30. Michiyo Honda “Paradise Lost”
J-Pop remains an easy punching bag in 2011 because most of the criticism lobbed at Japanese mainstream music ring true. A large chunk of acts crowding the upper reaches of the Oricon chart are 90’s holdovers with appropriately bland tunes. Labels seem to be in an arms race to see who can put out the safest, blandest pop, often manifest as the J-ballad, an over-dramatic attempt at emotional payoff built by robots lacking souls. Yet the J-ballad perseveres, and as long as goopy slow burners continue selling well, expect them to never leave or evolve into something with real heart.
Michiyo Honda imagines a better way with “Paradise Lost.” Her best ballad of the year mixed the Disney-ready formula with the insides of an iPad, circuit boards buzzing off as she sang the songs lonely verses. This electronic edge – late in the song, even her voice turned to radio static for a split second, making it seem like she might be a malfunctioning android – made “Paradise Lost” just sound better than most ballads. Yet the real revelation here comes from the emotions Honda wrings out of this song, moving from downtrodden wistfulness to a climax that feels like sun bursting through concrete. Countless J-Ballads might come out in the future and each one might be as soulless as the last, but as long as people like Michiyo Honda keep making torch songs like “Paradise Lost,” hope remains.
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29. andymori “Kakumei”
You can get a lot done in about two minutes. Sharpen a pencil. Pour yourself a cup of coffee. Floss. Lead a game-winning drive down the New Meadowlands field (Aaron Rodgers only apply). You can also render most of the music in your back discography…and most of the future stuff too…plodding, careening into a style that fits you so well without sacrificing any of the hooky qualities your loyal fanbase has come to love. You don’t even need five of those seconds, keep them! Sure there might be a few drawbacks, like making most of the material on your new album sound phoned in, but man the potential seeping out. Or, you know, you can floss.
28. She Talks Silence “Vanished Vacances”
I love talking about the emotions She Talks Silence conjures up, yet sometimes lost in all of the tissue-filled confessionals and opportunities to use David Lynch as an adjective is just how good and catchy STS’ music comes across. “Vanished Vacancies” features everything that makes the pure sonic element of the Tokyo duo appealing, journal talk made unnecessary. At its core “Vacancies” is indie-pop, same as the group itself, dealing in the same fuzz-smeared style of twee favored by seminal outfit Black Tambourine. The wood-block clapping gives “Vacancies” a nice layered feeling, while everything else is classic STS songwriting. Including the final passage, the requisite creep-out portion where the song almost turns violent, this extended outro serving as the track’s unsettling element. It’s a winning formula my mind can enjoy while my heart cries out words onto Tumblr while clutching a Kirin.
27. Greeen Linez “Street Dancer”
I made my DJ debut this year…sorta. OK, I DJed a friend’s wedding party, and by even claiming I “DJed” it feels like I’m a teen who assembled a Lunchables Pizza Kit and declared himself a “chef” (which, hey, another past transgression). My pal…who did the banner for this feature, check him out he rules…gave me a bunch of songs to play but also told me I could buff out his list by playing “whatever you want.” Upon hearing that, the geek in me who always wanted to pretend to be a DJ salivated at the chance to work an actual real party. Maybe one of the attendees needs dudes to “spin” (ha look at me using that term when all I’ve got is a MacBook and Mixxx) at some event and my really great mix (ha!) would wow them. I poured over my iTunes library like I was writing a thesis paper.
I finished selecting songs the day before the party, and one of the tracks I couldn’t wait to play was Greeen Linez “Street Dancer.” Whereas other inclusions seemed a bit risky – what if people don’t like KARA? what if they don’t like Broadcast? – “Street Dancer” seemed as safe as could be, seeing as it sounds like drunken party fun, all slippery and ecstatic and just tough to not grin along with. I knew it did a bunch of stuff the other dance songs I loved in my did, so this seemed safe. The night arrives, and after an hour and a half I drop “Street Dancer” and…people seem to like it! I mean, the folks there were mostly talking and taking photos of one another but, a few people nodded ahead with the song so I took that as a victory. Dream achieved!
Then the restaurant staff hurried over to tell me they needed to play a specific “wedding mix” they made for the cake unveiling…which turned out to just be The Drums’ self-titled album c’mon man!…and Greeen Linez ended prematurely. Still, for giving me a brief illusion of coolness, “Street Dancer” shall live forever on this list. Oh, and also because it is a sick song.
26. Towa Tei “The Burning Plain”
The central LOL of “The Burning Plain” is that the title comes from the name of the film the song’s narrator and object of affection decide to watch together in favor of going to a party. A cute detail underlining why former Deee Lite member Towa Tei’s song sounds so great in 2011. His production gets forced to handle a proper pop song instead of his more familiar world of dance, and he makes it count, throwing in jazzy horn touches and all assortment of bright electronic noises rivaling the LEGO interior design seen in the great video. The featured vocalists put it over, Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Yukihiro Takahashi takes off his digi mask to sing the majority of the track, while Kiko Mizuhara turns the prospect of watching a DVD at home into a must-do option with her alluring voice. Could you imagine that voice riffing on Charlize Theron with you? I’d skip a lot of parties.
25. Hotel Mexico “Dear Les Friends”
Ariel Pink gets credit for being the grandfather of chillwave, and seeing as Kyoto’s Hotel Mexico will have to wear the giant necklace declaring them “THE CHILLWAVE BAND IN JAPAN” for a long time, seems natural that they would borrow a lot of steps from one of the weirder dudes to emerge from Los Angeles. “Dear Les Friends” is Hotel Mexico’s almost too-similar tribute to Pink and his Haunted Graffiti, the entire track resembling last year’s “Bright Lit Blue Skies” save for a touch more complexity and a longer play time. Still, these guys know how to do a good take on Pink’s grungy rock, “Les Friends” blessed with a nice groove and high-pitched singing that somehow works with the accompanying glow and becomes something surprisingly catchy. Not sure if Pink plans on going away in the near future, but if he does Hotel Mexico deserve the call to fill his shoes as weirdo revivalists.
24. Honeydew “Little Rusty Lemon”
Look, I’m a complete sucker for catchy simplicity, as evidenced by several songs already unveiled and plenty more to come. Honeydew’s “Little Rusty Lemon” is about as uncomplicated as indie-pop can get – simple, bouncy melody anchored by lovely (and indie-pop appropriate) singing about cars that might be serving as metaphors for more lurid topics but based on the sense of innocence surrounding “Little Rusty Lemon” is probably just about cars. Song even has a guitar solo that should get eyes rolling but doesn’t because that guitar!. Honeydew summon the catchiest, most direct moments of Yo La Tengo and create a simple but grin-makin’ pop song out of it. Not particularly complex, sure, but everything about 2011 was already complex and confusing and at times soul crushing enough that I am overjoyed these guys recorded something so simple but so perfect. Here’s the good news in a year full of the opposite.
23. Erectricmole “Nekoyanagi”
Speaking of escapes from less than desirable worlds – Erectricmole know getting away from all trials and tribulations is only a dream away, but instead of downing Ambien the synth-pop unit create their own cotton-candy fluffy realms with a lot of chirping electronics and a pleasant enough beat. “Nekoyanagi,” the standout moment from the group’s plenty-fine debut Houka No Hirune, comes closest to imagining their synth cocoon as something that could also be defiantly pop, everything kicking a little harder (check the buzzing bass) without letting the sense of self-made wonder vanish. Best of all are the vocals, restrained enough to never out-sugar the keybaords but rather weaving through them in just the right way for maximum prettiness. Don’t even need to make your bed for this lovely little escape.
GET ON iTUNES OR LISTEN TO A SAMPLE HERE
22. Kido Yoji “Call A Romance”
If all you know about Kido Yoji is that he’s part of 80kidz’s Kidz Rec label and has appeared on the same bill as the that throbbing-beats duo, I wouldn’t blame you for just assuming dude makes abrasive “electro” dance assuming of course you didn’t know what Google was. Yoji sounds nothing like 80kidz or “electro” or bloghouse or whatever trendy/not-trendy-anymore genre you associate with that. Rather, he’s the guy standing outside of the club, sports jacket slung over shoulder, staring at the moon and thinking wistful thoughts…before going back to dance, because Yoji wants to have fun too. “Call A Romance” is his most catchy and charming track yet, a smooth moving disco-tinged number bringing to mind early Phoenix or the more buttery parts Daft Punk’s Discovery. Yet for all the reasons to dance, Yoji still lets his aching heart spill out a bit over the strut, Yoji begging to some unnamed other “can’t you give me romance?” But he’s also smart enough to not let these raw emotions blot out “Call A Romance’s” groovin’ center. Sometimes sad people want to dance to.
21. Sapphire Slows “Spin Lights Over You”
Although not officially a member of the label, Sapphire Slows bears more than a few resemblances to the artists on CUZ ME PAIN. Both live in Tokyo, both work this “mysterious” angle that isn’t so much mysterious if you do a little bit of search-engine lifting (though to her credit, Slows has managed to conceal more than the PAIN dudes), and both record dance music filtered through an ancient copy of Nosferatu. “Spin Lights Over You” hangs with almost any (more on that one later) of CUZ ME PAIN’s 2011 output and almost feels like all the explanation Slows needs to give about how she ended up signed to Not Not Fun. Its a strange tune, party-percussion played minimally but just enough to establish something hip-shakin’, layers of bright synth fog floating over it as those vocals seemingly rise from the floor. Yet everything works, making “Spin Lights Over You” a strange siren’s song of a track coming out of a particularly rich Tokyo scene.