From Billlie to Ive, Dreamcatcher to J-Hope, we look back on the K-pop tracks that ruled the last 12 months
Flux. That’s not only describing the state of K-pop in 2022, it’s arguably one of the best words to describe the South Korean pop industry, period. Things come and, just as quickly, things go. Debuts are promised and TV shows are announced only to disappear into the ether a year on. Idol groups who looked as if their trajectory was set high find themselves sliding from favour mere months later. The unpredictability of it all – fan opinion, the trending sounds, those who are in and those who are out – is all part of what makes K-pop, well, K-pop.
There was, of course, the usual fill of major announcements – such as BTS Jin’s enlistment and the band’s shift in priority to solo projects, and the breaking up of HyunA and Dawn, one of K-pop’s most celebrated couples – and disbandments (notably NU’EST, Bvndit and D-Crunch all called time), and major tours from Dreamcatcher, Blackpink, TXT, Stray Kids and ATEEZ.
But something unexpected was afoot: you can pin it on the natural cycle of culture or call it the Gen Z-ification of K-pop, but the year’s most talked about moments came via the industry’s most fledgling bands, girl groups IVE, NMIXX, NewJeans and Le Sserafim. The former released the viral blockbuster “Love Dive” and the latter are already widely heralded for their live performances, and it’s not just that they’re rookies making it exciting, it’s that each band is breaking away – musically and/or visually – from the current status quo.
K-pop is a numbers game, and loves a successful trend to the point of miring itself in it for too long. Game changers are few and far between in this risk-averse industry, so when someone or something new strikes gold, its influence spreads fast and deep. Whereas 2021 saw the conversation centre on the potential technological expansion of K-pop via the metaverse, this year has featured a refocus on the art itself. How that plays out in 2023, from what’s offered to how it’s received, is simply a guessing game. So put down next year’s bingo card, and let’s turn the attention back to the 40 best K-pop singles of 2022.
40. MCND, ”#MOOD”
The sharp, quick bluster of “#MOOD” is best enjoyed alongside its video; though still rookies, MCND possesses the irresistible energy of pure showmanship. “Flexin’, flexin’, make it fun,” raps Bic, and that kind of ‘don’t think, just enjoy’ vibe is exactly what they pull off here.
39. PURPLE KISS, “NERDY”
All hail the nerd! There’s a lot happening in “Nerdy” and all of it is great fun; a sing-song cadence, the moody nod to Billie Eilish on the breakdown, and violin that adds a horror-carnival feel. Add in its anti-bullying stance and you’ve got a pop banger with a big heart.
38. SOLAR, “HONEY”
Solar, one-fourth of MAMAMOO, frequently switches in pace and mood on “Honey”. She eats up that challenge, shifting seamlessly between flirtatious and wry as EDM brass and chunky bass underlines her self-penned lyrics. More than just sweet, this is bright, bold and assured.
37. SEVENTEEN, “_WORLD”
Relentlessly smooth, you may barely notice how often you’re murmuring its hook – “마치 천국의 déjà vu, 지금부터 난 널 만나 interview” – until you suddenly realise it’s all you’ve been repeating for a week, and that your foreseeable future is trapped in its cool grip. Don’t fight it.
36. STRAY KIDS, “CASE 143”
Stray Kids stay true to their loud legacy while entwining romance and angst: the vocalists keep it sweet and the rappers wrestle gruffly with love’s mind-addling power. However, it’s the chorus that surprises, lean to the point of bare-bones yet instantly, undeniably catchy.
35. XIUMIN, “BRAND NEW”
There’s a disconcerting seesaw between the tight-throated, bass-heavy refrain and the verses containing Xiumin’s buttery smooth, late 90s R&B-pop vocal, but think of it like salted caramel: you assume they’d taste better separately only to discover they work even better together.
34. WONHO, “CRAZY”
Wonho is resolutely reliable; an artist who knows exactly how to make the best of each part of his songs. Vocal distortion, clashing genres, and guitars were big in 2022, and Wonho utilises each in his own way, making “Crazy” familiar but fresh, a pop treat dipped in high gloss.
33. ITZY, “CHESHIRE”
ITZY move forward from their ultra-rousing singles with the careful pacing and delightful, unfurling verses on “Cheshire”. Its biggest moments live on the vocal-centric chorus that sashays over rubbery bass with a manic gleam in its eye that you shouldn’t underestimate.
32. ENHYPEN, “BLESSED-CURSED”
With a feast of 90s/00s video references – fish-eye lenses, floodlights, stark rooms – Enhypen simplify with a core sound of trap snares and electric guitar. Within their vampire/fame narrative, it’s deliciously cold-blooded and determined, standing at the crossroads of fight or surrender.
31. AESPA, “GIRLS”
In reality, the metaverse is a crumbling global venture but aespa are still kicking ass in Kwangya. The gargantuan scale of their singles – powerhouse vocals, epic visuals and ground-shaking instrumentals – creates entertainment as gripping as a blockbuster film.
30. MONSTA X, “LOVE”
Monsta X marry assertive rap flows with raspy R&B vocals and late-night sax without losing iota of their signature panache nor the song’s equilibrium. On “Love” these elements show up post-chorus with slo-mo glitter and falsetto ad-libs to steal the show without breaking a sweat.
29. ONEUS, “SAME SCENT”
A hybrid of a ballad and EDM torch song, the rhythmic fluidity and hypnotic tinge to the vocals of “Same Scent” will have you crying on the dancefloor. Its mood is blue-black with the shadows of heartbreak, a wistful pocket in which to hold onto lingering regrets for a little while longer.
28. NCT 127, “2 BADDIES”
It’s easy to see why they continue to influence K-pop: The neon overload of its video and titular, chanted refrain commandeers eye and ear, while the third act is chock full of the showstopper performance and power notes that grounds even their wildest, high-concept singles.
27. ACID ANGEL FROM ASIA, “GENERATION”
Arriving via a sub-unit of the upcoming Triple S, “Generation” has a defiantly simple “la-la-la” hook boosted by a robust, funk-inspired instrumental. It treads lightly between bubbly ad-libs and the easygoing, understated delivery that’s becoming a hallmark of K-pop’s hottest rookies.
26. JIN, “THE ASTRONAUT”
In BTS’ “Run” in 2015, it was Jin driving a pickup truck, with his bandmates in the back. In 2022, he’s the truck’s sole passenger for “The Astronaut”, his debut single co-penned with Coldplay. It’s the perfect fit for him as a man and artist; an airy dreaminess grounded by a wholesome earthiness.
25. ONEW, “DICE”
“Dice” sounds expensive at all times; the elasticity of the bass is the dream foil to Onew’s inimitable vocals, with a chorus that swims on a current of 80s synths. It gives one of K-pop’s 2nd-gen OG’s a chance to flex his diverse personal taste, and he does so with sheer class.
24. OH MY GIRL, “REAL LOVE”
Whether it’s the sugary harmonies evoking old-school K-pop or the gentle brass, finger-snaps and handclaps taking it back to a time of flares and feather cuts, “Real Love” is adorned with a wonderfully nostalgic vibe. It’s a comfort blanket of a song, uplifting and familiar all at once.
23. BLACKPINK, “SHUT DOWN”
Breaking from their explosive singles, “Shut Down” samples Paganini’s “La Campanella”, an elegant platform from which Blackpink extol their popstar power with shots at the paps and their detractors, as the video self-references their visual journey with enviable confidence.
22. BRAVE GIRLS, “THANK YOU”
Brave Girls’ revival keeps on giving with this charming, synth-laden thank you to their fans. It’s busy with strings and vocal distortion layered throughout but the standout mix emphasises a clean, crisp performance by the members’ that lifts this track towards the glitter-dusted rafters.
21. ALICE, “DANCE ON”
Formerly known as Elris, Alice glides through a combination of city pop and disco influences. It doesn’t seek to be wholly retro or strain for an updated edge, it exists to be a beautiful cloud cake of a song; light, stylish and timeless, a combination harder to achieve than you think.
20. YENA, “SMILEY (FEAT. BIBI)”
K-pop was gifted a charismatic new soloist in former IZ*ONE member Yena, whose “Smiley” takes subtle cues from acts like Avril Lavigne and Olivia Rodrigo. Perhaps subtle is an understatement, this is certainly not pop-punk, it’s pure, unadulterated, marzipan-thick pop. It never becomes sickly-sweet, however; Yena has a lovely timbre to her voice whereby the edge is roughened just a little for more depth, and it’s joined by the deliciously laconic delivery of singer-songwriter Bibi. Their pairing – sonically and visually as good vs bad characters – balances out the bubblegum foundations but, essentially, “Smiley” takes a ‘does what it says on the tin’ approach and delivers a giant sploosh of serotonin.
19. NATURE, “LIMBO!”
K-pop has never been a genre but there are certain, now legendary, songs in its history that lean into an ultra hooky, wonderfully mad kind of pop for which K-pop became renowned in the early 2010s. Orange Caramel’s “Catallena” for instance. Girls’ Generation’s “I Got A Boy”. Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby”. “Limbo” embraces the influence of these forerunners with its sticky, chanted chorus and a post-chorus that accelerates like a power-up in Mario Kart. It’s a heady swirl that keeps its footing thanks to the firm grip Nature maintains on its hair-twirling choreography and manic pacing. No one would deny there are kitschy moments in “Limbo” but they’re a bonus, creating even brighter flickers in what’s already a big, intrepid pop song.
18. WJSN, “LAST SEQUENCE”
Though nearing their seventh anniversary, WJSN continues to go from strength to strength. In 2021, the group’s sub-unit, WJSN The Black, forged a sophisticated path with “Easy”, and “Last Sequence” doesn’t land far from its well-heeled footprint. There’s a flawless chorus entirely driven by vocals and the complete harmony between the song’s contrasts – the dirty, driving bass beneath pristine vocals, and, onscreen, the darker, richer backdrops against bright costuming. It’s this dark/light balance that initiates “Last Sequence” into the ‘sad banger’ club – all the ingredients of a dancefloor thumper are present but the vocals wear the bittersweet hue of a wish that may not have been wholly fulfilled.
17. RM, “WILD FLOWER (with Youjeen)”
Released in early December, its position here is a testament to the powerful and emotive immediacy of “Wild Flower”. Having honed his lyrical craft for over a decade (and this track’s album, Indigo, for four years), RM wastes not a single line, mingling the unambiguous (“When everything I bеlieved in grew distant, When all this fame turned into shackles, Please take my desire away from me”) with the elegiac (“Memories of holding onto dawn’s edge and spitting things out”). Joined on the chorus by Youjeen of seminal Korean rock band Cherry Filter – whose belting, heartbreaking quality contrasts beautifully with the refined moxie of RM’s voice – this is a beautifully paced, produced and performed snapshot of a superstar’s psyche, as fascinating as it is profoundly stirring.
16. DREAMCATCHER, “VISION”
For nearly six years, Dreamcatcher has been adored by a passionate but unjustly small fandom. That tide is turning – their 2022 full-length album, Apocalypse: Save Us sold more than double that of their 2020 LP. Dreamcatcher didn’t change up their sound or style to get here, it’s just taken the world a while to appreciate the excellent output of this metal/rock/pop group. “Vision” is signature Dreamcatcher – shuddering electronica up against a pummelling chorus of guitars and vocals that grow in urgency and power until a belting finale. Perhaps it’s serendipity that “Vision” centres on standing one’s ground – “Nobody can ever break my dream's future”, sings SuA – and fighting to protect what’s yours. In this battle, Dreamcatcher is always winning.
15. J-HOPE, “MORE”
J-hope bares his inner workings in “More”, swapping the colourful mood of previous solo works for a chugging bass and riff-heavy, distorted chorus. As one-seventh of BTS, the question of ‘where next?’ or ‘what’s actually left to achieve?’ often lingers over him. On “More”, J-hope replies: “Fame, money’s not everything, I already know it, My work makes me breathe, so I want more”. The J-hope we meet here is taut and sneering, droll and self-aware, purposefully open but rendering himself invulnerable through sheer will. Having created a new lens through which to view him, J-hope strips the propulsive hook of choreography despite his renown as a dancer, purposefully opting instead for the wild motions of a man whose creativity refuses to be tamed.
14. (G)I-DLE, “TOMBOY”
Apart from being an absolute monster of a hit in South Korea, “Tomboy” gives voice to the group’s well-founded indignance at the sexism towards female idols who want or wield a creative hand on the records they make. Thus “Tomboy”’s lyrics run: “I’m not a doll, Like this, if you can …. It's neither man nor woman (Just me I-DLE)”. Everything on this track, right down to the video’s direction, is led by a woman and it swings its punches unapologetically hard. Underpinned by crunching electric guitar, (G)IDLE swagger through its run-time with panache and bravura so compelling that it was only the band themselves who remained surprised by “Tomboy”’s runaway success.
13. SEULGI, “28 REASONS”
“28 Reasons” allows Red Velvet’s Seulgi to embody two entities while pitting them against each other: one offers a glimpse of heaven in loving her, the other warns that doing so will destroy you. It’s a dramatic premise but the song is more of a psychological thriller than volatile powder keg. There’s a vibrato here, a vocal growl there but it’s all about the slow build, the fine yet unstoppable fraying of a relationship. When that finally snaps off the back of a spoken bridge, Seulgi’s voice soars into full-throated runs and ad-libs yet the instrumental stays steadfastly subdued. It’s a powerful but controlled finale that points to a woman who is always the puppet master and never the toy.
12. GIRLS’ GENERATION, “FOREVER 1”
Girls’ Generation debuted in 2007 and, for perspective, there are now rookie groups with members born the same year. As such, even a non-stan should feel goosebumps as various members draw out the lyric, “Girls, we are forever”. “Forever 1” rightly celebrates their fandom’s unwavering loyalty but also their own staying power as a group. It does so by dazzling the ear: Its instrumental heart is built upon a thumping bass that carries the exuberant chorus to new levels, and bookends a bridge sparkling with piano and chimes. Its euphoric aspirations are clear but it’s the members’ vocal performances that bring it over the line; emotive but never mawkish, jubilant but never saccharine. In their hands, this track doesn’t just run, it flies.
11. NMIXX, “O.O”
The inclusion here of “O.O” – dunked on so hard that doing so practically became a sport – may raise hackles, but part the fleece of this black sheep of a song and it reveals gold. “O.O” contains only three elements – the “baila baila” transitions, the rock-edged rap/speak-sing sections, and pop harmonies bang in the centre – but they’re arranged in a take-no-prisoners manner. They hustle, pushing up tight against each other to move like a high-speed landslide. Even its one calm moment – Haewon over a single beat bridge – lasts less than 10 seconds before rushing forward. It’s disconcerting but entirely exhilarating, abrasive and confrontational. What makes no sense on the first listen becomes addictive on the third. K-pop songs don’t often kick down the door brandishing a flamethrower, but “O.O” came in blazing.
10. KEY, “GASOLINE”
The video’s costuming alone deserves an award; it’s so aligned to Key that everything, from the crucifix-stamped cumberbund to the gold, embellished suit, is a second skin rather than simply worn. Key’s solo career has come to follow the same ideology: Make songs that fit his true nature rather than garner public approval. “Gasoline” opens as a brassy, self-congratulatory affair but narcissism it is not. It’s born from defiance, of beating the odds and the pernickety judgement of the masses. “It’s not about the trophy, I’m just driving on my own,” he sings, later adding, “These threats fuel my evolution”. He’s holding true to that promise, carefully curating his aesthetic and sound to a point where he’s made himself a new world and we’re just living in it.
9. TWICE, “TALK THAT TALK”
There are plentiful reasons behind TWICE’s longtime A-list status, one being that they’ve developed their own brand of vivacious pop, with instantly identifiable ad-libs and echoing call & response harmonies. But pertinent to their continued success is that they’re experimenting and excelling without straying too far from their beloved signature style. It’s what makes “Talk That Talk” such a delight, its chorus is a tight combination of vocal sugar and spice, driven by an ever-so-chunky bass. Arguably, however, there’s just as much to enjoy on the funk-influenced verses: The members’ voices bounce over repeated words with a flexing bassline reverberating below, and chanted lines lend copious extra zing. Seven years is a long time to spend at the top but TWICE shows no sign of relinquishing their crowns.
8. NAYEON, “POP!”
The Busby Berkeley-esque extravagance of “Pop!”’s video – giant sets, sun-drenched locations, and expensive CGI – meets its match in the star power of TWICE’s Nayeon. Her solo debut is gorgeous and energetic, setting a cracking pace with an understated guitar that adds a new dimension to the melody, big band brass and looped vocal effects, including the titular refrain, ramped up into an unshakeable earworm. Despite all the sonic fizz, the dozens of dancers, confetti and wind machines, at no point is “Pop!” overwhelming, and clocking in at a mere 2:48 minutes, it never runs out of steam either. It focuses on two things – Nayeon as a performer, and a blockbuster chorus that’s vivacious and springy and keeps you coming back for one more delirious dip into it.
7. NEWJEANS, “ATTENTION”
NewJeans arrived in the summer with “Attention” – the first of three singles – and swiftly became one of the most talked about rookies thanks to a surprise debut without a scrap of pre-promotion. They’re a reversion to the classic 90s/00s pop and R&B of SWV or Aaliyah, complete with gorgeous harmonies. A waterfall of chimes trailing over the hook evokes Charlie perfume, cocoa butter, pagers, and Lisa Frank stickers, yet overall pays homage rather than ape, understanding the best reason to go back is in order to push forward. K-pop has always hybridised genres, each of its generations amplifying a unique sonic vine ever taller until it collapses, exhausted. NewJeans are K-pop’s new cool, and their sound is the fresh green tendril poised to run wild.
6. TXT, “GOOD BOY GONE BAD”
Doomed romance is a whole K-pop concept and, on one hand, “Good Boy Gone Bad” pushes it to beautifully stylised heights with silk shirts, fake furs, graveyards, and punched-in mirrors. On the other, it revels in gothic camp – dry ice, the throwing of giant teddy bears, and scene-chewing lyrics like “I’m like a zombie dead alive, Born atop the tomb of love”. No one less than fully committed to these OTT elements could pull it off, and in TXT’s hands the high drama becomes plausibly emotive and visually arresting. An explosive and unyielding chorus barrels the song along but it’s the calm before the storm – Soobin and Beomgyu’s softly melodious pre-chorus – that creates a wonderful tension, the last moment of sanity before giving into the madness.
5. B.I “BTBT (FEAT. SOULJA BOY, DEVITA)”
The title stems from 비틀비틀 (biteulbiteul) – to stagger – which B.I then attaches to the feeling of being drunk in love, a painfully vulnerable headiness he wishes he could hide. On paper, “BTBT” edges towards prosaic but there’s an otherworldly vastness to this song, an atmosphere of cultivated emptiness mirrored by the video’s sprawling futuristic city. In his internal circle of heartache to hope, “BTBT” is B.I’s prayer, the vocals dreamlike and echoing, a trap snare ticking like a jittery metronome and the bass compressed to shiver under the skin. It’s juxtaposed with a chorus that firmly pulls you in with a fleeting, flickering warmth. The effect is addictive yet soothing, making it easy to fall into “BTBT” and unwittingly stay forevermore, cocooned in a hypnotic loop.
4. LE SSERAFIM, “ANTIFRAGILE”
Le Sserafim delivered two of the year’s biggest earworms with their first single “Fearless” and its follow-up, October’s “Antifragile”. Rooted in reggaeton, the latter’s instrumental is simple but deft, a straight arrow upon which the melody catwalks with bite and bravado. There’s all manner of bells and whistles built-in, like the ultra-processed “anti-ti-ti-ti fragile, fragile” hook, but Le Sserafim’s distinctive vocals build with it a strange, addictive camaraderie that intensifies the knowing insouciance on lines like “So much talk behind my back, Rivals I never knew I had They all pray for the day I'm fallin'”. Having had a member removed shortly after debuting in May, their entry into K-pop was a baptism of fire but Le Sserafim are a triumph, their presence and ease as performers almost intimidatingly remarkable.
3. ATEEZ, “GUERRILLA”
ATEEZ have always been fearless, whether it’s diving into backbreaking performances or cranking their records up the proverbial one louder. They outdo themselves on both with the dystopian “Guerrilla”, a gloriously unsubtle, white-knuckle ride that pulls you from stormy rap verses to a delicate pre-chorus before unleashing a wild frenzy of crushing electronica, searing guitar lines, and fuzzed-out screamo vocals. A feat of ambitious sonic engineering, charisma, and precision performance, this is the intersection at which ATEEZ stand tall, able to exert control over a dozen moving parts – from the power notes to choreography – yet effortlessly embody the cinematically unhinged quality demanded by the sheer scale and immensity of songs like “Guerrilla”. In a word: mesmerising.
2. IVE, “LOVE DIVE”
The intrigue of this megahit is that it’s luxurious but also trance-inducing and minimalist, and if you choose to pick at its seams then, like a wealthy family with a closet of skeletons, dark things emerge. The pre-chorus echoes with sweetness yet the longer you listen, the more it beckons from the inkiest of pools: “Come inside and see it for yoursеlf, You can come into the deepest part of my heart”. For every uplifting appearance of its “ooh-ooh” hook, there is the sly thrill of its “Narcissistic, my god I love it” chorus, a fascinating stance in which love is desired more for its risk than the reward. It stands exquisitely barefoot upon a knife-edge between cooly euphoric and quietly scheming, blithely open to being pulled by listeners in one direction or the other, yet – and perhaps the reason for its success – just as potent either way.
1. BILLLIE, “RING MA BELL (WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD)”
K-pop is no stranger to guitars but hard rock has found a recent resurgence in idol discographies, culminating in “Ring Ma Bell”, its most balls-to-the-wall incarnation of the year. There are candied pop harmonies and synth scribbled across its chorus but guitars are this song’s lifeblood, hefty with bassy and piercing flourishes. There are nods to early Paramore and Avril Lavigne in the video’s emo styling and lilting verses, and the swaggering, caution-to-the-wind bridge/outro conjures Mötley Crüe or Poison at their thumping, squealing best, but even with all that wired into its DNA, “Ring Ma Bell” still forges its own glittering path. Sustained punches of vocal power by Moon Sua, Suhyeon, Tsuki, Sheon, Siyoon, Haruna, and Haram makes it instantly anthemic but it's their delivery – an intoxicating brew of genuine grit, confidence, and goddamn good fun – that elevates it on record and onscreen to hands-in-the-air-and-scream-with-your-full-chest greatness that’ll raise every single hair on the back of your neck.