Tag Archives: Girls’ Generation

Movement (or not) towards a J/K-pop synthesis?

For a while now the two biggest Korean girl groups in Japan, Kara and Girls’ Generation, have represented contrasting ideas about what the best way to approach the audience here is, with the former adapting their Japanese material to the dreary standards of the local pop scene and the latter pushing onward with basically the same, more internationalised version of pop music that they’re selling at home. Which approach won out seemed important to me because it would have an impact on what the eventual response of Japan’s own pop artists would be — if Kara won, they could keep on doing what they were already doing and no reassessment was neceessary, but if the Girls’ Generation approach won, it would mean there was an audience here for a type of sound that local Japanese artists weren’t really providing.

Basically, it seems like the Girls’ Generation approach more or less won out with most Korean artists, probably out of convenience more than anything else, simply releasing Japanese language versions of the same songs they were releasing in Korea (usually with different videos and sometimes with minor cosmetic changes in the production and arrangement) rather than going all-in with the J-pop sound and trying to juggle two divergent but simultaneous careers. These days, even Kara’s Korean and Japanese material are more or less consistent with each other musically, with the main differences lying in the type of sexuality presented in the videos.

And in the end, I think the natural trajectory for Korean pop in the Japanese charts would have to be towards some sort of synthesis like this, with both Korean and Japanese artists converging towards some new kind of shared sound that combines elements of both types of pop.

Kara: Electric Boy

Much as I would have dearly liked the rumours of Yasutaka Nakata producing Kara’s latest Japanese single to be true, with Electric Boy they have actually gone with an overseas writing team. Even so, the result does point towards this synthesis between the light-and-fluffiness of J-pop and the squelchy, bleepy modernity of K-pop.

Girls’ Generation’s most recent Japanese single, Oh!, pulls a similar trick, taking a song that’s pretty fundamentally Western-influenced but playing it on the fluffy side.

Girls’ Generation: Oh!

Of course, Oh! has been around for years in its Korean language incarnation, so it’s really more a matter of the choice of material rather than writing anything new. Like Gee, it’s a catchy piece of throwaway, throwback pop that while it steers clear of mainstream trends in current J-pop, is hardly an alien intrusion into the Japanese musical landscape, not sounding a million miles from some of the Stock, Aitken & Waterman-influenced late-80s/early 90s synthpop confections of Wink and early Chisato Moritaka, albeit with a more modern production veneer.

The idea of going back a bit further into Japanese music history to find common points of reference is one I’ve talked about before, and it’s an idea that has been exploited quite strikingly by Orange Caramel, whose cheery style always seemed cut from another generation’s cloth and who recently made their Japanese debut with a cover of legendary 1970s Japanese idol trio the Candies’ classic Yasashii Akuma.

(You’ll have to go over to Daily Motion to watch the Orange Caramel version since Avex Trax still live in the stone age as far as videos go: Orange Caramel: Yasashii Akuma)

The fact is that Korean artists have in a number of different ways made big moves towards accommodating themselves to the Japanese music scene, while at the same time, usually bringing something of their own into the mix. However, synthesis really should be a two way thing, and it’s harder to see how, if at all, Japanese groups and producers have made moves of their own (any mention of E-girls is banned on here until further notice). Of course the Japanese pop fan nerdocracy might cry, “No! They shouldn’t do anything to pollute the glorious late-90s purity and unchanging majesty of J-pop!” but as I’ve pointed out, what many of the Korean groups mentioned above are doing is really repackaging something Japan used to do very well but has simply forgotten.

The weird shit that’s going down in idol music Japanside suggests that creative talent is in no especially short supply here, but that perhaps it’s being funnelled in directions with more niche (but by no means small) appeal and that Japan’s music production machine apparently remains creatively inward-looking. Progress is always slow, especially when so many big companies have huge amounts of money invested in a particular way of doing things, so while K-pop and idol music are cheap to buy in because other companies (either Korean or Japanese indies) have already done the work of creating and developing the acts, major labels seem to be less willing to take a risk with their own cash.

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Girls’ Generation: Paparazzi

After weeks of coy teasers and less coy massive billboard posters all over Tokyo, and with the AKB48 elections now firmly out of the way, the by now pretty much undisputed queens of K-pop (in Japan at least), Girls’ Generation, have finally started blitzing us with their new product, and any response other than rank submission is simply not acceptable to them.

It’s clear that they’ve tried to make this an “event video” what with the premiere on the big screens by the Shibuya crossing and the silly Torville & Dean/Gene Kelly intro music combo. It’s nonsense of course, but it tells us something about how Girls’ Generation (and by that I mean SM Entertainment or whoever is behind their marketing) want the group to be perceived, and the message it sends is a mixture of “We’re playing with the big boys,” and “We’re desperate to be associated in some way with Lady Gaga.”

Like Ms. Gaga’s similarly titled offering there is the faux-1950s onscreen titling, newspaper headline visual motif and general electro edged production, and like Lady Gaga’s song, it seems to be more a cry for attention from the titular paparazzi than any serious criticism. On the other hand, and importantly,  Lady Gaga’s video was a lot funnier (Gaga murders her boyfriend to get back on the front pages, while the fact Girls’ Generation “seem a bit nervous” is the most interesting thing the papers can find to say about them) and operates on a much higher conceptual level. The bells and whistles that surround Girls’ Generation in this video don’t combine to form any meaningful narrative — it’s Girls’ Generation the global pop phenomenon celebrating their own bigness but with nothing to say about what that actually means.

More importantly, the two songs are coming from rather different places musically. Gaga’s song is basically a 1980s pop tune wrapped up in just enough cutting edge synths and beats to sound modern without detracting from its essentially conventional, or perhaps we can say classical, pop song construction — it’s the kind of song you could play on an acoustic guitar and it would still be recognisable as pop music. Girls’ Generation’s Paparazzi on the other hand is every bit a contemporary electro-house-influenced piece of pop, beginning with the beats and with the actual tune squeezed into the gaps. It’s effective but it’s not classic songwriting.

Now this shouldn’t matter. 2NE1’s I Am The Best would have made Buddy Holly spin in his snowy mountain grave in terms of classic pop songwriting, but it was still one of the best pop songs of 2011, and its recently released Japanese version (which sidesteps the awkwardness of translating the original’s decidedly un-Japanese lyrics by translating most of them into English instead) is still wiping the floor with pretty much any other pop released here this year. And Paparazzi does work, both as a piece of aggressively modern dance-pop and as a piece of bubblegum pop with a simple, effective chorus and some catchy “boom boom boom”s like a not-quite-as-good Mr. Taxi.

What it lacks compared to 2NE1 is attitude. When CL reminds the listener of her group’s name, as she does in practically every song 2NE1 do, it comes over all swagger and look-at-me-I’m-awesome. When Girls’ Generation do it here and on last year’s The Boys, it’s like a desperate cry to the audience, “Don’t forget us!” Of course in both cases it’s really just in-song branding, but at the same time, the subtle difference in the ways the two groups carry off the same marketing trick reveals a fundamental difference between them. Girls’ Generation are more forgettable, and if you heard this song on the radio (remember that?) or in a club you’d probably be hard-pressed to know who out of a dozen or so K-pop groups it was.

In a way this is a trap that Girls’ Generation have laid for themselves. They’re the wholesome, good-girl K-pop group, standard bearers of Korean pop in its march into the global marketplace, which means that everything they do is shorn of its edges, is studiedly bland in its eagerness to avoid scandal in Korea’s puritanical fan culture even as they adopt every trapping they can safely appropriate of international pop culture. People like Lady Gaga and 2NE1 who have positioned themselves as freaks and outsiders from the start wear no such straightjacket and make themselves simultaneously more natural-seeming and more distinctive (and therefore easily marketable) as a result.

Now if this sounds like I’m down on them, I’m not. As one of the fake newspaper headlines in the video announces, Girls’ Generation’s “…style has become the Bible for fashion.” Where 2NE1 and Lady Gaga (and Japanese contemporary Kyary Pamyupamyu) are fashion icons for people wanting to stand out, Girls’ Generation are aspirational role models for dedicatedly ordinary girls and in that context, the sharp, flashy, high contrast style of both their image and electro synth sound is still something radical in the dead centre of Japan’s fluffy, pastel coloured and slowly dying mainstream. In addition, the fact that so many other Korean girl groups share a similar sound and are in general preferring not to compromise it for some imagined vision of what the Japanese market wants suggests that of the contrasting approaches taken by them and Kara, Girls’ Generation seem to be winning out.

While the jury is still out on Girls’ Generation’s attempt to crack the US, the fact is that they probably do as good a job as they could of balancing the varying expectations of their fans in the different markets in which they operate. What Paparazzi suggests, however, is that they may have taken that balancing act as far as it can go and that any move westward may require that they let some of those spinning plates drop.

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2NE1: Collection

CD, YGEX, 2012

There are so many reasons to love 2NE1, and I barely even get into them in this Japan Times review. The main thing is just how utterly, infectiously happy these brash, loud, utterly silly pop nuggets with their loopy, over-the-top production, swaggering spoken word intros, sassy asides and curious penchant for 1980s U.S. pop references make me.

One memory of my recent trip to Europe that will stick with me is watching a packed crowd in Ljubljana reacting to what might have been the first time 2NE1’s I Am the Best (or possible any K-pop at all) has ever been played in a Slovenian club. Electric doesn’t even begin to describe it. Earlier in the year, I dropped Fire into my set at an indie club in Kumamoto and again, you can just see the reaction ripple through the crowd. Whatever it is 2NE1 have, it taps into some kind of primal disco force.

Of course you can’t please everyone, and I gather some people found it a bit confusing. Obviously when writing a CD review, one doesn’t set out with the intention of provoking anger, distress or head-scratching bafflement in one’s readers. Unfortunately, much as I wish I had time to deal with a mixed-ability readership, that doesn’t lie within my capabilities at this time, so all I can offer is gentle encouragement that some people might want to step up their game.

2NE1: Scream

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Top 20 albums/EPs of 2011 (numbers 1-10)

Several days later than promised, but here’s the top ten of my Japanese music of 2011 (No.11-20 is here). Again, I’m allowing some Korean stuff if it’s a proper Japanese release, and again I’m not being fussy about what counts as an EP, a mini-album or an album — it all goes in. Obviously, this is just a personal list of what interested me out of the limited range of what I actually heard this year and I didn’t include any of those bizarre “objective” measures that people keep moaning to the Japan Times complaints department that I don’t include. Anyway, on with the list:

Boundee, CD

10. She Talks Silence: Some Small Gifts

Precariously poised on the edge between the barely-produced lo-fi indie ethos of early 80s British DiY music and the kind of Tokyo hipster scene that’s well-connected enough to bypass the dirtier fringes of the live music circuit and parachute straight into the 3000yen a ticket, 700yen a beer range of venues, She Talks Silence are the sort of band that could be unbearable to an indie snob like me who generally requires years of slumming it in dives out of a band before I grant them my seal of approval. And if that sounds like a strange way to introduce a band I’m trying to convince you are in my top ten of the year, I apologise, but She Talks Silence’s position is at the heart of what I find frustrating about them. They’re like the beautiful, intelligent, talented girl who’s dating a jerk who doesn’t appreciate her [Disclaimer: their actual boyfriends are really cool]. Their music is delicate, sweet, lonely, charming, violent and tremendously affecting, with Fragment one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard all year and Dead Romance edged with a series of particularly sharp thorns, and yet there is a terrible and selfish sense that they belong to someone else, that they float in a fashion environment too superficial to understand what’s so great about them, and worst of all, the gnawing knowledge that the only real problem is my own snobbery. In any case, Some Small Gifts is a near flawless example of lo-fi indiepop melodymaking that also demonstrates flair and artistry with more awkward, off-centre song construction.

Self-released, CD/R

9. Tsumugine: Tsumugine

This three-song, EP by the performance art collective Tsumugine (a group with a curious penchant for live performances in isolated countryside road tunnels, among other places) is basically fifteen minutes of eerie “instrumental” vocal music, with the musical wing of the group’s a capella utterances creating distorted tones and monastic harmonies that I would have thought certainly the work of studio effects had I not seen them perform a lot of this stuff live with only a couple of microphones. Some harmonica is thrown into the mix on the eight-minute final track, but the range of tones and sounds of the vocal performers is so diverse that it’s utterly in keeping with the rest of this atmospheric little CD.

Self-released, CD/R

8. Hysteric Picnic: Hysteric Picnic EP

Like Pop Office, Hysteric Picnic are clearly influenced by 1980s British new wave bands — in this case Joy Division and maybe The Jesus and Mary Chain feature strongly, with something of Young Marble Giants in the tick-tock-tick-tock drum machine rhythms that underpin many of their songs. However, where Pop Office distinguish themselves with quirky embellishments or a slightly off-centre approach, Hysteric Picnic charge right in, glowing with conviction, dirty and lo-fi as you like, and bursting with great tunes. They don’t spend hours polishing their songs to a burnished sheen, but neither is the roughness an affectation: it’s integral to the band’s sound, present in the Wire-like slashes of guitar, explosions of feedback and anguished vocal yowls of Chinese Girl. The way they combine that with sublime melodies and harmonies, best displayed on Persona, is what makes this EP such an extraordinary debut.

Nayutawave, CD

7. Girls’ Generation: Girls’ Generation

Another Korean one, but as with 2NE1 in the previous post, I’m counting it since it’s a Japanese release, this time sung entirely in Japanese, that was released and promoted just like any J-Pop album.Girls’ Generation is quite simply the most accomplished, polished, catchy collection of three-minute pop gems I’ve heard in ages. You can read my review here, and I’d just add that the failure of both Perfume’s JPN and Girls’ Generation’s own The Boys to even come close sadly seems to drive home what a one-off combination of bubblegum pop fizz and modern electropop sophistication this album probably was.

Take a Shower Records, CD

6. Tacobonds: No Fiction

Boom! Badaboom-booooooom! Badabadabadabadabadabadabada-boooooom-bangbang-boom-B-P-M-4!-bangboombang-a-bang-ratatattatatatata-tat-Bang!-Skreeeeeeeee! FICTIOOOOOOOON! Read it here.


Penguinmarket, CD

5. Uhnellys: To Too Two

Another one I’ve already reviewed, Uhnellys are a smart, funky, sophisticated, genre-hopping psychedelic jazz-hop duo and this was probably the album that combined technical accomplishment, energy, intelligence, invention and mainstream (admittedly in a fairly limited, indie sense) appeal better than any other I’ve heard this year.

Second Royal, 10-inch Vinyl

4. Friends: Let’s Get Together Again

Reviewed this one too. This is an album that I wasn’t sure about at first, but especially since getting my hands on the vinyl release, it’s risen in my estimation. The duvet of feedback that envelops most of the melodies works for me, noisenik that I am, and once you get past the bristly exterior, there’s a juicy melodic centre that tastes of The Beach Boys and all the rest of your favourite summer guitar pop tunes. Apparently now renamed Teen Runnings, Friends are a prickly, awkward band, and this album captures that aspect of them with a perhaps unintentional degree of honesty.

Bijin Records, Double CD

3. Nisennenmondai: LIVE!!!

Another one I’ve reviewed. To date, the definitive recorded document of one of Tokyo’s most striking bands, LIVE!!! is instrumental Kraut-noise trio Nisennenmondai at their best. Fan is a magnificent example of how you can repeatedly bang away on a single note for fourteen minutes and somehow keep it exciting through dynamics alone, and along with fellow death disco masterpiece Mirrorball, it forms the centrepiece of the album. Ikkyokume is Stereolab’s Golden Ball at 3x speed and rippling with unhinged energy and Appointment might be a lost Daniel Miller instrumental from 1981. There are lots of bands in Tokyo who play drawn-out instrumental jams, but none as skilled at manipulating the dynamics of such minimal sounds in such an accessible and downright fun way.

Naturebliss, CD

2. Tyme. x Tujiko: Gyu

Not being tremendously familiar with Tujiko Noriko’s prior work, it’s hard for me to place this within her overall canon, but this album, sneaking in just at the end of the year is a simply stunning collection of avant-pop and electronic soundscapes. I’m going to be a twat here and compare it to Bjork and Kate Bush, and I admit I’m largely doing this because it’s a magnificent, weird pop album with ethereal sounding vocals by a woman with an odd voice. HNC tried a similar thing recently with her rather fine I Dream I Dead, but this album eschews HNC’s instagram faux-retro lo-fi flicker in favour of more confident, sophisticated multi-layered synth-artistry, which elevates it to another plane productionwise. As a general rule, the earlier tracks edge more popwise while the album begins to skew ambient as it progresses, but I’m not going to single out tracks since this is a rare album where absolutely every song is truly lovely.

CD, Take A Shower Records

1. The Mornings: Save The Mornings

Quite simply nothing this year could quite touch spazzpunk quartet The Mornings’ debut album for sheer, irrepressible energy. There are other bands making faintly similar kinds of music but The Mornings beat them all by being faster, more intense, just more full of wow. The first moment of Opening Act wakes you up, eyes saucers, mouth grinning with delight, and everything that happens from that moment onwards just makes your grin stretch wider. Amazon Surf is what Devo would have sounded like if they’d been a hardcore band, Mad Cheergirl pushes drummer Keika’s vocals to the front, while on Mad Dancer, synth/vocalist Ponta and guitarist Junya trade lines against a rhythmical backdrop that constantly threatens to collapse before leaping back to attention, Drug Me sees the group taking on the Dead Kennedys and winning, and so on and so on. It’s an exhausting listen, like gorging on a mixture of sherbet candy, raw chilli and hard liquor, and it leaves you similarly battered and physically defeated at the end, but 26 minutes of moment after moment of unbridled, explosive joy will do that to you. Give in.

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The Setting Sun: Tetsuya Komuro, Namie Amuro and How to Be a Girl

I’ve always had rather mixed feelings about Tetsuya Komuro. On the one hand, I blame him for in the late 80s and early 90s killing kayoukyoku and creating the ugly, lumbering beast that is J-Pop; his thin, tinny beats and digital synths drilling out a relentless pitter patter of cheap Eurobeat and inspiring even cheaper knockoffs that can still be heard today in some of the musical atrocities being churned out by AKB48.

But fundamentally, Komuro was and is a music guy to his core. He’d come up out of the new wave movement of the 80s and like most of the key figures in the birth of J-Pop (notably Takeshi Kobayashi and Judy And Mary), he really knew and cared about his music, even when the stuff he was making sucked huge logs.

Also, for anyone still looking for reasons behind the rise of Korean pop in Japan, Komuro’s work demonstrates a number of precedents with its localised repackaging of contemporary dance music coupled with obligatory rap segment pretty much defining the core K-Pop songwriting formula. More than that though, he would occasionally imbue his work with some elements that were if not exactly inventive, at least striking in terms of the Japanese pop music scene. From 1997, at the swaggering peak of the 90s, just before the sun started to go down on J-Pop, here’s one of Komuro’s finest moments as a songwriter and producer.

Namie Amuro: How to Be a Girl

The idea that Korean pop is not a strange and alien thing to Japan is one that I keep coming back to, and I’m convinced that getting to grips with its own musical heritage is something that Japanese pop would benefit a lot from in terms of firstly understanding the Korean invasion and secondly in terms of fashioning its own response.

Japanese pop’s fear of the schaffel beat is something I wrote about last year, and while there are maybe historical reasons why that kind of R&B influenced rhythm never took hold here, I think it’s also symptomatic of a contemporary fear of anything that differs from the formula that J-Pop has come to understand as being the sound of its greatest age, the boom years of 1997/98.

However, listen to How to Be a Girl, a number one hit single released at the height of the boom as the follow-up to the record-shattering smash hit ballad Can You Celebrate (with well over two million sales, it makes AKB48’s recent efforts look like chicken feed), and Komuro is doing far crazier things with the rhythm. Lennonistas will recognise it as the backline from The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows, although 1990s pop fans would perhaps have been more familiar with it from The Chemical Brothers’ 1996 UK hit Setting Sun (yeah, the one with Noel Gallagher on it). He’s being true to his own formula of watering down contemporary dance hits, but he’s also using the hotly anticipated follow-up to the best-selling single of all time ever by a female singer and pushing out the boundaries of Japanese pop in a way that would be unthinkable for anti-musicians like Yasushi Akimoto.

The Beatles: Tomorrow Never Knows (I just had to embed this clip)

Couple that beat with a riff appropriated from Gary Numan’s Cars/Wire’s Men 2nd (all Numan’s best stuff was nicked from his more talented contemporaries) and some neat distortion on the vocals and you have a piece of mainstream pop music from one of the nation’s biggest selling and most iconic artists that breaks all the rules of what J-Pop now thinks popular music can be.

Amuro herself is another crucially important part of the song’s appeal, and here’s where Japanese pop differentiates itself from its Korean rivals. Her dancing is more of an offhand shuffle, coming across effortlessly cool rather than simply naive and amateurish, her hair flops down insolently over her face, her costume takes China-dress chic and reconfigures it as a plain, matt black casual suit. Amuro, at that time still only nineteen years old (one year younger than Atsuko Maeda of AKB48 is at the time of writing this), is mature, stylish, sexy and cool, but she’s also casual and easygoing, without the baby-doll lolicon posturing of contemporary Japanese idols, without the militaristically drilled, aggressive sexuality of Girls’ Generation and their followers and without the cartoonish yankii bad girl schtick of 2NE1. Her image is attractive but at the same time attainable for young women.

Sure, How to Be a Girl never reached the sales of its predecessor, but then nothing since then has, and those kinds of crazy figures are never coming back. Amuro’s eclipse by Ayumi Hamasaki and Komuro’s spectacular fall from grace are stories for another piece, but the popularity of 1997-model Namie Amuro should stand as a lesson that Japanese pop fans can handle musical ideas that go beyond the expected, and that at least in theory (of course, given the technicolor extremes that pop imagery is exploring at the moment, one wonders who would even notice an artist as understated as Amuro comes across in that clip) female sexuality can be mature and post-pubescent without aping the glistening artificiality of K-Pop.

Just to leave you with, here’s Seo Yeon’s Korean language cover of Amuro’s biggest hit:

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Great pop music denied to Japan in 2011: Kara’s Step

While I was putting together my gleefully self-indulgent 2011 Top 10 girly bubblegum pop tunes list, there was one song that I didn’t include but perhaps should have. It was by probably the most successful Korean group in Japan at the moment, who had a string of Number 1 hit singles and two albums in Oricon’s end of year charts. All of which, needless to say, were utter crap.

That group was Kara, who are notable as the Korean group who have gone furthest to ingratiate themselves into the Japanese way of doing things, by throwing out everything that made them refreshing and exotic in the first place and trading it all for some thinly produced, sub-AKB48 J-pop-by-numbers and a pointless TV show. Kara are a case study that can be held up to the bleating fanboy crowd exemplifying the poisonous influence Yasushi Akimoto and AKB48 exert over the Japanese pop market. With their beyond-cynical multiple-purchase marketing model, their blanket coverage across all possible media, and their relentless goose step down the Champs Elysee of the singles charts, they hold themselves up as the definitive example of “what-Japanese-like” and as a model of “how-things-should-be-done”.

That groups like Kara are buying into this notion of bland, lobotomised antimusic as their pathway to success in Japan doesn’t bode well for the future direction of pop music in this country. That Kara’s dreadful Super Girl album outsold fellow Korean invaders Girls’ Generation’s far more forward-thinking self-titled album (on first week sales at least) raises the danger that this approach might in the future become a standard approach to the Japanese market.

The truth is probably that it doesn’t much matter in terms of sales what kind of music a group makes. Kara have been in the Japanese market for longer than Girls’ Generation and comparing their second album to Girls’ Generation’s first is to compare groups at different stages of their initial growth. The structure of the market is such that the future of both groups in Japan will depend more on how much money and effort goes into promotion than on what kind of music they make, which makes DSP Media’s decision to go the full AKB on Kara’s music pointless as well as musically reprehensible.

To drive this home and to make clear the contempt in which DSP clearly hold the average Japanese listener’s taste, Kara also released a Korean language album this year which included possibly the group’s best song, Step:

It didn’t make my list because Japanese audiences were denied it (unless they bought the limited edition of Super Girl or, as thousands did, imported the Korean album), but it was one of the pop songs of the year, with its aggressively energetic 80s synths, la-la-las and shiny, glittery everything-on-max production. If I were Japanese, I think I’d be pissed off with DSP Media that they have such a low opinion of my taste, and perhaps a little ashamed at my country’s pop establishment for having given them that impression.

(Oh, and just in case you think I’m laying it on thick with the girl groups here, I’d also have picked GD & TOP’s “Knock Out” as one of my songs of the year, but apparently Japan isn’t ready for so much swag yet.)

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Strange Boutique (December 2012)

Here’s my Japan Times end-of-year roundup column. I’ve not much to add really other than that AKB48 are really the worst thing ever. I do think it’s worth mentioning (and this is my view, not that of the japan Times editorial section) that I really don’t think SMAP’s charity and fundraising work gives them license to use the Tohoku tragedy as a marketing hook off which to hang their new Greatest Hits album that they rushed out in time for their Beijing trip. Giving 5% off the sale price to charity is a fine gesture, but calling the album SMAP Aid, with that cutesy sticking plaster logo, is just cashing in on tragedy and they should be called out on it.

At the bottom of the article, there’s also a little box where I give my top five girl-group bubblegum pop tunes of the year. I’ve already posted one or two of the clips, so sorry for any repetition. Anyway, if you want to check them out, here they are:

1. Perfume: Laser BeamI’ve written about this extensively before, so I’ll just add here that I agree with Patrick from Make Believe Melodies that the single mix is better than the over-fussy album mix.

2. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: PonponponAgain, not much to say about this other than that it’s magnificently stupid, even without the video.

3. Girls’ Generation: Mr. TaxiThis is actually good for a lot of the same reasons as Ponponpon (i.e. the chorus is simple, catchy and features just them doing a silly dance and repeating the same couple of nonsense sounds over and over again), but it’s also  important for bringing a bit of modern electro polish, sex and glamour into the Japanese pop scene.

4. 2NE1: I Am the BestTotally stupid, but really quite musically radical when you pull it apart. 2NE1 are by far the most fun group out of the 2011 K-pop pack.

5. Momoiro Clover: Mirai BowlAnother let’s-chuck-everything-in-and-see-what-happens song. On its own, I don’t think I’d like any individual part of this song, but the way all these completely incompatible musical segments are chucked together makes it so much more than the sum of its constituents. Add in the cheesy theatrical drama section that goes with it and you have a minor idol pop-opera masterpiece. Also the last thing they did with the beautiful Akari Hayami (a.k.a. “Blue”) still in the group (chokes back sobs).

If I were to add some more, I’d say:

6. Seifuku Kojo Iinkai: Da! Da! Datsu genpatsu no Uta — Nothing special about the tune, but idol pop with an angry anti-nuclear message in 2011? Hell yeah.

7. Secret: Shy Boy — Infectiously happy pop tune that isn’t quite sure whether it’s trying to be a 50s doo-wop tune or a 60s bubblegum-Motown pastiche, and then remembers it’s a K-pop song and shoves in an absurdly incongruous rap segment. Wonder Girls pulled the same trick on Be My Baby, but they over-egged the production a bit so I’ll go for this bouncy number instead.

8. Nozomi Sasaki: Pa-pe-pi-pu Pa-pe-pi-pu Pa-pe-pi-pu-po — Ridiculously annoying, stupidly catchy, gleefully, calculatedly nonsensical, Sasaki’s terrible singing voice gives it an air of almost punky couldn’t-give-a-fuckery, and those wonderfully cheap 80s synths just get me every time. Awful song. I love it.

9. Afterschool: Let’s Step Up — Not really a proper song so much as an album intro, but tapdancing electropop? The little Riverdance thing they do in the middle? Someone has clearly decided somewhere that the rules of pop don’t apply to them, and if there’s one thing that 2011 proved, it’s that whatever we thought the rules were, they’re not.

10. Momoiro Clover Z: Rodo Sanka — Showa Era nostalgia abounds in this worker’s anthem, written by Ian Parton of The Go! Team. After Girls’ Generation made an album almost entirely full of songs by Western songwriters, it’s interesting to see a Japanese idol group go the same path and come up with something completely different but no less striking. And yeah, I know I had another song by basically the same group earlier — so I cheated.

There are probably a few other’s I could put in — T-ara had one or two good songs, and 2NE1 and Perfume both had one or two more really good songs — but I’ll leave it at a clear ten.

[Edit: Added in Secret at No.7. and Nozomi Sasaki at No.8. Can’t believe I forgot such an adorable pair of little tunes.]

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