In this blog, I nowadays mostly focus on indie, punk and underground music, and have never been even remotely plugged in to the club and hip-hop scenes. Since most pop nowadays is really a genre hybrid that touches on elements of traditional pop/rock, hip-hop and club music some way, I threw them together in this section of genre-fluid artists mainly for my own convenience. It’s probably the area of the roundup where you’ll find the music that feels most relevant to whatever the conversation around pop music is nowadays though, and perhaps to contemporary life in general, with these releases including many of the songs in this look back over the year that most directly address the life and concerns of the pandemic era.
AKURYO – Kuroi Hoodie
It feels strange to include this album in this section mostly populated by smooth, modern pop when it’s more ferociously punk than anything in the actual punk section of this roundup. The raw anger and energy of Akuryo uses some sandpaper punk guitar sounds as part of the earsplitting collage of samples that makes up his music, although if there’s a core to his sound, it’s the frenetic jungle rhythms and the haranguing flow of his MC, all linked by a scratchy and distorted sound like a cheaply recorded live take. What it’s all really about, though, is the lyrics, characterised by utter, seething disgust for the wealthy whose private jets are killing the planet, the racists and bootboys who turn the blame towards the marginalised, and again and again the cops who protect these villains. It’s a caustic listen, but relentlessly righteous.
Ann Murasato – Wavy
Hailing from Fukuoka, Ann Murasato has a background in the region’s scuzzy and eccentric underground and alternative scene, and while her solo material charts a poppier path, it’s one that evolved from the dadaist junk of her old band Tokotokotonntokos and others like it. This makes for a lively, frequently goofy pop/rap/dance party full of tunes to rock the elementary school disco.
Aya Gloomy – Tokyo Hakai
On this second album, Tokyo-based electropop scenester Aya Gloomy really seems to have grown into herself. The sounds here are still recognisable from the music she was making while popping about behind her synth and laptop in small clubs and music bars ten years ago, but she deploys them with more confidence, variation and creativity now. At times it echoes the sort of dark-edged pop made under the shadow of 1980s nuclear paranoia in a way that feels increasingly appropriate to the times we live in now, while at others there are distant blasts of a cyberpunk rave in an abandoned warehouse. It might not exactly be gloomy, but the sense of a party happening under a shadow is palpable.
Gasoline・Stand – NISSEKI blue
The face behind this hip-hop project is Osamu Osanai from Kyoto-based folk-rock group Kashikoi Ulysses, and there’s a no-frills quality to the blank delivery, simplistic melodies and minimal beats that’s probably an ideal accompaniment to being sad in your one-room apartment in Kyoto. The meat of the album is really in the synth washes that fill out the spaces, hovering between city pop’s plastic sheen and the slightly more affecting and disturbing qualities of true ambient music.
Greeen Linez – Secrets of Dawn
What is it that stops Greeen Linez from being just lushly produced supermarket music? I suppose one starting point would be that even when they lean into the smooth grooves territory beloved of the city pop set, they’re better than most at catching the melancholy edge that 80s synthpop always had at its best — a sense in tracks like Across the Heartland evoking (intentionally or not) the loneliness of the neon lights that still linger after dawn breaks. There’s an atmosphere of the chill out room that hangs over a lot of Secrets of Dawn too: ambient washes over the low key beats of Sagami Pulse, or the hazy echoes of Massive Attack’s Daydreaming running through Temple Moon. At more than 80 minutes in length, this album gives you plenty of time to sink into it and start to tease out the complexities.
Nii Mariko – The Parallax View
Already known among Tokyo indie scene heads as the guitar slinging vocalist in rock trio Homme, Nii Mariko has also done a sideline in acoustic solo shows. For this first solo album, though, she has created a much bigger sound combining indie rock and electronic pop with the help of a who’s-who of Tokyo indie faces that includes members of Klonns, Kumagusu, Strip Joint, Dotsuitarunen and Nehann, as well as the slightly more well known face of singer/composer Makoto Kawamoto. The broader sonic palette this approach brings probably benefits Nii’s songwriting, letting it be light when it needs to be, while retaining the tools to hit the heavier emotions when that’s where it wants to go.
NTsKi – Orca
One of the buzziest albums to come out of the Japanese indie scene this year, there’s a sort of tastefully restrained eccentricity to the pop music Ntski makes here that I can’t help wishing would go a little further into those eccentricities. Taken on its own terms, though, it’s obviously very nicely put together and keenly balanced. There are a couple of versions of the album knocking about, with the Orange Milk Records version (including a vinyl edition) including a cover of Parallélisme, originally by Miharu Koshi and producer Haruomi Hosono, while the Japanese CD edition lacks the cover but has a different remix of the On Division in Sleep single not available on the Orange Milk version (all the tracks feature on the evil Spotify version).
Otagiri – The Radiant
As someone who admittedly has never dug deep into the Japanese hip-hop world, take this with a grain of salt, but this album is one of the standout releases from that quarter of the local scene. Otagiri’s delivery is playful without being pretentious, veering between between fluid and percussive, flowing well with the kaleidoscope of hyperactive beats and old jazz, big band and crackly traditional song samples crafted by trackmaker DJ Mayaku (a veteran of Tokyo party collective LEF!!! CREW!!!)
Shin Kamijyo – Chitin EP / Lysemanium_ep
While some of his roots lie in the retro technopop scene that in places crosses over with idol music and the late remnants of Shibuya-kei, electronic producer Shin Kamijyo nowadays focuses on ominous, spacious sounding, dub-inflected techno. He put out a couple of EPs in 2021with the first Chitin EP a scratchy, caustic nightmare soundtrack of a release and the Lysemanium EP that followed employing slightly less dirty tools towards a sound that balances shimmering synths with a more subtly sinister underbelly.