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2021 Japan music roundup: HYBRID POP/CLUB/HIP-HOP

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.

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Connect And Receive – Winter 2021 Japan underground picks

As a year-end answer to my earlier summer 2021 mix, I decided to make a follow-up of some of the other Japanese indie and underground music that interested me this year. In tune with the wintry times, this one mostly skirts punk, in favour of various eerie and melancholy shades of experimental music and a few indie bangers. I’ve added Bandcamp links where they exist, and you can listen to the mix here.

Phew – Snow and Pollen
Phew has been not only prolific in recent years, but in perhaps the best form of her career. This opening track off her latest album, New Decade, is a suitably sinister introduction to the album, the times and this wintery mix.

z/nz – Days
Always great to have some new material from this mathy yet always playful Fukuoka-based trio. Taken from the second volume of the Mitohos compilation series, put together by Loolowningen & the Far East Idiots and featuring a solid cross section of contemporary Japanese experimental indie.

Loolowningen & the Far East Idiots – Concorde
As well as their work on the Mitohos series, Loolowningen also put out another new album of their own new material in Pareidolias, which comes quite swiftly after 2020’s Anökumene and continues their journey through surreal landscapes of sparse, intricate arrangements and offbeat melodies.

LeakLeek – China Doll
This track comes from these Nagoya-based psychedelic punks’ new mini-album Leak, which came out from my own Call And Response label at the tail end of the year and sure to kick off a wave of hysterical violin- and saw-led no wave. Look out for members Charley and Kuwayama’s other band Nicfit in the January releases of UK label Upset the Rhythm.

Non Band – Ti’s Worq
Non Band’s 1982 debut has been gaining increasingly broad recognition as a hidden masterpiece of the Japanese punk canon, and they have been gradually becoming more active in recent years, culminating in this second album after nearly a 40 year wait, hanging idiosyncratically between punk, no wave, folk and psychedelia.

So Oouchi / 大内聡 – Niji / 虹
As the vocalist from noise-drenched post-punks Hysteric Picnic/Burg, you’d be forgiven for being surprised that So Oouchi’s first new release in years is an EP of Nick Drake-esque solo acoustic ballads, but as an artist who never had much regard for people’s expectations, it’s still somehow on-brand (and quite lovely).

mmm, Takako Minekawa – Hachigatsu no Mado / 八月の窓
Singer-songwriter mmm (pronounced “me-my-mow”) has been slowly working her way through a series of collaborations with other artists over the past couple of years, working with Shintaro Sakamoto and Oh Shu last year, and this year following it up with songs featuring Takefumi Tsujimura of Kicell and this immersive musical mystery with the wonderful Takako Minekawa.

re:lapse – f
The first of two tracks on this mix from the Dreamwaves shoegaze label, re:lapse released a debut EP this autumn, pushing the dreampop end of the shoegaze spectrum with, all gentle washes of guitar and synth (on this track synth arrangements courtesy of Azusa Suga from dreampop-tinted Tokyo pop band For Tracy Hyde.

softsurf – It’s OK
Also from the Dreamwaves label came Softsurf’s Returning Wave EP, with this song jumping out as what’s essentially a punchy indie-rock anthem, with just enough gliding and fuzz to remind you that it’s shoegaze.

Pulsnug – Turnoff
Given his troubles over the summer, 2021 was probably a bad year to be a massive fan of Cornelius and an even worse one to have built a huge part of your sonic identity around recreating the skittish avant-pop of Fantasma, but Tokyo’s Pulsnug came out with Fanfare for Farewell towards the end of the year anyway, packed with the shamelessly 1990s fun (am I imagining it or is the intro to this song a nod to Blur’s It Could be You?) and nary a scandal to be seen.

Susumu Hirasawa / 平沢進 – Yurei Ressha / 幽霊列車
Since the later days of P-Model, Susumu Hirasawa has been farming this grove of melodramatic synthetic grandeur, and the trees keep growing bigger. His epic appearance at the covid-limited Fuji Rock was one of the highlights for those of us watching at home.

former_airline – The Air Garden
Last year, Tokyo-based bedroom krautwave/dubgaze musician former_airline put out the full album Postcards from No Man’s Land, and he followed it up swiftly with a new self-released EP, with this song a motorik highlight.

Daisei Stockhausen – It’s too late
With roots in older punk-underground bands like The Hasshin Telepathies and Nemo, there’s a bit of Psychic TV to these weirdos, a bit of EBM, a bit of psych-rock, but hard to pin down. It appeared via a split cassette with the always enjoyable Shizuoka punk band Half Kill and it was intriguing stuff.

Buffalo Daughter – Times
There’s always something a bit oblique and out-of-time about Buffalo Daughter, like a band looking at the future from a half-dozen fragmented starting points at various points in the past. In some ways, this track, from their new album that dropped online in September, feels like something lost in the 1990s, but there’s also so much Kraftwerk in there that it starts drawing lines that place it not in a specific time so much as in a (paradoxical) tradition of looking forward. “We are the times” they sing, and sure, but which times?

Greeen Linez – The Call
If Buffalo Daughter’s music often seems to be looking to the future from a variety of starting points in the past, Greeen Linez can be seen as looking to the past of the 1980s from various starting points over the subsequent decades. There’s an affecting sort of romanticism to the duo’s hauntology on this track. Taken from the album Secrets of Dawn.

Seiichi Yamamoto / 山本精一 – Terminal Beach
In a way, a collection of experimental offcuts, underground legend Seiichi Yamamoto’s album Cavinet was a strangely warm and inviting album, like wandering through a series of misty, mysterious landscapes in an old videogame.

Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 – Monologue
Regular favourites of mine, Aichi duo Noiseconcrete x 3chi5 put out a couple of releases this year. One was a sort of hits compilation — a digest of early material — and the other a curious and understated EP on most of which 3chi5’s vocals take a low-key role, but which covered a lot of interesting musical ground.

Her Braids – Midnight Blue
Following on from the lovely song Forest from 2020’s Soko ni Iru indie compilation, this Matsumoto indie trio came out with an equally tender and touching three-song EP in 2021, with this the heartbreaking closing song.

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