In music, lists are what comes after an experiment — the experiment of listening itself, alone and then together, of sharing music and arguing about it and realizing how an artists’ personal expression might be a listener’s personal (and political) one too. A list says no to the possibility that any other list on the same subject might be valid. It forces authority. Or does it? Another way to look at a list is as the beginning of new conversation.
Because it can be difficult to assert authority, I prefer to think of my own lists as the “beginning of a new conversation,” specifically, the state of East Asian pop music today, the trends and future-coming of both J-pop and K-pop, and where it will all take us next year. As usual, this isn’t so much a definitive list of the ten best East Asian pop albums of 2017, open to a vigorous debate I can fight to the death, but a discussion, one that shares ideas rather than forces them down spoonful.
And also, one whose length I hope makes up somewhat for my absence around here this year. As usual, it’s a watering down of the tremendous amount of listening I do all year, a distillation of full-length albums that don’t always represent the year with its many excellent singles, or songs contained on just-okay or bad records. It’s a sort of crude snapshot, but not without its own special kind of joy. Without further ado.
It’s a topsy-turvy world we live in when Arashi has made their second consecutive top-ten appearance on a year-end list at appears. So what is it that keeps a Johnny’s group like Arashi rising above all other J-pop albums? Despite its sometimes cookie-cutter, personality-void vocals, untitled is full of the cozy J-pop melodies that Arashi has been so adept at since Japonism. And “cozy” is really the right term: like warm updrafts and fuzzy blankets, these songs are perfect comfort-tunes: positive, uplifting, inoffensive, but unapologetically fun. Despite the appearance of a few faster dance songs, untitled continues Arashi’s new image as the fathers of J-pop: serious, nurturing, stern, and mellow, but good for a laugh or two.
As the ultimate symbol of a broad segment of Japanese popular culture, “Arashi” is a heavy burden for the five men of this group to shoulder, but untitled shows how flexible and game they are to adapt and humbly preserve an audience hungry for tradition and time-worn institutions in a fast-paced, unpredictable world that can feel overwhelming.
There are two visible splits within the overall hierarchy of Japanese boy bands: the traditional J-pop groups that fall more along the lines of the well-perfected Johnny’s sound, with their extended song lengths and major keys (see above), and the more Western/K-pop-influenced groups that incorporate everything from hip-hop to EDM to dubstep, condensed into crunchy 3-minute YouTube-approved chunks. The newer groups struggle with these two styles, often establishing themselves in the former while including sprinkles of the latter onto album cuts and B-sides to give them something of an edge (Hey! Say! JUMP is one of the only groups who manage to balance this fairly successfully). In rare cases, the K-pop/Western style is used as a tool for reinvention, a way to evolve a group beyond what has sustained them thus far. This trick seems to have worked for w-inds., who have probably been waiting something like eight years to release INVISIBLE — or at least it seems to have taken that long for w-inds. to find a solid mix of pop and dance and grit worth writing about. I can’t hand out gold stars for potential, but I can for the group most impressively improved, for an album that doesn’t even contain some of the group’s best songs of the year despite including “Come Back to Bed.”
The loss of J-pop group especia hit fans hard, but the debut of ex-member Monari Wakita was a cause for celebration, particularly when it was announced that she would be working with VIVID SOUND and Hase Hajimu, Michiru Hoshino’s label and producer. Her debut single “IN THE CITY” gave especia fans even more reason to rejoice: her sound takes only the best elements of especia’s retro city-pop style, and the glee of what is quickly becoming my favorite Tower Records stamp of authenticity: 70’s funk and what Wakita herself calls “danceable rhythmical disco.” Not unlike Michiru Hoshino’s own solo work in general and idol group The Dance for Philosophy in particular (a criminally underrated group that often gets mistaken for 80’s pop revivalists), Wakita’s album is able to juggle both a level of maturity and wide-eyed youthfulness beyond what contemporary idol groups are capable of (despite churning out desperate singles at a rate almost impossible to keep up with). No one would accuse Wakita of being too cool; in fact, her image is largely predicated on being quirky and purposely uncool. As such, I am ONLY is like making a new friend who seems weirdly, but not unpleasantly, familiar and comfortable.
Cosmic Girls (WJSN) was my favorite K-pop rookie group last year; their debut Would You Like? and follow-up The Secret both provided all the magical-girl fantasy aesthetic you could ask for. In 2017, galactic backdrops were huge testaments to the very make-believe quality inherent in K-pop, from EXO, to Brave Girls, to G-Friend, but only Cosmic Girls have a logical reason to do so. With their first release of the year amping up the incongruous outer-space rainbows, shooting stars, and unicorns with the very reality-based fantasies of emojis and outdated technology, “Neoege Dahgireul (I Wish)” was as deliberately incredible in the original sense of the word as it was unsubtle. But Happy Moment, their first full-length, pulls back on what we’ve come to associate with the group, giving listeners more of a greatest-hits of girl-pop in the New Millennium. While this might seem counterproductive to all of the groundwork WJSN has laid, it instead elevates them into the higher rank of contemporary K-pop groups by deftly executing every modern style from R&B to hyper disco-pop. While nothing that the album offers is particularly novel, it possesses all the joy, fun, and technical power that the genre is known for — not something that a lot of groups can pull off in a full-length album. While I’m not sure any current K-pop group has the potential to pick up where the major groups have left off — certainly, we’ve had other really great copycats like OH MY GIRL and April — this is the year we all suffered the inevitable end or might-as-well be of groups as beloved as 2NE1, T-ara, and SNSD. The future of K-pop seems littered with earnest attempts to regain the magic and mystery of the first generation phenomenons; I hope they all continue to sound this good.
The big K-pop success story this year was BTS, who, against all of the increasing odds and barriers stacked against them, somehow landed performances on both the American Music Awards and Ellen. Despite having only one fluent English speaker, the group presented themselves as both charming and adorably overwhelmed. The incongruity of the group was downplayed in their best attempts to recreate K-pop music shows both in stage and with the addition of screaming ARMYs. Despite the massive fun of a song like “DNA,” the performances felt just a bit jarring, not unlike SNSD’s appearance on late night a few years ago. Even more surprising is that the group hasn’t struck me thus far as anything but an interesting rookie-level group worth keeping an eye on, whereas a group like EXO, who are well-established and have released one of the year’s most casually-brilliant pop albums of the year, won’t be lucky enough to get an opportunity like that when the group is geared towards the overseas Chinese market instead. And frankly, The Power Of Music blows BTS’s mini-album out of the water.
Every year SM Entertainment pulls out all the stops for one of their boy bands, and this repackaged version of THE WAR, which has an additional three cuts tacked onto the front, is the year’s flagship. The tracks range from YG-bangers, the kind we haven’t seen actually come out of YG all year, like “Sweet Lies,” to the slick-pop SM is famous for, like “Power” and “What U do?,” to the languid reggae in single “Ko Ko Bop.” Fans might hand out awards for potential, but I prefer doling out accolades in moments of genuine triumph, and The Power Of Music is an assured follow-up to a string of hit-or-misses that see the group finally catching up to their label mates SHINee.
Cool is, by definition, a word that constantly mutates, adapting to its time and place with surprising accuracy, even as it stays exactly the same. Ever elusive, it’s not a concept that can be obtained deliberately; on the contrary, aiming to be cool seems to be just the thing that makes something or someone uncool. Yet the entire enterprise of K-pop is built on coolness, a cultural coleslaw of style, trend, and depeche mode with turnover rates only slightly faster than Internet memes. Still, there are few groups who can pull off actual, unintended coolness, and Red Velvet seems to be one of them. Aside from their debut, the group has had very few missteps, releasing a serious of dual-concept mini-albums that are both frothy fun and sophisticated cool. July’s Red Summer leans toward the former while Perfect Velvet encompasses the latter.
Beginning with the poppy “Peek-a-Boo,” the album surges through retro synth hooks and casually elegant disco-pop, culminating in the sort of chillingly simple R&B that makes “Perfect 10” almost ethereal. SM Entertainment has been on a role this year, with a similarly flawless, easy elegance on Seohyun’s mini-album Don’t Say No. Despite a sound that hints at a peak, and the fact that Red Velvet has been around for almost four years, the group still feels refreshingly novel, more like eager rookies than jaded veterans. Perfect Velvet is more than another successful album from SM’s SNSD/f(x)-offspring: they’re a group freed from the constraints of their label-sisters, with a sound that is wholly and effortlessly cool.
There’s something irresistible about an album that’s been boiled down to its barest, naked self. Last year, Bruno Mars released one of the greatest pop albums of the decade and like the best of his pre-90’s predecessors, managed to keep the scant 9 tracks under a tight 35 minutes: the perfect length for two sides of an LP. The music world is now split on these two methods: those that cut mercilessly to showcase the very cream on today’s unforgiving, but preferred listening medium for music enthusiasts, the vinyl record (Miley Cyrus’s Younger Now, Beth Ditto’s Fake Sugar, Danielle Bradbery’s I Don’t Believe We’ve Met), and those (still) tied to the endless possibilities of the twice-as-able CD, where double the length can mean either creative possibilities and more to love, or a license to bloat (Ellie Goulding’s Delirium, Dua Lipa’s Dua Lipa, Katy Perry’s Witness). This year, Kumi Koda opted for both and neither.
Instead of cramming as many styles and tracks as possible on her new album, Koda released two separate albums in two different styles: W FACE ~inside~, the “ballad” album, and W FACE ~outside~, the “pop” album. It was no question that the latter would appeal more to me, even as Koda and her team crafted one of the least subtle albums of the year without compunction. Aside from one painless slow song, every track is a crack-whizz-pow banger, from the title track on down to the brevity-is-the-soul-of “Cupcake.” I couldn’t have been more surprised, or delighted, to have stuck with Koda’s albums over the years, and finally found one that impressed me from start to finish. More of my thoughts on the album here.
Ever since PASSPO☆ switched labels, the group has stopped releasing at such a clipped pace, leaving us with a two year gap between their last album Beef or Chicken? (a 2015 top ten album) and this year’s Cinema Trip. Leading with the cheeky zombie-rock single “PlayGround,” the album contains all of the new Nippon Crown singles, including “Mr. Wednesday” and “BACHELORETTE wa Owaranai,” songs that rely on PASSPO☆’s upbeat, fast-paced, breezy hard rock. While the album doesn’t reach the overall brilliance of a classic like One World, there are some really great chances for opulent guitar solos and thick riffs like “NASA! ~Nande Aitsu Suki nan da~” and “Fukutsu no RESISTANCE.” Cinema Trip isn’t as panoramic or colorful as the title would suggest, but it’s another strong offering from one of the few idol groups in Japan that seem to genuinely understand how to craft a brilliant variety of rock styles as opposed to watered down idol rehashes.
BAND-MAID is a group I should hate on principle. We are now living in a state of J-pop that forces even the most talented, musically adept young women to dress in maid costumes. The idea, which sprung from one of the members’ personal experience working in a maid cafe, is one of those gimmicks that seems less a statement about anything the band stands for than a combination of J-pop’s current practice of marketing idols to young men and otaku with the kind of music that might best appeal to them and the ever encroaching cultural practices that corner women in roles of service — maids are the most obvious, but flight attendants are right up there next to them. There might be “anti-idols” and musicians who subvert these images, but to get any enjoyment out of Japanese music, it’s often necessary to separate what you see from what you hear. In BAND-MAID’s case, it is absolutely necessary, as their costuming is an unnecessary holdover best left abandoned.
Their 2017 album Just Bring It showcases just how little of their success should have to do with gimmicks at all: the album, which is written almost entirely by the members themselves, is a raw, energetic, rage-blizzard expressing hostility, anxiety, grudges, and remorse in a tidy package of chunky chords and monster melodies. Miku Kobato’s vocals might seem thin at times with none of the guttural growls that distinguish the hard rock and metal genres, but they are not without passion and a dizzying mix of both self-righteousness and apology. Akane Hirose’s drums are a personal highlight, but all the members contribute meaning and pathos to a genre that can sometimes seem singularly focused on speed and strength when hesitation and vulnerability can do the trick. Just Bring It does both, and pretty much backwards and in heels.
The 80’s have made yet another comeback, with Netflix-hit Stranger Things leading the pack, but this isn’t the first time we’ve heard hits as decadent and nihilistic as the synth-driven fingering of Satellite Young. The group is young enough to be influenced more by Tommy february6 than Strawberry Switchblade, but they seem to have combined both to create a flawless hybrid of 80’s-tribute and 80’s-tribute-of-80’s-tributes on their self-titled debut album.
From their VHS-scrambled music videos to the imposing wall of synths behind them on the cover of the album, members Emi Kusano, Bellemaison Seikine, and self-proclaimed cyborg Tele Hideo have crafted not only a delicately accurate time-capsule, but also a love letter to nostalgia itself. Like the frenzied, but carefully curated collections that pepper tumblr, the band’s image is a hodge-podge of images of dead technologies and by-gone fashion, imbued with the myth-making worship that only happens when looking back to a time you never actually experienced firsthand, or experienced when young enough to be capable of retaining only half-memories (they sum this up nicely on “Fake Memory“). It’s a sort of hiccup, when everything is imbued with the sense and feeling of the first time, and what the Duffer Brothers in using Walkie-Talkies on Stranger Things called “practically magic” to a child. This is most obvious in the group’s latest release, “Modern Romance,” where touches of 90s and early 00s props are definite party crashers of their signature era, yet still retain that feeling of almost talismanic power that old objects gain when they’ve been replaced by newer models and we haven’t seen them in a long while. Yet while it might seem the group is based largely on look and style over substance, Satellite Young successfully kidnaps all the best moments from the Pet Shop Boys, italo-disco, and waves of twinkling glissandos (my favorite is in “Sniper Rouge“) to create an authentic experience aurally too. Even if it’s nothing but nostalgia, the album, like the sci-fi-homage Netflix show, is a pitch-perfect example of it, drawing upon retro resources without just spitting them out into a formulaic mold, instead using it as a framework to create something new and altogether magical.
It’s something of an anomaly that E-girl’s best album is also their last as the large super-unit we’ve come to know and love them as. E.G. CRAZY was released at the very top of the year back in January, and was proceeded four months later by a flurry of announcements that has shaken the group loose of its core conceit. Fan-favorite Ami was leaving to pursue a solo career; Dream, the subunit she was a member of, disbanded, taking the rest of the members with it; new sub units were created; and several members from sub units Flower and Happiness left E-girls exclusively.
After hearing the group’s output since the changes (singles “LOVE QUEEEN” and “Kitakaze to Taiyou“), it’s not a stretch to say that the group will never again have an album as bold and expansive as E.G. CRAZY. The group’s ethos, which rested on the idea of nurturing the talent of several incredible singers and dancers for an audience of women and young girls in stark contrast to the country’s reigning system of idols, might not have been anything new for Avex Trax, the group’s label, but remained a consistent and fortifying breath of fresh air with the debuts of each subsequent AKB-sister group. The album showcases the group at their peak, collecting a long stretch of dance-heavy pop hits across two discs of non-stop celebrations of the life and times of the modern Japanese woman. From the fist-pumping solidarity in “All Day Long Lady” (you can read more about my thoughts on the song here), to the amuse-club-hopping of “Pink Champagne” and “DANCE WITH ME NOW,” the songs pay tribute to an array of iconic pioneers on Disc 2 — the “give me a beat!” sandwiched in “Dance Dance Dance” is still one of the album’s highlights for me — without sacrificing what makes listeners return time and again to the uniqueness, joy, and fun of J-pop at its very, very best on Disc 1.
Due to the length and variety of pop styles, it makes little sense to limit a listening to once or twice — I have been spinning this album regularly since it was released and still haven’t found a reason to let go of the comfort it provided two days before the very world we live in ceased to make any sense whatsoever. Escape is rarely the answer and girls don’t always just want to have fun, but E-girls make it so easy to indulge in tiny escape-bubbles, perfectly formed at the just the moment before they pop.