Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2021

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My listening veered towards the familiar when it came to East Asian pop this year, with many of this year’s top artists making second or third appearances on these year-end lists. This is totally unremarkable, considering that the most pervasive feeling I have had lately is the nagging gloom that 2020 and 2021 have actually just been one very long year, and everything bleeding together makes it hard to distinguish this year’s J-pop from last. Treading water is what you do when you’re trying not to drown, not when the environment is conducive to innovation, and so we saw a lot of trends hanging on throughout 2021, from the lasting impact of The Weeknd’s sizzling synths in “Blinding Lights,” (RYUJI IMAICHI, Lexie Lu) to the last gasps of a certain kind of aggressive dance-pop unique to mid-00s (w-inds.), warm bubble-bath Johnny’s (SixTONES, Snow Man), all the way to a doubling-down of all the familiar tropes of idol- and K- and City-pop (Yufu Terashima, TWICE, YUKIKA). Here are my top ten favorite, in no particular order:

Lexie Liu: GONE GOLD // LatuLatu: Hyakkaryoransen

Morning Musume ’21.: 16th ~ That’s J-POP // YUKIKA: TIMEABOUT,

Yufu Terashima: SURVIVAL LADY // RYUJI IMAICHI: CHAOS CITY

GENIE HIGH: GENIE STAR // TWICE: Formula of Love: O+T=<3

NiziU: U // w-inds.: 20XX “We are”

Honorable Mentions

BANDMAID: Unseen World
Sakurako Ohara: l
FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC VOYAGE
Perfume: POLYGON WAVE EP
Key: Bad Love

Top ten pop/electronic albums of 2021

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Escape continues to be the name of the game, and pop music is always happy to deliver. In particular, as Bandcamp Friday continued to honor artists with well-deserved and actually useful recognition, it was easy to fall into the synthwave spiral again, where labels like New Retro Wave and Timeslave continued to feature the best in throwback nostalgia. There are a number of new artists here, too, like Sergey Lazarev, who continues to be the king of Eurovision-pop, and Nick Jonas, who continues to elude chart success despite my repeated streams of his most ridiculed work. I can’t say great taste is the engine of this particular list, but for a year that continues to be as unsettling as ever, you could do a lot worse. Here are my ten favorite of the year, in no particular order:

Red Soda: Metatron Chronicles // Roosevelt: Polydans

Doja Cat: Planet Her // WILLOW: lately, I feel EVERYTHING

New Arcades: In the Deepest of Dreams // Nick Jonas: Spaceman

Fury Weekend: Signals // Earmake: Comsic Hero 3

Sergey Lazarev: 8 // Khalid: Scenic Drive (The Tape)

Honorable Mentions


Zara Larsson: Poster Girl
Mariah the Scientist: RY RY WORLD
Summer Walker: Still Over It
Selena Gomez: Revelación
Droid Bishop: Into the Abstract

Top ten metal/hard rock albums of 2021

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This list trended more towards hard rock than metal this year, with many bands making their usual appearance. With a year as static as 2021, it’s no surprise that old standbys provided more comfort than newer finds: Legends Chevelle and Evergrey both released fine examples of longevity at its finest, groups like Beast in Black and Greta Van Fleet continued to mine the sounds of yore for their brands of throwback power metal and 70’s dino-rock respectively, and a group like Aephanamer just kept doing whatever incredible spell-casting they do to produce another album both beautiful in sound and sight. It wasn’t the greatest year for the genre by far, but it’s a sign of my enduring trust in it that I could still find ten albums that reminded me why I never give up on metal. In no particular order, here are my ten favorite:

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The Pretty Reckless: Death by Rock and Roll // Evergrey: Escape of the Phoenix

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Chevelle: NIRATIAS // Greta Van Fleet: The Battle at Garden’s Gate

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DIAMANTE: American Dream // Unto Others: Strength

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Angels & Airwaves: Lifeforms // Beast in Black: Dark Connection

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STARSET: Horizons // Aephanemer: A Dream of Wilderness

Honorable Mentions

Khemmis: Deceiver
Dee Gees: Hail Satin
Eastern High: Halo
IOTUNN: Access All Worlds
Orden Ogan: Final Days

Top ten original soundtracks/original scores of 2021

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While films were released in theaters again, a lingering sense of hesitation remained, whether intentional or not (well, until Spider-man, I guess), as if composers are only half-heartedly putting in effort for what they know will be mostly heard piping through standard audio equipment, laptops, and even headphones as many still balk at visits to a crowded hall, preferring to huddle in front of streaming devices at home. It makes for a frustrating listening experience. Nothing feels as big and bold as some of the releases from previous years, and more scores than usual made my disappointing list than in previous years. At the same time, I found myself selecting titles by composers that have never appeared on these lists before, and that’s always a welcome change. Here are my top ten favorite scores of the year, in no particular order:

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Leo Birenberg & Zach Robinson: Cobra Kai Season 3 // Roque Banos: Explota Explota

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Aaron Boudreaux: The Wanting Mare // Inon Zur: Syberia: The World Before (Original Soundtrack)

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Isabella Summers & Brian H. Kim: Panic //  Lorne Balfe: Black Widow

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Bartosz Chajdecki: Mistrz // Richard Jacques: Guardians of the Galaxy (Original Soundtrack)

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Hans Zimmer: No Time to Die // Yoko Kanno: Cowboy Beboy

Honorable Mentions

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Salvinsky: Narita Boy (Original Game Soundtrack)
The Blake Robinson Synthetic Orchestra: Lost in Random, Vol.1 (Original Game Soundtrack)
Mattie Bye: Young Royals (Soundtrack from the Netflix Series)
Chris Wong, et al: Camellia Sisters (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Dmitry S. Silantyev: Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous (Original Soundtrack)

Top ten debut albums of 2021

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2020 was a tough year to debut but 2021 wasn’t much better. The albums on this list represent all of the experiences on the spectrum, from those being carried on a wave bigger than they could imagine, to those taking a calculated risk, to those throwing caution to the wind and just hoping for the best. Some of these albums will cast long shadows, thresholds that will be hard to meet or surpass in the future (Olivia Rodrigo), while others fell just slightly short of the mark but hint at enormous potential (CHUNG HA). But the most important and horrifying thing all of these albums did was show how relentlessly time moves forward, a steady stream of novelty that (thankfully, sometimes regretfully) refuses to ebb.

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Noriko Shibasaki: Follow my heart // Maggie Lindemann: PARANOIA

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Pink Sweat$: PINK PLANET // SG Lewis: times

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Olivia Rodrigo: SOUR // Jay Diggs: Jams

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BALLISTIK BOYZ from EXILE TRIBE: Pass The Mic // Kazaki Morinaka: Gekokujou

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Silk Sonic: An Evening with Silk Sonic // MIRAE: KILLA

Honorable Mentions

MyDearDarlin’: Dearest
Khirki: Κτηνωδία
KOTONE: RESIST
CHUNG HA: QUERENCIA
Spiritbox: Eternal Blue

Top ten remastered/reissued albums of 2021

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It’s always interesting to see what music is chosen to be exhumed by the likes of small vinyl labels, eager to press and preserve any and everything, and large corporate monoliths, eager to milk whatever they can out of streaming numbers. I respect some of these decisions and loathe others – a 25th anniversary edition of the Spice Girls’ debut album is both fun and fair, but if you’re going to re-release the Kimagure ORANGE☆ROAD soundtracks, can you please remaster them first, and include CD and digital versions? Also, how do you even categorize something like the extras from the incredible Wonder Woman 1984 soundtrack? It’s included here as it deserves recognition and fits none of the other thirty categories I’ve dreamed up to avoid just such a nightmare scenario. In any case, where all of these succeeded was in getting me to spend time with music that I hadn’t heard in a while, and to remember why I loved it so much. It also reinforced an appreciation for how the past shapes and informs the endless parade of new, an important part of any deep listener’s musical education. Here are ten of my favorite re-releases from the year, in no particular order:

Hans Zimmer: Wonder Woman 1984 Sketches // Queen Najia: missunderstood…still

Kimagure ORANGEe☆ROAD Original Soundtracks [Vinyl] // Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure? Platinum Pleasure Edition

The Midnight: Endless Summer (5 Year Anniversary) // Metallica: Metallica

Ayumi Hamasaki: Cyber TRANCE presents ayu trance // Spice Girls: Spice 25

Taylor Swift: Red (Taylor’s Version) // Craig Armstrong: Love Actually (Original Soundtrack)

Honorable Mentions

Danny Elfman: Sleepy Hollow (Music from the Motion Picture)
Kylie Minogue: Disco (Guest List Edition)
SPEED: SPEED MUSIC BOX -ALL THE MEMORIES-
Rammstein: Herzeleid XXV Anniversary Edition
SHINee: : Atlantis

Top ten most disappointing albums of 2021

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It’s best to get the bad news out of the way, so let’s power through some of the worst listening experiences you could have: not the truly awful, but the ones that missed the mark, that ones that just didn’t hit the way you wanted them to, the ones that made you re-consider, even if just for a few minutes, why you called yourself a fan in the first place, the ones that make you question the weeks or months you spent in anticipation, only to be crushed by the weight of mediocre. This list has them all: YG’s much-anticipated new boy band that we haven’t seen or heard from again in the eleven months since THE FIRST STEP : TREASURE EFFECT underwhelmed back in January, maestros dropping the ball when it seemed as if the source material already did half the work (Lady Gaga, Hans Zimmer), and artists whose significant collaborations should have warranted a lot more than their net result (Halsey). And let’s not forget “official” debuts that deserved so, so much more (CL, aespa). Though to be frank, there was nothing more disappointing this year than the ubiquitous, unrelenting, and uninspired appearance of the colon in the titles of K-pop albums. Here are the other ten, in no particular order:

TREASURE: THE FIRST STEP : TREASURE EFFECT // Lady Gaga: Dawn of Chromatica

Hans Zimmer: Dune (Original Soundtrack) // aespa: Savage

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: CANDY RACER // Halsey: If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Nicholas Britell: Cruella (Original Score) // Daniel Pemberton: Being the Ricardos (Original Soundtrack)

CL: Alpha // Red Velvet: Queendom

Top ten 2020-misses of 2021

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Each year, as the previous year’s albums that I’ve listened to for the first time pile up, I’m reminded of how little time any of us really have. All of the newsletters, E-mail blasts, magazines, music writers, YouTubers, TikTokers, and personal recommendations continue to sit impatiently as the never-ending newer releases take precedent. As those at the bottom get pushed farther down, it becomes harder and harder to justify digging down, nor does the mess accruing at the surface always allow for it. But sometimes, those trips back are rewarded, rendering what I thought were iron-clad lists totally moot. As always, I welcome the reminder that best-of lists, even personal ones like these, are only relative to the music we were exposed to and able to hear. In no particular order, here are ten of the best albums released in 2020 that I didn’t discover until 2021, and in some other better, alternate universe, might have made last year’s lists.

Sachika Misawa: I AM ME // Benjamin Grosvenor: Chopin Piano Concertos

NINA: Synthian // Marc Timon Barcelo: San Mao: The Desert Bride (Original Soundtrack)

Neon Nox: Last Stand // Robert Parker: Club 707

IVVY: Awake // Marvel83′: Metropolis

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Natsu Amano: Across The Great Divide // Ryusenkei/Hitomitoi: Talio

Best albums of 2021

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Unlike this past year, we’re going to keep the year-end lists short and sweet. Nothing here should surprise long-time readers of the blog, nor do I expect anyone to see anything that hasn’t appeared on thirty other, much better, lists. Curating these lists was tough, as much that this year had to offer was good, but a lot less was excellent. That doesn’t mean it was all bad, but it was harder to find albums and singles that really impressed and stayed with me — some categories have been fleshed out with work that wouldn’t have made an Honorable Mentions list in previous years.

We’ve got all eight categories this year, including the return of hard rock/metal, which was absent last year. Each category features ten of my favorite albums, followed by five Honorable Mentions where available. The complete list, posting schedule, and further information are as follows (note: this list will be updated with links as the posts go live):

(12/27) Top ten 2020-misses: Any album, in any genre, released in 2020 that I didn’t hear until this year.
(12/28) Top ten most disappointing: Any album, in any genre, that failed to meet expectations.
(12/29) Top ten remasters/reissues: Any remastered or reissued album from anywhere in the world, whether CD, vinyl, box set, etc.
(12/30) Top ten debut albums: Any artist who released an original studio album, or comparable EP, for the first time in 2020 from anywhere in the world.
(12/31) Top ten original soundtracks/original scores: Any original soundtrack or score composed exclusively for film, television, or video game from anywhere in the world.
(01/01) Top ten hard rock/metal: Any hard rock or metal album released by an English-speaking and/or Western band/artist.
(01/02) Top ten pop/electronic: Any pop or electronic album released by an English-speaking and/or Western band/artist.
(01/03) Top ten East Asian pop/rock: Any pop or rock album released in East Asia (especially Japan and South Korea).

Once again, these lists are not meant to be exhaustive, nor absolute: they are simply a reflection of the genres I listened to the most in 2021. In addition, a lot of great songs that never appeared on albums, or that were featured on just-okay ones were released, and I won’t be getting the chance to highlight them in this year’s lists.

Thank you to everyone who continues to visit this tiny corner of the Internet. I appreciate you all sticking with me immensely. I can’t wait to start looking back with you all, and wish everyone the best in what will hopefully be better times for all of us.

Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2020

In a year that I dedicated myself to listening to as many albums in the top ten of various physical and streaming Japanese and Korean charts as I could, I was struck, as usual, by how many of the best albums were those on the periphery, those that just missed out, or never even saw the top thirty. But I was as equally struck, as usual, by how big and fun and all-encompassing pop albums are, as long as you’re willing to dig a little, to slog through the ten or twenty average or terrible albums to unearth the one that reiterates why it’s so important to listen as carefully, and widely, as possible. This year, we all took comfort in the familiar as much as possible, and many of the names on this list reflect that bias. The real surprise this year was how little it mattered, and how good it felt, list-making album or not, to see old favorites step up to the plate and bravely deliver what they were capable of in a year they very well could have sat back and took a well-deserved break. Here, in chronological order, are ten of my favorite. (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.) Thanks for spending the whole week looking back with me!

LatuLatu: Mangekyou ETERNITY
(2020.01.22)

LatuLatu were billed by HMV as a “desktop rock unit” that gained some fame on TikTok in 2019, but Mangekyou ETERNTY, the band’s first mini-album boasts an ambition beyond the boundaries of an office chair. Full of energy and earnestness, this quick shot of high-speed J-rock proves that while hibernating, J-rock is not nearly as listless or dead as any number of Oricon or streaming charts might have you believe. It feels like LatuLatu have the ability to breathe some fresh air into the lungs of a sometimes anemic, sometimes too anime-pop-reliant genre, a challenge that subsequent singles have proven they’re up to.

Sumire Uesaka: NEO PROPAGANDA
(2020.01.22)

For years, Uesaka has cultivated a uniquely gifted hyper-pop sound, one reliant on styles as far-reaching as idol-pop, chiptune, techno, metal, and military marches. Somehow, she makes them all work, creating a world so sonically exciting, it’s practically visual. NEO PROPAGANDA is just another installment in that ultra 4K world of poly-tempos and speed shifts. The album boasts song writers both old and new like Kenji Ohtsuki, Ryohei Shima of The Dresscodes, and MOSAIC.WAV who have imbued the album with all the hallmarks that have defined her sound from rolling Rs and high-pitched shrieks, to gonzo interpretations of Russian culture. So much unpredictability would make it an exhausting trek if it weren’t so much fun.

Reol: Kinjito
(2020.01.22)

Reol may be new to the J-pop scene but her sound is now as old as the first wave of electro-house that hit shores a la Nakata in the mid-00s. In fact, with her vocals turned up to computer glitch, she sounds remarkably like J-pop’s other blink-and-you’ll-miss-her indie-android, MAA, who released Monkey Kingdom exactly ten years ago, signed to a major, and promptly disappeared. One hopes Reol’s bio will read differently; Reol hopes so, too, with the aptly titled Kinjito, the culmination of years presumably learning how to push buttons, and cut and paste, in just the right ways. While the sound itself is nothing unique, Reol brings a charm and warm perspective to a sometimes erratic and jarring genre that can often feel downright arctic. Here’s hoping we see more from this personality than we did from those whose footsteps she’s following.

Shuta Sueyoshi: pret a porter
(2020.02.12)

Sueyoshi has spent the last few years carving a small groove in J-pop for himself, one he can now comfortably afford to dig into as AAA goes on hiatus. Following the release of 2018’s JACK IN THE BOX and last year’s EP WONDER HACK, pret a porter is Sueyoshi on his continual quest for the ever-elusive male solo star label, one coveted by many and achieved by almost none. While pret a porter doesn’t signal a victory, it does point in the right direction, a laid back blend of ironed out R&B and dance-pop-lite that wears its vocalist’s experience more than the desperate, youthful hunger of so many newcomers. It’ll take a bit more oomph to stand out and prove he’s worth sticking out for, but in a year of few direct contenders, pret a porter is a perfectly edible slice of contemporary Avex, with plenty of fun on the side.

ONEPIXCEL: LIBRE
(2020.02.26)

It’s not easy being a J-pop trio, not when you debut in hopes of drawing upon the same fan pool as Perfume and callme (or kolme, as it were now), and definitely not when you want to transition to the level of a Fairies or GEM or E-girls at a time when all of those groups have or are on the verge of disbanding. But in fact, this makes a group like ONEPIXCEL all the more vital, women singing for other women and girls and themselves, and boys and men, too, if they want, not exclusively for the hearts and pocketbooks of a convenient niche. Backed by an audaciously Avex-pop sophomore album, LIBRE, ONEPIXCEL make their struggle look and sound as fun as it should. As a veritable anomaly I applaud them. And pray.

Gesu no Kiwami Otome.: STREAMING, CD, RECORD
(2020.05.01)

In 2020, we reached peak-Enon Kawatani. With fingers in various pies, all maintaining consistency in brand and sound, and numerous releases flooding the market, we’re just at the beginning of what could be the end. So, with goodwill precarious, but still intact, it’s a good time to celebrate STREAMING, CD, RECORD. While the album doesn’t land the same punches as the group’s early records, it’s by no means a lackluster addition. Whether extensions of his other projects, or leftovers, it’s pure Kawatani, all dandy pianos, studied rap-singing, and audaciously wacky interludes, on par with the seasoned, almost so-easy-it’s-boring vibes Kawatani is giving off. This can easily start to fall into the existential throes of condescension for either his work or his audience, but for now, Kawatani still manages to make it sound easy in the spirit of experience, rather than cynicism.

BBHF: BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-
(2020.09.02)

Across all genres and languages, BBHF’s BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-, an ambitious 2-disc concept album chronicling one man’s emotional journey through a labyrinth of history and emotion set to a wave of poppy 80’s synth rock, is one of the greatest albums of the year. It’s honest and refreshing, a J-rock band refusing to hide behind dour epithets without any genuine emotional anchor behind them. “Apps that I merely touched once and don’t use / I deleted them all, that is the pleasure of getting rid of things,” the opening track opines; “Sooner or later, everything changes / I’m not happy at all / For better or for worse, this country is falling into a depression” they lament in “1988,” folding the twin tragedies of a burst bubble and a broken heart into an excuse to get wasted. During a year we all had to navigate a new world, it was easy to relate to a desire to leave it all behind and start somewhere new. But as the hero discovers for himself, there is no genuine escape, only the boring, unromantic work of dealing with baggage you can never leave behind anywhere you go, today, tomorrow, and every day for the rest of your life.

TAEMIN: Never Gonna Dance Again : Act 1
(2020.09.07)

SHINee-member TAEMIN released two solo EPs this year, and it is the first of the pair that continues to shine, leading with the slinky single “Criminal,” and “2 KIDS.” Unlike the second set, which so desperately needed to balance Never Gonna Dance Again : Act 1‘s darker side and didn’t, Act 1 showcases TAEMIN as man who comes alive in the pageantry of performance with a sound down pat from a lifetime of training and practice. It’s hard to be upset that his team rarely thinks outside of this box when he excels so well inside of it — a TAEMIN playing in his own shadowy sandbox instead of the bright ones his SM peers are often found running amok in is part of what preserves his iconic imagery. It’s a thin line between indulging and wallowing but Act 1 gets it right, incorporating some more uptempo tracks like previous Japanese hit “FAMOUS” to illustrate TAEMIN’s ability to be both artist and pop star, one of the closest living talents we have to the Super Stars of old.

SuperM: SuperOne
(2020.09.25)

SM’s answer to BTS is SuperM, their “Avengers” super group, featuring members hand-picked from groups SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV. But while good looks and unique abilities have captured the attention of long-time fans and curious, new eyes, it has been up to the music itself to deliver the final ingredient. For their first full-length album, SM spared no expense in flexing their resources, pouring massive amounts of time and budget into the songwriters who chorus, by verse, by sample, by effect, stitched together a defining statement for the group, one perhaps leaning a bit too heavily on aggressive boy-band energy with typically masculine imagery (fast cars! motorcycles! predatory animals!), but that bares its teeth in the service of catchy hooks and of-the-moment trends nearly pile-driving each other into infinity. Super One nails it: with no expense spared, it sounds just as rich as it cost, and just as good, too, the best pop money can buy. And 2020 is a year we all deserved to splurge.

TWICE: Eyes wide open
(2020.10.26)

TWICE continues to defy expectations with their releases, a not always welcome back and forth between otherworldly, next-level pop, and head-scratching hiccups. Like last year’s Feel Special, Eyes wide open is the former, a deliciously indulgent callback to K-pop’s dance roots, with lead track “I CAN’T STOP ME” recalling groups like T-ara and Dal Shabet at their best. The synthy 80’s sound finds further purchase in songs like “UP NO MORE” and “DO WHAT WE LIKE,” stopping only for lower-key vibes on the back half, like “GO HARD” and “HANDLE IT.” The entire album is like a guided tour of the best of the last decade in K-pop girl groups, from 2NE1 to WJSN, all the way up to BLACKPINK, and while this might not say much for TWICE specifically, it makes for a particularly cozy listening experience that surprises and delights with each track.

Honorable Mentions

Mia REGINA: MIAUSEUM -CURATION-
Ayaka Ohashi WINGS
CY8ER: Tokyo
KAI (EXO): KAI
RINGOMUSUME: Cool & Country