Another packed year of K-pop has come to an end, and it’s time to reflect on the comebacks that caught our eye. Writers Chloe, Eileen, and Siena discuss an array of stellar releases within which groups and soloists solidified their style, took risks, and reached new heights.
Siena: I think we have a really fun selection here! Let’s start with our shared pick across the board: Le Sserafim. Building off an intriguing debut with “Fearless,” I thought “Antifragile” knocked it out of the park, from the song’s catchiness, to the MV’s production quality, to the fun choreography, to the members’ stellar stage presence in performances. Best of all, I think “Antifragile” fantastically solidifies Le Sserafim’s confident concept, both clarifying what that means and showing its appeal.
Why did “Antifragile” land on your lists, and at the number one spot at that?
Eileen: I agree with you on the comeback solidifying Le Sserafim’s concept, Siena. While I loved the sound of Fearless, it felt a bit incoherent thematically. In comparison, the songs on Antifragile feel better connected with one another.
Musically, “Antifragile” is extremely infectious. I initially thought it’d be overly repetitive from the teasers, but the track combined with the MV and performance really blew me away. The elegant R&B number “Impurities” was also a particular album highlight for me. Its dreamy ambience is right up my alley, and I think the tune offers a nice contrast with the more energetic title track.
Chloe: When I first listened to “Antifragile,” I thought to myself, “Wow, K-pop is finally back!” Aside from the song’s addicting melody and choreography, I love how each member added their own unique vocal flair to their delivery of certain lines, like Eunchae’s “Walk like a majestic lion/Eyes glinting with so much desire.” This album is also far more cohesive than their last, with “The Hydra,” a mostly spoken-word track set against a pulsating, runway-esque beat, setting up the theme of Antifragile nicely.
While we’re on the subject of fourth generation girl groups, I see that you’ve chosen IVE for your list as well, Eileen. What landed them a spot on your list?
Eileen: IVE’s first year together has been incredible to watch as they release one hit after another. I’m impressed how the group already have a distinct sound despite their small discography. Both “Love Dive” and “After Like” ooze personality, and the members perform with a chic presence that’s difficult to ignore.
Moreover, the two tracks are immensely addictive. The chorus of “Love Dive” is simplistic, yet highly memorable while the sample from Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” in “After Like” is a superb addition that helps elevate the song further and make it even more appealing than it already was.
While IVE are still enjoying their rookie year, (G)I-dle have been a well-known name for a few years now. What about their comebacks this year did you like?
Siena: With how successful (G)I-dle have been this year, it’s easy to forget how tenuous their situation was in early 2022. After Soojin left the group in a poorly managed and heavily covered manner, it had been around a year without significant group activities. As well-known and respected as (G)I-dle already were, given how oversaturated K-pop is, a scandal and a long period of inactivity might have been enough to diminish their career prospects.
Amidst this, (G)I-dle came roaring back with “Tomboy,” an imperfect song that nevertheless captures the unique talent that (G)I-dle bring to K-pop, in no small part thanks to their self-generated artistry. I enjoyed “Tomboy” and their follow-up “Nxde,” but (G)I-dle are my second pick largely because they came back in the truest sense of the word, shutting down all doubt and confidently asserting their identity as a top group in K-pop.
Chloe, what put (G)I-dle in your fifth spot?
Chloe: While “Nxde” wasn’t my favorite release in a musical sense, I have to give it to leader So-yeon for her creativity when it comes to the concepts behind (G)I-dle’s releases. “Nxde” and “Tomboy” were boundary-pushing examples of this, as So-yeon’s intent behind “Nxde” in particular was to flood Korean search results with their track instead of what would typically show up if someone were to search the phrase “girl-nude.” Between the glitz of their latest comeback and their blazing take on this year’s pop-rock trend with “Tomboy,” (G)I-dle surely had an incredible year.
Speaking of “blazing,” what put Seventeen’s “Hot” and Face the Sun in your fourth spot, Eileen?
Eileen: With Face the Sun being the first studio album since the members’ contract renewals, the record is a notable representation of Seventeen’s new beginning. As a ‘freshteen’ enthusiast, “Hot” was quite the shock. The fierce number coupled with its edgy MV is something I never would’ve expected from the same act that released tunes like “Pretty U” and “Oh My!” But despite how different “Hot” is, there’s still a distinct Seventeen touch here and on the B-sides. Fresh yet familiar, experimental yet characteristic of the group, Face the Sun is a solid step forward into new territory.
Though Seventeen showed new sides of themselves in their comeback, K-pop legends SNSD returned with the nostalgic track “Forever 1.” What about their comeback did you enjoy, Siena?
Siena: SNSD’s comeback for me was the feel-good event of the K-pop year. Every live performance and variety show appearance was just bursting with joy: from the members, from their industry peers, and from fans. Sonically, “Forever 1” isn’t my cup of tea, but it captures the upbeat and triumphant tone of SNSD’s return, making it a good title track choice. The rest of the Forever 1 album, however, is absolute dynamite. It’s a mature, vocally dexterous, no-skip collection of tracks that call back to some of SNSD’s previous great hits, but also aren’t innovation-shy. This comeback’s blend of nostalgia and forward-moving musicality is what guaranteed it a spot on my list.
Another SM Entertainment comeback that dominated my playlists in 2022 was Onew’s “Dice.” The catchy title track and its delightfully off-kilter MV grabbed my attention from first look, and then the mini album absolutely knocked me out. Dice is a magnificent showcase of Onew’s spectacular vocal talents, leaning away from his pleasant but predictable previous ballad solo tracks and into an emotive mid-tempo musical world that is much subtler, more creative, and not infrequently breathtaking.
Chloe, you also have Onew on your list! What did you enjoy about “Dice”?
Chloe: Considering the depth of his Shinee bandmates’ solo discographies, I was ecstatic to see Onew finally cultivate a musical persona of his own with this comeback. “Dice” proves that Onew’s unique vocal tone can mesh seamlessly with melodies aside from the evocative serenades he typically sings. As a whole, the accompanying album is enlightening and optimistic (much like Onew’s voice), loosely adhering to influences of ‘80s-era soft pop and R&B. The MV for “Dice” was a particular highlight, as Onew goes on a campy goose chase through an otherworldly hotel to find his mystic crush. I love his willingness to play to the silliness of the MV, giving us an even deeper glimpse into who he is as an artist beyond just his voice.
Eileen, I see you have fellow Shinee bandmate Key on your list! What about his comeback caught your eye?
Eileen: After the release of Key’s stellar EP Bad Love, my expectations for his next record were at an all-time high. And, I can confidently say that his latest album Gasoline was completely worth waiting for. The lead single, MV, performance, and fashion is so unapologetically ‘Key.’ On top of that, the versatility in this album is captivating. Whether it’s the flamboyant title track depicting Key the artist or a self-reflective song like “G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time)” portraying Kim Kibum the human, it’s an absolute joy to see how Key’s artistic vision unfolds.
On the topic of versatility, Red Velvet are known to be one of K-pop’s most unorthodox acts. What was it about their comeback this year that grabbed your attention, Chloe?
Chloe: I kept Red Velvet on my list of top comebacks this year particularly for “Feel My Rhythm,” although “Birthday” was a solid continuation of the sound they established on the former. Both “Feel My Rhythm” and its accompanying album, The ReVe Festival: Finale, brought a new blend of genres — classical and hyperpop — into the ether to reintroduce Red Velvet’s grandiose eccentricities to the public eye. “Feel My Rhythm” is exactly the artistic work it strives to be, especially given the MV’s countless replications of iconic paintings through creative editing tactics and swoon-worthy styling choices. To top it off, the EP has some of the group’s best b-sides to date, seamlessly stringing the peculiar exuberance of the title track and the members’ seasoned vocals together with standout tracks like city pop-inspired “Bamboleo” and waltzy lullaby “In My Dreams.”
Solo artist Psy also has a tendency toward the eccentric — what about his comeback put him at number one on your list, Siena?
Siena: “That That,” as Psy’s return after a lengthy musical absence, had high expectations to meet. It did that and then some. It’s a stellar song, three minutes of cheeky party energy with fabulous choreography and a hilarious MV. Where it really shines though is in epitomizing Psy’s trademark energy, the energy that catapulted him to global superstardom, while also not being mere repetition. Suga’s producing and feature is genius not only because of his valuable musical contributions, but because his presence roots “That That” firmly in 2022 even as the track taps into wacky nostalgic charm. The raucous live stages of “That That” all summer were just the cherry on top of a comeback that is quintessentially ‘K-pop’ yet jubilantly one-of-a-kind.
While Psy is an industry veteran, our last releases to cover are from rising new stars. What about these fourth generation tracks caught your attention?
Chloe: StayC has been one of my favorites for their saccharine pop sound, so their stark departure from that with “Run2U” was surprising but all the more captivating. Compared to their previous releases, “Run2U” is a spunkier approach to their affinity for singing of the woes of young love, as the track contains a mix of more blunt electronic instrumentals than usual. However, I found that it all fell perfectly into place when paired with the members’ matured and impassioned vocals and the MV’s heart-shaped visual universe. Young-luv.com’s b-sides are what really blew me away on this comeback, though, with standout tracks like ‘90s R&B-influenced “247” and effervescent pop-rock track “Young Luv” exhibiting the group’s knack for experimenting with genre.
Eileen, what about Kwon Eunbi stood out to you this year?
Eileen: It may only be about a year since Kwon Eunbi’s debut with “Door,” but she has already become one of my favorite K-pop soloists. While it usually takes a few releases for musicians to develop a signature style, I’m convinced that the dreamy electropop sound of her first two comebacks is a perfect fit for her fiery and elegant charisma. “Glitch” is especially remarkable as its crisp and erratic production allows Eunbi’s immense confidence to shine, not to mention her striking ability to create a vast atmosphere even in the tune’s simplest sections. With her latest record Lethality being her most compelling release yet, Eunbi’s future as an artist is looking extremely bright.
Readers, what were your favorite comebacks of 2022? What kinds of comebacks are you hoping to see in 2023? Let us know in the comments!