2019 has certainly been an eventful year so far in K-pop, in both good and bad ways. Luckily, balancing the torrent of front page headlines is an array of strong debuts that have kept us going. Vivien and Tássia discuss the groups that have made the biggest impact on the K-pop landscape in the last six months.

Vivien: Honestly, I don’t keep up with debuts much anymore; there are so many, and few groups really impress me right from the outset. But this year has been an exception – there have been so many interesting debuts and I genuinely struggled to pick three favourites.

Let’s start with our shared third choice; what about Everglow’s debut took them into your top three?

Tássia: Debuts are usually one of my favorite things to keep up with. I guess I like to see the potential (only to be disappointed so many times). But I agree that the past year or two have been blessed with exciting endeavours, and that a while ago, this was not so prevalent. Good for us!

On to Everglow’s debut, what impressed me most was the surprise factor of it all. I am a fan of Yuehua’s groups, but did not see this coming even though they covered various styles in the teasers. I am so used to safe or innocent debuts, that when one group bets on attitude and flair, I invariably pay more attention. Especially if it comes with a fearless hook, gorgeous aesthetics and weird, iconic choreography. What about you?

Vivien: Everglow definitely took me by surprise too! As Yuehua’s first Korea-based group since UNIQ, I was curious to see what they might bring to the table. With a name like “Bon Bon Chocolat”, I was fully expecting the typical, cutesy pop associated with most girl groups, but Yuehua floored me with their excellent and atypical song choice.

It’s co-written by Melanie Fontana, who was responsible for BTS“Euphoria” and TXT’s “Crown”, so Yuehua have obviously been keeping their finger on the pulse of trending K-pop songwriters. I love the mix of grungy trap beats with airy melodic vocals, and my only hope is that Yuehua can follow it up with equally iconic title tracks in future!

Tássia: That’s true! “Bon Bon Chocolat” has all the elements commonly appreciated by Western audiences, and their international success is no surprise if we take that into account. With the announcement of Everglow going to Kcon NY, it does seem that Yuehua is investing more in their Korean branch and overseas potential now, and I’m eager to see what else they have in store!

Since we are talking about Melanie Fontana, what was it about TXT’s debut that earned them the silver crown (ha, couldn’t miss the pun) on your list?

Vivien: It was close, but TXT managed to secure second place with their EP, The Dream Chapter: Star. While there was a certain blandness to their image that I couldn’t quite place, I couldn’t fault the consistency and quality of their songs – “Crown” was clean, refreshing summer pop, “Cat & Dog” was memorable and catchy (if ridiculous) and “Nap of a Star” was a beautiful ballad and lullaby.

Big Hit’s unusual choice to later release MVs for the latter two — instead of quickly moving on to new material — is, I think, a testament to the quality of this EP. I also really enjoy narrative concepts, and the level of immersion TXT are offering with their “boy who grew horns out of his head” story is keeping me interested in new content from the group.

Tássia: You got many points there. TXT isn’t on my top 3 exactly because of this blandness — I feel their marketing was a safe bet, even though it’s likely that anything Big Hit releases from now on will be successful — so I wish they had been a little more surprising.

Although “Crown” didn’t impress me much, their EP is indeed solid and much more enjoyable than I expected. I had it on repeat quite a few times and it’s like being a teenager all over again, so refreshing. I still have to catch up with their story as I didn’t pay enough attention, but now that you mentioned it, I will definitely take another look!

Vivien: Speaking of boy groups, I see Brand New Music’s Ab6ix made your second place! I think Woojin and Daehwi (of Wanna One fame) are talented, but “Breathe” seemed to recycle a lot of elements from other trendy pop songs without adding anything new. What made you add them to your list?

Tássia: Besides a little bias since I had been following them back in Produce 101 days and anxiously waited for this debut, I actually thought “Breathe” was a daring approach. Usually, rookie boy groups rely on their youthfulness (like TXT), so I was impressed by the upfront maturity and elegance of this concept. “Breathe” also hypnotized me with its beautiful color palette, outfits, and one of the best choreographies of the year.

The addition of Woong to the previously known quartet felt very natural, and his vocal color adds an interesting contrast, like the cherry on top of a long-awaited dessert. Brand New Music had an excellent pre-debut strategy for them, promoting the other members regularly throughout almost two years, but also leaving this pleasant surprise to the final premiere.

I also considered Ab6ix’s potential as producers and songwriters — Daehwi is credited in almost all tracks of their EP, and he’s only eighteen! While I agree with you that it’s not the most innovative debut (it does look and feel similar to VIXX and Shinee, but I’m not complaining), the quality of the overall product was what stood out and kept me captivated.

Moving on to the gold medal, I see Itzy was your top pick. Their debut was somewhat polarizing among K-pop fans, but I for one enjoyed the peculiarities of “Dalla Dalla”. What made them your favorite debut of the last six months?

Vivien: I’m not surprised that it polarised fans! To be honest, I wasn’t the biggest fan myself when it first came out. They talked about being “different”, which seemed ironic considering they seemed directly inspired by YG’s flagship girl group, Black Pink. That took away some of their credibility for me, though to be fair I haven’t seen many others draw the same comparison.

The song is also far from perfect. Unlike “Bon Bon Chocolat” and “Crown”, “Dalla Dalla” has a lot of quirks that I dislike: the strained singing that suggests they’re lacking a strong vocalist, the unnecessary half-time trap breakdown on the second verse, the awkward-sounding rap that suggests they’re lacking a strong rapper too… There are a lot of things here that I would have changed, but somehow I still find myself coming back again and again.

There’s something that makes the song iconic almost as soon as the opening synths kick in, and the way the rap parts and chorus are written makes it impossible not to sing along. Even though the verses and intro are very much in the girl-crush, hip-hop vein, the chorus brings it back to cute, catchy melodies in classic JYP style, which I love – catchy, melodic choruses are JYP’s bread and butter, after all.

They also really delivered on the MV, in terms of visual effects, styling and camerawork. Add in some stellar choreography and you’ve got a debut with an impact, with over 120 million YouTube views to show for it.

Tássia: Being honest, “Dalla Dalla” is much better than a slew of songs that blew up recently. I found the slandering of its quirkiness misplaced, as if people haven’t praised way more grating tracks before! I agree this debut has little originality, but how it follows through in its own frenetic chaos of sounds and visuals is admirable, and for that I consider it “different,” as the title says.

While Itzy didn’t make it into my top 3, they were sure close to it. I agree they delivered in many aspects — especially when we consider the gigantic expectations of being Twice’s sister group. Although predictable, I’m happy JYP chose the girl-crush-with-a-spoonful-of-sugar concept for them, as I think it suits the members’ personalities and charisma really well. Ryujin and Yeji have that undeniable star power, and I’m excited to see more of them.

I just wish they debuted with an EP at least, because two tracks were not enough to get a taste of what they came for. With all the similarities to Black Pink, the lack of songs is one I sincerely hope they won’t follow!

Vivien: They definitely did well in creating a group that would complement Twice without competing against them. And I agree, Itzy are in a great position to make a successful sophomore comeback right now and JYP would do well to strike while the iron is hot.

On the other side, I see your top pick is RBW Entertainment’s group Oneus. I can see why you chose them – “Valkyrie” was a great song which reminded me of old-school Beast-style K-pop, with sentimental melodies over a classic EDM beat. I also liked the use of guitar and the way the pre-chorus brings the noise level down instead of up – it reminded me of a similar technique used in Seventeen’s “Home”. What stood out about their debut for you?

Tássia: Oneus were another group that I was eagerly waiting for since Produce 101. Even more so than Ab6ix, as the members who participated in the show (Keonhee, Hwanwoong and Seoho) were eliminated before having real chances to showcase their talent. Hwanwoong in particular was one of my top picks, and it was just painful to see how little screen time he got. I mean, the boy can dance. And keep all eyes glued to him.

Unlike Brand New Music, RBW’s pre-debut strategy wasn’t so out there, so the content we had from the former RBW Boys was few and far between. However, the wait was worth it, as “Valkyrie” was everything I hoped for and more. Like you mentioned, it brought back a certain old-school sound, with an actual chorus and propulsion from start to end. I will admit that I don’t like the trap breakdowns, but in times of instrumental drops passing for choruses, I can bear with this, as everything else is astonishing.

And while Ab6ix presented what VIXX and Shinee sound like nowadays, Oneus reminded me of earlier works from both of these groups. Even the muted palette and dramatic styling and makeup, it all screams 2012-13 K-pop — and I love it. Also, as these veterans enlist one by one, Oneus bring us a glimpse of hope that this period of absence won’t be as painful.

Another reason this quintet became my top pick was the superior quality of both of their minis. I swear they haven’t had one bad song yet. Seeing how much care is being put not only in building their mythical, dark aesthetic, but also in crafting a cohesive soundscape brings me a lot of joy, and that’s why they’re my favorite debut of 2019 so far.

Any final thoughts?

Vivien: Well, 2019 has certainly been eventful so far (for better or worse), but all these strong debuts have really helped balance out the bad news we’ve been hearing. My honourable mention goes to WayV, NCT’s Chinese subunit, and I’ve also enjoyed songs from BVNDIT and Somi; any final thoughts from your side?

Tássia: I agree with everything you said, especially that honourable mention to WayV — I’m still addicted to “Take Off” like it was released yesterday! I would also like to add OnlyOneOf and their two smooth, promising singles (where has the embarrassing rookie phase gone?) to that list. Overall, I feel like this year’s debuts mark the start of a whole new generation — one that’s surely daring and multifaceted.

(YouTube [1][2][3][4][5]. Images via JYP Entertainment, RBW Entertainment, Brand New Music, Yuehua Entertainment, Big Hit Enterainment.)