The 16 best K-pop songs of 2022 (so far)
As K-pop continues to expand its reach around the globe, its acts are producing more music than ever. (BLACKPINK, we are waiting patiently.) From electric guitars and '80s synths to trap bangers and R&B crooning, there's something for everyone in this year's K-pop releases — and 2022 isn't even over yet.
But that's the joy of K-pop: Whether you're a casual listener or a multi with 12 biases, you'll never be bored. There will always be new music to listen to. And this year, K-pop acts experimented with trends (the pop-punk revival is alive and well in K-pop) and leaped out of their comfort zones, while fourth-gen groups asserted their dominance on the charts and industry titans BTS gave us a sentimental "see you later." With so much going on, it can be hard to know where to start. Never fear — we've got you covered.
In no particular order, here are some of the best K-pop songs of the year so far. And because sometimes you have to listen to more than just the single to get to the truly transcendent stuff, this list contains both singles and B-sides.
1. "Charmer," Stray Kids
Though "MANIAC" was the lead single on Stray Kids' chart-topping March EP ODDINARY, B-side "Charmer" thoroughly enchanted fans with its self-assured lyrics and hypnotic pungi refrain. Evoking the sound of wind instruments popularly associated with snake charming, it's an alluring song that uses a repeated falling scale and come hither whistle to effectively lead listeners down into a Stray Kids obsession.
"Charmer" is a creative, enticing new sound from a group that is constantly exploring and playing with audio, while still remaining unmistakably Stray Kids. This song is a fan favorite for good reason, and charming enough to beguile listeners into hitting replay.
A special shout-out also goes to Stray Kids' "Muddy Water," which is an excellent '90s hip-hop track that deserved more attention than it got. —Amanda Yeo
2. "Dirt on my leather," WOODZ
I'm a little tired of writing only nice things about WOODZ, but it's the only kind of praise his work merits. The guy never misses. COLORFUL TRAUMA, his fourth EP in two years, is as brilliant as the three that preceded it. He taps into the rock and pop-punk resurgence we've seen growing in the industry with '80s hair metal flourishes but avoids sounding cheesy or contrived by completely committing to the bit.
On "Dirt on my leather" he wails "I'm ready to die!" over talkative rock guitars and drums with such convincing fervor that I actually believe him. When he asks "Why you gonna be so sad? Rub some dirt on it," I’m wiping away my tears and searching for the nearest patch of earth. —Elizabeth de Luna
3. "Thursday’s Child Has Far To Go," TOMORROW X TOGETHER
The easiest way to describe "Thursday's Child Has Far To Go" is that it sounds like freedom. Maybe it's the sparkling '80s synths or the upbeat melody, but it’s the kind of song that pushes you forward. It makes me want to drive somewhere, anywhere, windows down and stereo blaring. (I don’t have a driver's license, so Lyft driver, please pass me the aux cord.) A unit song from Beomgyu, Taehyun, and Soobin on TOMORROW X TOGETHER's most recent EP, Thursday's Child, the addictive track is a burst of bright energy on an album full of emo breakup songs.
As such, "Thursday’s Child Has Far To Go" — co-produced by Beomgyu and featuring lyrics and toplining from Taehyun — reminds us that life goes on after heartbreak. "I'm looking forward to the wonderful days," sings Soobin. Aren't we all? —Crystal Bell
4. "BUT YOU," iKON
"BUT YOU" is the kind of song that reminds me why I love pop music, and its hold on me is visceral. I heard it for the first time while painting a wall in my apartment and froze — mid brushstroke, mouth agape — as its nostalgic synths and crisp drums gave way to the delicate softness of DK's opening line: "I'm in love again." Despite that hopeful start, and the song's upbeat melody, "BUT YOU" is actually a melancholy lament over unrequited love. Like many of the best pop songs, it’s essentially about crying in the club.
iKON are a relative anomaly in Korean pop: an immensely popular 3rd generation hip-hop-influenced idol group still consistently making music that feels fun and fresh. The band has had to grow up hard and fast over the last three years: Leader and composer BI left the group in 2019 as a result of a national scandal. And rapper Bobby announced last year that he would be both married and a father in a matter of months, two life changes that are nearly unheard of in the notoriously rigid K-pop industry. After all that, it's immensely satisfying to see iKON back in the spotlight with a nearly perfect pop track worthy of their immense talent and versatility. —EDL
5. "Thank You," Brave Girls
Of all the songs on this list, Brave Girls' "Thank You" has one of the best stories behind it. The four-member girl group was catapulted to fame in 2021 when a video compilation of them performing their 2017 song "Rollin'" went viral. Now they've issued a love letter to their fans in the form of funky retro disco bop "Thank You," expressing gratitude for their support as well as joy at finally achieving success after years of work. It's a delightfully happy song, and arguably even catchier than "Rollin'."
"I never thought it would happen," read the lyrics' English translation. "So many days I cried in secret. I don't know if I'd be here without you." —AY
6. "Ash," SEVENTEEN
"Ash" makes me want to burn down everything in sight, then play in the smoldering ruins like a sandbox.
While the lyrics of its pre-chorus — "the handful that's left from everything burning, ash. Let's build a new ark and go out into the world" — might inspire visions of reinvention or a fresh start, SEVENTEEN is really just here to hype themselves up. "Do or die, I'm a player," they brag. "I'm confident in this game, tens of thousands of chances. I'm just making choices." The metallic ring of their voices, warped by Auto-Tune and filters, tinge them with an addictive, otherworldly quality. It's an unusual but welcome choice for SEVENTEEN, who rarely dabble in this level of vocal manipulation. —EDL
7. "Blue Flame," LE SSERAFIM
Newcomers LE SSERAFIM (an anagram for "I'm fearless") came out swinging on their debut single "FEARLESS," in which they not-so-humbly asserted themselves as K-pop's newest queens of confidence. The plucky song prioritizes mood over melody, but B-side track "Blue Flame" proves that LE SSERAFIM are more than one note. Colorful vocal riffs and a groovy bassline make "Blue Flame" an easy listen — an intoxicating summer bop, if you will — and its charm has already captivated TikTok, where my FYP has been inundated with countless fan-made edits, fan cams, and videos of people dancing along to the song's catchy choreography.
Surprisingly, this is the first of two entries on this list to include the lyric "will-o' the-wisp." Only a few months into their careers and LE SSERAFIM are already trendsetters! —CB
8. "LOVE DIVE," IVE
IVE debuted in December with earworm hit "ELEVEN," sweetly confessing their excitement over a crush that "makes me dream a long dream" and "dance to the point where I’m dizzy." On "LOVE DIVE," they've willfully plunged into the intoxicating depths of feeling wanted. "Narcissistic, my god, I love it" they sing with pouty insolence while performing point choreography in which they pretend to check their appearance in a compact mirror. Even if you're not impressed by that particularly inspired bit of genius, "LOVE DIVE's" hypnotic production — its sleepy "oohs," playful "la la las," and a whispered bridge — should be intriguing enough to put you under IVE's spell. —EDL
9. "Burning Up" (featuring R3HAB), MONSTA X
My main question about "Burning Up" is: Why wasn't this slick tune SHAPE of LOVE's title track?
MONSTA X's song about fiery attraction is just straight-up satisfying to listen to, an addictive beat excellently executed and served with polish. It isn't necessarily unconventional or surprising, which may be one reason why "LOVE" was chosen as MONSTA X's lead single instead. But "Burning Up" neither aims to nor needs to push boundaries. This jam knows what it is and is confident in expertly delivering a crowd-pleasing yet memorable rhythm, like a delicious chocolate cake from a hatted patisserie. "Burning Up" is unbothered, in its lane, focused, and flourishing. —AY
10. "Blessed-Cursed," ENHYPEN
When ENHYPEN debuted in 2020 with a vampiric concept, I expected Twilight-level drama. Instead, they've leveraged eternal life to explore the sound and styles of other eras in a clever twist on time travel.
On "Blessed-Cursed," we find the band at the turn of the century, celebrating the new millennium with Y2K style. 2021's Dimension: Dilemma album saw the group experimenting with rock and pop punk elements on "Blockbuster" and "Attention, please!" that are also successfully incorporated here. "Blessed-Cursed" delivers what past releases could not; it finally makes use of Niki's outsized dance talent and Jay's charming brashness (he is a Taurus, after all) to create unique points of sonic and visual interest. The production has also mellowed compared to past singles, adding fewer effects to the members' voices so that their distinct colors are no longer flattened into uniformity.
"Blessed-Cursed" is not a perfect song — that would require a bridge, which is notably absent — but it does feel like a thrilling peek into what ENHYPEN is capable of. —EDL
11. "Illusion," aespa
No group is currently making pop music as potent as aespa. The fabulous foursome had a record-setting 2021, thanks to the seismic success of their single "Next Level," and now they’re poised to continue their meteoric rise with their summer EP Girls, set for release on July 8. The album has already achieved one million stock pre-orders, making them the second Korean girl group after BLACKPINK to reach the milestone.
To mark the start of their new era, aespa dropped "Illusion," an electronic pre-release track that builds on the group’s synth-pop calling and affinity for sticky, hypnotic hooks. To fully grasp the lyrics ("you’re so yummy yummy yummy / In my tummy tummy tummy" is how Winter opens the track) you will have to have some understanding of aespa’s sci-fi lore, or you could just vibe and let the girls lull you into submission. "Follow me, come and get illusion," they sing. And who am I to not be entranced? —CB
12. "Yet To Come," BTS
The Bangtan Boys have become an international phenomenon, tearing up music charts around the world and making the name BTS almost synonymous with K-pop. In their sentimental single "Yet to Come," released just this month, the group reflects on the burden that stratospheric popularity can be, while reaffirming their love of music and determination to continue moving forward.
It's a final word to commentators, a promise to fans, and a very fitting tone. There is a non-zero possibility that this will be BTS' last big release for a while, as the looming issue of South Korea's mandatory military service may put a pause on their group activities in the near future. The members themselves recently announced a break to work on solo endeavors and personal growth.
"Yet to Come" is the wise, humbly victorious final song at the end of a film, in which its heroes acknowledge how much they've learned on their journey as they look hopefully toward the future. —AY
13. "CHIQUITA," Rocket Punch
I'm a sucker for some good '80s electronica, and Rocket Punch's "CHIQUITA" delivers in spades. This synthtastic song hurls listeners straight into the retro vibes from the very beginning, delivering a bop that wouldn't be out of place in an '80s movie montage.
The chorus's melodic three-chord synth riff was already enough to win "CHIQUITA" a spot on my K-pop playlist. But Rocket Punch's bright, neon-soaked groove keeps the mood going from verse to chorus to electronica bridge, not letting go of the theme for a moment. It makes me want to crimp my hair, throw on a denim jacket, and rollerblade to an arcade. —AY
14. "YOUNG LUV," STAYC
Youth is the essence of K-pop. I’m not solely talking about age, but rather the feeling of being young. Young and in love. Young and dumb. Young and reckless. Young and afraid. Young and frustrated. Enter STAYC’s "YOUNG LUV," a kaleidoscopic song that seamlessly captures all of those emotions and more. A B-side track off the rookie girl group’s EP YOUNG-LUV.COM, the song draws inspiration from early 2000s pop-rock hits from the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Avril Lavigne.
On "YOUNG LUV," the girls belt out their stadium-sized feelings over an electric guitar line that sounds more wistful than wild. STAYC's "teen fresh" image has captivated audiences globally since their 2020 debut, and "YOUNG LUV" doubles down on their youthfulness without ignoring the messier parts of coming of age. —CB
15. "To My First," NCT Dream
As a general rule, you don’t sleep on NCT Dream’s B-sides. Case in point: "To My First." (Not to be confused with "My First And Last" or "Bye My First…") If you are missing the lovesick R&B crooning of early 2000s boy bands, then "To My First" is here to wrap you in a cozy weighted blanket. A fantastic showcase for vocal trio Haechan, Renjun, and Chenle, the song packs an emotional wallop as the seven members of NCT Dream sing of a first love that's run its course.
Perhaps in another decade, this boy band would have lamented their former flame in the pouring rain, masking their tears, but these Gen Z kids have it all figured out. "You know, sometimes in life," Mark drawls with the confidence only a 22-year-old international superstar can muster, "things just ain't meant to be." That may be true when it comes to love. But NCT Dream has always been destined for greatness. —CB
16. "Nonstop," RoaD-B
"Nonstop" is already a vibe from the outset, but it's about 45 seconds in that you realize RoaD-B's track is fairly unique in K-pop. This track subverts expectations in a delightfully unexpected way that I'll never get sick of, and I need more people to know about it.
While "Nonstop" doesn't necessarily have an obvious, standout hook that will immediately catch in your brain, it's a clever, creative tune that's great while you're listening to it and leaves you craving more. In that regard, it's a bit like the K-pop equivalent of fairy floss — and who doesn't love fairy floss? Formerly known as BXK, RoaD-B is a relatively unknown group in comparison to some other names on this list. Fingers crossed they keep exploring this sound and building in this direction because there's definite potential. —AY