A look at the UAE music scene and the 20 best-selling albums by local artists since 2010
The UAE’s music scene has developed at a phenomenal pace.
A decade ago, only a tiny handful of decent local acts had managed to commit any original material to record. Five years ago, the first bursts of creativity could be seen with a few notable names paving the way – bands such as Abri and Nervecell, who showed that a UAE act could command listeners and headlines by releasing albums of integrity and originality.
But it was during the past years that those sprouts took root and flourished.
Juliana Down led the way when they became the first UAE act to be signed to a major label in 2011. Many artists have followed suit and the albums rolled in with dozens of musicians releasing strong, professionally produced LPs – from rock and jazz to R&B – that can proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those from artists anywhere around the globe.
A case of evolution and maturation, the UAE music scene no longer deserves those patronising sneers it was once so often forced to endure. This year has been perhaps the strongest yet, with major-label releases from local heavyweights Hollaphonic and Clarita de Quiroz, and a surprise hit from metal band Svengali, who recently outsold Ed Sheeran and One Direction to top the weekly UAE album charts. Later this year Two Tone and The Boxtones are expected to make their major-label debuts.
To celebrate this arrival of a very real scene we can call our own, we’ve put together what might be a first: a comprehensive list of the best-selling UAE releases from the past five years, as logged by the city’s only music retailer, Virgin Megastore. To be as transparent and far-reaching as possible, we’ve also compiled a series of charts broken down by genre.
This list is not perfect or definitive – it doesn’t include album downloads or private, post-gig sales. But any act that appears on this list deserves to be celebrated not only for practising their art to great effect, but for putting it in the hands of the public.
How we compiled this list
There is no official body that counts record sales in the UAE, however the vast majority of physical CD purchases are made at one of the country’s 12 branches of Virgin Megastore. So we went straight to the source and asked for stats on which UAE acts have sold most. Simple.
For logistical reasons, accurate sales information for some titles stocked before 2010 was unavailable, so this chart is based only on albums released between 2010 and 2015. Local releases that are known to have achieved significant sales before this time, based on previous reports, are noted elsewhere on the page.
Compilation and mix albums containing tracks from international artists are no included on the list. However UAE-based DJs such as Pierre Ravan, Ilona Maras and the Audio Tonic team, who have achieved significant sales of their mix albums, have been acknowledged in the Dance chart.
There are many great local acts – including, but in no way limited to, Empty Yard Experiment, Coat of Arms, Beat Antenna and Kicksound – who are yet to be stocked by Virgin, so do not appear on this list.
Props go to Karl Wolf. Lebanon-born and UAE-raised, the star first found fame in Canada and hasn’t lived steadily in the Emirates since, so we’ve left him off this list. Likewise the London-based but locally signed Arabic R&B artist Tash.
The main chart celebrates the fruitful past five years of the UAE music scene. However it would be rude not to heap some praise on the trailblazing local releases that achieved significant sales before 2010, and set the scene on the path it is on now:
DJ Bluss - The Projects (2003)
Juliana Down – Cause and Effect (2005)
Abri – Sunchild (2006)
Malika – Monsoon Dew (2007)
Kamal Musallam – Out of My City (2008)
Nervecell – Preaching Venom (2008)
Abri – Blank Notes (2009)
A special shout-out must also go to soul-pop quartet Abri: Among the first globally recognised groups to emerge from the region, Abri enjoyed wide exposure and unprecedented sales with their two albums, Sunchild and Blank Notes, the latter of which was recorded in London. Since the group disbanded in 2009, eponymous Emirati frontman Hamdan Al-Abri has released a strong self-titled solo EP and fronted the best-selling Bull Funk Zoo. He currently leads local live favourites Abri & Funk Radius.
Bestsellers by genre
Pop and urban
1. Ash Hamman – Ash Hamman (Immaqul8 Entertainment, 2011)
2. Illmiyah – Stereotyped (Music Box International, 2012)
3. DD Foxx – Had to Be Me (Music Box International, 2012)
4. Clarita de Quiroz – Speak. Delete. Repeat (Sony Music, 2015)
5. Rouba – Mama’s Back (Music Box International, 2013)
Dance and electronic
1. Ilona Maras – Pacha Dubai VIP (disc two only, Pacha, 2013)
2. SickAsSwans – These Words (Daxar, 2012)
3. Ilona Maras – Best of Pacha Dubai (Pacha, 2013)
4. Mr Mr and Raxon – Audio Tonic 360º Volume 1 (Daxar, 2013)
5. Pierre Ravan – Karavan: Evolution (Clubster, 2011)
1. Juliana Down – Empires (Sony BMG, 2011)
2. Bull Funk Zoo – Bull Funk Zoo (Groovemaster, 2013)
3. Tim Hassall – Gallatin (Music Box International, 2012)
4. Jay Wud – False Utopia (independent, 2012)
5. Fatiniza – Nothing is Impossible (Daxar, 2013)
6. Behold the Locus – Behold the Locus (independent EP, 2010)
7. Fatiniza – Confusion (Daxar, 2010)
8. Sandwash – Master Blaster Hole (Daxar, 2010)
9. Jay Wud – New Blood (Daxar, 2010)
Metal and hard rock
1. Nervecell – Psychogenocide (Spellbind, 2011)
2. Svengali – Theory of Mind (Metal East Records, 2015)
3. Absolace – Fractals (Spellbind, 2012)
4. Point of View – Revolutionise the Revolutionary (Music Box International, 2012)
5. Absolace – Resolve[d] (Spellbind, 2010)
6. Vin Sinners – A Mighty Black Box (Universal Music, 2014)
7. Nikotin – Panodrama (Music Box International, 2014)
8. Benevolent – The Covenant (Music Box International, 2014)
Jazz, classical and world
1. Kamal Musallam – Songs for Seung-eun (K& G Records, 2011)
2. The Gypsy Swing Project – Paris-Dubai (K& G Records, 2014)
3. Malika – Sandstar (Daxar, 2011)
4. Kamal Musallam – The Best of Kamal Musallam 1999-2011 (K& G Records, 2012)
5. Kamal Musallam – Lulu: A Story from the Land of the Emirates (K& G Records, 2012)
6. Rony Afif – Zourouf (independent, 2014)
7. Dwight Dickerson – Glimpses (K& G Records, 2011)
8. Elie Afif Quartet – Giant Steps to Heaven (The Fridge, 2011)