2019 may go down in K-pop history as a exceptionally bad year for events and news within the industry, but it’s been exceptionally strong for debuts. It is particularly striking to note that this year, debuts from mid-tier and smaller companies such as RBW Entertainment stood out over and above debuts from the big ones. Kaitlin, Rimi and Xiao Qing discuss the debuts that made a lasting impression.

Rimi: I went into 2019 pretty excited about boy group debuts, what with the promise of a new Produce series, a myriad of post-Wanna One groups/soloists, Big Hit’s new group, and YG’s Treasure13. But it turns out the best debuts came from groups not even on my radar. Combining our lists, RBW’s Oneus and Onewe, as well as Yuehua Entertainment’s Everglow, are undeniably the stand out debuts of the year.

I first saw Onewe on The Unit, where the band — then MAS 0094 — struggled with choreography and were the last to be selected as teammates. It’s amazing to see how far they have come since then. As a ballad, “Reminisce About All” is an unusual choice of genres for a K-pop debut, but makes sense given their more indie beginnings. That all three songs on their debut single album 1/4 got an MV speaks to the strength of the material on it. Their follow-up 2/4, and covers (see (G)I-dle’s “Latata”) are all solid pieces of music.

Then there’s Oneus. I loved their debut, but what truly won me over was their second comeback, “Lit”. Over three EPs so far, Oneus have consistently released good music, delivered quality performances, and expertly conveyed their concepts. It also helps that individual members really stand out — from Hwanwoong’s endless expressions to Leedo’s deep voice — making it easy to remember the group.

What brought them onto your lists?

Xiao Qing: I first encountered Oneus when Day6’s Jae recommended it on his Twitter, and when I watched their debut MV for “Valkyrie”, I was so impressed by the production of the song and performance quality that I couldn’t believe that they were a rookie group. Even watching their performances on music shows, they held a standard of professionalism that is hard to find in rookie groups. Their subsequent EPs were also of high quality, and I was attracted to them because they chose a more mature sound, as opposed to one that was catchy and uplifting like most rookie groups.

I also knew Onewe as MAS 0094 from The Unit, and learning about their hardships and watching the members train so hard made me extremely proud when they were finally rebranded, with their debut taking off this time. The song that really sealed it for me was “Regulus”. There was so much soul and emotion poured into the song that it made me feel so much love for a lover I never had. It was extremely satisfying to see these emotions being expressed during live stages as well, and it was so unforgettable that I just had to put them on my list. However, I placed them lower than Oneus because they haven’t showcased much diversity in terms of sound when compared to Oneus.

Kaitlin: Well, it seems all three of us love a good underdog story, as I also first saw Onewe on The Unit and appreciated the group’s hustle and raw talent. Dongmyeong was a standout on the show, and I was surprised to learn he had a twin brother, Xion, who was debuting in Oneus.

Oneus’s pre-debut practice certainly paid off because they came off as polished, cool, and confident in their debut, “Valkyrie.” However, my favorite Oneus release all year was “Lit.” The dragged out, gravelly “deullinda u” and “gaja u” in the chorus help the group vocalize the mischievous swagger that’s on display in the MV, which is visually rich, playful, and bursting with personality. 

I agree with Rimi that Oneus’s releases so far have done a great job distinguishing the different members, something that is essential when trying to get new fans to invest in the group. 

Their brother group, Onewe, is further down my list but their potential is exciting nonetheless. I stand by my earlier claim that they are stars in the making. Lead singer Yonghoon’s vocals in “Regulus” are breathtaking. 

I think it was wise for them to release three MVs with their debut because each one shows off different sides of the members and their capabilities, though “Ring on My Ears” was my favorite because of the dramatic drum fills and explosive guitar riffs. However, I still think the band is working out the kinks of balancing all their skills in one cohesive track. 

Besides Oneus and Onewe, we all picked Everglow. What made them your top girl group debuts of 2019?

Rimi: As mentioned in the Mid-Year Review, Everglow truly made an impactful debut earlier this year. The impact is probably amplified by the name of the song, “Bon Bon Chocolat”, which is really misleading. I was expecting bubblegum pop (not a fan), only to be hit by an unapologetic attitude and serious charisma. For once I also loved the electronic, instrumental hook, which perfectly suits their concept.

Everglow followed this up with “Adios”, which kept up the same energy and vibe, and yet did not seem repetitive or boring (something even Oneus didn’t do quite as well with “Valkyrie” and “Twilight”). I really look forward to seeing what the group shows us next. 

Kaitlin: Everglow definitely debuted with a swagger and confidence on par with established girl groups from bigger companies. Their facial expressions, performances and styling were strong from the jump.

Their choreography and songs for both “Bon Bon Chocolat” and “Adios” have a sharp, aggressive edge to them that are contrasted by softer, more delicate moments in the verses or pre-chorus. This makes the powerful moves and instrumentals that come at the chorus all the more impactful. 

Not only are Everglow balanced in their sound and choreography, but they also do an impressive job of handling a pretty substantial height difference. I’m a tall girl myself, so I was thrilled to see Aisha, who is 174 centimeters, or about 5’8”, fitting in well with members who are up to six inches shorter than her. Much like Oneus, the members seem to have their own charms but all work well together. 

Xiao Qing: Out of all the girl groups that debuted this year, Everglow’s “Bon Bon Chocolat” stood out the most musically. With a catchy chorus and all members harmonising well with each other, they proved to be a cohesive group that also complemented each other’s strengths. Personally, I was not the biggest fan of Yi Ren and Sihyeon during their time on Produce 48, but after watching their live stages, they really made me regret not having them as my two-picks. 

I would say that Everglow had the strongest comeback amongst all the rookie groups — they improved and expanded their sound while maintaining the same concept/brand for their group. “Adios” was so good and catchy that it was on repeat for at least a month, and their live stages made the entire performance more exciting to watch.

Aside from Everglow, Oneus and Onewe, we all have pretty different groups in our top debuts for this year. How did these artists make it onto your lists?

Rimi: Actually Kaitlin and I have TXT in common as well! For me, they were a no brainer. I came into K-pop via BTS, and remain first and foremost an ARMY. TXT have many of the same producers — Hitman Bang, PDogg, Slow Rabbit, Supreme Boi, Adora, and more — and I knew I would love them. The true surprise is that they’re last on my list. I loved their debut EP but didn’t really like The Dream Chapter: Magic where the songs just seem to blend into one another. Their carefully produced, almost… synthetic… image isn’t working for me either.

Kaitlin: Funnily enough, though I enjoy most of their releases, I’m not a hardcore BTS fan. So TXT caught me a bit more by surprise.

The members delivered crisp and playful performances in “Crown” and “Cat & Dog” with nonstop athleticism and energy. They committed to being pets like BTS committed to being Anpanman. And eventually, they had me unironically barking along. I agree that their second EP as a whole was lackluster and they could stand to loosen up a bit, but “9 and Three Quarters (Run Away)” was a nice evolution to their sound with its groovier vibe.

Speaking of groovy boy groups, Xiao Qing, you chose CIX, whose debut “Movie Star” was undeniably slick. 

Xiao Qing: Looking at my list, my favourite debuts this year were undoubtedly ones that captured a certain sensuality and maturity. CIX’s “Movie Star” was incredibly groovy and sensual that it had me hooked from the very first verse. However, when compared to other groups, their subsequent comebacks were not as strong, and I did not find myself going back to “My New World” and “Numb” like I did for “Movie Star”.

Kang Daniel was very close to being on my list this year, but what brought him onto yours, Rimi?

Rimi: With Daniel, it’s a combination of everything. 2019 has been a tough year for him — legal troubles with LM Entertainment, starting his own company, his solo debut being hit by a maliciously timed dating “scandal”, the music show ban. Despite all this, he’s given fans two fun releases, plenty of performances, and remained as charismatic on stage as ever. I especially loved “Touchin’”. It’s been on repeat in my playlists since its release.

Kaitlin, I see Itzy is #1 on your list. What about them won your heart?

Kaitlin: For me, Itzy were the complete package when it came to 2019 rookies. It was no easy feat for Itzy to stand out from their big sister group, Twice. But in their styling, choreography, performances and MVs, Itzy have struck a distinct balance of bold, bratty and sweet. 

Their lyrics are youthful but empowering with earworm choruses. The dance moves are quirky and fun but also impressively athletic. The members are dripping with charisma and have well-defined roles and personalities in the group, making them appealing to new fans. Itzy are off to an amazing start, as are all the other rookie groups on this list. 

There’s one more act to discuss, and that’s former JYP trainee and almost-Itzy member Jeon Somi, who switched labels to make her official solo debut this year.

Xiao Qing: Jeon Somi’s “Birthday” really reminded me why she snagged first place during her season on Produce 101 – “Birthday” showcased her all-roundedness and spunky attitude. Considering the silence that followed after I.O.I’s disbandment, Somi did not disappoint, despite the overwhelming visuals that came with the MV. It was a real shame that she did not have a comeback, but hopefully she’ll come back with even stronger tracks in 2020.

Considering the fact that 2019 was meant to be the year where groups/soloists from popular agencies or disbanded Produce groups debut, it was really surprising to see that our favorite debuts were mainly those from smaller companies. I guess that goes to show that we shouldn’t be doubting the talent of trainees from smaller companies, and I hope that the debuts of 2020 will continue to be as strong as 2019’s.

Readers, which debuts caught your attention? Let us know in the comments.

If you enjoyed this discussion, check out our previous Mid-Year and End-of-Year Debuts posts here: seoulbeats.com/tag/best-debuts/

(YouTube [1] [2] [3]; Images via Big Hit Entertainment, C9 Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, Konnect Entertainment, RBW Entertainment, The Black Label, Yuehua Entertainment)