When I first started taking a look back at the year in Japanese music so far, I felt like it had been a pretty bland one. Nothing was really piquing my interest. Maybe I was just feeling down because Polysics hasn't released anything new in a long time...
But after a deep breath I took off my black armband with Kayo's name on it and really started digging. I realized that there were in fact a ton of great albums out there. Where I first thought I'd be struggling to find even ten albums total I soon had almost twenty.
So after further deliberation and some quiet soul searching (I really can't wait to get that new live Blu-ray Polysics disc) I can now present to you my own personal list of Top 10 Japanese Albums of 2010 (So Far), along with a few honorable mentions at the end. Please keep in mind that this is really my own personal favorites list. I try to keep an open mind, but really I'm pretty bull-headed when it comes to music, as some of you may already know
Boom Boom Satellites
To the Loveless
I had really cooled off on Boom Boom Satellites over the past few releases/years. They seemed to be going in a less epic and atmospheric direction in favor of a dumbed-down dace/club vibe. Of course there's nothing wrong with that, unless the band in question can do some really amazing things when they want. So I wasn't ready to give To the Loveless much thought. I figured it would be more of the same sort of easy to digest electro dance rock.
Turns out I was wrong. To the Loveless is in-fact a monster of dark, dangerous moods and massive instrumentation. Upon first listen I said something like "To the Loveless is the kind of album Trent Reznor should have been writing for the past ten years." Sure, it's fun and dance-able at times, but overall the album is much more introspective and grim than what we've been hearing from them lately. "Back On My Feet" is the perfect opener, "Vapor" is full of frenetic, old school industrial energy and "Stay" is a soaring, swirling ballad of epic proportions. The other ten songs aren't bad either. To the Loveless is a big album full of great ideas and masterful production. If this is what the next ten years of BBS is going to be like, we are all in for a treat.
The Brixton Academy
This album from The Brixton Academy caught me totally off guard. I'd never heard of them, which isn't too surprising since Vivid is their debut album. Yet right from the start I knew this was an album written just for me. Their style is bare-bones electro a la Kraftwerk, yet their lyrics (all sung in English, btw) and general feel are more like that of a trendy synth-pop band. This mix of sparse blips and tongue-in-cheek playfulness is the perfect throw-back to early '80s synth-pop, but with a modern sense of style. It's fun and serious all at once. Oh, and every song is unforgivably catchy. Listen once and you'll be hooked. Listen twice and you'll be singing along. Give "So Shy" a couple listens and you'll see exactly what I mean. Even that drum fill is catchy!
Since the break-up of Supercar, the band's front man Koji Nakamura has been anything but silent. He's been releasing albums under the name iLL for quite some time. His newest titled ∀ (“Turn A”) contains both new collaborations and remixes of his older tracks. It a veritable who's-who of the hip and trendy Japanese rock scene, with tracks including the work of Number Girl/Zazen Boys mastermind Hidenori Mukai, Polysics, The Telephones, MEG, Base Ball Bear, Asian Kung-Fu Generation, Ryukyudisko, Clammbon and more. Keeping up the iLL tradition of sleek art-electro mixed with fuzzed out rock, the album is a real masterwork. It never once overplays its hand. All of the tracks are somewhat modest in ambition, which actually makes them far greater. Each collaboration is well thought out and the tracks drip with cool. Some of the remixes fall a little flat, stripping things down a bit too far, but overall this is a must-have album for anyone wanting to know what's going on in among Japan's fashionable indie-rock elite, especially those of us with a Supercar-sized hole in our hearts.
Lillies and Remains
Lillies and Remains are a band that really needs more exposure to the word at large. They are amazing, sing in English and play a style of music popular everywhere. Their gloomy post-punk would be a hit anywhere. Their new release Meru really shows off their wide rage as well. "Devaloka" is the sort of deadly sharp track we've come to expect. It's followed up with some slightly softer songs that are crafted with just as much skill and ooze with they same sort of romantic glower power. The band has started to tour outside of Japan, so here's hoping for more of that, please!
MOWMOW LULU GYABAN
Noguchi, Kutsukawa de Bakushi
Here's one that is likely to have flown completely under the radar of even the more Japan-o-centric music fans. That's a shame because it's a fantastical effort. MOWMOW LULU GYABAN is a trio featuring no guitar, but instead a bassist, keyboardist and singing drummer. At their core they are a sort of jazz band with a punk-rock soul. Their songs have a solid groove that's surrounded by chaos. It's like they took some really poppy tracks and beat the shit out of them. But then there are songs like "Contact" that are straight up fun-in-the-sun jams. It's still a bit odd, but just odd enough to keep things interesting. It's a formula that they keep up throughout Noguchi, Kutsukawa de Bakushi, played with confidence, precision and boot to the face of tradition.
Midori is a band that's a real contradiction in terms. On the surface they are a chaotic, screaming, falling-apart-at-the-seams jazz-punk explosion. But under all that noise lays an amazingly talented band. All too often musicians with a ton of talent seem to feel that they need to create music that's high-class and refined, something befitting their years of schooling and something that can be performed in a high-society concert hall. Not so with Midori. They use their talent to break the rules. Their music is a middle finger in the face of the prudes who think of music only as precious and erudite. They are precision punk. They are screaming jazz. They are innocence turned to murder. Their new album Shinsekai shows the band at the top of their game, full of rage yet distilling it all down to a cold science. "Mecha" is like "Bohemian Rhapsody" run though a burning fun-house. On "Goodbye, Perfect World" front-woman Mariko Goto channels Fantomas' Mike Patton while the band pounds out a stomping bass and piano riff around her. Then on "Mellow Spring" they play a straight-up piano ballad that will break your heart. And again it's all done with amazing skill. Don't let the schoolgirl uniform fool you. This is a band that will cut you apart if you're not careful.
9mm Parabellum Bullet
It's getting to the point where it's almost unfair of 9mm Parabellum Bullet to release a new album. They're just too consistently good. Revolutionary is a non-stop barrage of razor-sharp guitars and lightning fast drums. It's about as close to metal as post-punk/post-rock/post-whatever can get. In fact they do toss in a few double-bass beats and flashy guitar riff from time to time, but mostly they stick to simply dazzling the listener with their jaw-dropping precision and relentless motion. Revolutionary is the new definition of intense.
De De Mouse
A Journey to Freedom
In a climate when it seems that every new dance album released has to be more compressed, louder, more ear-piercing and more bass-shredding than the last, it's nice to know that guys like De De Mouse are around to even the playing field. Where other acts beat you over the head, De De Mouse instead takes his time to develop his songs. Or rather, he gives you the entire song in the first few seconds, then takes the next few minutes to add extra layers which, in an odd way, actually serve to make the base all the more clear. It might sound like it's just more sparkles and twinkles and drifting melodies, and it is, but it's also a way to distill the essence of the song. A Journey to Freedom really is a journey and the album art from Final Fantasy illustrator Akihiko Yoshida only adds to the magical trip. This is Final Fantasy mixed with Ghibli, in space. A space fantasy filled with happy, dancing woodland creatures.
I have made it no secret that I don't like Vocaloid stuff. I honestly do understand the appeal. Well OK, I understand why other people like it. But for me it just seems like a handy way for so-so musicians to pump out material tailor-made to be gobbled up by people more into moe than music. Then again, that's more-or-less the same description for all pop music, so, whatever. I digress. I do like this album from wintermute. Mostly because it breaks the mold that most Vocaloid produced follow, namely upbeat dance pop. wintermute manages to use the Vocaloid software to create a believable singer to front a rocking shoegaze band. Sure, it's all a little artificial, but the songs are nice and the atmosphere doesn't grate on the ears like much of the other Vocaloid stuff out there. Sort of a backhanded comment I suppose. This would be a good album even without the Vocaloid stuff. Dammit, did it again...
Something about "Ikiru," the opening track to Tokyo Jihen's Sports sends a chill down my spine every time I hear it. It's just amazing and something you probably need to hear to really understand. It starts of as a heavily processed acapella, then kicks into a full band half way though. Really it's just a showcase for Shiina Ringo, the mastermind behind the band, to sing her goddamn balls off. Hot-damn, she can sing when she puts her mind to it. This opening alone is enough to support the rest of the album, but lucky for us it doesn't have to. Yet Spots is one of those album that you really have to allow to settle in before you can reap its rewards. There is more going on here than meets the ear the first time around. "Foul" is Tokyo Jihen at the top of their game and is what we've come to expect from them over the years. It's tight and fast and groovy with plenty of keyboard twang and treble turned up to eleven. Same goes for "Interest," with its driving beat and dreamy, ghostly warbles. The album closer "Terminate" is as grand as anything else they've done and fitting end to an elegant, though playful, album. It all proves that even after all these years, Ringo and company are not at a loss for good ideas.
That's it for the Top 10. Here are a few honorable-mention quick-hits:
Happy Rebirthday to You
School Food Punishment
No Album Mudai
That's it for the year so far. What have your favorite albums been? Let us know in the comments!