2016 Best Albums

Whoa…that\’s a lot of albums. Probably less than I had anticipated but hey, the music industry is rightfully balancing itself out and seeing how the chips fall – I still haven\’t heard that new ______ album even. Music works itself in unusually ways and this list definitely showcases that. So enjoy – the best albums of the year in no particular order (well perhaps not).

yourboyfriendsucks! – Episode 01

Guangzhou noise pop outfit yourboyfriendsucks! – one of southern China’s most prominent fixtures of the DIY scene – swing for the fences on their debut EP, Episode 01, released on newly formed Qii Snacks Records. Offering up six bewitching dream pop singles (including a MBV cover) sung in Chinese, English, and even German, it’s an intoxicating mix of shoegaze reverb tones and indie pop bliss that simply kills it for me. An authenticity, a lo-fi earnestness that’s prevalent throughout that tugs on those heartstrings whilst having you bop your head in delight. One of the best surprises of the year. Bandcamp.

Wang Wen – Sweet Home, Go

Post rock heavyweights Wang Wen are at the top of their game in their ninth studio album, Sweet Home, Go! What else can be said about these guys – the Dalian trope’s grandiose sound has only enriched over time, evolving and metamorphosing as the band surveys the musical landscape through older more mature eyes. The crescendos cut deeper, the turns and tempo switch ups feel organic, and every sound and texture feels fully embodied. There’s a bygone jazz heart underneath the hardened old man at sea heart of Wang Wen and the intricacies and intersections of these two mindsets is a beauty to hear and behold. Spellbinding. Bandcamp.

iimmune – Abnormal

After putting out my favorite electronic record of last year, Hsing Jiango aka iimmune returns with his latest EP, Abnormal – a bleaker, sleeker, more machine-driven follow-up. While the EP doesn’t have the sun-filled appeal of his D-Force Records debut, Ocean, it still ranks as some of the most imaginative, synthetically pleasing electronic works out there – combining the familiar with the unfamiliar, the traditional and the modern in ways that keeps your ears guessing whilst being tickled and enthralled (I still can’t get over the brilliant structure of ‘Wonderland Owner’). A trip very much worth taking. Bandcamp.

Soulspeak, TTechmak – Love In The Land Of Robots

Beijing label Ran Music has come out with the perfect summer album with their latest release, Love in the Land of Robots, a collaboration between Beijing electronic music veteran Soulspeak (aka Kai-Luen) and Shanghai based Australian trumpet player / producer TTechmak (aka Toby Mak). It’s downright intoxicating in its lush, downtempo atmosphere – one that’s hard to shake loose. A mood piece through and through, the two esteemed artists set the vibe and keep the good times coming over the eight tracks. It’s jazz with an electronic heart, electronica with the soul of jazz – the album finds the sweet spot where the two meet and then builds from there. Bandcamp.

Yue Xuan feat. various artists – Entrance & Exports Remix Project

Changsha raised piano composer Yue Xuan brings her classical trained aesthetic to the underground electronic scene on Entrance & Exports Remix Project, an expansive diverse remix of the artist’s 2105 breakout hit In & Out. Yue Xuan hands the keys to her lush and emotionally charged compositions to a cast of electronic producers and sound smiths, including iimmune, Broken Thoughts, Cvalda, 14?, Wisefake, Chenchenchen, MHP, Ocean Walker, Gavintoo, Loga (Hong Qile), and Hou Chenzhong. Minimalist, post-rock, drum & bass, techno, glitch, drone, hip hop, experimental, ambient, IDM – it all gets a fair shake in the sonically rich release that remains hands down my electronic album of the year. Xiami.

Queen Sea Big Shark – To Wild Heart

Queen Sea Big Shark return and they’re never gonna be the same again. Bigger, bolder, and yes, even more foolhardy, this is the emergence of a band entering the pop world in style. Aesthetically, it’s all over the place – from Bollywood breakdowns, doo-wop summer singles, to hip hop jams, arena rock worthy anthems, and even some Kenny G sax thrown in for good measure, To Wild Heart, is derivative as can be. But good lord is it fun. There’s something utterly refreshing about a band that’s ready to shed its old skin so willingly and move forward with such reckless, joyous abandon. If I believed in such things this would be my guilty pleasure of the year. Douban

Alpine Decline – Life’s A Gasp

Beijing based reverb drenched indie rock duo Alpine Decline continue to stretch their arms on their latest love letter to the smog-filled city, Life’s A Gasp. The double LP, off of Maybe Mars, which introduces Yang Haisong (of PK14) on bass, may be the band’s most ambitious album to date. Stuffed to the brim with psychedelic unease, obscure lyrics, and layers upon layers of sound, it’s a lot to take in one go. From the calm desolate beauty of ‘Aftertaste of Gold’, to the synth lunacy of ‘Pre-Columbian Gold’, to the tender and somber catharsis of ‘Broken, Mistaken, Confused’, to the blistering drive of ‘I’ve Been Hit’ – it\’s an rewarding, invigorating, distorted trip through one of Beijing’s most captivating bands. Bandcamp

New Pants – Because of You Life Is Hot

After a lapse of five years, seminal synth indie rockers New Pants return with their eighth album Because of You Life Is Hot, and it is very much a more somber affair. Scratch that – this is a more mature New Pants. One where rhythm doesn’t rule and instead, the emotional melodies become the focal point. And while that may scare off some folks, particularly those accustomed to the anarchistic spirit of the band (including myself), there’s something satisfying about a band coming to terms with their place in the musical spectrum and looking back with new eyes whilst plowing ahead. A bit off-putting at first, but new New Pants is starting to grow on me. Xiami /Douban

Streets Kill Strange Animals – McDKids

Unsung heroes of the underground rock scene in Beijing (and China for that matter) – Streets Kill Strange Animals return with their sophomore album, McDKids, off of Modern Sky Records. Intense, visceral, and cerebral, the band relishes in the seedy underbelly of noise rock, with more than enough post punk musing and demeanor. Leng Mei continues to be one of the city’s best lyricists, capturing strikingly the dark resonance of an increasingly unrecognizable and ‘carnivalized’ city. And while musically, the band knows no bounds – jumping from shoegaze slow jams to post hardcore firebombs with ease – it remains one of the most assured albums of the year. Douban/163

WoGui de HuoChe – Aftermath

Hangzhou indie trio, WoGui de HuoChe have prepared a hell of a welcoming party for themselves on their debut LP, Aftermath. Intricate, rich in emotion, with plenty of rock and roll gusto to spare, the band manages to avoid the many pratfalls that have caged and hindered many bands of its ilk. There’s a looseness at play here, a genuine appreciation of not only melody, but mood, and often times it sounds and feels like a lo-fi bittersweet moment caught in time. And where other bands might have taken the easy route, WoGui de Huoche seem to relish those moments of uncertainty. Xiami/Douban

SMZB – The Chinese Are Coming

The godfathers of punk return! Seminal Wuhan punk outfit SMZB, whose Celtic-based socially conscious punk rock has made them a staple of the Chinese punk scene celebrate twenty years and ‘one thousand ways to rebel and fight’ with their latest LP, the sneakily titled The Chinese Are Coming. It’s engrossing collection of songs – catchy, timely, engaged and enraged yet victorious at the same time. The addition of bagpipes, banjo and the always-reliable tin whistle only add to the jubilant defiance that SMZB stands for. It’s amazing the band is able to infuse their music with as much social commentary (‘The Chinese Are Coming’) and political critique (‘Born in the PRC’) as they do – a testament to the band’s long lasting power and stature. Bandcamp.

Baishui – Sound in Motion: Puzzle Suite

Sichuan musician Baishui is a jack of all trades – a film composer, a neo folk hero, an avant-garde renegade, and one of China’s most unique artists. On his latest, Sound in Motion: Puzzle Suite, Baishui attempts to write a ‘sound poem without words’ using simple improvisation instrumental recordings, vocal samples, and field recordings. The second full-length in his ‘Sound of Motion’ series, whose goal is examine the ‘relationship between sound and movement’, features some ace contributors including sound artists Yao Chunyang, Yuan Tian, and Anna. It’s a beautifully realized project, where one sound, one voice or one instrument is explored to its deepest lengths. It’s sparse, minimal in its approach yet rich in details and emotion. A must have for anyone interested in the unexpected. Bandcamp.

Qi Zitan – Margaret Street Tour

Offbeat folk singer-songwriter Qi Zitan, from Hangzhou, has been making quite the name for herself since university; from starting the indie rock band Stolen Joy, to appearing on ‘The Song of China’. And with her recent debut EP, Margaret Street Tour, there’s no denying what she brings to the table as an artist. A staggering piece of work, that seduces, haunts, and bewilders with its graceful and exquisiteness that’s almost otherworldly. From the way the singer uses her voice as an instrument on the opening track, ‘Self-Portrait’ to the raw simplicity of ‘Sober Record’, Qi Zitan proves herself again and again a force to be reckon with among female singers in China. Xiami/Douban.

Duck Fight Goose – CLVB ZVKVNFT

The Shanghai indie rock band Duck Fight Goose  completely shed their skin on their sophomore release, CLVB ZVKVNFT, off of D-Force Records, transforming into a high tech, futuristic jazz band that’s entirely on their own wavelength. It’s ambitious, packed to the gills, and singular in its approach. And while it’s precision and meticulousness hinders the band’s sound at times, it’s an album I’ve been finding myself coming back to time and time again. Alien and enthralling. Bandcamp.

DOC – Northern Electric Shadow

In just four years, indie rock groovers Doc Talk Shock, hailing from the coastal city of Dalian, have redefined their sound so much the band was in need of a new name – DOC (short for Dalian Obscure Club). The five piece post rock trope is playing on a much larger canvas this time around on Northern Electric Shadow, stripping away at the noise and chaos that their previous incarnation may have exhibited and instead opting for something closer to a symphony albeit one layered in complexity and intrigue. While there is mystery and danger lurking amidst the compositions here, it’s the warmth of the album that draws you in. The lush coordination of ideas and melodies – synthesizers looping around and building over time; guitars sparring in the mellowest of terms; an undercurrent of progressive affirmative energy. Bandcamp.

Jia Huizhen – 11

Last year I highlighted the stellar work put out by ethereal electro pop artist Jia Huizhen, who in a year’s span released eleven brilliant demo tracks. Well, the singer-songwriter, who works with producer Yao Sichen, has gone ahead and given those tracks a facelift, releasing them as a LP, aptly entitled 11. The album is one glorious hit after another – beautiful, powerful and raw, unafraid to be vulnerable – something you simply don’t hear in most female artists nowadays. It’s uncompromising and personal – a singer in complete control of her sound. Bandcamp.

Zhaoze – The Relativity Of Space And Time

Guangzhou post rock band, Zhaoze, whose exhilarating use of the guqin with their post rock sound has made them a staple of the scene, return with grand ol’ live album, The Relativity Of Space And Time, recorded live from the Xinghai concert hall in their home city in late 2015. Clocking in at over 100 minutes, it’s a mammoth of a release, one that covers everything from their 2007 release Lost Dream, where the band wasn’t even using the guqin yet, to last year’s Yesterday Yes Tonight. A great introduction to one of China’s most promient post rock bands. Bandcamp.

Damacha – 3E3240

Shanghai-based electronic producer Damacha impressed early this year with the EP 3E3240. Known for his inventive, sophisticated, and most importantly, subtle incorporation of Chinese samples and experimental hip hop instrumentals, Damacha cretaes a lavish, layered, transfixing piece of electronica that is chock full of sentiment. The type of album that spreads good vibes up and down your body. Dope indeed. Bandcamp

JaJaTao – The Rite Of Spring

Chinese opera and grunge collide in JaJaTao’s bombastic and menacing debut The Rite of Spring. The Beijing based outfit is truly one of a kind – a spirited twisted reflection on the ideology and aura of Chinese ‘national rock’. Paired with an array of traditional folk instruments and Liu Yucao’s theatrical snarl and growl of a voice, JaJaTao strike a new chord of absurdist rock and roll – a madhouse for which the band is able to find new meaning and language in rock and roll. It may not be for everyone but there’s something dangerously seductive about what JaJaTao has conjured up here. Bandcamp.

Li Jianhong – 1969

Beijing based free improv guitarist, and one of the experimental and avant-garde scene’s leading figures, Li Jianhong, returns with his latest cosmic jam, 1969, out on WV Sorcerer Productions out of Pairs. Recorded in 2008 in Hangzhou, it’s an immersive psychedelic audio experience whose lo-fi nature is just a Trojan horse for the intricate, beautifully rendered mayhem that emerges from the artist’s guitar (and collection of pedals and other toys). It’s the perfect score to a science fiction film from the silent era, albeit one whose filmstrip is slowly decaying or better yet, fossilizing before your very eyes. A trip indeed worth taking. Bandcamp.

The Sad Sack – Lonely Boy

Chengdu punk garage outfit The Sad Sack, who formed in 2010, returned this summer with a new EP in tow, Lonely Boy, and contrary to the EP’s title, it’s a wickedly fun acidic punk record that’s doesn’t mess around. Straight up, ‘strap yourself in’ punk music that gives its lyrics and melodies room to breathe all the while maintaining a rowdy, playful spirit. Loose and focused – a hard balance to hit and yet they make it seem effortless. A pleasant discovery in diverse pool of punk here in China. Douban.

Quark – Design

Xi’an is impressing more and more with its crop of incredibly talented artists emerging from the Shaanxi capital city. The latest band to slap a big ol’ grin on my face is alt indie pop outfit Quark, a band that’s been floating around since 2010, but hasn’t really captured my attention till now. And that’s because Design, the latest EP from the group, is wonderfully laid out album featuring some truly stunning work. Tuneful, heart-warming, indie pop that never dips too far into shtick or schmaltz, the EP features three killers singles wrapped in short sound bite collages. Douban/Xiami.

Dr. Liu & the Human Centipede x Zankou – Weekend Punk

Two of Beijing’s feistiest hardcore punk bands – Dr. Liu & the Human Centipede and Zankou – throw down their debut on a double LP Weekend Punk. This ain’t your elbows flailing, warm hearted hardcore music. Vulgar, ruthless, and hurdling at you like a freight train, this is hardcore music with bite and it’s acidic tongue stuck firmly in cheek. Anarchic in nature, both bands play it fast and loose, injecting their songs with an abrasive, taking the piss out of everything from genre to song structure. Instrumentally there’s a more mischievous undertone to Zankou’s side of things, whereas Dr. Liu and company relish in the their malicious and devilishly riotous lyrics – in the end though there’s something utterly refreshing about how unhinged and untethered both bands sound. Xiami.

Various Artists – Do Hits Presents Year of the Monkey

Beijing based label Do hits had a mammoth year – releasing five stellar LPs from their catalogue of artists including Guzz, Jason Hou, Dokedo, Exodus, and ZHI16. And while each one finds refreshing ways to blend traditional Asian music with modern day electronic, there was no great Chinese New Year pleasure than spinning the label’s CNY compilation, Do Hits Presents Year of the Monkey, which breathes new life into the many sounds and traditions of the holiday – from ‘shitty TV shows to CNY-themed supermarket music’. Bandcamp.

Lonely Leary – 皮長山寝室バンド

Beijing post punk ruffians, Lonely Leary, hit the floor running with their first digital release 皮長山寝室バンド which translates to ummm, yeah, beats me. That bit of dry indifference is key to Lonely Leary’s coolheaded and icy post punk sensibility – one that’s been clawing at the Beijing music scene for the past couple years. The three-piece band has a wonderful addictive sound – one that’s full of jagged edges, paranoid unease, and brooding psychedelic overtones. And while the band wears its influences on their sleeve, their noise rock rowdiness and mischievous wordplay are all their own. Operating in the post punk dance hall world with such confident and tweaked relish, it sticks in you like a knife. Bandcamp.

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