20150905_seoulbeats_seventeenAs the year comes to a close, we are listing our favorite (and least favorite) things about 2015 in K-pop. Next up: debuts. While the front-runners were still a bit murky upon the midway point of the year, the elite rookies have certainly made their mark by year’s end. Mark, Lauren M, and Cjontai discuss this year’s rookie class, covering the hits and the misses, and it seems that the former outweighed the latter. They also jump into what they anticipate from the rookie class next year and how 2015 could be a launching point for a shifting landscape in 2016.

Mark Lauren M Cjontai
1 Twice Seventeen Twice
2 GFriend Twice Seventeen
3 iKON GFriend Day6
4 Monsta X Day6 N.Flying
5 The Ark iKON Oh My Girl

Lauren M: There were a lot of promising girl groups, including Oh My Girl, CLC, and The Ark, but GFriend and Twice are the clear front-runners. As far as boys, Up10tion and Romeo are the only groups not on my list that I think may have a chance, but neither wowed me upon debut.

Mark, I noticed your omission of Seventeen. For me, they hit the ground running with “Adore U.” The only other group with as strong of a debut song was Twice.

20151021_seoulbeats_twice_ooh_ahh_momoMark: I’m glad none of us had to think twice about Twice. They’re the clear cut favorite for me because they have the entire package: best debut song, dance, and visuals. JYP really knows how to recruit female dancers from overseas, finding the group’s three best dancers from Japan. Twice has a lot of flash like miss A did upon debut but I think they have twice as much potential because they have literally more than twice the members. They also have the most stunning visuals. And, yes, I just had to emphasize that…again.

Seventeen was definitely on my radar but they did not impress me as much as the five groups I have listed, though they’re definitely a close sixth. I actually like “Mansae” over “Adore U” but I think I would like them more if they drop the schoolboy act and get straight to the rebel phase. I liked their sunbaes NU’est right out of the gate and that’s because they came with a strong edge that caught my attention. I’m also slightly thrown off by their name but then I guess it’s unlucky to call the group Thirteen?

Lauren M: As far as Twice, I mean, what’s not to love? Their song was very bright and infectious, the girls are fun to watch, and their concept was a bit outside of the box and more rebellious than what pretty much every other rookie girl group was doing this year. If they keep going down that route, I can see them going far, especially with international fans. And I love Momo.

20151116_seoulbeats_ohmygirl_binnieWith Seventeen, I feel like they were the most fully formed group that debuted this year. They all have their roles and they gel as a group perfectly. When I was picking my line-up, the most important thing that I looked at, other than a strong debut song, was who I think has the most potential to succeed after debut. I kicked Monsta X off because I think Day6 has more long-term potential. I left off N. Flying, even though i liked their debut, because I feel like their appeal may be limited. Seventeen has the whole package and, as long as their management doesn’t screw up, they could be huge. Also, the lack of edge that you mention, Mark, might have been one of their biggest selling points in a year dominated by hip hop groups. The same edge that sets Twice apart would’ve made Seventeen blend in. And they have Woozi!

Cjontai, Oh My Girl was on my radar but fell short of my list. I also see you’re into the rookie rock bands. What was it about these groups that stood out for you?

Cjontai: There was a trend this year to create these hip hop groups, which lead to some comically contrived debuts that made it difficult for me to take some of them seriously. That’s why I found N.Flying and Day6 so appealing. Unless you’re into the indie scene, you don’t come across a lot of idol bands. N.Flying intrigued me with their debut, “Awesome,” because they combined hip hop elements with rock for a refreshing sound that isn’t currently in mainstream K-pop. “Lonely” was also a really lovely follow-up that showcased their mellow maturity.

I reviewed Day6’s album The Day, and they remind me of FT Island in their early days before FNC Entertainment made them more emo. I also love that the members of Day6 all have lines in their songs, so there isn’t anyone stealing the spotlight. I want to get to know all of them and not just one or two members, but Jae is probably the most humorous because of his social media antics.

20150910_seoulbeats_day6I’m okay with Seventeen’s current schoolboy image because they are so young. Like Lauren, the biggest selling point for me with Seventeen was the fact that they didn’t try some rebellious, bad boy concept. I really wasn’t buying the image iKON and Monsta X sold because it felt too over-the-top for these fresh-faced idols. They’re strong performers, but the marketing by their companies goes overboard in promoting them as these tough guys. Their fans love how cute they are, and for me, that’s the problem. You can’t push for bad-ass hip hop monsters if the members are cute puppies in a box.

Oddly enough, the cute puppy thing works for Twice. The girls are sweet and lovable without being cloying. It doesn’t feel like they are putting on an act because JYP tapped into their youthful exuberance for this bubbly pop sound. There’s no exaggerated aegyo or attempt to portray them as virginal angels. They remind me of the girls-next-door, which usually works better in pop for young female groups.

Initially, Oh My Girl turned me off with “Cupid” because of the sloppy song production. The song sounded cheap and clunky. However, with “Closer,” I realized these girls can harmonize beautifully. I love how their voices blend smoothly together, and they don’t sound like squeaky chipmunks. Also, the choreography they had for “Closer” didn’t limit them to a couple of cutesy twirls and winks. It demonstrated their strong synchronicity and execution which put them above other girl groups.

20150926_seoulbeats_gfriend_mapsmagazineI don’t hate Gfriend, but I felt like some of their increasing popularity came from fans wanting to root for the underdog, like what happened with EXID last year. I watched their fancam and respect them for being professional, but many idols trudge through hardships with a smile. It’s not enough to make me root for them as a fan because their music still doesn’t move me. What is it about Gfriend that appealed to the two of you?

Mark: I like GFriend not for their professionalism. As Cjontai mentioned, all idol groups display much professionalism day in and day out putting up with the fans and the media. I too think the fancam helped a lot in getting people onto their underdog bandwagon, but what I find most interesting about them is their upbeat songs combined with their lively choreography. I guess wearing sneakers instead of heels helps on the choreography end. Now, if only they had some rain boots with extra grip!

As far as the music goes, “Closer” is one of my favorite songs from a rookie group this year. GFriend’s “Me Gustas Tu,” iKON’s “Rhythm Ta,” Twice’s “OOH-AHH,” and “The Light” by The Ark are also my favorites from this year and, as you can see, they weighed heavily into my selections. What were some of your favorite songs from  rookies? And to sidetrack for a bit, what were some of the misses this year that popped up on the rookie scene?

Cjontai: I pretty much loved all of the recent title tracks by the groups I chose. Looking at Mark’s choices, I preferred the B-tracks or follow up songs from Monsta X and iKON. I disliked “Trespass” by Monsta X, but the rest of their debut album was fairly good. As for iKON, “Apology” made up for their earlier tracks. Sadly, they were the biggest miss of the year for me because YG and some of their fans overhyped them. I know they are capable of much more than what we have been given, and that’s what is the most frustrating for me.

20150411_seoulbeats_clc_sornAdd CLC to the list of misses as well. CLC is victim to the classic downfall of a lot of girl groups, which is their company not playing to their additional strengths. Did you know they can play instruments? If you did not know, blame Cube for keeping that unknown talent under wraps. They’re trying too hard to appeal to people with their personalities instead of their music, and that hasn’t gone over well because their interactions come off as disingenuous.

Lauren M: My favorite debut song was Seventeen’s “Adore U”. It’s pretty high on my list for favorite K-pop songs in general this year, which is one of the reasons why they ranked #1 for me. I also really liked some of Monsta X’s b-sides. “Hero” was one of the better boy group songs this year. Up10tion’s “So Dangerous” was pretty good. For girl groups, GFriend’s “Me Gustas Tu” was such an earworm and it made me take notice of them more than anything else. “Closer” and “Like OOH-AHH” were also great, as mentioned. The Ark’s “The Light” was memorable mostly for its tearjerker of an MV. I cried. A lot.

I think we all might agree that iKON’s debut was one of the biggest misses this year. Normally, I wouldn’t be so hard on a group for not being fully realized at debut, but with all the media play and delays, “My Type” just seemed so anti-climactic. And the group itself is surprisingly bland. But iKON is going to be a big group regardless of how their debut went, which is why I put them on my list.

Worst debut for me would have to be 1Punch, though. Thankfully, One is now signed with YG Entertainment and this awkward little group has already disbanded.

Mark: I actually enjoyed the 1Punch debut. I know there was much flack given over their debut MV but I like the throwback style of their Brave Brothers produced tracks. I’m sure One will do bigger and better things under YG, nonetheless.

20151015_seoulbeats_ikonI get that iKON may have been disappointing given the hype, but if you compare them to other rookies, it’s hard not to put them near the top. “My Type” was weak, I agree, but it was just a pre-debut release to get us hyped up for the sleuth of releases they were about to drop on us. How many rookies do you know get to promote multiple tracks upon debut? Their b-sides failed to draw much traction for me which is why I don’t have iKON higher on my list.

Cjontai, I hear what you’re saying about the girl groups that are playing it safe and going with the virginal concepts. It’s unfortunate that girl groups are forever hindered by “the virgin or the whore” dichotomy but there’s always far less criticism for being the former as opposed to the latter. With that said, it made for some really bland debuts. In addition to CLC; April and Dia have been particularly disappointing.

I actually think we were a bit spoiled this year in terms of the number of quality debuts. I’m not sure if there’s been a year with so many rookies that I liked. After watching Unpretty Rapstar 2, I’m excited to see what happens to Sua and Exy. Exy is set to debut soon in Starship‘s new girl group, and hopefully we get the new YG girl group within a reasonable time frame. I actually miss the days when YG was trying to hype them up; at least it gave me some hope, albeit false ones. Sua has been training for six years already, let’s get it pop it already!

What do y’all think about the male SM Rookies? Will they pose a threat to Exo?

Lauren M: This year was definitely a great year for debuts. We already guessed which ones might have a chance, and I’m sure there might be some dark horses in there that may surprise us next year with their comebacks.

20150708_seoulbeats_monstaxAs far as anticipated debuts, I too hope that YG’s rumored girl group, Pink Punk, finally makes an appearance. After seeing 2NE1 reunite on the MAMA stage, the lack of fierce girl groups in K-pop is even more glaringly obvious. There’s so many sweet girl group clones, like Cjontai said, that I don’t foresee another star like Ga-in, CL or HyunA snatching wigs any time soon. But maybe someone like Momo or Sua or Minji (from The Ark) or even SinB (GFriend) will start to show promise as a breakout star next year.

I personally am waiting for the drama that SM Rookies will inevitably bring, as well as their impact. As of right now, it seems like their concept will be different from EXO’s, so they might not pose an immediate threat. However, I don’t see how they won’t take a chunk of screaming fangirls from all the competing boy groups when they finally do drop. Some groups will be cast aside and some will be pushed further into irrelevancy by the power shift. But then again, I expected iKON’s debut to be similarly earth shattering and it…wasn’t.

Cjontai: I’m not looking forward to SM Rookies at the moment. They’re great dancers, but the way SM is marketing them pre-debut makes me question their talents beyond that. I know everything in K-pop is manufactured for success, but something feels extra artificial with them. Unlike previous groups from SM, I’m not seeing much personality pop out, so my expectations are low. I will join Mark on the Starship train, however, because Cosmic Girls pique my interest as a 12-member group. Normally, I’m wary of large groups because it’s always hit or miss in the talent department, but I hope they’ll be a pleasant surprise.

I felt that way about a lot of rookies this year. It appeared a couple of talented members carried the rest on their skills while the others struggled to keep up. It made for many unbearable performances on music shows. All I want in 2016 is for the groups to be ready for that stage. I need confidence that matches the skills. I also need the companies to trust in their talents enough to let them shine without silly gimmicks. Cheap marketing tricks and over-the-top concepts may grab everyone’s attention, but the real test will be keeping that audience once you have it.

(YouTube, Images via Pledis Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, WM Entertainment, Maps Magazine, Cube Entertainment, YG Entertainment, Starship Entertainment)