It’s that time of year, time to scrap together all the earworms that have wiggled their way into our membrane and try to paint a cohesive picture of the Chinese music scene over the past year. A daunting task indeed – but one that unveils surprises year after year. What’s most notable about this year’s crop of stellar releases is the wide berth of returning favorites as well as new labels who are finally hitting their stride. Labels like Ruby Eyes Records gobbled up acts across the whole musical spectrum and in turn, had more than a few hit releases. Electronic labels like Babel Records have steadily been bridging the gap between the studio and the dancefloor, and its shows in their robust catalogue this year. Meanwhile, labels like Merrier Records (rising from the ashes of D-Force Records) made their presence known immediately with an eclectic and seasoned taste for genre-expanding bands and artists. The old guard such as Maybe Mars and Modern Sky remain as vital as ever, hopping back and forth from debuting new acts and putting forth some veteran bands’ strongest (and more often than not, most accessible) work yet. At the same time, there’s been an influx of new bands (The Bootlegs, Poetry in Shorts) and DIY-labels (SJ Records, Field Ring Recordings, Qiii Snacks Records, Wild Records) that have a keen understanding of the market and their fanbase and have utilized every means they have to make the biggest impact. And one last point of interest is the number of bands making waves outside of China via releasing their music with labels based outside of the country (Wharf Car Records for Gong Gong Gong, Damnably for Hiperson) – a clear sign of the Chinese music scene infiltrating music circles (and tastes) around the globe. Add that into rock music’s big breakthrough over the summer and you’ve got one of the more fruitful years in the Chinese music scene in some time.
On to the list. Earlier this summer I picked out a bunch of albums. Ideally, I would refine that list, maybe knock a couple off, replace something here or there – but really, what’s the point. It’s all worth a listen in the end. The more the merrier in my book. And while the beginning of the list here is where I feel strongest there’s really no order to the madness below. So without further a due, here are the best albums of 2019!
Comprised of four poems that lead singer Chen Sijiang has written over the past eight years, Hiperson’s latest isn’t meant to be a full-on post punk opus much like the Chengdu hopefuls struck gold with on their debut back in 2015 but it nevertheless demands your attention. Separated between Chengdu and London (where Sijiang recorded the vocals) and representing the shifting seasons and temperaments of its young artists, it’s a beautifully realized EP that puts the band’s tender lyrical pose front and center, casting a spell that lingers long after. And while the swirling angst-ridden guitars may be nowhere within ear range, it’s amazing how much emotional heft and magnetism the band can wrangle from their rhythmic interplay. A gem of a release that burrows deep into your soul.
A fever dream of astounding precision and imagination, electronic maverick producer Howie Lee takes his years of world-building with otherworldly sounds that pay tribute to both the past and the future and presents his finest work yet. Ambitious in scale, singular in its audacious vision, the densely-packed sophomore release kicks off with a Blade Runner invoking symphony, throwing listeners into a brave new world, and doesn’t let up from there – introducing Daoist-laced cyberpunk sacraments and robotic shamans (playing the part of the Chorus) with ease into Lee’s sprawling soundscapes. There’s an operatic quality to what the artist accomplishes here – a neon-soaked Neuromantic musical that’s is every bit refined and assembled as it is downright bewildering and challenging.
Seemingly emerging out of nowhere, Qingdao’s The Bootlegs are a breath of fresh air – an endearing jangly bit of lo-fi surf pop that hits all the right buttons. Founded by lead singer Zhao Hong at the mysterious No Future Club within the coastal city, the bedroom project eventually morphed into a full-fledged band rounded out by Zong Zhen and Da Chuan. A mix of rustic cowboy frontier ambiance and lo-fi surf-gaze charm, their debut feels both engrained in the past and embattled with the future, striking a chord somewhere between grainy nostalgia and adolescent deviance, as each guitar riff and bass groove charges forward into the sunset. A striking debut that feels tailor-made for the indie scene at this current moment.
Longstanding indie rock outfit Glow Curve returns with their latest piece of transcendent post-rock pop – reaching higher into the stratosphere as they expand upon their sound. With a stronger emphasis on vocals (particularly from Xue Ran whose ghostly gruff voice is in top form here) slick, intricately layered electronic flourishes, and other lavishly timed instrumentation, the band seems to have found the perfect balance between dreamy futuristic dissonance and lush crescendoing rhythms. It’s a rush of album that unveils something new with each spin, keeping you on your toes while needling their way to your heart.
Rugged garage rock twisted around the zombified corpse of psychedelic-inflicted blues-rock with more than enough grit, Poetry in Shorts feels much needed today – a band that knows exactly the kind of sound they’re going for whilst managing to add in their own flavor. While the scrappy, smoky-lounge, tin-canned production of the wonderfully laid out album has it’s own charm (and avoids many of the pratfalls of rock bands hitting the studio) the true strength of the release lies in the rich lyrics and penetrating vocals. There’s a vitality and an innovative mischievous to the way the band, made up of members of fellow Shanghai punk outfit Dirty Fingers, tackle issues beholden to young adults, particularly young adults trying to make it as rock stars. It’s a fearless album that feels authentic in its downtrodden and deviant luck.
Psychedelic groovers Chui Wan have always been a band content to follow their own wavelength, pushing their esoteric and sometimes downright surreal sound to new territory, all the while carving out their own little world. Their fourth LP sees the band evolving further and in many ways redefining themselves, displaying a more delicate, softer, and even poppier version of their psychedelic palette. Yan Yulong’s falsetto vocals find tender matrimony alongside some of the album’s more upbeat and propulsive melodies, while Wu Qiong continues to immerse herself fully to the album’s more atmospheric Nico-stylized tracks. But in the end, it comes down to the band’s penchant for sweeping psychedelic rhythms, which have never sounded as harmonious or inviting.
Guitar and bass duo Gong Gong Gong, who have been haunting the music scene for years, come full circle on their dynamic and unique debut Phantom Rhythm. Made up of some of the underground scene’s old guard – Josh Frank of Hot & Cold and Tom Ng of The Offset:Spectacles – there’s a scrappy stripped back sensation to the way the duo maneuver around the confines of rock and roll, allowing the interplay between the two instruments to create a robust sound that eternally hints at a presence of a snare. It may be minimalistic on paper, but instead of taking the easy way out and leaning into the perpetual grooves, Gong Gong Gong find fascinating paths around their sound, sculpting topsy-turvy melodies over stories veiled in cryptic allure and danger. It’s an intoxicating cocktail, one that takes inspiration from ‘from Bo Diddley to Cantonese opera, West African desert blues, drone, and the structures of electronic music’ and in the end, charts its own unique course.
One of the hip-hop scene’s most respected (and underrated) acts, j-fever, whose freewheeling, playful, philosophical and sometimes downright surreal spin on the genre makes him stick out like a sore thumb (compared to the rest of the fame-chasing trend-settling acts out there), pays tribute to his home base of Beijing with the sincere and thoughtful Beijing Ma? Collaborating once again with LA-based producer Soulspeak, whose retro, slick, and bubbly beats make for a highly fluid and soulful backdrop for the rapper’s brand of hip hop, the rapper looks to tap into ‘the kind of sloppy, careless, casual and absurd calm that exists in the city’ infusing the ten tracks with a jazzy, old school ragtag absurdity that utilizes everything from traditional string instruments to vibrant high-pitched keys, while musing on a variety of topics from escalating airline tickets (blame the pretty flight attendants) to unintentional dissent in the emperor’s court. It’s a blazingly singular piece of work with an off-kilter Beat Generation spirit that proves once again there’s no duo out there quite like j-fever and Soulspeak.
Hangzhou singer-songwriter Yang Ji reoutfits her punk roots in atypical and alluring ways on her wildly impressive debut LP – fastening it with a kitsch KTV Anime-pop gloss before tossing it in the blender with bubbly lo-fi style production, seamlessly blurring the line between vulnerability and keen self-awareness. It’s offbeat, bewildering, unpretentious – both confessionally honest and affectionately sincere. There’s an innocence to both the deliriously giddy production, which utilizes everything from tortured guitar chords to kitschy synth horns to drive its dreamy funhouse aesthetic home, as well as the wistful, quirky and bittersweet lyrics – creating a singular voice and style that’s easy to fall in love with.
Qian Qian: http://www.taihe.com/album/662627664
Steering away from the heavier bass sound his previous albums were infatuated with, Beijing-based producer Guzz has created an album of glistening beauty – a high-hued, mist-covered flowing pastiche of traditional Asian sounds spliced with contemporary electronica. With an emphasis on digitally-created sounds (in fact, all of the instruments heard here were made via software) and inspired by traditional instruments of Myanma, India, and Japan, it’s clear the artist is angling for something novel. A cross between a scrolling Super Nintendo game soundtrack and an archeological excavation, it’s an endlessly rewarding album that’s light on its feet and brimming with ideas and otherworldly sounds that feel organic. Call it Asian new wave – or just sit back and soak in the atmosphere.
A grizzled, burly, and sprawling psych-rock album that leans into its artists’ affinity for prog rock spells, free-wheeling avant-garde breakdowns and roaming grassland folk music, Hai Qing and Li Xing’s collaborative release Utopian Daymare is one hell of a trip. There’s an almost manic quality to the way the Inner Mongolian artists Hai Qing and Li Xing (known for his role in Red Scarf) throw everything in their arsenal at the wall, from reed-based sheng flailing to discordant guitar riffs pitted against free jazz saxophones. But what’s most satisfying about their concoction is the rustic rock and roll soul that permeates throughout the (arguably long-winded and yes, meandering at times) album, finding solace and offbeat beauty in the pairing of Hai Qing’s dusty-eyed frontiersman voice and Li Xing’s endlessly imaginative instrumentation.
Beijing electronic producer ZHI16, veers deep into sci-fi territory on his sonically ambitious ILLUSION, out on Babel Records, sculpting his smooth, funk-driven sound into something darker and intergalactic. Meant to paint a ‘cold, selfish and human future,’ ZHI16 creates a dense atmosphere of dread, wonder, and technological tenacity that sounds for better or worse, authentic. Flushed with details, a keen sense of grandeur sound design that manages to retain (and sharpen) its club floor audacity, ZHI16 is reaching for the stars here and delivers through and through. More importantly, it hints at a world where some of China’s finest electronic producers evolve into some of the film world’s finest composers.
Former Xiamen duo (now Shanghai quartet) Peach Illusion, whose debut EP last year was one of our absolute favorites, return with a full liter of their fizzy indie-pop on their debut LP 100%. Fueled by sparkling youthful energy, an old school Cantopop swagger, and a high-hued sense of sound design that’s sourced directly from the beach, there’s a lot to love with what the band has assembled here. It’s a wanderlust summer album that’s earnest in its lovesick ways – finding sweetness and lyrical richness in the everyday trials of being young at heart, with plenty of sun-blenched jangly pop riffs and fading skyline synths to help keep your chin up and your (just maybe naive) spirits high.
Listening to Foster Parents’ newest album, Idle Archipelago, released on Guangzhou’s Qiii Snacks Records, is like being wrapped up in a warm blanket in front of the fireplace. Even as it tickles your earlobes with its math rock time signatures and wildly inventive arrangements, there’s a tenderness at the heart of the Shanghai duo – perfectly rendered through their pop culture-filtered, autumn-hued instrumental jams that manage to evoke a simpler time in broad emotional strokes that hit you straight in the gut. It’s a nifty magic trick – a trip down memory land that’s sensually rich and dense in its details, not afraid to lean into its pop punk earnestness or its Midwest emo roots. Nothing’s taken for granted and every opportunity is seized, leading to a cohesive sound that’s pure, genuine and devoid of pessimism. Math rock you can take home to your parents.
Though Last Goodbye’s beautifully realized debut brims with the existential dread and anxiety that looms with adolescence, the meticulous and thorough sound also belies the youth that has crafted it so expertly. Every last detail, from the shimmer of the guitars to the way lead singer Niu Niu’s burdened voice exhales against the luscious, rolling textures and elastic melodies, is fine-tuned to have the utmost effect on the listener, creating a world of glistening, reverb-heavy, psychedelic dream-pop made with colorful aplomb. A verdurous flower abloom with impenetrable sonic design. From the subtly devastating ‘How We Ended’, the malice-stricken ‘Demon’, the chiming and ever piercing urgency of ‘Memory’, Last Goodbye’s immersive sound never becomes overbearing. Instead, there’s a buoyancy to the band’s sound; an encroaching rhythmic pulse that’s bittersweet, rousing, and bare – a place where feelings of loss, regret, and angst are led to solace.
Fresh on the scene electronic label Field Ring Recordings, based out of Wuhan, taps into everlasting journeys found in ambient music with the debut release from Slot Canyons. The project, headed by label founder and musician Ryan Blankley (of Panic Worm), combines elements of field recordings, fragmented electronics and spacey drones with glitchy guitars – layering textures with minimal hardware yet endless imagination and treating every sample as a building block to something grandiose and transcendent. Intended ‘to capture the intensity of the Wuhan humidity and the scenery at the East Lake’ it’s an album that washes over you, enveloping you in a swirl of emotion and sound, particularly begging you to lose your head in the clouds.
Relishing the bittersweet turbulence of adolescence, Guangzhou/HK bedroom pop duo Happy Little Cat mines the companionship one often finds with heartbreak and depression, finding the silver lining within the ‘messy network’ that are our feelings. Or as the duo puts it brilliantly – “swallow your unhappiness and experience real happiness after digestion and decomposition”. Slick samples, dream pop gloss, and delicately crafted melodies that feel like a glimpse into someone’s personal KTV moment (or breakdown) – pained with regret but filled with bubbling-over hope – there’s an intimacy to the world the pair has rendered here. A dance number one can waltz to by themselves in their living room (to the bemusement of your cat of course).
The young Xiamen rapper lows0n has been making waves in the hip-hop scene over the past year, garnering praise for her distinctively odd and high-energy persona, perfectly encapsulating a generation of kids raised on video-games, irony and Red Bull, and she hits it out of the park on her bubbly debut. Quirky, kitschy, self-aware, there’s something wonderfully deviant about the rapper’s sound palette, which isn’t afraid to dip into sentimental vaporwave ballads, goofy low-brow KTV-stylized jams, auto-tuned simmering bangers, and high-charged hyper dense raps bars that touch on everything from societal ignorance, to the perks of being biased, and finding the indigo child within you. lows0n has created a world unto itself, one where she reigns supreme.
If their debut EP from earlier this year wasn’t enough (and I highly recommend check out all of the highlights from the first half of 2019) the Shenzhen art rock for sure goes out with a bang on their debut LP which acts as both a log of the band’s exploits of their multicultural entanglements as well as a document of one band’s musical growth and maturity over the short span of two years. While there’s always been a slapdash subversive quality to Thin City’s music that felt like a late-night party hitting its sweet spot, the band’s power pop and art rock sensibilities and melodic command are stronger than ever – calling to mind everyone from Life Without Buildings to the New Pornographers. English, Chinese, and Chinglish intertwine with ramshackle guitar chords, tambourines and infectious hooks as the male-female vocals volley off one another like a drunken waltz that feels invigorated with inside jokes, fragmented lyricism, and juvenile escapism. The kind of music that’s brimming with life and an at ease naturalism, it’s a hell of a bon voyage from the short-lived outfit.
Full of winding twists and turns shrouded in endless mystery there’s a labyrinth quality to Run Run Run’s soundscapes that’s downright hypnotic. The brainchild of Guizhou-raised Beijing-based Xiao Dou, Run Run Run fuses together vivid minimal chord odysseys (reminiscent of The Velvet Underground), the grass-fed pop finesse of 1970s, and the lingering psychedelic malice of that era, implanting these ideas into the chilly mountains, humid jungles, and underground caves of southern China, where mellowed-out grooves and layers of freewheeling guitar dissonance can easily sweep you away. Like a living and breathing cavern, Run Run Run engulfs you in an embryonic sound that’s utterly ‘in the moment’, guiding listeners through undiscovered and wondrous new musical terrain.
With heavy doses of city-pop and 90s era alternative rock (that guitar church on ‘Out of Focus’ slays me every time), there’s no denying that Cheesemind, the Xiamen-based band is shooting for a wider indie pop audience. But when you do it with as much craft and lyrical elegance as these cats, made up of members of the now-defunct The White Tulips (arguably the pioneers of the city-pop/shoegaze resurgence), you can’t help but fall in love. It’s snug, tender, with a keen pop sensibility that sneakily worms its way into your brain whilst making one nostalgic for the breezy small-town beach life that exists only in your mind. Never forceful, but always aware of their ability to move (more like floor you), Cheesemind is indie pop music made with integrity and a bygone appreciation for the past and more importantly the influences of daily life and all the moments that keep us moving along (and as they put it ‘make your sense of loss a bit lighter’). A gem of a debut.
Following up on Gooooose’s DONG1 release last year, Merrie Records returns with their second installment of the project which ‘dives into the sonic dimension of Dong culture (an ethnic minority in southern China), exploring different perspectives and methods of presenting ethnic minority folk music within a 21st-century context’. While the framework here is anthropological there’s no denying the producer’s high-wire, adrenaline pumping, aesthetically captivating production which finds the dance floor mojo embedded deep within the Dong minority chorus, distorting the samples and essentially spinning them into a new yarn. Preserving the culture for a brave new world via ‘arthropod moves in an ethereal, rhythmic sound ritual’.
Shoegaze is having a hell of a year here in China and RUBUR, the Shanghai band that’s been chipping away at the scene since 2014 bombard the genre with vitality and precision on their long-awaited debut LP Evening Sitdown Vision. Chock full of wispy walls of sound, swirl-inducing guitar dissonance, and emotionally frail vocals, the band hits their target square in the heart before adding upon them layers and layers of surprises – the bridging jangle that propel ‘Sleepless Dream’, the fragmented lyrical heft of ‘Delilah’, and the cool-headed noise rock beat of ‘Fish Ball’ – making it an album that rewards repeated listening as you find yourself drawn to a different lover each spin. There’s a turbulent, transcendent beauty at play within RUBUR’s palette – a modern-day poetic urban bent beneath the layers of noise and splintered, simmering decay that pierces deep.
Finding the atmospheric and textual beauty within there confines of math and post-rock, Shanghai Qiutian offers a fresh take of the genres that have flooded the earholes of Chinese audiences for decades. Founded in late 2018 by Eñaut Martí Zinkunegi and Florian Rudin in the first-tier city, the duo work their magic on their exquisite debut New Era, Shared Future, out now on Wild Records. While shades of high-wire emo (that put the label on the map) linger, there’s a low-key seductiveness found in the looping chords and an intricate interplay found throughout the production that underlines the five tracks. The standout two feature exceptional work from singer Sara Zozaya and Chinese Football. A hell of a calling card for the newly formed duo.
Guangzhou urban poets Wu Tiao Ren, continue their seamless blend of magical realism and rugged charm; of rustic rock and roll and ramshackle folk, on their fifth studio release. A semi-conceptual album that pays tribute and takes inspiration from China’s cinematic Golden Age and the aesthetics surrounding it, the band, originally from Haifeng county in Guangdong, finds poetry in the turbulent streets and the lives that inhabit them. Infusing their music with bluegrass playfulness, deadly (and slightly unhinged) sexiness, and a frank sense of humor, there’s really no one out there like these cats. And while the production may fall a bit short, it’s hard not to be won over by the folk-rock staples.
Combing wry, playful electronica with gentle avant-garde wit and intrepid krautrock, Xiamen duo Daytrip Dormancy (whose members previous projects included Scarlet’s Other Parts and islet) make a huge impression on their debut EP out now on Merrie Records. There’s an adventurous element to the way the music weaves in and out of its winding orchestral synthesizers and dynamic and acute jazz beats, making each song as unpredictable as it is rewarding. And while the intricate rhythms may be mechanical in their demeanor, there’s a warmth to the crackle of the electronic elements as well as the cryptic yet loaded lyricism which makes every word count.
Shanghai-based producer Swimful has done it again on his triumphant Folding Knives, out on SVBKVLT. Drenched in neon-spiked, emotionally-fraught ambiance and luscious futuristic melodies that touches on everything from M83-crossed-with-Final Fantasy world-builders to grime music, Swimful has concocted a world that’s intoxicating in its allure and aesthetics. You swim in its Technicolor-buoyancy, drown in its dense orchestral storytelling as it soundscapes a future you’re already nostalgic about. The seven-track release features guest spots from Yayoyanoh & Organ Tapes on lead single “Agony”, as well as producer Chlorine Mist (aka Dylan Reznick of FRIENDZONE) on opener “Plain”. A doozy of an album.
Chinese Football once again tap into the delicate and bittersweet well of emo pop for their newest LP entitled Continue? – the second LP in a perceived ‘Game Trilogy’ which looks to follow its sensitive yet hot-blooded young adolescent through life’s various trails. If you needed any reminder that the Wuhan startups are the real deal look no further – sprawling, angular, and earnest indie pop that soars and pulls you in close without ever coming off as cheap or trite. As always, there’s a sense of youthful discovery that’s timeless to the band’s sound and they milk it for all it’s worth – one jangled hook and spirited confession after another. An engrossing continuation of Chinese Football’s reign over the indie rock scene here in China.
Default don’t so much redefine the shoegaze genre as they fully inhabit it and more importantly, take it to higher ground, wielding its full potential. Leaning heavily into the larger-than-life sound that Slowdive, Ride and various other bands from the 90s built for generations to come, there’s something defiant about how the young Beijing band takes the genre by the horns and commits fully to the transformative power of it. Jam-packed with atmospheric psychedelic-tinted, reverb-soaked melodies that demand to be turned up at full volume, it’s an album rich in texture, and visceral in its emotional heft – leaving you shaken and stirred. While by no means a perfect album, Default have shot for the moon on their debut – and in time I think it’ll be considered a watershed moment for shoegaze in China.
While it’s common for indie rock bands to pad out their sound over the years to appease the mainstream market, Silent Speech stick to their guns on their versatile and robust debut EP City Bird, out on Ruby Eye Records. Effortlessly maneuvering from one style to another they’re a melodic, emotional wry, and instrumentally charged blend of 90s alt-rock that’s above all else, genuine and assured. And while lead singer Wu Xiaoran’s voice may lean a bit into Thom Yorke territory at times, there is no denying it’s power and the layers found within each song that feel essential to the band’s scope. Indie rock that swoons one moment and then explodes the next, Silent Speech leave quite the impression.
One of the richest surprises in the Chinese electronic scene this year has been the debut from Wuhan-based producer Night Swimmer who dropped his self-titled LP last month – a vibrant deeply realized piece of work that finds the perfect fusion in retro dance synths, traditional Chinese instrumentation, and 90s Hong Kong movie soundtracks, with traces of synthwave, vapourwave, darkwave, 8-bit, and even world music filling in the gaps. It’s a melding of eastern and western aesthetics – a cheeky, ethereal atmosphere that owes as much to Nicolas Jarr and Michael Cretu as it does to Dou Wei and Future Islands creating a deep world of sound that’s utterly intoxicating to get lost in.