As the curtain blessedly falls on a painful and interminable year, we’re looking back on the music that got us through it all – and honing in on the best records that came out of Asia in 2020.
If you’ve been reading NME Asia since our launch four months ago, you’ll know we came out of the gate with a list of the best albums by Southeast Asian artists up till that point. To wrap up the year, we’ve expanded our scope a little, pulling Korean and Taiwanese artists into the mix and including EPs as well.
So dive in and run down the best releases from Asia this year with us. From hardcore punk to art pop to left-field rap to experimental noise – whatever your poison, you’ll find something here to love.
Karen Gwee, Associate Editor
Words: Adrian Yap, Aldus Santos, Azzief Khaliq, Chanun Poomsawai, Daniel Peters, Karen Gwee, Marcel Thee, MC Galang, PJ Caña, Sofiana Ramli, Puah Ziwei
25. Alextbh, ‘The Chase’
If you could touch Alextbh’s debut EP, it would feel like velvet. There is a classy smoothness to the way he negotiates these painful tales of love, lust and relationship longevity on ‘The Chase’, a record that is both stunningly beautiful and brutally honest.
Though Alextbh would point to recent R&B upstarts like Daniel Caesar as influences, there is a richness to his songcraft that goes further back to classic Motown, especially on tracks such as the gorgeous ‘Superstore’. ‘The Chase’ isn’t a happy record, but you’ll be elated that you experienced it. AY
Key track: ‘Superstore’
24. TaitosmitH, ‘TaitosmitH’
On their propulsive self-titled debut album, Bangkok six-piece TaitosmitH put their own indie spin on pleng peu cheewit – Thai for ‘song for life,’ which refers to a type of leftist protest music that originated in the ’70s.
Taking a cue from the genre’s trailblazers such as Caravan and Carabao, these ‘song for life’ revivalists address social ills with unflinching honesty. They weave together tales of poverty and hardship (‘Hakuna Matata’), corruption (‘Amazing Thailand’), social injustice (‘Yuti-Tham’), and political turmoil (‘Deang Gab Kiew’), and set them against the kind of guitar-laden production designed to fill stadiums. CP
Key track: ‘Deang Gab Kiew’
23. Shye, ‘Days To Morning Glory’
The term ‘bedroom pop’ was already hackneyed before the pandemic drove everyone into their homes and rendered the term even more unhelpful. But it still feels relevant to Shye’s debut album ‘Days To Morning Glory’, which stays below a certain volume threshold (careful, don’t wake the parents!) but offers danceable synth pop bops that make their presence felt yet never outstay their welcome.
The singer-songwriter-producer has made an idiosyncratic pop record, drifting from deadpan delivery to whispery yearning in the course of a few songs. The thoughtful songwriting and unpredictable melodies are even more impressive when you remember it’s her debut. KG
Key track: ‘love u’
22. Naedr, ‘Past Is Prologue’
On their debut, Naedr remain faithful to the hallmarks of screamo, where mountainous guitar crescendos collide with cathartic vocals. The five-piece amp up the turbulence for its brief duration: take the ravaging speed of the first few tracks.
From ‘The Waltz of Fate’ to ‘The Sorrow’, frontman Timothy Wong conjures throat-shredding wails that soar over relentless drumwork. Every track to this point runs short, but just as you think Naedr have shown their full strengths, the album’s centrepiece ‘Stalker’ inducts you into a space characterised by poignant despair. DP
Key track: ‘Stalker’
21. Pisitakun, ‘Absolute C.O.U.P.’
2020 has been a lot of things to a lot of people. For Thais, though, the year marked a pivotal moment in politics as the student-led democracy movement gained a foothold and spread like wildfire. Ever politically outspoken, Thai visual artist/producer Pisitakun Kuntalang followed up his 2018’s ‘SOSLEEP’ with the highly topical ‘Absolute C.O.U.P.’
Inspired by the country’s long history with military coup d’etat, the album offers up a dissonant dose of experimental noise music built on stern techno beats and military marching drums. His songs are laced with eclectic samples ranging from rural folk music morlam and luk thung to the 2014 speech by the coupmaker General Prayut Chan-o-cha himself (‘ArArMyMy’) and Thai royal anthem (‘MoMoNarNarChy’). An absolutely compelling listen. CP
Key track: ‘MoMoNarNarChy’
20. Sal Priadi, ‘Berhati’
Given his penchant for classic Indonesian pop melodies that harken back to 1960s Indonesiana, it’s easy to see why singer Sal Priadi’s music resonated with local listeners. Almost theatrical in its symphonic flourishes, melodramatic in the operatic twists of its retro melodies, and with lyrics dripping with cerebral romanticism, Priadi’s debut ‘Berhati’ (roughly ‘with heart’) quenches that thirst for organic-sounding music that makes you feel OK indulging in basic human sentiments like heartbreak, dejection and lust. MT
Key track: ‘Amin Paling Serius’
19. DAY6, ‘The Book Of Us: The Demon’
From: South Korea
If there’s one thing DAY6 do best, it’s creating relatable music. So when the pandemic hit and the whole world spun out of control, this South Korean five-piece emerged right on cue, armed with their most cathartic and therapeutic material yet.
But ‘The Book Of Us: The Demon’ – the final instalment in their EP trilogy which kicked off with 2018’s ‘Gravity’ and followed by 2019’s ‘Entropy’ – isn’t here to simply put an optimistic spin on apocalyptic times. Instead, it fully embraces the bad and ugly moments, putting them through a well-oiled pop-rock machine, spitting out a collection of thrilling doomsday anthems. SR
Key track: ‘Zombie’
18. Shelhiel, ‘Superstrobe’
Shelhiel’s excellent debut EP understands and, more importantly, embraces the intense physicality of pop music. The Kedah artist moves, whether through structure – kinetic melodies and bombastic club rhythms on ‘Fashion Angel’ and ‘Star’ – or tension: hear how he articulates tenderness and vulnerability on ‘Runnin, Merindu’.
On ‘Superstrobe’, Shelhiel brings us along on his fictionalised journey as a fallen angel finding love outside of paradise, navigating the spectrum of pain and pleasure with piercing intimacy – and great accessibility. MG
Key track: ‘Runnin, Merindu’
17. Mong Tong, ‘Mystery’
This psychedelic trio debut album ‘Mystery’ was one of the biggest surprises of 2020. A cryptic hybrid of Not Not Fun-era Sun Araw, ’80s East Asian occult/supernatural media and Japanese video game soundtracks of the ’80s and early ’90s, ‘Mystery’ is a dreamlike, otherworldly record.
Mong Tong manage this through – among other elements – loping rhythms, exotic melodies, finely-judged repetition, and a whole lot of plate reverb. Using familiar building blocks, the band build something delightfully strange and alien, crafting a multi-layered, psychedelic, and, indeed, mysterious album. AK
Key track: ‘A Nambra’
16. BAPAK., ‘Miasma Tahun Asu’
2020’s been a roller coaster of a year, and few albums have captured the seemingly endless, whiplash-inducing swing between good and bad days like ‘Miasma Tahun Asu’. Led by Jakarta-based producer/rapper Kareem Soenharjo, BAPAK. veer wildly from heavy fuzz rock (‘Jon DeVoight’) to low-key instrumentals (‘Pity Me’) to psychedelic expressions of existential angst (‘An Angel At My Table I’).
‘Miasma Tahun Asu’ is naked, unfiltered expression, and while the pacing and sequencing are a little rough around the edges, that’s partly the reason why it resonates so well in this year of all years. The record is a reflection on – and of – a damaged, crumbling world. It couldn’t have come at a better time. AK
Key track: ‘Jon DeVoight’
15. Dreamcatcher, ‘1st Album [Dystopia: The Tree Of Language]’
From: South Korea
When Dreamcatcher debuted in 2017, they broke all the rules that usually apply to your standard K-pop girl group. Taking cues from BLACKPINK and (G)I-DLE, who diverged from pristine bubblegum pop concepts, the seven-member band tread even more unfamiliar territory: high-octane pop-rock-meets-EDM with a dash of metal, a hybrid style that earned them fans in the J-rock world.
With their official debut studio album, ‘Dystopia: The Tree Of Language’, Dreamcatcher continue to break the mould – this time solidifying their status as a genre-busting group. The goth princesses go jazz on ‘Jazz Bar’, swerve to trap on ‘Red Sun’ and tap into Middle Eastern influences for the scorching ‘SAHARA’. The record lays the groundwork for the K-pop outliers’ future legacy as masters of chameleonic pop. SR
Key track: ‘Jazz Bar’
14. She’s Only Sixteen, ‘The Other Side’
From: The Philippines
The She’s Only Sixteen catalogue is a largely agreeable, guitar-driven indie monolith. There’s a slacker charm in their best-loved material, which is always imbued with a hesitant, irony-laced vitality (as on their signature full-length ‘Whatever That Was’ from 2017).
With this year’s ‘The Other Side’, we see just that: the flipside of the hazy party. It’s an aftermath record, with songs to soundtrack your moments of reckoning, reminiscence and regret.
There’s an understated quality in choice tracks like ‘Good Company’ and ‘Ghost’, and where She’s Only Sixteen would have gone for loud-louder, caterwauling dynamics in earlier years, here they’ve got a newfound sublimity. In essence, ‘The Other Side’ finds the band trying on the bedroom producer outfit for size, and the results are mighty refreshing. AS
Key track: ‘Good Company’
13. Sial, ‘Tari Pemusnah Kuasa’
Some records leap out seething with such discontent that it’s impossible not to be taken in. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of noisy music, it’s impossible not to be compelled by Sial’s pummelling intensity.
‘Tari Pemusnah Kuasa’ (‘the revolt dance’ or ‘dance of the power crusher’) conjures old-school American hardcore punk – think early Dischord releases like Void – with a screeching lo-fi ambience that makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a roiling moshpit. With lyrics that rail against racial and classist discrimination, this is an irrepressible record that overwhelms with its ferocity. MT
Key track: ‘Tikam Lidah’
12. TangBadVoice, ‘No One Plays With Me’
Just when Thai rap started to sound a little stale with its tired trap beats, Chiang Mai-born, Bangkok-based cinematographer Tawanwad Wanavit (aka TangBadVoice) single-handedly reinvigorated the scene with ‘No One Plays With Me’.
Led by the massively viral ‘Pred Pa’ (‘A Ghoul, No?’), the three-track EP offers blistering satire and straight-faced humour. TangBadVoice co-opts elements of braggadocio rap, repurposing them as a vehicle not only for a gag (‘Lan Neung’), but also social commentary (‘Tang Arai’). Despite its sub-10-minute runtime, ‘No One Plays With Me’ packs a mean punch. CP
Key track: ‘Pred Pa’
11. Ena Mori, ‘Ena Mori’
From: The Philippines
Instead of squashing sadness and shame, Ena Mori recognises them as elements of a whole: the Filipina-Japanese pop artist can learn to co-exist with those downtrodden emotions. It’s this self-ownership that makes her self-titled EP an event, each song a feast of snappy hooks, lush orchestra arrangements, and broad synthwork.
At its centre is Ena Mori’s knack for songwriting – assisted by frequent collaborator Timothy Run – filled with nuanced narratives on self-worth. It’s the kind of confidence that makes her brand of pop sensibility exhilarating, even a little dangerous, for those who can’t handle it. MG
Key track: ‘Break’
10. No Good, ‘Demo Kawe’
One would expect a band formed by members of Malaysian rock stalwarts Killeur Calculateur and Dirgahayu to explore big, sonically complex ideas. But No Good are a more primal beast. The formula is simple: infectious proto-punk built around catchy basslines, dirty guitar riffs and an unrelenting backbeat.
No Good drag us by our throats into their musical world through sheer energy and conviction in frontman Smek’s Kelantanese rants. ‘Demo Kawe’s’ seven tracks run at a very snappy 10:17 minutes, so you never feel you have enough. You always need another spin. AY
Key track: ‘Che Using’
9. Bawal Clan & Owfuck, ‘Ligtas’
From: The Philippines
‘Ligtas’ is a tag-team posse record from hip-hop collectives Bawal Clan and Owfuck, who both lie on the spectrum of hazy and grimy hip-hop. It bulldozes through the genre’s penchant for bigging up success, revealing in the debris the cost of delirium and materialism.
‘Ligtas’ comes to a head on standout track, ‘Ligaw’, the seven-emcee feature that tackles the uphill climb to breaking through, especially the sluggish pace to get there. Bawal Clan and Owfuck deliver aspirational rap grounded in dim reality: music that’s jaded and feverishly impatient at the same time. MG
Key track: ‘Ligaw’
8. Rollfast, ‘Garatuba’
Bali band Rollfast upped their game in 2020 with this monster of a psychedelic rock record. As cliché as it is to say, ‘Garatuba’ is more than just an album: it’s a dizzying, genre-be-damned experience that grabs hold of the listener from the moment the band kicks into gear on the title track and until the final notes fade out.
- READ MORE: Rollfast – ‘Garatuba’ review: barnstorming, eclectic psych rock from the Island of the Gods
There isn’t a weak track here, but the highlight has to be the nine-minute supernatural fever dream of ‘G.T.A’. ‘Garatuba’ is a breathtaking album that’s going to be hard for anyone to equal anytime soon. AK
Key track: ‘G.T.A.’
7. Park Hye-Jin, ‘How Can I’
From: South Korea
Park Hye-Jin makes club music for dreaming. Even while anchored by a thumping beat, Park’s tech-house swims in cloudy textures, her alternately whimsical and authoritative monotone cutting through like a laser in a dark, smoke-filled room.
On 2018 EP ‘If You Want It’, she established herself as a diamond in the rough – and on 2020’s ‘How Can I’, released on Ninja Tune, the South Korean producer pushes herself into new tempos and genres, dipping her toes into the frenetic rhythms of footwork on ‘How Come’ and indulging herself with a turn as hungover lounge singer on the title track.
Park may ask ‘How Can I’ on this project – but with the way she’s skilfully expanded her sonic palette on this EP, the driving question seems to be “How could I not?” KG
Key track: ‘How Come’
6. Oh, Flamingo!, ‘Volumes’
From: The Philippines
It took Oh Flamingo! five years to release an EP after their 2015 debut, but the band haven’t lost their aptitude for their quirky, often thoughtful explorations of life and love.
On ‘Volumes’, the four-piece mine sunny, ’60s folk-pop (‘Sacred Times’, ‘Sunsets’ and ‘Naubos Na’ could have been patterned after Carole King’s ‘It’s Too Late’) and fuse it with languid, introspective indie rock (‘Memory Attack’, ‘Volumes Reprise’).
‘Volumes’ is a collection of tracks that works whether you’re on a lazy Sunday drive or chilling at home with an aperitif in hand. We’re not sure how far into the pandemic they were when they finished recording this seven-song study on connections and isolation, but it’s certainly a welcome soundtrack to social distancing. PC
Key track: ‘Naubos Na’
5. .gif, ‘Hail Nothing’
Electronic duo .gif have said that their second album is meant to be “a more joyful approach to” their usual brand of “existential dread”. And while we wouldn’t call it a record that brims with joy, ‘Hail Nothing’ is certainly imbued with more whimsical electronic flourishes to set it apart from the goth-pop of their 2015 debut ‘Soma’.
The duo of Chew Wei Shan and Nurudin Sadali know how to set a mood. Its best tracks (‘My Darling’, ‘Let’s Go’, ‘Only Yours’) are wide and emotionally evocative, filled with patient, ever-shifting beats and lush synth lines that build and build into heart-rending moments. MT
Key track: ‘My Darling’
4. Sunset Rollercoaster, ‘Soft Storm’
In many ways, ‘Soft Storm’ shows Sunset Rollercoaster stepping up to the plate yet again after finding success with a pristine yacht rock-inspired sound. But they found that they’d gone as far as they could go. So for ‘Soft Storm’, band leader Kuo dug into a newly discovered passion for storytelling – imbuing the widescreen romance with shades of melancholy – while keeping the band’s arrangements sparse and beautifully intimate.
- READ MORE: Sunset Rollercoaster: Taiwanese soft rock crusaders in evolving pursuit of “a deeper feeling”
‘Soft Storm’ could’ve been a grand statement of intent to capitalise on Sunset Rollercoaster’s well-earned momentum. Instead, it’s a left-turn by a band fully confident in their strengths, looking inward to focus on craft and instinct. It’s paid off handsomely. DP
Key track: ‘Under The Skin’
3. BTS, ‘Map Of The Soul: 7’
From: South Korea
It’s hard to tell what exactly BTS will do next – and that’s perhaps why they’re so captivating, beyond the hype and their superstar personas. ‘Map Of The Soul: 7’ is a forward-looking expansion of the septet’s eclectic pop sound, bringing listeners on a heartfelt journey of self-exploration through a myriad of genres, from emo rap (‘Black Swan’) to soft rock (Jin’s ‘Moon’). But the record is best encapsulated by V’s solo track, ‘Inner Child’, a soaring, stadium-ready anthem about change – one that’s bound to become a K-pop classic in years to come. ZP
Key track: ‘Inner Child’
2. Zild, ‘Homework Machine’
From: The Philippines
It may not sound like it, but ‘Homework Machine’ is a rebellious record. It’s the sound of a celebrated wunderkind reclaiming his youth and ridding himself of the myth and pomp of his other band, the deliriously popular IV of Spades. Infinitely hummable and contagiously danceable, the chiptune arrangements and electro-infused rhythms that populate ‘Homework’ belie its maker’s virtuoso-level chops.
Zild goes for the jugular on memorable tracks like ‘Sinungaling’ and ‘Habulan’, opting for economy, space and immediacy instead of rocker bombast. Lyrically, ‘Homework Machine’ is childlike by design: resolutely unpoetic, occasionally petty and totally visceral. It’s not for those looking for midnight epiphanies. But should you need bops to get lost in, ‘Homework Machine’ is a great bet. AS
Key track: ‘Habulan’
1. NIKI, ‘Moonchild’
In September, Indonesian artist – and the underrated jewel in 88rising’s crown – NIKI released her debut album ‘Moonchild’. It’s a record that fans have been anticipating for years, and the wait was worth it. ‘Moonchild’ is a supremely poised debut, the linchpin of a striking conceptual and aesthetic era, a record that plays to its creator’s strengths while taking clever risks. And, to put it plainly, a collection of great songs.
The songs on ‘Moonchild’ show that NIKI is an eager and canny student of pop music. In the dramatics of ‘Wide Open (Foreword)’ and ‘Tide’, one hears the cadences Beyoncé used to drive the narrative thrust of ‘Lemonade’; Ariana Grande’s ‘sweetener’ shadows the sepia-toned whimsy of ‘Nightcrawlers’; show-stopping piano ballad ‘Lose’ cracks open heartbreak of Adele-like proportions.
But the pop giant who has influenced ‘Moonchild’ most is undeniably Taylor Swift. She’s one of NIKI’s most formative influences (when she was 15, NIKI won a contest to open for Swift’s Red Tour stop in Jakarta) and in this record NIKI works hard to break out of genre boxes and classifications the way Swift has over the course of her career.
NIKI pulls different styles into the world of ‘Moonchild’, all the while taking the songwriting seriously, developing an unabashedly poetic lyrical signature and demonstrating her range. The record offers both flighty bops to dominate commercial airwaves (‘Plot Twist’) and the soundtrack to your downward spiral (‘Pandemonium’). And just like all of Taylor Swift’s albums, ‘Moonchild’ sets NIKI up for future success and big things. We can’t wait. KG
Key track: ‘Lose’