2021 In Review: Day 13 – Rookie Artist of the Year

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2021 In Review

1. Introduction + Best Album Art
2. Song of the Year
3. Album of the Year
4. R&B and Soul
5. Rock and Alternative
6. Rap and Hip-hop
7. Dance and Electronic
8. Pop and Ballad
9. Folk and Country
10. Jazz and Blues
11. Crossover and World
12. Best Collaborative Work
13. Rookie Artist of the Year
14. Artist of the Year
15. Other Recognition
16. Concluding Remarks

The rookie artist class of 2021 represents the future of the industry in many ways. Today we recognize the cream of the crop based on their output throughout the year.

  • To be considered as a rookie, an artist or group must have released their first album (EP or LP) between December 1, 2020 and November 30, 2021. They are allowed to have released singles prior to that.
  • Work done in compilation albums, audition shows, soundtracks, and featured performances do not disqualify: We only count full-fledged singles/albums carrying the artist’s billing.
  • Group and band members who debut solo, or form new groups without any actual debuts, are not considered rookies outside of exceptional circumstances.
  • The “Next 10” and Honorable Mentions are in alphabetical order.

Rookie Artist of the Year 2021


For EP Savage and singles “Forever” and “Next Level”

As much fanfare and support Big Four idol groups tend to start their careers with nowadays, it is still incumbent on the group’s talent and support personnel to create things that will capture listeners’ attention, even their imagination. SM Entertainment’s latest rookies hit the ground running with perhaps the most overt dedication to extra-musical “lore” and worldbuilding of any group, realized through both the music itself and visual content. As clunky as some of these attempts seem – the digital avatar concept, the meme-spawning devotion to Kwangya and Naevis – the way that they so quickly became normalized into collective awareness, even by the general public, has meaningful lessons for an idol pop industry that has grown more commercially successful but insular in recent years.

None of this would have happened if the music wasn’t worthwhile, and luckily 2021’s crop of “Next Level” and Savage was a sublime one-two punch that more than made up for any question marks of “Black Mamba”. The rap-laden and often-convoluted structures of Aespa’s music, with over-the-top vocal overtures peppered in, hearken to mind the maximalist strokes of mid-2000s SMP music with a step up in sophistication. Their sound is forging a unique path in the scene, and we may yet see many more follow.

The Runner-up


For singles “오늘 조금 취해서 그래 (Abittipsy)”, “품 (Zzz)”, “Cherry on Top”, “Sweet-Tea”; featured work with Junny; compilation work on The Late Kim Hyun-sik’s 30th Anniversary Memorial Album “Making Memories”; OST work on Back to You; and production credits with Choi Jin-soul, Loona, and Bugaboo

2021 was a good year for female dance-music soloists, with Chungha and Ailee’s full-length albums headlining an impactful crop of charismatic pop-diva work. Quietly making her mark in that field was Youha, a young singer-songwriter whose “Abittipsy” was the most exhilarating moment of the year and an immediate head-turner. Coloring her work with effortless vocals and summery excitement, Youha’s established a decent niche with just a handful of singles. An early start on a producer career – she picked up four credits on the year alone, often sounding quite different from her own work – may be paying dividends sooner than later. Album-scale work cannot come soon enough.

The Next 10 (Alphabetical)


For LP 위위 (Wewe); singles “알바비 (Part-Time Job)”, “조직원 (Henchman)”, “온세계 (Land and Sea)”; and featured appearances with Nuclearboy and Handoo

Big Violin Player

For LP Big!; single “10분 (10 Minutes)”; and collaborative singles “빅블루 (Big Blue)” (with Lavender Blue), “캐빈 클라우드 (Cabin Cloud)” (with Bpad, Siaseeds, Mike Casey), and “무초 구스토 (Mucho Gusto)” (with Lavender Blue)


For LP Essence; single “Zero Gravity”; and production credits with East Palm

Jeon Ho-kwon

For LP 코스모스 (Cosmos); single “모닥불 (Campfire)”; compilation work on Folk 4 Brother and Sister

Lee Mujin

For singles “신호등 (Traffic Light)” and “과제곡 (Assignment Song)”; featured appearances with Cho Kyu-man and Vibe; OST work on Poupelle of Chimney Town and Hospital Playlist; and compilation work on Sing Again and Famous Singers


For LP 꽃꽂이 (Flower Arrangement) and production credits with Jaguaa

Moskva Surfing Club

For LP Low Flight


For LP Since 16′; singles “Hot Sauce”, “Go Up”, and “My Life”; featured appearances with Hahoe, 372, AGJB, Santa Paine, Gong Hoon, Yeojiyoung, Bona Zoe, Bluelk; and compilation work on Show Me the Money 10


For LP 사랑한단 말없이도 사랑을 확인하는 방법 (9 Ways to Say “I Love You”) and singles “브로콜리 (Broccoli)” and “사랑을 확인하는 방법 (How to Know Our Love)”

Yu Hana

For EP 작고 희미한 (Tiny and Faint); and featured appearance with Hnn

Honorable Mentions

Hwang Kyung-eun
Hwang Yoon-ji
Kim San
Lee Jung-kwon
Purple Kiss
The Baepsaes
The Button

Lyric translations by author. Artist profile and album cover images from Bugs Music.

Read our past series:

2020 In Review

2019 In Review

2018 In Review

2017 In Review

2016 In Review

2015 In Review

2014 In Review

2013 In Review

2012 In Review