Nature is finally healing, as they say on the internet. After two years of releases that were, in one way or another, affected or inspired by the pandemic, we’ve come full circle: Concerts are returning, the doom and gloom of COVID-19 has (mostly) passed, and K-pop is going back to its roots.
The first two years of the 2020s were largely dominated by now-tired girl crush concepts, a surge of anti-drop choruses and angsty introspection. While those trends have somewhat continued into 2022, the K-pop landscape has seen a much-needed resurgence of purely fun pop songs – a renaissance reflected on this list.
From the incredible ’80s spectacle that is Cherry Bullet’s ‘Love In Space’ to the unapologetically bubblegum pop of TWICE member Nayeon’s solo single ‘POP!’, join us as we celebrate the 15 best K-pop songs the first six months of 2022 had to offer.
‘GingaMingaYo (the strange world)’
On their first-ever comeback, rookie girl group Billlie ponder the confusion, fear and excitement of entering the strange new world of adulthood. Flitting between powerful rap verses and a joyful sing-along chorus, this addictive track doesn’t let up, not for the tiniest of moments, with every single second adding up to create an unpredictably thrilling journey.
From its lively soundscape, to its eye-popping visuals and wildly expressive choreography, ‘GingaMingaYo (the strange world)’ is unapologetically maximalist in its approach, in every possible way. Bursting with an intense, unbridled energy seen less often in recent generations of K-pop, this song is a much-needed shot of pure dopamine in an era that seems to favour bare-boned anti-drops.
‘Love In Space’
There isn’t a second to catch your breath in this high-octane extravaganza by Cherry Bullet, which sounds like it chugged ’80s dance-pop for breakfast and turned it into a vintage, pop melee demanding hearty head-bobbing.
One would think that Cherry Bullet would find themselves at a disadvantage given that K-pop presented every imaginable rendition of retro possible over the course of the pandemic, but ‘Love In Space’ wraps all our favorite elements about synthpop (and the current synthwave revival) into a vibrant, compact and truly bop-worthy arrangement. Thanks to them, the ’80s don’t have to leave anytime soon.
Tanu I. Raj
‘Smiley’ ft. BIBI
In the music video for ‘Smiley’, former IZ*ONE member Choi Yena plays a superhero whose purpose is to spread joy around its fictional universe. In our world, ‘Smiley’ is a kinda cringy, touchingly wholesome, some might say generic and fluffy song that accomplishes the same purpose for anyone who hears it. The track is a shot of positivity that goes straight to the brain – and stays there.
For good measure, ‘Smiley’ throws in a menacing verse from NME 100 artist BIBI (who, similarly, plays a fear-spearing villain in the visual) that perfectly contrasts Yena’s cheerful energy, adding depth and edge to the track. And when that gleeful chorus comes around again to wash away the negativity, it fires all the right synapses and reaches a beautiful euphoria.
If there is one act that has managed to personify luxury, it’s got to be IVE. Barely half a year into their career, the sextet have already established a distinctively polished identity of “teen royalty”, dripping with an alluring, quiet confidence. While much more subdued than their debut single ‘Eleven’, each intoxicating element of ‘Love Dive’ is woven together with intention, like a siren’s call pulling you deeper into the abyss with every dip and crescendo.
Despite having just four songs to their name, it is crystal clear that IVE is one of the most promising new acts in K-pop, and one can only hope that the mystical, captivating quality of ‘Love Dive’ will ripple into their next release.
This year’s sprawling, oversaturated roster of K-pop debuts have been a hodgepodge of hits and misses; many have broken through to the surface, but only few have made large enough ripples. As the first girl group to debut under HYBE, preceded by the pivotal legacies of watershed acts like GFRIEND and BTS, LE SSERAFIM had sizable shoes to fill.
Their charming debut single, ‘Fearless’, is a polished, funky piece of dance-pop that opts for a subdued melody that slowly creeps up on you instead of one that puts pedal to the metal – it immediately locks in on a signature groove and never threatens to wander. Silently stylish and aloof in both vocals and instrumentation, ‘Fearless’ is a surprising and daring statement of intent for what looks to be an adrenaline-charged future (albeit as a five-piece).
Over the pandemic, K-pop became very popular globally and – for some odd reason – quite serious in its sound. For pop music, there haven’t been many loud, bombastic, in-your-face hits that are simply pure pop, so it’s exciting to see TWICE member Nayeon bring out the big guns for her debut solo single, the aptly named ‘POP!’.
Every part of the song is nothing short of absolute bliss: from Nayeon’s spectacular vocals, to the bold, Broadway-ready chorus, to a hook that’s been expertly curated for TikTok virality. It’s hard to find anything to fault here. Here’s hoping that the success of ‘POP!’ ushers in the return of the unabashedly joyful sound of K-pop’s yesteryears.
Sometimes, the best tracks are not the ones that wow us from the beginning, but those that take us by surprise. At first, ‘Chiquita’ sounds like your average K-pop anthem about taking over the world by being yourself (sidenote: let’s agree we need new talking points across the board) and you settle in for an exciting, albeit predictable ride.
Forty-five seconds later, the synths kick in and the drums ring out. In a split second, ‘Chiquita’ wrenches you out of your run-of-the-mill girl crush fantasy and throws you back in time, adding a fantastical touch to Rocket Punch’s latest offering – perhaps one of their most sublime yet.
Tanu I. Raj
2022 has seen its fair share of clanger-bangers, an overwhelming majority of which tend to follow a similar sonic template. ‘Hot’ is no stranger to it, but the SEVENTEEN have succeeded where many have failed by infusing theirs with ample personality – there are the powerful, cavernous tones of chant-like rap verses, soft vocal-focused bridges and syrupy high notes that characterise SEVENTEEN’s discography.
- READ MORE: SEVENTEEN – ‘Face the Sun’ review: seven years in, the K-pop stars are determined not to flame out
‘Hot’ careens its way through verses with car alarm samples, copious Auto-Tune and generous helpings of bass, drums and guitar too. While potentially overwhelming upon first listen, something about the way these elements are organised pulls you back in for one more, and then another. It owes this quiet addictiveness to the precociousness of member and composing maestro Woozi, who seems to have earned himself a TikTok-certified summer anthem.
“Are you a bit attracted to me? / (What’s the point of saying it?) / All you have to do is answer it,” Solar purrs in ‘Honey’, the title track of her debut mini-album ‘容 : FACE’. As she changes gears from sultry, raspy vocals to enthralling, breathy melodies, Solar invites a lover to partake in an unforgettable whirlwind romance.
With a delightful house instrumental as textured as her vocal delivery, ‘Honey’ takes the classic holiday romance trope and weaves a playful story about wooing a stubborn lover. In Solar’s capable hands, it’s a love story that feels fresh – a tale that listeners won’t be able to get out of their heads so soon.
Angela Patricia Suacillo
STAYC have released two title tracks this year and, yes, both of them are on this list – but it’s not the girl group’s fault they have famed songwriting duo Black Eyed Pilseung backing them every step of the way. For ‘Beautiful Monster’, the producers borrow elements from their past hits – namely SISTAR’s ‘I Like That’ and ‘Lonely’ – to create, well, a beautiful monster.
The song takes the powerful, brass-driven chorus from the former and fuses it with the more emotional and acoustic vibe of the latter, resulting in a sound that’s not only addictive but also quite unique in the recent landscape of K-pop releases. The only problem with ‘Beautiful Monster’ is that it’s too short, though, we all know that’s just a ploy to get us going back to it again and again.
For their other comeback of the year, STAYC skip the saccharine bubblegum pop sound of their earlier releases, but certainly not the youthful confidence that have already made the group such an iconic fourth-generation staple: “It doesn’t matter, they can think whatever they want / They can’t stop me from loving you.”
But what makes ‘RUN2U’ a clear mark of STAYC’s growth isn’t so much its departure from lighter instrumentals: it’s the passionate vocals that permeate the track. The track’s bounding electric verses and chirpy choruses shine the spotlight on the group’s fuller, more mature vocal performances – a clear promise of what fans and casual listeners alike can expect from the group in the years to come.
Angela Patricia Suacillo
Stray Kids have always been unapologetic champions of what many have come to describe as “noise music”, a label the eight-piece have ceaselessly embraced and sublimated. ‘Maniac’ is the apex of their efforts so far – rich with filthy bass drops and scaling synth riffs, the band’s signature fractured approach highlights their idiosyncratic approach to music.
Lyrically, the boyband delve into similar subject matter as 2020’s ‘My Pace’ – if that song was a symphonic succour that urged us to avoid rushing the progression of our lives, ‘Maniac’ is a rallying cry to live them at their fullest; it beckons us to stop “cosplaying as what society defines to be normal”. They assure us that maybe it is okay to be unabashed maniacs, if that’s what it takes to live as our true selves.
There’s just something so beautifully disarming about Taeyeon and her ability to display her vulnerabilities in such an artful, open manner. On ‘INVU’, she lays down her defenses and cries out to a lover that’s unbothered by all that she’s had to give up in the hopes of having her feelings acknowledged.
- READ MORE: Taeyeon – ‘INVU’ review: one of K-pop’s brightest stars delivers a poignant, revelatory experience
And when one of K-pop’s biggest and brightest stars opts to lay her soul bare amid bold and confident comebacks from her juniors, it’s pretty hard to miss the core message disguised in her soulful endeavours – there’s simply no way to make everyone love you, no matter how hard you try.
Angela Patricia Suacillo
‘Good Boy Gone Bad’
Continuing their angst-ridden trajectory of 2021, Tomorrow X Together infuse crashing electric guitars with dark, forceful hip-hop beats on this brutally honest kiss-off. Left disillusioned and broken by a former lover, the wounded quintet declare that the sweet, naive boys of the past are dead and gone.
- READ MORE: Tomorrow X Together: “Our fans are always there by our side. That’s why they’re our heroes”
“I like it better now / This completely altered face of mine / I just killed me with all that pain / I just don’t care anymore,” main TXT vocalist Taehyun snarls in the second verse, fiercely announcing their transformation into “bad boys”. It’s all very dramatic, though the group somehow turn the miserable petulance of losing one’s first love into an electrifyingly thrilling break-up track you just can’t help but love.
‘I Hate You’
Listening to WOODZ’s music feels much like that formative phase of your life when you would stand in front of your closet and ask yourself: “What do I feel like today?” With each release taking a wild swerve from his previous one, it feels like he’s living in his own version of Euphoria High – a lovelorn boy one day, a rocker the next. His experiments have spelled a wonderful evolutionary trajectory across the board, but what he did on ‘I Hate You’ begs a special mention.
- READ MORE: WOODZ talks the creative challenge of ‘Only Lovers Left’: “There is no moment to stop thinking”
WOODZ’s pop-rock flavour on ‘I Hate You’ reminds us of exactly why the genre has become the soundtrack of much of our growing pains. It has the chaos, the dizzying movement, the aching heartbreak – and just enough eccentricity to plant it firmly in the delightful intersection between meaning and madness. He is utterly comfortable in his element – and isn’t that the best feeling ever?
Tanu I. Raj