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Year in Review: Saigoneer's 20 Picks for Best Vietnamese Music of 2019

In a nutshell, 2019 has been a year of milestones, blurring of genres and retrospection for Vietnamese music.

As I slowly make my way through the diverse range of fresh music released in the last 12 months in Vietnam, I’m filled with a sense of optimism. If these records are what Vietnam has in our musical wealth, then a simmering golden age of kickass music is right around the corner. In 2019, Vietnamese artists experimented with new visions, found footing in their established fan bases and embraced their Vietnamese-ness in the best of ways.

Throughout the 2010s, Vietnam’s music scene saw a gradual shift from formal album releases towards a track-centric business model focused on singles. This has become the dominant modus operandi of Vietnamese pop, as big names like Sơn Tùng M-TP, Hương Giang and Trúc Nhân released one smash hit after another, powered by bombastic music videos and lyrics strategically manufactured to make the timeline of meme pages.

For a group of artists who have been steadily amassing fans through internet word of mouth and live performances, a debut album, however, is still an important milestone; this was the case of Vũ, Trang and Saigon Soul Revival. For Hoàng Thùy Linh, Cá Hồi Hoang and Ngọt — who have crafted successful albums in the past — 2019 was a creative playground for experimentation. Their three albums all turned out to be their best works to date.

A major movement permeating creative works across disciplines in 2019 was the incorporation of elements of traditional and Vietnamese culture. This is present in the works of Limebócx, Linh and Saigon Soul Revival, who employed to great effect the distinctive sounds of đàn tranh (zither), đàn bầu (monochord), and, in the case of Linh, Vietnamese classical literature and folk religion Mother Goddess, in their tracks.

2019 also offered numerous ways to support one’s favorite musicians, from contributing to crowdfunding campaigns, streaming their music on Spotify or Apple Music, to just merely replaying YouTube music videos. With the rise of millennials and Gen Z-ers, who are now a major part of the country’s workforce, serious musicians now enjoy more support, financially and otherwise, from a crop of loyal, educated and discerning fans who are willing to buy authentic albums or merch and go to concerts to encourage their favorite musical acts.

The following 20 tracks, selected from full albums, extended plays and even YouTube releases, represent the best works of Vietnamese artists in 2019. They shine brighter than the rest for different reasons, some easier to articulate than others. The songs, however, are not ranked and were instead arranged in order of release date, from earliest to latest.

Click here to listen to 18 of the tracks in this playlist (two are not available on YouTube).

1. The Flob – Em Oii | Single

The Flob served as openers at the Saigon show of Hanoi-based band Những Đứa Trẻ, and their set was jam-packed with energy and stage acrobatics, the perfect appetizer for their headliners’ subsequent main course. As members of Generation Z, The Flob features perhaps this list’s youngest artists, though what they lack in living experience, they make up for in potential and humor, something that the music video for ‘Em Oii’ oozes. It remains to be seen what the future holds for the five-piece band, as most members still have to finish their formal education, but at least for now, fans can spot them rocking out while touring Saigon’s many high schools.

2. Paranoid x Hai Sam – Giai Điệu Êm Ái (Sweet Melody) | Single

There was a time when the name Hai Sam was commonly associated with wistful ballads thanks to sleeper hits like ‘Một Điều Mà Anh Rất Ngại Nói Ra’ and ‘Thế Thôi,’ both soft, guitar-driven compositions that fit right in with cute boutique cafés. Produced by Paranoid, ‘Giai Điệu Êm Ái’ is a completely different beast hailing from Hai Sam’s “blue period,” which marks a drastic transition from cutesy to gritty. “Lo-fi love / Low quality, but lasts for a long time,” Sam declares in lyrics set to a background of blurry nightscapes. In the end, we are treated to a sharp-tongued, sleekly produced anthem that defies expectations.

3. Mèow Lạc – Đi | Single

For months now I’ve found myself coming back to Mèow Lạc’s ‘Đi’ whenever I’m feeling dejected. It could be the lyrics’ cautious optimism or the cheery melody, but 'Đi' has been accepted by my subconscious as a go-to pick-me-up song. “Sometimes my legs can’t continue / I just close my eyes and take a deep breath.” The song doesn’t veer into vacuous affirmations that everything will turn out okay, but instead chooses to press forward with a metaphorical pat on the back: “Oh well, what to do? / Oh well, let’s just step forward / Going to the end of the road / Going without looking back.”

4. Hoàng Thống – Film | Single

‘Film’ is the first solo effort of Hoàng Thống, one half of the indie duo THE SHEEP. The single exudes a sense of stylishness that might bring to mind the sleek aesthetics of K-indie. In his one man show, Thống showcases a darker edge that’s rarely seen in THE SHEEP’s usual bubble-gum pop. All in all, ‘Film’ is fashionable and catchy enough to lure both established fans of K-culture and errant listeners.

5. Chillies – Nếu Ngày Mai Không Đến | Single

Ever since I set my ears on the bouncy melody of ‘Who? (Tinder Song),’ Chillies’ first official release back 2018, I’ve come to love the band’s contemporary vibe found both in their music and lyrics. The quintet ended 2018 on a high note when ‘Và Thế Là Hết’ became one of the most-replayed songs of December and the first half of 2019. If the 2018 single has all the hallmarks of an indie pop record, ‘Nếu Ngày Mai Không Đến’ feels like an alternative rock classic of the early 2000s, albeit with some fresh deviation from the old structure. The end of this year once again marked one of the band’s important firsts: a live concert at Saigon’s Soul Live Project barely a week ago.

6. Quang Huy – Tự Tình | Single

Written by Minh Trieu and performed by Quang Huy, ‘Tự Tình’ was one of 2019’s rare jazz compositions, a stripped-down, delicate love song made irresistible only by guitar and piano. At the beginning, one might brush the song off as yet another simple guitar piece, but everything changes for the better once those jazzy piano notes start playing. Huy hits those high notes with the longing of a man in pain, ending the song on a lingering note.

7. Ho Tram Anh – Low (Requiem for a Soul) | Low – EP

Find Ho Tram Anh on Bandcamp | Read Saigoneer's review of the EP here.

Somber notes from a grand piano, the slow hum of s cello, and Ho Tram Anh's drawn-out, grave line delivery — ‘Low (Requiem for a Soul)’ is gorgeously haunting. The song firmly occupies the melancholy extreme of this year’s music releases, and is proud to be so different. Tram Anh’s work on piano is as deft as her vocals, evoking a frosty landscape of loss, solitude and immense introspection. It’s rare to see such depths and layers from a young songwriter. Ho Tram Anh’s Low EP is a much-needed low note in a year dominated by trendy pop- and hip-hop-infused hits. Brew a mug of hot tea, snuggle up on a quiet evening, and immerse in the deep ambiance of Tram Anh’s land of wintry isolation.

8. Hà Lê – Mưa Hồng (feat. Bùi Lan Hương) | Single

As a Trịnh Công Sơn staple, ‘Mưa Hồng’ has been through generations of covers since its first release in 1968. Over half a century, at this point listeners in Vietnam have probably found their favorite rendition of the song. Purists might stick to the original by Khánh Ly, while some praise Lê Hiếu’s delicate piano remake of the hit. This year, Hà Lê decided to throw his own take in the mix, a blend of dance, electronic and traditional instruments that might be the most inventive and different ‘Mưa Hồng’ iteration to date. Lê is joined by dream pop princess Bùi Lan Hương in the single’s glossy music video, a feast for the eyes that could pass for a high-fashion editorial.

9. LilCe x Datmaniac – Đỉnh Núi Tuyết Của Nuối Tiếc | Single

Datmaniac’s reputation as one of Vietnam’s fastest rappers, surprisingly, is not the only claim to greatness. One could also point to his firm grasp of technique, flow and lyric craftsmanship. But, as anyone who’s met Datmaniac would tell you, he’s one of the nicest rappers you’ll ever encounter. His stoic demeanor and world-weary lyrics might give off the impression that he’s intimidating or distant, but this is someone who put kittens on a track cover and filmed the music video for the same song at a cat shelter.

‘Đỉnh Núi Tuyết Của Nuối Tiếc’ is produced by LilCe with guitar by Sugar Cane. Here, Dat, once again, demonstrates his impressive speed and writing chops. The theme of gratitude makes up the bulk of the song lyrics, as well as coming-of-age realizations: “Owning what I say, that’s me getting braver / I think I want it to be simpler, no need for painkillers / What are fame and talent if you don’t know how to say thank you?”

10. Suboi – Cho Không | Single

Quarter-life crisis is now a thing, especially in an age when millennials are entering adulthood feeling aimless, burdened by familial expectations and detached from relationships. ‘Cho Không’ by Suboi, however, celebrates the complete opposite, a quarter-life nirvana, if you will. She moves through the lyrics with the ease of a life guru who has everything figured out. “Who said the dream is dead when you’re over 25? / Well, I don’t care too much / Feeling myself like a woman of the year,” she sneers, and one can almost picture a smirk. The rest of the song is peppered with similar threads of philosophy: “sometimes when you don’t have bún bò, instant noodles is also okay.”

Though ‘Cho Không’ has neither the attitude nor the fiery speed of ‘N-SAO?’, it has loads of bounce factors and a stylish music video that prompt countless replays. As a friend of mine put it, ‘Cho Không’ is the perfect soundtrack to power-walk into the wedding of your ex, not to crash it, but to show everyone how much you’ve matured and put everything behind you.

11. Đen – Hai Triệu Năm (feat. Biên) | Single

2019 has been a massively successful year for Đen, the mustachioed rapper from Ha Long. From ‘Anh Đếch Cần Gì Nhiều Ngoài Em’ to ‘Lối Nhỏ’ to ‘Hai Triệu Năm,’ it seems like he’s managed to master the Midas touch of music, where anything he touched turns into millions of YouTube views. If those figures are not enough, 5,000 tickets for his first-ever live concert in November were sold out within 10 minutes.

Despite their popularity, Đen’s songs are somewhat inconsistent in quality, ranging from mediocre drivel (read: ‘Bài Này Chill Phết’) to the brilliant ingenuity of ‘Đố Em Biết Anh Đang Nghĩ Gì.’ Nonetheless, the absurdity of ‘Hai Triệu Năm’ has earned the summer hit a place on the list, more for its role in shaping the current youth culture than its inherent quality. The music video is three-odd minutes of Đen, or just his head, floating in the ocean — it’s weird, but it works.

12. Cá Hồi Hoang – Hiệu Ứng Trốn Chạy | Hiệu Ứng Trốn Chạy – Album

Find the full album on Spotify

In the middle of a mini show at Saigon’s Yoko Café two years ago, Thành Luke, Cá Hồi Hoang’s vocalist, decided to whip out his phone to call his sister in Da Lat. Then, with the line still open, the band proceeded to play a full performance of ‘Nhà 9A,’ a song Thành wrote for his childhood memories living in House 9A in his hometown in Lam Dong Province. This earnestness has been the cornerstone of Cá Hồi Hoang’s band personality and music ever since their debut record, ‘Chương II.’ 

Some have dubbed the band the “saviors” of indie music, an accolade that’s fundamentally flawed — because Vietnamese indie doesn’t need saving — and imposes too much pressure on three dudes just doing what they love without any grandiose agenda. What the trio has done successfully is cultivate a healthy community of music lovers who are serious in supporting artists through meaningful ways, be it saying no to music piracy or diligently going to concerts.

‘Hiệu Ứng Trốn Chạy’ takes one step further as a concept album with a clear vision and sliver of consistent philosophy from start to finish. It warrants careful listens as a whole, not just skimming for catchy tunes. All told, the titular track captures the album’s essence most aptly, and deserves to be July’s track of the month.

13. Hoàng Thùy Linh – Tứ Phủ | Hoàng – Album

Find the full album on Spotify

Hoàng Thùy Linh once said in an interview that the idea for her album ‘Hoàng’ began back in 2016 when she dropped the mega hit ‘Bánh Trôi Nước (Woman),’ an unsurprising fact as the song could easily fit in Linh’s latest album. ‘Hoàng’ is an almost pitch-perfect pop record, with such sterling music production and consistent themes that listeners might find it difficult to skip any track. Still, most of its lyrics fall short due to an overindulgence in catchy punchlines in hopes of entering internet culture, and thus, staying forever. The lead single ‘Để Mị Nói Cho Mà Nghe’ is most guilty of this, but the trade-off might be worth it, judging by the unbelievable frequency with which the title is replicated in social media taglines from every brand and their mother this year.

This, then, makes ‘Tứ Phủ’ the obvious standout track of the album and a strong spiritual successor to ‘Bánh Trôi Nước.’ The song title alludes to the four realms of Đạo Mẫu, a local folk religion: Heaven, Highlands, Water and Earth. The song, like ‘Bánh Trôi Nước,’ reaffirms the virtues of Vietnamese women while lamenting the hardships life throws at them. 

14. Minh Đinh – Mỗi Khi Đêm Về (feat. Nger) | Mình Là Của Nhau Đến Bao Giờ – EP

‘Mỗi Khi Đêm Về’ starts off with mellow piano notes and a soft verse to lure listeners into a false sense of comfort, but quickly turns into a storm full of internal struggle, thrashing emotions and belting vocals. Minh Đinh doesn’t hold anything back in the song; he chants, he raps, he begs, he laments. ‘Mỗi Khi Đêm Về’ is the best track of the EP and one of the most emotionally complex records on this list, putting Minh Đinh’s first official EP firmly in the front of the pack as this year’s most memorable releases.

15. 7UPPERCUTS – Duma Song | Chái Mái – EP

Listen on YouTube | Pre-order the EP

Some level of rebellion should always be expected of 7UPPERCUTS, whose dedication to punk and colorful tees has been admirable, but ‘Duma Song’ goes beyond garden-variety punkness; it's a full-throated declaration of insurgency that is a parent’s worst nightmare. Admittedly, I almost left 'Duma Song' off the list out of spite because the track feels too short — it’s so crazy and good I wanted more! But I also realized that it’s the succinctness that makes it insanely catchy and a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. Whether you’re into punk or not, 7UPPERCUTS is a name to watch in 2020, if for no other reason than their cheerful and happy-go-lucky spirit, something the world can always use more of in this political climate.

16. Limebócx – Hồ Tây (thơ Nguyễn Khuyến) | Electrùnic – EP

Listen on Spotify

On paper, Electrùnic — electronic and ca trù — might sound like a preposterous combination in the realm of mắm tôm pizza, but under the magic of Trang (Chuối) and Tuan, the coy flirtations of ca trù had a drunken one-night-stand with hip-hop to produce one of the year’s most alluring records. While 'Yêu Nhau (Qua Cầu Gió Bay)' has hogged all the attention of the EP thanks to a wicked accompanying music video, 'Hồ Tây' is the best track of the bunch, elevating đàn tranh to a level of coolness no zither has seen before, even within the layers of beatboxing, bassline, a reverberating hum and Chuối’s sultry vocals. Let’s hope YouTube will still be around in a few decades so we can all introduce our children to Limebócx’s videos to inspire them to take up đàn tranh.

17. Ngọt – Lần Cuối (đi bên em xót xa người ơi) | 3 – Album

Listen to the album on Spotify | Read Saigoneer's review of 3 here.

3 is Ngọt’s third studio album, and without a doubt, the group’s best work to date, though that doesn’t make it any easier to pick a song that can encapsulate the spirit of the entire record. Though there are a few contenders with better arrangement and more interesting structure, I keep going back to ‘Lần Cuối (đi bên em xót xa người ơi).’ Many have pointed out that the track reminds them of The Beatles, and I agree — it’s an amalgam of ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Hey Jude.’ But it also shows the maturation of the band since the last album, presenting a Ngọt that’s more assured and confident than ever. ‘Lần Cuối’ is complete story with an opening, building up and a climax that’s made for rocking out on a live stage. Will they break out an actual brass section during the concert? We can only hope.

18. Saigon Soul Revival – Hào Hoa (feat. Blacka) | Họa Âm Xưa – Album

Listen to the album on Spotify

Written in 1972 by Giao Tien, ‘Hào Hoa’ is much older than the rest of this list’s entries, though this doesn’t mean that it’s old-fashioned. Saigon Soul Revival’s arrangement and vocalist Ánh Minh have made the old song much more modern, especially since the lyrics seek to warn young women of womanizers — these persist across decades! The appearance of Hazard Clique rapper Blacka is surprisingly well-integrated, lifting ‘Hào Hoa’ from great to kickass.

19. Trang – Đừng Hát Về Cơn Mưa (feat. MADIHU, Mạc Mai Sương) | Tỉnh Giấc Khi Ông Trời Đang Ngủ – Album

Listen to the album on Spotify

Trang started out singing her own compositions on SoundCloud and has gained a loyal following for her distinctive brand of gentle ballads. For some, a powerful voice is what gets them excited, but for fans of Nhạc Của Trang, it’s the sense of vulnerability imbued in her works that keep them coming back. Debut album ‘Tỉnh Giấc Khi Ông Trời Đang Ngủ’ also signals the transition from Nhạc Của Trang to just Trang, as she transforms from a songwriter who pens hits for big names like Min or Uyên Linh to songstress with considerable influence in the music scene.

Production-wise, the album is polished and will undoubtedly satisfy her loyal fan base. Alas, it suffers from a sleepy monotony in vocals that might deter new listeners. Thankfully, two tracks featuring Xanh 8+1, MADIHU and Mạc Mai Sương help to disrupt the record’s listless slumber.

20. Kim Chi Sun – Lối Đi Cho Em | 'M Good – EP

Listen to the EP on Spotify

Kim Chi Sun’s debut EP is the freshest sound of the list, having been released just last week. But it's already shown a lot of potential to be replayed for months to come. Ranked slightly above lead single ‘Baby I’m Good,’ the third track ‘Lối Đi Cho Em’ is the best of the bunch, incorporating elements of chillwave, 90s R&B and straightforward pop. Kim Chi’s voice has a breathy texture that meshes well with chillwave, making ‘M Good one of 2019’s best R&B records.

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