2018 was notable for being the year a lot of labels – both small niche indie labels like Wild Records in Wuhan, as well as the bigger and meaner Ruby Eyes Records – found their footing, consistently putting out music that has been winning over fans all across the country. And that wasn’t all – besides some unexpected and bewilderingly satisfying debuts from bands and artists all around China, proving once again that Beijing isn’t quite the creative hub it used to be, some of the scene’s most influential bands released some of their best work this year, once again raising the bar for years to come. In all, not a bad 2018.
P.K.14 – What We Talk About When We Talk About His Name当我们谈论他的名字时我们在谈论什么
The esteemed post-punk godfathers of China, P.K.14, are back with their seventh full-length LP – their boldest and arguably most accessible album yet and one that feels larger than life – both an accumulation of the band’s output over the years as well as a challenge to bands across China. While their influence has long lingered in the underground scene for better or worse, the band has once again raised the bar, creating an album that feels urgent, thrilling, and musically lush with detail and poetic prose. Besides upping the production on this baby up to eleven, the band also brought in members of Berlin avant-garde ensemble Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra – turning Haisong’s musings into manifesto. A masterpiece of lyricism and atmosphere that echoes across the new world order and resonates deep in your consciousness.
Moxizishi 莫西子诗 – Moonlight Is Very White月光白得很
Beijing-based Yi (southwestern Sichuan) musician Moxizishi, has been steadily making a name for himself these past five years. Utilizing the rhythm and vocal stylings of traditional Yi minority music and injecting it with an experimental even improvisational energy that allows the songs to organically find a poetic nirvana, he once again mesmerizes on ‘Moonlight Is Very White’ which finds the artist taking refuge in the pine forests and mountains where he grew up all the while playing on a larger canvas sonically. It’s a dizzying concoction of world music influences, spearheaded by the singer’s soaring voice, with just enough psychedelic allure, reggae funk pop momentum, and indie rock aplomb to get the weariest of listeners intrigued.
Baishui – Their Paradise
The latest from the Sichuan-raised composer, multi-instrumentalist, and sound artist Baishui is a multi-faceted ambitious ensemble that finds the artist expanding upon his musical eccentricities all the while retaining and sharpening his intimate and affectionate signature. Originally intended to be a purely instrumental piece using analog synthesizers, the album slowly transformed into a spirited, kinetic, electroacoustic song-oriented album that finds the musician honing his singing chops with additional help from electronic musician Yao Chunyang and Chengdu singer Yuan Tian.
Zoogazer 动物园钉子户 – Zoogazer 動物園釘子戶
While shoegaze has been seeping into the nation’s consciousness for quite some time, there’s hasn’t been a band to break through as boldly as Zoogazer has done with their full-length via Qiii Snacks Records. Hailing from Xuzhou, Jiangsu, the band has crafted a collection of infectious sun-drenched pop songs that reverberate with a heady scraping of noise bolstered by the crackling of youthful energy. This is dream pop to fall punch-drunk in love with.
Endless White 白百 – Flow West to You 白河夜船
Xi’an’s Endless White has over the years become one of the shoegaze scene’s spotlight bands. They make good on the hype with their exceptional debut. Named after the novel Asleep by Japanese author Yoshimoto Banana, the album plays with the idea of lonely souls bewitched by spiritual sleep. An apt metaphor for depression, Endless White’s music, led by the wispy vocals of singer Zhang Wanyi, feels in many ways like an inescapable daydream – one that’s full of jangly guitar work and sublime walls of sound that engulfs you. Nevertheless, the quartet manages to inject rays of light as the album unfolds, with the band particularly brimming with life by the closing track ‘Hit By Me’. Shoegaze with abundances of emotional heft, Endless White have a winner on their hands here.
Zhaoze 沼泽 – Birds Contending 争鸣
Ever since we first heard that pluck of the guqin on their 2011 opus 1911 we’ve been diehard fans of Zhaoze over here. The Guangzhou post rock band has been on a tear since then, with one mammoth release after another. Their latest entitled Birds Contending, recorded in a forest in Belgium (your ears may even detect birds chirping in the background) may not seem like much on the surface – in fact, it’s only one track that stretches out over forty minutes. But within you’ll be treated to one of the finest paced tracks of the year – one that takes the band’s signature sound of guqin-laced post rock and ups the ante, finding new avenues to explore whilst providing spellbinding intervals that can stir your soul before plundering head first into the abyss.
Peach Illusion 桃子假象 – 同名专辑
Xiamen quietly and modestly solidifies itself as a city with a distinct scene with Peach Illusion, the dreamy synth pop duo made up of vocalist O.O and producer C.C (The White Tulips’ keyboardist). Full of hushed, gracefully delicate lyrics that would melt the even the coldest of hearts and jangly synth pop flavored arrangements chock full of boyish lo-fi charm and bubbly youthful energy, it’s a fully realized EP and one that immediately comes to life. Romantic wanderlust spiked with fizzy soda pop.
EASYEAST – JUNGLE/METROPOLIS
Jinan based electronic producer EASYEAST splashes some Technicolor joy onto Prajnasonic’s sublabel Atmos and their latest two-track EP. Lush harmonies, coupled with brisk melody and beats that reach the softest corners of the listener’s heart, there’s something immediate and intimate about EASYEAST’s style here. A briskness and smooth fluidity between the electronic elements and the more organic sounds (strings, percussion) that recalls some of Four Tet’s more folk-laced tunes, one that paints the rich soundscapes with a seasonal shade, capturing the humidity and flow of the lakes and forests in summer and autumn.
Li Wangnian 黎忘年 – Already Left 出来了
After the posthumous debut release from Hangzhou post-punk band Wisdom Teeth on Maybe Mars earlier this summer, lead singer and guitarist Li Wangnian comes swinging back with an exceptional solo release on Wuhan based label Sense Club Records that proves that Wisdom Teeth was no fluke and was just an inkling of what the multi-talented artist was capable of. From piano-led ballads to programmed drum beats over post-punk grooves; to songs that touch upon grief to nods to renowned Chinese poet Lu Xun, with ear-tickling instrumental buffers found throughout, the album is brimming with ideas both musically and lyrically. Unlike Wisdom Teeth, which at times felt confined to its genre, Li Wangnian is able to find solace in the unlikeliest of places here, and in turn, has crafted one of the finest albums of the year.
Wang Wen 惘闻– Invisible City 看不见的城市
With nearly 20 years of existence, the evolution of Wang Wen and surprises they still manage to throw at us is not unusual at this point. But on Invisible City, they seem to have tapped into something interplanetary – utilizing synths, ambient tones, and other electronic flourishes to create one of their most affecting and in some ways warm albums. The bombastic outpouring of melody is still present – no one knows how to build up to a rousing (and at times baroquely haunting) finish like these guys. However, the band seems more in tune than ever in setting the mood and letting the atmosphere fill the void. Another transcendent triumph from Wang Wen.
The Twenties – The Twenties
There’s something so direct and refreshing about The Twenties. The Beijing based band are in fine form on their monstrously entertaining debut. Pure, unadulterated guitar pop that may be modest on the surface but is full of pop aptitude and craft. A bottle rocket of lo-fi indie rock that brings to mind everyone from Pavement, The Strokes, to Liz Phair and The Cribs – eccentric, laid-back, sincere and full of riotous youthful energy that’s genuine above all else. A joyous rock and roll album from one of the scene’s finest.
The Molds – Born Astride The Grave
The Molds bring their cult-like status to light on their rough and tumble, gangly and atmospheric debut Born Astride The Grave, out on Space Fruity Records. Surf rock strung out on methadone, psychedelic rock for those who prefer the company of tumbleweeds, what The Molds do first and foremost is strike a mood and submerge you in it. Thick as molasses, the band wisely takes their time with each rhythm and verse, allowing the dirt and humid air to seep into the pores of their well-being – so much that Liu Ge’s sounds like he’s wasting away in a bar in the desert and loving every second of it. It’s this restraint, this nonchalant charisma and refusal to give in to their rock and roll demons (or perhaps more appropriately those demons have already done their damage) that lets the band make their mark.
Ruining – Eternity and a Day 永恒和一日
Dalian musician, Ruining, known for his work with the now-defunct Which Park, returns with the absorbing ambient album Eternity and a Day on Space Circle Records. Using every trick up his sleeve – from glitches to plucked strings, from piano chords to modular synth tomfoolery, he engulf listeners in a world that feels forgotten and lost. There’s a meditative ever melancholic spell that looms over the proceedings, giving each track a transcendent aura – and does what any great ambient artist does – freely explore abstract forms and the vast aural architecture within.
Backspace – Human Nature Architecture 人性建筑
Indie rock with bite that pays tribute to the past and future, Beijing’s Backspace have sharpened their edges and extended their reach on their wildly fun debut as they ‘explore the complexities of modern society, the fragmented minds that populate it, and the grotesque but all too human ways we navigate it’. A slice of William Burroughs, a heavy hit of krautrock, a thick haze of surf rock, and dissociative technological nightmares that’ll consume you, it’s a head trip worth taking whose razor-sharp guitars, crisp bass vibes, and gallant drums aren’t afraid to collapse into a hallucinatory schizophrenic breakdown that all but falls off the rails.
Zafka – The Wild Ark/The Abraham’s Machine
Zafka, aka Zhang Anding, the Beijing-based sound artist, experimental musician, and “youth culture expert” wowed us twice this year with two releases on Shanghai’s emerging play rec label, demonstrating the artist’s penchant for ‘playing outside the box’ and taking every opportunity to take a sound and twist it on its head all the while remaining something that keeps you earworms wiggling in delight. Strange, buoyant, and full of minimalistic wonders, it’s electronic music that’s not afraid to have a little anarchic fun on its way to the dancefloor. IDM music for folks who ingested way too much Nintendo and anime, there’s a sublime joy to the simple pleasures and grooves that Zafka resides in, taking a remarkably restrained approach to riding each new flourish that comes its way with assured ease and playful splicing, like a modern day Phantom of the Opera put through a vaporwave prism.
The Sailor’s Grape 水手葡萄– Golf Man高爾夫大亨
What happens when four of the punk scene’s most familiar faces – Wang Junping (former guitarist of legendary hardcore band Shit Dog), Shi Xudong (bass player for P.K.14), and Li Fan (drummer of The Bedstars), and Chacha (guitarist of Underdog) form a reggae band – one of the year’s best surprises is what. Recorded between 2015 and 2017, their debut is a loose, unfastened, and endlessly rewarding album that touches on punk, ska, reggae, and 60’s Buddy Holly-style early rock music. What could easily could have been seen as a cheeky side-project from a group of musicians looking to shake things up, their love for the genre comes through and through – capturing the ramshackle lived-in interplay between its members, making it sound as if you’re sitting in on a late night drinking session that inevitably turns into a full out jam session.
Scarlet’s Other Parts – EP
Boring Productions, the Shenzhen DIY label with an affinity for c86 pop sounds unearths the latest project from the incredibly prolific Airmum, whose previous projects including islet, Kakikuke, and Daytrip Dormancy were favorites in inner indie circles. Scarlet’s Other Parts is a slow burning, tender, janglesome collection of lyrically unassuming yet potent songs which the artist describes as ‘wordy prolix pop’. While there’s an undercurrent of angst and guitar-led turmoil in the EP, Airmum keeps the mood starry-eyed and gentle, like a lounge room singer at his most loose and sincere, crafting some subtly moving tunes. Another win for Boring Productions.
Lonely Cookies 浪味仙贝 – East Lake Swimming 东湖游泳
Indie pop done right – equals parts heart and finesse that never manages to feel cheap or manufactured – Lonely Cookies out of Wuhan are the real deal. The four-piece outfit led by the silky-voiced Feng Han, state that the songs were made for ‘night cruising’ where the fantastical romance lingers in the air and we’re able to remove our disguises to reveal our true selves. Catchy as all hell, with a keen sense of melody and harmony, there’s an effortlessness to how easily the band brings you into the fold, relishing late-night stops at convenience stores and wishing that aliens would just show already and take you away from your mundane existence.
Trip Fuel – Departure
The up and coming hopefuls from Hefei don’t disappoint on their ambitious and tender ode to bittersweet love and pain. Released on Wuhan’s Wild Records, the band manages to cover quite a bit of ground – everything from twisty math rock to post rock intrigue, with splashes of shoegaze introversion and dream pop vulnerability thrown in for good measure – but what stands out most is the band’s unwillingness to stick to the script. A promising debut that pays respect to our adolescent fragility and the volatile emotions that lurk just beneath the surface.
Lonely Leary – Through the Park, Almost There
Maybe Mars is having a hell of a year – besides the hotly anticipated debut from Beijing’s Backspace, the independent label has overseen releases from street punk stalwarts Demerit and Chengdu post-punk trailblazers Hiperson. However, none have hit as hard as Lonely Leary’s blistering debut – a down and dirty cesspool of paranoid angst, cool-headed melodies, jagged edges, and pummeling post-punk mania that perfectly captures the band’s live raw energy.
The Hormones – The Hormones
Amidst prominent lineup changes and their brush with mainstream stardom, it’s a relief that The Hormones (lead singer Zhu Mengdie pictured above), the all-female indie rock band out of Chengdu, have managed to retain their edge. More of a relief is just how catchy the band’s debut is – a tightly wound, expertly produced album of somber dance punk that finds the four-piece renewed with a newfound maturity.
Fishdoll – Noonsense
Beijing-based singer-songwriter and producer Fishdoll mesmerizes on her new beautifully realized LP – a piece of old-school jazztronica layered to the tee with inebriating flourishes, a tribute to soulful trip-hop that’s buoyant, lush, and rich with detail that plays out like a day trip to ‘90s era New York City through the lens of our increasingly globalized world. Put on Noonsense and what you get is a vibrant swirl of styles and grooves that overwhelms the senses and intoxicates.
Genome 6.66Mbp – Self Salvation Compilation
Genome 6.66Mbp, out of Shanghai, dabbles in a dark-minded, bombastic, artistically-elevating brand of electronica that is downright hypnotic. They also made some serious headway in 2017 and to celebrate, put out this delicious compilation chock-full of ‘forward-thinking weirdo club music’ from an array of talent from China (Hyph11e, Dirty K, RVE, Khemist, and Charity) and abroad. Genome 6.66Mbp’s music is both hauntingly mesmerizing and a firm reminder that the Chinese underground electronic scene is heading in exhilarating directions.
Hedgehog – Sound of Life Towards …
Hedgehog, one of China’s most influential indie rock bands, return with their first release in four years, and quite possibly their last. While far from being the band’s most profound album, there’s no denying their continued knack for crafting lyrically-rich, melody-driven indie rock anthems that speak to an entire generation. In many ways, their latest is an encapsulation of the band’s many modes – from pop delights to grunge breakouts, enraged social critics, boisterous party animals, and for once, young adults who have found themselves on the other side of the mirror.
Pool of Light 光淵 – Abyss 淵
Anton Bogdanov – the Shenyang-based zen-like master that goes by the name Pool of Light – returns with his latest transcendent experience Abyss, released also on Russian label ΠΑΝΘΕΟΝ Records. The multi-instrumentalist uses guitars, bows, zhongruan, drums, vocal loops, and other sounds to create a pilgrimage of trancelike meditations that transform into hypnotic drones that alternates ‘between states of lost and found, content and dissatisfaction, echoing the human experience.’
Red Scarf 红领巾 – They Know We Know They Are Lying 他们知道我们知道他们在撒谎
Take the soundtrack to Tom and Jerry, douse it in bath salts and you only have the slightest sense of the glorious mayhem found within Red Scarf’s frantic and beautifully assembled 2018 release They Know We Know They Are Lying. A deep dive into the mouth of madness that pits renegade sax, high-pitched souna against a fierce battle between guitar and drums, eventually transforming into a symphony of metal-tinged breakdowns and free jazz roar before it once again jack knifes elsewhere, the Beijing avant-garde outfit, made of a trio of madmen who deconstruct, reassemble, and then decimate genre after genre, are clearly having a blast with their take on rock, free jazz, and noise. And believe me, we are too.
Lionman – Sea Odyssey
Hi-NRG producer Lionman, from Shenzhen, leads listeners on an exotic journey on his infectious disco love letter. What could have easily come off as trite, instead resonates with authenticity and earnestness thanks to classy vocal samples and ice-cool lyrics all seamlessly blended with Eastern flourishes. Another delectable entry in the retrowave resurgence in China – albeit one that plays out like a fever dream of Miami beaches, psychedelic raves, and arcades. A hella-good time.