Tag Archives: Cornelius

Best of 2017 – More great sounds (3) – What does the rest of the internet say?

This site isn’t the only place on the internet that attempts to rank the best Japanese music of the year, and depending on where you look, you can get a very different picture of the music scene. This is of course very right and proper, because the Japanese music scene is broad and diverse, covering every genre you know and dozens you don’t. I’m not going to include any J-Pop-focused sites here, since I don’t really follow any of them, or even know if any of them made year-end rankings, but here are what a few other writers have come up with.

Beehype (top 20)
Beehype gathers new music releases from all over the globe, but it has a discrete Japanese ranking covering the top 20 Japanese music releases of the year. Beehype is probably the best place to go to get a general sense of the kinds of Japanese music the Japanese music consensus is gathering around, with artists like Satoko Shibata, Oomori Seiko and Tricot all making an appearance, although it deviates into a few interesting oddities of its own, like the recent album by Osaka jazz-skronk trio Oshiripenpenz.

Make Believe Melodies (top 50)
part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5
Make Believe Melodies, written by Japan Times writer Patrick St. Michel, tends towards soft-edged dance music and the gentler strains of indiepop and singer-songwriter music, but as the most extensive list among all the Japanese music countdowns here, there’s a fair variety on display around that theme. This list touches on indie-branded idols Maison Book Girl, rapper Zombie-Chang, the manic synth-pop funk of Chai and the pachinko machine noise of Pachinko Machine Music, along with MBM regulars like Taquwami and LLLL.

Muso Japan (best shoegaze and dreampop)
This does exactly what it says on the tin, focusing on shoegaze and dreampop, and while these genres in Japan can encompass slightly different material to what they do in the West, Muso Japan doesn’t stray far from its remit. Having such a narrow focus means that they can dig a little deeper than another site might, singling out material by lo-fi acts like FogPark, and Nurse alongside shoegaze scene veterans like Cruyff in the Bedroom, Shelling and Caucus.

Tokyo Dross (unranked list of 16)
Another list by a Japan Times contributor, this time James Hadfield, whose preferences lean towards more experimental rock and electronic music. There are more crossovers with my list creeping in here, partly because as the Listing Season drew in, we spent some time frantically sharing and picking over each other’s recommendations in private. His decision to include Phew’s Voice Hardcore despite it not being officially released until 2018 is legitimised perhaps by The Wire’s earlier decision to do the same.

Zach Reinhardt
Top 10 EPs & mini-albums

Top 20 albums (20-11)

Top 20 albums (10-1)

Zach’s lists also tend to have a lot of crossover with mine, as I think we both have very similar biases towards skronky art-punk and oddball avant-pop. One key difference is in the appearance of a lot of Call And Response stuff in Zach’s list (P-iPLE, Tropical Death, Looprider and the Throw Away Your CDs… compilation, all of which were disqualified from mine), and perhaps a little more washed-out indiepop/dreampop. Basically, though, if I missed something, it’s highly likely Zach caught it, and vice-versa.

Summary:
For anyone looking for areas of consensus, the crossovers between these various lists throw up a few recurring names. Cornelius’ Mellow Waves appears several times, topping the  Beehype list and getting honourable mentions in a few others, while Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Async, Phew’s Light Sleep, Endon’s Through The Mirror and For Tracy Hyde’s He(r)art were all rated very highly in more than one list. Miu Mau’s Drawing made appearances in most of the lists, while the Throw Away Your CDs Go Out To A Show compilation that I produced made an appearance in every list except my own (disqualified because I made it) and the Muso Japan list (wrong genre), so I feel validated in saying that’s a great record. Elsewhere, She Talks Silence, Crunch, BLONDnewHALF, Hikashu, Tofubeats, Oshiripenpenz, Sapphire Slows, Suiyobi no Campanella, Mondo Grosso, Tricot, Oomori Seiko and Satellite Young all made multiple appearances.

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Top 20 Releases of 2017: No.12 – Cornelius – Mellow Waves

cornelius - mellow waves

CD, Warner Music, 2017

“Zealously precise” and “exactingly funky” have for a long time been useful terms in summarising the work of former Shibuya-kei godhead Cornelius, and with Mellow Waves we can add “scrupulously smooth”.

The album has been described by some reviewers as being warmer than its predecessors Sensuous and Point, and in terms of the sound production and overall more richly layered nature of the songs that’s perhaps true. The closing duo of Rain Song and Crépuscule make fine use of acoustic guitar, the sliding of fingers along the frets during the latter becoming a seamless element of the subtle soundscape that Cornelius builds around it. However, the album is no less clinical in terms of how it deploys the scientific principles of sonic warmth and calculates to a fraction of a degree the ideal angle to which it should be laid back.

That’s not to deny that there is a clear shift in approach though. On earlier albums, in particular on Point, Cornelius made a lot out of songs based around a single musical idea that he would then develop in subtle variations throughout the song in a way that nevertheless didn’t compromise the concept’s essential minimalism. Mellow Waves shifts the emphasis away from that mode of song construction, with most tracks taking the form of more or less conventionally structured pop songs containing a multitude of moving parts.

What sets Mellow Waves apart is that, where earlier albums thrived on the tension between organic elements (a live instrument, a drop of water) and technology, now Cornelius seems more interested in eliminating that tension, exploring the areas where the barrier between the organic and electronic becomes permeable. The gorgeous, Eno-esque Surfing on Mind Wave Pt.2 is a case in point, with strings that phase between organic and synthetic sounds, and then, as the electronic effects seem to be taking over, the sounds of voices, gulls and ocean waves start to creep into the mix.

Cornelius shares a lot in common with a band like Steely Dan, in that he pursues with scientific precision the emotional and sensual truths other artists simply feel their ways towards. Whether he gets closer here than on earlier albums is debatable, but his process has never been so richly developed.

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Strange Boutique (September 2013)

The September edition of my column was delayed by a week because of an avalanche of articles at the Japan Times eating up all the space that week, so it came out the first week of October instead.

Since the announcement that the 2020 Olympics would take place in Tokyo, there’s been lots of speculation among Japan culture-watchers about what the opening ceremony might be. Not because of any particular interest in Olympic opening ceremonies in and of themselves so much as what it will say about how Japan wants other countries to perceive it culturally.

I think it’s an interesting line they have to walk between being honest about what Japanese culture is and providing something that people overseas will be able to enjoy. Beijing was criticised for airbrushing out troublesome elements in favour of the precisely drilled mass celebration of China’s awesomeness and power, while London took flak from some for being too in-jokey and insular, although given the size of the audience they had to reach, it seems pretty clear that Zhang Yimou and Danny Boyle’s ceremonies were pretty well received in both concept and execution.

So those two extremes provide contrasting examples of approaches that Tokyo could take, but at the same time, it needs to be able to say that its ceremony was theirs alone as well. Part of the problem with pop music is that Japan just doesn’t really have any that means much outside its own shores, and the stuff that’s really popular at home right now is either going to come across as pretty pedestrian and imitative of Western “originals” (often mistakenly on the part of overseas listeners not trained to listen for the same things Japanese audiences hear) or make them look like a nation of paedophiles (seriously, idol stuff really ain’t going to look good).

Traditional music is safer, so festival and taiko music could do the job, but I do think Tokyo is going to want to emphasise its modernity. They might go the arty route and get someone like Cornelius, who I raved about in last month’s column, or Yasutaka Nakata to do the sound design — just imagine how good a composer an older, more mature Nakata could have become by the time he’s forty years old…Ryuichi Sakamoto: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

As I mentioned in the article, Ryuichi Sakamoto is a compromise that the establishment might be able to accept but who’s talented and familiar enough with technology that his work wouldn’t just be a museum piece. I wonder whether, given that possibly his two most famous works both as an actor and film composer were films that dealt with Japan’s let’s just say “controversial” wartime past (much as I love Wings of Honneamise, I fear it may be overlooked in his canon), there might be some wankers, either in Japan or in China or somewhere else, who try to turn his involvement into a lightning rod for political rage. Also, his position regarding the nuclear situation at Fukushima might have rendered him unacceptable to some of the fossils who run the government. He seems like a solid choice to me, but I’m never surprised by the lengths to which some people will go to get offended by something.

Personally, it’s the more fanciful suggestions that amuse me most, and you can be sure that there are people at places like Sony already working on developing some batshit insane new audiovisual technology for it.

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Strange Boutique (August 2013)

My August (and I like to believe also august) column went up on The Japan Times’ web site last week, on the subject of Shibuya-kei. The event that kicked it off was when we noticed that September 1st, as well as being the 90th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and my wife’s [CENSORED] birthday, marked twenty years since the release of Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada’ first solo single.

Obviously he’d been around for years before that with Flipper’s Guitar, who were almost certainly of greater importance in terms of bringing indie music into the mainstream in Japan, sort of like a weedy-voiced, twee Nirvana, and The Sun Is My Enemy isn’t his best song by a long shot, but in its style, its release though Oyamada’s Trattoria label, and the significance of the name Cornelius in Shibuya-kei’s popularity and influence overseas, it’s a useful benchmark.Cornelius: The Sun Is My Enemy [Sorry for the annoying twat talking over the intro]

There was some discussion on Twitter afterwards about what song would be a better choice if there were to be a single track chosen to define Shibuya-kei, and I think there is a general agreement that it would probably have to be something connected with Oyamada. One suggestion was Flipper’s Guitar’s track Dolphin Song, which is almost certainly the band’s tour de force, bringing their neo-acoustic melodic sense together with experimentation with sound production and sampling that pushes the boundaries of what indie and pop music in Japan were doing at that time way back.Flipper’s Guitar: Dolphin Song

Another possibility would be Kahimi Karie’s Good Morning World, released by Oyamada through Trattoria, which takes the sort of faux-sixties aesthete-pop that Pizzicato Five had been doing for a while, and adds an arrangement and lyrics — courtesy of British songwriter and (tender) pervert Momus — that are some of the oddest and most subversive things ever to sneak into the upper echelons of the Oricon charts.Kahimi Karie: Good Morning World

I also used the article to have another go at “Cool Japan”, which is one of my recurring bugbears about Japanese pop culture. A lot of interesting discussion came out of that as well. At the end of the article where I contrast the enduring overseas respect afforded to Cornelius with the declining fortunes of anime and video games abroad, it’s obviously not meant to be a direct comparison of a single artist to an entire industry. My point is that creating an environment where original artists can emerge is going to be more helpful to Japan’s image overseas than just treating culture like venture capital and chucking money at marketing stuff that’s been born out of particular economic conditions.

Anime in particular is an embarrassment at the moment, and despite the popularity of cosplay among certain groups of people, there is no one who actually thinks it’s cool. Its cultural cachet is confined to a niche group and is considered a joke by outsiders. Video games are in a better position, but the Japanese games industry isn’t what it once was. Sony seem to be getting some positive advance coverage of the PS4 but they’ve done that partly through Microsoft’s propensity to shoot themselves in the foot at every opportunity and partly by going back to the old ways of scrubbing the machine’s Japaneseness from it, creating something blankly international like the Walkman.

My belief is that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry isn’t the best institution to be dealing with cultural matters, and that rather than wasting it on evil bastards like advertising giants Dentsu, the money would be more usefully spent in a similar way to how it’s been used in British theatre, i.e. in providing infrastructure that allows artists to experiment and develop ideas free of commercial constraints. Out of that, you’ll surely get a lot of wank, but you’ll also get uncommercial but notable art that would have been strangled at birth under the current system, and you’ll also get works that do have commercial potential that can then be developed into something bigger under the existing commercial infrastructure.

Encouraging international collaboration and cooperation too will be beneficial. A system of grants to help artists with the expensive business of touring overseas should be a basic given (almost every European country has this), as well as helping to build up connections with similar overseas organisations. Relaxing visa requirements for overseas artists wanting to visit Japan would also be very helpful (the opposite of what Canada is doing here, basically). As it stands, Cornelius and Shibuya-kei was a fantastic one-off, but so much more could be done to build an environment where more one-off talents could emerge.Cornelius: Gum (Ultimate Sensuous Synchronized Show)

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