The year in music so far has been filled with comeback albums that “hype” their way to the top. After the Twitter hashtags subside, though, such artists also seem to leave the minds of the public. (Is anyone still talking about David Bowie? Justin Timberlake? … Daft Punk?) The fast-paced industry of buzz can overwhelm a music fan if he or she isn’t constantly glued to a laptop, but come on — you gotta leave the house sometime!
In Japan it has been a year of Momoiro Clover Z on the charts, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu in the ads and Hatsune Miku at the opera. However, The Japan Times’ music writers have sifted through the bulk of a mountain of hype from the first half of this year and tell us about the releases they won’t soon forget.
The story of J-pop in the first half of 2013 is (still) how stagnant it seems to be. The charts are clogged with groups from the Johnny’s, Exile and take-three-letters-add-48 camps. However, there’s hope courtesy of some female idol outfits.
Momoiro Clover Z got ambitious on “5th Dimension,” while Morning Musume and Berryz Koubou embraced modern electronic touches to make great singles (“Brainstorming” and “Want!” respectively).
Yet if the problem with contemporary J-pop is a wariness to move forward, I’d say the most exciting group of the year so far would be Dempagumi.inc. The six-piece recorded two of the year’s most madcap tracks, which pack more sonic daring into five minutes than some J-pop albums did in more than 70. First comes “W.W.D.,” a mini-drama of sorts featuring segments in different languages and spoken-word interludes. At its core, though, is an aggressively catchy pop song.
Even better is “Denden Passion,” a whirlwind mix of synth squelches, guitar solos and hot-potato vocals. It’s like the music producers got together and decided the song would only work if they included … everything. Overall, few groups have been as unpredictable as Dempagumi.inc. Which is what J-pop sorely needs. (Patrick St.Michel)
Over the past year, there have been a number of Japanese indie albums and EPs that have kept dragging me back again and again. Groups such as Miu Mau, DYGL, the wonderfully named Fancy Numnum, Buddy Girl and Mechanic and ZZZ’s have really stood out, but perhaps my favorite album is “Colors” by the Extruders.
It combines affecting but understated melodies, half-whispered by vocalist and bass player Yohei Toriyama, with bursts of discord and feedback delivered with laser-guided precision by guitarist Ryo Okada.
There’s a tension between design and chaos that runs through their music, with songs such as “Luna” constantly threatening to tilt over the edge into madness, but always drawing back from the brink.
Extruders are also very aware of the value of silence, and the listener can get the sense that they consider the spaces between sounds just as important as the sounds themselves (which causes all manner of confusion at gigs, where the band seem to take perverse delight in the audience’s uncertainty over when to applaud). In a music world characterized by frantic attention-grabbing gimmicks and the short attention span of blogs, a band comfortable and confident enough with their own sense of pace and space is a rare and precious thing. (Ian Martin)
Hip-Hop: The Otogibanashi’s
Given that Japanese hip-hop can often come across as either inaccessible or derivative, “Toy Box” by The Otogibanashi’s is a pleasant surprise. Released in April, it offers something both interesting and instantly enjoyable. The youthful trio is comprised of members Bim, In-d and PalBedStock — the latter of whom is still in high school. The other two are so freshly out of their teens that they’re probably still nursing the hangovers from their birthday parties.
The subjects of their rhymes oscillate between universal themes of suburban ennui and fantastical whimsy, reflected in the ultra lo-fi music videos for tracks such as “Pool” and “Fountain Mountain,” which see them donning masks and running amok in a number of nondescript locales.
The do-it-yourself attitude that encompasses everything from the production values to the group’s visual aesthetic recalls American hip-hop collective Odd Future, albeit minus the misogyny and wanton vulgarity. Instead, this brand of hip-hop can be better described as J. Dilla meets W. Disney — clips from the cartoons frequently feature in their videos, while the beat behind track “Humlet” sounds like it could have been lifted straight from “Fantasia.” If “Toy Box” is anything to go by, The Otogibanashi’s’ story is only beginning. (Mike Sunda)
The word “genius” gets tossed around a lot in relation to Madegg. It’s a bit soon for that, maybe, but I understand the excitement: Kazumichi Komatsu is still only 20, but he has already produced two engrossing albums, while turning out remixes and SoundCloud tracks at a rate that suggests a creative mind operating at full pelt. “Kiko” is his second full-length in less than a year, though it’s the first that you’ll find in the racks at Tower Records — 2012 debut “Tempera” came in the unlikely form of a T-shirt printed with a download code.
While that album was clearly indebted to the work of Los Angeles beatmaker Flying Lotus, here Komatsu hews closer to another of his idols, English electronica artist Four Tet. Though he can’t resist the odd chunky bassline from time to time, for the most part he sticks to a palette of evanescent tinkles, xylophones and music-box chimes. Refreshingly, there’s none of the fussed-over prettiness that characterizes so many of Madegg’s local contemporaries: he never adds any more than necessary to a track, letting each one sparkle brightly and then fade away. (James Hadfield)
Jazz: Ai Kuwabara Trio Project
The second album from Ai Kuwabara Trio Project, “The Sixth Sense,” sees the pianist and her band growing and developing from last year’s impressive debut, “From Here to There.”
Still only 21, Kuwabara is both a talented performer and composer with her own musical voice and she clearly has plenty of ideas.
A concept album based on the theme of intuition, “The Sixth Sense” is full of variety, blending contemporary jazz with elements of rock and fusion over its nine tracks.
The tune that immediately grabbed my attention was “Intuition ~your sixth sense~” with its insanely catchy refrain and “laaaa-laaaa-la-la-la-la-la” vocals.
Other notable tunes include “Lost ‘Ability,’ ” “Augury, Waves, Dive!,” and the aptly named “Laboratory,” which sees the various different ingredients that inspired the whole album come together in some kind of alchemist’s experiment.
The trio also puts on an impressive and energetic live show and is set to perform at Tokyo Jazz Festival in September.
Ai Kuwabara is one of the bright new rising stars in Japanese jazz and “The Sixth Sense” is without a doubt one of the albums of the year. (Sean Smith)
Alisa Yamasaki contributed to this article.