Several days later than promised, but here’s the top ten of my Japanese music of 2011 (No.11-20 is here). Again, I’m allowing some Korean stuff if it’s a proper Japanese release, and again I’m not being fussy about what counts as an EP, a mini-album or an album — it all goes in. Obviously, this is just a personal list of what interested me out of the limited range of what I actually heard this year and I didn’t include any of those bizarre “objective” measures that people keep moaning to the Japan Times complaints department that I don’t include. Anyway, on with the list:
10. She Talks Silence: Some Small Gifts
Precariously poised on the edge between the barely-produced lo-fi indie ethos of early 80s British DiY music and the kind of Tokyo hipster scene that’s well-connected enough to bypass the dirtier fringes of the live music circuit and parachute straight into the 3000yen a ticket, 700yen a beer range of venues, She Talks Silence are the sort of band that could be unbearable to an indie snob like me who generally requires years of slumming it in dives out of a band before I grant them my seal of approval. And if that sounds like a strange way to introduce a band I’m trying to convince you are in my top ten of the year, I apologise, but She Talks Silence’s position is at the heart of what I find frustrating about them. They’re like the beautiful, intelligent, talented girl who’s dating a jerk who doesn’t appreciate her [Disclaimer: their actual boyfriends are really cool]. Their music is delicate, sweet, lonely, charming, violent and tremendously affecting, with Fragment one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard all year and Dead Romance edged with a series of particularly sharp thorns, and yet there is a terrible and selfish sense that they belong to someone else, that they float in a fashion environment too superficial to understand what’s so great about them, and worst of all, the gnawing knowledge that the only real problem is my own snobbery. In any case, Some Small Gifts is a near flawless example of lo-fi indiepop melodymaking that also demonstrates flair and artistry with more awkward, off-centre song construction.
9. Tsumugine: Tsumugine
This three-song, EP by the performance art collective Tsumugine (a group with a curious penchant for live performances in isolated countryside road tunnels, among other places) is basically fifteen minutes of eerie “instrumental” vocal music, with the musical wing of the group’s a capella utterances creating distorted tones and monastic harmonies that I would have thought certainly the work of studio effects had I not seen them perform a lot of this stuff live with only a couple of microphones. Some harmonica is thrown into the mix on the eight-minute final track, but the range of tones and sounds of the vocal performers is so diverse that it’s utterly in keeping with the rest of this atmospheric little CD.
8. Hysteric Picnic: Hysteric Picnic EP
Like Pop Office, Hysteric Picnic are clearly influenced by 1980s British new wave bands — in this case Joy Division and maybe The Jesus and Mary Chain feature strongly, with something of Young Marble Giants in the tick-tock-tick-tock drum machine rhythms that underpin many of their songs. However, where Pop Office distinguish themselves with quirky embellishments or a slightly off-centre approach, Hysteric Picnic charge right in, glowing with conviction, dirty and lo-fi as you like, and bursting with great tunes. They don’t spend hours polishing their songs to a burnished sheen, but neither is the roughness an affectation: it’s integral to the band’s sound, present in the Wire-like slashes of guitar, explosions of feedback and anguished vocal yowls of Chinese Girl. The way they combine that with sublime melodies and harmonies, best displayed on Persona, is what makes this EP such an extraordinary debut.
7. Girls’ Generation: Girls’ Generation
Another Korean one, but as with 2NE1 in the previous post, I’m counting it since it’s a Japanese release, this time sung entirely in Japanese, that was released and promoted just like any J-Pop album.Girls’ Generation is quite simply the most accomplished, polished, catchy collection of three-minute pop gems I’ve heard in ages. You can read my review here, and I’d just add that the failure of both Perfume’s JPN and Girls’ Generation’s own The Boys to even come close sadly seems to drive home what a one-off combination of bubblegum pop fizz and modern electropop sophistication this album probably was.
6. Tacobonds: No Fiction
Boom! Badaboom-booooooom! Badabadabadabadabadabadabada-boooooom-bangbang-boom-B-P-M-4!-bangboombang-a-bang-ratatattatatatata-tat-Bang!-Skreeeeeeeee! FICTIOOOOOOOON! Read it here.
5. Uhnellys: To Too Two
Another one I’ve already reviewed, Uhnellys are a smart, funky, sophisticated, genre-hopping psychedelic jazz-hop duo and this was probably the album that combined technical accomplishment, energy, intelligence, invention and mainstream (admittedly in a fairly limited, indie sense) appeal better than any other I’ve heard this year.
4. Friends: Let’s Get Together Again
Reviewed this one too. This is an album that I wasn’t sure about at first, but especially since getting my hands on the vinyl release, it’s risen in my estimation. The duvet of feedback that envelops most of the melodies works for me, noisenik that I am, and once you get past the bristly exterior, there’s a juicy melodic centre that tastes of The Beach Boys and all the rest of your favourite summer guitar pop tunes. Apparently now renamed Teen Runnings, Friends are a prickly, awkward band, and this album captures that aspect of them with a perhaps unintentional degree of honesty.
3. Nisennenmondai: LIVE!!!
Another one I’ve reviewed. To date, the definitive recorded document of one of Tokyo’s most striking bands, LIVE!!! is instrumental Kraut-noise trio Nisennenmondai at their best. Fan is a magnificent example of how you can repeatedly bang away on a single note for fourteen minutes and somehow keep it exciting through dynamics alone, and along with fellow death disco masterpiece Mirrorball, it forms the centrepiece of the album. Ikkyokume is Stereolab’s Golden Ball at 3x speed and rippling with unhinged energy and Appointment might be a lost Daniel Miller instrumental from 1981. There are lots of bands in Tokyo who play drawn-out instrumental jams, but none as skilled at manipulating the dynamics of such minimal sounds in such an accessible and downright fun way.
2. Tyme. x Tujiko: Gyu
Not being tremendously familiar with Tujiko Noriko’s prior work, it’s hard for me to place this within her overall canon, but this album, sneaking in just at the end of the year is a simply stunning collection of avant-pop and electronic soundscapes. I’m going to be a twat here and compare it to Bjork and Kate Bush, and I admit I’m largely doing this because it’s a magnificent, weird pop album with ethereal sounding vocals by a woman with an odd voice. HNC tried a similar thing recently with her rather fine I Dream I Dead, but this album eschews HNC’s instagram faux-retro lo-fi flicker in favour of more confident, sophisticated multi-layered synth-artistry, which elevates it to another plane productionwise. As a general rule, the earlier tracks edge more popwise while the album begins to skew ambient as it progresses, but I’m not going to single out tracks since this is a rare album where absolutely every song is truly lovely.
1. The Mornings: Save The Mornings
Quite simply nothing this year could quite touch spazzpunk quartet The Mornings’ debut album for sheer, irrepressible energy. There are other bands making faintly similar kinds of music but The Mornings beat them all by being faster, more intense, just more full of wow. The first moment of Opening Act wakes you up, eyes saucers, mouth grinning with delight, and everything that happens from that moment onwards just makes your grin stretch wider. Amazon Surf is what Devo would have sounded like if they’d been a hardcore band, Mad Cheergirl pushes drummer Keika’s vocals to the front, while on Mad Dancer, synth/vocalist Ponta and guitarist Junya trade lines against a rhythmical backdrop that constantly threatens to collapse before leaping back to attention, Drug Me sees the group taking on the Dead Kennedys and winning, and so on and so on. It’s an exhausting listen, like gorging on a mixture of sherbet candy, raw chilli and hard liquor, and it leaves you similarly battered and physically defeated at the end, but 26 minutes of moment after moment of unbridled, explosive joy will do that to you. Give in.