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YumCha! Picks: Best Asian Albums of 2013

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

The last of our year-end countdown! We bid goodbye to 2013 with a look back at our favorite Chinese, Korean and Japanese albums of the year.


BEST KOREAN ALBUMS


Busker BuskerVol. 2
It almost seems like Busker Busker has started a new tradition – a tradition that starts and ends with the season. Last year they warmed hearts with "Cherry Blossom Ending." This year "Autumn Night" arrived just in time as the opening instrumental for an album that lights up the darkness with heartfelt lyrics and melodies. Lead singer Jang Beom Jun's mesmerizing vocal carries us along in the refreshingly upbeat tracks "Juliet" and "Night," speaking volumes of the band's distinctive indie folk pop style and leaving us wondering what we'll hear next from the band.



Cho Yong Pil - Hello
A four-decade veteran of the music industry, Cho Yong Pil proved who the real king of Korean music is in 2013 with outstanding sales that surpassed most idols. More importantly, Hello is an outstanding album that shows experience but not age. This is not a record aimed for nostalgia but an up-to-date work with modern rock, uptempo pop and ballads of broad appeal. Bounce is for good reason K-pop's feel-good jam of the year. The album's lighter arrangements and singing style fluidly adapt to today's music trends while maintaining the essence of Cho Yong Pil's sound.



f(x) - Pink Tape
f(x) is the rare idol girl group with a consistent and characteristic music style (via European composers), and their albums have all been solid since debut. Pink Tape is their best yet. With Pink Tape, they've ironed out most of the awkward patches and found the most comfortable balance of electronic and girls pop with a dash of retro and sass. The entire album ties together musically and conceptually with a breezy composure built on well-played pop hooks, f(x)-style chants and cheers, and layers of synth, beats and effects that feed music critics. Also, this album gets our special nod for most awesome packaging design.



Geeks - Backpack
Korean hip-hop's resident Geeks found mainstream attention with their debut Officially Missing You, and Backpack has a comparable plug in the R&B ballad Wash Away. From Lights On to "Probably," the duo's first album is filled with the unabashedly radio-friendly, easygoing melodic rhymes and rhythms that play nice in school. But their Backpack has hard edges, too: Getting On You, "Super Human" and the superb Southern-style Siren show that Geeks are just as capable of breaking out the sharp raps and beats when they're not being model students.



G-Dragon - Coup D'etat
As the title suggests, G-Dragon's second solo album Coup D'etat initiates a music revolution. He makes a bold statement in the opening and wraps it up with perhaps one of his best written songs in Black. Collaborating with various American musicians including Missy Elliott, Sky Ferreira and Baauer, GD shows a strong American influence in the songs Niliria and Shake the World. He's also a great storyteller as evident in Black and Crooked, not to mention the track R.O.D featuring Lydia Paek which is stuck in our heads.



Glen Check - Youth!

Glen Check told us they "wanted to emphasize the significance of youth culture" with this album. So what does youth sound like? Fresh, funky and fun. The indie band offers an eclectic mix of band sound, dreamy synth, bouncy beats and throwback vibes that brings smiles to faces. It's music in the now that references popular sounds of the past: Young Generation could pass for a nineties sitcom opening theme while Anthem For the Wild Souls and Youth in the Revolt are the happiest-sounding, clap-along youth rebellion anthems we've ever heard.



Jaurim - Goodbye, Grief.
From the moment Kim Yoon Ah's voice lilts out Anna amid grand piano and strings, Goodbye, Grief. asserts itself as one of Jaurim's most lyrical and emotionally resonant albums. The evocative songs are less experimental in tone than previous albums, but the composition, instrumentation and lyrics are no less detailed and powerful. Kim Yoon Ah is at her absolute best performing Dear Mother, "Twenty-Five, Twenty-One" and "Icarus" – explosive in delivery, subtle in expression.



Yi Sung Yol - V
At times, you have to strain your ears to hear all the things going on in this album – that's deliberate. Yi Sung Yol wanted the muddled sound and ambience of a live performance, which he achieves with live and one-take recordings and sound distortion. Much of V is abstract and occasionally esoteric, a modern rock album with livehouse and experimental elements. Case in point: the French narration and guitar riffs and distortions of Minotaur, a haunting progressive rock journey lasting nearly eight minutes. "Dog etc." pulsates with eerily high vocals and reverberating notes, We Are Dying curls around distinctive Vietnamese dan bau chords. The rock artist's vocals break free in the final act with clear, moody rock tracks well worth the wait.



Yozoh - Existence and Happiness
Yozoh's second album sees the singer-songwriter moving from whimsical indie pop to a more mature and melancholic sound. "Existence and Happiness" beckons with her signature soft and wispy voice floating over repeating piano chords until a weeping guitar gradually takes over the song. It's a magnificent lead-in to the title song "Smiling Flower," an alternative rock melody that updates Yozoh's light upbeat style. Her evolving style is most evident in the new (and superior) "33-Year-Old Version" of My Name is Yozoh, remade with a sensual arrangement of groove, bass and brass, though she still pulls out the childlike vocal in Mr. Smith, which jauntingly declares "I love you but I'll kill you if you do that again."



Zion.T - Red Light
Zion.T has been popping up here and there as a featuring artist on hip-hop tracks for a while and his voice always leaves an impression. This year we finally got a full album from him and it's everything we've waited for. An excellent debut with strong music production and arrangements, Red Light basically slinks and slides from beginning to end with silky, medium-tempo R&B synthpop that melts in the ear. Zion.T's distinctive nasally voice melds smoothly with the laidback melodies and mellow rhythm, particularly in the groovy, off-beat Doop and reggae piece "Global Warming."





BEST CHINESE ALBUMS


Alex Fung - Chapters
Composer/producer Alex Fung brings Chinese poetry and modern music together in his risky experimental debut album. The result sometimes feels like a cold academic experiment, but Fung deserves many gold stars for making the effort to bring old words relevant in a modern world. Featuring the voices of Kelly Chen, Chochukmo, Chet Lam, Ivana Wong and Eason Chan, Chapters is also one of the most star-studded Hong Kong albums of the year.



Cheer Chen - Songs of Transience
After a long wait, indie queen Cheer Chen finally drew a perfect close to her "Flower Trilogy" project following 2005's A Fabulous Adventure and 2009's Immortal. Maintaining her roots as a musician all these years despite increasing fame and popularity, Cheer doesn't disappoint and delivers 12 soul-searching, philosophical pieces that showcase her mastery in folk, pop, blues and rock. Sparing no effort to pull listeners into her world of imagination, the tracks "Montage," "Prototype" and "View with a Grain of Sand" are sentimental, tranquil and therapeutic, and are in no way just songs that pass by.



David Tao - Hello Goodbye
Never settling for only one music genre, David Tao tackled R&B in his debut album, rock in Opus 69 and ballads in Beautiful. An acknowledged perfectionist in his music, he discards the restrictions of a concept album or music genres this time, letting his creativity run loose in each song according to their musicality and meaning. Inviting Crowd Lu to co-write and sing in the tracks "Get Together Brothers" and "That Girl," David impresses yet again with whimsical thoughts and upbeat melodies that we rarely hear from him.



Ellen Loo - Riding on Faith
At 17's Ellen Loo emphasizes quality over quantity with the first Cantonese release of her solo career, recorded to promote her 2013 concert in Hong Kong. With her Ripples Band, Loo continues to impress with her melancholic compositions and entrancing arrangements. Singing in her native language of Cantonese on the EP, Loo's bittersweet vocal style feels even more intimate with stronger emotional effect.



Emil Chau - Jiang Hu

If we had to describe Emil Chau's Jiang Hu with one word, it would be: epic. The Mando-pop veteran sends listeners on a wuxia adventure with an ambitious concept album that fuses and transforms eastern and western, traditional and contemporary, popular and classical. The songs float from traditional Chinese instrumentals to folk opera to rock riffs, all coming together as a rousing romp through martial world mythology and transient life told in imagery-laden classical Chinese lyrics by Taiwan author Zhang Da Chun.



Frandé - Sui Bo Zhu Liu Wo Bu Jie Yi
Frandé again proved the diversity and richness of Taiwan's indie rock with their second album guided by lead singer Fran's distinctive voice and music style. The 12 tracks on the album carry her consistently dark, mysterious yet charismatic tone that quickly submerges listeners in the darkest place of memories. Fran is clearly skillful at breaking people's hearts, and "It's Just" and "Something Untold" are the best examples in which desperation and sorrow easily take over our ears and creep into our minds.



Pong Nan - Grace and Beauty
Pong Nan had initially planned to release all five of his 2013 singles on digital platforms only. Fortunately for us, Pong changed his mind and put the songs together for Grace and Beauty. A document of one of Pong's most successful years in music (including his music work for other artists), the EP shows us a more confident and more serious side of the talented musician, from graceful ballad "Going to Alaska Together" to heartrending electropop number "You're London, I'm New York." In an ideal world, "Cheers to Perseverance," Pong's version of My Way, would be the pop hit of 2013.



Sodagreen - Autumn Story
Challenging Taiwan's pop rock genre with their well-crafted folk ballads, Sodagreen feasts our ears again with the third album in the band's "Four Seasons" project. With Qing Feng's lyrics and composition as the backbone of the band, Autumn Story shows just how diverse the lead singer can be. His talents shine through in the poetic opening number "Story," the upbeat and whimsical "It Began with a Fallen Leaf" and the philosophical "We Have Walked for One Light Year." All songs are arranged with rising progression, particularly "I Miss You So," which opens silently and steadily before it blossoms into saturated sounds accompanied by Qing Feng's emotive voice.



Tanya Chua - Angel and Devil
Angel and Devil sees Tanya Chua at the top of her game in conveying the bottom depths of hurt and loneliness. A deeply personal work from the Golden Melody-winning diva, the album tunes into the darkness and demons within. Songs like "Crash" and "A Hundred Thousand Teardrops" go to dazed and depressing places while "Northern Lights," "Love Song to Myself" and "Badmouth" take loathing and yearning in ethereal directions with moody, layered melodies.



Yellow! - Our Memories Are...
Losing member Jim Yan may be one of the best things to happen to the band formerly known as Wildchild. Now renamed Yellow!, the band has become more mature, trying out new sounds in songs like "Mr. Charlie," "Ignorant First Love" and "The Boss Says OK." Even though they've matured from children to men ("low" sounds like "man" in Cantonese), Our Memories Are... shows that a bit of maturity can be good for a rock band, too.





BEST JAPANESE ALBUMS


Boom Boom Satellites - Embrace
Boom Boom Satellites continues to take their music to new levels with every release. Embrace is a complex, hypnotic and pulsating journey of sounds, but it's also incredibly listenable and enjoyable. The band embeds their dreamy droning, pounding beats and electronic explosions amid more conventional rock cues and singable refrains, creating a less alienating but no less inventive album that can connect with more listeners.



capsule - Caps Lock
Working with Perfume and KyaryPamyuPamyu has left a significant impact on the work of musician Nakata Yasutaka, as you will hear in Capsule's 13th album Caps Lock. Bubble gum electropop with a mechanical vibe, Caps Lock is industrial in its construction (you can literally picture the way each layer of sound come together on a computer as you hear them). However, Yasutaka and his group are playful enough in their arrangements that it's still a joy to listen – even when his popular post-modern female idols are missing in action.



Crazy Ken Band - Flying Saucer
Flying Saucer may already be Crazy Ken Band's 14th album, but the 12-member band – led by Yokoyama Ken – remains as funky as ever. Influenced by bossa nova, 70s psychedelic rock, big band music and even enka, Flying Saucer is the perfect summertime drive album, even though its long 21-song track list can leave some exhausted by the end. If you can't make it through the entire album in one go, don't miss the five-minute instrumental saga UFO Boogie and movie theme song Ma, Iiya.



KinKi Kids - L Album
Apart, KinKi Kids surprise with solo music projects outside of the idol box. Together, they're the best bet for harmonized pop that stands the test of time, which is exactly what this album offers at double the usual quantity. L's two discs themed around "Love" and "Life" are each strong enough to be standalone albums. "Love" covers the reliable staples of moving love songs and uptempo pop with the Tamaki Koji-penned ballad Muku no Hane leading the way. Taking a slight edge, "Life" cruises on down-to-earth medium-tempo numbers with Okuda Tamio's Speed setting a carefree tone.



KyaryPamyuPamyu - Nanda Collection
KyaryPamyuPamyu is not a great vocalist, but her music may be some of the most deliriously catchy pop music you will ever hear. The model-turned-pop star's second album is another dizzying trip into the world of bubble gum-flavored techno-pop with Nakata Yasutaka as your guide. You only need one listen before you'll be walking around the streets with the refrain of Fashion Monster or Ninjari Banban swimming in your head.



Perfume - LEVEL3
LEVEL3 may be Perfume's first album with Universal Music, which launched a global promotional campaign for the dance trio this year, but fans should appreciate that producer Nakata Yasutaka continued to deliver everything that fans love about the group without deviating from the hit formula. Featuring addictive techno-pop hits like Spring of Life, 1mm and Spending All My Time, LEVEL3 shows that it's time for the world to meet Perfume.



Sakanaction - sakanaction
Sakanaction's self-titled album doesn't reach the heights of their last album, but it's nonetheless an immensely interesting and varied release from the idiosyncratic band. Just listen to the genius in Inori's blending of gospel choir with drum and bass, or the throbbing implosion of beats in Boil. The album's mellow and trippy loop of electronic, rock, alternative, new wave and pop overflows with sounds and dramatics, but all the tracks merge into one light and lulling listen.



Shiina Ringo - Ukina
Musicians are often most interesting when they go outside their boxes and work with musicians from other genres. The same applies for Shiina Ringo, who jumps from punk rock to electropop to acid jazz in one single album. Shiina is so versatile in this special 15th anniversary release that even a Burt Bacharach-penned ballad seems to fit well here. Other notable collaborators on the album include Zazen Boys, the Saito Neko Quartet and Towa Tei.



SOIL& "PIMP" SESSIONS - Circles
The latest album by SOIL& "PIMP" SESSIONS starts with an announcement that "this is a journey into jazz," beginning a wild musical journey that shows how far jazz has evolved in the year 2013. Working with musicians like rapper Rhymester, Fukuhara Miho, Miyavi and Bonnie Pink, the band infuses their signature style of acid jazz into a wide range of genres, from hip-hop to dubstep. Circles is simply one of the most entertaining albums of the year.



Yuzu - LAND
This LAND of ours is the inspiration for Yuzu's latest album, and the result is some of their most upbeat and uptempo songs yet. The duo's heartening folk and guitar pop numbers, notably REASON and Mata Ashita, brim with positive energy and hopeful messages. And then they add the circus cheer for some surprising pop blends that go beyond their usual folksy sound. The best is Moonlight Parade which delightfully runs through a whole musical's worth of theatrically jovial sounds and transitions.






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Published December 31, 2013


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