Guest post by Dawen
2010 was a crazy year. We hit #1 on Billboard and charted on iTunes. Pop radio featured us, as did NPR, while we YouTubed and Facebooked and Twittered our way onto listeners’ playlists. We succeeded in the mainstream while also flourishing in the indie route. We made music videos, we went on tour, and we set the bar higher than it has ever been.
As I was putting together this list for 2010, I decided to make it less of a ‘best of’ and more like a ‘highlights of my favorite songs’ from the entire year. By no means exhaustive, here is 2010: The Year in 12 Asian American Songs.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: “How can you start your list off with a cover song? MGMT aren’t even Asian American!” And yet, Lady Danville’s interpretation of MGMT’s “Kids” represents everything a great cover should be: innovative and fresh, but still faithful to the spirit of the original song. With just piano, guitar, cajon and great 3-part harmony, Lady Danville, formed at UCLA in 2007 by Dan Chang, Matt Frankel, and Michael Garner, reinvents the electro-synth of the original by adapting it to their trademark acoustic aesthetic with surprisingly poignant results.
While NPR has recently been playing Lady Danville’s studio recording of “Kids”, (off Tour EP), the trio has been performing this version live since 2009. Since their appearance at Kollaboration Acoustic 2 back in 2008, Lady Danville has toured with Ben Folds and will be starting a new tour with Dashboard Confessional on January 10th. Listen to “Kids” here.
Released just a few days before February 14th, “Valentine” might be one of the most tender Valentine’s Day songs ever. With its catchy hook, understated vocals, and upright bass, “Valentine” possesses a charm that has inspired fans and other Asian American YouTubers including Jennifer Chung and Melissa Polinar, together with Alyssa Bernal, to cover their own version of the Kina Grannis tune. With lyrics that address the “arbitrary” nature of a seemingly pointless holiday, “Valentine” ultimately, lets love prevail. “I will love you, I will love you, I will love you,” Kina reaffirms in the hook. Given the loyal relationship this Orange County native shares with her devoted fans, she may as well be singing to them.
“Valentine” appears on Kina’s sophomore effort, Stairwells, which charted #139 on Billboard, as well as #5 on the iTunes Pop chart, no easy feat for an indie artist.
It was early spring when I first came across Tim Be Told’s music video for “Analyze”. With a simple but brilliantly executed concept, “Analyze”, taken from their album From the Inside, deals with the self-doubt, self-struggle, and ultimately, the self-redemption found within us all. Piano driven with Coldplay-like guitar lines and strings, “Analyze” features this quintet’s strong penchant for soul/pop songwriting, reminiscent of Maroon 5. Lead singer Tim Ouyang’s voice effortlessly navigates its complex melody as he sings of a “soul healing” that sounds almost spiritual.
Hailing from Charlottesville, Virginia, Tim, together with Luan Nguyen, Andrew Chae, Parker Stanley, and Jim Barredo are busy finishing up their third album Humanity slated for release in 2011. Catch them this winter as they continue their tour in churches and community centers across the country.
Describing themselves as “post-noise,” and “experimental/freestyle”, the Brooklyn-based Kite Operations continues to defy tradition. Off their third album Festival, “Islands” is best described as the most appropriate accompanying soundtrack for someone partaking in authentic Korean food for the very first time. If you’re confused, just watch the music video. I caught this during Visual Communication’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and was immediately riveted and grossed out at the same time. With their amped-up guitars, deafening drums, and feedback galore, Joseph Kim, David Yang, Jie Whoon Kang, and Andrew Blanchard, who make up Kite Operations, feel right at home in the fray.
Whether it’s noise creation, or noise pollution, “Islands” stretches the boundaries and provides those of us who are so over this-thing-called-pop with a distortion-happy alternative.
With the success of his collaborations on B.O.B’s “Nothin’ On You” and Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire”, it was only a matter of time before Hawaii-born Bruno Mars broke through with his own solo material. But before this gifted songwriter of Puerto Rican and Filipino descent brought us “Just The Way You Are” and the current hit “Grenade”, there was the quietly released EP It’s Better If You Don’t Understand.
Containing some of the songs that would eventually make it onto his solo debut Doo-Wops & Hooligans, the EP also featured “Talking To The Moon” which showcases his soaring high vocals and gorgeous melody. As a killer-vocalist and hit songwriter for others, there is nothing he can’t do. Just as 2009 was dominated by Lady Gaga, 2010 in many ways, belongs to Bruno Mars. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t win a few awards come Grammy night.
Only in America will you find a Desi punk rock outfit that channels the spirit of the Brits. On “Tunnnnnn” from the album Escape to Blackout Beach, The Kominas interpolate The Clash’s “Armagideon Time” with their brand of reggae/dub. “A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight”, sings Shahjehan Khan, echoing Joe Strummer.
To call The Kominas provocative would be understating it. When I first heard them chanting “Sharia Law in the USA” at LA’s Tuesday Night Project in 2009, I was initially alarmed. But the very nature of punk is to question and subvert authority, and The Kominas are continually challenging everything with this new brand of music many are calling taqwacore. From calling out Western-racism to exposing the hypocrisy of Muslim fundamentalism, nothing is off limits to Basim Usmani, Shahjehan Khan, Imran Malik, and Arjun Ray. Formed in Boston, birthplace of the American Revolution, The Kominas are making waves with their own musically revolutionary struggle.
With the shortening of our national attention span many artists are releasing EPs these days instead of full-length albums. Many of us simply can’t devote the time to digest anything longer than a half hour. In the case of Connie Lim’s EP The Hunted, that brevity leaves us wanting more. With her ‘retrotronica’ sound Connie combines electro beats with vintage soul. Feminine and feminist all at once, Lim delves into social issues on songs like “Sugar” (watch the stunning music video) and celebrates gender empowerment with the accessibility of a primetime television show heroine (“There She Walks Again”).
“Walk On”, however, is by far my favorite track with its acoustic feel-good arrangement and circus fun-outro. Connie’s musical vocabulary is vast with live sets that evoke anything from Dusty Springfield, to Sarah McLachlan. Her CD release party for The Hunted was one of the best I attended all year. Watch out for her tour coming to a city near you.
I have NPR to thank, yet again, for introducing me to this Brooklyn-based, Wesleyan-educated hip-hop duo. After hitting the scene with the nonsensical but awesome “Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell”, Das Racist, or Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez, together with hype man Ashok Kondabolu, spent 2010 busily making music, releasing two full-length mixtapes.
As the opening track off of Shut Up, Dude, “Who’s that? Brooown!” mixes hipster cool with socio-consciousness. Along with Sit Down, Man, both mixtapes are free to download. With rave reviews by Pitchfork Media and other indie sites, Das Racist has ruled the underground scene, collaborating with everyone from Sabzi of Blue Scholars and synth pop group Chairlift. Although they were recently detained at UK Customs and subsequently missed their London show as a result, Das Racist will continue their tour in the US and Canada in 2011.
Ever since winning Kollaboration 10 in Los Angeles in March and playing at the White House in Washington, D.C. a month later, Clara C has been on a roar. By summer’s end Clara had released her debut album The Art In My Heart, a reference to a lyric from her first single, “Offbeat”. While the entire album illustrates her whimsical musical style and her quirky multi-instrumentalism, my favorite track is the album’s last song “Waking Up In Neverland”. The female/male vocal dynamic alludes to a slightly more mature sound with a nice blend of acoustic and synth that feels both innocent and nostalgic. “Lets grow young,” she sings, with all the wisdom of a love-lorn graduate who wishes to return to the romance of freshman year.
As a Youtube star, Clara spent the year consistently putting up highly original interpretations of well-known songs. Her take on “Clocks” by Coldplay, and “Rocketeer” by Far East Movement are standouts in particular.
There were puppets, a trip to Switzerland, and at the start of the fall, a brand new record. “Goodnight Company”, which kicks off Jane Lui’s album of the same name, showcases some of the best songwriting happening today. Those who decry the lack of melody, development and musicianship in today’s music need look no further than Jane’s latest effort. In the title track, Jane invites us into her musical world, with her great vocals, piano playing, brass arrangements (love that tuba) and other musical surprises. Listening to Goodnight Company is like enjoying a satisfying performance of a classic Rogers & Hammerstein musical. From her re-harmonized version of “Edelweiss” to the gravity of “Long Ago”, Goodnight Company is a trove of gems. Preorder a physical CD/DVD of the album, which comes out January 11th.
Since the move to major label Interscope, Far East Movement has toured with Lady Gaga, expanded their sold out concert series International Secret Agents with Wong Fu Productions, and oh yeah, made history by becoming the first all Asian American musical group to hit #1 on Billboard with “Like A G6”. Yet, in contrast to the club anthems like “G6” and 2009’s “Girls on the Dance Floor”, FM’s “Rocketeer” proves what major label backing and resources can do through high profile collaborations. Prohgress, J-Splif, Kev Nish, and DJ Virman show a different style here, while Ryan Tedder, of One Republic, vocally soars into the stratosphere on the hook. With solid production by The Stereotypes, it’s a pleasant contrast to their club fare. As “Rocketeer” continues to rise on Billboard (currently at #39), FM is proving to be anything but a one hit wonder.
As we moved into the holiday season, Oak & Gorski, formely known as Ken Oak Band, released their end of the year EP Love Destroyer. A shift from the previous Good Advice, Bad Advice, Love Destroyer features a lighter mood with a return to more accessible melodies, Ken’s beautiful cello lines, and Ed Gorski’s crisp guitar. The title track almost feels like a throwback to the chamber folk days of Vienna to Venice, with a twist of Brad Paisley thrown in for good measure. Recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, Love Destroyer brings a bit of the heartland to the Santa Monica Promenade.
The holidays are almost over, but before you start up work again or return to campus, throw this one in the car and hit the road.
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So you can see, 2010 was absolutely nuts. In many ways, it feels as if we are in un-chartered territory as our artists break new records and continue to expand Asian American visibility.
I can only hope that we continue to bring our community, which often feels disparate, together in support of our artists. There was so much to celebrate in 2010. Happy New Year and Best Wishes for 2011.
Dawen is a soul/R&B singer based in Los Angeles. A recent winner of Kollaboration Acoustic, Dawen has performed for Grammy Award-winning artist Macy Gray and has shared the stage with artists such as Marié Digby, slam poets Beau Sia and Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, and actor James Kyson-Lee from TV’s Heroes. Dawen continues his college tour in 2011 with an appearance at Showtime at the Apollo, New York in late winter.