By Jocelle Koh, Matt Taylor, Sinead
2020 has been some year. But it would be an over-simplification to say that this was a year to be forgotten and brushed under the doormat. For each one of us has experienced changes greater than we could ever have imagined in our daily lives, on a humongous scale. And yet, here you are, still breathing, still alive, still reading this piece.
In light of the divisive politics and social issues that have only been exacerbated by the presence of COVID-19 this year, when thinking about our end of year list, we wanted to do something different. Something that truly reflected how our values have changed over the past 12 months, and share how we got through the year. And while previous years’ lists have been mostly Mandopop, this years’ list is greatly diversified, to reflect how our tastes and musical direction have too diversified in 2020.
Because Asian Pop Weekly’s aim has always been to bridge the gaps, and fix the holes where leaks appear. While in the past, we saw this lack of accessible knowledge in the Mandarin music scene, we’re slowly heading back to our namesake and becoming an ambassador for even more Asian music that deserves to be heard across the diaspora. So this year, sit back, relax and take a gander at the songs that got us through the year from across the globe. Here’s to hoping 2021 will be a better one!
Asian Pop Weekly Team
20. Memory Palace – Joelistics, Garden Tiger
Malaysian-Australian hip hop legend Joelistics began a new chapter this year as he delved into the world of visuals and beatmaking, often incorporating samples from old Cantopop records and traditional Asian instrumentation in his works to create what is best described as ‘Pan Asian Psychedelia’. A shock of new-meets-old that both comforts and refreshes, his second single “Memory Palace” discusses the concept of dreams and memories being recreated each time we think of them rather than stored in a zen mixture of guzheng sounds and lucid beats (contributed by Garden Tiger). Maybe it would be best to not store 2020 as a memory, and rather recreate it from new perspectives every time we look back on it?
19. When It Happens – Reese Lansangan
While we were spending isolation learning how to knit and inhaling the entire contents of Netflix, Reese Lansangan put her extra hours into creating an exquisite record exploring human nature and beyond. While other tracks imagine the difficulties of being a ghost or being an encyclopedia salesman, “When It Happens” stands out as Reese’s poignant tribute to losing her father.
On the fast-paced verses, she playfully describes the superficiality of modern day culture, where “it’s a contest/Of who really knew me best/Old photos would be found/Captioned with something profound”. However, when it hits the chorus, the song strips back to the melody of Reese’s heartbreakingly serene vocals, where she struggles with how to mourn those who have already left “you’ve got miles to go/In a life I’ll never know/So move on”.
Although dealing with a very sad topic, this song offers a timely mediation on the inevitability of birth and death, while gently reminding us that the best way to cope with this is to keep moving forwards.
18. Delicate – Jonah Yano
Our first introduction to Japanese-Canadian artist Jonah Yano was through this song ‘delicate’, and to us it summed him up perfectly. So unassumingly open and gentle, this song is like swimming through the unchartered waters of his mind as he spins his stream-of-consciousness wanderings into a dreamy, retro song that combines steady guitar riffs and snares with airy, reverb-y synths and cottony backing vocals. Perfect for a little R&R or daytime dreaming when it all gets too much.
17. 水哥 Water Brother – DJ Didilong 李英宏, Softlipa 蛋堡
A pleasant surprise as the world began to get darker at the beginning of the year was the surprise drop of DJ Didilong’s 李英宏 sophomore record Sweet, a record full of lyrical and sonic ambition which attempts to catch his generation’s zeitgeist.
Opening track Water Brother 水哥, featuring frequent collaborator Soft Lipa 蛋堡, is a multi-lingual hip-hop and funk mashup which captures a retro 70s sound yet at the same time sounds unflinchingly contemporary. Full of bravado and self-confidence, it’s not difficult to be enraptured by the Prince-esque instrumental and Didilong’s bulletproof swagger and lyrical delivery.
In a year when it was all too easy to feel sombre, Water Brother is an ecstasy-filled four minutes guaranteed to lift the spirits and get you dancing – even if only in your living room.
16. I Wrote A Song For You – Weibird Wei 韋禮安
What song from Weibird Wei DOESN’T make everything better? The original boy-next-door, Wei made a triumphant comeback this year with his first album in four years, “Sounds of My Life“, featuring this country-influenced track.
Recurring waves of lockdown have made us all appreciate our loved-ones more than ever; in this track, Weibird writes a song for us about just this, portraying our loved-ones as giving meaning to our fragmented lives, “in daylight, at nighttime, in daydreams, the background is filled by your presence”. Over a rolling country melody, Weibird’s gentle vocals lend a lullaby-like quality to the track, creating comfort music perfect for this turbulent year.
In a nod to the message of innocence and hope in the lyrics, Weibird is joined towards the end of the song by a choir from Xinyi Primary school in Taipei, reminding us of the importance of community and companionship at this time.
15. Two Sides – Gentle Bones, Charlie Lim
In a year where isolation has lead to many a breakdown in communication, Singaporean crooners Gentle Bones and Charlie Lim provide a timely reminder that there are always two sides to every situation, and every conversation. On the surface a sad R&B duet about broken relationships, for us “Two Sides” is about being honest and extending an olive branch. Combining Lim’s signature melancholy with Bones’ signature optimism, this R&B bop is a beautiful compromise that brings out the best in both of them; while creating some great synergy in that 90’s boyband-vibe tropical sunrise chorus. For when conversations flow and everyone puts in the work, that’s when you find the beauty in truly connecting with those around you.
14. 扛得住 Carry On – Alien Huang 黃鴻升, Alan Kuo 柯有倫, Bobby Dou 竇智孔
As if 2020 wasn’t already an onslaught of sorrow and tragedy, the Mandopop world unfortunately had to come to terms with the untimely death of beloved entertainer Alien Huang 黃鴻升 in September this year.
Taken from his posthumous album Plan B and singing alongside friends Alan Kuo 柯有倫 and Bobby Dou 竇智孔, the track is a guitar-driven anthemic singalong originally intended to encourage people to be strong amidst the pandemic. In light on Alien’s passing, the song has an additional layer of sadness and poignancy, and is an emotional listen. It’s difficult to not be overcome be sadness as Huang sings: “Every day in the future / You have to look up, you have to raise your chest / Never discouraged, never give up‘. Nevertheless, we should be inspired by the words to continue fighting in the face of adversity. If ever there was a phrase to encapsulate the fighting spirit of humanity in 2020, it is simply; Carry on.
13. Candlelight – Sunset Rollercoaster 落日飛車, HYUKOH
“That night the storm came and we heard chaos knock, knock, knocking on the outside. Inside, we cuddled in the dark, quiet, our hearts lit by candlelight”. If the storm in this line is a metaphor for 2020, then the candlelight is surely the unexpected but epic international collaboration between indie stalwarts OHHYUK (South Korea, lead singer of Hyukoh) and Sunset Rollercoaster (Taiwan).
Released in October as the final track on the Taiwanese band’s latest album, “Soft Storm”, the track mixes the darker, reflective alt-pop vibe of Hyukoh with Sunset Rollercoaster’s signature trance-like synths to create a new hybrid sound. OHHYUK and Tseng Kuo-Hung’s soothing vocals overlay the low, looping melancholy of the baseline, offering a much needed healing song for troubled times.
12. Kaucan 新世界 – Accusefive 告五人, Abao 阿爆
2020 was a big year for both indie darlings Accusefive 告五人 and Indigenous superstar ABAO 阿爆, as both artists continued to build on their 2019 critically lauded records and elevate themselves to new commercial heights.
In August, both artists came together to create without a doubt the most chaotic track of the year in “Kacauan 新世界”. An amalgamation of electro beats, heavy rock and traditional Indigenous chants, the song successfully captures feelings of uncertainty and fear as the carpet is pulled out from underneath and we are pushed into a new and unnerving situation. Truly, no track sonically so succinctly captures the feeling of chaos and feeling out of control as this one. However, it also lyrically encourages the listener to embrace change in their lives, whatever that may involve. “Kacauan” will make you dance, make you head bang, then ultimately leave you at ease; yet appreciative of the journey they have just experienced.
11. Friday Love – The Fur.
In response to a year of challenges and surprises, indie dream-pop band the fur. decided to drop enchanting sophomore record Serene Reminder in December. The record tries to contextualise normality in a situation where the world feels as if it is spiralling out of control.
Album highlight Friday Love is a melodic indie rock meets city-pop number that plays to the duo’s strengths whilst seeing them truly level up their sound. With uncanny similarities to renowned J-pop band the brilliant green, the track strikes an intriguing balance of wide-eyed enthusiasm and sorrowful melancholia, and paints a vivid picture of a hazy summer filled with young love, as two people hold hands and jump into another world filled only with each other. This kind of escapism is exactly what we need right now, yet that ever-present feeling of sadness reminds us that it isn’t really within the realm of possibility.
10. Anyone But Me – Joy Crookes
British R&B/Neo-Soul singer-songwriter Joy Crookes is one of our favourite discoveries of 2020. With a voice as luscious and mellow as threads of silk and gold, her guitar-based compositions filled with a patchwork of her heritage and vulnerable explorations of her self are constant reminders of the importance of authenticity as we heave and struggle through the year. In particular, her track “Anyone But Me” explores the Irish-Indian artist’s all-too-real struggles with mental health as she sings: “Love me or leave me and let me be lonely/Inside my head, there’s a voice that controls me/I’d rather be somewhere else with anyone but me“. The singer’s artistry is clearly evident as her voice holds its own on daring melodies and orchestral/electronic arrangements that encourages us to explore the depths of our own realities.
9. Care – beabadoobee
Although 2020 won’t be remembered particularly fondly, a sure musical highlight was the release of Filipino-British indie rocker Beabadoobie’s debut album Fake it Flowers, which brings together vintage guitar sounds with a unique Gen-Z voice.
Album opener “Care” channels the alt-rock female singers of the 90s such as Liz ” and Juliana Hatfield, and is brimming with unbridled enthusiasm as an initially dreamy verse eventually transcends into an arena-filing, grunge-driven chorus. Simultaneously confident yet vulnerable, Bea sings, “I don’t want your sympathy / Stop saying you give a shit” and convincingly conveys the emotional frustration found in her relationship. As the track continues, her vocals give the self-penned lyrics a cutting brutality whilst still carrying a hint of naivete.
With such an exciting debut record from an obviously brilliant new artist, Beabadoobie is undeniably one of the most exciting musicians to come out of the UK indie scene in recent years. It’s going to be exciting to see what is sure to be an inevitable rise to stardom over the next few years.
8. You Should Know About It 先知 – Hebe Tien 田馥甄
Celebrating ten years of incredible solo success, Hebe Tien 田馥甄 kept herself busy throughout 2020 with a slew of single releases which never failed to provide a welcome distraction to the world around us.
A highlight of fourth record Time Will Tell 無人知曉, it’s You Should Know About It 先知 that makes this list. Sonically, the song is an immersive experience, paying homage to the worlds of 60s psychedelic rock and electronica, and bringing both these sounds into the present day. Lyrically the song compares love to obsessive-compulsive disorder and presents the concept that perhaps even a prophet wouldn’t be able to fully guess what is going on their partner’s mind, but ultimately accepts the love between them is real. Beautifully melodic with a soaring chorus, the song succinctly captures Hebe’s ability to curate a killer pop song whilst exploring the depths of her artistry.
7. Best 30 Summer Polaroids 夏日最美的三十張拍立得相片 – The Chairs 椅子樂團
While everyone has been huddled in lockdown, Taiwanese band The Chairs 椅子樂團 have had a year and a half. Releasing their third album “Real Love Is…” off the backend of a successful stint on Mainland reality show Big Band Summer 樂隊的夏天 , the band continue to be their wholesome selves; sharing lightly quirky stories through a mix of Taiwanese, English and Mandarin. “Best 30 Summer Polaroids” is a folksy, breezy tune that provides much-needed escapism this year; telling a sequence of stories spanning decades and continents to show all the forms love comes in. From childhood friendships formed on the seaside of Croatia to the birth of new life, it reminds us to cherish all the little moments, because at the end of the day its not about big romantic gestures, but about those tiny, picturesque snapshots that reveal love in its purest form.
6. Love You Better – Valentina Ploy
Thai-Italian sweetheart Valentina Ploy released her debut EP “Satellite” this year and left a lasting impression on us with her sparkling smile and effortlessly empathetic insights on life, herself and those around her. We unwittingly fell in love with her folk-pop sound; particularly on track “Love You Better” where her authenticity and genuine desire to love touches even the coldest of hearts. A warm musical hug that builds through emphatic, sunny beats; ebbing and flowing as naturally as a breath rising and falling in ones’ chest, release comes as Ploy sings in the chorus “I feel it in my body/I feel it in my chest/I don’t wanna love you more/I just wanna love you better“, reminding us that we are loved even in the darkest of times; and to always aim to love better as time goes on.
5. ORIENTATION – Slodown, Bohan Phoenix, 9m88
The collaboration we never knew we needed, Singaporean R&B crooner Slodown, Chinese-American rapper Bohan Phoenix and Taiwanese Jazz/Neo-soul darling 9m88 unite on cleverly-named track “ORIENTATION”; a decisive R&B bop that waxes lyrical about gender and identity in the context of Asian/Confucianist values. Unadulteratedly Eastern and Western in its creation with string and flute samples against grungy beats, the trio give us the lowdown on a myriad of topics that are more relevant in 2020 than ever. From Slodown addressing the hyper-sexualisation of Asian women to Bohan’s reminder to address conflict with love before Baba lends an empowering female perspective to gender politics, the song is a succinct reminder that our nuances are seen and to be respected even in this confusingly ‘woke’ era.
4. TWIOCAMIC – Khalil Fong
A track that R&B/Soul artist extraordinaire Khalil Fong 方大同 has purportedly been crafting on and off for the last few years, 2020 is a timely year for its release, and a much-needed reminder of the bigger picture. Standing for “The World Is One Country And Mankind It’s Citizens”, “TWIOCAMIC” is a simple rap track laid over heavy-hitting beats, but the gold lies in Fong’s lyrics which read more like spoken word poetry. In a time when countries are closing their borders left and right and people are beginning to adopt an ‘every man for themselves’ rather than ‘all for one and one for all’ mindset, our dream of a world without borders have been dashed. But like a modern-day superhero, Khalil’s words remind us that we are the solution to the inequality and the turmoil we are facing; empowering each of us to stand tall and together to create a world that we hope to live in one day.
3. XS – Rina Sawayama
In the midst of COVID confusion, this period of downtime has also been a reflective one as we unintentionally begin to audit our actions and how we spend our time. On top of crafting one of the most bombastic pop records of 2020, Japanese-British artist Rina Sawayama’s single ‘XS’ cleverly and playfully laments on the attitude of excess we apply to every aspect of our lives; from the things we spend on, our material wants and alluding ultimately to the impact this attitude has had on the earth. With tongue-in-cheek lyrics where Sawayama plays the part of a consumerist addict, the thrilling heavy-metal inserts that break up the early 2000s Spears-pop sound encourage us to take a look behind the curtain and take a good hard look at ourselves too.
2. 2019 – Anie Fann 范安婷
Although named ‘2019’, Taiwanese-Canadian singer-songwriter Anie Fann 范安婷‘s song fully embraces the nostalgia we feel in 2020 towards years past. Those routines of normality now rose-tinted as she sings of more carefree days; Fann puts together an uplifting track filled with layered vocals, and a mishmash of all her influences, from electro-pop hooks to resonant electric guitar solos. I love the retro-futuristic imagery created within the lyrics that incorporate natural elements with abstract ones that give the song an otherworldly feel; “I can still remember me in 2019/A life filled with dried roses and honey beer/Don’t go far/Please come back“. The track perfectly creates a space for us to reminisce and learn to treasure our past experiences; whilst filling us with hope for a better 2021 that we will truly cherish.
1. Tomorrow Will Be Fine – Sodagreen 蘇打綠
It’s been difficult to keep the faith in 2020. At times when it seemed as if things couldn’t get worse, things inevitably did, and it was difficult to see the light amidst the ever-growing darkness.
Their first release in over three years, Sodagreen’s 蘇打綠‘s new track Tomorrow will be Fine was a triumphant comeback, and sits comfortably among their best works. Lead singer Wu Qing-feng’s 吳青峰 emotional tone and powerful vocal performance only enhances this. The song is much more than that however. An uplifting and melodious joy that encourages repeated listens; the track is the sonic equivalent of deep, calming breaths, and feeling your worries evaporate from your mind. The song acknowledges that at times it is difficult to see beyond the darkness staring at us and that at times the disappointments may feel never-ending. However, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel; eventually we will grow wings and fly above our worries to a better day.
If there ever was a mantra to repeat in 2020, it is that tomorrow will be fine, and this song makes us feel certain; if only for a moment; that it will.