After two years of hard work, K-pop finally looks like it did before the pandemic. In-person shows in South Korea are beginning to return—and once again allow cheering—and fans abroad are flooding to arenas to watch their favorite artists perform. BTS took over Las Vegas in April while playing four shows in the city as part of their “Permission to Dance on Stage” performance series. And TWICE performed at Los Angeles’ Banc of California Stadium in May, becoming the first K-pop girl group to play at a U.S. stadium.
Even though K-pop was only available via the internet during the epidemic, Seoul’s music quality never faltered. The artists experimented with different sounds and styles and created unique musical identities that set them apart from the rest in an ever-crowded marketplace. K-pop artists, from veterans soloists to new groups, impressed in the first half with their fresh and inspiring releases.
Here are 2022’s best K-pop songs, albums, and videos. For the purpose of this list, only full-length projects are included in the Albums section.
“GingaMingaYo (the strange world),” Billlie
Billlie opens their latest single with words of uncertainty: “What a strange world / I’m confused.” But “GingaMingaYo” is a song that knows exactly what it wants to be. The electronic pop track fully embraces the weird and celebrates the unknown—gingaminga is the Korean expression for “not sure.” Funky synths and Billlie’s animated chants propel the song, creating a whimsical number that piques a listener’s curiosity as much as it boosts their energy.
Learn More Here are 2022’s Best Albums
“Maniac,” Stray Kids
Stray Kids is no stranger to releasing rousing bangers, and the group turns the frenzied energy up a notch in “Maniac.” The trap and electropop track is about deviating from what society deems as prim and proper, and releasing one’s inner self without shame. “On the inside I’m always a freaky monster,” Han reveals before Changbin taunts: “If you think I’m just pure and innocent, you’re wrong.” Sounds including a bird’s chirping and a drill buzzing add to this bombastic anthem’s bizarre character.
“Love Dive,” IVE
IVE debuted with the earworm “Eleven” last year, and by dropping their latest single, the group confidently declares that it’s no one-hit wonder. “Love Dive” is dreamy and ethereal, with airy “ooh’s” and soft “la-la-la’s” sung over a steady percussion. As IVE welcomes all to dive into the feeling of love, you can’t help but be submerged in their decadent voices. The song is more riveting because of details like a beat of silence added to just before the second refrain, and rapper Rei’s spunky delivery of the line, “You into me, me into you.”
“Devil,” Max Changmin
There’s no doubt that Max Changmin’s voice is the main attraction in “Devil,” a remake of Swedish artist Alex Runo’s 2021 song of the same name. This is clear from the opening that includes no instrumentals to distract from the TVXQ vocalist’s rich tone, and from the chorus that features his soaring melodies over a slithering bass line. A haunting a cappella motif and pulsating drum beats amplify the bewitching quality of this R&B track, but it’s Max Changmin’s singing that seduces with a force similar to that of a devil’s temptation.
Learn More Here are 2021’s Top K-Pop Songs, Albums and Songs.
“Fearless,” Le Sserafim
Anticipation was high for the debut of HYBE’s first girl group, and Le Sserafim exceeded expectations with the sleek and glossy “Fearless.” In this funk and alternative pop song, Le Sserafim is resolute to reach the top—“Telling me to hide my desire, that’s weird / Acting like I’m humble, that’s done,” Yunjin sings. Much of the track’s replay value comes from its addictive chorus, as the feisty line “what you lookin’ at” is repeated over a slick bass riff.
Glitch Mode NCT Dream
NCT Dream may be freezing up before a crush in “Glitch Mode,” but that doesn’t stop the members from pursuing what they want. “An error or two, I like it,” Jaemin sings in the title track before Jeno raps, “If this is love, it’s okay.” This spirit of facing challenges head-on and with exuberant optimism persists across the album’s 11 tracks, as the group sings of charging forward despite the haters (“Arcade”) and staying connected despite being separated (“Never Goodbye”). Sonically, the hip hop-leaning (“Glitch Mode,” “Arcade”) tracks are just as arresting as the balladesque ones (“Teddy Bear,” “Never Goodbye”), a nod to the group’s formidable lineup of dynamic rappers and emotive singers. “Saturday Drip”—performed by Mark, Jeno, Jaemin, and Jisung—is the project’s highlight. This track is full of punchy rhymes and rollicking synths. It invites you to live in the joys of a Saturday.
The Apocalypse is Coming: We Can Save It, Dreamcatcher
“Maison,” Dreamcatcher’s lead single in its latest album, is novel in how the song directly confronts the climate crisis. Through lyrics like, “Save my home in the ocean / Save my home in the desert,” the band calls for environmental action. (The authenticity of this message was met with some skepticism when Dreamcatcher’s label announced an NFT collection days after the album’s release.) ButThe Apocalypse is Coming: We Can Save ItThis album is more than just its core theme. In addition to featuring group recordings—among them, the retro synth pop “Starlight” is an obvious standout—the album presents a generous offering of solo tracks. From Yoohyeon’s gentle jazz number “For” to Dami’s hard-hitting pop punk song “Beauty Full,” these projects are grand exhibitions of the members’ individual artistry.
Facing the SunThe Seventeen
Facing the Sun is all about Seventeen’s desire to become a force as impactful as the sun, and nothing captures this burning itch more than the title track “Hot.” The hip hop-based track immerses itself in heat-related imagery—“heart set on fire,” the artists sing in one verse; “this song is sizzling,” they sing in another. Throughout the album, the artists use related imagery like light and darkness (“Shadow”) and fire and ashes (“Ash”) to describe overcoming their fears. They are also continuing to improve their sound. Facing the sun Following last year’s exhilarating single “Rock With You,” Seventeen leans further into rock with tracks like “Don Quixote,” “March,” and “Shadow.” These songs pull from elements of other genres, too, but share propulsive beats and an explosive energy that signal the scorching trail Seventeen is bound to leave behind.
INVUTaeyeon leads the listener through the complicated emotions that come with being in love. The two singles on the album, “INVU”—read as “I envy you”—and “Can’t Control Myself,” are raw expressions of romantic feelings that seem impossible to contain. And while “Toddler” is a wistful reflection of a little girl who “believed that there were only happy endings,” INVU quickly takes a darker turn with Taeyeon singing about the emotional wounds and scars (“Timeless,” “Heart”) left by a lover. Perhaps most heartbreaking is “No Love Again,” in which the singer describes closing her heart and building a wall to stop loving someone. But INVU ends on a hopeful note, as Taeyeon declares, “I loved you with all my heart / Forget about the past / I’ll leave now / to find my story again.” Whether her voice is flowing softly over synth notes in “INVU” or soaring effortlessly over piano keys in “Some Nights,” the seasoned artist’s delivery makes each of the 11 tracks more piercing.
Learn More Here are 2022’s Best Songs so Far
Psy 9th Psy’s first release in five years, The album boasts a stellar guest-artist line up. There are appearances from, for example, Epik High’s Tablo, Jessi, Crush, and of course, BTS’ Suga—who not only features on the snazzy lead single “That That” but co-produced it. The Latin-infused song is unapologetic and bold. Psy pompously announces his long-awaited return in the song’s first moments—“Long time no see, huh? It’s been a minute, huh?”—and Suga spits out a verse about his undeniable success.
Another highlight on the album is Psy’s collaboration with Mamamoo’s Hwasa, “Now.” The groovy retro number is a cover of Seoul Family’s 1987 song of the same name—which was the band’s remake of Jermaine Jackson and Pia Zadora’s “When the Rain Begins to Fall.” The tracks that Psy performs alone are also endlessly engaging, from the over-the-top “Celeb” to the mellow “Hello Monday.” The latter is a sardonic meditation on the numbing routine of life: “Let’s work hard and then get cursed as a reward,” Psy muses.
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