After two long years, the state of K-pop is finally beginning to resemble what it was before the pandemic. In-person shows in South Korea are starting to return — and allowing cheers once again — and fans overseas are flocking 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 Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles in May, becoming the first K-pop girl group to perform at an American stadium.
Even during the pandemic period when K-pop could only be enjoyed virtually, the quality of music produced in Seoul never wavered. Artists continued to experiment with new sounds and genres, and developed unique musical identities to stand out in a crowded landscape. In the first half of this year, K-pop artists from veteran soloists to rookie groups have been impressed with fresh and invigorating releases.
In no particular order, here are the best K-pop songs and albums of 2022 so far. (Only full-length projects were considered in the albums section for the purposes of this list.)
“GingaMingaYo (The Weird 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 –gingerbread is the Korean expression for “not sure”. Billlie’s funky synths and lively vocals propel the song, creating a whimsical number that piques the listener’s curiosity as much as it boosts their energy.
Read more: The best albums of 2022 so far
“Maniac”, Stray Kids
Stray Kids are no strangers to releasing catchy bangers, and the group kicks the frenetic energy up a notch in “Maniac.” The trap and electropop track is about straying from what society considers primitive and decent, and releasing one’s inner self without shame. “Inside, I’m still a weird freak,” Han reveals before Changbin mocks him, “If you think I’m just pure and innocent, you’re wrong.” Sounds such as the chirping of a bird and the hum of a drill add to the bizarre character of this pompous anthem.
“Love Dive”, IVE
IVE debuted the earworm “Eleven” last year, and in dropping their latest single, the group confidently declares that it’s not a one-hit wonder. “Love Dive” is dreamy and ethereal, with airy “ooh’s” and soft “la-la-la’s” sung over steady percussion. As IVE invites all to dive into the feeling of love, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by their decadent voices. The song is more gripping because of details like a silent beat added just before the second chorus, and rapper Rei’s spunky delivery of line, “You in me, me in you.”
“Devil”, Max Changmin
There’s no doubt that Max Changmin’s vocals are the main attraction in “Devil,” a 2021 remake of the song of the same name by Swedish artist Alex Runo. This is evident from the opening which features no instruments. to distract from the TVXQ singer’s rich tone, and chorus that features its soaring melodies over a slick bassline. A haunting a cappella motif and pulsating drum beats amplify the haunting quality of this R&B track, but it’s Max Changmin’s vocals that seduce with a force akin to that of diabolical temptation.
Read more: The Best K-Pop Songs and Albums of 2021
“Intrepid”, The Sserafim
Expectations were high for the debut of HYBE’s first girl group, and Le Sserafim exceeded expectations with the sleek and brilliant “Fearless.” In this alternative funk and pop song, Le Sserafim is determined to reach the top – “Telling me to hide my desire is weird / Acting like I’m humble is done,” Yunjin sings. Much of the track’s replay value comes from its addictive chorus, as the feisty “what you’re looking at” line is repeated over a smooth bass riff.
glitch mode, Dream NCT
NCT Dream may be frozen before a “Glitch Mode” crush, but that’s not stopping the members from pursuing whatever they want. “A mistake or two, I like it,” Jaemin sings in the title track before Jeno raps, “If it’s love, it’s okay.” That spirit of facing challenges head-on and with exuberant optimism lingers through the album’s 11 tracks, as the band sings about pushing through enemies (“Arcade”) and staying connected through separation (“Never Good-bye”). Sonically, the hip-hop-leaning tracks (“Glitch Mode”, “Arcade”) are just as gripping as the ballads (“Teddy Bear”, “Never Goodbye”), a nod to the formidable range of dynamic and emotional rappers of the group. singers. “Saturday Drip” – performed by Mark, Jeno, Jaemin and Jisung – is the highlight of the project. With hard-hitting rap verses over exuberant synths, the track invites everyone to revel in the freedom of a hard-earned Saturday.
Apocalypse: Save Us, Dream Catcher
“House,” Dreamcatcher’s lead single from their 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 post was met with some skepticism when Dreamcatcher’s label announced an NFT collection days after the album’s release.) But Apocalypse: Save Us is notable for much more than its essential theme. As well as featuring group recordings – among which the retro pop synth “Starlight” is an obvious highlight – the album features a generous offering of solo tracks. From the sweet jazz track “For” by Yoohyeon to the hard-hitting pop punk song “Beauty Full” by Dami, these projects are great displays of the members’ individual artistry.
Facing the sunSeventeen
Facing the sun is all about Seventeen’s desire to become a force as hard-hitting as the sun, and nothing captures that burning itch better than the title track “Hot.” The hip hop-based track delves into heat-related imagery – “heart 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 dark (“Shadow”) and fire and ash (“Ash”) to describe overcoming their fears. The group also continues to evolve its sound in Face the sun. After last year’s uplifting single ‘Rock With You’, Seventeen leans more into rock with tracks like ‘Don Quixote’, ‘March’ and ‘Shadow’. These songs also draw on elements from other genres, but share propulsive beats and explosive energy that signal the searing trail Seventeen is destined to leave behind.
In INVU, Taeyeon takes the listener on an intimate journey through the complex emotions of being in love. The album’s two singles, “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 melancholic reflection of a little girl who “believed there were only happy endings,” INVU Quickly takes a darker turn with Taeyeon singing about the wounds and emotional scars (“Timeless,” “Heart”) left behind by a lover. Perhaps the 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 states, “I loved you with all my heart / Forget the past / I’ll leave now / To find my story.” Whether her vocals flow smoothly over synth notes in “INVU” or soar effortlessly over piano keys in “Some Nights”, the veteran artist’s delivery makes each of the 11 tracks more piercing.
Read more: The best songs of 2022 so far
Psy 9th, First release of Psy in five years, presents a particularly impressive line-up of guest artists. There are appearances from, for example, Epik High’s Tablo, Jessi, Crush and of course BTS’ Suga, who not only featured on the first single “That That”, but co-produced it. This Latin-influenced track is bold and unapologetic. Psy pompously announces his long-awaited return in the first moments of the song: “Long time no see, eh? It’s been a minute, huh? – and Suga spits out a verse about his undeniable success.
Another highlight of 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 sweet “Hello Monday.” The latter is a sardonic meditation on the numbing routine of life: “Let’s work hard and be cursed as a reward,” muses Psy.
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