10 Asian Artists in Rock and Alternative That You Should Know

By Oscar Kim Bauman

Editor: Carla Matsue

These days, there are more Asian faces in popular music than ever before. However, many of these acts are concentrated, as contemporary popular music is, in pop, R&B, and hip-hop. Nevertheless, there is also a wealth of Asian talent out there for those with more alternative-leaning tastes to appreciate. 

This is, of course, a far from comprehensive list, and is only composed of Asian solo artists, or bands with Asian vocalists. This is not to ignore the many talented Asian instrumentalists in rock bands, from the Smashing Pumpkins’s James Iha to the late, great Eddie Van Halen, but rather to provide options for those looking to hear more Asian voices in their rotation. The order of the list is merely alphabetical, not an indication of preference or quality. 

Illustration by Thumy Phan
@thusisterstudio

Artist: Beabadoobee

Active Since: 2017

Origin: London, United Kingdom

Genre: Indie rock, alternative rock, bedroom pop

Beatrice Laus, the Philippines-born British singer-songwriter who performs as Beabadoobee, has seen a rapid rise since releasing her debut single “Coffee” on Soundcloud. A mellow acoustic ballad, the song was later sampled by rapper Powfu for his song “Death Bed.” But by the time “Death Bed” went viral on TikTok this year, Beabadoobee had moved past the lo-fi style of “Coffee” in favor of energetic 90s-inspired rock, with guitar stylings reminiscent of earlier indie acts like Pavement, whose frontman gets a namecheck on the single “I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus.” This year, Beabadoobee released her debut full-length album, “Fake It Flowers,” in which she addresses mental health, love, and self-expression.  Recommended song: She Plays Bass 

Artist: Day6

Active Since: 2015

Origin: Seoul, South Korea

Genre: Pop rock, alternative rock, pop punk

Since making their debut in 2015, the 5-piece South Korean rock act Day6 has carved out a spot in the global music scene. Contrary to K-pop’s reputation for being manufactured, Day6 writes their own music in a range of styles from angsty pop punk to emotive balladeering to upbeat Britpop. Four of the band’s members — guitarists Park Sungjin and Jae Park, keyboardist Kim Wonpil, and bassist Kang Younghyun, known as Young K— share vocal duties, while drummer Yoon Dowoon keeps the beat. Day6’s most recent release, the EP “The Book of Us: The Demon,” came out this year, featuring lyrics reflecting struggles with anxiety. As the two Parks took time off to focus on their mental health, Kim, Kang, and Yoon released an EP as Day6 Even of Day, with a softer, more reflective style. Recommended song: Sweet Chaos 

Artist: Japanese Breakfast

Active Since: 2013

Origin: Eugene, Oregon, United States

Genre: Indie rock, experimental pop, lo-fi

In 2013, Korean-born musician Michelle Zauner paused her career fronting emo band Little Big League to return home and care for her cancer-stricken mother. From this dark emotional space came Japanese Breakfast, a name chosen as a reflection on American culture’s limited perception of Asia. Zauner has since released two albums as Japanese Breakfast, with lyrics that explore emotional tumult in a soundscape that incorporates indie rock, lo-fi, and shoegaze. Japanese Breakfast’s most recent release is the upbeat 2019 single “Essentially.” Zauner is also the author of a 2018 essay in the “New Yorker” entitled “Crying in H Mart,” about her mother’s death, and trying to stay connected to her Korean heritage. A full-length memoir of the same title is due next year. Recommended song: The Body is a Blade 

Artist: Jay Som

Active Since: 2015

Origin: East Bay, California, United States

Genre: Indie rock, dream pop, bedroom pop

Melina Duterte, the daughter of Filipino immigrants, released a selection of demos to her Bandcamp page in 2015. After gaining attention, these demos garnered her a record deal and morphed into her debut album under her stage name Jay Som, a name meaning “Victory Moon” derived from an online baby name generator. In the years since, Duterte has released 3 albums as Jay Som, combining alternative rock and bedroom pop into an atmospheric blend, with emotionally vulnerable lyrics that grapple with heritage and heartache. Her most recent album is 2019’s “Anak Ko,” Tagalog for “my child.” In November, a collaboration EP with Chastity Belt bassist Annie Truscott, under the name Routine, is scheduled for release. Recommended song: Baybee 

Artist: Mike Shinoda

Active Since: Linkin Park since 1994, solo since 2004

Origin: Los Angeles, California, United States

Genre: Rap rock, alternative hip hop, nu metal

Primarily known as the rhythm guitarist and rapper of popular alternative rock band Linkin Park, Mike Shinoda also has an impressive solo career under his belt. A third-generation Japanese American, Shinoda’s grandfather was imprisoned in an internment camp during World War II, an experience Shinoda describes in the song “Kenji” from his 2005 album as Fort Minor, his hip-hop side project. After the 2017 suicide of Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, Shinoda returned to solo music, releasing the album “Post Traumatic” in 2018. The album is a dark blend of hip-hop, rock, and electronica, and centers Shinoda’s experience with grief following Bennington’s death. More recently, Shinoda has collaborated with fans on Twitch to produce the “Dropped Frames” series of largely instrumental music. Recommended song: Running From My Shadow 

Artist: Mitski

Active Since: 2012

Origin: Purchase, New York, United States

Genre: Indie rock, folk rock, punk rock

Born in Japan and raised around the world before settling in New York, Mitski Miyawaki’s musical journey is equally as diverse. Her first two albums, born as student projects at Purchase College’s Conservatory of Music, were mellow, moody, and piano-based. 2013’s “Bury Me At Makeout Creek” marked a turn towards rock, with songs of soft melancholy contrasted with smashing guitar riffs, gradually trending towards the upbeat over the years. Mitski’s lyricism draws from introspection into love, loss, longing, and racial identity, often all mixed into one, as she ponders her place in American society. Most recently, Mitski released her fifth album, the musically eclectic “Be the Cowboy” in 2018 and the single “Cop Car” in 2020, from the soundtrack of the horror movie “The Turning.” Recommended Song: Your Best American Girl 

Artist: The Naked and Famous

Active Since: 2007

Origin: Auckland, New Zealand

Genre: Indie electronica, electronic rock, synthpop

At the beginning of the last decade, The Naked and Famous burst onto the scene and caught the attention of listeners with their distinct sound. Central to the band’s sound is the vocal work of frontwoman Alisa Xayalith, the daughter of Laotian refugees. Following recent lineup shifts, Xayalith, who sings and plays keyboards, and co-vocalist and guitarist Thom Powers are the band’s current members. While keeping synthesizer tones and catchy, melodic choruses central to their musical style, The Naked and Famous have drawn influences from new wave groove, raucous post-punk revival, and festival-ready dance pop. The band’s most recent work is “Recover,” released earlier this year, an album with themes of self-preservation in the face of relationship struggles. Recommended Song: Bury Us 

Artist: One Ok Rock

Active Since: 2005

Origin: Tokyo, Japan

Genre: Alternative rock, pop punk, post-hardcore

Formed from a group of high school friends in Tokyo, One Ok Rock has gone on to success in their native Japan, and widespread success around the world. Since 2009, the band’s lineup has consisted of vocalist Taka Moriuchi, guitarist Toru Yamashita, bassist Ryota Kohama, and drummer Tomoya Kanki. Originally a post-grunge influenced pop punk band, the band’s music has grown to encompass pop and electronic influences, tied together by their driving energy and ear for melodic hooks. In 2015, Moriuchi relocated to Los Angeles, and has since stated a desire to represent Asian Americans in his music, seen in the 2019 song “Stand Out, Fit In.” One Ok Rock’s most recent album is 2019’s “Eye of the Storm,” an all-English exploration of softer pop sounds. Recommended song: Mighty Long Fall 

Artist: Run River North

Active Since: 2011

Origin: Los Angeles, California, United States

Genre: Alternative rock, indie rock, pop rock

Consisting entirely of Korean American members, Run River North, originally known as Monsters Calling Home, broke through in an unusual way. In 2012, after the band had recorded the music video for their song “Fight To Keep” inside the Honda cars of its members, the automaker responded by booking them on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” The band, which currently consists of vocalist and guitarist Alex Hwang, guitarist, violinist, and percussionist Daniel Chae, and keyboard and bassist Sally Kang, has gone on to release two albums and a myriad of EPs in styles ranging from energetic indie rock to mellow acoustic pop, with reflective lyrics that draw on heritage and life experiences. This year, Run River North released 3 EPs, including the two-part “RRN LIVE (In the Year of Coronavirus)” series. Recommended Song: 29 

Artist: Young the Giant

Active Since: 2010

Origin: Irvine, California, United States

Genre: Alternative rock, pop rock, indie rock

Although they initially came together in 2004, the band that would eventually become Young the Giant found their name and identity in 2010. The band’s lineup consists of frontman Sameer Gadhia, who is the son of Indian immigrants, guitarists Jacob Tilley and Eric Cannata, bassist Payam Doostzadeh, who is of Persian descent, and drummer Francois Comtois. Young the Giant found early success with their 2010 self-titled album, which featured the singles “My Body” and “Cough Syrup,” songs that combine energy and melancholy. Their 2016 album “Amerika” and the single “Home of the Strange” explore the American dream as it relates to the immigrant background of the band’s members. Young the Giant’s most recent album is 2018’s “Mirror Master,” which, fitting its title, explores emotional contrast and contradiction. Recommended Song: Mind Over Matter

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