If you’ve been paying attention to K-pop this year, you’ll know that 2022 was dominated by rookie girl groups. These debuting fourth-generation idols strode onto the scene with uplifting sounds and alluring concepts, providing us perfect escapism in a year of enduring uncertainty.
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But the older artists were no slouches. Our list features some stunners by industry stalwarts, as well as big names continuing to prove, through artistry and songwriting, why they’re pillars of K-pop. From irresistible disco revival to sultry R&B and bubblegum pop, here are the 25 best K-pop songs of 2022.
Derrick Tan, Commissioning Editor (K-pop)
Words by: Tássia Assis, Carmen Chin, Rhian Daly, Aedan Juvet, Ivana E. Morales, Tanu I. Raj, Derrick Tan, Abby Webster and Gladys Yeo.
25. ATEEZ, ‘Guerrilla’
Where would K-pop be without boybands screaming about their desire to turn the entire world on its head? Thanks to ATEEZ, and the exhilarating blend of hip-hop and rock that is ‘Guerrilla’, we don’t have to find out. Backdropped by an earth-shattering soundscape of psychedelic rock, ATEEZ weaponise their voices in every possible way on this track. Relentlessly punchy raps give way to furious, desperate vocal runs, and the occasional screamo curveball comes hurtling in just to add to the staggering thrill of it all. GY
Best bit: Jongho just going off with his vocals at the end of each chorus.
24. Stray Kids, ‘Maniac’
If there’s one word that describes the temperament of ‘Maniac’, it’s ‘surreal’ – and we mean it in the most flattering way. The genius production team 3RACHA (formed by multi-hyphenates Bang Chan, HAN and Changbin) wield a husky bassline and whirling synths to create a disorienting soundscape, where reality turns into a warped dream.
With all the eccentric finesse of ‘Maniac’, Stray Kids demonstrate once again they’re just a different breed in the realm of K-pop. IM
Best bit: The first chorus where Felix’s guttural voice transitions to Hyunjin’s razor-sharp tone, piercing over Bang Chan’s delightful ad libs.
23. Balming Tiger, ‘Sexy Nukim’ featuring RM
Balming Tiger have always championed unorthodox sonic blends that scratch specific itches in your brain, but ‘Sexy Nukim’ is a stroke of brilliance in an already remarkable oeuvre. Its twisted, groovy instrumentation – playing at the boundaries of R&B and hip-hop – is punctuated by the collective’s silky rap verses and croaked-out chorus. RM’s guest feature is the cherry on top: as an adroit songwriter-producer-performer, he slips into the song’s psychedelic cadence to elevate it to a higher level. CC
Best bit: RM’s witty songwriting seriously shines through in his brief verse; he harmonises with a line in Omega Sapien’s previous verse (“how you doin’ boy?”) by bending and distorting the words to punctuate his delivery (“what you doin’ boy?”).
22. Nayeon, ‘Pop!’
As one-ninth of the world-beating TWICE, NAYEON’s rich voice is an important part of the equation that has made the girl group so successful. In June the group’s lead vocalist stepped out into the spotlight on her own for the first time with brilliant results.
‘Pop!’ did exactly what it said on the tin, bursting with bright, bubbly energy on a song that already felt like the most joyful fireworks display going. “I stir up your mind bewitchingly,” she teases – you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t fall under her spell here. RD
Best bit: When that final chorus hits, somehow more effervescent and spectacular than any time before.
21. LE SSERAFIM, ‘Fearless’
HYBE’s first girl group hit the planet of K-pop like a meteor in May, proving that outcomes sometimes do match expectations. Their debut single ‘Fearless’ is chic and bold in equal measures – a pop play draped in both leather and sequins, instantly memorable despite its subdued approach.
- READ MORE: LE SSERAFIM on being HYBE’s first girl group: “Diamonds are made under incredible pressure”
Although ‘cool girl’ is a tired trope, the quintet makes it relatable by showing that confidence comes from hard work: “If my scars are a part of me / I got no fear”, they sing. Besides, how glorious it is for a girl group to deliver a verse like “I’m fearless, a new bitch, new crazy, climbing up, next one” right from the get go? TA
Best bit: If “Bam, ba-ba-ba-bam-bam” doesn’t get stuck in your head, you are lying.
20. SEVENTEEN, ‘Shadow’
Fear and uncertainty are essential parts of life. Without them, our moments in the sun would seem dimmer by comparison. Though SEVENTEEN’s ‘Shadow’ hinges on this almost naive epiphany, the emotion is bone-deep.
- READ MORE: SEVENTEEN – ‘Face the Sun’ review: seven years in, the K-pop stars are determined not to flame out
“Oh,” Seungkwan belts, “now I know you are part of me, too.” After the realisation comes empathy: “I don’t want to hide you, I want to hold your hand / Because even my darkness will shine brightly.” Shivery drum ’n’ bass yields to lightweight chimes, while gentle murmurs become full-throated chants. On paper, it sounds like all-out war; in reality, ‘Shadow’ finds perfect harmony. AW
Best bit: Mingyu and S.Coups’ raspy hand-off on the bridge, before Dino bowls us over like a torrential wave.
19. WJSN Chocome, ‘Super Yuppers!’
People love finding higher meaning to the music they listen to, but some songs are just meant to be enjoyed simply because they’re spectacular fun. The biggest reason ‘Super Yuppers!’ was a win in our book is the boundless and infectious energy that its twinkling nu-disco sound brims with. The second-biggest reason was how WJSN Chocome unapologetically lean into that campy, absurd aesthetic. From pointed call-outs of their names, delightful costumes and ad libs that provided exciting texture to the sound – WJSN Chocome want to save the world one smile at a time on ‘Super Yuppers!’ and they’ve definitely succeeded. TR
Best bit: Dayoung’s peppy introduction in the beginning of the song, which quickly segues into colourful synths that Orange Caramel would be proud of.
18. ENHYPEN, ‘Polaroid Love’
Initially slotted in their January repackaged album ‘Dimension : Answer’ as an unassuming B-side, ‘Polaroid Love’ skyrocketed to mainstream popularity after going viral on TikTok earlier in the year.
The reason it resonated with so many becomes crystal clear upon the first listen: this schmaltzy pop number unabashedly indulges in romanticising the ordinary. Objects as commonplace as polaroid photos – devoid of pretence or embellishments like “trendy filters”, as they point out – can still encapsulate the complexities that come with love. CC
Best bit: The first pre-chorus, delivered in a sickly sweet falsetto by Heeseung and Sunoo, that oozes with an unmistakable earnestness, which culminates in the syrupy, by now totally familiar chorus.
17. Aespa, ‘Illusion’
Littered with filthy metallic clangs and unnerving slurps, the hyperpop-leaning ‘Illusion’ embodies the very best of aespa’s experimental and edgy sound. Its crunchy rap verses scratch an itch in your brain you didn’t even know existed, while haunting vocals by Winter and Ningning create a listening experience one can only describe as downright euphoric. It’s a playground of sonic textures, and we simply cannot get enough. GY
Best bit: Karina and Winter’s gorgeous harmonisation on the bridge’s climactic high note. Also, the slurps.
16. Key, ‘Another Life’
Key first previewed ‘Another Life’ during the concert livestream ‘Groks in the Keyland’ – and the full track proved every bit as exciting as that small snippet. This space-inspired ’80s synthwave track off his ‘Bad Love’ EP is an epic anthem only the effervescent SHINee member could pull off. The haunting “oh, oh, ohs” towards the end quietly seduce the listener to abandon the ongoing madness and follow Key to the other side. DT
Best bit: Key’s transition from cooing in the chorus to a punchy rap verse – just one of the moments that cement him as one of K-pop’s GOATs.
15. Junny, ‘Color Me’ featuring Chung Ha
This past year has been quite a ride for singer-songwriter Junny, but ‘Color Me’ is undoubtedly a best-of contender on his stacked album ‘blanc’. By fusing Junny’s warm, entrancingly breathier doses of R&B influences and Chung Ha’s instantly recognisable vocals, it’s a masterful partnership that astonishes on first impact.
There’s also the slowed-down, synthy ‘80s production which tonally compliments the soulful level of technicality both reputable singers are known for. Basically, when the right artists connect, incredible art is sure to follow. AJ
Best bit: The refrain, which showcases Junny’s rich, textured tones.
14. Lee Chan-hyuk, ‘Panorama’
Can despair ever look beautiful? Lee Chan-hyuk’s ‘Panorama’ says it can. Despite the sheer hopelessness of its lyrics – “I can’t die like this, I need to try everything on my bucket list,” he sings as he tries to escape the hospital where he lies in a coma – ‘Panorama’ is a glorious acceptance of life and rebirth.
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It delivers a poignant message that we all but wilfully ignore: life is painfully short, so we might as well live every moment the way we want to. TR
Best bit: The beautifully timed synth arrangement on the chorus – when combined with the beats, it feels like being shocked back to life. Message received, Chan-hyuk.
13. Sunmi, ‘Heart Burn’
Over the years, Sunmi has mastered complex portrayals of heartbreak and sorrow through relatable motifs and a glamorous sound that evokes old Hollywood. Despite the drama, despair and desperation of her music, her work is still punctuated by a twisted optimism – an ethos exemplified by ‘Heart Burn’.
Over a dance-pop arrangement featuring heady synths, she plays a woman living through centuries looking for love, only for it to slip through her fingers as her lovers all drop dead. Despite the numerous endings, she still craves the comforting warmth of love – isn’t that the most poetically human thing you’ve ever heard of? TR
Best bit: The post-chorus refrain, where the looping melody is backed by Sunmi’s poignant accompaniments of “Ae yo, ae yo“.
12. Tomorrow X Together, ‘Thursday’s Child Has Far To Go’
Bidding their emo streak adieu, TXT optimistically shake off the devastation of heartbreak in ‘Thursday’s Child Has Far To Go’, looking towards brighter days to come over a flurry of retro synths and deliciously choppy drumbeats.
- READ MORE: Tomorrow X Together: “Our fans are always there by our side. That’s why they’re our heroes”
Tomorrow X Together serve up some of their best vocals to date on this bittersweet banger, between Soobin’s tender, sensitive verses and the fiercely determined chorus led by Taehyun, hellbent on pursuing happiness with a desperation and drive usually reserved for moments of rage. Sorrow, anger and hope roll off the words they sing, inspiring a startling yet gratifying listening experience. GY
Best bit: Taehyun’s raw, feverish declaration of “it’s tougher than the road I’ve come” in the bridge.
11. LE SSERAFIM, ‘Impurities’
LE SSERAFIM debuted in 2022 with the iconic pop banger ‘Fearless’ (see above), though, within seconds of hearing their laid-back hit ‘Impurities’, it becomes evident that the group’s equally capable of crafting sub-genre perfection. On the rhythmic ‘Antifragile’ B-side, we witness LE SSERAFIM’s taste for impressive mid-tempo productions (see ‘Blue Flame’), which ultimately gives the quintet’s high-energy discography a satisfying layer of duality.
The song’s trance-inducing R&B brilliance, LE SSERAFIM deliver a timeless message that there’s invaluable power in accepting one’s own journey – regardless of the challenges along the way. AJ
Best bit: Aside from the fact that it lacks a single weakness? The seamless vocal fluidity of the chorus ramping up to a vibey bridge.
10. TripleS Acid Angel from Asia, ‘Generation’
Smartphones in hand, TripleS unit Acid Angel from Asia intimately understand their audience, opening their single ‘Generation’ with the line “swiping every moment”. That’s why the song is even closer to a dopamine loop than an ordinarily catchy earworm. A minute in, ‘Generation’ hits its stride – then, somehow, holds the momentum.
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The girls leapfrog verses and lyrical complexity; between an extended chorus, bass, brass, and that final climb into a high note, consider the itch in our brains officially scratched. You’re meant to want to clip and share. (“TikTok up!”) ‘Generation’ aims for something ephemeral – a mood, not a manifesto – and that makes it the most sincere Gen Z anthem of them all. AW
Best bit: The la-la-la’s, which we will be humming until the end of time.
9. ATEEZ, ‘Cyberpunk’
ATEEZ’s ‘Cyberpunk’ is aptly named – anchored by a pulsing techno bass loop, the group vent their pain and sadness, but they aren’t carried away by the despair. Mingi’s urgent and assertive baritone rap sets up the bombastic chorus where fellow members Seonghwa, San, Jongho, and Yunho flex flawless vocal harmonies. You’ll question the meaning of life after they sing “the carnival of lies that has covered up the sun” in the final chorus. DT
Best bit: The odd but sticky melody in the chorus before Jongho howls.
8. Billlie, ‘GingaMingaYo (the strange world)’
The uncertainty of growing up is a tenet often pervades the storytelling of K-pop ensembles, but rising stars Billlie put an eerie yet charming twist to it. Case in point: ‘GingaMingaYo (the strange world)’, where the septet grapple with the complexity of life over an eclectic soundscape spiraling around a vibrant beat.
Some may say it’s too much, but that’s exactly why the glistening production is so alluring. Add to the equation Billlie’s magnetic stage presence and the whole record feels like a statement of unpredictable, boundless potential. IM
Best bit: We take our hats off every time Moon Sua enters the scene spitting fire.
7. NewJeans, ‘Attention’
“Survival of the loudest” seems to be the name of the game in today’s attention economy. Introverts have known for a long time what a blatant scam that is, but it’s only on a few occasions that the rest of the world catches up. Thankfully, 2022 brought us NewJeans, who debuted out of the blue with the effortlessly cool ‘Attention’, and while we scrambled to learn who this mysterious quintet was, the track earwormed its way into one of 2022’s most essential replays.
With gorgeous production that harkens back to Y2K R&B, ‘Attention’ is simple and easy to enjoy, like a languid summer afternoon. It gets better the more you listen, and in a field so populated by songs that you have to Stockholm-syndrome your way into enjoying, that’s not something to dismiss. TA
Best bit: The layered, dreamy harmonisation when they go “You got me looking for attention”.
6. IVE, ‘Love Dive’
Released about four months after their chirpy debut song ‘Eleven’, rookie girl group IVE went all dark and mature on electro-pop follow-up ‘Love Dive’. This track is also the undisputed K-pop song of the summer, winning music show trophies and topping various charts. Accolades aside, it’s not difficult to understand this song’s recipe for success: cool, chic, confidence.
After menacing bassy thumps, robotic synth glitches take over in the chorus with Wonyoung boldly declaring “Narcissistic / My god, I love it”, while the atmospheric “ooohs” echo over the beats in the refrain linger unexpectedly. DT
Best bit: It’s impossible not to chant along to Gaeul and Rei in the pre-chorus when they go “Yeah, it’s so bad, it’s good.”
5. LE SSERAFIM, ‘Antifragile’
On ‘Antifragile’, LE SSERAFIM’s first comeback following their May debut, the Source Music rookies made it clear they weren’t ones to be messed with. After months of uncertainty hanging over the girl group’s heads, they made their return as bold and in-your-face as possible, all the while refusing to back down and be broken.
- READ MORE: LE SSERAFIM – ‘ANTIFRAGILE’ review: ascendant K-pop rookies regroup and find strength in vulnerability
“Pour more gasoline on fire / Fly again, rising through the flames,” Chaewon and Kazuha sing on this vibrant, reggaetón-influenced banger. As well as being one of K-pop’s biggest earworms this year, ‘Antifragile’ spoke volumes about LE SSERAFIM’s resilence and set them up as ones to watch. RD
Best bit: Kazuha striding into the second verse and confidently dropping “Lovey lovey lovey / Dovey dovey dovey” – a snippet that continuously keeps pulling you back in for more.
4. IVE, ‘After Like’
A delicious retro spin on the rookie girl group’s alluring sound, ‘After LIKE’ trades the subdued confidence and mystery of their previous hits for upbeat, shimmering synths. Interpolating Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ in its soaring instrumental break – which instantly made this track a win – ‘After LIKE’ is fondly nostalgic yet thrilling and fresh.
It’s filled with unbelievably catchy moments, from Wonyoung’s breezy “Yoo-hoo”s to the sass of Gaeul’s lines, which are few but memorable. IVE are far from overshadowed by the iconic disco track they reference, and deliver pure pop perfection with a buoyant ease. GY
Best bit: Gaeul’s pre-chorus, though the instrumental break is a very close second.
3. Taeyeon, ‘INVU’
As one of the few songs this year to attain all-kill status (a place atop all South Korean music charts), ‘INVU’ certainly deserves a spot here. Taeyeon’s ethereal voice breathes life into and thoroughly elevates this mellow synthpop number.
- READ MORE: Taeyeon – ‘INVU’ review: one of K-pop’s brightest stars delivers a poignant, revelatory experience
It may be dance-oriented, but ‘INVU’ allows Taeyeon to elegantly showcase the desire alluded to in its title (a play on the phrase “I envy you”) without getting overpowered by the beats. She gently narrates her heartbreak with restraint on the verses before bursting into soaring cries on the instrumental-led chorus. DT
Best bit: The accompanying choreography with the assertive “INVU” chant on the airy chorus.
2. B.I. x Soulja Boy, ‘BTBT’ featuring DeVita
As a budding solo musician still feeling out his signature style, ‘BTBT’ indicates that B.I. is headed in the right direction. He weaves a compelling tale about the hesitation when the first signs of mutual attraction start to show – an experience akin to walking on eggshells as you feel out these emotions.
He uses the Korean term ‘비틀비틀’ – which directly translates to a staggering motion – to epitomise the anticipation and excitement of a budding, push-and-pull romance. This sensuous R&B song, underlined by prominent bass and the syncopations of percussion, allows his raspy, melodic voice to shine through. CC
Best bit: The slickness in the way B.I transitions from a rhythmic rap in the pre-chorus to the honeyed serenade of the chorus – as expected of a multi-hyphenate as talented as he is.
1. NewJeans, ‘Hype Boy’
Few K-pop rookie groups achieve instant fame and public recognition upon their debut. But this year, a handful of new girl groups hit that jackpot – NewJeans being one of them.
All eyes were on the fresh-faced quintet formed by HYBE Corporation’s sub-label ADOR for their ’90s R&B-influenced self-titled debut EP. Think the cool, candid attitude of TLC, En Vogue, and Aaliyah, but fine-tuned to contemporary tastes. The throwback sound of ‘NewJeans 1st EP ‘New Jeans’’ was unlike the predictably edgy or cute high-teen K-pop offerings, and the project’s breakout song was, no doubt, ‘Hype Boy’.
‘Hype Boy’ is three minutes of pop perfection – from the alluring, Kaytranada-esque production to the cotton-candy coos in the intro to Haerin and Danielle’s iconic soaring chorus: “’Cause I know what you like, boy / You’re my chemical hype boy” to the cheeky coyness of the dragged-out delivery of “Take him to the sky-y-y-y / You know I hype you, boy”. ‘Hype Boy’ brings joy whenever and wherever – a simply flawless shoo-in for the best K-pop song of the year. DT
Best bit: When the NewJeans members deliver teasing, honeyed vocals over lush R&B beats before belting out passionately in the euphoric chorus.