MUSIC

Our favorite K-pop songs of 2021

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From Weeekly’s “After School” to Taemin’s “Advice” and Aespa's "Next Level," this year’s list is more of a personal snapshot of our lives via K-pop. Photo of Aespa from SM ENTERTAINMENT

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The pandemic is still raging, and our hold on K-pop remains tight as ever. So what is it about K-pop that makes us believe it’s a new form of therapy? Is it the fantasies served by our parasocial relationships with our biases? The catchy earworms that wish the world away when we’re listening to them on repeat? Or is it the industry’s rigid rules that make it seem like there’s still a system in the world that’s not spiralling into oblivion? Whatever it is, K-pop's chokehold on us is real and it is welcome to continue to do so in many years to come.

For the second year in a row, the CNN Philippines Life list is more of a personal snapshot of our lives via K-pop. The rush of each hook is a saving grace and can be a matter of hope to all of us here.

We thought that the multitude of brilliant releases would make the deliberations harder than ever but after the first round, our top 25 already became clear. Another thing to note is that the selection process was changed this year. All lead single releases by K-pop artists (Korean, English, or Japanese) were considered as K-pop, because at this, point, the industry isn’t just based on language — we’re basing it here on the artists themselves (you still call English-language releases of OPM under the local music mantle, right?). All artists who fall under the grey shadow of “the K-pop genre” were not considered as we’ve had experience of companies telling us that their artists are not K-pop and that’s something we respect. The list’s limitations have forced us to make an appendix of our own favorite albums or songs that we wish made it to the list, as a way also of putting the spotlight on the other great releases of the year. Below are our picks, in no particular order. — DON JAUCIAN

"Lilac" - IU

In the language of flowers, lilacs represent the memories of childhood. “Lilac,” the fifth studio album and title track by solo artist IU, is steeped in nostalgia. The music video opens with the singer at a train station as she’s about to depart for a trip, and the lyrics allude to sweet memories that she’ll forever revisit. Paired with IU’s lilting soprano and a synth-led, ‘80s-core beat, the chorus is really where the song’s magic lies: “Love me only till this spring,” she sings. For a moment you forget that IU is saying goodbye; the artist herself has said in previous interviews that she wants the album concept to revolve around “greetings and farewells,” her way of letting go of being in her 20s to start fresh as a 30-year-old. As someone reckoning with her own journey from 20s to 30s, IU’s “Lilac” feels like the comforting presence of a friend who readily commiserates with you. The entertainment industry has never been kind to the concept of ageing, but our good sis IU’s playful approach to growing up and getting older proves that women just want to be hags in peace. — MARGA BUENAVENTURA

"After School" - Weeekly

With the scene dominated by girl crush hooks and anti-drops, Weeekly is the breath of fresh, earnest air that K-Pop desperately needs. Since their debut, the seven-piece girl group has put out some of the most cohesive mini albums and catchiest singles among their fourth generation peers. This holds especially true for their third outing, “We Play” and its title track “After School.” “We’re on our skateboards/ Stamping our feet like we’re dancing,” they sing as they take us back to the post-class high jinks we and our friends used to get into. Saccharine is what this group does best, but what sets this track apart is how its pure shot of serotonin is secretly laced with melancholy. “To the end/ I’m so good with you,” vocalists Jaehee and Soeun croon as if they’re nostalgic for a time that has yet to pass. Main vocalist and dancer Monday later shines brightest as she laments, “This moment will never come again/ Everything here is sparkling.“ Weeekly reminds us that these times of youthful bliss, fleeting as they are, will always be in our memories. My personal vote for Song of the Year, “After School” is bubblegum K-Pop at its best. — JUNE BULAON

"ASAP" - STAYC

When STAYC (short for Star To A Young Culture) burst on to the K-pop scene in late 2020, they declared: "it’s going down!" Their first comeback and single for 2021 “ASAP” is a delicious bubblegum pop track built around an addictive, almost wordless chorus-cum-summoning spell for their ideal partner. The song opens with rapper J’s distinct voice inviting (or is she warning?): "Time is running, boy." The sparkly beats, reminiscent of 8-bit video game soundtracks, distinct choreography and colorful and cute comic book concept spelled out one of the most exciting tracks from a rookie girl group, from any group, this year. STAYC built their concept around a desire to dominate pop culture. If the success of “ASAP” is any indication of where their star is headed, it’s clear there’s nowhere to go but up. — GISELLA VELASCO

"Hello Future" - NCT Dream

There is no shortage of interpreting past trends in K-pop. Plenty of groups draw inspiration from music, clothing, and past pop culture moments, so it’s rare to be surprised by a reference from yesteryear. When NCT Dream released their follow-up to their first album “Hot Sauce” (a worthy NCT Dream contender for this year’s list), I was not expecting an homage to the anti-war hippie movement of the 1970s, complete with tie-dye, peace signs, and bubble font reminding us all to “MAKE PEACE.” Haechan asks in the first verse: "Can you believe it’s only the beginning?" The unbridled optimism of “Hello Future” was like a sip of cold juice on a hot summer day. Loud, colourful and bombastic, the production of “Hello Future” is to be commended. There is so much going on in this song, even more in the video that it is almost overwhelming. And yet! What guides the audience through is the steadfast declaration that despite the year that had been and though we didn’t know it yet — the year that was to follow, there is still so much to look forward to. After all, this is only the beginning. — GV

"Next Level" - Aespa

This year, SM Entertainment focused on building their MCU-inspired multiverse set in the fictional world of Kwangya, in which the K-pop agency’s idols are the main characters. At the center of this lore is rookie girl group Aespa (stylized as aespa), the eight-member group composed of four humans and four virtual avatars (in Kwangya-speak: “æs”). Their debut with “Black Mamba,” was meant to be an introduction to this new world and the villains that live in it. Upon first listen, Aespa’s follow-up single “Next Level” will confuse you on all fronts: structure and melody-wise. It’s as if the producers decided to stitch multiple songs into one, lyric-wise, nothing will make sense unless you’ve read the aespa’s lore.

The song — a remake of a track off the “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” soundtrack — impressed me so much the first time I listened to it, until Karina declared that the beat had dropped, and the bridge almost made me declare it a dud. But later that evening I found myself listening to it again, then again the next day, then attempting to do the arm/wrist choreo the next day, and I continued listening to it multiple instances after that to the point that the song made it to the upper half of my top played songs of 2021. “Next Level” helped me understand that confusion is one of the major appealing factors of contemporary K-pop and the futuristic sound it brings, one later fortified by Aespa’s “Savage” and NCT 127’s “Sticker.” Winter’s crisp delivery of the word “levuhl” will always live in my mind rent-free. — GABY GLORIA

"LO$ER=LO<3ER" - Tomorrow x Together

If previous Tomorrow x Together concepts were all about the magic and wonder of youth, this year’s comebacks saw the group exploring themes of recklessness and freedom of growing older. The imprint was there in May’s “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You) ft. Seori,” where we already saw them dipping their toes in the pop-rock aesthetic and vocal stylings of the mid-'00s punk rock movement, but it was in August’s single “LO$ER=LO<3ER” off their second full-length album that the group doubled down on that aesthetic, adding a bit of emo to the mix by stepping out in all-black sleeveless fits and deep v-necks, hitting it up on the emotions, vocals-wise and even adding mic stand choreography.

The song itself has shades that fit the DNA of alternative punk/pop-rock, with its heavy drum beats and crashing cymbals, raspy vocal stylings, and the kind of lyrics that you would imagine yourself yelling in unison at a festival. Everything about this comeback had me sentimental for the time sideswept bangs, smudged eyeliner, and graphic T-shirts were cool — from Huening Kai’s platinum ‘do that seems to be a direct nod to My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, to Soobin and Beomgyu swearing that they’d “fuckin’ keep it low" and Taehyun’s raspy delivery of the “crying, crying, crying” line. The best part has to be when the penultimate chorus ends and Yeonjun’s rap kicks in to add a more modern sound to production — a cherry on top of the otherwise solid homage to an era from the not-so-distant past. — GG

"Rock With You" - Seventeen

Continuing the spirit of pop rock-influenced comebacks this year was Seventeen with “Rock with You.” Though a more subdued title track compared to the group’s previous releases, the beauty of the song is that they still manage to retain the spirit (and quite literally, too — the song has an almost even line distribution across all 13 members). Previous comebacks, like “Home;Run” seemed to maximize the production, Broadway-style horns blaring. This time around, the title track struck me as more in the territory of a comfort song in the vein of 2017’s “Don’t Wanna Cry," providing reassurance that the group is still the same, even with a refreshed sound. A highlight is S. Coup’s stripped-down bridge, in which he sang “Won’t let them break your heart.” By the time they erupt into the final “Baby hold ons” in the chorus, I firmly believed that everything would be okay. — GG

"Rollin'" - Brave Girls

In June, when the list’s “selection committee" convened to share their midyear selection of our favorite K-pop songs so far, it was agreed that we’re counting Brave Girls’ breakout hit, “Rollin’” as a 2021 song. How could we not? Its presence and success was palpable in the pillars of the K-pop world. Idols were dancing to it, it remained on top of the music charts for the longest time, while Minyoung, Yujeong, Eunji, and Yuna were having the time of their lives. The viral video of “Rollin’” was merely a spark in a year that would prove to be the resurgence of Brave Girls. The resurrection of this 2017 song is a testament to the cruel, cyclical patterns of K-pop where big entertainment companies dominate discussions because they can inundate us with content, overshadowing the hard work of smaller idol groups like Brave Girls. But the presence of “Rollin’” here in the list isn’t just a dig on agencies and the fickle fervor of fandoms and their blindspots — because it truly is a wonderful song. The signature Brave Brothers sound is on full display here in “Rollin’,” using rollicking tropical house beats that eschews trends and an emphasis on the group’s strong vocals — all while letting us in on a great time, even if we’re dangerously dancing on top of chairs. “Rollin’” is a balm in the shitshow that is 2021; reminding us that there can be great moments that highlight the true magic of K-pop. — DJ

"Fever" - Enhyphen

“Fever” is a surprising release from a group as young as Enhypen, mostly because of the lush sensuality — or passion, as they prefer to call it — emblazoned in each of the track’s turns. “Fever” is a hint at the future that Enhypen could take, though they are already traversing melodic terrains (see “Drunk-Dazed” and “Given-Taken”) not taken by groups of their generation, which makes the I-Land winners exciting to watch. The song is effective in building a hazy atmosphere of desire that is so tempting to envelop yourself with. Enhypen are vampires in their universe, after all and by the time that song reaches its climax, it has already transformed into an invitation to their garden of earthly delights. — DJ

"Deja Vu" - ATEEZ

“Deja Vu” is the penultimate treat from Ateez’s (stylized as ATEEZ) four-album “Fever” series, which began with Part 1’s twin releases “Inception” and “Thanxx” and culminated with Epilogue’s “Turbulence” and “The Real.” A project as sprawling as “Fever” will have plenty of hits and misses, so singles such as the generic “Fireworks (I’m the One)” (“Take me Home,” the song that made me fall in love with ATEEZ, is the best track in Part 2 — that horn section at the coda is one of K-pop’s best surprise moments of 2021) will be dwarfed by stronger singles such as “Deja Vu,” a slinking vocal showcase that anchors the assets of the members into one cohesive title track. While others would prefer the sprawling scope of bigger tracks such as “Fireworks” or “The Real,” “Deja Vu” highlights the restraint of ATEEZ, which has been present in their b-sides. But for title tracks, sometimes subdued isn’t always generic. The fan-picked “Deja Vu” works as a great foil to its counterpart, the summer-soaked “Eternal Sunshine,” making the two the strongest leads of the Fever project. — DJ

"We Go" - Fromis_9

Fresh off an eight month hiatus, Fromis_9 (stylized as fromis_9) returned in early May with “We Go,” a glittery summer anthem about the adventures we all have had to put on hold. In the Zoom and Photoshop-themed music video, the girls dream of being elsewhere, sitting beside washing machines and pretending to be jetsetters off to their next destinations. “I feel I’m closer,” maknae Ji-heon hopes in the pre-chorus with brimming optimism. Propelled by snappy instrumentals and choreography, the chorus then takes off to showcase the criminally underrated girl group’s charms and colors. Seven months since its release, the song remains fresh and unfortunately relatable. “I don’t want to go back/ Just us two going farther and farther,” main dancer Chaeyoung beckons. After almost two years of virtual hangouts and e-numans, the song strikes a chord with those of us who live vicariously through everyone else’s Instagram stories abroad and cling to K-pop for escape. Although new lockdowns are apparently still on the horizon, Fromis_9’s “We Go” promises that it’ll all be worth the wait. – JB

"Dun Dun Dance" - Oh My Girl

Just a few seconds into Oh My Girl’s “Dun Dun Dance,” I could already tell that the song would be an absolute bop. The music video is cheerfully campy, with the group’s seven members calling for an Uber UFO to visit an alien planet. The song itself is a sweet cocktail of disco and funk, with the use of retro instrumentation and an endearing bunny-ear point dance making it the perfect pop track. But what sets Oh My Girl’s bubblegum pop release apart is the group’s vocal colors that get their own moments throughout the song. My personal favorites are vocalist Yooa’s powerful pre-chorus that ends with “Escape from all those boring days and lives,” and rapper Mimi’s husky “Baby give me more” runs that punctuate the chorus. Sweet without being sickly so, “Dun Dun Dance” is the group’s first chart-topper — though certainly not the first to deserve the honor — and will hopefully lead to even more for the group in 2022. — MB

"Easy" - WJSN The Black

In May 2021, WJSN The Black, WJSN’s second sub-unit, debuted with a fizz, a snap and a bang. Their first single “Easy,” featuring members SeolA, Bona, EXY and Eunseo, is a pared back affair focused around a sultry bassline and seductive, inviting lyrics. In a word, "Easy" is just so, so hot. I could have written “Women are so magnificent and hot,” and ended it there. The members of WJSN The Black, in their suits-and-boots sashaying to excellent choreography by Ara X Dabin, croon about the appeal of quiet confidence and knowing oneself. The track stands out for its restraint and control, two words not often associated with a genre with a penchant for abundance. WJSN The Black demonstrates that simple goes a long way, it’s just all in the attitude. — GV

"Peaches" - Kai

I don’t think I’ve anticipated a release more this year than “Peaches.” What else could we expect of Kai? He, of the House of Kaldagan, so lusciously put on display in the supernatural rawness of solo debut “Mmmh.” But “Peaches” is a little more tender, each beat throwing me off like a pinball while Kai attempts to shake me up and pick fruits from my tree. It is interesting that Kai chooses to stick with a slick R&B flavor in his title releases whereas his gentle voice is more suited for poppier tracks like “To Be Honest” or the lonely longings of “Blue” but amazingly, “Peaches” works well for him. Perhaps it’s because Kai’s solo outings isn’t only about the song. He is committed to an immersive world-building where we become the center of the universe. While “Mmmh” took us to a world of mystic sensuality, “Peaches” is a fable-like dream where we “drink up each other” and our “fantasies become more infinite.” Imagine a multiverse of Jongins. I would lose my mind. — DJ

"Thrill Ride" - The Boyz

Fresh off successive dark concepts and a year and a half in the service of MNET, The Boyz (stylized as "THE BOYZ") made a splash with “Thrill Ride.” In an interview with Singles Korea, members Younghoon and Hyunjae described the then-unreleased track in two words: energy and party. The Saweetie jumped out! “Thrill Ride” is the eleven-member group’s answer to the question: is it possible to be sexy and cute at the same time? The answer is: in a lobby boy or lifeguard outfit, anything is possible.

I knew this song was going to change my life when the teaser for the music video was released, featuring the members in a fictionalized safety video for a rollercoaster ride. The exact moment of life-changing was when Jacob, a native English speaker, pronounced the word vibrate as vibe-er-ate. It’s done in so much earnest; some things are just funner to accept wholeheartedly (Cute and breaking down the established constructs of English language? K-pop has everything!) While the world is still committed to spiraling, “Thrill Ride” imagines a hot girl summer that could have been, a paradise hotel manned by K-pop idols bringing you cold fruit by the pool. After the year(s) we’ve had, who wouldn’t want to sign up to this sweet escape? — GV

"Advice" - Taemin

Bold, sensual, and theatrical are the words that have often been used to describe SHINee’s golden maknae Taemin, and the title track of his third mini album “Advice” delivers all that and more. While the song does feel like a signature Taemin track, “Advice” turns it up several notches with eerie visuals, aggressive trap and hip hop elements bookended by a frantic piano riff. The song is powerful and dramatic in every way: the fashion, production, choreography, and the lyrics. I mean, the video opens with a half-naked Taemin in a bejeweled ski mask, hammering away on a grand piano. The looks are exhilarating, like his black and white pantsuit and a women’s crop top and sweatpants. As expected, I still haven’t recovered from this comeback. “The more you trap me, I’ll go off the rails,” Taemin warns right as he loafs around in a room that is clearly too small for his body. “Advice” is Taemin’s final salvo before his mandatory military service, a fitting reminder and maybe even a threat that there can be no other idol like Lee Taemin. — Toni Potenciano

"Spider" - Hoshi

Carats have always known that loud, boisterous Hoshi has this sexy side in him but were we really ready for “Spider” — a track so sensual it makes your Archive of our Own erotica look tame? “Spider” places Hoshi at the heels of soloists like Rain or Taemin, with us fans hoping that the song will be the mold of his solo outings to come — and not merely a fluke (we’re looking at you, Pledis). According to the music video’s accompanying notes, the song “likens the feelings of falling for the deadly and inescapable charms of an individual to the desperate movements of a prey caught in a spider’s web." The feelings of helplessness is pronounced in the music video alright: Hoshi is suspended in various angles, shot in ways that make it seem like he’s falling, with a choreography that is both calculated and freewheeling. “Spider” focuses on Hoshi’s vocal ability, stripped of fireworks and delivered so intimately it seems like he’s directly pleading, whispering to you. — DJ

"Don't Call Me" - Shinee

2021 is finally the year that second generation group Shinee (stylized as SHINee) was reunited, after members Minho, Onew, and Key were discharged from the Korean military, and right before maknae Taemin enlisted. It’s also a rather emotional album for the group, this being their first release that doesn’t feature late member Jonghyun in any official capacity. But what a comeback their seventh studio album “Don’t Call Me” is. The title track has a hip-hop driven rhythm with a vocoder sound — it’s a flawless, completely bananas song that complements the album concept’s “Edward Scissorhands”-inspired visuals. “Don’t Call Me” the song allows no room for pauses, building steadily until Key says, “Sorry, the number you have called has been disconnected” and a hypnotizing piano solo takes you through the quartet’s ritual-esque dance. “Don’t Call Me” proves that when it comes to a group that has never failed to deliver, long hiatuses are well worth the wait. — MB

"Hula Hoop" - LOONA

While technically part of their Japanese debut, Loona’s (stylized as LOONA) LOONA’s “Hula Hoop” is a spectacular comeback. A cosmic dance-pop fantasy track is paired with one of the more inspired music videos of 2021. Most K-pop music videos have the following elements: cut scenes, beauty shots, and choreography, and they often approximate a stage performance. “Hula Hoop” has all of that, but the video takes on an endless vertical scroll, enriched by kinetic cinematography and neon typography. Like an actual hula hoop, the song keeps at a quick and joyful pace. When the earworm of a hook is first introduced in the song (“Hula-lala, hula-lala, hula-la, hula hoop!”), you already know the song is going to be a ride through and through. “Hula Hoop” keeps a steady pace, slowing down only for Chuu’s bridge. “Hula Hoop” is both kawaii and kakkoii: Kim Lip’s Eclipse outfit, YeoJin’s pigtails, and the girls sprinting in slo-mo as the final verse kicks into high gear. What’s not to love? They released a city pop version, but I think the original is already perfect as it is. It’s the comeback that makes me want to be an Orbit. I’d gladly dance around HeeJin like a hula hoop. — TP

"Weekend" - Taeyeon

If there were a song that truly described 2021 for me, it’s Girls Generation member Taeyeon’s solo release “Weekend.” This song has everything: stylishly dressed in early 2000s-core (think tinted sunglasses and Von Dutch), Taeyeon happily clocks out of work and dreams of the weekend, where she can GTFO of the daily grind and “do whatever she wants.” Described as a mix of disco and city pop, “Weekend” is the anthem of your average capitalist shill (me); it’s a literal escapist fantasy that allows us to believe that we fully own these two days each week. Don’t ask me how many times I’ve started my Friday evenings with Taeyeon triumphantly singing “When the weekend comes…” while I myself clock out of work. Clearly, Taeyeon sunbaenim knows what it’s like to be a true working girl. — MB

"Alcohol-Free" - Twice

In a K-pop landscape filled with hyper-futuristic concepts and genre-pushing production, the return to more acoustic elements in Twice’s (stylized as TWICE) “Alcohol-Free” distinguished it from the rest of this year’s comebacks. Veering away from the disco renaissance and electronic/trap tracks, producer J.Y. Park (founder of record label JYP Entertainment) chose to go with nylon guitar strings and gentle horns for “Alcohol-Free." It’s catchy and relaxing, even a little campy — like the bossa nova elevator music of a tropical-themed resort hotel. All in all, Twice had a great year. As the girls approach their seventh year since they debuted, they’ve turned to more mature themes which have been more apparent in their other tracks like “The Feels” and the “The Scientist.” But the easy listening of “Alcohol-Free” made it the summer bop I didn’t know I needed. I mean, when was the last time I had a mimosa or a piña colada anyway? “Alcohol-Free” felt like a fever dream of yet another summer lost to COVID-19. — TP

"Insomnia" - Yukika

It is my sincere hope that Japanese import Yukika won’t always be that soloist that’s often touted as an “underappreciated” gem in the field of K-pop (the “Superstore” of K-pop, in sitcom terms — always beloved but never coaxed out of the fringes). She follows up her debut release “Soul Lady” with “Timeabout,” led by “Insomnia” another city pop outing that takes you from the nightscapes of Seoul (or Tokyo, if you’re listening to the Japanese version), with just the right blend of funk and synths. While other K-pop songs only follow the city pop template, Yukika distills the genre at its purest form, delivering us tracks such as “Insomnia,” “Neon” and the aforementioned “Seoul Lady” — songs that make city life seem much more exciting than it has any right to be. “Insomnia” came at a time when we’re all stirring out of this lockdown-induced blur. Though variants come and (hopefully) go, “Insomnia” is the perfect song to accompany us in this long night, in a world that “fell asleep.” — DJ

"Cinema" - CIX

“Cinema” is just one of those songs that reels you in on the first listen. In it, CIX trades its signature electro R&B stylings for sleeker synthpop and dreamy pastels. This is all to great effect as the boys’ newfound clumsiness and honesty prove to be just as charming. “Oh, sometimes I might get anxious/ Oh, sometimes I might [falter]/ But even those can be a movie,” the group’s visual Yonghee assures his would-be lover that bloopers are part of moviemaking magic: great love doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be real. While the music video’s colorful production design is captivating, the song’s clear highlight is its airy and infectious chorus where lead vocalists Seunghun and Jinyoung take turns warbling the song’s title. “We are touched, excited, and overwhelmed / Any moment of us will probably last forever.” The song speaks of young love that makes one feel vulnerable and invincible all at the same time. Like all of the best romance films, “Cinema” is bound to be a timeless classic. — JB

"Eleven" - IVE 

Let’s first get this out of the way. When the girls of IVE say, “you make me feel like eleven,” it means that on a scale of one to ten, their feelings are at eleven. All clear? Good. Early this month, Starship Entertainment’s IVE (short for “I Have”) hit the ground running with their much anticipated debut single, “Eleven.” Backed by a funky and percussive riff reminiscent of Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” and Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious,” the song opens with the girls acting coy all while trying to contain “their hearts filled with fantasy and colors.” As the chorus draws close, however, the song suddenly crawls to a near stop before going full Spinal Tap and revealing the girls’ true emotions. As is expected of them, IZ*ONE alums Wonyoung and Yujin lead the charge with their enchanting presence and visuals. Not to be outdone, 2007-liner and maknae Leeseo exudes confidence that belies her years as she counts up the track’s odd but undeniably catchy hook. With its dazzling choreography and elegant stages, “Eleven” garnered the rookies their first win within a week, the fastest ever for any girl group, proving that the IVE hype is perfectly deserved. — JB

"Don't Fight the Feeling" - EXO

The music video of “Don’t Fight the Feeling” (DFTF) opens with scenes that seem to nod to EXO's lore and previous comebacks, but there is barely any time to process any of that when the side profile of Do Kyungsoo (stage name D.O.) suddenly comes into view. As the song goes on, you can’t help but wonder how in the world we survived the past two years without the vocals of D.O. and Xiumin. The synth pop song is upbeat and cheerful, a literal comeback after EXO’s hiatus since their last release “Obsession” back in 2018. After a year of fairly successful solo projects by the group’s members, to see EXO as a seven-member group including the prodigal Lay (albeit in nævis form) had me screaming for the whole 3:42 duration of the song. Special mention also to the best b-side ever in “Paradise,” which gave us some serious D.O. and Baekhyun birits. — TP

***

Here are our personal favorite albums and songs that we wish made the list:

Album of the year

“The Book of Us: Negentropy” by Day6 — DON JAUCIAN

“HIDE & SEEK” by Purple Kiss — GISELLA VELASCO

“UNNATURAL” by WJSN — JUNE BULAON

“LILAC” by IU, “Savage” by Aespa — TONI POTENCIANO

“Queendom” by Red Velvet — MARGA BUENAVENTURA

“The Chaos Chapter: Fight or Escape” by Tomorrow x Together, “Queendom” by Red Velvet — GABY GLORIA

Honorable mentions

“You Make Me" by Day6, “Son of Beast” by TO1, “My Treasure” by Treasure, “Beautiful, Beautiful” by ONF, “Black Mirror” by ONEUS, “My Love” by D.O. — DON JAUCIAN

“Attention” by SHINee, “Cry For Love” by Baekhyun, “Demente” by CHUNGHA ft Guaynaa, “Hey kid, close your eyes” by AKMU, “YEPPI YEPPI” by Aespa — GISELLA VELASCO

“Bad Love” by KEY, “Odd Eye” by Dreamcatcher, “UNNATURAL” by WJSN, “D-D-DANCE” by IZ*ONE, “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)” feat. Seori by Tomorrow x Together — JUNE BULAON

“Paint Me Naked” by Ten, “Paradise” by EXO, “All Your Fault” by Yugyeom ft. GRAY, “aenergy” by Aespa, “What’re you doing tonight? (Prod. Norwegian Wood)” by Yukika — TONI POTENCIANO

“Hello, Sunset” by Red Velvet, “I’m Fine” by D.O., “Hot Sauce” by NCT Dream, “Paradise” by EXO, “Kiss Kiss” by SHINee — MARGA BUENAVENTURA

“Sober” by N. Flying, “Butter” by BTS, “Helium” by KEY, “Hello, Sunset” by Red Velvet, “Ah puh” by IU, "Thunderous" by Stray Kids, "Super Tuna" by Jin — GABY GLORIA