So far this year, most of the media attention paid to the music industry has focused on scandal rather than songwriting.
The biggest news stories so far have been Gesu No Kiwami Otome. vocalist Enon Kawatani having an affair with TV personality Becky, along with the will-they-won’t-they drama surrounding a rumored SMAP breakup. Tabloid-friendly narrative rising above musical criticism isn’t a trend exclusive to Japan, but it still feels like we’ve been missing out on a major musical moment as 2016 hits its halfway point. What follows is a list of some artists worth checking out.
“Yellow Dancer Arrangements”
This Kyoto producer’s imagined version of Kanye West’s “The Life Of Pablo” grabbed all the headlines, but his interpretation of Gen Hoshino’s 2015 release “Yellow Dancer” is even better. Toyomu transforms mediocre J-pop into a woozy set of hip-hop beats and drone tracks, finding the most interesting details of the originals and stretching them out into something entirely new. You don’t have to know a thing about Hoshino’s work to be sucked into the pulsating ideas Toyomu pulls out from its frame.
It’s tough to talk about the year in Japanese music so far without focusing on “Metal Resistance,” a release that became the first Japanese record since 1963 to break into the U.S. Billboard album chart’s top 40 and all but confirmed idol-pop-meets-heavy-metal outfit Babymetal as the nation’s most well-known musical export. The album itself finds the group’s songs getting tighter and dabbling in various styles of metal, and offers those who lean closer to the pop stations no shortage of sticky choruses to get stuck in their heads.
Hiromi, The Trio Project
“Spark (feat. Anthony Jackson & Simon Phillips)”
Hiromi Uehara’s fourth full-length album alongside bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Simon Phillips captures the energetic vibe of the long-running jazz pianist’s live show. Incorporating elements of progressive rock and fusion among other genres, Uehara’s songs dart off in all sorts of directions and consistently operate at an up-tempo speed that’s unafraid of sudden turns. “Spark” also managed a feet rare for a Japanese-born artist: It topped the U.S. Billboard jazz album chart earlier this year.
“For My Homiez”
A tribute set devoted to J-pop stalwarts SMAP, complete with goofy rap numbers and painfully earnest acoustic guitar covers of the group’s most famous songs, this may sound horrible at first. However, “For My Homiez” — featuring an assortment of artists from across Japan — works because it is neither a total gag or an embarrassing fan note. It’s something in between, rounded out by an assortment of dance tracks constructed from SMAP samples (don’t tell Johnny Kitagawa). Plus, given the rush of nostalgia the boy band’s rumored split brought out, this album also does a great job exploring all sides of its cultural presence, from punching bag to adored symbols of Japan.
Have A Nice Day!
“Dystopia Romance 2.0”
We could all take some life pointers from Hokuto Asami, the lead singer of Tokyo outfit Have A Nice Day! Backed by thrift-store keyboards and chintzy drum beats, he delivers vocals that offer a surprisingly romantic perspective on being alive. The music may sound cheap, but when coupled with his chin-up lyrics and played loud, the group’s “Dystopia Romance 2.0” comes off as arena-ready and defiantly optimistic.
Sotaisei Riron’s fifth album doesn’t seem markedly different from what the band did on its last four full-lengths. Etsuko Yakushimaru delivers clever lyrics (more interested in sound than meaning) in a chirpy speak-sing while the band behind her plays zippy, Showa Era-inspired pop-rock. Yet “Tensei Jingle” is a reminder of just how good the group is at this style, at a time when artists both indie and major (see Passepied, Gesu No Kiwami Otome.) crib from it. “Tensei Jingle” is a mysterious but ultimately inviting (the hooks!) collection featuring some of the band’s best songwriting to date.
“Osanasa no Shishi”
The world that Metoronori constructs with her songs feels random and chaotic. Burbling keyboard lines will be interrupted by samples of dialogue, or tracks will rumble forward only to come to sudden stops. “Osanasa no Shishi” is unpredictable, but that only makes the moments when everything snaps into place all the better. This is some of the year’s prettiest and most intimate pop.
Foodman (Shokuhin Matsuri)
The music Yokohama’s Takahide Higuchi creates as Foodman always seems close to falling apart. Disparate sounds clash together, but somehow click just right when they need to. “Ez Minoku” is Higuchi’s finest set of jittery juke-inspired tracks yet. Despite tapping unorthodox sounds — MIDI horns, watery synthesizer notes and screaming — Higuchi fits them together like a round of “Tetris” and ends up with one of the most intriguing albums of the year so far.