Ever since NME Asia’s inception three years ago, we’ve shone a light on the most exciting, crucial music to come out of Southeast Asia. To see the region continue, year on year, to put out fresh heat has been nothing short of inspiring – and 2023 has been no exception with a wealth of potential, talent and creativity.
From exhilarating rap to adventurous indie rock and intricate underground black metal and everything in between, here are NME’s picks for the best albums and EPs that have come out of Southeast Asia in 2023 – so far.
Surej Singh, Associate Editor (APAC)
‘Cayenne Slay Era’
While Cayenne’s 2020 self-titled debut EP was a colourful explosion of sometimes almost too dizzying post-internet pop, on ‘Cayenne Slay Era’ Celine Autumn shows restraint, resulting in a more refined product. Rather than cruising at breakneck speeds, the Singaporean artist’s maturity and dream-pop sensibilities shine through, slowing things down just a little bit for a journey of self-exploration and inner turmoil (‘Dry Your Eyes’).
Make no mistake, ‘Cayenne Slay Era’ is as adrenaline-filled as ‘Cayenne’, but its slight ease in pace makes for a pristine hyperpop experience. Come witness Cayenne’s slay era in all its glory.
Cayenne’s ‘Cayenne Slay Era’ is out now.
It’s hard to believe that Indonesian singer-songwriter Denisa has put out ‘St. Bernadette’, a mournful, gloomy album filled with religious imagery and biblical references, just two years after her poppy debut ‘Bloodbuzz’. But it’s exactly her foray into the world of darkness that makes this record so memorable.
- READ MORE: Denisa: Indonesian alt-pop singer-songwriter who wants her music “to be a friend for others”
Denisa fearlessly dives headfirst into her personal struggles as a young woman, including coming to terms with her faith (‘Falling Grace’) and self-hate (‘Pity Party’), the emotion and catharsis accentuated by musical stylings borrowed from Sargent House’s brand of atmospheric heavy metal and post-punk. ‘St. Bernadette’ is an impressive left-turn.
Denisa’s ‘St. Bernadette’ is out now via Mass of Den.
To doubt Dilaw’s sheer pop power is to be among the curious few living in the Philippines who have yet to hear ‘Uhaw’. The inescapable hit track has stormed the country’s social media, streaming platforms, variety shows, and every carinderia and neighborhood joint that still owns a radio.
In their debut EP ‘Sansinukob’, the two-man busking duo turned six-piece journey beyond viral lovesick ballads, indulging in sonic flamboyance while dropping social commentary (‘Kaloy’, ‘3019’) and reflections on where we sit in society (‘Maskara’) and the universe (‘Sansinukob’). Through it all, Dilaw stick to a standard that underpins ‘Uhaw’s success: earnest and scrupulous storytelling.
Dilaw’s ‘Sansinukob’ is out now via Warner Music Philippines.
‘The Fifth Cessation’
On ‘The Fifth Cessation’, Bandung-based trio Hakkon weave heavy stoner, prog and doom metal together with a confidence that belies their slim discography. The fuzzed-out guitar and meaty riffs root them firmly in the stoner and sludge traditions, but their layered songwriting and heady melodicism show that there’s more to Hakkon than just basic doom metal tropes.
Whether it’s the post-metal chug of opener ‘Tusk’ or the proggy introspection of ‘Ashes’ parts 1 and 2, Hakkon sound like a band ready to take Southeast Asian metal by storm. Bring on the full-length!
Hakkon’s ‘The Fifth Cessation’ is out now via Orange Cliff Records.
On their excellent full-length debut ‘Pagtanda’, seasoned Filipino indie quartet Oh, Flamingo! Hurtle headfirst into growing older, armed with a pocketful of groove.
- READ MORE: Oh, Flamingo! – ‘Pagtanda’ review: artfully played and deeply felt meditations on adulthood
With bassist Billie Zulueta as primary songwriter and vocalist, the quartet build on the angular stylings of their 2020 EP ‘Volumes’ by leaning into the idiosyncratic. From manic Afrobeat rhythms, to arpeggiated synthesisers, Motown backbeats and even tranquil ambience, the band nimbly incorporate as many sounds as there is angst from trudging through the quarter-life grind. This record is a party celebrating the baby steps of fledgling young adulthood, and you’re invited.
Oh, Flamingo!’s ‘Pagtanda’ is out now via Sony Music Entertainment Philippines.
‘Reality Club Presents’
For their third LP, Indonesian alt-pop band Reality Club have officiated an ambitious marriage between narrative-driven libretto and deliciously tongue-in-cheek visuals. Take ‘Dancing in the Breeze alone’, a tale of a nasty break-up intertwined with an impressive homage to John Wayne’s gritty westerns. Also, leave it to Reality Club to turn a juvenile crush into a song worthy of a Bond theme (‘Tell Me I’m Wrong’).
‘Reality Club Presents…’ is a set of 10 meticulously crafted cinematic arcs, eventually morphing together into one mesmerising chronicle of love, loss and – no kidding – dropping sex drives (‘Love Epiphany’).
Reality Club’s ‘Reality Club Presents’ is out now via Dominion Records.
Straight outta… Johor Bahru, S.A.C. are the newest stars of Cina rap. The crew’s EP ‘SAC4L’ lays out their trap-inflected take on hip hop 2.0, pressure-cooking the boys’ brashest impulses until they congeal into something straight-talking and surprisingly tender.
Hubris is not in short supply here, though S.A.C. are more fixated on identity, individuality, and the pursuit of fame and fortune: first and foremost, they are “Johor Bahru lang” (on ‘SAC4L’), “ready to tapao Malaysia domestic market” (‘M.D.M.’). “Who’s more hardworking than me?” Randy Tim asks exasperatedly, as if he can’t believe he has to remind you. Don’t answer the question. It’s rhetorical.
Ng Su Ann
S.A.C.’s ‘SAC4L’ is out now via Drink Entertainment.
TangBadVoice should be a familiar name to regular NME Asia readers: the Thai rapper’s last two releases landed on consecutive best-album lists by this publication. His third, ‘TangBad’ (or ‘TangBadAlbum’), showcases his strengths while pushing him into new territory.
The nimble, puckish rapping is still here, as are the characters, skits and social commentary (see ‘How To Gang’’s take on artificial intelligence). But TangBadVoice also leans heavily into the pop direction hinted at in 2021’s ‘Not a Rapper’, going full ballad on ‘End of Time’ and ‘Would You Still Love Me’ – singing in English, to boot. TangBadVoice has never been easy to pigeonhole. This record is further proof.
TangBadVoice’s ‘TangBad’ is out now.
‘Emblems Of Valour’
Mystery and metal have long gone hand-in-hand, as proven by the likes of Slipknot, Ghost and more. Now, Southeast Asia can proudly add one of our own to those ranks, thanks to the anonymous Singaporean Welkin’s scorching ‘Emblems of Valour’.
Tight, lightning-fast tremolo-picked riffs and thunderous blast beats lead the charge on this black metal epic that takes listeners on a journey through the events of the revered Chinese tale, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Effortlessly combining snarling Chinese vocals with European black metal, ‘Emblems of Valour’ delivers supreme storytelling and musical finesse that takes listeners back to early releases from, Emperor and more.
Welkin’s ‘Emblems Of Valour’ is out now.
If ‘Thatthong Sound’ is any indication, Youngohm is at the peak of his powers. This opus has winning ingredients aplenty, starting with a glow-up storyline, going back to the MC’s youth as a schoolboy in Bangkok, told through relatable lyrics (“Money is gonna free me,” he declares on ‘I Wanna Be Free’; same!).
- READ MORE: Youngohm – ‘Thatthong Sound’ review: Bangkok rapper’s second album is a seamless, inventive opus
But what takes Youngohm’s second album to the next level is its captivating mix of moods, from urbane melancholy to heady nostalgia and gleeful exhilaration, and the bangers with thrilling, unpredictable production. Take in the drill vibes on ‘Werewolf’, the 2-stepping ‘Thatthong, Ekkamai’ and the luk thung and mo lam moments on the showstopping title track – to name but a few.
Youngohm’s ‘Thatthong Sound’ is out now.