Hell of a year, friends. Kinda sucked, right? It’s not over I guess. Fucking endless!
Well, in the midst of these swelling dark clouds I’ve contented myself to find silver linings wherever I can, and one field that hasn’t disappointed is the between-the-headphones zone. To quote a friend of mine, “2016 was a dumpster fire, but the music was straight fire on the mountain” — and that’s not talking about Thom Yorke’s divorce poetry or a 2016 Wilco album or whatever. It’s been another solid 365 days of music from China, which is great because I basically make a living parasitically writing about that.
Here are my Top 10 China releases of 2016, in semi-arbitrary order determined more by how they’d grate against one another on a mixtape than any subjective judgement of quality:
10. White Tulips - Caress
Squeaking into the number 10 slot is this sleeper hit, which I believe is the first full-length release from Xiamen’s White Tulips. I previewed one of its tracks in my "Primate Anxiety" chunjie mix at the beginning of the year, but the album snuck under my radar when it was released on San Diego cassette label Kamala Tapes in May. Nothing groundbreaking here, but it’s pure, indulgent bliss for anyone who’s plunged their head into the sands of peak 1990s reverb worship. White Tulips gets major points in my book for keeping about half the songs on the record at 3 minutes 33 seconds and under (e.g. “Lost Emotion”, “1960”), adding an almost punk edge to these not very fast-moving songs and avoiding the easy habit that many shoegaze bands fall into of excessive and circular guitar noodling.
9. Ding Ke - Port of Call OST
Let’s get this list’s ringer out of the way now. Believe it or not, the best ambient album to come out of China this year isn't from a Shanghai-based English teacher with a pirated version of Ableton Live, but rather comes from honest-to-God professional musician Ding Ke. In March this multi-talented composer released the soundtrack for 2015 film Port of Call, a grimy Hong Kong crime thriller based on the true story of the brutal murder and dismemberment of an underage prostitute in 2008, investigated in the fictionalized version by a frost-tipped Aaron Kwok. Ding Ke’s somber and lush soundtrack indeed evolves cinematically, capturing the film’s dark mood of foreboding and mystery. Ding is known in the Chinese indie world for his alt-classical album Island, released in 2011 by Modern Sky, but he’s made his name internationally through more recent theater and film collaborations. In addition to this one, he was also nominated for a Sundance award for his soundtrack work on the 2016 indie film Pleasure. Love.
8. Swimful - PM2.5
Topical, eh? Swimful’s pollutant-themed long-player was released in January in the format of a face mask that I’ve worn so much this year, it smells like a factory that mass-produces plastic tchotchkes. Shanghai label SVBKVLT’s been manufacturing left-field gems at a steady clip since then, and if this was a Top 20 list it’d probably also include this year’s output from Osheyack and Kai Luen. SVBKVLT really front-loaded 2016 though, and after repeated listens it’s Swimful’s thoughtful productions that have reverberated with me the most. PM2.5 is melodic and playful, dark and brooding at points but never quite “heavy”, an album conceived on but not restricted to the dance floor. It’s a Shelter record for sure, and re-listening to it now feels like a requiem of sorts, an exemplary document of the great music that dank den has spawned. Check out SmartShanghai’s deep interview with Swimful from when this was released for more.
7. Round Eye - “Billy"
Staying in Shanghai for a minute: this one’s a single, not a full release, but holy hell if Round Eye didn’t deliver one of the most brain-pickling musical products to come out of China in this toilet boil shell-shocker of a year. If you haven't seen “Billy” yet, we have zero friend-circle overlap, and I honestly don’t know whether to pity or envy you. Kind of nailed it when I wrote this one up in August, unfortunately: “an uneasy reminder that we’re on the cusp of a new golden era of punk. Maybe more like a nauseous harbinger… ‘Billy’ has it all, just chock-full of hard red & blue targets: an unarmed dark-skinned man in a hoodie, Muslims in prayer, gays at the altar, cops in the closet, Klansmen on the couch, White Jesus himself, even a dwarf Chinese Trump to confuse your allegiances. I don’t know what’s more discomforting about this video: the overly grotesque Pan’s Labyrinth escapee promenading throughout or the unshakeable feeling that you’re watching a near-future Fox News.”
6. Alpine Decline - Life’s a Gasp
Alpine Decline makes my list every year, and then puts out an even better record the next year. This is the fourth LP that the Los Angeles duo has recorded and released since they moved to Beijing in 2011, and as with all of them was recorded with PK14 frontman and veteran Chinese-indie producer Yang Haisong as a functional third member. Yang actually played bass on this one, adding a bit of rhythmic heft that has been missing on Alpine Decline’s previous space-case psychedelic wanderings. The sounds of Life’s a Gasp were built around the band’s evolving Frankenstein monster of a Eurorack synth, lending it eerie, otherworldly and future-shocking sounds complementing their signature dirty psychedelic verve. Alpine Decline recently moved back to LA, but should be back in China around March to lay down their next record on schedule.
5. Streets Kill Strange Animals - McD Kids
Here’s a record that hit me by surprise this year. I’ve always been a fan of Streets Kill Strange Animals, who’ve been slogging it out in Beijing’s livehouses since 2010. They released their debut album — the first of a two-record deal with Modern Sky — in 2012, and that one still sounds sterile to me when stacked next to their nervous live energy, admittedly a hard thing to capture in a recording. This followup was done by Shanghai producer Lv, whose fingerprints are actually on two records on this list. I really appreciate how he catches the rough edges of Streets Kill’s live sound, especially in their Sonic Youth-style noise rock breakdowns, but gives the record overall a rough polish that lends it more gravitas than most of what’s come out of the China indie rock universe this year. If you want to learn more you can check out an interview I did around the time this album was released with Streets Kill Strange Animals vocalist/guitarist Leng Mei, a true journeyman of the Beijing music scene, here.
4. Guzz - An Elephant in the Jungle
Beijing producer Guzz has a few releases to his name, but this sounds nothing like them. It’s his first proper release, outside of a few scattered singles and compilation tracks, since his 2013 cassette From the Desert to the Moon, on which he’s still in full-tilt acid techno mode. An Elephant in the Jungle reflects not only his personal development but also that of the institution he co-founded, Do Hits, which this year metamorphosed from a monthly party to a full-on record label. If you aren’t familiar with the Do Hits aesthetic (see also: Howie Lee, Jason Hou), this album is an excellent introduction, a pristine sonic mashup throwing together samples of traditional South Chinese and Southeast Asian instruments and vocal samples, spidery syncopated beats, tribal rhythms, and enough low end to fill two Dada’s.
3. DOC - Northern Electric Shadow
This might be my most listened to record on this list in terms of sheer number of plays, since it fits so damn well in the background. I mean that as a compliment. From the opening sample of the Bohai Sea to the extended but disciplined improv on album closer “Hua Palace”, Northern Electric Shadow was my go-to for stimulating noise to background any number of cognitive or mindless tasks. DOC rose out of the ashes of Dalian band Doc Talk Shock, which released a great album of lavish post-punk on Modern Sky in 2012 before receding into the waves to incubate a new sound. Northern Electric Shadow developed over the intervening years, partially shaped by the band’s evolution in taste (they got really into Tortoise and Norwegian prog bands Motorpsycho and Jaga Jazzist). The end product is a polished and surprisingly coherent instrumental rock album, eight songs that fit together like a tightly scripted narrative. Fellow Dalian instrumental rockers Wang Wen also put out a good album this year, but I prefer DOC’s understatement to the bombastic maximalism you usually hear with this kind of post-rock.
2. Duck Fight Goose - CLVB ZVKVNFT
Like the Streets Kill Strange Animals album, this one was produced by Lv from Shanghai, and he must have had to work really hard to pry it from the fast-spinning perpetual motion machine that is the brain of Duck Fight Goose’s Han Han. DFG has long been one of my favorite Shanghai bands, and anyone who’s seen them play over the last few years has witnessed their slow but inexorable transition from the flesh-and-blood math rock of their 2011 debut Sports to this machinated beast, which sounds like the soundtrack to an immersive VR game played by an intelligence that’s not quite human. Of course this feeling is intentional, as the conceptual Gesamtkunstwerk of the album includes PS4-style physical packaging and a fully elaborated cyberpunk narrative written by Han Han. This master vision manifested most impressively in the epilepsy-inducing, three-screen live visual setup employed for this album’s release events in Shanghai and Beijing. This spectacle was designed and art-directed by Han Han, naturally, and was the most impressive musical production I witnessed in 2016.
1. Li Daiguo - Li Shurui
This album might not be for everyone, but it’s far and away my favorite China record of the year, and an easy one to overlook. Li Daiguo self-released this as a Yoopay-only download lightly advertised in a few groups of experimental music aficionados with horrid taste in WeChat stickers. Luckily I caught this signal amid the noise, and it’s been the richest listening all year, an album of pipa solos making the instrument sound as it never has before. Li, if your’e not familiar, is an American multi-instrumentalist whose been living in southwest China for some time. He’s accomplished on cello and violin, but has taken a particular interest in the pipa, and this album is a kind of personal benchmark for his relationship to the instrument. Li Shurui sounds “classic” without quite being “classical”. It’s made up entirely of the tones and timbres native to the pipa, and as such sounds thoroughly familiar to anyone with an ambient knowledge of traditional Chinese music, but is continually hard to place within any comfortable frame of reference, like a famous painting hung upside down. It doesn’t sound any more “Chinese” than it does “Western”. It’s certainly not a traditional pipa album, but it also doesn’t sound “avant-garde” in the way that word is usually employed. It’s musical without being cloyingly melodic, complex without being complicated, falling in the Goldilocks zone between erudition and novelty. It’s pretty. Stream the opening track here, and buy it here.
Bonus: Li Jianhong - 1969
And I’ll sneak this one in at the end, with a few caveats: 1) though this was released by Paris tape label WV Sorcerer Productions this year, it’s made up of recordings that Li Jianhong made in 2008, and 2) this is as far away from “music” as anything on this list. That said, this haunted guitar-noise cyclone has been whipping around the cobwebs in my head since it was released in September. I have to be in a certain mood to listen to this, and since that mood is “fuck the world don’t ask me for shit”, it’s been on pretty regular rotation. If you’re not familiar with Li Jianhong, well, you can read a longer thing I wrote about his whole guitar-noise-shaman schtick here. Or just light a candle and give this one a spin. It sounds like a field recording of a black metal demo that was recorded in a basement being played on a shitty boombox in a different basement. Also both basements are really cold. Especially recommend track 2, “Revolution is only a sad illusion 革命只是憂傷的幻覺” (love you Bernie).
And thus, like 2016 itself, we end on a weird and unsettling note. Luckily there’s plenty to look forward to next year, including the latest slow-baked psychedelic layer cake from Beijing’s Chui Wan and a debut album from unwashed Shanghai punks Dirty Fingers. Will keep you posted.
Follow “In My Ears”, Josh Feola’s weekly Douban Music column, here.