Dawen's Year in Asian American Songs

January 6, 2012

Photo by Melly Lee

This modified article was originally posted in full at bicoastalbitchin.com.

Once again, Los Angeles-based soul/R&B musician Dawen reviews the year that was in Asian American music,
with his personal highlights from each month of 2011. Dawen is a
singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles. His New Year’s resolutions include:
finishing an upcoming EP, perfecting Chinese, learning Korean, and actually
attempting P90X.

2011 was all about our visibility. We continued to thrive on
YouTube and at times, even made an appearance on that other tube in our living
rooms. We sang live and not just from the safety of our bedrooms. There were
festivals galore (ISA,
college tours, and sold out venues. From pop to hip-hop we played our hearts
out and united under Twitter updates and Facebook postings, rather than any
singular musical genre. With social media as currency we released our new
tracks regardless of whether the mainstream caught on or not. Undeterred, we
continued to sing our songs, staying after the show, meeting-and-greeting our
way further into the American musical landscape.

This compilation, like last
, is meant as a list of highlights. Less of a “favorites” and more of
a year in review, here is my 2011: The Year in 12 Asian American Songs. 

1. January: Melissa Polinar -- “Never Change”

Released just before the previous New Year, “Never Change” -- taken from the
last track of Melissa Polinar’s As Of Now
-- immediately evokes Norah Jones with the opening sounds of brushes
and piano. Blending styles like jazz and acoustic pop, Melissa’s voice shines
over a melody that conjures up images of coffee and the morning paper.

A seasoned songwriter from Dallas, TX, whose professional
career started in Nashville, Melissa has amassed a steady output of solo albums
as well as production work for other songwriters like AJ Rafael (Red Roses), Jeremy Passion (Paper Airplane EP), and Mike Isberto (Fly EP). Listen to “Never Change” here.

2. February: Joseph Vincent --
“If You Stay”

First he won the Kababayan Superstar Contest singing Maroon 5’s “Sunday
Morning.” Then his cover of Iyaz’s “Replay” went viral on YouTube. And with his
on Ellen
shortly after, it was
only a matter a time before Joseph Vincent came out with his own songs. “If
You Stay”,
with its reggae-acoustic feel reminiscent of “Billionaire” by
Travie Mccoy and Bruno Mars, offers an easy listening pop tune, perfect for the
tween era. Just watch the
. With the promise that “Nothing will ever come between us,” Joseph shows
us that while some Asians in the library talk too loud, others fall head over
heels and inadvertently into love triangles.

Having released a second single, “Bumblebee,” as well as
collaborating with MC Jin on the hip hop track “When the Lights Come On,” Joseph
is currently finishing a full album, scheduled to drop next spring.

3. March: Anoop Desai -- “Worth The Wait”

Do you remember Anoop Desai
from American Idol Season 8
? This
North Carolina native was famously eliminated during the Hollywood round that
year, only to be brought back and win his way to the Top 7. Unlike fellow South Asian American Sanjaya
Malakar two seasons before, Anoop can actually sing without resorting to
hairstyle hijinks. “Worth
The Wait”
comes from his second album Zero.0 and
demonstrates his flair for sugary commercial pop. Slightly overproduced, “Worth
The Wait” nevertheless bounces along with confectionary catchiness. And how
many times have you heard lyrics that compare a girl to a “Himalaya summit”? He
goes on: “Them other girls taste like o.j. and toothpaste but you/ You taste
like birthday cake.” Indeed, anything sweeter would require a trip to the

Now living in Atlanta, GA, Anoop has started putting
videos up on YouTube. Check out his new music video “Want Your Love” and also
his cover of T-Pain’s “5

4. April: AZIATIX -- “Go”

Under the banner of Jae Chong (from the K-Pop
group Solid), AZIATIX is comprised singers Nicky Lee, Eddie Shin, and rapper
Flowsik. Representing LA, Boston, and New York, this R&B/pop trio burst
onto the scene in the spring with their single “Go”. Eddie’s smooth
voice complements Nicky’s sensual falsetto while both their voices contrast
well with Flowsik’s gruff delivery. Not since TLC has a group dynamic been this

AZIATIX’s debut album Nocturnal
subsequently made it to the Top 10 of the US iTunes R&B/Soul chart and
the group followed up with a cross-country tour. Meanwhile, AZIATIX has been
furiously releasing music videos on their YouTube channel. Having recently
entered the chart on Japan’s Billboard Top 40, AZIATIX stands well poised for
the same success stateside.

5. May: Blue Scholars -- “Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar

“Shoot the cops! Shoot the cops! Shoot the cops!/ Take ya
cameras out ya pocket, people!” So goes the hook to “Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar
, perhaps the
most provocative track of 2011. Dubbing their sound “cinema art rap,” DJ Sabzi and
MC Geologic, who together make up the Seattle-based duo Blue Scholars,
juxtapose police brutality with civic responsibility. Taken from the album Cinemetropolis,
“Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant” at once alludes to Oskar Barnack, father of the 35mm
camera and Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old Black man who was shot and
killed by an Oakland BART police officer. Instead of responding to violence
with more violence, Blue Scholars suggests using the power of the camera to
keep those in our government accountable. No longer just devices for playing
AngryBirds or Words with Friends, our iPhones and Androids have effectively
become technologies for social change.

2011 was the
year that brought us Occupy Wall
at home as well as the
Arab Spring in the Middle East
. Considering how it was the images of those
events that galvanized support for those movements, “Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant” seems
especially timely.

6. June: Megan Lee -- “Love, Laugh &

16-year-old singer Megan Lee lists Christina Aguilera as one
of her inspirations. It comes then as no surprise that her first single “Love, Laugh & Live",
co-written with Brite Ma and Smash
, channels the same type of energy as an Aguilera powerhouse ballad.
From the opening piano that recalls Aguilera’s “Beautiful," “Love, Laugh &
Live” showcases Megan’s considerable belt and vocal flourish.

With a voice that many people think sounds uncannily like
Justin Bieber
, Megan has developed a large following on YouTube. Relentless in her
work ethic, Megan continues to put out videos, providing a welcomed alternative
to Miley Cyrus and the other Disney cutouts of young pop.

7. July: AJ Rafael -- “Red Roses”

AJ Rafael loves musical theater. That’s what came to mind as I was listening to
the title track off his debut album Red Roses.
From the opening vamp, “Red Roses” theatrically follows the exploits of a guy
trying to find the courage to ask a girl out. Hopelessly romantic and full of
dramatic charm, AJ laments, “I wish I had the guts to say/ Would you be mine?/
I wished I woulda asked you to be my Valentine.” Heart very much on sleeve,
this song begs to be staged in a theater, or more practically, to be filmed as
a music video.

As a strong debut overall, the album Red Roses reached #7 on iTunes during its first day of release and
#13 on Billboard’s Heatseeker chart. Additionally, Red
Roses was Grammy eligible
in the
Best New Artist and Traditional Pop Vocal Album categories, a feat to be

Currently gearing up for the Red Roses Tour in Southeast
Asia, AJ will be traveling with the whole band to Indonesia, Malaysia,
Singapore, and the Philippines. The tour starts January 13
in Jakarta.

8. August: Jennifer Chung -- “Can We?”

I first came upon Jennifer Chung in 2007, singing “Part of Your World” from
Disney’s The Little Mermaid on
YouTube when YouTube was still taking wind. Little did I know that just a few
months before that, she had uploaded a cover of Alicia Key’s “No One,” a hugely viral
video that would establish her as a household name for the YouTube generation.

Fast forward to 2011 and her summer album 4 Years
& Counting
“Can We?” features Jennifer at her most vulnerable, far
from the volume of her formidable belt. Atop sparse accompaniment, no more than
light acoustic guitar and piano, Jennifer’s voice floats effortlessly over the
recollection of a relationship: “Wasn’t it painful/ Painfully beautiful?”
Understated and poignant, “Can We?" captures that pain, beautifully.

9. September: Das Racist – “Shut Up, Man (feat.

After releasing two free mixtapes
back in 2010, Das Racist put out their first commercial album Relax at the
end of the summer. With production help from the likes of Diplo, El-P, Rostam
Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), Heems, Kool A.D. and Dap, who make up this
Brooklyn trio, continue their alternative absurdist/subversive brand of

Aimed at detractors (or anyone in the audience, for that
matter), “Shut Up, Man
(feat. El-P)”
spits out laid-back defiance against those wary of their
lowbrow/highbrow fare. “I think I sound aight/ I sound tight/ Ayo, don’t worry
bout how I sound aight?” Heems says, over a minimalist beat interspersed with
synth blips. As Kool A.D. says in the preceding verse, “Act with us/ Or pack it
up.” It’s sound advice for the anti-pop artist: If they don’t like your stuff,
who cares?

10. October: Dumbfoundead -- “Town”

Dumbfoundead is K-Town. Just venture out to 6th
and Alexandria any night of the week and you’re bound to find him there, beer
in hand. It only seems fitting then, that his album Dfd should open with “Town", a
tribute to LA’s Korean neighborhood. Roots run deep for the rapper, his
identity inextricably tied with the 3-mile stretch in the city’s Mid-Wilshire

It’s been a great year for Dumb, whom the LA
featured back in July and LA Weekly this
past fall. With his televised appearance on Last
Call with Carson Daly
just over a week ago I wouldn’t be surprised if
2012 were to see him crossover into the mainstream. 

“A local legend is all I’ll ever be/ Until I put this town
on the map for everyone to see.” With an impressive debut at #7 on Billboard’s
Heatseekers chart and at #2 on the iTunes Hip Hop chart, Dumbfoundead’s making
sure that eventually, everyone’s gonna know where K-Town is.

11. November: Jeremy Passion -- “Trace”

I can’t think of anyone who channels the spirit of
Stevie Wonder
better than Jeremy “Passion” Manongdo. “Trace” sounds like a
lost track from Innervisions or Talking Book. Drawing its inspiration
from the Motown master, “Trace” is a well-crafted soul/R&B tune full of
romance and longing. The live instrumentation sounds refreshing, a contrast to
current radio’s M-Audio-programmed soundtrack. There’s a hint of John Legend in
there, too, and Jeremy sings with honest conviction.

Although Jeremy has been putting up videos on YouTube for over 5 years, “Trace”
comes from his debut More
Than A Feeling
, released just a few weeks ago. Listen to “Trace” here.

December: Paul Dateh -- “One for James”


Paul Dateh has gone electronic. Showcasing this electronic
style on his first track in over two years, “One
for James”
is a departure from the acoustic pop of 2009’s The Good Life
and the R&B/hip hop of his self-titled debut the year before. Released on
the second anniversary of the death of his childhood violin instructor and
life-long mentor, “One for James” blends the electronic and the ambient into a
celestial soundscape. Vocals and violin are still here, just not front and
center. Instead, Paul spreads out his voice with harmonies and layers the
strings, all accompanied by a pulsating beat. The track shimmers ethereally as
if a ghost were at the turntables before vanishing away in a slow

After watching Paul traverse multiple genres in his
performance of “Darkest
on the Knocksteady podcast in September, I’m excited to see how
he’ll approach “One for James” in a live setting.


So that’s it! My 2011 in a nutshell. I’ve obviously left
things out as there’s no way I could do everything justice in a single posting.
But who knows, maybe I’ll expand the list for 2012. From the looks of it I just
might have to.

Let’s keep supporting each other. Not because we’re Asian
Americans, but because we’ve got good music. And make catching a live show one
of your New Year’s resolutions. Happy new year and best wishes for 2012.