While boy bands such as Arashi and Exile continued transmogrifying midtempo pap into Oricon gold, the interesting twists and turns in J-pop over the past year came from idol pop. The scene, often associated with schoolgirl costumes and no-dating policies, produced some great music and exciting storylines. Big names such as Momoiro Clover Z, Berryz Koubou and Morning Musume (which from next year will be called Morning Musume. ’14) charted with tunes that took cues from contemporary electronic music, while fledgling outfits such as Lyrical School and Especia released some of the catchiest cuts in Japan.
Techno-pop trio Perfume made some strides internationally. Even AKB48, who started the year on a low note thanks to the Minami Minegishi head-shaving scandal, released some solid songs and revealed a self-aware side.
Dempagumi.inc, my pick for the best J-pop act for the first half of 2013, had already released two of the year’s best singles (the frantic-and-dramatic “W.W.D” and “Den Den Passion”) before finishing off the hat trick with “W.W.D II.” It upped the theatrics of “W.W.D” (while revealing their Queen crush) and gave J-pop its most emotionally powerful climax of the year. And it came with the year’s best video, a clever clip showing what idol pop would look like in 2020.
It was another visually striking performer, though, who released 2013′s best J-pop album. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s “Nanda Collection” saw the Harajuku-blogger-turned-model-turned-pop star improve everything first introduced on 2012′s “Pamyu Pamyu Revolution” — the melodies were more colorful and the hooks catchier. Producer Yasutaka Nakata used a wide-array of influences — Shibuya-kei, house music, brostep, arcade games — to craft his finest sounds of the year. And the accompanying videos were great, too. What pushes “Nanda Collection” to the top, though, are the lyrics. The usually giddy Kyary spends the bulk of the album navigating between childhood and adulthood, trying to find a compromise between the two. Plenty of J-pop groups released great sounds in 2013, but Kyary Pamyu Pamyu found emotional complexity.