Tag Archives: Seiko Oomori

Best of 2017 – More great sounds (3) – What does the rest of the internet say?

This site isn’t the only place on the internet that attempts to rank the best Japanese music of the year, and depending on where you look, you can get a very different picture of the music scene. This is of course very right and proper, because the Japanese music scene is broad and diverse, covering every genre you know and dozens you don’t. I’m not going to include any J-Pop-focused sites here, since I don’t really follow any of them, or even know if any of them made year-end rankings, but here are what a few other writers have come up with.

Beehype (top 20)
Beehype gathers new music releases from all over the globe, but it has a discrete Japanese ranking covering the top 20 Japanese music releases of the year. Beehype is probably the best place to go to get a general sense of the kinds of Japanese music the Japanese music consensus is gathering around, with artists like Satoko Shibata, Oomori Seiko and Tricot all making an appearance, although it deviates into a few interesting oddities of its own, like the recent album by Osaka jazz-skronk trio Oshiripenpenz.

Make Believe Melodies (top 50)
part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5
Make Believe Melodies, written by Japan Times writer Patrick St. Michel, tends towards soft-edged dance music and the gentler strains of indiepop and singer-songwriter music, but as the most extensive list among all the Japanese music countdowns here, there’s a fair variety on display around that theme. This list touches on indie-branded idols Maison Book Girl, rapper Zombie-Chang, the manic synth-pop funk of Chai and the pachinko machine noise of Pachinko Machine Music, along with MBM regulars like Taquwami and LLLL.

Muso Japan (best shoegaze and dreampop)
This does exactly what it says on the tin, focusing on shoegaze and dreampop, and while these genres in Japan can encompass slightly different material to what they do in the West, Muso Japan doesn’t stray far from its remit. Having such a narrow focus means that they can dig a little deeper than another site might, singling out material by lo-fi acts like FogPark, and Nurse alongside shoegaze scene veterans like Cruyff in the Bedroom, Shelling and Caucus.

Tokyo Dross (unranked list of 16)
Another list by a Japan Times contributor, this time James Hadfield, whose preferences lean towards more experimental rock and electronic music. There are more crossovers with my list creeping in here, partly because as the Listing Season drew in, we spent some time frantically sharing and picking over each other’s recommendations in private. His decision to include Phew’s Voice Hardcore despite it not being officially released until 2018 is legitimised perhaps by The Wire’s earlier decision to do the same.

Zach Reinhardt
Top 10 EPs & mini-albums

Top 20 albums (20-11)

Top 20 albums (10-1)

Zach’s lists also tend to have a lot of crossover with mine, as I think we both have very similar biases towards skronky art-punk and oddball avant-pop. One key difference is in the appearance of a lot of Call And Response stuff in Zach’s list (P-iPLE, Tropical Death, Looprider and the Throw Away Your CDs… compilation, all of which were disqualified from mine), and perhaps a little more washed-out indiepop/dreampop. Basically, though, if I missed something, it’s highly likely Zach caught it, and vice-versa.

Summary:
For anyone looking for areas of consensus, the crossovers between these various lists throw up a few recurring names. Cornelius’ Mellow Waves appears several times, topping the  Beehype list and getting honourable mentions in a few others, while Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Async, Phew’s Light Sleep, Endon’s Through The Mirror and For Tracy Hyde’s He(r)art were all rated very highly in more than one list. Miu Mau’s Drawing made appearances in most of the lists, while the Throw Away Your CDs Go Out To A Show compilation that I produced made an appearance in every list except my own (disqualified because I made it) and the Muso Japan list (wrong genre), so I feel validated in saying that’s a great record. Elsewhere, She Talks Silence, Crunch, BLONDnewHALF, Hikashu, Tofubeats, Oshiripenpenz, Sapphire Slows, Suiyobi no Campanella, Mondo Grosso, Tricot, Oomori Seiko and Satellite Young all made multiple appearances.

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Strange Boutique (December 2014) – the year in music

As 2014 comes to a close, it’s end-of-year review time, and as usual my Japan Times column took on the task of trying to find new ways of describing the same stuff that happens every year. For those of you who’d rather not read the full 1500-word piece, it goes something like this:

  • Music industry still broadly in decline
  • Record companies still suspicious of online music and streaming
  • Advertising and tie-ups increasingly more important than actual sales
  • Korean music doing better than Japanese music abroad
  • AKB48 not as popular as they were but still pretty much the biggest thing out there

The way I chose to look at it this time round was from the perspective of what some of the key events or trends of the year tell us about who music is really being made for.

With a group like AKB48, there are a lot of intersecting factors at play as they balance the need to please a number of different masters. As one of my always charming commenters was helpful enough to point out, Google Trends isn’t the only, or the best, measure of something’s overall popularity, and of course their sales are still sky-high. Oricon’s recently-published year-end charts give the group all of the top five singles and the number one album in terms of CD sales, although this figure is fishy as well given the marketing gimmicks that surround CD sales in Japan. The top 40 CD singles was dominated by three organisations: Yasushi Akimoto’s AKB family, the Johnny & Associates boyband farm, and perma-tanned, goateed, twats-in-hats boy band Exile. All these acts boost their CD sales with marketing gimmicks aimed at their fanatical core fanbases, and it’s interesting to note that the only act from outside this axis of evil to make the top 40, comedy “air band” Golden Bomber, released their own song in a plain white case with no extras as a protest against this sort of gimmickry (or/and as a gimmick in itself).

What I was looking at in Google Trends was the general, casual interest in AKB48, in particulat the spikes that occur in June every year around “election” time. This is the time people who otherwise wouldn’t care much about the band but have a mild, general interest in them and are generally favourably inclined towards them are more likely to have a look to see what’s going on with them. Throughout the year, point by point, the figures are about one third of their 2011 peak. This doesn’t affect sales because these people never bought AKB CDs anyway, but it does affect advertising. Anyone living in Tokyo these past few years would have noticed the diminishing visibility of the group on billboards, and as a colleague of mine recently pointed out, advertisers have even resorted to labelling the group in adverts so that people know who they are – something usually reserved for new acts the ad agency has hooked up with the tie-ups as part of its deal with their talent agency. But then the turnover of band members ensures that AKB48 are perpetually a new group, and this is the core of their problem for advertisers in 2014: everyone knew Atsuko Maeda, Yuko Oshima, Tomomi Ito, Mariko Shinoda and maybe a couple of others, but people nowadays would struggle to name any of the current lineup.

In terms of my question about who music is for, where AKB48 fans have been successful is that by their enormous expenditure on the group, they have retained a degree of ownership over them. This idea of ownership is perhaps key to the success of the whole idol format: the fans, by their exercise of obsessive degrees of purchasing power, are able to keep the groups “for them” rather than letting them slip entirely into the treacherous hands of advertising. It’s extreme and a bit mad in its degree, and far more focused on “character” consumption than on music listening, but taken in isolation, the principle is admirable.

Looking over at the iTunes charts, we see a very different picture, with a more diverse selection of acts and far less in the way of idol music (as I say, idol otaku aren’t music fans, they’re machines for consuming character goods) but it does serve as a timely warning of what awaits us if the idol boom were to suddenly die. In three words: One OK Rock. In another three words: Sekai no Owari. I have nothing to say to that other than yuck. We can blame the music industry for feeding people shit, but sooner or later, music audiences have to just take responsibility for their own awful taste.

One thing I didn’t have space to mention in the context of the growing prominence of the “national interest” in the use of pop music was Ringo Shiina’s NHK World Cup theme, which was accused in some quarters of being unnecessarily nationalistic. Now I’m not sure what that means in this context – football is pretty much the one arena in which you get a free pass to be as jingoistic, flag-waving and borderline fascist as you want without damaging your liberal softie cred – but given the Abe government’s ongoing efforts to stack NHK’s board with historical revisionists and ignorant propaganda stooges it bears keeping an eye on. As for Shiina herself, who knows? Her whole aesthetic is based around the fact that she loves Japan a lot, and that’s part of her appeal. A bigger problem with the song is that it was a really rubbish song.

In any case, the fact that the government are now openly and explicitly mobilising pop culture to promote their agenda, from the relatively benign Olympics-related let’s-make-ourselves-look-good-for-the-guests stuff to the full-on militarist AKB48 join-the-army-spread-dreams-to-the-world ad campaign bears scrutiny. What are the criteria behind who gets Cool Japan money? If you’re taking that money, have you read the small print? Do you fully understand what other agenda you might be unwittingly hitching yourself to? This may seem a bit paranoid now, but no pop culture exists in a vacuum, and if pop music is being recruited to serve the state, it matters a lot what the extent of the state’s agenda is. I’d feel much more comfortable with Cool Japan is it was completely out of the hands of the government and in the hands of an independent arts council.

Of course indie music is the main purpose of this blog, and 2014 was a particularly fine vintage for music that no one either within Japan or without is ever going to care about. I wrote a bit about this for The Japan Times earlier in December as part of its albums-of-the-year roundup, and I repeated myself using slightly different words as a small part of Néojaponisme’s own year-end roundup. I shan’t go into detail here because I’ll be going into it in painstaking album-by-album depth next month in my personal 2014 top twenty countdown, but particularly for indiepop and fucked-up junk/postpunk/skronk there was a bumper harvest to the point where whittling it down to a mere twenty discs has proven a painful and difficult exercise.

One of the booms in the indie scene this year has been what I tend to dismissively call “funny bands”, with comical and/or performance-orientated acts like Dotsuitarunen, Nature Danger Gang, Guessband and others being ubiquitous. Partly I think this is the flipside of idol music in that if we see indie as a degraded mirror of mainstream entertainment, where girls are pretty idols while men are comedians. As a result, the indie scene subconsciously mimics that format so on the one hand we get Seiko Oomori and on the other we get Triple Fire.

This rise of owarai-type acts like these is something I’m ambivalent about in that on one level it cheapens the indie scene by making it qualitatively not significantly different from the mainstream, but on the other hand, just as I’d listen to AKB48 any day over terrible, “serious” J-pop bands like Kobukuro and Ikimono Gakari, these theatrical, comical indie bands and performers are infinitely preferable to the tediously earnest, sterile technical virtuosity of professional on-stage wankers like Toe.

In my own musical projects, I can pronounce myself largely satisfied with what 2014 gave me. I celebrated the ten year anniversary of my first event with a thrilling Koenji Pop Festival at Higashi Koenji 20000V/Ni-man Den-atsu which was probably the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. The venue is notoriously loud to begin with, and when the PA engineer gets excited, he tends to gradually push everything up and up as the night goes on. By the time headliners Hyacca stepped up, the walls and floor were shaking and the whole experience was just one of sheer, earsplitting rhythmical noise. For me at least in a good way.

Earlier in the year my Call And Response label put out the album Mind Business by Slovenian rapper N’toko, which remains one of the releases I’m proudest of and perhaps the most coherent recorded artistic statement the label has ever put out. I released it on iTunes, probably for the first and last time of anything on my label. I have nothing in particular against Apple, but given what a non-profitmaking venture Call And Response is, iTunes is just not a marketplace where I feel comfortable doing business or able to justify the time and energy. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the online rainbow, just an increasingly grubby race to the bottom in terms of prices and returns. While I enjoy the convenience of online music as a consumer, as a label owner I prefer to deal with customers and vendors in person, even if that means a vanishingly small number of them. The N’toko tour in March confirmed a lot of those feelings for me, and while it had its ups and downs in terms of crowds, there were far more ups, and experiencing it all in person was its own justification and reward for the effort putting it all together took.

Other releases I put out or helped put out over the course of the year were February’s free compilation 「チョコくれるのはいいが・・・、何を企んでるんだぁぁ!?!?」 featuring 21 different bands covering the song Paranoid by Black Sabbath. I will hopefully top that for completely stupid and pointless free covers projects by the end of next year or at most the year after. The summer also saw the albums Tane to Zenra by Kagoshima psychedelic band Futtachi and Love Song Duet by Tokyo synth-punk trio Jebiotto. Both of these are albums that would on their own musical merits certainly make it into my personal top albums of the year list if I admitted Call And Response releases for contention in those things, but I don’t so they won’t.

There’s already plenty to look forward to next year, with Extruders and Sayuu/Sa Yuu planning new albums for early in the new year. Going a little more mainstream, Capsule have a new album due out soon, albeit alarmingly EDMish judging from the sounds currently emerging from chez Nakata. With Call And Response Records entering its tenth anniversary year, I personally intend to be a busy bee putting out a string of truly horrible releases lab-grown to be the opposite of everything popular in Japanese music right now.

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Strange Boutique (August 2014)

Seiko Oomori is a good contender for the breakout star of the year, and she’s someone who is worth paying attention to for a lot of reasons. She seems like the sort of person who would crankily dismiss any attempt to draw any meaning out of what she is and does, but that needn’t stop us.

For a start, nothing happens in a vacuum, and when you’re a musician from one sort of background (weirdo Koenji avant-folk shrieking stuff) and you appropriate imagery and sonic affectations from another (idol music), you’re playing a game with meanings no matter how hard you protest that “I just like the clothes and enjoy the music!” For a start, one question is “Why?” Indie and idol music never used to cross paths, so why has it suddenly become so easy?

Well, one reason is money, or more specifically marketing. There’s a widespread disaffection with J-Pop, and idol culture, by marketing based on character rather than music, offers an easy way to market alternatives to the bland mainstream. Oomori’s music has been a vehicle for a lot of different indie musicians, with Lailailai Team having backed her in the past, and her current band The Pink Tokarev generously stacked with musicians from the Tokyo indie scene’s current “funny bands” mini-boom. Much as she may protest her position as a discrete entity just following her muse, Seiko Oomori is also the poster girl for the fixation a significant part of the Japanese indie scene has with idol culture.

Still though, she’s not really an idol. It’s not her background, and her music is still singer-songwriter music dressed in the production tropes of idol music. She presents an unhinged image in her videos, she rants and raves at her fans via her blog, and at a recent festival she crowdsurfed up to one of the audience members and snogged him in front of the whole crowd, purportedly as revenge for the infidelities of her significant other. So is this subversion of idol music then?

The word “subversive” gets tossed around too easily with too little thought for what it actually means, so that’s what I discussed in my August (I like to think in both senses of the word) column for The Japan Times. Have a read of it here, because I’m not going to summarise the whole argument again.

Done that? Good, because the rest of this post assumes you’re familiar with what it discusses.

OK, so just a few days after my article was published, Oomori was in the news again after an interview she did published on music web site Natalie led to her making a few troubling remarks about feminism. The interviewer suggested that in contrast to the male-manipulated world of most idol music, by taking control of her own work she could be a role model for women and girls in the music scene. Her reaction was to flatly reject this and defensively disassociate herself from feminism in any way, even to the point of denying that discrimination exists.

Now this is patently bullshit as should be obvious to anyone with a basic familiarity with Japanese society, but in the context of my column it made more sense. Oomori isn’t interested in society and wants no part of it. She’s been able to do what she wants, and even thinking about the context of that (Why does she want to do those things? Would it have been as easy for her if she had wanted to do something less easily marketable?) is an imposition. Her attitude is basically, “I’m not going to play.”

And that’s an attitude that you see in a lot of the more popular indie acts now: a focus on the details at the expense of the narrative. You see it in the willfully blank, repetitive, comedic nonsense-poetry of Triple Fire, in the goofy, good-humoured, bedsit manchild schtick of Guessband (possibly not coincidentally one of the recruiting sources of Pink Tokarev members), and in the brash, anarchic, cosplay techno performance nudity of Nature Danger Gang. These acts might all be coming from different places, cosmically speaking, but their appeal has coalesced around a very similar kind of audience (primarily in the Shinjuku area and let’s face it, probably a reader of Trash Up! magazine). Where the previous underground generation bands who are now elder statesmen of the scene — groups like Panicsmile, Bossston Cruizing Mania, Groundcover. — tend to evoke a sense of individual details as invariably bound up with some wider world (Panicsmile’s excellent recent album Informed Consent encapsulates a lot of this even in just its title), a large part of what appeals to audiences now is in picking up on and identifying with details that resonate with the minutiae of fans’ lives without alluding to any wider context — or just simply absorbing yourself in funny nonsense.

This is the point where people usually chime in with “But what’s wrong with that? Why should everything have to mean something all the time? Why can’t stuff just be fun?” (Admit it, you actually had that thought somewhere a couple of paragraphs back, didn’t you?) Well, firstly I’m not sure that right and wrong has anything to do with this; it’s first and foremost an observation of how a noticeable section of the music scene seems to behave, although I shan’t pretend it doesn’t make me uncomfortable. But to respond to this string of hypothetical questions on their own terms, I could perhaps say that of course stuff doesn’t need to mean something all the time, but I’d point out that in the greater music ecosystem, stuff that’s not about anything and just wants to have fun has never in my lifetime been an endangered species to begin with. It’s the stuff that does grapple with the world for meaning that is in short supply and the indie and underground scenes have traditionally been the place you’d go to find that stuff. To get that answer, you’d need to look at the wider context though, and as we’ve seen, a lot of people just don’t want to do that.

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Guardian Song of the Week: Seiko Oomori, “Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu”

This week’s pickup for The Guardian’s music from around the world guest blogging series is a new song by an artist who crosses boundaries between subcultures and is now starting to get mainstream attention too.Seiko Oomori: Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu

Between the dirty basements of the underground scene and the sparkly fantasyland of idol music there is a genuine area of crossover. Both are essentially subcultures, cut off in slightly different ways from the mainstream of Japanese pop culture, and there has been a growth in recent years of fans who are not into indie or idol music per se but are more accurately defined as fans of subculture in general. Perhaps recognising this, it’s become a common sight to find idol singers adopting elements of indie and underground culture, be it the noise collaborations of BiS, the indie covers of Dempagumi inc. or the proliferation of indie musicians working as songwriters and producers in the idol scene.

The rise of Seiko Oomori is evidence that the trade goes two ways. A singer-songwriter rooted deeply in the darkest, dirtiest depths of the underground scene in the Koenji district of Tokyo (the video for Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu sees her performing the song in Koenji’s legendary and legendarily weird Muryoku Muzenji live space), she has increasingly adopted the posture of an idol singer to deliver her off-kilter narratives, even going so far as performing at the 2013 Tokyo Idol Festival. Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu demonstrates her spanning of those two worlds, with the electronic, technopop-influenced arrangement replacing her previous acoustic guitar-orientated setup, but breaking down into squalls of noise as the song reaches its mid-point. Oomori’s fusion of sweet, bubblegum elements with occasionally tortured delivery emphasises the darkness and obsession that lurk under the candy-coloured surface, and in this way she has a lot in common with 80s singer Jun Togawa, who also appropriated elements of idol culture and contorted them to more dissonant ends. Whether Oomori has Togawa’s self-awareness and acuity remains to be seen, but with Midnight Seijun Isei Kouyuu she has finally marked herself as one to watch for audiences beyond the cramped basements and lofts of Koenji.

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