We are only half-way through the year 2008, six months since our look back at The Best Japanese Albums of 2007, and already the world has seen the release of some of the best music ever. OK, I suppose that may be a bit hyperbolic, but my point is this: The world cannot wait until the end of the year to take a look back at the year in music.
One cannot deny the legacy of Nobuo Uematsu. The man behind some of the most memorable and iconic Final Fantasy music has not only changed the face of video game music, but influenced untold numbers of musicians outside of the video gaming world. With his progressive metal band The Black Mages, he has proven that his material can work just as well, if not better, outside of its original, more precious orchestral arrangements. While many of the Final Fantasy tracks are obviously rock influenced to begin with, The Black Mages take it to a much higher level, not only cranking up the tempo and distortion level, but doing it all with huge grins on their faces. Darkness and Starlight is a mix of both metal tracks and softer ballads. There's even a mini rock opera!
Boris has long been the thinking man's hard rock band. While on the one hand they certainly produce plenty of brain melting sludge guitar, they are also constantly breaking the typical stoner rock rules. Smile is a shining example of this, from its opening, bizarrely mixed psyche-tribal version of “Message,” totally obliterated and incomprehensible “Shoot!” and their downright folky version of “Flower Sun Rain” evoking images of a post apocalyptic wild-west landscape, it's an album full of freshness and originality. Turned up loud enough, it'll not only clean out your ears, but freshen up your brain as well.
All that the aforementioned Nobuo Uematsu is to game music can be directly applied to Yoko Kanno's work with anime soundtracks. She is quite simply a genius. Much like Uematsu, Kanno has her own style, but is able to apply it with equal deftness to any genre. Quite often, her approach to an anime series' music serves to define the entire show, even more so than the character design or storyline. While her work for Macross: Frontier may not quite reach that level, it is no less amazing in its own right. Take into account that the OST's two singles and full album have all hit the top 3 on the charts and you know you've got something special on your hands. Kanno is uniquely able to work in the pop realm, yet inject the sort of profound structures and tones you'd normally expect in only the most cerebral classical compositions. Nyan Furo is equal parts idol pop (“What 'bout my star?”) and darkly rolling film score (“Bajura”) while never submitting to the normal pitfalls (vapid shallowness or over self-indulgence) of either genre.
It's been said before countless times, but we live in a new age. With the release of Hideo Kojima's masterpiece Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, the world of interactive entertainment has evolved into a new creature. The music of Harry Gregson-Williams, along with others (including Nobuko Toda, Shuichi Kobori, Kazuma Jinnouchi, Yoshitaka Suzuki and Jackie Presti) has defined Metal Gear Solid's aural world for some time. With MGS4, that world has exploded. Perhaps it's just a reflection of the story's tone, but the accompanying soundtrack is as achingly beautiful as it is fueled with adrenalin. All of the bass stabs and staccato metal clangs we've come to expect are firmly in place, but there are also soft passages, delicate acoustic twangs and haunting choirs running throughout. Even without knowing its place in the plot, “Father & Son” is a tear-jerker, proving that the soundtrack can more than survive on its own. When coupled with Kojima's genius, it's glory is truly terrifying.
In a world full of saccharine pop bands fronted by candy coated high-school girls and carbon copy pop riffs, bands like Midori are at times so incongruous that at first they seem like an incomprehensible slap to the face. Once you get a chance to get back on your feet however, one can start to understand their shape and trajectory. Fronted by a screaming tsunami in a sailor-suit, the band plays a brand of punk-jazz the likes of which you've never heard. “Challenging” might be the simple description, but once you get past the noise you'll find plenty of pop hooks to hold on to in the storm. Aratamemashite, Hajimemashite, Midori Desu is the natural, I don't dare say maturation, but maybe progression for the band. They are able to contain their rage on songs like the almost purely jazzy “Chiharu no koi” and “Himitsu no futari,” saving it instead for the relentless “Yukiko-san” and “Howling Jigoku.” It's not so much maturity as knowing how to trick your victims into submission.
Over the ten years since they started up, Polysics has always endeavored to refine their sound. While they started life as a rather noisy electro punk band, they've slowly stripped away the veil of distortion over time, allowing their expert musicianship to shine. Their newest album We Ate The Machine inhabits a sort of hyper-reality. Every blip, blorp and scream is in a sort of high-definition, hyper-focus. Their songs are just as challenging as ever, full of herky-jerky time and tempo changes, blazing new-wave guitar and laser-beam synths. Instead of shrouding all of this under a blanket of distortion and reverb they instead give everything a candy-coated polish. “Pretty Good” and “Rocket” are radio friendly and chirpy, “Kagayake” adds a level of intensity, and tracks like “Digital Coffee” show that they certainly haven't lost their sense of humor. While they may be targeting a more mainstream audience with their more accessible sound, they are still managing to pack in more tricks and surprises into one song them most bands manage in their entire careers.
If you replaced Telephones singer Akira Ishige with just about any old UK post-punk singer and you'd probably have a huge hit on your hands. Of course Japanese bands are often overlooked, so Telephones have yet to break out overseas (even though they sing mostly in English.) Nevertheless they can easily stand along side other bands of the genre like Franz Ferdinand, Block Party, Kaiser Chiefs etc. Plus, Japan proves that they are able to take a dip into genres that some other bands may fear, like electro and new-wave, making them bit more along the lines of Polysics at times. While they are firmly beholden to the UK sound throughout the album, they move all over the map stylistically, making the album much more than your standard genre piece. Just when you think you've got them figured out, they'll drop in some rave synths or some really strange guitar effects. Japan is only the band's first full length release, so we can only hope there's much more to come from this very promising young band.
Sometimes business as usual is exactly what you hope for from a band. Such is the case with possibly the best chiptune band in the world, YMCK. While many pico-pico bands try and wow listeners with their programming prowess and over-the-top flashiness, YMCK simply sets things to “mellow” and just lets the songs speak for themselves. While the songs certainly are very complex and subtle, it doesn't show. The real wonder sets in once you let them wash over you, moving you into a more relaxed state. Family Genesis is probably their most laid back album so far, but it's still full of the same 8-bit wizardry we've come to expect. Their songs are just as bright and happy as ever, though in more of a rosy-glow sort of way. Never too frenetic or annoyingly chipper, the songs simply float along. Midori's vocals are just as calming, almost as if she's whispering them under her breath as she cleans up around the house. Why definitely nostalgic for anyone growing up in the Nintendo age, YMCK's sound is still as fresh as it was back in the early days.
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