1. Yun Sim-dŏk, “Sa ŭi ch’anmi” (In Praise of Death)
From: “Sa ŭi ch’anmi” Nitto 2249-A 2249-B, 1926, 78 rpm.
Yun Sim-dŏk: vocal; Yun Sŏng-dŏk: piano.
Performed by singer and actress Yun Sim-dŏk, “Sa ŭi ch’anmi” is allegedly the first Korean pop record. The song is based on the tune and lyrics of “Waves of the Danube” by Romanian composer Ion Ivanovici. Yun recorded the song in Japan and jumped into the sea on the way back home with her illicit lover. With this dramatic story in the backdrop, the record became a smash hit. It is significant not only for being the first Korean pop record, but also for elevating the status of record to the dominant medium for popular music consumption in the country.
2. Han Myŏng-suk, “Noran syassŭ ŭi sanai” (The Boy in the Yellow Shirt)
From: Various Artists, Son Sŏk-u Melody, Venus Records VL1, 1961, 33 ⅓ rpm.
Han Myŏng-suk: vocal; Son Sŏk-u: producer.
Although long-play records were introduced to Korea in 1956, 78-rpm gramophones continued to dominate the market for several more years. The pivotal moment of change came in 1961 with the release of the runaway hit “Nooran syassŭ ŭi sanai,” sung by Han Myŏng-suk and written and produced by Son Sŏk-u. Widely considered the father of modern Korean pop, Son combined Korean lyrics with a variety of Western musical styles, including country, mambo, tango, and blues, and produced something remarkably different from the dominant Japanese-influenced pop music of the time. This is the first volume of ten-inch records on Venus Records Son established. The huge popularity of the song spurred the transition from 78-rpm to modern LPs.
3. Yi Chang-hŭi, “Kŭ kŏn nŏ” (That’s You)
From: Kŭ kŏn nŏ, Orient/Sung Eum SEL20 0015, 1973, 33 ⅓ rpm.
Yi Chang-hŭi: vocal, rhythm guitar; Kang Kŭn-sik: electric guitar; Cho Wŏn-ik: bass; Pae Su-yŏn: drums.
“Kŭ kŏn nŏ” is an iconic song of Korea’s youth culture of the 1970’s. It is also a breakthrough hit for singer-songwriter Yi Chang-hŭi. Breaking away from the then dominant convention of acoustic folk, Yi combined colloquial lyrics and electric arrangement and created an infectious anthem for the new generation. The album that contains the song is Yi’s third on Orient. Unusually for the time, the entire album was devoted to Yi’s music. Led by producer, engineer and visionary Na Hyŏn-ku, the small, unlicensed record company was a hotbed of youth culture unearthing numerous young talents and producing a lot of classic records. Kŭkŏn nŏ represents the pinnacle of the 1970’s youth culture as well as that of the creativity of the Orient collective.
4. Shin Joong Hyun kwa Yŏpchŏn tŭl, “Miin” (Beautiful Girl)
From: Miin/Saenggakhae/Chŏ yŏin/Sŏlleim, Jigu JLS120891, 1974, 33 ⅓ rpm.
Shin Joong Hyun: vocal, guitar; Yi Nam-i: bass; Kwŏn Yong-nam: drums.
Whenever Korean rock is mentioned, it usually starts with the name Shin Joong Hyun— guitarist, bandleader, songwriter, producer, Svengali and godfather of Korean rock. “Miin” is the culmination of Shin’s art that began in the late 1950’s. In this song, Shin employs elements of Korean traditional music in his characteristic hard-hitting rock sound. The result was an instant classic famous for arguably the most celebrated and imitated riff in Korean rock history. It is evident that Shin was at the peak of his power here, oozing great confidence. However, it proved to be Shin’s last critical and commercial triumph before the total destruction of his career by authoritarian Park Chung Hee’s regime (1961-79).
5. Sanullim, “Nae maŭm e chudan ŭl kkalgo” (Red Carpet in My Heart)
From: Sanullim Vol. 2, Seorabeol SR-0104, 1978, 33 ⅓ rpm.
Kim Ch’ang-wan: vocal, guitar; Kim Ch’ang-hun: bass; Kim Ch’ang-ik: drums.
Sanullim came from out of nowhere in the late 1970’s to take Korea by storm. Made up of three brothers, they were a quintessential independent band who never intended to become professional musicians. Despite the apparent technical deficiencies, however, their bold and electrifying garage rock sound immediately enthralled young audiences. “Nae maŭme chudanŭl kkalgo” from their second album is one of the best examples of their early music. From the three-minute intro, beginning with a thumping bass riff, to fantastical lyrics and fuzzy guitar solo, it was an engrossing art to young listeners.
6. Cho Yong-p’il, “Ch’angbakk ŭi yŏja” (Woman outside the Window)
From: Ch’angbakkŭi yŏja/Tanbalmŏri/ Torawayo pusanhang e, Jigu JLS-1201546, 1980, 33 ⅓ rpm.
Cho Yong-p’il: vocal, guitar.
Cho Yong-p’il has been by far the biggest pop singer in Korea since the 1980’s. Cho’s first album on Jigu, which contains the hit “Ch’angbakk ŭi yŏja,” is allegedly the first million-selling record in Korea. It is difficult to support this claim with solid evidence, but there is no doubt that the song was hugely popular. Cho as a pop star was a curious case. He was a serious rocker, mainstream adult pop singer, and teen idol all at the same time. He was the first and perhaps the last pop musician who could appeal equally to different generations. Although Cho released better songs than the weepy ballad “Ch’angbakkŭi yŏja,” this particular ballad remains monumental for having started the phenomenon.
7. Tŭlgukhwa, “Kŭgŏtmani naesesang” (That’s the Only World of Mine)
From: Tŭlgukhwa, Tong’a Kihoek/Seorabeol VIP-20017, 1985, 33 ⅓ rpm.
Chŏn In-kwŏn: vocal, guitar; Ch’oe Sŏng-wŏn: vocal, guitar, bass, synthesizer; Chu Ch’an-kwŏn: drums; Hŏ Sŏng-uk: piano, synthesizer; Cho Tŏk-hwan: vocal, guitar.
The eponymous debut album by the band Tŭlguk’wa, or Wild Chrysanthemum, has been one of the most critically acclaimed records in Korean pop. It has been a staple in various all-time greatest albums lists frequently occupying the top spot. This album represents the high watermark in the 1980’s underground pop movement, in which a group of artists who eschewed television appearance and pursued album oriented pop. They regarded the medium of album as the ultimate artistic statement and put their utmost effort into making it. As a result, the 1980’s underground produced a great number of classic albums, with this album being considered among the top of the pile.
8. Sinawe, “K’ŭge radio rŭl k’yŏgo” (Turn Up the Radio Loud)
From: Heavy Meral Sinawe, Seorabeol SBK0056, 1986, 33 ⅓ rpm.
Sin Tae-ch’ŏl: guitar; Im Chae-pŏm: vocal; Pak Yŏng-pae: bass; Kim Hyŏng-chun: keyboards; Kang Chong-su: drums.
The 1980’s was the decade heavy metal went mainstream. The global popularity of the genre led to the emergence of Korean heavy metal bands. Sinawe was the first heavy metal band to release a full-length album. Sin Tae-ch’ŏl, the son of Shin Joong Hyun, masterminded the band. Their leadoff track, “K’ŭge radiorŭl k’yŏgo,” became the band’s most well-known tune. At the time, recording technology in Korea was not up to the challenge of capturing violent sonic signature of the genre, which is evident in the thin and muddled quality of the song. Vocals in some tracks are virtually inaudible, having been drowned deep in the mix. Because of that, however, it provides a fascinating insight into early rock recording practice in Korea.
9. Sŏt’aeji wa Aidŭl, “Nan arayo” (I Know)
From: Seotaiji ’N Boys, Bando Records BDCD-014, 1992, CD.
Sŏt’aeji: vocal, rap; Yang Hyŏn-sŏk: vocal, rap; Yi Ju-no: vocal, rap
The 1992 debut album by Sŏt’aeji wa Aidŭl is often considered ground zero of K-pop, or the breakthrough record that started it all. In essence, however, it is a humble home recording created alone by Sŏt’aeji in his bedroom. Inspired by the then-rising hip-hop and electronic dance music, the former bassist of Sinawe completed an album that combined his rock background with new influences. The album became a sensation. Its youthful energy and carefree attitude perfectly captured zeitgeist. It was instrumental to the mainstreaming of dance pop, and paved the way to dance-oriented K-pop.