HEAVY APPLICATION OF THE “KARAOKE METHOD” has improved my Chinese and taught me some conversational phrases like bùzhībùjué (unnoticeably) and búyào jiànwài (don’t be a stranger).
Here are some of the bands I’ve found particularly helpful:
1. Teresa Teng (Dèng Lìjūn)
The Taiwanese singer’s love ballads became the first foreign pop songs smuggled into China in the 1970s and ’80s, linking her sound with the joys of freedom and the modern world. Sadly, Teresa died in 1995 before ever staging a concert in China, but she lives on more strongly than any other Chinese singer in modern history. Chinese pop artists release new covers of her music practically every year, and she’s still a perennial karaoke favorite from Beijing to Bangkok.
If you must learn the music of only one artist on this list, let it be hers — especially her classics, “Yuèliang Dàibiǎo Wǒ De Xīn” and “Tián Mìmì,” both available on Lovers in Heaven (10th Anniversary). Her clear voice and simple lyrics make her ideal for beginners.
2. Cui Jian (Cuī Jiàn)
Cui Jian was the first artist to write and perform rock n’ roll in China, in some ways creating a soundtrack to China’s revolution in the 1980s and early ’90s, turning songs like “Yì Wú Suǒ Yǒu” and “Yíkuài Hóngbù” into political anthems. Cui Jian’s gruff voice isn’t the easiest to follow, but his poetic lyrics will expand your vocabulary and challenge you to discover the story behind his songs.
His music gets plenty of karaoke playtime, especially with the over-30 crowd that grew up with him or lived what he sings about. My favorite album is still Xīnchángzhēng Lùshàng De Yáogǔn.
3. Yu Quan (Yǔ Quán)
On my first official date with my then-future husband, he slipped a pop music album into my portable CD player — Lěngkù Dàodǐ by Yu Quan. Hu Haiquan once described his partner Chen Yufan: “He is simple and innocent, and sometimes has a heart of a child; this is very valuable to an artist.”
If you also want to get romanced by Yu Quan’s music, I recommend their two-disc live album, Huángjīn Shínián Yǎnchànghuì, which features all their greatest hits.
4. Cheer Chen (Chén Qǐzhēn)
Cheer Chen often sings with nothing more than acoustic guitar or piano in the background, and her songs are some of the easiest to understand. The lead singer of Mayday, a famous rock band from Taiwan, once wrote, “Cheer Chen’s lyrics are like a delicate knife. They seem harmless, but they’re actually quite sharp.” Maybe that’s why Cheer Chen has remained one of the island’s most popular female singers — popular enough to release a 2005 best-of album titled CHEER.
Listen for my favorite song, “Jiǔfèn de Kāfēidiàn.”
5. Khalil Fong (Fāng Dàtóng)
Khalil Fong’s thick-rimmed glasses and skinny build don’t fit the usual Chinese pop artist mold. Neither does his R&B and soul, which echoes Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.
The Hong Kong-based singer-songwriter has a clear voice that doesn’t get lost in the music, even in his fast songs. He also likes to write lyrics with a higher conscience, a reflection of his Bahá’í Faith that inspires him to change people’s lives through music. His album Soulboy definitely changed my impression of Chinese R&B and soul.
6. Joanna Wang (Wáng Ruòlín)
Wang’s music mixes jazz, folk, and rock influences with a mature voice that belies her 23 years. The Taiwanese singer-songwriter records many of her songs in both English and Chinese.
For studying, you can’t beat her first, Start from Here, which has five songs in both languages — more than any of her other albums.
7. Soft Lipa (Dànbǎo)
This hip-hop artist and rapper from Taiwan makes Mandarin Chinese sound smooth, with a rhythm that’s easy to follow. Winter Sweet, which includes the song “Shàonián Wéichízhe Fánnǎo,” is a great album to kick off your studies.
8. Jay Chou (Zhōu Jiélún)
Ever since Jay Chou released his first self-titled album in 2000, he’s dominated the Chinese pop charts. While most of his music is R&B, rap, and rock, he’s flirted with almost every musical style, from country to traditional Chinese folk, and often writes songs that feel distinctly Chinese. Jay made his Hollywood debut as Kato in the 2011 movie The Green Hornet.
Unfortunately, his songs remain some of the hardest to learn. Slurred enunciation is the hallmark of the “Chou style.” Singing along is a challenge, but I’ve been known to belt out his song “Júhuā Tái” at karaoke parties.
Newbies should try his album Fàntèxī, which has three of his classic and slower songs — “Jiǎndān Ài,” “Kāi Bù Liǎo Kǒu,” and “Ānjìng.” Everyone else, I dare you to master the uber-fast “Niúzǎi Hěn Máng” on Wǒ Hěn Máng. Find translations for all of these songs and more at Jay Chou Studio.
If you’re ready to try the “karaoke method” for learning Chinese, start out with simple with music such as Teresa Teng’s, and choose songs with lyrics available in Pinyin so you can follow along even if you can’t read Chinese characters.