Best of 2022: Top 10 K-Pop Albums

As we head into the big three countdowns to round out the year, here’s a cool dose of quality K-Pop and K-R&B song collections that flowed better than anything else I heard in 2022. It was a banner year for veteran SM soloists, a couple of familiar voices and some exciting new talents. A couple of cheeky classification instances in there this year, but that’s hardly a new phenomenon. That said:

1-3 tracks = N/A

4-7 tracks = mini album

8+ tracks = full album

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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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MINI ALBUMS

5. SMiLEY – Yena

It is once again a minor crime that my formatting insists on keeping the mini album list down to five entries, but despite the plethora of fantastic options for fifth spot this year I can’t help but remain attached to the very first one I heard in 2022.

January saw former Iz*One member Yena begin her solo career with the first of two EPs, but the oddly-titled SMiLEY has almost none of the hallmarks of a debut effort; almost a year after the mini’s release the gumption to kick off a five-track piece with an acoustic slow jam is still stunning (and essentially unique among the idol scene). Said jam Before Anyone Else is immediately captivating, and though the title track is no Smartphone, the high register touch makes Lxxk 2 U one of 2022’s more palatable punk-pop attempts. Pretty Boys is a masterful staccato delight worthy of anyone’s top B-Side list, leaving Vacay to carry Yena home on a light breeze. A promising start to be sure.

4. Colorful Trauma – WOODZ

Three years in, three entries on this list; the artist currently known as WOODZ isn’t slowing down. With this fizzing EP he packs more bombast and bravado to ice the considerable producing chops now expected of any of his album releases. The multi-layered talent sets up the rockier, almost country-tinged tone of Colorful Trauma with a guitar lick so starkly unusual among WOODZ’s close contemporaries it may as well be a fanfare. Thus starts Dirt on my leather, yet another out-of-the-park smash of an opener to add to the WOODZ collection. HIJACK proves the guitar goodness no fluke, buzzing like an Advance Wars CO theme song underneath growling vocal ad libs. The third-track appearance of punky title I hate you almost sounds toothless in comparison, but it does have a killer melodic pre-chorus that pairs nicely with the wailing lead guitar behind Better and better. Committing to the full strumming quintet, it’s a pop-acoustic accompaniment that brings the album to a gentle close on Hope to be like you.

3. Between 1 & 2 – Twice

Twice is rarely far from this list, but it’s been so long since the superstar group put out a decent mini-album (or a mini-album at all) that I had forgotten how good they could be. Silly me. A 7-strong EP tracklist in K-Pop can be risky if there’s too much structural padding, but Between 1 & 2 is a full-fat presentation worthy of sitting among Twice’s variety-infused best. Queen of Hearts is a dose of sing-talky ’90s candy punk that bridges the gap between the wonderful title track and Basics – a song that lives up to its name by doing the simple things so well it ends up as one of the year’s best B-sides. The chaotic disco dancer Trouble is next, then Brave loosens up the lower frequencies for a bit of that trendy wide synth, then we get the more oddly contemplative choppy EDM flavour of Gone. The stage is set for a Twice special cheesy mood-lift finisher, and the full harmonic chorus of When We Were Kids certainly sticks the landing.

2. love you more, – Youha

Late-arriving synth dealer extraordinaire Youha pulls out all the air-surfing vocal stops on love you more, an album name that enjoys capitalisation as much as it enjoys being thrown into a review sentence. Rising out of the depths of silence like a chic yawning dinosaur, Satellite builds a strong start with stuttering half-whispers that lodge in the brain before title track Last Dance swims in over twinkling treble to deliver a hauntingly harmonised chorus payload and tee up album centrepiece Flower Rain. Another off-beat stutter special, it forms a formidable one-two punch with the laconic beachside city pop of We, completing an addictive electronic story. Only closer NUMB attempts to break with the pure synth formbook, and then only really on its shredding guitar chorus. Otherwise, Youha’s debut EP is a memorable bed of comforting production intent well worth sinking into.

1. Devil – MAX Changmin

The most naturally fitting opening-slot title track in years kicks off MAX Changmin’s second solo attempt at a mini album – and he is emphatically two from two. I’ve already talked about how good Devil is as a song, but it also just brings every possible ingredient to set up a large-scale album sound – and Changmin doesn’t drop the ball afterwards. The deep piano energy of Maniac could easily have made it the EP’s MV track – I honestly assumed it would be on my first blind listen – it’s that good at getting me out of my seat. But then the Fever hits, and while it may sound like it takes clear inspiration from Imagine Dragons’ Believer on the chorus, that ain’t no bad thing – and the ragtime-spiced verses and incredible instrumental bridge deftly add that ex-TVXQ vibe you love to hear.

Changmin marks the end of that breathless first ten minutes by gliding into the holiday vibes of Alien, awash with effortless vocals and sun-baked guitar. Dirty Dancing keeps the guitar but turns up the sensitivity to crisp up the soundscape with percussive twangs and bring the energy back, then Airplane Mode brings MAX closer to the mic for a falsetto-led silk finisher. This album is legit.

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Honorable Mentions

–Antifragile – La Sserafim

Le Sserafim’s 2022 debut release Fearless is far from the worst first EP I’ve heard (Blue Flame is a great airy synth tune), but follow-up Antifragile might just pull off one of the greatest recoveries I’ve seen in the history of K-Pop’s short-form album delivery. The void-talk opener this group seems hell-bent on turning into an audio signature is already getting old after just two attempts, and the mosquito-ish title track wears thin quickly; yet the next three tracks are so good they lift this mini up here by themselves.

–Lucky Charms! – Moon Sujin

A light R&B deviation into disco territory, Lucky Charms! sees Moon Sujin float along on infectious beats for a handful of catchy tunes – two either side of fabulously feisty title track Right Back. Three guest appearances add the ideal sprinkle of heat to the mini, no better than when Karencici shows up at the death to close out The Sweetest in swinging style.

–28 Reasons – Seulgi

A smouldering six-stacked solo debut if ever there was one, 28 Reasons kicks off with a whistle in its title track and doesn’t look back. Sassy first-change belter Dead Man Running might just be the year’s best B-side, giving the Red Velvet star the kind of show-off opportunity she is rarely afforded; but the remaining four tracks keep the classy lounge vibe moving to give ample backup. On this form it’s worth wondering whether the final track, Crown, might be giving us a preview of Seulgi a few years from now.

–Girls – aespa

I tried to fight it, I really did, but destiny is unavoidable. Eventually every new SM group that starts off sounding really jarring gets through to me, usually via a standout album. On that note, Girls becomes annoyingly good the very moment its hit-and-miss title track transitions into the breakout strut-ready Illusion. From there the group’s customary noise effects give way to bluegrass harmonica, basic guitar chords and sticky vocal hooks right up until the weirdly plentiful bonus tracks hit.


FULL ALBUMS

5. Lowlife Princess: Noir – Bibi

Welcome to the first-ever Vagrant Rant K-Pop full album list where all five entries are soloists – who knew this day would ever come?

We begin with Bibi and her slithery sledgehammer of a debut LP. That this album turned out the way it did feels inevitable; Bibi’s young career has already been defined by a swaggery persona arguably not seen before in a female artist with this much vocal talent to back it up. So often an icy drone-voice specialist when employed as a featuring artist on other projects, Bibi cashes in on her image to seethe with fire at multiple points during Lowlife Princess: Noir, slowly boilng haters on the bold-titled BIBI Vengeance then exploding into silk shreds on Animal Farm, Witch Hunt and the eponymous Lowlife Princess. Not one song is overlong and the vocal spice on display from track to track is out of this world, jumping from an overtly-produced auto-sound on proper opener Blade to regal honourifics-laden cleanliness on Sweet Sorrow of Mother to rowdy R&B lounge belting on JOTTO. I’d gladly take more of this.

4. Sin City – K.vsh

Speaking of artists bubbling under messing around with individual releases and EPs for years before taking the plunge into a first full-lengther, K-R&B toiler K.vsh (pronounced “cash” I think?) makes his move into the space with more of a hip-hop album than anything else. Courtesy of a substantial rapper guest list to whom K.vsh gives lengthy verses, there’s a distinct edge to the piece despite the fact this dude has some of the smoothest pipes in the business.

Ample support arrives from 15-year hip-hop veteran and recent P Nation signee Swings, who slam-poems the introduction like it’s a foreword to the first half of a biography and then shows up near the end for the sensational Hommage, a digital MV-free single that finds a new home sliding in perfectly after bouncy Skinny Brown vehicle Cliff. Elsewhere Gogang, JUSTHIS and The Quiett have their fun, but at the beginning, midpoint and end its all K.vsh as Landed, No Youth and Em’all mix a cocktail of his anxieties and dreams with that voice to magnetic effect. A fanboy G-Dragon dedication to close everything out is fun icing, too.

3. Gasoline – Key

Somehow, despite the synth-obsessed trends streaked throughout the last couple of years in Korean music, the true master of 1980s vibe the whole time turned out to be the SHINee middle man himself. Gasoline isn’t just an exercise in cavernous retro-electronica – though my word, it definitely is that at times – it’s a sonic trip that runs the gamut of energy levels without ever straying from its status as 2022’s best “headphone album”; from industrial to slap the flavours of all-encompassing bass on offer here are well worth the asking price of a crunchy set.

This is an artist who has never been afraid of camp, and the shadowy silliness coursing through the likes of the title track, Villain, Guilty Pleasure, G.O.A.T, and Ain’t Gonna Dance matches up near-perfectly with the homage-laden visual feast Key and his team prepared for both the album’s MVs and its artwork. There’s plenty of sincerity too, of course, and Key seems more confident than ever in his falsetto – a blessing on an album so preoccupied with the lower register. This essentially ballad-free alternate-universe Mad Max soundtrack may just be Key’s greatest achievement yet.

2. Imagine Club – SOLE

This might be my favourite K-R&B album ever? Only time will tell, but my play count on Imagine Club is steadily climbing across every device that can play it because it works for just about every mood and any time of day. A wash-over LP that never gets too morose is an extremely tricky balance to hit, but this album hits it without ever becoming a bore, weaving a delicate tapestry within that wide stream of similar chords linking one track effortlessly to the next. At 10 tracks and nearly bang-on 30 minutes, Imagine Club wields restraint like a weapon, starting with Heap-esque vocal layering then playing with golden age Hollywood flourishes and teased-out piano in the first half, followed by guitars and light trap percussion in the second. And like many of the best LPs, it loops back on itself with delightful ease.

It’s clear SOLE is an immensely talented artist with enviable networking skills – her low-key quality-production digital single with Thama Google Map from a couple of years ago still sounds like nothing else out there, and she helped elevate that amazing GIRIBOY track on this year’s singles list. But Imagine Club is an amazing achievement that outdoes anything she’s done before, and while it probably won’t convert anyone who doesn’t enjoy SOLE’s airy vocal delivery, I know I’m not the only one that can’t wait to see the next step.

1. INVU – Taeyeon

It was looking increasingly inevitable as the years rolled on, but the pre-eminent K-Pop girl group soloist has at last stepped out of the considerable shadow of senior labelmate and all-around K-Pop royalty BoA with a proper stone-cold classic LP worthy of standing toe-to-toe with the queen’s best work. I’m not saying this is a Messi-to-Maradona situation, but I’m also not not saying it.

Kicking off with a fabulous take on that trendy hold-the-pedal headphone-filling electronica, INVU’s title track is by no means an indicator that Taeyeon will be staying in one place, but it does form an effective combo with the long guitar notes of Some Nights and the more bitter acoustics of Can’t Control Myself. The latter’s thematic push carries right on through Set Myself on Fire, where the track flits in and out of harmonising with the vocals; then our first real vibe change arrives with Toddler, a mid-tempo groover that opens the gate for a return to some reliable speed-singing on the echo-built Siren.

Cold As Hell brings exasperated distortion to Taeyeon’s voice alongside dark tonal flashbacks to f(x)’s Dracula, before we bounce right back to the bright side with Timeless’ soaring pop-synth chorus and then, at last, Heart, INVU’s customary Taeyeon jazz-piano belter. That unfair vocal flex takes us into the final stretch, where No Love Again pushes up both the tempo and the hook notes. You Better Not packs in sheer catchiness on a euphoric early-2000s pop throwback that takes out the MVP award for me – that guitar switch on the final chorus rocks – then there’s time to indulge in 2021’s breezy single Weekend before a clean vocals-first opening verse gives way to an Ending Credits stadium sound wall and Kim Taeyeon’s opus is done.

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Honorable Mentions

–I Never Die – (G)I-DLE

An eight-track, no-fat presentation that only just qualifies as (G)I-DLE’s first full-length album, I Never Die infuses plenty of Soyeon-flavoured hip-hop onto flashy pop bones and the result is another tone-first winner.

–S:INEMA – SAAY

This truly is a whole lot of something if you enjoy funky licks, tasteful brass and loopy lounge sounds; SAAY does her considerable R&B reputation no harm on S:INEMA, using featuring acts sparingly and barely putting a foot wrong throughout a gargantuan double-decade tracklist that I only wish was a tad shorter.

–EGO 90S Pt 2 – Babylon

Arriving mere days before this list was published – and with a hastily-added cheeky Christmas label in the corner – the second of R&B veteran Bayblon’s massive double-LP 2022 project packs so many featuring artists it barely has time to show off his pipes, but it doesn’t really need to. The entire thing is so consistently relaxed it practically transports you to a rainy cafe in 1996.

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Returning for a third year, the K-Sides Collection is my best attempt at making a solid 20-track playlist out of the year’s greatest B-side songs – with a one-song-per-artist rule in place and a bonus track that blurs the song definition line (in this case K.vsh’s Hommage). You can listen to the 2022 edition on Apple Music here if that sounds like fun to you.

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