The music of South Korea has come a long way on the global stage since Psy’s novelty hit “Gangnam Style” brought the Korean language into pop charts worldwide in 2012. Now, K-pop is part of the international music vocabulary. Groups like BTS and Blackpink are among the biggest selling from any nation, with western megastars queueing up to collaborate with them, bathe in some of their reflected glory, and hopefully attract some of their fearsomely dedicated fanbase.
But K-pop is not the be-all and end-all of Korean music. Of course it isn’t: this is a modern nation of some 50 million people, with a large global diaspora to boot, and once you scratch beneath the shiny surface there is untold culture to discover. And in stark contrast to the world-conquering hyper-disciplined boybands of K-pop, Korean alternative music is full of individualist, independent artists and dominated in many areas by creative women.
Whatever genre you can think of – be that metal, electronic, post-rock, noise, indie pop or any other – Korean musicians have their own twist on it. And they have a few more besides, with very distinctive local twists particularly on electropop and ambient / new age. There’s far more than we can hope to do justice to here, but you’re strongly recommended to follow the @KoreanIndie collective for playlists and tips – and here, as the tip of the iceberg, is a short list of particular favourites to get you started.
Lim Yoo-jin (임유진) aka Neon Bunny skirts the boundaries between mainstream and alternative. She’s played as a session musician for big time Korean bands, but her own sophisticated electronic pop sound is distinctly personal and individualist. As a demonstration of her independence, she’s currently crowdfunding to complete her third solo album – and the video she’s produced to show the work in progress, whether you speak Korean or not, is a demonstration of a quirky intelligence.
Tengger are definitely internationalist in outlook: they are influenced by classic German “Kosmische” music, and point to the fact the name means “unlimited expanse of sky" in Mongolian and also “huge sea” in Hungarian. But the Seoul-based Korean-Japanese wife-husband duo of Itta (vocals and instruments) and Marqido (production) – plus their son RAAI who sometimes joins them on stage – certainly absorb plenty of Korean elements into their cosmic soundscapes. Their Nomad album of this year is perhaps their best yet, an absorbing, healing experience.
Seoul-born cellist, composer and producer Ji Park is endlessly exploratory. Operating broadly in the areas of post-rock and post-classical, as well as more experimental classical repertoire and free jazz, she traverses the borders between composition, improvisation and electronic production, collaborates widely, and creates gloriously transporting atmospheres. As well as Korea, she has lived and worked in Boston, Paris and Berlin, and a list of her compositions and commissions alone makes for impressive reading. She’s not shy of connecting her music to the political world either, as the title of her DMZ suite from last year makes clear – the DMZ is the “demilitarised zone” between North and South Korea – and her album with VRI String Quartet this year includes a tribute to the environmentalist Greta Thunberg.
Choi Ga Eun
“Alt-R&B” has become a big part of the international musical vocabulary over the past decade, with untold singers layering on heavy reverb and introspective murmuring. But singer-songwriter Choi Ga Eun (최가은) manages to bring a fresh twist to the sound – sometimes harking back to 90s trip hop, sometimes super modernist, but always with her plaintive Korean language vocal standing out a mile from the legions of The Weeknd and James Blake imitators. Her The Life, The Love mini album from last year is a moody gem.
There are hints of R&B in Aseul (아슬)’s songs too – but also a lot more besides. 80s Japanese “city pop”, 90s Detroit techno, 2010s vaporwave and many other points where electronic sound has collided with melodic sensibilities all come together in her deliberately lo fi, all self produced, work. She calls it “slow dance bedroom pop”, which is a perfect description: a superficially unassuming phrase that takes on more meaning the more you think about it – much like her gentle but compelling sound.
Hunjiya is New York raised but Seoul born and continues to be inspired by Korean music and her frequent visits back. Her recent collaboration with producers indigoworld is intense electronic alt-pop, but it’s her solo work where her unique sense of structure and sound really shines through. In her Look After August album you can hear hip hop, jazz, off-beam indie rock, electronica and many more styles: but above all a singular and fiercely focused imagination.
The trio COR3A specialise in dark and intense electronica, often including contributions from experimental instrumentalists like Ji Park – with whom they made a whole collaborative album and set of performances as you may have seen above – or trumpeter Se Oul. Ranging from abstract noise via Vangelis style soundtrack drama to the kind of moody beatscapes that recall European arena electronica acts like Apparat or Overmono, it’s a wonder they aren’t better known worldwide.
Park Jiha (박지하 ) specialises in remarkable fusions of traditional Korean instruments – she plays the oboe-like piri, saenghwang (mouth organ) and yanggeum (hammered dulcimer) – with western instruments and electronic production to produce something simultaneously ancient and futuristic sounding. Her sound sometimes touches on the “fourth world” of 70s and 80s experimenters like John Hassell, but from an entirely new angle – and her second album, Philos, is truly a classic of the modern age.
Cover Image: Official YouTube and Bandcamp
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of U.K. bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs