Tag Archives: Pop Office

CAR-84 – V/A: Dancing After 1AM

Dancing After 1AM

CD, Call And Response, 2012

This is part of a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.

As 2012 rolled around, I started thinking it was time to do a new compilation. It had been four years since my last one, the Post Flag Wire covers album, and obviously I’d discovered a load more bands since then and picked up new audiences along with them, so it was time to lay down another marker about where Call And Response was. I settled on the title Dancing After 1AM in response to Japan’s absurd anti-dancing laws that saw a bunch of club owners arrested in 2011 and 2012, and completely devastated the club scene in Osaka. In Tokyo we weren’t affected, but on tour in Kyushu you could see the poisonous effect it had had on the club scene there. I added the subtitle “Japanese electric music in the year 2012” as a way of instantly dating it, and then wrote some text in Japanese for the sidecap/obi strip reading “Compilation albums are a waste of time because they’re already out of date as soon as they’re released”. I did a little illustration of a dancing policewoman with a hippy flower in her hair and N’toko contributed by designing the sleeve around my drawing. I kept it to Japanese bands, which meant the design was his only contribution, but I tried to get all the other bands from the label involved. Praha Depart were very much doing their own thing by this point though, and when I mentioned it to them, they gave the impression that it would be difficult to get any new recordings done. Zibanchinka agreed to do something and then promptly imploded, but vocalist Iguz was keen to keep things moving with her new band Futtachi, who contributed a thundering psychedelic monster of a track in Kaiko no Oto. (One other band I really wanted to get on the album was the brilliant blues/Krautrock band Buddy Girl and Mechanic, but they were absorbed in the recording of their own album, which they released finally in early 2013 and was one of the best albums of the year, so they obviously used the time well.) Neither Mir nor Hyacca had released anything for a long time, so getting them involved was essential for more than just their role as the heart and soul of the label. They both needed a kick up the arse to get on and do something. Mir had lost their drummer somewhere between their recording of Wire’s Mannequin for 2008’s Post Flag and 2010 when some electronic recordings they’d done as a duo emerged. It was from these sessions that the version of their perennial closing number Dance (which naturally closed out the album too) came from. I chose that over their excellent 2010 version of the song TV partly because of its appropriateness to the compilation’s title, and partly because Mir’s TV is a song I’ve over the years become very superstitious about. it’s a beautiful song and the 2010 version of it is brilliant, but there’s a sadness at its heart that starts sucking you into itself the more you think about it, and the closing refrain of “Sayonara, sayonara” feels way too much like tempting fate. In Hyacca’s case, the bassist, Seiji Harajiri, was by this time managing the coolest and best venue in Fukuoka, Yakuin Utero, and so he and his band used Utero and its PA engineer to record a new song, Uneko. Uneko was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for from them, both catchy and musically intelligent — the exact right balance of smart and dumb that only they can really pull off in this particular way. The video we later made for it where I filmed them with a cheap pocket camera just goofing around and getting drunk in a karaoke box was actually one of the spare ideas for Zibanchinka that their indefinite hiatus had left us with, and Hyacca attacked it with gusto. Looking to the label’s future, Hysteric Picnic went on to record an EP/mini album for Call And Response, while hopefully Jebiotto and Slow-Marico will follow in one form or another.Hyacca: Uneko There were a lot of other bands on DA1AM who were in similar positions, having been out of the recording game for a while and happy for the opportunity (and the deadline) that the compilation gave them. Extruders had just recorded a wonderful live album at a Buddhist temple, and were looking to go into the studio to record an album proper soon (the result, Colors, was another of 2013’s best) and so they came up with Collapsing New Buildings (translate it into German and see what you get) with its constant electric buzz running through the whole song in the background, causing me and the friend who was helping make the master copy to spend a while debating whether it was intentional or not (it was). The Mornings’ debut had been my album of the year back in 2011, and they were just starting to put together material for the follow-up (Christ alone knows what’s going on with that — I heard a full album’s worth of rough mixes last summer but no final version has yet emerged) so Fu-ji was what got them back into gear. Puffyshoes contributed the short and sweet girl-group garage rocket Oh My God, went on to have a busy 2013 and released a great cassette album before exploding in a shower of unfulfilled potential, while Otori recorded the brilliant Hanten (which is their best song and I’m incredibly smug that I got it), Anisakis did the XTC-esque Popcorn Bata ni Kuroi Kage, She Talks Silence gave the album the eerie Long Ways, and New House did the sampledelic Natural Blessings (the last song to arrive, just a couple of days before the album went off to press, and which much to my shame I misprinted as “Nature Blessings” on the jacket — and which also ensured I’d be an insufferable grammar nazi come time to print the Hysteric Picnic CD jacket the following year).She Talks Silence: Long Ways The main problem was in knowing exactly what was going to be on the album, and as with the New House track, right up until the final day or so it wasn’t completely fixed. It wasn’t just a problem for printing the track listing, but also for the CD itself. Bands like Futtachi and macmanaman delivered songs that ran to over seven minutes, and at one point there was real danger of it becoming a double album (I went as far as making an alternative track list where I worked out how the tracks would divide over two discs just in case). There were also moments where tensions ran a bit high. New House didn’t make a fuss over the mistake on the jacket, but one of the other bands (no, I’m not naming names: they did a very good song and it didn’t turn into any kind of feud) was very particular about every aspect of how they wished to be presented with tempers flaring on both sides. The problem of projects like this where everyone (myself included) is working pro bono is that you never have the cushion of money to fall back on, so everything comes down to self satisfaction, and often in a related sense to pride. In a small society like the indie/underground scene, however, the axiom of “don’t piss people off” is a solid general rule. It’s a contradiction of rock’n’roll and punk: both bands and labels are in it in the first place because they’re in some way dissatisfied or disaffected, but within the circle you find yourself, you often have to keep under control the same impulses that led you there in the first place. In addition to Hyacca, fellow Fukuoka crazies macmanaman (the best band named after a twinkle-toed former Liverpool winger in the whole world) recorded a live version of their song Michael, which I retitled Michael in Utero partly because it was recorded at a venue called Utero and partly because the combination of a Michael Jackson reference and a Nirvana reference amused me. Along with Tokyo postpunk trio Tacobonds’ superb Ane with its deft boy-girl vocal call and response (by now you must know how I dig that sort of thing) and slowly building dynamic tension, that made three superb recordings at Utero by the same engineer. You want to do good recordings cheap? Get yourself your own live venue and get the staff to do it.Tacobonds: Ane Still in Kyushu, Kobayashi Dorori and cynicalsmileisyourfavorite from Kumamoto are also on there. The former contributed an oddball nursery rhyme about whales called Shepherd, while the latter contributed the baffling Carnival. I’m still not sure what I think of Carnival now. It has so much going on, with the insistent dance beat, the post-hardcore shrieking, and you’ve got to admire the balls of the way the one guy just throws everything he’s got into his bit of the vocal melody with zero regard for whether he even gets close to the right notes. But at the same time, cynicalsmileisyourfavorite are one of those bands that are all about what happens in the moment. Carnival is usually a chaotic babble of freshly improvised nonsense, but for the recording they tried to work something out and make a proper song of it, and so while the results are, well, they’re something, they’ don’t quite sound like the band when they’re just left to be themselves. Jebiotto are a very similar kind of band in that regard, but their track, Deacon Punk, with its mad cat meows, dirty synths and semi-inebriated sounding vocals, treads that path more assuredly. But like I said, with cynicalsmile you can’t not admire the sheer weight of passion they hurl at it and for some reason I always come out of hearing Carnival with a smile on my face. I’m just not sure why.The Mornings: Fu-ji One of the biggest motivating factors for me while putting DA1AM together was the existence of Nagoya label Knew Noise’s wonderful Ripple compilation of local Nagoya bands. Throughout the production process I was listening to Ripple and my gradually forming compilation and comparing them. I would just not be beaten by this collection from one mere city (and not even Tokyo!) Pop-Office contributed to both Ripple and DA1AM, and it’s interesting that both they and Extruders off this CD went on to make albums for Knew Noise. In any case, both albums to me seem to come from a similar kind of taste, and I’ve been keen to make more connections in Nagoya ever since. On the current rate, Call And Response’s next proper compilation is due towards the end of 2015, which will be just in time for the label’s ten year anniversary. In the meantime, there were new Mir and Hysteric Picnic releases to think of.

Dancing After 1AM is available now from Call And Response’s online shop.

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Top 20 Releases of 2013: No.14 – V/A – Dead Funny Compilation Vol.1

2013 saw a glut of new indiepop and shoegaze releases, and many of those were on the new Fukuoka-based label Dead Funny Records. This compilation can in a way stand for all of them, featuring as it does pretty much all the movers and shakers (or “standers and starers” as the case may be) in the world of Japanese 80s throwback indie guitar music. Highlights abound but standing out above all others is the gorgeous The Blind by Fukuoka’s Hearsays, with a guitar riff that hints at Happy End’s Kaze wo Atsumete, simple, catchy and affecting vocals, and a faintly dissonant underlying chord sequence.

But pop nuggets abound in Dead Funny Compilation Vol.1, with further highlights being Jappers’ jangly, uptempo Give It, Talk’s opening In Refrain Refrain, Old Lacy Bed’s Little Girl and The Paellas’ reverbtastic Fall Even Further. On the more feedback-heavy side, Nagoya’s Pop-Office have a winner with the driving, fuzz-soaked End of the Summer, The Earth Earth are another standout with the punky Empty Boy rather less of an obvious and direct My Bloody Valentine ripoff than some of their other material, and Azma Shoegaze Explosion’s (now just known as Azma) immense Thousand Lights a mind-shattering gut-punch of sound. Not quite fitting into either category is the Nephogram by Fancy Books, with its synth-led arrangement and distant vocals giving the compilation a bit of unexpected but nonetheless welcome Trembling Blue Stars-style romance.

Many of the tracks are incredibly rough, with the mix of Half Sports’ entry in particular almost indecipherable, but in many cases this serves to simply emphasise the naive charm that is such a point of appeal for much of this kind of music.

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Top 20 releases of 2013: Intro

I’ve put off doing this for plenty long enough, so before January ends, I’d like to get started on counting down my top releases by Japanese or Japan-based artists of 2013. As with previous years, I’m basically sticking to releases with three or more tracks, I’m not imposing any particular genre restrictions although given this blog’s focus, it’s obviously going to be more or less entirely indie-biased. In addition, it’s obviously limited to albums that I’ve had a good listen to, and finally, this list and ranking is entirely subject to my own whims and on a different day might look totally different.

This means that singles like Merpeoples’ excellent Silent Sleep and Miu Mau’s (last year’s top placed band) magnificent Monochrome/Spring 7-inch aren’t included. It also means that Hikashu, who released two albums this year if we include the one they did with Charan Po Rantan, don’t feature simply because I haven’t had a chance to listen to any of their new material yet. Likewise I can’t assess Fukuoka indie quartet the Hearsays who I’ve been very excited about for a long time, Yokohama postpunk weirdniks Sayuu, and Tokyo indiepopsters Boyish (who featured last year) because I haven’t copies of their albums.Sugardrop: Breeze Flower

Because I decided to keep this list as a strict Top 20, there were a few albums by bands I very much like that I didn’t have space to include. On another day they might have been in there, and they remain highly recommended, so Pop-Office’s Portraits in Sea is one well worth checking out, as is Ykiki Beat’s Tired of Dreams. Hotel Mexico’s Her Decorated Post Love was another fine album that didn’t make the cut but on another day likely would have and if you haven’t heard it, you should go out and do that right now, as you should Sugardrop’s superb, shoegazetastic Yeah Right. As I said earlier, there’s a strong indie bias to this list, and while Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Momoiro Clover Z both put out genuinely good and highly recommended albums, neither album really stuck with me enough to warrant a place among my top 20 of the year. Sakanaction also put out another very good album and remain consistently the best “mainstream” Japanese rock band, but somehow their stuff still doesn’t quite jive with me the way I feel it should. It’s a top notch album, brimming with creativity and thoroughly deserving of its massive sales and huge popularity, but I don’t know. It’s a model example of an album that does everything right and shows signs of maybe even being a classic, but doesn’t make my heart sing the way my real favourites did. It’s good so listen to it and a lot of you will feel it in a way I just can’t quite. It’s not you, Sakanaction, it’s me.Sakanaction: Yoru no Odoriko

Last of all, and again as with previous years, I’m obviously not including albums I released myself through my Call And Response label, which means the brilliant Я не могу без тебя (“Ya ne mogu bez tebya”, or “I can’t live without you”) by Mir and Hysteric Picnic’s fantastic Cult Pops are out of contention, although of course both would be right up near the top if I were honest about my feelings for them.

Anyway, now that you’re primed, I’ll be starting the countdown from tomorrow, so get ready.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Pop-Office, “Good Morning”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a beautifully crafted slice of old-school indie rock from Nagoya.

Discussion of Japanese music tends to automatically gravitate towards the twin fringes of avant-garde experimentalism and day-glo, candy-coloured pop excess and it’s natural that when looking for music from a country, the artists that stand out are the ones that seem to exhibit something distinct and unique about that place. Pop-Office, on the other hand, are a solid indie rock band like what they used to make in the 90s, and Good Morning, taken from the group’s new album Portraits in Sea, is an instantly familiar example of the form, the fuzzy guitars growling at you from the get-go like Yo La Tengo’s Sugarcube and vocalist Ryuhei Shimada’s melancholy baritone vocals revealing echoes of Pop-Office’s roots in Joy Division-influenced postpunk.

For all the undoubted similarities with 1990s US alt-rock, this is also a song with roots in Japan’s own indie culture. Pop-Office hail from a generation of kids who grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s when the ultra-sophisticated but also clinical and style-obsessed Shibuya-kei movement was coming to a close and guitar bands like Number Girl and Supercar were taking imagination of Japanese youth by the scruff of the neck, and Supercar’s epic shoegaze debut album, 1998’s Three Out Change, is clearly a bible for Pop-Office, with the rough guitar textures, desultory vocals and wistful melody in particular recalling early single Cream Soda.

There are hints, especially in the shifting drum patterns, of a band equally comfortable exploring more progressive musical territory, but at heart Good Morning is the sort of straightforward indie rock that supports itself not on pushing back boundaries but on a core of solid musicianship and melodic songwriting. Pop-Office demonstrate a skill in tweaking those notes of familiarity at the back of your mind, which is something it’s rare to find done well in a music scene where the best and most interesting material is more often the music that pushes the hyperactive extremes than that which satisfies the simpler, more nostalgic rock needs.

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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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Top 20 Releases of 2012: No.2 – V/A– Ripple

I’ve written about this Nagoya bands compilation album extensively, with a Japan Times review, an accompanying blog post, and a mention in my review of the year, so there’s little extra to add, but two small points come to mind. Firstly, I love compilations. Secondly, and related, I love finding out rich seams of new music that I hadn’t known existed before. Ripple introduced me to bands like Dororonica, Freedom, and Free City Noise, as well as giving me excellent new tracks from Pop-Office and Sekaitekina Band (their contribution, New, also appears in a re-recorded form on 51 Records’ split album Underrated).

While Ripple includes more melodic tracks like The Moments’ lovely indiepop janglefest Shining Eyes and Yoshito Ishihara’s yojohan folk style New Mexico Midnight Cowboy No.1 (I don’t wanna be killed by your romance any more), fundamentally Ripple is a punk album. It’s also the best punk album to come out of Japan this year, and it set down an essential marker in terms of quality and style for me in the organising and selecting of music for my own compilation album, which I put out later the same year.

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Strange Boutique Review of 2012 (December 2012)

The last Strange Boutique of the year is up on The Japan Times web site now. As is usually the case with my December columns, it’s a review of the year, and like most of my December columns, it’s fairly downbeat. In the past, I think I’ve tended to blame the dead-end path that J-Pop seems set in on the conservatism of the music industry and their top-down, “This Is How It Is Done” attitude, but I think the audience need to take some of the blame too. Sony have been trying to push MiChi for years with little result, and while it’s very possible that they’ve just mis-marketed her, fans got every possible chance to hear Therapy and still it did nothing.

I suspect there might be a bit of groupthink among the foreign journalists in Japan who went mad over MiChi this year, due perhaps to us all really wanting it to be good and maybe hearing the sharp, sparkly, modern production without really noticing that the tunes it was wrapped around were very conventional, but in a market where Ikimono Gakari count as a proper, important pop band, sounding conventional is precisely what artists like MiChi are supposed to do, and the fact that she did it while still sounding modern marks Therapy as a big creative achievement. The worst thing about it is that its failure is probably going to make Sony even less willing to experiment in the future.

I was a bit cynical about Momoiro Clover Z, although any regular readers of this blog will know that I love them to bits. It’s true, however, that the values projected by their image are really retrogressive. They performed their Budokan “Onna Matsuri” girls-only show (don’t ask how I got in there!) under a massive Japanese flag and when they bow to the audience, their noses practically scrape the floor, in an exaggerated parody of the kind of old-fashioned values Japan is supposedly losing touch with. On a parallel but I suspect related note, 2012 was the first year since the 90s that the number of people saying in opinion polls that women should stay at home while their husbands worked has risen above 50%. What makes them interesting is the way they ride a wave of nostalgia at the same time that they fuck with it.

It’s in the indie world that the best stuff came out, as always, despite (or more likely because of) the fact that no one makes any money out of it. Shugo Tokumaru’s In Focus? was just uniformly excellent and I have yet to find anyone who disagrees. He’s the closest thing this generation of Japanese musicians has to a bona fide genius, and he manages to make pop music in the classic tradition of people like Eiichi Ohtaki, while taking the arrangements way further, incorporating all manner of musical instruments and diverging into the sort of mad, cut-up musical squiggles that made Plus-tech Squeeze Box so exciting.

There’s also a shout-out in there to one of my favourite albums of the year, Knew Noise Records’ Ripple compilation of Nagoya punk and indie bands. There’s hardly any information about any of these bands on the Web, and there are hardly any decent quality video clips on YouTube, so this is ultra-core stuff, but it shouldn’t be. There’s a preview of the album on Knew Noise’s Soundcloud, but this one of the wonderful Pop-Office is one of the better ones, despite the weak guitar sound.

The rest of what I have to say is mostly said in the main article. I could have added that Sony finally made their catalogue available on iTunes, which is long overdue and shows they might finally be getting it, although their insistence on calling promo videos “MV”s (“music videos”), while only a subtle difference, suggests an organisation still living in fear of YouTube and not even letting videos do their basic, original purpose of promoting the music. Universal’s decision to make Perfume’s music available internationally and the limited success of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu abroad are noteworthy, but both are artists I’ve written a lot about before (I’ll probably have something to say about Kyary when it comes to my “albums of the year” posts).

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V/A: Ripple

There’s a review I wrote of Knew Noise Records’ excellent new Ripple compilation of contemporary Nagoya indie and postpunk music in The Japan Times now, so please pop over there and check it out.

Here, I’m just going to add a few things that there wasn’t really enough space to go into over on the JT piece. Firstly, to expand on the comparison with the 7586 Nagoya Rock series, I feel that Ripple is kind of being pitched as a sort of “export-ready” compilation, focussing on bands who are going to be, or at least sound, familiar to non-Nagoya audiences. These are the kinds of bands that could support a good, offbeat, John Peel style UK indie band on the Nagoya date of a small Japan tour or that could satisfy a small crowd of Tokyo indie hipsters. It generally avoids the really esoteric, psychedelic or quirky acoustic stuff and keeps centred on stuff that satisfies some wider, more generic kind of cool. A compilation that says, “Look, Nagoya can do this too!” rather than, “Look what Nagoya can do that you all can’t!”

This isn’t a criticism, and in fact it’s something that’s close to what I try to do with my own music promotion activities in Japan. There’s enough stuff that sells itself on its quirkiness and wackiness, and Japanese music is already cursed enough by the perception of its pop culture as mad and (ugh) inscrutable, so it’s good that there’s someone out there showing that Nagoya participate in national indie pop culture on a level playing field with Tokyo, Fukuoka, Kyoto etc. just as I would hope that Japan itself can compete with the UK, US etc. on those same terms. Sure, express your uniqueness, but don’t wall yourself in. This compilation is a small but important part of maintaining that balance.

One reason it all hangs together so well, I suspect, is that so many of the bands share musicians. There seems to be some kind of crossover between various members of Nicfit, Free City Noise, Sika Sika, 6eyes and Dororonika at least, and those bands are very much at the core of what makes this album tick.

There are some bands that I didn’t mention, so sorry Dororonica but your track was a great piece of raw, uncompromising, jazz-inflected prog-punk, reminding me a bit of fellow Aichi punk-noise types The Act We Act. Jubilee’s track was a solid piece of high-octane punk too.

I drew a contrast between the 80s UK-style indiepop of The Moments and the 70s Japanese-style folk music of Yoshito Ishihara. You can hear The Moments’ track on their Soundcloud, here:
And you can get some idea of Ishihara’s more rambling, freeform style in this rather distant live clip recorded at London’s Cafe Oto:

Possibly my two favourites from this were Freedom and Free City Noise, and I was able to track down some interesting clips of them. This one of Freedom doesn’t feature their track from Ripple, but it’s interesting in its own right. Experimental and imaginative, but still fun and approachable.

Freedom: Noise Disco

It’s certainly reminiscent of Kansai stuff like Afrirampo and particularly the kind of thing Ni-Hao! were doing six or seven years ago, but it’s carried off with aplomb and a lot of charm.

Free City Noise have a full half-hour set online and it really is very good, as long as you take “very good” as meaning “exactly the same as Sonic Youth”, which let’s face it, is as comprehensive a definition as you’ll ever need.

Free City Noise live at Bar Ripple (appropriately)

I say in the review that Ripple makes a good jumping-off point for some of the other bands in Nagoya and Aichi, and you can find out about some of them in a pair of articles I wrote for The Japan Times last year. I’ve also written about Pop Office on this blog twice, so check those out too.

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Top 20 albums/EPs of 2011 (numbers 11-20)

It’s taken me a while to get round to posting this, partly because there were a few CDs I heard only towards the end of the year and I needed time to digest them, partly because I’m lazy, and partly because I spend so much time out at gigs that I don’t really listen to as many CDs as I thought I did. This is by no means meant to be a definitive list of what’s good in Japan — there were loads of albums this year that I didn’t hear — think of it more as a critically compiled list of what passed through my hearing range last year. I’ve included a few pop albums where I thought what was going on was particularly interesting, but despite my frequent writings on J-pop and K-pop over the last year or so, I don’t think there are many mainstream pop groups in Japan whose actual albums I rate. Kara’s album was appalling, perhaps even more so than AKB48, who at least have never shown any capacity to make music of even the most infinitesimal quality, the T-ara album was great for the first four tracks but sucked after that, Perfume’s album was half a good album but half meh, The Kyary Pamyupamyu mini-album was good and only just missed out. The Sakanaction album was good too, but again, I couldn’t quite justify to myself counting it as a particular favourite. It’s a personal list and therefore subject to all my usual biases and musical prejudices.

I’ve counted both EPs, albums and mini-albums in here since defining the boundaries between them can be difficult at the best of times and Japanese underground bands make it impossible (Pq’s Hausdorff has ten tracks and comes in at eight minutes, another CD in the list has three songs at double that length, and so on). Obviously I’ve not included albums from Call And Response Records since I run the label, so Zibanchinka’s (excellent, natch) Hatsubai Chushi has to sit this one out.

I’ll post the top ten when I get back from Kyushu on Monday, but here’s the countdown from numbers 20 to 11:

20. Kobayashi Dorori: Yarukoto Yattara Kaette yo

Notable for the way the group released this EP with an accompanying erotic manga drawn by the guitarist, Kobayashi Dorori strike an appealing balance between an undoubted tendency towards pop culture geekery that occasionally manifests itself through eccentric lyrical diversions and poker-faced erotic imagery, spiky, Gang of Four-influenced postpunk guitar, and melodies that sometimes nod towards the girly punk-pop of Chatmonchy and their ilk (apologies, but there are practically no decent recordings of them on YouTube or elsewhere on the Web) without compromising the songs’ essentially stripped down natures. The delivery is so dry that it’s hard to tell how serious they’re being throughout most of it (my guess: not very) but that only adds another layer of intrigue to a band that’s already ambiguous on plenty of levels.

19. Siamese Cats: Gum

First up, I’m not usually a fan of these kinds of melodic Japanese indie rock bands. I tend to find them simultaneously not poppy enough to make good, shameless bubblegum pop fun and not aggressive and experimental enough to satisfy on a more harsh and physical level. Nevertheless, this debut mini-album by Tokyo’s Siamese Cats genuinely did impress me with its sometimes Dylanesque melodies, freewheeling approach to rhythm patterns and occasional diversions into the outlying foothills of psychedelia.

18. 2NE1: Nolza/2nd Mini-Album

Yes, they’re a Korean group, but they had an official Japanese release this year (that differed from the Korean version only through the omission of Park Bom vocal showcase Don’t Cry, which was a ballad and therefore doesn’t count) and in any case, Korean music is promoted and sold as an adjunct to J-Pop rather than as “foreign music” (check which floor the K-Pop is displayed on in Shinjuku or Shibuya Tower Records). This mini-album would have made it onto the list thanks to the bonkers Dutch-electro-Bollyhouse-whatever of I Am the Best alone, although Hate You is a fine piece of synthpop in its own right and even annoyingly earnest pop-rock singalongs like Ugly have either an arresting lyrical bite or some interesting synth bleeps and bloops or both. The acoustic guitar-led Lonely is complete crap, but let’s just pretend that never happened.

17. Miila and The Geeks: New Age

Miila and The Geeks’ first full album had a struggle on its hands extending their sparse guitar/drums/sax sound over fourteen tracks and keeping it interesting, but they make a little go a long way, building each song around a single idea and then clinging to it for the whole two minute running time before moving onto the next one. This, along with the minimal, repetitive lyrics, means that while the sound is deliberately scuzzy and uncompromising, there’s always a easily graspable hook to snare the listener. It’s also hugely indebted to bands like Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, and the problem with this kind of music is that when it so obviously harks back to the postpunk era, it sets itself up for potentially unflattering comparisons with genuinely the revolutionary bands of the past. So yeah, while New Age is no Pink Flag and vocalist Moe’s playful, apolitical lyrics lack any of Lydia Lunch’s politically charged rage and gravitas (she has a lot of fun running through the alphabet on Alphabed but it’s hard to imagine her singing lines like “Suburban wealth and middle class wellbeing / All it did was strip my feelings” or “I woke up bleeding / You are my razor”), musically it stands up pretty well on its own, and certainly among those at the forefront of the group’s peers.

CD, Self-released

16. Pop Office: I Was Killed Here

I’ve written about this here and haven’t much to add. Pop Office do the 80s new wave revival thing that is the stock in trade of bands like Lillies and Remains and Plasticzooms, but they never sound like they’re trying to be anything other than themselves. I like.

 

CD, Self-released

15. Pq: Hausdorff

With ten songs in eight minutes, this self-released CD/R album by Tokyo experimental collective Pq typically dives straight into a song, rattles through a dozen New-York-no-wave-meets-late-Canterbury-scene-psych-punk-with-mumbling musical non sequiturs in the space of about 42 seconds, pauses for a second, and then does it again. On one level, it’s a jangling jumble of disconnected sounds, and yet… and yet… And yet step back and it’s gloriously coherent, sprightly, sparkling with fun and humour. This is what experimental music should be.

CD, Take a Shower Records

14. Bossston Cruizing Mania: Loaded, Lowdead, Rawdead

I’ve written extensively about this album too, so again there’s not much to add. Bossston Cruizing Mania are fierce, aggressive, cynical, funky, occasionally self-indulgent but often devastatingly effective. They make messy, lo-fi postpunk not in tribute to their idols but out of having absorbed, played and lived loud, dirty, uncompromising music for most of their adult lives. This is real, baby.

CD, Contemode

13. capsule: World of Fantasy

Fans are divided over this album, but the critics are wrong. World of Fantasy was fabulous at the time, coming in a blast of club-ready, hedonistic fun just as post-quake Tokyo was looking for escapism, and after nearly a year, it’s still a gloriously stupid, often comically silly record. Nakata told me last year that he’s able to get away with more complex, multilayered ideas with capsule than his work with Perfume which he said needed to have one big idea. Now this may be true as far as his remit goes, but the fact is that World of Fantasy was his big dumb blast of riffs and catchy-yet-meaningless slogans, while JPN was all fiddly (although often interesting) production, and many of the songs’ melodies meandered aimlessly, idly and vainly looking for the big chorus or catchy hook that they needed.

CD, White Lily Records

12. Sloppy Joe: With Kisses Four

Another one that I reviewed last year. Utterly unoriginal, but so shameless about it that it gets a big balls-of-steel award for bravado. Also Still Be a Little Roof is possibly the indiepop song of the year.

CD, Self-released

11. Buddy Girl and Mechanic: 4 Songs Demo

Another self-released CD that did the rounds of the Tokyo indie scene last year. I’m not sure if it was ever even made available on sale or if it was just a promo, but it’s really quite lovely. Brooding, ambient, Lynchian Kraut-blues, with breathy, almost whispered vocals. Opening track Satan’s Son sounds like early Spiritualized or some of Jason Pierce’s material with Spacemen 3, but its when they dive into Can territory, as on the skittering, repetitive, motorik UltraWitchCraftyFab and the abstract funk of Fenix Drops that it really takes off.

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Pop Office: Wait for the Sun

A couple of people have already written about this new song by Nagoya newcomers Pop Office, and I don’t feel that I have much to add except to say that it develops the band’s sound subtly but effectively, with a less obvious 80s influence and more of a nod to shoegaze, while retaining Pop Office’s curious fascination with autotune. In Wait for the Sun, it’s used more as a spot effect with Ryuhei Shimada’s vocals raw and ragged through most of the song. The electronic and synth effects are used sparingly, but just enough that in combination with the shoegazey aesthetic and bittersweet, bleak-yet-uplifting melody and delivery they add up to something rather reminiscent of late-90s/early-2000s alt-rock legends Supercar, in particular that period round the release of Futurama when they were going through a fascinating period of transition from their more rock-orientated early material to their more experimental and electronic work. There’s no particular song I can put my finger on, but in the overall tone and dynamics I can hear echoes of Flava (the minimal, repetitive main melody) and Playstar Vista (the quiet/loud dynamic) and I’m willing to bet a more exhaustive trawl of Supercar’s excellent back catalogue would throw up other reference points. I’m sure Pop Office would deny any direct influence here, but in any case, I think they’ve found themselves at a similar place and really it’s no bad place to be.

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