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3. 53A, Singapore
Let nobody say that 53a haven't paid their dues. The pop-rock quartet, comprising Sara Wee, Alvin Khoo, Bani Hidir and Irwan Shah, slogged it out as a cover band on Singapore's live-music circuit for seven years before releasing Settle the Kettle, their debut original album, in September 2010. "The whole time we wanted to do our own thing as well," says lead singer Wee. "It's been a long time coming."
Playing top-40 hits for a living has had the benefit, however, of steeping the band in songwriting craft. Eminently hummable originals like "We Should Be Together" and "The Promise" show a confident, fastidious maturity and seem tailor-made for radio play. That's something Wee has a feel for too. As a part-time DJ on Singapore radio station Power 98, she knows exactly what will make the cut, and these days, there's no shortage of it. "Every Friday, I bring in a local act and people are just shocked," she says. "They're hearing all this stuff coming from musicians in Singapore, and they're, like, 'Where have you been?'"
4. Taken by Cars, Manila
Three years after the national triumph of their debut album Endings of a New Kind, Philippine new-wave electro-rock quintet Taken by Cars still can't believe its luck. "We never thought we'd be successful making this kind of music," vocalist Sarah Marco says. "It just happened that suddenly there were large audiences interested in what we were doing."
She cites groups like New Order and Deerhunter as influences, as well as strong female performers such as Florence Welch of Britain's baroque-pop outfit Florence and the Machine and Emily Haines of Canadian band Metric.
Taken by Cars' second album is set to release in March, and introduces Isa Garcia as the band's new bassist. The sophomore effort promises a more mature approach to their music. "Every single member has grown a lot in terms of musicality," says Garcia. "We are coming out of our individual comfort zones."
5. Queen Sea Big Shark, Beijing
If the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O held a soiree with Franz Ferdinand and early Depeche Mode in a disco in Beijing, the result might sound like Queen Sea Big Shark. Fronted by flamboyant female vocalist Fu Han, the band blends equal parts new wave, synth pop and dance rhythm into a murky whole. "The idea is that our music is half human, half robot, half man, half woman," says Fu. As for the shark part well, that was just coincidence. Fu says that she was walking with a friend around Houhai (Queen Sea) Lake in Beijing, trying to think of a name for the band, when she glimpsed a piece of puzzling graffiti. "We saw a wall and written on it in Chinese was, 'This is ours. Don't touch it. We are Queen Sea big shark.' I thought, 'That's a gift from God.'"
The Future Wave, Queen Sea Big Shark's second album, was released in 2010, with songs in both English and Chinese. "The songs on the first album were about love and youth," Fu says, "and this time, it's about the city, society, humans and the future. The future is here, and it's not as good as we thought it would be. I think that [cycle of hope and disappointment] is the story of our lives."
If the album's lyrics are opaque, it's because Queen Sea Big Shark, like any other band in Beijing's flourishing avant-garde music scene, must circumvent strict censorship laws. "We find a smarter way," the singer shrugs. Spoken like a true predator.