December is the last month in the tumultuous 2010s, a decade that saw the rise of new political heroes and villains, a changing of the guard in different sectors of society, the growing concern for climate change taking a more desperate turn, and an unending cacophony of opinionated people screaming into the Facebook void. In "The Last 10 Years," a series of pieces scattered over these last 30 days, we look back at what happened to try to figure out what comes next.
One thing we’re going to leave behind in the 2010s is the whole “OPM is dead” issue, a mess of a debate that we in the media, like a bundle of earphones left in your jeans pocket, never properly got to untangle. Perhaps a smarter generation of cultural critics will take up the challenge, reframe the question, adjust the angle, and take us away from click-driven polemics. This article isn’t about that.
“OPM is dead” is a loaded statement to unpack, but “Local music is dead” is easy to refute. Way too easy. This decade saw artists make great strides in what’s possible with music, and any pedantic, neckbearded schmuck who says music was better back in the day needs a Spotify Premium subscription, or at least be dragged kicking and screaming to the next All of the Noise show.
This decade saw the advent of self-made electronic producers, the embrace of aggressive, politically charged hip-hop, and legends and wunderkinds sharing big stages. These acts were, in some way and in no particular order, at the forefront of culture despite all its wild shifting.
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Ben & Ben
To their fans, Ben & Ben are the future of local music, songwriters who cracked the code of universal appeal. To their critics, they're mainstream hacks—the kind of innocuous, radio-friendly outfit that, by the looming scale of their influence, eclipses the talents of those dwelling in the underground. Both sides come from their own valid places, but neither changes the fact that Ben & Ben are colossal. Your baby sister loves them. Your lola is cognizant of their existence. Your school fair committee would give an arm and leg to book them for a three-song set.
Ang Bandang Shirley
How to explain the pastel-blue melancholy that swells in the heart when you hear "Siberia"? Or the soft glow that unfolds outwards from inside you when you hear "Nakauwi Na"? There are bands that make you rock out, make you jump, make you cry, make you mosh. But Ang Bandang Shirley, more than any other band that was active this decade, was a band that made you feel held.
Ourselves the Elves
The best local album of this year was Ourselves the Elves' debut full-length Self Is Universe, a psychedelic ode to the oft-quoted Kidlat Tahimik aphorism, "Pakinggan ang sarili mong duwende." That album came out six years after their first EP It'll Be Alright, which aged enough for us to recognize it as the indie rock standard to which many other acts today aspire to reach. You'd expect some sort of dip or hiatus in the years between, but they kept gigging, and even did work for Petersen Vargas's films Lisyun Qng Geografia and 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten. They're beloved. They've never made a single mediocre song. They can do no wrong.
Up Dharma Down
For a band that has never pained itself on staying on the radar or releasing regularly, Up Dharma Down has never been contested or challenged for their position as local music royalty. No one could replace them. And even though Terno as a record label set a precedent for bands to experiment with electronic textures, no one band today quite sounds like them. How it is that when they released Capacities in 2012 and a self-titled this year, both times they sounded current and classic? It's a little weird that they go by "UDD" now, sure. But everybody knows to put respect on their name, full or abbreviated.
Calix and BLKD
This listicle works with a fast and loose rubrick of judgment. Some acts are featured by virtue of their consistency throughout the past ten years. Other acts are here due to the sheer scale of their fame. Calix and BLKD are here for a different reason. Their feature in the compilation album KOLATERAL, a raw rhyme indictment against the drug war, is unshakeable evidence that out of every act in the local music scene, Calix and BLKD are the most political. Sure, it's not like they were big names in the early 2010s, but the global rise of fascist presidents was a worldwide development that happened only in the second half of the decade, and Calix and BLKD were the ones that responded with righteous, furious swiftness. They're the demon kings of local hip-hop. It can be argued they took the sound of the streets and blasted it like a battering ram through the mansion gates of the rich and powerful. Other acts should be taking notes.
IV of Spades / Unique Salonga
Before the band even released their debut full-length, IV of Spades had undergone a convoluted saga of drama and intrigue that rivals the legends of the Greeks. The disco revivalists were just starting to hit their stride, nabbing big gigs and sponsors, before Unique Salonga struck out on his own. The singer was cast as the brilliant, misunderstood recluse, while rumors of family drama and money disagreements followed the three-piece around like gadflies. Unique released his debut album late 2018. The remaining IV of Spades boys released CLAPCLAPCLAP! in 2019. They're selling out stadiums. They've become so big they're playing venues older, more established acts have trouble securing. Somewhere in the tangle of all these developments is a lesson on the power of unhinged marketing, or the ruthlessness of the industry, or the uneasy relationship between art and hype, or how young boys struggle to navigate fame. But it's a challenge, seeing what that lesson is, or hearing the heart of the music, underneath all the glitz.
Moira de la Torre
Love her or hate her, it was hard to avoid her. She is, according to Spotify, the Philippines' most streamed artist. She made songs for two successful local films: Camp Sawi and Love You to the Stars and Back. Her rendition of “Titibo-tibo” made her a household name. The girl's got the voice and the numbers to back up her rep.
There is an indescribable power to the way a band can completely overhaul a young person's view of the world, inspire them, and through art impress upon them what is possible. Every musician possesses some measure of this power, but BP Valenzuela had the most of it. When she released her be/ep EP in 2014 and the full-length follow-up Neon Hour in 2015, both stalwart paragons of songwriting and production in the pop genre, she was still a student. That impact rippled, and her influence is the reason so many people of a certain generation could view the barrier of entry to music as breachable. It's almost poetic that she closes the decade with her poignant paradigm shift EP (under her other project, half-lit), a release about the lessons of going through life, getting older, learning.
No explanations are needed for Sandwich's living legend status. The thing with them though is, unlike a lot of veteran acts who were around for the days of Myx and NU Rock, Sandwich was consistently active, always trying new things, always leading the charge. See 'em at a festival, everybody knows who they are, everybody cheers. To Gen X, Y, all the way to Z, they're constants, a permanent reminder of what's possible for aspiring musicians who wish to make a career of their art.
People don't talk about No Rome enough. He was a major player in the local electronic scene as a member of the YoungLiquidGang collective. He released his 2018 EP RIP Indo Hisashi to massive acclaim. The music video of that EP's lead single, “Narcissist,” which features his Dirty Hit labelmates English pop band The 1975, has as of now over 9 million views on YouTube. He was the first London-based Filipino act to rock out on the Coachella main stage. Now he's touring Europe. Filipinos like to talk about how important it is to have a kababayanrepresenting us on the global stage. We have that in No Rome, an upsettingly talented pop songwriter and producer who grinded his way from his underground niche to first world fame. So why aren't people talking about him enough? A true mystery.