Is there nothing better than end of the year lists? Of course everyone just wants the dirt. The worst flyers, the worst music, the worst art shows, etc. Today we only (for the most part) talk about the best. Yes the top 20 albums from China-based artists that came out in 2014.
I know a lot of you are saying “there were 20 albums that came out in 2014 from China?” Yes dipshit there were hundreds. As I look around my store at the shelves of vinyl and display case full of tapes of Chinese based bands, I’ve had to widdle down my list from over 50 albums. Every time someone says there is not enough good music coming out of China it’s like listening to a spoiled 10 year old saying there is nothing to eat for dinner. As my mom would say, get off your lazy ass and open your eyes.
Then there are people who are plenty aware of good Chinese music like the salted dead corpse Laura Ingalls who instead of sharing simply say “I don't even know why I go to gigs anymore, it's just a bunch of young twerp playing music with computers and electronic toys acting like they invented the cosmos.” Alright that one is pretty funny. But in all seriousness, even though this list is a countdown from twenty to one, only the first and last are specifically placed. If you like any of the albums on this list please consider buying online or a physical copy. Most are the price of one or two drinks in your average Shanghai bar.
20. Pang Mai Lang
Let’s start off this list with a little taste of current Chinese pop culture. I only know about this album because my record store clerk F plays the title track "My Skateboard Shoes" about five times a day. Even though she is a member of credible local indie bands like Next Years Love and the now defunct Pairs she knows every lyric and apparently 98% of China under 40 does as well. There is a slight chance I’m just too old to “get this” but the song is just so horrible on so many levels.
龐麥郎 - "我的滑板鞋 (Pang Mai Lang – My Skateboard Shoes)"
19. We Are Shanghai
Originally I wasn’t going to include any comps in this but the We Are Shanghai album is just too important not to be heard. While the album does focus on a lighter shade of Shanghai the effort put together by Ivan and his team is to be celebrated. Nearly 30 local bands and solo musicians of various genres coming together under the DIY flag. Just warms your heart doesn’t it? Some of the highlights for me are the songs by The Horde, Rainbow Danger Club, and Reykjavictim. But don’t stop at those white ghosts – also check out the track from Top Floor Circus who have been banned from more clubs in Shanghai than any other. The track I’m going to share with you now is titled “All Because of You” from En Route who also had an album this year that I didn’t have room to include in the top 20.
En Route - “All Because of You”
18. Noise Arcade
Noise Arcade is electronic project from the drummer Michael Cupoli of the now disbanded rock band Low Bow. A hodge podge of drum machines, synths, and efffect pedals all controlled by a MIDI sequencer of the gods, the mostly improvised Noise Arcade project is surprisingly club friendly. Yes, rock and rollers can have electronic hearts and Cupoli’s digital tentacles have been busy releasing no less than 20 albums and splits in 2014, most of which are available on his BandCamp page.
The album that made today’s Top 20 list is from Shanghai’s own Huashan Records, which is comprised mostly of local saltsayer Laura Ingalls’s various music projects. Noise Arcade is also featured on the Huashan Records comp that features the cream of the crop in artists that draw an audience of less than 20 people at their shows. The Noise Arcade live set really has increased in quality since the first time I saw him lay it down over a year ago. I highly recommend you experience it in person but for now here is a cut off the Selective Memory EP.
Noise Arcade - "The Unfair, Double Standard "
One of the best kept secrets in modern Chinese indie rock is a little Sichuan gem named Stolen out of Chengdu. The band has been around a couple years but really developed their own style in 2014, in which they released a demo album that supported their eight city Chinese tour. The five-piece band has gone from more obvious western rock rip offs to a darker post-punk original sound that lays down some heavy synth on the side. Stolen also pays close attention to their visuals when playing live which is refreshing to see. Showmanship, that’s what rock n roll is missing these days with you lazy SOB’s out there. Is it me or does Chengdu seem to be pumping out the quality bands lately? My favorite track on this album is titled Hook which I’m sharing with you now. But I urge you to give her a listen from beginning to end as it’s quite a wild dark and scary ride.
Stolen - “Hook”
16. Busy Gang
File this one under yes there is gangster rap in Shanghai and it comes in the form of Busy Gang, a crew comprised of three rappers: Al Rocco, Koz, and Blow Fever. Proving its trending power the 800 album has reached the top 10 of Bandcamp’s Chinese music charts. While they make sure to let you know they are a purely Chinese rap trio it’s obvious that Busy Gang take heavy influences from the American hip hop scene. The album is a whopping 19 tracks and while much is that formulaic trap sound, the bulk of it drudges up some original sounding Chinese hip hop that could go toe to toe with crews from around the world. Definitely one of the most interesting finds of 2014.
Koz & Al Rocco - "Going Hard 强硬"
15. S L V
The question on every young lady in Shanghai’s mind is what does S L V stand for? My guess is Smooth Lady Vampires. I’ve also heard it’s from an Edgar Allen Poe inspired cut titled Some Late Visitor. No matter how you slice it this project from Shanghai-based producer Tom Oliver and Tokyo-based beatmaker Hamacide keeps getting darker by the minute. The four song + bonus remix EP titled Moss Temple comes from Shanghai label SVBKVLT who hang their hat in the dingiest of all dungeons le Shelter. Moss Temple came out last summer and even got some international play from the well respected Tiny Mixtapes review site. Artwork for this album was done by label mate Caliph8 who is a master of the MPC in his own right.
S L V – "Chishik (DVA’s Hi-Emotions Remix)"
Those trouble loving lawaois from XXYY gave us a healthy dose of pub rock in the form of their PM250 album last fall. As a big fan of 70s power pop and garage rock this album was a sweet surprise for an old punker who used to believe in things. XXYY is a trio lead by Scottish Mike Herd on vocals, Jaret Shank on drums, and Mike Bush on Bass. The album was recorded at Shanghai’s own 72 Studio and mixed by Laura Ingalls of Huashan Records and board master Ryan Baird. PM250 wins for most intense album cover of the year drawn by Ivan Belcic of Twin Horizon. To those asking the question where did rock n roll go? It’s right flipping here.
XXYY - “Bai Fu Mei”
Straight out the mean streets of Hangzhou is the newly formed Groove Bunny Records who focus on more conscious Chinese hip hop. This release titled Maiden Voyage teams up Jilin rapper Wootacc and Guangzhou producer Pete Chen. The production is by far some of the most distinctive beats coming from a Chinese producer and is a breath of fresh air for the future of hip hop in China. You can pick up a copy of Maiden Voyage on cassette but I’m hoping it’s someday released on vinyl. Other solid releases from the Groove Bunny family include Turn it Up and Cantonese Boom Bap, which pairs rapper Madprole with Pete Chen. Keep your eye on this label in 2015.
Wootaac - “E=mc2”
Another important album of 2014 was the culmination of a collaboration between Shanghai’s hardest rocking that formed the band Goushen. Month by month the band tightened up technically and the fiery singer Lenz, who recently left us for Australia, really found her voice and laid down some powerful vocals that might as well have kicked your teeth in at every show.
Dio Cane will become one of the classic Chinese rock albums in the newly formed history of rock in the PRC. Lao Bi’s guitar blares with finger picking prowess, drummer Dario bangs harder than your mom, and Mian Mian’s stone cold bass leaves you scared to venture to that side of stage. Good job guys and we all miss you Lenz.
Goushen - “Happy Birthday”
This one was a real contender for album of the year. Lead by singer Kang Mao, SUBS have tread a rocky road that lead to their staunch DIY stance. Basically they refuse to sign for any label, despite being courted by respected labels like Modern Sky and Maybe Mars. This album yoU aRe yoU was crowd funded by one of those contribution websites and received 6,000RMB on the first day showing just how much respect and support the China’s music community has for the band.
The album itself is the real deal. Punk rock, pysch, post-punk, and the kitchen sink were thrown into yoU aRe yoU, creating a psychobilly romp that anyone could love. This year also marked the addition of SmartBeijing writer Josh Feola as drummer and he almost got them kickstarted on a tour through America before breaking his knee like a champ. Even though they refuse to sign on the dotted line, SUBS can be found playing China’s biggest music festivals (they are just not allowed to sell their merch).
SUBS - “That Happened”
10. Howie Lee
Beijing based producer Howie Lee wowed us early this year with his East Side sampler EP and just threw up another bomb titled Swallow on Shanghai label SVBKVLT. Howie has a MA in Sound Arts from the London College of Communication and proved over the past couple years that he is not running an amateur hour. While his first 2014 release on Trap Door records titled Borderless Shadows represents more of the bedroom producer doing dreamscapes vibe, the first two tracks on the Swallow release are ready for the club with the last being a sweet outro into slumber. Howie Lee was even contracted by Snoop Lion himself for a recent remix. This kid – this is the kid.
Howie Lee - “Garret Jungle”
9. Spill Your Guts
If you ever have had a bottle smashed on your face repeatedly then you are almost ready for what it means to experience a Spill Your Guts show. Another important rock album in 2014, it represents some of the most intense hardcore anywhere on the globe. Recording and mixing hardcore–trying to capture the intensity and retain some clarity–can be quite the task, but production guru Xander who laid down this album in Shanghai did a bang up job.
The album mostly represents classic hardcore and power violence and even throws in a touch of grind metal at times. Another admirable quality about Spill Your Guts is their effort to connect with their hardcore brethren up in Beijing or Hong Kong or anywhere for tours, hardcore festivals, and in general just to support the small yet growing scene in China. A little bird told me that drummer Tyler Bowa of Factory 5 bicycles throws up before every show so he can bang those skins hard as possible. Now that’s fucking hardcore.
Spill Your Guts - “Growing Tide”
AM444 is the famed project from Chinese singer ChaCha and Dutch producer Jay Soul (formerly located in Shanghai). The main track off this EP is a rework of AM444’s song “Shen Jing Mo Shao” by French pop star Matthieu Chedid a.k.a. M. The pair teamed up for a Mainland China tour before heading off to Europe to play dates together as well. Quite a big year for AM444 and hopefully there’s more to come from ChaCha and Jay Soul in the near future. ChaCha’s vocals on this EP are undoubtedly haunting and beautiful, proving she could easily grasp the large-scale pop market if she wanted to. Enjoy AM444 now while they still remain with us commoners.
AM444 – “Detache Toi”
7. Fanzui Xiangfa
It’s been a huge year for Genjing Records up in Beijing. The small vinyl label has blown up this year with over 10 releases from bands such as Carsick Cars, Alpine Decline, Snapline, AV Okubo, and The Yours, just to name a few. Fanzui Xiangfa is the project from label owner Nevin Domer and this marks the release of a blazing 25 track vinyl LP for those who salute everything DIY.
You have topics such as racism, multinational corporations, the state, and more. Regan would be spinning over in his grave if he knew this record existed. Straight up hardcore punk rock with songs ranging from one all the way up to two minutes long. If you can’t say what you need to say in one minute then you are doing it wrong. The songs titles have their own subtle charm, like “Fuck Your Flag”, “Kill Your Television”, “Use Your Fists”, and “Break the Law”. You really have to dig deep to get the messages from this album.
Fanzui Xiangfa - “Beijing Hardcore”
6. Alpine Decline
Go Big Shadow City is the fifth full-length vinyl record from the husband and wife fuzzed-out psych rock duo Alpine Decline. This time the release came on the Beijing label Maybe Mars accompanied by a 15 city tour. Recorded from the infamous Yang Haisong, who has laid down pretty much every important album of 2014 and doesn’t seem to be stopping there, the organic layered sound was created by the use of reel to reel as the initial recording process.
Before Go Big Shadow City the band was based in LA and recorded their first three albums with madman M. Geddes Gengras, who released one of my favorite western albums of 2014 titled Ishi. Alpine Decline themselves are taking things in a more modular direction and they just finished a week in the mountains recording their sixth album that now includes a Euro Rack with more knobs and patch cables then you can shake a stick at. Keep ‘em coming good buddy.
Alpine Decline – “My Smokestack Only Burns at Night”
5. Wang Wen
Much like the cola wars of the 1980s between Pepsi and Coke, the rock n roll wars of China in the early 2010s were fought with heavy campaigning and vigor. You know who won? Post rock won. Does that make us all losers? Maybe. In the future there will be no songs less than 10 minutes and vocals will become as ancient as the fox trot or as offensive as Al Jolson. I personally welcome the change in today’s youth. The Dalian five piece is leading the charge of a new romantic, heartfelt, melancholy future in China. This is their second vinyl release on the Chengdu label New Noise along with Beijing’s Genjing Records and this guy is a mean two piece 12” vinyl set that comes on heavy grade stock.
The band has been has been raising quiet hell since 1999 but have really developed into a solid math rock outfit in the past three or four years. This really could be the Chinese rock album that gets the most international attention. A lot of Chinese music seems heavily indebted to western styles but this album is truly original. This one was recorded at the Echo Library in Dalian, which doubles as a vinyl store and small show space. Frontman Xie Yugang says “We all have the same longings and desires…Music is the one thing that transcends cultural boundaries. It’s a language that can be understood all over the world.” Well if that doesn’t have world domination written all over it I don’t know what does.
Wang Wen – "Sky of Dalian"
In terms of Shanghai’s techno scene being elevated to the world stage, this 12” EP from Shanghai-based producer TzuSing couldn’t be a bigger deal. It’s the 54th release from the New York label L.I.E.S., known for releasing some of the most respected experimental dance music of today. Under their belt are artists like Florian Kupfer, Legowelt, Bookworms, and Steve Moore. From what I hear this is the first of three L.I.E.S. releases from Tzu Sing, who carefully summons the spirits of his EBM forefathers while crafting the sound for modern ears. You can find TzuSing at his semi-regular party Stockholm Syndrome down at Shelter, or as of now, touring the world with his new producer fame. Pick up the No Primordial State 12” vinyl for 100RMB at your local record store.
TzuSing - “No Primordial State”
3. Carsick Cars
Is it a coincidence that Carsick Cars’ newest album 3 is also number three on my best album list? Alright you got me Columbo. This is their third album since their 2007 debut on Maybe Mars records and many consider them to be China’s best indie rock band. Having toured America and forging a highly palatable sound, it's easy to see why they are constantly referenced when discussing the future of Chinese rock. They are simply a solid rock band.
While I do love this album I fear they could be running out of room to grow and time will tell if they continue to develop musically or like many bands just churn out a different version of the last album year after year. The flawless productions on 3 were done by Peter Kember, a.k.a. Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3. Kember has worked with some heavy hitters like Stereolab, Animal Collective, Panda Bear, and MGMT. The album is available on 12” vinyl and is mastered superbly for wax. Whether you are a Chinese indie music regular or just arrived on the scene you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t like this record.
Carsick Cars – “Wei Cheng”
Another amazing indie rock album of 2014 was Phantom Pop Star from Beijing’s Hedgehog. This six song journey really takes the time to tell a story and in this world of randomly scattered MP3s it’s refreshing to see an album that captivates you from start to finish. Modern Sky put this album out and whether you love or hate the label it’s still clear they care about the quality of Chinese music (at least a portion of their company still does).
Recorded in the Busy Bee Studio of Beijing and mixed down by Liu Feng Shuo, the Modern Sky big wigs spared no expense on the production of this masterpiece. This album fuses classic brit rock with Chinese pop to make you feel warm and fuzzy all over. Also it doesn’t hurt that the tiny drummer girl Atom, who also plays in Nova Heart, is probably the best person on this earth. The CD for Phantom Pop Star goes for 25 USD so maybe just download the digital copy. Damn I wish this one was on vinyl too. Come on Modern Sky, get in the game and realize that CDs are done and vinyl is the future, man.
Hedgehog – “Aspirin”
1. After Argument
2014 was truly the year of Yang Haisong and that is why I chose his side project After Argument’s newest LP as China’s number one album. Originally I was going to choose his main project PK14’s album 1984, which was engineered by the best producer in modern history Steven Albini and came out on vinyl LP this year. However, the digital version actually came out in fall 2013 so no dice on that.
I also wanted to include his other side project band Dear Eloise, who released an album this year titled Farewell to the Summer, which is a really personal piece between Haisong and his wife. But at the end the day I’m going with This is Not Your Game by After Argument, which is somewhere in the middle of PK14 and Dear Eloise.
Also a two piece band, the second half is Chinese female drummer Zaza who co-writes songs that border on the line of experimental and post punk. You’ll hear the trademark Fugazi-esque technical tone alongside a lo-fi fuzz that is unique to After Argument. One thing it does have over his main project PK14 is that you hear the more personal angst side of Haisong, especially on the tracks “Her Deep Eyes” and “A Protest Song”. While this album might not be an easy listen like the Carsick Cars or Hedgehog albums, it’s the most important album put out in 2014 by a person who we should all be happy is leading Chinese indie rock down a more true path. Yang Haisong also recently took over as label head of Maybe Mars records so hopefully this is just the beginning of constant releases by China’s best record label.
After Argument – “Her Deep Eyes”
Well there ya go – 20 of the most important albums released by China-based artists in 2014.
For more of our year-end content, check out:
2014: Best And Worst Shanghai Art
2014: Best And Worst Music/Events
2014: Shanghai's Favorite Eats And Drinks
2014: Best New Restaurants
2014: Best User Review Quotes
2014: Best Flyers
2014: Worst Flyers
2014: The F&B Memorial Reel