Words by Patrick St. Michel
Japan produces fantastic albums every year, but what made 2013 stand out was where those albums came from this time. Noteworthy albums emerged from every corner of the country, from major labels to fledgling electronic imprints to a bedroom somewhere outside Tokyo. Some artists appeared on virtually every magazine cover and TV show, while others used websites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp as their sole conduit. Below are our ten picks for the best Japanese albums this year, and they come from all over the place — with correspondingly diverse sounds. The one thing they all have in common is quality.
tofubeats – Lost Decade
It’s fitting that an artist who came up through the Internet releases a debut album all over the place stylistically. Kobe’s tofubeats can claim himself the first artist from Japan’s online-centric “netlabel” scene to crossover to the mainstream (Warner Music released Lost Decade), and his first proper album feels like a glorious YouTube binge. He jumps from ’80s pop inspired cuts to straight hip-hop to whatever one would classify the slow-burning thump of “Synthesizer” as. Along the way, he teams up with Japanese singers and rappers who make tofubeats’s music at different times melancholy (“No. 1”), lusty (“Fresh Salad”) and peppy (“So What!?”). One of the most fun, and well-produced, web k-holes you’ll fall into this year.
Melt-Banana – Fetch
Twenty years into a career, and many bands are busy mapping out the reunion tour. It has been two decades since Tokyo’s Melt-Banana released their debut album, yet the duo sound hungry as teenagers on this year’s madcap Fetch. The core sound of the band remains – lead singer Yasuko Onuki sings at a rapid-fire clip over guitarist Ichirou Agata’s heavy-metal-inspired riffs, everything sounding like it should collapse at any second, yet holding together. Fetch doesn’t cut back on the band’s famous wildness (the drums here are manic), but Melt-Banana balance the noise with a new sense of pop-ready accessibility.
Slow Beach – Lover Lover
They are called Slow Beach, sure, and their debut release Lover Lover features Beach Boys inspired sounds perfect for any beach-blanket bonanza. Hell, there is a song called “Surfin’ Today.” Yet look a little deeper and Slow Beach reveal themselves to be a bit less sunny. The first words out of singer Kai Takahashi’s mouth on the title track are “you don’t wanna love me.” “Motel” would be a fantastic early-dusk dance number if it weren’t so obsessed with a special someone now long gone. Most of the songs on Lover Lover are about leaving, most obviously on “Run Away” but also on standout “Hawaii.” Over tropical samples and steel drum, Takahashi sings about “unrequited feelings” and says farewell to San Francisco. Even the saloon-shuffle of “Surfin’ Today” sees the end coming. Surfs up, and it’s a bummer.
i-fls – Diary of Spectre
If this list were based on overall bodies of work, Tokyo’s i-fls would take the number-one spot easily based on how prolific he’s been. He’s released ten albums and EPs over these past 12 months, all available for free online. Each i-fls release orbits around the same theme – Japanese suburban life, a mix of youthful nostalgia and boredom – and is made in the same way (i-fls records from his home, using GarageBand). Despite these sonic limitations, each of his releases in 2013 has been hypnotic, his minimalist approach resulting in direct little tunes boasting great melodies. Picking just one work is tough, but his Diary of Spectre release captures the i-fls style best. Each song feels like a memory rendered musically, oftentimes these memories seem triggered by mundane suburban objects (“Poolside,” “Her Singing,” “Maki’s Podcast”). Yet others, like memories themselves, are distorted (“Pen Name”) or just faintly there (“Proxy”).
Seiho – Abstraktsex
Japan’s trippiest producer went and put together one of 2013’s greatest whirlwinds. Abstraktsex finds Osaka’s Seiho diving right into his preferred approach to constructing a song – taking some vocal samples, and slicing them up into strange new creations, and then surrounding by them by locked-in synths and bass slaps – and exploring every corner of it. He creates plush-life crunk jams like “Hell’s Angels” and plodding nightmares like “Diamond Cloth.” He teams up with singer Phoenix Troy on “Evning,” to craft his sexiest number to date, wherein Seiho’s sonic spasms finally have a vocal counterpart. And, most stunning of all, was “I Feel Rave,” in which he morphed his sound into something loose and free-form, resulting in his first everyone-on-their-feet anthem.
Moscow Club – Station M.C.C.B
Oftentimes, the Tokyo indie-rock scene feels like high school: bands and scenes form little cliques and celebrate mostly themselves. Moscow Club share the love. Over the past few years, they’ve organized compilation albums aimed at overseas listeners meant to show off the best unsigned bands in Japan. They pop up at shows all across the capital. And for debut album Station M.C.C.B, they crowdfunded the physical edition. (Full disclosure: I appeared in a video encouraging people to donate to this project)
Appropriately, it sounds like a celebration of Tokyo’s diverse musical scene. They do feedback-glazed indie-pop on “Thinking Of You” and “Radio Vietnam,” and they nod to the dance fans with “Pacific 724.” There aren’t many Japanese outfits making literary dance-pop (“Fahrenheit 451”), but plenty dealing in the same squiggly synth boogies featured on “Peoples Potential Unlimited.” Station M.C.C.B is the sound of a group representing their city spectacularly.
Shortcake Collage Tape - Spirited Summer
This album should not work. Azusa Suga’s Shortcake Collage Tape project focuses on sample-heavy music, the young Tokyo producer taking cues from once-hyped-now-negligible internet genres like chillwave and vaporwave. A large bulk of his samples come from anime, and the entirety of Spirited Summer is recorded to sound faded, shooting for a nostalgic feeling. It’s a strange combination, but Suga pulls it off masterfully. Part of the charm lies in the weird mish-mashes going on here – opener “Good Mourning” takes an 1888 composition from France’s Erik Satie and pushes it against a beat and some Japanese. Elsewhere, the charm is just because he’s assembled some real jams, like warped tropical travelogues “Empire Beach” and “Painted Ocean.” Yet it’s the personal glow coursing through this music, the way “Summer School” swelters with sweetness or how a horn and some anime dialogue longs for times gone by. Suga has constructed one of the year’s finest albums out of sonic artifacts from his youth.
Sakanaction - Sakanaction
You are one of Japan’s biggest up-and-coming rock bands, coming off of a breakthrough album that was both critically successful and solid on the charts. You have provided the theme song to a television drama. You are in position to cement yourself as one of, if not THE, most popular groups in the nation. How do you start the next album?
If you are Sakanaction, you kick it off with the sound of water drops before swinging into a rubbery dance track featuring wordless singing that sounds straight from a Greek chorus. Sakanaction stuck to their artistic drive on their self-titled sixth album, and were rewarded with their first number-one full-length. Even better, it finds the group at their most experimental to date, without sacrificing the anthem-sized hooks and emotional bloodletting of 2011’s Documentally. The immediate highlights find Sakanaction continuing to connect dance music with emotional gut-punches – the minimal build-up of “Music,” the summer festival shout-a-long “Yoru no Odoriko,” the on-the-low funk of “Aldebaran.” Spend time with this one, though, and the playful toying around of “Eiga” and the lonesome synth-stroll “Mellow” become just as intriguing. Or just check “Aoi,” wherein they bandage choral singing with loud guitar to create their most forceful song ever.
may.e - Mattiola
Voice, acoustic guitar and, in a few rare instances, a skeletal drum beat. Those are the only sounds that appear on may.e’s debut album Mattiola, yet out of those she creates hypnotic campfire-side wonders.
She’s at time playful, as in how she works in a spritely guitar line into “Sugar Smell,” and forlorn on “Betsuzi.” Nothing, though, touches her performance on centerpiece “Kataomori.” Over rollicking chords, may.e completely gives herself to feelings, reaching a dizzying peak when multiple recordings of her voice come together to sing “loving you” over and over again. It’s the most gorgeous moment on an album made up entirely of gorgeous moments.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu - Nanda Collection
Visuals have played a massive part in Harajuku blogger-turned-model-turned-pop-star-turned-unescapable-cultural-presence Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s rise to fame both in her homeland and internationally, where her lookatthiscrazything videos have enabled her to tour three continents. Just don’t write her off as solely an eye-grabbing spectacle. Her music, produced by Yasutaka Nakata (Perfume, CAPSULE), has been every bit as fascinating since her debut single “PonPonPon” way-ed its way into hearts around the globe. Nakata sounded like he was having the most fun he’s had in year putting together Kyary’s debut Pamyu Pamyu Revolution, being set free to try out new sounds appropriate for Kyary. It was a strong album, but it’s on her second outing Nanda Collection that she and Nakata have truly figured each other out, the final product being Japan’s best album of the year.
Nakata still pulls from the same toy chest he used to craft Revolution, but he’s also branching off in new sonic directions. “Ninjya Re Bang Bang” adds the fierce sound of swords being drawn, while the blown-out bass defining so much brostep music rears up on several songs here. He also gets personal, drawing from his youth spent listening to and eventually making Shibuya-kei music. He even has Kyary cover the CAPSULE song “Super Scooter Happy,” simply swapping out the original vocals for Kyary’s.
Oh, and Nanda Collection has incredible hooks, the best of any Nakata-produced album this year. “Fashion Monster” and “Furisodeshon” alone trump entire careers.
Yet what pushes this one to the top of the heap are the lyrics (bless the dozens of Kyary fans translating her words). Kyary Pamyu Pamyu turned 20 at the start of the year, the traditional age in Japan where one becomes an adult. Nanda Collection finds her trying to figure out how to mature properly. Sometimes she sets her eyes on global domination, as on “Invader Invader,” or she decides to put it all off until tomorrow on “Kimi ni 100 Percent.” “When I grow up, will I be happy?” she asks on “Furisodeshon,” but by the end of the album she realizes she can hover between adulthood and childhood without giving up one or the other. “It’s fine to stay that way/it’s fine to keep on sparkling,” she sings to end the album, and here’s hoping she keeps it up.