Top 20 Releases of 2016: Afterword

If you’ve read through all of my 2016 top 20, congratulations. If not and/or it would be handy for you to have them all listed in one place, here is the full rundown with links. I’ll do my best to get a selection of these discs in stock in the distribution section of the Call And Response online store over the coming weeks, just in case anyone wants them shipped overseas.

20. V/A – Provoke
19. Asuna + Fumihito Taguchi – 100 Keyboards x 100 Record Players with 100 Sea Wave Records
18. Code – Code
17. Soloist Apartment – untitled
16. Transkam – Blueshade of the Omegasound
15. tepPohseen – Some Speedy Kisses
14. Masami Akita & Eiko Ishibashi – Kouen Kyodai
13. macmanaman – New Wave Of British BASEBALL Heavy Metal
12. V/A – Drriill Session
11. Foodman – EZ Minzoku
10. Hijokaidan x Jun Togawa – Togawa Kaidan
9. Sonotanotanpenz – Conga
8. Kuruucrew – Kuruucrew
7. Sea Level – Invisible Cities
6. Limited Express (Has Gone?) – All Ages
5. Masami Takashima – Fake Night
4. Convex Level – Inverse Mapped Tiger Moth
3. Narcolepsin – Mojo
2. Kafka’s Ibiki – Nemutte
1. NOISECONCRETEx3CHI5 ‎– Sandglass/Suna-Ji-Kei

As I said in the intro, there’s a lot of good stuff I didn’t talk about in this top 20 rundown, either because of the inherent art-rock biases of my selection process, because I didn’t hear it, or that it just wasn’t in my mind at the time. I mentioned some of the same artists, along with a few others, in my Japan Times year-end indie review. I’m also not the only person coming up with these lists, and some other less tardy commentators have had their own rundowns available for months now.

If your taste leans more pop and electronic, Make Believe Melodies has a top 30 that will be rich in delights for you.

PART 1 (30-21)

PART 2 (20-11)

PART 3 (10-1)

Meanwhile, international music site Beehype produced their own Japanese music rundown, with more of an mainline J-indie tilt.

BEEHYPE TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2016

Finally, if you’re the sort of person who hates reading and prefers to have their music reviews read to them by an American man with a beard, music vlogger Zach Reinhardt made a series of punk/noise-edged year-end review posts, which cover some of the same ground as mine, with the additional inclusion of basically all my own Call And Response label’s releases of last year (which I ban myself from including in this site’s year-end lists).

TOP 10 EPs OF 2016

TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2016 (20-11)

TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2016 (10-1)

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.1 – NOISECONCRETEx3CHI5 – Sandglass/Suna-Ji-Kei

noiseconcrete x 3chi5 - suna-ji-kei

CD, sssm, 2016

Despite being one of Japan’s largest cities, despite lying neatly right in the centre between Japan’s two biggest metropolitan areas, Nagoya feels like a strangely isolated city. Perhaps it’s the curse of those freeways and Shinkasen lines, which make it a bit of a flyover city for bands playing the Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto areas that makes Nagoya such a cultural island. Bands who are hot names in every major city between Tokyo and Fukuoka mean nothing in Nagoya, while peripheral acts from elsewhere can sometimes command huge audiences. It is a city of over two million, with a gravity well encompassing nearby cities such as Gifu, Toyota and Yokkaichi, but it behaves like a small town, with a few key spots and scene figures seeming to exert a huge influence over the musical conversation the city has. And the reverse is true too: a band can grow up fully formed in Nagoya without even the most powerful indie music antennae in the rest of the country picking up even the faintest signal. When I visited Nagoya last year, I dropped by a couple of these key spots — File-Under Records and Bar Ripple — and both places were buzzing with the same recommendation: Noiseconcrete x 3chi5’s debut album Suna-Ji-Kei (or Sandglass as the band themselves call it in English).

On first glance, this duo fits into the growing format of noise guy + girl vocalist that seems to be have been gaining ground over the past couple of years as the fashion kids get hip to noise. We’ve visited this general territory before with Jun Togawa and Hijokaidan’s Togawa Kaidan project (No.10 on this list) and there are occasional similarities in how Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 play with the borders between voice and noise. On Don’t Hate Me!, 3chi5’s vocals are contorted and raw, entwined with the harsh slashes of noise, while on the closing Dake her breathy utterances alternate with vocalisations that blur the line between human and machine. Also like Togawa Kaidan there are moments of vocal-less pure noise that interrupt the proceedings, with the two-part Behemoth no Yume.

Nevertheless, while Togawa Kaidan (and many of the pop/noise crossover records that have sprung up playing off the subcultural appeal of idol music) is interested in the tension between pop and noise, Suna-Ji-Kei tends to treat melody and noise as two dimensions of the same thing that are fundamentally at home with each other. When the noise elements of Ernst no Gensou scream into the frame like angry rockets, and the vocals tilt towards them with an edge of distortion, but elsewhere 3chi5’s delivery rings out clear, delivering her abstract poetry through bluesy improvisations that oscillate portentously around a couple of core notes against a backdrop of sparse industrial beats, simple chimes, and drones.

While the most obvious musical touchstone on first listen might be a trip hop act like Portishead, an even sparser FKA Twigs might be a more appropriate comparison. Dig deeper, however, and there’s also a thread linking what Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 do back to postpunk. Just as the original trip hop scene shared some of its roots with the jazz- funk- and dub-influenced Bristol postpunk scene, there are perhaps echoes in Suna-Ji-Kei of the gothic-edged, Joy Division-influenced postpunk that Nagoya bands like Zymotics/Vodovo, Sekaitekina Band and most recently WBSBFK trade in, not to mention the more obvious noise and hardcore influences. This is reflected in the members’ own roots, with Noisconcrete sharing close connections with the Nagoya hardcore scene, and 3chi5 also performing as part of the postpunk/experimental rock band Ghilom.

What Noiseconcrete x 3chi5’s music shares most particularly with postpunk is the way it seems to be reconstructing the jagged shards of other musical genres in a way that still allows you to see the join. The resulting album is at once dark, minimal and harshly industrial, but also captivating, melodic and beautiful. Most of the people I spoke to in Nagoya were in no doubt what their album of 2016 was, and Suna-Ji-Kei makes a strong case for best thing released in the whole country.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.2 – Kafka’s Ibiki – Nemutte

kafka's ibiki - nemutte

CD, Felicity, 2016

Kafka’s Ibiki is another name for the Tokyo-based trio of Tatsuhisa Yamamoto, Eiko Ishibashi and Jim O’Rourke, who form the recurring core of any number of other projects of their own collectively, as well as individually branching out to collaborate with others as with Ishibashi’s recent Kouen Kyodai project with Masami Akita (No.14 on this list). Where typically we are used to seeing this trio together as the backbone of either Ishibashi or O’Rourke’s solo projects, Kafka’s Ibiki comes across more as a space for them to explore the alchemy produced by all three together.

There’s more to Nemutte, however, than just three people in a room. The forty-odd minutes of the single track that makes up the album are less a jam session than a three-dimensional sound collage stitched together by O’Rourke from multiple sessions, each part distorted in a variety of ways, to the point where his bandmates were often unable to recognise themselves. Virtuoso performers though the trio might be, Nemutte is as much a masterclass in playing the studio as it is of instruments themselves.

That combination of finely honed studio work and the organic spontaneity of how the component elements initially came into being means that while Nemutte is broadly speaking an ambient record, it is at a more richly textured end of the spectrum than, for example, the no less immaculate but far sparser science of something like Brian Eno’s recent Reflections. Closer to home, it differs from Ishibashi’s Kouen Kyodai record in that it places the emphasis less on the intersections of two contrasting elements and more as a shifting pattern that undulates between multiple poles of influence. It differs too from the conceptual, mathematically determined wax and wane of Asuna and Fumihito Taguchi’s 100 Keyboards x 100 Record Players with 100 Sea Wave Records (No.19 in this list) in that while both albums build to a climax around their midpoint, from which they subsequently draw back, Nemutte is far more a piece of music, composed and structured less rigidly and with a greater ear for organic ebb and flow.

A closer comparison might instead by the impressive Don’t Light Up The Dark by Ippei Matsui, Ztomu Motoyama and Ytamo, which brings together similar organic musical elements within a similarly spaced-out sonic environment. Nemutte nevertheless still differentiates itself, maintaining a propulsive sense of urgency driven by minimal but driving bass and Yamamoto’s skittering drums. In fact, for all its layers, texture and musical complexity, one of the most striking things about the album is how much of a rock record it is, not only in the rhythm but in the heart-stirring mini-crescendo it starts to build to around the halfway point and quietly bouncing piano chords that it settles into afterwards. Just as Ishibashi and O’Rourke’s own pop and rock records regularly travel into more expansive musical territory, the dynamics of Nemutte suggest a recognition even in this decidedly experimental record the potential of rock’s instinctive grip on the emotions.There doesn’t seem to be anything from Nemutte available online, but this live clip features some elements of what the album is doing.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.3 – Narcolepsin – Mojo

Narcolepsin - MOJO

CD, Headache Sounds, 2016

The power of aggressive music to provoke has been a constant thread in the development of rock and various forms of electronic music and hip hop. The word “provoke” was the title of a Japanese postpunk-themed compilation album (No.20 in this list) this year, which, intentionally or not, raised an interesting question of what it means for music to be provocative in the 2010s.

Listen to a lot of early punk and, while you might understand on some intellectual level that this was shocking music in its original context, it rarely feels that way on a visceral level. The Clash might have bellowed, “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones” but their music feels now far closer to those classic acts than it does to the kind of extreme music that followed fairly swiftly after them. Nowadays, even noise, which emerged in the ‘80s and remains through artists like Merzbow, Hijokaidan and Incapacitants some of the most sonically abrasive anti-music ever, is no longer really shocking as a stance: it’s simply a medium in which artists can operate, experimenting based on texture rather than melody and rhythm. The extremes of the noise path have now largely been charted. and if it doesn’t sound exactly conventional, it certainly has its conventions.

So what can a musician do nowadays to shake a listener out of their comfort zone if simply battering their ears with noise no longer works? One way is to irritate them, which is perhaps one of the reasons why many artists from the postpunk era who retain the greatest power to provoke are not those who used the raw power of sonic missiles but the insistent, needling irritation of a small child singing out of key as they repeatedly kick the back of your chair. The erratic, hysterical, amped-up fairground prog-psych of early Cardiacs annoyed the NME so much that they banned the group from their pages for ten years or more. The confrontational, droning, repetitive standup of punk-era comic Ted Chippington continues to be divisive even among the more esoteric fringes of the British comedy scene.

It’s that wilfully unbalanced, needling, insistent aural aggravation that is at the heart of what makes Narcolepsin such a silly, fun and challenging band. On stage, drummer Ami plays a minimal kit consisting of just a kick, snare and hi-hat, while synth player Popo Copy taps impassively away on a single note like an icier Ron Mael. In contrast, Naoki Sakata (formerly of tepPohseen — yes, this is another Fukuoka band) plays sax, two different guitars, and yaps away atonally like a confused, angry chihuahua.

Narcolepsin’s songs confound the traditional structures that some more nominally extreme music can at times unconsciously cling to, as in Equal, which teases you with the possibility that it has finished over and over again only to return laboriously to the start. Si builds layers of sax, scratchy guitar and playground taunt vocals over a relentlessly repetitive two-note synth part. The title track, meanwhile, takes delight in its rhythmical inconsistency, each instrument seeming to play along to an idiosyncratic beat of its own, Sakata’s vocals yowling incoherently in the distance.Equal (live)

While Narcolepsin employ many of the tools of progressive rock, with overlapping rhythms, deviations from standard rock chords and key, and an evident jazz influence, they are nonetheless distinctly postpunk in the way they present their chaos of sounds with the join still clearly on display, feeding a fractured, angular soundscape that plays out over the album’s short 21-minute runtime. It’s annoying as hell, but it’s also playful, silly and fun in how it teases you and mocks your expectations. Like all extreme music, it demands you step out of your comfort zone and approach it from their perspective, and like all extreme music, part of its appeal is the subsequent pleasure in being one of the ones who gets it.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.4 – Convex Level – Inverse Mapped Tiger Moth

Convex Level - Inverse Mapped Tiger Moth

CD/download, Kikufactory, 2016

Convex Level are a rare and precious band in the Japanese underground rock scene, blending a knack for instantly accessible tunes with a restless creative instinct that ensures that for all the ease and familiarity of their hooks, they never play it quite straight.

Formed in Osaka in the mid-‘80s and releasing their first album in 1991, Convex Level emerged against the backdrop of two important musical movements. The first of these is the extreme underground characterised by the likes of Hijokaidan and Hanatarash (later the Boredoms), while the other is the nationwide band boom of more conventionally pop- and rock-influenced bands that was inspired by punk and helped drive the massive expansion in Japan’s live infrastructure. While Convex Level steer clear of the confrontational noise and junk sounds of some of their Osaka contemporaries, and their pop instincts consistently swerve the proto-J-Pop conventions of much of the band boom, holding these two backgrounds in mind is helpful in understanding the kind of tension that runs through the music on Inverse Mapped Tiger Moth.

It’s a tension between the instinct towards accessibility and obliqueness that’s reminiscent of Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices’ maxim about subverting the “creamy” and making things “fucked-up”. There’s none of Pollard’s wilful sloppiness here, and it’s a far less jarring tension, but there’s a similar freewheeling charm in how Convex Level barrel through moments of soaring pop and playful artsiness, refusing to accept them as different. I Am A Clone rocks through four and a half minutes of anthemic indie rock before literally pulling a 180-degree turn and reversing the tape for the last minute. Murder in the Greenhouse starts out like a rather surprising excursion into bar blues, until you notice just how fucked-up the intersection between the rhythm and melody is, never quite sure if it’s on or off the beat.

There’s also an openness about the band’s own inspirations that permeates the album. The opening Spellbound has clear echoes of Nirvana in its melody, although the band take the song in a direction all of their own (there was always way more of The Police to Convex Level’s songwriting than there was grunge). Intentional or not, it sets the tone for an oblique sort of nostalgia for early influences and contemporaries — a sense of old ideas forgotten and rediscovered perhaps echoed in the defiantly krautrock-influenced 23-minute Lost And Found, with the subtitles of its five parts namechecking Irmin Schmidt, Yukio Mishima, Denardo Coleman, Jane Birkin (and someone called Eric, whose identity is open to interpretation). Elsewhere, the title of the closing Bell Is a Shelter Until It Is Rung riffs off Wire’s A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck, but the most striking thing is that amid all these shout-outs to past heroes just how much Convex Level sound like themselves.

After 30 years together as a band, Convex Level are a powerful musical and songwriting force, and on this seventh album they can confidently wear their influences on their sleeves without fear of being subsumed by them.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.5 – Masami Takashima – Fake Night

MASAMI TAKASHIMA - FAKE NIGHT

CD/cassette, Twin Ships, 2016

Fake Night is singer-songwriter Masami Takashima’s first album under her own name, although for a long time she has been perorming under the name Coet Cocoeh, first in Fukuoka (yes, another Fukuoka connection) and in her adopted home of Takamatsu in Shikoku. Fake Night isn’t really a debut, with the song Tsukiyo no Dance Party having already appeared on Coet Cocoeh’s 2015 album Glass Collage and an older version of the closing In a Fog dating back even earlier. The same blend of pop balladry and distant club vibes informs the songwriting too, but there is nonetheless a sense of a new start about it.

It’s a richer album from a production point of view for a start, with Takashima’s synth bass throbbing powerfully in contrast with the spacious piano that it shares the album with as its twin dominant defining sounds. At her heart a pop songwriter, Takashima nevertheless delights in juxtaposing these two elements, with the chanson-like piano ballad Romantics following right hot on the heels of the aforementioned synth-heavy Tsukiyo no Dance Party, while the beautiful Somewhere bounces back and forth between sparse piano chords and a sudden intrusion of thundering bass. Cosmic Sea, meanwhile, sets a simple, looping piano line over a lackadaisical club backdrop.

Piano aside, Takashima’s rich singing voice is the other most distinctive aspect of her work, and a common thread linking Fake Night to both Coet Cocoeh and her band Miu Mau. Here, shorn of the harmonies provided by her Miu Mau bandmates, she stretches her range to cover subdued rapping/spoken word on Cosmic Sea and the just-short-of-melodramatic tour de force performance that is Romantics. There’s a world-weary quality to Takashima’s voice that ensures that even uptempo songs like the bouncy On the Town Square/Machi no Hiroba de are imbued with a faintly melancholy, dreamlike quality.

This way of these disparate elements — piano balladry, house music, reggae, electro, hop hop — are integrated with such assurance and such a distinctive atmosphere is perhaps what makes Masami Takashima such an interesting musician. She’s one of those artists who creates a world of her own through her music — a beach, illuminated by the setting sun from the west and the lights from a party at a nearby beach house to the east: where you’re a bit lonely but never completely alone.

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Top 20 Releases of 2016: No.6 – Limited Express (Has Gone?) – All Ages

Limited Express - ALL AGES

CD, Less Than TV, 2016

Emerging out of Kyoto in the early 2000s, Limited Express (Has Gone?) were among the prime movers of the Kansai “zero generation” of explosive, trashed-up junk punk bands centred around them and Osaka-based bands like Afrirampo, Zuinosin and Oshiripenpenz. They were also part of an environment specific to Kyoto where the legacy of the city’s big late ‘90s export Quruli hung over the city, generating perhaps unrealistic expectations of the sort of mainstream access bands coming up at that time could expect to achieve.

Listening back on the sort of music Limited Express (Has Gone?) were making at that time, it seems in sane that they could have had any hope of making it big in a rock mainstream where Asian Kung-Fu Generation counts as edgy, but throughout albums like 2005’s Makes You Dance, the way the band are constantly grasping for big pop hooks is key to the tension with their trashier, noisier instincts that gave the album such vitality. After moving to Tokyo, Limited Express (Has Gone?) seemed to retreat from their pop ambitions, settling into a relationship with the punkish Less Than TV label and stripping their music down to a combination of rhythmical dynamics, coarse guitar textures and Yukari’s shrieking vocal gymnastics.

With All Ages, none of that has changed, but there are hints that the band might be finding their way cautiously back into pop via the back door, not so much compromising their confrontational sonic dynamics as refining them into raucous, infectious party music entirely on their own terms. Gya Gya Sawage barrels forward in a way fans of Melt-Banana will find instantly recognisable but Looking For Inspiration comes at you with a no wave dance-punk groove and wailing sax (courtesy of Ryota Komuro of Miila & The Geeks) and even the odd bit of melody. Neither of these songs is pop, but they’re both ruthless in their dedication to the noble cause of what works.

There are echoes of newer bands like Otori in the increasingly sleek postpunk grooves the band seem to be pushing, which also highlights the way the not-quite-rapping Yukari scats here over tracks like Good Night Kids and the opening No Mean may have influenced the delivery of bands like Otori themselves. Whatever the flow of ideas, this perhaps speaks to Limited Express (Has Gone?)’s ability to integrate and adapt into the Tokyo underground scene without ever seeming to really change, as well as the subtle impact they themselves have had on their adopted home.

The most important thing about All Ages, however, is how unforced and immediate the sense of fun that permeates the album is. It ricochets from one idea to the next with irrepressible energy, taking in eleven songs in comfortably under thirty minutes. The music may be complex and disdainful of easy musical conventions, but it’s nevertheless music a child could enjoy, which maybe points towards a possible future for all of us hoping for an alternative to J-Pop homogeneity — if pop music won’t have us, why not just make our own?

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