Leftfield J-pop, ’70s influenced rock and shadowy R&B: Our favorite albums of 2014 (so far)

by Ryotaro Aoki, Patrick ST. Michel, Mike Sunda, Aaron Krall, James Hadfield, Sean Smith, and Russell Thomas

In his Strange Boutique column last week, Ian Martin wrote about the need for a canon in Japanese music in order for newcomers to the scene — especially those writing about it — to gain some context into what is being released.

Without a canon, non-Japanese journalists who write about Japanese musicians can fall into the trap of labeling a group such as Babymetal “whacky,” when there are much deeper issues going on behind the scenes. Or focusing on Man With a Mission’s “wolf mask gimmick,” when it may be an inventive way for salarymen to keep from getting into trouble at their day jobs.

It’s most important to remember, though, that behind all the gimmicks and costumes, Japanese bands are striving to produce art in the face of a dwindling market. Therefore, taking some time out to revisit talented artists isn’t just enjoyable — you could say it’s our duty. Or, you could say it’s just a way for us to take a week off from interviews. In any case, here are the Music Page contributors’ favorite albums of the year so far.

Rock: Boris

Boris —
Boris — ‘Noise’

The evolution of Boris over the years has been a fantastic journey to witness. Always willing to reinvent themselves, group members Atsuo, Wata and Takeshi have continually defied expectations of what it means to be a rock act, and have refused to be pigeonholed.

“Noise” just might be my favorite Boris album yet. The band strived to subvert experimental-noise music fans with 2011′s poppy “New Album,” all the while trying to transcend the confines of the traditional rock-band format. The group finds itself in a similar space on “Noise” (the obi-strip on the vinyl release displays the words, “Your noise, my music”), however the trio has committed fully to the guitar-bass-drums trinity.

As a result, Boris has created an authentic rock album, something akin to what bands were making in the 1970s. You can hear it in the rock jams, such as “Vanilla” and “Quicksilver”; you hear it in the long, slow and epic track, “Angel”; and there’s even a three-minute crossover hit to be found in the melancholic pop of “Taiyo no Baka,” which is the highlight of the album and perhaps of Boris’ entire career.

Critics have noted that Boris has become more pop in recent years. While that may be true, I believe that the other half of the story is that we, as an audience, have finally caught up to them. (Ryotaro Aoki)

J-pop: Especia

Especia —
Especia — ‘Gusto’

The pop songs topping the charts so far this year have sounded awfully familiar — standard AKB tracks, Broadway-aping Disney numbers, bland rock tunes and Arashi. Off-the-chart J-pop, however, has featured some thrilling moments. Anti-idols BiS channeled Atari Teenage Riot on the single “Stupig,” and Dempagumi.inc embraced joy on one of the most aggressively upbeat tracks of the year, “Sakura Apparition.” Tokyo Girls’ Style teamed up with producers from online label Maltine Records for the wonky “Maltine Girls’ Wave.” And sometimes fresh ideas even graced the charts — Morning Musume ’14′s “Beyond the Time and Space” demonstrated a balance between plucky string and EDM wobble, nabbing a No. 1 hit as a result.

The best J-pop album of 2014, though, peaked at No. 42. Fledgling Osaka six-piece Especia’s debut full-length, “Gusto,” manages something rare for a J-pop collection in 2014: It fills every available second of CD space and remains consistently catchy and musically exciting throughout. The group’s sound hop-scotches from 1980s city pop homage to acid-jazz workouts to high-definition pop. It even finds room for an eight-minute dance remix of one of the group’s older numbers. “Gusto” aims straight for easy-going pop pleasure, but also keeps the listener on their toes for all 16 tracks. Not many J-pop albums over the last six months can lay claim to that — or do it as well as Especia does. (Patrick St. Michel)

R&B: N.O.R.K.

N.O.R.K. —
N.O.R.K. — ‘ADSR’

It only contains four original tracks and three remixes, but “ADSR,” the debut mini-album by young duo N.O.R.K., shows more promise than most releases twice its length. Aside from appealing to fans of acronyms (ADSR refers to the amplitude envelope used in synthesizers, and N.O.R.K. to the two members’ full names: Nariaki Obukuro and Ray Kunimoto), the release should also prove a hit with fans of off-kilter R&B in the vein of Inc. and James Blake.

Like the latter, N.O.R.K. pairs classical orchestral instrumentation with contemporary electronics. Kunimoto’s Ryuichi Sakamoto-esque production includes a sweeping string section that lends the release a sense of grandeur rarely attempted by independent artists, over which Obukuro delicately layers his falsetto vocals.

At times, the composition of the tracks can be somewhat cluttered, but everything from the art direction to the corresponding music videos suggests that this is because the duo are overflowing with ideas. The album was even released as a limited “CD without a CD” version, in which the artwork’s central square panel was cut out entirely from the plastic casing. Instead, it contained a download code for the original tracks alongside their individual audio stems, encouraging fellow producers to apply their creativity to crafting their own reinterpretations. (Mike Sunda)

Metal: End All

End All —
End All — ‘Hop Thrash Jump’

Local thrash-metal knights End All are one of my favorite parts of the Tokyo metal scene, playing the kind of infectious, hard-hitting rock ‘n’ roll that makes you want to slam a beer and howl like an animal before head-butting someone. The opening riff to “A.E.D.,” from End All’s debut album “Hop Thrash Jump” from KickStart Records, somehow tore the sleeves off my denim jacket and by the end of the song my sideburns had grown an extra 3 cm. In my online playlist, “Hop Thrash Jump” sits directly beneath Emmy the Great’s “First Love,” whose poetic, harmless indie-rock mewling is now somehow tainted by its proximity to End All. Satoshi Tanaka’s thick raw bass and Takahiro Umino’s fiery guitar insist — demand, in fact — that she shotgun a beer and punch whatever sensitive hipster boy she’s singing about right in his sensitively handsome face.

Hop Thrash Jump” is full of heavy bass-driven tracks that made me realize “thrash” probably isn’t the most accurate description of their music. The band’s members are big fans of Motorhead and, like Motorhead, End All’s sound is often incorrectly labeled “thrash metal” — the music is hard, fast and dirty, but it’s definitely rockier. I think Tanaka tried to communicate this distinction to me one evening drinking outside of a convenience store when he handed me a copy of “Hop Thrash Jump” and said in charmingly accented English, “No! Not thrash metal. Beer metal!”

If you like Motorhead, you’ll get a kick out of “Hop Thrash Jump.” And if you don’t like Motorhead, you should be warned that, statistically speaking, you’ve got a significantly higher chance of being head-butted by someone who does. (Aaron Krall)

Hip-hop: Hidenka × Fumitake Tamura (aka Bun)

Hidenka × Fumitake Tamura (Bun) —
Hidenka × Fumitake Tamura (Bun) — ‘Muddy Water’

It has been more than a decade since hip-hop peaked commercially in Japan, but the underground is still in swaggering good health. Simi Lab’s 77-minute sophomore effort, “Page 2: Mind Over Matter,” is almost intimidating in its confidence: no guest verses, no outside producers and some of the most dexterous wordplay you’ll hear all year. Meanwhile, Nagoya-based rapper Campanella makes a convincing case for the “Neo Tokai” scene on his compulsively enjoyable (and long-delayed) debut full-length, “Vivid.”

Yet the record that has kept me coming back the most during the first half of 2014 is one that snuck out, to zero fanfare, at the start of the year. “Muddy Water” feels like a Japanese analog to the ethereal “cloud rap” micro-genre that caused a kerfuffle on overseas blogs a few years ago. Fumitake Tamura (aka Bun) does nebular better than anyone else, though: His productions — some of them reworked from last year’s equally engrossing “Minimalism” — are so abstracted and weightless, I’d hesitate to describe them as hip-hop at all. Rapper Hidenka’s stoned rasp only occasionally brings things back to Earth; more often, he sounds like he’s beaming in verses from an alternate universe. (James Hadfield)

Jazz: Rabbitoo

Rabbitoo —
Rabbitoo — ‘National Anthem of Unknown Country’

A five-piece band comprising some well-established musicians and led by guitarist Motohiko Ichino, Rabbitoo has been winning plaudits on the Tokyo live circuit for the last couple of years as it has developed its sound.

The band’s debut album, “National Anthem of Unknown Country,” will most likely be found in the jazz corner of record shops (either physical or online), but Rabbitoo’s music crosses genre boundaries, taking in elements of post-rock and electronica as well as jazz.

Many of the tunes are built around repetitive loops and rhythms, with different members of the band given room to break out and improvise over the top, making for some compelling instrumentation.

An album full of original music and creatively titled tracks such as “Kiiro Soup, Ao no Pan” (“Yellow Soup, Blue Bread”), “Eat Your Orange” and “Iriguchi kara Oshiete Gobanme no Seki de Matsu Otoko” (“A Man Sitting in the Fifth Seat from the Entrance, Waiting for Something”), it stands out as one of the most refreshingly original releases of the year so far, and will appeal to fans of bands such as Tortoise and Grimace Federation as much as it will to those into contemporary jazz sounds. (Sean Smith)

Electronic: LLLL

LLLL —
LLLL — ‘Paradice’

Tokyo band LLLL’s latest release, “Paradice,” is inspired by everything from ambient and glitch to electropop and dance. That range of diverse influences puts it in line with other great recordings of the decade, drawing influences from a multitude of sources and laden with cool darkness that’s spliced with slices of light.

The experimental moments on “Paradice” really stand out, such as in the abrasiveness of “Oddness” and the quasi-disco of “I Wish You,” which drips with an electro-meets-trance marinade and features female vocals whispering a spookily unfinished, “I wish you …” Another highlight is the bouncing, squelchy bassline of “Spider Web,” in which the vocals become an oasis of calm — humanity retaining its voice in the middle of a digitized colonization.

For the most part, though, “Paradice” dips in and out of a 1980s-inspired sea of pugilistic drums, saw-wave stutterings and a dreamlike glaze of ambient sweeps of sound. It could be the soundtrack to an alternative version of the film “Drive,” exchanging Los Angeles’ low-rise buildings for Tokyo’s towering skyline. Released on Californian label Zoom Lens, it had me at first listen; clever, hard, retro, futuristic, but never messy or contrived, it’s a concoction that preserves a sense of purity and, as such, deserves to be one of the best of 2014 (so far). (Russell Thomas)

Indie rock: Panicsmile

Panicsmile —
Panicsmile — ‘Informed Consent’

There have been a handful of new releases so far this year that show elder statesmen of Japan’s indie and underground scenes are more than capable of keeping up with the youngsters.

1970s punk pioneers Totsuzen Danball released the typically eccentric “Cho Sensitive,” while Convex Level released the superb “donotcl.” However, standing head and shoulders above all the rest so far is “Informed Consent,” an excellent release by alternative-postpunk quartet Panicsmile. It’s a comeback of sorts after the band temporarily split up in the wake of 2009′s “A Girl Supernova.” Panicsmile’s revamped lineup plays with a fresh vibrancy. It also seethes with a political anger and post-Fukushima social consciousness that simultaneously bubbles with a fierce positivity and obvious joy at making music again. (Ian Martin)