A Very GLORIO 2014: Aqua’s Top 14 Tracks of 2014

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[Welcome to “A Very GLORIO 2014″, our look back at the best of the past year. We’ll be featuring a different post from each of our authors everyday leading up to our top 10 shows of the year. On this merry Christmas Day, Aqua does that thing where he talks for way to long about his dumb taste in music.]

Happy non-denominational winter holiday taking place on or around the 25th of December, folks! We’re in the middle of our annual year in review blowout and just like last year, that means that I get to blissfully ignore what this blog is actually about and yell at you to go like the music I like. There’s more than enough people writing about anime already anyways, so just like in the Jukebox, where I (very) occasionally take a look at the Japanese music industry beyond the boundaries of the anime industry, I’ll be using my spot under today’s floodlights to recommend you my fourteen favourite Japanese tracks of the past year, and then some. There’s a bit of pop, a bit of rock, a bit of electronica, and a wholly disproportionate amount of weird stuff, so I hope you’ll find something to your liking… Then again, anything’s better than Christmas music right?

… Right?

“Zettai Teki Na Kankei” by Akai Ko-En

If you’re only going to watch one music video this year, for the love of whatever it is you are worshipping today, let it be this one. Akai Ko-En’s disarmingly imaginative music video for “Zettai Teki Na Kankei” keeps count of and provides a brief snippet of wackiness for every single one of the song’s 100 seconds. Dancing shirtless men, furry onesies, makeshift electronics, magnets and headstands zoom by at a blink-and-you-miss-it speed, keeping up with the song’s steady pace and belligerent conciseness. I’ve sang the praise of Akai Ko-En’s atmospheric art-rock before, when they provided what turned out to be the greatest anime ending theme of the year, “Kaze ga Shitteru” for The Pilot’s Love Song. “Zettai Teki Na Kankei”, however, is a whole other pair of trousers, with lead singer Chiaki Satou’s sonorous soprano being the only thing tying the atmospheric melancholy of “Kaze ga Shitteru” to the completely different direction “Zettai Teki Na Kankei” heads into: scorching, fuzzy punk.

The all-female outfit’s sophomore album, Mouretsu Rhythmics, makes an strong case for Akai Ko-En, establishing a more refined, feminine image to counteract the saccharine bounciness of contemporaries like Scandal and Negoto with an eclectic, stadium-ready sound.  On “Zettai Teki Na Kankei” alone, songwriter Maisa Tsuno revs up her guitar with a distortion-fueled grumble, only to ease into a catchy riff with a natural flair that almost makes Akai Ko-En’s exceptional precision sound like a given. With its bite-sized length, loud-quiet dynamic and no-nonsense noise, “Zettai…” immediately brings to mind Blur’s punchy “Song 2“. While both songs share the same kind of semi-ironic appropriation of a genre neither band would ever be associated with, “Zettai Teki Na Kankei”, for better or worse, doesn’t scream so much identity crisis as it serves as a self-imposed challenge for Tsuno to strip Akai Ko-En’s wholesome sound down to its bare minima. In the end, however, it’s the entire band’s refined precision and maturity that keeps this roaring beast of a song under control, leading to one of the most ambitious, praiseworthy anthems of the year.

Listen also: “Now on Air”, “Kaze ga Shitteru”

Akai Ko-En’s Mouretsu Rhythmics is available worldwide from iTunes.

“Mirror Mirror” by Vampillia (feat. BiS)

Fair warning, the above video is kind of disturbing and sort of not suited for work.

2014 marked the end for BiS, the excessively entertaining “anti-idol” unit that built its entire reputation on lashing out against the artificiality and sexual repression of the Japanese entertainment industry in the most hilarious and perverse ways possible. With the intent of disbanding at their absolute peak, provocateur general Pour Lui laid out some ambitious goals, and while their aim of selling out the Yokohama Arena backfired rather dramatically, the girls nevertheless managed to save one of their best stunts for last: Making a legitimately great song. The ones responsible, however, are Vampillia, an eclectic, Osaka-based “brutal orchestra” featuring former members of Boredoms and World’s End Girlfriend and a plethora of classical instruments, known for going from atmospheric to destructive within mere seconds. Think an unhinged Godspeed You! Black Emperor and you’re on the right track, though as this collaboration shows, Vampillia aren’t too scared of threading out of the orchestral rock genre and into decidedly less accessible territories.

“Mirror Mirror” starts of pretty mellow nonetheless, with a children’s-choir-esque intro segueing into a first — pretentious jargon incoming! — movement with meticulous, march-like strings and ominous arpeggios. The BiS girls turn out to be surprisingly competent singers when they try, yet when the song picks up and their vocal harmonies get slowly drowned out by the incoming noise, the song descends into black metal-inspired violence tumbling back to near silence and doing the whole trick again a second time. Its style is further off from their usual tongue-in-cheek parody than BiS have ever been, and will ever be: a deadly serious, rousing, cathartic, beautifully twisted and gorgeously brutal crashing wave that will leave you battered, devastated and wanting for more. There’s a lot of equally disturbing stuff in both bands’ back catalogues, yet sadly enough, nothing quite like this.

Listen also: For more Vampillia, check out “Ice Fist” and “The Volcano Song”. For more of BiS’ shenanigans from 2014, have a look at “STUPiG” or their hilariously awkward take on the traditional idol dance video, “Nerve”.

Vampillia’s The Divine Move is available digitally from iTunes and Amazon. You can grab a physical copy at the Virgin Babylon Records store.

“Whiplash” by Far East Mention Mannequins

With creative singer-songwriters being reeled in by major labels, the Japanese mainstream pop industry seems to be opening up its boundaries to the point where its tropes are crossing over into the indie sphere and vice versa. Furthermore, with the ever-growing importance of the Internet, the idol scene seems to be splitting in opposite directions. On one hand, you’ve got the traditional corporate idols à la AKB48 and Morning Musume, while on the other, a plethora of pop acts are starting to pop up based on a distinct, unique aesthetic to call their own. Everyone’s familiar with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Babymetal at this point, but FEMM, short for Far East Mention Mannequins, might have raised the bar for bizarre, high-concept girl groups even higher. The brainchild of a bunch of high-profile songwriters and producers, FEMM allegedly consists two very convincingly portrayed mannequins, RiRi and LuLa, who rise up and sing for the freedom of their kin — from the mannequins forced to stand still in shops all day long to the crash test dummies sacrificed for mankind’s sake. Really. To make the whole thing even more giddily endearing, RiRi and LuLa never speak in public, but are represented by two “agents” of the “syndicate” that’s giving them their orders — also played by the same performers, Emily Kaiho and Hiro Todo.

It’s the kind of shenanigans that only works if carried out with absolute dedication, and if there’s any of FEMM’s countless entertaining music videos that proves this, it’s the astonishing single-shot video for “Whiplash”. Featuring a choreography from the same people responsible for World Order’s meme-tastic “Have a Nice Day”, “Whiplash” is an elaborate, uncanny dance sequence carried out with admirable precision. It’s incredibly nineties, with the rave-y synths, sexy black lyrca and cheesily over-the-top AutoTune, but the deliberate call-backs to the times when the future was still an exciting prospect with neon lights and highly intelligent battle androids makes for an endearing aesthetic in the year 2014. The fact that the song is damn good helps a lot too, of course. It’s got a killer chorus and the fitting cheesy techno production, but above all puts the song front and center instead of serving to stroke a superstar producer’s ego. With its fluent English lyrics and distinctly Western electro-pop sound, you could argue “Whiplash” barely even qualifies as J-Pop anymore, but then again, I’ve never seen Rhianna walk the streets of Tokyo dressed up as a mannequin to make people question if dolls have feelings too.

Listen also: “Fxxk Boyz, Get Money”, “The Real Thing”

FEMM’s debut album Femm-Isation is available from iTunes.

“Everything Changes” by Uchu Conbini

Uchu Conbini have about the collective charisma of a pile of bricks, yet make up for this with sheer technical skill in spite of their young age. Guitarist Daijiro Nakagawa, singer/bassist Emi Ohki and drummer Yuto Sakai draw upon some big names that will trigger a Pavlovian reaction in any aficionado of pretentious progressive rock from the 1970’s, yet nonetheless manage to easily satisfy with their soothing pop songs. “Everything Changes” hits all the right notes to qualify as something nerds like me call “math rock“, usually a hyperkinetic genre that favours showing off structural idiosyncrasies straight out of the Renaissance over actual songwriting. In this song’s case, however, its relaxing swoon is inviting, rather than alienating. Nakagawa’s angular playing isn’t there to steal the spotlight, but to fill up the gaps between Ohki’s soft vocals, like a rubber band eventually always returning to its natural state. Ohki herself has come a long way from her somewhat awkward mutters on Uchu Conbini’s earlier songs, too, confidently speaking out with her gentle voice in a display of talent that can easily match Nakagawa’s fluttering guitar work. Alongside tricot, Uchu Conbini are taking Japan’s long-standing math rock tradition down (or rather, up) to poppier, more accessible horizons. I may not sound like it, but I’m always up for great music that doesn’t require a PhD in arithmetic to enjoy.

Grab Uchu Conbini’s I Looked By The Reflection Of The Moon EP from OTOTOY.

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“FOI” by LLLL

Usually, I start off these little descriptions by blathering on about the artist performing the song, but about LLLL, there’s honestly very little to say. All we know is that they’re a duo from Tokyo and started making music to cope with the fallout of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, a sentiment that is easily reflected in the band’s ethereal, fragile sound. Most of LLLL’s music takes a page out of the densely arranged, murky synthpop of bands like The Knife, CHVRCHES or Purity Ring and the dense, hazy soundscapes of M83, burying soft, muttered female vocals under a thick layer of pitch-shifted vocal samples and staccato synth hooks. After a few EPs, LLLL released their debut album Paradice on Zoom Lens, a California-based indie label featuring many more bands of its ilk. LLLL stand out though, not only because of their eerie aesthetic, but especially for their intrepid songwriting: a maximalist alternative for the usually stripped-down, do-it-yourself sound of most other bedroom producers.

Like all of LLLL’s songs, “FOI” features mysterious whispers for vocals, though it’s actually the bass standing front and center here, prominently providing the song’s stuttering framework with a very sparse, limited assortment of dry punches and pokes. I use that particular metaphor because “FOI”‘s arrangement seems to be about every bass note reverberating like ripples on a still pond, with a richly detailed landscape of sounds being painted wherever the waves clash. LLLL is headphones music, deliberately exploiting the advantages offered by stereophonic recording to make “FOI”‘s countless synth arpeggios oscillate from one ear onto another. It’s a smorgasbord of different sounds and effects smoothly blending together into an organic wall of sound, rendering the vocals completely incomprehensible in a way reminiscent of the “shoegazing” genre. It’s certainly English, or at least something supposed to resemble it, but the general haziness of LLLL’s music makes lyrics virtually pointless. With its meticulous attention to detail, LLLL’s music is a gift that keeps on giving, and “FOI” makes for an inviting, sensual introduction to their enigmatic world.

Listen also: “You”, “Because Of My Eyes”, “Assume”

LLLL’s debut album Paradice is available for the fair price of either nothing or $8 from Zoom Lens’ Bandcamp page. Follow the link at the bottom of the description for the free download.

“Tokyo” by Kinoko Teikoku

Kinoko Teikoku already featured on last year’s list with the brooding title track to their debut album, Eureka, a grim, loud odyssey into the melancholic mind of lead singer Chiaki Satou — not the one from Akai Ko-En, by the way. Laced with romantic nihilism and thinly veiled murder threats, Eureka was hardly a walk through the park, which is why the band’s follow-up, Fake World Wonderland, is such a pleasant surprise. Sadly enough, the close-minded general stigma on lighter, more accessible music causes few to share my opinion, despite the fact that the songs on Fake World Wonderland are catchier, tighter, and simply better than most of the band’s earlier work. Kinoko Teikoku’s characteristic mix of indie rock and hazy shoegaze remains in place, though Satou’s powerful vocals break through the misty fuzz like never before, resulting in a lighter, more concise and far more accessible album that perfectly encapsulates the reinvigorating night stroll after Eureka‘s nervous breakdown. With songs like the jazzy slow jam “Chronostasis” or the cathartic singalong rock of “Telepathy/Overdrive”, Fake World Wonderland is the sound of cheap beer with friends at midnight, the wavering middle point between melancholy and euphoria, with opening track “Tokyo” as the foundation of the album’s laid-back vibe.

Of course, a lighter mood doesn’t necessarily signify a sudden shift towards sparkles, rainbows and puppy love in the lyrical department. Satou still laments lost loves like the best of them, as “Tokyo” paints the titular metropolis as a constant reminder of the one that got away. The music expresses a profound hope for their return, however, trading in Eureka‘s swirling noise for a crisper, poppier sound. The singalong ‘pa pa pa’-s from last year’s “Paranoid Parade”, a dress rehearsal for the record to follow, find their way into “Tokyo” as well, providing a catchy backbone to the most anthemic song Kinoko Teikoku have ever put out. Only when the song reaches its climax and Satou puts her soaring voice to work, the Kinoko Teikoku of old makes itself known once again, throwing in a thick guitar solo and cathartic reprise as the proverbial cherry on top. Some fans were upset with the direction Kinoko Teikoku has taken, but I retain that no evolution in sound should ever go unpunished if the result is as sincere as the one we get here. Fake World Wonderland is the next logical step for a band on its path to maturity, and I honestly wouldn’t mind any of its tracks taking “Tokyo”‘s spot on this list. Check it out.

Listen also: the entire album, really.

Get Fake World Wonderland by Kinoko Teitoku from OTOTOY, or check out their earlier work on iTunes.

“Eiga no Naka no Degikoto” by Atlantis Airport

Atlantis Airport seem to have a lot in common with Uchu Conbini, at first glance. Both have a two guys-one girl lineup, outlandish band names, and relaxing math-pop songs with technical flourish, but while Uchu Conbini excel at the electric guitar, Atlantis Airport are a piano-driven band at heart. Based in Tokyo and consisting of keyboardist y0den, vocalist and lyricist s0nezak1 and bassist b0n0 — no, not that Bono — Atlantis Airport make up for their somewhat bizarre pseudonyms with a surprisingly polished, mature sound. Their very first proper single, “Eiga no Naka no Degikoto”, is particularly reminiscent of a less bombastic School Food Punishment, with its twinkly piano, dramatically ever-shifting structure, and powerful female vocals. The track willfully avoids the standard verse-chorus song structure, swelling from a quirky indie pop song into something far more powerful, as flanger effects morph y0den’s jittery synths into something progressively more otherworldly. S0nezak1’s vocals nicely adapt to the ever-changing instrumentation, composed of spliced sample and loops, ripening over time from a perky speech-rap-sing amalgam into a sonorous croon. For a band to sound this confident this early in its career is a sight to behold, so I’m excited to see where Atlantis Airport’s smooth take-off will lead the band down the line.

Listen also: The remix by LASTorder,  “AnTi pOp ARt

“Just Like War” by She Talks Silence

I commonly associate Japanese rock with a degree of theatricality that would make posh Western music critics raise a collective eyebrow. Different strokes for different folks, though in all honesty, I find it pretty refreshing to hear even the murkiest genres of music be produced with uncharacteristic crispness from time to time. Sometimes it really is better to stick to the basics, and with their guitar-drum-bass-vocals-and-literally-nothing-else-approach, She Talks Silence harken back to the earliest days of murky gloom-rock. The Tokyo duo is one of those bands that has been flying under the radar seemingly forever, releasing an EP or a split single (you know you’re indie when you release a split single in the year 2014) before fading back into obscurity. Their release for this year, the EP When it Comes, seems to have found some footing amongst perceptive bloggers though, and the sparse, haunting “Just Like War” might as well be responsible.

J-pop often gets accused of being perennially stuck in the 1980s, but She Talks Silence occupy a whole other side of that decade’s musical infamy. Backed by a looming, skeletal bass line and a noticeable lack of production flourish, “Just Like War” doesn’t so much swell as many of the other songs on this list do, it creeps out of the murky waters from which it was born. Minami Yamaguchi’s husky vocals and an anachronistic overuse of reverb whisper eerie lyrics over the slithering instrumentation. The electric guitar only makes a brief appearance somewhere along the middle point. but gets drowned out quickly enough for the song to return to its embryonal state as it comes to a close. In spite of its simplicity, it’s nonetheless pretty surprising to see “Just Like War” easily standing out in She Talks Silence’s already widely varied catalogue of gloomy goth rock. Looks like less sometimes really is more.

Listen also: “Walk Away”, “The Moon”

Download She Talks Silence’s When it Comes from Mach Beat and get a sweet bonus track.

“Himitsu no Hanazono” by Heavenstamp

After losing their drummer Mika to an unfortunate injury, singer/guitarist Sally and guitarist Tomoya reinvented Heavenstamp as a two-piece, taking their shoegaze-influenced indie rock sound back to the drawing board. Heavenstamp 2.0’s first outing, the EP Romantic Apartment, is more of a ideological evolution than a musical one. The EP features the band’s first songs with Japanese titles, though while this seems incredibly trivial, it marks a significant change in attitude. Heavenstamp are no longer hiding behind pretending to be the next big British indie band, but are comfortable with just being themselves, and with that new philosophy comes a desire to innovate their sound. The new Heavenstamp still sound like the old Heavenstamp, but older and wiser, more nostalgic and refined, due in part to the contributions of veteran touring bassist Tokie and ex-Beat Crusaders drummer Maseeta. While the former adds a jazzy swing to many of Romantic Apartment‘s heavier songs, the latter’s skill behind a drum kit heavily expands on the rather limited, dare I say repetitive, rhythm section the band built virtually all of its songs around in the past. Somewhat unfortunately for Mika, losing her was just the thing Heavenstamp needed to avoid getting stale.

The lead single off Romantic Apartment, “Himitsu no Hanazono”, serves as an interesting segue from the band’s past into its future. The crisp guitars, anthemic chorus and subtle fuzz are unmistakably Heavenstamp, but the introduction of Tomoya on backing vocals highlights the band’s new lineup while the drums constantly play with and improve on the song’s basic motorik-inspired rhythm — a far cry from the band’s usual simplistic 4/4 patterns. I especially like how the song effortlessly slows down during the chorus and then picks up again, creating a nicely organic flow befitting of the forward-flowing, “drive on a long highway” feeling invoked by the catchy rhythm. “Himitsu no Hanazono” does a great job at re-establishing Heavenstamp after a year-long absence, bristling with new life and the anticipation of greater things to come. When it’s upfront, straightforward pop-rock you’re looking for, there’s still no band in Japan that will deliver better.

Listen also: “Parasite”

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“Remember Me” by The Somedays

Unless it’s The Ramones, all members using the band name as their pseudonymic last name is usually prime indication that you’re dealing with an infuriatingly twee indie pop band, but The Somedays’ spacey pop-rock neatly recycles the signature style of countless indie one-hit wonders — catchy indie rock songs with borderline cheesy synthesizer hooks — into something infinitely more engaging. The description for ‘Remember Me” on their Bandcamp page reads “the end of the summer feeling”, a fitting description for a song that is equal parts melancholy and relief. “Remember Me” starts out as an acoustic ballad recorded in space, but its muted vocals, shamelessly 80’s faux-strings, and varied array of instrumental effects manages to sound lo-fi and overproduced at the same time. It’s this sound of five amateurs in a garage with millions of dollars worth of recording equipment that defines The Somedays, with “Remember Me” in particularly using a breadth of nonspecific electronics to turn an outwardly generic indie pop song into a refreshing take on the genre, with one foot in the past and one in the present. The production style is highly reminiscent of my favourite album of all time, Bloc Party’s A Weekend in The City, so I might just be a tad bit biased, but bittersweet songs like this one just get me every time. If The Somedays decide to put the effort they put into crafting their sound into learning of the English language, it’ll be a disgrace if mine will still be the only end-of-year list to mention them in 2015.

Grab a free download of “Remember Me” over on The Somedays’ Bandcamp page.

“Boys” by World’s End Girlfriend

Just to show that you should never compose best-of-the-year lists before the year is actually over, Katsuhiko Maeda will be releasing his first proper album as World’s End Girlfriend — or at least something that can pass as one — since 2010’s Seven Idiots this very day. It’s called Boys/Girls Song, and based on the first single, “Boys”, it’ll once again be a pandemonium of neoclassical ambiance driven through a meat grinder and peppered with “scrupulous programming and bursting guitars”, as Maeda says. No better person to describe World’s End Girlfriend’s music in all its Wagnerian bombast than the man himself, after all, though I’m not really seeing what “Boys” would have to do with “‘Youth’ as a fantasy that appears while grounded on reality and includes an outburst of dream, reality, hope, fear, joy, solitude, violence and mistakes”. Figure that out, huh? Truth is, writing about a World’s End Girlfriend song is something I wouldn’t wish on even my worst enemies, and it only takes a single listen to “Boys” to figure out why.

Like the recently resurrected Aphex Twin — who gets a few shout-outs on “Boys” — or even his labelmates Kashiwa Daisuke and Vampillia, Katsuhiko Maeda tweaks his compositions with an astonishing eye for detail, filling in every empty millisecond with ideas, ranging from textbook classical composition tropes to cartoonish sound effects. In an interview around the release of Seven Idiots, Maeda stated that he initially writes a vocal track every song, only to remove it as soon as the basic instrumentation is done and continues to finetune his complex arrangements from there on out. “Boys” more than ever gives off this impression that it may, at one point, have been a standard rock song, with its structured, recurring motifs and linear build-up. Yet it’s still a World’s End Girlfriend song, bombarding listeners with unlikely surprises and mood whiplashes on their way to the inevitable, euphoric finale. Few other electronic producers can so beautifully encapsulate the volatility of human emotion as World’s End Girlfriend, from the chaos of waking as “Boys” sputters out of the starting block to the glory of determination as an harmonious ensemble of strings and guitar brings the song to its rousing finale. All of a sudden, the whole “youth” metaphor starts making a lot more sense…

World’s End Girlfriend’s Boys/Girls Song comes out today, and is only available on vinyl, because Katsuhiko Maeda hates your guts. Grab a copy off his label, Virgin Babylon Records.

“Zettai Zetsubou Zekkouchou” by Seiko Oomori

Seiko Oomori desperately wants to be an idol. She writes seemingly cutesy, bouncy songs, drowns herself in pink paraphernalia, and fangirls over Morning Musume like the best of them, but she can’t be an idol. Her voice resembles a shriek more than an idol’s coy singing voice. She randomly dives into the audience and snogs whoever she ends up bumping into. She bounces around on stage, screaming and smashing her guitar to bits. She sings frankly about sexuality, despair and death. Her idea of cuteness constitutes blooded rags, ultraviolence and hot pink phallic symbols splattered all over her bedroom wall. She experiments with genres, drowns her songs in confrontational noise and wears her artistic heart on her sleeve. Seiko Oomori may pose as an idol, but she’s in fact the idol industry’s worst nightmare: a willful, creative young woman with a voice and an identity of her own. Oomori’s true ambitions lie miles beyond the world of the manufactured pop dollies she loves so much. She aspires to follow up on what Jun Togawa and Ringo Sheena did for female songwriters in the 80’s and 90’s respectively: defy a whole generation of pop acts to define the generation to come.

Seiko Oomori’s major label debut album, Sennou, could easily fill up this list on its own, but it’s its opening track “Zettai Zetsubou Zekkochou” that’s particularly memorable. This is thanks in part to the adorable music video in which a dozen Seikos try to upstage and eventually kill each other, and Oomori’s rapid-fire, ranting vocal style, speeding over three songs worth of lyrics in just under four minutes. The energetic track opens up the album with deranged verve, throwing honky-tonk guitars at high-pitched synths to see whatever sticks and orchestrating a twisted bubblegum theme park ride that doesn’t stop partying until the album’s final note dies out. Over the tangled arrangements, Oomori tumbles up and down the octaves, making up for her limited range with a highly distinctive, if somewhat divisive timbre and bucketloads of fun. Fun really is key here. “Zettai Zetsubou Zekkouchou”, and the album as a whole, is the sound of one girl doing whatever the heck she wants with her sweet, sweet major label money. From her humble acoustic roots in the navel of Tokyo’s punk scene, to the rich, creative chaos on Sennou, Seiko Oomori has seen a phenomenal evolution over the last couple of years. If she keeps up her strong streak, there’s no doubt we’ll see her on this list again next year.

Listen also: “Kyuru Kyuru”, “Imitation Girl”, “Watashi wa Omoshiroi Zettai Omoshiroi Tabun”

Seiko Oomori’s “Sennou” is available worldwide from iTunes. If you’re a zettai Seiko fan, do her a favour and keep her at the very top of OTOTOY‘s download charts by grabbing her album from there.

“No.1 Sweeper” by Especia

One of the most interesting idol groups to have risen to fame in 2014 is Especia, a girl group built entirely around the vapourwave aesthetic. Vapourwave is characterized by a caricatural appropriation of cheesy 80’s and 90’s fashion and design — think Geocities websites being hijacked by Cyndi Lauper — and its music blends together synthpop, elevator muzak and smooth jazz into sick jams for cold lampin’ with your posse, yo. “No. 1 Sweeper” lasts 5 minutes and 45 seconds, an eternity for a pop song, and takes its sweet time with a minute-long corny saxophone intro straight out of a home shopping program. It’s commercial suicide for an idol group, especially since when Especia finally show up in the song’s delightfully bizarre music video, they don’t even bother to stand up and dance.

Not that I blame them. “No.1 Sweeper” is a distinctly different approach to Japanese pop music, mellow and relaxing rather than hyperactive and coy, shamelessly grooving alone in a limbo between genuine appraisal and parody. With its spacey effects and skillfully spliced samples, “No.1 Sweeper” sounds intended more as a means for regular producer Yuki Yokoyama to show off his laptop skills, than as an actual declaration of war upon the charts. An idol song where the idols themselves are the least prominent factor, it sounds like Japan’s equivalent of cats and dogs living together, but then again, vapourwave is also known for its satirical jabs at consumer culture. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the jarring contrast between Yokoyama’s funky showmanship and the girls’ own passive camera-gazing has any deeper meaning to it.

Especia’s debut album, Gusto is available from OTOTOY.

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“Quicksilver” by Boris

I’ve talked about Boris’ grandiose new album Noise at length before, and months later, the monolithic “Quicksilver” still stands tall as the album’s definitive centerpiece. Noise was the band’s attempt to distil the many genres and styles it has embraced throughout its 20-year-long career, from its signature ear-splitting metal over swaggering hard rock to electronic pop, into one definitive statement. “Quicksilver” is its attempt to boil that album down to a single song. It barges in with a speedy riff and the incomprehensible whisper-wails of the band’s occasional forays into extreme punk, settles neatly into seven minutes of musical muscle-flexing before finally concluding on a booming doom metal stampede. Like the mercury in its title, it’s fluid, heavy, ever-changing, and may or may not drive you completely insane. Blessed with the crisp production of a band out to market itself to a broader audience, “Quicksilver” is a pleasure to listen to in spite of its violent riffs and experimentation. Believe it or not, the band has never sounded as welcoming as they’ve done on Noise, and “Quicksilver” is the perfect introduction into Boris’ brutal, fascinating world.

Listen also: “Melody”, “Vanilla”, “Taiyo no Baka”

Boris’ latest album, Noise, is available worldwide from iTunes. You can also buy it from or listen to it in full on their Bandcamp page. Read my full review of the album here.

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That whopper about wraps up this list, but not entirely. I’ve been trying to research into what’s up with the Japanese music scene a bit more over the course of this year than I did last one. Since you can never have enough music in your life in these dire times, here’s some more great songs 2014 brought forth.

“Kekeke” by Kayoko Yoshizawa

Japan’s most adorable retro-pop songstress dropped another EP after I wrote a Jukebox feature on her earlier this year, featuring this catchy, though quite a bit too long bit of funky brass-pop and its equally goofy video about… shaving?

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‘Salvation” by elsälem 

A trip-hop fever dream that quickly turns into something decidedly more grandiose, featuring the characteristic vocals of Lost in The Fog‘s Nene Solano. This eerie new producer will be one to watch in the upcoming year.

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negoto“Mayonaka no Anthem” by Negoto

Maybe I will stop liking this credibility-destroying girly synthpop band when they stop writing such great songs. Sadly enough, the lovely music video seems to have vanished off the face of the Internet.

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tricot“Break” by Tricot

Tricot may have lost their drummer, but show no sign of losing their potential with this comeback single full of syncopated riffs and vocal harmonies. May or may not feature me in the music video. I wish I were kidding.

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p2m“Plastic Mercy” by pla2me

A shameless EDM banger by former BiS member Saki Kamiya and her cosplaying buddy Mari ‘Izukoneko’ Mizuta, featuring gratuitous English, rad live drumming, and the most infectious drop this side of World Order’s “Have a Nice Day”. Speaking of which…

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worldorder“Have a Nice Day” by  World Order

Disliking this song and its amazing dance routine has been scientifically proven to be impossible. Why this infectious anthem hasn’t gone viral yet will forever remain a mystery. Also, the only time you’ll ever see me link to something with AKB48 in it, probably.

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rilf“Count 4” by RiLF

Remember Matryoshka? Together with some members of classical fusion band Anoice, their singer Calu made this ethereal, eerie ocean of noise available for free on… Valentine’s? “Count 4” doesn’t strike me as particularly romantic. Unless you’re trying to seduce me, of course.

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1010“Good Bye, Good Girl” by Tentenko

Another BiS alumnus (the little one) soothes the pain of their disbandment with this catchy, unapologetically 80’s blast from the past. I’m slightly worried about Tenten considering her behaviour in her former group to be that of a ‘good girl’, though.

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mono“Recoil, Ignite” by Mono

Japan’s most iconic post-rock band released two albums this year: One featuring their regular mix of instrumental rock with classical arrangements, and one they describe as their hardest, rawest one yet. You get no points for guessing which one this is from.

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On that note, I hope you enjoyed, or at least were not bored to death, giving these fourteen songs a go. Do you agree with this list, or were there any particular favourites 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 which songs you enjoyed the most this year! Now, without any sliver of cynicism, I wish you a fantastic day, whether or not you actually celebrate Christmas. If you’re alone or forced to spend the day with unsupportive or insensitive family members, I hope this list can cheer you up at least a little. Everyone deserves to have the time of their lives today. Stay awesome, folks, and see you all next year.

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