Top 20 releases of 2014: Afterword

As I said before posting this series, there’s also a lot of stuff that I didn’t hear, and this brings me to a couple of the other English language album rundowns there are out there. Firstly, m’colleague Patrick St. Michel over at Make Believe Melodies has his own top twenty which you can read here (20-11), here (10-6) and here (5-1). Secondly, Toyokazu Mori and Satoru Matsuura have compiled a top fifty over on Beehype. Both lists are well worth a look in their own right, but taken together (and in conjunction with my own forthcoming list) they show up some phenomena I find interesting.

Firstly, what I find most striking is how little crossover there is between the three, and I think that reveals something not just about the various writers’ personal tastes but also about the situation Japanese indie music finds itself in generally. Put simply, there’s no broad national conversation about music in the indie scene that provides everyone, even dedicated nerds like us, with a common frame of reference. This isn’t necessarily a problem, and if there were such a thing, I’d probably reject it with a dismissive flick of the wrist and a barely concealed sneer (something I’m going to about other things do later in this post, so watch out for that). It does underline the difficulty that exists, even within the indie world, in finding out just what’s going on.Mitsume: Sasayaki

First then, let’s look at where crossovers do exist. Both MBM and Beehype include the Mitsume album in their lists, who are a band I largely agree are a good choice. My list shares with Beehype the Crunch and Luminous Orange albums, and with MBM it shares the Jesse Ruins album. Beehype also includes the Homecomings album, which snuck in at the end of the year and I suspect was a contender for both mine and Patrick’s lists. By and large, these are all albums that combine a pop sensibility (and in many cases a specifically J-pop sensibility) with something a bit darker and/or dirtier. That general area seems to me like a fairly safe meeting place where pretty much any writers focusing on specifically Japanese alternative music could agree.

The differences are also important though. I’ve been through everything on both the MBM and Beehype lists and while the sheer, deadening tweeness of some artists made me want to stab myself in the ears with kitchen knives, I found myself mostly nodding with agreement that while they might not be exactly my bag, it was generally pretty good stuff in its own terms. So why the difference and what does each list represent?

Well, with Patrick’s list, I don’t think he will be too upset if I suggest that generally speaking he tends to discover music online, and that to a certain degree what the MBM top twenty represents is a web-skewed vision of the Japanese music scene. The Yuki, Especia and E-Girls selections, not to mention the kinda-sorta idol pop of Seiko Oomori at No.1 show he’s perhaps the only one of us still really giving J-pop a chance – and all of them are worthy selections, even (I reluctantly admit) the E-girls one. Patrick’s choices also demonstrate a crossover with some of the wispy, lo-fi indietronica and washed-out synthy stuff that’s currently or recently popular overseas (hot tip: if you ever wat to get disgracefully drunk while reading Make Believe Melodies, do a shot of tequila every time you see the words “dreamy” or “woozy”). So what MBM’s 2014 roundup provides is a sort of web-optimised entry to Japanese music that hooks into sounds that might be familiar to people coming from the international blog music scene, and remains somewhat in touch with the fringes of mainstream J-pop.mus.hiba: Magical Fizzy Drink

Of the writers at Beehype, Toyokazu Mori is a friend of mine and I think I can guess several of the choices that he will have agitated most strongly for, but looking at the list as a whole, I think it is perhaps broadly the most in-tune with what the “average” Japanese indie music listener is like right now – essentially nice music by sensitive young people (this list by a group of self-proclaimed Japanese music nerds backs this up, duplicating many of Mori and Matsuura’s choices). The only even remotely punk track on the list is Kelly Muff at No.50, and even that is a particularly J-poppified kind of garage punk not a billion miles from stuff like Superfly. Suspicious as I am of the sort of media talk you often get in Japan of “herbivore youth” and suchlike, spend some time with the music on Beehype’s top fifty and the sheer, soft-edged, un-confrontational, sexless fragility and homeliness of it all suggests that those commentators are at least part right. Inoffensive though most choices are, none of it’s not really mainstream pop though, with a lot of creatively and intricately developed, offbeat arrangements and approaches. While MBM looks at J-pop straight on, the Japanese writers at Beehype are obviously enamoured with more subtly rooted Japanese pop traditions, with the influence of Happy End and Eiichi Ohtaki forming a strong thread linking much of the songwriting, emphasised most strongly by the way they push so much contemporary city pop. The inclusion of Quruli, Shintaro Sakamoto and Sunny Day Service I think reflects a similar mindset, and the preponderance of professionally made music videos on their list suggests that insofar as a consensus view of “what Japanese indie people like” can be established, I think Mori and Matsuura are in that general zone.My Letter: America

So to analyse my own choices in this context, I think the most obvious one is that there’s far more punk-related music, and close behind that is that my choices are far less popular generally (which you can see pretty clearly from the numbers of hits and comments on the YouTube and Soundcloud links). One reason for that is just that I’m a horrible person and consequently I like horrible sounding music. Another is that I spend a lot of time at live venues and therefore my affections for bands is often first formed by seeing bands live – I rate the 2014 Macmanaman live album higher than their 2013 studio album, and all things considered, I probably prefer The Mornings’ more live-orientated debut album to their more sophisticated, studio follow-up (although it’s still excellent). Essentially what you get from me is a filter ideologically orientated more towards this more aggressive, 1970s/80s, punk/new wave-influenced vision of rock and pop music. I think it still closely aligns with a Japanese musical tradition, but it’s the underground tradition of Les Rallizes Dénudés and Friction rather than Happy End.Panicsmile: The Song About Black Towers (live)

Like I said, there are meeting points (for a start Shintaro Sakamoto’s underground cred is beyond question) and if we were to zoom out further, I think there would be more visible crossover but they also reveal three broad types of indie scene that can be loosely divided by the medium of delivery: internationally-minded fans who hear and make music on their laptops; sensitive “artisan-musicians” who represent something like the core young Japanese indie kid and who get written about in the Japanese music press; and the live house-orientated successors to the old-school underground scene.

Now I think that in some ways the trend is more towards some degree of convergence of these crowds, as the various media and delivery mechanisms converge, but that’s a discussion for another time. Anyway, that’s enough navel gazing over 2014: we’re balls-deep in 2015 now and already awash in noise, desperate to be documented. There are already several contenders for next year’s list, so I’ll be on them soon. Thanks for bearing with me.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Top 20 releases of 2014: Afterword

  1. The sheer fact that you can make a solid Top50 album list says a lot about Japanese scene. If you can make a Top50 mostly “indie” list – that’s even more impressive. But how about making three different lists like that – and without really including such areas as avantgarde, alternative hip-hop, experimenting laptop producers, etc.?

    What’s great is that now listeners from around the world have pretty easy access to the music itself (unless a band like Tricot releases their new single as an app not available outside Japan), but also guides like all four of you guys – big thanks for that.

    • Thanks for the comment and yes, there’s certainly a lot of impressive music happening over here. I think the fact that our lists had such differences in the artists we included despite being in loosely the same sphere reflects a sort of lack of any kind of real public conversation about music, although that happens a bit more in the Japanese language indiesphere (as evidenced by the similarities between the Beehype list and the Japanese music nerds list that I forgot to link to first time round). As you say though, the fact that we could all come up with such different lists is testament to the depth of quality in what’s out there — I’m sure Mori and Matsuura had plenty of differences between each other in their own selections as well. Someone even managed to do a 2014 “Shibuya-kei albums of the year” list (!?!!?!) – https://memoriesofshibuya.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/the-shibuya-kei-year-in-review-2014-part-two-albums-of-the-year/

      I wish I knew more about what was going on in underground hip hop in Japan, although never having had any kind of hip hop background growing up, I’d be at a loss at how to analyse it. Avant-garde and laptop producers cross my radar more often, although more live than on CD. There are still a lot of barriers to getting Japanese indie music abroad, and I confess guilt there myself in my own label’s ambivalent-at-best attitude to online music sales, but yeah, it’s far, far easier than it was back when I started blogging about Japanese music in 2003.

      (I made the requested edits to your comment, but really there’s no need to worry about it.)

      • and there were even some 2014 Shibuya-kei albums that didn’t even make my list! (New ones from Cibo Matto and Takeshi Nakatsuka, and some “close-enough” selections from Asako Toki, Mayumi Kojima and such)

  2. Well I think Brazil is the only comparable scene. They make national Top100 lists or ‘Top50 2014 albums you can download for free’, or choose the best releases just from one state like here:
    http://www.elcabong.com.br/os-melhores-discos-brasileiros-e-baianos-de-2014-por-jornalistas-baianos/
    And again, mostly rock-oriented. We did a strong Top30 from Poland for 2014, but there’s anything from indie rock to techno to free jazz to traditional music:
    http://beehy.pe/best-of-2014/poland-3/

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