Some of the year’s best music was free

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

Variety wasn’t something the Oricon Charts delivered much over the course of 2013. With few exceptions, the biggest sellers were the same as they ever were — Johnny’s boy bands such as Arashi, Kanjani 8 and Kis-My-FT2; AKB48 and their affiliated projects; and a variety of rock ‘n’ roll fossils. Not to say all these chart-topping acts sucked or didn’t produce the odd gem, but using the upper echelons of Oricon as a guide wouldn’t shed much light on musical innovation in this country. And considering how much CDs cost in Japan, this futile pursuit is rarely economically justified.

Yet there is an alternative — more and more Japanese artists released songs, EPs and albums through platforms such as SoundCloud and Bandcamp (not to mention dozens of music labels operating exclusively online). The Internet allowed for ideas that could make a major-label suit shiver, and some of the best music in Japan this year emerged from URLs instead of high-price studios — often for free. Here are my favorite ready-to-download Japanese albums of 2013.

The best of the bunch … and it looms over most Japanese music released this year … is May.e’s debut album “Mattiola.” It’s a minimal album — the singer-songwriter uses only her (rich) voice, acoustic guitar and a rare drum. By using echo and vocal multi-tracking, though, she has created a hypnotic collection that seems staggering coming from one person. It’s also emotionally rich, jumping between campfire laments (“Betsuzi”) to playful jaunts (“Sugar Smell”) to ecstasy (“Kataomori”). Nothing sounded as spellbinding as “Mattiola” — though last week May.e released her second album, “Shiseikatsu.” Until I get a proper listen, though, I’m sticking with her debut.

Solo artists (often working out of their bedrooms) capitalized the most on the rise of new distribution channels. Nagoya’s Noah released two strong EPs of nocturnal beats, the first (a split EP with San Diego’s Sela) showcasing her ability to make unsettling but inviting music, while the second found her crafting faded beats for Texas “vapor rapper” Siddiq. Elsewhere, Ventla gave himself a goal — release 100 self-made albums. He’s a quarter of the way there now, and his best collection in 2013 was the wonky “With No Compass,” built using a variety of synthesizer sounds and manipulated vocals. Ventla created a fun, danceable album that evokes the sounds of the 1980s without sounding like a cheap grab at nostalgia.

In a similar vein is Tokyo’s i-fls. His music is very simplistic — it is all made in Garageband, and it can show — yet i-fls has the ability to turn very simplistic sounds into achingly emotional sketches. Working around a suburban theme, his music comes off like brief memories — sometimes clear, other times fractured — of suburban life. He’s released 10 albums this year, and all of them are strong. The best starting point, though, is March’s “Diary Of Spectre,” which is tightly arranged but doesn’t skimp on the feelings.

No album, though, better captured the freedom allowed by the Internet than Shortcake Collage Tape’s “Spirited Summer.” Built almost entirely from samples plucked from across time — anime dialogues brush up against razor-blade commercials and classical French piano pieces — It’s an album where fragments of the past important to the author get reconfigured into something all their own. That’s about as perfect an Internet album can get.