Beyond K-pop: 10 Korean Indie Artists You Should Know

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Jaurim

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Ever since they burst onto the music scene with their 1997 hit “Hey, Hey, Hey,” Jaurim (자우림) has produced countless alternative rock ballads and bangers that have defined the soundtrack to South Korea’s millennial generation. Currently consisting of vocalist and frontwoman Kim Yuna, guitarist Lee Sun-kyu, and bassist Kim Jin-man, Jaurim is South Korea’s longest performing co-ed band and hands-down one of the most legendary rock acts to ever come out of the country. Indeed, revered Korean singer-songwriter Younha wasn’t exaggerating when she said last year, “There’s no one from our generation who doesn’t like Jaurim.” It’s no wonder then that Spotify chose the band to be the first musicians to be highlighted in its new “Kurated by [ ]” series, which features iconic Korean artists sharing their personal stories and musical influences. (Check out the video to see the Jaurim members reflect on some of their most memorable songs as well as their favorite artists who have inspired them, including Led Zeppelin, Queen, and Pearl Jam.)

Like the group’s name, which means “purple rainforest” in Korean, Jaurim’s music is at once unique, striking, complex, and mysterious, rendered all the more powerful by Kim Yuna’s inimitable and hauntingly beautiful voice that can evoke sorrow, joy, and every emotion in between. The band’s songs, which explore shared human experiences like loneliness and angst as well as social issues such as teen suicide and homelessness, have consistently managed to convey the hopes, fears, and dreams of millions of Koreans for decades—though many international listeners may have come to know the band only recently through the hit K-drama Twenty Five Twenty One, in which Jaurim’s 2013 song of the same name is played frequently.

Last year the trio released two projects: HAPPY 25th JAURIM, a collection of some of their greatest hits to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their official debut, and a special Christmas EP titled MERRY SPOOKY X-MAS. With a documentary film of the band currently in production and plans to launch Kim Yuna’s solo album later this year, Jaurim continues to prove their staying power in South Korea’s notoriously fickle entertainment industry.

If you’re new to Jaurim, check out this fantastic medley of a few of their hits: “JAURIM in 100 seconds.”

Follow Jaurim on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Band Nah

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나상현씨밴드 Band Nah – 1+1 [Official Video]

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Currently one of the fastest-rising indie groups in Korea, Band Nah (나상현씨밴드) is an indie pop/modern rock band composed of leader Nah Sang-hyun (vocals, guitar), drummer Kang Hyun-woong, and bassist Paik Seung-ryeol (who often goes by his stage name PAIIEK). Their repertoire largely focuses on the ups and downs of city life and spans various genres, including city pop, psychedelic rock, punk rock, R&B, and others.

Although the band began performing in 2014, it wasn’t until recently that the trio really started taking off. Since 2021 they’ve recorded tracks for the K-dramas Mental Coach Jegal, Melancholia, and Yumi’s Cells (for which they performed the catchy opening/main theme song “Spotlight”) and have made numerous appearances on Korean radio and TV programs, such as the Mnet music competition show Great Seoul Invasion.

Band Nah’s discography is pretty extensive (they’ve released about 60 songs since 2019!), so if you aren’t sure where to start, try some of their newer upbeat songs like “SITCOM” or “1+1,” which exude a breezy, refreshing sound reminiscent of some ‘90s and 2000s American pop and alternative rock bands. If you’re looking for something more chill, check out “Nights” or “Are You There?” (which also has English subtitles in the music video; K-drama fans might also recognize the song from this Hospital Playlist season 2 highlights reel). But regardless of which songs you choose to explore first, chances are you’ll quickly fall in love with the fresh yet sophisticated retro sound this band is bringing to the K-indie scene.

Follow Band Nah on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Instagram, and Facebook.

10CM

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10CM / 십센치 – 어제 너는 나를 버렸어 (Yesterday You Left Me) [Live M/V]

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Originally formed as a duo, 10CM (십센치) (pronounced as “ten-see-em” in English) is currently a one-man band composed of Kwon Jung-yeol. Since their 2010 hit “Americano” catapulted them to domestic stardom, 10CM has remained as one of the most famous and influential indie acts in South Korea, with a multitude of charting singles under their belt. Known for creating acoustic folk and pop songs that range from slow and sentimental ballads to funky, reggae-inspired bops to light-hearted, bouncy melodies, 10CM’s Kwon is widely admired by K-pop idols and indie artists alike for his lyrical versatility and smooth, sweet vocals. As allkpop put it, “if Kwon Jung Yeol is not one of your favorite Korean artists, he is likely your favorite’s favorite.” K-pop stars like SEVENTEEN’s Hoshi, aespa’s Karina, and Lovelyz’s Jisoo have covered his songs, and many others, including Yoona of Girls’ Generation; HyunA; Chen, Sehun, and Chanyeol of EXO; Sistar’s Soyou; Apink’s Eunji; and AKMU’s Suhyun have all collaborated with Kwon. He’s also appeared on soundtracks to popular K-dramas such as Our Blues, Crash Landing on You, Hotel Del Luna, Our Beloved Summer, and Goblin. Several of his latest hits include “Gradation,” an uplifting rock number about gradually falling for someone; “Room for You,” a soaring duet with CHEEZE; and two collaborations with rapper BIG Naughty, “Beyond Love” and “Just 10 centimeters.”

A fun fact about Kwon: He cites Metallica as one of his major musical influences, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from his songs. Here’s a cool compilation of him performing some of his hits.

Follow 10CM on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Instagram, and Facebook.

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SE SO NEON

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새소년 (SE SO NEON) ‘joke!’ Official MV

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Currently one of the hottest K-indie bands in the world, SE SO NEON (새소년) was founded in 2016 by frontwoman Hwang Soyoon, who was only 18 years old at the time. After the band’s original bassist and drummer both left in 2018 to fulfill their mandatory military service, Hwang recruited bassist Park Hyunjin and drummer Usu to form the current trio. Like their name, which means “new kids” in Korean, SE SO NEON brought a fresh new energy to Korea’s indie rock scene, winning Rookie of the Year and Best Rock Song for their groovy single “The Wave” at the 2018 Korean Music Awards (the Korean equivalent of the Grammys). Their unique brand of music—replete with airy synths, guitar riffs, Hwang’s trademark androgynous voice, and lyrics that convey the concerns of their generation—has caught the attention of audiences worldwide. The band’s 2020 EP Nonadaptation was selected as one of the best rock albums of the year by both Pitchfork and Paste Magazine. Their more recent singles, “joke!” and “Jayu,” also received rave reviews from those publications. Other international accolades include being named to the Fender Next Class of 2020 (for their contributions to the world of guitar) as well as the 2021 Class of Foundry, YouTube Music’s prestigious global artist development program.

2022 was a landmark year for the band: They held their first North American tour, and Hwang, who also runs a solo project called So!YoON!, collaborated with Japanese Breakfast, and performed at SXSW.

For those who are unfamiliar with SE SO NEON, it’s quite difficult to pin down the group’s eclectic and multi-layered sound, which combines elements of psychedelic rock, synth pop, new wave, and other genres. As Hwang told The Korea Herald: “We do band, indie, rock, and even R&B style music, and I define our music as just ‘SE SO NEON-ish.’ It can’t be defined in a single expression, but I trust that our listeners know what this means and what our music feels like. Anyone can enjoy our music, from those who listen to only K-pop or classical music, or those in their teens to those in their 50s. And we’ll continue to evolve and change as well.”

Follow SE SO NEON on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Instagram, and Twitter.

Lee Mujin

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[MV] Lee Mujin(이무진) _ Traffic light(신호등)

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Lee Mujin (이무진) was just a 20-year-old college student when his self-written smash hit “Traffic Light” took South Korea by storm a couple of years ago. The jazzy earworm topped all of the country’s music charts, including the Billboard K-pop 100, where it stayed in the number 1 spot for eight weeks—the longest out of all Billboard K-pop number 1s in 2021. The song’s lyrics, which compare the uncertainty that young adults feel when venturing out into the real world to the anxiety experienced by first-time drivers, reflect Lee’s personal journey as a budding singer-songwriter on the verge of greatness who quickly came into his own. Less than a year prior to the release of “Traffic Light,” Lee was an unknown musician when he appeared on the Korean reality singing competition series Sing Again, where he immediately impressed the judges with his spirited, folksy rendition of Han Young-ae’s “Is There Anybody” and wound up placing third on the show.

He’s been unstoppable ever since, releasing a string of hit singles such as “Fall in Fall,” “When It Snows (ft. Heize),” “Scent of the Day,” “The Assignment Song,” and, of course, “Traffic Light,” and contributing to soundtracks for several K-dramas, including Hospital Playlist 2; Now, We Are Breaking Up; and Business Proposal. He won best new artist at several Korean music award shows and was named in the Forbes Korea Power Celebrity list in 2022. Earlier that year, he released his first EP Room Vol. 1 and launched his own live music show, Leemujin Service, on the KBS Kpop YouTube channel. Thanks to his soothing, distinctive voice, Lee has emerged as one of Korea’s most beloved artists today. Still, this humble artist isn’t letting his meteoric rise go to his head. “I started making music because I wanted to express the things we all experience and feel in our everyday lives,” he tells ELLE.com. “I don’t have any grand, ambitious dreams. I just want to be a good artist who leaves behind music that people will sometimes want to listen to and can relate to.”

Follow Lee Mujin on Spotify, Apple Music, Instagram, and Twitter.

Byebyesea

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[MV] 안녕바다 (byebyesea) 미니앨범 – 별빛이 내린다

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Vocalist Namu, bassist Woo Myung-je, and guitarist Woo Sun-jae first broke into the K-indie scene back in 2005 as I Cross the Sea with You (난그대와바다를가르네) before changing their band name to byebyesea (안녕바다). In 2009 byebyesea released their debut EP Boy’s Universe, which contained their mega hit “Star Shower”—a tune that’s instantly recognized by many K-drama fans since it’s been used in countless Korean TV series, variety shows, and commercials for over a decade. The famous song will even be featured as a recurring motif in the upcoming film Starlight Falls.

It’s a bit hard to categorize the band’s music, as their wide-ranging discography borrows sounds from genres as diverse as city pop (as in “Your 1g”), EDM (like in “Beautiful Dance”), punk rock (“She knows the future”), ballad (“The Way Home”), and more. Perhaps the band members themselves describe it best in an email interview with ELLE.com: “Our music has two sides to it, like the sea—sometimes it’s calm, and other times it’s stormy,” says Namu. Sun-jae uses surfing as an analogy: “Your experience on the surfboard can feel a bit different depending on the kind of wave that comes your way; similarly, you’ll find lots of different genres and sounds in our music.”

Last July byebyesea completed their first U.S. tour, which culminated in a concert in New York City as part of Lincoln Center’s K-Indie Music Night, where they and another indie band, Jannabi, performed in front of thousands of avid listeners. “My heart still flutters at the memory of seeing so many people in a faraway foreign land enjoying our songs and singing along to them,” Myung-je recalls.

Follow byebyesea on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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Jannabi

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Special Clip(스페셜클립): JANNABI(잔나비) _ for lovers who hesitate(주저하는 연인들을 위해)(Pradise Live ver.)

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Listening to a Jannabi (잔나비) song often feels like being transported back in time to a magical, whimsical place from a bygone era. Even if you don’t understand Korean, the band’s dynamic, addictive melodies, nostalgic vibes, and frontman Choi Jung-hoon’s dreamy vocals will probably be enough to enchant you. Formed in 2012, Jannabi finally got their big break in 2019 when their song “for lovers who hesitate,” from their second full-length album Legend, topped domestic music charts and won both Best Modern Rock Song and Song of the Year at the 2020 Korean Music Awards. Since then, they’ve quickly risen to become one of the best-known indie bands in Korea today.

Jannabi, whose name is an archaic Korean term for “monkey” and refers to the fact that all of the members were born in the Year of the Monkey, fuses elements of retro British and American chamber pop with Korean popular music from the 1970s and 1980s to create their own signature style of “vintage pop.”

Known for their expert lyricism and lively onstage performances, they’re regularly invited to play at national and college music festivals throughout Korea. And though they’re one of the most sought-after indie bands back home, they held their first-ever overseas concert just last year at Lincoln Center’s K-indie Music Night in New York City, where they, along with byebyesea, played to an overly enthusiastic crowd. Many in the audience were of Korean descent and sang along to Jannabi’s hits, such as “Baby I Need You,” “Summer,” “Alok Dalok,” and, of course, “for lovers who hesitate,” which is considered to be one of the most iconic K-indie songs of the 21st century.

The band hopes there’ll be more overseas performances to come. “Our dream is to go on a world tour and continue writing music and putting on concerts for a living,” Choi says.

Follow Jannabi on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Car, the garden

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[LIVE] 카더가든 _ Home Sweet Home @YOUR GARDEN

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For singer-songwriter Car, the garden (카더가든), music was initially just a hobby and not something he thought about pursuing seriously. Fortunately for the rest of us though, he eventually decided to quit his day job and become a full-time musician instead. After debuting in 2013 under the name Mayson the Soul, he realized that he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a soul artist. So he took the advice of his friend Oh Hyuk (of the renowned K-indie band Hyukoh) and changed his name to Car, the garden—a literal English translation of his actual Korean name Cha Jung-won (cha can mean “car,” and jungwon means “garden”). Though he’d already built a loyal fanbase over the years through the release of his debut EP Jackasoul, two studio albums—Photographer (2015) and Apartment (2017)—and numerous singles, his fame skyrocketed after winning the SBS singing competition show The Fan.

Car, the garden has a chameleon-like ability to change his voice to suit virtually any type of song—without losing his unique timbre. This vocal versatility is probably why he’s been able to collaborate with artists across many different genres—from rappers like Beenzino and Verbal Jint to the indie rock icon Oh Hyuk to genre-defying singer-songwriters like sunwoojunga and Yerin Baek. It’s also not uncommon to find R&B, hip-hop, rock, and even a bit of funk elements all infused into a single song, especially in some of his earlier work. His rich, soulful vocals have made him a heavy favorite for K-drama soundtracks, such as Alchemy of Souls; Now, We Are Breaking Up; True Beauty; and Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha (for which he sang the infectiously catchy theme song “Romantic Sunday”)—just to name a few.

If you’re based in the U.S. or Canada, here’s your chance to check out Car, the garden live when he performs at several cities in North America this April.

Follow Car, the garden on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and Instagram.

Standing Egg

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STANDING EGG – 오래된 노래 (Lyric Video)

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After debuting in 2010 with their self-titled EP, acoustic pop trio Standing Egg (스탠딩 에그) quickly established themselves as a prominent K-indie act with the release of their chart-topping full-length album with later that same year. Since then, they’ve consistently churned out many singles, EPs, and albums over their long career—a fact that has led their fans to teasingly call them “the government employees of indie music.” Standing Egg tell ELLE.com in an email interview that they didn’t want to lose their steady momentum, so they kept trying to create new music. “And so before we knew it, 12 years flew by. But we’re always thinking about what we’re going to do next (laugh),” the anonymous members write.

The band’s unusual name was inspired by the tale of the Egg of Columbus, which also shapes their approach to music. “It’s hard to stand an egg on its end, but it’s not impossible. So it means we will always do our best to make great music, with a desire to ‘make the egg stand on its tip,’ so to speak,” they explain. The members are adamant about keeping their identities a secret and simply go by Egg 1, Egg 2, and Egg 3. “We want people to know us only for our music,” they say. “And having anonymity frees us to focus on our music.”

To this day, Standing Egg is beloved by many Koreans for their moving lyricism, warm and heartfelt vocals, and peaceful, soothing melodies. Their songs always carry a remarkable poetic sensibility that is also reflected in their responses to ELLE.com (though these simple English translations don’t do them justice). Although they’ve often experimented with different sounds, they’ve never wavered from their aim of producing music that’s comforting to the ears and soul. “Nowadays when there seems to be a lot of songs with aggressive melodies and/or offensive lyrics, we feel an even greater need to create music that embraces the little joys in life,” they say.

While they’ve released a ton of charting singles over the years, they’re perhaps still best known for two: their 2016 hit “Summer Night You and I,” which dominated the music charts in Korea despite the lack of promotion, and their 2012 track “Old Song,” which trended again in Korea in 2020 when popular trot/ballad crooner Lim Young-woong revealed it to be his favorite song and performed it on national TV. The group frequently appear on K-drama soundtracks (a couple of the more notable ones are Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo and Strong Woman Do Bong Soon) and have won several major honors in Korea, including Best Indie Musician at the Melon Music Awards in both 2014 and 2015 and Popular Singer of the Year at the 2022 Gaon Chart Music Awards.

But for Standing Egg, music was never about the awards or becoming famous. “For us, ‘making an egg stand on its tip’ has been simply about sharing great music with other people or living happily while getting to make music. In that regard, maybe we’ve succeeded in standing one small egg on its tip. But seeing as how our passion for music hasn’t subsided, we’re guessing that means we still have many more eggs left that we need to stand.”

Follow Standing Egg on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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The Black Skirts

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The Black Skirts (검정치마) – My Little Lambs (어린양) 2022

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Many people have mistaken The Black Skirts (검정치마) for a band, but it’s actually the moniker for singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Bryan “Holiday” Cho (his Korean name is Hyu-il, which literally means “holiday”). “The name gave people the illusion that it was a band. I guess I didn’t want people to think that I didn’t have any friends when I first moved back to Korea,” Cho explains half-jokingly to ELLE.com.

Born in Seoul, Cho immigrated to the U.S. after elementary school and grew up in New Jersey, where he was heavily influenced by punk rock bands like Misfits and Rancid and media outlets like MTV and Rolling Stone. He later returned to South Korea and released his debut album 201 under the name The Black Skirts. The album, which seamlessly blended American indie rock with a variety of retro elements and featured lyrics in Korean, English, and even Spanish, stunned the Korean public and music critics, who’d never heard anything like it before. It was nominated in five categories at the 2010 Korean Music Awards and won Best Modern Rock Album. (He later took home the award again in 2020 for his 2019 album Thirsty.)

So far The Black Skirts has released five full-length albums and an English-language EP in South Korea, as well as a Japanese version of his Team Baby album. His latest album, titled Teen Troubles, dropped in September, along with its accompanying short film “Teen Troubles In Dirty Jersey.” He’s written songs for K-pop stars such as NewJeans, Chungha, EXO’s Suho, Yesung of Super Junior, and Red Velvet’s Wendy and performed on soundtracks to the popular K-dramas Yumi’s Cells, Another Miss Oh, and Romance Is a Bonus Book.

Cho admits he does a lot of “genre hopping,” as evidenced by his varied discography, which incorporates a diverse array of musical styles ranging from jazz and reggae to country and punk rock. But he ultimately describes his music as “dreamy and sparkly over-driven, mid-tempo indie rock.” His astounding ability to effortlessly meld the best of Korean, American, and British indie pop and rock to create songs that are novel, yet vaguely familiar and extremely relatable, has garnered him an ever-growing global fanbase. So, what’s next for the genius artist? “Putting out at least five more solid full-length albums, a couple more EPs, and maybe forming a fun side project band so I can decompress in between making albums,” Cho says. “A doom metal band would be my absolute first choice.”

Follow The Black Skirts on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Instagram, and Facebook.

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Regina Kim

Regina Kim is a freelance entertainment writer focusing on Korean pop culture.  Her articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Time, NBC News, Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, MTV News, and more.  You can find some of her writings at reginakim.com.

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