You know when you’re struggling to narrow down your list from 40-plus albums that it’s been a hell of a year for music. From heart-pounding debuts to wildly surprising comebacks; from the onslaught of bubbly electronica to the rise of shoegaze and slacker rock; and from instant classics to records that grew on me over time – these are some of China’s highlight releases of the year.
So strap yourself in, toss on some headphones, and dive into the best sounds that kept us going. (If you have any other recommendations please leave them in the comments below – the more vibrations the merrier).
Re-TROS 重塑雕像的权利 – Before the Applause (Beijing/Modern Sky)
After years of waiting, Re-TROS return with their opus, Before the Applause, a sprawling genre-expanding album that takes in everything from krautrock, post-punk, to blistering techno and ambient pop and molds it to their ever-eccentric and unique vision. For a band I was assured had run out of gas, it can’t be stated how much my expectations were surpassed on this release.
Goodbye Honey Boy – Daydreaming Days (Beijing/SJ Records)
Beijing-based dream pop trio Goodbye Honey Boy come out swinging on their airless debut EP. With an atmosphere that’s dripping in honey, this release embraces its influences – think Brian Eno to Beach House –and makes for a dizzying concoction that hits all the right notes. A bittersweet delight.
The 尺口MP – Love 愛 (Fuzhou/Qiii Snacks Records)
Fuzhou ‘leisure-pop trio’ THE 尺口MP aka The Romp released this lo-fi pop gem of an EP. A bit of jangly surf rock, some shoegaze riff-raff, and plenty of dream pop reverb, it’s pretty much homemade for the beach.
Howie Lee – Homeless 无家 (Beijing/Do Hits)
Prominent Beijing electronic producer goes existential on his latest dizzying concoction of Chinese world bass. The six-track EP leans heavily into the ethnic sounds of China but Mr. Lee integrates them with the frenzy of a mad scientist, twisting and flipping any familiarity we may have with these traditional sounds straight onto their back. It’s a jarring experience – one that leaves you feeling alienated and lost, as if you’ve stumbled upon some future civilization.
Shu Ying 树樱 – Girl’s Girl’s World (Shanghai/Self-Released)
Shanghai singer-songwriter, Shu Ying, returns with the snappy, profoundly catchy, emotionally rich LP Girl’s Girl’s World. It’s rock and roll streamlined with a clear ear for what’s makes a chorus pop, with lyrics that are on the mark, and more importantly, a voice that stings with emotional honesty and pulpy aplomb.
ZHI16 – 5PM (Beijing/Self-Released)
Quite possibly the slyest electronic release to emerge this year, 5PM from Beijing-based electronica artist ZHI16 is a lush, serene, sonically smooth sampling of electronica that goes down like a glass of Champagne. Full of intoxicating flourishes, from old Chinese ballads to jazzy brass samples, it’s electropop that glistens.
Dirty Fingers 脏手指 – How’d I Turn So Bad 我怎么学的这么坏 (Shanghai/Maybe Mars)
An assault on the senses, these Shanghai punk ruffians keep things fast and loose with their down-and-out sophomore release – an unholy mess of ramshackle charisma, tightly wound melodies, and a carefree yet volatile attitude. An artifact of a band in their prime without the needed assistance of slick production values or other label tricks, this is punk done right.
Xie Yugang 谢玉岗 – Echo in Library 回声图书馆 (Dalian/Space Circle Records)
With his solo ambient LP, Wang Wen’s Xie Yugang writes an ambient ode to his coastal home city of Dalian and its venue Echo Library, the bookstore, gallery, and above all else, safe haven for artists like himself. A blissed-out daydream (or better yet, a lost memory) that sinks in, Xie Yugang finds pleasure in the haze, waves, and lyrical currents of life.
Foster Parents – Grim (Shanghai/Qiii Snacks Records)
Playful, melodic, breezy yet instrumentally skillful and astute, the Shanghai duo of Fostets Parens are a worthy addition to the growing list of instrumental bands making their mark on China’s music scene. Far from grim, the album wears its heart on its sleeve, using a grab-bag of samples to invoke ’90s nostalgia while nimbly plucking at those guitar strings. Math rock catnip.
Nouvelle – Nouvelle (Guanghzhou/Black Deer Records)
Jagged noise pop coupled with earnest easygoing melodies that trigger all those bottled up feelings of youth – angst, ambition, and recklessness – as the bandmembers squint ahead towards hazy futures. The Guangzhou trio Nouvelle’s self-titled debut EP is a shaken-up bottle of lo-fi pop ready to break out.
Hai Qing 海青 – The Flesh (Shanghai/D-Force Records)
Avant-garde gets a Mongolian twist on the latest release from Hai Qing. Words linger and strike down with terrestrial veracity, King Crimson-esque dissonant guitar riffs linger, while a substantial amount of didgeridoo and a slew of guests add their esoteric instrumental groove to the mix and in turn, create an intoxicating world of mischief and curiosity.
Faded Ghost – Moon Mad (Shanghai/SVBKVLT)
A nocturnal fever dream that bewitches and mystifies with its pagan-stylized witch house vibes – Faded Ghost, the side project of Shanghai singer ChaCha, finds the artist in the producer’s chair as she breathes musical life into her memories, experiences, and dreams through a combination of vocals, layered field recordings, and electronic wizardry on her hauntingly beautiful LP. A mood piece through and through.
Default – California Nebula (Beijing/Kanjian Records)
Default, out of Beijing, hold the shoegaze torch high and proud and their debut – a master class of atmosphere, singed longing, and crushing reverb. Perhaps even more impressive – it was recorded in a university cafeteria basement (of the North China Electric Power University) by four students.
thruoutin – Contingent of Outlying Territory 外地领土 (Beijing/Ran Music)
Beijing-based electronic producer thruoutin outdoes himself on his latest EP, which utilizes everything from Chicago footwork to field recordings to create a dizzying concoction that’s both a dance floor ripper and bedroom mixer. Charting into unknown territory has never sounded so satisfying.
Chinese Football – Here Comes a New Challenger! (Wuhan/Wild Records)
Continuing on their ascent this year, math-infused emo rockers Chinese Football show off their new drummer with four brand new songs that further solidifies the band’s tight musicianship and sound –effortlessly creating twinkly post-emo jams that embrace their pop sensibilities with a gentle touch.
Yue Xuan – Masse (Beijing/Mo Records)
Composer, pianist, and soundtrack artist Yue Xuan continues making good use of her classically trained talents on her latest Masse EP – three tracks of hauntingly gorgeous piano works viewed as “a calm answer to the mixed-up world.” However, it’s arguably in the remix followup that the true magic is allowed to flourish as Chinese electronic producers iimmune, Far Infinity, and Cvalda give their brilliant and ambitious interpretations of Yue Xuan’s tracks.
The Pillowman 枕头人 – The Little Girl Says 小女孩说 (Hangzhou/self-released)
It’s a bittersweet hello and goodbye on the debut from The Pillowman. The shoegaze trio out of Hangzhou didn’t even make it to two years as a band and that fleeting, affecting touch is captured brilliantly on their only EP – a blistering, drowned-out, melancholic letter to growing up – warts and all. We barely knew ya, Pillowman!
Little Wizard 小巫师 – Little Wizard II (Shaoxing/Space Circle Records)
Shaoxing instrumental rock trio Little Wizard, return with their latest offering – a ramped-up freight train of thundering drums, rip-roaring guitars, and jaded bass lines that keep the dial turned up. Never overstaying their welcome, their songs strike with ferocity and precision, a blistering blend of math and post-rock highs that keeps the pace tight and the thrills unwavering.
Swimful – Pearls (Shanghai/SVBKVLT)
Looking for a little bubbly electronica to kick off your weekend? Let the UK-bred Shanghai-based producer Swimful lead the way. Nostalgic ‘sino melodies’ that burst with color placed alongside ‘melancholic atmospheres’ that drip with condensation, it does exactly what an EP should do – leave you wanting more.
Zhang Yang Experimental Group – Zhang Yang Experimental Group (Beijing/Taisheng Wenhua)
Drummer virtuoso Zhang Yang breaks it down on his wildly imaginative, frenzied avant-garde release as the Zhang Yang Experimental Group. On the release, Yang uses the opportunity to collaborate with some of the scene’s most prolific musicians including bassist Han Yang, singer Zang Yuhong, guitarist Yao Lan (of Second Hand Rose), musician Song Yuzhe (of Dawanggang), and producer Jason Hou.
TRUETRUE – ASTROLOGY (Macao x Boston/Babel Records)
Listening to Babel Records’ latest, there’s no doubt that the label has a bright future ahead of them. While the label has so far mainly dabbled in upbeat kinetic electronic compilations, ASTROLOGY is the real deal –a full-length introduction to TRUETRUE, the collaborative duo of Macao electronic producer Eliot Lee and Boston-based composer, vocalist, and producer Chuchu Wen. A synth-pop flavored piece of electronica that burns like a sultry and layered love letter to R&B.
Sound and Fury – Sprout (Chengdu/Boring Productions)
Longstanding Chengdu shoegaze outfit finally gets around to releasing their peppy, hook-filled debut Sprout. A melodically charged, reverb-soaked album, it’s an undeniably nimble record with big harmonies lurking just below the surface making for air-tight sugar-coated shoegaze.
Chui Wan – The Landscape the Tropics Never Had 热带从未有过的风景 (Beijing/Maybe Mars)
A little more mature and a little more assured, resident psychedelic groovers Chui Wan aren’t so much trying to shake you loose on their latest but instead are asking you to tag along, as they meander through each riff and progression, twisting and turning as the songs grow denser and denser, taking on new forms, and unraveling in often striking ways. Definitely an album that rewards repeated listens.
Ugly Girls – Welcome to the Suck (Shanghai/Self-Released)
Newly formed Shanghai riot grrl outfit Ugly Girls take a sledgehammer to the paradigm that is Western modern society and culture on their candid, enraged, not to mention, incredibly fun debut Welcome to the Suck. It’s also one of the most pointed, spirited takedowns of gender stereotypes, taking everyone from gym bros to “fuck bosses” to task. The truth never hurt so good.
Mirrors 解离的真实 – Mirrors 解离的真实 (Shanghai/Self-Released)
A precision missile of panicky mayhem and trance-like grooves, Shanghai’s Mirrors’ debut EP is a psychedelic throttler that hits you like a freight train and doesn’t let up. It’s feral, primal, and as druggy as they come – the kind of music that possesses the spirit and shakes you to the core.