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YumCha! Picks: Best Albums of 2011

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

We close out our year-end picks with the most contentious of them all: the music! Many, many music releases came out in Asia this year, but only a select few can make the final cut. Here are YumCha! Editorial Team's picks for the Best Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Albums of 2011!


A-mei Chang - R U Watching?
A-mei was a big hit with critics last year with her Amit rock experiment. This year, the Taiwan superdiva returns to her original self, and offers a more intimate album that feels closer to the listener. Instead of booming ballads, she takes a gentler route with beautiful, back-to-basics ballads like "What Time Is It Already?", "My Dearest", and "One Person's Words". For dance songs, she applies light vocal over fast beats, while maintaining her characteristic high energy level. Always changing and growing with every release, A-mei follows her most complex effort with a simple, emotionally rich album that needs no bells and whistles.

Anthony Wong - Fu Le Yi Shen Hai Man
Traditional Chinese music and elements are blended readily into Anthony Wong's latest album, but don't try to associate it with the tired traditional fusion R&B genre. The iconic singer's silky-smooth voice curls over synth-laced theatrics while Chinese allusions take shape over electronic explosions. It's Tang poetry meets trippy pop, with mesmerizing arrangements from the fine people over at People Mountain People Sea. This album is an Anthony Wong and People Mountain People Sea production through and through, and we mean that as the highest possible praise.

Aska Yang - Pure
The "acquired taste" Chinese album of the year, Pure is an album that will take a couple of listens for its brilliance to start shining through. In addition to being a spectacular showcase of Aska Yang's vocal ability, Pure is a major accomplishment for "Mando-pop Godfather" Jonathan Lee and frequent collaborator Mac Chew. Featuring piano-driven, lounge style arrangements from beginning to end, all the songs on Pure will sound the same initially. But listen carefully, and each song's flavor will slowly begin to surface - it's all part of the experience.

Eason Chan - Stranger Under My Skin
Some may not like that Eason Chan continues to put out Cantonese music in small doses (this is his third consecutive Cantonese EP), but Stranger Under My Skin proves that quality is indeed more important than quantity. In addition to strong compositions for songs like My Private Christmas Song and Stranger Under My Skin, the EP also explores interesting topics like social inequality (Snow in June) and the celebration of mortality (End Party). If those aren't enough, Stranger even includes the first new Faye Wong song in years! What more could you possibly ask for in an EP?

Ellen Loo - The Ripples
This solo debut album by Ellen Loo is the result of at17's temporary hiatus, and it may make you wish that they'll never get back together. Produced by a musician wise beyond her years but still hip enough to connect with her generation, The Ripples is a melancholic album filled with songs about dysfunctional relationships, girl power, and self-discovery. Fans of People Mountain People Sea's music will feel perfectly at home, but fans of karaoke-friendly ballads will be lost and confused. To us, twenty-something angst has rarely sounded better.

Khalil Fong - 15
The fifth original studio album by Khalil Fong is both an evolution and a return to form for the R&B wunderkind. While his influences (Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, etc.) are even more apparent this time around, he has taken his R&B sound to a new level of sophistication. Integrating new instruments (the horns section in Over is especially inspired) and trying new collaborations (a trio formed by Khalil, drummer Lee Yat Ding, and bassist Chan Siu Kei), 15 is major step in the evolution of the singer-songwriter's musical journey.

Paul Wong - Concerto in A Minor
Paul Wong says it best himself: "In the name of rock n roll / That's all I got you know." And he's all Hong Kong's got to keep rock alive. As a sign of the times, the rocker's first album in four years is half Cantonese and half Mandarin, but it's all in his no-frills, music-with-a-message style of clean riffs, drowsy compositions, deliberate beats, raw lyrics, and heavy hearts. Concerto in A Minor climaxes with the 17-minute instrumental endeavor "Upside Down" (originally created for his 2009 book). For the nostalgic, the album's highlight may very well be the hidden track "Story", a moving acoustic number that integrates Beyond song titles into the lyrics.

Peggy Hsu - Magical Shop
If there's one musician in Taiwan who specializes in winter albums, it would be Peggy Hsu. Very few albums can conjure up a singular image, but one can easily picture Magical Shop as the soundtrack for a journey through a music box shop on a snowy winter evening. The singer-songwriter's voice has a natural storytelling quality, and her fifth album is produced so much like a musical narrative that it's best consumed in one go rather than on your iPod Shuffle.

Sodagreen - What's the Trouble On Your Mind?
Sodagreen doesn't just ask what's wrong; they also provide an album full of musical remedies, starting with the touching titular track "What's the Trouble On Your Mind?" Arriving as an intermission release between their four season albums, the Taiwan band's latest effort offers a ray of sunshine in the form of earthy folk rock numbers and comforting ballads. Qing Feng's vocal and songwriting style are familiar staples of Mando-pop at this point, but Sodagreen still manages to sneak in new surprises every time. The dreamy, alternative "Control Freak" is one of the band's best songs yet.

Wang Feng - Life Asks For Nothing
Wang Feng sure has a lot to say because his ninth album comes with a whopping 26 songs. With such a generous tracklist, we get all of the Beijing rocker's repertoire in one go: the dramatic rock ballads, the socially conscious outcries, the lone wolf anthems, the soft songs dedicated to his family, the folk ballads, the gruff blues rock. Flawless vocals and high-quality musical production are a given for Wang Feng albums, but his ability to remain relevant with every release may come down to resonant lyrics like this: "I can't forget that summer night of 1989 / and the partying crowd of 1999 / I can't forget that disaster of 2008 / and the absurd tragedy of 2011" (from closing track Remembering Rain).


2NE1 - 2nd Mini Album
It's hard to argue when 2NE1 chants I am the Best. What really won us over though is Ugly, which turns every girl's self-loathing insecurity into a belting girl power anthem. Produced by Teddy and Kush, this mini-album may only have six tracks but they're all hand-raising singles, going from the acoustic ballad vulnerability of Lonely to the liberating, electrobeat rage of Hate You. It takes 2NE1 to pull it all off, and with such colorful verve.

Apollo 18 - The Black Album
Apollo 18's latest EP has only four tracks and barely any singing, but who needs lyrics when heavy guitar riffs, bass lines, and drum beats tell better stories? The progressive band serves up screaming samplers with the dark hard rock Corpse Flower and the frantically energetic Sonic Boom, and goes ethereal with the hypnotically languid MUR. The apex is the amazing start-stop journey that is Deadend, which clocks in at just under eight minutes.

BEAST - Fiction and Fact
It's exciting to come across a pop song like Fiction that not only has great melody and lyrics, but also an ambitious arrangement that brings out the best in the song and the singer. Hitmakers Shinsadong Tiger and Choi Kyu Sung outdo themselves with the moody dance single, and BEAST show their chops by layering and harmonizing vocals to dramatic effect. Fiction is impressively flanked by side tracks strong enough to plug as singles (like R&B ballad "On Rainy Days" and Jun Hyung-penned Freeze). With such a polished tracklist, it's no wonder that Fiction and Fact has elevated BEAST to another level of popularity this year.

Brown Eyed Girls - Sixth Sense
Sixth Sense might not have received as much love as Abracadabra or Sign, but this album does far greater justice to the Brown Eyed Girls' strong voices. BEG bring the sexiness and the power vocals for the epic pop rebellion of Sixth Sense, not to mention sultry Latin jazz confection Hot Shot, power pop Vendetta, and wispy electrobeat ballad Lovemotion. Hands down, the most interesting idol K-pop album of the year.

Infinite - Over the Top / Paradise
Out of K-pop's many groups, Infinite made the biggest leap forward this year, and they did so in a surprisingly old-school way. In a time when newer idols need to stand out by being different, Infinite is best known for being synchronized, for singing and dancing in perfect unison. As well-rounded as the group, Infinite's first album offers a keen twist on convention, turning the distinctively 80s beats and vibe of "Be Mine" and Paradise into a fresh, catchy dance pop sound for 2011.

Jaurim - Conspiracy
Lead single Idol may divide listeners because of Kim Yoon Ah's surprisingly perky and nasally rendition, but that is just one of the many voices she rolls out in Jaurim's fascinatingly eclectic eighth album. The chameleon modern rock band preaches double-edged messages in an upbeat tone through wildly different songs like the acoustic sound EV1, the media-blasting synth-rock number Peep Show, and the jaunty, amusingly titled The album's most memorable track is its darkest, Red Rain, a murder story told in swing band, bombastic beats, and atmospheric sound effects, including the sound of a woman's panting.

Kim Dong Ryul - KimdongrYule
Not only has Kim Dong Ryul released a Christmas album, he gave it a fun pun title! The singer-songwriter is completely serious about the Christmas theme, right down to the whimsically festive jacket design, and the album's warm piano ballads and traditional carol arrangements fit perfectly with his gentle, low voice. At the same time, KimdongrYule is not just a holiday release, but also a regular studio album. The inclusion of the beautiful non-holiday lead single Replay brings us back to the solitary, emotional ballads of Kim Dong Ryul's earlier years, and puts the whole album in new perspective.

LeeSsang - AsuRa BalBalTa
Gary and Gil's very successful stints in variety in the past year have nearly overshadowed their illustrious music career, but this album sets things right in the universe again. LeeSsang's seventh album slows down the beat and lifts the spirit with laidback rhymes and soulful refrains. Easy-listening Korean hip-hop doesn't get much better than songs like "Turn Off the TV" and "Reminiscence". For those looking for a trace of variety show LeeSsang, the Infinite Challenge rowing theme Grand Final gets an energetic remix version.

Tablo - Fever's End
What does it mean when K-pop's most famous idol hip-pop label brings Korea's most famous non-idol rapper into its folds? Fears that YG would change him are unfounded so far: Tablo's first solo album is far more Tablo than YG. It's also far more Tablo than Epik High. After enduring a nonsensical public battle over his education credentials last year, the embattled rapper peels away the complex wordplay and poetry, and reveals a highly personal album about anguish, hardship, loss, and hope. Using his darkest period as inspiration, Tablo has produced his most piercing works, from the haunting opening track "Home" and the emotionally raw "At the Bottom" to the storming beats of Dear TV and the clock-ticking ending of "Expiration Date".

Taru - 100 Percent Reality
Pastel Music's promotional text describes this album's musical style as "Taru Pop", but let's just say it's indie pop without pretension. Hongdae goddess Taru's delightful second album features a soft selection of ballads and wispy rock numbers in her soothing, alluring vocals. The lead single "Let's End It Here" sounds great in all four variations, including a duet version with ZITTUN, while songs like the sweet and light "Ice Cream Store, Fancy Boy", the Sentimental Scenery-arranged "Issue", and the airy, dreamy "My Person" are charmingly buoyant.


Amuro Namie - Checkmate!
Amuro Namie's transformation from idol pop singer to the self-proclaimed "Queen of Hip-Pop" may be one of the most successful makeovers in contemporary J-pop, and Checkmate! will remind you how she pulled it off. A mix of old and new collaboration tracks, the compilation album sees Amuro's style rubbing off on the likes of Yamashita Tomohisa, Chemistry's Kawabata Kaname, After School, and even rebellious rocker Tsuchiya Anna. With songs featuring Zeebra, After School, AI and Tsuchiya standing out as the best of the album, Checkmate! shows that Amuro will be continuing her reign as the Queen of Hip-Pop for a very long time.

JUJU - Delicious
She may be best known for her ballads, but JUJU proves with Delicious that her true love is jazz. In addition to producer Matsuo Kiyoshi's elegant arrangements and cameos from elite musicians like Shima Ken, the jazz standards cover album also features an excellent vocal performance from the female songstress, who proves that she truly knows her way around her favorite musical genre. JUJU's ballads may touch many pop fans and sell a lot of records, but jazz is where she truly belongs.

Kagrra, - Hyakki Kenran
After a decade together, visual kei band Kagrra, disbanded in March this year, bowing out with this final studio album. The band's last release is also their most unified in sound since 2007's Shizuku, shooting strong beats and traditional Japanese instrumentals through lush lyrical rock melodies. Lilting rock pieces like Chigiri, Tsuki ni Murakumo Hana ni Ame, and Kikan remind once again what made Kagrra,'s music so magnetic, and how much has been lost with the departure of lead vocalist Isshi, who passed away a few months after the band's disbanding.

Kanjani8 - Fight
We could all use a bit more Kansai humor and fighting spirit this year, and Kanjani8 is happy to oblige with positive, idiosyncratic songs like Monjai Beat, Fight for the Eight, and Fly High. On top of the picker-uppers, the group also throws out ambitious curveballs like Dye D and Water Drop, and hits home with heartfelt, band-sound ballads like My Home and wander. Kanjani8 has always been one of Johnny's most musically distinct acts, and they've successfully turned their ragtag, feel-good mix of pop, rock, and brassy enthusiasm into a surprisingly potent formula that feels more and more comfortable to the ears with each album.

Kuwata Keisuke - Musicman
Is there anything more reassuring in J-pop than the voice of Kuwata Keisuke? The legendary singer-songwriter returned from his health hiatus early in the year with this album, and the Japanese music world breathed a collective sign of relief. Graduating from Rock and Roll Hero to Musicman, Kuwata continues to defy time and tide with his hearty, sinewy rock and ballads, spiced with a sprinkling of enka-inspired slow numbers and funky, uptempo mischief. Musicman is just like the old days, and yet so appropriate for today.

Nerdhead - Behind the Truth
As m-flo's future remains uncertain (Verbal released his solo album earlier this year), Nerdhead - led by musician GIORGIO 13 - has arrived to fulfill the demand for hip-hop-infused R&B dance music. Like a good m-flo album, Behind the Truth features plenty of collaborations with female singers (Kuraki Mai, SOULHEAD, BENNIE K, etc), verbal flow that seamlessly moves between different languages, and most importantly, affecting compositions complemented by thumping bass-driven arrangements. We may miss m-flo, but Nerdhead helps curb the craving.

Perfume - JPN
Many may love electronica trio Perfume for the three girls' adorable personalities and cute dance moves, but don't forget the work of their unofficial fourth member Nakata Yasutaka. Nakata has written and produced every Perfume track since 2003, becoming the driving force behind bringing a new genre of bubble gum pop-infused electronica to the pop charts. The group's first album in over two years offers more energetic electronica-pop hybrids that have made the girls so popular with music fans, and it's one of the most exhilarating musical experiences of 2011.

Soil&Pimp Sessions - Magnetic Soul
Jazz sextet Soil & Pimp Sessions is back with 14 tracks worth of Death Jazz goodness. While listening to them on CD isn't as exhilarating as seeing them on stage, the mix of catchy jazz composition (Movin' and Do-Re-Mi), genre crossovers (Above the Crowd), and amazing musical skills on aural display here should be more than enough for fans. This is 21st century jazz at its finest.

Tokyo Jihen - Daihakken
The fifth album by the Shiina Ringo-led band is another entrancing musical experience across genres, styles, and even different periods of music history. More so than before, Daihakken sees the band exploring different sounds, from the eerily "For the Tube" version of Tengoku e Yokoso to the jazzy BPM103 version of Dopamint!. The result is not as groundbreaking as the album concept promises to be, but at least successfully proves that Tokyo Jihen remains one of the most brilliant genre-breaking bands working in Japan today.

Yuzu - 2 -NI-
You can always count on Yuzu for warm, clean folk numbers and 2-NI certainly has that, but cranked up an extra notch. Other than wistful ballads and their guitar pop standards, the duo shakes things up slightly with fuller sounds on some songs, like the fast-tempo Kanata and the Triceratops rock collaboration Daiku no Bensan. By applying a folk twang to Daikanyama Refrain and whimsical beats to 1 Ka 8, Yuzu adds fun flourishes to the album, while still very much maintaining their beloved musical style and composition.

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Published December 28, 2011

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