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

July 2020: Highlights

I guess this is the accidental no-boys-allowed edition which is a good time to ask where all the great K-pop boy bands went. With any luck, YG’s new group set to debut in August will be neither male equivalent-BLANKPINKs, nor the type of clones who take all their inspiration from BTS like most of the recent crop of boy bands (though with a title like THE FIRST STEP : CHAPTER ONE, it’s not looking good). I have listened to every major boy band release this year, from SF9 to to 1THE9 to AB6IX to ATEEZ and everything in between and can’t help wondering — when is SHINee coming back?

Ayumi Hamasaki: OHIA no Ki // Dreamed a Dream
(2020.07.04) // (2020.07.31)

Despite cancelling her remaining tour dates, Ayumi Hamasaki has been working as always in 2020. In July, the singer released her first two digital singles of the year, the first an ode to her infant son whose existence she revealed in a surprise post on the first day of the New Year (sadly, my response was eerily prescient). “OHIA no Ki” debuted on the finale of the height-of-soap drama based loosely on her early career, Ai Subeki Hito ga Ite, starring Kalen Anzai and Shohei Miura. The song is typical of many Ayu ballads, and should come as no stylistic surprise with long-time producer Kazuhito Kikuchi at the helm. Kikuchi, who worked on past singles like “appears” and “HEAVEN,” hits all of his signature beats: soft pianos and swelling strings playing tag amidst a playground of leisurely vocals and an ascending major key chorus. It’s very pretty, but too similar to previous ballads to be anything more than another extremely competent, but rote, single. Its sweetest spot is the story, Ayu’s lyrics expressing the type of sentiments able to melt the freeze off the iciest cynic, sharing slices of the joy, fear, and relief that mark the firsts every parent experiences with a child. You really have to be a toad not to appreciate its charm, at least a bit. The second single, “Dreamed a Dream,” is the Tetsuya Komuro-penned comeback that fans have been waiting for. Komuro, busy spending the last few years lapping up nostalgia projects and taking liberties with words like “retirement,” took the time to produce this new single, which luckily has more teeth than his first contribution to the 46/48 franchise, a late-stage trf outtake, presumably. This is a very comfortable space for Ayumi, and like “OHIA no Ki,” it doesn’t add anything novel to the canon with its frenzied pace, thin guitar solo, and piano exit, but it’s nice to see jacket art that isn’t B&W or sepia-toned, and this year we really have to take any positives we can get.

Red Velvet-IRENE & SEULGI: Monster
(2020.07.06)

While track records are never 100%, there are some labels you intrinsically expect to deliver great hits. SM Entertainment is up there in the Top 5 (or 3, as it were…): there are few records labels, let alone Korean ones, that have released more enjoyable groups and hit songs than this monolith, and when word started going round about a favorite group’s new sub-unit, I couldn’t help but prepare myself for new favorite songs. But, alas, never 100%. So where does Monster go wrong? This EP feels half-baked, a collection of B-sides and filler album tracks, like Red Velvet’s Velvet side without any of the mystery or understated cool. Its inability to be more like Red Velvet shouldn’t work against it, yet “Jelly,” the EP’s most RV-esque track, is its strongest and least mid-tier. This is the kind of disappointment that hits on two levels – dashed expectations, and abuse of an otherwise high-quality production. The lazy name of this sub-unit should have tipped me off, but old loyalties die hard.

Katy Perry: “Smile”
(2020.07.10)

A new album from Katy Perry was obvious considering how many singles she’s released since Witness. The real kicker here is that “Smile” is 100% okay. The mellow vibes of neither “Harleys in Hawaii” nor “Never Really Over” provided any clues as to where the Katy of Teenager Dream was hanging out these days, but at least they weren’t as insufferable as “Never Worn White,” with its very Beyonce-at-the VMAs reveal (that’s two pop titans taking cues from Queen Bey in the same column!) or as boring as “Daisies.” My expectations for Smile were immediately relegated somewhere to the basement, next to that new Hitomi Arai single, but this lead-single is decent enough to have piqued a very, very mild interest. The album cover had me hoping for a concept a little more along the lines of Chaplin’s “Smile” (I am going to be disappointed if it’s not sampled anywhere on the album) but the performance video is more of an undeveloped alternate-universe Joker, one where Arthur Fleck’s mental health is quite stable, actually, and his passion and talent for bringing laughter and joy to the world was acknowledged and rewarded accordingly, leading to a happy and fulfilling career and personal life. So, very mindful, enlightened, centered, me-time Katy Perry, ca. 2020! I’m not sure the world is ready to receive a record as earnest as this right now, nor does it seem to promise any retribution for the tiresome C-level hits we’ve been getting since, oh, “Wide Awake.” I’m happy for Katy, but I’m not exactly sure this hyper-positive me-time is meeting the moment.

YUKIKA: Soul Yeoja
(2020.07.21)

Consistency is still a problem in K-pop. Look, of course it makes sense, from a money-making standpoint, to put all your resources into creating one hit single and culling the budget for album tracks that often exist for purposes of extra “content” rather than artistic continuity, but it’s harder to reconcile with the genre bait-and-switch that promises listeners something truly innovative, only to be a one-off. As far as I know, one of the few to really commit the whole way though was Wonder Girls. So YUKIKA’s Japanese city-pop angle is a revelation, a chance to truly give the industry something that’s maybe no longer fresh (not after almost a decade of Bandcamp tributes), but certainly different. Too bad it falls just short of committing all the way. Soul Yeoja leads with its jazzy, laid-back singles like “SOUL LADY” and the glimmering “NEON 1989,” the album 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 album. The songs themselves deserve little of the blame, for what is proving to be a lack of commitment on the production side. An album like Feel, that takes the less-traveled road of bravely ignoring the pressure to drop a traditional K-pop ballad, deserves every morsel of praise in its critical arsenal, but it’s hard to throw kudos to an album that chooses to play it safe when it’s clearly capable of taking it all the way. I like this album, and certainly appreciate what it’s doing the majority of the time, but I want to love it, and all I can do, now that YUKIKA is a full-length album in, is imagine the potential.

Kylie Minogue: “Say Something”
(2020.07.24)

Anything longer than 24 months is too long without a Kylie Minogue album, especially when that last album was Golden. While it’s nice to see artists try something new, it’s always disappointing when those visions don’t quite work the way they might have been pictured in pre-production. So it was good news when late last year Kylie spoke to The Guardian about working on new music that would get her “back on the dancefloor,” hinting at “grown-up disco,” and dropping the tantalizing adjective “shimmery.” This month, we finally get a taste of what she was talking about when Minogue announced her new album, Spartanely, but hopefully not too tastefully, titled Disco. The album cover is a thousand word, 12-pt font, double-spaced essay to describe that genre’s campiness, but the lead single “Say Something,” is mostly silent on the subject. The short pop song is less Golden Age-Donna Summers and more Sally Shapiro minus inspiration. There’s still plenty of unheard content on the album to look forward to, but if it’s just more of this, it’d do better to drop the “grown-up” tag and commit to youthful hedonism. It’s greedy to expect two world-class revival records in the same year when we already got Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, especially when no one was expecting Minogue’s so soon, but you can’t dangle an album cover like that with Kylie Minogue’s name on it and not deliver 100% of the fun and cheese it implies.

Taylor Swift: folklore
(2020.07.24)

Who knew that seven years after Queen Bey dropped Beyonce to an unsuspecting nation always hungry for “content,” that surprise album-drops would be one of the defining moves of her legacy? While she may not have been the first to do so, “a release of this nature was unheard of from someone of Beyoncé’s magnitude,” and since then, pop stars from Ayumi Hamasaki to Ariana Grande have labored in secret, only to parachute in from seemingly nowhere with full-length albums. But in fact, at this time last year, when Swift was spending months hyping her newest album Lover, it was still one of the few things she hadn’t done. The element of surprise and capture just doesn’t fit Swift, who’s prone to elaborate teasers, extended to heighten anticipation with her audience. Incorporating hidden images, weaving clues in visuals, and even working seemingly innocent hints into interviews is how she operates. This kind of fan interaction takes lots of time and forethought, none of which were given in Swift’s first official out-of-nowhere album drop folklore, announced less than 24 hours before it hit streaming platforms (and a record sixteen different physical versions). The confirmed album artwork down through the list of producers and co-writers were maximized to prepare listeners for an understated album of slower, more acoustic numbers, an album very different from the niji-iro Lover (though it’s a shame that Swift is making the rookie mistake of equating black & white photography and lowercase lettering with maturity, and sophistication). Slower, more acoustic numbers were never my favorite Swift tracks, so I went in with low expectations and suffered no disappointment. It’s a fairly satisfying album to listen to, and gives fans some primo content to chew, but it’s re-play value is nearly non-existent for me. I’m on the cynical side of the fence here with Andrew Unterbreger, who points out that “[b]y releasing it overnight with what for her is an unprecedentedly minimal amount of build-up, she frees Folklore from all of these questions and expectations [that “would have marked something of a risk if rolled out like one of her previous albums.”] If fans love it and consume it like crazy, then great. If it gets a lukewarm response critically and/or commercially, then she can underplay it as a quarantine-released personal project, not subjected to the same standards as one of her ‘official’ albums — like a mixtape, basically.” Very, very smart move though Swift is still too big to fail completely, and the sound here isn’t radical enough from songs here and there to divide fans as, say, Gaga’s Joanne did. If anything, it’s a return to Swift’s story-telling and songwriting roots with all the maturity and technical experience that she has acquired over years of honing a skill that is as second nature to her as posting cat pictures. Many songs have the usual stylistic notes and flourishes of a Taylor Swift chorus, citing note changes and key shifts present throughout her previous albums that identify her as succinctly as a sticky thumbprint. I’m not completely immune to its rustic-chic charm, but I’m no fan of the National or Bon Iver sound, so my curiosity tapers here. That’s the drawback to surprise-albums: the anticipation is always, if not more than, half the fun, so as quickly as it arrives it can be forgotten, like the last twenty tumblr posts you just scrolled through, and the twenty after that.