This was a tough year for me. Multiple relationships failed, some soured, and some are in limbo with no clear solution in sight. Not only that, but I’ve had to let go of someone who was near and dear to my life. We were very close friends, but we kept hurting each other with petty issues that built over time, to the point where that once strong connection between us became a game of tug of war with a string. To let that friendship end was very difficult, but ultimately necessary for both of us.
To say that I needed relief is to understate that mess.
I’ve leaned hard on the better parts of my life, from reading a slew of great books, leaning on friends and families, and just enjoying life whenever possible. This is becoming cliched, so I’ll say this: when life gives you lemons, reach for the orange instead. And that orange, for me, was music.
Going into 2013, I was excited for music. Last year was good, but not great. And this year was the best year to be a Korean indie music fan. Everyone and their mother released superb collections of music, from YB, Asian Chairshot, Oh Ji Eun, Annyeongbada, Love X Stereo, Zion.T, Jerry.K, and The Quiett. If you thought 2013 was weak, you weren’t looking. Not only was it great, but I’m now able to share my personal favorites with you guys, my new family.
Because of the tumult this year brought, I sought out fun, joy and beauty. This list comprises not just the albums that helped me escape, but also the albums that helped me sort my shit. There’s dance and tunes to walk to. There’s shouting, screaming, whispering. There’s tales of love, heartache, and the adult pleasures therein. So no more words! Jump right in to a small slice of my favorites of 2013.
After the bloated South Korean Rapstar Mixtape earlier this year, I was soured by Dok2. After the first few bars of “1llin,” though, I knew Gonzo of 1llionaire Records was on to something. Rapping on top of heavy bass lines and simple drum sounds, “Ruthless, The Album” oozes attitude.
From the “sharks are coming” loop on the Double K collaboration, “질러,” to the melodic luxury of “My Dreams Do Come True,” and the party track “Handz Up,” the beats on this record are clean, polished, and attention grabbing. Sure he’s rapping about money, girls, and crushing the competition, but when it sounds this great, are you going to complain?
Hip-hop in South Korea has been plagued with nonsense. From multiple drug scandals, petty rap battles, and arguing whether rap geared to idol audiences is real hip-hop, the bullshit rained like a monsoon with little breaks in between. What the conversations on all this kept out, however, was that hip-hop is music, first and foremost, music is supposed to bring people together, not drive them apart.
That said, Dynamic Duo came back in a big way for their seventh album, Lucky Numbers. A fantastic LP through and through, it offers ear candy left and right, with songs like the Zion.T rap track, “Three Dopeboyz,” the groove-fest of “Airplane Mode” and the head banger, “Shoot Goal In.” Let’s not forget the lead single, “BAAAM,” a track so smooth, so sexy and so extraordinary it was the only Primary track to win first place on the music shows, as well as nabbing the MAMA for “Best Rap Performance.” Dynamic Duo is on top of the game this year, and “Lucky Numbers” is more than proof of that.
Listen: 비극 Part 2 (Tragedy Part 2)
This is one of several records this year that crept up on me. Its heavy at times (“나는 너를 본다” and “날마다 타인”), cheeky (“흙”), and quiet (“더 이상 슬픔을 노래하지 않으리”). It was until the piano began on the Jambinai collaborative effort, “바다가,” that it all clicked for me. As disparate as some of the elements are, “Strangers Everyday” is melodic pop exquisitely composed to deal with the randomness all around.
From the string-only “나는 너를 본다,” gloriously arranged, and the rock mid-tempo goodness of the title track, Han Heejung came a long way from her 2010 record “잔혹한 여행.” This record has deeper melodies, creating a richer listening experience all around. The record’s dark whimsical nature is gorgeous and is topped off by the remake of “이 노래를 부탁해.” While the previous was more angelic, the new version has a grounded feel, more in line with the rest of the album. This new direction was a shock, but the experiment paid off. Han Hee Jung’s “Strangers Everyday” is a great take on strange and quirky pop.
Listen: 무소음 (live)
From “Anna” on, I knew I was a goner. I grew up listening to women with big voices, ladies of song that, when asked, could deliver a full throated high note that can shake the roof. Throughout Goodbye, grief, you get that from Kim Youn Ah and more from the guys of the band.
I can’t express how much joy this record brought to me this year, with the rocking “님아” and the silly “Dancing Star”. Go read my review if you haven’t, and enjoy this stellar collection by one of the pillars of Korean rock music.
Listen: 전하고 싶은 말
This year was a banging year for underground R&B. no longer the instrument-based songs of yesteryear, new artists are infusion it with cool bass loops, futuristic electronic drones and odd drum machine sounds that can be quirky at best to new listeners. That barrier to entry was at its highest for Jinbo’s sophomore LP, “Fantasy”. Full of synthetic loops, break beats, and other effects, Jinbo is one of the few artists reimagining R&B for a new generation.
As new as it is, though, Fantasy is full of classic R&B tropes, like love (“Loverbot”) and heartache (“It’s Over” feat Swingz). It would be a disservice not to mention the amount of sex in this record, including the title track, “Tape It Slow Baby” with Ill Jeanz and the futuristic sex romp, “Cops Come Knock.” As soon as you get it, Jinbo’s Fantasy opens up like a hit of ecstasy, so good you can’t imagine life without it.
Listen: Traumatic feat. Jet 2
I routinely think of jazz and acoustic indie music as coffeehouse fodder. The style is so ubiquitous that I don’t think of it critically anymore. But when your band’s name is so on the nose as Kaffeehaus, you better bring your best. On the jazz quartet’s self-titled debut record, they did just that. With Sungsu Kim on cello, Hayoun Lee on piano, Sinil Jo on electric guitar, and Namyuol Cho on drums, the group created a collection so dynamic that you’re forced to pay attention.
To be able to do that from the first track, “지난밤…” is wonderful and a testament to their talents as composers. The quartet mixes aspects of jazz and easy listening, and because of the band’s small size, each instrument shines through on each track, whether it has a solo or not. From tracks like the uplifting “Exciting,” the bebop “Dark Morning,” and the ruminative “Tide,” Kaffeehaus is one of the best new jazz records I’ve heard in a long time. Raise my Americano to you, gentlemen, hoping for more.
Listen: Tide (live)
MBC Nanjang has been a godsend, offering live shows from a wide variety of indie artists. It was on that show that I rediscovered Park Sae Byul. I say “rediscovered” because I had listened to her album, High Heel before, but it got lost amidst the ongoing grind of new music. It was during her flawless performance of the lead single, “사랑이 우릴 다시 만나게 한다면,” that I knew I overlooked an important set. Going back was revelatory; I could not believe how gorgeous it was.
As a pop record, High Heel is intricately produced, which lets her voice, though small, stand out in all its glory. Park Sae Byul sings with such emotion you believe every word and intent behind those words. This record is perfect, with no wasted or misplaced step along the way. There’s only one word left to describe “High Heel”: beautiful.
If there’s one indie rock band that’s gotten bigger solely from television, it would have to be Romantic Punch. Appearing on Top Band 2, Mnet’s MUST: Era of the Band, and Nanjang, the band has grown their fan base on their stage presence, led in large part to its frontman, In Hyuk. With their second full-length, Glam Slam Romantic Punch brought that energy into the studio, creating THE Romantic Punch record.
It covers every facet of Romantic Punch, from straight-up rock (“Glam Slam” feat. Kim Se Heon of Eve, “Dream On”), power ballads (“Little Lady,” “Tell Me Baby”) and acoustic rock (“Hasta La Vista”). With the pure candy of “TGIF” with Daybreak’s Lee Won Suk, Glam Slam is the definition of what makes Romantic Punch one of the best in rock music today.
Listen: Dream On
Right off the bat, Siberian Husky is a funk band. They don’t do anything else, and that’s fine; a one trick pony has to do that trick well to exist. On Odd Eyes, Siberian Husky delivers one of the most fun and uplifting records this year. Full of energy and verve, this is all about the inherent joy of music. With no real narrative or theme to push, Siberian Husky aims solely to make you dance, sing along and smile like a fool.
Tracks like the lead single, “Hello, Betty,” “도시탈출,” and “거짓말 또 거짓말” have killer bass lines and a great melody made to enjoy yourself, and that festive atmosphere reaches its zenith on the anthem to party songs, “Real Sound.” Siberian Husky even delivers strong ballads, including the odd pairing of Yoo Soo Hyun and Hae Rang of Transfixion on “Type O Girl, Type B Boy.” Siberian Husky’s Odd Eyes demands to be turned up loud and danced to embarrassingly alone in your bedroom.
I seriously don’t know how this happened. I’m not pop-rock’s biggest fan, but I kept returning to this project EP over and over again. Maybe it was the combination of Shin Choi and Richie Kim singing together, or the simple guitar riffs, but this EP completely won me over. There’s a wide-eyed quality to these songs, like kids screaming “Hey, over here! Pay attention to me!”
Unlike kids, Shin Choi and the boys can back that up.the uncomplicated style of “너의 곁에 있을게” and “My Destiny” is executed very well, highlighting you don’t have to be 16 to enjoy these songs. They even score an amazing ballad, “Black,” a song that hits all the right buttons: spare instrumentation, great use of background vocals, and emotive singing. This is one project album that I hope isn’t a one-ff gimmick.
Listen: 그래 웃으며 보낼 걸 그랬어 (live)
Change is not a bad thing, and W&JAS’ New Kid In Town is an example of how great it can be. By contrasting Jasmine’s luxurious voice with a more rock-centric electronic sound, W made an EP steeped in disco, R&B, and power balladry. This EP shimmers like diamonds in “Green” and “Feeling Like A Butterfly,” hits your gut in “Star Chaser” and cuts like knife in “The Best For You.”
W is one of the best electronic outfits out there, and they reiterate their determination for greatness with this new batch of songs. As disappointed as I was by Whale’s departure, I could not be happier for W&JAS, and could not imagine a better set of songs.
Listen: Feeling Like A Butterfly (live)
Art music has such a high barrier to entry for me that I don’t bother trying. That’s why I didn’t listen to yaya’s “Circus.” But like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to the the shuffling percussion sounds that begin “Truth.” The LP, Cruel Picture, is yaya’s first solo effort, breaking away from collaborator Siya. In leu of his absence, yaya brought on a small orchestra to help arrange this cinematic record. Dark from the beginning, yaya pulls no punches; either you get it or you don’t.
It’s a truly Romantic record, singing in English, but also delivering Spanish on the nu-tango “Ghost.” A little over an hour long, there’s a lot to take in, and its that length that convinces you of what’s really underneath yaya’s approach to Cruel Picture; to use her words, “… it’s dark and sad but also so glamorous that it makes you dance.” I’ll leave it at that. Thanks to Chris P. for that (interview.)
Listen: Destroyer (live)
I’m excited by the discovery process, of finding great music outside of what I normally listen to. As a blogger, that process also gives me the pleasure of sharing those treasure, and if I’m one of few to share a particular piece of music, the better. So it was awesome to hear ZZYZX Project’s Flying By Night EP and let it be one of the first reviews I did for this site.
Little did I know how deep it hooked itself to me, since I kept returning to it long after I wrote my thoughts about this set. I’m still blown away by the voice and how loud these songs get with just an acoustic guitar. It’s the essence of simplicity and how far you can go with two excellent artists. As great as this EP is, it’s just the beginning, something that brings happiness to me for the future of not just these guys, but music at large.