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

October 2020: Highlights

Dagny: Strangers / Lovers
(2020.10.02)

Dagny’s story is similar to many pop artists in the age of Spotify: a never-ending stream of digital singles while moonlighting for more well-known pop stars like Katy Perry. Often this entails trying to gain a foothold in the industry by contributing to the packed song-writing labs of today’s Frankentstein-ed Billboard hits (in this case, “Never Really Over,” where she joins seven others with songwriting credits). So it’s nice that Dagny finally gets her moment in the spotlight, here proving she has the ability to surpass the bigger names who might as well admit it’s time to pass the torch. Like the massive hooks of a single like “Come Over,” the entire album is rooted in conventional dance-pop, drawing upon little variety in production for a consistent, rather than diverse, palette of sounds. While it could do with a bit more surprises, it’s not a hard sell in a month where the only other major release from a female soloist was Ariana Grande’s positions, though it’ll really have to fight harder to be remembered in a year full of them.

WJSN Chocome: “Hmph!”
(2020.10.07)

With the world’s eyes on K-pop like never before, the niche groups of the Golden Age, the ones content to focus solely on a domestic audience with in-jokes and culture-specific references, have fallen to the wayside. There is almost no incentive to promote groups like Orange Caramel or Crayon Pop, groups with no chance of making their way outside of Asia without LOLs attached. Since every new or comeback group’s aesthetic nowadays is “cool,” “dark,” or “sexy,” it makes a sub-unit like WJSN Chocome even more novel and enticing. Their cues stem from off-the-wall sub-units before them in sight and sound from gugudan OGUOGU to OH MY GIRL BANHANA (and hey, whatever happened to FANATICS-FLAVOR?), to vintage J-pop (those Chisato Moritaka outfits!), though of course most comparisons to peak-Orange Caramel are most accurate, the eurodance, saxophone-loaded “Hmph!” one big Neapolitan-flavor-melt of uninhibited, geeky K-pop at its best. As these groups get fewer and farther between, it makes the ones that come along just that more radiant.

The Newton Brothers: The Haunting of Bly Manor (Music from the Netflix Horror Series)
(2020.10.09)

Like it’s fellow anthology series, American Horror Story, the second installment of Netflix’s The Haunting series casts many of the same actors in a loose re-telling of Henry James’ The Turning of the Screw. Like its predecessor, the real horrors are those that are less supernatural than ultra-natural, the ghosts of guilt, and shame, and past lives re-surfacing at a person’s most vulnerable moments. The Newton Brothers are back for the soundtrack, although in lieu of composing brand-new themes or re-inventing their sound, they’ve largely expanded upon their original work, dashing off a series of new snippets among a collection rife with quotes from the most iconic themes of Hill House. Luckily, they’ve learned a thing or two, trading in atmospherics for more melody, drawing out the first’s best elements: the eerie, melancholy piano most prominent in cues like “Beginning of the End Movement IV,” eschewing the necessary, but superfluous, sharp violins and abrupt dynamics. This makes for an overall more unsettling, and more listenable, experience of the two outside of their visual elements, perfect for any rainy autumn evening.

Nao☆: gift songs
(2020.10.13)

It’s inevitable, but disappointing, whenever great idol groups peter out. Sure Negicco’s peak-era run was short, ending with Rice & Snow, but at the time, they were as close to a bonafide idol group as possible, one both passionate idol fans and casual indie kids enjoyed. That cred has lent itself to other Tower Records-adjacent soloists like Michiru Hoshino, and to the other members themselves who have been dabbling in the solo waters since at least 2018. Their sounds are similar: last month Keade’s Stardust in Blue and this month, Nao’s gift songs are two EPs as close to mirror images as they get. Nao’s boasts help from groups with some rising clout like the band apart, it’s low-key vibe an antidote to Kaede’s more low-effort attempt. It’s a matter of personal taste, but Nao’s gift songs retains a kind of warm, whimsical charm missing from its sister EP, one closer in sound to the Rice & Snow sound. Neither of these are particularly game-changing, memorable EPs, but their throwback, warm-water oases are refreshing in a desert full of dusty, major-label idol pop that only Keyakizaka46 (RIP, kind of) can nominally transcend.

LOONA: [12:00]
(2020.10.19)

After the long wait after 2019’s double mini-albums, we only had to wait eight months since LOONA’s last, [#], released in February. A disappointing collection to say the least, I’m happy that this month’s [12:00], while still veering into unoriginal territory, is at least less of an attempt to compete on the same sonic world stage as BLACKPINK than more local girl groups, though all the mystery is still visibly reduced by the amount of stock samples in some of the tracks, especially the lead single, “Why Not?” which is clearly stitched together from various sources (check out the first three tracks of Super M’s Super One for an instructional guide in stitching independently-composed choruses, verses, and bridges together to create one massive hit, not unlike the origin story of every K-pop group itself) to encompass a songwriting-credits list as long as some telephone books (for anyone who remembers those) and nearly as many emotional beats. I’m partial to the more straight-forward dance-pop of “Voice,” one of [12:00]‘s strongest tracks, but as someone who no longer falls within their direct marketing demographic, I’m probably mistaken. The rest of the EP boasts some fun tracks, rounded out by obligatory subdued moments. It’s better than [#], but only just enough to keep me interested, rather than impressed.

Carlos Rafael Rivera: The Queen’s Gambit (Music from the Netflix Limited Series)
(2020.10.23)

It’s difficult to make chess, with its stoic concentration, and all the most exciting parts happening unseen, cerebrally, riveting on screen, but with the help of camera angles, quick cuts, and most importantly, a thrilling soundtrack, Netflix makes it seem easy. As one of the only companies poised to deliver a constant avalanche of new content during a pandemic that has shuttered theaters around the world, the streaming service is one of the few sources we looked to for a year bereft of blockbusters and their original scores that would have normally rolled off the assembly line this autumn like Lucy’s chocolates (actually, we did technically get Mulan, and I guess, Alan Silvestri’s score for The Witches, which was fine). The Queen’s Gambit, composed by newcomer Carlos Rafael Rivera, who has but a couple low-key credits to his name, relies on the show’s thematic content, deploying suspenseful strings and lush momentum alongside a gorgeous base of piano for his score, all while maintaining distinct themes for each of the show’s most important matches. Making chess as dramatic as the final game in the World Series has its challenges, and Rivera admits, “I grew up with chess in that my dad played a little, but I never cared about it. But as long as you know that someone stands to lose, you can score for it.” With an arresting story line and such a stunning score, it’s a win-win for the viewer.

Ariana Grande: positions
(2020.10.30)

From the moment the lead single, “positions” dropped, it was apparent this was not going to be Ariana Grande’s experimental album. The question was: just how similar would it be to thank u, next? The answer is, extremely. Throughout her career, as a vocalist with incredible range and skill, Grande has had the pleasure and pain of being compared to Mariah Carey. positions proves that’s where the parallels end: while Grande has a hand in composing all of the tracks on this album, it lacks the melodic depth and dynamism of Carey as a songwriter at the same point in career (Carey’s sixth album was Butterfly, widely regarded as the turning point in her career, and one that has enjoyed not only critical acclaim, but popular support). On the other hand, the comparisons can only increase, as Grande seemingly does her best to imitate not only late-era Carey (specifically Caution), but her closest contemporaries, among them Victoria Monet, whose producer worked on both singers’ 2020 releases (and with Monet making a direct appearance on “34+35).” This doesn’t make positions a terrible album at all, in fact, sonically, it’s just as consistent as its predecessor, and boasts some of the best production on a technical level, of the year. Still, listeners looking for a hit single or a pop number in the vein of “No Tears Left to Cry” or “Into You” will be disappointed. That ship, with Max Martin waving from the deck, has sailed, in lieu of an aggressively grown-up approach that boasts an uninhibited and sexually frank lexicon, a sign of the times for Grande who is coming into her own in the age of The Weeknd.

Meghan Trainor: A Very Trainor Christmas
(2020.10.30)

It’s hard to find holiday music that doesn’t suck the life out of classics that were never meant for a punk-rock or trance-pop remix. They exist, they’re just few and far between — if pressed, I could maybe name five albums right now. Yet every year I subject myself to the new year’s crop in search of the ever elusive black diamond of Christmas music. Among this year’s hopefuls, including Carrie Underwood, The Bird and the Bee, Goo Goo Dolls, and Maddie & Tae, Meghan Trainor is the last person I would expect to produce a serviceable, let alone good, album of holiday classics. But this is 2020, where all bets are off and we’ve truly reached an historical nadir, so here we are, in the muck, with Trainor’s album this year’s Christmas front-runner. Earlier this year, Trainor released a collection of pop music so past its sell-by date, it wouldn’t even have been relevant if it had met its original release date, scheduled for a year earlier. Yet the annoyingly jolly desperateness that hallmarks Trainor’s brand of confused feminism translates well into music that is built on joyful earnestness. In fact, Trainor could have easily taken this to JoJo Siwa-levels of exuberance, instead displaying a tasteful level of restraint on classics like “Silent Night,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that lesser souls have insisted on jazzing up with unnecessary tempo changes. The jazzing up, in fact, is relegated to originals like “Holidays” featuring, of all groups, Earth, Wind, and Fire, “My Kind of Present,” and “Christmas Got Me Blue.” These are not the kind of canon-storming songs planning to meet “All I Want for Christmas is You” on the top of the Hot 100, but you can do a lot worse if you’re desperate to feel some semblance of manufactured holiday cheer this year.

Sam Smith: Love Goes
(2020.10.30)

Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders, recently translated into English, unravels the story of a mass murder through interviews with several people related to the crime. One such character, an editor who worked with the woman who spent her graduate years researching the murders, appears at the climax of the mystery, eloquently musing on the book that he helped eventually publish: “In one sense,” he states, “something can only be recognized as having happened if there is a record of it.” Love Goes is Sam Smith’s record, chronicling what appears to be a very tumultuous time in their life. Like many albums this year, the album was delayed due to the pandemic, and in another sense, for a re-branding, its original title taking that of the then-titular track “To Die For,” where the singer laments not having someone in their life worth that very ultimate sacrifice. It is, instead, now named for a song about the tough decision to walk away from an irreparable relationship: “You’re broken, we know that,” they reluctantly admit, “And if you knew it, you won’t fight me when I say farewell.” It’s a total change to the original way listeners could interpret this album, from a place of reluctance, and of tortured loss looking back, to a more hopeful, forward-facing perspective of resigned understanding and acceptance. The entire album is rife with this kind of bruised sensitivity, with heartache, and a spiritual search for home and acceptance. Its highly personal, self-reflecting lyrical content can seem like the most irresponsible kind of self-indulgence in these times, but the care with which these songs were constructed make it more than just a whiny diary of break-up songs about Sam Smith’s former lovers. But even if it was, Love Goes, as a record of that time in their life, finally shared with the entire world, bears witness. It means it happened, and it means it happened forever.