Top ten debut albums of 2020

The debut category is one of the most fun of the year, a chance to celebrate what riches may lay ahead in the future. While these albums and EPs may not be perfect, they can stop you in your tracks, spark intrigue, and tantalize with the promise of everything yet to come. While some may never make good on these promises, it’s the optimism that keeps me coming back to this category each year with necessary delight, an optimism we could all use now more than ever now. In chronological order, here are some of this year’s best debut music releases that, along with the vaccines, makes the future worth holding out for. (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.)

FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC 9
(2020.02.12

The EXILE franchise continued to expand in 2020 with the addition of FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE even as other branches were were lopped off entirely. The group released four notable singles over the course of 2019, culminating in a previously-heard-material heavy debut album, released in February. FANTASTICS are like the dancier, poppier, gentler cousin to GENERATIONS, with an emphasis on dance over hip-hop, and it all goes down as smoothly as some of the more Western Hey! Say! JUMP cuts. FANTASTIC 9 needed some serious trimming, but which hopefully stems more from an over-eagerness than lack of direction — the former can be harnessed, the latter can pull you under quicksand fast. Since this album, the group has released a few more singles, with “High Fever” in particular a stand out, all boding well for the future of this particular J-pop boy band.

MCND: into the ICE AGE
(2020.02.27)

We all lived on an entirely different planet back in February, one where the terrain of upcoming K-pop debuts felt wide and expansive. At that stage, a group like MCND felt like just another drop in the debut ocean, yet over time, as the number of debuts were culled, or folded from financial strain, MCND stood out more for its relative unique position, rather than genuine potential. Despite a lackluster followup that relied too heavily on their “element” gimmick over creating a stand-out hit, “ICE AGE” remains one of my favorite debut singles of the year, with a particularly good pre-chorus. It’s hard to see anything dramatic coming of this group, but MCND offer a pleasantly nostalgic look back at the state of the generous, forgiving, and hopeful mind we could all afford to be in ten months ago.

Nanaka Suwa: So Sweet Dolce
(2020.04.15)

So Sweet Dolce might rely a bit too heavily on its predecessors, from Aya Uchida to Yui Ogura, but its commitment to a (somewhat hackneyed) concept and relentlessly upbeat personality made this album a welcome distraction in the spring. While the album trades in a sound as expendable and nutritionally deficient as its thematic content, I’d argue that its sincerity and commitment give it some lee-way: junk food never promises anything more than a pleasing and evanescent mouth-feel and delicious sugar rush, followed by a crash that leaves the consumer lethargic and unsatisfied. On that front, this album comes fresh out of Wonka’s factory, perhaps all the better to keep it so short and so sweet. Suwa has since released a follow-up EP in November tha,t while scaling down my personal expectations, does portend a successful career in fresh-faced, anison idol-dom.

NiziU: Make you happy
(2020.06.30)

In a K-pop world where nearly every girl and boy group have fallen prey to BTS/BLANKPINK-syndrome (a terminal condition presenting with symptoms of similarity and pandering, with a fierce, almost desperate sense of competitiveness), including such venerable institutions as SM Entertainment, it was nice to see a group that went for a completely different approach, instead tailoring their sound to airy Japanese idol-pop. Though technically a “pre-debut,” this EP containing four songs has grown on me more slowly, but firmly, than any other debut this year, with its unbridled joy and warm-pancakes positivity. Their Japan-side buzz promises more of the same and I hold out hope that the group doesn’t capitulate to pressure to compete on a world-stage by diluting what makes them so great.

YUKIKA: Soul Yeoja
(2020.07.21)

I’m not completely sold on this debut album, but I have to admit its place in 2020 as a stand-out is nearly unparalleled. For example, YUKIKA’s commitment to city pop could do with a bit more consistency on the production side. Soul Yeoja leads with its jazzy, laid-back singles like “SOUL LADY” and the glimmering “NEON 1989,” giving every indication of a proto-Korean Dance for Philosophy before devolving into standard K-pop. Take “Yesterday” or “Day for Love,” which go for the bare minimum in vintage before “pit-a-pet,” an adorable homage to puppy love, boasts all the familiar tropes found on a standard GFRIEND or OH MY GIRL albums. Still, the potential for YUKIKA to transcend easy familiarity is high, and if Soul Yeoja is just the first in a line of skillful homages, it deserves credit for whetting appetites hungry for something different, even if city pop, in general, is as far from “different” as we can get a decade into the existence of Bandcamp.

Ava Max: Heaven & Hell
(2020.09.18)

While Axa Max lacks the quirky magnetism of The Fame-era Lady Gaga, she projects the same intrepid effort on her debut full-length Heaven & Hell. The basic Euro-pop foundations lend a steady purpose to an extended run of music, a stepping stone path of a track list that wraps up an almost 3-year block of fun, but indistinguishable singles. It’s not the best representation of what a major label like Atlantic can offer, but there’s raw material within Ava Max, one that hasn’t yet been tapped by truly innovative pop, the kind that gives songs an instantly recognizable personality. I would love to see what Ava Max can come up with with an A-list producer, and hope to see her get the chance to make magic in the years to come.

Dagny: Strangers / Lovers
(2020.10.02)

Dagny’s years in the trenches of pop music, writing for bigger artists with bigger budgets and bigger labels has paid off in her first full-length Strangers / Lovers. Collecting a handful of previously released singles, alongside new tracks, the album focuses less on fresh than fun, rooting itself in conventional dance-pop, while drawing upon little variety in production for a consistent, rather than diverse, palette of sounds. However, the songs emanate a deft skill and attention to detail crafted by an obviously seasoned hand. One hopes Dagny has finally proved she deserves more time and resources to devote to her own career.

beabadoobee: Fake It Flowers
(2020.10.16)

My aversion to grunge is tempered by the intense nostalgia it provokes, one that beabadoobee has harnessed to success on her debut album Fake It Flowers. Combined with sometimes naive, heart-on-its-sleeve confessions, the album focuses less on wrapping up a tidy package than on the process, one that indulges in all the messy feelings and everyday cliches that make up honest human relationships. The sound, reliant on the aforementioned 90’s alternative and indie rock sound, suits this very candid and clearly cathartic debut album from a voice that will only benefit from more time and experience.

Nova Miller: The Passion
(2020.10.16)

It’s time we all face the changing landscape and accept that TikTok is the new YouTube, brimming with undiscovered talent and up-and-coming chart toppers. As a succinct premonition, the debut EP The Passion from multi-talented Swedish singer Nova Miller exemplifies the riches we have to look forward to from some of the unlikeliest, and often derided sources. This EP is everything Strangers / Lovers could have been if it had managed a bit more luck in the catchy hook department. But we’ll be in for a real treat when Miller finally figures out how to incorporate and showcase her wide range, marking this as a true debut: one that teases rather than fully delivering.

RAYE: Euphoric Sad Songs
(2020.11.20)

Like Dagny, RAYE already has a history, giving her a leg-up on other debut albums, one that proves this distinction can get a bit murky and muddled when you’re trying to organize all the singles and collabs, and figure out what distinguishes an EP from a true full-length. I’m going with full-length here because there’s nothing that captures my attention faster than a throwaway 00s Eurodance sample, like RAYE incorporates into “Regardless,” her bouncy collab with Rudimental that references Nadia Ali’s iconic trill for iiO’s “Rapture.” Euphoric Sad Songs relies a a bit too heavily on this tongue-in-cheek homage to 90’s dance, but not without an endearing earnestness and genuine appreciation. I’m not sure if there’s a long career in this kind of largely niche sound, one that relies on a very of-the-moment retro callback, but it’s so fun, it’s hard to simply dismiss.

Honorable Mentions

color-code: Re∂l
Muni Long: Black
Gabby Barrett: Goldmine
Haruka Kudo: KDHR
Re:Complex: Neo Gravity

September 2020: Highlights

Things have really picked up this month, prompting serious decisions about what I would realistically have time to focus on. At the same time, the race is now on to listen to any major releases I missed or put off all year in preparation for year-end lists. Yes, it’s already that time! In the usual way of things, the longest year of our collective lives is also careening past us, the unforgivable march of time continuing on its way. Below are a few of September’s highs and lows to enjoy in its wake.

BBHF: BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-
(2020.09.02)

It’s always with more hope than faith whenever a group makes the best debut list of the year, as BBHF would have last year, if it hadn’t turned out they were just masquerading under a new name. Many of the groups won’t amount to much, or like so many K-pop groups, sputter out or disappear. In many cases, the only thing left behind is one great moment orchestrated to prove beginner’s luck. So maybe it’s a good thing BBHF didn’t make the cut, or maybe the name change was just what the band needed, as their “debut” studio album, an ambitious 2-disc concept album chronicling one man’s emotional journey through a labyrinth of history and emotion set to a wave of poppy 80’s synth rock, proves. “Sooner or later, everything changes / I’m not happy at all / For better or for worse, this country is falling into a depression” they lament in “1988,” folding the twin tragedies of a burst bubble and a broken heart into an excuse to get wasted. “Let’s drink till we’re sick, of love itself,” they urge, as the synths swell and the titular character high tails it in a bid to escape depression and responsibility as if a physical entity, like so many Don Drapers before him. “Carrying all the burden in the back I will go south / I will go south, to survive.” It’s not the helpful message we need, perhaps one of the reasons the album was pushed back from its original May release date, but it’s honest, and refreshing, a J-rock band refusing to hide behind dour epithets without any genuine emotional anchor behind them. “Apps that I merely touched once and don’t use / I deleted them all, that is the pleasure of getting rid of things,” the opening track opines; one only wishes it was possible to shake off everything as easily.

Harry Gregson-Williams: Mulan (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.09.04)

The story of getting Mulan released to the public is almost as epic as the film’s story line, a journey that promises to get topped only by Wonder Woman 1984 or No Time to Die‘s own struggle to hit the silver screen. Gregson-Williams battled his own struggle in providing the musical backdrop, standing in the shadow of legend Jerry Goldsmith, and reckoning with one of the most iconic songs in Christina Aguilera’s discography. Luckily, he neither kowtows to nor completely eschews the original. If we’ve had to wait an extra six months to see the film, imagine how G-W, who began work for the film years before its release, felt! Luckily, the extra time paid off, with this score every bit as robust as the plot line and titular character requires: along with the usual soaring strings, there’s plenty of time-period appropriate instruments from the erhu, to woodwinds. The whole thing is capped off by the original theme, sung by returning vocalist Aguilera, who belts out “Loyal Brave and True,” with all of the sincerity, if not skill, as her original work on “Reflection.” What this soundtrack didn’t need was a repeat of “Reflection,” with the new vocals a mere memory of what the singer was capable of delivering twenty years ago, when she was still ambitious enough to put the work required into making it sound so easy. This score isn’t re-writing the Disney playbook, but it’s one of the few I was genuinely looking forward to this year, and it has delivered in ways the film, based on critical reviews, hasn’t.

TAEMIN: NEVER GONNA DANCE AGAIN: ACT 1
(2020.09.07)

TAEMIN is one of the closest people we have to The Great Pop Star, something on a par with the type of megalomania we had in the 80s and early 90s, a Michael Jackson or Madonna, a Solitary Figure with an otherworldly sense of talent, charm, and charisma. All of these traits are on display in his newest video for “Criminal,” including the hardly-human way he moves his body and the uncanny knack he has for looking through the camera straight at the heart of the viewer on the other side. It’s important, but easy, to look past all the shiny surfaces, CGI, and loose fabrics TAEMIN is always draped in, because there is never a moment he doesn’t emanate straight out of it. Like his predecessors before him, he’s seemingly more comfortable in front of the camera than behind, a man who comes alive in the pageantry of performance, and not a moment before. The rest of the mini-album serves its purpose well. TAEMIN’s sound is down pat now, a hook-based, sinister pop infused with tantalizing mystery, like the foreboding “Strangers” and ethereal “Clockwork.” It’s hard to be upset that his team rarely thinks outside of this box when he excels so well inside of it — a TAEMIN playing in his own shadowy sandbox instead of the bright ones his SM peers are often found running amok in is part of what preserves his iconic imagery. I’m not looking forward to his two-year absence to serve his time in the military, and thinking of SHINee without him helps little with the looming void. I’m glad he’s leaving us a few more tokens, and between this and his duties in SuperM, I’m sure the physical requirements of training will seem relatively familiar to the work SM has him put in day in and day out.

YooA: Bon Voyage
(2020.09.07)

There have been a number of girl-group members with less than solo-worthy chops getting their time in the spotlight, so it’s nice to see one come up that doesn’t deserve to go straight to the discard pile. YooA, from OH MY GIRL, has released her debut solo EP, Bon Voyage, and it’s giving off all the I ♡ Natural meets Shakira vibes. Unfortunately, the title track is the only one to take some risks with the quotidien K-pop sound, leaving the rest of the EP, especially tracks like “Nareul Chajaseo (Far)” and “Jagagmong (Abracadabra)” to fill in the blanks. Overall, the collection is indecisive, a box of pretty, but mismatched buttons that’s easy to chalk up to lack of direction, but as long as we’re not in Hyoyeon, or insipid, one-off ballad territory, I’ll take any of these I can get. In any other month, one not so jam-packed with top tier releases, this would have been easier to appreciate — YooA might not be a superstar, but mostly she just got unlucky.

BABYMETAL: LEGEND – METAL GALAXY (METAL GALAXY WORLD TOUR IN JAPAN EXTRA SHOW) DAY 1 & 2
(2020.09.09)

Live albums rarely get much appreciation, and BABYMETAL’s latest illustrates why. As a live group, they are pretty great, making use of their strongest assets to cover for places they might be more deficient. They’re idols, but a lot of their fans are metal heads, so many of the usual tricks are tweaked, with video screens promoting the band’s Fox God myth, pyrotechnics over lasers, minimal costume changes, some goth-y props, etc. Lip-syncing still helps in a pinch here and there, especially almost all of MOA and YUI-METAL’S “vocals,” while the band, central to the sound but not the marketing, remain wailing away at their instruments in shadow, with the focus staying on the three (now two) stars of the show. It’s all a lot of fun, and the band clearly enjoys the performance realm more than the studio one judging by the sheer number of live albums and videos that have been released over the course of this group’s 3-album existence. The problem is that rarely does their live music warrant so much attention — like most of it, these two albums are nearly note for note the studio versions with an audience piped in. Unless there are some crazy innovative, off-the-cuff solos, or new arrangements, albums like these, especially when they are unnecessarily spread across two separate releases, are blatant cash grabs of the worst kind. While “money-makers” is how most producers like business-minded Kobametal have always viewed idol groups, I’m not really sure how much longer fans will put up with a stagnated mythology, poor communication, and such obvious, and constant, recycling.

Ava Max: Heaven & Hell
(2020.09.18)

Going by initial buzz alone, you would think Ava Max wasn’t anything but a deliberate Lady Gaga clone. However, one thing was always clear during the drawn out string of singles leading up to her debut album Heaven & Hell: Ava Max has neither the quirky magnetism, nor the endearing desperation of Gaga’s early singles. “Just Dance” and “LoveGame,” were built on muscular hooks, their choruses as easily mutable through the expensive sound systems of clubs as tinny earbuds, the notes as hummable, and memorable, as a nursery rhyme. I barely registered any of Ava Max’s songs after the first listen. Luckily, her music works better in the album format, where the basic Euro-pop foundations lend a steady, sturdy purpose to an extended run of music, a stepping stone path of a track list that wraps up an almost 3-year block of fun, but indistinguishable singles. It’s not the best representation of what a major label like Atlantic can offer, but there’s raw material within Ava Max, one that hasn’t yet been tapped by truly innovative pop, the kind that gives songs an instantly recognizable personality. I would love to see what Max with a top-tier producer like Justin Tranter could come up with, though I worry that three years of little growth bodes ill for a journey to the next level.

Whenever You CallArashi: “Whenever You Call”
(2020.09.18)

It’s a shame that Arashi have reached a genuinely interesting stage of their career moments before calling it quits. Everything from a relatively robust Internet presence, to a Netflix documentary, to experimenting with popular social media platforms like TikTok that utilize their strongest appeal (personality), Johnny’s has finally allowed this group the space to grow, as the last year before hiatus, and what was sure to be a spectacular crowning performance at the 2020 Olympics went up in flames, comes to a close. This single, written by Bruno Mars and produced by D’mile is just another curve ball from the group this year. Technically, Mars’s name does not hold the same weight it would have five years or so ago, but his skill hasn’t waned in the four years since he hit a peak with 24K Magic (both the song and album). “Whenever You Call“‘s mid-tempo pace does a stellar job of covering all the group’s worst weaknesses, including some serviceable but awkward pronunciation (this doesn’t bother me, but it’s obvious most of the members are struggling a bit), and the video’s robust choreography that doesn’t quite match the laid back tone of the song (this routine has none of the chill that is a hallmark of Mars’ personality — even when he’s on his knees, he’s always in charge). Otherwise, this simple number is perfect for Arashi: bland enough to fit neatly into the group’s discography, but interesting enough to add a bit of flavor and genuine pathos to a long list of stuffy love songs. It’s no coincidence that Arashi is finally taking fun, sometimes lopsided, risks knowing that they have nothing left to lose, and it really makes one wonder what the group could have been if they had cared enough to think outside the very rigid confines of the Johnny’s formula ten or fifteen years ago instead. Of course, I have liked them just fine for the last few years, but imagine!

Movements: No Good Left to Give
(2020.09.18)

I feel a little guilty admitting that I think that Feel Something is one of the greatest debut albums of all time: the lead singer had barely reached legal drinking-age when the band put out one of the most honest and sincere depictions of depression set to audio. Does the album surpass its years to express a mature, wiser-than-its years clarity upon the subject? No, and all the better for it. The very heart-on-its-sleeve, sometimes angry, sometimes okay see-saw is the reason it works, a collection of haphazard emotional turbulence that only the young can, heart whole, deliver un-ironically. The dedicated post-hardcore touches only added to its mystifying success. Three years after its release, it’s still one of the CDs that sees the most re-play on my morning commutes. So with some apprehension, I queued up their follow-up album No Good Left to Give, already wincing at the train wreck of an album jacket. Luckily their sophomore album returns to the same trademark atmospherics of Feel Something. The genre has remained the same, but the execution feels more evolved and fleshed out, with a bit more specificity in its storytelling (“Seneca“) that lends songs a high relatability factor, and an overall less at-the-precipice than already-over-the-cliff commitment on the production side. The album can be a bit unforgiving in its relentless drive to play up the half-empty mindset when the music itself already does so much of the heavy lifting, with the lyrics an overkill at times and the spoken-wore segments still a distraction (also, note for note the same melody as the ones on Feel Something so it sounds — not in a good, come-full-circle way — like the exact same song), but this is still a world I can see myself spending as much time in as its predecessor, an aural space perfect for the bleak landscape we’ve all found ourselves in this year.

Kylie Minogue: “Magic”
(2020.09.24)

When Kylie announced the title of her new album, Disco, and revealed the cover art, I was hardly imagining the sound of “Say Something,” the first single released. But this is more like it! “Magic” perfectly captures the tone of “grown-up disco” that Minogue hinted at almost a year ago. With good reason, it lacks the serious resonance of Jessie Ware’s disco odyssey, reflecting, instead, the poppy fun we’ve come to expect from Minogue. It might not be so much grown-up, as an attempt by a grown up to capture the same nighttime feeling you only get at the club in your 20s, but it says a lot more than its predecessor. It also has a better, carefully social-distanced music video — okay, there’s only like six people total in the club and an invisible glass barrier surrounds our star, but we’re in the club again! Dancing! Celebrating! You can be nostalgic for 1979 and 2019!