2020 was a year in which I both discovered and experienced music primarily from the confines of my home, cut off from the thrill and physicality of the live show and the intangible thread that ties the recording to that experience. I also spent a lot more time and money exploring new releases from overseas this year, which brought their own revelations and frustrations about the strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese music scene. So all that may have added up to me listening to music in slightly different ways last year, while spending most of it locked indoors (live events continued in a limited manner around Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan, but I mostly steered clear, producing a few audience-free shows for live broadcast and curating some home recording projects to raise money for local venues) created its own psychic pull towards both ambient sounds and those that held out the angry promise of parties to come. The slow drip, drip, drip of deaths, some hastened by COVID-19 – Gabi Delgado Lopez, Cristina, Ennio Morricone, Harold Budd, Andy Gill, Tony Allen, among too many others – brought an unintended poignance to some of the new music I heard last year as well.
Meanwhile, Japan embraced online music in a way it had previously been slow to accept, with quiet times in the live scene seeing a lot of Bandcamp releases, either by bands or in the form of compilations put together by struggling venues. Streaming subscription services like Spotify grew too, with some bands seeming to find them a more acceptable partner for the physical releases than Bandcamp, which perhaps has a less professional image to some and threatens to chip into physical sales for others. For what it’s worth, I’m resistant to Spotify’s model of making us all unpaid salespeople, driving listeners to their service, so if you want to find any of this music there, you can search it yourself and enjoy at your leisure, but the only links here are basically going to be Bandcamp or sometimes YouTube. I know it’s annoying, but carrying all these snotty, impotent principles about ownership of music infrastructure is annoying for me too, so live with it as I have to. Ha.
Anyway, on with the countdown.
30. Limited Express (Has Gone?) – The Sound of Silence
Limited Express (Has Gone?) are are by now reliably deranged mainstays of the Japanese punk and underground scene, and this short mini-album or long EP is a welcome check-in with some new material from the band, its breakneck, easily-distracted, chatterbox party-punk coming quite comfortably off the back of their last full-length, 2016’s All Ages. The title of the album comes from the Simon and Garfunkel hit of the same name, which might seem like an odd reference for a frantic punk whirlwind like Limited Express, but they nonetheless tackle the song with a surprisingly straight cover to close the album. Whatever their reason, it hangs poignantly in the midst of the personal isolation and closed venue doors that many in the music scene find themselves dealing with (although Limited Express themelves have been one of the more energetic bands on the circuit in hurling themselves into shows where possible). The song’s lyrics also speak to an undercurrent of political voices that are increasingly unsatisfied with being unheard on a range of issues as the pandemic crisis persists, which may point to interesting times ahead as the music scene in Japan reassembles itself.
29. Ziguezoy – Cherish Your Teeth
Sitting somewhere between European minimal synth letter-jumbles like NDW, EBM etc. and Japanese multicoloured techno candy vomit, Ziguezoy is a theatrical force of nature onstage and an anarchic explosion of megaphone barks, unforgiving mindless beats and anime synth sparkles on record. Cherish Your Teeth revels in cheapness but the broad strokes it daubs these songs in are nonetheless powerful, atmospheric and well balanced, with third track 114,198,239 demonstrating a deceptive subtlety even as the closing Mo-da-finil drags the EP screaming back into defiant DAF territory (Sex Unter Wasser to be specific). More than anything, Cherish Your Teeth is a fierce and gloriously trashy party waiting for us whenever we escape from pandemic times.
28. Takeshi Yamamoto – Gaslight
A more focused effort than his 2019 solo album Somewhere, Gaslight’s ideas radiate out confidently through four long tracks rather than its predecessor’s fragmented collection of ideas. As a result, it loses some of the appeal found in those two-minute ambient quirks but instead, those little ideas now glow and resonate in bolder-strokes as Yamamoto develops each into a richer and more encompassing embrace, still both delicate and simple. There are people doing more elaborate and technically intricate things with ambient and drone in the Japanese underground, but the shimmering warmth of Gaslight appeals precisely because of how plain and unembroidered it is.
27. LLRR – < = >
The six songs of this EP make for a release that’s short and sharp yet never repetitive, intricately and precisely structured yet explosively energetic. With origins that share ex-members with similar bands like Otori and O’Summer Vacation, there’s a familial resemblance in the manic, shrieking art-punk nuggets they produce, and it’s done superbly here. The only problem with < = > is that it’s currently more of a streaming services thing rather than something you can own (update: just found that Japanese download site Ototoy sells it, as does iTunes, so you can at least own a digital version if you hunt it down). Fingers crossed for a physical edition this year though, because this is marvellous.
26. Forbear – 10songs
Perhaps the sweetest, sharpest and most to-the-point Japanese indie rock album of the year, 10songs rides the line between Bob Mouldesque (Bob Mouldy?) punk-derived fuzzy pop-rock and shoegaze through its run of scuzzy, hook-laden, two-and-a-half-minute nuggets.