Being a rookie in K-Pop isn't a walk in the park, especially now that the relatively small industry is overflowing with acts from agencies of all shape and size. A lot of rookies, more so those from smaller agencies, just fizzle away into irrelevance and never get their chance in the spotlight. But a competition will always have winners. As we've seen from the previous years, there are acts who got through their debut year with flying colors and went on to see even more success, and there are also those who fly under the radar at first but see massive success in the following years.
The acts on this list fall into one of those two categories -- acts who I think did a phenomenal job this year and deserve to get even bigger, and acts who I think have the potential to do well next year. These are the rookies who proved themselves, whether it be in one area or all, and managed to stand out.
Agency: LOEN Entertainment
First Release: "Vista" (Single)
Follow-Up Release(s): "We Don't Stop" (November, Single)
Previous Review(s): "We Don't Stop"
Other Best of 2012 Appearances: N/A
As far as A&R and image go, FIESTAR have it. They're girly and feminine, but they pack a punch -- just how I like my girl groups. "VISTA" was a strong effort, a pretty good song, and even if "We Don't Stop" failed as a whole song, as far as musical direction goes, it's right on track. They have substance, and they have an agency that can afford to make them look, and sound, nice and sparkly.
If we talk individual talent, that's something they haven't quite yet been able to show off properly, but honestly I think that if they have good A&R and a good agency, it's something their future material will bring out. And as early as now, some of the girls have already stood out vocally.
They kind of crept up on me, but when I was looking through all the rookies this year, Fiestar is actually one of my favorite girl groups. I guess I didn't really feel it like the other rookies I liked because they're still pretty under the radar, and they've only had two singles out, but I really like them. With the little material and exposure that they had this year, they made me curious enough to want to see big things from them next year.
Agency: JYP Entertainment
First Release: "Bounce" (EP+Single)
Follow-Up Release(s): N/A
Previous Review(s): "Bounce"
Other Best of 2012 Appearances: Top 50 Songs - #23: "Hooked"
JJ Project was really one of my favorite debuts this year, but then again it's so hard not to like them. They're one step away from annoying, but they don't take that step, so what you get is a playful, mischievous act. Take that mischief and give it good material to play around with -- you have JJ Project. They are proof that getting the right material is, without question, one of the most important parts of a debut, because had they not gotten "Bounce" and the other songs on their first EP, they wouldn't have been as effective as they are.
Another thing I really like about JJ Project is that they know how to sell that sound, without forgetting the fact that they are, in fact, making music. They run and jump around stage like a bunch of little boys, but underneath the image, they're actually stable live singers/performers. And what made them even better was the fact that they debuted during a time when all the rookie groups failed to deliver once they got to music shows.
Like I said earlier this year:
The reason why I like them so much is because they’re convincing, because there is as much effortlessness in their execution as there is conviction. See, this is what I mean when I say that execution matters just as much as good material. While good material will take you places, equally competent execution will drive the point home.
And that effortlessness is really what you need for material as fun and straightforward as the songs on “Bounce”, because what these two guys do is give the otherwise thin JYP material some spring. Save all that soul for Miss A or half of the Wonder Girls -- I like my boybands jumping through hoops and fire like there’s no tomorrow. ... “Bounce” is what I’ve been looking for in a boygroup for a long time now -- effortlessly fun material, complete with literal jumping around stage.
Agency: YMC Entertainment
First Release: "Heaven" (Single)
Follow-Up Release(s): "Invitation" (November, EP)
Previous Review(s): "Heaven" / "Invitation"
Other Best of 2012 Appearances: 5 Best Albums - #4: "Invitation" / Top 50 Songs - #2: "Shut Up" (With Simon D)
If I had to name a rookie of the year (which technically I'm doing because I'm saying this right now), without a shadow of a doubt it would be Ailee. From the very beginning the thrust of her career has been clear -- she had a gorgeous voice that could quite literally move mountains, and she showed it off for everyone to hear. But of course, there are so many rookies overflowing with talent, which made me scared for her earlier this year. Thankfully I was proven wrong, because "Invitation" followed "Heaven" and I just fell in love with everything about Ailee. What makes her better than everyone else is the fact that she knows how to bring it, and she does it with material that's practically made for her.
I know I sound like a broken record now, but really, Ailee is lightyears ahead of all the other rookies on this list. With Ailee it's not a matter of "I want to see what you do next", or "I see potential in you", it's more like "I want to see how you stay brilliant". Ailee took all of our existing standards for rookies and she bettered them. All of them. Talent, stage presence, material, promotions -- she did them all, and they brought out her strengths. That's really what a debut period should be -- it should be that time where you show everything off with the hope of people liking it.
Agency: YG Entertainment
First Release: "1, 2, 3, 4" (Single)
Follow-Up Release(s): "Scarecrow" (November, Single)
Previous Review(s): N/A
Other Best of 2012 Appearances: Top 50 Songs - #37: "1, 2, 3, 4"
Despite finishing second in the first season of "Kpop Star", Lee Hi was the one who set aside my fears of an audition show for idols. Of course there was "Superstar K" beforehand, but the thrust of the show wasn't as clear as "Kpop Star", where they were literally looking for someone to sign to a big three agency. My biggest fear was how these big agencies were going to sustain, or completely change, the images that the contestants had built up during the show, images they had little control over. I found my answer in Lee Hi, and all the success she had amassed in such a short period.
She has the talent, that's pretty obvious given not only her time before her formal debut, but even after. But she also chose the right agency for her -- YG took her strengths and they made her run with it, which she gladly did. And succeeded. But as with majority of the rookies on this list, the question now is -- "what's next?" She's laid the foundations very well, and now she has to start building her identity. If her foundation is anything to go by, I think we'll see great things from her next year. I hope we do.
Agency: Pledis Entertainment
First Release: "Venus" (EP)
Follow-Up Release(s): "What Are You Doing Today?" (December, EP)
Previous Review(s): "Venus"
Other Best of 2012 Appearances: Top 50 Songs - #39: "Love Appeal"
In my books, Pledis is notorious for not delivering the right material for their acts -- After School and Son Dambi are testament to that. But for some strange reason, this year they did pretty well, not with their established acts (AS and Dambi had pretty flat comebacks), but with their rookies. NU'EST, although not on this list, had material they could actually sing, and of course, Hello Venus had "Venus". I loved it earlier this year, and I love it now.
I don't ask much from rookie groups, I just want them to deliver their material with competence, conviction and a sense of togetherness, and I want them to show the beginnings of a musical identity. Surprises of all surprises, I found that in "Venus". While their material isn't exactly top-tier or revolutionary or anything, it's solid, again it shows off what they can do, and at the same time it matches their vocals.
And that continued on to their second EP and lead single, which, despite the fact that it's kind of messy, was cute with substance, and actual singing, as opposed to whining or squeaking. You don't have to be sickeningly cute to be effective, they're proof of that.
Hello Venus is textbook girl group, complete with cutesy material and a girly image. But they're proof that it's not always the mould that's the problem when cutesy girl groups go astray, sometimes it's the group themselves. Or the material they get. Or maybe even both. Whatever it is, they remain one of those groups who do cute the way I like it -- with actual singing, and that extra bit of oomph to give them substance.
Agency: SM Entertainment
First Release: "MAMA" (EP)
Follow-Up Release(s): N/A
Previous Review(s): "MAMA" (EXO-K)
Other Best of 2012 Appearances: Top 50 Songs - #30: "History" (EXO-K) / Top 50 Songs - #29: "What Is Love" (EXO-M)
Despite what a lot of people may think about my views on EXO, I don't completely hate them. I don't because I haven't heard enough from them, and because majority of the things that went wrong with their debut happened because of SM's sloppy and pointless decisions. First they set extremely high expectations -- EXO were supposed to be SM's golden rookies, all new, shiny and ready for the taking. They hype them up like no other, with teasers left and right. And then, they give EXO a song that needs to be carried, as opposed to one that plays on existing strengths and masks flaws in recording, and especially performance. So because of that, they end up either lip-synching, or going all over the place, during their live promotion cycle. "MAMA" wasn't the right song, plain and simple.
But over the course of the year, I had numerous chances to look beyond what SM set up for them, and honestly they're not half bad. I don't see any clear voices that I haven't heard elsewhere, but considering that their debut single was a product of such bad A&R and they've improved immensely since their debut, it won't take long for me to find one.
So why did EXO take the last spot on the list? Because to me, they are the epitome of "potential". Look at everything they have -- the variety of members, the fan base, and of course SM backing. Take all of those, and EXO could possibly go places next year because so much can go right, despite the fact that so much went wrong this year.