While this first half of 2010 doesn't seem to be as "quality" as the first half of 2009, there still have been a handful of really good albums that you should take notice of. 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!
LoKi's Top 5
As you probably have figured out by now, I gladly play the roll of "rock fan" for Gaijin Kanpai. I do not, however, play the role of "Visual-Kei fan" so when you take a look at my list and see bands like D and Versailles, rest assured that I'm just as surprised as you might be. I never saw myself becoming a fan of true Visual-Kei but I must admit, it's been really hitting the spot for me over the last few months. I still only like the pop-y side of VK but baby steps people, baby steps...
Now on with my list...
#5. KALAFINA - RED MOON
You can be certain that Kalafina, or any other project Kajiura Yuki sticks her made-for-radio nose in, will make any Top List you task me with. I think listening to Kalafina is what music is all about. With their choral vocals and dreamy music, the imaginative listener is always taken for a ride to the fantastical. Songs like "Hikari no Senritsu" fill me with such grandiose emotion that it is actually really hard for me to put it into words.
While I don't think this album is as consistently good as their Seventh Heaven album, "Kyrie", "Hikari no Senritsu" and "TetoTetoMetoMe" are all 5-star songs in my iTunes which is something Seventh Heaven was strangely lacking. Kalafina is one of the few groups now-adays with whom I'm actively excited to hear what they come out with next; and I hope you agree.
Give me a couple beers, or someone who has never heard Kalafina before, throw on a live video of theirs, and I can guarantee you that if you look over at me, I'll have tears in my eyes. <3
Favorite Song: Kyrie
#4. BENI - LOVEBOX
Besides the VK you're going to read me gush about in a bit, the other surprise on my list is a dive into the world of Urban music. BENI's LoveBox album completely blindsided me when we reviewed it on Episode 67. Almost every single song was designed to be enjoyable by the Japanese Masses, and damned if they didn't succeed with flying colors. It's odd because if you asked me to name a song from the album, I'd be hard-pressed to do so...except saying "there's that song with big-boobied Jamosa", but that hurts my professional cred! The "problem" is that the songs tend to run together. "Problem" was in quotes because when you listen to this album, that fact TOTALLY doesn't matter one li'l bit! Not only do I think BENI is on par with urban icons like Utada Hikaru and Amuro Namie, she may overtake them in my opinion if she keeps up good shit like LoveBox.
Jaylee and Zer0 will talk up ICONIQ as having the better album, but while that album was admittedly solid, I find myself enjoying what BENI puts out there a lot more. I think it has to do with BENI's more true-to-urban-music "beats" while ICONIQ infuses a decent amount of pop. Either way, BENI has made me hopeful for the future of a genre I used to care very little about.
Favorite Song: A Million Jewels
#3. D - 7TH ROSE
I first found out who D was when I randomly downloaded their vocalist Asagi's solo PV "Corvinus". I thought the song was good, but I was taken by the overwhelming aura that is Asagi. This guy is the manliest girly-guy ever. He knows the focus is always on him, and he's really good at giving your eyes a feast. It wasn't until years later, when we reviewed D's Genetic World album on Episode 44, that I got my first taste of D as a whole. With Asagi's pitch-perfect operatic rock voice, D instantly captivated me and I'm kicking myself for not giving them a chance sooner. I soon came to thank myself for not doing so because their old stuff kinda sucks.
Anyways, 7th Rose hides a little bit in the shadow of the awesome that is Genetic World, but it does throw songs at you like "Crimson Fish" and "Independent Queen" that let you know Genetic World wasn't just a fluke.
Remember, I still can only say that I'm a fan of the more pop-y VK bands, but if there are more bands like the current offerings from D in the VK world, sign me the eff up!
Favorite Song: Crimson Fish
#2. VERSAILLES - JUBILEE
Death is a weird thing in the entertainment industry. Of course it's sad and you can expect things like other entertainers pouring their hearts out and fans creating memorial websites, but the other side of the coin is that it can lead to great success for the deceased artist (well, their record label at least) or the remaining members of their band (again, their record label).
Jasmine You, bassist and lynch-pin for Versailles, passed away in July 2009 and the question of whether to break up or not was greatly weighing on the remaining member's minds. With Jasmine being such an integral piece of their music, it wasn't a stretch to think that their speed-rock victorian sound had come to an abrupt end. Thankfully for us, not only did Versailles stay together in honor of Jasmine, they released Jubilee last January and, in my mind, they have never sounded better.
Jasmine's passing encouraged them to make an awesome album and I really think they did. Speed-Rock (or speed-metal, though I disagree) has rarely ever sounded this good, and with the injection of French Victorian influences, it's unique to boot. Very few albums have the ability to get my toe a-tappin' with the same verve Jubilee does. Listen to the last 2min of Princess and tell me they're not the real deal Holyfield, suckah!
Favorite Song: Princess -Revival of Church-
#1. STRAIGHTENER - CREATURES
Ah, Straightener. Since their Immortal mini-album was released, Straightener can do no wrong in my eyes. With 2009's Nexus, they quickly shot to being a Top 5 All-Time Band of mine and following up Nexus with singles like "Donkey Boogie DoDo", "Clone" and "Man-Like Creatures", they definitely have the chance of becoming one of yours.
Creatures had a lot to live up to. Despite the emotional attachment GK staff has to Nexus, it was an extremely superb album that's hard to top. So I was a bit hesitant while experiencing Creatures, but an album with such strong opening songs like "Owl" "Sunny Suicide", "Clone" and especially "Memories", any fears I had were quickly abolished. Only two songs on this album score lower than 4-stars on the iTunes-o-meter (Dark Blue Day, Starless Coaster), which is saying a lot.
Straightener is one of the very few bands over the last couple of years that are getting progressively better at finding "their sound" and I'm so glad that I'm along for the ride.
Favorite Song: Donkey Boogie Dodo
Zer0's Top 5
I guess I'm the pop & indie fan of the GK crew... but I like to think my taste is pretty well-rounded. I'd say every album in my top 5 is a different genre of music, which I think reflects my schizo taste very well. I know I have two albums already mentioned by the boys in their lists, but let's face it - they were just that good.
Time for my list!
#5. FURUKAWA MIKI - Very
Furukawa Miki, former bassist & second vocalist to indie rock group Supercar, is one hell of a talent. Her first album absolutely entranced me. Her second album was slightly weaker, but still absolutely good. This one really brings it. Her quirky sound and utterly haunting melodies are what win me over every time. Her voice is pleasant but in some places a bit creepy. Something about her music makes me feel acutely aware of the infinity of the universe. I wish I knew how else to put it.
To say she creates moods is an understatement, and a deceptive one - it's not that she creates moods appropriate for certain activities, ha ha. It's that she builds a tent around you and decorates the inside of it. Her melodies aren't catchy, they're just magical. Her occasional use of harmonic dissonance is both a confusion and a delight. All that on top of some unique and creative production techniques that could yield comparisons to both Yasutaka Nakata and Shiina Ringo, and you have a recipe for awesome.
Favorite Song: Come Now
#4. ICONIQ - CHANGE MYSELF
This album was nothing short of a surprise. It may be a short mini-album, but it takes quality over quantity very seriously. The intro, a charming conversation between a mother and a child learning to speak, is a very sweet lead-in to our first encounter with this new persona of Ayumi Lee's. Miss Lee is no newcomer to music, but this is her first solo "hip-pop" project.
The album is slick from start to finish. The songs stick with you a long time, and range from the funky to the beautiful. Songs like "No Distance" create a mystical, cloudy, fairytale atmosphere, and others like "Change Myself" are more danceable. There is always more to a song's mood than immediately meets the ear, however. While her cover of Madonna's "Like A Virgin" may be good for a laugh due to her interesting pronunciation, it's worth a real listen if you can get past the accent.
Favorite Song: No Distance
#3. STRAIGHTENER - CREATURES
I may be more emotionally attached to Straightener's previous effort, 2009's "NEXUS," but the more I listen to this one, the closer it gets to usurping "NEXUS"'s throne. At face value this does seem to be a straightforward melodic rock record, but the songs are really masterfully built. Brick by brick, these songs are layered like pyramids. The sound is dynamic, the harmonies are exquisite, and, let's face it, the album just plain rocks.
Some songs are more basic, others are more dramatic, and the result is a very satisfying listen. It keeps up the quality of their previous work while still stepping it up a bit in many areas. There's regrettably no "chou no yume" on this album, which is the only reason it's not higher on this ranking, but a few tracks get very close.
Favorite Song: DONKEY BOOGIE DODO
#2. Hamasaki Ayumi - Rock'n'Roll Circus
What can I say about this album? Hamasaki Ayumi has finally gotten personal again, and all I can say is thank goodness! Ayu's signature has always been her humanity - her voice has always been flawed, her lyrics honest and often dark. But the production and image were always slick, her fashion sense quirky, and her music catchy.
This album brings back in spades all of Ayu's former charms, arguably lost since about 2003. However, everything she's done correctly musically over the last seven years - producing songs in a rock style, using a lower vocal range, and using more "real" instruments in combination with the synth - is intact here. Everything she's ever done properly over the course of her career combines and creates magic. Last year's "NEXT LEVEL" simply did not satisfy in any of the ways this album does.
Favorite Song: count down
#1. SAKANACTION - kikUUiki
This album is almost perfect, and is one of the best albums I've heard in several years. The songs themselves are an interesting combination of acoustic folk rock and synthesizers, something you're not likely to hear at all, nevermind hear it done right. The synth used blends in nicely with the raw, unpolished instrumentation. Emotion comes through very well both instrumentally and vocally. The songs all have a catchy melody or some kind of memorable piece of the arrangement, like the flute in "YES NO" and "Paradise of Sunny." While there are radio-friendly pop tracks like the single "ARUKU AROUND" (which had an amazing video), there are also artistic and dramatic tracks like "megaaku aiiro".
Even with all that variety, the album has one cohesive sound all through it, with water imagery prevalent throughout. It's like a banquet, but it's all eaten in the same dining hall.
Favorite Song: UNDER
Jaylee's Top 5
LoKi always points out I’m the one with the “urban tastes” but I’d say this year I was hit with the pop bug (it doesn’t help that the big names in the genre are releasing in the second half of 2010).
#5. Fukuhara Miho – Music is My Life
For those of you keeping count, Fukuhara Miho’s debut album “RAINBOW” was also my #5 this time last year. When I first heard the album I was thrown off by the flow which seemed to strip the album of the high energy present in the first few tracks, like “HANABI SKY” and “Mirai.” That being said having given this album more time to breath I’ve really warmed up to it (obviously). There are fantastic pop songs, some absolutely beautiful ballads and an overall sense of care and quality crafted into “Music is My Life.”
I was surprised by the maturity (in sound and composition) found in tracks like “RISING LIKE A FLAME” and “Apologies feat. Sleepy.ab.” With some heavy soul and R&B influences peppered about this album really is a strong sophomore effort from one of the best Japanese vocalists in recent years.
Favorite Song: RISING LIKE A FLAME
#4. ONE OK ROCK – Niche Syndrome
I had never heard a “ONE OK ROCK” album before so this album took me completely by surprise. Think of Ellegarden with a bit less of a Blink Green 182 Day vocalist who screams more often. Taka’s vocals take some getting used to and they’re a love ‘em or hate ‘em kind of deal. The compositions aren’t really that complex but they’re extremely energetic and fun; easy to follow and quick to get stuck in your head. The album is a nice mix between Japanese and English lyrics so I could see it being a pretty accessible album for those new to the J-music scene.
This is a fun album to get pumped to. It’s easy and really fun to sing along to and the energy is positively kinetic. I wouldn’t say this album has made me a fan but it has made me very interested in checking out their previous works and see what they follow up “Niche Syndrome” with.
Favorite Song: Kanzen Kankaku Dreamer
#3. Nishino Kana – to LOVE
When did Nishino Kana get so good? Seriously. I remember hearing her first couple songs and thinking they were pretty lifeless and boring, and then she brings out “to LOVE.” This was a bungee listen for me; I hadn’t heard any of the singles or lead in tracks beforehand. Everything was fresh and fun; this is a GREAT summer album. It has a variety of styles while sticking straight to the accessible pop genre. The upbeat songs like “Summer Girl feat. MINMI” are infectious and the mid-tempo tracks come off as cool instead of boring. Even the ballads here don’t break the flow of the album. They never cross that terrible line where I’d have to label them overly maudlin or dramatic.
Even if you don’t like pop music I doubt you can resist cracking a smile while listening to this album. The album doesn’t take itself too seriously and that makes it a much easier pill to swallow. If it’s a beautiful day outside and you want some fun music to accompany your good mood put on Nishino Kana’s “to LOVE” you won’t regret it.
Favorite Song: WRONG
#2. Maika - possible
And now for something that did not surprise me. I knew as soon as I heard Maika’s debut single “never cry” that her first album would be right up my alley. Maika is rare in that she can convey a snappy sense of toughness while also allowing a very human vulnerability to shine through. Her music isn’t that complex but it is high quality and comes from the heart. I’m in love with her voice but I could easily see it being a point of contention between listeners.
I see a lot of potential in Maika through this album. It’s one of those works that I just don’t see myself getting sick of. I’ve heard all of the songs many times but have yet to skip past any of them. If YUI is dissapointing you with her cheesy and boring album tracks, or Superfly is coming off as too much for you I’d highly suggest Maika as the happy medium.
Favorite Song: Michi
#1. ICONIQ – CHANGE MYSELF
“CHANGE MYSELF” is by far my most played album of the year. I have literally listened to at least one track off the album since its release back in March. This album is sheer pop perfection. There’s a bit of an urban influence here but it is straight up radio friendly pop. Even when I hear songs off the album that I’ve heard hundreds of time I am still just as excited, impressed, and energized as I was the first time I heard them. In the world of pop where there is so much disposable music and tracks that wear thin after the first few listens “CHANGE MYSELF” stands tall among its peers.
With strong production, catchy lyrics and a courageous new look, ICONIQ could easily take the Japanese popular music world by storm. With a top five album already under her belt and a mini-album set for release in September I’m going to go ahead and claim this year for ICONIQ.
Favorite Song: BYE NOW!