Loved by some, missed by many – here’s a list of our favorite Mainland albums from 2015. What started three years ago as a last-minute attempt to fill empty magazine pages has turned into a growing tip of a hat to a thriving music scene.
Indeed 2015 was a big year for the professionalization of China's music scene. Budding monoliths like Modern Sky, JZ and MAO Livehouse built livehouses across the nation, new media giants like Douban jumped into the record business and even more domestic stalwarts toured or signed deals overseas. With the recent government mandated crackdown on unlicensed music online, things are only looking up for artists.
In 2013, we made note of a few of the year's Notable Albums. Last year, we debuted our Top 25 list. This year, we're going deep into this thing with our Top 50 Mainland Records of 2015. Before we start, special acknowledgement must be given to Live Beijing Music and their weekly William Griffith-penned New Releases column, which are absolutely essential for anyone interested in Mainland music.
10. Stolen: Loop
Renowned for its spicy food, cute pandas and tranquil way of life, Chengdu now boasts one of China’s most exciting music scenes. Despite only being in their early 20s, Stolen have been a city fixture since first forming in high school. Over the years, they’ve tweaked their electronic take on post-punk and were among the first signees to Douban’s D-Force record label. Recorded in Taiwan with P.K. 14 guitarist Xu Bo, Loop captures the band at its most confident, mixing dynamic instrumentals (‘Hook’) with brooding slow-burners (‘No Replay’) and darkwave dance anthems (‘Black Hole’s Metronome’). For more, check out That's Shanghai's feature on Stolen.
9. Hiperson: No Need for Another History
No band entered the year with more hype than Chengdu quintet Hiperson. Just a couple of years after university, the band had already scored a deal with top indie label Maybe Mars, won Douban’s Alibu Music Award for Newcomer of the Year, and had P.K. 14 frontman Yang Haisong produce their debut. The resulting disc No Need for Another History, more than lived up to anticipation and continued their label’s legacy of producing thoughtful art-punk. Frontwoman Chen Sijiang conveys her commanding presence as the band weave intricate riffs over rollicking rhythms and bass lines straight out of Peter Hook’s play book. For more, check out That's Shanghai's feature on Hiperson.
8. Chinese Football: Chinese Football
Wuhan may be written into China’s music lore as the country’s punk capital, but a new crop of bands are broadening the city’s sound. Leading the pack is Chinese Football, a self-described emo group whose sound echoes late-90s genre stalwarts like Jimmy Eat World, Death Cab for Cutie and American Football. Unlike many of the albums on this list, Chinese Football sounds like it could have been made anywhere. What makes it stand out is simply its exceptional songwriting. Released on a new label imprint from the legendary VOX Livehouse, it’s an early warning sign that something fierce is once again brewing in Hubei. For more, check out That's Shanghai's feature on Chinese Football.
7. J-Fever & Soulspeak: Color Blind
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Known as China’s most respected freestyle rapper, J-Fever has cultivated a loyal following by taking the independent route. However, his deal with Douban’s new record label D-Force has provided him with his biggest canvas yet – and the Beijing emcee has taken full advantage. Color Blind is a concept album exploring love and desire over sensuous, funky beats provided by producer Soulspeak (just one of four sterling projects he contributed to in 2015). To support the album’s release, the duo triumphantly toured the nation with a dazzling multimedia show. For more, check out That's PRD's interview with J-Fever.
6. Conrank: Ma Fan
The UK bass producer began by conquering the Chinese internet with viral videos of him peddling fried rice along with his music. Then he conquered the country’s underground through a series of outstanding releases on his own Rankadank label. He’s even invaded the country’s pop charts, having been recruited by world music star Sa Dingding for her Wonderland remix album. Now the self-styled Chaofange (‘fried rice brother’) is eyeing the world with his latest release for Saturate Records. International heavyweights like DJ Shadow, Stylus Beats and Messy MC contribute to the album, which has been winning rave reviews around the globe for its Sinofied take on bass. For more, check out That's Shanghai's interview with Conrank.
5. Wu Tiao Ren: Canton Girl
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Straight out of a tiny village in Haifeng county on the Guangdong eastern seaboard, these indie-folk favorites have built up a national following – despite singing in the rarest of the area’s three dialects. On their third album and first for Modern Sky, they’ve softened their edges. Most of the songs are in Mandarin and they’ve intentionally created their gentlest album yet. It proves to be a wise decision, with the album’s accessibility highlighting the trio’s powerful mix of Teochew opera and stinging rockabilly-tinged riffs.
4. Zuriaake: Gu Yan
Mysterious dark metal legends Zuriaake first emerged 18 years ago in Jinan, Shandong. Nine years later, they released their debut album, the mighty Afterimage of Autumn. But now, having spent years in Germany perfecting the dark arts, the band is back with their most impressive release to date. Gu Yan continues Zuriaake’s atmospheric take on the genre through a mix of Chinese folk, seasonal motifs and a searing wall of noise. Ever cinematic, the band even hit the road for the first national tour in their long history, slaying crowds across China while dressed like those badass villains who terrorize Shaolin temple dogooders in wuxia classics.
3. Chui Wan: Chui Wan
Having emerged from Beijing’s experimental weekly showcase, Zoomin’ Night, Chui Wan take a major leap forward on their stunning sophomore disc. Ditching the reverb of 2012’s White Nights for a sound that drummer Li Zichao describes as “more primitive,” the eponymous album incorporates disparate influences from Sufi music to 20th century avant-garde composition. Nonetheless, Chui Wan remains rhythmic and accessible, thanks in part to the production skills of underground mainstay Yang Fan. The album release was accompanied by the quartet’s first North American tour, where they played alongside sonic siblings like Tame Impala and Spiritualized at the Austin Psych-Fest. For more, check out That's Shanghai's feature on Chui Wan.
2. Howie Lee: Mù Chè Shān Chū
Howie Lee: 木屮山出
After establishing his own brand of “future music from Beijing” with three standout EPs, Howie Lee recently linked up with LA label Alpha Pup for his full-length debut. Mù Chè Shān Chū marries elements from two of his 2014 EPs – the East Asian samples of Eastside Sampler and the ethereal charm of Borderless Shadows – to create something utterly unpredictable. Inspired by the landscapes of Taipei where the disc was partially recorded, Lee blends traditional Chinese sounds with booming bass in captivating ways. Released last month, the album caps off a busy 2015 that saw Lee’s debut at South by Southwest and three compilation releases from his Do Hits collective. For more, check out That's Shanghai's interview with Howie Lee.
1. Zhaoze: Yesternight, Yes Tonight
Fifteen years in the game and Zhaoze continue to surprise. Known for their guqindriven sound, the Guangzhou quartet incorporated early prog-rock influences into what they call the “world’s first electric guqin album.” The rousing disc, Yesternight, Yes Tonight, sees the band filtering the ancient sevenstringed instrument through effects and bowing it like a violin (a la Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page). Written to capture a single night in their home city, the album was accompanied by a debut performance at the prestigious Xinghai Concert Hall. Even better, a companion disc recorded in – and inspired by – the historic city of Kaiping is set to appear in 2016. For more, check out That's PRD's feature on Zhaoze.