The 25 best Asian albums of 2021
Written by ABR on 24/12/2021
As I write this, both the Philippines and Malaysia are reeling from extreme weather – the former from Super Typhoon Rai (or Odette), which has killed over 300 so far, and the latter from flooding, caused by torrential rains, that have displaced tens of thousands of people.
It’s a harrowing way to end an already exhausting year defined by protracted separation and what feels like never-ending variants of the coronavirus. But it’s also been heartening to see, now and in the past months, people rally around disaster relief and find light – and humour, especially if you’re a TikTok user – in the darkness.
What a bleak, sobering way to begin a music list! But art isn’t made in a vacuum, as some of these 25 records make crystal clear – from the Calix’s bloodstained ‘Crash And Burn’ EP to Pyra’s political pop to No Good’s Kelantanese ‘Punk Gong’ anthems. That said, we and plenty of others have also been captivated by releases that circled timeless, universal topics like love, youth and interiority.
Here is NME’s list of the best albums and EPs to come out of Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, this year. We hope you’ll find something that will bring you comfort – or a jolt of excitement – as we see out this particularly joyless year.
Karen Gwee, Regional Editor (APAC)
Words: Adrian Yap, Aldus Santos, Azzief Khaliq, Carmen Chin, Chanun Poomsawai, Daniel Peters, Felix Martua, JX Soo, Karen Gwee, Khyne Palumar, Marcel Thee, Michael Beltran, Ng Su Ann, PJ Caña, Rhian Daly, Sofiana Ramli, Surej Singh, Tanu I. Raj and Tássia Assis
25. Sekaranggi, ‘Delapan’
Most artists make romance marketable. Sekaranggi, however, decided to make it philosophical. Inspired by the number eight and how it symbolises circularity and dualism, her sophomore effort ‘Delapan’ explores romance, yes, but also déjà vu, the passage of time and unending cycles.
- READ MORE: Sekaranggi: Indonesian folk artist drops the “lovey-dovey stuff” to explore dualism and circularity
For every joyful track, there’s a somber melodrama, the folk singer-songwriter’s calm alto implying that she has foreseen it all. ‘Delapan’ also showcases the Jakarta native’s development as a producer and songwriter as she employs sparse lyricism and a hushed ambience. And when she loops the album’s closer into its opening track, the haunting themes of ‘Delapan’ are made manifest. FM
Key track: ‘Berteduh, Berlabuh’
24. Ichu, ‘Ini Kisah Benar’
When it comes to albums, the third time was the charm for Malaysian rapper-producer Ichu. Where on his previous records he leaned on Auto-Tuned rap and trap, on ‘Ini Kisah Benar’ he serves up multiplicity with a shapeshifting swagger: apocalyptic instrumentals, jazz-hop, even nasheed synthesised into an almost-genreless style. Over all this, Ichu reckons with anxiety, paranoia and unrequited love, beginning a slow, steady trudge towards self-acceptance.
“Penat asik dah penat,” he begins the project with weariness: “Tired of being tired”. Yet, what animates the album is catharsis – the sound of Ichu finally free from the prison of heartbreak, built by the other but propped up by the self. NSA
Key track: ‘P+L’
23. Pamungkas, ‘Solipsism 0.2’
The last two years indoors have forced musicians to rethink their artistic process – including Pamungkas, a studio maverick who took the forced slowdown as an opportunity to reconsider what music-making means to him.
- READ MORE: How Pamungkas beat burnout and reclaimed his love for music
The Indonesian singer-songwriter has called ‘Solipsism 0.2’ not a rework of his 2020 album but a “new colour”. The album bursts with moods that swing from despondent to joyful, balancing baroque pop grandeur with an ear for classic R&B showmanship. ‘Solipsism 0.2’ sees an artist undergoing a restorative process of self-actualisation in a year of turbulence. It’s music that refuses to stop feeling. DP
Key track: ‘Be Okay Again Today’
22. Lee Hi, ‘4 Only’
From: South Korea
One of K-pop’s finest vocalists continues to deliver with one of the most cohesive records the genre has to offer this year. As singer, songwriter and producer, Lee Hi not only returns to her roots in R&B and soul, but also offers her listeners a taste of what’s to come with a smorgasbord of musical styles. Whether it’s retro bops (‘Red Lipstick’) to ballads that tug at your heartstrings (‘ONLY’), they’re all moulded with love and passion for her music. Lee Hi makes it abundantly clear through ‘4 Only’ that in the five-year gap between records, she has continued to hone and perfect her craft. CC
Key track: ‘Red Lipstick’ featuring Yoon Mi-rae
21. BGourd, ‘Veggie Wraps, Vol. 3’
BGourd’s third EP is a free-wheeling fever dream, but given the Singaporean rapper’s surreal, vegetal persona, there’s probably no compliment more fitting. Over luminous, left-field sonics produced by Beansprouts, the green phenom thrives in genre-busting chaos. Whether it be urgent proclamations over deconstructed club (‘Robbing Breath’) or Bloc Party-like punk abrasion (‘Whack’), the duo power through with unbridled energy and utter conviction.
In a year dominated by fatigued confusion, ‘Veggie Wraps Vol. 3’’s glorious adventure feels refreshingly poignant. BGourd sums up the magic on the hypnagogic ‘Virtual Machine’: “Virtuoso, next to the boom-bap dynamite / S-tier bonafide style.” JXS
Key track: ‘Virtual Machine’
20. The Buildings, ‘Heaven Is A Long Exhale’
From: The Philippines
The best way to experience The Buildings was live, shitfaced, or while nursing a hangover. That’s, of course, when the band were still playing devil-may-care shows at Mow’s, a Quezon City rock dive nestled under a 24/7 dimsum place. The next best way is through their records, the second of which, ‘Heaven is a Long Exhale,’ came out in June.
- READ MORE: The Buildings: “At the end of the day we’re making music we like, which has always been our north star”
There’s a palpable difference between ‘Heaven’ and their debut ‘Cell-O-Phane’, and it isn’t that they’ve eschewed old loves like Pavement, Guided By Voices, or dirt pedals in general. Rather, the band have become more deliberate in their studio work: shifting roles, making room for silence, exploring dream pop – to quote vocalist Mariah Reodica waxing poetic about her heroes, “doing things that aren’t supposed to work but do.” AS
Key track: ‘Caricatures’
19. Reese Lansangan, ‘Time Well Spent’
From: The Philippines
Reese Lansangan’s whip-smart lyrics and zippy acoustic hooks were what made her stick out when she broke into the scene in 2016 – but they also risked boxing her into the “quirky singer-songwriter” stereotype, a tag which grossly understates what she’s capable of.
- READ MORE: Reese Lansangan: “The best way to affect people is to be authentic to myself first”
‘Time Well Spent’, Lansangan’s gorgeously produced and tightly written sophomore LP, is the latest testament to her evolving artistry. The 54-minute record sees Lansangan updating her arsenal of clapbacks while deftly flitting through a catalogue of raw emotions: heartbreak, fear, uncertainty, and occasionally, unapologetic joy. KP
Key track: ‘What Is This Feeling?’
18. Tilly Birds, ‘It’s Gonna Be OK’
After experimenting with various shades of rock early on in their career, Tilly Birds finally found their sonic sweet spot with the fusion of R&B, indie rock and synthpop. This amalgamation of genres led to the breakthrough success of their 2020 debut LP ‘Puu Diew’ and continues to underpin this year’s follow-up ‘It’s Gonna Be OK’.
From the MILLI-assisted opener ‘Just Being Friendly’ to ‘Can’t Keep Up’ and ‘Baggage’, the Thai trio pair sprightly guitars with vocal harmonies and sing-along pop hooks with ease. Elsewhere, indie rock hues add an electrifying edge to ‘I’m Not Boring, You’re Just Bored’ and ‘Send You Off,’ rounding off the album with swagger. CP
Key track: ‘Can’t Keep Up’
17. aespa, ‘Savage’
From: South Korea
Straight from the year 3000, K-pop girl group aespa have made their mark with their laser-sharp debut mini-album, ‘Savage’, each of its six tracks an essential and eccentric gem.
aespa celebrate hyperpop wilderness (‘aenergy’, ‘Savage’), hunt for grimy revenge (‘I’ll Make You Cry’) and push the boundaries of reality with ethereal synths (’Lucid Dream’) so fiercely and deftly that it’s impossible not to be carried along. ‘Savage’ refuses to tread the main road, instead fiercely creating its own – all in line with the group’s intricate, A.I.-filled lore. Here’s a little something to make you believe in the future again. TA
Key track: ‘Savage’
16. Calix, ‘Crash And Burn’
From: The Philippines
Calix’s ‘Crash And Burn’ EP is perfect for an era in which we seem to discover new ways to be frustrated and outraged by the hour. This concept EP flaunts canny pop sensibilities and sticky hooks, adding an alluring polish that doesn’t neuter the rapper-producer’s explosive music: On the ultraviolent ‘K.A.C.’, Calix turns the phrase “Ubusin mga parak” (“Wipe out the cops”) into a battle cry.
- READ MORE: Calix: “Action can bring change. Art? I don’t know about that”
At five songs, ‘Crash And Burn’ is but a bite-sized offering from the indie veteran – but it’s still a uniformly impressive release and a must-hear. MB
Key track: ‘K.A.C.’
15. Pyra, ‘fkn bad Pt. 1’
As Pyra, Peeralada Sukawat is all about colour and bombast (take the penis-shaped hairdo she showed off in the music video for ‘Yellow Fever’). But the socially aware artist isn’t interested in hollow shock value.
- READ MORE: Pyra: “Being an artist means having the freedom to express myself without any limitations”
‘fkn bad Pt. 1’, the first of two EPs she dropped this year, is a maximalist shindig that manages to confront matters the ‘dystopian pop’ star feels strongly about: from squashing racial tropes and paying tributes to Bangkok’s political activists, to care for the planet and one’s mental health. Pyra smuggles these issues into ridiculously infectious, hip-hop-spiked pop hooks that you’re welcome to dance and shout-sing to. ‘fkn bad’? Quite the opposite. KP
Key track: ‘Yellow Fever’ featuring Ramengvrl and YAYOI DAIMON
14. TXT, ‘The Chaos Chapter: Freeze’
From: South Korea
For their second full-length album, Tomorrow X Together invite us to join them on their journey as they figured out the importance of love amid the turmoil of youth. They share their voyage in an eclectic manner fitting for a group of Gen Z icons, skipping from euphoric disco-pop (‘Magic’), to electrifying hyperpop (‘Frost’) and bouncy R&B-flecked hip-hop (‘What If I Had Been That PUMA’).
Where they shine brightest, though, is on the album’s angst-exorcising emo moments, venting the frustrations of young love in thundering riffs and massive choruses powerful enough to thaw even the iciest of hearts. RD
Key track: ‘0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)’ featuring Seori
13. Kurimaw, ‘buzo_Omp’
From: The Philippines
When there isn’t the right word to rap with, the brash and beguiling Kurimaw simply makes one up. That’s where the title of his debut EP ‘buzo_Omp’ comes from. It means exactly how it sounds when spoken: to go really fast. It’s a fitting term to capture his rise.
- READ MORE: Kurimaw: Rising rapper strikes a chord with Filipino youth with relatable raps and playful lingo
On stage Kurimaw is prone to strut around, possibly wearing a woman’s tank top, inviting the crowd to collude with him in mischief. Listening to ‘buzo_Omp’, a refreshing project by someone relishing the uncertainty and chaos of youth, feels like witnessing that. MB
Key track: ‘Di Laging Sunday’
12. Noise From Under, ‘Aliquem Alium Internum’
The rapper formerly known simply as Noise returns with a new guise – and every aspect of his music ramped up. Noise From Under’s lyrics on ‘Aliquem Alium Internum’ are direct – biting social criticism that remains bitter even at its most playful – and the songs filled with immediate hooks and crunchy production, not to mention elements of industrial, rap-rock and lo-fi indie.
While the record may not be as cerebral as the Carl Jung-referencing title suggests, ‘Aliquem Alium Internum’ is a clear step forward for the rapper, broadening and pushing all the best parts of his musical persona without many missteps. MT
Key track: ‘YOLO’ featuring Laze
11. Cayenne, ‘Cayenne’
This year, Celine Autumn of Singaporean indie pop trio Sobs stepped out of her comfort zone and embraced hyper-pop in all of its glory. As Cayenne, she’s released a unique debut EP that sees her dip her toes into dizzying post-internet pop while leaving the door open to experiment with other genres in the future.
- READ MORE: Cayenne: Sobs frontwoman makes post-internet pop in sweet and spicy solo project
From the kaleidoscopic sonics of ‘Drivin’ Away’ to the subdued yet passionate chorus of ‘Centrefold’ – co-produced by Sobs’ Jared Lim – Cayenne melds heartbreak with unapologetically fun music, basking in the freedom to carve out her own musical identity. SS
Key track: ‘Fav Treat’
10. Senyawa, ‘Alkisah’
Abandon all hope ye who enter here: Senyawa’s ‘Alkisah’ is an apocalyptic concept album, a cracked mirror held up to a civilisation burning, collapsing in on itself, the end of all things.
- READ MORE: Senyawa: Indonesian experimentalists detach and decentralise with new album ‘Alkisah’
The Indonesian experimentalists chant, howl and snarl on this odyssey narrated by devilish ringmasters at death’s door. ‘Alkisah’ is a nightmarish soundscape punctuated by cataclysmic strings, clattering percussion and seething waves of distortion. All these and more come together in a dramatic, devastating, triumphant eight-song record that marks a decade of Senyawa. This is the way the world ends: not with a whimper but with a bang. NSA
Key track: ‘Istana’
9. Lomba Sihir, ‘Selamat Datang di Ujung Dunia’
“Welcome to the edge of the world!” the indie rock band Lomba Sihir practically roar at listeners at the start of their debut album ‘Selamat Datang di Ujung Dunia’, as if they were grim reapers welcoming their guests to the infernal. This indie rock sextet – which started as the live band of Hindia – dedicate their first studio project to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, which, in this a warts-and-all portrait, promises career prospects and lung disease in equal measure.
- READ MORE: Lomba Sihir: Indie supergroup’s debut is a tribute to Jakarta in all its chaotic glory
As ‘Selamat Datang di Ujung Dunia’ progresses, however, Lomba Sihir’s home city becomes less of a hellscape and more like an old flame – the one who leaves bittersweet memories and hard-earned lessons in her wake. FM
Key track: ‘Hati dan Paru-Paru’
8. Key, ‘Bad Love’
From: South Korea
When an album has Key’s name on it, you already know it’s going to be unique, grandiose, a little bit avant-garde and unexpectedly complex. In ‘Bad Love’, however, the SHINee member has crafted an album that’s so unapologetically him that every repeat listen unveils new details about both the artist and the album.
- READ MORE: SHINee’s Key on new solo mini-album ‘Bad Love’: “I finally became ‘me’”
‘Bad Love’ comes steeped in sparkles, sass and surprising softness. From the ’70s-inspired sci-fi visuals, to the David Bowie-inspired costumes, to the reimagination of retro and disco sounds, ‘Bad Love’ is a exhilarating celebration of not just an entire era of pop culture, but also a man who has finally found his voice. TIR
Key track: ‘Helium’
7. TangBadVoice, ‘Not A Rapper’
TangBadVoice made our best Asian albums list last year for his ‘No One Plays With Me’ EP. But unlike his viral offering, on this full-length debut he inches away from gag-based rap to zero in on satiric social commentary, using clever wordplay and nimble flow to mock shady politicians, misogynist rappers and even the lingering pandemic.
What’s even more impressive is his ability to weave a cohesive narrative that ranges from topical (‘Wad Reu Vid’, ‘Mak Pang’) to downright meta (‘Jit-ta-pad’, ‘Lin Tid Fai’). Delivered with the kind of self-assurance that betrays the record’s disclaimer of a title, ‘Not A Rapper’ encapsulates the year that was with biting wit and humor. CP
Key track: ‘Mak Pang’
6. Ben&Ben, ‘Pebble House, Vol. 1: Kuwaderno’
From: The Philippines
The nine members of Ben&Ben decided to live together during the pandemic, partly to keep their respective families safe, and partly to see what they could create while in each other’s faces 24/7. The result is ‘Pebble House, Vol. 1: Kuwardeno’, their second album and a mishmash of genres and styles that – surprisingly – works.
- READ MORE: Full house: Ben&Ben return with their second album and “a multiverse of madness”
There’s indie rock (‘Swimming Pool’), folk (‘Sabel’), and good old-fashioned pop (‘Upuan’), not to mention plenty of guest collaborators – but it’s the poignant, poetic lyrics that reel you in. Exploring themes such as feminism, Pinoy pride, and mental health, ‘Kuwaderno’ is a mature accomplishment from the young stars. PJC
Key track: ‘Lunod’ featuring Zild and Juan Karlos
5. BAP., ‘Momo’s Mysterious Skin’
‘Momo’s Mysterious Skin’ is a charming high-wire act. Not that the album feels that way: it’s a life-affirming experience to ride along with BAP. as he skips through a laundry list of artistic inspirations atop rich, sample-heavy hip-hop productions that touch on everything from ’90s boom bap to stoner rock and bossa nova.
- READ MORE: BAP.: “I wanna make good music that I can listen to all the fucking time”
BAP. (aka Kareem Soenharjo) is excellent on the mic, too, regardless of whether he’s rapping an ode to a partner who “prefers Rothkos over roses” or indulging in charming braggadocio. ‘Momo’s’ is confident, memorable and uplifting; it works on almost every level and is BAP.’s best work yet. AK
Key track: ‘Same Shoes, No Company’
4. Zild, ‘Huminga’
From: The Philippines
Defined by deceptive simplicity and unflinching self-awareness, Zild’s ‘Huminga’ is better than anything he’s ever put out prior, solo or otherwise. The melodies soar, the guitar lines sing, and the straight-arrow arrangements – reminiscent as they are of Macca and David Gates – bear the studiousness of modern bedroom pop.
- READ MORE: On ‘Huminga’, Zild Benitez reintroduces himself: “Now all I have is storytelling and my own memories”
‘Huminga’ has no intellectual baggage but isn’t held down by sap either, as Zild relives an old love through the prosaic details of a broken city (‘Kyusi’) and allegorises the death of a friendship through a road trip that ended before it even began (‘Apat’). If ‘Huminga’ is the new sound of young indie confessionalism, then we’re all ears for its inevitable copycats. AS
Key track: ‘Bungantulog’
3. No Good, ‘Punk Gong’
Malaysian punk band No Good flesh out their sonic universe significantly on their first album ‘Punk Gong’. Tracks such as ‘Gewe Abe’ and ‘Suay’ burn slow enough to be termed ballads but do not make the mistake of assuming the trio have gone soft: ‘Punk Gong’ is, at its Kelantanese heart, still a deeply visceral record.
- READ MORE: No Good: “We’re not traditional people, so why do we have to be traditional punks?”
‘Punk Gong’ offers plenty of pogo-worthy moments to shake your fists to, but the effortless weaving in of reggae and folk elements are proof of a band willing to push themselves to even greater heights of creative prowess. No Good are having a lot of fun railing against the establishment one chord at a time. AY
Key track: ‘Kayaba’
2. IU, ‘Lilac’
From: South Korea
IU loves telling a good coming-of-age story, and on ‘Lilac’, the South Korean singer spins her most significant tale yet: turning 30. Instead of sighing over the loss of youth, IU opts to celebrate her past decade by stepping out of her comfort zone on this wide-ranging album: she teams up with new collaborators (K-hip-hop’s Dean, Penomeco and Woogie are highlights) and experiments with disco pop and reggae. At one point, she even tries her hand at rapping.
But as expected, IU’s strengths lie in ballads and ‘Lilac’ delivers her most breathtaking, if not best ones to date. She reunites with composers Kim Je-hwi and Kim Hee-won, who helmed her 2017 blockbuster ‘Through The Night’, on ‘My Sea’. Boasting a 20-member string ensemble, the song is as grand as the deep blue itself. To top it all off, the high note IU nails on the song’s climax was recorded in one mesmerising, flawless take – a guaranteed goosebump listen each time. SR
Key track: ‘My Sea’
1. Subsonic Eye, ‘Nature Of Things’
When Subsonic Eye released their third album ‘Nature Of Things’ in January 2021, it arrived like a breath of fresh air. After making two albums as a shoegaze band, miring their riffs in reverb and clouding Nur Wahidah’s voice with effects, the Singaporean five-piece entered their fifth year with a drier sound, direct lyrics, and a definitive case that they are one of the best indie rock bands the region had to offer.
Subsonic Eye’s previous records ‘Strawberry Feels’ and ‘Dive Into’, were the output of a band finding themselves and navigating the myriad confusions of youth. On ‘Nature Of Things’, they don’t presume to have found all the answers. But it is the self-assured work of a band who listen intently to their own creative instincts, from open tunings to unadorned vocal melodies, and don’t shy away from addressing the capital-I issues in their own way (‘Consumer Blues’, Unearth’).
- READ MORE: Subsonic Eye: Restless Singaporean indie rockers turn their gaze to the planet
‘Nature Of Things’ takes big swings, like Daniel Borces’ astonishingly addictive guitar lines on ‘Cabin Fever’, Wahidah’s reverent lyricism and unrestrained delivery on ‘Further’ and the band’s breathtaking command of pace and dynamics as exemplified on ‘Fruitcake’ and ‘Unearth’. But it does so with a decided unshowiness, and scatters small pearls to savour along the way, whether it’s the adorable tale of ‘Kaka The Cat’, or Wahidah’s precisely put revelation on ‘Spiral’ that “I’m talking to my own body / Figuring out what’s been amiss.”
That finely calibrated balance of big and small, brilliance and humility – that’s what makes ‘Nature Of Things’ Subsonic Eye’s best album to date, and by NME’s reckoning, the best release to come out of Asia this year. KG
Key track: ‘Fruitcake’
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