Who, in this day an age, has not bobbed their head in the car to the rhythm of ‘Idol’? Or hasn’t been caught dancing around the house, distractedly singing along to ‘Kill This Love’? Thanks to the likes of BTS, Blackpink and many other K-pop groups, Korean music has burst onto the international scene, and it has done so with a —very loud— bang. In the past few years, an ever-growing number of fans have turned toward these K-pop powerhouses for their distinctive, compelling and exhilarating take on popular music. If not without merit, though, these groups represent only a fraction of what the Korean music scene has to offer. With a mixture of traditional instruments and sounds, a new cosmopolitan take on recording, and lyrical genius to rival the best songwriters, a number of K-indie groups and artists are claiming their rightful place within the world’s musical canon. The following, then, is our list of the best K-indie songs to start the New Year right. Remember, you heard them here first.
1. Kiss and Tell – The Black Skirts
One of Korea’s most acclaimed indie-rock acts, one-man band The Black Skirts wears its Western influences on its sleeve. Having spend most of his teenage years in the US reading Rolling Stones Magazine and watching MTV, singer-songwriter-musician Jo Hyu-il draws equally from the likes of Michael Jackson and big swing acts to create a style that is exciting and unique. This track from award-winning first album 201 —originally recorded in Jo Hyu-il’s basement in Seoul—, charms with its big-band feel, enthusiastic horn arrangement, and an upbeat chorus that will have even the most reluctant listener singing along to the tune.
2. Cherry Blossom Ending – Busker Busker
Having burst onto the national stage following their runner-up performance in the music audition variety show Superstar K3, indie group Busker Busker gained critical and popular acclaim for their soulful vocals and heartfelt lyrics. Upon its release, ‘Cherry Blossom Ending,’ Busker Busker’s debut single, became an instant classic: nostalgic yet hopeful, deep but optimistic, and with an ever confident sound, this tune takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. Since its first release in 2012, the track has re-entered the Spring charts every year, a testament to its power of endurance.
3. I Know I’m Kind of Boring – Say Sue Me
A cheerful bop by Busan-based indie rock quartet Say Sue Me, this song packs all the sounds we’ve come to expect from the award-winning band. Ironic, irreverent and bursting with confidence, the tune is packed with Say Sue Me’s classic California sounds, wrapping listeners into its dreamlike landscapes with visions of beaches, oceans and sunny strolls on seaside promenades. A must-listen for those dreaming of exotic holidays and brighter days.
4. About a Boy – Jannabi
With ‘About a Boy,’ Beatles-inspired quartet Jannabi (an old fashioned Korean term for ‘monkey’) offers us a tune filled with personality and swag: brave, vivacious and brightly-coloured, the musical landscape explored by the band is one made up of retro aesthetics and romantic vibes. A trip down memory lane for the older generation, and a chance for the younger to immerse themselves into the glories of a past they were never quite a part of.
5. You&I – MeloMance
Soundtrack-phenomenon, piano-vocalist duo MeloMance rose to fame in 2015 with their indie folk debut EP Sentimental. Since then, the group has enchanted audiences with their slow jams and flying bops accented with a quiet and sensitive sound. A classic pop ballad, ‘You&I’ reflects the best that the duo has to offer: the sizzling chemistry between piano and voice gives light to angelic harmonies that will melt even the iciest of hearts.
6. However – 10cm
The latest from vocalist-instrumentalist Kwon Jung-yeol’s musical efforts after the effective dismantling of indie duo 10cm in 2017, ‘However’ is a highly emotional track. Full of pathos, longing and nostalgia, the heartbreaking tune speaks fearlessly of loneliness, alienation and grief. Kwon Jung-yeol’s smooth, velvety voice tinges the music with warm tones, inviting the listener to participate in the singer’s desolation, and enveloping them in a forlorn atmosphere that hits all the right notes.
7. Voice – Standing Egg
A pearl of acoustic pop by indie band Standing Egg, ‘Voice’ is a sweet journey into the victories and anxieties of the world at large. Title song to Standing Egg’s latest album, this tune works as a manifesto for the group’s honest attitude towards fans and life, with acknowledgements of pain and suffering and praises of resilience going hand-in-hand. The gentle ballad offers moments of sadness, but its emphasis of the power of togetherness and an overarching feeling of hopefulness serve the main message of this anthem: that we can overcome adversities with the support of one another.
8. Tomboy – HYUKOH
Indie pop/rock quartet HYUKOH formed as part of the underground music scene in South Korea, yet they quickly began raising to fame when they participated in popular Korean variety show Infinite Challenge in 2015. With lyrics infused with a mix of Korean, Mandarin Chinese and English —reflecting the band’s multicultural background—, HYUKOH produced a quietly understated track, with deeply meaningful lines about fear, loss and, ultimately, hope. A chorus full of charming harmonies, and a number of interesting guitar and drum sounds assist in delivering the song’s narrative, with rhythmic and tonal switches conveying an ever-changing mood.
9. Gift – Okdal
A splendid performance by all-female pop duo Okdal, ‘Gift’ is a delicate and touching tune. The duo’s pure and smooth vocals, coupled with a child-like melody and the gentle rhythms of an acoustic guitar create a compelling retro sound filled with expectation, joy, and fun. The tranquil atmosphere of the record, with its mellow melodies and soothing harmonies, makes for a pleasurable listen that carrie the audience along with ease and expertise.
10. I Don’t Know – Pepperstones
Masters of electronic jams, psychedelic mixes and classic indie-rock vibes, Pepperstones make for one of the most interesting bands on this list. The band built its reputation by performing live in Hongdae clubs, but have now become, despite their frequent hiatuses, popularly acclaimed on the national stage. Dabbing into a variety of musical and non-musical experiences, the eclectic duo offers in ‘I Don’t Know’ a cheerful, uplifting tune whose rhythmic cadences and distorted sounds transport the listener into a whimsical panorama of musical interests.
Bonus Track: 고백 – Jaguaa
One man band Jaguaa was founded in 2018, when singer-songwriter Junyoung was encouraged by musician friend Bevy Maco to produce his first tracks. After jotting down some twenty or thirty song ideas, Junyoung released his first demo, ‘Fantasies’, in the same year. This was followed in 2019 by 고백, a harrowing, melancholy tale of deep emotional impact. With a mixture of R&B, lofi, house, and pop influences, Jaguaa’s tune is a spectacular —and spectacularly interesting— follow-up, one that makes its author one of the most exciting up-and-coming musicians on the indie scene.
An office worker by day and music enthusiast by night, Jaguaa clearly pursues an interest in combining rhythmic and melodic choices with lyrical prowess, and the eclectic style sported by his demos speaks of a versatile artist who’s able to travel between different musical landscapes to find the one that best fits each particular project. Writing music seems to come natural to Jaguaa, whose imaginative lyricism is capable of translating the songwriter’s real-life experiences into universals that can speak to all audiences.
Jaguaa’s demos never get old, and, as an artist that constantly seeks to re-invent his style, he never fails to surprise. From funk to jazz, hip-hop to folk, we can expect anything from this talented musician, who combines Frank Ocean’s poetic approach with the sophisticated rhythm sections of artists like Daniel Caesar. His music is a gift that never stops giving.
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