Deck the halls like they’re Richard Spencer’s face, it is once again time to learn what the vast, diverse landscape of Japanese music has been up to outside the realm of anime and other geekery. Down here, where the tendrils of American cultural imperialism have infected the very soil we grow our musicians in, it’s hard to deny 2018 was a juicy year for The Discourse. Several greats fell off their pedestals in an increasingly polarized world. Important steps were taken towards making queer love and mental health acceptable themes to discuss in mainstream pop music. A new generation of controversial rappers — though your mileage may vary on whether they qualify as such — rose up to challenge the aging old guard, only to get decimated before even properly bursting out of the starting block. Oh, and let’s not forget about the unremitting horror that is #grusk.
On the other side of the world, however, the year felt like nothing more than an unmitigated disaster. In 2018, the Japanese music industry was plagued by an unprecedented lack of innovation. Both returning favorites and seemingly trustworthy stalwarts ended up disappointing, struggling to claw their way out of an endless cycle of doing the same things they’ve been doing for years — slaves to an industry that stifles creativity and all but orders its contractees to release every single word they mutter as their next big attempt at topping the charts, which are nevertheless dominated by idols, gormless butt rock, commercial tunes and humiliatingly boring ballads. Sigh. In fact, by far the year’s best album by a Japanese artist isn’t even eligible for this feature, as despite how phenomenal her Be The Cowboy is, Mitski is half-American, signed to an American record label and mostly active in — you guessed it — America.
So, as the time for me to invest my every waking minute into writing this post once again drew near, I had a bit of a problem. I couldn’t do a traditional list, as I struggled to find eighteen, let alone ten songs I found worth talking at length about, nor could I do a more general overview like I did last year, if only because of a lack of time. Instead, I took a page out of Pitchfork’s book and decided to do what they do whenever an artist surprise-drops a new record and they need to have their (increasingly more tepid) takes ready in preferably as little time as possible — I decided to focus on four things to take away from this year in Japanese music. General trends, breakthrough talents, that kind of stuff. That means that instead of a number of seemingly endless ramblings on an equal number of obscure Japanese songs you’ve never heard, this year you’re getting only four slightly less seemingly endless ramblings 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?
Haru Nemuri singlehandedly saved this year from total irrelevance
A momentary lapse into mediocrity didn’t prevent the Japanese music industry from once again conjuring up an it-girl to get the collective blogosphere buzzing. While Haruna Kinishima — a.k.a. Haru Nemuri — might lack the irresistible charisma of Wednesday Campanella’s Kom_i or the overwhelming ambition and audacity of a pop scene landmark like Seiko Oomori, she more than makes up for it with her unique voice: a kitchen sink of Daoko-esque whisper rap, spoken word poetry, pop, electronic, punk and post-rock.
While most of the songs on her debut album, Haru to Shura, don’t stray from the formula she’s established for herself — easing you in with rapid-fire musings and synth flourishes before blowing your ears off on the chorus — there’s an intensity to her delivery that easily transcends linguistic boundaries. On a break from baiting the alt-right, YouTube music critic Anthony “Melon” Fantano made the single good decision he’s ever made in his entire life by awarding the album a rare good score, and the rest is history. The soaring, majestic “Kick in the World” even got picked up by Stereogum, eventually landing Nemuri a spot on the lineup of Barcelona’s famous Primavera festival.
Relishing in its intensity, Haru to Shura is an album redolent with concentrated fury and unabashed joy. Granted, peppy young girls screaming at the world are nothing new, especially not in J-pop, but Nemuri wisely adopts the focused rage of the alternative rock she grew up with rather than the corporate mandate aural onslaught of “idolcore” groups like PassCode, Zenbu Kimi no Sei Da or BiSH. Screaming is the means, not the end, on many of Haru to Shura’s greatest songs, and Nemuri only strains her vocal chords when her frustration — usually delivered in a deadpan sing-song — has reached a boiling point.
This cocktail of hip-hop, bubblegum pop and heavy rock might sound like an unholy concoction on paper, but in practice all these various parts come together surprisingly well and surprisingly often. “Yume wo Miyou” — one of the more subdued tracks on Haru to Shura — is a hypnotic descent into an increasingly more unnerving dreamscape, “Sekai wo Tori Kaeshite Okure” sees Nemuri motor-mouthing her way through buoyant pop punk, and “Narashite” complements her effortless flow with the kind of guitarwork you’d expect to hear echoing out of garages in a New York City suburb in the early noughties.
The result is a phenomenal debut album that, unlike too many of its peers, betrays a certain willingness to be unique — to be the kind of album only this artist could make at this particular point in time. For this reason alone, Haru to Shura demands to be heard, and while I know people generally don’t react to well to demands, you have to consider the following — an up-and-coming artist bursts onto the scene and scream for your attention, claiming the future of pop music is here. Would you call for her to be escorted off stage, or give her a chance, on the oft chance that she’s actually right?
Thank God Envy are back to save us from butt rock
One of the hardest things about writing this feature is having to come to terms with disappointment. Time after time again I am tooting the horn of some upcoming singer or band one year, only for them to disband, lose key members or suffer the infamous sophomore slump the next. Jokes about nails sticking out aside, Japanese music seems to have a genuine fear of innovation and above all, consistently bet on quantity over quality. Major label record deals especially shackle artists to the aesthetics that made them famous — quickly turning singers, producers and bands who once sounded like the revolution into copying machines endlessly churning out one record after another full of pale imitations of their earlier work.
Entirely in line with the rest of the year, the list of unfortunates who fell victim to this inevitability in 2018 is depressingly long. Necronomidol lost the only member anyone could recognize, Wednesday Campanella slid further into complete irrelevance — in spite of one noticeable exception — Zombie-Chang managed to sound duller with a full band than she did on her own and even my predictions regarding Seiko Oomori came true, at least if her largely forgettable new album Kusokawa Party is any indication. One letdown after the other was the name of the game, and at times I came close to writing off Japanese music as undeserving of any more attention. That is, until Tetsuya Fukagawa came back.
I wrote off Envy in 2016, one year after I’d featured “Blue Moonlight” on my top 15 songs of 2015, and mere seconds after they’d announced the departure of their main vocalist. Tetsuya Fukagawa’s restrained fury had been such an essential part of Envy’s signature, influential sound it was hard to imagine the band continuing to exist without him. At the beginning of the year, Envy announced a comeback with a slightly reshuffled line-up, which played a couple of instrumental live shows until April Fools’ Day, when they were surprisingly rejoined by the man who seemingly held the entire thing together. It seemed like a bad joke, but the sudden release of Alnair in August in, ehm, November, confirmed Fukagawa’s return for realsies, picking the band’s meticulous journey towards perfecting their hybrid of emo, post-rock and hardcore punk back up as if nothing’d ever happened.
Alnair in August is a blistering double a-side that both perfectly encapsulates Envy’s 20-year history and boldly gazes towards the future. It’s “Dawn and Gaze” especially that hints at the shape of punk to come. Kicked off by a triumphant intro that condenses the average Mogwai track into a punchy minute and a half, the first track spices up Envy’s usual cathartic ebb and flow with the addition of ambient synths and a choir.
“Marginalized Thread”, on the other hand, is a raging beast on par with “Blue Moonlight”, each meticulously orchestrated chord punctuated by Fukagawa’s strained bellows to cleanse the past years of generic butt rock from any listener’s ears. Like the best Envy material, the tracks on Alnair in August sound like a dozen directions headed towards the same goal, like a runaway train furiously throttling towards nirvana on a cadence trampling everything in its path. There’s no better reintroduction to this band one could have wished for. Welcome back, Envy.
The Japanese still know how to gaze at their shoes
If you’ve been following my blogging over the past couple of years, you know that one of the main reasons why I’m so interested in Japanese music is that the Japanese have a knack for exploring genres more or less dead and buried to most Western blogs and critics. Fans of shoegazing music from the early nineties in particular will find plenty to love in the land of the rising sun, and this feature wouldn’t be what it is without a proper look into some of its haziest releases from the past year.
The Japanese shoegazing scene can be roughly divided into two sides — one tries to veer as closely as it can to the sound established and codified by bands like Slowdive, while the other adopts the traditional textures of the genre to give a dreamy twist to other genres. While previous instances of this feature have always been dominated by this more progressive wing — the catchy, danceable rock of Heavenstamp, the hypersonic melodrama of Kinoko Teikoku, the sparkling city pop of For Tracy Hyde — 2018 was a year dominated by the traditionalists. Countless up-and coming bands stepped up to the plate to demand the attention of an ever-hungry audience, but as with the rest of this year’s debutants, I felt only a select few of them showed off the songwriting chops required to play a very formulaic genre straight.
Luby Sparks stirred up a lot of positive buzz with their self-titled debut album, a smart collection of melodic dream pop rife with clean guitar, vocal harmonies and questionable English. When they lost their main singer Emily in the fallout of the album’s release, however, Luby Sparks adopted a new vocalist and with her a darker, sultrier, more drugged-out sound on the single “Perfect”, vanguard of the recently released EP (I’m) Lost in Sadness. At just four tracks, the EP goes down easily, but one listen suffices to realize there is a lot to unravel here. The aforementioned “Perfect” brings the brooding with its grunge-tingled fuzz, while “Cherry Blossom Dress” takes a page right out of the Cocteau Twins’ book, but by far the most interesting song on (I’m) Lost in Sadness is the title track, a seven-and-a-half-minute epic that sees the band boldly switching sides in the dichotomy I’ve described just now. With synthesized beats, bongos (!) and a guitar solo I can only describe as The Smashing Pumpkins covering Radiohead’s “Airbag” on LSD, it does enough to stir up anticipation for what Luby Sparks have up their sleeves next.
Another band that caught my attention is Yuragi, a quartet from Shiga who produce workmanlike shoegaze without too many bells and whistles, but stand out in their mastery of the humble mixing console. Their appropriately titled EP “Still Dreaming, Still Deafening” sounds absolutely massive when played at the appropriate volume, and the emotional intensity songs like “Horizon” or the doomy “Unreachable” exude bring to mind early Kinoko Teikoku. It’s a bit of a bummer, then, that the best song on the album is still the one Yuragi have been carrying with them since the very beginning. The album version of “Bedside” may blow the original out of the water — it’s still a shame that an album with such an ambitious grandeur to it can’t have any songs on it as energetic as a demo song from the band’s garage days.
CHAI’d probably make a great album one day (if the Japanese music industry didn’t suck)
Whenever I do one of these lists, without exception, there’s always the “one that got away” — the one artist or band that managed to slip under my radar and as such can’t get the attention deserves until a new opportunity presents itself. Last year — for example — CHAI first let their excellent debut album, PINK, loose upon the world, but I didn’t mention of it in my retrospective. What little I’d heard of it hadn’t particularly clicked with me, and the last thing the slate I’d already planned needed was another band of iconoclasts. Yet poor as my judgement may have been, it did little to halt the Nagoya band’s ascent to indie superstardom in their homeland. Following up on PINK‘s release with a string of EPs, singles and quirky music videos, CHAI quickly established themselves as a band no self-respecting music critic could choose to ignore anymore — culminating in a Western release for PINK, an in-depth interview on Pitchfork, and another chance for me to give Mana, Kana, Yuuki and Yuna their proper due.
A casual glance at CHAI’s history makes it hard not to think of K-ON!, of all things. Like Hokago Tea Time, CHAI is the brainchild of four girls in a high school light music club absolutely smitten with the idea of “kawaii”. Nevertheless, beyond the latter band’s love for bubblegum pink stage outfits and chirpy, high-pitched vocals lies a interpretation of cuteness that seeks to challenge any preconceived notions of what is and isn’t “kawaii” — a philosophy they have appropriately dubbed “neo-kawaii”. The idea behind “neo-kawaii” — everyone can be cute in their own way! — may sound tried and true to anyone who’s ever heard a smarmy pop ballad over the course of the past 20 years, but the way in which CHAI own their aesthetic is both genuine and unprecedented. To the disciples of “neo-kawaii”, cuteness becomes a way to express oneself, rather than an obligation to fulfill.
In a way, CHAI can be described as doing to cute what new wave did to cool in the 1980’s — acting it without feeling like it. The music on PINK does have a distinct kind of weirdness and wit to it that brings to mind bands like Talking Heads, but clear, consistently honoured influences are hard to pinpoint at all. CHAI’s smorgasbord of influences, and their dedication to making every single song they put out sound distinct are its biggest strengths, and one listen to PINK is enough to notice. “Hi Hi Baby” opens up the album with elaborate percussion lifted straight from a Basement Jaxx album, “Boyz Seco Men” pairs industrial synths with Nile Rodgers-esque disco funk guitars, while “N.E.O.” is straightforward, punchy dance-rock reminiscent of Cantei de Ser Sexy. As a kind of mission statement for the album, and the “neo-kawaii” philosophy as a whole, it’s CHAI’s brightest, most complete song to date — but more than excel on its own merits, it mostly gets you excited to hear where they’re headed next.
2018 gave us an idea of CHAI’s potential destination, with new singles like the poppy “I’m Me” or the low-key nu-rave banger “Great Job” serving as reassuring reminders of their versatility and dedication to their craft. Nevertheless, I can’t help but gaze upon their career as one’d look at a high-speed train barreling towards the edge of a cliff. Given the current state the Japanese music industry is in, will promising new acts like CHAI or Haru Nemuri be given the breathing room they deserve? Or will they get squeezed to the very last drop by record labels only interested in short-term gain? Will this feature be as miserable next year as it is today, filled with sighs of disenchantment and laments for creativity long lost, or will the hipster gods smile upon us and give us the proper wealth of excellent songs we deserve? Only time will tell.
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.