Love. Angel. Music. Baby. 15th anniversary

I was a senior in high school when Gwen Stefani released Love. Angel. Music. Baby., and as clueless as I could be at that age, there was immediately something about the album that bothered me when it first came out: the blatant exploitation of Japanese culture on this album. Japanese street-fashion was having an international moment in the early 00s, with publications like FRUiTS gaining some worldwide recognition, while in the same year L.A.M.B. was released, Tyra Banks’s reality-television show America’s Next Top Model spent its international destination in Japan, committing one embarrassing faux-pas after another, flubbing Lolita-inspired looks, and being on the receiving end of many awkward, bewildered, but painfully polite interactions. If it wasn’t for the painful “Harajuku Girls” track, a perfect example of mythologizing a people as if they were magical creatures from another planet, it was the way Stefani paraded around every red carpet with a team of silent, dolled-up Asian women, as inconsequential as a handbag or other accessory to her “look.” Rather than a genuine appreciation of these women or the fashion culture, it was used as a way to enhance the exotic, cool appeal of Gwen Stefani herself. It’s not like they ever got to speak for themselves.

On top of it, the heavy throwback to 80’s synth-pop and italo disco was hailed as being innovative, when someone like Tommy february6, an actual Japanese woman, had already been doing it for almost half a decade. In fact, Tommy had already released her most iconic album, Tommy airline, and she didn’t have to borrow another country’s pop culture to make it interesting (she did use American cheerleaders in some of her promotional material, but this wasn’t exclusive — they were featured interchangeably with Japanese cheerleaders, too). But perhaps what annoyed me above all was how much I still couldn’t help loving some of the songs on the album. How do you reconcile appropriation and a general uneasy atmosphere with the music itself?

This album wasn’t original or smart, but it was catchy. I still skipped over the biggest hits like “Hollaback Girl” and “Rich Girl,” gravitating instead toward “Cool,” “Serious,” and “Danger Zone.” There were also some amazing remixes released for the single “What You Waiting For?” by Stuart Price (under Jacques Lu Cont) that introduced me to the prolific producer. The 80’s-influenced tracks on this album sound as zippy as ever, perhaps because they were meant to sound dated to begin with. The fizzy cartoon synths on tracks like “Crash,” and deep, hazy New Order guitars on “The Real Thing” are as sublime as the day they were recorded. I can’t say the same for all of the tracks.

I feel much the same now about the above-mentioned problematic elements, the easy use and discard of culture for the purposes of selling music albums: it has serious, long-term consequences that effect real people, and it’s a decision that has only aged worse over time. Nor can I say much for Stefani’s garbled reminiscences about the tracks, where re: “Harajuku Girls,” she says, “When it first came out, I think people understood that it was an artistic and literal bow down to a culture that I was a superfan of,” which is about as fantasy-inspired a belief as anything on this album. She continues, “I get a little defensive when people [call it culture appropriation], because if we didn’t allow each other to share our cultures, what would we be?” which just goes to show how deep of a misunderstanding people have of the term itself. There’s no easy way around it: it can’t be erased by denial or the omission of the track altogether. The two can’t ever be divorced. It has to coexist forever as a monument to doing better, to genuine recognition and sincere accountability.

The 15th anniversary remaster itself seems like an afterthought — it arrives one week after it’s official release date, and only digitally. I’m not sure technology has shifted so drastically in the last 15 years as to make a digital-only remaster necessary. Most people will stream it, and how big of a difference will you be able to tell streaming it on Spotify through $15 ear buds? Probably not much. Go big with a deluxe box set that includes bonus tracks, remixes, outtakes, and demos, or go home.

The baddest female: The rise and fall of CL

There are only a few K-pop groups that have the ability to say they’ve been there since the beginning. 2NE1 was not one of them, but they did usher in the second generation, and lay the groundwork for BTS and the rest of the third wave we’re all currently riding. Among them were groups like Girls’ Generation (SNSD), BigBang, Super Junior, Kara, 2PM, Wonder Girls, Brown Eyed Girls… There were a lot of amazing groups in that generation, many of them only now brought up on the break-up, scandal, or contract-ending news cycle beats, but 2NE1 was one of the best. They were YG’s answer to SM’s hyper-cute and feminine Girls’ Generation: they were there to sell a street-savvy, hip-hop, “ugly” image in a country where there was no historical precedent for genuine hip-hop. In this way, even though they were marketed as “real,” they sold a fantasy world just as much as SNSD did. And they did it so well.

Unlike many of the interchangeable members of K-pop groups, each member of 2NE1 was given a distinct personality: a hook that could appeal to many different audience members across the spectrum, but especially any one looking to be a bit more bad-ass than they were in real life, which is pretty much everyone. While this did initially reduce the women down to types, it never took over any more than any performer’s carefully-crafted image. Perhaps we loved them all the more for this image they presented, and the way their odd-shaped pieces just seemed to fit together so well. There was Bom Park, the classy, quiet siren of song. There was Minzy, the youngest and the one with the sickest dance moves. There was Dara, the bubbly effervescent hype-girl that exuded light like a bonfire. And then there was CL, the undisputed center to which all spotlights gravitated, the one you knew would claw her way out of a box-shaped girl group to do what she was meant to do: take over the world.

The group released a number of hit singles beginning exactly ten years ago, starting with the tepid “Fire,” through the blazing “Nal Ddara Haebwayo (Try to Follow Me),” all the way to the inferno that was “Naega Jae jal Naga (I Am the Best).” That last one is the one that gained traction overseas years after its initial popularity had already propelled it to iconic status in its home country. One night, I sat in a movie theater and heard it play over an advertisement, bemused and surprised but also thinking, Yes, of course.

It was around this time, that I began predicting 2NE1 would be the K-pop group to make it huge (so I guess blame me because I am notorious for getting it wrong, every single time). English-language publications began to pick at the “Hallyu wave,” publishing think pieces about and decrying the idol “factory” system. Pitchfork published their first K-pop feature, To Anyone: The Rise of Korean Wave, by James Brooks, featuring screen shots from “Naega Jae jal Naga (I Am the Best),” where he says, “the group grabs you by the throat and demands [your attention]. Firing AK-47s at the camera, smashing their own records with baseball bats, and brandishing a WWE Championship Belt, 2NE1’s four members each exude the manic, larger-than-life charisma of peak-efficiency Nicki Minaj.” Many writers were still falling back on the compare-it-to-a-well-known-Western-figure/phenomenon, (especially Beatlemania, if you can, please) to give those new to the scene a foothold, but it was enough to get people talking. Now that Pitchfork was a bandwagon-jumper themselves, it was merely seconds before they upped their coverage with companion K-pop editorials and adjacent East-Asian music coverage.

Unfortunately, this seemed to be the sole purpose of 2NE1, and once they completed their mission of grabbing attention, and the novelty of “Naega Jae jal Naga (I Am the Best)” finally expired well past its due date, they fell rapidly off the radar. YG Entertainment fumbled at this point, denying the girls any worthy follow-up, while other agencies began preparing for international domination. Instead, they continued to focus on the Japanese market, releasing petty-good songs like “SCREAM” and “Crush.” Their last really great song was 2012’s “I Love You.” It was also at this time that members began to leverage popularity by releasing solo material.

In predicted fashion, CL’s was the most hotly-anticipated. Her debut single was “Nappeun Gijibae (The Baddest Female),” (known for the infamous line “Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good, you know?”) and it was spectacularly fine, with a typically overwhelming music video that was at turns breathtaking, ironic, fun, and problematic. It was classic YG, but it lacked a strong hook. That was okay, though, because it did the important work of getting her noticed by some important names overseas, namely Scooter Braun (you’ve probably heard a lot about him this week – he’s the reason Taylor Swift is floating rumors about re-recording her entire back catalog and can’t perform her old material at the AMAs now). We all held our breath; this was it. It was only a matter of time before an Asian artist became an international household name in music, and as CL bode her time making minor appearances on tracks from Skrillez, et al., hopes and spirits were high. She had paid her dues in 2NE1 and spent years in a musical limbo that seemed to prevent her from releasing anything of worth, but if anyone was going to crossover successfully, it would be her. She seemed to have the support and pull from the industry, not to mention the quadruple threats of voice, beauty, stage presence, and the kind of fearless energy you just can’t teach.

But her big debut, “Hello Bitches” hit with all the force of a flat tire, leaving fans bewildered and bummed out. To be blunt, it was kind of a mess. The track lacked any real substance, relying instead on a video with the superstar power of CL’s performance and heavy inclusion of Parris Goebel’s choreography and crew, who were riding off the high of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” video. CL was astounding in the video, a kinetic energy who sold every second of those insane three minutes, but naturally the song, an in media res mix of an extreme personality, bereft of a proper introduction or context, for its target audience, did not chart well and was largely forgotten as soon as one month later when year-end lists starting coming out. Looking back, this song isn’t as bad as I remember, and I can see the magic struggling underneath it, but it hasn’t had any longevity, and I know critics who will argue that CL’s best solo was still “Menbung” off of CRUSH. That seemed to be her one big chance, and the label having set all their chips on one square, gave up. The big lackluster follow-up, “Lifted,” though it set a record for a female Asian artist, only made it as high as 94 on the Billboard Hot 100. No one can argue that was a great song.

CL was pushed onto increasingly C-level collabs as low as the My Little Pony franchise before it started to become clear that there were other, more lucrative K-pop stars to begin investing in, namely, boy bands. YG themselves started over again with 2NE1-clones BLACKPINK, who carried the torch all the way to Time Magazine and other decent Western coverage. CL got the ultimate consolation prize when she performed at  the 2018 Winter Olympics closing ceremony at Pyeongchang with EXO, a fitting, but sad, farewell to a female performer with more solo potential than 95% of current girl-group members (it doesn’t help that the performance itself was…not great). Furthermore, there was no where to return: like many of their second-generation peers, 2NE1 began losing members, became plagued by scandal, and officially disbanded in 2016. CL was stuck signed to a company that suddenly stopped supporting her work and gave her no opportunities for growth.

The news everyone expected dropped on November 8, 2019, a decade after 2NE1’s debut: CL was no longer with YG Entertainment. What once would have been horrifying news resounding with a sudden, disturbing crash, has fallen in a deserted forest, being mostly met with ambivalence and shrugs from the fans of this third-wave of K-pop for whom CL barely registers. This is the unfortunate and natural result of a pop machine that is ever-moving, filling and re-fitting trainees into the cog of dance practice, vocal lessons, and media handling, of huge sums of money being spent, being invested, being blown, being dried up. Of the next young shiny thing coming down the stairs after you, willing to kick harder and sing louder. Of the only thing separating you from them being the unpredictable sliver of luck inherent in timing, places, and connections. Quite frankly, CL deserved better. It was a drawn-out, bitter end to a decade of passionate effort, relentless work, and enormous talent. Quintessentially, it’s the story of K-pop, and it’s coming for them all, one by one.

LOVEppears: A (personal) history

There are many albums I have listened to over the course of my life that have gradually peeled back the layers of my passion for music, revealing, with each successive tier, a broader, wider, and deeper appreciation and curiosity. This happened over the course of so many years, that it’s difficult to pinpoint when any one album spun me off into a whole new direction. These special albums are rare, but I can think of a few of them, the ones that have actually changed my life, stretching all the way back to a vinyl record of ABBA’s Super Trouper, a cassette tape of Natalia Kukulska’s Natalia, and Ace of Base’s The Sign. Certainly the Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon Sailor Stars Best Song Collection CD set me permanently on the road I would travel for the rest of my life. And definitely X Japan’s Silent Jealousy, which I came across in the dusky bowels of a now-deceased (duh) brick-and-mortar music shop (I think it’s used for university housing now). And Ayumi Hamasaki’s LOVEppears. Now that’s special.

I remember surfing the Internet in the early 00s, desperate to find any information I could on Japanese pop music, and to get my ears on any RealAudio snippet I could find before committing to a $35 album from a little shop called YesAsia that I learned about from flipping through Animerica. This was before we all got used to typing credit card numbers into any box that told us to, and any way, there was no way my parents were going to let me use theirs, so after having my interest piqued when coming across numerous pretty single covers and spending an hour waiting for “SURREAL” to finish downloading, I remember painstakingly printing out an order form, filling it out, walking to the bank for a money order, stuffing it all in an envelope, and patiently waiting by the door for the next eight weeks until my big gamble arrived: a copy of a maxi-single called Far away, and a full-length album called LOVEppears, by Ayumi Hamasaki.

By this point, I had already bought the evolution single, my very first Ayu purchase, from the import section of Virgin Records Megastore on Michigan Avenue, but that didn’t alleviate any of the apprehension: “evolution” didn’t sound like any of the other Ayu material I was hearing. But when you’re a pre-teen, you don’t have the intelligence to abstain from pinning all your hopes on something as inconsequential as a compact disc. Till then, I had enjoyed music from T.M.Revolution, and lots of other opening and closing anime themes, plus some visual-kei and J-rock like X Japan and hide. But pure, non-sieyuu J-pop was still uncharted territory. Admittedly, my memory is fuzzy on the timeline, but I know that I was at a turning point where Japanese music was still just an option, rather than the norm. Ayumi Hamasaki helped change all of that, and if it wasn’t already for evolution and a dozen dance remixes, than it was for one of her most beloved studio albums: LOVEppears.

LOVEppears capped off a whirlwind year for Hamasaki, which began back in February 1999, when she released the first single from the album, WHATEVER. While the production of “WHATEVER” is stylistically similar to the songs off of her debut album A Song for XX (many songs from that album were also written by Kazuhito Kikuchi), there was one very big exception: it was her first song to incorporate techno elements. No doubt an extension of her record label, Avex Trax’s, raison d’etre, this signaled a new sound that Hamasaki would explore throughout her career. Of course, Avex Trax had been pumping out dance music since the label’s inception, but this was new territory for an idol initially marketed as a sort of peer to label-mate Ami Suzuki, a sort-of anti-Hikaru Utada, whose background in American R&B and singer-songwriters was changing the mainstream landscape of J-pop. Avex wasn’t entirely convinced, hanging on to its bread-and-butter while letting the Western influences melt down into an artist like Namie Amuro, who was at one of the lowest points of her career. Instead, they began packing all their punches into two of their smartest potentials: Every Little Thing and Ayumi Hamasaki, both of whom received the star-studded Avex treatment replete with the best songwriters and marketing gurus, and an abundance of dance compilations with local and foreign DJs to give them a bit of global exposure. All of this would reveal itself in time, but for now, Hamasaki was at step one: “WHATEVER,” a modest bop promoted with two versions: a standard J-pop number, and the other, the delectably cold electronic version, as if cautiously gauging the audience’s reception. The waters proved warm, and her team got to work.

In the mean time Hamasaki got busy releasing a couple of safe winter ballads. The first was “LOVE~Destiny,” a song in collaboration with mega-producer Tsunku, who was hot off the success of his new girl group Morning Musume. The song’s music video is notable for depicting the first of many times Hamasaki would illustrate the loneliness of celebrity, featuring herself alone in several vast interiors, including a particularly chilly dressing room.

The second was Hamasaki’s last single to be released in the 3″ mini-CD format, “TO BE,” and written by D-A-I, whom Hamasaki would go on to work with for many years until 2002, when his appearances on albums became nearly scarce (as of this writing, the last song he wrote that appeared on an album was “Sweet Scar” on 2013’s Love again). Like all of Hamasaki’s singles, this one is particularly personal, with later speculation nearly confirming that the song was written for her then-producer Max Matsuura with whom she was rumored to have had a nearly life-long love affair (this is neither the space, nor time, to discuss her romantic life, but it also feels dishonest to leave it out completely, when it effects so much of her songwriting, especially in these early years when Matsuura had such a profound influence on her development as an artist. We’ll get back to him later). Musically, both of these ballads were typical of their time, and though I’ve never been a huge fan of “LOVE~Destiny~,” “TO BE” grew on me over the years. It has a quietly stunning production, with a richness to it that subsequent re-recordings have always failed to recapture, since it doesn’t play to Hamasaki’s increasingly strained vocals since it was recorded, particularly in the chorus, which highlights her worst vocal sin of camouflaging high notes outside of her reach in an ascending ladder of  exhaustive nasal gasps. For example, compare the calm and ease of hitting those notes in the original to her 10th anniversary re-recording on the Days/GREEN single, and you get a sense of this strange in-between period of Hamasaki’s vocal performance: still keen on improving with formal lessons, but navigating techniques that would help her stand out a little bit, for better or worse. That unique, and almost defiant, approach made its true mark on her third album Duty (“End of the World,” and “teddy bear” especially), and finally gave free reign on I am… But not yet.

Finally, it was time to roll out the album’s banner singles in the summer, beginning with “Boys & Girls,” Hamasaki’s first album-length maxi-single, and the only one to receive the dubious extinction of being released in an ultra-slim case without an OBI. It not only featured one of the most iconic singles of her career, but eight remixes, including two of her previous ballads. It was here that the blueprint for subsequent maxi-singles was laid, a model that would continue until her last maxi-single, Daybreak, in 2002. While none of the remixes are real standouts on here, except for that by the inimitable HAL, it was a bold move, one that no other mainstream J-pop artist was making. Stylistically, this single connected directly to her following single, A, by the threads that appear on the cover art (and eventually found their way into the booklet of LOVEppears).

A was released less than one month later, and made an even bigger statement as a quadruple-A side, along with remixes. It also used the first of many marketing gimmicks to cash in on and manipulate fan-devotion, by releasing one standard edition, and four limited-edition versions with varying colored discs and OBIs, and track lists. After the single sold 1 million, and then 1.5 million copies, additional gold versions were released in commemoration. Finally, the album featured the first incarnation of Hamasaki’s “A” brand logo, which here looked a little bit like an asymmetrical pi sign. Again, we have an artist still figuring out her place in the pop pantheon, working out an iconic symbol that could both identify and evoke feelings without a single sound or accompanying image. Like the fabled bowl of porridge, this one was either too hot or too cold, but the next one would be just right. More importantly, the songs on this single are more self-assured than ever: there’s “too late,” and “Trauma,” two more iconic singles that ended up becoming concert staples, the slower-paced and underrated “End roll,” and the abrasive “monochrome.”

All of these singles were accompanied by numerous promotional appearances on legendary music shows like Pop Jam,  Music Station, and Hey! Hey! Hey! Music Champ, on magazine covers like CD Data, GIRLPOP and SCawaii!, and a plethora of commercial tie-ins for consumer goods like makeup, scooters, chocolates, and flavored water. It was now becoming impossible to ignore Ayumi Hamasaki which meant only one thing: it was time to put an exclamation point on this era of her career with an album.

Capping off a successful year with an album sounds counter-intuitive to Western audiences, who in a reverse process, use albums to kick off blitzes of subsequent singles, appearances, and tours. But at this point in time, albums in the Japanese market tended to bring eras to a kind of close; aside from concert tours which followed album releases, all major promotions and singles connected with the album were brought to an end. This could sometimes leave albums feeling a bit anticlimactic, as anywhere up to half or more of the album could have already been previewed, leaving a mere handful of new tracks to await. By the time November 10 rolled around, LOVEppears would really only have five new full-length songs (plus a hidden bonus track) and two short interludes. But Avex had one last twist up its sleeve, and that was to turn what could have been an epilogue into an extended prologue.

On the same day that the album LOVEppears was released, Avex released the limited-edition maxi-single appears, another 12-track juggernaut packed with remixes. This was followed by the limited-edition maxi-single kanariya, which capitalized on the album’s hidden track to release yet more remixes, in addition to a vocal track to encourage fan remixes. A final victory lap, just bragging at this point, was the release of the limited-edition maxi-single Fly high in 2000, another album track that was given the promotional video and remix treatment. If any of this just seems like a moment to indulge in a drawn-out Wikipedia-like set of facts, it’s important to remember how unprecedented this was in the history of J-pop: virtually no major artist was releasing singles off of already-released albums. There was simply no point. The most important moment of an album’s release was the first few weeks, when it could make its biggest impact on the Oricon charts. By then, all the hard work and budget releasing and promoting singles had been put in and used up. Using data from the performance of singles and gauging public reaction to appearances was enough to predict an album’s performance.

There are a couple of interconnected conjectures that can be made as to why this strategy was employed, namely, that Avex Trax always did things a little differently. They may be an independent record label, but they are one of the most successful independent record labels of all time, and in many respects, remain “indie” by name only. Avex Trax was established on the bedrock of dance music, and their connection with the dance-music world of producers and DJs not only gave their music a distinctive edge, but influenced major business and creative decisions, including their compilations series like the SUPER EUROBEAT and cyber trance lines, not to mention finding work for many budding producers by commissioning remixes that would appear on various singles. Hamasaki’s singles took this fellowship to its ultimate and most capital conclusion: by using their extended personal network to create what were essentially promotional albums for DJs, but in disguise of one of Japan’s most successful brands. This was mutually beneficial: Hamasaki kept her name at the forefront of a continuous cycle of promotions, essentially selling fans the same product over and over and over again, but tweaked just a bit to give identity to underground artists who were grateful for the opportunity. In fact, only a handful of these artists became mainstream, popular names in their respective fields (namely Ferry Corsten, and later, Above & Beyond and Armin van Buuren). Later maxi-singles improved upon the quality of artists, but very few went on to have long-lasting, lucrative careers. In fact, none of these artists could have benefited monetarily from these maxi-singles, which were album-length and usually 10+ tracks, but still cost the same as any standard single at ¥1,260 (roughly, $10-12 at the time). What an extremely creative and cheap way to scratch multiple backs! Loyalty to your roots, helping your friends, and keeping the artist you’re pinning all your shares on in the local, and potentially, global public eye. Indeed, many of these producers were European and American, who were guaranteed to spin their remixes in their own sets overseas.

All this makes the whole thing seem cynical, and I hesitate to leave it this way. Peeking behind the curtain of the music business is not unlike spending an afternoon flipping through back issues of Billboard: you get up feeling a bit jaded, a bit letdown by the whole pursuit of artistic integrity. But in truth, no thorough assessment of the purpose of these maxi-singles and subsequent remix compilations can erase the fact that they were one of my favorite things about Ayumi’s early career, and without them, it might very well have taken me longer to come around. As I stated previously, evolution was the first Ayu single I ever purchased, followed by Far away, SEASONS, LOVEppears, and then back to the ayu-mi-x II series. I grew up on dance music and part of the appeal was the endless and diverse versions of club tracks to sample, and so importantly, at a price that was far more affordable than a $35 album in namely one unpredictable style that may or may not have ended up being good. My taste in grade school was unsophisticated and still developing, and having a hook to make the introduction was effective. That is to say, the process worked. Actually, the process worked like gangbusters.

By the time the year 2000 rolled around, just two years after her debut, when Hamasaki was preparing for her first major concert tour, she was a star. LOVEppears made that happen. Avex Trax made that happen. But, and this is important, Ayumi Hamasaki also made that happen.

Hamasaki spent months training in New York under the encouragement of her producer Max Matsuura, who pushed her to write her own lyrics, and it was this that endeared fans to her. Unpolished and at times awkward, Hamasaki’s lyrics were personal, and real; they are what today’s brand gurus would call “authentic” and “relatable” “content.” Before social media, they were the best way Hamasaki had to communicate with her audience. And just like her sartorial choices (endearingly cataloged in her 1999 fashion-book A BOOK), vocal style, and stage performances, her lyrics only matured and grew in time. If Hamasaki at all felt boxed in by the business or musical decisions being made around her, she always felt that her lyrics were hers, and she used to them express everything from her joys and victories, to her anxiety and frustrations. LOVEppears is not only the first glimpse we get of Hamasaki’s brush with the darker and lonelier side of fame, but the complex tender and forgiving experience of first love had and lost. Her whole approach to the album was a compelling mix of complete vulnerability and hidden depth: her famous commentary on the title track was that things are never as they seem, and what to outsiders might seem like happy moments, could in reality be painful, or harrowing ordeals. This is as succinct as any observation on fame, relationships, and life I can think of.

By the time the last maxi-single was released, the only true remaining album-only exclusives were the short interludes, the tremendous ballad “Who…”  which Hamasaki would belt out in tears to close out every concert tour, save one, for the next four years, and a curiously harsh sequel to “POWDER SNOW” entitled “P.SII” (not counting the slightly alternate take on “LOVE~Destiny,” titled “LOVE~refrain~,” which is nearly identical) The album also included a second disc, featuring promotional mixes from her first ayu-mi-x album and her upcoming SUPER EUROBEAT remix compilation. And in a very of-its-time move, the disc contained CD-ROM content that included a discography, commercial spots, behind-the-scenes photos, and random sound bites of Hamasaki speaking (you can view all this original content as it appeared at this official 20th anniversary site, minus the constant background hum of the GROOVE THAT SOUL MIX of “Trust”).

When you take into account the singer’s prolific career since this album’s release, it’s astounding to think that a mere fifteen months later Hamasaki was under the very scary, and sincere belief that her career was over. Yet what she has accomplished in the last twenty years is astounding: with her relentless work ethic, commitment to perfection, eye for detail, ear for striking melodies, and increasing control over her image and body of work, Hamasaki has done what few J-pop idols before her could: she became an artist and a legend. LOVEppears may be the most obvious album to commemorate, but it laid the foundation for the rest of her career, marking a beginning, an end, and a turning point, all at the same time. Neither artist nor fan could imagine the journey about to unfold, the musical gifts unleashed in increasing frequency throughout 2000 and beyond, the singular voice growing louder, more confident, and more bold than any surface-level nude album cover could express, and the trail blazed forth for the numerous female artists who followed. And for one kid about to be released into the horrors of junior high, a whole new world of music as exciting, and intriguing, and different, as anything she had experienced up to that point. Happy 20th Anniversary to this astounding, life-changing album, and thank you.

Still can’t crack the code: TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE’s “Hikaru yo”

It doesn’t take a grand feat of hindsight to see where it all went wrong for TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE, especially now that Avex is backtracking as fast as possible. When the members of the group grew up, their record label looked to be maturing them into more sophisticated “artists,” rather than idols with a big marketing ploy that involved declaring they would no longer be performing certain songs (“Onnaji Kimochi” and “Ganbatte Itsudatte Shinjiteru”), a transition out of their signature New Jack Swing sound into more electronic territory, and, eventually, the lose of a member. Avex was banking on the idea that after giving the market what it wanted (idols, more idols, just idols, all the time), it could take a loyal audience with them into territory where they were more comfortable, and leave the idol experimentation to sub-labels like iDOL Street. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bit of a miscalculation.

This failure could be for any number of reasons, not least which is that the new material just didn’t live up to the old. While not horrible, it was jarringly different: musically speaking, TGS’s first four albums are near perfect at marrying peppy messages of positivity with idol what-have-yous to a classic 90’s TK, J-pop sound — it’s not an easy trick to pull off. But it seems that the team behind the group took it for granted, erroneously believing that, like many idol groups before them, the members themselves had established enough of a connection with fans that they would be followed anywhere they went, even into adulthood. But it seems that while fans primarily of idols and idol groups want to watch their biases grow, they don’t want them growing too much. Turns out there’s a line in the sand, when the unwritten contract between idols and their fans cease to exist regarding any number of expectations from behavior to lyrical content, that can cause a gradual erosion of loyalty. And when fans began to slowly abandon TGS after the abrupt set of changes, Avex didn’t necessarily try harder at marketing to a different audience — they just pushed forward and hoped for the best as the four women left in the group were forced to start from scratch. Yet now it seems an opportunity has presented itself.

First, two idol groups affiliated with Avex disbanded last year (GEM and X21). Second, none of Avex’s recently debuted non-idol groups (FAKY and Def Will) seem to have taken off. Though the group announced as early as 2017 that, just kidding, they’d like to be both “idols and artists”, it’s with the release of their new single, “Hikaru yo,” that it seems Avex is truly rethinking their strategy and steering TGS back into the services of full-on idol worship. The song and PV have no distinguishing features of which to name; instead, it is generic J-pop at its lowest common denominator, a song that could be sung by virtually any group, with a visual that includes an attempt to turn the clock back with a magical-girl transformation sequence that sees the members go metaphorically from very contempo-SPEED back to dolls. With neither the chunky beats present on their first four albums, nor the dance-heavy groove of their “post-idol/artist” era, the song is a blank canvas on which audiences can begin drawing, or re-drawing, their expectations (in case it isn’t clear enough, the B-side for this single is titled “Reborn”). Only a follow-up single just as formulaic and bereft of personality can confirm suspicions of the label’s intentions, but the prognosis doesn’t seem promising.

With so many of their all-girl idol groups folding and their dance groups not taking off, it looks like Avex still hasn’t quite figured out how to tackle the market in a musical environment where, despite predictions and best intentions, idols, rather than artists, still dominate. I am curious to see if TOKYO GIRLS’ STYLE will survive a second re-branding, but skeptical, and overall disappointed at what their failure at moving forward as artists and young women says about the current state of J-pop.

[ Photo credit ]

Top 10 East Asian pop/rock albums of 2018

With labels scrambling to debut as many rookies as possible to distract fans from recent scandals, lawsuits, and the ever-shrinking pool of legacy groups from which to draw, it’s been nearly impossible to keep up with the mostly mediocre or one-off mini-albums K-pop released this year. While this practice isn’t anything new, it does make it harder to enjoy a genre whose days of tent-pole hits with the power to unite eyes and ears nationwide has passed. However, these lowered standards (followed by lowered expectations) makes it easier to spot the masterpieces and the true stars who have stuck around, not because sacrificing a giant chunk of their life to the entertainment industry has left them with so few other options, but because of a passion and talent that won’t be swayed by the setbacks of Plan A. Since we outside the industry might never know which are the latter and which are the former, we can only sit back and patiently wait to see how business-as-usual versus genuine enthusiasm separates the herd.

A similar ennui permeates J-pop, which swam in its own self-referential muck this year, drawing on numerous tactics that worked in the past while only occasionally breathing anything fresh and new into the mix that didn’t reek of pandering. Meanwhile, we all stood back and watched as the mighty idol oaks began toppling one by one, from GEM, to X21, to PASSPO, a dizzying domino effect that revealed the same systemic cracks as in K-pop’s foundation. Perhaps it is because of this uncertain climate that suddenly the familiar feels good, a reassuring grip to hang onto until the genre realizes it can’t keep running on marbles. And when done with passion, sometimes you can still catch a frisson of that ol’ J-pop feeling, coursing softer, but no less mighty and proud.

Here are ten of those mighty albums and mini-albums, in no particular order, released in 2018, that prove K-pop and J-pop aren’t dead, that despite their diminishing influence as a powerhouse, a New Sweden, or a cure for the Billboard Hot 100, it still has much to offer if we are patient enough to receive.

JONGHYUN: Poet | Artist
More appalling revelations have surfaced in the K-pop industry recently, but none so tragic as the death of Jong Hyun, principal vocalist for one of SM’s most popular boybands, SHINee. Jong Hyun, who was found dead of an apparent suicide in his apartment in December of 2017, was mourned by both fans and industry insiders, the latter who didn’t express surprise so much as grief-stricken resignation. While the exact details of the situation will never be known, it is obvious from his absolutely heartbreaking suicide letter that Jong Hyun was under an immense amount of pressure and in an enormous amount of pain, which was dismissed by both personal acquaintances and professional help. But rather then risk misinterpreting the letter, it is simply important to note, again and more than ever before, that for a star of any kind, fame and celebrity can often be a contributing factor to, not an escape from, mental health issues. It would be unfair to imply Jong Hyun found relief in music or even enjoyed it very much at the end, as good as that would make the rest of us feel – maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Yet that doesn’t make his last solo album Poet | Artist, any less of a tribute to and record of his last months. Filled with soaring pop/R&B gems, the album is both testament to K-pop’s enduring ability to fight back against cookie-cutter accusations and lack of emotion, and proof to anyone who would deny that Jong Hyun worked hard. He really did work hard. They all work so hard.

EXO: COUNTDOWN
Every year, I can count on SM Entertainment to release an album driven purely by the heady excesses of dance-pop. With no agenda to inform or break new ground, than to revel in This Very Moment in Time, COUNTDOWN is the perfect response to accusations that K-pop has lost its fun side. The big twist is that it’s not a domestic Korean release, instead following in the footsteps of countless K-pop groups clamoring for a piece of the Japanese music market, and just like them, these tweaked experiments prove just as, if not more, enjoyable than their homegrown counterparts. Switching to Japanese hasn’t put a single stumble in EXO’s steps, as they tackle propulsive bops from “Electric Kiss” to “TACTIX” with an enviably aggressive energy.

Fairies: JUKEBOX
Fairies are one of the few J-pop girl groups to make it out of 2018 alive, and the fact that they haven’t suffered the same fate as their Avex sisters seems less arbitrary with a closer listen to JUKEBOX. The album is a crystal clear distillation of J-pop, with the upbeat, dance-centered modern cool of songs like “Bangin’” and “Fashionable” playing alongside the very Avex-specific pop of songs like “CROSSROAD” and “Synchronized ~SYNCHRO~.” Where the album really excels is in its lack of typical idol-pop, the likes of which AKB’s sister groups have churned out this year at a rate James Patterson would find alarming. The state of the J-pop girl group, whether mainstream or niche, is an ever-evolving fluctuation, subject to the whims of fickle and sometimes bored managers and their demanding shareholders. Cherish each moment of fun in the here and now as JUKEBOX does: your favorite group is probably on the chopping block next.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Japamyu
Once upon a time, you couldn’t stalk three paces around this blog without coming across a glowing review of Yasutaka Nakata’s work. But when the inspiration dried up, it dried up hard: first for Perfume, then for Kyary, then for his own solo work. All seemed according to schedule when Digital Native dropped in February, and with it, any last hope that a slump was about to become a revival. Japamyu is not that comeback either, nor is it the Kyary album that fans have been waiting for, but it is the album we were given and it is a tight one, almost holy in its brevity. Catchy hooks sail past on a conveyor belt of hits from “Harajuku Iyahoi” to “Kimi no Mikata” at a speed which almost clear slices your fingertips off. Its bread-and-butter approach to composition and adherence to conciseness should make this feel phoned-in, but the idea that this album has been whittled down to its true essence is too tempting. Given the outrageous indulgences Nakata has churned out in the past few years, this album is a cheery distillation of what he’s still capable of, if someone could just harness and steer the genius, or tell him to just pull it together already.

Ai Shinozaki: YOU & LOVE
Ai Shinozaki finally released a full-length album this year, uninspired title and all. Still, her brand of laid-back pop is the perfect antidote to the artificial hyper-energy of the Oricon charts, a continuation of the breezy sound on all of her previous singles and EPs. Heavy on synths, many of the songs evoke earlier legacy-trends, such as the 80’s radio-jam “Cupid,” and the shuffling bop of “Blanket.” The second half of the album starting with “Baby I’ll Wish…” contains a collection of lost POWER OF WORDS-era Rina Aiuchi hits. There’s nothing here to push Shinozaki into the upper echelons of J-pop history, but its effortless grace feels like a gift, a victory of small steps and persistence that finally paid off.

BoA: WOMAN
There are many times when promo tracks are not accurate reflections of their albums, and “Woman” is one of them. The title track for BoA’s second major Korean release of the year is a doozy, the epitome of BoA’s legacy, and it provides all of the classic Janet Jackson-feels you could want, but it’s hardly the best track of the album. This is where the listener is free to take his or her pick, from the jazzy-pop of “Like It!” to the slow burn of “Hwatgime (Irreversible),” to my personal favorite “Encounter,” an electro-house #1-in-the-making, where distorted vocals weave through a template of loose textures and rhythms in a sublime patchwork of melodies. While ONE SHOT, TWO SHOT was a good, if scattered, selection, on WOMAN, everything BoA touches turns to gold, and it’s our own fault if we had forgotten, in the long interim of releases, just how amazing she is for even a moment.

Airi Suzuki: Do me a favor
As a former member of popular, now-defunct, girl-group C-ute, Suzuki is no stranger to showbiz. So although Do me a favor is her debut solo album, it hardly feels like one. Instead, it feels like a throwback, at times to the decadence of TK-era pop, up through the early 00s, when J-pop was king, not yet aware of the encroaching transformation imminent with R&B and hip-hop’s influence and a young New Yorker named Hikaru Utada. At other times, it couldn’t be anything other than an album produced in 2018, where it’s able to mix all of those potent memories with modern sensibilities into marketing magic. Airi Suzuki makes Do me a favor feel this oldness and newness like a second skin, like cherry-picking influences from all the past career highlights is the natural product of progress, one the Internet has trained us to expect: see how a very-contemporary idol-pop song like “Candy Box” follows a slower, cooler jam like “perfect timing.” It’s the type of segue that only works in a space and time defined by both E-girls and Keyakizaka46, by both Tokyo Performance Doll and Tsubaki Factory. There is only one other album on this list that is less surprising, and just as rooted in a wholly Japanese pop experience, marrying past and present styles in homage to everything that was and everything that will be, and this one was the least expected.

Hey! Say! JUMP: SENSE or LOVE
Speaking of groups being dissolved, this really puts pressure on Arashi, doesn’t it? Johnny’s has had a hard time of it in the second half of the 10s, with groups like SMAP on the outs and the constant rumors of Arashi members’ personal lives interfering with the company’s streamlined vision. And the younger groups groomed to take their place saw lineup hiccups this year as well, with Sexy Zone member Sou Matsushima going on hiatus to treat a panic disorder, and even Keito Okamoto “taking a break” from Hey! Say! Jump to “study in the U.S.,” which we has nothing to do with his penchant for absolutely verboten idol-extracurriculars. (It’s uncertain what Johnny’s finds more offensive: that people can’t control their natural desires to hook-up, or that they are caught doing so. It is also unclear if he will actually be able to return to the group following the company’s scramble to do damage control, but history isn’t on his side). Yet the H!S!J train rolls on, and SENSE or LOVE does a fine job of pretending nothing is amiss. Okamoto’s presence lingers but is hardly missed, as the remaining eight members commit to professionalism. All of this might seem to mark the album as desperate, or at the very least nothing but a catchy distraction, but it works in the album’s favor, loaning it a sense of urgency absent from previous albums that relied more on a relationship with fans taken for granted. The other most traditional album on this list, SENSE or LOVE is low on surprises, but expert at reminding listeners why they come to Johnny’s in the first place, and most importantly, asking them very politely, and very softly, to stay.

BAND-MAID: World Domination
BAND-MAID is becoming a staple here at appears, and no complaints — they already appeared on the best reissue list earlier this week, and now calmly grace a spot in the ten best albums list as well. But this is no mindless consolation — these women have earned their spot with talent and consistency, regularly releasing some of the metal genre’s best music in any language, anywhere. World Domination finally acknowledges the band’s ambitions, bravely asserting themselves when many of their peers are content to stay local. BAND-MAID want more, as stated in the album’s riff-laden, guitar-heavy, drum-bashing lead single “Domination.” Ditching the maid-costume gimmick at this point might be suicide, but it continues to be largely irrelevant to everything the group does and is capable of, and if the worst it did was enhance their appeal, it could be forgiven. But alas, keep your eyes on the true prize: expert musicianship and a growing craftsmanship that reveals itself in the relationship each member continues to hone with her instrument. The pace at which this band moves is mind-blowing, and to release another career-defining album within one year proves this band has the habits of hard work and focus necessary to meet any goal they set. First Japan, then the world.

Seungri: THE GREAT SEUNGRI
In a world full of baby-faced rookies, Seungri, at age 27, is a K-pop grandfather. The youngest member of legendary group BIGBANG, Seungri has been in the business more than twelve years and has already released two solo EPs, and an album in Japanese. Now, after a five-year pause, we get THE GREAT SEUNGRI, which contains this year’s most joyous K-pop single, “1, 2, 3!” Like his earlier solo work, the album relies on big horns, an enormous hook, and the inherent cool of its lead singer. “1, 2, 3!” is the type of song that demands personality, the type of song a debut singer, as yet bereft of connection with its audience, could never pull off. But it’s all cake for Seungri, who takes the song and infuses it with enough character to make even the keenest listener forget that its mostly absent chorus is almost entirely instrumental. Elsewhere, collaborations abound on TGS and while it’s never quite clear who’s helping whom, all parties benefit. The album is rounded out nicely by both ear-wormy dance hooks and slower, more hip-hop-influenced numbers that make it, if not one of the most interesting YG albums of the year, certainly the most complete. TGS is an album you can play from start to finish, secure in the knowledge that nothing is filler, and that nothing sounds like it’s simply trying to recapture a time and place that can now only be reached through an old CD collection.

Honorable Mentions

JUNHO: Souzou
Sumire Uesaka: NO FUTURE VACANCES
Sakurako Ohara: Enjoy
Monari Wakita: AHEAD!
E-girls: E.G.11

Top ten pop/electronic albums of 2018

Pop music in 2018 wasn’t one for the history books, but it has delivered its fair share of healthy distractions, and in the current political and cultural climate, sometimes that’s all anyone is looking for. Below are ten of the best English-language and/or Western pop and electronic albums of the year — ten albums, in no particular order, that made the year just a bit less unbearable and proved there is no end to the styles and content that can be mined from such rich and broad genres across continents.

Ariana Grande: Sweetener
Ariana Grande has spent this year conducting herself with a poise and dignity beyond most pop stars’ capabilities. As proof, Sweetener showcases a notable maturation of Grande’s sound: the album trades most of the Max Martin tent-pole hits for slower, groovier numbers like “The Light is Coming” and “Everytime.” Fans of the pop-maestro need not worry, as commercial demands necessitate the inclusion of some of the album’s best tracks for radio singles, like the effervescent “God is a Woman” and “Breathin’.” But unlike past albums stitched together with equal parts Martin and Grande, Grande alone carries Sweetener with her singular vocal talent, a voice that blends a dizzying assortment of soars and coos and reverb, curated for maximum effect.

Allie X: Super Sunset
It has been a pleasure and a pain to watch Allie X grow as a pop star only to be denied widespread recognition. While it’s easy to write off the artist with a glance at her very Lady Gaga-like visuals, the content of her compositions belies any sense of mere copycat. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of music that is released each week, with Spotify and Bandcamp and YouTube all making grabs for ever-decreasing attention spans, though it does make it all the more magical when something brilliant like “Science” cues up, all twinkling synths and epic chorus breaking through the routine of sonic wallpaper. It’s both story and song, a 4D experience you can touch and feel, the wind hitting your face from top to bottom in degrees as Allie punctuates and draws out the win. dows. ro-o-o-o-o-o-lling down. It’s fresh, it’s fun, and it eschews half-measures for the big win; it’s the kind of serious pop music we haven’t heard in years outside of last year’s CollXtion II.

Charlie Puth: Voicenotes
One year ago, anyone would have laughed at the idea of Puth being a viable contender for that elusive gap in our charts: the male pop star. Certainly no one is counting on Justin Timberlake or Nick Jonas any longer. Yes, Post Malone and Drake have massive chart presence where Puth has almost none, having taken grave missteps with his poor debut album and Meghan Trainor collabs, but Voicenotes portends a welcome change. Gone is a reliance on the retro, doo-wop of a youthful Michael Buble, the sort of music that passed through the ears of listeners quicker than a passing siren. Voicenotes shows Puth a bit older, a bit wiser, and most importantly, a bit more honest. Puth finally sounds like a real human being, a person with insecurities and skeletons finally spilling out of a closet previously packed tight with crisp shirts and shiny shoes, and it is only by finally revealing and owning his truths, with a dash of inspired Hall & Oates, that he can finally find a place among the cheesiest of pop stars and their fans, all just as uncool as the rest of us.

Dance with the Dead: Loved to Death
Just like your favorite mass market paperbacks, you can tell just by looking at some covers exactly what the contents will be like. Perhaps it’s the famous clinch, or the back of a shadowy, running figure, or even a a cover taken up entirely by the enormous font of an author’s name. Some of the best genre paperbacks were designed in the 70s and 80s for horror fiction, lovingly chronicled by super-fan Grady Hendrix in Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction. Any one of these tales, from the one about Nazi Leprechauns, to Satanic nuns, to children with kinetic abilities look like they could be accompanied by one of Dance with the Dead’s albums. Their aesthetic, like the look of all darkwave, looks ripped from the pages of a Stephen King novel, and their latest, Loved to Death similarly leans in hard. Justin Pointer and Tony Kim, the duo behind these morbidly fun 80’s synth-horror tracks, expertly weave in all of their influences, from Justice to John Carpenter to Metallica to create instrumental sonic treats that brim with crunchy energy, like “Salem” and “Oracle,” and guitars, especially on tracks like “Into the Shadows.” Highly danceable, playfully creepy, and always entertaining, Dance with the Dead will fit in nicely with your Stranger Things viewing party next summer.

Janelle Monae: Dirty Computer
Sometimes an artist’s greatest album isn’t a personal favorite: certainly, Monae’s previous album The Electric Lady contained just as many, if not more, attention-grabbing songs and as much style. In fact, Dirty Computer seems a touch less effortless, maybe a bit too glossy, a tad obvious. But it is hyper-stylized for a reason: it’s the logical conclusion of experience, and of time spent in the presence of luminous mentors and the trenches of viral Internet warfare. Slapping a concept film on this album does little to enhance what is already Monae’s winning hand: ability, ambition, and personality. Natural talent puts all of these to work and an appreciative audience hungry for the gospel allows this star to finally come into her own — part cyborg, part human, all American.

5 Seconds of Summer: Youngblood
If you’ve spent five seconds in the electronics department of a Target, you’ve heard 5 Seconds of Summer, who’ve blared from the giant monitors every time I’ve set foot in one over the course of the summer. This relentless repetition makes it easy to forget how fun Youngblood is. Look, it’s hard out there for an English-speaking boy band. Just ask Why Don’t We. The boy band mini-revival rose and set in the shadows of One Direction, and its future is now being pulled into question. In response, 5SOS have released one of their most musically accessible albums, a triumph of synths and enormous pop hooks. Their third studio album sounds like a group that has finally embraced their place in the pop pantheon and taken it to its biggest, most obvious conclusion, whether it’s the lyrical staples of “Want You Back,” “Better Man,” and “Why Won’t You Love Me,” or blissful, windows-down jams like “Talk Fast” and “More.” Part of the ability to appreciate this album will hinge on how much someone is willing to concede that the world hates teenage girls and everything they touch, but once a person can come to terms with the idea that the things girls like and things that are great are not exclusive, we can all evolve as a species together.

Sarah Reeves: Easy Never Needed You
Contemporary Christian, Christian pop, “inspirational music,” or whatever you want to call it, has been mostly segregated to the outskirts of the mainstream. It’s a tough genre to define when it can sound just like anything else on the radio, but you’re not quite sure if it’s about a significant other, or actually Jesus. It’s a tough call to make, and Easy Never Needed You has a good time playing around with those perceptions and doubts. Sarah Reeve’s voice, as soft and pillowy as Ellie Goulding’s, also seems to be taking inspiration from the artist’s music, with fast-paced Top-40 pop like “Something About You” and “Right Where You Want Me.” The album’s more obvious references to faith, like “Nowhere,” and “Faithful,” never feel as preachy as they could; it’s a true crossover album, the kind that blurs the distinction between holy and secular, and when is the latter ever devoid of the former, in a non-religious sense? Music only ever means what you believe it does, and any proscribed interpretations are always presumptive. To whit, Sarah Reeves won’t be making any converts any time soon, but she has made one hell of a pop album.

Rita Ora: Phoenix
Rita Ora is a jack-of-all-trades: it’s been six years since she released an album, but in that time she’s managed to find time to act in mega-blockbusters, shill for major corporations like Skullcandy and DKNY, design clothes, and host reality television shows like America’s Next Top Model. It’s all in a day’s work for today’s young celebrities, but one thing you can’t say is that Ora hasn’t worked hard hitting up every medium, besides, like, podcasts, to remain as relevant as possible. Spreading oneself so thin usually results in poor work, a sign of scattered focus rather than deep dives into true passion projects, but Phoenix, its title a reference to Ora’s trouble with past record label Roc Nation, soars as high as any big-budget pop album in its class. Opener “Anywhere” sets the tone for the record’s trendy EDM hooks and functions as both a statement of intent and a litmus test: non-interested parties are invited to disembark immediately at the next stop. Ora doesn’t have the most versatile pipes, but she’s the perfect fit for an album that would have made more sense released in the summer, perfect for windows-down, volume-high cruising. This is not the type of album that can move mountains, but it can get you out of your chair, and that’s a lot more useful in the day-to-day banality of the average person’s life.

Neon Nox: Syndicate Shadow
What happens when you have the capabilities of a sonic storyteller, but no contract with a film studio? Johnny Jewel and his label mates over at Italians Do It Better are sure to steer you in the right direction, but there is no shortage of artists outside that particular milieu who have their own original Drives and Blade Runners to score. If Dead Can Dance’s specialty is horror, than Neon Nox’s is the 80’s action flick — except few 80’s action flicks in the U.S. were heavy on these particular massive synths, culled from all the best glittering gems on the italo-disco circuit, like Vincenzo Salvia on steroids. There is no shortage of these kinds of synthwave artists (many featured on this list!), and a quick visit to NewRetroWave’s page gives you an assorted menu from appetizers to these kinds of full courses that do everything but hand you a script. Rather, the opening track recalls TRON: Legacy‘s “The Grid” in setting the scene and then inviting you to use the song titles as prompts and the limits of your own imagination, like a sonic storybook. The unique perspective each person will bring to “the score” in the interactive nature of the genre  is part of what makes this particular sub genre so compelling, and Syndicate Shadow so fun.

Troye Sivan: Bloom
Troye Sivan has had a whirlwind year, least of which is collaborating with Charli XCX on one of the year’s most fun singles, “1999.” Like Rita Ora, when he’s not discoursing upon Justin Timberlake’s “inspiring” ‘N Sync ‘do, he’s working on any number of side hustles, including acting (no big deal, just critically acclaimed flicks like Boy Erased). This year also saw the follow-up to his debut album, Blue Neighbourhood, and like “1999,” it’s a bit of a throwaway, with playful tributes to the dawning of 90’s teen-pop, down to that Michael Jackson and Naomi Campbell 2-tone vibe in single “My My My,” haunting each catchy, hook-laden corner. It’s never more apparent than on the stand-out titular track “Bloom,” and “Lucky Strike,” which meld funky tempos with finger-snapping beats. While I’m not entirely sold on the album’s more introspective moments, when Sivan is at his most confessional, it proves the album is more than just surface: a deep heart beats beneath Sivan, a dual nature that captures life’s black and white, its good, its bad, its highs, its lows, and the beautiful moments in between.

Honorable Mentions

Robert Parker: End of the Night
Kimbra: Primal Heart
Midnight Danger: Malignant Force
Wild Moccasins: Look Together
Annalisa: Bye Bye

Top 10 hard rock/metal albums of 2018

Unholy cardinals, power vocals, raging battle cries, sludgy doom, and even the type of rock that requires being draped in multiple bohemian scarves: this list has it all, in no particular order, proving that, at least in 2018, rock music was far from dead.

Khemmis: Desolation
It shows a lot of optimism that Steel Druhm’s review of Desolation for Angry Metal Guy considers Khemmis “early in their career” when so many bands release a couple of albums and an EP and disappear. But it’s hard not to share that optimism about Khemmis: both of their previous albums found their way on to many year-end lists, showing off an enviable career trajectory that shows no signs of dipping. The band keeps it tight with six tracks, most stretching out anywhere from 6 to 9 minutes of oozing doom metal, like wet silt in slow motion. Moments of stereotypical cookie-monster growls can retard the album’s momentum (“Maw of Time“) but the album never loses its grounding in Ben Hutcherson’s soaring vocals. In Decibel Magazine, he attributes the band’s success to the healthy competition that ignites proverbial fires underneath simmering inspiration, separating the hobbyists from the die-hards. With this pattern of hard work, reflected in both the members’ personal and professional lives, it’s easy to get swept up in the hopes that this really is just the beginning, in the possibility that there could be work comparable to, or even surpassing, Hunted and this year’s Desolation; I trust the far-more knowledgeable Angry Metal Guys and look forward to hearing more great things from this band in the years to come.

Atreyu: In Our Wake
There’s only one reason to return to a band you had already written off as dead years ago, and that’s in the hopes that they are still capable of resurrecting the same passion they conjured at the beginning of their career. But Atreyu aren’t interested in nostalgia, and you have to respect their determination to move forward, rather than re-live glory days. In Our Wake sounds nothing like Suicide Notes and Butterfly Kisses or The Curse; it sounds, instead, like sonic alchemy, the perfect combination of Avenged Sevenfold (who make a brief appearance here) and old Killswitch Engage, an aggression mixed with melodic highs never short on a couple of trademark screams. Post-hardcore might seem like a sub genre with limits — those limits having been hunted in the mid 00s to extinction — but the most ambitious bands no longer scrape the barrels of stand-bys, instead incorporating the spiraling rise and falls of slick, Mutt Lange-era metal with intense riffs (and here an unfortunate caveat: the terrible lyrics to go with it). It’s probably too mainstream to gain any wider recognition in the world of hard rock, but Lange had no shortage of haters in the 80s either.

Ghost: Prequelle
The revelation of the identities of the erudite lead singer and former Not-So-Nameless Ghouls of Ghost through the latter’s legal dispute seems to have freed something in Tobias Forge, the mastermind behind “Circe” and “Square Hammer.” The stage is opulent, the costumes razor-sharp, and the music particularly laser-focused. While previous albums mostly relied on the Satanic shtick to conceal very universal human conditions (as James Poniewozik noted, “Religion makes great material for horror stories”), Prequelle has a very personal resonance masquerading under the larger umbrella-concept of The Black Plague. This concept can be read as the story of Forge’s betrayal by those in whom he placed a lot of trust, from the album’s lead single “Rats,” (disease-carrying, and human-variety) to “Faith” (not specifically ecumenical trust), all the way down to “Pro Memoria”‘s promise of otherworldly vengeance, an ashes-to-ashes promise that comes for us all. Along the way, we get catchy hooks and giant choruses that evoke everything from disco (“Dance Macabre“) to jazzy saxophones (“Miasma”), wrapped in the band’s signature riffs and guitar solos. It’s their poppiest, most accomplished album to date, one that pays close attention to visuals and storytelling, and rewards repeated listens. The genius of Ghost was never the secrecy, though it did parallel a certain sensual mystery to a religion historically obsessed with such opulence, but the very real man behind the music who is finally reaching the full glory of his potential, and the recognition that comes with it.

Caravane: Supernova
Ever since Kent, Sweden’s greatest band, announced they were breaking up, there’s been a hole where all the best moody, electronic-influenced rock music used to reside. Judging by their last couple of albums, nobody would have guessed that Canadian rockers Caravane were capable of carrying the torch, but Supernova proves that the band is still on a quest to find their perfect sound. Unlike the more sedate Fuego or Chien Noir, Supernova is as big as its name implies: for the first time Caravane releases all the drama and passion absent on their earlier efforts. Huge, sublime numbers like “Karma,” capture rage without sacrificing the kind of cool that makes it all seem effortless, while the near-perfect “Hong Kong” blends it all with the melancholy sheen of the album’s slower moments. Discovery is around any corner, and Caravane sound like they finally stumbled upon the most important one they’ve been looking for: purpose.

Brainstorm: Midnight Ghost
Normally, a band that’s been around for eighteen years won’t have many rabbits left in their hat, but every once in a while, that axiom gets blown to pieces. While Brainstorm’s twelfth album Midnight Ghost doesn’t break any new ground, this German metal band gamely sing for their supper in a concise crash course in Metal, blazing through big tracks as reliable as they are heavy. Album standout “Jeanne Boulet (1764)” captures the essence of this band at their best: storytellers with a penchant for those Iron Maiden tales, funneling something novel into what would otherwise be nothing more than rote homage. It doesn’t get any more classic than this.

Visigoth: Conqeuror’s Oath
Power metal now has such a long, storied history, that it seems almost impossible to wring anything new out of the genre. But all of the clashing swords and medieval castles are just window-dressing on Visigoth’s new album Conqueror’s Oath. A true power metal album preoccupied with sorcery and adventure, the album’s opener “Steel and Silver” sets the tone with brisk guitar licks and dynamic vocals gliding over drum beats marching you straight to war. It’s the geekiest album on this list, but its dedication to capturing the authentic spirit of what Steel Druhm at Angry Metal Guy calls “olde timey metal magic” is unequal. Not bad for a band that hails not from the frosty, medieval hills of Eastern Europe, but a little town nicknamed The Beehive State.

Michael Romeo: War of the Worlds, Pt. 1
All things in moderation is sound advice, up to a point, but if Romeo had taken those words to heart, we never would have gotten War of the Worlds, Pt. 1, this year’s finest melding of metal and symphony. The album is the incendiary follow-up to 1994’s The Dark Chapter, and is propelled by Romeo’s singular brand of excess; heavy, fast, and perpetually accelerating, the album exploits every instrument in its arsenal, not the least of which is its orchestral elements ripped from the heads of stated influences John Williams and Bernard Hermann, and guitar solos that rip through songs with the speed and choreography of a big-budget action flick. The follow up, War of the Worlds Pt. 2, is already long-awaited and if even half as good, is expected to blow out eardrums in a set of headphones near you.

The Amity Affliction: Misery
Over time, some genres end up sounding more dated than others. Post-hardcore/metalcore can be one of those genres, perhaps because it still lives in enough embarrassing collective memories of the years your bangs covered half your face and wearing a button-down with the collar popped out beneath a T-shirt was a great look. The Amity Affliction doesn’t have time to wait long enough for these memories to become wistful, rather than cringe-worthy, and so they soldier on, unleashing their inner Hawthorne Heights like they did from the very beginning. And despite all of the odds, it works beautifully. The band really excels at teasing out all of the genre’s strongest elements, from the exclamation point of chugging growls to the quiet declarative verses, like “Burn Alive,” or the album’s title track “Misery,” which bounces expertly back and forth between the two. It’s like 2007 all over again, but it feels so good.

Thundermother: Thundermother
With Greta Van Fleet causing a commotion in the world of classic rock, it’s easy to overlook Sweden’s bumper crop of classic-rock revivalists. The country has been hard at work churning out a roster of Thin Lizzy/AC/DC sound-alikes to the tune of Honeymoon Disease, Travelin Jack, Hallas, and Spiders. But the best of these this year is Thundermother’s self-titled album, a brash, energetic distillation of this updated sound. The group sounds less like a parody than a band enjoying the heck out of their favorite type of music. There’s no shortage of this type of sound (really, there’s no shortage of any type of sound anymore, if you look hard enough), but Thundermother make themselves easy to spot among the long-haired, vest-wearing, scarf-trailing stadium crowd.

Greta Van Fleet: Anthem of the Peaceful Army
No rock debut has been as divisive this year as Greta Van Fleet’s Anthem of the Peaceful Army. Pitchfork opens its review with this damning lead: “Greta Van Fleet sound like they did weed exactly once, called the cops, and tried to record a Led Zeppelin album before they arrested themselves.” Rolling Stone acknowledges the band’s shortcomings (though they seem to save the most pointed vitriol for the members’ ages), but admits that “there’s also a charm to their guileless, retro-fetishist conviction. And dudes have chops,” in the very definition of a back-handed compliment. While RS’s review wants to be more forgiving, both illustrate the problem with the gate-keeping impulse of “true” music fans, the kind who have forgotten how to enjoy anything remotely commercial and not oozing authenticity. It’s not surprising, but it’s disappointing. Mostly, I think people hate Greta Van Fleet because they look like they’re trying a little too hard in the wardrobe department, as if the only thing Led Zeppelin ever cared about was the music, man. It’s a shame because this album is a fun tribute, with fiery vocals and propulsive drive, and if it all feels just a little too derivative, well, it’s not like the band is pretending otherwise. That’s more than anyone can say for publications trafficking in a deluge of tobacco and pop star-endorsing ads while claiming to hold the higher ground.

Honorable Mentions

Rising: Sword and Scythe
Satan: Cruel Magic
Crying Steel: Stay Steel
Spiders: Killer Machine
Amorphis: Queen of Time