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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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Shoegaze in Japan

I wrote an article for MTV 81 a few months ago about the current state of Japanese shoegaze, which seems to have got a bit of a shot in the arm from the My Bloody Valentine comeback and with Slowdive on their way to Japan this summer that little wave of interest perhaps hasn’t quite crested yet. Anyway, it took ages to be posted, which means it missed the Lemon’s Chair album release that I wrote it to coincide with, but it’s up now and a lot of what it says is still current. You can read the whole article here.

One of the things that came out of it was the way that shoegaze seems to have bled out into a lot of other genres now, and it’s especially interesting how many visual-kei musicians are involved in shoegaze as well. I suppose this has some parallels in the way bands like Deafheaven have drawn metal and shoegaze together.BP.: Goodbye Love

The article has a few embedded videos of some of the bands I talk about, and looking back, it’s worth noting that the Sugardrop album is one I definitely keep coming back to. The BP. album is probably the more interesting of the two though, mixing more styles together. On Goodbye Love you can hear it in the way it suddenly goes all metal at about the two-minute mark.The Earth Earth: Beautiful Future

I also really want to draw attention to the two new bands I mention in there. I’ve talked about The Earth Earth before, and they proudly wear their MBV influence on their sleeves with that perfectly recreated Kevin Shields distortion. When the vocals come in, however, it sounds more like Lush, without the washed out textures MBV drench their vocals in.Azma: Thousand Lights

Azma are less of a pastiche and perhaps a bit more musical in the sense of being technically minded. The Earth Earth feel essentially like a garage-punk band and their songs like pretty conventional pop tunes whereas Azma have that post-rock mindset that puts them more in the ballpark of local Fukuoka indie scenesters macmanaman. Both bands are good, but in different ways. The fact that they come from opposite ends of the country and have such contrasting approaches to the style made them a nice choice for the examples anyway.

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Strange Boutique (February 2013)

My latest column is up on The Japan Times’ web site now. It deals with the influence of shoegaze in general, and My Bloody Valentine in particular, on the Japanese indie music scene. Given that MBV have their first new album out in forever and have recently been on tour here, it’s perhaps understandable that people have been going mental for them lately. My Facebook feed for a week was full almost entirely of different photos of the same “Tonite: My Bloody Valentine” display board outside Studio Coast that all my friends were posting with tedious regularity, and there were several club events, a shoegaze festival and a tribute album all out at the same time.Supercar: Karma

There were a few little remarks I dropped in there knowing that people would get annoyed by them. It’s my little gift to idol fans that after aggravating them so much the other week, I thought I’d do the same to indie fans. Some people have already told me off for calling Chapterhouse, Ride, Lush and Slowdive “copycats”, but I hope most people will accept that as legitimate editorial hyperbole (I’m a huge fan of Lush and I’m sure Chapterhouse will one day merit an article all of their own where someone can do them proper justice, but that article isn’t this one and that writer won’t be me). I wondered if anyone would upbraid me for mentioning Stereolab and Flying Saucer Attack as well, since they’re not strictly shoegaze (if you cleave to a definition of shoegaze that means basically “exactly copying MBV”). Stereolab were definitely part of The Scene That Celebrates Itself though, and the guitar on the 18-minute album version of Jenny Ondioline is as shoegaze as anything ever made, while FSA’s whole first album is non-more-shoegaze. But yes, I stand by my assertion that FSA were better than MBV. If you disagree with me, your ears are wrong.

I mentioned Narasaki’s work with Momoiro Clover Z too, and to be honest there’s nothing really shoegaze about any of that. All it really means is that he’s a guy with a shoegaze background working with idols. In Lost Child, he uses synths and vocals in a vaguely shoegazing way, but where he employs guitars, it’s always metal. You need to listen to Coaltar of the Deepers to see where the two cross over really.

Shoegaze in Japan is interesting though. In the indie scene, it tends to be more of the lo-fi, 80s proto-shoegaze variety, and I think The Jesus and Mary Chain and well as MBV’s early, jangly stuff are probably bigger influences. You can hear that really strongly in stuff like Slow-Marico and Teen RunningsThere are also bands who probably take their influence more from the more vaguely defined neo-shoegaze coming out of the USA and to a lesser extent the UK in the past few years, which I feel is more where Jesse Ruins are.

In the alt-rock scene, which is where the really hardcore effects pedal geeks reside, the likes of Dinosaur Jr. are probably just as influential, and then there’s also the secondary influence of all the Japanese bands around the late 90s/early 2000s who were the first to really articulate the influence of shoegaze in the first place. Supercar were by far the most significant. Nagoya’s Pop-Office acknowledge the influence of Supercar as an important one for them. When I was in Fukuoka at the end of January, my boys Hyacca covered the track Lucky off the album Three Out Change and everyone over the age of thirty went mental. Hyacca themselves have some pretty heavily shoegazey tracks (guitarist Goshima is largely responsible) like Olympic, Skyline, Angel Fish, and Sashitai, although usually mixed in with something else, and that tends to be the way with most alternative bands. They love MBV pretty much uniformly, but few of them seem that tied down or restricted by the influence.Hyacca: Sashitai

The other thing that they tend not to have so much of is the sheer noise. Noise music in Japan tends to come from electronic, no wave or psychedelic traditions. The idea of an indie noise band is pretty unique here, so any band with MBV’s tunes would probably not really bring the noise, and any band with the noise would probably be a bit more prog rock and soundscapey with the songs. Cruyff in the Bedroom, the guitarist of whom I spoke to briefly for the article, are one of the best (that I’ve heard, at least) of the current crop of bands who can legitimately be called full-on shoegaze, although there are a lot of pretty good ones. My favourite are probably the Stereolab-esque, synth-laden Hour Musik, but some other key names are Lemon’s Chair, who organised the Yellow Loveless tribute album, Luminous Orange, who were perhaps the first Japanese shoegazers back in the 90s, Plastic Girl in Closet are another important one, and the list goes on.

 

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