At the top of the year, we were quietly hoping that 2020 would be a watershed time for some of China’s best musicians in breaking through internationally.
Artists such as Hiperson and 33EMYBW had booked slots at international music festivals, and it felt like it wasn’t a matter of if these bands would enrapture a wider audience, but when.
Then Covid-19 hit and the country went into lockdown, with music shows within and outside of China put on hold for months. The shock of the sudden closure hit the music industry hard, but local scenes rallied, creating new communities and solidifying existing ones.
One of the most inspiring stories of the year was the month-long fundraising drive that integral Shanghai club ALL put on through May. Needing to raise around 42,000USD to dig themselves out of a financial hole left by the pandemic, the club surpassed their aim and have remained open, persevering as a hub for all the weird and wonderful creativity that China’s underground offers.
Speaking optimistically, 2020 was a year of community. It was also a year of variety shows — so many variety shows. There was a brief hip hop variety show war between iQIYI’s The Rap of China, Bilibili’s Rap for Youth and Mango TV’s Rap Star, with Rap for Youth seemingly coming out on top, despite an inauspicious censorship scandal to end the show.
2020 was also a watershed year for virtual idols in the music industry. Rising star Lexie Liu got on this wave, joining Kpop group K/DA as their fifth member in October, just in time for performances at The League of Legends World Championships. Around the same time, iQIYI’s shockingly bad, yet intriguing, virtual idol variety show Dimension Nova hit the airwaves.
Overall, it’s certainly been an interesting year for music in China. Here are some of our highlights from 2020.
Breakthrough Band of the Year: Wutiaoren
2020 was a year for some intriguing new bands, but more importantly, a big year for groups who broke through to the mainstream after years of slogging away.
Case in point: Guangdong indie folk band Wutiaoren have been making excellent music for over a decade. The group came into this year’s season of Chinese rock variety show The Big Band as resounding underdogs, but their humor, laidback personalities and overall sound captured the imagination of viewers and the country at large.
Their impromptu performance of the awesome “道山靓仔” (“Handsome Daoshan Boy”), which baffled judges and wowed viewers, set the tone for their appearances on an otherwise formulaic TV show. The act were kicked off and voted back in multiple times before eventually finishing as one of the top 5 bands on the show and securing plenty of media coverage to boot.
- Producer Chace has been making waves for a few years now. He released a collaborative EP with Sichuan rapper Vava at the start of the year, and then took the country by storm with his band Mandarin. The band ended the year with a high-profile Vogue spot alongside Suzhou River star Zhou Xun and the most famous man in China right now, Wang Yibo, as well as their debut album release (it sounds a lot like Radiohead).
- The Rap of China has a history of catapulting underground famous rappers into the stratosphere. Case in point, one of the judges of this year’s season, GAI. His labelmate at Chongqing’s GO$H crew, Wang Qiming, enjoyed a rise through the show, eventually ending up as runner-up to Li Jialong, and finishing the year strong with a bunch of features on the collective’s album, Oh My Gosh.
- Other variety show alumni had strong years. Former Rocket Girl and participant of uber-popular show Produce 101, Meng Meiqi went solo in earnest this year, with her EP, 爱·不爱 (Love.Not Love). From The Big Band, Taiwanese sister trio Floruit Show captured attention with their heartrending ballads, while young rock band White Paper were also a revelation.
Album of the Year: Bildungsroman by Hiperson
In a year of viral singles, a strong, cohesive album continues to be the best means of absorbing a musician or band’s essence. This category might have been a list all on its own, with endless recommendations from the various strata of Chinese music in 2020.
However, sitting atop the pile of our favorite records of the year is the third album from Chengdu rock band Hiperson. Bildungsroman saw the band rise to new heights, with an epic story of love, maturation and society in China.
Speaking about the record to us back in July, the group said, “The effort we put into this album is unprecedented. We have been looking very carefully at what we have been doing well and how to amplify these things.” That unprecedented effort is obvious, with the album standing as the best thing we’ve heard from the group, as well as the best album we’ve heard all year.
- Merrie Records had another strong year in 2020. Highlights by the Beijing-based indie music label include the debut album by Kunming producer Zeming Xu, as well as Wang Meng + Yu Miao‘s spectacular ambient record, Both. They also put together some excellent compilation albums, featuring the likes of Late Troubles, Shii and more.
- Also in the “excellent compilation albums” category was Home Fitness Volume 1 & 2 from music collective DCYY, featuring contributions from the likes of GOOOOOSE, Knopha and Yu Su. nugget records out of Beijing also put together a cassette compilation in aid of pets stuck in Wuhan, Tapes for Charity, featuring some of the best DIY musicians in China.
- Ruby Eyes Records put together one of the best release slates of the year, with the debut album from Shanghai psychedelic band Mirrors finally released this year, as well as a synth rock record from former shoegaze stalwarts City Flanker, and beautiful mind-bending rock from Railway Suicide Train.
- And also among the best records of the year were the debut album from underground producer Hyph11E, Leah Dou‘s awesome trip hop record GSG Mixtape and punk legends SMZB‘s censored album Once Upon A Time in the East on Maybe Mars.
From Wuhan to the World: SMZB, China’s Most Outspoken Punks, Return with a New Album
Song of the Year: “Wuhan 2020” by Hardcore Raver in Tears
Songs went viral for a variety of different reasons in 2020. Be it the return of some of the world’s biggest Mandopop stars or tracks that tapped into the public mood amid a pandemic, there were a lot of excellent singles for us to unpack over the past 12 months.
Our song of the year came from Hardcore Raver in Tears, the Wuhan band formed from the ashes of legendary indie group AV Okubo. “Wuhan 2020,” is a gasping, slow-moving ode to the Hubei city that was the epicenter of Covid-19, and which was forced into a strict lockdown for 76 days. Singer Lu Yan spoke to us about the record earlier this year, saying, “After we’ve been through this pandemic, I don’t think either a tour or the new record matters. World peace is the most important thing.”
- Former EXO bandmates Luhan and Kris Wu joined forces in April to release the supremely catchy single, “Coffee.” During a year of lockdowns and without travel, Taiwanese Mandopop star Jay Chou also released his scintillating track, “Mojito,” which quickly became the most viral song of the year.
- Two of the Higher Brothers, Masiwei and KnowKnow, released a track addressing the Covid-19 pandemic in China back in February, called “Face Mask.” Featuring lines such as, “When the pandemic breaks out, my love is antidote,” the track certainly caught our attention at a time when Covid-19 was at its peak in China.
- Other standout tracks of the year include producer and singer Scintii‘s debut on London label Houndstooth, “Times New Roman”; the sweeping, odyssean tracks “Spring Breeze,” and “Our Ballad” from Chengdu indie group Hiperson; and noise-rock darlings Carsick Cars‘ return after an appearance on The Big Band‘s second season with their single, “Wake Me Up.”
Defining Genre of the Year: Ambient
What a year it was for new genres, insurgent genres and genres that just held us together through some of the most trying times of the year. But with all the madness going on across the globe, we were grateful for ambient music having a strong 2020.
As Will Griffith wrote for RADII back in April, “The world is louder than ever, which means that there hasn’t been a more opportune time to switch off and slip into the comforting world of ambient music in China.”
We had the excellent Blanc Live 01 from Modern Sky sub label Sound Blanc, we had the ambient leaning stylings of Boiled Hippo via Beijing label Space Fruity Records, and we had the intriguing blending of modern electronic beats and classical Chinese instrumentation from Wang Meng and Yu Miao on Merrie Records, to name just a few.
While electronic party sounds crept into hip hop and pop music in the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak, 2020 was a time for quiet reflection, and nothing suited that better than the ambient sounds that we were treated to this year.
- Psychedelia also had a strong year, with releases from Mirrors, Railway Suicide Train, Sleeping Dogs and Run Run Run, although the latter did something of an about turn, with their embrace of the taut rhythms of Motorik.
- On the other side of that, shoegaze had a quiet decline this year as two of the country’s best shoegaze bands distanced themselves from the genre. Beijing group Default went indie folk on their EP Can You Hear the Whistle Blow, while Shaoxing group City Flanker turned to synth rock for new inspiration.
- Electronic music was intertwined with a lot of what we heard in pop and hip hop spheres this year. Cases in point were Vava and Chace‘s party EP, Vow, which captured the imagination after the reopening of the country and its clubs after Covid-19. Jackson Wang‘s collaboration with Galantis on “Pretty Please” showed us another side of the singer, while former EXO star Lay Zhang teamed up with Moroccan-Dutch DJ R3HAB for a remix of his track, “Boom.”
In “High-Strung” China, the Importance of Ambient Music is Growing
Moment of the Year: Livestreaming Through Covid-19
There were many transformative moments in the music industry in 2020. Too many to count. But, the standout moment of the year came in the form of artists and organizations banding together to livestream their music during Covid-19, setting a template that would ultimately be replicated across the globe following the virus’ devastating spread.
As the pandemic shut down livehouses and clubs and kept people in their homes in China, music venues and festival brands across the country banded together to stay sane and active, while also supporting their audiences and fans around the country. The initiative behind these streams felt transformative at the time, and still does, with the country’s music scene having been able to rebound with vigor once venues started opening up again in late spring.
No matter what happened in 2020, it’s heart-warming that we were able to see such togetherness within the music community.
- One of the most disheartening series of moments this year came when China’s biggest hip hop musicians either failed to address the Black Lives Matter protests, or waited for backlash before eventually posting to their social media accounts. While a number of underground hip hop musicians were quick to voice their support for the movement, the failure to act on the part of the likes of mainstream figures such as Kris Wu, who has centered his career around hip hop in recent years, elucidated the divide between Chinese musicians and the rest of the world, giving insight into the continuing difficulty for these artists to break through in the global mainstream.
- Among the standout issues that happened in 2020, some of the more prominent were the discussions around regional forms of Chinese languages, with Guangdong rapper Soulhan being maligned for using Cantonese while appearing on The Rap of China in one high-profile incident.
- Another hip hop show, Rap for Youth, ended in controversy, when rapper Sheng Dai‘s lyrics denouncing sexual harassment in the workplace were cut from the finale.
- We also bore witness to the rise of virtual idols in the mainstream, with the addition of Chinese singer Lexie Liu to Kpop group K/DA. And on the flipside, virtual idol talent show Dimension Nova hit iQIYI in bizarre fashion.
Amidst Coronavirus Lockdown, Musicians in China Livestream the Party