(10) years of summer: Ranking Ayumi’s singles

Sincer her debut in April of 1998, Ayumi Hamasaki has released forty-six singles. Though the frequency and popularity has certainly dwindled, the months of June through August are still some of Hamasaki’s fans’ most anticipated musical celebration of all the most banal elements of summer: free-time, sunshine, friends, and exotic locales. With the exceptions of 2000 and 2008, years which saw the absence of any reference to fun or sun, the summer single has gained momentum from a tepid drive along the coast to its crescendo in 2005’s fairyland, a single whose music video now ranks as one of the most expensive of all time. To celebrate the release of her newest summer single Sunrise/Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~, here is appears’s ranking of Hamasaki’s ten summer singles.

10. glitter (2007)

Released as a short-film starring actor Shawn Yue, “glitter” and “fated” are my least favorite of Hamasaki’s summer singles. Located on GUILTY, the worst album of her career, the songs try far too hard to grasp the significance and ingenuity of “fairyland” and “BLUE BIRD,” but with unsuccessful results. Barely tolerable, the short film/music video was a rehash of Hamasaki’s increasingly paranoid obsession with her own fame, a music video that was also ironically (or depending on how you look at it, hypocritically) meant as a vehicle to gain her superstar status in the overseas Asian market  – plummeting sales on home ground had now forced Hamasaki to venture into territory outside her comfort zone. glitter is not only a testament to her slipping grasp of the title Empress of Pop and a nod to the bloated gimmick that had become the staple of her career, but also a very large, very loud tree that fell without a soul to hear. And nobody cared.

09. Sunrise/Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~ (2009)

On the cover of Hamasaki’s newest single, the singer appears inhuman: she’s staring with eyes glazed over, unnaturally long hair extensions resting upon a plastic, photoshopped body, in front of a computer-enhanced background that doesn’t even try to look authentic. Though it could be this blatant fiction that makes it one of the worst covers in her career, it’s really the lack of effort that stands out: is Hamasaki running out of ideas, or did this really seem like a great idea at the time? The songs are adequate enough, though they really bring to mind the same  grasping strain of glitter, and the coupling track, a song that features the same lyrics and melody but different composition, is really a poorly masquerading remix. The single suffers from sheer neglect on all accounts, though it’s the megamix that really hurts: even Sunrise/Sunset ~LOVE is ALL~ is reminiscing.

08. Trust (1998)

Her third single of all time, Trust, alongside Boys & Girls, was never released expressly as a summer single the way anything released between June and August now are; instead, it was just another somewhat mediocre single that followed the lackluster sales of her debut and follow-up singles. Regardless, “Trust” manages to capture what summers were like before Hamasaki hit it big; they were spent alone on rainy days, contemplating the world on beaches in overcast, sepia days, and driving along the coast – fast forward ten years and Hamasaki is still driving along the coast, but these days, it’s in classic muscle cars with the budget to invite friends and dancers, and when the Hawaiian dream-hut catches fire, they just take to private islands and super yachts. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

07. Boys & Girls (1999)

A concert favorite, Boys & Girls, is probably the first true summer single, before the phrase became ubiquitous: a light and fluffy catchy pop tune, the single was the first ever of Hamasaki’s maxi-singles, featuring a handful of equally entertaining remixes. Hamasaki’s vocals still retain that gloss from vocal lessons, with all the innocence and candor that would be lost by the time vogue was released. Though the music video is somewhat mundane, the song remains a concert staple for a reason: it has the sheer arena-pop quality that so many of Hamasaki’s songs now take for granted. Plus, you can sing, dance, jump, skip, add a guitar solo and ad lib to it, all without robbing the song of any of its simple inculpability.

06. H (2002)

When a song like “Boys & Girls” becomes huge, promoters take notice; enter the first official summer single. Geared specifically to play at large concert venues, the song features a full chorus that mimics the audience heard in the intro, hand claps that demand participation, and a formidable, bubbly BPM that keeps the pace from dawdling. The single features two other tracks, “july 1st,” a slightly more subdued summer anthem that features acoustic guitars and light breezes, and “HANABI,” a ballad that would prove just as popular for perhaps everything the first two tracks were not. H, released at the tail-end height of Hamasaki’s popularity, sold so many copies that a special limited edition was released to commemorate all three of the collectible covers. And with songs that ran the gamut from hopeful to pessimistic, the single would be the last of its kind to truly capture the zeitgeist of Hamasaki’s career.

05. fairyland (2005)

Though H may have run the spectrum, fairyland stands out for its sheer zing: an incredible, high energy pop song coupled with a dark, vengeful rock song, fairyland was one of the last singles to truly showcase Hamasaki’s versatility while transcending the genre-specific niche of her contemporaries. In addition, the music video was the first to truly sink into the summersploitation that was fast becoming the hallmark of her career. “alterna,” though already a return to the fame-paranoia trope Hamasaki began experimenting with in “Dearest” and would continue to throughout her career, is still one of the best rock songs Hamasaki has recorded.

04. BLUE BIRD (2006)

The last great summer single, BLUE BIRD rode the coat-tails of its predecessors without succumbing to the complete photocopy that later singles would resort to. The music video was shot in Guam and features the same cast as “fairyland,” though nothing catches fire and there’s a huge yacht involved. The video, which never reneges on these pedestrian themes associated with summer, reflects the song itself, though the song is somewhat less literal. Even with a somewhat dull coupling track, the title track stands on its own as the last of its kind.

03. & (2003)

By the time & was released, triple A-sides were no longer novel; its merit depended on the substance of the disc. And aside from the bizarro, unsettling delusion of “ourselves,” the somewhat impractical luster of “Greatful days” and the better-than-the-original sequel to “HANABI,” Hamasaki delivered a gorgeous, traditional piece as the theme to the avex summer festival a-nation. That’s not to dim the spotlight on the three triple A-sides, which were fantastic – the PV for “ourselves” may have been a Christina Aguilera rip-off, but the song is one of the first where Hamasaki actually used the sound and texture of words to create the eerie, possessive world of the song, “Greatful days” is exuberant without falling into the banal trap that so many Morning Musume songs do, and “HANABI ~episode II~” is both lovely and wistful without just being a total tear-jerker – but the real charm of the disc lies in the fourth track that gently steals the attention without even trying. “theme of a-nation ’03” is elegant, graceful, and totally different from anything Hamasaki had done and would ever do again.

02. INSPIRE (2004)

INSPIRE may not have been the best single (it only boasted the two tracks, plus instrumentals, a veritable dull staple for Hamasaki fans) but the content was quite different. “INSPIRE” would be the last of the rock-oriented pop singles Hamasaki would release before her rock atmosphere became a lot less fun and much more bitter. “GAME” sort of set the precedence for this with its spooked, reverberating piano and a music video that took Hamasaki’s relationship with pleather to new heights. Even so, the song is potently entertaining, with a wonderful mix of synth and guitar for the interlude – Hamasaki may have already been trying to re-capture formulas that worked so well in the past, but she still managed to do it competently.

01. UNITE! (2001)

Pink Wota appropriately called I am… Hamasaki’s Sgt. Pepper; the album spans several genres, showcased Hamasaki’s first attempts at songwriting, and was the only album to sell 4 million copies in Asia. Debuted at her insanely successful 2001 DOME TOUR, “UNITE!” was the fifth single composed by Hamasaki and highlights all the elements that would become her signature: a slow, subdued intro followed by messy, distorted drums and guitars. The haunting piano loop is revisited at times throughout the piece, highlighting the somewhat mournful sentiments that haunted much of Hamasaki’s personal disposition at the time. There may not have been any music video accompanying the single, but I sort of prefer it that way; UNITE! was released when Hamasaki’s music and image were still constantly evolving, without eluding to signs of desperation; it was released when things could still conceive to be building instead of dissolving; it was released when Hamasaki was still taken seriously as not just an entertainer, but as an artist. When singles like Sunrise/Sunset are being released, UNITE! is the summer single I look back on fondly, knowing that, unlike most nostalgia, I can honestly say I was there and it really was that awesome.

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6 thoughts on “(10) years of summer: Ranking Ayumi’s singles

  1. Ashen Twilight August 19, 2009 / 3:06 am

    I agree with the majority of the post. UNITE! wasn’t that great for me, but I still like that song.

    Oh, and I totally agree on your view of them of a-nation ’03. That song is amazing! Ya, it’s too bad she will never do a song like that again…=(

    GREAT POST!

    • Anna August 21, 2009 / 1:05 pm

      “theme of a-nation ’03” is still one of my favorite Ayumi songs of all time. Thanks for reading!

  2. NyNy August 22, 2009 / 8:25 am

    I like glitter but I don’t know the other songs. My top ten would be:

    10. ANGEL’S SONG
    9. Rainy Day
    8. Rule
    7. Talkin’ 2 myself
    6. STEP you
    5. GREEN
    4. Evolution
    3. Is This Love
    2. LOVE ‘n’ HATE

    And number 1 is…Mirrorcle World!!

    • Anna August 22, 2009 / 11:03 am

      That’s a good overall list. Interestingly, there’s not one summer single on it. Guess those just never did it for you?

  3. Noah Furlani August 22, 2009 / 5:33 pm

    It seems that we have quite opposite tastes–at least when it comes to Ayu or BIG BANG–, because I absolutely love “GUILTY” (it’s one of those albums where the fan base is split in two, with little to no one in the middle).
    Though I do agree, for the most part, with this list. I loved all of “I am…”, although I think “fairyland” is better. “UNITE!” feels too much like a copy of “evolution” (or would it be the other way around?) with its rapid beats. “fairyland” is one of her more laid-back summer songs, despite the chorus. I’ve always disliked the way that Ayu sings during most of her summer songs (unless that’s just me), and “fairyland” seems to have avoided it. I’d also inverse the two last ones, because although “glitter” is unbearable, I appreciate “fated” quite a lot, and neither “Sunrise” or “Sunset” do anything for me.
    I didn’t know “fairyland” was so expensive! It doesn’t feel very expensive, though it may have been the grounds and that wonderful burning island-hut.
    As usual, I loved your article. I’m really looking forward to your essay on Japanese & Western critics!

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