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

June 2020: Highlights

What should be one of the best months of the year for pop music is instead one of the most disappointing. Pickings were understandably slim this June: there’s not much to celebrate; clubs, concerts, and large gatherings of any kind are still verboten; and the fatigue of endless 90+ degree F humidity makes it very hard to appreciate all the sunshine we’re finally getting (at least here in the appears music lounge). That leaves very little inspiration for songwriting or incentive for labels to release jams of any kind. Nevertheless, here are some interesting releases, served for our still-responsibly-staying-at-home consideration — the rest of us can keep listening to Chromatica, I guess.

Jamal Green: Skelattack (Original Soundtrack)
(2020.06.05)

Since Danny Elfman is one of the most well-known and iconic producers of modern film soundtracks, it’s almost cliche to cite him as an inspiration, and borderline psychotic to attempt imitating his sound. Yet Jamal Green does just that for the soundtrack to the video game Skelattack. Full of all the moody atmospherics of the composer’s best horror soundtracks (and there are so many), the music is a fitting soundscape to the inherently all-ages, Tim Burton-theatrics of the game’s spoopy game play. It can all get a bit your local Michael’s Halloween arts-and-crafts aisle, but that’s always been my favorite aisle (outside of October, it’s the pen and marker one).

Cosmic Girls (WJSN): NEVERLAND
(2020.06.09)

There were plenty of girl group comebacks to go around in June — and boy bands too — TWICE, IZ*ONE, and NATURE to name a few. Hot take: All of these were miles ahead of their male counterparts, who keep flirting with ways to sound more like their predecessors, with half of the motivation. As a long-time fan, I’m inclined to think WJSN’s NEVERLAND leads the pack. Though we have yet to receive a genuine, marketed-as “summer single” from K-pop, “BUTTERFLY” soars as close to that burning sun as we might get during this pandemic summer. (But it’s only June! Surprise me!) Still, we could do worse than the pastel brushstrokes all over these breezy watercolors. There’s nothing original about the title or concept art here, a very Anne of Green Gables meets Disney Golden Age, but I get enough pleasure and imagery out of mere words like “beach towel,” “popsicle,” and “Coppertone SPF50” to understand the power of sticking to the traditional, and very safe, playbook, the kind of joy sparked by the powerful pull of word association in touch and taste, in sight and smell, and in sound.

Chloe x Halle: Ungodly Hour
(2020.06.12)

There are other artists out there who can do what Chloe x Halle do, but few who do it so earnestly. As two young women who debuted at the age of 13 and 15 respectively, we have been given the opportunity to watch them grow, smoothing out the wrinkles of identity and personality that we do. Ungodly Hour sees them now confronting some of the more complicated and unpleasant compromises of adulthood, with their signature downbeats and twinkling harmonies. There are bittersweet moments all over this album, including a youthful production that hints that as far as they’ve come, they still have a way to go; no one emerges a Homecoming-Beyonce before putting in the work of a Destiny’s Child-Beyonce. After naming The Kids Are Alright one of the top ten debuts of 2018, and spending some time with its follow-up, I’m happy to continue keeping my eye on this duo’s evolution and obvious drive not just to create something great, but to contribute something truly unique and singular to the genre.

Poppin’ Party: Breakthrough
(2020.06.24)

Like many anime and game idol-franchises before them, from Creamy Mami to the ubiquitous Oricon presence of iDOLM@STER, Poppin’ Party, the group from BanG Dream!, releases music to the public as any real-life band or idol. They are, after all, backed by real-life seiyuu like Ayaka Ohashi, who enjoy success through the mixed-media marketing strategy that easily parlays into solo careers. Because these groups are a dime a dozen now, and many up-and-coming vocalists will have gotten their start in one of these animated or virtual arenas, the music itself is instantly recognizable: upbeat, rock-driven, and lyrically focused on recurring themes of goal-setting, and the self-determination, drive, discipline, and relentless perseverance that it takes to reach them. Poppin’ Party already released one big compilation of their anthems last year, and it was fairly enjoyable. Breakthrough coasts on the same energy, but unfortunately filters out most of the personality that made Poppin’on! so memorable. This sieve-like effect, where the second round is similar enough to warrant consideration, but missing a vital essence, is nothing new for a concept that is now reaping diminishing returns with the sheer number of more-of-the-same options. It’s a genre in desperate need of some novel, revitalizing gimmick, and one that I eagerly hold out for in between high-quality, but self-congratulatory echo chambers like this.

Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure?
(2020.06.26)

It’s nice to get the follow-up to Fever that we all deserve, and it’s none the worse for coming from Jessie Ware, who has released what is the best disco album of the year, and probably decade. This is actual disco, not electro-pop with some strings pinched into the production, or whatever modern K-pop tries to pass off as “disco-inspired” on occasion when it’s better off just being promoted as great pop. Ware brings a levity and seriousness to What’s Your Pleasure?, one that feels as grown-up, and uncool, music-for-adults as some of the best of the genre’s vintage origins. As someone who grew up with ABBA, I respect and admire the attention to detail and unwillingness to compromise on irony for the sake of a wider audience; Random Access Memories this is not, though de Homem-Christo and Bangalter could take some serious notes if they’re looking to craft songs that are more than just technical marvels, but beating hearts, too.

NiziU: Make you happy
(2020.06.30)

The Japanese idol business has had a steady influence on K-pop long before NiziU, from Girls’ Generation on up, but it’s the sound that seems to be the main talking point with NiziU, who made their (pre-)debut this month with “Make you happy,” the type of throwaway effervescence common among debuts from Red Velvet’s “Haengbok (Happiness),” to the aforementioned SNSD’s “Dasi Mannan Segye (Into the new world).” It’s hard not to root for them when they’re following in such hallowed footsteps. The J-pop connection is a bit muddier; the group sounds heart-whole K-pop here, with the precise cut and paste choreography of their contemporaries. A Japanese word in their name and harmony-less shouts don’t a J-pop idol group make. If anything, this EP sounds a bit like early DalShabet, a “Mr. Bang Bang” send-up that makes me a little achey for a decade ago, when groups aimed to sound more like this all the time than “How Do You Like That.”