From the Intercom: What We Loved in 2023
Let’s not sugarcoat it – 2023 was a tough year for us at the site. Facing burnout and feeling overworked, I, as the editor in chief, decided to put From the Intercom on hold for a few months on an unspoken hiatus. One month turned to two, and two turned into eight. And while that time was well-spent piecing back together the other parts of my life, From the Intercom and its mission kept calling me back. I felt guilt that so many releases passed us by and that we weren’t around to cover it. I chose to turn away. I listened to old songs that I was familiar with and stopped watching new movies. I fell into a deep hole of vinyl obsession and city pop searching – maybe to fill that empty hole in my heart. But I couldn’t shake it – From the Intercom kept calling.
I decided in the end that if From the Intercom were to go out, it shouldn’t end like this. And the more that I thought about it, I thought that From the Intercom shouldn’t go out, period. This was not the time.
I think I’m writing all of the above as a precursor to explain the chaotic list that follows. You’re going to find a barrage of blurbs that I cobbled together describing my favorite albums, songs, and films of 2023 in no particular order. When I was miserable and down, these were the projects that kept me believing in our mission statement. I wasn’t about to let us start our 2024 coverage without at least giving one last shout out to the projects that kept me sane throughout a stressful year. I asked our gaming editor Justin Ricafort to do the same.
This time around, this is it for our 2023 coverage – here’s what we loved last year. We’re going to move onwards and upwards. Hope you’ll stick around to watch us fly. -Li-Wei Chu
Special thanks to Derrek Chow for contributing our graphic.
Justin’s Favorite Projects of 2023
Just as 2023 was a year of solitude for FTI, it was a year of rest for me. Moods and attitudes shifted inward. Moving in with my partner meant new routines and synchronizations. Almost everything felt new and soft.
Olivia Rodrigo was a whole calendar event this year. When GUTS finally dropped, I was able to react with someone who appreciated it in different ways. It made me reflect on Olivia’s growth (and mine) since I had last written the blurb for SOUR at the end of 2021.
Summer was a great season for Asian media. Peggy Gou’s “(It Goes Like) Nanana” was the song of my summer as I fought back California sweat blasting the chorus full volume out of my Acura. Tanukichan’s GIZMO was on repeat as I jostled through potholes during a sweltering evening in Koreatown. It’s easily a top 3 album of the year.
Past Lives also came out this summer and Greta Lee’s voice and Teo Yoo’s eyes have stayed in my mind ever since. When we got home from the movies we put on Beef and couldn’t stop watching. Japanese filmmakers absolutely gripped me at the beginning and end of the year. I finally got to catch Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker in January and could not stop crying. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One blew me away before December came to a close. Both these films made incredible human statements that I would recommend everyone experience.
But an audit on 2023 wouldn’t be complete without mentioning SXSW. My second year covering the event deepened my experience within the truly generous local community that wavers between tolerance and coexistence as everyone descends into Austin for ten days. Sobs, Thao, Raging Grace, and When You Left Me On That Boulevard made a tremendous impact on my subconscious during a year of constant transformation.
For 2024, I look forward to stronger footing, healthier action, and pandemic storytellers to steal the spotlight and never let it go. -Justin Ricafort
Li-Wei’s Favorite Projects of 2023
yeule – softscars
It’s been interesting following Singaporean musician yeule over the years – just take a look back to our 2019 year-end Serotonin II blurb and it’s almost like we were writing about a completely different artist. Back then, yeule was making dark, melancholic music flagged by dusky beats and tender electronic murmurs. Fast forward to last year’s Glitch Princess and this 2023’s softscars and the evolution of Nat Ćmiel’s sound is as clear as night and day. A true moment of reincarnation, softscars continues the journey that was only teased on Glitch Princess as they continue to explore what it means to balance their online persona and their fleshy self. softscars finds yeule marrying their signature electronic whisper with hard rock moments, metal screams, and layers of distortion. It also feels like an album that’s a natural progression from their previous, similarly electronically decaying Glitch Princess.
Whereas Glitch Princess was the musician’s coming-of-age when it comes to their struggle with gender dysphoria, softscars implements those pains and carves them deeply into the very core of every haggard, pent-up song. Straight-up rock-out songs like opener “x w x” and “dazies” take a knife to the cords holding them back, bringing glimpses of their humanity to the table. “cyber meat” addresses gender dysphoria head on by loudly proclaiming their identity as a nonbinary musician. Electronic callbacks like “aphex twin flame” are marred by a glitchy edge, paying tribute to the artists who came before them. But even amongst all the rubble and destruction that comes with finding a new place in a chaotic world, there are moments of beauty that come with it. “sulky baby” and “4ui12” are love songs addressed to themselves and others, while melodic interlude “fish in the pool” is the eye of the storm of the album – bringing a brief moment of dusty music box calm amongst the apocalyptic storm. There’s a lot to unpack in softscars, and we can only be so grateful that yeule has allowed us some insight into their journey through this chaotic world – online or off.
Ayano Kaneko – タオルケットは穏やかな (Towelket Ha Odayakana)
In a way, including any of Ayano Kaneko’s projects on this year-end list is cheating. She’s one of my favorite artists of all time, and I’ve played her previous albums to death ad-nauseum (Don’t know where to start? Try this.). Although I don’t understand a word she’s saying, Kaneko’s vocal abilities and expert guitar-playing are unmatched when it comes to creating melodies that will stick in your mind. So what surprised me so much about Ayano Kaneko’s 2023 offering, Towelket Ha Odayakana, is how willing she is to break free from those conventions that helped build her style — particularly leaning hard into alt-rock.
Towelket Ha Odayakana is perhaps the grittiest, most vocally-worn she’s ever been, and it works so well with the ragged guitars and squelching, high distortion that she employs throughout. Save the closing track, Kaneko here is less tonally pure and powers each lyric she sings with her whole soul. Just listen to 眠れない and わたしたちへ, and tell me you don’t feel that power! Gasp in awe at the absolute urgency in the title track! Marvel at the two-part structure of 予感, which really serves as the thesis for the whole album!
Still, Kaneko does have some wonderful singer-songwriter J-pop songs that still shine, offering up heavenly melodies to complement the wildly decaying ones. Towelket Ha Odayakana is a wonderful melding of the power of a singer-songwriter’s vocal abilities and the grittiness of alt-rock, and it works.
Blush – Supercrush
Shoegaze is back, baby! If you’ve frequented any music website in the last year or so, you know what one of the biggest trends of 2023 fueled by the Internet is shoegaze – or at the very least, songs with multiple reverbed guitars and wet vocals crunching all together to make a sonic slush. The best of the best, however, has to be found on Singaporean band Blush’s debut album Supercrush. The band name itself and their album title couldn’t have been more of the era if they tried (Lush, anyone?), and their music rightfully pays tribute to the ‘90s bands that came before them.
Lead vocalist Soffi Peters is ethereal, guiding you across the album with a blurry haste that comes from your sweetest dreams. Album standouts “Crush” and “All I Wanna Do” are devastating and stomach-churning, mesmerizing listeners with their screechy layers of grime. On other parts, they lean into alt-rock, dream pop and slowcore rhythms, making their melodies stretch and drip down like slow-moving honey. Even the final song, the acoustic “Floorplan,” is charming and offers a clear-eyed view of what they’re capable of when stripped back. With band members hailing from bands like Cosmic Child and Subsonic Eye, Supercrush is yet another testament to the power of Singapore’s indie community. Purposely unpolished and gorgeously messy, Supercrush is your latest crush, guaranteed.
Midnight Ping Pong 午夜乒乓 – Heart Reconstructs 心建築
Hearing the new songs on Midnight Ping Pong’s sophomore album Heart Reconstructs was just like catching up with an old friend and really finding out that they’re just as great as you remember them to be. I’ll forever maintain that their extremely underrated debut album, Intense Story 劇烈物語, is one of those must-listen-to albums when it comes to Taiwanese indie rock – so much so that I braved embarrassment to go see them and The Fur. perform at Taipei’s legendary THE WALL back in 2018. My horrible elementary-school Mandarin is a life-long pain point, yet I was so enamored with both bands that I had to see them do their thing live. Since then, the band has more or less been quiet (it’s alluded that the break is due to lead singer 劉邦傑 starting a family), save a picture on social media here or there. But when the band surprise-announced-then-released their sophomore album Heart Reconstructs in October, it took only a few seconds to bring us back to right where they left off years ago.
This time around, however, the album is more polished and a little less ferocious, but the spirit that so defined their debut is undeniable. Lead singer 劉邦傑 still maintains his jittery indie rock roots – that much is apparent seconds into lead singles “Goodbye Blue Monday” and “Heartbeat Odyssey.” This is an album that also leans into a softer side of the band, since “New Hope” and “Little Red Clay Lamp” introduces glimmery synths into the mix. I’d also be remiss to not mention the bands’ guitarwork – songs like “Blue Moon” and “Sunny” allow the members to dip into the math rock instrumental pool that’s all the rage right now. And when those final two songs on the album hit, it’s like stepping back in time. “Heartsease” and “Shape of the Night” were released back in 2018, and hearing them again truly reminded me of a better, fonder place and time. Maybe that’s all I really needed this year, and why I couldn’t stop listening to this album over and over again.
Joshua Ng – Runaway EP
Throughout our years as a website, we’ve come across a lot of indie artists who we’ve come to champion through the power of a cold email alone. To this day I still remember when and where I was when I opened pitches from site favorites Peach Luffe, Luna Li, adam brian paul, Laufey, and yllwblly, just off the top of my head. I think this is just my roundabout way of telling you that I definitely recall Sweden-based musician Joshua Ng’s first ever email to me back in 2021 about “Patience,” and the continued anticipation I’ve had for his new music since then. That prayer was answered in the form of Runaway EP, which was released in October of last year.
Ng’s Runaway EP builds upon those instruments that he so championed in his debut songs “Patience” (there’s even an updated version of “Patience” here) and “Brightest in the Dark,” choosing to further showcase his mastery of haunting synths. Songs like “Muddy Waters” and the reworked “Patience” retain the musician’s phantom-like gothic flair that’s rare to come by in indie pop. But the first three songs, “Sunday,” “Bonafide,” and “Runaway” find Ng treading newer grounds. These are atmospheric, bubbling, and urgent, pulling you deeper into a synth-laden haze with its chorus of backup singers. No longer the solitary character in his songs, Ng and his world has opened up just a little bit more, inviting in glimmers of light to pierce through the darkness. Runaway EP is the natural evolution to Ng’s musicianship, and I can’t wait for that next release from the artist to grace my inbox.
NewJeans – Get Up EP
To say that NewJeans, the South Korean Gen Z girl group consisting of Minji, Hanni, Danielle, Haerin, and Hyein were massive in 2023 would be an insane understatement. They were already breaking records when they debuted in 2022, but 2023 brought them absolute worldwide domination. At this point, I’ve heard songs like “Super Shy” and “ETA” from their second EP Get Up out in the wild so many times that they’ve taken up permanent residency in my mind (“I’m super shy / Super shy / But wait a minute while I make you mine, make you mine” are lyrics that have haunted me for the larger part of the year) – and yet, I still find myself humming along to them every single time. A huge part of that has to come from NewJeans’ effortlessly low-stakes, R&B influenced pop style. Sporting a casually cool, refreshing, girl-you-can-casually-text-and-send-memes-to aesthetic, NewJeans seem like a group of chill gals who happen to have insane media deals in marketing and a penchant for acronyms (“ASAP,” “ETA”). What’s not to love?
Erika de Casier, who released one of my favorite albums of the past decade, has her fingerprints all over this EP, and it’s insane what a match made in heaven NewJeans and the songwriter are all throughout Get Up. But maybe more than that, everything that I’ve read about the group points to the creative director, Min Hee-jin as the mastermind of the group’s success – the Professor Utonium to the Powerpuff Girls, if you will. After all, it would be easy to dismiss their meteoric rise to the top as simply calculated marketing motions if their music wasn’t just so darn good. I don’t know if NewJeans’ star will continue to burn even brighter than it already has in the past year (how much higher can a group really go, really?), but at this point the sky’s the limit.
Linying – House Mouse EP
Just one year after the release of her debut album There Could Be Wreckage Here, Singaporean musician Linying returned with House Mouse EP – marking the beginning of another era in the musician’s broad discography. It’s been amazing seeing Linying’s sound evolve so many times within the span of a few years – making the shift from pristine pop to bubbly indie pop – but they’ve each shown a different aspect of Linying’s malleable sound every single time. In this one, Linying was paired with producer Jon Graber, who’s best known for his work with punk acts like NOFX and MxPx. A bold choice, perhaps, but it’s one that has produced some of Linying’s loosest and emotionally vibrant songs yet.
House Mouse EP is a graceful unraveling for the singer: just compare the bursting “Happiness” and the rugged “Porcupine” to the high gloss pristine of her most famous songs (“Paris 12” and “All of Our Friends Know”) and the differences are clear. In a press release, Linying revealed just how “rewarding it can be to let go and just make music with your friends,” and House Mouse EP makes that relief and camaraderie apparent. Marked by an era of potato-quality cameras, abstract artwork and carefully produced songs that sound like the sonic equivalent of a random jam-out session, House Mouse EP shows us yet another facet of Linying’s ever-expanding artistry.
a子 (ako) – Steal Your Heart EP
The first thing that might catch your eye about Tokyo-based musician’s a子 (Ako) work are the visuals. Take a quick glance at the musician’s countless, underrated music videos that are posted on their channel – it’s clear that their artistry comes from a place of love for vintage films, samurai flicks, and animation. Together with their collective londog, they’ve come up with stunning visuals not just for their third EP Steal Your Heart, but for many of their previous EPs as well.
But Steal Your Heart EP is perhaps the singer’s best yet, boasting a packed tracklist filled with incessant earworms and blissed out J-pop tunes. Songs like EP opener “All to Myself” and “Trank” are instantly repeatable, while “Racy” and “Samurai” are bound to get the artist’s work noticed by a worldwide audience. Steal Your Heart EP is a musical project that largely led by a子’s whispery vocal prowess and her team’s instantly admirable aesthetic, and I’m ready for more. Consider my heart officially stolen.
SUMIN – SICHIMI EP
Pristine production and sleek R&B come together in perfect harmony on South Korean musician SUMIN’s SICHIMI EP. SUMIN’s a name that I’ve heard a ton surrounding Asian R&B, but it wasn’t until I played SICHIMI EP that I became completely enamored with her work. Just one listen to the production on “Closet (ft. Uhm Jung Hwa)” and “Airplane (feat. pH-1, Otis Lim)’‘ and it’s enough to give you goosebumps.
Seriously high gloss and boasting a deadly combination of sharp vocals and a pop-friendly ear for tunes, this is an EP that you’ll be looping over and over again all day – I know, ‘cause it’s happened to me.
sundial – the roaring twenties EP
I’ve written year after year about how relatable sundial’s music is (see: “24” and “liar” which we’ve covered before), and this year’s the roaring twenties EP is no different. In fact, I don’t know if any artist captures middle/upper class Asian American SoCal suburban malaise better than Dorothy Chan and Jisu Kim.
Nearly any of the lyrics taken off this project could be used to tackle another facet of the second-gen experience (“the american dream,” “dear parents”). It’s kind of a wonder that sundial are able to tackle those life-defining cultural issues without it being melodramatic, but they’ve done it – all the while making them repeatable sing-along pop-bangers. If you’re looking to get a glimpse into that experience, the roaring twenties EP is an essential listen.
yunè pinku – BABYLON IX EP
Give a few months or so and soon you’ll be hearing the name yunè pinku everywhere. The moniker of Asha Katherine Nandy, yunè pinku’s music is square in the realm of techno and garage. All of her music, including the ones on BABYLON IX EP sounds like the warehouse rave music in the early aughts that you might’ve caught in some forgotten corner of the city. It’s no wonder that she’s already collaborated with a ton of popular artists – yeule, Disclosure, and similar artist Logic1000 – since her musical style invites a ton of guest-remixing, and that musical aesthetic has even landed her at Boiler Room.
On BABYLON IX EP, the musician throws a celebratory party for introverted ravers, bringing to the table soft twilight beats that shine their brightest in the early hours of the morning. “Blush Cut,” my favorite of the tracks, is absolutely inspired and twinkles; it’s a wonder that she was able to make all this ethereal music with a laptop and a secondhand podcasting microphone. Just imagine what she’s able to do now!
Yaeji – “For Granted”
When you’re someone like Yaeji, who made their name for the past few years as one of the scene’s most distinctive electronic producers, you’re bound to stop and ask yourself some hard-hitting questions.
“When I think about it / I don’t even know / How it got to be this way / How it got to be so good” go the first few lines in “For Granted,” the first single off of Yaeji’s label debut With a Hammer. Imposter syndrome is not a new phenomenon, but Yaeji leans into those thoughts hard on “For Granted.” But conversely, “For Granted” does a lot to assuage those fears, dispelling them in the same breath with her signature house-influenced production. Building to a chaotic trip-hop climax , Yaeji’s can be assured that being at the top is exactly where she should be.
Wasia Project – “Petals on the Moon”
At the end of another exhausting SXSW this year, I found myself alone in the Austin airport with about four hours to kill. All the FTI writers had gone home, and my only companion was my phone, which I then used to loop “Petals on the Moon” over and over until I was back at home.
Wasia Project, the musical project of sibling duo William Gao Hardy (of Heartstopper fame) and Olivia Hardy, is jazz-pop outfit that makes music not unlike Laufey’s. But “Petals on the Moon” is one of those songs that’s more urgent than relaxing. It pulses and chugs along, led along by Olivia Hardy’s sweet vocal gymnastics. Although it’s a song that William mentioned is for people “to dance to at [their] live shows,” I’d argue that it’s one for the solitary listener who wants to bust a move in their own little corner of the world. There’s a wonderful pick-me-up earnestness to the song that absolutely brightens your day and helps you hang in there – I can say that from experience.
corner club – “when i die”
No single song made me cry in the car more this year than corner club (the indie pop duo of Savannah Du and Michael Zhang)’s “when i die”. Even removed from the song’s origins, “when i die” is one of those songs that remind you of your mortality in the most delicate of ways. Almost all of corner club’s songs are just a step away from being lullabies, but “when i die” takes that a step further and almost doubles as a farewell letter before injecting a beacon of hope and comedy into its message (the lines “Do we finally get signal from inside the subway?” and “Are they done building buildings at ungodly hours?” would be my vote for this year’s best crying-to-cackling emotional whiplash in a song).
Du and Zhang turn a potentially depressing eulogy into an audible story. So many tiny details of the song, from the clinking of glasses, flapping wings and the scattered applause, turn the song into a fond remembrance of life. It’s never easy confronting one’s own mortality, but “when i die” is probably the best way to address the things left unsaid while you’re still alive.
mui zyu – “Dusty”
Readers of this site will know that I’m a sucker for a good acoustic, stripped-back song, and mui zyu (Eva Liu)’s “Dusty” was the one that I couldn’t stop replaying throughout the year.
It’s hard to describe just what about it is so addicting – at just under two minutes, it’s hardly the focal point of the singer’s impressive Rotten Bun for an Eggless Century. But it perhaps best showcases what I love most about Liu’s work: there’s a lovely contrast between the unnerving and the beautiful here. “Dusty” has a spooky edge, warping what would otherwise be a sparse love song into a Lynchian sirenic lure. And if you’re not convinced, check out the accompanying music video for the song. It’s one that perfectly encapsulates those uncanny feelings and changes what your perspective of manic happiness looks like, haunting you for days.
Zeph – “you don’t like me like that”
If From the Intercom was in operation throughout the entirety of 2023, there’s no doubt that we would’ve covered the sudden and dramatic rise of Zeph (Zephani Jong). Initially known for short song snippets/demos, Zeph released her Hopeless Records debut character development in June and proved that she’s not just a demos artist – she’s an album artist too!
The best of the bunch, opening single “you don’t like me like that,” finds the singer gunning for pop-punk infamy. There’s a touch of old-school Avril and the Veronicas here, as Zeph commands the spotlight through dramatic strings and rip-roaring guitars. “you don’t like me like that” is a bright-eyed debut from the artist, and it’s not hard to imagine her rocking out on stage with her heroes real soon.
Mitski – “My Love Mine All Mine”
Leave it to Mitski to turn a random tune she sang to herself during a grocery store run into hundreds of millions of streams. “My Love Mine All Mine” was a song that was inescapable online this year, soundtracking TikToks and Instagram Reels by the thousands. And it makes perfect sense – “My Love Mine All Mine” is instantly timeless in the way that it takes universal feelings of love and turns it into a forlorn ballad that anyone can enjoy.
Maybe it’s because of Mitski’s choice to relocate to Nashville, but there’s a country-tinged flair to the song that recalls the ghosts of famous singers like Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn here. One can almost imagine “My Love Mine All Mine” being that song that plays on a jukebox in creaky wooden bars – accompanying a lone spotlight on a single dancer swaying into the night. Mitski has long called her accompanying album The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We “her most American,” and “My Love Mine All Mine” does indeed fit the bill.
underscores – “Cops and Robbers” / “Locals (Girls like us) ft. gabby start”
If a time traveler wanted to know what the Internet sounded like in 2023, I think that I’d undoubtedly show them the first two tracks on underscores (April Harper Grey)’s Wallsocket. “Cops and Robbers” and “Locals (Girls like us)” are an insane one-two punch of tracks that not only showcases the musician’s production bravado, but also the deranged fun of the tracks’ compositions that never takes itself too seriously. There’s nothing quite like it.
I can’t imagine listening to her brand of, as one reviewer put it, “queer emo dubstep” in any other time period, and these songs are probably the perfect introduction to what that designation could mean. Incorporating off-the-wall soundbites and wildly sporadic instrumentation as well as a storyline, “Cops and Robbers / Locals (girls like us)” will be reverberating through your head all year, and is one of the best indicators as to how the future of pop might sound like.
Laufey – “Dreamer”
All throughout her sophomore album Bewitched, Gen Z jazz-pop purveyor Laufey plays with a ton of different classic genres that have sparked many a debate as to what jazz truly is. I guess the jury’s still out on what “tRuE jAZz” is and what’s not, but there’s no question that Laufey draws a ton of inspiration from long-adored classical genres like bossa nova, vocal jazz, and pop.
But on “Dreamer,” the song that opens the album, she trades in hallmarks of those genres for explosive on-stage theatrics. This is a song that you’d hear belted out on stage announcing the arrival of a key character – a hard turn from the delicate jazz she’s known for to soundtrack a rainy night in. It’s a showstopping, Broadway-evoking torch song that sounds ready for some extra dazzle and a dance number. It’s easy to check the boxes here that has drawn Laufey so many listeners throughout the year – “Dreamer” is gorgeous in that classic Laufey style, it’s melodramatic without getting too sappy… it’s fun! And when she belts out the final line, “No boy’s gonna kill the dreamer in me,” you know that nothing’s gonna stand in her way.
Olivia Rodrigo – “bad idea, right?” / “get him back!”
Is there anyone out there who’s having more fun than Olivia Rodrigo right now? The pop singer’s sophomore album GUTS was one of the year’s biggest success stories commercially and critically, and I believe that that’s largely due to the success of second and third singles off the album. Rodrigo’s great at writing scornful ballads – lead single “vampire” was proof of that – but follow-ups “bad idea, right?” and “get him back!” are examples of why Rodrigo’s so good at what she does. A lot of pop singers act mature beyond their age, but here we’re reminded that Rodrigo is still only 20. She willfully steps back into a bad relationship on “bad idea, right?” even though she knows it’s a horrible idea. She mocks a former ex via playful wordplay in her lyrics on “get him back!”. She lets the self-destruction happen on her own terms, and she’s not sorry for what she’s about to do, consequences be damned.
Combine that with the ‘00s pop-rock tendencies that she’s flirted with (an obvious comparison would be Avril Lavigne as always and Steriogram), and you’ve got yourself a winner. Both of these songs could be read as genuinely hilarious blue text message dramas in a watchful group chat (“I just tripped and fell into his bed!!!” “He said he’s six foot two / And I said, ‘Dude, nice try’”), and maybe that’s why these songs work so well theatrically and are so addictive. It’s not just a fun song; we’re all invested in what’s about to unfold. What’s going to happen next?
FiFi Zhang – “So Beautiful So Lonely”
An expert at creating dreamy electronic soundscapes, NYC-via-Shanghai artist FiFi Zhang really found her niche on this year’s “So Beautiful So Lonely.” All gloss and classy polish, “So Beautiful So Lonely” was destined to soundtrack fashion shows – or at the very least, work its way into your favorite DJ’s house mix.
Clocking in at just over two minutes, “So Beautiful So Lonely” announces the arrival of a musicmaker to rival other dreamy electronic club artists like Park Hye Jin and Peggy Gou. Not to mention, during the sudden beat breakdown mid-song, “So Beautiful So Lonely” has one of my favorite line-reads of the year (“I / Cut my hair / Zip my thing / If it’s not cute / Then it means nothing”). Boiler Room set, when?
Hitsujibungaku – “GO!!!”
Japanese indie rock trio Hitsujibungaku can’t miss. Despite releasing an already-stellar album last year, the band returned this year with 12 hugs (like butterflies) at the end of 2023, throwing a wrench into my personal year-end list rankings. Although the album contains the band’s most popular song “more than words” (aka the Jujutsu Kaisen Season 2 ED song), the song that really caught my attention was the sparser, lively “GO!!!”
Hitsujibungaku’s music doesn’t really scream joy, so it was a touch out of character to hear the band crack a smile and let loose. “GO!!!” leans more on indie pop and eases on the frantic guitars of their other releases, and finds them returning to a more cheerful space like they did on LÜCY collaboration “OH HEY.” It’s on this song that we really get to hear lead singer Moeka Shiotsuka shine and reaffirms the band’s penchant for writing catchy-as-all-hell hooks. “GO!!!” is back to basics fun for the trio, and it’s a go-to whenever you’re looking for something to sing along to.
POiSON GiRL FRiEND – “HARDLY EVER SMILE(without you)” / “FACT 2”
Internet virality is random when it comes to reviving old projects. Maybe one of the biggest success stories that happened recently was Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” and at the time of this publication, the same thing is happening to Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” right now. In the indie music scene, the very same thing could happen to you – Panchiko is a notorious example of how a band can get rediscovered by chance and have a second life in the modern day.
POiSON GiRL FRiEND, the moniker of trip-hop musician Noriko Sekiguchi, also experienced that rediscovery renaissance recently. It’s unclear when it happened, but MELTiNG MOMENT, the musician’s 1990 EP, was revived and released on vinyl for the first time this year and immediately attracted the attention of DJs and record collectors worldwide. It’s no wonder why – the EP is filled to the brim with curious leftfield pop that’s probably way too cool for most people to fully comprehend. Flitting between Sekiguchi’s whispery English/French vocals and beeping techno, “HARDLY EVER SMILE(without you)” and “FACT 2,” the two tracks that open the album, are trance-like in their nature. There’s a slowness and hypnotizing element to the songs that are infatuating and addictive – helped along tremendously by random flute melodies, house music, and orchestral strings. Don’t be surprised if music starts sounding more like POiSON GiRLFRiEND out in 2024; she’s an artist who is truly ahead of her time.
Miss Grit – “Lain (Phone Clone)”
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but somewhere during the advent of Japanese ‘90s anime Serial Experiments Lain and the creation of YouTube, Lain became a meme. Nowadays, you’d be hard pressed not to find the terminally online titular character dancing to random pop music, despite the psychological techno-horror of the original anime.
Miss Grit, the android moniker of Queens-based musician Margaret Sohn, achieved something special when they chose to use that character as the basis for their song “Lain (Phone Clone)” off of their underrated debut album Follow the Cyborg early last year. It’s no coincidence that the musician is dressed as the titular character in their visual for the song, even sporting those iconic bangs in their video. Slightly unsettling and chock full of stabby, urgent synths, “Lain (Phone Clone)” comes bursting in from left-field with its robotic heartbeat. “Hold up your hands if you want your memories back / Hold up your hands and let go of your phone clone,” they sing, almost like a broken cyborg who’s warning of an impending future. In a world where technology and reality is slowly blurring into one, maybe that’s a message that one should take to heart.
Véyah – “Almost”
Yes, I know, I know. “Almost” came out back in October 2022, but it’s not a title that reached my ears until 2023. Consequently, Véyah, the NYC-based singer, had all of 2023 to get her song wedged into my brain. “Almost” is a song that introduces the young singer with a bang – immediately making a splash with one of the stickiest pop hooks I’ve heard all year.
Over a R&B-pop beat, Véyah sounds so confidently driven that you’d be forgiven if you didn’t know that she was silently dissing a former partner (“Thank god it didn’t work / And almost is all we were”). As a testament to the singer’s amazing vocal range, let’s also give a special shout out as well to the singer’s use of “Hypotheticals” as an opening lyric. If Véyah can make all of that sound like such a breeze, I can’t wait to hear more.
Tolerance – “osteo-tomy”
The New York-based label Mesh-Key is pretty famous for exhuming and reissuing obscure Japanese experimental/ambient projects, but they’ve really outdone themselves this year with their reissues of Tolerance’s two albums Divin and Anonym. Those two albums are a wondrous look into the mind of Junko Tange, a Japanese dental student who disappeared from the music scene after releasing those albums.
“osteo-tomy,” off of the latter album, is a good preview of the mysterious musician’s work. Amongst meandering guitars and heavy breathing (Or is it a saw in the background? Who knows?), Tange chatters away, framing her words around the noises surrounding her. It’s a curious piece of work that’s strangely hypnotic despite the confusion, but it draws you back over and over again like the best pieces of experimental art. Try it for yourself — give “osteo-tomy” a listen and see if you can solve the mystery behind Tange’s disassembly of musical conventions.
Joy Ride, dir. Adele Lim
After seeing Joy Ride at its premiere at SXSW this year, I knew that this film was going to be cause for conversation despite how it did at the box office. Directed by Adele Lim and co-written by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, Joy Ride is a film primarily for the Asian women in the audience, but broad enough to be enjoyed by all. It’s delightfully crass, brazen, and unflinchingly wild – all descriptors that flagrantly fight back against stereotypes about Asians and Asian American women.
I think that people of a certain age will appreciate that Joy Ride is perhaps the Asian American equivalent to the sex comedies of the early aughts as well. The lead cast – Sherry Cola, Ashley Park, Stephanie Hsu, Sabrina Wu – make a meal out of their roles as the ragtag quartet, all while making a star out of newcomers Cola and Wu in the process. While there are a few narrative moments that fall apart towards the end of the film, who (besides annoying reviewers like myself) the fuck cares when you’re having this much fun?
Shortcomings, dir. Randall Park
If you’ve ever read Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings, the graphic novel that Randall Park’s directorial debut is based on, you’ll know that Park’s vision is a pretty faithful adaptation.
There’s a lot about the film that works well only because it’s so carefully laid out by Adrian Tomine – in fact, the graphic novel could serve well as a storyboard for the film itself. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Tomine’s and Park’s visions merge together in the film version and are carefully aligned in making certain Ben Tagawa (Justin H. Min), the purposely unlikeable lead, remains unlikeable. Shortcomings is less a romantic comedy and more a spotlight on this kind of Asian American male character into the canon – the kind of snobby, better than thou but also judgemental asshole who’s only semi-aware that he’s doing it. He’s the kind of person who’s insecure in his own life, so he has to put others down to feel better about himself (see: rejecting the Asian American community and being hot for white girls). And truth be told, maybe one of the reasons why the film felt so comforting was because of how many aspects of Ben I see in people who I know. Heck, I’m also, in part, guilty of sharing some of these ugly features as well, and Shortcomings asks its viewers to reckon with that.
Although I’ll forever maintain that Min is perhaps too attractive to truly hate as Ben (in the graphic novel he has more of a nerdy, everyday guy kind of look that grounds him a bit more), he makes a valiant attempt at annoying the viewer regardless. If Shortcomings can bring more of the less glamorous sides of Asian America to the forefront, I’m all for it.