2023 in review
This was the year that was in music from China
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The end of year lists have been coming thick and fast for a few weeks now in the English-speaking world. But it’s always a slightly odd time for such reflections on anything China-related, given that the main ‘end of year’ feeling is still over a month away (the lunar new year doesn’t arrive until early February 2024).— and it seems like a good time for a round-up.
What have I missed below? What were your highlights of the year in Chinese music? Did you find anything via this Substack that you particularly enjoyed? Please let me know in the comments. And thanks again for reading and especially to those who have supported Concrete Avalanche this year.
The album of the year that wasn’t
Famed criticopened his 2023 best of with this dose of truth:
“Chinese Football’s Win and Lose was released on the last day of 2022, and thus missed the cutoff for the 2023 list by a few hours. But it deserves to be heard, so here’s a link.”
Chinese bands went overseas again, finally
Chinese Football may have missed out on all those end-of-year lists, but at least their new album gave them an excuse to tour. Sort of. They’d actually already been touring Win & Lose in China for over a year by the time it was released. With Covid restrictions abruptly removed and the band’s desire to “break out of Asia”, there was only one thing for it: a tour further afield.
After a series of dates across Japan, they travelled across Europe, with shows in everywhere from Bologna and Berlin to Vienna and Huddersfield.
And they weren’t the only ones. With Covid-related travel restrictions suddenly a thing of the past, Chinese bands took the opportunity to get out into the world again.
Meanwhile, Qingdao anti-war punks Dummy Toys went to Europe:
And with pioneering club music label SVBKVLT having swapped Shanghai for sunny Manchester, Salford’s nightlife scene suddenly got a dose of legendary China venues The Shelter and ALL, with the Genome 66.6Mpb crew, Bloodz Boi and Hyph11e all stopping by.
In a pleasing sign that this trend is set to continue in 2024, Stolen are off to Osaka and Tokyo early next year, Wang Wen will be in Ghent in May, and Dummy Toys already have a show booked in Blackpool next summer.
The best new band of the year revelled in being impromptu
The river, Orchestration, Walkman! weren’t entirely brand new this year — below is a video of their hijinks in 2022 — but their first proper recordings only dropped on January 1st 2023. And with a band name that good and a flurry of releases that is bursting with energy and ideas, let’s not split hairs.
After two quick releases at the beginning of 2023, they followed up with a 12-track record in June. Their ability to turn out so much music in such a short time span may well stem from their passion for improvisation. As the introduction to their third release made clear, “In fact, there is no way for people to avoid improvisation. No matter what they do, they are actually doing impromptu things. So please, take it easy when you listen.”
That mentality extends to their performances as well. Just before writing this, I came across a video of them playing an impromptu ‘gig’ outside a primary school just as the students were leaving. They were playing melodicas so it was a pretty chill set compared to the more experimental fare that they usually deal in. It was charming, but also felt utterly fresh having just come off the back of writing about a certain mainstream TV show (see below).
Excited to see what they get up to next.
China’s game-changing rock TV show returned, (probably) died
The Big Band was a bizarre juxtaposition of Chinese indie bands shuffling around on stage / wearing sunglasses indoors and China’s hyper commercial, overt product placement-obsessed mainstream entertainment world.
Was its latest series also its last? Was it all scripted from the start? And was it really a bastion of alternative culture? Not sure, but it gave me an excuse to pick the brilliant’s brain on it all:
bié’s compilations were some of the best records of the year
You’ve probably clocked by now that this isn’t a standard ‘best of the year’ thing. But if I were doing a run-down of 2023’s top releases, it’d be hard not to include both bié Records Meets Shika Shika and Long May the Water Flow.
The former saw them get together with Buenos Aires-based electronic label Shika Shika, pairing artists for a set of remixes. The latter was “An Enduring Discussion on the Convergence and Co-evolution of Eastern and Western Music, Sparked by Chou Wen-chung's Musical Philosophies”. Both were excellent.
These artists all had an incredible year
Musically, at least. I don’t know the ins and outs of their personal lives. Hopefully they were great too.
The Ningbo-based artist behind Ὁπλίτης (Hoplites) was busy. Not content with releasing three absolutely stonking (yes, stonking) records as Hoplites, the mysterious JL also found time to put out another outstanding metal album as Vitriolic Sage this year. Productive.
Mamer did Mamer stuff, from a challenging noise record to a delightful, delicate and largely improvised album of recordings on the sherter, a traditional Kazakh instrument. Other artists balancing the experimental with the beautiful to excellent effect this year (and most years, frankly): Lao Dan and Li Daiguo, both separately and as duo bBb bBb.
33EMYBW took Europe by storm, going some way to make up for the disappointment of having to withdraw from her 2020 Primavera slot (thanks Covid) with a tour that took in major festivals and venues such as Unsound and Berghain. She collaborated with visual artist Joey Holder, was the subject of a major feature in FACT magazine, and released a brand new album.
Former Omnipotent Youth Society member Li Zenghui not only took to the stage with Black Midi, he also popped up in a park with A Wordless Orange before being chased away by some guards, and he reinvigorated post-punk band The Fallacy, resulting in one of the year’s best LPs.
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