30. Salyu “新しいYES”
A lot has changed since I first wrote about this song back on April 1st…I don’t know what chemicals I got slizzered on when I compared Salyu to Erykah Badu and Cosmogramma ran away with my “album of 2010” honors…but this track’s selling point stays the same. I can assure you no song on this list relied on a single element more to place than this one, because “新しいYES” lives and dies on Salyu’s vocal performance, the single best of the last 12 months. Forget everything going around her pipes…it’s nothing more than a reason to move forward and give Salyu something to run alongside…and just focus on her voice, a captivating instrument tinged with joy, sadness, loneliness and acceptance. Just listen to it.
29. Puffyshoes “Lazy Seventeen”
Puffyshoe’s big call-to-arms song isn’t going to shake the base of society – the protagonist of the song “is in love, but I’m lazy” and by the end of the track she’s only decided to get off the couch and maybe shed a few pounds. Yet the sheer driving force on “Lazy Seventeen” transforms an otherwise commonplace realization (maybe I shouldn’t be so lazy) into something immensely life altering. It’s one of Puffyshoes’ best qualities…makiing the everyday into ramshackle revelations covered in garage-rock fuzz.
28. Capsule “Stay With You”
Mark this down…here’s my first entry of the year devoted to worshiping at the feet of Japan’s best contemporary producer Nakata Yasutaka. His actual approach to making music rarely changes…though stay tuned to hear what happens when it does…but he’s honed his skills so much to this point it’s really something to celebrate. The opening song to his Capsule project’s 2010 album Player works almost as a checklist: busy sounds scurrying all over, pretty female vocals lightly touched by digital hands, a sense of disco-appreciation playing a big role in the shaping of this song. “Stay With You’s” best attribute belongs to the sunny-pop hop vibe, lending the usually computer-heavy sound an open-window gust of energy. And this is the lowest ranking Nakata-helmed song on the list!
27. Shugo Tokumaru “Lahaha”
To all the people saying Shugo Tokumaru’s boundless giddiness comes across as creepy – screw off and let me enjoy my bedroom-pop sugar rush. “Lahaha” might be the most manic trip into Tokumaru’s musical toyland yet, all clattering childrens’ instruments moving at all-ages-approved whirlwind speed before hitting a chorus featuring our hero simply laughing out the title of this song. Though I still want to throw LEGO bricks at them, I wouldn’t blame someone for thinking Shugo might be caught in arrested development after hearing “Lahaha,” it’s definitely a three-ring circus of cuddly insanity. Yet some of us don’t mind watching our Master of Ceremonies break down into pure joy while his stuffed-animal orchestra plays on.
26. Sakanaction “Identity”
Picture me standing on a big, razzled-dazzled-out stage opening an envelope. “And the winner for 2010’s ‘Peer Pressure’ award goes to…Sakanaction!” Streams of confetti flow from the ceiling as “Identity” plays in the background. “The band couldn’t be here to accept the award tonight, so I’ll say a few words on their behalf. Some of my favorite compatriots in Japanese-music blogging, like Sparkplugged over there and, hey is that J-Pop Lover good to see ya…some of my favorite compatriots sang the praises out of this band. I’ll be honest with you fine folks at first I wasn’t all that impressed and I kinda still want more from these guys…the least they could do is show up!” Pause for laughter as I putt at imaginary golf ball. “Now, this ‘Identity’ song, though, that’s a pearl. They actually sound like they are having some fun, trying to start a dance party even! Yet they remain just as serious as every J-Rock band seems contractually obligated to be, making the non-club-ready bits surprisingly soaring. I guess you guys in the front were right…these guys rule, just not at arriving on time!” Laughs, exit stage left to where I pick up my big bag of swag featuring an advanced DVD of the new Harry Potter movie and an XBox.
25. Lilacs In Bloom “Colorful Haze”
Make Believe Melodies’ makes no effort to hide its indie-pop obsession…their have been times this year where 80 percent of a given week’s content ended up being tagged “twee as fuck.” This blog could probably get by just writing about Japan’s prolific indie-pop scene but then the only people who’d bother to visit this site semi-regularly would be ambitious Twee.net users. So let’s take a moment to recognize the crop of anorak-wearers who didn’t make this list but probably could have in some alternate reality where I really played up my wimpiness, groups like Sloppy Joe, The Caraway, Hideki Kaji, Mr. COCKROBIN, Balloon Skirt, The Weddings, Serani Poji, Mikafika, Tenniscoats live videos and who knows what other quality jangle-tastic groups I left out.
So our 2010 twee-pop representative ends up being Lilacs In Bloom, who made the purest slice of melancholy sunshine hop-a-long music of the year with “Colorful Haze.” Wussy yes, but who needs to posture when Lilacs provide the perfect summer guitar-meets-drums combination and then make it even more gorgeous by letting some horns perk the whole thing up more. What makes this stuff truly indie-pop, definitively twee, are the hints of amateur-ness bleeding through all that skipping. Lilacs’ vocals stand out something fierce on “Colorful Haze,” sounding like they were recorded in a very spacious fish bowl. Yet this just makes the song that much more of a bonafided twee jam, the sort of stuff that soundtracks an especially whimsical summer spent thinking about crushes you have no guts to ever act on. This list could be weighed down by skinny indie-pop, but why bother when one song outdoes all the others so thoroughly?
24. Miu Sakamoto “Silent Fiction”
Creepiness in mainstream J-Pop always grabs my attention, and Miu Sakamoto released one of the more bizarre singles I saw on sale at Tower Records this year. “Minimal” would be the optimal word to describe “Silent Fiction,” as the track never travels far from the sparse beat and the detached chimes making up the verses, only some stray sounds creeping in from the corners every once in awhile. Then comes Sakamoto’s “singing.” Like a great horror film, “Silent Fiction” doesn’t settle for cheap oh-loogit-that-thing-jump-out-of-a-corner but rather chooses to gradually unsettle. So, Sakamoto only properly sings a little bit, most of this song’s run choosing to whisper spoken words before getting to the chorus which is just her stretching out the word “no” as mysteriously as she can. The video for “Silent Fiction” features presumably Sakamoto coated by blackness as she operates a Never Ending Story aping puppet and it’s a perfect parallel for the song…one can see/hear what they are supposed to, but they also know something else is right there too.
23. Baroque “Feel So Good”
Proof I’m not alone in being floored by young-gun Baroque’s “Feel So Good” – the title track on 80kidz’s Weekend Warrior so clearly draws inspiration from a song put out by one of the newest additions to their own Kidz Rec. label that you know something special is up. “Feel So Good” serves as a slight detour from Baroque’s usual dancefloor regime, as he decides to leave the ear-drum-destroying walls of noise in storage to instead break out pieces of several old parties in order to get the good times rolling. The track embraces its cut-and-paste approach to dance, every new sample and sound standing slightly out but the entire package gelling together so well you barely even notice. Beyond just inspiring a great 80kidz jam and being an impressive feat of production, “Feel So Good” just sounds like the best kind of party – all-over-the-place fun with enough booze to get you tipsy flowing (just check the bubbly vocal sample anchoring this track). A great party turned into a four-minute monster jam.
22. Africaemo “U Make Me Krazy”
I hope they continue to make music for at least another decade…but IF Zazen Boys ever decide they’ve grown tired of spazzing out all over the place, they can zig-zag into the sunset knowing Africaemo can carry on in their footsteps just fine. This Tokyo band borrows a lot of moves from the Boys…precision guitar playing, the infusion of electronic dance elements that don’t turn songs into soulless trance, vocals that go all over the fucking place and in a couple different languages at that. The Squatter mini-album boasts plenty of torch-passing-appropriate moments, but the best song ends up being the hip-moving “U Make Me Krazy.” Africaemo’s most relaxed jam lets the strings work away in the back while the synths get center stage, alongside the usual off-the-walls vocals. Forget Kimonos…Squatter and especially this song are the spiritual follow-up to Zazen Boys 4, a perfect balance of synth-pop and fried-brain rock. The future might be in good hands after all.
(The recorded version is even better find that)
21. Toki Asako “Ranhansha Girl”
The dirty secret about “Ranhansha Girl” is that at it’s heart it’s a classic J-Ballad, the sort of song I’ve spent a novella’s worth of space on this year decrying. Yet here it lands, one of the best Japanese songs I heard all year despite having a very pronounced string section. Toki Asako’s trick was to deconstruct a syrupy ballad into its core elements and then try building it back up…while separated by a thick wall of glass. “Ranhansha Girl” ends up playing like a backwards game of Jenga – it starts bare as can be, Asako’s voice joined only by some shiny synths but slowly adding new pieces…a drum beat, some disco popcorn, violins…until the track starts resembling a weird cross between a Disney trailer and a engagement ring ad. Despite the emergence of some sappiness, Asako never gives in to full-blown balladry, always holding something back. “Ranhansh Girl” is the year’s best J-Pop experiment, a successful dissection of the ballad with very pretty results.