Gym and Swim – “Surfin’ Baby”
After a quiet two year hiatus, Thailand’s Gym and Swim made a triumphant return this October with “Surfin’ Baby”, a surf-inspired indie pop song filled to the brim with wavy synths and an expansive chorus so catchy that it’ll pop up in your head at the most unexpected of times (I speak from experience). Even after hundreds of listens, Gym and Swim’s cryptic lyrics still haunts me. What does a “melon monster revenge” mean, and why is the quintet singing about being “under a Chinese basement”? These are the kinds of things that I think about late at night.
But perhaps there’s a method to the madness–the lyrics are nonsensical enough to make “Surfin’ Baby” remain more memorable than those of their musical peers (like Grouplove or Smallpools)–not that they needed strange lyrics to make themselves stand out to begin with. Put “Surfin’ Baby” into your newest alternative rock mix and it’ll fit right in.
We might never know what Gym and Swim are singing about, but good luck getting the image of a “melon monster revenge” out of your head.
Haley Heynderickx – “Oom Sha La La”
Is it possible to make one of the most meaningful songs of the year centered around four meaningless sounds? Ask Portland-based folk-songwriter Haley Heynderickx, since she’s done the impossible. “Oom Sha La La”, the lead single off of the folk singer’s debut album I Need To Start A Garden, is ironically an exercise in storytelling built on the back of those four words in the title.
When she’s not Oom-sha-la-la-ing, Heynderickx is a pensive storyteller. She lays her fears out in the open, penning deeply personal lyrics like “And I’ve been doubtful / of all that i have dreamed of / The brink of my existence is essentially a comedy” and self-chastising ones like “If you don’t go outside, well nothing’s gonna happen / She’ll never write your name on a crumpled up napkin”.
Halfway through the song, “Oom Sha La La” shifts to a mood more fervent than pessimistic. In the climax, Heynderickx announces that she’s going to change her life using the metaphor of “starting a garden”, building the song to a crescendo that leads to an epiphanic yell. It’s out of character for the usually soft-talking Heynderickx, but it’s one of the most passionate moments that I’ve heard in music this year.
Hana Vu – “Crying on the Subway”
At only 17 years old, Hana Vu has already accomplished so much despite only being in high school. Boasting an impressive discography that dates all the way back to 2014, the LA-based artist released her EP How Many Times Have You Driven By this year to acclaim from many major music publications like Gorilla vs Bear, Pitchfork, and TheFader–launching her into the indie spotlight. “Crying on the Subway”, the EP’s opener, is the best of the singles that she’s released so far.
Age aside, Vu’s lead single holds up on its own against other releases of the year. “Crying on the Subway” is blackened dream pop, championing a darker sound than most other DIY artists starting out. Vu complements her mix well with her low singing voice, further pulling you into her shadowy headspace. The song’s titular subject holds at its core a sadness that Vu effortlessly brings out through her DIY production. But there’s some bright color in the mix–contrasting against the slinking beats, reverberating guitars lift the track out from the depths and promises a hopeful conclusion to her sadness.
Vu has done the impossible: making the act of “crying on the subway” seem implicitly cool. Add that to her neverending list of accomplishments.
harunemuri – “kick in the world”
How can you categorize Japanese artist harunemuri’s music (Haru Nemuri)? Her song “kick in the world” is perhaps a good sampler of her eclectic musical style, throwing distorted elements of J-POP, rap, electronica, and rock into one song and creating a hurricane of sound.
“kick in the world” can only be described as epic. From the second you press play, Nemuri raps in Japanese at a lightning pace, coolly reciting poetic verses like second nature. All of a sudden, the clouds roll in, and a wall of sound made up of screeching guitar notes hits you like a crashing wave. There’s no time to recover: now backed by her band, “kick in the world” builds to a catastrophic, sea-parting conclusion before ending on a trailing, looping note.
With emotionally hard-hitting Japanese lyrics like “I realized I was loved at every blink of my eyes / Coming and going between death and birth” and “I break into a run / Looking up at the night sky where the tears from your eyes are scattered all around”, “kick in the world” is a chaotic ode to life and love, reminding us how great it is to feel alive.
IU – “BBIBBI”
Ten years after starting her career as a Korean pop star, IU is still going strong. It’s become a widely accepted fact that most South-Koreans are fans of hers, even unofficially giving her the loving title of “Korea’s little sister”. So on the day of her ten-year anniversary of being the public eye, what does IU do but release her newest song “BBIBBI”–one ironically about personal boundaries and keeping yourself separated from others. But that didn’t seem to deter her overly affectionate fanbase. At the time of its release, “BBIBBI” scored a rare Perfect All Kill–a murdery way to say that the single hit number one on Korea’s real time, daily, and hourly charts simultaneously.
As IU’s only alternative R&B song to date, “BBIBBI” signals a shift away from the piano-heavy ballads that took up most of last year’s Palette and towards a more laid-back pop approach. “BBIBBI” uses lopsided beats and unconventional sounds–tongue clicks, for example–to compose a song that seems cobbled together yet cohesive. Don’t let IU’s charming voice fool you–she’s chiding her listener with sneering lyrics like “Yellow C-A-R-D” and “Hello STU-P-I-D”.
“BBIBBI” is refreshingly original for an industry that pushes out copycats all the time. Ten years later, who knows what IU’s going to release next?
Jasmine Sokko – “HURT”
If I had to pick one artist that will make it big in the EDM/dance scene in the next few years, that designation would have to go to singer-songwriter / producer Jasmine Sokko. Singapore’s mysterious visor-wearing artist has a knack for composing (and singing!) fun pop songs that will make you hit the dance floor hard, while lyrically also hitting close to home.
On “HURT”, Sokko writes about the frustration that she’s experienced from miscommunication, and how sometimes hurting the other person back in the same way can be the only thing on your mind. Sokko’s lyrics are painfully relatable and filled with self-awareness, since at one point she admits that she knows that what she’s thinking is wrong. It’s one of Sokko’s many talents–turning petty revenge lyrics like “Baby I am sorry / I just want to hurt you back!” into a booming sing-along chorus that makes it one of the most memorable of the year.
Jay Park – “Yacht (ft. Vic Mensa)”
[USA / South Korea]
Jay Park—the popular South Korean hip-hop and R&B artist—is originally from Seattle, but has come to a successful career in the South Korean entertainment industry. Exuding a naturally cool style and presence, Jay Park is also impressively the CEO and founder of independent label AOMG.
The third single off his Ask Bout Me EP, “Yacht” is Park’s trendy song about essentially buying a yacht to impress a girl. Full of Westernized retro beats and rap sections, “Yacht” gives off major summer and beach vibes. This time around, Park’s version of the song features verses by Vic Mensa while the 2017 version features Korean rapper Sik-K.
Park proves that yacht shopping doesn’t have to be a stuffy chore reserved for country club elites–“Yacht” is hypebeast millionaire music for a new generation. – Emily Gu
Jay Som – “Pirouette”
Jay Som (Melina Duterte) is one of my favorite DIY artists in the music industry right now. Her sophomore album, 2017’s Everybody Works, is a bedroom pop masterpiece–quickly establishing a sonically warm and dreamy sound that has become Duterte’s signature calling card. She’s a one-person band: mixing, singing, producing, and writing every one of her songs on her own. Duterte is also a prominent member of her local music scene, getting involved with local artists for collaborative efforts like the friendship-affirming Nothing’s Changed EP which she released with Justus Proffit this year.
But before that, Duterte released a one-off single called “Pirouette”, a leftover song from her previous album cycle. It’s a sort of victory lap for Duterte, since “Pirouette” reminds us why we loved Everybody Works in the first place. There they are again: Duterte’s endearing vocals, the warm production, and the dreamy style. “Ah-ah-ah backwards again” is the song’s sweeping chorus, effortlessly becoming lodged in your head.
But on “Pirouette”, Duterte decides to structure the track around three discordant notes that stick out amongst the fog. Although it’s a small detail, it’s a sign that Duterte’s trying some new things–just like how ”My World My Rules” from Nothing’s Changed EP saw the artist pushing her production skills to new territories. Though Duterte’s got her style down pat, “Pirouette” signals even more exciting changes to come.
Joji – “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK”
There is a lot happening in Joji’s music video for “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” that draws attention and introspection–everything from its symbolic faun slaying to its excessively bloody conclusion begs for further analysis.
But put simply, Joji’s song is about a loved one that he seems unable to reach. The “dancing in the darkness” is an apt metaphor for the uncertainty of where a relationship is heading, especially when one person doesn’t know that they want. In other words, “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” is peak sadboi.
Full of dark ambient music and cathartic releases (“DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARK”), this is one ballad that will stick with you long after it’s over. –Emily Gu
JVNA – “I’m With You”
What does JVNA (Jana) not do? From being a Twitch streamer, Youtuber, to an up-and-coming DJ/electronic producer, JVNA can best be summed as a modern Renaissance woman of the digital age. Her most recent release, “I’m With You” is definitely a tear-jerking banger that will make you break out crying mid-dance at your next EDM rave.
Inspired by her father who had passed away 2 years ago, “I’m With You” is a touching tribute, keeping the memory of him alive through uplifting melodies. – Clarissa Aben
Li-Wei Chu is a recent graduate from UC Davis who majored in Cinema and Digital Media who also briefly studied film at Queen Mary, University of London. Li-Wei is obsessed with horror films (especially the ones that give him nightmares), films from East Asia, and really, any film that makes you stop and think.
He loves talking about film and indie music with others. He’s also a record collector and cross-stitches when he has free time. In the future, he hopes to be able to write about film and wants to find a job in the film industry that can support his record buying habits. Maybe one day he’ll also be able to play the guitar.