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YumCha! Picks: Best Asian Albums of 2012

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Before we completely say goodbye to 2012, let's take a look back at the music that made our year. Here are YumCha! Editorial Team's picks for the Best Chinese, Korean and Japanese Albums of 2012!


Deserts Xuan - Games We Play
Singer-songwriter Deserts Xuan's latest work is a mature, melancholic and thoughtful album that emphasizes atmosphere over memorable compositions ("Pyrojewel" alone is one of the best Chinese singles of the year). Games We Play slowly draws you in with opening track "Rose-Colored Glasses" and takes you through an emotional musical journey through Deserts' world. Amazingly, Games We Play remains accessible and never experimental to the point of alienating listeners – a difficult task that Deserts seemed to have accomplished with ease.

Eason Chan - ...3mm
The best way to listen to ...3mm is to treat it as two separate 80s Canto-pop tributes: One a revival of 80s dance-pop (including Alan Tam homage "Heavy Flavor") and the other a traditional Canto-pop album with winks to classic 80s music (notice touches of "Don't Dream It's Over" in "Trust"). Co-produced by Swing (Jerald Chan and Eric Kwok), this is the official final project by the pop duo before they disband for good (Chan has immigrated to Canada), and it's a wonderful swan song for one of the best music producing teams in Canto-pop.

Ellen Loo - Ni An An Jing Jing Duo Qi Lai
At17 member Ellen Loo showed immense promise in 2011 with her solo debut album The Ripples. A year later, Ellen shows that the words "sophomore slump" don't exist in her vocabulary with this fantastic follow-up album. Ellen may dub herself "rock girl," but she shows that her music has no limits as she hops from one genre to another with amazing ease. At17 fans probably can't wait for the day Ellen and her At17 partner Eman Lam reunite, but we can't wait to see what else Ellen the solo artist has in store for music fans.

Freya Lim - Love, Suddenly
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Freya Lim works again with producer Jim Lee and composer Adrian Fu to create detailed, stirring ballads carried by her startlingly clear and gently emotive voice. Though the album is all slow songs, it's far from boring as Freya adapts to different styles, from the rock ballad base of "Intimate Friend" to the disco beats of "Maybe" to the light and uptempo "Love Suddenly." Lead track "Nothing Unusual," from "Five Days Few Years" writer/composer Qu Shicong, continues her tradition of "healing" love songs, but she reserves her best performance for the mesmerizingly languid "My Neurosis."

Khalil Fong - Back to Wonderland
After the collaborative effort of 15, Khalil Fong goes back to the influences of Motown in his sixth album. Similar to his third album Wonderland, Back to Wonderland is Khalil's glorious return to 1960s R&B, funk, soul and even a bit of Jimi Hendrix (with Lonely Child). The result is the best Mandarin-language album that Motown never had a chance to produce and an album so funky that it will make your head bob to the beat from beginning to end.

RubberBand - Easy
Bands don't necessarily have to stick to loud, guitar-driven rock to be labeled a band. RubberBand understands this idea and reaches into every musical style they can think of in one of the most enjoyable Canto-pop albums of the year. Even in traditional band genres like rock, the band incorporates fresh sound elements that make Easy a breath of fresh air in the Hong Kong band scene. From the social relevant lyrics of "Open Your Eyes" to the mellow sound of Easy, RubberBand's fifth album has something for everyone.

Sandy Lam - Gaia
Sandy Lam officially graduates from a singer to a full-fledged musician with Gaia, her first album in six years. Co-producing with music wunderkind Chang Shilei, Sandy takes a leap out of her comfort zone with an album that puts emphasis on music over showing off Sandy's impeccable vocals. Gaia boldly tells Sandy Lam fans that the days of karaoke-friendly ballads are behind her, showing a musician willing to take risks with music that touches on important issues like religion, environment and self-renewal.

Wan Fang - Love, After All
Best known for her hit theme song for the Hong Kong film C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri – still a karaoke favorite today among young people – Wan Fang has produced a seemingly unassuming album filled with heavy emotions beneath its gentle sounds. The sometimes raw production values show that little studio tampering was done to Wan's vocal performance, especially heartbreaking in songs like "I Tried, But I Can't," in which the singer-songwriter desperately cries out for her ex-lover in the dark. Love, After All is a heartfelt album that will melt your heart.

William Wei - Someone is Waiting
William Wei likes to keep people waiting. After winning Happy Sunday's singing contest in 2007, he waited two years before releasing his first single "Slowly Wait." After winning the Golden Melody Best Newcomer award, he took another two years to release Someone is Waiting. The singer-songwriter rewards the patient with low-key, medium-tempo pop and folk rock numbers, all written and composed by him. His In Time With You OST hit "Still" sneaks onto the album, along with radio-friendly ballads like We'll Never Know, "Someone Is Waiting For Me" and the emotionally raw, guitar-driven "Heartbreak." This album gets better with every listen.

Yoga Lin - Fiction
It's rare for a young pop singer who doesn't write his own music to have such a distinctive and consistent individual style in every album since his debut, but Yoga Lin has accomplished exactly that with unique vocals, strong production and a clear musical direction that doesn't budge to passing trends. Conceptualized as a music novel, his latest Fiction is his best and most complete work yet, furthering his signature of dream-like ballads and relaxed, lyrical pop numbers. Indie queen Sandee Chen notably produced the upbeat, rock-electronic blend "Captain S.V," but more quietly significant is that Yoga himself co-produced half of the album's tracks.


Ailee - Invitation
Curling from a soft piano intro to a full-out power ballad, "I Will Show You" simply announces Ailee as the new-generation diva we've been waiting for. The empowering breakup song from composer Kim Do Hoon and lyricist Lee Hyun Seung has a wonderful arrangement that Ailee matches seamlessly in her expressive performance. She has not only the technical chops but a soulful quality to her singing that lights up soft ("Evening Sky"), dramatic (Heaven) and uptempo R&B (Shut Up) ballads alike. What a voice Ailee has, and what a relief that her debut album has the right attitude and music production to go with the voice.

Big Bang - Alive
Just when you begin to think Big Bang might be more interesting apart than together musically speaking, they drop some of their strongest tracks yet in their fifth mini-album. Blue and Bad Boy offer a one-two punch of clean and moody urban R&B (we could listen to Blue forever), while Fantastic Baby takes their layered electro dance sound to a new level of carnivalesque catchiness. Dae Sung's pop rock solo Wings further piques expectations for what lies ahead for the Big Bang members, as a group and as solo artists.

Busker Busker - Self-Titled Album
In the relentless cycle of idol group debuts and weekly music shows, Busker Busker proved in 2012 that it is possible to top sales charts without nonstop promotion and flashy concepts. The band may have risen to fame via the Mnet program Superstar K, but the success of their first album comes down completely to the music. An antidote to idol electropop, their down-to-earth album consists of acoustic and easy-listening rock numbers that call to listeners with warm lyrics and comfortable melodies that hark back to their roots as a busking band.

Clazzi - Infant
As much as we love Alex and Horan, it is a treat to get a whole album of DJ Clazzi collaborations with other artists. He lays on the beats and synth for a less finished but edgier, more purely electronic album than his Clazziquai works. He's rounded up an impressive assortment of guest artists, some of whom are completely at home in the genre – Whale, Kim Wan Sun, The KOXX and Clazziquai regular Christina – while others offer more of a crossover experiment like the club tune Sexy Doll with Sunny Doll's Kota and Jubi and the straightforward "How We Feel" with 2AM's Seul Ong. The best crossover would have to be Yi Sung Yol in Love&Hate, his low and steady voice contrasting starkly with the dense electronic beats.

Naul - Principle of My Soul
It took 13 years for Naul to release his first original solo album and we can only describe it with one word: beautiful. Principle of My Soul plays like a record from a previous era, soothing sounds drawing from 70s soul, 80s synth, 90s R&B and gospel. Naul makes his nostalgic influences smilingly clear in the funky beats of Soul Fever and the falsetto rendition of You & Me, and the soaring notes of ballads like "Memory of the Wind" and "Farewell Start" positively melt in the ear. Considering how infrequent Brown Eyed Soul's albums are, it'll probably be a long while before we see another solo album from Naul; fortunately, this one can be kept on replay.

Nell - Slipping Away
Nell was more active than ever this year with two CD releases and we couldn't be happier, even though their music continues to provide a soundtrack for sorrow. The band's fifth album is near sublime, a complete embodiment of the pensive, dreamy, wistful alternative rock sound Nell is known for. Expressing pain, withdrawal and heartache so succinctly with songs like the simple and intense Losing Control and the heartbreaking "The Day Before," the band has produced some of their most heart-piercing works yet, and that's saying a lot. This is the perfect album to listen to on a lonely, rainy day – one of the tracks is even titled "Standing in the Rain."

Park Ji Yoon - Tree of Life
Park Ji Yoon reinvented herself three years ago with Flower, 1st Again, which saw her taking control of her music and leaving all traces of her idol years behind. Tree of Life is even better, a delightfully airy selection of delicate ballads, light rock and acoustic. She continued to work mainly with indie musicians: No Reply's Kwon Soon Kwan for the lilting title song Tree of Life, Mate's Jung Joon Il for the acoustic guitar ballad "A Love Lost Over Dinner," Asher for the wispy "Echoes" and Dear Cloud's Kim Yong Rin for multiple tracks including the feathery rock "Like Days Past." Of the album's 11 tracks, she composed four and wrote most of the lyrics. As memorable as her late 90s and early 2000s pop hits may be, we like Park Ji Yoon the singer-songwriter much more.

Sistar - Alone
Sistar came into their own in 2012 with Alone. From the sultry intro track Come Closer to the girls anthems No Mercy and Girls on Top, Sistar brings a sexy edge to bubblegum girls pop. Other than Hyo Rin's OST ballad "I Choose to Love You," the album maintains its slinky sound throughout for a tonally consistent release that's far more mature than their previous works. The crowning highlight is of course the magnetic title song Alone, a melancholic disco number that manages to be subtle and smothering at the same time – showing that Brave Brothers is still one of the best hitmakers in the business when he's willing to take a step back from his bombastic electronic sound.

Verbal Jint - 10 Years of Misinterpretation Pt. 1
Rising from underground to near mainstream with last year's Go Easy, Verbal Jint takes a mellow, reflexive direction with his latest work. Though known foremost as a rapper, Verbal Jint is more about words, rhythm and melody rather than hand-raising hip-hop, and that's never been clearer than with this album. Many of the tracks cross over easily with pop sensibilities like the lead single "You Deserve Better" featuring Phantom's Sanchez and the upbeat, easy-listening "Perfect Day" and "Good Morning." At the same time, the multi-talented artist is just as capable of throwing out a hard intro and mixing things up with the monotonic "Raindrops" and the mesmerizing Life Music, which integrates environment sounds with smooth rhymes.

Xia (Kim Jun Su) - Tarantallegra
"Hey, what music will you listen to?" Just based on his previous single Intoxication, we figured a Jun Su solo album was bound to be interesting and he indeed does not disappoint. There's a dramatic, no-holds-barred flair to this album that's most evident in Jun Su's own electro-dance compositions Breath, Set Me Free and the epic Tarantallegra. His performance on the ballads is also impressively expressive, particularly "Love Means Nothing To Me" and "A Fairy." It's almost as if Jun Su is channeling his stage musical experience into pop with this album.


Ayaka - The Beginning
Following a two-year health-related hiatus, Ayaka returned to the Japanese music world older, wiser and most importantly, as the boss of her own record label. Comprising of 13 well-produced, contemplative pop songs, The Beginning shows how much more mature the singer-songwriter has become during her time away. Just listening to one of the best female vocalists in J-pop stretching her powerful voice once more makes The Beginning an album worth checking out.

Domoto Tsuyoshi - Shamanippon -Rakachinotohi-
He may be part of a successful Johnny's Entertainment pop duo, but Shamanippon proves that Domoto Tsuyoshi is anything but a typical pop musician. The KinKi Kids member's latest solo album borders on musical self-indulgence, but it's also one of the most ambitious musical efforts of the year. A mix of experimental pop sounds and traditional Japanese musical elements, Shamanippon is a unique musical experience worthy of being called the best Johnny's Entertainment-related album of 2012.

m-flo - Square One
After a five-year wait, m-flo finally returned in 2012 with Square One. Pioneers of electronica-infused hip-hop in the Japanese pop scene, the duo drops the "m-flo Loves" collaboration gimmick and goes back to basics with 67 minutes of what made them great in the first place. Even their decision to keep their guest vocalists' identities a secret end up paying off, as listeners will come to simply focus on the music rather than who m-flo is working with. Fun to listen to but never bombastic on the ears, Square One is one of the most entertaining musical experiences of the year.

Miyavi - Samurai Sessions Vol. 1
Miyavi always has something new up his sleeve and his project from late 2011 to 2012 was collaborations with different musicians. The samurai guitarist morphs his idiosyncratic, constantly evolving style for each collaboration, serving up a wildly entertaining and creative collection. With Kreva, we get the rap-rock explosion of Strong; with Yuksek, Day 1's mash of soaring rock and fierce riffs. Silent Anger with Hosomi Takeshi merges a Brit-rock melody with eclectic electronic, while HA NA BI with Agatsuma Hiromitsu and Oki Jin crashes nonstop beats against shimasen and acoustic guitar chords. Every track is so different and yet so very Miyavi.

Plastic Tree - ink
The most poignant moment of Plastic Tree's ethereal alternative rock numbers is often the silence, that deliberate moment after the song fades out and before it returns again with renewed vigor. The silence appears in ink's very first track, the uncanny acoustic intro Rorschach (Left), and can be heard many more times before the album bows out with Rorschach (Right). The band has loud moments, too – the heavy bass line of titular track ink, the drum and synth explosion of Piano Black, the outstanding guitar riffs of Avante-garde – but it's the quietness of slow buildups and haunting vocals that leaves the greatest impact when it comes to Plastic Tree.

Sakamoto Ryuichi - Three
Listen to Sakamoto Ryuichi's Three and Playing the Piano, and you can hear how much more impact a song can have by adding just two instruments. Sakamoto is a brilliant composer and pianist, but there's no doubt that cellist Jaques Morelenbaum and violinist Judy Kang are the key to bringing much-needed emotional power to new interpretations of The Seven Samurais ending theme and even Sakamoto's own classic Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. For fans of Sakamoto's piano pieces (as opposed to his experimental works), Three is one of his best instrumental albums since 1996.

Shimizu Shota - Melody
Shimizu Shota's cover album offers the best of both worlds: his silky voice with songs we already love. The album opts mostly for simple piano and guitar accompaniments, staying consistent to the original songs and also allowing Shimizu's beautiful vocal performance to take center stage. His versions of Tokunaga Hideaki's Rainy Blue, Nakajima Miyuki's Kesho and HY's 366 Nichi (featuring original performer Nakasone Izumi) are goosebump inducing.

Tokyo Jihen - Color Bar
Shiina Ringo's Tokyo Jihen gives a spectacular farewell with Color Bar, their final EP before disbanding in early 2012. As the title suggests, each member gets to show off his or her individual musical talent by contributing one song each. The result is a wildly wide range of music – from the jazzy Konya wa Karasawagi to the experimental swan song Honto no Tokoro – as well as a display of what each member brought to what was one of Japan's best genre-breaking bands. We'll miss Tokyo Jihen, but we're glad they said goodbye with Color Bar.

Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra - Yokubou
If anyone wants to do film noir in Japan, get Tokyo Ska Paradise to compose your soundtrack. Yokubou makes you feel like you're stepping into a 1970s detective film filled with dark alleys, shady characters and danger behind every corner. It's not a breakthrough in the Tokyo Ska Paradise sound that music fans are already familiar with, but Yokubou still excels as a rare album that is musically rich enough to stimulate its listeners' imaginations.

Yashiro Aki - Yoru no Album
Much like performing jazz standards, performing enka requires a unique type of fluid, magnetic voice that is rare in typical modern pop singers. That's why it's so surprise that enka queen Yashiro Aki has delivered one of the best jazz cover albums of the year with just her first attempt. The melancholy of enka and the smooth, soulful sound of jazz go surprisingly well together in Yashiro's covers of Johnny Guitar, Autumn Leaves and even Watashi wa Naiteimasu. Listen to this album at night with the lights off, and you may begin to imagine yourself lounging in a basement jazz bar in Tokyo with a glass of whiskey on the rocks.

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Published January 4, 2013

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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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