Best of 2022: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

As far as this site is concerned, 2022 has essentially been about looking back over the last decade of entertainment media; that is, of course, purely a coincidence based on my decision to start a blog at the beginning of 2012. But for some reason, more than any other year-end countdown list this year, this particular one really seems to want to match the nostalgic mood. Whether it’s the sound, the visuals, or shockingly the acts themselves, increasingly large swathes of K-Pop are starting to sound like they did ten years ago, and I for one am thrilled. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of stuff on this page unbeholden to the past; but if you’ve ever called yourself a lapsed casual K-Pop fan, this list might just be worth your ears (and good pair of headphones, and probably your removal of automatic captions, but that’s up to you).

A shout-out to the community of the Diggy’s Dungeon K-Pop podcast for their knowledge and recommendations, and as always a quick disclaimer that I base this very personal ranking on the music first and foremost (well entirely, really – most of these music videos were completely new to me this week).

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VR BEST OF 2022 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is as likely as avoiding MCU fatigue. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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15. Forever 1 – Girls’ Generation

Welcome back SNSD!

Way, way down on the list of things I didn’t know I wanted to hear in 2022 – because I genuinely didn’t think it was possible – was the return of a full (well, as full as possible after all that 2014 business) Girls’ Generation line-up. But not only did they somehow make it happen, they put out the best track in the history of the eight-member edition. Packed with cheesy touches like that cavernous stadium clap effect on the chorus, and utterly unafraid to overfill your headphones with a wall of sound, the chorus line still manages to soar over it all, and the Into the New World reference in the background of the bridge? Stop, please. I’m not afraid to admit I got real emotional the first time I heard this one.

14. Alone – Highlight

The former B2ST boys brought back the bass in 2022 – and not much else – but that minimalist sound just works wonders on the ever-confident Alone, which extracts maximum value from a single slap line, a bit of cheeky distortion and the mature charm of the group’s four remaining vocal veterans. It’s a clean dose of throwback K-Pop listening, and that’s before you even lay eyes on the gloriously 2010-style video. Dance-in-a-box, ambiguous collapsing scenery, neon lights and expensive car all present and accounted for, thank you.

13. When I Move – KARA

Perhaps even more shocking than the return of SNSD was the sudden late-year appearance of a KARA line-up made from the pieces of the group’s (tragic) second and (brief) third eras, but while the former comeback drew confusing tears from yours truly, this one just produced a smile I could not shake. When I Move is ultimately a simple track as these things go, but a gently reverberating backing track that starts near-perfectly and occasionally brings in classy guitar touches ensures I like this one more and more every time I hear it. The sound of Nicole fast-talk rapping like she just recorded Lupin yesterday is also absolutely hilarious and I could absolutely get used to the girls hanging around for another phase.

12. Vagabond – TRENDZ

Oh my days, if the start of this MV doesn’t immediately send me back to the halcyon days of early EXO, BAP and VIXX choreography, I’m not here. Built on a growling guitar lick and metallic percussion that brings an additional flourish hurtling in before each chorus, TRENDZ’s Vagabond – a name naturally close to my heart – goes up a level courtesy of that eternally underused K-Pop weapon: real harmonising! If you get any Dreamcatcher vibes from this track, that’d be because their regular producer LEEZ is responsible for it, and the match proves to be a great one. No one else seems as willing or able to repurpose disparate elements of rock in service of blistering pop, so here’s hoping they continue to work together.

11. Can’t Control Myself – Taeyeon

Even if she hadn’t come along for the Girls’ Generation reunion ride, 2022 was still a massive year for Taeyeon. She fired all her shots at the very beginning of the year, and what shots they were – but in my personal opinion the all-conquering electronic INVU wasn’t quite as good as this stripped-back return to the early-2000s moody well she last plumbed so effectively on 2016’s 11:11. A self-penned dose of morose reflection drizzled with a venomous punk-ballad dressing, Can’t Control Myself is about as raw as you’re likely to hear from an MV release that still bears the SM label, and it’s a stunning new angle on an artist who sure ain’t getting any worse at this.

10. Power of Love – ALICE

Following a label shift and minor rebrand, the ever-promising act formerly known as ELRIS shifted gears in 2022 and set one hell of a new style marker with easily the most confident lead ballad I’ve heard outside of IU in a long, long time. Eclipsing Red Velvet’s headlining softer 2016 EP and drawing favourable comparisons all the way back to SNSD’s Japanese mid-tempo classic A.M.L.I.F.Y, Power of Love brute-forces its way past all the usual trappings normally attached to a straight ballad as far as non-Korean-speaking listeners are concerned, pulling out all the late-90s tricks by going piano into strings into misty harmonies into that drop-out finish, delivering on the sheer vocal strength front the whole way through. I would not have called this one in a million years.

9. 458 – CIX

At last, we reach a track that isn’t on here because of my nostalgia – well, not in any way obvious to me. Following their impressive airy Cinema efforts, CIX marked 2022 with a bold statement on their flexibility, along with a testament to the fix-all potential of good falsetto skills. I’m often a sucker for unusual percussion and 458 brings that from the very beginning, transitioning back and forth thereafter between a powerful high-end chorus and smoother low-end verses via jolting proclamation and that quick 4th-gen-staple noise. This all somehow works – mostly because of that fantastic chorus and the verse-carrying piano at the forefront of the mix.

8. One Snowy Day – Giriboy feat. Sole

Apple Music tells me this is the song I listened to more than any other on this page, and while that may have quite a bit to do with its release timing in January, it’s also a really rewarding song to listen to – so of course the closest thing the single has to a music video is only about half the length of the full, glorious thing. You can take in the wonderful four-phase build-up in its entirety easily enough here, and maybe you might understand what makes the repeat button so appealing after it wraps: an unassuming live guitar loop rises and falls with the addition and subtraction of deft piano layers as Giriboy matches each hill with a transition from singing to rapping and back again, before the incomparable SOLE slides in at the death. Really good chill stuff.

7. Talk That Talk – Twice

Apparently even Twice seemed to think 2022 was a good time to refer back to the past, not only name-checking past successes throughout Talk That Talk but sonically calling back to their TT / Knock Knock era early in the song, their chant-heavy debut window right before the end, and the more synthy “double voice” production of their latter hits during the money-making chorus. And despite the always-welcome commitment to making those verses sound distinct, it is that punchy chorus (and its even better final variation) that truly locks down yet another winner for what is surely now one of the greatest girl groups of all time.

6. Love Dive – IVE

It’s hardly uncommon for K-Pop acts to catch on with their second release, but IVE’s follow-up to 2021’s Eleven really is something else. As the NewJeans-led trend of bigger, slower, more reverb-laden electronic backing tracks begins to take over the mainstream release schedule, there surely was no cleaner example of its appeal throughout 2022 than Love Dive. Juxtaposing upper-register ticking rhythms with thumping speaker-shaker material on the low end and running both through the distortion machine, IVE’s promising filtered vocal work is almost a bonus. Only a weird screechy bridge seemingly bereft of additional ideas interrupts the pure intractable power of this song.

5. Beatbox – NCT Dream

Though they didn’t bring a particularly memorable album with them this year, NCT Dream well and truly continued the momentum of last year’s sunshine bomb Hello Future with a fabulous pair of title tracks. The first, Glitch Mode, resides firmly in Peak SM Entertainment Land, only slightly shaving the edge off an NCT 127-style banger and flourishing all the better for it. But the second is pure, wondrous fun, proving the bright-and-bassy 2021 sweet spot is definitively the place to be for Dream. Not since the very early days of GOT7 has a boy group seemed even remotely interested in occupying this niche with actual good songs, but Beatbox is so effective at getting me out of my seat whenever I hear it that you have to wonder what took SM so long to commit.

4. Impurities – Le Sserafim

Another stylistic callback arrives, only this one brings hefty 2015 Red Velvet vibes. Adding a discount-new-jack percussive layer to the ghost of the former’s Automatic, Le Sserafim’s Impurities ascends from B-side duty on the group’s sophomore mini album to make an instant home in dusty unexplored territory sure to welcome imitators in the near future. A masterful showcase for what a song can achieve within limited vocal ranges without resorting to brash excess (an aspect of K-Pop I often enjoy of course), once Impurities gets its hypnotic roll on it simply does not stop. One listen was all I needed for this one, folks.

3. Devil – MAX Changmin

This left-field shock to the system really is a multi-pronged nostalgic assault: the second time a male SM Entertainment act thought to be past its prime has come roaring back with a song named Devil, MAX Changmin delivers a commanding display of acrobatic vocal prowess on a bed of simplistic cranked-up instrumentation and minimalist production elements – but not without some distinct blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references to the grungy electronic TVXQ hits of the very early 2010s for which MAX is partly responsible. From ear-perking opening hum salvo to late-stage choral streak, this is just the kind of fabulously avant-garde track that got me into K-Pop all those years ago. It works even better as the first track on an album, but you’ll just have to wait a few days for more on that.

2. Pop! – Nayeon

At long last, someone was game enough to try an alternate take on Hyuna’s iconic 2011 international barrier-breaker Bubble Pop. Perhaps because both Nayeon and Hyuna ultimately came from the same JYP Entertainment training background, and most definitely because I haven’t been able to stand Bubble Pop for years, the freshly-minted Twice soloist’s sensational debut doesn’t just feel like a worthy spiritual successor – it feels like an apology. Conspicuously lacking almost any audio production trend that could be called “modern” in the Korean music industry, Pop! lives and dies by the trademark energy of its performer alongside an insanely catchy staccato refrain, which I know can’t possibly be new or unique in any sense of the word, but it feels new and unique; and in’t that the perfect summary of K-Pop’s pull.

1. Smartphone – Yena

Wish I had more interesting things to say about Yena’s Smartphone, people; I really do. But the equation is simple: what happens when you write a spirit-lifting energy-injection song in the gimmick-first mould of Cignature’s Assa, Chungha’s Snapping and especially Somi’s Birthday, but don’t put in any small-yet-repetitive bits that sound like shit? Voila.

As usual, this entire list is available as a playlist on Apple Music here if you want to listen to it the way I did for most of the year.

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Honorable Mentions

–Hit Me Up – Min feat. JMIN
Watch: HERE

Rolling on with the ten-year throwbacks, ex-Miss A talent Min dropped this wonderfully bright and upbeat gem this year with almost no fanfare, right before going on to star in new Broadway musical KPOP. It’s a way better song than it has any right to be.

–Seoul Drift – Zico
Watch: HERE

One of Korea’s most irrepressible musical forces revisited often-fertile low-key contemplative ground with this one, laying on the retro K-Pop vocal processing real thick on the way to producing one of the most satisfying bridges of the year.

–Doom Du Doom – P1Harmony
Watch: HERE

How about the start of that music video? Or that point choreography? Or that rocking guitar that persisits throughout the song? Or that multi-level chorus and chanting follow-up at the end? These guys are becoming rather worth paying attention to.

–Butterfly – Jiselle feat. oceanfromtheblue
Watch: HERE

One of many winning partnerships between Automatic Remix alum throughout 2022, Jiselle’s laid-back velvet vocals carry this simple jam in irresistible style until oceanfromtheblue brings it home with maybe his finest single-stanza vocal cameo yet.

–Rose – mimiirose
Watch: HERE

I live my life by only three rules: a grappling hook always improves a videogame; a dance sequence always improves a movie; and a melodic whistle always improves a song. The whistle in this bad boy is an absolute peach.

–Burn – EXID
Watch: HERE

Returning after a few years away from the game, EXID brought along just about everything that once made them one of the industry’s hottest properties to this bassy, bombastic, vaguely middle-eastern, reliably-escalating, Solji-unleashing song.

–Flash – Rocket Punch
Watch: HERE

The exact strengths of this group remain difficult to nail down over the length of their discography, but there’s little doubt the star of Flash is that relentless mini-staircase loop in its backing track – the energy just refuses to die down and the vocals are there to match.

–Vision – Dreamcatcher
Watch: HERE

Though the wider K-Pop industry has largely moved on from the 1980s synth trend, leaving only the retro-specialist acts to have their fun, Dreamcatcher’s earnest attempt at tackling it brings highly worthwhile results. Dark industrial synth suits the group very well indeed.

–There’s nothing special about love – Rainbow Note
Watch: HERE

Speaking of retro-specialists, here we have the ridiculously consistent city pop brilliance of Rainbow Note, but with a crunchy new jack swing beat along for the ride this time. It really is the simple things sometimes.

–Off-Line – Rad Museum feat. Dean & Lee Hi
Watch: HERE

When Dean turns up on a new song, you listen to that song. With Rad Museum powering this year’s cameo and Lee Hi batting typically smooth clean-up, Off-Line is one smooth, euphoric anthem proclaiming a pretty relatable message to boot.

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