Inside Douban’s Abilu Music Awards

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7:00 PM HKT, Tue March 13, 2018 6 mins read

March might feel a little late in the game for another “Best of 2017” music roundup, but I’m always game to revisit some recent highlights. So is Douban, the Chinese music fan’s social network of choice, who’ve just released the winner list for their annual Abilu Music Awards.

Every year, Douban cooks this list up, giving separate awards for Most Popular (determined by under-the-hood algorithms singling out the most liked/viewed music from the previous year) and Year’s Best (done the old-fashioned way, by asking self-important music writers like me to vote on a list of contestants).

For 2017, Douban doled out accolades for Best Album and Best Single across a number of genres, along with a standalone Best New Artist Award. Here’s who won, and a few dark horses who didn’t but that I believe are worth a nod:


Indie Pop

Most Popular: Mr. Graceless – Midway to the Sun

Year’s Best: THE 尺口MP – Love

Can’t argue with either of these. Mr. Graceless from Beijing is among the most popular indie bands in China right now, period, so it’s no surprise to see the data reflect that with their latest album, released last January by Ruby Eyes Records. I was more excited by THE 尺口MP, relative newcomers from Fuzhou in the south, who won voters over with their April album Love, a refreshing mix of surfy garage vibes. Stream that above.



Most Popular: Stephanie Sun – A Dancing Van Gogh

Year’s Best: Leah Dou – Kids Only

Also agree here. I don’t follow the Mandopop world very closely, but I found the latest album from Singaporean singer-songwriter Stephanie Sun pleasant enough, and loved Kids Only from Leah Dou, probably because it’s so weird I would never refer to it as “pop.” That’s the vein she works in, being the daughter of Faye Wong and first-wave Chinese rock star Dou Wei (see: Ambient, below), but if Kids Only or Leah’s face tats are anything to go by, this young artist seems primed to get way weirder than her parents.

Shoutout to pop singer Lay, who didn’t make the cut but did a passable job cashing in on the current fashionability of hip-hop with this 2017 album SHEEP.



Most Popular: Su Yang – Riverbed (河床)

Year’s Best: Re-TROS – Before the Applause

Not my picks, but Re-TROS really won a lot of people over with Before the Applause, the first album they’ve put out since their 2009 debut. It’s really more of an electronic record in my ears, but the critical consensus says otherwise. My votes in this category went to Chui Wan’s The Landscape the Tropics Never Had (admittedly kind of an acquired taste), and Hong Kong band David Boring’s brilliant Unnatural Objects and Their Humans, which I’m on record calling the best record to come out of greater China in 2017. (David Boring recently put out a short followup to that album if you like your dystopian post-punk on the harsher end of the spectrum.)



Most Popular: Baishui – A Songbook for You

Year’s Best: Wan Xiaoli – 天秤之舟/牙齿,菠菜和豆腐诗人,流浪汉和门徒

No strong feelings here, though I’ve always admired Sichuan-born artist Baishui, who’s long been blending sounds from various Chinese folk traditions with works for guitar and piano that slot in to more internationally conversant genres like post-rock and ambient electronica. You can dig deeper into his oeuvre here.



Most Popular: Higher Brothers – Black Cab

Year’s Best: J-Fever and Soulspeak – 现在口红

No question, 2017 was the year of Higher Brothers, and Black Cab will go down as their launching pad from underground-big to just plain big. This more-of-a-mixtape “album” avoids the pitfalls of a lot of others that were nominated in this category, where cheesy beats and auto-tune prevailed. The Higher Brothers sound is still pretty derivative (watch this video by Kwame Ismail to learn just how closely their style tracks to Migos), but they earned a rabid underground fanbase throughout China with this record, and are now killing it overseas on the strength of that hype.

My vote in this category went to Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, whose 2017 album Humans Become Machines I loved for its blown-out beats, irregular flows, and borderline inscrutable lyrics.



Most Popular: Broken Thoughts – Realign

Year’s Best: Re-TROS – Before the Applause

The fact that Re-TROS took the critics’ choice award for both Best Rock Album and Best Electronic Album shows just how deeply they sunk in to the echo chamber this year. They didn’t get my vote for either, but I do co-sign the algorithmically selected winner in this category: Yunnan producer Luo Keju, aka Broken Thoughts.

Check back on Radii for an interview with him in the coming week, and if you want to go deeper down the off-mainstream electronic music rabbit hole, check out Jason Hou‘s Sheng and Faded Ghost’s Moon Mad, two others nominated in this category.



Most Popular: Dou Wei / 不一样 – 山水清音图

Year’s Best: Dou Wei / 不一样 – 山水清音图

Bit strange that this is a standalone category, but it speaks to the large volume of sounds being crafted somewhere in between “electronic” and fully amorphous “noise” in China right now, and sits as close as Douban can comfortably get to an “experimental music” category for these awards.

Anyway — Dou Wei with the sweep here. If you’re not familiar, Dou Wei first rose to prominence as the leader of Black Panther, a seminal Chinese rock band that has terrible SEO nowadays. He went solo a long time ago, and his aesthetic has continued to evolve and sort of melt into a (very pleasant) puddle of ambient tones, sometimes literally field recordings of water, as you can hear on the 2014 selection above.

I’ll throw in an honorable mention here for they, a bugged out five-song EP by Shanghai producer GOOOOSE, which you can learn more about here:



Indie Pop

Most Popular: Chinese Football – “电动少女”

Year’s Best: 郭顶 – “不明下落”

Not my picks, but Chinese Football has been making waves across China and as far abroad as Japan for their reverent take on emotive post-rock in the vein of (spoiler alert) American Football. Good for them.

My picks in this category were singer-songwriter Wang Shengnan, whose 2017 self-titled album was her most realized collection of tunes yet, and City Flanker from Shaoxing, whose nominated track “The second dream” kicks off with some heavy Smiths vibes before the blissed out shoegaze vocals drop in over the top. Very nice.



Most Popular: Chris Lee – “Today is Rainy, But We’re Together”

Year’s Best: Leah Dou – “See You Again”

Hi Leah, nice to see you again! Please ask your manager to respond to my interview request!



Most Popular: Chui Wan – “The Landscape the Tropics Never Had”

Year’s Best: Birdstriking – “25”

No arguments from me here. I think Chui Wan’s 2017 effort works better as an album than any individual part, but this was probably my favorite song off it, and I think this track from Birdstriking’s long-anticipated sophomore record Holey Brain is much stronger than the album as a whole.



Most Popular: Song Dongye – “郭源潮”

Year’s Best: Wan Xiaoli – “你,来替我做个梦”

Sounds good to me.



Most Popular: Jony J – “Don’t Guess”

Year’s Best: Lu1 – “Through Rifts, in the Air”

Didn’t care for either of these, to be honest. Too clean.

My vote here goes to Bohan Phoenix’s “JALA 加辣” — one of the best Mandarin/English crossover rap tunes ever, really. On a recent episode of my podcast I asked Bohan what potential there is for English-speakers to be able to access Mandarin-language rap, and while I think it’s an uphill battle, the closest I’ve ever seen was a packed house at Omni Space in Beijing of foreigners yelling “Jala Jala Jala Jala.”

I’d also give a shoutout to another nominated track, “Fotan Laiki” by Hong Kong trap rapper Young Queenz (and named after Hong Kong trap rapper Fotan Laiki). “Fotan Laiki” felt weirder/grimier to me than anything by Higher Brothers, who set the gold standard for Chinese trap in 2017.


Most Popular: Manjiang – “际”

Year’s Best: 33EMYBW – “Medusa”

Definitey agree with the critics’ choice here: Shanghai producer 33EMYBW’s 2017 debut was among my favorite records of last year, and “Medusa” is its unapologetically bizarre centerpiece. Looking forward to what she will come out with next.

I’d give the runner up award to Chengdu’s ST.OL.EN, who put out a super solid EP last year, and should be coming out with their second album in 2018.



Most Popular: The Sound of Things Falling

Year’s Best: Mirrors

Congrats to the newcomers! Prog metal band The Sound of Things Falling, evidently a one-person project based in Pennsylvania, would not have been my choice. In fact I anguished over this category, and wanted to vote for pretty much every other candidate (shoutout Not in Catalog, Foster Parents, 工工工, TOW). But I’m always psyched to hear something new, so really everyone wins here.

Mirrors from Shanghai did end up getting my vote, and I’m glad to see I’m not alone in championing their weird enough but ultimately pretty palatable mix of noise, psych, and classic indie rock.

Find more materials on Abilu and this year’s crop of winners on Douban’s official Abilu 2017 page (link in Chinese)

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