20 new K-pop acts to obsess over in 2020
From ATEEZ, ITZY and Bibi, to the groups so new they're not even named yet, this is your essential guide to a whole new year of K-pop.
Still from Bibi's "Binu" music video
The new year and a new decade has well and truly started, and while most of us are still bumbling around offices and classrooms with the glazed look of a person who hasn’t quite got back into the swing of things, the K-pop industry has taken off into 2020 at a sprint.
One of the most satisfying feelings you can have as a music fan is the thrill of discovering a new group to love. One that twangs your heartstrings and punches all the right sonic buttons. But given how frenetic and under wraps the South Korean music industry is, there’s every chance fans can be blindsided by the sudden appearance of a new group or even miss a debut completely. That or there’ll be an announcement of a group who is then delayed (and delayed and delayed). K-pop can be a little baffling in this respect, but sometimes that’s just part of the fun.
To help you map a course for 2020, we take a look at the rising and totally new K-pop artists you should probably keep an eye on this year.
The 12-member boy group -- the result of the survival show YG Treasure Box, which aired between November 2018 and January 2019 -- were originally slated to debut mid-2019. As this never materialised, it’s been a very long wait for fans but members like Bang Yedam have been writing music or covering tracks to help keep the fans' flame alight. It was recently announced that new material would begin to be released this month, and individual images have already dropped. As YG Entertainment’s first boy band in four years (the last being iKON in 2015) and after a scandal-filled 2019, the stakes are high: will Treasure help put YG back on track as a K-pop heavyweight?
2. SM Entertainment’s new boy and girl groups
There has been plenty of speculation about these two new groups since last year although nothing, except their existence, has been confirmed. The boys are proving divisive as some parts of the NCT fandom feel SM will favour these newbies, pushing aside their not even four year old group, however, for the girls the time seems right given Red Velvet debuted way back in 2014. It’s safe to say that rumours and support around SM’s new girl group (SMNGG for short) are definitely gathering steam, and thus far fans think it’s a multinational lineup, with some of the members rumoured to be Lami, Jimin, Hina, NingNing, and Koeun. For now though, we’re simply playing the waiting game.
With their religious iconography, the red neon flowing through their videos and heavy use of circles in their sets and artwork, you could perhaps call OnlyOneOf’s concept ‘biblical futurism’. The man behind it? Jaden Jeong, former creative director for girl group LOONA. The nine member boy group debuted in May 2019 with the seductive, breathy “savanna” and have three EPs of darkly beautiful harmonies, R&B grooves and future bass that have been far too overlooked. If 2020 has any chill, it will make sure this group picks up the traction they deserve.
Everglow’s debut 2019 EP was entitled Arrival of Everglow, which was boldly apt considering the homegrown and international fanbase they’d quickly accrue off the back of two EPs and the punchy singles, “Bon Bon Chocolat” and “Adios”. The six members haven’t released anything since last summer and their fandom (known as Forever) must surely be chomping at the bit for their return to the spotlight. If the girls manage to top the extravaganza that was “Adios”, they’ll be having a solid 2020.
ITZY had such a massive 2019 that you have to actively remind yourself that they only debuted last February and that their discography so far consists of five songs. Two singles -- “Dalla Dalla” and “Icy” -- have clocked up over 300 million views and the group came away from end-of-year award ceremonies with a dozen trophies. Now there’s a Paris-based reality show on the way and they’re taking their fun, feisty, hypercoloured concept to the USA in mid-January for five showcase dates. If JYP intends to see ITZY sit alongside Blackpink in terms of global stardom, then fans can probably expect another couple of singles this year and, hopefully, an EP. More, more, give us more!
6. Big Hit’s new boy group
Big Hit, home to TXT and BTS, have joined forces with media conglomerate CJ E&M to found a new company called Belif Lab, which will debut a boy group this year. They've set themselves a tight schedule considering the globally-held auditions only started last March but both companies have the manpower (and money) to put things into high gear, so we may indeed see a brand new group take to the stage in 2020. Meanwhile, TXT closed out their debut year with the excellent “Run Away”, which took their ‘growing pains’ narrative to interesting and darker places. Here’s hoping that we see this explored further before the inevitable turn towards something lighter.
7. RBW Girls/365 Practise
Despite what you see in the dance video, there’s actually six members in RBW’s upcoming girl group -- Jieun, Sujin, Yesol, Jieun, Goeun, Eunseong and Yuki. And like their labelmates, Mamamoo, the RBW Girls are packing a real punch when it comes to their vocals, which they’ve demonstrated through covers of Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish and Little Mix. There’s still no final name or even a debut date (although their YouTube channel has been running for nearly two years) but with nearly 2 million views on the “HIP” practice alone, there’s plenty of people ready to check them out when they do.
Sticking with the RBW label, their six member boy band, ONEUS, who just celebrated their first anniversary, are well worth keeping an eye on in 2020. They were something of a dark horse last year, quietly building a solid fanbase but certainly not pulling the higher level of attention and acclaim they deserve. But their three EPs, all with B-sides so good they could stand as follow-up singles (“Level Up”, “Bing Bing”, “Read Thread”), are worth repeated listens if rubbery bass, well utilised EDM influences and immaculate pop hooks are your thing.
The anger from PRISTIN fans over their lack of promotions and eventual disbandment felt far more pronounced than the excitement for last November’s return of four of the members (Eunwoo, Yaebin, Minkyeung and Gyeongwon) as HINAPIA (plus newbie and maknae, Bada). Yet there was plenty to love on their debut single, “Drip”. Besides not straying too far from PRISTIN V’s “Get It” in terms of taking a more mature approach to their style, there’s a sense of rebellion here that comes from starting over with nothing to lose, expressed through the MV as the girls slowly free each other from symbolic prisons. HINAPIA’s agency might be small and K-pop expensive to produce, but when the five-piece return with single #2, fingers crossed it will be as territory-marking as “Drip”.
10. KOZ’s first boy group
This one is purely speculative but in October 2019, Zico (leader of Block B and now CEO of his own label, KOZ Entertainment) appeared on a radio show and stated, “Right now, it [KOZ] is centered around musicians because that's who I am, but that doesn't mean everyone at the label is a hip-hop artist. There could be an idol group or a boy band in the future." Given Zico will need to enlist for the military in 2020, the timing is just right to launch a new venture, get it on track and have the staff in place to manage them while he is serving. We’ll leave you with a reminder of Block B at their very best and to imagine what a new Zico-conceived boy group might be like. Our guess: loud.
11. Starship’s new boy group
Starship had one hell of a year in 2019 with MONSTA X’s Wonho leaving the group. The fallout is still rumbling on through the fandom and, on top of this, Starship’s reputation took another serious blow having been part of the bribery scandal around the survival show Produce X. However, in July 2019, the company announced they’d debut a new boy group in 2020. While there’s been no further information released, it’s speculated that their trainees knocked out of Produce X -- Jungmo, Hyunbin, and Wonjin -- are in the line-up. Given Produce X’s group, X1, is now prematurely disbanded, its two Starship members, Minhee and Hyeongjun, might also be involved.
12. ROCKET PUNCH
There’s stiff competition out there in the girl group world and Rocket Punch, who debuted last August, got a little lost in the melee. Their single “Bim Bam Bum” came out fighting with tropical influences and quirky structural moments off the bridge, but no follow up was released. Their label, Woollim, have a solid history of producing excellent idol groups (Infinite, Lovelyz, and Golden Child -- who you should also keep an eye on) so whatever they’ve got up their sleeves for Rocket Punch this year, there’ll be an audience waiting. They need to follow up that debut single soon though, or Rocket Punch may well stall before they’re even properly out of the gates.
MCND are a confusing prospect. Their debut single “Top Gang”, released at the end of December, feels more like a primer to the group; the video doesn’t match the song, and the styling doesn’t match the voices. Yet in the performance video (and in extra content such as the Play Music Ground series) it’s evident that there are there are quality dancers, decent vocalists and skilled rappers in the group. But, as it often is with K-pop, skill doesn’t equal success and TOP Media may need to go back to the drawing board to strengthen and align the sound and image before bringing out a second single. One to watch with curiosity.
Bvndit debuted in April 2019 with the well-executed but slightly flat “Hocus Pocus”, and closed out the year with “Dumb", which, while beautifully performed, looked to other groups (like MAMAMOO) rather than break their own ground. It's frustrating because, if their utterly gorgeous 90s-esque ballad “Fly” is anything to go by, the five-piece are far better than this. Bvndit have got strong, distinctive vocalists and eye-catching performers -- in 2020 it’s time to let these girls go hell for leather, take a few risks and completely own it.
Five-piece 1TEAM had a busy debut year in 2019 with three EPs. Their first single “Vibe”, followed by “Rolling Rolling”, put them squarely into the space that Pentagon’s 2018 sing-songy, pastel-soaked “Shine” created. But in November they swerved into moodier territory with the hypnotic “Make This”, which comes across as a nod in the direction of NCT U’s brilliant “7th Sense”. While demonstrating that this young team can effectively mould themselves in a number of directions (and K-pop groups are no strangers to drastically switching concepts), establishing rookies is more effectively done with a linear path than a scattergun approach. Where will their fandom, Team One, see 1TEAM land next? And will it help solidify 2020 as a successful year?
While not strictly what you’d call K-pop, Bibi and her raspy, quirky R&B is definitely on the radar for a great 2020. She was introduced to the public via The Fan -- a 2018 Korean TV show where musicians recommend artists for exposure -- and is signed to Feel Ghood Music, the label founded by Tiger JK, one of South Korea’s OG rappers. She debuted last May with “Binu”, following it up with EP “The Manual for those who want to love”, which featured rappers Changmo and Kim Seungmin, and its lead single “NABI” was both wonderfully suggestive and delightfully admonishing. BIBI may well be the next Heize, a singer with both indie pedigree and pop fame, and given her inclusion on JYP’s (the artist CEO of JYP Entertainment) single “Fever” in late November, that crossover might happen sooner rather than later.
Seongjun, Junghwan and Sihun were all part of survival show Produce X but didn’t make the final cut. Their label Brand New Music (home to AB6IX) wasted no time in putting the trio together under the name BDC (Boys Da Capo) and released a lukewarm album of the same name in November 2019. Lead track “Remember Me” was ironically, quite forgettable, despite solid performances by all three. But K-pop sub-units -- such as Orange Caramel, TTS, 3RACHA, and CBX -- have historically proven that a trio can be a real powerhouse, and a full-time trio is a true rarity, making BDC an exciting prospect should Brand New Music find something unique for them to get their teeth into.
Verivery debuted in January 2019 but you could be forgiven for thinking they’ve been around much longer, quietly drifting at K-pop’s edges. Like their pre-debut single “Super Special”, their first two singles were basically new jack swing and failed to make an impact. They refreshed their sound for July’s bubbly “Tag Tag Tag” (accompanied by a video that inexplicably referenced the clap and hide scenes from The Conjuring) and last week they released the best single of their career thus far, “Lay Back”, to start their 2020 off with a bang.
Let’s close out with two groups who both debuted in 2018 but have already grown so fast that 2020 is surely their year. First up is the six member girl group (G)I-dle (pronounced ‘idle’) with tracks primarily written by rapper/leader Soyeon and a sexy, no-bullshit image. After closing out a busy 2019 with a successful stint on the survival show, Queendom, the appearance spawned a last-minute and well received single “Lion”. Although girl groups generally have far less opportunity than their male counterparts to go on tour, whether they’re rookies or seasoned idols, you can probably place a safe bet on (G)I-dle undertaking a whistle-stop US tour (which, having seen them wow the crowd at KCON last summer, will be worth every penny) and releasing several new EPs before 2020 is done.
ATEEZ have already made a huge splash internationally, and their South Korean fanbase are slowly catching on. The eight-member group are frighteningly prolific. They released four EPs and one full length album since October 2018, as well as selling out tours in the US, Europe and Australia, with an arena tour already confirmed for 2020. Known for cyclical lyrical and visual narratives, they’ve created a string of flamboyant and wildly ambitious singles. On the latest, “Answer”, the group find the closure they’re seeking in their debut storyline. Where they go with the next chapter of their career is one of the most exciting prospects for K-pop for 2020.