JUNK STORY

At the end of 1997, hide took a break in the studio from working on his soon-to-be-released single “ROCKET DIVE,” the first under the new recording moniker hide with Spread Beaver, which finally credited the band he had been touring with since his solo debut in 1993, to chat about the busy year ahead of him, including two new albums and a national tour.*

“I just finished a meeting with the staff about what to do next year. I can’t tell you any more, but I think I’ll be busy next year. I have full schedules from January to December. Next year, I’ll release a single [“ROCKET DIVE”] that I’m making now. As I said in the magazine interview, I formed another new band [Zilch] based in L.A. I’ll also release the band’s album and perform live concerts. And after the third solo album, with this song “ROCKET DIVE,” comes out next spring, it will be early summer. What will be the schedule from early summer to the end of the year? I’m going on a six-month tour.”

Everything proceeded roughly as hide outlined, beginning with the release of “ROCKET DIVE” on January 28, 1998. Following the single’s release, hide flew to Los Angeles to film the music video for the follow-up, “PINK SPIDER,” and to finish working on his third solo album, which would come to be called Ja,Zoo. Much of the making of the album and its music videos, as well as the funeral ceremony, footage and interviews recorded around L.A. (including Tower Records, which closed in 2006, and Jerry’s Famous Deli, which closed late last year due to the pandemic) and at Sunset Sound Studio on April 2, as well as extensive interviews and footage of his final performances pre-recorded for television on May 1, was filmed and officially documented in the video releases hIS iNVINCIBLE dELUGE eVIDENCE (1998) and hide A STORY 1998 hide LAST WORKS~121 Nichi no Kiseki (1999).

But today we know that less than half of his plans came to fruition. On the morning of May 2, 1998, hide’s brother Hiroshi Matsumoto dropped hide off at home after a night of celebrating at a wrap-up party for the television recordings. While heavily intoxicated, hide accidentally self-asphyxiated while attempting to perform a routine muscle-relaxation technique for the particular neck and shoulder strain that develops from frequent guitar playing.** It was a tragedy the likes for which the Japanese music world was unprepared.

Since the footage of his last months and days alive were released to the public, little of quality worth has been released from those in charge of preserving hide’s memory and life work. Over the last two decades, in addition to numerous plush toys, plastic key chains, and figurines, we’ve gotten a number of tribute albums, compilation albums largely comprised of the same handful of songs, and a few demo tracks, re-recorded, re-mixed, and in the case of 2014’s “Co GAL,” a single that recreated hide’s voice using Vocaloid technology, a popular bit of 21st century technology that ends up sounding as uncanny valley as predicted.

Finally, in 2015, on what would have been hide’s 50th birthday, we got the documentary hide 50th anniversary FILM “JUNK STORY.” The film is notable for telling hide’s life story through interviews, photos, and behind-the-scene clips. The interviews are particularly telling, and largely include hide’s brother (who was something of hide’s personal assistant/chauffeur), former band members, and other staff, including stylists and photographers. Sadly, the film chooses to largely skip over hide’s time in X Japan after the initial anecdote of his joining the group. (I assume this is because the producers didn’t want to conflict with a separate documentary about the band, We Are X, released one year later, and whose production, I believe, was already underway, but hide’s story here suffers for the omission, as it is hard to understand the impact the group and its disbandment had on him later without the details.)

One bit of ominous, and somewhat tone-deaf, foreshadowing occurs early on in the film, when various friends provide sketches concerning hide’s drinking, which hide himself referred to as nearly uncontrollable, (“Once I start drinking, I drink a lot”), including his out-of-character and often violent behavior when under the influence. Here is one story related by former Spread Beaver-member I.N.A, a key figure in the documentary as one of hide’s closest colleagues and musical collaborators:

“I didn’t go out of the room because hide seemed to be completely drunk. I looked out through the door view and he was rioting. He suddenly picked up a fire extinguisher and hit the door of my room. Bang! Bang! I was really scared. Eventually the hinge was broken. So I blocked the door from the inside. After a while, he went back to his room. This is what I heard later, but they said that hide threw many things at the window.”

He was also described as going on “rampages” and for expressing guilt and remorse the following day, often having blacked out and been unable to remember anything, let alone what exactly he was apologizing for. It’s a chilling moment in the film, as stories are told with smirks and resigned chuckles, the sort of words couched in the somewhat sheepish, but entirely mischievous winks steeped in culturally-sanctioned substance abuse. Not that any one individual is to blame, but it gives room for pause to consider what hide’s life could have looked like if peer-approved binge-drinking has been less a part of his life to the point of serious bodily injury that landed him in the hospital and “comical” odes like 1994’s “D.O.D. (Drink Or Die)“. In this light, hide’s death becomes a prolonged tragedy with multiple levels that spanned a longer time frame than the wee hours of May 2.

As any good documentary, hide’s offers a handful of new questions and grist for the thought-mill, while also answering some of the most enduring: how hide’s life and art touched the lives of so many, from friends and family, to fans and staff members, to the important work each one has done to preserve his memory and contribution to Japanese music and culture, and how seemingly random and unfair tragedies ripple throughout time and space. It’s hard not to speculate upon whether or not hide’s English-language band would have made any significant impact in the U.S., or if it would have bombed as spectacularly as every other American-crossover; if he would have grown as an artist and released better material as the years went on, or would have lost his musical touch; if he would have remained as respected and beloved a figure with the same opportunity of additional decades to lose the plot as some of his contemporaries have, or if he would have faded, a cultural icon and dinosaur of the 1990s, subsumed by a wave of indie-rock, neo-visual kei, and idol-pop too big to surf.

May 2, 2021 marks the 23rd anniversary of his death, a number just as uneven, odd, and idiosyncratic as the event it marks. It’s an anniversary shadowed again by the global pandemic that continues to rage globally. Still there’s tentative hope around the corner as vaccines have begun their slow, and uneven rollout. And 2021 will also mark a very important anniversary, one that we don’t have to spend asking questions and wringing our hands over, as it celebrates the 25th anniversary of hide’s biggest, most ambitious, and critically-lauded album, 1996’s PSYENCE. Let’s treat ourselves when we get to it.

I wrote a previous tribute for hide back in 2010, which can be read here.

Notes

*All of the quotes here have been pulled from the subtitles of VisualKei Jrock’s translation of JUNK STORY. They have been edited for grammar when needed. So much thanks goes to them for translating and posting the video.

**I’m sure it appeared before, but the first time I have seen this reason for death officially recognized was in the documentary. When the news first broke, and for a long time after, the official cause of death was always cited as suicide, with the caveat of the relaxation technique treated as important and likely speculation, but not fact. The documentary’s official take on this says it was “sudden accident by doing cervical vertebra traction treatment during drunkenness.”

Bold & ambitious: Innovation in Ayumi Hamasaki’s (miss)understood

On January 1, Ayumi Hamasaki marked the 15th anniversary of her seventh studio album (miss)understood, which seems as good a time as any to celebrate one of her last truly great, ground-breaking, and all-around amazing albums.

It’s amazing how observing wild animals in their natural habitat can help lend clarity to human behavior. In his New York Times-Notable Book of the Year, Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, Carl Safina observes sperm whales, scarlet macaws, and chimpanzees, drawing fascinating parallels between their world and that of humans. Here’s one line of thought that I kept circling back to in the course of reading: is it inevitable that cultural innovators will become conformists over the course of time? It started with Safina’s rumination on “culture”:

One definition of culture that is pretty good is: “the way we do things.” Behavior is what we do; how we do it–is culture. […] But one big thing is missing from that definition: to have culture, someone must do something that is NOT the way we do things. We live in an automobile culture, but only because an innovator invented an automobile. We listen to rock music, but one person electrified the age-old guitar. Ironically, culture–a process of learning and conformity–depends on individuals who don’t entirely conform to the way we do things. Culture depends both on doing what you’ve seen done–AND on someone, at some point, doing what no one has ever seen done.” (47)

Not only in terms of sheer numbers, but in reach and depth, it is inarguable that Ayumi Hamasaki was one of the great innovators of J-pop culture in the early 00s, and I would argue that (miss)understood was one of the last times she released an album unlike anything else in the genre, and unlike anything she herself had ever done. It was one of the last times her music, and not just her fashion or personal life, made an impact on the industry, changing the way record labels approached the creation and packaging of solo artist/performers, due to both circumstance (the resurgence of idols and idol groups like AKB48, who were just about to release their debut single “Sakura no Hanabiratachi,” and decline of female solo artist/performers as we knew it, notably marked by Hikaru Utada’s hiatus two years later) and the beginning of her focus on other aspects of her career at the expense of the music, which she no longer had a hand in composing by her sixth album MY STORY (though she continued to write lyrics). (miss)understood, was, in many ways, the last time Ayumi Hamasaki seems to have effectively (hang on, Colours-fans) created an album with a risky, over tried-and-true, approach, taking a chance on a style she had till then never explored. It is an album that demonstrates exactly how Ayumi was the massive star she was, and why she deserved the recognition and status as a massive force and principal creator — that fabled “innovator” Safina is referring to — in Japanese pop culture for nearly a decade.

This is not to say that Ayumi stopped releasing great albums or songs, but rather that she found a musical space within which comfortable and safe slowly started to take precedent over experimentation. The difference between all four of her first albums, from A Song for XX to I am…, all sound vastly different from the one next to it, while the sound and production of Secret and GUILTY sound very similar, as does nearly everything from Love songs to M(A)DE IN JAPAN. A couple of albums (and singles) stick out in terms of quality, with a few going the extra mile in terms of concept, like NEXT LEVEL or Party Queen, but nearly all carry the distinctive hallmarks springing from the foundation she laid down in the early 00s. In 2002, everyone wanted to be and sound like Ayumi, but by 2012, the musical and cultural landscape had changed so wholly, from Yasutaka Nakata and the emergence of electronic music, to the influence of K-pop, that Ayumi was now a stark alternative rather than a driver of any one of these trends. To her admirable credit, with only a few exceptions, she rarely jumped onto any bandwagon, choosing instead to forge her own path, for better or worse; as she famously quipped in response to a press inquiry about K-pop: “I don’t really care if it’s trendy or not. I (stick) to my own style.”

While I never stopped being a fan, (miss)understood did mark a line for me, one from where I could never cross back. The moment “Startin’” and its music video were released, was one in which the rose-colored glasses of naive, uncompromising fandom could never overshadow the critical antennae necessary for deep analysis. It would take a few years before I learned that a critical eye doesn’t spell doom for our most treasured past times and pop stars, that instead, it does the important work of allowing one to question and examine closely with intelligence and detail, and that it can deepen empathy and a better understanding of people, and celebrities in particular, in all of their flawed and very real humanity. It is, in fact, programmed to reveal complexity and heighten appreciation. But in between that time, both history and I had changed.

Which is all to say: it wasn’t really Ayumi’s fault. Any analysis of album sales and popularity will show a natural decline in sales and quality across almost all recording artists. Human beings are designed to seek out novelty and many a star’s continued success has depended on trust and loyalty, two hard-won virtues that can only be gained by a sincere devotion to craft, a strong work ethic, and frequent, heartfelt gratitude to the fans who continue to make their object of devotion relevant. Ayumi Hamasaki is 3/3. So while I spent 2006 and 2007 going through major changes in the way I approached listening to and writing about music, it was inevitable that the simple and natural act of growing up would be doing most of the subconscious work for me, silently hacking away at the kind of unquestionable idol worship every kid is free to indulge in before they reach adulthood and come face to face with the stuff beyond the theater of life’s surface.

This is a birthday, not a funeral

With the release of the 20th anniversary edition of her sophomore album, LOVEppears, in 2019, Ayumi Hamasaki has firmly settled into legacy mode. While this status update might have once elicited a gasp of horror, it brings a kind of relief now. As I’m sure many artists who have found themselves in this privileged sphere have come to realize, it’s like falling into the perfect bathwater at the end of a really long, really hard day, one that offers time to reflect on amazing accomplishments while resting weary old joints. So let’s reflect and pour some love all over it: (miss)understood, one of the best albums Ayumi Hamasaki ever released, one that distinguished her as what Safina would label an “original innovator.”

The singles

There were four major singles released in the run-up to the album’s release: STEP YOU/is this LOVE?, fairyland, HEAVEN, and Bold & Delicious/Pride. At this point, Ayumi was well past her remix-phase, having stopped the practice of album-length maxi-singles in 2002 with Daybreak. What followed was a series of conservative or triple A-sides, with the gradual integration of a standard A-side/B-side duo beginning with INSPIRE.

Physically, STEP you/is this LOVE? is notable for being the last single to feature the same cover art on both its CD and CD+DVD versions (actually, this happened only twice, with this one and 2004’s CAROLS — why offer one or the other when you can sell both?). Musically, it’s a doozy – the A-side features one of the most propulsive pop songs in Ayumi’s catalogue, while the B-side boasts one of her finest hard rock tracks. This tight duo is a nearly perfect combination of a sound that was unlike almost anything else in J-pop at the time. The music video for “is this LOVE?” utilizes some of the coolest effects she would ever feature in a PV, because let’s face it, slow motion makes everything cooler, especially when it’s exploding. The DVD also features the music video for “my name’s WOMEN,” a track off of her previous album, MY STORY. It’s one of the few music videos Ayumi has ever shot to feature a back story before the music kicks in. It’s not my favorite track or song, and the delivery of its message is a little confused, but it’s fun and gives her the obligatory showgirl moment that every diva is obligated to have at some point in their career.

fairyland, released four months later, is one of many summer-themed singles, notable for its music video, which was the most expensive at the time. Shot on location in Hawaii, it features gorgeous panoramic shots of the islands’ colorful flora and fauna, as well as an entire building that catches fire and burns to the ground (also in slo-mo, naturally). Its B-side was the wholly A-side deserving track “alterna,” one of many songs Ayumi used to portray her career-long struggle with fame and celebrity. It draws from her ongoing inspiration, Madonna, and contains one of her most literal experiences of the entertainment industry, with plastic Ayu-dolls being assembled in a factory, the suits and media portrayed as clowns, who raise her up only to throw her in the garbage dump later, and the whole thing wrapped up in surreal, storybook portrait frames. It’s Ayumi as Aesop, a moral she had to learn the hard way. (One of my favorite shots is the newspaper headline that reads “Almost Human!!,” a succinct phrase to describe the way women have been treated in the media, especially in the mid-00s). It’s basically brilliant and I still marvel at how she managed to get away with it; nobody was this candid about the industry in Japan without some fallout, yet it only boosted respect for her willingness to be forthright and transparent.

HEAVEN” was the last really great winter-ballad we got until 2009’s You were…/BALLAD combo. The quiet, gently-paced intro makes way for a breathtaking deluge of instrumentals and breathy vocals, sweeping the listener up in the expansive space created by longtime collaborator Kazuhito Kikuchi. One thing worth highlighting is her vocal performance: in 2005, whether it showed all the time or not, it was obvious Ayumi wasn’t settling for good enough, and still doing the regular work involved in being both a good singer and a good vocalist. Whoever coached this vocal performance out of her, in particular, did an incredible job of toning down some of the harsher aspects of her delivery that came out occasionally and is now done with frequency. The B-side, “Will,” was a very new kind of ballad for her, proving just how experimental she was still willing, and could afford, to be.

It also shows a confidence and trust in her audience, one manifested in somewhat riskier moves, like the 360° of the final single “Bold & Delicious,” which utilizes a full choir for the backdrop to it funk-based rhythm. We’ll get to Sweetbox, the composer of this track, later on, but what’s notable here is the production Ayumi and her team brought to the song, which far exceeds the original (later released on Sweetbox’s album Addicted, which also featured the original versions of B-side “Pride” and album track “Ladies Night“). The videos for this single were shot in New York City, a sort of homecoming for Ayumi, who first featured the city’s iconic skyline as a prominent character in the video for “appears” (Note: Behind-the-scenes photos for a feature in Ayumi’s exclusive Deji Deji Diary series for ViVi has photos of more sight-seeing that never made it to the video, particularly the iconic locales of several scenes from Sex and the City, which was still hugely popular in Japan at the time, including the Magnolia Bakery, and home of Carrie Bradshaw, a brownstone located between Park and Madison. It’s a very, very of-its-time, photograhic capsule of the period). The kind of risk-taking we hear on “Bold & Delicious” is euphoric, and needless to say, we never got another out-of-left-field song as wild ever again.

The album

One of the most interesting and frustrating things about Ayumi’s albums at this time for those who prefer a cohesive, consistent sound, was the sheer variety of musical styles that it offered. This workedboth  for and against the album: on one hand, it offered a something-for-everyone approach, reflecting both Ayumi’s diverse personality and maximalist approach to style, and causing a sort of disjointed listening experience, one that started with one of the most joyous songs she has ever done, “Bold & Delicious,” to hard rock, to gothic balladry (“Pride”), all the way to eager, sunshine-filled larks (“Beautiful Day”), followed by gloomy poems (“rainy day“). This style of sequencing began back on I am… (when a traditional rock song like “I am…” was followed by an upbeat interlude, which was followed by a straight-up trance song, which was followed by more rock), but is also something of a given, as singles in Japan are often composed and released independently over the course of a year until the rest of the album tracks are arranged, seemingly in a final, tight series of recording sessions. This means that many of the singles can seem to stick out among tracks that have a bit more of a cohesive feel to them.

Of course, the other particular reason for this new sound was Ayumi’s decision to work with Geo of Sweetbox for the album’s non-single tracks. Sweetbox were a fledgling German pop group/project formed in the 90s, who composed the tracks “Bold & Delicious,” “Ladies Night,” “In The Corner,” “Pride,” “Beautiful Day,” and “rainy day.” In fact, the only non-singles composed by someone other than Sweetbox were the title track (a rock song penned by Tetsuya Yukumi, a longtime collaborator who worked on six tracks for MY STORY), and “criminal,” by Kazuhiro Hara (who seemed to have been inspired by the big sound of “Bold & Delicious” and whom we’d see more of the following year on “Startin'” and “Born to Be…“), and the interludes.

The interludes on (miss)understood are another puzzle, one belonging to a whole other discussion: do interludes belong on pop albums? What role do interludes play on an album that feels wholly disassociated with them, as many do here? While the interludes on many of Ayumi’s albums began to feel pro forma by this point — a nod to the CD as a medium, and the freebies-feel of filling out the extra space of an 80-minute run time just because you could — it’s luck that many of the interludes on (miss)understood are…fine. Many funtion as mood-breaks, like short, moving sidewalks that carry and deposit the listener to the next section of the album, from part one’s mammoth hits, to the weightier second part mostly filled with ballads and heavier cerebral pieces, to the somewhat indecisive, mixed-bag that makes up the final trio. For Ayumi, that makes a conservative two, none of which are bad at all, but also none so great that they would invite extended mixes like “opening Run” (“JK’s extended mix” on the Daybreak single), or “Mirror” on GUILTY (which became the single “Mirrorcle world“).

Despite the wide array of musical styles, it is the lyrics that bring it all together. Though Ayumi mostly stopped composing her own music after RAINBOW, she never stopped writing her own lyrics. Her earlier work focused inwardly, using her own personal experiences and perspective as a sort of filter through which stories of pain and catharsis emerged, but her later work began taking on the more difficult task of turning outward. Despite the change, they have always remained true to her unique world view, the thread and stamp connecting and identifying any seemingly random music choice. As she said in an interview in the January 2006 issue of CD Data,

“I had a hard time trying to decide the sequence of the songs. (laugh) But, if I looked at the lyrics booklet while listening to the songs, I could hear them being sung by a cute girl, a girl who is worrying over love. Thus I was able to listen to them with a lighter heart, sort of like listening to background music flowing softly out of a room. Whenever I am thinking of many different things, or when I am looking to find myself, just looking at my lyrics booklet while listening to the songs really helps me to see the other side of things.”

The themes are consistent, with some of Ayumi’s favorites cropping up like perennials, among them the sublime awe and horror of mega-celebrity and the possessive, all-consuming, but also fickle, allure of fame, which she’s grappled with since A Song for XX through to promo campaigns for A BEST, and songs and videos like “ourselves,” “Because of You,” and “Don’t look back,” to the present. On (miss)understood, the title track and the video for “alterna” perform the heavy lifting, as does the title and overall concept of the album itself, as represented by the stiff, disingenous grin on the CD-version jacket, and the deliberately covered one on the CD+DVD version. Again, from CD Data, is Ayumi talking about the ephemeral quality of fads re: a popular television commercial, and a not-so-subtle dig at the industry and those quick to abandon when the next best thing comes along:

“But it’ll probably be forgotten soon with amazing speed, like all things. Just as if nothing had happened, and everything will settle down quietly again. Everything’s like this nowadays. When you fall in love with something, from the time you start liking it, you’ll spend all your time and energy pursuing it with all your spirit, concentrating on it totally. And when its time is over, you’ll withdraw from it, or discard it completely. That’s actually very scary when you think about it.”

That terror manifests through the loss, anger, confusion, and uncertain future present on the album. Even the moments of joy stem from fear, as in “Ladies Night,” when Ayumi takes a friend out to distract her from boyfriend troubles after the friend calls her up in tears. She ultimately pins the blame on her friend who refuses to see reality and have the strength to walk away from a bad relationship: “This so-called fight with your boyfriend / Is truly a fight with your inner self.” A night out with the girls ends in “laughing like we’re crying” and “singing like we’re screaming.” In “is this LOVE?” she berates herself for a love that doesn’t work out, “Why isn’t it me? I won’t ask / Such a ridiculous and trivial question.”

The looming threat of emptiness also pervades the album, as on “Pride,” where she recognizes the futility and somewhat pathetic effort of moving forward when others would have given up long ago. “Even if others laugh and call it pointless / Let’s go together, because there is / Nothing more frightening than giving up.” Sure, there’s bravery in moving forward into the unknown, but it offers no guarantee, something others might see as naive or even perhaps a bit stupid. It’s an admirable tenacity that speaks volumes about Ayumi’s determination and relentless perseverance. “You already know / That being beautiful doesn’t mean you will attain beautiful things,” she says in “Beautiful Day.” She doesn’t care: she feels the fear, ignores the doubters, and does it anyway. Beautiful days don’t just happen, she makes them happen.

The photo books

Ayumi’s career has been synonymous with travel since she moved to New York in the late 90s to undergo vocal training before her debut. For the album, she set out to New York again, notably to film the music videos for “Bold & Delicious” and “Pride,” as well as the photo for the jacket cover. However, it is her time in Hawaii, where she shot the video for “fairyland,” that makes up the content of the two special photo books, on my way and off my day, included with first-press editions of the album.

Photo books have cropped up serially throughout Ayumi’s career, from fashion books like A BOOK and uraayu, to the commemorative 15th anniversary book Tell All. We can gain some insight into the purpose of on my way and off my day from Tell All, as the latter was essentially a recreation of the former (of Tell All, said Ayu,”I want to create a booklet like the one we did for (miss)understood“.) Copies of the 70-page on my way were included with the first press editions of the CD+DVD versions, and showed “private,” behind-the-scenes photos. While it’s obvious all of these were purposely staged, they still offer insight into the type of image Ayumi wanted to project, riffing off of some of the popular “Stars! They’re just like us!” pages of tabloid magazines, with trips to the grocery store (in full hair and makeup), seeing the local sights, dinner with friends, and so on. off my day features behind-the-scenes photos of Ayumi working on the album.

Ultimately, there’s nothing as genuine and real here as Ayumi’s lyrics. Seeking to understand anything through what are essentially promotional vacation slides is a fool’s task, a red-herring dropped in Ayumi’s repeated quest to be heard, but also provide the fantasy the public came to expect, cornering her in an unavoidable trap. They’re nice photos, but they are, essentially, the “Hamasaki Ayumi” she referred to, as opposed to “the real ayu” (S Cawaii! April 2012), the “miss” before the “understood” (draw your own conclusions in connection to Tell All, and an album titled (miss)understood by someone who has stated “I’ve never wished for others to understand me. I aim to get through to others, to make them believe in me, but everyone is free to feel whatever they want.”).

The legacy

It’s easy to break down an album into its disparate parts and then reassemble it using hindsight, context, and the cooled-off distance that only time can lend, but harder in the moment, when the promo campaign is intent on exposure by any means possible: numerous magazine features, third-party commercial tie-ins, television appearances, photo shoots, and giant Shibuya billboards, all designed to drum up enough passion, hype, and excitement to get you to buy the album in the first couple weeks of its release for the bragging rights of units moved and numbers charted. It worked, I guess: (miss)understood debuted at #1 on the Oricon chart and stayed in the Top 10 for four weeks, the top 50 for eleven, and ended as the eighth highest-selling album of the year in Japan. Commercially, it was not her most successful album, falling just behind the sales of MY STORY, and the fourth album in a row to sell less than the previous one, a trend that would continue nearly indefinitely to today (in 2015 A ONE sold more albums than the previous year’s Colours). I, too, as a fan, reveled in the excitement and immediately purchased a copy when it was released, proceeding to listen to it not in fits and bursts, but almost non-stop for the first two months that it was out.

Because I was rooted in various fan communities and forums like LiveJournal blogs and the Ayumi Hamasaki Sekai forum, I understood that not all fans enjoyed the entire album from start to finish. This made sense considering the album’s departure from the sound that gained her popularity on LOVEppears and I am… To this day, Ayumi’s music has divided fans, causing not a few rifts and bemused debates on the freedom and duty an artist has to their fans. On the 15th anniversary of her debut in the industry, just seven years removed from (miss)understood, the author of the album’s photo books, Takako Tsuriya, marveled in Tell All at how much Ayumi had changed as a person, artist, and performer.

“It’s been 7 years since then… The [A]yu who spoke in stunted English had now become someone who could converse with the foreign staff in fluent English, without the help of an interpretor, and that was only one of the changes she had undergone. However, as I looked through the 2 previous booklets, the words I had written 7 years ago are still relevant to the person [a]yu is now. In a good way, it shows that her true self had withstood the test of time.”

Another seven years later, and we’re looking at an even bigger growth spurt: in addition to the events that prompted Ayumi to remark that she could never go back to the person she was before (twelve more singles; six more albums; twelve more concert tours; a Vegas marriage; a divorce; presumably friends, fans, and co-workers that came and went), she has released another four albums, embarked on nearly another dozen concert tours, married again, divorced again, had a child and conceived a second child — neither decision for which she felt the need to explain or defend — and saw the literal end of another era, as Heisei made way for Reiwa. At the end of it all, one presumes what she said in Tell All has held fast.

“I don’t need to be perfect, nor to protect myself anymore. I’m really afraid of nothing now. In the past, I created an iron wall with things such as hair and make-up, and felt safe when enclosed inside. Now, whenever I make myself up to be perfect, it just feels different and sort of lonely. Being perfect now feels incomplete.”

To be fair, (miss)understood, is not perfect, though it’s clear that was the ballpark for which Ayumi was aiming. It was astoundingly close. Today, the production still sounds as massive as any major release from one of the world’s biggest pop stars is meant to sound, but more importantly, it still sounds exciting. The songs sound fresh and promising, evoking joy and pathos. Most importantly, it comes from a place of honesty, that wish to communicate on a genuine level that marks all great works of art. At times assertive, vulnerable, insecure, headstrong, smug, self-satisfied, brave, and moved to grief, it highlights the myriad emotions and personalities that made up the woman behind a revolving door of expectations and personae crafted to entertain and satisfy. It would take several more years for Ayumi to stop striving for that perfection, to be comfortable in the mistakes and open wounds she shared with a public not always ready to forgive or treat with empathy, but (miss)understood is the sound of that beginning. The end of Ayu-chan, squeaky with high-pitched, awkward coquetry, to Ayumi Hamasaki, assertive, grown-up and at ease. Chasing after understanding and approval is the fruitless task of the young, something Ayumi has moved far past in life and in her career — it is the self-acceptance she feels closer to obtaining that resonates now.

“Either way, no matter how I am, it’s more important that everyone is enjoying themselves. It doesn’t matter if that means that I’ll be exhausted, and have to travel a long way, because that’s important to me. This thing, which seems so natural, is what I have chosen. When I realized that, I really became fearless.”

That fearlessness seems to have manifested not only in her personal life, but in the approach she takes to the once-crushing sense of obligation to fans and the public, for whom her current music and life choices never seem to be good enough. However, while the open sense of fresh novelty has long since worn off, with albums following this one ranging the gamut from solid, to surprisingly good, to disappointing, none have offered something as innovative, fresh and also successfully executed since (miss)understood. Put it plainly: we never heard from Sweetbox, or a  Sweetbox-equivalent, again.

In many ways, conforming to her own standards is a natural endgame of  anyone around long enough to no longer be chased by the necessity of capturing attention. Conformity, as Carl Safina points out, observing the behavior of chimpanzees within their social groups, provides refuge and safety. He tells the story of a line of wildebeests going to water who follow a straight line, one behind the other, without so much as deviating around a tree. Why? By the animal’s continued existence, that path was proven to be safe for the guy ahead of him. What happens to the free-spirited springbok who decides to take a risky sip in the middle of the night, on his own? He’s spotted by a lion and promptly eaten (257). However these two things have to co-exist.

“CULTURE is mainly about conformity, consistency, and tradition. Fact is: culture requires BOTH innovators, who create some new thing never before learned (and are often ignored and resisted), and adopters, who, by learning, narrow themselves and conform. […] Being conservative is safer than thinking freely. Safer than experimenting and innovating.” (260)

In this case, “safe” meant albums (as great as they were) like GUILTY and Secret. Like LOVE again and M(A)DE IN JAPAN.

I don’t know if conformity or caution is inevitable, a kind of by-product of growing older, the instinct or learned behavior to keep doing what works because it’s proven effective and not gotten you eaten by hungry mountain lions or offended music critics, but I can understand where it comes from. It’s all the more reason to remember and celebrate all those with the courage to take a chance on something fresh and unusual, even when it doesn’t always work or takes a few listens to appreciate (full disclosure: I didn’t like “Bold & Delicious” when I first heard it). After all, if Ayumi is conforming to any sound, it’s her own, one she created and perfected at the peak of her abilities.

Again, “[w]ithout some original innovator […] there is NO knowledge, skill, or tradition that can get shared; there is no culture to copy and conform to. Innovation is to culture what mutation is to genes; it’s the only way to make any progress, the root of all change” (47), so it’s worth underscoring: if anyone was out there setting standards in music and fashion in the early 00s, it was Ayumi Hamasaki. A lack of innovation after (miss)understood simply hit the brakes on the musical evolution, not necessarily quality or consistency. Ten years ago, it was kind of depressing. Today, considering what a gigantic back catalog she’s given us to listen to, and think and write about, and argue over, and love and hate in equal, sometimes maddening, measure, I’ll take a fulfilled, confident, well-adjusted, and happy Ayumi enjoying her well-deserved success, over chasing popularity and culture-resetting pop songs. She gave us LOVEppears, and Duty, and I am…, and Memorial address, and (miss)understood, and that’s not even the half of it. After all of that, and seven years removed from that previous statement where she placed the happiness of others over her own health, I hope she’s found found the confidence to switch the importance of “everyone” enjoying themselves, to Ayumi enjoying herself first. I’d like to think she has.

Notes
[ All images original scans by author, except for magazine scans by iloveayu.com and AyuAlanis@NihonWa, which were posted to the AHS Forum a lifetime ago, and this gallery of scans. Special thanks to Misa-chan’s J-pop Blog for all of the amazing translated interviews and lyrics that provided so much insight. I understand that some of my parallels to the animal world stretch the imagination, but all of those far reaches are my own fault (even when I’m reading about the cultural differences between bonobos and chimpanzees, I’m thinking about music, and I think I’ve proven more than once on this blog that I can relate just about anything to Ayumi Hamasaki), not Carl Safina’s, whose book, Becoming Wild, is fascinating. I encourage everyone to read it and think deeply about its content (the section on whales and their songs is particularly good). ]

Top ten East Asian pop/rock albums of 2020

In a year that I dedicated myself to listening to as many albums in the top ten of various physical and streaming Japanese and Korean charts as I could, I was struck, as usual, by how many of the best albums were those on the periphery, those that just missed out, or never even saw the top thirty. But I was as equally struck, as usual, by how big and fun and all-encompassing pop albums are, as long as you’re willing to dig a little, to slog through the ten or twenty average or terrible albums to unearth the one that reiterates why it’s so important to listen as carefully, and widely, as possible. This year, we all took comfort in the familiar as much as possible, and many of the names on this list reflect that bias. The real surprise this year was how little it mattered, and how good it felt, list-making album or not, to see old favorites step up to the plate and bravely deliver what they were capable of in a year they very well could have sat back and took a well-deserved break. Here, in chronological order, are ten of my favorite. (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.) Thanks for spending the whole week looking back with me!

LatuLatu: Mangekyou ETERNITY
(2020.01.22)

LatuLatu were billed by HMV as a “desktop rock unit” that gained some fame on TikTok in 2019, but Mangekyou ETERNTY, the band’s first mini-album boasts an ambition beyond the boundaries of an office chair. Full of energy and earnestness, this quick shot of high-speed J-rock proves that while hibernating, J-rock is not nearly as listless or dead as any number of Oricon or streaming charts might have you believe. It feels like LatuLatu have the ability to breathe some fresh air into the lungs of a sometimes anemic, sometimes too anime-pop-reliant genre, a challenge that subsequent singles have proven they’re up to.

Sumire Uesaka: NEO PROPAGANDA
(2020.01.22)

For years, Uesaka has cultivated a uniquely gifted hyper-pop sound, one reliant on styles as far-reaching as idol-pop, chiptune, techno, metal, and military marches. Somehow, she makes them all work, creating a world so sonically exciting, it’s practically visual. NEO PROPAGANDA is just another installment in that ultra 4K world of poly-tempos and speed shifts. The album boasts song writers both old and new like Kenji Ohtsuki, Ryohei Shima of The Dresscodes, and MOSAIC.WAV who have imbued the album with all the hallmarks that have defined her sound from rolling Rs and high-pitched shrieks, to gonzo interpretations of Russian culture. So much unpredictability would make it an exhausting trek if it weren’t so much fun.

Reol: Kinjito
(2020.01.22)

Reol may be new to the J-pop scene but her sound is now as old as the first wave of electro-house that hit shores a la Nakata in the mid-00s. In fact, with her vocals turned up to computer glitch, she sounds remarkably like J-pop’s other blink-and-you’ll-miss-her indie-android, MAA, who released Monkey Kingdom exactly ten years ago, signed to a major, and promptly disappeared. One hopes Reol’s bio will read differently; Reol hopes so, too, with the aptly titled Kinjito, the culmination of years presumably learning how to push buttons, and cut and paste, in just the right ways. While the sound itself is nothing unique, Reol brings a charm and warm perspective to a sometimes erratic and jarring genre that can often feel downright arctic. Here’s hoping we see more from this personality than we did from those whose footsteps she’s following.

Shuta Sueyoshi: pret a porter
(2020.02.12)

Sueyoshi has spent the last few years carving a small groove in J-pop for himself, one he can now comfortably afford to dig into as AAA goes on hiatus. Following the release of 2018’s JACK IN THE BOX and last year’s EP WONDER HACK, pret a porter is Sueyoshi on his continual quest for the ever-elusive male solo star label, one coveted by many and achieved by almost none. While pret a porter doesn’t signal a victory, it does point in the right direction, a laid back blend of ironed out R&B and dance-pop-lite that wears its vocalist’s experience more than the desperate, youthful hunger of so many newcomers. It’ll take a bit more oomph to stand out and prove he’s worth sticking out for, but in a year of few direct contenders, pret a porter is a perfectly edible slice of contemporary Avex, with plenty of fun on the side.

ONEPIXCEL: LIBRE
(2020.02.26)

It’s not easy being a J-pop trio, not when you debut in hopes of drawing upon the same fan pool as Perfume and callme (or kolme, as it were now), and definitely not when you want to transition to the level of a Fairies or GEM or E-girls at a time when all of those groups have or are on the verge of disbanding. But in fact, this makes a group like ONEPIXCEL all the more vital, women singing for other women and girls and themselves, and boys and men, too, if they want, not exclusively for the hearts and pocketbooks of a convenient niche. Backed by an audaciously Avex-pop sophomore album, LIBRE, ONEPIXCEL make their struggle look and sound as fun as it should. As a veritable anomaly I applaud them. And pray.

Gesu no Kiwami Otome.: STREAMING, CD, RECORD
(2020.05.01)

In 2020, we reached peak-Enon Kawatani. With fingers in various pies, all maintaining consistency in brand and sound, and numerous releases flooding the market, we’re just at the beginning of what could be the end. So, with goodwill precarious, but still intact, it’s a good time to celebrate STREAMING, CD, RECORD. While the album doesn’t land the same punches as the group’s early records, it’s by no means a lackluster addition. Whether extensions of his other projects, or leftovers, it’s pure Kawatani, all dandy pianos, studied rap-singing, and audaciously wacky interludes, on par with the seasoned, almost so-easy-it’s-boring vibes Kawatani is giving off. This can easily start to fall into the existential throes of condescension for either his work or his audience, but for now, Kawatani still manages to make it sound easy in the spirit of experience, rather than cynicism.

BBHF: BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-
(2020.09.02)

Across all genres and languages, BBHF’s BBHF1 -Nankasuru Seinen-, an ambitious 2-disc concept album chronicling one man’s emotional journey through a labyrinth of history and emotion set to a wave of poppy 80’s synth rock, is one of the greatest albums of the year. It’s honest and refreshing, a J-rock band refusing to hide behind dour epithets without any genuine emotional anchor behind them. “Apps that I merely touched once and don’t use / I deleted them all, that is the pleasure of getting rid of things,” the opening track opines; “Sooner or later, everything changes / I’m not happy at all / For better or for worse, this country is falling into a depression” they lament in “1988,” folding the twin tragedies of a burst bubble and a broken heart into an excuse to get wasted. During a year we all had to navigate a new world, it was easy to relate to a desire to leave it all behind and start somewhere new. But as the hero discovers for himself, there is no genuine escape, only the boring, unromantic work of dealing with baggage you can never leave behind anywhere you go, today, tomorrow, and every day for the rest of your life.

TAEMIN: Never Gonna Dance Again : Act 1
(2020.09.07)

SHINee-member TAEMIN released two solo EPs this year, and it is the first of the pair that continues to shine, leading with the slinky single “Criminal,” and “2 KIDS.” Unlike the second set, which so desperately needed to balance Never Gonna Dance Again : Act 1‘s darker side and didn’t, Act 1 showcases TAEMIN as man who comes alive in the pageantry of performance with a sound down pat from a lifetime of training and practice. It’s hard to be upset that his team rarely thinks outside of this box when he excels so well inside of it — a TAEMIN playing in his own shadowy sandbox instead of the bright ones his SM peers are often found running amok in is part of what preserves his iconic imagery. It’s a thin line between indulging and wallowing but Act 1 gets it right, incorporating some more uptempo tracks like previous Japanese hit “FAMOUS” to illustrate TAEMIN’s ability to be both artist and pop star, one of the closest living talents we have to the Super Stars of old.

SuperM: SuperOne
(2020.09.25)

SM’s answer to BTS is SuperM, their “Avengers” super group, featuring members hand-picked from groups SHINee, EXO, NCT, and WayV. But while good looks and unique abilities have captured the attention of long-time fans and curious, new eyes, it has been up to the music itself to deliver the final ingredient. For their first full-length album, SM spared no expense in flexing their resources, pouring massive amounts of time and budget into the songwriters who chorus, by verse, by sample, by effect, stitched together a defining statement for the group, one perhaps leaning a bit too heavily on aggressive boy-band energy with typically masculine imagery (fast cars! motorcycles! predatory animals!), but that bares its teeth in the service of catchy hooks and of-the-moment trends nearly pile-driving each other into infinity. Super One nails it: with no expense spared, it sounds just as rich as it cost, and just as good, too, the best pop money can buy. And 2020 is a year we all deserved to splurge.

TWICE: Eyes wide open
(2020.10.26)

TWICE continues to defy expectations with their releases, a not always welcome back and forth between otherworldly, next-level pop, and head-scratching hiccups. Like last year’s Feel Special, Eyes wide open is the former, a deliciously indulgent callback to K-pop’s dance roots, with lead track “I CAN’T STOP ME” recalling groups like T-ara and Dal Shabet at their best. The synthy 80’s sound finds further purchase in songs like “UP NO MORE” and “DO WHAT WE LIKE,” stopping only for lower-key vibes on the back half, like “GO HARD” and “HANDLE IT.” The entire album is like a guided tour of the best of the last decade in K-pop girl groups, from 2NE1 to WJSN, all the way up to BLACKPINK, and while this might not say much for TWICE specifically, it makes for a particularly cozy listening experience that surprises and delights with each track.

Honorable Mentions

Mia REGINA: MIAUSEUM -CURATION-
Ayaka Ohashi WINGS
CY8ER: Tokyo
KAI (EXO): KAI
RINGOMUSUME: Cool & Country

Top ten pop/electronic albums of 2020

This category is notorious for giving me the biggest headache. Between narrowing it down, and choosing honorable mentions, to committing to a list with 30+ mainstream pop albums from the year that I still haven’t listened to, nailing this one down is a marathon that begins in November and leaves me second-guessing through February. But for what it’s worth, here are 10 of the albums I listened to the most this year, in chronological order — why has everything been in chronological order this year? My unconscious motivation has been perfectly and succinctly explained over at Burn Your Hits, who says “I added release dates this year because I think they were especially relevant in 2020 (how quickly was the world ending when you first heard this song?)” — now with extra references to “quarantine,” “escapism,” and “not as good as their last, though.” (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.)

Selena Gomez: Rare
(2020.01.10)

Rare feels different, not just because fans have been teased with Selena Gomez collabs and feats for years, but because the singer’s statements regarding gossip-heavy story lines involving her life feel more personal than ever. There’s no hidden message or subtext behind songs like “Lose You to Love Me,” or “Look at Her Now,” and even in “Dance Again“and “Rare,” she’s not shy, lyrically, about claiming her own narrative. The album was a strong start to the year, a month we rarely see pop albums from big names as solid as this, and a January that now seems as distant and hazy as your very first day of school. Still, with everything that’s happened in between then and now, this album has remained as accomplished as ever, both for its creator, I’m sure, but also for the listener who appreciates records as brave and open as this.

Niall Horan: Heartbreak Weather
(2020.03.13)

Out of all the ex-One Direction members’ solo albums, Niall Horan’s Heartbreak Weather remains one of the best and most underrated. Sure, it’s missing the charisma, charm, and overall controversy-baiting of a Harry Styles, but its dependence on genres like new wave, synth, and acoustic keep the album anchored in time-tested comfortable familiarity. Between the acoustic and the synth sections, I find myself returning to the latter, like the arena-sized title track, “Arms of a Stranger,” and “Cross Your Mind,” songs the album would have been smarter to crowd out the weepies with. It’s a nice follow-up to his largely forgettable debut, and as all of the albums released at the beginning of the year can attest to, it’s unlucky release date seems to have gotten it unfairly buried.

The Weeknd: After Hours
(2020.03.20)

The big story in the music world this season was the obvious, and allegedly deliberate, omission of The Weeknd among the Grammy nominees, an omission so glaring that, as Main Pod Girl points out, tips from snub to scandal. Despite anyone’s personal feelings about The Weeknd’s behavior and lyrical content, anyone would be remiss to ignore this album’s stunning production value and national embrace in 2020: “Blinding Lights,” which rolled out at the end of 2019, has now officially lingered in the Top 10 of the Billboard’s Hot 100 longer than any other single in Hot 100 history. Most importantly, it has had the amazing capability to sound as fresh and exciting as it did a year ago when it was first released. While I’m still not sold on the entirety of the first half of this album, After Hours, with all of its interesting, successively topped performances, from fireworks to more fireworks, has slowly won me over during a year when wondering what Tesfaye and Team would come up with next provided much-needed, pleasant distraction. And if it’s true he missed out on noms because he chose to perform at the Superbowl over the Grammys? He made the right choice.

Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia
(2020.03.27)

When every other artist postponed their albums and canceled roll outs, Dua Lipa was the outlier, sending her album out into the world a week earlier than planned, on March 27, in the midst of history-making lockdowns. Releasing an album during a global pandemic is tough enough, but releasing a dance record during a global pandemic, with clubs shuttered and social gatherings verboten, is even tougher. Yet Future Nostalgia pulled off the impossible, streaming into living rooms and headphones with a welcome joy and comfort through its bite-sized, 37-minute long journey through Latin freestyle, early 00’s girl-group pop, swelling disco strings and cool, chunky synths. The album will forever remain “the quarantine album,” but for positive reasons, beaming light and hope into living rooms and kitchens through quirky pop songs about love, lust, betrayal, and the anticipation of the return to normal we can all look forward to if we’re brave and patient enough to meet it.

Lady Gaga: Chromatica
(2020.05.29)

Despite the hokey, ugly visuals for much of this album cycle, Chromatica has grown on me. Like a lot of pop music before it, it’s rooted in the near-past, the one just old enough to seem part-nostalgic and part-exotic to Millennials, drawing from wells as deep as Amber’s “This is Your Night,” to Robin S.’s “Show Me Love.” It’s more than a return to Gaga’s The Fame sound because it’s a sound that was only ever put on pause for more intimate projects like A Song is Born and Joanne that grabbed for something, anything, that would retain the spotlight after Art Pop tanked. But to be clear, Art Pop slapped, and everything in between it and Chromatica was just a strategic distraction, an elaborate show of smoke and mirrors meant to make everyone appreciate the magic of Lady Gaga once again.

Chloe x Halle: Ungodly Hour
(2020.06.12)

I’m still not sure that this album is better than their debut, but Ungodly Hour is so intent on pleasing, it’s hard to ignore its magnetic pull. The album sees two young women now confronting some of the more complicated and unpleasant compromises of adulthood, with their signature downbeats and twinkling harmonies. There are bittersweet moments all over this album, including a youthful production that hints that as far as they’ve come, they still have a way to go. This album shows that the journey to getting there will be as rich as its destination, offering much more than the average pop star ever could — I’ll take the scenic route.

Jessie Ware: What’s Your Pleasure?
(2020.06.26)

Jessie Ware brings a levity and seriousness to disco on What’s Your Pleasure?, one that feels as grown-up, and uncool, music-for-adults as some of the best of the genre’s origins. The attention to detail and unwillingness to compromise on irony for the sake of a wider audience is commendable; Random Access Memories this is not, though de Homem-Christo and Bangalter could take some serious notes if they’re looking to craft songs that are more than just technical marvels, but beating hearts, too. As my introduction to Jessie Ware, this one has the unintended consequence of setting the bar beyond an ability to surpass.

Taylor Swift: folklore
(2020.07.24)

In the Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, Taylor Swift greets us with her disappointment at being snubbed a best-album nomination at the Grammys, determinedly avowing to do better next time. folklore is that next time. As an album, folklore works best when viewed in the context in which it was conceived, produced, and executed: a classic Swift album in texture and sound, but also desperate to please, competing against all of the other women who released career-defining albums this year, but mostly, seemingly, against herself. For better or worse, embracing all of that is part and parcel of Swift fandom. Yet folklore is also an album that has reached beyond the bubble, from everyone to casual listeners, to indie publications who appreciate its slicked-back production and elegant story-telling. It’s a new peak for the writer, who after seven albums, still proves to draw from a bottomless well of inspiration. In a time of endless “quarantine albums,” Swift’s is the ultimate flex, the one that captures what a creative mind can conjure with a solid work ethic, plenty of time, and complete creative freedom.

Ariana Grande: positions
(2020.10.30)

positions, while not the best album of Grande’s career, is as consistent as its predecessor thank u next, and boasts some of the best production on a technical level of the year. Listeners looking for a hit single or a pop number in the vein of “No Tears Left to Cry” or “Into You” will be disappointed, but that ship has sailed in lieu of an aggressively grown-up approach that flaunts an uninhibited and sexually frank lexicon, a sign of the times for Grande who is coming into her own in the age of The Weeknd. The album could do with a bit more variety and a bit more flesh on its track’s run times, but its warm strings and laid back chill has stayed with me these last few months, a palliative to some of the more frenetic albums on this list.

Kylie Minogue: Disco
(2020.11.06)

Kylie Minogue is first and foremost a pop star, not a disco diva, and the structure of each of the songs on this album keeps her rooted in very familiar territory. Disco joins a long list of club-ready hits from Jessie Ware, Dua Lipa, and Roisin Murphy this year, but besides Lipa’s, Minogue’s boasts the most accessible and the least experimental approach to its revival, a disco album for a general audience content to dabble rather than immerse. It’s an achievement nonetheless, banking on its ability to offer escapism and help put out the dumpster fire that was 2020. In that sense, it has succeeded. As the album I have listened to more than most of the others on this list in the last month and half alone, its ability to provide some sense of obliterating peace cannot be overstated.

Honorable Mentions

Allie X: Cape God
Meg Myers: Thank U 4 Taking Me 2 the Disco I’d Like 2 Go Home Now
Cleo: SuperNOVA
Bright Light Bright Light: Fun City
Kid Cudi: Man on the Moon III: The Chosen

Bonus Track: Top 5 Hard Rock/Metal Albums

As I said previously, I don’t want to do an official top ten for this category this year due to the less-than-usual number of new metal albums I was able to listen to, but for what it’s worth, here are my top five from what I did manage to hear in this category, including what is probably my favorite record of the year. I look forward to disowning a large portion of this list as soon as I tackle all the great releases I missed from numerous, well-curated year-end lists, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some amazing stuff to be heard here.

In This Moment: Mother
Stallion: Slaves of Time
Unleash the Archers: Abyss
Movements: No Good Left to Give
Oceans of Slumber: Oceans of Slumber

Top ten original soundtracks/original scores of 2020

A year without major theatrical releases means we were left sifting through a bigger pile of television scores, many which, built for smaller screens and softer sound systems, aptly disappointed. Still, there’s always a batch of hardworking, ambitious producers who see television and streaming as exciting challenges, rather than excuses, and cheerfully rise to the occasion. This year’s list encompasses many of these, with almost all appearing first on streaming, rather than in theaters, including one very special score that swooped in at the eleventh hour to make up for everything we might have missed out on, and tantalized with the riches to come in due time. (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.)

Sunna Wehrmeijer: The Music of She-ra and the Princesses of Power
(2020.05.08)

We’ve had an unlikely year of  wonderful scores by female composers in 2020, the first being this outstanding one for the Netflix animated series She-ra and the Princesses of Power. Anyone familiar with 90’s anime will be happy to recognize many familiar tropes, from transformation sequences to the safe black and white-level nuances of good and evil, all accompanied by a fantastic and fun soundtrack just as magical as any of its girls. The cues are at turns modern and whimsically retrospective, indulging in cheesy synths and fanfares without excluding the heroic bombast of tension and suspense on which the plot relies. The creators’ notes to Wehrmeijer recommended “big and epic” — but also “sparkly,” a perfect summation of the overall vibe.

Terence Blanchard: Da 5 Bloods (Original Motion Picture Score)
(2020.05.29)

Blanchard’s score for Da 5 Bloods has remained one of the most gorgeous and evocative scores of the year, more than half a year since I first heard it. One of its distinctive features is how orthodox it is; unlike some of Blanchard’s earlier scores, like BlacKkKlansman, this one is wholly traditional, utilizing the entire breadth of an orchestra’s strings and brass to indulge in the sort of heavy, heart-tugging romance and tragedy that accompanies any high-stakes war drama. The themes are as arresting as any I’ve heard in well over a year — listen to the particular James Horner-level pathos in “MLK Assassinated” or “Rice Paddies.” This one hit Netflix at the tail-end of May and has stayed with me all year.

Pinar Toprak: Stargirl: Season 1 (Original Television Soundtrack)
(2020.08.21)

Pinar Toprak has been making a name for herself in the world of original soundtracks, particular superhero flicks, and it’s only a matter of time before she gets her due on a Hans Zimmer-level blockbuster. Until then, she’s been laying the groundwork with adaptions of Captain Marvel (for which she was the first woman to score a superhero blockbuster) and the smaller-screen Stargirl. Smaller-screen it may be, but the soundtrack sounds bigger than its receptacle, with an exciting, edge-of-your-seat quality that makes for dynamic tension and gripping suspense. In a year devoid of summer blockbusters, this one nails the same atmosphere.

Harry Gregson-Williams: Mulan (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.09.04)

Nothing is created in a vacuum, certainly not film scores, unfortunately for Harry Gregson-Williams, who has created a truly laudable, diamond-in-the-rough score for this controversial live-action adaptation It’s a credit to his skill that G-W neither kowtows to nor completely eschews the original, one helmed by the legendary Goldsmith, and still manages to pull off a moving, exciting score. Along with the usual soaring strings, there’s plenty of time-period appropriate instruments from the erhu, to woodwinds, and the whole thing is capped off by a solid original theme, sung by returning vocalist Aguilera, who belts out “Loyal Brave and True,” with all of the sincerity, if not skill, as her original work on “Reflection.” This score doesn’t re-write the Disney playbook, but it has succeeded in ways the film, based on critical reviews and its catastrophic production, hasn’t.

Christopher H. Knight: Yellow Rose (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.09.25)

The succinct collection of original songs and cues from this year’s wild-card release Yellow Rose  is a wonder. The film follows the daughter of an undocumented Filipino immigrant who longs to become a country music star, so unsurprisingly, the soundtrack leans heavily on the wistful, vintage-country sound, voiced by its lead stars. However, it is the original score portion by Christopher H. Knight that really shines, surreptitiously running the emotional through line beneath an obvious, barn-storming foundation, evoking the themes of tragedy and weary hope in wry contrast to the aforementioned hoedowns. It’s the idealized and critical sound of a heartbreakingly mythical, fairyland America in one of the slightest soundtracks of the years.

The Newton Brothers: The Haunting of Bly Manor (Music from the Netflix Horror Series)
(2020.10.09)

The Newton Brothers returned for the second installment of this Netflix horror series that began with 2018’s The Haunting of Hillhouse, though in lieu of composing brand-new themes or re-inventing their sound, they’ve largely expanded upon their original work, dashing off a series of new snippets among a collection rife with quotes from the most iconic themes of its predecessor. Luckily, they’ve learned a thing or two, trading in atmospherics for more melody, drawing out the first’s best elements: the eerie, melancholy piano most prominent in cues like “Beginning of the End Movement IV,” while eschewing the necessary, but superfluous, sharp violins and abrupt dynamics. This makes for an overall more unsettling, and more listenable, experience of the two outside of their visual elements, marking a satisfying musical coda to an otherwise unsatisfying story line.

Carlos Rafael Rivera: The Queen’s Gambit (Music from the Netflix Limited Series)
(2020.10.23)

The Queen’s Gambit is now Netflix’s most-watched limited series, an unlikely Cinderella story considering the show’s decidedly un-hip subject matter, and it’s a testament to an amalgamation of the show’s script, story, fashion, actors, and pacing that make something like the slow, cerebral game of chess and the now-cliched trope of addiction both exciting and riveting. Rivera’s score deserves a portion of that praise pie. The composer deploys suspenseful strings and lush momentum alongside a gorgeous base of piano for his score, all while maintaining distinct themes for each of the show’s most important matches. Elevating chess to the same level as more unpredictable, action-oriented sports like soccer or basketball is no easy task, but Rivera’s score is a robust example of the way a great score functions practically without notice, the more subtle but powerful force behind a film or series’ success.

Rachel Portman: Godmothered (Original Soundtrack)
(2020.12.04)

As bodies kicked back and stayed home more often this year, Disney+ amped up its offerings, including more original and exclusive content for its fledgling streaming platform. While still on wobbly footing, Disney+ is slowly finding its footing in the streaming wars by providing its audience the evergreen bread and butter of fantasy, magic, and nostalgia, here banking on all three with Godmothered, a family-friendly tale of fairy godmother training school, and its plucky protagonist who unsurprisingly, just doesn’t fit the old-school traditional formula (the modern Disney traditional formula though? Very much yes). Luckily, Rachel Portman smooths over the show’s hackneyed, dull premise with a joyful, bright-as-the-sun score that sticks very much to the traditional old-school Disney formula of whimsy and enchantment, delightfully indulging in every opportunity to Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp its way out of dull corners. While not the most original of ideas, its charming coziness brings a much-needed touch of homespun warmth to this year’s original scores.

Hans Zimmer: Wonder Woman 1984 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.12.16)

Wonder Woman 1984 has been my most-anticipated film score since 2019 when it was announced that Hans Zimmer would be in charge. While initially disappointed that Rupert Gregson-Williams would not be returning, I figured if anyone could improve upon something as near-perfect as “Action Reaction,” it could only be Hans Zimmer. Needless to say Wonder Woman 1984 exceeds all expectations. Zimmer has become the Leo Tolstoy of film scores: his prolific scores are grand, leisurely, and big, insisting listeners sit back and travel the musical breadth and width of a film with each cue, really sinking into the adventure, tension, and romance for a total emotional and atmospheric high. WW1984 has a sense of Olympian grandeur to it, boasting an epic orchestra, swelling strings, and a stirring choral component large enough to meet the size of the protagonist’s godly origins. While citing the massive themes of the original WW in cues like “Open Road,” Zimmer elongates and expands upon Gregson-Williams’s sturdy foundation, in the process whipping up a masterpiece that sounds capable of bringing the scale of a theater hall to even the smallest screens.

Silver SkatesGuy Farley: Silver Skates (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.12.18)

The last score on this list, and the third in a busy month of last-minute, eleventh-hour, just-squeezed-it-in scores, is the soundtrack for the probably-better-on-the-big-screen Silver Skates, a Russian costume drama, set in the winter of early 20th century St. Petersburg. The plot line is straight out of early dime novels and Eastern European fairy tales, complete with a forbidden romance and, naturally, ice skating. Luckily Farley’s score finds the soul in all of that, an ode to both tradition in its classical approach, and the romantic adventure of young modern hearts, as in his interpolation of “Claire de Lune.” It’s as sweeping and grand as the trailer would have you believe, and one of the sweetest scores of the year.

Honorable Mentions

Various Artists: Birds of Prey: The Album
Alexander Taylor: Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Erwann Chandon: La dernière vie de Simon (Bande originale du film)
Selena: Selena: The Series Soundtrack
Frank Ilfman: Speer Goes to Hollywood (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Top ten debut albums of 2020

The debut category is one of the most fun of the year, a chance to celebrate what riches may lay ahead in the future. While these albums and EPs may not be perfect, they can stop you in your tracks, spark intrigue, and tantalize with the promise of everything yet to come. While some may never make good on these promises, it’s the optimism that keeps me coming back to this category each year with necessary delight, an optimism we could all use now more than ever now. In chronological order, here are some of this year’s best debut music releases that, along with the vaccines, makes the future worth holding out for. (Note: Some of these blurbs interpolate pieces from previous notes posted earlier on this site.)

FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE: FANTASTIC 9
(2020.02.12

The EXILE franchise continued to expand in 2020 with the addition of FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE even as other branches were were lopped off entirely. The group released four notable singles over the course of 2019, culminating in a previously-heard-material heavy debut album, released in February. FANTASTICS are like the dancier, poppier, gentler cousin to GENERATIONS, with an emphasis on dance over hip-hop, and it all goes down as smoothly as some of the more Western Hey! Say! JUMP cuts. FANTASTIC 9 needed some serious trimming, but which hopefully stems more from an over-eagerness than lack of direction — the former can be harnessed, the latter can pull you under quicksand fast. Since this album, the group has released a few more singles, with “High Fever” in particular a stand out, all boding well for the future of this particular J-pop boy band.

MCND: into the ICE AGE
(2020.02.27)

We all lived on an entirely different planet back in February, one where the terrain of upcoming K-pop debuts felt wide and expansive. At that stage, a group like MCND felt like just another drop in the debut ocean, yet over time, as the number of debuts were culled, or folded from financial strain, MCND stood out more for its relative unique position, rather than genuine potential. Despite a lackluster followup that relied too heavily on their “element” gimmick over creating a stand-out hit, “ICE AGE” remains one of my favorite debut singles of the year, with a particularly good pre-chorus. It’s hard to see anything dramatic coming of this group, but MCND offer a pleasantly nostalgic look back at the state of the generous, forgiving, and hopeful mind we could all afford to be in ten months ago.

Nanaka Suwa: So Sweet Dolce
(2020.04.15)

So Sweet Dolce might rely a bit too heavily on its predecessors, from Aya Uchida to Yui Ogura, but its commitment to a (somewhat hackneyed) concept and relentlessly upbeat personality made this album a welcome distraction in the spring. While the album trades in a sound as expendable and nutritionally deficient as its thematic content, I’d argue that its sincerity and commitment give it some lee-way: junk food never promises anything more than a pleasing and evanescent mouth-feel and delicious sugar rush, followed by a crash that leaves the consumer lethargic and unsatisfied. On that front, this album comes fresh out of Wonka’s factory, perhaps all the better to keep it so short and so sweet. Suwa has since released a follow-up EP in November tha,t while scaling down my personal expectations, does portend a successful career in fresh-faced, anison idol-dom.

NiziU: Make you happy
(2020.06.30)

In a K-pop world where nearly every girl and boy group have fallen prey to BTS/BLANKPINK-syndrome (a terminal condition presenting with symptoms of similarity and pandering, with a fierce, almost desperate sense of competitiveness), including such venerable institutions as SM Entertainment, it was nice to see a group that went for a completely different approach, instead tailoring their sound to airy Japanese idol-pop. Though technically a “pre-debut,” this EP containing four songs has grown on me more slowly, but firmly, than any other debut this year, with its unbridled joy and warm-pancakes positivity. Their Japan-side buzz promises more of the same and I hold out hope that the group doesn’t capitulate to pressure to compete on a world-stage by diluting what makes them so great.

YUKIKA: Soul Yeoja
(2020.07.21)

I’m not completely sold on this debut album, but I have to admit its place in 2020 as a stand-out is nearly unparalleled. For example, YUKIKA’s commitment to city pop could do with a bit more consistency on the production side. Soul Yeoja leads with its jazzy, laid-back singles like “SOUL LADY” and the glimmering “NEON 1989,” giving every indication of a proto-Korean Dance for Philosophy before devolving into standard K-pop. Take “Yesterday” or “Day for Love,” which go for the bare minimum in vintage before “pit-a-pet,” an adorable homage to puppy love, boasts all the familiar tropes found on a standard GFRIEND or OH MY GIRL albums. Still, the potential for YUKIKA to transcend easy familiarity is high, and if Soul Yeoja is just the first in a line of skillful homages, it deserves credit for whetting appetites hungry for something different, even if city pop, in general, is as far from “different” as we can get a decade into the existence of Bandcamp.

Ava Max: Heaven & Hell
(2020.09.18)

While Axa Max lacks the quirky magnetism of The Fame-era Lady Gaga, she projects the same intrepid effort on her debut full-length Heaven & Hell. The basic Euro-pop foundations lend a steady purpose to an extended run of music, a stepping stone path of a track list that wraps up an almost 3-year block of fun, but indistinguishable singles. It’s not the best representation of what a major label like Atlantic can offer, but there’s raw material within Ava Max, one that hasn’t yet been tapped by truly innovative pop, the kind that gives songs an instantly recognizable personality. I would love to see what Ava Max can come up with with an A-list producer, and hope to see her get the chance to make magic in the years to come.

Dagny: Strangers / Lovers
(2020.10.02)

Dagny’s years in the trenches of pop music, writing for bigger artists with bigger budgets and bigger labels has paid off in her first full-length Strangers / Lovers. Collecting a handful of previously released singles, alongside new tracks, the album focuses less on fresh than fun, rooting itself in conventional dance-pop, while drawing upon little variety in production for a consistent, rather than diverse, palette of sounds. However, the songs emanate a deft skill and attention to detail crafted by an obviously seasoned hand. One hopes Dagny has finally proved she deserves more time and resources to devote to her own career.

beabadoobee: Fake It Flowers
(2020.10.16)

My aversion to grunge is tempered by the intense nostalgia it provokes, one that beabadoobee has harnessed to success on her debut album Fake It Flowers. Combined with sometimes naive, heart-on-its-sleeve confessions, the album focuses less on wrapping up a tidy package than on the process, one that indulges in all the messy feelings and everyday cliches that make up honest human relationships. The sound, reliant on the aforementioned 90’s alternative and indie rock sound, suits this very candid and clearly cathartic debut album from a voice that will only benefit from more time and experience.

Nova Miller: The Passion
(2020.10.16)

It’s time we all face the changing landscape and accept that TikTok is the new YouTube, brimming with undiscovered talent and up-and-coming chart toppers. As a succinct premonition, the debut EP The Passion from multi-talented Swedish singer Nova Miller exemplifies the riches we have to look forward to from some of the unlikeliest, and often derided sources. This EP is everything Strangers / Lovers could have been if it had managed a bit more luck in the catchy hook department. But we’ll be in for a real treat when Miller finally figures out how to incorporate and showcase her wide range, marking this as a true debut: one that teases rather than fully delivering.

RAYE: Euphoric Sad Songs
(2020.11.20)

Like Dagny, RAYE already has a history, giving her a leg-up on other debut albums, one that proves this distinction can get a bit murky and muddled when you’re trying to organize all the singles and collabs, and figure out what distinguishes an EP from a true full-length. I’m going with full-length here because there’s nothing that captures my attention faster than a throwaway 00s Eurodance sample, like RAYE incorporates into “Regardless,” her bouncy collab with Rudimental that references Nadia Ali’s iconic trill for iiO’s “Rapture.” Euphoric Sad Songs relies a a bit too heavily on this tongue-in-cheek homage to 90’s dance, but not without an endearing earnestness and genuine appreciation. I’m not sure if there’s a long career in this kind of largely niche sound, one that relies on a very of-the-moment retro callback, but it’s so fun, it’s hard to simply dismiss.

Honorable Mentions

color-code: Re∂l
Muni Long: Black
Gabby Barrett: Goldmine
Haruka Kudo: KDHR
Re:Complex: Neo Gravity

Top ten remastered/reissued albums of 2020

As important and fun as it is to look forward and tear through an unceasing avalanche of new releases, sometimes it’s nice to take a deliberate step backward and enjoy old favorites. Many of these old favorites can be seen in a new light, for better or worse, either by way of physical format, studio wizardry, or the life, experience, and older perspective you bring to it. And all of those factors have contributed to the way I have selected ten of the best reissues of the year, listed here in chronological order.

Depeche Mode: MODE
(2020.01.24)

Depeche Mode went big for their limited-edition career-spanning box set, first announced in 2019, and finally released in January of this year. The box set includes all fourteen studio albums along with additional material from b-sides to bonus tracks. The box is a testament to this group’s musical evolution, from their early synth-pop days to the darker rock-influenced 90s, up through their current iteration as an electronic legacy act. Fans with a slightly smaller budget who prefer vinyl over CD can instead opt for the band’s steady output of single reissues, including the latest from Songs of Faith and Devotion.

White Stripes: De Stijl (20th Anniversary)
(2020.06.20)

De Stijl is not my favorite White Stripes album (is it their best? Debatable), but you can count on Jack White to continue preserving his band’s legacy with the utmost attention and care. This 20th anniversary of the group’s sophomore album from the Third Man Vault includes the original album on double colored-vinyl, unreleased recordings, live performances on DVD, and a booklet full of unseen photos and ephemera from the era. Nobody is better at selling himself as a living legend than Jack White, and this reissue spares no expense or enthusiasm to exploit the hype, mystery and romance of his band’s history, the recent cultural fetish for vinyl, and more notably, the nostalgia it manufactures.

Katy Perry: Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection
(2020.07)

Urban Outfitters is known for their pop-appreciating vinyl reissues featuring a bevy of the serious critic’s most-hated from Britney Spears to Hilary Duff, so it’s a perfect distributor for Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream. The year-long celebration of one of the most successful pop albums of all time is a deserved victory for the set, which features iconic, era-defining chart hits like “Firework,” “California Gurls,” and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” This Complete Confection edition features the additional tracks released with the CD re-release like “Part of Me” and the “Megasix Smash-Up” by Tommie Sunshine. Tommie Sunshine! 2012, ya’ll!

ABBA: ABBA: The Studio Albums
(2020.07.03)

ABBA has released a countless number of box sets, reissues, demos, remasters, and related merchandise since their break-up, and the river never stops flowing. Capitalizing on the bewildering vinyl resurgence that defies both belief and common sense, the group has reissued all of their studio albums in a deluxe box set, perhaps in a bid to smooth over any grudges held over yet another postponed reunion, the first due to legitimate circumstances. Taking bets now: which will come first, new ABBA material or that new X Japan album?

James Horner: Casper (Original Soundtrack) 25th Anniversary Remastered Edition
(2020.08)

James Horner’s original score for Casper captures the tone of 90’s kid-flicks to a tee: with this delightfully nostalgic and quirky soundtrack, the composer secured yet another notch in his belt of absolute era-defining classics, from Hocus Pocus and Jumanji, to The Land Before Time and Titanic. This 25th anniversary remaster from La-La Land Records includes additional cues alongside the original release with detailed liner notes. Hocus Pocus next?

Goldfrapp: Supernature
(2020.08.14)

Supernature contains some of Goldfrapp’s most well-known commercial hits, from the iPhone 5-accompanying “Ooh La La” to the Target-celebrating, foot-to-arrow stomping DDR “Number 1.” In hindsight, the album was one of the group’s last gasps, the third in a trio of increasingly successful albums that culminated in multiple Grammy nominations as well as critical accolades (personally, my favorite is Head First, but my taste is lousy). To celebrate the 15th anniversary of this monumental album, Supernature has been reissued in a lovely peacock-green vinyl, all the better to relive your most awkward dance floor fantasies.

Marie Antoinette (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.10.09)

One might be nonplussed upon first hearing the incongruous use of new wave music by the likes of the Cure, New Order, and Bow Wow Wow  as the backdrop to the rococo tableau of history and pastels that is Marie Antoinette, but certainly not displeased. Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of the later life of France’s infamous queen bristles with fun, flirtatious, utterly decadent self-indulgence, and this cotton candy-pink vinyl reissue exclusive to Barnes & Noble is a fitting tribute. Not to be forgotten are the original works by Dustin O’Halloran who lays down some of his best piano work in the second half.

Linkin Park: Hybrid Theory 20th Anniversary Edition Super Deluxe Box Set
(2020.10.24)

Love them or hate them, Linkin Park went on to influence and change the face of chart-rock forever, and Hybrid Theory is where it all started. The story of Linkin Park is one of lightning-quick fame and lightning-quick backlash, despite the persistence of million-selling records; in fact, I’m always surprised that Hybrid Theory sold even more records than its follow-up Meteora! This 20th anniversary release features tons of demos, remixes, and unreleased material, for hours of cringe-inducing memories of that time you sat in a corner and cried into your bottle of Manic Panic hair dye while blasting “Crawling.” With time, like twenty years of it, it’s nice to know those wounds, they WILL heal.

Daft Punk & Hans Zimmer: TRON: Legacy (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
(2020.11)

Boutique labels like Waxwork and Mondo has been churning out exquisite vinyl reissues for years now, and finally tackled two of the greatest soundtracks of all time in one year, Edward Scissorhands at Waxwork for the 30th anniversary, and  TRON: Legacy at Mondo to celebrate its 10th. The reissue features the original score composed by Daft Punk and Hans Zimmer on double, colored vinyl (a chill ice blue and…sunset-orange? OK). The real draw here is the gorgeous new artwork created by Matt Taylor. You know it’s a disappointing year when only two of Hans Zimmer’s scores see release in a calendar year!

Minako Honda: Minako Honda COMPLETE ALBUM BOX
(2020.12.23)

Countless Golden-Age idols have gotten their due reverence over the past decade, with gloriously updated box sets, complete with almost every studio recording in his or her quiver, from Iyo Matsuomoto, to Yu Hayami, to Maiko Itoh, so it’s about time Minako Honda got the VIP treatment. Honda, cousin to mega-idol Seiko Matsuda, had a career which was all-too brief and cut off by serious illness, but in that short time released some of the most fun early J-pop records. Among them are the cut-and-paste synth-pop confections M’SYNDROME and Madonna-homage Lips, but her later move away from typical idol fare, like Cancel and Midnight Swing were just as good. All of these and more are available in this box set, released at the 15th anniversary of her passing, with also includes bonus material and a Blu-ray disc with music videos.

Honorable Mentions

Danny Elfman: Edward Scissorhands (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (30th Anniversary)
John Addison: Swashbuckler (Expanded Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
New Order: Power, Corruption & Lies: Definitive Edition
Britney Speas: Oops!…I Did it Again (20th Anniversary)
Reba McEntire: Rumor Has It (30th Anniversary)

Top ten most disappointing albums of 2020

It’s easy to spot a bad album — with music so devoid of effort, or so enamored with how great it is that it forgets to be good at all, or so earnest that it falls into parody — that it’s hardly fun to pick one out. Most of us will never bother getting all the way through these albums, as the first five or ten minutes renders them completely un-listenable, and anyway, there’s nothing interesting or worth saying about a truly awful record, and the less time spent acknowledging its existence, the better.

In fact, there are worse things out there in the music world, one of those things being an album you really set your heart on loving, heard wonderful things about, or were hyped into a preconceived notion of what you were going to get only to be dead wrong. These disappointments linger far after they have stunned, leaving wounds that sting weeks later because they force us to fundamentally alter the way we have expected a new favorite to sound, or relied upon on an old standby to come through. It might be the way it signals a shift in that artist’s career, foreshadows the end, or hammers the final nail in a coffin you can no longer make excuses for. In the best-case scenario, these might just be growers, or albums that require a different mindset or life stage than the one you’re in. In the worst-case, they are just dead ends in and of themselves, catastrophically and forever irredeemable.

Here are ten albums that dashed my hopes the most this year, listed in chronological order. Will any of these be growers? Only time can tell.

Sakurako Ohara: Passion
(2020.02.05)

Sakurako Ohara’s career started out strong, with two solid albums of casual, mid-tempo J-pop jams in 2015 and 2016. In 2018, she released a slightly less solid, but still enjoyable album that has been followed up by this completely unenthusiastic, limp set of pop standards. With a greatest hits collection that seems to have drawn a line over the inspirational half of her music career, it’s hard to muster any enthusiasm for what looks to be a slow decline into formulaic obscurity.

LOONA: [#]
(2020.02.05)

[#] was the first comeback from one of the best K-pop roll outs in recent memory. The prolonged, dramatic reveal of members through solo singles and social media hype culminated in two mini-albums, and one collection that successfully illustrated and topped years of mystery, talent, and anticipation. But [#], and to a lesser extent, it’s sister EP [12:00], has the girl group following in the footsteps of many go-big-or-go-home groups choosing to compete directly with BLACKPINK rather than their own back catalog. Generic BLACKPINK is as boring as it sounds when ten other groups are trying the same thing, and robbed this group of the unique narrative arc we all deserved.

Sam Sparro: Boombox Eternal
(2020.02.21)

Boombox Eternal, sold as a love letter to 90’s new jack swing, missed a prime opportunity to be at the forefront of an as yet unexplored genre to rely on word of mouth rather than delivery. Weak hooks and lack of direction bog down this record with hints of what could have been, never delivering on its tantalizing promise. I wasn’t expecting Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but when Hangin’ Tough-NKOTB surpasses your best intentions, it might be time to regroup. This could have been so good, and I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the genre’s resurrection here in the West.

Red Velvet-IRENE & SEULGI: MONSTER
(2020.07.06)

My soft spot for SM Entertainment leads me to make a lot of excuses for the label’s choices, including questionable decisions regarding prime girl groups like f(x), or who gets awarded solo EPs, but even I can’t spin MONSTER into anything more than a musical placeholder, one that in the hindsight of emerging drama, throws the future of Red Velvet into even starker question. It would be a real shame if this the final impression we get of one of the best and most reliable things SM had going in many years.

Ayaka Sasaki: A-rin Assort
(2020.07.08)

Momoiro Clover Z-member Ayaka Sasaki is one of the first of the famed idol group to go solo, and expectations were big for a project lead by one of Japan’s most innovative and interesting idol groups. Unfortunately, A-rin Assort relies on torpid idol maxims for the bulk of its run time, never daring to lift the lid off of a human personality to reveal an iota of the person behind the persona. It’s idol oblivion done to death, rendering the point of a solo verklempt: from production to melody, there’s nothing here that wouldn’t be better served in the hands of Team Momoclo.

Summer Walker: Life on Earth EP
(2020.07.10)

At the beginning of the year, I couldn’t get enough of the type of slow, 90’s R&B-pop that was making the rounds from Kehlani to Tink’s Hopeless Romantic, to Summer Walker’s own full-length debut. Half a year removed, and several dozen more of these EPs and albums later, my warmth for the genre has cooled considerably. Perhaps it’s just timing that is working against Walker’s follow-up, but it takes more than B-side-quality material to stand out in one of the year’s now most over-exposed styles.

Ellie Goulding: Brightest Blue
(2020.07.17)

These are the last breaths I can muster over an artist once destined for mega-pop-music fame. Something tragic seems to have happened between the Max Martin-heavy Delirium of 2015, and the singles, collabs, and questionable turns of direction that has lead us to Brightest Blue, an album where more attention and detail seems to have been put into the physical packaging than the music itself. Even Joseph Kearns can’t raise this sunk ship.

Dua Lipa: Club Future Nostalgia
(2020.08.28)

Remix albums can bring old material into fresh light, or they can be self-indulgent marketing tools. I’m inclined toward the latter on this remixed take on the insta-classic Future Nostalgia, produced by The Blessed Madonna. The “club” portion of the title promises nothing already gained on the original, while the kitchen-sink mash-ups seem less curated than desperately frantic, relying less on a genuine vibe than on name-checks as impressive as Gen Hoshino, Jacques Lu Cont, and Madonna herself, and obscure, hip-crowd-approved samples designed less for dancing than status building. This could have been an actual nostalgia-inducing nod to 90s club music in the same aesthetic as Dua Lipa’s entire look in this promotional era, but for anything resembling music you an actually dance to, I’ll take the original.

Katy Perry: Smile
(2020.08.28)

It’s no surprise that the hype around Katy Perry this year has focused more on the 15th anniversary of Teenage Dream and the birth of her first child than on her first album in three years. As one of the biggest pop stars of her time, thanks in no small part to the success of Teenage Dream, it is vertigo-inducing to see how far and how fast Perry has lost the musical thread. I wouldn’t call Smile a horrible album, but it lacks almost everything I look for in an album from a pop superstar, not least of which is genuine enthusiasm for her material. I’m not sure where Perry intends to go after Witness, and then something as bemusing as this hodgepodge of unremarkable songs, but it would have to be near supernatural to get this career kicking again.

TXT(TOMORROW x TOGETHER): minisode1: Blue Hour
(2020.10.26)

TXT(TOMORROW x TOGETHER) had one of the best debuts of the year in 2019, and a serviceable follow-up in the very BTS-like third part of their Dream Chapter. Hopefully, this bewilderingly dull “minisode” is just that, a mere tiny, ever brief blip on the K-pop radar, and not a sign that the group is a one-trick pony, incapable of doing anything more than methodically adding the same kind of fuel to a fire that’s slowly losing its distinctive, incandescent glow.

Top ten 2019-misses of 2020

As list-making season always invites a host of anxieties about albums and singles missed out on, it’s important to remember that we have, indeed, missed out on great stuff, and that our lists are, necessarily, not complete. In lieu of this admission, here are ten of the best albums released in 2019 that I missed last year, listed chronologically. Naturally, most are from the last two months of the year, when life gets rushed, and quality listening-time and Twitter-scrolling trash-time drastically plummets. News slips through the cracks of holiday obligations, albums don’t get uploaded to Spotify in time, personal budgets run out for physical copies, lists need to be written and posted — well, there’s a lot of things happening. Now let’s imagine all the great 2020-misses we have to look forward to next year!

Reol: Bunmei EP
(2019.03.20)

Reol has made a real impact on Japanese popular music this past year, with her hyper auto-tuned electrobot vocals barely distinguishable from the hyper auto-tuned electrobot vocals of, say, MAA, who burst across the music scene for a mere firework of time, and offers something her predecessor never could: longevity and lasting impact. As her star rose ever higher on the charts, it was interesting to take a peek back at earlier work that has taken her to where she is today.

Will Young: Lexicon
(2019.06.21)

Britian’s first Pop Idol winner, back in 2002, has released seven studio albums, but none as worthy of a re-listen as this breezy synth-by-way-of-Sam-Smith collection released at the start of 2019’s summer. I don’t know if this style is any more “Will Young” than any of the other identities he has flirted with over the years, but it’s a style that suits him nicely as an update on the stale options made available to him throughout his career.

Miyuki Watanabe: 17% -REPACKAGE-
(2019.07.10)

Repackages have the chance to make it all better, and 17%‘s does just that, adding additional life to an average album release earlier in the year. No AKB/SKE48 member has ever moved any mountains, but frothy hits like “Cheek-tic-Cheek” don’t have to. They just have to be better than whatever song the group-of-the-week is putting out. Luckily, it’s not that hard!

Misaki Iwasa: Misaku Meguri ~Dai 2-sho~
(2019.11.06)

Misaki Iwasa has made a cozy niche for herself in the enka-pop world, and delivered a second collection of re-worked standards and originals, here growing into her role as a youthful, pop-adjacent entry into a very traditional genre normally reserved for your grandma and the out-of-touch CD-buying population of the Oricon charts — I’m basically both now, an ancient, CD-buying troglodyte, but enka has never struck me as worth the effort until this former-AKB48 member released her gently accessible full-length debut in 2016. As on that one, she seems to be having fun with the songs and style in a manner of playing dress-up that also happens to come off as very earnest, charming, and almost accidentally successful. Here’s hoping she gets more originals to her name in the future.

Doja Cat: Hot Pink
(2019.11.07)

A fall release and busy schedule left me pushing this one down the listening queue until early 2020, when I was immediately crushed not to have discovered it earlier. “Say So“‘s climb to the top of the charts had true potential to be a defining track of the summer, hampered only by aggressive competition from a cascading pile of hits that included The Weeknd’s own slow rise to Song of the Summer victory (official crowning ceremony to be held the evening of Sunday, February 7).

Louise Burns: Portraits
(2019.11.08)

Synth-pop has never sounded so understated as this elegant album of gentle, new wave-inspired tracks by Canadian songstress Louisa Burns. These light-weight, cotton-candy concoctions could use a bit more vigor, as in the somewhat anemic “Over You” which begs for a bit more muscle over atmosphere, but otherwise enchant as much as they occasionally frustrate.

Lady A: Ocean
(2019.11.15)

Back when Lady A were still going by Lady Antebellum and beset by a different type of cringe, they released this competent collection of country-pop hits. Neither the group’s best, or sharpest, it nonetheless boasts a tight production by Dann Huff, long-time veteran of pop and country legends from Mariah Carey to Selena to Shania Twain.

Therapie TAXI: Cadavre exquis
(2019.12.06)

French-pop trio Therapie TAXI may have lost some of their dance-pop chops to take a more straightforward approach to their sometimes-absurd tongue-in-cheek style, but to excellent ends. While I miss the rush and energy of tracks off of Hit Sale, Cadavre exquis boasts the same spirit, an attention and care to electro-pop not often heard outside of the high-brow, curated nooks of DJ booths. Their trademark sense of play only enhances this group’s uniqueness, promising a future as bright as the risks they’re clearly willing to take.

Airi Suzuki: i
(2019.12.18)

Former °C-ute and Buono!-member Airi Suzuki has one of the most infectious, warm stage presences I’ve encountered: if you were lucky enough to catch the limited-time solo live uploaded to her account, or one of the limited-time concerts from °C-ute, in the spring, it was easy to catch the piercing charm whistling through the screen. Unfortunately, a bright smile only goes so far, so it’s a good thing that Suzuki’s music is upper-tier material, harking back to both mid-90s and early-00s J-pop trends. With i, she assembles a sophomore collection more than worthy of following up 2018’s brilliant Do me a favor. Suzuki has real potential to fill the desperately vacant top-J-pop-girl hollow, if only Hello! Project’s rules about streaming allowed her the space to.

mirage²: KISEKI
(2019.12.25)

Idols are a dime a dozen in the industry, so there was never any hope that anything major would come of a cut-and-paste group like mirage², destined to exist for a mere year as a tie-in with a TV drama, but the group shared a bright, kinetic aesthetic across its marketing that culminated in a breezy, joyful EP of inoffensive, niji-iro joy. RIP miracle², and sisters mirage² and Girls².

Best albums of 2020: 15th anniversary edition!

I’ve lost count how many of these I have put together in my life, but on this blog, it’s gone back with only two interruptions since 2005 — that’s 15 years! To commemorate the occasion, I’m expanding the lists to last a whole week of musical celebration. Much of that music might have been delayed, shifted, or experienced in ways that no one could have expected or preferred, but despite everything, it’s nice to see that those on the home front of entertainment never stopped producing music to soothe, delight, confuse, disappoint, and distract. I loved it all, spending free time, and time I was supposed to be doing other things, immersed in great, good, bad, and mostly average music, reporting back on the first Monday of each month to share highlights with all of you. Now it’s time for the final sweep: a round-up of the best, the worst, and the most disappointing music of the year.

I have added two categories to this year’s list, in lieu of getting rid of one, the top ten metal/hard rock list. (I simply don’t feel I listened to enough music from this genre to make enough of an informed, fair decision of what the year had to offer. I know when I’ve been bested, and I encourage everyone to check out Angry Metal Guy‘s or Heavy Blog is Heavy‘s many wonderful lists if you’re interested in this genre and are looking for great music from experts in the style.) The first of the two lists I’ve added is a 2019-misses list, which highlights albums I either missed entirely or didn’t get a chance to hear until 2020. The possibility that my lists are never truly complete because of these types of situations makes me quite happy: true, complete satisfaction is anathema to an appetite for music as big as mine. I can’t wait to hear everything I missed from 2020 in 2021! The second list contains the top ten most disappointing albums of the year, a brief moment to let loose and whine during a year when we had more than ample reason to do so, but chose not to (mostly).

The rest of the five categories follows the usual pattern: ten of my favorite albums in each category, followed by five honorable mentions where applicable. The complete list, posting schedule, and further information are as follows (note: this list will be updated with links as the posts go live):

(12/26) Top ten 2019-misses: Any album, in any genre, released in 2019 that I didn’t hear until this year.
(12/27) Top ten most disappointing: Any album, in any genre, that failed to meet expectations.
(12/28) Top ten remasters/reissues: Any remastered or reissued album from anywhere in the world, whether CD, vinyl, box set, etc.
(12/29) Top ten debut albums: Any artist who released an original studio album, or comparable EP, for the first time in 2020 from anywhere in the world.
(12/30) Top ten original soundtracks/original scores: Any original soundtrack or score composed exclusively for film, television, or video game from anywhere in the world.
(12/31) Top ten pop/electronic: Any pop or electronic album released by an English-speaking and/or Western band/artist.
(01/01) Top ten East Asian pop/rock (i.e. J-pop/K-pop): Any pop or rock album released in East Asia (especially Japan and South Korea).

Once again, these lists are not meant to be exhaustive, nor absolute: they are simply a reflection of the genres I listened to the most in 2020. In addition, a lot of great songs that never appeared on albums were released this year, or were featured on just-okay albums, and I won’t be getting the chance to discuss them in this year’s lists (although I did get the opportunity to contribute ten of my favorite J-pop songs of the year over at Ryo’s Friend’s List). I hope you enjoy the lists I’ve put together, and discover some amazing music you might have missed.

Thank you to everyone who continues to visit this tiny corner of the Internet, leaves a comment, sends a message, or connects in some way. I look forward to spending a week looking back with you all, and wish everyone the best in what will hopefully be a better year for all of us. Happy listening!