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

April 2020: Highlights

It’s been another long month of uncertainty, stay-at-home orders, and streaming concert videos, the last a somewhat soothing balm to ease the blow of a virus that has wiped out any sense of security basically everywhere except South Korean, and not getting that Lady Gaga album that might have made it all just a little easier to deal with. Predictably, the music industries around the world scaled back and postponed in anticipation of more lucrative times, and we were left with a fraction of the music that would normally be rolled out to start heralding the great Song of the Summer Battle. But it hasn’t been a total blank and we did get some interesting releases in a variety of genres — here are a few that stood out.

(G)I-DLE: I Trust
(2020.04.06)

Up until now, (G)I-DLE has been the group to go to for straight-up tough-girl bangers like “Maze” and “Latata.” Their follow-up EP, I Made, paved no inroads, delivering more of the same generic, tropical-house that has been clogging K-pop the past few years. Luckily, the group has done a minor overhaul with I Trust, taking the moody lust of last year’s one-off “Lion,” and creating a whole EP around a sound less focused on getting bodies out of seats, than taking people outside of their bodies altogether. “Oh my god,” the lead track off of I Trust, is something of a red herring, not as cerebral as it wants to be, but certainly more dramatic, shifting the tempo abruptly into neutral just as soon as it seems to be taking off. These moments that give pause are scattered throughout this more somber side of (G)I-DLE. While the collection does rely a bit too heavily on trendy trap-hooks that set a very short expiration date on its longevity, it’s a nice, new color for the group, the more serious right of passage on any girl-group’s mood ring. (G)I-DLE wear it well, as I expect they would a big summer bop and winter ballad, too.

Anly: Sweet Cruisin’
(2020.04.08)

It would seem like the Anlys of the world are a dime a dozen now, so ubiquitous you can’t click a Related Artists link on Spotify without being bombarded by the same ten or so indie-bent singer-songwriters signed to major labels. Okinawa-born Anly’s origin story isn’t unique: the Millennial fairy tale-template is strong in this artist who grew up listening to her father’s music collection and began releasing and playing her own songs straight out of high school, gaining traction with modern gimmicks like iPhone-filmed music videos, pushing the “genre-less” party line, and boasting large streaming numbers. She was signed to a major on the promise of just two singles. But the music holds up well, though I’m not sure if “genre-less” is the correct term for Sweet Cruisin’, so much as “indecisive,” the kind of record that careens between swinging acoustic-prominent J-pop jams like “We’ll Never Die” and “Sunshine,” and mellow hip-hop like “Sleep” in an attempt to distinguish itself from more over-produced outfits by purposely maintaining a bit of a rough, DIY aesthetic that offers the illusion of authenticity, a sound now as marketable as any idol’s. There’s an audience for this kind of music, and while I might not be it, I can appreciate what Anly is doing within the confines of the box she’s built herself into.

Spell: Opulent Decay
(2020.04.10)

A minor avalanche of great metal albums have been release throughout April, so it’s a real shame that I just haven’t been in the mood to listen to and enjoy them as much as I normally would. I don’t have any explanation for this, aside from the inability to give the genre the concentration and consideration it deserves lately. Aside from Dawn of Solace’s Waves and Stallion’s Slaves of Time, Spell’s Opulent Decay is the first metal album I’ve enjoyed since 2020 kicked off, and even now I’m at a loss to articulate what distinguishes it from other albums in its sub-genre. The album is steeped in early 80’s hard rock, with its immediate influences being groups like Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult, though I hear a lot of debut-era Ghost in these songs, too (themselves drawing from the same wells in their first years). It’s full of decent hooks covered in a tell-tale funereal gloom, and guided first by the dominant guitar work and then the thin, somewhat incongruous vocals. But it all works, even when nothing feels particularly original, and while I’m under no impression this will be making many year-end lists, I have found it a treat to chew on this past week, a kind of aperitif that I hope will stimulate my appetite for more in the coming months.

Nanaka Suwa: So Sweet Dolce
(2020.04.15)

If you’re a young seiyuu looking to make the transition to solo idol star, the history of the genre has ensured there are plenty of models available to emulate. Nanaka Suwa seems to be pulling from a variety of sources, among them veterans like Luna Haruna and Aya Uchida, but especially Ayami Muto and Yui Ogura. The latter is proving a particular inspiration, not just in visuals, but in sound. Suwa’s debut album So Sweet Dolce is something of a concept album, with each song focused around exactly what its titles suggest: sweets. With titles like “Donut Ring World,” “CHOCOLATE PHRASE,” “MACAROON LOVE,” and “POPCORN no Kumo (Popcorn Cloud),” the album goes all in, though the lyrical content and music itself isn’t anything different than so much upbeat idol-pop before it. 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 doesn’t bring anything new to this genre that you can’t already get from someone like Ogura, but for those who can’t get enough of this sound, and the endless parade of pretty women in crinoline who represent it, then as the title track says, prepare for some “uncontrollable crush vibes.”

Who-ya extended: wyxt.
(2020.04.15)

Anime tie-ins won’t be the first or the last time I will see Who-ya on my radar if they keep this up: sampled at random, the debut album wyxt. took me a bit by surprise. Not much is known about Who-ya except that it features the voice of a gifted 20-something who hits all the right dramatic heights for the type of guitar-driven themes common in shounen. The album also incorporates just enough synths to keep things clipping at a very nice, quasi post-hardcore pace. I listened to this one around the same time as the new miyavi album, so while I’m bound to draw some comparisons, this album has a lot more studio spit-and-polish than the latter’s just plain polish, incorporating more bells and whistles like on “REC ON,” where some dubstep-lite makes an unfortunate appearance, or on “G.O.A.T” where all the hooks are electronic. It’s a true hybrid of an album, fusing rock, balladry, and electro in a way that shows modest promise.

CHUNG HA: “Stay Tonight”
(2020.04.27)

I have been waiting all year for K-pop to wake up, to give me the first glimpse of a genuine heart-pounding, intergalactic, stars-collide hit. I really did not expect that hit to come from CHUNG HA, who until now, has released some pretty good dance-adjacent solo songs after a stint in short-lived girl-group I.O.I., but nothing of the caliber of a “Stay Tonight.” The energy of this song reminds me a lot of my favorite song of 2013, Kim Sori’s “Dual Life.” It’s a knock-you-on-your-backside song from a somewhat out-of-left-field performer that you never thought would be good enough to attract the kind of songwriting that could elevate them from the lower tiers. That’s not to say this will send CHUNG HA to the top of the heap — after “Dual Life,” I never heard anything about Kim Sori again, but wow, wouldn’t it be nice? In addition, the music video for “Stay Tonight” takes this bouncy house song to another level: the precision of the choreography accompanied by some clever visuals and cuts make this a feast as much for the eyes as the ears. This is the first time I have really felt the spirit of K-pop this year, and though it’s sad that it took until late April, that click you hear is the resounding connection of the hope of normalcy restored.

April: Da Capo // OH MY GIRL: NONSTOP // GWSN: the Keys
(2020.04.22) // (2020.04.27) // (2020.04.28)

K-pop has become one of the few East Asian music industries that relies on overseas sales to float, so it’s not surprising that with that particular market (both nearby Japan, and far away Europe/United States) off-limits during the coronavirus pandemic, K-pop is eager to start getting back into the release cycle to churn out whatever revenue they can wring out of their groups. And since South Korea is one of the few countries to have managed their outbreak competently they can afford to — the last half of this month has finally seen glimmers of a return of regular, bigger-ticket brands, and release schedules, with mini-albums by girls-groups (G)I-DLE, Apink, April, OH MY GIRL, and GWSN. It was a nice surprise since the three latter are all groups that I regularly follow and have a genuine interest in. It’s fair to say most of them started out as spackle to fill the space left behind by Girls’ Generation, but have put a lot of effort towards breaking out of the mold. None of these is a game-changer, but they are undoubtedly strong, with April’s “LALALILALA” being the big standout for me. The track relies on a 90’s eurodance via T-ara hook that shimmers in all the right, bubbly places, not unlike one of WJSN’s summer hits (or even Apink’s own, “Dumhdurum“). OH MY GIRL’S “Saljjak Seollesseo (Nonstop)” is the most forgettable, shooting for a broad, tropical-house vibe that, while fun, leaves it rather indistinguishable. That leaves GWSN’s “BAZOOKA!” squarely in the middle of the two, the ultimate palette cleanser. What matters most in the end is that getting to compare, contrast, dissect, and pick a favorite among multiple comebacks is the real victory here, one of the first and few luxuries fans can indulge in after a bleak winter of bad news and an industry reluctant to roll out any significant music during a time very few people were paying attention. We’re not out of the desert yet, but what a welcome oasis.