Hey there, friends. 2021 was a lot, right? Like, more a lot than the last a lot, which seems trivial now. Funny how that keeps happening, huh? Like we’re hurtling toward terminal velocity faster and faster and no one can catch their breath? I hear ya. Metal is often a bandage over our daily wounds and afflictions, but sometimes you just need a bottle of something else. This year, more than ever, felt like a collective exploration and rediscovery of what makes you happiest musically. We could all use a little more comfort in our lives, and we often find it in the least expected places.
Our year in review for this column is not a traditional Best Of list; it’s a call to you, our readers, to be more unmetal in the coming year. Loosen up, unclench your jaw, find something that speaks to you in ways you hadn’t discovered before. Grow. Eden has a few gems left to gift you, but I don’t. Instead, I finally wrote something down that’s been swirling around in fragments for a while now, something I’ve been needing to get off my chest and share with you all. I hope you’ll take the time to read it. We love you all, truly. Thanks for being here.
City Girl – C-GIRL
How many times will City Girl reinvent themselves? Who knows, but I’m here for every single iteration. On the latest album from once-vaporwave, then chillwave, then whateverwave group, City Girl transforms their music into a sweety, poppy version of sounds that their fan base will recognize. Which is not to say, for a second, that anything about the music is now “simpler” or more “straight-forward”. Instead, City Girl has taken the vocal collaborations that have often graced the project’s releases (and even brought back long-time collaborators, like tiffi) and made them the core of this release.
This has also allowed City Girl to step back from the melancholy that has seemingly dictated much of the last few releases, although it was always painted with the kind of contemplative hope that City Girl was so good at channeling. Here, City Girl that “even” when making music about things like video games, relationships, online presence, and supposedly “superficial” topics like that, they are still more than able to make interesting, engaging, and, most of all, uplifting and personal music. C-GIRL is one of the most danceable albums of the year while still bringing forth that signature City Girl sound. It is merely transformed and iterated on, turned into something new and fresh by one of the best electronic voices working today.
Dark Time Sunshine – LORE
Honestly, I only found out about Dark Time Sunshine this year, when I picked up LORE because it has an Aesop Rock guest spot on it. But the project has been making excellent music since 2009, and Michael Sean Martinez (AKA Onry Ozzborn) has been making music for longer. Simply put, this is one of the most well constructed rap albums I’ve heard in a while, with its ability to move from aggressive tracks like “Ritalin”, through more contemplative tracks like “7 Knots”, and all the way to the moving “The Rite Kids” (which, incidentally, features Homeboy Sandman, who features elsewhere on this list). Through this transition, the album handles social issues like education, substance abuse, hope, depression, and much more.
The real power of LORE is that it’s able to handle all of these different issues and themes with its own sort of grace. It knows which weapons to deploy when, like the fast flow on “Ritalin” which nails home the message of the track, or the lurching, electronic forward sound of the social media focused “Star Scream”. Instead of sticking to one sort of gun or approach, LORE is able to chance tacks seamlessly, enabled by the excellent lyricism but also by the clever production and mix of the music which changes the “flavor” of each track to fit its subject. Bottom line, it’s an album which shouldn’t flow so well considering how much ground it covers but which manages to do so by virtue of its excellence.
Homeboy Sandman – Anjelitu
This is another album this year which I checked because it featured Aesop Rock, this time as a producer (and on a guest spot at its end). After listening to it I also dug back into Homeboy Sandman’s previous work and while it’s great, I think it’s safe to say that Anjelitu is his best work yet. Perhaps it’s the EP format, forcing him to cut the fat and constrain his writing, or maybe it’s the excellent production work by Aesop, but Anjelitu is one of the most directly enjoyable albums I’ve heard in years. It’s boisterous but modest at the same time, contradicting its own grandiose statements about politics, diet, the self, and what should/is important in life.
Dr. Bebe or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love K-Pop
The first time my wife came to visit, we drank tequila and ate Publix subs and laughed and danced. It was July 2015 and BIGBANG’s seminal hit “BANG BANG BANG” was dominating eastern airwaves – much to my surprise. I thought, in my limited capacity as an American with discerning taste, if it was so good I must have heard of it, right? Classic American. She put on the music video and awaited my reaction as I watched a thorough dismantling of western pop culture set to this stupid, infectious post-crunk club bop. You immediately see a shirtless, shaggy pink-haired Taeyang flexing on top of a Mad Max-ed out Hummer give way to TOP playing cowboy, astronaut, AND British bearskin. That’s barely scratching the surface of the football zombies, classic cruisers on hydraulics, feather headdresses on west coast choppers, and G-Dragon having a Black dancer on a chain while cannons fire behind them. They were much less subtle back then.
In my drunken stupor, this feast for the eyes burrowed its way in somewhere. The bombastic, unashamedly over-the-top theatrics. The simple, catchy, hypnotic track. The style. The men. I rejected all of this, of course, as a staunch western metalhead who had barely come out as bisexual at the time despite knowing full well my entire life. My wife was unabashedly enamored with BIGBANG, and I rationalized it as just another girl weirdly obsessed with Korean idols, with whom I’d had enough encounters on Tumblr. K-pop wasn’t totally unheard of to me, having checked out stuff like GIRLS GENERATION and SHINee at the height of their popularity, it was just nowhere near moving the ‘legitimate music’ needle. With my casual dismissal, I could see her disappointment, though she understood. Sure, it’s not for everyone. In fact, it’s pretty fuckin’ silly. And that was the end of the conversation. How could I have known what an impact that night would end up having on our entire lives?
Shortly after, we both quit drinking and I got clean from drugs. Within six months, she had moved in. Life, and by that I mean REAL life and all of its complexities and responsibilities you ignore in your early 20s, started coming at us fast. K-pop became a funny little footnote in our dating story – until 2018, when as League of Legends players, the now infamous “fake” girl group K/DA was announced as a tie-in to the World Championship featuring real k-pop artists as League champions (well, vice versa, technically). Back then, it was rumored to be BLACKPINK – so we checked them out. And that was it. I was in.
It wasn’t BLACKPINK of course, but Soyeon and Miyeon of (G)I-DLE with Madison Beer and Jaira Burns. That first K/DA track still brings a tear to my eye for being one of the coolest fucking things I’d ever seen, and along with BLACKPINK’s “DDU-DU DDU-DU” finally drove home one of the sticking points that’s kept me a k-pop stan since: it’s incredibly empowering, and in a much different way than we’re used to in modern western music – especially for girls, queers, the mentally ill, and the lonely. Might as well paint a big ol’ X on my chest with all that comorbidity. BLACKPINK in particular, especially Lisa, awakened something within me I wouldn’t come to fully understand for a couple more years. Seeing a trend?
We kept up with BLACKPINK, though their releases were sparse. The next year, Riot Games introduced a NEW fake group based loosely on the K/DA canon, again featuring Soyeon as the fast-rapping Akali. No longer able to deny her talent and charisma, we dove into (G)I-DLE. It was good, but we weren’t totally hooked yet. Getting used to mostly-Korean language stuff can be daunting, even with the occasional English lyric to snap you back to attention. Then COVID hit, and everything fun or new was lost to despair. I was laid off, like many other millions of Americans. The plague rampaged around us. I didn’t know what to do with myself anymore.
Then, the bomb dropped around the world – the complete global cultural gamechanger, BTS’ “Dynamite”. With loose tethers to the “normal” world flying free at this point, the rabbithole yawned forth and my wife (still girlfriend at this point, five years later) and I could no longer escape its pull, tumbling down into the k-pop abyss, lost forever. We became Army. We learned the language of k-pop culture, figured out our BTS biases, consumed content like children on a Saturday morning. It was church. It was release. It was a breath of fresh air to see these pillars of performance, this new gold standard and the future of global pop music, are just normal, wholesome, goofy motherfuckers. It was so exciting to ignore America from the comfort of quarantine and dive into a whole other world, a whole other country’s culture and the way its entertainment arm is embedded in everyday life. A country whose culture is in so many ways a reflection of American culture if it had never lost its heart. An oversimplification ignoring the complexities of their geopolitical relationship, I know – but that’s the whole point. For someone like me whose brain is an endless doomscroll of nihilistic anxieties caused by American imperium, having it forcibly shut off by hot, talented, dancing men that come off stage and record silly variety shows and earnest, heartwarming content is panacea. And I am nowhere near alone in that sentiment.
This was all just the beginning, of course. BTS led to interest in other, exciting upcoming male idol groups like Stray Kids, ATEEZ, all of NCT’s endless permutations, and TOMORROW X TOGETHER, BTS’ junior group on Big Hit/HYBE. We got really into GOT7, another legacy group, right before their untimely end of contract. BLACKPINK’s influence had us exploring other girl groups outside of (G)I-DLE like ITZY, Everglow, OH MY GIRL, and of course, TWICE. When you start falling down the rabbithole, you learn very quickly k-pop is as much a generic, catch-all term as metal. There are clear divisions in style and approach, with certains groups drawing from specific subgenres to maintain a clear concept. It all became extremely fascinating to me, these different taxonomies within the genre and which groups do them the best, which idols really fit those concepts, the labels’ influence in creating this whole conceptual economy drawing from all over the artistic sphere – it’s actually a lot to dig through.
K-pop is less a musical genre and more a complete cultural and artistic phenomenon where the best parts of every catchy mainstream musical trend over the last forty years intersect with cutting edge high fashion, the forefront of contemporary dance, and high concept mythos driven by relatable idols you can actually look up to. And that’s just the surface shown through the actual music output. The age of the music video is alive and well in Korea. The entire culture beyond the music is equally as important and plays maybe an even larger role in why k-pop is quickly becoming such a worldwide presence. It requires full investment through multiple mediums to get the whole experience, and it’s something the k-pop world has excelled at in the age of instant, global communication and content-hungry masses.
When I say k-pop has completely dominated our lives at this point, it’s not hyperbole. I listen to more k-pop on a daily basis than I do metal and hardcore now. We rang in 2020 AND 2021 watching the SM Entertainment New Year’s concert, where we fell in love with Ten from WayV. We’ve started collecting albums and have binders full of idol photocards and paraphernalia. We probably watch more Korean-language content than English in a week. I cook more Korean cuisine now, and feel healthier for it. So what happened, right? To an outsider, and even my own friends and family, it seems like we’ve lost our goddamn minds and become complete koreaboos.
Here’s the honest truth: we’re really fucking depressed, and the only thing that’s brought us actual unabashed joy in the hellworld of COVID and unrest outside our door is k-pop and its tributaries into a culture that we, as Americans, were woefully ignorant of, and its one that makes way more sense to us than our own. There is a wholesome approach to everything, and an understanding that all people are strong for what makes them weak, and everyone deserves to live a healthy, fulfilling life, and it’s our duty as a community to take care of and love one another. You’d think this should be a universal quality of all cultures, but coming of age in post-9/11 America, this is totally alien to me. All the awful, ugly, edgy, gritty stuff isn’t the norm, but still approached with even more care. K-pop is a celebration of this tenet that we all deserve love and joy, and shines especially bright in the time of COVID.
The reason I listen to it more than anything else is simple: it brings me those little human doses of joy I need to survive. It’s an instant switch I can flip during the day. There are stupid, simple, happy songs that bring fucking tears to my eyes every time BECAUSE they’re so stupid, simple, and happy. I can barely listen to one of my favorite songs of 2021, “Be My Lover” by ATEEZ and old hallyu star Kim Jong Kook (not to be confused with BTS’ Jungkook) just for the bridge into the first verse where leader Hongjoong shouts “For all the broken hearts – L O V E!” On particularly rough days, I put that on and bawl like no one’s ever shown me compassion before in my life. The undercurrent propping up the whole multibillion dollar industry isn’t capitalism, though they’re raking in record profits now: it’s heart. It really, actually is. The labels, the artists, and the staff that undertake these giant multidisciplinary projects every day believe in the power of human connection and don’t squander it, but use it to genuinely deliver happiness that is missing in dark times. K-pop has been Korea’s biggest export since the late 90s, but the past decade (and really the past few years) have skyrocketed it into the common unconscious, and I’m here to tell you it’s a good thing. Let it happen. It’s saved my life in more ways than one, just in a single year.
K-pop helped me come to terms, after thirty years, with my gender struggles. It’s a really fun, liberating, scary moment when your subconscious answers back clearly to a question like, “Am I attracted to her or… do I want to be her?” K-pop has helped me eat better and ignited the motivation to get back into shape so I can dance again, which used to bring me joy on its own. It’s also quite literally pulled me back from some of the darker moments of the pandemic when it felt like the world was ending and I was okay with it, ready to succumb. Idols became, through weird parasocial connection of course, like friends we could hang out with every day during the pandemic, and ones we didn’t hate at that! It, along with some other rather traumatic stuff this year, helped put a lot of my views about love and family and future back into focus, and I finally married my wife, who had been waiting, patiently, for years. It’s brought more light to a dark world than anything else has even come close to.
Sometimes, what you need in life doesn’t look anything like what you’d imagined. Without k-pop, I don’t know if I’d be here today, full stop. I damn sure wouldn’t be a happily married, non-binary person living truthfully with themselves and torturing you lot with all these words about it.
Also… it just fucking bangs, like, across the board. Forgot this was supposed to be about the music for a sec. If there is anything I hope to impart to our readers going into 2022, it’s this: just take a chance on something totally out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be k-pop, though I hope it is, because I want to share the gift of its infectious hope and optimism that has done so much for me and my wife. Take a chance on that thing you’ve been eyeing saying “Hmm I hope this doesn’t awaken anything in me,” because you need to. And most importantly, don’t ever let anyone tell you, not even us, what is good or bad or worth your time. Listen to what your soul reaches out for and grab onto it and never let it go. Be who you need to be for yourself, and not what the world needs of you. Live with love, fiercely.
Oh, and here are the best k-pop tracks of 2021, meticulously curated throughout the year by yours truly: