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10 K-Pop Acts That Dominated 2021

From newcomers like aespa and STAYC to beloved soloists like IU, here are the artists that commanded the genre in 2021

kpop acts 2021
Illustration by Steven Fiche
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    The 2021 edition of our Annual Report continues with a spotlight on some of the best and brightest acts in K-pop. As the year winds down, stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles about the best music, film, and TV of 2021. You can find it all in one place here.


    2021 was another major year for K-pop. What was once a niche corner of the music industry has transformed into a formidable sub-genre in recent years, in part because of its depth and diversity of sound.

    There’s something for everyone under the K-pop umbrella — the catch-all label refers to South Korean groups (boy and girl alike) and soloists who incorporate a mix of standard-raising production, choreography, and packaging. The music itself pulls from so many different sounds that listeners drawn to rap are able to debate speed and precision between groups all day, and those more into bright, bubblegum sounds have a place of their own, too. Many of the most interesting acts find a way to do both.

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    This month, we’ve given a nod to industry-shakers like BTS (who have arguably transcended the label of K-pop altogether, and whose “Butter” is our No. 1 song of 2021), and rising stars like TOMORROW X TOGETHER, our December Artist of the Month. Now, we’re shining a spotlight on ten more acts worthy of your ears, too.

    Check out the list, arranged in alphabetical order, below.


    aespa

    While people scramble to figure out how to break into the metaverse, aespa is already there. The group’s name combines the phrases “avatar” and “experience,” and their concept as a group includes virtual avatars for each member.

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    While launching the group with such a storyline was remarkably prescient and sees aespa arriving ahead of the virtual reality curve, it’s not the most interesting thing about this quartet. aespa caught on this year thanks to music that is great, to the point where it’s hard to believe that these girls debuted as recently as 2020 (with “Black Mamba”).


    ATEEZ

    This year was massive for ATEEZ, the group out of KQ Entertainment that kicked things into especially high gear in 2021. Explosive live performances on competition show Kingdom led to a different kind of fervor for the eight-member act and seemed to have brought plenty of new fans into the fold. The group has toured internationally before, but the recent on sale for their upcoming string of stateside dates was a true battle, selling out within minutes.

    Making the most of every moment, ATEEZ dropped even more music this month with a final EP, ZERO: FEVER EPILOGUE, to close out the year. This collection includes their latest, an audacious track called “The Real.” From the set to the choreography to the moments of dialect (satoori), it’s all a bit hypnotic.


    Chung Ha

    K-pop fans might be hard-pressed to find a 2021 album as sonically diverse as Chung Ha’s offering, Querencia. Her story — the story that she explores in this album — is an interesting one. Born in South Korea, the artist was raised in Texas before returning to her home country to pursue music. Her time in the American South specifically offered a doorway to Tejano music, and it’s the way Chung Ha incorporates elements from the sub-genre that makes Querencia so rich and interesting.

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    Chung Ha has been in demand for some time, and this full-length debut as a soloist has cemented her as an essential voice in the K-pop landscape. “Bicycle” is fantastic, but justice for “Dream of You” (with R3HAB), one of the best dancehall bops of the year.


    ENHYPEN

    It feels odd to refer to ENHYPEN as rookies, despite the fact that they debuted just over a year ago in 2020. ENHYPEN is already such a remarkably fine-tuned group of young men that the timeline can get confusing — yes, it was this year that the group released viral sleeper hit “Fever” (on their BORDER: CARNIVAL EP, a breakout moment overall) and their first full-length studio album, DIMENSION: DILEMMA.

    “We are currently preparing for a new album to be released in January next year, so we hope to ring in 2022 with even better music and performances,” JUNGWON shares with Consequence, speaking on behalf of ENHYPEN.

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    “There were many moments in 2021 that felt like a special gift for us,” he continues. “We recently had the opportunity in November to meet our ENGENEs again at our second fan meet. It was such a meaningful moment where we were not only able to look back at our one year together as a group, but also celebrate with and appreciate our ENGENEs who had been with us every step of the way. We also truly hope for the opportunity to meet our ENGENEs around the world next year. We wish everyone a wonderful holiday season!”


    IU

    There’s a reason IU is so beloved, both at home in South Korea and internationally. She makes everything seem effortless, and this year saw her glide from the sleek and stylish “Coin” to the breezy earworm that is “Lilac.”

    For someone that has been in the spotlight since she was a teenager, there’s a sincere warmth to IU as an artist, one that must have certainly contributed to her recent wins at the 2021 MAMA Awards, one of South Korea’s biggest end of year events. IU has grown and evolved in a way that feels organic, leaving the door wide open for more in 2022.

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    Monsta X

    Monsta X have been together for some time now, a detail that has allowed them to evolve through many different eras a group. This year saw them confident and comfortable in experimenting, and the recent release of a second all-English album (THE DREAMING) proved that the group’s fans, known as Monbebe, are hungry as ever for music from these guys.

    “One Day,” released back in September, has been making its way around American radio, but it’s their latest, “You Problem,” that offers the best look into the bouncy, boyband-throwback feel of the album. The disco music video is a perfect bonus.

    Looking ahead, Monsta X will also be returning for a string of live performances in America, and a concert film (also called THE DREAMING) will give fans a deeper look at some behind the scenes moments. The group’s easy rapport, playfulness, and seemingly endless energy makes it easy to see why they’ve been beloved for years.

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    SEVENTEEN

    SEVENTEEN have been going nonstop, releasing multiple mini-albums in their Power of Love series here in 2021. The ninth mini-album, Attacca, is the fourth pandemic-era release alone. Two of this year’s collections, Your Choice and Attacca, both debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart before going on to sell over a million copies each. Fans of SEVENTEEN (referred to as CARATs) couldn’t get enough of “Rock With You,” Attacca’s propulsive lead single, in particular.

    Speaking on behalf of the group, SEVENTEEN’s leader S.COUPS reflects on the year. “We made our US TV debut on The Late Late Show with James Corden back in early January, and went on to show performances on The Kelly Clarkson Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and more,” he remembers. “We also received a Billboard Music Award nomination as a Top Social Artist finalist back in April. We’re so thankful for each and every highlight this year.”


    STAYC

    Few songs were as ubiquitous on K-pop social media as “STEREOTYPE,” the pitch-perfect hyperpop offering from STAYC. The six-member girl group had an exciting 2021, especially as a very new act from an underdog label. The members of STAYC are still finding their sound together with producer duo Black Eyed Pilseung. They’re easy to root for, though, even in this time of exploration. The tag on tracks might be “It’s going down,” but these girls are clearly on the up and up.


    Stray Kids

    Stray Kids are so unapologetically themselves that it’s hard not to have a great time with them. 2021 had lots of big moments for the eight-member act, including releasing an album that crossed the coveted million-seller mark and receiving some social media love from A-listers Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman.

    The band took a look back at the year, telling Consequence in December, “Our highlights in 2021 would be winning on the program Kingdom, wins on music shows for ‘Thunderous,’ and receiving awards from STAYs. In 2022, we hope to see our STAYs worldwide in person!”

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    “Thunderous” was the lead single from the 2021 album NOEASY, an appropriate introduction into the group’s latest era. Boisterous and bold, Stray Kids rejected the accusation of their music being too “loud,” instead leaning into the description with a play on words in the album title. Their lovable brand of controlled chaos only continues to grow, and their fanbase seems to grow with it. (Was Felix’s viral TikTok one of the platform’s best videos of the entire year? Absolutely.)


    TWICE

    If the recent battle for tickets is any indicator, the pandemic has not slowed the momentum of this dynamic group from JYP Entertainment. TWICE debuted in 2015, and this year has provided a new kind of stateside breakthrough for the already quite popular group.

    “The Feels” boasts perhaps the most addictive chorus in K-pop in 2021, and certainly has a lock on the most popular piece of choreography of the year. Aided by an explosion on TikTok, “The Feels” marked the group’s all-English debut to great success. In 2020, they claimed “can’t stop me,” and 2021 proved their point.

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