offered quite a few strong albums, enough for both of my categories to include numerous honorable mentions. Full albums were especially great this year — a trend I hope to see continue in 2022.
Like usual, my top ten list is cut in half, presenting the top five mini albums and the top five full albums. My eligibility criteria has widened just a bit to include a few important highlights:
- Mini albums must have at least four full tracks to qualify
- Repackages are considered the definitive version of an album (unless otherwise noted)
GHOST9 – Now: Where We Are, Here
VERIVERY – Series ‘O’ Round 2: Hole
U-Know – Noir
Dreamcatcher – Dystopia: Road To Utopia
Twice – Taste Of Love
Seventeen – Your Choice
aespa – Savage
5. Woodz – Only Lovers Left
Only Lovers Left has such an odd structure. It feels flipped upside down, with the title track and strongest material arriving later in the album. This took some getting used to, but a grand finale makes the journey worth it. Woodz always puts out strong albums, and this is his best so far.
Standout Album Tracks: Chaser, Kiss Of Fire
4. Key – Bad Love
After an excellent album with his group SHINee, Key returned as a soloist and embraced his retro charms. Bad Love is very consistent. Even when it dips into more generic material, the force of Key’s personality and artistic vision keep things compelling.
3. Brave Girls – Summer Queen
Too many K-pop albums are piecemeal affairs without any overarching theme, but Summer Queen‘s intent is right there in its title. This is an all killer, no filler blast of summertime pop. Every song could have been an standout single. In fact, half of them were!
Standout Album Tracks: Fever, Summer By Myself
2. Lucy – Gatcha!
I already knew I loved Lucy’s music, but I never thought they were capable of an album this diverse. Across just four tracks, the group display their upbeat charm with their catchiest hooks yet. Gatcha also makes room for some left-field turns, like the dynamic synth pop of the shimmering One By One.
1. Golden Child – YES
Golden Child’s music has changed considerably since debut, but going “dark” or “mature” doesn’t always mean shouting over recycled K-pop beats. YES feels slick and assured, yet never forgets the strength of a knockout pop melody. Bookended by contrasting singles Burn It and Breathe, the album has no dull moments. Round N Round and Cool Cool supply the upbeat dance grooves, while the anthemic Milky Way brings rock grit to their sound.
ONEUS – Devil
Nu’est – Romanticize
ENHYPEN – Dimension: Dilemma
5. Twice – Formula of Love: O+T=<3
Twice’s Formula Of Love is a behemoth of an album, *twice* as long as many “full-lengths” from their peers. With this in mind, it’s remarkably consistent. It’s the sort of album without definitive highlights… and that’s not a bad thing. Instead, every track is solid — from the retro dance sounds of Moonlight and F.I.L.A to the soft rock of Cactus to the theatrical trap of Last Waltz.
Standout Album Tracks: F.I.L.A (Fall In Love Again), Push And Pull, Moonlight
4. TXT – The Chaos Chapter: Freeze / Fight Or Escape
TXT’s Freeze (and repackage Fight Or Escape) takes influence from their past work but vaults their sound to new levels. It has a gritty backbone, softened and polished by glossy pop tropes. It’s a diverse piece of work, held together by the group’s conviction. Bolstered by the incredible 0x1=LOVESONG, Freeze goes on to unveil future singles Magic and Frost. But, there are so many buried treasures here. Failing to give No Rules a music video was a serious misstep!
Standout Album Tracks: No Rules, Dear Sputnik, Anti-Romantic
3. Golden Child – Game Changer
I usually include repackages as part this countdown, but I think Golden Child’s original Game Changer is the superior version of the album. Not only do DDARA‘s repackage tracks fizzle, but their placement up front causes the album to lose its initial shot of adrenaline. Across a series of full-group standouts and fun unit tracks, Game Changer has so much to love. The guys challenge new genres, bringing energy and excitement to every track. It’s a parade of highlights, with Fanfare, Bottom Of The Ocean and Spell standing at the top of the pack.
2. ONF – My Name / City Of ONF
ONF’s City Of ONF feels like a cohesive statement. For me, that’s what makes a truly memorable album. You can cobble together as many great tracks as you want, but without a consistent theme it simply feels like a fun playlist. City‘s tracks reference each other in wonderful ways, adding a storytelling aspect to the group’s experimental, synth-heavy sound. There are varying levels in the arrangement of each track, and this ebb and flow feels fresh and intentional. Do yourself a favor and pick up a physical copy of the album for bonus track Lights On. I can’t imagine the listening experience without that killer finale.
1. SHINee – Don’t Call Me / Atlantis
SHINee are no strangers to fantastic albums, yet even after years in the industry Don’t Call Me / Atlantis stands as one of their strongest. Balancing fan-favorite sounds with new challenges, the album is a satisfyingly blitz through their considerable talent. These days, SM Entertainment too often feels like “the NCT show.” It’s thrilling to hear a collection of songs that pulls different strengths from the agency. There are too many highlights to list, with upbeat dance tracks and pensive mid-tempos stealing equal attention. Across it all, SHINee are in epic form. Their iconic vocals power every moment, while their nimble choreography reverberates in the mind. This is the sound of a K-pop legend in their full, confident glory.