In the past couple of years, K-pop groups like BLACKPINK and BTS have rocketed to prominence on the international music scene, boasting record numbers of Spotify followers and breaking onto the Billboard 200. The globalization of music is an exciting shift, bringing with it innumerable opportunities for us to broaden our aural horizons.
Beyond K-pop, South Korea is teeming with acts deserving of attention, whether they’re playing a traditional piri (double reed instrument) or stationed behind a laptop. Busan indie-pop outfit Say Sue Me have already proven the international appeal of K-indie, and there is so much out there for us to enjoy. This list is nowhere near exhaustive, but hopefully will whet your appetite for more music out of South Korea.
Draped in gauzy vocals and summery guitar, ADOY’s sunny synth-pop has a bittersweet beauty and nostalgia to it. Band members Juhwan (vocals, guitar), Zee (synth), Geunchang (drums) and Dayoung (bass) put out the sublime EP her last year, evoking everything from the glossy detachment of Chromatics to wistful dream pop a la Alvvays. Billed by their PR as city pop, the Seoul band glide into your ears with their hazy, lazy and occasionally even funky bops.
We’ve waxed lyrical about Airy a time or two before, but that just isn’t enough. The Seoul art-pop artist won “Rookie of the Year” at the Korean Music Awards in 2019 and performed in last year’s virtual SXSW, but her music speaks for itself, often careening into unsettling and unexpected places. Her 2020 single “Virtual Song” opens on lush piano, with the track quickly darkening, like a room with lengthening shadows, until Airy’s celestial voice comes in on the chorus, illuminating everything in its path. Her hypnotic, reverb-drenched 2018 EP Seeds makes the listener eager to see what plant will sprout from its titular points of origin.
The Seoul pair known as dal:um bring a modern edge to traditional Korean instruments, exploring this duality on their debut record similar & different. Suyeon Ha plays the gayageum and Hyeyoung Hwang the geomungo, both of which are traditional Korean plucked zithers. Their compositions tend to be sparse and minimalist, alternating between nerve-jangling and serene bordering on meditative. The duo seem to revel in the negative space between their two instruments, just as they enjoy bridging the gap between past and present.
Besides having one of the best band names we’ve seen in years, Drinking Boys and Girls Choir’s sound thrums with raucousness and unbridled joy. The Daegu band—Meena Bae (bass, vocals), Myeong-jin Kim (drums, vocals) and Junghoon Han (guitar, vocals)—come across as cheerleaders for the underdogs on their 2021 album Marriage License. The punk trio mostly sing in Korean, but their ebullience and rebellious spirit transcend language barriers.
There is a no-holds-barred attitude in Gong Joong Geu Neul’s music, with the band dabbling in ethereal synth pop, ’90s club sounds and reggae. “We decided that seeing as we don’t have much time left of our youth, we wanted to do something meaningful together while we still could, and so we decided to form the band in 2016,” the band said in an interview with Highjinkx Music Magazine, and this sense of seizing the present moment shines through on their 2020 album Love Song. The Seoul band’s main vibe, though, is dreamy, from the gentle vocals to the heavenly synths and the silvery, zippy guitar.
Like dal:um, HAEPAARY seek to meld traditional music and modern sensibilities, but in a way that may be more accessible to the casual listener. They repurpose melodies and lyrics from the past, including royal shrine music from the Joseon dynasty, and reshape musical conventions, in particular by employing the vocal genre of Namchang Gagok, which is traditionally only performed by men. Instrumentalist Hyewon and vocalist Minhee introduce industrial style and buzzing synths to older sounds, carving out a sonic path of their own. “A Sendoff for Ancestor Spirits,” from their 2021 EP Born by Gorgeousness, is a particular must-listen, with Minhee’s breathtaking voice climbing ever higher in a truly transcendent moment.
Seoul’s JAMBINAI formed back in 2009, but their metal- and noise rock-inflected sound feels richer than ever. “Sawtooth,” the opener to their 2019 record ONDA, shows off the band’s willingness to take their time; a full two minutes of warbling wind instruments and tentative strings pass before heavy guitar and drums crash in. JAMBINAI’s core members—Kim Bo-mi (haegeum, vocals), Lee Il-woo (guitar, piri, taepyeongso, vocals) and Sim Eun-yong (geomungo, vocals)—have an unrelenting energy when they play, hurtling towards cacophony before pulling back from the brink.
Visionary electronic artist KIRARA has been making music since she was 14. With four albums and a half a dozen EPs under her belt (including her 2021 record 4), she’s made a clear mark on the Korean dance music scene, but her effervescent beats and surprising production choices deserve international recognition. KIRARA’s influence goes beyond her unpredictable, irresistibly bouncy tracks. In an interview with Kocowa Blog, she said that as a producer, she hopes to “make a difference in Korea’s music industry.”
Seoul singer/songwriter Meaningful Stone has, like all of us, changed over the course of the pandemic. Her 2020 release A Call from My Dream will appeal to fans of Samia, with ponderous keys, warm guitar and Meaningful Stone’s honey-sweet voice bringing it all together. Her 2021 EP COBALT is decidedly more ragged at the edges, in a good way. It’s the sort of shoegaze-tinged indie-rock release meant for daydreaming.
Woo Hyo-eun, aka OOHYO, is well-known in Korean indie circles thanks to her infectious melodies and funky bedroom-pop sound. Her music is calming, with jazzy beats and glowing synths that would fit right in on the ever-popular lofi hip-hop radio. “PIZZA,” off her 2019 album Far From the Madding City, is a standout partly for giving us the line “Pizza sucks without you,” but also because it’s the chillest of chill jams.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t include some K-hip-hop here, and Kwon So-hee, better known as sogumm, literally won the reality show Signhere, which is devoted to musicians of the genre. Sogumm doesn’t stick strictly to K-hip-hop or R&B, dipping into lush indie-pop on her 2021 album Precious and occasionally reminding one of Soccer Mommy. If you want to get to know the singer in less than two minutes, though, she recommends listening to her laid-back, yet playful 2019 track “Dance!” because, as she told Cosmopolitan Philippines, “you get a feel of who I am through this song.”
Seoul pop outfit Wedance live up to their name, bringing a “cheerful, heart-throbbing energy,” as they told PileRats. A little garage, a little electronica and a whole lot of fun, Wedance simply need to be experienced to be believed. The duo of Webo and Wegi make music for letting your hair down, getting sweaty and probably spilling a beer on yourself.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.