It feels like yesterday since we wrote the Mid-Year reviews, but the end of the year is already upon us. It was another eventful year both in Korean entertainment and on a global scale–and it was certainly an important year for the next K-pop generation. This year brought us the debut of a dozen of groups, who marked the beginning of a new era and captivated fans with versatility and immediate success. More than 60 debuts happened this year and which ones impressed us will be discussed by our writers Elif and Sara.

Elif: When writing EOY reviews, I think about what I consider important for a successful and memorable debut. Debuts happen all the time, but some stand out. I realized that first and foremost it’s the song and in case there is an album, the album that comes with it. I listen to music all the time, so if it’s good, that already leaves an impression on me. But the concept and choreography also play a big role in forming my opinion. Rookies tend to play it safe and if well-executed, it can be quite successful, but I also like the addition of something new and risky. 

This is the sole reason I put Nmixx on my list. With Twice doing the cute stuff and Itzy having the performance-heavy, girl crush concepts, I wondered how this group would set itself apart. Like everyone else, I wasn’t expecting “O.O.” and I probably needed about 10 listens to get to the core of the song. I still do not particularly enjoy it, but I have to praise the group for taking the risk. The performance and choreography were clearly very strong and I think there is plenty of potential for Nmixx in the next years. What about you Sara? What makes a strong debut for you and why is Yena fifth on your list?

Sara: I agree! When writing these EOY lists, we have to think about what exactly our criteria are. The main point I focus on is how well a debut establishes the artist’s unique identity. This requires me to consider the concept, the music (including the b-sides), the choreography, as well as how all these elements fit in—or break out—from the strong acts in the K-pop landscape. 

Unfortunately, Nmixx didn’t make it into my top 5, although I was definitely considering them. I’m still waiting for a little more time to understand who Nmixx are without relying on their title track concoctions. 

However, Yena made it onto my list because she surprised me—in a good way! “Smiley” was so much fun, especially the MV, and her sophomore effort, “Smartphone,” was no different. While she draws from the Y2K revival, she adds a spark that only Yena can give with her bubbliness and touches of vulnerability. The only downside is that her b-sides tend to fall flat for me, namely on the production side. It’s a bit disappointing, considering how listeners (and viewers) get so many delicious layers in her debut title track and her sophomore follow-up.  How did Yena make it into your top 5? 

Elif: When Yena’s solo debut was first announced, I expected a girl crush concept, because she left this impression on me with her strong stage presence during her IZ*ONE days. That she went for the exact opposite was unpredictable, so that already made me listen and check out her debut. Cute and joyful concepts are usually a hit or miss for me.

Yena definitely falls into the former category and hit all the right notes with “Smiley”. First and foremost, the song is just irresistibly catchy and enjoyable. I also loved the addition of Bibi, who added a lot of spice to the song. Y2K was the K-pop trend of 2022 and “Smiley” was no exception, pulling it off the perfect way and standing out among the dozen debuts because Yena succeeded in adding her own color to it. The album was coherent, albeit a bit underwhelming, but it showed that Yena will be a force to be reckoned with in the future. If I am not mistaken, Tempest is the only boy group in our ranking. How did they end up making your top 5, Sara?

Sara: When I was compiling my list, Tempest kept appearing. Although I did cover their debut album, It’s Me, It’s We, I kept going back to these tracks whenever I needed some easy-listening music. As it was mentioned in Seoulbeats’ Mid-Year Review, boy group debuts (and beyond) tend to skew on the darker concept side. I love a good angsty concept as much as the next K-pop fan, but I was starting to get tired of it. Cue Tempest and their title track “Bad News.” They brought the freshness I was craving; “Bad News” is catchy, upbeat, and brings a smile to my face whenever I listen to it. And even more so when I watch the colorful MV! They are naturally energetic without being over-the-top cute, and they organically draw fans in with their personalities. 

Their b-sides also maintain this energy but are diverse as well. I think I listen to their b-sides a lot more, which is what caused me to place Tempest above Yena. Yes, some of their tracks are a little cheesy like “Just A Little Bit,” but their vocals shine in this song, and it has a drop that I can’t get enough of!

But back to your list: How did the just-debuted tripleS AAA capture your third place?

Elif: Like everyone, I heard from tripleS AAA first after they made headlines with their ambitious promise to disband unless they sell 100k copies of their debut EP. I still didn’t pay much attention to their debut, but the song was all over my TikTok page (don’t judge me), specifically the infectious “lalala” part, so I ended up listening to it and loving it right away.

Usually, I need to listen to K-pop songs a few times, but with “Generation”, I loved it right away. It’s an uplifting, motivating track, but it’s not your typical bubbly concept. Rather, it gave me early 2000s vibes with both its video and choreography. Above all, the debut caught my attention for how unorthodox it is. I am still not sure, but if I understood correctly, tripleS AAA is the first subunit of a rotational group which will consist of group, sub-unit activities, and solo promotions. After reading that Jaden Jeong is involved in the making of the group, I realized why I liked it–it gave me pre-debut Loona vibes. Looking at the ongoing demise of Loona, tripleS AAA made me a little bit emotional. Seems like I really enjoy the 1990s and early 2000s concepts. How did Class:y make your list?

Sara: Yes, tripleS AAA’s debut was definitely unconventional! Class:y also made it onto my list because of their debut MV for “Shut Down” and their first EP, Class Is Over. Usually, I have maybe one other song on rotation besides the title track, especially for debuts, but Class:y changed that. When I first listened to their mini album, I was a little astonished that I liked the majority of the songs—and usually within the first few seconds too!

Besides Class:y’s strong b-sides, the cheeky, high school zombie concept of their “Shut Down” MV made me laugh at its cleverness, harnessing the recent surge in horror (and zombies) in K-dramas. The MV also was fun to watch because it was evident that the members were having fun, which makes all the difference. The icing on the cake of Class:y’s debut, however, was their most recent releases in October: “Tick Tick Boom” and “Zealous.” The former, in particular, brings a reflective side to Class:y’s discography as the members look back on their artist journeys. There’s much more to come from Class:y, and I’m excited to see it! Now we’re at our last two picks! What caused you to crown NewJeans as your number one?

Elif: I was honestly torn between putting Le Sserafim or NewJeans first until the last minute. Personally, I preferred Le Sserafim’s debut a tad more. The sleek, simple, and elegant concept totally matches my taste. Their debut EP was mind-blowingly good and well-produced. With their first comeback, they solidified their status as one of the strongest girl groups currently and I am still astounded about how powerful both their performing skills and the chemistry between the members are.

But, objectively speaking, NewJeans brought something new to the table and had one of the most unconventional and thus impressive debuts. Usually, groups release a ton of pre-debut content whether it’s member introductions, MV teasers, or concept photos. NewJeans, however,  just dropped their debut out of nowhere without prior announcement. ADOR CEO Min Hee-jin revealed in an interview that she specifically aimed for this kind of debut and it worked perfectly well. This new, previously undone notion was one of the major reasons why I put them first. 

In addition, NewJeans’ debut reminded me of f(x)’s concept, especially their unmatched Pink Tape album, and as a huge f(x) lover, I couldn’t but totally fall for this concept. Musically, each of the debut songs came with its unique character. The group succeeded in blending general public, mass-friendly songs with a rather unique, indie sound. Their recent offering, “Ditto,” already impressed me lots so I am quite optimistic about NewJeans’ future. Why did NewJeans miss your top spot, Sara? And why did you go for Le Sserafim as the best debut?

Sara: I see why you selected NewJeans as your number-one debut! Like you (and the rest of the K-pop listening world, probably), I loved how unexpected their debut was. One day there were no NewJeans, and then suddenly, they existed! Their concept was fresh yet nostalgic, and under Min Hee-jin’s leadership, youth was perfectly captured. Unfortunately, there were some pitfalls, like the valid controversy surrounding “Cookie,” and the reliance on “Attention” and especially “Hybe Boy.” 

For me, Le Sserafim showed that they had more to offer from the get-go. Their sophomore album, Antifragile, continued to solidify that. The two groups were truly neck-in-neck for the top spot on my list, but Le Sserafim inched out NewJeans because of their b-sides. I kept going back to “Blue Flame” and “The Great Mermaid” as much as I replayed “Fearless.” The same thing happened with “Good Parts” and “Antifragile.” It was also great to see how Le Sserafim was a second chance for some of the five members, including Chaewon and Sakura of Iz*One fame. This experience and a de-focus on innocent youth in our K-pop world that often prioritizes the young above all else was the icing on the Le Sserafim cake.

With the year coming to a close, it will be exciting to see where the abovementioned artists will grow from their debut and what kind of concepts they will turn to. Let’s see if we can meet them in our 2023 Mid-Year Reviews!

(Youtube [1][2][3][4], Images via Ador, HYBE, M25, Source Music, Yuehua Entertainment)