All-Time Favorite Chinese Alternative Music

I understand not everyone has the time to read multi-page manifestos or the searching skills to track down everything listed in them. So let's make it easy!

FAVORITE SONGS (For more accuracy, see the Favorite Mixes page, but these ones are/were actually linked to the songs or a video of them streaming online. While I'm anti-streaming in general, I don't expect most Westerners to fly to China to pick up the CD in these cases. Please pay for it if you download it! Not all of my all-time favorites are available online, of course, so that makes an actual "TOP 10 LIST" quite impossible. In lieu of that, these are all songs that, IMO, should serve as ambassadors for Chinese alternative music. They do stuff that either Westerners might not have thought possible in the PRC or that only Chinese artists can really pull off. So, as my links page points out, if the internet only pays attention to things that are neatly laid out in short, digestible lists, here's mine!)

"乌江挽歌" - 4:37 Gala 追梦痴子心 2011 There's a live version of this on Youku that almost makes me not like it. Remember that Gala is a punk band, so this song is rather unusual.

"1127" - 4:24 LMF 大懒堂 Year unknown. Quite simply my favorite Chinese hip-hop song of all time, a tribute to Bruce Lee apparently. All without knowing much at all of what they're rapping. A few listens and you can be all about the "fu" in the rousing chorus, too. I've probably heard it close to a hundred times by now, and it doesn't wear out on me.

"皇城根" - 6:11 天堂乐队 爱在摇滚的岁月 2011 I don't like metal, but you've gotta hand it to Heaven for this epically rousing Chinese erhu-electric guitar piece.

"春来了“ - 4:08 南无乐队 2015 The title track off their 2015 album finds them hamming it up on stage, combining flutes, rock, and traditional poetry.

行星消失的夜空 Starless Night“ - 4:39 痛仰 Miserable Faith 2014 Come on! You know you want to sing along to Chinese rock. Just wait for the chorus, and you too can pretend you know Chinese, even if you don't!

"大石碎胸口" - 7:04 万能青年旅店 Omnipotent Youth Society 2010 A well-filmed live version of the song I probably played the most times on my show at KUCI. The mix is off, but you get the picture. Epic and bombastic from my favorite Chinese chamber pop supergroup.

"Surrender" - 5:39 重塑雕像的权利 Re-Tros Watch Out, Climate Has Changed' Fat Mum Rises... 2009 All right, you want a song in English by now, right? This one's super cool, IMO.

Beautiful Girl" - 4:15 超级市场 Supermarket 繁荣的 Prosperous 2004 Not a poppy electronic group by any means, this track shows they can be catchy if they want to. It makes me respect them all the more to know that they choose to be more challenging.

"Drunk" - 3:29 Singer Sen 歌者森 Sirens 塞壬 2011 I believe I've gone on the record somewhere against fancily produced music, music videos, and album covers featuring beautiful people. I justify this often creepy exception by the fact that this is a bit too hard to be called pop music. This isn't my favorite on the EP and doesn't actually involve much in Chinese, but it's quite striking. Once seen, you can't unsee it.

"猛犸" - 3:46 后海大鲨鱼 Queen Sea Big Shark 心要野 2016 Not my favorite song of theirs, but this single version of it in the video is so unabashedly Chinese happy-every-day-e and accessible to Western ears that it should close out the list.

There. You've got 10 songs to pique your interest or tide you over. Please don't stop here. Explore. Work a little harder than a bunch of clicking. Support them so they'll make more music. That is our mission. Don't let them burn bright and then burn out!

 

FAVORITE BANDS/ARTISTS (For the sake of suspense and competition, I'll try to count these down 10-to-1 as on my page of all-time favorites. Note, however, that the list is biased towards artists and bands which have at least two full-length albums--some of my favorite albums are so far the only albums by would-be favorites, so they'll be featured in the next section. In other words, each of these has a larger "body of work" to consider as a whole.)

10. Xie Tian Xiao谢天笑/Cold-Blooded Animal 冷血动物: Perhaps no artist conjures Chinese rock of my first trip to China in 2001 like Xie Tian Xiao. I wish I could go back to that time, when cd stores adorned nearly every block and concentrated heavily in what's now the Xinjiekou neighborhood near Xizhimen. I'd send back all the counterfeit Western cds and redouble my efforts and funds toward native Chinese groups whose albums have long since disappeared and never been reissued. 2000's Cold-Blooded Animal should appeal to any fan of Nirvana for its tight, guitar-centric and hook-laden songs. I think he had a solo album after that whose copy I may have lost, followed in 2008 by "Just One Desire" and "幻觉" in 2013. Having moved away from louder rock myself, I haven't given these last two albums the same attention, but I'll always remember fondly a concert from 2011 in which he alternated between electric guitar and gu zheng. His voice isn't going to win him many fans outside the world of hard rock, but his skill in crafting songs demands respect.

9. Muma 木玛: Muma has been in the alt.-rock business since the 1990s, and the discography was consistent up until the 2010s. If there's a new album since 2011's 进化, I haven't come across it yet. I'd like to think of Muma's evolution as similar to Soundgarden's out of metal, with Muma establishing a foundation in very long jams and gradually becoming more commercially accessible. As always, though, accessibility trades grand vision for blandness, and the two albums of shorter songs with Third Party fail to achieve the distinction of Jelly Empire, one of my early favorites on ModernSky. iTunes spells Muma with both 玛 and 马, so I'm not actually sure which is right, whether he's actually a trojan horse or not. Regardless, he seems to be one of a very few Chinese people to have made a career of rock & roll.

8. Long Shen Dao龙神道: If they were just a Chinese reggae band, they wouldn't make this list. No, on just two albums the group shows a breadth that should keep them from being pigeonholed as an oriental novelty. I've yet to ask a real rastaman what they think of them, but as a casual listener I do think they're really embracing the culture and adding something new to it--much like hip-hop is a global phenomenon, I'm probably just less familiar with reggae from outside the Western hemisphere. As a Chinese band, though, they're bound to explore sounds and forms beyond dub that are more Chinese than reggae, and that should well be encouraged. Undoubtedly, some Chinese bands in their early years took a particular liking to a form of Western music and got their start imitating it, covering the classics, writing their own songs which started out as clearly derivative. If Long Shen Dao can follow a similar trajectory as Miserable Faith, transcending their death metal or reggae roots and going beyond fusion, I could imagine them becoming a genre unto themselves.

7. LMF 大懒堂: In 2001, during my first trip to China, they were my most prized discovery, sure to be atop this list were it compiled then. Alas, they were far more impressive to my younger brothers than to my college roommate. That they barely hang on to make it today shows evolving tastes, scenes, and effort to explore. Their trading in rap-rock (sometimes also R&B or more rap, sometimes nu-rock) does not serve for longevity, but they remain original and the hardest music I've heard coming out of HK. Admittedly, much of the point of rap music is being able to understand what the MC is saying, so unless you're Cantonese is good, LMF always faced something of a glass ceiling for me.

6. Slap 耳光: This underground group proves adept at both Chinese rock and contemporary takes on traditional forms of music. I need to listen more carefully to their music to write a better description, but they've clearly got more depth than the usual act to make close listening worthwhile.

5. ITSOGOO: My new favorite Chinese hip-hop group, having dethroned LMF in recent years in my imagined court of 说唱, has at least three solid albums, and none of them contain dumbed-down, aggressive, gangsta-posing. Instead, they employ thoughtful beats, samples, and (to the extent I can understand them) lyrics. Their MC is often almost understated on the mic, making for songs whose elements are in greater harmony than even most Western hip-hop I've heard. Popularity will almost certainly make their albums, adorned with creative artwork and including posters, harder and harder to find, unfortunately.

4. Nanwu 南无: Rock music desperately needs eccentric bands like Nanwu to stay fresh and vital among newer, more innovative and experimental forms. Bringing traditional Chinese instruments into Western forms of music is no longer much of a novelty--most Chinese rock bands do so on at least one track of an album. Where Nanwu excels is in incorporating these instruments into songs seamlessly and consistently rather than as a gimmick. Nanwu is also clearly a rock band, not a fusion or minyao group with one foot planted tentatively in rock and the other firmly in Chinese folk music. A frequent complaint among native Chinese listeners is that rock music is often too loud, dark, or even depressing, starkly contrasting with pop music, but Nanwu manages to be generally upbeat and often celebratory without giving up artistic flourish. Unfortunately, their CDs are getting to be hard to find; fault their distributors for not producing enough copies!

3. Queen Sea Big Shark 后海大鲨鱼: A charismatic, beautiful diva for a lead singer never hurts a band, and of all the acts listed here, QSBS almost undoubtedly has the most crossover appeal for pop and Western audiences, though the meaning of their name doesn't translate unless you've been to Beijing. The three albums I've heard (and I've just confirmed at Modernsky this is their full discography), 2007's s/t, 2010's 浪朝, and 2016's 心要野 each have their own distinct flavors, offer clear comparisons to Western bands, and even show a great deal of musical evolution, sophistication, and ecclecticism. And they'll each make you dance!

2. The Swamp 沼泽: These guys might as well be three different bands--their early work is pure alt.-rock that rewards repeated listening and would give them a solid place on this list by itself. In the past five years, though, they've largely abandoned that style in favor of some quite accomplished post-rock and even a trip-hop album. Let them go where their muse takes them, I say. I'm always interested in what they'll come out with next. Those looking for light, chipper tunes might want to look elsewhere, though. Zhaoze may not be very loud, but they're definitely deep and heavy.

1. Supermarket 超级市场: I never would've thought they'd be #1 over a decade ago when I first heard them. Although the first two albums and some of the third sound a bit dated today, they still deserve respect--when Supermarket was starting out it's hard to imagine the state of keyboard technology in the PRC or the exposure he/they had to electronic music. Indeed, in a somewhat converging world of electronic music which people actually buy and listen/dance to for pleasure, Supermarket's work sounds like nothing else out there. I wouldn't even call it distinctly Chinese, other than the fact that lyrics are usually sung in Mandarin where any exist. They are atmospheric, epic, experimental, melodic, and surprisingly cohesive on albums. They tend tonally toward darkness but definitely have a playful side. And I've known no other Chinese artist or band that has been so consistent in releasing an album almost every couple of years in the 21st century. Their live act is daring and challenging, especially in a genre expected to make listeners dance (their set does not). Hats off to Supermarket, my favorite Chinese band!

 

HONORARABLE MENTION (Either need no promotion from me or would fill out the next 10-20): Miserable Faith 痛聊, 旅行团, Second-Hand Roses 二手玫瑰, The DaDa 达达乐队, 王勇, Tang Dynasty唐朝乐队, Cui Jian 崔健, Hanggai, Su Yang 苏阳, P.K. 14, Hedgehog 刺猬乐队, New Pants 新裤子, 小河, 自然卷, Cold Fairyland 冷酷仙境

FAVORITE ALBUMS (As the previous section was biased toward those with larger bodies of work, this one strives to highlight the only known releases by the band/artist. This should also be more subject to change than the previous list, as new stuff will grow on me with time. And I've no doubt that several of these bands/artists have more than one album out. In such cases, either I've only heard this one or it stands head and shoulders above others. There should be at least some relationship to how I actually rate them in the Manifestos; certainly nothing below a 7 or 8 should make the list. Eventually I hope to write a longer review for each of them, especially as the earlier manifestos don't go into much detail about individual songs. Until then you can find them in 1, 2, 3, and 4.)

10. Yang Meng 杨猛 - 太阳城日记 2011: A rock album with just the right amount of Chinese flavor from Yunnan.

9. No Party for Cao Dong 草東沒有派對 - 醜奴兒 2016: I've been meaning to get to Taiwan for a while, and this album gives me a big reason to try harder to see them live. There's a good mix of harder and dancier rock on here, and they manage to be among few really guitar-focused bands from any country that can hold my interest for a full album.

8. Liu Dongming 刘东明 - 大地迷藏 2013: A creepy album cover involving corn hides some catchy and generally interesting minyao.

7. Yellow Submarine(黄色潜水艇 ) - Do Not Say Goodbye (不要说再见) (Year Unknown): This is just a very nice-sounding album whose debt to the Beatles is embraced openly without being derivative. Don't expect anything edgy, but do expect your ears to thank you for listening.

6. Gala - 追梦痴子心 2011: A transcendental punk album with some soaring highlights, including the first song on the list above.

5. Xiban 戏班 -就是這個調調 2012: Boisterously unpredictable music which must still be called "folk" for its selection of instruments. Think "freak folk" but with cohesive songs, danceability, and aggressiveness. This would be my highest recommendation for those who just want something crazy or weird in a good way.

4. SingerSen 歌者森 - Sirens 塞壬 2011: This EP is intense enough to feel like a full-length album. Technical people might fixate on her range, but the production of the songs is top notch and could be appreciated as instrumental electronic music.

3. Shanren 山人 - 同名专辑 2009: An ecclectic mix of rock, folk, and probably my favorite Chinese reggae song of all time. They do many things well here, which makes their second album--which is not bad at all--seem almost monotonous.

2. Re-Tros 重塑雕像的权利 - Watch Out, Climate Has Changed' Fat Mum Rises...2009: Very cool post-punk. Rare that I vastly prefer something Brian Eno didn'tproduce over something he did.

1. Omnipotent Youth Society 万能青年旅店 - s/t 2010: Chamber pop leaning toward rock, just the way I like it. I eagerly await another album so that they can surmount the favorite band list also.

HONORARABLE MENTION: 大陆断层 熔岩, 迪托帮 Hip-Hop Deetopia , 群星 33島, Gemini Trip , Fancy World , 白银饭店, 爱在摇滚的岁月, 像叶子一样飞, G-ELEVEN, Editec , 農夫 (f.a.m.a.) 月下思

 

OTHER SONGS STREAMABLE NOW OR AT SOME POINT IN THE PAST (OK, so the Favorite Songs list atop the page barely skims the surface and should probably be called the flashy list. I really admire the following, too, but maybe they're not for introducing the entirety of Chinese Alternative Music. I'm happy to curate some more, but seriously, don't be lazy!)

无双” - The DaDa 达达乐队 Those who like their rock cute & catchy needn't look far past The DaDa for something like Collective Soul...something hard enough for guys to seem tough if necessary but in no way dark or really hard to scare people away. Countless contemporary bands strive to achieve this, and if there was a Chinese predecessor of theirs I don't know it.

"小胶囊, 臭流氓"- Slap 耳光乐队 Just jamming along to a sax and breaking out into rap, traditional stuff, and guitar solos in a live performance.

"Underground 地下" - ITSOGOO And the uploader was nice enough to include a slide show.

The Heart Guides the Way 心在指引方向" - Long Shen Dao 龙神道 Just a bunch of dreadlocked Chinese guys gathered to play music and soccer on the beach.

 

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