Tag Archives: 2015 Top 20

Top 20 Releases of 2015: Afterword

With the end of this latest countdown of the past year’s top Japanese music, it’s worth drawing attention to what other writers did for their own rundowns. The other main English language sites that go deep enough to put these kinds of extensive lists together are Make Believe Melodies and Beehype. Neither list had anything in common with mine, and precious little in common with each other, which just goes to show how diverse the indie scene in Japan is. In any case, both lists are worth checking out in order to get a different perspective on what Japanese indie (and a bit of pop – Patrick at MBM remains inexplicably attached to E-Girls) music has to offer.

Make Believe Melodies: Best Japanese Albums of 2015
30-21
20-11
10-1

Beehype: Best of 2015 – Japan

As I said before embarking on this latest countdown, the fact that my own label’s releases were disqualified had a big influence on the makeup of this list. It’s always an issue, but it was a bigger one than usual this time round since we released so many albums and EPs featuring so many of our favourite bands in 2015.

Looking forward into the rest of 2016, I’ll be dealing with a similar situation next time round, with a lot of new Call And Response releases already in the pipeline. Looprider’s debut only came out six months ago, but they already have a second album recorded and ready to go this spring, and a third album written. Lo-shi have already recorded their third album and first CD release, with the album currently being mixed with a view to a summer release. Mechaniphone, whose first EP came in at No.4 in my best of 2015 countdown, have a new EP ready to go, which I’ll be helping them put out in a limited release very soon. Other bands in the wider Call And Response family have new material at varying stages of completion, including Han Han Art, Sharkk, Trinitron and Tropical Death.

More broadly, I’m (maybe hopefully) picking up vibes that indiepop may have peaked and that the cool kids are ready for something a bit more discordant. If there is even the faintest possibility of a postpunk/no wave revival, I’ll be doing everything I can to jolly it along and then report on it as if it’s some spontaneous thing I just discovered.

Basically, my theory is that the indie hipster cred Hysteric Picnic/Burgh have been building up over the past couple of years has now reached such a level that young, cool kids want to hang out with them and be in bands like them. There has always been a seam of arty, angular Japanese underground music scraping away metalically beneath the surface of the music scene, and the emergence of younger bands like Deviation and Ms. Machine, as well as the welcome return of the still ludicrously young and inspired Nakigao Twintail, suggests that at least in some limited sense Japanese skronk might be getting a shot of young blood.

Any look at stuff to look forward to should probably begin with Afrirampo’s spring reunion tour, followed by an appearance at the Taico Club festival in June. Whether any new recordings will emerge is still uncertain, and I’m not sure if that would even be a good idea at this stage. Pika already has a new album titled Sun Ra New, in collaboration with Yuji Katsui and Yoshihide Otomo, and quite what role Afrirampo could play in her ever-evolving musical explorations I don’t clearly see.

New releases I’ll be looking out for include Kyoto bubblegum hardcore/postpunk band O’Summer Vacation’s new 7 Minutes Order, which I’ve already heard and is awesome, and hopefully a full album by my favourite band in Tokyo right now, the wonderful Falsettos.

I’ll also be embarking soon on the second stage of my travels to every prefecture of Japan to research its indie music scene. Following my return to Tokyo, my long-promised book on the Japanese indie music scene is now back from the editor and pencilled in for a summer release, so keep your eyes open for more on that.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.1 – Hikashu – Ikitekoi Chinmoku

Ikitekoi Chinmoku

CD, Makigami Records, 2015

Any Hikashu album would be a contender for album of the year, and it’s only the fact that they come so thick and fast that I haven’t always heard the avant-garde ‘pataphysic rock band’s latest offering in time for compiling these rundowns.

This time round I have, and here it is. I wrote about this album back when it was initially released, and the way its overarching sense of playfulness and fun links together the music that ricochets back and forth between melody and experimentalism continues to elevate it above almost anything else out there. To Hikashu, the tools of pop and the avant-garde are just different elements in the same bag, available for them to reach for at any moment, to achieve a particular effect. At times they seem to have abandoned the idea of composition entirely in favour of this grab-bag of different elements, but they are by now such assured performers that they carry it off with aplomb.

Hikashu: Naruhodo

Frontman Koichi Makigami’s voice remains the group’s most striking and versatile instrument, bouncing back and forth between extraordinary range of sounds, from rich baritone to helium-voiced babble and sandpaper growl. Where his own mouth proves an insufficient tool to achieve the sounds he wants, he is able to draw on a range of other instruments, with theremin and trumpet among the most conventional. He throws it all into the nearly seven-minute Altai Meiso, a virtuoso display of doing everything except pop music and apparently having immense fun doing so.

I keep coming back to the idea of pop music when writing about Hikashu, because no matter how weird they get, the relationship between what they do and pop music is nevertheless ever-present. The moments where more traditional songwriting collides with Hikashu’s more freeform approach are often the most thrilling, with Iroha Moyo recalling a Berlin period Bowie in its mix of jazz-influenced soundscape and tormented, claustrophobic guitar, albeit with a lighter touch and less pervasive sense of portent. Even so, they provide moments of beauty on tracks like Konna Hito, where the band just seem to allow themselves to be pulled where the music takes them, and the more straightforward tracks (this is always a relative term where Hikashu are concerned) like Shizuka na Shaboten provide occasional reminders of what a normal pop song might sound like.

Hikashu are a band whose range continues to grow with every new release, and if anything the pace of their creativity seem to grow faster as they get older. On the basis of Ikitekoi Chinmoku, we should hope they never stop.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.2 – DYGL – EP #1

I’ve already written a lot about DYGL and their position as the most vibrant act in Japan’s small but increasingly hip indiepop scene, but this rundown of last year’s best nevertheless provides a good opportunity to underline just what an important band they are.

Opening track Let’s Get Into Your Car has been knocking around for a few years now, but this version perfectly captures its jangly energy – like Head on the Door-period Cure, all chiming melody (with echoes of Angelo Badalamente’s Twin Peaks theme) delivered with an edge of yobbish charm. I’m Waiting For You builds slowly but surely to its fist-pumping climax of melancholy euphoria, while Just Say It Tonight returns impressively to uptempo jangle pop territory, buoyed by Yosuke Shimonaka’s gorgeous, wandering guitar line.

The closing All The Time is the track that perhaps points most clearly towards the band’s future, and could in the long run prove significant beyond DYGL’s own musical development. The most recent track on this EP, it draws less on ‘80s-influenced guitar pop and more from new wave-influenced early 2000s indie rock, most notably The Strokes. Newer material the band are playing out live recently suggests the band see their direction lying more in a spikier sound, reminiscent of bands like The Libertines. The same amount of time has now passed since The Strokes’ Is This It as lies between Is This It and The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead, so perhaps the time has now come round for young bands to start resurrecting and reinterpreting the music of that first millennial generation.

Where it leaves the rest of Tokyo’s indiepop scene if their most accomplished flag bearers are starting to leave the jangly riffs and sweet, emotional sentiment behind and start cutting and bouncing their way through gritty tales of urban life, I don’t know. I don’t even know where it leaves DYGL, but as a high water mark of this generation of melodic Japanese indie, this EP is vital.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.4 – mechaniphone – i ∞ u

One lovely sounding idea that I completely disagree with is the idea that all artists and all recordings are somehow equal at the point of issue, their merits divorced from the context of their production and discovery. People who claim that they see mainstream and undeground music in essentially the same way are through that very process choosing to favour the mainstream, the very existence of which has been helped along by numerous factors before you even encounter it.

An underground record, especially one from a remote corner of Japan with minimal music infrastructure, by musicians whose day jobs make touring next to impossible, does not come to you on an equal footing with a mainstream release, which makes its discovery all the more precious a thing and all the more worthy of your excitement and interest.

Mechaniphone were probably my biggest new discovery of 2015, and their position as the most part-time of part-time bands, in the far western outpost of Nagasaki, means they will never enjoy even a tiny percentage of the credit even a similarly noisy, rhythmically complex band would receive in Tokyo.

I wrote about what makes i ∞ u such a terrific EP back in September, and on its musical merits alone it deserves praise as one of the most exciting new releases of the year. The mixture of post-hardcore rhythms and energy with moments of towering Sublime Frequencies-esque melody is as spine tingling today as it was then, drawing influences from many of the best Japanese underground bands of the past ten years (Afrirampo and Hyacca to name the two that jump out most immediately) without ever seeming like a straight copy.

However, the intersecting factors that made its existence such an unlikely thing in the first place add an extra layer of urgency and importance to it. Would I have ranked the exact same album from a buzzy Tokyo band this highly in my list? Yes, sure, but would I have taken quite as much pleasure and satisfaction from doing so? Not by a long shot.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.5 – Platskartny – Dabai

platskartny - dabai

CD, Cheese Burger Records, 2015

Platskartny refers to the third class carriages on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which makes a curious but apt parallel with the wilfully rough, naive, lo-fi music on Dabai. There are also ramshackle parallels with shambling turn-of-the-millennium prog-pop acts like My Pal Foot Foot, Maher Shalal Hash Baz and bits of the Tenniscoats (playing for a year or so in the Tenniscoats is a sort of compulsory National Service for Japanese indie musicians, and members of Platskartny have dutifully done time themselves).

There’s a rougher-edged, more anarchic energy to Platskartny than those twee-as-fuck, Pastels-loving forebears though, and it hits you in the face at the get-go with the frantic postpunk Beefheart of minute-long opening track Despaigne. The desperately simple and insanely catchy I’m a Little Airplane is even more ludicrously enjoyable with its straghtforward four-chord rock’n’roll chopped and distorted playfully and once more delivered with a rough-and-ready mixture of innocence and yobbish insouciance, like, I dunno, The Modern Lovers being covered by Sham 69 via The Contortions.

The gentle melodica and stylophone-led reggae of Ryokou appears twice, being reprised as a coda to the mini-album in a more elaborate dub arrangement featuing a gloriously out-of-tune pub piano and the addition of brass that teeters throughout on the brink of total collapse. In between, Izu is a heartfelt ballad featuring a passionate and infectiously tuneless vocal tour de force, while Tekkaba starts and ends like a stop-start sequel to Despaigne via a diversion into almost louche, Pavement-esque lo-fi rambling.

While Dabai is a wilfully awkward collection of songs, its heart is pure pop and Platskartny deliver it with such energy and aplomb that you can’t help but get swept up in their enthusiasm. Beyond that, however, there’s a wealth of ideas, both simple and more oblique that make this mini-album not only a fun but also a deeply rewarding listen.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.6 – Batman Winks – All Babies Sleeping

All Babies Sleeping

CD, self-released, 2015

In the indie world, band names are often fluid things as musicians’ ever shifting senses of their own identities find themselves at odds with a name they came up with in a fit of giggles, desperation or naïveté. Hysteric Picnic recently became Burgh, De Nada became DYGL, then Leather, then DYGL again, and Sanm recently became Cairo. Batman Winks used to be called Atlanta Girl. It’s a pretty standard process early on in a band’s career, but for those of us interested in the path along which these young bands choose to develop, the way these changing band names reflect the musical identities of the bands involved makes them worth a bit of attention.

Burgh reflects almost a retreat from identity, behind a band name that’s deliberately obscure and dry of meaning. DYGL’s case probably reflects the band’s own pursuit of a more rock’n’roll direction, away from the image of clean-cut indie pinup boys (and possibly a way of differentiating themselves from the same members’ smoother-edged work as Ykiki Beat) – and their return to the name DYGL I think shows more that the power of their music itself had made a name change unnecessary rather than any compromise on their part.

The name Cairo sounds like a city pop band and reflects the band’s own shift from jangly guitar pop towards more washed-out synth-based indiepop. Batman Winks, on the other hand, feels like the same journey in the opposite direction. When I first heard Atlanta Girl, the name instantly conjured up a sound similar to what a band like Cairo now actually does for real. The reality of the scrappy Atlanta Girl demo was something much weirder and felt completely at odds with the wishy-washy indie-twee sentimentality implied by the name. The change to the more obtuse Batman Winks then felt far more appropriate and satisfying, not least because it includes the classic combination of a comicbook reference and a verb in the indicative mood (this is always a cool thing – ask The Teardrop Explodes).

I’ve already written about All Babies Sleeping’s music in some detail, so rather than repeating myself here, check out my review from a year ago – everything in there still stands. I

Batman Winks’ music is often compared to Ariel Pink, which makes sense, and I’ve seen references to Psychic TV as well, which I’ll grant them too. I’m going to add another, less direct one in here and say there’s something of Robert Pollard in Batman Winks’ Naoya Takukawa. While the music and influences are coming from very different places, they are both prolific songwriters beloved by an indie scene they don’t quite fit into, who combine a lo-fi DIY aesthetic with an instinctive need to fuck up anything to smooth or “creamy” in their music.

You can hear it in the noise and disjointed rhythms of Celebration, the backing vocal squeaks of Blind But The Brightest Light and the album’s faintly out-of-tune title track. And yet behind it all the songwriting fundamentals are really strong, with the closing Strange Love a minor Tokyo indie anthem.

All Babies Sleeping was only the first of two albums Batman Winks released in 2015, with the second, Gud Pops, following in the autumn and also containing a strong collection of tunes. The band have already moved on from most of the material on this album (although the new material retains the same off-kilter, lo-fi approach to pop songwriting), but the year that has passed since then brings with it a bit of extra perspective on All Babies Sleeping, and the fact that this album still retains the capacity to surprise and delight suggests a strength at its core that only time has been able to reveal.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.7 – You Got A Radio! – Carnival

yougotaradio_carnival

CD, Drriill, 2015

You Got A Radio feel like they’ve been around forever, occupying a lonely new wave island somewhere in the no-man’s land between the larger alternative, punk and garage rock scenes, remaining relevant thanks to a revolving cast of tangentially related bands from the surrounding scenes but never quite being part of anything themselves.

They have staying power though, and where some bands and organisers have desperately hooked themselves onto every ridiculous new trend or gimmick that has become momentarily hip, You Got A Radio have remained admirably steadfast in their devotion to a particular kind of vaguely XTC-ish new wave/postpunk. As the cycles of fashion turn this way and that, it’s reassuring to know that a band like this is still there.

At the moment, there are faint hints that a minor cluster of new postpunk bands might be on the brink of emerging – largely thanks to Hysteric Picnic/Burgh (No.8 in this countdown) being young and handsome, not to mention brilliant – so the timing of Carnival couldn’t have been better.

It’s a slightly darker-tinged, more melancholy record than You Got A Radio’s eponymous 2010 debut, with influences of Joy Division and particularly Magazine shining through, alongside the quirkier, more playful echoes of Japanese forebears like the Plastics and P-Model in the boy-girl vocal dynamic and jittery arrangements respectively.

In tense, aggressive, propulsive tracks like Letter and Take Me Out, it’s easy to see how upcoming acts like Burgh might see kindred spirits , but there’s a benefit in You Got A Radio’s less tightly nailed-down sound too, allowing them to play around more freely within their postpunk sandbox, the shifts in tone coming across more natural and less like violent challenges to the audience’s expectations.

It also provides them with the sonic pallette to paint a more nuanced range of emotions, and for all You Got A Radio’s mastery of twitchy dance-punk there’s a sense of melancholy and loss running through the album that a young band just couldn’t pull off convincingly. You need to have lived a bit to sing a song like Summer Has Gone without sounding like a twat, and You Got A Radio deliver it with pathos that keeps them on just the right side of sentimentality.

The five-year gap between You Got A Radio’s first and second albums could have seen them swallowed up and lost in a spiral of “Oh, what’s the goddamn point?” and a lot of bands have perished in that way, so the fact that they have come back so strong is a huge boon not only to their fans, but also to the music scene as a whole.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.8 – Burgh – All About Techno Narcisse

burgh - all about techno narcisse

CD, P-Vine, 2015

If the towering wall of angry, scratchy, trebly sound Burgh assault you with on All About Techno Narcisse (or “Techno Narcisse no Subete” as it is alternatively referred sometimes) sounds familiar, then it might be because you’re one of the select group of people who knew the band under their old name of Hysteric Picnic.

Now first let me declare an interest here and point out that the second of the three EPs Hysteric Picnic released prior to this debut album came out via my Call And Response label in late 2013 (it’s called Cult Pops, it’s brilliant and you can buy it here), although the band have evolved in some significant ways since that point.

Firstly, where the band began as a duo playing along with backing tracks stored on a series of heavily overdubbed cassettes, they are now a full band and all their songs are about twice as fast. Shigeki Yamashita’s ringing, reverb-heavy guitar and Sou Oouchi’s barking Mark E Smith-meets-Jello Biafra non-singing are a constant though, and contribute towards a sound that, while retaining clear points of similarity with a number of ’80s postpunk bands (notably The Birthday Party), is now instantly recognisable as theirs — at least in the context of the Japanese indie scene.

Assisting them in this are producer Hajime Yoshida of avant-garde anti-rock band Panicsmile and engineer Ryo Hisatsune of disco-kraut band Transkam, who worked with Burgh over a hectic schedule to record the whole album in two days, and the sound of the album reflects this frantic atmosphere. There are also similarities with Yoshida’s work on z/nz (No.19 in this countdown) in the lo-fi approach, although the presence of a bassist in Burgh’s lineup adds more of a contrasting dynamic with the scuzzy ambience at the high end. This shows up most strongly on Womb, with its throbbing bass and chiming guitar battling for your attention in the musical foreground while the vocals deliver a weary lament from somewhere in the distance.

Despite the rough-edged, noisy approach to performing their music, Burgh are still recognisably a rock’n’roll band in the old fashioned sense, with melodic rather than rhythmical dynamics driving the songs, with big, bold, catchy riffs at the heart of songs like Cult Pop, Meitei and Tonight. An important part of Burgh’s appeal, however, is the mischief and contrarianism that lurks behind their immaculate indie fringes.

Aside from the decision to change their name to something incomprehensible just a few months after a potentially breakthrough performance at Japan’s biggest rock festival and then name their album after a musical genre that has nothing to do with the actual music they play, they also gift All About Techno Narcisse with the occasional sonic curveball. The avant-garde exercise in discord that is 950 welcomes you into the album’s more challenging second side, while Case Study does an excellent job of recreating DAF-style Teutonic EBM with the bass guitar doing a terrific impersonation of an early-‘80s sequencer. As with the way the synth-based Obecca Dance closed off the Cult Pops EP, this brief nod to electronic music may only be a subtle deviation from their core sound, but still gently taunts fans to make sure they’re paying attention in the right way.

All About Techno Narcisse is very much a debut album in that it’s all about nailing down the band’s sound rather than taking it anywhere in particular, but that’s also its strength, underlining Burgh’s position as a band who, even if they can’t keep their own name straight, have a musical identity that’s strong and distinctive.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.9 – Extruders – 8 Queens

Collecting together and reworking a series of songs originally released in bits and pieces and various formats over the course of two months during the summer of 2014, 8 Queens was an album I’d been anticipating for a while. As the follow-up to Colors, which had been a contender for album of the year in 2013, it’s an album with a lot to live up to as well.

For Extruders, 8 Queens is a case of something old, something new, plenty borrowed and everything tangled up in blue. Second track Zombie recalls the band’s early days as purveyors of short, sharp postpunk nuggets, like a sort of laid-back Wire, while I Wonder heads off in the new direction of highly compressed, minimal synthpop.

They still recall bands like Television and The Velvet Underground, although unlike the Heroin-style exercises in psychedelic tension in which they occasionally indulged on Colors, on 8 Queens they seem to have settled in somewhere closer to the Velvets of Pale Blue Eyes. These influences are also filtered through a sound more and more easily recognisable as Extruders’ own as time goes by, using the studio as an instrument in its own right and treating even the smallest hisses, squawks of feedback and other sonic quirks as essential elements of the overall arrangement, as in the intricately employed stabs and caresses of noise in the intro to Kinjirareta Asobi.

The air of delicately refined melancholy that has always hung over Extruders’ work is still here, except now they seem to have cut down even closer to its raw essence, with Chinese Fairy Tale perhaps the masterpiece in this regard, wilfully eschewing any obvious melodies until just the moment where it slips into the simplest and most gorgeous four-note guitar solo.

8 Queens is an album that revels in its own subtlety, revealing new layers with every repeat listen, displaying its beauty in discreet little flourishes rather than broad strokes. It’s none the worse for that though, and the result is that it’s an album that, once you let it start to work its magic, you can easily lose yourself in.

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Top 20 Releases of 2015: No.10– Nisennenmondai – N’

CD, bijin record, 2015

As I mentioned in my previous entry in this countdown, the growing use and mastery of the delay loop pedal feels like it’s had a crucial role in the fusion of rock and dance music, freeing up bands from the constraints of programmed beats and allowing an organic middle ground between a straighy-up band setup and the layered structures of techno.

In Japan, Uhnellys were the first band I ever saw to really make it work, and they remain the absolute masters of using delay pedals as instruments in their own right. However, after a shaky start, Nisennenmondai are now probably the most widely recognised loop-jockeys the country has on the world stage.

Nisennenmondai’s music over the past few years has really been a growing refinement of a single basic musical vision, each new release bringing them even closer to a single flat line, with the thrill emerging from the way they tease variation and texture out of ever more minimal raw material. On the two albums they released in 2015, however, there are hints that they may have taken their stripped-down death disco as far as it can go and through growing use of collaborators are looking for new routes down which to develop their sound.

N’ is basically a reworking of 2013’s N with the addition of two remixes by British producer Shackleton, while #N/A was made with legendary UK dub producer Adrian Sherwood. Of these the second is clearly the more ambitious, and probably the one that points the way most promisingly towards possible future developments for the band; however, it’s N’ that’s probably the more successful as a record, its place on the border between two phases of Nisennenmondai’s career benefitting from containing both the most refined, focused iteration of their one-note minimal disco, as well as from Shackleton’s relatively free hand in interpreting the tracks and taking them to new places.

As it stands, #N/A is an album interesting for the possibilities it hints at more than the destinations it actually reaches, and of the two records it could (should?) end up the more significant. However, as a powerful and finely honed document of where the band’s past few years of development have taken them, N’ rules the here and now.

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