Introduction by Azzief Khaliq. Contributions from Fikri Fadzil, Izza Khaleeda, Aqqashah Rahim, Cheryl Lee Yesudas and Azzief Khaliq.
2016 had something for everyone. And by “something”, we mostly mean reasons to be angry, depressed and potentially quite displeased with the state of the world. Take your pick: the list of celebrity deaths that reads like a who’s who of cultural titans of the past half-century or so; the ongoing conflict in Syria, its attendant refugee crisis and knee-jerk reactions of hate and intolerance; Trump’s victory and the unnerving slide towards the Right going on all across the Occident; and, of course, our own country’s perversely admirable slide deeper and deeper into a mess of its own making. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
However, it was a pretty good year for music in general. What role does music have to play in these darker times? It’s hard to say, and it’s certainly not a question we have time to discuss right now, but there might just be something to the old chestnut of dark times producing great music. Regardless, it’s definitely been a very stacked year internationally, with much to think about and enjoy: potentially career-best albums from artists such as The Body, Croatian Amor, Nails and Skepta; long-awaited new albums from big names like Radiohead, Suede, Bon Iver and Frank Ocean; triumphant final works from Bowie and Cohen; as well as the rise of impassioned, politically-charged (American) pop music that tackles topics such as race and sexuality and the intersection of both, as well as the very public institutional uses and abuses of power that have taken place in America over the past 12 months.
This is, of course, the most cursory of overviews of what went on in music in 2016, but this is neither the time nor the place for a truly in-depth retrospective, particularly given our much more humble focus on the music of Southeast Asia. If you’re keen on a list that encompasses many of the trends we saw in global music in 2016, we heartily recommend checking out The Quietus’ albums of the year list.
Closer to home, it’s hard to escape feeling that it hasn’t been a vintage year for local (and perhaps even regional) music, to the point where trying to come up with a confident, surefire list of top-tier material can feel like grasping at straws. Hujan and Bittersweet disappointed, Muck ended a roughly 20-year wait for a debut album with a bit of a damp squib, and overall there just weren’t that many standout albums across the board, regardless of scene or genre. Even the ever-busy DIY punk scene seems to have had a slightly slow year, although we did get a couple of strong releases in the form of Losst’s demo and Bad Idea’s Buy or Fuck Off!
For this list, we decided to go with personal picks from some of the individuals who’ve been working at The Wknd Sessions over the past 12 months, mostly because it would have taken us too much time to sit down and agree upon a top 10 due to our often quite varying tastes and interests. This will probably disappoint those looking for a definitive top 10 or something of the sort, but we feel that this format is closer to what The Wknd Sessions is like behind the scenes, with the benefit of also being a lot easier to put together. For releases that more than one of us selected, we included a second opinion in italics. A bit unconventional, perhaps, but we think it works fine. We also made the possibly debatable decision to not differentiate between albums, EPs and demos.
So here it is, an always-already-wrong collection of some of our favourite regional releases from 2016. We sincerely hope you enjoyed the past five or six months’ worth of editorial, video and audio content, and here’s to another year of (hopefully successful) attempts at being interesting.
Forests – Sun Eat Moon Grave Party
(SG, Lithe Records)
2016 was the year that Singapore, of all places, became one of the major hubs of the so-called “emo revival” in the region, with Forests, Tapestry and Caulfield Cult all releasing solid albums that each offered a different take on that dirty three letter word. Forests take the cake, though, with their properly catchy and anthemic sound that mixes equal parts math-rock and 90s midwest emo. If names like Cap’n Jazz and Q and Not U get you excited, then this is the album for you. Anthems for the heartbroken and those who like to pretend they are. Which, let’s be honest, is probably most of us.
Senyawa – Brønshøj (Puncak)
Senyawa have been one of the most interesting and best bands out of the region ever since they emerged, and this new album further cements that status. They push the boat even further out on Brønshøj, with its focus on extended, droning, and far less percussive, compositions. The album also features some electronics and heavier-than-usual processing, which takes the combination of Wukir’s one-of-a-kind bambu wukir and Rully’s masterful vocal prowess to a whole new level. Brønshøj is evidence of a creatively restless duo that’s constantly seeking to add new styles to their sonic palette, and in a region that’s somewhat less encouraging of efforts to improve and and innovate than I would like, that’s certainly something to applaud.
Voidnaga – Demo MMXVI
(MY, Iron Bonehead Productions)
I’ll get it out of the way right now: yes, this was released on Iron Bonehead Productions, one of the finest metal labels and distros out there (and a personal favourite of mine), but there’s more to this pick than just the novelty of a Malaysian band being on such a prestigious label. Voidnaga’s debut is, by all accounts, a great demo that offers up a solid and suffocating slab of black/doom/death metal with no unnecessary frills or frippery. Admittedly, such conservatism means that it might not be something that will truly be remembered years from now, but in the here and now it’s definitely one of the most striking releases from Malaysian metal this year. Very interested to hear what main man Adlan has in store for us next.
Ali Aiman – Circles
The thing that I like the most about Circles is that even though the songs all generally mine the same vein of dark, late-night electropop (“Right About Now” being the exception: that track is danceable, upbeat and very heavily synthesised), Ali Aiman manages to make sure that they all stand apart from each other and don’t just blend into one. Overall, Circles mines a similar vibe to acts such as +2dB and Pastel Lite, that sort of cool electropop vibe. I live for Ali Aiman’s drone-y voice, it really makes the whole album.
Juno and Hanna – Air
Hanna’s airy, almost saccharine vocals and the dark, mellow tunes complement each other very well, giving the EP a very dreamy, haunting vibe. The tracks do get a bit repetitive, but Hanif’s creative use of layering makes the tracks sound fuller and gives the EP some “body”. It’s definitely worth listening to if you’re into dreamy synthpop stuff. It’s one of those albums that’s perfect for those nights when you’re driving alone with the windows down.
Mutesite – Re:start
This is a really solid debut. Mutesite present a a very energetic atmosphere on Re:start, with upbeat tracks and adorable musical nuances present throughout. Collectively, the songs successfully introduce and bring out the band’s character. Maybe the production quality could’ve been slightly better because it doesn’t quite manage to exude that sense of satisfaction you get when listening to post/math rock stuff but the band itself is really solid, especially live. An album that can be enjoyed by the masses, even those who aren’t fans of instrumental music in general.
Lust – Chingichanga
Very refreshing for a Malaysian band. Great mix of psychedelic rock and post-punk on the EP, although the music is let down a bit by the recording and mastering quality.
Cheryl: Everyone’s been talking about this EP this year, and for good reason. The entire EP has so much character. Chingichanga as a debut is a real exhibition of everything they’ve got. I’m very interested to see what the band will come up with next.
Beast Jesus – In Various States of Disassembly
The Philippines is, to me, better known for producing a lot of good electronic music, but Beast Jesus is a bit of an exception to that rule. The band plays a very heavy mix of shoegaze and screamo, with some post-metal here and there, that comfortably leaves all of those Filipino A Day to Remember-alikes in the dust. Great band.
Rohas Remi – Esok Masih Ide
As a videographer, I’ve idolised Space Gambus Experiment’s audio and visual work for a long time, but always felt it hard to recommend them to friends because of how experimental the music can be. This year, though, we were treated to Kamal Sabran collaborating with Rohas Remi to offer an album that’s much easier to listen to and more “human”, even though the compositions are still as challenging as ever.
Rivers: It’s the sort of album that keeps expression ahead of influence. It’s more than just “promising”; it’s great as an album and phenomenal as a debut full length for Rohas Remi.
Bin Idris – Self-Titled
(ID, Orange Cliff Records)
Bin Idris is a solo project by the front man of one of the more (if not the most) exciting psychedelic rock outfits in Indonesia, Sigmun. Bin Idris (Haikal Azizi) doesn’t stray too far away from the psych realm, but infuses a more mellow, dark, and folk-ish stance to his debut self release. The great trick he pulls off here is managing to not go too overboard, keeping the darkness in check with moments of light.
Johny Comes Lately – Ke Mana Kita?
We featured this KL-based ska punk outfit on The Wknd Sessions all the way back in 2011, so this album has definitely been a long time coming. Ke Mana Kita? was worth the wait. Their lyrics are positive, socio-political, and at times downright cheeky, all wrapped up and delivered in a totally sing-along-able fashion, which isn’t an easy feat for Malay lyrics.
Similarobjects – Etheric
(PH, BOTANIC Records)
This just came out this month, so I certainly haven’t been able to really spend a lot of time with it, but even a few initial listens were enough for me to name this as one of my favourites from 2016. Interesting tones and contrasts of styles. Slow moving but immensely satisfying.
Various Artists – SoundLab 2016
Having been conceived and executed in a rainforest retreat by a variety of artists with their own identities and projects outside of this project, this is admittedly a bit of a mixed bag. It’s one of my picks of 2016 not necessarily for consistency across all of the tracks, but for how absolutely exceptional I found some of the tracks to be. I’m not going to tell you which ones though, listen to the whole release and decide for yourself.
Pitahati – Selamat Datang Ke Panggung Suara
(MY, Luncai Emas)
Selamat Datang Ke Panggung Suara displays Pitahati’s creative use of instrumentation on each track, while also incorporating simple hooks so that the album’s all easily received by a wide audience. I think different people will be able to appreciate the album for different reasons, be it the production quality, arrangements or the sing-along-ability that belies the intricacy of the music.
Azzief: The music is pretty good, combining hints of Malay folkisms with their Pink Floyd-influenced sonic palette, but I think that the best thing about Selamat Datang is the presentation of the vinyl release. It gets things right: tasteful design, high-quality printing, a proper gatefold, printed inner sleeves, the works. Great-sounding vinyl pressing too. Personally, this is the album I’ll be judging local vinyl releases against for the foreseeable future.
The Trees and the Wild – Zaman, Zaman
(ID, Blank Orb Recordings)
Zaman, Zaman rewards patient listeners, namely those who appreciate slow, repetitive build ups and long intros. The Trees and the Wild take a dark turn on this album, as many post-rock bands have done recently. They express themselves with a full range of emotions and as usual, a full range of dynamics. The contrast between Charita Utami’s breathy, gentle vocals and the band’s aggressive rhythms (as well as Remedy’s voice) really adds a lot to the music. It’s a bit of a common trick in post-rock, but it’s executed very well here.
Gym and Swim – Sea Sick
(TH, Parinam Music)
Gym and Swim certainly took their time releasing Sea Sick: they released 3 singles off the album over the last two years, so this album is definitely overdue. There’s not much to say about this album apart from the fact that it will put a smile on your face. It’s definitely one of the most enjoyable releases I’ve heard this year.
Adam Kasturi – Camo (MY, BOTANIC Records)
Bad Idea – Buy or Fuck Off! (MY, Self-released)
The Caulfield Cult – Cult (SG, Various labels)
Losst – Demo ‘16 (MY, Self-released / GLord Records)
Lurkgurl – D~A~N~G~L~E (MY, Self-released)
Malapetaka – Lawless Perdition (MY, Self-released)
Orang – Everyone EP (MY, BOTANIC Records)
Tapestry – I Hope You Never Find Me (SG, Various labels)
Tomgirl – Self-Titled (SG, Deer Island Records)
Wormrot – Voices (SG, Earache Records)