The year-end album charts in Japan have a tendency to prop up the same acts year after year: Exile, anything that ends in a “48,” and almost every group from the Johnny & Associates stable of boy bands. Writers at The Japan Times, however, spent the year looking past the charts to find a few gems lurking in the underground of the country’s music scene. Here are some of their favorite albums from 2014.
J-pop: Seiko Oomori
Another year, another opening paragraph lamenting the glacial pace of the Japanese mainstream-music landscape.Once again, idol groups and boy bands monopolized the Oricon Music Charts, and it even felt like a struggle to be peeved about this monotony. Disregarding the rankings’ reliance on physical sales, the most omnipresent single (and, digitally, one of the most popular) was “Let It Go” from Disney’s “Frozen.”
What J-pop lacked in 2014 was interesting new voices to counter tired idol antics. Some intriguing artists popped up along the margins, led by Kobe producer tofubeats’ fidgety major-label debut for Warner Music Japan’s Unborde imprint. Another highlight was Osaka idol unit Especia, who embraced brassed-out pomp on its full-length debut “Gusto” (my pick for best album in the first half of 2014). Yet these moments were far and few between, outnumbered by the same old song and dance.
Then singer-songwriter Seiko Oomori spiked the party in December with “Sennou” (“Brainwashing”), her debut full-length album for Avex and the most ambitious artistic statement backed by major-label yen these past 12 months have seen. Coming up through the Koenji underground scene mostly playing acoustic guitar, Oomori embraced an idol-pop aesthetic and sound to create bubbly songs with an uneasy edge. That resulted in Avex scooping her up and some critics labeling her an “anti-idol” (myself among them). Yet “Sennou” rejects that label in favor of a daring collection that’s all Oomori — she plays around with surf rock, EDM, sample-filled pop and more to create a fantastic album that goes off in various directions while retaining a slightly dark element (the track “Nostalgic J-pop” would sound like a normal ballad if it weren’t for the suicidal lyrics).
“Sennou” calls on similarly challenging pop stars such as Jun Togawa and Sheena Ringo, and ultimately it offers up just what J-pop needed this year — a unique, new voice. (Patrick St. Michel)
Hard rock: Boris
Tokyo trio Boris has released a staggering amount of music since debuting with 1996’s “Absolutego.” And one of the most remarkable things is how varied it has been. With “Noise,” Boris mixes together many of the different substyles it has toyed with over the years, making the record a fantastic primer to the band’s many sonic facets. “Noise” also sees the trio creating some of its most commercial-sounding material to date.
Melding hard alternative rock with spacey flourishes, opener “Melody” feels like a fist-pumping arena anthem, while the surprising “Taiyo no Baka” is a full-on power pop number complete with plenty of “wo-oah” shoutouts. “Catchy” is not a word often used to describe Boris, but works perfectly in this instance. These more accessible forays fit well alongside cuts long-term followers are more accustomed to such as the slow, sludgy “Heavy Rain” and the blistering metal onslaught of “Quicksilver.” And it is this solid balance of songs that both mainstream rock fans and listeners looking for more challenging, experimental sounds can dig that makes “Noise” one of this year’s standouts.
Another of my favorites of 2014 is “Fantastic Magic” by TK from Ling Tosite Sigure. This solo offering from that band’s frontman Toru “TK” Kitajima features the same excellent angular guitars and high-pitched vocals that dominate Ling Tosite Sigure’s hyperkinetic posthardcore, but the tracks are accented with keys and strings adding a poppier edge that gives them a cool orchestral feel. (Shawn Despres)
Indie: Takako Minekawa and Dustin Wong
Heading to watch Canada’s Blue Hawaii in Tokyo back in January, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from the support act. Takako Minekawa and Dustin Wong had already released a nice-enough album in 2013 titled “Toropical Circle,” but there was little on it to suggest that their collaboration was any more than a brief, entertaining diversion for the two.
To say that the duo surpassed expectations that night would be an understatement: It was one of the best shows I saw in Tokyo all year. Minekawa and Wong’s music is genuinely beguiling, giddy with the sheer joy of creation. They still craft their burbling, wide-eyed psychedelic pop in real time using an array of instruments and loop pedals, but “Savage Imagination” upped the ante, with more sophisticated arrangements and stronger hooks than its predecessor. In lead track “She He See Feel,” it also boasted the pair’s first bona fide anthem.
Shintaro Sakamoto was another artist to conquer the sophomore slump. On “Let’s Dance Raw,” his second solo LP, the former Yura Yura Teikoku frontman concocted a queasy soundtrack for the post-apocalypse, where slick, 1970s-style soft rock and exotica rubbed up against some mordantly bleak lyrics. Addictive, uneasy listening, it sounded like nothing else this year. (James Hadfield)
Back in the summer, I selected revitalized veteran underground quartet Panicsmile’s rough-edged, angry “Informed Consent” as my pick of the year at the halfway point of 2014, and it still makes a strong case. However, as the year comes to an end, I’m going to go with “I Wanna Be Your Noise” — a raucous, hyperintense debut minialbum from Tokyo-based no wave band Otori — as my favorite of the year. While “Informed Consent” used its titular medical metaphor to question the self-inflicted ignorance with which we often face the world, “I Wanna Be Your Noise” is shot through with noise — both sonic and psychic — letting its very inability to articulate become the message, like a primal scream from a world where communication and confusion are inseparable.
Otori is a band I’ve long championed, and to see it all finally come together with such ferocious energy and laser-like focus is immensely satisfying.
Worthy mentions must also go to excellent albums by underground institutions Luminous Orange (“Soar, Kiss the Moon”) and Convex Level (“donotcl”). Meanwhile, noise-pop duo Umez’s self-titled debut swings wildly between furious discord and epic, frantically soloing stadium pop. Fresh from releasing one of 2013’s best, Buddy Girl and Mechanic swiftly followed up their debut with the equally fantastic “Topsy Turvy.” Finally, jangly Fukuoka indiepopsters Hearsays’ “In Our Time” was the year’s most gorgeous collection of melodic, retro guitar pop. (Ian Martin)
Electronic: Shinichi Atobe
This year saw detective Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey’s nihilistic antihero in HBO’s neo-noir drama “True Detective,” muse that “time is a flat circle.” Perhaps Rust was actually referring to vinyl, as two of the year’s finest records both came about after 13-year hiatuses: Aphex Twin’s “Syro” — Richard D. James’ first full-length since 2001 — and “Butterfly Effect” by the equally elusive Shinichi Atobe, the producer’s first release since his debut effort — a 12-inch on pioneering ’90s imprint Chain Reaction, also in 2001.
The two were surrounded with markedly different levels of hype: the former accompanied by sightings of blimps and cryptic graffiti; the latter emerging with little-to-no fanfare on British experimental artists Demdike Stare’s eponymous label. But “Butterfly Effect” was more than just a pleasant surprise. The album is a strikingly beautiful archive of slow-burning dub techno, with numbered track titles “Waste Land” (1 and 2) and “Free Access Zone” (1-8) evoking a scorched-earth dystopia. The two standouts, “Free Access Zone 2″ and the LP’s title track, both run over nine minutes, as delicate piano riffs punctuate the overriding tape hiss and subaquatic percussion — drops of beauty in a sea of melancholia. Sublime, timeless and well worth the decade-plus wait. (Mike Sunda)
Jazz: Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York
Married couple, and jazz compatriots, Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura have frequently collaborated on each other’s projects during their respective careers, and 2014 produced two stellar releases by each. Pianist Fujii’s Orchestra New York disc, “Shiki,” is a sprawling big band affair that travels untrodden cosmic paths. While trumpeter Tamura’s low-key “Du Du,” from his group Gato Libre, opts for a more stripped down, yet equally introspective, route.
The title track on “Shiki” is a 36-minute monster that ebbs and flows, giving each soloist a spot. Track 2, “Gen Himmel,” is dedicated to bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu, who passed away in 2011. It’s the soul of the album — a sonic exploration as hymnal horns mourn. The third and final cut, “Bi Ga Do Da,” is as nutty as its title, a Tamura-led freak-out with vocalization that recalls early Mothers of Invention. “Shiki” is a behemoth — not for the timid — though accessible in its sincerity.
Tamura’s ongoing quartet, Gato Libre, took a hit when Koreyasu unexpectedly died. Instead of replacing him with another bassist, Tamura opted for a trombone to round out the sound. The gamble works, with trombonist Yasuko Kaneko covering the low notes as well as venturing outward. Fujii plays accordion here with a solemnity that re-imagines the instrument. Tamura’s own lines imbue a certain European folk element, bleak yet hopeful, often within the same passage. (Frank Spignese)
This year proved to be a busy one for fans of veteran rock bands who drench their tracks in dreamy distortion, with impressive releases from heavy-rock pioneers Boris (“Noise”), indie rockers Luminous Orange (“Soar, Kiss the Moon”) and instrumental rock act Mono (“Rays Of Darkness”).
However, it’s newcomer Endon who has crafted perhaps the most interesting new music of the year, if not the most deafening. Fans of hardcore noise act Struggle For Pride will recognize the marriage of white noise and blast beats on the group’s debut album, “Mama.” The record, produced by Boris’ Atsuo, shows a band with a deep understanding of noise and ambience — like on the midalbum epic, “Acme Apathy Amok” — which lurk underneath the intense black-metal chaos, screaming and feedback. “Mama” may not be perfect, but it’s definitely thrilling, and I’m excited to see where Endon takes its extreme sound next.
Another notable newcomer was Umez. The noise-pop duo’s first full-length (and self-titled) album puts the group’s previously released songs into one package, revealing a schizophrenic collage of pop, harsh noise and electronica — its members refusing to bow down to any sort of established genre conventions. (Ryotaro Aoki)
Metal: Evil/Lurking Fear
It wasn’t easy choosing a “best” album for the year with so many contenders. Two of my favorite bands in Tokyo put out material this year, but Guevnna’s split album with Aguirre only had one (admittedly great) song and Funeral Sutra’s “Meditations” only had four tracks.
Lucky for me, two of my other favorite acts, Evil and Lurking Fear, released a split album at a gig in March that graciously provided us all with two wallops of thrash for the price of one. I remember thinking to myself as Evil took the stage: “OK, so the Ramones died and went to hell, and after their humanity burned away they soaked up all the evil of that dark realm. Then they started making this kind of music.”
Neither Evil nor Lurking Fear has a complicated sound, but they both provide wildly, ferociously infectious riffs, and the sheer weight of it all has been faithfully captured by the wizards at Obliteration Records. Evil’s intro track — which reminds me of Black Sabbath every time I hear it — is appropriately foreboding, providing a nice buildup into some refreshingly bare-bones thrash metal. There’s nothing wasted on this release, nothing extraneous; once it takes off it doesn’t stop to let you catch your breath. Those in search of a sampling of Tokyo thrash metal would be hard-pressed to find a better introduction. (Aaron Krall)