2023 was a very busy year for K-pop debuts (and re-debuts), from the final Boys Planet lineup to former Loona members forming new groups to anticipated solo debuts like BTS’ maknae line.

Although it was a momentous year for veteran groups making new starts, there was also plenty of rookie talent entering the scene. Writers Eileen and Sara kick off our End-of-Year Review discussions with their top 2023 debuts below.

Eileen: While 2022 had much of the rookie spotlight pointed toward girl groups with numerous female acts gaining success, the tides seem to be gradually turning in 2023. This year, it was the boys whose debuts left a lasting impression on me.

As I was choosing who to include in my list, I took various notes on performance and concept execution. Though above all else, it was the strength of the debut single/album that carried the most weight, and it’s why Riize ended up in my top spot.

I initially thought “Get a Guitar” to be a bit bland, but it didn’t take long for the catchy hooks to worm their way into my head. And soon after, I was completely on board with the youthful yet old-school pop track. The simple melodies are refreshing, and the vocal harmonies throughout the song are great for flaunting just how well the members’ voices go together. It makes me excited to see how Riize will develop their sound in the future.

What about you, Sara? How did you decide the groups for your list and what landed Riize in your number four spot?

Sara: So true! 2022 was definitely a year for the girl groups. I joined the End-of-Year discussion for debuts last year, too, and my list was all girl groups, save for Tempest. 2023 has been a little different. For one, I was pleasantly surprised by how many boy groups did stand out to me while I was reviewing the plethora of groups that debuted this year. 

I mostly focused on concept execution — like you — as well as the strength of the debut single/album and its MV in creating a solid identity. This criteria is why Riize made my list. I know “Get a Guitar” is technically their debut, but the pre-debut single “Memories” really set up Riize’s dynamic and push-the-envelope sound. While “Memories” switched between old school hip hop rap verses and a pop chorus, “Get a Guitar” brings a ridiculously catchy electric guitar hook to play.

The MV for “Get a Guitar” focuses more on the choreography, but it definitely works because some of the Riize members, such as Shotaro and former NCT member Sungchan, are well-known for their dance skills. Plus, the choreography is very innovative and eye-catching, as we constantly saw across TikTok. Riize managed to distinguish themselves from the NCT identity, which I was particularly impressed about. The only downside, for me, is that Riize has released so little. I am curious to see how SM Entertainment manages them going forward, especially after losing Sungchan. 

Still, there definitely were some standout girl groups in 2023! We both included tripleS and Kiss of Life on our lists. How did these powerhouses capture a spot on your debut roundup?

Eileen: Although Acid Angel from Asia (AAA)’s debut last year marked the start of tripleS subunit activities, Assemble was the project’s first official record as a group. Strictly speaking, it’s not a full group debut since it only includes the first 10 out of 24 members, but it still provides a good idea of what a larger team effort from tripleS looks like.

Aside from this, the project also revealed three more subunits: +(KR)ystal Eyes, LOVElution, and EVOLution. It might be unfair to judge tripleS on the same plane as other rookies as they’ve technically launched four debuts this year. But even with different concepts and lineups, all of their albums are characterized by a polished, electropop-inspired soundscape that feels distinct to tripleS. And it’s no surprise that this sleek and stylish image is best conveyed in the group’s first single “Rising.”

The tune includes so many compelling elements despite its short length with infectious hooks that grip listeners and excellent production that elevates the piece. It’s a perfect fit for the group’s overall aesthetic, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else will be added to their young but substantial discography.

In contrast, whereas tripleS intrigues me with their musical identity as a group, Kiss of Life caught my eye with their individuality. It’s not every day you see solo tracks on a debut album for a group, and the Kiss of Life members’ personalities shine well in these distinguishing numbers. Natty’s “Sugarcoat” instantly won my heart with its groovy R&B vibe, and Belle’s “Countdown” also makes for a fun listen. And if I’m being honest, I prefer their solos a lot more than their group releases.

That said, while “Shhh” is more toned down than I was hoping, the members’ performances are striking. They have a bold and confident presence on stage that’s difficult to ignore. It’s something I don’t typically see in rookies and if I didn’t already know that Kiss of Life were a new act, I probably would’ve mistaken them for seasoned artists well into their career.

Sara, since you have tripleS and Kiss of Life listed as well, I wonder if any factors I mentioned also resonated with you?

Sara: I, honestly, have not paid a lot of attention to K-pop this past year, at least compared to the last few years. However, tripleS and their many subunits keep grabbing my attention — and rightfully so. While thinking about 24 members in one group makes my head spin (though I shouldn’t be talking; I’m an NCT stan), I really appreciate how each debut adds something new to the tripleS identity. Yet, each song and subunit rearrangement are founded upon a common idea.

Right now, the group addresses dreams and slyly self-references. As you mentioned, “Rising” is smooth and sleek. Meanwhile, the other tripleS unit debut that stood out to me was LOVElution. “Girls’ Capitalism” is cheeky and unserious (but also serious); they really nail this balance. Self-love, friendship, and addictive hooks are expressed in a humorous way while maintaining a clear distinction from any of the other debuts. I’m curious about how tripleS will evolve as they grow towards more veteran status.

Kiss of Life also caught my attention because of their confidence. Like you said, the four really don’t feel like rookies. There were a bunch of debuts this year, some of which that tried to express this sort of confidence but just never made the mark for me. I started to dive into Kiss of Life following their first comeback for Unsung Artists. They’re polished but not afraid to show their vulnerable sides or talk about things that many try to avoid, like bullying and abuse. Besides, “Shhh” really lets their vocals shine: I love the little harmonized bits in the chorus, transitioning from the chant-y hook into another earworm section. 

The rest of your picks are boy groups: one that has risen quickly into the fabric of 2023 K-pop and one that is quite new. What made ZeroBaseOne and Ampers&One stand out to you? (I’ve never heard of the latter!)

Eileen: Having kept up with Mnet’s Boys Planet week after week during its run, my excitement for ZeroBaseOne’s debut was understandably high. But with my experience following final lineups from other survival shows, I know that a cohesive discography is rare for these kinds of temporary idol groups.

Prioritizing diversity over consistency isn’t necessarily bad, though I much prefer it when a group uses the limited time they have together to shape a unique musical color for themselves. Fortunately for me, Youth in the Shade has a specific image and sticks with it in all six tracks. Lead single “In Bloom” has a youthful and flowery atmosphere that’s enhanced with clever sampling of a-ha’s “Take On Me.” This lighthearted ambience is also present in all of the B-sides with “Back to ZEROBASE” and “Our Season” being my picks for the album.

It may not be the most distinctive record, but its dreamy mix of synth-pop and drum and bass lay a solid foundation for ZeroBaseOne to develop a signature sound.

Continuing with Boys Planet, survival shows often induce several acts with former contestants to raise anticipation. Ampers&One, which includes Kamden, Brian, and Jiho alongside Siyun from YG Treasure Box, is one such group. But despite recognizing some members, I admit that I didn’t have high expectations. This mainly stemmed from my unfamiliarity with FNC Entertainment but, wow, was I impressed!

“On and On” is a dance-pop number that keeps its vibrant energy going from beginning to end. The bright synths and groovy bass riffs are a lot of fun and provide a nice playground for the boys to perform. Moreover, the MV had me chuckling with its portrayal of the college experience. The bewilderment of university classes are all too relatable.

Overall, it’s a standout debut that I didn’t see coming so close to the end of the year. Ampers&One did great with this upbeat concept, and I really hope they continue with this sound in the future.

Catch The Young also made their debut last month. What about their release appealed to you? And how did the slightly more established xikers end up on your list as well?

Sara: Catch The Young also caught my attention (pun intended) while I was working on Unsung Artists! Since some of my favorite K-rock bands are on hiatus or no longer active as a group (I’m looking at you, Day6 and Onewe), Catch The Young fit the bill to fill this K-rock hole in my heart. Not only that, but their debut track “YOUTH!!!” — yes, the three exclamation points are very necessary — is a fresh treat.

The members are all smiles in their MV as upbeat drums and bright synths reflect their energy until the end; however, as I mentioned in my Unsung Artist blurb, I appreciated how Catch The Youth take it one step further, asking, “Are you happy right now?” Youth, especially in K-pop, is quite romanticized, but Catch The Young investigate this time in their lives to uncover more emotion behind their smiles. Of course, there is always room for growth, but I’m very interested to see where this new group goes!

On the other hand, xikers are the complete package. As the younger brothers of K-pop powerhouses, Ateez, it makes sense that this new KQ Entertainment group fully commits to their concept. I even wrote in my notes that their debut album, House of Tricky : Doorbell Ringing, didn’t feel like a first release. “Tricky House” is a slightly creepy yet super fun song and MV, and xikers really stick to this horror-esque concept from start to finish. From the MV storyline, with its abandoned and rundown sets, to the through line from “The TRICKY’s Secret” to “Oh My Gosh,” xikers make it work and make it fun. This is why they topped my list very quickly!

I also want to shout out a couple of my favorite solo debuts: Giuk from Onewe, who — unsurprisingly — crafted his own elaborate world in his first official album, Psycho Xybernetics : Turn Over; V from BTS, who finally released his sophisticated, elegant, and jazzy solo project; and Jimin, V’s ‘95 line buddy, who took my breath away with the anthemic “Set Me Free Pt.2” and the dreamy “Like Crazy.”

Looking at our 2023 rookie picks, all of them showed much promise and potential in their debuts with various sounds and concepts. As they continue to grow as artists and performers in the upcoming year, it’ll be very intriguing to see how they evolve in future releases.

(YouTube [1][2][3][4][5][6][7]. Images via SM Entertainment, MODHAUS, S2 Entertainment, WakeOne, KQ Entertainment.)