Another year; another onslaught of new releases to comb through. With the indie music scene at a much more fortunate place than say last year, it was clear that 2021 was going to be packed to the gills with new releases from every band and label under the sun. While many labels came out swinging this year, such as Maybe Mars, Ruby Eyes, and Eating Music, I noticed a lot more bands releasing their own music or, at the very least, holding back on releasing their music with some of the bigger names. I’m getting the sense that lots of people are approaching the musical landscape with more perspective – keeping a close eye on how it’s developing and gauging the pros and cons of having a big label backing you. The playing field is far from level, but I do believe bands have a bigger say now than they ever did before. And as some bands proved this year, you don’t need a powerhouse label to sell out a nationwide tour or make a splash.
All of which leads to what? Well, it’s a bit complicated. The network of labels, distributors, and promoters is more saturated and as convoluted as ever. Labels buy labels. Labels start sub-labels. It all gets very ‘A Beautiful Mind’. We see some labels only handling certain aspects of a band’s yield or outsourcing tours to maverick promoters with more pull. If anything 2021 was the year that promoters made a killing and made a name for themselves. But I ramble – let’s try to highlight a few of the releases and labels that stood out to me this year.
Maybe Mars continued building upon the momentum from last year, dropping much-anticipated releases from some of their staple bands (Backspace, Wu Wei, TOW) in the first half of the year before introducing audiences to their new crop in the second half of the year. And with a lot of new names and singles making their way out, it’s clear they’re rejuvenated. Ruby Eyes has well kept mighty busy this year – with highlights being Hardcore Raver In Tears’ debut and Silent Speech’s double-LP debut – one of this year’s best.
One of the newest contenders has been bié Records, the Beijing label established by producer Yu Su with former members of Vice China. They have made waves with a slew of releases from some of the scenes most exciting new voices – everything from the esoteric avant pop of Shannxi artist Barbarika to Hangzhou post punk breakthroughs Salty Tomorrow. Like all things Vice-adjacent, their tastemakers through and through – so will be interesting to see what other trends they pick up on in the coming year. Modernsky continues to branch out and diversify their deep catalogue with two more sub-labels TransMiB and Water-Made – it’s still unclear what direction these two labels are heading into – but TransMiB is off to a hell of a start with their releases from Domino Trigger and LST. Keep an eye out for both of them. From the sound of it – Modernsky are signing new bands left and right, so 2022 could be a big one for them. Speaking of which, StreetVoice, the Taiwan-based platform, has been making more and more moves within China, as the two industries slowly become to merge very fludily.
This was also a very fine year for Shengjian Records. The label seems to have transformed over the past year into the defining go-to-label for indie pop in China- everything from The 尺口MP’s debut to The Bootleg’s debut (how one of my favorite releases of the year was recorded on an iPad is beyond me) is top of the line stuff. They seem to have an eye for building up bands with word-of-mouth and sly marketing – all done with a deft personable touch.
On the DIY front, one label I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more from in 2022 is Freedom Heron Records 自由之鹭唱片, based out of Xiamen. Fueled by some of the punks scenes most steadfast members, there seems to be a real grassroots effort to their output, which included everything from Nanning post rock newcomers Jianxisheng and Changsha torch bearers CSBQ.
On a smaller scale, Letter Records, had a fruitful year – for the most part focusing on an array of sexy 7” records. And keeping with their diehard DIY ethos, Qiii Snacks continues putting out some of the years most offbeat releases, as well as expanding their oeuvre further into China’s neighboring territories. And lest not forget the true blood DIY purveyors out there – Pest Productions and Dying Arts Recordings – who have had their grubby little fingers on the pulse of the metal and punk scene for quite some time. Not a month goes by without them dropping something (for some of the most brutal underground punk releases check out Naonaosi and Stick Xiaoming Again And Again 反复攻击小明).
As for China’s more esoteric tastemakers – WV Scorcher, and to a lesser extent Old Heaven Books, have become renowned labels outside of China for their finely curated releases from the experimental and world music scenes’ most cutting-edge artists. Pitchfork-worthy write-ups – gasp! From concept to production to packaging – not one aspect goes unnoticed in their releases – making their bandcamp pages a true delight for people who still indulge in physical releases.
On the electronic front, Eating Music continued to strut their stuff – with a handful of buoyant innovative releases that showcases the elastic stylings of the label – that minddexx release is my ambient moodsetter of the year. Meanwhile, the established globally-recognized labels like Genome 6.66Mbp and SVBKVLT continued to shake it up adding more international acts to their roster. Mintone out of Chengdu kept it breezy, and Sound Blanc quietly released swarms of ambient-based soundtracks to fill the void of existential dread in our lives .
Of course, there are countless others – Space Circle released one of my favourite albums – Little Wizard III – this year. Budding Beijing labels like VIBEZ and Cold Neo dropped some of this year’s best surprises – Dalian’s Floating in the Mist and the prog rock fever dream that is Dreaming Julie. And plenty of other bands put in the work themselves – most notably Dirty Finger’s mammoth sophomore release.
All in all – a pretty damn year for music releases. Here are my favorites albums of the year – I suppose you could break them up into three separate tiers. But really, they’ve all gravy in my book. Click on each album for links and full review.
THE BOOTLEGS 靴腿 – 幽灵的回访
Backspace 退格 – Ants Corrupt Elephant 群蚁蚀象
Silent Speech 沉默演讲 – Law of Instability不稳定的规律/Orderly Chaos有序混沌
Little Wizard 小巫师 – Little Wizard III
Dirty Fingers 脏手指 – Planet Dominica Vivavilli 多米力高威威维利星
j-fever 小老虎, Eddie Beatz, Zhou Shijue 周士爵 – 心愈频率
Fayzz – Connection
mindexxx – A Bleary Elapse 回忆模糊推演
Salty Tomorrow 明天的盐 – 明天的盐
Flip House – Sleep Somewhere Else
Floating in the Mist 悬在雾中 – 失败博物馆
Omnipotent Youth Society 万能青年旅店 – Inside the Cable Temple 冀西南林路行
Sadkids Club – Destroy Myself 100 Times
Sleeping Dogs x nehcetep – Petedogs
Shanghai Qiutian 上海秋天 – Home：Revolution 家:革命
Guzz – Seven Days and Twelve Nights 七天十二夜
Wu Tiao Ren 五条人 – Live Fish Upstream, Dead Fish Drift Downstream 活鱼逆流而上，死鱼随波逐流/Half True, Half False 一半真情流露，一半靠表演
Dreaming Julie 发梦茱莉 – Dreaming Julie 发梦茱莉
Early Park 鳄梨帕克 – 晚安 魔力岛
Qunxiang 群像 – Dim Party 低迷聚会
The Molds – MT.KOOLMOON 酷月山
Naohai 闹海 – The Crowd 乌合之众
Jo’s Moving Day 乔迁日 – Itinerary 航行指南
Brain Failure 脑浊 – 滚蛋吧，2020
Hardcore Raver in Tears 白纸扇 – The Survivors Club 幸存者俱乐部
Domino Trigger 推骨牌的人 – Facades
Dashengun 大神棍 – People’s Artist 人民艺术家
C.S.B.Q – 未来的宝藏
Bad Sweetheart – Bye Bye That’s All 今天就到这
Aming Liang 阿鸣 – MIDORI