I’ve listened to over 160 albums this year out of China. That’s way too much. And looking at some of the other ‘year end’ lists, it’s clear I’ve missed some. So yeah, my head hurts just thinking about it. Yet, as always with music, when I found something I connected with, I kept it close. Nurtured it. Showed it off. Forced it upon others. Whatever means necessary. Here are the albums that stuck with me throughout the year.
The Big Ten
Hedgehog – Phantom Pop Star
Hedgehog have outdone themselves with their latest, expanding their sound into pop territory like never before all the while maintaining their ruffled psychedelic-tinted rock n’ roll sensibilities. It’s this balance that turns Phantom Pop Star into perhaps the indie rock group’s best work to date. From the electronic backing in ‘DDDDDDreaMMMMMM’, to the dual vocals that propel ‘Phantom Pop Star’, to the subdued cello work on ‘Paintings’ and ‘Star Shine’, every stylistic choice surpasses its mark, as the band utilizes every trick and nuance of their sound to elevate their dreamy pop world. A singular piece of art through and through. Listen to it here.
Alpine Decline – Go Big Shadow City
Alpine Decline simply knocked it out of the park with their latest, Go Big Shadow City, produced by man about town Yang Haisong. It’s a robust piece of work, one that takes everything that the dystopian rock duo does great – ghostly vocals, hypnotic reverb, and atmospheric ‘end of days’ soundscapes that perfectly captures the rust, otherworldly glow, and grime of Beijing like no one else – and haven’t so much expanded it as refined it in ways that’s both ambitiously entertaining and emotionally satisfying in the most unexpected ways. As the title suggests Alpine Decline have gone big and haven’t missed a beat. Abrasive, beautiful, and bold – one of the most confident pieces of work this year. Listen to it here.
Moxizishi – Open Country
Here’s an album that caught me off guard – Beijing-based Yi (that’s southwestern Sichuan) musician Moxizishi, whose been steadily making a name for himself these past few years, collaborating with Dou Wei, one of China’s scenes heavyweight veterans, as well as performing on The Voice of China. Yet none of that prepared me for the sheer beauty that is Open Country, the artist’s debut. The twelve-track album is a masterpiece – one that takes utilizes the rhythm and vocal stylings of traditional Yi minority music and injects it with an experimental even improvisational energy that allows the songs to organically find a poetic nirvana. A delicate piece of work that takes its time, finds comfort in the unlikeliest places, and never takes a false step.
Ghost Bath – Funeral
There’s something amiss in Chongqing, cause whoever these Ghost Bath fellas are, they’ve straight up have jumped down the rabbit hole of metal’s more grave offshoots. Their debut, Funeral, which has already been acclaimed by more than a few international media outlets, is beautifully disturbing. First, there’s your lead singer hallowing like a madman at the moon; sobbing, shrieking – anything but making recognizable sentences. On top of that some of the angriest most vivid post-black metal that has graced my ears. Strikingly twisted stuff that packs a hell of a wallop. Listen to it here.
Summer Can’t Fall Asleep – zzZ
Zhongshan, a bit north of Hong Kong, is now home to one of the best debuts to come out of China this year. The band – Summer Can’t Fall Asleep. The album – zzZ. The four-piece band fronted by the immaculately voiced Kwan is in a league of their own here – six tracks of stripped-down indie rock and roll that’s brimming with life. From the voice, to the instrumental work, even the subtle addition of backing vocals, it’s a flawless showcase that works like gangbusters. Eagerly waiting to see where they take it next. Listen to it here.
Wang Wen – Eight Horses
Dalian post rock gods Wang Wen have returned with their eighth full length album (appropriately) titled Eight Horses featuring as expected eight epic compositions that the juggernaut band has become best known for. Put together by the fine lads over in Chengdu, New Noise, with post-production work done PK 14′s much respected lead singer Yang Haisong, as well as Ningbo based producer Anzi and Wouter Vlaeminckx, front man of Belgium indie band Toman, it\’s a beautiful stunning album that finds the band exploring new territories and laying to waste all other post rock albums of the year. Listen to it here.
The Bricks – Juncture Fugue
Hangzhou ska outfit The Bricks popped up last spring and has been my go to album for livening the mood in the gloomiest of days. Their latest album Juncture Fugue (音渡神游) is nine tracks of pure ska bliss. These guys aren’t reinventing the wheel here. But what it lacks in originality it makes up for in pure unadulterated love for the genre. There’s a looseness here that’s infectious, a laid back spirit that feels just right, and a contagious energy running amuck in this baby. Listen to it here.
SPICE – Force Analysis
The Hangzhou electro rock trio SPICE, composed of Chen Chen Chen, an experimental electronic musician and guitarist, Little Drummer, and Yī Lái, return with their third EP entitled Force Analysis – and the only question I have for them now is – where the hell is our album already! SPICE is not only proof that there’s a lot happening outside the first tier cities – they’re one of most innovative, intriguing, and downright exciting bands coming out of China, period. A band fully invested in their sound – whether it’s taking a groovy beat in the beginning of ‘Hypnosis’ and turning it into an epic psychedelic jam by its end; or giving us a club-ready jam out of ‘Yellow+Black’ – SPICE radiates with creating soundscapes that live and breathe on their own. Give it spin here.
Pairs – Brief Lesbian/ Maleika on Casley
Man am I going to miss Pairs. The Shanghai self-proclaimed ‘shit rock’ duo were in peak form this year with their final two releases – Brief Lesbian (no one knows how to throw titles around like Xiao Zhong) and Maleika on Casley. Gut wrenching noisr rock that wallow in Xiao Zhong’s cynical fraught outlook like never before. Instead of allowing the emotions and imagery unfold in their usual one to three minute maelstrom, these songs burrow their way under your skin, and berates you to the point of restlessness. Every awkward moment, defeated shudder, judgmental twitch hits like a needle to the arm. Probably the most accurate account of what it feels like to be an aspiring (expat) artist in China. Give them a listen here and here.
Liang Yiyuan – 须臾形下器
There’s a certain solace to be found in Wuhan-based experimental artist Liang Yiyuan’ latest, 须臾形下器. I can’t exactly put on my finger on it, but there’s a existential quality to album that sucks you in. It’s a master class in atmosphere – using flutes, guitar, bass, and a Finnish instrument called the Kantele, Liang Yiyuan creates a world of sound to get lost in. An exploration of sound and silence, meditation and mysticism, and my ‘chill out’ album of the year. Utterly intoxicating. Give it a listen here.
10 Other Albums Worth Mentioning
Xiban – Peace and Prosperity/Powder of Five Minerals,
Xiban, a multi-national, multi-instrumental troupe that fully embodies the world music category and then takes it even further by incorporating experimental textures and techniques, creating a world of sound that’s invigorates the old noggin. A reinterpretation of Chinese music that’s absolutely mesmerizing. Give them a listen over here.
The Yours – Teenagarten
A bit of a cheat cause they’re out of Hong Kong, but whatta gonna do about it. Youthful aggression at its best. A vigorous, distortion-bleeding affair of a band on the cusp of success in Hong Kong. Top notch production work and melodies that linger long after. Listen to it here.
Howie Lee – Eastside Sampler
Likely the closest I’ll get to fully embracing the club scene here. The four-track EP is a master class in bubbly transnational electronic music, one that embraces the sounds and beats of Chinese culture while maintaining his signature trap style. Listen to it here.
L1STALLDO – Life 4 Luv
Instrumental hip hop built upon decades and decades worth of pop culture and sounds that become engrained in our everyday routine – the hip hop trio (LIST + ALL + DO) dabble in everything from folk, jazz, rock, and funk, whilst utilizing an array of soundbites, creating a unique listening experience. Give it a listen here.
SMZB – A Letter From China
Wuhan celtic punk veterans return with a raging lineup of songs that looks at the crimes of society – from celebrity lifestyle, turning a blind eye, fleeing governments officials, and using violence as a means to an end. SMZB present it all with such genuine, disheartened concern that it’s hard to not get wrapped up in the anthems. The flame of punk is alive and well. Listen to it here.
Dear Eloise – Farewell to the Summer
The guitar washed, shoegaze side project from P.K 14 frontman Yang Haisong and his wife Sun Xia continue building their castle in the sky. Captures perfectly that lucid dream state as one drifts off to sleep. Listen to it here.
Various Artists – Lets Get Naked And Do Some Drones/Taxee Tapes Vol. 3/Xina Electronica/ Module 1: Oscillate
Love me my compilations. Great way to explore some of the electronic scene’s more offbeat characters. From the icy cascades of Dead J, to the hook driven Technicolor pop of thruoutin, there is a lot of goodies amiss each of these compilations. More please. Listen here, here, here, and here.
Hanggai – Baifang
On their latest we’re treated to a more mature Hanggai that’s not afraid and justifiably more interested in expanding the scope and potential of their sound, allowing songs to build and hitting some serious emotional highs. Listen to it here, here, and grab it over at iTunes.
Mercader – Mercader
It took a few listens to get into the groove but the Guangzhou based post punk/no wave/indie rock outfit Mercader eventually hooked me in. A more melodic P.K.14; a dirtier New Pants, the lyrically driven music suggests a band with a lot to offer. Give the debut a spin over here.
Genjing Records did a stellar job this year with releases from Snapline, Little Punk, The Yours, Hot & Cold, Guiguisuisui, Low Bow, Carsick Cars, The Fallacy, AV Okubo, as well as a full length LP from After Argument. Lots of golden tracks amongst those and it’s wonderful to see someone carrying the vinyl torch in town. Check out their full discography here.