Monthly Archives: December 2013

Strange Boutique (December 2013 Appendix): Five bands to watch in 2014

The other thing The Japan Times and I try to do every year is pick up five new or newish bands to watch over the forthcoming year, and this year there are five that I’m genuinely very excited about. Read my comments on the bands on The Japan Times’ web site here, and have a listen below:

1. DYGL — Really so hard to write about this band. They headlined my label’s anniversary party this autumn and they drove people crazy. I tend to go for edgy, arty, angular postpunk bands, but sometimes I just want something full of beauty and passion. I also like how the central riff of this song is the same as the theme from Twin Peaks.DYGL: Let’s Get Into Your Car

2. Sayuu — I’ve written about them on this site a couple of times this year. I first heard about them from Naoki from Tacobonds in January when he said there’s this very “Ian-type” new band that I should check out. He was right.Sayuu: Nakunaranai

3. Hearsays — I’ve never seen this band, but they’re one that my friends in Fukuoka couldn’t stop going on about this year. Similar genre to DYGL but very different atmosphere. I mention The Blind in the JT piece, and I think it might be my song of the year.

4. group A — Anything that sounds as much like Throbbing Gristle as this lot do is always going to be worth listening to, but it was after speaking to them and hearing about how they approach their music that it really started to come together for me.

5. Compact Club — I’m crazy about early 80s Japanese new wave and postpunk, and this group combine into one band almost everything I like from that period, plus their live shows are really fun. I’ve always liked Polysics fine but never really loved them because they were always too clean and polished, they look like craftsmen doing a job, but (and I know this is heresy for a lot of their fans) for all their spazzing about, there seems so little genuine energy to it. Compact Club aren’t as good musicians, but they’re plenty good enough, and they feel right to me in a way Polysics never have.Compact Club: Roommate

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Strange Boutique (December 2013) + Neojaponisme Reviews of 2013

It’s time for Strange Boutique’s review of the year again, which really just means me finding new ways of saying essentially the same thing (music industry resistant to change, idols all over the singles charts, Yasutaka Nakata the only person making anything really good, indie doing whatever the hell it wants and no one else paying the blindest bit of attention) but there are a couple of nuances at the moment that are worth paying attention to and could become significant in the near future.

First up, here’s the Japan Times column. As I point out, the yearly singles charts are a joke, with Johnny’s and XXX48 bands accounting for nearly all of it this time. Here’s a list of the acts that accounted for the top 30 bestselling singles of the year:

1. AKB48
2. AKB48
3. AKB48
4. AKB48
5. EXILE
6. Arashi
7. SKE48
8. SKE48
9. NMB48
10. Arashi
11. SKE48
12. NMB48
13. Nogizaka46
14. Nogizaka46
15. SMAP
16. Kis-Mt-Ft2
17. Southern Allstars
18. Kanjani8
19. Kis-Mt-Ft2
20. Kis-Mt-Ft2
21. Nogizaka46
22. Nogizaka46
23. HKT48
24. HKT48
25. EXILE TRIBE
26. Kanjani8
27. Kis-Mt-Ft2
28. Hey! Say! JUMP
29. SMAP
30. Linked Horizon

If that isn’t a depressing sight, I don’t know what is. Even if you’re a fan of this horrendous, evil music, the sheer lack of variety must surely be a bit alarming — something is obviously going badly wrong when the end of year charts are so rigidly homogeneous. So what does it say? Well, one explanation is that these bands produced the best music of 2013 and that this is the objective proof of that fact. The other is that only nerds buy singles. I’ll leave you to decide which of those it is.

What throws this into an interesting light is something else that comes up in another article that I contributed a little to, so go have a read of Neojaponisme’s review of the year now.

I contributed a bit about music to their annual review piece as I did last year, and through some chats I had with Marxy over it, this idea of “Peak AKB” came up. What he told me that I had suspected and which the way AKB48 etc. game the charts doesn’t show is that there are clear signs of their popularity slipping, as evidenced by sharply declining Google searches for the group. We discuss some reasons particular to the group’s own dynamics and behaviour this year (and we should remember there was no album from them this year, that it could merely be support diffusing out to their clone groups, etc.), but what’s really interesting about the Neojaponisme piece is how the AKB stuff I wrote (co-wrote honestly) dovetails with Marxy’s discussion earlier in the same piece about how it looks like the reactionary nerds are losing control of Japan’s Internet as ordinary people finally take control. Pop culture in the first decade of the new millennium was defined by subcultures like otaku and gyaru, just as the Net supplanted mainstream media as the primary driving force for delivering new trends, but if subculture groups are losing control of the online pop cultural discourse, that could mean genuine changes happening. Whether they’re good changes, I wouldn’t like to speculate, but change anyway. The word sounds strange on my tongue after all these years…

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Japan Times albums of the year

I’ll be posting a definitive list of my personal choices in the new year, but as a taster, last week Clear And Refreshing contributor Ryotaro Aoki and I joined James Hadfield, Mike Sunda and Patrick St. Michel in The Japan Times to talk about our favourite Japanese albums of 2013.

First up, my choices will perhaps not be much of a surprise to any regular readers of this blog, with Melt Banana’s Fetch taking top place among my recommendations. I suspect that under other circumstances, Ryotaro might have made the same pick, but instead he went with heavy riffsters Church of Misery’s Thy Kingdom Scum, which given that Ryotaro and I review all albums in our Quit Your Band! zine on something called the “Sabbath Scale” is a choice I am more than happy to endorse.Church of Misery: Brother Bishop

Patrick’s beat is pop, so he went with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Nanda Collection. Kyary has always been my least favourite of Yasutaka Nakata’s musical projects, and I found Nanda Collection a difficult and pretty intense listen despite not actually disliking anything on it in particular. I don’t like to shy away from challenging music though, and it’s an album rich in musical ideas that pushes them further than Kyary’s earlier releases, so it may yet make my Top 20 of the year (although probably somewhere behind the top notch 2013 releases from Perfume and Capsule). Mike’s choice of Sappire Slows’ Allegoria ensured that the JT bests represented the woozy cut & paste bedroom electronic pop that seems to be everywhere these days. She’s certainly very good at it, although whether she’s one of the best is hard to tell since there really is so much of it. I might have gone with Jesse Ruins over this, but that may be more down to my 80s synth bias and not having spent enough time with the album I can’t really say. Definitely a worthy addition to the selection though. James Hadfield, who I do the monthly Fashion Crisis party with in Koenji, went with Yosi Hosikawa’s Vapor, which I must admit not having heard but James has impeccable taste and what I have heard from the album is marvellous.Yosi Horikawa: Stars

Note: If you’re running up against The Japan Times’ new paywall by clicking all these links, just register for free (they won’t spam you) and you get access to 20 articles a month, which will likely be more than you’ll ever need from this blog.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Buddy Girl and Mechanic, “A Very Ordinary Day”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is an ambient Kraut-blues psychedelic pop trip from one of Tokyo’s best new bands.

One of the best Japanese albums of the year was the self-titled debut by Buddy Girl and Mechanic, a Tokyo-based psychedelic pop quartet whose distinctive combination of Krautrock and sultry, ambient blues melodies has marked them at once as a band to watch but also served to hold them separate from any of the close-knit scenes that make up Tokyo’s Balkanised indie landscape.

Released as part of Japanese net label Ano(t)raks’ B.V.D.A. birthday compilation, Buddy Girl and Mechanic’s take on the birthday theme is typically dark and opaque with references to the atomic bomb and Hitler coming at you right from the get go. The group’s familiar musical motifs are also clearly on display, with a metronomic guitar and subtle but insistent drum pattern forming the song’s spine, embellished with occasional crashes of clattering guitar noise. The core dynamic that runs through both this song and the group’s whole catalogue is a tension between this mechanical rhythmical sense and the fluid melodies that float over the top. This juxtaposition of elements is embodied by frontwoman Xiroh herself, whose simple two-note keyboard threaten to give the song an almost technopop feel, while her sultry vocals insist on the organic.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Geek Sleep Sheep, “Hitsuji”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a new dream-pop, shoegaze supergroup.


The relationship between visual-kei and shoegaze is something that has been hinted at since the early 90s, with bands like Luna Sea and Plastic Tree creating lush walls of guitars backing more solid and sophisticated pop melodies. Despite the make-up and theatricalities, it’s clear that many bands in the scene had an affinity for bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride, and new wave acts like The Cure and The Smiths.

While the debate on whether L’Arc-en-Ciel are visual-kei is old and tired, it’s undeniable that drummer Yukihiro has a knack for shoegaze, and here he brings it to the fore as he’s joined by two other well-known musicians for Geek Sleep Sheep.

Geek Sleep Sheep are a supergroup consisting of Mo’some Tonebender’s Kazuhiro Momo, Miyoko Nakamura of Ling Tosite Sigure, and Yukihiro of L’arc-en-Ciel, one of the biggest arena rock bands in Japan. It’s intriguing that these three established musicians have come together at this point in their careers, to create what is essentially a throwback to early-Supercar, one of the most influential Japanese indie rock bands of the 2000s, who dabbled in shoegaze among other experimental genres. Complete with soft girl-boy vocal exchanges and swirling guitars washed in reverb in the chorus, the song has a dreamy, yearning quality for more simpler musical times; basically, the 90s.

The band is interesting in that they sound nothing like the respective musicians’ day jobs. It’s clear that this group is more a labor of love, and perhaps even a way to unleash suppressed musical desires. Considering that My Bloody Valentine played three shows in Japan this year, along with the release of their new album, there seems to be a revival of shoegaze going on in the country, and the appearance of this group perhaps confirms the extent of the genre’s appeal and influence.

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Mini Book Update: 80s idols

I’m still battling my way through the story of punk and new wave, but I took the time to add two or three paragraphs to the end of the section on 70s kayoukyoku to extend the story into the 80s. I didn’t want to go into too much depth here. The key change between the 70s and 80s was the change from TV talent shows like Star Tanjou! as the vehicle for producing and delivering new stars to using TV commercials, hence the term “CM idol”. Going hand in hand with this is the disappearance of live bands or orchestras accompanying singers on TV performances, perhaps since lots of the newer idols had been chosen for their ability to be cute in 15-second advertising slots rather than actually sing.

Obviously Seiko Matsuda was the most famous and popular. She exemplified the 80s idol as a marketing vehicle, although I don’t think her songs were all that much to write home about.Seiko Matsuda: Hadashi no Kisetsu

Much better I think was Kyoko Koizumi, who recently appeared in the phenomenally popular NHK morning drama Ama-chan playing a woman whose childhood dreams of becoming an idol had been dashed when her manager fucked her over and used her voice to overdub another girl. Koizumi was one of the last big names to come out of Star Tanjo! so she sort of spans the changeover from the 70s production model to the 80s.Kyoko Koizumi: Makka no Onnanoko

Lastly, you can’t talk about 80s idols without mentioning Onyanko Club, the first mass idol collective, the first group produced by Yasushi Akimoto, and the source of all our current horrors. They were quite fun, although given how many of their (by which I mean Akimoto’s) lyrics were just direct invitations to sexual harassment with a very clear message of “no means yes”, it’s makes the group quite an uncomfortable listen sometimes. But then this saucy flirtatiousness was way more part of the 80s cultural discourse than it is in these more austere times. Kyoko Koizumi was notorious for flashing her underwear at every opportunity (not that I’m complaining there), and the flipside of it is that it ran parallel with some real advancement in the social position of women. When Seiko Matsuda had a baby and then went back to her singing career instead of retreating into docile motherhood, it was a scandal, but she trailed the way for numerous other singers to do the same. Anyway, here’s Onyanko Club being saucy:Onyanko Club: Sailor Fuku wo Nugasanaide

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Guardian Song of the Week: Ringo Sheena, “Netsuai Hakkaku-chu”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a welcome reminder of an enduring talent and a fuck-you to the media’s puritanical side.

Netsuai Hakkaku-chu

Ringo Sheena is one of the most important Japanese music artists of the past fifteen years or so, so any new material of hers is worth paying attention to. From her early years as a teenage punk in Fukuoka hanging out at gigs by local alternative and avant-garde legends like Number Girl, Panicsmile and Mo’some Tonebender, through her precocious early songwriting career, creating songs for singers like Ryoko Hirosue (at that time, prior to her successful acting career, still more or less an idol singer), her early 2000s position as a generation-defining role model to thousands of wannabe rockstar schoolgirls, and her well-regarded career with the band Tokyo Jihen, she has been an ever-present figure helping to define the musical landscape of post-millennial Japan.

While Ringo Sheena’s best work, the album Kalk, Semen, Kuri no Hana, was a rich, multilayered, cinematic exploration of prewar decadence and Sgt. Pepper-esque psychedelic pop studio gymnastics and very much a work confident in its distinctive character, Netsuai Hakkaku-chu is a work much more in touch with the Japanese music world both of today and of Sheena’s formative years.

The melody recalls the Shibuya-kei style popularised by artists like Pizzicato Five and Karie Kahimi in the 1990s with its sweetly rendered vocals and restrained, sophisticated pop hooks that hark back to 1960s French pop, but the production, courtesy of omnipresent contemporary überproducer Yasutaka Nakata (Capsule, Perfume, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu) gives the song a harder electro edge.

The combination isn’t so unusual, given Nakata’s own origins at the tail end of Shibuya-kei and his own career can itself be seen as charting the evolution of the style from its indiepop record-collector music nerd origins into the modern electro-dance age, but he is nevertheless sensitive to the original song, allowing the electro and pop elements to play off each other without one ever taking full precedence.

Also, no discussion of this track would be complete without a mention of the video. Pop artists making videos complaining about the press are always a little obnoxious, but in Ringo Sheena’s case, it’s revealing of something a bit wider. The video depicting the singer beating seven shades of crap out of a kung-fu army of paparazzi comes in the context of some particularly unpleasant press intrusion into her life after she refused to identify the father of her second child. The imagery depicting her dead body in glitter-encrusted retro-60s garb while a sexy black leather version of her takes revenge also reflects the contrast between the sweet, 60s pop-influenced Shibuya-kei aspect of the song and its darker electro edge.

While Netsuai Hakkaku-chu isn’t Sheena scaling the dizzying creative heights that her best work has revealed her as capable of, it’s a welcome reminder of an unflagging talent and lays down a confident, self-assured marker of an independent-minded star  with no time for the puritans and moral guardians who increasingly seek to define the role of women in Japanese media and pop culture.

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