While most of our Mid-Year Review discussions zoom in on a particular aspect — dances, albums, MVs — the comebacks category looks at the way these elements have been put together. Does a comeback draw on the artist’s strengths and push them in unexpected directions? Or does it fall back on cliches and get lost in generic trendiness?

Abigail, Celina, and Qing come together with three very different lists of comebacks that caught their attention so far this year.

Qing: Our completely different choices will make for an interesting discussion. A good comeback, ideally, has the whole package: a unique concept, a well-produced and cohesive album, a meaningful and visually distinct MV, and choreography that showcases skill and emotion.

Most important, though, is how the comeback fits into the artist’s trajectory. Each comeback on my list ushers the artist to a new place in their career, even if they lacked some of the elements I mentioned. Seventeen hit all the marks; CLC fall short on the album, but nailed the concept; and where Oh My Girl lacked in originality of concept, they made up for with solidly produced music.

What drew you to our top picks?

Celina: Music is what first draws me in so the lead single is the most important aspect of a good comeback for me. Before everything else, my picks have both melodic and interesting lead singles. After that, of course, is the MV, overall concept, and the album. BTS ticked all of those boxes for me. Taemin’s concept was similar to his last one, but he evolved it. A.C.E was a surprise treat as I wasn’t expecting much from them. Their overall concept wasn’t completely original but their song, MV, and album were all well done.

Abigail: I mostly based my decision-making on how well the comeback was executed. Other factors matter less than how each artist works with what they have been giving in order to execute the creative vision properly and meaningfully. I truly felt that Park Bom, Sunmi, and NU’EST made the most exciting and well-put-together comebacks so far. Bom made a triumphant, long-awaited return, while Sunmi captivated with a thought-provoking concept. Meanwhile, NU’EST finally reunited and released a quality bop that instantly drew me in as a first-time listener.

Qing: It seems most of these comebacks made our list for the artistic growth they showcase. Although artistic growth is usually the goal of a comeback, it’s not so often that it’s used as an explicit theme. The different parts of Seventeen’s comeback work together to reflect this theme subtly but poignantly.

The MV is filled with reminders of the journey they’ve taken, with sets that reference their previous MVs. Likewise, the choreography incorporates point moves of past dances. “Home”’s lyrics about the comfort of being with loved ones, the fear of losing them, and the promise of being there for them can relate to different types of relationships. But piecing it together with the MV and dance, it becomes an honest, intimate message from Seventeen to themselves and their fans. The warmth and vulnerability of the title track spill over into the album as well.

BTS’ “Boy with Luv” seemed like it would take a similar direction, but the MV and dance engaged minimally with the idea of their career growth, so it didn’t make the cut for me. Celina, what stood out for you?

Celina: Early in their career, BTS came out with “Boy in Luv,” which was an aggressive and immature take on love. The MV was darker, their dance moves were wide and hard, and the lyrics were almost grunted out. With “Boy with Luv,” their outfits are more feminine, their moves are gentler, and overall the MV is brighter and more colorful. The song is a softer take on love, and I enjoyed watching them mature from their cringy past.

In addition to their single, their album was well done with some buried treasures like “Make It Right.” The persona concept is tied through every song, creating a cohesive album and another chapter in their music history.  

I’m actually a fan of 2NE1 but didn’t add Park Bom to my list, although I was happy to see her finally come back to the music scene. Abigail, what about her comeback put her at the top of your list?

Abigail: Park Bom truly did that. After suffering through unfair treatment both from her company and the public, she was forced into a hiatus which was caused by problems that were far from what she was able to control. Even as news broke that 2NE1 would disband, her promises for a comeback were looking less likely as the public never forgets the past. For a while, even as a long-time fan, I felt as though we would never see Park Bom sing on another stage again. But then “Spring” happened. It was the culmination of her pain and her loneliness throughout these past years that had her asking, “Will spring come for me again?”

The theme of spring and a flower’s inevitable bloom brings her career into a full circle, as she has been through the worst and yet knows there will always be better tomorrows. The soft instrumentation with the backup choir added a layer of elegance to the song. The visual was a beautiful showcase of her aesthetics, which was further elevated by the inclusion of former 2NE1 member, Sandara Park. With a comeback like “Spring,” Park Bom proved that she is not done handing out these beautiful ballads, and has so much more to prove.

Like Park Bom, Oh My Girl had a charming comeback as well, and they merely missed my top 3. Qing, you mentioned it was the music that earned their comeback a top spot. Could you share more?

Qing: While more popular groups go for trendy EDM and high-energy dance pop, Oh My Girl have been consistently developing an enduring mid-tempo melodic pop style. Riding on dream pop and synth pop, The Fifth Season allows Oh My Girl’s ethereal vocal style to shine. Aurally, it coheres with the fantasy theme of the title track, which compares falling in love to the arrival of an imaginary fifth season.

The production is balanced and has a crystal-clear quality that makes the listening experience smooth. Yet the album also has a number of surprises: the burst of percussion in the post-chorus of “SSFWL” and the Latin music-influenced “Checkmate” are particular stand-outs. There are strong hints of potential directions Oh My Girl could move in without abandoning their signature sound.

A great comeback reminds us what the artist is best known for, yet pushes that niche with something unexpected that still fits the artist perfectly. It seems that both Sunmi and Taemin’s comebacks achieved that too.

Celina: Taemin definitely evolved his sound while still keeping with a sensual concept, similar to his previous album. In fact, on first listen, it may seem like Want is just an extension of Move. However, Want mostly focuses on the idea of desire. Music-wise, Taemin experimented with a more disco pop sound for his lead single and orchestral instrumentals for most of his other tracks. I like that he’s not trying to push himself too out of his box, but also isn’t playing it safe in this album.  

Taemin is known as a great dancer, so dance tracks are definitely his specialty, but he takes the time to show off his amazing vocals as well with stripped down songs like “Truth” and “Monologue.” In addition, “Shadow” is one of those buried treasures that truly exemplifies his ability as a musician. Its use of orchestral instrumentals gives it an alluring and haunting melody that recaptures your attention halfway throughout the album.  Of course, the lead single “Want,” along with the MV, were both mesmerizing. Overall, he just gave us a stellar comeback.

Abigail: Talking about stellar, Sunmi really personified that description with her comeback with “Noir.” Much like Taemin’s tracks, the song had a layer of sensuality to it that shone through the modern pop vibe of the instrumentation. Her viral hit, “Gashina” put her on the map as one of Korea’s hottest solo acts, while “Heroine” further established her artistry as a singer who could establish meaning within her work.

The visual for her comeback “Noir” sheds light on the dark undertones of social media. It speaks to society’s obsession with validation through likes and retweets that only grants a temporary high until we start seeking the next internet source for our happiness. Sunmi also shamelessly excluded a dance routine for “Noir.” Instead, she took advantage of her freedom on stage to exert her own self-expression, which is admirable among the many company-calculated comebacks thus far that didn’t hit the mark as intended. Sunmi’s artistic freedom is what sets her apart from her peers, and it will continue to be her upper hand in turning out music that can make one dance and self-reflect all at once.

Qing: Sunmi’s concepts pop with originality and personality, but sometimes, you don’t need a completely new idea to stand out. CLC have cycled through disappointing releases that fell back on traditional cutesy concepts, before attempting the girl crush concept. It isn’t new, but with “No,” they found their own subtle, chic take that doesn’t just appropriate the facade of a girl crush. It’s truly underpinned by a message of female empowerment: they reclaim the agency to define their own image.

In the MV, they reject typical markers of beauty, and the lyrics reject expectations placed on female idols to perform certain acts of femininity. No.1 was a letdown, but “No” itself makes unusual production choices, drawing from trap and electro-pop, but emphasising a very pared-down soundscape that fits the laid-back confidence of the dance and MV to a T.

Celina: On the surface, A.C.E’s dark concept seems pretty generic. I wish they expanded more on the “warning” symbols in their MV, but overall the song and album won me over. It’s definitely not a group that I thought I would have placed on my top picks, but after I reviewed their single, I realized how impressive their overall comeback was to me.

Firstly, their high-energy title track is the perfect blend of rock and hip-hop. The MV has interesting imagery but focuses on their greatest strength — their dancing. The album has great diversity and has other quality songs like “Mr.Bass.” This comeback really shows off their abilities as musicians. If they keep it up, I can see them becoming top contenders in the K-pop scene.

I noticed NU’EST also featured a roulette table in their MV. Abigail, what was it about this comeback that put them on your top three?

Abigail: Since I was a first-time listener of NU’EST, I didn’t know what sound to expect from the group. But ultimately they climbed into my top three because of “Bet Bet” and its addictive energy that had me replaying their mini album ever since it’s release. Like A.C.E, NU’EST went for a dark aesthetic that was primarily shown through the MV. The choreo was smooth and uniform, the outfits were dark and sleek, and the fairytale concept kept me entertained and satisfied.

Not only did “Bet Bet” deliver in the artistic department, but the production level of their mini album Happily Ever After was solid as well. “Different” and “Fine” are particular standouts from the project. Both songs show off the boys’ uniform harmonies with energetic bassy hooks that parallel the addictive nature of the title track. This was certainly a long-awaited and much-anticipated comeback for the group since their time on Produce 101 that rebooted the group’s career. It’s hard not to ignore the amount of hard work and dedication each member put into this comeback after such a long hiatus.

Qing: It’s fascinating how we had similar criteria, yet wound up with such different choices. But if anything, diversity is what makes K-pop so much fun. Here’s to more variety in comebacks for the next half of the year!

(Images via Beat Interactive, Big Hit Entertainment, Cube Entertainment, D-Nation Entertainment, Makeus Entertainment, Pledis Entertainment, SM Entertainment, WM Entertainment)