The end of the independent musical calendar year has been a busy one. Aside from SMTM10 dominating the Gaon Digital Chart many of South Korea’s biggest indie acts have chosen to release music at this time of year. From Jannabi, Khundi Panda, Gray, Yerin Baek (also as The Volunteers) and Giriboy. The end of the year has had something for everyone! These are my favourite picks.
Thama, who has crafted the best R&B album I’ve heard all year, will start the discussion. Thama made his name independently working mostly with hip-hop artists who wanted a gorgeous vocal on their chorus. This talent for writing gorgeous hooks got him working with Exo and lead him to write “Domino” off of Kai‘s latest Peaches EP. Peaches pales in comparison to Thama’s Don’t Die Colors. Coming in at 12 tracks long, Thama weaves through R&B, Neo-Soul, and Hip-hop with the type of ease that reaches the heights of Samuel Seo and Crush.
Gray — the other major R&B release — could learn a lot from this album’s structuring. Grayground. lacked a cohesive sound as each track sounded like a single which had nothing to do with the track that followed. In contrast, Thama’s album feels like one complete journey of sound.
Thama’s album also handles its features a lot better than Gray. G.Soul, Dynamicduo and Sunwoojungja each add their unique color to the album without overtaking Thama’s central performance. With Grayground. each feature on every track failed to add anything new to the album as a whole.
It is these differences that push Thama to the top of the R&B albums list for 2021. While he isn’t the biggest name in R&B, his album comes off as a complete experience. As such, Thama is my favourite pick to win the R&B Album of the Year come the KMA’s next year.
My next pick is even less well-known, Misozium. Bugs! currently has the producer listed as she instead of he, so up until the writing of this list, I believed Misozium to be a woman. (A small problem to have when trying to write about the producer). Thankfully I found a rare interview of him discussing his debut album Flower Arrangement, which stands as my favourite producer album this year.
He does have competition with Slom, Jflow, Toil and a company of other producers releasing music this year. What makes him stand out is his use of Jazz, Hip-hop, Electronica, and Minimalism to shape his sound. Flower Arrangement marries his sound to a large number of musicians without losing his identity to featuring artists. This is due to each and every track on his album painting beautiful worlds of sound that I can’t help but get lost in. His album creates a beautiful overall picture of indie music in 2021. Several features on his record are artists I hadn’t heard of before; there is Savina & Drones, Kimda, Cavin Ghost and Paul Cho all independent artists well worth a listen.
Jaguaa, in particular, dropped one of my favourite singles of the year entitled “Nawa” (composed by Misozium) reinstating the importance of indie artists working together to create beautiful pieces of art that embellish each artists discography.
His most well-known feature (alongside Wonstein) is my third pick, Kim Oki whose encircling jazz washes over his sound to make a melody that really can’t be found anywhere except there, in his unique flower arrangement of sound.
Speaking of, Kim Oki has released three projects this year. Each of his releases is stylistically their own. Everytime, the most intriguing of the trilogy, a fusion of jazz, classical, and avant-garde furthering Oki’s visionary sound to even higher heights. This shows that Oki still has so much to give to the Jazz scene in South Korea.
The EP, About Prejudice, is a jazz record through and through its opener “Homemade Slave of Prejudice” opening with a wild passage of free form jazz that climaxes in a plateau of sound — a catching of one’s breath only to sprawl out once more into madness. The EP is only 6 tracks long but its complex nature makes for a challenging and rewarding listen that any fan of jazz would fall in love with.
Strange, True Beauty is the album that holds the most emotional depth, having its auteur at his most vulnerable. This slow-burn format is very much in contrast to his chaotic About Prejudice record. While these albums separated by several years, it would still be a spellbinding feat to create such different bodies of sound one after the other.
For all these albums to come out in 2021 is a testament to Kim Oki being one of the greatest living jazz musicians today. The deep-cut “Donmansuki aka KimOki” featuring Nucksal and DJ Soulscape is especially aware of this, serving as a tribute to all that is Kim Oki.
Kim Oki’s feature list also continues to grow this year: the aforementioned Thama features on Oki’s track “My Song” while Oki is featured on the well-received hip-hop record by producer Don Sign. Not to mention his feature on the indie-rock EP, You take my post, It’s true by Kang. This all translates to Kim Oki being one of the most prolific Korean artists this year alongside Khundi Panda and Jimmy Brown (The Good Days Boys).
Then, there’s Slom my second place pick for this list. He has been one of the most impressive producers in Korea’s indie scene for the last two years, rivalled only by his fellow SMTM10 producer judges Code Kunst and Toil. Slom is the secret reason SMTM9 became the hit it was since he produced the lion’s share of Wonstein and Lilboi‘s tracks (“No Bad Dogs”, “Freak” and “Bad News Cypher Vol.2”).
What makes Slom stand out this year isn’t SMTM10 though. Instead, it is his collaborative LP with Sumin entitled Miniseries. Likely learning from the success of producer dress and his collaborative albums with Sogumm and Kid Milli, Miniseries takes the gorgeous live instrumentation that is becoming Slom’s signature sound and fuses it with the star that is Sumin.
It is an album that sees two rising megastars in South Korea’s indie scene coming together in their prime to create the most compelling collaborative album of the year. It is a record you can put on and immediately groove to. It is the Silk Sonics album for Koreans as its sound is indebted to funk. Personally, I find it to be a far better iteration than that of Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars‘ Silk Sonics. With all that in mind, its hard to ignore Slom’s impending influence on the Korean hip-hop scene, and this is what makes him my number two pick in 2021.
Finally, there is Jiwoo, a 24-year old R&B vocalist currently signed to Colde‘s Wavy label. Formerly known as Hayake, Jiwoo got his start as a member of WYBH, a crew comprised of Giriboy, Kid Milli, OLNL and Fisherman. Jiwoo released his debut EP Maison in 2019 with the title track “Comme des Garçons,” highlighting his devastating vocal ability. Maison remains Jiwoo’s most substantial body of work released and is, therefore, a great starting point for new listeners.
A year later, Jiwoo would feature on Fisherman’s The Dragon Warrior album, stealing the show on the producer’s album that featured the likes of Sumin, BewhY and Khundi Panda. Here, in 2021 and the reason he is my top pick is his second EP, Espirit. The title track “Lustre” easily being his best single to date, is an impressive feat considering the few yet gorgeous singles he has already released under Wavy.
Espirit shows Jiwoo hasn’t missed a single step in his progression as an artist. “Inner Eden” plays like a Sade track as both artists are gentle vocalists it is an inspired sonic choice. Jiwoo’s take on a Sade-styled song is less sex appeal and more fragility.– less melody-driven and more mood-driven. A Sade and Jiwoo song would likely bring about world peace.
Jiwoo has produced the most unique R&B album I’ve heard in several years. Despite the Sade comparison, it is clear that Jiwoo’s sound is governed by something innately him, making Jiwoo my indie artist of the year. He may not have released as many records as Khundi Panda but he has made something new in the world of art and something worth celebrating.
Jiwoo becomes my most anticipated artist for a full release come 2022 alongside Dean, Woo, Joo Young and Simon Dominic. 2021 has been an engrossing year for Korean Indie and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. To end, I’d like to add some honourable mentions of albums I recommend if you’re looking for some records to spin into 2022 and beyond:
1. The Volunteers – Self Titled
2. Parannoul – Downfall off the Neon Youth
3. Jannabi – The Land of Fantasy
4. The Black Skirts – Good Luck To You, Girl Scout!
1. The Deep – Eudaimonia
2. K.vsh – Open Ending
3. Rohann – Be Right Back
4. EXN – QQQQQ
1. Don Malik – Paid In Seoul
2. BewhY – 032 Funk
3. Changmo – Underground Rockstar
4. Khundi Panda – The Spoiled Child
1. S/S – SeeSaw
2. Toil – Curtain Call
3. Jflow – Yellow
4. Dress & Kid Milli – Cliche