After a decade of counting down the year’s best K-pop songs at Billboard, 2022 brought refreshing and remarkable shifts in how these lists usually shape up.
Undeniably, this was the year of the girl group. More than half of 2022’s entries are from female troupes who now lead the scene in taste and trends. From established queens like Girls’ Generation and KARA celebrating milestone anniversaries to rising rookies including IVE, NewJeans, and LE SSERAFIM kicking in the industry door, the spectrum for excellence ran the gamut.
That’s not to say the boys weren’t bringing their best. In fact, cuts from BIGBANG, Zico, BTS, plus Ha Sung Woon and Jimin blew up big time without traditional music videos or typical promotional tactics. Even for those tracks riding on a viral trend, these were expressions of the artists that audiences won’t look back on as novelty tracks or cringey viral sensations best left as clips on TikTok.
Not to mention, K-pop has more eyes on it than ever worldwide, and it seemed like the artists delivered knowing the world was watching. Stray Kids and (G)I-DLE shared personal and powerful messages in their biggest singles yet, while BLACKPINK spotlighted how traditional Korean instruments fit inside their latest pop anthem.
2022 was the time for K-pop artists to express themselves vocally, thematically and artistically in ways previously seen, and it undoubtedly paid off in full. Read on to see who we think did it the best with Billboard‘s list of the 25 best K-pop songs of the year.
Jimin & Ha Sung Woon, “With You”
K-pop fans know that Jimin and Ha Sung Woon have been best friends for years, and 2022 saw the K-pop stars finally putting their friendship on record … a musical record, that is. The BTS singer and former Wanna One member came together to duet on this gorgeous, acoustic-led ballad for the official soundtrack for the Korean TV drama Our Blues, which is on Netflix in most countries. Not only is Jimin and Sung Woon’s song able to perfectly narrate the bittersweet romantic drama, but “With You” is a display of a full-fledged musical synergy. – JEFF BENJAMIN
Another year passes in the K-pop scene and fromis_9 proves they cannot, and will not, make a bad pop song. “DM” continues that tradition as another gem in their discography, but the group members step up their vocal game throughout the punchy chorus. (Listen for Song Hayoung’s whistle notes on the final chorus — they could make Mariah Carey smile.) Simply put, the girl group represents one of the most consistent and beautiful acts out there today. – J.B.
BTS, “Run BTS”
BTS‘ sixth No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, Proof, was a journey to celebrate the group’s musical history with new songs such as the Grammy-nominated single “Yet to Come,” plus “For Youth” and “Run BTS.” The latter track stands out as one that felt like a recall to the septet’s spritely hip-hop sound from their earliest records, but updated with wisdom they have as new-age pop icons as they look back on moments in their journey and promise to keep moving forward.
Even without a proper push as a single, “Run BTS” managed to be an instant standout. A choreography video from the guys, as well as a silly and much more accessible take on the intense dance by youngest member Jung Kook, spurred a viral dance that caught the attention of TikTok and multiple K-pop stars, all showing why it’s always worth exploring BTS’ music beyond the title tracks. – J.B.
Zico & Homies, “New Thing”
As one of many tracks soundtracking Korea’s popular dance-competition series Street Man Fighter, “New Thing” wasn’t necessarily crafted as a smash single. But its viral dance challenge (covered by members SEVENTEEN, ITZY, IVE and many more) took off on social media. It also spotlighted the ongoing excitement (and layered wordplay) circulating in the K-hip-hop scene with longtime hitmaker Zico and rap-trio-to-watch Homies representing. – J.B.
IVE, “After Like”
Since debuting at the tail end of 2021 with “Eleven,” Starship Entertainment’s IVE has quickly become one of the most promising new girl groups in K-pop. Its single “After Like” — which arrived in August — builds on the promise of their debut and follow-up “Love Dive” with a giddy pop confection that explores the commitment to taking a budding relationship past infatuation, all set to a thrilling, disco-ready interpolation of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” – GLENN ROWLEY
PSY & Suga, “That That”
Ahead of the April release of “That That,” PSY told Billboard that he saw his comeback single as means “to make a new start” and officially retire his “Gangnam Style” persona. As evidenced by a throwback-inspired PSY (dressed in his signature blue suit and sunglasses) bleeding on Suga in the accompanying music video, “That That” also represented a rebirth for the king of viral videos.
Not only did “That That” return PSY to the Hot 100 for the first time in seven years, but PSY got to display his impressive spitting skills and went bar-for-bar with the BTS rapper, who also produced the cut. PSY and Suga together marked the ultimate display of talent as well as fun. – J.B.
KARA, “When I Move”
From pioneers for K-pop’s success in Japan, to its members further opening the blinds on the harsh realities of idol life, KARA had already cemented its place in global-music history books even before the group’s brilliant 15th-anniversary comeback. Taking the troupe’s signature move of mixing modern-day production with vintage-dance beats, “When I Move” feels right in line with classic KARA singles such as “Step” or “Jumping,” but fresh enough to get listeners of any generation grooving. – J.B.
LE SSERAFIM, “ANTIFRAGILE”
As LE SSERAFIM’s first single after becoming a quintet, “ANTIFRAGILE” proves the budding girl group is anything but breakable. If anything, Sakura, Kim Chaewon, Huh Yunjin, Kazuha and Hong Eunchae shatter expectations with their sophomore release as they confidently declare “All I know is you can’t chain me/ ‘Cause I’m gonna break out” on the track’s irresistible bridge. – G.R.
Paul Blanco & BE’O, “Summer”
After getting a major co-sign by featuring on RM’s Indigo album, Paul Blanco is the rising name in Korean hip-hop and R&B that you need to know, with his single “Summer” full-on showcasing his massive potential. With an assist from BE’O, another one of Korea’s hottest rapper-singers, “Summer” emits a subtle tropical vibe thanks to the minimal production that sparkles with its specks of steel drum. Blanco and BE’O croon about summer flings (“The sun goes up, I’m sorry I forgot her name”) with a warm vocal and lyrical suave that rivals The Weeknd. – J.B.
TWICE, “Talk That Talk”
In the wake of their excellent 2021 album Formula of Love: O+T=<3, TWICE kept ONCE’s collective tongues wagging with “Talk That Talk,” the lead single to their August EP Between 1&2. With the song’s Y2K-themed video, fizzy production and explosive chorus, the girl group demonstrates yet again that no one does bubblegum pop quite like it does. – G.R.
There can be loads of pressure for a K-pop star making their solo debut away from their primary group, but Miyeon made it look easy. Delicately moving from heartfelt melancholy to a euphoric deliverance, “Drive” is the uplifting rock-pop anthem for reminding oneself to move ahead and never forget who they are. As the (G)I-DLE member encourages listeners through the blissful hook, “Run higher/ Fly, fly, fly higher/ I find myself.” – J.B.
Jin, “The Astronaut”
BTS members rolling out solo music has given fans the opportunity to witness each person’s growth outside of the septet, and with “The Astronaut,” Jin earned his first standalone entry on the Hot 100. Reteaming with four members of Coldplay as a co-writer, Jin soars into a celestial orbit with this gorgeous romantic anthem that sounds like a distant cousin of BTS and Coldplay’s No. 1 “My Universe” — except this relative is more turned on by 2010s indie faves such as Passion Pit and MGMT than Top 40 radio. – JOE LYNCH
Girls’ Generation, “Forever 1”
Undisputed icons of K-pop, Girls’ Generation had the near-impossible task of following up a decade of generation-defining hits for its 15th anniversary this August. Even with a five-year break from its last release, GG managed to craft another sparkling smash with “Forever 1.” The surging house-pop production fits perfectly into today’s musical landscape and with the members’ matured vocals. But perhaps most importantly, the statement of Girls’ Generation saying they are “Forever 1” is a testament that K-pop groups can beat the odds and come back together even after the members have moved on to separate labels and management. – J.B.
After the scorching “HOT” led off the group’s 2022 album Face the Sun, SEVENTEEN repackaged the project as Sector 17 and gave CARATs “_World,” a glowing invitation into the boy band’s rarefied orbit. “Come, come into my world,” Vernon beckons before Dino promises, “Won’t let you down, won’t let you down.” There’s no doubt the 13 members follow through on that promise with the track’s breezy sonics and romantic lyricism. – G.R.
Billlie, “GingaMingaYo (the strange world)”
With what became a bit of a breakout single for the girl group, Billlie established itself as K-pop’s next great experimental act. “GingaMingaYo (the strange world)” is indeed strange … but also fully accessible to pop listeners, making for the best kind of K-pop that’s as boundary-pushing as it is addictive. – J.B.
Hwa Sa & Loco, “Somebody!”
Only four years ago, Hwa Sa and Loco craft one of the year’s biggest (and most critically acclaimed) K-R&B hits with their jazzy “Don’t” duet. The duo reunited for two new songs this summer. Single “Somebody!” delivered dreamlike production, breezy-catchy raps from Loco, and echoing vocals from Hwa Sa that all sounded brilliantly tailored for sunny weather. – J.B.
Jay Park & IU, “Ganadara”
Jay Park has become as known for his business acumen as he is for crafting infectious hip-hop and R&B singles. After stepping down as CEO of both his AOMG and H1gher Music labels late in 2021 the Korean-American rapper re-emerged with his new More Vision label that points to the musician-mogul embracing more of a satisfyingly straightforward pop and R&B sound. Enlisting K-pop’s superstar diva IU for a verse, the soothing “Ganadara” conveys how chemistry and feelings speak louder than knowing the same language or having a perfect vocabulary. Many global K-pop listeners whose first language isn’t Korean may also connect with that sentiment. – J.B.
In the seven years since Taeyeon made her solo debut in the K-pop industry, fans have never been able to expect what direction the powerhouse vocalist will go in next. For the title track of her third full-length album, the Girls’ Generation leader went in a full-fledged powerhouse-pop route that felt like her proper comfort zone. Opening with dark and daunting bell chimes, “INVU” (shorthand for “I envy you”) has Taeyeon riffing and roaring through her jealousy throughout brilliant production that layers her vocals alongside a soaring whistle hook. – J.B.
WINNER, “I LOVE U”
With a two-year gap between WINNER’s singles, “I LOVE U” isn’t just the euphoric pop comeback song listeners wanted from the long-beloved boy band — it’s also one of the year’s most impressive vocal performances. WINNER leader Kang Seung Yoon leads the soaring chorus with his insane falsetto before he upstages himself when the final chorus shifts into an even higher key. The track’s live vocal performance is a feat unlike anything else in K-pop this year. – J.B.
When NewJeans stepped into public’s consciousness in July with its first single “Attention,” it felt like a major shift was taking place within the K-pop industry. Instead of the glossy and highly stylized debuts — a hallmark of the genre — members Minji, Hanni, Danielle, Haerin and Hyein were a breath of fresh air, trading the sizzling pop banger formula for something more youthful, refreshing and chill.
The laid-back track harkens to the pop R&B of yesteryear while maintaining a foot in the present, combining the best and most nostalgic parts of old with the new and serving as a formal introduction to the group — one that wouldn’t take too long for fans of the genre to catch on to, especially by the time the group’s next smash, “Hype Boy,” arrived just days later. – STARR BOWENBANK
Stray Kids, “Maniac”
Oddinary was Stray Kids’ first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with a message for listeners to consider the things they see as “odd” as actually “ordinary,” and normalize flying your freak flag. The album’s lead single, “Maniac,” fully encapsulates the theme as the Kids speak to people hiding their true selves “like a sealed tornado” or a “dormant volcano.” But just like these natural phenomenona inevitably come about, one’s true self needs to be shared — lest you end up feeling like a “Maniac.”
It’s a particularly timely message in today’s age of social-media filters and clout-induced oversharing across the internet. Still, SKZ use metaphors and encouraging messages to show why it’s healthy to express yourself — and they do it with one of their craziest beats yet. – J.B.
BLACKPINK, “Pink Venom”
BLACKPINK kicked off its sophomore album Born Pink with a taste of “Pink Venom,” announcing the group’s wildly anticipated comeback with the chant of its name over the twang of a traditional Korean geomungo. From there, the foursome sent the song rocketing straight to our collective domes with lyrical shout-outs to Rihanna’s “Pon de Replay” and “Kick in the Door” by the Notorious B.I.G. By the time Rosé declares, “Come and give me all the smoke/ It’s this or that/ Like I’m so rock n’ roll,” BLACKPINK has made it clear that the group has indeed reached a whole new level of rock-star status. – G.R.
BIGBANG, “Still Life”
BIGBANG made its eagerly anticipated comeback with “Still Life” — the group’s first new song in four years — and it didn’t disappoint. With the quartet’s signature blend of deeply emotive, nostalgic lyrics, rhythmic rapping and soulful vocal harmonies, the members ruminate about the past (both glories and mistakes), while coming to terms with their stagnant present and a hopeful (but uncertain) future over the simple, piano-led production.
Without any official promotions, performances, or interviews, the R&B ballad became one of 2022’s most successful chart hits in Korea, while hitting the top 10 of the Billboard Global 200 and becoming BIGBANG’s fifth chart-topper on World Digital Song Sales.
From the layered meanings to its atypical promotional strategy, “Still Life” is a song that managed to connect with listeners worldwide and will likely stand as one of BIGBANG’s most notable singles after 15 years in the industry. – JESSICA OAK
IVE, “Love Dive”
IVE first drummed up interest upon the group’s arrival with the sextet’s 2021 debut, but it wasn’t until “Love Dive” that the K-pop group — which consists of members Yujin, Gaeul, Rei, Wonyoung, Liz and Leeseo — would strike major gold. The song’s mysterious structure and simmering, downtempo verses help build the listener’s attention and anticipation for the chorus, an explosive moment that doesn’t occur until almost a full minute into the track, but cemented their status as monster rookies within the genre. – S.B.
To say a lot was riding on the success of “Tomboy” would be putting it lightly. After a rocky 2021, when the girl group spent most of its time working individually and out of the K-pop spotlight, (G)I-DLE returned in March with “Tomboy” as the representative single for its first full-length album I Never Die. While (G)I-DLE had crafted multiple chart-topping hits for the four years of their careers, the expletive-laced, punk sound of “Tomboy” was more aggressive and grittier than anything fans had seen from the outfit to date. Yet the track fully connected with audiences worldwide, largely thanks to (G)I-DLE leader Jeon Soyeon’s lyrics and unwavering hand in the production.
The girl group has always said it wants to represent something unique, not just among girl groups, but in the larger music industry. Instead of coming back with something safe or easy-listening, (G)I-DLE moved ahead with a track that spoke to its core message of presenting the group’s true selves: “Do you want a blonde Barbie doll?/ It’s not here, I’m not a doll,” Soyeon purrs in the first verse, ahead of the entire group singing on the outro: “It’s neither man nor woman/ Just me!”
While “Tomboy” could have earned the title of top K-pop song of the year for spearheading the wave of punk-rock releases heard in the scene, or for helping (G)I-DLE break into new Billboard charts, it gets top marks for showing that an artist trusting their voice and vision is what leads to pop brilliance. Soyeon, Miyeon, Minnie, Yuqi and Shuhua could have shied away, but instead pushed themselves for their most audacious message. That honesty clicked with listeners and created a story and connection far beyond a simple hit single. – J.B.