When thinking of South Korea, K-pop is often the first thing to come to mind. It makes sense considering K-pop is one of South Korea’s many approaches to gaining soft power and attracting tourism. It has succeeded in becoming a “global phenomenon” and a 5 billion dollar industry, according to Vox. The genre features catchy choruses, smooth synthesizers and sharp choreography. K-pop is also associated with mass production, which turns some away from the entire Korean music scene, as it has become somewhat synonymous with K-pop. However, there are many Korean artists worth exploring that suit alternative tastes.
South Korean indie band Hyukoh has been rocking the Korean music scene since 2011. The quartet is made up of vocalist, writer and guitarist Oh Hyuk, bassist Im Dong-geon, guitarist Lim Hyun-jae and drummer Lee In-woo. Hyukoh has been noted for gaining popularity across Asia, and their nonconformity defines them as K-pop‘s antipode.
Hyukoh’s music style can be described as alternative rock; however, the band doesn’t limit themselves to one genre and strives to explore different sounds. Their music is gentle yet chilling, as Oh’s soft voice accompanies striking acoustics on tracks such as “TOMBOY” and “Wanli,” creating atmospheric, gloomy songs that feel both nostalgic and rebellious. They’ve been praised for challenging conservative societal norms through their single “Love Ya,” which aims to “support all kinds of lovers in the world.”
Hyukoh also writes on topics such as the dullness of daily life with simple but telling lyrics. In “Wi ing Wi ing,” Oh sings of a mayfly who appears to be mocking him while he stays home, as the mayfly has somewhere to be. The band also tackles loneliness and longing in “Panda Bear,” as Oh says he waits for true love to visit him, despite knowing it already did. Most of their discography is in Korean, though they’ve also released songs in English and Mandarin.
Their most recent EP, “through love,” was made with the “bare essentials,” in pursuit of an “analogue sound.” Since 2017, they’ve toured worldwide and have performed at various music festivals, including Coachella. In 2020, Hyukoh will be making stops in Asia, Europe and North America.
2. Rad Museum
Rad Museum (Soh Jae-hoon) is an alternative R&B artist, still fresh to the Korean music industry. His EP, “Scene,” is his only release, aside from his collaborations with DEAN, offonoff and 2xxx!. He’s been hailed as “promising” by The Kraze and rightly so.
Rad Museum’s smooth vocals are paired with rhythmic guitar for a sound that’s hypnotic and dreamy. He writes on melancholic experiences such as isolation and heartbreak in songs “Birthday” and “Woman.” When discussing his EP with INDIE Magazine, he said “Scene” is a mixture of his “experiences and imagination” as he prefers to “express [his] feelings through stories.”
3. Jvcki Wai
Jvcki Wai (Hong Ye-eun) is rising in Korean music as a trap hip-hop artist and rapper. She released her first EP, “Exposure,” in 2016 and since then has released the EP “Neo Eve” and album “Enchanted Propaganda.” Jvcki Wai has featured on tracks of various artists in the Korean hip-hop world, such as Kid Milli and NO:EL. Her visuals are unforgettable, complete with brightly colored hair and layers of plaid, leather and chains, topped off with chunky boots to complete her unconventional aesthetic.
Musically, her style is aggressive and catchy, as her striking flow complements the layered up-tempo synthesizers on her tracks, often experimenting with different kinds of sounds. She isn’t afraid to tackle taboo topics and makes her opinions known by rapping on issues like religion and morality. Songs like “DOgMA” and “Anarchy” question faith and the strict division between what constitutes good and evil. Her interest in hip-hop sparked due to the complexity of writing rap.
Thornapple has been active in Korean music since 2011. The indie rock band is made up of vocalist and guitarist Yoon Sung-hyun, bassist Shim Jae-hyun, guitarist Han Seung-chan and drummer Bang Joseph. They’ve released three albums and one EP. Thornapple’s music is full of breathy vocals, accompanied by mesmerizing electric guitar and aggressive drums. The band has noted they dislike the “distinctions of musical genres.”
Thornapple’s lyrics are inspired by facing the “struggles of mental illness.” Yoon and Hong emphasize the importance of truth and emotion when trying to make good music. Their commitment to authenticity is evident in their song “Haze,” which simultaneously questions the will to live and the determination to enjoy life. Thornapple’s most recent single, “Romanesque,” is vulnerable in its exploration of conflicting emotions as Yoon sings of both searching for comfort and rejecting it.
When asked by Seoul Journal whether the Korean indie music scene was gaining popularity outside of Korea, the band responded: “non-mainstream music of [Korea] doesn’t easily reach foreign listeners.” Thornapple has remained prominent in the Korean indie music industry and has toured across Asia.
Giriboy (Hong Si-young) has been rapping and producing in the Korean hip-hop genre since 2011 and is signed to Korean hip-hop label Just Music. He has released eight studio albums, five EPs and over 20 singles.
His music is versatile, often blending genres like ballad, electronic and hip-hop. Some songs are upbeat with a wide variety of synthesizers backing his rap, such as in “Whyyoumad.” Others are slow, calm and use minimal instruments to create a melody, like in “Snow Sweeping” and “Take Care of You.” Though he is recognized as a hip-hop artist, Giriboy has said he doesn’t “feel like a hip-hop artist [because] it’s just music.” His lyrics provide commentary on societal issues, like materialism and social shut-ins in songs “Hogu” and “Hikkiomori.”
These artists have set themselves apart from mainstream Korean music and established their work in alternative areas with diverse styles and outspoken messages. The underground Korean music scene is thriving with artists of varying genres who are carving their paths as creatives. K-pop is great, but there’s a lot of other music styles to explore in Korea.