In Korea, they are called collectively called “Kim Na Park Lee” (김나박이), taking the first syllable of the names of these top vocalists in alphabetical order: Kim Bum Soo, Naul, Park Hyo Shin, and Lee Soo. These four artists are often put forth by the public in Korea as the best and most representative vocalists in the country. There is no exact date for when this list of artists and the term “Kim Na Park Lee” came into existence, but some say it was around 2008.
As with most artistic critique, evaluation of an artist’s skills, techniques, appeal, and relevance is influenced by the era and people’s personal taste. Would Park Hyo Shin be considered a good singer or be as popular as he is now if he was born in the 1960s in Korea? Probably not. You could even argue that he wouldn’t have developed his vocal techniques in the same way if he was trying to become a singer during the ’70s in Korea- a period when folk songs reigned supreme.
Luckily, these artists debuted (between 1999 and 2000) when Koreans enjoyed pop and rock ballads and the industry wanted and could successfully market solo artists. Their natural talent could be given a chance and then honed for a genre of music that highlighted and suited their talent. With the tastes of the Korean public changing, there will undoubtedly be a new set of vocal kings, but until netizens come up with a cool name for them, let’s enjoy the reign of these four.
Born in 1979, Kim Bum Soo is the second oldest of these four artists. He debuted in April 1999 with his first studio album, “A Promise.” Promoting as a “faceless” artist at that time, Kim Bum Soo kept his face hidden for the most part from the public, not promoting on television. His second studio album, “Remember,” released in 2000, featured the title track “Haru” whose music video starred Song Hye Kyo and Song Seung Hun, drawing a lot of attention to the song. And no, Kim Bum Soo was nowhere to be seen in the music video. His third studio album, which featured the hit “I Miss You,” is the one that really made Kim Bum Soo into a household name and brought him out for television promotions.
Listen to Kim Bum Soo sing “I Miss You” a cappella:
I like to listen to artists sing other people’s songs to see how they make it their own and challenge a song that wasn’t tailored for their style and range right from the beginning. I also enjoy recordings by fans which can’t be or aren’t edited so you can get a more realistic sense of what the artist sounds like live at the scene.
Here is Kim Bum Soo singing “This is the Moment” from the musical “Jekyll and Hyde“:
Naul (born 1978) debuted in August 1999 as part of a four-member male vocal group called Anthem. He then formed another group (duo) called Brown Eyes and released their first album in 2001, called “Brown Eyes” with the title song “Already One Year.” This song topped charts for many weeks despite no television promotions. Brown Eyes later became Brown Eyed Soul, which released its first album in 2003. Naul’s first solo album was in 2005, titled “Back to the Soul.” This album was a remake album, however, and Naul’s first official album with all original songs came out in 2012, called “Principle of My Soul.” The album’s title track “Memory of the Wind” has become Naul’s representative song as a self-composed track with poetic lyrics and a melody that perfectly suits Naul’s pitch and range.
Listen to Naul sing “Memory of the Wind” live at a Brown Eyed Seoul concert:
Here is Naul sing title track “Road Home” a cappella from his solo remake album. Skip to 0:13. I wish he sang more of this!
Park Hyo Shin was born in 1981 and debut in December 1999 at the young age of 18. Due to his deep voice and mature interpretation of sad, soulful songs, many people were surprised at how young he was when he debuted. Park Hyo Shin was known for his deep, ringing voice until he released his fifth studio album, “The Breeze of Sea,” in 2007, showcasing a new vocal technique that produced a more controlled and lighter sound, while retaining the huskiness that makes him unique. Vocalist don’t often change their singing technique in the middle of their careers, but Park Hyo Shin did and was received with favorable reviews and a positive response from the public.
Check out a medley of his hit songs that he sang on the spot (post voice change) due to audience requests. The songs are “Good Person,” “Babo,” and “Snow Flower.”
Here is one Park Hyo Shin’s most recent release, “Wild Flower.” Park Hyo Shin wrote the lyrics with Kim Ji Hyang and composed the song with Jung Jae Il. This video was filmed in one take and the audio was recorded live at the scene.
Lee Soo (born 1981) is the lead vocalist for the band MC the Max, which was previously known as the four-member rock/techno band Moon Child. Moon Child released two studio albums in 2000 and 2001 and later reformed in 2002 as MC the Max after one member left. MC the Max now sings mostly rock ballad tracks and has released hits songs like “Love Poem,” “One Love,” “Don’t Be Happy,” and more. Lee Soo has also released solo albums under the name ISU. Last year, MC the Max released their first studio album in six years since their sixth album in 2008. Lee Soo also married fellow singer Lyn in September.
Here is Lee Soo singing MC the Max’s “One Love” live at a concert:
Lee Soo sings MC the Max’s “Goodbye for Now” live at a concert:
On a personal note, my favorite out of these four is Park Hyo Shin, who shows incredible control and emotion when he sings live. I actually prefer his live recordings over his studio ones because the latter seem to flatten out the raw emotions that Park Hyo Shin is so good at conveying on the spot.
This has been called a “legendary” performance by Park Hyo Shin fans because of the way he handled himself despite serious audio issues. During this live awards show, the MR of “Standing There” kept on skipping while Park Hyo Shin was singing but he managed to find his place every time. The audience was mainly full of TVXQ fans at that time, but they all started cheering for him as he kept on showing why he is one of the top.
He also has a way of making other artists’ songs into his own. Here is Park Hyo Shin singing Taeyang’s “Only Look at Me“:
Who do you think can be added to this list of top Korean vocalists? Who do you think will be the future top vocalists of Korea?