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Independent music was the smart alternative in ’02

by Steve McClure

2002 was not a vintage year, to put it mildly, for the Japanese music industry. Sales of CDs were down for the fourth straight year, and just one single — female vocalist Ayumi Hamasaki’s “H” (Avex) — topped the million-sales mark during the year, compared with five in 2001.

While the mainstream J-Pop scene produced some decent stuff last year — for example, Ken Hirai’s “Okina Furui Dokei (Grandfather’s Clock)” — the alternative/independent scene was where most of the really interesting new music was coming from. And that was reflected in the fact that while major record companies’ sales headed south, Japan’s independent labels saw their overall market share steadily rise.

Here, then, are my top 10 Japanese albums for 2002.

1. Syrup 16g, “Delayed” (Searching for the Young Soul Rebels/Columbia Music Entertainment)

Powerful, deeply moving ballads that explore the themes of angst, melancholy and passion. The songs on “Delayed” are remakes of tunes the band originally released on cassette, and the quality of Takashi Igarashi’s songwriting is simply stunning.

2. Shina Ringo, “Utaite Myori — Sono Ichi (I’m Lucky to Be a Singer — Volume 1)” (Virgin/Toshiba-EMI)

This two-CD set of cover versions of Japanese and foreign songs establishes Shina as an artist of great vision and maturity. Her amazing rendition of the classic chanson “Autumn Leaves” is a case in point, as Shina strikes just the right note of melancholic passion. Can you name one other artist who sings in Japanese, English, French, German and Portuguese on one album?

3. Fuji Fabric, “A La Carte” (Crux)

The six songs on this debut release feature beautiful melodies, weird time signatures and superb instrumental and vocal performances, drawing from a stylistic palette that includes hard rock, prog-rock, jazz, funk, folk and disco.

4. The Captains, “Seishun Hanafubuki (The Height of Youth)” (Autobahn Records)

Five young guys from Sendai brilliantly revive the glories of the 1960s “group sounds” era with this set of groovadelic original tunes.

5. Number Girl, “Num Heavy Metallic” (Parlophone/Toshiba-EMI)

A hard-rock band with a compellingly dissonant sound full of screechingly abrasive guitars and the tortured vocals of leader Hidenori Mukai. Number Girl reached their peak on this stellar album, but unfortunately it’s their last — the band called it a day at the end of 2002.

6. BBQ Chickens, “GoodBye to Your Punk Rock” (Pizza of Death Records)

What punk should be: short, sharp shocks of fast-paced, in-your-face rock. The longest track — “F**k V.I.P. F**k.” — is 84 seconds. Most other songs last less than a minute. The BBQ Chickens (a side project of Hi Standard’s Ken Yokoyama) don’t believe in wasting time.

7. Downy, untitled (Polystar)

Dark, edgy alternative rock that at times recalls Radiohead. Downy’s dense, guitar-driven material sounds like the theme music for the End of the World. Why aren’t these guys world-famous?

8. Utsumi Yoko and Yokoloco Band, “Antiwave” (TV-Freak Records)

Former Mescaline Drive member Utsumi emerges as a great solo artist with this set of powerful folk-rock songs. The album’s highlights include the beautifully passionate “Namida (Tears),” the manic “Shoot Ready” and the slinkily jazzy “My Art.”

9. Acidman, “Sou (Start)” (Virgin/Toshiba-EMI).

A great debut from a guitar-bass-drums power trio with an abundance of original ideas and killer riffs.

10. Luminous Orange, “Drop You Vivid Colors” (Tone Vendor)

The obvious influence here is My Bloody Valentine, with layer upon layer of swirling, heavily distorted electric guitar over which float the ethereal vocals of bandleader Rie Takeuchi, who is a brilliant songwriter. LO has a loud, lysergically lyrical style that reaches the neurons other bands can’t reach.

Only one Japanese artist has been nominated for a Grammy Award this year. And no, it’s not Ayumi Hamasaki (fat chance!). It’s — and this isn’t exactly a mega-surprise — New Age keyboardist/composer Kitaro. After several years of being nominated, he finally received the Best New Age Album Grammy in 2001 for “Thinking of You.” This year, Kitaro is nominated for his album “An Ancient Journey,” which was released by Domo Records in the United States in February (and in Japan by BMG Funhouse in January 2001).

I think all of the albums on my 2002 top-10 list are worthy of Grammy nominations — the only problem is none of them were released in the U.S.

Wouldn’t it be great if Utada Hikaru’s English debut album (which I am told will be released in the autumn) got a Grammy nomination next year? Assuming, of course, that the album is up to snuff. It really could be a breakthrough for J-Pop overseas.