Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.1 – Hikashu – Ikitekoi Chinmoku

Ikitekoi Chinmoku

CD, Makigami Records, 2015

Any Hikashu album would be a contender for album of the year, and it’s only the fact that they come so thick and fast that I haven’t always heard the avant-garde ‘pataphysic rock band’s latest offering in time for compiling these rundowns.

This time round I have, and here it is. I wrote about this album back when it was initially released, and the way its overarching sense of playfulness and fun links together the music that ricochets back and forth between melody and experimentalism continues to elevate it above almost anything else out there. To Hikashu, the tools of pop and the avant-garde are just different elements in the same bag, available for them to reach for at any moment, to achieve a particular effect. At times they seem to have abandoned the idea of composition entirely in favour of this grab-bag of different elements, but they are by now such assured performers that they carry it off with aplomb.

Hikashu: Naruhodo

Frontman Koichi Makigami’s voice remains the group’s most striking and versatile instrument, bouncing back and forth between extraordinary range of sounds, from rich baritone to helium-voiced babble and sandpaper growl. Where his own mouth proves an insufficient tool to achieve the sounds he wants, he is able to draw on a range of other instruments, with theremin and trumpet among the most conventional. He throws it all into the nearly seven-minute Altai Meiso, a virtuoso display of doing everything except pop music and apparently having immense fun doing so.

I keep coming back to the idea of pop music when writing about Hikashu, because no matter how weird they get, the relationship between what they do and pop music is nevertheless ever-present. The moments where more traditional songwriting collides with Hikashu’s more freeform approach are often the most thrilling, with Iroha Moyo recalling a Berlin period Bowie in its mix of jazz-influenced soundscape and tormented, claustrophobic guitar, albeit with a lighter touch and less pervasive sense of portent. Even so, they provide moments of beauty on tracks like Konna Hito, where the band just seem to allow themselves to be pulled where the music takes them, and the more straightforward tracks (this is always a relative term where Hikashu are concerned) like Shizuka na Shaboten provide occasional reminders of what a normal pop song might sound like.

Hikashu are a band whose range continues to grow with every new release, and if anything the pace of their creativity seem to grow faster as they get older. On the basis of Ikitekoi Chinmoku, we should hope they never stop.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.2 – DYGL – EP #1

I’ve already written a lot about DYGL and their position as the most vibrant act in Japan’s small but increasingly hip indiepop scene, but this rundown of last year’s best nevertheless provides a good opportunity to underline just what an important band they are.

Opening track Let’s Get Into Your Car has been knocking around for a few years now, but this version perfectly captures its jangly energy – like Head on the Door-period Cure, all chiming melody (with echoes of Angelo Badalamente’s Twin Peaks theme) delivered with an edge of yobbish charm. I’m Waiting For You builds slowly but surely to its fist-pumping climax of melancholy euphoria, while Just Say It Tonight returns impressively to uptempo jangle pop territory, buoyed by Yosuke Shimonaka’s gorgeous, wandering guitar line.

The closing All The Time is the track that perhaps points most clearly towards the band’s future, and could in the long run prove significant beyond DYGL’s own musical development. The most recent track on this EP, it draws less on ‘80s-influenced guitar pop and more from new wave-influenced early 2000s indie rock, most notably The Strokes. Newer material the band are playing out live recently suggests the band see their direction lying more in a spikier sound, reminiscent of bands like The Libertines. The same amount of time has now passed since The Strokes’ Is This It as lies between Is This It and The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead, so perhaps the time has now come round for young bands to start resurrecting and reinterpreting the music of that first millennial generation.

Where it leaves the rest of Tokyo’s indiepop scene if their most accomplished flag bearers are starting to leave the jangly riffs and sweet, emotional sentiment behind and start cutting and bouncing their way through gritty tales of urban life, I don’t know. I don’t even know where it leaves DYGL, but as a high water mark of this generation of melodic Japanese indie, this EP is vital.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.3 – Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs

jim orourke - simple songs

CD, Drag City, 2015

This album differs starkly from everything else on this year-end rundown in the weight of expectation and breadth of interest its release attracted. Never having heard Jim O’Rourke’s 1999 landmark Eureka and only really having encountered his work through his numerous collaborations and production credits, there is a huge wealth of context behind Simple Songs that I’m not a party to.

My first reference point coming into Simple Songs is the backing band, including Tokyo indie and experimental scene veterans like drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and pianist Eiko Ishibashi, while there are elements of the lineup (including O’Rourke himself) that connect this album to singer-songwriter Kenta Maeno, whose brand of folk and chamber pop shares some similarities with O’Rourke’s own. Yes, he has been doing his thing since way before any of this mattered, but here in Japan now, this is the context into which O’Rourke’s music more or less fits.

And Simple Songs excells, the musicianship an immaculate vehicle for O’Rourke’s meandering musical vision, drifting with ease from one movement to the next, making the dense, rhythmical and melodic complexity of the album feel completely natural. These are not really simple songs then, but while songs like Friends With Benefits and Last Year contain multiple songs’ worth of ideas, each of those ideas has at its heart a simple, memorable pop hook that anchors them in something immediate and accessible without hemming the song in from taking any of its multiple excursions into more abstract sonic territory.

The lyrics feel like a trap for the amateur psychologist, their barbs open to interpretation as possibly a series of vicious put-downs or a maybe a more reflexive exercise in self-laceration. O’Rourke’s lyrics defy easy analysis, but they are sharp and intelligent in their wordplay, and he is a master of his craft when it comes to leaving a word hanging at the end of one line that then gets cruelly undermined by the next.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Simple Songs from the perspective of music in Japan is the production, with the sound striking in how far back it appears to sit, in contrast to the heavily compressed, up-close sound that seems to prevail on so many other people’s records. More than any other record I heard in the past year, Simple Songs seems to want you to feel a sense of the room in which it was recorded – to use the speakers to draw you in rather than to push the sound out.

In the wider music world, the reaction to Simple Songs felt like it had been (not unjustifiably) coloured by all manner of expectations, although it seems to have satisfied most of the anticipation projected onto it. In the more microcosmic space of the Japanese indie scene, it also has a place where it feels at home though, and that it excels in both contexts pays fine testament to Jim O’Rourke’s songwriting and musical vision.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.4 – mechaniphone – i ∞ u

One lovely sounding idea that I completely disagree with is the idea that all artists and all recordings are somehow equal at the point of issue, their merits divorced from the context of their production and discovery. People who claim that they see mainstream and undeground music in essentially the same way are through that very process choosing to favour the mainstream, the very existence of which has been helped along by numerous factors before you even encounter it.

An underground record, especially one from a remote corner of Japan with minimal music infrastructure, by musicians whose day jobs make touring next to impossible, does not come to you on an equal footing with a mainstream release, which makes its discovery all the more precious a thing and all the more worthy of your excitement and interest.

Mechaniphone were probably my biggest new discovery of 2015, and their position as the most part-time of part-time bands, in the far western outpost of Nagasaki, means they will never enjoy even a tiny percentage of the credit even a similarly noisy, rhythmically complex band would receive in Tokyo.

I wrote about what makes i ∞ u such a terrific EP back in September, and on its musical merits alone it deserves praise as one of the most exciting new releases of the year. The mixture of post-hardcore rhythms and energy with moments of towering Sublime Frequencies-esque melody is as spine tingling today as it was then, drawing influences from many of the best Japanese underground bands of the past ten years (Afrirampo and Hyacca to name the two that jump out most immediately) without ever seeming like a straight copy.

However, the intersecting factors that made its existence such an unlikely thing in the first place add an extra layer of urgency and importance to it. Would I have ranked the exact same album from a buzzy Tokyo band this highly in my list? Yes, sure, but would I have taken quite as much pleasure and satisfaction from doing so? Not by a long shot.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.5 – Platskartny – Dabai

platskartny - dabai

CD, Cheese Burger Records, 2015

Platskartny refers to the third class carriages on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which makes a curious but apt parallel with the wilfully rough, naive, lo-fi music on Dabai. There are also ramshackle parallels with shambling turn-of-the-millennium prog-pop acts like My Pal Foot Foot, Maher Shalal Hash Baz and bits of the Tenniscoats (playing for a year or so in the Tenniscoats is a sort of compulsory National Service for Japanese indie musicians, and members of Platskartny have dutifully done time themselves).

There’s a rougher-edged, more anarchic energy to Platskartny than those twee-as-fuck, Pastels-loving forebears though, and it hits you in the face at the get-go with the frantic postpunk Beefheart of minute-long opening track Despaigne. The desperately simple and insanely catchy I’m a Little Airplane is even more ludicrously enjoyable with its straghtforward four-chord rock’n’roll chopped and distorted playfully and once more delivered with a rough-and-ready mixture of innocence and yobbish insouciance, like, I dunno, The Modern Lovers being covered by Sham 69 via The Contortions.

The gentle melodica and stylophone-led reggae of Ryokou appears twice, being reprised as a coda to the mini-album in a more elaborate dub arrangement featuing a gloriously out-of-tune pub piano and the addition of brass that teeters throughout on the brink of total collapse. In between, Izu is a heartfelt ballad featuring a passionate and infectiously tuneless vocal tour de force, while Tekkaba starts and ends like a stop-start sequel to Despaigne via a diversion into almost louche, Pavement-esque lo-fi rambling.

While Dabai is a wilfully awkward collection of songs, its heart is pure pop and Platskartny deliver it with such energy and aplomb that you can’t help but get swept up in their enthusiasm. Beyond that, however, there’s a wealth of ideas, both simple and more oblique that make this mini-album not only a fun but also a deeply rewarding listen.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.6 – Batman Winks – All Babies Sleeping

All Babies Sleeping

CD, self-released, 2015

In the indie world, band names are often fluid things as musicians’ ever shifting senses of their own identities find themselves at odds with a name they came up with in a fit of giggles, desperation or naïveté. Hysteric Picnic recently became Burgh, De Nada became DYGL, then Leather, then DYGL again, and Sanm recently became Cairo. Batman Winks used to be called Atlanta Girl. It’s a pretty standard process early on in a band’s career, but for those of us interested in the path along which these young bands choose to develop, the way these changing band names reflect the musical identities of the bands involved makes them worth a bit of attention.

Burgh reflects almost a retreat from identity, behind a band name that’s deliberately obscure and dry of meaning. DYGL’s case probably reflects the band’s own pursuit of a more rock’n’roll direction, away from the image of clean-cut indie pinup boys (and possibly a way of differentiating themselves from the same members’ smoother-edged work as Ykiki Beat) – and their return to the name DYGL I think shows more that the power of their music itself had made a name change unnecessary rather than any compromise on their part.

The name Cairo sounds like a city pop band and reflects the band’s own shift from jangly guitar pop towards more washed-out synth-based indiepop. Batman Winks, on the other hand, feels like the same journey in the opposite direction. When I first heard Atlanta Girl, the name instantly conjured up a sound similar to what a band like Cairo now actually does for real. The reality of the scrappy Atlanta Girl demo was something much weirder and felt completely at odds with the wishy-washy indie-twee sentimentality implied by the name. The change to the more obtuse Batman Winks then felt far more appropriate and satisfying, not least because it includes the classic combination of a comicbook reference and a verb in the indicative mood (this is always a cool thing – ask The Teardrop Explodes).

I’ve already written about All Babies Sleeping’s music in some detail, so rather than repeating myself here, check out my review from a year ago – everything in there still stands. I

Batman Winks’ music is often compared to Ariel Pink, which makes sense, and I’ve seen references to Psychic TV as well, which I’ll grant them too. I’m going to add another, less direct one in here and say there’s something of Robert Pollard in Batman Winks’ Naoya Takukawa. While the music and influences are coming from very different places, they are both prolific songwriters beloved by an indie scene they don’t quite fit into, who combine a lo-fi DIY aesthetic with an instinctive need to fuck up anything to smooth or “creamy” in their music.

You can hear it in the noise and disjointed rhythms of Celebration, the backing vocal squeaks of Blind But The Brightest Light and the album’s faintly out-of-tune title track. And yet behind it all the songwriting fundamentals are really strong, with the closing Strange Love a minor Tokyo indie anthem.

All Babies Sleeping was only the first of two albums Batman Winks released in 2015, with the second, Gud Pops, following in the autumn and also containing a strong collection of tunes. The band have already moved on from most of the material on this album (although the new material retains the same off-kilter, lo-fi approach to pop songwriting), but the year that has passed since then brings with it a bit of extra perspective on All Babies Sleeping, and the fact that this album still retains the capacity to surprise and delight suggests a strength at its core that only time has been able to reveal.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.7 – You Got A Radio! – Carnival

yougotaradio_carnival

CD, Drriill, 2015

You Got A Radio feel like they’ve been around forever, occupying a lonely new wave island somewhere in the no-man’s land between the larger alternative, punk and garage rock scenes, remaining relevant thanks to a revolving cast of tangentially related bands from the surrounding scenes but never quite being part of anything themselves.

They have staying power though, and where some bands and organisers have desperately hooked themselves onto every ridiculous new trend or gimmick that has become momentarily hip, You Got A Radio have remained admirably steadfast in their devotion to a particular kind of vaguely XTC-ish new wave/postpunk. As the cycles of fashion turn this way and that, it’s reassuring to know that a band like this is still there.

At the moment, there are faint hints that a minor cluster of new postpunk bands might be on the brink of emerging – largely thanks to Hysteric Picnic/Burgh (No.8 in this countdown) being young and handsome, not to mention brilliant – so the timing of Carnival couldn’t have been better.

It’s a slightly darker-tinged, more melancholy record than You Got A Radio’s eponymous 2010 debut, with influences of Joy Division and particularly Magazine shining through, alongside the quirkier, more playful echoes of Japanese forebears like the Plastics and P-Model in the boy-girl vocal dynamic and jittery arrangements respectively.

In tense, aggressive, propulsive tracks like Letter and Take Me Out, it’s easy to see how upcoming acts like Burgh might see kindred spirits , but there’s a benefit in You Got A Radio’s less tightly nailed-down sound too, allowing them to play around more freely within their postpunk sandbox, the shifts in tone coming across more natural and less like violent challenges to the audience’s expectations.

It also provides them with the sonic pallette to paint a more nuanced range of emotions, and for all You Got A Radio’s mastery of twitchy dance-punk there’s a sense of melancholy and loss running through the album that a young band just couldn’t pull off convincingly. You need to have lived a bit to sing a song like Summer Has Gone without sounding like a twat, and You Got A Radio deliver it with pathos that keeps them on just the right side of sentimentality.

The five-year gap between You Got A Radio’s first and second albums could have seen them swallowed up and lost in a spiral of “Oh, what’s the goddamn point?” and a lot of bands have perished in that way, so the fact that they have come back so strong is a huge boon not only to their fans, but also to the music scene as a whole.

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