a guide to Taiwan indie independent music in mandopop
Image: Jordan Lee / VICE

The Guide to Getting Into Taiwanese Indie Music, the Eclectic Sounds of Mandopop

You don’t have to understand Mandarin to appreciate the sounds reverberating in Taiwan’s underground.
April 8, 2021, 10:29am

Among other things, Taiwan is famous for its amazing rice rolls, progressiveness on LGBTQ rights, and, of course, iconic pop culture. For decades, the island was the heart of Mandopop, boasting superstars like Jay Chou, JJ Lin, and Jolin Tsai who remain highly influential today. The rise of mainland Chinese pop music in the last decade has seen the blending of the two Mandopop scenes. But tucked in a cozy space between the underground and aboveground, Taiwan’s indie music scene flourishes.

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Often described as warm-blooded in spirit, Taiwanese indie music gained traction in the 1990s. Existing in pockets of youth subculture were now-renowned artists like Wu Bai and MayDay, who got their start in underground performance spaces. 

Since the 2000s, indie music has continued to thrive in Taiwan with popular platforms to support independent artists. DIY music creators share their songs on the streaming site StreetVoice, while indie music events are publicized on the ticketing website iNDIEVOX. For decades, live houses such as Witch House, Riverside, the Wall, and Legacy have hosted budding indie musicians. Then there’s Huashan 1914 Creative Park, a historic site that was reopened as a cultural park in the 2000s as part of a governmental effort to support the local creative industry. It is now a signature venue for performing groups and artists to showcase their works.

Originally meant as a description of independently released songs, indie music is now defined by many as a creative philosophy rather than a category of production companies. Taiwanese indie pop icons like Cheer Chen and Deserts Chang, praised for their no-frills acoustic ballads, were signed to major record labels at the start of their careers. Meanwhile, earworms by indie rock band Accusefive were released under B’in Music, a high-profile record label founded by MayDay frontman Ashin. Yet, these musicians are widely considered the faces of Taiwanese indie spirit and champions of unconventional self-expression.

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And like in music industries across the world, independent musicians sometimes break into massive mainstream success. In 2019, Leo Wang from the indie record label KAO!INC became the first rapper to take home the Best Mandarin Male Vocalist at the Golden Melody Awards, an accolade akin to the Grammys of Mandopop. A few years earlier, indie rock band No Party for Cao Dong had also won big at both the 2016 Golden Indie Music Awards and 2017 Golden Melody Awards.

While mainstream pop music in Taiwan is typically apolitical, local indie musicians do not seem to shy away from engaging in politics. In fact, a prominent feature of Taiwanese indie music is that it inevitably overlaps with the political realm. In 2014, “Island’s Sunrise” by indie band Fire EX. was the uplifting punk anthem of the Sunflower Student Movement. More recently, astute fans noticed that Leo Wang’s 2019 music video for his song “Chicken Lunchbox” was full of tongue-in-cheek references to Taiwan’s partisan politics, including allusions to pesky political interference from the mainland.

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Taiwanese indie musicians may be bound together by strong local pride, but the indie music scene is as eclectic as it gets. From stripped-down bedroom acoustic to tranquilizing lo-fi mixes, allow this guide to accompany you into the multi-genre Taiwanese indie music scene.

So you want to get into… bedroom acoustic Taiwanese indie music?

In the 2000s, the genre known as “Little Fresh” was popularized by artists like Cheer Chen, Deserts Chang, and Sodagreen, all belonging to the subculture of “literary youth.” Featuring therapeutic voices and gentle instrumentals, the genre may be considered the Mandarin equivalent of bedroom indie pop — music to help you get straight into your feels. 

Meanwhile, bubbly indie favorite Crowd Lu shines in offbeat tracks that are unapologetically quirky. Lu first charmed listeners in the 2000s belting out tunes of unabashed optimism, but his songs have since evolved into measured, sometimes melancholy, ruminations on life. Of course, his signature nasal vocals and acoustic guitar accompaniment remain instantly recognizable. Folk-rock band Your Woman Sleep With Others is another breakout indie darling, often distinguished by their soulful vocals and clever incorporation of sonorous cello melody lines into lighthearted rock themes.

Listen to this when you’re...  feeling introspective on a long bus ride.

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You’ll dig this if you like: Bright Eyes, Mumford & Sons, Elliott Smith, Death Cab for Cutie, Jeremy Zucker, Iron & Wine, The Staves, Still Woozy, beabadoobee

Playlist: “原諒我不明白你的悲傷” - IGU Band / “Night Flower” - Crowd Lu / “Teens Edge” - Your Woman Sleep With Others / “喜歡” - Deserts Chang / ”我把我的青春給你”- GoodBand / “Travel is Meaningful” - Cheer Chen / “就算我放棄了世界” - Enno Cheng / “Utopia”- No-nonsense Collective / “Everyday Life” - EggPlantEgg / “Miss You Day and Night” - Accusefive

So you want to get into… vibey lo-fi Taiwanese indie music?

A gentle cocoon of grainy beats for those in search of deep focus or relaxation, lo-fi music has taken off in recent years. One of the most ethereal sounds in Taiwanese indie music right now comes from Sunset Rollercoaster, a home-grown synth-pop band that performs exclusively in English. According to them, the choice to sing in English is merely a stylistic preference. But besides giving their sound a romantic quality, this choice of language has also allowed them to foray into the international market, winning fans beyond the Mandarin-speaking world.

In the same vein of tranquilizing lo-fi are the bands deca joins, which gears towards grunge tastes, and Fool and Idiot, which leans into soulful vocals. Unlike Sunset Rollercoaster, their mellow musical distortion is accompanied by Mandarin lyrics.

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The genre’s dreamy lo-fi sounds are accompanied by equally dreamy aesthetics — from pastel album covers to hazy music videos, vintage vibes are totally on-brand for the lush sounds of these bands.

Listen to this when you’re...  studying in a cafe or chilling in your bedroom on a rainy day.

You’ll dig this if you like: Daniel Caesar, Joji, Rex Orange County, Arlo Parks, The Japanese House, Phoebe Bridgers, Omar Apollo, Cigarettes After Sex

Playlist: “我想和你一起” - Wendy Wander / “Wave” - deca joins / “My Jinji” - Sunset Rollercoaster / “Candlelight” - Sunset Rollercoaster ft. OHHYUK / “Only You” - Waa Wei / “Those Things I Kept” - Sweet John / “HoydeA” - Fool and Idiot / “Maybe Maybe” - The Chairs / “Cheer” - Mary See the Future

So you want to get into… hip-hop Taiwanese indie music?

From his heck-care attitude to unpolished appearance — often seen sporting a towel around his neck — Leo Wang seems like a far cry from the perfectly packaged celebrity we’ve come to expect. Yet, his conversational and hyper-localized rapping style, sometimes opting for the Taiwanese Hokkien dialect instead of Mandarin, channels a unique laid-back vibe that is redefining Taiwanese rap. His down-to-earth persona and stripped-down music have found resonance with Taiwanese youth seeking relatable unconventionality. 

But Wang’s popularity cannot be analyzed in a cultural vacuum. Predecessors like Soft Lipa and GorDon, both credited for popularizing the chill rap style, are key figures who have helped to develop the Taiwanese hip-hop scene. Now, people are tuning into the more experimental likes of Wang and DJ Didilong. The latter is another iconic voice in the current local indie rap scene, spitting rhymes like his name — “barreling forward” in Taiwanese Hokkien — suggests, over bass-heavy synth beats.

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A rising star on the R&B front is 30-year-old 9m88, who flaunts a retro style in her visuals and makes music with a characteristic swagger. Channeling her eccentric diva aura through jazzy melodies, her catchy tunes are feel-good essentials. 

Listen to this when you’re... getting ready to bust out some killer moves in your living room to impress your zoom date.

You’ll dig this if you like: Dominic Fike, Kevin Abstract, BROCKHAMPTON, Audrey Mika, NIKI, Mac Miller, Vince Staples

Playlist: “陪妳過假日”- Leo Wang ft. 9m88 / Airplane Mode - 9m88 ft. Leo Wang / “B.O” - ØZI ft. 9m88 / “An Epic” - Soft Lipa / “台北直直撞” - DJ Didilong / “Wu Bing Singing” - Leo Wang ft. Soft Lipa / “Hungry Morrison” - Gigantic Roar / “問題先生” - Chen Hsien-Ching, Sōryo / “嘻哈囝” - GorDon

So you want to get into… high-voltage retro Taiwanese indie music? 

As we’ve seen in the recent resurgence of Y2K fashion trends, there’s a fine line between the cheekily campy and the painfully tacky. Attesting to the cyclical nature of pop culture is the emergence of an electrifying old-school genre in the Taiwanese indie scene.

Self-aware musicians are embracing this distinctive retro style, reveling in the groove of 80s disco beats and kitsch aesthetics of outdated cassette covers. Notable acts include EggPlantEgg and Bisiugroup, both featuring plenty of songs in Taiwanese Hokkien — a colloquial dialect now used as a nostalgic claim to local sensibilities — complete with a throaty delivery to accentuate the authenticity of the dialect.

Meanwhile, rock songs by No Party For Cao Dong and 88 balaz feature hardcore elements that harken back to 80s heavy metal and 90s grunge. In particular, No Party For Cao Dong’s poignant lyrics, which they explained are meant to reflect the angst of a young generation grappling with Taiwan’s faltering economy, have found resonance with Taiwanese millennials.

Listen to this when you’re... smoking a cigarette by the pavement feeling like a proper badass or, well, a jaded middle-aged man.

You’ll dig this if you like: Japanese Breakfast, Tame Impala, The Strokes, John Mayer, Gus Dapperton, Arctic Monkeys, Weezer

Playlist: “You are My Chocolate” - Coach / “Back Here Again” - EggPlantEgg / “Chill Out” - Bisiugroup / “Handsomer than an Animal” - 88 balaz / “Wanderer Guide In Taipei” - Wayne’s so Sad / “Wayfarer” - No Party For Cao Dong / “You are My Crazy Lover” - Bisiugroup / “低賤的人” - Obviously / “Imperfect Lover” - Freckle ft. Leo Wang