20. Kido Yoji Call A Romance
On his debut release, Kido Yoji makes dance music for people who like spending significant amounts of time staring out on bright0lit cityscapes. Call A Romance certainly moves – check the easy-breezy disco shake of the title track, or the irresistible pop of “Hot And Cold” – but beneath the night-out-worthy sounds beats a particularly sensitive heart. Yoji jumps between ennui – the heavy-eyed opener “AM 3:33” – and longing – the talk-box powered “More Than Real,” which makes a strong bid for best robot slow jam since Daft Punk’s Discovery. Catchy and heartbreaking all at once, can’t wait to see what comes next.
19. Friends Let’s Get Together Again
There are so many angles one could take when discussing this album it almost demands an essay. Like, Friends’ sound, which takes beach-pop and covers it in layers of feedback, a sort of lo-fi approach one often loves or hates well before they even here the record. Or how the band approaches nostalgia, a prickly subject in a year that gave us Retromania? You could also spend paragraphs debating whether Friends even need all that feedback…is it a vital aspect, or just a stylistic distraction from the pretty pop underneath? Heck, take this at an extremely surface level and just focus on the band name, a moniker the group has announced they will change in 2011 (and now we know that name…Teen Runnings) and zero in on how the Japanese Friends couldn’t out-hype American-based Friends and what that says about Japanese indie music.
To discuss why Let’s Get Together Again lands here, though, I have to ignore all those talking points and just get a little personal. When Second Royal Records first posted the album online here, I wasn’t blown away. I like Friends’ approach to pop, but initially this release didn’t floor me like I thought it could. Yet I stuck with it and Let’s Get Together Again grew on me, the snow-cone delicious melodies lurking beneath the noise hooking me in (check the sweat-soaked wonder of “Since I Made A Mistake” or the chilling intro to “Our Love Is True”). At this point I though “OK, #30 on the list.” Yet time revealed another layer to this album that struck me even harder than the pure-pop pleasure Friends can pump out. Not to get all New Yorker on you, but it’s important to remember this is past-obsessed music being made my a 20-something in 2011, an extremely turbulent time for people like Friends’ head honcho Syouta Kaneko. Or, cough, me. The noise cutting through all the prettiness is essential to me because that sounds like the present, slicing through these Brian Wilson inspired fantasies. I once wrote the lyrics to any Friends’ song weren’t important – I’ve flip-flopped on that now, because the lyrics Kaneko has made available shed new light on the album. Check the words of “When I’m Asleep,” which focus on choosing the girls one conjures up in dreams as opposed to the ones in the real world, made current-events worthy with a line about one’s mom asking when they are getting married. Let’s Get Together Again is an album about wanting to be away from the present, possibly transported to times one was better made for, but with the world of today reminding you that just can’t happen. Ultimately, I can relate to that feeling, which is why this album jumps up in the rankings and I’m looking forward to what comes next, regardless of what the group is named.
18. Boris New Album
In a year where a bunch of J-Pop acts crafted strong artistic statements worthy of praise, long-time critical darlings Boris went the other way. The trio, best know for loud droning rock music and an intimidating discography to swim through, teamed up with a subsidiary of J-Pop mainstream label Avex and made their most accessible album to date. New Album isn’t Boris morphing into Porno Graffiti, the band retaining the metal and experimental tendencies that to now has defined their existence. Yet, whether because they were getting bored or wanted to take the piss out of something or they just wanted some of that J-Rock money, New Album features two songs that could easily be rejiggered into singles for Dracula-knuckleheads VAMPS (“Flare” and “Black Original”) and an honest-to-goodness ballad in the form of “Pardon?” Most surprising of all is how well Boris pull off this look – that ballad trumps the majority of schlocky trash on the Oricon charts, while Album highlight “Hope” easily hangs with any of the year’s best J-Rock tracks. Boris have always been a group eager to try out new sounds, but nobody saw something like New Album coming…or how good they sound doing it.
17. Sapphire Slows True Breath
The most buzzed-about sound from Japan in 2011 was the shadowy, dreamy dance music hovering out of Tokyo like fog. The CUZ ME PAIN label came to be most associated with this style, but it looks like 2012 will be the year the projects in that stable get serious with albums. Instead, non-PAIN act Sapphire Slows released a brief album on American label Not Not Fun serving as an excellent introduction to Tokyo’s dimly lit scene and a strong statement all its own. Standout number “Spin Lights Over You” could be Slows’ business card, a simplistic club strut surrounded by vapor-light vocals and dizzying synths . Elsewhere, “Cosmo Cities” swelters while “Green Flash Mob” vamps by on particularly bright keyboards while a voice creeps around the edges. It’s unsettling but ultimately irresistible, like getting an invitation to dance from one of the Super Mario Brothers ghosts.
16. Her Ghost Friend Her Ghost Friend
DJ Obake always struck me as an odd musician, a guy capable of a straight-up catchy dance number one day but check in like a week later and he would suddenly have some avant track full of wacky touches up on his MySpace. This versatility manifests itself in the Her Ghost Friend project, a collaboration between Obake and Shinobu Ono, who handles vocals and also designed the cutesy album art you see on the side. Her Ghost Friend drifts through mostly poppy terrain, Obake setting his synths on a level so bright it would make a Ghibli animator think twice while Ono coos over the twinkling soundscape. The Her Ghost Friend album is above all a very colorful album, Obake’s flurry of synths complimented by graceful string sections and chirping video game noises. Yet this isn’t pure cotton candy – Her Ghost Friend flashes bits of Obake’s stranger side, like how several songs here see Ono skip singing in favor of just talking or how some of the instrumental tracks, loaded with spacey satellite transmission sounds, could have served as an opening theme to a 1950′s sci-fi show. Her Ghost Friend is a great display of Obake’s abilities, from his ear for catchiness to his more adventurous leanings.
15. She Talks Silence Some Small Gifts
Here’s the only album where I’ll say “just read my original review” because if I chucked up any words in this spot trying to touch on how this mini-album touches the emotions, I’d just be control-v-ing. So, in brief – She Talks Silence’s follow-up to 2010’s lonely masterstroke Noise & Novels finds the once-solo project grow into a duo, the overall sonic quality upped oh-so-slightly. The sound mostly remains true to our previous list topper, indie-pop diagrams designed by minds cloud by melancholy and Lynched-up with, appropriately, some small details. This is where the emotional stuff would start flowing, but just hit the hyperlink and I’ll sum it up by saying Some Small Gifts gives us more of the same She Talks Silence…which is very welcome considering how great that is. Oh, and “Some Small Gift” is the best tune they’ve penned to date.
Cherryboy Function Suggested Function EP #2
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with nightclubs. Growing up in the middle of a desert (population: 10,000. Happening spot: Jack In The Box), I didn’t even see a proper concert until college let alone sneak off and spend a wild evening trying to sneak into a club. When I finally shipped off to university and found myself in Chicago, a whole new universe of nightlife options appeared before me…yet, once the initial giddiness wore off, I found myself finding annoying points. Sometimes the music being spun wasn’t really for me, and sometimes expressing this fact to friends resulted in nearby strangers loudly saying how fucking pretentious I was (this really happened, and pretty much ruined Chicago clubs for me). Sometimes in Japan, I’d go out for the night and sorta sour on the event…only to realize no more trains were running home and I was stuck until six the next morning. Most likely I’m just not much fun, but I always picture nights on the town as magical, woozy, drunken times, not exercises in killing time.
Basically, I wish going to a night club mirrored Suggested Function EP #2. Cherryboy Function crafted five delirious, rum-soaked dance songs here that are club triumphs, both because of Function’s professional attention to detail and because they just sound insanely fun. Like how “Distopia” opens with this pass-me-a-drink vibe that feels like seeing an elevator door open up to reveal a great party already bumping, or how the cowbell smacking of “Plan E” sounds like it wouldn’t be complete without shots of tequila. And this stuff does work in a live setting. I heard dizzying EP highlight “Pulse Of Change” between sets of a concert late in 2011, and tipsly danced without fear of missed transit or assholish reprimand from bearded jerk. Suggested Function is a perfect night out reduced into a sonic medium, these five tracks nailing the initial thrill of stepping out into the night to the drunken leg moving to the off-balance walk home.
13. Perfume JPN
REVIEW OF JPN PART 2: THE ONE THAT BRINGS IN EVERYTHING
“With Perfume, before I even start work on a song, it is already assigned to a certain commercial, so it’s all about getting a single idea or hook that stands out, whereas capsule’s music is more complex and part of the fun is in finding new sounds every time, or how different people can hear different sounds whilst listening to it.”
Yasutaka Nakata, the mind behind Perfume and Capsule, talking about the differences between the projects in The Japan Times.
Yeah, that’s all nice and good Nakata, bracing for the inevitable backlash against JPN by blaming THE MAN. Here’s the thing though – Nakata NEEDS the commercial pressure of Perfume applied to him to bring out his best, and it’s the reason JPN succeeds. I’ve already laid out why Perfume’s latest sounds good to me, but one interesting development has come along since that review…I’m liking JPN a lot more now. This album still dominates my iPod time, and even the singles that were monopolizing my time in 2010 continue to captivate me. This isn’t the best Perfume album, but I’m starting to think it might be a solid silver medalist.
Yet some people hate this album and what Perfume have become, and look everyone gets an opinion blah blah blah, but some of the reasons for dismissing JPN strike me as silly. Mainly, those not fond of this album frequently mention the same thing Nakata highlighted in that top quote – the advertising ties. I’ve seen Tweets call this album a collection of “advertising jingles” while even Ian Martin’s otherwise good review takes time to talk about the Kirin connections. This post – written long before JPN, but about the “fall” of Perfume – seems almost obsessed with Perfume’s marketing ties, from the Cars 2 appearance to something about how new Perfume tracks don’t have good sci-fi names. Look, I love reading Neojaponisme too, but judging music shouldn’t involve what ads the band has appeared in or what Pixar movie they lent a song to or what the song titles are…it should focus on the music.
And when I focus on just the sound, I hear another colorful pop album from a trio that might be as prevalent in commercials as the Aflac duck but a group still ahead of the J-Pop curve. I also hear Nakata, seemingly over the restrictions placed on him by Perfume’s status, accidentally making some of his best music yet. In that top quote, the part where he mentions Capsule also implies he’s talking about World Of Fantasy, an album that most people who didn’t like JPN loved…but one that I personally didn’t like at all. Sometimes being “complex” can be a burden…and as for “finding new sounds,” Nakata might want to revisit some blogs circa 2008…and the simplicity of pop music (“make something catchy”) trumps what World Of Fantasy tries to do (“be catchy AND cool”). In the intro to “Glitter” alone I hear more ecstasy than I do anywhere on that Capsule album. As much as Nakata wants to distance himself from it, the restrains of Perfume bring out the best in him, and make JPN a stellar release regardless of how many cell phone ads the songs on it appeared.
12. Canopies And Drapes Violet, Lilly, Rose, Daisy
The break-up of Tokyo’s Nu Clear Classmate back in July was a sad moment. The under-heralded duo gave the world one superb EP in 2010′s Lick The Star – a release that in retrospect was a top ten album that year – and seemed capable of even greater art. Yet the project ended after a live show in their native city this past summer, and that was that. Sometimes cliches can be true though, and opportunity can arise from bad news. Out of the ashes of that group came Canopies And Drapes, the solo project of Classmate lead singer Chick, and eventually the EP Violet, Lilly, Rose, Daisy. Her excellent debut establishes her as an exciting young face in the Tokyo scene, one taking cues from her previous project but unafraid of new directions.
Nu Clear Classmate treated emotion like black and white, their songs either sounding extremely happy or crushingly depressed. Canopies And Drapes approaches them with subtlety, though, the best songs on Violet almost coming off as short stories. “Sleeping Under The Bed,” backed by a dreamy pulse reminiscent of Grimes, tells a story fluxuating between devotion and longing, ending with a slightly sad line leading to vagueness. The jittery “Perfect Step” is a lovely character sketch, while “Live In The Snow Globe” tells a story of unrequited love peppered with details about eating french fries at McDonald’s and discussing Snoopy. As our narrator discusses her “sickness” and reveals her wish to live with him in a snow globe forever, the music matches the mood and features a climax worthy of Banana Yoshimoto. Violet carries on the emotional tugging Nu Clear Classmate were so good at, but does it in an understated, almost literary way. Bands and artists can close up shop at anytime, but here’s to hoping Canopies And Drapes sticks around a while.
11. Nuxx Lettre Mois
Sorry to get a little sappy, but it has been nice watching Osaka’s Nuxx grow up right before my eyes. When I first arrived in Japan, I had this habit of choosing random concerts featuring only Japanese bands to go to, and one night I ended up seeing a trio called Bang Bang Balloon who blew me away with their fusion of club-ready beats and Perfume-esque pop chops. They eventually renamed themselves Nuxx, released a very good debut and this year dropped Lettre Mois, their best work to date. Prior to it, Nuxx mostly dealt in huge, singles-worthy pop hooks, which sounded phenomenal but also sometimes made the surrounding songs on their releases pale in comparison. With Lettre Mois, Nuxx have crafted a consistently great album, one featuring few sags to the point this almost feels like a well put-together DJ mix of Nuxx tracks rather than a proper release. The group haven’t lost their knack for crazy catchy moments – “Born To Walk” has a little of “Journey To The West’s” DNA in it, while “Ring Of Pop” lands on a shortlist of best Nuxx song yet – but now those moments aren’t left towering above the rest. Everything else either keeps the frantic floor-worthy pace going or slows thing down just enough to feel like a breather (the blinking “Stereotype”). Nuxx even turn “Happy Birthday” into a banger on “Your Day,” one of the most surprising musical feats of 2011. That’s almost impressive as them putting together this album, a stride forward for them and one of the year’s finest.