2020 brought unprecedented changes and challenges to all our lives, and to K-pop. Janine and Siena discuss the rookies that, despite the chaos of this year, made a strong first impression.

Janine: Even though we don’t have too many crossover picks, I think we can both agree that debuting in 2020 is a serious challenge right, Siena? I don’t know if you did too, but I felt a bit of resistance to hearing new music. I mostly wanted to stick with artists I know so a group making an impact in my K-pop experience was a big deal! I think this desire for familiarity showed up in my picks, especially with our shared choice E’Last

I found the group’s second-generation sound really compelling, as well as their strong creative perspective. It’s par-for-the-course these days to debut with a group mythology and build a universe full of Easter eggs in MVs, which can be a headache for casual listeners. I usually don’t go too far into the worldbuilding aspects of these releases, but the sonic integration of E’Last’s debut and follow-up releases have matched their concepts really well and it’s drawn me in as a listener. Day Dream’s delicate strings and balladry stood out to me initially, and the dark intensity of Awake builds on that foundation, making them a group to watch.

Siena: I agree that the difficulties of 2020 had me leaning on old K-pop favorites rather than searching for new groups. I only really started paying attention to rookies later in the year, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. E’Last caught my eye thanks to their strong performing skills. It’s one thing to have a dramatic concept, but it’s another to sell it convincingly. Their stage presence makes me feel like E’Last could be poised to fill the VIXX-shaped hole that currently exists in the K-pop universe. 

E’Last is my number three pick. You also have a boy group in your third spot. What about TOO stood out for you?

Janine: TOO was not part of my best mid-year debut list but grew into one of my favourite finds of 2020. “Magnolia” didn’t really grow on me, but the group certainly did. The instrumentation still reminds me too much of iKon’sRhythm Ta” without the impact. The choice to go with a dark concept when the oldest members are 21 and squee-inducing barrels of cuteness like Woonggi and J.You are in the ranks felt like a serious misstep. That being said, the rest of the group’s output is brighter and showcases their strengths.

The main reason I decided to pay more attention to TOO was due to their impressive performances on Road to Kingdom. Their vocals, ambition, and razor sharp synchronisation prompted me to lend an ear to Reason for Being: Benevolence and after hearing “Take It Slow” and their adorable cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love”, I was sold. Running TOOgether continues with this momentum, using the youthful exuberance of the group to its best effect. I’m looking forward to hearing more from them, even in the realm of harder concepts, as they mature and gain experience. 

Speaking of minors with dramatic concepts, MCND cracked the #2 spot on your list. What drew you to them?

Siena: The simple explanation is that MCND’s “Ice Age” is hands down my favorite debut song of 2020. At first glance, “Ice Age” is a typical intense boy group track. It has hard-hitting choreography, tons of yelling, and probably one too many beat drops. However, “Ice Age” has a lightheartedness that cuts through the noise. This particularly shows up in its choreography, which is incredibly demanding, but also quite playful. You don’t flutter kick like Peter Pan if you don’t have a sense of humor. “Ice Age” has a youthful bravado that makes it an effective and age-appropriate debut for MCND. The only sour note is Bic’s hair styling, but that’s a different conversation

MCND’s subsequent releases haven’t grabbed me as much as “Ice Age”. Still, their strong performance and dance skills continue to impress. I also find it refreshing to see a smaller group (MCND have five members) in the increasingly large-group dominated K-pop scene. 

If “Ice Age” was my top 2020 debut track, “So Bad” was probably second. STAYC themselves just missed my list. What made them your fourth pick?

Janine: I’ve been anticipating STAYC’s debut for a while now. Black Eyed Pilseung are a producing/songwriting duo that has an incredible track record in the industry, particularly known for their work with girl groups. When the minds behind Sistar’sTouch My Body” and Twice’sTT” decide to form a group, I take notice! 

When “So Bad” dropped in November, competing with several other retro-style releases, it could have disappeared in a swell of synths, but their producers did a great job of packaging their sound. “So Bad” is catchy and trendy but more importantly, it has unique elements that showcase the member’s vocals to their best ability. The members’ tones and textures are immediately defined, and aside from this being a smart choice to make a strong first impression, it is refreshing to hear in general. I am a tireless campaigner for more contralto representation in girl groups, so I’m looking forward to hearing more harmonies.

I’ve only got groups in my list but thankfully, you’ve included some soloists in yours. I loved Natty’s “Nineteen” and mentioned it in my MYR choices. She narrowly escaped my list — what made you choose her for yours?

Siena: Natty has this bright, confident energy that is really infectious. “Nineteen” did a great job showcasing that, as well as lyrically and visually referencing Natty’s absurdly long journey to debut, which included stints on the survival shows Sixteen and Idol School. Natty’s second release, “Teddy Bear”, is even better. Its MV is delightfully off-kilter, mixing childish aesthetics with playfully creepy undertones. The witty choreography is another highlight. “Teddy Bear” was one of my surprise fall favorites, and I’m excited to see what Natty does next. 

The other soloist on my list is Demian. He only has three singles to his name, but each one is a moody masterpiece. Demian has a smoky but high-pitched voice that reminds me a bit of Day6’s Wonpil. His singing is incredibly emotive, which pairs nicely with the simple, club-influenced production of his songs. Demian’s best and most recent track is “Yes”, which is three minutes of sorrowful falsetto perfection. So far, Demian’s releases fit my personal taste in music to a tea, so I’ve got my fingers crossed for an EP full of atmospheric melancholy in 2021. 

Both of our lists are dominated by acts from small or mid-size K-pop companies. The exception is Aespa, SM Entertainment’s newest girl group. What put them at your fifth spot? 

Janine: I feel like I’ve been a little swept away by the hype of Aespa, if I’m being brutally honest. I’ve excluded some groups and soloists due to lack of releases but I couldn’t bear to leave them off my list despite having only released one song. 

Criticism of “Black Mamba” has mainly centered around the idea that the sound is not very different from other girl-crush concepts. I can admit, it’s not reinventing the wheel, but it has introduced a very mysterious wheel to the K-pop industry. A lot of people may not be particularly interested in the lyrics of songs they casually listen to but “Black Mamba” introduced some neologisms that hint at a fictional universe that doesn’t only play out visually but is integrated into the music itself.

Where intricately drawn meta-universes are common, Aespa feels like a truly ambitious effort. SM has taken big swings at innovation in the past and I’m looking forward to seeing how Aespa’s cyber avatars will be used within their world, full of cryptic references, and weird CGI. 

The only groups we have left to discuss are our top picks: Weeekly and Secret Number

Secret Number retained its top position from my mid-year picks on the strength of their discography. I think I’m going to become one of those fans, in the comment section of YouTube, complaining my faves are underrated. 

“Who Dis” cuts to the chase immediately, with a catchy brass sample and pulsating rhythm section. “Who Dis” harkens back to a sound that hit hard a few years ago with songs like EXID’s “Ah Yeah”, Amber’s “Shake that Brass” and Red Velvet’s “Dumb Dumb”. I liked it then and I like it now. “Who Dis” and its b-side “Holiday” show the strong vocals and performance ability of the team and I think it should have made a bigger splash than it did.

Secret Number continued to show they are comfortable with interpreting trends without losing themselves with “Got That Boom” and its b-side “Privacy” might be my most-listened to song by a rookie artist this year. Some of the production affectations can get grating over time, particularly the more obvious future bass hallmarks, but the melodies and vocals in the verses make up for it. If the distorted beat drop faux-chorus was replaced with something more sensual it would truly slap. One day, I will learn how to DJ and make a remix that will blow the socks off Secret Number’s currently unnamed fandom.

What about Weeekly stood out to you?

Siena: In my years as a K-pop fan, I’ve come to recognize and respect the enormous skill it takes to create sugary sweet K-pop that delights rather than irritates. In their rookie year, Weeekly have really hit that nail on the head. Their songs are relentlessly cheerful, but in a genuinely charming way. Additionally, I appreciate the creativity they have shown in their staging, both for debut track “Tag Me” and follow-up “Zig Zag”. Their strategic use of props, including school desks and giant toy blocks, adds interest to their performances without seeming overly gimmicky. 

Besides these attributes, what really pushed Weeekly to the top of my list are their b-sides. They are just as high-quality and effervescent as the group’s title tracks. “Hello” and “Top Secret” especially stand out. Because of their cutesy concept, I do expect the group to have an awkward transition period in a couple of years as they outgrow their current sound. Still, I’m hopeful that Weeekly have the talent to impress for a long time to come. 

Like so many recent years, 2020 was absolutely packed with debuts. Two groups that caught my eye but didn’t make my list are Treasure and the K-pop adjacent NiziU. I didn’t particularly enjoy any of their 2020 releases, which is why they aren’t among my top five. That being said, both groups are full of potential and I’m excited for their future. Who are your honorable mentions?

Janine: Looking back at the debuts of the year, there have been many groups and soloists who have piqued my interest. If we didn’t have rules for debuts, my list might have been full of idols making their solo debuts! Kai’s solo debut showed his experience and creativity. YooA’s first album is a beautiful, sensitive fantastical adventure that I want everyone to experience. Lee Suhyun’s “Alien” is incredibly fun and has me on tenterhooks for the rest of her solo career. Of the true rookies: P1Harmony, Treasure, Woo!ah!, and Lucy are all on my radar for the future. 

It’s been a really hard time for the world in many ways which has prompted me to look for moments of promise for the future. When there’s very little to rely on, we can count on a few things: time moves on, new people debut and there’s always music to love.

(YouTube[1][2][3][4][5]. Images via E Entertainment, n.CH Entertainment, SM Entertainment, Sony Music Entertainment Korea, Stone Music Entertainment, Swing Entertainment, YG Entertainment)