It’s been a difficult year across the globe and the challenge of introducing new groups has been heightened by restrictions to promotions and travel. Many of the picks from this year got some help from participating in various survival shows. Tássia and Janine talk about the groups that have made an impact on them despite the upheaval.

Tássia: Unlike 2019, I feel like most of the debuts this year haven’t really impressed me from the outset. Of course, with the current world situation, I’m happy that we are getting debuts at all, and at a steady pace if anything. Even though it was fairly easy to choose my top three, they definitely got me excited for their upcoming releases.

Secret Number is our only shared pick — your first and my last. What made them your favourite debut of the last six months?

Janine: I think the global pandemic has definitely affected how much publicity and hype a group is able to generate. I think the usual tingles about the debuts were very difficult to create this time around. I found myself returning to old favourites instead of new groups but when I gave everyone a shot, I was pleasantly surprised.

Secret Number caught my eye (and ears) because the song has a big ol’ horn section and the members with contralto voices are shown to their advantage. They’re at the top of my list because I’ve listened to them the most whilst trying to cheer myself up in quarantine by dancing around my kitchen. What did you like about this group?

Tássia: The big ol’ horn section won me over as well. It reminded me of 2015 and its brassy tracks, and that was a welcome nostalgia for times of quarantine. This year, most girl group releases haven’t been my cup of tea, so I was pleasantly surprised by Secret Number. I like that there are only five members, and that “Who Dis?” is a straightforward track that shows just what they came for. I think their diverse looks, powerful vocals, and quirky style have potential, and so they earned the third spot on my list.

I must say I hesitated between them and Cignature, which is your third pick. It is great to see the girls from Good Day back, and while “Nun Nu Nan Na” didn’t quite grab me, “Assa” is the kind of bold experimentalism that is right up my alley. What about you?

Janine: You get me, Tássia! The production and instrumentation on “Assa” is the hook that caught me in the end. I am a sucker for an arch spoken intro line and “Ayo, we’re going to make you feel something special” was a fun moment in “Nun Nu Nan Na” it did not excite me as much as “Assa”.

The funky bass and the way the song structure moves in an unexpected way gave me something different to listen to every time I hear it. I don’t think their debut was perfect but I’m curious about what they will do in future comebacks. I wish we saw more of the black suited looks the members rocked in the MV but alas, they chose to go with the more casual girl crush style.

Speaking of black outfits, Ten Oriented Orchestra aka TOO, rocked their look in “Magnolia”. What made them your top pick?

Tássia: While I also can’t get enough of black outfits, I must admit TOO’s debut single did little to set them apart from other debuts this year, like Cravity and DKB. I love the propelling chorus of “Magnolia,” but overall it was the staple dark concept that has been populating the industry these times.

And then Mnet’s Road to Kingdom came along. While placing their newly debuted rookies (they were formed through the company’s survival show World Klass last year) in yet another competition was a very Mnet thing to do, TOO continuously proved to deserve attention.

Competing against names like Pentagon, Golden Child, and The Boyz less than a month after debut is no small feat, but what truly showcased their potential (and fully rendered me to their charms) was their cover of TVXQ’s “Rising Sun”. Aside from choosing one of the greatest K-pop songs of all time, they made a compelling, powerful performance that wowed me for the entire five minutes of it. The choreography was beautifully done (that “sun” formation!), their expressions on point, the energy unparalleled. The Boyz’ Sangyeon said it all: “Are they really rookies?”

Road to Kingdom was an incredible advantage for them, as it gave viewers the opportunity to learn more about the members and their individual charms, as well as their strengths as a newly-debuted group. With all that, TOO have slowly become my number one pick.

We have talked about our first and last choices, so let’s discuss the silver crowns on our lists. What did you like the most about Lucy’s debut?

Janine: Lucy is another competition group, funnily enough. If you’re familiar with the JTBC rock survival show Superband that brought Akmu, Bolbbalgan4, Lee Hi, and, most recently, Hoppipolla to the broader public then you’ll be intrigued by them. The group were the runners up in the season that aired last year. They’ve finally released their first official single in May (there are a few covers on their YouTube page) and I’m very excited by their content so far.

Lucy has a few obvious things that set them apart: they are a live band that prominently features their violinist, they’re named after a dog that used to hang out with them, and they have a very strong creative point of view. Their goal is to create ambient pop and incorporate organic sounds to create an immersive experience. Pseudointellectual bios of k-pop groups aside, the group has delivered something special with their digital debut “Flowering”. The song is bright despite being a mid-tempo ballad due to the instrumentation and arrangement.

I’m not usually drawn to the ballads of today but I liked “Flowering” and I return to it often. Lucy has an easy chemistry as a group and Yechan’s violin sets the tone right away. It’s a great song for Spring with wistful lyrics and instrumentation that gradually swells until it’s triumphant. The song metaphorically blooms by the end and I loved it!

Your number two pick is MCND, what set them apart for you?

Tássia: I didn’t watch Superband, but it seems like they can only produce great stuff. Lucy reminded me of the harmonies in Day6, and that’s a huge compliment. Also, what’s not to love about K-pop and violins? We need more of that, please! I’m excited to see what they have in store too.

Talking about spring, MCND also brightened the season with their latest single named after it, but I was hooked since I first heard their debut track, “Ice Age.” It has all that commitment to a badass concept without taking itself too seriously. The hook is almost cringy, with members saying they will make it snow ice hail, but it gets lodged in your head and suddenly there’s no turning back. It’s the best kind of absurd addiction for the absurd times we’re living.

I especially love their choreographies (not to mention their incredible dance covers), and the chemistry between the members. That moment in “Ice Age” where Minjae and Huijun smile at each other during the pre-chorus makes my heart overflow with warmth. I adore their voice colors and find them quite distinctive in K-pop’s landscape. The duo participated in SBS’s survival show The Fan in 2018, and it’s a pleasure to see them work together with other members now. Aside from Castle J who just turned 21, can you believe the rest of them aren’t even 20 years old yet? It will be interesting to see how their talents develop as they grow.

We have covered all our picks for now, but do you have any other groups who deserve a special mention too?

Janine: This is an indie pick that didn’t make my list because she only has one single out but Hannah Jang’s single “Runnaway” is a groovy tune. Folks may know her from K-Pop Star 3. “Runnaway” is a tropical RnB tune that Hannah composed herself, which I found impressive. I’m excited to see where she goes in future. I also found Natty’s first single to be an earworm. She has been in a few survival programs and I’m glad to see her finally debut.

Have you got any honourable mentions?

Tássia: Hannah Jang and Natty are surely promising! I enjoyed their debuts as well. My honourable mention is Starship’s new boy group, Cravity. I mentioned their title track while talking about TOO, but the rest of their mini-album caught my attention. The b-side “Jumper”, co-produced by their labelmate Joohoney from Monsta X, brings the best of both groups in a dynamic performance. Since I remember when Monsta X debuted, it’s funny to realize they are now celebrating their fifth anniversary, and invariably will start enlisting in the next few years. It makes me wonder if and how Cravity will embody their seniors’ signature style to their own concept. I’m still grappling with the generational change happening right in front of our eyes, but it sure looks promising!

(Youtube (1),(2),(3),(4), Images via Mnet)