This is the year that Korean music has really started to appear on iTunes, making it a lot more accessible. It’s also a year which has seen a continued emphasis on girl bands, with the Wonder Girls keeping a foothold in the US and Girls Generation and Kara slugging it out in Japan. Some of the music they perform might not stand up to much musical scrutiny, but at LKL we’re pleased we identified the staying power of Wonder Girls’ Nobody, one of our picks of 2008: it has survived in the US top 100 for both 2009 and 2010. But along with all the teenage acts there are still some veterans out there producing music for listening to rather than watching.
Boohwal has been around for 25 years and we have recently had two retrospective albums released. The striking thing about Retrospect II is that with such slow tempi the opening tracks – Fairy Tale and Love is – can be at the same time emotional yet so uplifting. This is thanks to the soaring vocals of Jeong Dong-ha and the stirring backing sounds. Other tracks on the other hand will have you unable to keep still as the bass thumps and Kim Tae Won produces some exciting retro guitar sounds. It’s great to know record companies are still finding a niche for quality established bands rather than churning out yet another manufactured girl group.
From a well established band to one new to me: Smacksoft. Following Dave Candler’s Korean Homesick Blues podcast is a great way to find new names, and this is where I found Smacksoft. With enough exotic percussion to appeal to a world music fan, raw cello playing and Whang Bo-ryung’s unaffected, breathy vocals to appeal to a folk music audience, and enough big electric sound to draw in the rock afficionado, Shines in the Dark Collective Edition is an album which is hard to categorise but rewarding to listen to. Sounds which are at times haunting and mysterious, and at others homely and familiar will keep you returning to this one.
Two years ago Nah Youn Sun was easily at the top of my list of albums with her collaboration with Ulf Wakenius, Voyage. It was a tough act to follow, but her second release on the ACT label with Wakenius is almost as good. With the title Same Girl you can expect a similar balance and atmosphere to her previous disk, though she manages to explore a French chanson and Korean folk melody as well as bringing some new compositions. It’s a disk which manages to be both intimate and virtuoso. It also contains what is undoubtedly the track of the year: Kangwondo Arirang. Even as I relisten to it in order to refresh my memory of it for writing this the tears well up in the eye.
On the rare occasions when I’m on a plane on the way to Korea I always try to skim the audio channels on the in-flight entertainment system. Usually a few bars of the first track is enough to make me want to move on the next available album, but when I come across the R&B artists I start to relax into the experience. There’s something comforting about them – nothing too challenging but rather like sitting by a log fire on a winter evening. J.ae‘s sixth album, Sentimental, (for which she sprouted a full stop and two extra letters) is up to the standard of her fourth – Dim the Lights – and less sultry. Predominantly acoustic, with some delicate steel-stringed guitar playing, the album features solos from J.ae and some duets with guest vocalists. The songs have moments of beauty – particularly the one simply titled Love – and are always soothing.
The last selection is a release from last year which came too late to make it onto the list: 3rd Line Butterfly‘s EP Nine Days or a Million, small but jewel-like. From the energetic rock of Titikaka via the dreamy sounds of Nine Days and A Heavy Night Fog to the engimatic Somehow. Here. The Sea, this is a collection which makes you want to explore their output more. And thankfully there are a few reissues available on iTunes to help.
All the above albums are available on iTunes.