The K-pop acts of 2020 debuted under unprecedented conditions. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, artists made their first performances on local music shows in South Korea but without a live audience singing along and chanting the names of their favorites—one of the experiences most anticipated by idols in training. Still, a few dozen rookie acts entered the K-pop scene last year and enthusiastically interacted with fans through online platforms as both parties awaited the day when in-person gatherings could resume.
The K-pop groups that particularly caught our attention range in size—consisting of anywhere between four and 12 members. They also vary in their output, from a single song to a full-length album. In addition to releasing good music, they’ve surprised in one way or another and are poised to make even larger waves in 2021.
Here, the new K-pop groups to watch in the year to come.
Members: Choi Hyunsuk, Jihoon, Yoshi, Junkyu, Mashiho, Yoon Jaehyuk, Asahi, Bang Yedam, Haruto, Doyoung, Park Jeongwoo, So Junghwan
TREASURE’s debut was long-awaited. Though YG Treasure Box, the reality competition show that formed the group, completed airing in January 2019, it wasn’t until more than a year later that the act officially debuted. Thankfully, the pre-debut variety series Treasure Map—which captured everything from light-hearted games to a heartwarming surprise for one member’s high school graduation—offered a way for fans to follow the lives of the 12 members in the meantime. In August 2020, the ensemble from YG Entertainment (home to BLACKPINK) debuted with the title track, “Boy.” In each of TREASURE’s first three single albums, the group paired a hard-hitting lead single with a laid-back second track, showcasing its versatility. These releases led up to TREASURE’s first studio album, The First Step: Treasure Effect, which dropped on Jan. 11. Perhaps most exciting is the inclusion of the act’s pre-debut song “Going Crazy.” Both that song and the latest title track, “My Treasure,” feature dynamic melodies that highlight the members’ rich and varied vocal colors—a true strength of the group.
Members: Karina, Giselle, Winter, NingNing
In the days leading up to its debut, aespa dropped an unconventional teaser photo: the image shows eight women in a room—but only four of them are humans. That’s because the other four are virtual counterparts of members Karina, Giselle, Winter and NingNing. In later video trailers, the animated characters are seen singing, rapping and dancing alongside the real-life beings. Anticipation was already high for SM Entertainment’s new girl group—the first female act to debut from the powerhouse label since Red Velvet in 2014—and the introduction of these avatars only heightened curiosity around aespa. But more than the digital renditions of the members, it was aespa’s first single, “Black Mamba,” that dominated attention. The music video for this high-intensity track with booming synth notes, rich vocals and the climactic choreography of a sudden floor-drop became the fastest K-pop group debut music video to reach 100 million views on YouTube. Though “Black Mamba” is aespa’s only release thus far, its success has positioned the act in a prime spot among the rookies of 2020.
Members: Keeho, Theo, Jiung, Intak, Soul, Jongseob
P1Harmony’s entry to the K-pop scene came with a cinematic surprise: a full-length sci-fi film, P1H: A New World Begins, starring the group’s six members. The movie, created to build a fictional universe around their identity, hit theaters in South Korea on Oct. 8, just weeks before the new FNC Entertainment act dropped its first EP, Disharmony: Stand Out. While the approach of a K-pop group making a debut on the big screen was creative, it was the content in this hip-hop heavy EP that established P1Harmony as a formidable rookie act. “Siren,” the lead single, features an addicting hook and a clever use of quasi-homophones—wiheom, the Korean word for danger and wiong, which imitates the sound of a siren—to deliver a sense of urgency. The other tracks from the release are bangers in their own fashion, packed with punchy rap verses that the members helped to write. And while the rap portions of P1Harmony’s tracks are a highlight, the stream of choreography videos posted over the past months proves that the members have dance chops to show off, too.
Members: Sumin, Sieun, Isa, Seeun, Yoon, J
STAYC’s debut song, “So Bad,” has one of the catchiest choruses in recent memory. That was to be expected, considering the track was produced by Black Eyed Pilseung—the songwriting duo behind some of the biggest K-pop hits including TWICE’s “Fancy,” Chungha’s “Gotta Go,” and Apink’s “Dumhdurum” (one of TIME’s Songs That Defined K-pop’s Monumental Year in 2020.) Black Eyed Pilseung had partnered with entertainment company CJ E&M to launch the music label High Up Entertainment, and STAYC is the first group to debut from the agency. Though the six-member ensemble has only released two songs—“So Bad” and “Like This” on the single album Star to a Young Culture—both have set a promising path for more hits ahead. With their stable live singing (a video shows the vocalists hitting high notes with ease) and bold charisma, the STAYC members have demonstrated an undeniable ability to command the stage. And while their own discography is limited, the artists have shown through dance covers of popular K-pop songs that they are capable of pulling off different types of performances from sweet to sleek.
Members: Jungwon, Heeseung, Jay, Jake, Sunghoon, Sunoo, Ni-ki
Even before ENHYPEN made its official debut, the group amassed a huge following on social media: more than one million on Twitter, two million on Instagram and three million on the fan community platform Weverse. The fans didn’t materialize from nowhere—the seven members gained popularity when they participated in the reality competition show I-LAND, which created ENHYPEN’s lineup through a combination of global fan votes and producer selection. Debuting under BELIFT LAB, a joint venture between Big Hit Entertainment and CJ ENM, ENHYPEN kicked off with the lead single “Given-Taken.” The track is about the uncertainties around debuting through the circumstances of a reality TV show: was it an opportunity “given” to the members, or one “taken” by their own efforts? The performance for “Given-Taken” is sharp and slick, and filled with dance moves that can only be executed collectively—with every member’s action being an integral part of the whole. Through this title track and other songs on the EP Border: Day One, ENHYPEN has made it clear that delivering intricate choreography, no matter the song’s vibe, is the group’s forte.
Members: Soojin, Jiyoon, Monday, Soeun, Jaehee, Jihan, Zoa
Among the groups that debuted in 2020, WEEEKLY has stood apart for fully embracing a youthful and bright sound at a time when sexy and dark concepts from K-pop female acts are arguably at peak popularity. Play M Entertainment’s first girl group in 10 years (the last to debut was Apink), WEEEKLY has released two EP’s—We are and We can—since the group debuted last June. Member Jiyoon has writing credits on four of the 10 tracks, establishing herself as a prolific songwriter early on. The group’s first title track, “Tag Me (@Me),” opens with a chirpy chant about the loud reactions to a social media post and continues as the members sing about the scrutiny of their timelines. But the song is less a stern rebuke of internet culture and more a benign reminder to stay true to oneself amid the online noise. The other tracks across the two projects, upbeat and playful, solidify WEEEKLY’s image as a group with refreshing charm.