BEST OF 2005 IN JAPAN

On and off the charts

by David Hickey and Simon Bartz

Cast an eye over those charts that list the top-selling Japanese pop albums of the year and three musical trends come out on top: There were loose-limbed hip-hop party grooves aplenty (Def Tech and Ketsumeishi); American-influenced punk pop (Ellegarden, Ken Yokoyama and scores of others with Orange County-inflected whines); and, like any year, there was R&B-influenced J-pop (Kumi Koda and Namie Amuro). No surprises there, then.

The pop charts of 2005 were not without some beguiling charms. Female singer UA’s album “Breathe” put a subversive spanner into the J-pop conveyor belt (more Bjork than BoA), while the supergroup, MC tag team that is Teriyaki Boyz brought a stellar, albeit foreign, cast on board (including DJ Shadow and a Beastie Boy) for their enjoyable blast into old skool bling.

While not top sellers, listed below are 10 standout releases from 2005, which includes home recordings, self-released CD-Rs, a compilation between like-minded souls, the odd major-label release and a lavish box set on an independent label. The list reflects how increasingly diverse the Japanese music industry is becoming, a trend that can only increase in 2006. (D.H.)

Best punk pop

Shonen Knife — “Genki Shock” (P-Vine)

A major return to form for Osaka’s finest indie-popsters after 2003′s slightly disappointing “Candy Rock.” Punk-pop singalongs don’t come any catchier than this, and Naoko’s surreal songs about taking her teddy bear on the road, plotting to capture a spider on her balcony and fighting off a recurring nightmare are hilarious. (S.B.)

Falsies on Heat — “Falsies on Heat” (white label)

They might have been on slow-burn since they formed about four years ago, but with the release of this superb self-released maxi single, a whirlwind tour of the U.S. West Coast and some blistering shows in Tokyo, Falsies on Heat started blazing on all cylinders in 2005. The three buttock-clenching, trash-pop shoutalongs on this are post-punk at its most vibrant. (S.B.)

Best new wave

Polysics — “Now is the Time!” (Ki/oon)

Too often glibly dismissed as Devo-inspired poseurs, Polysics took a shift closer to the mainstream with this, their fifth album proper, its sound at its fullest (four songs were produced by Andy Gill of Gang of Four), its tunes catchier than ever. The best realization yet of guitarist/vocalist/programmer Hiroyuki Hayashi’s skewed clap-and-thunder, pop-and-squeak electro-punk vision, “Now is the Time!” is further proof of the substance behind the image. (D.H.)

Limited Express (has gone) — “Makes You Dance!” (Memory Lab)

Recorded in Cologne, Germany, Limited Express (has gone)’s second serving of frenetic, lunatic pop incorporates the high-pitched squawk of Polysics but, as the title suggests, is wed to something far dirtier and sexier, the familiar clang of new wave guitars underscored heavily by throbbing bass lines.

Always fond of unfashionable high-speed guitar riffs, songs like “Go! Girl Goal” are more likely to score with fans of Melt Banana than Maroon 5. But really, “Makes You Dance” should command the attention of anyone with an open ear for leftfield pop. (D.H.)

Best bedroom pop

Apartment — “Afantgyaritech” (Finderpop)

From the trusty DIY label that earlier this year put out a tribute compilation to Galaxie 500, Apartment — ostensibly 21-year-old Tatsuya Namai — take their cue not so much from those ’90s cult chaotic rockers but unhinged psychedelia from an earlier era like Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, as well as the stroppy primal garage of The Animals.

But like most of the Finderpop output, far from being some tedious nostalgic reverie, “Afantgyaritech” has a contemporary sheen courtesy of its creative use of rudimentary bedroom recording technology, a truckload of imagination and a way with an infectious chorus. (D.H.)

Shugo Tokumaru — “L.S.T.” (Compare Notes)

Also recorded in the bedroom but eschewing the lo-fi aesthetic for something fuller, Shugo Tokumaru’s finely crafted songs won him as many plaudits outside of Japan as within. Never one to repeat himself, Tokumaru takes a song in various different directions via disquieting segues and unexpected shifts in tempo, never forgetting to signpost each track with melodies that grow with each listen.

Who ever said that kids should get out more often? (D.H.)

Best-dressed mods

Various Artists — “Modern World: Japanese Mod & Freakbeat Showcase” (Radio Underground)

This has been a mixed year for the Japanese mod scene. Long-standing Tokyo club nights hung up their parkas for a final time, while even stalwarts of the scene like The Marquee — who kick off this 23-track compilation — took an extended vacation.

Like punk, mod was at its best when it was at its most cerebral, taking on a variety of influences rather than careening down a creative cul-de-sac. This compilation captures that spirit to a Fred Perry T, taking in the rock steady of Sister Martens and the deep soul of the Fave Raves as well as more predictable R&B and garage rock fare from some of the scene’s newcomers.

For the time being at least, the mod scene looks in good hands with this compilation and a certain four-piece girl group from Fukuoka poised for great things . . . (D.H.)

Thee ’50s High Teens — “Punch de Beat” (Avex Marketing)

Everyone wanted a piece of these well-dressed Fukuoka garage-punk princesses in 2005. I regularly had to field calls from agents and promoters desperate to put them on TV, in videos or ship them off on foreign tours after I pointed readers in their direction in a few articles. Despite the title, “Punch de Beat” doesn’t hit as hard as their scream-infested self-titled debut, as they leaven the mod-ish garage with injections of slower Showa-style pop. (S.B.)

Best box set

Murahachibu — “Murahachibu Box [Limited Edition]” (Good Lovin’ Production)

OK, this might cost 22,000 yen, but it does come in a black velvet case, include a DVD of extremely rare — and grainy — early footage of Murahachibu playing live and include 75 tracks (some songs appear more than once in alternate/live versions). Most crucial of all, it comprehensively charts the short career of one of the most influential bands in Japanese rock ‘n’ roll history.

From 1971 to 1973 Murahachibu, with their blend of sleazy junk-punk rhythm and blues, were a kick in the face to the Group Sounds movement. They were Japan’s answer to The Rolling Stones, The Stooges and T-Rex — all in one explosive package. If you balk at forking out so much cash on one band, then at least be sure to pick up one of their albums. (S.B.)

Best newcomers

Tulip Jackson — untitled home-burned CD

The best newcomers at Rock in Japan Fes. 2005 were a bunch of teenage kids from Ibaraki Prefecture who didn’t even get on stage. Tulip Jackson spent much of the time handing out free copies of this CD that was undoubtedly born over a few beers in their bedroom and is a fabulous concoction of weird tunes. The songs have the playfulness plus melodic maturity of early Supergrass, but sound as raw and leftfield as early 1980s indie bands like Fire Engines or Josef K.

And the skiffle-ish haphazard nature of the whole thing means these raucous rock anarchists will soon be branded the Japanese Libertines. Well, there you go, branded they are. (S.B.)

Simon Bartz edits a bilingual Web site devoted to Japanese music at www.badbee.net


VJ’s choice

Thirty-one-year-old MTV VJ Boo presents “MTV Rocks,” a show that airs five times a week on MTV Japan and features the biggest rock bands of the moment as well as upcoming artists. His top three albums of 2005 are:

1) Rosso — “Diamond Dust Ga Futta Yoru” (Universal)

Listening to Rosso’s free rock ‘n’ roll is like watching a bird fly through the sky. Not just the sound but the four people in this band are totally cool. Terui, Chiba, Sato and Imai — I love you from the bottom of my heart!

2) The Mad Capsule Markets — “1997-2004″ (Victor Entertainment)

When The Mad Capsule Markets played the main stage of the Download Music Festival in the U.K. earlier this year, apparently the audience could all be heard singing along [this album came out in the U.K. shortly after]. This is loud rock at its peak.

3) Koologi — “Muddy Blues” (Colombia/Triad)

The first time I heard this, I thought I was listening to the Japanese Tom Waits. And then there’s the music — Katsuya’s slap bass and Abe’s guitar that creates this psychobilly sound. This is the one psychobilly album that I can’t get enough of.

“MTV Rocks” airs every Mon. (10-11 p.m.), Tues. (noon-1 p.m.), Wed. (midnight-1 a.m.), Thurs. (7-8 p.m.) and Sun. (10-11 a.m.).