Tag Archives: 2012 Top 20

Top 20 Releases of 2012: Afterword

As I said in the intro, this list was framed by my own fluctuating tastes and just what I happened to   have listened to this year. Jesse Ruins are a superb band who released their Dream Analysis EP via Captured tracks last February.I didn’t get a chance to hear it during the course of the year so it couldn’t make the list, but it’s probably a good record.

None-more-Kansai garage-noise extroverts Gezan also released an album that I didn’t get the chance to hear in 2012, but it was apparently good enough for Time Out Tokyo to rate it as one of the year’s best. Goth-Trad is another artist I didn’t get a proper chance to listen to, but many picked up. It features in the Time Out Tokyo list as well as Make Believe Melodies’ 2012 album roundup (along with other buzzed-about artists I still haven’t heard, like Taquwami)

And then there are albums that missed out on my Top 20 but which might have made it on another day. Sekaitekina Band’s debut album was good but I went for Underrated instead because I felt the musical development that had gone on between the two records instantly outdated the earlier release. Also there was a new album by capsule, Stereo Worxx, which had some very good stuff on it, but which by the end of the year I’d found I wasn’t really listening to.

I’m not going to do a “Top Tracks of 2012” series since most of my favourite tracks, especially in the indie and alternative spheres, are contained within the albums I’ve just written about, but there are a few excellent mainstream-ish pop tunes I’d like to flag up (all by girl groups, natch). As well as the Kyary Pamyu Pamyu album and the aforementioned capsule, Perfume’s Spending All My Time was really good.

Idol group Dempa Gumi inc.’s awesome, hyperactive cover of The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage is also worth revisiting, especially after having seen them perform it live last weekend.

Also, Korean girl group 2NE1’s I Love You was a great example of pop at the more sophisticated extreme.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.1 – Miu Mau – News

I think friends of mine probably knew that this was coming. I raved about it when it came out, and I’ve been DJing tracks from this EP pretty much constantly ever since I got my hands on it at the Kyushu Pop Festival in June. Mirai no Classic made its first appearance in spring 2011, but it never gets old. It’s the song that more than anything else I’ve ever played is guaranteed to have people coming up to me in bars and clubs, asking, “What the hell is this? It’s brilliant!”

The title track, News, is a worthy follow-up, drawing on some of the same general dryly observational, teetering on the brink of irony, new wave-influenced themes and sharing similar spindly, wandering guitar lines, but with a funkier beat.

Neon Sign pushes Hiromi Kajiwara’s guitar into the background a bit more, letting band leader Masami Takashima’s synth step to the fore, with a melody that harks back to a lot of the material on Miu Mau’s lo-fi, Shibuya-kei-styled debut album, Design. While it lacks the sharp edges of the first two songs, it has a soft, marshmallow charm of its own, mixing the vocals with greater subtlety and with the greater emphasis on synths giving it a richer, less sparse texture.

In my initial review, I didn’t give much time to the two remixes that close out the CD, but they are both outstanding in their own right. Future Classic (Girlfriend Record Remix) is a ponderous electronic dub track that cuts out the main body of the vocals and just holds on to the catch “fa fa fa”s and the spine tingling harmonies of the chorus.

News (Girlfriend Record Remix) is another deliberately paced electronic affair, although it holds onto the structure of the original song more closely at first, letting the vocals run over an electro-funk beat for the first couple of minutes before breaking out into a swooping, synth-laden outer-space disco blissout.

The fact that this was a relatively obscure, largely unremarked upon CD/R release and not a massive, genre-defining indie pop hit is the sort of thing that were I not the positive-thinking, optimistic sort that I am, might start making me wonder whether or not the Japanese record buying public are taste-bereft idiots. The reaction of people whenever given the chance to hear it suggests that I’m right in my more positive assessment, and so I can just urge you you spread the word and get these magnificent songs out there more and more.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.2 – V/A– Ripple

I’ve written about this Nagoya bands compilation album extensively, with a Japan Times review, an accompanying blog post, and a mention in my review of the year, so there’s little extra to add, but two small points come to mind. Firstly, I love compilations. Secondly, and related, I love finding out rich seams of new music that I hadn’t known existed before. Ripple introduced me to bands like Dororonica, Freedom, and Free City Noise, as well as giving me excellent new tracks from Pop-Office and Sekaitekina Band (their contribution, New, also appears in a re-recorded form on 51 Records’ split album Underrated).

While Ripple includes more melodic tracks like The Moments’ lovely indiepop janglefest Shining Eyes and Yoshito Ishihara’s yojohan folk style New Mexico Midnight Cowboy No.1 (I don’t wanna be killed by your romance any more), fundamentally Ripple is a punk album. It’s also the best punk album to come out of Japan this year, and it set down an essential marker in terms of quality and style for me in the organising and selecting of music for my own compilation album, which I put out later the same year.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.3 – Extruders – Pray

 

Pray

CD, self-released, 2012

A live recording on a CD/R presented in an unassuming brown paper bag might not be the kind of thing that would usually compete for album of the year accolades, but Kanagawa’s Extruders are an unusual band in a lot of ways.

They have their most obvious roots in postpunk, a sound more obviously apparent on their short, sharp, but nonetheless understated 2007 debut, Neuter — this is a band who once played a set composed entirely of cover versions from Wire’s second album, Chairs Missing (also, try translating the song title “Collapsing New Buildings” into German). Without obviously changing what they do, however, Extruders have grown in both depth and richness of sound, as well as subtlety, often touching on the lest bombastic fringes of psychedelia. The vocals never rise above a whisper, but the songs are textured with both more melody and more noise. Song lengths have grown, but so has the band’s skill in exploring musical space, and while Kimi no Hane Oto clocks up seven and a half minutes, not a moment of that is wasted.

Fiercely independent, Extruders frequently drop out of the live circuit completely, retreating into the studio for months at a time to work on material or new recordings; when they do play shows, they insist on bringing all their own gear to gigs regardless of what equipment the venues already have; and they rarely play without their own video projection backdrop. Every performance they make is more a self-contained art performance than a gig as such, and the atmosphere they create onstage is so absolute that even the rowdiest punk audiences are reduced to awed silence within seconds.

They are also a band with a keen sense of not only musical space, but also the physical space the music inhabits, which is why the decision to do a performance dedicated to Benzaiten/Sarasvati, the Buddhist deity of art, at Saimyoji temple in Niigata is far more than just a gimmick. Pray contains the entirety of the band’s short live set, with the addition of two studio versions, and without getting into the spiritual relationship between the music and religion (and the dangerous descent into hippy twattery down which such lines of thought are often the first step), we can say perhaps that the minimalism and detail of Extruders’ music are a good match for the sparse aesthetics of a Buddhist temple and its grounds.

And this level of attention to detail naturally extends from their performance to their music. Every sound, from the most delicate, melodic guitar phrase to the most earsplitting explosion of feedback is delivered with laser precision, and while their stage manner is for the most part static, this imbues even the smallest movements with greater impact. In particular, the guitarist is constantly exploiting the theatrical potential of even the most mundane aspects of the act of playing music, from his position relative to the audience and the movement of a guitar stroke, to the act of unplugging his guitar in order to play a noise solo with his fingers on the loose cable. Even on an audio recording like this, these subtle flourishes are timed intricately enough that they occasionally carry across, as on the closing track (of both the concert and in its recorded incarnation the CD) track, Mono.

Pray may have been released humbly and without fanfare, but it’s a beautiful record from one of the best bands in Japan. Extruders are currently barricaded in the studio, working on a new album for release spring 2013, and you’d be fools to miss it.

Full disclosure: A studio recording of the song Collapsing New Buildings was also included on my label, Call And Response Records’ Dancing After 1AM compilation.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.5 – Half Sports – Slice of Our City

I pitched my initial review of Half Sports’ Slice of Our City in terms of something I don’t really like about a lot of other indiepop bands (although as Boyish’s Supper Dream shows, when the music’s good enough, I’m happy to throw away any principles I have on that front). But of course what I really like about the album and what has kept me coming back to it throughout the year is what it does rather than what it doesn’t do. The noise freakout at the end of No Kids Have Seen, the punk rush followed by abrupt tempo shift in Break Away, the wall of feedback running through the background of Sad Eyes and We Got Along Right From The Start like a more upbeat Jesus And Mary Chain (a Jesus And Merry Chain?), the stuttering guitars of Knock Back Your Request, and most importantly the restlessly energetic drumming, soaring guitar, and surging, raggedly harmonic choruses — all these things and more besides are what make Slice of Our City such a rush of pure indie powerpop joy.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.6 – Fancy Num Num – No Now

 

No Now

CD, Fuji, 2012

Fancy Num Num, despite having a band name that sounds like the pinnacle of idol cutesyness, are actually something far richer and more musically satisfying. Starting in 2007, their self-released 2009 debut CD/R, Meikyo to Shite no Sekai, was a scuzzy, drum machine-driven take on Showa era rock’n’roll, but in the three years that elapsed between that and 2012’s No Now, the group evolved into something far more sophisticated.

It opens with On Fog, an ambient, krautrock-influenced, electronic-led instrumental (think Dieter Moebius/Roedelius/etc.), while Telephone Song packs in a sharper-edged, almost Talking Heads-like vibe. There are moments too, particularly on the more synth-led tracks, that are reminiscent of Air, and thanks to the reliance on relentless, rolling electronic beats, there’s a sense of implacable, slowly advancing menace that runs through many of the songs.

There’s sweetness to go with the encroaching dark, however, and Fancy Num Num also retain their tendency towards 1970s Showa Pop and kayoukyoku-esque melodies. Aoi Siam Neko is case in point, and Marino no Yoake combines elements of 80s synth-pop and some intense, expansive prog rock guitar soloing with a tune that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an early-70s Chiyo Okumura record. Shinkai Uchu-ron has a similarly classic feel to the melody, sounding simultaneously catchy and upbeat as well as brooding and melancholy, while Tajigen no Gake Kara takes a melody that recalls some of the more complex and emotionally mature later material of Momoe Yamaguchi and turns it into something a bit more subtly funky.

Throughout No Now, Fancy Num Num’s secret weapon is guitarist Tomoyo Nishida. Even when soloing wildly, she never takes over the song completely, drifting in and out of the band’s repetitive machine rhythms while at the same time contributing in an understated but imaginative way to the music’s texture and overall sleepy-yet-tense atmosphere. Hitomi Harada’s bass wanders along inside the beats, spinning more minimalist lines, while Misa Haijima’s vocals are pitched immaculately at the intersection between despair, portent and lassitude. All these attributes come together on the closing, title track, the song building ominously in fits and starts for nine minutes before ultimately resolving itself into something rather pretty after all.

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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.7 – Doit Science – Information

 

Information

CD, &Records, 2012

While Fukuoka is undoubtedly the cultural capital of the southwestern island of Kyushu, the music scene in (relatively) nearby Kumamoto also produces more than its fair share of great music, and Doit Science are most talked about band in the city right now.

Quite what makes them so exciting is hard to pin down. Lo-fi alternative music with weird time signatures is an ever present feature of local scenes up and down the country, and yet Doit Science still stand out. There are perhaps some similarities with labelmates Nhhmbase in the combination of off-kilter arrangements and wide-eyed, impassioned vocals. Certainly one point that stands out about their music is the way that where most bands of this type feature vocals that yowl and scrape, Doit Science sing out clear and strong, like Nhhmbase often launching into a disarming falsetto, and making use of multiple vocalists to create a sort of Beefheartian barbershop vibe, awash with staccato interjections and sometimes deliberately landing off-key.

And despite the delight the band seem to take in throwing musical obstacles in the way of the melodies, the beauty of some of these songs still shines through. Toshi Keikaku (Delicate Mix ver.) in particular is probably the most melancholy and affecting song ever written about urban planning, but even the more uncompromisingly disruptive tracks like Tasogare (Sweet Death ver.) and Information is Just a Needle (Plan B) reveal a keen ear for unconventional hooks that nevertheless worm their way into your brain.

Listening to Information sometimes feels like the CD is skipping, but there’s also a clear grounding in accessible, blues-based chord progressions at the heart of a lot of the music. As well as Captain Beefheart, there’s also something of Syd Barrett in the combination of sweetness and sheer oddness. It may sound like rock music turned inside out, cut into pieces and reassembled by a hyperactive child, but it still is rock music, and it does a marvellous job of sounding great without compromising either its accessibility or its avant-garde principles.

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