While it remains this column’s firm conviction that J-pop is trapped in a self-perpetuating dark age, the indie and underground music scenes provide a far livelier picture of Japan’s musical landscape. In 2015, there was such a flow of fascinating new releases arriving from all angles that it was difficult to keep up.
This year was the 10th anniversary of Osaka avant-garde garage-punk duo Afrirampo’s sole major label album “Urusa in Japan.” This release is the high water mark of the explosion of wild sounds emerging from the Kansai area during the mid-2000s, and it was interesting how many of the highlights in 2015 came from alumni of that scene.
Oshiripenpenz and Afrirampo drummer Pika’s band Moon Mama provided some of the most unexpectedly wonderful moments of the 2015 Fuji Rock festival. At the same time, Pika’s solo release this year, “Ryu no Sumika,” was an unpredictable and occasionally spine-tingling psychedelic folk album, while Osaka-based Yolz in the Sky completed their transition from postpunk to bleepy disco on the album “Hotel.”
More traditional postpunk and new wave was also alive and well, buoyed by scene veterans The Dead Pan Speakers’ regular “Bauhaus” live events. The Deadpan Speakers themselves took part in the “Three Way EP” (along with the more “junk” or hardcore-oriented Groundcover and Sine) from punk label Less Than TV Records, while longtime genre evangelists You Got a Radio released the superb dark-edged yet danceable “Carnival” in July.
The year in postpunk was bookended by two albums that achieved excellence by quite different means. Extruders kicked off the year with “8 Queens,” pushing their obsession with analogue studio perfection to new extremes, and in December Burgh released “All About Techno Narcisse,” a fusillade of screaming guitars and hectoring Mark E. Smith vocals recorded over a frenetic two-day period by Panicsmile’s Hajime Yoshida.
The continued blurring of the line between the more manic fringes of manga, anime and idol culture, and the trashy aesthetic of punk and underground music gathered pace and seems to be congealing into a new form of parochial Japanese hipsterism.
The venue Loft in Shinjuku’s seedy Kabukicho district plays host to this wave of genre-resistant party music, centered around acts like synth-punk band Have A Nice Day, hipster idol duo Oyasumi Hologram and dance performance collective Nature Danger Gang. Elsewhere, the new Otoe Label — essentially the musical wing of a T-shirt company — gathered together 35 acts with varying degrees of self-conscious wackiness for its “No Fun Issue 01″ compilation.
Included on the compilation was Triplefire, whose album “Epitaph” was released in September to some acclaim, and Ni-Hao!, another veteran of the mid-2000s Kansai scene, whose “No Respect” was a thrillingly chaotic mess of shrieks, half-formed punk anthems and lurching lo-fi hip-hop.
Notably absent from the “No Fun” compilation was guitar and bass/drum duo Sayuu, whose sharper-edged, more sarcastic wit may have jarred with the party vibes, but whose excellent “Sukamu Left, Sukamu Right” album combined rough-edged melodies with minimal slashes of angular postpunk guitars and rhythms.
While the poppier side of indie remained dominated by awful, insipid “city pop” acts, newcomers Batman Winks showed that some spark remains in Japanese indie-pop, releasing two restlessly imaginative albums in nine months and landing a support tour with indie-pop’s current “it” band Ykiki Beat as they promoted their own “When the World is Wide” album.
Some more established names made their mark on the musical landscape in 2015 as well, with improv-heavy avant-pop troupe Hikashu releasing the rich and playful “Ikitekoi Chinmoku,” a reformed Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her delivering the hard-rocking “Eternal Adolescence” and minimalist instrumental trio Nisennenmondai releasing two albums, “N'” and the Adrian Sherwood-produced “#N/A.”
Perhaps most striking, however, was the release by Jim O’Rourke — Tokyo’s adopted son — of “Simple Songs,” his first album as a singer-songwriter since “Insignificance” in 2001. It’s a lyrically acerbic yet undeniably affecting album that drifts so smoothly and seamlessly from one style to another that the transitions go unnoticed, leaving you constantly finding yourself in new places with no memory of how you arrived there.
Given the volume and range of new material 2015 provided, that pleasantly baffled sense of dislocation is perhaps as apt a summary of the year in indie music as anything.