The Best End-of-2022 K-Pop, J-Pop, and C-Pop Releases
A ranking and review of twenty releases from December worth putting on loop!
#20: XEED, Dream Land
This new group deserves much more attention! Aside from the acoustic beauty that is “Just Like Now,” XEED’s debut mini-album leans further into an EDM soundscape than expected for a debut K-pop release. The group also stands out aesthetically, rocking dressy and dark ensembles on the album cover. The “Dream Land” music video adds further interest with its fast-paced scene changes that alternate between a mysterious narrative and choreography-focused moments. This group stands out in multiple ways and deserves a massively successful debut.
#19: COCONA, GREEN VELVET
GREEN VELVET is a combination of eccentric instrumentals and equally distinct vocals. With the exception of the slower “Get your wine,” GREEN VELVET is a fast-paced sonic kaleidoscope, with different elements one’s ears can latch on to with every listen. “Get your wine” is not the album’s throwaway track, though; it has an unconventional sonic texture in its own ways. The visual component of this release, the “Twinkle” music video, makes the “marching to the beat of her own drum” message even clearer. Pairing neon green space buns with a pink minidress and hot pink, tall boots, COCONA stays unbothered. She does not water down her self-presentation in other scenes either, wearing lots of bold colors while posing throughout a school. She has a refreshing disregard for optics-related concerns and proudly stands out in uninspired settings.
#18: SMTOWN, 2022 Winter SMTOWN : SMCU PALACE
Optimistic and festive jams make up enough of this album for it to qualify as a holiday special, but a surprising degree of depth to the B-sides makes it suitable for year-round listening. Fresh combinations of SM Entertainment artists flex their vocal strong suits in powerful ballads like “Time After Time” and “Priority.” The more up-tempo bops, like “Hot & Cold,” revive the album’s energy. 2022 Winter SMTOWN : SMCU PALACE does what it hoped to do - generate buzz for SM Entertainment artists going into 2023 - but also has simply high-quality tracks. This album is not an average, cheesy company-wide holiday special; the B-sides are anything but generic and prove the company’s artists are capable of thriving with whatever material is presented to them.
#17: GEMINI, Still Blue
Still Blue takes listeners on a smooth R&B ride interrupted by jolts of electro-synth and alt-rock sounds. GEMINI starts the album on the perfect mood-setting note, with his voice echoing on “Love Is Banned.” He flexes different vocal strengths in the rock-tinged “Bad” and adapts to a quicker instrumental in “Rollercoaster.” The echoing quality returns in “Do Me Right,” and its hazy quality is maintained during the romance-movie-ready “a place we used to go.” “Hola” holds onto GEMINI’s relatively cavalier tone but surprises with expletive-laden lyrics backed by an acoustic guitar! His attitude resurfaces in another unexpected way on “More & More,” which triggers the same underwater feeling the album starts off provoking. The album is a full-circle story with an enjoyable zigzagging among sources of inspiration. Compounding the old-school R&B focus is the “Rollercoaster” music video, which indulges in a Y2K, neon-lit aesthetic.
#16: Park Bench Club, Sunbed Theory
A dreamy synth haze envelopes these tracks, which derive their appeal from their subtler elements. These songs have many instrumental components, so no song feels like something is missing, yet the layers smooth together in a simplifying, understated way. Each song is a low-key, well-crafted one, and the relatively mellow nature of the album is given the appropriate visual aid in the “Nothing To Me (Lately)” music video. The video tells a story through fluid transitions between pastel animations and scrapbook-style photographs, adding an artsy personal charm to Park Bench Club’s latest era.
#15: PROWDMON & LAS, RUN RUN
This three-track mini-album is severely underrated and much too short! Dance team PROWDMON enhances the suspense of “RUN RUN” with the performance video. The choreography has both wide, loose movements and close-contact formations, giving viewers a sense of curiosity and discomfort. They further build on the suspense during the choruses, when the camera swerves and they form a synchronized triangle while running in place. The result is an optical illusion: the dancers look like they are running far away, and the instrumental adds to the sensation of being chased. In reality, the topsy-turvy situation they are in is all manufactured. This EP’s B-sides are also impressive: “Falling” keeps up the climactic feel of “RUN RUN,” and “Dance with me” adds a final surprise by taking the form of a piano ballad. The jarring detour from immersive to background-friendly music matches both this release’s unpredictable nature and sensation of being on a jolting but thrilling ride!
#14: yanaginagi, Branch
Branch benefits hugely from its structure: the opening number sets the scene, riding waves of dramatic sounds effortlessly. Atmospheric, breathy vocals make the emotional direction changes unpredictable. yanaginagi shows the compelling nature of a well-placed silence too: in “Echo,” she stays quiet as the music tells parts of the story, making the parts when her voice does chime in carry greater gravity as a result. yanaginagi proves to be a great storyteller both vocally and instrumentally. In more examples of the latter, she gives “oversupply” a rollicking anime-rock sound, brings a calmer vibe to the groovy “just another day,” and emphasizes the finality of “For good” with haunting backup vocals and a swelling string orchestra. The maximum emotional impact each song on Branch has the potential to reach is achieved.
#13: PassCode, REVERBERATE
With REVERBERATE, PassCode are back in all of their electronic/rock glory! Their sound is as adrenaline-boosting as ever in “Live your truth,” which deftly keeps up a rapid pace and saves only split seconds for anticipation before plunging back into its fierce chorus. The release gets better and better with “SIREN” (for which EDM remixes are in order!) and “NOTHING SEEKER.” The EP ends with “Clouds Across The Moon,” which has the triumphant feel of a movie’s ending scene but does not sacrifice PassCode’s trademarks to generate that feeling. Overall, PassCode use this EP to thrive in a familiar musical lane and remind listeners why their work deserves to “reverberate” around the world!
#12: VERNON, “Black Eye”
From the head-turning outfits to the ways a reverb naturally comes into play, VERNON’s solo pop-punk star power shines brighter than ever. Possibly unintentionally, the best part of “Black Eye” is also what gave his previous pop-punk release, “2 MINUS 1,” its “It” factor: the song ends on an ambiguous note. After several minutes of conveying a devil-may-care attitude, a sudden hesitation hits him (“Knock, knock / Is there anybody out there?”), leaving listeners wondering if he has been in denial about his true emotions up until the end or if the end is just a moment of doubt that ultimately changes nothing. How prevalent and authentic his hesitancy is to be interpreted is unclear, perhaps even to himself. Pop-punk is all about channeling conflicted feelings, and VERNON does with “Black Eye” in a way that can widely resonate.
#11: NewJeans, “Ditto”
As described at length in a recent episode of 17 Carat K-Pop, “Ditto” takes another page out of NewJeans’ playbook for buzz-generating releases. Its music video comes in two versions, one from an omniscient perspective and one from main character Heesoo’s. By presenting two different recollections of an event, the group provokes viewers to both think about the nature of memory in general and to feel involved in a choose-your-own-adventure story. Feeling like a story is unfolding right before one’s eyes takes on new qualities with “Ditto,” and the interactive feel of their storytelling is a large factor in their skyrocketing fame. Music videos aside, this release deserves hype for its spin on the Baltimore club genre.
#10: Jolin Tsai, “親愛的對象 Untitled”
This beautiful ballad is the perfect soundtrack for its tear-jerker music video! The main characters are a young man and his grandmother, who have some intense fights over her perceived invasions of his privacy. The man later regrets how harshly he has reacted and tries to make amends, but his grandmother gives him the silent treatment and does not even answer the door when he knocks with a meal he made as a peace offering. Spoiler alert: he finds out what she has been hiding from him while spending a night at a club. The DJ of the night is none other than his blinged-out grandma! Turns out, when his grandma didn’t answer the door, it was because she was in her own world, wearing headphones and trying out her new DJ set! When she cut pages out of his magazines and stole his clothes, it was because she wanted to emulate his fashion sense when putting together a look for the DJ gig! And the other times when she appeared evasive or dismissive of him were because of her preparations for her DJing debut that she wanted to keep a surprise! What initially looks like a cold relationship and generational clash turns into a sweet display of seeking a grandson’s approval!
#9: NCT DREAM, Candy
In a colorful candy store, the members of NCT DREAM rock fuzzy hats, colorful, sporty outfits, and contagious smiles. The video’s eye “candy” extends beyond the store: there are pink and white tunnels, bright background screens, rainbow lighting, a carousel, an arcade, and even a Christmas party setup! It is as if a little kid’s dream scenarios have all merged into one funhouse! NCT DREAM further reignite viewers’ inner children through the album’s B-sides, which invoke nostalgia for the days of low-stakes puppy love. An older NCT DREAM song, “Walk You Home,” is about the sadness one feels when nearing a crush’s house, indicating that the walk home is coming to an end. “Walk With You,” a song on Candy, is the prequel to that lovestruck walk, with lyrics about the butterflies in one’s stomach as the anticipation for that walk builds. This time warp makes sense when remembering “Candy” is a remake of “First Generation” K-pop band H.O.T’s song. With both eyes and ears, this comeback is a blast to the past!
#8: ATEEZ, SPIN OFF : FROM THE WITNESS
ATEEZ got the world’s attention with clever marketing tactics and an Easter-egg-filled music video for “HALAZIA.” A series of QR codes on signs around the world redirected fans to a series of cryptic online teasers. After giving fans some time to generate theories about what the clues meant, they released “HALAZIA” and its music video, leaving fans either satisfied with their predictions or determined to start 2023 with revised ones! ATEEZ keep the mystery going in the song’s music video, which does clarify some main themes in their fictional story - creating a post-apocalypse world, clashing with alter egos - but leaves others up in the air. ATEEZ have learned to walk the tightrope between leaving people in suspense and disclosing enough to keep them invested and not just confused! “HALAZIA” marks both the end to a triumphant 2022 for ATEEZ and the start of a new musical chapter with many more pages in store.
#7: Rheehab, Flowers in the bedroom
This immensely underrated artist has a versatile voice that fits well with a variety of genres and subgenres. He primarily leans into R&B and pop sensibilities with some electronic tweaks on top. Some of the best tracks are those that put angst- and despair-ridden lyrics into lighter electronic/pop contexts, like the sad but rock-out-worthy “Saturday.” Similarly, slow percussion that might otherwise make “Good night” a solemn song is balanced out with wavy synths and piano notes. Other standouts include the vibrant “XOX” and a song that fans of BIGBANG’s more serious eras will appreciate, “Flowers in My Bed.”
#6: SKY-HI, THE DEBUT
This impactful, in-your-face debut channels the energy from SKY-HI’s previous singles and effectively expands it into a longer project. His self-assured delivery and bold sonic choices do not overstay their welcome, as they take on different forms than both his previous releases and each other. SKY-HI impressively uses THE DEBUT to show the world his unique and uncompromising musical colors across tracks that draw from the worlds of trap, rap, pop, and hip-hop. His “take me as I am” nature extends to the “Happy Boss Day” music video, in which he dons Mad-Hatter-esque attire and keeps a show going despite the chaos surrounding him!
#5: WayV, Phantom
Phantom has an interesting rise and fall. After the title track and “Diamonds Only,” which draw from dance-pop, hip-hop, and trap influences, the following pair of songs (“Good Life” and “Broken Love”) are slower and more vocal-focused. The sonic rollercoaster rises again on “Bounce Back” and the standout “Try My Luck.” The latter nicely combines the strong suits of the previous tracks, mixing quirky ad libs and sound effects with pleasant harmonies and dark but bouncy synths. The album ends with KUN&XIAOJUN’s “Back To You” and TEN&YANGYANG’s “Low Low,” the former a beautiful ballad and the latter a flirty, upbeat track. The “Phantom” music video makes this comeback even better. It pays homage to Phantom of the Opera in personalized ways that align with their own music video storyline.
#4: PoLin, The Wilderness
PoLin finds a myriad of ways to flex his vocal power and passion. The emotional effectiveness of his voice takes on a more vulnerable tone in some songs (“Obsession,” “Doesn’t have to”) and a more commanding, defiant tone in others (“Purge,” “Once More”). At times sounding pained, at times sounding relieved, and elsewhere expressing every emotion in between, PoLin paints vivid pictures with his voice alone. The grand finale, “The Wilderness,” is fittingly full, with a choir boosting the emotional tenor without taking too much focus away from PoLin’s front-and-center status. The Wilderness is a rich release worth giving a chance regardless of one’s musical preferences.
#3: Stray Kids, SKZ-REPLAY
SKZ-REPLAY expands and celebrates Stray Kids’ discography so far, featuring previously-released but previously-not-streamable (outside of YouTube) songs and brand new ones. Members do team up on some tracks, and songs like “DOODLE” and “Streetlight” sound like classic Stray Kids songs with their noisy nature, but they also show their softer sides. Ever the entertainers, there is emotional whiplash between songs, especially going from “#LoveSTAY” to “ZONE”! SKZ-REPLAY plays to each individual member’s strengths and preferences, throws some classic Stray Kids songs into the mix, and overall caps off their 2022 on a strong, satisfying note.
#2: 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 switch languages and inflections 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. Her voice sails 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.
#1: RM, Indigo
Indigo is both a summary and an expansion of RM’s thoughts and feelings, an invitation to both gain clarity and learn something new about oneself. The reflection prompted by his deep songs comes from his equal prioritization of sharing his story and those of others. RM proves that sharing one’s story and passing the mic to others are not mutually exclusive; he speaks his truth and then gives listeners openings for applying those truths in their own ways. For example, “Wild Flower” is about RM’s desire to leave a fond and lasting legacy, rather than that of a firework, which burns brightly but only momentarily and leaves debris in its wake. This is an analogy for how RM feels about his fame, but it can apply to all kinds of people contemplating their impacts. Likewise, “No.2” is about RM’s determination to close this chapter of his life as he turns thirty, but the broader message about never looking back applies to all ages. Indigo is RM’s diary, but it leaves plenty of room for listeners to fill in the empty spaces. Indigo impresses on an instrumental level too. Old-school hip-hop songs that seem to repeatedly get quicker than the previous track are followed by a folk song with an intentionally-rough sound. This leads into a song with a quicker pace again, but this is followed by more drops in mood and speed. The last few songs stay at a lower tempo, focused on a city-pop sound, an acoustic guitar, and then a piano. Indigo narrates life’s inevitable ups and downs and takes listeners on that journey at a fittingly inconsistent rate. In sum, RM has created the perfect musical accompaniment for a life story.
To hear more about these choices and find out which releases got honorable mentions, listen to the episode of 17 Carat K-Pop that is linked to below!
Stay tuned for January 2023’s Top Twenty, coming very soon!
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