This is by no means an exhaustive list. In fact, knowing how Korea just loves to debut new artists and groups pretty much every month, there are probably hundreds of albums you and I both have missed in 2018. However, this is a look at some albums that definitely went under the radar, or at the very least, certainly didn’t get much recognition outside of Korea (and probably not even there in some cases). But that’s why I am here! To help you discover some new things and share some of my favorite Korean releases this year.
01 Decadent — “Decadent”
At this point, everyone and their grandmother knows that Decadent is probably my favorite anything to come out of Korea. Their brand of blues completely destroyed me with their 2016 debut EP. Then they decided to just slap me in the face with all that brilliance with their first full-length self-titled album. From top to bottom, it’s an experience. In fact, the album finale, “B,” is probably the most epic way to close an album I’ve heard in a few years. You have the precision of the musicians coupled with a voice touched by the hand of God. Lyricism that’s exceptional in every way: poignant, cheeky at times and incredibly powerful. Guitar work that could stop your heart, drumming that gives it a stronger beat and a bass that keeps you grounded.
02 YESEO — “Damn Rules”
If anyone this year had a point to make, it was YESEO. And what a statement she made! With lead single “Bitches Rule,” she stomped all over an overwhelming societal patriarchy. She gave a bold and brash middle finger to everything she (as well as most women) was raised to believe she was supposed to do, feel and be. “Damn Rules” is exactly what it says. She defines her music and her sound by ignoring the need for traditional definitions. It was a dynamic piece of music that was both whimsical and exceptionally powerful.
03 Jjang You — “KOKI7”
I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Jjang You is my favorite male rapper coming out of Korea without breaking a sweat. He just has an aggressiveness about him that’s not forced, faked or put-on to flaunt something unauthentic. With “KOKI7,” he really came for my throat. The way he emotes … his tone … Everything he does is with intention and with emotion. Ever since his days in duo ILLAP, from his collaboration with producers J-flow and ARwwae in the group WAVISABIROOM, JJang You has managed to match his bite with music that ranges from melodic to trippy to downright nasty. His delivery and lyrical work are just ridiculous.
04 CIFIKA — “PRISM”
What can I say? CIFIKA is an absolute angel. Her voice breathes life into anything she’s in. Whether working with Crush for a futuristic critique of the current trends in pop and R&B, or posing with Oh Hyuk for a “Liquid Television” inspired family portrait, she adds a bit of her heavenly vocal to a piece and completely changes the scope. With “PRISM,” she created a piece of music that was ethereal yet incredibly strong. I can’t help but hear flickers of Björk in her overall aesthetic. But that voice is something that drifted from a cloud and landed like an angel’s wing. There are moments in this album where I swear she’s whispering magic spells in my ear. But then there are others where I feel she’s letting loose a mighty roar! Shouting out for action. This was just an amazing piece of work.
05 SLEEQ — “Life Minus F is Lie”
If Jjang You is my favorite male MC, SLEEQ is the new Queen B. Of course, Queen T takes the mantel as damn near the best MC in Korea …. periodt! But if Tasha is a The Queen, SLEEQ is undeniably next in line. She makes music that’s poignant, relevant and fearlessly unapologetic. She’s unabashedly feminist in a culture that makes in clear they don’t have respect for a woman’s right to argue, to fight, to raise hell for the sake of her equity in society. No matter the subject matter of the overall album, that element of her bite is never lost. However, in her latest album she digs so much deeper into her own psyche. She dissects the things that make her tick, make her worry, make her afraid. It helps that track “Heat” features two artist from my list: Decadent power vocal Dennis Jin and the ferocious YESEO.
06 Kim Oki — “Saturn Meditation”
Another fun fact about me: I’m a sucker for jazz. I’m not talking the “easy listening” that many associate with the cultural genre. I mean good jazz, from the gut, straight no chaser. I love me some jazz that bends the rules, breaks convention and adds something new to the musical conversation (just as the genre has always intended). In that vein we have saxophonist Kim Oki. He caught my attention last year when he worked with one of my favorite bands, Hippy was Gipsy, on their stellar debut. Though his own effort “Fuckingmaddness” by and large left me wanting more, there was something exceptional in the way he approached jazz that kept me intrigued. Thus we come to his latest, “Saturn Meditation.” It’s as space-aged as its title suggests: blissed all the way out with melodic construction from the stars. It truly is a remarkable effort that many will have missed because of his name and his genre. Take note: if South Korea don’t do nothin’ else right, they sure as hell know their jazz and their blues!
07 PUNCHNELLO — “at 5:43am”
I can’t praise clubeskimo alum PUNCHNELLO enough for his musicality. For those who only know him as a rapper, you’re missing out on something really magnificent. The man has a keen ear for music that goes sorely underappreciated. Thus his SoundCloud mixtape “at 5:43am.” It was a luxurious listen, music with both a narrative arc and an emotional core. Though the story itself is common enough (a man comes home after a night of drinking and then has to try to revive himself from his excesses), the manner in which he weaves each scene into music is truly commendable. Without even trying, he had one of my favorite albums of 2018. Though the numbers suggest he had plenty of fans fall in love with his offering, not many talked about it enough to give it the attention it deserves.
08 SAAY — “Horizon : The Mixtape”
I will always, always give my love to this woman. Ever since I heard her collaboration with another firm favorite of mine, Tish Hyman, I’ve been head-over-heels in love with her. SAAY has the type of voice that has so much hallelujah behind it, it had me asking what church she went to. (I was only half joking.) She has a control and power in her second soprano. When I first heard her I was rendered speechless. While she did release a full length earlier in the year, it was her second offering that really grabbed my attention. Though it featured a couple of her SoundCloud releases from last year, ultimately it was an offering that showcased her range and unwavering power like nothing else.
09 Land of Peace — “Life in Timog”
Instagram really can be good for some things, particularly discovering new music you would have no doubt missed. Even if there’s a chance you picked up any of the previous albums on this list, it’s still almost a guarantee you had no idea about Land of Peace. They came to me late in the year. This indie lo-fi alternative band just has a sound that gets me every time. It’s rock with a slant, a cheeky little grin with some whiskey on the side. Korea had a stellar year for indie music. An unfortunate casualty of the overabundance of music that came from the country this year was “Life in Timog.” Equal parts Toro y Moi and early Oasis, Land of Peace makes music that wraps around you and gives you an incredible feeling of complete bliss.
10 Mon Navy & Jazzy Moon — “EGO”
With the onslaught of hip-hop that came out of Korea this year, it was damn near impossible to really hear all of it and see what it had to offer. It’s no surprise, then, that producer-rapper duo Mon Navy & Jazzy Moon‘s collaboration went relatively unnoticed. Their EP “EGO” was everything that hip-hop’s supposed to be: challenging, musical, expressive … authentic. There was nothing of the posturing so prevalent in the genre in the country. None of the affectation most younger rappers seem to all think is necessary to make “genuine” rap music. Instead, we get grown-up, thoughtful rap that has a message and a distinct color. With shades of Lords of the Underground, the duo really brought unblemished early hip-hop flavor with ease and incredible respect.
(Available on iTunes.)
As I said, there was just so much music that came out of South Korea alone this year. Very obviously this list doesn’t even skim the surface. What were some of your favorite (and maybe underrated and underappreciated) albums this year? I’m always looking for new music!