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The Chinese Music That Helped Us Through a Turbulent 2021

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This year has been momentous for many reasons. Covid-19 continues to trundle along globally, leaving lockdowns and daily disruptions in its wake. In China, figures in the creative and entertainment industries continue to come under scrutiny for sexual improprieties; and the face of the industry, in general, continues to change for reasons related to technology, musicality, and a multitude of other forces.

In a fundamental sense, though, the music continues to overshadow all of these developments. 2021 was another fantastic year for diverse music offerings, with some excellent high-profile collaborations, the rise of exciting new labels, and cutting-edge musical statements.

It was also a good year in music for RADII, as we launched our SoundCheck podcast, which features Wes Chen, host of hip hop show thePark, and Bryan Grogan talking about the best music every month. You can listen to that here.

Now, without further ado, here’s (almost) everything we loved and loathed in music coming out of China this year.

Album of the Year: 心愈频率  by J-Fever and Zhou Shijue (Prod. by Eddie Beatz)

Three of China’s most creative hip hop artists, J-Fever, Zhou Shijue, and Eddie Beatz teamed up in August for a nine-track collaborative album, 心愈频率 (Xin Yu Pinlu, which translates roughly to ‘Heart-Healing Frequency’). The result is genuinely heart-healing on multiple levels. 

J-Fever and Zhou Shijue are known for their conscious rap style and decided to do this project a few years back. However, they did not find a proper way to release the album until this year due to record label issues.

J-Fever

J-Fever. Image courtesy of J-Fever

The record taken together as a whole is gorgeous, full of beautiful production choices, and pared back to allow J-Fever and Zhou Shijue’s idiosyncratic vocal timbres and expert lyrical pacing to flow organically. J-Fever has cultivated an incredible catalog of releases over the years, and his conscious rap style has won him a loyal fanbase. 

This collaboration with two like-minded artists, Zhou Shijue and Eddie Beatz (who also teamed up on another record in 2021), makes it our favorite record of the year. 

Honorable mentions: 

  • There are too many great albums to mention all of them here, but among our favorites was Becoming by Yadae (formerly Duck Fight Goose), their first full-length offering under the new name. Fishdoll is another artist who achieved a gorgeous melding of styles this year with her sophomore album Moonsense, which took three years to make and sees the producer delve into orchestral arrangements.
  • In the realm of hip hop, Guangdong rapper AR launched his simply-titled 26-song album, phone project. Releasing one song each week for the first half of the year, he set a new standard for independent rap artists in China while addressing particular issues of the time, including Asian hate in America. Elsewhere, Xi’an musician Pact released Story of a Village, which reveled in a variety of new styles for the musician, as he incorporated blues guitars and jazzy electronica.
  • Among other excellent releases, Fuzhou leisure pop band The 尺口MP’s debut album 抹待也 (Mo Dai Ye, which is Fujian slang for ‘It’s Ok’) was finally released and was well worth the wait. It combines their penchant for leisurely rock music with stunning throwback visuals. Silent Speech were another group that released their first album, following a short four-song EP in 2019. The 18-track double record is an incredible experimental rock album.

Songs of the Year: “Hearsay” by Kaishandao and “Melaleuca” by Yu Su

It’s always tricky to pick just one song from 12 months of releases as the best of the year. With that being said, we’ve decided to pick two songs that helped sum up the mood of 2021 for us, both of which capture the yearning that the continued fallout of Covid-19 has imbued in people worldwide. 

First up, Kaishandao’s “Hearsay,” which was released in April and is part of her six-track EP Homeland. The track explores the concept of home in people, places, and spaces. The song sees Kaishandao cut together a bunch of different samples over a thumping bassline. But it is the message behind Homeland as a whole, and the comfort and joy that “Hearsay” gives us, that makes this track one of our favorites of the year.

In January, producer Yu Su released her first full-length project, Yellow River Blue, on recently founded bié Records (now home to the likes of Hualun, Salty Tomorrow, and more). Yellow River Blue is full of beautiful tracks, like the opener “Xiu,” which she later reworked with Xiamen producer Knopha. 

But it is “Melaleuca” and “Melaleuca (Night)” that truly caught our attention. The laidback romanticism of the latter gets us, while the infectious funk beats and hi-hat syncopation on “Melaleuca,” along with an incredible MV by animator Jordan Minkoff, had us dreaming of international travel. 

Honorable mentions: 

  • This year, one of our favorite trends was the prevalence of hyperpop in Chinese music. Beijing musician Bloodz Boi got in on the act, releasing a few tracks that dabble in the microgenre. Still, his best was a collaboration with Umru and William Crooks called “Iced Lemon Tea,” a fun, hyper-emotional song and ode to the delicious summer drink.
  • Bohan Phoenix had a big year, as he signed with Warner Music China. But given how active he has been on social media, it is easy to forget that he only dropped two singles this year. His first track of the year, “But I Still Love You,” reflects on racism and the continuing conversation around issues that affect people worldwide. 
  • We’d be loath not to mention the contributions of Sleeping Dogs to our listening habits in 2021. Dropping an EP called Petedogs, and a two-track release, Pinang Tunes, we heartily enjoyed the Afrobeat-inspired “Pinang Juice.” In a similar vein, the collaboration between significant rap figures Wang Yitai and Aire is too much to pass over, as the pair dropped their record 幸存者的负罪感 (Survivor’s Guilt), which featured the gut-wrenching “现实的生活” (Real Life). 

Breakthrough Group of the Year: Silent Speech

Silent Speech were one of a few different bands to drop their first full-length album in 2021. As mentioned above, The 尺口MP finally released their first album this year, as did Guangzhou indie band Nouvelle and Chengdu outfit FayZz

While we loved all of those records, Silent Speech’s 18-track effort, Law of Instability​/​Orderly Chaos, stands out for its sheer length and audacity. As we mentioned when we reviewed it earlier this year, the group cites mysterious intellectual figures like Ludwig Wittgenstein and Arthur Rimbaud as influences, a bravado that we like to see. 

The diversity of the music on display is impressive in itself, and we’re drawn to its length and experimentalism, which necessitates repeat listens.

 

Honorable mentions: 

  • Michael Cignarale has been performing as part of the club night Medusa (which he co-founded) for years but dipped his toes into the recording waters this year with a first album, Operatic Orgasm. It’s the first release on Cignarale’s new label, Medusa, which will continue to publish music by other performers who frequent the celebrated club night. 
  • Other club nights launched labels this year, too. Notably, another Shanghai party night, Love Bang, launched its label at the end of 2020 with the compilation Delivery. It followed that up with Energy in September. Shy People, which started life as a self-blogging account, launched its electronic label with a Chinese perspective. Meanwhile, we’re waiting for another club night, Scandal, to drop an eight-track compilation in January. 
  • We were also treated to music from a host of newly founded bands, like Ghostmass, a combo of avant-garde musicians like Yan Jun, Yang Kuku, and Snapline and Carsick Cars members Li Qing and Li Weisi. Similarly avant-garde are Shandong group My Bloody Sex Party. They dropped their release, Vol. 1, on Zoomin’ Night at the end of 2020, recording the songs on their phones in an abandoned office. At the time of release, their average age was 16. They’ve continued dropping music over on Bandcamp, which we recommend you check out.

Incident that Rocked the Industry: Kris Wu’s Downfall

By far, the most momentous thing to happen in the music industry in 2021 was the arrest of the hugely famous Kris Wu on suspicion of rape. For years, Wu has been one of the most popular musicians and celebrities in China and has even managed to make inroads in the global market, something that few Chinese musicians ever manage to do. 

As RADII staff writer Lu Zhao wrote in August, “Following his detainment, Wu’s accounts were taken down from the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, online culture community Douban, and TikTok’s domestic version, Douyin. Some of the pop idol’s songs have been removed from music streaming sites, and his personal pages have also disappeared on video streaming platforms such as iQIYI and Tencent Video.” 

Kris Wu. Image via Depositphotos

Kris Wu. Image via Depositphotos

The news had repercussions throughout the industry and in the culture of celebrity fandom, which has become huge in China over the past decade or so. While Chinese authorities had been attempting to reign in zealous fan groups before the news broke, the fallout saw Weibo pull its Star List, which ranked celebrities, and also saw the addition of more celebrities to an influencer blacklist, like Word of Honor star Zhang Zhehan.

Honorable mentions: 

  • A variety of controversies in 2021 rocked China’s music industry. One of the most prevalent issues was the bad behavior of male pop stars. Just this month, Wang Leehom, the legendary Chinese-American musician, announced that he had filed for divorce from his wife, Lee Jinglei. She then took to social media to post a scathing nine-page rebuke of her former husband that alleged emotional abuse and serial infidelity, including sex with married women, soliciting sex workers, and having various mistresses. The incident again brought to light the entitlement of celebrity popstars in a year where conversations around their behavior were rife. 
  • 2021 was the year of NFTs globally, and Chinese musicians dipped their toes in the water. Notably, Higher Brothers members Psy P and KnowKnow teamed with Chengdu rapper ty. to release an NFT music video. Additionally, Tencent’s firm grasp on the music industry continued to loosen as it was officially ordered to give up its exclusive rights deals with Warner, Universal, and Sony. 
  • As with every year, several high profile societal issues came to light in the music industry, and it’s hard to fit everything into this article, but some other notable occurrences include: Chengdu Punk Festival featured softcore hentai porn on its poster, triggering discussions around sexism and female objectification; images of thousands of revelers at Strawberry Festival in Wuhan, the original location of the Covid-19 outbreak, went viral in May; additionally, folk musician Song Dongye brought the conversation about China’s notorious cancel culture to Weibo before censors took action and blocked him. 

Cover image compiled by Sabina Islas

Bryan Grogan
Bryan is RADII's former culture editor. He is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with an interest in culture stories with a social bent. He once correctly guessed all 151 original Pokemon in seven minutes for an online quiz. He also correctly guessed all 100 second generation Pokemon in eight minutes for an online quiz.
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