It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, expect for Aquagaze who was sobbing in front of a computer screen and miserably failing to summarize an entire year of music in a single text for the fifth year in a row. On this holiest of days, it is once again time 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 favourite songs of the year — albeit just a tad bit differently than how you’re used to. Even though I’ve arguably gone into writing this feature more prepared than I’ve ever been, these last few weeks have been so incalculably busy for me, I was forced to retire the traditionally extensive format of this annual tradition in favour of something a bit more concise. So, in stead a number of seemingly endless ramblings on an equal number of obscure Japanese songs you’ve never heard, this year you’re getting but one slightly less seemingly endless rambling about a whole bunch of Japanese songs you’ve never heard. That’s more music and less of my writing for you, so really, a win-win situation no matter how you look at it, no?
We start our overview of the year with — who else? — Seiko Oomori, who this year proved once again just how unique a position she occupies in the larger J-pop narrative. She’s one of the few indie acts to have retained her underground sensibilities even after a move to a major label, hangs out with idols, jazz cats, bedroom producers and avant-garde punks alike and reaps the worship of the very same artists she’ll fawn over like a salaryman at an AKB48 gig. She’s the wacky aunt to a whole new generation of singer-songwriters who’ll probably grow up to become far bigger than she’ll ever be, and it’s tough to explore Japanese music of any kind outside the safe boundaries of anime music without ever passing her by. While still relatively fresh on the scene, Oomori has now fully taken Shiina Ringo’s place as the lynchpin holding the entire Western j-pop fandom together — quite the achievement for someone whose biggest talent is an inability to be defined as anything at all.
In fact, Oomori’s public persona — and per extension, her music — are so ambiguous and mercurial I often can’t even tell if they still qualify as “good” by any conventional meaning of the word. Her latest album, kitixxxgaia, is a masterclass in the kitchen sink approach — its very title Frankensteined together from taboo words and Greek goddesses with three stitches to serve as defiant kisses in the face of conservative correctness. It’s another statement rife with tonal shifts, genre concoctions, collaborations and apocalyptic bombast, ushered in by a lead single that needs to be heard to be believed. “Dogma Magma” is a veritable cataclysm of a song, the kind of track only an artist like Seiko Oomori can get away with, ushered in by the sacral crash of a gong and ending on a literal explosion and somehow remaining with its musical integrity intact. Delightfully bizarre — “touch my yes, anyone”? — cathartic, and impossible to describe, “Dogma Magma” ultimately makes utter sense in its complete unpredictability. It’s an ungodly abomination of a song, a concoction that shouldn’t work but somehow does, yet most of all the most perfect affirmation of its creator’s brilliance an artist could ever ask for. If that won’t convince you, you can always ask literally every other J-pop blogger around, ever.
Luckily, Seiko Oomori’s genius is not the only thing every living creature on this planet can agree on. I feel pretty safe to say, for instance, that there are some things I could call the least cool things in the world without offending anyone. Things like fidget spinners, for example, those pesky distractions that tumbled down all the way from must-have gadget of the year down to crowning example of our era’s sky high rate of hype turnover in like, a single week? What about flat caps, the iconic headwear of geriatric Frenchmen, comic relief characters in tokusatsu shows and literally no one else, ever? Tepid as can be. So who, if not the coolest person to have ever roamed the globe, could manage to combine these two into a single music video and walk away with their credibility in tact? Why, it’s Zombie-Chang, of course!
After establishing a niche for herself on last year’s Zombie-Change, Meirin Yung’s musical alter ego truly came into her own with the release of her sophomore album Gang! It’s the standalone single “We Should Kiss”, however, that truly encapsulates the effortless cool of her new-wave inspired aesthetic. Like the best Zombie-Chang songs, “We Should Kiss” builds a lot from very little, using subtle shifts in tempo to turn a handful of tabs and samples into a song that seems in a permanent state of flux. In contemporary electronic music, song progression usually entails repetition at increasing volumes, but Zombie-Chang’s self-proclaimed “anti-EDM” is a lot subtler, reshuffling the conventions of — for lack of a better term — club music into a hypnotic series of variations on the same theme, distinct from the relentless crescendo of conventional dance music and all the better for it.
While Zombie-Chang has always managed to combine her unique brand of cool with a similarly distinct musical aesthetic, Wednesday Campanella mostly continued their struggle to find a unique sound to match Kom_i’s charisma throughout the year. The band’s willingness to sell out to any brand under the sun in exchange for funding to make some of the most memorable music videos of the past decade has always been a risky venture, and the backfire has been slow but painful to witness. Growing popularity has left the band with a list of priorities that arguably ranks music at the very bottom, leaving this year’s Superman the trio’s second consecutive release stuck washing down Kom_i’s ever-giddy vocals with the same dishwater sound. It’s a pleasant surprise, then, to know they can still turn out a delight like “Ikkyu-san”, with its funky pulse and dreamy saxophone a strong argument for Wednesday Camapanella’s persisting relevance in a world that’s slowly catching up with them.
One of the shadows chasing is Ame no Kanmuri, whose upcoming debut album promises sparse, nocturnal electronics in the same ilk as artists like Burial or Jamie xx — albeit with one major difference. Central to the project is one molm’o’mol, whose wispy looks and imperious snarl would have you forget her past as a member of certifiably ridiculous idol group Koutei Camera Girl in no time. Yet the true star of Ame no Kanmuri is indubitably Masayuki Kubo, who provides tracks like “ready” and “lie night” with simmering beats and brooding synths that evoke a time of night far beyond any idol’s bed time.
While Wednesday Campanella and Ame no Kanmuri’s efforts to mix hip-hop with the more conventional sounds of pop and electronic house give a good idea of where Japanese pop music is headed in 2017 — see also, daoko’s sudden betray- I mean, ascension to chart-topping superstardom — some acts are gleaning inspiration from the Western scene’s more ambitious attempts to become the de facto sound of a generation. And amongst them, the unlikeliest candidates might even turn out to be frontrunners. If just a year ago, you’d have told me Akko Gorilla would’ve featured on this list, I’d have scoffed. Back then, the energetic “gorilla-themed rapper” — her words, not mine — felt like just another novelty act, whose sole moment in the spotlights would’ve involved a trip to Africa to film a music video for a song full of literal chimpanzee sounds. Awkward.
Yet lo and behold, with the release of Green Queen, Akko Gorilla has dropped the monkey business entirely, unleashing a swaggering, diverse EP filled with bangers and experiments alike. From the abrasive polyrhythms of “Pentenshi” to the title track’s feel-good piano stings, Akko more than holds her own against a smorgasbord of backing tracks — yet it’s the ecstatic “Ultra Gender” that cements her as one of 2017’s definitive voices. While the production with all its funky horns, whirring turntables and soulful “wake up, wake up, wake up”s call back the celebratory sound of golden age hip hop — or, for the uninitiated, the Persona 3 soundtrack —, the lyrics look towards the future, urging listeners to wake up to a new reality where the arbitrary boundaries between genders have blurred. Yet at no point does “Ultra Gender” feel smarmy or self-aggrandizing in that unique Macklemore way. Akko Gorilla is a barrel full of laughs first and foremost, and her spunky flow makes Green Queen a joy to listen to even when you don’t understand a word coming out of her mouth. Not bad for a monkey.
Along with New York, Berlin and maybe the neon-lit cesspit called Las Vegas, Tokyo remains one of the most inspirational cities in the world, especially as far as nightlife is concerned. With the sun goes down and lights go out in the skyscrapers, the streets come crawling with lonesome salarymen and drifting youngsters, turning the booming metropolis into a beacon of the melancholy urban malaise that its musicians so often tend to encapsulate with a thorough gaze at their own shoes. Yet Tokyo used to sound a lot different. Back during the bubble economy of the 1980’s, metropolitan hustle and bustle sounded like city pop, a chipper cocktail of jazz and synthpop designed for the boom boxes and car radios of a new generation of wealth. The Tokyo of today, where the genuine happiness is harder to find than a hair in a cotton candy machine, couldn’t sound that optimistic if it wanted to — not without admitting the sheer cynicism of using nostalgia as an aesthetic.
This is not a new idea. Heck, criticism of the rampant consumerism of the 1980’s through co-optation of its soundtrack is what the entire genre of vaporwave is all about. Thank the gods of music there’s an alternative though. On her(a)rt, arguably J-pop’s best album of the year, For Tracy Hyde present a cosmopolitan cocktail of present and past, pairing the cheerful vibes of city pop with the murky chills of 1980s dream pop. In line with the album’s concept as the soundtrack to an imaginary film, tracks like “Floor” or “Leica Daydream” invoke the feeling of a night that only comes around once in a lifetime, weaponizing soft, jangly melancholy to paint a picture of absolute bliss just out of reach. Plus, who’d have guessed fuzzy guitars and saxophones would make such a great match?
Yet in music as in life, trouble never comes on its own, as For Tracy Hyde are far from the only band to make its mainstream ambitions apparent in 2017. Relative newcomers such as 17 years old and Berlin Wall — what’s in a name? — shave back shoegazing’s characteristic haziness in favor of crisp vocals and intelligible lyrics while retaining the genre’s penchant for ethereal riffs and emotional intensity. While the harmonizing vocals of 17 years old and Berlin Wall’s “Prism” set the young band apart from the whack-a-mole of Kinoko Teikoku wannabes on the scene, Kyoto’s Homecomings step up to the plate with some of the strongest guitar work of the year on “Play Yard Symphony”. Seeped in nostalgia for “basketballs bouncing down the basement stairs”, guitarist Yuki Fukutomi’s English lyrics don’t exactly make it out of Ayaka Tatemino’s mouth phonetically intact, but when has intelligibility ever been part of shoegazing?
Even further along the path to pop perfection, we come across another old friend of this feature’s. Fresh of their fruitful collaborations with J-pop superstar Superfly, Sally and Tomoya of Heavenstamp amped up the pop factor on their eclectic brand on alternative rock as well on their long-awaited second album. Tengoku-inkan wo Kininasai (lit. Listen to Heavenstamp) is a pleasant listen, stuffed with smooth, uncomplicated songs, yet as an unfortunate result is a bit of a sophomore slump compared to its self-titled predecessor. In exchange for an identity of they own, Heavenstamp have abandoned the sonic diversity and energy of their youth. Nevertheless, tracks such as the anthemic “Around The World” — featuring Bloc Party’s Russell Lissack on guitars — and “Plastic Boy, Plastic Girl”, a particularly pounding take on the four-to-the-floor formula Heavenstamp have become known for, take me right back to their heyday as Japan’s most extraordinarily British band.
Turns out there’s a lot more sharks in the pond for that title however. In a year dominated by sweeping, smarmy ballads, Polkadot Stingray managed to make waves with a tongue-in-cheek, hyperkinetic take on danceable indie rock not dissimilar to that of UK bands like Two Door Cinema Club or The Automatic, albeit with an added helping of jazzy showmanship. The result is at times overwhelming, yet at best impressive, with tracks like “Electric Public” shifting and twisting their way through pop, punk, funk, jazz and bossa nova in a single go. It’s the kind of ambition many young bands embrace, but few can actually pull off. Fortunately, Polkadot Stingray run like a well-oiled machine and sound like they’ve been busting genre boundaries for years, nevertheless keeping their compositions well between the established boundaries of pop and clearing out any accusations of pretentiousness with a nod and wink. The music video for “Electric Public” is a cheeky joy to behold with its goofy dress-ups and tokusatsu shout-outs, but ultimately it’s frontwoman Shizuku who runs off with the lion’s part of the attention with her charming street presence and impressive vocals. J-pop isn’t exactly lacking for it-girls at the moment, but it’s always nice to see talented women getting their proper due.
For listeners who like to keep things dark and downcast, however, there’s still plenty of pop-free guitar chops to go around. While some of the genre’s most prominent proponents are rewriting the rules, shoegazing in its traditional sense as a steamroller of swirling reverb and emotional resonance remains well-represented by the likes of Shelling and Cruyff in the Bathroom. Ditching Japan’s usual preference for lush instrumentation in favor of a skeletal garage sound, the latter’s “Hate” owes its thunderous roar to a mix that quite heavily favors the lower register. It’s an unconventional approach for a genre that prefers misty beauty over existential dread, but efficient for a song that is about as devoid of the happiness it sings about as its video is of colour. Misty beauty, on the other hand, can be found in spades on Shelling’s third, and best, album Waiting For Mint Shower!!, a collection of celestial soundscapes that doesn’t need titles to betray what its songs are fundamentally about. Water is a red thread throughout the album, and as a result, standout tracks like “Unfading Scent” and “Seaside Bed” invoke the image of endlessly flowing rivers of echoing guitars carrying singer Aya’s whispery vocals to infinity and beyond.
With the scene that celebrates itself verging ever closer to pop territory, it was only a matter of time before the idol industry would get its claws on it, and lo and behold, in · · · · · · · · · ·, or Dots, the world’s first shoegazing idol group is officially a thing. With most of their songs penned by Azusa Suga, the silent force of For Tracy Hyde, I am contractually obliged to be interested, but fortunately, Dots are well worth the attention. Named after the My Bloody Valentine EP of the same name because of course it is, their major label debut single “Slider” is a Cocteau Twins-esque cocktail of ethereal harmonies and dreamy synths, free from any of the embarrassing grandstanding that has driven the entire alternative idol scene into a ditch. What Dots do have, however, are gimmicks. As the law dictates, no idol group is allowed to have potential without squandering it all on tired promotions and uninspired gimmicks, so when Dots dropped “Slider” in August, they did it by burying it somewhere within 72 minutes of noise on a single track. It’s the proverbial needle in a haystack, but then again, what better metaphor for the Japanese music industry could you possibly ever conceive of?
Speaking of alternative idol groups, Necronomidol, the occult-themed quintet that dabbles in black metal as often as it does in brooding darkwave and creepy folk tunes has mostly managed to keep its head above the water by shying away from the usual shenanigans. In stead, Necronomidol try to set themselves apart from the ever growing pack through thoughtful engagement with its English-speaking fanbase, through ceding part of its creative control to its members, and most of all, through its musical diversity. “Ithaqua”, the closing track to their sophomore release Deathless, is a perfect example of how Necronomidol use the girl group format to enhance, rather than contradict, the brutality of metal. Gone are the cutesy yelps and blaring synths, replaced with chilling stings and eerie vocals you’d associate with the soundtrack for a horror movie. In all its atmosphere and appeal, “Ithaqua” nevertheless stands out for its staunch refusal to compromise. It is both a fully fledged pop song and a bona fide metal track, never the ungodly chimera of the two “kawaii metal” so often is. Whereas to other groups, metal is a mere gimmick, to Necronomidol it’s an actual sound, and this difference in attitude is exemplified by the consistent quality of their output. With BiS and company in shambles and Babymetal too big for their own good, the true winners of the anti-idol war may be standing right in front of us. In the snow. Visibly freezing their toes off.
For those of you who prefer their metal without meddling teenyboppers, however, there’s still plenty to talk about. For starters, Heaven in her Arms were one of the only Japanese bands to make any kind of wave within the anglophone music press this year, their magnificent “Abyss of the Moonbow” being featured on Stereogum’s 80 Favourite Tracks of 2017. Deservedly so, as it turns out, for “Abyss of the Moonbow” is an intense, contemplative experience similar to the works of Envy, who were featured in my top 15 songs of 2015 post. Second, what might have been Boris‘ very last album ever turned out to be at best a frustrating listen from a band that to me has always flickered back-and-forth between brilliant and insufferable. Too much drawn-out self-indulgence for its own sake, not enough fresh ideas, which is what makes my favourite Japanese metal release of the year such a breath of fresh air.
Tokyo debutantes Pale have their fingers on the pulse of the latest developments on the international metal scene, with their debut EP playing very much in the same ballpark as popular, critically acclaimed bands such as Deafheaven and Alcest. The idea is to mix the cinematic scope and cathartic furor of post-rock with the brutal instrumentarium of extreme metal, essentially using shredding guitars, blast beats and bloodcurling screams to make the same kind of rousing beauty you’d see backing a David Attenborough documentary. What sets Pale apart from their peers however, is the length of their songs. While post-rock infamously takes its time with drawn-out crescendos and different “movements” to a single song, “Gossamer” and “Juvenile” trim off all the fat and cram 12 minutes’ worth of ideas in a mere four a piece without ever getting too overwhelming. The latter song especially feels like a gazillion overly specific metal subgenres tossed into a blender and poured into a mold made of pure punk, short enough to smack you across the face, yet long enough to hook onto your brain and never let go.
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 post 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.