20 Favourite Mandopop Tracks of 2020
Mandopop never captured global attention the way K-pop or J-pop did. Why is that? Maybe it’s not because of the music. Maybe Mandopop is just an ugly genre descriptor—possible given that NCT sub-unit WayV seemed to favour the labels “Asian-pop” or “WayV pop” before the label “Mandopop.” Maybe it’s too restrictive a genre? Paiwanese artist ABAO described Mandopop as such: “There is not much room for expressing new feelings… a love song has to be sad: heavy sadness, moderate sadness, and light sadness.” Or maybe it’s as one Quora thread asks “why is Chinese music so terrible?”
The reality probably lies somewhere else: in Mandopop’s inaccessibility. The Chinese market is self-sustaining and doesn’t need to consider global tastes. Meng Meiqi of WJSN sold over 1.5 million copies of her recent solo single album. To compare, WJSN’s last mini-album was their first to break 100,000 and stalled thereafter. Labels earn enough by considering domestic interests that the costs of promoting outside Mandarin-speaking communities likely outweigh the benefits. The Mandopop that does find itself on streaming services remains inaccessible—language barriers make searching for an artist difficult, if not impossible, for casual and non-fluent listeners.
That’s what this list is then — an accessible starting point to Mandopop using the year’s best songs (that exist on streaming). I took “Mandopop” very loosely, really, as any Mandarin-language pop music or music that wanted to be pop music. It includes the idol-pop and the pop that aspired to be idol-pop. The songs that walked the narrow line between Mandopop and Chinese Rock. The hip-hop and R&B. The electro-pop music and the dance-pop music and the EDM. The hyperpop, whatever hyperpop is. And the ballads. All the damn ballads. This list definitely isn’t without gaps, missing things I never reached, things that I probably should have, but hopefully, it’s a good enough starting point. Until next time, here are the top twenty Mandopop songs of the long long year.
Mandopop isn’t an insular entity. Its origins can be traced back to the 1920s, when traditional Chinese folk melodies were fused with jazz instrumentation. Today’s Mandopop scene continues to “borrow” from Black art, largely from the Black-American hip-hop scene (and often refusing to acknowledge it). On “COLORFUL,” SHOU collapses a century’s worth of Black influence on the Mandopop scene, rapping over an instrumental that combines jazz with hip-hop beats. It’s playful, radiating the same kind of warmth of a sunny afternoon. The dramatics of Mandopop are still there in the way SHOU betrays himself — “嘴巴说 ‘leave me alone’ / 其实珍惜每分钟与你” (“mouth says ‘leave me alone’ / but I treasure every minute with you”) — but “COLORFUL” defines love differently from the genre. It treats it as loose and carefree, bright and vibrant. Sometimes unexpected. Colourfully vivid.
UNINE: “U’re Mine”
UNINE disbanded this year, but they were never really important. That’s the way these survival shows work, creating temporary groups as vehicles to promote individual idols. It worked for groups like Nine Percent and Rocket Girls 101 and it’ll continue working for future groups like THE9. U-Night Flight was mostly a collection of bland solos, but closer “U’re Mine” hit the sweet spot. It worked as a demonstration of what UNINE could have been that was ultimately better than whatever they actually were. It’s One Direction at their beginning and end, the bubbly charm of “What Makes You Beautiful” collapsed into the bittersweetness of “History.” “U’re Mine” is the last call, a gratuitously good send-off worth more than its manufactured group.
“ihateyou1000” is simply a very good Tiktok song. It’s short and sweet, boasting a hook that’s instantly memorable, and relatable in its simplicity. The extras—its quirky music video complete with guest stars and a dance challenge—just adds to its appeal. The Mandopop classic “一剪梅” by Fei Yu-ching and last year’s “芒种” by the collective 音阙诗听 have seen global recognition because of Tiktok but hopefully next year, “ihateyou1000” will get the same Tiktok treatment that made “Sofia” shoot to #98 on the Billboard Chart.
also: 13Lefty: “Replay (feat. Honey Badger)”
G.O.F: “Fairy Temple”
When BonBon Girls 303 debuted, a (now-deleted) article asked “are BonBon Girls 303 China’s answer to Blackpink?” despite the fact that their single “BonBon Girls” sounded more like “Bouncy” by rookie group Rocket Punch than anything Blackpink has ever done. Comparing any Chinese girl group to Blackpink isn’t just incredibly Western-centric but it misrepresented what BonBon Girls 303 were: a temporary Produce 101 group that only had aspirations to promote within their native country. Why would they need to? Their debut mini-album sold over 100,000 copies within one minute.
BonBon Girls 303 may not be China’s answer to Blackpink, but Mandopop girl groups seem to be taking inspiration from them all the same. Taiwanese girl group, Girls On Fire or G.O.F (who were, of course, formed on yet another survival show) recall “How You Like That” on their debut single “Fairy Temple.” It mirrors the structure, stitching together charismatic raps, soaring pre-choruses, and a heated half-time bridge. “Fairy Temple” doesn’t do it lazily, building a through-line with its squelchy synth, the traces of which can be heard an octave lower on the second chorus and chopped into its dance break. It never strays away from that throughline, even when they layer more and more on top, “Fairy Temple” ends the way it existed: loud, bright, and aggressive.
jiafeng: “FaceTime Love (feat. AKINI JING)”
Emotion in Mandopop is overblown. Sadness becomes all-consuming until it no longer feels real, consuming its bare instrumentals. jiafeng’s music is different, not just in the way that it's glitchy and sparkly and noisy, but in the way that joy and sadness feel realized in a very human way. Emotional Dance Music is order out of chaos, the construction of heart-racing pop music out of noise. “FaceTime Love” is its most direct expression of nostalgia, reminiscent of MSN Messenger, of the chipper feeling of being online, of customized status updates, and those loud and ugly interfaces. “FaceTime Love” is loud and brazen, building twinkling sound effects and jiafeng’s deep voice over harsher soundscapes. It’s love in the little things, like tiny heart-shaped adornments over Chinese characters. “FaceTime Love” is the intimacy of current-day online connection, the feeling of liked Tweets and unexpected messages, of fifteen-minute WeChat calls to grandparents in the middle of a pandemic.
Zooey Wonder & Wu Qing Feng: “You Hurt Me Deeply”
There’s a remarkable directness to “You Hurt Me Deeply,” the kind that Zooey Wonder evaded years ago while chasing Wonderland. She reflects, stepping back both lyrically and musically, abandoning the wispy electronica sound in favour of something more grounded. Its English title signals a lot of the track’s reflection, but its Chinese title paints its maturity: “再也不见” or “I’ll never see you again.” Understanding yourself may involve being able to tell when something is no longer good for you but maturity requires the ability to let go of who causes you pain. Her maturity plays out with a clear sense of finality, drums crashing like waves and Wonder moving on, her voice intertwining with someone new.
Roy Wang: “The 400 blows”
The TFBOYS are grown up. They’re performing record-breaking concerts and exploring what they want to in their own solo careers. There’s a sense of maturity expressed in each member’s solo work, best done by Roy Wang, who folds quiet introspection into downtempo surf-rock on “The 400 blows.” The phrasing on the chorus is brilliant, stretching out the first two syllables and just as quickly stifling emotion: “愉快 都被消费 / 悲哀 浑然不觉” (“pleasure is consumed / sadness is oblivious”). But its greatest moments are in its ending, the piercing wails that seem to best express the angst of being twenty, of being completely sure of everything while knowing absolutely nothing.
W0LF(S): “All You Love Is Love”
Qiu Feng Ze and Nine Chen make Grey’s Anatomy-core pop-rock, but their collaborations span a huge network of artists. W0LF(S) is them cosplaying as a boy band, complete with the amateur choreography. The group is varied: SHOU’s gained traction for his take on Mandarin hip-hop while Wayne Huang makes sunny pop music. Lai released a song called Pussy Gun. Despite their need for compromise in sound within the group and despite their lack of experience at idol music, the five have more individual personality and chemistry than most existing Mandopop boy groups. The looseness is only a good thing. “All You Love Is Love” is simple and joyful, five boys having fun in the process of making music together.
Janice Yan: “Let everything happen”
No Chinese person has ever willingly given up control. And yet, in the aftermath of a breakup, that’s exactly what Janice Yan seems to do. Probably because this isn’t really that kind of break-up song, or maybe even really a break-up song at all, but a song that exists in the kind of quiet space between where love ended and where it could begin again. “Let everything happen” is warmth and empathy, Janice Yan singing with such assuredness that the possibility of being loved and loving someone else no longer sounds so out of reach.
Sharon Kwan: “Masterpiece”
At the end of high school, I skipped the part where you spend time with your friends and went to China to visit family. It felt wrong at the time, like everything would be different when I came back and everyone would have moved on with their lives without me (which was true and yet, never actually mattered). I spent the summer searching for pieces of home within China, my grandma’s cooking sure, but also in torrented seasons of New Girl and reading and re-reading text messages I couldn’t respond to. Most memorable though being stuffed in the back of a taxi and hearing the local radio play a leaked version of Selena Gomez’s “Love Will Remember” (you know, the one that opens with that pathetic voicemail from Justin Bieber).
Mandopop, similar to K-pop latched onto Ariana Grande; however, there’s a big part of Mandopop that seems to have taken a liking to Selena Gomez. There’s still a lot of Mandopop in the same vein as 2013’s Stars Dance — the harsh electro-pop and boilerplate EDM — but the more interesting tracks sound like Revival. Sharon Kwan’s “MASTERPIECE” feels like self-discovery the same way Revival did five years ago. It’s minimalistic, hopeful, and warm. It express confidence the same way Selena did, through fragility and vulnerability, holding back where others go bigger. It also feels like Revival in the way Sharon Kwan first expresses romantic desire with “能不能带我走” (“can you take me away”), then almost immediately follows with an expression of independence, “或许 我才能找回自己” (“perhaps, I can find myself again”). By the time Sharon Kwan sings that final “oh baby, you are a masterpiece,” it no longer sounds directed at anyone but herself, a hard-earned expression of self-worth. “MASTERPIECE” is like that night all those years ago in the back of a taxi, the warmth of finding pieces of yourself in places you least expected it.
“Popcorn” is picnics in the park. It’s twinkling melodies in the spring breeze. It’s ice cream melting onto your fingertips, sweaty palms holding hands in the back of the theatre, and fairy lights strung around backyard patios. It’s spring turning into summer and adolescent crushes turning into something more. It was the dream of what could have been, the perfect day that never happened, and the crush that never worked out.
also: “Me Before You”
Xing Zheng: “The Room by the Sea”
A good pop song conveys emotion. But a great pop song blows up an emotion and makes it feels like it’s the only feeling in the world. Xing Zheng’s “The Room by the Sea” is a great folk pop song. It’s the kind of song that aches. It’s longing so intense that you wish for love that wasn’t so deep just so the space doesn’t feel so empty. Because its tiny pauses, the spaces where sound should be, are suffocating. “The Room by the Sea” is the greatest kind of pop song, the one that makes you long for a place you haven’t been, want something you’ve never had, and miss someone you’ve still yet to meet.
Julia Wu: “Re:PLAY (feat. Jinbo & Kimberley)”
ChynaHouse became one of the greatest Mandopop labels this year thanks largely to their approach to collaboration. The most interesting of which came from Julia Wu, 2020’s greatest Mandopop artist, who followed up last year’s great 5 am with 5:30, which seemed to explore what Mandarin-language R&B could be with the help of other ChynaHouse artists like SHOU, Kimberley, and ?te. But nothing hit quite as hard as “Re:PLAY,” which caught her at her best, as the life of Taiwan’s greatest party, a whirlwind of a force. It’s a series of great tricks that always come back to Julia Wu: the handoff from Jinbo, the way the instrumental fades to spotlight her on the second verse, and how her harmony under Kimberley’s bridge leads to one final chorus. On every listen, something new grabs your attention—from the subtle vocal delay to the not-so-subtle inclusiveness on the chorus. There’s no end to the party on “Re:PLAY” and the same seems to be true about Julia Wu’s winning streak.
Kimberley: “4am Calls”
There’s the underlying message to the “u up?” text message that Kimberley hints at: you don’t get a call at 4:00 AM unless someone’s exhausted every other option. That’s why “4am Calls” comes with resigned fatigue, one final refusal paired with the feeling of being angry with yourself for letting it go on so long. A big part of the delight of “4am Calls” is its ridiculous and campy music video and while “4am Calls” the song, may not get quite as ridiculous, its vindictive spirit and Kimberley’s smooth jabs make it just as satisfying.
WayV: “After Midnight”
I didn’t get “Love Talk.” What was it supposed to suggest? Instead of sensual, empowering, or anything, when WayV tried turning on the charm, it felt like an open joke, like the idea of seven Asian boys openly expressing sexual desire was funny over anything else. “Touch me, tease me, feel me up” just sounds inexperienced, like prepubescent teenagers egging others on as a dare rather than men open in their desire. The English version felt even worse, tossing in a handful of horny spit-take lines for shock-value.
On their first full-length album, Awaken the World, WayV (mostly) make the leap. The performances are better, the production more experimental, and WayV are more mature. That maturity is clearest in comparing “Love Talk” with “After Midnight.” “After Midnight” charges its atmosphere through rolling synths, piano keys, and finger snaps. It builds tension here doesn’t just exist, and WayV go further, using it to lift the song's climax higher. The lyrics are also more explicit in their yearning: “I want it all / 花这一整夜好奇地探索” (“spend the whole night curiously exploring you”). When WayV profess their desire on “After Midnight” it no longer feels like an empty dare, but real desperate lust. “I like it better after midnight” delivers on the idea started last year, that Chinese men be sexual without being treated as a joke.
Jasmine Sokko: “FEVER”
I fall for this trick every time. Red Velvet did it back in 2015, when their demand for “ice cream” suddenly switched to “your lips.” SEVENTEEN did it two years ago, folding “I’m your home” into “you’re my home.” And Jasmine Sokko does it here, flipping the word “we” to “I” at the end of the song: “hate that I grew up so fast.” It changes everything, adolescent romance abruptly morphs into the hurt of stolen innocence, its bouncy rhythm a distraction from the pain. “FEVER” is your infatuation cooling, realizing you were in love with someone who never loved you in the first place.
Cindy Yen: “21 Days”
“二十一天是我给自己的期限” (“21 days, that’s the deadline I’ve given myself”) Cindy Yen whispers before tumbling into an EDM drop blasted straight from the early 2010s. Letting go of someone you still love is work. It involves keeping yourself so busy that the memories feel like a distant past, ones you know you’re only looking at through the rosiest of lenses. But the reward, that first feeling when you wake up thinking about something rather than someone, is so so good. It’s the feeling “21 Days” captures so well when it collapses into its beautifully messy blur of noise, the weightless feeling of being free.
Accusefive: “新世界 (feat. ABAO)”
If “21 Days” was Mandarin EDM at its most untethered, “新世界” is the other end, dance music at its most relentless, less focused on release, more on atmosphere. The arrangement seems to borrow more from ABAO’s sound than Accusefive’s indie-rock, introducing chanted melodies and indigenous drums to its pounding pulse. “新世界” serves as a ritualistic introduction into the cultural mixing ABAO started on last year’s great kinakaian, bridging the indigenous Paiwanese culture closer to Taiwan’s mainstream.
Fans of the K-pop girl group DREAMCATCHER were excited by Handong’s appearance in the fourth act of the violent over-the-top fifteen-and-a-half minute short film that accompanies ONER’s third album, STRUCK. But musically, the most interesting part occurs in its second act, when leader Pinkray launches into his solo “Night,” immersing you in the twinkling lights of city-pop. “Night” takes a straightforward approach to city-pop, its subdued atmosphere capturing the late-night effervescence of the genre. It’s the search for connection, for wanting someone to kiss in the dark. Pinkray may fall short, finding only “这夜晚的微分” (“the breeze of the night”), but “Night” embraces you with warmth, forging connection in the comfort of shared loneliness.
Eric Chou: “When We Were Young”
At the end of first-year in university, I made this weird little joke, and long story short, I ended up seeing The Fault in Our Stars with five people in the back of an empty theater. I hated it. Terrible movie. Absolutely atrocious. But I lied. I lied about crying in the back of the theater, watching stupid Ans*l Elg*rt and his stupid fucking cigarettes, thinking about how only four years earlier, the doctor had given my mom five years.
Last year, I spent two hours crying while looping “Someone You Loved” by Lewis Capaldi. The next day, a paper I submitted was rejected and repeated the process but this time with a real tangible reason to cry. My brother asked if I was okay on the first day but left me alone on the second. You get, I’m stupidly emotional.
Delving deeper into Mandopop this year was a similar process, a stupid joke that went too far. Mandopop pulled me in with its ballads, the simple melodies that were filled with the flair for dramatics and overwrought emotion. The kind that makes living after rejection sound like a superhuman affair. The kind of emotional that’s suffocatingly strong, the kind that makes me stay up until two in the morning looping the same Mandopop ballad in the middle of a pandemic.
I spent too many nights looping Eric Chou’s “When We Were Young.” No other song quite captured the feeling of nostalgia, heartache, and the lingering taste of regret quite like it this year. It’s in the buried barely-a-whisper verse, the way the pre-chorus feels like holding back a dam and succeeding, and the way the chorus feels like it’s failing. The way the memory of every fucked-up thing you’ve ever said, every person you’ve ever hurt just lurks in the back of your memory, waiting to jump out at a second’s notice. It’s the way the piano melody runs itself into a loop, like a never-escaping reminder of your failures. It’s the way that it ends so unfinished, a broken memory where you were a coward, an emptiness where there might have once been happiness. “要永远相信者小时候的我们勇敢者” (“please always believe when we were young, we were once brave”) sings Eric Chou, before leaving you with absolutely nothing. It’s like being at the back of the theatre, watching your worst play on loop, without being able to do anything to stop yourself from being a goddamn coward. Maybe time just moves too quickly. Maybe there’s not enough time left and that’s all there is to it. “When We Were Young” is the empty vacancy I’ve felt this long year, the part that felt stuck in a monotonous loop. The part that missed feeling, well, really anything. I miss being outside. I miss my stupid desk at school. I miss being around people. I miss my friend who I once thought might have been more. I miss my mom.