New Bloom members Peter Freestone and Brian Hioe pick some of their favorite indie albums from 2021, focusing on bands from Taiwan. This is the fourth in a series of Best Album lists compiled by New Bloom.
1. Outlet Drift 漂流出口
O Fafahiyan No Riyar 海女 (Feeling Good Music 好有感覺音樂)
After a few quiet years since their first album, Drowning (逆游), and a 2018 EP, the famed Dulan rock outfit Outlet Drift (漂流出口) has returned with O Fafahiyan No Riyar (海女). Making Amis-language music in the rock tradition, Outlet Drift has broken ground in terms of how popular Indigenous musicians have often been pigeonholed as folk singer-songwriters. And they took home a well-deserved win at the Golden Horse Awards for Best Indigenous Album. To get a sense of the band’s tact for creating unexpected shifts in their music, the title track is likely the strongest.
Among the indie bands who’ve been incorporating Taiwanese temple festival sounds into their music, Tsng-kha-lâng (裝咖人) is exemplary. OnIā-Kuan Sûn-Tiûnn (夜官巡場), they weave sparsely instrumented segments of spoken word through a collection of songs that synthesize beiguan music with indie rock, along the lines of Sorry Youth and other bands that sing in Taiwanese Hokkien. But while other recent bands tend to go for the harsher edge of the language, Tsng-kha-lâng’s debut stands out for its lyrical focus and strong sense of melody. It says a lot, too, that Sonic Deadhorse (鄭各均) was involved in the production.
While respecting the path paved by the singer-songwriters who came before them, Lilium (百合花) takes their distinctive brand of rock into new and exciting directions with Road to… (不是路). On “Pài-la̍k (拜六)”, they lay a nostalgic Taiwanese Hokkien melody over a beat reminiscent of Kraftwerk. “Thiann-i-ê (聽伊的)” does the same, but instead crosses the band’s retro rock sound with reggae dub. The title track is perhaps the culmination of this approach, resulting in a fast-paced track that spins with atonal temple sounds, oscillating between progressive rock and more melodic interludes. Compared to their past releases, this album marks a shift into decidedly experimental territory.
After forming in 2016, Modern Cinema Master (當代電影大師) is a band who has made major waves in the world of Taiwanese indie rock, so it comes as no surprise that their debut double LP, Where Are We Now 告訴我他們都在本來的什麼地方, should be met with a warm reception. There’s a lot going on musically, but more broadly the first disc seems to take inspiration from the Ramones and classic punk rock. In this vein, the band’s lyrical forcefulness is evident on tracks such as “我要殺光浪漫殺死詩”. The second disc takes a bit slower pace, arriving finally at what might be the album’s most striking track, “胸毛之歌 (Dear Ruby)”, which abruptly shifts in style, spotlighting the the band’s female vocalist.
Despite being one of Taiwan’s most widely acclaimed indie rock bands, Sorry Youth (拍謝少年) hasn’t released all that much in recent years. Then they hit with Bad Times, Good Times (歹勢中年), an album which has the band — who after all use the word “youth” in their name — reckoning with the fact that their members are now approaching middle age. In line with their past albums, their newest maintains an unmistakable pro-independence political stance, with lyrics exclusively in Taiwanese Hokkien centering social concerns. It’s probably safe to say that for many fans, Sorry Youth has filled the shoes of earlier politically minded Taiwanese rock bands such as LTK Commune.
As a band, Inhuman (非人物種) takes the cake when it comes to unabashedly bold, unquantized rock. Full of guttural vocals and littered with howls, their 2021 album,Delicacy (珍饈), sounds like it came from the sewers. It’s raw, and it’s beautiful — like when Tom Waits attempts listenable songs. As an album, the underlining concept centers around setting aesthetic standards of one’s own, as opposed to blindly accepting what’s socially imposed. Which is an ethos that lends to a very tangible sense of freedom in the music.
NUWA (五色石) is the first album in four years by Orchid Sword (蘭花刀), a five-piece metalcore band that boasts a progressive sound infused with folk music elements. It’s relentless while leaving room to breathe, and somewhat surprising with tracks like“Your Dream (你的夢)”, featuring vocals byMandark (梁丹郡, of the indie bandI Mean Us). Moreover, it’s a blood-pumping rush with aggressive guitar riffs and screaming vocals, delicately complemented by samples of traditional Chinese instruments. That little bit extra production spice is particularly nice on tracks like“Emptiness Without Form (是故空中無色)” and“The Omnipotent (法力無邊)”.
Smoking Area 25 (貳伍吸菸所) is a post-rock band from Taipei whose sophomore album,Everything Comes to an End (夢醒記), comes three years after their debut,The Path of the Bright (光明路). Both are great, but comparing the two, I’d say their newest work feels more self-assured. The songwriting is dead-on solid; the production quality is unparalleled; and for me, it captures exactly the vibe that the genre should provide. This is emotional music that hits heavy on the heart — your soundtrack for a rainy night alone in whatever city of despair you call home.
Co-produced by Chung Wei-Yu (鍾濰宇), Dive & Give (深歷其境) is an album that stretches out through R&B and neo-soul. After an ambient opening, “Real World” rides a gospel sound into a funky house beat reminiscent of Toro y Moi. Then the mood shifts with several smartly stripped-back and breezy tracks with the feel of a chill Sunday afternoon. L8Ching (雷擎) might be best known for his role as the drummer and lead singer of XUEIYUAN (水源), but he has also performed with Leo Wang (Leo王), Sunset Rollercoaster (落日飛車), and Come on! Bay Bay! (來吧!焙焙!). He started this project in 2018, traveling around Taiwan, collecting sounds, and meeting the collaborators that round out the vibes on his debut.
Please Use Before Sleep 睏前愛用 PUZZLEMAN (Kao! Inc. 顏社音樂)
Please Use Before Sleep (睏前愛用PUZZLEMAN) is an album made for bedtime, and it’s one of the mostsublime forays into jazzy lofi hip hop that I’ve heard in a while. Widely recognized as Taipei’s top finger drummer, the story goes that PUZZLEMAN (aka 小鑫將) picked up his first drum machine, an MPC1000, after hearing the Tokyo breakbeat duoHIFANA. Over the years, he’s explored a lot of different styles, and that experience shows in the way he controls the mix and lays down the samples with such restraint. Celebrating the album’s release, the beatmaker played live at a“Dream Yoga” event in Taipei, backed by Jay Guan-Jie Peng (彭冠傑) of Project On Museum (博物映項) and Stella Shih (石岱芸) leading the yoga.