Best Chinese Music of 2023

10 albums (plus 1 bonus pick!) of Chinese indie, hip hop, electronics, post rock, and more, selected by RADII music columnist Will Griffith

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6:20 PM HKT, Fri December 22, 2023 5 mins read

As 2023 comes to a close, it’s time to look back, reflect, and try to make sense of the musical landscape. What was most apparent this year was how little sway the old guard had on what was clicking with audiences. Sure, Modern Sky, Taihe, and associated labels like Maybe Mars and Ruby Eyes Records had their day in the sun in this season of The Big Band (possibly the final one) — a boon that bands old and new are trying to capitalize on as quickly as possible — but in terms of the music that was being lauded, it was a different story. Bands are more and more inclined to find their own voice and audience on their own terms or at the very least find small-scale yet effective partners that see eye to eye with them. Labels like bié Records and SVBKVLT that have spent the past years building up street cred are taking pride developing and diffusing their niche tastes, and are finding better success in the world of sound outside of China’s borders. And true-blue DIY imprints like Qiii Snacks Records and Wild Records are holding down the fort (as much as physically possible at least). It will be hard to tell if these new trends will last, but the times are a-changing — that’s both exciting and worrying, depending on where you stand. All I know is some great music has come out of the Chinese indie scene this past year. So without further ado, here are our favorite album releases of 2023.

Chinese Football – Win & Lose

It’s only appropriate to start this list with a release that came out on the last day of 2022 — a gamble that seemingly worked out, as Wuhan emo torchbearers Chinese Football went on to have a fantastic 2023 with the band selling out shows across Europe and the UK. Their trilogy-closing Win & Lose is perhaps their strongest, most cohesive, and sprawling album yet, ambitious in both its melodic subversion of Chinese pop and its embrace of emo rock’s instrumental playfulness. Essentially hard-wired to elicit an emotional reaction out of its listeners, it earned its poignant power chords each and every time.

Otay:onii – 夢之駭客 Dream Hacker

An avant-pop rollercoaster that’s evocative and transfixing, Zhejiang-born, Berklee-educated singer and producer Lane Shi, aka otay:onii, is a singular act, one that has been causing a stir in indie music circles here and abroad. Described by some as “Industrial Bjork meets Chinese folk music,” her latest, 夢之駭客 Dream Hacker, released with bié Records, is both boundary-pushing and strangely affecting. The album is shaped around a ballad-oriented narrative that canvasses across distorted, visceral electronic soundscapes and bilingual lyrics that showcase her unique vocal intonations and themes of the self.

Sleep Leaps 碎梦飞跃 – 你不想被困在这里

One of the most exciting acts to hit the scene in some time, Sleep Leaps is the latest addition to Chengdu’s robust dream pop scene, following acts like Sinkers and Sound & Fury with a jangle-filled and melodically-charged sound that’s spry, wistful, and charming as all hell. Reverb-soaked, nostalgia-tingling, and anchored by its lead’s starry-eyed vocals and robust instrumentation, their take on young adulthood feels both lived-in and sincere, basking in the afterglow of adolescence with one eye on the road ahead.

Run! Novel 短跑小说 – Get Poverty from Risk 贫穷险中求

“We love poem, and love humor more”: this short cryptic statement from the Guangzhou avant-pop outfit Run! Novel only begins to explain the strange beautiful alchemy at hand in the band’s debut release Get Poverty From Risk. An eclectic fusion of genres and melody shifts, where vintage synthesizer sounds rub shoulders with jazzy hip hop grooves, the album is held afloat by frontman Huhu’s near-operatic intonation. Listening to the band is akin to being thrown headfirst into a Haruki Murakami novel, evoking everyone from betcover!! to Randy Newman. Richly detailed, charmingly poetic, it’s one of the year’s best surprises.

Guzz – Fantasia in the Wind 风中的幻想曲

Electronic producer Guzz, known for his dreamlike pastiche of traditional Asian sounds spliced with contemporary electronica, heads deeper into contemporary classical music with his latest, the sprawling and whimsical Fantasia in the Wind. By terraforming electronic sounds into traditional instruments and tones, the highly skilled artist has in many ways commissioned an electronic orchestra of his own, harnessing it to craft narrative-rich tracks that hook you in. At times sounding like a soundtrack to a long lost Final Fantasy game, and featuring samples of Li ethnic minority singers from Hainan (the artist’s home province), the album may not be suited for the club, but it is one of this year’s most lush releases, an aural adventure that I find myself returning to again and again.

Fayzz – Days Gone

Chengdu’s Fayzz return with yet another dazzling concoction of spry instrumental rock that knows no bounds, Days Gone, released with New Noise. The band takes pleasure in jumping from one canvas to another, shaking loose and twisting itself in new directions depending on their mood. From the warm-hued vocals that close out “From Day To Day,” to the high-wire math rock theatrics of “Tide 浪潮,” and even the laid back hip-hop beat that kicks off the flamenco-flavored “Semper Augustus 永恒的奥古斯都,” there’s an intrepid spirit at the heart of Fayzz’s sound, offering something for everyone. Bursting at the seams with rich flavors and inspired zest, it’s a full course meal to savor.

Xinwenyue Shi 施鑫文月 – Bashu Renaissance: Chapter Two 巴蜀文艺复兴:第二章

Rapper, producer and singer-songwriter Xinwenyue Shi muses on the seemingly fast and loose hustler lifestyle of Sichuan on his latest release Bashu Renaissance Chapter Two, a supple piece of breezy hip hop that’s equally smooth and softhearted. The rising bilingual rapper, who hails from Chengdu but was educated in America, pays tribute to Bashu culture through both lush and expertly assembled production and his lyrical content, which is observational in its ability to connect past and future, traditional and modernity. As sly as they come with a sincerity not often seen in the hip hop world, Xinwenyue Shi has a bright future ahead of him.

WaChi 蛙池 – Outing 郊游

Dongguan’s WaChi have become one of the indie scene’s most sought-after bands over these past few years, attracting fans with their impassioned lyrics and soaring melodies. Their debut LP Outing continues this trend yet in many ways feels lighter on its feet, displaying both a vitality in its instrumentation and vocal melodies that roam more freely. Diverse and deftly assembled (including production from Carsick Cars’ Zhang Shouwang) Outing touches on everything from math rock to folk music (with even some Spanish for good measure), whilst charting its own path.

33EMYBMW – Holes of Sinian + Gooooose – Rudiments

SVBKVLT had a pretty fantastic year, continuing to move further outside of the borders of China, as well as further outside the confines of club music. This urge to forge ahead is most evident in the latest releases from Shanghai electronic staples (and power couple) 33EMYBW and Gooooose. The former’s new album, Holes of Sinian saw the “arthropodal” producer collaborate with leading proponents of the international avant-garde electronic scene, including Marina Herlop, Batu, and oxi peng, ricocheting over unknown terrain deftly as she delicately weaved together both modern and traditional sounds. Meanwhile, Gooooose’s Rudiments featured the latter producer racing across feverish breakbeats, high-wire IDM, atmospheric electronic jazz, and more with the precision of a heat-seeking missile.

Instinkto Industrio 本能實業 – Blackout of the Century 世紀大停電

Led by Bokai, the former singer of Kunming punk outfit Plastic, and featuring members of psychobilly band The Lighthouse Stranger, Instinkto Industrio combines rustic, hard-edged yet poetic, lyricism with a cabaret rock and roll veneer. Blackout of the Century is a collection of anthems that zeroes in on the complexities of modern day society. Held afloat by the boisterous yet delicate interplay between its flute, accordion, and double bass (which holds down the rhythm for the drummer-less outfit), and hoisted up by Bokai’s hoarse voice, often-humorous street jargon, and weathered guitar, the band comes across as a Soviet-era pub act, striking discord and resonance through its lively anthems.

Bonus Pick:

Zhaoze 沼泽 - 没有答案风中飘 No Answer Blowin’ in the Wind

One of the finest representatives of China’s robust post rock scene, Guangzhou’s Zhaoze, known for their melding of evocative post rock and guqin-led Chinese folk music, have returned with their newest LP, No Answer Blowin’ in the Wind. The album is outstanding in its own right, but the fact that the band just announced an indefinite hiatus makes it especially worthy of a listing here. A stirring, emotionally fraught collection of dreamy and cinematic soundscapes, Zhaoze’s latest feels like a turning point for the juggernaut act, with the band embracing the dissonance and chaos the genre has to offer but also incorporating and experimenting with more and more elements, from electronic drums to whistling. When the band goes for the jugular, as on “Standing in the Wind” it’s devastatingly poignant — but I believe Zhaoze’s latest will be remembered for the way they steer almost recklessly into uncharted waters. If this is truly their last album, then it’s a hell of a swan song.

Banner image by Haedi Yue.

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