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Two looks back and three worth looking forward to

by Steve McClure

Akemashite, etc. . . . Before I do anything else, I’d like to thank NHK for providing me with my yearly dose of enka on the 2001 edition of “Kohaku Utagassen (Red and White Song Contest).”

In fact, there was waaaaaaaay too much enka, with far too many of the same old faces singing the same old songs. I had hoped that enka chanteuse Sayuri Ishikawa — who has a really gutsy singing style — would inject a little bit of soul into the show, but she turned in a fairly pedestrian performance compared to previous years.

In other “Kohaku” events of note, Hiromi Go announced that he will be “taking a rest” from now on, meaning that he will no longer be gracing the yearend songfest with his presence — at least until he has another of his increasingly infrequent hits. The musical performance of veteran comedy troupe the Drifters was mildly amusing, although I was disappointed that Boo Takagi did not treat us to his ukulele stylings, a sideline that in recent years has become his trademark gimmick. The Drifters were definitely preferable to the over-the-top, schlocky production number highlighting the 2002 Japan-South Korea World Cup, which looked like it was staged by the North Korean Department of Mass Displays of Revolutionary Enthusiasm.

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Over at TBS, the annual “Record Taisho” yearend music awards ceremony offered a little more in the way of pop acts, such as Zone, four teenage girls whose amazingly original gimmick is that in this age of the ubiquitous chapatsu dyed-hair look, they actually have black tresses. Wow! What a concept! The other startling thing about Zone is that, unlike most idol groups, they apparently play their own instruments.

For the record, Ayumi Hamasaki’s single “Dearest” won the “Record Taisho” grand prize, which makes sense, since 2001 was very much her year.

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Great 3 have been continuing their very fruitful collaboration with musician/producer John McEntire (best known for his work with Tortoise and The Sea and Cake). McEntire has produced the band’s new album, “When You Were a Beauty,” at his Soma Electronic Music Studios in Chicago, and I’m eager to hear the set when it comes out Jan. 23. (It’s interesting to note that McEntire is now being given full production credits instead of the “mixing” credit he was given on “May and December,” Great 3′s last album.)

“Ruby,” the first single from the album, was released Dec. 6. An understated “soft-pop” number, the song is very much in the mold of “May and December,” but I don’t think it really stands up as a single — it just doesn’t have the impact that a good single needs. But it could work in the context of an album, which is another reason I’m looking forward to hearing “When You Were a Beauty.”

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Fukuoka’s Number Girl recorded their new, as-yet-untitled album at Tarbox Road Studio in Fredonia, N.Y., which is operated by Dave Fridman, who, along with McEntire, is one of America’s hottest producers these days (his credits include Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips).

My buddy Keitaro Kamo, the Toshiba-EMI A&R guy in charge of Number Girl, tells me that the band’s latest music is very different from their previous stuff, which has generally been very dark and brooding. Wonder what their new musical direction will be?

Number Girl’s album should be out sometime this spring, while a single, “Num-Ami-Dabutz,” will be released March 20.

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Only one Japanese artist is among the many, many people nominated for Grammy awards this year: new-age musician Kitaro (who lives in Boulder, Colo., by the way). A perennial Grammy nominee, Kitaro copped his first Grammy last year in the Best New Age Album category for his album “Thinking of You.” This year he’s nominated in the same category for his album “Ancient.”

The Grammy Awards are obviously very much an American institution, with the emphasis being on music that has sold well or at least had some sort of impact in the United States, but it would be cool if the Recording Academy (which sponsors the Grammys) could create a “Foreign Release” or “Asian Artist” category to give some recognition to all the great music that’s coming out of this part of the world. I mean, if the Grammys can have a polka category, for God’s sake . . .