Pop idol “reality” shows have proven to be the new launching ground for Taiwan’s rising Mando-pop stars, several of whom are included in the Taipei Times’ list of best CDs of 2009. On the indie and folk music front, Aboriginal and post-rock sounds represent some of the best releases of the year.
But one steady figure in mainstream Taiwanese music made the final cut. Pop A-mei’s (張惠妹) latest album, A-mit (阿密特, also the name of her onstage alter-ego), into the CD player and the first thing that greets you is a barrage of Metallica-like wall of drums and guitars. A-mei is rocking out big time, and while Open the Door, See the Mountain (開門見山) is not completely convincing as a heavy metal outcry that romance is dead and you should take what you can get, it has the virtue of novelty for Taiwan’s first lady of song.
Fortunately, although A-mei is no Chrissie Hynde or Debbie Harry, she has the performing chops to carry off these forays into angst and cynicism in Black Eats Black (黑吃黑) and Animal Sentimentality After Falling in Love (相愛後動物感傷), even if the bad girl persona is as much of a pose as the ridiculous images of her in a black sequined cat suit that adorn the liner notes. The album is particularly noted for the heavy rock Taiwanese anthem Come if You Dare? (好膽你就來), which is good fun, even if owing a huge debt to Wu Bai (伍佰).
Hsu Chia-ying (徐佳瑩) was one of the boldest and most creative of the alumni from the third season of CTV’s One Million Star (超級星光大道) pop music talent show. The release of her debut album suggests that she might be around for some time. Her song I Ride a White Horse (身騎白馬), which combines teen pop and gezai opera (歌仔戲), has already proved a huge hit securing massive airtime, and has the distinction of achieving a smooth musical and lyrical integration between two very different forms, a feat that has confounded many more experienced artists.
The chorus of I Ride a White Horse, sung in Taiwanese, references not just a classical heritage, but also, whether intentionally or not, its glitzy, kitschy manifestation of televised golden light puppets. It is romantic, heroic, just a tad tongue-in-cheek, and totally self-assured.
At just 24, Hsu has emerged as a talented musician in the Mando-pop mainstream, and one who is no stranger to the commercial possibilities of a catchy tune. The final track on the album My Door’s Not Locked (沒鎖門) was commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the MSN chat service, and for all its marketing functionality, is a remarkably appealing bit of bubblegum pop, down to MSN sound effects and online slang. Hsu is definitely someone to watch.
Jam Hsiao’s (蕭敬騰) new album LOVE Moments
(愛的時刻自選輯) is a cover album which consists exclusively of ballads originally made famous by female singers. Hsiao, also an alumnus of One Million Star, makes each track his own with his idiosyncratic phrasing and slightly off-key notes at the end of each sentence.
Tackling A-mei’s (張惠妹) Remember (記得), Hsiao turns a heart-wrenching mourner into an empowering anthem with soaring vocals. He turns Full Bloom to Decadence (開到茶靡), a quirky rock ballad by the equally quirky diva Faye Wong (王菲), into a jazz-infused reflection on the whimsical nature of love. Few cover albums are as delicious as this one.
To little surprise, the Nanwan Sisters (南王姐妹花) won the Best Aboriginal Album Award at this year’s Golden Melody Awards for their debut Nanwan Sisters, Honey Voices (南王姐妹花 中古美少女篇). But this trio of singers from Taitung also earned well-deserved recognition in the more general category of Best Singing Group, which more often goes to mainstream Mando-pop acts.
The album title indeed says it all. Together, Samingad (李諭芹, not to be confused with 紀曉君), Lavaus (陳惠琴) and I-hua (徐美花) make harmonies that are sweet and sublime, and each singer also proves to be skillful on her own. Award-winning producer and musician Pau-dull (陳建年) shaped this collection of gentle, traditional Puyuma songs, drawing from a variety of contemporary Western folk and New Age sounds to provide the backdrop for the Sisters. Yet the music comes across as unique and timeless.
Several releases that caught the attention of folk and world music fans included Lin Sheng-xiang’s (林生祥) Growing Up Wild ((野生), which centered on stories of women in contemporary Taiwanese farming communities, and A Moving Sound’s Starshine, the latest from this pan-Asian/worldbeat group, which features the alluring voice of Mia Hsieh (謝韻雅).
Indie rock in Taiwan only gets better. This year saw some polished releases from fledging bands like Orangegrass (澄草) and The White Eyes (白目樂團), while veterans of the scene 1976 and Tizzy Bac came out with their most mature work to date. But one album that we keep revisiting is Hsi Pan Jie’s (錫盤街) Needing Dimensions.
Masterminded by Huang Wan-ting (黃晼婷) of the beloved and now-defunct girl punk group Ladybug, this release nicely balances punk-inspired noise with compositional flair. The title track follows a common post-rock structure — build the song into a tower of distortion — but the band manages a captivating melodic theme beneath the tune’s ear-piercing veneer and Huang’s guitar work is inspired. 195 displays the band’s speed and agility, while the exuberant New Magicians shows that post-rock, or whatever one might call this instrumental music, can have soul and personality.
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