In 2021, K-pop continued to face challenges at every turn thanks to the pandemic, but also forged ahead with creativity and resourcefulness. Standout comebacks from this year innovated and experimented, yet also turned to the past for inspiration. Groups and soloists associated with the lauded second and emerging fourth generations of K-pop particularly shined. Cheska and Siena share their thoughts on the year’s top comebacks.

Siena: I think it’s a testament to the pretty strong year of K-pop we’ve had in 2021 that our lists are so different! But I will say, most of your picks were on my shortlist, and I’m excited to talk about all these comebacks. Shall we start with our one shared choice, 2PM

I wouldn’t say that 2PM’s comeback was on my most played list, but what earned it my fifth spot was how the group really exemplified the success second generation groups have had this year, especially when it comes to melding old and new. 2PM sacrifice none of their signature cheesiness in “Make It”. However, they update their style just enough to appeal to not only committed fans but a whole new generation of K-pop listeners. The result is unabashedly fun and a breath of fresh air amidst the sometimes overly self-serious third and fourth generations of K-pop. What landed 2PM on your list? 

Cheska: I actually kept on going back and forth with my list, so I’m happy to see some of my initial picks in your list! In the end, I thought that we just couldn’t talk about 2021 without mentioning comebacks from second generation groups. 

As you mentioned, 2PM brought in fresh air with their much-awaited comeback album, Must. While we normally associate fresh with something light or whimsical, 2PM’s music was a welcome deviation for me from the heavily synthesized music from the younger generation (probably to express that seriousness and angst). I love the jazz, R&B, and funk elements scattered throughout the album, and I do admit that I missed their smooth and sensual vocals (especially since most of them have been busy acting!). Their matured, masculine sound absolutely defines them as a second generation group. 

I see that you have another second generation artist, Shinee‘s Key, on your list. What about his comeback stood out to you? 

Siena: I’m a huge Shinee fan, but I hadn’t really paid attention to Key’s solo work prior to this year. So Bad Love and its same-named title track caught me totally off guard in the best way possible. It’s a no-skip EP for me–always something to get excited about! 

Bad Love also stands out as a great example of the retro-trend done well. I tend to be pretty lenient on retro-themed comebacks because it’s a concept I personally enjoy, but it’s definitely starting to oversaturate the market. However, Bad Love uses retro sounds and styles not as a gimmick, but in a really committed way. The concept also suits Key, accentuating the delightfully dramatic artist he’s always been, rather than feeling like it was foisted on him just because it’s trendy.  Overall, Bad Love reminds me why I love retro-influenced K-pop and marks a clear highpoint in Key’s solo career so far. 

Speaking of Shinee, what made them your #2 pick? 

Cheska: I absolutely agree with you on Bad Love. With Taemin’s amazing solo release, also from this year, we can pretty much fill up the whole list with Shinee!

“Shinee’s back” in 2021 has never been this powerful. What made me look forward to their comeback was seeing just how the group would stand out three years since their last group release. Shinee have always been pioneers of experimental sounds, so at the first listen of “Don’t Call Me, I thought it sounded something like NCT would do. When I listened to the rest of the album, though, I realized that Shinee’s intention was to create a bridge transitioning from youthfulness to edgy masculinity. They weren’t trying to force a current identity. They want us to journey alongside them, from their familiar funk pop sound to possibly dark and futuristic themes in their next chapter.

What impressed you about Shinee’s labelmates, Aespa?

Siena:Next Level” was a phenomenon and for good reason. Like a lot of people, I disliked the song on first listen but it massively grew on me over time. What is so admirable and addictive about the track is how original it feels in an industry where songs do sometimes blur together because of shared elements and trend-adherence.

Aespa is also on my list because with “Next Level” and especially follow-up EP Savage, the group have successfully established a signature sound, and proven they are more than their attention-grabbing–but so far underdeveloped–AI concept. That’s no small feat for a group that just had their first debut anniversary. 

My fourth pick, StayC, is also a group that really found their style this year. While “ASAP” was their breakout, I was particularly impressed by “Stereotype”. It’s a track that exemplifies a concept that some fourth generation girl groups are pioneering (Weeekly comes to mind), essentially an upgrade on the classic cute girl group vibe. “Stereotype” is sugary sweet, but its thoughtful lyrics and slight melancholy undertones pack a punch. It feels like a song teenage girls would actually relate to, as opposed to a song that (male, old) producers think represents a teenage girl mindset. I name no names, but you know what I’m talking about! Anyway, I’m very excited to see StayC, Aespa, and really the whole fourth generation continue to innovate and hit their stride. 

Speaking of the fourth generation, you have Oneus in your fourth spot! I loved their releases this year, especially “No Diggity” and “Luna”. What impressed you about their 2021?

Cheska: To be honest, I had a belated appreciation of Oneus. I stumbled upon the taekwondo performance version released this year of their 2019 hit, “Lit”. I was so drawn to it because of the fusion of traditional and modern elements.

Oneus offered a buffet of concepts throughout the year, both visually and musically. They were wild devils in “No Diggity”. They became their versions of Michael Jackson in “Black Mirror.” Then they returned to fusing the traditional and the modern in “Luna”. They are slowly owning being “concept-dols” in this generation, similar to how VIXX were at their prime.

Speaking of concepts, Sunmi keeps masterfully transforming herself with every release. I consider “Tail” as having one of the best choreographies this year. It’s so artfully done and I haven’t seen any artist do something like that before. Months later, she came back with “You Can’t Sit with Us”, mixing retro elements into a cinematic MV. Also, if we count “Go or Stop?”, which is a futuristic club banger, then we have three completely different concepts in a year from Sunmi! It’s exciting to see how far Sunmi will go musically and conceptually in the future, as every release just keeps getting better and better.

Finally, we talk about our top picks! I particularly love the angsty “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You),” but what about TXT put them on top of your list? 

Siena: Angsty is indeed the right adjective to describe TXT’s 2021 comebacks, and I loved every minute of it! Besides being very successful releases commercially, both “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)” and “Loser=Lover” (as well as their accompanying album and repackage respectively) marked a major turning point in TXT’s artistry. I’ve always enjoyed certain tracks from the group, but with their new rock-infused sound, I think TXT have really found a concept that suits their strengths. 

They’ve never sounded better, especially with Taehyun and Beomgyu’s raspy, blessedly not over-auto tuned vocals standing out. I also think TXT’s live performances this year have jumped up a level. They seem to be having fun in their stages and are really committing to the emo rock-pop vibe. Ultimately, TXT claimed my top comeback spot of the year because they are brilliantly demonstrating what happens when a perfect match is made between a group and a concept. It’s a blast to watch them hit new heights!

Cheska, your top spot goes to Brave Girls. Their resurgence was such a highlight of 2021, and their most recent release “After We Ride” was one of my most played tracks this year (Spotify can attest!). What made them your number one pick?

Cheska: We love a good fairytale-like K-pop story, don’t we? Brave Girls brought just the good vibes we needed in this rather turbulent year. “After We Ride” is also one of my most played tracks this year, and I love the rest of the tracks in their repackaged album. The album includes an acoustic version of “Chi Mat Ba Ram”, which is a chill upgrade of the original.

Speaking of “Chi Mat Ba Ram”, I love how the girls repackaged themselves as the new summer queens and it is just so fitting. Sistar will always be K-pop’s #1 Summer Queens, I just think no act could fill in their shoes. But Brave Girls come close, and more than that, they offer a timeless sound with their discography this year that is reminiscent of second-generation acts. I am excited to see them embrace that “healthy and sexy” concept and showcase a fittingly mature sound. 

That’s a wrap on 2021! Readers, what were your favorite comebacks of the year? And what are you hoping to see from K-pop in 2022? Let us know in the comments section!

(YouTube[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9]. Images via Brave Entertainment, HYBE Labels, SM Entertainment.)