My Japan Times colleague Ian Martin nailed the state of Japanese pop music when he wrote that it was “clinging on to the hoary old remains of the past.” The Oricon Chart’s top albums of 2012 list was dominated by “Best Of” compilations, with the top two spots going to a pair released by rock band Mr. Children, put out to celebrate the quartet’s 20th anniversary. “Mr. Children 2005-2010 <macro>” sold 1.16 million copies and was 2012′s best-selling CD. It’s a fitting representation of the state of J-pop entering 2013 — a serviceable collection of songs with a few strong moments, but ultimately an exercise in playing it safe.
Mr. Children became one of Japan’s best-selling acts in the 1990s due to big, dramatic ballads that were frequently paired with string sections. “<macro>” shows how they could still move piles of records with the same formula in the last decade, and could create some great tunes. Opening track “Worlds End” matches the made-for-cinema orchestration with a driving tempo and lead singer Kazutoshi Sakurai’s existential lyrics (“What the hell’s eternity for?”), making it the compilation’s strongest cut. “Hokiboshi” (“Comets”) and “Fake” also work well because they move fast and feature more great, dejected words from Sakurai (from the latter — “I’ll come right out and say / We’re just fakes made to look like the real thing”).
Sakurai’s words, however, can’t always save the music. The slower Mr. Children’s music gets, the worse the track. “<macro>” features a surplus of sappy ballads, particular in the middle, that just drag on.
Mr. Children released a new album this year that sounds similar to “<macro>” — same faults and everything. Many other contemporary bands unnecessarily mine that same swelling sound, invoking nostalgia for … the 2000s. Consumers in 2013 may be satisfied with older J-pop, but the industry itself is just as consumed by it and when so many new bands just mimic Mr. Children’s formula, you’re better off buying this dramatic pap from a group who can at least do it right.