It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a wild ride and K-pop comebacks have managed to adjust to the new format of teasing and promotion. From making the most of social media trends, to developing a theme through multiple chapters and group reinvention, rookies and established artists alike managed to use their comebacks to capture the mood of this turbulent year. For this year’s Mid-Year Review, our writers, Chelsea, Vivien and Xiao Qing discuss the comebacks that managed to stand out.

Xiao Qing: I absolutely love how our lists do not overlap at all aside from one person: Zico. “Any song” was released at the beginning of the year, and it was so popular that my For You Page on TikTok was filled with people dancing to the song. What really sold me was the cinematography in the MV, where each movement paired up perfectly with the beat of the song. The roundtable scene is the same for all three choruses, the only difference is Zico’s three friends become more drunk, and Zico’s expression darkens with each one. 

Watching the MV again makes me laugh – Zico was a whole mood for me in January: wishing I was alone even though I was surrounded by the people I love. Now, I’m all alone, awaiting the day where I can finally go outside and have proper human interaction with all my friends again. Nevertheless, I’m sure I’ll be wishing to be alone again once this quarantine lifts. 

Vivien: I totally agree! Zico’s timing with “Any song” was perfect, in terms of the relatability of its lyrics and MV. It put into words that feeling which I think lots of people including myself were probably already starting to have – a kind of fatigue of modern life – but which no-one had really been able to put a finger on yet (at least not in mainstream K-pop). I would say Crush’s “Mayday” featuring Red Velvet’s Joy is another song that explores this odd feeling of being suspended in mid-air, but in your own life, and I wouldn’t be surprised if over the next year this becomes a more popular theme, especially with everyone’s shared experience of lockdown. 

Still, all that wouldn’t have had nearly as much impact if it wasn’t as ironically fun and catchy a song as it is – great melodies and groove make it one of the most addictive songs this year and its performance in charts prove that! It’s up there with “I Am You, You Are Me” as one of my favourite Zico songs now. 

Chelsea: Even beyond the content of the song and MV, I think what truly made Zico’s “Any Song” such a successful comeback was his use of tik tok to promote the single. By promoting the “Any Song” Challenge, other K-pop artists like Chungha, Hwasa, Mino, etc, in addition to fans were able to participate in and promote the comeback. While tik tok is not new to many K-pop fans, he kicked off a new trend of idols using the platform that was followed up by other idols like Baekhyun pushing the “Candy” Challenge in May. It was this promotional tactic that ultimately made Zico my top choice — he went viral, and the song was also widely relatable. 

Looking at the diverse list of choices we have, I’m wondering what made each of your top picks stand out this year? 

Xiao Qing: Ateez made it to the top of my list this year with “Answer”, because it was such a satisfying end to their Treasure series that started in 2018. The Treasure series was one of my most listened to albums because every song connected with each other to form one big journey, and to end it with the anthem that is “Answer” made the entire journey so fulfilling. One thing I like about Ateez is the fact that they know what they want, and they stick to it. They chose a theme and a story, and made sure that their music, and MVs (at least for the title tracks) were based off the selected theme and story.

I greatly enjoy an album that knows what it wants and centers their work around that theme, such as Day6’s Remember Us: Youth Part 2. That album was consistent with the 80s theme, where the MV and the style of music in the rest of the album incorporated elements of the 80s. Ateez did exactly that, not just for one album, but five, and I think that is insanely impressive for a group that is just over a year old.

Itzy very nearly made it into my list as their comeback was fun, liberating, and incredibly catchy. Not to mention, Ryujin’s signature shoulder move was something that everyone tried to learn (myself included) the moment “Wannabe” came out. How did Itzy end up at the top of your list, Vivien?

Vivien: Itzy won it for me with their song and choreography! I definitely think “Wannabe” is their strongest and most cohesive title track so far. I liked “Dalla Dalla” and it had the same sassy energy, but the song itself was overly chaotic at times. “Icy” started out well, but lost me at the chorus, replacing the usual JYP-style melodic chorus for a messier and more dissonant rap chorus. “Wannabe” was catchy and fun from beginning to end, with one of the best pop choruses this year. 

I also really loved the choreography; it’s one of few choreographies ever to have actually made me get off my butt to try and learn it (still working on that)! I think Itzy are shaping up to be one of the strongest girl groups out there right now in terms of dance, with some of the most iconic choreographies. 

I see that the only other girl group to make your lists is Apink; what did you like about their comeback, Chelsea? 

Chelsea: As a veteran K-pop fan, I admit that I sometimes have trouble keeping up with the rookie groups. I follow weekly releases but increasingly find it hard to distinguish one group’s signature sound from another. At the same time, a lot of the groups I am most familiar with have disbanded or begun military service. Apink was always one of those groups on the periphery for me: cutesy, sweet tracks that I could enjoy from a shop or bus’ speakers but never really sought out. Perhaps unfairly, I never expected them to change up their sound from the style of “Mister Chu,” and equally saccharine themes. However, with “I’m So Sick” and “Eung Eung” they debuted a new side of themselves that fit them so well. 

In “Dumhdurum” Apink proved that they could maintain this new, more mature and dark sound that showcases the members at their best in their late twenties. Beyond the popularity and quality of the release itself (I just heard it playing at a school festival today), they’re really laying a roadmap for “innocent” girl groups to transition into new, more mature sounds without completely re-branding themselves. As they’ve adapted to this sound, the vocal distribution is also shifting allowing lesser heard members to take the lead. I can honestly say that I am excited to see what Apink comes out with next. 

Oh My Girl is also a girl group taking some stylistic risks this year, what about “Nonstop” put them on your list, Vivien?

Vivien: It was almost exactly the same case for me! I had heard of Oh My Girl and tried listening to a few of their tracks, but they seemed pretty strongly rooted in the innocent, girlish style that does well in Korea but which doesn’t appeal to me. 

It wasn’t until Queendom that I realised that they are actually good performers, with some really strong vocalists and – for the kind of music that they do – an almost disproportionately good rapper. Mimi wasn’t on my radar for female idol rappers at all, but I think she’s on par with rappers from other, more hip-hop-focused groups. On “Nonstop”, she pulls more than her weight, with multiple parts that add much needed grunge to an otherwise sweet and airy song. 

That duality, along with spotless vocals, sharp production quality and great pop songwriting, made me sit up and take notice of this comeback. That doesn’t happen often; iKon with “Love Scenario” and Pentagon with “Shine” are the most recent examples of groups that I thought really stepped things up with a comeback. The chorus gets you up and dancing, while the catchy hook and rap parts keep things interesting. It’s rare that a group I’ve all but written off can change my mind, and that’s why they deserved a spot on my list! 

The only other group left is N.Flying; as one of very few active K-pop bands, what put them on your list, Xiao Qing? 

Xiao Qing: Out of my three picks, N.Flying is the only one I did not have much expectations for because their 2019 releases were a let down for me. However, they really knocked it out of the park with “Oh really.”, and their album, “So, 通”. 

I think one of N.Flying’s greatest strengths is their ability to produce music that makes the listener feel good and happy, and considering the overall state of the world right now, “Oh really.” couldn’t have been released at a better time. Their sound has matured since their “Hot Potato” days, and they’ve mastered balancing their raucous sound from before with the chill, laidback vibes from their Fly High Project. This resulted in a sound that is more accessible to the public while still maintaining the chaotic and fun atmosphere the group has.

Bands usually have a disadvantage in music shows, because they don’t dance, and sometimes music shows have bands lip and hand-sync their songs, but N.Flying’s energy onstage is impeccable. Their energy makes you feel as if you’re at one of their concerts, which is why I’ve watched every single one of their comeback stages at least twice for “Oh really.”.

The last artist we have is Ha:tfelt, the only solo artist on the list aside from Zico. How did she end up on your list, Chelsea?

Chelsea: While I appreciate Wonder Girls as much as the next fan, I’ve always sought out Ha:tfelt’s releases for their divergence from that expected style. From her earlier works, to her collab with Cheetah and Younha, Ha:tfelt has a way of infusing her personality into very topical tracks. Since her move to Amoeba Culture her personal style has grown even more into a mature, jazzy, raw sound that really suits her. 

Ha:tfelt was in the news a lot this year due to her family situation. While she wasn’t aggressive in her personal statements, she made her opinions very clear in 1719, specifically with the track “Life Sucks.” Watching the MV, I couldn’t get over how personal it felt, how much she was laying herself bare and denouncing one of the people who’d caused her the most harm: her own father. It’s a painful listen, especially because she doesn’t follow the pretense of making herself unique in her misery. The message is “life sucks for everybody,” and she just happens to live her life in the public eye — which means others can enjoy her misery in some sick way. 

Ha:tfelt didn’t stop with “Life Sucks,” though. She also released the MVs for “Solitude,” “Satellite” and later “Sweet Sensation” — each showing off a different side of her inner thoughts and personality. It was such a comprehensive roll out, that I couldn’t help but be impressed by the versatility and genuineness she managed to portray in each MV. With 1719 she really proved herself to be an artist of the times, with themes and sounds that captured her moment so clearly. 

Overall, 2020 has been a great year for new promotion tactics and content that feels more simultaneously personal and universal than years previous. Each of our picks managed to set a new standard — either for the group or the genre as a whole — and I’m excited to see how these successful comebacks influence the second half of the year.

Readers: what comebacks stood out for you in the first half of 2020?

(YouTube: [1] [2] [3]. Images via: KOZ, KQ Entertainment, Plan A, Amoeba Culture.)