It was a busy three months for South Korea: steps towards reunification, the PyeongChang Olympics, the continued rise of the #MeToo movement. On top of that, we saw the passing of gayageum legend Hwang Byungki and K-pop star Seo Minwoo, and a posthumous album release from Jonghyun. Further into the world of K-pop: Momoland saved their career with "Bboom Bboom," LOONA finished their 18-month pre-debut cycle, and TVXQ finally returned. None of those artists appear in the following list, however. It's a testament to the amount of great music happening elsewhere in the country.
So why a list focused on Korean music? Scenes outside of K-pop are thriving more than ever (see: Tobias Burgers's coverage on the burgeoning dance music scene for Resident Advisor), and it's as good a time as any to provide a recap of the country's highlights. But even then, such a list begs the question, "What is Korean music?" To keep the definition as broad as possible, this quarterly feature will include artists—Korean or not—who are contributing to the country's various music scenes and Korean artists based elsewhere in the world. All genres are fair game. Everything below is listed in chronological order.
Keep an eye out for more Korean artists who will be represented in other upcoming features.
Bye Bye Badman - You're Always Right About Love
Lyrics: Jung Bong-il
Composer: Bye Bye Badman
Arranger: Bye Bye Badman
Reminiscent of Pasteboard's "Breakbeats" in that it features the most clinical of approaches to shoegaze, yet is made worthwhile by its economical songwriting. Central to "You're Always Right About Love" is Jung Bong-il's vocalizing: romantic yet detached, constantly in step with the rest of the instrumentation. The result is a dreamy babbling of words that are cognizant of their mere signpost status. They point to the song's insular atmosphere, the place where the lyrics' sentimental gesturing becomes fully realized.
See also: Lulileela - "Seaside"
Sunmi - Heroine
Lyrics: Teddy, Sunmi
Composer: Teddy, 24
A 9½ Weeks-inspired prologue to last year's "Gashina" that captures the emotional landscape of an unhealthy but ostensibly fulfilling relationship. In the verses, Sunmi curls each line into a bated sigh, signaling the irrepressible satisfaction that she feels. They lead into brazen declarations of submission: her lover can be mean, even make her cry, because he's the hero of this story. The chorus's instrumental section thus reads as a dizzying closing-of-eyes, hoping-for-the-best leap of faith. In knowing the ferocious kiss-off to come via "Gashina", there's an underlying sadness to it all, and it's hard to interpret the final utterance of "the show must go on" as anything but forlorn.
Even more, one could assert that this song is a depiction of Sunmi's place in the world of K-pop. Released weeks after Uhm Jung-hwa's "Ending Credit", "Heroine" comes off like its spiritual successor, especially given the similarities in imagery utilized. A proverbial passing of the torch has transpired, and Sunmi asking for the show to go on now reads as a desire for strong female soloists like herself to remain in such a hostile industry. Everyone working behind the scenes deserves much credit, yes, but the English title reminds us that they're not the actual heroes; it's these women who actually inspire, and we should praise someone like Sunmi for her continued persistence.
Kid Milli, Jvcki Wai, Swings - Hyperreal / Kana Bathe - Like We (feat. NO:EL)
Lyrics: Kid Milli, Jvcki Wai, Swings
Lyrics: Kana Bathe, NO:EL
Both Jvcki Wai and Kana Bathe went through a rebranding-of-sorts a couple years ago, evidenced most clearly by changes in their respective stage names (the former was Jackee.Y, the latter was Vcoca). They've collaborated since the beginning of their careers, and last year's remix of "XO Tour Llif3" was a good indication of where their music was currently at. The rework was atrocious, but it illuminated their tendency to treat Auto-Tune as a mask for sub-par songwriting; there's a sense that they believe vocal processing is enough to salvage all hooks, resulting in the fatiguing high-end assault of their singing.
While that flaw is still present in their work—look no further than recent collaboration "!CEnow"—both "Hyperreal" and "Like We" find them overcoming it to satisfying success. The former is especially great: Jvcki Wai delivers Lil Uzi Vert ad-libs and the smoothest rapping of her career, outshining her labelmates in the process. Her restraint becomes her strength here as her hook lightly bounces alongside the sparkling beat. On the other hand, Kana Bathe leans into saccharine Auto-Tune excess on "Like We". While her voice may sound like a homogenous mush, it has greater melodic sensibility than a track like "K3y", and NO:EL's presence proves a fine counterpoint. The result is a song that captures the ecstatic tryst they sing about. "Hyperreal" and "Like We" are arguably the best track from either artist; hopefully there's even greater stuff to come in this new era for Jvcki and Kana.
iKON - Love Scenario / Beautiful / Rubber Band
Lyrics: B.I, Bobby, Mot Mal
Composer: B.I. Millennium, Seung
Lyrics: B.I, Bobby, Teddy
Composer: Choice37, B.I, Teddy
Arranger: Choice37, Teddy
Lyrics: B.I, Mino, Seung, Bobby
Composer: B.I, Mino, Millennium
Three separate love scenarios, all of which end in a state of contentment. These are complex emotions that are succinctly conveyed through expert songwriting, and it's accomplished in no small part due to a considered sequencing of iKON’s different members. On “Love Scenario”, a plinking piano and cowbell act as a simulacrum of self-aware dejection. What begins as cartoonish grieving makes way for something less childish; when Bobby exclaims that he’s not ok, his rapping fleshes out the song both musically and thematically. It snaps the dinky piano melody into place, allowing it to function as a bridge between ironic detachment and sincere vulnerability. As the song progresses, we experience a series of musical events—a trap beat one can sway to, B.I’s dramatic warble-rapping, a low-energy sing-along bridge—that paints the process of accepting a relationship's end. When all is said and done, they're happy for the relationship they once had; in their words, it was a "melodrama worth seeing".
“Beautiful” is more straightforward: an unrestrained expression of glee overflowing from deep infatuation. iKON sing that it feels like they’re dreaming, so it’s appropriate that the song glides by uninterrupted. The result is a love song that finds strength in its lightness, unassailable because it attempts to do nothing more than evoke a sense of joy through familiar signifiers. The chorus’s arcade-ready synth highlights the spirited atmosphere, but it’s the driving beat that ensures none of the energy dissipates. The song’s sandwich-like structure makes Bobby’s verse the star, and his emotive delivery and charming lyrics sell the song better than anything else.
Like “Love Scenario”, “Rubber Band” finds iKON singing bluntly about a relationship that's essentially over. Here, they're eager to speak on behalf of both parties, willing to acknowledge that the only thing keeping the two together is a desire to avoid confrontation. iKON propose that this relationship can end in a fruitful and emotionally satisfying manner. It'll be difficult, painful even, but it's the correct decision. Don't be confused: the chipper synthesizers and handclaps aren't here to infantilize or make light of a serious situation, they're an invitation to assess what's happening with an open and honest mind. While children's books and television shows may teach us fundamental things about life, nothing quite prepares us for a breakup. Even at its most amicable, it still feels bittersweet, and working through the pain can make one feel like a helpless child. Thankfully, the song's child-like demeanor proves warm and comforting.
Suzy - Holiday (feat. DPR Live)
Lyrics: Jinli, DPR Live
Composer: Glory Face, Jinli
Producer: Glory Face
A song like “Holiday” is so diaphanous and effortlessly executed that it can be easy to dismiss. The songwriting is extraordinarily economical, so much so that the introduction of a simple drum beat in the second chorus feels miraculous. Being able to revel in such a small pleasure gets at the heart of the lyrics: Suzy sings about lying in someone’s arms, and “Holiday” wants nothing more than to transfer the bliss of cuddling on a lazy Sunday afternoon. DPR Live’s verse doesn’t detract from the song’s mood, but it’s wordy enough that it accomplishes something interesting. Hearing him tell Suzy that he’ll be her holiday is charming, but the following chorus feels so much more invigorating in comparison. Put another way: words are nice, but there’s unparalleled intimacy in those same words manifesting as something physical. The chorus is more than sufficient in capturing that, but the song’s final eight bars dare us to experience something even more tactile. The sudden four on the floor beat switch provides a sense of perpetual euphoria, and Suzy’s coos are unsurprisingly soothing. For a brief twenty seconds, all worries feel so far out of reach.
See also: "SObeR"
Red Velvet - Bad Boy
Lyrics: JQ, Moon Hee-yeon
Composer: The Stereotypes, Maxx Song, Whitney Phillips, Yoo Young-jin
Arranger: The Stereotypes
It’s all about the thrill of the chase on “Bad Boy”. The eighth note synth melodies are coy: a false sense of restraint that’s meant to highlight the forwardness of a line like “you know it—these days I’m hot”. Listen as those synth pads constantly press up against them; the girls are aware they possess an inescapable magnetic pull, and they’ll happily flaunt such knowledge. At one point they ask this boy to solely focus on their voice, knowing damn well that their heels can be heard elsewhere in the song. It’s all a tease, and they’re comfortable with being the one in control. In the chorus, they make abundantly clear what they want: they want this boy to chase after them, but to slow things down as not to ruin the fun (the punishment for disobeying? well, the sound of a car crash clues us in). These two opposing commands are cleverly accompanied by a police siren and corresponding “way-o way-o” hook. It’s all so masterfully conceived, and the result is one of the most sensual K-pop songs ever.
HNGIN - FROZN (FIRST AID Remix) / Room306 - Further
Original Artist: HNGIN
Remixer: FIRST AID
Lyrics: FIRST AID
Composer: FIRST AID
Arranger: FIRST AID
Two wildly different songs that reflect FIRST AID's varied discography. The first is a remix that transforms HNGIN's "FROZN" into a contemporary drum & bass track. FIRST AID has incorporated breakbeats into his music before, most notably on the Sky Real Book #04 compilation, but they've never felt so caustic. The remix's attention to sound design and dynamics heightens every individual noise that's heard. Equally as impressive is "Further," the lush closing track on Room306's Visit EP. It brings to mind toe and Spangle call Lilli line at their most emotive; its numerous guitar and piano flourishes lean dangerously close into mawkish territory, but they're offset by Hong Hyojin's wispy vocals to create something pleasantly introspective.
Scøpe - Intrigue
A brooding techno track that establishes its goal of being an expansive, all-consuming vortex as soon as it begins. The inscrutable talking that resides low in the mix grants the song a menacing edge. And like the rest of the instrumentation, it primarily functions to augment the effects of the synth pads. They carry an ominously liturgical undertone, and are hauntingly beautiful at their most dynamic. It's an immersive experience; "Intrigue" has the ability to transport listeners into a dilapidated church building, one where spirits of old can freely roam.
Romi - Kkum 꿈
Oslated's two-part compilation features 19 tracks whose titles are meant to capture artists' personal experiences with Seoul or Korea. "Kkum" (translation: "Dream") was the choice for Hong Kong-based artist Romi, and the resulting ambient techno track is appropriately tranquil. It develops slowly, content to let its layers of oscillating synths and tapping percussion appear as non-events. The song ends as inconspicuously as it starts, the whole memory of the track a hazy blur. Still, it's clear that listening to it makes for an emotionally resonant and perceptibly affecting experience. In other words: a dream.
Gugudan - The Boots
Lyrics: JQ, Mola
Composer: Erik Lidbom, MELODESIGN
Arranger: Erik Lidbom
If anything, "The Boots" is a testament to Gugudan's continued proficiency in adopting any and all styles. Each of their singles have found the group tackling a different sector of K-pop, and here they channel something akin to late-era SNSD. There's a coherency amidst the song's rhythmic changes, and it reflects the determination they have to feel confident. The lyrics are directed at themselves, so "The Boots" ends up sounding like an impassioned pep talk for anyone willing to listen. Unsure that you'll be able to feel like a "miracle"? Sejeong's frequent declarations to "Speak Up!" are just what the doctor ordered. Gugudan, ever so gracious, even allow the chorus to soundtrack any makeshift catwalk. Thankfully, those who stumble during their initial attempt can rest assured: each chorus allows for another opportunity to feel as "brilliant" as the girls want you to.
pH-1 - Penthouse (feat. Sik-K) / Sik-K, pH-1, Woodie Gochild - Garasade
Lyrics: pH-1, Sik-K
Composer: pH-1, Sik-K, APRO
Lyrics: Sik-K, pH-1, Woodie Gochild
Note: the above videos are not official uploads
H1GHR Music hasn’t even been around for more than a year but the Jay Park and Cha Cha Malone-founded label is already a major pillar in South Korea’s rap scene. In particular, last year saw Sik-K solidly himself as a major talent; he quickly proved that he could progress beyond Travis Scott worship and make music that felt distinct (and even when he wasn’t, his music was often more palatable than Scott’s). While pH-1 didn’t seem as crucial a signee, his tracks in 2018 have shown a marked increase in his technical ability, and his presence on both “Penthouse” and “Garasadae” is far more exciting than it’s ever been.
The former song finds pH-1 reflecting on how his career-driven mind and consequent success have found him losing sight of his romantic life. APRO’s production enriches the narrative: an elevator bell establishes the titular scene, the piano flourishes imbue a sense of luxury, and the numerous sounds of texting and dialing depict the scrambled urgency to remedy the situation. The mixing places pH-1's vocals front and center as everything circles around him, and the tumbling beat signals the knotty pain that he's feeling inside. The expressions of dissatisfaction amidst braggadocio naturally brings to mind "Party (Shut Down)." And as if on cue, Sik-K enters the song and interpolate lines from that very song. He doesn't sound quite as desperate as he did on "Party," but it works given what "Penthouse" tries to capture: the moment when one's heart drops after realizing everything they've worked for has come to fruition yet feels insufficient.
On the other end of the spectrum, "Garasadae" is a lively celebration featuring H1GHR Music's Sik-K, pH-1, and Woodie Gochild. Thurxday's beat employs familiar wheezing synths and flute melodies but its outshone by all three rappers. Sik-K's part finds him naming all three rappers before repping H1GHR Music collectively, and his mantra-like chorus is infectious because it sounds like he's having fun. Compared to "H1ghr Gang," "Garasadae" knows how to contain and channel its energy such that every flute note and verse feels vital. Best of all is how H1GHR Music continue to release hits, making the song's anthemic tone feel earned.
Jazzy Rhythmer - Hangang Highway
Producer: Jazzy Rhythmer
The highlight from Hazed & Confucius’s first compilation is Jazzy Rhythmer’s “Hangang Highway,” a nocturnal lo-fi house track that wouldn’t feel out of place on Lobster Theremin. A soothing bed of synth pads and glossy keys allow for a hi-hat to cut right through the mix. The result: a calming soundtrack for late night drives after a long evening out.
Say Sue Me - Old Town
Lyrics: Choi Sumi
Composer: Kim Byungkyu
Arranger: Say Sue Me
In hearing Sumi Choi sing the final line, “But I feel nothing inside,” one is quick to note how its musical phrasing matches that of every line that refers to the titular "Old Town." In that moment she identifies with Busan itself, a heavily populated town whose music scene can nonetheless feel tiny in comparison to Seoul's. After college, Sumi found herself working a job that was "far from [her] dream". The result was "Old Town," a song about the malaise of growing older in a town that feels dead, exacerbated by the sight of friends moving on without you. What's one to do during such a quarter-life crisis? It's hard to say, but it can be a temporary relief to simply acknowledge the current state of things.
See also: Land of Peace - "Take It Easy"
Peggy Gou - Hundres Times
Producer: Peggy Gou
“Hundres Times” initially appeared on Peggy Gou’s mix for Resident Advisor, appropriately sandwiched between two Detroit classics—Galaxy 2 Galaxy’s “Timeline” and Reese & Santonio’s “The Sound.” Listening to those three tracks sequentially makes two things clear: the influences that Gou proudly wears on her sleeves, and the precision with which she's able to capture the spirit of dance music from decades past. "Hundres Time" speaks for itself, but it's worth noting how its twisting synth melodies keep the song in a constant state of flux. They’re small jolts, balanced nicely against the rushing synth pads. Enough to ensure you don't grow tired of dancing.
CIFIKA - Water
Composer: CIFIKA, Mood Schula
Arranger: Mood Schula
The beginning is lovely: two lovers wading through water, one of whom is expecting a romantic exchange of words. As if transfixed by the scenery and situation, she calmly requests, “Tell me all your plans and pictures so it comes true.” But as the song progresses, it’s revealed that there the affection isn't reciprocated. CIFIKA’s world thus crumbles, and sudden pitch-shifted vocals echo the gut-wrenching realization right back to her. The water, once an enchanting rendezvous locale, has become a reminder of pain. Incidentally, it becomes a solution to the grief; calmly, she repeatedly claims to be “breathing slowly in the water,” intentionally drowning herself. Despite this, CIFIKA makes sure that the instrumentation reads as hopeful. Because it’s here—in these waters—that she can retreat into a private space, one that prevents her eyes from witnessing the world above. And eventually, when she’s ready, she’ll wind up on shore and be ready to start over.
Youra - Dance / Swim / My
Youra only has three short songs on her SoundCloud page but they all exhibit a satisfying, economical songwriting. "Dance" finds Youra's voice soaked in reverb; the seams on the bedroom production show, and it makes the song's low-key, celebratory atmosphere feel like a private party for one. "Swim" primarily works because the verses' melodies are rigidly structured, allowing the pre-chorus and hook to feel effortlessly casual in comparison. The chorus need not announce itself; Youra knows that the funk-lite groove is enough to push the song forward. "My" aims for something more resplendent: a fairy tale-like reflection on a relationship. Its chorus is wistful and dreamy, so much so that you can envision flickering snowflakes accompanying a slow dance. Three solid, if straightforward, tracks. Enough to make Youra one of the most exciting new artists of the year.
See also: Yeseo - "Privacy"
Redmond - Shard, Womb (perf. by GEORI)
Composer: Jared Redmond
Performers: Lee Donguk, Baek Dasom, Park Jiha
I became an uncle this past year and during the first few months of my nephew's life, I became intrigued by what babies hear inside the womb. Dr. Hajime Murooka proposed that playing those exact sounds to newborns would easily soothe them to the point of sleep, so he released albums that contained actual recordings from inside a woman's uterus for that specific use. Jared Redmond's composition for GEORI, an ensemble of which he is a member, finds the composer aiming to poetically capture the atmosphere of such an environment. While there's no intent to translate the experience accurately, the result feels like a successful analogue given the instruments present.
Both Park Jiha and Baek Dasom play their respective instruments—the saenghwang and the daegum—in a minimal fashion, sustaining notes to create a sense of tranquility. At times, Park's saenghwang and Lee Donguk's high-pitched tones elegantly converge. It's Baek's daegum, though, that frequently pierces one's ear. It's as if she's attempting to capture the numerous sounds—the excited voices of family members, slamming doors, television programs—that may bring discomfort to a baby. Still, "Shard, Womb" proves enjoyable even without the conceit. Take the low, rumbling tones during the composition's second half as an example. They may be a representation of a throbbing aorta, but they function to round out the rest of the instrumentation both in terms of pitch and note length. It's a careful navigation of sound and silence, instruments both old and new, and it proves that GEORI are an ensemble well worth keeping an eye on.
NCT 127 - Touch
Lyrics: Jo Yoon-kyung, Kim Min-ji, Shin Jin-hye
Composer: LDN Noise, Deez, Adrian Mckinnon
Arranger: LDN Noise, Deez
Consider the "na na na" melody: an unabashed declaration of infatuation, happily taking the form of a sing-along fit for toddlers. The decision to leave it in an unadulterated state, far from any "mature" oversexualization or ironic detachment, signals the exactitude with which "Touch" wants to ensnare its listeners. The song aims for a stupefied glee, one that dares not try and comprehend the totality of the situation. The breaking glass and swooping synths mimic such constant astonishment, ushering in each chorus with an announcement: an abundance of pleasure awaits. It's that primal desire for intimacy, manifesting itself in a way that displaces one from self. The chorus captures it elegantly, layering a multitude of voices in a manner that discourages careful attention. The soaring "Baby! Oh!", the rapping buried in the mix, the illustrious harmonies—am I isolating these parts when listening to "Touch"? Of course not, I'm soaking it all in.
Penomeco - Good Morning (feat. Car, the Garden)
Composer: Made By Me, Penomeco
Arranger: Made By Me
“Good Morning” provides a possible answer to the question, “What would it sound like if Anderson .Paak had a strong affinity for Korea’s brand of café-pop?” While numerous artists write songs that revel in such Sunday afternoon warmth, there’s a focused precision needed to ensure that they don’t devolve into mindless, innocuous background music. The same is true for the Korean rap/R&B that aims for similar goals. Penomeco avoids any such pitfalls by nimbly jumping between registers and flows, singing and rapping. More than any bit of instrumentation, the ease with which he navigates such vocalizing encapsulates the entirety of the song's hopeful lyrics. Being witness to one's growth through a reflection of past selves: a gentle reminder of one's unheralded strength in the everyday, and a good enough reason to wake up another day.
See also: "L.I.E"
Danthrax - I Can't Live
Choi Joonyong—co-founder of the long-standing Balloon & Needle label—released his debut Danthrax album in 2012 on Ryu Hankil's TRIGGER! imprint. It was a collection of tracks featuring CD skips and minimal flecks of noise presented without pretense, channeling energy in a raw but controlled manner. As with other music that Choi and the rest of the Dotolim scene created, it was a refreshingly subversive take on the more violent approaches to noise music. Surprisingly, Choi's second album as Danthrax finds him at his flashiest: he samples songs and warps them into a melange of attention-grabbing skipping (often approximating some of the metal songs he uses), turbulent noise, and spirited plunderphonics. Best of all is his rework of Mariah Carey's "Without You."
As hinted by its title, "I Can't Live" emphasizes the inexpressible feeling of anguish one feels upon breaking up with a lover. Carey's rendition of the song always benefited from how her ostentatious vocal performance functioned as a vehicle for singing away the pain. "I Can't Live" considers the healing process to be far more complicated, rendering the occasional appearance of Carey's voice as brief moments of acceptance. As such, much of "I Can't Live" is about the refusal to move onward, denying oneself to break free from a solacing self-pity. One is undoubtedly reminded of how original songwriters Pete Ham and Tom Evans committed suicide.