It has been a good year for Japanese pop music so far. The Oricon charts still house the likes of AKB48, Arashi and a slew of acts that make me want to bang my head against the wall, but a crop of J-pop artists operating a little outside of the mainstream (Nanba Shiho, Kou Shibasaki and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu) have released relatively adventurous singles. Now, 2012 has its first great J-pop album courtesy of MiChi (real name Michiko Sellars). Her sophomore full-length “Therapy” rarely strays from the preferred commercial format — peppy pop numbers coupled with ballads. But MiChi refreshes this dusty blueprint without sacrificing catchiness — and so pointing a better way for J-pop.
“Therapy” arrives three years after MiChi’s major-label debut, “Up To You.” The singles released in advance of “Therapy” are a murderer’s row of dance pop. Singer-songwriter Leo Imai, also of Zazen Boys spinoff group Kimonos, penned “Tokyo Night,” a bouncy number with an atmosphere that conjures up a neon-soaked midnight. “Together Again” teases balladry for a minute before hitting full throttle, and the strobe-light flashes of “Love Is” imagine post-Perfume J-pop unafraid to embrace electronic sounds. The album’s highlight is “Yeah Yeah Yeah!!!”, a brostep-infused track that powers forward with an arena-ready chorus. Only “WoNdeR WomaN” falls flat thanks to the thickheaded rock of the telephones, who wrote and performed the music.
MiChi excels when she’s singing over searchlight-bright productions, like high-stepping “Light Up” or the twinkling “Find Your Way,” but her diversions on “Therapy” also work. The title track is a moody spoken-word affair that’s one part Laurie Anderson, one part day-spa-chillout CD. Even mandatory ballad “Motto” is surprisingly enjoyable. While the music is bland acoustic wandering, the interlocking English-Japanese lyrics reveal a self-consciousness more affecting than any Ikimono-gakari tune.
It’s easy to be cynical about modern J-pop after scanning the charts, but look deeper and you can find performers who’ll keep you from banging your head against the walls. “Therapy” is a great starting point.