GK's Top 5 Albums of 2010!

Have you all forgotten about 2010 already? We sure haven't! 

On Gaijin Kanpai Episode 95, we ran down our individual lists for our Top 5 Singles and Albums of 2010. We promised you a write-up of our albums list and here it is! 

While NoaNowa's "Magical Circus" collectively won our hearts as the #1 album of 2010 for GK, there were also so many other great releases that we just have to talk about them and share with you!

Starting with Zer0, then Jaylee, and ending with LoKi, hit the jump to read our Top 5 Albums list and hopefully we'll inspire you to give them a shot!

 

 

Zer0's Top 5

This year was a good year for "Zer0 music" - the indie rock-pop with lots of blending styles and strange instrument choices. Several good albums didn't quite make the list, but this top 5 really worked hard to earn its position as cream of the crop for me.

5. Kamiki Aya - Gloriosa

Kamiki Aya burst onto the scene as something of a B'z pet. She, quite frankly, rocked. The songs were catchy and hard-hitting. She had much stronger vocals than most being girls have, much more clear and powerful. Her talents did not go to waste on her first album, but for the sake of blending in and being more commercially viable she watered down her sound over the years. It progressively got worse and worse until she finally released a best-of compilation and moved over to avex. This mini-album is her second release with the label and it feels like my girl is back!

There is just nothing skippable on this CD. Every track totally rocks but it's all still very professionally produced. The songs are dynamic and interesting and catchy. The melodies are well-crafted, her voice sounds mature, and while there are weaker tracks and stronger tracks on here, that's gonna depend on your taste more than anything else.

Favorite Song: Satisfaction

Needs Improvement: Too short! Needz moar EVERYTHING!

 

4. Noanowa - Magical Circus

It's known among most everyone I know that I see colors & shapes in my mind when I listen to music, and the music I prefer tends to be what I would consider "colorful." This album a veritable rainbow of styles, techniques, and genres. But all of it is catchy and friendly. It manages to be artistically relevant without being artsy. It's on a higher plane compared to most japanese music without being inaccessible, elitist, or pretentious. You get this vibe that the band are all just having fun making music they like with no big mission to be different. It just IS different, and it's lovely.

The live DVD included with the album makes the purchase even more worth it. I went into it thinking that having the lead singer stuck behind a cello would make it uninteresting, but LoKi assured me that that was not the case. Sure enough, it was entrancing to watch the band play live. It also got me interested in more of their past material, and "Melt" is now another one of my favorite songs of theirs.

Favorite Song: SQUONK no namida

Needs Improvement: I suppose if I really stretch it, the album might be TOO varied in style.

 

3. FURUKAWA MIKI - Very

Furukawa Miki, former bassist of Supercar and current inspiration for a Vocaloid character, is awesome. She is a brilliant musician, and excels at creating a mood-based piece of music that still somehow manages to have a memorable melody. This balance is ridiculously hard to strike - most songs with a good atmosphere are impossible to hum along to. Not so with Miki. She's just that good.

This album has Miki leaning in a more synth direction than her first two, but it's still undeniably her work, full of her touches. Her airy voice just adds to the atmospheric nature of the album, and it's utterly hypnotic the whole way through. It's all just fantastic indie rock-pop, and if you like songs that make you feel something - whether it be elation, distress, anxiety, or empowerment - you'll like this.

Favorite Song: I'm On Earth

Needs Improvement: There's not another epic "I'm On Earth" on the album to give it more balance

 

2. Hamasaki Ayumi - Rock'n'Roll Circus

Hamasaki Ayumi is the person who got me into j-music, and her songs have stuck with me more than anyone else's over the years. Between the "RAINBOW" and "NEXT LEVEL" albums, though, Ayu was sort of in a slump for me. I felt like she had less and less to say over the years and her albums were often deeply flawed in one way or another. This album finally had me feeling the way I felt when I listened to "Duty" for the first time in 2000, like this was someone who was a perfectionist, who knew what she was doing, and everything she did appealed to me.

This album has perfectionist Ayu back with a vengeance, but more importantly, emotional Ayu is back, singing about her fears in a much more frank manner than she had since those same fears began years ago. She felt distant for ages previous, but on this album she feels less afraid to really communicate.

The Ayu of varied pop styles has also returned. "Microphone" is probably the best rock style song she's done in many ways, Ayu goes indie-synth weird on songs like "Sexy little things," and "Don't look back" is reminiscent of the title track of "Duty" with its world influence and dark atmosphere. She also goes straight raw rock with "count down" and honest singer-songwrited pop with "Last Links." The interludes on this album are varied and masterful as well. This is just a very satisfying album.

Favorite Song: count down

Needs Improvement: meaning of Love shoulda been 86'd, and there really should be more rock with that title.


1. SAKANACTION - kikUUiki

I saw the "ARUKU AROUND" video and that was pretty much it for me. This funny looking dude in a blue tracksuit was walking around in a giant circle showing us the lyrics to one of the best songs I'd ever heard. Then when the "kikUUiki" album came out, it was one of the weaker songs on it! What?! When does that happen!?

Well in the case of kikUUiki, happen it did, and I couldn't be more delighted. The album is probably best described as indie rock-pop, but that does it no justice. There is not a genuinely weak song to be found, and that includes the first-pressing-only bonus outro track. Every song on the album has some kind of memorable element - a bit of vocal melody, a voice heard or used, a catchy phrase being played by one of the accompanists, or a production technique that sets it apart from the rest of the album. As my sister described it to me, "Every song on this album is 'that one song'!"

The album as a solitary, cohesive unit is very strong - imagery of blue, water, swimming, and motion is a common theme throughout the album including the title and cover art. The band lives up to their name very well on this album, and after listening to more of their discography I'd argue that this is in fact their masterwork. The group should be ridiculously proud of themselves for this effort, if only because they've made a fan for life in me.

Favorite Song: UNDER

Needs Improvement: 21.1 might be the weak link on this album, but even it is really good.

 

This was an amazing music year for me. I've listened to tons of great music that really helped me refine my taste and realize what I really genuinely do and do not like. I've branched out enough and heard so many new artists that I'm not settling for music that was only alright the way I used to. While I still enjoy even the weaker songs I hear, they are being pushed aside in favor of some true gifts to the musical world like the albums featured here. 2010 was a truly magical year for music and I am ridiculously honored to have been following Japanese rock and pop through it. Here's hoping 2011 brings us some more great surprises!

 

Jaylee's Top 5

This year has seen a lot of great talent rise up through the ranks of J-artists. We had some amazing debut albums and some artists finally coming into their own. There were a lot of albums I had to cut from the list but I'm overall very happy with this top five. I've been listening to these albums all year and can't seem to get enough of them.

5. Fukuhara Miho – Regrets of Love

What this album lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. I had trouble adding this to my list seeing as it only has five tracks (three original and two covers) but at the end of the day this mini-album is one of the loveliest collection of songs I’ve heard all year.  I’d go so far as to say that one of the albums greatest strengths is its length. While there isn’t as much variety spread across the tracks the album gets the time it needs to let the lounge/rhythm & blues style breath and sink in without giving it too much time to become stagnant boring. Miho brings her A game here with impressively strong and emotive vocals that bring a sense of believability to every note sung here. This mini-album solidifies Miho as a mature songstress who, unlike so many other artists in Japan, does not just dabble in R&B. It is obvious she appreciates the genre, its history and is going to be instrumental in keeping true R&B alive in Japan.

Favorite Song: Regrets of Love

Needs Improvement: Random Engrish moment in “Your Story” after four tracks of spot on English.


4. BENI – Jewel

Now if somebody is going to dabble in R&B while retaining a pop sound, this is how you do it. BENI’s style hasn’t changed over her past three albums; she’s still making the same pleasant pop with slick production and catchy melodies. Most artists who don’t switch up their sound are under risk of a shrinking fan base due to an increasingly uninspired and repetitious song library. This is not the case for BENI. There is not a single song on this album I dislike; not a single song I feel the need to skip. This album has a far more upbeat selection of songs than her previous albums but still remains, for the most part in the mid-tempo range. Don’t let the “pleasant pop” tag confuse you, there are some fantastic songs on this album that stand tall among their peers; for example, BENI’s intros are usually far better songs than many artists’ singles. From the ridiculously catchy “2FACE” to the gorgeous closing ballad “Wasurenaide Ne,” this album never fails to impress with just how genuinely happy it makes me.

Favorite Song: Wasurenaide Ne

Needs Improvement:The intro could have been a full length track.


3. Nishino Kana – To Love

Kana has a way with melodies that is nearly unmatched in Japanese pop. Add this to the ridiculously effective combination of relatable and accessible lyrics and you have sheer pop perfection. I quite literally had to turn the album off because I was so busy singing along and enjoying the music that I could not write this review of it. This is the kind of album you just want to hug and be buddies with. It’s fun, energetic, and even when it’s sad you can’t help but love it. In June I said it was the perfect summer album, but as time has passed I have come to realize that this album isn't necesarilly confined to summer rotation. The songs are infectious and get stuck in your head in the best possible way. If you hadn't heard this album then you really should give it a try and see what all the Nishino Kana buzz is about. You won't be dissapointed.

Favorite Song: Motto…

Needs Improvement: The English in “Come On Yes Yes Oh Yeah!!” is cringe-inducingly bad.


2. ICONIQ – Change Myself

This album is the most fun I’ve had all year. Not many albums can hold up to literally hundreds of repeated listens, but this clever blend of slick urban production and pop sensibilities is still just as refreshing and surprising now as it was when I first heard it. ICONIQ was one of the biggest surprises of 2010. I never would have guessed a newly bald Ayumi Lee would re-debut in Japan and blow me away so thoroughly. From beginning to end this album’s quality never fluctuates; it was the gold standard I held all other albums to this year when critiquing. This album is energizing from start to finish and I can think of many days this past year where I was soldiering through to ICONIQ. I honestly didn’t think anything would be able to match its style and excellence. Luckily, I was wrong.

Favorite Song: I'm lovin' you

Needs Improvement: ICONIQ could have benefitted from more direction this year in terms of releases.

 

1. JASMINE – GOLD

While I find myself having more fun with “Change Myself,” “GOLD” was the best album I heard all year. “GOLD” really does everything it can to raise the bar not just for J-Urban music but for Japanese music overall. Every beat feels organic and the production sounds like it is effortlessly executed. JASMINE carefully crafts a persona on this album and unlike most artists it is consistent and complete. The lyrics are personal in a way that strikes the perfect balance between toughness and vulnerability that is crucial in hip-hop. The lyrics never get close to becoming the same clichéd words you hear in a thousand different songs, but the great thing is that you don’t need to know Japanese to appreciate the songs. The production supplements the lyrics in such a way that a complete picture is easily painted for listeners of any linguistic background. Utada Hikaru may have paved the way by infusing the Japanese pop industry with western influences, but JASMINE is carving her own path with a level of quality that is unmatched.

Favorite Song: Bad Girl

Needs Improvement: “what you want?” is a little too close to generic for JASMINE.

 

This year has been such a surprising one. Japanese urban artists have really raised the bar and come close to redefining urban music for Japan instead of resorting to songs that sound like western knock-offs or constantly straying too close to the pop border. JASMINE and ICONIQ's debut have really stuck with me but there have also been a lot of legends releasing amazing albums this year like Hamasaki Ayumi and the brilliant green. I've gotten into a lot of great musicians through the reviews we've done on this podcast and am truly greatful to my cohosts for suggesting them. 2010 has felt like such a step up from 2009 that I cannot wait to see what 2011 has in store for us.

 

LoKi's Top 5

My Top5 of 2010 is quite different than my Top of the first half of the year. Even though 2 of those 5 remain in this list, gone are the R&B album (Beni) and the questionable VK choices. BEHOLD! Excellence in Rock music awaits you...

5. Kalafina - Red Moon

As I've mentioned in the past (and will continue to mention in the future), a release from Kajiura Yuki, especially Kalafina, will make a presence on any Top list you ask from me. 

Kalafina bring the whimsy, and it's as if they exist specifically to scratch that itch for me. Every track but the last one is at least a 4-star in my iTunes and I think that every music fan should hear what these girls have to offer. I was a bit scared that Seventh Heaven would be their peak; especially since i wasn't too thrilled with it. I'm proud to say that Red Moon surpasses it in every respect as a true evolution and maturity of their sound. They even incorporate some worldly influences this time around like in "Tetotetometome".

I don't need to go on about this album. Check out Episode 55 to hear my review!

Favorite Song: Kyrie

Needs Improvement: They can still sound a bit too anime-y at times

 

4. 9mm Parabellum Bullet - Revolutionary

Have you taken our past suggestion and listened to Straightener yet? No? DO IT NOW. Yes? Well, I've discovered a band in the same vein as them, but they bring a little something different to the table. 

9mm Parabellum Bullet have been around for awhile, but have evaded me until this year. Punk Rock with a slight Indie flavor, they are very upbeat and really just hit it out of the park with every song. Seeing them live is a treat, but the real draw is the lead singer's voice. I still can't put into words what he's able to do to his voice, but it's very unique and gives the band a dynamic you're not going to find in other rock bands.

I first heard "Black Market Blues" last year and thought that song must be a fluke. There's no way they could keep up that level of awesome throughout. I was wrong. Even going back into their discography, that quality is still there.

"Revolutionary" is a fine example of why 2010 was such a great year for music. Use it as an excuse to get into a new band!

Favorite Song: 3031

Needs Improvement: really the only song I thought was of lesser quality was "Inochi no Senmai"

 

3. STRAIGHTENER - Creatures

There's not much more I can say about STRAIGHTENER or this album that I haven't already said both during the first half of the year, and at year's end. 

Rarely does one start liking a band for X reasons and then, years later, still like them for those same reasons. Some bands try to revolutionize their sound too much to the point where they lose track of what gained them fans in the first place. STRAIGHTENER thankfully does not have this problem. They have been consistently good since inception and only strive to be better at what they do from album to album. They do NOT try to reinvent themselves or dabble in other genres for too long.

They have their out-of-character songs, sure, but when those songs are like Donkey Boogie DoDo, fans seem not to bitch; and rightfully so. 

STRAIGHTENER can be many things: Alternative Rock Gods, Whimsical, Invigorating. Hopefully that will never change.

Favorite Song: Clone

Needs Improvement: Nothing, as long as they don't change

 

2. Uplift Spice - Memento

Back in August we did a GKRT about Women in JRock. Afterwards, someone mentioned a few bands we should have taken notice of. One of those bands was Uplift Spice. About a month later, they released Memento so I checked them out.

Thank you, kind listener, thank you indeed...

Uplift Spice are right up my alley. Think UVERworld with the vocalist from The PinkPanda (now BLiSTAR) in a more raw punk setting and you get Uplift Spice. Almost every song on this album is energetic punk-rock at a high level and the melodies they come up with get stuck in my head and I find myself humming songs like Memento, Queen Anne's Revenge and, mostly, Time Capsule all day long. I really can't wait until their next release!

Favorite Song: Time Capsule

Needs Improvement: The lead singer needs a shot of testosterone straight into her vocal chords

 

1. NoaNowa - Magical Circus

I am forever indebted to Jaylee and his blogger friend who recommended this album. Beginning 1minute into the intro song, I knew this album was different. Would it be "good" different though? Or "Shiina Ringo" different? Little did I know that 3 songs later, I would have my jaw on the floor eagerly anticipating the next song to come on. I would remain in that state of mind for 3 straight repeat listens of the entire album. It's that good...

It's obviously rare that you come across an album that ranks as one of your top of all time. It's even more rare for me to have that album not be what I consider a rock album. This band is so utterly organic and quirky and pleasing to the ear and melodically sound that you're doing yourself a disservice by actively ignoring it.

Focus, My Girl, Sweet Sweet, Skuonk no Namida and especially Gradation and Mogura wa Toninaru are superb songs that not only fall into my 5-star song list in iTunes, but also make my illustrious and super-secret 6-star list.

I love it when she plays cello, I love how active the other members are besides just playing their instruments, and I love watching them live. If you buy this album, make sure you get the Special Edition with the live DVD linked in the album art. It's totally worth it and not much more than the regular edition.

This is one of my Top Albums of All Time. And that's not something one in my position just throws around all willy-nilly.

Favorite Song: Gradation

Needs Improvement: Tsunaide. There's absolutely no excuse for this band to resort to nothing but auto-tune and a piano!

 

2010 has been special for me musically. Not only have I continued to do something I love with my friends (Gaijin Kanpai), but I've also been exposed to a lot of great music. I've found out a lot things this year: that I really like what VK music has to offer, R&B music is not dead nor entirely stripped of its dignity, and that the Alternative Rock scene is still full of gems if you know where to look. Most importantly, 2010 has been a year of discovery for me. I've found so many great artists and bands this year that it has reaffirmed my belief that Japanese Music is still the Best Music in the world!