After the triple disaster Japan faced nobody knew what to expect from the Japanese music industry. Though it should come as no surprise, as after only a few weeks of limited releases the industry got back into the swing of things and continued to release high quality music as if nothing had happened. We offer this list to those who do not have the time to go through the copious amount of Japanese releases each year. We highlight what we believe to be the best based on our individual tastes. Hope you all enjoy it!
Sometimes I’ll see a group’s name and know immediately that I’m going to like their music before I’ve heard so much as one note. Although there’s no rhyme or reason to this feeling (it happened with RADWIMPS and the to-be-mentioned POLYSICS and androp), it very rarely leads me wrong. salyu x salyu gave me this feeling, as did the album title “s(o)un(d)beams,” and the feeling was right again. The music on this album is atmospheric and cerebral, with a few touches of faster energy here and there. This album is like a tasty sampler of the music that satisfies my guilty pleasures: non-musical sounds woven into traditional instruments, unusual harmonic parings, and layered vocals, all juxtaposed with classic performance elements and styles. Although artsy occasionally goes overboard and becomes annoying, the album always comes back on track to deliver a chill listening experience that will still has enough sparkle to stimulate your mind.
Favorite song: “Hostile To Me”
Much like salyu x salyu, I knew that I would love POLYSICS from the moment I heard their name. But other than the focus on a more experimental sound, POLYSICS couldn’t be more different from salyu x salyu. Far from chill, POLYSICS hits you over the head with their synthesizer and guitars until the whole world sounds like 8-bit rock. The album is 13 tracks long, but they all have so much energy that they seem to just blow by in a frenetic rush, pulling you along with and into their energy. Each song is like an after dinner mint: sweet, poppable, addictive, and will give you a hell of a sugar rush if you consume them in rapid succession...which will happen, if you have even one. Although the songs tend to run together a little as the album goes on, the album as a whole is very consistent, has a unique sound, and is fun to listen to.
Favorite song: “Jumping Up and Clash”
Although I love the sound and the energy of rock, one thing that the genre usually lacks is the creative spark and the willingness to explore new and different musical avenues. If I were a squirrel, rock songs would be my acorns: I love acorns - eat them everyday! - but sometimes I long for a grapefruit. Following that analogy, “door” is like an acorn-grapefruit hybrid. The music has a solid rock sound combined with interesting tidbids: the only good clap track in the universe, contrasting feelings throughout single songs, subtle electronic elements, and a steel drum that somehow doesn’t sound Caribbean. Best of all, each song is distinctly different from the others on the album, but they all fit together logically to create a solid album. At only 8 tracks I would have preferred for this album to be longer, but I also have to give androp credit for not ruining a good album with weak music at the end just to add length.
Favorite song: “Mirror Dance”
You can’t talk about weird rock without bringing up Tsushimamire. “GIVING BLOOD” is like a meal from a foreign country: full of unfamiliar, disconcerting elements that are surprisingly tasty together. The album has a huge variety of sound, but unlike some of my other favorite picks, it has nothing to do with odd instruments or electronic elements; instead the charm and fun of Tsushimamire is in the sheer creativity with which they write their songs, and the energy and emotion they put into their performances. From a desperate and scared song from the point of view of a girl realizing that her lost father will never return to an upbeat rant about how cats aren’t very nice, each song is distinct from the others in terms of style and content, creating a surreal musical adventure. Mari’s vocals enhance each song: her power to emote is unbeatable, conveying the precise feeling of a song in a way that transcends language.
Favorite song: Kenketsu Song
While I knew that I would love all the other albums on this list from the moment I heard about them, “Su” took me by surprise. From the album cover, I expected this album to be another piece of insubstantial fluff full of “fresh sounds” and “strong musicality” that actually translate to stale, overdone performances of music that we’ve heard thousands of times before. Abe Mao wastes no time in letting you know that judging this album by it’s cover is a bad mistake, grabbing the listener from the first moment of the first track, and not letting go. Although this album is a little lighter on the weirdness than some of my other picks, it still has it’s moments of uniqueness: the carnival sound of “TA,” the jazzy beats of “Nametonka,” the paranoid sound of “Yada.” And what it lacks in unique sound it makes up for with solidly constructed songs, a tracklist order that adds strength and consistency to the album, and a strong, varied vocal performance.
Favorite song: 19-sai no Uta
This album was a pretty big surprise. The singles were rather weak. "COLD FINGER GIRL" rocked a little bit, sure, but Kuriyama's amateurish, flat, uncontrolled vocals killed the whole thing for me. When the album was announced, the list of credits included some big names in Eastern and Western rock, so I figured I'd give it a shot. I'm really glad I did. The album is a satisfying, somewhat eclectic mix of rock styles produced by the likes of 9mm Parabellum Bullet, Shiina Ringo, Tomoyasu Hotei, and Buck-Tick. Her vocals are still a bit amateurish, but with some studio retouching were made tolerable, making the album a far from unpleasant listen.
Favorite Song: shinkai
Onitsuka Chihiro was close to becoming a favorite artist before her sudden disappearance from the music scene in 2004. She had just started really venturing into genres besides ballad pop with rock-tinged singles like "Beautiful Fighter" and "sodatsu zassou." Her return album, "Las Vegas," was a tired, difficult effort - her voice sounded worn and out of practice, as Onitsuka had suffered a polyp on her vocal chords as well as other hardships and drama during her de facto hiatus. This album sees Onitsuka return to what her form could have been before her departure. Her voice is still weaker than it was in the days of "gekkou" and "infection," understandably, but the album ventures into rock, pop, celtic, world, and ballad genres, all strong points for Onitsuka.
Favorite Song: yume ka mo shirenai
I was shocked I liked this album. I knew 9mm's genre, and I knew it wasn't my thing. I don't usually enjoy punk and metal with the tempo of some of this album. This album, however, is true to its name. The songs all have momement, momentum, and energy that makes it evident that this band loves making music. The fast tempo isn't constant throughout, but it is necessary to carry the album from one point to another in some cases. The melodies are also catchy and colorful, from the vocals to the guitar riffs to the bass lines, making it hard not to enjoy the album as a whole. It's strangely charming.
Favorite Song: Muddy Mouth
It seems Shiina Ringo and her band are simply incapable of producing bad music. Tokyo Jihen have been less resonant with me overall than Shiina Ringo's solo outings, but this album and 2007's "Variety" are a grand collection of everything I love about the band. "Dai-Hakken" shifts from rock to jazz and back again effortlessly and puts the band's talents on display. The album is artistic, schizophrenic, and multi-textured while still being enough of a pop album to be accessible to new listeners to the band. I highly recommend listening.
Favorite Song: kinjirareta asobi (Jeux Interdits)
Admittedly this is not artistically the best album on my list. That goes to number 2. No, this acoustic guitar-based pop/rock album has simply become the teddy bear I most like to hug this year. I listen to it all the time. When I'm feeling down, it picks me back up. Granted, some of Blaise's songs on the album sound very very similar to one another, keeping this album from having too much variety. But that would be my only complaint. It's a delightful listen, inspiring, sweet, friendly, and just emotional enough. Songs like "Halo," "mahou no kotoba," and "Wonderland" are sure to keep you looking up at the sky and feeling optimistic, and songs like "Safari," "Sunshine," and "Disco Girl" will have you bobbing your head in the car. There's nothing unpleasant here, nothing skippable, and the album certainly deserves points for that.
Favorite Song: the party's over
Much like Zer0’s MONKEY MAJIK pick, Galileo Galilei’s major debut album “PARADE” is one that I find myself continually coming back to because of the mood it puts forth. This album helps me relax with it’s pleasant and beautiful simplicity, from production that excels at putting just the right amount of polish to keep it from sounding messy but not so much that it loses its charm and friendly-feel. From the refreshing first track, “Boku Kara Kimi he” to the more frantic “Dou de mo ii” and finally the heartfelt acoustic version of “Kanseitou” that closes out the album, Galileo Galilei add a much needed youthful vibrance to the sound that artists like Bump of Chicken have cultivated over the years.
Favorite Song: Frappy
While not nearly as strong as her previous mini-album “Regrets of Love,” “The Soul Extreme EP” continues the trend of high quality soul infused pop that can only come from someone with a voice as impressive as Fukuhara Miho’s. The EP starts with the fantastic collaboration with AI, continues onto the breathtaking “STARLIGHT” and segues into the more mature soulful tracks like “NO PARKING” and the fantastic cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” that finishes off this work. With this release Miho drives home the idea that quality is always preferable over quantity.
Favorite Song: O2 feat. AI
As said in the episode, I really struggled with this albums placement on the list. While the majority of the songs have been previously released on singles and mini-albums, it still is an impressive selection of songs. This album runs the gamut as far as styles go: you have the ridiculously upbeat title track, the quirky “On The Right,” the more artistic “Hallelujah” and the dramatic ballads like “EVERGREEN.” 15 Doors sounds far more cohesive than it has any right to and it made me think twice about my assumption that the band was going to turn into a cutesy-pop factory after the success of “Sunshine Girl.”
Favorite Song: Destiny
While I wasn’t surprised going into “MAGAZINE” I was definitely cautious. We have a track record of 1 fantastic mini-album and 3 great singles, but we also have the disappointing “ATTITUDE” that kept me from being floored for this album. MAGAZINE was really all I wanted from Meisa; it has some slick production, catchy instrumentation and the perfect blend of strength and vulnerability to be found in the variety of dance tracks and slow jams that really makes an artist pop.
Favorite Song: BYE BYE MY FRIEND
Forget what these other jokers say; If you listen to one album this year, make it Mind Travel. This album just shouts out “JAAAAAAYLEEEEEEEEEE!” (I would put more A’s and E’s but was told that would be a cheap way to increase the length of my write-up). It is sassy, fun, and deeply personal at points. Superfly takes the classic rock feel and attitude from the 60s and 70s and puts a contemporary spin to it that continues to keep her one of the most unique artists currently releasing music in Japan. The music is expertly and lovingly crafted with Superfly’s stunningly strong vocals breathing life into each and every track. As I mentioned in the Kuroki Meisa section it takes a mix of strength and vulnerability to make a star really stand out and be relatable; for the perfect example you need look no further than my #1 spot holder. Superfly is beyond badass with her attitude and power that lend tracks like “Rollin’ Days” and “Free Planet” an anthem-like quality while at the same time having the ability to bring an intimate humanity to the inexplicably beautiful “Wildflower.” This album shows an evolution for Superfly’s sound and caliber as an artist. Her vocal control and ability are much stronger than they were on her debut album just a few short years ago. The production, while still containing the pop polish that comes with major releases feels more earthy, stripped down, human. In an industry that favors auto-tune, super-synth and computer generated idols this album is one of the most refreshing albums I’ve heard in a long time.
Favorite Song: Wildflower
Sometimes I like to feign that only quality music makes my regular iTunes rotation, but you all know that some artists like Arashi, AKB48, and Morning Musume squeak through probably more often than they should. AAA falls into that category for the most part, but at least I’d be fine playing their music for friends.
AAA takes that American late-90’s/early-2000’s dance music you couldn’t help but get addicted to back in the day and adds an updated flare to it. Buzz Communication included a lot of singles, but because of the quality of most of them, I was more than OK with that. “Makenai Kokoro” was my favorite single of 2010, so when this album came out and there were similar songs like “Dream After Dream”, “Aitai Riyuu” and previously released tracks like “Endless Fighters”, I was pleasantly surprised by this album pretty much beginning to end.
It may not be my favorite song on the album, but “Itoshisato Setsunasato Kokoro Duyosato” demands a special mention. It’s a bonus track on a special version of the album and is a remake of Shinohara Ryoko’s track from 1994. It’s also one of themes from the underrated anime “Street Fighter II V”. This song, that anime, and its other theme song “Kaze Fuiteru” are major reasons why I got into Japanese Pop Culture. I was both excited and skeptical to hear this remake, and I’m glad to say that they did it right. All the nuances I loved about the original are there, and the track as a whole is on par with the best songs on the album.
FAVE SONG: Dream After Dream
You and I both know how consistently good Alice Nine’s releases are. Sometimes their album tracks fall short, but as a majority, we can at least all agree that they haven’t released a bad single. The funny thing then about Gemini is that it’s the album tracks that are the star...Finally!
I’ll start with the best. “KING&QUEEN” has earned a spot in my top songs of all time. An entire song that is almost all chorus? Hard-hitting drums? Epic arrangement? All that is present in KING&QUEEN and it’s basically the perfect recipe for LoKi Happy Juice (tm). Not to be too overshadowed by KING&QUEEN are great VK songs like “I”, the oddly-named “RUMWOLF”, and the 3 Gemini tracks. I really like how Alice Nine takes VK, gets rid of the indie sound and adds a touch of flamboyant disco and vocals, but still crack out some of the best rock JMusic fans can find. Finally, to completely contradict my opening statement, I didn’t even really like “Stargazer;” that much!
FAVE SONG: KING&QUEEN
Not much can be said about this album more than how we reviewed it on episode #117. I think that review was one of our best of all time, and I feel we really nailed it. This album runs the gamut in terms of song styles, vocal stylings, maturity, cutesy JPOP, strong female vocals and empowerment. You name it, there’s probably a song on here for you.
Like Gemini, there is a track on Su that propels this album to greatness for me. “Hashire” is so good that I want to eat it, throw it up, and eat it again. Like a cow. All my stomachs need “Hashire” in them! The maturity in her voice really shines on this track and the music is so catchy that it takes days before it even starts to leave my head. The build up in the song to the point where she starts yelling “Hashire” at the top of her lungs is why I appreciate music as much as I do. It’s just...something special as far as I’m concerned.
Also like Gemini, there are a bunch of tracks that refuse to be out-shined by “Hashire”. “Itami” hits hard and is a perfect opening track to get someone like myself’s attention right off the bat. “Motto” is a single and sounds like a single, but it’s still very good. “TA” is a funny track because it’s so different in terms of styles from the other tracks I like, but the orchestral intro and Otsuka Ai-type vocals make it endearing to me. “Nametonka”, “Yada”, “Hikari” are also solid tracks. It’s hard to not like this album immensely, especially if you listen to it in track order; which I strongly suggest you do.
FAVE TRACK: hashire
Truth be told, I don’t know much about SpecialThanks. JapanFiles announced this album on their twitter as a girl-fronted punk band which might as well be followed by “for LoKi” no matter what band it is. I love that dynamic.
When I listened to the samples and bought the album, I was presented with what sounded like a hybrid of YUI and TommyHeavenly6. If that sounds as yummy to you as it does to me, go buy this album right now. It’s pretty darn cheap over at JapanFiles.com.
Seven Lovers is very accessible and not as “punk” as you might fear. While the singer’s voice can be squeaky at times, it’s not nearly as bad as Uplift Spice or Pink Panda’s vocalists (both bands I love, by the way). Take a listen to tracks like “You=Music I Love”, “Kitchen Drinker”, “How Are You” and “Happy Birthday Love Song” to get a feel for what they’re all about. I think you’ll agree that while they tend to play it a bit safe, they’re a welcome addition to your library.
FAVE TRACK: you = music i love
Was this the band I called last year as really making a mark for themselves this year? I think it was (maybe it was Radwimps, shutup). I gushed and gushed over this album on episode #119 so I won’t bore you too much with this, BUT holy son of Jor-El is this album close to perfect! Movement has quickly become one of my favorite albums of all time...
Every song on this album is at least a 4-star in my iTunes, which almost never happens. Seven Lovers was close, but it didn’t have any 5-star tracks, and this album is full of them. “Arechi” starts off the album much like “Itami” does for the Abe Mao album. Hard-hitting and attention-grabbing. The difference is that with Abe Mao, the album fluttered between different styles while 9mm takes the energy of “Arechi” and uses it for EVERY SINGLE TRACK ON THE ALBUM! This makes LoKi smile...
The lead singer has such a unique voice that is put to great use in each and every song. Even when he sings monotone, that...twang(?) in his voice is always present and always a standout. Throw in some extremely inventive lead-guitar work and this is why 9mm outshine every punk-rock band that is releasing right now. Their style, mostly due to the guitar work, is so noticeable and so “them” that even when they write songs for other artists (Chiaki Kuriyama), it’s instantly recognizable as a 9mm song.
“Survive”, “Face to Face”, “Gin Sekai”, “Monday”, “Endless Game”, and “Scenes”. These are all 5-star songs, people! That’s 6/11 tracks being some of the best quality punk-rock you’ll ever come across. GO. BUY. ALBUM. NOW!!!
FAVE TRACK: Endless Game