It’s that time again! With 2016 officially over, we look back at the year that was in K-pop in our End-of-Year Review. To kick things off, Angela and Sarah look at the debuts of the year and separate the wheat from the chaff. While sub-unit and solo debuts of already-active idols aren’t included, there are still a lot of debuts to talk about! Here are Angela and Sarah’s top 5 picks, which are discussed in detail below:

Sam Kim
3 Black Pink Astro
4 Vromance K.A.R.D
5 K.A.R.D Cosmic Girls

Sarah: I had such a hard time choosing only five, but not because they were all spectacular, more that there wasn’t anyone that really stood out to me this year. I enjoyed a lot of debut songs this year, but nothing that really said “we are here to stay!” So instead I went for groups that I enjoyed year long, rather than the one-offs that debuts often are. Angela, what was your thought process in choosing your Top 5?

Angela: I agree that I saw nothing spectacular that will necessarily last in the long run. Though I think we differ a lot in our Top 5 because I focused primarily on the strength of individual singles over the year, and really made my choices based on what managed to leave a strong impression on me. In general there is so much music being released these days; I’m always overwhelmed with options, so having a debut song become an earworm and end up on my commute playlist says a lot.

My top choice was Grace, mostly because of her second release “Trick or Treat.” Halloween is never going to topple Christmas as the go-to inspiration for holiday music, but I like this move that seems to follow in the footsteps of Twice’s “TT”, but rather takes advantage of Halloween’s dark side.

I found the hook catchy, and loved how sinister the song manages to sound. Plus, the MV is set in Shibuya. There have been quite a few MVs shot in Japan recently (Crush’s “Don’t Forget” in Sapporo, Astro’s “Confession” somewhere in the Kanto region, etc), but as a person who lives here I can rarely figure out why the setting is Japan. On the other hand, placing “Trick or Treat” in Shibuya is perfect: the main crossing is a sardine-squished nightmare crowd on Halloween, and the maze of back alleys full of kids drinking, smoking, and loitering in costume. As a whole, the package for this release was the most compelling thing I saw this year.

I’m surprised Sam Kim ended up at the top of your list! Why was he your first choice?

Sarah: I focused on the groups that held my interest through a full album or a series of releases during the year. I think K.A.R.D was the only one on my list where they really caught my ear with only one release.

Sam Kim ended up being my first choice for a number of reasons. Like you mentioned regarding songs set in Japan, I had a similar reaction to his song “Seattle”. While Sam Kim was born outside of Seattle and grew up there, I went to university close by, so both the music video and the lyrics — which are half in English — resonated incredibly strongly. I was originally interested in his album because I heard he’d written all of the songs himself, then when I listened to it, I fell in love. While it’s not a dance album, it has a very solid groovy R&B feel, and that really appeals to me.

I think it’s interesting that we both put soloists at the top of our lists. Perhaps there’s some reasoning there with the fact that in a year where nothing really stood out, at least soloists automatically stand out from the hundreds of idol groups we see come and go. Yet the only overlap we both decided to choose is the brand new K.A.R.D. What was your reasoning in putting them on your list?

Angela: K.A.R.D was a group that snuck up at the end of the year almost solely for the strength of the song. I would go as far as to say “Oh NaNa” is my guilty pleasure for December. Also, my curiosity has been piqued by the fact that they’re the only co-ed group I’ve noticed in forever, so I can say I’m genuinely excited to see what kind of chemistry they might have in future variety and live performances.

But ultimately it’s true that soloists are so much easier to stomach than idol groups. I really did not want to put Boys Generally Asian in my Top 5, but at the end of rewatching so many boy groups they were basically the only one that I could say had a distinct and memorable concept. A lot of people hyped Pentagon’s “Gorilla,” but seriously, how would you respond if a guy confessed to you by saying you made him feel like a gorilla? I would tell him to go home. It’s against facepalm K-pop moments like this that drove the satire of BgA to #2 on my list.

The only other boy group that made my list was Vromance, mostly because I’m a sucker for that kind of swing-inspired music and look. I admit I only checked them out originally because they were billed as Mamamoo’s brother group, but I was sold after one listen of “She.”

Your boy group choices were KNK and Astro — what made them the standout idols for you?

Sarah: I totally agree on the over-hyped aspect of Pentagon’s debut. “Gorilla” was a huge flop in my opinion. Their second single, “Can You Feel It”, was slightly better, but they really haven’t impressed me yet. I also agree on why K.A.R.D caught my ear. “Oh NaNa” was highly enjoyable and I’m also rooting for them for going with a co-ed group, and excited to see them continue. Successful co-ed groups are the unicorns of k-pop.

I also very much enjoyed Vromance and BgA this year, but I did ultimately chose to put KNK and Astro in my Top 5 instead. I got hooked on KNK right off the bat, so I might be a bit biased there, but I think they are managing to pull off a darker concept from the beginning. Most boy groups who debut with a mature concept don’t seem to fit the actual maturity levels, but I think KNK has a charisma and stage presence that belies their age.

On the other hand, Astro is completely and utterly encouraged to act their age. While bubblegum pop normally makes me want to throw up a little, Astro’s songs are just the right amount of cheerful and peppy and not too over the top. I saw them this year at Kcon as well and they were just as adorable on stage. Similarly to KNK, their company has chosen the right concept for them, for now, and I like watching that work.

I have to bring up the question now that really bugged me when making my list: how do we feel about those super over-hyped debuts from the huge powerhouse companies? I noticed that both of us left NCT (and its subgroups), SM Entertainment’s newest venture, off our lists (even though I guiltily enjoyed their songs this year), but you did choose to include Black Pink from YG. It’s always interesting to see whether these highly publicized groups meet our expectations, so what was it that made Black Pink stand out from the crowd for you?

Angela: NCT got left off my list because I just found it generic and bland in every way. It makes sense to me that this group would be SM’s jumping point for attempt at world domination, because it’s an adequate reconstruction of contemporary music trends in song form that is basic enough to be marketed anywhere… without really saying anything at all.

I really agonized over whether Black Pink belonged on this list. I like the releases, I like the MVs, I like the fashion and the style. That being said, they really do seem so much like 2NE1‘s replacement group it hurts. YG talks about how they are the “pretty” version and fans argue that they’re going with more of a “sultry” vibe, but if that is the case Black Pink is just a bunch of teens acting like adults, and I would rather see a group like Fifth Harmony or Brown Eyed Girls cover “Whistle.”

And you’re right — the biggest problem to grapple with is whether we have to hold these groups to different standards, because they are products of the powerhouse companies. But regardless, I think quality-wise, Black Pink definitely stands out from the pack. I can’t ignore how good they are or how much I liked them, so credit must be given where credit is due…even if they are a 2NE1 rip-off. Though I expect that over time, they will be given room to grow in new directions, and hopefully the comparison can be cast aside.

Starship Entertainment is not quite a powerhouse yet, but it’s still a company with a presence and I was slightly disappointed with this year’s debut of Cosmic Girls. They seem to be a response to Cube Entertainment‘s success with A Pink, and even though they didn’t end up on my list I’m still rooting for them, mostly because I thought “Secret” was one of the most gorgeous MVs I saw all year. I found the music itself to be a little boring, but I guess you felt differently?

Sarah: I think my reasoning behind putting Cosmic Girls on my list is very similar to your choice of Black Pink. I felt their music videos definitely stood out and, while maybe my standards are not quite as high as they should be for Starship, I enjoyed the songs as well. They weren’t as sickeningly sweet as some of the other girl groups, which bumped up their potential for me.

Perhaps I held Black Pink to too high a standard as 2NE1’s successor, but I felt there was just something off with their releases. They certainly present a powerful image, but it feels a bit too much like little girls playing dress-up. I will be interested in seeing where they go, however. On the other hand, I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of NCT. I think the reason I can’t get their songs out of my head is precisely the reason I can’t stand them. They’re too perfectly crafted to appeal and catch on everywhere.

I am a bit disappointed that we didn’t have any real standouts like last year’s Seventeen and Twice, but I suppose we’re often spoiled by K-pop releases. So much goes into two or three comebacks per year, let alone a whole debut. There’s so much that can go right and impress us, but also so much that can go wrong. At least we got the dark horse co-ed group at the last minute. Here’s to seeing where they take us in 2017.

Readers, who made your Best Debut list this year? Let us know in the comments below!

(Images via: DSP Media, Antenna Music, Fantagio, YNB Ent., YG Ent., SM Ent.)