The 3rd Day of Glorio: Aqua’s Top 13 Tracks of 2013

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You are now entering the Nine Days of GLORIO, our non-stop year in review. Each day for the rest of 2013, a member of the Glorio crew will share some of their highlights from the past 12 months, all culminating in our Top 10 Anime of the Year. For Day 3, take a break from fighting with gift wrap and pretending to get along with your family to read Aquagaze’s best music tracks of 2013.

Merry Christmas! ‘Tis the season for end-of-year lists, and while most of the Glorio Blog will be providing you with their hilarious made up anime awards over these 9 days of Glorio, I have decided to do something entirely different because one, I am not funny and two, I hate anime. I do like music, though, and in the Jukebox feature I very occasionally take a look at the Japanese music scene beyond the realm of anime and other nerdiness. In the same vein, I’d love to introduce you to the large variety of great music Japan has produced this year outside of the stuff you usually find on this blog. Thirteen artists, thirteen tracks, open to all. Grab your headphones, mute Wham!, Mariah Carey, The Budapest Choir Of Blind Orphans or whatever other horrible yuletide cacophony your family members are subjecting you to on this wonderful day, and enjoy. Or just laugh at me for trying to sound like a pretentious music journalist.

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“Adagio” by Sally & Tomoya

We are off to a good start already, as the first track on the list is by far the most obscure one. “Adagio” is a promotional live recording by Sally and Tomoya, the creative spill of Heavenstamp, a band so good its relative lack of new material this year almost distracted me from Japanese music as a whole, and has all the trademarks that made their first long player last year such a phenomenal one. Even without their regular bassist and drummer, Sally and Tomoya — the two on the right in the above picture — still blend the former’s soft, but powerful vocals with the latter’s atmospheric guitar into one painfully simple track that can easily rank alongside the surprisingly high number of accessible anthems the band has written in their meagre three years of existing.

Astell & Kern, the brand of audio equipment that locked the duo in a recording studio to promote their latest product, were kind enough to provide them with some session musicians, including a live pianist, adding some wonderful summery twinkle to the song’s laid-back opening half, only to blossom into a heartfelt arpeggio that gives way to an emotional climax drowned in Tomoya’s trademark hazy guitar work. While no part of it is particularly provocative. “Adagio” is a track that once again makes a future in which Heavenstamp constitutes Japan’s standard for plain old strong rock music a considerable possibility.

You can grab a free download of “Adagio” over at the Astell & Kern website. In .wav format, no less. Keep your pants on, audiophiles.

“U&I” by Uplift Spice

After four years and as many albums of sounding exactly the same, Uplift Spice took a much deserved break from wreaking havoc and somehow being insanely popular in France last year, leaving their place in my heart in the hands of the gazillion other female-fronted punk bands Japan loves to spew out. Last month, however, the slightly terrifying quartet popped back on the scene seemingly out of nowhere as punk bands tend to do, with a new album that puts the band in a whole new perspective. ØØØ still sounds a heck of a lot like an Uplift Spice album, hilarious song titles à la “Hypernova Remnant” and “PsyWar” included, but takes the band’s signature sound to exciting new heights. Lead singer/nutcase Chiori squeals, shrieks, sings and screams her way through twelve sledgehammers of songs that venture into experimental territories without ever straying too far from the catchy punk that got the band where it is now.

It is rather bizarre then, that the best song on ØØØ is still one of the more conventional ones. Lead single “U&I” is a song of paradoxes. It kicks of with an impressive drum solo but takes until the chorus until it reveals its passionate true face. This strange relationship between the rather by-the-numbers verse and the anthemic refrain that signatures the song until its final third, where everything falls into place thanks to — rather ironically — Chiori completely losing her marbles. However surprising it may be that it took Uplift Spice five albums before their first real moshpit breakdown, the band loses very little of its poppy sentiments even when foraging into the bleak realm of metalcore, a genre usually I don’t even get. In fact, the overall harsher sounds on “U&I” manage to sound more excited and, well, uplifting than Uplift Spice have ever sounded.

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“Tashika na Uta” by Negoto

Before Negoto gave us the best anime opening theme of the year, the upbeat “Synchromanica”, which almost singlehandedly saved Galilei Donna from its crippling mediocrity, the all-girls foursome released their second record, aptly named… errm, 5, earlier this year. It is a record that comes dangerously close to pop music perfection, showing just how far the band has come from its humble, almost anime-esque origins. Four girls meet in high school, start a band for shits and giggles and gradually work their way up, playing catchy electro-pop tunes in matching outfits while miraculously managing to stay away from greedy record labels who think girls can’t write and play their own songs.

Sadly enough, most of the standout tracks on 5, including Gundam Age opening theme “sharp”, “Nameless” and “Re:Myend!”, proud owners of what might just be some of the wackiest music videos of all time, were released as early singles over the course of 2012, which passes representative duties over to “Tashika na Uta”. A bittersweet ballad with a strong chorus, “Tashika na Uta” is as close to melancholy as 5 gets, but even then vocalist Sachiko Aoyama has the kind of gentle voice that can expel any darkness from whatever song. Nevertheless, with a lot of variation in both Aoyama’s piano playing and Sayako Sawamura’s drumming, “Tashika na Uta” manages to be laid back without holding back. If anything, it shows that even in the country that gave us AKB48, there is no rule saying that pure pop can’t be good. By the way, thanks to silly Japanese video streaming websites I can’t embed the song’s lovely video in this post, so check it out here.

“Eureka” by Kinoko Teitoku

If you think “Tashika na Uta” started off with a strong bassline, think again. Shigeaki Taniguchi’s bass pumps through this song like blood running through its veins, or rather, seeping out, given the blood curling guitar screams that open up the title track to Kinoko Teikoku’s debut album. Over the years I have come to expect a certain flair from Japanese rock bands, no matter how theatrical they might actually sound, which makes Kikoku Teitoku’s Chiaki Satou and her ever-present baggy sweaters stick out like a sore thumb. Yet her absolute refusal to compromise is also the androgynous songstress’ biggest strength. She doesn’t need to wear fancy outfits to prove to anyone listening that she has one hell of a voice, a rather impressive feat in a genre dominated by whispers and ethereal mumbling.

As a whole, the album is an interesting journey along Satou’s entire vocal range, starting with an opening track in perishingly spoken words and ending with the singer soaring skyward on the verge of tears. “Eureka” is somewhere in between. Buried underneath the noise and distortion is a solid, rousing song that uses its uplifting refrain as a light in the darkness amongst all the creeping bass lines and eerie guitar noises. I especially like the very precise drumming contributing to the songs overall pace, a very slow descent into darkness that is nicely put on display by the tunneling music video that ends with a wailing Satou as the literal light at the end. If it actually is hamfisted symbolism, I might just let Kinoko Teikoku get away with it.

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“Drink Me” by Yasuha Kominami

A very sizeable chunk of Yasuha Kominami’s debut Chimera consists of material released over the last few years, resulting in an album rife with the sort of epic singles you need to put yourself on the map. It provides a pretty complete look into the ever bobbed singer-songwriter’s slightly macabre fairytale mind. Combining vague, mystical lyrics with an off-kilter vocal style reminiscent of her idols Shiina Ringo and Björk, Kominami’s sophisticated style showcases confusion and doubt about life, the universe and everything, as perfectly summarized by her blurting out “what the hell, what the hell, what the fuck am I doing here?” on the album’s second track, “Zenaku no Higan”. In English, no less.

“Drink Me” is one of the songs on Chimera that best accentuates its leaning towards poppy rock songs with a more than slightly odd edge. The bizarre slurping noises at the beginning are only the beginning, as Kominami runs her voice through a guitar amp, frequently reels in her trademark strained higher notes right before they become ugly and backs herself up on falsetto for the song’s juggernaut of a chorus. Complement this with a simple, yet strong riff, and you have all the catchiness you could ask for. Listen once, and you’ll be whoa-hoa-hoa-hoa-hoa-ing until the cows come home, as if a vampire has sunk his teeth into your neck and won’t let go. That title suddenly makes a lot more sense now.

Yasuha Kominami’s Chimera is available from iTunes. In Europe and Japan, at least. Sorry, yanks.

“Lost Field” by Films

Described as a “dark fantasy” unit and rather hilariously promoted with the tagline “Deeper than Björk, don’t miss this work!”, the monikers bestowed upon Films conveniently fit the bill. Counting members of the modern classical ensemble Anoice, as well as ambient wizard Kashiwa Daisuke amongst their ranks, Films can even call Nobuo Uematsu a fan. If you are a massive nerd like me, you know what to expect from these names: swooning soundscapes, glitchy beats and crackles and poignant string arrangements, and Films certainly deliver. “Lost Field” is more than just ambient music however, as its 140 beats per minutes and neurotic piano arpeggios nervously carry the mysterious voices of Films’ anonymous vocalists into some sort of macabre dance territory. It’s jittery, mysterious and alienating, but oddly enthralling in its own way.

“Lost Field” is available as a free download from Film’s record label, Ricco. Grab it here.

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“Shitai Miss Me” by Ling Toshite Sigure

Ever since I heard “abnormalize”, the song featured as the opening theme for Psycho-Pass, I have often wondered just how Ling Toshite Sigure write their songs. Most of the Saitama trio’s back catalogue consists of complexly arranged, highly controlled chaos, with time signatures and moods shifting every five seconds and unintelligible guitar melodies battling it out. Distinguishable song structures and rhythms are clearly too much to ask from Ling Toshite Sigure, but don’t let that put you off. Math rock is what relentless snobs such as myself tend to call this beautiful noise, yet unlike the mathematics you remember from school, there is a lot more emotion to be found here. Unless you call boredom an emotion.

Emo is Ling Toshite Sigure’s flesh and blood, with Toru “TK” Kitajima’s distinctive youthful timbre and impressive range going from fact-paced singing to wails and screams, more often than not in one and the same verse. This relentlessness characterizes Sigure’s latest album, I’mperfect, as much as it saturated their four previous efforts, but in terms of vocals, there is very little that can beat “Shitai Miss Me”. Kitajima and bassist Miyoko Nakamura exchange lines like their lives depend on it, gasping on the run from the sonic explosions being torn to bits in the background. The machine gun drumming and technical riffs are delivered with an intensity that exceeds the bombast of it all, but if you’re still cringing at my dropping the e-word a few sentences ago, you might want to scroll down a bit. Or broaden your horizons.

Ling Toshite Sigure’s I’mperfect is available worldwide from iTunes and Amazon MP3.

“Control” by Capsule

Yasutaka Nakata has been around for so long, it’s hard to imagine a Japanese pop scene without him. Before he became the man behind chart-topping siren trio Perfume and queen of what-the-fuckery Kyary Pamyu Pamyu however, he was half of Capsule, a band that started out as a part of the bossa-nova-influenced Shibuya movement around the turn of the millennium, but quickly turned their attention to the clubs, where they have been steadily providing one rave anthem after another for the last ten years. Electro house tends to get stale, however, and with Perfume topping the charts and Kyary the Internet, Nakata must have started to feel the same way. After the release of their Greatest Hits album last year, he decided to steer Capsule down a different, more experimental path. The resulting album, Caps Lock, is not entirely a far cry from the electronic dance that made Capsule famous, but its audacity demands attention.

Gone are the catchy choruses and anthemic synths, all skillfully tossed out of the window in favour of complex soundscapes, glitchy bleeps and bloops, experimental song structures and the near-constant manipulation of Toshiko Koshijima’s vocals. “Control” is a spiraling staircase of twinkling arpeggios becoming ever more complex the further it goes on, with completely incomprehensible lyrics that sound like someone pressing random buttons of a Vocaloid synthesizer. Then how come it’s so damn catchy? There is a certain serenity in “Control”‘s complexity, as evidenced by its slow-motion video. The constantly flickering synths carry the song like a skeleton, building up and breaking down whatever other bizarre sound Nakata decides to throw in next. Despite its experimental tendencies, “Control” still shows he knows better than anyone what makes a song click. Ten years of experience tend to do that.

Capsule’s Control is available worldwide from iTunes, for a whopping $4.99/€5.99, no less.

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“Fragments” by Tokyo Shoegazer

Allow me to blow your mind: Tokyo Shoegazer are a shoegazing band… from Tokyo. Or rather, were a shoegazing band from Tokyo, as the band called it quits weeks after the release of their second album Turnaround earlier this year. It is a pity, because for a band so obsessed with its genre it took its name from it, Tokyo Shoegazer sure loved to steer its dreamy tunes towards the epic. Founded a few years ago by members of various bands on the scene and only recently joined by vocalist Ananda Jacobs, one of the rare Westerners active in the Japanese entertainment industry, Tokyo Shoegazer certainly lived up to their name. They had the noise, the incomprehensible muttering and the relentless fanboying over My Bloody Valentine. Nevertheless, their aspirations seemed to go beyond just being yet another band of beautiful noisesmiths on the scene.

Shoegazing songs are defined by loud, distorted guitars and soft, hazy vocals seemingly blurring into one, but “Fragments” sounds remarkably crisp for one, drawing a lot of attention to guest star Ai Onae’s vocals before the chorus slowly raises every hair on your skin. It is a steamroller of a song that, very explicitly so, bets its money on big sounds and big feelings — stadium-like aspirations that seemingly clash with the dreaminess and dread looming in the vocals. Yet “Fragments” is so overwhelming in its desire to be gorgeous, that it becomes more than just another shoegazing song — something, as this list is evidence of, the Japanese music scene is not exactly short on. Maybe, in the end, Tokyo Shoegazer’s aspiration was not to be a shoegazing band from Tokyo, but to define a distinctly Tokyo brand of shoegazing — a specific style that can break the genre’s emotional intensity free from its inherent desires to stay stuck in the early nineties. It is too bad the best truly do die young.

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“When You Sleep” (My Bloody Valentine cover) by Shonen Knife

Speaking of shoegazing, it’s hard to talk about the genre without talking a bit more about My Bloody Valentine, the band that almost singlehandedly defined the genre. This year saw the release of the rather unfortunately titled Yellow Loveless, a tribute album to MBV’s perennial 1991 magnum opus Loveless, featuring covers of all the album’s tracks by Japanese bands. Most of these covers stay pretty close to the originals, with the afore mentioned Tokyo Shoegazer’s cover of “Only Shallow” being so hilariously similar to the original you’d think they were dealing with some kind of holy scripture, but two of them stand out above the rest: The Sodom Project’s dubstep butchering of “Touched” and this little gem by pop-punk vixens Shonen Knife.

Despite the band actually being older than Loveless itself, Shonen Knife’s “When You Sleep” is a ridiculously catchy take on the murky original with a distinctly rockabilly-esque vibe. Shamelessly retro in its backing vocals and funky bass lines, “When You Sleep” is the only cover on Yellow Loveless that takes the original even further back in time, to the glory days of The Ronettes and The Beach Boys, the same bands Shonen Knife draw their inspiration from. With summery coos and rock-‘n’-roll riffs on a tribute album full of bands who might just take themselves a tad bit too seriously, Shonen Knife’s “When You Sleep” is hard to hate. Heck, they even have a cheesy little organ!

Yellow Loveless is available in Europe and Asia from iTunes and worldwide from Amazon MP3. Regular Loveless is available from every self-respecting record store.

“Ochansensu-su” by Tricot

Tricot are three girls and a conveniently camouflaged dude with lots of funky riffs and even funkier moves. Seriously, just stop reading this and watch the video above. They’re adorable. For a video so painstakingly simple, there sure is a lot of hilarity going on here, from front lady Nakajima’s sweet Beatles-themed guitar strap to guitarist Motifour doing faux kung-fu moves on her flip-flops and unironically rocking a kitten T-shirt like there is no tomorrow. My favourite part is the one where the total surfer dude of a drummer gives a reassuring thumbs up to the fat guy in a yellow Hawaii shirt the girls just annoyed the crap out of. You did well, bro. You did well.

The song’s not bad either, a hyperactive start-and-stop rockout with lyrics even your grandma can sing along to. Unless “ochansensu-su” means something really dirty, of course. Even so, thanks to this childishly simple single lyric, “Ochansensu-su” is bloody catchy for a song that changes rhythm every five seconds. It’s exactly the jangly kind of tune you totally would jump around on — under very specific circumstances, that is. The sort of girly wackiness we see in the band’s videos is all over Tricot’s debut album The, but it’s nowhere as pure and nowhere as fun as it is here. Who can resist those moves?

Tricot’s The is available worldwide from iTunes and Amazon MP3.

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“Shootingstar” by N-Qia

Some bands are so unique you need to go look at how they talk about themselves to even stand a chance at describing them. Take N-Qia, for example, a band that dubs itself “a skyscraper of many colours”, but I like to call “really wierd”. A boy-girl duo with fairytale-like ambitions and an affinity for throwing together songs from bits and bops all over the musical spectrum, N-Qia have been around making songs for a while, but only rose to my attention after signing with Virgin Babylon, the record label also home to World End’s Girlfriend, the aforementioned Kashiwa Daisuke and Matryoshka, whom you might remember from an earlier Jukebox feature. I can’t help but say that they have certainly found their place.

“Shootingstar”, the opening track to N-Qia’s latest album Fridge Popsicl— I mean, Fringe Popsical, is distinctly all over the place. It’s somewhere in between melancholy and childishly happy-go-lucky, between eccentric and poppy, mysterious and catchy. It has stuttering guitars, folky rhythms, electronic blips, flutes, bells, trance synths and flickering laser sounds, and yet there is nothing wandering about in the arrangement that should not be there. It’s oddly refined and undanceable for something so funky, but maybe that’s just because it was never meant for mortal ears. After all, “Shootingstar” sounds exactly what I would expect an elven folk festival to sound like. If elves had samplers, that is.

N-Qia’s Fringe Popsical is available worldwide from iTunes and Amazon MP3.

“Suicide Parade (Acoustic Version)” by Lost in the Fog

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a rather anonymous producer who gets tired of resorting to Hatsune Miku for his songs finds a vocalist with an almost unsettlingly gentle voice, and together they produce disturbing amounts of angst and gorgeous artwork. The origin story of the enigmatic Lost in the Fog is quite similar to that of Supercell, though their music is distinctly less over the top. The Grave of Einzvach, the debut EP by the now fully human Lost in the Fog eschews a lot of the complex arrangements often seen in Vocaloid compositions in favour of plain old guitar, bass, drums and vocals alternating between Japanese and vocalist Nene Solano’s own made-up language.

Nevertheless, Lost in the Fog’s songs have been kind enough to provide all their releases with official English titles and, admittedly rather crappily translated, lyrics for maximum international appeal; a welcome effort that immediately teaches us “Suicide Parade” isn’t just called that for fun. With the language barrier in pieces, Solano’s musings on will happen when she crosses the line — “I just let myself go, that is all” — hits harder than any other song on this list. The album version of “Suicide Parade” is a fairly standard rock ballad, but the gorgeous acoustic version released only last month strips the song down to its shivering essence, setting Solano’s vocals against the constant meandering of some beautiful sounding guitars. It almost makes suicide sound pure and gentle. Almost.

The acoustic version of Suicide Parade is available as a free download from Bandcamp. You can also find the full band version here as a part of Lost in the Fog’s EP The Grave of Einzvach, available from Bandcamp, iTunes and Amazon MP3.

On that rather depressing note, it is end to bring this list to an end. I hope you enjoyed, or at least were not bored to death, giving these thirteen songs a go. Do you agree with this list, or were there any particular favourites of yours I overlooked? I’m not as “up” on the Japanese music scene as I’d like to be due to my limited — read: nonexistent — knowledge of the Japanese language, and I’m always open for new stuff, so make sure to let me know! As for now, it’s back to the cheesy Christmas carols for all of us. Ho ho ho.

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