It’s taken me a while to get round to posting this, partly because there were a few CDs I heard only towards the end of the year and I needed time to digest them, partly because I’m lazy, and partly because I spend so much time out at gigs that I don’t really listen to as many CDs as I thought I did. This is by no means meant to be a definitive list of what’s good in Japan — there were loads of albums this year that I didn’t hear — think of it more as a critically compiled list of what passed through my hearing range last year. I’ve included a few pop albums where I thought what was going on was particularly interesting, but despite my frequent writings on J-pop and K-pop over the last year or so, I don’t think there are many mainstream pop groups in Japan whose actual albums I rate. Kara’s album was appalling, perhaps even more so than AKB48, who at least have never shown any capacity to make music of even the most infinitesimal quality, the T-ara album was great for the first four tracks but sucked after that, Perfume’s album was half a good album but half meh, The Kyary Pamyupamyu mini-album was good and only just missed out. The Sakanaction album was good too, but again, I couldn’t quite justify to myself counting it as a particular favourite. It’s a personal list and therefore subject to all my usual biases and musical prejudices.
I’ve counted both EPs, albums and mini-albums in here since defining the boundaries between them can be difficult at the best of times and Japanese underground bands make it impossible (Pq’s Hausdorff has ten tracks and comes in at eight minutes, another CD in the list has three songs at double that length, and so on). Obviously I’ve not included albums from Call And Response Records since I run the label, so Zibanchinka’s (excellent, natch) Hatsubai Chushi has to sit this one out.
I’ll post the top ten when I get back from Kyushu on Monday, but here’s the countdown from numbers 20 to 11:
Notable for the way the group released this EP with an accompanying erotic manga drawn by the guitarist, Kobayashi Dorori strike an appealing balance between an undoubted tendency towards pop culture geekery that occasionally manifests itself through eccentric lyrical diversions and poker-faced erotic imagery, spiky, Gang of Four-influenced postpunk guitar, and melodies that sometimes nod towards the girly punk-pop of Chatmonchy and their ilk (apologies, but there are practically no decent recordings of them on YouTube or elsewhere on the Web) without compromising the songs’ essentially stripped down natures. The delivery is so dry that it’s hard to tell how serious they’re being throughout most of it (my guess: not very) but that only adds another layer of intrigue to a band that’s already ambiguous on plenty of levels.
First up, I’m not usually a fan of these kinds of melodic Japanese indie rock bands. I tend to find them simultaneously not poppy enough to make good, shameless bubblegum pop fun and not aggressive and experimental enough to satisfy on a more harsh and physical level. Nevertheless, this debut mini-album by Tokyo’s Siamese Cats genuinely did impress me with its sometimes Dylanesque melodies, freewheeling approach to rhythm patterns and occasional diversions into the outlying foothills of psychedelia.
Yes, they’re a Korean group, but they had an official Japanese release this year (that differed from the Korean version only through the omission of Park Bom vocal showcase Don’t Cry, which was a ballad and therefore doesn’t count) and in any case, Korean music is promoted and sold as an adjunct to J-Pop rather than as “foreign music” (check which floor the K-Pop is displayed on in Shinjuku or Shibuya Tower Records). This mini-album would have made it onto the list thanks to the bonkers Dutch-electro-Bollyhouse-whatever of I Am the Best alone, although Hate You is a fine piece of synthpop in its own right and even annoyingly earnest pop-rock singalongs like Ugly have either an arresting lyrical bite or some interesting synth bleeps and bloops or both. The acoustic guitar-led Lonely is complete crap, but let’s just pretend that never happened.
Miila and The Geeks’ first full album had a struggle on its hands extending their sparse guitar/drums/sax sound over fourteen tracks and keeping it interesting, but they make a little go a long way, building each song around a single idea and then clinging to it for the whole two minute running time before moving onto the next one. This, along with the minimal, repetitive lyrics, means that while the sound is deliberately scuzzy and uncompromising, there’s always a easily graspable hook to snare the listener. It’s also hugely indebted to bands like Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, and the problem with this kind of music is that when it so obviously harks back to the postpunk era, it sets itself up for potentially unflattering comparisons with genuinely the revolutionary bands of the past. So yeah, while New Age is no Pink Flag and vocalist Moe’s playful, apolitical lyrics lack any of Lydia Lunch’s politically charged rage and gravitas (she has a lot of fun running through the alphabet on Alphabed but it’s hard to imagine her singing lines like “Suburban wealth and middle class wellbeing / All it did was strip my feelings” or “I woke up bleeding / You are my razor”), musically it stands up pretty well on its own, and certainly among those at the forefront of the group’s peers.
16. Pop Office: I Was Killed Here
I’ve written about this here and haven’t much to add. Pop Office do the 80s new wave revival thing that is the stock in trade of bands like Lillies and Remains and Plasticzooms, but they never sound like they’re trying to be anything other than themselves. I like.
15. Pq: Hausdorff
With ten songs in eight minutes, this self-released CD/R album by Tokyo experimental collective Pq typically dives straight into a song, rattles through a dozen New-York-no-wave-meets-late-Canterbury-scene-psych-punk-with-mumbling musical non sequiturs in the space of about 42 seconds, pauses for a second, and then does it again. On one level, it’s a jangling jumble of disconnected sounds, and yet… and yet… And yet step back and it’s gloriously coherent, sprightly, sparkling with fun and humour. This is what experimental music should be.
14. Bossston Cruizing Mania: Loaded, Lowdead, Rawdead
I’ve written extensively about this album too, so again there’s not much to add. Bossston Cruizing Mania are fierce, aggressive, cynical, funky, occasionally self-indulgent but often devastatingly effective. They make messy, lo-fi postpunk not in tribute to their idols but out of having absorbed, played and lived loud, dirty, uncompromising music for most of their adult lives. This is real, baby.
13. capsule: World of Fantasy
Fans are divided over this album, but the critics are wrong. World of Fantasy was fabulous at the time, coming in a blast of club-ready, hedonistic fun just as post-quake Tokyo was looking for escapism, and after nearly a year, it’s still a gloriously stupid, often comically silly record. Nakata told me last year that he’s able to get away with more complex, multilayered ideas with capsule than his work with Perfume which he said needed to have one big idea. Now this may be true as far as his remit goes, but the fact is that World of Fantasy was his big dumb blast of riffs and catchy-yet-meaningless slogans, while JPN was all fiddly (although often interesting) production, and many of the songs’ melodies meandered aimlessly, idly and vainly looking for the big chorus or catchy hook that they needed.
12. Sloppy Joe: With Kisses Four
Another one that I reviewed last year. Utterly unoriginal, but so shameless about it that it gets a big balls-of-steel award for bravado. Also Still Be a Little Roof is possibly the indiepop song of the year.
11. Buddy Girl and Mechanic: 4 Songs Demo
Another self-released CD that did the rounds of the Tokyo indie scene last year. I’m not sure if it was ever even made available on sale or if it was just a promo, but it’s really quite lovely. Brooding, ambient, Lynchian Kraut-blues, with breathy, almost whispered vocals. Opening track Satan’s Son sounds like early Spiritualized or some of Jason Pierce’s material with Spacemen 3, but its when they dive into Can territory, as on the skittering, repetitive, motorik UltraWitchCraftyFab and the abstract funk of Fenix Drops that it really takes off.