Tag Archives: tokyo jihen

Mid-Year Report: The Best J-Pop Of 2012 Halfway Through

The top of the J-Pop world remains cemented in place so far in 2012 – the best selling albums and singles have been from all the usual suspects of the Japanese music landscape. AKB48, Ikimono-gakari, EXILE, everything Johnny’s…with a few exceptions, the dominant music of 2012 has been pretty much the same as the last few years, and the back half isn’t showing any signs of bucking that trend. Taking stock of this world, then, would mostly be watching repeats, a non-story worthy of only a few sentences.

Yet bubbling just beneath the peak of J-Pop…and, in a few cases, rising up to the static top…are all sorts of fascinating developments threatening to push Japanese pop music into thrilling, still-accessible places. Friends who lived in this country around the time Perfume broke through into mainstream popularity recall a brief window of time where people though that THIS would usher in a new era of pop, of groups mimicking the techno-pop triumph of Perfume while simultaneously tearing down the statues of boring music mainstays in the process. That didn’t happen – soon after, Perfume simply became the only group doing that style of music at a pop-chart level. The status quo remained.

These six months, though, have seen a bunch of mid-level (and beyond) artists merge the future-obsession Perfume introduced to the J-Pop world with all sorts of different styles, none of these groups really sounding like knockoff Perfumes but rather applying the rules that trio introduced to their own work, creating great new material in the process. The top of the charts don’t reflect it, but Japan is experiencing a J-Pop renaissance, full of forward-thinking pop songs that sharply contrast with a large chunk of the nation’s independent music scene, which embraced indie-pop over the past six months and looked back. Below are some of Make Believe Melodie’s favorite J-Pop songs of 2012 so far.

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Station To Station: Music Station For January 20, 2012 Featuring Tokyo Jihen, BIGBANG And Jun Sky Walker(s)

First Station To Station of 2012, rejoice rejoice! Been a long time since we have journeyed into this sketchy sonic territory, but Music Station doesn’t disappoint this week, giving us a surprisingly wide variety of J-Pop (and K-Pop!) to sample and eventually stick our tongues out at. Let’s get the rust off.

Ikimono-gakari “いつだって僕らは”

Moment of honesty – I am not remotely pumped for mainstream Japanese music in 2012. Blame this on a budding obsession with K-Pop which, though littered with duds, even sounds interesting in total flaming wreckage mode. Oh, and the Japanese “indie” (used sorta loosely here) scene, which seems poised to be really exciting this year. J-Pop, though…not exactly filling me with much hope, just more images of people shoveling coal into a furnace on loop. Funny, because last year actually saw some really good mainstream stuff in the form of Kaela Kimura, Perfume and Sakanaction just to name a few. Nothing -and, yeah, only being January plays a part, who knows what will come out – gets me giddy the way even a dumb looking Wonder Girls movie does.

This new single from Ikimono-gakari does nothing but making me feel gloomier about J-Pop in 2012. The opening knocks off the same intro used in at least eight Arashi songs – not the best inspirational jumping off point in the first place – before diving into an inoffensive but also uninteresting bit of chirpy pop that confirms Ikimono-gakari only exist in two modes – happy-bouncy version and sad-but-accepting-of-it version. This wouldn’t be so disheartening if it weren’t for the group behind it – Ikimono-gakari have morphed into a sales juggernaut, their last 16 singles all peaking somewhere in the top ten of the Oricon charts, meaning this one will probably perform similarly and the album it comes off of will most likely debut at the top spot. Which means more groups trying to sound like this which means more bland bland bland pop. This isn’t remotely surprising, but still pretty weak.

Jun Sky Walker(s) “Start”

Why does the “s” have to be in parenthesis? Were they not sure how many people were in the band?

Jun Sky Walker(s) are a rock band that formed in 1986 and saw relative success up until their breakup in 1997. Now, they are back! The music of “Start” is pretty harmless, just some safe guitar playing that at least has a little bite to it, even if it comes via baby teeth. But oh man the lead singer’s voice, ruins everything. He has this weird warble that comes out when he’s trying to sound dramatic – which, turns out, is a lot – and just in general sounds like he’s forcing himself a bit. Maybe you had to be around the first time?

Sexy Zone Special Medley

If that isn’t one of the worst combination of words in any language, I don’t want to be on this planet anymore.

Tokyo Jihen Medley

The big news in the Japanese music world this week was the announcement that Tokyo Jihen would be calling it a day following the release of one more album and a small farewell tour in February. This development has been met with sadness (but acceptance) from fans and snark from others, Ringo Shiina’s band clearly hitting a lot of emotions over their nine-year career. I have to cop, though, that I actually am not as well versed in Tokyo Jihen as I probably should be. I really liked 2010’s Sports and the singles leading up to and following that album have all sounded, at worst, “good” to me, but I haven’t dug into their back catalog all that much, checking out singles here and there but nothing extensive. Which blows now, seeing as they are going away. So, instead of writing a big sappy tribute in this spot now, I’m probably going to start working my way through their history and probably write something later. Consider this a rain check.

BIGBANG “Tonight”

One of the more persistent shots fired at K-Pop is that it’s just an imitation of Western pop, the Korean music industry doing nothing originally and just borrowing ideas from America for their artists. This is a very dumb argument – nothing on American radio sounds like “Bubble Pop!” or “Be My Baby” or “Gee.” Even something like 2NE1’s “I Am The Best,” which does take cues from maximalist Western pop, blows everything up to a level nobody in America is doing. It’s a dumb claim most of the time, but not in the case of BIGBANG’s “Tonight,” which bites from the club-inspired European sound that has been a staple of the American charts for the last two years. Think Black Eyed Peas, or maybe “We Found Love,” and you will have an idea of how “Tonight” sounds.

Which isn’t a bad thing either, regardless of what some dipsticks think! BIGBANG get a slightly unfair push as “Tonight” sounds miles better than any of the Japanese music above – which, I admit, was two songs and the memory of Sexy Zone – but the club-oriented sound hasn’t pummeled Japanese pop into submission like it has in other places, so this feels like fresh breath to me.

Winner Of The Week – BIGBANG

New Tokyo Jihen: “Sora Ga Natteiru”

Few bands manage to tightrope between pop success and artistically sound music as well as Tokyo Jihen do. New single “Sora Ga Natteiru” once again finds the group laying out a technically monster pop joint…see the soaring chorus which all but cement that status…while doing enough to seem like they work off the grid at least by J-Pop standards. The guitars sound rather unpolished but that’s just bait, aimed at winning over those who see “studio mastered” and get really nervous. The cynical answer as to why Tokyo Jihen manage to co-exist in these two musical worlds would be Shiina Ringo – the lead singer’s voice overpowers the rest of “Sora Ga Natteiru” and ends up being the ultimate highlight of the song as it tends to be on Tokyo Jihen tracks. Yet the rest of the group provides just the right background for her to do her thing, and all the elements come together to form a very strong Jihen single.

Plus, the video above features some great slow-motion shots of breakfast food.

Make Believe Melodie’s Top 25 Japanese Albums Of 2010: 25-11

Just like the song list, I intend to share 25 albums almost surely overlooked by the West that I really enjoyed in the past year. Of course, I missed just as many great albums and a year from now I’ll probably regret/want to expand this. Yet these 25 albums definitely deserve your attention.

25. Hideki Kaji And Riddim Saunter Teens Films

You know that period of time after the start of a relationship where everything feels absolutely golden? Time seems to drag joyfully by and once routine trips to the supermarket feel like walking on a moonbounce. That’s how I feel about Teens Films right now, a late 2010 release I didn’t slip into my CD player until the start of December but now want to hold hands with every waking moment. Hideki Kaji and Riddim Saunter join forces to create an absolute rush of giddy indie-pop, the two complimenting one another so well that this CD never seems to drag. And hey, not to beat myself up to much, but “Slow Motion” stands out as the obvious snub from my songs list. It’s completely possible my relationship with Teens Films could turn into a sour “they don’t actually exist to me anymore” creature…or, even scarier, something really serious…but for right now I’m just happy to have this in my life.

24. Predawn A Bird In The Hand

Lasting about 20 minutes, A Bird In The Hand finds Tokyo’s Predawn crafting small folk sketches of life’s ho-hum details. It’s an appropriate place to begin this countdown – Bird gives us a promising glance at a young artist who played the Fuji Rock Festival this year, and also packs a surprisingly intimate punch. Predawn boasts a writer’s eye for detail, her songs zoning in on moments often lost in the rush of something bigger. The one-two punch of “What Does It Mean” and “Suddenly” serve as a sort of highlight reel of emotional extremes, the prior Predawn’s take on the instance of love ceasing, the latter a snapshot of it blooming. Bird doesn’t stick around long and often seems little, but those are the moments you need to watch out for the most.

23. Africaemo Squatter

Playing the “these guys sound like those guys” game would be too easy with Africaemo. On Squatter, their debut mini-album, they certainly sound like Zazen Boys – math-rock precision hinting at a lot of practice sessions backing up Hiroshi Kishi’s streetcorner-preacher speech-sing. Yet that really doesn’t do justice to what Africaemo do over the course of this sonic appetizer. Whereas Zazen Boys create great rock/pop songs they can then slash open, Africaemo create great rock/pop song they then engineer to be absolute fucking groove monsters. “Summer Of New York” tries on different hats but always keeps on the same shirt (shirt standing in for “body-controlling guitar lines) while “U Make Me Krazy” takes most of its cues from disco. The vocals, meanwhile, add a dash of manic-ness to these well-constructed jams…see the all-over-the-place “Logbook 23rd Dec.” Connecting the dots may be easy, but Africaemo also make sure to plop a few new ones down as well.

Listen here

22. Hotel Mexico His Jewelled Letter Box

Easily the most frontloaded album of 2010, Hotel Mexico open His Jewelled Letter Box with their breakout chillwave hit “It’s Twinkle” and nothing that follows comes close to matching that song. Don’t read that as an insult though – it’s a mesmerizing song that Altered Zones hailed on a year-end list also featuring Ariel Pink and Games. Though the other tracks on Letter Box never match “It’s Twinkle,” they feature moments of inspired brilliance. Check the slow-burn hypnotism of “Starling, Tiger, Fox” or the Haunted Graffiti-worthy slink of “G.I.R.L.” And though it’s not quite “It’s Twinkle,” album closer “Animals Strike Back” almost matches it with a similar consistent build-up that keeps swelling but never popping.

21. Turntable Films Parables of Fe-Fum

The inclusion of Turntable Films…and Africaemo for that matter…intends to recognize a very young group bubbling with potential, 2010 serving more of a glance at what could be hence the landing near the back of the line. Yet despite our eyes looking excitedly towards what will come…specifically, finally getting a copy of the Turntable Film’s second mini-album of 2010 come January…our ears still recognize how good a listen the brief Parables Of Fe-Fum is. Most of Fe-Fum sets up camp in the same woods Fleet Foxes live, Turntable Films crafting delicate folk songs tinged with sweetness courtesy the vocals. Yet two moments make this album special – opener “Hot Tea After The Lunch” runs that folk-rock sound through a Brian-Wilson-lens, resulting in a gorgeous sound anchored by lovely harmonizing. Then “2steps” rushes in and showcases a band hitting on a dizzying high-point way sooner than they should.

20. Tokyo Jihen Sports

Can we keep in mind how Tokyo Jihen actually are considered mainstream Japanese rock despite sounding like this? Ringo Shiina and crew aren’t toiling away in cramped night clubs in Shinjuku hoping someone buys their shirt…they play Music Station and Sports topped the Oricon album charts this year. The fact they managed to shoot an album opening with a robo Church choir and features diversions into AM soft rock and slinky spy-movie exercises makes Sports even more of a triumph. Yet above all else, Tokyo Jihen’s latest finds them writing solid-as-frozen-stones J-Rock, running the gamut from the relaxed sway of “Zettai Zetsumei” to pretty balladry on “Sweet Spot” to…well, however you want to classify “Denpa Tsuushin.” Listening to Sports actually explains the project’s success…a group this seasoned and varied seems destined to be a big hit.

19. De De Mouse A Journey To Freedom

Ignore the Final Fantasy lite cover art and, for the moment, De De Mouse’s reliance on chopped-up children’s voices for his vocal samples. A Journey To Freedom prides itself as a drum-and-bass-inspired album, limb-flailing numbers like “New Town Romancer” and “My Favorite Swing” recalling vintage Squarepusher. Yet De De Mouse rises above retro-aping status thanks to his sonic trademark – those sliced vocals, at times sounding like out-of-order Bollywood (Gold Panda and this guy should have a study session) and at other moments giving Freedom a deceptively sweet veneer, those harsh beats hidden by glossy sounds. De De Mouse makes sure to round out this album with slow numbers too, those samples becoming the backbone on more relaxed romps like “Starry Mice Parade.” A Journey To Freedom may lean on a few signatures, but it’s a triumph of variety.

18. Nuxx Sound Ache

Around this time last year, Osaka’s Nuxx called themselves Bang Bang Balloon and had released one intriguing EP of what we now have no reservations calling techrock. Sound Ache, the trio’s first full-length, delivers on all the promise hinted at during the Balloon days. Nuxx have cleaned up their hyperactive techno-pop ever so slightly here, gifting them with a crisp studio sound that allows all of their strengths to shine through. These three can write a killer hook, and they aren’t afraid to let said earworms constitute the majority of a song like on older-tracks-reaching-maturity “Runner’s High” and “Am I Free?” Elsewhere, they show off their knack for penning more complex fare like on the feathery “Kaede” or the blip-bloop rise of “Autumn Leaves.” And it all comes together on the head-rush of young career highlight “Journey To The West,” where Nuxx come across a chorus worth of such an adventure-summoning title. Sound Ache is a document capturing a band getting comfortable in their skin…and somehow making music years ahead of such a youthful group.

17. Wednesday Start The Start

The music on Wednesday’s Start The Start sounds incredibly peppy, the sorta stuff I picture Archie selecting from a jukebox down at the malt shop. The Osaka trio make happy chug-a-lugs ripped from the 1950s – guitar-driven tunes boasting the types of choruses that would get a high school prom dancing. Yet, like seemingly every artsy movie made about the Eisenhower years, Start The Start hides a whole lot of bad feelings beneath the Life magazine front. Wednesday’s lyrics veer towards the more downtrodden and at times bitter – standout “Hello Myself” loathes a presumed friend who gets all the girls and friends in the world. Elsewhere, “? Love” and “Why You Love Me” focus on self-doubt in various forms, while all the buried angst bursts out on the supreme kiss-off “YOU.” “Don’t need you no more/bye-bye go-away/Don’t wanna be with you/cuz I’m not gonna be like you.” Did Happy Days ever get this pissed off?

16. Capsule Player

For all the praise we heap on Yasutaka Nakata around these digital parts, let’s be honest…his latest album working as Capsule features three colossal duds. His experimental bent this past year deserves a lot of praise, but I’d also be a liar if I said they’ve all been great. So although he produced “575,” he also retched out the dreadful zombie-stomp of “The Music” and the ear-damaging clunk of “Factory.” To be fair, Nakata can’t be blamed for the title track’s stumbles, though his decision to enlist a rapper who spits lukewarm steam for seven minutes shouldn’t be brushed away.

So yeah Nakata isn’t perfect, big shocker. Still, it’s a bit more exciting for me as a writer to jot something down that isn’t just another “he’s back with ANOTHER amazing electro-pop jam!” because what else is their to say about this guy? Player features all but three of those, and his 2010 creative streak touched this one too, especially on the glitchy slow numbers “I Wish You” and “I Was Wrong.” Besides the token Capsule monster pop song (the bright buzzy “Can I Have A Word”), Nakata bent his usual sound a little closer to the Beach Boys on the sun-hopping “Stay With You” and even found a competent rapper to flesh out “Love Or Lies.” Despite these bright sonic stickers screaming “NEW! CHECK IT OUT!,” Capsule have made another solid album full of what Nakata does best. Though straight club music isn’t one of them.

15. 80kidz Weekend Warrior

Somehow 80kidz found a way to not end up a blog-house punchline. Recall the electro-dance crew’s career prior to Weekend Warrior – the then trio gained some web notoriety with some noised-out singles in the Justice style. They then released a full-length album featuring a few familiar singles, some great slower songs anchored by vocal contributions from future footnotes Hey Champ and The Shoes, plus a whole lot of filler. It wasn’t an exactly memorable LP from a group operating within a flash-bang sub-genre…nobody even makes fun of blog-house anymore…who then became a duo heading into 2010. 80kidz’s situation wasn’t looking particularly bright…and that was before they teamed up with the lead singer of CSS.

Then…Weekend Warrior. 80kidz dropping a consistently good album would have been a big enough shock. But they released an album album, the sort of thing that works as a long playing statement. Save for the first two songs, 80kidz still immersed in meh-provoking noise-dance, Weekend ends up being an emotionally rich (!) hour of music. Starting off with the twinkling duo of “Red Star” and “Prisma,” 80kidz craft slower songs similar to the highlights of their debut, except this time around they don’t need fucking Autokratz to do the heavy lifting. Between the more introspective dance tracks, they refine their more active moments to not sound like a poor man’s Ed Banger artist, dropping the wonky “Go With The Flow” and the skittery “Weak Point.” They even manage to merge these two worlds together on the glossy “Private Beats,” which also features the album’s most prominent vocal sample. It all concludes with the title track, a joyous bit of party music fit for a celebration. 80kidz have earned it.

14. Afrirampo We Are Uchu No Ko

We Are Uchu No Ko ended up being spazzy Osaka duo Afrirampo’s final album, and as far as finales go it’s about as perfect a bow Oni and Pikachu could give. The intimidating two-disc album documents everything that made Afrirampo such audio-IED over the last eight years – which is to say, it’s an all-over-the-place, loud mess jumping from metal buzz to Sonic Youth-esque whirlwinds, buffed out by plenty of shouting. We Are Uchu No Ko comes off as just a little more expansive than previous Afrirampo albums…three songs break the ten-minute mark, and that’s not including the grand finale mini-suite. Afrirampo hold nothing back – “Miracle Lucky Girls” features tag-team vocals that flirt with sloppy pop, while “Umi” spends the majority of its playtime slowly building up only to see the band demolish everything with waves of noise. They even work in a subdued guitar transition somewhere in amongst all the flailing, though it leads to the frantic “Yah Yah Yeah” which features the album’s most joyous climax. Everything ends with the five-part “Hoshi No Uta” suite, an ambitious (not to mention all-over-the-place) and appropriate close to their career. We Are Uchu No Ko would be a great listen even without the context, but since it ends up being Afrirampo’s swan song it feels a little extra special.

13. Miu Sakamoto Phantom Girl

Current Tokyo buzz band The Suzan recently told Black Book Magazine “J-Pop sucks. It’s so boring.” The writer agrees, calling it “ringtone-ready pop.” It’s a bit of an ignorant statement…something tells me the writer hasn’t listened to much of the songs that “dominate Japanese airwaves”…but also a sadly common one. Japanese pop music rarely gets lauded at all, and when it does it rarely gets props for being forward thinking. J-Pop more often than less ends up a punchline, and gets shout-outs at an even rarer rate.

Miu Sakamoto isn’t popular enough to be heard blaring out of every passing iPhone, but she did make an album exploring the ways traditional J-Pop could be reconfigured into something experimental. Phantom Girl deconstructs Oricon-winning sound as much as possible, resulting in skeletal whisps of songs that sound strangely intimate given the Fruit-Loops-colorful shades most J-Pop does dabble in. “Silent Fiction” trims away any excess, leaving only a simplistic beat and some smokey piano to back up Sakamoto’s unnerving pillow talk, which all leads to a chorus where full sentences get eschewed in favor of the word “no” repeated over and over. Sakamoto does more with way less – the gusty intro “Blue Hour” and the wordless prayer “Our Home” border on pure atmosphere, while the bumpier “The Magic Hours” hints at something ready for the dancefloor but never lets it explode. Sakamoto’s voice functions as the needle threading all these songs together, a high-pitched singing giving even the most minimalist compositions a bright soul and elevating the album’s most chart-ready moment “Phantom Girl’s First Love” into something special. Most importantly, Phantom Girl shows where J-Pop can go. This stuff would make a horrible ring tone.

12. Nini Tounuma Woolgathering

Kana Otsubo fronts the band Spangle Call Lilli Line, an at-times trip-hop leaning outfit that sounds perfectly good based on the little bit I’ve heard from them. Yet it’s when Otsubo goes all Black Swan on the world and transforms into Nini Tounuma does she create something otherworldly. Woolgathering avoids easy genre tagging, and even trying to muster up somewhat decent artistic comparisons becomes a difficult task. The multi-faced electronic songs recall Dirty Projectors at their most experimental, especially when it comes to vocal interplay. Otherwise, Tounuma takes inspiration from R&B and chillout music to create…well, Woolgathering. Voices pop up all over the place, Otsubo taking the main melody only to be suddenly joined by a clone of herself in the background, all while the various beats and shiny sounds ping off and occasionally splinter off like cells into new sonic mutations. On “Weather Fear Seesaw” the entire song splits apart, going from a flirty skitter to full-blown robo-funk in half a second. Tounuma takes familiar pop tropes and shifts them into something unheard of…even the R&B flourishes, a genre ran dry by indie musicians this year, sound fresh. Every new spin reveals something new, meaning Woolgathering promises only to get better with age.

Listen here

11. Nu Clear Classmate Lick The Star

Hop onto your Internet hoverboard and jet back to the top of this article please. Remember when I wrote that Turntable Films and Africaemo landed onto this list with a little help courtesy of youthful ambition? It’s true…both Squatter and Parables Of Fe-Fum feature plenty of amazing moments, but both mini-albums get a bit of a push from the promise both bands show. Both artists seem to be carving out a distinctive sound but aren’t quite there yet…though with “U Make Me Krazy” and “2steps” they come damn close. We expect them to land on future features down the line.

Nu Clear Classmate’s debut EP isn’t like those two.

Lick The Star comes into the world fully formed, about as perfect as an under-20-minutes EP can get. The duo making up Nu Clear Classmate show huge swag by inventing an entire genre for themselves, dubbed “suicide pop”…like Blake Griffin suiting up for the first time and giving himself his own trophy. Just like the NBA’s most exciting rookie, though, NCC completely meet all expectations. They have created a sound unique to them – a merger of crowd-pleaser pop with the fuzzy cacophony groups like, well, Suicide perfected back in the day. Other artists tried out this look in 2010 – M.I.A. got skewered for giving it a go, unless the whole truffle fry affair really peeved off music critics – but nobody mastered it like this obscure Tokyo outfit. Each song on Lick The Star does something thrilling with this formula, going from almost stupid positivity (the pop hum of opener “Blank World”) before settling into a despairing middle stretch where the waves of synths join the defeated singing to choke out any joy. Before going, though, NCC end on a hopeful note, those once pulverizing sounds lifting them up towards the sun. “Suicide pop is the solution” they shout, and I can’t help but nod my head.

I have high hopes for NCC’s future, but I also don’t pin their success on anything in particular. They’ve already given the world an EP distinctively theirs…what else can they do?

Make Believe Melodies’ Top 50 Japanese Songs Of 2010: 20-11

20. Your Gold, My Pink “Adolescence”

Back in May I saw Your Gold, My Pink play the Nara Street Style Music Festival, going into their late-day set absolutely jazzed to see what they could do live. An hour later I wanted to hightail it to the McDonald’s across the street to drown my disappointment in barbecue sauce. Their set didn’t clank off the rim as much as it felt like a layup drill – the energy seemed off, the songs didn’t pulse with the awkward manicness of their recorded material and even the Mates Of State intro seemed stupid. I saw a lot of great performances on that day, but it was Your Gold’s show I ended up remembering the most because of how let down I felt.

A couple months later, though, and they’d won me back by growing up right in front of my eyes. Their Pray mini-album saw the group make a monumental leap forward from their earlier material and proved the nap of a live show wasn’t an indicator of future direction. It features plenty of great, spazzy songs but “Adolescence” captured everything great about Your Gold in one place. A lot of bands across Japan have started taking the same meds that give Los Campesinos! their ADD drive, but those groups (no names dropped) seem to be forcing the it, trying to throw a confetti-laced party inside a strip mall. “Adolescence,” though, fucking nails it – Your Gold aren’t shouting because they have no other idea, they are shouting because it works perfectly in context. Besides featuring an opening guitar line that’s the sonic equivalent of making out on the first date, this song goes all over the place, to the point where dropping a critical turd like “it’s just like an actual n!” actually wouldn’t be means for being shot out of a cannon. I want to see them play this live.

Sample here

19. Tokyo Jihen “Noudouteki Sanpunkan”

Like, the last thing James Bond needed was more mojo. Which is to say…”Noudouteki Sanpunkan” slinks the hell out. Ringo Shiina sings like a covert agent bends through a laser-security system, threading her voice perfectly through the mix of funky guitar and gurgling electronics. She’s the star…as she so often is…but the whole package comes together so seamlessly it’s hard to notice just how great she is. This might be the sexiest jam of the year. Those with bear-trap domes might be saying right about now “hey, this came out in December 2009!” Yessir, but back then it only sounded really good. A year later, and I can’t hit the “repeat” option on iTunes fast enough.

18. Asian Kung-Fu Generation “Shinseiki No Love Song”

Making grand societal gestures through song isn’t an easy task regardless of how many Rolling Stone articles ponder “what happened to the protest song?” Outside of “Fortunate Son,” how many of those much ballyhooed activist songs do we not wince at today? Isn’t this “voice of a generation” thing the reason a lot of people got sick of Green Day…or even the reason The Suburbs sorta struggles? Don’t we all hate Bright Eyes’ political junk? Trying to be relevant via direct confrontation with the ills of today isn’t something to ignore completely, but it’s also a risky move that can make you look like a dick. Scattered across Asian Kung-Fu Generation’s 2010 album Magic Disk are such instances, awkward attempts at making something “big” that ultimately hit like a high-school kid who read about Communism for the first time in history class. It’s on “Shinseiki No Love Song,” though, where they do what the rest of the CD fails to do…capture the boxed-in feeling modern life drapes over people oh so well.

What makes Magic Disk’s lead single rise above the rest of the album is how Asian Kung-Fu Generation make the music do all the talking. Here old-hat tricks like backwards guitars and muffled, plain spoken vocals create a suffocating atmosphere dripping with something-isn’t-rightness. The translated lyrics and the video…though both border on the melodramtaic tripe oh so much Japanese media bathes in…do a good job of driving the message home. As those English words hint at, “Shinseiki” mostly dwells on the terror of coming of age in today’s world – the inevitable acceptance of death lurking around every corner taught via terrorist attacks broadcast on corporate news shout-loops and realizing all the junk you buy won’t be joining you six feet under. Smartly, a personal element plays a prominent role, the narrator also obsessed with crippling regret. Which leads to “Shinseiki’s” most transcendent moment, the song bursting into catharsis and refusing to settle back down. Because a bumper sticker quoting “Imagine” is cool, but actually confronting your woes gets stuff done.

Listen here

17. Nini Tounuma “Face It”

Plenty of folks whose opinion I greatly value have spilled enough positive digital-ink on Spangle Call Lilli Line that I wouldn’t tell singer Kana Otsubo to quit her day job. Yet…I’d implore her to explore her Nini Tounuma solo-project a lot more, even if it means slowing down the Spangle Call output. “Face It” imagines what chill-out music would sound like delivered by Dirty Projectors but produced by Flying Lotus – Otsubo nails the relaxed-but-still-groovin’ element down, but she adds in enough digital-wrinkles to make every second of this already irresistible tune consistently brainy as well. Yet what makes “Face It” distinctively hers is her voice, a quiver sometimes backed up by itself that’s unafraid to breakaway from its self. I’ve said a lot of the songs on this list feature star vocal performances that elevate the single into something special, but Otsubo instead chooses to blend into the background and bit more to make the actual music stand out more. And moving back turns out to be a brilliant choice.

Listen here

16. Kimonos “Soundtrack To Murder”

Greg Saunier of Deerhoof plays drums on “Soundtrack To Murder” but without the Kimonos liner notes you would have tricked me. With his regular band, Saunier pounds the skins like he has six arms, each one more jacked on protein powder than the last. On this, the second single from Mukai Shutoku of Zazen Boys side project Kimonos, Saunier goes to work with way more restraint by his standards. “Milk Man” this isn’t – he keeps the zaniness in check to instead deliver a slower, sustained beat that sometimes sounds a little like something an 80s hair band would use. As much as I love hearing Saunier destroy his kit, I admit it’s a smart move as “Soundtrack To Murder” shines thanks to all its elements coming together so well.

Besides the star-powered drums that aren’t that star-powered, “Soundtrack To Murder” cherrypicks the best elements of Zazen Boys (the math-rock construction of the guitar and bass parts) plus the ominous electric side perpetually hanging out. Yet the surprise here comes from the other dominant member of Kimonos, Leo Imai. He seemed like the most suspect aspect of Kimonos when the duo first surfaced, his pretty-boy singing an odd choice to combine with Shutoku’s eccentric self. “Soundtrack To Murder,” though, proves the decision to be a into-the-parking-lot homerun – Imai can, pardon my language, fucking sing. He gives this song its emotional center and an energy not even Saunier could have dropped in. And it still hangs on the rest of the music to reach its potential. “Soundtrack To Murder” avoids the fate of similar respected-artist-choked songs of the past by not trying to showcase how great each contributor is, but instead letting them just go to work.

15. Nu Clear Classmate “Causeless Pain”

In five and 10 spots time you’ll understand why I don’t want to spend much time on “Causeless Pain.” Let’s drill right into this song then – no song came as close to being as claustrophobic as this Nu Clear Classmate jam. The wall of harsh synths making up the bulk of “Pain” never relent, cascading down on the listener as lead-singer Chick gets absolutely covered in the muck. It’s also on the shortlist for most flat-out depressing Japanese song of 2010, Chick’s downtrodden singing made even more melancholy when suffocated by some of the grimmest electronics anyone concocted.

Listen here

14. Capsule “Can I Have A Word”

Player boasts a lot of moments of great experimentation. The sunny-pop strokes of “Stay With You,” the glitched-out stroll of “I Wish You,” the extended club menaces plopped into its middle, any instance of rapping. Yasutaka Nakata also helped inch Perfume into more wild-for-them territory. He seemed to be in a forward-thinking mood this year. MEG should sue for not getting a drop of those creative juices.

Yet for all the change-ups, Capsule’s best individual song ended up being the one that stuck to the hyper-loaded formula they established long ago. “Can I Have A Word” opens with strings ripped from a big budget musical but this just ends up a cinematic fake-out because just as quickly enter the bubbling synths and the glow-tinged voice of Koshijima Toshiko. From their the song spirals into an especially manic Capsule track, hints of disco mixed with a unflappable energy capped off by Toshiko’s incredible vocal performance. Nakata tried out a lot of new looks in 2010, but it’s nice to know he can still pump out an infectious clectro-whirlwind like this.

13. Soutaiseiriron “Miss Parallel World”

Like a really well-done Photoshop, it takes a few listens to “Miss Parallel World” to start noticing the details that make it seem a bit strange. The bright, pirate-ish guitar sucks you in and keeps the whole track moving forward at a nice, hoppy pace. Yet then the stranger sides start sticking out – Etsuko Yakushimaru’s nearly whispered, nearly instructional singing on the verses don’t standout as much as they creep around the corners. Plenty of J-Pop singers tried out slightly weirder ways of singing this year…this list features a few of them…yet Yakushimaru towers over all of them due to how unforced she sounds. Then the chorus, wherein “Miss Parallel World” bends into itself, the word “parallel” said repeatedly. It gives the whole track a hypnotic edge that, even once you spot the irregularities, keeps you zoned in.

12. Hotel Mexico “It’s Twinkle”

After being heavily featured in an introduction to chillwave article in Snoozer magazine and being profiled in the Japan Times, Hotel Mexico have basically already cemented their legacy as the band responsible for turning the sub-genre into a micro-trend in Japan. Time will tell us whether that distinction actually deserves a standing ovation or arms-crossed scorn, but for now it’s just sort of unfair. Yeah, this Kyoto band definitely fit all the requirements for a little Altered Zone’s love…general fuzziness, cheesy “retro” sounds, album artwork managing to both have a maritime theme AND be a found photo…but at times Hotel Mexico absolutely shatter all the trappings we’ve come to associate with these types of bands. Their breakout song and still showstopper “It’s Twinkle” features bedroom production values but nothing about it sounds “chilled out.” This song straight-up builds, and not in a subtle way – Hotel Mexico make the opening minute and a half sound gargantuan. Then it cuts out and we’re left with some confused vocals just getting through, “And I don’t know quite what to do/I’m always gonna be here sleeping alone.” Then…that steady build starts up again, and smothers all the way to the end save for a slight break. It never explodes…”Twinkle” ends just as the guitars seem prepared to let completely loose, leaving the listener right on the verge of something even bigger…but always sounds big. Call them chillwavers all you want, just remember “It’s Twinkle” glows a whole lot more massively than that term implies.

11. Perfume “575”

“Every Perfume song generally sounds the same,” yours-truly wrote back in April for the “Fushizen na Girl” single review. Four months later, Yasutaka Nakata completely clowned me with “575.” The B-side to the “VOICE” single isn’t so much a dramatic overhaul as much as an economically-appropriate “doing more with less” approach from a trio known for music choking on excess. “575” doesn’t go full thrift store – Nakata fits some strings into the chorus and this song does feature the members of Perfume psuedo-rapping – but for once the most prominent addition is silence. The verses, in particular, are refreshingly sparse, nothing but downplayed drum machine, undramatic singing and a neon-tinged keyboard line that Nakata should place pretty high up on his resume. It’s exciting new territory for a group regularly classified as pop-bots, but would just be “different” if the song itself didn’t work so well. The slinky verses bend into a potent chorus (those strings!) before dissolving into the Perfume rap…which over time grows on you to the point where I couldn’t picture “575” without it.

The production deserves a lot of praise, but while we’re here at the end of the year throwing praise wildly like so many Brett Favre 4th quarter passes…how about Perfume themselves? The big critical knock against the three people who constitute the public side of Perfume…the ones shilling for Pepsi products and girly fashion boutiques…is they don’t have any “personality,” reduced to a near-software role responsible for one friend of mine saying anyone could be plugged into their roles. “575” begs to differ – Nakata definitely casts a sheen over parts of this track’s vocals and outright screws with their voices at a few points, but the majority of the time what’s coming out of their mouths barely gets manipulated. The result – the flat-out sexiest song they’ve ever recorded, their singing tangoing with that lit-up keyboard line like they majored in dance. Even the rap gushes with “personality.” “575” does everything a great Perfume song usually does but in a very un-Perfume like way. They sure know how to make us critics look dumb.

Listen here.

Station To Station: Music Station For August 27, 2010 Featuring Perfume, WEAVER And BIGBANG

WEAVER “僕らの永遠~何度生まれ変わっても、手を繋ぎたいだけの愛だから~ “

First, props to WEAVER for giving their new single a name so long it couldn’t fit on a Butterfinger wrapper. That takes some balls. Unfortunately, that testicular fortitude doesn’t surface anywhere on the actual song. This single…not gonna copy/paste the title…seems custom made for feel-good radio stations moms tune into and Japanese gyms trying to inspire husky patrons into shedding a few pounds via canned soaring pop. The video implies WEAVER’s unique gift to the J-Pop world is the prominent placement of piano in their music. Sadly, the trio never stretch that sound beyond the same repeating melody. The lead singer certainly can deliver a solid vocal performance, but it’s not enough to turn this track into anything more than cheese.

Kanjani 8 “LIFE ~目の前の向こうへ~”

“I could skip this song, citing the piss-poor audio quality of the above clip. Yet even listening to a version of this track most likely recorded off a car radio onto a tape recorder, I hear everything I need to. Just forget the words “Kanjani Eight” whatever that is and replace them with “Johnny’s Pop Maker Machine.” This long-titled slab of weenie pop could only really shine during commercial breaks on QVC or soundtracking the end of a particularly limp cartoon. AKB48 may not be great, but they at least make memorable stuff. The hook for this boy band is they hail from the Kansai region, meaning they should sound “louder” and “funny.” Fire whoever taught them how to be those things. Kanjani Eight could be any other Johnny’s outfit except any other Johnny’s outfit wouldn’t be saddled with this dud. Geez, the terrible sound above is the best thing going for this…”

I wrote these words LAST WEEK when this dopey Johnny’s number popped up, and listening one more time to Kanjani Eight’s new single I can’t think of anything else to add. Sometimes writing this feature can be stupid easy.

Tokyo Jihen “天国へようこそ”

Ringo Shiina takes her James-Bond-diva act to its logical conclusion…she and her band Tokyo Jihen went and made a song that could be ripped straight out of a lounge scene during the Sean Connery era. Shiina doesn’t play it completely straight, though, and her band subtly make this song more Inland Empire than The Spy Who Loved Me. Peep the electronic squiggles flaring near the edges, or the guitar that sounds slightly out-of-tune.

In the end though, it’s Shiina who makes this one of the best singles featured on Music Station this year. She sings in husky English that squirms and writhes with every change in pace. When the band reaches the song’s exploding climax, she joins them in letting it all go. Best of all, her decision to sing in English means a schlub like me can understand. “天国へようこそ” translates to “Welcome To Heaven,” but Shiina’s not talking about any divine delights on Earth. She’s actually coming to terms with being dead and all the thoughts that come with it (“because I’ve just wasted my life away/all of it”). After the rush of realization, the song descends into a mess of guitar scuzz and eventually electro freak outs sounding like dentist drills. Realizing one’s life has ended would probably be a pretty traumatic experience.

Perfume “VOICE

Instead of tackling “VOICE” again, let’s instead celebrate the one undeniable aspect of Perfume’s latest…its video. Don’t read that as a slight…the trio’s music videos often manage to be just as fresh as their music. Especially when compared to the “here’s another artist walking around pretending to sing” fare most J-Poppers plop out. “VOICE” experiments with Michel Gondry DIY-style, focusing on Perfume going on a journey and playing Human Tetris. It’s a decidedly fun clip, one of the best of the year.

BIG BANG “BEAUTIFUL HANGOVER”

A certain sub-sect of Japan goes crazy over all entertainment from Korea. Magazines exist focusing solely on Korean TV and music, television stations sometimes show blocks of Korean programming. A friend who works in the classical concert business says shows featuring a Korean artist sell out every time. One of the biggest South Korean culture ambassadors around are BIG BANG, a boy band who sing half the time and rap the other times. They seem to be pretty big in Japan.

I’m not shocked after listening to “BEAUTIFUL HANGOVER,” the dumbly titled new single from the group. This stuff sounds absolutely refreshing compared to the schlock Johnny’s puts out. Whereas his boy bands often get saddled with ho-hum backing music ordered out of a J-Pop catalog, BIG BANG hook a club-friendly…or at least club-aping…beat. It’s not revolutionary, but it at least seems like a whole lot more time went to the production than, say, Kanjani Eight. Still plenty to hate here…the The-Dream wannabe “heys,” that pop-rap flow that the UN should really do something about…but also a nice change of pace from the usual boy band of the week in Japan. Ya think a Korean version of Music Station would be slightly easier to swallow?

Yuzu “慈愛への旅路”

Remember the WEAVER track up above? Get rid of the piano and make a few minor changes. You now have this song.

Winner Of The Week – Tokyo Jihen big time.

Station To Station: Music Station For 02/19/2010 Featuring AKB48, BoA And Ai Otsuka

AKB48 “桜の栞” – Rejoice rejoice! We’re only a few figure skating finals away from Winter being over with. That means warmth! And flowers! And, in Japan, cherry blossom season. Which also means it’s time for Japanese artists to release songs about the country’s prettiest part of the calendar year. The small mercenary army of AKB48 enter the arena with this, a nearly A capella single that would sound right at home during a school graduation ceremony (guess what else is coming up soon in Japan…). Save for a few piano keys, this song focuses on the vocal abilities of the big group. It’s pleasant enough though a far cry from being truly captivating. Still, a big improvement over “River.” That’s like the bronze medal in my book.

(Note on the video: skip ahead to the two minute mark to get the song. Otherwise, you can watch AKB48 put on clothes and talk.)

Ai Otsuka “LUCKY☆STAR” – The Internet tells me this song serves as the theme song for Fuji TV’s coverage of the Olympics. I’ve only watched on NHK so I can’t verify this. Ai Otsuka’s song exceeds the expectations usually given to glorified jingles, as “Lucky Star” (sorry pointless star) is a very enjoyable slice of J-Pop. There is a lot going on in this song – tons of electro noises, record scratches, a mini-rap breakdown – but Otsuka’s voice threads everything together into a very shiny piece of pop. Beats whatever NBC cobbled together, I’m sure.

近藤真彦 “心 ざんばら” – Can’t find this one online. Whooops. The dude’s part of Jonny’s Entertainment though, so I think you can guess what this sounds like.

湘南乃風 “ガチ桜” – You know what’s worse than a J-Pop ballad? A J-Rap ballad, that’s what. Imagine all the over-the-top instrumentation and forced emotional crooning…joined by some sick raps! Funky Monkey Baby’s do this sometimes and it’s shit, but not nearly as putrid as what this song manages to accomplish. Opening with some schmaltzy strings and that “star wipe” sound effect that manages to find it’s way into nearly every J-Ballad, some typical ballad singing leads into…yikes. If you’ve ever wondered “where did Bobcat” Goldthwait go,” this song answers that question: a Japanese rapper ate him. But wait, this song has even more surprises! The group raps over the fakest-ass reggae beat imaginable. It’s as legit as a pouch of Capri Sun. The type of “reggae music” they play in a Spencer’s Gifts near the shelf with all the weed ashtrays. 湘南乃 manages to embarrass hip-hop, reggae and even the J-Pop ballad with this stinker. And it lasts like six minutes! I’ll give the group credit for fitting every terrible trend in mainstream Japanese music into one stupid long single. I just won’t listen to it ever again.

Tokyo Jihen “勝ち戦” – Big ups to Tokyo Jihen for doing this single entirely in English, allowing me to understand what’s going on. And it’s pretty good English at that. Lead singer Shiina Ringo elevates “勝ち戦” from “so-so rock throwback” to “whoa, that was pretty good.” Her voice slinks along in the verses, occasionally trailing off or taking a detour into higher pitched places. On the chorus, though, she’s all business: she takes on the voice of a commanding diva who knows she owns the song she’s currently towering over. It’s not as good as the group’s last Music Station single, but this one definitely has charm. Also of note: this song carries a Beck circa Midnight Vultures vibe to it. That earns some points.

BoA “まもりたい ~White Wishes~” – BoA is kinda a big deal. Real name Boa Kwon, she’s one of Korea’s most successful pop singers and has had pretty substantial success outside of her home country. Japan loves her – she’s the only non-Japanese Asian to have two albums sell at least a million copies. She even released an album in America. So she has a new single out for her latest Japanese album and predictably it sold well, plopping down at #2 on Oricon. How does it sound? Pretty much what you’d expect from any pop diva, regardless of geographical origin. It’s a hybrid R&B/pop joint tricked out to include all sorts of Timbaland-era flourishes (club-worthy squeaks, hip-hopish beat) against sentimental strings and BoA’s strong singing voice. It features all the ingredients found in many of the Ought’s chart-topping pop hits, but doesn’t do anything particularly fresh with them either. All in all, a decent-enough pop hit.

Best Of The Week – Lets continue with this labored Olympic theme and go to the Music Station podium for the medal ceremony.

Bronze – BoA
Silver – Tokyo Jihen
Gold – Ai Otsuka