What Remains of 2020
2020 is already gone… It was a strange year indeed. The COVID-19 pandemic of course, and at its epicenter Wuhan, probably the city I talk the most about in here (you can check my Wuhan playlist here). During the Wuhan lockdown, live venues and bars were closed, bands and show promoters lost a lot of money, shows began to be streamed online (something now that happens everywhere in the world). Whereas in other countries, shows, concerts and festivals have to be cancelled, China reopened its live venues, while Taiwan never closed them – a medical and economic success story that still need to be more deeply analyzed.
It’s time for a review of this very peculiar year in music. As RadiiChina, The Beijinger, Unite Asia or 搖滾天堂, here is my list – with no particular order. Last year, I reviewed the decade, and I have to say, a lot of bands mentioned in this post have – sometimes surprisingly – contributed to this new era (SMZB of course, but also Hiperson, Wang Wen, Omnipotent Youth Society or Wutiaoren). And for the first time, a list of Taiwanese albums that defined my year 2020.
SMZB – “Once Upon A Time In The East” (“东方往事”)
Of course I’ll start with SMZB 生命之饼, the godfathers of Wuhan punk. They waited a long time to release their new album, the first since The Chinese Are Coming in 2016. The release of Once Upon A Time In The East (东方往事) was in itself a musical and political event. While you can find it on the Chinese streaming platform NetEase, it was amputated of 6 songs, while the cover (a fallen statue of Mao) was blurred everywhere else… The punk band couldn’t even print the album in China, and had to release it in Taiwan, through the independent label 鼓樓唱片. The album in itself is a digest of all the aspects of SMZB songs: friends and beer (“Lumo Road”, “把全世界喝大”), strong political commentary of China’s past and present (“Red Riot”, “幸福集中營”), ecological concerns (“Emma The River Dolphin”), and even a tribute to Hong Kong with the cover of Lo Ta-yu’s classic “东方之珠”. A definitive milestone of the oldest Wuhan punk band.
Hiperson – “Bildungsroman”
Probably one of the best album of 2020. The Sichuan band gave us the perfect album to cope with this challenging year. As the title suggests, the band tells a story of growth, from youth to adulthood, both from a musical and personal point of view. As SMZB, Hiperson is haunted by China’s past, which appears as a specter in their songs – in a more delicate and sensible manner. The song “Xindu People” is still playing in my mind since I first listened to it:
萬能青年旅店 (Omnipotent Youth Society) – “冀西南林路行”
Ten years! We waited ten years for a new Omnipotent Youth Society 万能青年旅店 album, after their first masterpiece, and the song that defined Sinophone post-rock music during the last decade, “杀死那个石家庄的人” (“Kill the one from Shijiazhuang”). Omnipotent Youth Society comes from the most boring town in China – Shijiazhuang – which happens to also be the “rock base” of the country, where the magazine “So Rock!” 我爱摇滚乐 was edited for more than a decade. The first album was telling the poetic story of boredom in 2000’s urban China. This new album focuses on the ecological destruction of this world, while taking a mystical stroll in Hebei’s forests. Released in December, the album is one of the biggest hit on NetEase. Worth the wait.
The Big Band – 乐队的夏天
iQiyi’s famous rock show doesn’t need any more introduction. It has been criticized and analyzed thoroughly. I just want to focus on several bands and performances that made this year’s 乐队的夏天 an important show to watch: the participation of several famous indie-rock-punk bands, as Muma, Joyside, ReTros, Carsick Cars or Queen Sea Big Shark. The revelation of new talented bands, as 白皮书 or Mandarin (and Hyperslash – no I’m kidding). The (too) short appearance of one of the finest folk-rock collective, 野孩子, eliminated after not following the rules of the show. The stigma against non-Mandarin languages, as Taiwanese (represented by The Chairs and 康姆士) and Haifeng hua. The countless eliminations and come-backs of one of my favorite band, Wutiaoren 五条人, and their second place at the end, after an online mobilization. It may not please the rock purists, but it gives these bands some fame, and money, which they desperately need. Honorable mention for The Big Wave and Mosaic.
Dummy Toys – “Not A Puppet”
The all-girl punk band from Qingdao is back with an album full of anger, energy and empowerment. 12 street-punk anthems, dedicated to their city and way of life in the purest Riot Grrrrl tradition. And a song entitled “DMC Baby”, a reference to the punk bar founded by Spike from Demerit.
惘闻 (Wang Wen) – “100,000 Whys”
Recorded before the pandemic, the kings of Dalian post-rock offers a new complex album, which resonates with today’s world. The title comes from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “One million Hows, two million Wheres, and seven million Whys!” (to be honest, it’s also the name of one of Faye Wong’s cantonese album). Not my favorite album – the last one “Invisible City” was a masterpiece – but a very recommendable choice for this cold winter.
Lonely Leary – “孤獨的利裡”
I wasn’t expecting to be this excited by Lonely Leary – a Beijing post-punk trio. The dirty sound of several tracks reminds me of early P.K.14 albums, while the songs themselves tackle the boredom of living in Beijing – something essential for early Beijing punks. With Lonely Leary, Maybe Mars proves that they have the best catalogue of China’s indie sound.
Deadly Cradle Death – “Disconnection”
A surprise album by members of Birdstriking and Chui Wan – probably the finest Beijing’s experimental bands. A combination of many, many styles… As their cover of Sewn Leather says:
Noise is dying
Punk’s been dead
The only rock n’ roll rapes in your mind
Hardcore Ravers In Tears – “WUHAN2020”
Members of the Wuhan post-punk legendary band AV-Okubo released a post-pandemic EP on their experience of the lockdown, and the city they live in. “WUHAN 2020” is a musical testimony of the hardship of 2020, but also a song of hope and survival.
Jurat T.T. – “Moon Tales”
The Uyghur experimental musician based in Beijing Jurat has been around for more than a decade, releasing independently each year new songs and albums. In 2020 he released several EPs and albums, including “Moon Tales”, a 6 track dark fairy tale on dreams and childhood. A perfect album to enter the mind of one of the most important Uyghur experimental musician. See also my article on RadiiChina on Jurat previous album, “Mr. Tree Story”.
林生祥 (Lin Shengxiang) – “野蓮出庄”
The lead singer of the Taiwan legendary band 交工樂團 (Labor Exchange Group), came back this year with a new album, entirely in hakka as usual, based on his childhood food memories of hakka dishes entitled “Water Snowflakes Goes To Market” (“野蓮出庄”). A culinary folk tale, featuring musicians from all over Asia, and the sound of a Thai suona. Lin Shengxiang doesn’t forget his ecological, political and social engagements, with a song dedicated to Vietnam migrant workers.
八十八顆芭樂籽 (88 BALAZ) – “我的心正為你這個中年翹臀燃燒著!”
My favorite album of the year by the veterans Taiwanese ska-punk rockers 88 BALAZ, and the best live performances I’ve seen this year! The eighty-eight seeds of guava bring their ska-punk anthems to the next level, with a little bit of blues (“No Blues No Smith”), and a sharp songwriting which sometimes reminds of Lo Ta-yu (“Taipei Has No Homesickness”). Oh, yes, also: the English title of the album is “My Heart Is Burning For Your Sexy Butt”.
漂流出口 (Outlet Drift) – “O Fafahiyan No Riyar” (“海女”)
The Paiwan indigenous post-punk band Outlet Drift from Taitung released this year a new album, three years after their debut album, “Drowning” – a dark, post-adolescent and brilliant first album. The new album is more eclectic, still angry and dirty, and more oriented toward ecological preservation – a topic that clearly irrigates a large part of this year’s musical productions. Check also their Pasiwali performance.
Wayne’s So Sad (傷心欲絕) – “遜到簡直是個藝術品”
Technically, Wayne’s So Sad new album was released in 2019, but they won the Taiwan Golden Indie Music Award for best rock band this year, so I’m putting them on my 2020 list. The 6-piece punk rock band from Taipei was founded in 2009, and released their first, power-pop/punk, and best album, “我愛你” in 2010 – check their song “我的民歌時代”, now a classic. Their last album still has some powerful, ironic and depressive songs, everything that makes Wayne’s So Sad one of the best punk-rock act in Taipei.
椅子樂團 (The Chairs) – “Real Love Is…”
Ok, maybe The Chairs new album doesn’t deserve to be on that list – it’s clearly not their best album to date, but it’s still pleasant to hear, especially when you’re on the road 環島ing. They nonetheless deserve being on this list because of their appearance on this season’s The Big Band – one of the three Taiwanese band to make the cut. They made it quite far into the competition, and felt homesick during their stay in Beijing (at one point they listed all the dishes they would eat once they come back to Taiwan). They probably gave one of their best performances when they finally decided to sing in Taiwanese, during a very emotional song dedicated to the guitarist father.
透明雜誌 (Touming Magazine) – “我們的靈魂樂” re-release
Like Omnipotent Youth Society, Touming Magazine released in 2010 their first and most important album, which inspired countless bands and created a huge fan community that went beyond music (for instance the indie manga store “Mangasick” in Taipei). Unfortunately, if Touming Magazine is now touring again, the Taiwanese indie-rock kings haven’t released a new album this year. But they re-released their first album for its 10-year anniversary “我們的靈魂樂” in a beautiful vinyl edition. The zeitgeist of 2000’s Taiwanese 文青.