K-indie can range from indie bands to hip hop and R&B artists in the underground scene. Their success can come from many varying factors, whether it is good musical production, meaningful lyrics, or even the skill of finding the right featuring artists. With an appetite for different music styles, our writers, Aaron, Janine, and Karen come together to discuss the indie artists that have caught their eye in the past half a year.

Karen: Looking at everyone’s choices, it seems like we’ll be having quite an interesting discussion. With no overlaps at all and a range of genres from hip hop to singer-songwriters, our lists are quite diverse. But against that, I somehow selected producers Code Kunst and Authentic, both from the same hip hop crew, Legit Goons, as my top two picks. 

Regardless, the artists in my list all channel the same intimate, musing vibe in their recent works. My affection for them perhaps comes as a reaction to the depressing global situation and gray clouds hanging over the past six months of 2020. Aaron, your picks sway towards K-hip hop artists, whereas Janine, your list consists of a mix of hip hop and indie bands. Do either of you see any commonalities between the artists you’ve selected? Or are there any other reasons behind your respective choices? 

Janine: Legit Goons is well-represented on our lists: with my BLNK entry, we’ve got three out of eleven members! My list is a mix of genres but I try to be an adventurous listener so I end up liking lots of different things for different reasons.

BLNK caught my interest at first because he has a great voice. Baritones and contraltos tend to catch my attention. His voice and delivery immediately struck me and I grew to like it even more with repeated listening. I enjoyed how groovy and funky FLAME was and how familiar I found the sound. It immediately reminded me of some of my favourite sounds from the golden age of hip hop. Outkast, Naughty by Nature, Nas, and Jay Z have arguably perfected the use of funk instrumentation in rap music, but BLNK’s got the hang of getting into the groove. The funk elements are recorded and mixed in a way that sounds alive and the delivery of boom bap over a pulsating, organic canvas is a treat. BLNK also uses split stereo panning in a fun way. I love it when a rapper whispers in my ears, it makes me appreciate how much I paid for my headphones.

Aaron: Admittedly, my picks are swaying to the hip hop side of things! It has been a great year for K-hip hop. Nafla just beat DPR Live as my favourite hip-hop release so far. Nafla’s u n u really moved me in a similar way to Mac Miller’s Swimming and Circles as they’re all so intimate and well composed. 

The commonality between my picks can therefore be seen with the composition of each respective release being intimate and uniquely composed.  Jjangyou’s Wave took me on such a journey, much like Janine’s top pick Se So Neon did with Nonadaption. Code Kunst is a surprising new top-pick, so Karen, I’ve got to ask what did you think of People (which features BLNK!) and how do you think it holds up against Muggles’ Mansion?

Karen: There are a lot of similarities between Muggles’ Mansion and People, and Code Kunst does not disappoint in the lineup of featuring artists on People. However, there is a distinct shift in tone between the two albums, despite Code Kunst retaining his own unique flavour of music. Muggles’ Mansion was musing and dark, inviting listeners to enter the realm of the producer’s mindscape. On the other hand, the sound that comes through People is more open, seeking to build bridges between experiences. 

Perhaps one of the more comprehensive albums to come out in the past six months, People captivated me with its honesty that is drawn out of both Code Kunst and the artists he features in his album. We get yet another taste of Lee Hi, Car, the Garden, and Nucksal’s collaboration with him, but also a variety of other artists like Giriboy, Jvcki Wai, Loopy, and so on.

Particularly with People, Code Kunst focuses heavily on using voices, often in fragments of speech, and an experimental approach to his composition. Yet, even with tracks like “Set Me Free” and “Get Out,” where auto tuned voices feature heavily, the songs throughout this collection are never extravagant or arrogant. The simple instrumentals also always manage to enthrall, with songs like “Woode” and “F(ucked up).” People demonstrates a change in stance for the producer, who seems to have stepped out from a closed up inner world and now seek to draw connections between individuals with an album like People. 

Artists like Jjangyou, Nafla, and Se So Neon received much attention in the past year or two. Since their previous releases, how do you guys think they might have changed with their works this year and how has that appealed to you? 

Aaron:  Nafla may very well be the last star to come from the SMTM formula. So admittedly I was expecting a rap centric record much like what I found with Loopy and Kid Milli’s new records. In part. 1 of u n u, however, I was blown away as each track seems tied to a theme of love and longing, while the instrumentation plays with this gorgeous mix of live instruments and hip hop production. Part. 2 of u n u played more to my original expectations, with big features (Dean, Gaeko, Colde, and Bibi) and popular hip hop music conventions.

Jjangyou, on the other hand, hasn’t profited much from SMTM. That being said, his newest record is his best! I mean you want your art to be challenging, as long as the eureka moment is cathartic. Wave is that to me, a grower of record, I really struggled with it at first for its rapid-fire lyricism and the rap-orientated approach on his opening tracks. 

But wow has this record grown on me and unfurled as Jjangyou’s most definitive statement of sound. Jjangyou plays with the most obscure soundscapes within hip hop, so it’s hard to even call him rap at this point. He is just an innovator playing with sounds which will only be popular years later. I really hope he and Se So Neon get the proper attention they deserve this year!

Janine: This is my cue to gush about Nonadaptation. A lot of people have been introduced to Se So Neon through DEAN’s “Instagram” as the guitarist on the track is Hwang So-yoon, their lead singer and guitarist. I can claim bragging rights as I discovered their music through a random recommendation while listening to off the menu (another amazing, underrated act). I aspire to be all of y’all’s hipster, older sister, what can I say… Se So Neon has been consistently praised for their technical virtuosity, the depth of their references to blues, jazz, and classic rock, So-yoon’s unforgettable voice, and creativity. This is well-earned praise. 

Nonadaptation is just as layered, technically ambitious, and well-executed as Summer Plumage despite Fancy Moon and Gangto’s exit. New members Hyunjin and U-su seem more than capable of delivering the experimental, dexterous instrumentation fans expect. And So-yoon’s lyricism and vocal performance on the album are mesmerizing. Some of the lyrics reminded me of modernist poetry with imagery like “the man who tramples over the moon spilled over the alley, in his pockets, a secret” in “Stranger”. I mean? That’s poetry. 

How important are lyrics in your choices, especially considering there are a wealth of hip hop artists in the picks?

Karen: More than the lyrics catching my eye, I was enchanted by the atmosphere created from both the instrumentals and the vocal deliveries in Authentic’s ‘s house. Using Owell Mood as the voice of the album, and mixing in the occasional featuring artist, ‘s house captures a snapshot of an ordinary, pensive day. Though there are groovier tracks like “Subway,” a large portion of the tunes in this album rely on simpler lyrics and melodies tinged with melancholy. Owell Mood’s soft and calming voice really does a great deal in enclosing the listener within the album’s musing, quiet tone. Even a simple phrase of “I’m just praying for the sunrise” in “Sundown,” is conveyed so gently and hard for me not to be captivated by it. A bonus for me was also discovering Nucksal on “6:42,” a mellow track that seems a mismatch with his usual hard, spitfire rap style. Of course, the product is wonderful, but I was still surprised during my first listen. 

Aaron: “Sundown” is my track! Owell Mood’s vocals are just wow.

Karen: Speaking of enrapturing vocals, Ronel’s lower register as a female singer was unusual and comforting. She only has three individual releases in 2020, and only a few more in her whole repertoire of works. However, she has proven herself to be a steady artist with her own charm. 

Out of her 2020 tracks, “slmf” leans towards a lo-fi type song, while “Call It” has a slightly more upbeat acoustic composition. My favourite has to be “Spring’s Gone,” with a more conventional ballad style execution. It is not a song that is extravagant in demonstrating its sadness, bu rather one that is resigned and embracing in its tender delivery. As I listen to it, I feel consoled and it is truly a tune that is very kind to its listeners in its expression of loss and waiting. 

Was it the lyrics that caught your attention for your picks, Aaron? Or was there something else that drew you to them? And for Janine, what about Lacuna won over other potential candidates for your list to make it into your top 3? 

Aaron: Lyrics matter. However, when I can’t piece together a translation, I chase after the vocal performance. It’s how non-Korean speaking listeners fall in love with Korean music without knowing a single word. It’s also what made g1nger stand out above Owell Mood, Bibi, Vinci or even Sik-k this year. 

Even though I still haven’t unravelled all the words found within her EP, Sunbeams; That hasn’t stopped “T-Shirts” from killing me every time or having her songs stuck in my head for months. It is a testament on how she stitches emotion to every word. Admittedly, “Sick Light” hit me immediately because of its all English performance, but it all comes back to her piercing vocals. I do believe that a beautiful vocal performance is invisibly tied to its lyrical content meaning something important to the vocalist.

Janine: I feel the same way, Aaron: even if you don’t know exactly what someone is saying, their performance can draw you in. Lacuna’s six-track EP Garden doesn’t have any translations up and I’m not a Korean speaker so I don’t know exactly what Jang Gyeong-min is singing about but I was taken by the mood and performance.

Like Karen, the atmosphere created by the project as a whole was what drew me to this EP. Garden is a psychedelic, reverby, surprisingly cohesive project considering it’s only the group’s third. Garden runs the gamut of upbeat, atmospheric sun-soaked tracks like “Carriage” and “Sloth” to delicate acoustic ballads like “Lake”. 

The vocal performance, that reminds me of the best of early 2000’s pop rock, is matched by stand-out individual performances on drums, bass, and guitar. This record is a complete work that can easily fit in as a soundtrack to a great summer.

The group is still pretty obscure with less than 1,000 followers on Spotify but trust me, if you like surf/indie rock: Lacuna is one to watch.

What did you think of the indie acts rising to attention int he past six months? Did you manage to find new listens with our discussion or do you have recommendations of your own? Let us know!

(Tumblr, YouTube [1][2][3][4][5][6]. Images via AOMG, MagicStrawberry Sound, Marie Claire, MKIT RAIN)