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Year in Review: Saigoneer's 20 Picks for Best Vietnamese Music of 2020

Despite the uncertainties and upheavals of 2020, Vietnamese artists have continued to produce excellent music that defies genres, merges past influences, and exceeds expectations.

If last year’s music landscape saw the incorporation of traditional folk elements into fiery bangers like those of Hoàng Thùy Linh and Limebócx, in 2020, local musicians turned to past decades of western history for inspiration. Disco, swing, jazz, Motown, trap and R&B can be spotted in a number of songs across genres. A fresh crop of native English speakers or proficient language users have joined in, creating and singing songs in English with an admirable fluency, a far cry from the era of clumsy enunciation in the 2000s.

I’ve never encountered as challenging a time as when I was compiling this list, whittling dozens of brilliant songs down to just 20. Still, the fact that the number of excellent songs cannot be easily jammed into a Top 20 is a testament to how prolific Vietnamese artists have been this year, in spite of everything that’s going on elsewhere in the world. Here is Saigoneer’s list of 2020’s best music, from #20 to #1.

#20 Thịnh Suy - 20 Năm Ở Thế Giới

What makes a song a hit? A fast bpm, relatable lyrics, or highly polished production? Across Top 40 lists in mature entertainment industries like the US or South Korea, hits are carefully strategized and workshopped by a gaggle of producers to entice the maximum number of listeners. Thịnh Suy’s rising success is a positive sign pointing towards the participation of younger music listeners in the local scene. Where else could a predominantly acoustic indie artist like Thịnh amass dozens of millions of views on YouTube? ‘20 Năm Ở Thế Giới’ was released on the occasion of his 20th birthday — a tender and subdued celebration of the passing of time. With just piano and guitar, the song employs Thịnh’s most comforting canvas of acoustic instruments to tug on our heartstrings. It’s a soothing salve for a new age.

#19 My Anh - Got You

There will be a time when we discuss Mỹ Anh without mentioning her mother, famous artiste Mỹ Linh. Judging by the level of craftsmanship she demonstrated in ‘Got You,’ that time might come sooner than we’d think. By any measure, the song is a pitch-perfect study of 1990s R&B, from the slurring of words down to the deliberate whispery tone — think Aaliyah. It’s hard to believe that this started as a school assignment, but perhaps its faithfulness to the genre is also a setback. Via ‘Got You,’ we don’t see a lot of Mỹ Anh’s own music personality, though her understanding of the subject is admirable. At just 18, Mỹ Anh has all the time in the world to figure it out, and I for one can’t wait to see how she turns that immense potential and musical pedigree into hits in the future, R&B or not.

#18 CeCe Trương - Virus

‘Virus’ by CeCe Trương might win the award for most on-the-nose song title of the year. For the uninitiated, CeCe is the daughter of musicians Cẩm Vân and Khắc Triệu, not that their careers have much presence in her music. While she’s been making music covers on her YouTube channel for a while, ‘Virus’ was the first official original release from her as an independent artist. It’s a stylish R&B track that compares an unfaithful boyfriend’s sneaky behavior to that of a virulent agent. As a debut track, it’s as faultless as one can be, though what’s most exciting is the mesmerizing tone of CeCe’s voice.

#17 Kiên Trịnh - Tập Thể Dục

Because I got to know Kiên Trịnh’s ‘Tập Thể Dục’ back in March right in the middle of Vietnam’s first social distancing campaign, it’s become the unofficial theme song of my lockdown life. The song blends eastern instrumentals with a hip-hop beat while encouraging listeners to get off the couch and do some morning exercise, PSA-style. Are there deeper layers to the song? Perhaps not, but sometimes in life you need levity rather than philosophy. The “music video” — if we can even call it that — has some excellent dance moves that should inspire even the most devout couch potatoes to move their feet.

#16 Thoại 004 - Ở Đó

Thoại 004 is a five-piece indie rock band from Saigon, who facetiously self-proclaim that they don't "play" music, but "rear" music. Back in November, the group had a cozy release night at Saigon's Yoko Cafe to present their latest EP, “Tho4l,” one of the year's most solid alt-rock records that manages to balance between assured song-writing and satisfying delivery. From the dreamy and romantic first song, 'Da Lat,' and passionate and assertive 'Runaway,' Thoại 004 moves towards more solitude-stricken notes in the new EP, exploring the depths of isolation and heartbreak. "The EP is a series of open portrayals of lonely characters in today's life," the band writes of the new record. "From layers of desperation, yearning, nostalgia, fear to anger, everything is encapsulated in the lyrics that the Tho4l EP wishes to deliver to our listeners."

#15 Đặng Thái Bình - Xa Anh

As her first and only official music release after two years of inactivity, Xa Anh is a safe choice for The Voice Vietnam alumnus Đặng Thái Bình. The tender, yearning love song was a crowd favorite during the competition, catapulting Bình into the grand finale. ‘Xa Anh’ has all the hallmarks of a classic ballad: a piano-led background, a female voice as delicate as an embrace, and an emotionally charged climax that pierces through our psyche. Freed from the performative pressures of the singing pageant, Bình has retained in the official single all of the qualities that made the live performance great while smoothing out the vocal overexertion that set it back. Listening to her heartbroken crooning, I can’t help but miss the 2000s, the golden age of adult contemporary and their powerhouses like Hồ Quỳnh Hương, Ngọc Anh or Phương Vy — a good sign pointing to the timeless future of ‘Xa Anh.’

#14 Thành Luke - Chìm

There’s no denying the success of Cá Hồi Hoang in the eyes of Vietnamese music fans, and it might take more than a mere roundup article to dissect their artistry. One of the factors worthy of applause is main vocalist Thành Luke’s talent as a writer, a finely honed craft he has shown us once again in his solo album “Gián Đoạn,” released in May. The album is his second, after 2016’s “Qua Từng Nếp Nhăn,” and it serves as a testament to Thành’s growth in recent years. Music-wise, it begs the question: You can take Thành Luke out of Cá Hồi Hoang, but can you really take Cá Hồi Hoang out of Thành Luke? Most of the record could pass for something out of the band’s prolific repertoire, with a few exceptions. ‘Chìm,’ a piano-driven neoclassical composition, stands out as the album’s most abstract and melancholic track, both lyrically and musically. With short, vague lyrics and heavy piano, some might say that it’s too maudlin, but in ‘Chìm,’ we find textures and contemplation away from the need to follow any story. This tinge of sadness is the common thread flowing like an ocean current across the album, in contrast with the wistful contentment of “Qua Từng Nếp Nhăn.” With “Gián Đoạn,” Thành’s songwriting gets more philosophical, more world-weary — a maturity that feels more genuine than strategically manufactured.

#13 Vinh Khuat - DISCO

In the face of a disorienting pandemic, some might find it hard to be productive and adjust to merging their work and home state of mind. Not Vinh Khuat, a Vietnamese-German musician and producer living in Germany, who’s been producing new music at an impressive rate. Last year, we wrote about Vinh Khuat as part of five overseas Vietnamese artists to watch, especially for his talent in music production. Seriously, someone should give Vinh a record deal, like yesterday, the man has range. From incorporating đàn bầu into ‘Mặc Kệ’ to the intimate ‘Điều Ước Trong Đêm Noel,’ what can’t Vinh Khuat do? Now, do I understand the lyrics of the purely German ‘DISCO’? No. Is it a bit unconventional to include it in a list of Vietnamese music? I don’t know. What I do know is that my limbs seem to have a mind of their own whenever the song comes on. It’s an impossibly addictive track that should be featured at every dance party.

#12 iTeu - Ngày Tự Do

This year marks the 10th that alternative rock band iTeu has been making music, and the band’s latest release, ‘Ngày Tự Do,’ has proven once again the enduring sound of rock in the Vietnamese music scene. The name iTeu is a modern play on the classic chú Tễu, a character trope in local water puppetry performances. According to the four-piece band, ‘Ngày Tự Do’ is “not a declaration.” It’s a “call for humanity to do away with separation and differences to lend a helping hand to free up our life.”

#11 Quyếch - Chỉ Đường

A few months ago, I watched a short documentary on YouTube on sound design and editing for feature movies and learned that movies are big fat liars. What we think are raindrops on helmets could be watering cans instead, and a monster’s growl could be mimicked by squeezing celery sticks. This is to say that I’m not gonna even try to guess what created the novel range of percussion behind ‘Chỉ Đường.’ As the first single from Quyếch’s debut album “Quyển Trời,” the song retains the unique mysticism of the band, who cares more for metaphors and acoustic experimentation than catchiness. ‘Chỉ Đường’ is not just a fragment of music, it’s a scene. A galloping horse dashing past lush forests and deserts, night clouds and shooting stars. Where is it going? Who are we? Does it matter, as long as we’re in for a ride along with Quyếch into the next musical journey?

#10 Mèow Lạc - Thành Phố Đung Đưa

'Thành Phố Đung Đưa' by Mèow Lạc is among this year's earliest releases, published back in January. Still, it remains one of the most stylish songs of 2020, not for fashion reasons but for its ability to evoke a wistful atmosphere of eras past. In the music video, members of the band from Hanoi take on the role of dapper performers in an old-school discotheque, complete with beige suits and bow ties. Meshing perfectly with the video ambiance is the music, a throwback to previous decades' soothing lounge jazz and swing music. Vocals aside, I have to applaud the song’s production, which allows every instrument to shine so much that even moments without lyrics are a treat for the ears.

#9 Lê Cát Trọng Lý - Mang Thai

In the universe of Lê Cát Trọng Lý, no topic is too peculiar or off-limits. Lý continues to be one of Vietnam’s most creative and articulate lyricists through the years. With each new composition, she brews together folklore, philosophy, spirituality and self-reflection to tell stories. Lý’s latest album, "Đừng Mua Nhiều Nhà Hơn Mình Cần," has all those attributes. It also marks the first time she features other collaborators, specifically in two songs. ‘Mang Thai’ is not written by Lý and she isn’t the first to perform the song, but via her take, the simple chant becomes more alive and endearing. The lyrics have no storyline or burning emotions, for they read like đồng dao — children’s songs — a little ditty that’s easily memorized and sung during play sessions.

#8 Phùng Khánh Linh - mpg

Phùng Khánh Linh is a rare success story among graduates of The Voice Vietnam’s recent seasons, as her 2018 release ‘Hôm Nay Tôi Buồn’ became a mega commercial hit. Instead of riding the coattails of that victory with a slew of other radio-friendly singles, Linh made the admirable move to release a full-length album, “Yesteryear.” The debut album is a sterling effort to express her musical identity, to varying degrees of success. Across “Yesteryear,” Linh is most interesting when she deviates from pure pop: a touch of jazz in ‘Gói Tình Em Rồi Về,’ the ‘Für Elise’ sample in ‘Lá Thư #100,’ and especially the stylish disco infusion of ‘Cô Gái Nhân Ái’ and ‘Mpg.’ The latter is the most exciting spot of the record, with a deliciously danceable beat that even evokes Yoko Oginome’s 1985 ‘Eat You Up’ cover.

#7 Bụi Gió - Có Những Thế Giới

After nine years of making music, Saigon’s Bụi Gió celebrated their well-established career with an impassioned single, ‘Có Những Thế Giới.’ The song starts with a whimsical touch of electronica that stays softly in the background as the melody takes off and more traditional rock elements come out blazing. A slow but assertive percussion mimics a confident walking pace towards the bright chorus. ‘Có Những Thế Giới’ might seem positively tame for staunch rock fans expecting bombasticity, but that warm, reassuring sweetness makes for a perfect anniversary single marking the veteran group’s maturity.

#6 Mixed Miyagi - Ngày Nào Cũng Vậy

For most musical works featured on this list, with perhaps the exception of #2, politics and current affairs are far from their subject matter. Mixed Miyagi, a biracial rapper based in Florida but from Can Tho, on the other hand, dives straight into the dark episodes of the US’ police brutality in his song ‘Ngày Nào Cũng Vậy.’ Once you’ve gotten over the delightful surprise of Miyagi’s unmistakably southern Vietnamese accent and have a few deep listens, the song’s message of radical empathy will move you to tears. There’s a common but fading notion among Vietnamese listeners that hip-hop must be edgy and confrontational, a belief that the track thoroughly dismantles, as Miyagi raps about sleepless nights upon hearing about the killings and his love for both the Black and Vietnamese facets of his identity.

#5 Madihu (feat. Mạc Mai Sương) - Covamua

The Madihu-Mạc Mai Sương duo is proving to be a force to be reckoned with, as his production chops provide Sương with a dynamic sonic tapestry to flex her vocal muscles. In Madihu’s new EP “Bụi Mơ,” the pair experiment with ‘Cỏ Và Mưa,’ a well-established track that’s been embraced by a number of veteran singers, including 5 Dòng Kẻ, Tùng Dương and Trần Thu Hà. Following in the footsteps of giants, Madihu and Sương managed to fill their giant shoes with an other-worldly rendition that’s both refreshing and layered. Sương’s breathy vocals levitate above the composition like mist atop a moor, grounded by the bassline and hip-hop beats.

#4 Những Gã Mộng Mơ - Thằng Chó (Tình Buồn Trên Bàn Nhậu)

‘Thằng Chó’ is a curious exercise in juxtaposition. There are two parts to its title, and one can argue that each corresponds with one half of the song. The first half starts with a playful waltz, a drunken lament over an ex-girlfriend, and then the song shifts gears into a dark, but still drunken, hip-hop middle that emulates a phone call to said ex, complete with intoxicated slurring and the iconic “the number you just dialed is not available.” The rest of the album is much more solemn and earnest — try ‘Liệu Em Đã Biết’ or ‘Rơi’ — than ‘Thằng Chó,’ but I can’t help but feel amused by the tongue-in-cheek, hilariously chaotic take on alcohol-addled antics.

#3 Mademoiselle - Một Giấc Mơ

Every time I listen to Mademoiselle, I want to fall in love. There’s a special way she distills the experience of loving someone into delicate lyrics that’s incredibly comforting and assuring. Throughout the new album “Những Tiếng Hát Thầm,” Mademoiselle sings about love with maturity and tenderness. Both ‘Một Giấc Mơ’ and ‘Loanh Quanh’ chronicle faded romances and unfulfilled relationships, but approached with a sense of acceptance. She neither agonizes over them nor expresses deep regrets, but acknowledges failed connections as an important cornerstone for growth and personal development. Jazz and classical are at the forefront of the record, providing the sonic background for her to lull us in. In a tumultuous time like 2020, listening to Mademoiselle is self-care, for her music is like a brisk walk through a garden filled with sunspots and cool breeze.

#2 Tuimi - Nhà Bao Việc

There’s no doubt that 2020 was Tuimi’s year: a sharply written and produced debut album, finishing second in the high-profile King of Rap singing competition, and who can forget that breathtaking live collaboration with Mỹ Linh. Moving back to Vietnam from Germany with few local connections, Tuimi, whose real name is Thùy My, has expressed some reservations regarding her ability to sing and compose in Vietnamese, but softcore | hardshell has shown that those concerns are no longer an issue. In the album, she sways between the two languages with ease as we sway along with her sleek, stylish blend of R&B, trap and electronica. ‘Nhà Bao Việc’ best exemplifies My’s grasp of the Vietnamese language in her use of slang and how she finds rhymes. In ‘Black Caviar,’ she ventures into more philosophical conundrums like greed, inequality and xenophobia. Tuimi just exudes coolness in everything she does, be it on stage, in photoshoots or in music videos, and I’m very glad that she’s finding a bigger followership after King of Rap. Tuimi represents a new wave of modern, self-aware and intellectual Vietnamese songwriters who are also in touch with the global music landscape — what does 2021 have in store for the new princess of rap?

#1 Táo - Blue Tequila

The arts can intersect in many ways: in a musical film like La La Land; a hand-painted biopic like Loving Vincent; or the cinematic loneliness of Edward Hopper’s paintings. In 2020, visual art, cinema and music found an inspired camaraderie in Táo’s single ‘Blue Tequila,’ the best music that Vietnam had to offer this year. I have to admit that I don’t fully understand rapper Táo, whose music I’ve always admired, but whose persona remains a mystery to me. In certain corners of the internet, he’s pigeonholed as “someone who writes sad songs,” a typecast that I find reductive. What Táo does with his music is another level of introspection that far exceeds the label “sad music,” and ‘Blue Tequila,’ both the single and its accompanying music video, demonstrates just how complex that artistry is.

At times, a music video might be unrelated to or, even worse, detract from the music, but the ‘Blue Tequila’ MV expands the cinematic quality of the music; it adds more weight to the string solo and context to the lounge jazz influence across the song. The song’s visual art connections are numerous: Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks,’ the Cubist cover art, and “blue” in the title as a conspicuous nod to the Blue Period trope. The dichromatic use of neon green and deep blue echoes the cinematic palette of Wong Kar-Wai. These allusions make the watching experience an exciting one for me, even though some might find the homage too explicit. Besides the visual elements, ‘Blue Tequila’ is also an excellent work of writing — “Em thở nhẹ một sợi khói khiến bầu trời vỡ làm hai nửa” (You whisper a sliver of smoke, and the sky breaks into halves). All told, what helps the song resonate with listeners is the relatable short narrative that it portrays: a chance encounter in a bar that sparks that je ne sais quoi in us. The possibility of something more, a realization that maybe it’s time to let go, or a chemistry so potent that one can feel it on their skin — whatever that is, we’ve all felt it, but few of us can paint a cinematic experience as poetic and vivid as Táo.

Listen to the entire list (with some bonus tracks) via the playlist below:

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