I gave myself a resolution this year to write more about Malaysian music in 2021 – which led to the birth of Mesti Malaysia.
The segment is still in its infancy so in preparation for future content, I decided to look back at my country’s history. Having a listen to the albums that paved the way for the Malaysian music industry in any way, shape or form.
This time, I’m kicking things off with records from Michael Wong, Dato Sri’ Siti Nurhaliza, Malaysia’s Queen of Rock Ella, Anuar Zain and Gary Chaw.
Michael Wong (王光良) – 童话 (Fairy Tale)
Genre: Singer-songwriter | Released: 2005
What better way to start this segment off with the man who soundtracked my childhood? “童话” was the quintessential graduation song of every Malaysian-Chinese primary student in the country, and also the single that turned Michael Wong into a household name for the past 2 decades.
His album of the same title went on to become his best selling album to date and made him the first Malaysian winner at the prestigious Hong Kong TVB8 Golden Music Awards. With that in mind, I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s full of ballads that range from sweet to melancholy; all of which perfectly cater to the tastes of contemporary Mandopop audiences.
It knows what it needs to be and it does it well, but honestly, it’s not really my cup of tea. It’s so aggressively tame that it winds up sounding a bit boring, though I could blame that on my lack of skill in the language when it comes to understanding his lyricism.
Siti Nurhaliza – Siti Nurhaliza
Genre: Pop | Released: 1996
A Malaysian music industry legend, Dato’ Sri Siti Nurhaliza is undeniably THE most iconic artist in the country’s history.
The hype behind her self-titled debut was fueled by her win in RTM’s Bintang HMI 1995 singing competition and was intensified by the groundbreaking lead single “Jerat Percintaan”, landing her wins in Malaysia’s then most prestigious awards ceremony – Anugerah Juara Lagu. As a freshman nominee, she went on to beat then industry titans like Ziana Zain and Fauziah Latiff.
However, the album’s success wasn’t just due to past hype. It stands strong as its own body of work with ballad after ballad filling the tracklist – like the adorable “Mahligai Asmara” or the aforementioned and heartbreakingly potent “Jerat Percintaan”. Despite the slower nature of the project, there’s enough stylistic and emotional variety here that proves Siti isn’t just a one trick pony.
Siti Nurhaliza is a debut album that puts her entire arsenal on display for the world to witness, and what an arsenal that is.
Ella – Ella USA
Genre: Rock | Released: 1994
The 2nd best selling Malaysian album of all time (well, according to Wikipedia), Penang’s Ella earned the distinction of being the country’s first female rock star to record an album overseas – hence its title.
Hailing herself as the Queen of Rock Malaysia, the album oozes that same confidence with sounds of stadium rock (“Gemilang”, “Mungkin”) and acoustic ballads (“Menanti”). Now I’m not the most well versed in rock music, but I do love me some Phil Collins and Ella USA evokes the same ‘sweeping’ feeling of his best tracks.
From the soaring guitar solos to the captivating drumming to Ella’s rousing performances, it’s a rock album that stands toe-to-toe with many of the genre’s Western contemporaries.
Anuar Zain – Anuar Zain
Genre: Pop | Released: 1998
The first of his five studio albums which are, funnily enough, all titled Anuar Zain, is the definition of a breakout success. Scoring ‘Best New Artist’ and ‘Best Vocal Performance in an Album’ wins at the Anugerah Industri Muzik upon release, Anuar’s career hit the ground running.
Confidence brims from the very first track, as Anuar lets out a passionate “Whoo!” as the lighthearted production sets in for his charismatic performance to shine. The rest of the album sees equally bright instrumentation that’s reminiscent to 80s pop ballads – glitzy synths and breathy singing.
It’s an effortlessly enjoyable record that strengthened by Anuar’s addictive charisma. Yes, I know I’ve mentioned his charisma a lot but it really is what makes this album so captivating to listen to.
Gary Chaw (曹格） – SUPERMAN
Genre: Pop | Released: 2006
Housing his biggest track to date – “背叛 (Betrayal)”, I might be jumping the gun by calling SUPERMAN an iconic album but I loved it in my teen years so it’s iconic to my life at least.
After the runaway success of his debut 格格blue, Gary chose bare it all on SUPERMAN – both on the album cover and in his music. Channeling his influences from the 80s like Queen, Michael Jackson and even Sade (who’s sampled on the title track), it’s definitely more ambitious in scope and sound.
The album radiates with confidence, like on the funky R&B jam of “SUPERMAN” where Gary channels his best Prince/MJ impression to stunning results. Even on the slower ballads “兩隻戀人 (Two Lovers)” and “保护你 (Protect You)”, he’s in complete control. Knowing when to let the production breathe or choosing to belt a drawn-out falsetto at the most opportune moments, Gary’s music then feels packed with depth.
Honestly if I had to make a comparison, SUPERMAN really sounds like Justin Timberlake’s Justified.