For K-pop artists, debut tracks are key to their long-term success.
Some iconic debuts have stood the test of time, like SHINee’s “Replay.”
These are 13 of the most iconic K-pop debut tracks, from the 2000s to today.
A debut single is one of the most important tracks that any K-pop artist will release in their career.
In addition to musically introducing a group to the public, it’s also a proof of concept. While some artists change their style over time, exploring different musical genres and visual concepts, their debut remains their first foray into the industry.
Over the years, there have been a number of iconic debut songs — these are 13 of the best.
“Hi High” — LOONA (2018)
After a lengthy pre-debut process in which each member of LOONA was introduced one-by-one with a solo single, “Hi High” was the group’s official 12-member debut. The song, a euphoric, bubblegum pop anthem, had the difficult task of conjoining each member’s existing sound.
While “Hi High” may not have secured LOONA its first Korean music show win, the track was both satisfying and successful. Filled with twinkling arpeggiators and bright vocals, the track not only put a bow on LOONA’s pre-debut era but also set the production standard for the group’s releases to come.
“Like Ooh-Ahh” — Twice (2015)
“Like Ooh-Ahh” established Twice’s early saccharine sound and quirky tone out the gate, with the group’s nine members singing about wanting to feel true love as they wander through a zombie-infested school in the music video.
From the song’s synth-pop sound and busy, power vocal chorus, “Like Ooh-Ahh” was a stellar introduction to what Twice’s music would become. Though the group’s style eventually shifted away from bubblegum pop, “Like Ooh-Ahh” also predicts the maturity that Twice would cultivate in later tracks, beginning with the 2019 smash hit “Fancy.”
“Eleven” — IVE (2021)
“Eleven” builds from a sparse plucked instrumental base, filling in the gaps with reverberating vocalizations throughout and building to an explosive chorus. What makes “Eleven” so intriguing, however, is the way that it plays with both levels and tempo: the track gives the impression of slowing down dramatically before its chorus, cutting back to just one of the members’ vocals.
“Eleven” served not only as IVE’s debut, but also as the re-debut of two of its members who were previously part of the temporary group IZ*ONE. It was a powerful tone setter, and the first in a series of chart-topping singles IVE would release in 2022.
“The 7th Sense” — NCT (2016)
“The 7th Sense” was the first single released under the NCT (Neo Culture Technology), serving as the debut not only for its flexible subunit NCT U, but also for the now 23-member group as a whole.
Lush and bass-driven, “The 7th Sense” isn’t in any great hurry, sprinkling in buzzing hi-hats and ticking percussion between the members’ vocals and rap verses. Ultimately, the single (and its stunning choreography) set the tone for what would eventually become one of the largest, and most musically diverse, groups in contemporary K-pop.
“No More Dream” — BTS (2013)
“No More Dream” was BTS’ first release, years before they would eventually become a global sensation. In 2013, they were less polished, and more hip-hop-focused on the musical side. The song, which is primarily driven by verses from the group’s rap line, established BTS’ penchant for social commentary, challenging the aspirations forced onto young people by older generations.
While there are some cringeworthy moments — much of the group’s early styling seems designed to highlight a surface-level proximity to Blackness — “No More Dream” highlighted BTS’ performance abilities, and established that they were a group with something to say.
“Jopping” — SuperM (2019)
“Jopping” is an extremely successful debut song based on a ridiculous concept: the fusion of “jumping” and “popping.” Despite its inherent silliness, “Jopping” is a banger, bringing together veteran idols from SM Entertainment groups SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV.
Opening with cheering and wall-of-sound synthesizers, “Jopping” is an overwhelming sonic experience grounded by a punchy bass line in the verses and soaring vocals in the chorus. For longtime fans familiar with the members’ previous work, it’s not difficult to sense their individual styles in the song.
Ultimately, it’s the performance acumen of the members, and the fact that the song takes the concept of “Jopping” deathly seriously, that make it a stellar debut track.
“Love Sick” — FTISLAND (2007)
“Love Sick” laments a painful breakup, growing from lush, melodramatic strings into a bonafide rock ballad. It’s driven by vocalist Hongki’s soulful vocals over an instrumental base sparkling with piano arpeggios throughout.
FTISLAND debuted as one of the first idol rock bands of its kind, and “Love Sick” was a kind of proof of concept. It was successful, earning the group multiple music show wins and carrying the group to the Best New Male Group award at 2007’s Mnet Asian Music Awards, The Kraze reported.
“Bad Girl, Good Girl” — Miss A (2010)
Despite its strong lyrics telling listeners to not judge them, Miss A’s “Bad Girl, Good Girl” is more subdued than you would expect. A dance pop track filled with lush vocal harmonies, twinkling synths, and the refrain “you don’t know me,” the song’s simplicity gives it a timeless quality.
While the song’s mature concept and youth of some of its members clashes a bit, “Bad Girl, Good Girl” was an excellent debut track that eventually won the song of the year award at the 2010 Mnet Asian Music Awards — an impressive feat for any group, but especially a rookie one.
“Fire” — 2NE1 (2009)
“Fire” opens with one of the most iconic spoken lines in any K-pop track: “I go by the name of CL of 2NE1,” rapper CL says. “It’s been a long time coming, but we’re here now.”
It’s a bold declaration for a debut single, but one that “Fire” lives up to. A synth-heavy dance track featuring aspirational lyrics and a catchy hook, “Fire” notched 2NE1 its first music show wins.
Some aspects of “Fire” are sticking points, like its appropriation of South Asian culture in the “Space” version of its music video. However, its influence can be felt both in 2NE1’s own discography, and in later group’s like Blackpink.
“Face” — NU’EST (2012)
NU’EST’s “Face” features an anthemic synth hook, throbbing bass line, and driving pop beat that underscore its aggressive lyrics and “bad boy” concept. Despite a very 2012 dubstep dance break during the bridge, the EDM stylings of “Face” feel more comfortably nostalgic rather than grating.
While “Face” is about as fittingly in-your-face as it gets, it does so without being to overwhelming, oscillating between post-chorus rap verses, an explosive chorus, and more muted verses that rely on the group’s upper vocal range.
“MAMA” — EXO (2012)
“MAMA” comes out of the gate swinging, introducing EXO with a powerful, Gregorian-esque vocal chant that backs up a soaring vocal line. That melodrama continues throughout with dramatic strings, belted vocals, and layered harmonies that set the tone for much of EXO’s later work.
The song and its music video were released into versions, recorded by both of EXO’s debut subunits EXO-K and EXO-M in Korean and Mandarin, respectively. From the introduction of the group’s debut superpowers concept to the early sketchings of EXO’s signature, vocal-drive musical style, “MAMA” was a memorable debut whose influence can still be felt in EXO’s discography today.
“Replay” — SHINee (2008)
Nearly decade and a half after its release, SHINee’s “Replay” still feels fresh. In the song, the group’s five members worry about the end of a relationship with an older woman, wondering if their young age makes her feel uncomfortable.
“Replay’s” allure lies in its simplicity: the song’s smooth synths and steady dance beat place the focus on the members’ smooth, layered vocals. While unsubtle, both in its lyricism and heartbeat like drum track, it’s hard to understate “Replay’s” charm.
“Into the New World” — Girls’ Generation
“Into the New World,” in the 15 years since its release, has become a standard for Korean girl groups, many of whom have covered the song at one point in their careers. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why: past the song’s dance beat and piano hook, “Into the New World” places the focus on the group’s vocals and performance.
The song’s aspirational lyrics, and the way that Girls’ Generation delivers them, give the song an emotive quality that’s liable to make tears well up in your eyes if you’re in the right headspace while listening. “Into the New World,” as The Korea Herald reported, also has a legacy in South Korean protest culture and Pride events.
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