June 7, 2022 10:09 AM EDT

After two long years, the state of K-pop is finally starting to resemble what it looked like before the pandemic. In-person shows in South Korea are beginning to return—and once again allow cheering—and fans abroad are flooding to arenas to watch their favorite artists perform. BTS took over Las Vegas in April while playing four shows in the city as part of their “Permission to Dance on Stage” performance series. And TWICE performed at Los Angeles’ Banc of California Stadium in May, becoming the first K-pop girl group to play at a U.S. stadium.

Even during the period of the pandemic when K-pop could only be enjoyed virtually, the quality of music produced in Seoul never wavered. Artists continued to experiment with new sounds and genres, and developed unique musical identities to set themselves apart in a crowded landscape. In the first half of this year, K-pop acts from veteran soloists to rookie groups impressed with releases that were fresh and invigorating.

In no particular order, here are the best K-pop songs and albums of 2022 so far. (Only full-length projects were considered in the albums section for the purposes of this list.)

Songs

“GingaMingaYo (the strange world),” Billlie

Billlie opens their latest single with words of uncertainty: “What a strange world / I’m confused.” But “GingaMingaYo” is a song that knows exactly what it wants to be. The electronic pop track fully embraces the weird and celebrates the unknown—gingaminga is the Korean expression for “not sure.” Funky synths and Billlie’s animated chants propel the song, creating a whimsical number that piques a listener’s curiosity as much as it boosts their energy.

Read More: The Best Albums of 2022 So Far

“Maniac,” Stray Kids

Stray Kids is no stranger to releasing rousing bangers, and the group turns the frenzied energy up a notch in “Maniac.” The trap and electropop track is about deviating from what society deems as prim and proper, and releasing one’s inner self without shame. “On the inside I’m always a freaky monster,” Han reveals before Changbin taunts: “If you think I’m just pure and innocent, you’re wrong.” Sounds including a bird’s chirping and a drill buzzing add to this bombastic anthem’s bizarre character.

“Love Dive,” IVE

IVE debuted with the earworm “Eleven” last year, and by dropping their latest single, the group confidently declares that it’s no one-hit wonder. “Love Dive” is dreamy and ethereal, with airy “ooh’s” and soft “la-la-la’s” sung over a steady percussion. As IVE welcomes all to dive into the feeling of love, you can’t help but be submerged in their decadent voices. The song is more riveting because of details like a beat of silence added to just before the second refrain, and rapper Rei’s spunky delivery of the line, “You into me, me into you.”

“Devil,” Max Changmin

There’s no doubt that Max Changmin’s voice is the main attraction in “Devil,” a remake of Swedish artist Alex Runo’s 2021 song of the same name. This is clear from the opening that includes no instrumentals to distract from the TVXQ vocalist’s rich tone, and from the chorus that features his soaring melodies over a slithering bass line. A haunting a cappella motif and pulsating drum beats amplify the bewitching quality of this R&B track, but it’s Max Changmin’s singing that seduces with a force similar to that of a devil’s temptation.

Read More: The Best K-Pop Songs and Albums of 2021

“Fearless,” Le Sserafim

Anticipation was high for the debut of HYBE’s first girl group, and Le Sserafim exceeded expectations with the sleek and glossy “Fearless.” In this funk and alternative pop song, Le Sserafim is resolute to reach the top—“Telling me to hide my desire, that’s weird / Acting like I’m humble, that’s done,” Yunjin sings. Much of the track’s replay value comes from its addictive chorus, as the feisty line “what you lookin’ at” is repeated over a slick bass riff.

Albums

Glitch Mode, NCT Dream

NCT Dream may be freezing up before a crush in “Glitch Mode,” but that doesn’t stop the members from pursuing what they want. “An error or two, I like it,” Jaemin sings in the title track before Jeno raps, “If this is love, it’s okay.” This spirit of facing challenges head-on and with exuberant optimism persists across the album’s 11 tracks, as the group sings of charging forward despite the haters (“Arcade”) and staying connected despite being separated (“Never Goodbye”). Sonically, the hip hop-leaning (“Glitch Mode,” “Arcade”) tracks are just as arresting as the balladesque ones (“Teddy Bear,” “Never Goodbye”), a nod to the group’s formidable lineup of dynamic rappers and emotive singers. “Saturday Drip”—performed by Mark, Jeno, Jaemin, and Jisung—is the project’s highlight. With punchy rap verses over rollicking synths, the track invites everyone to revel in the freedom of a hard-earned Saturday.

Apocalypse: Save Us, Dreamcatcher

“Maison,” Dreamcatcher’s lead single in its latest album, is novel in how the song directly confronts the climate crisis. Through lyrics like, “Save my home in the ocean / Save my home in the desert,” the band calls for environmental action. (The authenticity of this message was met with some skepticism when Dreamcatcher’s label announced an NFT collection days after the album’s release.) But Apocalypse: Save Us is notable for much more than its essential theme. In addition to featuring group recordings—among them, the retro synth pop “Starlight” is an obvious standout—the album presents a generous offering of solo tracks. From Yoohyeon’s gentle jazz number “For” to Dami’s hard-hitting pop punk song “Beauty Full,” these projects are grand exhibitions of the members’ individual artistry.

Face the Sun, Seventeen

Face the Sun is all about Seventeen’s desire to become a force as impactful as the sun, and nothing captures this burning itch more than the title track “Hot.” The hip hop-based track immerses itself in heat-related imagery—“heart set on fire,” the artists sing in one verse; “this song is sizzling,” they sing in another. Throughout the album, the artists use related imagery like light and darkness (“Shadow”) and fire and ashes (“Ash”) to describe overcoming their fears. The group also continues to evolve its sound in Face the Sun. Following last year’s exhilarating single “Rock With You,” Seventeen leans further into rock with tracks like “Don Quixote,” “March,” and “Shadow.” These songs pull from elements of other genres, too, but share propulsive beats and an explosive energy that signal the scorching trail Seventeen is bound to leave behind.

INVU, Taeyeon

In INVU, Taeyeon takes the listener on an intimate journey through the complex emotions of being in love. The two singles on the album, “INVU”—read as “I envy you”—and “Can’t Control Myself,” are raw expressions of romantic feelings that seem impossible to contain. And while “Toddler” is a wistful reflection of a little girl who “believed that there were only happy endings,” INVU quickly takes a darker turn with Taeyeon singing about the emotional wounds and scars (“Timeless,” “Heart”) left by a lover. Perhaps most heartbreaking is “No Love Again,” in which the singer describes closing her heart and building a wall to stop loving someone. But INVU ends on a hopeful note, as Taeyeon declares, “I loved you with all my heart / Forget about the past / I’ll leave now / to find my story again.” Whether her voice is flowing softly over synth notes in “INVU” or soaring effortlessly over piano keys in “Some Nights,” the seasoned artist’s delivery makes each of the 11 tracks more piercing.

Read More: The Best Songs of 2022 So Far

Psy 9th, Psy

Psy 9th, Psy’s first release in five years, features a particularly impressive guest-artist lineup. There are appearances from, for example, Epik High’s Tablo, Jessi, Crush, and of course, BTS’ Suga—who not only features on the snazzy lead single “That That” but co-produced it. This Latin-infused track is bold and unapologetic. Psy pompously announces his long-awaited return in the song’s first moments—“Long time no see, huh? It’s been a minute, huh?”—and Suga spits out a verse about his undeniable success.

Another highlight on the album is Psy’s collaboration with Mamamoo’s Hwasa, “Now.” The groovy retro number is a cover of Seoul Family’s 1987 song of the same name—which was the band’s remake of Jermaine Jackson and Pia Zadora’s “When the Rain Begins to Fall.” The tracks that Psy performs alone are also endlessly engaging, from the over-the-top “Celeb” to the mellow “Hello Monday.” The latter is a sardonic meditation on the numbing routine of life: “Let’s work hard and then get cursed as a reward,” Psy muses.

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