Best Albums of 2016
selected by Guwon Jeong

Bulssazo (불싸조) <BR>“(Kor)ean (Hip)hop”

Bulssazo (불싸조)
“(Kor)ean (Hip)hop”

In South Korea, Korean hip-hop music is often called “Gookhip” (국힙), which is the compound of Hangook (meaning Korea’s) and hip-hop’s “Hip”. Gookhip is the most popular subgenre in the South Korean music industry. Many Korean teenagers want the success as rap stars. There is even a long-running hip-hop competition TV series called “Show Me The Money” and private lessons teaching how to rap. But there is also criticism about this trend, as current hip-hop boom focuses only on success and swag instead of musical achievement.

In this hollow golden era of South Korean hip-hop, Bulssazo released an album named “Han(Gookhip)hop” (한(국힙)합), or “(Kor)ean (Hip)hop”. Although their music is far from hip-hop – in fact, they’re a post-rock / garage punk band – Bulssazo materialize the so-called “hip-hop spirit” with noisy guitars, skate punk-influenced melodies and solemn samplings derived from 1990s documentary about early Korean hip-hop scene. “Hip-hop is underground music… It’s not hip-hop if you’re concerned with other people”, serious voice with Tangerine Dream-ish synth says. Boom, that’s real hip-hop.

It is regrettable that you can only listen to this album with cassette tapes, and there’s no way to get the digital copy of the album except three songs on their Youtube channel: “(It’s Bigger Than) Hip Hop”, “Why Hip Hop Still Sucks in ‘16”. “18 ½ (for Skateboarding)”. But that can’t reduce the value of this humorous and danceable “Korean hip hop masterpiece” (Bulssazo said it). The fourth album by the most amusing post-rock band in South Korea proves that they don’t lose their sense of mixing humor and great music.

♪♫ Listen: “Why Hip Hop Still Sucks in ’16

Bulssazo on Facebook, Twitter, www.

Danpyunsun and the Sailors <BR>“Shofar” (뿔)

Danpyunsun and the Sailors
“Shofar” (뿔)

Although they were introduced twice in beehype already, it is hard not to mention Danpyunsun and the Sailors (단편선과 선원들) again in the year-end list. Their shamanistic art-folk rock was one of my heavily replayed music over this year. From epic-psychedelic grandeur to heartbreaking pop track, the Sailors don’t stop broadening the boundaries of rock music.

After the release of “Shofar”, Danpyunsun and the Sailors toured heavily around Korea and the world, including Great Britain. Among those live concerts, the most intriguing one was held on Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, where 2016 South Korean Civil Resistance protests against president Park Geun Hye has occurred. The Sailors made live performance, and marched with protesters together after the gig.

The non-album single, “National Anthem” (국가), was released after that live. Four member of the Sailors raise the flag slowly, with anthemic, spiritual and melancholic music. The chorus is saying the lyrics: “I am damned one / I am desolated one”.

Danpyunsun and the Sailors have made a question with this curious song. How can the nation damn, or desolate its own individuals? Looking through history, this question resonates in listener’s heart, and generates another question. What must be done against this nation?

♪♫ Listen: “National Anthem” (국가) + album stream (Spotify)

Danpyunsun and the Sailor on Facebook, Twitter + beehype.

Guten Birds (구텐버즈) <BR>“Things What May Happen In Your Planet”

Guten Birds (구텐버즈)
“Things What May Happen In Your Planet”

Do you like grunge? No, not a post-grunge bullshit that dominated radio stations but the good-old early 1990s music that came along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam. If so, Guten Birds’ 2016 album will be a nice present for you. And if you love Pixies and Fugazi, you’ll be satisfied even more. However, Guten Birds modernized that old grunge sound with post-rockish approach and prudent attitude.

Guten Birds (구텐버즈) is a three-piece rock band, and their name means the birds reside between “nine” – in Korean, “Gu” (구) – and “ten”. They started their act as straight garage punk music, but eventually turned to more serious and guitar-instrumental driven way. “Things What May Happen In Your Planet” is their first studio recording LP, and compiles their new vision of music.

“The feelings of various events based on anxiety were circulating in our music,” singer Moho explained. Those “various events” are not limited to their private life, but also mean social issues in South Korea. Numerous depressive events have happened in this country (and furthermore, around the world), and anxiety circulated all around. Guten Birds’ weighty music reflects this anxiety and boils silently under listener’s ear. If you catch that anxiety, listen to this one, and feel the signals in the nightscape this album generates.

♪♫ Listen: “Throbbing Night” + album stream (Spotify)

Guten Birds on Facebook, Twitter.

Hong Gaap (홍갑) <BR>“Dream Edit” (꿈의 편집)

Hong Gaap (홍갑)
“Dream Edit” (꿈의 편집)

Hong Gaap (홍갑) is a folk singer-songwriter, and this is his third release. He’s worked as session guitarist for many South Korean indie musicians like Earip, Kim Mok In, Kang A Sol, and many others. “Dream Edit” proves his musical skills, as the soundscape extended from previous ordinary folk music (with one acoustic guitar) to the band format.

Perhaps “Dream Edit” (꿈의 편집) is the warmest album in this list. “Don’t find me / I want to relax / Don’t want me / Until I want for”, Hong Gaap sings inattentively in the first track “The Spring Day of Spring”, along with relaxing melody and immature voice. But you can find that this track is meticulously organized if you listen to the song closely.

Great folk rock always has the characteristic of “greatness of plain things”. It’s easy to listen and seems not so musically ambitious, but becomes bigger and bigger as you listen to it again and again. Details become larger and lyrics shake one’s heart calmly. “Dream Edit” is such kind of album, and you’ll finally notice that plain feature is the most admirable one.

♪♫ Listen: “The Spring Day of Spring” (봄날의 봄)

Hong Gaap on Facebook, Twitter.

Jambinai (잠비나이) <BR>“A Hermitage” (은서)

Jambinai (잠비나이)
“A Hermitage” (은서)

“A Hermitage” (은서) might be the most popular album in this list, as many post-rock fans in the world have already named the recording as one of 2016’s best.

The album deserves those praises, but I have minor doubt that most of those compliments come from “crossover freshness”. Do they consume the album as (so-called) “World Music”? Is the mixture of old Korean instruments and post-rock the only advantage of this album? This concern can be applied to the Korean’s attitude for “A Hermitage”, as some of us want to exploit it as an example of “The greatness of Korean traditional music!” in chauvinistic way, which is pitiful.

What I want to focus on is the Jambinai’s struggle to broaden post-rock’s boundary. Of course, the traditional instruments Geomungo (거문고) and Haegeum (해금) play important roles here, but it’s not all. Jambinai shift the pace and disturb the traditional structure of post-rock ceaselessly, and these attempts create continuous tension when listeners hear the album. Conventional development-and-explosion structure of post-rock is distorted or vanished in this album, and this makes totally new unpredictable experience.

And this struggle successfully harmonizes with the theme Jambinai (잠비나이) want to express: wrath, sorrow, remorse, or whatever. Anyone can realize that the form and emotions of their music perfectly coincide, even if he/she doesn’t know about post-rock. That’s the strongest part of “A Hermitage”, and perhaps it may represent all the anger and grief of 2016. Harsh album for a harsh year.

♪♫ Listen: “For Everything That You Lost” + album stream (Spotify)

Jambinai on Facebook, Twitter.

Kirara (키라라) <BR>“Moves”

Kirara (키라라)

“Kirara is strong and pretty. You start dancing.” This is the intro of “Moves”, and what after you can hear is the kaleidoscopic soundscape consisting of strongness and prettiness. Ringing piano sound clings right into listener’s ear, and sharply sliced guitar/vocal samples swift in our brain vigorously.

Kirara (키라라) was one of the most enthusiastic electronic producer in South Korea last year, as Kirara released not only an studio album but also live, remix and B-side version of “Moves” (and numerous remix material on Soundcloud, too).

Kirara also conducted electronic music education project in the name of “Kirara Academy” with colleagues Flash Flood Darlings, Saebyeok (see below), etc. All projects have received great response from the listeners, musicians, critics and students.

How can one electronic musician establish his/her own field? Kirara answers this question with “strong” effort and “pretty” electronic beat. Maybe that’s why Kirara’s music is explained as strong and pretty. Therefore, all you have to do is dance to Kirara’s charming rhythms.

♪♫ Listen: “Blizzard” + album stream (YouTube)

Kirara on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Facebook, Twitter.

Minhwee Lee (이민휘) <BR>“Borrowed Tongue” (빌린 입)

Minhwee Lee (이민휘)
“Borrowed Tongue” (빌린 입)

Minhwee Lee (이민휘) is a folk musician and film music composer. She was first known as one half of freak-folk duo Mukimukimanmansu, firing devastating folk chaos and destroyed 2012 South Korean music scene into ruins. After Mukimukimanmansu’s hiatus, Minhwee Lee started to wander around the world, making film score.

“Borrowed Tongue” (빌린 입) is her first solo effort, composed of eight silent and modest songs. While listening to this album, I made numerous questions about the “music” itself. What element of the music can deliver such swirling emotions to the listeners, only with simple melody, voice and sound of breath? What kind of infinite interaction happens between artist’s intention and listener’s perspective? How can one sing with borrowed tongue and listen with borrowed ear? Can music become a way to link with each other? What if that “link” is deception, but we don’t realize it?

“Careful, if you say truth, then this mountain will collapse.” Minwhee Lee sings in “Swollen Foot”, as if she once thought about these kind of puzzle already before. And then, she returns to the light of silence quietly. What we can’t say remains in that light. But by borrowed tongues, or in other words, “by music”, she managed to preserve some fragments of reality in this humble recording. That’s why I think this album stands against all kind of silence.

♪♫ Listen: “Borrowed Tongue” + album stream (Spotify)

Minhwee Lee on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Facebook, Twitter, www.

PPUL <BR>“Runaway, Fail, Bombdeath”

“Runaway, Fail, Bombdeath”

PPUL is a producer, performer and DJ, also a member of the crew NBDKNW. He is focusing on “some connection between electronic music and the context of contemporary South Korea”. “Runaway, Fail, Bombdeath” (도주, 실패, 폭사) is his second full-length, and it reminds me of drunken teenagers sprawled out on dirty back alley of Seoul.

It is irony that the song named “We’ll Be Fine” has the lyrics like this: “The future you wanted found dead body”. But that’s the exact image this album wants to show us. Abstract, metallic synth noise and nervous beat set up uneasy atmosphere, and PPUL spits quirky lyrics in low and fuzzy tone. You can find hollowness easily in this album, since the hollowness is scattered everywhere in this country.

Maybe this is the most honest form of hip-hop in South Korea, rather than boasting money and swag in meaningless way. PPUL embodies hollowness by his music and therefore successfully escape from hollowness that almost every hip-hop have under their skin.

And that anti-hollowness is summed up with three words: Runaway, Fail, Bombdeath. Every running must fail. You’re just waiting for bombdeath. Still, isn’t it fun way to die? With bitter grin, I’m also waiting for bombdeath with this filthy beat.

♪♫ Listen: “Lee Was Dead

PPUL on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.

Saebyeok (새벽) <BR>“Division”

Saebyeok (새벽)

2016 was a one step forward for female electropop artists in South Korea. Neon Bunny, Aseul, 75A, CIFIKA and many more artists released their recordings which was both breakthrough for those musicians themselves and South Korean electronic scene. They interpreted “pop” in various ways, and their producing widened the borderline of pop music by electronic method.

Among those great projects, I choose Saebyeok’s (새벽) “Division” as the best one. That’s because I was captivated by the ethereal mood surrounded across full album, which is generated by skillful combination of gloomy synthesizer and leftfield beat. Moreover, she knows how to express depression in the grammar of pop music.

If someone asks why I kept repeating to this gloomy album over the year, I’ll answer because this is not any difficult form of music but pop. Forlorn, yet addictive, and cozy. Crystal-clear synth sound embrace the listener slowly, and we’re consoled with the world that Saebyeok created.

♪♫ Listen: “Oblivion” + album stream (Bandcamp)

Saebyeok on Facebook, TwitterBandcamp, Soundcloud.

Silica Gel (실리카겔) <BR>‘Silica Gel”

Silica Gel (실리카겔)
‘Silica Gel”

Silica Gel (실리카겔) is a 7-piece experimental rock band, and this year’s self-titled album is their debut studio recording. Among seven members, two of them are video artists who produce visual art pieces for live performances and music videos.

Last year, I saw their show for the first time, and numerous “energies” were in there. Video, guitar, bass, synthesizer and vocal emitted each of their energies with their own directions. It felt unorganized at the first glance, but soon I realized that they were making a certain harmony in different way. Disordered energies clash into each other, break into several pieces, and eventually become the colossal shape. Chaotic, but beautiful.

That’s what also happening in the album “Silica Gel”. Several reference such as psychedelic rock, post-rock, progressive rock, jazz and even old South Korean music mingles together and pops out as the giants tree with multiple boughs.

You can clings to whatever boughs you like, but soon after you’ll find yourself on another bough different from the first one. It is the joy of “Silica Gel”, hopping from one style to another in just one big experimental recording.

♪♫ Listen: “9” + album stream (Spotify)

Silica Gel on Facebook, Twitter.