Take a knee, Shanghai. It's time for the annual barrage of year-end articles. In "2017", SmSh takes a look back at the terrible highlights and wondrous lowlights of city life for the year two-oh-one-seven. It can't get any worse! Can it?
Josh Feola is a writer and musician in Beijing. He is currently editor-in-chief of Radii, a new media platform covering culture, innovation, and life in today’s China.
Can we all agree that Top 10 lists are complete bullshit? I’m pretty agnostic with regard to my tastes anyway, and if 2017 has proven anything, it’s that there is no objective reality and our entire epistemological world order is a house of cards one stiff breeze away from collapse. So here are 20 really great albums that came out around China over the last 12 months, broken down into categories I find meaningful at the moment.
Best Music to Work Out To
Let’s kick this list off with Hungry Crows, the first full-length album from Shanghai heavy-peddlers Spill Your Guts. For one thing, these guys will probably put me on (full) blast if I leave them off another one of these lists. For another I’ve probably burned about 10,000 calories while listening to Hungry Crows since it was released in September. The production quality is really high, and the sound very clean, but that doesn’t blunt the edge of these tunes, which all show a remarkable range of musicality but maintain a rough as gravel vibe throughout. I’m particularly into the album closer, “Satan 3 (some)”, which dances around ballad territory before crescendoing into a melodic death metal finale. Wicked.
Honorable mention to Dagger from Hong Kong, a new side project featuring Riz Farooqi of Chinese Hardcore OGs King Lychee on guitar and vocals, which self-released a blistering metalcore cassette EP in May. The shouted group vox of the band’s name in the EP’s eponymous mosh intro is the toughest thing I heard in 2017.
(Note: I also listened to Round Eye’s Monster Vision a lot at the gym but I put “Billy” on last year’s list, don’t be greedy yall.)
Best Music to Not Dance To
Hmm…. tough one! Avant-garde “club” music is really the zeitgeist right now. Gonna have to do a four-way tie here.
Hyph11e - Vanshing Cinema
Hyph11e has been the breakout star of Shanghai’s Genome6.66Mbp label, which feels like it’s been building underground hype for quite a while but actually just celebrated its first birthday in October. While Genome has put out a few good ones this year (especially Dirty K’s Exsciccation from June), the best thing to come out of their orbit is the Vanishing Cinema EP released last month by SVBKVLT. To me it feels and sounds like the culmination of the promise latent in Genome from the beginning — a new generation of mostly local producers with a fully formed vocabulary, ready to enter the global conversation. The selection of Hyph11e to play at CTM in Berlin next year seems to confirm this.
Do Hits, Genome’s opposite numbers in Beijing, also had a solid (if slow) year, with impressive releases from Jason Hou and US-based producer Alex Wang. But the standout in terms of sheer wtf-ness is label co-founder Howie Lee’s Homeless EP. While Howie’s flow of recorded music has been pretty thin over the last few years (though he managed to churn out a pretty solid Charli XCX remix last week), he’s been spending a lot of behind-the-scenes time refining other parts of his craft. That work was fully on display the few times he staged the bonkers Homeless live A/V show this year. He also made this insane music video for “Four Seas,” and starred in another equally insane music video for “Muztagata,” which was directed by original Do Hits member and current VICE China important guy Billy Starman.
33EMYBW - Medusa
I've asked Duck Fight Goose bassist (and former 33岛/Booji/Muscle Snog member) 33EMYBW for samples of what she's been working on every three months or so since she launched her own solo electronic music project in the middle of last year, and each time I’d typically get a few minutes of random (but always excellent) sketches in return. Many of those ideas are here, on 33EMYBW’s debut EP, which was just released by D Force Records last month. But they’re highly mutated, like the crazy sea monster-meets-radioactive spider-meets-underworld demon cover art, also by 33EMYBW.
GOOOOOSE - they
A special mention must be made of ALL, a club that has done a lot to support all of the artists mentioned in this section. Shoutout to Gaz Williams and crew for mobilizing so quickly after the Jan 1 closing of The Shelter. Kind of shocking when you realize that in between that and ALL’s June opening, he also organized an entire music festival in Beijing. When I interviewed 33EMYBW last month, she told me that ALL is the only place she can go out in Shanghai and hold a conversation for more than 20 minutes. Her partner in crime Han Han, who also has a brand new D Force release out (as GOOOOOSE), compared ALL (in a favorable way) to the scene/clientele from the Cantina scene in Star Wars:
“There are several times I had this feeling in ALL, because those young people — they’re mostly local — they’re dressing so differently, and you can see that even if people are playing noise or really experimental stuff on stage, they still enjoy it. They’re having a good time, and you can feel that they treat this place like their home. So I think that’s really something new. That’s something new to Shanghai and also China.”
Best Music to Be Asleep During
Chui Wan - The Landscape the Tropics Never Had
Not a diss — Chui Wan has been pumping out China’s dreamiest, most somnambulant soundscapes since 2010, and their third album, The Landscape the Tropics Never Had, is their crowning achievement in my opinion. It’s not for everyone, and full disclosure, I played drums on Chui Wan’s first album and they’ve kinda been my favorite Chinese band before and since. But whatever. When it came out I described this album as “all bright beige and dazzling downer chords” and Chui Wan’s “grainiest collection of confected synapse waxers to date” and I totally stand by that. Unfortunately, the band is altering from its core members, so this album is also a bittersweet swan song. Still, an impressive endcap to a strikingly original trio of albums that I believe a decade from now will stand out as one of the truly, uniquely “Beijing” sounds to have come from the Chinese capital’s underground rock scene.
Best Birthday Song
Sticking with Maybe Mars for the minute, which managed a steady stream of albums in 2017 while also negotiating its sale to bigger fish Taihe: after Chui Wan, the best thing they put out this year is How'd I Turn So Bad? by Shanghai’s Dirty Fingers. This one’s brand new so you probably haven’t had the chance to spin it yet. I highly recommend you do. The official album presser says:
“Dirty Fingers sounds like they’re surfing into hell, where all their friends and idols live. It’s the sound of introspection but no repentance, a question without a desire for an answer. ‘I erased my composition and wrote down my youth in the textbook’ belts vocalist Guan Xiaotian on the opening track, ‘School,’ which could refer to the institution of higher learning in Shanghai’s Yangpu district where the band formed, or to the beer-drenched bar in Beijing where they got their real education. Perfection isn’t the goal, just raw feeling — ‘I'm happy that this album is not flawless but is the right expression of our natural gift,’ says Guan.”
Right on. How'd I Turn So Bad? includes songs about Dirty Fingers’ depressing birthdays, their feelings about your girlfriend and their would-be psycho killers. Get on it.
Bohan Phoenix - JALA 加辣
Oh, JALA no doubt. Rap might have kicked off in earnest as a mainstream cultural force this year with the breakout success of The Rap of China, but New York-based rapper Bohan Phoenix has been steadfastly contributing to cross-cultural exchange along these lines for several years now. He dropped this EP in January — which includes a stellar beat by Howie Lee — and toured it around Asia for three months, from July to October. When I had Bohan, his tour manager DJ TOY, and his backup MC ItsRalphTho on my podcast while they were in Beijing, they said they’ll soon be spinning out an entire series of tour documentary videos to continue to bridge the gap between China and the West, using hip-hop as a lingua franca. Bohan’s also done work along the same the lines in recent collaborations with Beats and Taobao — dude works, and it shows in the quality of his “Product”. Looking forward to seeing / hearing more from Bohan Phoenix in these parts next year.
Least Likely to be Licensed
Another no-brainer! Not in Catalog is the latest formation to pop up in the post-Zoomin’ Night Beijing experimental music landscape, but is way, way more “musical” than pretty much anything else being put out in that orbit at the moment. The band includes Zhu Wenbo, who ran Zoomin’ Night as a weekly experimental gig series until Beijing underground venue XP closed in 2015, and has since has rebooted it as a cassette label, plus Zhu’s wife, Zhao Cong, guitarist Abing and drummer Lodliet. And they have honest-to-goodness “songs.” They’re actually one of my favorite bands to see live in Beijing, especially at places that are more than 50% filled with drunk expats. I won’t say why that is, but god I hope they make it to Shanghai soon.
Also should include a shoutout here to China guitar noise guru Li Jianhong, who put out an excellent album of shamanic chaos music called Like alive, right now (此刻，如同活人) in December of last year, but since it was released by Modern Sky it received virtually no promotion and isn’t streaming anywhere. You can buy it on JD.com though, and read more about it in a lengthy profile of Li and his wife Wei Wei in the December 2017 issue of The Wire.
Hardest to Classify But I Wanna Put It On My List
Probably the album I’ve listened to most this year. It’s beautiful. All compositions by Dali-based multi-instrumentalist and pipa shredder Li Daiguo, who here also plays cello and beatboxes, and is joined on lyre and flute by Huanqing, an early progenitor of experimental Chinese music and cataloguer of southwestern minority folk micro-traditions. You can read more about their setup in Dali and this album in articles I wrote for Sixth Tone and The Wire earlier this year, and stream the album on Spotify or Xiami.
Once again, for the 12th year running, the title for Nevin Domer-est album to come out of China in 2017 is claimed by none other than Nevin Domer, via his current outlet for pent up anarcho-aggression, Struggle Session. Nevin used his Genjing vinyl label to facilitate some cross-country action this year, pairing his own band’s first recordings with a 12” A-side’s worth of tunes from Guangzhou’s Die!ChiwawaDie!, probably the second best live band I saw this year. (#1 was David Boring from Hong Kong, who also have an excellent 2017 album worth spinning.) Struggle Session is right up there too, always reliable for an unhinged and 80% nude live set no matter the time or place.
Tend your garden, Shanghai! The best freshman releases/demos I heard in China this year all came from your fair city. Buy these things and go out and support these bands, who are busy making Shanghai just a little less finance-bro-douchey. (By the way, I learn about most new rumblings in this domain from Jake Newby, be sure to follow that guy.)
On the topic of finance bro douchebags, the debut album from Ugly Girls, which was just officially released, is the panacea to this rampant cultural morass that we’ve all been waiting for. It was recorded at Yuyintang and features such hits as “Fuck Boss” and “Yes Homo.” I love beer and existential dread as much as the next person, but it’s great to hear a punk band in China tackle some other topics for a change, as Ugly Girls do here with a number of barbed observations about gender and sexuality in China.
This fine piece of “never liked the term math-rock”-math-rock is the product of a duo formed by guitarist Gregor Fair and drummer Jon Wood in 2015. They put out this meticulously crafted 12-track debut on cassette through Guangzhou label Qiii Snacks (run by Die!ChiwawaDie! above), and sold it out within days. Luckily it still exists as digital vapor, which you can download here.
This is how I hoped that super-hyped but ultimately pretty boring Re-TROS album from this year would sound. It’s got a driving pulse but manages to retain an edge of psychedelic grit; it’s weird while still being fully accessible to the casual miscreant. I’ve expected great things from this band since I first heard about it, considering guitarist Aming was one of my favorite musicians to watch back in his freewheeling Beijing days (I once saw him perform on a sawed-off cello), and I’ve enjoyed watching the chemistry between bassist Bai and drummer Daniel in their previous project, Nonplus of Color. Haven’t caught Mirrors live yet but it’s high up on my list of 2018 to-dos.
TLDR List (alpha order):
33EMYBW - Medusa
Alex Wang - Black Dragon
Bohan Phoenix - JALA 加辣
Chui Wan - The Landscape the Tropics Never Had
Dagger - self-titled
David Boring - Unnatural Objects and Their Humans
Die!ChiwawaDie! / Struggle Session - Split 12”
Dirty Fingers - How'd I Turn So Bad?
Dirty K - Exsciccation
Foster Parents - Grim
GOOOOOSE - they
Howie Lee - Homeless
Hyph11e - Vanshing Cinema
Jason Hou - 生 (Sheng)
Li Daiguo and Huanqing - 指花风影 Zhi Hua Feng Ying
Li Jianhong - Like alive, right now (此刻，如同活人)
Mirrors - Separate Reality
Not in Catalog - not in catalog debut album
Spill Your Guts - Hungry Crows
Ugly Girls - Welcome to the Suck