Guest post by Dawen
2011 was all about our visibility. We continued to thrive on YouTube and at times, even made an appearance on the other tube in our living room. We sang live, and not just from the safety of our bedrooms. There were festivals galore (ISA, AMP, SXSW), college tours, and sold out venues. From pop to hip-hop we played our hearts out, united under Twitter updates and Facebook postings, rather than any singular musical genre. With social media as currency we released our new tracks regardless of whether the mainstream caught on or not. Undeterred, we continued to sing our songs, staying after the show, meeting-and-greeting our way further into the American musical landscape.
This compilation, like last year’s, is meant as a list of highlights. Less of a “favorites” and more of a ‘year in review’, here is my 2011: The Year in 12 Asian American Songs.
Released just before the previous New Year, “Never Change” – taken from the last track of Melissa Polinar’s As Of Now EP – immediately evokes Norah Jones with the opening sounds of brushes and piano. Blending styles like jazz and acoustic pop, Melissa’s voice shines over a melody that conjures up images of coffee and the morning paper.
A seasoned songwriter from Dallas, Texas, whose professional career started in Nashville, Melissa has amassed a steady output of solo albums as well as production work for other songwriters like AJ Rafael (Red Roses), Jeremy Passion (Paper Airplane EP), and Mike Isberto (Fly EP). Listen to “Never Change” here.
First he won the Kababayan Superstar Contest singing Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning”. Then his cover of Iyaz’s “Replay” went viral on YouTube. And with his appearance on Ellen shortly after, it was only a matter a time before Joseph Vincent came out with his own songs. “If You Stay”, with its reggae-acoustic feel reminiscent of “Billionaire” by Travie Mccoy and Bruno Mars, offers an easy listening pop tune, perfect for the tween era. Just watch the MV. With the promise that “Nothing will ever come between us”, Joseph shows us that while some Asians in the library talk too loud, others fall head over heels and inadvertently into love triangles.
Having released a second single “Bumblebee”, as well as collaborated with MC Jin on the hip-hop track “When the Lights Come On”, Joseph is currently finishing a full album, scheduled to drop next spring.
Do you remember Anoop Desai from American Idol Season 8? This North Carolina native was famously eliminated during the Hollywood round that year, only to be brought back and win his way to the Top 7. Unlike Sanjaya Malakar two seasons before, Anoop can actually sing without resorting to hairstyle hijinks. “Worth The Wait” comes from his second album Zero.0 and demonstrates his flair for sugary commercial pop. Slightly overproduced, “Worth The Wait” nevertheless bounces along with confectionary catchiness. And how many times have you heard lyrics that compare a girl to a “Himalaya summit”? He goes on: “Them other girls taste like O.J. and toothpaste but you/ You taste like birthday cake.” Indeed, anything sweeter would require a trip to the dentist.
Under the auspices of Jae Chong (from the K-Pop group Solid), AZIATIX comprises of singers Nicky Lee, Eddie Shin, and rapper Flowsik. Representing LA, Boston, and New York, this R&B/Pop trio burst upon the scene in the spring with their single “Go”. Eddie’s smooth voice compliments Nicky’s sensual falsetto while both their voices contrast well with Flowsik’s gruff delivery. Not since TLC has a group dynamic been this compelling.
AZIATIX’s debut album Nocturnal subsequently made it to the Top 10 of the U.S. iTunes R&B/Soul chart and the group followed up with a cross-country tour. Meanwhile, AZIATIX has been furiously releasing music videos on their YouTube channel. Having recently entered the chart on Japan’s Billboard Top 40 AZIATIX stands well poised for the same success stateside.
“Shoot the cops! Shoot the cops! Shoot the cops!/ Take ya cameras out ya pocket, people!” So goes the hook to “Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant”, perhaps the most provocative track of 2011. Dubbing their sound “cinema art rap”, DJ Sabzi and MC Geologic, who together make up the Seattle-based duo Blue Scholars, juxtapose police brutality with civic responsibility. Taken from the album Cinemetropolis, “Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant” at once alludes to Oskar Barnack, father of the 35mm camera and Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22 year-old Black man who was shot and killed by an Oakland BART police officer. Instead of responding to violence with more violence, Blue Scholars suggests using the power of the camera to keep those in our government accountable. No longer just a device to play AngryBirds or Words with Friends, our iPhones and Androids have effectively become agents of social change.
2011 was the year that brought us Occupy Wall Street at home as well as the Arab Spring in the Middle East. Considering how it was the images of those events that galvanized support for those movements, “Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant” seems especially timely.
16 year-old singer Megan Lee lists Christina Aguilera as one of her inspirations. It comes then as no surprise that her first single “Love, Laugh & Live”, co-written with Brite Ma and Smash Hitta, channels the same type of energy as an Aguilera power-house ballad. From the opening piano that recalls Aguilera’s “Beautiful”, “Love, Laugh & Live” showcases Megan’s considerable belt and vocal flourish.
With a voice that many people think sounds uncannily like Justin Bieber, Megan has developed a large following on YouTube. Relentless in her work ethic, Megan continues to put out videos, providing a welcomed alternative to Miley Cyrus and the other Disney cutouts of young pop.
AJ Rafael loves musical theater. That’s what came to mind as I was listening to the title track off his debut album Red Roses. From the opening vamp, “Red Roses” theatrically follows the exploits of a guy trying to find the courage to ask a girl out. Hopelessly romantic and full of dramatic charm, AJ laments, “I wish I had the guts to say/ Would you be mine?/ I wished I woulda asked you to be my Valentine.” Heart very much on sleeve, this song begs to be staged in a theater, or more practically, to be filmed as a music video.
As a strong debut overall, the album Red Roses reached # 7 on iTunes during its first day of release and #13 on Billboard’s Heatseeker chart. Additionally, Red Roses was Grammy eligible in the Best New Artist and Traditional Pop Vocal Album categories, a feat to be sure.
Currently gearing up for the Red Roses Tour in Southeast Asia, AJ will be traveling with the whole band to Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. Tour starts January 13th in Jakarta.
I first came upon Jennifer Chung in 2007 singing “Part of Your World” from Disney’s The Little Mermaid on YouTube when YouTube was still taking wind. Little did I know that just a few months before that, she had uploaded a cover of Alicia Key’s “No One”, a hugely viral video that would establish her as a household name for the YouTube generation.
Fast forward to 2011 and her summer album 4 Years & Counting. “Can We?” features Jennifer at her most vulnerable, far from the volume of her formidable belt. Over sparse accompaniment, no more than light acoustic guitar and piano, Jennifer’s voice floats effortlessly over the recollection of a relationship: “Wasn’t it painful/ Painfully beautiful?” Understated and poignant, “Can We?’ captures that pain, beautifully.
After releasing two free mixtapes back in 2010, Das Racist put out their first commercial album Relax at the end of the summer. With production help from the likes of Diplo, El-P, Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), Heems, Kool A.D. and Dap, who make up this Brooklyn trio, continue their alternative absurdist/subversive brand of hip-hop.
Aimed at detractors (or anyone in the audience, for that matter), “Shut Up, Man (feat. El-P)” spits out laid back defiance against those wary of their lowbrow/highbrow fare. “I think I sound aight/ I sound tight/ Ayo, don’t worry bout how I sound aight?” Heems says, over a minimalist beat interspersed with synth blips. As Kool A.D. says in the preceding verse, “Act with us/ Or pack it up.” It’s sound advice for the anti-pop artist: if they don’t like your stuff, who cares?
Dumbfoundead is K-Town. Just venture out to 6th and Alexandria any night of the week and you’re bound to find him there, beer in hand. It only seems fitting then, that his album Dfd should open with “Town”, a tribute to LA’s Korean neighborhood. Roots run deep for the rapper, his identity inextricably tied with the 3-mile stretch in the city’s Mid-Wilshire district.
It’s been a great year for Dumb, whom the LA Times featured back in July and LA Weekly this past fall. With a televised appearance on Last Call with Carson Daly just over a week ago I wouldn’t be surprised if 2012 were to see him crossover into the mainstream.
“A local legend is all I’ll ever be/ Until I put this town on the map for everyone to see.” With an impressive debut at #7 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart and at #2 on the iTunes Hip-Hop chart, Dumbfoundead’s making sure that eventually, everyone’s gonna know where K-Town is.
I can’t think of anyone who channels the spirit of Stevie Wonder better than Jeremy “Passion” Manongdo. “Trace” sounds like a lost track from Innervisions or Talking Book. Drawing its inspiration from the Motown master, “Trace” is a well-crafted soul/R&B tune full of romance and longing. The live instrumentation sounds refreshing, a contrast to current radio’s M-Audio-programmed soundtrack. There’s a hint of John Legend in there, too, and Jeremy sings with honest conviction.
Paul Dateh has gone electronic. Showcasing this electronic style on his first track in over two years, “One for James” is a departure from the acoustic pop of 2009’s The Good Life and the R&B/hip-hop of his self-titled debut the year before. Released on the second anniversary of the death of his childhood violin instructor and life-long mentor, “One for James” blends the electronic and the ambient into a celestial soundscape. Vocals and violin are still here, just not front and center. Instead, Paul spreads out his voice with harmonies and layers the strings, all accompanied by a pulsating beat. The track shimmers ethereally as if a ghost were at the turntables before vanishing away in a slow flourish.
After watching Paul traverse multiple genres in his performance of “Darkest Point” on the Knocksteady podcast in September, I’m excited to see how he’ll approach “One for James” in a live setting.
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So that’s it! My 2011 in a nutshell. I’ve obviously left things out as there’s no way I could do everything justice in a single posting. But who knows, maybe I’ll expand the list for 2012. From the looks of it I just might have to.
Let’s keep supporting each other. Not because we’re Asian Americans, but because we’ve got good music. And make catching a live show one of your New Year’s resolutions. Happy New Year and Best Wishes for 2012.
photo by Melly Lee
Dawen is a singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles. His New Year’s resolutions include: finishing an upcoming EP, perfecting Chinese, learning Korean, and actually attempting P90X.