This year in Korean indie music was a wide one. So many releases this year that grabbed my attention ranged in styles from R&B, rock, acoustic pop, Korean traditional, jazz, balladry, so on and so on and so on. It was also a year of firsts, with many artists releasing their first full length albums after a year or more in the business, as you’ll see here. LPs will always be my go to in terms of releases, since they allow artists the time to fully flesh out their ideas where EPs and singles are too constraining.
For this list, taking all of the above into consideration, I focused on releases with unique ways of conveying the same themes we are all familiar with. From introspective hip-hop with an insane tilt to it, to synth-rock with feeling, from Korean music with a rock edge to hard rock that goes to 11, these artists took their genre of choice and put their stamp on it. Took a long time to get here, but here is my best of 2014 in Korean indie music.
Amado Lee Jaram Band : Crazy Vagabond
I don’t know when it was that I turned from admiring critic to fan. Was it the odd videos for their debut EP? The fact that Amado Lee Jaram Band embraced the hipster look wholeheartedly? That they do a killer rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart?” maybe, but all together, and with the release of Crazy Vagabond, I knew this was a band I’ve been looking for. Blending soul, rock and folk, Amado Lee Jaram Band’s latest built on their EP to release a great rock and soul record. As the name implies, there’s a touch of the traveling hobo in “나의 가난은” and “피리,” happy-go-lucky in “노래,” and longing in “동창” and the title track. The variety is pleasing, making for easy repetition without becoming tiresome. I will gladly follow Amado Lee Jaram Band wherever they go next.
Cocca : Vincent
After the bullshit rap nonsense last year, I was ready to move on and Cocca delivered. Released in January, Vincent was the record of a woman at the top of her game looking down at the pettiness and saying “fuck that bitches, never more. Be art like Goguin.” With producer Lil Jiyeon on the beats, Cocca delivers lines about her parents, sex, violence and keeping to the underground with laid-back aplomb. This EP has stuck with me all year and with good reason: Cocca’s on fire.
CoreMagaZinE : Rude Banquet
I thought I was done with the synth-rock that’s dominated the indie-rock scene over the past two years, but Rude Banquet made me realize I wasn’t tired of the sound. What’s been missing, and CoreMagaZinE brought to life here, was a pop sensibility with heart. With catchy lyrics that speaks to our technology-driven lives in “I Feel Sick” and vocals that soar above the sound in “그래서 하는 말,” as well as delivering pure pop joy in “Perfect Ending (of Perfect Day),” Core Magazine breathed new life to synth-rock. Note: the studio live version of “I Feel Sick” is not to be missed. Get chills every time I hear it.
Danpyunsun and the Sailors : 동물
What else is there to say about this record? From start to finish, Danpyunsun and the Sailors gave beautifully rendered ballads and thundering up-tempo tracks, all with a traditional Korean template. The first 50 seconds of “백년” is just Danpyunsun’s voice, which would make him the center of the record, but he isn’t. where other groups can feel like a band working around a voice, the Sailors are as integral to this record as he is. without them, tracks like the gorgeously raucous “노란방” and the aching of “우리는” could never have been realized. Of special mention is Kwon Jee Young on fiddle with great manic playing on “공.” I can’t say enough about this record so just do yourself a favor and listen to the damn thing already.
EE : Weird People We R Da People
For a pair that started out as an art-pop duo focusing on 80s synths, Weird People is a sharp turn left for EE. A call to arms for freaks and “weird people,” “Freak Flag Fly” acknowledges their station in music as artists and performers, but that self-referential sentiment goes out the window on “Mayday Mayday Mayday” and “Banging Till I Die.” Whether Weird People is just an elaborate joke or not, and it very well could be given their MVs and live sets, one thing remains: this EP is sick. For an art-pop duo, EE created some of the best hip-hop tracks this year. Rappers would kill for beats like these and that EE were the ones to create them shows a glimpse of this group’s genius. Another release can’t come soon enough.
EE’s Banging Till I Die MV
Gary : Mr. Gae
A good test for placement on this list is if the record stays in rotation on my ipod long after I write the review, and Gary‘s Mr. Gae was one. At 15 minutes, whenever I listened to “XX몰라,” I would listen to all of it because the EP is just too good to just listen to one song. Like I said the sonic concept of going insane is genius and it all works so well on Mr. Gae. My favorite is still the title track, a sleazy and grimy number not about drinking, but about getting wrecked/trashed/drunk past acceptable. That it ends in dubstep is the logical destination in the production, and that kind of thinking makes Mr. Gae a superb solo debut from one of the greats in hip-hop.
Gray Rooftop : Gray Rooftop
This year, I delved into mixtapes more, and discovered some great releases. Like Cocca’s, Gray Rooftop’s mixtape came out early and stuck around the entire year. A project collaboration between Dragon AT, Hwaji, Chaboom and producer Mild Beats, this self-titled mixtape is a slow and deliberate exploration of four talented artists. The rappers get their space to do their thing and each plays with tempo with skill. On “년,” the guys channel anger to explosive effect, with Dragon AT spitting with a climatic burst that stays with you after he’s done. Through all this, Mild Beat’s production is steady, with an air of brooding and tension that never quite leaves you. Mixtapes are usually spaces for rappers to deliver vile nonsense they couldn’t do on official releases, but Gray Rooftop is an example of a free release rising to exceptional quality, even above more lavish productions elsewhere.
Gray Rooftoop’s 년 track
Illap : ILLAP
The videos that accompanied the singles for ILLAP are unnerving, no question about it. no matter how many times I see them, the effects-ridden videos give me the creeps. Illap, for their part, are just as weird and awkward at first listen, but talent belies that. Throwing a bunch of ideas at their debut record, the duo plays with beats that take a second or two to understand. That isn’t to say the record is challenging. Tracks like “yppirT” and “제목 없음” ooze with spacey hip-hop, while the opener “ㅇㅣㄹㄹㅏㅂ” sounds like a drone effect drowning in a sewage pipe. Rapper Jjang You’s style is a great foil, with a clean tone that goes from goofy and aloof to pressing and adamant. For the former, “Smokey Grillz,” the latter, “피라미드.” A mess of the highest order, Illap’s self-titled is a great debut in the electronic hip-hop realm.
Illap’s ILLAP MV
Ju Bo Ra : Remember
I could not let this list go public without a female vocalist, and Ju Bo Ra is one of my favorite singers. I’ve waited close to three years for Remember since the initial release of “상실” and its exactly what I wanted and more. Ju Bo Ra has a husky voice that quivers at times, lending her the ability to convey emotions like love, heartache and joy without blasting into your ears. A ballad album through and through, Remember does the genre right, striking a balance between heartstring-tugging strings, evocative piano and slow guitars without falling into schmaltz. The ballad, “아무말도,” recalls 90s power ballads without crushing nostalgia, while the closer, “Only One,” is a Christian gospel song that’s the best Christmas song not about Christmas this year. Ju Bo Ra is a phenomenal singer, and Remember is a great first record highlighting her talents.
Ju Bo Ra’s 보석같이 너의 눈이 반짝였을 때 MV
The Lads : Lads on the Street
“Fuck, yes.” That was the phrase running through my head as I listened to The Lads’ debut record, Lads on the Street, for the first time, and it’s still there the more I listen. A surf rock album, Lads on the Street was the summer album for me, even though my neck of the woods barely saw any. With laid back guitar work and slacker vocals, The Lads are just a fun group of guys who chase pleasures, even if they go about it awkwardly. That awkwardness extends to their live sets, with Seung Kyu unexpectedly performing “Texas Song” with his back turned on national television. That irreverence for getting attention, while still attracting it, is a dichotomy I love, and The Lads play with so well on “Lads on the Street.” God I love these kids.
The Lads’ Texas Song MV
Project Shume : 가상의 씨앗 슘
Immediately apparent from Project Shume’s debut record is the cover art. A cute
bear(?), animal(?), alien(?) creature has its eyes closed and hands to its face, rocking side to side. The picture strange, but it is how I’ve enjoyed this album. Built on a foundation of dance music, 가상의 씨앗 슘 is not a party record, but a silent disco one, meant for solitary dancing awkwardly to oneself. Project Shume presents this electronic-rock album with heart, by playing with the procession of its component parts. Both voices get put through the production, from none at all to beyond recognition, with the reggae-infected “지가 지를 먹는 뱀” getting both. The instruments also get ground through the machine, with varying degrees of grind. The album treads a lot of ground, but Project Shume maintains a wonderful sense of whimsy and excitement throughout, making you feel like that bear-alien-creature.
Project Shume’s 지가 지를 먹는 뱀 MV
Rhythm Power : Wolmido Dogs
After a strong debut on The Trio – Stage One, Rhythm Power released Wolmido Dogs soon after. With their trademark styles and tongue-in-cheek humor, the trio’s first record is a hodge-podge of influences, from cult movies, television and other pop culture ephemera. Rhythm Power straight kill on “RPG” and their remix of Dynamic Duo’s “만루험런,” and deliver the jokes on “WaraWara” and “Game of Thrones.” Even the obligatory “Stupid Love” fits the trio’s MO to a T. It’s amazing to see how strong Wolmido Dogs is so soon after The Trio – Stage One, but because it’s Rhythm Power, I didn’t expect anything less.
Rhythm Power’s Game of Thrones MV
Sunwoo Shawn Kim : Uncolored
I’ve tried many times to write about this album since its release, but I fail utterly. Knowing that it had to be on this list only made it that much more daunting. Sunwoo Shawn Kim composes beautiful electronic classical albums, but Uncolored is something other. Like “White canvas in the darkness” suggests, this albums eludes definition. The closest I can come up with is a film score, with dramatic highs, loud ramp ups and gloomy lows, but then I hear “Silver corrosion” and think electronic meringue, and the premise shows its cracks. Whatever this is, Uncolored is fantastic. Almost devoid of vocals, Kim doesn’t create songs as much as he creates moods. Loneliness (“Dispersion of light”), yearning (“Answer their azure prayer”), and joy (“Vermilion sky”) are just some of the moods expertly evoked in Uncolored. A supremely talented composer, Sunwoo Shawn Kim deserves all the accolades.
Sunwoo Shawn Kim’s Silver corrosion track
Unchained : Thorn
I’m not a fan of Thorn, or Unchained; I need this record and this band. Both Chris and Rachel will tell you how I’ve obsessed over this record this year, and will continue to do so. Unchained’s heavy rock debut record, Thorn, has a lot to digest at close to an hour, and what a glorious hour it is. The band goes hard from the first licks of “Lucid Dream” and never lets up. Even on the slow burn of “Cancer,” the guitars are so oppressive you can’t do anything else but give in. their lead single, “Porcupine,” is perfection. Drums that threaten to blow your ears out, bass that hits your chest, phenomenal guitar work and vocals loud and clear to scream along to, the song is the epitome of what Unchained is: a hard rock band that’s visceral, dark and sexy. Thorn is hands down my favorite album of 2014.
Wym : After Moon
I did not plan it this way, but I love that by the order I picked, the last entry is Wym’s gorgeous After Moon. A dreamy electronic record, this album is the solo project of Bjorn, who worked as one half of DJ Bjorn on the sublime dance number, “Empty Desire,” included here. On After Moon, the mood is decidedly somber, with the languishing song of hope, “Light Years,” showing the breadth of instrumentation Wym uses to evoke the passion in his lyrics. The transformation from “Empty Desire” to this album isn’t a far leap, but it’s an interesting one. Wym’s take on dance music is evocative, even on the vocal-less number, “Blossom,” and his reworking of Alan Watts’ infamous speech on “Where Are We Going.” An introspective record in a dance production cloak, Wym’s After Moon is meditation of life and what’s important, and one to play after the party’s over.
Wym’s Trying MV
Enjoy it, readers, and may 2015 be just as awesome!