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YumCha! Picks: Best Asian Albums of 2014

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

On the last day of 2014, let's take some time to replay the music that made the year better. Here are our favorite Chinese, Korean and Japanese albums of 2014!


BEST KOREAN ALBUMS


2NE1 - Crush
In the album's first track Crush, 2NE1 declares with an emphatic hair flip: "They love me cuz I'm real / They love me cuz I kill." Can't argue with that. 2NE1 is still bringing the fist-pumping girl power and addictive hooks, but this album also sees the YG creative team (mainly Teddy, Choice 37, Dee.P and Choi Pil Kang) wisely toning down the bombastic elements of previous records in favor of more approachable songs. We're able to hear a more mature and expressive 2NE1 in the slower songs as well as title tracks Come Back Home, the most soulful of the group's reggae-influenced tracks to date, and "Gotta Be You" which, despite sounding like it belongs on a Big Bang album, has a satisfying belting pop refrain.



Akdong Musician - Play
After winning K-pop Star 2, Akdong Musician, made up of supremely talented siblings Lee Chan Hyuk and Lee Soo Hyun, released their debut album this year. Entirely composed, written and produced by brother Chan Hyuk, Play is a wonderfully assured debut filled with the adorably sweet and peppy acoustic-driven tunes the brother-sister duo is known for. The album alternately makes you want to sing and dance along or sit under a tree and sway gently to the music, so it's perfect that it was released in springtime.



BTS - Skool Luv Affair
Rising quickly in popularity among K-pop's most important target demographic since their debut last year, BTS kicked off their second calendar year with Skool Luv Affair, a record that can best be summed up as dance-like-nobody's-watching fun. Smartly combining hip-hop and teen angst into unabashedly catchy tracks, Skool Luv Affair features the type of enjoyably rowdy songs that you listen to on a Monday morning to psych yourself up for the week ("Boy In Luv"), as well as a couple of slightly slower numbers that are no less ear-catching (Just One Day).



The Barberettes - The Barberettes #1
"Retro" is more than a concept for The Barberettes; it's their identity. The 50s/60s-style indie trio embraces the doo-wop sound of a previous era in their utterly delightful debut album that is bound to bring smiles to faces. The group wraps listeners in their lovely vocal harmony and yesteryear arrangements on nostalgic and playful songs like the gentle and coy "Little Gals" and the foot-tapping Kukerichoo. The sound and feel of the album remain very consistent while covering styles as varied as the melancholic lounge ballad Mrs. Lonely, the gospel-inspired clap-along "When It's Raining" and a guitar-strumming remake of the classic folk song "Spring's Greetings."




Clazziquai Project - Blink
Clazziquai continues to bring the funk like no one else in K-pop can with their sixth album. Featuring notable tracks like funky uptempo number Madly, mid-tempo R&B ballad Maybe Baby and the dreamy Android, Blink is a mellow collection of pop-style R&B, jazz and electro that fits comfortably into Clazziquai's decorated discography and again confirms their reputation as one of the most talented musical acts in Korea.



Epik High - Shoebox
Epik High's last album left some wondering if hip-hop's vanguard was folding into the YG mold, but Shoebox answers the doubters in the best possible way – sharp poetic lyrics and piercing melodic rap. The album's compositions are mostly soft but the words are hardened with anguish and anger. Title songs "Happen Ending" and "Spoiler" deliver a despondent double bill of love's end, though it's Amor Fati that takes the cake with its opening line of "God doesn't love me" and Kim Jong Wan's ethereal refrain. On the more aggressive side, there's an entire song aiming to list as many drugs as possible ("Burf Khalifa") and the much-talked-about Born Hater brings in some hot featuring names to spread the fighting words to all the haters out there.



g.o.d - Chapter 8
K-pop saw quite a few old school comebacks this year, but the one that hit us right in the fan heart has got to be g.o.d. The legendary idol group not only reunited after nine years for their 15th anniversary, they made it a complete comeback with Yoon Kye Sang rejoining the group for their anniversary tour and eighth album. Besides sending a love letter to fans with the heartwarming "Sky Blue Promise," Chapter 8 is very true to g.o.d's style of silky, moving R&B ballads, easygoing raps and fun and funky jams. This is an eminently listenable pop album that appeals to both longtime fans of g.o.d and newer fans to K-pop.



Peppertones - High-Five
The Peppertones deserve a high-five for making such an enjoyable and eclectic album. The indie duo settles mostly into alternative rock with diversions into acoustic, country folk, electropop, indie pop and whatever genre the loud and silly Poweramp!! falls under. Even while jumping styles from track to track, High-Five never feels awkward thanks to its feel-good tone and minimalist sensibility. This gem of an album keeps the listener in good spirits from the opening "Good Morning Sandwich Man," a head-bopping alt-rock confection reminiscent of Japanese band the pillows, all the way to the closing track, in which the duo carefully narrates the credits over a jaunty piano melody.



Seo Tai Ji - Quiet Night
Seo Tai Ji's once untouchable image has taken a slight hit in recent years, but the "President of Culture" still stands unparalleled, both for his indelible past influence on Korean pop music and for his present ability to come out with such mesmerizing music. The most tonally consistent and refined in sound out of all his albums, Quiet Night dives into dreamily intricate electropop, using whimsical compositions and fanciful imagery to tell deceptively deep stories. Sogyeokdong, a wistful song about childhood, alludes to the neighborhood's dark past, while Christmalo.win, a holiday jingle like no other, combines Christmas and Halloween into a surreal cynical masterpiece that vilifies Santa and slyly sprinkles metal, old school rap, dubstep and cackles into an epic synth-rock concoction. Best yet, though, is the quietly piercing 90s Icon in which Seo Taiji sings "I'm the faded 90s icon / When's my time and chance to fade away completely?" Not any time soon if he continues to make albums like this.



Toy - Da Capo
You Hee Yeol seems to always be around thanks to his weekly music program, but a full seven years went by between the last Toy album and this warm and buoyant winter album. The singer-songwriter keenly adapts his compositions and arrangements to different vocalists while keeping his distinct style. Naturally, his collaborations with Lee Juck, Sung Si Kyung and Kim Dong Ryul feel the most comfortable, particularly the soaring ballad "Reset." With the younger artists, he crafts interesting creations like "Goodbye Sun, Goodbye Moon," which livens an old-fashioned melody with Lee Su Hyun's sweet vocal and a dynamic bass line, and the sleepy yet slinky medium-tempo number U & I with Crush and Beenzino. Saving the best for last, he closes the album with his own gently lulling "The Night with No One."







BEST CHINESE ALBUMS


Ann Bai - What's next?
Ann Bai has done it again. Following her much-acclaimed 2012 debut, the ridiculously talented young Taiwanese singer-songwriter released her sophomore album What's next? this fall. A serious contender for one of the most accessibly innovative Chinese pop releases of the year, the album marries a mixture of electronica, pop and folk with Ann's own beautifully distinctive singing voice to create a mature, assured and endlessly enjoyable record that serves as a winning showcase for her considerable talent.



Jacky Cheung - Wake Up Dreaming
The "God of Songs" has finally graced us with a new album and we're all still believers. Marking Jacky Cheung's 30th anniversary, Wake Up Dreaming is a gentle and soothing listen with a back-to-basics sensibility that focuses on craft rather than concepts. Jacky's impeccably nuanced performances on the moving ballads "The Rest of Time," "Tears of Time" and "Not Bad" show his years of experience, while rock-flavored tracks like "Vain Ease," "The Accused" and "I Just Want to Sing" allow him to break out his lower register and some belting. This is an album to sit back and slowly absorb, as Universal Music seems well aware of since they're releasing it straight away on audiophile formats.



Joanna Wang - Midnight Cinema
Joanna Wang and the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra deliver the classiest cover album of the year with this grand cover album, featuring new symphonic renditions of classic film theme songs. A symphonic cover of the theme song from A Better Tomorrow may seem ill-conceived on paper, but Joanna's beautifully classical voice and the exquisite arrangements elevate Midnight Cinema from just another cash-grab cover album into a true work of art.



Khalil Fong - Dangerous World
Boasting a huge production budget, Khalil Fong's seventh original album is the singer-songwriter's most technically accomplished album by far, though it's also his least soulful work. Ambitious and unlike anything Khalil has ever produced, Dangerous World is a grandiose opus created from a wide range of influences, including hip-hop and the doo-wop ballads of Motown artists like Smokey Robinson and The Temptations. As always, Khalil proves himself to be one of Chinese music's best musicians with another inspired album, but Dangerous World has taken his music to such an ambitious level that perhaps the only logical next step is to return to basic.



Lil' Ashes - Be Little
Rock duo Lil Ashes delivers a much-needed breath of fresh air to the world of Cantopop with their debut album. Featuring songs in Cantonese and English, Be Little is a sublime folk-pop album that also introduces to the world one of the most unique young voices among 2014 newcomers. Those who are looking for something beyond the usual karaoke-friendly ballads in Hong Kong music will be thoroughly charmed by Lil' Ashes.



Peggy Hsu - La Valse
Singer-songwriter Peggy Hsu's latest album is another wondrous trip into a world of fairy tales and magic. Written entirely in 3/4 time (three beats per measure), the album is filled with elegant ballads that will send listeners waltzing across the room. From catchy opening track Tippy Toes to melancholic ballad "Hypnosis," La Valse is the work of an artist who shows that a good musician is like a magician who can take the audience anywhere with just a good imagination.



Sandy Lam - Re: Workz
Influenced by Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ros, Sandy Lam and her musical collaborators (including boyfriend Jun Kung) create a new sound for her beloved classics in Re: Workz. Fans and audiophiles were shocked at first to hear Sandy's renowned powerful voice restrained to virtually whispers throughout the album. However, the album's dreamy, entrancing sound grows on you as you slowly embrace the singer's newfound tranquility in life, eloquently expressed through her music.



Sing Sing Rabbit - Space Up
She's had a viral hit where she sings a mash-up of ten classic love songs. She's been to the edge of space. And she's finally released her debut EP. Who is she? Why, Sing Sing Rabbit, of course! The pseudonym of a Hong Kong-based indie pop singer-songwriter who is hardly ever seen without her trademark lampshade rabbit head, Sing Sing Rabbit at long last makes her official debut after capturing the hearts of many a Hong Kong netizen. The result of her efforts is a winsome four-track EP that not only shows off her linguistic talents (she sings in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese), but is also guaranteed to put a smile on your face.



Waa Wei - Hai Shi Yao Xiang Xin Ai Qing a Hun Dan Men
"You still have to believe in love, you bastards!" screams Waa Wei in her long-awaited fourth full-length album, a passionate, intriguing album that's a far cry from gentle ballads like Shangri-la and "Good Night Good Night." Mostly written by Waa herself with some contribution from Cheer Chen and poet Xia Yu, Waa's latest album pushes an interesting new sound from the singer-songwriter that constantly keeps the listeners on their toes trying to guess her next step. The album isn't avant-garde, but it often takes the path less traveled, and that's a very good thing.



William Wei - Journey Into the Night
William Wei's third album sees the new-generation singer-songwriter further expanding and integrating more styles into his base of folk and alternative rock. He takes what he does best – moody, moving folk and rock ballads – and transforms them with metal ("Wolves"), funky electric beats ("Picture of Dorian Gray"), tribal music ("Breaking Dawn") and even pirates in the playful "Treasure Island" featuring Matzka. At the same time, the emotional core of his sound stays firm with heartbreaking piano- and strings-accompanied ballads like "Sinking Ship" and "Drainied" that take the listener on a journey from darkness to light on the strength of his resonant lyrics and touching delivery.





BEST JAPANESE ALBUMS


Dae Sung - D-LITE
Let Dae Sung bring you back to a simpler time, a time when inadvertently smarmy singers with shiny jackets and perma-grins on their faces sing upbeat songs while bobbing their heads to and fro. The Big Bang member has had a busy year in Japan, having released a chart-topping second solo album that was then followed by a successful Japan-wide tour, and he wraps up this eventful year with the wonderfully joyous D-LITE. A fantastic homage to the pop tunes of yesteryear as well as a delightful taste of Japanese and Korean year-end celebratory spirit, D-LITE makes you want to dust off your tambourine and chant along to every "Ha!" you hear.



Domoto Tsuyoshi - Shamanippon -Roinochinoi-
Two years after Rakachinotohi, Domoto Tsuyoshi returns with a Shamanippon follow-up that takes his ambitious funk rock style to even more assured heights. Roinochinoi is just as fun, inventive and groovy as its predecessor, while also being less obtuse and cleaner in execution and arrangement. Johnny's resident experimental artist finds a melodic middle ground for his wondrous fusion of funk, disco, pop, folk, electronic and traditional music elements. To quote the lyrics from Clap Your Mind, please "Keep on shamanippon."



EGO-WRAPPIN’ - Bright Time
At just four tracks, Bright Time is the perfect introduction to Japanese jazz-pop duo EGO-WRAPPIN’. Their seductive and noir-esque musical style is put on full display in the EP as it navigates listeners on a journey through a dark sleazy world where danger and temptation lurk behind every corner. More importantly, Bright Time is an effective tease that should lead listeners on a search for more of this immensely talented and versatile group's past works.



Flower - Flower
Having started life as an all-dancing group, Exile Family and E-Girls' Flower didn't add singers until the end of 2011. At that point, the group started their steady climb upward and was finally rewarded with the release of their first album in early 2014. A delightful dance-pop record that compiles all of Flower's singles up until that point, the Oricon top-three album is also interesting for the way it allows listeners to chart Flower's musical progression. While Flower's early tracks like YOUR GRAVITY didn't stray far from straightforward dance-pop, by Taiyou to Himawari, the group had developed their own distinct sound, a type of dance-pop imbued with grandiosity, which culminates in the beautiful and grand Shirayuki-hime, the album's stand-out track.



Kamijo - Heart
Striking out solo after Versailles, Kamijo has certainly and thankfully retained his flair for the dramatic, both in music and in visuals. The simply titled and emphatically entertaining Heart announces itself with the epic symphonic intro Vive le Roi. From there on we're swept along in the pounding symphonic and power metal that Versailles was known for; former bandmates Masashi and Hizaki even guest on a few tracks. This isn't just more of the same, though. Kamijo employs his deep vocals in this album better than he ever has, and revels in the charismatic over-the-top theatricality that the band's more serious later efforts toned down on.



Lamp - Yume
A popular pop subgenre in the early 1980s, city pop remains alive and well with three-piece band Lamp. Their seventh album is a dreamy, nostalgic work that evokes images of Tokyo at the height of its economic expansion, as well as a pioneering age of Japanese pop music that saw its music transition from traditional ballads to a mishmash of western influences. Swinging from progressive rock to jazz to cellophane-driven ballads, Yume is one of the most pleasant musical experiences of the year.



Sheena Ringo - Hiizurutokoro
Her first full-length album in five years, Sheena Ringo's Hiizurutokoro is also the rocker's most commercial album since her 1999 debut. Featuring the most number of drama or advertisement tie-ins among her releases, Hiizurutokoro largely eschews the avant-garde experimental style of her mid-solo career works. Instead, it's a lively collection of genre-bending rock that also serves as a great introduction to one of Japan's most distinctive and versatile singer-songwriters.



Soil & "Pimp" Sessions - Brothers and Sisters
After their special anniversary collaboration album, acid jazz band Soil & "Pimp" Sessions returns to regular programming with their ninth original album. Recorded in their usual improvisational method, Brothers and Sisters is an adrenaline rush of an album done in their signature death jazz style. With each instrument getting its time in the aural spotlight (pay attention to the insane drum runs in Omotenashi), Brothers and Sisters is a thrilling showcase of the band's talent.



Takeuchi Mariya - Trad
It's very easy to fool your friends into believing that Trad is the great missing Takeuchi Mariya record from the 1980s. Though produced within the past several years and released in 2014, the singer-songwriter's latest number-one album is a delightfully old-school collection of 80s-style Japanese pop songs that will stimulate the nostalgic pop fan in you. There's something oddly comforting about hearing unabashedly retro music that only a veteran musician like Takeuchi can still deliver without being rejected by record company executives.



Various Artists - Utada Hikaru no Uta
Featuring an eclectic list of 13 very different music units, Utada Hikaru no Uta is an inventive and refreshing celebration of Utada Hikaru's music. From Inoue Yosui's extravagant salsa-style cover of Sakura Drops to tofubeats and Bonnie Pink's avant-garde R&B version of Time Will Tell, this is a cover album that achieves the rare feat of striking a careful balance between reinvention and homage.






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Published December 31, 2014


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