It’s that time of the year(s)… My 5 picks for yaogun albums of 2013.
In these, the first few hours of the Year of the Dragon, we continue on from our last look back over the course of yaogun, part II of one man’s view of the best records to come out of China’s rock scene takes us into the new millennium. Chronologically we go…
Cold-Blooded Animal by Cold-Blooded Animal, 2000
Less inspired by Kurt Cobain than his embodiment, Xie Tianxiao, the band’s singer/guitarist who now goes by the name XTX, was a force of nature live, and though he still retains some of that energy, in the early aughts he was at his peak. Here, “Who Was it That Brought Me Here”, live at CD Cafe in Beijing in 2003.
Second-Hand Rose by Second-Hand Rose, 2003
Yeah, singer Liang Long dresses like a girl. But when you listen to the album, it doesn’t matter, and that’s the true test. “Gathering Flowers” showcases the bridge bewixt traditional China and modern rock.
Ma Music featuring Glamourous Pharmacy, Ruins and Wooden Pushmelon, 2001
This posse of bands led the early-aught alt scene, often infusing art into their performances, which signaled a commitment to more than just music. Xiao He, who walks both sides of the fine line separating idiot from genius in his current solo work, led GP; Ruins singer Zhou Yunshan first added his name to the band’s and now just goes by his name; WPM’s Song Yuzhe makes great folk music. Listen to the whole record via this link, which may be in Chinese but is easy enough to navigate.
“How Steel Wasn’t Tempered” – Wooden Pushmelon by jWc
The World is a Noise Garden by Sound Fragment, 2002
Spacey and dreamy, the record showcases the empty spots even more than the titular noise. One of yaogun’s rare headphone records. Here, the lead track, “Deceive One’s Self” (ziqi).
Xin by Wang Lei, 2004
Wang’s first decade-plus in the arts saw him move from breakdancing to pop-rock to freak-folk. In the new millennium, he took to industrial music briefly, then discovered dub and fell in love. This record is the peak of that fascination, mixing traditional and contemporary sounds from a range of different traditions to create a minimal, groovy and bounce-along-able record.
“Again” – Wang Lei by jWc
P.K. 14 White Paper, 2005
Post-punk quartet P.K. 14’s third album sees the band in top form, just in time for the mid-decade “indie” boom. The video for “Them,” below, is one of several greats the band produced.
Omnipotent Youth Society by Omnipotent Youth Society, 2010
Singer Dong Yaqian may not look like he’s having a good time while performing “The Not-So-Omnipotent Comedy,” below, but the song, as evidenced by the singalong, is fun in a way that is rare (even if you wouldn’t know it by watching frontman Dong Yaqian); ditto, the album.
This Readily Assimilative People, 2010
by Lonely China Day
Two records made for headphones, and two records more representative of Twenty-First century China than any other yaogun album.
“One” from Sorrow
“Rise Up” from This Readily Assimilative People
L & R by Wang Wen, 2010
This Dalian-based post-rock group has a sizable following cross-country, and is helping fertilize the local scene by example and involvement through record label (Fox Tail) and venues (several short-lived spots).
Cang Lang Xing by Zhaoze, 2011.
Like their brilliant fellow (now former) Guangzhou resident Wang Lei, they seemed to have suffered somewhat from being outside of Beijing, not receiving anything remotely like the appreciation they ought to. But, like the two post-rockers mentioned above, they have a seriously intense fanbase. Below, “Cang Lang Shui Yu You” live in Hong Kong, May 2011.
This time of year, folks make lists. One list to which Chinese-rock-watchers will be paying special attention is the list drawn up by Midi Productions, hander-outer of the Midi Music Awards. This year marks the third time bricks will be bestowed upon the “top” artists across several categories of yaogun.
Midi, you’ll perhaps recall, began as a music school in 1993, drawing those about to rock from the four corners of the Middle Kingdom. In 2000, the school hosted what was less a festival than a showcase for the bands formed by students. Four years later, it outgrew its campus quad moving into a huge park; by the Olympic year, ‘festival’ and ‘Midi’ were synonyms and the festival expanded to other cities.
I’ll pause here to say that in addition to having played at and worked on several years’ worth of Midi Festivals as well as having worked with Midi on getting several artists on their stages, I have, since 2009, been one of the awards’ hundred-plus judges.
See Rock in China for the 2009 nominees and winners;
Beijing Daze has the 2011 short-list.
The Midi Awards are like the Festival itself: On the surface, all is fantastic. But a look deeper reveals a state of affairs not so much sad as it is disheartening; sad and disheartening in the way that awards generally are, but also in other ways. First, the standard awards narrative: One bemoans the exclusion of the ones one deems worthy of inclusion, damming the spectacle as a result. Until, that is, one’s personal favourites are included, in which case there’s the short-term celebration, sometimes skipped over completely, in the face of the bittersweet experience of the effects of that attention: That morning-after feeling that defines the way many watch their favourite movies, bands, authors cross over in the mainstream. Of course, there’s no risk of pop-co-optation resulting from the Midi Awards, but it’s a feeling with which, I think, anyone who’s felt like they’ve discovered something is familiar.
There is, though, a disheartening element of the awards that goes beyond the standard awards-are-bunk experience. If Midi is yaogun’s judge, Midi needs to be up to snuff, or else yaogun suffers from their mistakes. The short-lists tend to look like the line-ups of just about every Midi Festival since day one: AK47, who won the first Metal award, appeared at all but one of the Midi Festivals; ditto for Miserable Faith, who swept four of the eleven categories at the Awards’ first instalment. Categories are messy as well: XTX and Miserable Faith were nominated, in 2009, for both Rock and Hard Rock band of the year; in 2010, Miserable Faith was nominated in Rock and Hard Rock; 2011 sees Ordnance and Yaksa nominated in Hard Rock and Metal categories. And though I’m jazzed that Omnipotent Youth Society is back on the list again this year, how does a song qualify for Best Song two years’ running?
I was convinced by the argument of influential critic, and one of the eight members of the awards’ Standing Committee that oversees the awards, Hao Fang, that these awards were something Midi ought to do. Movies, he said, weren’t taken seriously until the industry started the Oscars. “Eventually,” he says, “they got respect as a form. After you’ve respected your own form enough, others will too.” But then, the Midi Awards have given many reasons for others to hold off on that respect, the most blatant of which was bestowing upon themselves, in 2010, the award for biggest contribution to Chinese rock. Have they contributed greatly to yaogun? Most definitely. Is handing themselves an award for their work the way to get the rest of the world to notice, care or, well, not point and laugh?
This year, judges were sent upwards of thirty albums, and given thirteen category options. That new categories over the years have opened up – folk, album art – are treated as news that the awards are getting more inclusive. I’d argue they’re like the rush to add stages at the festival: Just because you have them doesn’t mean they represent a collection of artists that should be celebrated. Am I saying that there are no worthy folk acts or album art? No, I am not. But the rush to expansion is made at the expense of examining what one has.
It hasn’t all been bad news: I was personally glad to see Perdel, the Gar and Wang Wei get noinatd in 2009. 2010’s acknowledgement of Omnipotent Youth Society also brought joy. This year, Zhaoze, a mesmorizing post-rock band, and Long Shen Dao (LSD), a reggae/dub collective, are highlights; they stand far above the pack of upwards of thirty albums judges were sent (I found very few worthy of even a full listen). But my picks didn’t make the cut. Judges don’t vote on the short-list, their votes help create it. A Standing Committee of eight makes the final decision, announced at a concert on December 10.
I haven’t given up hope that the Midi Awards will live up to yaogun’s potential, but I also recognize that, like the festival, it’s going to be a long time until that happens. Fortunately, nobody’s making music just to please the Midi judges, so I think that yaogun will do just fine – even if the Midi Awards don’t notice.
Here are my picks:
(First: A note on the translation, which was done by Midi. “performance” doesn’t refer to a particular show; it refers, rather, to a band or musician. So Best Metal Performance is actually Best Metal Band)
最佳年度摇滚专辑 (Album of the Year) Zhaoze: Cang Lang Xing
最佳年度摇滚歌曲 (Song of the Year) LSD: “Sway”
最佳年度摇滚乐队 (Best Rock Performance By Group With Vocals): Omnipotent Youth Society
最佳年度摇滚男歌手 (Best Male Rock Vocal Performance ) Deng Pei (Lonely China Day)
最佳年度摇滚女歌手 (Best Female Rock Vocal Performance ) Sun Xia (Dear Eloise)
最佳年度硬摇滚乐队 (Best Hard Rock Performance) Rustic
最佳年度金属乐队 (Best Metal Performance) Voodoo Kungfu
最佳年度摇滚乐器演奏 (Best Rock Instrumental Performance ) Han Han (Duck Fight Goose)
最佳年度摇滚现场 (Best Live Performance ) Lonely China Day
最佳年度摇滚新人奖 (Best New Artist ) Bad Mamasan
最佳年度民谣音乐奖 （Best Folk Music）Guo Long and Zhang Weiwei
最佳年度专辑设计奖（Best Album Art）Omnipotent Youth Society
中国摇滚贡献奖（Contribution to China Rock） 2 KOLEGAS (a Beijing venue)