The 100 Best Albums of 2022, Part 4
A ranking and review of the best Korean, Japanese, and Chinese albums released this year!
#25: SUPER★DRAGON, Force to Forth
From the next-level rapping on “2U” to the rock anthem “Shut Up, Shout Out,” SUPER★DRAGON know how to keep listeners’ energy at a fever pitch. Granted, there is also a ballad, “-Tweedia-,” but overall, Force to Forth is a bold force to be reckoned with, and each song distinguishes itself with a unique combination of tempos, instruments, and vocals. EDM, rock, and pop fans alike will find something to love about this album.
#24: NCT DREAM, Glitch Mode
NCT DREAM continue NCT’s tradition of daring to pair sounds and styles together in ways that shouldn’t work but manage to anyway. Each song is sonically chaotic in the best way! Sounds that might be just plain annoying on their own, like sirens, are given a melodic makeover when paired with sing-along-ready chanting, for example. It is hard to be annoyed by a noise when that focal point is replaced by a fun, engaging one… The near-overload of sounds sweeps listeners up in a contagious, celebratory mood… Glitch Mode’s party-ready soundscape has its moments of relative calm… However, a high-energy follow-up is never far behind. Read more here!
On the repackaged album, Beatbox:
“Beatbox” brightens up this new and improved version of NCT DREAM’s latest album, Glitch Mode, but the other new tracks serve to increase the release’s emotional substance. “To My First” reflects on a past love, “On the way” is a consoling song about putting all worries aside, and “Sorry, Heart” tells a story of pain and regret. The combination of these new electronic/R&B tracks and the new music video make for a worthwhile Glitch Mode repackage. Read more here!
#23: MONSTA X, SHAPE of LOVE
“LOVE”... blends the sounds of several MONSTA X eras into a new concoction that feels both true-to-them and new-to-them, comfortingly familiar yet not derivative… a testament to the coexisting stability and range in their musical identity. MONSTA X are adept at repurposing elements from previous eras. A particularly touching example of a throwback: Joohoney says “Life is flow” in “Love You,” just like he does on the song “FLOW,” a confidence-building song about learning to roll with the punches. MONSTA X indirectly let fans feel a sense of closeness while listening to their new material by recalling past songs that have left fans touched. SHAPE of LOVE sounds like a MONSTA X album through and through, a recollection as well as a new chapter. Put simply, these songs are meant for MONSTA X. From Joohoney’s charismatic raps to I.M and Joohoney’s dynamic back-and-forths to Kihyun’s outstanding vocals, SHAPE of LOVE fits the members like a glove. Read more here!
#22: WAGAMAMA RAKIA, ONYX
This cohesive collection of genre-hybrid songs is simply excellent and leaves listeners craving more. Each track subverts expectations in fresh ways - a flute trilling here, an ominous whisper there - to make each song sound irreplicable. The members fuse electronic and grunge sounds, excellently structure their songs to leave the maximum impact on listeners, and volley between rapid-fire rapping and drawn-out, anthemic emo performances. WAGAMAMA RAKIA are a cross between electro-pop/rock stunners like Reol and PassCode and punk icons like Avril Lavigne. Yet they are also refreshing in their authentic spin on various rock-adjacent genres, and ONYX is headbanger after headbanger.
#21: Araki, Idea
Idea involves foot-tapping and head-banging in equal measures! This rock album has plenty of EDM moments too, like on the rapid “Gold Tokio” and the quirky chaos that is “Kyushi Issho.” Some songs take the unique, unapologetic spectacle to even higher heights, like “A New Voice,” which has some odd sound effects and a cartoonish feel. Those who prefer Araki’s more punk side will enthuse over disc two, which includes “0 Game” and “Until the End.” There are a few more measured moments throughout Idea, when the tempo becomes more consistent and less frenzied, but these moments are exceptions to the wildly-entertaining norm!
#20: BTS, Proof
“Yet To Come” perfectly matches BTS’s current message. They are just as nervous and uncertain about the future as everyone else, and they try to see the hope and possibilities in that uncertainty. They close a chapter of their lives with the same nostalgia and conflicted feelings as the audience who has grown up with them. It is always bittersweet to turn the page, but it must be done to see what unpredictable joys await in the rest of the book!... BTS’s anthology album and new music video for “Yet To Come (The Most Beautiful Moment)” are the epitome of what led to a BTS fandom in the first place: the group’s relentless honesty, refusal to put on a facade, mix of pragmatism and optimism, and desire to cherish past memories only to the extent that it does not interfere with the necessary journey onwards. Read more here!
#19: (G)I-DLE, I love
In I NEVER DIE, (G)I-DLE discover who they really are, and in I love, they continue to do so but with the added variable of scrutinizing the society that made that self-discovery so difficult in the first place. They now express resentment towards the culture that required them to struggle on the road to self-love. If I NEVER DIE is about becoming a heroine, I love is about condemning those who kept them self-identifying as villains first. I NEVER DIE focuses on making peace with their own roles in their fates, while I love critiques the roles others play in them. To put it one more way, I love expands on the lessons learned in I NEVER DIE to challenge society-wide viewpoints instead of just self-talk.
Overall, I love is an impressive body of work that compounds (G)I-DLE’s three-dimensionality, adding depth and nuance to their tales of self-love and social pressures. It is both an indictment of society and a pledge to stay true to themselves within a stereotype-driven world, no matter how difficult that task remains. Read more here!
#18: BLACKPINK, BORN PINK
Although BORN PINK consists of just eight tracks, BLACKPINK make the most of every second of each one. They cover a wider sonic and thematic range than ever. Lyrically, BORN PINK covers many shades of a romance, from flaunting wealth to seduce a lover (“Typa Girl”), to sweet, young love (“Yeah Yeah Yeah”), to sitting with conflicted feelings surrounding love (“The Happiest Girl”). Sonically, BLACKPINK explore retro, rock, hip-hop, pop, and even classical influences. The standout tracks are “Tally,” a rock-inspired song that gives each member time in the spotlight, “Pink Venom,” a fierce and versatile embodiment of who they are, and “Shut Down,” which seems to interpolate the work of violinist Niccolò Paganini. (Interesting context: someone who sought to emulate Paganini was Franz Liszt, the pianist who became the inspiration for the term “Liztomania,” used to describe the first “fan base”!) Read more here!
#17: Dreamcatcher, [Apocalypse : Save us]
There are three main categories into which the songs on [Apocalypse : Save us] fall: there are beautiful ballads (like “For” and “Winter”), there are pop-punk headbangers (like “Beauty Full” and “MAISON”), and there are synth-heavy pop songs (like “Cherry (Real Miracle)” and “Playground”). Tying this variety pack together are Dreamcatcher’s trademarks: an instrumental introduction (“Intro : Save us”) and an equally atmospheric interlude (“Skit : The seven doors”). [Apocalypse : Save us] surpasses Dreamcatcher’s high bar for compelling and one-of-a-kind storytelling, and it changes things up without taking any piece of Dreamcatcher’s core identity out of the picture. Read more here!
#16: KEY, Gasoline
Gasoline is partially a G-rated spooky movie soundtrack and partially a retro, synth-heavy party playlist! Tracks like “Villain” are begging to be turned into theme songs, and tracks like “Another Life” demand hitting the dance floor. The overall aesthetic KEY is focused on for this comeback is given the perfect musical accompaniment through Gasoline; he is right at home in a musical world of retrofuturism. While there is nothing wrong with KEY’s debut solo album, FACE, it pales in comparison to the musical identity in which KEY now comfortably resides. Gasoline is exciting not just for its mood-boosting and bold sounds, but for its proof of KEY’s growth as an artist and its reminder that he’s just getting started! Read more here!
#15: Lexie Liu, The Happy Star
The Happy Star is full of atmospheric songs that are at times playful and at times full of attitude. The album maintains a rich soundscape while exploring endless twists and turns, moving from grunge influences on one track to intoxicating dance-pop on the next. The music seems to move Lexie Liu as if it is a force all its own, causing her to unthinkingly switch languages and tones at a moment’s notice. She sings as if compelled to feel the music and just sound however feels right in the moment, not worrying about how the results might lack cohesion. An autotuned, high-pitched voice here, a lyrical lull there… each song unfolds as if improvised. The songs sail through all potential derailments on top of loop-worthy instrumentals. The Happy Star is a seemingly-effortless, multilingual, and surprise-filled release that breezes through one entrancing pop song after another.
#14: Stray Kids, MAXIDENT
MAXIDENT is Stray Kids’ strangest album yet, which is a massive compliment! The raps are tighter than ever, the merging of percussion with guitar sounds and EDM beats is more impressive than ever, and their use of ad-libs is as abundant as ever. Each song is a bustling mix of quotable lines and catchy instrumental layers… A comeback concept as cliche as crushing on someone is taken in unexpected and quirky directions, thanks to Stray Kids’ dependable originality. Read more here!
#13: Xdinary Heroes, Overload
Overload does a fantastic job experimenting with and combining pop and rock elements in new and catchy ways. They solidify a singular style that involves spooky flair, a mix of background noises, and surprising structural changes that make each song stand out for a different reason. They further hone their distinct aesthetic with the animation-meets-stop-motion feel of their album’s highlight medley and the “Hair Cut” music video looks, which make it obvious they are marching to the beat of their own drum. Xdinary Heroes are eccentric rock stars with a delightful, good-spirited spookiness in their works’ visual components! Overload sharpens this group identity flawlessly, and it saves the best for last with the party-ready and expectation-subverting “X-MAS.”
#12: (G)I-DLE, I NEVER DIE
With I NEVER DIE, (G)I-DLE step into their own in every way. They solidify their unique image, both sonically and lyrically, and they continuously remind audiences they remain in full control of that image. Their story is just getting started, and they outright reject the attempts of others to write their ending for them. Naming their album I NEVER DIE does not just symbolize how they will not conform to anyone else’s ideals, but also how that will never be the case. Now that (G)I-DLE sing and rap about thriving with their newfound boldness and unabashed authenticity, they revel in the feeling of freedom too much to ever go back. I NEVER DIE is a reminder not to mess with (G)I-DLE and a bold declaration that their impact on K-pop has the potential to become eternal. Read more here!
#11: SUHO, Grey Suit
True art does much more than just provide entertainment. True art speaks to people. It prompts inspiration, clarity, motivation, and/or comfort. Art takes complicated concepts and distills them into interpretable, personalized concepts. Art opens up new worlds of inquiry and understanding, when done right. SUHO excels at this with Grey Suit, which is much more than the sum of its parts. Grey Suit fulfills the definition of true art, by taking concepts as well-known yet complex as time and love and describing them through a comprehensible mixture of visual and auditory narrative devices. Additionally, Grey Suit is a release worth being grateful for due to it taking inspiration from the novel Momo, an eye-opening rumination on the same themes as SUHO’s album… Grey Suit is excellent not just for its substance, but also for its source material. The depth of this comeback is profound and a testament to the joys of reading into the deeper meanings of human emotions. Read more here!
#10: Epik High, Epik High Is Here 下, Pt. 2
Epik High Is Here 下, Pt. 2 serves as both a fitting continuation of Pt. 1 and the perfect tribute to the group’s prolific career. The group revisits some themes and symbols, but they do so in new and engaging ways. Testaments to their lyricism range from tongue-in-cheek quips… to deep, thought-provoking comments on the state of the world… Punny lines… appear roughly as often as words of heavy contemplation... Each song covers a topic with the emotional complexities it warrants. They make incisive questions fit well with humorous answers and vice versa, and this dynamism will surely keep propelling Epik High’s career for years to come. Read more here!
#9: Stray Kids, ODDINARY
ODDINARY spreads several messages, often within the same song. On one hand, Stray Kids boast about ignoring preconceived notions and truly embracing their originality. They refuse to put on an act and encourage listeners to join them in committing to be who they truly are, regardless of what anybody else thinks. On the other hand, their lyrics acknowledge the broader societal forces that make this goal easier said than done. This allows them to both empower individuals and be critical of the broader norms and prejudices that squash individuality. They critique a status quo that defines individuals by cut-and-dry labels and assumptions and recognize the enormity of trying to overcome these. Yet they maintain an endless optimism, a firm belief in the possibility of proving naysayers wrong.
Overall, Stray Kids continue to use their music as a vehicle for lighting a spark inside listeners. Their music fuels the desire to break out of one’s shell and be unapologetically original. A few factors allow this message to resonate: the unconventional and hands-on approach Stray Kids take to making their music, which proves they practice what they preach, and their realistic perceptions. Their encouragement does not ring hollow because it is rooted in a genuine understanding of what listeners need to hear. Listeners are not receptive to just “You can do it!” messages; elaboration is needed to truly resonate. Stray Kids’ ultimate message: “You can do it, but we know it’ll be a challenge, and we promise to keep striving towards success if you do too. We can get through tough times together, despite the odds stacked against us.” Read more here!
#8: SAAY, S:INEMA
S:INEMA, as intended, plays like one long movie. Although it is lengthy, it doesn’t overextend its welcome, and one of its strengths lies in the myriad of visualizations one conjures up while listening to it. It is a sonic adventure that can create different mental pictures for every listener and, similar to a good movie, prompt the audience to pick up on details they had not noticed before with every replay. The album begins with an array of sounds, including an old newsreel, an approaching storm, and a rocket launch countdown. Dramatic strings and piano lead into “Interstellar,” which sounds distant, as if it is being performed in the room next door to the listener. A muffled commotion remains in the background as SAAY sings over a deep bass and jazzy piano. “Interstellar” ends with the “Talk 2 Me Nice” intro, and that song quickly proves it deserves its status as a single. A stranger’s quiet voice repeats SAAY’s lines, as she entrances a loved one with sultry whispering. After a few more songs spent in this sonic realm, part two kicks off with “INTERLUDE : world gone crazy.” Collaborations and hip-hop beats abound, and SAAY takes on a new demeanor that is more forthright and full of attitude. The program goes through another interlude in “life is a beauty,” when the sound of crackling static hints at more surprising twists to come. The “movie” goes on to tell a romantic story, and “Summer In Love” sets up that scene with a phone call between lovers. The album ends with the sound of a tape being stopped, footsteps walking down a hallway, and a door shutting. It is a challenging feat to evoke cinematic scenes in listeners’ minds with sound alone, but SAAY manages to do so, thanks to her narrative skill and vocal prowess.
#7: j-hope, Jack In The Box
j-hope presents a new side of himself in a way that feels and is organic. He picks up where his previous songs left off thematically, and his new sonic direction helps bridge the past and future of his musical journey. The album starts with the story of Pandora’s Box, a narration that pays extra attention to the story’s ending: at the bottom of the box of horrors lies hope. “Hope gave people the will to carry on living amidst the pain and strife,” the narrator says. The following songs are a conversation of sorts with himself, as j-hope contemplates where to find this hope in the bottom of the box, and if he is responsible for finding it. After all, if he considers himself to be the hope, who will be his hope? And what will it take to find his own hope, separated from all the darkness under which it is buried? Ironically, discovering hope requires mining through all sorts of dark emotions and memories, a journey on which “Jack” goes through in Jack In The Box. Jack finds diamonds in the rough throughout his journey: the realization that distinction can exist without discrimination… the possibility of finding a quiet place to contemplate where he is headed… the voices of the future… The grit his mission requires matches the grittiness of his new songs. By the time the album nears its conclusion, it becomes clear how unclear j-hope’s situation is! His quest to find Hope separate from Jack seems to have only reiterated how inseparable they are. Read more here!
#6: BAND-MAID, Unleash
Unleash takes audiences through the depths of one main train of thought as it evolves, allowing listeners to mull over the complexities inherent within human emotions. After singing about a ferocious love and keeping a lover under one’s spell with ease on “Balance,” they sing a similarly confident message in “Unleash!!!!!,” about the need to take risks and bet on oneself. “Sense” puts toxic positivity in check, sending a reminder that simply believing one can do hard things is not enough. “Sense” encourages people to keep trying outside of the box, if one is unsuccessful in the conventional ways. The lyrics in “Sense” acknowledge that the “right way” to do something is not universal.
BAND-MAID seem to give up and feel a sense of hopelessness grip them on the next few songs; they sing about succumbing to a bleak fate instead of facing problems head-on. They decide to pull themselves out of this dark mental place by posting their way through it. “Influencer” is full of ironic lyrics about magically feeling better after earning likes and followers on social media. Obviously, that strategy doesn’t provide long-term relief, which is why it makes sense that the album ends with “Hate?” A sense of pointlessness in posting becomes their focus, and they express resentment towards those who used them for social media clout or advised them to put such high value on social media fame in the first place.
BAND-MAID hide a dense musical diary inside of cheerful packaging. Unwrapping Unleash reveals a host of relatable thoughts and feelings, making listening to this album and exploring its multiple meanings a thought-provoking, worthwhile source of catharsis. Read more here!
#5: ENHYPEN, MANIFESTO : DAY 1
What takes MANIFESTO : DAY 1 from good to great are the little things. For example, in “Future Perfect (Pass the MIC),” “You stay?” is a line repeated three times in the song. It is said by all the members in the beginning and fewer of them later on, and the dance movements grow looser during each time they say it. Another example: they demonstrate their “illogic is logic” mentality on “ParadoXXX Invasion” by repeating “No paradox” and “Like paradox” back to back, as if they cannot decide which of these obviously contradictory phrases is more applicable. Then there are the references to the “sunset-tinted wind” and the “melancholy summer sea,” which bring to mind previous references to Shakespeare’s and other writers’ sun-related and ocean-related metaphors. ENHYPEN’s body of work continues to rope in literary connections in clever ways and expand their story, sonically and lyrically. For both those who like to wax poetic about the deeper meanings of songs and those who are just looking for a good time, MANIFESTO : DAY 1 is worth a try. Read more here!
#4: TXT, minisode 2: Thursday’s Child
In classic TXT fashion, every aspect of this release is the result of careful thought and narrative skill. The fashion, the performances, the lyrics, the interpretable details in the “Good Boy Gone Bad” music video, instrumental choices, and even their facial expressions have been carefully chosen. The result of paying major attention to minor details is the difference between TXT and other boy groups. What makes TXT stand apart is the extent to which they psychoanalyze their own intentions and find ways to make meaning out of visuals and lyrics. Rather than just sing about being a “Good Boy Gone Bad,” for example, they seek to understand why they are compelled to “go bad.”... TXT always ensure their newest chapter builds off the thought processes and themes laid out in the chapters before it. As TXT grow and learn about themselves and their place in the world, they share what they are learning through musical and visual symbols. Read more here!
#3: NCT 127, 2 Baddies
NCT 127’s songs are exceptionally immersive, charged with a complex, distinct energy. Listeners press “Play” and are instantly transported into the world of “NCity.” Howling, whistles, the sounds of engines revving, and much more put listeners in the middle of the scenes. Intense beats and fierce vocals leave people absorbed but in the zone, ready to go about their daily routines with an explosive soundtrack that is quickly normalized in their minds. In other words, NCT 127’s music makes the unconventional conventional and the strange the delightful norm!
Once again, NCT 127 have created an immersive listening experience that defies categorization and stands apart from their previous musical eras, while still winking and nodding to them. They have delivered a new concoction with the same ingredients that have allowed their work to satisfy since their debut. Once listeners begin listening to 2 Baddies with an open mind and an ear for details, a new world opens up to them, a rich soundscape that leaves them intrigued. Every mental journey into “NCity” is full of excitement and spectacles, and 2 Baddies is no different. Read more here!
#2: milet, visions
She makes each of her songs feel full and complex, but also gives each song a general direction. She knows how to use moments of silence, instrumental layers, ad libs, lyrics, and tones to craft weighty songs, but she leaves the question as to why listeners feel the weightiness of her songs unanswered. There can be disagreements about the meaning of “Loved By You,” for example, but all listeners can feel moved and sad while listening to it. The same goes for lighter songs: “jam” invokes feelings of nostalgia regardless of who or what listeners think that nostalgia is directed towards. milet knows how to tell stories purposefully and meticulously, in ways that are astounding for both their sonic richness and fulfillment of music’s purpose. Music is all about audiences making meaning out of the material they are given, and milet gives listeners a template for doing just that. Creating this template effectively is easier said than done; it takes skill to provoke the desired, lasting feelings in listeners.
A different way to summarize milet’s appeal: she makes music that embraces multifaceted feelings and shows off her charming, unpredictable personality. After all, the first sentence in visions is “What are you waiting for?” The last sentence in visions: “[Y]ou’ll never know.” Again, the undefined “you” is a trademark of hers, keeping the audience invested in her stories and ready to define that “you” as it pertains to their own lives. Read more here!
#1: SEVENTEEN, Face the Sun
By playing around with different tempos and sound effects and blending rock, pop, and electronic influences, SEVENTEEN have created an irreplicable album that stands apart from all of their previous releases. SEVENTEEN’s signature energy and attention to detail are evident throughout, but those traits are shown in brand new ways. Face the Sun is a remarkably entertaining listen and an excellent collage of old and new styles from SEVENTEEN, both visually and auditorily. Read more here!
On the repackaged album, SECTOR 17:
SEVENTEEN’s sound and style may continue to evolve, but one thing that remains consistent is their main goal: to use the power of music to share their stories, have them resonate with others, and learn pivotal life lessons they can pass along to listeners in the process, and vice versa. SECTOR 17 does a great job of reminding CARATS that music can help heal and give rise to a better era for all of us! Read more here!
Bonus: DPR IAN, Moodswings In To Order
Although this album is from an artist no longer affiliated with the K-pop world, I have to make an exception for its eligibility! Rarely do albums move me as much as this one has. Below is an excerpt from my essay about it, which you can read in full here:
In addition to being powerful, Moodswings In To Order is an efficient story. It is a contained narrative while staying part of a larger one, a collection of diary entries that seem random and incomplete individually but create a picture of his true self when all put together. It also reuses the “MITO '' acronym from his previous album title, Moodswings in This Order, as a reminder of the story’s continuity.
The swift transitions between songs amplify the overall mood of the album: as DPR IAN undergoes an intense psychoanalysis through the actions of fictional characters, listeners take a trip through his mind that moves with a fittingly jolting nature. Some songs dart from sound to sound, inflection to inflection, as if he is in a speed round of trying on different characters to see which one suits him best. A cartoonishly high-pitched voice is quickly replaced with a very deep one, or vice versa, a song’s tone abruptly changes, an alter ego mutters a lyric beneath a different character’s line… the songs are unpredictable and so multifaceted. Keeping listeners on their toes brings home the tension at the core of his story: everyone is an amalgamation of characters, a collection of multitudes. No one is a clear-cut character at the expense of other characters; humans contain a wide range of personas without easy categorizations that distinguish them from one another. This middle ground between taking one role over another in life runs contrary to bipolarity. DPR IAN gravitates towards the extremes, the ultimate example of one character at the expense of its opposite. But this is simply not possible to fully embody! The endless struggle to find oneself is about learning to find peace in the messy medium, to accept that just because one is not “MITO” does not mean one must be “Mr. Insanity,” or vice versa. Finding oneself requires challenging black-and-white thinking, symbolized well by the choice of red cover art this time, in contrast to last year’s album’s black cover.
This is all just one interpretation of his work, of course. One of the reasons to admire it is its ambiguity. Different listeners walk away with different and very personal interpretations of what they have heard. DPR IAN’s story manages to resonate with those who feel like the exaggerated descriptions of feelings are not actually exaggerated at all, but it also prompts those who are not bipolar to see themselves in his story and realize how deep their own emotions can truly feel. DPR IAN highlights the fact that people are people, all with their own layers worth unpacking and accepting.
[T]his release has the ability to have a profound impact on all. It prompts the audience to contemplate the nature of identity and the ways in which the quest to find a clear middle ground among extreme emotions can feel as evasive as it is complicated. DPR IAN’s story is simultaneously a suspenseful work of fiction and more real than many nonfiction works, when it comes to accurate portrayals of emotions’ depths.
Read parts one, two, and three below!
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