By Jocelle Koh, Sinead O’Connor, Jonathan Chuang

2021 was the year we entered tentatively yet hopefully. Still wary of what’s to come, but hoping that we could return to some semblance of normality in our lives. While not all of the outcomes were what we hoped for, we’ve continued to learn an extended lesson in patience and stillness.

This year was one of tremendous growth for myself and the Asian Pop Weekly team as we seek out new directions in an ever-changing world. But the one thing that keeps us moving forward is our steadfast belief in the fact that music heals and connects us.

So to round off the year that has been, our intention was simple. To share with you the albums that helped us to tide over the bad times, and heightened the good ones. In this list we chose albums that really tell a story; that encourage us to look outside of ourselves and be gentle with ourselves. Records from Asian artists spanning various corners of the world which tell different stories and have different intentions.

Some may be to revive disappearing languages, others might be symbols of female empowerment in trying times, others simply to accompany the listener and be there for them. But all of them have given us hope in some way and reminded us that in transience there always lies hope. And that hope is what will get us to where we need to be.

Happy 2022 to us all, and may hope be what continues to tide us through the new year.

Asian Pop Weekly Founder & Head Editor

nanguaq 那屋瓦 – N1 一號作品 (TW)

Since taking home the Best Album gong at the Golden Melody Awards in 2020, Paiwan goddess ABAO 阿爆 has become the darling of the Taiwanese music scene. But in her rise to the top, she hasn’t forgotten to bring her crew with her. Forming a record company to incubate the best in upcoming Indigenous talent, nanguaq 那屋瓦 was their coming out showcase.

An album that showcases a plethora of Indigenous languages including those of the Amei, Paiwan, Maolin Rukai, and Bunun tribes, ABAO 阿爆’s genius is added to each and every track as the artist’s traverse language and modern musical genres (rap, R’n’B, EDM) create a textured tapestry of sound. 

Managing to be both expansive and intimate, nanguaq 那屋瓦 offered a bright splash of creativity and a fresh breath of musical air to 2021’s dreary Spring. Our favourites include Natsuko 夏子’s exquisite “fu’is 星星歌,” a Japanese-Amei tribute to the power of the stars and Makav 真愛’s “embiyax su hug 你好嗎,” whose vocal trills offer a Bunun-language throwback to early 2000s R’n’B.

This is only the start for the nanguaq company, and we’re already looking forward to seeing how these young artists spread their wings.

Recommended Tracks: 01 Natsuko 夏子 – fu’is 星星歌, 02 Makav 真愛 – embiyax su hug 你好嗎, 03 Stingie 丁繼 – kaseljangi 一起嘛

Lim Giong, Various Artists – A Pure Person 單純的人 (TW/U.S.)

This year we are thankful for A Pure Person, a compilation that showed us how to revisit, re-interpret, and find hope again in these times when we helplessly need Airtags to help us find our car keys under the pile of shit on the coffee table. 

A unique instance where homage and collaboration intersect, the album released by Angela Lin’s Pure Person Press brings back the turn-of-the-century feels from cult classic Millennium Mambo and its theme song “A Pure Person 單純的人” 20 years later with a twist. 

Each track on this record interconnects and bridges experimental, electronic, ambient, jazz, and freestyle genres; paying homage to Lim Giong 林強’s original track. The idea of a remix is expanded with a web of electronic Fantasia by hyper-talented producers/musicians such as Minyen Hsieh, Point Hsu, and Alex Zhang Hungtai who’ve created a cinematic experience with sound.

As the liner note goes: “This album seeks to understand what it means to be a pure person… ” perhaps we should slow down and focus on the real issue amidst the pandemic. Do we need more vaccines? More online shopping to choke international harbors? Messy politics to cause more conflict? Perhaps a softer solution by being kind, warm, and pure would make it all better.

Read our conversations with Angela here and Lim Giong here.

Recommended Tracks: 01 Recite 念, 02 A Pure Person 單純的人

Searching Skies – BudaMunk & J. Lamotta (JP/GR)

Wherever you are in this world, we’re looking at the same sky. But I always wonder what it’s like to see the skies in Tel Aviv, Berlin, or even Tokyo. Perhaps this is why when BudaMunk and J.Lamotta came together and built this new vision, the sky’s colour became more than just shades of blue. Searching Skies is the product of Tokyo-based producer-mastermind BudaMunk’s (雲猴) rugged beats and Berlin-based singer-songwriter J.Lamotta’s intention to provide an alternative mentality. We’re all hoping for the end of this pandemic, but we’re not going to find anything if we keep staring at the same spot.

Through chopping and sampling, BudaMunk deposits chunks of downbeats with swing, delay, and lo-fi nuances; leaving the perfect negative space for J.Lamotta to fill in with jazzy, neo-soul vocals. 

Searching Skies is an omen to look outwards and keep your exploration going. You’re welcome to see it as hip-hop’s Journey to the West. We’re all our own version of Sun Wu Kong running down the sacred route to eventually be enlightened. Whether it’s by cooperation, collaboration, or spiritual insight, staying curious through our attitude towards music and life definitely carried us through these times.

Recommended Tracks: 01 Eyes to the Skies, 06 Carry On, 10 Open Your Mind

Waiting – Priscilla Ahn (U.S.)

In the midst of chaotic, trying and uncertain times, Korean-American singer-songwriter Priscilla Ahn’s latest album Waiting is a quiet meditation on the light at the end of the tunnel; no matter how far away it seems. With her unique lilting vocals that beckons us closer, the intimate D.I.Y record sparks joy and melancholy in equal parts, representing the best of those confronting yet necessary conversations we have with ourselves during this extended period of isolation. On this record, Ahn spins together stories from her past (“Foolish Love”), moments of reflective sadness (“I Can’t Hide”), and open letters of exultant love (“You Make The World A Better Place,” “Waiting”) to create a stunning folk/electro-pop narrative on the world we live in today. 

Recommended Tracks: 06 Foolish Love, 02 Waiting, 01 You Make The World A Better Place

Time Well Spent – Reese Lansangan (PH)

A year after releasing her lockdown EP Playing Pretend, Reese Lansangan continues her gentle meditation on the themes of love and loneliness in her sophomore album, Time Well Spent. Against the backdrop of rich folk-acoustic soundscapes, the Filipina singer draws on the universal themes of human experience to deliver an album that gently drifts between happiness and heartbreak; the everyday and the extraordinary. 

The power of the album lies in Lansangan’s invitation for us to explore these emotions with her, asking us on “Easier” to “give me a chance/I promise I will listen”. On “What Is This Feeling?” we dance with her as she celebrates the joy of being alive while on our personal favourite, “VHS Aesthetic” she wryly pokes fun at Gen-Z kids who are unironically obsessed with all that is vintage, “You don’t really mind if/It’s anachronistic/’Cause you were born/In 2006”. 

If 2020’s Playing Pretend reflected our desire in the early days of the pandemic to escape reality through the power of imagination, on Time Well Spent Lansangan ultimately restates the importance of allowing yourself to feel. 

Recommended Tracks: 02 What Is This Feeling, 03 Orbiting, 07 VHS Aesthetic

Mo’Ju – O.K. (AU)

Filipino Wiradjuri singer-songwriter Mo’Ju has once again flexed their unique ability for unearthing alternative, lesser-told narratives on their new album O.K. Taking us through the various nuances of a period of recovery and mental health crisis, the record is a revealing look at the narrative of healing from trauma and days when we’re at our lowest. From the difficult period of articulating that one is not feeling their best (“Okay”) to trying to navigate the deep waters of depression and anxiety (“Wave”), to finally starting to steel oneself for the uphill struggle to recovery (“Not Forever”), Mo’Ju does a fantastic job tying all these threads together with their unique, eclectic mix of electronic, ambient beats and live band. For a deep dive into the record, read our album review here

Recommended Tracks: 06 Sometime, 04 Wave, 07 Not Forever

icyball 冰球樂團 – Be a GentleMon 我好斯文 (TW)

The pandemic changes people in mysterious ways. A few years ago icyball 冰球樂團 was one of a multitude of respectable but middling Taiwanese indie bands, yet to make it to the big time. Fast-forward to 2021 and the band has managed to reinvent themselves as a bombastic purveyor of funk/disco/acid-jazz/R&B/regga/swing-influenced anthems, representing the voice of a generation of awkward 20 something-year-old guys.  

Be a “GentleMon” 我好斯文 builds on the runaway success of the band’s Say When 三杯 EP, following an everyman’s Friday night out; from his encounter with a potential lover (“You Only Like Me Because You’re Drunk 醉後喜歡我”) to his passionate confession (“Rock Me 搖啊搖”) to ultimately heading home alone on the pun-tastic “No Six.” In some ways a refreshingly candid take on Millennial/Gen-Z hook-up culture, and in others an opportunity to wallow in nostalgia for 1990s boy band culture, this album is the last-minute addition to the NYE playlist we didn’t know we needed.

Recommended Tracks: 09 No Six, 05 You Only Like Me Because You’re Drunk 醉後喜歡我, 02 I Don’t Want Nothing 別無所求

Dizzy Dizzo – SKY (TW)

Returning to the Mandopop scene with her first new album in five years, rapper and boss lady Dizzy Dizzo shows a different side to motherhood with 2021’s SKY. Inspired by her daughter Katiya Sky to keep striving for her dreams, Dizzy completes her transition to bona fide rapper with eight rap tracks that flip the script on what it means to be a woman, a wife, and a mother in the 21st century. Including some of the hottest features of the year with the help of OZI, OSN 高爾宣 and E.SO 瘦子, Dizzy manages to hold her own with her cool, calm, and even elegant delivery of those bars, laid out across an eclectic curation of beats incorporating everything from opera samples (“No Regrets”) to summery guitar riffs (“What a Life”) to a live Jazz band (“天大地大”). A breath of fresh air for the male-dominated hip-hop scene, with this feminist manifesto of an album, this mama shows that she’s still got it. 

Recommended Tracks: 02 What a Life, 07 Tides, 08 天大地大

Joy Crookes – Skin (UK)

Irish-Bangladeshi Neo-Soul artist Joy Crookes has been teasing us for a while with her velveteen vocals; releasing just a handful of singles across the last two years; peppered between countless hilarious Instagram stories and tutorials showcasing her endearingly London sense of humour. But nothing has excited us more than the drop of her long-awaited debut album Skin which sees her take a deep dive into how her heritage, identity, and experiences feed into her one-of-a-kind sound. Recorded in the famed Abbey Road Studios with a full band at her disposal, Joy takes her playful carefree delivery and witty repartee to the next level in a stunning debut that tells her story in ways only she can. Drawing on old-school Soul, Neo-Soul, and her love for poetry, Crookes weaves a narrative thick with flavour as she recounts playful flings (“I Don’t Mind,” “When You Were Mine”), how her home has shaped her (“19th floor”), and moments almost too hard to bear (“Skin,” “Power”). A master storyteller, this LP will have you hanging off the edge of Joy’s every word.

Recommended Tracks: 09 Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, 12 Power, 11 Skin

Jaguar Jonze – ANTIHERO (AU)

If 2020 was the year Taiwanese-Australian artist Jaguar Jonze aka Deena Lynch beat COVID-19, 2021 was the year that saw her come out, guns blazing and ready to take on the dark side of the Australian music industry. Aside from digging deep to annihilate sexual abuse and harassment within the industry and successfully kickstarting conversations around the topic, Jaguar’s own projects continue to flesh out her vibrant, gritty cyberpunk world. Drawing from her darkest experiences and recorded during her recovery from COVID, while these songs may have initially been written around themes such as toxic relationships (“MURDER,” “CURLED IN”), and her inner battles with anxiety (“ASTRONAUT”), they take on a different meaning in light of her vocal fight for the eradication of the glass ceiling and sexual harassment. Breathy deliveries pieced out against moody, heavy alt-rock arrangements, this EP is an emotional release like no other. Read our interview with Deena here.

Recommended Tracks: 05 ASTRONAUT, 02 DEADALIVE, 04 CURLED IN

Listen to all the albums on Spotify