The Classics: Korea’s Songs and Artists You Should Know

Noraebang in Seoul, South Korea / Photo by Kate Kalinova

Let’s face it – we all love it when a visitor to the country demonstrates a love for the local music. This is especially the case in Korea. Show friends, family or work associates an extensive knowledge of Kpop at the next noraebang session, and you will almost certainly be given a pat on the back, possibly a free drink.

In modern times, we live fast. There is a tendency to disregard older music in favor of newer, faster-paced tunes. Yet older music can be important to national identity – be it traditional music, such as Pansori (a form of musical story-telling which can last upwards of ten minutes), or the ‘classics’ that shaped culture of the past century.

When it comes to music, sometimes ‘old’ can be ‘gold’. Here are just some of Korea’s ‘classics’ – the songs that Koreans may well thank you, or at the very least, respect you, for knowing:

KTV in Australia/ taken by author

Kim Kwang Seok

If you’ve ever had a Korean friend leave for his military service, it is likely that they were sung A Private’s Letter (이등병의 편지) by their friends. Playing this song on the night before your friend joins the military – oftentimes while drinking copious amounts of soju – has almost become tradition. It is tragic and dramatic, but also meaningful; it can be a coming-of-age moment, where the senior generations remind the younger that they, too, will soon enough be on the other side, jokingly singing this song.

But Kim Kwang Seok can’t be limited to this one song – the man is a legend. Before his untimely death in 1996, the Daegu native left behind a treasure trove of classics that are loved and respected to this day. As Dust (먼지가 되어), Love Has Gone (사랑했지만), With the Heart to Forget You (잊어야 한다는 마음으로) are all beautiful and deeply sentimental songs.

Lee Moon Sae

Lee goes hand-in-hand with Kim. Take a listen to the songs Sunset Glow (붉은 노을), Old Love (옛사랑), and Standing Under the Shade of a Roadside Tree (가로수 그늘 아래 서면), and you’ll know why. These are good enough songs without understanding the lyrics; if you learn the lyrics, you’re in for a surprise. Both Lee and Kim were loved for their poetic and deeply personal songwriting, a style that is not easily replicated. The song Sunset Glow was even covered by pop group Big Bang, and received a revival of success in the late 2000s.

Shin Hae-Chul

You would know the song To You (그대에게) if you’ve ever watched the TV series Reply 1988. Shin was a pioneer of experimental rock music in the 80s, known for his charismatic stage presence. Together with his band, Moohangwedo, the song won first place in the 1988 MBC Campus Music Festival, propelling Shin towards a successful musical career. The song is a legendary epitomization of the fast-changing Korea of the 1980s.

Other Must-Know Tunes of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s

Kim Chang-Wan: The Meaning of You (너의 의미) – People will love you for knowing IU’s version of this song. People will love you even more for knowing the original 1984 hit. The song was written by the band Sanulrim (meaning ‘mountain echo’), responsible for revitalizing the Korean music scene with their unique, psychedelic sound.

Marronnier: Cocktail Love (칵테일 사랑) – Listen to this song. Then try to forget it. Good luck. Cocktail Love is perhaps one of the catchiest songs the history of Korean music has to offer, and the childhood tune of the 90s kids.

 Han’s Band: An Amusement Hall (오락실) – This song describes the story of a schoolgirl going to the arcade after failing a test, only to find her father there. Eventually, the girl begins to wonder if maybe her father is escaping his workplace as much as she is escaping school. The lyrics are both playful and tragic; the song is the perfect epitomization of the stresses brought on by the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 90s.

Turtles: Bingo – Turtles have their own set of hits. This song in particular, though, can be viewed as a valuable representation of the Korean spirit – the lyrics talk about not giving up, and continuing to work hard in a highly competitive society. The song also incorporates elements of ‘trot’, an older genre of music that can be both uplifting and painful; the kind often enjoyed by Korean taxi drivers.

Kpop is still significant – make no mistake. Demonstrating knowledge of a culture’s classics, though, takes it one step further – it shows that you not only love the tunes, but their past, present and future implications. While no list of Korean classics can truly be exhaustive, give a listen to just some of these songs. You may just discover your inner Korean spirit.

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Looking to boost your Korean language skills? Noraebang could be the answer! Check out this video for tips.

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Juno Robertson

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