Image Source: LP Cover Lover.
Is there anything better than end of the year lists? Why waste time throughout the year visiting mediocre brunch spots, speakeasy bars, improv comedy clubs, and other overrated shit when some Yelp-crazed poor soul will do it for us. Alright maybe last week’s first annual Worst Music in China list wasn’t a constructive use of this platform. Lighten up, interweb world -- music is supposed to be fun and I’m sure my fellow knob turning experimental friends didn’t mind a little slam book thrown their way. Moving on with the Best Albums from China of 2015, we are lucky to have more than enough new records to consider. The Middle Kingdom is experiencing a bit of a golden age of rock with formerly small scenes such as Chengdu pumping out great acts and the ever busy Beijing remaining the epicenter of innovative bands and labels.
While Shanghai doesn’t have a quarter of the releases of Beijing, I’m proud to say that eight of the 20 albums on today’s list are from Shanghai. Let’s just hope that number increases two or three fold in 2016. Now let's get into it.
Please note: These albums are in no specific order, except for last album on the list, which is my favorite of the year.
Stolen is a five piece indie rock band from Chengdu that made waves this year by releasing one of the first records on the new Douban music label D-Force. The new kid on the Chinese block D-Force records is an artist-driven label with a goal of producing the best records possible. For this one, D-Force flew Stolen to Taiwan and recorded the boys at one of the best analog studios in Asia. Also, for their album release tour, D-Force rented a fan and hired a sound engineer to go along the tour. All this let Stolen focus on the music, which really shows on this album. Some of the songs are a little on the cheesy side for me, but as a whole, Stolen first D-Force effort Loop is a great start.
Stolen - "Hook"
If you want to talk about true black darkness in China, then look no further then the infamous Zuriaake. These atmospheric black metal pagans dropped a 2015 album titled 孤雁 (Gu Yan) on their long–time label Pest Productions. This is not your average CD release. Along with the disc you’ll get a 42-page hardcover art book, 3-meter long poster, black art print, and a leaf specimen all packaged in a box set. What’s a leaf specimen? The dark lord only knows.
Zuriaake has remained one of the most anonymous bands in China’s metal history. After 15 years of existence, they finally did their first full tour this year as well, with a stop at Shanghai's On-Stage venue. Settle in because this 20 minute masterpiece is about to take you down a dark road.
Zuriaake - "Dream Invited"
18. P.K. 14
Label: Maybe Mars
Format: Digital / (Vinyl Out Soon)
This year saw the end of Beijing’s XP club, which was the showroom for Maybe Mars Records, and many of us were curious about the fate of China’s favorite indie rock label. Well after a tiny lull, it looks like Maybe Mars is back on track with a brand new P.K. 14 album titled Music for An Exhibition that came out last October. This album is a futuristic journey with Zhu Wenbo adding drones and Alpine Decline using their modular euro-rack synth to round the sound out with an eerie backbone. Much like the Zhang Shou Wang & Kid Millions album, this piece was recorded live in one take with no overdubs, although the recording quality on Music for An Exhibition seems to be stronger.
P.K. 14 - "Trotsky"
17. Tom Cruise & Katie Holmes
Now defunct Shanghai band Tom Cruise & Katie Holmes featured Australian expat Rhys from the band Pairs, Daniel Nagels, Samuel Welsh, and local Shanghainese song bird Sharon Q. While Sharon has moved onto a new project, this record from November came to us from beyond the grave in a beautiful splatter-color 12” vinyl record that is also translucent. The album was mixed by local producer Laura Ingalls and the production quality is on point. Somewhere between dreamy post rock and pop, this album is destined to turn heads both at home and abroad. Sure to be a collector item, pick this bad boy at your local record store.
Tom Cruise & Katie Holmes - "Comeback Home"
16. Various Artists
Every year I choose one compilation album among China’s many and this time around we have the prolific compilation titled Downpour from SVBKVLT Records. Downpour features 12 blazing tracks from China-based artists like Swimful, Gooooose, B6, Damacha, Downstage, Laura Ingalls, Soulspeak, and Faded Ghost, along with a few guests from around Asia. The album was released as a high quality screen-printed umbrella that included a download code. Expect to see more original release ideas like this as the idea of a physical format LP evolves into multiple forms. The bulk of this album is from Shanghai-based artists and you better believe this compilation represents the cream of the crop in Shanghai's electronic future.
Soulspeak - "Shui Bu Zhao Jiao"
15. Life Line
Label: Self Released
A late addition to the 2015 list is a new project that goes by the name Life Line. The band includes Tyler of Spill Your Guts fame, who is departing from his usual style of hardcore punk and metal into stoner rock terrain with this new super group. With Life Line we're looking at straight-up stoner bro rock and while usually I prefer harder sludge in my morning tea, after listening to the debut EP a few times it really grew on me. They've still got some morbid content like the riff "Human occupation, self-annihilation, extinction, our abomination (our abomination)" but the hardcore angst has been replaced with a more straight-rocking approach.
Life Line - "Opener"
14. The Bedstars
Wet Hearts & Dry Vomitis is the culmination of six years of living the rock n roll nightmare. The progression, the stagnation, and coming of age as a Beijing punk. It was at D-22 (R.I.P.) in the band’s early days where they gained a reputation for getting into fights, puking, and walking out early on shows.
There is a heavy influence from late '70s punk similar to Johnny Thunders in their music. While I’m a huge fan of classic shitpunk, it’s been a long time since I’ve taken to a contemporary band with that style. What held my interest while listening to the album was watching them live and in person, seeing they are simply a group of four guys living life on their own terms. The Bedstars' music represents the minutia of their everyday life and while I won’t be listening to the album everyday, it’s still an important piece of Beijing history.
The Bedstars - "3rd Circle of Hell"
Well what do we have here, a respectable homegrown EBM project Zaliva-D. This stuff is dark and deep and of course on the most evil label in China, Pest Productions. The act is Fronted by Li Chao, who is well known for his participation in the metal band Evilthorn and ambient project Enemite. The Zaliva-D work stems from a stronger sense of techno mashing with ambient that comes out in this album E.V.I.L. As with all Pest Production work it was released on a limited edition CD, but you can still download a digital copy. China needs more EBM not EDM!
Zalvia-D - "Where We Come From E.V.I.L"
12. Forsaken Autumn
Label: Self Released
Forsaken Autumn is a Shanghai post-rock / shoegaze band that started out around 2011. After a break, they returned this year and opened up for post-rock mega band This Will Destroy You. Before that, Forsaken Autumn's singer Ecke had a child, which I'm guessing is what caused their hiatus. Lucky for us it looks like they got a decent babysitter because Forsaken Autumn is back in full swing and just released a new album titled Whenere. A year in the making, I'm looking forward to checking this one out live. For now, listen to a solid cut titled "Soft Wing."
Forsaken Autumn - "Soft Wing"
11. Round Eye
Round Eye released their first official full length LP this year and she kicked ass. The gatefold album from Shanghai’s overly obvious expats is a follow up to their 12" split with American band Libyan Hit Squad.
To be honest, when Round Eye got their start a few years back, I didn’t think they would be as influential in the rock scene as they’ve become. They've advanced their sound into a solid, multi–faceted garage rock band that supports local acts AND they help foreign artists set up tours across China. These fuckers keep fighting the good fight. The self-titled album includes saxophonist Steve Mackay from Iggy Pop and the Stooges, who passed away shortly after his China tour with Round Eye this year. Rest easy Mackay. The album is also a work of art, with fold out, hand–drawn graphics provided by Gregor of Shanghai screen print collective Idle Beats.
Round Eye - "PMS 2.5"
Label: Self Released
AM444 is a project from Dutch producer Jay Soul and China’s own singer, songwriter, and producer Cha Cha. Jay Soul lived in Shanghai for a number of years before moving back to his homeland but the duo continue to release tunes year by year. Cha Cha was born in Guizhou then moved to Beijing in the early 2000s before ending up in Shanghai where she has focused her energy on reggae and electronic sounds.
The album is the product of the duo sending each other tracks while migrating around the world. The duo continue to play festivals across Europe and Asia and you can expect more to come from the established royalty of Chinese trip hop.
AM444 - "Lian"
9. Yang Fan
You may know Yang Fan from her previous bands Ourselves Beside Me and Hang on the Box. Despite being aware of her participation in these groups I didn’t know how skilled she is in the art of music production.
The album What Happened After 1001 Nights was written, recorded, and mixed all by her lonesome. She has recorded other bands as well and has quickly risen to the rank of a respected record producer. You can see her form in the latest Chui Wan masterpiece for Maybe Mars records that is also on this best albums list. Her solo album reflects an intense emotional roller coaster that is at times maybe a bit difficult for listening. I found that after giving the vinyl 2-3 plays all the way through, it really grew on me. Now I’ve probably listened over 20 times. If you are a fan of collecting local indie albums, then this is a must have.
Yang Fan - "Autumn in Your Town"
On this SVBKVLT concept album, Damacha scoured the streets for cheesy Chinese club tracks from those CD vendors that ply their wares on the corner blasting that sweet bicycle sound system. Cutting up and layering footwork inspired beats, this project turned out nothing less than groundbreaking. While listening, try to imagine every solid gold paint job BMW you’ve seen in Shanghai and every bedazzled iPhone6 that went a little too far. If you weren’t lucky enough to get one of the shiny CDR’s from the opening party, make sure to lay down a few dollars for the online version.
Damacha also has a solid album titled "Grindstuff" with Pete Chen he released this year on Groove Bunny records everyone should check out.
Damacha - "Disgrace"
7. Chui Wan
One of the most well crafted and re-listenable indie rock albums of this year is the self–titled Chui Wan piece that dropped after the band finished a successful month long tour in the States. It’s been three years since their first album White Night spread across our great red land with a psych–rock fever. Since then, they've dived deeper into the rabbit hole of reverb and the new album even features a special remix from acclaimed producer Dead J. As mentioned before, our beloved Yang Fan recorded, mixed, and produced this psych masterpiece. Yang Fan didn’t stop there -- she also sings background vocals here.
Chui Wan - "Seven Chances"
2015 ushered in a new release from local doom rock gods Nahash, whose tape Old Religion / New Skin brought together a perfect axis of evil that has been brewing for the past couple years. Nahash is half visuals, provided by Tina Sparkles, and half doom / ambient music, provided by Raphael Valensi. This six-song opus really stepped up the production and the album flow almost tells a story.
What kind of story, you ask? The story of a nice bunch of druids gathering around an altar passing a chalice of female fluid wine before going on their annual naked fun run. Although the album is mostly performed by Raphael Valensi, we have to give it up to Ivan Belcic for the drum assistance. Also, Ivan designed that sick logo.
Nahash - "Old Religion"
5. Mad Pete
Label: Groove Bunny Records
Format: Vinyl (No Digital Release)
Hangzhou based Chinese hip hop label Groove Bunny released in 2015 a special version of their Cantonese Boom Bop album. MadPete is born from the mind of Guangzhou's Pete Chen, who laid down the beats with Madprole on vocals. What’s special about this release is that there is no digital copy available -- just 12 inches of atmospheric instrumental hip hop on wax.
While I like the original Cantonese Boom Bap, the instrumental release is something you can play over and over again, and hey, feel free to use it as a backing track for your own rhymes down at the social club. The construction of the instrumentals are well developed and this record could go head to head against any Stones Throw pieces out there. Don’t sleep on this one cause when the vinyl is gone it’s gone.
Mad Pete - "Arcade King"
4. Deadly Cradle Death
Experimental music has been not only been growing in China, but evolving into different terms of what is even considered left–field. Deadly Cradle Death is a duo that features Liu Xinyu and He Fan creating sharp bass filled synth tunes. They’ve become quite infamous for having the cops called on them at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas because the loudness of bass was keeping babies up late (in the baby cradle mind you). Although this 7” is solid, there is no substitute for seeing this band live. The flip side of the 7” is the American band Telescopes that features Ricky Maymi from Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Deadly Cradle Death - "Run It"
Label: Huashan Records
Format: Digital / Cassette Tape
Beijing’s thruoutin has been blending classical Chinese instruments with DIY modded electronics for a few years now, but this album Service really takes his project to a new level. The quality on this album just floored me, with seamless blending of subdued electronics layered with various old brass instruments like symbols and trumpets. Brad’s singing in Chinese achieves a really solid balance that makes you feel good all over. Three of the seven tracks are remixes by local legends DJ Doggy, El’se, and Laura Ingalls himself -- the man behind the mixing boards on this one. Keep more stuff like this coming Huashan Records.
thruoutin - "Shao"
Label: Self Released
Nakoma claims to be China’s first post–metal band, but hey, let’s not hold that against them. Of course that genre is bullshit. Nakoma are a complex band that touch on some sludgy leanings of style but then come back into more traditional guitar-based music. What strikes me most is the heavy influence of that '70s prog–rock sound. China already loves Post–Rock, but if more acts like Nakoma start laying down innovative and heartfelt progressive rock then I'll be a happy camper. This album was recorded at Yang Hai Song’s studio and if you listen closely, that special custom rack mounted signal processor gives it a special vibe.
Nakoma - "Vintage Horror - A"
Label: Maybe Mars
Format: Digital / Double Vinyl
My favorite album of 2015 comes out of the mean streets of Chengdu in the form of Hiperson with their masterpiece "No Need For Another History" on Maybe Mars. The post-punk quintet recorded this 11–song album with PK-14 front man Yang Hai Song. Many tote Hiperson's vocals as the female Yang Hai Song, but I think she has a very distinct style. The band came through Shanghai earlier this year for a memorable show enjoyed by all. This album comes as a double 12" in gatefold cover with fancy paper inner art sleeve.
Hiperson - "You don't sacrifice your innocence here"
Holy moly that is a ton of good music that came out of China in 2015. Literally that’s only a sliver of the good stuff, so make sure to follow those links and check out the labels' other projects and back catalogs. See you next year kids!
This article is part of our 2015 In Rewind series. Check out the rest:
Shanghai's Favorite Eats & Drinks (Coming Soon)
Best & Worst Shows
Shanghai's Best & Worst Art
China's Best Albums
China's Worst Music