In a year marked by catastrophe and uncertainty, music has, fortunately, been a shining light. Southeast Asian artists haven’t shied away in lockdown, either. We combed through more than 50 releases by Singaporean, Malaysian, Filipino, Indonesian and Thai artists to come up with this list of the region’s 10 best albums of 2020 so far.
On their long-awaited sophomore album ‘Hail Nothing’, .gif continue to carve out their own idiosyncratic space. The duo of Weish and Din plunge headfirst into chilly trip-hop, plumbing inspirations like Aphex Twin and Underworld. In ‘Hail Nothing’’s hermetically sealed universe, it’s just you, Weish’s precisely articulated meditations on meaning and control, and Din’s chrome-smooth production.
At the same time, .gif make room for friends: producer and mentor Jason Tan, British spoken word artist Usaama Minhas and, perhaps most excitingly, Bani Haykal, former frontman of Singaporean indie royalty B-Quartet. It all coalesces into one of the most anticipated and well-crafted releases Singapore has to offer in 2020. Karen Gwee
.gif’s ‘Hail Nothing’ is out now via Syndicate.
‘Tari Pemusnah Kuasa’
The Singaporean hardcore punk outfit always manage to outdo themselves with each record. They do it yet again on their explosive third album, ‘Tari Pemusnah Kuasa’ – Malay for ‘The Revolt Dance’ or ‘Dance Of The Power Crusher’ – where everything is much grander, bolder and, of course, gnarlier. Even the production is more polished.
The songs are peppered with Malay idioms and doused with buckets of hard truths. Blistering cuts like ‘Maut’ (‘Death’) and ‘Bencana’ (‘Disaster’) are appropriately timed reflections of the world today, making ‘Tari Pemusnah Kuasa’ arguably one of the most fitting albums to soundtrack the year. By the end of its 19-minute runtime, you’ll be gasping for air, wondering if it’s because of the flurry of epinephrine running through your veins or the calamitous state of 2020 – or maybe both. We’re all just trying our best to get through this sial world, anyway. Sofiana Ramli
Sial’s ‘Tari Pemusnah Kuasa’ is out now via La Vida Es Un Mus Discos.
OJ Law has finally found his voice, which seems preposterous when you consider this is his fifth record. The Malaysian’s talent has never been in question, but there was always a restlessness to him before as he fractured himself in service of his many sonic interests. 2015’s aptly titled ‘Let’s Be Adult’ began this metamorphosis, but ‘All Filter’ feels like the final letting go of his loyalty to anthemic indie pop in favour of embracing his calling in soul-infused bedroom pop. It’s the kind of dazzling nocturnal record that you don’t play at the start of a party, but at the end of it, just before you turn it in for the night. Adrian Yap
OJ Law’s ‘All Filter’ is out now.
‘Nuclear Powered Apes’
A standout release in an admittedly flat and uninspiring year for Malaysian music, Yahna’s ‘Nuclear Powered Apes’ is an entertaining smorgasbord of hip-hop-inflected bass music that manages to be varied and unpredictable without ever losing sight of itself.
Long-term projects can run the risk of sounding like a collection of disjointed singles; thankfully, on ‘Nuclear Powered Apes’, Yahna deftly avoids this trap. The album covers a lot of stylistic ground, almost dangerously so, but it’s all held together by Yahna’s strong production sensibilities and overarching vision. Solid guest appearances from Dauwan Osborne and Leon Sapphire are the icing on the cake. Azzief Khaliq
Yahna’s ‘Nuclear Powered Apes’ is out now.
Tarsius are just about done with sound collages. On ‘Culture Cow’, Diego Mapa and Jay Gapasin stray from cheap pastiche and paint discomfiting vignettes of the terrible here-and-now. The glitches turn to glyphs, the beats turn to tribal calls, and they all point towards collapse and ruin.
In the monotonous burr and drone of ‘Culture Cow’, and its refusal of melody and movement, the listener is forced to face ugliness beautifully. It sounds and feels like Manila, but the discomfiture is from nowhere and everywhere. But where Flying Lotus or Four Tet would operate on prefab tropes of dystopia, Tarsius speak from a painfully parochial – hence painfully real – place. Aldus Santos
Tarsius’ ‘Culture Cow’ is out now via Body Clock Records.
Bawal Clan and Owfuck
‘Ligtas’ means ‘Safe’ in Tagalog, and perhaps the collective of Bawal Clan and Owfuck meant for their first collaborative album to be just that – though the end product is anything but.
There’s a whiff of danger and touches of the illicit in the seven-track LP. Weaving eye-opening rhymes into timeless rhythms, the two groups question authority and warn of threats that lurk in the dark on ‘Pating Sa Kadiliman’ (Tagalog for ‘Shark In The Darkness’), and advise against reprisal on ‘LaPain’ (‘Maul’).
Rap can sometimes come off as too polished and contrived, but ‘Ligtas’ sounds immediate and necessary, and the boys spit lines like they’re been doing it all their lives. It’s arguably the most important Filipino rap album in years. Paul John Caña
Bawal Clan and Owfuck’s ‘Ligtas’ is out now via Hyphen Music.
The Yogyakarta duo’s startling, brutal, guttural album plays out like a fever dream – unsurprising for a record inspired by jathilan (also known as kuda kepang), a Javanese ritual where participants are induced into a trance-like state before performing folk dance and martial arts.
‘Rampokan’ (Bahasa Indonesia for ‘Robbery’) stuffs Emptyset’s abyssal horror, Whitehouse’s power electronics and reimagined Nusantara instrument sounds into the hollowed-out carcass of serialism. Reich plumbed gamelan music, but Yennu Ariendra and J Moong Santoso Pribadi are claiming it back.
Raja Kirik’s violent electroacoustic bricolage is metaphor for the body as the site of collective trauma – much like jathilan itself. Even as ‘Tanah Prahara’ (‘Land Of Conflict’) cruises on the autobahn chug of forgotten no wave outfit Implog, even as ‘Rampokan II’ pops like a pill on a delirious, dystopian dancefloor, ‘Rampokan’ confronts you with sonic viscera that’s terrifying only because it’s real. It sizzles your flesh and rattles your bones. Iliyas Ong
Raja Kirik’s ‘Rampokan’ is out now via YES NO WAVE MUSIC.
‘Dari Balik Jendela’
While it can be hard to break out of the ‘idol’ paradigm, Monita Tahalea is doing so in a quiet, confident way. On ‘Dari Balik Jendela’ (Bahasa Indonesia for ‘From Behind The Window’) the Indonesian singer-songwriter barely ventures out of the indie-pop mould she’s known for, yet there’s so much in this effortless reinvention of an album to suggest that she’ll soon leave the ‘coffee shop acoustic’ aesthetic behind.
At its core, this is an album of stories. Tahalea draws inspiration from a trip to the Sunda Islands in ‘Tapak Hening’ (‘Silent Steps’), and ‘Laila’ is a melancholic tune about a young girl’s prayer. But it’s the first track ‘Sesaat Yang Abadi’ (‘An Eternal Moment’) that sets the mood for the rest of the album, with its atmospheric sound that dabbles with electronic elements. She’s also gotten a lot of help from some friends with this album with names like Ananda Badudu, Gerald Situmorang and Bayu Risa credited. Delfina Utomo
Monita Tahalea’s ‘Dari Balik Jendela’ is out now via Rans Music.
‘Glitter And Smoke’
The English-language debut by the Thai-Belgian singer-songwriter is a love letter to fervent summer flings and all of the reckless escapism they typically entail. But apart from the wild abandon of the moody lead single ‘Smoke’ and tracks like ‘We Own This World’ and the SYPS-assisted ‘Cool’, Violette Wautier keeps her feet firmly on the ground, realising that all that glitters isn’t always gold. This doomed romance gets its due shout-out towards the end of the album on atmospheric synth-pop offerings ‘Love And Money’ and ‘I’d Do It Again’. Chanun Poomsawai
Violette Wautier’s ‘Glitter And Smoke’ is out now via Universal Music Thailand.
The Bangkok-based experimentalist takes listeners on a roller coaster of glitchy rave and traditional morlam music in this sonic documentation of Thai politics. ‘Absolute C.O.U.P.’ intersperses sudden tempo changes with snippets of melodic vocals and hardcore techno to create a sense of explosive volatility – a characteristic mirrored in Thailand’s history of coups d’état.
Each track corresponds to a specific political structure, such as the army and the courts, replete with relevant samples and heady distortion. Some might interpret Pisitakun’s bold use of rhythmic dissonance as frustration with these systems, but there’s a riotous energy that makes the entire album, available in a gold bullet-shaped USB stick, feel more like a celebration rather than a grievance. Nyshka Chandran
Pitisakun’s ‘Absolute C.O.U.P.’ is out now via CHINABOT.