20. The Brixton Academy “Two Shadows United”
The Brixton Academy have always played the role of overly earnest nightclub crawlers, guys who love evenings out on the town but also aren’t good at bottling up all those icky emotions, prone to letting them shoot out like just-uncorked champagne. Whereas Kido Yoji distracts from his ennui with super-groovable music, TBA’s brand of New Wave gets painted over in raw feelings, the member’s earnestness just as vital as their keyboards. But on “Two Shadows United” something strange happens – TBA turn sexy. This scented-candle burner sees the group bypass the club-friendly 80’s dance they’ve built their reputation on in favor of a simple beat, sparse bass and wispy synths that sounds like a bedroom jam. And I’m not talking sloppy 4 A.M. post-dubstep night hooking up resulting in awkward breakfasts – this is romantic, passionate, vulnerable fucking, the sort of thing RedTube has eradicated to a generation of horny teenagers. But man does love-fueled thrusting sound alive on “Two Shadows United,” complete with sexy title! As this is The Brixton Academy, sadness still hangs in the air – as indicated by the fragile synths ushering us into the song, TBA are focusing on a memory, “I miss you” being the line that punctuates it. But that just makes “Two Shadows” even hotter – that moment of physical Eros-approved love isn’t coming back, but what a memory.
LISTEN TO A SAMPLE HERE
19. NOKIES! “We Are News In The Dance Floor”
Upstart NOKIES! closed out 2011 by releasing two ho-hum ballads that seemed more at attracting vanilla major label ears, a forced maturity of the worst kind. Strange to think back in January and February when these kids burst onto the Kansai scene behind Pixie-Stick-powered indie pop that was unrepentantly youthful, taking the most spastic bits of Los Campesinos! while surveying a very crowded Japanese field (Sorrys! and The Chef Cooks Me) and deciding “let’s just do everything better than those guys!” “We Are News In The Dance Floor” is their defining moment, a head down, full-speed-ahead fireball that is so excited it even forgets proper grammar. NOKIES! set out to make their own “You! Me! Dancing!” and nailed all the elements that make that song a young-forever classic. “News” just exudes energy, brimming with the power of a case of Red Bull compared to a lot of the other artists in Japan adding cutesy howls to their songs. Even if NOKIES! do choose to embrace boring old middle-aged music, we will always have this song to turn to as a fountain of youth.
18. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu “Pon Pon Pon”
A discussion between me (ME) and the song “Pon Pon Pon” (PPP)
ME: OK Pon, why in the world should I include you in a top songs list?
PPP: PON PON PON DASHITE
ME: Sure, but what about the fact that you sound like at least two older Perfume songs? And not just the vague idea of Perfume, like “Polyrhythm” and “Dream Fighter.” Yasutaka Nakata getting lazy, yo.
PPP: PON PON WAY WAY WAY
ME: OK OK….how about the troubling aspect of the lady who sings you? She’s a walking Harajuku mannequin who seems to just be adding “pop star” to her personal brand.
PPP: WAY WAY PON WAY WAY WAY WAY
ME: Gah, uhhhhhh, how about that eyesore of a video clip? That was designed to get lazy “whoa look how CRAZY Japan is” clicks and turn you into a viral star. Plus it’s so goofy – floating bones? Candy tanks? Fart colors?
PPP: EVERYDAYYYY PONNNNNNN
ME: Uhm, uhhhhh errrrrrrr
PPP: PON PON WAY WAY WAY! points at iTunes “most played” page, a specific song catching ME’s attention. ME blushes, throws his hands up as if to say “you win!” and turns to the audience.
ME: Look, I spent all year trying to find ways to be annoyed by “Pon Pon Pon” but here in December, I have to admit few songs have gotten as many replays as this one. For every reason you or I could think of to hate this, though, sits a single, giant counterpoint in the form of that chorus which is just perfect for what it is, wisely extended and frequent. I honestly don’t know how a living, breathing human who just isn’t a total dick about everything can’t get at least a little joy out of that chorus, which sounds like Skittles taste. So you win “Pon Pon Pon.” And you god damn deserve it.
17. Cloudy Busey “Broken By Inertia”
Osaka projects Ice Cream Shout and Cloudy Busey – the latter serving as the solo moniker of Bob Willey, who also mans the former – are blog-hyped groups not behaving like blog-hyped groups normally do. In today’s online music media world, everything dictated by speed, the breakthrough artist of last week an ancient relic by the next. Thus groups hoping to attract an online presence have to be always releasing something, whether it be new music or a remix of some other buzzed-’bout artist’s also fresh song or a cover or like a goofy iPhone app. Ice Cream Shout and Cloudy Busey don’t play by those rules – unless you caught them live (pro-tip, you should), Ice Cream Shout hasn’t released anything since last year’s gorgeous “Tattooed Tears” while Cloudy Busey’s last song was our number 17 song of the year “Broken By Inertia.” By now, Willey should be recording a goofy John Denver jam or remixing ASAP Rocky.
Yet Willey seems like the type to value craft over rush jobs, having one great song over a bunch of flimsy tunes like Cults (whooops!). “Broken By Inertia” wasn’t even technically new in 2011, as he had been working on this for upwards of three years before finally hammering it down in July. It shows – from the spaced-out (think Milky Way not Algebra class) synths blasting off all over the song to the propulsive beat to the vocals which flow just right and feature nuggets like “I don’t care if everything is stolen/just make sure it’s used,” the sort of line that could be loaded with meaning or not at all but doesn’t matter because it still grabs you. “Inertia” ends up being one of the moodiest pieces Willey has put together in awhile, but one still with eyes set on the sky rather than the pavement. Waiting pays off gang, even if you miss out on an extra Stereogum update.
16. Pop-Office “A Certain Smile, A Certain Sadness”
Being earnest is one thing, but sharing a personal diary with an entire live house takes guts. Nagoya’s Pop-Office ignores any self-conscious hurdles and just snap on “A Certain Smile, A Certain Sadness,” feelings left out in the open like jeans on a wash line. At one point the line “I want you to eat my soul/I want you to forget my name” comes out and it feels sincere, even aching. The backing sounds help a lot, New-Wave synths trying to shine over pummeling guitar work, but here Pop-Office’s vocals steal the show by practically puking out every dark emotion brewing inside of them. Incredible stuff, first major label to sign them gets super cool points.
15. Cherryboy Function “Pulse Of Change”
Moment of honesty – I initially forgot this song existed when compiling this little list. Cherryboy Function’s Suggested Function #2 EP came out all the way back in January/February, a slot often doomed to suffer a few drops in list rankings thanks to how the human brain works. So “Pulse Of Change” missed out on the first cut of this list. Until one night when I decided to review all of 2011 the only way I know how – by revisiting every single post I had written that calendar year. And right near the start of my digital voyage, “Pulse Of Change.” “Oh hey, yeah that song, better give it another spin!”
And boy did my face red, because this whirling dance number is so well structured and such a blast to be spun around by that this spot on the list seems like a birthright for “Pulse Of Change” – not a showstopper, but rather carefully constructed cartoon craziness loaded up with bright twinkles and feet-shuffling touches. There are at least three keyboard lines on this thing I want to point to and be like, “that’s the one, the best one!” but couldn’t bring myself to choose just one dose of technicolor fun. Cherryboy lets “Pulse Of Change” run for more than seven minutes but never does it feel like a trudge, his shifts thought out well enough that “Change” never lags. As if turned into a joke about my dumbness by the gods, I heard “Pulse” playing at an indie-club event recently and saw just how fun it can sound surrounded by other people. This thing isn’t leaving my iPod anytime soon.
14. Heavenstamp “Morning Glow”
My day job forces me to wake up way earlier than I am used to, an iPhone alarm setting I’m sure a lot of people would kill for but one that still finds a way to catch me off guard even four months in. Though I routinely let the “Snooze” button win out – sometimes resulting in the panicked moment of “ohhhhhh I have five minutes to get out the door” – I almost always lock up my apartment at 6:50 and zombie shuffle my way to the train station. That time of day isn’t early enough to see empty streets but still dimly lit enough where it feels like I’m living in my own Synecdoche, New York. I even see the same characters now, smell the same smells and hear the same noises. It isn’t what I want necessarily, but it’s what I have and thank you for that.
“Morning Glow” came out well before my new daily routine, back when 7:30 still seemed like a safe bet. Then, the song sounded like A-work J-Rock, Heavenstamp crafting this catchy, dancey and sorta downtrodden pop number that just felt more alive and warm than a lot of the mainstream rock cluttering up the Japanese airwaves today. In that context, I still loved “Morning Glow” in ways I sometimes couldn’t explain, the whole track just doing everything good music should, being nice to listen to and bound for frequent replays while also concealing some feeling.
Now, though, I’ve got why I dig “Morning Glow.” As hinted at by the title and the accompanying video, this song deals with the early-morning hours, Heavenstamp creating a song that sounds like a J-Rock single drinking decaf to ease into the day. The guitars and drums give the song the titular “glow,” a faint one that won’t make you strain your eyes but a beautiful one nonetheless. It’s the singing by Sally#Cinnamon (seriously), though, that makes this special. She goes from eyes-cast-down longing…for what, who cares…to being upbeat to practically shouting come the chorus, her voice always warbling slightly. This sounds like that groggy walk to the station, barely awake but surprised by the nice touch of the elements brushing against exposed skin. All those old faces seem like friends, reminding you it isn’t all a dream. Suddenly everything looks a bit brighter – yeah, waking up at this hour sucked, but that’s our life. And isn’t that fucking miraculous to say?
13. Michiyo Honda “Game Boyz (Don’t You Want A Real Girlfriend?”)
The actual music on Michiyo Honda’s “Game Boyz (Don’t You Want A Real Girlfriend”) speaks for itself – all-neon-like synths, the sort of beat that slays at the club, Honda giving her flirtiest vocal performance of the year. That alone would lock it up as maybe the fifth or fourth best track she released all year. Yet this finishes the year as the mile-away finest entry in her “single a month” project because of the story going on in the song, or at least what I’m hearing. The coos in the song could easily be mistaken for average bedding talk until she gets to the part set off in parentheses – “don’t you want a real girlfriend?” Then we remember the title and it clicks – this song is about a socially maladjusted man who plays video games so well the virtual characters in his titles wonder why he doesn’t crave something more real? This would be a good laugh if 2011 Japan wasn’t loaded with dudes choosing to love Hatsune Miku or pretending to have babies with the members of AKB48 instead of getting their di….errrrr fix the country’s population problem. Honda, playing the role of pixlated babe, moans about how well this dude “plays” her, and it does seem like she wants to get with him. Yet this character still tells her Otaku interest “you don’t know how to let it out,” and then asks that persistent question once again. Societal crisis rarely sounds so fun to listen in on.
GET ON iTUNES
12. Spangle Call Lilli Line “For Rio”
In which Spangle Call Lilli Line’s long-running series of “Rio” songs reaches an appropriate peak. Every prior take on what sticks out as one of the group’s strongest cuts existed at relatively slow speeds, turning the track into either a isolated wish or a dreamy stroll around the block depending on what else happens around it. “For Rio” shoots right out the gate – all metallic guitar strums burst forward by the authoritative drumming. The lyrics, same as ever, appear, but whereas on previous versions they hung around like lonely friends, now they feel urgent, in a great need to get somewhere. The stakes seem higher this time around, everything a bit more breathless. More than anything, this is the catchiest version of the already-hard-to-shake “Rio” song, exhilarating while playing and when it suddenly stops on a dime, first instinct is to jump for “repeat.”
GET ON iTUNES
11. Sakanaction “Bach No Senritsu Wo Yoru Ni Kiita Sei Desu”
This song ended up being the band’s best selling single of the year, landed them on Music Station and hell I heard it on TV a lot. THIS. Like a lot of DocumentaLy, “Bach” hides a lot of clever details under the obvious pop brilliance Sakanaction discovered when they found just the right way for them to merge dance music with J-Rock. I hope I don’t need to tell you about how darn catchy this is – the choir-like shouting of the title and deceptively slinky chorus should do the job – so instead I’ll dwell on the strange bits. Like how this features two instances where everything else cuts out so we can hear piano keys. How random synth splatters drip across the song before the first big shout-along. How midway through the entire thing almost breaks down because of a burst of static. How this is a song about Bach. Or how Sakanaction drew inspiration from styles ranging from Japanese rock, 90’s dance, disco and classical to name a few to craft one of the pop jams of the year.
Let’s also take a second to acknowledge the music video, the best in Japan and probably the best one I watched anywhere in 2011. Neaux already showered it with love, but here is another gentle poke in the ribs that this clip rules, thanks in part to a lot of puppets.