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Make Believe Melodie’s Top 30 Japanese Albums Of 2011: 30-21

The past year saw plenty of worthwhile releases from Japanese artists, from the sort of stuff highlighted at major music stores in Japan to free albums posted on Bandcamp with little fanfare. Yet all 30 albums on this list were special to us here at Make Believe Melodies in some way or another – whether a CD made us excited about the future of J-Pop or helped us through a particularly rough patch or just made great music to relax to after a day of work. So now we present Make Believe Melodies’ top 30 albums of 2011. We hope you enjoy.

(Top artwork courtesy of Alan Castree, learn more about him and his excellent art here)

30. Dorian Studio Vacation

The glut of contemporary music rummaging through the closet of 80s pop music often forces listeners to choose sides – does one flock to the winking, irony smeared dance jams headlined by Chromeo, or to the painfully earnest yelping of dream-pop acts like Wild Nothing or Japan’s own tears-on-the-dancefloor dudes The Brixton Academy? Tokyo’s Dorian offers the perfect middle-ground…just get rid of the vocals completely! Though it sometimes seems he could tip into one extreme…his music videos often feel like canned cheese, while single “Summer Rich” features achingly honest singing…the majority of his Studio Vacation finds him mastering the Miami Vice meets neon light disco he’s been fiddling with for a few years now. It’s a great dance record where the emotional side bubbles just beneath the surface, beating out The Brixton Academy’s Bright As Diamond’s for this list’s “Reagan-Era-Aping Album Of The Year” spot courtesy of better consistency. Don’t mix Dorian up for some dude coasting on old Moogs he found in his parents attic – the one-two punch of “Melty Color” and, especially, “Like A Wave” show how far he’s come as a craftsman.

29. DODDODO Do

Osaka’s DODDODO is a tough act to figure out. On her 2011 album Do, she uses classical Japanese instruments to create a wide variety of music – she darts from sincere traditional songs seemingly ripped from a Japanese cultural museum to slightly off-kilter nursery rhymes ripped from alternate reality NHK kid’s shows. Yet what makes Do a compelling listen from front to back is the experimental edge DODDODO brings to almost every track here, dragging an entire box of crayons over otherwise formulaic doodles. Yet as if she wants to keep everyone alert, she drops a straightforward ballad late into the album. She’s a tough one to decode, but trying to do so is pretty fun on Do.

28. DUB-Russel Grasp Echoes

The electronic hellfire Tokyo duo DUB-Russel conjure up on Grasp Echoes leans toward dissonance, highlighted by the telephone-call-fron-Satan intro “Metallurgy” to the appropriately titled “Tracklaying,” wherein they add track after track of sweltering noise to the song right before your ears. Yet Grasp Echoes also hides an appreciation for electronic artists of yesteryear, DUB-Russel drawing inspiration from past legends while putting their own touch on them. “14-Layered” is pure Squarepusher mayhem, while “Hi, Go III” brings to mind skittery Aphex Twin. The album, available here, closes with a softer tune reminiscent of Boards Of Canada, and after the underworld trip of the prior trips it`s a pleasant ending.

27. Sloppy Joe With Kisses Four

Sloppy Joe’s almost rigid devotion to 80’s indie-pop ends up being With Kisses Four greatest strength and weakness. No other album on this list comes pad-locked to its influences like this one, the group’s entire sound accurately summed up as “a lot like The Cure, The Smiths, The Jesus And Mary Chain, The Field Mice, etc etc.” This adherence sometimes seems a bit too clone like, lead singer Hitoshi Oka’s vocals even prone to approaching a Robert Smith warble. But these dudes know how to write great, catchy pop, and With Kisses Four packs in a bunch of sticky twee in 35 minutes, an imitation sure but so darn tasty you can’t put the thing down. Like sticking your nose in store-brand sugar and loving every second of it.

26. Tadzio Tadzio

Nice to see that the spirit of the dearly missed Afriampo floated east to Tokyo and inhabited this album. Tadzio’s self-titled does a lot of the same things the Osaka duo built a reputation on – hardcore pounding, psychedelic ventures, tag-team vocals sometimes melting into near orgasmic (or, like, at the peak of a rollercoaster) shouting – rounded out by lyrics seemingly designed to be screamed from a mosh pit. See “1 2 FUCK YOU” and “SEX DIE SEX BONE OH MY GOD” for pretty good examples. Similar to city contemporaries Puffyshoes and Miila And The Geeks, Tadzio make punk-rubbed rock aimed at moving the body just as much as the mind in a country in need of some good release.

25. Spangle Call Lilli Line New Season

New Season is a bit of an odd collection, neither an entirely fresh batch of material from Spangle Call Lilli Line nor a remix collection. Whereas brother release Piano Lesson reimagined older Spangle Call tunes as ivory-key-centric numbers, New Season revolved around a loose theme of “rockin’ out with some alternate/live versions thrown on.” The back half of this album features the latter and sounds plenty pleasant, but the reason this record sneaks into our list is the front half, powered by some of the most charging music the group has ever written. The highlight ends up one their older songs, here titled “For Rio” but rather the latest in the evolving series of songs featuring “Rio” in the title. It’s the best incarnation yet, the standout of a particularly strong run by a band still finding ways to sound new.

24. Madegg Bluu

The blooming Kansai electronic scene has thus far been a tale told in individual songs unveiled across online channels like SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Next year promises a jump in EP and album-length releases from the scene, CDs from MFP and And Vice Versa already penciled in courtesy of fellow producer Seiho’s new label. This also probably means even more from Madegg, the Kyoto-based 19-year-old wizard who acted as the Kansai region’s constantly running faucet in 2011. The kid released new songs at a prolific clip, his stardust smeared take on Teebs-like space beats evolving in all sorts of ways over the year. Madegg ended up being ahead of the curve too, releasing a handful of EPs on various labels, highlighted by his Bluu album which distills the dude’s talents best. The songs present here jump from Dilla-inspired vocal trips to hazy shiners like “Salty Day.” Then he had stuff like “Bluu Forms,” which seems like hip-hop beats dividing like cells under a microscope. Madegg released a lot in 2011 and 2012 will probably be no different, but Bluu is as good a starting point as any.

23. Chabe Me

Most people go it alone when crafting a personal work of art, the image of the solitary artist hunched over a typewriter or locked up in a cabin with an acoustic guitar (thanks Bon Iver!) being the classic mental picture for such a pursuit. Cubismo Grafico’s Chabe worked a bit differently on his solo outing Me – he remained the central character, but like an especially decadent Roman emperor he also brought in a decent-sized cast to play in his work, mostly to recite ancient scrolls…errrrr, sing covers of older tracks. Love And Hates do Brigitte Bardot the only way Love And Hates can do anything (fun and silly), while El Gatito pretties up The Velvet Underground’s “After Hours.” Sayaka Kushibiki practically steals the album from Chabe on The Sunday’s “Here’s Where The Story Ends,” her vocals welcoming as a pillow after an 18-hour flight. Yet for all the cameos, this is Chabe’s personal work and he’s in a reflective mood compared to his Cubismo Grafico (and Cubismo Grafico Five) work. Standout “White Cube” bounces on lovely, chilled out tropical vibes while instrumental number “BLOOMoon” feels like standing under a waterfall of pleasant memories. Yet the most touching moment comes on “And Me,” where Chabe simply recites things that are important to him – “girl” “beer” “London” and so on. It ends with the line “you…and me” and it is a sweet as a musical admission as any this year. Regardless of all the great people around him, Me is a triumph of one.

22. Puffyshoes Finally The Weekend

Calling this Puffyshoes’ lyrical album misleads like a TEPCO press conference, seeing as the Tokyo duo’s words rarely venture beyond subjects like boys, bands and bad food. One song on Finally The Weekend, titled “Oh Yeah,” boasts only the lines “oh yeah/hell yeah.” Yet this 19-minute treat sounds vastly different than last year’s buzzing Something Gold – that album treated feedback and woozy amplifier output like a third member, the fuzzy noise looping around everything the band pumped out. On Weekend, though, the volume gets turned down a bit, the songs here less frantic and a tad more spacious…meaning the vocals (and the meaning behind them) stick out more than they ever did on Something Gold. Puffyshoes still kick out catchy blasts of punk-inspired pop, yet the real surprise on this brief album ends up being the heart behind numbers like “Baby Kiss Me” (new attraction) and “Backstage Pass” (a quest for the titular item so the narrator can meet a boy in the band). The stinging “Changed” details a meeting with an ex-crush/fling/lover, while “Secrets” comes off as the softest thing the duo have ever laid down, a gentle cry for love. Weekend ends with the stunning “Dear My Friend,” wherein the band step away from boys for a second to sing about the joys of friendships, and they deliver in an achingly sincere way. Puffyshoes aren’t turning into Destroyer, but Weekend plays like pages from their personal diary.

21. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu Moshi Moshi Harajuku

Here’s the real world of fantasy in 2011, a place where an 18-year-old model best known for selling fake eyelashes can get a musical wizard to turn her into a pop singer, crafting for her some of the most irresistible, candy-colored songs of the year. The unlikely pair work all sorts of wonder, like creating something as smooth and airy as “Cherry Bonbon,” which plucks a few old touches from the wizard’s older creations but morphs them into something fresh. Or how “Chodo Lino” takes a sound replicating a human passing gas and transforms it into laid back, almost dreamy disco. The wizard even dusted off an old spell for the young singer, and recalibrated it so that the song actually sounded better from the new girl. Yet most stunning of all was the very first bit of magic the two created, a blast dubbed “Pon Pon Pon” which was one of the most insanely catchy pieces of music either person had ever been associated with. It even got labelled a tool of the Illuminati by some! They also called the song “annoying,” but these people turned out to be lunatics. Regardless, Moshi Moshi Harajuku ended up a surprising escape into a place nobody thought could exist…a place where nonsense words like “pon pon way way way” rang like a secret language.

(Translation: This album should not have worked, but it totally did and is nearly flawless [thanks “Pon Pon Pon” extended mix!]. The year’s biggest surprise, at least before she got accused of being a New World Order lackey.)

Make Believe Melodies’ Top 50 Japanese Songs Of 2011: 20-11

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.

The Rio Deal: Spangle Call Lilli Line’s “Roam In Octave,” “Rio,” “Rio The Other” And “For Rio”

Many members of the media and probably a fair amount of your parents have spent time lamenting how the world of today has warped people’s attention spans down to something that can barely get through a 140-character sentence. Whether that’s true or just typical “back in MY day” bluster from older generations can’t really be figured out, but the age of information has definitely changed the speed at which we interact with music. The ever-changing Internet and the proliferation of music blogs constantly chasing the newest “buzz” has turned bands into the sonic equivalent of bananas at the supermarket – fresh one second, ready for the (recycle) bin soon after. Save for a select few artists who have the name recognition/mystique to wait long periods of time before proper releases, most web-savvy bands have figured out how this cycle work, so they constantly put out new material to stay within the crosshairs of important online musical outlets. Whether that’s bad or not ends up being a personal opinion…but that’s how it is.

This rush to stay relevant and “new” has produced plenty of great music, yet when a contemporary artist decides to slow down and spend a significant amount of time reflecting on music they’ve already made…unafraid to stare into their own personal past and ponder…that feels brave. Tokyo’s Spangle Call Lilli Line formed before the Oughts, a time when music wasn’t flashing by at the speed of Twitter, and have always kept on eye fixed on what they did before, unafraid to visit older material, deconstruct it and reassemble it in new ways. This year they released two mini-albums, the up-tempo New Season and the piano-centric Piano Lesson, the bulk of both being new versions of older tracks. Spangle Call release plenty of new material, but this steadfast dedication to roaming around in their own back catalogue has resulted in compositions that bloom in new ways over time.

The best example of this is Spangle Call’s series of recent (starting in 2008) “Rio” songs. Counting this year’s “For Rio” off New Season, the trio has recorded four takes on this song. It’s the best example of Spangle Call’s sonic self-reflection, each new take a gorgeous new reinterpretation rich with new feeling. “For Rio” has become one of my favorite songs of the year, so I’ve spent a lot of time recently listening to each prior manifestation, trying to figure out why this song in every incarnation hits me so. Below, I’ve written a little about each of the four versions.

”Roam In Octave” on Isolation

The original version of this song, the only take to not include the word “Rio” in the title, fits in nicely on the relatively fragile Isolation. Lead singer Kana Otsubo softly sings the opening verse against only some light piano, to the point you can practically see the glow of white candles surrounding her. It all seems deeply intimate, like we’ve stumbled across a private recording meant for someone important to the central speaker. Then Otsubo comes to the chorus and things get silver-screen appropriate – a few orchestra-ready strings enter the picture, turning this from private recording to the soundtrack to the closing credits of a home movie. The back half of “Octave” nearly becomes silent, the band opting out of proper song structure in favor of barely-there reflection – future versions stayed more focused, this initial run almost seeming like a model done in wax paper. Every future interpretation of this song feels personal, but it’s only on “Octave” where you see Spangle Call staring directly at the inspiration.

”Rio” on Purple

“Rio” retains the fragility created on “Octave,” but comes off as more of a dreamy affair. The starkness of “Octave’s” instrumentation and structure gets swapped out for some twilight-evoking bell chimes and a walking pace that seems appropriate for sorting stuff out in your head. Most obviously, “Rio” refuses to wander, replacing the near-silence of the original with an extended bridge that finds Otsubo sounding as inviting as a feather pillow. Whereas “Octave” sounded like a private recording prone to wander, “Rio” strikes as pure headspace, the most reflective take and the one that lends itself best to Autumn strolls. Sonically, this could be played in a lounge and end up the highlight of the night, Spangle Call channeling Yo La Tengo circa And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. Yet ultimately, it’s the property of dreams and the prettiest incarnation of this song.

”Rio The Other” on View

Each evolution of “Rio” picks up the tempo a bit, and “Rio The Other” ends up being the average speed one in the series. It’s Spangle Call’s most straightforward interpretation, so simple that it’s hard to find anything to fault it with beyond not being very daring. Yet, as nice as it sounds…and Otsubo, ever the constant, sounds just as sharp here…it lacks the emotional push the other three boast, making it my least favorite “Rio.”

The last 30 seconds, though, sound great and ends up the best closing portion in the series.

”For Rio” on New Season

(The only one not online! Buy the album!)

In which Spangle Call Lilli Line decode the secret of this four-year-old song and realize it needs to be turned inside-out a bit to reach its full potential – whereas the other “Rio” songs stroll, “For Rio” fires out the gate, an unabashed rock song throwing all caution to the wind. Guitars barely showed up in the previous three takes, but here they bring the song to life, almost summoning the galloping drum that gives “For Rio” its hops. The speed of this song sets it apart – this one SLAYS on a treadmill – but Otsubo again breathes soul into this song. Surprisingly, she sounds totally different here than on the other incarnations – each of those gave her room to show off her chops a bit, but the crunchy pace of “For Rio” forces her to sing quickly, whittling her vocal runs down to sharp lyrical points. She sounds urgent, the melodramatic wanderings of early versions now simplified into something much more direct but just as affecting. And they still make it sound pretty – the chorus and bridge, in particular, carry traces of prior gorgeousness, Otsubo’s voice still retaining a side of longing.

“For Rio” is my favorite version of this song…and a track that has quietly snuck up my mental “best of 2011” list…and seems like an appropriate ending for the “Rio” series. Of course, Spangle Call could see it differently, and might be uncovering a whole new dimension to this thing as I type.

New Spangle Call Lilli Line: Piano Lesson

Dear Spangle Call Lilli Line,

I’m an incredibly stupid person and I thought you should know this.

See, I listened to your New Season EP a few weeks ago and raved about it. And that still stands…great little EP! Problem is, I was not aware that IT WAS MOSTLY AN ALBUM OF COVERS. Well, not completely…opener “Seventeen” and third track “Summer’s End” seem to be originals (listen to both here!), but I also assumed EP standout “For Rio” was also a new track. Nope, and nope. This is the THIRD time you guys have covered it, though I’d argue this version stands as the best yet. Still, I made some bad bad assumptions.

Thankfully, your recently released Piano Lesson album helped me to catch this error. The title, coupled with New Season’s mission, clued me into what was going on – a collection of piano-centric covers of Spangle Call Lilli Line songs. The album itself sounds fine, slightly moody takes on songs that help make them feel softer, like putting a pillowcase bought from Etsy over an already-nice pillow. Some songs even come out better – the vocal rippling on “Limi Side Schedule” replicating the muffling of the original but in smaller doses of weird. Plus it just sounds more…fragile? I prefer the driving force of New Season overall, but Piano Lesson is a fine-enough listen. And a great way to get familiar with a song catalog that is more sprawling than a jabroni like me expected.

If we run into one another, I’ll buy you a drink. Take care!

Straight-Ahead Goodness: Spangle Call Lilli Line’s New Season EP

Dear Spangle Call Lilli Line,

I’ve never actually written anything negative about you guys, and honestly think everything you’ve released up to this point sounded pretty good. Still, I write to you today apologetically, a metaphorical olive branch extended towards your general direction.

Last year, one of your band’s members released a solo album called Woolgathering under the name Nini Tounuma, and it was incredible. She made a spaced-out pop album that sorta imagines what would happen if Flying Lotus decided to produce The-Dream…or maybe the other way around. It’s an excellent album that remains deeply rewarding a year since it was released. Thing is, while glowing about Woolgathering, I inadvertently painted Spangle Call Lilli Line as something not as interesting, borderline pedestrian. Sure, whenever I caught myself doing that I’d write something weak like “they sound perfectly OK” but immediately going back to pray at the altar of Nini Tounuma. Unintentionally, I turned you into an afterthought.

Yet now I come to clean the slate, because listening to your New Season EP has reminded me that Spangle Call Lilli Line is just as excellent as Nini, just in a different way. Woolgathering blurred various genre lines without giving up a pop sensibility, while this recently released EP is just a simply great collection of uncomplicated rock songs. There are a few touches that actually remind me of Nini – the way the vocals on opener Seventeen multiply and then bounce off one another at one point – but this is mostly just fast rock played without many distractions. You guys deserve credit for putting together one of the strongest opening trios of songs I’ve heard on any album this year; “Seventeen” just rockets out and sets the tone of New Season perfectly, and then jumps into EP highlight “For Rio.” Then you round it out with “Summer’s End.” The rest of the EP has good moments, but that initial salvo is so excellent it kind of blocks out the rest.

So yeah…sorry about the past. You guys are really good when you are experimenting alone or blasting ahead together.