Any list that selects the best of Filipino music is bound to seem incomplete. There is simply too much out there — too many regional artists and underground scenes to discover and too many SoundCloud and Bandcamp accounts to sift through.
This is, fortunately, a very good problem to have, as it only means that political turmoil, economic woes, and the innate challenges presented by a commercialized music industry have done little to stunt the creativity, ambition, and resilience of local musicians. They will continue chronicling every aspect of the Filipino experience, whether the powers that be like it or not.
It goes without saying that the 10 albums and EPs listed below (alphabetically arranged) do not in any way represent the industry as a whole, but they offer potent starting points for anyone who may not know where to begin.
There are established acts here, releasing some of their freshest work in years; there are rising stars hitting their stride; and there are musicians carving paths all their own, opening up possibilities that you didn’t know were there.
No matter what genres they find themselves grouped under, these artists have displayed a mastery of mood and narrative performed through sound.
Ascendant, The Dawn
Whoever was afraid that classic rock band The Dawn would only begin to sound tired with age can rest easy. Ascendant, their 12th studio album, is unmistakably old-school, loaded with thick riffs and Jett Pangan’s commanding and ever-youthful vocals. But the eight-track record also exhibits the kind of curiosity and playfulness that only a band in their prime would aspire toward.
The Dawn dive into smoky, bluesy dance floor anthems (“Rock ‘Til You Drop”), imposing hard rock (“MerryGoRound”), and prog-inspired prophecies (“ProtoHuman”) with crisp production and sheer confidence. And along the way, they still manage to craft something thematically consistent: a sober reflection on selfishness and co-dependence that no one else but legends of their stature could have written. There’s never been a better time to discover (or re-discover) The Dawn.
With their sophomore release, alternative rock trio Maude manage to transform 11 tracks of bitterness into something painful, humorous, and totally captivating. The band still builds their songs around expressive, treble-heavy guitar parts, but Aurora plays things loose with structure — narrating the destruction of a messy relationship by speeding up, slowing down, and constantly interrupting itself with self-loathing.
Tracks like “Fools” and “Lagnat” perfectly capture the frantic inner monologue of a person clinging onto their last shred of sanity, while other songs (“Brownout,” “White Bike”) remember the beauty that once was.
At one point, vocalist Luis Azcona sings, “Jesus Christ, Ann, haven’t you heard the three-month rule? It’s been just a year since we broke up.” If there’s a more brilliantly self-aware depiction of desperation out there, we don’t know what it is.
All the songs featured on Bandido’s debut EP sound like what one would have heard from a young Parokya ni Edgar or Yano, circulating music through campus via cassette. This is as straightforward as Filipino pop punk gets, but its charming, aw-shucks stories of lost love point toward a deep sadness, brought about by devastating financial problems and the paranoia of living in an increasingly violent Philippines.
Bandido recognize how relationships can’t subsist on sincerity alone, and they’re reduced to apologizing for not being able to overcome that (“Sorry”). And yet this five-track EP never comes off as too self-sorry, nor does it exploit today’s realities (“Nanlaban”) for cheap laughs. The performances are lively, Abel John Muriel’s vocals tremble with feeling, and the whole package is exactly the kind of music we need today.
Here Today, Coeli
It’s a testament to Coeli’s songwriting that Here Today’s opening track—the six minute-long “Magkaibigan o Magka-Ibigan”—still feels as vibrant now as when it was first released as a single over two years ago. It’s a dreamy, dynamic waltz that simmers with playful romantic tension and showcases the young singer-slash-cellist’s powerful range. On its own, the song already makes a strong case for its inclusion on a list like this.
Fortunately, it’s followed by a few more tracks that are just as intricately composed and delicately written. Few things are as soothing as listening to the interplay between Coeli’s voice and her cello, woven together by lyrics that seek to assuage the anxiety that so many of us feel. This is an impressive debut for a musician who already sounds timeless.
Even a mini-release from Manila-based rapper Calix stands as a vital piece of Filipino hip-hop. Though Ikugan is really just a short genre exercise, its experimentation nevertheless adds up to a thrilling whole that displays wisdom, self-reflection, and righteous fury in equal measure. After a blistering opening salvo of protest rap that points fingers at literally everyone (“Amanamin,” “Limbo,” “Manilab”), Calix switches to a deceptively bouncy and highly personal second half where his frustration turns inward: “Bakit di ko kayang magalit sa ‘yo?”
The character of Calix’s voice remains irresistible throughout, morphing from menacing to meek without ever compromising the clarity of his delivery, and while always staying true to the tracks themselves. It’s a reminder that rap is arguably our most important and versatile musical genre today, and Calix is its deadliest agent.
Love City, Mandaue Nights
As if there wasn’t already enough excellent music to explore in Metro Manila, synthpop group Mandaue Nights comes to us from Cebu, with a bright and endlessly replayable EP bursting with ‘80s flourishes. Love City accomplishes that tricky balancing act of marrying melancholy lyrics to gorgeous melodies, all while painting vivid soundscapes through the overlapping of voice, synthesizer, and programmed drums. (Rappler Live Jam: Mandaue Nights)
But there’s also a charming roughness to Mandaue Nights’ music that keeps the band’s feet planted firmly on the ground. The Bisaya lyrics of “You & I” are delivered in a weary, relaxed drawl while the vocals in “Super Sonic Love” slur behind a wave of distortion. This is pop music that fits the dance floor as well as it does your own bedroom. You’ll want to take this one with you everywhere.
Love or Limbo, Sheila and the Insects
No one sounds quite like Sheila and the Insects. Sure, a couple generations of dance-punk artists have certainly drawn inspiration from them, but there’s an urgency to the Cebuano quartet’s music that’s all their own. Their first album in 13 years, Love or Limbo pulses with barely-concealed anxiety from start to finish, as it contemplate the distance between lovers with robust vocals and piercing guitars. But this record is really all about the rhythm section, from the pounding of the bass in “Always,” to the panicky flurry of drums in the opener, “Alarm.”
Every track feels muscular and complete; even the slower, dreamier “The Wave” displays stateliness in the way it moves. There are layers upon layers of music here, and finally getting to soak them all in has been worth the 13-year wait.
Summer/Salt, Nights of Rizal
Summer/Salt, the debut album of Migi de Belen’s synthpop project Nights of Rizal, is at its core an incredibly simple record that brings to mind the image of a budding songwriter mixing tracks in his own bedroom. But as de Belen mulls over repeated images of the sea, he cuts deep into the creative process itself. In “Words,” he sings, “If they’re just letters in groups, sounds that we make, why does it take so much to come up with a few that are actually true?”
His lyricism is absolutely stunning, and in songs like “Change/Erase,” “Little Ocean,” and “Keep Moving,” there’s a true sense of joy and accomplishment as de Belen builds his optimistic electronic soundscapes. It’s a potent reminder that music need not be grand for it to be essential.
Unexpectedly, Megumi Acorda
Megumi Acorda only needs four songs — around 17 minutes — to reduce you to tears.
Unexpectedly is a tiny EP that leaves a breathtaking emotional impact because it’s just so delicate and so personal. Acorda’s distant, ethereal voice aches for a love unreturned, her hazy guitars gently washing over her words. The lyrical content of the record, on the other hand, is almost unbearably sad, like peeking at scribbled confessions in a diary. And yet Acorda comes up with something truly warm and never cloying, skillfully avoiding the trap that other shoegaze/dreampop artists fall into, of letting a wall of noise obscure a song’s heart. This is a perfect example of short form storytelling through music, wherein every creative choice feels deliberate, and every graceful melody is at once surprising and reassuring.
Usisa, Bullet Dumas
Listening to Bullet Dumas’s long-awaited debut album means experiencing a theatrical performance, an hour-long epic of contemporary folk that demolishes any boundaries of what you think the genre can do.
Usisa slips from beautiful ballads (“Tugtog”) that showcase his incredible vocal versatility, to ferocious torrents of emotion (“Usisa”) that reinvigorate your belief in the acoustic guitar. The album is packed with lengthy songs that demand your undivided attention as they twist into unpredictable shapes and toy with multiple languages (“Put to Waste”). And Dumas is a poet, too, with songs like “Limguhit” shining a light on the sheer elegance of Filipino: “Iukit mo sa aking lapida na isa siyang anghel, na isa siyang katangi-tanging nilalang na nagdudulot ng pagbuntong-hininga.” This is exhilarating, innovative, world-class music that deserves as wide an international audience as possible.
Emil Hofileña is a writer from Quezon City. He is currently taking his graduate studies in Communication.
He was selected as a juror for the 2018 Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) Awards, in the full-length feature category.