It was devilishly hard picking just 10 titles for this list of best releases (albums and EPs) coming out of Southeast Asia this year. The pandemic has had an untold impact on SEA music – from the albums that have been delayed to those that have been shelved indefinitely – and yet the region continues to offer gems both polished and uncut, COVID or no. Here are the best releases from Southeast Asia in 2021 so far.
Singaporean clubs have been closed for at least 15 months now – and no release this year articulates the tragedy of that more than Halal Sol’s debut EP ‘Dijamin’. The producer’s take on house music is engrossing and transportive, laden with throbbing bass and judicious layers of instrumental detail.
Commanding vocal samples stir up dancefloor reverie (‘Lives In Future’) while hinting at the creator’s sense of humour (“I have heard enough…” a singer declares on ‘Hearing Deficit’, before concluding, “to know that you’re the one”). ‘Dijamin’ is an unshowy yet confident introduction to a producer with both vision and the talent to realise it. Karen Gwee
Halal Sol’s ‘Dijamin’ EP is out now via Darker Than Wax.
‘Nature Of Things’
There are no dream pop tropes in ‘Nature Of Things’, only good tunes. Though nominally a paean to nature, what the third Subsonic Eye record really offers is an exploration of the band’s very nature: from its varied emotional tenor (thanks to Nur Wahidah’s nuanced performances) to its lifelike rhythms (courtesy of bassist Spencer Tan and drummer Lucas Tee).
It’s rare to hear past and present coalesce brilliantly as they do on this album – Roger McGuinn-style arpeggios crossed with, say, fingerstyle Sufjan Stevens (courtesy of guitarists Daniel Castro Borces and Jared Lim) – but Subsonic Eye just pull it all off. Choice cuts include the moody ‘Consumer Blues’ and the jangly ‘Cabin Fever’, as well as more propulsive numbers like ‘Spiral’ and ‘Unearth’. Aldus Santos
Subsonic Eye’s ‘Nature Of Things’ is out now via Middle Class Cigars.
‘For We Are Distant’
Moving to Kuala Lumpur at 16, Dameer felt lost – but he found music as a refuge from loneliness and heartbreak. As a result, the Dhaka-born crooner’s debut project ‘For We Are Distant’ channels world-weariness with a sunny, psychedelic disposition.
- READ MORE: Dameer – ‘For We Are Distant’ EP review
Dameer dubs his debut “a love letter to the lonesome” – yet despite their downcast subjects, his indie-pop finds warmth in luscious hooks and intimate lo-fi production. On opener ‘Sun’, he blends flutes with liquid guitars and pristine synths, while bilingual highlight ‘Amar Jaan’ tackles long-distance relationships with resigned grooves. Timeless melancholy underpins the Bangladeshi artist’s buttery-smooth sonic confections – this EP has winners at every turn. JX Soo
Dameer’s ‘For We Are Distant’ is out now via Majestic Casual.
Don’t mistake Half-Assed Men for being, well, exactly that. This sub-10-minute mixtape may clock in as the shortest release on the list, but this duo didn’t need more time to dish (and diss) it.
- READ MORE: Half-Assed Men – ‘Half-Assed Mixtape’ review
IMANIAC flexes his dexterity when he locks into a ferocious, unfiltered flow on ‘Dia Datang’ – and he’s just as deliberate on the all-too-relatable, broke-in-Kuala Lumpur anthem ‘Stank & Broke’. And RAPKOT is more than a match for his clever, spitfire collaborator, delivering dynamic, finely diced-and-sliced production that samples classic Malay pop, children’s toys, and even Charles Manson. Ng Su Ann
Half-Assed Men’s ‘Half-Assed Mixtape’ is out now via Rapkot Distro.
‘Heaven Is A Long Exhale’
Straight out of the Philippines comes a bag of fuzz rock goodness courtesy of The Buildings. Channelling the ’90s indie spirit of Belly and Throwing Muses, the band waltz through a spunky 40 minutes of classic college rock without missing a beat.
- READ MORE: The Buildings: “At the end of the day we’re making music we like, which has always been our north star”
The Buildings play guitar rock with a punky sneer – see the attitude-filled ‘Climbing Over The Gate’ and ‘Room So Small’ – but not the usual testosterone-fuelled postures. You’ll find yourself dancing, head-bobbing and feeling like you can take on the world at the end of ‘Heaven Is A Long Exhale’. Adrian Yap
The Buildings’ ‘Heaven Is A Long Exhale’ is out now via Call And Response.
‘Time Well Spent’
Reese Lansangan has built a career out of her biting wit and emotional depth (see her debut album, ‘Arigato, Internet!’) but on her second LP, she keeps the playfulness and whimsy and still manages to strike a surprising level of maturity.
The singer-songwriter takes a page out of Haim’s book on tracks like ‘Slow Mornings’, and ‘Thanks, But No Thanks’, and Taylor Swift-esque pop with ‘VHS Aesthetic’ and ‘What Is This Feeling’. Lansangan has hardly put a foot wrong charming audiences since her debut, but the simultaneously joyous and thoughtful ‘Time Well Spent’ makes you feel like she’s only just getting started. PJ Caña
Reese Lansangan’s ‘Time Well Spent’ is out now.
‘Selamat Datang di Ujung Dunia’
On their debut album ‘Selamat Datang di Ujung Dunia’ (‘Welcome To The Edge Of The World’), Jakarta band Lomba Sihir celebrate their home city with an affectionate cynicism, tying their lyrics of weariness and tenderness to catchy indie pop.
The result is a record that’s compact and breezy but not lightweight, and perfectly contemporary without sounding over-embellished. Standouts like ‘Jalan Tikus’ (a term for small alleyways in Jakarta used by residents as shortcuts); ‘Semua Orang Pernah Sakit Hati’, which sounds like Maliq & D’essentials doing late-era Arcade Fire; and the ’80s-Indonesian variety-show pop of ‘Hati dan Paru-Paru’ are undeniable in their immediacy. Marcel Thee
Lomba Sihir’s ‘Selamat Datang di Ujung Dunia’ is out now via Sun Eater.
“Music is the only bullet we have,” Senyawa’s Wukir Suryadi said in an interview earlier this year. “We need music for our life and in this struggle.” After a year marked by struggle the world over, the Indonesian experimental duo offered ‘Alkisah’: a conceptual album that summons its tale of the apocalypse through monolithic drone metal-inspired riffs and breathless vocal passages.
The howls and shrieks of Rully Shabara Herman never shy away from operatic theatricality, instead flowing with the cacophonous ecstasy that Suryadi supplies. ‘Alkisah’ is a “bullet” that aims at the heart of despair and envisions hope beyond destruction. Never before has a Senyawa album felt so necessary. Daniel Peters
Senyawa’s ‘Alkisah’ is out now via various labels.
‘When You Have Nothing To Do Just Go To Sleep’
Though their earlier material was often shrouded in a thick, retro haze, TELEx TELEXs’ second LP sparkles with youthful optimism, carefree melodies and, as one has come to expect from the trio, a whole lot of synths.
The 14-track collection takes the listener on a day-in-a-life journey of lead vocalists Aom and Pew, who each take turns singing about classically millennial topics: trusting the horoscope (‘DuangDuangDuang’), not wanting to go to sleep (‘Mai Yak Non’), and getting sloshed (‘Deum’). Despite the seemingly insubstantial themes, ‘When You Have Nothing…’ brims with effortless bops that mark a leap forward from the Thai band’s 2018’s debut. Chanun Poomsawai
TELEx TELEXs’ ‘When You Have Nothing To Do Just Go To Sleep’ is out now via Wayfer Records.
Whal & Dolph
Though it’s only been a short few years since they burst onto the Thai indie scene, Whal & Dolph have won over the hearts of many mainstream pop fans thanks to their multipronged approach to indie pop that incorporates elements of folk, blues, and psychedelia.
On ‘Willishmara’, the duo zero in on what they do best: crafting deceptively simple songs themed around falling in love and, more often than not, having it go unreciprocated. From the string flourishes and vocal harmonies of ‘Jai Diew’ to the folkish ‘Pan Ma Pan Pai’ and jazzy piano of closer ‘Yon’, this record weaves together its various elements with ease. Chanun Poomsawai
Whal & Dolph’s ‘Willishmara’ is out now via What The Duck.