As always, the approaching end to the year signals the beginning of our End-of-Year Review series. We kick start this year’s discussion with the debuts panel, in which Janine and Qing find themselves with surprisingly similar lists amidst a weaker showing compared to past years.

Janine Qing
1 Pristin Dreamcatcher
2 Dreamcatcher The Rose
3 The Rose Black6ix
4 Golden Child Wanna One
5 Wanna One Golden Child

Qing: It looks like we have most picks in common. But first, Janine, since you were on the mid-year review panel this year, how has your list held up or changed?

Janine: Debuts in the first half of the year were comparatively quieter than the last six months. We weren’t seeing new groups dominate charts and conversation until Produce 101 Season 2 wrapped and suddenly there were giant boy groups everywhere.

When putting this list together I worried I might not have anyone from the first half of the year. All my worries came to nothing because there were definitely groups who made a lasting impression: Pristin and Dreamcatcher were both on my list for the mid-review and are still the top for me.

Blanc7‘s debut song showed a lot of promise in March with “Yeah” but bigger songs knocked them out of my top five. I chose Black6ix as one of my top debuts in June but even though I found “Please” to have a killer hook, I didn’t go back to them as often as my current picks.

Even though the beginning of the year was a little slow, quality songs endured through the peak of the Produce wave. Speaking of the almighty Broduce, should we talk about the elephant in the room? How do you feel about Wanna One?

Qing: If we had a showing like last year’sAstroKNKSF9, and so on—Wanna One would likely not have made my list. But it has been a weaker year for debuts, so here we are, with the group somewhat reluctantly wedged in at fourth and fifth place.

First off, no, I haven’t been living in a cave for most of the year (although I must say writing an MA thesis comes close enough). So yes, I am aware of Wanna One’s explosive success: their brand reputation stronghold, chart-topping title tracks, the rounds they’ve been making on coveted variety shows—all markers of a top group as far as today’s K-pop scene is concerned.

But it only takes one look at CJ E&M‘s original attempt at replicating Produce 101‘s success to realise how much all of this banks on the PD101 branding, and not the actual planning and execution of the debut. How many K-pop fans, much less the general Korean public, are even aware of Boys24, the original male version of PD101, and the final boy group produced, In2It? It didn’t take Mnet long to realise that the show was tanking, and they quickly revived PD101 and fast-tracked Wanna One’s debut before public interest cooled.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the members aren’t talented or skilled enough, or haven’t worked hard enough to deserve this success. My point is that this business model of using the PD101 and “Wanna One” brand, combined with attractive personalities and a trend-dol in Kang Daniel, can bring the hype and the cash, but it doesn’t necessarily make the group good artists.

The quality of a debut and its artistry hinges on three things: music (production, vocal ability, and delivery), performance (dance skills, the group’s synergy), and concept. Originality of the concept isn’t essential, but the identity or style that the group is going for should ideally be clear. Wanna One doesn’t have much of a concept, as the vast difference between “Energetic” and its follow up, “Beautiful”, indicates.

What they did have with “Energetic”, though, was choreography with memorable features like the piano formation at the start, and solid production that plays with dynamics and a more pared-down soundscape that is quite uncharacteristic of the usual cluttered EDM sound K-pop favours. The melodic “Beautiful” and its fluid moves brought out a more mature, emotional side to the group that placed them above Golden Child on my list.

Although the boys are fairly competent singing and dance-wise, they aren’t that outstanding vocally, and their lives lack synergy as a group. It’s true that the choreography doesn’t make full use of the group’s size, and perhaps one could blame the fact that they are a project group with an end-date in sight. But knowing these doesn’t change the observation that there are other rookie groups this year that feel and perform more like a team, and not just an assemblage of talented individuals placed on one stage.

Janine: I agree wholeheartedly! I was conflicted about Wanna One because while I find the individual members talented and personally appealing, as a group I’m still not convinced. I liked “Energetic” initially but it never stuck with me as a song or a concept. I’m not the kind of fan who needs an entire universe to be created but I appreciate some thematic substance.

Watching how The Boyz used the theme of discovery in their MV for “Boy” to associate members with their talents made me mentally compare them (as two rookie groups with over 10 members). “Energetic” did something similar in grouping the boys together in smaller groups but they brought attention to personality traits of the members instead of skills which at the time I appreciated because I didn’t watch Produce 101 and didn’t know them. Now, I feel differently because I’ve seen them on a few variety shows and I wish I could see more of them artistically.

I couldn’t justify leaving them off my list because they’ve done incredibly well commercially and I didn’t dislike any of the music they’ve released. It’s just a bit middle of the road creatively. Their performances are consistent but, as you mentioned, the choreography doesn’t fully use them as a group. That being said, I think they all are talented and I look forward to seeing more from them.

You mentioned concept as a major point of a great debut, is that partly why Dreamcatcher tops your list?

Qing: While I don’t base my list off concept mainly, it’s a crucial factor in sorting the rankings. Dreamcatcher was the first group to come to mind when I started on my list, and hardly by coincidence. Thanks to bold, coherent styling choices drawing from Japanese and Korean horror and tailored to fit their chosen niche of J-rock-infused title tracks, Dreamcatcher made a very strong visual and auditory impression. They’re not the first K-pop group to use horror influences, but J-rock is a largely untapped genre in the scene. It’s an especially apt one to showcase the group’s powerful vocals and dance skills.

What made their debut shine wasn’t any particular element, but how all the parts complemented each other: where the choreography flags in momentum in the “Chase Me” chorus, the stable singing and rolling bass makes up for the energy. The horror concept of the MVs wasn’t just novelty; it provided an eerie tension to counterpoint the powerful vibe of the debut.

While Dreamcatcher’s solidly established signature aesthetic and sound is a strength, it’s also very tricky to work out of. GFriend had a similar issue: their debut trio of “Glass Bead”, “Me Gustas Tu”, and “Rough” were so iconic that subsequent title tracks easily paled in comparison, despite maintaining success on the charts. The next comeback is crucial for Dreamcatcher’s direction.

What set them apart for you? And what placed Pristin above them?

Janine: In Lorenza’s review of “Wee Woo“, she said she thought Pledis‘ plan for Pristin was to create songs that are so catchy you can’t stop listening to them until you trick yourself into liking them. It worked on me. Pristin is on the top of my list of debuts because I like every single song they’ve released. Most of the songs on Hi! Pristin are written, in part, by the members and even though the first album is more potential than polish: they do a good job of making catchy pop songs. The solid album tracks combined with the fact that every title track they’ve released has been a bop put them far and away ahead of other debuts for me in pop.

They haven’t had a perfect run of things—they could be a lot stronger in concept and originality—but they have something special. They’re one of the few girl groups who make good use of their contraltos in verses and harmonies; they make earworms and they have songwriting credits… That’s a winner in my book. If Pristin is the musical equivalent of candy floss, then I’m ignoring my vow to avoid refined sugars and going to town.

Dreamcatcher did every element of their debut differently and excellently. I was impressed with the instrumentation of “Chase Me” and “Good Night”—I am a sucker for sped-up fuzzy guitar riffs and enthusiastic drums. I also loved the dramatic horror elements of the videos. They really stood out for the originality of their content and how well they executed it.

Speaking of drama and drums, can we gush about The Rose?

Qing: ​I was scrolling down the CJ E&M YouTube channel one day—​it’s a habit​—​and clicked in because, well, that shade of purple-pink in the thumbnail is one of my favourite colours. I had no idea it would be a portkey to vocal heaven. And it’s not just technique that The Rose excels in; their vocalists have a very unique timbre. Woosung‘s opening lines to “Sorry” were delivered so delicately yet with such raw regret in his bright but raspy voice, and the way his falsettos trembled and tapered in the second verse sounded so close to crying. That made for one of the most riveting song introductions I’ve ever heard.

Black6ix secured a place on my list for similar reasons: solid vocals and spellbinding delivery. However painfully obvious their lack of budget is, it’s equally clear that their company invested in what counts—​the music. Like The Rose’s singles, there’s nothing radical about “Please” and “Like a Flower”, though the latter has a fresh take on familiar elements of EDM with a hint of tropical house. “Please” is a throwback to the emotional dance ballads that characterised much of K-pop circa 2012, but it’s delivered with a controlled desperation that doesn’t just grab your attention; it also takes a bit of your heart with it.

Janine: My first experience with The Rose was with “Like We Used To“, their second release, which was a lot softer than “Sorry”. I liked it, mainly because of Woosung’s voice. I heard “Sorry” about a week after I had “Like We Used To” in steady rotation and as soon as the opening lines were sung, I was hooked. Woosung’s tone and delivery are so unique and it was a smart decision to highlight his voice in their debut. I was also impressed by the visuals of “Sorry”, particularly Dojoon lying in the bathtub covered in rose petals. It was a moment that reminded me of early nineties rock ballads like Bon Jovi’s “Bed Of Roses”. I love unabashed melodrama and they delivered it to me.

The only people we haven’t spoken about are the effervescent Golden Child. I was impressed by the unflagging energy of “DamDaDi” and how effortlessly enjoyable the choreography looked. Golden Child is another boy group with a small army of members but I never felt overwhelmed by the numbers. The debut concept wasn’t anything groundbreaking but they executed it with such infectious joy that I couldn’t help but love them. I ended up watching all their performances. They were one of the easiest picks for my end of year list.

Qing: “Effervescent” is the perfect word to describe Golden Child. Like you said, they’re a big group with eleven members, but when they dance there’s visual coherence and great synchronisation. But the way they sync isn’t robotic; it’s driven by a fresh synergy that actually reminds me of Seventeen, except “Adore U” had a groovier vibe. If I had to use an analogy, Seventeen is like fruity wine—fun and chic—while Golden Child is like sparkling champagne—bubbly, just bordering on sweet, but not at all saccharine. The bright image is something we’ve seen a hundred times over, yet when properly done, never gets old.

Unlike the mid-year review, this round we’ve focused exclusively on the K-pop scene. Were there debuts from other genres you wanted to give an honourable mention to?

Janine: All the amazingly polished R&B and hip-hop debuts in the second half of the year kept me very happy. Rad Museum, Millic, and Offonoff represented the Club Eskimo brand really well. DPR Live was one of my favourite debuts from early on, and I still listen to Coming To You Live. Woo Wonjae‘s emergence during Show Me The Money and subsequent releases impressed me.

Readers, what debuts caught your eye this year?

(YouTube [1][2][3][4], Images via Cre.Ker Entertainment, Happyface Entertainment, J&Star Entertainment, Jackpot Entertainment)