25. kasuppa – the half you left and right Kasuppa have been around for a while in the local indie scene in their hometown of Kobe and nearby Osaka, but not yet made much of an impact more broadly. This ambitious two-parter would have been a great opportunity for them to spread their wings had fate not intervened, and it remains a strong indie rock stsatement, its sparse, rough-edged appeal given a warm intimacy, with some thanks for that perhaps due to engineer Ryohei Tomomatsu and mixing/mastering engineer Ryo Watanabe (of alt-rock/post-punk veterans Convex Level). The way it was released on two CDs despite fitting easily on one gives it the feel of an old vinyl double-album and emphasises the independent (if related) identities of the “left” and “right” discs. Quite what each disc signifies is open to interpretation, with the “left” side seeming to focus on the blankness left behind by a failed relationship, while the “right” side seems to circle around the feeling of being trapped, not entirely unwillingly, in a relationship that won’t end. A garden of forking paths look at two possible results of a troubled affair? Two sides of the same breakup? In any case, these divergent takes on alienation and disaffection provide subtly different emotional climates for each. While the second disc deploys more fuzz and distortion, it would perhaps have been interesting had the band pushed this duality further by pushing more distinctive sonic approaches to the two discs as well, but their brand of cosy indie rock with art-punk edges is nonetheless an appealing partner on the whole journey.
24. My Society Pissed – Locked Room There’s a looseness to My Society Pissed that sets them apart from a lot of their Japanese punk contemporaries, pulling them away from hardcore into something more primal and less dogmatic. This 12-inch opens with a distinctive and drawn out, distorted groove before it gives the listener any easy punk thrills, while on tracks like Arms of Solid, there’s a garage-rock bounce to the heartbeat that helps give Locked Room the freshness and freedom from the genre’s own locked rooms that reminds me of those 1970s punk records from before even the punks themselves really knew what punk was.
23. Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots – Anökumene Tokyo-based trio Loolowningen & The Far East Idiots trade in rhythmically quirky but melodically accessible music, both experimental and playful, shot through with humour and a philosophical whimsy that occasionally shades into melancholy. Also notable as cheerleaders for other like-minded artists around Japan (via their own Mitoho Sessions events and last year from the related Mitohos compilation), they make something that could be difficult approachable and welcoming.
22. Ryo Okada – outerzone As the guitarist from psychedelic post-punk trio Extruders, Ryo Okada is responsible for a lot of the sparse, meandering misdirections of the band’s sound, so it’s perhaps natural to expect that, stripped of the formal structures and rhythms of songs, his solo work revels in the space. What he does with that space is craft eerie moonscapes just beyond the reach of daily existence — the disorientating ambient outerzones to the Burroughsian interzones he carves out with the Extruders’ oblique take on rock. Compared with its companion, the (also excellent) Snow Mountain EP that Okada released earlier in the year, Outerzone is sonically deeper and more abstract, less a transmission from behind the veil than a transformative energy that wraps you in its alien psychosphere.
21. Sloppy Joe – Waiting For The Night Begins It’s impossible to talk about Sloppy Joe without mentioning all the bands they sound like, but they’d never get away with it if the songwriting fundamentals that underscore the jangle and Mozzy hoots weren’t exquisite. They will always be something of a guilty pleasure for me, but the arrival of this unexpected comeback album in the summer of 2020 meant that pleasure landed with extra unrestrained force. Every chime is an immaculate delight.
Hey, have you heard the new album by The Close Lobsters? Wicked, isn’t is? Oh, and the new Pale Fountains, isn’t it just utterly brill? And I’ve got tix for Felt next week, which is going to be ace for deffo — you’ll be there, right?
Chances are your answer to all the above is going to be no, since you’re not living in cold, grey, wet, Thatcher-era Britain. However, a small but dedicated corner of the Japanese indie scene are still carrying the flame, carefully shielding it against the wind and rain as they shuffle through life in their NHS specs and tank tops, collars of their macs turned up against the 80s chill, vocals turned down to near incomprehensibility in the mix and reverb whacked up to eleven on the guitars.
Enter Boyish, who are so mad keen on 1980s Britain that their new Summer Dream mini-album sounds exactly like a Macbook Pro loaded up with Garageband slipped through a wormhole to a damp afternoon in 1986 Manchester. Or Glasgow. Or Birmingham. Or Liverpool. Oh, you get it, right? You know the deal: jangly guitars, lovelorn lyrics, faint air of disaffection. We’ve been here before, or a pretty similar place, with Sloppy Joe’s hilarious and ultimately charming Postcard Records homage With Kisses Four last year, but while Sloppy Joe teetered on the brink of knowing pastiche, offering sly winks and nods to specific songs, Summer Dream sounds more like a straight up act of devotion to the sounds of the 80s. If With Kisses Four was a love letter to the era, Summer Dream has taken a job as its live-in nanny and started breastfeeding its children in secret.
So, um, where was I? The music. As someone for whom The Close Lobsters’ Foxheads Stalk This Land probably ranks as one of the all time greatest albums in the history of recorded music, I’d have to say that these nine songs are really quite lovely. The murkiness on the vocal production goes a bit too far, but I made it through Friends’ (now Teen Runnings’) Let’s Get Together Again without suffering permanent injury and I’ll survive this. At a bit over 22 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and when those chiming guitar solos kick in like they do in Blindfold or Winter Song, it’s enough to make a boy go squiffy.
There’s a broader point here about just what point there is in a musician from 2012 Tokyo making music that sounds like something from an economically depressed former mining or steelworking town in northern England 25 years ago, and it certainly does nothing to push Japanese indie forward in any meaningful way, but then group mastermind Mr. Iwasaki could justifiably argue that isn’t his responsibility. And in that narrow sense, he’d be right. This is music whose only responsibility is to the small band of tweepop retronauts who hang around Shibuya Echo and Jet Set Records and any number of indie blogs. Like, um, this one. It’s a button-pushing record made for fans of a specific sound, and it ruthlessly hits the right notes, crashing into exactly the chord changes you’re expecting at exactly the moment you’re expecting them, and delivering the heart surges and dreamy wig-outs with deadly precision like a fix to a desperate junkie. It’s nothing new, but in a world where “something new” can be a scary, disorientating and alienating force, indiepopsters can be forgiven for taking some comfort in the past.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Connect And Receive is a series of monthly Japanese indie music podcasts I’ve been making since the summer. I skipped last month because I was too busy with various bands’ tours but I’ve made the December one into a sort of end-of-year review focussing on some of my favourite bands and releases of the year, as well as a couple of things from previous years that I either only discovered recently or came back to in a big way this year. Anyway, here’s the pod: