Editor’s Note: Due to the Pyeongchang Olympics coinciding with the Lunar New Year holidays, February was a slow month for releases. Since the pickings were slim, for this edition of Unsung Artists, we take a look at some of the truly unsung artists of the Korean music scene who were honoured at the Korean Music Awards (KMAs).

The KMAs are different from the average K-pop awards ceremony for a number of reasons. It relies solely on judges rather a mix of panel and popular votes, a greater number of genres covered and an emphasis on artistic skill over sales or popularity. All of this means that the awards are a showcase of lesser known artists beyond just famous idols. This is a selection from the awards nominees and winners that might have flown under your radar.

Kang Tae-gu, “Bleu”

Firstly I want to begin with the winner of among many other things, the Best Album of the Year Award, Kang Tae-gu. His music completely and utterly struck me with its haunting beauty and elegant simplicity. Kang Tae-gu’s sound in his winning album, Bleu is defined by sparse instrumentation and his gentle voice. Each song on the album is beautifully crafted with great attention paid to even the small details. You just have to listen to the lead single and the winner of Best Folk Song of the Year, “Bleu” which is the standout track on the album. It is a brilliant display of his skill and talent as an artist and truly something utterly breathtaking and beautiful. It is in the little details for me, the echoing backing vocals and the backing strings and the affecting repetition of “My Grand Bleu” at the end. All these little parts come together so perfectly, and as the select committee says in their description, it is a true example of how beautiful music can be. This album may have not been very popular, but it was one of the standout albums of last year and it does deserve the multiple awards it received at the KMAs this year.

The Black Skirts, “Everything”

Since the brilliant Se So Neon and the sublime Hyukoh’s have already been covered on Seoulbeats, I have looked at the other nominees in the two rock music categories. I have chosen someone from the same label as Hyukoh, an one man band called The Black Skirts. The Black Skirts’s album, Team Baby was nominated for Best Album of the Year and Best Modern Rock Album. The album is a reflection of love but it is an unconventional take on the much sung topic. His frank, honest and detailed lyricism give the songs on his album great poignancy and particularly in his song, “Everything”. The song has a simple ballad style but the lyrics are truly warm and touching. They seem both personal with its detail but also incredibly relatable in a way that shows the skill of Jo Hyu-il as a lyricist.

On rainy days
Lying down, not a single word
Gazing with our eyes closed, everything becomes ours
Times when you go around looking for me pale-faced
Times when you surprise me with your cheeky stories

Lee Jin-ah, “Stairs”

Admittedly Lee Jin-ah has been on my radar long before the KMAs. Hence it was wonderful to see her getting some acknowledgement for her accomplished 2017 album, Random, in the best pop album category. The EP presents her unique style, the fusion of jazz and pop music and her distinct childlike voice. Her music on the album can be described as playful, whimsical and simple. However it is also complicated, eerie and with slight hints of darkness.

The song that best displays these paradoxes nearly perfectly is “Stairs”. While her title song, “Random” leans towards a joyful tone, “Stairs” incorporates a much darker undertone through the more frequent use of the lower notes to contrast with the more lighthearted parts and her own voice. The adopted style gives the song greater richness and emotion. For Lee Jin-ah, it represents progress in her style and her craft and this is one of the reasons why it was named one of the 10 singles that represented 2017 by the Korean online music magazine, IZM magazine.

CIFIKA, “My Ego”

Winner of the Best Electronic/Dance Song Award, “My Ego” by CIFIKA is a complete immersive exprience.  It is a hard song to describe as it is like nothing I have ever heard before. It is a truly exprimential song with a strong otherworldly, futuristic feel. The song may seem very messy and manic but it comes together and it works. Also through everything, her striking vocals make their mark on the song. She is someone completely different from the rest of the field and brings something new and fresh to us.

Jazzyfact, “Harujongil”

While the winner of the Best Rap and Hip-hop Song was Woo Won Jae’s “We Are” (featuring Gray and Loco) and it is a brilliant song, some attention should also be given to Jazzyfact’s song, “Harujongil”. It is a wonderfully funky, groovy, catchy song with a fitting music video to match. In addition everything is very cohesive; both the music video and the song have a drowsy, chill and hypnotic style to them with the repetition and the production. The repetition creates a sense of being trapped in a never ending cycle and not being in control of yourself and the production give off the perfect inviting, stylish vibes. The whole song is excellently assured and deftly done.

(Youtube [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], Musixmatch)