No one needs to reminded that 2016 was for all intents and purposes a heinous garbage fire of a year, a kind of cataclysmic Rube Goldberg machine of kafkaesque proportions that will have future historians wonder how we somehow made it out alive. Yet here we are, it’s Christmas, and contrary to what the people who dominated this year’s headlines may believe, humans aren’t quite as petty and narrow-minded as the current status of this crumbling lump of earth we like to call home may imply. One only needs to look at all the imaginative, empowering, uplifting, trailblazing, celebratory, confrontational, thoroughly human music produced this year to see a brighter future waiting in the wings. Sure, we may have lost Bowie, Prince and Cohen, but even they — or at least two of them — managed to turn their self-penned eulogies into timeless mementos of their genius. Though 2016 may have been a year of fear, misery and hate, it was also a year in which the artists of the world gathered to remind us why we need them.
As far as Japan is concerned however, listeners probably had to dive a bit deeper to find something to remember the year by. I sure did, at least. Several long-anticipated new albums by big name acts like Perfume (Cosmic Explorer), Suiyoubi no Campanella (UMA) and even Utada Hikaru (Fantôme) turned out to be (mostly) phoned-in duds, while indie darlings like Kinoko Teikoku or Akai Ko-En struggled to retain their individuality upon trying to break into the mainstream, and the whole anti-idol phenomenon that seemed bound to slam the final nail in the stagnating idol industry’s coffin ended up actually lowering the standards for talent and creativity required to make a name for yourself in the strange, alienating world of J-Pop. Luckily, there was still more than enough good stuff to go around, both from established acts and obscure newcomers, so I invite you once again to journey with me into the vast, diverse landscape of Japanese music that exists outside the realm of anime and other geekery and take a look at my ten favourite songs of the year. Just ten this time, unlike previous installments, but hey, I guess you have something better to do anyway.
“Tokyo Black Hole” by Seiko Oomori
One day, Seiko Oomori has to screw up. At some point her career will crumble under the pressure of her incessant ambitions, and the current dark horse of the Japanese music industry will at last jump the proverbial shark. But that point is certainly not now. Time after time again, Oomori manages to raise the bar for the sheer amount of bombast and hyper-femininity acceptable in an art form that generally frowns upon both without ever becoming the very reason why these suspicions are held in the first place. And she’s done it again. While pregnancy limited the usually almost disturbingly productive singer-songwriter’s output in 2015 to a single, err, single – the rousing, Wagnerian “Magic Mirror” – this year catapulted her back to the very top of many a blogger’s A-list in record time. Beginning with an all-new full-length, Tokyo Black Hole, and ending with a series of collaborative singles whose names I won’t mention for the sake of your mental health, 2016 was Seiko Oomori’s year-long victory lap, and choosing but a single song to represent it on this list is like being forced to pick a favourite child.
“Hikokuminteki Hero”, the manic duet with Shinsei Kamattechan’s Noko? “Kill the time 4 you”, a song that sounds like At The Drive-In going acoustic? “Gekiteki Joy!’, the musical equivalent of a football stadium being doused in strawberry milk? All worthy contenders, yet also all examples of Oomori doing what she does best. The title track to Tokyo Black Hole, on the other hand, is a whole other story. Distinct from both the stripped-down, freaky folk of her early days and the cataclysmic kitchen-sink pop she’s become known for, it is a nostalgic, mid-tempo ballad with a distinct Britpop sound on which Oomori ditches her usual screechy vocal style in favour of something far huskier and less decidedly unhinged. “Tokyo Black Hole” is a song that works in increasingly growing waves, shortening the gentler downtime between every climax as it progresses and whenever it peaks, picks off where the last big chorus left off. Yet even at its most emotionally powerful, “Tokyo Black Hole” never abandons its dreamy, nocturnal haze, proving against the odds that Seiko Oomori can, in fact, do subtle if she wants to. Looks like she has a back-up plan, just in case that shark ever does come knocking.
“Karate” by Babymetal
Babymetal? In this serious feature about the year’s very best of the best? To be honest, I don’t see why not. No matter what some of its more avid fans might claim, heavy metal –– or at least the heavy metal scene Babymetal wants to be a part of –– is an inherently ridiculous genre, steeped in showmanship and indulgence by an for people who’ve collectively agreed to ignore how cheesy it all is. Aggressive, subversive and testosterone-fueled as it may be, heavy metal has always been the home turf of freaks and geeks, where lyrics can unapologetically be lifted from Dungeons & Dragons playbooks and manhood is measured in power chords per minute. So yeah, if bands like Metallica or Iron Maiden are to be taken seriously, so is Babymetal –– a band that marks over forty years of musical dick-waving being brought to its inevitable, logical conclusion. No wonder all but the most stubborn and deluded of metalheads have hearthily embraced Suzuka, Yui and Moa as one of their own.
So for a b(r)and like Babymetal to go and try being taken seriously by “real” metal fans is both absolutely pointless and actually harmful to their very nature. While the viral sensation’s first album combined all the worsts of both metal and bubblegum pop to create a charismatic yet borderline unlistenable mess, their latest album, Metal Resistance, went out of its way to ignore the perverse monstrosity that is Babymetal. It’s tame, predictable, safe –– the very antithesis of the debut, yet somehow its flaws remain the very same: a distinct lack of memorable, polished songs. “Karate” is the one exception, yet what an exception it is. Combining both the catchy hooks and punchy immediacy of a good pop song with the aggression and technical proficiency of classic metal, it carefully assembles the several good ideas Babymetal’s music has espoused over the years into a song that can be enjoyed as more than just a reminder of how “wacky” Japan is.
While Babymetal have never been strangers to exploring metal’s numerous distinct subgenres, “Karate” is their first song to actually push the envelope rather than trail behind. It spices up the bare, rhythmic simplicity of mainstream nu-metal in the 90’s –– think Limp Bizkit, KoRn, and other such bands you’d rather forget –– with the wobbly guitar complexity of “djent”. Yeah, that’s actually what they call it. I guess at some point, metalheads got tired of making up new terms for whatever the hot new overly distinct subgenres is this week and just started using onomatopeoia. Point is, any song that manages to unite three questionable genres into one remotely sufferable whole deserves all the credit it can get. While the suits behind Babymetal might have intended “Karate” as a kind of transition between the unholy lunacy of their early days and the Japanese-Evanescence-but-ten-years-too-late we hear on Metal Resistance, it should by all means be the blueprint for the band’s future going forward. It would be a shame to let the result of a five-year balancing act go to waste in favour of… whatever this is.
“Marigold” by The Florist
The astounding talent for combining anthemic emotional intensity with a similarly overwhelming guitar sound put on display by bands like Kinoko Teikoku or Tokyo Shoegazer is what really got me delving deeper into the Japanese music scene in the first place, so dedicated readers will know none of these lists I do every year are complete without a nod towards a band trying to make that particular sound their own. When The Florist debuted in 2014, ‘trying’ was all they managed to do –– yet with the release of their second album Blood Music this June, the band has taken a giant leap forward. It’s a surprisingly diverse album from a band dedicated to a usually somewhat conservative genre, shaking up the usual formula of atmospheric mid-tempo songs with sombre verses and euphoric choruses with occasional forays into sharp, danceable indie rock à la Bloc Party (“Halcyon”, “Sweet Decadence”), ethereal ambient (“Untitled”) or artsy time signature shenanigans (“Romance”).
The most successful excursion on Blood Music stays closer to The Florist’s usual waters, however. “Marigold”’s galvanised spine is its rapid-fire machine-gun salvo of blast beats, yet the distorted grumbling and violent growling one’d expect past the opening measures make way for clear, endlessly reverberating guitars and Hiroyuki Imamura’s androgynous vocals, creating a sound that unites beauty and brutality in equal measure. It’s an effective crossbreed that The Florist hardly deserve credit for –– insert obligatory Deafheaven mention here –– but they are the first band I know to get there starting from the ‘atmospheric’ end of the equation rather than the ‘metal’ one. The result is far more immediate and accessible than this micro-genre usually is, trading in the shimmering solos and long crescendos for a short, singular, streamlined wall of sound that only ever stops to catch its breath. Consequently, “Marigold” is yet another example of a Japanese band doing what Japanese bands do best – taking a new sound from the fringes and translating it to stadium-ready grandeur.
The Florist’s album Blood Music is available internationally from iTunes.
“Hakuchuumu” by BPM15Q
BPM15Q is the Great Japanese Novel of the anti-idol movement. Former member of BiS meets flesh-and-bone Vocaloid best known for lending her vocals to some of the wackiest electronica Soundcloud will provide, they dress up in cutesy outfits, throw some “controversial” pictures of them smoking and eating cheap pizza on the internet, write, produce and perform the most annoyingly catchy bit of electro-pop of 2016 all by themselves, release an album, announce they’re gonna change their name and double their members and then whoops –– one of them quits before the band has even properly launched its career. Whether you blame mismanagement, a lack of the welcoming audience that punk miraculously did manage to find back in the 1970’s or just the whole ‘nail-that-sticks-out-must-be-hammered-down’ attitude, it’s hard to deny that the whole anti-idol thing has quickly turned out to be as much of a train wreck as the scene it’s supposed to be criticising. In the Age of Warring Idols, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself becoming the villain.
But hey, I did totally mention something about ‘the most annoyingly catchy bit of electro-pop of 2016’ just now, didn’t I? “Hakuchuumu” (lit. “hanging around”) is surprisingly coherent for its many, many influences. There’s cheesy eurodance synths, wild breakbeats, touches of traditional folk and a big-dumb chart-topping drop all in the first minute, all elements that would instantly disqualify any song from this list on their own, yet together make for a composition that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. BPM15Q is the result of J-pop’s bizarre influence on Western electronic music in recent years coming back to Japan, as “Hakuchuumu” operates within the same ballpark as those hotshot producers praised for spinning sugar and cheese into avant-gardist visions of a glitter-coated future. Yet while producers like Sophie caught their fair share of flack for perpetuating an exaggerated image of femininity and Japanese pop culture, Rinahamu and Nicamoq were obviously born and raised in both. Using the “kawaii” aesthetic as a fundamental part of their identity rather than as a gimmick to be exploited for post-modern hipster cred, BPM15Q innovate on a far more fundamental level than most of their contemporaries.
As a result, “Hakuchuumu” will feel just as alienating to the uninitiated, yet all the more genuine to those who’ve acquired the taste. It’s cutesy, yes, but it’s also a legitimately fascinating composition, that loops in and out of constantly recurring hooks and gradually builds up to a saccharine cacophony that sounds like thirty years of electronic music history being kicked off an Akihabara skyscraper. It’s catchy without resorting to the tried-and-true filler verse-killer chorus formula that is bleeding J-Pop dry, but most of all – it’s weird as fuck. The future of idols hasn’t shone this brightly since, well, before all those groups spinning out of BiS became the very thing they claimed to despise. Maybe BPM15Q’s premature demise isn’t as bad as it seems.
Grab “Hakuchuumu” off iTunes as a part of BPM15Q’s debut single, “Online 1st”.
“New Romance” by Have a Nice Day! (ft. World’s End Girlfriend)
Have a Nice Day! is the latest hotness to rocket out of Virgin Babylon Records, the same record label that delegated bands like World’s End Girlfriend, Vampillia and Matryoshka to prior instalments of this feature. Not bands known for their accessibility, if not because of their musical complexity and eccentricity, than certainly because they all happily occupy the more sombre end of the emotional spectrum. Even at their must triumphant, Virgin Babylon’s artists hardly ever abandon the otherworldly melancholy that codifies the label’s entire aesthetic –– which is why the buoyant, blaring electro-rock of Shinjuku’s Have a Nice Day! makes for such a nice addition to its lineup. While the eclecticism present in their layered, maximalist productions is easily reconciled with their label-mates’ usual output, Have a Nice Day!, as the name implies, are capable of a shameless optimism that is rarely seen outside of mainstream pop. With both a fascination for music’s healing properties and complete disdain for its conventions, they introduce joy to a corner of the music world that usually takes itself far too seriously.
Both albums Have a Nice Day! released this year, Anthem for a Living Dead Floor and The Manual (How to Sell my Shit) are full of songs as ridiculous as they are cathartic, mixing the bright, anthemic synthesizer sound of bands like Passion Pit with off-kilter samples from the likes of Beyoncé (on “Blood on the Mosh Pit”) or Kanye West (on “666”). “New Romance” seems conventional enough at first, backing up the nostalgic squeaky synths of a cheap video game soundtrack with a similarly 90s-baiting fanfare of intertwining vocal samples – including the catchiest “baby baby baby baby”‘s this side of Persona 3. Except there’s also a rap bit and the singer sounds like he’s drunkenly trying to hook up with the inside of a plastic bucket. Yet the juxtaposition of euphoria and hilarity in “New Romance” never feels manufactured out of some obligation to be “weird”. They’re two sides of the same coin, of the same feeling, supplementing rather than contradicting each other. Throughout all of their songs, Have a Nice Day! introduce themselves as a band with the potential to lift entire stadiums to unseen levels of bliss. Yet time after time again, they prove they’re far better off doing whatever the hell they want.
“Circle” by FAMM’IN
Until further notice, mankind is still the dominant species on earth, so it looks like FEMM‘s mannequin revolution hasn’t broken out quite yet. With their flawless English lyrics, fine-tuned contemporary electro-pop sound and flashy, big-budget music videos, Emily Kaiho and Hiro Todo –– or RiRi and LuLa for the true believers –– seemed destined to become the act that would finally break J-pop into the western mainstream. A single and album rerelease later, however, audiences have yet to bite, and it seems not even the eye for detail FEMM invest in their ridiculously elaborate aesthetic will be enough to have them be considered anything more than a novelty. No kind of weirdness generally gels well with the western mainstream, especially not when it’s coming from the outside. And so, FEMM turns towards a different audience altogether. As one third –– well, two seventh, technically –– of FAMM’IN, the duo abandons both the mannequin act and the catchy pop sound, resulting in something very few people would’ve seen coming.
FAMM’IN is a supergroup consisting of FEMM, R’n’B singer YUP’IN and the four members of the similarly American-sounding FAKY –– short for Four Ass Kicking Youngsters and therefore the best band name ever –– yet “Circle” doesn’t sound even remotely like anything any of these acts has ever released in the past. With its tantric chants, meditative lyrics and traditional instrumentation, it’s hard not to spot the distinctly Japanese influences, but noticing the seemingly effortless ways in which this song drags the woebegone theatricality of court music into the 21st century doesn’t even scratch the surface of this seven-minute journey into the entirely unexpected. There’s the psychedelic production, the soulful ad-libs and that whole thing where the song feels like it could erupt into a cheesy trap drop at any time, but never actually does. Yet most of all, there is the sheer existential terror that comes with realising that this whole thing was commissioned by Avex Trax, the record label where creativity goes to die*. Flash in the pan or first step in some elaborate scheme to revolutionise J-Pop from the very top down? To be honest, at this point I don’t even know anymore.
(*) … Unless your name is Seiko Oomori.
“Goodbye My Love and Turn Around” by Zombie-Chang
It’s tough to talk about Zombie-Chang without mentioning Grimes. Both artists share roughly the same instrumentarium, a talent for skeletal composition, a do-it-yourself aesthetic and a love for quirky fashion and hair dye. Compare the eerie, clinical synths of “Lemonade” to those of Grimes’ “Genesis”, for example, and it’s hard not to spot the similarities. Nevertheless, there are important differences that set Meirin Yung’s musical alter ego apart from Claire Boucher’s. Grimes invokes the futuristic aesthetic and new age ambience of the nineties, while Zombie-Chang mostly dabbles in the rhythmic simplicity of the eighties. Grimes’ vocals are ethereal and high-pitched, while Zombie-Chang’s are more staccated than they are expressive. Similarly, “Goodbye My Love and Turn Around” may start off with a deep, bare-bones, vintage sounding chord progression à la “Oblivion”, its essence is more one of catchy simplicity than of kaleidoscopic mood-making. Compared to most artists on this list, Zombie-Chang doesn’t compose songs like elaborate paintings. There’s no layers to be peeled back, no intentions being hidden – it’s all naked honesty and rebellious minimalism.
“Goodbye My Love and Turn Around’ is a tropical-sounding earworm somewhere smack-dab in the middle between synthpop and hip-hop, in which a half-drunken, half-asleep sounding Yung turns in a surprisingly fitting performance showing her lover the door through a poorly tuned megaphone. It’s all very new wave, from the outfits to the bright neon colours and awkward dance moves in the video, reminiscent of an era when punk’s “it doesn’t have to be perfect as long as it’s honest” mentality started to seep into the pop mainstream. “Goodbye My Love and Turn Around”‘s most obvious weaknesses are in fact its biggest strengths, as the deliberately sloppy vocals and lo-fi production blend together to form a glorious, frank ode to imperfection and no-bullshit songwriting. Every single one of the song’s limited number of tracks – two vocals, two synths, one bass, one drum computer, that’s it – is memorable enough to render any and all production flourishes and chart-friendly tinkering unnecessarily and unwelcome, stripping back pop music to its bare essentials. How nice it is to see J-Pop remember that the eighties also gave us some good things.
Quick heads-up: I’m not a doctor, but the video below contains some flashes and strobe effects, so people suffering from photosensitive epilepsy are advised to listen without looking. Not that you’ll be missing much anyway.
“Frozen Flower” by Downy
I thought comparing bands that are not Radiohead to Radiohead is something music critics only did to piss off other music critics, but look, here we have a band that people seem to compare to Oxford’s finest for more than just shits and giggles. Granted, given that Radiohead’s whole thing is that they can’t really be defined by a single genre or sound, what people usually mean when they claim a band sounds ‘like Radiohead’ is that said band maybe made a sound somewhere that vaguely reminded them of something they heard in a Radiohead song at some point. Nothing wrong with that, of course. There are world-famous bands that have built their entire career on imitating one particular Radiohead song – *coughColdplaycough*. Yet to call Downy ‘the Japanese Radiohead’ just because they use polyrhythms and guitar arpeggios and singer Robin Aoki sounds a bit like Thom Yorke (at least when you’re, like, underwater and wearing earplugs) is a disservice to both bands.
So what are Downy, then, anyway? A very weird band, for starters. A band that pairs mournful melancholy with nervous, jittery jazz drums and dreamlike guitars. A band that has far more in common with progressive rock than it probably likes to admit, too. “Frozen Flower” expresses a broader range of emotions than mere arrogance, however. Aoki’s melancholy vocals are the sole guiding light through a swirling maelstrom of brooding bass lines and abrasive, metallic synths. The nervous percussion completes the sense of uneasiness that permeates the entire song, and just in case the whole thing didn’t sound menacing enough already, Downy throw in some samples played backwards for good measure. The outcome is a disturbing, twisted, yet oddly appropriate account of sanity barely holding itself together as it is pelted with thousand influxes. No other artist this year better has captured the tragedy of human condition collapsing under the weight of a world that’s grown too complicated for mere mortals to grasp. Except maybe… you know…
“Flashback” by Soutaiseiriron
Amongst anime fans, Soutaiseiriron are probably best known as the band of Etsuko Yakushimaru, who wrote and performed songs for Mawaru Penguindrum, Space Dandy and Arakawa Under the Bridge. With lovers of Japanese indie music, however, they’re usually regarded as one of the few hyped-up bands to actually keep up the quality level that won them all the buzz in the first place. A large part of this consistency can likely be attributed to Soutaiseiriron’s willingness to take their time. Tensei Jingle, their latest album, is the result of three years of fine-tuning –– an eternity in J-pop –– and this perfectionism can be heard throughout –– from the diversity of the sounds featured over the otherworldly, crisp production to the meticulously measured arrangements.
Eschewing the jangly dream-funk (drunk?) that makes up most of the album, closing track “Flashback” is a sultry R’n’B song drifting on Yakushimaru’s mellow vocals and a sparse, electronic arrangement of muted house synths and handclaps. Initially simplistic, the song enters an accelerated evolution somewhere halfway through the second verse, adding scratching, glockenspiel and strings in rapid succession before the entire thing devolves into a chugging, industrial-rock-tingled bridge passage that rings on long after the song’s quite literally flashed back to its initial simplicity. It may sound like a bit of a poorly advised mish-mash on paper (House synths? Scratching? Industrial rock?) but Soutaiseiriron’s masterful studio magic blesses “Flashback” with a warmth and organic elegance that betrays just how seriously they take their desire to innovate.
Listen also: “Genesis SOS”
“The Sixth Air” by Shinigami
I know they’re out there somewhere, the people to whom 2016 somehow wasn’t a living nightmare. The winners of this fight we as a collective species seem to have lost. To be honest, I’m not sure if I want them to be reading this. These words aren’t for them, and I don’t think this song is for them either. This song is for the people who need to be reminded that the misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed and the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. It’s not the most obvious song to introduce a band like Shinigami with, heck, it’s probably not even the best song of the three featured on their Green EP. But it’s the one that best shows off the band’s inimitable ability to send a thousand shivers down your spine, and the one I want people to hear most of all, especially today. Words to live by, backed by music to remember.
But who is this eloquent firebrand whose words ring true even decades after he stepped up to that microphone? Martin Luther King? Winston Churchill? John F. Kennedy? Nope. It’s Charlie Chaplin, in his 1940 masterpiece The Great Dictator. In the role of a Jewish barber with more than a passing resemblance to a certain national socialist leader, Chaplin ends up being confused with the real “Adenoid Hynkel”, put in front of a cheering audience, and expected to rally his troops to war against freedom and equality. Yet instead, the humble barber announces Hynkel’s retirement as great dictator in one of the most breathtaking speeches in movie history – still pressing, still relevant, still heartwarming even after the world learned the true nature of the horrors he spoke up against, and seems to be on the verge of doing it all over again. When the man who kept silent even when talkies had become the new standard in Hollywood at last decides to speak, you can be sure he’s got a very good reason.
Can’t get enough of my bizarre taste in music and half-assed attempts at justifying it? Worry not! Indecisive old me still has a couple of songs he’d be loathe not to mention. If you enjoyed the songs in this list, make sure to check out these honorable mentions as well:
On his newest project “Chains”, LLLL seems ready to tear down any remaining presumptions about his music. Featuring Yuele’s ethereal vocals, “Dance & Kill” is a futuristic floor-filler that gets the blood pumping and the brains working.
Distant, hollow garage beats and lovely polyphonic vocals help The Fin elevate chillwave from a distant memory to a genre with an actual, tangible future. The xx say hi, the Cocteau Twins can rest easily.
What do you get when you mix ska punk with a bunch of dated period drama sound effects? “An unmitigated disaster,” should be the right answer, but then again, this is 2016 and nothing is sacred anymore.
Combining indie rock with electronica in the same vein as the late Boom Boom Satellites, “Overflow” sees Uchuu, establish a niche of their own with pulsating arpeggios, astral flourishes and an impressive onslaught of funky percussions.
Japanese shoegaze is a hydra: cut off one band – with say, a major record deal – and two more will take its place. “Haru” sounds so much like Kinoko Teikoku in their prime it’s scary, but then again, when has more of that ever been bad?
Patrick St. Michel of Make Believe Melodies described this song as “vitamin D in sonic form” and I don’t really have anything to add to that. Woo-hoo!
The leading lady of Tricot goes solo with a cinematic ballad that replaces her day job’s manic energy with anthemic choruses and string arrangements tailor-made to remind us all why people used to love Shiina Ringo so much in the first place.
Still here? Congratulations! You have officially survived my pretentious ramblings and may now safely return to whatever it was you were doing before you made the horrible mistake of coming here. Was my selection to your liking, or were there any particular favourites that got woefully robbed? My knowledge of the Japanese music scene remains lacking and I’m always open for new stuff, so make sure to let me know which songs you enjoyed the most this year! Now go forth and have a fantastic day, whether it’s Christmas or just another regular day to you. 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.